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January 18, 2011

Quiet!

You may or may not be aware of this, but InterVarsity Press is about as geeked out as an organization can get over Bible study. Our very first homegrown book, back in 1947, was Discovering the Gospel of Mark by Jane Hollingsworth, and we've pretty much never stopped. Our commitment to being rooted in the Scriptures gets expressed in overt ways, as we publish commentaries like The Gospel of John (Resonate), and in subtler ways as we publish books for personal reflection and group discussion like The Story of God, the Story of Us. The Bible problematizes everyday living and cultural issues in books like Unsqueezed; it orients stories of spiritual growth and turbulence in books like Pilgrimage of a Soul; it catalyzes social change in books like Living Mission and How to Inherit the Earth. We even did two fortnights of reflections on donkeys in the Bible right here at Strangely Dim. So yeah, we like the Bible here.

We like it so much that we continue to publish new Bible studies, on topics and characters and biblical books, every year, as part of our LifeGuide line and in other forms as part of our IVP Connect imprint. And as if that weren't enough, we like Bible study so much that we give one away every day for free. A new Lifeguide study is posted daily at our Quiet Time Bible Study page; it gets you into a passage from Scripture and, if I may be cliche for a moment, it gets that passage from Scripture into you.

So, if you've got a little time to kill and you feel like doing some soul searching and some Bible reading, find a quiet place and give yourself a little "quiet time"--a quaint little term meaning "time alone with God," most often occupied with prayer, meditation and (you guessed it) Bible study. Before you know it, you'll be as geeked out about it as we are. And I'm pretty sure, if I may be presumptuous for a moment, that being as geeked out as we are was your new year's resolution.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:03 AM | view full entry

June 18, 2010

Faith and Our Fathers

By now you're probably aware that, here at Strangely Dim, we like to celebrate things. Months, donkeys, friends. And books, of course. In this post we're celebrating books and an actual holiday (can you handle that much partying all at once?). Yes, kiddos, this Sunday is Father's Day. I for one would like to say thanks to my dad--for his love, support and wisdom. Also for reading my blog posts. And I would like to say to all you readers: if you haven't bought a card yet, there's still time. But you should go soon, because if you wait till Saturday night or Sunday morning, the only cards left will be the ones that whistle "Yankee Doodle Dandy" when you open them. If you haven't bought a gift yet--no problem. We just happen to have a suggestion.

Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father at 14,000 Feet is a book about fathers and sons, about the struggle to love and be loved, about the struggle to accept ourselves as we are. And it's written by Nathan Foster, son of spiritual formation leader and bestselling author Richard Foster--a designation Nathan would not have appreciated a few years ago. Though known and revered by many for years, Richard was largely a mystery--and even a source of anger and bitterness--to Nathan, who couldn't understand what the big deal was about his father, and who resented the work that kept him from their family. Nathan writes:

For the first two decades of my life, I didn't really know my father. He was like a serious, silent ghost. . . . The world seemed to know more of the man I grew up with than I did. . . . As I became a young adult, my father and I seemed to have no time or interest in getting to know one each other. We had nothing in common.

 

But then, on a whim of Nathan's, they started to climb mountains together. Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains--the Fourteeners--to be exact. In the process, Nathan navigated his twenties, including marriage, career choices and some major pitfalls, and learned a lot about himself and his father. Here's a peek:

The whole notion of pacing myself was so simple, yet it sparked a revolution, a cosmic shift in the way in which I attempted to love my life. My string of failures was about to end. I was learning how to hike. I was learning how to live from a man I had determined had nothing to teach me.

Wisdom Chaser celebrates the unique (read: sometimes awkward, sometimes tumultuous but powerful and loving) relationship between fathers and their children, and Nathan's funny, brutally honest writing makes it an inspiring read. It's a great gift to say thanks to your dad for the wisdom he's given, and apologize for all the times you failed to appreciate that wisdom. (Unless, of course, your dad hates to read. Then this is probably not a good gift idea. In that case, I suggest a set of steak knives.)

Of course, while we do love to celebrate at Strangely Dim, and while we are big fans of dads, we also recognize that in this broken world, Father's Day is not always a happy day. For those of you grieving an unreconciled or abusive relationship, or mourning the death of a really wonderful father, we are so sorry for your pain. I'm particularly reminded of this this week, as a friend of mine passed away; Father's Day comes just eleven days after her death, and will no doubt be a day of sadness for her dad, instead of celebration.

For those who are hurting, and for all of us, Father's Day can ultimately point us to our true, perfect Father: the one who is always for us, who teaches us with perfect wisdom, who never fails. Margot Starbuck, Likewise author and one for whom Father's Day has not always been the happiest of days, gives us some good perspective in The Girl in the Orange Dress:

Like Israel, I had deduced from my difficult human circumstances that my Father had forsaken me. Hopeless, I had cried out with Zion, "The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me" (Isaiah 49:14).
     Straight-faced, the Father asked me, "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?" (Isaiah 49:15). It sure felt that way. "Even these may forget [the Lord assured me], yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palm of my hands" (Isaiah 49:15-16).

So whether you're celebrating or grieving on this Father's Day, know that you are loved by the Father of us all. In that sense, happy Father's Day, from all of us at Strangely Dim.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 7:19 AM | view full entry

October 20, 2008

Oops, We Nearly Forgot Balaam's Ass

Part of the challenge of our double-fortnight of donkey tales was to see if we could do it without Balaam, and we've learned that we could. It would be unfair, however, to ignore Balaam in such a writing exercise, so we close with a reflection on his story.
 
The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her. (Numbers 22:33)
I suspect if you took a poll, the story of Balaam's ass would be among the first donkey tales people would remember. It would probably be a tie, in fact, between Balaam's ass and Joseph and Mary's pilgrimage to Bethlehem--except that there's no donkey in that story. Lisa checked.
 
You might recall, from Numbers 22, that Balaam is some sort of mystic: those he blesses are blessed, and those he curses are cursed. Balak, king of Moab, solicits his aid when the Israelites show their strength on their way to the Promised Land.
 
Balaam is no dummy. His capacity to read the signs of the times and pronounce oracles to that effect has earned him a broad reputation and a pretty penny. He is technically honest when he admits that God doesn't do his bidding, but he nevertheless manages to string along his clientele to believe that he, not God, is doling out curses and blessings. Balaam knows that God has no intentions of cursing the Israelites, and yet he agrees to ask God "Pretty please" when Moab ups its offer. He's not a prophet so much as a profiteer.
 
God is no dummy either, however, and Balaam learns as much when God confronts his opportunism en route to his assignment. Three times Balaam's donkey sees the angel of the Lord; three times the donkey refuses to transgress God's boundaries, no matter how much Balaam cajoles and punishes her for it. Three times Balaam loses it, and then the donkey speaks, reminding him that it's no more normal for her to disobey him than it is for her to speak in his native tongue. And then Balaam learns from the angel of the Lord that, in fact, by disregarding his instructions the donkey has saved his life.
 
I think of Balaam and then I think of Simon the Sorcerer, a Samarian with a lust for power. He, like Balaam, had some unique talents, and like Balaam he paid at least lip service to the notion that God was sovereign over his own special gifts. But like Balaam, he was an opportunist, and when he thought he saw an opportunity to dole out the Holy Spirit on command, he went after it. Only Peter, who on more than one occasion reminds me of a donkey, alerts him to the fact that he's courting disaster, that he'd better get right with God. 
 
And what more can I say? Sometimes, I guess, it takes an ass to save you. I do not have time to tell of all the other donkeys that populate the Scriptures, from the patriarchs to the prophets, in the psalms and the parables, from Genesis to Revelation. Suffice it to say that where there are donkeys in the Bible, there are also people--people whom God loves and laments, whom God judges and redeems. And where we find donkeys in the Bible, we usually find them on a journey, taking people where they otherwise wouldn't take themselves, perhaps, or where they can't travel on their own.
 
It strikes me that each of those donkeys is there for a reason, which has been the driving force behind this double-fortnight. We would do well to consider which donkeys we might turn to when it comes time to enter into our own passion, as Abraham and Jesus did, or which donkeys we might mount as we head out from our comfort zone, as Abigail and Moses did. We might also consider whose donkey we can be, when it comes time to speak up no matter the cost. I quote the late great Rich Mullins: "God spoke through Balaam's ass, and he's been speaking through asses ever since." 
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:20 AM | view full entry

October 17, 2008

Jehdeiah, Donkey Caretaker

In today's Donkey Tale we dive deep into 1 Chronicles, almost to the end of the book, to find out what we can about a little-known-but-clearly-important figure: the man behind King David's donkeys.

I bet you've never heard of Jehdeiah. His name, unlike Jacob and Matthew and Joshua (all in the top ten for 2007), has never been on the "Most Popular Baby Names" list. I didn't go to school with anyone named Jehdeiah. And I'm guessing even my friend Joel (who knows just about everyone; you probably know him too) doesn't know any Jehdeiahs.

Moreover, 1 Chronicles 27:30 is not the first verse we're generally told to memorize. Not even the second one, after John 3:16. And the whole verse isn't actually about Jehdeiah. He only gets half a verse; Obil gets the first part. But today, in this second Donkey Tale Fortnight at Strangely Dim, I would like to speak for Jehdeiah. But first, like any good exegete, we have to read the verse--well, half-verse--first:

Jehdeiah the Meronothite was in charge of the donkeys.
Simply stated. No bells and whistles and needless braying. Don't you feel like you know him already?

Here's a little context for you since the verse is a touch sparse when it comes to details. At the end of David's kingship, 1 Chronicles 23-27 gives somewhat of a "who's who in the kingdom" overview, almost as David might have told it to his son Solomon in passing over the crown. So amongst the lists of priests and Levites and gatekeepers and treasurers and officers and officials and singers, we find the list of David's overseers--the ones who took care of his property--and amongst the list of overseers, we find Jehdeiah, the one who took care of David's donkeys.

I know what you're thinking. Who cares? Now, granted, in the grand biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, this isn't the most crucial verse. I highly doubt the next great worship song will mention Jehdeiah. But I love that this verse is in here, and here's why: It reminds me that people matter to God.

I'm guessing that Jehdeiah's job, while perhaps well-paying for the times, was not the most pleasant or glamorous job. As king, David must have had hundreds of donkeys, and all of them would have needed water and food and places to bed, and, being load-bearing creatures, they most likely had to be saddled and unsaddled frequently, and, being stubborn animals, they most likely didn't always want to be saddled and unsaddled. And he was in charge of them all. It's a job that, while messy and seemingly insignificant (both in Scripture and as we think about it today), needed someone responsible, someone David trusted. And Jehdeiah was the man who got it, and whose name is in the God-inspired Bible for doing it.

So maybe I'm making too much out of this half-verse. Maybe I picked it because we're nearing the end of our second Fortnight of Donkey Tales and it's slim pickins for donkey passages. Actually, no. There are, surprisingly, still plenty of verses left that mention donkeys. I picked this verse because I was intrigued that it's in there at all. As I started to ponder why it's there, though, other people recorded in Scripture started coming to mind--people who, while maybe more familiar to us than Jehdeiah, had positions or diseases that made them undesirable, that made others view them as insignificant and not important: Rahab, prostitute; Bartimaeus, blind beggar; a man covered with leprosy; a woman subject to bleeding for twelve years; Hagar, abused servant; Ishmael, bastard son; Ruth, immigrant. Over and over, Scripture devotes verses--from one verse to whole books of the Bible--to the poor, the cast-off and rejected, the "unclean" (whether literally, like Jehdeiah may have been, or ritually, according to Jewish law, or both).

Our society has a decidedly lopsided and narrow focus of who deserves to be noticed, and who deserves to have their name written down. The rock stars, the actors and actresses, the CEOs (though they're not winning any votes these days), the fashion designers who start the newest trends, virtually anyone wealthy. In comparison, it can be hard to know our own significance, and difficult to work hard at jobs that go largely unrecognized or unpraised by the rest of society.

But the fact that Jehdeiah is listed at all in Scripture reminds me what kind of God we worship--one who who notices the kings and the donkey caretakers, one who views us as significant no matter what we do, one who honors our faithfulness in the little things especially, and in all that we do, whether it's in our work or our play or our relationships. So whatever your title, whatever responsibilities you have--barista, bus driver, professional bowler, sandwich maker--take some encouragement from Jehdeiah, the Donkey Caretaker. Your work matters. And the One whose title is King of Kings and Lord of Lords notices you.

--Lisa Rieck, Editorial Assistant, Peanut-Butter Enthusiast, Introvert and Proud Owner of a Metal Lunchbox
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 1:22 PM | view full entry

October 16, 2008

Saddle Up Yer Donkey

How long does it take a donkey to carry a woman twenty miles? I have no idea, but that's what the donkey in today's Donkey Tale does. (Feel free to let us know if you figure out the answer.)

In one of last week's Donkey Tales we looked at Isaac (a.k.a. Miracle Child) and why Abraham (a.k.a. Loving Father of Miracle Child) almost had to kill him. The possibility of Abraham's really having to sacrifice the son he loved so deeply, as well as his faith in God's sovereignty before knowing how things would end, were both hard for me to imagine.

In the days of Elisha, in a place called Shunem, another Miracle Child actually does die. This son is not even named in Scripture, but his birth occurs in similar circumstances to Isaac's. The child's mother and father, apparently wealthy, provide Elisha with a place to stay whenever he needs it. In return for their kindness, he promises the childless woman and her old husband a child within the year. Like Sarah, this woman is skeptical--but also like Sarah, she holds a son in her arms a year later.

We don't know how much time passes (2 Kings 4:18 simply says "the child grew"), but one day the boy complains to his father that his head hurts. By noon, verse 20 tells us, he's dead.

Once again, Scripture doesn't give us much insight into the woman's thoughts or emotional reaction. But it seems safe to say she loved her son every bit as much as Abraham loved Isaac, and I would imagine that his death--a death that occurred in her arms--caused the deepest pain she'd experienced so far in her life.

Which is why what she does next is so challenging to me. After laying her son on Elisha's bed, she immediately goes outside and asks her husband to send a servant and a donkey to her so that she can go see Elisha, the "man of God." He seems confused but obliges her request. So "she saddled the donkey and said to her servant, 'Lead on; don't slow down for me unless I tell you'" (v. 24).

They find Elisha about fifteen or twenty miles away, at Mount Carmel. She falls at his feet when she reaches him, and, through Elisha's statement to his servant in verse 27, we get our first glimpse of her emotional state: "bitter distress." Upon seeing her grief, Elisha sends his servant ahead of them--telling him to tuck his cloak in his belt and run--to try to revive the boy, but the servant's efforts are unsuccessful. So when Elisha reaches the house, "there was the boy lying dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the LORD." Elisha then climbs onto the couch and lies on top of the boy. The boy's body starts to get warm. So, after walking around the room, Elisha lies on top of him again. And then, as if waking from a nap, the boy sneezes and opens his eyes: miraculous birth number two.

Here's what gets me: In the deepest grief she's ever known, the Shunammite woman--again, an apparently wealthy woman who most likely has any material item she needs right at her fingertips--saddles her donkey and gets to the man of God as fast as she can. He performed a miracle for her once; he must be able to do it again.

Her faith, like Abraham's, is much stronger than mine. In times of pain and grief, immediately turning to God is not always my first response. In those moments, I don't usually recall all that he's done for me--which includes physically healing me when I was in high school and woke up too feverish and nauseous to play in a regional tennis match. And, when I do recall his gifts, his miracles, in my life, I'm too timid to ask him boldly for another gift or miracle, assuming I've already received my allotted amount from him.

But the fact is, he wants me to come to him as quickly and boldly as the Shunammite woman went to Elisha. And the truth is, he's as eager to help as Elisha was--and his power that caused this boy's birth and resurrection is as strong and active today as it was then.

So, Strangely Dim friends, in your grief, in your pain, in your confusion--get on your donkey and go to him. Which is to say, cry out to him. He already beside you, eagerly waiting for you to call on him, ready to respond in wisdom and power to bring you back to life.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 12:48 PM | view full entry

October 13, 2008

His Eye Is on the Donkey

We continue our second fortnight of donkey tales with a bird's eye view of a donkey's mother.
 
The angel of the LORD . . . said to [Hagar]:
       "You are now with child
       and you will have a son.
       You shall name him Ishmael,
       for the LORD has heard of your misery.
He will be a wild donkey of a man;
       his hand will be against everyone
       and everyone's hand against him,
       and he will live in hostility
       toward all his brothers."
She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen the One who sees me." (Genesis 16:11-13)
I've always felt a certain amount of solidarity with Hagar and her son Ishmael. They're perhaps not the first but maybe the most innocent outsiders in the Scriptures--certainly the ones we are led to feel the most sympathy for.
 
We're meant to identify with Hagar's master, actually. Abram is our ultimate patriarch, through whom all nations would be blessed. But we go on to watch him endlessly maneuver and manipulate in ways that are embarrassing to his legacy. Kings such as the Pharaoh of Egypt suffer his schemes, servants such as Hagar suffer his exploitation, and his own son suffers his neglect.
 
In this scene we find Hagar chased out into the desert, with Abram's tacit approval, by the wife of her unborn child's father. In the desert, alone, she is unseen and unheard by anyone. And yet God sees and hears her, and intervenes into her situation.
 
Maybe a bit too much for Hagar's liking, actually, because God sends her back to the place she's just escaped. God sees clearly enough to know that while Hagar is among the more innocent outsiders in the canon of Scripture, she's by no means guiltless. We learned prior to this scene that she showed some disdain for her boss, Sarai, perhaps vainly imagining that bearing Abram a son would make him love her and forsake his wife. Or she was grasping at a fortune she naively expected to be hers. Or maybe she had simply taken enough abuse from her masters and lashed back with the little ammunition she had been given: Ishmael, the unpromised son of Abram.
 
No, Hagar needs to go back. It's not clear why; although we'll learn that Ishmael is important theologically, he doesn't play a significant role in the story that ensues, and Hagar is ultimately chased away again, this time with God's blessing and provision. But she is sent back, recognizing that, if nothing else, she has at least been seen and heard by God.
 
She doesn't go back alone, however; God sends her back with a gift as well. She will soon bear a son who will grow to be "a wild donkey of a man," not cut out for the life of servitude she's lived to date. This is Abram's son and will complicate matters for our beloved patriarch and his child of promise, but it's a good reminder to all of us that there is more going on in the world than what directly concerns us.
 
We will learn eventually that, although Ishmael is by no means guiltless and most likely will suffer lifelong daddy issues you wouldn't believe, he himself will become a patriarch of a great nation. Ishmael inherits from his father and mother the moxie and toughness of a wild donkey, and while we won't be privy to the adventures that await him, we trust that he'll be able to bear any burden under the watchful eye of a God who sees him.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:50 AM | view full entry

October 4, 2008

The Fortnight So Nice We're Doing It Twice

Every time we stumble upon a topic here at Strangely Dim that stimulates our imagination enough to generate an entire fortnight's worth of material, I get really excited. So you might imagine how excited I am to announce that Lisa and I are going to attempt the virtually impossible: two back-to-back fortnights on the theme of donkey tales from the Bible.

This project has been a modest dream of mine since the unveiling of the Likewise Books logo: likewise.jpg

 

And in fact we toyed with the idea in a line description that accompanies every Likewise book. That line description inaugurated the first fortnight of donkey tales; I thought it would be appropriate for this second fortnight to draw from the two samplers we created for the line.

The first sampler featured five books--Flirting with Monasticism, Practical Justice, Sacred Travels, The New Friars and Blessed Are the Uncool. The latest sampler features one book that's now in print--Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers--and two books that are forthcoming: The Green Revolution and Love Is an Orientation. The introduction tethers these various books on diverse topics to the overarching idea of our publishing program: that striving to live like Jesus in our everyday going and doing is a discipline of seeking wisdom in real time, something that we rely on one another to accomplish. Without further ado, then, here's the inaugural post to our second fortnight of donkey tales:

There's an unusual warning buried somewhere in the middle of the Bible: "Do not be like the horse or the mule."

It's ludicrous, isn't it? Why would anyone compare a human being to a donkey?

And yet, if the horseshoe fits . . .

Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle. (Psalm 32:9)

There are days when we just can't figure out how to go anywhere or do anything without compromising our convictions--being less than who we were created to be, living less than fully in the way we were made to live. On days like that, being controlled by a bit and bridle doesn't sound so bad.

In fact, Jesus makes us an offer:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Likewise books are an exploration of the yoke offered us by Jesus. . . . We invite you to respond to the simultaneous challenge and promise in Jesus' words to another skeptical would-be follower: "Go and do likewise."

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:42 AM | view full entry

October 3, 2008

Do Donkeys Deceive?

On this Friday for our Donkey Tale, I attempt to answer the urgent and, I'm sure, much-debated-in-coffee-shops-everywhere question, "Do donkeys ever lie?"

Have you noticed that the number of daily polls increases exponentially during election time? Someone seems to think it's imperative that we know every single day whether McCain or Obama appears to be leading in votes, which of their wives has cuter shoes, which presidential/vice presidential team would be most likely to win a bowling match if they squared off, etc., etc., etc. I know I can hardly face the day without knowing what the public thinks about McCain's tie choice when he was campaigning in Boise.

So, knowing you must feel the same way, I thought a donkey poll would be fitting for our Fortnight of Donkey Tales. You can just let us know your vote with a comment (which means, of course, that this will be a mostly un-anonymous poll, but we might as well all know where we stand when it comes to our opinions of donkeys.) So, here you go:

Do donkeys ever deceive?

__ I wouldn't trust a donkey if my ice cream depended on it.

__ I would let a donkey take care of my child for the day.

__ Why are we talking about donkeys so much?

While you're voting, here's something I know--without even polling you--that we'd all agree on: the usefulness of donkeys. The donkey references in the Bible clearly show donkeys being used to carry people, food and supplies for long trips. They saved people from having to do all the walking and carrying themselves, which would have made the already-tedious journeys even more long and tedious, and sometimes even impossible. As far as transportation went, donkeys seem to be the "jets" of the Old Testament. They get you there in half the time but cost you quite a bit of money.

Donkeys, then, are clearly useful, but are they ever deceptive? I'll give you my opinion (this is your cue to stop reading and vote if you haven't done so yet). Allow me to turn your attention to not one but two Old Testament passages: Joshua 9 and 2 Samuel 16:1-4.

In Joshua we find the Israelites defeating--and destroying--the nations around them as the Lord makes them victorious. By Joshua 9, they've gained quite a reputation for themselves. At this point, their neighbors, the Gibeonites, are terrified that they'll be the next victims, so they concoct a little plan to secure their safety:

They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. The men put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy. Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the men of Israel, "We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us."

Tricky, huh? The Israelites, being as smart as, well, donkeys, buy it. They fail to seek the Lord and agree to make a treaty with the Gibeonites, which eventually contributes to the Israelites' downfall, disobedience and exile.

Move ahead some years to David in 2 Samuel 16. As usual, he's running from an enemy--this time his own son Absalom, who's trying to steal David's throne. At one point in his running, he comes upon Ziba, the steward of Saul's disabled grandson Mephibosheth (we'll call him "Bo" for short), whom David loves like a son:

[Ziba] had a string of donkeys saddled and loaded with two hundred loaves of bread, a hundred cakes of raisins, a hundred cakes of figs and a skin of wine. . . . [He said to David,] "The donkeys are for the king's household to ride on, the bread and fruit are for the men to eat, and the wine is to refresh those who become exhausted in the desert."

Nice, huh? Touching. Thoughtful. When David asks where Bo is, Ziba says he stayed behind in hopes that the kingdom would be taken from David and restored to Saul's family line. David, feeling betrayed by Bo, tells Ziba that he can have everything that belongs to Bo. End of story? No.

In 2 Samuel 19, when David and Bo next see each other, Bo reveals his side of the story: "Ziba my servant betrayed me. And he has slandered your servant to my lord the king."

Apparently, David doesn't have time to decide who to believe (he is, after all, running for his life and trying to regain his kingdom), so he tells Bo to divide what he has with Ziba. But in the honesty poll for Ziba and Bo, Bo gets my vote; he and David's relationship as described in earlier passages seems too solid for Bo to all of a sudden betray David. (We'll save that poll for another day.)

So there you go. Two Old Testament stories in which donkeys--something useful and good--are used to deceive. And though I haven't seen a donkey in person yet this year, these stories feel like my life. Every day I'm confronted with images and words that sound good, look good--and maybe even are good in some circumstances--but that ultimately tell me something deceptive about who I am, or who I should be. And I, like the Israelites, am quick to believe them and forget who I belong to; like David, I'm quick to forget who's been loyal and truthful to me consistently.

Here's what I believe, no matter what the polls say: God is the source of all truth. So if a donkey comes to your door, be discerning. Be slow to believe what it says (because we all know, without taking a poll, that donkeys for sure can talk!), and let the Spirit's still, small voice within speak to you over the braying.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 8:43 AM | view full entry

October 2, 2008

Donkeys, Rabbits and Leaps of Faith

Today's entry in the Fortnight of Donkey Tales follows up on our ongoing competition, "Rabbit."

Earlier in our Fortnight of Donkey Tales, Lisa established that, according to the Levitical law, eating donkeys is a no-no. Today we find that eating rabbits is likewise unacceptable.

You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud. . . . The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is unclean for you. (Leviticus 11:3, 6)

The donkey, though not explicitly present in Leviticus 11, is implicitly included. Like rabbits, donkeys don't have split hooves, and so observant Jews don't eat them. So be it.

It's interesting to me that Leviticus articulates all kinds of unacceptable foods with only the barest of rationales. Followers of kosher laws are left to wonder what makes an unsplit hoof so unacceptable, or what makes chewing the cud so appealing. Some cite health reasons, while others argue that modern food storage and preparation makes any health concerns obsolete. Some cite utilitarian reasons, such as the relative cost of feeding pigs versus their provision of human food, for example, or the better use of camels as beasts of burden rather than lunch and dinner. But these folks are countered once again by the question of obsolescence: if I don't need a donkey to get me from point A to point B anymore, why can't I just eat it?

The short answer, say observant Jews, is "because the Torah says so. . . . We show our obedience to G-d by following these laws even though we do not know the reason." That argument itself sounds anachronistic; we live in the age of reason and in a world of democracy, in which laws are changed whenever it becomes expedient or presumably profitable to do so. But it's possible that, among its many other cultural benefits, such defiance of convenience or comfort or even "enlightenment" is one of the more important offerings of a religion that is bound by its holy book. We are invited by God into a world made up not of mechanistic rules and cause-effect logic but of faith and trust and dynamic leaps of faith.

Leaps of faith bring to mind snake handling and job quitting and other such blind acts of radical and even absurd behavior in the name of God. But Soren Kierkegaard describes the leap of faith primarily as a check against the hubris of human rationalism. To Abraham--who assumes first that God can't override the conventions of nature regarding childbirth and then that this one child must be protected at all costs from all harm so that he can deliver on God's promise--God says, "Sacrifice your son." And so Abraham must chasten his enlightenment by practicing obedience. Even then he assumes, according to the letter to the Hebrews, "that God could raise the dead"--a logic that God once again defies in favor of relationship, to Abraham's great relief.

The axiom "Laws are meant to be broken" is often a helpful check against the ritualistic assumption that laws are meant to be slavishly followed. But in an age in which people rationalize whatever decisions seem right in their own eyes, such self-serving impulses can be indulged to the point that laws are enacted that are clearly unjust and so clearly in defiance of the will of God. Such an age is divided, by the rules of cold logic, between the eaters and the eaten. God looks down on such an age and tells us instead to trust him, to obey him--to look where he leaps, and to go and do likewise.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:11 AM | view full entry

September 28, 2008

Misplaced

This post continues our Fortnight of Donkey Tales with a look at Saul in 1 Samuel 9.

I've never really understood Saul--not the Old Testament king Saul but the idea of that Old Testament king. Here's a person who by almost all accounts seems misplaced--he doesn't want to be king, he doesn't make good decisions as king, he actively subverts the movement of God to prepare his replacement as king. His anointer Samuel, his son Benjamin, whole crowds of his people and in some cases even God and even Saul himself seem to think that his being king is a bad idea. And yet, in 1 Samuel 9, God tells Samuel to be ready to make someone king, and when Samuel sees Saul, God tells him, "This is the man I spoke to you about."

When Samuel found Saul, Saul was looking for his father's lost donkeys, and in fact Saul had been traipsing across the countryside trying to find these donkeys for several days. Saul's inability to find a few donkeys doesn't speak well of his capacity to lead twelve tribes as one great people. In fact, Saul's qualifications to be king seem to be limited to his looks: "an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites--a head taller than any of the others."

Speaking as a relatively short person (a friend refers to people like us as "fun-sized"), let me just say that there's much more to a person than height. Saul's impressive build notwithstanding, he shows a clear lack of leadership throughout the passage that reveals him as Israel's first king: a meandering search for a bunch of donkeys; a failure to lead even a servant who was obligated to follow him; a failure to prepare adequately for his journey or provide for a necessary audience with a seer; a denial of the strong words of commendation from the seer he sought an audience with. I could go on, but I'm not mean; I'm just short.

The important thing to notice is that Saul failed at two tasks: he didn't find the donkeys or the seer. The donkeys made their way home without his help; and the seer found him while he was still wandering aimlessly. And yet God made Saul king anyway, because God's plans for us proceed independent of our impressiveness or lack thereof. In the activity of God we are never misplaced, for even when we are lost, God finds us and commissions us and sends us forward.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:51 PM | view full entry

September 28, 2008

Beast of Burden

IVP author and friend of Likewise, Mark Eddy Smith, gives us a brief breather in the Fortnight of Donkey Tales by allowing us to post his "The Lion & the Donkey," inspired by 1 Kings 13.

"Hildiah," said the LORD, "There comes a man I want you to kill." God was a snow-white lamb, such as Hildiah loved to eat. He wondered, half-seriously, if the LORD would mind being eaten. Hildiah had been lying in the shade of a vine when the lamb had approached him and curled up fearlessly between his great tawny forepaws. Reclining his head upon Hildiah's chest, the LORD nuzzled his mane.

"My Lord?" said Hildiah, recognizing the lightning-brightness of the wool.

"There comes a man," repeated the lamb, "who is great in my kingdom. Him I want you to kill; even this very day."

Hildiah's strength bristled within him; his chest surged with wounded pride. "Just one, my Lord?" With a single swipe of his paw Hildiah could cave in the side of a bull's head. One man would provide no challenge at all. He wanted to be like Phrygeon, who had killed five hundred hyenas even though he was the runt of the litter. He wanted his deeds to be remembered for all time. With great effort he managed to put away his disappointment. "Thy will be done, my Lord," he said.

"This man," said God, scratching the top of his head against Hildiah's chin, "has been sent by me to prophecy death to the priests of the altars, whom Jeroboam has appointed from among the people, for verily their bones shall be burnt on the very altars at which they sacrifice. For I am the LORD. They shall have no other gods before me."

"Amen," said Hildiah, "Lord have mercy."

"I have further instructed him not to eat or drink anything in this place, nor to return by the way he came, for I am the LORD."

"Amen," said Hildiah, "Lord have mercy."

"Nevertheless, he has been deceived by another who bears my name, and is even now at sup with him. For this reason, he will never be buried with his ancestors but will die in Israel, though he belongs to Judah."

"Amen," said Hildiah, "er--"

The LORD stood up and stretched his tender frame. "Here he comes now."

"Lord," said Hildiah, "What is his name?"

"That," said the Lord Most High, "is a secret, and will remain so until the end."

The lamb kissed Hildiah on the muzzle, then walked slowly away.

Hildiah stood also and shook his mane. Just at that moment, from over a ridge, appeared the man of whom the LORD had spoken. He was riding on a donkey who, at the sight of Hildiah, paused and seemed to sag. A terrible suffering was in its eyes, and Hildiah was moved. What had the LORD told the donkey? Did it know that its master would be killed today, from right off its back? The man himself seemed lost in thought, not caring whether he was moving or not, or in which direction.

He had always admired donkeys, ever since hearing the story of Balaam's ass, the one who refused to carry his master forward when it saw the angel of death lying in wait up ahead. Three times it had turned aside, courageously enduring its master's whip. Would this donkey turn aside also? His eyes dark with uncertainty, Hildiah crouched beside the vine and waited.

With a sigh that was loud enough for Hildiah to hear, though it was still some distance away, the donkey resumed its walking, bearing the man forward. Hildiah's stomach growled, followed by his throat, as he allowed his hunting instinct to take over, erasing all doubts and uncertainties. A feast lay before him, and the LORD had ordained it. He would do as the LORD had commanded.

He sensed the donkey watching him, though his own eyes were on the man. He began his charge. Still the man seemed oblivious to everything around him. Would he not even look up, to face the doom the LORD had prepared for him? He gathered himself for a leap and in that same instant the man did look up, just as if he had expected Hildiah to choose that moment to pounce. In the instant before Hildiah's paw crushed his cheek, the man mouthed words. Hildiah had no understanding of human speech, but he was almost sure the words meant "sorry". The man even managed a sad smile before Hildiah's paw connected. His leap took him clear over the donkey, and he was so shocked by the man's demeanor that his chin smashed into the road. He stood up slowly, shaking his head, his vision filled with the man's gentle smile and calm, sad eyes. He turned, and saw the donkey standing over the man, weeping bitterly. Hildiah moved quietly to the donkey's side, and together the two kept silent vigil until evening fell, and another man, and another donkey, came to bear the man of God away.

While the other man dismounted and knelt beside the crumpled body, the other donkey continued toward the lion and the first donkey, and for a moment the three of them nuzzled each other in mute and mutual sorrow, until Hildiah's emotions overwhelmed him, and he loped away. For the rest of his life Hildiah could never look at a donkey without experiencing an overwhelming sense of grief, and he never again wished for deeds that would be remembered.

Copyright 1996 by Mark Eddy Smith. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:35 AM | view full entry

September 25, 2008

What Do We Do with a Donkey or Two?

The next installment in our Fortnight of Donkey Tales . . .

We're nearing the end of our first week of
Donkey Tales, so I feel it's time we had a heart-to-heart about an important topic: meat.

I've noticed that people have strong and varying opinions about this these days; some of you are drooling on your forks already, while others of you are starting your "Eat More Vegetables" chant and grabbing your picket signs from the corners of your kitchen. Here's where I stand on this delicate topic: I do eat meat but--before you vegetable-purists stop reading--not that often.

I have, on and off, considered giving up meat altogether. For one thing, it's expensive. Especially out here in the Chicago area. Not only is there no such thing as a free lunch; here there's not even any such thing as a cheap chicken. Furthermore, I know that massive consumption of meat taxes national and international resources. And, though "Saving the Animals" is not on the top of my list as far as urgent world needs--I do care about the chickens and turkeys. I don't want poor, harmless poultry to suffer so that I can have a nice dinner.

With that said, I haven't yet said "Goodbye turkey, hello tofu," because the truth is, I really like chicken and turkey. Especially turkey, and especially at Thanksgiving, or wrapped up with mustard, cheese and apple slices. Mmmmmm. And the rest of the truth is, I haven't gotten around to acquiring the taste for tofu yet (though I'm still open to trying). So although I almost always take a veggie burger to a barbecue, I'm still firmly planted in the meat-eater category.

I much prefer white meat to red meat, but throughout my life I've tried a number of different kinds of meat, fixed a number of different ways: sausage, ham, pork, beef, chicken, lamb, reindeer, Canadian bacon and, in rare instances, an undeterminable meat. But to my knowledge, I've never eaten donkey. It seems there are some things our Likewise mascot just isn't generally good for.

It was true in the Israelites' day too. The donkey, while certainly useful, was not good for everything. Here are the instructions Moses gave the Israelites from the Lord just after the Passover in Egypt:

After the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers, you are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. (Exodus 13:11-13)

 

According to this passage, the donkey seems to be the only animal the Israelites could own but not sacrifice. (There were, of course, a list of "unclean" animals that they weren't allowed to own or touch, much less sacrifice. See Leviticus for details.) Why would that be?

Old Testament scholars aren't sure. Alan Cole, in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on Exodus, speculates a few possibilities. One is simply that the stench of burning donkey meat and milk might have been considered offensive. (I will not be attempting to prove or disprove his theory on that one.) The other possibilities, however, all have to do with other cultures' views of donkeys at the time. Some other people groups did sacrifice donkeys. Others viewed them as sacred. Still others revered the donkey specifically as a symbol of fertility.

Though the Lord's reason for singling out the donkey is unclear, his message was clear: don't burn the donkey. Substitute a lamb or break the colt's neck.

It all sounds a little odd to us today, but see what comes next in Exodus 13:

In days to come, when your son asks you, "What does this mean?" say to him, "With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons. And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand." (vv. 14-16)

 

The Lord's instructions were intentional and specific because he wanted the Israelites' very way of life--their everyday activities--to help them remember what he had done for them and to help them be holy. By saving them, he set them apart as his people, called to glorify his name to all the nations. And part of the "glorify God" plan was living distinctly, differently from the nations around them: sacrificing to one God, eating and not eating certain foods, celebrating particular festivals, and using what they had--including donkeys--in different ways than others did, all to show how great the one true God is.

Today, thankfully, we don't have to sacrifice our meat; we can simply choose to grill the beef or fight for the cows. But as Christians, we're still a people set apart. We're still called to do different things than others with what we have--donkeys, dollars, dinners, whatever--that we might continually remember what God has rescued us from and show others who he is and how great he is.

Whether or not you're a meat-eater, I don't advise eating donkey. I don't recommend burning it or breaking its neck either. But whatever you do with your "donkeys," seek to use them in a way that displays God's goodness and grace.

(NOTE: No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog.)

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 9:18 AM | view full entry

September 24, 2008

Get Along, Little Donkeys

Continuing our Fortnight of Donkey Tales, the following devotional is based on Exodus 23.

The attention given to donkeys in the Mosaic Law is an indication of how integral they were in ancient Israelite culture. A donkey was a family's transport--carrying, for example, Moses' family from the desert of Midian back to Egypt when he liberated his people. A donkey was a family's farm implement--how the work got done on whatever plot of land they maintained. A donkey was a pet of sorts; some biblical characters even had prolonged conversations with this long-eared member of the family.

And so, donkey tales in the Bible, even the most seemingly innocuous of them, are intensely personal. A person who sent his donkey somewhere with a message was going all in; a family who lost track of their donkey knew that their livelihood was at stake. Which leads us to today's donkey tale:

If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it. (Exodus 23:4-5)

The text presumes two things: (1) you probably have enemies and (2) they'll probably have their share of troubles.

Now, enemies is an uncomfortable term; enemies are the enemy of a capitalist economy and a democratic society. The current political climate is a good example, as candidates for the most powerful position in the world choose their words carefully to acknowledge the dignity of their opponent while simultaneously leading listeners to the inevitable conclusion that their opponent is the antichrist. Meanwhile, champions of the free market look for ways of defending the notion of a near-trillion-dollar governmental bailout so that companies that are "too big to fail" rapidly approach failure.

The frankness of this passage is refreshing in such an age of spin and nuance, an age where we express our outrage loudly while subverting our opponents quietly. Say what you will about the Scriptures, but at least they cut to the chase.

The author of Exodus acknowledges, at least tacitly, that to be human is to have enemies, probably because to be human is to be morally compromised--finite and fallible, quick to judge and slow to repent. To be human is also to have trouble, however, as this passage is also quick to assume. Jesus even says it directly: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33)--probably in part because to be human is to have enemies, and to be human is to be finite and fallible, quick on the draw but slow on the uptake.

But the law here doesn't address the enemy or the troubled; the law here addresses the onlooker. Seeing our enemy in trouble is an ethical trilemma: Will we indulge the temptation to celebrate our enemy's trouble? Will we shrug off what we've witnessed and mind our own business? Or will we indulge the still, small voice that invites us to offer a hand? The law here reminds us that to be human is to have a guiding ethic--and, given our finiteness and fallibility, to seek after a guided ethic, something that the God of the Bible is happy to provide. 

Mark Twain is said to have defined an ethical person as "a Christian holding four aces." The statement presumes two things: (1) there are others at the table and (2) there are no aces to spare. When we find ourselves holding all the cards, when we have the upper hand in the presence of our enemies, then we find ourselves at table with people without hope. And here the Bible is frustratingly, persistently clear: Let us lay down our cards and take up our cross. Let us love, for love comes from God.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:08 AM | view full entry

September 23, 2008

Sometimes You're the Dude, Sometimes You're the Donkey

Continuing our Fortnight of Donkey Tales, the following devotional is based on Genesis 49.

The logo for Likewise Books, proud not-for-profit parent of Strangely Dim, features a silhouette of a man pulling a donkey behind him. Inevitably the questions pour forth: Am I supposed to identify with the dude or the donkey? What does it mean?

Never ask a designer questions like that. It only ticks them off.

Besides, the answer ultimately, unavoidably, lies within. If you intuitively identify with one or the other, no amount of deconstruction on the part of a third party, even the creator of the image, is going to convince you otherwise. In fact, particularly if you identify with the dude, any suggestion to the contrary is as likely as not to cause you to snort and bray in defiance.

No, the answer ultimately, unavoidably, lies within, and as such it serves as a good barometer of your life-satisfaction index, a kind of Rorschach test for how you're currently perceiving yourself and your prospects. Do you pin your face on the dude, or the donkey? And how then should you live?

Of course, pinning stuff on donkeys is usually done blindfolded, under the watchful eye of a more mature observer, such as a parent. That's what happens in Genesis 49, as a matter of fact, as patriarch Israel tells the various unwitting patriarchs of twelve tribes-to-be what he really, really thinks of them and their prospects. Look closely and you'll see that Jacob sees one of them as the dude, and one of them as the donkey.

The part of the dude was played by Judah, of whom Israel had plenty to say, all of it good. Judah's brothers would praise him, bow down to him. His enemies would submit to him. Judah would hold the throne of Israel in trust until Messiah came to claim it. Judah would have dark eyes and white teeth, more wine than he knew what to do with, and the best parking place in the kingdom of God, where he would tether his donkey to a gilded branch. Judah would be the dude-ah.

That was lame. I apologize. But it's true-da. (Oops. I did it again.) The world, according to Israel, would be Judah's oyster, and prosperity, symbolized by the donkey and all its trimmings, would follow him wherever he went.

Not so with Issachar, I'm afraid. Issachar, according to Israel, is "one tough donkey," according to The Message, "couching down between two burdens," according to King James. Issachar would learn the joy of comfort and easy living, and would crave it so much that he would sell and even break his body to attain it. Issachar, in other words, would be a lazy idiot. So said Israel as he offered his children his blessings.

This wasn't just Israel being a bad parent; this was Israel prophesying the future of his family, his people. It bears out as the Old Testament unfolds: the tribe of Issachar barely distinguishes itself among the tribes of Israel, mentioned only in lists that nobody but a tenured Old Testament scholar would bother reading and as the parent-tribe of only one of a long list of wicked kings of Israel.

The tribe of Issachar comes to nearly nothing as the Old Testament unfolds, even as the tribe of Judah produces skilled artisans such as Bezalel, military giants such as Caleb and great kings such as David and Solomon. Ultimately, the tribe of Judah would yield the Messiah, Jesus, to claim the throne of the kingdom of God.

Yep, sometimes you're the dude, and sometimes you're the donkey. But Judah wasn't flawless; plenty of wickedness came through his tribal ranks. And for all that it had going against it in its birthright, the tribe of Issachar is also remembered for supporting the work of deliverance led by Deborah (Judg 5) and for understanding the times and knowing what Israel should do (1 Chron 12:32). And interestingly enough, in Deuteronomy 27 Judah and Issachar were selected together to be among the tribes that declared God's blessings on his people.

So whether you're seeing yourself today as the donkey or the dude, your future is still wide open, because your future is as yet unwritten. It's worth picking up the Rorschach test that is our Likewise logo again and again every so often, and even more important, following that self-assessment with a critical question: How then shall I live?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:27 AM | view full entry

September 22, 2008

A Fortnight of Donkey Tales

It's long been a dream of mine--ever since the launch of Likewise Books, actually--to compile a set of readings based on Bible passages that feature donkeys. The donkey has quite literally become an icon of the Likewise line, with authors and readers and employees alike trying to draw meaning from it, to identify themselves in it. It makes sense, therefore, that readings of donkey adventures in Scripture from a particularly Likewise-y angle would profit many.

Sadly, to date only Lisa has shared my vision. And then it occurred to me that Lisa and I share this vision, and we share this bully pulpit called Strangely Dim. It makes sense, therefore, that we do whatever we want, not the least of which being to write scads of meditations having to do with donkeys.

Especially since the Bible is filled with scads of stories having to do with donkeys. My exhaustive concordance lists a column and a half of verses that include some variant of donkey, and the word ass adds another half-column (not to mention a veritable parthenon of giggles). This is a devotional that demands to be written.

Which leads us to this, the latest in our intermittent series of themed fortnights. To date we've celebrated a fortnight of odes and a fortnight of cliches, each of which was stimulating creatively for us and, we imagine at least, entertaining for our audience of dozens. Now we hope to branch out into edification--or sanctitainment, if I may coin a term.

So steel yourselves as we make a--ahem, I mean fools--of ourselves poring over the Bible in search of donkeys with truth to share. Some stories, inevitably, will be so familiar as to sit comfortably alongside the archives to our fortnight of cliches. But some, we hope, will catch all of us off guard and, I daresay, lead us to go and do in ways we hadn't considered before.

If you'd like to try your hand, feel free to contact us by e-mail; we'd be happy to let you join in the fun. In the meantime, here's the line description that accompanies each Likewise book to the printer, just to warm us up:

A man comes across an ancient enemy, beaten and left for dead. He lifts the wounded man onto the back of a donkey and takes him to an inn to tend to the man's recovery. Jesus tells this story and instructs those who are listening to "go and do likewise."

 

Likewise books explore a compassionate, active faith lived out in real time. When we're skeptical about the status quo, Likewise books challenge us to create culture responsibly. When we're confused about who we are and what we're supposed to be doing, Likewise books help us listen for God's voice. When we're discouraged by the troubled world we've inherited, Likewise books help us hold onto hope.

 

In this life we will face challenges that demand our response. Likewise books face those challenges with us so we can act on faith.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:07 AM | view full entry