But What Does it All Mean?

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In our age of streaming services and binge watching, a couple of years ago I churned through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show debuted in 1987, when I was eight years old. There are one hundred and seventy eight episodes. The series finale was in 1994.

I can’t tell you when I first saw TNG. But I’m certain that in my teenage years I’d watch late night reruns, so I became familiar with Jean Luc-Picard, Will Riker, Worf, Geordi, Data, Troi, and Dr. Crusher. I admired Patrick Stewart as Picard, a character who is always alert, curious, insightful, and measured. Independent. A pioneer. Analytical. Courageous. I’m a science fiction fan, and of the vast array of explorers, oddballs, and heroes in the genre, Picard is among my favorites.

The second episode of the fifth season is entitled “Darmok,” and it is there that Picard displays his most vital strengths.¹ The Enterprise comes in contact with an alien race called the Tamarians, known to The United Federation of Planets, but, as of yet, unallied. (BTW: Anytime I think of the Federation, The Refreshments’ nod in “Banditos” always comes to mind.)

Communication with the Tamarians has proven to be very difficult, as the aliens communicate using a complex array of metaphor and allegory.  Though Picard and the crew of the Enterprise seem to speak simply to the Tamarians, they remain misunderstood.² Without shared reference points, it is impossible to build a bridge.

Picard is undettered. The Tamarian captian, Dathon, and Picard are transported down to the planet’s surface. Dathon holds two daggers, and presents one to Picard, which he interprets as a challenge to a duel. But this is not what Dathon has in mind. Dathon repeats the phrases, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and “Temba, his arms wide” several times to Picard, who remains befuddled. But eventually, it begins to dawn on Picard that Dathon is trying to tell him a story, and to indicate that both are being pursued by an invisible predator who is seeking to kill them both. Dathon wants Picard to help him  fight the beast.

From there, things go off the rails. Just at the moment that Picard and Dathon are fighting the beast, the Enterprise overcomes a field array that was preventing them from beaming Picard back on board. As Picard is taken away, Dathon is severely wounded. Picard returns to tend Dathon’s wounds. The two continue their attempts at conversation, and Picard begins to deduce that Darmok and Jalad were two ancient warriors in Tamarian folklore who joined forces on an island called Tanagra to defeat a dangerous beast. In the process, Darmok and Jalad became friends. Picard makes a connection to The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian text from ancient Mesopotamia. Dathon is gladdened by Picard’s insight, and seems to affirm the connection. Shortly thereafter, Dathon dies.

When Picard returns to the Enterprise, his crew and those aboard the Tamarian vessel are locked in battle. Having brought back the daggers from the planet, Picard offers one to the acting captain of the alien vessel, and references the story. It becomes clear to the Tamarians that a breakthrough has occurred, that Picard is offering them friendship, and that an effort has been made to establish diplomatic relations. Both ships stand down. The Tamarians record a new story, “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.”³

Is this a weird story? Sure! Is it metaphorical and allegorical? Absolutely! Does it capture something that resonates with human experience? Undoubtedly. Is it true? Undeniably.

As a Christian person, I have a narrative. So do my neighbors. At times, the Christian story and those of my neighbors overlap. In those instances, connections can be made. But work always has to be done. Both parties have to participate. At times, sacrifices are willfully made in order to bring two divided groups to a place of mutual understanding.

Metaphors bridge the gap, often through stories that reach the grand scale of myth. When we are seeking answers to questions about what it means to be human together, propositions can carry us a good distance, if we have enough common reference points. But stories offer us another way of seeing. They open portals to common understanding. They create worlds with enough room for both parties to stake out ground, and to establish what is held in common.

Picard, in many ways, displays the best characteristics of an effective missionary. He is inquisitive, curious, and determined. He listens. He is persistent. He is willing to enter into frustration and confusion. Lastly, he is driven by hope–a hope that where there was once two people, it is possible that they can be made one.

There’s something biblical about that notion.


  1. Here’s a nice write up of the episode by Ian Bogost of The Atlantic.
  2. This YouTube video will give you a taste of how difficult it would be to connect with the Tamarians.
  3. The full episode is available to those who have CBS All Access (membership required) or Amazon Prime.

Daily Checklist

How do you stay on track? Here is a list that helps me see how I’m doing. It’s like an examen.

  • I maintain loving, firm, and consistent
    boundaries in my relationships each day.
  • I serve Molly and put her needs before my own.
  • I preserve time for silence, solitude, and quiet reflection.
  • I am not in a hurry.
  • I am living free from anger.
  • I work to make a positive difference in the
    lives of other people.
  • I use my gifts for the common good.
  • I am aware when I am growing tired and adjust
    my schedule accordingly.
  • I exercise and feel good in my body.
  • I do not feed the habit of negative self-talk.
  • I trust that God has a plan and a hope for my future.
  • I am joyful in the presence of others.
  • I am teachable and seeking to learn new things, always.
  • I am not afraid to take risks and challenge myself.
  • I am honest about failure.
  • I am honest about my own mortality.
  • I recognize my limits and differentiate between
    what is mine/not mine to do before God.

This is tailored to me and my circumstances. But it tends to help. Your list may look different. Feel free to borrow mine.

Creech: To Those Pastoring

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Dr. Robert Creech serves as Hubert H. & Gladys S. Raborn Professor of Pastoral Leadership and as Director of Pastoral Ministries at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. There are several things I like about Dr. Creech. He’s always been friendly to me. He encourages his students to read Wendell Berry and Dallas Willard. He and his wife, Melinda, are restoring an eighty-eight acre portion of their family farm in Floresville, Texas to native prairie. He’s a Master Naturalist. He and his wife also serve as Faculty-in-Residence at Baylor in the North Village Residential Community, and I very much like it that my university has people like Dr. Creech living alongside students. I find this to be a really neat aspect of campus life.

Several weeks ago Dr. Creech published an open letter on his blog addressing those who are pastoring. His exhortations and encouragements are apt, grounded in the witness of Scripture. To summarize, he urges pastors to preach, connect, adjust, practice self-care, share the work, face reality, and to serve in hope (which is distinct from optimism or despair).

He closes with these words:

Pastors, what you men and women are doing has never been more important. Your people need your love, your leadership, and your faithful ministry. The church will need to think carefully about how we do our work in such days as this. How do we preach Christ? How do we demonstrate love for neighbor? How do we serve with compassion? How do we bear witness to a frightened, lonely, world? You, pastors, are called to this. You have been prepared for this. You, with the Spirit’s power, can do this. Be encouraged.

Indeed. Be encouraged.

Eerdmans April 2020 eBook Sale

Eerdmans is having a big eBook sale, listing over 300 titles. You can view the entire list here. These I found of note:

Meaning Makers

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It’s kind of striking that in asking and answering the question at the head of these reflections [“What do you make of all this?”] each of us is channeling, more or less unknowingly, a mass of assumptions about anthropology, ontology, teleology, providence and the doctrine of God. And it is for this reason that the other interesting aspect of the question comes into focus. Since these various so-called “intellectual” assumptions are operating as we see and reflect on our experience in the world, they touch rock bottom (an insufficiently foundationalist metaphor to be sure) upon our creatureliness or our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness. Our making meaning or making sense or making something out of a tough situation is an aspect of our participation in the triune God who made us. Making meaning out of our experience, imaginatively looking for links and drawing out significance, brings about newness: a new view of whatever situation, yes, but more than that, a new person, insofar as we are no longer who we were before this experience and act of making meaning, but also a new opportunity for meaning-making for those who interact with our meaning-making (and, depending on the strength or weakness of your Pneumatology, this type of meaning-making could be classed as revelation).

I’ve had a front row seat to this act of making meaning in the midst of our COVID-19 crisis by dialoging with some really faithful and wise Christians, both in my role at the CPT but more generally as I’ve interacted with my Christian community in my home and on Zoom, iMessage, WhatsApp, FaceTime or whatever. The instinct on display in these conversations is to broaden the field of vision, quickly moving to speaking about…

  • the benefits of this situation for families, who sadly don’t get a lot of regular time together, but are now having meals together, learning together through “home schooling”, playing together and worshiping together;

  • or the helpful by-product of being, in some cases, forced to utilize technology for our churches, often causing those previously opposed to streaming and other various approaches to soften a bit, at least as an emergency measure to accommodate Christian worship of some kind;

  • or the joy of realizing that something as routine as going to church each week is indeed, once it’s taken away, a gift to be received rather than simply reducing it to an aspect of routine;

  • or the salutary awareness of the possibility of some kind of national unity as countries work together to contain and prevent the spread of the virus;

  • or – for pastors – some welcome perspective, reacquainting them with the basic elements of their pastoral vocation, weaning them away from the excess that, barnacle-like, attaches to pastoral ministry and church life over time;

We make meaning; that’s what we do as humans.

– Jameson Ross at The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Making Meaning

Jameson Ross is saying that human beings seek patterns and attempt to establish coherence, to make order from chaos. We are map makers. For Christians, our meaning making incorporates elements which are invariably drawn together from our theological convictions, which is why it is so vital for us to have sound and well measured doctrines of God, of anthropology, and other subdisciplines. But meaning making does not operate in isolation. There is also a transformative aspect of this process. As beings situated within history it is not only the events themselves that shape us, but what we make of those events. We narrate, and as we do so, by God’s grace we learn, change and grow.

I pulled this quote primarily for the items Ross chose to bullet, for I think all five observations are accurate and worthy of thought. [Visit the article for his handling of the reflexive (and refining) critiques of these benefits.] Our family is enjoying our time together, the institutions I serve (both church and university) are learning and gaining further expertise in the use of technology, my fellow congregants are expressing love for one another and a longing to be together again, there is a sense among friends that America is a wonderful place to be, and (oh Lord, I hope!) I have pastor friends who are reconnecting with the most essential and vital aspects of pastoral ministry. The showy stuff has been put aside, and we’re being stripped down to extending care, listening, gently and humbly offering the Word, creatively meeting needs, expressing concern for our neighbors (entire communities; not only congregants) and, of greatest importance, I have witnessed a renewed emphasis on prayer.

As for the meaning making I’ve been engaged in, I’ve been reminded that I am very small and the world is a very large, that God is beyond my comprehension (yet God is personal; not beyond knowledge), that life is very fragile, that I am thankful for a place, that I am temporal and daily passing away, death is an enemy, that kindness is paramount, that the fellowship of the saints is a gift, that the gospel is a comfort and a source of power, and…that’s enough for now. Those are just a few.

The Veil

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I wrote these words this morning. On the second Friday of each month I meet with a group of men for the study of Scripture, prayer, and mutual encouragement. These men are my elders, and they have met together for over twenty years. I’ve served this group as part of a teaching rotation since summer 2017, at which time they welcomed me. Today we were unable to gather due to the pandemic, and thus I sent a meditation via email. This is it.

Scripture Reading:

32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. 35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. 37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.

38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

Meditation:

I’ve been slowly reading through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian who lived from 1886 to 1968, and he is considered a giant in the history of theology. He was educated by Adolf von Harnack at the University of Berlin and then by Wilhelm Hermann at the University of Tubingen, both leading theologians during their time.
 
Barth later came to reject the form of Protestant liberalism that he was taught by his mentors while pastoring a small church in a village called Safenwil. It was there that Barth wrote his commentary The Epistle to the Romans, which he revised several times. Barth later taught theology in Germany, until he was pushed out by the Nazis, whom he rejected. He was asked to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. He refused.
 
Barth is well known as the primary author of the Barmen Declaration, which, in short, proclaimed that the Church’s highest allegiance was to Jesus Christ; thus Christians should not pledge fealty to the Nazis or other earthly lords. Barth mailed a copy of the Barmen Declaration to Hitler personally.
 
In The Doctrine of the Word of God, Barth describes what he calls “The Speech of God and the Mystery of God.” One of his observations, which has stuck with me, is that Jesus came into the world publicly, and yet not everyone received him the same (this is an observation that preceded Barth in Scripture, but nonetheless, a good reminder!). The Word of God was revealed, and yet not all said, “Oh, here is God!” Even in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, many where still unable to see what was plainly in front of their face. Barth observes that this has been the case with many events throughout time.
 
Barth says it simply: “The veil is thick.” Barth writes that when God speaks, God acts, and what was concealed is suddenly revealed as “not just His act but His miraculous act, the tearing of an untearably thick veil, i. e., His mystery.”  Barth goes further, saying that those who are able to perceive God’s action and hear God’s speech are enabled to do so by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit’s action that opens our eyes, softens our hearts, and unblocks our ears.
 
Today is Good Friday. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is one that we tell often. If we are preaching the gospel, we should constantly and routinely bring ourselves back to a fresh consideration of what Jesus did in his life, death, and resurrection. We should keep all three in view. But we shouldn’t minimize or ignore or gloss over or neglect the cross. I think we do. We move too quickly past the cross. Why?
 
In the Protestant tradition, at least in more recent years in the North American church, we have often focused on Jesus’ life or his resurrection. We emphasis Jesus’ example and his moral teachings, or we focus on our eternal hope and the gift of eternal life.
 
Too often, we think we’re pretty good people, and Jesus’ teachings can help us be a little better. We like the idea of resurrection and eternal life, because it offers comfort. But the cross is where our sin is dealt with, which means we must think and consider carefully the fact that we are sinners. We must consider how we have failed and rebelled, we must look at the ugliness within. We move too quickly past the cross, for it reminds us not only of the death of Jesus, but what also needs to die in us. It is a horror to behold.
 
We are rightly horrified. But we must look. We must gaze upon the Christ, and consider how in his death what was hidden has now been revealed. We must consider how your sin, my sin our sin, has been dealt with. God’s mystery is ours to contemplate and to enter, to encounter and to behold.
 
In our Scripture reading today, we see that there are some who are plainly unable to see Jesus as he is, as Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior, the Redeemer, and our truest friend. They see Jesus as a threat, a false teacher, a revolutionary, an outsider, even an enemy. The veil is thick. Having rejected Jesus, they nail him to a cross. Jesus is stripped, mocked. He is considered a spectacle. A weirdo. A fool.
 
And yet, there were some who saw something very different, and perhaps the longer they gazed upon Jesus, something more profound began to come into view. They began to perceive that this was no ordinary human being. Yes, he was a human being. There, he bled, he suffered, and he died.
 
And yet! The moment Jesus gives up his spirit (it is Luke who tells us that before Jesus did this, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” and prior to this, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed to the Father to forgive those who crucified him, “for they know not what they do”), Matthew reports that something incredible happened. The veil in the temple, which separated the temple sanctuary from the Holy of Holies, was torn in two from top to bottom, and that many miraculous signs accompanied this event, including earthquakes and the raising from the dead of “many holy people.”
 
You might have noticed that the first people to proclaim that Jesus was indeed God’s Son were a centurion and others who were overseeing the execution. Outsiders to the Jews; people who were not in the covenant community. Matthew also notes the presence of the women, watching from afar. Some walked away from Golgotha unchanged. But a few wondered, “Did God do something there? I’ve never seen anything like it. Was I seeing God? Who was this Jesus?”
 
Romans 5:8 tells us, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s no small claim. Do we give it due consideration? Do we allow it to sink in?
 
On this Good Friday, let’s consider that claim afresh. Let’s behold the mystery. On the cross, Jesus died for us. God, in the flesh, made atonement through sacrifice, he instituted a new covenant in his blood, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). That’s the tearing of a thick veil. Do we see?
 
He has done it. Because Jesus has done it, he is now doing a new thing. In me, in you, and in us. Those who receive Jesus by faith are given the gift of eternal life, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and an imperishable, everlasting hope.
 
There is joy and peace, for in our inmost being, we can know, by God’s grace and with the Spirit’s consolation, that our sins–every last one–have been paid for on the cross. There is power, for as Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
 
Thank God that in and through Jesus salvation has been extended to us as a gift. Don’t rush past Good Friday too quickly. Behold the mystery and the magnificence. Behold the love. And let that love move and melt you, transform and change you. Let the life you now live in the body by one that is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and give himself for you, and for us.

Prayer:

Father, I give you thanks that you are a Redeemer, a Savior, a God who rescues us, and who reveals yourself as a self-sacrificing, loving God. Your love for us is beyond measure, and because of this, you are worthy of our adoration and our praise. Help us to live today perceiving you, beholding you, and let us be changed by what we see. Thank you for Jesus, for his cross, for his death, and for the forgiveness of sin that has been extended to us in the new covenant. Help us to live as faithful stewards, as servants in your household, and to honor you with our words, deeds, and dispositions of heart. Give us your peace and your joy, and make us a testimony to your grace. In the strong name of Jesus we ask these things, Amen.