February 28, 2011
We'll Always Be Your Beast of Burden
There's nothing quite so quirky about the Likewise line of books at InterVarsity Press as its logo: a man leading a resistant donkey, in silhouette. What does it mean?!? we're often asked and occasionally tempted to ask ourselves. Still, when you get right down to it, it's pretty adorable, pretty versatile, pretty memorable. We (and many of our authors) find ourselves identifying with it in an iconic sort of way; Jamie Arpin-Ricci, whose forthcoming Cost of Community will bear the logo, even riffed on the vibe of the logo in his proposal.
Early in the life of the line, Karen Sloan (who wrote the Likewise book Flirting with Monasticism) and Emily Sloan (who had joined us for a line brainstorming weekend with several culture-makers we admire, including Likewise authors Don Everts, Mike Sares and Sean Gladding) presented us with a Likewise-inspired gift: three Gund stuffed donkeys, which when wound up sway back and forth to a tinkly rendition of "Amazing Grace." They stitched the word "Likewise" onto the donkeys' fluffy sweaters, in case we missed the connection. They brought the donkeys to the 2006 Urbana Student Missions Conference, where we were making a big to-do about the line. We loved them.I'm not sure what happened to one of the donkeys, quite honestly. It may be in Andrew Bronson's family room (that's him in the photo above), or someone may have absconded with it. Another of the donkeys was vandalized--taken from my office and deposited on a rock somewhere on IVP's campus to brave the elements. It didn't fare so well.
I consoled myself by acknowledging that there is truly a ministry of iconoclasm, in which the things we gradually place our confidence in (sometimes to the point of idolatry) get put through the ringer so we can see them more accurately. A haggard donkey is no less inspiring, and in some ways even more inspiring, than a pristine, well-tended donkey; sometimes the best way of listening to a tinkly rendition of "Amazing Grace" is by silently recalling the sober verse "Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come . . ."
Byron has been a generous reviewer and promoter of Likewise Books from the very beginning, but many of us associated with the line have not had the pleasure of meeting him face to face. Well, now one more of us has, and whenever he feels like it, he can wind that thing up and do a little dance, confident that as much as he likes reading and selling our books, we like publishing them and putting them in the mail to him.
Donkeys--they bring people together. It just needed to be said.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:16 AM
March 28, 2010
It's Not About the Donkey
About this time last year Shane Claiborne (coauthor of Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers and a few other books you might have heard of) introduced the inaugural issue of Conspire magazine by telling the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, carried by the foal of a donkey, on the first day of the last week of his life. It seems a fitting way to begin Passion Week here at Strangely Dim as well.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:02 AM
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.
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."
October 17, 2008
Jehdeiah, Donkey CaretakerIn 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
October 16, 2008
Saddle Up Yer DonkeyHow 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
October 15, 2008
Call It What You Want, It's Still the Jawbone of an Ass
Today's donkey tale proves that donkeys don't even have to be alive to be significant.
This summer my pastor ran a series called "Bedtime Bible Studies Revisited," based on the idea that the Bible, a book for adults, is most often read to kids in an attempt to make them fall asleep. In the process some of the key details and fullest meaning of those Bible stories drift out of the church's consciousness. Tucked into the middle of this series was the subject of today's donkey tale.
Everybody likes Samson; we even name our luggage after him. But truth be told, he's not a terribly likeable guy. Anyone who can kill a thousand men without subsequently spending a great deal of time in somber reflection is lacking a certain amount of spiritual depth. But we knew that already, because by this time in Samson's story he's already effectively violated nearly every element of the promise his parents made to God on his behalf before he was even born.
Before he was canonized as one of the judges, or deliverers, of Israel Samson was born a Nazirite, much like John the Baptist was born a Nazirite before he was labeled a Baptist. Nazirite vows were, for the most part, temporary commitments, but both Samson and John were born into lifelong vows, which involved a series of sacrifices but more notably a distinct lifestyle:
* no grapes or grape byproducts (such as wine)
Samson, however, regularly indulged in wine to great excess and regularly came into contact with dead stuff--usually stuff that he himself had killed, often because he was such a surly drunk. He killed a lion and went back later to scoop honey out of its carcass. He set a whole village on fire by tying foxes and torches together. And then he killed a thousand people with the most convenient weapon on hand--the fresh jawbone of an ass (KJV).
In fact, by this point in Samson's story, the only aspect of the Nazirite vow that we haven't seen him violate is the rule against cutting his hair. And we all know how that turned out. But once Samson was shaved bald, the Bible tells us, "the hair on his head began to grow again" (Judges 16:22).
This passing comment is one aspect of what the entire epic of Samson reminds us all: Regardless of evidence to the contrary, you are what God calls you, and you're to do what God calls you to do. God, despite Samson's indulgence in Delilah and drink and death, had called him a lifelong Nazirite and Israel's deliverer (Judges 13:5), and God ultimately, mysteriously delivered Israel through Samson's Nazirite vow (Judges 16).
Like Samson, we can't relieve ourselves of our responsibility to God, but we can trust that even occasionally in spite of us, God will make a way for us to accomplish his will for us. It's the harmonization of our own wills to the will of God--the willful embrace of the calling God calls us to--that makes for Christian maturity. For the way to become mature, however--which is essentially the way to become wise, which is essentially the way to not become an ass--we have to turn not to Samson but to Job:
So today, as you consider your path, don't stretch your hands out to the nearest jawbone of an ass, those things you know you're not supposed to mess with. Instead stretch your hands out to God, and you'll discover that you're well on your way to wisdom and maturity with all your necessary parts intact.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:25 AM
October 14, 2008
If You Give a Donkey a Day Off . . .Today's Donkey Tale lands in the Old Testament once again, in the Ten Commandments to be exact. (How many of you knew there were donkeys in the Ten Commandments???)
According to author Laura Numeroff, "If you give a mouse a cookie, he's going to ask for a glass of milk." "If you give a pig a pancake, she's going to ask for some balloons." And "if you give a moose a muffin, he'll want some jam to go with it." She hasn't written a donkey book, but if she does, I suggest she start it like this: "If you give a donkey a day off, he's going to want some thought-provoking books to read."
Since donkeys are popping up everywhere these days (if you haven't seen them, you must not be looking hard enough), I imagine she'll want to do a donkey book soon. And she's welcome to take my suggestion for an opening line--but I didn't actually come up with the idea of giving your donkey a day off by myself. The idea has been around for a long time:
Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.Now, I am all for giving my donkey a day off. And my ox and my manservant and maidservant, not to mention my son or daughter or any foreigners. If I had responsibility for any of those, I would definitely give them a day off each week.
Furthermore, I myself quite enjoy days off--both weekends and holidays or vacation time. I cherish my vacation days and count them closely, carefully planning how and when I'll use each one. Rest is hugely important, I know; I finish each weekend and vacation by moaning that I want more time to rest. So reading God's commandment to the Israelites should make us almost giddy with delight. "What?? God's commanding us to take a day off?? Is he for real???!?"
And yet, for most American Christians, I'm guessing it's in the bottom five for most-followed commands out of the ten commandments listed in Deuteronomy. I certainly don't do it, even though every day I feel my tiredness, my exhaustion, my need for stillness and rest. While I do guard my Sunday afternoons carefully as my "introvert-recovery/introvert-readying-for-the-week-ahead time" I often do work, or laundry, or dishes, or cleaning, or any other number of "urgent" tasks that, while not always pleasant, feed some type of addiction to productivity and usefulness in me.
Why is this invitation to rest often so hard? I know why it feels so difficult for me: I'm afraid to admit my own uselessness, and I feel unable to grasp my inherent value apart from anything I do. Our workplaces, our busy culture that keeps us running, even our churches often communicate to us that we are valuable because of what we do. There's no clear line between "lazy" and "resting," so we seem to stay far away from both.
But God's list of people and animals that are to rest on the Sabbath reminds me that we're created for work and play and rest; rest is part of his intention and desire for us. Undomesticated animals don't seem to fight this. For example, they don't run all the time (some of them, like turtles, never run at all). They run when they need to, when they want to. And then they rest.
How much more should we--the most complex of God's creation, created to be over the animals--be able to recognize our need for rest and take it, obeying his instructions?
Obedience isn't the only reason for rest, though. Practicing the Sabbath was supposed to remind the Israelites of the way God had freed them (in his own power, without any help from them), and what he had freed them from (lives of labor and slavery to work). And that's what our practice of the Sabbath will remind us of as well. I believe that if we really begin to consistently incorporate a day of true rest, we'll be freed from slavery to productivity and to proving our worth based on what we do. Instead, we'll be free to live securely in the knowledge of our own value in God's eyes, apart from what we do, and free to trust God to accomplish things so that we can rest--things that he can accomplish in better and wiser ways than we could anyway.
So this week, give your donkey a break. But even more, give yourself a break. God has an opening line for your story too: "If you take a Sabbath day, you're going to start to know your value, and . . ." First rest, then tell us how the rest of it goes.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 2:53 PM
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.
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
October 7, 2008
Beast of BurdenOn Monday Dave blogged about Moses; today's Donkey Tale takes us to another Old Testament great: Abraham. And, of course, his donkey.
On this Wednesday, even if your day is going well so far, I don't think any of us would argue with the fact that days are hard. We are called to hard tasks, to places where it's hard to see any light. But we aren't intended to face days, conversations, situations alone, because we're called to invite each other in to our pain, to walk with each other and--like the donkey in our tale today--carry each other's load.
I was reminded of this recently at the Art--Music--Justice concert I attended. One song by Sandra McCracken particularly struck me. She explained that she had written it for a friend--apparently a friend who tends to hold pain inside and keep it private, which I can relate to!--who had gone through a hard struggle:
I cannot read your complex mindHer lyrics highlight the sacredness of being both a burden-bearer--willing to carry someone else's load--and a burden-sharer--willing to let others help us carry our load. The song reminds me of the freedom we have as Christians to need each other; God, in fact, wants us to ask for help. Often I don't do a good job of this; I wrestle with loneliness because I'm afraid or unwilling to share my struggle with others.
Which is maybe why Abraham's journey in Genesis 22 moves me deeply. Just one chapter earlier, Isaac--Abraham and Sarah's promised, long-awaited miracle child--is born. He is the one through whom God has said he'll make Sarah "the mother of nations" and the ancestor of kings, and Abraham the father of offspring as numerous as the stars.
And then comes Genesis 22:2. God--the one who always keeps his promises and detests nations that sacrifice their children to gods--says to Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love--Isaac--and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you." The instructions seem to go directly against what we know of God's character, breaking one of the "rules" frequently suggested by pastors and spiritual directors about how to discern whether or not you've actually heard God's voice. Yet Abraham knows without a doubt that God is the one who has spoken to him.
The passage gives us none of Abraham's thoughts or emotions, no hint of how he reacted to this shocking and seemingly unfair task from God. Verse 3 simply says, "Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac." From verse 3 alone, we might think they were merely setting out on a weekend father-son camping trip.
In all honesty, I can hardly comprehend what that journey must have been like for Abraham, walking with two servants who have no idea why they're taking the trip (see v. 5), and watching Isaac--his son whom he loves--most likely running, jumping, picking up sticks to play with as they go, totally oblivious to the instructions God gave Abraham, completely trusting of his father. To me, the trip feels like it must have been extraordinarily lonely for Abraham.
Yet the picture of Abraham's donkey bearing the physical load, plodding along next to Abraham in his grief, gives me a good picture of what God calls us to do for each other. Donkeys are, quite simply, load-bearing creatures; they carry people and provisions, as Abraham's donkey does here. They aren't fast or beautiful, but they are strong, and can walk with a heavy load on their back. The donkey in this passage, set next to Abraham's pain, provides a tangible image of the gift we can give each other by walking with each other in our struggles.
I'm also reminded in this passage of God's faithfulness in walking with us through our pain. To be honest, I think I would have disobeyed God. Or, if I had obeyed, I at least would have ranted and raved at God's seeming cruelty and unfairness. By the end of the passage, however, we're left with the image of Abraham's trust and God's goodness.
Again, the passage gives us no glimpse into Abraham's thoughts, but when Isaac asks him where the lamb for the offering is, Abraham replies, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering." Based on what's recorded, it doesn't seem like Abraham wavers, questions, gets angry, doubts. He seems to go through the experience matter-of-factly, exhibiting faith that God will somehow work out the details, that there is, in fact, some divine plan and reason for the task. Yet, despite the depth of Abraham's trust, we know he was human; he was a father who deeply, deeply loved his son, and I have to believe it nearly killed him to strap Isaac to that altar.
In the end, of course, an angel stops Abraham from actually killing Isaac. God was simply testing Abraham, and, in keeping with his perfectly good nature, he richly rewards Abraham for his obedience. It's that obedience and faith--obedience before Abraham knew how it would all turn out--that makes me think Abraham knew God was with him. It reminds me of the fact that, as awful as God's instructions to him seem at the beginning, God was with Abraham, watching his journey, understanding the depth of Abraham's sorrow at every step, knowing he would experience the same sorrow when the time came to sacrifice his own Son. He loved Abraham deeply and knew he had good plans for him and for Isaac--plans to reward his faith and obedience and make him known throughout the earth for thousands and thousands of years.
So for the hard days--yours or others--be a donkey. Find a donkey. It's what we're called to be and do for each other; the church is meant to be a people who bear each other's burdens. As fellow humans living on a broken, sinful earth where evil still lives, having others who will walk with us through struggle, pain and grief is crucial--and, in fact, woven into the very fabric of our being by God himself. He created us to need others, to crave relationship with others.
And, following in the example Abraham sets for us in our passage today, we can not only walk with others and invite others to walk with us; we can actually choose to have faith in the midst of sorrow, because the God who is faithful, who is trustworthy, who is, in fact, able to "empathize with our weaknesses," walks with us.
King of the Mashup
Today's donkey tale comes just in time for Yom Kippur, as it has to do with two other major Jewish holidays--not to mention atonement.
On the week of the Passover, the celebration of the Jews' deliverance from slavery in Egypt through the culmination of the plagues and the sacrifice of the firstborn, Jesus entered Jerusalem--but not before he sent ahead for a donkey that he could ride in on. If anyone asked why his messengers were taking a donkey, he told them to say, "The Lord needs it."
Why does Jesus, a lifelong walker, suddenly need a donkey? Dorothy Sayers imagines a prior conversation between Jesus and the Zealots. They want him to join them, to lead them in the overthrow of Roman oppressors. They give him a signal to alert them to his decision: hitched together are a horse and a donkey; if he chooses to fight, the horse is his, but if he chooses otherwise, he is to take the donkey. Jesus chooses not to fight.
It's compelling drama, this imagined apocryphal interchange, but it's not the only horse in this theoretical race. N. T. Wright, in his John for Everyone commentary, suggests that Jesus rode a donkey, accompanied by followers waving palm branches, as a symbolic reminder of the Maccabean revolt led by Judas Maccabaeus, which was celebrated by waving palm branches while entering Jerusalem and culminated in "Judas and his family [becoming] kings of Israel." In other words, Jesus is celebrating Hanukkah.
But Hanukkah is usually mashed up with Christmas, not with Easter. Easter--the story being told here--is mashed up with Passover, the celebration of God's (not the king's) deliverance of Israel from Egypt. That's what Jesus was trotting into atop this donkey. Is Jesus guilty of mixing metaphors?
Let this be a lesson to you, boys and girls: rules can be broken, but only once you've mastered the rules. Jesus is bringing together Hanukkah and Passover as a third reminder to his people: God--no mere man--is the true king of Israel. The Maccabean deliverance was led by mere men and didn't take, and the Jewish kingship had suffered a gradual hollowing out by the long line of people whom Rome had graciously allowed to occupy the throne. The deliverance that took, that dealt firmly and finally with Israel's oppressors, came from God and God alone, and everything--not just the powers that be--was changed as a result.
Jesus accomplishes this great mashup of imagery by riding a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah goes on in his messianic prophecy:
Jesus' reminder of the blood covenant is still coming, mere days away, and will bring into this matrix of metaphors the third great Jewish holiday: Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. But for now he rides a donkey, proclaiming peace, and the people lay down branches before him, shouting "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:44 AM
October 6, 2008
Other People's Donkeys
Today's Donkey Tale takes us into the desert, where we find Moses facing some heat.
Try walking through a desert for forty years and see how well you get along with people. Moses, one of the key figures of the Old Testament--so key that Jesus summoned him to a meeting with him and Elijah in the New Testament--had the tough job of delivering an enslaved Israel out of Egypt and then delivering an ungrateful Israel into a land flowing with milk and honey. In between the two he had to walk for years along a senselessly meandering path through a desert. And along the way he faced betrayal and even mutiny from people who didn't know where they were going or why they left in the first place.
In Numbers 16 Moses faces a particularly frustrating trial, as Korah and a few other insurrectionists accuse him of hoarding power and lording it over them. They tell him, in their outdoor voices, "You have gone too far!" Interestingly enough, that's how Moses feels about them. "You Levites have gone too far!" he shouts in response.
It would be laughable if it weren't so potentially calamitous: two type-A leaders taking classic positions--one for the even distribution of power throughout the community (Korah) and one for the respect of God's ordained and established hierarchy (Moses)--in the middle of a pilgrimage to (seemingly) nowhere. But this was a walk they'd been ordained to take, all the way from Egypt to what would become Israel. This was God's gift to them, and God had prepared Moses to be their guide, and Aaron to be their priest.
Moses had not necessarily shown to this point that he knew where he was going or how long it would take to get there, but he had shown empirically that God was with them, providing for them and watching over them. To challenge Moses' authority was to challenge Moses' interpretation of history, which was to challenge the presence and ongoing work of God among the people.
It's one thing to challenge authority; it's another altogether to subvert it. Dathan and Abiram, two of Korah's co-conspirators, moved beyond opposition to defiance, refusing to come when Moses called them. The message they sent back was a slap in the face; for Dathan and Abiram, Egypt was the land flowing with milk and honey, and Moses had offered them nothing but a death march. Moses responded not to them but to God: "Do not accept their offering. I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them."
The Bible establishes authority by the call of God but validates it by the careful handling of power. Moses, who could have demanded everything of his people, didn't even take one of their donkeys. David, who could have seized property to consecrate the ark of the covenant and so stave off a crisis, demanded to pay full market value instead, showing himself in the process to be just and devout. Samuel, the last judge of Israel, critiqued a culture of kingship first by reminding the people that he had taken nothing from them, then by warning them that a king would take everything from them.
The mishandling of power is also in view throughout the Bible. The apostle John calls out Diotrephes, "who loves to be first," as someone obstructing the work of God in the early church. Rehoboam, in one of his first acts as king over Israel, tries to prove to the people and to himself that he'll be stronger than his father--Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. By his actions he effectively splits the kingdom in two and inagurates the inevitable collapse of Israel's autonomy. The judges are no more devout than the kings; Gideon anticipates the steady decay of piety among the leaders of Israel by first denying the power the people want to give him but then taking their gold from them and worshiping it.
So Moses is not alone at the horns of this dilemma. But he is among the few who use power wisely, with integrity and humility--who don't take people's donkeys just because they can but who take the people under their care safely to where God wants them taken. There are perks that come with power, to be sure--just take a look at Moses' shiny face--but God will be the judge of all who take power, and all who take it too far.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:24 AM
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:
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:
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:42 AM
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:
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.
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.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 8:43 AM
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.
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
September 30, 2008
What We Notice
For those of you who think donkeys are so Old Testament, think again: they were just as hip in the New. Today's Donkey Tale is based on Luke 13:10-17.
Have you ever noticed that we notice what we want to notice--the things we're interested in, inclined toward, involved in? Artists notice color and texture in a room. Mechanics notice the rattling of car parts. Counselors notice body language. These aren't bad things at all. These are natural "noticings" that show our individual interests and gifts.
Like any good thing in this fallen world, though, noticing can go awry, causing us to judge others or lose perspective and, as they say, miss the forest for the trees. Being a proofreader, I notice spelling and grammar mistakes wherever I go: restaurant menus, church bulletins, PowerPoint slides, advertisements. At a concert a few weeks ago my sister (who's also in publishing) and I had to smile at the emcee's hopes that we would "leave different than how we came." I turned to her in mock dismay and said, "But I don't want to walk home! I want to drive home, the same way we came!" Noticing these errors is all in good fun, of course--until it distracts me from truly worshiping in a church service or causes me to look down on a person or business for their lack of spelling-savvy. At that point I've lost perspective on what really matters. Eyes and minds can very easily become too narrowly focused--and lead us to sin.
Take the synagogue ruler in Luke 13. On the Sabbath, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when he notices a woman who has been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years and can't stand up straight. (These, of course, are the kinds of people Jesus always notices.) He tells her to come forward and, laying his hands on her, he heals her.
Imagine her shock and joy and amazement. What starts out as a typical, difficult day for her becomes truly miraculous: she is healed and free.
And imagine being an observer of this miracle. Who wouldn't be in awe of Jesus and overjoyed for this woman?
The synagogue ruler, for one. A woman is freed, yet he's indignant because he only notices that Jesus has broken the law by healing on the Sabbath. He's also too afraid to rebuke Jesus directly, so he chooses instead to sternly address everyone gathered there: "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath."
Notice what he didn't notice in his huffy state: the fact that Jesus did the initiating, not the woman; Jesus picked her out and called her up, yet the synagogue ruler seems to place some of the blame for this Sabbath healing on the woman. Furthermore, the ruler clearly hasn't noticed that fact that he himself most likely breaks the Sabbath every week in the same way Jesus just did:
The Lord [said to] him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"
The synagogue ruler would free his donkey but not a person on the Sabbath because he only noticed the law, not the reason behind the law. Most days I'm not much different from him. I might notice and dwell on the fact that someone in another car gave me an angry look on my way to work and completely miss the fact that a coworker looks upset. I'll notice a friend's encouragement and kindness but miss the even broader picture of the goodness of God the friend reflects.
We're going to notice what we notice based on our background, training, interest. So keep untying your donkey on the Sabbath. But don't miss the hurting people, the Creator who made the sunrise, the kingdom of God that's coming and that's here and that we're meant to participate in. How do we do that? We take what we notice to God, and ask him about it. And we ask him to open our eyes and minds so that we might see, touch, listen, notice the way Jesus does.
September 28, 2008
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
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
September 27, 2008
Today's Donkey Tale takes us on a wild ride with some unexpected twists.
Quick question: Who rides on a donkey, washes people's feet and takes on the responsibility of other people's sins? Wrong. It's Abigail.
Well, not "wrong," exactly. These three things are true of Jesus as well. It's just that they're also true of Abigail, wife of King David.
Jesus is our presumed first response in all things Christian. That's the old Sunday school joke: the teacher asks, "What has a long furry tail, climbs trees and collects nuts for the winter?" and the student responds, "I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me."
But in some cases, Jesus is not the answer. Sometimes the answer is "a squirrel." Or, as in today's donkey tale, the answer is Abigail.
Abigail was not first the wife of David, nor was she the first wife of David. She's also not--in case you're tempted to scan the genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke--a direct ancestor of Jesus. When we first meet Abigail she is married to Nabal, a cantankerous land baron in the hills of Judea, and she's about to get into deep trouble for it.
Nabal is portrayed in 1 Samuel 25 as almost entirely repugnant. He's a drunkard, a misanthrope, a greedy gus. After enjoying the protection of David's troops over his vast property for some time, he responds to a simple request for food with insults and rejection. He calls David--the secretly anointed though currently homeless king of Israel--a nobody from nowhere, a renegade servant. He makes David mad.
Enter Abigail, and as she enters, pay attention. Abigail approaches David in a similar way to how Jacob approaches Esau in their moment of reconciliation--sending a wealth of gifts before her as a symbol of her shame over her husband's offense. She saddles up a donkey and descends from her lofty estate into a mountain ravine, taking a long, sober ride to face judgment. She comes down from her donkey and presents herself humbly before her judge, asking him to "let the blame be on me alone." And then she says, in effect, "Come, let us reason together."
In so doing she satisfies the wrath of the king and restores her people into his good graces, delivering them all from certain death. And in an unexpected turn of events, she is herself exalted to the right hand of the king, where she defines her newfound power by humble service: "Here is your maidservant, ready to serve you and wash the feet of my master's servants."
So Abigail, it seems, is a "type" of Christ. That's a technical term; it means that she is described in such a way as to offer clues about the coming Messiah. She's also a type of Jacob, a bit of Mary the mother of Jesus and even a dash of Moses and Isaiah for good measure. We don't see much of Abigail after this scene, but we see her shadow, and we know that she is blessed.
Christians tend to look through the Old Testament for hints of Jesus as the occasional reward for otherwise laborious reading of ancient rites and rules and oddly pronounced names. But when David meets Abigail, whole chunks of the book of Psalms have yet to be written. The Proverbs and the Prophets do not yet exist. The trivial details of messianic prophecy that so excite us--he'll be born in Bethlehem, he won't be much to look at--are still out in front of Abigail.
Still, Abigail is Jesus' type, because when she encounters trouble she seeks a solution, and she commits herself to it regardless of personal cost. She sees clearly enough to know that Nabal is a wicked fool and David is a righteous hothead, and she thinks clearly enough to determine how to satisfy the one and save the other. And though she has significant power as a woman of wealth, the wife of first a land baron and then a king, she chooses first and last to serve. Just the way Jesus might.
In prophecies such as Zechariah 9:9--"See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey"--we get a superficial clue for recognizing Jesus when he comes. But in Abigail we get a different kind of clue, an insight into the character of Christ, which is meant to be the character of the people of God.
My thanks to Stewart Pattison, my pastor, for pointing out the parallels between Abigail and Jesus to me.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:12 AM
September 26, 2008
An Ass and His GrassHow much can be learned from a donkey? Plenty. Here's Donkey Tale #5 as we near the halfway point in our Fortnight.
My sister and I have been slowly making our way through the DVDs of the Planet Earth documentary series created by the BBC. First aired on television in 2006, it won an Emmy for its phenomenal footage, some of which has never been caught on video before. If you haven't seen any of the series, you should rent it or borrow it. Today, if possible. (It is, after all, Friday. What else do you have to do this weekend??)
Even if you're not usually into documentaries, especially ones about nature, you should give it a try. It's fascinating, beautiful, awe-inspiring, incredible. I have an even deeper sense of awe and worship for a God who is able to think up and create animals, plants, climates, ecosystems, surviving together in a delicate balance, dependent on each other, and each with just the right characteristics to help them survive and thrive in the place they live.
Now, granted, according to the Bible, we were created above the animals. After God created humans--in his own image--he said, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Gen 1:28 TNIV). We certainly have abilities and capacities that animals can't imagine (imagination most likely being one of them!). And yet, because God is almighty and all-powerful and all-wise, plants and animals are pretty darn complex. In fact, we can learn from them, as scientists and lovers of nature and the producers of Planet Earth know well.
Job knew this too. In some ways, it's surprising that Job thought he needed to learn from anything or anyone. He was, after all, "the greatest man among all the people of the East" (Job 1:3). Yet verse one fleshes out "greatest": he was "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil."
So it seems that, though Job was extraordinarily wealthy, he was also humble. He didn't take what he had for granted. And he had a lot: "seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys" (1:3).
Verse 3 also says that Job had a lot of servants, so while I'm sure Job himself didn't care for his animals, I'm guessing he knew quite a bit about what was happening with them. I imagine him taking walking tours of his vast property, checking in with servants and shepherds, meeting with his managers to see how flocks and herds are doing, what food is needed, how many new animals were born, etc. The sheer numbers of his animals make me inclined to say he was an expert in his time on sheep, camels, oxen and, of course, donkeys.
With that many animals around, it's only natural that Job would have them on the brain. So it's only natural that, when Job's "friend" Eliphaz (give me a donkey any day over a friend like this) starts judging and accusing Job of sin as the cause of his misfortune, Job uses animals as an analogy to illustrate his innocence:
The answer, of course, is no. And I'm guessing that Job's "domesticated" donkeys were always well-fed, always well taken care of, so they just might have been the quietest donkeys in Uz--no complaints, no obnoxious braying for no good reason.
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?
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.
(NOTE: No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog.)
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 9:18 AM
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:
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
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?
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