Learning to See

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Do you ever stop to wonder what the Bible is? We read it, preach it, sing it, but do we stop to think about what it really is or, perhaps more to the point, what it’s for? I know that sounds like an odd question, but it’s one I’ve been thinking a lot about of late, and again as I read this week’s passages. And I think I’ve come to a different answer than I would have a few years ago. Or, at least half of my answer is new. Let me explain.

I’ve been taught — and still believe — that the Bible is a collection of confessions. It’s not information, or facts, or historical dates, or all the names of people and places that constitute the Bible. Rather, it’s a confession of faith in the living God that holds all the various writings together. Narrative and poetry, legal codes and genealogy, wisdom sayings and apocalyptic visions — all share one thing in common: their authors were so gripped by their experience of the living God they had to speak, to write, to share what they’d seen and felt with others. This is what makes Scripture so powerful; because confession, testimony, witness — this kind of speech expects a response. And so because we preach the Scriptures we, too, are called to confess faith in the living and active God that others might be prompted to faith as well.

This is what I’ve been taught and have, indeed, learned by experience. But of late I’ve been looking at Scripture a little differently, as I’ve been thinking that the Bible is not only a collection of confessions but also as a collection of past “sightings” of God. Each writer, that is, had seen God and felt compelled to share that vision with others. As we read Scripture, we become familiar with the patterns and dynamics of what it’s like to see God, to recognize the signs of God’s entrance into our daily life and world. Each story in Scripture offers us a glimpse of what it looks like when God gets involved.

In the end, it’s the patterns and signs we’re trying to learn just as much, I think, as the stories themselves. Because while we aren’t likely to see God in just the same way our ancestors in the faith did, we may still come to recognize God’s activity and detect God’s presence. So while I may not see a burning bush that is not consumed, yet I may still learn to recognize the presence of God in a church camp in Colorado surrounded by a landscape burned by wildfires but itself unscathed. Or while I may not see a daughter raised by the faith of a father who didn’t need Jesus to come but just to say the word, yet I may see God at work in another faithful parent supporting and caring for a troubled and wayward son. Maybe, then, that’s the other part of our calling: not just to confess faith so that others might come to believe, but also to teach others to see God in their daily lives. If so, then the semi-continuous Old Testament reading appointed for this week gives us an excellent opportunity to teach our people to see. (See below for a note on the Romans passage.)

You know the background to this story as well as I do, and it will only take a moment or two to catch our people up on the exploits of Jacob who, let’s face it, is kind of a punk. I mean, to date he has swindled his brother of his birthright and stolen his blessing. And now he is on the run, with nothing but a stone to serve as a pillow as he flees from an ignoble past to an unforeseen future. Yet as he sleeps he witnesses the angels of the Lord climbing and descending a stairway and in an instant recognizes that he has stumbled upon the door to heaven. Before he can even begin to collect his wits, he hears the voice of the Lord draw him into the covenant of his ancestors, renewing the trifold promise of land, descendants, and the opportunity to be a blessing to all the world. Recognizing when we wakes that God was in this place even if he didn’t realize it, he takes his granite pillow and turns it into a pillar. A short pillar, to be sure, but a marker nonetheless of God’s surprising presence and blessing.

Marking sacred spots with stones isn’t knew, and the hikers among us will recognize this practice of setting stones up — sometimes to mark the way, at others to call attention to a beautiful spot, at still others as a memorial to a special person no longer among us. We call them cairns, but we could also call them pillars. And what I’d like to suggest for the worship service and preaching this week is to build a cairn. Ahead of time. Pull in a pile of stones, all different sizes but definitely portable. And then after retelling the story of Jacob and the little pillar he sets us, invite people as they leave worship — or even as they come up for communion — to take one of the stones from the pile and to place it somewhere during the week where they sense the presence of God. Maybe it’s somewhere at home or at school, or at work or a place of volunteering. We should tell our people that it can be almost anywhere that they sense God at work. And they shouldn’t be surprised if it’s somewhere pretty ordinary, somewhere that maybe they hadn’t thought God would be because we’re so used to expecting God to be at church that sometimes we unintentionally assume God isn’t really anywhere else.

So what are we doing with this exercise? We’re teaching people to see God. Is it the same experience Jacob had? Probably not. But it is the same God, the same God who blesses and who delights when we, too, awakened to God’s surprising presence, might also say, “The Lord was here and I did not know it!”

Thanks for your part in helping us to see, Working Preacher. For our eyes sometimes grow dim and we need you to clarify our vision once again that we might see and know and tell about the living God. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,

PS: On Romans — powerful, powerful promise here: that we are not only God’s children but God’s heirs — that is, entitled to all that God has — and even co-heirs in Christ. We’ve got some good stuff on that near the end of this week’s podcast, if you’re interested, but for know what stuck me is how different evangelism looks like if you imagine that your job isn’t to assail others with “Have you accepted Jesus?” or “Do you know where you will be spending eternity?”, but instead imagine that evangelism is kind of like those newspaper notices of unclaimed inheritances. I mean, if you saw a neighbor’s name in the newspaper as an heir to unclaimed riches, wouldn’t you give her or him a call and let them know? That’s what real evangelism is like or, as Martin Luther once quipped, evangelism is simple “one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” So maybe this week you could provide pen and paper to folks and ask them to write a letter to someone they know who needs encouragement and tell them that they are one of God’s children, even one of God’s heirs, a person who is of infinite worth and value to God. It’s up to them whether or not to send it, but writing it out will help them not only remember more deeply the promise Paul makes but also gain some experience in sharing their faith.