Maybe because it’s Lent, or maybe because life has simply demanded it of late, but for one reason or another I have been pondering the nature of God. Not His blessings or his actions, but rather the manner of His existence. How does His life interact with our own? How is it that we can have free will and yet there still be truth in Paul’s statement “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28)? If God is eternal, that means that He exists outside of time. So how can we, creatures bound by time, possibly grasp His magnitude or understand how He works? Better minds than mine have had a go at these questions, but it seems that ruminating is part of my journey.
It’s not hard to find Biblical references to God being eternal. I suppose that is one of the foundational truths of our faith. God always was and always will be. God always is. When Moses asks God what to say when the people ask “Who sent you?”, the name God gives Himself is “I am” (Exodus 3:14). Let your mind chew on that for a minute.
For anyone else, that’s an incomplete sentence. I don’t know about you, but I am here. I am writing. I am going to be late for work. I have been many things; I was this or that. I will be dead one day. Not so for God. He won’t become anything, because He already is. He exists as He always has and always will. If God always is, He does not, cannot, change. Indeed, even the fact that I, as a writer of English, have to change the word “am” to “is” belies how inadequate is human ability to fully communicate this idea.
God exists outside of time, and yet He created time. Why? Was it so we wouldn’t lose our tiny, little minds? Because He knew we would need linear time in order to come to some dim understanding of Him? There’s plenty of evidence in the Bible to support this idea. Especially when it comes to the Israelites, God uses time to work His people over. The Egyptian captivity, the wandering in the desert, the Babylonian exile, all of it was giving Israel time to turn toward God. Even Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4). Indeed, part of what made Jesus fully human was his existence in finite, historical time.
But here’s the part that really blows my mind. God is eternal. He created time and, thus, can exist outside of it, just as you or I can exist outside the narrative of a book. It follows, then, that God can experience time, all of it, at the same time. Your past, my present, someone else’s future, is all happening simultaneously to Him. And this is where grace comes in, where I understand that Jesus’s death is a bigger deal than I first realized. It’s not the He has seen our sins; He is seeing them right now. Every dumb thing I’ve said, every stupid mistake you’ve made, it’s all the same to God. Even the foolishness of the future is just as real to Him as everything else. I have no idea how I’m going to screw up tomorrow, but He does (and I’m sure it will be a spectacular disaster). He’s seen it, though, and is seeing it right now.
And you know what? He doesn’t care. Just as all that hurtful mess constantly exists, so too does Jesus’s death, God’s love, and our forgiveness. Does that make our sin okay? Of course not. Do we need to repent at every chance? You bet. Do we need to forgive as we’ve been forgiven? And how. At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to one thing: whether or not we’ve accepted Christ. He died for each person’s sins individually, and by saying “Yes, I believe that,” each of us gives God the chance to whitewash our lives, past, present, and future.
That’s what Easter’s all about, Charlie Brown. I don’t have to crawl over a mile of glass when I act like a selfish jerk. God has already watched me do it and has already forgiven it. Likewise, He’s done the same thing for those who hurt me in turn. Remembering this, it’s time to move forward and make tomorrow better than today.
“….have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” ~ Matthew 22:31-32
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Every summary or review that I saw about this book in the run up to reading it (which, admittedly, wasn’t many) cast it as a “Florida is weird, battle of the amusement parks” book. While those elements are certainly present, they are little more than a backdrop to a character-driven novel of grief and confusion, with some Southern Gothic overtones. Russell’s writing is lyric and beautiful throughout, often infused with a twinge of dark humor, all of which makes it a pleasure to read.
The story revolves around the Bigtree family, a self-styled “native tribe” who runs the titular alligator park on an island in the last bit of Florida’s great swamp. The mother, Hilola, is the star of the show, and when she dies of cancer, both the park and family begin to fall apart. There is something inescapable about the parallel paths of slow degradation. Just as the cancer wasted a once vivacious woman into nothingness, so too does her absence bleed the life and cohesion out of Swamplandia! and the remaining Bigtrees. Chief Sam Bigtree (dad) and his pseudo-intellectual son Kiwi both leave the island in a pitiable and desperate search for income which will save the park. They do so separately, hiding from one another, but are nevertheless walking the same road. Meanwhile daughters Osceola and Ava, left alone on the island, stumble their way into searching for love in all the wrong the wrong places (to paraphrase the ’80s). While their searching goes in very different, very strange, directions, they are both casting about for answers and affection without the guidance of their parents.
More than anything else, this book is about loss and lack and the misguided lengths people will go to deal with their grief. While Russell focuses mainly on Ava (who narrates in first person) and Kiwi (whose story is told in 3rd), some sort of decline is as present in all the main characters as it is in the park itself. Notably, if there had been a strong guiding hand in the Bigtree family, each character could have been easily brought back to center. I suppose Hilola was that force, but the reader doesn’t really get the chance to see that influence in action.
As much as I enjoyed reading the book, the ending was simply too pat to be satisfying. Without going into spoilers, I’ll just say that it was entirely too convenient for the story which had preceded it. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the various narrative threads and gone too far in different directions for Russell to swiftly weave them back together. It wouldn’t have been an easy task, writing a more complex conclusion, but the entire novel would have been strengthened as a result.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Between being a father and having spent the last decade and more in education, I fully expected to have an affinity for this book. I’m around kids all the time and, generally speaking, love them (especially mine!). That said, I was not prepared for the outstanding writing I found in these pages. For the vast majority of this book, Stafford is not preaching a world-view (though that comes in due time), but rather he is telling a story, his story. With the help of Dean Merrill, Stafford recounts his extraordinary childhood as the son of missionary parents in a tiny West-African village called Nielle. He does so with a purpose, however, using his very personal story as a springboard to larger theological issues.
The tale is crafted in elegant prose which brings to life not only the landscape, but the people as well. It is not a long book, and it’s clear that Stafford is choosing his stories strategically. He does not give an exhaustive biographical account, but rather uses the descriptions of Nielle’s culture to make a social or philosophical point. In chapter 3, for instance, he lovingly talks about the close-knit, communal nature of the village before smoothly stepping into a discussion of the age segregation which goes on in so many American churches. The transition feels natural and organic, not heavy-handed, as though you were listening to a friend talking in person. It was unclear to me whether this was Merrill’s influence of Stafford’s, but, then again, a good co-authorship should feel seamless. This pattern is repeated, time and again, through the first half of the book, before the narrative shifts to a much more direct treatise on the importance of children.
Stafford does not abandon his memoir-style narrative, but he does extend beyond it into an explanation of all that underlies his work with Compassion. In a nutshell, he argues that it makes sound theological and strategic sense for the church to place a stronger emphasis on children (I’m talking, as Stafford does, about the universal Christian church here, not any one denomination). Through thoughtful and thorough use of scripture, he makes a convincing argument for the nearness of children to God’s heart. Moreover, he shows how investing in children will grow not only Western churches, but impoverished communities everywhere. His passion is clear and visceral, but balanced by clear writing and careful rhetoric.
There is a growing marketplace of Christian books which are little more than Biblically-based self-help. This is not one of those books. In fact, I would suggest that this volume stands in opposition to that style. It does not bid the reader to look inward, but outward. It is a book very much focused on the voiceless other, a point of view which finds its appropriate genesis in the person of Jesus Christ.