Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) wrote a variety of poems and humorous fables. Here I share one with you, called “A Strange Ride.”
A man was riding home on his donkey. He had his son run along beside. A traveler came by and said, “It is not right, sir, that you ride and have your son run. You are stronger than he is.” So, the father dismounted and let his son ride. Another traveler came and said, “Young fellow, it is not right that you ride and let your father go by foot. You have younger legs.” So, both mounted together and rode for a while. A third traveler came and said, “What sort of nonsense is this! Two blokes sitting on one weak animal? Someone oughta’ take a stick and chase the two of ya’ off the poor beast.” So, both climbed off the donkey and the three walked abreast along the road, with the donkey in the middle. A fourth traveler came and said, “You are three curious companions. Isn’t it sufficient for two to go on foot? Doesn’t the trip go easier when one of you rides?” So, the father tied the donkey’s front legs together and the son tied his back legs together. Then they ran a strong pole through and carried the donkey on their shoulders.
This is how far things can go if you try to please everybody.
Humorous, yes? And yet also touching a central nerve in life: you can’t please everybody. Trying to please everyone ends up doing ridiculous things that don’t necessarily help anyone involved. Or, read a little differently, the parable illustrates that not everyone can be right.
This message is especially relevant for our culture right now where we have decided that everyone gets to be right.
June is—if you’ve missed it—considered LGBTQ+ Pride month. As a culture, trying to follow everybody’s different demands leads to inconsistent nonsense winning the day. In the recent past we have seen the increasing complexity and oddity of living in a culture where sex and gender are viewed as endlessly plastic, subject only to the whims of the sovereign self.
Here are just two areas of tragic irony in the move to “carry the donkey” instead of ride it like usual.
When a man is a “woman” is a “something”
As usual in American culture, sports have led the way in grabbing headlines.
Recently, one headline brought to a head something which pundits have long been talking about. A former-male now transgendered swimmer—who had competed for 3 years in collegiate swimming as a male—started breaking women’s swimming records in collegiate swimming, even winning the 500-meter freestyle at nationals. Naturally, this athlete is competing against biological females
The athlete in question, Lia Thomas, has said this about their relationship to swimming:
“(Swimming) is a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ve been a swimmer since I was 5 years old,” Thomas said. “The process of coming out as being trans and continuing to swim was a lot of uncertainty and unknown around an area that’s usually really solid. Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?
“Being trans has not affected my ability to do this sport and being able to continue is very rewarding.”
I have no doubt that personally wrestling with issues of uncertainty about sex/gender is immensely complicated. That being said, consider how Lia Thomas frames the issue as one of personal identity and personal reward: I am someone who likes to swim (competitively at college) and so I should be able to keep doing that because that is my identity; the rest of the world needs to make space for me to do this as trans, because that is my identity. While this is picking one line from one news article, it is telling that there is no wrestling with the question of whether this former man turned woman competing against women is a fair way to treat the biological women whose identity has also centered on competitive swimming, but who don’t have the advantages of having a biological male body.
Women’s sports has turned out to be a galvanizing issue. Having biological males participating in women’s sports kind of goes against the point of women’s sports to begin with. International swimming has banned people like Lia Thomas from competing in international events. We’ll see how long that common-sense approach holds up.
The prominence of “pregnant people”
On a related front, if you listen to political debates and talking points, you may have caught something recently. National politicians have largely stopped talking about “pregnant women.” They talk about “pregnant people” instead. This goes hand in hand with the highly publicized confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson where she pleaded unable to answer the question, “What is a woman?” As has been pointed out, this inability to define “woman” has not stopped her from using the word in her legal rulings, leading one to wonder what exactly she is ruling about. And the necessity of ruling about cases of sexual discrimination raises problems with this lack of certainty of what exactly makes a woman a woman, but I digress.
Back to “pregnant people.” A simple biological fact is that only human females can become pregnant. Until scientists develop artificial wombs, this will continue to be true. That is a bridge we will probably have to cross at some point, but not yet. In the meantime, consider this statement from Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, about why we should talk about “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”:
First of all, if we’re talking about “pregnant people,” that language says to people—to transgender men and to nonbinary people—“we see you.” It should do a fair amount of work to help address discrimination.
The question which emerges in my mind is this: why should we efface the identity of the vast majority of “pregnant people” (cough, cough, “pregnant women”) in an effort to assuage the difficult feelings of a minute minority of biological women who have decided—for whatever array of personal reasons—to live as a man yet keep their uterus and female hormones largely intact?
Again, I don’t in anyway want to minimize the personal difficulties of individuals who are struggling with their sex/gender identity. I want us to learn how to be compassionate in helping people as best as able. But I question the wisdom of trying to reshape the experience and labels—the identities, really—of the majority (the vast majority, at that) of people to help a few people whose experience is biologically aberrant. One wonders, why should we efface the identity of most women in order to give a few people a sense that their identity as a “pregnant-former-woman-now-living-as-a-man-but-not-really-because-men-can’t-get-pregnant” is right?
The category of redemption
These are just two of many points where the advancing LGBTQ+ agenda is creating a strange situation in our culture—the travelers are carrying the donkey, as it were. In insisting that each individual’s felt identity is sacrosanct (so long as that identity is LGBTQ+), we have created a situation where the majority must be effaced to protect the fragile feelings of the minority.
As Christians, we have something to offer to this strange situation. Namely, an important concept lacking in our culture’s vocabulary and view of self: redemption. Redemption insists two things at the same time: (1) each person is broken and (2) each person is redeemable. When the LGBTQ+ movement declares certain identities as inherently right, they have removed the need for redemption. In fact, they find the idea that LGBTQ+ people need redemption (like anybody else) as offensive.
But one of the beautiful advantages of redemption is it helps us hold together the ability to be loving to other people who are different from us (since we need redemption to) and to insist that not everything is right, good, and desirable. Rather than trying to please everyone and ending up in chaos, redemption insists that we all have aspects of our identities which need to be redeemed by God.
Insisting on LGBTQ+ identities as the standard for the good life leads a culture along the strange ride of the opening parable. Something wrong can be found with every version of the ride. Insisting on redemption as the baseline for human identity and society allows space for people to be different while always insisting that each one of our identities needs some amount of overhaul.
And God is able and willing to redeem any identity through Jesus.
 This is a mix between a personal translation of the original German and a bit of retelling on my part.
 And lest any consider this point sexist, I merely note that at every level of advanced sports with athletes of comparative skill and experience, the issues is with men going to compete in women’s sports, not vice-versa. There are very few sports where female athletes of comparable level can competitively participate against male athletes in a consistent manner.
In a recent piece in Christianity Today, Russell Moore took up the topic of “tribalization” in the culture and the church. From politics to economics to religion to entertainment, there are no shortages of tribes in which we are sorted and voluntarily sort ourselves. The reasons behind this are legion, ranging from natural human tendencies to the micro-advertising policies of giant tech companies which allow us to live in ideological bubbles. Echo-chambers, after all, do not produce novel sounds.
This is no doubt a multi-faceted problem and a great difficulty of our times—how do you live together yet completely separate lives and worlds and sets of “facts”? Within the church, unfortunately, much is the same. The racial activism and then the Covid pandemic have highlighted in graphic terms how deeply divided churches are across the nation. Many movements forged around shared theological consensus have found group identity splinter into tribes over political and social issues. And what church hasn’t had its woes around the existential question of the last two years: “to mask or not to mask”?
Moore touches on an important part of the difficulties when he writes:
“Maybe the reason we as Christians find our loyalties in tribal factions and ideologies is because we’ve lost that sense of worshipful awe before a God who is not a set of doctrines or a motivation for institutional survival or a national deity or a political mascot. Maybe our clamoring for those sorts of hive minds is because we’ve become bored—unsurprised by joy, un-amazed by grace.”
There is certainly something to ponder here. If our eyes are enamored by smaller deities, then the bigger God Who Is will no longer command our attention and our loyalty. Perhaps it is easier to subscribe to various versions of the “hive mind” and find our meaning and purpose and hope in that then it is to sit before an awesome and holy God in recognition that he is both terrible and compelling, heart-destroying and love-giving.
 Russell Moore, “Tribalism’s Awful Antidote: We’re Made to Have a Herd. Made to Transcend It, Too,” Christianity Today, June 2022.
We’re searching for something else,
searching for something more,
we’re searching for something else,
what it is we’re not really sure,
but certainly something more.
Every now and again, a song hits a nerve. It seems to capture in a concise way the mood of a movement, or a group, or a generation. The song “Igendwas” by Yvonne Catterfeld hits a sweet spot in describing this cultural moment (at least for my generation). Yes, the title is funny; that’s because the song is in German. Here is a general-purpose English translation that is good enough to see what it is about (it’s a pretty song, even if you don’t understand German).
Above I have translated the chorus into poetic English. The chorus captures clearly the indecisive yearning which runs throughout the song. A yearning for something or someone that rises beyond the trivial, the temporary, and the cliches of modern life. Catterfeld muses on how we are able to explain the position of the earth, make monuments, take pictures, yet it all fades away. Our pictures don’t give us memory; our monuments don’t make us last; we can explain the rotation of the earth but in our pursuit of explaining ourselves we just keep trashing the world around us. It turns out, doing things and making stuff doesn’t assuage the yearning in our hearts. There must be something more.
In the second verse (sung by another German artist, Bengio), the song moves into reflections of endless indeterminacy. He sings of our longing to find someone who is real, solid, lasting, and who shows us who we are. But even if we found someone who might be able to do that, we can’t stay and learn because staying and learning means we could miss out on something else happening somewhere else. There is always a something else and always a somewhere else and the endless chasing for something leaves us endlessly spinning, finding nothing. Always more and different with the hope that the novel will turn out not just to be novel but categorically different. That in the next novel thing we will actually find the thing which explains ourselves to us. We are dedicated to getting somewhere, finding something, achieving something, but no one knows what that is and no one has the answer to guide us.
A song of our hearts
This song is a song of the human heart. We know, each one of us, that there is something more than what we have. That we were intended for greater than, deeper than, higher than. But in each ascent to the heavens, we find that the beeswax which holds our wings together can’t lift us high enough, and we plunge again into the seas below. As the Christian band The Gray Havens puts it in their song “High Enough:”
'Cause we fly, to the mountain top We climb, to the skies above We sail, to the stars and up But we can't get high, high enough
All around us—and, if we are honest, far too often inside of us—is a world full of people looking to find something. Something else. Something that lasts. Something that shows we are right. Something that shows we have reached as high as there is to reach. Something that shows we have become God.
There is no something we will ever find, though. Not by just following our longings to the next shiny thing.
There is no someone we will ever find, though. Not by trying out someone while endlessly looking for the next someone who might be better.
As much as our hearts were made for delight—and that pursuit of delight stands behind the pursuit of “something”—they were also made for devotion. Devotion is the breeding ground for delight.
The lesser and greater delights
Many delights in life can be found through devotion to a craft. Rejecting the endless pursuit of something else and rooting down here (rather than looking for another “there” to go to) opens up the possibility of delight. Devotion to a place, a people, a project, provides the time and space it takes for delight to grow in our hearts. These lesser delights of life are beautiful and worthy to be savored. We were made for these delights. Yet they are lesser. While worthy, even devotion to these lesser delights will never pull us outside of the endless pursuit of something else. Our hearts are made for something more profound than we can achieve by ourselves.
The greater delight is what we are really seeking for in each throw-away delight, each new relationship, each new experience. But no experience resumé of lesser delights ever adds up to the greater delight. The greater delight is not, in an ultimate sense, something—someone really—to be found by us in our pursuit. The Greater Delight demands instead that he finds us. Until we are worn out on the endless pursuit of some greater lesser delight that might bring contentment, the Greater Delight is unexperienceable.
A master of our hearts
The song Irgendwas colors in the contours of modern life, but can’t make sense of why the picture is always blurry and never resolves. There is a need, in the end, to give up on the pursuit. Not to give up on the pursuit of delight, but to give up believing (hoping against hope) that enough lesser delights will ever equal the Greater Delight.
The great lie of today is that we can both be master of self and enjoy the delight for which we were made.
What our hearts really need, really crave for, is a Master who can guide us into delight. Indeed, who is Greater Delight. As St. Augustine said long ago:
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it resets in you.”
“Love is…” Fill in the blank. There are lots of different ways we could describe love. Our culture offers an entire palette of them to choose from. “Love” seems to me to refer mainly to heavily subjective feelings and states of mind. That is, love is seen first and foremost as a feeling experienced within a person. While I don’t want to downplay or denigrate the reality of a feeling or an array of feelings which we unobjectionably call “love,” the biblical witness requires us to dig deeper. A key reality often lost in contemporary notions is this: love is loyal.
Translation troubles: Hesed
Working through the book of Ruth, we encounter an important Hebrew word at three junctures: Ruth 1.8, 2.20, and 3.10. This word is hesed. In general, I try to avoid talking about Hebrew and Greek in non-academic contexts. I find them very interesting and have devoted a great deal of time and effort to understanding them. However, the role of talking about Hebrew and Greek is primarily the role of a scholar. Scholars have done great labor in the languages, culture, and history, so that we can read the Bible and study it in English without having to learn the original languages. That is a blessing of immense proportions!
There is nothing spiritual or esoteric about using this Hebrew word hesed. It just happens to be the case that there is no consistently good way to translate the word into English. It is complex word. Regular translations include “love,” “kindness”, “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “loyal love,” and so forth.
The fundamental difficulty with rendering hesed into English is that it traffics in a different understanding of “love” and “kindness” than we usually use. Consider these verses from Psalm 136 (the repeated refrain throughout the psalm uses this word hesed):
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.
This one is easy. We can square enduring love with goodness. But as the Psalm continues, we run into problems with using “love.” Consider a few different acts of God which are also attributed as examples of “his hesed endures forever”:
10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt—His love endures forever.
15 [he] swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea—His love endures forever.
18 [he] killed mighty kings—His love endures forever.
These are a little harder to fit into our idea of love and mercy. How does God killing people fit into his “loving-kindness”?
Throughout this entire Pslam it is God’s hesed that is under view. It quickly becomes clear that hesed is concerned with something which goes beyond our normal usage of the terms “love” and “mercy.” One scholar puts it this way:
“Hesed, however, describes a mutual relationship between man and man or between man and God. Translating it as “mercy,” “compassion,” or “love” destroys the concept of mutuality.”Harold Kamsler, “Hesed – Mercy or Loyalty?”
This scholar highlights a tendency in our cultural context of understanding love and mercy as one-way actions: I love, she shows mercy, he is full of loving-kindness. Hesed, by contrast, has a strong notion of inter-connectedness. A strong notion of loyalty. A strong notion of relational obligations.
Here is an expansive definition:
“Hesed expresses, essentially, faithfulness and loyal conduct within the context of a relationship; it is an inward commitment and disposition of goodwill together with its outward expression in dutiful and compassionate action. The precise nature of that action depends upon the context, the relationship and also upon the relative positions and abilities of parties within that relationship.”Robin Routledge, “Hesed as Obligation: A Re-Examination”
That’s a mouthful. But helpful.
My personal favorite quick and easy way to try to represent this is “loyal love,” but even that is not entirely satisfying.
The duty of love
What does duty have to do with love?
We might put it this way: love (in this hesed sense) is bounded within certain limits. This is not a bad thing. I love my family, for instance. I don’t love anyone in Kazakhstan. Not that I am opposed to anyone in Kazakhstan. I’m sure there are many nice people there who I could learn to love. But I have no connection, no commitment to anyone there. I can love them only in a very abstract sense of general benevolence. But I go home and sit with my wife and kids and we eat together, play together, fight together, laugh together, and all those things. We have a commitment to one another and within the boundaries of the commitment, love of a deep and profound kind flows.
The difference is that there is no relational commitment in my general benevolence towards people in Kazakhstan, but there is commitment undergirding our family relationships. Within my family, hesed exists and flows out in acts of care and concern for each other. The relational context is the matrix in which loyal-love has existence. A relationship is like the boundary lines within which hesed is possible.
This notion of hesed is important in Scripture. God is a God of love, yet it is a bounded love. Not bounded in the sense of limited, as though God ever runs out of love to give but bounded in the sense of it covers a certain area, if you will. Those outside of that “area” experience God’s general benevolence—“he causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust”—but not the deep and profound love, the hesed. That love flows within the bounds of relationship: his covenant, his people, those who have come to “live in the area of God’s love,” as it were. And within the bounds of this love, God’s love is not only a good thing, but a duty, a loyal thing. God fully commits himself to those who are within this “area.”
The Bible calls this “area” of God’s love many things: the kingdom of God, salvation, eternal life, being in Christ. What unites them is the undergirding reality that God fully and freely commits himself to any and all who come into this area of his love. And he commits to being for them and not against them, to be the giver of joy, to fill up their hopes…and all these things even when they fail to be as they should.
God holds up his loyal love
That last sentence is important. God remains faithful to his hesed, his covenant love, even when we don’t. That is part of why it is so important to keep a sense of duty and loyalty in our notion of love. Even when people in my family make me angry, or I make them angry, we continue in love. Not because we necessarily are happy with each other at the moment. But because we have loyal-love, dutiful love, love which finds its strength and existence in our relationship rather than in the transient nature of our feelings at the time.
The gold standard of this kind of hesed, loyal-love, is God reaching out to humanity in various promises (covenants). In these promises, God makes a commitment to humanity. The commitment sets the boundaries in which hesed exists. Those who enter in get to receive the endless bounty of God’s loyal-love…even when we fail to be loyal. Why? Because God’s loyalty to his commitments never runs out. While anger and frustration are not foreign to God in his dealings with humanity, he does not cease to be full of loyal-love.
This calls for praise! Praise God that his love is loyal to the end.
This calls for emulation: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesian 5.1-2).
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