Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Monday, October 20, 2014

When the Long Night Comes

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. -- Colossians 3:5

I want people around me to be happy.  I want people to have what they want.  I hate to fail.  I hate to let people down.  I like to procrastinate.  I like to goof off.  I like for things to last and to function correctly.  I don’t always like to maintain things and spend money on upkeep.  We live in a world where things break, weather, decay, fall apart and die, where we are constrained by time and energy and the availability of resources. 

My desires and preferences sometimes not only conflict with reality but with one another.  It’s not too surprising, then, that I am occasionally frustrated.  If I get annoyed, aggravated and frustrated enough, I have been known to say, “I wish I were dead”, or, “I will be glad when I’m dead”.  Probably everybody has some standard phrase that they use to express that kind of end-of-the-rope emotion.  I used to say something different and considerably more vulgar.  I’m not sure it was worse.  In fact, I tend to think that wishing I were dead is probably offensive to God. 

It’s true that we are supposed to die to self, to apply “the metaphor of death pictured in baptism to [our] actual life” as Christians (Word Pictures in the New Testament, A.T. Robertson).  On the other hand, no matter how painful my life is, no matter how much I may feel like a failure, no matter how apparently hopeless things have become, I am and always will be valued and loved by the Lord.  To think that I might as well be dead or that I would be better off dead, or even that those around me would be better off if I were dead – well, honestly, in a sense, it might even be true sometimes.  It is understandable that someone being tortured would long for death and that what constitutes torment varies from one person to another.  Yet, to think my life of no value comes perilously close to the advice Job’s wife gave him that he should curse God and die.         

If we live long enough – I’d even say if we follow God long enough, apart from His mercy, it is not unlikely that we will find ourselves despairing of life, as Paul himself did:  For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).  

 It happens, and when it does, the only answer I know is to not quit.   

There are times when I don’t feel very faith-y.  I feel beaten.  I can’t see any point to my life at all.  I’m just here, and I’m hurting, and it just doesn’t make any sense to keep going. 

But I know, deep down, at some level, that’s when you beat the devil.  That’s when you become an overcomer.  That’s when you are walking in victory.  It doesn’t matter how it feels, how dark it is, or how it looks.  It doesn’t even matter how it ends.  All that matters is getting up and going on. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

God Speed

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. – Isaiah 55:8-9

Traveling faster than the speed of light is one of the classic science fiction devices for which we are willing to suspend disbelief.  We need to get humans out to strange planets for strange new adventures, and, of course, traveling through the fictional medium of hyper-space or warp-space has implications for the adventure as well.  The truth is, though, that FTL travel would thoroughly mess up the real world.  It would require a complete revamping of the whole of physics.  Things that make sense and fit the equations now would make sense no longer.  I’m not saying it’s not possible for us to get around the limitation of the speed of light or that wormholes do not exist or whatever.  My point is that it is one thing to imagine that something might be possible without really understanding all the implications of such a radical change to the way we see things working. 

This is also true in relation to God, morality, good and evil.  There are those – and their numbers are legion, who are convinced they can do a better job of “god-ing” than God.  They would have a world without suffering.  They would have a world without killer tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, etc.  Their world would have no place for evil. 

To me, it’s kind of like gravity.  If I’m falling from a ten-story building, I would like for gravity to ease up, but, most of the time, gravity and I are good friends.  Gravity makes us strong and healthy.  I have a very hard time imagining how you could have anything like a human without gravity.  So, too, we think -- following Lennon, it’s easy to imagine a much better world, though all our imaginings are based only on the world that we know.  Just as we can imagine flying like Superman but can’t quite figure out how that works, we cannot figure out how we have a world at all, let alone one that would be “better” than this one. 

In The Once and Future King, T.H. White has Merlyn relate the story of Elisha and Rabbi Jachanan to Wart.  In the story Elisha and the rabbi are put up graciously and hospitably by a poor man and his wife who have only a cow.  When the men get up to leave in the morning, the cow is dead.  The next night, the two travelers are treated rather poorly by a rich miser and end up sleeping in his barn.  Yet, the following morning, Elisha has a section of the miser’s wall repaired for him.  Rabbi Jachanan is perplexed and questions what has happened.  Elisha explains: 

“In regard to the poor man who received us so hospitably,” replied the prophet, “it was decreed that his wife was to die that night, but in reward for his goodness God took the cow instead of the wife.  I repaired the wall of the rich miser because a chest of gold was concealed near the place, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure.  Say not therefore to the Lord:  What doest thou?  But say in thy heart:  Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?”

I am rather with Wart who still thought it a shame that the cow died, but it is true that some events and troubles serve a greater good which the Lord alone can see and comprehend.  I do not think there will be pain and suffering and loss in heaven, but I doubt that earth can even exist apart from some negative pole that is an essential part of life on this material plane.  We do not have to choose evil.  We do not have to make the world worse, but, there is, perhaps, a limit not only to how much better we can make it but how we make it better.  Someday we might find a way around the speed of light, but the speed of good will remain unbroken.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Traps and Snares

And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  -- 2 Corinthians 11:14

If we saw the devil for what he is, or if he told us the whole truth of what he is doing, we would reject him without a thought. 

The lies that entrap us always have a false front of truth and beauty.  Even those of us who have fallen prey to the deceiver are not immune.  The old lines and the old lies have a certain comfort and reassurance.  We manage to convince ourselves that it will be different this time.  MacDonald depicts it well by way of his “Maid of the Alder “ in Phantastes.  Even after the protagonist had seen the hollow, empty ugliness within, he still acknowledged the beauty of her face when she turned toward him. 

Despite being an old cynic and knowing that there is a valid reason for something sounding too good to be true, my heart may still jump just a little when I hear the pitch or glimpse the lure.  I’ve gotten off that hook before with just a sore jaw.  I mean, if there really is a hook this time.  It could be what it seems to be. 

Paul, of course, was talking about false brethren and religious error.  The flock would flee the predator if they saw him as a wolf.  Red Riding Hood would not have conversed long with the fiend who had devoured her grandmother if she had seen through his guise.  If Elmer Gantry confessed that he was just in the game for the money who would listen to his hypocritical sermons?  There are always some, who, even after their noses have been buried in the gross reality, will defend the devil.  I have seen it in person.  

Bob Tilton was still making a living the last I heard.  Jim Bakker is prospering and in health not far down the road from me.  Barack Obama’s approval rating is right around forty percent.  There are still people who think that government is the solution rather than the problem and that we have a free market economy.  And so on. 

We always have to be on guard.  Watch and pray.  We have to understand that the wolf always hides behind a sheepskin.  Sometimes he hangs it on his wall.  The trap is always baited.  The lure always looks so sweet. 

The lady glided round by the wall from behind me, still keeping her face towards me, and seated herself in the furthest corner, with her back to the lamp, which she hid completely from my view. I then saw indeed a form of perfect loveliness before me.Phantastes, MacDonald

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Thinking About Things

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, I will never leave you nor forsake you.  So we can confidently say, The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me? – Hebrews 13:5-6

Be content with you have.  If I were going to get a tattoo, I would have that statement tattooed on my right hand, but I’m content with my right hand the way it is.  Sufficient in itself, to be content with what we have has a corollary, I suppose, of being content with what we don’t have, and we ought to be content with what other people have. 

Probably one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that, while we aren’t content with what we have now, if only we get X, we will be.  It doesn’t work that way.  Contentment is never a function of our possessions.  Contentment grows out of trust and confidence.  When we know who we are and what we are, when we are certain that we are loved, when we are convinced of the power and presence of God, we are content.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t work and strive to improve ourselves in the sense of becoming better people or in helping and supporting others.  It means that we are no longer anxious and overly concerned about how things will work out. 

We can get so caught up in the bad news and the dire situations and the catastrophic events we witness that we forget that we abide in Christ and He in us.  So I got one side of my head saying, You’re a Christian; you believe God is all-powerful; stop fretting.  The other side is going on about the national debt and hyper-inflation and bankruptcy and Ebola and beheadings, global warming and the dangers of antiperspirants versus being shunned for body odor.  We are worried about what the neighbors might think.  Shoot, sometimes I worry about being worried.   

If I was happier when I had less stuff it was probably because I spent less time and trouble and money taking care of it.  Right now, among other things, I need to build a new shed to put some of my equipment in and have more room to work on my equipment.  Or, I could try to get rid of some of it, but then when the twice-per-decade need arose for it, I’d probably go out and buy another one.  It’s always a trade-off.  When you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.  Conversely, you ain’t got nothin’.

I have looked at an empty refrigerator, bare shelves, and a zero bank balance.  It was a learning experience.  God got me through it.  I’m still here with all I need and then some.  If, from the world’s perspective, I’m ever down to nothing again, I’ll still have the Lord.   

The past has brought us to now.  The future is always being created now.  It kind of makes me think now is pretty important.  Anxiety and discontentment ruin new for us.  The only way to have joy in the Lord is to have it now.   

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Price of an Ass's Head

And while he was still speaking with them, the messenger came down to him and said, This trouble is from the LORD! Why should I wait for the LORD any longer? – 2 Kings 6:33

I have a translation that gives that question as “why should I trust the Lord”, and to wait upon the Lord is to depend upon Him.  We don’t “wait” upon the Lord unless we have faith and trust that He will intervene on our behalf, that somehow He will resolve the situation in accordance with His divine and perfect will. 

In this case, the city of Samaria was under a prolonged siege that resulted in great suffering for those within the walls. And there was a great famine in Samaria, as they besieged it, until a donkey's head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove's dung for five shekels of silver (2 Kings 6:25).   Bird poop soup.  I'd say the donkey head was a deal.  People resorted to cannibalism (vv 26-29), which is one of the curses that God pronounced for disobedience and apostasy.  Israel was guilty of spiritual adultery, and they were reaping what they had sown. 

We know, as I was saying a couple of days ago, when we are off course.  It bothers us.  We feel guilty and alienated from God.  If, while we are in this state of mind, something bad happens to us, our inclination is to believe that we are being punished for our moral failure.  While it is very true that sin is the seed of destruction, it's not that God is sitting on His throne just waiting for us to slip up so He can teach us a lesson we won't forget.  Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezekiel 18:23) -- though He does, perhaps, find humor in our grandiosity, vanity, and arrogance sometimes (Psalm 2:4).  
One thing we should note is that Elisha and his followers were also within the walls of Samaria.  It is important to examine ourselves, but we are not always at fault.  Sometimes we are simply caught up in the larger scheme of things.  From that point of view, we are not suffering for our own sins but as inhabitants of a fallen world or an apostate nation.  When a nation begins to reap what it has sown, more than ever, Christians in that country must be salt and light.   Whether we live or die, whether we are afflicted, persecuted or struck down, we must continue to trust completely in the Lord and in His goodness while offering hope to those around us, encouraging them to turn to the Savior.

A second point is that those who wish to continue in their pursuit of wickedness are apt lay blame upon the righteous.  King Jehoram, faced with the desperation of his people, swears that the prophet Elisha will be put to death.  His thinking seems to be that Elisha has it in for him and Israel.  Elisha and the Jehovah crowd were clearly intolerant of the Samaritan lifestyle.  Telling people the truth can be dangerous.  Having our illusions and delusions stripped away can make us angry and cause us to denounce those who bring the message when it ought to cause us to abandon our comfortable lies and repent.

When we find ourselves in difficulty and recognize, even subconsciously, that the fault lies in ourselves and not the stars, we may assume that God has abandoned us.  After all, we have, by our own decisions and actions, turned from Him, from His law and His truth.  Why should we then expect Him to help us?  Yet God is compassionate and forgiving.  He waits for us even when we are unwilling to wait for Him.  He is merciful and ready, always, to welcome us back if we will lay aside our pride with its self-consciousness and shame and humble ourselves in seeking Him.  He will not be hard to find.  The Cross makes our reconciliation possible, and its redemptive worth knows no bounds.