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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

With the Merciful

With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. – Psalm 18:25-26

To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.  They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. – Titus 1:15-16

Ben commented yesterday about how certain groups of Christians condemn specific things as worldly.  People can be pretty selective:  rock music is bad but country music might be all right.  Being seen at a movie theater is bad, but you can watch old movies on television.  I knew people who, at one time, would not drink soda out of a can because beer came in cans, and they wanted to “avoid even the appearance of evil”.  Drinking alcohol at all has always been renounced in the churches I normally attend, though, as far as I can tell, only drunkenness is considered sinful – primarily, as Paul points out (Ephesians 5:18), because it is a form of debauchery, compromising health and sound judgment and contributing to other immoral acts.  In contrast to alcohol, the sin of gluttony is winked at by most Baptists and Pentecostals.  It is not uncommon for an old boy with a 50-inch waist, Type II diabetes, and out-of-control blood pressure to be asking for prayer.  He just can’t understand why the Lord won’t heal him.  Amazingly, he managed to beat anorexia on his own. 

It seems to me, as somewhat confirmed by the verses quoted above, that God deals with us according to our intentions as well as our actions, our mindset and attitudes as well as our abstentions.  It almost has the ring of karma.  If we are deceitful, God’s dealings with us will seem deceptive.  If we are ourselves adherents of the filthy and false, we will come to think that everyone is a hypocrite and a pervert. 

I sometimes say that I am cynical and a natural-born skeptic.  I was born in Missouri because God thought I might have a better chance of fitting in here.  I do indeed tend to suspect that most people are talking and dealing to their own advantage and self-interest and are not necessarily concerned first and foremost with being fair to me in a financial exchange.  I don’t go to a car dealer with the expectation that the salesman is actually going to trade with me at a price below the dealer’s net cost.     

On the other hand, when people talk about the purity of their lives and how closely they adhere to their standard of righteousness, provided I don’t see evidence contrary to their assertions, I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are better people than I am. 

The truth is that about the best I can do in the merciful, blameless, and pure area is to be humble, quick to own up to my errors and acknowledge my faults.  I understand that any time I am tempted to blame God or find fault with Him, it is likely to be over something that is inconsistent in my own life.  I know some people talk about how they have to “forgive” God.  I don’t usually have a lot of trouble with that, though I have been known to argue with Him. 

There is a righteousness that has been given to me, but it is not my own.  There is purity and integrity in me, though not in my old nature:  [D]o you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Dynamic Tension

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. -- James 4:4

I was traveling with some co-workers, both good, honest men, and we observed a billboard with this verse posted along the highway.  My colleague who was driving asked what I thought about the sign and why it was worded so harshly, as he saw it.  They are decent boys but not raccoons, and my own raccoon-fu was, at best, quite proto back then.  As I recall, I said that it was a relative thing, like Jesus telling us we have to hate father and mother in comparison to the love we should have toward our Father in heaven.  After all, it is Jesus who told us we are to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. 

I talked about what the world is yesterday.  It’s not necessarily a good place yet it is familiar.  I think about the character Brooksie played by James Whitmore in The Shawshank Redemption.  Once a person has fully adjusted to life in a prison, the freedom of a more normal life with its openness and lack of structure can be overwhelming.  Some of us prefer to remain in the confines to which we have become accustomed. 

I said I would like to get beamed up and out of the world.  The trouble is that we are called to be in the world though not of the world -- I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world (John 17:14).  We are sent into the world as Jesus was sent, agents of reality invading Vanity Fair -- As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world (v.18).

As long as we are dwelling in this tabernacle of meat and bone, we are going to have to interact with the world system.  Even if we are not deluded and seduced by it, it remains a fact to be dealt with.  Meat and bone reminds me of one of the late Dottie Rambo’s most poetic lines, from “The Holy Hills of Heaven Call Me” -- This house of clay is but a prison / Bars of bone hold my soul .  We have to feed this old body and clothe it, walk it around, and accept the effects of time and space, physics, chemistry, and biology.  To that extent, we play by the same rules as the world, but we are governed by the truth from another realm.  Our true home and our allegiance are in heaven.   

We can be friendly to the world, at peace with it unilaterally, from our side, so much as it will allow, but we can’t be friends.  Friends necessarily share a common view, a communion.  We are to love those who are in opposition to us, but we cannot be yoked to them for we bear the easy yoke of Christ with Him.  They have to surrender to Christ.  We don’t surrender to the world.  As Charles Atlas used to teach us, dynamic tension builds strength. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

An Incoherent Monday

I do not know what is the matter with me today.  Fortunately work is not overly demanding, so far.  Too much gunk on the plugs, and running a little rough.  So if this doesn't make any sense, I'm still not drunk.  
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. -- John 8:44

How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!  How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!  You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’  But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. – Isaiah 14:12-15

It is said sometimes that the world is the devil’s heaven.  That’s not referring to the planet earth but to the human system, the world of human perception and understanding.  God’s material creation is good; He said so.  It is derived from His ideal.  Between that derived reality and us lies what the Bible calls “the world”.  The devil is the prince of “this world”.  When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the devil declared that all the authority and glory of “the kingdoms of the world” had been given to him that he might do with it as he pleased (Luke 4:5-6).  Jesus did not argue with the devil’s claim. 

Indeed of that realm of perception and manifestation lies under the devil’s control.  We tend to think of the devil as the source of evil, and in a sense that’s true.  Most of what we call evil, though, does not come from the devil’s direct actions.  Instead a human or a bunch of humans accept the distortion that they perceive before them and perpetrate wickedness and iniquity.  We can hold them accountable because they should know better.  We always have a choice to believe the truth or believe the lie. 

Eden is not far from here.  God has the way guarded lest those who are not ready for it stumble into it and utterly destroy themselves. 

Meanwhile, the devil has most of the rest of us convinced that our hope lies outside in the shifting, bottomless morass of our experience and belief.  The call to work on the externals is seductive.  Success, we are convinced, lays with a new government, with a revolution, with the next election, with a new program, a new policy, vegetarianism, more time at the gym, a new partner, or a different job. 

What really needs to change is our understanding.  If we will turn from the lies and turn to the truth and start living, acting, and thinking in alignment with the truth, we will begin to see the eternal reality that underlies the world.  We will begin to see many of the things that trouble us are manifestations of our own short-circuited, twisted, perverted thinking. 

I’m not doing a very good job of getting at what I mean.  The basic, persistent flaw of all utopian thinking is its failure to change people.  All of us are sick to a great or lesser degree.  If we are put in paradise, we are apt to turn it into hell.  The only way there will ever be heaven on earth is for humanity to emigrate to Mars.  Conversely, if I could get all the hell out of myself, I could experience paradise right where I sit.  I could let go of the devil’s kingdom of lies and walk in God’s truth. 

This is impossibly easy.  That is, it’s easy; it’s just impossible.  Only one Man has ever done it.  We are invited to participate in His victory.  The Body of Christ is not a new force for societal change and improvement.  It is as radical a departure from the common way of living and walking as a spaceship blasting off for some new Earth 2.0.  Instead of leaving the planet, we leave the world. 

If the teleporter's working, just beam me on up.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Bit From Alfred Bester

Friday afternoon, and everything that didn't get taken care of rolls down to here.  You all have a good weekend.  This is a science fiction classic, really one of the best in some ways:

"We're beyond easy childish things like crime and punishment," Dagenham added.

"No," Robin objected. "There must always be sin and forgiveness. We're never beyond that."

"Profit and loss, sin and forgiveness, idealism and realism," Foyle smiled. "You're all so sure, so simple, so single-minded. I'm the only one in doubt. Let's see how sure you really are. You'll give up Olivia, Presteign? To me, yes? Will you give her up to the law? She's a killer."

Presteign tried to rise, and then fell back in his chair.

"There must be forgiveness, Robin? Will you forgive Olivia Presteign? She murdered your mother and sisters." 

Robin turned ashen. Y'ang-Yeovil tried to protest. 

"The Outer Satellites don't have PyrE, Yeovil. Sheffield revealed that. Would you use it on them anyway? Will you turn my name into  common anathema . . - like Lynch and Boycott?"

Foyle turned to Jisbella. "Will your idealism take you back to Gouffre Mattel to serve out your sentence? And you, Dagenham, will you give her up? Let her go?"

He listened to the outcries and watched the confusion for a moment, bitter and constrained.

"Life is so simple," he said. "This decision is so simple, isn't it? Am I to respect Presteign's property rights? The welfare of the planets? Jisbella's ideals? Dagenham's realism? Robin's conscience? Press the button and watch the robot jump. But I'm not a robot. I'm a freak of the universe . . . a thinking animal. . . and I'm trying to see my way clear through this morass. Am I to turn PyrE over to the world and let it destroy itself? Am I to teach the world how to space-jaunte and let us spread our freak show from galaxy to galaxy through all the universe? What's the answer?"

The bartender robot hurled its mixing glass across the room with a resounding crash. In the amazed silence that followed, Dagenham grunted: "Damn! My radiation's disrupted your dolls again, Presteign."

"The answer is yes," the robot said, quite distinctly.

"What?" Foyle asked, taken aback.

"The answer to your question is yes." 

"Thank you," Foyle said.

"My pleasure, sir," the robot responded. "A man is a member of society first, and an individual second. You must go along with society, whether it chooses destruction or not."

"Completely haywire," Dagenham said impatiently. "Switch it off, Presteign."

"Wait," Foyle commanded. He looked at the beaming grin engraved in the steel robot face. "But society can be so stupid. So confused. You've witnessed this conference."

"Yes, sir, but you must teach, not dictate. You must teach society."

"To space-jaunte? Why? Why reach out to the stars and galaxies? What for?"

"Because you're alive, sir. You might as well ask: Why is life? Don't ask about it. Live it."

"Quite mad," Dagenham muttered.

"But fascinating," Y'ang-Yeovil murmured.

"There's got to be more to life than just living," Foyle said to the robot. 

"Then find it for yourself, sir. Don't ask the world to stop moving because you have doubts."

"Why can't we all move forward together?"

"Because you're all different. You're not lemmings. Some must lead, and hope that the rest will follow."

"Who leads?"

"The men who must. . . driven men, compelled men."

"Freak men."

"You're all freaks, sir. But you always have been freaks. Life is a freak. That's its hope and glory."

"Thank you very much."

"My pleasure, sir."

"You've saved the day."

"Always a lovely day somewhere, sir," the robot beamed. Then it fizzed, jangled, and collapsed.

Foyle turned on the others. "That thing's right," he said, "and you're wrong. Who are we, any of us, to make a decision for the world? Let the world make its own decisions. Who are we to keep secrets from the world? Let the world know and decide for itself.  Come to Old St. Pat's."

-- excerpt from The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ways and Means

We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast. --2 Samuel 14:14

David’s son, Absalom, had arranged the murder of his brother, Amnon, for the rape of his sister, Tamar.  For David, it must have all seemed an ugly sort of justice for his own adultery and the arranged murder of Uriah the Hittite.  I have said, and I have often heard it said, that God was punishing David for his sin.  In a sense that is correct, but I realized that whatever seed we sow is the same kind of crop we will bring in … God will not take away life.  Injustice and unrighteousness on my part will cascade through my life and impact those around me, including the innocent. 

David’s innocent, virgin daughter was subjected to violence, humiliation, and ruin because of the seeds of disobedience planted by the father.  If you keep a skunk into your house, you’ll get used to the smell after a while, but the stench, in reality, remains as sickening and disgusting as ever.  I speak from some personal experience, having seen my own faults and failures raised up as disobedience and suffering in the lives of our children. 

After the murder of Amnon, Absalom fled to the land of his mother’s people.  David missed him and was grieved by his absence, but he could not bring himself to send for him.  Justice called for Absalom’s death, and yet justice had been due Amnon, as well -- justice David himself should have executed.  Our friend Joab is concerned about the king’s state of mind and so arranges with a wise woman of Tekoa (later home of the fig-picking prophet, Amos) to present a dramatic story to David to help him see the situation more clearly and – as had been the case with the prophet Nathan’s parable of the little ewe lamb (2 Samuel 12:1-14) – have David pronounce his own judgment upon himself. 

In the course of convincing the king of the justness of her plea, the woman renders this word of prophetic and revelatory significance with regard to the love and grace of God.  Humanity has failed God, disobeyed and been justly banished from His presence, yet God’s love for His children, those made in His image and likeness, remains undiminished.  From the moment of the Fall, the Lord has been in the process of devising means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast. 

The banished one – it is personal and individual.  God doesn’t just bring people in.  He figures out a way to bring you back.  He figures out a way to bring me in.  The Way is Christ and the Cross, but we do not all reach the Place of the Skull by the same means or the same path.  Each one brings a different story of the grace that carries us to the foot of the Cross. 

Water spilled speaks, like spilt milk, of that which cannot be undone, the eggs that cannot be unscrambled, the past frozen, set in stone, becoming, often, monuments to our defiant iniquity, willful ignorance or mere whimsical stupidity.  As we say every so often, we cannot change the past, but we can change what the past means. 

I call myself a Christian.  Still, some days, it seems that I remain very far from where I need to be.  Wherever we, any of us, find ourselves, however foreign and hostile the locale, we can know that at this moment a messenger seeks us with the word that our banishment is over, and that we will be welcomed home.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Revelation Reflects

Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah -- Psalm 24:6

[I]t is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he [has] previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also —He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white. – John Calvin, Institutes, Book One, Chapter 1

It's a little known fact among Star Wars insiders that Yoda learned English from reading a translation of The Institutes of the Christian ReligionConvinced, however, we are not.

We will never know ourselves until we know God.  We are not going to find the answer to who we are and why we are here by following the crowd.  Our parents may not be able to help us.  Education seems unlikely to enlighten us.  Sometimes, though, God does put someone in authority over us – father, mother, a teacher, coach, scout leader, or a pastor – to give us a word and direction from Him.  We would probably see it more if we were more open to the idea of the one-story universe, as expressed so well by Father Stephen.   

The mistake I have often made – and it’s not that I made it more early in my walk, I’m still doing it – is to seek the Lord primarily through the written revelation of the Bible.  For me, personally, studying the Bible is something I depend on to keep me more in tune -- poor instrument that I am.  While reading the Bible may be the best way for a lot of us to seek and to know Christ, it's not the only way to see Him. 

Prayer is another vital discipline in our search.  Some of our time in prayer should be given over to listening rather than speaking.  I sometimes get the feeling that God would like for me to shut up long enough for Him to answer one or two of my many questions, complaints and rants. 

We might expect to hear from the Lord in the priest’s homily or the teacher’s lesson, but we might be more surprised to find Him in a poem, a piece of music, a work of art, a scene in a movie, a science fiction novel, or some vista of nature.  My cousin’s late wife loved going to the Grand Canyon.  For her -- a simple, devout country Baptist woman, it revealed a facet of the Divine she didn’t often catch in her pastor’s Sunday sermons. 

God may disclose Himself to us in what some might consider the unlikeliest of ways.  I am convinced that He may be seen through the creatures He gives into our care.  I know we can see Him through our relationships, through achievements, failures, challenges, and trials in our lives, through the things we gain and the things we lose, through our hopes, dreams, desires, likes, and dislikes.  There is one thing we may be sure of, when we seek the Lord, He has promised that we will find Him.  You came near when I called on you; you said, Do not fear! (Lamentations 3:57); Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you (James 4:8); Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart (Psalm 119:2).

In finding Him, I will find my true self and my true destiny.  I know that I often reference this verse, but it so often seems to bear repeating, so, with a little emphasis:  Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).