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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Art of Footwashing

Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into His hands, that He had come from God, and that He was going back to God. So He got up from supper, laid aside His robe, took a towel, and tied it around Himself. Next, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel tied around Him. – John 13:3-5

I am continuing to ponder the idea of doing “small things” right.

Jesus had a full realization of His authority, His origin and identity, and His destiny. He knew He was God Incarnate, so He washed the feet of His disciples. It sounds strange to us who are always concerned about appearances and status and decorum. Yet, to God, the act naturally follows the understanding. Who but God Incarnate, as Oswald Chambers said somewhere, can properly wash feet? Who but God Incarnate can do the most menial task with perfect awareness, love, and grace?

Anybody can do the grand and showy right. Man can create spectacles. In fact, the more corrupted and fallen we are, the better we seem to be at glorifying self.

But to do the menial mindfully and perfectly, we must have the mind of Christ, the attitude of Christ Jesus who did not exalt Himself – though He had every right to do so. To harmonize with the Spirit, we must be present in the task at hand. Perhaps this tells us something about the difference between art that is beautiful and transcendent, and that which may be called art but fails to transport. The transcendent artist is present in every stroke of the brush, every letter, every hammer fall, movement, or note – conscious only of the here and now – because art done right consists mostly of many small, discrete, unnoticed things brought together by spirit and vision.

Only fallen man can think of something like footwashing as humiliating, demanding, or a sacrifice. When we are caught up in love, the beloved cannot demand too much of us. There is no such thing as sacrifice.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Acting Right

Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. The LORD said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I have given them.” -- Numbers 20:6-12

Just once I’d like to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets. (The Brigadier – “Dr. Who”)

Or, in terms of Gagdad Bob’s ongoing ruminations on Balthasar, could we cut the drama? Why can’t we just, once in a while, address an issue with human power and employ our own efforts to get things done? It seems so much simpler, or at least more straightforward. You know, like instead of wandering around out here in the desert getting water from rocks and eating whatever this manna stuff is, we go in and kill off some tribe that has a river and some land.

It’s not so much that we want to do away with the drama as we’d like to use our own script, be the director, or at least ad lib a little. That’s all Moses was doing. The Bible, though, is all about types and shadows, depicting the universal in little vignettes that we can view and comprehend.

Moses wanted freedom and justice for his people. When he attempted to bring justice, he got forty years of exile in the desert. When he tried to give them freedom, he got – well, forty more years of wandering in the wilderness. Out of all the man endured, this single flash of anger in a moment of frustration denied him entry into the land of Canaan and the opportunity to see his people settled and established in covenant with God.

Moses is not innocent in this. He took matters into his own hand, something Scripture cautions against repeatedly. He knew what God had told him. He could not plead ignorance, though he did not necessarily understand the significance of what he was to depict.

What does it mean to get a spring of water from a rock? Water is Spirit and life. The rock is God. If we speak to the Rock – that is, pray, relying on the grace of God, the life of God flows out to and through us by His Spirit. When Moses struck the rock with the symbol of his authority, his staff, he corrupted the story. Instead of depicting a trust in God’s grace, he depicts God in slave-like subservience to human demands, to man’s strength and authority. Though the Lord loved Moses and understood his weariness and frustration, He could not endorse his actions and reinforce the spoiled object lesson.

We may err in different ways with the same result. I am nobody; no one will know; it doesn't matter if I do things my way. Another view is the sort of new-agey way: I am as a god; I can do as I will and have my way. Or, as Moses did: I know God wants this done; I am going to do it, and since I am "doing the Lord's work", it doesn't matter if I do it my way.

What I am ever-so-slowly coming to understand is that this is replayed in my own life. Obedience in small things takes on a new importance since my actions are channels for big truth to enter into the small, otherwise insignificant details of my existence. I don’t know if those bits of acting right – rather, I don’t know how those bits of acting right ripple through the fabric of reality. I know they do.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Value of A Life

On Saturday, one of my wife’s older sisters passed away. She was in her early sixties, her life shortened by her lifestyle, by irresponsible behaviors carried on to the very end. Nevertheless, she will be missed because she was a very entertaining personality, loving to be the center of attention, but rarely a bore. She was always smiling or saying something off the wall for a laugh.

The sisters wanted a traditional funeral service with a preacher. She had no pastor – she had been baptized as a Catholic by her grandfather. When she was older, she usually attended a Baptist church. One sister wanted an Assembly of God pastor to do the service, but she also wanted the funeral to take place on Monday – Memorial Day, short notice. There was no way one was going to be found.

They asked if I would do it. That’s probably not as surprising as it might be. I spoke at their father’s funeral – or tried to – half the time I was standing there sobbing myself. We worked all night Saturday and a good part of Sunday morning getting pictures and music together for the visitation Sunday afternoon, and then for the service yesterday.

My sister-in-law lived a hard life in many, many ways. She suffered. For the last several years, she has been in various care facilities, often drugged senseless – sometimes because of pain, sometimes because it was the only way to keep her from hurting herself or the staff. There were probably only about thirty of us at the funeral, and we all knew her, knew her story. My mother-in-law sat staring at the coffin of her “baby” as I stepped up to speak.

We knew the value of that life, we who knew her well. Others might not see it the same way. The world might look at her as a drain on society, someone who contributed nothing but took a great deal to sustain. Some might think it would be better to be rid of her. I believe, though, that the important issue is what God thought of her life. What value did He place on it? Why did He value her?

In Psalm 50:12, God says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you.” God was speaking to His people about sacrifices, explaining that they were not to “feed” Him, but for their benefit, to teach the people the consequences of their sin. God proclaimed Himself all-sufficient, independent of any need for human help. He is infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, and utterly sufficient for Himself.

We, on the other hand are very needy and limited and lacking in power. We are not sufficient unto ourselves. There is always something missing. We always need something. We get tired, hungry, thirsty, discouraged.

How can we understand God? How can God understand us? Yes, He’s omniscient and our Creator, but does He see through our eyes? How could He know what it is like to be driven to despair, to be heartbroken, abandoned, fearful?

There is a great gulf between us, not only in understanding, but in the fact that we are sinful and He is holy. He cannot come and dwell in a tainted, contaminated vessel such as fallen man is. Religion attempts to clean man up, bring discipline. It even tries to make us spiritual athletes. But these efforts fall short. Our highest leaps cannot reach God. No tower can be built to heaven. What are we to do?

God, knowing we could not ascend, descends. Philippians 2:6-8 tells us how Jesus as the Son was very God in eternity past, how He laid aside His infinite attributes, humbling Himself to take the form of a slave and become obedient to death. In this He is able not only to provide the means of delivering us from sin, but He reveals God to man, and even man to God. Now God sees through man’s frame. He knows what it is like to live on this earth. He is now our High Priest “touched with the feelings of our infirmities”.

In John 4, we read how Jesus was in Jerusalem and wanted to return to Galilee. It said He “had to go through Samaria”. This speaks of His limitation, like man, in time and space. God can be everywhere present. Jesus knew what it was to have to travel to get where He needed to be. He and His disciples came to Jacob’s well in Samaria, and Jesus sat down to rest. Jesus was tired. The disciples left to get food. Jesus was hungry. As He sat there alone, He saw a woman approaching with a bucket to draw water from the depths of the well. Jesus looked at her, and He looked at the bucket, and He thought of the cool water down in that well. Jesus was thirsty. He spoke to her, “Give me a drink.”

Remember, God said, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you.” Yet now God asks a stranger and sinner for a drink, for He was thirsty and unable to get water for Himself.

If you go to Matthew 25:31-40, you will read a parable of judgment. The King calls the people together and divides them as a shepherd divides sheep from goats. To those on his right hand, the King says, “Enter into the joys of the Kingdom, for when I was hungry you fed Me; when I was thirsty, you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you took Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick and in prison, and you came and visited Me.”

The righteous reply that they did not do any of those things. “Yes,” the King says, “when you did it for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for Me.”

Jesus identifies with us in all that we go through, with our hunger and our suffering. He takes it all as His own. If we can but receive this revelation, all suffering is suffering for Christ. We are yoked together with Christ – “take My yoke upon you”. He is bearing the burden with us. Jesus and I are suffering these things together, as one by His Spirit.

His blood has covered us and made us fit dwelling places for the Spirit of God. He sees our thoughts, our motives, and our desires. As Paul says, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me.” My life is His life, and His life is my life. When I pray and when I worship, God sees my thoughts toward Him. In a real way He can see Himself as I see Him. Now He knows us perfectly, and someday we will know as we are known. With this understanding, our suffering, heartache, loss, and pain takes on a new and glorified meaning. The Lord knows what it is to be me. My suffering is now part of His “experience”. Nothing I go through is in vain; nothing is lost. All is purposeful and meaningful, because God is living it through me.

[My goal] is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).

For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness" —He has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God's glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

Now we have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us. We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who live are always given over to death because of Jesus, so that Jesus' life may also be revealed in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you. And since we have the same spirit of faith in accordance with what is written, I believed, therefore I spoke, we also believe, and therefore speak, knowing that the One who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and present us with you. For all this is because of you, so that grace, extended through more and more people, may cause thanksgiving to overflow to God's glory.

Therefore we do not give up; even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal
(2 Corinthians 4:6-18).

Friday, May 22, 2009

An Encouraging Word: Bluegrass

As burned out as I have been at work, I slipped away early yesterday and took in some Bluegrass performances. Bluegrass often involves the work of families or family members -- the Monroe Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, the Whites, the Cox Family -- just to name a few. What I saw yesterday were all family bands.

The Downing Family from Catoosa, OK, is a Bluegrass Gospel group, and they are really a family -- Dad, two adult daughters, and a son-in-law, along with their banjo player, Dave Tindale. Luke Miller, the son-in-law, not only does great vocal work, but he does some decent guitar-picking in the breaks. The sisters' vocals are extraordinary. There was a CD playing before the show started, and, having never seen the band before, I did not realize there were two women in the line up -- on fiddle and mandolin as well as vocals. It was annoying me that I couldn't place the voices. I tried to get it to sound like Rhonda Vincent, Alison, or perhaps Claire Lynch but nothing quite matched. Then the band came out, the girls started singing, and I was blown away, and not for the last time.

The Downings were the middle group I saw. The first family band was the Stockdale Family out of Ohio -- a father and four sons. Calvin, the oldest of the boys (all home schooled like the Downing sisters), does most of the talking and singing along with playing the banjo. He's twenty-one and attending Hillsdale College. There's some switching off on the instruments, but the best instrumentalist in a group of very good pickers is the fiddle-playing brother -- who happens to be the Ohio State Champion in the under 18 class. Individually the boys do not have great voices but as a group they have a good, traditional sound. They also have a blast performing. Along with their wholesome sense of humor and stage presence, they put on a terrific show.

They have apparently been on the TV show "Wife Swap" in which they traded mothers with a Rap music family from Chicago. Having been informed of this, we watched as they changed headgear and launched into a bit of "Rap-grass". Afterward someone in the audience asked who wrote the rap number. Calvin explained that it was a collaboration, and, he added, "No offense to rappers, but it's pretty easy to write a rap song. For one thing we didn't have to write any music -- except our chorus."

The last group I was able to catch was the Walker Family from Palmer, Alaska. They are also known as the Redhead Express. The reason for this becomes obvious when the four teenage girls walk out on stage. The oldest daughter, Kendra, is a good guitar picker with flaming red hair and an impressive vocal range, and not just a range -- this girl is an artist. She can sing. I really was blown away, again. They also did one of the songs she has written. I'm glad they performed it before we were told the girl had written it. It's good. Dad and Mom are out there as well, and they are both excellent singers -- the father especially will do for a Bluegrass bass. With this group, the outstanding instrumentalist is again the main fiddle player. I apologize for not remembering the names better -- I think this one is Alisa. She's sixteen and doubles on the mandolin, which smokes when she takes hold of it. She seems to be an alto, but can sing much lower -- almost in a baritone range, as she did on a bluegrassed version of the Ernest Tubb classic "Thanks A Lot". This number included a touch of comedy with her younger sister, age thirteen, who pushed her way into the song with her big upright bass. Kendra may be the star, but if you see this group and don't fall in love with Alisa, have somebody live check your pulse.

The eighteen-year-old daughter plays the banjo, provides great harmony with her sisters, and is sort of a clown, reminding me a little of the part June Carter played in the Carter Family. She does something that not everyone can do, managing to bring the audience into the performance.

Even more laughs came with the youngest members of the family, three boys, came out on stage and did "Man of Constant Sorrows" in O, Brother Where Art Thou fake beards, hats, and bib overalls. Unlike Clooney, these boys, from probably age five to eight, did all their own singing.

I caught bits and pieces of a couple of other bands, the Gold Heart Sisters and the Next Best Thing. Both sounded very good, and I regretted that I was unable to enjoy their whole show.

What I saw were people who think like me -- not just because they love Bluegrass, but because they believe in family, in Christian principles, and in the wonder of life. Other than the Walkers, I don't know how many of these groups are singing Bluegrass for a living, but they are singing for life, to bring joy into the lives of others. Almost everyone except the parents in all the groups I saw were under thirty-five, most were under twenty-one.

It's easy to think all young people are like the ones who make the evening news, or who are portrayed in movies and on television as disaffected and disturbed. We notice the ones covered in metal and tattoos -- they want us to. We sometimes fail to see the kids who are "normal". The kids I saw yesterday were well-adjusted, informed, intelligent, and talented. They were not raised under a glass dome. They will faces challenges and suffer loss and disappointments. Some already have. They will be all right. They are the true descendants of the people who built this nation, and if America falls, they will be the ones who will build again, on the old foundations.

I feel better today.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Don't Stand So Close To Me

In their setting of their threshold by My thresholds, and their post by My posts, and the wall between Me and them, they have even defiled My holy name by their abominations that they have committed. There I have consumed them in My anger. – Ezekiel 43:8

God likes His space. Despite the multitude of stars, space is mostly, well, space. Detachment is an essential principle in knowing God. We usually call it separation, being set apart, or in more technical terms – holiness or sanctification. Back in high school, I wrote a bit of doggerel that summarized my understanding at the time: Detachment is wondrous; involvement is pain./ It’s better to watch than be caught in the rain.

What I didn’t realize, of course, is that detachment is not the opposite of involvement and that separation meant, often, living in the rain. At that same time, I had pinned to the wall in my bedroom a copy of Ecclesiastes 1:18 – “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

Wisdom and holiness are closely related. Even in the most mundane things, we gain insight by “stepping back” either physically or mentally. We say that we “turn a problem over” in our minds and look at it from a different perspective. We speak of being too close to something to clearly understand it.

This helps to understand why the Bible talks about the “fear of God” – which is the beginning of wisdom. In order to know God, we must have some distance, respectful distance, you might say, from Him. You can get too close, too familiar, too attached to your piece of the Rock, and you lose perspective on the whole. There are groups of Christians -- or people who call themselves Christians, who get so heavily invested in some tiny point that they become all but demonic. The members of the Westboro Baptist Church – those misguided souls who protest the funerals of fallen servicemen – come to mind.

It’s another of those biblical paradoxes that in order to draw near to God we must give Him some room.

Once we have come to that understanding, we find this passage applies in a different way as well, for we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We can’t let the things of the world get too close to us. We need space, a buffer around us. If the world presses in too close to the temple, our light cannot be seen by those who crowd around us. The vertical element doesn’t help here. It’s like entering the downtown canyons of a major city. You can see the tops of the skyscrapers from miles away, but once you are down on the streets, it much harder to figure out where you are. We need the horizontal separation as well. Holiness is not some whim God has. It serves a critical purpose. We are called to be a “peculiar people”, different than the secular sleepers who surround us. He wants us to stick out like sore thumbs.

Under Joshua’s leadership the Israelites were to follow the Ark across Jordan and into the Promised Land, but in order to go the right way, they had to give it space, allowing it to be seen by all.

And they commanded the people saying, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God and the priests the Levites bearing it, then you shall remove from your place and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure. Come not near unto it, that you may know the way by which you must go, for you have not passed this way heretofore” (Joshua 3:3-4)

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Free Willies *

And you have not His Word abiding in you; for Whom He has sent, Him you believe not.

Search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; it is they which testify of Me. And yet you will not come to Me, that you might have life. – John 5:38-40

There are cultures where reality can get pretty twisted, where they call good evil and evil good – I guess they do that in Washington, D. C., as well as in Hollywood these days. Yet all around the world there are people in whom the Word abides regardless of their upbringing or their education, or even their religion. A person has to have the Word abiding in them in order to respond to God at all.

Recently someone asked me if I believed in “once-saved-always-saved” which is a view sort of like Calvinism -- or Calvin-and-Hobbes-ism, or maybe Calvin-Ball-ism. My answer is, no – if the questioner means that by following some ritual or formula, however simple or complex, a person is somehow “saved”. That has always sounded too much like magic – recite the spell, uh, I mean, prayer and suddenly your shoes turn white and you’re Pat Boone. You walk out of church singing, “I got white shoes. I got Great. White. Shoes. I got white shoes.”

(Don’t worry. It’s an inside joke.)

I do believe, on the other hand, that once a person has a genuine encounter with God, in whatever form they receive, that person will never be able to get away. I haven’t been able to, and I’ve been trying for years. I mean, you can’t so much as get on the internet to look for graphic midget imagery without running across somebody talking about “One Cosmos Under God” or whatever. What’s the world coming to?

The more important question, then, is how does one have such an encounter? Obviously osmosis won’t get it. Jesus was walking around teaching, healing the sick, and raising the dead. People witnessed these things and did not believe Jesus. They sat down and ate bagels with the Lord Himself, got up and went away completely unchanged – except for being hardened in their rejection of Him.

Here Jesus pinpoints the problem. Unless a person has the truth in them, they will not accept it when they hear it. To embrace falsehood is to reject truth. If we decide to live the lie, to make ourselves at home in the deception, then the Word – which is truth – cannot abide in us. When we are offered life, we look at it like chopped liver and fail to recognize the inestimable value of it. We turn away.

The people to whom Jesus spoke knew the Scriptures by heart. They thought somehow this knowledge would lead them into a kind of immortality. People are no different today. They seek in science, technology, politics, art, and religion, and find only lies – not because there is no truth where they are seeking but because there is no truth in their hearts. The truth is all around them, all but shouted at them. Yet they do not hear.

It rings no bell. It does not resonate. There is no answering harmonious hum in the soul. It finds nothing to attach to. It does go in one ear and out the other. Jesus says later on in John, that the devil is coming but “he has nothing in Me.” The lie could not cling to the Lord for He had the Word fully abiding in Him – He is the Word. He is nothing but the Truth (So, help me, God). With too many of us, it is the other way around – Christ comes and He cannot take hold of us because He has nothing in us.

It sounds like a catch-22 – and genuinely Calvinistic – that we cannot respond to truth without having the truth abiding in us. There would seem to be nothing we can do.

Nothing? Hey, God can work with that.

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

* See The World Famous Blog of JWM for information on the related "Jesus Willies".

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Shake, Shake, Shake

For no man can lay another foundation except that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 3:11

I started to use a longer quote with the several verses which follow this one, but I stalled out on the enormity of this claim: No man can lay another foundation. It does not say that there are other foundations that are less adequate. If our lives have a foundation, it is Christ. All other ground, as the song says, is shifting sand. The raccoon readers will instantly understand what this does not mean.

We know that there is reality, and there is awareness. In the world today the rankest atheist owes his or her very existence to this foundation despite being unable to grasp or acknowledge it. The fact that the saints, whose lives are consciously founded upon this Rock, are salted into the world makes civilization as we know it possible. We may be only votive candles but we are light – lit, in many cases, by the blazing torches of the great saints we have encountered -- only candles, but without us there is no light at all.

If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?

The world wants to move on. The system may even give a nod to “values”, but it wants to smear Christ with talk of hypocrisy, control, and hatred, of witch hunts, and inquisitions. Now that people have been “enlightened” there is no longer a need for them to cling to superstitions. They are capable of creating their own foundation upon which to build.

In describing an antichrist Daniel speaks of one rejecting the Absolute and embracing a god of fortresses, or better, forces. The people of the world system reject the Ground of Being and look instead at the little castles erected here and there, at the signs of power. They worship not the Source of power but power alone. For politicians of every stripe the focus is on the accumulation and consolidation of power.

Science, politics, art, money, knowledge, et al – can these be foundations? Can anything be erected upon these pillars? The answer is no, unless these things rest upon the foundation of Christ. They can provide no meaning, nothing on which to stand in themselves. They are only methods for creating solutions or deriving support from the foundation. Though good and useful when built on the Rock, they are otherwise doomed to failure, deceptively promising something new but delivering only utter destruction.

Last Friday we had a derecho blow through with hurricane-force winds that spawned nearly twenty tornadoes in our immediate area. Last night another storm came and again snapped limbs and uprooted trees. Houses and schools have been destroyed. When the wind is blowing eighty miles an hour, you think about the roofers and the framers, but it all begins with the ones who dug deep down and poured the concrete.

Change is coming, baby, believe it or not. Ready or not. Storms can be outlawed but they cannot be stopped. Catastrophic events, wars, earthquakes, floods and famine will come no matter what the words on the teleprompter say.

Foundations are so expensive. Let’s spend that concrete money on a gourmet kitchen instead.

Alas, Babylon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Top This

May 12 is the birthday of Edward Lear who popularized the limerick in English so Limerick Day was yesterday. In keeping with my long standing tradition of being a day late and a dollar short, the Jungle offers you this opportunity to try your hand at composing a limerick.

You need five lines, rhyming "aabba". First, second and fifth lines should have eight or nine syllables; third and fourth lines should have five or six. I'm not counting. If it sounds good, it is good.

To get you started:

A wannabe pol of Chicago
Thought he could be more like ol' Blago
Though he ACORN'ed the Fed
The economy's dead
Now Congress is playing the lotto.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Wait of Repetition

I will stand upon my watch and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what He will say to me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved.

And the LORD answered me and said: “Write the vision and make it plain upon tablets, that he may run that reads it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak and not lie. Though it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come; it will not tarry. Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright within him; but the just shall live by his faith”. – Habakkuk 2:1-4

Fuzzy, ephemeral mental images sometimes lose their glow when they have to be organized into coherent sentences and reduced to combinations of twenty-six letters, ten digits, and a handful of symbols -- I like my dashes. When you climb the tower and gaze out to the horizon, much is in view but not all is focused and clear. The unevenness of the ground may hide something of importance even from the watchtower; we may lose perspective, not realize the immensity of what we see, imagining it to be closer to us than it is in reality. Prophecy is a tricky business.

Walking in the Spirit is a matter of careful balance. As John said in his first epistle, we do not know exactly what we will be, but we know when Christ appears to us we will be like Him for we will see Him as He is. We cannot get ahead of the revelation -- though it tarry, wait for it. How often we act in the manner of Abraham, knowing that something must come to pass, we seek a shortcut and produce Ishmael instead of Isaac.

Every vision has its appointed time. All we can do is ready ourselves, cultivating purity, prayer, and patience. We have eternal life, the life of Christ now through faith in Him, but it may not be in full bloom – for each of us the time and season varies when we produce the broad, open, glorious flower of the saint, when our lives unfold in all of the shocking, rich beauty they possess in potential. Though it tarry, wait for it.

It will surely come. It is impossible for God to fail or deceive. He is not a trickster, giving you something evil because you did not word your request precisely enough. Rest upon the word of God, upon His promises. Notice that the sentence opens encouraging us to wait even if it tarries then closes telling us that it will not tarry. It will not tarry beyond its appointed time, and that timing is never wrong, never too late, and never too early. I have many times wished God operated ahead of schedule and delivered what we need early, but He does not. He always gets it to us precisely when it is needed, when it is most effective in carrying us to the summit, lifting us out of the pit, or transforming us.

There is no room in faith for pride or self-exaltation. No one who is living by faith should ever say, “Look how great is my faith and what it has accomplished.” We are reminded again that all virtue lies not in the one who believes but in the One who is believed in. Even our trust does not “earn” the grace or favor of God. Trust is the child of humility.

If the Lord says something once it is important. How much more if He repeats it as He does Habakkuk’s cry: the just shall live by his faith. It echoes word for word in Romans 1:17, in Galatians 3:11, and in Hebrews 10:38. John 3:36 says: He that believes in the Son has everlasting life. In First John 5:4 we read: This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith.

Believe, and live.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Merciful Men in a Cruel World

A merciful man does good to his own soul, but he that is cruel troubles his own flesh -- Proverbs 11:17

Yet another week in which I have far more to do than I can get done. Yesterday -- for Mother's Day -- I carried our finish mower over to my nephew's so he could weld up a broken tab on the frame. This led to a deep conversation about the nature of good and evil and what it means to live a righteous and Christian life. Naturally.

My nephew, M.L., was nipping on 100-proof Hot Damn which I think he said was some kind of schnapps. He kept it capped while the sparks were flying. For all of his flaws and faults, M.L. is the epitome of the merciful man. Yesterday, in addition to fixing my mower, he was counseling and assisting a friend of his whose wife had left him after nineteen years of marriage -- left him for an ex-con. The man had been suicidal earlier in the week. When I left, the two of them were heading out to try and locate some of the man's equipment his wife had stolen when she left. He had no objection to her taking household items and whatever she needed. But, why, he asked, did she have to take his chainsaw and all three weedeaters?

It is rare that a person can go over to M.L.'s place and not find him helping someone. He's a big dude and more than a little woolly. Sightings of him on dark Ozark nights have probably contributed to the legend of Mo-Mo -- our local version of Bigfoot. Nevertheless, little kids are all drawn to him, knowing instinctively that no harm can possibly come to them in his presence. He is very much like the character of Hoss Cartwright from "Bonanza", a man of great strength, humor and good sense, dangerous only to injustice and unrighteousness.

He and his friend are younger than I am by twenty years, but we all know we are anachronisms, dinosaurs -- men who still live by their word, who have to do what is right, carry the load, and meet the challenge, and yet we are despised by the world for exactly the reasons we are in the world.

In a way we are like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. The things we know are right and true seem sadly of little consequence in a world reveling in its own cool, rational insanity. Like Bell, we at times may think we are "overmatched", that there is no longer any way for us to win against this bizarre yet efficient opponent.

And there may not be. It doesn't matter. Quitting is not an option. Bell could resign from office, but we cannot resign from life -- not righteously anyway. We agree that at the end of the trail in the long cold dark, there will be a familiar face waiting for us with a warm fire and a pot of coffee. There is no way to get there except to keep going.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil?

Nevertheless, these dreamers likewise defile their flesh, despise authority, and blaspheme glorious beings. Yet Michael the archangel, when he was disputing with the devil in a debate about the body of Moses, did not dare bring an abusive condemnation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” – Jude 8-9

Respect, let alone sympathy, for the devil would seem to be an odd attitude to have, especially for a mighty archangel. However, reading the whole book of Jude, or the very similar book of Second Peter, I realize that post-modernism is hardly modern, that deconstructionists and relativists were hanging around outside the gates of Eden.

The denigration of authority is founded upon the rejection of absolute truth. When the American colonies rebelled, they, conversely, did so on the basis of absolute truth. As our friend Van has pointed out, this is a difference between the nature of the American Revolution and the French Revolution and goes a long way in explaining the different outcomes. The Declaration of Independence does not reject authority as much as it appeals to the Highest Authority, to Truth itself.

What Jude points out is that it is better, in the absence of complete knowledge, to give at least a nod to limited authority and leave the “rebuking” up to God. Michael knew what his job was, and he intended to do it. The devil opposed him. The archangel, not knowing what the devil’s job might be, respected the fact that Satan is sometimes given a limited amount of power to accomplish the Lord’s hidden purposes – I almost said ‘occult purposes’, which is, I think, technically correct but kind of scary.

In the second chapter of Second Thessalonians, Paul describes what many interpret as an anti-christ figure. The Apostle calls him “the man of lawlessness”. By definition the one who rejects the Law – that is, the revelation of God’s absolute nature as Truth, sets himself up as god. But then who decides who decides? Thus we have lawlessness, anarchy, and chaos.

Walt accused me yesterday of sounding like a revolutionary, and I am often accused of being revolting. But my rebellion should be only against the denial of the Absolute by the relative. Even in this, I must emulate Michael for I do not know but what the adversary’s hindrance serves God’s greater good. Consider the experience of Paul in the book of Acts:

They went through the regions of Phrygia and Galatia and were prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in the province of Asia. When they came to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, bypassing Mysia, they came down to Troas. During the night a vision appeared to Paul: a Macedonian man was standing and pleading with him, “Cross over to Macedonia and help us!” (Acts 16:6-9)

And so, the gospel came to Europe.

Though Luke writes that the Spirit hindered Paul from going one place or another, it is quite likely that the missionaries encountered obstructions and difficulties that led them to conclude that God was sending them in a different direction.

There are times when we encounter obstacles we must overcome. Sometimes God calls us to struggle against apparent failures and break through dead ends. Yet, wisdom suggests we remain respectful or at least circumspect toward what opposes us if we are to truly walk in God’s will. A locked door may need to be kicked in, but it should be the Lord’s boot.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Accept No Substitutes

Who is he who speaks and it comes to pass when the Lord has not commanded it? – Lamentations 3:37I have for many years gotten a newsletter from a reasonably well-known minister. He is considered by many to be something of a prophet, and he is in the sense that he speaks forth the word of God. I don’t think he has done so well on predictions. He used to always talk about being hit with Russian nuclear missiles, and he could still be right. It becomes more of a possibility as Obama dismantles our capacity to respond. Of course, he is currently talking about the financial collapse, and he brings up a term used by the Puritans who spoke of some events as being “signal judgments”: an event that serves to warn.

Ignoring the world in general for a moment, we are all familiar with signal judgments. We call them by other names like “misfortune”, “bad timing”, “circumstances beyond our control”, etc. Every event in our lives can be illuminated from within and take on significance if we can pay attention.

I don’t often pay attention. I’m so caught up in just making it through the day and dealing with crises and consequences that I forget these very problems have God’s signature on them. He has authorized them. To accept this, I have to expand my faith a little beyond the usual boundaries of Christian thought, a little beyond being good and pleasant and nice and making everyone feel comfortable. I have to embrace some dark hollows, step into the water and realize there is ice forming on the edges. “Jesus loves me, this I know” still applies, but love takes on some added dimensions.

One of his lovers said of Lord Byron that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Jesus, too, is dangerous to know, dangerous to love because once we step in, He is never going to stop challenging us and pulling us further in.

There are many “lifestyle” Christians. No one in their right mind can argue that there are not positive benefits to the Christian lifestyle. It is, in fact, the default lifestyle in Western Civilization, or it has been up until the last fifty years or so. It is the foundation on which our society is built. I think that is good and should continue. I think the world would be much better off if everyone went to church at least once a week, if families prayed over their meals, if we were accountable to one another in the church for the things we do outside the church, if our children were told to abstain until marriage, if divorce were rare, if the music we listened to glorified virtue instead of vice and celebrated righteousness instead of wickedness, if Hollywood produced more movies in the vein of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and fewer like “Rendition”, if television were more “Andy Griffith” and less “Sex and the City”.

Yet, even if I had my way, it would not be enough for God. It would be a better world but it would not be the Kingdom. A Christian lifestyle is good and positive and healthy but it only makes for a better and more tolerable flatland. Living like Ozzie and Harriet or Ward and June Cleaver means you are a decent, honorable person worthy of emulation, but you may yet be far from the Kingdom, living in the wilderness. Thus the Christian right, though they would generally agree with what I’m saying, still ignore the reality most of the time. Meanwhile the cynics and detractors miss the point that the conservative corporate cog Ward Cleaver is a mystic wreathed in fragrant fumes of Prince Albert, esoteric and wildly sage, as exotic in his own way reading the runes on the evening paper as a tattooed witchdoctor examining the entrails of a freshly slaughtered chicken.

Is there a greater failure of faith than to limit God, to cage Him, to claim His unending love and His infinite mercy make Him comprehensible – make Him tame? He is waking us up. He is breaking out in the midst of us in swelling, rolling floods of passion, in flames like fiery roses to which we are drawn until our pain becomes our all-consuming joy.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Reason for Liberation

And when they came nigh to Jerusalem, unto Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, He sent forth two of His disciples and said unto them, “Go your way into the village opposite you, and as soon as ye have entered into it, ye shall find a colt tied, whereon never man sat. Loose him and bring him. And if any man say unto you, ‘Why do ye this?’ say ye that the Lord hath need of him, and straightway he will send him hither.”

And they went their way and found the colt tied outside by the door at a place where two ways met, and they loosed him. And certain of those who stood there said unto them, “What do ye, loosing the colt?” And they said unto them even as Jesus had commanded, and they let them go. – Mark 11:1-6

This is how the triumphal entry into Jerusalem began. Jesus knew who He was. He knew His position, His authority, and His destiny. He was born a king. By entering Jerusalem seated on a donkey that had never been ridden, He was proclaiming the initiation of His rightful rule over mankind. He did not come on a great warhorse as conqueror. When the kingdom passed from David to Solomon, David instructed that his chosen successor should be seated upon his own mule, signifying the peaceful and voluntary transfer of authority from father to son.

The Bible does not say, but it is interesting to speculate that the colt was not only one that had never been ridden – but that it was a first-born colt. If that were the case, it would belong to the Lord. The first-born male of a clean animal had to be sacrificed according to the Law, but the first-born male of an unclean animal, such as the ass, could be redeemed – have a price paid for it in exchange for its life. An animal the owner did not wish to redeem had to have its neck broken. It was understood that these animals did not belong to the person but to the Lord Himself. This would go well with the instruction Jesus gave to say “the Lord hath need of him”.

I have a lot in common with that lowly donkey. Like it I have been redeemed, but most of the time I seem to just be going about the mundane affairs of everyday life, hauling loads, packing someone around, or standing tied to a post. My life appears quite ordinary and untouched by the Divine. Yet, again like that colt, I still belong to the Lord. Though I was redeemed, it only means that the price was paid that I might live, but this life isn’t mine. You are not your own; you have been bought with a price.

I am allowed to pursue my own ends most of the time. My life is not given fulltime in service to God as we normally think of it. I can do my secular job to please my earthly employer, to gain money and status for myself. Or I can take the approach Paul recommends: And whatsoever you do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord and not unto men (Colossian 3:23). I can see that because my life is redeemed and truly belongs to Christ, my thoughts, words, and actions take on a new significance. The trivial becomes profound, the profane is made holy, and the common is injected with glory.

The other thing I have in common with the donkey is that when the Lord had need of me for some special purpose, I am set free. Nothing will be able to hold me back. When the Lord calls, I have no excuse. I am free to bear His easy, light and joyous burden.

Monday, May 4, 2009

It's a Rainy Spring Day on the Plateau

My frequent visiting Great Blue Heron is not willing to stand for his portrait -- at least not that close.

He'll try to outlast me to get back to fishing.

You have to click on this one to see the spring colors, especially on the ridge.

A wild, native dogwood up close.

And a little further back.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Meditation: The Price Was Paid

Father, You remember that Jesus was despised and rejected.
Love and accept me.
Father, You remember that Jesus was a Man of sorrows.
Fill me with joy.
Father, You remember how we turned away and hid our faces from Jesus.
Turn not Your face from us.
Father, You remember that Jesus was wounded for my transgressions, bruised for my iniquities.
Forgive me.
Father, You remember that Jesus was chastised, beaten.
Give me Your peace.
Father, You remember that Jesus was whipped, His flesh torn and striped.
Heal me.
Father, You remember that Jesus cried out, "Why have You forsaken Me?"
Abide in me by Your Spirit.

The Lord did not suffer in vain. Let me lack nothing for which He has paid.

What He has provided, receive.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Glass Has Room for More

Then the glory of the LORD moved away from the threshold of the temple and stood above the cherubim. The cherubim lifted their wings and ascended from the earth right before my eyes; … -- Ezekiel 10:18-19

Israel did not cease to be God’s chosen people when the glory of the Lord departed from the temple. There would be a restoration, and the Messiah would yet appear, Himself a descendant of the Davidic royal line through His mother. Nevertheless, the departure of God’s Spirit from the midst of His people signaled a time of judgment and purging.

God punished His people as a father punishes a son, to correct. We misunderstand the Lord entirely if we believe that our suffering for our sins, or even for our stupidity, somehow satisfies God’s sense of justice. A normal parent takes no pleasure from discipline and feels no satisfaction in a child’s suffering. It is only when the effects of the corrections are seen in the child’s behavior and attitude that the parent is pleased with what he knew he had to do.

America doesn’t seem to be so much a wicked nation – though there are many evil people running loose – as a reckless, thoughtless nation. We have forgotten, ignored, or thought we were exempt from the basic principle: whatsoever ye sow, that shall ye also reap. That is just the way things work, and there is no way around it. I do not fear God’s judgment upon the nation as much as I dread the snowballing consequences of irresponsible actions, of our having shoved our problems a few years into the future for decades. Somebody at some time is going to have to pay up.

The decisions of every generation will impact future generations. This is why the Lord says He visits the sins of the fathers onto the children, the grandchildren, and even the great-grandchildren. We, by our choices, can severely limit the choices available to those who follow us. We are limited now. My guess is that what is happening this spring inside the Beltway would be happening no matter how the elections had turned out last fall. The details of the bailouts, interventions, and debt loads would be different, but the essence would be the same: push the crisis forward a few more years. The current leadership in Washington fears it will be blamed and lose power if it allows the crisis to work itself out, so it intervenes and eases the pain in the short-term while making the inevitable crash that much worse. My sense is that it is not going to work this time.

And the seventh angel sounded, and there were great voices in Heaven, saying, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever!” (Revelation 11:15)

This is where we are headed. I’m not sure when we get there. I’d say sometime between a week from next Thursday and June 30, 3009, but I’m not making any predictions.

I most often think of us as degenerating. I think we are less capable than previous generations, less independent, less resilient. We are increasingly vulgar and rude. We are more indoctrinated and less educated. Politically, we are less a republic and more an oligarchy – or perhaps a plutocracy, or even a kleptocracy. The founding of America as an independent nation was a high point in human history. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights encapsulate the zenith of western thought. It has been, in many ways, downhill from there. But it has only been a little over two hundred years. We are still on the spiral.

At some point humanity will reject relativism and return to Truth. A whole raft load of progressives from Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama will be judged by history as somewhere between misguided and malicious with regard to their meddling in the free market. It may not turn around in America. The change may come in China, India, or Brazil. Nevertheless, once truth is loosed in the world, it maybe suppressed for a time, but it cannot be eliminated. The self-evident truths of the Declaration have entered the consciousness of man. A generation or a century of cowardice will not erase what has been written. We know we have rights – though we may not know from where they come.

Christ has been crucified. The mustard seed has been sown. Once He had died, nothing could stop His resurrection. The seed will grow.

Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord abandon the temple in Jerusalem, but later he prophesied:

Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep My judgments and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave your fathers; and ye shall be My people, and I will be your God (Ezekiel 36:25-28).

“And ye shall be My people, and I will be your God”. I like that. Fill 'er up.