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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Slow Fade

...[N]ot like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so the sons of Israel could not look at the end of what was fading away — 2 Corinthians 3:13

You know my love'll not fade away — Charles Hardin Holley

When Moses went into the Tabernacle and spent time there in the presence of the Lord, he was transformed. He absorbed so much of the glory of God that he began to glow with it. His face was filled with light that shone outward. The record in Exodus 34:29ff indicates that the observers were greatly disturbed by this phenomenon and fled from Moses in fear. Accordingly Moses covered his face so that he would not scare them. But Paul points out something more, that there was almost a shame on the part of Moses that this supernatural glow was bound to lessen, to decay as he was away from the Presence. As frightening as it might have been to see a man with light emanating from his face, it was a little disgusting to see him slowly return to normal.

The fact is that the flesh simply cannot contain the glory of God for an extended period of time. Either the glory must fade away, or the flesh must fade away. Most of the old-time, sincere Christians I knew were good folks of the fading variety. They were at church a minimum of three times a week and did some praying in between. Their frequent encounters with God kept their glow going, but they were always looking for the next recharge. They did not seem to be able to sustain the presence of God if they were not actively focused on Him in worship or praise, prayer or study.

I have met a few people along the way who, for whatever reason, seemed always to be on fire with the glory of God. They were like the bush that Moses encountered — burning but, seemingly, not consumed. And yet something is consumed. The old nature is like a volatile sap, or like oil in a wick that is constantly aflame, though the wick itself seems to endure. These are saints indeed, and rare.

Far more common these days are the good Christians who do not give much thought to the glory of God or to joy. They think that Christianity is about discipline and endurance and sacrifice and duty and seeing the whole horrid mess through until the bitter end. I am in deepest sympathy with those folks. I may be the poster child for them. I will do what's right if it kills me, and more and more I think it will. If I can't do any better, if this is the best I can do then I'll dig in and stick it out.

Still, dear God, what I'd give to just stand and burn.

I know He's right here. Here. Right now. I know that in Him — right now, I live and move. I know this life I think of as mine isn't. It is His. My God is a consuming fire. Why can't I burn?

Buddy's love will not fade away. How much less the love of God toward us. There is no need for the light ever to fade. They claim that the famous lightbulb at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth lasted so long because it was never turned out. If it's true of honky-tonk illumination, surely it must apply to us and the heavenly illumination in our being.

I won't say it is a failing on the part of the biblical revelation. The revelation is primarily an unveiling of truth. We are not often told how we are expected to feel. How does it feel to be on fire with light? To what may we liken the burn of illumination? Could it feel like this?

My hands were lifted up all night long; I refused to be comforted. I think of God; I groan; I meditate; my spirit becomes weak. You have kept me from closing my eyes; I am troubled and cannot speak. I consider days of old, years long past. At night I remember my music ...

Because, if it does, maybe I am burning after all. No doubt it would sometimes get a little smokey. Trim your lamps, He says. Sometimes it might ignite a little dross. The impurities might give off unpleasantness. Unhappy things might come out under stress.

The face of Moses, they said, shone with the glory of God. And Moses knew it not.

... not fade away ... not fade away ... not fade away ...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Chung en Teak

I have a proposal that should be immediately passed by Congress and made the law of the land. It will require retrofitting of existing vehicles, installation of new equipment on all new vehicles sold in America, and the issuance of new drivers' licenses, but we can consider all that as part of the economic stimulus.

Here's how it works. Everybody gets to drive their age. What we do is embed the birth date of every driver on a strip in the driver's license. Then we install a keycard reader connected to the main chip on all vehicles. For some older models this may require a little re-wiring but I'm sure even a '57 Chevy could be made compliant. The chip will act as a governor to control the top speed of the vehicle based on the driver's age in years figured from their last birthday — always rounding down to the lower whole number. On your birthday, you get another mile per hour. Most of us will have a reason to look forward to birthdays again. Some women might refuse to drive over 39.

Now to consider the advantages. First, this will clearly save fuel. Either 16 to 25 year olds will ride their bikes, or go looking for Grandma. Maybe even Great-Grandma.

Accidents will be reduced as most accidents happen with younger drivers. Even a head-on isn't so bad at 16 mph. The best a couple of teenagers playing chicken can do will be a maximum 38 and a couple of bent bonnets. Anybody should be able to stay on hood-surfing under 20. Fewer accidents, lower insurance costs.

Families will be brought together. Your 68 year old grandfather takes on a whole new value when you're late for work.

In general our society worships youth and denigrates old age. This will change. Corporate executives will view the most elderly drivers as new status symbols. When you can do 105, you'll get respect.

It will give a whole new meaning to the NASCAR senior circuit.

Not only will this eliminate the Social Security crisis as the elderly find gainful employment chauffeuring the youngsters, youth will not mind nearly so much supporting life-extending and life-enhancing medical treatments for their drivers.

In addition to all these other benefits, it just seems to make sense that the people with the lesser amount of time should be allowed to get where they're going faster.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Improbably Impossible

Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."

But some of the scribes were sitting there, thinking to themselves: "Why does He speak like this? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Right away Jesus understood in His spirit that they were reasoning like this within themselves and said to them, "Why are you reasoning these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven', or to say, 'Get up, pick up your stretcher and walk'? But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin," He told the paralytic, "I tell you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go home." — Mark 2:5-11

A few weeks ago I was thinking about the first few verses in Mark 2 which describe the situation of Jesus being in a house and some men lowering a paralytic through the roof when they were unable to press through the crowd. We return at the point where this act of faith has been completed and the paralyzed man has been brought into the presence of the Lord. In response to the faith of those who brought the cripple, Jesus offers the man forgiveness for his sins.

Upon hearing His words, the church people are quite indignant at Jesus, and, in their hearts, accuse Him of blasphemy. Let's put aside for the moment the issue of Christ's divinity which makes "who can forgive sin but God alone" a moot point. Jesus asks those experts in religion, doctrine, and Scripture a simple question. Which is easier: to offer forgiveness for the soul or to provide healing for the body?

That Jesus had been healing the sick must have been an established and widely known fact based on the press of the crowd and the effort put forth by the bearers of the paralytic to reach Him. He was traveling around the country delivering many from the bondage of sickness, disease, and oppression. Apparently His ministry of healing caused the scribes no theological or doctrinal problems. They could accept Christ as a healer. This fit in somehow with their understanding of their covenant with God. They saw God as One who provided material blessing in this life as they did their part to keep His law. He would give them prosperity, peace, and good health if they lived as a holy people, which meant, to them, carefully obeying the myriad of rules that had grown up around the core moral law, as well as the many regulations of ceremony with regard to the temple and the sacrifices.

Such a view is not that far from the modern mind. Many of us have probably thought that if we do right, things, in the end, will be all right. We think that a person who consistently does wrong will, soon or later, run up against the consequences of his or her actions. There are many who teach that if we give money to God through certain ministries, we can count on getting back money and material blessings from God compounded at a very attractive rate. Even Jesus said, did He not, "Give and it shall be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over shall men give into your bosom. For with the measure you use, it shall be measured back to you." Or, as one fellow used to put it, "Finances are the barometer of your Christian life." My good friends who are Word of Faith people paraphrase Third John 2, saying, that God means for us to "prosper and be in health, even as [our] soul prospers".

Sure, we may have to go through trials similar to those experienced by Job, but didn't he get double back for all he lost in the end? I guess I'm just sentimental, but if I lost one of my kids, getting two replacements would not be exactly my idea of restoration. I go more with what David said when the child of his and Bathsheba's adultery died: "He cannot come to me, but I will go to him." Solomon, who essentially "replaced" that unnamed child, was much beloved by David, and by God — who called him, Jedidiah, "beloved of the LORD". Still, it is obvious from his statement that David considered the child irreplaceable and that restoration awaited in the Resurrection.

Prosperity or poverty, health or sickness, justice or injustice, freedom or oppression, a great many of us spend our lives seeking one and seeking to avoid the other. We seem to believe that happiness lies at the positive pole in all things. God's job, we think, is to give us all the good stuff and protect us from the bad. When evil does occur in our lives or the lives of those closest to us, we agonize and question — as perhaps we must. Again and again God reveals to us — if we can receive it — that what we see in this life is but a glimpse of Reality, a shadow in a valley. Our traverse of this path is above all redemptive, for ourselves and for our fellow travelers in all their many forms. Though angels need no redemption except they be fallen, there is perhaps even some benefit to their destiny as they help us along here.

Which is easier? Both healing and forgiveness are impossible apart from God. But forgiveness is the vital need of humanity. A man may enter into Life from a stretcher, but he cannot enter until he receives God's forgiveness. A poor, sick, oppressed man can endure his trials knowing that he is liberated from the burden of his sins. Give a man every material blessing but withhold forgiveness, and he is dead while he lives. My Word of Faith friends are right — it is "soul prosperity" that is the issue. As Jesus said, "Seek ye first the kingdom..." — that's the part that matters.

What Jesus is really bringing to us is forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. He brings the ultimate healing, makes our souls to prosper, and gives us everlasting life. Health and wealth may be "signs", in a sense, even as Christ's healing ministry was a sign of His authority, but they are merely signs and not the thing itself. The prodigal probably doesn't need many signs at all to find his way back home.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Low Volume

The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness,
But who can bear a broken spirit? --Proverbs 18:14

It doesn't look like I'll have much time to post or comment this week. When I do have some time, I'll probably be reading Francis Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe. I started it over the weekend and took a break to watch The Last of the Mohicans. "Find yourself a musket."

A good read at First Things comparing Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy on the 20th anniversary of Percy's death.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I'm not a brave person. I don't know that I've ever done anything brave. I have done dangerous things and lots and lots of foolish things. Sometimes I did dangerous things because I didn't know any better, sometimes because I was too afraid to admit I was a coward, and sometimes because it had to be done. I've gotten off a motorcycle just about every way imaginable: high-side, low-side, over the handlebars and off the back. Every once in a while I stopped the bike before I got off. I've tried riding horses that didn't want to be ridden — and I know a couple of unique ways of dismounting. I've been punched, kicked, stomped, knocked down, and my pastor ran over me with a car. I'm not brave but I do have a high tolerance for pain.

Snakes used to scare me. My mom once beat me for what seemed like a good thirty minutes trying to get me to go into the cellar after, I think, a jar of pickles. I had seen a lizard's tail — but it could have been a snake — flash behind something down there the day before and a whipping didn't seem all that bad. I have a high tolerance for pain. I'm not scared of snakes any more, but they still creep me out. If I walk up on one unexpectedly, I exhale forcefully enough to make a distinctive sound, sort of like "ah-fhoo". Releasing my ki, I then moonwalk about six inches off the ground and proceed to chop the poor creature into multiple pieces or blast it into the next county.

I used to be afraid of heights, but I could climb to the top of any tree — maybe I figured I'd hit a limb on the way down. I could shinny up a rope, but I didn't trust ladders. Eventually I got used to stuff like that. Flying never bothered me, though otherwise I don't necessarily like being more than twenty or thirty feet off the ground, and I'd never make it as an ironworker, but I wouldn't call it a phobia.

I rode all the rides at the fair when I was a kid. I never liked the ferris wheel unless I was riding with a kissable girl. The first really cool rollercoaster I rode was at Silver Dollar City: Fire In The Hole. It was a brandnew ride when I got on in 1972. A few days ago I rode it with my fifteen-year-old granddaughter, and, even though we had ridden it about seven times in a row just before the park closed for the winter, it still made her scream when we took the first drop in the dark. It is a combination dark ride and rollercoaster, all indoors, and a cult classic.

But SDC has more rollercoasters these days. There is Thunderation, a rather modest steel coaster that goes through a tunnel and has several cars turned backward. It tops out a little under 50mph and has an 80-foot drop. Then there is Powderkeg, a launched coaster that goes from a deadstop to 53 mph in 2.8 seconds. You'll pull about 3.9g's on Powderkeg. It tops out close to 65mph and has a 110-foot drop. It is over half a mile long, has lots of curves, and is very smooth despite the acceleration. I'd call it my favorite Silver Dollar City ride. Finally, there is Wildfire. It maxes out at 3.6g's, but the top speed is a little higher than Powderkeg. It also has a 155 foot drop and I don't know how many inversions. I don't know how many inversions, despite the fact that I rode it twice last Saturday. A bunch. Upside down is not one of my favorite positions. I can handle acceleration. The drop isn't that bad, but upside down I wasn't too sure about.

It was just my granddaughter and me on the rides, and she cannot be intimidated. I was with her on her first little steel rollercoaster — which also went upside down. I can still hear her screaming that she was going to kill me for talking her into it. She's fifteen. Probably next year or the year after, she'll be riding with a boyfriend. Loops don't make any difference. We rode Powderkeg and the Giant Swing. The Swing was kind of a letdown. It's not nearly as cool as our old favorite the Orbiter at the late lamented Celebration City park.

From the Swing we went to Wildfire. I was not really looking forward to it, but I wasn't going to back out. I made sure the pockets of my cargo pants were well secured. You're in a car on Wildfire, but you can't touch the floor. The harness comes down and buckles with a couple of seatbelt-type straps. There's no question that you are locked in tight. I made it all right going up the hill and through the big drop. I saw that first loop coming, and I did the unthinkable. I shut my eyes. Like a twelve-year-old girl. I don't think I screamed. After that, the loops just kept coming, and I made it without a major heartattack. We left the park for a little while to eat a late lunch and came back to ride Thunderation backward until our backs gave out. Then we hit Powderkeg three or four more times.

Finally, after sunset, it was back for one more shot at Wildfire. My granddaughter was going to ride it by herself, thinking, I suppose, that I hadn't really enjoyed it the last time. She had seen my pained picture in the gallery. Now the crowd had thinned. As I walked toward the entrance, I thought about the harness. I checked my pockets. Lunch had been shaken down on the other rides. There was no chance I was going to lose it. "I think I'm good this time," I said. "I think I'll ride."

I was relaxed enough as I strapped in. With eyes wide-open, I took in the sometimes blurred track ahead. Every turn, every loop was just more to be enjoyed. I was completely at peace, laughing in the cool breeze, ground over my head, stars under foot.

God answers prayers, then, through the limitless array of experiences, reactions, and thoughts that come to us, both despite of and in light of what we may think of as unanswered prayers. There are always responses ... (Spoto, In Silence)

Prayer is never unanswered. It sensitizes us to the will of God. God's will is revealed to us as we pray, and, in our prayer, we find the power to embrace that will and unite our own with His. We find that His will is not something to dread. Jesus was not masochistic or stoic when He said, "Not My will, but Thine be done", and neither are we.

In fact, it is a lot like learning to love rollercoasters and thrill rides. Once you are convinced that the designers mean to create sensations rather than kill you, it is easy to relax and — ok, maybe not relax — but thoroughly enjoy the trip. Once we learn that God's intention is not to destroy us or play games with us, but rather to give us eternal, abundant life, joy, and peace, we may not be able to exactly relax, but we can certainly begin to appreciate the track we find ourselves on. Even if it's upside down in the dark.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Why We Pray

What are our thoughts but silent prayers? What are our good works but pleas for blessings and forgivenness? What are our labors but prayers for success and prosperity? What are good habits but a petition for good health?

I am reading a book by Donald Spoto, In Silence: Why We Pray. I find much of it helpful and affirming. One of the things Spoto attacks (though attack is a strong word for a writer so obviously broad and tolerant in his approach) is prayer as magic. Magic involves bargaining and manipulation. We are probably all tempted to do this at times as we approach God and bring our concerns to Him. We want an often-miraculous solution to a problem. In fact, this is such a common misunderstanding of prayer that it is used by people like Dawkins as evidence that God does not exist — or doesn't matter. Dawkins claims, if I remember correctly, that people who are in touch with God should be able to consistently win the lottery — either by praying that their numbers would come up or that God, who sees the future, would tell them what the numbers will be for the next draw.

We'll put aside for the moment the utter ridiculousness of this argument for anyone who actually knows anything about Christianity. It is essentially the same as asking why all Christians can't fly or walk on water. The materialist mistakes prayer and communion with God for magic. The devil, whom I have reason to suspect is quite real and a person in the broad sense of the word, may work magically on a very limited scale to lure in some of his adherents. God does not.

Spoto does a good job of clarifying the purpose and intent of genuine prayer, and he illustrates the difference between the legitimate Christian prayer of petition and magic as he goes line by line through Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer. He also discusses the will of God in relation to the will of man — his point being that God does not have a will in the same constrained sense man does. We can speak of God's will only by analogy to our own — a valid understanding I think. After all, God, as Spoto points out earlier, differs from us in that He is not a "Being among beings" — He is not an Individual among individuals. He is a Person in relation to us, as possessing some of the attributes of a human personality. Though it is probably better to say that we are like God in possessing some of His personality attributes in our small way, since we are made in His image rather than the reverse.

While I generally agree with Spoto's analysis and reflections, I struggled with some of his language:

It is always tempting to regard prayer as the solution to a problem — or, worse, to all problems. But prayer is not a means of escape from the ordinary lot of physical and emotional life, which necessarily involves experiences of diminishment, darkness and dying. In fact, prayer is rarely the solution to any problem at all.

The issue here is the use of the words "problem" and "solution". Spoto is using them in a sort of technical sense, but he does not bother to tell us that up front. We have figure it out from the context. See how he concludes that paragraph:

We do not pray for utilitarian or functional or financial reasons, nor because prayer can produce beneficial results. We pray to know more deeply Whose we are; from that awareness derives everything we genuinely need in life.

So, contrary to what the author seems to be saying about prayer not solving problems, he proclaims prayer as the solution to all problems. Prayer does without question produce "beneficial results" if it results in us knowing "more deeply Whose we are". What it does not necessarily result in are UPS deliveries of free red bikes on Christmas Eve. I think knowing why I am here and being in communion with the One who sent me here, is pretty "utilitarian" and "functional". I think we will have a lot fewer financial problems if we understand our purpose and destiny, which, as Spoto agrees, is revealed through prayer.

Paul's words to the Athenians are recorded in Acts, Chapter 17. In that passage, he says: that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also His offspring' (Acts 17:27-28). Spoto uses these words as a springboard to consider the intimate nature of prayer. It is not a long-distance communication with a distant, withdrawn Deity who must be appeased by sacrifice and approached with formality. (Formality and reverence are not equivalent.)

Prayer is much like breathing. We do it, Spoto believes, whether we realize it or not. When Paul urges the Thessalonians to "pray without ceasing", this is what he must have in mind. Our lives are prayers. Our thoughts are prayers. Our words and our works are prayers. We are doing all we do in Him for our being is given to us by Him and it continues only because of His presence. How could it be otherwise in light of the truth that God is so near to us, that our lives are inextricably bound up in His, that He, as the Ultimate Reality, is the Father of us and of our reality. If we reject that light, we have nothing but darkness: ... If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness. Apart from prayer, there is no life. There is only emptiness and bleak, meaningless existence — hell.