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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hard Looks

Don’t wear yourself out to get rich; stop giving attention to it. As soon as your eyes fly to it, it disappears – Proverbs 22:4-5

Today we see how to tell the difference between the temporal and the timeless, between the living and the dead, between the wheat and the chaff.

That which is eternal is glorious. Glory connotes weight, a certain substantiality of existence and a heaviness that bears down upon our perception. Perhaps density would be a good way to think of it. When we attend to that which is eternal, it stays put and becomes clearer, ever deeper, and more authentic. When we attend to the temporal – whether wealth or fame or worldly acclaim, when we live for satisfaction, we find that it flits away, seeming always just a little out of reach. If we make the “necessities” of this life our focus, we will never have enough of those necessities, either because we will fall into poverty or because we will never know when we have enough. It’s similar to two forms of malnutrition – the starving Ethiopian version and the Michael Moore version.

We can see it in religion, business, government, sports, art, even in relationships. Trying to grasp the good is like trying to embrace a vapor. In order to draw good out of the world, we look long at and love the Good.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

We all, with unveiled faces, are looking at as in a mirror the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18)

…We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is (1 John 3:2)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fig leaves and Spiderwebs

But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” – Genesis 3:9

Did the Lord need to ask this question? We could see this as the Divine Parent addressing the misbehaving child with a rhetorical, “What have you done?” On one level, God calls man to become aware of his state, make his confession, and begin his return to right-standing. God needs to and does ask all of us this same question. Beyond that, however, sin creates what appears to be an impenetrable wall between God and man. In some sense, apart from Christ, man is hidden from his Creator.

God cannot “see through” sin. He does not lack the power, but it runs across the grain of His Being. It is like interference. Sin always involves some kind of deception. To deceive is to hide or obscure truth in some manner. If we think about it, the whole idea that we will tell people things we ourselves do not believe or that we know to be untrue is rather fantastic. That deception can at times appear the wise or reasonable path shows us how twisted we are. Most of us do not approve of being lied to, but we have fewer qualms about lying to others – from the peace-keeping “No, Honey, your butt doesn’t look big” to the desperate “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes.” Hiding behind falsehood is almost the definition of humanity.

If there is any flaw in The Screwtape Letters, it is that ol’ Screwtape seems to reveal more than a devil should, even among his colleagues. Lewis was aware of this, but he had to pull the curtain back a little. To tell the truth in the negative you still have to tell the truth. In his foreword, Lewis described what he wanted to avoid: But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell. The humorous, civilized, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.

Far from liberating us, evil is a lock that disguises itself as a key, a predator that looks like prey. Evil hides by its very nature, and the follower of evil is swallowed up and hidden within sin’s dark belly. We recall God’s words to Cain: If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.. Deception is pictured as a wild beast that will turn on and devour its master if we fail to keep it beaten down.

It is not that God does not see evil taking place. Our sins are not hidden from Him. No one is getting away with anything in the dark. Rather, because the sinner is cloaked in sin, God no longer sees His own image and likeness. He does not rain down judgment upon man but upon sin. Of course, if one is “in sin” when the smack-down comes, the effect is pretty much the same.

The one Man of whom the Father never lost sight was the Son – not until the Cross when the Son was enveloped by the darkness of the sin of all humanity. Christ’s obedience and perfect righteousness, even when engulfed by evil, shattered the big lie once and for all. Sin was turned inside out. And sin's captives were set free -- dumped out like reprieved kittens from a tow sack.

Sin no longer hides us from God. We need no longer take sin as a covering for our nakedness: Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. As Paul said, …[W]e do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. We are clothed with Christ and hidden in Him.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Glory Road

I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge.
And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands.
They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. -- Revelation 20:4

If America falls darkness will cover the earth for a thousand years. -- Tagline of an unknown Free Republic poster

I’m not sure what the person has in mind by the phrase “if America falls”. Perhaps it is that the Old World is falling already, falling to apathy, to bureaucratic tyranny, falling to economic stupidity, to nihilism, to Islam. The shadow of self-indulgence falls deep and very dark across the homeland of western civilization, and it dims the light even in America.

A new Dark Age is imminent, but I don’t think that’s necessarily bad news, and I don’t think it will happen tomorrow. As the daily cycles of a human life must follow one another, so the millennial cycles of civilizations must come one after the other, from vision to blindness, from glory to corruption, from prosperity to collapse. That is easy enough to see. What is probably unknowable until it happens is whether we go down in steps, in stages, or whether we go off a precipice.

We are on a downward trend at the moment, but, as an individual or a civilization, we almost always must go down in order to go up. Like the sea, life comes in waves – peaks precede troughs which precede peaks. The valley of the shadow of death seems to be a place where we lose growth and lose ground, but it is only preparing us for the next ascent. The pruning produces more fruit. He who will not enter into the little death will never know the greater life.

Any civilization, in the long run, is only temporary. Only the kingdom of God endures. Nations all pass away in time. The most insignificant and unknown souls who have ever existed exist forever – world without end.

I pray that America will not fall for many generations; I pray this nation may long endure. For if she should fall, there will be darkness and chaos and blood and death. Yet it will not be the end, only another wave, only another valley to cross that man might climb a higher peak and draw closer to the King and the Kingdom, to that reign of Christ when all shall be peace.

A little before the verse I quoted above, you will find in this book of the Apocalypse, another saying that is one of my favorites. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophesy (Revelation 19:10). While we are not all prophets, we all have what you might call a prophetic duty. We are every one called to pass on those things which are important, which are eternal. If we are as a culture approaching a valley, our duty to pass on the essential is more vital than it would be in more benevolent times.

Every life is a story. I have heard that only twenty percent of people will reach the end of their story, look back, and see that they have reached the end that God wrote for them when they entered the world. I don’t know how anyone arrived at that percentage or if it is anywhere near correct. I do know I don’t want my last breath to be a sigh of regret.

My own story is very common and undistinguished. The magnitude of my destiny matters not at all, only my willingness to be true to it.

Strange as it seems, part of the plot that I must live out is a calling to tell my small narratives, my little travelogues -- like filling in a small white spot on a map. It doesn't seem to amount to much, but who am I to say? Besides it's in my blood. My father loved telling stories, and I can't help myself. Then all my friends are storytellers. Some tell stories with words -- some with pictures -- some with paint. And that’s just to name a few.

I listen. I hear a Voice behind such soul chronicles say, Walk this way. And I add my hobbling legends, occasional marks on a map -- old when it came to me. If by grace I may pass it on for another to see a path through the shadowed valleys and crossed ways to the mountain of his destiny: Pisgah, Tabor, Moriah, or Olivet.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Better Place

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life – John 3:16

This has to be the most famous (can a verse be famous?) verse in the Bible. This is the reference on the homemade endzone signs. It’s the Billy Graham closer. It contains within it the secret of man’s creation, fall, and redemption. I would be willing to wager that more Christians know this verse by heart than any other – not counting “Jesus wept”. The nearest contender would likely be the initial lines of the Shepherd’s Psalm. “Judge not” seems to have an edge among non-believers who never bother to finish the sentence: “that ye be not judged”.

I am thinking of this well-known quote because one of my older cousins, D.A., passed away Sunday. He is what they call a double cousin. Our fathers were brothers and our mothers were sisters – not much genetic variation there. My mother once mistook a picture of my brother for one of the other set about the same age. We lived only a few miles apart, went to the same school, the same church. D.A. was, unlike some of the rest of us, a mild-tempered, easy-going man. I mostly picture him in his younger days with the stubby remains of a well-chewed cigar sticking out of his mouth. He had a distinctive drawl – I would say exaggerated but he spoke the same way when he was a small child. It was perfectly natural for him. He did a stint in the Army, but mostly he just lived out in the country and worked and raised three boys. And that’s where the verse comes in.

His oldest son was named Mike. My cousin was a few more than twenty years my senior. I was only three or four years older than Mike. I remember. Mike was a big, blond, blue-eyed, perpetually happy kid. He had just crossed over into puberty and started to stretch in height when he began to have unusual pains in his legs. No one took it seriously at first. When they did, the results were grim. It was bone cancer. His right leg gone to his hip, he shaved off the hair that didn’t fall out right away and hobbled around the yard at fourteen calling himself ‘Kojak’, while gleefully proclaiming that he had an organ longer than his leg. We knew that no one so young and otherwise healthy, no one with such a positive outlook, with so much love and support and prayer surrounding him could possibly be beaten by cancer. Before school started in the fall, Mike died.

D.A. was shattered. He had done all the right things. He had gone to church, served his country, married the girl next door. He was not a drinker, not a womanizer, not a cheat or a thief. As far as I know he never did any harm of any kind to anyone. It was impossible to imagine him doing so. But Mike was gone. D.A. did not want to hear words of comfort. Especially, he did not want to hear that Mike was “in a better place”. There was no better place for a boy than with his father.

The years dragged on. D.A. went to church and even served as a deacon. He was mostly in charge of keeping up the cemetery – a job to which he was appropriately devoted. I don’t suppose that he ever ceased to be a Christian. That would have been to him unthinkable – doubly so for he thought as little as possible of God.

Death did not cease its harvest. D.A. saw this one pass on, and that one. His older brother, very much unlike D.A. in most ways, was diagnosed with cancer himself. Tough and unrepentant to the end, the brother refused treatment, buying whiskey by the gallon to help him endure the pain. I don’t know if D.A. got a chance to talk to him. What would he have said? Yes, God is cruel and merciless, but at least you can go to heaven to live with Him forever when you die. I’m sure the hardened skeptic would have bought that ticket.

Still his brother’s passing and possible descent into hell must have gotten D.A. to allow some thoughts in, or rather out, that had been locked down in the hole for forty years. The thoughts were bent and pallid, rat-gnawed, weak, and filthy, but they were there and they lived. Their existence was an accusation against him, against his years of living in rebellious obedience to a Master who had the right to refuse service not rendered in love. D.A. realized that, and he realized, moreover, that the Master had not rejected and punished his hateful rituals. Those thoughts had not been locked in a dungeon but in a temple. D.A. had closed the door and bolted it against them, but he was the one denied access. He began to see that what he was denied and what he denied ruled him nonetheless. The doors had to be thrown open, the windows uncovered, the floor swept, and the altar restored. He’d taken good care of the graveyard, but the sanctuary had been neglected.

I don’t know if he would have had the courage or the heart to begin except for the first ray of grace shooting through a crack somewhere to light the temple’s dusty floor at the base of a cobwebbed column. To his eyes, the column ignited into a tower of fire with a voice crying out from the midst: The one who gains the victory, him I will make a pillar in the Holy of Holies, and he shall go no more out. D.A. was stunned with revelation. All along Mike had been there, standing tall and glorious in the inner sanctuary with God’s own unutterable Name written upon him. He had not gone down in defeat; he had not been beaten. A boy’s place was with his Father.

David wept and fasted when his son was ill, but when the boy died the king rose up, ate, and resumed his duties. The people around him were confused. David replied, “He cannot return to me, but I will go to him.” A man’s place is with his Father.

Friday, October 1, 2010

More Pictures

I am swamped with work this week.  I was at it until 10:00pm last night.  I will have to work this weekend as well.  All my writing goes to designs, code, and release notes.  Meanwhile, I will post a few more pictures you might enjoy.

Can you say, "Whee-doggies!"  These are some of the same people that were in my oldest photo from Monday's post.  I'm guessing this one's about 20 years after the first one.  That's my grandmother in the middle in the dark smock, turned half away from the camera, between the child and the woman in the bonnet.  My grandfather is in the background, upper right, reclining on something.  The young woman in the foreground in the polka dot outfit looks an awfully lot like my mother.  It's not so much the facial features and the build which could match her sister's, but the expression -- those dead level, "serious" eyebrows.  Mom was the kindest person in the world, but she had a plan to kill everyone she met.  Just kidding, sort of.  She's probably barefoot.  I'm not sure who the man is on the other side of her -- he looks familiar.  I wish the guy behind her were facing the camera.  He looks familiar, too, but probably isn't her brother.  I suppose it could be Dad -- the nose looks big enough, but I'm withholding judgment until Sis sees it.  

Hey, look, color!  I actually took this picture and the next one -- probably with the little 110 I used to carry.  The above is not an outhouse.  It's the first house my parents lived in after they were married.  My oldest sister was born there.  It was in a little better shape then.  Notice, however, the foundation consists of dry-stacked, flat rocks.  Dad didn't build this one.  His father sold him this place.  The big selling point -- location, of course.  There is a good-sized and unfailing spring off to the left in the base of the hill.  That was their water source and refrigerator.    
 This is the next place my family lived.  Their first winter here, Dad neglected to get enough firewood cut.  Snow was early and deep.  He started felling trees, but he could not get what he cut to the house using his team and wagon.  Snow packed in the horses' hooves and balled up in the cold.  He resorted to cutting lengths of logs and carrying up them up on his shoulders.  My other two siblings were born here.  Dad didn't build this one, either.  I suppose it goes without saying that neither of these two shacks was sealed or insulated in any way. 
 We're movin' on up in time and digs.  This is the house that my father built himself with lumber from the oaks on that forty acres.  I was born here, literally, not in a hospital.  The little building on the right is the well house.  I'm not sure they had the newer well with an electric pump as yet.  You got water out of that one by hand.  I always loved that porch.  I have one very similar to it on the house we live in now.  The people in the picture are brother and sister.  I believe that is a '50 Chevy on the left, about six or seven years old at the time.  With that dress, we can all be glad this one is B&W.