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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Monday, November 29, 2010

Free Willies

O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. — Jeremiah 10:23

Did Jeremiah believe that man's destiny is predetermined, that freedom is a mental illusion, that we are built by DNA and the impinging vectors of our environment to be forced into a path that we must walk?

I think it is true that each of us has a destination, if not a destiny. I like the word "doom" as it is so often illustrated in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. There are obstacles we must encounter, quests we must follow, pressures we must endure as we are strengthened and empowered for the vast freedoms of eternity. We may attempt to reject our doom, but it is laid upon us; we will face it despite our choices. Yet we are meant to be free. Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." This implies that man, apart from the truth, is in bondage but also that liberty is attainable.

Though I am unable to offer comprehensive answer to the question of predestination, it is true that we are creatures of two realms. The material world does seem to function in a deterministic fashion at the macro level, and to the extent that we inhabit that world, we are subject to its laws. We are also, however, spirit — whatever that means — and subject to the laws of that realm. This is what Jesus was trying to explain to those with whom He contended in the 8th chapter of John. They claimed freedom based on their descent from Abraham. Jesus countered that it wasn't a matter of natural lineage but of their "obedience" to sin which made them slaves of sin. They were destined to obey sin because the will of man is enslaved.

The will seems to be an interface between the spirit and the body. Man is born with his will imprisoned by the life of the flesh. He may have a good, kind temperament. He may be the beneficiary of a positive environment and good parenting. Nevertheless, he is chained to the natural life and unable to make truly free choices. It is only when we learn who we are in and through the Logos that we can be free — as Jesus said, "If you continue in My Word, then are you My disciples."

As creatures of the material world, we find ourselves doing that which we would rather not do, and we fail to do what we would prefer to do. For I know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do, I approve not. For what I would do, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do (Romans 7:14-15). There may be a fleshly adherence to the law but it does not bring righteousness. It can only assuage our guilt. The natural man can get along fine with religious observance until and unless he comes to the raw Reality as the children of Israel did at the foot of Sinai. Isaiah had a similar experience and a similar reaction: Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5).

For many of us the inevitable response to a close encounter with the Spirit is a sense of fear and unworthiness. Our guilt and shame are magnified. Our failures loom large and seem to multiply until we feel there is no way possible to endure His presence. This is not a bad thing. It is the infinite holiness within us that was made in His image and likeness in harmonic vibration with the Infinite Holiness of the LORD of Hosts. Naturally, the natural man gets a little shaken by that experience. It is death to the natural when we live in the spirit. As noted above, Paul had this experience: O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? ... So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death (Romans 7:24-8:2).

When the Son has set us free, we are free indeed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Portait of a Saint in a Cloud of Smoke

But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look at his appearance or his stature, because I have rejected him. Man does not see what the LORD sees, for man sees what is visible, but the LORD sees the heart." — 1 Samuel 16:7

I want to thank you all for your prayers with regard to the death of my brother-in-law. My wife's mother has now lost two of her five children in the last eighteen months. I can't imagine the pain of losing a child — even when the child is well-past middle age. Because my brother-in-law lived about seven hundred miles from where he was buried, there was a memorial service in his church with his pastor before the body was brought down here. The family asked me to speak at the funeral — I can't say I was happy to do it, but I knew him well. We didn't have to resort to a generic message brighten with a few personal sprinkles.

The truth is that my wife's brother was a troubled person. Dealing with him could range from frightening to frustrating to absolutely hilarious. I once knocked him flat on his back and bloodied his nose in the corridor of a VA hospital. As he started to sit up, he said, "That's all right. No, that's all right. I had that coming." And he did. On the other hand, he was the life of any party. He loved people and crowds and food and women. I started to say "pretty women", but, rather like Robert Heinlein, I don't think G. ever saw an ugly woman. If a person didn't know him, it was easy to think he was some kind of monster. He asked the wife of one of his nephews for a date, which would have been merely amusing, except it was at his own wife's funeral.

Still, the words that came to mind when I was told of his death were not words of criticism. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of the unrighteous money so that when it fails, they may welcome you into eternal dwellings. He loved to give. Even after he stopped drinking, he would buy a round for the house. He wanted to pay for every meal — including home-cooked ones. You couldn't give him a birthday present without fighting off payment. He handed money to strangers on the street. In one restaurant he frequented, the manager asked him to stop tipping so extravagantly because it made the waitresses uncomfortable.

Given his often questionable behavior, not to mention his outrageous words, it would be easy to question G.'s Christianity. He certainly professed his faith in Christ publicly and profusely. But the life of Christ in us, "the Master's indwelling", should have a transforming impact on our words, our worldview, and our actions. We should not amen the man who said, "It's true that I got drunk and slashed with my razor a fellow who caught me shooting craps with loaded dice, but, thank God, I've never lost my religion." It's not that we don't need to take thought for our deeds; we, and those around us, benefit from our attempts at self-discipline. God has given us a spirit of power, love, and good judgment. We as the Body of Christ should hold one another accountable for bad judgment and indifference to the sensibilities of others. Paul told Timothy that Scripture is useful for rebuking, correcting, and instructing.

Nevertheless, Christianity is not primarily a moral teaching or a program of social reform. Genuine Christian conversion takes place in the innermost part of the human soul and gradually — with the help of sacraments, ordinances, and disciplines, works its way out. Aside from a few months in the Marine Corps, G. never had fifteen minutes of discipline in his life. He had a dozen Bibles that he never read because he didn't like to read and "couldn't understand it". He no doubt prayed at times. He had been baptized. He occasionally took Communion. A Catholic by nature, he was poorly served by our evangelical protestantism. Had he been left alone by his sisters to follow the tradition of his grandparents and his father, he would have had the confessional and the Eucharist for his comfort and Mary and the saints for his devotion. Catholicism would have been as hospitable to him as it is inimical to me.

(That, too, is in God's hands. I am wrong. He was where he needed to be. Perhaps the benefit the rest of us received from his life and his struggles would not have been effective had G. remained a Catholic. God's connections always flow both directions.)

I think a funeral ought to comfort the living, but it ought also to make an initial assessment of someone's life — to give a brief first draft of their history and help those who remain gain a little perspective. I'd like to think G. appreciated my attempt to do that for him. I hope when I'm gone someone will do the same for me. My brother-in-law had many issues, but they were all at the surface. If he had only understood how to shut up and stop the mental traffic, he would have realized his sainthood. He was like the bush that got Moses' attention. He seemed to be on fire with passions and craziness, but the core of his life was serene and sanctified. When death finally extinguished the smokey, sputtering life of flesh, the holy inner man was left -- to be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Probably no posting the next few days

Yesterday evening, my wife's younger brother passed on. He had been enduring a struggle with cancer.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ode to an Easy Out

When I became embittered and my innermost being was wounded, I was a fool and didn't understand: I was an unthinking animal toward You. — Psalm 73:21-22

I've noticed that there are people who would seem to have every right to be angry with God yet are not. Then there are people like me who ought to be ashamed to complain yet frequently cry out against God in anger and frustration. Bitterness is a dangerous state of being. We are warned against allowing bitterness to take root in us (Hebrews 12:15). For this attitude has the power not just to put down roots in us but to blossom and go to seed. It can potentially "defile many". The writer said earlier in this same Psalm that if he had spoken his thoughts aloud, he would have betrayed God's people (verse 15). Bitterness is as invasive as it is destructive. To be bitter is to be sour on life. It corrodes our trust and turns us away from the transforming power of God's love for and acceptance of us.

My dad used to get wound up during "hay time". It was a big management challenge. Everything had to line up. The weather in our part of the country is never predictable, even these days, and putting up hay in good shape is very weather-dependent. The equipment had to be ready to roll; break-downs could be disastrous. On top of that, back before everyone was using big round bales, getting square bales out of the fields and into the barns required a good deal of manual labor and was thus dependent on the availability of hay hands.

My cousin lived a mile from us, and with his three sons and me, we could put together a pretty decent crew. We would put up hay at my Dad's place or my cousin's then move to the other farm. This particular year Dad had gotten his up first. He pulled the John Deere baler up to the house and got ready to service it before hitting the road to his nephew's. Dad was meticulous and thorough with his grease gun. He checked bolts and belts. Those old square balers were precise pieces of machinery. Everything had to be timed just right in order for the bales to be tied consistently and securely. There were little tempered steel "fingers" that caught the twine and pulled the knots tight. There were knives that cut the twine smoothly to set up for the next bale to be tied. Dad decided to take the knives off and touch them up. They were held in position by bolts that went down into threaded holes in the heavy gauge steel of the baler's chute.

One came off with no problem. The second one seemed tight. I offered to give the wrench a try. Dad replied, "No, you're liable to twist it off." He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when there was an odd little sound and the wrench began to turn with sickening ease. The bolt head fell from the wrench with a slight clang against the spring steel and the jagged silver of the shaft stared up at us in leering brightness. Dad's reaction was completely understandable. He began to whale upon the baler with his wrench in a rapid, regular, if not rhythmic time. I think he was also speaking curses upon John Deere and that person's misformed progeny for many future generations, but the clanging tended to make his utterances less than intelligible, which was not necessarily a bad thing. It went on for quite some time like a synchronized stampede of belled cows or a coked-up speed metal drummer in a blacksmith shop.

As an aside, we tried drilling into the the shaft and extracting it with a spiral Easy Out. The Easy Out snapped, and the shaft of that thing was so hard the drill bit skidded off, so we laborious drilled around it with a very small bit and eventually punched everything out piece by piece.

All of us are overwhelmed at times by circumstances that catch us completely by surprise and block us from moving in our chosen or necessary direction. A flash of anger under those conditions is not terribly detrimental to us. When I spend good money on a piece of equipment, I have the reasonable expectation that it will perform as expected. If it breaks or fails or does not in some way live up to my expectations, it frustrates me. I have done all that I could to ensure success, but I have not achieved my goal. When we allow ourselves to experience frustration every day, however, we are on the path to bitterness.

Many of us set ourselves up for frustration by expecting breaks and benefits and advantages that never come. Especially here in America we are told that things ought to go our way. We should expect to have the best and be the best. The better among us understand that to mean that we can overcome every obstacle and meet any challenge. Many of us, though, are apt to think it means we won't encounter obstacles, that we won't suffer pain. When we do, more often than not, we start letting the failures wound us. Loss and defeat no longer merely sting the surface but penetrate to our "innermost being". If this happens once in a while, we can overcome and heal, perhaps; when it happens continually, the cumulative effect makes us hopeless and joyless.

Evidently the Psalmist did not own a dog or he would have never characterized his foolishness as making him an "unthinking animal". I have never met a bitter dog. I have met mean dogs and broken dogs but never a bitter dog. No dog thinks that the world owes it anything. Any tidbit of special food or kindness or attention is relished. Dogs are possibly the most consistently grateful creatures on the planet. Gratitude is the antidote for bitterness. Of all peoples who have ever lived from the dawn of humanity until now, we should be the most thankful. Need I say that we are not? We are spoiled; we are cynical, and we are bitter.

Spiritual disciplines are necessary for most of us — probably for all of us — if we are not going to be "conformed to this world" by the pressures and fears that surround us. There's no legalism in discipline. We are not performing to please or manipulate God but to refresh, exercise, and strengthen our spirit-man over the self. Practicing thankfulness is about as simple as it gets yet few disciplines are more beneficial.

Give thanks in everything, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:18)