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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Friday, December 30, 2011

There is a River

Happy New Year, and I promise this is the last poem I will inflict on my gentle readers in 2011.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.  — Psalm 46:4

I am drawn to water
To dark pools glowing in the depths
To bright riffles that never slept
Oceans solemn with secret bones
Languid birthright and limpid home

I am drawn to water
With ships rocking on endless waves
Treasures hidden in coral caves
Tides rising by the lunar clock
Life rolls on as we rest at dock

I am born of water
And to it stinging sweat returns
Though our toil be on desert rock
Though living fire within does burn
Though red plowed field the rain may spurn

I am living water
Beneath the sands green rivers flow
Scorners drily deny and mock
Though the course of streams they may know
By life above its path does show

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It Could Be 'Verse

They hatch cockatrice' eggs,
and weave the spider's web: 
he that eateth of their eggs dieth,
and that which is crushed
breaketh out into a viper.
  — Isaiah 59:5 (KJV)

Knotty truth to be firmly grasped sometimes
Calls on language Shakespearean, 1611
Sounds right when we utter syllables time-strained,
             Reality caught

In the spaces of our cleverly woven
Linguistic web.  The translators for good
King James saw words as more than handy software
            Aptly to employ.

Even the best of intentions are too apt
To bite us in the ass like Cleopatra's
Asp which we think to crush in vitro under         
           Cobwebby boot heels

Not calculating additional adders
In the eggshell unleashed, wrapping and snapping
Consequential consequences intended
            Never not at all.

Who ever thought that sowing such thoughts so small
Would amount to cloud seeding spiders and snakes?
Not me nor the people who raised me from dust
            Knew what serpents eat.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Risk

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. — Hebrews 2:14-15

Surely the Creator, the One who created man in His image and likeness, knew what it was like to be human.  God dwelt within the world all along.  Yet the Incarnation is different for it is more than some stirring of God's empathy.  In Christ, God invests Himself totally in man.  

This is the meaning of Christmas.  God put Himself into the hands of man, specifically a woman and a man.  There was no backup plan.  If Joseph failed, if Mary failed, if Herod succeeded, it was all over.  The entire history of humanity — which means the whole of creation, hung upon one man doing the right thing under pressure.  We can understand, sort of, Jesus coming through for us, but before He could, He had to trust entirely in the love, the strength and the wisdom of two "regular" people.  God chose well, no doubt.  He poured His grace into their lives, certainly.  Still, history pivots on a hinge so frail and insignificant that we wonder how it could bear the weight. 

God came to know what it was to be flesh and blood, to be weak and helpless and to have someone risk everything to bring Him into the world and to protect and provide for Him once He was here.  Through the Incarnation, we learn of God's love for us, but He learned of our love for one another.  He knew our weaknesses and our sins.  He learned of our hopeless courage, our remarkable ability to endure, our almost stupid joy when a new one of us shows up. 

We get frustrated with ourselves and with those around us.  We see addictions and abuse, neglect and ingratitude, greed and violence.  We wonder sometimes what God sees in us, or how He could love us, or how a loving God could even have created such hapless and sometimes despicable creatures. 

But then comes Christmas. 

People remember that once a very vulnerable baby came into the world, and stars shone, and angels sang, shepherds marveled, and wise men traveled far.  We have made a lot of mistakes since then, but, once, we did the right thing.  Not all of us, not all of the time, but Christmas is a reminder of what we are can be, what we are at our best, and of where we are headed.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Thy Kingdom Come

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. -- Matthew 4:17

Before Jesus was baptized, His cousin, John the Baptist, came in the spirit and power of Elijah calling on his hearers to "repent for the kingdom heaven is at hand".  After the resurrection, Jesus gave instructions to His disciples and "to them he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3 -- emphasis added).  Many of the parables we read relate to the kingdom, and Jesus spoke often about it, as if were vitally important. 

If a person didn't know better, he might get the impression that the whole of history, the Incarnation, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and the establishment of the Church was intimately related to the kingdom of God.  Of course, that is silly since no one ever talks much about the kingdom.  No, the important doctrines have to do with whether or not we can dance and drink beer.  The kingdom is heaven or something.  It's all in the sweet by-and-by -- or maybe the sweet buy-and-buy.  Or maybe not.

A kingdom is a realm of dominion -- a place where a king has authority and rules by edict, statute and decree. A kingdom has subjects or citizens, those who are born into the realm and live under the king's rule.  There is no better system of government than a monarchy -- provided, of course, that the monarch is wise and good.  I believe I was first offended by a similar statement somewhere in Dune, but I have come to accept that it is true.  The reason we have turned from monarchies is because anyone wise enough and good enough to do the job probably has sense enough not to want it.  We are then left with the merely clever, the ambitious, the warped, the weak, the wicked, the greedy, the domineering, and the foolish -- but enough about Congress.

The first qualification for a king, having primacy even over wisdom and goodness, is that he love his kingdom and his subjects.  Though a monarch be foolish and vile by nature, if he truly loves his people and his land, when the weight of responsibility is laid upon him, he will strive to become wise and good.

We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.  We travel through this strange land as pilgrims and adventurers, and, like Jake and Elwood, we are all on a mission from God because scattered across this world, sown like seeds upon the wind, there are others of the kingdom.  They are our brothers and sisters, separated at the first birth, destined to be reunited in a second one.  We all need to be found and told us who we are, to have the veil drawn back and to comprehend that our sense of unease and alienation makes sense for this world is not our home. Once we have come to recognize our citizenship in the kingdom, we realize that there are many more like ourselves to be found.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”   The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.  -- Mark 1:9-13   

The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness.   This happened to Jesus after He was baptized and declared to be the Son of God.  Something similar happened to you and to me.  God said, "I am going to plant this child of mine in the world."  The Holy Spirit caught you up, and you were sown into a time and place, into a family and a situation that He chose for you.  For many of us, it was a period of being lost in the boonies.  It happens once in the flesh.  But then we are awakened, and, like Jesus, it happens again as we are born of the Spirit. 

I have been out here in the desolate places, harassed by the enemy and by the non-kingdom forces and entities that run wild in this world system.  But there are those who come around, messengers from my Father, to remind me who I am, to assure me that I have a purpose, that this wilderness is merely a trial that I must pass through.

The desert places will cleanse our vision and open the doors of our perception to the realities of the kingdom, putting us back in touch with our Lord.   And then we, too, become messengers, agents of awakening that the children of the kingdom might be born from above.   Everything is about the kingdom, about the restoration of God's sovereign rule over His own chosen ones. 

When the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, how will that kingdom look and how will it operate? 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Wings of Gravity

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. -- 2 Corinthian 3:17

There is nothing more important than freedom.  Life itself is an expression of freedom, of God’s freedom in the universe.  It is a breaking away from the determinism of matter, acquiring and utilizing energy through choices and for choices that run counter to an elemental force like gravity.   When a man walks or a bird flies, the rules of gravitation are not broken but superseded.  There are laws of motion and aerodynamics and thermodynamics that allow a living creature to work with gravity, to use forces of friction and inertia which would seem to hold it in place in order to move and go where it chooses.  

If there were a creature that could survive in a weightless vacuum somewhere, perhaps in a potential space where there was no gravitation or anything to impede movement, that creature would be unable to move.  We need resistance.  We need something to drive against in order to propel ourselves toward our goals.  Our imaginary creature in our imaginary space would, in one sense, I suppose, be absolutely unhindered, but in reality it would be perfectly imprisoned. 

Evil may not be the right word here, but it is a convenient one.  We wonder why there is evil let loose upon the world.  Evil may be a function of spirit or morality as gravity is a function of matter.  Evil is not meant to conquer us any more than gravity is meant to chain us to one spot.  Evil enables moral freedom in the same way that gravity enables an eagle to soar or a plane to fly across the ocean.  It is in our resistance against evil that we learn the truth of the law of life and liberty in Christ. 

In my better moments I understand that not only is it pointless to ask for an easy life free from labor, suffering, sacrifice and pain, but the truth is that it would not be much fun.  Of what value is a life without challenges, a life without failure as well as success?  What would freedom mean in a world where a person never had to conquer, if nothing else, his own fears and faults?  I should say, especially my own faults and fears. 

Being in Christ gives us the power to overcome, but we must live for a while in a world where there are things to overcome in order to understand that.  Even the Lord Himself had to come to this earth, to be incarnated, to be limited and subject to the darkness that His light might be seen. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Great Expectations

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.  And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day- just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.  -- Jude 5-7

(Hey) Jude understood that we need reminding more than we need teaching.  He sounds a little like John in his first epistle when he says, "But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge."  It sometimes seems there is nothing we can learn that we do not already know.  It is not new facts or information we need but a refreshing of realization and insight.  The word John uses is eido, related to eidon, "to see".  There is a distinction between eido or oida which signifies a full, complete, even perfect knowledge and ginosko which is more about progress in knowledge. 

So, too, Jude uses the same word to indicate that our knowledge was once fully mature and perfected, and it is still available to us if we will look once more upon it, allowing ourselves to be reminded of the truth we know.  Jude says that Jesus was the Deliverer who brought His people out of bondage.  But the Deliverer is not the delivery boy.  God does not reject anyone.  We are forced, on occasion, to use language such that it sounds as though God has turned away and left us, but the rejection is always done by man.  It is humanity's failure to trust in and embrace reality that results in killing, stealing, and destroying. 

This is as true for fallen angels as for fallen men, or for any other class of being under God.  We desert the light and forge chains of darkness and despair that will hold us in thrall until there comes a judgment.  Jude wants to make sure we understand the nature of the consequences — "eternal chains" hold the mighty powers and authorities that rebelled against their Sovereign.  "Eternal fire" consumes the sin of the cities of the plain.  The plain of the Jordan near the Dead Sea no longer smolders and smokes with the judgment that fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah, but the fires of judgment are eternal in their consequences.  God will do whatever it takes to deliver us from our delusions and our rejection of reality.

"Unnatural desire" is not a statement of disgust but a statement of fact.  To focus strictly on homosexuality is to miss the greater point.  Immorality, whether of the kind we traditionally associate with Sodom or of any other variety, is built upon an exaltation and embrace of the unreal.  Little Richard had some problems in this area.  He claimed that God spoke to him one day and told him that he was a man not a woman.  "If you had been a woman," God said, "your mother would have named you Martha."  This is terribly obvious.  The reason the Bible seems to come down especially hard on homosexuality is that this particular lie is so easy to expose.  You really have to deliberately shut down all your senses including your common sense to accept it.  Chastity Bono can call herself 'Chaz', get hormone injections, grow a beard, and have that operation — what do you call it? addadictome? — but if you check the DNA in her blood or tissue, it is still XX.  That is the reality.  We can dress people up, cut them up, remold and remake them on the outside, but who and what they are remains stubbornly unchanged. 

Perhaps there is a lesson there. 

You can take the Israelite out of Egypt, but what matters is whether you can take Egypt out of the Israelite.  God reveals to us through a series of dramatic historical events that merely getting a man out from under the control of the taskmasters does not make him a free man.  Placing a man in a new environment and new circumstances does not make him a new man.  Jude says that Jesus "afterward destroyed those who did not believe".  Did not believe what?  They did not believe something that was "too good to be true".  I can imagine that is how those former slaves looked at it.  Freedom, abundant life, forgiveness, mercy, peace and joy are all part of the offer, and we cannot believe that it is real.  We pass it off as dreams or ignorance or insanity.  We turn away from the truth to chase shadows.  We bypass life to embrace corruption and death. 

God will never disappoint us. 

It might be well to think on both sides of that.

With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuou
s.
(Psalm 18:25-26)

To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.  (Titus 1:15)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why It Depends on Faith

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. – Romans 4:16-17

I started re-reading C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces yesterday, but I did not get very far.  I was sidetracked almost immediately from what may be the best fiction Lewis ever wrote -- if you can call it fiction.  I was drawn away by the hook that is the principal difference between the traditional story of Cupid and Psyche and the Lewis version.  In an afterword to the book, the master explains in his own words:  The central alteration in my own version Psyche’s palace invisible to normal, mortal eyes – if “making” is not the wrong word for something which forced itself upon me, almost at my first reading of the story, as the way the thing must have been. 

When I say something critical of those who have trouble with faith, I am speaking mostly of myself.  I often struggle and complain that so much depends upon faith, upon trusting the Unseen when the Seen thrusts its ugly mug into my face, filling and overwhelming my natural vision.  I want a clear path to a known destination, preferably with the occasional angelic visitation to guide, direct, and confirm.  I would like to see my calling written in the sky, even if it is only “Plow Corn”.  At least I would know.  I don’t like looking foolish, despite knowing that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise”.

Sight, though, negates faith, and without faith there can be no grace, just as without grace there can be no faith.  These are the head and the tail of the coin. 

It was the same with Psyche as with Adam; as it was with Adam so it is with me.  We are content with simply who we are and the faith of unknowing until, as Paul says, the commandment comes.  The role the law plays is paradoxical.  It enables us to know in part the great Good that meets us in the dark, but it also tempts us.  The human mind can hardly resist the impulse to taste the fruit, to pull back the veil, to light the lamp, to rattle the present under the tree.  We want to know, not merely accept.  Sin comes alive, and we insist on looking upon that which faith forbids.  Christ makes possible our restoration, but we always have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty.  He leaves us free to imagine, free to fill in the blanks.

Why?  That is how we know and become what we are meant to be.  Psyche filled the darkness with beauty and love.  Her jealous sisters filled it with horror and evil.  The difference lies in who is doing the picturing.  Psyche was right.  I think if her sister had been in Psyche's place, the sister might have been right as well.  Even for Psyche the truth was more beautiful and wondrous than the soul could imagine, at its best.  But to look upon it by man’s light is to lose it.  It is better to await the unveiling. 

I think, perhaps, we will come back to this and review Till We Have Faces in detail at some point.  For now, though, imagine a classically beautiful woman, a Venus, someone perhaps like Ingrid Bergman or Grace Kelly.  Suppose one day this beautiful woman wakes and realizes that, though she can attract any man she desires, they are all drawn to her physical beauty.  She seeks true love, love that does not turn on appearances.  In an effort to find her heart’s desire, she disguises herself by mitigating her beauty and goes, in effect, veiled into the world looking for someone true.  It is the plot of thousand tales, though the protagonist may sometimes be a male of wealth or position.    We are drawn to that story because it connects with something in ourselves.  At some level we know this recapitulates what God is doing in calling upon us to know Him and love Him by faith. 

For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Fire Next Time

They will say, Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation. -- 2 Peter 3:4

Even if I had the gift of prophecy, I would be tempted to keep it to myself.  Prophecy is just not a paying business.  Nobody likes a prophet when he is right — even if they listen to him or her.  If the prophecy is wrong, or appears to be wrong, everybody mocks the prophet.  Prophecy is more about truth-telling than predicting.  If we know enough of the truth about our state and condition, most of us can foresee the possible ends.  Predicting is a secondary function of the prophetic word while its primary purpose is to reveal God to the limited comprehension of man.  If people respond correctly to the revelation, the prediction often becomes irrelevant or obsolete.  A case in point might be Jonah prediction of the imminent destruction of Ninevah.  Because the Ninevites heard Jonah and accepted the truth of his prophecy, repenting of their wickedness in sackcloth and ashes, the city was not destroyed.  I doubt not that there may have been some among the citizenry who eventually questioned the reliability and track-record of whale-borne Israelite preachers.

We sometimes call it feedback, and we tend to ignore it in our projections.  Thus our projections rarely hold up for very long.  My father used to say that the debt America was incurring was unsustainable.  I have heard him many times declare that eventually the exponential growth of debt would necessitate "striking new money", to use his phrase.  He said this in the mid-1960s.  He probably said it before that, but I don't remember it.  For the last forty-five years or more, he has been wrong, not because his basic calculations were faulty, but because increasing productivity and feedback between the various elements of a civilized society slowed and at times even checked the momentum of what now appears inevitable (though it may not be inevitable for several reasons). 

Perhaps the same is true in the spiritual realm.  A little further on in this Epistle, Peter explains that Christians are "waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God". 

We have seen many advancements in society over the last couple of thousand years, attributable largely to the Judeo-Christian worldview and ethos.  Technological improvements have often been derived from those social and structural advancements.  In many ways we have moved toward the kingdom, but the feedback provided by greater ease and luxury in life has paradoxically added to the friction and turbulence of that movement.  We have decelerated, perhaps even changed course to some degree.  Our greater wealth, better health, longer lives, increased mobility, and multiplied opportunities have made us less sensitive to community than were our grandparents and great-grandparents.   We may also be, for the most part, less sensitive to the Spirit and less focused on real purpose. 

Whether history repeats, rhymes, or raps is of far less interest when we realize that it is in fact spiraling up toward an Omega Point and that we, insignificant creatures with insignificant lives, have a part in determining the slope of the spiral, its tightness, and the speed with which we approach it.  In one sense the scoffers are right:  all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.  All things have always been rumbling, running, slouching, sliding toward a choke-point that once seemed lost in eternity future but now looms a little larger, a little nearer.  Is it a black gate leading down into oblivion?  Or is it a birth canal opening to a new and endless world? 

But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).

Friday, November 11, 2011

But Never Everything


For whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them.  They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey.  For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in.  And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord. – Judges 6:3-6

In the movie The Magnificent Seven, a Mexican village is raided by bandits and plundered season after season, leaving the villagers with little to sustain them.  They have no hope of prosperity or a better life for their children.  In desperation they go up on the mountainside to the house of a wise old man believing that he can give them the guidance and wisdom they need.  Do they risk the bandits’ anger by hiding food?  Do they abandon the village and try to live elsewhere?  Do they resist?  The old man tells them they must fight the bandits.  When they say they have no weapons, the old man offers them his gold watch which he keeps secreted in a bag.  He tells them to take the watch along with all the other small treasures of the villagers and travel to a border town where they are to sell the valuables so that they might be able to purchase guns and ammunition.

When those sent on the mission arrive at a town, they witness a pair of what are obviously warriors engage in an act of defiance and daring in the face of unrighteousness.  They go to one of the warriors afterward, a man named Chris – short, perhaps, for Christopher, i.e., “Christ-bearer”, or Christian.  They tell him that they trust him to help them in their mission.  He suggests that instead of buying weapons they do not know how to use, they should hire men, who, he says are cheaper than weapons. 

Like the villagers and like the Israelites of old, we often find ourselves assailed by an enemy we cannot handle.  We seem to lack the tools and the skills needed to address the spiritual assaults we face.  Perhaps we resign ourselves to living spiritually demolished and ravaged.  Perhaps we try to negotiate with an intractable foe.  Perhaps we work a little harder, try a little harder.  We think that, sooner or later, the attacks will cease.  The enemy will forget about us.  But he is implacable and relentless.  He just keeps coming back.  At some point we have to decide if we are going to try to continue to live an impoverished life accommodating our foe, or if we are going to find a way to defeat him. 

The first thing Jesus tells us to do is to count the cost.  Do not pass over this point lightly.  It is better, as Henry Hazlitt said, to make fewer resolutions and keep more of them.  Consider if you are really “all in” to destroying the enemy.  To fight, to resist oppression, to throw off the domination of thought patterns and mental strongholds and find spiritual freedom is not cheap.  It will cost us all that we have.  All the little treasures we hide away and cherish in secret must be surrendered to Christ.  When the villagers tell Chris they have sold all they have, he says, "I have been offered a lot for my work, but never everything."  Like the gunmen Chris brought to the battle, Christ does not ask us to pay what He is worth.  This is infinitely beyond our means.  He simply asks for what we have, asks us to entrust our meager wealth to Him – all of it.  He will make what we give Him more than enough, just as He did with a couple of fish and five loaves of bread in feeding a multitude.  We must go to the Spirit of Wisdom who dwells within us but apart and a little higher up.  As we seek His counsel, He will instruct us on surrendering our treasures to a Man We Can Trust. 

It is Christ Himself, the mighty warrior, who will come to aid us.  We have seen Him upon the Cross defy and defeat death, hell, and the grave.  He will come to us and break the chains of bondage and enslavement, release us from fear and captivity, empower us to face our enemies and throw them down.  There is no need to live in spiritual poverty, hopelessness, and defeat.  God intends for us to live in victory, to live lives filled with truth, power, and liberty. 

There is a danger illustrated by the movie as well.  Just at the point where there is a chance of driving away the bandits, some of the village leaders decide to surrender to them rather than fight.  They prefer the devil they know.  And we are often similarly tempted.  Even positive change is uncomfortable for us.  We decide, after struggling and not achieving immediate and complete victory, that the cost is higher than we anticipated, and we are not really willing to pay the price.  Perhaps we are not cut out to be overcomers.  Slavery may suit us better – keep us humble.  Freedom, really, can be a little scary. 

Great victories are rarely flawless.  Every battle has its setbacks and fluctuations.  Sometimes things get messy and chaotic.  We are not sure how it is going to turn out.  But that is the time to hold onto our trust in Christ and fight on.  If we slip and fall or get knocked down, we are not defeated so long as we get back up.  If the battle drags on longer than we expected, we keep going.  Liberation can take time.  Freedom is worth the fight.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fishing on Sunday

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. -- 1 Corinthians 15:50

This would seem to say that the kingdom of God is completely out of reach of flesh-and-blood, material entities.  Yet Jesus Himself spoke frequently of how we might strive to enter into the kingdom.  Both He and John the Baptist preached that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.  In the prayer He taught His disciples, we read, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Also when we read Christ’s parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price, the Lord is telling us that we must give up everything if we would gain the kingdom.  The very next parable in Matthew’s gospel describes the kingdom as a net cast into the sea that brings out fish of all kinds – large, small, acceptable and unacceptable.  It suggests that many are lured by the kingdom, but not all find a home therein. 

Though Paul is primarily addressing the death of believers and the necessity of a resurrection both of the Lord and of His saints, our transformation out of the flesh does not begin with physical death, for, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”   In order to be a part of the kingdom one must belong to Christ which can only happen if the Spirit of God dwells in us.  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you (Romans 8:8-11).  That is a new kind of life, a life that is eternal in its nature, not just its duration.  This mortal begins to put on immortality.  It's almost like being a little pregnant, but it is true.

In the same way and at the same point, our death to the flesh begins as we are drawn into the kingdom.  Maybe we should take a closer look at the Parable of the Dragnet:  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.  When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad.  So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:47-50).  Normally we think of each fish as a person who is judged by God’s standard, i.e., Christ, to be worthy or unworthy of inclusion in the kingdom.  That is correct, but there is another way to look at it.  I caught, filleted, and deep-fried a couple of fish this past weekend.  They are, as animals, quite simple.  You could not construct a human being out of hundreds of fish – except, to some extent, by the process of a person digesting said fish.  We are far more than the sum of our parts; yet there are parts to us. 

When by His Spirit the Lord draws us into His kingdom, if we are willing to surrender ourselves completely to Him, He will sort through us like the fisherman opening his net.  Some of those seemingly alive parts of us -- “raw and wiggling” as Gollum prefers them – are acceptable while the Spirit must dispose of other parts.  He is separating "the evil from the righteous".  The flesh cannot enter in, and all that is flesh that must be consigned without mercy to the furnace of judgment.  Weeping and gnashing of teeth indeed is present there. 

How I have wailed over my weaknesses, often less because I could not overcome them than out of fear that I might lose them and lose, in the process, something I thought of as an essential part of my identity.  Have you ever said, “that’s just me”, or of another, “that’s just him” with regard to a foible or “eccentricity”?  It is a sacrifice to surrender those ugly, useless, worthless fish.     

Under the Law, God decreed that the fires of the altar might burn throughout the night for the burnt offering.  Those fires would, nevertheless, from time to time, need to be lit and fueled.  In the kingdom, the fire is never quenched.  There are flames always patiently waiting to consume the flesh we will sacrifice that we may pass clean through the gates.   

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Camouflage


Jesus said to her, Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.  – John 20:17
I considered this passage a year or two ago, but I came back to it the last couple of days because it is so poetic and unique in its perspective. 

Mary weeps among the tombs filled with remains, clutching at the straw of the wheat after the reaping.  One approaches with the rising sun behind, his face in shadows.  Perhaps he knows.  She pleads with him.  He tells her who He is by calling her name and warns her not to cling to Him for He must ascend.  He goes to pour out His Spirit upon all flesh, the Comforter of the same kind as Jesus Himself who will be with them and in them. 

This is our question:  will we know Him when He comes if we insist on clinging to a single mode of understanding Christ?  When He comes instead in rushing winds and tongues of fire, in a strange, new selfless love, in persecutions that scatter the seeding saints as a dandelion’s fertile cloud, will we know Him?  When He comes to Jerusalem in judgment and destruction, as the besieging armies of the heathen, will we recognize Him?

To those seekers looking into the light, His face will always be in shadow and mystery.  It is not to forms and appearances and surfaces but to the voice, the word, and the truth that we cling.  In darkness and shadow or in blinding light we cannot trust our eyes so we listen.  It is not another’s name He will call but yours, and mine.  Only then are we sure to be undeceived.    

The Lord asks us if we are willing to know Him when we meet Him as brother or sister, mother or child, friend or stranger.  Can we forget the shade of human limitation and sin and hear the voice that calls?  He has kept His promise to never leave nor forsake us, in the storm, in the stones.  He is the stake, the flint and steel and the spark struck.  He is the passing angel who whispers forewarning to our presumptuousness; the one who pours courage like molten metal into our collapsing hope.   He is the Unchanging God of Infinite Guises, rising in circumstances like gale-driven winds of the sea, always calm as the depths.

Paul, standing amid the Athenians on Mars Hill, references the poet Epimenides of Crete, “Yet [God] is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’”.  It is our own ignorance that creates a distance between ourselves and God.  We can find Him everyday, everywhere in everything.  Without light and shadow, color and contrast, the world would be flat and dimensionless in our eyes.  God stands above, but He also permeates the world, and it is His presence in and around us that gives us the ability to discern and perceive, to understand and apprehend.  He gives us our depth of vision.  He causes us to hear the music. 

How we doubt Him in the grind and the pain. 
How we forget Him in the joy and the gain.
In a voice like rain, He calls me: 
 When you drown in My love as the ocean,
When you are devoured by My love as a beast,
 When as a sword My love descends
To unburden you for release,
Will you know Me? 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wheel in the Sky


Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.  When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!”  And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.  When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand.  And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”  When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. – Revelation 6:1-8

My wife bought a book recently.  It was written by one of the popular teachers on prophecy.  He points out that “end times” does not mean “the end of time”, which is true if somewhat obvious.  I like to think about it like the Ages in Lord of the Rings.  Certain elements have ascendancy in a given age.  Those elements may weaken or even disappear in a subsequent age.  This is different from the natural cycles of history, though those cycles are part of any age.  A prophetic book whether the Revelation of John, the prophecies of Jeremiah, or The Chronicles of Narnia will be applicable in any epoch or administration and fulfillment may be glimpsed in types more than once.  Humanity has seen in Christ the anti-type that casts all of the shadows of the Law and the Prophets.  Some dark day humanity may see the ultimate anti-type of the many antichrists that pop up in history.  I do not know. 

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been around and may come around again.  They speak of a process that breaks down civilization.  It begins with the rider on the white horse.  Some say this is Christ, some say it is the Antichrist.  My interpretation is my own, but I see this first rider as tyranny, for tyranny almost always arises in a Good Cause -- on a white horse.  The tyrant comes as a rescuer, as one who can solve the problems inherent in, as Bill Clinton once said, too much freedom.  The sword of the red horse rider is a weapon symbolic of war in general, so perhaps the bow is meant to be a more specific symbol of suppression.  After all, the white horse rider comes as a conqueror rather than a warrior.  He is not fighting defensively.  He is the invader, the usurper and, ultimately, the despot. 

Tyranny and conquest are naturally tied to war and conflict.  Thus the conqueror is followed by one who takes peace from the earth and initiates great slaughter among humanity.  We see this played out on a small scale throughout the world as people find it impossible from time to time to live without killing their neighbors.  Many of these conflicts threaten to flare up and engulf much larger regions in blood red flames of war. 

The third rider is on a black horse and is the harbinger of economic hardship, famine, and lack.  Again this is a natural extension of the destruction of war which hampers the production of food and other resources along with trade and transport. In addition to hampering production and displacing resources, war itself is directly demanding in terms of food, fuel, and material.  There is nothing constructive or productive about war.  It is the ultimate form of broken-glass business stimulation.  It creates only to destroy.  The lives of many are disrupted.  Many become refugees, losing their own power to produce and becoming a drain on the productivity of others.   

Displaced people without enough food, lacking adequate shelter, often crowded together in unsanitary conditions are near perfect incubators for epidemics.  We are not surprised when the pale horse of pestilence follows hard in the footsteps of war and economic collapse.  As in our own American Civil War, disease often kills more than the war machines themselves.

What is unveiled to us is the dance of history, the cyclical destruction of humanity’s best efforts.  We build our civilizations and systems, determined to eliminate the flaws and weaknesses of prior systems only to find that we have created a weakness of a different kind.   There is only one kingdom that has a sure Foundation, and even that one must be tested, purged, purified, and refined.  The Church will endure, though at times it must be reduced to the Remnant, so it seems.  A company or two of prophets will be hidden away, and the Lord will find His seven thousand who have not bowed to Baal, and, in the end, we will come, not to another cycle of exaltation and destruction, but "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ".  And He shall reign.    

Until then, while the horsemen ride their rounds and the old earth rolls as a sleeper in a recurring dream, the sun goes down each day, and I hear Yeats reading the evening news.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?