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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Made Out in the Shades

Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision — Acts 26:19

Visions are not as rare as many tend to think, but neither are they normally as dramatic and overwhelming as that which came upon Saul of Tarsus. I doubt that anyone is converted apart from a vision. We just don't call it that. We talk about a realization or a sudden understanding. It may not be, most likely it isn't, a direct vision of Christ. Instead we are stopped on our way by something we don't really understand. The light flooding into our eyes may not show us anything except our own blindness. The words we hear may give us only the next step rather than our ultimate destination.

Things that had been chafing us and challenging us at last confront us. We find ourselves pushed in a new direction. Remember that after his encounter with Jesus, Saul was blind for three days. Vision does not equal immediate clarity of purpose and direction. We are not necessarily like the Donald Pleasence character in "Hallelujah Trail" who, upon imbibing, would shout, "I see it now!"

Leading up to our house is a simple little drive made of limestone. We have a family or two of killdeer that live around our pond. They often come up and build their nest in the bare road. This involves creating a little hollow in the gravel where the eggs can rest. How they figure out the spots where the wheels or the mower will miss them is beyond my comprehension, but they do. They apparently depend upon the kindness of the stranger not to take them out with the trimmer. For weeks, I will see one of the adult birds doing the broken-wing draw play in front of my truck, tractor or bike. The little eggs are a silvery gray with black specks, and, unless one knows to look for them, they are hard to spot amid the grays and whites of three-quarter inch limestone chunks.

In a dream that I had a few days ago, I was walking on the driveway, and there, in the middle as usual, were two plover eggs. They looked a little odd, though, too small and too flat, too two-dimensional. I looked around and saw, off in the grass, two more eggs, larger and more natural in appearance. Knowing that I would run the mower over them, I decided to pick them up and replace them in the nest from which they must have been removed. Oddly, with the two speckled plover eggs, I saw another egg colored like a robin's, solid pale blue but much too large. When I stooped to pick up the eggs, I saw that the blue egg was really (or had turned into) a slightly flattened, roughly egg-shaped piece of soap — a half of one split at the long axis and set on that flat edge. That wasn't too surprising since we sometimes hang bar soap on the trees to freak out the deer. I looked down again and saw a lens from a pair of sunglasses lying on the road. I picked it up and held it in front of me.

If you have ever been out in the deep dark, like a remote woods on a moonless night, with only a lantern or flashlight, you have a good idea of how the mind works. Your mind is the dark forest. Consciousness is where the lantern spills its illumination. Dreams are a flash of lightning over the woods or a break in the clouds that allows the reflected light of the moon to bathe the world for a moment. Dreams are, by necessity, personal. My pastor used to say that we always have the interpretation with a dream or vision — Old Testament exceptions of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar notwithstanding.

Truth is fragile and must be maintained whole to bring forth life.

Truth must be sought out and protected.

If we are truly looking for truth, we will know it when we see it.

If we find truth off the beaten path, we should ask ourselves if our direction needs to change.

Handling truth requires cleansing. We must be obedient to it rather than using it for our own ends. Our motives must be at least 99 and 44/100ths percent pure.

It is always wise to remind ourselves that we often see only a dim reflection of reality — "in a glass darkly".

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Running from the Reaper

This was inspired by Julie's comment on OC yesterday: "I'll bet that's at least part of William's obsession with competitive running: he thinks he can outrun the reaper."

I try to outrun the Reaper,
But the trail is getting steeper,
And my will is getting weaker.
I can almost feel that Creeper
Creeping up on me.

Every year’s another weight,
Shorten my stride, slow my gait.
Does the Reaper lie in wait
Somewhere ahead of me?

I keep running to advance,
But here comes the avalanche!
That’s the end of this square dance.
Looks like the Reaper is ahead of me.

The stones are rolling down
As I hear the mournful sound
Of death rising all around.
Looks like the Reaper has surrounded me.

There’s no more room to run.
Nothing new under the sun.
Now my final race is done.
This is the one the Reaper won,
And he lays his cold hands on me.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On the Whole

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:31-32

A little further on, in John 14:6, we hear Jesus say to Thomas, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Christ does not merely tell us or teach us the truth; He does not simply embody the truth. He is the whole truth. As Oswald Chambers said, we have to be careful about embracing truth. Any partial truth can be an error. If we stop to think about it, most falsehoods are not wholly false. Most errors are not completely wrong. This is the case in any human endeavor. It generally contains or holds to some partial truth. It is hardly possible for us to know the whole truth about anything apart from Christ. The mistake that people make is substituting some fragment of the truth that they have stumbled upon for Jesus. They insist that what they have is true, and, most often, the part they rely on is true. It is simply not the whole truth and cannot be. No partial truth contradicts Jesus. If all the truth in its entirety were revealed to any person, he or she would immediately see the Person in the center of it all.

An honest man may honestly tell us a lie believing it true. It is possible for a partial truth to be true at one time or in one place and not true later or somewhere else. Philosophers, theologians, and ethicists may create internally consistent systems to deal with circumstantial truths and wonder why their systems fall apart as circumstances and times change. Man-made systems collapse when they are built on foundations that do not rest upon the solid Rock.

The beauty and strength of documents like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are that they erect very little on partial truth. Most of the weight of constitutional freedom rests upon the revelation of God in Christ, embracing both the sinfulness of man and his ability to be redeemed. I know that secularists and even many Christians would disagree with the preceding statement, pointing out that some of the most influential Founders were agnostic or Deists. Yet, once the whole truth of Christ has been revealed, it cannot be entirely covered or forgotten. Like it or not, the partial truths of philosophy and mythology were swallowed up by the Whole Truth. When the Declaration said, “… endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights …”, they laid their case upon the Chief Cornerstone, testifying that there was a Source of absolute good and truth to which any of man’s efforts must bow if they were to succeed at all.

Whenever I read the Book of Acts, as I am currently, I am struck by how often the Apostle Paul repeats his testimony of meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. Everything in Paul’s life, every journey, every effort, every word he spoke – so it seems, developed and blossomed from that encounter with the Truth, with the Person who is Truth. We may not – we cannot relate the whole truth in words. We make our best efforts. Some are better at it than others. We cannot relate the whole truth in art or music, but sometimes some of the most gifted ones get close. The whole truth cannot be embodied in architecture, yet those who built the great cathedrals gave us, not only a glimpse of the wholeness, but a space in which we might encounter the Truth if we sought Him. The whole truth cannot be captured by theories, by economic schemes, by methodologies or even religions, though from the Truth there may arise more than one righteous, wise, and beneficial system. No, as Paul knew, we are able to embrace the whole truth only in the Man, Christ Jesus.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Of Angels and Children and Shepherds

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 18:10

The idea of guardian angels owes much to this statement by the Lord. Taken alone it may not be obvious how that connection was made, however, consider the verses that follow immediately: What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish (vv 12-14).

The disciples had questioned Jesus about who was the greatest, and the Lord had answered by bringing forward a little child to admonish the disciples for their worldly attitude. A child-like humility is essential to entering the kingdom. Not far from this passage, Matthew records the meeting of Christ with the rich young ruler where Jesus said, “There is none good but God.” He could have said here, as well, there is none great but God.

An angel is a “sent one”, a messenger dispatched on behalf of another or one could even say an ambassador going on a mission of representation. It is said of angels in Hebrews 1:14, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” Angels may be sent from heaven to earth for the purpose of helping, supporting, and strengthening believers. They may be enabled, in some cases, to intervene in human affairs. Perhaps, some speculate, angels have turned the tide of battles, or aided in the saving of a particular life. Many of us can probably cite specific situations where we found ourselves in great difficulty and were delivered in some uncanny way. With all the near-misses I have had, I am pretty sure, if I have an angel, he qualifies for the hazardous-duty premium.

Angels may go, too, from earth to heaven. Could it be that Jesus means there angels sent by the prayers of humble believers who represent those “little ones” before the Father? In Matthew 5:8, the Lord said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Do those who are pure and refuse to exalt themselves have direct access to the throne of God? Whether Christ is talking about some special order of being or metaphorically of an agency of the human spirit, I do not know, and probably will not know in this life. In any case, we can be assured that purity of heart and humility do put us in contact with the Divine. A child-like trust in the goodness and greatness of our Father puts us in harmony with all of heaven, and all of heaven’s inhabitants.

Do we fear being separated? Do we worry about going astray and being forgotten by the Shepherd? It cannot happen.

In winter our cows were usually pretty easy to find. But the lure of the summer pastures sometimes led the more adventurous Jerseys well out of sight of the house and barn. One of my jobs was to make sure that all were gathered for the evening milking. In this I was ably assisted by my little black shepherd. It was her joy to race across the field and push all visible members of the herd toward and through the gate where I would count them as they passed. The little dog would look at me as she trailed the last one by to know if the job was done for the day or if more remained. While I did not believe she could count, it was my habit to tell her how many were still missing. The words she did clearly understand were “go back” and “on back”, and she would follow the direction of my pointed finger as surely as a black arrow from a bow. Sometimes I would see a stray in a far corner. Other times I sent her flying by instruments over the hill and out of sight. Invariably, in a moment or two, a bovine form, or two or three would come trotting over the crest gently pursued by the happiest angel on four legs.

But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his”… (2 Timothy 2:19).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It's a Holy Ghost Building

And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four horns! And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these?” And he said to me, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.” Then the Lord showed me four craftsmen. And I said, “What are these coming to do?” He said, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, so that no one raised his head. And these have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.” -- Zechariah 1:18-21

Craftsmen? Horns? What is this all about?

Zechariah is prophesying after the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile. This passage is usually dated as having been delivered during late October or early November of 520 B.C.

Horns are a symbol of strength and power, particularly earthly military power. Jerusalem and Judah had been cast down by the military might of Babylon and held in captivity during the rise of the Persian Empire. The Jews had been allowed to return to their homeland, but they remained mired in fear and poverty. The circumstances were discouraging. They had begun to rebuild the temple in 536 B.C. with the laying of the foundation. Harassed by their enemies – non-Jews that had established themselves in the area during the Exile – they had given up. The temple sat unfinished, mocking their efforts. As the prophet Haggai, a contemporary of Zechariah, said, those who had seen the glory of Solomon’s temple could hardly help being disdainful of the new work.

Zechariah does not deny the strain of the situation. He acknowledges that it had been God’s work to drive the Jews from their homeland and city. The number four represents God’s creative work in the material realm. The four horns, therefore, remind the hearers that God Himself had ordained the victory of Babylon and, by extension, the destruction of the beautiful temple raised to the Name and glory of the Lord. Having emphasized this well-known truth to his downtrodden fellows, Zechariah tells them that, just as there were four horns, he also saw four craftsmen, that is, carpenters or builders, coming to drive away the horns.

In other words, as God ordained the fall of the temple, He was ordaining its rebuilding. The separation of His people from His presence was at an end. It did not matter that the temple would not look like Solomon’s. What mattered was the faithfulness of the Jews in rebuilding the temple and seeking after their God. This, too, would be a creative work of the Lord upon the earth.

Zechariah’s prophesy of the destruction and rebuilding of the temple typifies the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It is echoed in the words of Jesus when He said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The risen Christ becomes the foundation upon which a new spiritual temple is constructed with believers as living stones. Perhaps we are not terribly impressive to the eyes of the world, but this is done "not by might nor by power but by My Spirit, says the Lord”.

It has meaning, as well, for those of us who have suffered losses – especially losses created by our own willfulness, sinfulness, and stupidity. If, unlike me, you have never done anything stupid and damaged your life or your relationships because of it, then consider this a word of encouragement for someone you undoubtedly know.

Restoration may not look like we expect it to look. It may not be easy. It may take a long time. But it is still God’s will, and it is still restoration. And it is not our effort alone. Zechariah’s craftsmen are angelic powers, facets of the Divine will, sent to minister to us, to inspire, enlighten, support and strengthen. As different and as unassuming as the rebuilt temple was destined to be, it would still be a work of the Spirit.

We should put aside the romantic remembrances of the past, stop cling to the old forms, ignore the skeptics, and disregard the critics (especially the ones we hear in our heads). It is a new vision and a new work for a new day. The True Cornerstone has been set. Build.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Pop Quiz

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7

A certain level of physical satisfaction is fairly easy to achieve these days in most developed countries. Mental and emotional satisfaction is not quite so easy. We see people striving and struggling, not to be filled with food and decently clothed, but to fulfill an elusive, ephemeral vision that promises happiness. Were he to stand on Wall Street today, I wonder if Paul would say to us as he did to the Athenians, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” A life insurance salesman who worked a territory somewhere southeast of Dallas told me that he had trouble selling in a certain area. He said if the men there had a trailer house on a couple of acres, a pickup, and a bass boat, they were satisfied. I actually admire that kind of simple approach to life on the physical level. While knowing when we have enough is good, we can be assured that Jesus is not going to leave us either in mere material contentment or in pursuit of the wrong goal. The early church preached that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”.

The idea of entering the kingdom through tribulation is also reflected in John 16:33 where Jesus says: In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. He is not talking just about great world-shattering cataclysmic events – though those can and do happen. He is not necessarily talking about our being persecuted for our faith in Christ, though that, too, is promised to us. He is saying that some days your car won’t start. The baby will have a rash. The dog will eat your last bagel. The boss will have PMS. The lawnmower will break when you start to cut the grass. You will spill an overpriced macchiato caldo down the front of your new Egyptian cotton pinpoint shirt. God is in the business of messing up our satisfaction when we are satisfied with anything less than Him. This is the negative aspect.

Paul tells us the positive side in his letter to the church at Philippi quoted above. The Psalmist echoes it as well, saying, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” While it is possible and not unreasonable to interpret that statement as being about material blessings, it is mostly about having God Himself as both the object and source of our satisfaction. He assures us that, if we seek Him we will find Him. If He is the focus of our desire, He will be ours as we are His.

I suppose you could say that I count on Christ to disrupt my life with a little turmoil when I let the wrong things get to the top of the stack. By now I should have learned to check my priorities whenever I find myself getting upset and discontented. This is not to say that even my best efforts to keep God first in my life will prevent troubles large and small from erupting day by day as surely as a pop quiz in history class, but rather that I should know the answer every time because it is always the same: The Lord is at hand.

And, by the way, these pop quizzes count for one hundred percent of your grade.