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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Friday, September 30, 2011

And When We Pray

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  – Matthew 6:5-6

Back when I used to teach in church, I did a lot of studying.  That goes along with my nature.  I enjoy reading.  With a couple of translations of the Bible, a Strong’s Concordance, Vine’s Word Studies in the New Testament, and resorting on occasion to a commentary or the footnotes in my fat NIV Study Bible, I could have a fine time putting together a fairly substantial lesson for the Adult Sanctuary Class.  Reading the Bible was never an issue for me.  What did nag at me in terms of spiritual discipline, from the moment I began to follow Christ, was my neglect of prayer. 

Of course, I prayed when I was in a bind and my wife was sick or the kids were in trouble or I needed a job or I could not pay the bills.  I would pray early on Sunday morning as part of my preparation for teaching.  I prayed in agreement with others during church services.  Sometimes I would go down and pray at the mourners' benches in a Sunday evening service, either as my own response to a message or in support of someone else.  In spite of that, prayer for the sake of prayer, or more rightly, for the sake of talking to my Father remained a difficulty. 

Sometimes I would make an effort to set aside time in the morning, or I would commit to a time in the evening.  I had a rosary for a while.  I have tried to follow that ancient practice sometimes called the daily office or liturgy of the hours.  I think that would be a good practice for some, but at this point in life, it does not work for me.  (If anyone is interested, there is a recent book on it called In Constant Prayer by Robert Benson.)  One day, after using the Psalms for prayer, I realized, finally, the real nature of my problem.  Left to itself, my mind is like a hungry goat that has escaped from the pen.  Everything thing looks edible, and there is edible stuff everywhere.  Without something to focus on, I am like “a leaf on the wind” to quote Wash from Serenity. 

Praying the Psalms worked for me as a focal point, but it was a little too much like, well, like reading the Bible.  What I needed was more than a prayer list; I needed something like a personal psalm.  I got a little cheap notebook that I could hide because there are things I pray about that are no one else’s business (see the warning above about "street corners").  The first page is a single statement of how I see my purpose in the world.  The next few pages are just about me, asking God for help with specific struggles and talking about the places where I need help and where I stumble.  Following that are sections for specific people and situations.  I try to leave some blank space -- at least the back of a page, for new requests for an individual.  Except for the opening page with its reminder of what I am doing, everything is written in pencil.  I sometimes need to re-word things a little, or I realize my understanding of a situation was incorrect and a prayer needs to be phrased differently. 

These are not long prayers.  I try to make my requests as brief and as specific as possible to guard against "vain repetitions" and empty words.  I may have multiple requests for a given person, but each is separate.  If one is answered, it becomes a thanksgiving instead of a plea, a standing stone attesting to God’s grace and power.   

You may have noticed that I used the word “specific” several times.  A while back it was mentioned that Jesus often asked people what they wanted Him to do for them.  The story of Blind Bartimaeus from Mark 10:46-52 is a case in point:  
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.”  And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.  And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.”

Do we think that Jesus could not see that the poor man was blind?  What did He think a blind man might want?  No, the Lord was not unaware of the blindness, but He wanted Bartimaeus to know what Bartimaeus wanted.  There are times when it is quite appropriate to fall down before God and cry out, “Have mercy on me!”  We can be overwhelmed by circumstances that are beyond our comprehension and understanding.  There is nothing wrong with a general plea.  But if we have a problem that can be defined in detail, we should address it in detail.  As the old song says, “Jesus on the main line, tell Him what you want.”

My method is very practical and appropriate for me.  Most people have better mental discipline than I have and can afford to be more spontaneous.  Oddly enough, I have found that writing my prayers down this way makes them more accessible to me when I find myself with a few spare minutes.  One of my requests will often come to mind as I am getting ready to go to sleep or as I am waking up in the morning.  Very slowly, prayer is beginning to infiltrate my life. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Almost Cut My Hair Today

And Samson said to them, “If this is what you do, I swear I will be avenged on you, and after that I will quit.”  And he struck them hip and thigh with a great blow, and he went down and stayed in the cleft of the rock of Etam. – Judges 15:7-8

Samson is always an interesting character.  He is unique in the biblical record where possibly only Jonah is able to approach him in terms of behavior and attitude.  The name Samson means sun-like.  We might look at him as a Hebrew version of Apollo.  He certainly has the hubris and amorality that typify a pagan god.  His strength and power are also godlike, along with a potential weakness that is Homeric. 

Samson was born to judge and deliver Israel from Philistine oppression.  Though he killed many of his enemies, he is the only protagonist in the book of Judges who failed, ultimately, to break the oppressor’s hold over the land.  Despite his personal victories, Samson is a lone wolf.  It is no accident that he finds himself in Etam, which means a den or lair.  The Philistines are humiliated time and again by this isolated figure, but they maintain their cities, their military power, and, for the most part, their control over the Israelite tribes. 

Though God has sent Samson and ordained his destiny, the Almighty seems to have only the most minimal influence in the hero’s life.  Samson did as he pleased and brought God along for the ride – or so he thought.  He initially entered into conflict with the Philistines not because he wanted freedom for his people or because he desired to be obedient to the Lord but because he lusted after one of the Philistine women.  He went down to the city of Timnah and proposed marriage to a girl there.  This, as we shall see, is the only way that God could the “sun-like” hero to do anything other than look for a good time. 

Traveling back and forth between his home and the home of his bride-to-be, Samson is attacked by a lion which he simply grabs and rips in half.  He tosses the carcass aside and, on a subsequent trek, finds that bees have built a honeycomb in the lion’s remains.  Apparently not too concerned about cleanliness, ritual or otherwise, the hero unhesitatingly scoops out some of the honey and shares with his parents.  This leads to Samson offering a riddle with a wager to his wife’s kinfolk:  Out of the eater came something eat/ Out of the strong came something sweet.  His wife is threatened by those about to lose the wager, and she coaxes the answer from her avowed husband so that he loses the bet.  This begins a cycle of death and revenge that carries through the initial period of Samson’s rise to power and leadership among the Israelites. 

To pay his debt, an angry Samson kills thirty Philistines of Ashkelon then goes away.  The bride’s father, thinking that Samson is done with the girl, gives her in marriage to another man.  When Samson, looking for love, returns with the peace offering of a goat (so much more practical than roses), he is devastated to learn that he no longer has a wife.  The Philistines find that, like the old Nazareth song, now they are messing with an SOB.  And one with a mighty twisted sense of humor:  So Samson went and caught 300 foxes and took torches. And he turned them tail to tail and put a torch between each pair of tails.  And when he had set fire to the torches, he let the foxes go into the standing grain of the Philistines and set fire to the stacked grain and the standing grain, as well as the olive orchards.

Would Rambo or even Chuck Norris have been able to pull this off?  Samson’s only regret?   He had to use torches instead of lasers. 

But this seems almost petty compared to the accomplishments of a judge like Gideon who destroyed an opposing army against odds of one hundred to one.  If Superman were pledging a fraternity, he might pull a stunt like Samson’s.  The results were also probably not what Samson wanted, if he wanted anything other than to boast of a awesome prank.  The enraged Philistines did not go after Samson but after his former girlfriend and her family:   And the Philistines came up and burned her and her father with fire (Judges 15:6). 

Revenge breeds more revenge, and Samson responds by striking down his adversaries, saying after he is avenged, he will quit.  Having been satiated, Samson retreats to Etam, thinking, perhaps, he has shown the Philistines the folly of attacking him.  But the blows fall elsewhere again.  The Philistines, knowing their nemesis is in tribal territory, attacks Judah.  When the tribal leaders ask for an explanation, they are told to give up Samson.  The men of Judah go down to Etam and call Samson out, explaining that they will be the ones who suffer if Samson does not allow himself to be taken captive. 

It is evident that everybody knew where Samson was hiding; it was just that no one wanted to go in after him.  They knew they had no chance against him in what amounted to his “fortress of solitude”.  Samson agrees to be bound as long as his kinsmen will not kill him before he is handed over to the enemy.  Bound with two new ropes, the mighty man is delivered to the oppressors.  Under threat, the Spirit comes upon Samson.  He breaks his bonds, grabs the nearest object, which happens to be a fresh jawbone of a donkey (one wonders how fresh it could be).  He proceeds to strike down a thousand of the Philistines, again humiliating them. 

As impressive as Samson’s feat is, it is still merely an act of personal deliverance.  Nothing in the text of his story indicates that he does anything other than mock and sometimes frighten his adversaries.  He does not deliver the people of God. 

Samson is perhaps a type of the modern church.  Today’s church is capable of impressive displays, of filling stadiums and massive auditoriums with great numbers of believers.  Christians own television and radio stations and broadcast the gospel around the world.  Yet our culture continues to deteriorate.  Materialism grows unchecked by Christianity’s efforts.  Like Samson, we can put on a show, but our efforts do not deliver.  We are still under the oppressive power of the enemy who seems to be growing stronger.

Yet the end is not in question.  Christ conquered our enemies once for all through the Cross.  So, too, Samson accomplished his greatest work after his own bondage and through his own death.  Will the Church in the West soon be shackled to grind at the prison mill?  I do not know.  If, however, you ever find yourself shorn and eyeless in Gaza, remember this:
But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

An Infinity of Mirrors

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." – Matthew 22:35-40

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. -- John 15:7

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.   – 1 John 5:14-15

Saint Augustine said, “Love God, and then do what you please.”  This has long struck me as a sort of Catch-22 since love, as best I can define it, seeks to please the object of love.  For example, I am simply happy to be in the presence of my grandchildren, to see them filled with joy even when it costs me aches and pains, time and money.  In a perfectly balanced love relationship, each party would try to ensure that the other was happier in order to derive his or her own happiness, which brings to mind, immediately, O. Henry’s famous story.

If we are not careful, we may find ourselves thinking that, if God wants us to be happy, we might please Him by pleasing ourselves.  This would be akin to a married person thinking that if the spouse’s foremost desire is the happiness of the beloved then, if the beloved desires to engage another person, the spouse would be happy.  In truth, I know that my wife would be very unhappy if I cheated on her, especially at the funeral.  What actions like adultery say is that the one does not find full pleasure in the pleasure of the other. 

Over and over in the Bible, God assures us that we will find our joy in Him and Him alone.  Everything else, every pleasure, every success, every achievement in life can derive its meaning and fulfillment only from Him and our love for Him.  When Jesus said that we cannot serve both God and mammon, He did not say that we would not have to work for a living, that we could get by without money, or that we should all go off and live as hermits.  There are some who are called to a life of solitary prayer, but the vast majority of us are called to live for and to love God in the midst of a contrary and often hostile system.  I have gotten through many difficult days by offering the pressures and stresses to the Lord, saying I do not work for the supervisor, the manager, the CEO, or the company but for Jesus.  And, of course, some days I have forgotten and suffered needlessly for it. 

Somehow I must know that what I go through in life and, more importantly, how I go through the trials of life will bring honor and glory to the God that I love.  No man or woman will sacrifice their lives, labor long hours, and endure deprivation and hardship for nothing, but all will do just that and more for someone or even something that they love.  Every day men and women lay down their lives for a country they love or a cause to which they are devoted.  Parents sacrifice present pleasures and future dreams that their children might have better opportunities in life. 

Ultimately, an old saying gets close to the truth, “Love is not a feeling; it’s an act of the will.”  If I find, as I sometimes do, that the joy has gone from my life, that I am struggling and suffering in what seems to be a pointless existence then perhaps I need to stop where I am and renew my love to God, to find what it is in my life that pleases Him, and to pursue it even sacrificially.  For when God rejoices in me, I will rejoice. 

But we all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into that same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man.  He was a mighty hunter before the LORD.  Therefore it is said, Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.  The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.  -- (Genesis 10:8-10)

A day such as this one is a precursor to Fall around here, cool and cloudy and slightly damp.  Last night, just at sunset, the coyotes set up howling at a distant siren.  This morning the cats were hunting early and have just now returned without any chipmunks, field mice or the small, short-tailed brown rats that populate the runways in the fescue.  They were just having a look-see, getting their stalk on, tuning up, one might say.  None of us are taking hunting season too seriously, yet.  There will be heat again before the first frost, unless the next ice age is impending.  I have heard fools argue that hunting is some sort of sexual sublimation.  The walking clay from which God formed us hunted long before being human.  If anything, some of the sexual deviants in the world should take up the sport.  They might find what they seek.

The dayrunning houndmen live for weather like this when the wind is not too strong and the scent hangs in the cool, moist air like a fat curveball that fails to break.  Loosed to jump their quarry before the stars fade in the east, the deep-chested dogs can run all day and push even the leggiest coyote to his limits. 

They are fewer these days, the houndmen.  Closed land, the costs of maintaining a pack, the time-pressure of the smart phone age, it all works against them.  The coyote hunters evolved, mostly, from the fox hunters.  Fox hunters were nightrunners.  They would walk or ride, and later drive, to an appointed spot with a cold-nosed Walker or two or three in tow, meeting often on a spot of high ground after the day's work was done, the cows were milked, and every creature, except those called to the ministry, had fed.  The fasting runners sensed what was coming and almost nervously emptied themselves ahead of the challenge.   One of the men might bring coffee, another a smoke-blackened pot.  Soon a fire would be lit, as much for light to talk by as to dispel the chill.  Hounds would be loosed, though not always all at first, and the mixed pack would head off in search of a race.  No one, including the hounds, wanted to hole a fox right away, let alone catch or kill one.  The object was the voice, and maybe, too, the social aspect.  The hounds wanted to run, to catch the scent of a gray, or, preferably, a more sporting red and let it fill their nostrils with a mystery that moved their tongues in ecstatic utterances. 

The old-line Walkers were relatively slow.  They did not push the circling creature too hard.  The game for the hounds was not to catch the fox but to run ahead of the other dogs, to be at the apex of the pack.  There were no sexual distinctions.  It was often a light-footed bitch in the lead.  The hounds in front are more vocal; the hounds in back or that are trying to catch up are less vocal.  Each man knew the voice of each of his hounds and those of his more frequent companions as well, if not better than, the voices of his own children.  It is fairly easy to pick up the unique notes and tones of a dog's running voice, even out of the pack chorus.  Like humans, running dogs have their tenors and basses, altos and sopranos.  Some day, as a new dawn breaks on some golden hill, I will hear again the high, fine mouth of the hound we called Dodger carrying through rich, still air above the voices of his brethren, and I will know familiar faces wait not far ahead. 

Coyotes are mostly all business in front of a pack, but they might know that coyote hounds run to catch.  The short-winded, more feline gray fox will seek escape at the earliest opportunity, but the red, Ol' Reynard himself, he is a game player.  The old-timers tell of seeing a red fox pause to sit, to catch his breath with laughing, lolling tongue, and to listen to his choir of inquisitors as if he enjoyed laying the track as much as they enjoyed searching it out.  Though these predators may fear humans -- just as they fear other predators and even some of their own kind, they have learned to deal with us.  We have brought something into the world which challenges and elevates them, a hint of meaning and an ethereal fragrance of a glory they cannot know apart from us.  But, the Disneyfied object, you bring them death.  It is true.  Sometimes we do, but death is ever the constant companion of the beasts of the field.  They, too, live by death.  The game is in playing it, dodging it, outwitting it.  Josey Wales might have been correct when he said, "Dyin' ain't much of a livin', boy."  Nevertheless, dying is a part of it, the fire we dance around and that with which we pepper the game to rush the blood to our faces, the tears to our eyes, and to vibrate our tongues in chilling, joyous cries.     

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dead Reckoning

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:11

The ESV is a little weak, though correct.  I just like the old KJV word “reckon” better than the more generic “consider”.  It sounds like something Josey Wales might say.  

“They say you’re dead to sin, Wales.”

Spit.  “I reckon so.”

Considering oneself dead to sin makes sense only in light of the preceding statement in verse 2: How can we who died to sin still live in it?  The truth is that reckoning has more in common with accounting than with gunslinging.  When we write down the balance in our account book, it had best be the amount that is actually in the account.  Otherwise we can find ourselves guilty of writing bad checks or perpetrating fraud – unless, of course, we are the federal government.  Come to think of it, “account” would be a better modern word than consider.

We can account ourselves dead to sin because we identify with Christ, or rather He identified with us.  He immersed Himself in human flesh.  He made His obedience and death ours.  We are drawn into and immersed in His death, or, as it is more traditionally put, we are baptized into His death.  This accounting, then, is a matter of recognizing, acknowledging, and operating in accordance with the revealed truth. 

By accounting ourselves dead to sin, we are not like the Little Christian Who Could, huffing, “I think I’m dead.  I think I’m dead.”  We are not by our heroic efforts making a hope or even an uncertainty into a reality.  The illusion is not that we are dead to sin but that we feel the need to sin. 

I suppose I should stop and make the point that when I say “sin” I am just using a shorthand for anything that is perpetrated by the old Adamic nature, anything that is done out of material or animal impulses.  A lot of us have never committed adultery because, frankly, it is a lot of trouble, and we are just too lazy to do it.   Some of us have never committed murder or stolen diamonds only because we are scared of getting caught and winding up in prison; or, we don’t know a trustworthy fence, or because cleaning up the gore after a homicide might cause us to miss “Dancing With The Stars”.  And, really, there is a reason they call it “dead weight”. 

Instead we steal time from our family and friends by shifting our work onto them.  We cut people up with cruel words.  We fill our minds with vicarious adulteries and “romances” and violence via television and the internet.  We manipulate and deceive in order to get our way or not suffer the consequences of our actions.  I could go on, but, as Leonard Cohen says, everybody knows.

If we are indeed dead to the old nature, why do we feel such an obligation to it?  Why does it seem to trap and hold us so much of the time?  Everything is answered in Genesis.  And God blessed them. And God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Genesis 1:28 – emphasis added).  We are meant to rule.  But equally and reasonably we are meant to be ruled over.  We feel an obligation, a sense of loyalty, and we do not know to what or to Whom we rightfully owe it.  

Did you ever wonder how Lucifer could rule a bunch of fallen angels that were already rebels?  I have.  It looks to me like the devil would be so busy putting down uprising that he would hardly have time to annoy me.  But all of God’s creatures, fallen or not, are built with a sense of loyalty.  This is why we find the traitors punished in the very lowest circle of hell.  No one respects a traitor, not even those who benefit from the betrayal.  Many should be fearful. 

Though Adam has long repented his failure and the transference of his allegiance to the enemy, we followed our father in his disloyalty and rebellion under a new master.  We could not help ourselves.  We were bound to the flesh.  We could not break the curse without becoming accursed.  So it was that God divinely provided an alternative.  I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Genesis 3:15).  One would come born of woman but owing fealty to another Father.  He took the curse upon Himself and broke its power.

Now, if we obey only our heavenly Father, no one can account us as traitors.  While many may not desire to have the Lord be their Lord, they do not become rulers themselves but remain subject to the flesh, for all of creation will give allegiance to that which it believes is master -- no matter how base or destructive.  In the midst of a world system that operates on the power of the flesh, we must remind ourselves of the truth regularly.  It is like the illusion of a rising and setting sun.  It is easy to forget that it is a function of the spinning earth.  

… be transformed by the renewal of your mind … (Romans 12:2).