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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

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
(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.