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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shop Around

Our God is in heaven and does whatever He pleases — Psalm 115:3

On the first cast, I find this a little disturbing. There is the suggestion of a quake in the solid ground of an orderly, law-abiding universe. We have become too accustomed to republics and democracies, to presidents and prime ministers. Monarchs are old-fashioned, and dictators are accursed. But when we think about it, why shouldn't God do "whatever He pleases"? Doesn't He allow man to do that which is in humanity's power to do? Don't we kill, steal, and destroy when we are big enough and bad enough? Would we deny the same power to God?

In fact, if I understand it correctly, one of the favored arguments of atheists is that God cannot be good — though more likely, He cannot be God, and all powerful, since He does not do what He pleases. I think, rather, God does not do what pleases Mr. Dawkins. And I can assure Mr. Dawkins that if God were to change to please him, He would cease to please me. There is that.

Really, I am quite content with God as He is.

If I were shopping for a deity, I would look for one who knows more than I know. I can see where this is neglected by those who know everything.

One who is compassionate and forgiving is definitely high on the list for me. The perfected among us can skip this one.

I would also look for a divinity that demands the best from me, that challenges me, that calls me to self-sacrifice and to exert myself in righteousness. Otherwise it would be akin to an out-of-shape man hiring a personal trainer to tell him he could relax, have a cookie, and put his feet up for a bit.

I will add that I would prefer a deity who allows me to exercise free will. A deterministic existence doesn't sound like much fun. Naturally, that immediately allows for the existence of evil and suffering which also aren't much fun, but having a choice doesn't make much sense when Baskin-Robbins only has one flavor.

Neither do I find a "god of forces" very appealing. I prefer a Person to the force.

While omnipotence is one of my requirements — and here we are getting back to the opening text — I seriously doubt that I can understand all the implications of a Being who is all-powerful. Though a God with the power to create a material universe can unquestionably do as He pleases, allowing His creatures to operate with free will necessarily creates some boundaries. Yet, apparently, that pleases Him.

I would like a god who is unrivaled. As with an impersonal force, god-by-committee lacks appeal. I have no problem with the Trinity in this regard as there is complete agreement within the godhead.

I would like a deity I could speak to, boldly on occasion, even desperately at times. I would like it a lot if my god were to speak to me as well in some way.

How about one who was tempted in all points as we are and can understand what we go through? That cuts way down on the possible candidates, but it seems quite crucial. And if he can understand me, I'd like to be able to understand him.

Speaking of 'him', I would like my god to be a Father rather than a Mother. This goes back to my point about needing a god to challenge me. Certainly the fatherhood of an omnipotent, omniscient, infinite being can be only an aspect. There has to be feminine aspect as well (how else could he know it all?), but to be acceptable in all circumstances, the masculine has to be — there's no way to say it without it sounding sexist — dominant. That's right. I'm all for strong women, but I don't want Mother to have to be a pushy bitch.

I am tempted to say I want to see my god-by-design. Some would say that they want to see god directly. I suspect that would be the utter end of the material universe. In order to come into His creation, God had to lay aside the "god state" and become a Man. Even so, His people rejected and crucified Him. When, at an earlier time, He allowed them to hear His voice in their natural ears, they begged Him to stop talking. God neat, so to speak, is too strong a potion. His entrance into the world shatters its hold on us.

I am sure, though, the list could be longer. Feel free to add to it. Or take away from it. I am glad the Bible says, 'Without faith it is impossible to please God'.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Butterfly

She always liked butterflies. She gazed upon them as if a message were encoded on the wings. Perhaps she could identify with the living death of the cocoon, going from the short-sighted, self-centered sight of the crawler to the vast perspective vision of the flier. She had been through that. She had thought her life was over. It's visible in the old pictures -- her rigid smile under confused eyes, a panic encased in ice like an exquisite and complex, though prehistoric creature. And so it was. Her history begins only after that point.

I don't think it really hit me until I saw the little old couple sitting in the middle on folding metal chairs -- halfway back, the location that does not presume. I told the woman who I was, and she grabbed my hand. "She lived with you, didn't she? You took care of her?" We did, I replied, at least, my wife did. The woman clung to my hand as if she knew that it had, not that long ago, touched the still-living one she loved so much. "We were like sisters. We were together so much. I tried to find her, the last ten years. I couldn't find her. She was closer to me than a sister."

Too late, you might say, they were together. We had to bring my mother-in-law back to this place where she could be found by old friends and lost relatives. To see her arrayed in white in the tasteful white jewelry casket with delicate pink trim, it was beautiful, but it was not the same. We had cheated the woman, though not intentionally. She didn't seem to hold it against us, but her forgiveness did not lessen her despair.

You will see yourself on television in a minute, I told her. The old woman watched until her image appeared, tall, straight and austere next to the small, warm woman beside her. "She was always so neat and little," she said. So different, these two friends, I thought. My mother-in-law was pretty and graceful, her friend gawky and harsh-looking, but the old woman was almost unrecognizable in relation to her younger photograph. Time had softened her, bent her until the fragile could swallow up the awkward. The pain of years and disease had somehow erased the harshness with creases. Perhaps, after all, she had found her in time, certainly in time.

We are so foolish not to believe in the prayers of the saints. Because something was abused does not mean that it was not or is not now true. The old woman's metamorphosis is only the smallest of the miracles that were worked in that too-familiar room. Neither time nor the Spirit will allow me to tell all the tales of brokenness for healing. There are secrets the Master wants us to keep. He does love surprises. Sometimes, if we will hold our tongues, He will surprise even Himself.

She could barely walk forward with her four natural limbs and the four aluminum ones, caterpillar-like she moved to stand beside the carefully pinned and arranged form, so life-like, more gossamer even in death than life. She gazed upon her as if a last message were encoded in light from the peaceful and once more lovely visage. "I'm not far behind you," she whispered.

Waiting for the miracle
There's nothing left to do.
I haven't been this happy
since the end of World War II.

Nothing left to do
when you know that you've been taken.
Nothing left to do
when you're begging for a crumb
Nothing left to do
when you've got to go on waiting
waiting for the miracle to come.
When you've fallen on the highway
and you're lying in the rain,
and they ask you how you're doing
of course you'll say you can't complain --
If you're squeezed for information,
that's when you've got to play it dumb:
You just say you're out there waiting
for the miracle, for the miracle to come.

(From "Waiting for the Miracle" - Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ashes, For All Fall Down

Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of His inheritance? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. — Micah 7:18-19

One of the horrors of having a good memory is that we tend to remember. I can give you my university student ID number which is not my Social Security number and for which no one has asked since 1975. I remember the phone number that I had for a couple of years back in the late '70's — partly because the last six numbers were 96-48-24, in that order. The first digit was an 8 — 3*8, 6*8, 12*8 — it was a thing of beauty. Even the area code added up to eight. Without question, until I got the landline number I have now, that was the best phone number I ever had. Of course, these days I have a lot more phone numbers to remember and, with every dinky cell phone having its own contact list, phone number memorization isn't so vital. My wife was always astounded that I was able to recall numbers, but one of my tricks was that I usually had to get only the last four digits prior to the proliferation of area codes and exchanges that cells have stimulated.

Back in school, I could, during a test, often see the page in the book where the answer could be found. Naturally, I had a lot fewer books back then. I was the same way with the Bible, seeing a quote in the approximate physical location on the page and relative to the front and back covers, even when I could not recall the reference. That was back when I had one old hardcover copy of the KJV that I used all the time.

I remember things that I wish I could forget — ugly things I've done and said, sins and errors that still reverberate through my life and, even worse, through the lives of others. Then there are things I probably should forget — you know, now that I am a well-respected, grandfatherly Christian sort. There are the jokes we told one another, the parties, kisses in parked cars, and movies I never really saw at the drive-in. There are skills I should forget, like how to roll a number on a rubber raft in the dark, how to pick a lock, or the exact moment to move a chair out from under someone sitting down. I remember the taste of a first cold beer on a hot day down on the river and the cool fire of sippin' whiskey by the evening blaze.

We had an office manager who was quite an attractive young lady. One Friday she wore leather pants to work — nothing gauche, but they did fit, shall we say, "quick". She had her hands full of files when she got to the exit. I was heading out the same door at the time — quite innocently. She was in front of me. I was going to step around her to open the door which had a lever instead of a knob. "Oh, no," she said, "I can get it." She backed up to the door and opened it with her butt, looked up at me and smiled.

"That," I said, "is just showing off. But it is impressive." Obviously, twenty-plus years later, I still remember it.

Sometimes I ask the Lord to purge my memory, to let me forget all the failures and even the distractions. Joseph, after enduring so many trials, named his elder son, Manasseh, saying, "God has made me to forget all my troubles in my father's house". Joseph could forget the wrongs done to him, the treachery by his brothers, their envy and animosity. He forgot only those things that came between him and others, for those are also the things that would have come between him and God.

And God, too, forgets. Isaiah said, "...[F]or You have cast all my sins behind Your back." In doubting that God does forget, I'm a little like Joseph's brothers in that they doubted Joseph had forgotten the little episode of being thrown in the well and sold to the Ishmaelites. I've always thought that the worst moment of Joseph's life was probably not being thrown in the well or getting sent to the dungeons for a crime he didn't commit, but that one moment when his brothers pulled him out of the well. Don't you figure that he thought they had been playing a joke on him, and they were about to let him go back home? He would have been thinking better of them. Then the chains were locked on, and he was dragged away behind a camel, able to look back for an hour and see his brothers standing around laughing about how they had finally gotten some profit out of the favorite. What an utterly dismal memory that must have been.

But Joseph did forget, not the episode but the negative intent. He forgot his own toxic bitterness. When Jesus said on the Cross, "Forgive them for they know not what they do", He could easily have paraphrased Joseph, saying, "Forgive them. They mean it for evil, but I know You, Father, mean it for good." The Bible says that a woman forgets the pain of her labor the moment she has her child in her arms. Again, it doesn't mean she forgets the travail, but she does not regret it. She is not embittered by it.

Memory is a blessing; so is forgetfulness. God says that if I will not remember the wrongs done to me, He will not remember the wrongs I have done to Him. If I cannot put my bitterness behind me, I hold my own sins always before His face.

Tomorrow many of my brothers and sisters will have a little cross of ash upon their foreheads, ashes of repentance and humility. In that little fire, literal or figurative, let us burn all tainted memories. We need not worry about loss for pure things will always pass through the fire unharmed. What will be consumed and turned to ashes are the impure, the hurts, the dirty deeds, the bad intentions. The ashes are a sign that we have let the fire purge us, that we forget all that has been burnt up and dispelled in smoke and wind.

As we relinquish to the flames the trespasses done against us, our own transgressions are turned to ash as well, trodden under foot and washed away into the vast, forgetful sea.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Demolition Man

Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.” — 1 Samuel 13:19

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. — 2 Corinthian 10:4

It can be said that the armed are citizens while the unarmed are mere slaves. Oppressors prefer their victims be unable to offer meaningful resistance. I'm all for "carnal" weapons, but we should not allow the enemy of our souls to disarm us of our far more vital spiritual weapons. Paul gives us a list of the Christian's defensive weaponry — the armor of God, in Ephesians 6. He specifically names only one offensive weapon: the sword of the Spirit, that is, the word of God.

Truth and peace will help us hold our ground. Righteousness will guard our hearts as the reality of salvation protects our minds. Faith will shield us when we are showered by fiery trials. The word enables us divide our enemies asunder, revealing and exposing motives and origins. Prayer is less a weapon and more the battle itself. When we begin to pray, we will often find ourselves under attack. In order to continue and be effective in prayer, we must deploy our armor and weaponry, walk in truth and peace, stay in faith, and constantly wield the word against all attacks.

Paul goes on to say: We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

Not all our thoughts are our own. They don't all originate with us. I wonder if I've ever had an original thought in my life. Most of what I think is something heard or read somewhere else. As the Preacher said long ago, there's nothing new under the sun. Whether they originate with us or not, our thoughts fit together in our minds. If a new thought does not fit into the structure we have built so far, our tendency is to reject it, cast it onto the pile for potential later use, or whittle on it a bit so that can be added in right now.

We construct thought-buildings all our lives. Some we maintain and keep up, remodeling or even rebuilding as needed. Some we find we must eventually demolish, though we may recycle stones and old solid, seasoned lumber to be used in the newer structures. But other of our structures we seem to forget. They still stand, though neglected and abandoned.

There is a mythical truth to haunted houses, for there are truly haunted structures in the psyche. They are like the prophetic descriptions of Babylon – desolate but not empty. Gibbering and loathsome things may find there a place to hide, a lair from which they may steal to strike in the hour of darkness and tribulation. Our shield of faith is toward the front. We may be vulnerable to an attack from behind.

The best thing is to destroy those strongholds, to deploy the weapons of our warfare in leveling the old, outdated, outmoded thought-buildings that have become fortresses for the enemy. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful is the word of God. It really is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. The days that I ignore it because I am too busy are simply darker than the days that I read so much as a single verse.

I remember watching an old movie about the Crusades. The English king meets some Moslem leader, perhaps Saladin. To demonstrate the strength of his sword, the Englishman cuts an iron bar with a single stroke. The Moslem is impressed but points out that the Christian has not at all shown the sharpness of his blade; he has instead shown the power of his arm. The Moslem takes a bit of silk from the queen and tosses it into the air. It falls on the upturned blade of the Eastern sword and is gently, perfectly divided.

That’s the way the word works. It’s not the strength we have to wield it, but the frightening razor edge of the word itself that destroys the haunts of the demons that would oppress us.