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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why Old People Tell Stories

I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. – Psalm 78:2-3

A parable is a story that conveys a lesson or teaches us a principle via analogy. It is sometimes qualified as being a succinct story – e.g., Christ’s various parables, though there is no set length for a parable. A “dark saying” refers to stating something in a hidden way, the meaning not being obvious on the surface, as is the case in allegories and often in mythology, legends, and folktales. A few posts back I talked about Elisha and woman of Shunem who was content to “dwell among [her] own people”. Our shared stories of the past, whether of our own family lines or regional folklore, constitute a major element of our identity.

I attribute much of the turmoil of the modern world to our general loss of connection to the past. Instead of obscure tales around the campfire, we sit before the flickering television screen to have all our lore mocked and our myths “busted”. Instead of fables about frog princes we have a frog dissected before us as science lays out the mysteries of life in plain view. In place of poetry we have rap and reality shows.

We should expect no end to the writing of histories, especially given the agendas of the progressive historians like Howard Zinn. Imagine if the Bible, in the Pentateuch and Joshua, rather than telling the tales of the Israelites and God’s intention for them to inhabit the Promised Land, told of the indignities suffered by the Egyptians or focused on the oppression and displacement of the people of Canaan. How would the Israelites have maintained their identity and founded a nation?

Revisionist historians argue that the Europeans were oppressors and invaders and displaced the native peoples just as the Israelites displaced the Canaanites. This ignores the larger truth that the history of humanity is a history of conquest and displacement. Should we ignore the fact that Israelites were oppressed slaves in Egypt or that most of the Europeans who came to America came to escape poverty, hopelessness, and various restrictions regarding economics and religion? Should we forget there was constant warring among the many indigenous tribes of Canaan or America? Was it not the case that one tribe conquered and displaced another? We might be ashamed of the atrocities committed by the invaders, but inhuman acts of savagery were perpetrated on both sides.

We have a right to our history. It is not the property of academics or politicians; our history belongs to us personally and culturally. There is no culture without history, without our stories of how we came to be, of our conquests and failures, our struggles and our destiny. I understand that history can easily become the exclusive property of the conquerors. But what if they were conquerors for a reason? God did not give Canaan to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob during their lifetimes. First the Canaanite culture had to fall into its ultimate decadence while the children of Israel had to have their culture formed and tempered in the forge of Egyptian oppression. The Israelites could be liberated under Moses and could conquer under Joshua because they knew who they were and understood their destiny. Their stories gave them a foundation for building a new nation.

The problem was that it did not last. When the kingdoms split after the death of Solomon, Jeroboam of Israel feared the reinforcement of cultural unity through worship at the Temple in the Jerusalem. To avoid this, he created an apostasy and erected idols, still referred to, at least initially, as Yahweh. He instituted a new order of worship with new priests to head up the sacrificial system. It may have borne some resemblance to the true worship as ordained by God through Moses, but it also made room for the customs and beliefs of the old Canaanite religions. The children of Israel, though racially the same, lost touch with their founding stories.

The consequences are documented further down in Psalm 78: The Ephraimites, armed with the bow, turned back on the day of battle. They did not keep God's covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them (verses 9 through 11).

Without our stories, our lore and legends, we are a defeated people. We cannot afford to forget the Mayflower or Squanto, Washington at Valley Forge or Nathan Hale, Daniel Boone in Kentucky or Davy Crockett at the Alamo, San Jacinto, John Brown, Quantrill, Lee, Grant or Sherman, Stonewall or Pickett’s Charge. We must remember Crazy Horse, Geronimo, San Juan Hill and Alvin York, Prohibition and bootleggers, Audie Murphy, Patton, and Ike. It is even good to remember “I Love Lucy” and the ’57 Chevy – and Elvis. I am not so sure that Santayana was right when he said, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” I am sure that if we forget our stories, we forget who we are and forget our aim.

The most important story to remember is the story of the Cross. It is here that God and man meet, at the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal. All of the past led to the Cross, and, it is from the Cross that the future is led. This is the overarching aim of history. To remember and to cherish the Cross is to find the direction to the Kingdom. His Story forgotten is like an unerring compass left on the shelf.

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone ?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Don’t Make God Laugh

Surely the wrath of man shall praise You; the remnant of wrath You will put on like a belt. -- Psalm 76:10
The psalmist is talking about God’s judgment and His great power. He asks, “Who can stand before You when once Your anger is roused?”(v.7) That God is able to bring the plans of man to naught goes almost without saying. He can bring peace, cause conflicts to cease, and render the mighty powerless.

We live in a world where anger is constantly expressed. We can watch the evening news and see people protesting and shouting. We see people doing everything imaginable to get their way. We hear of assaults, attacks, and murders. We see property destroyed. We see thieves and vandals running amok. Many people who aren’t expressing anger are depressed – which means they simply lack the energy and enthusiasm to be enraged. How is it that the wrath of man can bring glory to God? It seems to be a contradiction. Man’s capacity for malcontent, for greed, envy, and violence seems limitless. Should we not fear the wrath of man? Should we not try to appease the protesters and those who demand their way like spoiled children?

First, God has put a limit on the power of humanity to do evil. We sometimes find this hard to believe. Yet it is only God who is wise enough, good enough, and powerful enough to set the boundaries. Man cannot, as Matthew Henry says, permit sin because “they cannot check it when they will”. When the wrath of man hits its limit, it is a testimony of God’s strength and grace. Man’s rage is restrained and thrown back upon itself as the waves of the sea. As Rick says: The black rocks of the shoreline support the shoreline and continue underneath the land … traveling … back from the sea and become gradually lost in the earth. It is the rocks that keep the sea from the land…. Humanity’s most outrageous efforts eventually break upon the Solid Rock.

Man rages against God and God’s will. The world system mocks the truth of the Bible, dismisses the infallibility of the Word, and enthrones itself as the only acceptable authority. Science does not claim to be infallible in all its pronouncements, but it does claim a sort of inevitable infallibility in its method. The world tends to forget that, even if man had a perfect methodology, it would only be as good as the flawed humans wielding it. God, in His complete and comprehensive understanding, often allows man to run his course, despite the suffering it may cause, even to the innocent. The Lord is able to comfort and deliver His people who refuse to hope in material and biological life alone but place their hope in Christ and His life that is eternal.

Men are building a global kingdom with no room for Christianity, no room for God. Many Christians are feeling the pressure of this new and, so far, cold war without realizing the source of it. We think, because the world is becoming more “enlightened” and “tolerant”, we are past our days of being thrown to the lions. Yet the world rejects Christ, as it always has, as it must. The world system is threatened by Christ – always has been, always will be. The kingdoms of man are necessarily built upon a foundation of fear, lies, and deception. People are manipulated and enslaved by the system. If the light of truth were allowed to shine into the current system’s fog of financial machinations and debt it would be dispersed and collapse within days.

I will not say that the situation will not get worse. I will not say that man will not succeed to some degree. I will not say that the wrath of man will not fall upon God’s people and that many of us -- even, perhaps, some of us alive today, will not be delivered through persecution rather than from it. But, I say, we will be delivered. The wrath of man will praise God when the kingdoms of this world again crumble and become dust in the wind.

You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. -- Daniel 2:31-35 (emphasis added)

Monday, June 20, 2011

These Are the Voyages of the Starship Enterprise

This is not exactly what I had in mind when I set out to get a new bike. I heard a guy say, "Happy wife; happy life". We'll see. My nephew was shocked when I rode it over to his place, our first extended ride, about 50 miles each way. I wish I could have taken a better picture. It does look stylish -- in an interstellar spacecraft kind of way. 1736 cc's which translates to 106 cubic inches of displacement. You may be able to faintly see the 106 on the side of the engine in the picture. Heated seats, heated grips, cruise, ABS brakes, stereo with radio and an MP3 connection. 900 pounds with fuel, I don't know if you could call it nimble for its size or just not lumbering. Part of the problem will be me for a while. About half the ride Saturday was over twisty two-lanes, and when I got back I could tell I hadn't ridden for, lo, these many years. We'll get used to it I suppose.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Every Pearl Has Its Price

Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.’ … See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. – Deuteronomy 32:35,39 (ESV)

Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you. – Proverbs 20:22

John Wayne movies are practically a genre unto themselves. From Stagecoach to The Shootist, Wayne looms over the history of American cinema as few other figures have. Almost all his films are entertaining, even if, like me, a person has seen them multiple times. A few are really bad. Many are classics: Liberty Valance, Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Red River, and the list could go on. Some of the flaws in a typical John Wayne movie are really flaws in a typical John Ford movie, but even the flaws can be enjoyable. Someday, perhaps, I will do an entire post on what John Wayne and John Ford mean to me. But I really want to talk about today is True Grit, the 1969 film for which John Wayne won an Oscar and which was remade by the Coen brothers last year.

I did not go see the new True Grit in the theaters as Joan recommended, but I did pick it up last week on Blu-Ray. Directed by Henry Hathaway in 1969, the first iteration of True Grit is very much a John Wayne vehicle. It is the tale of an adventure seasoned with masculine comedy absent any vulgarity, slightly over-the-top, and positive. Adapting from Portis’ 1968 novel rather than the first movie, the Coen brothers created a film that is, in many ways, superior, with better performances by several of the cast embedded in a narrative that is both richer and more satisfying but also more troubling.

At the very beginning we hear the voice of Mattie Ross telling us, “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” In the context of the flight to escape by the murderer of Mattie’s father, we naturally think that Tom Chaney is the one who must pay for his crime, and that is true. Chaney does pay, but so do all those who live in this world. Mattie must pay her way. She pays for the help she needs to track down her father’s killer with money, but she also pays with a loss of her childhood innocence. Though she is by nature extremely intelligent, serious and sober, she possesses noble, if slightly unrealistic, notions of justice and righteous action. Her view, at least initially, is Old Testament-based in that she believes the justice of her cause alone will enable her to prevail. This is a na├»ve view, not so much with regard to prevailing but with regard to the cost of prevailing.

The climatic confrontation takes place in the significantly name Winding Stair Mountains. Our ascent through this life, though the old King James calls it ‘strait’, is hardly straight. The path to life and to grace has many strange twists and turns. All actions in this fallen world have reactions. Our best efforts often recoil back upon us in ways we could not anticipate. Even when we possess the wisdom to foresee, we sometimes feel constrained to carry through despite the consequences. Most of us know or will learn a “secret” which is that a person can have and do about what he or she wants -- only one must accept the cost. Like Mattie, God is a flawless bookkeeper. The books will balance in the end, and they will balance on every individual account regardless of how we may justify our actions.

If the law of action and reaction, of karma or whatever one chooses to call it were all then we would be trapped in a deterministic universe, hopeless in the face of infinite chain reactions and falling dominoes. But one thing is truly and truthfully free, and that is the grace of God through Christ Jesus. Christ alone is able to write, from His infinite store of righteous obedience, Paid In Full upon the account of each and every one of us. He is able to break the chain of consequence and release us from the bondage of ricocheting reactions.

Whether a person chooses to call Mattie’s actions vengeance or justice makes little difference. Externally the results can be indistinguishable. It is our internal balance that determines whether we keep our footing or are cast down into a pit of death. The toxin of vengeance is deadly indeed. Unchecked it will destroy us completely. Even when dealt with quickly, the damage is often extensive and the losses heartrending. But the grace of God does not abandon us.

Our journey, like Mattie’s, can become nightmarish, surreal in its horrors, flooded with fear, pain, and dread. Yet it is here most of all that we find ourselves in the “Everlasting Arms” of God’s grace, carried by Him, the karmic chain sundered. We are the Cross of Christ, and He bore us in it from death to life. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Planting of the Lord

And he said to him, “Say now to her, ‘See, you have taken all this trouble for us; what is to be done for you? Would you have a word spoken on your behalf to the king or to the commander of the army?’” She answered, “I dwell among my own people.” – 2 Kings 4:13 (ESV)
This is from the story of the Shunammite woman. I refer to Matthew Henry who tells us that Shunem was a town in the tribal area of Issachar. It lay on the road between Samaria and Mount Carmel and was a place the prophet Elisha passed by on many occasions in his travels for the Lord. The woman was the wife of a prosperous man. They could afford to provide food and accommodations to the prophet. She had asked her husband to build a small, simple room that the prophet might have a place to rest and pray as he passed through. Perhaps she thought she and her husband would be blessed for their efforts. Or perhaps she simply had a heart for God and sought to please Him by showing kindness to His man.

Elisha seeks to repay the kindness done to him, and he asks her what it is that he might do for her. He had connections in the royal city of Samaria. His face was as familiar to the king as it was sometimes dreaded. Samaria was probably nearly as corrupt as Chicago, but, if one knew the right people and greased the right palms, business could be done. The leaders of Israel feared Elisha at least as much as they respected him. He did not need a bribe to sway them. All he would have to do is speak a word in the ear of the king.

The woman’s answer fascinates me. “I dwell among my own people.” She requires no special favors – at least, not yet. She and her husband had their rightful inheritance in the Land of Promise, their home among their family and their clan. Their fathers and mothers were buried in that ground. Their very bones were knit from it. They had a place where they belonged. The woman expresses no dissatisfaction, no discontent. She has enough because she sees it as being what God has given her.

Can I be satisfied with what God has given me? There is so much around me that seeks to stir up the muck of discontent. I have very nearly quit watching television except for my own DVD’s. I listen to the radio much less than I used to. But dissatisfaction still finds me. I can deal with the desire to have a new car or a new MP3 player or a new firearm. A desire for things is, for most of us, rather trivial. It does not do us a great deal of harm unless it becomes a substitute for something else.

The danger comes when I am not satisfied with where God has placed me or how He has made me. If I am unhappy with my heritage, my place in His great plan, I am at risk. This is related to the subject of my previous post. One does not have to be a Simon Magus (Acts 8:18) or a Diotrephes (3 John 9) to be led astray. Perhaps the greatest single key to developing as a Christian is to learn to rest in one’s current circumstances.

Look at Psalm 1:3: He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. A tree does not plant itself. We are planted at God’s direction. This sometimes looks like a desert, but there must be an underground river nearby.

Paul reflects a similar view in Philippians 4:11, saying, Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. Again, in Colossians 3:23, he says, Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…. Wherever I find myself, all God asks is that I take care of what is in front of me. If I do what I can, where I am, it will be enough.

We may not always be able to remain in our place (2 Kings 8:1-6). We may be forced to sojourn and toil in a foreign and unfamiliar land. But, in that, too, we may recognize the sovereign and merciful hand of God – if we will. In the end, there will be restoration, as there was for that Shunammite woman. But we will never find rest without putting our trust fully in God as the One who is ultimately in control. He offers us pure and eternal peace with Him through Christ Jesus. He asks of us nothing except a willingness to enter into His rest and to be content.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Selling the Lie

For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. – Genesis 3:5 (ESV)

I suppose something Gagdad said the last few days got me on this track. Though I may have mentioned it in passing before, I don’t know that I’ve told the whole story. I was thinking about it while riding the tractor last evening. It is a cautionary tale.

We had this friend named David who called us one Saturday and invited us to his house the next morning for a sort of Bible study. We had met him, his wife, and their son at a church near where they lived. We had since moved across the Metroplex, so it was a good, long drive from our house north of Dallas to beyond the southwest corner of Fort Worth. David was pretty adamant, though, that he wanted us to meet a man who had become, as he said on the phone, “a spiritual father” to them. We arrived the next morning at the appointed hour and took our seats in the very small living room of their house. In a few minutes, two men entered. One was average size. The other man was above average height and extremely obese, but quite well-groomed and well-dressed in upscale casual clothes that managed to fit him despite his enormous girth. The men sat down opposite my wife and I.

With no prayer or preliminaries, the fat man began to speak. He was articulate. There was an air of intelligence about him, but nothing he said was very deep or penetrating. Within a couple of minutes I realized what he was saying and what he probably was. Glancing at my wife I saw that she was puzzled and confused. She had not been able to follow the fat man’s rhetoric.

Honestly, if the man had come up to me on the street with such ridiculous banter I would have laughed in his face or called the cops to pick him up before he got himself in trouble. But I wasn’t on the street. I was an invited guest in the home of a good friend who was buying into the fat man’s story. Somewhere along the way, the fat man had picked up quite a bit of Christian, evangelical jargon. He may have even been a sincere believer at one time or another. Perhaps the truth he heard was twisted by his mind. Perhaps he saw an opening, a way to be “as God”, to draw love and attention, even devotion to himself.

The fat man had a day job. Care to guess what it was? If you guessed car salesman, you are correct. Every car salesman – any good salesman, really, knows all too well that the world is just overflowing with sad, hungry, vulnerable people who will buy whatever a person is selling to make themselves feel loved and accepted and important. Though the fat man was making an outrageous claim about himself, he wasn’t really selling himself.

My friend, David, was an engineer as well as being a licensed minister. His wife had a degree in music and was an accomplished classical pianist. Their son was a near-genius young man who was entering a prestigious university early, with academic scholarships. These were not stupid people. Nor were they people unfamiliar with the Bible. David had been preaching and teaching for a number of years as had his wife. If the fat man had simply made his claim like a madman, they would have rejected it as the utter madness it was.

Instead the fat man had told them that they were chosen to be part of his inner circle. He said, yes, I am God the Father (it makes me shudder just to write that), but you are the foundation of this new revelation. The fat man did what every successful cult leader does. He sold them an inside line, a valuable connection, status, and position. We look at someone like this or Jim Jones or Father Divine, even the lesser offenders like Robert Tilton or Benny Hinn (by the way, David and his wife were, prior to this, financial “partners” of Hinn’s ministry and had reserved seating at his events), and we wonder how people can be fooled by such blatant falsehoods. The trick is not what we believe about the salesman, but what we believe about ourselves.

David told me after this, when he was involved in a movement almost equally ludicrous, that he had always felt that he was destined to be someone great, to be world famous and renowned. That was about the last conversation I had with him. Some people just won’t learn.

Why was I not drawn in? Part of the credit undoubtedly goes to my wife. If she had been more sympathetic to the fat man, it would have been harder for me to do the right thing. Adam’s love for Eve was a critical part of his decision to reject the truth. Another part is my sense of humor which helps keep things in perspective. I do not take myself too seriously. That was the main difference between David and me. Credit for that goes to my parents. And one more thing -- the temptation wasn’t really aimed at me.

Very little credit goes to my native skepticism. Skepticism has no truth in it. As a defense against deception, it is more like barbed wire than a wall. It slows things down, but it will not hold up against serious bombardment. People who are merely skeptical are almost as easy to fool as those who will believe anything.

In the end, David’s wife decided to become the wife of the fat man. At that point, David had a sudden flash of insight -- too late. Their lives were torn apart and shattered. Their son was thrown into confusion and destruction. The fat man gathered a few more followers. I don’t know what happened to him, or my friend’s wife. Perhaps the fat man had a heart attack and died before he could really get going. Or, perhaps, he is still out there somewhere, deceiving and being deceived.

I mentioned that the fat man didn’t really target me with his temptation. I am vulnerable to other deceptions than the one that destroyed my friend. Mine run more along the lines of the material. I have no room to sit in judgment on another’s weakness. I simply point out that there are spiritual temptations that ensnare spiritual people. Just because someone is advanced in the spiritual realm does not mean he or she is in the clear.

Before I close an overly long post, I will add that there wasn’t much I could do to confront the problem. I tried when we went to lunch with David and his wife after the fat man and his associate left. I voiced my doubts and pointed out some of the contradictions, but they were already intoxicated by the prospects of being part of a new work of God, elevated to the status of the Twelve Disciples of Christ. When the break came between David and his wife, we once again made the long drive down. This time, I spoke very plainly about what was taking place. It made no difference to the wife or to the additional followers who surrounded the fat man. They responded by saying that I did not understand, that I was rejecting the new revelation as the Pharisees had rejected Christ. They proved to me that ultimately we deceive ourselves.