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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Fringe

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore.  And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was.  And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. — Mark 6:53-56

Not too long before this in Mark's narrative, we are told of Jesus returning to His hometown of Nazareth where the people where "offended" by His teaching and authority causing Christ to utter the proverb, "A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household."  Because the Nazarenes refused to believe, Jesus could do no great works among them, though He did lay hands on and heal a few sick folks.  Now the people of Gennesaret were unlikely to be better people than Jesus' kinfolks in Nazareth.  Yet here Christ was sought out, honored, and believed.  As a result, many were delivered and made whole.

It is natural for us to think that God takes care of the good people, and the devil takes the bad.  But, as Jesus pointed out, there is none good but God.  I have met some saintly people, some people who seemed to have transcended all the temptations of the material world, but they are invariably those who have been touched by the Divine.  It is His grace in the life of the broken that brings them to wholeness.  He makes the unrighteous righteous.  After all, it is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick, and the Great Physician can make the sickest well, "...even the one who could not keep himself alive" (Psalm 22:29). 

I am all too aware of my own faults and failures.  Despite doing my best for many years now to follow Christ, I find that I am hardly what I should be.  There remains in me much that is sick.  I have a choice.  I can continue to try to fix it by my own efforts, or I can do as the people of Gennesaret did.  I can run to Christ.  I can lay my troubled soul down in the marketplace, out there for everyone to see, and I can beg Jesus to just pass by so that I might touch the fringe of His flowing grace. 

It's pretty humiliating.  I should have overcome this a long time ago.  I should not be in this state.  But I am.  I can continue to limp along, crippled and tormented, hiding my sickness from the world, maintaining the illusion that all is well.  Or I can admit that I am broken despite all my knowledge and strength and ability.  Perhaps I will even need some help to get where I need to be.  We are often like the paralytic who was carried to Christ by his four friends who, unable to get through the press of the crowd, climbed up on the roof to lower their friend down to Jesus.  It is a good thing there were four of them, for one or two could not have gotten the man lifted up to the roof, nor effectively lowered him into the room where Jesus sat.  That is even more destructive to our pride, to be dependent on the support and prayers of others to get to where we can come in contact with Jesus.

When we are willing to limp or crawl or be carried by our brothers and sisters out into the open, we will be made whole, not because we are deserving, not because we are good, not because we are special, but because we are there — because Jesus sees our faith or the faith of our friends.   His grace flows to us to make us righteous, to fix the broken parts of our lives, to bind up our wounds, to deliver us from bondage. 

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.  — Titus 3:4-7


Monday, January 23, 2012

More Than We Bargained For

In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help.  From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.  Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry.   ...  He bowed the heavens and came down;  thick darkness was under his feet ...  He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him ...  — Psalm 18:6-11

Like most everyone else, I have had a few close calls in life, a few times when only inches or milliseconds separated me from a sudden, messy death.  Other times I may have missed a mortal blow and been completely unaware.  The first time I recall hearing Tom T. Hall was on a record called "Salute to a Switchblade".  The song tells the story of an American soldier in Germany who got into a little trouble over a fraulein.  She was married to another American soldier, but the narrator, due to the absence of a ring on the lady's hand and the limitations of his proficiency in German, was unaware of this fact.  The woman's husband produced a switchblade and pursued the narrator who deftly escaped.  When he got back to his quarters, he was somewhat shocked to find that his coat had been "split right down the back" by his pursuer's slash. 

On other occasions we may have time to pray and cry out because the distress we are in is obvious and more prolonged.  But what is it we expect God to do for us?  How is the Creator supposed to step into our situation and rectify it?  A friend of mine was fond of quoting Luke 6:38, the last phrase of which says in the KJV, "...shall men give into your bosom."  He emphasized that point because he said God is not a counterfeiter to rain down twenty dollar bills from heaven (yet another difference between God and the Federal Reserve).  Our faith will cause God to move upon other people to "do the right thing" to help us out. 

Grace is sometimes defined as the "unmerited favor of God".  The grace of God can give us favor with other people to our benefit.  When that has happened to me, as it has so often, I see it as my job to justify the provision of that grace, to repay those who have been kind to me.  We cannot simply say, "The Lord has been good to me" and ignore the implied obligation.  I have been forgiven; I must forgive.  I have been given much; of me, much is required.  For all those who seem to not understand how privilege works, you might want to re-read this paragraph. 

But the thing that impresses me about the passage I quoted from Psalm 18 is the frightening implication of it.  If God really does help us, if He does answer our prayers, then "...the earth reeled and rocked..." is a pretty good description of what has to be going on.  We do not always see it because of the accompanying "thick darkness".  But when God comes down, He must, of necessity, bow the heavens.  Things are going to be moved around.  Reality itself is being altered, not the ultimate and the unchangeable, but the derived reality where we live day to day.  When God answers our prayers, reality is being reshaped to look more like heaven ("Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth..."). 

Our prayers are part of the real evolutionary process that is taking place.  We, by our crying out to God, are moving the world more and more toward the kingdom.  We are being transformed which in turn transforms all of creation.  When we stir God up against injustice and unrighteousness, the foundations get shaken up.  This is the power of prayer.  This is the responsibility that we have been handed when we bind and loose.  More than a few Christians need to think this through and sober up.   

Those who choose not to believe can get away with it because the Lord mostly cloaks Himself.  The unbelieving see only the moving, impenetrable darkness, only the catastrophic consequences.  They fail to perceive the Mover. 

Sometimes He escapes even the notice of His children. 

Schambach Goes Home

I had heard that Brother Schambach was not in good health, but I was unaware of his passing until yesterday.  If you have never heard of him,his Wikipedia page is here

He was an interesting person, probably the last of the big tent revival preachers.  The combination of evangelism and self-promotion is a unique American phenomenon.  It is easy to dismiss it because of the self-promotion part, but thousands really did find themselves drawn closer to God.  People were encouraged to pray, to seek God, and live better lives because of men and women like R.W. Schambach. 

For the most part, I believe Brother Schambach's intent was to do good.  When he passed the "plate" in services,  he used buckets.  When someone asked why he used such large containers, he replied, "Because they hold more money."  He believed that people who gave to him in faith would be rewarded by God, not because he was special but because their action in giving was an acknowledgement of their dependence on the Lord and their willingness to trust Him.  It is one of those things that makes no sense unless it does. 

One thing that people like Schambach do well is present complex issues in ways that even the simplest hearer can grasp.  Perhaps, some will say, they over-simplify and reduce great theological constructs to bumperstickers.  Maybe so.  My guess is, though, there will be more peasants than PhDs in heaven. 

Christ meets us where we are.  He will debate with the doctors.  He loves the little children.

"You don't have any trouble; all you need is faith in God."  -- R.W. Schambach

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Seize the Donkey

And the men were afraid because they were brought to Joseph's house, and they said, “It is because of the money, which was replaced in our sacks the first time, that we are brought in, so that he may assault us and fall upon us to make us servants and seize our donkeys.”   — Genesis 43:18

The witness of the Spirit is the reason I know the Bible is true.  However, I believe the Bible is also correctly recorded in part because of bits like the verse above.  In the King James it is even more amusing, "...that he may seek occasion against us, and fall upon us, and take us for bondmen, and our asses."  At least it doesn't say "seize our asses."  You know how those Egyptians are.  We see passages in the Bible that remind us of legendary, heroic stories — the confrontation between David and Goliath is the stuff of myth and legend.  I believe it happened, but I also believe somebody could have made it up and come pretty close to the same tale — which would not make it any the less true.  But other times, the Bible records the unflattering, the commonplace, the utterly human, as it does here.  You really can't "make this stuff" up.  At worst, it will be "based on a true story." 

The donkey was the ultra-compact utility vehicle of its day, an ATV of sorts.  Though undoubtedly relatively valuable, even a dozen of the sturdy animals were hardly a windfall for the prime minister of the world's superpower.  Our fears will lead us to assign all manner of bizarre motivations to the object of those fears.   As MacDonald says in The Princess and the Goblin, "... but that is the way fear serves us: it always sides with the thing we are afraid of." 

I have known a few people afflicted in some degree with paranoia, and I suppose I might have suffered with twinges of it myself (but they really were out to get me).  You can't argue a person out of it.  Logic is useless.  I have probably become more paranoid of paranoia than I am of almost anything else.  I will do my best to tear apart any evidence that suggests malicious intent or conspiracy.  I am much more likely to err in the other direction and think that ignorance and stupidity are to blame — unless money is clearly involved, or jealousy and envy.  People will sometimes act out of envy to their own detriment, which I have trouble understanding, though I certainly struggled with jealousy enough as a teenager to grasp how dangerous it can be. 

And it was, in fact, jealousy that brought those brothers down to Egypt, that caused them to fear the loss of their freedom and their donkeys.  It was their jealousy that had put their younger brother Joseph in bondage in the first place.  Now they were the ones in whom fear played upon their long-shadowed guilt.  Time had rid them of the delusion that what they had done was right or acceptable.  Though their actions were hidden from their father, they had caused him great anguish by their deception.  Unknown lies still corrode relationships.

If I have lied to someone, they may never know it, but I know it all along and forever.  The only way to neutralize that acid burning in my soul is to tell the truth — if not to the person (and sometimes that does more harm than good, only the parties involved can make that call) then at least to myself, possibly to a trusted confessor, certainly to my Father in heaven.  The brothers were not altogether ready to speak the whole truth which they all knew.  When confronted by Joseph, still unknown to them, they had said only that the twelfth brother "was not."  They said nothing of their betrayal.  They could not yet embrace the cure. 

For someone diagnosed with clinical paranoia or a paranoid personality disorder, the problem may lie in brain chemistry.  For most of us, irrational fears spring up from the bitter root of unacknowledged sin, whether it is envy, jealousy, greed, lust, pride, or something else.  We may not have acted on the jealousy as Joseph's brothers did,  but that evil has lain long in the pit and spread its invasive tendrils through far too much of our lives.  We have specialized in the choice bit of gossip, the carefully dressed innuendo, the sarcastic strike in the dark.  Meanwhile, we fearfully suspect that someone, perhaps God Himself, has it in for us, is setting us up, just waiting for the most humiliating moment to yank the rug from under us and laugh at our fall. 

Seriously, there are people who, through no fault of your own, you may have offended.  They may try to destroy you in some way, large or small.  Such was the case with Joseph.  Yes, he probably should have kept quiet about the dreams, but how else would he have been in the right place at the right time to see those dreams materialize?  There is no excusing or explaining away the evil that his brothers did, yet Joseph continued to hold on to his righteousness and thus to his destiny.  He could fain paranoia, but he never felt it.  There was no bitterness in him.  He was no more perfect than any other human, but he was transparent, the same all the way through.  He did not surrender to evil but overcame it with good.    

If we ever find ourselves thinking that someone could desire to "seize our donkeys," it might be a good time to step back and see if there is something we need to deal with in our own hearts, a confession we need to make, a wrong we need to address that holds us back from fully and joyfully trusting God with our earthly lives as well as the life everlasting.  The donkey thief is sly.  Sometimes you can only catch him in a mirror.

Monday, January 9, 2012

At the End of the World is a Well

Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. – Genesis 21:19

The idea that what we as humans can know is all that exists is hardly worth dismissing.  The most materialistic of materialists might wax eloquent on the existence of the vast quantum world which we can experience only indirectly and speak of sensibly only through intricate mathematics.  We have been able to create new instruments and tools that extend  our human senses and inform us that the natural eye sees only a narrow range of the spectrum and that the natural ear responds to only a segment of the sound waves striking it continually. 

The verse above is taken from the story of Hagar and Ishmael.  After the birth of the promised heir, Isaac, his mother, Sarah, insisted that her servant Hagar and her son Ishmael, fathered by Abraham, be sent away.  Sarah perceived Ishmael as a threat to Isaac and potentially a negative influence upon his development.  Putting aside that it was Sarah’s idea to have a “proxy” son by her servant, she was probably right in demanding a separation.  We see later in Genesis how the jealousy of an older sibling toward a favored younger brother created difficulties on a couple of occasions. 

Driven into the wilderness with only a skin of water and some bread, Hagar and her fourteen-year-old son wander rather hopelessness without apparent direction until the water is gone.  Did she intend to try to return to her people in Egypt?  Did she have a destination in mind and lose her way?  Or was she so distraught by the uprooting of her life and her loss of purpose and status that she simply gave up?

 There were established settlements in that region.  There were trade and travel routes that could be followed where water could be obtained at regular intervals.  Hagar apparently sought out none of those roads.  Abraham did not provision Hagar and Ishmael in the way that he did with the intent that they would simply go away and die somewhere out of sight.  He loved Ishmael and had received a promise from the Lord on the boy’s behalf.  Being a wealthy and generous person, we can be assured that he gave the exiles enough to allow them to reach some other camp.  Perhaps he even directed them to the encampment of one of his friends or allies.  It was Hagar who squandered their resources. 

Her life was settled, so she thought.  Hagar was more than a servant in Abraham’s entourage, she was the birth-mother of the patriarch’s son.  I have no doubt that Hagar loved her son, but she also viewed him as her prize, the thing that distinguished her from everybody else.  It was Ishmael’s relationship to Abraham that heightened Hagar’s self-image and made her feel slightly elevated above the other servants.  She had pride and position.  When her status was lost, Hagar decided that her life was over.  She gave up and walked aimlessly into a deserted area until she and her son reached a point where they were about to die of thirst.  Unwilling to watch the death of her son, she left him in the shade of a bush and moved away.  Ishmael means “God hears”.  As the boy began to cry in need, the Lord heard him.  God roused Hagar and spoke to her, opening her eyes to the boy’s future.  It was not to end in agony as a pitiful feast for scavengers.  This child, too, was Abraham’s seed.  Despite not being the chosen line for the Seed of Abraham, Ishmael would still found a great nation, and, ultimately, a great adversary for the Chosen. 

We can take a spiritual lesson from Hagar’s trouble.  We can see that our lives have lost purpose and direction, and we have wandered until death was upon us.  We gave up, but something in us cried out to God, and He opened our eyes.  We saw our Well of Living Water, finding Christ and a renewed destiny. 

But we lose something if we “over spiritualize” the reality.  Was there a well there?  Yes.  Was there a well there before Hagar saw it?  We don’t know.  Perhaps in her extremity, Hagar missed seeing something that was plainly before her.  She would hardly be the first or the last.  The most reasonable explanation would be that Hagar knew there was a well in the area and was looking for it but had been unable to locate it.  After sitting in the shade for a bit and recovering, she was able to process the visual information correctly and figure out where she was. 

Reasonable, though, is not always true.  There is a reality that underlies what we normally see and experience.  When that reality breaks through, we are apt to call the event a miracle.  That which we need is ever before us.  We long for what is at hand, unless we have allowed our minds to be so perverted and twisted by lies that repentance has become for us impossible.  Hagar could have rejected the voice of God, denied it and died, but she was not far gone in self-absorption. 

I really do not think God minds all that much if we struggle to find a more “reasonable” explanation, if, in the end, we rise, go to the Well, and drink.  Reality can be pretty disturbing to humans who have grown so accustomed to this derived manifestation, which is, after all, God’s creation.  He is satisfied if, when we are in need, we remember, He hears. 

Mystics of many countries and many centuries have spoken of this memory; and the honest men and charlatans, who keep the magical traditions which will some day be studied as a part of folk-lore, base most that is of importance in their claims upon this memory. …  It is perhaps well that so few believe in it, for if many did many would go out of parliaments and universities and libraries and run into the wilderness to so waste the body, and to so hush the unquiet mind that, still living, they might pass the doors the dead pass daily; for who among the wise would trouble himself with making laws or in writing history or in weighing the earth if the things of eternity seemed ready to hand? 
        -  W. B. Yeats from “Magic” in Ideas of Good and Evil.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

House Cleaning

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. – Zephaniah 1:2
There are times when we can fix things and reform things.  We can renovate.  It has been several years since we were interviewing contractors to build our house but I still remember talking to one man who related that he had learned his trade while working on his childhood home.  It seemed to him that his father had them constantly remodeling, ripping out and rebuilding some part of the old house for most of the years he was growing up.  He concluded his story, saying, “When we were finally done, do you know what we had?  An old house.”

Most of us approach change in our lives with a remodeling mentality.  There are just, we think, a few little rough places we need to smooth out, a few neglected corners we need to clean.  It may turn into a bigger job than we imagined, and, when we are done, as often as not, we end up with the same old Adam.  Nothing is really changed, most of the time, by our New Year’s resolutions because they do not get to the core of who we are.  In effect, all we do is put on a fresh paint job or put down new carpet or perhaps get a new roof.  The foundation is still as uncertain, as shaky, as prone to collapse as it ever was. 

God takes a different approach.  He says, before you can plant, you must plow and uproot the old weedy and unproductive life.  Before you can build, you must tear down.  Before you can live, you have to die.  We will never have a good, solid, square house until we go down to the bare ground and return to the Lord’s perfect Cornerstone as the starting point for our foundation.  God does not “sweep away” out of His anger but out of His mercy.  It is His grace that breaks our dependencies on the old structure, His grace that sustains and encourages us when we look at the bare ground where our rickety old lives used to stand. 

Many of us may have seen this happen in the last several years, and we may see more of it in the years ahead.  Things that seemed such solid elements of our lives may be overthrown and blown away like dead leaves on the wind.  I believe God is in the process of sweeping away false anchors, misplaced trusts, distractions, wrong relationships, and wrong understandings.  Too many have placed trust in the transient and the temporal.  The tempest will carry away these false hopes and allow us to anchor our lives to the eternal and unchanging. 

Even those of us who have a right foundation and have built our lives upon Christ the Chief Cornerstone must look to how we have built.  Paul warns us (1 Corinthians 3:9-15) that it is possible to build upon the True Foundation carnal lives that consist of only “wood, hay, or straw.”  The quality of our building, as partners with God, does not match the quality of our foundation.  When the winds come, our shanty efforts are swept away down to the foundation, allowing us to reconstruct an abode suitable for the eternal Truth and Life upon which we build.  We can build again with “gold, silver, [and] costly stones” a structure that will last throughout time and eternity, one that remains unshaken, unmarred by the storms and upheavals that ravage the world system.   

It is, again, the grace and mercy of the Lord that these old-nature buildings are swept away before it is too late.  Let us see these acts of God for the divine wisdom that they are.  Let us turn from slapping together temporary structures that please or impress the world and build, instead, for the everlasting kingdom.