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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Problem of Good

I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.  I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things. – Isaiah 45:5-7

Why is there good in the world?  Why should there be good in the world?  We agonize over how a good God could allow evil in the world, the so-called problem of evil, but why is it we can celebrate things like heroism and charity and self-sacrifice?  Why are there people who think it is better to feed starving children in Africa than to mercifully put them out of their misery?  I know the theory is that we evolved as social animals, that we slowly came to understand individual survival was less important than group survival, that we put the tribe above self and identified self with the group, and we have gradually expanded our tribal thinking to include the entire human race, and, even, among our more enlightened thinkers, to include all the creatures and the earth itself. 

Lions are social creatures, too, and yet when a new lion takes over the pride, he will kill all the cubs of the old male.  The law of nature is the law of tooth and claw and competition.  Anything one predator gets is something another won’t.  Up until a few centuries ago, human conquerors routinely killed off all the males and many of the older females in a defeated population.  The merciless slaughter of entire populations is even a part of the biblical narrative as the tribes of Israel invaded Canaan.  Nothing has changed genetically in the last few thousand years, not to mention the fact that we have had numerous modern efforts at genocide and a plethora of tribal conflicts around the world.  One might even be led to think that humanity’s attempts at altruism and peace are really struggles to rise above our material instincts and genetic programming.    

The message of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, from the Creation to the Cross is God calling man to something higher and better than an animal existence, than blood and death, violence and vengeance. 

God has no competition.  He is not struggling against other gods or even the devil for some kind of divine kingship or supremacy.  The God who speaks to Isaiah not only has no equal, He has no challenger.  He’s not seeking to run the universe; He created it.  He’s not begging for our attention or our devotion or our worship.  In the end, He will receive it when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. 

The call and the challenge is to us, to recognize not only who God is, but what reality is and who we are within it.  The benefit is not to God.  We are the ones who stand to gain from insight into the truth. 

There is good in the world because God loves us.  There is evil because there is freedom, because we are not puppets, not the bouncing billiard balls of deterministic physics, because we can choose to rise above the evolutionary miasma of human nature.  God even cuts the ground from under those who argue that we do not need Him to make correct moral choices:  I equip you, though you do not know me.  And He does that so that all may indeed know that He is, and there is no other. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Tragedy of Pride

The couriers went out hurriedly by order of the king, and the decree was issued in Susa the citadel. And the king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion. – Esther 3:15

I am not against people drinking.  I don’t do it because, though I never had any problem with drinking, I did have a bit of a problem with stopping.   That is purely a personal issue, and the fact that I can no longer enjoy something is not a valid reason for others with more solid boundaries to be denied that enjoyment.   Nor is there anything in the Bible prohibiting the moderate use of alcoholic beverages for most people, despite what some groups say.  We don’t want folks to get drunk, but strict prohibitions against wine, beer, and strong drink are left to Islam. 

It is not about drinking, but it is interesting that after a hard twenty minutes of issuing Jew-exterminating executive orders Jarrett and Obama Haman and Ahasuerus – who probably, like Jarrett, spoke Persian – sat down to relax with a couple of drinks.  Meanwhile, all of Washington Susa inside the Beltway citadel was thrown into confusion.   The point is, though, that we can often be led into plans that seem to be the proverbial “good idea at the time”.  Someone presents one side of an argument, as Haman did, and no matter how specious and fantastic it may be, it has a certain appeal to it.  Free money for the treasury almost always gets government’s endorsement. 

Haman devised his plan out of hatred for Mordecai who had done nothing other than wound Haman’s pride.  Haman had risen to a place of power and influence under the king.  He was respected, even feared within the corridors of power, but Mordecai ignored him.  The Jew paid Haman’s approach neither the coin of cringing obeisance nor terrified trepidation.  Despite his otherwise notable successes, Haman was irritated and increasingly disturbed by Mordecai’s attitude.

When we find ourselves becoming distraught by something the first question to ask is why it seems to matter to us.  During an anger management class (hard to imagine me having to take one, right?  … Right?), I was asked exactly this question in response to a question I raised.  Taking it down to the core, we might be surprised to find, as I was, that the answer is all too often our own pride.  Pride, the Bible says, goes before, or perhaps leads to destruction.  This was certainly what happened with Haman. 

Here we see Haman at the apex of his life, sharing a drink in camaraderie with the most powerful individual in the world of that day.  Meanwhile those couriers sent out by his own hand are as seeds scattered upon the wind destined to grow into a harvest of humiliation, loss, and death.  This is a tragedy by the strictest definition.  Unlike MacBeth, Haman did not seek power.  He lacked even the noble delusion of avenging a murder like Hamlet.   Instead he acted out of a petulant pride, an injured arrogance, a wounded self-worth. 

Humility and pride are like two paths up opposite faces of a mountain.  The pathway of pride appears to be the better road at the start, rising quickly to the summit, yet it is treacherous and deceptive especially at the heights.  The way of humility is more winding, longer, less inviting and steeper when we first venture upon it, but this path remains firm and sure under foot and is much easier going as one nears the peak. 

In addition to warning us against pride, the Bible warns us against gloating over the fall of an enemy.  Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him  (Proverbs 24:17-18).  The key to avoiding a tragic turn of events is humility.  Jesus told us that he who humbles himself will be exalted, and Jesus Himself walked in humility, taking the “form of a servant”.

Regarding the humility of Christ, Andrew Murray observes, “His humility was simply the surrender of Himself to God, to allow Him to do in Him what He pleased, whatever men around might say of Him, or do to Him.  This is quite a contrast with Haman and with many of us.  It does seem to matter altogether too much what men say about us or the fact that they would interfere with what we think of as our rights. 

It verges upon unbelief when we find ourselves unwilling to offer an uncomfortable or even an unjust situation to the Lord.  We are apt to think that we must set the thing right ourselves, and sometimes it may be that we have no choice except to act defensively, either in our own behalf or on the part of another.  Still, the best inoculation against the plague of pride may be to refuse to defend against slurs and insults.    Instead we can bow before the Father and offer our hurt feelings, our broken hearts upon the altar, asking, not for vengeance upon those who have wounded us but for healing and strength. 

Our Father delights to put broken hearts back together but only after He fills them first with His love, joy, and peace. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why Does It Always Have to be Snakes?

The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.”  And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it.  But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand.  Exodus 4:2-4

For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.   If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.   Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  

… How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!   And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life,  and set on fire by hell.   For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,  but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. – James 3:2-8 (emphasis added)

Moses was supposed to speak on God’s authority, for God to the people of Israel.  In order to establish his credentials, the simple shepherd’s staff that Moses carried became a symbol of divine office as well as a key for unveiling the supernatural reality.  Moses raised his staff at the Red Sea and the waters parted.  Moses struck a dry rock and a spring of water was released.  When he confronted Pharaoh, initially, Moses cast down his staff and it became a snake, as had happened in the desert.  The Egyptian court magicians could do the same thing – a pretty neat trick, we must admit, but the serpent of Moses swallowed up the other snakes, indicating the superiority of power and position that had been given to him. 

The shepherd’s staff is a means of guiding and defending the flock and, as such, it is a natural symbol of authority.   As the staff is used to guide a flock, a bridle and bit can be used to guide a horse and a rudder can guide a ship.  Relative to what they are guiding, staffs, rudders, and bits are small, yet their effects can be impressive.  So, too, the human tongue, though a diminutive organ, could be considered not only the most powerful muscle in the body but the most potent force on the face of the earth.  Words have destroyed countless lives, even whole civilizations.  But, of course, words also create beauty and give life.  Words can release us from bondage, inspire and empower us. 

I find it thought-provoking that when the staff of Moses came in contact with the ground, it became a serpent – the wisdom and authority of God is seen by those who oppose it as cunning.  Jesus told us to be wise as serpents though harmless as doves.  It can be scary.  Moses ran from it.  Most of us, when God breaks into our natural world and disturbs our perceptions of reality, are uncomfortable if not terrified. 

What we say can have a powerful impact on ourselves as well as those around us.  The proverb says that life and death are in the power of the tongue.  I am, more often than not, far too hasty in speaking, too concerned with being clever or witty to take into account the consequences of my words.  It is easy to insult and ridicule others.  Levity and humor are good things, especially when they arise from our joy in life.  Laughter is beneficial, and we should have opportunities to laugh everyday.   Keep in mind, though, that sarcasm means to cut the flesh.  It can be used wisely, but never should it be used indiscriminately.  Mockery is a blade that cuts both ways and may be as devastating to the mocker as to the one mocked. 

If I hurt someone it is not a joke, no matter what I claim – and that is especially true if I mean for it to hurt. 

Christ dwells in us.  We have authority as believers.  In fact, I think we wield that authority whether we know it or not.  I have been listening to an audio version of the James Allen classic As A Man Thinketh. While it has a sort of new-agey vibe to it, Allen was much closer to the biblical view than most modern purveyors of stuff like The Secret.  All he is really saying is that our thoughts and our words are the seeds of habits and character.  Our lives are like gardens that grow what we plant.  We should be careful what we sow. 

It’s hard, but I really want more of God and less of me to be manifest in my life and circumstances.  We can think God’s thoughts after Him and speak the words Christ would speak.  There will still be plenty to laugh at – just laughing at myself will keep me in stitches.  There’s no need to throw my tongue on the ground just for entertainment, just to look cool or to be ever so snide.  If I’m not following the rules, when I try to pick it up by the tail, I may end up bitten myself.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Future Perfect

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. – Jeremiah 29:11

One of the things I miss when I am not at home is my own coffee.  I’m not sure why this is.  When I’m not traveling, I don’t mind at all getting a few cups of “foreign” coffee with breakfast at Aunt Martha’s or some other restaurant.  My daughter makes a good, strong cup of coffee about like what I brew.  In her case she is hampered by chlorinated or flavorless filtered water.   I’m probably just old and set in my ways.  The first thing I did after a weekend away moving furniture was make myself a modest pot of my own coffee. 

My daughter is moving to a larger, nicer place for which she is being offered a lease with an option to buy after a couple of years.  The house is old, built in the ‘60s.  It’s a little ramshackle, a little run down but still solid and settled.  It reminds me a little of an older fellow I know quite well who can now get a senior citizen discount without asking or flashing his ID.  No “Just For Men” for me. 

It is quite a change for my daughter who has gone through a tremendous transition in the last four years.   She has climbed out of the pit of addiction, found a new job and created a new, hopeful life for herself and her two children.  My complaining joints, especially my poor old, abused right knee, cannot drown out the happy song I hear in her voice.  It sounds like a polka.  Must be from her German ancestors on my wife’s side. 

I can hardly imagine much more of a turnaround from utter hopelessness with the loss of everything important to her to having a future and a hope.  Without some of that hope myself I’m not sure I would have made it through three consecutive weekends of physical effort, dozens of trips up and down stairs, carrying box after box, loading and unloading appliances and furniture, not to mention painting and papering walls and cleaning, always working against time to meet the deadlines.  We also had the record heat to deal with and not much in the way of accommodations. 

God, though, has been in it.  He worked all of the ends out, carefully and beautifully knitting everything together.  In spite of disobedience on the part of some involved, despite my short fuse and cantankerous attitude, God put it all together for us because He is Good.  He knows my daughter’s heart and my granddaughter’s heart. 

There are the old tales that tell of the Fair Folk stealing abused children from cruel and neglectful and unworthy parents.  But where do such little ones go if not to mothers and fathers that are more worthy of them – or perhaps to those who are in need of being made worthy?  Ah, me, indeed.   

Lacking patience or wisdom or any other good attribute that might make me deserving of such wonderful children and grandchildren, I can only love them and try to rise to the level of my blessing, to be whole for them, to be made whole by them.  I say, every once in a while, that everything I know, I learned from my oldest granddaughter.  And it is true -- everything worth knowing.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Who Are You, O Great Mountain?

And Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced because God had prepared for the people, for the thing came about suddenly.  -- II Chronicles 29:36

Events and circumstances for which we are not prepared often arise in our lives.  We are always trying to plan for emergencies, to “think ahead”.  Still, it is common for the unforeseen, indeed the unforeseeable to catch us by surprise, to break upon us in sudden darkness or sudden blinding light.  For the most part, we recognize that our path lies in shadows that retreat only from the illumination of now. 

It was not cataclysmic destruction or defeat or disaster that caught Hezekiah and his people off-guard, but rather a great awakening and a revival.  The apostasy of preceding generations had been extensive.  Judah had turned from the Living God to idols or served the Lord only nominally for decades at a time.  Hezekiah sought the Lord and began to guide his nation back onto the path of righteousness. 

Revival always begins in the hearts of individuals.  We can never hope, by the power of programs or propaganda to turn men to God.  Yet, even when it seems that God has been driven out, He has merely stepped back, temporarily withdrawn to await the strategic moment when His grace will be poured out, opening eyes and filling empty, thirsty souls.

When Jezebel sought to kill all of God’s prophets, the faithful Obadiah helped hide some one hundred of them in caves and sustained them.  We may think, too, at times, that none are left to speak for God, but the prophetic voice is merely secreted. 

Elijah later complained:  I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.  But Elijah was wrong.  The Lord assured him that there were yet 7000 in Israel who had remained true, refusing to bow to Baal.  Seven thousand is one of those “complete” numbers.  In this case, I think it means “enough”.   When we look at the insanity and unrighteousness and outright evil continually brought before our eyes and ears, we are apt to agree with Elijah.  We are alone or very few in number.  But God says we are enough. 

A further part of Hezekiah’s story tells us that he sent messengers out among the Ten Tribes that had formed the nation of Israel, separate from the Kingdom of Judah, inviting those descendants of Abraham to a celebration of the Passover.  Many from the northern kingdom mocked, ridiculed, and scorned the message.  But some humbled themselves and traveled to Jerusalem to once again seek the God of their fathers. 

And so it will in the awakening that comes to America.  I do not expect that the snide and the cynical will be very receptive.  I expect that we will be mocked as are many already who refuse to embrace the little baals and molechs erected by the worldly and the vain. 

The thing is, though, God has prepared for His people.  We cannot know what is coming, and that coming will be sudden and likely very surprising.  God is not caught flatfooted.  He has the situation in hand.  He is preparing, right now, the right people in the right places to carry through with His purpose, to restore and to renew. 

I have no hope in the old man or his institutions.  But God has prepared for us.  When the quickening comes and we see the challenge before us, it will appear overwhelming -- like a vast mountain blocking our path.  Yet God has His consecrated ones who are ready with strength for the day. 

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”