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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

That’s All Right

O Lord, you will ordain peace for us; you have done for us all our works. – Isaiah 26:12

When Elvis Presley died some 35 years ago, the local pop station played one particular song, “My Way”, over and over in every cycle.  That was the station they played in the office where I worked.  I begged them to change it or just turn the stupid thing off.  I never cared for the song all that much anyway, but at least the definitive Sinatra version had some grit, edge, and truth.  Elvis was just singing.  Elvis was about having fun, and as long as he was having fun, he was entertaining.  When he started taking himself too seriously, even his body rebelled. 

Presley was, as my pastor liked to point out when he put on the Christmas album, “an Assembly of God boy”.  Elvis never won a Grammy for any of his Rock’n’ Roll or Pop work, but he did win three for Gospel.  The reason for that oddity is probably a function of the fact that the first Grammy was awarded in 1959 -- after the ground-breaking records Elvis put out in 1956 through 1958.  A “my way” attitude might have made sense before Elvis headed off to serve his country in Germany.  As he told the receptionist at Sun, “I don’t sound like nobody.”  By the time he became the corpulent caped crooner of Las Vegas, he was a follower of trends and fashions, a hollow image, which is how his over-produced, over-done cover of “My Way” sounds.

The truth is that none of us do things our way -- not Frank Sinatra, not Elvis Presley, not the gold-grilled rappers or the tailor-made politicians.  We are free to make choices, but we are not free to choose the consequences, and those results are the things that can cut the ruts we follow and fence in our future.  There is no peace in “my way”, unless one is able to be at peace with bondage and confinement.  Even that resignation is a kind of repentance, at least an acknowledgement that we have missed God’s will.  Hebrews 12:17 tells us about Esau, For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.  Esau also believed he could do things his way.  God had a plan for the seed of Abraham, a plan that would need to run its course for a couple of thousand years to reach a bloody Roman cross on a little knoll outside Jerusalem.  Esau rejected his part in that plan.  He was a man of the wild places -- independent, capable, resourceful, even admirable.  He was Isaac’s favorite.  Since Esau held the will of God in disdain, God chose Jacob, we might say, by default.  Thus Paul writes in Romans 9:10-13 -- And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

The only real peace we will ever find is in that which God has ordained.  When Isaiah says God has “done for us all our works”, it means that He has created us for a path and the path for us, works for us to do and us to do those works.  We are made for a destiny and the destiny is made for us.   Despite what we read of Esau, I think there is always an open path of repentance if we have gone our way.  Esau did not weep because he had missed God’s will, but because he had lost his inheritance.  He could still have found peace by seeking his true destiny in the will of God. 

And there lies our paradox.  By taking the path that God has ordained for us, we become our true selves.  By surrendering to His will, we discover that our own will is being done, and we find our true purpose in life.  There is no better, more satisfying way to live than to know that we are doing exactly what we are meant to do.  What we have, where we live, who we know – none of these things matter when we wake one day to find that all those scattered pieces of the puzzle are starting to take shape and we can see our place and ourselves in it.  His way is my way, and that's all right

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Hitcher

They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  – Romans 1:29-31

Just as good works are the evidence of faith and love, so works of evil are not the source but the symptoms of a corrupt nature.   Jesus said that from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.  Our words and actions are manifestations of the state of our hearts.  Focusing on cleaning up our act can be beneficial, but it does not solve the root problem. 

I often refer to John7:17 where Jesus said:   If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.  There is a difference between merely doing God’s will and having one’s will aligned with God.  When we choose to do God’s will, to be obedient to everything we know about God, by a volitional act, a process of renewal begins.  It is such a radical process that the Lord refers to it as a new kind of birth.  Just as the natural life of a child is likely to involve mistakes, accidents, a series of illnesses, burned fingers, skinned knees, bumps, bruises, maybe even broken bones, the new spiritual life is not without its dangers, difficulties and setbacks.  

My aunt and uncle had ten kids and my uncle believed in everybody working.  We always milked our cows from the right side, just like we always mounted a horse on the left side.  Since there were plenty of kids to go around, my uncle would often have his offspring double-teaming a cow to get done faster.  The kid on the side would milk out the front quarters while another – usually a younger child – would sit behind the cow and milk out the back quarters.  This would, obviously, lead to an interesting situation should the animal decide to eliminate waste during the milking process.  The impending threat was, no doubt, a highly motivating factor for efficient and rapid effort on the part of the child in the rear.  Someone was visiting my uncle at milk-time, and, upon observing one of the boys – my cousin Doc, I think – laboring at a bovine’s rear end, he suggested that in the event of an accident it might be easier to have another child rather than to clean Doc up.  Doc’s still around so I don’t know whether he was usually fast or my uncle was merciful. 

A spiritual failure is not a reason to give up any more than being covered in cow manure or getting the chickenpox is a reason to trade in your kid for a new one.  The problem I keep seeing in Christianity for much of its history is a tendency to “discover” some doctrine, formula, concept, ritual, or whatever that results in a sudden transformation.  If a person is not completely remade and turned into a perfect specimen after being prayed over, baptized in water, sprinkled, fire-baptized, anointed, slain in the Spirit, etc., someone may conclude that the person is “not really saved”.  It’s not at all uncommon for the “failed” Christian to be among those who question his or her salvation.  The reason I know this is because I am, in the view of many, most likely, just such a failure. 

My intention is to do God’s will, and I sometimes get royally and roundly pissed off when I fail.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.  I think that is an understandable response to not being able to do something I think I ought to be able to do.   I am fighting an intelligent, stubborn and resourceful enemy – I know him very well.  He is not without his good points, but he has to die nonetheless.  I look at it this way:  Patton was a better warrior in France because he had fought Rommel in North Africa.  Ali was able to beat George Foreman in part because he had fought men like Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier – whether he won or lost those fights. 

If your goal in life is to be nice and to be liked, that’s all well and good.  But if your goal is to be Christ-like, to do God’s will, to be transformed for worlds and wars yet unknown, for eternity, for new heavens and new earths, that’s going to be a challenge.  Do you want to make an good impression on the folks in your Sunday School class or do you want to put down the old man and put on Christ?  Did you ever see the old ‘80s’ movie, The Hitcher?  The old nature may be “dead” or at least, supposedly, rendered inoperable, but, like the Hitcher -- the wicked John Ryder, it keeps popping up on us and doing damage.  My job is to stop my own old man.  It’s not my fault that I got Rutger Hauer while my brother got Shirley Temple or Richard Simmons.    

We can gauge how we are doing by the fruit that is borne in our lives, but the fruit just reveals the root.  We know already that the old nature is corrupted and our battle is to operate out of the new nature.  Falling and failing are not things we brag about, but a loss or a failure is not a reason to surrender.  There is no magic formula for kicking our hitcher out of the car.  We can’t just pass him by and hope for the best because he will just be waiting for us where we lest expect him … on down the road.     

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How the World Really Ended

The devil turned in his fork,
The lake of fire had gone cold,
Said he'd retire up to Maine
'Cause he's just too damn old.
It's a losin' proposition
When everything is said,
Hell never made no profit,
There's too much overhead.

Jesus looked it over,
Thought He might renovate
But runnin' all the numbers
Declared it was too late.
A millennium of rebuildin'
While standin' your head --
It made more sense in the long run
Just to raise the dead. 

So everything came crashin' down
But not the way we thought,
As usual in these cases,
The market over-bought.
We expected flames of fire
And moon-obscurin' smoke --
We got no salt for breakfast
And a book of knock-knock jokes.

We was prepared for the Apocalypse
But it didn't go that way.
The sun came up like always
It was just another day. 
We looked for hordes of aliens
Pourin' from the heavenly hosts.
We got empty parking lots
and all of us are ghosts. 

This is the way the world ends
It ain't altogether bad
Just mostly anticlimax,
Slow, and kinda sad.
A lukewarm way of endin'
A lukewarm world it seems,
A softboiled awakening
To a gray and foggy dream.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Going to Ground

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  -- Romans 12:2

As humans, we alone appear to have a choice in how we live.  My cats, my dog, the deer that shred my trees, the fish in the pond, none of these creatures can see beyond itself.  The animal recognizes threats, responds to kindness, seeks a secure environment to feed, rest, and reproduce with little choice, for it is driven mostly by instincts.  Animals, at least those that are by nature predators, seem to be capable of reasoning in the sense of being able to solve a concrete puzzle that lies in front of them and working together to bring down prey.  Most animals can be trained to do rather complex things, but it is at the direction of a higher human mind guiding and channeling their instincts.  As my father said with regard to training a stock dog, “First, you have to be smarter than the dog.” 

Though my choices in life and where I have ended up are very much founded in the time and place and circumstances of my childhood, I do not believe I was bound by my past to do the things I have done.  If I was constrained by anything I would say it was more a vision of my future that drew rather than the past that drove me.  Many years ago, I deliberately set down on paper the kind of place and situation in which I wanted to live, and that is where I am.  I don’t mean to imply that I consciously took the exercise very seriously because I did not.  I had just read or heard of the idea and did it.  Regardless of how my conscious mind saw it, it apparently gave my natural life a direction.  The path here was halting and meandering, even tortuous.  This is not heaven.  It is less than idyllic.  It has disadvantages and troubles, and I sometimes ask myself what I am doing here, but it is what I pictured – what I asked for right down to some very specific aspects. 

If you stop and think about that for a moment, that is kind of scary.  Time, though, makes a lot more sense to me if I think of it, not as something going past me, but as a dimension in which I move just as I do in space.   If we don’t know where we are going in space, we are fairly unlikely to get there.  Maybe the same is true for time. 

And then there is eternity, a different attractor -- as Bob would say -- altogether.  Life might be a little like electricity.  If you have the right ground, electricity can flow the right way and do something positive.  If you let it find its own ground, it can be extremely destructive.  That’s what I like about Jesus.     

Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”   (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:8-10)

He is the Alpha and Omega, Generator and Ground.  We come from Him and go to Him, and we are transformed in the process, becoming like Him and part of Him -- because He knows the end from the beginning. 

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.  (Ephesians 4:11-16)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Inverters

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! -- Isaiah 5:20

You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, How have we wearied him? By saying, Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them. Or by asking, Where is the God of justice?  -- Malachi 2:17

They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean. -- Ezekiel 44:23

Right and wrong.  It seems simple enough, yet there seems to be much disagreement about the distinction.  The proverb says that there is a way that seems right to a man but it ends in death.  We are told that a man’s ways seem right in his own eyes.  The satanic admonition is, “Do what you will”, and it is being embraced by more people as the deck of the world tilts, perhaps disastrously past the point of recovery. 

Elements of Islam exult in blood, death, and mayhem and call it “holiness” and “righteousness”.  People seem to have lost the seemingly obvious understanding that, if it right to resist oppression, it is wrong to oppress others.  Even here in America, we have segments of the population voluntarily shackling themselves to the state because others who looked a little like them were shackled involuntarily in the past.   

Not to say that I am speaking for God, but I am certainly wearied by the constant whining about justice from the unjust.  How is it just to get more than you give?  How is it justice to demand from another what you are not willing to do for another?  Here’s a word for all the complainers out there – a man rejoices in overcoming a disadvantage.  A man looks for the heavy end and the hard row.  Knock a man down and all you do is make him tougher to knock down the next time.  I am more than a little tired of racists telling me I’m racist, of the intolerant telling me I’m intolerant.  Get the beam out of your own eye before you tell me about the speck of dust in mine. 

Guess what?  Darkness and evil are dark and evil.  Filth is filthy.  Stupidity is stupid.  Bad is, simply, bad.  You want somebody to wake up, get yourself an alarm clock.  You want “respect” while you think you have a right to shock, offend, and insult others?  It is not going to happen.  Those intent on bringing down the edifices of western civilization and free market capitalism for alleged sins, past and present, will find their positions, power, and privileges fallen among the ruins.  When you have picked clean the bones of the goose, it is rather foolish to expect more eggs.  

But what is true of the slackers, lackers, and whackers, is true also of the exploiters.  Greed is a sin and an ugliness that looks just as bad on the clingers as the graspers.  A thug with a computer and a government mandate devaluing the dollars in my bank account is no different in essence or effect from a thug with a knife stealing my watch.  Impoverishing the working citizens of a nation or group of nations for the sake of too-big-to-fail financial institutions is a crime.  Governments do it because those financiers are their partners in buying the votes of the slothful who prefer a life of meager leisure and self-pity to responsibility and effort. 

It is a shame that Romney walked back on his “47%” statement.  I don’t know if it is actually 47%, but there are a whole bunch of people who think the world owes them a living, who think it is clever to eat the seed corn, to live only for today.  When Jesus tells us to take no thought for the morrow, it is in the context of seeking the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God, of living a life of goodness, wholeness, and self-forgetfulness.  The Lord gives no endorsement to waste, to wantonness, to extravagance, irresponsibility, and self-indulgence.

There are people who get down and need help getting back up.  There are a few people who are born weaker, physically or mentally, that need someone stronger to come alongside.  Oddly enough, we often see those people with handicaps and disabilities working in appropriate positions, living lives of service and productivity with few complaints and very little self-pity.  There are those, as noted in my previous post, for whom we ought to do good when it is possible for us.  But we should be guided by the absolute principles of right and wrong, of light and darkness rather than the inverted and perverted systems that so often control the world. 

I was reading an article the last couple of days on the decline of organized religion in America.  This is celebrated by some.  The comments on the article were generally along the lines of such a decline being inevitable and a good thing lest the nation be taken over by raging Christian fundamentalist theocrats dedicated to the eradication of pink oxfords and back-waxing.  Some said that religion is for those too weak to endure the thought of death being an ultimate and permanent end, that life just is – a meaningless whorl in the cosmic chaos.   We as humans ought to be “brave” enough to face that fact without crutches.  We leave aside the question of how one is supposed to know this is true since truth in such a system could not exist, not even the truth that there is no truth.   We see minds that are lost in the most basic sense.  Not only do they not know how to get to the destination, they deny there is a destination. 

The human mind and human senses seek a pattern.  It is instinctive and irresistible.  We see a face in the shadows on Mars.  Does that mean that we are drawing a god, a creator, a pattern out of what is actually randomness?  It could be.  But every hunter knows the eye occasionally mistaking a rock or a stump for a deer does not mean there are no deer in the woods.  We are looking for something that is there.  The evidence of its existence is the human mind itself.  Deep calling to deep.  We are looking for a reflection of ourselves in nature, in the mountains, in the seas, in the stars. 

Of course, we can use our amazing pattern-recognition skills to find processes in nature -- the machine within the god.  There is nothing wrong with that unless we deceive ourselves into believing it is an ultimate truth rather than a derived one.  We can impose our own pattern.  That is an idol.  It is an unclean thing, an image of bitterness and emptiness.   

Or, we can accept the revelation of God beyond our images after Whom we ourselves are patterned.  Those who reject revelation are trapped in an inversion of values, forever bound to the temporal and the transitory, enslaved to their shadows.  Freedom, eternity, truth, good, light – they are One, and this we seek.