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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Is Jesus Among the Guardians?

And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”  And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.  And he marveled because of their unbelief. – Mark 6:4-6

Friday night my older granddaughter wanted us all to go to the movies, which seemed like a nice way to continue hanging out together.  The two granddaughters, 17 and 12, wanted to see the Shiny Vampire and, as the 12-year-old put it, the Hot Werewolf.  I drew the line at this for a couple of reasons:  estrogen and testosterone.  I don’t have much of the former, and I like having the latter, plus I have two grandsons, 9 and 2-point-something.  I would rather they did not develop boobs.  Fortunately, theaters now have multiple screens, and The Rise of the Guardians was playing.

Though I was a little wary about a movie that included the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, in the end I concluded that, like voting Republican, it was the least of possible evils.  Armed with a soda and a popcorn (note the singular) for the modest sum of $12, we ventured into the vestibule of dreams with its sloping floor that always reminds me vaguely of a slaughterhouse, especially when it is stick-slick with spilled beverages and squashed food products. 

Two-Point-Something covered his eyes during the Coming Attractions, and I began to fear that he would freak out on me.  Fortunately as the feature began, he became fixated and quiet, moving only to get better access to that gold-dusted popcorn, and even then  he continued to watch the action with great interest. 

The Guardians, initially the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, represent aspects of human existence, especially those prominent in childhood – or in childlikeness.  At one point Santa talks about his center being wonder.  The Tooth Fairy, we come to see, represents individual memories, our roots, so to speak.  The Sandman is the maker of dreams.  The Easter Bunny, not surprisingly, brings new beginnings and hope.  Both Santa and the Easter Bunny have, through their respective holidays, a Christian connection.  But it is Sandy the Sandman – in many ways the most appealing character – who seems to have the most power.  I don’t want to go into the plot in detail, but viewers will see the Sandman become Christ-like as he battles darkness and evil. 

Faith is key to the plot of Guardians.  I was a little bothered by the way it is handled – disneyfied, veering in the direction of a Tinkerbelle-resurrection kind of clap-your-hands believism.  Still, it is a children’s movie; I can’t be too critical.  Lack of belief makes the Guardians themselves less real and limits their power.  Faith in them literally gives them substance.  On the surface, this is not altogether unlike what happened to Jesus in His hometown of Nazareth.  God, however, does not lose any of His reality or power because we lose faith.  Instead, it is the unbeliever who becomes less substantial, who loses access to the Source of life and truth.  But the Guardians, of course, are not gods, not even lesser gods.  They are archetypes and messengers only.  I seriously doubt that any of this even crossed the minds of the Dreamworks crew that put this film together.  They were just trying to tell a good story – and I think they succeeded.  A good story always taps into truth. 

I haven’t even mentioned the main protagonist, Jack Frost, whom we watch develop as a character when the Guardians’ conflict with darkness requires him to be added to their number.  Viewers will like Jack.  Raccoons, especially, will recognize that Jack is Slack, the bringer of Snow Days, the Angel, one might say, of Recreation.  As such, there is some territorial abrasion between Jack and the Easter Bunny, that agent of Rebirth -- something, we learn, that Jack has experienced. 

Obviously, a lot of the plot is predictable but it is all fun.  There are a number of laugh-out-loud slapstick and visual gag scenes.  The animation is so good that it goes unnoticed except for the occasional “wow” that it elicits.  Most of the adult viewers will laugh hardest at the yetis and elves and the magnificent sled scene.  Everybody will wonder at the Easter Bunny’s Warren and will be delighted when the Guardians join in to help out the Tooth Fairy.  It’s an entertaining movie with an old-time Disney touch or two, and all of it springing up from our collective “true mythology”, as Lewis might call it.   

Monday, November 19, 2012

Vane Repetition

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.  What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  -- Luke 11:9-13

It seems like a good day to talk about prayer given the situation among us this week.  Let us begin at the bottom. 

There are many tales and not a few jokes regarding what we might call the “three wishes” problem.  The one that comes to mind, after one about the mermaid best forgotten, finds three men marooned on a desert island.  A bottle washes ashore.  The men open it to release a genie that is, of course, willing to pay for freedom at the usual and customary Djinn Union rate -- three wishes, which, happily, can be divided equally among the desperate sojourners.  The first wisher asks to be whisked off to his home in New York City, and, in a flash, he is gone to reunite with his family and friends and head off for beer and pizza.  The second asks to go to San Francisco with the same result.  The third man looks wistfully about and says, “I wish my two friends were back here.”

Unlike jinn, mermaids, Shakespearean witches, et al, God responds to us as a loving and all-knowing Father.   A more appropriate depiction is the “Old Man”, Darren McGavin’s character, from A Christmas Story, watching in delighted and rapt communion with his son as he receives his sought-after gift, even vicariously mimicking Ralphie’s movements as he loads the Red Ryder.  The Lord is no Coyote trickster.  There is no bait-and-switch, only, perhaps, a delay or a deferment to enhance the longing, to solidify and consolidate our desires, to make our joy and rejoicing sharper and sweeter.  “Delight yourself in the Lord,” the Psalmist reminds us, “and He will give you the desires of your heart.”  We get, as we noted before, not what we say, but who we are.

This leads us to the necessity of importunity.  Prayer changes us.  It strips away our facades, our agendas, and our illusions.  It is the very act of asking and asking and asking, seeking and seeking and seeking, knocking and knocking and knocking that transforms us from selfish to self-less.  Next time you watch The Searchers consider how the characters start out and how they end.  What is it that causes that change except the seeking -- day after day, season after season, and year after year.  Debbie changes, becomes another person, but, in the end, she is that which has been sought all along.  The ends and motivations change, from rescue to revenge to restoration and redemption.  

Like the vanes on an arrow shaft, persistent prayer gives us stability and gets us on target.  Sin, is, after all, missing the mark.  

I have before mentioned answered prayers for temporal, material needs and situations.  The thing I notice, looking back, is that those answers only appeared to be material.  Each one that I can recall – and probably more that I cannot -- was like the creation of another chamber in the outward spiraling shell of the nautilus.   God’s responses to our prayers have eternal consequences, no matter how small or large the issue appears to be because those answers move us toward maturity – sometimes called in the Bible “perfection” -- that last chamber in the shell that is “the measure of the stature of Christ”. 

Sometimes, as we pray, we will get an answer.  I cannot describe that experience.  It may be an overwhelming sense of peace, a vision, a phrase, the proverbial still, small voice, a dream, a fragment out of a conversation, a verse in the Bible lighting up like a neon sign, or any number of other possibilities – I don’t know.  You will know it when it happens.  The old-timers called this “praying through”.  They would simply not stop until it happened, until they heard “yes” or “no” or, maybe, “no, not now.”  More than forty years ago, I knew a boy who was bleeding to death in the aftermath of a violent incident.  An old preacher was on his knees some fifty miles from the hospital praying, over and over, a verse from Ezekiel.  Sometime in the darkness after midnight, the old man stopped.  No phone calls were made back in those days, but he knew the bleeding had ceased, noted the hour in the margin of his Bible and went to sleep. 

Other times, we have no choice other than to get up and keeping going, not knowing for certain, but believing and constantly praying.  The answer is such that it may come only by degrees, little by little, strangely shrouded in mist and fog.  We may be set free from a bad habit or a besetting sin in a moment.  Often, though, it is like bush-hogging sprouts.  We just keep knocking them down until the buried root has exhausted its vitality and can no longer generate above-ground growth.  Even then, it is a good idea to have that ground sown thickly with good seed to smother and break down what lies beneath. 

Prayers to surrender our lives to Christ, to be filled with the Spirit, to walk in obedience and humility are always – at least, in my experience – of the “ask and keep on asking” variation.  It may become almost an unconscious thing for the more saintly among us, but I cannot see that it stops this side of the grave.  Since I am still dragging this shell around, I must assume that there is yet another chamber to enter, one more rung on that ever-upward, ever-larger spiraling stairway.  There will be another work for us to do, that we could only do from that place and that position. 

And we will find that to do it, we must pray. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Precious Mettle

The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it. -- Proverbs 10:22

We have talked about the fact that a person getting what he or she wants does not necessarily mean happiness.  I tend to believe that most of us do get what we want – that is, as wise men have said, we get what we are.  A lot of us find we are not at all happy with that.   Change who you are and you can change your circumstances.  You need not go far to find that is rarely works the other way.  A well-washed pig still returns to its wallow. 

Back when I worked for a financial services company, I was looking over the results of a report I had created for the accountants.  I noticed that we had a person on the charge-off list as a result of bankruptcy whose occupation was something like “lottery winner”.  I forget now exactly how it was worded, but that’s what it amounted to.  People who routinely play the lottery are more likely to win, I suppose, but those same people are generally individuals with poor financial management skills and an inadequate understanding of even basic household economics.  It’s kind of a shame “Home Ec” has been disparaged, mocked, and vilified over the years.  A lot of young women, and young men, for that matter, would benefit from grasping even the rudiments of managing home, family, and income.  Budgets, eating good food at home, self-discipline, a little of that and people would not need the feral government to pay their rent or hand them EBT cards – which is probably why it’s no longer a requirement in the government indoctrination center curriculum. 

This verse always reminds me of another, Ecclesiastes 1:18 -- For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.  I have probably said before, I copied this verse out of my King James Version Bible and pinned it to the wall of my bedroom when I was thirteen or fourteen.  I don’t know what I could have known back then that vexed me, but I understood somehow it was true.  Ignorance may not be bliss but it is something of an anesthetic.  I started to say that the exception is the knowledge of God, but that is the most painful of all, for it shows us our own sad condition.  The house doesn’t look too dirty until you turn on the light.  Though, as Jesus says, the sorrow caused by the knowledge of God is like the agony of child-birth that ends in joy. 

As we seek God, He reveals Himself to us and in us.  Here is genuine and eternal wealth, riches that are not deceptive or temporal, that will not perish in the using no matter how prodigal we may be in sharing them.  If your riches are gold and silver, you may find yourself thinking about thieves, seeing thieves and burglars everywhere, investing in vaults and strongboxes.  If your wealth is in houses, you might worry about fire and flood and earthquakes.  If it is land, you may fear drought and pestilence.  Even if you succeed in thwarting the thieves and threats, in the end you must pass from this world and leave it all behind.  But if God is your Source, not even death can separate you from your Treasure.

No sorrow.  Nothing to fear or dread, no matter what may come.  

And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 28:2)

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Psalms 23:1)

Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!  The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. (Psalms 34:9-10)

I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread. (Psalms 37:25) 

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.  (Matthew 6:33)

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land— not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. -- Amos 8:11

It is not that the Lord ever ceases to speak but that people can no longer hear.  The world never listens, never hears God.  With directionless lives, they skitter about as if they were on a mission only to skitter back to where they started.  They hear nothing and assume that God is no longer speaking, or that He cannot speak, does not exist. 

Even when we want to hear, our ears may be dulled by the circus calliope, the cacophony of clowns clambering at the foot of the mountain.  Be still and know that I am God, we are told.  Those of us who seek this knowledge may withdraw to the mountaintop, to the deserts, to remote and lonely places seeking that stillness and silence.  This can be good – at least on occasion and for a time.  Some are called to it as a lifestyle, and any of us may  be called aside now and then.  God, though, does not require physical stillness or silence, but a stillness of heart, a space of spirit.  Your body is the temple and in that most holy place there is quiet.  In here, His voice may be heard over the rage and thunder of battle and storm, so long as the storms and battles remain outside.  Go in, as Jesus advised, to that “closet”, that secret, hidden place and close the door. 

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.  It sounds so simple.  Go in and sit at the feet of Jesus.  Yet the verse ends with heart-breaking words:  But you were unwilling.  Let that not be true of us. 

Why would anyone refuse the rest and peace, strength and guidance the Lord offers?  We are willing enough to sprawl in front of a television, to rest physically.  What many of us seem reluctant to do is turn our minds and hearts to the reality of the indwelling Christ, to rest upon Him, His Person and the finished work of the Cross. 

The typical evangelical “worship” service is hardly a place for meditation, reflection, or rest.  There is noise and commotion and high tech displays designed to appeal to the audience’s increasing short attention span.  Many larger churches these days have separate services oriented to divergent demographics.  Older people like me go to one service while the younger crowd goes to a (typically) later service with more flashing lights and newer music played faster and louder, followed by sound-bite sermons from speakers in distressed denim. 

It’s appropriate.  I’m pretty distressed if I happen to walk into one of those by mistake.  My other personal gripe has to do with auditorium lights turned down so low that I can’t see my Bible, let alone read the words.  I’m always tempted to pull out one of my tactical flashlights to follow along – though, of course, the verse is up on the wall anyway.   Real worship is possible in such a place but only because of the inner stillness, the trappings are mostly distractions. 

We seem inclined, like the Romans to whom Paul wrote, to try to ascend up to heaven to bring Christ down or descend into the abyss to bring Him up from the dead with all of our rituals and noisy celebrations.  But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.  There is no need to suffer famine or drought.  The word is in our hearts.  Out of our innermost being will flow rivers of living water.

God still speaks to the still.