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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Post Not Strictly Necessary

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. – 1 Timothy 6:6

I hope I don’t ever leave the impression that I am giving anybody advice, or “preaching” to anyone from some position of superiority.  I am always talking to myself first and foremost, and this is particularly evident today.  In fact, I am so messed up today that I am not sure I have anything to say.    

I have a book around here somewhere called Happiness Is a Choice.  It was written many years ago by Frank Minirth and Paul Meier.  The point of the book is that someone who is depressed has the option of choosing happiness.  I think that is probably true, to some extent.  For a lot of us who battle depression, though, what we are really battling is anger that cannot be expressed – for whatever reason.  Somewhere I got the notion that my job in life is to make the people around me happy.  When I fail to do this, when people are unhappy, I am a failure.  When I fail, it makes me angry – angry mostly at myself. 

But sometimes the response of those I am trying to make happy is so utterly irrational that I become angry at them.  There is a kind of a contract we enter into in relationships.  If someone tells me they want something done, I assume that, if I accomplish that, they will be happy.  So, I work long hours; I put aside my own preferences; I exert all the power, strength, endurance, and intelligence that I possess – in some cases – in order to bring about the desired end.  I expect the person with whom I entered the arrangement to then be happy.  

For some people, however, this is not enough.  If you give them eighteen hours a day for six days, they want to know why you can’t do it for seven days.  If you do that, they want to know why you can’t give them twenty hours a day or why you need a lunch break.  The demands are always just a little more than what you have done, and it is incessant.  Once in a while this becomes just a little bit too much. 

The world is not a perfect place, and, as we learned back in 1969, you can’t always get what you want.  At least by 1970, no one had an excuse.  I think I knew it long before that.  Contentment is not the opposite of ambition but of anguish and lust.  To be content does not mean that we don’t care about anything or that we do not want to make anything better.  It just means that we accept the way things are for now.  Being discontented does not move a person a single step closer to improving their situation. 

If there is one thing I have learned over many years of working on software it is probably the art of debugging.  In trying to diagnose a problem, the worst thing to do is change a bunch of things.  Keep constant as much as possible and isolate one change then another and another until the culprit is found.  It’s like figuring out which bulb is burned out on a string of Christmas lights.

Some people never get it, and some are simply enamored by change for its own sake.  They cultivate discontent and seem to live on the fruit of anguish it creates in others.  And we others agonize, thinking that there must be some rational reason for their discontent. 

In the end, I am reminded of my parents’ line about crying:  “Shut up or I’ll give you something to cry about.”  I wish everyone had been told the same thing.    

That probably wasn’t very edifying, but I feel better.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Management Material

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.  -- Luke 16:9

The parable of the Unrighteous Steward is one that has always given me trouble.  The understanding I have of it, I owe, mostly, to Arnot’s The Parables of Our Lord.  The story is simple enough:  a steward or manager has not dealt honestly with his master’s property and is about to be fired.  Desperate to find a means of supplying himself with life’s necessities, the manager, before balancing his ledgers, calls his master’s debtors and offers them a discount.  Those that owe a hundred are told to write down eighty or fifty.  By this ploy, the manager makes friends of those same debtors and may call upon them for assistance once his tenure as manager is over.  The master, upon learning he has been so cleverly cheated, nevertheless commends the ex-manager’s cunning. 

Our tendency is to think that the dishonest manager should have seen the error of his ways, rather like the Prodigal, repented, begged and received his master’s gracious forgiveness.  The Lord, however, had a different lesson He wished to impart. This parable was given to His disciples and was not for the benefit of those outside His circle or as a message for those who opposed Him. 

As Christians, what are we to do with the things of the world?  From our health and strength, our natural gifts, and our families to our property and money, jobs and careers, we have much that pertains as much or more to this world than to eternity.  Jesus wanted to answer that question for us.  The things of this world, including our own bodies and physical lives, are going to pass away.  We should not be afraid or even hesitant to use those things up in order to help us on our journey toward our “eternal dwellings”. 

Unrighteous wealth or, to use the more evocative KJV word, Mammon can be a great hindrance to our spiritual progress.  The Lord’s point is that it need not be.  The Master has given these things to us that we might make the best use of them – not to enrich ourselves and tie our souls to the temporal things of this life, but to make our “calling and election sure”. 

Does wealth get misused?  Are art, literature, cinema, television, the internet channels of evil and wickedness?  Absolutely, but they can be beneficial as well as corrosive.  Arnot asked if the Rich Young Ruler failed because of wealth or sin.  Was the beggar Lazarus saved because he was poor and the rich man in hell because he was rich?  No.  Poverty does not make one holy.  Many will live impoverished in this world only to step from a life of envy into the fires of envy’s just reward.  Some who were rich in this world’s goods already enjoy the bliss of eternal life in heaven.  

Things can be a snare to us.  Things can set us free.  The difference is in us and in our attitude.  The first step is recognizing that nothing we "possess" actually belongs to us.  We are only stewards.  We are responsible for wise management.  This is the key to the parable:  the master commended the unrighteous steward because he wanted him to come out all right.  He couldn’t allow him to go on managing his goods, but he did not want him to starve.  

Our life in this world is coming to an end -- the end of our tenure as steward.  It may be yet many decades for some.  It may be tomorrow.  Regardless of the time frame, we know we cannot go on in this life indefinitely.  Our Good Master wants us to enthusiastically make use of all we have been given, however little or much that may be, whatever form it may take, to improve, augment and further the spiritual components of our lives.  If that is not happening, we are not doing it right, and we are not pleasing God. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Believe On

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  2 Corinthians 5:21

Jonathan Edwards, in his work “The Excellency of Christ”, speaks of the many apparent contradictions, the paradoxes of the Lord Jesus as He was crucified, as in this excerpt: 

Christ's holiness never so illustriously shone forth as it did in his last sufferings, and yet he never was to such a degree treated as guilty.

Christ's holiness never had such a trial as it had then, and therefore never had so great a manifestation. When it was tried in this furnace it came forth as gold, or as silver purified seven times.  His holiness then above all appeared in his steadfast pursuit of the honor of God, and in his obedience to him. For his yielding himself unto death was transcendently the greatest act of obedience that ever was paid to God by any one since the foundation of the world.

And yet then Christ was in the greatest degree treated as a wicked person would have been. He was apprehended and bound as a malefactor. His accusers represented him as a most wicked wretch.  In his sufferings before his crucifixion, he was treated as if he had been the worst and vilest of mankind, and then, he was put to a kind of death, that none but the worst sort of malefactors were wont to suffer, those that were most abject in their persons, and guilty of the blackest crimes. And he suffered as though guilty from God himself, by reason of our guilt imputed to him; for he who knew no sin, was made sin for us; he was made subject to wrath, as if he had been sinful himself. He was made a curse for us.

You remember how in the movie Spartacus all the rebels begin to shout, “I’m Spartacus!” – identifying with and as their leader.  It was better to be crucified as Spartacus than live on as slaves. 

As He was crucified, Jesus said, in effect, “I am sin.”  He identified Himself with and as the worst aspects of humanity.  He became pride, lust, greed, envy, jealousy, hatred, rage, blasphemy – all the vile wickedness that dwells in the hearts of rebellious men.  But then He demonstrated, by going willing through the horrors of the punishment and ignominious death He suffered, His hatred of sin.  It was better to be crucified as sin than to allow us – all of His beloved children – to live and die in such bondage. 

In His death, sin was dealt with, not just the products of sin but the factory from which those products flow.  Because He took on our life and buried it, we may take on His and be raised. 

I struggle so much to be while the Lord just keeps saying that I am.  One says you have to pray without ceasing.  Yes, pray on, but pray for that which is not yet, and yet must be.  The Lord asks why we are praying for what already is.  Believe on. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

In the Shadow of a Turning

Thus says the Lord God, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! ... They have seen false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘Declares the Lord,’ when the Lord has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word.  -- Ezekiel 13:3,6

Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, You must not do that!  I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus.  Worship God.  For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. -- Revelation 19:10

I am troubled these days by the lack of truth in so much of what is said and done.  Nothing is as it seems, and people, sadly, seem to prefer pretty lies prettily lied to the genuine and authentic.  Prophecy, as we noted recently, is, at its solid heart, a revelation of the way things are rather than what we might like them to be.  Bob has said that true thoughts are prayers.  Telling the truth may not make one a prophet, but the spirit of truth is the spirit of prophecy. 

In a world where we are inundated with fiction and fictitious imagery, deceit and deception, it can be difficult to find verity.  Movies make our most fantastic imaginings appear as convincing and certain as a flint rock.  Manipulated models substantiate the maker's beliefs.  We convince ourselves that if we can just ignore a few inputs, plaster over a few weak points in the wall, that our new and improved version of Babylon will withstand all assaults by solemn light. 

Should we find it reassuring that our situation is nothing new?  In a way, I am heartened to know that humanity has survived this game of blind man's bluff countless times, but I am also disappointed that we have learned so little from history.  We are invariably fooled by what we think is the superiority of our age.  The plan only failed before because the operators didn't have our technology, our science, our grasp of the cosmos and its laws.  Like the visionaries of Ezekiel's day, our false prophets will be shocked when their proclamations go unfulfilled.  They have spoken in the name of their gods.  They have heard the voices of their deities.  The science is settled.  The program is a success.  The law was passed. 

The problem is all the people like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, all the deniers, the capitalists, the extremists, the bitter clingers, religious fanatics, the old white men who refuse to surrender their racial and gender privileges.  It's the Jews, the Catholics, the fundamentalists.  There's always somebody that won't go along with the system, that won't bow to the image.  And so it goes. 

God is in control, and He has, by His wisdom and sovereign will, brought me to this place and this time with this mind.  Perhaps I will be a silent watcher or a weeping martyr or a happy warrior.  The truth is patient, as patient as mountain, sea, and sky, powerful as the trembling stars, and as fearless as the light that awaits the face of the globe turning from its own shadow.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Under the Stairway

And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! … Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it. --Genesis 28:12, 16
And he said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.  – John 1:51

Jesus is the Stairway to heaven.  Probably countless messages have been preached over the last two thousand years proclaiming Christ and the Cross as Jacob’s Ladder.  In speaking to Nathanael, who was astounded that Jesus had seen him under a fig tree, the Lord says that such clairvoyance is nothing compared to what the disciple will see as he follows.  Heaven will be opened.   Sometimes even the most literal of literalists fail to take the Bible literally enough. 

For all of Jacob’s faults, the transformation of his life began when he came to a place which he would call Bethel, the House of God, where he lay down to sleep as a homeless fugitive. Dreaming of a stairway, he understood that his dream had a prophetic significance, and that he, deceptive and slippery though he was, had an offer of access to God.  He did what he could.  He set up the stone on which his head had rested as a pillar and anointed it.  He pledged a tenth of all that he gained would be offered to the Lord.  He began the long journey from Jacob, the supplanter, to Israel, a prince who strives with God, by the recognition of the presence of the Lord. 

Like Jacob, Nathanael and the other disciples would be new men when they understood that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  As we read:  For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:18)  Then, again, Paul tells us:  This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. (Ephesians 3:11-12)

You and I live under that open heaven.  For a long time some of us walked around and had no idea that the Lord was present.   If we thought of Him, we considered Him as one far off who viewed us as through a telescope.  One day we awoke and found out that we lived in Bethel where the angels ascend and descend.  Recently I was struck so forcefully by this that I was actually fearful of losing my mind, not that I have a lot to lose or anything.  In some ways it might be the best thing, especially if I have a mind set upon the wrong things. 

One thing is certain.  Our prayers are heard.