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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Monday, April 29, 2013

Land of the Forgotten

Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?  -- Psalms 88:12

Sometimes I get the blues for no particular reason, and it tinges, discolors everything that I see.  It’s hard to notice.  After I had the cataract on my left eye fixed, the next day all seen through the new lens was bright and clear and sharp.   Through my deteriorating right eye, the colors remained yellowed and dark and blurry.  I could change my worldview by closing one eye.  A bad lens gives bad sight no matter how well everything else might work.

Psalm 88 is a song of the low-down blues.  You can almost hear the B.B. King version: 

My soul is full of troubles. 
I’m way down in the pit. 
My friends have all forsook me,
And that ain’t the half of it.

Despite feeling alone and hopeless, the psalmist is talking to God.  Really, that’s how we know we have a right relationship with God, or with anyone.  If you can tell a person how you feel, if you can complain to him about how he has treated or mistreated you and expect him to listen, you are talking to a friend.  You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.  Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.   (vv. 6,7)  He knows where he is, and he knows God has put him there; he just doesn’t know why or what to do about it. 

The older I get, the more I start to think that a big part of wisdom is giving up trying to make sense out of all that happens.  Instead of wearing ourselves out trying to reach a solution or even an understanding, the best thing may be to sing the blues.  I know that doesn’t sound like the American Way, but then I’m not Superman.  And even if I were Superman, has he ever fixed anything permanently?  You would think that in the universe where Superman exists, there would be some kind of utopia; instead, there are ever more dangerous, potent, and destructive enemies.  The better Superman tries to make things, the worse they actually get.  Great Scott!  Superman is a Democrat!

Why would God throw us down into a pit?  Is it because He is vengeful and petty?  Is it because He hates us?  Or could it be because He wants to limit our options, confine us so that the only way out is up?  Maybe I have tried to play the two-dimensional Superman a little too much, and I need to realize that I’m interfering with what God is doing.  It could be that I have become too reliant on human relationships or been too much of savior for one or more of my friends. 

In the pit – the grave, everyone around me is dead.   I see the limits of human power and ability, the hopelessness of man’s attempt to create his own salvation.  Death, the great darkness, the land of forgetfulness – to forget, and to be forgotten – there is a kind of comfort to it despite the terror.  I would not mind forgetting some of my life, committing it to the fires of oblivion.  Yet fire doesn’t obliterate completely.  It breaks things down, oxidizes and recombines, transmutes and purifies while giving off heat and light.  Perhaps God does know what He is doing.  

Though we may be in darkness and feel forgotten, God still hears us when we tell Him our troubles.  He listens to our complaints when no one else can or will.  Though we are set aside for a time, our cries rise to the Lord to whom the darkness is light.  There is no forgetfulness with God, and when He calls, the dead come forth.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Watch, Man

Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. -- Revelation 16:15 (KJV)

The ESV says “the one who stays awake and keeps his garments on”, that is, the one who had the watch.  One of my favorite characters in literature is Allan Quatermain who is called by the natives, Macumazahn, "Watcher-by-Night".  Though Quatermain is an extraordinary shot, his truly defining characteristic is this alertness and willingness to peer into the darkness, to delve into the mysterious and the unknown, to guard and defend.  Jesus said that night is coming, when no one can work, and we take that, rightly I think, to mean that there are works appointed for us to do in our life and at specific times when we have light and opportunity.  Someday, the night will close in, our time will be gone, and we will sleep, from the perspective of this world. 

But it also speaks of the watching each of us must do in order for us to transition from the darkness of the natural life to the light of Christ, our Day.  During our night of mere human understanding – illumined only by meager, sputtering watch fires of our own devising, we are beset by many threats and dangers.  There is much lurking in the darkness that would take advantage of the lax, the drowsy, and the distracted.  Our watchfulness thwarts the attacks that would be launched. 

Not only must we be on the alert against the darkness and those things that would break through and carry us away, we must also be awake, watching and ready to welcome Christ when He comes to us.  He is the Light of the world -- the Light of our world.  We stand at the portal to open the door and admit the rightful Lord of this house.  This is the essence of salvation, when the Light dwells within us, illuminating, enlightening, and exercising dominion over our lives, chasing the darkness as the morning subdues the night.   

Once the light of Christ illumines our souls, our burden is eased and shared as now the Lord assumes the role of guarding and protecting that which is His.  Now we are watched over by One who never slumbers or sleeps, whose sight can pierce the deepest darkness, mist and cloud and shadow.  Our own watchfulness remains essential.  Our vigils do not cease but become, more and more, joyous times of communion with our Lord.  When we fall asleep, we know we will awake to the new and eternal Day, in the presence of our Watcher-by-Night.       

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Gerard Manley Hopkins -- The Habit of Perfection

ELECTED Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:

It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:

This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust

So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride

And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Appointment in Samaria

[Jesus] left Judea and departed again for Galilee.  And he had to pass through Samaria.  So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  Jacob's well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.  John 4:3-6

This morning, I was on the phone with a man whose name differs by one letter from that of someone I met nearly thirty years ago.  Those two men knew one another.  The man I met back in 1985 preached a sermon from John 4:4, using the KJV wording, “He must needs pass through Samaria”.  Life seems sometimes like a labyrinth built of a series of strange connections and unlikely chains of events.   In fact, as any commentary will tell you, it was only necessary to go through Samaria as the direct path from Judea to Galilee.  Travelers going south from Galilee to Jerusalem, in particular, commonly crossed over the Jordan River and passed through the territory of Perea to avoid a hostile encounter with the Samaritans based on religious prejudices. 

We’re probably all familiar with the translation Maugham made of a little story called “Appointment in Samarra”.  Samarra is an ancient city in what is now Iraq, situated on the Tigris, like the city of Baghdad which lies about 75 miles south and a little to the east.  The story tells of a servant who is panicked by an encounter with Death in the Baghdad market.  The servant runs to his master and begs the use of his horse on the grounds that Death made a “threatening gesture” toward him.  The servant reasons that by fleeing to Samarra he can avoid Death and his fate.  The good master agrees; the servant mounts the horse, digs in his spurs and flies away.  Later the master encounters Death and inquires as to why Death threatened his servant.  “It was not a threatening gesture,” Death replies.  “I was merely surprised to see him in Baghdad as I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.” 

God gives us freedom, but He also takes it into account.  A woman needed water.  She didn’t like to go to the well in the morning because she didn’t like to get up early or because she didn’t want to deal with all the other gossipy, judgmental women who would be there at the usual hour.  She waited until noon and wandered down with her jar only to find a lone, male Jew whom she sincerely hoped would ignore her.  He didn’t, and her life was transformed for eternity. 

Sometimes we feel a strange urge to go through Samaria.  Sometimes we are running late for work because we inexplicably and inadvertently turned the alarm off the day before.  How can a brand-new tire go flat?  A possibly apocryphal tale I remember hearing was about someone who was so frustrated over his performance in a bowling tournament that he threw his ball out the window of his car while driving home.  The ball, striking the pavement at high speed, bounced up, ricocheted off an overpass and smashed through the windshield of another car, killing the driver.  Instead of thinking how horrible it was that someone’s anger and irresponsibility had resulted in the death of an innocent person, my first thought was, if you are killed on the freeway by a bowling ball, it’s probably your time to go.  If that happened these days, all the digital signs on the highway would start flashing “TILT”.

Every intersection in this maze we are traveling is an opportunity to make a right decision, to give help or to receive it.  Weariness drove Jesus to sit down on the edge of that well.  Thirst caused Him to ask a rejected, disillusioned woman for a drink.  But love and compassion moved Him to offer her a chance to change her life.  She took the right turn, away from rebellion, toward God, and she found the Way out.