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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tamp 'Em Up Solid

For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. -- Lamentations 3:31-33

I talk about my nephew quite a bit.  I have several nephews and nieces, both by blood and by marriage.  My nephew M. is more like a younger brother.  My sister’s husband died suddenly a few weeks before their son’s fourth birthday.  I was there within minutes after my brother-in-law collapsed.  There was nothing anyone could do.  It was his third heart attack.  My sister never remarried, and I always tried to be a big brother to M., but Dad was his father figure.  Dad could have let his grandson sit on the couch and watch television, but he loved him too much for that.  He knew that a spoiled child has, in the long run, a greater risk and a much harder time than one who is disciplined and toughened by labor and toil.   

One of the reasons M. and I are so close is that we were both close to Dad.  He taught us most everything we know that matters in life.  Like how to dig a posthole.   A properly formed posthole should be, on these Ozark ridges, a minimum of 32 inches deep, only slightly larger in diameter than the post.   It should be bigger at the bottom that it is at the top, and, with a good tamper, all the dirt and rocks you took out should go back in, with perhaps room for a little more.  In theory.  In practice, there is this thing called hardpan, a layer of clay and God only knows what that is too hard to get a shovel point into and too soft to chip.  I would rather break through a foot of solid rock than an inch of hardpan. 

M. was here the other day, and we went out to the barn.  I pulled out a long steel bar and handed it to him, asking if he recognized it.  He laughed and said, “You’d be pounding on that hardpan with this bar, and it would just thud and bounce, and Granddad would say, ‘That’s the way.  You’re goin’ ever lick.’”  Sure.  When you did get the hole emptied, it was time to tamp, which is in some ways worse, especially when it was either too wet or too dry.  We complained plenty, but we never thought Dad was doing that merely to have something for us to do.  There was a purpose, and everybody ought to do something to earn their beans.            

Good parents such as I had do not torment their children or willingly cause them to suffer and grieve.  What they do is intended to, as the Bible says, reprove, rebuke, and correct.  We are not born into this world knowing how everything works.  As we develop physically, we grow in knowledge, wisdom, and understanding – or we ought to. 

Jeremiah was a witness to many horrors and much destruction.  The prophet suffered greatly himself and was repeatedly persecuted by his own people.  His warnings were ignored and ridiculed.  There were times when he despaired.  His lament reflects the ruthlessness of the enemy and the terror, dread, and anguish that descended upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem.  Yet, in spite of all the turmoil, death, and agony, Jeremiah remained confident in the goodness of God, in His mercy, love, and kindness. 

The Lord did not willingly allow His people, His children to suffer affliction.  Over and over, the Father offered escape and reprieve.  Over and over, His children rejected Him, stopped their ears to His pleas, and closed their eyes to the spiritual price of the degeneracy and degradation in which they indulged.

God could spare us from every difficulty.  Instead, He challenges us according to our strength and our degree of development.  He pushes us a little, enough to show us that we can be stronger, that we can endure, that we can achieve and do what we would have thought impossible.  If we go astray, it is the love of God that hastens to correct us.  It is up to us whether we will be gently guided by the eye of the Lord or more roughly redirected by a long-shanked bit in the mouth or a cruel hook in the jaw.      

Monday, September 29, 2014

Chaining the Devil

And the two worthless men came in and sat opposite him. And the worthless men brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones.  Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.” – 1 Kings 21:13-14

Naboth wasn’t killed because he was a bad man.  He was falsely accused and executed because he had a vineyard that King Ahab wanted.  The vineyard was a nice piece of property, apparently, and it lay near, if not adjacent to, the palace grounds.  Naboth owned this property as part of his family inheritance, though he seems to have resided in another, unnamed town.  Ahab wanted to plant a vegetable garden and made an offer of direct payment or trade to Naboth, who refused him flatly.  We don’t know if Naboth didn’t like Ahab, or perhaps he had some special connection to that vineyard, maybe his grandfather told him never to sell it.  Whatever the case, Ahab was distraught by the refusal. 

The king went to bed and would not eat, rather like a petulant, spoiled child who didn't get his way.  His wife, Jezebel, treated him like a child, certainly.  When she found out what was troubling him, she vowed to fix it through her own diabolical means, sending a letter in the name of King Ahab to the leaders of Naboth’s town with instruction on carrying out a vicious plot.  They obeyed, and Naboth died. 

The aftermath brings Elijah back into the picture:  Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria; behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession.  And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Have you killed and also taken possession?”’ And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”’”  Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord (1 Kings 21:17-20). 

Elijah told the king he was doomed to die, and, despite Ahab’s semi-successful repentance, it happened as Elijah prophesied.  You can read about it in the 22nd chapter of 1 Kings. Ahab goes to battle in disguise, hoping, one supposes, to elude his prophesied end by deception.  But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded (1 Kings 22:34).  His blood collected in the chariot.  When he died, his servants washed the chariot in the pool where the dogs drank and the prostitutes bathed. 

Ahab’s sin came back upon his own head (and Jezebel got hers, too), but there were innocent parties involved.  What about Naboth?  If this were a movie, I might complain about a plot hole.  What goes around, comes around is fine; reap what you sow, and all that works great when we are rewarded for good and suffer for evil.  As best I can tell from the Scripture – apart from anyone’s interpretations and extrapolations, Naboth was not killed because he had a negative confession or because he was weak in faith, but because someone else did wrong. 

Did God want Naboth killed?  Couldn’t He have intervened and rescued this innocent man?  He was aware of the plot, knew everyone's movements, and managed to have Elijah waiting to pour ice water on Ahab's ill-gotten happiness.  Why could God not have sent Elijah to warn Naboth?  Look how Ahab died from an arrow that was not even aimed at him.  We tend to think that God had something directly to do with the flight of that missile and with the way Ahab was standing that exposed him to the fatal strike.  Twenty years ago the thought that I might not understand perfectly what was going on in this story never occurred to me.  I ain't so smart anymore, but I am still convinced that evil will destroy those who practice it. 

Yet how do we account for the suffering, torture, persecution, and death of people like Naboth – maybe not perfect people, but more or less innocent bystanders?  How do we account for Uriah the Hittite or James or Stephen or Paul or the Christians in the Middle East and Nigeria and Sudan and China?  How do we account for good people who are murdered by psychopaths and thugs, killed by storms and natural disasters? 

I am not capable of giving a definitive or final answer to those kinds of questions.  Neither, I think, is anyone else. 

We are sovereign and independent agents who can choose to do good or do evil.  When Elijah confronted Ahab, he said that Ahab had “sold” himself to do evil.  Wickedness – even in the minor keys – is like a chain reaction. When we unleash it and give ourselves over to it, somebody is going to suffer, and, ultimately, we are going to have to answer for our part in it.  The Bible sometimes talks about our sins versus sin.  Sin is in the world, at the core of the world system.  You might even say it is the world’s operating system – a moral equivalent of Windows 8.  I always figured God ran UNIX, but it could be VMS. 

Because of the mode in which the world exists, evil is constantly breaking out.  It cannot be ignored.  We cannot stop other people from buying into it.  We are not yet capable of controlling the natural world the way that Jesus did in walking on the water or calming a storm.  Nevertheless, we can control ourselves.  We can decide to sell out to God or to evil.  If we choose God and His way, we are still traveling through this world.  We are still subject to its tragedies, accidents, cataclysms, and some of its diseases as well as to the evil that men might do against us.  The only evil that we can be guaranteed to avoid, then, is that which we create for others and subsequently for ourselves. 

We can stand against evil, and we should.  We do not always know how that will turn out.  We may be delivered from a trial or through a trial.  We may emerge from a catastrophe unscathed or be carried out feet first.  I believe God can get me out of anything, heal any disease, and protect me from any threat.  But sometimes things happen that I do not like, that I would avoid if I could.  Sometimes those things seem to be no one’s fault.  It’s just a fallen world.  Other times it may be that someone has decided to sell out to evil.  I may be the target, or I may just get caught in the crossfire. 

It can be hard to have faith in those situations.  It can be hard to resist the temptation to “unleash hell” in retaliation.  That is, however, the crucible of our faith, where it is refined and purified.  I have to continue to trust God especially when I do not have any visible reason to keep trusting Him. 

I can only, for my part, strive to avoid selling out to sin.  The same is true of every one of us.  The funny thing is that if we would all do that, the amount of wickedness flying around looking for a place to land would be greatly reduced.  This is why Jesus said, Turn the other cheek.  This is why we bless those who persecute us.  This is why Paul said, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

I can’t always make things better, but I can make them much worse, for myself and for everyone else.    

Friday, September 26, 2014

Ye Are Gods

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers … -- Hebrews 2:11

St. Augustine, commenting on Psalm 2, said, "God makes of sons of men sons of God, because God hath made of the Son of God the Son of man."   

Obviously, we need to have respect for God and not be presumptuous.  At the same time, though, Scripture gives us reason to think that our God is a loving, caring, even playful Father.  The phrase “have one origin” is often translated simply “of one”.  Both Christ and man come of the same source and, in the Incarnation, God took on the nature of humanity.  Moreover, from the very beginning man was made in the image and likeness of God, that is, man was given the same nature, only bound and finite as opposed to infinite.  Adam was supreme in his sphere, under his Father. 

The Fall corrupted us to the extent that God could no longer have communion or walk with man, except in the case of a few specifically chosen individuals.  We are all, however, reconciled by the Cross wherein the fallen nature is nullified, the nature of Christ Himself is imparted to us, and we are accepted in Him.     

Just thinking what comes next scares me because it traverses a very high, narrow and precarious path.  The abyss that yawns at the edge of the trail calls constantly to the arrogant, appealing relentlessly to our innate hubris.  You can be as gods, it says.  Throw yourself off the top of the temple, it says.  If, nonetheless, we overcome our spiritual vertigo and keep walking on this ledge, the reward is great. 

Jesus could have had an earthly kingdom.  He knew it.  His disciples sensed it, and they kept expecting it and hounding Him about it.  Right up to the end, the Lord could have said, Enough!  He could have stepped out and taken over.  A lot of people thought He should have done that, and even today, there are many who cannot seem to understand why He went through what He did.  Jesus walked that ledge. 

The world doesn’t have to be such a bad place – if we understand that it is temporary and transitory. It is the living edge of creativity.  Life is meant to be poured out, not hoarded.  There is no reason to live in fear.  We don’t welcome suffering, but we can’t allow ourselves to be held back by it either.  We don’t have to “make something of ourselves” or seek fame and fortune.  We refuse to throw ourselves down and become magicians.  Instead, we throw ourselves into the arms of the Lord; we abandon ourselves to God.  We are no longer in bondage to the fear of death or anything else. 

No matter how much of your life you pour out, the vessel is never going to be emptied.  This jar of clay will be emptied, broken, and eventually left behind like the husk of a seed sown, but a new and more capacious receptacle awaits us.  

If that all that is true, how do Christians “burn out”?  It happens.  It’s happened to me, and I can speak only for myself.  I was pouring from the wrong source.  I listened to the siren-song of the abyss, and I had a mighty rough landing.  It’s a long, hard climb back up.  It’s been made harder, perhaps, by the bombardment of media and popular culture and what we might call the Oprah-fication of the Church. 

Despite all the difficulties, we are the children of God.  He is our Father.  As we surrender to Him, absolutely and unconditionally, the Lord Himself will lead us safely along that precipice to our place of rightful inheritance and authority.  Accept no substitutes.      

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Verse of the Day

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. - 1 Peter 1:8-9

Another one of those days -- they seem to come faster and more often, or maybe I'm just not keeping up.

This is passage that illustrates Christian courage and endurance.  Too, Peter says something crucial about faith.  The outcome of faith, we might even say the point of faith is our salvation.  Faith is the means whereby we who were shattered are restored and made whole.  Why would we not be inexpressible joyful if we understand that? 

Faith enables us to live as aliens and strangers in a world system that has, for the most part, gone mad.  Faith will help us stand and deliver us from fear. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Troublers and Clingers and Insane Clowns

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, Is it you, you troubler of Israel? -- 1 Kings 18:17

It is not inevitable and not a hard and fast rule, but it is often the case that the accuser is guilty of the offense.  Elijah had come on the scene to prophesy three and a half years of drought and famine upon Israel.  The ten tribes had been apostate since breaking away from Rehoboam after the death of Solomon.  One golden calf with its altars stood in Bethel and another in the territory of the tribe of Dan, yet no king had been as depraved as Ahab son of Omri and husband of Jezebel.  Those who worshipped the one true God were pursued and persecuted and the prophets put to death.  They worshipped Baal and Asherah with dark and demonic rites, practicing witchcraft and wickedness, making gods of their own lusts.  They dredged hell for judgment to pour out on their own heads.  Then, when they began to gather in the harvest of their iniquity, they blamed God.        

In other words, there is nothing new under the sun.  We are having the troubles we have today because of the judgmental, narrow-minded, intolerant, right-wing Christians.  It’s all these people who don’t realize this is the modern world and times have changed, that we are all right no matter what we believe or what we do.  Traditional marriage and monogamy are conventions.  Marriage is kind of like Halloween, a time to dress up and put on a show.  It doesn’t matter if a man wants to marry another man or a woman wants to marry a Mercedes. 

The truth is dead.  Everybody lies.  Everybody cheats.  You just need to be able to do it with style.  It’s a matter of how good things sound and how we can make things look.  The only reality is perception.  We can have any kind of world we choose.  We can be like gods, deciding by popular vote what is right and what is wrong.  Morality is what we say it is.  Hell, sex is what we say it is.  Don’t want to be a man?  We’ll sprinkle some fairy dust, say, Shazam!, and, behold, woman, thou art loosed! 

And if anyone disagrees, they are the trouble.  If anyone tells the truth, they have to be silenced.  We can’t allow those bigoted, xenophobic clingers with their rules and traditions to dictate to us.  Life is sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.  Party hearty and die at thirty, er, seventy-five.  Don’t worry.  We have antibiotics and a vaccine for AIDS. 

Under the sun, it’s all been done, and the end is always the same.  The pendulum falls back in the dark of the moon.  That’s not to say it won’t get worse before it gets better.  It will get better, if it takes five years, fifty, or five thousand.  We have no guarantee our particular step on the ascension to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ is all that close to the top.  My hope is in Christ and the kingdom of God; otherwise, I would have no hope.