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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Friday, January 31, 2014

False Hope

The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.  -- Psalms 33:17

I always think there ought to be a fix.  There ought to be something a person could do, could have done, should have had, whatever, to avoid a bad outcome.  I’m not alone in this.  Doc Ok, or, is it Oz?, has all kinds of foods you can eat or not eat to avoid getting fat or getting old or getting ugly.  Some of it may even work.  I can tell you from experience, though, that the only way to avoid getting old is to die young and leave a good-looking corpse.  I think sixteen was my last chance for that, so I’m still here. 

I’m a person who believes in planning ahead.  The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it (Proverbs 22:3).  The Lord has not given us a spirit of fear, but He has given us the spirit of power, love, and self-control, or good judgment (2 Timothy 1:7).  If a person isn’t going to use his head, there’s no sense in him keeping it. 

But the psalmist is right, and not just because he agrees with Bobby Burns, that foresight may prove vain and even our best plans and preparations cannot guarantee success.  Things do go agley.  If we can’t depend on our own insight, understanding, and strength, and all of our technological advancements may prove inadequate, what are we to do? 

I don’t think the answer is to give up, fold our hands and make no effort to prepare.  For example, I love firearms, but I’m a fool if I think that they are going to save me.  A person is better off with a big stick and the Lord than a .50 BMG by itself.  Of course, there’s nothing that says you can’t have the Lord and a Big Mama.  When we lay the best plans we can, we give the Lord something He work with.  

 We ought to know, however, that “… the eye of the Lord is on those … who hope in his steadfast love.  We trust only in the Lord.  He is the one who will preserve and protect us as we look to Him.

False hopes abound in the world, from politics to pills to plastic surgery.  A million false hopes and their inevitable failures cannot deny or degrade the One True Hope who cannot fail.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

No Particular Place To Go

For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. -- Hebrews 9:24

I don’t have much time today.  Paul says we are ambassadors for Christ – someone sent on a mission into an alien environment.  He elsewhere depicts us as soldiers, standing our ground on a hostile field.  We are called by Peter, pilgrims and strangers, echoing Moses’ naming of his son, Gershom, saying, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.  God invades and rules over the natural world through us.  The full extent of this mastery of the material is seen in Jesus whom the winds and seas had to obey. 

We understand how Christ was an invader in the Incarnation, but when He ascended, He became, in a way, an invader in the halls of heaven.  This may be the most overtly neo-platonic verse in the Bible – at least as far as I can recall right now.  You can read back in Exodus, when Moses was on the mountain, that he was shown the realities and, so far as was possible, outfitted the Tabernacle accordingly.

An aside:  the Tabernacle has long seemed to me to be “better” than the Temple as it better represents both Christ and us.  It was covered in skins, just as we are.  I am suspicious of the Temple as encouraging a strain of apostasy that remains today in a measure of inappropriate reverence for buildings.    Anyway.

The righteous dead went to a place called “paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom”.  It was a place of rest and ease, but it was not heaven.  Hades was a segregated gated community:  paradise on one side, gehenna on the other, kind of like Missouri and Illinois.  But when Christ descended into the realm of death, he “led captivity captive”:  But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift.  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 4:7-10)

It sounds like Jesus broke the righteous dead out of their somewhat pleasant prison and took them with Him as He returned to heaven, where they (and we), apart from Him, had no place.  Jesus didn’t lie to the repentant thief on the cross.  He said, “This day, you will be with Me in paradise.”  He just didn’t add that it was only a weekend trip.  Then they loaded up the truck, and they moved to Beverly. 

Christ is now in heaven, in that reality which we think of as ideal, representing us, speaking and interceding on behalf of us.  That’s a good thing to know.  Moreover, I am not one who puts much credence in concepts like “soul sleep”.  Paul uses the euphemism “sleep” for the death of the physical body.  I don’t think that those who have died are no longer conscious – though I freely admit I could be wrong.  If I’m not, there’s no reason to think that those who are absent from the body and consequently present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8) are unaware of that which Christ is aware.  I believe that some of those who are now at home with the Lord could well be interceding on behalf of those who remain in their earthly bodies.   

That may not sound exactly earth-shattering, but it is pretty strong stuff for us Protestants.  I don't think anybody is praying to saints or Mary; they are asking the saints for agreement in praying to the Father.  "Pray for us sinners."  I don't see where that is much of a problem.  It would not surprise me to some day hear that an old Baptist preacher goes up every once in a while to remind the Lord to watch out for this old hillbilly.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. – Psalm 32:2

This is a psalm about the power of confession and the pain of deceit.  It does not say that a person is blessed because he or she is sinless but because the Lord pardons sin.  We are reminded of what Jesus said about the lost sheep, that there is more rejoicing over the one that is found than over the ninety-nine that never strayed.  It only seems unfair until we realize that “we all like sheep have gone astray”. 

I’ve known a few people, as you probably have, who were saintly if not official saints.  To us, such holy people seem to have passed beyond the possibility of any human weakness, yet I’m sure every true saint would tell us that they are often grieved by their own faults, flaws, and failures.  The difference between the saint and the sinner is not in the fallen human nature both cannot help but share. 

A sinner clings to and defends what he thinks, says, and does.  He seeks, often desperately, to justify himself, and, in doing so, deceives himself.  The path to redemption begins with honesty.  Blessed in the man … in whose spirit there is no deceit.”  The saint abandons pretense before the Lord.  He gives up any thought of self-justification, of defending his position, of making excuses for why he stumbled. 

By hiding behind carefully woven walls of exculpatory fig leaves, we may think we are safe.  As people who have been shot at know, there is a difference between cover and concealment.  Generally, fig leaves are not bulletproof.  The only person I am fooling with my elaborate but vacuous vindications is me.  Certainly, I should not insult God by thinking He does not know the truth.      

Jesus advised to us to agree with our adversary quickly.  My adversary, the devil, the accuser of the brethren, doesn’t have to make up much stuff on me.  The devil is a liar and the father of lies; nevertheless, he can tell the truth about some of us and still do his job.  I do try to make it harder for him anymore, but I don’t argue with him. 

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah 
(Psalm 32:3-5)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Picture Windows

And he marveled because of their unbelief.  And he went about among the villages teaching.  -- Mark 6:6

We have talked about this before, but faith gets a lot of coverage in the Bible, and I reckon there’s a good reason for that.  The people who caused Jesus to marvel were those from His hometown, and it brings us back to the point of faith being a matter of the object of attention.  The crowds in Jerusalem and around the rest of the country saw the miracles.  The people of Nazareth saw the boy who had lived among them and grown up.  Both missed the point.

Many followed Jesus because He fed them and healed them.  They listened to His teaching because, though He was saying many of the things they had heard before, it was coming across on a different frequency and bringing something else with it.  It had a life to it that went through them like a current.  It is the difference between an apple you pull off a tree and the processed and packaged “apple pie” at the fast food dispenser.   Eat raw fruit or vegetables and you can feel a surge that you never get from eating something that has been pre-digested. 

I have had conversations about why miracles no longer happen.  First, I reject that premise as I have been witness to a number of them.  But let’s accept that we do not often see people healed by the Pope’s shadow – as was the case with Peter.  Some suggest that the difference is the absence of the Incarnate Christ.  There, though, Jesus was walking around in the flesh, yet no great healings or miracles were taking place.  What was the problem in Nazareth?  They could not get past the meat of the Incarnation.  They could not see the IN. 

Paul warns against engaging in Communion without discerning the Body.  In another passage, he tells us that the letter kills while it is the Spirit who gives life.  If we can’t get past the forms, the rituals, the pictures, and the letters, we are trapped.  We can become bound in the rope God has thrown us to climb.  Look through the window – not at it. 

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).  We hear the truth, and we see, no longer, the person but the Person; we get past the vehicle.  “Look a talking donkey!”  Yes, but old Balaam needed to know what the donkey had to say, which is why she started talking.  When he heard it, his eyes were opened and he saw the destruction to which his path led. 

Through the Cross, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus brings to us a new kind of life.  We become the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, branches of the Vine.  When you look around at everybody else and even when you look in the mirror, you need to be looking through the window, past the meat, to the Light and the Life. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Land of Hills and Valleys

For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables.  But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the Lord your God cares for. The eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. – Deuteronomy 11:10-12

Down in Egypt where little rain fell, the fields could be watered by drawing from the Nile River.  There in the flood plains and bottoms of the Nile, a farmer could irrigate with human or animal power running screws or pumps of some kind.  The land of Canaan was not that way.  There might be streams in the hills, and wells could be dug, but, unlike the vast and seemingly infinite water of the Nile, these sources were limited and sometimes unreliable. 

If no rain fell in Canaan, the little streams stopped running and the water table quickly dropped, draining the wells.  Man soon reached the limits of his ability.  The Israelites entering their Promised Land would have to rely on God.  Through Christ, we, too, may enter a new land.  We may leave behind us the old nature and the world system that Egypt represents.  And, just like the Israelites, we will have to leave behind our faith in man’s power to produce virtue, wholeness, meaning, and satisfaction. 

I think I expected my life to be a flat land.  When I thought about peace and contentment, I saw it as ease and certainty.  The old “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” is true, as far as it goes.  It’s also true that giants have your stuff and are not willing to give it up without a hot and bloody fight.  Once you have succeeded in driving out the enemy, you will find your inheritance consists of a lot of hills and valleys – ups and downs.  Some of our land around here is like that.  My brother bought a little 80-acre farm.  Dad looked it over and said, “Well, the good thing is you can farm three sides of it, and if you could iron it out, you’d probably have around 240 acres.”

The undulating nature of life can make it seem as if we are making no progress.  Sometimes we are up on the top, walking in the light.  Other times we are down in the hollows, shadowed and unable to see what lies ahead.  Nevertheless, God has promised to be with us, to keep watch over our lives regardless of our elevation.  The Lord’s eyes are on us as well whether we are barren and cold as winter, plowing and planting in faith as spring, enjoying growth and beauty as summer, or harvesting and rejoicing as fall.    

The temptation for me is to take care of it.  I am a problem-solver and a fixer.  If I have a catch-phrase – a printable one – it’s probably, “I’ll take care of that.”  I seem to say that all the time.  There are a lot of things I can take care of, and the same is true for all of us.  When it’s time to plow, I ought to plow.  I have a part to do.  But you can plow too much.  One of my favorite Bob Wills’ songs is “Cottonpatch Blues”.  You plow those old long, straight rows, busting the middles until the cotton gets a little height.  After that, you have to get the hoe down and chop the cotton – “Don’t go down there without your file,” Bob adds.  Finally, when the picking time comes in the fall, all you need is your cotton sack to drag and fill.   You can do all you can, but if the Lord doesn’t send the rain, there isn’t going to be any harvest. 

And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.  He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.  The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)   

When it comes right down to it, there is no use lying awake at night worrying about it.  The process is and will always be something of a mystery to us.  The land of promise is the land of faith.