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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Friday, February 28, 2014

Going Long

But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.  For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.  But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man. – Luke 21:34-36

I am what is sometimes called a partial preterist with regard to much of Matthew 24, Luke 21 and similar passages.  The siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the expulsion of Jews and Jewish Christians from the region by Rome, along with other horrors that accompanied the prolonged conflict and judgment partially fulfilled the prophetic words of Jesus.  

In the verses above the Lord is warning both 1st Century and 21st Century hearers.  Those whose eyes would see the temple destroyed needed to heed His words as have many throughout the intervening years, and people for many years in the future should listen as well.  History is like a wild river, rapids and falls of turmoil and terror between rare and welcome pools of peace. 

The conflicts may not always devolve into open, armed battles.  Despite the fact that Americans have been mostly spared from wars on our own soil for the last hundred years, we have not been spared from violence.  Calamity may fall upon an individual just as it does upon a nation or a people. 

At 4:48pm on Tuesday, February 19, 2014, a ten-year-old girl named Hailey Owens was walking back home from a friend’s house.  She was grabbed off the street by an abductor who was captured by police less than four hours later. 

Too late.  Hailey, who looks a lot like one of my granddaughters, was dead. 

Neighbors witnessed the abduction, tried to intervene, and attempted to pursue the vehicle into which Hailey was dragged.  They weren’t able to stop what happened.  Craig Wood, a 45-year-old school employee, has been charged.  The details are too disheartening and gruesome for me to relate.  One of the local television stations has a page dedicated to the various elements of the story, including the community’s shock and heart-broken response. 

Tragedies can be big or small, major or minor, widespread or personal.  They are still tragedies, and, as Jesus said, they “will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.”  No one escapes trials and troubles, pain and suffering.  The innocent suffer with the guilty.  No one ever said it was going to be fair. 

It is hard to imagine how a young child could somehow deserve inhuman torture and murder simply on the basis of being born a fallen creature.  Good or bad thought patterns seem hardly adequate.  We mostly have to believe that justice, retribution, and rewards transcend our visible, physical lives.  I am deadly serious when I say that nobody would want to live in a world where people like me start embracing nihilism. 

Jesus calls us to endurance, to live and to stand despite all the boiling wickedness of the world, all the irrational injustice and vicious persecution. By your endurance you will gain your lives (Luke 21:19). And I have my doubts that He is talking about your life here in the material world.  He speaks of persevering to gain eternal life, His kind of life – abundant and everlasting. 

The unfathomable part:  that life is available to both persecuted and persecutor, oppressed and oppressor, victim and victimizer.  There stands the strait gate and the path beyond, frightening in how little room it offers, what it demands we leave behind in order to pass through.  It’s time to choose. 

Here comes the Judge.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Whose Life

Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies' land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. -- Leviticus 26:34

The land of Canaan is the life of Christ, full and abundant.  As we can discern from numerous passages like the one above, it is not life after death, heaven as we often think of it, or a carefree paradise.  We can enter His rest, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, right now from wherever we may find ourselves.  It does take faith and courage to enter this rest, and, once we are there, we have to continue to walk with and in the Lord, surrendered and trusting.

The Lord warned the Israelites against exploiting their Promised Land for their own material enrichment.  It would be possible for them to do that, just as it is possible for us today to abuse the grace of God and misuse our faith for self-gratification.  The temptation of Simon Magus lies before some, but the majority are merely entranced by the attractions of Mammon. 

Every seventh year the land was supposed to be allowed to lie fallow.  As time went on, the inhabitants were more and more likely to ignore this statute.  How could they be expected, they would argue, to survive until the harvest of the following year if they skipped a year of planting?  More importantly, perhaps, how were they supposed to “get ahead”?  The Sabbath year meant that every eighth year was more or less starting all over from scratch.  Even if their grain and produce lasted through, they would be living on the edge of poverty and starvation on a regular basis.

But the Lord had said that He would bless the harvest of the sixth year such that it would keep His people in plenty through three full years.  God promised to take care of them – if they would adhere to this covenant and allow the land to rest.  They failed.  To give the land its Sabbaths, the Lord tore down Israel’s hedge of protection, allowing their enemies to carry them into captivity for seventy years.  You can read of the fulfillment in Jeremiah 29.

It’s a dichotomy that has caused me – and possibly others – a great deal of trouble.  We must fight, but we must not fight in our own strength.  We must do works, but we must do them resting in faith.  So what do You want me to do, Lord?  Fight or surrender?  Work or rest?  I’m so confused. 

And I will be confused so long as I think it’s about me.  For those Israelites, it was about the land, a land God loved.  He wanted caretakers for His land.  His people were those He called, appointed and empowered to manage Canaan that it might prosper, be fruitful, rich, and beautiful.

We have an advantage in that we abide in Christ, resting always in Him.  We have seasons of fruitfulness and seasons where we lie barren.  That’s as it should be.  We shouldn’t try to produce out of season or when the Husbandman has called for a break.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wee Camels

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.  Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?”  But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” – Luke 18:23-27   

And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. … So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. … And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:2-10

Zacchaeus was a wee, little man -- wee enough, apparently that, had he been a camel, he could have passed through the eye of a needle.  He was a rich man who entered the kingdom of God. 

This is something I tend to forget in reading the Bible.  It’s telling a bigger story than whatever verses, passages or phrases might light up in Pneuma-neon as we are reading.  The story of the rich young man who was one of the rulers of the synagogue is a familiar one.  He rejected the call to sell his goods, though he was clearly an honest, decent, moral man.  He was, indeed, a better man by almost any standard than the dwarfish, conniving tax-collector, Zacchaeus.   

Both the sinful taxman and the righteous ruler deliberately sought out Jesus to follow Him.  I suspect that the rich ruler expected to be commended and praised by the Lord for his good conduct and holiness.  We know that the rich sinner hoped only to be able to see the Lord’s face, never expecting that he would be graced by the presence of the Master in his house. 

Another difference between the two men is their reaction to the words of Jesus.  One became sad.  The other responded with great joy.  One turned away and rejected the call.  The other made a generous offer of charity and recompense without, as far as we know, being asked.  As Jesus said elsewhere, the one who is forgiven much might be expected to love more than the one who is forgiven little.   

The grace of God allows even the worst of us to go from bondage to liberty, from hopelessness to new life.  There are those who hope in themselves, convinced that they are as good as humans can be, and better than most people.  The self-righteous do not grasp at straws or long for a glimmer of hope.  They think that if they feel dead and empty it is perhaps only a temporary unease that can be remedied by a little more religion, a little more walking the line. 

We say that Jesus gives hope to the hopeless.  What happens if we are not hopeless?  Only empty vessels can be filled. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Man on the Ground: In Which I Speculate Wildly

The earliest result of thought is the recognition of an individual object as such, that is to say as distinguished and marked off from the mass of its surroundings. No doubt the first impression produced Upon the nascent intelligence of an infant is that of a confused whole. It requires much exercise of thought to distinguish this whole into its parts. The completeness of the recognition of an individual object is announced by attaching a name to it. Hence even an individual name, or singular term, implies thought or comparison. Before the child can attach a meaning to the word 'mother,' which to it is a singular term, it must have distinguished between the set of impressions produced in it by one object from those which are produced in it by others. Thus, when Vergil says Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem, [begin, little boy, to recognize your mother with a smile] he is exhorting the beatific infant to the exercise of the faculty of comparison.  Deductive Logic, St George Stock

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”  So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.  The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.  So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.  And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. – Genesis 2:18-22

I’m still trying to catch up with everything so I’m not really going to expand on the idea too much.  I started reading this old book on deductive logic and was struck by how we understand the functioning of human thought.  When you think about being able to think about thinking, it’s pretty amazing. 

With the words of Mr. Stock in mind, consider what it means that man was alone and “out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast … and every bird”.   According chapter one of Genesis, animals were created before Adam.  Here, God seems to have Man by himself to begin with and creates the birds and beasts looking for one to be a companion to him. 

God would see His creation as one.  Everything is part of everything else, each piece being dependent on all the other pieces to exist.  The universe, like the human body, has a diversity of parts none of which would make sense or be alive in a healthy way apart from the whole.  Could Man then be God’s “discerner”, His “discriminator”, His agent “on the ground”?  Many years ago, we had an issue at our site in Madison, Wisconsin.  One of my colleagues called and was discussing it with me.  I told him that the boss wanted me to drive up and spend a couple of days there.  In his Rhode Island accent, he replied, “Yeah, that’s what we need.  A man on the ground.  Get a feel for the situation.  Smell the Hormel factory.  

As Bob has said, the infant initially comprehends only the breast.  It is as we develop space and perspective and are able to separate that we become the man on the ground able to break the whole into parts that we can then put back into the whole -- perhaps a new and unique whole.  

 From God’s perspective, it is all good.  To the man on the ground, some things are better than others.  If we allow for free will and process, is it possible that God is allowing us through prayer to not only know His will and be empowered to obey, but to have input into what is going to be brought “out of the ground”.  As we are trying to figure out how the universe works, are we really looking for the way it ought to work? 

I'm just asking.  I don't know; we probably can't know.  Yet there has always seemed to me to be a sort of weight to the words that whatever man decided to call a living creature, "that was its name".  Could it be that part of our purpose is to be involved in the calling forth of creation? 

Monday, February 24, 2014


My time off ended on a sour note.  All of Friday night and Saturday were spent in the hospital.  Had to take my wife to the ER because she was scaring me.  Turns out to be (probably) viral meningitis.

That's a reassuring diagnosis compared to thinking at least one of us had completely lost our minds.  I hate to say this, but I was almost happy when I had an objective third party confirm they could not understand her.  I never suspected that incoherence was a symptom of meningitis.

Anyway, though I am back at work, I'm still not back on schedule.  I'll be pulling double shifts until the doctors release her from the hospital.  I can usually handle everything by myself, but this is one of the times it would be nice to have younger family members available to sit around with her during the day while I get some work done and spell me at night.  We used to have relationships at church that would result in visits to occupy the time in situations like this.  Not these days.  Everything gets done on Fakebook.  The closest pastor I would bother to call is seven hours away.  We do have an old friend who lives a few blocks from the hospital, but she is in her eighties and recently had to give up her big red Buick.

Being a loner is great ninety-nine percent of the time.  The other one percent or so can be unhandy. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

William Law on Chanting Psalms

YOU have seen, in the foregoing chapter, what means and methods you are to use, to raise and improve your devotion; how early you are to begin your prayers, and what is to be the subject of your first devotions in the morning.

There is one thing still remaining, that you must be required to observe, not only as fit and proper to be done, but as such as cannot be neglected without great prejudice to your devotions: and that is to begin all your prayers with a psalm.

This is so right, is so beneficial to devotion, has so much effect upon our hearts, that it may be insisted upon as a common rule for all persons.

I do not mean, that you should read over a psalm, but that you should chant or sing one of those psalms, which we commonly call the reading psalms. For singing is as much the proper use of a psalm as devout supplication is the proper use of a form of prayer; and a psalm only read is very much like a prayer that is only looked over.

Now the method of chanting a psalm, such as is used in the colleges, in the universities, and in some churches, is such as all persons are capable of. The change of the voice in thus chanting of a psalm is so small and natural, that everybody is able to do it, and yet sufficient to raise and keep up the gladness of our hearts.

You are, therefore, to consider this chanting of a psalm as a necessary beginning of your devotions, as something that is to awaken all that is good and holy within you, that is to call your spirits to their proper duty, to set you in your best posture towards heaven, and tune all the powers of your soul to worship and adoration.

For there is nothing that so clears a way for your prayers, nothing that so disperses dulness of heart, nothing that so purifies the soul from poor and little passions, nothing that so opens heaven, or carries your heart so near it, as these songs of praise.

They create a sense and delight in God, they awaken holy desires, they teach you how to ask, and they prevail with God to give. They kindle a holy flame, they turn your heart into an altar, your prayers into incense, and carry them as a sweet-smelling savour to the throne of grace.

The difference between singing and reading a psalm will easily be understood, if you consider the difference between reading and singing a common song that you like. Whilst you only read it, you only like it, and that is all; but as soon as you sing it, then you enjoy it, you feel the delight of it; it has got hold of you, your passions keep pace with it, and you feel the same spirit within you that seems to be in the words.

If you were to tell a person that has such a song, that he need not sing it, that it was sufficient to peruse it, he would wonder what you meant; and would think you as absurd as if you were to tell him that he should only look at his food, to see whether it was good, but need not eat it: for a song of praise not sung, is very like any other good thing not made use of.

 -- from Chapter 15 of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law

Psalms are songs.  They may be strange to our western sense of music, especially if one has a miserable voice and a tin ear as I do.  Still, even I can chant.  Imagine Lou Reed doing Psalm 23 instead of "Walk on the Wild Side".  I may not be able to carry a tune, but I can get in tune, which is the purpose.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Poem by Yeats


I thought no more was
Youth to prolong 
Than dumb-bell and foil 
To keep the body young. 
Oh, who could have 
That the heart grows old?

Though I have many 
What woman's satisfied, 
I am no longer faint 
Because at her side? 
Oh, who could have 
That the heart grows old?

I have not lost desire 
But the heart that I had, 
I thought 'twould burn my 
Laid on the death-bed. 
But who could have 
That the heart grows old?

-- W.B. Yeats from his collection, The Wild Swans at Coole