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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Fable for Friday

The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.  -- Proverbs 16:9

There is so much that we can do, and we ought to do what we can.  Sometimes, though, we run up against our limits, both as individuals and as humanity it general.  Sometimes our plans are thwarted and our best, most diligent efforts come to naught.  It is almost a cliché anymore to “thank God for unanswered prayers”, but that’s because so many of us so frequently have no idea what we need, let alone what God has in mind for us. 

As we said a few days ago, some of the stuff that comes at us is meant to challenge, refine, and strengthen us.  God doesn’t want us to quit but to overcome.  Other times, He does want us to quit.  He’s taking something away that is hindering our development in His direction.  If God has burned a bridge, He may not want us to swim the river but to take a different road.  

I was never one to plan ahead much.  My life has been, as far as I was concerned, mostly just whatever was there to get done.  As haphazard as I am, I can see that something of a pattern and structure has emerged from what I thought was just random, scattered debris -- almost as if maybe there was a plan, and I kind of stumbled into it. 

The really weird part about it is that where I am is just about where I would have said, thirty or forty years ago, that I wanted to be.  However, I would never have imagined taking the route I took to get here.    

 Suppose you were abducted, blindfolded, and taken up in an airplane.  After an hour or two, a parachute is strapped to your back, the ripcord is placed in your hand, and you are shoved out the door.  Your chute opens successfully, you feel yourself floating down.  You haven't managed to get your blindfold off yet, and you brace for an impact that never comes.  Your chute hangs up in a tree.  You are uninjured.  You get the blindfold off only to find that it is a moonless, overcast night.  You have no idea where you are or even how much farther it is to the ground, but you decide to cut the lines.  You drop about six inches and start walking.  After three hours of trudging aimless through the woods, you see a light and head toward.  Suddenly things begin to seem oddly familiar, and when you finally get to the source of the light, you find that it is coming from your own kitchen window. 

That’s pretty much the story of my life.    

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Nowhere To Go But Up

There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. -- Job 3:17

This is a verse I quote quite often, especially when the issues of life become a more of a load than we think we can bear, and there seems to be no hint of a better day dawning.  We are going to have days like that.  It may take less to depress me than it does for those with a sunnier disposition, but most of us have wished, in one form or another, that we could just get it over with.

Job, of course, is speaking at the culmination of a series of events that robbed him of all his material wealth, his family, and his health.  Everything that we normally think is essential to happiness and hope had been taken from him.  It is hard to imagine how a person in that situation could keep from lamenting the apparent travesty of existence.  In verse 23, he asks, Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?

The light Job speaks of is, first and plainly, the light of our initial existence, coming out of the darkness of the womb in birth.  He wishes that he could have been stillborn that he might have moved from the darkness of the womb to the darkness of the tomb, with no intervening trouble, weariness, loss, or grief.  

Second, it is the light of human consciousness.  While animals, we know, may feel some form of grief and sadness, they do not experience it in the same way as a human.  Our suffering extends beyond the present, into both the past, as regret, and the future, as hopelessness.  Despair swallows hope like a black hole swallows light.  When we come to the point that there is no reason to go on, we naturally wonder why we still live.  It makes no sense.  A human life devoid of meaning and purpose cannot long be endured.  Many will find a false purpose, even if it is merely to satisfy an artificial craving or addiction. 

The third kind of light is revelation.  Why is a man who is hemmed in, unable to change himself or his circumstances given the light of the knowledge of God, the reality of God’s presence and of His goodness?  This is the most unbearable of all. It is this struggle with the goodness of God that occupies the central point in all of Job’s speeches and those of his friends.  There ought not be these kinds of calamities, this kind of pain and torment – if God is who He has told us He is.   

There is never a tidy answer.  Our suffering, we are told, serves a higher purpose.  Our lives are eternal, and we do go where the wicked cease from troubling.  We weary ones do get to rest.  No matter how unfair, unjust, hopeless, and excruciating our physical lives may turn out to be, this is not the end, and we cannot see the end. 

The grief may not fade away, but we find that we have One who comforts us.  We find hope in, if nothing else, His presence.  We find a purpose in doing His will – even if that is merely to get up one more time, to put one foot in front of the other and stick it out to the end.  They give out medals, the Medal of Honor to those who throw themselves on a hand grenade to save their comrades.  They ought to.  It is a sacrifice worthy of recognition and honor.  It is the mark of the brave and the noble.   

No one is going to give you a medal because you had no reason to go on, but kept going.  Yet, that is courage, too.  Faith looks out over the abyss, sees nothing but darkness and emptiness, and takes one more step. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Long Run

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.  But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

As Christians we are to practice disciplines.  Prayer, Scripture reading, giving, serving, worship, and fasting are all disciplines.  That is, they are meant to train us, to alter our worldview, to hone us as an athlete preparing to compete in an event or a soldier preparing for battle.  Again, we don’t do these things to win God’s favor or impress Him.  We do them so that we can meet the challenges of life, both our current physical existence and the great unknowns of the next life.    

Our efforts are not merely for their own sake.  We are not shadow-boxing.  Our disciplines have a purpose and a goal in furthering the expansion and development of the kingdom. 

The idea that we keep ourselves under control reflects what we referenced yesterday from Romans 8 where Paul talks about not owing anything to the flesh.  I look at my thoughts and my impulses, and I see clearly that some of these things are not of the Spirit.  Instead of making excuses for myself, I reject these things.  They are functions of the old nature which has been put to death.  I no longer own them, and the old man need no longer have any jurisdiction in my life, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). 

The race here is not between you and I.  We are not in competition with other Christians or with non-Christians to see who is going to get the glory on the world’s stage.  The race is between Adam and Christ.  Only one is going to win.  Only one is going to take the podium in my life or yours.  We can remain in Adam and defeat, or we can bring ourselves under the spiritual disciplines and run in Christ for the victory.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Beyond Doing Good

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.  Titus 3:4-7

One of my favorite songs is “Vigilante Man”.  I have the electric slide version by Nazareth as a ringtone.  I enjoy Ry Cooder’s acoustic slide cover as well. It was written by Woody Guthrie.  Guthrie was a talented songwriter and musician.  Back in the ‘70s, David Carradine played Guthrie in a fairly honest movie, Bound for Glory.  In my opinion, Guthrie was a despicable human being.  Despite being portrayed heroically in the film, it’s not hard to pick up on Guthrie’s attitude.  Sometimes he is described as being a socialist or communist.  He was probably more of a sociopath than a socialist.  Popularizing socialism was an easy way for Guthrie to further his own ends. 

The point is this:  Being good at what you do does not necessarily make you a good person. 

This seems obvious in the case of a truck driver, a mechanic, a farmer, an accountant, a software developer, or a car salesman.  But it is also the case with artists, actors, singers, poets, writers, CEOs, educators, judges, military personnel, preachers, police officers, and politicians.

I guess the corollary is that being a good person doesn’t mean we will be good at any given job. 

Consider some examples:  George Gordon Lord Byron was a great poet.  He was famously described by one of his many female conquests as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”  One of the “best” preachers I ever heard was a manipulative bully, wife-beater, and chronic adulterer.   I’ve heard Ricky Skaggs tell how Bill Monroe wrote and sang the Gospel but struggled to live it.  LaVerne Tripp sang and wrote gospel songs for the Blue Ridge Quartet in the early ‘70s while battling alcohol and drug addiction. 

Doing good cannot make us good.  The rich young ruler asked Jesus what he had to “do” to have eternal life.  Jesus had already answered his question when He responded, asking, “Why do you call Me good?  There is none good except God.”  The flesh can do and say things that are beneficial, truthful, and even inspirational.  I would even say that we can be inspired such that our efforts express God’s love, grace, beauty, and truth -- without being set free by that truth.

The confusing thing is that Jesus “went about doing good.”  Good deeds and good words flow from the good person.  Yet as long as we are trying to conform, trying to be penitent, trying to win God’s favor, trying to impress the people around us, etc., we are failing to understand, and we will fail to be delivered from the bondage of sin and self.  

 Romans 8:10 says, “Now if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is life because of righteousness.  "Christ in us" is not an accomplishment on our part but a result of grace, a fact which we accept by faith.  Some people get this and seem to run with it.  Others, like me, are slow.  I am yet only imperfectly grasping the truth that I can simply reject the flesh’s demands for satisfaction, attention, and glory.  I am not obligated to the flesh (Romans 8:12). 

The world, the flesh, and the devil are going to come around and tell us that Dewey Cheatum is a good person because of all the wonderful things he does -- his rousing oratorical skills, his soaring vision of a better world, the deep suffering he has endured for the sake of his nation, the sacrifices he has made to serve his neighbors, and how much he loves his family.  The truth is, though, that old Dewey is a wicked, conniving, self-serving little pervert from whom one should not buy a setting hen. 

Some people may say that this is the path of cynicism.  Then Jesus Himself was a cynic:  Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.  But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)

There are good people in the world.  There are people you can trust.  There are people who have serious flaws but are loyal friends.  We can and should forgive even those who betray us.  If some, though, betray us over and over again, if we catch them time after time in lies, if they remain unrepentant, remain defiant, it’s time to admit that we can have no confidence in them, and that no matter what their words and deeds, they are not good.    

Am I talking about one of my friends?  An unsavory business associate?  A cheating spouse?  Some political leader?  

No, actually, I'm talking about my self.  My flesh betrays me.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15).  Paul battled this same troubling entity.  He was delivered by grace, and we can be as well.  The Spirit is at work in each of us, and He is the one who gives us life.  We owe the old man nothing.  Pay no attention to his blathering and babbling.  I AM doesn't go on so much.  Be still and know I AM. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Envelope, Please

Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.  The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.” – Daniel 10:12-14

Through his study of the writings of the prophets before him, Daniel was given understanding of the times and of the deliverance of his people from exile to return to Jerusalem.  Even though it was prophesied, Daniel prayed, confessing his sins and the sins of his nation, and asking that God’s will might be done according to the revelation given. 

In the film, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence famously counters the fatalistic determinism of his Mohammedan allies by saying, “Nothing is written.”  God does have a will, and the Son has called us to pray that the will of the Father be done.  We cannot be fatalists for we are the instruments of the Divine will.  Lawrence’s statement goes to the other extreme, exalting the will of man and making him the measure of all things.  

 Man can do what he wants, but he cannot change the truth.  The will of God is the truth.  To ignore it or defy it is to be broken by it.  To align ourselves with truth and reality, we must take in the sails of our own desires, fears, emotions, and insecurities that the fickle winds of worldly thinking might not seize control of our lives to overthrow us and sink us in the depths or cast us shattered upon the rocks and reefs.   

From the moment Daniel began to pray, he was heard.  There is often opposition and resistance that must be broken down in order for an answer to reach us.  As was the case with Daniel, the answer is not always as much an immediate manifestation as a confirmation or assurance.  God tells us, “You’ve got it.”  For us, much of the time, what impedes this assurance is not “a prince of the kingdom”, some dark external power, but our guilt, our lack of faith, and the contrary desires of our own fleshly thinking. 

I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do to assist warring angels in their battles.  For our guilt, though, we have the justification of the Cross.  If we need faith, it comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.  As Daniel’s faith came from reading Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, our faith is quickened and fortified as we study the Scriptures.  Putting aside the obstacle of my own will can be the roughest and most trying part of prayer as it is often bulwarked with rationalizations, dread of loss, and pride.  The discipline of persistent prayer aids us in breaking through this last barrier from our side. 

One thing about persistent prayer where I think there is sometimes a misunderstanding -- at least, I had a misunderstanding:  importune intercession is not necessarily long.  When some people pray, they seem to be making a case with God.  When Jesus taught us to pray to our Father in heaven, He did not urge us to use many words or to plead exhaustively.  In the illustration Jesus gave us of the persistent widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18, the plaintiff simply says, “Give me justice against my adversary.”  She knew her rights.  She knew the law, but she didn’t spend an hour giving the details.  Sometimes, “Help!” is all we need to say. 

Also, we should not be confused by the translation of Matthew 6:7 from the King James Version:  But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do:  for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking.  

The ESV gives a clearer understanding:  And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Don’t be afraid to pray often and repeatedly for the same thing.  Our job is to ask God to do His will – which is always the right, lawful and good thing that is needed.  It is not to nag Him into doing what we want or to win a debate with Him and convince Him to change His mind. 

God is our Father and our Sovereign Lord.  If His will is done, we are happy.