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

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Friday, October 31, 2014

Too Far To Turn Back

My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors! – Psalm 31:15

My good friend with whom I share a given name is a pastor.  When we were younger, and I needed a job, I would send out resumes and have job interviews.  Whenever he needed to know if he needed a new pastorate, he would pray, “Our times, Lord, are in Your hands.  Choose for us our changes.  To some extent, I learned to do the same thing, to put my time into the hands of God.  While my friend is certainly a better man than I am, he isn’t perfect.  He’s missed the will of God a time or two.  He ran from a stressful situation when, it seemed to me, he should have stayed.  Once or twice he might have let his ego get the better of him and become discontented with his lot.  It’s all minor stuff.  Nothing big or really bad like what David did.  On the other hand, it is probably best not to delve too deeply into some of my past antics. 

Regardless of degree or extent, most of us have brought suffering upon ourselves and can relate to David’s lament in Psalm 31.  I had a man ask me one time how I had gotten myself into such a mess.  I replied without any hesitation, “I was stupid.”  He said, “At least you’re honest.”  It didn’t really make me feel all that much better. 

When we get into that kind of a situation, it’s hard to ask God to save us because of our righteousness, is it not?  We have to ask instead that He rescue us by His righteousness (Psalm 31:1).  The thing that is hard to believe is that He will do that.  If you doubt it, there is the Cross with the bleeding God-Man nailed to die. 

Sorrows are part of life.  Whether the straits we find ourselves in are of our own making or not, we ought to put the course of our life into the hands of God.  It’s the only sensible thing to do whether we came to our distress by lack of faith and obedience or because of our faith and obedience.  If it is the former, it is time to turn around.  If it is the latter, we have come too far to turn back now.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

From Useless to Useful

[B]ut I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.  -- Philemon 1:14

There is not much virtue in our doing what we are obligated or compelled to do.  Jesus spoke of the Roman law that said a soldier could compel a civilian to carry his pack a mile.  At the mile marker, the bearer had a choice to put down the load or to carry it on to the next marker.  If he chooses to continue, the bearer has another choice, for he can go the extra mile out of defiance and pride, or out of a Christ-like love for the man whose pack he carries. 

It won’t look much different on the outside.  The soldier may not respond positively.  He may not care one way or the other.  He may be suspicious of the bearer’s motives.  The burden-bearer has no control over the other person’s reactions in the near term or over time.   

However, the person who is willing to be meek and whose genuine desire is to love others will find that he is moving away from self and toward truth.  Following Jesus means dying to self.  A defiant, arrogant person – such as I am naturally – has all kinds of trouble with meekness and humility, and even love.  A situation in which I am humbled to some degree is an opportunity to embrace the character of Christ by faith and hamstring the old nature. 

The story of Paul’s letter to Philemon began when a slave named Onesimus – the name means “useful” – ran away from his master, Philemon, thereby becoming “useless”.  Paul himself makes the wordplay on the name in verse eleven.  Somehow, Onesimus came into contact with Paul and became a Christian.  Paul is sending the letter to Philemon by the hand of this runaway.  I could wish we had recorded for our edification the contents of the conversation between Paul and Onesimus in which the latter was convinced to return to his master. 

Both men must face the challenge of putting down the old nature and responding in Christ to one another.  Philemon has been wronged.  We have Paul’s testimony of his Christian character.  He is unlikely to have been harsh or unreasonable with his servant.  Onesimus was likely discontented and rebellious.  Perhaps he fled because he had stolen from his master.  It reminds me a little of how Jean Valjean’s theft of silverware from the virtuous Bishop Myriel transformed his life in Les Miserables. 

The one who has done the wrong and the one who was wronged, now being brothers in Christ, must be reconciled to one another, putting the old relationship and the old way of interacting into the past.  They will go back to being master and slave in one sense.  However, Onesimus will now be acting and serving out of the love of Christ for his master, and Philemon will receive the service and respond in turn more as a father to his once-wayward son. 

I am not capable of understanding all the theological concepts involved.  Concretely and pragmatically, I know that Jesus has set the example and provided me with the power to live and act in accordance with God’s will and purpose.  If free will is not a reality then all of Christianity is a cosmic joke.  Virtue, obedience, and goodness do not really exist for us. 

But we know they do exist, and that acting out of love is the path to heaven, rough at times, always strait and narrow, sometimes with precipices on either side, but always true, and, however winding, always carrying us nearer to the heart of God.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

In Not Of

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. – Galatians 5:25-26

My wife had to go in for a minor outpatient surgical procedure yesterday.  Everything went well.  They’ll do a biopsy, but there doesn’t appear to be any malignancy.  She got through it OK despite having to have general anesthesia.  We went in about 8:00AM and were finally home about 3:00PM.  I hate waiting rooms. 

Thus my schedule and routine are all messed up this week.  I am such a creature of habit.  I get up, make coffee, feed the critters, let my phone alarm go off, hook it to the charger, start my computer, read a few verses, then read the news feed and the Bleat.  If I get that done, the rest of the day can take whatever course it likes, and I’ve at least got my anchor set.

Paul’s accusation against the Galatians was that, though they had acknowledged Christ as their Savior through the Cross, they were trying to walk or operate on a daily basis from the dictates of the ceremonial law.  They were trying to substitute ordinances for genuine life in the Spirit.  Those who are more disciplined and more obsessive about details are better at establishing and maintaining habitual activities than some of the rest of us, which tends to feed their pride and our guilt and condemnation.

The people who could leave bacon alone might have felt superior to the Christians who succumbed to the temptation of fried side.  Those who observed the ritual washings of ceremony might have considered themselves purer and cleaner than those who came in from the barn, rinsed the worst off, said a brief blessing over the food, and laid into it.    

That’s one side of it.  The other side is that we are never going to successfully walk in the Spirit and bear the fruit of the Spirit without some degree of discipline.  We need prayer and meditation. 

I’ll be perfectly honest as regards myself:  I have no particular ambition to be a spiritual giant or to be named among the revered saints.  If I get through this life without thoroughly screwing up worse than I already have or causing more pain and suffering to others than I already have, I will be quite content.  I want the people around me to be as happy as possible until I’m gone.  I was never cut out or called to be in any kind of fulltime or “professional” ministry.  I only did what I had to do, and I have been rewarded for it many times over. 

Still, I do want to walk close to God.  As much as I enjoy making and seeing my family happy, at peace, and content, I also want to make my Father happy.  To do that begins with meditating upon the Person of Jesus, on His character, His words, His virtue.  It behooves me to think not on the earthly, the common, the profane, and the vulgar more than I must.  My hands are going to get dirty because I do have to walk in the world.  Meditating on .. whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable … is the way to become clean again, because I do not want to be of the world. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Political Thought

... while I'm trying to catch up on Things Goin' On. 

Thanks to the Bookworm Room.  Follow the link for more illustrations.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Seals and Reveals

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.  And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?  And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it – Revelation 5:1-3

The scroll, as Matthew Henry says, represents the secret purposes of God about to be revealed.  Even when the scroll is opened, everything is not disclosed at the same time.  I was, like a lot of American Protestants, taught a Dispensational view of Scripture.  The seven seals of this scroll would seem to align with such an interpretation.  God’s revelation of Himself has progressed, building -- to take Isaiah out of context, line upon line and precept upon precept.   

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that Dispensationalism is probably misguided, but I don’t worry about it much anymore either way.  I’ve adopted a sort of Pan-Tribulation approach.  We’re going to have some trouble, but it will all pan out in the end.

It seems to me that the important thing is that God wants to reveal Himself and His purposes, but His creatures tend to be intimidated or to misunderstand.  We are neither worthy nor willing to break the seals.  True prophets tend to be not volunteers but draftees.  It was only after he had confessed his “unclean lips” and been purged with fire that Isaiah had the nerve to say, “Here I am!  Send me.”  (Isaiah 6:8)  Moses tried to his best to avoid the job.  Jeremiah claimed he was too young.  Ezekiel just freaked out.  Amos would have happily gone back to picking figs and herding sheep.  Jonah ran, determined to get as far in the opposite direction as possible. 

It falls to the Anointed One (Hebrews 10:5-7):

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”

In Christ, all those things in God’s revelation, in the Law and the Prophets which were sealed and hidden are unveiled.  It would be nice, I suppose, to know what the future holds.  It’s enough of a draw to most people that some Christian writers and speakers are able to make a fair living off “prophecy” books and conferences.  Like John, we may be distraught that we cannot grasp these mysteries until we realize that all we have to do is look to the Cross and to the Crucified and Risen Lamb.

Our future and our destiny is in the Lord for …we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).  We struggle along in this world with all its deception and guile, but the Incarnation, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that truth exists and that it will be revealed to us as we are able to comprehend it, as we … grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Ephesians 4:15).  He is the Omega as well as the Alpha; the Word Incarnate, He has our future right here. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Jailer

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.  Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. – Luke 6:37-38

Fifty-seven words in this translation give us the basics of peace and prosperity and a happy, fulfilling life.  I don’t suppose a person even has to be a believer, though, if this life were all, the oatmeal would get watery at times, and it would be tougher to stay the course. 

If I want to be happy, the best thing to do is quit grabbing and snatching and, instead, make someone else happy.  Of course, being a true Scotsman, I went about learning this the other way.  Early in life I discovered that what I took from others was taken from me, that creating fear in others caused me to be afraid, that rejecting and mocking others led me to be rejected and ridiculed.  Well, I didn’t actually figure it out early.  It took many an encounter with the arrogant, the resentful, the cruel, and the ungrateful before my eyes were opened to the source of all the ugliness. 

Even when I found I was the problem, it was hard to start being the solution.  You have to sow that first crop in faith to get the seed for the next one.  I had sown so much meanness that the field was overgrown with the briars and brambles of bitterness.  I was going to have to be nice to people who were going to take advantage of my change of heart.  I was going to have to risk a lot of pain and loss before I ever started reaping kindness and understanding. 

At least that’s what I thought, and maybe it happened, but I don’t remember it.  That’s not to say that I don’t remember a few incidents with a few individuals, but there was the grace of God.  It was all around me, all the time.  Looking back, I know that I was around a lot of really bad, even dangerous people and situations for quite a while, but I remember it as being almost blissful.  Sometimes I feel a certain amount of nostalgia for those days.  There was just so much grace.  It was like getting thrown off a building and finding out you could fly. 

Still, it is a lesson I lose to some degree from time to time.  It must be practiced constantly.  The good news is that there are always plenty of opportunities to get back on track, to measure out to others the things I would want for myself.  I can listen without criticism, speak without cynicism, and advise without condescension.  I can apologize sometimes even when I know I’m not wrong.  I can take the hit I don’t have coming, turn the cheek and carry someone’s load a mile that I don’t have to. 

One more thing about forgiveness is that you can say, and Wuest’s Expanded Translation does say:  Be setting free, and you shall be set free.  Forgiveness is freedom. 

If you’ve ever seen Rio Bravo … Angie Dickinson …  What was I talking about?  Oh, yeah, John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, and Ricky Nelson are holding Claude Akins in jail until the judge comes to town so Ol’ Claude can be tried for murder.  But, Claude’s rich and ruthless brother and his small army of henchmen are going to try to break Claude out.   So it happens that the good guys holding the prisoner are about as much prisoners as the criminal. 

You can’t keep a prisoner without a jailer.  If you don’t want to do that job, you have to let the prisoner go.  Unlike the case in Rio Bravo, the Judge is always in town fully aware of whatever crime or trespass has been committed, knows all the circumstances, and has all the evidence.  He will see that justice is done.  We don’t have to worry about it.  We are, by refusing to release the prisoner, keeping ourselves in bondage needlessly and preventing our own trespasses from being pardoned.