Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Scabs

For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.
- Job 5:18








Funerals are curious events. In the best of situations, they are celebrations of a beautiful life well lived, now concluded. In the worst, they are full of mourning for a life of regret with no further opportunity for redemption. In most cases, they are some combination of the two. I have never known a life lived without regret. And I have never known a life that was completely void of beauty. But the one thing all concluded lives have in common is that they inhabit the past.

The past is a monstrous thing. It has its own gravity. And it is ridiculously difficult to escape. I say "ridiculously" difficult because it seems that the past is by definition something that should fall behind us as we move through life. The human race however, has the disturbingly beautiful gift of memory. We are keepers of moments adrift on a sea of time, capable of somehow capturing time and carrying it with us as we move through it.

I can only believe this is part of what God created us to be. Over and over we are called to remember in the scriptures. Do this in remembrance of me," says Jesus at the Passover meal before his crucifixion. God says to his people, "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there." Sadly, even this seems damaged by the Fall. Our memories last only until death comes to take them from us. Then we ourselves return to dust, held in the memory of Christ who knows all and forgets none who are his, one day to be fully reborn in the world unbroken.

In the meantime, I carry a broken past with me. It is full of snakes and dead things. There is much beauty too, but never without evidence of the rot and ruin folded into this world. And that brings me back to funerals... and scabs.

I shook the hand of a former friend who hurt me deeply at the funeral of a friend. The memories of the wounds he inflicted boiled to the front of my mind, but I tried to ignore them. In spite of my best efforts, it was only a short time before all those memories were screaming for me to pull them out and play with them.

Memories are like scabs in that way. They're fine as long as you forget about them. As soon as they come to mind, you are beset with the irresistible urge to pick at them. So I did. We delighted together for a while; they for the attention, and I for the self-gratification. Then they began to bleed. By the time I left them alone it was too late. They were swollen and painful and I was left to clean up the mess. I should have ignored them.

It's hard to remember that scabs and memories are intended to help the healing process. They harden and protect the soft layer of skin regenerating below. Picking at them only makes things worse. It lengthens the healing process and makes the scars uglier. They will soften and fall away in their own time if left to God's timing. Scabs. Memories. Even this life itself. And some day the healing will be complete.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sign of Jonah

But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Mat 12:39-40 ESV

“If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you would go to heaven?”

Silence rumbled like the shock waves of a sucker punch up and down the twin rows of mahogany ribs dividing the church sanctuary. Neatly starched and suited men sat politely next to their primly decorated women and stared awkwardly at the floor as matching children squirmed in dress shoes examining the corners of the ceiling. All the while, the eyes of the preacher canvassed the room from behind his oaken bulwark with expectation and a hint of something like predatory hunger.

“If you’re not sure tonight, please raise your hand”

And there sat I again, hand raised alone amidst “the saved, the sure and the serving,” wondering whether it was faith, apathy or ignorance that gave everyone but me such confidence

“If you want to be sure, pray this prayer with me tonight…”

One more prayer, followed by the pastoral reassurance that I could now magically “know for certain” that I was going to heaven. Why? Because I was “obedient to God” in doing what the man waving the heavy leather textbook told me to do. But what about the man-in-black down the street with the crisp white collar? He had some slightly different ideas of what it meant to be obedient to God. How about the kind young gentlemen with white shirts and bicycles? Or the bearded man across town in the building topped with soft-serve? Or the man with the graphing calculator and the cosmic chip on his shoulder? Everyone seemed to have an opinion about this whole heaven thing.

Heavens abound, with vast catalogs of images to translate their Elysian beauty and indescribable splendor into the all-too-describable banalities of this world. And while opinions vary, the general consensus is that all other roads lead to Hell, or Rome depending on how you slice your eschatological pie.

Every religious system has its own apologetics, evidences and experiences to validate its individual beliefs. According to my own investigation Christianity, properly and humbly understood, is easily the most satisfying intellectually and spiritually. However, while some belief systems perform better than others, all require the engine of faith. Without that engine, even Christianity goes nowhere. In the absence of faith, we are left with only the rigid skeletal remains of religion. Religion is dead, and dead stuff stinks.

And the grand smelly truth is that the atheists have a point. It is impossible to know anything about subjects like God and heaven “for sure” according to the modern concept of knowing. Knowledge requires fact, fact requires demonstrable proof and the only thing demonstrable about heaven is that people are just dying to get in.

Faith is the anima of Christianity. And faith, simply put, is trust. Practicing faith is practicing trust in the God who created the universe, called himself our Father, came to live among us and subjected himself to the curse of death which we brought upon ourselves, so that we could be free from its fear and power. It is not a summation of facts. It is a call to trust in the character of a God who reveals himself in Christ to be the essence of selfless love.

To those who proclaim or insist on some indisputable fact or irrefutable sign, God offers only the sign of Jonah. This sign also must be accepted on faith and stands only on the evidence of the gospels and the truth inherent in the words and actions of Christ. It is a truth that can only be “known” by faith, by the willingness to believe in something so ridiculously crazy that it could only be true: that God loves us so much, he would suffer and die for the freedom of those who murdered him. That because of such scandalous love, he can be trusted.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Love and Glory

No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.
John 1:18 NAS

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…
Heb 1:1-3 NAS

I hear much about God’s glory. Worship music revolves around it. We “give” it to God in public prayer. Pulpits abound with preachers zealously proclaiming it, defending it, demanding it and lamenting the loss of it. Still, in spite of all the noise, I think some people have little idea what they’re talking about. From the way certain people speak about God, it is understandable that others leave the church with an impression of God as petty, self-centered, egomaniacal, an attention-seeking infant with self-esteem issues.

I cringe every time I hear the phrase, “God’s primary concern is His own glory.” I hear it a lot. I hear it from people I know and love, people who love Jesus very much. They want to lift God’s name high and defend it all costs. They don’t seem to understand that God doesn’t need to be defended. I think they fail to realize they are lifting Him out of the reach of the very people He came to deliver. In the words of Rich Mullins from the Lufkin, Texas concert before his death, “They’re not bad, they’re just wrong.”

A being primarily concerned with his own glory would never descend to this rat-hole of a world. And he certainly wouldn’t die for the rats. Honestly, he would probably torch the whole damned thing. He might possibly be convinced, out of a narcissistic desire for praise - and all that nagging - to leave cracked the door to the heavenly servants’ quarters. Even then, however, I think he would station Saint Peter nearby with instructions to weed out the riff-raff. And the bad singers.

The book of Hebrews says that Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature. In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. He came to be a servant (Mat 20:28). He was homeless (Mat 8:20). He was spit upon, beaten and mocked (Mar 14:65). He was crucified for our sin (Gal 3:13, Isa 53:5). He never acted for his own glory. Everything he did and said was for the deliverance and redemption of humanity; and of course, for the glory of the Father (Joh 7:18). Such a deliverance could do nothing less than bring glory to the Father because it displays the greatest love imaginable (Joh 15:13).

Genuine selfless love, fully understood and accepted, always results in praise from the beloved. But assuming praise and glory to be God’s primary goal misses the focus of Jesus’ every word and action, denies the very selflessness in which he was glorified. You see, it is His love that makes Him glorious. The pursuit of glory could never make him love.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cicadian Rhythm

The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.
Zephaniah 3:17 ESV


Once a year, in the hazy humidity of late summer, the cicadas begin their singing. Endless rising and falling rhythmically in pitch from morning until evening, their song is a constant presence in the months of July and August.

Cicadas aren't like crickets. They don't rub legs or wings together to make their music. What they do is not entirely unlike singing. Rapidly constricting muscles in their abdomen, cicadas rattle a set of stiffened membranes, called tymbals, at speeds up to 50 times per second. The clicking of the tymbal membrane is then amplified by the cicada’s largely hollow abdomen which functions as a resonance chamber. They move their abdomens toward and away from the tree to create the characteristic modulation (wheeee-whaaaa) in their song.

An interesting observation about humans however, is that we often "tune out" the cicada’s music. The sound is so constant that our brains learn to filter out their familiar drone as we focus on the sounds of everyday life.

One of the more beautiful things scripture says is that God sings over us. His presence is always with us. That's an amazing and wonderful thought. However, I think we often lose touch with God's voice in the same way we tune out the cicada. We get used to the fact that God is always there. The other, less constant things in our lives catch our attention and distract us. The “noise” of those many things can drown out God's song in our hearts making him seem far away, if there at all.

But he is there. Always there. Always singing. Always holding our noisy lives in his hand and singing his love song softly into our hearts. The question is... Are we really listening?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Orbit

God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good.
Genesis 1:16-18 NASB

The night sky is an amazing illustration of God's creative nature. Millions of stars scattered across the darkness as if God had stood in the dust of the earth and flung them by handfuls into the void. Look at them through a telescope and you will discover that what you thought were millions, are really billions upon billions of stars, swirling in galaxies, birthing in nebulae and sometimes dying in great explosions of glorious light. Each one the center of its own solar system, perhaps similar to ours.

The planets of our own solar system dance a magnificent waltz with the sun. Like suitors twirling and spinning around the radiant mistress of the ball, they move to the glorious rhythm of time, orchestrated by the Grand Musician of the universe and bound together by the unwavering pull gravity.

Love is like gravity. It is the love of God that holds all of us in his grip, drawing us ever closer to himself. Our often chaotic lives revolve around that love. Some in vast wobbling, whirling arcs far from the constant, pulsing heart of Christ. Others following orbits that pass so close to his consuming fire it is almost unbearable, destroying even as it gives life. And that is our final rest, swallowed in the fierce love of God that must offer death before offering resurrection.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Demoniac

Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.
Mar 5:5 ESV






We are told very little about the lives of so many of the people Jesus encountered in the Gospels. Only rarely are we even given their names. Their lives before and after meeting Christ are shrouded in mystery. Sometimes I wonder about their stories in the years that followed...

He hardly notices the smell of pig manure that saturates his clothing as he makes his way slowly back to the servant quarters in the last remaining moments of dusk. After a meager serving of broth and stale bread, he retires to a thin layer of straw scattered loosely across the dirt floor.

Lying still in the darkness, he listens to the hushed voices of the other servants, soft and rasping like the whispers of the dead. His fingers travel absently along the smooth, jagged trails that zig-zag across the skin of his forearms. Matching scars trace their way like children’s scribbles across his legs and abdomen, the soles of his feet. He remembers the dreams of endless, tormented screams; waking hoarse to find they were his own.

His memories of those black hopeless days have faded with the dust of the passing years, but the face of the one who saved him from that living death burns bright in his mind. Jesus. Rarely does an evening pass - nights had always been the worst - without a prayer of gratitude rising to that name. The wounds that had so long betrayed the darkness of his misery now tell a story of hope, of fear driven into exile by the love of God. Once more he closes his eyes in peace, thanking God for the scars that declare his freedom.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Unconditional

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:6-8 NAS

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
1 John 4:10 NRS


Some time ago, I had a conversation about God’s love and grace with a professor at the seminary I was attending. I shared with him what I felt to be the most important message everyone needs to hear: that God loves them unconditionally. His response puzzled me.

“Scripture never uses the word unconditional to describe God’s love.”

I carefully considered his words. I examined the scriptures. He was right. The word unconditional is never used to describe God’s love. In fact, the word is not found anywhere in any English translation of the Bible I’ve encountered.

That is not to say, however, that the concept of unconditional love is not to be found in the Bible. In fact, it seems to me that the unconditional love of God is the overwhelming message of the cross. Consider The Parable of the Tenants (Mk 12:1-9). In this parable, the tenants kill the King’s own son and what does the parable say the King will do? He will kill the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Now, this was directly aimed at the Jewish leaders, “the chief priests, the scribes and the elders” (Mk 11:27) who were attempting to manipulate Jesus and would later play a primary role in his death. However, very few theologians would say that only the Jewish leaders bore the guilt of Jesus’ death on the cross. All humanity bears that guilt, and so all humanity deserves the punishment described here. In that way, this parable applies to all of us “wicked tenants”.

In Christ, God turns this parable upside down. He does indeed give the Kingdom to others. However, rather than narrowing the gates of the Kingdom he flings them wide open to all who would trust him (Jo 3:16), offending the Jewish leaders but not excluding them per se. In further contrast to the king in the parable, he does not kill those who killed his son. Instead, he offers life, mercy and redemption to his murderers through the very death by which they judged his son.

1 John 4:10 tells us that God loved us even when we didn’t love Him. Paul says, in Romans 5:8, that Christ died for the ungodly, the sinners… those who didn’t love Him, or gave no indication of it from their behavior. You see, God’s love is unconditional. He doesn’t wait for us to “be good” before he loves us. He doesn’t even wait for us to accept Christ before He loves us. He loves us before we love him. And in the lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Re 13:8), he loved all humanity before we were even created. How’s that for unconditional love?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Suffering and Love

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:2-4 ESV

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.
1Co 4:9 ESV

“I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

These are the words of a poor Jewish dairyman named Tevye in the 1971 movie Fiddler on the Roof after being told there is to be a pogrom (a mass persecution) of the Jewish people in his village. Is it not enough that he is poor? Is it not enough that his village is run by people who despise his faith? Is it not enough?

You don’t have to be Jewish to identify with these words. Is it not enough that God is invisible and untouchable? Is it not enough that the world is drowning in suffering? Is it not enough that the only thing we have is faith and those who have it in greatest abundance receive only greater misery this side of eternity? (Hebrews 11:36-40)

C. S. Lewis wrote that “pain is [God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Unfortunately, as we approach God, we find ourselves closer to the business end of that loudspeaker. Dear God, why in Heaven’s name must everyone You love end up on a cross?

Perhaps it is because God is love and the cost of love is always suffering for the beloved. Becoming one with Him, like Him in love, our inheritance includes the suffering as well as the joy of love. Without the one, there is no comprehension of the other.

I wish I had some profound answer, something beyond the trite clich├ęs of pop Christianity, some cosmic band-aid that could make the pain go away. Sadly, there isn’t one. There is only the kiss of a Heavenly Father received in faith that can occasionally drown out the pain with the sweetness and peace of love as he whispers tenderly in our ear, “my child, it simply must be.”

Authentic Love...

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
1 John 4:7-8 ESV

Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."
John 4:13-14 ESV

Love. We are beggars, borrowers, barters, martyrs and thieves for it. The more valuable for its scarcity, it is imitated, simulated and counterfeited for the masses. We gorge ourselves on substitutes, emptier in the end than at the beginning. Like the Emperor and his new clothes, we flaunt our parodies in the streets with wondrous pomp and ceremony, unaware that we are parading only our own nakedness and need. And once our counterfeits have run their course and lost their luster, we realize they were never anything more than lies, plastic and paper doll clothing. Yet in our addiction, the emptiness screams its lust to feed again.

The great sadness is that we are beggars by choice, not by necessity. In the fourth chapter of the book of John, Jesus encounters the woman at the well. He asks her for a drink of water. Surprised by his forwardness as a Jewish man to a Samaritan woman, she dodges the question. Jesus responds, “If you had known who you were talking to, you would have asked me, and I would have given you living water.” You know, the kind of water that makes a person never thirst again. Jesus goes on to say that the water he gives will become “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The water Jesus offered was the love of God. Real love. Consuming love. And it scares us to death. That kind of love doesn’t just meet your need, it transforms you. It wells up inside you until it overflows, spilling awkwardly all over the floor and into other people’s shoes. He didn’t say it can or might or should, but that it just does.

Give us our lust. Our romantic affectation. Our self-confidence. Our politeness and disinterested affection. Give us even the religious devotion and discipline to invoke and maintain God’s love and acceptance in Christ by our good behavior. But keep your scandalous, scary, uncontrollable, unmanageable, unreasonable and invasive love that says “to hell with your respectable self-image and practical life management skills.” No self-respecting person behaves that way!

Exactly. That is the message of the cross. Love without respect for self. That is what we’re all dying for, and what he has given freely to all who will receive. True love.