The Skeptic

I don’t know why I come here.

The pews are hard.

No help for my aching back.

He often doesn’t speak loudly enough,

And I strain to catch the words.

He’s a small man, with a nervous laugh

that grates on my nerves.

I don’t know why I come.

His wife makes me nervous.

With gentle eyes that seem to see through me.

Today, I’ll escape early,

I won’t have to shake his hand.

It’s communion Sunday, again.

And I will not partake.

It’s morbid, anyway.

Drink my blood, eat my flesh…

makes my skin crawl

and they make it sound so…normal.

I really don’t know why I come.

The sermons are neatly organized, I’ll give him that.

But he can spend a half hour on a single verse

and act as if there were still more to wring from it.

It’s getting close.

Standing now, for prayer.

These old bones protest.

And my right foot is asleep again.

I’ll slip away now.

Back out into the sunlight.

Still wondering why I come.

It’s not for me, this religion.

Oh, I know He’s out there somewhere.

But this body and blood nonsense…

Too human, too personal.

Too much like me.

Under the trees, I pause to catch my breath.

It’s a lovely morning, I’ll give Him that.

Perhaps, if he’d heal these old painful joints,

I’d give Him more.

The air is suddenly chilly.

And I turn, as a shiver snakes down my spine.

Glance up to the steeple,

and nearly fall to the sidewalk.

The white church has turned a dark, oozing shade of red.

It’s dripping, running over the grass, staining my shoes.

Blood, like a river.

I close my eyes, and fear mingles with hope.

My heart beats like a heavy drum, loud in my ears.

But when my eyes open, it’s gone.

Just a little white church, washed in dappled sunlight.

Shuffling away, eyes straight ahead.

Shaking, but more alive then I’ve been in years.

I wonder why I came.

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Will Spring ever come?

( I’ve decided I want to post more frequently, and use some of the short pieces  I’ve never published. They are not necessarily in chronological order, so if I’m talking about fall and it’s spring outside, I’m not crazy, just lost in the time space continuum.)

March

March used to be a kinder lover.

Tho often sad, with steady tears flowing down her muddy cheeks.

She was always a moody mistress.

But now she’s grown cold and quiet.

Intent on burying me deep in a frost encrusted tomb.

The snow covered Pines hold their secrets close, and the white is waist-deep in the swamps.

Road ditches hide their treachery beneath her  flowing skirts.

I cannot begin to imagine boyhood dreams of fishing poles and songbirds.

Or an April that flirts with Summer.

Beneath this wet blanket I battle, and March only mocks me with frigid nights and dreary days.

For such a young thing, she feels old and cold.

Kinder once, she was, with breath wet and warm.

But her lips have frozen hard, their lightest touch sending shivers down my back.

And I can no longer love her ice cold heart.

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What did Jesus save us from? The reality of hell

This is passion week, when we are supposed to focus on Jesus’ last days and sacrifice for us. This post has been in the works for a long time. It’s hard to talk about hell, but isn’t it just as important to know what we are saved from as knowing how we are saved?

Jesus talked more about hell than any other person in the Bible. Does that shock you a little? It certainly surprised me. Isn’t Jesus all about love and forgiveness?

22As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. 23From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. 24And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

This passage from Isaiah contains both beautiful promises for Israel and her descendants and also dire warnings for God’s enemies. Jesus uses some of the same language about the undying worm when he speaks about hell.

Mark 9:43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:

48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

I’m going to quote several passages here. If you don’t want to read them all, you can skip to the commentary, but I want to emphasize that this wasn’t’ just a occasional theme in Jesus’ teaching.
Matt 7: 13 Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Matt 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matt 25:1-13  “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ “ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Luke 13:22-30 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’  “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

I could go on for several more pages of verses where Jesus talked about hell and judgment. I touched on this a bit in my last post, but it seems really odd to me when people say they love Jesus but don’t believe he would exclude anyone. Or that they don’t believe in hell because Jesus is all about forgiveness. Well, yes, he is about forgiveness, for those who ask, but these verses make it pretty plain that many will not ask and will be excluded from the Kingdom.

Hell makes us squirm, for a couple of reasons, I think. First, we know deep down that we don’t deserve paradise. We know we can be selfish and ugly and evil. But, hopefully it’s not just for ourselves that we dislike hell. We don’t want anyone we love to go there either. And thankfully, Jesus agrees. He is not willing that any should perish. At the same time, he warns us that many will. You might think of it this way: God is at least as merciful as you are and probably a lot more so. Would you pardon a mass murderer just because he confessed and repented? I don’t know that I would, but I’m convinced God would. I suspect there are a whole lot of people I’m not willing to die for. But Jesus died for every one of them. Whether they accept that is another question.

Think of the woman who was able to pity her molester. Doesn’t that leave you rather slack jawed with awe? I would at least want to beat him with a baseball bat. Only a little bit, of course. To say “Father forgive them.” while you are still hanging from the nails they pounded through your wrists? That is the heart of God.

The hell”, I can hear the skeptic saying. “If they don’t turn, he’s going to burn them!”

So, there’s the rub. You don’t like the fact that forgiveness has a condition? That we only get redemption at the price of what? Our pride of course. What else would you expect it to be? Pride is always the root of evil.

On the day you were born, you were looking for hope, you looked everywhere but the end of your rope.” (Chris Taylor)

Yep, there it is. That’s the condition. As long as we think we can fix it ourselves, we are doomed to reject God.

Only a miracle can keep you with us,” Taylor goes on. “and only pride can keep you out.”

You have to let it go. Every time we lay aside our pride and get humble, God is waiting to forgive us. Not some of the time, every time. Every time we hang on to our stubborn pride and willful arrogance, we trample his blood. It’s a condition but it’s a tiny one. Or a huge one, depending on your point of view. It’s only our ego, which is no problem to let go, unless it’s all we have. We tend to think our ego is us, but it isn’t really. It’s often the thing that limits us from moving forward.

Have you ever heard some say:

What the hell do I care?”

Can you see the irony? Because avoiding hell is all about caring. Caring enough about your soul to let go of all the garbage that stands between you and God. And when I write this stuff, I have to admit it’s not primarily for everyone else to read. It starts as my own therapy session, to get my head on straight. Giving in to God isn’t a one time deal. It’s that and more. A lot of Christian traditions, like the Orthodox, do not see salvation so much as a one time prayer as a lifestyle, because they view God as present in every aspect of life. And it’s true that you have to give up on your pride over and over again to have any kind of meaningful relationship with God.

If hell seems a little extreme to us, we probably aren’t taking evil very seriously, whether it’s our own evil or someone elses. I suppose we don’t really think our sin is all that bad, or that somehow God has not done enough to reveal himself to people. In other words, we judge him to be unfair. We secretly or blatantly wonder if he couldn’t just pardon everyone, with no conditions. Believe in everything or believe in nothing and still get paradise. That seems to be the universalist’s bottom line.

Do we want that? Really? Do we really think a non repentant Hitler could stand in the presence of God? That an unrepentant Charles Manson would even want to give worship to the Almighty? But of course, you’re not a Hitler or a Manson. You are just a normal sinner. Of course, Jesus says if you’ve thought it, it’s technically the same thing. Murder in the heart is just as bad, it’s just not acted out for one reason or another. Here’s the thing: if you refuse God’s love and pardon, I don’t think you would want to be in Glory. Because without love, we are just left with ego and selfish ambition. I don’t see how heaven can exist for the person who rejects such great love. Heaven would be hell for them. To be in the holy of holies and still hold onto your unholy pride? I think God’s presence would burn instead of soothe.

And of course, if you have any sense of justice, any iota of mercy for the victims of hate in this world, you would not want them to see the faces of their unrepentant tormentors forever. God separates the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, because they can’t grow together for eternity. There’s a time when it’s too late for a goat to become a sheep. That’s what this life is for. And there can actually be a great deal of comfort in knowing that evil will finally get it’s due. That you will no longer be at war with yourself and that we will “Shed the sins and sorrows we’ve carried all these years.” What a beautiful picture, this throwing off of all the weight that bows us down, all the struggles, all the sins that we still cling to. The tormentors become the tormented. That is justice, not hate. It’s not God being a bully, it’s him giving us exactly what we acted like we wanted. Hell isn’t so scary when viewed from this perspective. It’s the inevitable end to a story that starts with a dragon sneaking into Eden and stealing our innocence. For Eden to return, the dragon and all that have his heart must be banished. Only then is balance restored, justice served, and love can reign unhindered.

So, I’ve said all this and not really answered the question of what hell looks like. I’m not sure I’m qualified to give a total answer, but: Johnathan Edwards was convinced that hellfire had to be literal to hurt. But how could hell, being prepared for spirit beings, the devil and his angels, be literal fire? And wouldn’t fire just burn you up and that would be the end of it? The actual descriptions Jesus gives for hell vary a bit. A place outside of the wedding feast, a dark place, or a firely place or a place where the worm doesn’t die. A junk heap where fire always smokes and smolders. I think the most disturbing picture, if you really think about it, is that God is inside with the folks at the feast and you are outside, out of his presence. That might not sound so bad unless you realize that you have never been outside his presence anywhere on earth. Now, I know I already said that God is everywhere present. And there is some debate as to whether God can be truly absent from anyplace that exists. But, at the least, I think it’s safe to say that he removes all the good that results from his actions. On this earth, even the ungodly get cucumbers. (This is kind of a joke I have tossed around in discussions with those who believe Jesus only died for a pre chosen, elect few.) The response is usually that they still get the good things of this world, which is true as far as it goes. But to get fresh cucumbers once in awhile but not the chance to experience redemption is not much comfort. But, in hell, you don’t even get cucumbers. Or love or companionship or comfort or beauty. Or any of the things that make life worth living on this planet. Actual pain from flame that soon burns you up, might seem preferable, but those who see hell as annihilation are really stretching to get there. Maybe that could be a topic for another post. An inner pain of eternal grief over one’s foolishness is more likely the reality.

If you still have the nagging sensation that hell is unfair, perhaps you will consider this:

1John 1: This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

No darkness at all. No capacity for wickedness, or cruelty or for being unloving. When we decide to judge God for bringing justice to the world, we decide that God is in someway wicked and that we have the capacity to know better than him what is truly loving. A lot of people try to reinterpret or overlook Jesus’ teaching on hell. The irony is, they are doing exactly what the serpent did in the garden. “Did God really say…”

Would God really wipe out all of humanity because their imaginations were only evil all the time, as happened in Genesis? That’s what scripture says. And it shouldn’t in any way negate the pure, unselfish, merciful love of a God who would lay down his life for all of us. Can you imagine a world where every thought of everyone was always evil? When people flippantly accuse God’s judgment of being unfair, I wonder if they truly think about what kind of world that would be. We think we have seen evil, but never to that extent. We tend to think each generation is the most evil one yet. If you believe your Bible, you can’t logically think that way. Do you even know one person who is totally evil every moment of every day? I can’t say I do. And still, God gave the people an extra 120 years to repent before sending the flood. (at least that’s how I read that verse.) And he is staying his hand today to give people a chance to do the same.

There is a common theme today I see in a lot of blogs and writings, that God looks like Jesus. Always. And I agree, but some of the people who say that will also do their best to pull the teeth of the Lion of Judah. They would see him as never running out of patience and slaying the wicked, no matter what Revelations says. Or never teaching of hell, in spite of the fact that he talked about it more than anyone else in the Bible. If you find parts of the Book hard to understand, rest assured, there is no darkness in him. If he judges people unworthy, then they are past any chance for redemption. If he sends them to the pit, it’s not because he has a dark side, but that he knows their hearts and would protect his own from their corruption. He knows who has ultimately chosen to be fool and who has decided to be a sheep. If you can’t understand his ways, trust his heart. His heart is always good. Perhaps we should all take a moment this week to thank him for what he has saved us from.

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God, Scripture, and Guns. When is it “a time to kill?”

The purpose of this blog post, is the show from scripture that there is a time to kill. (Ecc. 3:3) With all the talk about guns lately, and the demonizing of gun owners by the media, I’ve decided to finally state my view.

But before I get there, I think we should make something plain. Not everybody is called to the same purpose. Some people are meant to be men or women of peace, and some are meant to physically fight against evil. But we are all called to put on the armor of God and fight the powers of darkness.

I like stories. I especially like parables, that illustrate important points. I recently re watched the movie “Solomon Kane” and that, along with conversations I’ve had with other believers, inspired this post. Since most people probably haven’t seen this movie, I should give some kind of brief outline. Solomon is portrayed as an evil man at the beginning, who literally comes face-to-face with Satan, and manages to escape. He then tries to retreat to living in a monastery, repenting of his sins, and hiding from Satan. But the head priest tells him that God has other plans for him and he must leave. Solomon tries to live a peaceful life and he finds a family of sorts, fellow believers who he plans to travel to the new world with. But there is much evil in the land, and he is soon forced to either fight to defend the ones he loves or die. Most movies have a climax, where the central question is put forth. In this case it is Solomon asking God if this is all he is to Him, merely a man of war. (This is a very dark, violent film, so be warned.) But it has a thread of redemption running through it.

We are told in scripture that as much as it depends on us we are to live peaceably with all men. But how much does it depend on us? There are times when we, like Solomon, are faced with impossible choices. Sometimes even when we’re trying to be peaceful, we have to draw lines in the sand, and say, “Here I stand, on the side of what is right.” Like Shadrach Meshack and Abednigo, we might have to say “We will not bend to this culture’s idols.”

Sometimes the lines do get blurry, and it’s hard to see God through the fog, but hold on to your convictions, while trying, simultaneously, to let God be the judge. Jesus even says to bless those that curse you, and do good to those who despite fully use you. Does this mean that we just submit to abusive people?

We are also told, above all, to guard our hearts. And Proverbs tells us to avoid fools. In context, a fool is a completely selfish person. We are told to be discerning, and not quick-tempered. There is a big difference between doing good to someone who is abusive and continuing to allow them to abuse you. You can be a kind, giving person without putting yourself under their power.

Be peaceful as much as possible. If a person is angry don’t return it with your own anger. But don’t be their Whipping Boy either. Draw lines in your life to keep the foolish person away from your precious heart.

This whole line of thought has caused me to re examine Matthew 5:39 a lot more closely. You know the one: Turn the other cheek.

I’m starting to think this has to be one of the most misused verses in the Bible, right up there with  “Judge not that you be not judged.”

If you  take it strictly at face value, you find that that not even Jesus kept it. What was Jesus’ reaction when he was slapped? ( John 18:22)

Jesus replied, “If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I’m speaking the truth, why are you beating me?”

Why didn’t he just just remain silent, and turn his other cheek to the high priest? He did not just submit silently to this evil, even though he knew it was God’s will for him to die. He still insisted that he was in the right. The high priest was actually acting against God’s law, by even having a non public trial, and everyone there knew that. To understand, we must realize what slapping of the cheek meant in that culture.

“If someone slaps another person, he must pay two hundred zuzim. If it was backhanded, he must pay four hundred zuzim. If someone flicks a person’s ear, pulls his hair, spits so that it lands on him, strips his cloak off, or pulls off a woman’s headscarf in public, [the perpetrator] must pay four hundred zuzim”. (m.Bava Kamma 8:6)

This slapping was not about injuring the other person. It was a form of insult. A slap with the back of the hand was twice as insulting, and the offended party could demand twice as much money. What Jesus is teaching, both here and in other parables, is humility and forgiveness of people who slight us. We are supposed to leave room for God’s judgement instead of constantly taking people to court over minor offenses. So we are right back to “As much as it depends on you, live at peace.” This is not a verse advocating pacifism, or meek submission when someone is actually abusing you. Rather it’s telling us to let go of our supposed right for vengeance. The Jews that Jesus was speaking to a perverted the law into an endless cycle of demanding their rights whenever someone offended them. Sound familiar?

To sum  this up: we are not to render evil for evil. Don’t go pick a fight with people who insult you or belittle you. That’s just pride talking. Leave room for God to judge the foolish people. But what about when it comes to life and death?

Please get out your your Bibles and turn to Nehemiah. Okay, I’m not really a preacher, I just always wanted to say that. But Nehemiah is an amazing book, and Nehemiah the man really changed his world in a big way. He was sort of the Solomon Kane of his time, willing to go up against evil to create a better world for those who came after him. He was a man on a mission from God, to rebuild the Holy city. Several things I want to point out:

Nehemiah 4:4″ Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity.”

Praying for God to defeat your enemies, is perfectly legitimate, if your enemies are truly in the wrong.

“9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”

13 Therefore set I in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places, I even set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows.

14 And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.

15 And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work.

16 And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah.

17 They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.

18 For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.

Isn’t that interesting? They prayed, they trusted God, but they also posted guards. They didn’t assume God didn’t want them to protect themselves and their families. If you read further in  Nehemiah you will find that when they did get the city rebuilt they gathered to confess their sins before God and to praise him for everything. They were shrewd in how they protected the city, and gave God all the glory when it was over. As Jesus later says, be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.

How does this apply to us? Yes, posting guards means prayer warriors, but it also means putting trained  men and women in place to stop evil people from shooting up schools and churches. And let’s call it evil, instead of crazy or mentally incapable. In the last school shooting it was a 19 year old man, not a kid, who was capable of a planned attack. These are the actions of an evil person, not a crazy one.

And I don’t really care how old fashion it sounds. If you are a man with a family, you’re the first line of defense against evil people physically attacking them. There’s nothing wrong with learning to shoot or fight or having a weapon. You might need it someday to defend the defenseless.

Jesus never advocated overthrowing the Romans. He didn’t tell his followers to arm themselves to resist the ruling authorities, but he did tell them to sell their cloaks to buy a sword, presumably for protection against Bandits on the road.

Paul claims that God sets up ruling authorities.

“For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

This would seem to include policemen and guard’s and even private citizens licensed to carry a firearm.

There is a related question that keeps coming up about God’s judgement. Some people seem to think that there’s one God in the Old Testament another in the new. It’s a common idea that Jesus is always forgiving and never angry. The fact is, Jesus didn’t have any problem with God’s judgments. In fact he gives a lot of warnings about those judgments. He talks about the days of Noah when all of humanity was wiped out by God’s wrath as a factual event, and of course, he was there during the judging. He’s not a different Being, he is part of the Trinity from everlasting to everlasting.. He said: “I and the Father are one.” He even says it would be better for you to have a big rock tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea then to cause someone to lose faith. I personally don’t see how one can read the entirety of the Bible, and deny the Justice of God, or that the death penalty is sometimes a just punishment. People tend to confuse the forgiveness of God with the idea that no one should ever be punished for their crime. Perhaps Jeffrey Dahmer is in heaven, but that doesn’t mean we should have released him from prison.

If you are reading all this and thinking that the most violent thing Jesus ever did was turn over a few tables, you might want to read Revelations.

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.”[a] He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

king of kings and lord of lords.

But this is all just metaphorical right?

17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”

19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. 20 But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. 21 The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.

Sounds pretty literal to me.

So going back to Nehemiah, trust in God but keep your powder dry. Don’t be lax and unprepared for difficult times and situations. Even when God is sending manna you have to go pick it up. Even when God blesses your business, he expects you to continue doing you work with all your might. And if God is going to deliver the Goliath into your hands like he did for David, he still expects you to learn how to use the sling. If you’re ever in that situation, may your hand be steady and your aim be true.

But, as always, peace is what we pray for and long for. Shalom until next time.

 

 

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The Face of Grace

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus arrives on the scene, after being tempted in the wilderness for 40 days, and here, at the start of his ministry, he proclaims exactly what he was sent to do. Freedom? Is that what you think of first when you think about religion, about church, about the God you learned about in Sunday School, or Catholic school or even, if you weren’t raised Christian, is this what you think of when you hear people talking about evangelism? A quick surf around the ‘net will tell you it’s the opposite of what most people think about in reference to religion. Most equate religion with the bringing of oppression, the enforcement of rules and a loss of freedom.

This is not the God I always heard about from the beginning of my life. Oh, he was there in brief and fleeting glimpses, in Mom’s smile and unselfish love, in a Sunday School teacher’s kindness and the comfort of early morning prayers. But, sometimes between the fiery sermons and the faded flannel graphs of Jesus holding baby lambs, He got confusing. Was he the angry man in the sky or the gentle shepherd? He sure did seem to have a lot of rules about how we dressed, yet Mom insisted God judges the heart, not the appearance, while others seemed to think you could tell who was in or out by how long their skirts or sleeves were. And Chapel at school was certainly confusing. All Rock music was bad, along with all movies and T.V. And most of the time, it did seem that God was all about rules. Maybe he only died for those who kept them all perfectly all the time? But weren’t snide comments and gossip by the Christian kids at school sins, also? I was the quiet one who observed and learned from people’s behavior, that things aren’t always what they seem.

Many years later, as an adult, I heard a radio preacher winding up to deliver his killer pitch, and at the height of the tale was Rebel Joe, of course. I knew Rebel Joe well, and when Radio preacher spun his tale of Joe roaring by the revival meeting on his motor bike, I couldn’t help but laugh, and say to myself:

It’s either going to be a telephone pole or a tree.” I knew he would hit one or the other, and his young life would end, because I knew the story by heart from hearing it repeated in Chapel service. The preacher who had Rebel Joe get decapitated gets extra points for creativity and creating fear induced altar runs. Wait, didn’t some of these kids get saved last week, too? I sat still and wondered if I was Rebel Joe.

The stories that frightened the others only hardened me against the God I thought was real. The one who apparently said we all had to wear our hair the same and dress alike and listen to the same music. It wasn’t that I had a problem with hell and certainty not that I doubted Jesus was real. I had felt the Holy Spirit’s call many times, and not all the preachers were scary, some did emphasize a Savior of love. The roadblock in my mind was what I thought God was out to do. To take my fun away, then wait for me to mess up so he could disown me. Perfection wasn’t possible, and I think even then, I knew by observation that those who claimed perfection didn’t possess it. So, what chance did any of us really have to escape the pit?

Somewhere along the way, I got tired of myself. God didn’t beat me up, he just waited for me to get worn down. God, I found, was no respecter of persons or preachers. The Holy Spirit was sneaky and would arrive at the scene when I least expected him to. He didn’t need fiery altar calls, he only needed to show me how miserable I was left to my own selfish whims.

But, as a believer, I still struggled with the belief that one sin could damn me at any moment. How do you get through the week, or even through the day without thinking one wrong thought, and instantly falling from grace? Even if an angry thought didn’t qualify, maybe I was just a little disobedient to my parents, or maybe it was a lustful look. My sins didn’t seem all that big, I mean, no fornication, no murders or stealing, but they were certainly real, nonetheless.

I really think it did take quite a few years to understand that God wasn’t out to get me. I remember I was writing a news letter for the Wesleyan church we were going to many years later and the piece started “ I thought God was out to get me.” then went on the portray God’s grace as being far more forgiving then I’d thought at one time. Surprisingly, they published it.

From where I stand now, let me just put it this way: I have resonated a lot more with the “Ragamuffin Gospel” ( by Brennan Manning) then with Francis Chan’s “Crazy love” I didn’t understand why at the time, but, although “Crazy love” is a good book in a lot of ways, it comes from a perspective of : if you aren’t a super Christian, you’re not a Christian. In other words, it’s a very works based view, which always ends up with Christians judging who is worthy or not based on what they are seen to be doing for God. What is the entrance fee for salvation? “Believe on the Lord and you will be saved.” I know, it can’t be that simple, right? Don’t worry, if it’s real, you will do works for God. They might be stumbling and awkward and may look small, or they may be huge and world changing to others eyes. But, they will be done from love, not fear.

Listen, if you think you’ve reached perfection, you haven’t. How do I know? Because if you had, you wouldn’t even be thinking about yourself, for one thing. Sorry if this offends anyone, but yes, saints still do sin. Jesus spoke of the Pharisees putting heavy weights on people, trying to make them live by extreme laws, and many of us have felt that weight, under certain versions of Lordship salvation. If you could get to heaven by doing perfect works, heaven would be empty, because only Jesus ever lived up to that standard. And let me just acknowledge that Churches can be confusing, especially if you’ve spent any time at all as a church hopper. You find out very quickly that the emphasis between radical grace and radical service varies widely from one congregation to the next, and yet, they all read the same Book.

And you might even start asking how this is possible, that we get such different views from the same source. Is God really the God of the lifelong alcoholic who still holds onto his faith, or is he the God of only the radical Christian who gives all he has to the poor, and lives in rags? Is Mother Teresa more saved than the person who constantly falls back into sin and constantly confesses? Hopefully we all want our kids lives to look more like Franchis Chan’s picture of radical service then Manning’s pitiful alcoholism. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that entrance to the kingdom is not based on how much tithe you put in the offering plate or how often you evangelize. Perhaps it would be good to just admit right here, that the lives of most believers fall somewhere in the middle. When Manning says that God loves you as you are and not as you should be, we feel relieved, because we know that’s us. When Chan chastises us for not stepping out of our comfort zone and giving more to the cause, we know he’s right, and we at least dig deeper in our wallet next Sunday. Are we lukewarm at times? You bet. Do we really love Jesus? You bet. Because that love is based on his love for us, not our performance for him. We are all of us, bundles of paradoxes wrapped in contradictions, committed Christians one day and moody doubters the next. And I remember my Uncle Andy, a Methodist pastor saying something similar and then adding. “That’s ok, if we admit it.” I remember being rather stunned by that simple admission. That’s not an exact quote, it’s been a lot of years gone by. And perhaps things are different now. If there’s one thing we’ve gotten a bit better at in the Church community, it’s admitting we are not perfect people, and allowing broken people in without asking them to fix themselves first.

This might seem like a strange place to quote Paul Simon, instead of say, the Apostle Paul, but the metophor fits: “I have reason to believe we all may be received in graceland.” and the Apostle Paul confirms that we all may be received:

8”For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9not by works, so that no one can boast.…” (Eph 2)

You can’t earn your way in, you can only accept the gift. You can’t clean yourself up enough to be worthy. The Prodigal son still smelled like pig manure when the Father embraced him and welcomed him home.

When writing these things, I usually know what they are about long before I know what they are for. In this case, I thought I was writing about my life, when really it was all for a different purpose. No, not to say you should be a lukewarm believer or that you shouldn’t do good works, but to say, ok, you’ve messed up a lot, you’ve been the sloth or the prodigal, but don’t think you are disqualified and kicked out because of all your past screw ups. And don’t think you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be better, either. Only God can make you better, so you do what the prodigal did and fall on his grace.

 

One of Satan’s favorite tricks is to tell people we aren’t good enough for God to love us . And it works, because it’s true that we aren’t good enough, and there is something in the natural man that tells him that he has to earn his way into God’s grace. Look at just about any other religion and you can see this clearly. It’s all about saying your prayers often enough, and doing enough good stuff that God might take notice and allow you to meet him. Grace turns all that upside down.

James is known as the a book about doing good deeds. In fact, some will say that Paul and James were at odds as to how salvation is earned, because James emphasized deeds and Paul emphasized faith. But, listen to what James says:

8If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”a you are doing right. 9But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,”b also said, “You shall not murder.”c If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (James 2)

We all know about the Ten Commandments, but maybe you didn’t know that there were a lot more than ten. Actually, there are 613 commandments in Jewish law. In case you want to take a look and see which ones you are currently breaking: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/756399/jewish/The-613-Commandments.htm

And James said if you break one, you’ve broken all. He wasn’t saying don’t even try to do good, just the opposite, but it’s quite obvious that no one has ever earned heaven by keeping all of the law.

Paul puts it this way in Galatians 2:

15We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith ind Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

19For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”e

That’s a pretty strong statement. But he gets even more emphatic about it in the next chapter:

10For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”e 11Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”f 12The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”g 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”h 14He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

If you rely on the law to save you, you’re under a curse? What’s he saying? Christ took the curse of the law on himself. Paul says elsewhere that if you rely on the law to save you, Christ will be of no use to you.

1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

I’m not going to copy the whole book here, but you should read it for yourself, if you’re stuck on trying to earn your way into God’s grace. It can’t be done. And if you think it can, if you live like it will, you will move away from Christ, not towards him. It doesn’t matter if you wear all the right clothes and say all the right religious stuff and refrain from dancing and bacon. None of that earns you any points with God, because God is concerned about your heart. If you think you’ve sinned too much or strayed too far for God to want you, let me assure you, you haven’t. If you had, you wouldn’t care at all about God. There are people in that state, who have seared their conscience and feel no guilt for their sins. But as long as you are awake enough to feel remorse, you can and should also feel hope, because God’s grace is still there waiting for you to receive it.

7“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

9“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

The old law was a long list of rules. The new law is love.

1John 2:1My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

When you fail even in that, and you will, you can rest assured that confession will result in forgiveness. Every time. So, live in the freedom of love, not the in the bondage of useless laws.

Shalom, peace to you.

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Fahrenheit 451, Books and Truth

“I’m afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always used to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me because I’m afraid. My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn’t kill each other. But that was a long time ago when they had things different” (Clariasse, from ‘Fahrenheit 451’)

There is something dreadfully wrong with the world. These days, when a kid takes a gun to school and kills a bunch of his peers, unless it happens in our home town, we barely blink. It’s all old hat, it happens all the time.

What’s wrong with kids these days?” We ask, then click back onto Facebook or Twitter. The News is all depressing anyway, and what can we do about the state of the world? We can argue about who is to blame, of course, we can scream for more gun control or more security or more rules. We can blame it on the liberals or the conservatives, or the government or the jews or muslims or the atheists or whoever our favorite “they” is. It’s all their fault. It’s not our fault.

But, like Cariasse, some of us still resist the temptation to live our whole lives in that artificial reality. We like to smell the leaves and feel the snow on our faces or the grass between our toes. Perhaps we even remember a time when the kids didn’t kill each other, or we think that such a time must have existed. Surely there were kids who were raised right, on chores and sled riding and wading creeks searching for crayfish. Surely, it wasn’t always like this, and they weren’t addicted to their mobile devices by fifth grade. Perhaps people used to just sit and visit and have real conversations.

No front porches. My uncle says there used to be front porches. And people sat there sometimes at night, talking when they wanted to talk, rocking, and not talking when they didn’t want to talk. Sometimes they just sat there and thought about things, turned things over. My uncle says the architects got rid of the front porches because they didn’t look well. But my uncle says that was merely rationalizing it; the real reason, hidden underneath, might be they didn’t want people sitting like that, doing nothing, rocking, talking; that was the wrong KIND of social life. People talked too much. And they had time to think. So they ran off with the porches.” (Clariasse, Fahrenheit 451′)

In the book, “Fahrenheit 451”, written by Ray Bradbury in 1951, books are illegal. Firemen don’t put out fires, they burn books. At least we don’t do that, you might protest. At least, he got that part wrong. But, the books only became illegal after people stopped reading them. The law was a symptom of the disease. The disease was the loss of critical thinking, of true knowledge, not opinion based on what everyone says, but something far deeper, knowledge based in the confidence that truth has nothing to do with political parties or talking heads or the whims of society. Truth just is. (Bradbury didn’t write that, I did.) But, let’s get back to why this science fiction book sounds so prophetic for our current age.

And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.”

Bradbury envisioned ear buds and thought they would be far into the future, but as it turns out, it happened much more quickly:

In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451 I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction.” (Ray Bradbury)

The main character in the novel, Montag, feels like he no longer knows his wife because her whole life has become an interaction with an imaginary world. She is plugged into this world all day and night. Three walls of her home are screens that constantly bombard her with bland entertainment. Entertainment with no depth, no context, no deeper meaning. Anything that would offend anyone has been edited out. And she wants the fourth wall torn out and changed into a screen too. Thinking for oneself has become obsolete in this world. Everything is form without substance. Bradbury never envisioned smart phones or lap tops, or electronic tablets, but he did voice his concern about a world that would lose itself in pointless entertainment to the point where no one would want to read a book of classic poetry or a Bible. Reading deep thoughts about deep topics might make them feel…something. It might make them sad or bring them to realize they were starving souls feeding on garbage. And maybe it sounds like I’m bashing technology. No, technology can’t be evil or good of itself. But we control it or it controls us. It kind of reminds one of all the science fiction stories where the robots take over and subdue the humans, only in this case, the humans become robots on their own.

Bradburys book isn’t long, only 158 pages, but he packs a lot into it. It was written over time, from revisions of revisions, from a novelette expanding into a novel, until he had no doubt pared away the fluff and reworked the descriptions until they are vivid, until the book speaks as he claims books should- with poetry infused prose. There is an undercurrent here of anti censorship, but he himself claimed the book was not mainly about censorship, but about a loss of intellectualism he feared was coming. People would cease to be disturbed by the things that should disturb them and without books to make them think deeply, they had chosen not to think at all about anything that mattered. There was no need to rig an election for example, because the majority would always vote for the candidate who talked the smoothest, dressed nicest and had the nicest hair.

There is a nagging sensation that I get when I read this book, as good as it is, similar to what I get watching a movie like “Dead poets society”. The feeling I get is that a point is being made that never seems to get to the point, if you follow me. Bradbury is promoting deep thinking and being informed and knowing that the world has more to offer us than the shallow tide of the trivial. And Dead Poet’s Society is promoting non conformity, again, thinking for one’s self, finding your own path. It’s all good advice that might start one’s quest for truth, but there is something more that needs to be said, or repeated. Truth isn’t your opinion. There is no “my truth” or “your truth”, no matter what Oprah may say. Truth just is. And while we are parked here, let’s talk about the current outrage against sexual harassment. A long time coming, by the sounds of things, but why are we even outraged at all if truth is relative? The harassers truth may be that what he or she is doing is morally ambivalent.

There are things worth standing for and things worth standing against. There is certainly a time to say. “ I won’t bow to your idols. “ whether that idol is fame or fortune or false religion or warped sexuality, or money or power. But without some higher standard, it’s all subjective. If you have your truth and I have mine, who is to say which is better? Maybe I like quiet Sunday afternoons and you prefer raping and pillaging. If I am just an animal with a bigger brain than most, the most I can say is that I find your preferences dreadful.

But, don’t you have a conscience?” You might protest.

Exactly! And where did my conscience come from? If you read this blog regularly, surely you knew I was going to end up quoting scripture eventually.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but it’s end is the way of death.” ( Proverbs 14:12)

Left to ourselves we will rebel, but often against the wrong things for the wrong reasons. It’s entirely possible to stand for death, and still think you’re in the right.

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury refers to the Bible several times, with surprising respect. I say surprising because much science fiction I’ve read has little use for religion of any kind. He also uses a lot of profanity in his book, which ironically got edited out in one version used in schools, without his knowledge. Of course, he was royally ticked off about being censored. But, my point is, his use of the Bible is as a fine piece of literature and poetry, not as a standard for truth. And without a standard, I don’t see where standing against shallow thinking and bland entertainment gets us. Why is going deep important if it’s all relative anyway? Why not eat, drink and be merry without concern about wars and rumors of wars if we are nothing but worm food in the end? This is what kept pulling at the edges of my mind as I read this book and watched Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s society, urging us to “seize the day!”. Sadly, Robin Williams later took his own life. The question in the end isn’t whether he “sucked the marrow out of life” as he says in the movie, but whether he was prepared for the afterlife.

Ask yourself the deep questions, yes. Ask yourself why a lone many standing against tyranny, standing in front of a tank, inspires us. When and where is standing against the majority worthwhile? Is it really like the day I wore a Mickey Mouse shirt to work when everyone else was wearing “ Let’s go on strike” shirts? Or was that just arrogance on my part? What good is being a rebel if you don’t know what the cause is?

My answer is nothing new, it’s something quite old. The answers are still found in God’s book. The Scripture is the only foundation I trust to give the solution to all of this life’s questions. The fact is that I don’t always go there first, because of my pride. But it’s the only book that says it all, where all the answers hide if one only dives deep. The books in Fahrenheit 451 may seem like living things, but this one truly is, because the Spirit lives and breaths into and through it. Dive as deeply as you like. You’ll never reach the bottom.

 

 

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Merry Christ’s Death

Christmas always tends to sneak up on me. It’s not that I don’t know it’s coming, it’s just that it comes faster than I expect it to. Of course, that was not always the case. Of course, Christmas at 50 is different than Christmas at 5. Christmas at 5 took forever to get here and when it did, it was magic. There were no video games then, and the little red wagons were solid metal. The Tonka trucks were built like tanks, even if Mom did buy them used at a garage sale.

We talk a lot about the extravagance of Christmas, the commercialization, and it’s true, but still, we can never be more extravagant than God . So perhaps our attitudes need adjustment. God gave all that he could. He gave himself. Do you think he really frowns when you spend a bit too much on your kids or spouse?

So, we light up the world, we get out the manger scene, we watch the children sing Christmas carols and it’s all good, it’s all beautiful. Should I interrupt the party with the images we don’t put on the mantle?

Like a painfully young and scared Jewish girl whose swollen form writhes on the hay in the agony of labor. She doesn’t wear a halo and her robes are neither white nor clean, but stained with blood. The incarnation itself is a divine mystery, but the birth is normal and messy as births tend to be. With due respect to my Catholic friends, we tend to put Mary on too much of a pedestal, I think. The serene smile and clean robed Mary kneeling adoringly at the foot of the manger without a hair out of place-do you really believe that’s how it was? Perhaps a more accurate image would be of Mary kneeling and trying to sop up Jesus’ blood after his torture session, in the “Passion of the Christ.” Whether this scene really happened or not, it is a perfect illustration of Mary’s role in his story. And it does show both her humble acceptance and raw courage. And isn’t this what good mother’s do? Mopping up after their children both figuratively and often mopping up blood literally, while bleeding inside because she can’t take her child’s pain onto herself. That is a mother’s heart.

But, still, faith is always about trusting in spite of fear, in spite of doubt. I think she felt fear, felt doubt, and cried out in pain and begged God for a normal life. I think she got irritated, even angry, at her perfect son for his sometimes baffling behavior. Because she was human and like the rest of us, in need of forgiveness. As Mark Lowry wrote in “Mary, did you know?” the child she delivered would later deliver her. She needed a Savior as much as the rest of us do.

As another song says, it must have seemed to both her and Joseph, “Such a strange way to save the world.”

We like to say God came to earth in the most humble of ways, but to put an even finer point on it, even if Christ had been born in a castle, the son of a noble woman, on silk sheets, it still would have been a humble birth for the son of God.

The wonder of that night isn’t only in the miracles and the songs of angels and the worshiping shepherds. The wonder is also in how seemingly ordinary it all was. An ordinary girl has an ordinary birth, in an ordinary small town and probably later faces the ordinary gossip by those who knew she was pregnant too soon. What kind of God begins his most important mission with scandal and a helpless baby instead of a warrior and armies?

Sure, the birth was announce by angels, but only to a few grubby shepherds. Other than that, God goes incognito, speaking to Joseph in dreams and nightmares, telling only a handful of people about the most important news the world has ever seen. The Savior sneaks into the world as if on a covert op into enemy territory, which was exactly what he was doing. Certainly, it was a Holy Night to those few who knew that this was no normal baby. To the rest of the human world, the whole thing went unnoticed for a couple of years, at which time King Herod murders a bunch of baby boys because of his paranoia and the loose lips of some “wise men.” from the east. And God doesn’t do anything too dramatic, even then. He sends some more dreams to the not so wise men and to Joseph, so they can get out of Dodge while the getting is good. He doesn’t zap Herod or send an army of angels to protect Jesus. He just has the key players sneak over to Egypt for awhile.

Just a side note: Did Joseph ever get confused about all the dreams? Did he ever wake up and say:

“Mary, we have to get out of town! I had a dream last night that a white elephant knocked the house down and stepped on your foot!”

And Mary rolls her eyes.

“Joseph, not every dream means to run for your life. It was probably just too many egg rolls mixed with the old wine last night.”

As someone who works with his hands, I think it’s way cool that Jesus didn’t grow up spending all his time studying behind a desk. Some have speculated that Joseph was probably more of a stone mason than a wood worker. Still, Jesus grew up learning a craft that required skill and muscles and hard work. The Creator of the Cosmos learned to create the slow and painful way instead of speaking planets into existence.

I heard a sermon once where the main point was that if Joseph had not married Mary, the world would not have had a Savior. Well, I think God is more resourceful then that, and big enough to work out the plan of salvation in spite of what Jesus’ parents did. Still, it seems like God picked the right step dad. Joseph could have said:

“I didn’t sign up for this.”, and dropped Mary like a hot potato. Worse, he could have shamed her in public and had her stoned. But he was an honorable man and Jesus no doubt learned about honor from him, imperfect as Joseph was. Perhaps he learned about subtlety too, and when it was needed, he kept his mission private from most until the time of fulfillment arrived. Jesus knew when to speak and when to remain silent, which is a rare talent for any leader. Is it speculating too much to say he may have learned from his human father that actions speak louder than words?

Now, I know it’s hard to imagine God learning anything, even God in human form, but scripture says he did just that. What does it mean to grow in favor with God and man? There is a question you sometimes hear-whether it was possible for Jesus to sin. We know he didn’t, but could he have? Right off the bat, this brings up another question, just what is sin? Sure, we know the obvious ones, outlined in the Ten Commandments, but what about the not so obvious ones? Jesus would say later that if you did something in your heart, you were guilty of it. How could Jesus, who was already perfect, grow in favor with God? Doesn’t this suggest that God can change somehow? That already being perfect in all his intentions, he somehow became more perfect in his actions?

What did Simeon prophesy about him? (Luke 2:34)

“He will be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

Uh-huh. Jesus offends some people. People get uncomfortable when he’s mentioned. We call him the Prince of peace, but he himself said he came to bring division:

34Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to turn ‘A man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.…36A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.

Wow, that doesn’t sound too peaceful. He came to divide those whose hearts would choose to accept him and those who would harden their hearts against him. Notice how Simeon puts it: “The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” This sword of his cuts not flesh and bone, but it cuts to the heart and lays bare our true selves, so we MUST choose to accept or reject his message.

People like to say: “Keep Christ in Christmas.” The truth is, even people who do not know him say it sometimes, I suppose because it sounds nice and who doesn’t like a cute baby who never cries, laughing at the antics of the animals around his manger on a “Silent Night”? First of all, I think Jesus did cry and I don’t think the animals went out of their way to entertain him. But, who knows? But, in reality, despite appearances, this wasn’t a silent night. Not where it really mattered. This was the night when God invaded Satan’s territory and you can bet swords clashed in the heavens.

It’s great that you love the baby, but he doesn’t stay a baby, and he’s coming back as a warrior king… and that’s a story you don’t hear much on Christmas. If you listen closely, behind the singing angels you might hear the screams of demons being thrown back into the pit. You might hear the sound of a million praying saints and a million sinners cursing them for their prayers. You might hear a crowd chanting; “Crucify him!” and Satan laughing with delight. Or Disciples shouting “He is risen!” and the happy laughter of some of the same people who called for his death, celebrating their own re births. For over two thousand years, a war has raged over this child in the manger, over this bloody, naked man on a Roman cross, and history was split by his coming, B.C. to A.D.

The baby has grown and his question haunts all who care enough to listen:

“Who do YOU say that I am?”

That’s the only question worth thinking about when you know what Christmas is-Christ Mass. Mass meaning “A sending out”. So when you tell someone “Merry Christmas.” you are saying “Merry Christ sending”. He was sent to save a dying world. And that sending was a mission that included his death. Some have taken great offense to the thought that Christ Mass can mean: “Merry Death Sacrifice.” Because, that is what they celebrate. Mass includes the Eucharist-Communion to us Protestants. We celebrate Christ’s birth this time of year, but you can’t celebrate the birth without the death. Remembering the Cross at Christmas isn’t morbid, and you can’t have the baby without the blood. Celebrating his death is totally appropriate, as long as we know death doesn’t get the final word.. and He lives again that death may die.

So, Merry Christ’s Birth and Death and Resurrection to all and to all a good night!

 

 

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Down to the water

Walk to the end of the world

where the ocean breaths on my face

Try to hear your echo in the waves

Try to see your face in the sea

Try to find a way to forget about me

What is it about water that calls us and calms us? The midwife played ocean sounds as my wife gave birth to our youngest. From the smallest spring run to the vast sea, water draws us. We go there to find peace, to find pieces of ourselves we have lost.

“Take me down to my boat on the river and I won’t cry out anymore.” (Styx)

Water so often represents life in scripture and song…”Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah)

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (Psalms)

Today, I wished I could see the ocean again, but it’s far away. However, there is a little creek just past the edge of the woods that whispers the same secrets, only more quietly. I could stand and watch it, lost in roaming thoughts for an hour, but there is much work to be done.

Most of us today spend a lot of our time looking at screens, living in a sort of artificial reality, when the real thing is just outside our door. Perhaps the screens feel safer, but you can still drown there. And they don’t offer us what we really need, to be immersed in creation first hand, to feel the sunlight on our faces and hear the water-these are gifts, and I wonder how those in the concrete jungles live without them.

My wife and I used to visit a backwoods water fall when we were dating. There is a backwater swamp below the house I grew up in, that I would ride my bike or walk to whenever I could get away, to fish, or trap muskrats, or stare at the water by the light of the moon. Swamps gurgle and smell of loon poop mud and decaying vegetation. The smell feels like home to me. It’s not the ocean, but it has it’s own appeal. Then there’s the little pond with great bass fishing and the lake where we’ve spent so many hours kayaking, fishing or watching the sunset.

Some of the disciples were fishermen. They made their living from the sea, a sea that was really a very large freshwater lake. It couldn’t have been an easy life and I can imagine their rough hands, muscled arms and sun darkened faces, kind of like farmers who smelled like fish instead of corn and cow manure. They didn’t have rubber gloves and the smell of oily fish does not easily wash off.

Do you suppose they laughed at first when Jesus told them where to let down their nets?

“We’ve fished all night.” Peter says. “But, because you say so, we will give it another shot.”

You can almost hear him thinking: “What does an ex carpenter and wandering Rabbi know about fishing?” And when they were so sure they were dying in the demonic’s storm? “Jesus, you’re sleeping? Don’t you know that we drowning here?” Trusting Jesus on land must have been easier for them than on the sea. The water was their element. But after seeing him calm the storm and walk on the sea, maybe they begin to understand.

Just imagine for a moment that you are one of them, on a night when the sky is vast and clear and the water quiet. The stars feel close and the air is warm and moist. The only sounds are the far off frogs, birds and the occasional fish jumping. There is a peace that settles on you on nights like this, that is hard to find anywhere else. So you are all relaxed, and your mind is drifting, thinking about all you’ve seen and experienced the last few weeks, while hanging out with this wandering Rabbi, this ex carpenter from Nazareth, who is unlike anyone you’ve ever met. And let’s say that right there, in that quiet moment on the water, you really get it. Belief for you goes from being a vague notion, an ethereal religious concept wrapped in ritual and Torah recitation, to belief that is tangible and feels like a solid weight on your chest, so that you can suddenly barely breath. You know, now, without a single doubt, that God is right here in this boat with you, with his dirty feet almost in your face, eyes half closed, breathing in the same damp sea air that he created. And you just say it out loud without really thinking about how it sounds.

“You made this, Jesus? All of it?”

And his eyes open and he turns his head to face you fully and you see a grin starting. You wonder what he is thinking, knowing that he knows you are wondering. And then he tips his head back and laughs, not mocking, but joyful.

“Yes.” He whispers. “You like it? Because I made it for me, but for you, too.”

“Wait a minute!” A thought is peculating inside, but it is almost too wild to give voice to. “You knew, didn’t you?”

And behind you, Peter grunts.

“He knew what? What are you babbling about?”

But Jesus is smiling and nodding.

“I knew at creation that this night would come and I knew you would be here and you would ask this question.”

Peter sits straight up and mutters an oath.

“No way!”

Jesus is looking you right in the eye, his own eyes twinkling with silent laughter.

“Way.” He says.

The understatement is so crazy. That God would act this way, would be human like you, would wash away your doubt with gentle humor… your joyful laughter builds from inside until you are gasping for breath.

There’s something about water, that feels like life.

 

Quite often these musings come to me a piece at a time. I’ll have writer’s block for weeks, or just not take the time to write, and then one day, I’ll be sitting, pen in hand, and the flood gates will open on a subject and I’ll write several pages as fast as my hand can move. But, in some cases, such as this one, the end result doesn’t feel complete. So I put away my notebook and promptly forget which one I wrote in, and time passes before I get the final piece. This morning on the deer stand, I started to receive the final pieces of this post. I say: “Receive.”, because that’s how it feels, like I’m just the antenna for something God is saying.

But, there was another piece this time, in between. A dream. I know some Christians don’t believe God speaks through dreams anymore. That’s ok, he doesn’t need their permission!

As usually happens with dreams, I only remember a bit, if anything, in the morning. But the key parts of this one stuck with me. I was working my way down a rocky trail. On my left is an open area and then water. In between, I see my mother, sitting at table by herself. Now, Mom passed over to heaven early this year, but in my dream, seeing her doesn’t seem strange at all. It’s more like this: “Oh, there she is, I’ll go over and talk to her.” So, I continue down the trail, which is getting much steeper and more difficult. Down below, I start to see people and tents near the water. I finally manage to climb down to them, but when I look over, mom is gone. Again, there is no alarm or grief. It’s as if I know I will see her soon. I visit with some of the people, but I don’t remember what we talked about, and then I wake up.

I was thinking about the dream this morning and reading Revelation 22, because I had read a verse from this chapter last night in John Eldredges new book: “All things New.” and it reminded me of what I had written earlier about water.

1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

17The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

I’ve been trying to figure out the dream for awhile now. I know the obvious interpretation is that the rocky trail is this life. And that I couldn’t reach Mom because she had crossed over to heaven. But this morning, I started to see other possibilities. Water represents life, that much I knew but when I wrote the first part, but I didn’t remember or think about the passage about the river of life flowing from the throne of God. No wonder it felt incomplete!

So now I hold this picture in my mind of Mom sitting and watching the waves, her white hair and blouse bright against the blue. I thought it was Lake Erie (she always loved the waves there) or Lake Wilhelm, but maybe, just maybe, the water represents the river of life. And maybe the people there represent all the Believers in this world. And maybe Mom was far off because she hadn’t only drank from the waters, like the others, but she has crossed over the her reward. She wasn’t struggling down the trail with me, to get to the water, she was sitting quietly, perfectly at peace. Of course, I wish I’d seen more. I wish I’d seen her walking way down the beach, hand in hand with Jesus. But I’m confident that God shows us what we need precisely when we need it. Mom’s ok, and she’s at peace. That’s all I need to know.

As for you, reading this, the living water is waiting for you, if you haven’t drank from it yet. The water is pure and the gift is free. Come down to the water to pray.

 

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Need Some Hope?

The world’s gone crazy, Virginia.

At least that’s how it feels. Like the undercurrent of evil has caught us and become a whirlpool sucking us down, down to a place we can’t imagine. People just going to a music festival to have a good time become victims of a madman spraying bullets down like a hard rain from hell.

Nature it seems, has spun out of control, knocking down houses and islands and lives like bowling pins. And everyone’s angry, everyone’s looking for someone to blame for it all. If nothing else, it seems like we are looking to blame someone else for the brokenness in our own lives, our inability to create Paradise here on Earth for ourselves.

We’re arguing over football players and people are dying. I remember a sermon I heard about forgiveness many years ago, where the speaker said that the Democrats and Republicans are mad at each other,  the blacks and the whites are mad at each other,  and the dog is mad at the cat. And that seems to be where we’re at right now.

And of course for those of us who believe in God, the question is: What in the world is God doing? Is he doing anything? Can’t he see how screwed up we are down here? Why doesn’t he fix it?

If that sounds a little disrespectful, maybe even a little angry, I wonder if you’ve listened to the rumblings of your own heart. Because if you’re human and believe in him even just a little, I bet you have thought similar thoughts now and then. Did you really think he didn’t hear those thoughts? Don’t worry, you’re in good company.  Even Abraham argued with God.

So why doesn’t he? Do something, that is? After all, he’s omnipotent, omnipresent, all-powerful and all those other words that mean he can do anything. So why doesn’t he fix us and our busted up hearts and lives and this busted up planet where even the weather seems to be rebelling? Does he even care? If we were in charge surely we could do better, right?

I know you don’t really want to hear it, because it’s no great comfort, but God isn’t on your timetable or anyone’s. As far as we know, time doesn’t even exist for him. So it seems like impatience should be foreign to his nature. And yet, in scripture, he gets impatient and royally ticked off, and expresses his love and hate. So much for our philosophizing about him being above emotions. But the fact remains, he knows the end from the beginning…so worrying must never occur to him.

He knows how much we and the world can take, not because he’s orchestrating it all but because he made it all. And then, as foolish as it seems to us, he set us free, giving us dominion over his stuff. All the bad and ugly that’s happened since is not his doing. But still, you say, how can he simply stand by and let it happen?

I read a quote recently: “God’s answer to suffering is not an explanation but the Incarnation.” Whoa. Let that sink in for a bit. God’s answer to the mess we made is not, as of yet, to fix it all. His answer was to throw himself into our mess and let us destroy him like we destroy most everything else. To the suffering, he can say: “I’m one of you. I’ve been exactly where you are.”

As the old hymn says: “He took our sins and our sorrows and made them his very own, bore our burdens to Calvary and suffered and died alone.”

A god that stays above it all, who manipulates all events, like Aristotle’s or Plato’s unmoved mover is a god with no compassion, no empathy, and no part in our suffering. That version of God looks nothing like Christ and has no place in Christianity.

But you know all this already right? You’ve been told it a hundred times in Sunday school and /or a thousand sermons. That Jesus died for you and conquered sin and suffering. But this world doesn’t feel like a place where those things have been well and truly defeated, because we wade in them day by day, and some rebellious part of us whispers: “Jesus, what have you done for me lately?”

“Hopelessness is what flings us into the presence of evil.”

I wish I could remember what book I read that in, so I could give the author credit. There is so much in that sentence that I don’t know where to begin. It is truth on so many levels. Scripture is full of references to Our Hope. The Hope found in knowing God and knowing future Glory will be ours. Another hymn says our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. And when the enemy is able to steal that? We are left with nothing. We can endure searing, hellish trials in this life as long as we are still able to sing “Amazing Grace” even in the face of death. We can even rejoice in suffering, grudgingly, if we but know that suffering will provide growth and deeper strength within us. We can dance in the rain, ignoring our chilled skin. We can climb mountains of pain and find joy on top, if we can cling to Hope. Without it, evil surely and steadily, will creep into our broken places and inhabit us. It will spill out of us and wound others. But with hope to sustain us, all the sin and death in this world is only a momentary distraction. Hopelessness is the death of the Soul.

And now you would expect me to start talking about heaven. And that’s a good place to start, but our hope doesn’t end there. On this beautiful fall day, I can certainly see glimpses of Glory all around. And yet nature is still groaning, as Paul says, for restoration, (Romans 8:19 through 23) and we sure have seen her doing a lot of groaning lately.

In Matthew 19:28 Jesus speaks of a renewal of all things when all will be made right and justice restored to this world. Revelation (21: 1-5) tells us of a new Heaven and a new Earth, a moment when Heaven comes down to Earth and every tear will be washed away.

And Peter reminds us:

 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9)

 “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”

2 Peter 3:13

I used to think two false things about end times, because of the way I understood what was taught to me in church. One was that God would destroy this Earth, and that would be the end of it. The other is that heaven would be our final home. What? It isn’t? If you read these passages you’ll find exactly what I’m talking about. So don’t take my word for it.

God isn’t through creating. He isn’t done restoring souls and he isn’t done making all things new. The end times are nothing to look forward to with fear and trembling. We should look forward to them with rejoicing and great hope. If the Incarnation was the beginning, and what a beginning it was, how glorious will be the ending for those who believe? And more to the point, the end is not the end. It’s only another beginning. So if you’re ready to give up on this world and on humanity, it’s time to look up and put your faith in something real and solid. At the end of this age God will usher in a new one where all will be made new and made right. There is plenty of reason for Hope and we’ve never needed that Hope more than right now.

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Ecclesiastes, What’s the Point?

Ecclesiastes isn’t a book that is easy to understand in light of the rest of the Bible. At least, that’s what I always thought when I read it in my younger years. It is at the same time very poetioc and beautifully written and puzzling. The puzzling part for me, was that, reading the book on a surface level can leave you feeling like maybe you need to find a tall bridge jump off of. The repeated refrain: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity”, in the King James, or worse, in the NIV, “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless”, doesn’t exactly cause one to feel encouraged about his existence. However, there is a lot said between the vanitys, but before we get to all that, perhaps we had better decide just what is meant by all those vanitys.

To better understand the book of Ecclesiastes, I recently read the book: “Living life backwards.” by David Gibson and found it remarkably insightful. Since I wrote this blog post over time, as I took notes on his book and on Solomon’s book, the result was a kind of scattered, well actually a very scattered collection of thoughts, which I’m trying to put together finally into some kind of cohesive order.  But, I expect it will still come out rather random, but that is fitting for a book that often feels like it was slipped into the Bible by accident. Hopefully, I can explain that it only feels that way because most people miss what Solomon is really saying about life.

Let’s start off with some of the more startling statement’s Solomon makes. Like this one: ” The day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.”  or: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting” Don’t you want to say: “C’mon, preacher, you’ve got to be kidding me. I sure would rather go to see a new born baby than a corpse, and I bet you would too.”

But if the commentary I’m reading is correct, Solomon says these things to jolt us into a certain view of reality that is, well, realistic. What he is getting at is that death teaches us a lot about life and how to live it. A quick skimming of Ecclesiastes might lead you to think that Solomon is in agreement with the pagans and the theme is “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die” but what he is promoting is not hedonism. He deliberately strips bare our illusions about our importance in the larger scheme of things in order to get to what is really important. He’s not the only one to speak about the seeming pointlessness of life. Solomon says it with poetry:

“All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Much like Pink Floyd does in the song “Time”:

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over
Thought I’d something more to say”

You can almost hear “Vanity, Vanity, all is vanity.”  echo in the back round when you hear these lyrics. In other words, what was the point of this life that you endured? Solomon systematically goes though all the things men try to find pleasure in and labels them all vanity.  Listen to what he says about hard work in chapter 2:

“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.”

But, let’s pause here for a second and ask what the word “Vanity” means when used in Ecclesiastes.  Let me suggest that”Meaningless” may just be a rather poor interpretation. Because the more literal meaning of the Hebrew word used here: “Hebel” is not “without meaning”. It is  more literally: “mist” or “vapor”. The “meaningless” of “vanity” comes from how the word makes one feel. Seeing everything as a mist, at first, can make you wonder if it has any worth or meaning. Incidentally, I used to think that vanity here meant pride, which was even more confusing. But when you go through the book and you replace: “meaningless” with “mist” the whole book takes on a different flavor.

The morning when I first wrote this section was very foggy,  and as I drove my truck to the auto shop through the morning mist, it was almost like driving through a silent fantasy world where nothing looked quite real. But, by the time I dropped off the truck and rode my bicycle home, the fog was completely gone. This is the image of life that I believe the preacher was trying to give us. He’s saying: “All you see, all you do, is like a morning fog that will soon pass. So don’t try to hold onto what is temporary. But do your work with all your might.”

Ecc 2:24″A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.”

He’s not saying that you should despair because life has no meaning. He’s saying go ahead and find satisfaction in your toil by knowing that it all will pass away. Be aware that all you have is on loan to you and this knowledge will make you wise. Everything on this earth being temporary is good news, because this earth contains much that is evil and broken.  In the following chapter, he explains that everything has it’s time, but that we can never fully understand in this life because we too are a mist.

Ecc3:11″He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.”

Where does all this lead us? First off, quit worrying so much about stuff, because none of this is permanent. You might live to be 100 or you may die tomorrow. Either way, we are all living on borrowed time. Jesus talks about the successful man who decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones and then sit back and enjoy the fruit of his labor and God said: “You fool! Tomorrow you will be dead.” Was God mad because the man was rich? No, he was mad because the man thought that all his blessings came from his own hand and couldn’t see that it was all on loan from God. Don’t make your plans without consulting God and don’t forget that every good thing comes from him. See the big picture and hold your stuff loosely because it’s only stuff. What matters is who you praise. Yourself? Fool. You are but a mist and soon to pass.

Solomon says that God has put eternity in the heart of man, but we sure are good at avoiding thoughts about eternity. Tomorrow we will think about that, we have stuff to do today.

Let’s go back to Pink Floyd for a moment. The song always sounds to me like it should end here: “The time is gone, the song is over
Thought I’d something more to say.”

But it goes on to hint at something else:

“Home, home again
I like to be here when I can

And when I come home cold and tired
Its good to warm my bones beside the fire
Far away across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spell.”I’ve read some commentary on the song by the writers and even they don’t agree what exactly it’s all about, but a common thought is that this life is all there is, grab and enjoy it while you can. Yet they mention the faithful gathering to hear the “softly spoken magic spell.” Such an obvious reference to Christianity makes one wonder if they intended to mock the faithful or were wistfully longing to have their confidence that time, that this life, is not all there is. This is a common enough theme of secular songs and movies. You might think of the “Dead Poet’s Society.” Movie, “Seize the day, boys!” or the Moody Blues song,” 22,000 days, it’s not a lot, it’s all you got…” as if any of us really know how many days we have been given.

So, if you are reading this as a skeptic, you might think to ask: Who is right? If this life is all there is, then, yes, it’s all pretty meaningless, wouldn’t you say? But, what if the real reality is the softly spoken magic spell that turns everything on it’s head? And what if the illusion is the pursuit of money, fame and power in this broken world?

Solomon says, in essence: “I’ve done it all, Lads. I’ve had all the wealth any man could ever wish for. I’ve had harems and more women then I had time to sleep with. I’ve built, I’ve studied under the best, I possessed all my eyes could see. And I was not at all satisfied. It was all like trying to catch the wind.”

When Mel Gibson fell from grace by way of booze and a woman, I remember thinking how common and ordinary and petty were the things that ruined his reputation. Such unoriginal sins. As if there were sins that are original. Yes, I was quite judgmental about the whole thing until I realized that I’d never once prayed for Mel Gibson, even after he made the courageous movie: “Passion of the Christ.” We all were grateful to him, but who had his back? Who did he call in the middle of the night when his demons were taunting him? Was there anyone at all he could turn to to help him in the fight?

Solomon had a similar fall, and ended up worshiping foreign gods because of his foreign wives. Whether he was trading integrity for sex or political points hardly matters. I don’t know if the writer of “Song of songs” was a singer, but I  think he could have sung along with Johnny Cash: “You can have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt.”

“Empire of dirt” sums if up  pretty well, I think. It’s what pursuing the things of this world gets us at best, an empire of dirt that can crumple at any time. On the other hand: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)

Ecclesiastes is so poetic and beautifully written that it’s easy to get caught up in the flow of the words and not see that the preacher is actually trying to get some pretty profound points across. I’m just going to put in some of my favorite quotes from the David Gibson book to illustrate what kind of thoughts I’m talking about:

“Life is gift, not gain.”

“Work itself is a gift, not just the money that may or may not come from work.”

“A life fully lived is a life receiving the reward of today as a gift that you don’t deserve and one that God has given you to enjoy. ”

(If we really believed that every day, what would our attitude be like? A good cross reference here is Deut 28:47 which tells us that having a glad, thankful heart is a command)

“Not to live joyfully and not to drink deeply from the wells of abundant goodness that God has lavished on us, is sin, and it is a sin because it is a denial of who he is.”

“Everything we do for others, we do for God first.”

“If I did everything in the light of ‘fear God and keep his commandments’ how would my life look?”

And in reference to Solomon saying repeatedly to fear God: “Fearing God is affectionate reverence by which the child of God bends himself humbly  and carefully to his father’s law.”

I could go through the book of Ecclesiastes chapter by chapter, but I will spare you that and skip to the end. In the final chapter, Solomon talks to the young from the perspective of the old, warning that it’s easy to forget about God when you have pleasure and health and vitality in abundance. “Remember the days of darkness will be many.” You might be tempted to say that he’s just being a killjoy here, a grumpy old man who can no longer enjoy much himself, so he doesn’t want you to have any fun, either. No, actually, it’s more like he’s saying to enjoy your youth by knowing that it, like everything on this earth, is fleeting. In fact, remember that having a joyful heart is not optional, it’s a command, but be aware that God will judge you for all sinful pleasures, so be wise even in your pleasure.

In chapter 12, he pictures the body in allegorical terms: The keepers of the house are the legs, which now tremble, the strong men (shoulders) stoop, the grinders (teeth) cease because they are few,  you rise early because you can’t sleep, those looking out grow dim (eyes) the sounds grow dim because your hearing is going, you are afraid of heights because a fall would be disastrous, you are afraid of danger coming for you, your hair is white (the almond tree blossoms) and you drag yourself along, and desire is no longer stirred. One thing I learned studying this, is that there was originally a reference here to the Caperberry, an aphrodisiac in Solomon’s time, so desire here is probably at least partially referring to sexual desire.

To sum it up, when you get older, everything starts to fall apart, and no matter how we try to fight it, it’s inevitable for everyone. But knowing there is an ending shouldn’t be bad news. Can you imagine living here forever in this broken world? Struggling with the same sins and suffering forever? As good as this world can be in some ways, this version of reality is cursed, and it shows. And what we know now that Solomon maybe didn’t, is that God will remake this world into  some thing better than we can imagine.

It’s important to understand that, in Ecclesiastes, the preacher is simply laying out the world as it appears to him, as it appears to us all.  We strive for riches and come up empty or find riches themselves empty. We pursue pleasure and find it dulls the more we chase it. He’s saying, in essence, that that’s not where it’s at. You’ll never find fulfillment in all that money or all those lovers are all that wine. Instead enjoy the pleasures God has given but don’t try to make them an end in themselves. They are all a mist and if you try to drink too long from it, it will leave you empty. You should enjoy your work instead of doing it to become wealthy. “The sleep of a working man is sweet but the full stomach of the rich will not  let him sleep.” Why? Because he’s never satisfied with what he has. As Paul later says, be content with whatever state you are in.

Jesus gets even more radical here. He says to take no thought about what you will eat or drink or be clothed with, because God knows you need all that, and he will take care of you. So if your house has been washed away in a hurricane, your possessions ruined and you are down to the clothes on your back, don’t worry because God knows where you are and what you need. Is that a little hard to get your mind around? It is for me! We struggle so hard just to get ahead a little bit in this world, a little nest egg in the bank, and a decent roof over our heads.

We’re doing major repairs on the house right now, fixing the roof and so on. And it feels good to have better windows and doors and roof, but you know what? One good  tornado and it’s all a pile of sticks. If your heart stops tomorrow what does all that matter? Is that depressing? No Solomon says, it’s just life. And the conclusion of the matter for Solomon is: “Fear God and keep his Commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Pink Floyd’s conclusion is: “It’s over, I thought I had more to say”, and I think it’s fair to say that Jesus’ conclusion is: “I am the way the truth and the life and no man comes to the Father except through me.”

Solomon was wise, but the wisest man who ever lived was a carpenter who came from Nazareth.

 

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