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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Be Still

I wrote a poem once, eons ago, with the repeated line:

“ Silence has an echo.”

And it did and it does, but I think for many of us, silence gets louder with the taste of years passing. We hear more in the silence than we once did, because more memories have passed us by. Where it once only echoed softy, now it sometimes thunders and screams with all the good and the bad and the in between, and I don’t mean that everything revealed in the silence is hurtful or sad, but we do know now that life really is short. If we know anything, we know that life really is an illusive mist and we understand it now more then we ever have.

The book I’m reading now (as in, once a week I read a couple pages) says this: that before the gospel is good news it is bad news, and that may seem jolting, but listen closely in the silence and you can hear it. It’s said in many ways: We are broken, needy creatures, in need of saving, depraved, naked and wretched but mostly, just sinful. If that bad news makes us squirm, it should. Behind the silence, our inadequacys sit waiting for us, waiting for us to stop play acting for the mirror or for the crowd and really see our ugly selves.

And oh, my, now I’ve gone and hurt your feelings, because the phrase: “Our ugly selves.” is pretty much taboo in our fake Facebook culture where everyone is beautiful in his or her own way and every trace of ugliness is really just a misunderstanding or a bias. Sorry, but that’s not the news the gospel brings. Certainly, you are beautiful too and that’s the paradox, but whatever beauty is there is the stamp of God’s image on you and you did nothing to gain that. We are creatures torn between dark and light and behind our beauty, the ugly awaits. Is that too blunt? Too truthful? If Eve were all beauty, she would never have fallen and us with her, but fall we do, along with our father Adam, and fallen we are and lost and desperate and so in need of saving. Deny it at your own risk. Deny it and you deny the need for the Good News, because to get to the good you must first swallow the bad.

And this is why the silence is needful. Turn down the sound and turn off the screens and feel the truth. You can’t honestly call yourself beautiful if you know your tendency towards evil. So, don’t call yourself pretty without first putting on robes of righteousness, broken and naked and wretched creature, that you, that we are.

What shall I say then? Where do I go from here? Jesus spoke in parables and scripture often speaks in word pictures and poetry, because that is often how truth comes across in the most tangible way, oddly enough, in story and images, more than in dry lectures. The kingdom of heaven, he says, is like this or like that, because it’s not simply knowledge. Sometimes it is encased in picture, in taste and tunes. In the voice of a friend or drop of dew or wings of a butterfly or flavor of a single raspberry on the tongue, plucked at peak ripeness.

A treasure, he says, it’s a treasure hidden in a field, hidden in the heart, and I know a treasure can be many things other then gold. What do I, what do you, treasure most? Love? Joy? Peace? Long suffering? How did that get in there? Long suffering doesn’t sound like a treasure, it sounds like pain, but that’s in the book, too. And it is perhaps the greatest of treasures, a rare gem burning in the heart of the most righteous among us. Am I getting off topic or only circling back to it from another angle?

“Blessed are they that mourn.”

There it is again, the Gospel in all it’s sad beauty. First, the mourning, then the comfort. Refuse to mourn, refuse the silence, refuse to be honest about the mess in your soul, and you will miss the comfort he’s offering and longing to give you.

One might well ask if I ever say anything new. Of course not. All any preacher or priest worthy of the name does is say the Good News in another way, another flavor, with a different image. Here, have a drop of water for your hellishly parched tongue, this is your communion cup, or you, have a sunset of sunrise, or you a broken bone or broken spirit. Or you who have been abused, you have an abused child to care for. In every beauty and every ugliness this world hurls at us, the Kingdom and the Gospel lurk just behind, in the silence. The silence of early morning, when you can hear your heart beat. It’s there in your inability to show love as you wish you could, in your lisping tongue that rarely says what you really wish it would, in your deepest pain and your greatest misery, still, even there, it stalks you like a lion and baas for your attention like a lamb.

The Truth speaks behind the silence and in the broken pieces of this world as much as in the wholeness. He who has ears, let him hear the echo.

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“The Shack” Movie: Forgiving God

 

In the movie, “The Shack” God speaks to the main character, Mack, by putting a letter in his mailbox. An invitation for them to meet and spend time together. Without going into all the back-story, let’s just say that Mack finally does decide to accept God’s invitation, and that he meets with all three members of the Trinity.

I was originally going to try and address all that people find controversial in this story, but that’s been hashed over many times by people who actually have a lot of followers on their blogs, and besides, I felt led in another direction, as the preachers like to say. This movie does touch on a lot of big issues. Things like forgiveness and judging and just how God operates. I want to narrow it down and mostly talk about what the title says- forgiving God.

But, to get there, I have to address a related issue. One of the criticisms of the movie was that it teaches universalism and not the need for salvation. There may be some truth to that, as this isn’t your typical evangelizing Christian film, however, after I thought about what actually takes place, I realized, that, to me, it was all about Mack’s salvation, because, what is salvation, but first, an invitation from God, then our response and God taking us through a process that ends with us trusting him whole-heartedly?

And that is exactly what happens here. Mack, like a lot of us, has a deep distrust of God’s goodness, because of his life experiences, and even meeting God face to face does not immediately erase that mistrust.

We talk a lot about God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others, and as important as that is, we can’t get there without first trusting him. And in order to trust him, it seems to me, most of us have to forgive him first. Sound odd? Think about it. Who has not, at least in his heart, said to God, as Mack does:

“Where were you when this terrible thing happened. Why didn’t you stop it?”

We all have those moments, unless we just refuse to consider the possibility of a God at all, or we just bury our questions and refuse to speak to him. Our reasoning usually goes something like: God, you have all the power, therefore, you should use your power to eliminate all our suffering. Or, if we are at least a bit selfless, then we think God should eliminate everyone’s suffering.

“Papa” as God the Father is referred to in the film, tells Mack that he has never left him or his daughter, but that is not enough to win Mack’s trust. Jesus assuring Mack that if he keeps his eyes on him he has nothing to fear, although helpful, still isn’t enough. It isn’t until Jesus sends him to meet Wisdom, and Wisdom puts Mack on the judgment seat and allows Mack to be the judge, that the layers of his mistrust and anger at God begin to be peeled away and he finally realizes that God truly is good. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, while giving a very brief synopsis.)

Ok, I said I was going to try to stay on topic, but this might be a good place to discuss one of the problems I think people have with this story. God appearing in human form is always problematic. I mean, who knows what form God would take? So, we have a lot of confusion about God the Father appearing as a kindly black woman or the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman. It’s hard to believe that people take offense to this, when the God of scripture appears as a burning bush, a pillar of fire, a man, on several occasions prior to Jesus, and so on. I suspect the real problem people have is that God doesn’t seem majestic enough, or big enough, or angry enough. But, the fundamental mistake Mack makes is to think that he has God all figured out. I think a lot of people are making the same mistake when they try to limit how God could choose to reveal himself to us. I also suspect that some find this version of God disturbing because they, like Mack, have held him at arm’s length all their lives. And of all the ways to do that, the religious way is perhaps the most deceptive, because it feels righteous. It feels like reverence, like the right thing to do, because God is big and scary and beyond our comprehension. The problem is, it’s much easier to fall back on religion then to move forward into a real relationship with “Papa”. Less rewarding, but religion is easy, just follow the right rules, say the right words, perform the right sacraments, and you’ll be respected. Really, you don’t even have to trust God or like him to do religion. But, scripture makes it plain that we are not mere orphans, we are sons and daughters of God, if we are his. We are not mere slaves, but friends of God, if we have learned to trust that he is indeed good, always.

It’s funny how, when I start thinking along a certain line, God will start re enforcing the point in different ways. Probably because I’m a little dense. I sometimes listen to Catholic radio. I know, what a shocking revelation, right? Don’t worry, I do disagree with some stuff, but the nuns always have interesting stories, and sometimes there are phenomenal preachers, or talking priests, or whatever they are called. The one I heard this last week could have fit nicely into any Protestant pulpit. Basically, it was all about the necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus, and not just keeping the sacraments and doing service. I was a bit blown away. After all, I’ve heard all my life that this is precisely what Catholics don’t believe in. Anyway, one of the things he said that caught my attention is that we are born mistrusting God, because this is what the serpent, Satan, instilled in us. It’s our natural inclination since the deception of Eve. And what coming to faith is, is laying down our mistrust, our judgment of God and submitting to his ways, his wisdom. Coming to believe that he really is good and knows best.

Just like in the movie, God is always the one who initiates contact with us, but we decide whether we are going to stay stuck in our sinful state where we are on the throne or if we are going to let God have his rightful place. For many of us, relationship with God is impossible, because we haven’t forgiven him for not fixing the world the way we think it should be. We haven’t forgiven him for letting that person die, or this person leave or that other person betray us, or he didn’t stop us from doing something foolish, or..the list goes on and on. Only after we forgive him will he be free to embrace us in our brokeness, which is where real relationship starts.

If the question is: Should I see the movie? I’m going to say yes and add a caution, but for a different reason then most. Be careful. Because, it will probably make you cry and it just might open your heart to a God who is both bigger then you can imagine and who loves you more then you ever dared dream.

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Beautiful Mess

It’s February and everything is messy. The back yard is a sponge that throws mud up your pants wherever you step. Sandpaper throats and chest colds. Summer one day and snow the next. Life is messy, always, but early spring here is a sloppy, slippery mud bath.

“Don’t mind if I fall apart, there’s more room in a broken heart.” (Carly Simon)

I like quoting old pop songs because there are little bits of truth in there sometimes, that stand out and stimulate a thought process to discovering deeper Truths. Ever notice that the best of what culture says is always something that God has already said either through scripture or nature or other believers? This is probably going to be a continuation of my last post in some ways, since I’m still mulling over Voscamp’s book and adding my own thoughts to the mix.

We all start out selfish, greedy for milk and crying for sustenance and more, for a full belly and a comfortable place to lay. And it seems that for many of us, we stay that selfish infant until our hearts have been cut deep enough, until we have bled enough to notice we aren’t alone here, that others are bleeding too. Your pain becomes a mirror to reflect the pain of others, the pain everyone has endured from living in a sin sick world. And when you wake up to that reality, you begin to see that most of us are pretty much the same at the core, only our masks vary. It does seem a shame that God has to let us break before we can pass on his grace in any meaningful way, but it also makes sense that it works this way in the broken reality we all exist within. “The world is backwards, but it looks natural.” says singer Chris Taylor. If it wasn’t backwards, we wouldn’t be broken and this would be paradise.

But what happens to those who refuse to break? Or rather, those who refuse to admit that they are already broken, that they have lost their way and failed, and wounded the ones closest to them, the ones they were supposed to help and heal? If you go there, if you refuse to acknowledge your own busted up state, there are only a few paths open for you. Most likely, you will wear your self righteousness like a thorny crown, because you can’t speak the truth, that you’ve been wrong and sinful and weak. And the sad thing is, everyone but you will see through you. Everyone but you will know that your bravado hides a gaping wound. Broken, contrite hearts grow larger, but a heart that you try to hold together through your own strength shrinks into itself, and you can’t share what you refuse to see. You can’t give what you refuse to receive.

The reality is, we all bleed. The only choices are to bleed light or to bleed darkness. Sadly, it’s possible to be so blind as to think you are giving when you are only taking. Gladly, the incomprehensible truth of the Incarnation is that for those who open their broken heart to him, we have a God who bleeds with us and for us. I read somewhere recently that we should never give God human characteristics- and it’s a fair point. But, it also makes me smile,because God gave himself human characteristics. He did the unthinkable by making himself over into our image after making us in his image. He made himself human so we could taste of his divine grace. No wonder we have to bleed to fill anyone’s needs. Our example did the same, bled himself empty to fill all our needs.

If you choose to reject your need, you can always try being tough. That should work, right? That’s what the world is constantly drilling into our skulls, though every action movie and superhero story. Sure, you can hold it all inside for awhile, but it’s going to bleed out somewhere eventually. You can be tough and press down the pain and hoard your grievances and curse the world. You can sit and count the ways that people who were supposed to love you did you wrong. But you’ll shrink. You will dry up into a twisted caricature of who you were meant to be. You’ll bleed poison into all your relationships if you swallow that bitter pill.

What’s the alternative? Jesus was blunt: “Love your enemies.”

What?

“Bless those who curse you.”

How is that possible?

It’s only possible for those who have finally understood that the grace they’ve been given was wholly unmerited. You can’t earn God’s grace, so why would you demand that other’s earn your grace, your forgiveness? We only think we want fairness from God until we understand that fairness would result in our damnation, then we beg for mercy. Go ahead, drink in Jesus’ words about giving even a cup of cold water having it’s reward. It’s true. But, remember that he also said that if you lust in your heart, you’re guilty. That does sound a bit unfair. Shouldn’t we be judged only on sins we have actually committed? But God isn’t concerned only about your behavior, he’s also concerned about your one broken heart that needs healing. You can do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. You can be a model citizen and hate your neighbor. You can have a heart of stone and sing worship songs with abandon. You can fool everyone but yourself and God. Or you can fall on your knees when no one sees, bleed out your pain to him and receive enough grace to overflow onto others.

What we humans often do, what we tell ourselves is-tomorrow. Tomorrow will be better. Because tomorrow I’ll break these chains of sin-regret-sadness-addiction-sorrow-whatever our burden is today- tomorrow we will throw it off and find joy, find peace. But what I’ve heard the Spirit whisper, what I’ve begun to see, is that tomorrow never comes. It’s always today. If you want abundant life, and who doesn’t?, you had best discover it here, in the midst of your mess. It’s not hiding on some mountaintop somewhere. Sure, I’d like to live in that log cabin in the mountains, my dream place, but the fact is, I’m still here in the muddy swamp. Sure, I loved the sea and heard God there and in the front row at a Crowder concert. But in between those high worship moments, there are a lot of days that have mud to slog through and mundane work that needs doing. Joy isn’t held in reserve for that perfect vacation, or until you get it all together and once and for all conquer all your sins and sorrows. No, it’s right here in the middle of the mess of life, with all it’s sharp edges and disappointments and dark places. We have the hope of heaven, but unless you let heaven bleed though when you feel like hell, when you’ve got a cold and the dog threw up on the couch and there’s bills to pay and sore backs and short tempers, unless you can find your joy then, you’re never going to find it in your ideal happy place.

The people we look up to as saints didn’t live on the mountaintop all the time either. In fact, many of them had terrible lives and died as martyrs. They all had broken pieces, guaranteed. What else drove them to their knees but their pain and brokenness? Jesus did say he came to bind up the broken hearted and to set the captives free, but he didn’t say he came to make our lives trouble free. Sorry, that’s not in the Book, health and wealth preachers notwithstanding. What he said in no uncertain terms is that in this life we will have trouble. “But take heart, I have overcome the world.” That doesn’t mean he’s going to take you away to Eden, to a perfect garden with no weeds. Not yet. It’s means he will walk with you, even, especially, through all the weeds and briers and thorns, if, and only if, you invite him to. It’s the people who learn to lay it down, to admit their need, who get to laugh with him in the midst of their mess. That get to experience transformation and become confidant that nothing in this world can separate them from the love of Christ.

Romans 8:38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Your One Broken Heart

What do we do with our pain? Some days, I swear that this world is nothing but pain. It’s in the air, the water, the dirt. We breath pain, eat grief. We humans bath in it from birth, from the moment when our raw skin first touches the air and the light burns our eyes. To live is to experience loss. To love, the deepest pain of all.

When I’m swimming there, in pain too deep for me to touch bottom, I know my need, it’s just that I can’t. I know what I should do, only it’s impossible. What I need is to let go of the struggle, to lay back and float free into Jesus. I know that it’s my fear of the deep that steals my breath, my lack of faith that tenses my every muscle and makes me heavy. And so, Christ whispers: “Let it all go. Let me and only me keep you from drowning. Breath me in and you can exhale and not sink. I’ll be your air. I’ll be the ground when your feet finally touch bottom.”

Somehow, sometimes, buried within this deepest kind of pain, are bits of joy, a kind of other worldly joy that bubbles through the veins when I don’t expect it. Fleeting, yes, faint at times and strong at others, it bleeds into me through a stray song lyric, through a soulful embrace from a friend, through beauty, prayers, poems and passion. To stop and bathe in that kind of joy is a rare thing. A taste of redemption.

And there in that dark place, punctuated by random bits of light, I wonder: What is life, really? Scripture says a vapor, a morning mist, soon to pass. Some days it seems that there is something behind the mist, a deeper mystery that I can almost make out, but it remains just out of reach. And so, I grasp for those things here that seem to touch the mystery, those things that are larger than my understanding. I try to transcend the mediocrity that living on this planet can be. Enduring love has an allure, for every honest heart, a fragrance of transcendence, because it’s so rare. For two people to choose each other for over sixty years as my parents did-that’s something to hold onto, an anchor in the mist. In this temporal, impatient and increasingly rude culture we live in, any kind of long term relationship feels almost unnatural. But sixty years? That feels like holy ground. I feel like taking off my shoes and bowing my head in the presence of such a miracle.

How vulnerable do I want to be here? Should I mention that my natural preferred state is isolation? My comfort zone, a bubble, a shell that I keep close to keep others at arm’s length? But I try. Sometimes, with a great deal of effort, I manage to reach out a tentative finger, and hope God takes note of my great “sacrifice”. I hope that he understands my heart and grades me on a curve.

In “The Broken Way”, Ann Voscamp asks it plainly: “ What do we do with our one broken heart?” And her answer, pared down to it’s core, equals just this: We give it away. We give our pain, our brokeness to each other and receive wholeness in return. Counterintuative doesn’t begin to describe this revelation. This is a hard way to swallow, a hard path to follow. Hard? For some of us, it’s like yanking out our own teeth. Why is it so absurdly hard to show our neediness? Even with God, it’s hard, and it’s not like he doesn’t already know. But with people? We used to do an object lesson sometimes when we taught Sunday School. Have a kid fall backwards and try not to catch himself. Have him trust us to catch him. It’s not natural. It feels like foolishness, like a little suicide, to let go and trust even a friend to catch you. What if they just stand back and laugh at your pain? Some will, you know. I’m sure some of you know all too well what that feels like. Why risk it?

I’ve got a bunch of notebooks and I keep losing them. Somehow, I keep losing the one I’m currently writing in. But, maybe there’s a reason. Because it makes me keep re writing this last bit. Maybe God just wants me to really grasp what he’s saying, making me write it down until I really understand.

Shortly after Mom died, I ordered the book I mentioned earlier, and shortly after it arrived, I had to take my wife to a doctor and a hospital lab for some tests. So I took my book along.

I’m sitting in a waiting room again, only a week after Mom left us all broken and empty in another waiting room. So, I’m pretty much hating hospitals right now. Most people you see in these rooms are not the most pleasant company. It’s just the nature of waiting rooms. Most are worried, or sad, or both. And I’m on the same page. I’m also trying to read the first couple pages of the book, which in my current state of mind, is almost a physically painful process. When you’re still wearing your own suffering, walking in it every moment, reading about someone else’s pain is enough to make you bawl, even in public. But, there’s this young woman who walks in with a little girl. A baby, really. A baby who has just reached that almost walking stage. An almost bald little girl, with pink shoes and a smile, if I may be so corny, a smile which lights up the room like a ray of sunlight in a dark, damp cave. She’s just learned to say “Hi!” and she’s using her new word on everyone. This child doesn’t yet know what a stranger is. And there in that moment, the joy bleeds through and the miracle happens. I find out later that Ann calls it koinonia- communion. But all I know right now is that all our sad faces are breaking, cracking into smiles. We really can’t help it. She doesn’t just give of her joy, she is joy. And so, I see Jesus in the flesh in a waiting room and feel the touch of the holy and it’s like God says: “See, this is who you can be, who you should be to a broken world.”

I haven’t read the book yet. I don’t yet know how I’m going to live with my one broken heart. So, God gives me a preview. How do you heal it? By giving it away. And it will come back to you. “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” Luke 6:38

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The Real Life

 

There is an old saying that the only difference between the rut and the grave are the dimensions. New Years seems like a good time to consider what ruts we might be in and how to get out of them.

“I want to live the real life.

I want to live my life close to the bone.

Just because I’m middle-aged that don’t mean

I want to sit around this house and watch T.V.

I want the real life.

I want to live the real life.”

(John Mellencamp)

I was biking this summer on a paved trail and this old song was scrolling through my brain for some reason. Probably because the real life to me involves being active, even if I don’t always feel like it, and my legs weren’t feeling like it. I came into a clearing and saw a big bird overhead. An Eagle, I thought, squinting into the sun, but then he turned and I realized it was a buzzard, so I yelled:

“What are you doing? I’m not dead yet!”

I’ve noticed something about me that I don’t like much. I can be here, but not really here. In fact, I’m pretty good at being present but not present, as in, my brain and heart are somewhere else. It might be a good thing if you’re a dentist or a factory worker. I used to say that divorcing mind from body was the way to get through a day at the factory, but most of the time, it’s not a good thing.

Because, when someone is with you, they want to know that you are there with them, that you are fully engaged in the moment, not off wandering through the stratosphere. But, we settle into our routines, we get comfortably numb, we forget that life is supposed to be an adventure, that we should be fully engaged and living the real life everyday.

We take a walk, we see a rainbow. Does it amaze us as it much as it did as children?

The grass is still as green, the fall leaves are as gold, but we don’t always see them, self absorbed as we are. We don’t always smell the fresh earth after the rain. We don’t run down the gravel road in our bare feet anymore, as fast as we can go, for no particular reason. It’s too painful, our feet are too tender and we might pull a muscle. We don’t go fishing enough. There is too much work that is always waiting for us, crouching in the back of our guilt ridden minds.

I had an aunt who lost her vision to diabetes when I was a kid. I think I finally realize now, that as an outdoor person losing her sight, she lost more then I can imagine. She could describe places, a little spring here, a stream there, places she loved and wandered in before her world grew dark. If we aren’t careful, if we don’t pay attention to what we have, our worlds can grow dark simply because we get too caught up in making a living to truly live.

And while we are at it, at some point, in middle-age or before, you hopefully quit trying to make people like you and just let yourself become the person God intended. And if no one ever gets it, if no one totally understands you, that’s ok. You’re not a teen ager anymore, and the drama of trying to be cool or to fit in is too much effort now.

“And heroes they come and they go. And leave us behind as if we’re supposed to know, why? Why do we give up our hearts to the past, and why must we grow up so fast?” (Eagles)

This world is beautiful but badly broken. Glorious, but soaked in grief. Sometimes when you see through the fog of your false self, and your own fake smiles start to sicken you, you can see the depths of your own ingratitude for all that you’ve been given. Is there anything uglier than a hard heart?

The ocean waves mesmerize, sooth and shake and disturb and comfort, and beauty always leaves you wondering and grasping for more.

I read somewhere where someone said (rather mockingly) that some people think God has their picture on his refrigerator. And I thought: Isn’t that what the Incarnation tells us? That God has every one of our pictures pasted on his refrigerator and written on his heart? Rich Mullins said that when someone told him that God loved him, his thought was

“Big deal! That don’t make me special. That’s just means God don’t have no taste. And thank God, he doesn’t.”

He died once for ALL, so you are no more special then the rest, and yet at the same time, you are his most prized possession.

I know this is a wandering post, but somehow I think it will all fit together in the end. We humans like to believe we are free, but we are bound by our physical limits, by our perceptions, by our sins. There is much will power can accomplish and much it can not overcome on it’s own. The natural man isn’t born truly free. “You must be born again”, Jesus said. As soon as you are old enough to yell:

“Mine, mine!”

You are bound by your greed, your lust for more, the lust of the eyes, of the flesh, the oh, so sneaky snake in the soul that is pride, and ultimately by the prince of this world. The natural man only becomes free to an extent when God opens his eyes to his need for…something. Something more. This opening of the eyes of the heart is sometimes called preveniant grace. And it is here that the will is now free enough to choose, once it understands that there is a choice to be made. It is here that a man or woman can see both sides of the wall.

“ A dark and silent barrier between all I am and all that I could ever hope to be” (Kansas)

Most are living in a fog where they can’t see or feel the wall. That’s the reality of living only by the flesh, you are unable to see anything else. But somehow, we know we are not what we could be, what we are meant to be. Something, like a nagging itch at the base of the skull tell us: Something is missing, there must be more than this to life. And when we see the open fields, the sunshine behind the wall, it can be thrilling and terrifying all at once. There is a certain perverse comfort in our bondage. It’s familiar and easy to fall back into, but it always promises what it can’t deliver: peace and contentment. But, those fields, so open, there is no telling what could happen if I vault over the wall and start to run! Can you hear the beating of that distant drum, hear the song start to rise from a place in your heart that you thought was wholly shattered?

“I am free to run, I am free to dance, I am free to live for you.” (Newsboys)

Such freedom is frightening. So many choices, when before the only choice was self.

You can’t sit on the wall forever. You can’t expect God to be passive about your choice. Rather, he is passionate and will pull you over the edge if you allow it. This tug of war with your soul must end in true freedom or renewed bondage. And once you have seen the fields of freedom, the return to bondage will be that much more painful, the chains that much tighter.

It is a strange paradox, indeed. How can submitting to God bring freedom? Is it a shock to learn that all along it was the evil one who is the control freak? Didn’t they tell you that this world is backwards and little is what it first seems to be?

Sin has been called many names, but perhaps the truest name is: “That which makes us not ourselves.” (The Sacred Romance) It’s not only the opposite of freedom, it’s the opposite of your true identity and the thief that steals joy, peace and life. Real life.

Of course, the reality is, we all face many walls in life. But, scaling each still starts at the same place, with the heart’s cry to the Maker of all for redemption and help and hope.

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Rachel Svendsen

Reading. Writing. Me.

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