Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dropping the sackcloth

Then the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush...  Isaiah 20:2-3
Oooh.  Not good.  Suddenly a Roman prison cell looks pretty sweet.  Oh dear LORD, will I indeed join you in your relentless pursuit of the lost?  No matter what the cost?  Will I loose my meager sackcloth facade covering my last remnants of pride and kick off those sandals  that protect me from the burning sands of the world and step into full obedience?
Intentional and free in all that I do?  And think?  Even my feelings?  Unbound by anything except Your love?  Putting no confidence in the chariots of Egypt, but only in Your mercy and grace?
May I boast in You alone, and put my hope in You alone.  

Who knew about those whirring wings?

Ah, land of whirring wings that is beyond the rivers of Cush, which sends ambassadors by the sea, in vessels of papyrus on the waters.  Go, you swift messengers, to a nation tall and smooth, to a people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide.  Isaiah 18:1-2

Well, Christy the Google Queen, stumbled on this one.  Unbeknownst to me, there are literally dozens of websites about Isaiah 18 being the one time that the United States is mentioned in the Bible.  “We can conclude that no other nation, ancient or modern, fits the description as closely as the United States,” especially the bit about “The people are described as tall and smooth-skinned. Handsome and bronzed are words used in other translations. What image do other parts of the world have of the appearance of Americans, especially from American TV shows piped all over the world? Tall, attractive, smoothed-skinned people.”

This is a lovely reminder to hold our understanding of Scripture lightly.  We are each very capable of twisting pieces to fit me and mine, and lose the perspective of the LORD God Almighty moving through the scope of history.  

So holding all of this lightly, as to the whereas and how shalts, I can look to understand the unchanging God, not bound by time, but who is at work through time: And the Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord, and He will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them.  In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth,  whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”

Jerry’s sermon yesterday was about Paul.  Paul in prison.  Really this had not been part of The Dream for Paul, stuck in a tiny room chained between two guards, when he had a Big Calling on His Life- he was God’s instrument to proclaim His name to the gentiles, and their kings, and to the people of Israel.  And yet here he was stuck.  Very stuck and going nowhere.  How was this part of the Plan?

Yesterday I battled sadness.  Mostly for other people in my life who feel stuck.  Looking for the Hand of God, and simply not seeing it.  Just the shadows that it casts.  It is clear that I am Not God, because every bone in my body just wants to bustle in and solve each ache and pain, to kiss the boo boos and tape a Pink Princess bandaid over it.  

This section in Isaiah echoes what Paul knew.  The mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.  He has an eternal purpose from the beginning of time, He who created all things.  Let me not be discouraged, over the strikes and blows that I experience, or the strikes and blows that seem to be a large part of life here on earth.      His eternal purpose has been accomplished through Christ Jesus, and I can rest in this truth.  

And in some small way, I am part of The Plan.  The invisible walls that frame the perimeter of my daily endeavors are seen by Him.  Were placed by Him to bless His people, the work of His hands, His inheritance.  For their glory.  

And even, even, if unusual interpretations of Isaiah 18 end up framing American foreign policy, it’s okay.  He’s got it covered.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The question

For you have forgotten the God of your salvation
and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge;
therefore, though you plant pleasant plants
and sow the vine-branch of a stranger,
though you make them grow on the day that you plant them,
and make them blossom in the morning that you sow,
yet the harvest will flee away
in a day of grief and incurable pain.  Isaiah 17:10-11

A reminder that unless I build our house on the strong foundation of obedience, it will not stand in the storms of life.  It is so easy to go charging off into reasonable, healthy plans, rushing about with to do lists and well-intentioned advise.  But.  

How does one forget the LORD God Almighty?  Pathetically easily.  

When people ask me, oh yes the Fred question again, when I became a Christian, it is a long story.  Like everyone’s story, of moving into alignment with God, of taking steps toward Him, or at least turning and facing the right direction.

There was the Little Visits with God moment, reading a nighttime devotional book with my dad in his big king-sized bed when I first “prayed the prayer,” highly motivated by the great pleasure my little sister had brought to my parents by doing the same.  Then, the “rededication” prayer at Joy Bible Camp, the same week man landed on the moon.  Then, another “Oh, I get it” moment when I was twelve.  But the real moment came years later.  I was spinning my webs.  Making my plots.  Organizing not only my life, but that of everyone  else in my small sphere of influence.  I can exactly remember the rock I was sitting on in the quad at Wheaton College next to my dorm.  

The question came to me, under the brisk but bright October night sky.  “Who is LORD of your life?”  As distinct as an audible voice, it broke through the self-babble.  Pause. Consider.  And with a crushingly clear understanding I stepped down off of the little chair in the center of the circle of my soul, the familiar Four Spiritual Laws pamphlet illustration that I knew so well.  

You are, Oh Holy One of the Universe.  May it be so.  

Deliver me from this body of death

Give counsel; grant justice; make your shade like night at the height of noon; shelter the outcasts; do not reveal the fugitive; let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer.  Isaiah 16: 3-4
John O’Hair’s teaching pierced something in my soul.  Or.  Now that I have answered Fred’s question about soul and spirit; spirit is more accurate.  Soul is the animal part of me.  According to google, animals have souls, humans have souls and spirits.  The part of me that relates to God.  My spirit was pierced.  

Christ is our peace.  He came to tear down the barriers which so easily divide.  And, I, like so many of my brethren, secretly smirk over my lack of prejudices, unlike the “Those” out there.  And there you have it.  Another barbed wire fence strung up by the Pharisee in my soul, the material human part of me.  I always pooh-poohed my children who bewailed the myriad prejudices that I passed on to them unaware.  ASU said with a sneer.  Texas.  White bread.  Television.  Even Colgate toothpaste.  Somehow, somewhere, I picked up that people who used Colgate toothpaste rather than Crest were Them.  Us. Them. 

I wandered around ASU campus last Monday afternoon marveling at the tree-shaded pathways winding through quirky buildings and bustling students.  For the first time in forty years of living in Arizona. This is a perfectly lovely place.  And another mental and emotional wall came crashing down.  Ali graduates from UT Austin in June and I only look forward to him and Buffy finding some honky tonk joint to hunker down in, kick back and listen.  A huge glass bowl topped by Andrea’s kindergarten picture plate waits for tonight’s dinner, bubbling up with a mass of white bread dough.  Yum.  Watching television on TV trays while eating dinner?  Jack and Mary Anne have turned this most grievous cultural faux pas into a ritual of prayerful worship, clicking off the NBC nightly news with Brian Williams, they offer up the horrors and angst to the LORD God Almighty.  And Colgate toothpaste was on sale this week at Fry’s, one dollar for a 6.0 oz Colgate Max Fresh with mini breath strips, and neat stacks of boxes line my bathroom cupboard.  Yes, Andrea, there are even Cocoa Puffs under the counter for Igor.  Horrors.  Is nothing sacred?

Biologist E. O. Wilson says that our drive to join a group- and to fight for it- is what makes us human.  To quote extensively verbatim from a recent Newsweekarticle by James Mollison, Wilson says that everyone, no exception, must have a tribe, an alliance with which to jockey for power and territory, to demonize the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags.  And so it has ever been.  In ancient times and prehistory, tribes gave visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and a way to defend the group enthusiastically against rival groups.  It gave people a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world.  

So that is our soul part.  Our natural, animal tendencies.  Something that is built into the system that is broken by sin.  When Paul was trying to describe “Christ is our Peace,” he used the most dramatic division he could think of: Jew and Greek. Since before he could walk or talk, he had been instructed that he was “set apart” and different from Them.  But if we didn’t get it ... he went on ... neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.  None of us are set apart.  We are not Us.  

Jesus understood that this was a difficult Truth that sliced through the core of who we are as fallen humans. So He repeated Himself.   Across different teaching modalities and learning styles.  This is important.  Actually it is difficult to think of a theological point that He underscored more heavily. He told stories about Samaritans demonstrating neighborliness, and disrespectful children who should be disowned but were welcomed home with roasted pig, and ungrateful servants who grabbed fellow servants by the throat and demanded payment, and the Pharisee thanking God that he was not like one of Them, a grubbing sneaky tax collector aligned with the Oppressor. Yes.  He was trying to be shockingly clear.   He modeled it, lived it day after day, eating and drinking with those same tax collectors, chatting with That woman drawing water at high noon, allowing one of Those women to wash His feet with expensive perfume and then honoring her for it.  If this was still muddled, he articulated it in short, concise statements: do not strain at a gnat; be merciful; do not judge.  And then, with his almost last breath, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

At what point do I begin to take Jesus seriously?  This is not a question of “discernment.”  This is out and out vile sin.  My animal self desperately wants to believe differently.  That I somehow merit a little more attention and grace from the Holy One.  Nope.  If, oh, oops, since I might have at least sinned one tiny white inconsequential sin, I am guilty of them all.  Nothing I am or do has earned His love and mercy.  Nothing.  So every line I draw around me denies His holiness.  And His work on the cross.  He Himself is our peace. We need to scrape off every single bumper sticker.  National Rifle Association.  Raul Grijalva. Five Finger Death Punch.  Even Statement of Faith contracts with a space for my signature.  We all have them. Lines. And every line is sin.  Oh wretched man that I am.  

Here in Isaiah, the people of God are commanded to welcome in the evil Moabites.  Even when they were in the midst of their well-deserved consequences, wisdom and justice included erasing the lines.  Dramatically.  Let my shade be as night in the noonday sun.  Let me be a shelter.  An inclusive shelter.  To lift up my arms and welcome them in.  Just as He did.  For He so loved the World.  With a capital W, not the little, with all of the ugly connotation that word can muster, lowercase world in which I so wretchedly want to live.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sifting through the clamor

This is the purpose that is purposed concerning the whole earth, and this is the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back? Isaiah 14: 26-27

So I was restless yesterday afternoon.  Perhaps it had something to do with the enthusiasm with which Panchita was instructing me on how to properly wipe down a stove, but I decided to go for a walk.

Now, across Country Club Road lies a most heart-lifting beauteous walk, especially with the late afternoon sun skipping across the breezy trees and still the hint of after-rain creosote lingering.  And I have a pattern, or perhaps well-grooved rut, for those who know me well, of a happy loop through the loveliness, with even set memorials paced along the way... this little stretch under the eucalyptus is where I pray for Andrea, and then I make this turn and pray for Heather, and here, at this tree, I pray for a teenage mom I mentored five or six years ago.  Every time.  

But yesterday, I turned left.  Past the woodpile, through the scrabbly oleander bushes, and stood for a moment in the crowded parking lot.  It was one of those odd gripped moments, “Is this the voice of the Spirit?”  Pause.  And I headed through the simmering it’s-almost-summer cars, it occurred to me to go knock on the door of a friend whom I last spoke to.. hmmm... last July?  Or something like that. 

And she answered the door, finished tidying up the kitchen, and we went for a walk, round and round the back neighborhood.  And we talked over life, the ups and downs, and wondered about God in all of it.  And then I headed home.

And was this His small still voice?  Was this conversation one of those road-less-traveled moments that will be looked back upon with wonder?  Or will it just be a pleasant blur of a sunny afternoon?  And how does it all work together anyway?  What is the balance between His sovereignty and my free will? 

I do not know.  But I do think one thing, that I would prefer to be joyfully drawing water from the wells of salvation rather than being laid low because of my ruthless pomposity.  And I do believe that He is at work in me to will and to work His good purpose, and it is preferred to be soft clay under His firm Potter’s fingers, rather than stubborn dry earth that must be smashed and broken and set aside to soak before being of service.  

Let me please pause, listen, and then obey.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Well done

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.  Isaiah 11:2-3

This same Spirit that rested upon Him, the Branch that sprang up from the stump of Jesse, has also been given to us, to me.  To will and to work His good pleasure.  Once again, God underlines that He has withheld from me nothing.  

And yet there is this time thing in which we are trapped.  What is the point of the long awkward and often painful pilgrimage?  Why is there not an insta-button the moment we receive His free gift of forgiveness and His Spirit that bounces us directly out of this broken world?  

I am quite sure that I will not understand until the end of time... and then, perhaps not even then; John O’Hair hinted that perhaps it is a continuous spiral of further up and further in.  We will never be God but the fog will be lifted.

However there are glimpses through the mist- of metaphors woven into the fabric of life that speak truth- the sturdiness of plants having hunkered down during the winter, the removing of dross through the smelting process, the intensity of color applied layer after layer rather than one thin coat.  
But the important thing is, as I stumble along this path of faith, is that He has not slapped me on the back and muttered something about “Be warmed and be fed,” and “See you on the other side,” but He is all in.  

Sort of like my quasi-backpacking trips into the Rincons or the Santa Ritas or wherever with my little brothers when I was young... they pored over the green and white contour maps that sent my head spinning, rolled and rerolled the bags and stoves and bottles and weird-tasting bars into these massive Kelty packs, shook me awake in the still grey dawn and pushed me out of the car, shivering.  They wore the heavy boots and extra jackets, lashed all that stuff over and around themselves with boingy cords and rattled and clanked all the way and my only job was to keep up. Me and my little sneakers. Trot, trot, trot behind them. 
He prepared the way wherein we should walk, He showed us how it is done, well, and He is present, with all wisdom and understanding.  

And may my delight be in Him.  Not muttering and grumbling, but with joyous expectation greet each day as a gift, an opportunity to sink more profoundly into His might, to scrape away a bit more slag, and to live one more layer.  Well.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time He brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time He has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; 
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.  Isaiah 9: 1-2

One of the Truths that I am living in right now is that He is not bound by time.  It is not a dimension that binds Him and His great work.  And with that understanding comes a great peace.  

I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing.

Surely this is what I can declare.  He is faithful.  And His goodness is new every morning.  I may not know what lies beyond the bend up ahead.  But He, in all of His glorious mercy and love does.  And He will be there with me, to walk through whatever dark valleys or bright sunlit adventures might lie in wait.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

Not of this world

I was pressed so hard that I almost fell, but the LORD came to my help. Psalm 118:13

For the Lord spoke thus to me with His strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, Him you shall honor as holy. Let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.  Isaiah 8: 11-12

And let Him be my peace.  This was a lunch discussion yesterday after church at BisonWitches around nacho chips with extra jalapeños and soup bowls of bread.  What does it mean when He says, “Peace I give you, not as the world gives you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid?

We live in a world that fear has by the throat.  We are subjected to a nonstop influx of fear-mongering: of collapsed economies and war and rumors of war and drug lord alliances and computer virus and hacking and North Korea with a crazy trigger finger.   Our own flesh can churn up fears of its own: what will the future bring?  How will I live?  What shall I do? And for me, as always, What about the children?

And yet, over and over, God demonstrates His holiness, His set-apartness.  He is God Almighty at work in and through and about all things.  Manuel, the English director from Guatemala, can sense it in all the little details of their journey- from a silly but happy Rose Parade in Tombstone to John O’Hair’s piercing words about breaking down barriers.  I can sense it in happenstance conversations with Weston, with Darci, with the West University Neighborhood Association.  Nicole can sense it deep within her heart as she wrestles not unlike Jacob.

As Fred transcribed notes from yesterday’s sermon, he asked, “What does it mean ‘He is our Peace’”?  For He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.  Ephesians 2: 14 And while this passage specifically describes the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Greek, between the “us” and “them” that haunts all human relationships, He also destroyed sin, which divides us from the Holy One.  He ripped down the curtain, once and for all.  Nothing can ever separate us from the Love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

Whom then shall I fear?  Of what should I be afraid?


Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Isaiah 6:10

He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”  John 12:20

The Calvinist passages ... “It’s not really my fault because God is the One who hardened my heart, so it’s His fault, just like old Pharaoh ... He was just being used by God to make a point.” 

It is true.  Our hearts are hard.  But He is not to blame, unless it is the blame of an overindulgent parent who will stop at nothing to bring us to Himself.  It is the hard heartedness of the older brother to whom the Father said, “Everything I have is yours, and always has been.” This is a repetition of “I have withheld nothing from you.”  After having prepared a beautiful vineyard and entrusting it to workers, The Landlord sends the messengers to collect His due, His fruit.  Articulate, passionate messengers.  Nothing.  Again and again, and nothing.  So He sends His Son who once again speaks truth, performs signs and wonders and humbling Himself to even death on a cross.  Nothing.  
The “dull” and “heavy” words of Isaiah are the sorts of words that are used to describe someone who has just finished a huge meal and does not even have the energy to push back from the table.  Eyes are glazed, and the heart is “fat,” and satiated.  Full of ourselves is the problem.  We need no Savior, we are enough.  We are bright, hardworking, have our system in place.  Who is this Landlord shaking the boat? 
The verb tense in John shifted to the imperfect. Here the imperfect is used with a negative, suggesting they were not about to believe because the intentionality was nonexistent. The idea is that they don't believe and are not in the mood or habit of believing, i.e., they had no intention of believing Him.
And Isaiah asks, “How long, O LORD?”  How long will these hearts be hard?  Until we come to the end of ourselves.  
Until the tree is chopped down.  And burned.  And then, and only then, For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease (Job 14:7)

And even though we have squandered all that He entrusted to us, He is still our mother, longing to gather her chicks under her wing, He is still our father, pacing back and forth on the road, looking for the repentant heart on the distant horizon.  

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sour grapes

and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!  Isaiah 5: 8

This is certainly something that is lost in translation.  The Hebrew word for “justice” sounds almost like the Hebrew word for “bloodshed.”  Likewise for “righteousness” almost sounding like “outcry.”  A case where a tiny miss is as good as a mile.  The difference between sweet and sour grapes. One sets teeth on edge.
We are the LORD’s Vineyard.  What more was there to do for My vineyard, that I have not done in it?  Is there anything He has withheld from us, His beloved?  He created fertile soil, dug and cleared it of stones, and carefully planted choice vines.  And withheld nothing, not even His Son.  

And yet, we don’t quite get it.  Not paying close attention.  Distracted.  Rather than justice we offer up handguns and barbed wire fences and unmanned missile attack systems.  And instead of righteousness we offer up legislature and shaking fists and talk radio.  

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
Who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
Who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

LORD God.  Open my eyes and ears.  That I might truly discern Your Truth.  And pay attention to the nuance.  Have Your way in my heart.  Loosen hardened soil and rip out the weeds.  That I might produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 
But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice,
And the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness.

Friday, April 13, 2012

doggedly plowing ahead

For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past. Psalm 90:3

In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious.  Isaiah 4:2

Yesterday, when it is past, is really absolutely the faintest of shadows.  Pause, think about it.  A tiny fuzz of a memory of a speed set ( four one hundreds, four fifties, four twenty-fives, three times through) at the pool, a blur of phone calls and letters at work, giving blood at the Red Cross ... ah yes, running into a woman, “Do I know you? ... You taught my children,” and out popped their names after nine years ... and who they were in the seventh grade Tom Sawyer play ... I was impressed with my old brain ... and then, calzones with Alan and Fred and ... there you have it.  

A thousand years.  

And if that is really the true perspective of life as we know it, and actually, how we don’t know it, the true side of it all, then indeed our struggles and sufferings can indeed be considered all joy.  They indeed are just a quick jerk of a rotten tooth before a beautiful and glorious eternity.  ... knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.  

It really does make sense, then to focus on what is eternal.  What will last.  And not worry so much about parking spots.  And lamp shades.  And what to eat and what to wear.  

And what we feel.  But what is true.  

That is really difficult in this age of instant gratification.  Fred has shin splint pain, and I can google the answer to his problem in a matter of seconds.  That was an awful lot of lottery tickets purchased.  And didn’t that guy just sell his app for one billion dollars?  We do not have much endurance, but live from disappointment to disappointment.  Things just don’t work out how we hoped with best intentions and we are filled with cheap despair.  My favorite editorial dude addressed this today, sort of.    

And thus, today, I will choose to look to the glorious eternity.  Oddly enough, I suspect the best way to arrive there is five minutes at a time.  The old refugee camp trick.  Because this is not my home.  I can do anything for five minutes.  I can live with hope and joy and grace for five minutes.  And then another five minutes.  And another.  

And that is true. 

Crushed grapes

What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord God of hosts. Isaiah 3:15

They are kind of cute, the bumper stickers I mean.  Become the 1%.  Work Hard.  and Occupy a Desk.  Get a Job.  But it’s not that simple.  

The context of this verse is that the wealth of the leaders came from somewhere— (option shift hyphen, Sue) crushing their laborers like grapes, grinding their faces between stones like wheat. 

One of our presidential candidates didn’t quite get it.  When asked if questions dealing with distribution of wealth and power were a question of fairness, he answered, “I think it’s about envy.  It’s about class warfare.” And as I have grown older, I realize that it is not all about “hard work and risk taking and their dreams -- maybe a little luck.”

I don’t think he has ever worked his way through the church directory, asking for money to deal with an abscessed tooth.  Someone called me yesterday.  Or been filled with the despair of being a fifty-six-year-old man who has been downsized. He has taken to running around the park, in between filling out hundreds of job applications.  Or shoved his head under the pillow and wept as a drunk uncle pounds on the bedroom door.  She was one of my students.

I ran into a little problem once.  Yep, I used the word “little” one time too many, in describing a doctoral thesis that equated biblical worldview with free enterprise capitalism.    Everything hit the proverbial fan, and I was challenged to find ONE Bible verse to support my socialistic tendencies.  Beside the year of Jubilee, to begin with?  And the stuff about two coats and no coats.  

We are told not to judge.  However, one can weigh fruit.  And consider.  

 It’s going to be a long read, the book of Isaiah and the judgement of the LORD.  But I was struck, when reading the Gospels how often Jesus referenced this book, and I decided that I too will bury it deep within my heart.

The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: “It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses.  Isaiah 3:14

מנא ,מנא, תקל, ופרסין
Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin

It is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ode to joy

And all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us his ways and that we may walk in His paths.”  Isaiah 2:3

Often my world is too small; my vision too close.  I get too preoccupied with me.

Thus I am grateful for the hooks drawn by taut lines across the globe tugging at my heart.  I glance through the morning headlines differently that way.  Nicole wondering this morning  on gChat what to do with two extra weeks in Indonesia affects how I understand Indonesia quake puts nations on tsunami alert and receiving Steven Crabbe’s “I can’t spare the moisture” reflections on the mundane daily details of running a health care system colors Sudan says battles raging on border with S. Sudan The war in Iraq shifted dramatically when two young men, a Sunni and a Shiite, shared the back bathroom.

   And “Joy in the Congo” seems an unlikely -- even impossible -- title for a story from the Congo, considering the brutal civil war that is ripping through that country.  But I know that ACSI has over 17,500 schools in the Congo with over 2.3 million students.  So the 60 Minutes story is about a 200-member orchestra started by a retired pilot.  There is are visiting German singers teaching French-speaking musicians how to sing Italian aria.  And there is a also a quiet hint of the Followership as the soaring sounds of Handel‘s Messiah echo throughout the rented warehouse.  And the last movement of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.  

Sometimes we roll our collective eyes at the thought of heaven spent with harps and choirs and really?  All eternity?  What’s the point of that?  Just close your eyes and listen to the violins strung with wires from a bicycle brake.  That’s the point.

The pleas from International Student Organizations are filling my InBox... and it’s getting harder to hit the <delete> key.  Is my heart big enough to hold one more?  The Penazzi brothers?  My chest tightens as I slice a mango on my morning oatmeal or flip through pasta recipes in some women’s magazine.  And last night, Wali sat between my dad and Fred at family dinner, all slicked up in brand-new-still-with-factory-creases clothes for his new job selling life insurance.  The court hearing when the judge’s announces his decision on his asylum case is April 30.  Wali ate two helpings of everything, the meat loaf, the noodles, and especially the sweet dense cake with raspberries and Breyer’s vanilla on top, and at the end of it all, as he climbed into the back seat of the little black VW and my dad stood there waving goodbye, he said, “Thanks, Christy, your parents are both so sweet.”   Is my heart big enough to hold one more? 

His certainly is.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Verb tenses

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.  Matthew 5:3

“It is the poor and needy who seek water and there is none, and their tongues are parched with thirst for whom God promised to open rivers on the bare heights and to make the wilderness a pool of water.”

This is where Bible expositors go to the Greek and verb tenses.  Verb tenses are important when talking about the kingdom of God.  This “is” can mean so very many things.  “Is” means Jesus standing in your midst is the kingdom of God.  “Is” means His laws and principles are at work now, restoring what has been broken.  “Is” has a future tense aspect about it in the sense that it is underlined in dark heavy red that this is an assured absolute connection, the poor in spirit, those who willingly assent that they cannot depend on their bankrupt goodness, will indeed with no doubt receive the kingdom of God.  And then, somehow mixed into the implied Greek (apparently “is” does not even appear in the text) there is a future element of what is to come, when all is put into glorious order at the end of time.

(Unfortunately, I remember little of my Bible classes at Wheaton College, but I do remember the day Gilbert Bilezikian talked about the “is” verb and the kingdom of God, thirty years later.)

So this is the beginning of the journey.  The starting place.  Joining with the publican in confessing, “God, be merciful me a sinner.”  It is going to go very slowly.  It was very humbling how so very times even this morning during swim practice, the Holy Spirit jostled my spiritual elbow and noted how I had so very easily slid into the prickly Pharisee mode.  Very humbling indeed.  I am going to have a bruised side before this is done.  Which, I guess is the point. 

Serving pizza slices on the bus

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause. Isaiah 1:16-17

This is not about how to circumvent the cross.  Rather this is about actions that we are called to make, especially at a societal level.  This word of the LORD is addressed to the rulers of Sodom, to the people of Gomorrah.  And to His people laden with iniquity.  

Come now let us reason together, says the LORD.  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword.

This is a logical and certainly straightforward mathematical equation.  The law of justice, the path of goodness that has been built into the very elemental twisting strands of creation, just as real and practical as the laws of gravity and the principles of thermodynamics.  

So what to do?

Can I leap out of the crumpled ocean liner spiraling downward?  Or is it too late, and am I left rearranging deck chairs?  Is the highest call to join in the orchestra playing Nearer My God to Thee as the ship gives one last ugly jerk?

Andy Crouch has written a new book to answer this question, Tedium + Valor.  From this end of the story, the Christians who battled to rid the British empire of the slave trade are only noble and triumphant.  But the actual story is slow and difficult, requiring quantities of tedium and the sort of quiet sturdy valor that gets up every morning to stand in the gap.  Rather the gaping maw of rushing water that smacks one to their knees.  Every morning.  

And this morning as I stare at the bleak words of the prophet Isaiah, I realize that I this quiet valor takes place around me every day, I am living in a veritable cloud of witnesses of the sort Jesus called us to be as He ascended into heaven.  

Dustin peddling his bicycle across town to crawl about in the muck under bedraggled trailer homes.  Mom and Dad standing on a bleak trash-strewn street corner every Thursday afternoon, serving heaps of potatoes and bits of meat to an even bleaker line of hungry souls.  Andrea pushing back against the academic paradigm to rescue the fatherless from a world of reactionary bravado. The images flip pell mell past.  Mike Birrer and his countless phone calls.  Alan watering the school garden on Saturday afternoon.  Heather and an aerobic step class with someone stumbling back into the light.  Cathy packing an Easter basket for a young man who has been the source of quite a few painful sleepless nights.  Ann planning nutrition classes.  An unnamed handy man declaring God’s love as he rakes leaves.  

Let me join in this chorus of willing obedience.  To make that choice.  Of presence.  Of kindness. Of tedium.  And valor.  

Noticing the works of His hands

He said to them,"It is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that a change of hearts and lives and forgiveness of sins would be preached in His name to all nations, starting at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Luke 24: 46-48

In that I have joined those who follow Him, I am declared to be a witness of at least two things: what I understand of Scriptures and what I have seen.  And in able to complete what is laid before me, I have been empowered by the Spirit, poured down from on high. 

And yes, this I have witnessed, a change of hearts and lives.  Not only of that heart which I best know, that of my own.  But of those around me, slowly yet steadily, I can see lives being formed into His likeness, little Christs.  

And this veritable miracle of new growth, as inexplicable as that of the new crocuses in Alan’s backyard garden box, points clearly to a Savior..  

Which is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or “Take up your bed and walk?”

Dripping wet

O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Luke 24:25

But he was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.  Isaiah 53:5

One of the pleasures of working through Frederic’s conversion is pulling down the old dusty ideas from the back shelves, unfolding them, shaking them loose a bit, and examining them anew in a fresh bright light.  

Why do you call it Good Friday?

What about this piercing and crushing and chastisement and wounding is “good”?

Lewis tries to wrap his words around it.  

...in Christianity God is not a static thing- not even a person- but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama.  Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance... And now, what does it all matter?  It matters more than anything else in the world.  The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance.  There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.  If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water.  If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them.  They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone.  They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality.  If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry.  Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever?  Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?  

Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ.  If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist.  Christ is the Son of God.  If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God.  We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will rise in us.  He came to this world and became a man i  order to spread to other men the kind of life He has.  Every Christian is to become a little Christ.  The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.  

For some reason, the image of the big leap into the still quite cold pool next door seems to me the most precise picture of being totally wet.  There is no shadow of a doubt that one is indeed all the way in.  One feels it to the very bone.  Alive.  In the dance of life.  

Thus this offer has been made.  The way made clear.  The peace and healing has begun. 

Ah. Yes.  Good. 

He is risen. 
He is risen indeed.  

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Eyes cast downward

The women told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. Luke 24:10-12

Okay, I will not belabor the lack of respect the men followers showed the women followers which demonstrates a set cultural frame of mind regardless of to whom God choses to reveal His truth. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the Jewish Mishna that reads, “From women let not evidence be accepted because of the levity and temerity of their sex.”

Rather perhaps these followers were too set in the cultural frame of mind that there is only one way to be set free, by the sword.  They were looking for an earthly rule for their Messiah.  For earthly salvation from the oppressors.  For Christ to descend from the cross with a victorious shout and a triumphant legion of angels with blazing weapons.  And a final resolution to all of life’s woes and struggles.  For them, Christ’s last utterance of, “It is finished,” did not signal the destruction of spiritual bondage.  Rather it was the end of their limited frame of reality and material aspirations.  

And whenever Jesus spoke of His imminent death and resurrection, it didn’t fit into their understanding, it was not a color in their visible spectrum, so they ignored it.  They were too caught up with their spinning webs to even notice His sure hand threading the warp and woof of eternity.
I too have my frame of reality set, often limited by hopes too small, gratification too instant, priorities too local.  I too often look to political systems or crafted alliances or an unsavory mixture of elbow grease and a little bit of luck.  

John Bunyan captured this frame of reality in Pilgrim’s Progress when the Interpreter led them to a room where a man sat with his eyes cast downward and a rake in his hand with which he anxiously drew towards himself the straws and small sticks which lay scattered upon the floor and though a person overhead held out a celestial crown and offered to exchange it for the rake, this deluded man would neither look up nor listen to the interesting proposal. “This,” said the Interpreter,“is a correct representation of a worldly man and the rake in his hand is intended to denote his carnal mind for whereas he prefers raking up the small sticks and dirty straws which are scattered over the ground to attending the person who calls from above and offers him a celestial diadem. It is to show that divine things are too often accounted either fabulous or unimportant and that earthly things have such a bewitching power with the human heart as to carry it completely away from God.

Not Peter.  Once again this simple fisherman plunges into the fray, momentarily unbound by small sticks and dirty straws.  What if reality is much bigger and broader and more glorious than we could ever conceive?  The door had been kicked open, the curtain ripped down, and eternity had arrived.  

Well might we marvel.  Stand back and be amazed.  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Out of the shadows

Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Luke 23:51

Joseph of Arimathea came, a respected member of the Council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. Mark 15:43

Sometimes we have to cross the line.  And identify ourselves with the man on the cross.  

Things have not changed much in the past 2,000 years.  Rumors and misinformation and whacked-out crowds have been, and most likely always will be, associated with Him.  And Joseph had his position and power to think about and to protect.  

But it the quiet hours of the setting sun, just as the color lines are drawn and the greys become black and the reds and golds of the sunset glimmer, the line drawn in the dust before our feet becomes clear.  

Rather He than they.  Rather He who has done no wrong but acted in love and faithfulness unto the bloody end, than they, the roiling political beasts, fickle and striving, the eyes of man.

Who is more trustworthy?

And in this bold step of public alignment, Joseph of Arimathea forever stepped into the spotlight of Well done, good and faithful servant for all of recorded history, stepped into the great drama whose script had been conceived before the first Let there be Light.

Rather than wait for the Kingdom in the secret shadows, full of fear and impotence.  

The Kingdom is here and now, to be lived boldly.