UNCLE PEABODY & BART

How fine it was of God to come to us in our awful need and put Himself in harm’s way that we might be saved.
Knowing our sins as only He can know them because of the infinite purity of His heart, still He came and put Himself between them and us. In our bones we know there is nothing comparable to His holy love but when we see people who reflect Him in that loving way our souls rise to their feet to applaud the wonder of it all and we’re pleased to be in the company of the kind of people the Dragon Slayer gathers around Him.
Irving Bacheller told of such a person in his book, The Light in the Clearing. The parents of Barton Baynes had died of diphtheria so the eight-year-old lived with his Uncle Peabody and his sister Delia. They lived on a farm a long way from the big cities; in the open country, surrounded by forests, rivers and all the other marvelous things associated with the wilds.
He liked his hard-working aunt Deel but there was a forbidding side of her that the child couldn’t understand or warm to. He saw her as a great fixer of things, as one who knew what had to be done and got on with it, as one who knew about right and wrong, about hell-fire and who would go there. But chiefly he knew her as one who found it hard to put up with a child and his childish ways. He knew she loved him and her brother dearly but he wasn’t just sure how he knew it.
It was different with his Uncle Peabody. Bart worshiped him. Between them there was warmth, mutual acceptance, a healthy view of who each one was. They contributed to each other’s store of treasure and gladness. The boy loved his uncle’s imagination and the wonderful people who lived in it. It wasn’t at all unusual for him to end the night in his uncle’s lap in the big sprawling corner chair, hearing amazing stories until his body surrendered to the Sandman’s call.
Silas Wright, once senator for New York, came to visit Peabody and wanted to take a few days to fish. Wright who loved children, who was always and ever a friend to every child he met, had taken a great liking to Bart and Bart to him, so you can imagine the boy’s delight when the senator invited him to come with them.
“If it’s okay with your aunt Deel, it’s okay with me,” his uncle said. Thrilled to the heavens the boy floated into the kitchen, asked for approval and was refused. But just as his world was crumbling, in walked uncle Peabody to tell her that “the great man” was very keen to have the boy go. That being the case, aunt Deel changed her mind. Bart was beside himself with glee and ran on his tiptoes out of the house and threw himself down in the grass, rolling and tumbling with the joy of it all. This running on tiptoes and the sprawling and tumbling in the grass was Bart’s customary way to exult. [I had a nephew who used to do that—run around on his tiptoes when something delighted him. With ease I can now see Billy grinning, jumping and running tiptoed around the house. I’d completely forgotten that until I came across Bart. What a lovely memory. jmcg]
Bill Seaver, a man Barton didn’t like, was going with them as a guide because he knew all the special places, and, besides, he could cook nearly as well as aunt Delia. The couple of days were like paradise; filled with drama, rivers, fighting brown trout, bending rods and hissing lines, noisy waterfalls, whispering trees and huge, delicious meals of fresh fish and bacon fried in its fat, boiled potatoes, flapjacks and loads of maple sugar!

Seaver was a rough and ready man who was always ready to swear, though he held it down to the less notorious kind in respect for Silas Wright. “It won’t harm me,” said Wright, “but there’s the boy to think of.”

While fishing, Wright slipped off the rock he was standing on and sank shoulder deep in the water and Bart immediately ran toward him, his hand out and yelling, filled with fear. Peabody helped him out of there with his pole while Bart stood sobbing, tears flowing down his cheeks.

“What’s the matter?” his uncle demanded. “I was afraid—Mr. Wright—was goin’ to be drowned,” he managed to explain. The senator shook off some of the water, came over and knelt down in the front of the boy and took him in his arms and kissed him. “God bless the dear boy!” he said warmly, “It’s a long time since anyone cried for me. I love you Bart.”

After that, when Seaver swore the senator gave him a protesting look and hissed at him to put an end to it. The openness of the boy’s affection added to Wright’s care and affection for him. He and Bart went off on their own to a shallow area farther down the river and beyond the trees so the boy could catch some smaller fish of his own. This he did. It was beginning to get dark and on their way back Bart, admiring his fish, was whispering to himself, making plans to jump out on his uncle and scare him and then tell him how he had caught his fish.
He ran ahead of Mr. Wright and tip-toed into the rear of the camp. Suddenly his heart stood still when he heard his beloved uncle use words that were wicked, even outrageous words; the kind you’d expect to hear only from the worst mouths. The kind of words that Uncle Peabody himself had taught him to despise. It was more than the immediate shock that filled Bart with dismay, his whole world was in danger.
His aunt Deel had told him that the Devil used bad language to tempt his victims into a lake of fire where they sizzled and smoked and yelled forever, every minute feeling worse than sitting on a hot griddle. What was running through Bart’s pained heart and mind was this question: “How am I to save my uncle?”
Standing heart-sick with his hand over his mouth, he was terrified that his dear, careless uncle was in awful danger. The fear he had felt for Mr. Wright was nothing to compare with this. He walked away from the camp a little and sat down dejected, disappointed and fearful. Finally Wright came into view, noted the boy’s anguish and wanted to know what was wrong. Bart couldn’t tell him though he had thought of it. His pride in his uncle and his love for him wouldn’t allow him to spread his uncle’s shame. He’d have to bear the burden alone until he saw Aunt Deel. To make sure Peabody wouldn’t shame himself before Mr. Wright he made a loud remark as they approached the camp.
He lay down almost immediately, subdued and a little withdrawn from his uncle, but wondering as well if Bill Seaver was responsible for all this, wondering if he had done right to leave the defenseless uncle in the man’s company. But mostly he wondered if his dear uncle was beyond hope and if he’d have to fry and smoke forever. His aunt Deel would know what to do and he could hardly wait to see her.
Peabody checked him out and found his face still wet with tears while he slept. Wright and he put two and two together and the uncle, deeply saddened, confessed he didn’t know how to behave himself when he got out in the woods. “I wouldn’t ’a’ had him hear that for a thousan’ dollars,” he said. Then, almost to himself he said, “If you’re goin’ to travel with a boy like that you’ve got to be good all the time—ye can’t take no rest or vacation at all whatever. You’ve got to be sound through and through or they’ll find it out.”
The next day they started back home after a marvelous big breakfast. They fished here and there along the river and finally reached the Seaver’s place where Peabody and Wright hitched up the team for the drive on home. As soon as they arrived and while Peabody was showing his sister the lovely trout Silas Wright hurriedly changed and headed off to an appointment. Bart had no time to waste and said to his aunt:
“I’ve got to tell you something.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’m heard him say naughty words.”
“What words?”
“I—I can’t say ’em. They’re wicked. I’m—I’m afraid he’s goin’ to get burnt up,” he stammered.
“It’s so. I said ’em,” his uncle confessed.
His aunt turned to Bart and said, “Bart, you go right down to the barn and bring me a strap—yes!—you bring me a strap—right away.”
He walked slowly to the barn feeling sorry for a moment that he’d told. Scalding tears started to flow down his cheeks. He sat down for a moment to collect his thoughts when he heard her call him to hurry up. He picked the smallest strap he could find and slowly made his way back but as he approached her he said with a tremble, “I—I don’t think he meant it.”
“He’ll have to be punished just the same—he will!”
They all went into the house together with Bart sniffling and Peabody meekly following his sister’s determined stride. The boy, curious to see what was going to happen, saw his uncle lie face down on the sofa and his aunt laying the strap on him.
It was more than he could bear so he threw himself between his beloved friend and the strap and pleaded with sobs that she forgive him.
Uncle Peabody left the house in silence, looking very sober, and though he tried hard later, the boy could find him nowhere. Late in the afternoon when he was in the barn he saw his uncle coming down the lane with the cows and an ax on his shoulder.
With joy in his heart as great as he’d ever known he ran out to greet him. The man greeted him cheerfully and leaned over and held him against his legs, then looked into his eyes and asked, “Are you willin’ to kiss me?” Bart did and the man said, “If ye ever hear me talk like that ag’in, I’ll let the strongest man in Ballybeen hit me with this ax.”
I love everything about Irving Bacheller’s story and as it stands it has such power that I’m a bit uncertain about isolating some things in it; but maybe nothing will be lost if I do. But just in case, let me ask you to reread the incident before you’re finished with this piece.
I love the fact that senator Silas Wright whose reputation as a selfless and honorable person was ranked by Missouri senator, Thomas H. Benton, as right up there with Washington and Lincoln—I love it that he loved children and made a good friend of eight year old Bart. Can you imagine how wonderful it must have been for the boy when the senator took him off by himself for that special time? Isn’t it sheer joy to see older men making the world a safer and more joyful world for a child?
I love the boy. A boy who was sensitive enough that he could weep if he thought a friend was in danger.
I love it that the boy would often fall asleep in the lap of his uncle, that he’d be allowed to prattle on and on to him, that he’d be shocked by bad language.
Maybe above all, I love it that the boy’s first concern was that his beloved uncle not be lost or have to endure great loss.
I love it that the child wouldn’t spread the shame of his friend even to someone as fine as Silas Wright, keeping it to himself, bearing the burden of it alone.
I love it that when he finally shared it, he did it only because he felt he must and that he shared it only with the one person he believed could save his friend.
I love it that his little heart was hurt to see the punishment and that he threw himself in harm’s way to save the heart of his own heart.

When I’m thinking about this child and his lovely heart, and if I listen hard, from some great distance, from his secret lair where the Dragon prowls I imagine I can hear a long, angry screech of pain and sense his deep fear as he sees blood seep from his deep, burning wound. A child can do this to him! One lovely, wholesome child foreshadows his doom. That’s a great thought to begin your day with or to go to sleep on.

(Thank you Holy Father. For all of it! This prayer in the Lord Jesus.)

DOYLE GILLIAM DIED THIS EVENING

This evening 24th June, 2017, Louise Gilliam’s beautiful husband died.

Sigh.
I shared an office with this gracious Christian and walked in on numerous occasions and found him praying for his students.
Gentle and a gentleman, brave and not ashamed of the gospel he so marvelously embodied.
Many hearts I know personally will ache at this news.
Thank you dear Doyle and Louise. With all our hearts, “Thank you.”
Sensing the pain of the entire family and saddened by your loss but knowing you have full assurance about the well-being of your beloved one.
jmcg

PARKER HENDERSON DIED YESTERDAY

 

One of God’s strong men died yesterday (22nd June, 2017).
“Strong” is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of Parker Henderson, a missionary whose parish was the world. It was his ceaseless staying with the task committed to him, don’t you see, the endurance, the little sleep, the constant traveling, the expended energy in his visiting, teaching and preaching, it was the patiently listening, his willingness to make many tough decisions and living with the consequences.. Yes, I think of strength when I think of him.

I think of compassion as an expression of Christ-likeness when I remember him rising from his chair to sit beside a man guilty of something dishonorable and putting his arm around his shoulder while we, a faculty, listened to painful truth. Oh God, even now after all these years I feel the poor man’s agony and shame but I wasn’t the one that got up and sat beside him with my arm around him all through the harrowing occasion. And what makes the thing so memorable for me is that the one who got up and visibly identified with the anguished wrongdoer might well have been the strongest and most upright man in the room. And finally, when I talked with him several years ago I told him of it his response was a slight nod and a little smile of contented pleasure. When I grow up I want to be like Parker Henderson.

OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED…

Commenting on Hosea 11 the Scots commentator George A Smith said this. “Passing by all the empires of earth, the Almighty chose for Himself this people that was no people, this tribe that was the slave of Egypt. And the choice was one of love only: ‘When Israel was young I came to love him, and out of Egypt I called My son.’ It was the adoption of a little slave boy, adoption by the heart; and the fatherly figure continues, ‘I taught Ephraim to walk, taking him upon Mine arms.’ It is just the same charm, seen from another point of view, when Hosea hears God say that He had ‘found Israel like grapes in the wilderness, like the firstfruits of an early fig tree I saw your fathers.’ “

This is how the Jewish Publication Society Version renders Hosea 11:1,
I fell in love with Israel
When he was still a child;
And I have called [him] My son
Ever since Egypt.

Theodore Laetsch renders it, “When Israel was young, then I began to love him, and from Egypt I called My Son.” And G. Adam Smith points out that the verb stresses the point or moment at which something happens and renders it, in line with the previous two, “I came to love” Israel. The picture generated by the words in the text is clear. One day God was looking around at the nations he had created and his eye passed over powerful Assyria, sword in hand and with its lean and rippling muscles. Then he looked long at gorgeous Egypt with its wealth, culture and centuries of mystery before he caught sight of a little slave child. Helpless, bewildered and, to God, a lovely little boy. Here was a child with no power, no national history and no land to call his own and God’s heart went out to him at that time and he came to love him and adopted him as his son.
As the infant grew God taught him to walk (11:3). Hunkering down in front of him as fathers do, He rested the little boy’s hands on his own hands and arms and slowly backed away, allowing the child to support himself on his father’s arms. Looking like a little mechanical toy, with stiff legs as if he had no knees, he put one foot in front of another, grinning and gurgling as he staggered along. And when he stumbled and grazed his knee it was God that soothed and healed it (11:3). It was all so long ago. The little boy was too young to appreciate how dependent he was on his ever-present and attentive father but that didn’t matter because the joy of loving parents in their tiny girls and boys that toddle all over the place needs no special mention in those days. And so it was with the Holy Father, so these verses tell us. They spoke of days when all was warmth and affection and pleasure but now, as Hosea writes, Israel has grown old and suffers from senility and premature ageing (7:9) and God is pictured as a father pacing up and down the room anguishing over how to help him. (Compare 4:17 and 11:8, for example.)
The very reading of such texts makes it clear that it’s a crime to reduce the Story of the Bible to legal categories with an unhealthy stress on juridical words like “justification.” In light of truths told as Hosea tells them, to reduce the Bible to a book of wise maxims or a generalized moral code to which we must respond is tragic! It is more than a riveting romance, more than a Story of holy love reaching out but if it is more it certainly isn’t less!
I know the anthropomorphisms of scripture mustn’t be taken too far! Of course! And isn’t it Hosea that reminds us that God is not a man (11:9)! So, okay, we’re not to take them too far but we’re not to forget that God wasn’t ashamed to liken Himself to all that is best in fathers and mothers and that finally (praise His name!) He wasn’t even ashamed to become one of us—permanently!
The special relationship Israel had with God he was given in trust. It was for the world that Israel was called and it is for the world that the NT church is called. When we read the description of the churches in the NT we sometimes wince and wonder and as we look around at them today (or in the mirror) we sometimes wince and wonder even more. Does that not make sense? Yes, it does. “Sense”  within certain parameters.
Still, its irritating to listen to the peevish or those who easily take offense denigrating her, though they never ever lifted a hand to help her or they flung away because their expectations weren’t met—a Demas sort of move!
With more justification, let those who have been profoundly mistreated by her, cry unto her God—that we can understand! But when those she nourished with a sense of Jesus-imaging righteousness and care, when those who wouldn’t know the meaning of justice if it hadn’t been for her—when they join the sneering crowd of critics and whine about the poverty of “organized religion” we’re seeing an entirely different picture. When preachers barely ever mount the pulpit without parading her failures, beating her without mercy though they know right well that she too is sinful and weak, that she too needs a cup of cold water, that she too is naked and in need of clothing and warmth and forgiveness—when we see and hear that, we don’t wonder that “outsiders” humiliate and shame her.
Yes it makes sense to hear her criticized, but we still need to remember passages like this in Hosea. There’s something just not right about one of God’s people acting or speaking as if he/she isn’t a part of the “family” and there’s something risky about ceaselessly scorning God’s children when the Holy One who knows them best says He loves them. There’s a text somewhere where God says, “He that curses you, him will I curse; he that blesses you, him will I bless.” I’m sure it says something like that.

(Wise all knowing Holy Father you know what fools we are at times, how shallow our love pools are and how quickly they dry up when too many come to drink from them. You know well that we make judgments about things and people when we don’t know enough and aren’t pure enough to make them. We have heard wonderful stories of you and we believe every one of them and we heard you say (Hosea 11:8-9) of your People that even in their deep and treacherous apostasy that you wouldn’t execute the fullness of your wrath on them because you are God and not a man. Sometimes we realize only a God can save us and only a God like you will want to save us. We do our best (don’t we? do we?)—the best that we sinners can do, we suppose. You must save us, Holy One or we won’t be saved. We’re glad that you know everything and that you alone love us and will provide a flawless justice in that coming day. Our thanks and our request in Jesus name.)

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

This brief piece will be repetitive. It’s abundantly clear to me that God forgave sins from the days of Adam and Eve down to the arrival of Jesus. Forgiveness was always by God’s holy grace and could never be “earned”. God never asked anyone to “earn” it! The NT never doubts that and neither should we. David exults in the truth that there were people whose sins were not credited against them (Psalm 32:1,2 and Romans 4:6-8). But that truth is not what the NT is dealing with!
Abraham’s faith in God was as true and as real as Paul’s faith in God. The faith of believers in ancient times (Hebrews 11) was truly faith in God. The NT never doubts that and neither should we. True believers are true believers no matter in what age they live. But that truth is not what the NT is dealing with!
The obedience of faith that we read about in the OT (in people like Noah, Hannah, Josiah, Moses’ mother Jochebed or Melchizedek) was as real as the obedience that stemmed from faith in believers in Jesus Christ. The faith-filled obedient people are the same kind of people no matter in what age they live (again, note that Hebrews 11 uses ancient worthies as models for NT believers.). But that truth is not what the NT is dealing with!

The New Testament deals with a specific section of God’s unfolding drama. Everything prior to that, while absolutely essential to the drama as a whole, is prelude. The fullness of times (Galatians 4:4) and the “ends of the ages” (1 Corinthians 10:11) only arrived when God became incarnate in and as Jesus of Nazareth who is called the Christ. The NT era is the time that all the ancient worthies had to wait for if they hoped for the completed drama (Hebrews 11:39-40; 12:23).
It doesn’t matter that they didn’t know what the end was to be. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t know all that the end would involve. In trusting to God they were looking for whatever it was that God had in store. Prophets spoke things they didn’t really understand and people hoped for things (as we do) that they didn’t understand. (1 Peter 1:9-12) They even spoke of things they knew were not for them. “Eye hasn’t seen, ear hasn’t heard nor has it entered into the heart of man the things God has prepared for them that love him.” (I’m ignoring Paul’s immediate point in 1 Corinthians 2:9.) That is as true today for us as it would have been for ancient believers prior to God’s coming in the flesh.
People enjoyed forgiveness and life with God because God in holy grace granted it to them. But that life with God that they enjoyed occurred within a divine narrative that could never come to fullness in the history of the world as it was then. For the life that God finally intended for the human family when He was creating us wasn’t fulfilled in Genesis 1. That was the beginning of what God had in mind for us but the fullness of what God had in mind for us is revealed in Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16) who is the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:47). God gave forgiveness and life in a relationship to Abraham but Abraham would die, as would Moses and Samuel and David and the rest. Death would rob them of embodied life (and a human is not fully a human if not embodied).
Death reigned over the human family even over those that believed in God. Then came Jesus of Nazareth, the death killer! In and by Him death was destroyed (2 Timothy 1:9-10) and a new creation begun. In Him, as a single individual, a new creation actually exists and is experienced by Him now as He exists in a new mode of being (a resurrected and immortal human) and Christians inhabit that new world by faith in Him. They are born again and not of the flesh (1 Peter 1:3; John 3:3-7).
By faith Abraham was as right with God in his day as Christians are right with God by faith in Jesus Christ. But the content of the Christian’s faith is richer and more developed than Abraham’s was. Abraham saw glory ahead but he did not know it took the form of the resurrected and glorified Jesus of Nazareth (John 8:56; 2 Timothy 1:9-10; Ephesians 3:1-7).
The shape and truth content of his faith bore witness to God within the parameters and boundaries of his place in God’s developing drama within human history. The shape of a Christian’s faith in God through Jesus Christ is a witness to God’s bringing His creation purposes to completion in Jesus Christ. No one’s faith, prior to Jesus Christ, could bear such a witness precisely because pre-Jesus Christ faith could not proclaim what God has accomplished only in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Christians live at a particular time in the history of the world and have been called to be and function as the “body” of Jesus Christ in the world. Christians as the Body of the Risen Lord are a new creation, a resurrected people (Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 2:12; 3:1-4)

The forgiveness in pre-Jesus Christ days was real and experienced but forgiveness in Jesus Christ carries with it a significance that couldn’t be carried before He came. Abraham’s faith-motivated obedience (Genesis 22 and James 2:21-23) was genuine and acceptable with God as righteousness (Romans 4:3). In that respect there is no difference between Abraham’s obedience of faith and the Christian’s. But Abraham’s obedience of faith could not function as a witness that God’s creation purposes has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, because from his perspective they hadn’t been! Israel, was God’s witness (Isaiah 43:10, 12; 44:8) to the truth entrusted to them in their place on the world stage at that time.  Humans can only experience God’s workings in a time continuum but as far as God was concerned it was already a done deal—see Romans 4:17.) Abraham, along with the other ancient worthies in Hebrews 11, had to wait until the Christian era arrived (Hebrews 11:39-40).
The New Covenant people function in their place in human history as God’s witness to Jesus Christ. This form of the people of God began with the coming of Jesus and His faithful doing of the will of God (Galatians 4:4). It has a commission that is in keeping with the direction, timing and plot of the Divine Story. Abraham is not part of that NT People precisely because his place was on stage in a different era. He served well there and died as did Moses and David (Acts 2:29, 34; Hebrews 3:2, 5). They could all be right with God without knowing of the resurrection of Jesus Christ for our justification (Romans 4:25). Abraham knew glory was coming but he did not know that it would be accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth (John 8:56) and he as one of the many righteous men and women had to wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises (Hebrews 11:39-40 with 12:23 (18-24).
Forgiveness and faith and obedience and life with God in pre-Jesus Christ days were real but they did not have the significance that those realities have in and through Jesus Christ. Christian faith proclaims—on the basis of Jesus Christ—that all that the ancient worthies had looked for (though they were not aware of it, certainly not, at any rate, in full awareness)—all that the ancient worthies had looked for has now come. We look now at the Lord Jesus and in Him, the individual, we see God’s creation purposes fulfilled, now!
Jesus is the end of all things. All things have been brought under one head [Ephesians 1:10]; all things have been put in their rightful place under God through Jesus [Colossians 1:15-20]. (This fulfillment that He as a single individual experiences and embodies will be made the personal experience of all that are embraced in His redeeming work. The Lord of All chooses that all that He now has dominion over will continue as it is until He chooses to consummate in a day of His choosing. His reasons are His own!)
Apart from Christians the ancients—whoever they were—could not be made perfect. Forgiveness and faith and life with God all have a different complexion now that Jesus has come. Those glorious realities function with a finality that wasn’t possible for even true faith in pre-Jesus Christ times.
It’s obviously correct to say that there are differences between Paul’s and Abraham’s faith and forgiveness and relationship with God. But the differences have nothing to do with quality or with their reality! But since they lived at different points in the divine drama their faith and life with God contributed to the entire drama in different ways. Only   Christians are “the end time people.” There is no chosen “People of God” (1 Peter 2:9) beyond this era because the People of God in this era are the “Body of Christ” and there is no Lord beyond Him.
Ray McClendon helpfully summarized the matter like this: “For example, the reference to an unfolding drama enables us to ponder Hebrews 11:39-40 in this light: What does it really mean that, though faithful, they didn’t receive what was promised and only together with us are made perfect?

“We could put it this way. At the end of the second act (of, say, a two-act story), all of the actors come out, join hands, and bow. Receiving the accolades of the honor and glory of the completed story they presented. They all occupy (finally and in the end) the same stage; regardless of where their part was in the Story; regardless of whether it came in the first act or the second act and regardless of whether their part was small or large. The actors in the Act 1 didn’t come out after the first act to receive all of the honor and glory because that wasn’t fully revealed or known until the second act! It couldn’t possibly be fully understood or appreciated because the story was still being told and the finale had not yet come. The Abrahams, Melchizedeks, and Rahabs were all in supportive roles; they weren’t the stars nor did they appear in the final and critical stages of the story.
But when the Star appears and the climax plays itself out, all the Act 1 players take their rightful place beside the Act 2 players and together with them receive all the honor and glory (compare Hebrews 11:39-40 and 12:22-24). They’re entitled to share in the glory that comes to the Act 2 players because without them there could be no Act 2 players and no completed drama. In addition, it wasn’t until the whole story was told/known that everyone’s role could be fully understood and appreciated. Nevertheless, everyone’s place in the Story, in his or her own time and circumstances, was crucial and served the will of God who, in every generation, dealt faithfully with all the players that had a place in the drama.”
(Look around at the people with whom you Supper on the Lord’s Day. Who is it that sings along with you, prays with you, reads and listens with you, shares their material blessings along with you and eats and drinks with you in the wondrous Supper that proclaims a wondrous Lord? See them for what they are. Obviously unimpressive it’s true, but then so was their Lord in His earthly ministering period (Isaiah 53:2; Mark 6:1-3) on His way to everlasting glorification as Lord of all. You and your fellow-believers are the visible witness and embodiment of breathtaking realities.)
Believe that! Wonder at that! Rejoice with trembling at that! Purpose by God’s grace to treat one another as that!

(Open our eyes, Holy Father, and so strengthen us by your amazing grace. For the world’s sake as well as our own. This prayer in the Lord Jesus.)

SALIERI, MOZART & GOD

I do know it’s more than this, but part of our trouble with the way that God is running the world is that He’s too generous.
That remark will infuriate all sensitive non-believers and many believers but nonetheless I believe it’s true. In a world with multiplied millions hungry and abused the word “generosity” isn’t the first word that springs to mind. That makes sense but the sense it makes takes in only part of the story of the human race and the conclusion to that hasn’t been told. [Think noble things of God—see God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and think noble things of Him.]
In the meantime we hate to see villains prosper and the righteous and innocent (babies and such) suffer. Sometimes we hate it that God is generous to the evil and thankless; they shouldn’t be blessed at all. Many of us who talk a lot about His generosity are quick to say it should be limited to people like us. Well, we’re careful not to be that crass but we understandably link righteousness, kindness, compassion, generosity, gentleness, integrity and such with blessing. I’m not talking about earning! I have in mind the truth expressed in Psalm 1 (though that text needs developed and discussed at length).
Antonio Salieri had that problem. Salieri served Emperor Joseph II for thirty-six years at the court in Vienna as the master of the chapel, though he’d been around the court much longer. He was a great composer who produced thirty-nine operas, seven secular cantatas, eighty-six religious compositions and an assortment of other pieces. He remained friends with Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig Van Beethoven throughout his life and had given Beethoven lessons on counterpoint. Beethoven dedicated the three violin sonatas, Opus 12, to Salieri.
When he was a teenager Salieri dedicated himself to God. Ignoring its serious distortions of fact at times in favor of drama, the movie Amadeus tells the story this way: one day Salieri prayed, “Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate your glory through music. Make me famous, dear God; make me immortal. After I die, let people forever speak my name with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life.” He thoroughly believed that God gave him his gifts!
He became the toast of Europe, and on the 16th of June, 1816, he celebrated the golden anniversary of his debut in Vienna. Everyone who mattered was there and some of his famous students, including Franz Schubert, played pieces in his honor. Life couldn’t have been better for him. Invitations flooded in from everywhere, his opinion was sought and the praise never ceased and he was a part of every tribunal of consequence; but one thing troubled him deeply and his life soured and shriveled.
Turn the clock back more than twenty-five hundred years before Salieri, to another musician and composer called Asaph. When David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, Asaph was one of the lead singers. He was (perhaps) the “master of the chapel” and prophet for the most revered king in Israelite history (1 Chronicles 16:4-5, 37; 2 Chronicles 29:30). Today, three thousand years after he wrote them, the songs Asaph composed are still being sung and read in the presence of millions. Twelve psalms bear his name to the glory of God.
What did Salieri and Asaph have in common? Both were troubled by God’s generosity, though they probably didn’t realize that that was the case.
Both were troubled not by bad things happening to good people but by good things happening to bad people!

In Psalm 73:1-16 Asaph said he almost lost his footing in faith when he saw what was happening in the lives of the flagrantly wicked. They prospered and people sang their praises and even asked them the secret of their success. What kind of a sick world is it when they behead a Paul and a Nero rules the world?
In the movie, the success of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart nearly unhinged Salieri. Mozart is regarded as “the most sheerly musical composer who ever lived” and the famous Goethe saw him as “the human incarnation of a divine force of creation.” Mozart began composing at the age of four and he continued furiously with hardly a breath until he died at thirty-five.
It isn’t surprising that Salieri would be jealous, even though the Viennese public preferred one or two of his works. On the whole, people were thrilled by Salieri but they were dumbfounded by Mozart whose name was never off their lips and whose music left them speechless with pleasure. Not only did Mozart write more than Salieri, the movie has his scores written perfectly the first time—he never revised!
As the movie tells it, Salieri described Mozart as “a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy!” Every time he heard the name of Mozart he became incensed and every time he heard him praised it drove him nearer to madness. Finally, obsessed by his jealousy and after looking at some of Mozart’s perfectly written scores, he throws a crucifix into the fire, saying to God, “We are enemies you and I, because you are unjust, unfair, unkind. I will hinder and harm your creature on earth as far as I am able.”
God—unjust and unkind? Why, because He was generous to the happy pagan? God is unjust because He is generous? (Compare Matthew 20:1-15.) Darkness closed in on Salieri; he shriveled and died long before they put his body into the ground. In spite of his still making the rounds, receiving respectful nods from the aristocracy, despite being recognized and praised he was the shell of a man—a cancer called envy had eaten his soul.
If we weren’t troubled by jealousy, if we didn’t know the pangs of envy when we heard someone praised—someone we knew some dark secret about—if we weren’t profoundly unsettled by the good things that happen to bad people maybe all the above would be of dramatic interest, but no more than that.
If we weren’t inclined to stand in for God as judge of all who “should” or “should not” receive good in this life then the dramatized Salieri and Asaph would be just another tragic figure. But like the composers we too can burn in a fever and everyone loses.
Salieri offered no help to Mozart to lift him to a moral life that matched the generosity of God in creativity. It didn’t matter to him that Mozart and his young wife would waltz on bare floorboards in their freezing apartment just to keep warm (which is true to fact).

When we’re in the fever of jealousy no beauty or depth or honor or giftedness of our “enemy” makes a difference. No, that’s untrue—these things make matters even worse; their presence only increases our bitterness for then we realize others have reason to praise the one we view with life-destroying envy. Others are lifted nearer to God and to the higher life by the one we choose as an “enemy”—others, but not us! We’re too consumed with our correct views of his/her shortcomings, too filled with bile because we’re aware of his/her sinfulness and too busy dissecting him/her to be uplifted by the gift God is offering us through him/her. Their gifts are gifts to all the Body that all might profit (1 Corinthians 11) so that God’s purpose might be forwarded.
So even God loses!
We become so sour that everything in life—every gift from God in life—is lost on us or if not completely lost, at least cheapened (“let no root of bitterness enter” said the Hebrew writer). I need hardly rehearse the bah humbug approach to life that marked out Ebenezer Scrooge. (What a name for Scrooge. “Ebenezer”. “God has helped me to get this far.” Dickens knew what he was doing.) He was miserly and when he was transformed he became not just fair, he became generous.
Generous like God who gives riches to the evil and thankless; like God who spreads His generosity around even through people who have no time for Him and who wants His children to be generous as He is generous (Matthew 5:44-48).
(Holy One, help us, please, to be more like you, Envying no one and generous to all; even the thankless and the evil. Help us please to live more graciously upright that we might not hinder your work of grace by dishonor or envy. Cleanse our hearts that we will not begrudge the blessings you give to non-believers or those who seek our hurt. This earnest prayer in Jesus Christ.)

[I’ve borrowed this and adapted it by permission from my little book Celebrating the Wrath of God. Permission from Waterbrook Press (a division of Random House)

FERGUSON, DURER, JESUS & A NAZI OFFICER WITH A RIDING- CROP

Imagine this foreigner daring to approach this Jewish Messiah (Matthew 15:21-28).
How do we explain the broad spectrum of people that dared—facing one obstacle or another—to approach and speak to Jesus? A commander in the conqueror’s army. A woman in public, part of a hostile people and religion a member of the Jewish Supreme Court or this Sidonian (Greek) woman with a severely troubled child. All of them experiencing great turmoil and trouble and yet all believing they could speak to him. There was some rivalry between the disciples of John and Jesus and yet when John is killed his disciples “go and tell Jesus.” What was it about him that led the high and low to feel they could speak to him?

It’s said of Albert Dürer that he sharpened the wit and talent of all he met. He brought the best out in them. You’ve met people I hope who made you feel you had something worth saying, an opinion worthy of a hearing or an insight that added something to the matter under consideration. Don’t you love such people? The way they carry themselves, the way they treat people; the very way they look at people as they listen to them—all of that makes us dare to speak to them. They bring it out of us in part because they build no walls of self-importance around themselves. They bring it out of us because they seem to make themselves available to us, as though they leaned over to us in a crowd and asked us, “And what do you think about all that?” And then they listened with sincere interest.

Though I never had the privilege of being around him much I always experienced that sense of things in the company of Everett Ferguson, a noted Church Historian. In his field he is truly light years ahead of the rest of us, being a profoundly learned scholar, but I always believed he listened to us as though he believed our opinions were worth expressing and worth hearing. There was no pretense on his part, no feigned humility; just a gracious openness to others. There’s something immensely liberating in that and we thank God for such people.

This Sidonian-Greek woman had heard of Israel’s Messiah, the son of David, and the stories she heard about Him were such that she followed Him and his group calling out to Him for pity and help. Do you suppose that would have happened to Hitler or Stalin? (I’ll never forget if I live to be 900 seeing, in a documentary, Jews arriving (I think) in the death-camps when a woman (maybe in her fifties) approached a Nazi officer to ask if she could remain with her aged and feeble father rather than be separated. He turned, looked at her for a second or two and ferociously lashed her across the face with the riding-crop he was carrying. The pain must have been excruciating but it was the look on her face that stuck with me—a look of astonished and frightened protest as if she had said, “Please, I was only asking if……”

“And what made you so daring that you just kept following Jesus and his company, and calling over and over again? Why would you not be intimidated into silence?” Someone that didn’t really know Jesus might have asked her that. She probably would have said. “It was the stories I heard about Him. They all had a number of things in common and one of them was that He really liked people like me and wanted to help them.”

God’s blessing on those that help to free us from crushing shyness or a crippling sense of unworthiness. God bless all those that make us believe our concerns matter to them or that our words are welcome even if we know we aren’t in their league or that we don’t have a lot to offer. In this they image the Lord Jesus and He images God and that’s what keeps vibrant hope and assurance alive and the Story worth telling everywhere we go and everywhere we get the chance.

Wondrous Father & wondrous Son and wondrous men and women, boys and girls who confront us with them.