Monthly Archives: April 2016

THE DEFIANT ONES

I don’t deny that this piece needs careful balancing but it’s not to be so watered down that the offer and power of Jesus is to be dismissed because some of us are too weary to let him in to do his work.

We’ve all seen sickness that filled us with sorrow and we found in our sadness that we were still human. But have the hospital wards with all their sorrows ever shown us anything entirely more pitiable than the spectacle of a human will crawling around on all fours or hobbling about on crutches? The loss of physical or mental health is lamentable but the paralysis of the will and the death of wanting is profoundly tragic.

Calvin Miller in The Singer [a riveting and first and best volume in a trilogy] has a character that has crushed his arm and is now badly crippled. When the Singer (the Christ figure) comes to him the cripple immediately begins to lament the loss of his arm. “Would you like it to be healed?” the Singer asked.

“Yes, but it’s too bad that it is so bad that there’s no healing for it,” the cripple whimpered.

“I saw a man healed the other day and he had two crippled legs,” the Singer said to him.

“Ah, but he didn’t have a crippled arm, like mine,” the cripple whimpered as he looked sadly at it.

“Well, I did see a man with a crippled arm healed,” the Singer offered.

“Ah, yes, but was his arm as crippled as mine?” the pathetic man with the crippled mind wanted to know, absorbed with his loss and nursing his injury.

When he lifted his eyes the Singer was leaving. “You see?” the cripple protested to several people that were standing around, “he has no sympathy for me.”

“You have more than enough sympathy for yourself,” said the Singer as he moved away, looking for someone who wanted to begin anew rather than wallow in self-pity and remain a cripple.

What is it about us that we sometimes almost rejoice in our disabled state? Is it that we think we won’t be held responsible for anything if we’re disabled? Is it that we get a lot of attention if we’re a poor pathetic figure?

And so it is that we sometimes nurse the diseases of the heart and mind. We disable ourselves or find ourselves disabled by evil habits and a killing environment and when the Singer comes we tell him that we’re crippled and beat. He says we can be healed if we want to be healed. Surely not, we tell him, because we have tried and others have tried to heal us and failed. He keeps offering and we continue to whimper, ignoring him and his offer. He continues to assure us and we insist on doubting him.

Many streams and sources feed our doubts. They’re fed by the fact that we have struggled for so long and tried all “the cures”—the assured cures—with no success! These are the kinds of things that turn our eyes in on ourselves with a whimper. Is this so hard to understand? Probably not! We might shake our heads in sadness and move on saying to such people, “You’re right! You have the perfect excuse for your whimpering and closing the door against hope and a hunger for healing. You’ve endured so much for so long. Anyone would give up the way you have given up.”

We might do that if it weren’t for those stubborn little people that we don’t notice in the crowd until Jesus brings them out into the open for us to marvel at. There was that woman who was bent double with a spinal deformity for sixteen long years and where do we find her? At the Bible study in the synagogue! Then there was that poor soul who had suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years, spent all her money on quacks and charlatans and was worse than when she started. And where do we meet her? She is pushing her way through a heaving crowd telling herself that if she can only touch Jesus’ clothing he would heal her. You might remember that leprous man Jesus met, wandering around in isolation and loneliness. “Do you think I can heal you?” he asked him and the man said [almost said], “Absolutely!”

We might be tempted to justify our own whimpering and might be tempted even more to justify the whimpering of others [“Sad case, don’t you think?”] but it’s these others who make us wonder if that’s the right thing to do. Jesus is in the neighborhood and they shake themselves out of their misery and respond to his offer.

“Yes, but you’re not in my sad situation; if you were you…”

I feel the power of that sad protest but somewhere down in our hearts we must allow that he is able to save to the uttermost all that come to him [Hebrews 7:25] and the people we see around us, like the people I mentioned above, urge us out of self-pitying paralysis to take Jesus’ offer of healing.

“Do you really want to be healed?” He wants to know.

And are you who feel no need for cure—are you willing to wait with love and patience until the Lord Jesus heals these others?

 

SUNDAY FANFARE

Lawrence Lipton’s poem Trumpets in the Morning leans on the Jewish legend that the Satan misses something of life in heaven. Reb Yussel heads for the synagogue as usual but on this occasion the unusual happened. His shadow ran ahead of him up the steps, shows itself on the wall and then turns into a majestic prince with garments to match and an offer of much knowledge—even knowledge of the future. Reb knows it is the proud Satan who was banished after a failed coup against God—so they say—but he treats him with respect—but not with worship. Yussel doesn’t want to know about the future; instead he asks the proud one who has so much knowledge:

What is it you miss more than all else
Of heaven’s bliss?
The Satan pondered long.
Bowed down his head, then sighed and said:
“Trumpets in the morning,” and then was gone.

The old legend says that in his banishment, which meant he walked the earth in eternal night, Satan misses the music of a new day, the sunrise, which was announced by the blowing of the trumpets in the morning. Here it is then, just as God is about to make his appearance and everyone will know that another new day has come and everything will be fresh and new and adventurous and filled with life that is brimming with life—at that moment the trumpets sound.

Now that would be something to miss!

No one wants to be bored forever and have to call it “life”. The notion that the end of God’s creative purpose is that we will all float around on clouds bored witless, strumming ceaselessly on harps—that isn’t what’s ahead for us. That. isn’t. at. all. what. God. has. in. mind. for. us. It’s life we want because it is life he has created us for and it’s life we get and all the adventure we can handle. I have come, Jesus said, that you might have life to the full.

The assurance of all of that centers in Jesus and in him all God’s promises are “Yes!” (2 Corinthians 1:20). For the pride-filled and self-centered Satan there can be no new day, no assurance that everything will turn out right, that the end will be better than the beginning; nothing but eternal sameness; no sunrise, no newness, no freshness, no music, no laughter and no sweet mystery!

When Christians gather to eat the bread and drink the wine they proclaim (yes, proclaim!) the meaning of the Lord’s death and resurrection until he comes again. At the beginning of a brand new week, on resurrection day, on the Lord’s Day, they “sound the trumpet” and hearts everywhere are lifted—they herald glorious life beyond death in a post-resurrection world and so the present itself is shot through with promise and vibrant hope [1 Peter 1:3 & 1 Corinthians 15:54-58]. At such a meal of joyful remembering and fellowship all that is satanic though dressed in finery is seen for what it is—another name for death.

In God’s name on Sundays we blow the trumpets!

THE LOVELINESS OF PROMISE-KEEPERS

“May the Lord deal with me ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”
Ruth the Moabite

There’s so much betrayal of trust in the world that you might think we’d all be cynics by now. Believing no one, insisting on pre-nuptial agreements, pages of fine print and a list of witnesses the length of a football field—that’s pretty much the order of the day in some cultures.

In light of all that, isn’t it a grand awakening to discover that the bus you run to catch is packed full of “trusters”. Supermarkets are jammed full of them, they’re bringing up coal out of the mines and fixing your televisions; they’re hanging off roofs and swinging on chandeliers; they’re writing you a speeding ticket or cutting your hair. Everywhere you go they’re popping up or out or in or over or across or back again. They’re everywhere! Praise God they’re everywhere! They’re fixing our cars, our plumbing and our electrical problems; they’re teaching our children and looking after our ill in hospitals; they picking up our trash, checking us out at grocery stores and delivering our mail. They  promise to do a good job and they live by the promise; they not only keep their word they believe that others will also.

They know the horror stories, know their own limitations and the shaping power of a glib and shrewd society. They look at the world with steady eyes, fully aware of the shiny veneer and the gold-plated promises, missing nothing; and then as if the world was made of solid oak they give their hearts away. They mortgage the only hearts and lives they have because someone says to them: “I’m not very smart, I’m not good-looking and I may never make my mark in this world; but I love you. Yes…I do, I…love you, and if you’ll come with me I’ll never leave you!”

They hear that and they trust! They deserve to be honored with our faithfulness because they’ve earned it with their “yes!” And it’s precisely because of their noble-spirited trust that they suffer incredible heartache when that trust is trampled in the dirt. Their emotions are savaged but their whole view of the world takes a battering as well and that adds calamity to tragedy. Believing that somehow right is stronger than wrong they defy the jeering world and are run over by a juggernaut. The more cynical among us aren’t hit as hard by treachery because we don’t commit a lot—we know better, you see. Still, while we don’t get badly hurt we aren’t greatly loved or blessed and, perhaps what’s worse, we never love gloriously. We shrewdly grab the shiny metal and turn down Aladdin’s lamp because we’ve seen too many poor souls mangled beyond repair by the callous and the glib.

In Puccini’s opera, Madam Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San is a sensitive fifteen-year old Japanese girl who’s swept off her feet by Lieutenant Pinkerton, U.S.N. She turns from her traditional religion and marries the sailor who makes her believe she’s the only one in the world he wants. Despite the bad record of marriages with “visiting foreigners” and despite the fact that the marriage has an “out” clause, Butterfly believes in Pinkerton with all her heart. He sets her up in a fine house, promises her that he will come back and take her to America, and goes back to sea. It’s only later she discovers she’s going to have his child—a child he doesn’t know about.

He’s gone for three years, she misses him beyond words, she’s having a hard time financially and socially but far worse than all that, there’s a lingering dread. But when her devoted maid Suzuki tries to persuade her of the worst, she rages against her and says that Suzuki lacks faith, that she simply doesn’t know Pinkerton! At that point, full of faith and smiling, seeing it all with her trusting heart, she sings the beautiful aria One Fine Day.

‘Hear me! One fine day we’ll notice a thread of smoke arising on the sea—In the far horizon, and then the ship appearing; the white trim vessel glides into the harbor, thunders forth the cannon. See you? Now he is coming! I do not go to meet him. Not I! I stay up on the brow of the hill, and wait there…and wait a long time. But never weary of the long waiting. From out of the crowded city there is coming a man, a little speck in the distance, climbing the hill. Can you guess who it is? And when he’s reached the summit can you guess what he’ll say? He will call “Butterfly” from the distance. I without answering, hold myself quietly concealed, a bit to tease him and a bit so as not to die…”Dear baby wife of mine!” “Orange blossom!” The names he used to call me when he came here. This will come to pass as I tell you. Banish your fears, for he will return. I know it!’

The American Consul, Sharpless, arrives with a letter saying that Pinkerton has married in the U.S.A. and is returning with his wife. Sharpless tries again and again to tell her but he can’t bring himself to do it. They’re interrupted by the arrival of the young prince Yamadori who wants to marry Butterfly but she insists she’s already married to the only one she’ll ever love and, on the basis of what Pinkerton had promised, she turns down security and dignity for her child and herself.

Later Pinkerton does arrive, but with his wife Kate. He learns of the child and is torn with grief at the agony his selfishness has caused. As soon as Butterfly enters and sees Kate, she senses who she is, and when the woman confirms it Butterfly’s world collapses. She sets her house in order, arranges for the little boy’s future with Pinkerton and all alone, broken-hearted and beyond comfort, she stabs herself and dies.

Only a silly story? Hmmm, do you think so?

The biblical Ruth took it all seriously and wouldn’t walk away from her calamity-ridden mother-in-law even though the older woman urged her to go back to her familiar and secure world. The young Moabite made this unforgettable commitment (1:16-17):

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord deal with me ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

The good news is that there are tens of thousands who say to one another, “I can’t be sure of the world or what they will do; I can only be sure of me and what I’ll do. I will stay!”

Landon Saunders put it like this, “Marriage is two people looking deep into each other’s eyes and saying: ‘Others may come and go in your life but I never will. If you get sick, I’ll care for you, feed you, bathe you; I’ll do anything for you except leave you. I will never leave you.’ “

To give our solemn promise is a gallant and profoundly serious thing. It alters the world for us because it shapes the future; it says some things are no longer options for us. [Oh God, how lovely it would be to be like that, how fine it is when we are like that.] Keeping our promises doesn’t only change our world—it changes the world for those who take us seriously. They too see the world and the future differently because they believe some things are certain. And on that promised future their present world is shaped—they live in the light of that.

I know some lovely people who are as distressed as I am at times about the state of the world, about terrorist threats, about the global economy, about the restlessness of the nations, about spiraling crimes rates and deteriorating health. It’s all that uncertainty, don’t you see. But if I were to ask them if they were sure that their beloved would always be there, the answer would come back decisive and immediate, “Oh, always and always, come what may.”

Now that’s something to be sure of.

Don’t people like that make you happy to be a human or make you want to be a lovely human?

BOOK, CRITICS, AND SNOOPY

Dorothy Parker a syndicated columnist with a razor-sharp tongue had a column under the name of “Constant Reader”. She read one of those syrupy romance books, the kind that simply drips with sugar and in reviewing it she wrote as if she had a lisp. “Twonstant weeda fwoed up.” I know it’s the wickedness in me, but I can’t help taking pleasure in that!

Of course, I’d hate to have been the author of that book she reviewed. Come to think of it, I have been the author of more than one book that’s been trashed by reviewers. My books just don’t sell. Still, if I could write as Dorothy Parker wrote I’d have no trouble.

Writers of all kinds offer themselves for target practice, don’t they? One poor poet wrote a two-liner and a critic remarked on it. “Quite good, but with long dry stretches.”

The Irish playwright and conversationalist Oscar Wilde had a go at no less a figure than Charles Dickens. Of Dickens’ telling of the death of Little Nell, Wilde said something like, “You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh out loud at the death of little Nell.”

Pity the poor authors that take themselves too seriously.

But I think that’s one of the secrets of a happy life: to be able to make the best of and find pleasure in whatever the result is of…whatever.

Take the case of Snoopy in the Peanuts series. He keeps sending manuscripts off to publishing editors (obviously a lot of them must have gone to the same editor) and he continues to get rejections. One rejection note he’s reading has to be read in a voice that rises to a crescendo. It had something like: “Will you stop sending me your useless manuscripts. I hate them, they’re a waste of time, I’m sick and tired looking at them. Stop sending them!” Snoopy walks off grinning with ear-to-ear pleasure and says, “I just love to hear editors beg.”

Atta boy, Snoop!

Then there was that caustic book review I read that said, “Professor ‘X’ has written his book again.”

Ouch!

But there’s no accounting for taste, is there? What is ambrosia to some is sawdust to others. What to some is like a bowl of strawberries and ice-cream is like licking carpet to others. Oh well.

Think I’ll see if I can catch up with Snoopy.