Monthly Archives: May 2016

SPECTACLES & JERICHO ROAD

WHO AM I TO LOVE AND WHY?

Life is a strange old thing, isn’t it? Emmanuel Kant wanted to tell us that there is no such thing as an unperceived world (he was right of course, at that point). And there’s no unperceived life—we see it through the lens we’ve inherited from our social/cultural/economic/religious or philosophical environment. We like to kid ourselves into thinking that we stand free of presuppositions, that we don’t bring our baggage to our Bible study. Silly isn’t it? F.F Bruce thought that none of us is so tradition bound as those of us that think we have no traditions that affect our thinking. What has this to do with the road to Jericho?

A fine writer, Kenneth Bailey, whose parents spent many years working among the peasants in the Mid-East and who, himself, spent twenty years doing the same, deals with the Good Samaritan story and context. Clearly his history in the Middle East has left its mark on his helpful work on the parables and yet his religious background gives the Luke 10:25-37 section a 16th century setting. He reads it as Christ exposing legalism as if he had been speaking during a Reformed/Roman Catholic debate. The Jewish teacher wanted to know what he had to do in order to gain eternal life and KB makes his talk of doing the crux of the problem. The teacher “was trying to save himself,” we’re told, and Christ exposes that nonsense. [It’s strange that Jesus doesn’t tell the teacher there’s nothing he can do. On the contrary he tells him to “do” more. Read the entire incident for yourself.]

So the entire 1st century Jewish story is read through a Lutheran/Reformed lens. That’s what I meant when I said there is no unperceived life. We are handed religious spectacles (depending on…) and we read scripture through them. It’s spooky to realize that. Some people think that such a thing affects only those linked to religious glasses but there are philosophical, cultural and political glasses as well. There are some who think that such a thing affects only those linked to old traditions—far from it!

Tradition is not the only thing that hands out spectacles. Fads and fashions do the same thing. Shaped by currents and influential people we can jump on the latest bandwagon. “Out with the old—in with the new!” That too can become a mindset and everything is judged in light of it. G.K Chesterton’s shrewd observation is worth recalling. He said democracy has taught us a person’s view should be given respectful consideration even if he/she is only our servant or employee. He went on to say that tradition has taught us that a person’s view should be given respectful consideration even if he/she is only our father or mother.

In the end, there’s no doubt about it, only God can deliver us from our shackles, no matter how or where or by whom they were made.

But reading with my own spectacles on, Luke 10:25-37 doesn’t at all look like a discussion of legalism or self-salvation. It looks to me like a straightforward (but too rich to grasp all) lesson on what love of God and neighbor means and calls for. Here’s a sectarian Jew—one that believed a currently held though disputed viewpoint that God called Israel to love their covenant brothers and sisters and feel no obligation whatever to those outside that circle (compare Luke 6:27-36 and Matthew 5:43-48).

Those that held that view thought that that was how they were to live out “the image of God”. The God they praised in the Shema had loved only Israel, don’t you see; loved only a segment of the human family that he had made so he regarded the rest as his enemies. At least that was what many inferred. Herein lies one of the dangers of thinking that God’s love is restricted to a particular covenantal expression of it.

Some Jews thought that because God made a covenant exclusively with them that he made Gentiles for no other reason than to stoke the fires of hell. There’s a “Christian” version of that view that says God created the bulk of the human family for no other reason than to subject them eternally to ceaseless, conscious torture. Without wish or choice on their part and by God’s ordaining, they were born enemies, and he will burn them throughout the ceaseless ages “according to the good pleasure of his will.”

In any case, this Jewish teacher wanted to justify himself—being a good sectarian he had to find good reason to justify his sectarianism (10:29). So he wanted to debate the definition of “neighbor”—in essence, he wanted to know whom he was obliged to love. The commandment to love couldn’t be doubted, but there was room for manoeuvring on the scope of it.

But his doctrine of election was skewed, don’t you know. Life and peace with God was possible only for Jews, he thought! (And later, some Christian Jews insisted on the same thing—see Acts 15:1-2—and so we got the books of Galatians and Romans.) In light of his view of God and the love of God that he saw expressed in Jewish election, and the consequences for the rest of the human family, this Bible teacher implicitly narrowed his obligation to love.

[I read a book some years ago, 300 pages +, that taught us what God took pleasure in. Rich in many ways! We were told that God took pleasure in galaxies, flowers, animals, his chosen number out of humanity, and on and on—but nowhere a word about the pleasure he takes in the entire human family. Well, I found a single sentence and text that were then passed by with nothing more than a disclaimer. I must confess that that’s a stunning absence. The book got rave reviews from many preachers; makes you wonder. The Jewish Bible teacher was sectarian because he saw God as sectarian. He narrowed his obligation to love because he thought God had loved narrowly. If God refuses to love Gentiles how can it be right for him to love Gentiles? If God refuses to love the bulk of humanity how can it be right for those who are to live and love in his image love the bulk of humanity? Sectarianism is ugly—Jewish or Christian.]

But Jesus would have none of it. He wouldn’t enter the debate about what “neighbor” meant nor would he debate what might be the consequences of the definition of neighbor. He didn’t deny that God had made a peculiar covenant with Israel, the OT elect, but he flatly denied that God loved only those he covenanted with or only those who loved him. (And should that mean something to us? If so, what?)

In Luke 10 Jesus passed by the debate about the covenantal meaning of the word “neighbor” and asked “who loved?” (10:36). “Which of these people was a lover? Which of these people functioned as a neighbor?” Jesus asked him. The Bible teacher knew it wasn’t the priest or the Levite. Whoever or whatever the man in the road was, the Samaritan “loved” him and came to his rescue. “If you want life go and do likewise,” said Jesus Christ. [This unnerves many Reformed types. It should unsettle many non-Lutheran types.]

Karl Barth was right. If the Bible teacher had had the heart he would have known he was talking to the cosmic Good Samaritan.

PREACHERS, DOGS & WATER OF LIFE

“As the deer pants for the streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”

Psalm 42:1.

There he is standing in the middle of the stream chest heaving and heart thumping like a runaway train. His wide and wild-eyed look scours every foot of ground around him but there’s no sign of them. Maybe he finally shook them off but his legs are throbbing and weary from miles covered at breakneck speed, his ribs are aching from the pressure of lungs expanded to their limit in sucking in great gulps of air, his throat’s on fire and his mouth is dry as desert dust. The long chase, the fierce pack, the cunning way they pursued, always keeping him running full tilt with a single leader dog while the rest waited until he tired and then they’d take over. This time he outwitted or outran them but the strain and the effort has been close to overwhelming. He can wait no longer, danger or not he must find the nearest stream and drink or die.  He pants for water. No sipping, no little desire but a desperate and unquenchable thirst. He finds the stream and sinks his muzzle in the ice-cold water and swallows it down in big life-giving, life-restoring gulps.

That’s the picture the psalmist paints for us in Psalm 42:1.

From some high vantage point the psalmist had seen such a race and he had more than once seen the predators catch their prey and heard the sound of the savagery and the agony that made its way up to him. And he remembered days past when he too was pursued by destroyers and even as he writes there are those who seek his soul. Pursued by enemies, hemmed in by circumstances beyond his control, his strength almost gone, the effort to stay on his feet has worn him down and driven him to the edge of the abyss and he is terribly afraid. He must find God. “My soul thirsts for God, the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” [42.2]

As the deer at the limit of his endurance instinctively knows he must find water so this little human knows he must find God for it’s only in God he has reason to hope!

He tests every offer of help with the question: “Will it help me to find God?”

Here, here is good advice and counsel.

“Will it help me to find God?”

Here, here is an offer of friendship.

“Will it help me see the face of God?

Here, here is a place you can run to.

”Will God be there?”

Here, here is a book you should read, a movie you should see, a seminar you should attend, a habit you should develop.

“Will they bring me to God? I want GOD! I need GOD! Bring me to GOD!”

FORD, BECKETT & JESUS

Henry Ford is quoted as saying that history is just one damn thing after another. Ignoring the details of the history and the disputes associated with it, Samuel Beckett, came up with a play called Breath that lasted about 28 seconds. A dimly lit stage littered with scattered rubbish, a faint brief cry and a breath, taking in air, light begins to glow and increases enough to make out what’s on stage but never becomes bright, another [identical] faint cry and breath being expired and light dims again into complete darkness. Play ended.

Wasserman in his marvelous stage adaptation of Don Quixote (which ends in a pleasing triumph) has Don Quixote saying to the gang-raped Aldonza that the crime will be punished. Her response is that the greatest crime is to be born and life is the punishment.

Such is life! Such is history!

So it must feel, so it must look for multiplied millions.

Surprising?

Hardly!

The message of the Hebrew—Christian scriptures includes many stories of brutality, cruelty and heartlessness that beggar description (glance through the book of Judges and see for yourself). The world the Bible reveals has a God-denying look and there’s enough in there about God himself that tempts even believers to look away, uneasy and embarrassed.

It isn’t at all difficult to go to the Bible and history and choose events that we can string together and create a Beckett play or a Ford viewpoint. Something like that sits before us in the book of Ecclesiastes—“Pointless, Pointless, Everything is pointless!” [How did that book ever make it into the canon?]

But neither Ford nor Beckett could live in such a world. In your mind you can visit a world like that but you can’t live there. You can read many pieces from the Hebrew—Christian scriptures and shake your head, perplexed, but you can’t read it as a whole and see it climax in Jesus Christ and dismiss it as another record of scattered rubbish that lies between a breath taken in and another expired—end.

In the Bible you come across events that defy chaos and emptiness; that defy gloom and pointlessness.

String those events together. Think of the Exodus and the birth of a chosen nation; think of a preacher who made his appearance in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, a preacher who heralded the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ! String together Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension and exaltation and look at the existence of millions of his followers down the centuries. String together these and so many other events and realities—realities just as real as the shocking realities, events just as historical as any history we can tell.

Robinson Crusoe lived alone for years, seeing his world in the same solitary way until that day when he saw a single human footprint. It could never be the same for him. A single piece of truth, a solitary event, and an entire world changed. That footprint was enough. He didn’t need to have all the answers to all the questions that flooded into his mind—the central issue was settled beyond dispute. He was not alone!

Just Jesus!

Jesus alone!

That’s enough. If there’s Jesus, history changes, existence changes! Ford is wrong! Beckett is wrong! The kingdoms of the world are wrong! The agonized and God-cursing millions of the earth, sadly, are wrong!  Jesus moves throughout the earth, listening, seeing and saying, “Yes, I do understand. Trust me, my Holy Father can be trusted. One day your agony will end and you will awake to such glory and joy and peace and righteousness as is beyond your power to imagine. Trust me and think noble things of God.”

Ford is wrong! Beckett is wrong!

Jesus is right!

Praise God!

CHIMPS, ORANGUTANS & GOD

There are people who will not be able to read this without being filled with anger; it’s too upbeat. They have been through agony, are experiencing it now and look at the torment of millions in the world and all talk of laughter and happiness seems out of place and, in particular, they see no grounds for praising a God who allows all that to exist much less allow it to continue. At this moment all I can ask you to do is to think noble things of God; the Story isn’t over till it’s over!

I know about parasites that eat the eyes out of children and mosquitoes that carry malaria and predatory bacteria that hunt the human race. I’ve spoken about this at some length in various writings. I mention this to make the point that like everyone else that has some common sense I have no Pollyannaish view of life. So when I speak of the humor, the pleasure, the delight and the warm silliness that much of life has and brings, you should know that I haven’t taken leave of this world. There are harsh and ugly realities in life but that’s far from all that’s on offer even in this world.

If someone tells me that marriage is a tough road with plenty of grim slogging and more than a few pains and disappointments on the way, what can I do but agree? But if anyone tells me that that’s the whole story of marriage I’ll tell him to dream on. It wasn’t my marriage and if I can believe the tens of thousands that witness to their joys and delights, my own wild and unpredictable, sometimes painful but most often happy and now and then glorious was not at all unusual.

Like almost everyone else, I suppose, I can rehearse a lot of pain, vividly recall moments I would never want to experience again and remember excruciating losses. But like everyone else I have known times of falling-down, side-splitting, stomach-aching laughter; times when my Ethel and I smiled till our faces hurt.

I remember as though it was yesterday, that many years ago she and I lay in bed talking and I got my tongue all tangled up. She began to titter and then to laugh out loud and found it difficult to stop. I was the tiniest bit miffed at the pleasure she was getting out of it all. “What’s so funny?” She could barely respond for laughing but finally blurted out, “You made a midake.” Now she had tangled her tongue up and we both began to screech with silly laughter. Ethel, now laughing more at her “midake,” and my laughing at the irony of it, we were nearly insane, rolling with stomach pains, sobering for a second and then bursting into another mirth-quake. Suddenly the door swung open and our son George, whose room was across the hall, wakened out of a sound sleep, indignantly wanted to know if we knew it was nearly three in the morning. We were screeching and he fumbled his speech and we went berserk. What made it even funnier was his serious indignation. We couldn’t tell him for squawking and as he stomped out of the room unimpressed, we looked at each other and off we went into another gale of gut-wrenching, pain-bringing, headache-hastening laughter. I thought I heard him mumbling complaints to himself in his room across the hall.

I like God because he brings laughter into our lives and if that’s one of his gifts it says something about him! He says he delights in showing mercy and that tells you something about his character. If he delights in giving us laughter, that tells us something about his character. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a gloomy and baleful figure, murderous at heart like bloodthirsty Kali. He doesn’t burn with vindictive resentment like a Zeus or ceaselessly snarl like the god of the poor legalists. He creates and takes pleasure in the works of his hands. He rejoices in the things he has made. The psalmist tells the nations of the world to rejoice because Yahweh is Lord. The simple but truthful little hymn says, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” Yes, all right, there are other realities in the world but for the vast majority of us (at least in the West) we have no grounds to mutter on and on morbidly about harsh realities. Morbidity is not the fruit of the creation—it most often lies—I would suggest—in us. It wasn’t Christmas that needed to be changed—it was Scrooge! And when he changed, Christmas changed!

I confess with some regret that I’m not able to rejoice greatly in flowers and gardens and forests. I recognize that I’m the one that loses out here. But the sight of acres of daisies or buttercups, miles of green fields, skies of blue and fluffy clouds that rise right up into God’s own living room can move even me. The pleasure of watching a tiny kitten (or several) “attacking” the mother that sits there patiently while the baby bites on her ear or paws at her back is a lovely experience. To watch pups climb all over a little boy or girl and hear the child giggle hysterically is one of the wonders of the world. I like God for giving us such sights and sounds.

Many years ago I went to the Dublin Zoo and believe me when I tell you that I actually saw what I’m about to describe.

I watched a whole company of chimpanzees in an enclosure, having the time of their lives (or so it looked). There were three or four hunkering down the way people do and they were watching the girls go by (girl chimps). Eyeing them as they passed by; the way boys do on the corners (or at least the way we used to do). One of them really eyed this pretty thing as she minced by without giving him a glance. As she just got past him, he leaned over and rattled her rear end with the back of his hand and then looked the other way and around him as if he hadn’t done it. I nearly fell down laughing. I half expected the three or four “corner boys” to look at each other and grin. “Nice one, Harry!” I can hear them chuckle while he smirked, pleased with himself.

I went from there to where the great apes were. They were enclosed behind heavy glass windows and there was a rail that separated us from the window with maybe a couple of feet between. One big fellow gave us some attention, pulling faces and acting up. Two or three kids were enjoying him no end and they were leaning over the rail to get as close to him as possible. He looked at them, I thought, with a bit of special interest and then turned his back to us, leaned against the window without movement, while the kids leaned farther and farther in toward the window. Suddenly he turned and went “boo” and scared the livin’ daylights out of the kids before walking away apparently satisfied with himself. [He didn’t really say “boo” but I can’t spell the sound he made; still, it clearly functioned as a “boo”.

Finally, I went to see the long-legged monkeys they had on a little island in the middle of a big pond. Frequently they would burst out into whooping. The whoop would begin moderately but would increase in volume until it was nearly deafening. The kids loved it and tried to get the monkeys to get on with it. Immediately across from where we were watching the whoopers was an orangutan enclosure. There was a young lady there (I read her name but I’ve forgotten it). She gave us a very languid performance of hanging and lounging and sitting examining her tummy and smiling at us with those big teeth and eyes of hers. She was obviously enjoying our attention but just at that point the whoopers went into one of their sessions. We looked around and then back at our lady friend and she yawned a big yawn and gave a scornful slow-handclap. She wasn’t impressed with the whoopers and wanted us to know it.

I’ve been to a few zoos in my life (not many) but that was one memorable day and I can’t help thinking as I reflect on it that God must have a sense of humor. I don’t even mean the “laugh at a good joke” type humor. No, I mean there must be an aspect of him that leads him to look at such things and smile with pleasure and say again what he said in Genesis 1, “Now that’s good!”

I think God gets cross when he witnesses cruelty to animals but I think it’s more than that. I think God finds pleasure in ostriches and armadillos, koalas and camels, eagles and donkeys, foals and kittens and puppies, fish and whales and kangaroos and the whole animal world. The psalmist (104) says they all look to God for their food and he provides for them. Yes, yes—yes! I know there are other things to be said—but not here and not at this moment.

How can we say God has no sense of humor when he made kittens and orangutans, penguins and a duck-billed platypus? And colors? In the movie Color Purple, Sugar and Celie were walking together through the fields and Sugar says that everything wants to be loved and urges Celie to look at how the trees wave to attract attention. Then she says, “I think God gets irritated when people walk by and don’t even notice the color purple.” Maybe she was right. Well, whether we all can get pleasure in these things, God can, and that tells me something about him.

I remember on a visit to Thailand I saw the sun going down. The horizon must have been about a hundred yards from me and the sun came to within fifty feet of me (it had to be that close). It filled the whole sky. It was a mingled orange and red and yellow—all soft, none of it harsh on the eyes, smooth and liquid and big and perfectly round. “You ever see anything like me?” it whispered to me as it sat there for half of forever, just letting me gaze dumbfounded, before it silently slipped down behind the rim of the earth, eventually leaving the sky a gorgeous black velvet.

The world would be one gloomy old spinning Alcatraz if there was no laughter in it. If we believe God put music and color and beauty in it, where do we think the laughter came from?

 

SNOOPY AND THE MUSIC OF LIFE

 

  1. Stanley Jones told of a woman who came to him with a real need. She said she knew very well that there was a gospel for the hurting, the lonely, the oppressed, the poor and the miserable. She said she had a husband who loved her, children who adored and respected her, a job that challenged and income enough and more to pay her debts and bring honorable pleasures her way. She wanted to know, “Do you have a gospel for the happy?”

We know very well that many people live lives filled with pain and desperation—these I don’t have in mind. I’m talking about those of us who say there’s a “gospel” and despite saying that we view life within the gospel as one long dead heave—joyless! About a hundred years ago Hugh R Mackintosh dryly remarked that whatever else that faith was, it wasn’t “infectious”.

I think I recognize that this kind of talk can be overworked. It does trouble me that we can easily dismiss the great sorrow of those who suffer long they do it with inane advice like, “Don’t sweat the small stuff—and it’s all small stuff” (a book title of a few years ago).

I have in mind a view of the gospel that affects our view of the world that affects our view of life across the board. And I hold leadership mainly responsible for our warped view of the gospel that drives people to (sort of) see life as something to be endured until the Big Fire and then we’ll be made happy for enduring the unhappiness to which we’ve been called in the gospel. What a rip off!

The cure—to the degree that there can be an emotional cure at all in this life—is to grasp the good news nature of the good news! Say we shouldn’t believe the gospel, say it’s baseless, say it’s a pipe-dream, says it offends the intellect, say it’s Freudian wishfulness, say it’s the drug that puts people asleep so that they’ll put up with anything—all of that might be true (not!). But if the gospel is true don’t say it isn’t good news for words wouldn’t mean anything then.

But what is it that’s good news?

There lies a great problem. If our leaders aren’t developing the “good news”; if they’re offering us church-growth schemes, how to make our assemblies bigger, “happier” and friendlier; if they’re always berating the Church of God and telling us how pathetic it is or ceaselessly calling us to greater moral excellence then we lose sight of the good news about the good news. The “good news” is lost under so much added fine print that it would take a generation of lawyers to work their way through the conditions, qualifications and explanations.

Jesus is Lord—that’s the gospel! God reigns in and through Jesus Christ—that’s the gospel! God reigns in this present chaotic world as he brings creation to a glorious finale—that’s the gospel!

There’s nothing that can be said against that that couldn’t have been said or wasn’t said on that Friday when they “did away” with Jesus on the cross! “Look, God has failed! Look, God’s Redeemer is a loser! Look, Rome and militant corruption and cruelty rule the world!”

Yeah right! Go see the ruins at Rome where they used to butcher Christians as appetizers before the main attraction—the gladiators, who came out to entertain by seeing who could kill without being killed.

Enjoy a slow and thoughtful reading of Colossians 2:15 and see what really happened at the cross—an understanding that’s verified by the resurrection and glorification of the One Rome jeered at before murdering him!

All right! All right! We Christians aren’t ignorant of the awful suffering and the great wrong of the world. We don’t need lectures about loss and loneliness—God hasn’t exempted us from the agony the human family endures. He has called us to share it with them as the “body of Christ”. We’re well aware that we don’t yet see all things under the feet of the Lord Jesus but we’ve acknowledged that for two thousand years; we’ve said that plainly since the Hebrew writer said, “We do not yet see all thing under his feet.” But he didn’t finish there and neither do we. He went on to say, “But we see Jesus!”

When people call us to be realistic we tell them that we know about realism up close and personal. We don’t claim we are the only sufferers; we don’t deny that other nations and other faith-communities have been oppressed but we believe without wavering that the truth imbedded in Revelation 21:5 (NJB) is true: “Look, I’m making the whole creation new.”

Develop that week after week for that is the gospel!

In a Peanuts cartoon Schroeder is playing great music well and Lucy is content leisurely to listen to it. Then in walks Snoopy, listens to it for a moment and then begins to dance—he can’t help it! He’s spinning like a top, dancing like Fred Astaire and smiling like a Cheshire cat and it offends the great artist and the intelligent listener. Great music is to be played and intently listened to—it’s not supposed to make you rejoice or dance!

Snoopy doesn’t care what they think; he has the heart for it and dances! Well, he dances until they shame him into embarrassment at his own joy and he crawls off.

Shame on them! 

It isn’t always possible even for a great musician like Schroeder to rejoice in the great music he plays. Reminds me of preachers who have the preaching buzz and are very serious about their business but where’s the joy in the truth of it—you have to hear it and recognize it for what it is. You have to hear it! You realize it isn’t about you; it’s about Him! It isn’t about us; it’s about Him! It’s certainly about us but only because it’s about Him!

Turn that truth loose in a sustained, rich development and watch the world change, even now, for countless poor souls whose faith will become infectious.

 

THIS IS THE DAY THE LORD HAS MADE

 He was singing. On his way to betrayal and hanging he was singing! Jesus I mean! It was the Passover festival and in national custom the Hallel psalms were sung—Psalm 113-118, and having eaten the Passover meal Jesus leaves with his troubled eleven disciples singing the final Psalm 118. 1

What they and the nation ate was the Passover lamb—the lamb whose body and blood proclaimed national redemption from slavery and death.

Hear him as he makes his way to Gethsemane: “This is the day/This is the day that the Lord has made/We will rejoice and be glad in it.”

”The expression “the Hallel psalms” usually refers to Psalm 113-118. This is a highly esteemed unit of six psalms that were sung as praise at various important festivals of the Jews—festivals that included the three great festivals, one of which was the Passover.

This isn’t the place to develop the point but the Exodus background is very prominent in Psalm 118. The return from the Babylonian exile is in the psalmist’s mind also but it is the Exodus event that dominates. Both occasions give substance to the psalm since both were occasions of captivity, periods when Israel was looked down on, was despised and rejected by those who wielded the power. But look what happened! The magnificent God twice redeemed the oppressed nation from the powerful and dismantled the world of the oppressor.

Egypt and Babylon built a palace to their own liking and as they wandered around choosing the stones they wanted to express their glory and sovereignty they looked at Israel with contempt—useless, they would have muttered, and went their way. But when the great God was building a palace to his liking he chose the rejected stone, Israel, and made it the headstone of the glorious building he was buiding.

What’s particularly interesting is how the New Testament writers make use of Psalm 118. On the night in which he was betrayed, knowing that he was to be crucified, the Lord Jesus as would have been the national custom went out with his disciples toward he garden singing Psalm 118.

Earlier on his way into Jerusalem the crowds greeted him with words from the psalm, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” 2 When the New Covenant believers took this psalm of double deliverance and applied it consistently to the Lord Jesus they were claiming that in him the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was keeping faith not only with his chosen people Israel but through Israel he was keeping faith with all the nations of the world. They saw in Jesus God’s continuing work of redemption, which had come to its climax and completion in him who was Abraham’s seed and David’s son.3

All of this the great God was doing despite appearances. There was nothing “lucky” about this day of vindication; it was a day of redemption that demonstrated that the one true God all along had been working his glorious purpose—this was the day that the Lord had made.

This day said: “It doesn’t matter what the headlines had been saying in the Egyptian Chronicle; it doesn’t matter that in our pain and in our confusion that the frightening headlines had made sense because they were based on political, military and economic realities. Now we know that behind all the complex realities that we weren’t wise enough then to piece together as a whole, the great God was working his will—a will that was gracious and generous and would only be fully understood in a coming day.

We need to remember here that Jesus, God’s Messiah, is Israel’s Redeemer and that before the week ended he was be the “rejected stone”. The irony of it all is hard to miss. The nation during the Passover is singing of its deliverance from God’s enemies (Egypt and Babylon)—enemies who looked at Israel in contempt and rejected it and now they would look at their own Messiah in contempt and reject him. The oppressed nation now becomes God’s enemy, the oppressor. 4

But despite the harsh realities that couldn’t be denied, despite the scorn and sadness, pain and national rejection that was about to take place, the sovereign God was at work. Israel didn’t make this “day”; Rome didn’t make this “day”—this text tells us the faithful God made this day that was a “day” of contempt and rejection and loss into a day of vindication and triumphant glory!

Despite all the tears, the fear and the anguish, a time would come when a nation—no, an entire world of the redeemed—would look back on this “day” and celebrate it!

And people have believed the truth in all this and that’s why Huguenot people like Paul Ranc climbed the steps to the scaffold in Grenoble in 1745 singing Psalm 118. “This is the day, this is the day that the Lord hath made. I will rejoice, I will rejoice and be glad in it.” 5

I’m not suggesting that we should greet every devastating experience as an experience that God has specifically brought upon us. We need not assume that the death of one beloved to us should not be construed as God targeting them or specifically purposing that event—though God alone knows things we don’t know and he alone, as Chesterton reminds us, “knows the praises of death.”

We know this: the rejection and death of the Lord is part of a divine narrative and without it God’s drama could not have been acted out or written—it was an event specifically purposed by God and related to his creative and redemptive work for humanity. That event is unique though it occurred within run-of-the-mill history. Our personal histories are not of that sort!

Nevertheless, God is the Lord of all history and of all events and the life of the People of God is also a grand narrative within the Grand Narrative of salvation history; it is indeed a part of the Grand Narrative. As the Body of Christ, the People of God share the hurt and loss experienced by the human family so we neither ask for nor are we given exemption from “the day” of trouble. Because no “day” can come our way that is not part of the outworking of God’s eternal plan those who are privileged to believe can sing, “This is the day/ This is the day that the Lord has made/We will rejoice/We will rejoice and be glad in it.” 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Matthew 26:30
  2. Mark 11.9; Matthew 21:42; Luke 20:17
  3. Matthew 1:1
  4. Acts 4:11
  5. S Smiles, Huguenots in France, Delmarva Publications, 2013, p. 99.

See also William D, Garick: “A number of Huguenot martyrs (including the last one in 1762) sang portions of this psalm as they were led to the scaffold where they were executed.”
http://drbarrick.org/files/studynotes/Psalms/Ps_118.pdf

  1. See 1 Peter 4:13 & 19 with 2:21-23 which speaks of suffering that wasn’t deserved; Colossians 1:24; Romans 8:17, 29, 38-39

 

 

BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD

 

The KJV and others render John 1:36, “Behold the lamb of God.” The NIV and some others render it, “Look, the lamb of God.” Look works, of course, but behold works better. In Revelation 21:5 we hear that he who sat on the throne said (KJV), “Behold, I make all things new.” The NIV renders it, “Look, I make all things new.” Again, look works but behold works better.

If people in the kitchen are searching for the salt and someone finds it, he might say, “Look, the salt!” Unless he means to be amusing he won’t say, “Behold, the salt!” The word look would work if he wanted people to know he had found the salt but behold wouldn’t. Why is that?

We know the word behold doesn’t work for the very ordinary, the very familiar. It’s a word we’d reserve for something grand, something out of the ordinary; it’s a word we’d tend to associate with pageantry and the blowing of trumpets. It has, for perfectly good reasons, an old English sound because that’s what it is—an old English word that has dropped out of use because people have lost something of the sense of wonder and if you lose that then you have no use for the speech of wonder. And it works in a vicious circle for part of the reason we have lost the sense of wonder at life is because we cheapen it with speech that cheapens it. You only have to think of the long list of tasteless slang used for the lovemaking between two who love one another. So many words that have dropped out of common use and we’re the poorer for it. I’m glad that some versions have had the good sense and good taste to retain the word behold.

It’s a word that promises the looker something outstanding if he looks. Behold, says the King who sits on the throne, as he draws attention to a glorious renewing of the entire creation. Behold, says John and focuses their attention on something, on someone, more wondrous than the entire creation—the Lamb of God! Behold said the angel of God to the trembling shepherds when he came to announce the arrival of the Messiah, the incarnate Son of God.

It doesn’t matter that the human family didn’t understand; it doesn’t matter that the human family still doesn’t understand the reality and nature of its misery, the depth of its alienation from the Holy Father or the cure for it. Voices here and there with some sense of it all have asked the questions for us. We’ve always sensed that something was wrong and Dwight and Adams spoke the truth about us when they wrote something we could sing and confess: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining/ till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

We’ve tried everything to bring peace and satisfaction to ourselves. We’ve murdered our brothers like Cain, we’ve cheapened marriage like Lamech, we abandoned ourselves to self-actualization, swore we’d build towers and glorify ourselves by ourselves and our masterful skills and we’ve armed ourselves to steal and keep what we grabbed. We’re still doing it—aren’t we!

Then every now and then the awful realization of the depths of evil to which we can plunge filled us with self-loathing and we thought ourselves—God’s creation, God’s children—we thought ourselves unworthy of redemption. His appearance to rescue us showed that God thought more of us than we thought of ourselves. He said, “You’re worth it to me!”

One day God visited Ur and knocked on a door.

“You Abram?” he said to the man who answered.

“I am sir, and who are you?” the man asked.

“For now, just call me El Shaddai.”

“And what is it you want, sir?”

“I want you to come with me, you and your wife. I want to save a

world and I want you to help me.”

Then one day God sent Abraham on a three-day ride with his future riding beside him, his future embodied in a boy called Isaac. They got to the place and the boy asked, “I see the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb?” His faith-filled father said God would provide and so the question became, “Where is the lamb of God?” Now there was a ”lamb” that kept Isaac from death and the promise to Abraham was secured. This was a lamb that spoke of God’s faithfulness.

Then later came a fearful night when God strode into Egypt and thundered on Pharaoh’s door demanding that the king let his son Israel go and Pharaoh refused. He refused until one awful night when an angel of death visited every home in the land of Egypt and spared only the homes of those who took shelter under the blood of lambs. Now there was a lamb that redeemed Israel from death and enabled them to begin their journey to a promised land. This Passover lamb too bore witness to God’s faithfulness to Israel and their father Abraham.

Then one day a psalmist called the nations of the world to sing God’s praises. Notice how he puts it:1

O praise the LORD, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people.
For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of

the LORD endureth for ever. Praise ye the LORD.

 

He calls the entire human family to sing God’s praises because he was good to Israel—“to us.”  But why should the non-Jewish nations sing praise to God because he is good to Israel? Because this psalmist knew that a God so great and so generous as Israel’s God would be good also to the entire human family he created. If in his goodness he would deal with sinful Israel’s need, in keeping with his promise to Abraham, he would deal with the need of all the nations in keeping with his promise to Abraham concerning “all the families of the earth.” 2

The question, “Where is the lamb of God?” became, “Where is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world?”

The Baptist having witnessed Jesus fully identifying himself with his sinful Israelite family by being baptized with a baptism meant for them

and having seen the Spirit of God descend on him later points him out and says: “Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!”

Was that a sight or not? Do you “look” at him or do you “Behold” such a one?

Sometime when you are able, sometime when you are alone and nothing else is demanding your attention, sit down, dismiss the talk of the preachers (sometimes Jesus is hidden under our talk—too much talk) and behold Him; envision and take a long lingering, thoughtful look at the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—yours included.

 

(1) Psalm 117

(2) Genesis 12:3: 22:18; 28:13-14; Psalm 67:1-5

 

 

“I’M NOT AFRAID OF THAT, DAVE”

 

I’m one of the millions that believe that life from and with God is a gift—a gracious gift of God that we don’t earn. God is the one who takes the initiative, sustains and brings that life to fullness of joy. At this stage of my life it seems a bit tedious to go on and on about that because it seems to me that it’s so obviously true. Still, if it has to be done on occasions then why wouldn’t we gladly do it but while I know lots of faith-filled people who worry about their standing with God I spend no time these days checking under every bed looking for a legalist or people who think they save themselves by upright behavior. There must be such people—writers and preachers often tell us of them—but I never meet them.

God is magnificent and glorious for out of love he purposed a world and a human family and meant to do them good; he meant to do them eternal good and he meant to do because that’s the kind of God he is as we’ve learned from the biblical witness that comes to its climax in the blessed Lord Jesus.

I don’t know everything about anything but I’m aware that we the human family can be desperately wicked. I’ll make no attempt to prove that point—is there any sane person who would doubt it?

Let me tell you what has come home to me more clearly as the years have gone by—the human family while it can be desperately wicked can also be profoundly gallant and worthy of admiration.

I say that all the evil present in our world is the expression of human corruption and I believe that our corrupt state as a family is the result of many contributing factors. No one is born bad! The presence of and the pervasive nature of evil get hold of us and as we grow we enter into that evil way.

But it’s very clear to me that evil isn’t the only thing that is in the world. I’m persuaded beyond debate that God has not left the human family without help in the war against evil. The ways in which he helps the human family are many but he does help us! That there is good in the world as well as evil is plain to see and all the religious double-talk won’t change it. In their millions there are lovers who love others more than they love themselves. There are people who astonish us with their gallantry when they lay down their lives as caregivers to the profoundly and chronically ill. There are people young and old, rich and poor, female and male, educated or semi-literate, red and yellow, back and white who live gloriously in all parts of the world.

There! When we see such people we see the magnificence of God. There are those who wonder how a good God can be lord of a world that is so desperately wicked and that wonder is no strange thing—didn’t God’s own prophets and psalmists wonder the same thing? 1 But there is something else to wonder about: how can there not be a good God at work in the world when there is so much human grandeur and honor, gallantry and compassion, self-giving and cheerfulness?

Why would we doubt it? What is it, are we afraid to say these people live lovely lives (not sinless lives) in case they think they will earn heaven by their goodness? Because we know they can’t buy their way into God’s love we must call their goodness evil (as some corrupt religion does) or must we avoid praising them when they do so gloriously what we wish we could do?

God help us to believe that all that we see that’s lovely and fine is his work. God help us to believe that he has given them more than food and gladness, friends and family, health and political freedom. God help us to believe that he has gifted them with friends and teachers, literature and experiences that mediate truth to them—truth that shapes their character, strengthens their resolve to love and do what’s right and beautiful.

Tell them that! Tell them we see that in them and God has richly blessed them and maybe that will enable them to think noble things of God; maybe that will turn their hearts to a God who is already committed to them and who expresses that commitment in their glorious moral lives.

Back in 1938 they made a movie about the work of a priest called Edward Flanagan who began a home for needy boys—a home that grew and grew until it became Boy’s Town. It is a moving and fine movie with plenty of interesting characters in it.

As the movie tells it Flanagan goes to the store of his friend Dave Morris [played by Henry Hull] looking for a $100 loan to lease a house to shelter the homeless boys he’d gathered up. Business man Morris wants to know what Flanagan has as collateral and the priest brings out a cheap watch that the broker has scores of—he sells them for a couple of dollars each. What else? The priest has nothing else but a10¢ toy—the kind with a clown face, two little holes as eyes and two little balls you must get settled in the eyes. That? That’s collateral? Against his better business judgment Dave succumbs to the priest’s plea and loans him the $100, refuses the collateral and urges the priest, “You better leave before I change my mind.”

Flanagan says the true and right thing in response: “Oh, I’m not afraid of that Dave!”

I love that line! I love it not only because it was the right thing to say but also because Dave Morris was of such a character, for all his apparent reluctance, that the priest was able to say such a thing to him. How marvelous it is to know such people—they make a commitment and have no intention of backing away from it. You know such people don’t you? Christians and non-Christians. You’ve met or heard of them; you might well be one of them; one of those that people talk about as I am now talking about Dave Morris who helped Flanagan’s dream to become a reality and wouldn’t “change his mind” until such a place as Boy’s Town came into and remains in existence to this day.

The scene from the movie ends with Flanagan talking the storeowner into selling him some stuff for the house with Morris’ own money and then working another scheme on him. The frustrated Morris blusters and protests but is clearly weakening and the priest says to him just as he’s leaving, “Dave, tonight before you go to sleep you’re gonna like yourself—a lot!”

I love that line too and I fervently hope that some of you who read this, in whom Dave Morris is alive and well—I hope that you know God is enabling you and has blessed you and is pleased with such a spirit in you and that tonight you can like yourself—a lot.

 

DON’T TALK JUST LET THEM LOOK

 

They came to Jerusalem to worship—the Greek pilgrims, I mean.1

I don’t know what else they heard or saw but in the middle of all the sacred religious rituals that were going on, in the middle of all the acceptable religious sounds and in the middle of all the glorious religious sights to be seen there came a point when they said to someone: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” 2

Andrew and Philip don’t presume to bring the Greeks and so they carry the request to Jesus. The text doesn’t tell us if he granted the interview but that doesn’t mean he didn’t. We might tend to think if he had, John would have said so but if John has a particular point to make he would have excluded the meeting as he excluded the Garden of Gethsemane incident.

These men represented the second family in a world that was made up of Jews and “Greeks” [with the word standing for all non-Jews].3 I’m going to take it that he didn’t grant the interview and that they didn’t get to “see” Jesus until they saw hi—lifted up.

The one thing we’re sure of is that it was when these non-Jews asked to see him that Jesus linked this moment with the arrival of his “hour”. Here were Gentiles seeking him and his own people wanted nothing to do with him. Here after a thousand Passovers the hour had arrived when a Passover lamb would be offered that would take care of the sin of the world.4

The Passover of Moses’ day until that day celebrated Israel’s deliverance from Pharaoh, the god of the Egyptian world but here was a Passover when a world would be delivered from the god of “the world”. The older Passover celebrated deliverance from an oppressive world within the boundaries of Egypt but here was a Passover that passed sentence on the entire corrupt and corrupting “world” that embraced the entire planet.

 

 

 

 

Jesus said, “Father glorify your name.”

Before we pile words on top of words on top of words, before we debate and wrestle with the text to “get it right”, before we bury it out of sight under an avalanche of bits and pieces of knowledge—geographical, historical, theological, moral, linguistic, literary, cultural, ethical—before we do that allow us believe the obvious!

And what is “the obvious”?

The obvious: In some sense at the cross God glorified his name!

You call it “obvious” but it isn’t “obvious”.

That’s true, if you mean to look for a precise “how” it is true. But before you look for the “how” of it confess the truth and wonder of it!

Yes, and how are we to explain it without talking?

Don’t explain! For a while don’t explain! Just urge us to look, to believingly look!

But we need to talk!

True! But if you must talk, first of all remind us that it’s true.

But I must first explain why it is true if I’m to tell you it’s true.

No! We, the people you almost always speak to, we take its truth at face value and we already believe.

But we need words to enable us to believe and remain believing.

We have more than we need. A few go a long way if they’re focused.

We need background, lexical, theological and grammatical words.

No one can live that long. Help us to eat and drink in wonder!

But what if we don’t know how he means what he means?

It only matters that we know that he means what he means!

Look in wonder!

Believe in wonder!

The preacher’s/teacher’s business is to point to the center! To Him!

Look! What do you see there?

I see God glorifying his name!

What does that mean?

I don’t really know—I only know it’s what he’s doing!

Doing it where?

There!

Where?

On that cross!

There have been thousands of crosses!

Only on that one—the one that has the young Galilean hanging on it.

Which one’s that?

That’s him, the one in the middle, the one with the face and head streaked with spit and sweat and blood.

And now I recall in a distant city half way across the world, sitting with a group of worshipers while a priest walked the aisle carrying a very large crucifix, slowly, silently, turning slowly as he walked slowly so that the silent lookers could drink in the sight of him.

“There! God is glorifying his name.”

I don’t say we should never speak—for we must.

I don’t say that what I saw that say would always work or that we should make the attempt to see if it would always work—it wouldn’t and it couldn’t.

I do say that when we speak to the gathered people of God we should hear the appeal of the heart-hungry Greeks: “Sir, we would see Jesus!”

 

 

  1. John 12.20. These were “Greeks” who came up to Jerusalem to worship. Were they Jews who lived in Greece [some have thought so]? Were they Jews who were “Grecianized” [Hellenistic Jews]? Some have thought so. Were they Greeks who had become Jewish proselytes?. That looks like the most obvious answer. Assuming they were Greek proselytes it might be helpful to link 12:20 up with 12:19 where the frustrated Pharisees groan, “The whole world is following him.” Then Jesus speaks in 12:32 of drawing “all men” unto him.
  2. John 12:21
  3. Romans 1:16
  4. John 1:29

 

WHAT THE FALCON CAN’T SEE

Did you know that peregrine falcons have been clocked diving at 200 miles an hour and that that makes them the fastest moving creature on the planet? They’re not only fast, like many other birds of prey their vision is phenomenal but in tests of avian intelligence they rank up there with rooks and magpies, ravens and corvids.

The visual ability of birds of prey is legendary and we’re told that an American kestrel, for example can see a two-millimeter insect from the top of an eighteen-meter tree (just less than fifty-eight and a half feet).

Which is all very interesting

 

 

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon

2, The visual ability of birds of prey is legendary, and the keenness of their eyesight is due to a variety of factors. Raptors have large eyes for their size, 1.4 times greater than the average for birds of the same weight,[9] and the eye is tube-shaped to produce a larger retinal image. The retina has a large number of receptors per square millimeter, which determines the degree of visual acuity. The more receptors an animal has, the higher its ability to distinguish individual objects at a distance, especially when, as in raptors, each receptor is typically attached to a single ganglion.[1] Many raptors have foveas with far more rods and cones than the human fovea (65,000/mm2in American Kestrel, 38,000 in humans) and this provides these birds with spectacular long distance vision. The fovea itself can also be lens-shaped, increasing the effective density of receptors further. This combination of factors gives Buteo buzzards distance vision 6 to 8 times better than humans.[citation needed]  (an American Kestrel can see a 2–mm insect from the top of an 18–m tree).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bird_vision


THE DAY OF SMALL THINGS

I watched an eighty-eight year old Christian man sitting by a hospital bed holding his dying wife’s hand, hardly able to bear the heartbreak. More than sixty years of marriage were drawing to a close. The unutterable pain he was now feeling was the price he was more than willing to pay for all those lovely years of warmth, friendship, joy and intimacy. It seems obvious to me, if a husband and wife don’t become the closest of friends their marriage hasn’t reached its potential.
I wanted to be my wife Ethel’s best friend on earth. I met her when she was pretty and eighteen and she was still eighteen when we married. It isn’t surprising that however we looked when we were young, we lost that youthfulness and some of the things that count for physical attractiveness, but we had warm friendship that counts for more than any measure of good looks or social charisma. When I needed a friend to counsel me, sympathize with me, challenge or rebuke me, someone to laugh and find pleasure with and someone to miss when I was away I had Ethel.
I know of course that while human loves are a rich gift from God they are never quite the same when they leave his hand and we reach out and take them. Still, they don’t cease to be his gifts and they continue to be witnesses to God’s faithfulness in the face of human betrayal.

I’m going to guess that kids all over the world did it, no matter what century they lived in. They rode horses when they were children even if they didn’t have real horses to ride—they rode wooden horses. I don’t mean those rocking horses that some people had in the house for toddlers. I’m talking about the real thing—the kind of horses you could ride out on the street; like real men. The few that could afford them had poles with colored paper wrapped round them and carved wooden horse heads on them. The rest of us had to make do with our mother’s broom. They all had one thing in common: once you picked sides for the battle, or if it was a race, once the Kentucky Derby started you forgot that you were holding the horse up rather than the horse holding you up.. How marvelous it was just be a happy child and to forget for a while things that had happened that should never happen; just to have your mind taken off some things that would happen again.

Someday someone will write a book (perhaps they already have) about the redemptive nature of games in childhood, when for several hours immediately after school the streets were crammed with children playing games of every kind. There was harmless pleasure, healthy competition, being part of a team with everyone on your team having your back and depending on you to have theirs. I’m now an older man and yet my memories of the sheer abandon to pleasure remains with me. The temporary absence of fear or worry, the eagerness to succeed in rescuing members of your team from prison—such things reminded a child in desperate need that the world wasn’t entirely hateful and abusive. In he glory of those periods friends were made and having come they came to stay.

The beauty of this was well illustrated for thousands of us in a song dating from 1901, written by Edward Madden and Theodore F. Morse. They called it Two Little Boys. It was about the American Civil War but it attracted little or no attention in America though it was taken up in England and sung about the Crimean War. It wasn’t until 1969 that it made a surprise appearance in the popular market.
Australian television personality, Rolf Harris, many years ago, recorded the song and it climbed to number one in the charts in Britain. In an interview I heard him tell how Ted Engram had brought the song to him, excited and urging him to release it. Engram began to sing it to Harris and Harris tells us he was thinking to himself, “How do I turn this down without hurting his feelings too much?” The song had nothing to offer the singer until as he himself said, “Then I heard the words, ‘do you think I would leave you dying?’ and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. I recorded it and the rest you know.”
It’s about two little boys who rode around on their stick horses, enjoying the world, seeing themselves as cavalry soldiers. One of the boys accidentally breaks off his horse’s head and starts to cry but his friend says, “Do you think I would leave you crying when there’s room on my horse for two? Climb up here, Jack, we’ll soon be flying, I can go just as fast with two.”
The years passed and war made its ugly appearance. The two, still friends, join the army and ride together in a cavalry unit. What happens is best told in the words of Morse and Madden.

Cannons roared loud, and in the mad crowd
Wounded and dying lay
Up goes a shout, a horse dashes out,
Out from the ranks so blue,
Gallops away to where Joe lay, then came a voice
he knew,
“Did you think I would leave you dying
when there’s room on my horse for two.
Climb up here Joe we’ll soon be flying
I can go just as fast with two.
Did you say Joe I’m all atremble?
Perhaps it’s the battle’s noise
Or maybe it’s that I remember when we were two little boys.

“Do you think I would leave you dying?”  It’s sung with quiet and slow intensity. No wonder Harris felt the hair on his neck standing up. There’s gallantry in every syllable. These are the kinds of things we see every day without seeing them, the kinds of things we all long to be a part of us; a level of devotion that many in their better moments would die to know; a devotion that so many die without ever giving or receiving.
But the beauty of this does more than set before us a lovely example, it bears witness to the faithfulness that is behind all our faithfulness, a faithfulness that is the source of all our faithfulness—God’s own Christ who comes in his Father’s name; who comes in his Father’s name saying, “Do you think I would leave you dying?”

When the New Testament speaks of justification “by faith in Jesus Christ” there are several texts that use a genitive which could easily be rendered “by the faith of Christ” or by “the faithfulness of Christ”. Romans 3:26 is one of those texts and this might be one more than the others that would warrant the translation, “the faith of Christ.” If we should understand it that way (and many scholars are coming around to that view) then we’re being told that God justifies us on the basis of Christ’s own faithfulness. This would mean that we are justified because God in and through Jesus Christ kept his promises, and wouldn’t leave us to die.

And these are the kind of people Jesus gathers around him (yes, I know of another kind!). They are people who watch him, admire and rejoice in him and commit themselves to him. Like him, they make their promises and come to stay.
Now…where do I go from here?

LINK TO THE SONG:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmL3m2zcoOI

 

ASHMORE STREET SCHOOL

 

Like everyone else in my part of the world I began school when I was five years old and like everyone else in my working class section of Belfast I was scheduled to finish school at fourteen and find a job as quickly as possible. I was born in a house—101 Cupar Street,–about sixty feet from the high wall that surrounded the Greeves’ Linen Mill with its huge black chimney rising, I suppose, at least eighty feet into the air. One of my earliest memories is the sound of the Mill horn warning the mill workers that if they weren’t already up and getting ready they need to get on with it. Then shortly after that there was a five-minute warning saying that the gates would be shut and a day’s pay missed. It was loud enough and living just across the street from it made it seem ever louder but it wasn’t a harsh sound. It had the resonant quality of a lighthouse horn but without the sadness in it.

The industrialists had the good sense to provide cheap housing for the workers and had them built all around the mill itself [there were four major linen mills that I recall in Belfast though there were many more] My mother and all my sisters except one worked in the mill and I was later to do my share.

Around the corner was Argyle Street that housed part of the grade school I went to but the entrance was in Ashmore Street that ran across Argyle Street. The headmaster was Mr. Porter, tall man who always reminded me of an actor I came to know—W.C. Fields, who played Mr. Micawber in the 1935 version of David Copperfield.

See Eben Holden’s last day fishing .

 

THINGS THAT CAN’T BE FIXED

A neighbor of Frank Boreham didn’t mind spelling out to Frank his philosophy of life. There are some things that never need fixing, some that if they’re left alone will fix themselves, some things can’t be fixed and there some things will go from bad to worse if something isn’t done about it.

The neighbor went on to say that the only ones that concerned him were those that could be helped with a bit of help and he had no business meddling with the others. If it isn’t out of repair—leave it alone. If it will fix itself, let it! If it can’t be fixed there’s no popint fretting about it or wasting time trying.

A nice neat philosophy for simple things in a simple life—a bit too simple for a life philosophy but with a good piece of wisdom in it just the same. A marriage that is fine and contents the people who matter doesn’t need to be meddled with but that isn’t always recognized and some marriage guidance people don’t know that. They work up on paper and on reflection their picture of an ideal marriage and begin the attempt to bring a happy and healthy marriage into line with their abstraction. Either they wish to micromanage it or they encourage the happy pair to make the attempt. The happy relationship that becomes finer as the pair become finer people loses important elements—for one thing it loses spontaneity and everything becomes something to scrutinize. “How can I improve that?” There’s too much consciousness. The same truth, I judge, is true about the raising of children. My advice? Stay away from seminars unless you know you are in need of help. If you are hungry for some new tricks or some bits and pieces of knowledge do what everyone else does, Google it!

If you love him or her and you are getting along fine together leave it alone. Nobody knows him the way you do; no one knows her the way you do. No one knows how to improve such a relationship—your specific relationship. You have some of the usual difficulties that life brings to all of us? Work them out together. My own experience is that it’s rarely a lack of knowledge people need—it’s a lack of heart to work it out. It isn’t information you need! You love each other and have committed to each other? You’ll work it out! Don’t invite others into a situation they know nothing about. If the relationship is in serious trouble you must know why it’s so. If you have the heart to work it out you’ll do just that without someone telling you what you already know, someone telling you back what you have already told him.

What you’re looking for is someone who can put heart in you, someone who can empower you both so that the serious difficulty that is already well known to you both can be put in its place. With a good heart you will know how to fix it.

There are things that can’t be fixed. But they’re “things”. Some “things” matter greatly to us and they should. They shouldn’t matter “too much”—who doesn’t know that? The question becomes, “What is ‘too’ much?” We shouldn’t be troubled if our house and everything in it burns down? That none of our loved ones die in the fire must be of profound relief, but the loss of our home and the consequent agonizing, long-term difficulties shouldn’t matter because they are only “things”?

Can we survive such great losses? Millions do; but only a fool moves from that truth to the shallow mouthing of platitudes. These courageous people feel the loss.

 

 

 

 

 

BARE-FOOTED FARM BOYS

 

William Barclay once remarked that there are two important days in a person’s life. The day he is born and the day he discovers why he was born. In contrast to that, in Dale Wasserman’s musical adaptation of Don Quixote, Cervantes rebukes a critic who insists that poets are madmen who take people’s eyes of reality, life as it is, Cervantes says:

Life as it is: I’ve lived over 40 years and seen life as it is
Pain, misery, cruelty beyond belief. I’ve heard all
the voices of God’s noblest creatures. Moans from
bundles of filth in the streets. I’ve been a soldier and
a slave. I’ve seen my comrades fall in battle or die
more slowly under the lash in Africa. I’ve held them
at the last moment. They were men who saw life asit is.
Yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last
words. Only their eyes filled with confusion,
questioning why. I do not think they were asking
why they were dying, but why they ever lived.

All those who found and were found by the Lord Jesus have a destiny and mission (and sometimes they sense it). Called out of darkness to proclaim the praise of God. Called to be part of what Paul calls “Christ’s body” and then again, called to be Christ’s parts. (1 Corinthians 6:15; Colossians 1:18.) Jesus calls them the light of the world, the salt of the earth and Paul says they are the clay jars in which God has placed his treasure. (2 Corinthians 4:7) They proclaim Jesus’ death and its meaning, they are a priestly kingdom that offers up to God the fruit he bears through their proclamation and they are the community of witness to the resurrected and gloried Lord Jesus.

They haven’t been bribed to serve the Lord Jesus—he drew them and they were assured that they would need to count the cost if they wanted to engage with him in the saving of a world. The Church is the extension of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus and their mission is his and his is theirs and this often has and will continue to cost some of us dearly in this life. There was that in the life of Christ and his mission that led him to say, “Do not suppose that I am come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”  (Matthew 10:34.) And then there’s that poignant (and disputed) text that speaks the truth that Jesus often had to go his way alone and in truth, in a real sense he was always alone—he and his Father. “Then each went to his own home. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.”  (John 7:53—8:1.)

In his play Joan of Arc Bernard Shaw brings to us that profound sense of divine mission and what it could cost. Joan faces a tribunal that is bent on killing her and she knows it. The Archbishop tells her she mustn’t depend on her popularity and that she must remember, “You stand alone, absolutely alone…” Joan’s former friend, Dunois, would like her to go free but hasn’t it in him to make a complete and concerted effort—he chimes in with, “That is the truth, Joan, heed it.” Her response is this:

Where would you all have been now if I had heeded that sort of truth? There is no help, no counsel, in any of you. Yes: I am alone on earth: I have always been alone. My father told my brothers to drown me if I would not stay to mind his sheep while France was bleeding to death: France might perish if only our lambs were safe. I thought France would have friends at the court of the king of France; and I find only wolves fighting for pieces of her poor torn body. I thought God would have friends everywhere, because He is the friend of everyone; and in my innocence I believed that you who now cast me out would be like strong towers to keep harm from me. But I am wiser now; and nobody is any the worse for being wiser. Do not think you can frighten me by telling me that I am alone. France is alone; and God is alone; and what is my loneliness before the loneliness of my country and my God? I see now that the loneliness of God is His strength: what would He be if He listened to your jealous little counsels? Well, my loneliness shall be my strength too; it is better to be alone with God; His friendship will not fail me, nor His counsel, nor His love. In His strength I will dare, and dare, and dare, until I die. I will go out now to the common people, and let the love in their eyes comfort me for the hate in yours. You will all be glad to see me burnt; but if I go through the fire I shall go through it to their hearts for ever and ever. And so, God be with me!

Whatever we make of Joan she acted because of an overwhelming sense of destiny and mission and such people are a sight to behold. These people don’t choose, they feel chosen, they don’t debate the matter within; they’re driven. We read that kind of thing in Jeremiah 20:9 when the young man, very upset with God who had given him a single message—a message of doom, a doom that never arrived. The prophet’s peeved and swears he won’t speak another word of the message; but as he passes little knots of people on the street corners and hears what they are saying his message nearly melts him and he has to speak.

Paul has something similar to say. (1 Corinthians 9:16-17 and 2 Corinthians 5:14.) He tells his Corinthian critics, “Don’t think that I choose to preach; I can’t help it. I’m compelled!” Later he will tell them that he has experienced the love of Christ and it has left him no choice but to go tell of it and that’s what drove him all over the Mediterranean world leaving pints of blood on the street of nearly every town he visited.

We’ve heard of men forced by governments, ship owners and brutal captains to go to sea, dragged off against their wills by press-gangs; but that’s only one face of power. We’ve been told too of sailors who had the profound challenge and privilege of sailing with someone like Sir Francis Drake. Back they’d come to their home and speak perhaps to the village butcher about their two-year sail during which they rarely saw land. The butcher would sniff, take come coins out of the till and say to the world traveler, “That’s what I have to show for my two years—hard cash. What do you have to show?”

He’d leave the unimpressed butcher and later we’d see gathered around him farm boys who’d listen to his stories. Not stories about balmy nights when the ship rocked gently in the soft breeze and easy swell, but about raging storms ripping sails to shreds, monster whales and scorching suns. He’d pull off his shirt and show purple scars he got near Madagascar or on some uncharted island where they got water and he fought for his life with a wild boar. Farm boys! Bare-footed farm boys dropped their ploughs and with wide eyes and eager looks would run off to sea, off to toil and pain and adventure.

Arrrrrgh!

Holy Father, will you not enter our hearts and drive us beautifully mad with the admiration of that wondrous Holy Son of yours that we—wherever we find our place in life at this time—will say goodbye to needless sameness and the dullness of our lives and career off into life in His name and find the adventure to which you’ve called us? Call us to it and enable us to respond gallantly, thrilled with the truth that He is ever with us. Do it Holy Father for us and your own glorious Name.


WHY CAN’T HE LEAVE US ALONE?

Jesus is to blame. The Christ of the cross is to blame. If it weren’t for him I might be able to find some peace but he and his cross disturb me and won’t let me be content with what I see when I look within and around me. If your loved one is quadriplegic you know that in many ways he or she isn’t physically able to help you care for them and in some sense you adjust to the situation—you expect nothing and in that respect you aren’t disappointed. If you truly believe there’s nothing better to be hoped for in this world I suppose you might rage in your hopelessness or eat, drink (or starve) and die tomorrow; but if hope were dead would there not be some kind of resignation, a reluctant, numbed acceptance of things as they are? Maybe, but would that not be better than vainly hoping? Is that not what the old Greek story means to say in the story of Pandora’s “box”—when she opened the forbidden box everything in it escaped except…hope. And it became the source of torment to all because they could never be content with things as they are.

In an early essay Bertrand Russell said that because we know the truth of human existence—that it’s a pointless accident—we must face it and build a future on “unyielding despair.” Well, it’s into this world, with all its pain, loss, disappointment, loneliness, cruelty, entrenched evils and invincible selfishness that Jesus came, making claims and promising much.

In the first century he offended the Romans and their view of power and empire. He offended the Greeks and their view of God and wisdom. He offended the Jews and their view of God’s faithfulness and their place in his purposes. And he continues to scandalize us all to this day.

The people who care nothing for him—and never did—aren’t affected by him. The crass hedonists think life’s a one way ticket so, to the degree that they can manage it, they party the nights away. Maybe towards the end they think of “fire insurance” (though even that’s not of great concern now). The world can’t be made better—certainly not in their lifetimes—so why worry about it? Get what you can as quick as you can, throw a handful of coins in the direction of the world’s needy during a big public musical concert and get back to the usual partying.

Ignore the tiny churches with their inner squabbles. Or, listen for a while to their squabbles and discover how pathetic they are in the face of the world’s great needs and wrongs, and then go back to the partying. Not a bad philosophy that; a happy life and an endless sleep at the end.

The Jesus of the cross disturbs me in three general areas. There’s the state of the world and the church and my own personal situation.

Jesus is too stubbornly real and I can’t get away from him. Not that I’m trying to, you understand. I neither try to nor want to get away from him but being in his presence and listening to his kingly promises that are written in blood I become impatient with the chaotic, oppressive, confused, rebellious and cruel world. Why hasn’t his sovereignty transformed the world already? As sad-spoken Matthew Arnold said, in the beginning, the tide of faith was fully in and covered the earth like a garment. But now—it would appear—all we hear is the faint sound of its “melancholy long withdrawing roar” as it retreats and leaves bare the naked shingled shores of the world. Sometimes I sorely want the present King of Kings to show himself more powerfully—more powerfully, that is, in the more common understanding of power. I’d like him to obliterate all the oppressive structures of the world—structures that we have neither the desire to destroy nor the strength to do it, supposing we had the desire. And why would we desire it, aren’t we the ones that build them? The state of the world is completely contrary to the Christian’s claim that Jesus is Lord of Lords.

And when I look at the church as a whole and consider how pathetic and weak it is, how self-serving, as it fine-tunes its theology and gorges on rich truth while a world of Lazaruses starves. Not content to draw lines of fellowship in places where the heart of the gospel is attacked, many church leaders insist on keeping us all in separate pens based on the flimsiest differences and call it “defending the faith.” We pay our ministers to “stand for the truth” if they’re willing to stand for the truth that we pay them to stand for.

It’s much easier to believe the too-rich-to-be-fully-grasped doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ in and as whom God revealed himself than it is to believe in the church as it church-shops its way from one assembly to another. And as we shop our first question is not, “What is your gospel here?” it’s, “What programs do you have to suit me here?” At one end of the spectrum we have these primetime hucksters that ceaselessly beg for money to fund their programs (or other hidden things) and on the other there are churches that are offended if there’s talk about sharing our wealth. Time and money is spent on leadership agendas that usually have to do with “making our church grow.” Then there’s the “preaching” [?] that is nothing but a series on sessions filled with secular suggestions on how to fine-tune your marriage or raise nice kids or cultivate nice friends. This kind of “preaching” is done by secularists, agnostics and atheists every bit as well as preachers. It changes nothing that preachers throw in some Bible verses for religious coloration. The Lord Jesus is ignored in the “preaching” for months of suggestions that might be of some use socially.

And then there’s the personal, bitter disappointment with oneself. There are times when you think you see real progress and then like a bolt of lightning and a thunderclap events expose your heart—it’s seems as shriveled as ever it was even after years of longing for better. Just when you think you’ve experienced significant growth you’re brought face to face with outrageous meanness or corruption or bitterness that pours out of you. Then you understand what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she wrote:

I am battered and broken and weary and out of heart,
I will not listen to talk of heroic things,
But be content to play some simple part,
Freed from preposterous, wild imaginings…
Men were not made to walk as priests and kings.

Thou liest, Christ, Thou liest; take it hence,
That mirror of strange glories; I am I;
What wouldst Thou make of me? O cruel pretense,
Drive me not mad so with the mockery
Of that most lovely, unattainable lie!

 

And for a while—a day, a week, a month, a year—you sulk and snarl and prowl. Then you see him! He’s always been there; you just didn’t notice during that wretched period. You see him looking at you with those big eyes of his, calm and compelling, and as he moves away he looks back and motions with his head, “You comin’?”

Why can’t he leave us alone?

Good question.

Here’s another.

Why can’t we who have met him leave him alone?

 

FAITH IN GOD, STUPID OR HEROIC?

With the harsh realities screaming in our ears and as powerful as their voice is, it’s breathtaking to think of the millions who defy outrageous circumstances and trust in God.

Are believers stupid or what?

It just might be that one of God’s favorite virtues is a gallant faith and Jesus’ astonishment at the presence of great faith would give us grounds for thinking that. Let me remind you what happened. He was brought up in Nazareth and he moved to Capernaum and it became a center of his ministry where he became noted as a teacher and a healer (Luke 4:16, 23) and it was there that he was stunned by a pagan. Twice in the New Testament we’re told that Jesus was astonished and in both cases it had to do with faith—the presence and the absence of it (see Mark 6:5-6).

Luke 7:1-10 tells of a foreigner, a Roman officer, who despite being a part of the forces of occupation loved Israel and honored them. He had a servant he really cared for and that servant was very ill so the foreigner sent Jewish people to ask a favor of the young Jewish prophet. He wanted him to heal the sick man and Jesus was on his way to do just that. Before Christ got to the house the soldier sent word that he didn’t mean for Jesus to come to his house, only that he speak and the servant would get better. The soldier said he knew what authority was. He had soldiers under him and he was under others and when he or his superiors spoke the response was immediate—the order was carried out. It would be enough, he thought, for Jesus to order the disease to leave and it would.

Luke tells us Jesus was stunned and turned to the crowd saying he hadn’t seen faith like that in his own nation. We’ve become accustomed to the idea that Jesus wept, became angry or was tender, that he was moved with compassion and pity but is there not something astonishing about Jesus being astonished? How did he look when he heard what the centurion had to say? What registered on his face? More importantly, what are the implications in the fact that he was astonished at the man’s great faith?

It suggests that something utterly unexpected had happened, doesn’t it? But what’s implied in that? Did Jesus not see himself or his Father as worthy of such trust; should he not have expected people to believe? What astonished him then? We can guess about the man’s pagan raising and we should note that he was living in a town that Jesus cursed for its arrogance and hard heart (Matthew 11:23-24). Maybe that enters into it. Be that as it may, whatever the man’s past or present environment, it’s clear that Jesus thought it astonishing that such faith could be found in such a person. Environment shapes expectations and that should remind us that it isn’t always easy to believe or to believe with deep conviction. It isn’t the result of some “divine magic” that graciously overwhelms the human heart. If believing and believing profoundly were as simple as hearing the gospel there would be no reason to be astonished at the presence of faith.

Neither Matthew nor Luke gives us a psychological study of Christ on this occasion but it’s not hard to see and sense his joy. “Can you beat that?” we can hear him say to the following crowd. He understood very well that faith is God’s work in us but it isn’t coercive work; the believer’s not turned into a choiceless robot, he or she must personally and freely give themselves in the process. And people can choose not to believe (see Mark 6:6) so when we come across a believer we come across someone who has gladly allowed God to have his way with them. That’s the adventure of faith—make the commitment, gladly take the plunge!

Jesus was astonished! Given all the factors, this man shouldn’t have had that faith. Imagine Jesus with his eyes shining, turning to the centurion (compare Matthew 8:13), smiling and saying, “How’d you do that?” We can easily imagine the centurion saying, “Oh, sir, we both know that God accomplishes all such things in us.” Christ would totally agree but why was he astonished?

If when we talk of peoples’ faith the only thing we find in it is God’s doing—what is it that astonished Jesus? Did he doubt that God could generate faith in a man? Listen, like millions of others I want God to get all the glory he so richly deserves—I don’t need lectures on the truth that whatever is good in any of us, anywhere and in any age is initiated and sustained by God but I’ll be hanged if I’ll ignore Jesus’ astonishment! When we’re done with all our tidy little doctrinal schemes that turn actual life into something like a divine pre-played chess game that turns humans into mindless pawns in the hands of a Grand Master we run headlong into a Jesus with his eyes wide open in amazement and a big smile on his face! Explain his astonishment!

One of the glories of God is a human who defies the entire damning environment of violence, greed, hatred and neglect, someone who stands up and yells at the top of her lungs: “I trust God!” And given the right circumstances an ecstatic Jesus turns around with awe in his voice and says, “Did you hear that?”

Some of us, poor things, can’t seem to rise to great heights and we can only guess at all the reasons for that; but sometimes even “unexceptional” faith is marvelous. Robert Louis Stevenson, a great struggler, often spoke more hopefully than the words that follow suggest but these words show the realism of the man. In his poem If This Were Faith he hopes that to battle and perish for “a dream of good” will prove the genuineness of faith and he concludes his prayer:

To go on for ever and fail and go on again,
And be mauled to the earth and arise,
And contend for the shade of a word and
a thing not seen with the eyes:
With the half of a broken hope for a pillow at night
That somehow the right is the right
And the smooth shall bloom from the rough
Lord, if that were enough?

Well, that can’t pass for the entire story but it’s more than enough for a beginning because there are those who haven’t heard the rich story we’ve been privileged to hear and have to live with only a hint of it. Their “half of a broken dream” is more gallant and more like the faith of the ancients than our often feeble response to a big rich glorious gospel that should stifle our whimpering and doesn’t. As Jesus pointed his fellow-Jews to take note of heretical Samaritans, hated Greek-Phoenicians and members of the Roman occupational forces so I’m sure he would today have us take note of the moral splendor of many who, while they haven’t embraced him as Lord, lead him to admire their response to life.

Given the right circumstances it can be a little test of our patience when we hear people say that trusting in God is an easy thing. Obviously such people haven’t traveled far from home and they haven’t paid much attention to the biblical witness or, more likely, they’ve been blessed to be raised in homes and environments where faith in God was rich and prevalent. Thank God for such places! But one of the “mysteries” in the mystery of godliness that Paul speaks of in 1Timothy 3:16 is that Jesus was believed on in the world. Believed on in this world? This world that’s shrouded with the thick smog of sin and corruption, the breeding ground of licentiousness, cruelty and corruption?

We take trust in and faith toward God too much for granted.

YOU DIDN’T CALL ME! GOD DID!

My impression is that too many of us fear the response of those around us more than we fear God’s response.  Whatever some say, there is a healthy fear of God that should remain in us but because in and as Jesus he came to rescue us from Sin and our sins we’re convinced that he is on our side. Jesus didn’t bear our sin so that we could be complacent about our sinning; still, he does bring forgiveness full and free—there is no condemnation to those who are in the Lord Jesus [Romans 8:1].

But it remains true that conscience makes cowards of many of us or it at least so chastises us that we’re too timid to say we love the Lord, too timid to speak with conviction or to engage in glorious projects. But not only do our moral failures gut us, we fear the curled lips of our critics and that intimidates us into a cowed spirit. We back away into virtual silence in self-protection, fearing the pain of exposure and by that we add failure to failure because God has spoken to us saying; “Forgiven sinner, leave no doubt!”

The brave will remember that the Lord of our conscience is not the Church or the popular vote or the opinion of those with a reputation because there are some truths so deeply imbedded in the brave that they can do no other than say, “Flawed or not, here I stand. God help me!”

Wouldn’t you like to have been there when Peter showed up for the first time after his curses and outright denial that he was Jesus’ friend? After his hot protest that he’d die first came the threefold denial and then the lonely bitter tears (Mark 14:72).  He probably felt like smashing his head against a stone pillar! What do you suppose it took to open that door and walk into the room where the others (betrayers all!) sat in gloom and fear? They couldn’t have treated him worse than he treated himself inwardly. But did he not feel the shame, knowing that he above all, one of the inner three and the one with the loudest voice in protest? Under those circumstances was entering that room not a brave thing to do? Some of us would have had to be dragged into their presence. But it wasn’t the other apostles who called him—it was Jesus and if he makes it right with Jesus and can gut it out, their opinion would come finally to mean nothing to him!

The gross ignorance of Paul, his persecuting spirit and his savage treatment of the disciples of Christ must have made it hard for him to enter the presence of Christians; it certainly made it hard for them to receive him (Acts 9:12-13,26-27) but he did it! With the help of Barnabas (God bless the man!) doors were opened but he had to walk through them into the light, eyed by those who were suspicious of him.

In light of his meeting with the resurrected Jesus, in light of the truth revealed to him, the commission thrust upon him and the experience of the gospel he had preached among the Gentiles, Paul told the Galatians, “You didn’t call me!” He told the Jerusalem church and its esteemed leaders, “You didn’t call me!” He told the whole big round teeming world, “You didn’t call me!”

He said, “I may be the least of all saints and I may not be worthy to be called an apostle and I may be the chief of sinners but if it pleased Him to save me and call me to this place of service it doesn’t matter to me or to Him what you think or say!”

If in deed and in truth we cling to that one true God what does it matter if the popular and the powerful curl their lips and whisper what they “know” or think they know about us? What does it matter how great the crowd that’s joined the bandwagon?

The crowd didn’t save us, forgive us, sustain or bless us with our place of service; the esteemed leaders didn’t hang on the cross for us or burst through the gates of Death into deathless life for us and they didn’t call us on to the stage of life to do service for the King. It’s not about us but it’s not about them either! It’s all about Him!

You can’t sing yourself—sing him! You can’t praise yourself—praise him! You can’t preach yourself—preach him (2 Corinthians 4:5).