Monthly Archives: May 2016

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?

 

DON’T TELL ME OF GREAT THINGS

Lord Byron gave us the moving poem The Prisoner of Chillon. The prisoner’s chained to a pillar along with his brother. After some time the beloved brother died and was buried in the cell under a slab. This drove the prisoner into deep depression and the jailers had pity on him and loosed him from the pillar so that he could walk around his cell. In his despair he made friends with spiders and mice and became a kindly lord in his domain. He wouldn’t have thought of it as Aspen or the French Riviera, but because he had no reason to think things would ever change he adjusted to the situation. He became content.
One day the broken but contented prisoner heard the song of a bird. It was up there on the window ledge and at the sight and sound something stirred in the man. Imagine him with great effort, and perhaps many failures, making his way up the wall and looking out at familiar sights and faintly hearing sounds that carried from a great distance. He sees the mountains, a river meeting the lake, the white wall of a little town, trees and a green island. He saw an eagle fly, free and high, in the blue sky before his strength was gone and he slipped or clawed his way back down into the cell. Having seen, he couldn’t “unsee” and the vision unsettled him; now the cell with which he had grown content was like a coffin that suffocated him and he wished he’d never been loosed from the chain and the pillar; seeing life’s possibilities destroyed his peace and we can easily imagine him for the first time beating on the door and yelling, “Let me out of here! I’ve got to get out of here!”
This is how he put it:
I had not left my recent chain;
And when I did descend again,
The darkness of my dim abode
Fell on me as a heavy load;
It was as is a new-dug grave,
Closing o’er one we sought to save.
Would it have been better had he not seen through the window the world he was deprived of? One thing is sure, he felt worse. His contentment was shattered and his peace obliterated. The vision of something finer turned his cozy little cell into a coffin. Would it have been better had he never looked? I suppose it depends on what we mean by “better”. Would you prefer to know that there exists so much more than you have, even if it created great pain in you? Would you prefer to remain ignorant and contented? There’s something to be said for both sides of the argument.
But is there really? A poor soul told me that she had never felt real bewilderment or sense of alienation in life until she became a Christian and life changed in many ways that were not pleasant. [“Arrrgh! I heard that everything would be better, easier, and it isn’t!” I suppose a baby in the womb feels that kind of distress at birth.] Did Peter ever feel the wave of awed fear before that day when he sat in a boat with Christ and witnessed the nearness of God that drove him to say, “Get away from me, for I am a sinful man O Lord”? It’s true isn’t it that in some true sense of the words that the closer we get to God the more we feel out of place in our own skin and in a world of people like us? And what makes it more distressing, on those occasions when we feel it most intensely, is that we can’t ask to be taken out of the world. Jesus Christ said to us: “As the Father sent me, so I send you into the world.”
Is it really a source of wonder that the better we see him the more we recoil at everything else because it is unlike Him? Imagine what it must have been like for Him to be elbow to elbow with the evil that is in us and flows from us. Now that is a true source of wonder! Somewhere in all this, his glorious vision of His Holy Father, Himself and us, in all our awful need, made Him restless and divinely discontent. His holy compassion toward us grew until, as Browning put it, it became a rage to suffer for humanity. And He thought it all worthwhile. Christ is no Greek god sitting blissfully unconcerned sipping the wine in the presence of equally unconcerned divine colleagues. He looked over the rim of the palace walls in the land of the Trinity, saw our desperate need, felt compelled to go and found the Father and the Spirit already preparing His gear for the assault on all the powers that enslave the bodies, minds and spirits of the human family.

We must love the best we see and know or we’ll never be anything worth talking about. I understand that in our debilitating weariness we don’t want to hear challenge and upward calls. “Leave me alone, I’m too tired.” Too much disappointment and dashed hopes, too many responsibilities, too many pressures—humans aren’t made to walk like kings! That makes sense but there are other things that make sense too and even when we’re too weary to want to continue we wish we had the energy to do it.
Listen, things not only can be better, they will be better! God’s Son became incarnate to make it clear that we’re not alone in this cosmic and eternal enterprise. “God is with us!” The Incarnation is the witness to that; that’s why He became “homeless” and yet never more at home than when He became one of us and remains one of us.

Blessed are the weary for they will rise up in strength like an eagle.

A BARREL-ORGAN IN THE FOG

In a world with so much pain and wickedness in it it’s hard for some people to believe that there’s a good and caring God. But in a world with Jesus in it some people find it impossiblenot to believe in a good and caring God. How do you explain a world like ours if there is a good and caring God? How do you explain Jesus Christ if there isn’t a good and caring God? One profound and stubborn truth, one reality that is undeniable can put heart into us and enable us to rise above soul-deep depression. Poets down the years have sensed and expressed that. Charlie Chaplin wrote a beautiful song that made the point. It’s called This is My Song and one of the lines says, “The world cannot be wrong; if in this world there’s you.” Whatever the harsh realities, he had come across one that kept him from believing that the entire world was wrong.

We wake in the mornings to a world that’s in terrible trouble and with a glance toward heaven—with maybe a little reproach in it—we wish it all were better. We should get involved in easing things! That I know, and Matthew 25 calls for it! [Matthew 25 is not simply about doing kind deeds; it’s identifying Jesus Christ with the needy and oppressed.] The gloom generated by it all can overcome us but in the name of Christ believers should resist it because we have good reason to resist it.

Victorian writer G.K. Chesterton always pointed us in the right direction. He has somewhere said that the very sound of a distant barrel organ grinding out a tinny tune in a London fog defies the harsh reality of a night with its suffocating blanket of airborne filth. G. Studdert Kennedy saw so much as a chaplain during WWI that it broke his heart. He said he knelt one evening in a huge field where a host had fallen and the stench of death was overwhelming. In his dismay that was near despair a breeze carried the fresh and lovely smell of flowers from some far off field and his mind steadied. There was more than what he knelt among. [Holy One you know very well how difficult it is for millions of poor souls to believe this. We believe but help our unbelief and help us to deny the reasonable and inevitable doubt spoken by the pain generated by the awful wrong of this world. This prayer in Jesus.]

A needy family blanketed in choking smog opens the envelope and finds a generous gift—a distant barrel organ pours out its tinny challenge. A whole consignment of food and clothes is delivered to a deeply distressed family’s door—a breeze carrying a lovely aroma. Gifts of things, gifts of telephone calls, gifts of expressed sorrow and sympathy, gifts of education that brings skills and makes people employable, gifts of wounds healed and obstacles overcome, gifts of jobs given, gifts of medicine supplied, gifts of letters written, gifts of money and offers of help with the children, gifts of sympatheic glances, gifts of patience with the desperate and demanding and gifts from people with great power who fling doors open that were tightly shut and barred, who rippied down dust-laden and rotting curtains and throwing windows wide open and letting in light and fresh air.

All gallant barrel organs, refreshing breezes and snatches of lovely and redeeming songs!

And then there’s that baby in a cattle shed!

We can’t help it. We become accustomed to sights and sounds and truths—even when they’re profound or mind-bending in their glory or power. The first sight of the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls or the setting sun in Thailand or a first time hearing of Beethoven’s 5thperformed by a full orchestra in the right building might take your breath away. But live near them or have occasion to see or hear them every day and familiarity while it might not breed contempt will certainly take the edge off awe. We can’t help it. We don’t have it in us to live in ceaseless rapture.

But leave a truly profound truth for a while and go walking through reams of books, a library of books that deal with delightful, interesting, humorous, touching or useful matters and come back to that massive truth. They’re all “sweet” little books that makes us smile at one another while we turn to another hymn or another “nice” subject but they don’t put us in touch with massive truths and the foundations of our faith. In fact–God help us authors and publishers–they often keep us from them. But when you’re seized by one of those foundational truth don’t you—even if only for an hour—feel that you’re in touch with what you were made for? Don’t you—even if for only an hour—don’t you feel that your eyes are being opened to your destiny and the sense that you have a place in this world? Don’t you experience the conviction that all is not wrong with the world?

Hosts of people have experienced that at this time of the year. For one reason or another they were able to get past the shabby commercialism and dismissed the rising cynicism provoked by the sickening selfishness and their souls went to Bethlehem. It was as if they were actually there and the child, alone for a moment with them, looked back at them and they were lost in wonder.

What does this child mean? What does it say that he is here? No, no, forget for the moment the sermon points, the nice little homilies, the pious sweetness and the familiar carols. Look at him! Ponder for a while his very presence in our world! What does he mean? What does it mean that he is actually there? What is his physical existence saying to us? If he isn’t God incarnate nothing matters but what if he is just that–God incarnate–what does his being here mean?

Look out into the night and into the moral pollution; listen to the cry of the world, of little nations that are ravaged and countless individuals who have no immediate experience that leads them to think that they matter to anyone. And here lies a baby, an actual baby! And what does that mean? Shouldn’t we think of barrel organs in the fog, snatches of cosmic truth in song and a breeze from another world—from the Land of the Trinity?