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
- 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
- Matthew 26:30
- Mark 11.9; Matthew 21:42; Luke 20:17
- Matthew 1:1
- Acts 4:11
- 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.”
- 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?
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!”
- 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.
- John 12:21
- Romans 1:16
- 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
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, 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. 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. (an American Kestrel can see a 2–mm insect from the top of an 18–m tree).
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
“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:
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.