Monthly Archives: September 2016

DANCING WITHOUT MUSIC

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were gathered around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’.” (Luke 15:1-2)
The famous Swiss psychologist, Paul Tournier, confounded those who came from all over the world to learn from him the secret of his phenomenal practice. He insisted he had no special secret and he also insisted that no school of thought had a corner on success. He claimed that it made little or no difference whether the practitioner was a Freudian or followed Maslow, Fromm or the Rogerian non-directional school. He swore that caring for people is what made the difference. The psychological theory was useful up to a point but in the end, Tournier persisted, if the hurting one thought they were being heard and that the person involved with them felt them worthwhile the world was on its way to being changed. It all sounded so commonsensical that the seekers waited for something more specialized and esoteric from him but it never came. To be loved, to be thought worthwhile, and truly enjoyed is better than all the drugs and the clinical assessments. To believe that someone truly likes to have you around is medicine for every part of us.
So many of us have experienced that. There were things about us that we so detested that we would have spiraled down into emotional oblivion if it hadn’t been for certain individuals who loved us. They saw us for what we were and loved us as we were and came to rescue us from painful isolation and self-hatred. They gave us the strength to go on.
But it was no easy job for them. However cranky or rude or even abusive we’ve been or are we still insist that we have our rights. We might not use the word but we certainly act on it. Everyone owes us and we expect them to come up to it or we’ll give them a piece of our mind, even if it’s only inside our own head.
If we saw it all happen in a movie on the screen we would think we would recognize immediately that our behavior was abominable. We would wonder at the patience of those who have stood by us bearing the pain of the abuse and ingratitude day after day after day.
And if we’re mistreated, or even think we are, how well we remember the details. We’re able to recall the very tone in which the words were spoken (so we think), where we were sitting when it happened and what was said just after that. Instant and complete recall! We who can’t remember where we left our keys five minutes ago can recall a six-months-ago complex scene in all its details.
Luke 14:1 tells us this remarkable thing. “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee…” In light of how the religious leaders treated him you might think Jesus would have said, “Thank you but no thanks” when the invitation for dinner came. But no, he graciously accepted even though he knew (as the text goes on to tell us, that he would be “carefully watched”). But we mustn’t assume this was “easy” for him to do. That is, Jesus was no machine, programmed by God to run without feelings. Like the rest of us, the temptation to dismiss people was real but he decisively set it aside and did what he thought would please his Father and what was good to/for others. It’s appears that he never treated anyone in such a way that they got the impression that if they were obliterated from off the face of the earth it wouldn’t cost him a moment’s thought.
And maybe it’s this that devastates us most: When someone treats us as though our presence or absence doesn’t matter, as though our life or death makes no difference at all to them. And God help us, even if we know we’ve behaved in such a way as to “deserve” isolation we’re thunderstruck if that’s what we get. We keep mistreating people, though we know if someone treated us this way we’d surely walk off, and yet when we’re sidelined we’re devastated. Even when we know we deserve no better we wish for better treatment.
Israel complained in Isaiah 64 that God had hidden himself from them. He hadn’t done remarkable things for them, and that he was nowhere in sight when they looked for him. In chapter 65 God finds that astonishing and says, “All day long I’ve held out my hands to a disobedient and argumentative people. I’m even found by people who weren’t looking for me.” The fault didn’t lie in God and maybe, most of the time, I’d suppose, the fault doesn’t lie in others.
But in fairness, we sort of expect prolonged patience in God. He’s up to it. It may not be right but it’s the case that we expect him to continue to work with us even though we’re consistently a mess. In some ways that makes good sense because if God were the kind of God who would gladly leave us sinking in the muck we would think we’ve got the wrong God. What makes no sense is for us to keep mistreating other struggling people and expecting them to be God!
But if the story is ever fully told maybe we’ll be amazed at how patient and loving even ordinary people have been. These are stories of such grace.
The two lead characters in the movie Awakenings are Leonard Lowe (played by DeNiro) and Doctor Sayers (played by Robin Williams). Lowe as a boy becomes a victim of post-encephalitic syndrome and is cut off from life for about forty years (though he’s always aware he’s cut off). The doctor discovers a drug that brings Leonard out of the dead-zone and they find life again. The now adult Lowe is astonished at the potential of life and he loves it even more now, having found it again, than he would have if he had never lost it. While exulting in life, within the walls of the hospital Lowe meets a beautiful girl whose father is ill, and the couple are drawn to each other.
Sinister side effects of the drug begin to show. At first twitches and then jerking movements and as it progresses facial distortion and bodily behavior reminiscent of Huntingdon’s chorea. He realizes he’s sinking and his panic and desperation are only matched by his disgust when he looks at himself. What makes matters worse is her gentleness, poise and beauty; it only underscores his own worsening condition and though he’s now head over heels in love with her he can no longer bear to be in her presence so he plans to sever the tie. Their final meeting in the cafeteria is awkward and during it he insists that he’s grotesque though she fervently denies it. Her grace only makes it more difficult for him and he says a poignant goodbye (made even more poignant because he shakes her hand in a formal way) as he tells her he doesn’t want to see her any more. The truth is, he doesn’t want her to see him anymore. Love for her and his self-disgust mingle in that mysterious way they often do in life and it’s precisely that mix that drives him against his will to walk away.
He moves from the table jerking violently, face contorted and with chaos in his soul. She follows him, turns him round, takes his hand and slowly but gently and deliberately puts it on her waist and holds the other in her own and begins to dance with him. There’s no music, and they’re oblivious to the people sitting around, there’s just the two of them, he reluctantly and pathetically shuffling and she molding her steps to his. And that’s when the magic wove its spell. Her nearness and grace gradually brought order into his chaotic inner world and what drugs couldn’t do she did; the jerking and contortion took their leave and he found peace there in the arms of someone who loved him. Watching the movie was for me an education as well as a profound experience.
I can’t say I’ve personally seen or experienced a transformation as immediate and dramatic as that but I believe in such things. I believe that to be loved or to love someone changes the world, it actually becomes a different place. If Hollywood can imagine scenes like this why can’t we? And if we can imagine it God said he can do it. Wouldn’t it be a life-transforming experience to move up to a poor, jerking, contorted soul and begin the dance? Who knows what might happen? I wonder if I’m up to that? I wonder if I want to be up to it? It would probably be very costly.
Hmmm.
And if you, poor hurting, desperate soul, can be brave and trusting and allow Him to lead you maybe even without the lovely music of life that others gratefully experience you’ll find self-disgust and despair slip slowly away. Of this I’m sure, if the transformation isn’t sudden or soon it is sure, it will happen for all who in Jesus Christ long for it.
[Write me if you wish, please.]

SUDAN, SELMA, AUSCHWITZ & GOD

“And the Word became Flesh,” says John. He didn’t say the Word liked flesh or that the Word looked like flesh or that the Word visited flesh or even (in this text) that the Word made flesh—he said the Word became flesh!

In his poem The House of Christmas GK Chesterton adds homey warmth to John’s astonishing truth of God’s incarnation and the imagery he uses brings down to earth what could become a mere doctrinal statement. His poem allows us to imagine ourselves—all of us—all living in the same town and house where God lives—an “open” house where  everyone is welcome; a house we go “home” to.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

In stressing the glory of Jesus, the writer of Hebrews pays special attention to his humanity; to the incarnation. It was God’s purpose to bring humans to glory and because that was so the Savior didn’t come as an angel (2:16). The writer tells us this:

“In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers…Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (2:10-15)

To be faithful to the gospel we must make the cross of Jesus central and crucial but not even the cross is to be isolated as though it is the entirety of the gospel. The resurrection and the glorification of Jesus are indispensable parts of the gospel Story. But none of these are possible without the truth of the Incarnation; it was God incarnate who lived among us, who was crucified, who rose again from the dead and who ascended to glory and who came in and as the Spirit to indwell a chosen nation of gospelers.

It is the Word incarnate that tells the complete Story; it is in and as the man Jesus that God finally and fully says to the human family, “This is what I have purposed for you humans; life in and with me, life lived gloriously, evil known and recognized for what it is (see Isaiah 32:3-8), righteousness embraced as a joy, freedom from sin and fear, peace and adventure without end! All this I show you in and as the man Jesus Christ whose life is your model, whose death exposes and condemns visible evil and the invisible satanic forces that show themselves in the corruption and brutality and oppression of humanity by humanity and whose resurrection and exaltation says that all wrongs will be righted!”

Quoting Martin Luther King as he raged against satanic blindness and brutality, Charles Campbell has this: “Let them get their dogs and let them get the hose, and we will leave them standing before their God and the world spattered with the blood and reeking with the stench of their Negro brothers… (it is necessary) to bring these issues to the surface, to bring them out into the open where everybody can see them.” (1)

As the Body of Christ, as the extension of the Incarnation of God Christians suffer along with non-Christians to demonstrate that God is not indifferent to the world’s awful pain. “Look at us,” they say! “We seek no exemption and we seek no exemption because God himself sought no exemption and because God even now seeks no exemption as He suffers in his covenant People. We weep with others and we are ‘weeping witnesses’ that what is happening to you will NEVER go unnoticed. All wrongs will be righted! See us and if you can, believe that God is saying, ‘See them sharing the pain you experience and know that they are my witnesses via suffering that I have been where you are in and as Jesus Christ and that I am even now where you are in and as the corporate Suffering Servant. Whoever you are, think noble thoughts of me—believe and vibrantly hope one day you will see and experience the ecstasy of fulfillment! ‘ “

King and all who endured the humiliation and brutality of this era not only exposed the slavery of African-Americans, they also exposed the slavery in any corner of the world, and exposed the evil of all and any who approved, silently or overtly this blatant and cruel injustice. African-Americans in America rightfully raged against a visible and felt enslavement while the powerful White culture worked as slaves to invisible and malevolent forces and justified their slavery. (2)

It’s at this point that the message of the incarnate Word speaks with such clarity. God, as the man Jesus Christ identified himself with all the victims of brutal injustice before and since his own crucifixion. He exposes “the world” for what it is and brands as satanic and demonic the spirit that leads to all that is unlike the Holy Father. (3)

The brutal killing of Jesus was not as painful or as horrible as the deaths of multiplied millions! That’s never the point of the Gospels witness! You only have to read the NT to see that Jesus’ mistreatment, at the physical/social level, was little indeed when compared with the countless sufferers down the ages. Preaching and teaching that makes more of the physical pain of Jesus than the NT does is not helpful. Now and then we hear the gory details dwelt on in a way no one in the NT does though it can make some of us squirm because we have been blessed to escape prolonged humiliation and cruel physical mistreatment. But there have been multiplied millions who would gladly have swapped Jesus’ passion experience for what they went through. Simply Google the history of punishment and think of Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Death Marches, ancient and modern. Think of those who are even now enduring torment that defies description.

No! The central truth in the suffering and death of Jesus has its power in who it is that suffered and why he chose it.

The Christian will tell you that Jesus Christ is God being a man and that one of the things he does is to hang in solidarity with every man, woman, girl or boy in any age, in any part of the world who is being tormented, humiliated, imprisoned and used. In him, God as a man not only condemns the evil and exposes it for what it is—he does that by sharing it.

It’s wrong for preachers to say he suffered more than others—to say he did is not only nonsense; it’s needlessly offensive to those who know it is false. But it is profoundly and vitally important for teachers to make it clear that in coming into our world and choosing to share our pain (daily in anguished love at the sight of world agony and finally in death—see Matthew 8:16-17—God walked from Selma, he lay on operating tables in the Nazi camps, he sat for years in freezing cold and stink in cells in the Gulag and now huddles with women, little girls and boys in filthy cellars and cattle-cars—terrified by heartless and willing slaves of the satanic and demonic. And He’s doing it again in the People who constitute the corporate Body of Christ. In that People He isn’t saying that Christian suffering is worse than what the world endures—He didn’t even say that when He  suffered in and as Jesus Christ. Let me say it again, what He is saying is this: “I see and know what is happening and trust me, I WILL make it all right! I am with and for a world in pain and this truth I tell you as you my covenant People suffer with you. These are my witnesses.”

Whatever else the incarnation and the cross mean—they mean that much. And in exposing “the world” for what it is God meant not only to generate rage and outrage against injustice and cruelty he threw his weight into the struggle to open the eyes of the drones of malevolence and bring them into the light also. The way Selma did! The way the holocaust did! These events that to some degree opened some eyes that will not close again are shadows of what the resurrection of Christ says will be finally and fully accomplished in a day yet to come.

  1. Charles L. Campbell, The Word Before the Powers, WKJ, 2002, page 63
  2. This evil was/is practiced by Africans against Africans in Africa to this very day; it was practiced by Jews against Jews—OT record—Chinese practiced it against Chinese, Irish against Irish, English against English, Muslims against Muslims, Russians against Russians and on and on. This demonic behavior is as old as Cain and Abel and at our worst we need no excuse in particular. Gang warfare and Drug Cartels where family-members torture and butcher family members illustrate the point that needs no “So why was he/she killed?” gang members have often been asked and one of the frequent answers is: “Maybe it’s because it’s Tuesday!”
  3. John 12:31, where Jesus is speaking of his death. “The world” is used often in the NT as evil in its organized wholeness. 1 John 2:15-17 and James 4:4. That’s how I mean it here.