Monthly Archives: December 2016

MY COMRADE GOD

I’m an old man now. It’s true that many things I once thought pleasurable are no longer that and it’s true that many things I once thought were worth worrying about are no longer that. It’s also true that some truths I once thought were of momentous significance are no longer that. That doesn’t surprise me—I’d heard my mother say many times about different things that I’d change my mind when I got older; she was right, I experienced the change repeatedly as I grew into adulthood.
Some things I outgrew (some I wish I had outgrown and haven’t) and other things were like sandcastles at the seaside—they were never meant to last; even children knew that and they were often happy about it as they watched intently the smaller waves undermining the walls of their castle and then shrieking with pleasure when the entire thing collapsed under the assault.
Many things have changed because I have changed but some things I knew even when I was young are still with me. I sensed them, knew them as a boy knows things in that true but inexperienced way but now with a load of tears and years and bygone fears I know these truths as well as I know any truth. I have a deep sense of my limits and I can explain and illustrate what I mean by that but strange as I sometimes think it is, it’s my awareness of my limits that have opened my eyes to truth too deep and too assuring that I can’t hold on to all the threads that weave together that create the network that supports me.
I haven’t changed my mind about how I need and want God in my life. I now know that, somewhere at a great depth in my soul—a depth that goes beyond rational thought, a depth that becomes part of the substance of one’s thought and how we think. It’s more than just the correct conclusion to points made or texts exposited—though all of that is present. I know now that I need more than a God—I need and want the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.George Adam Smith the famed Scots theologian and commentator was correct when he said:
“The chief thing for individuals, as for nations, is not to believe that God reigns so much as to know what kind of God He is who reigns.”
I have believed that for more years than I can remember but I believe it even more fervently when I hear some say that there is a God who has created countless millions of his creatures for no other reason that to ceaselessly torment them through endless time because it pleases him to do so.
I must believe because I want to believe and am urged by the biblical witness to believe that God has come in and as Jesus Christ “not to condemn the world but that the world through Him might have life.” (John 3:16-17; 1 John 2.2.)

As was usual where I grew up in Belfast, I began smoking as a boy and stayed at it for quite a while. The cheapest and the most popular cigarettes were Park Drive and Woodbine. As boys we looked in the gutters and found the most of what we smoked (yes!) because we didn’t have the money to buy many. Now and then we’d buy one or five and split the price between us.  I always thought Park Drive & Woodbine were harsh and when I met the young girl who’d become my sister-in-law I knew they were harsh. She worked in a tobacco factory called Gallaghers and they give her free cigarettes. She’d sometimes get Players Greens—I loved them, they were smooth on the throat and easy on the lungs. But normally it was Woodbine.
G.S. Studdert-Kennedy, a courageous and highly decorated  WWI chaplain, was well remembered in Belfast in my day though he died eight years before I was born in 1937. He got the name Woodbine Willie (he handed them around to the soldiers and smoked a lot of them himself). He spoke my own heart and the hearts of millions of others in this, another of his often riveting poems. Please, be patient and read it all the way through. The truth GS spoke here is one of those truths that mean more and more to us when we reflect on the horror and evil and suffering of the human race. There is one true God and He loves the entire human family and if that isn’t true nothing is worth believing!
                               THE COMRADE GOD
Thou who dost dwell in depths of timeless being,
Watching the years as moments passing by,
Seeing the things that lie beyond our seeing,
Constant, unchanged, as aeons dawn and die.
Thou who canst count the stars upon their courses,
Holding them all in the hollow of Thy hand.
Lord of the world with its myriad of forces
Seeing the hills as single grains of sand.
Art Thou so great that this our bitter crying
Sounds in Thine ears like sorrow of a child?
Hast Thou looked down on centuries of sighing,
And like a heartless mother only smiled?
Since in Thy sight to-day is as to-morrow.
And while we strive Thy victory is won,
Hast Thou no tears to shed upon our sorrow?
Art Thou a staring splendor like the sun?
Dost Thou not heed the helpless sparrow’s falling?
Canst Thou not see the tears that women weep?
Canst Thou not hear Thy littlest children calling?
Dost Thou not watch above them as they sleep?
Then, O my God, Thou art too great to love me,
Since Thou dost reign beyond the reach of tears,
Calm and serene as the cruel stars above me,
High and remote from human hopes and fears.
Only in Him can I find home to hide me.
Who on the Cross was slain to rise again,
Only with Him my Comrade God beside me,
Can I go forth to war with sin and pain.

HOPE & HISTORY

The famous Irish poet and playwright, Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney, died recently. What prize did he not win? Google him and see for yourself. I’m not competent to judge the structure and depth of great poets but I know what I like; I know what moves, inspires and enriches me and much of the little I’ve read of him did just that.
Some years back he adapted a play of Sophocles (“Philoctetes”). The central character is Philoctetes, a Greek hero who possessed a charmed bow and arrows given to him by Hercules. On the island of Lemnos a serpent bit him and his foot began to rot. The intolerable pain made him scream all the time and the stench from the foot became unbearable to those around him so they deserted him. He endured ten years of loneliness, pain and the anguish of betrayal. Days became weeks, weeks became months and months became years and hope of rescue faded as his bitterness grew.
But an oracle told the Greeks they couldn’t take Troy without the bow of Philoctetes so they went back to ask him if he would go with them. His years of disappointed hope were over and when he emptied himself of the bitterness that had built up inside him the cripple marched off with them to glory.
Heaney puts these words in the mouths of the chorus at the end of the play:
         History forbids us to hope this side of the grave. But once in a lifetime, the longed-for tide of justice can arise and hope and history rhyme.
With Northern Ireland as its setting, with its long history of feuds and killings, dashed hopes, treachery and unfulfilled promises, Heaney’s call was well contextualized. Don’t cease to hope for one day hope and history will rhyme and crippled truths will walk!  [To a marked degree that has indeed happened in Northern Ireland.]
But there are individuals whose inner world is chaotic, an endless series of losses, disappointments and failures despite brave attempts to change. God sees this. One day, for these trusting and burdened souls hope and history will rhyme.
Much of history is humdrum. When isolated and seen as a long series of independent happenings it is meaningless! Much of it forbids us to hope any side of the grave. Some biblical history [isolated or thrown together] shares this feature since it too shares a God-denying look as much of modern daily living does.
Not every event recorded in the Bible is filled with theological significance but here and there, an event or a cluster of events seizes our attention and God has reached from behind the curtain of His hiddenness and in these events we catch a glimpse of Him. And once we’ve seen Him we can’t unsee Him. In light of those events the entire history of humanity is given a different complexion.
The Exodus shoves the curtain aside and generations live in the strength of that vision. The Incarnation catches us by the breath and the Cross of the Christ drives us to joyful amazement. Paul, on whom the shadow of the cross fell, was driven, careering off across half a world to proclaim triumph and hope in the name of the God who was hung on a public gallows. And when friendly hands would try to slow Paul down, telling him to take it easy, he would shrug them off and say: “I can’t be different, the love of Christ leaves me no choice and the world needs hope.” (2 Corinthians 5:14)
And it doesn’t matter that we moderns hang Christ again and again, thinking we’ve got rid of Him, He’s been there and done that!
Christ can’t be harmed by crucifixion.
In fact there’s every reason to believe that He is never as powerful as He is when He’s weak so to crucify Him over again is in some ways to turn Him loose on society.
Even to watch Him die (as, for example, when we seriously trouble the church, which is his body—2 Corinthians 4:7-12) is to put ourselves in danger of being drawn to Him because He said when He was “lifted up from the earth” He would draw all men unto Him [John 12:32].
The mourning and lamentation [and in some quarters, almost panic] about the dwindling number of believers is pathetic in many ways. Believers, don’t you know, aren’t to be excused when they turn from the Lord Jesus [either in an overt act of rejection or in the more subtle loss of spirit that wishes Jesus well but cares little to run the race with and for Him and the world He so loves]. The Church of Jesus Christ has been called to be a faithful steward of the gospel but its weakness won’t lead God to vanish in a puff of purple smoke.
There’s always that cross…that strange cross.
And then there’s always that Sunday morning: “Good morning!” [Matthew 28:9]
One day history and the Christian hope will rhyme and nail-pierced Truth will walk.And that will be true for individuals as well as for the world as a whole.

CHEERING FROM THE SIDELINES

He was close to a year and a half older than I. My brother Alex I mean. He died this day (December 27) in the year 2008 and he was a wonderful brother and a great man.
I didn’t always know he was a great man but my view of what a great man or woman is has changed with the years. Self-righteousness is sickeningly stupid as well as sinful and isolationist.
There’s only one Jesus though there are and have been many great men and women who haven’t been recognized as being just that!
Alex like everybody else was born with his inner wiring inherited, he was born into a family setting in a world that shaped him. Like everyone else he experienced things that left their mark on him and they weren’t always great experiences. Like so many others he had to brawl with inner drives and pain he didn’t like, things he didn’t invite into him and things that could only be controlled and not obliterated.
He married Ann and they lived an adventure together. Five children in quick succession. Four sons and a daughter kept Ann busy–yes? She is a great woman and has loved God since I’ve known her as a very young girl. The children never missed Sunday School and that speaks something wonderful. But there were times when she was bone-weary and thought she just might take the morning off and Alex, though he hadn’t given himself over to the Lord Jesus (though he never ceased to pray daily), urged her strongly not to stay away. He’d give her all kinds of good reasons and to those he added this: he’d lay out all the children’s clothes and have the shoes all polished when she got up in the morning. “People have gone to heaven for less.”
I was reminded just today that Alex was “cheering from the sidelines before he was called into the game.”
He died as he lived, quietly, without hoopla, having been injured by a world which injures its children who often injure their children and so it goes in the often pain-filled adventure.
Six years before he died I baptized him into the Lord Jesus Christ after he listened intently, like a child listening to a story, as I talked to him about the Lord he had believed in all his life. He took instructions from his kid brother, nodding now and then to say he understood, I immersed him and he rose, sharing the meaning and the power of the resurrection and was now fully in the narrative of life that God desires all of us to share in. Sigh.

Thank God for God and the people who help Him.

 

SWORD OF SURPRISE

I admit to being self-critical beyond what’s healthy. Self-examination is a good thing but a little of it, if it’s genuine, goes a long way. Before long it becomes toxic and self-centered. Nothing should take the place of God at the center of our thoughts—nothing! Certainly not me—not for any reason.
All right, I need to be righteous! I know that! And so do you. But somewhere in the middle of this glorious adventure—glorious because it’s imaged in truth as followers on gallant steeds following the Gallant One on His steed, at war, against a world of Orks—somewhere in the middle of this glorious adventure we lose sight of our own desperate need of grace and our own vulnerability.

My Ethel knew me well and when one. more. time. I’d express unbridled and relentless self-criticism she’d eye me with a steady gaze before telling me: “If you criticized me as much and as severely as you do yourself, someone should take you aside and rebuke you. You are no more your Lord than you are mine. You need to stop it!”

That degree of self-rebuke isn’t humility! It might be arrogance. Who do I think I am? Michael the Archangel? Am I so wonderful that I am above sinning or blundering? There’s a strange inconsistency about me. From one angle I see myself as a slug that leaves behind it a trail of slime and at the same time I act as though I should be able to live as though free from sin and stupidity? So, what am I? Snail or archangel?
Whether I like it or not I’m just another little human, sinful and vulnerable and in need of forgiveness and understanding. Yes, me! I’m not righteous enough to be self-righteous.
If I see someone in need of a cup of cold water, in need of clothing or food or a place of shelter—in need of what I can supply—clearly I ought to offer it. What if it turns out that the one who needs the cup of cold water is myself? What if I’m the naked, hungry and lonely one?

I’m not wise enough or consistent enough to know how to live this complicated life in a truly balanced way. I’ve no wish to go to either extreme—a flinty righteousness on the one hand or a weak-kneed-indulgence on the other. I don’t want to be Hugo’s policeman, the stony Javier of Les Miserable, nor do I want to be the irresponsible [but more likable] Mr. Micawber of Dickens’ Copperfield. You must understand that there’s a lot in me that can justly be criticized so you mustn’t see me as simply humble; I do need to confess. This ambivalence I experience is a real issue and not just a topic for discussion; it is confessional as well as an element of confusion.
But the problem is bigger than my own concerns. What if it’s the case there is someone who loves me dearly and with whom I have a great deal of influence and what if she sees me refusing to give myself any leeway and thinks, “If that’s how life is to be lived then I must be very much harder on myself than I have been”? What if I leave no room for my blunders and wrongs—will she feel compelled to make no allowance for hers? Will I make a prisoner of her by being a prisoner myself? Or should I “give her permission” to be merciful to a sinner by being merciful to me—the sinner?
I  want to rest in GK Chesterton’s grand appeal to God to help him to see himself in the light of the Word of Truth (Hebrews 4:12). He asks God to so sever him from himself that he can see the wonder that he is [his bones, his blood, his eyes and his life] and the needy person that he is so that he can love himself as he would love his neighbor. I’ll close with this. Please, please, give the poem a lingering, thoughtful reading. Write me if you wish. holywoodjk@aol.com

                      THE SWORD OF SURPRISE
          Sunder me from my bones O sword of God
Till they stand stark and strange as do the trees
That I whose heart goes up with the soaring woods may marvel as much at these.
Sunder me from my blood that in the dark I hear that ancestral river run
Like branching buried floods that find the sea
But never see the sun.
Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes
Those rolling mirrors made alive in me
Terrible crystal more incredible
Than all the things they see
Sunder me from my soul
That I may see the sins like streaming wounds,
The life’s brave beat
Till I shall save myself as I would save
A stranger in the street.

(Merciful and Righteous Holy One, please…
This prayer in the Incarnate One.)

WHY I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO HEAVEN (4)

Fashionable and evangelical theology now stresses the Mission of God and the Mission of God is now fashionably focusing on ecology, the human responsibility toward the planet and planetary resources, with a lifestyle that accords with that—it’s all about God restoring the creation to something like Eden conditions. And of course you can’t seriously believe that unless you are seriously engaged in doing something about it, can you? Imagine praying, “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth…” and doing nothing about it? The stress is that we must engage in a lifestyle that is in accord with the Edenic world of righteousness and prosperity.
I’m overstating the case—of course—in what I’m about to say but when I was young everything was about Sin and sins, about heaven or hell, about resurrected bodies (Yes!), judgment and living uprightly while here in order to live with God forever in heaven. We all believed we had to live virtuously and while it’s true we were shaped by the Enlightenment we still found enough in the Bible and especially in the life of the Lord Jesus to call us upward. Where I grew up in Ireland we believed in the “the big fire” of 2 Peter 3 that was going to end the creation and we would go in resurrected bodies—actual bodies, real bodies (Yes!) to meet the Lord in the air and so we would ever be with the Lord. It was all about saving people’s souls. “This world is not my home” type hymn was as popular as the “In His Steps” literature (Sheldon’s book has sold 30 million copies since first being published). When I was young it was common to mock Christians as those that were good livin’. I’m making the point that we all believed in living Christlike here though we also believed we were going to live in heaven by and by.
We knew nothing about “creation theology” and even less did we know anything about “cosmic/planetary restoration”. The truth is—well, as best I can recollect—we knew little about anything other than going to church, living right, not wanting to go to hell and wanting to go to heaven. Most of the thought and energy—I’m sure of this—was about making a living, family matters, the babies, health, dying, girls/boys and the other earthly matters. We were lower-class working people with plenty on our minds. Church-going, for the interested adults, was most often about rousing singing in various gospel-halls, seeing your friends, hearing good preaching when it was available and for the overworked women it was a chance to be in touch with something heavenly rather than the daily drudgery.
We still believed in the resurrection of “the flesh” and doing what is right.  We didn’t need any specialized theology to “prove” we should love God and our neighbor as ourselves.
To this day no one I know of thinks that because “we’re going to live in heaven” we should not seek to live now as Christ did when He lived here in His pre-resurrection and glorified body phase. (I rambled on a bit, didn’t I?)
There’s this too, and I personally have great sympathy with this particular stress. Many who maintain the “new view” are making the point that we should see God in life in its entirety. I think this is a rich truth whatever one’s view about cosmic eschatology.  But I see no reason to believe that thinking we’re “going to live in heaven” cheapens God’s gifts in this phase of human life. Human loves, including husbands & wives, parents & children, friends & friendship, music, literature, intellectual accomplishment, health, love of nature, art of various kinds, skills, scientific and medical, and more and more—these are gifts of God. Do we dull these because we believe that one day we’ll live “in heaven” in a glorified and glorious body as Jesus has done for two thousand years?
For thirty-some years He enjoyed earthly blessings but what has He done for 2,000 years without those? Does His current “non-earthly” fullness of life cheapen the earthly blessings He once thoroughly enjoyed? What if He “delays” His return for 100,000 years or a million? We might ask what the point of His still (truly real) body would be if He never uses it in an “earthly” and “physical” way.
Must we believe that God will one day restore the planet to something like Edenic conditions in a sin-free context in order to be ecologically attentive to the planet or truly appreciative of human loves and giftedness? Much of what I hear seems to make the beauty of creation, the loveliness of earthly joys, God’s pleasure in the material creation proof of the “new view”. Not much of an argument that.
I’m certain the “new view” will continue to gain ground—humans love this life; it’s the only life they know and they’d happily settle for it if the ugliness and pain and loss were removed from it. Contrast this life (as experienced by those that have it “good”) with a “heaven” that is an eternal prayer meeting or an everlasting hymn-singing. Contrast this good life with all the joy of accomplishment, skill, thoroughly human and harmless pleasures, adventure, research, surprise, food, laughter, problem-solving and so much more, with Faber’s eternal,
Father of Jesus, love’s reward,
What rapture will it be
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie
And gaze and gaze on Thee.
That kind of “heaven” would only appeal to those who are wired for it and who ceaselessly seek (and are capable of doing it) for personal intimacy to an excessive degree (or what I think is an excessive degree). That “heaven,” I suspect, only appeals for many lively humans because they’ve come to believe that that’s the only alternative to eternal conscious torment or for a life currently lived in torment, pain and loneliness or one of soul-killing drudgery.
I confess I wouldn’t want such a heaven and it’s no surprise to me that a singer who adored life as it is experienced in one of God’s greatest human gifts would sing this:
Dear face that holds so sweet a smile for me
Were you not mine, how dark this world would be
I know no light above that could replace
Love’s radiant sunshine in your lovely face.

Give me a smile, the love-light in your eyes
Life could not hold a sweeter paradise
Give me the right to love you all the while
My world forever, the sunshine of your smile.

But it isn’t only that that Faber kind of heaven lacks appeal—it reflects a God who (in my view) is unlike the God Jesus loved and served in a fully human style while here.
(More later, God enabling)

(Living God, alive with Life and Lover of humans and humanness, many of us are unsure of what is to come but we are persuaded beyond doubt WHO is to come so whether it is “here or there” that we will live eternally we believe that it will be LIFE we will share in your presence and not a pretense of life. This thanksgiving in the Living Lord Jesus Christ.)

ooooh I hate death!

ooooh, I hate death! I’m glad that God is the Lord of death as well as life. Yesterday loved ones said goodbye to two simply glorious women. Yesterday (12/16/2016) Billie Paine’s loving family, friends and admirers said farewell for a while to a truly great woman; a cheerful, generous, vivacious servant of Christ whose hospitality hardly knew limits and whose friendship and loyalty knew none. Those who were fortunate enough to know her as a friend would tell you that while they searched for the adequate words. I was (and am) one of those whose debt to her goes far beyond expression so there’s no point in my searching for the way to say it. These words, I think, are more for me than anyone. Is that strange? I don’t pretend to have been as close to or as devoted to Billie as her family—that’d be sheer nonsense—but I can’t keep from saying that she took me and mine into her heart and kept us there all the many years I knew her (and she kept our two sons in her home at times when they needed what neither Ethel or I could provide). Sigh.

On the same day that people gathered in Abilene to honor Billie something like four hours away in another Texas town beautiful Jeannie Moore, in a loving home and in the presence of her beloved ones, quietly breathed her last breath here. Jeanne, adored by her family, adored and admired by her husband Billy, worshiped by a host of children she protected, nurtured, smiled for, fought for, taught, and wrote for had to leave.

Look, I get it! Death has been defeated and it now cannot be or mean what it would be and mean if God hadn’t come in and as Jesus Christ. He spoke one day to a girl called Martha while He looked past her at Death who was standing nearby—and He said, “I’m Resurrection!” At that Death grew pale and staggered off because he himself felt the approach of death and was afraid.

I fervently believe what I just said and looking at Death through the Lord Jesus makes all the difference but Death is still ugly—to hell with it (Revelation 20:14) and hurry on Resurrection Life when all the beautiful people come fully alive to die never more!

(Oh You God of Life who has created beautiful people thank You for the assurance that they return more beautiful than ever, more alive than ever, more glorious than ever—unhurt by what we’ve seen. Thank you for assuring us of that in the baby, the boy, the vital young man, Jesus Christ who has the keys of Death & Hades and is gloriously alive forevermore. This prayer in His name.)

IN CAPTIVITY WHEN…

The prophet Ezekiel said this: “In the 30th year…While I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” (Ezekiel 1:1, NIV)

I know no way we can be sure what the prophet meant by “in the 30th year.” A number of suggestions are offered but we’ll not pursue them. I tend strongly to think that it’s his age. He is of the priestly family, would have been groomed for a number of years to serve and priestly service (it’s been said) began at thirty. I think that’s what he has in mind but we’ll move on.
With many others he was an exile, dragged from his home and now lived in the land of canals and rivers—Babylon. He would have been trained to minister as a priest and now that wouldn’t happen but something wonderful did happen and it happened away from home, it happened in the land Zechariah would regard as the unholy land (see Zechariah 5:5-11). Ezekiel said it was there, as a captive and away from home that the heavens were opened and he saw visions of God.
I have heard lovely and true stories about people having their eyes opened in the most surprising places and in distressing situations. I met a woman in South Dakota some years ago who suffered greatly with Huntington’s disease. Her arms flying and her body jerking almost ceaselessly as I spoke to the assembled people. Later I sat with her across a table and asked her if she was angry with God at all, in light of this terrible affliction, don’t you know; she wanted me to understand that the disease would soon take her life but she also assured me and I believed her that she’d been traveling a very wicked road when she was healthy and now the world was a different and glorious place. God had opened her eyes to more than her wrong path—He had given her a hunger for and a pleasure in goodness. She and Ezekiel had something in common.
Many of you would have come across those who found the heavens opening in prison. A few of them in prison through no fault of their own after a period of bitterness and great anger found grace and peace entered their lives when they found God or rather when God found them and opened heaven to them. I have heard it said that such experiences are not genuine conversions, that they were the responses of fear or loneliness and insecurity. I can understand that viewpoint and I don’t deny that that might be true in some cases but I’d not believe that unless I had the clearest reasons for doing so. I’ve met some whose vision of God remained long after they were released.
I know the Bible offers more than one story in which God made himself present in unexpected places. Jacob twice took advantage of his brother Esau and was running for his life toward Mesopotamia because Esau swore he’d see Jacob in the ground. It was at Luz in the night that God let Jacob know the heavens were still open to him even though he was a crook. Jacob is staggered and mutters, “God was here and I didn’t know it.” (The story is told in Genesis 25—28.)
Then there’s that text from Luke 3 where the good doctor lists six of the most powerful men in the land and links them to the most powerful man on the planet. Big-hitters in their own way, every one of them. Shrewd, ruthless and heartless but why does Luke list them? They were calendar markers! They were there to date the time when the heavens opened. But the heavens didn’t open in Rome or Galilee or Caesarea or Jerusalem to the political and religious lords—they opened in the desert to a wild kid called John telling him he was to announce that the world was coming under new management. (See Luke 3:1-6.)
I would have thought it was most common that a vision of God brought peace, purpose and a sense of adventure into a life but I do know that there are times when it was costly even though it was glorious. I have met more than one down the years who thought their life was easy until God came walking into it. I don’t doubt that either. I know in one case it led a baby to boyhood to vibrant young adulthood and then to a killing tree on a hill.
As you know, that wasn’t the end of the Story

(Holy Father, we know You just don’t “manufacture” our heartaches and awful pains. The entire matter soon moves beyond our grasp as to how You work with us in a world we’ve helped to make. But in light of the Baby, the Boy and the young Man we believe the heavens have been opened. Thank you. This prayer in Jesus Christ.)