Monthly Archives: August 2017

“WHEN THE SUN SHINES IT WILL SHINE THE CLEARER”

One of the finest characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was Sam. Samwise Gamgee, the loyal friend and protector of Frodo Baggins, the bearer of the ring. He clearly had his flaws but he’s markedly selfless, gallant and pure of heart and if it were not for him, Frodo would never have completed his destiny with honor. He not only had a profound depth of character he had a profound vision of the big picture. This is obvious from a piece that occurs near the end of The Two Towers.
At one point Frodo is overcome by the evil ring he bears and must destroy and he is near to giving himself up to its evil power and Sam saves him in the nick of time. Still blinded by the ring’s power, Frodo pulls his sword on Sam and has it at his throat and Sam gasps to his deranged friend:
“It’s me, it’s your Sam, don’t you know your own Sam?”
Frodo recovers and confesses the job’s too much for him.
Frodo: “I can’t do this Sam.”
Sam: “I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here, but we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered, full of darkness and danger they were. Sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when there’s so much bad that had happened?
But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.
A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stay with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. How folk in those stories had lots of chances for turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.”
Frodo: “What are we holding on to Sam?”
Sam: “That there’s some good left in this world Mr. Frodo…and it’s worth fighting for.”
There’s so much that is gospel-like here. In light of the Story, the one that ultimately matters, there are things and people and a glorious Lord worth fighting for, worth living for and worth dying for.
Is this not Hebrews 11:32-40? Does that truth not help us to want to continue the war until the return of the King?
A new day WILL come! Because HE is coming.
In the meantime He is making His presence felt in and through all the friends who travel with us! Flawed friends, it’s true, but friends who travel with us on the same quest, helping us to fulfill our unique place in the service of the King. We each in the divine drama that is life have to bear the ring of evil to its total destruction and others can’t do it for another but as Sam in the final episode says before picking up the exhausted Frodo: “If I can’t carry the ring for you I can carry you.”

(Holy Father, help us to recognize that we are not alone in bearing burdens, that others bear burdens too. And we fervently ask you to supply sufficient strength that we don’t become fixated on our own and that we will help one another to bear what we can’t bear for them. And perhaps we will find that in helping them we too are helped. Would you do that? In light of Jesus we know you must be happy with such a request.)

GETTING SOUP TWICE A DAY

I only have to read scripture to know that people are walking contradictions and that some of us are breathing civil wars. Beyond that I simply have to look within to know that while what the Bible says seems very plain, what I see and feel within is absolutely beyond debate. And my experience with people confirms these two sources.
I don’t say that we’re all equally conflicted. I believe I know people that across the board are much more mature than I am. Yes, I suspect that on the whole they are more finely balanced and permeated to a greater degree with virtue than I am or ever have been. I would suppose if I were judged by my moral failures and weakness in some specific areas of my life that I would come very close to the bottom of the moral ladder. I do believe that! This is a great sadness to me for there is a part of me that longs for moral grandeur, there’s a deep desire in me to be like the God in whose image I have been and am being created. [I mustn’t give you the impression that people should be assessed on the basis of so many virtues over against so many vices—that would be wrong-headed, but I think you know what I mean by the above.]
I wish to make the point that however difficult it is for us to believe it, people are not just one thing. That should be—should it not?—a matter beyond dispute. Only the Christ was “just one thing.”
I’ve known many people up close and personal who were faced with a choice between right and wrong and chose the wrong. But it has occurred to me that in many of those cases I was blessed in not being faced with the situation they were faced with; blessed with not having to make the choice between good and evil for I’m not at all certain that I would have stood where they fell. (Their fall in some cases may well have worked out to be a blessing in numerous ways. God works that kind of thing. See Romans 11:15, 30-35.)
Some poor souls are daily faced with the pressure to do evil while others of us (God be praised and thanked!) live in our morally cozy little routines. Surrounded by godly friends, provided with more than adequate material and social resources and having been shaped by strong and warm people and structures we are sheltered from many of the storms that beat ceaselessly around the heads of millions. Yes, surely there is profound reason to be grateful for our conditions but do they not underscore the moral disadvantage of the masses?
Is it surprising that so many are morally weak and fragmented? Given the social and cultural structures that promote the worst aspects of hedonism and greed and self-centeredness, should we be surprised that masses fear neither God nor man? And if this is what they fight against from the moment they draw breath do we do well to feel nothing but revulsion and a desire to isolate or exterminate?
In a powerful television drama one of the characters is morally and mentally ill. He has killed repeatedly but due to the limits in the human judicial system he was not convicted. He attached himself to a lawyer, who, understandably, was afraid of him and wanted nothing to do with him. But the man felt the influence of this lawyer changing him for the better. He gets a job and purposes to live in goodness, free from the evils he had engaged in but the lawyer—again perfectly understandably—feels compelled to undermine his agenda. He’s devastated by what he feels is betrayal and comes to say to her, “As you know, I have never denied being evil. One of the reasons I came to you initially—I saw you as my guardian out of evil and you in fact became that. I was beginning to turn my life around. I rediscovered hope and goodness and I credit much of that to your influence. But you walked away from me like I was some crazy, which I am at many levels. But my feelings for you…my friendship for you was sane and real and legitimate and good. It represents the part of me that wasn’t ill or evil—it was good.”
This expresses well what I want to say. I don’t say that there can’t be exceptions. I don’t say that there are not people, who like Mephistopheles says in that other classic drama, “Evil be thou my good/ good be thou my evil.” There are such people. But I do say that such exceptions aside that there is not one of us that is “one thing”. I do say that down somewhere in the mysterious depths of a human heart, along with its evil there can be the vestiges of good longed for, the residue of good purposes that died for lack of inner strength and outside help.
In the old movie Angels with Dirty Faces we have the hard-bitten and brutal gangster (played by Jimmy Cagney) going to the electric chair for multiple murders. He’s arrogant, unrepentant and unafraid. For the sake of some boys who worship him as their hero the priest begs him to pretend he’s afraid to die. Cagney goes to the chair kicking and screaming and begging for mercy—for the sake of the kids and because his friend asked him to do it.
Should we dismiss this as bleeding-heart drivel, nauseatingly sentimental and untrue to life? I think not.
Hanging on a tree the young Lord of creation saw His enemies with their glittering eyes and heard their hoarse mocking and said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Maybe it takes a purer and stronger heart than most of us have to speak this way under such circumstances. There’s little doubt in my mind that the bulk of us when faced with someone we judge to be a threat have no wish to dwell on his or her virtues. The only thing that counts is their vice.
But when we gather in an assembly we’re not slow to sing Rescue the Perishing. One of the stanzas has this neglected truth.
“Down in the human heart/
Crushed by the Tempter/
Feelings like buried that grace can restore/
Touched by a loving hand/
Wakened by kindness/
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.”
This sounds well in four-part harmony and feels good during times of peace and tranquility. But let me assume that for the most of us (certainly in the West) that actually doing something costly about such a truth is a real stretch, especially as the expression of our living out that truth on a daily basis. Maybe executing such conviction is currently beyond us—though it’s possible for some that we know or have heard of. But I would suppose that before we can bear unbearable sorrow and fight unbeatable foes we need to truly think the unthinkable.
Ah well, then, so no one should be held accountable for wrongs done? I don’t believe that. Jesus Christ held accountable those He loved and pitied (Revelation 3:19). But maybe we can quit pretending that we believe that all sin should be punished. We don’t think all ours should be punished. (Sin is more than deeds and words; it’s soul-contamination as well; the condition out of which sinful deeds, words and thoughts arise.)
Maybe we can chastise with less relish and more sensitivity. Maybe we can pity as well as “punish”. Maybe we can temper our speech when condemning the sins of others and perhaps we can renounce (if only to ourselves) the sense of moral superiority we feel. Should we ever judge? Of course we should–with care! But surely not from a position of power, as though butter wouldn’t melt in our own mouths, as though we were the only virgins in a world of “hookers”. And should we ignore great evil because there is in the transgressor something of real worth? Oh, I’m certain we should not. I’m also certain of this, we should not ignore the something of real worth in him or her because there is great evil. And I’m certain we should take full measure (is that possible?) of our own evil that lurks down among our virtues.
Wasn’t it Schweitzer who told us that two boys were wrestling in a school playground? It was a long and hard tussle but finally the bigger boy (Schweitzer himself) triumphed. The skinnier kid, panting, said something like. “You wouldn’t have beaten me if I had been getting soup twice a day like you.”
Hmmm, I wonder…

GIVING IT UP!

This is a particularly difficult thing to speak about at this time. I don’t need to develop the reason right now other than to say that the body and mind of a very dear friend and a great man of God is under attack. I mention the difficulty of speaking about it only so that you won’t think I’m being glib!

Life is and should be precious to us. We see and feel that truth in a host of ways don’t we. And why wouldn’t it be this way for most of us? This means that even Christians who believe in life with Christ after death and then resurrection are loath to leave this place with all its warm relationships, lovely predictability and harmless pleasures.

Yes, we cheerfully sing, “This World is Not My Home” but it’s the only home we’ve known all our lives and it is God’s gift to us so how could we not, at some level, regret leaving it? Bless me, even at airports when our beloved is leaving for a longish period there are tears and hugs, almost a refusal to let them go. Should it be surprising that we express the fear of “loss” of them in the feverish way we try to prolong their life when it seems clear they are dying?

Still, in our bones we know we can’t put off the day forever. It’s appointed! Wouldn’t it be fine if we (not just the dying one—but the family and friends) were so shaped and assured that we could “give them up” in an assured and glorious way?

Not in a life-denying way, mark you, but doing it after we have (as Robert Browning put it) “earned” our death by living life to the full in joyful integrity. There are things worth dying for and there is a time when it’s okay to “lay yourself down with a will,” as Robert Louis Stevenson expressed it.

In the movie, El Cid, the hero lies mortally wounded with an arrow deep in his chest. He’s sure to die but his adoring wife wants to prolong it by mere hours by having the arrow removed even though it will weaken him. He resists her pleas because he must address and go out with the army that has lost heart because they think he’s dead and think they will have to face the enemy without him. He keeps the arrow and speeds his death so that he can do something worthy of his having lived—a life he has lived so well and honorably. He tenderly tells her, “You can’t save my life. You must help me to give it up.”

We all need that kind of help. When Death comes calling, and this time won’t go away without us, we need friends and family to help us “give it up” in a way that’s appropriate for who we are. There aren’t many scenes more impressive than those where vibrant faith in Jesus Christ is facing death with assured sorrow.

But long before we’re on our deathbeds we need that kind of help. We need people to help us not to hoard the life we’ve been given. We desperately need help to keep us from spending it selfishly on our own ease and we need people around us who will help us to be generous with it. Beyond the very obvious I don’t know well what this sort of talk means for myself so I’m not trying to diagnose and assess the life of anyone else. I just know that we are all sinners and in need of some help toward a richer Christlikeness.

During a dangerous viral outbreak a husband didn’t want his doctor wife to put their life together at risk by getting involved in helping the afflicted. Who can’t understand that? But who can’t be thrilled and pleased by her response? She told him, “I love you with all of my heart, my dear, but you mustn’t make it hard for me to do what’s right.” She was telling him, “Help me give it up.”

And then there was the One who faced the most momentous moment in His life when He would be overwhelmed with such sorrow (Matthew 26:38; sorrow! not fear) that He verges on an emotional breakdown and He called on three of His dear friends to come with Him to a garden and help Him to do what had to be done to bless a world.
His view of this occasion of mind-bending sorrow included this: “Therefore does my Father love Me because I lay down my life.” (John 10:11, 17) The Holy Father watches His Holy Son all through His life and watches Him consummate it when He puts the cup to His lips and He whispers, “How I love Him!” As this consummating act is happening the Father is loving His Son and not punishing Him. (A pox on that “punishing” notion!)

The great news is this: hearts like His “lay it down” that they might “take it again.” (John 10:17) They don’t scorn life and throw it away as trash.

Then there is this: in Matthew 20:22-23 the Lord Jesus tells His followers that they will drink of His cup. Sharing His cup is living a life of covenant faithfulness and love in the presence of “a world” that hates His followers precisely because they are His followers (John 15:18-21); followers who have taken up their crosses and are crucified with Him (Galatians 2:20; 6:14). However flawed they live a life “given up” throughout years in all those lovely Christlike ways and consummate it by a death faithfully offered up to God that it might be taken up again, purer, stronger more beautiful and more glorious.

(Holy One, bless us as we reflect on You in light of Your Holy Son and bless us with relationships or at least awareness of those who faithfully follow in His steps that we might be enabled to drink His cup and hear you say that You love us in our doing it. This prayer in Christ Jesus.)