Author Archives: Jim McGuiggan

About Jim McGuiggan

Jim McGuiggan was Ethel's husband for fifty-three years. They have three children and eight grandchildren. Ethel went to be with Christ on Easter Sunday, 2009 at the close of a gallant life. He has written some books including: Celebrating the Wrath of God; Heading Home with God; Life on the Ash Heap; Jesus: Hero of Thy Soul; The God of the Towel, The Scarlet Letter; and The Dragon Slayer.

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. If I don’t fully believe that I tend to believe it! 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, as part of the human family I have been 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” (though that claim needs developed).
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 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 don’t 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 helper 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 I suppose 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…

THE BROKEN SNARE & FREEDOM

Psalm 124

  1. If it had not been the LORD who was on our side,
  2. Let Israel now say—
  3. If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us:
  4. Then they would have swallowed us alive, when their wrath was kindled against us.
  5. Then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the stream would have gone over our soul:
  6. Then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul.
  7. 6Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as a prey to their teeth.
  8. Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
  9. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Praise God, some of us have never felt we were on the brink of disaster, never teetered on the edge of the abyss, never felt the loss was too great to bear, never lost sight of comforting landmarks as we sailed beyond familiar waters. We know the source of our blessing and we sincerely thank Him for his protection and generosity.

But many among us have been through hell and back.

We had heard this psalm of David [124] read to us, may even have read it ourselves many times and thought how fine it was. We may even have heard a good sermon on it [or preached one] and thought it assuring so we tucked it away in our hearts as something fine to tell others who were in trouble.

Then imminent disaster stared us in the face, calamity smashed through the doors of our happy homes and obliterated all sense of comfort and all our good answers, handy quips, fine verses and great sermons vanished like vapor and we knew we were doomed.

But God was magnificent!

We survived. Were saved, and now we were stronger and braver having come through the horror.

Psalm 124 was a familiar song from a psalmist, a lovely-sounding text but now it has become a throbbing personal experience. It was no longer just David’s song; it was ours.

We knew that such a deliverance was the work of God. Now we read the text with new eyes and tell our families and friends and fellow-strugglers, “Were it not that the Lord was on my side I would have been swallowed up alive. The swollen waters would have gone over my soul.”

How God worked that deliverance is a very complex matter though it isn’t vague or obscure; It’s simply too rich, too multifaceted, too deep for us to follow all the many ways He carries out His acts of rescue. But Paul doesn’t mind telling us that God most often does His magnificent work through things that look ordinary, things that are explained as nothing more than ordinary by many people. If He wants to work a miracle He does it! But read the Bible for yourself; miracles are recognized as “miracles” because they aren’t usual.

In 2 Corinthians 7 Paul is profoundly worried about the troubled and hostile Corinthian congregation and their response to a fierce letter he wrote them so he sends Titus to see how things are. He can’t wait for the report so he leaves a successful evangelistic situation and runs to meet the young man. He finally meets with a smiling and assuring Titus, giving Paul the “two thumbs up” sign as he comes into sight—good news!—and he is comforted. There are those who will plausibly tell you that it can all be explained in social and psychological terms and that’s the end of it. Paul wouldn’t believe a word of that! He says it was God who comforted him through Titus and in social/psychological experience. God made us humans and works with us as humans. There’s no need to deny that God enables us through “ordinary” means—the blunder is to reduce the comfort to nothing but “ordinary” means, meaning to exclude God. How do we think God answers our “give us our daily bread” prayers? So it suddenly appear on the table or floats down through the ceiling?

God keeps us through friends he has already shaped and they help us, truths already stored away in the heart, sights and sounds of brave people around us, bearing their awful losses in a gallant spirit, prayers offered on our behalf, people who gather around us and provide what they can provide under the circumstances—these and so many other things are the already-in-place instruments of God who delivers us. There are too many of them; they’re as complex as life. Evil comes at us in similar ways—we’re humans, for pity’s sake and God works with us as humans

The crucial point at this moment is this—it is God who delivers us through these lovely realities. In the medical realm we don’t thank the antibiotics or the EKG machine or the surgeon’s scalpel; we thank the people who produce and use such things to bring us health.

In the end it’s about persons and in the end it’s a Person believers turn to and applaud and thank for His gracious power when we are blessed and/or delivered.

For believing people, prayers may well be for deliverance from social, economic, family and other calamities—that’s no surprise, believers are as human as any other humans. As Shakespeare reminded us via Shylock in The Merchant of Venice when they’re hurt do they groan, when cut do they bleed, when they’re thirsty do they need to drink?

But down below their felt need for these basic human necessities there’s the desire to stay on their feet in the matter of faith.

Some years back when asked what their greatest fear was when first going into actual combat a great number of soldiers agreed that the overriding fear was not about dying but about failing to live up to expectations, fear of shaming themselves under pressure and consequently shaming their beloved families. That’s no surprise either.

What is true of soldiers is true of those who name the name of the Lord. Their social or physical agony matters but for them the fundamental thing is to stay on their feet as soldiers and servants and friends and representatives of God. Understandably, under the burden of pain or loss or bewilderment there is the appeal for God to remove the burden but it is to God the believer turns for help and it is to God they bring their tears and agony if the calamity wrecks all around them.

Standing, perhaps stunned, in the middle of the debris of a life in social ruins they maintain their faith in God and that is a magnificent deliverance. It isn’t just things or relationships—however precious they are—that are under attack, it’s their souls, their personhood, their very being.

Then with hearts broken, chests heaving and eyes streaming they realize they’re still on their feet. They might once have thought they’d fold or fall apart under disaster, they might have thought that calamity would obliterate their trust in God but now they know better.

But they know this also:

  1. If it had not been the LORD who was on our side,
  2. Let Israel now say—
  3. If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us:
  4. Then they would have swallowed us alive, when their wrath was kindled against us.
  5. Then the waters would have overwhelmed us, the stream would have gone over our soul:
  6. Then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul.
  7. 6Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as a prey to their teeth.
  8. Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we have escaped.

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.

OF WORLDS AND A NEW CREATION

  1. What do we mean when we say, “North Korea is our enemy”?
  2. What do we mean when we say AMERICA declared war on Japan or Germany?
  1. What do we mean when we say, “The allies defeated Germany”?
  2. What is Peter talking about when he says [2 Peter 2.5] God brought the flood on “the world of the ungodly”?
  1. When God destroyed BABYLON what is it he destroyed?
  2. How does He picture its destruction in Isaiah 13:1-22?
  3. How does he picture his judgment on EDOM [and her allies] in Isaiah 34:1-17?
  4. And Judah in Zephaniah 1:2-4, Jeremiah 4:23-28?
  5. And ROME in Daniel 2:44; 7:3, 7-10, 17, 23, 26-27?
  6. This prophetic speech speaks of the “end of their world.” It’s the end of the empires or structures [religious, social, military or otherwise] they have created. The destruction of an empire is described in terms of uncreation. [See the texts above.]
  7. These creations are the creations of the powerful and not the marginalized, poor and vulnerable. Note texts like Ezekiel 16:49-50 and Daniel 4:27 with 2:37-38.
  1. Note that God raises up the various kingdoms [Daniel 2:37-38; 4:25, 32; 7:2; Romans 13:1, 4, 6; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 2:1-4] and holds them responsible for the state of the world under their dominion [texts in previous paragraph]. These powers [governments, authorities and such] are structures God purposed to enable humans to live and prosper under Him [Colossians 1:15].

Rome, one of the powers God raised up to do good and to serve Him [Romans 13:1, 4], like Adam rejects God’s purpose and becomes satanic [Revelation 13:4] and God brings it down as he brought down Egypt. Note the use of the images of the Egyptian plagues as God attacks the Roman world. The Egyptian and Roman “worlds” that these two empires claimed were created by the gods and human power were dismantled by God who established he is the one true God to whom all the powers should subject themselves and serve. He ends the Roman world [Revelation 21-1] and brings about a new creation—it’s a world without Rome, a world without a sea out of which Rome will rise!

God destroys Babylon’s world and brings in a new creation [Isaiah 65:13-23; 66:18-24]. This is not the physical destruction of a physical world or the description of a new physical world—these are visionary descriptions of deliverance from an old satanic world—a world created by the corrupt and corrupting powerful ones.

The “world” that Jesus condemns is a satanic empire that makes itself visible and expresses itself through structures it has corrupted and by which it corrupts and abuses the vulnerable. Courts, schools, economic programs, military might, political and financial evil, religious perversion, industrial, educational, social and civil evils. The powerful, corrupt themselves, breed resentment and violence and despair and poverty and so make the world like themselves, hating and being hated.

Had God not brought Hitler and his Nazis down the world now would be unrecognizable. Germans would have been corrupted even more than they were—those that were—than they were while Hitler lived and ruled.

If God had not brought down Stalin’s regime who knows how deep and how wide the gulf would be between the nations though we can hardly be happy about how bad things are now who can say how much worse they might be. I purpose to develop this last point in a later piece.

To be continued, God enabling.

“MATCH THAT!”

f we believe the biblical Story is about a God who did not choose to be God without creation and humankind so he loved us into existence. [See Psalm 136.] He did that with a view to completing his purpose concerning us by bringing us into the image of Jesus—the immortal man, glorious in righteousness and who as a human is the perfect image of God. If we believe the Story it means that God purposed fellowship, communion, life together and that human response is to be human response and not simply God responding to himself. In short, he freely chose out of his infinite joy and love of life to have a family of holy and joy-filled companions.

With the advent of sin (which came as no surprise to God) it might have been thought that God would jettison the entire enterprise but not him—not this God! He had committed himself and would see the enterprise through and despite the God-denying look of much of human life that was the gospel that was proclaimed in numerous ways down through history. As surely as God’s overarching purpose was true companionship with creative human response just that surely he wanted people to work with him in securing it.

So woven into the fabric of the entire biblical witness is the picture of God walking through the earth looking not only for the lost and the troubled but looking for people who would trust him; people whose gallant faith would test him and provoke him to come up with the substance of the things he led them to dream about and envision.

More often than enough the search came to nothing and there were times when faithlessness became so marked even in his own people that he would say things like, Go find me one righteous man and I’ll forgive the city! (Jeremiah (5:1), or to Ezekiel (22:30), Find me one man to stand in the gap and I won’t destroy the city!

To faithless Israel he said (Isaiah 48:18); If only you had paid attention to my
commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea. See this too in Asa in 2 Chronicles 16:7-9 and in trustless Ahaz to
whom he said (Isaiah 7:10-11), Test me and I’ll meet your request no matter what it is. In fact, when the prophets (OT and NT) looked over Israel’s history it might be fair to say that their summary would have been Isaiah 65:2-3, All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people…a people who continually provoke me to my very face. But Hebrews 11 makes it clear that his search wasn’t always a failure and that he had reason to go back to the Land of the Trinity smiling to himself and with a sparkle in his eye. To the prematurely old Abraham and his barren wife (see Genesis 17:15-16 and 1 Peter 3:6.) he said, I will make you father and mother of countless children—can you trust me to accomplish that? They said yes and God walked off with a smile saying, I’ll be back. (See Genesis 18:10.)

And then there’s that marvelous psalm (Psalm 23) where some glorious believer couldn’t keep his mouth shut any longer and jumped up in church to say, I just want to say that I trust God come what may!

Whatever Genesis 1 and Exodus 14:10-31 taught the ancient Jews, it taught them that God was the Lord of the waters and everything else that existed. He spoke and it obeyed him (see also Isaiah 17:12-14). The sea was no god to be worshiped as it had been worshiped in Egypt, where Israel had spent so many years. Still, its restlessness, its destructive power and the fact that they couldn’t control it were enough to make it a symbol of threat and chaos. They often spoke of it in those terms. Isaiah said (17:12) Oh, the raging of many nations—they rage like the raging sea! Oh, the uproar of the peoples—they roar like the roaring of great waters.

Hear the pounding of huge waves as they smash against one another with destroying force is a graphic picture of clashing armies. In their wickedness they never ceased to cast up muck and debris (Isaiah 57:20). It was out of the restless Mediterranean (the Great Sea) that the four great Gentile kingdoms arose like monsters from a science fiction movie, devouring all before them and oppressing the people of God (Daniel 7:1-8). It’s no wonder then that when John describes the condition of the new heaven and earth in which the enemy has no place that he says of it, And there was no more sea—Revelation 21:1 with 13:1 .
With thoughts and images of cruel seas circulating in a little nation that for centuries had felt the power of oppressors, the psalmist’s defiant words in 46:1-3 ring out all the finer and braver and more trustful. People who had known no trouble didn’t sing the words he speaks—they’d known more than their share! These weren’t the words of a people who thought the world could be fixed if only people were given enough information. This man speaks for his entire people who expected the world to be wild and oppressive and who knew that either today or tomorrow they’d feel the hurt that powerful nations bring to weaker kingdoms. Knowing all that, fully aware of all that, certain that it will come to that, here’s what he says:

God is our refuge and strength,
An ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
And the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
Though its waters roar and foam and the mountains
Quake with their surging.

Picture this believer at some point in his life standing on top of the cliff, watching the huge waves building out there and then rushing toward him, picking up speed and power and they come. Imagine the shudder he feels in the ground when they thunder against the cliff face, again and again, unrelentingly, threatening to bring down the entire mountain and him along with it. Think of him, then, looking landward, to his home and people and the irresistible forces lined up against them.

It’s with all those images and realities in mind that he sings into the wind and later in church: Read again what he defiantly sings out of a faith-filled heart.

Modern believers also sing that song. I know many of them personally! They’re intelligent, wide-eyed, politically aware, as realistic as any you could meet and when they feel the shudder under their feet they take note of it and get on with their business of world-transformation by gospeling in all the ways that they do that; they’re some of the people, ancient and modern, who test God by placing their faith in him.But no one ever tested God the way Jesus did! No one ever challenged God to the limit as Jesus did by his life of ceaseless devotion and trust. He laid it out before his Holy Father from the beginning right up to the moment when even in the midst of his awful feeling of abandonment on the cross he committed his spirit to his Father’s keeping.His entire life and vision is described by Peter in the words of David (Acts 2:25-28 and Psalm 16:8-11):

I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.

As the psalm shows us, David knew the reality of a faith like that in his own life but only Jesus could fill his words to the utmost—nobody tested God as he did! But the words as a description of Jesus depth and breadth of trust in God, give us Jesus’ view of God. He saw God as worthy of even a perfect trust like his! In life Jesus gave his stamp of approval to all the lives and words of God’s ancient servants who told a worried nation in troubled times: “God can be trusted!”

Still, even the best of them wavered at times, whether it was Abraham, Moses or Samuel—but Jesus never did! Since the dawn of time God has been calling people to trust him and there were times when he got a grand response but one day he called to a child named Jesus and said, “Trust me!” and the little boy said, “I do and will!”

And one Friday, when He consummated his entire life of sinless holiness and warm righteousness, when he offered himself up in death, he laid it all out before God and said: “Match that!” And He did it with the utmost confidence that his Holy Father would do just that—He would match it!

                                                     And then came Sunday morning!

 

YOU COMIN’?

Jesus is to blame. The Christ of the cross is to blame. If it weren’t for him I might be able to find some peace but he and his cross disturb me and won’t let me be content with what I see when I look within and around me. If your loved one is quadriplegic you know that in many ways he or she isn’t physically able to help you care for them and in some sense you adjust to the situation—you expect nothing and in that respect you aren’t disappointed. If you truly believe there’s nothing better to be hoped for in this world I suppose you might rage in your hopelessness or eat, drink (or starve) and die tomorrow; but if hope was dead, would there not be some kind of resignation, a reluctant, numbed acceptance of things as they are?

Maybe, but would that not be better than vainly hoping? Is that not what the old Greek story means to say in the story of Pandora’s “box”—when she opened the forbidden box everything in it escaped except…hope. And it became the source of torment to all because they could never be content with things as they are.

In an early essay the young Bertrand Russell said that because we know the truth of human existence—that it’s a pointless accident—we must face it and build a future on “unyielding despair.” Well, it’s into this world, with all its pain, loss, disappointment, loneliness, cruelty, entrenched evils and invincible selfishness that Jesus came and he came making claims and promising much.

In the first century He offended the Romans and their view of power and empire. He offended the Greeks and their view of God and wisdom. He offended the Jews and their view of God’s faithfulness and their place in his purposes. And He continues to scandalize us all to this day. Don’t you know I’m talking about the real Christ and not the one we hear about in so much preaching. Or the real one we don’t hear about in so much preaching. The one who’s hidden under ceaseless explanations of what this or that verse means, who’s hidden behind the patter of the wise who handle all the “difficult questions” people ask, the one who’s buried under the same unending calls for us all to be morally better—as if we hadn’t heard this call ten-thousand times. Christless moralizing with the usual Bible verses thrown in to prove we’re different from the secularists who preach the same Christless moralizing—and who now and then use Bible verses.

There are people who care nothing for Him—and never did—they’re not affected by Him. The crass hedonists who think life’s a one way ticket so, to the degree that they can manage it, they party the nights away. The world can’t be made better—certainly not in their lifetimes—so why worry about it? Get what you can as quick as you can, throw a handful of coins in the direction of the world’s needy during a big public musical concert and get back to the usual partying.

They ignore the churches with their inner squabbles. [That might be a smart thing!] Or, they listen for a while to their squabbles and discover how pathetic they are in the face of the world’s great needs and wrongs—before they go back to the partying. Not a bad philosophy that; a happy life and an endless sleep at the end.

It’s the people who hear Him, I mean really hear Him, that the Jesus of the cross disturbs. Look around you at the state of the world and the church and our own personal situations.

If you hear Him at all, Jesus is too stubbornly real and we can’t get away from Him. Not that we’re trying to, don’t you know. We neither try to nor want to get away from Him but being in His presence and listening toHhis kingly promises that are written in blood can make us impatient with the chaotic, oppressive, confused, rebellious and cruel world. Why hasn’t He in his sovereignty transformed the world already? Matthew Arnold in his sad poem said that in the beginning, the tide of faith was fully in and covered the earth like a garment. But now, he said, all we hear is the faint sound of its “melancholy long withdrawing roar” as it retreats and leaves bare the naked shingled shores of the world. Sometimes we sorely want the present King of Kings to show Himself more powerfully—more powerfully, that is, in the more common understanding of power. We’d like Him to obliterate all the oppressive structures of the world—structures that we have neither the desire to destroy nor the  strength or wisdom to do it, even supposing we had the desire. And why would we desire it, aren’t we the ones that build them? The state of the world seems to “prove” that the Christian’s claim that Jesus is Lord of Lords is sheer nonsense.

And when we muse about the church as a whole don’t we at times lament how pathetic and weak it can be and often is, how self-serving, as it fine-tunes its theology and gorges on rich truth and wants more to gorge on while a world of Lazaruses starves. Not content to draw lines of fellowship in places where the heart of the gospel is attacked and perverted, many church leaders insist on keeping us all in separate pens based on the flimsiest differences and they call it “defending the faith.” We pay our ministers to “stand for the truth” if they’re willing to stand for the truth that we pay them to stand for. In a world of tortured and tormented, sick and oppressed, humiliated, blind and despairing fellow-humans in their thousands of millions and our latest inner-church crusade is what? IS WHAT?

It’s much easier to believe the too-rich-to-be-fully-grasped doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ in and as whom God revealed and reveals himself than it is to believe in the Church as it church-shops its way from one assembly to another. And as we shop our first question is not, “What’s your gospel here?” it’s, “What programs do you have to suit me here?” “What are my rights here?” “Does this church know we’re living in the 21st century?” At one end of the spectrum we have these prime-time hucksters that ceaselessly beg for money to fund their programs (or other hidden things) and on the other there are churches that are offended if there’s talk about sharing our wealth. Time and money is spent on leadership agendas that usually have to do with “making our church grow.” Then there’s the “preaching” [?]. Ceaseless support for the religion of the healthy mind that is said to be gospeling. And in more recent decades, isn’t there reason to wonder if the Church will take a stand against anything?  Arrrrgh!

And then there’s the personal, bitter disappointment with oneself. There are times when you think you see real progress and then like a bolt of lightning and a thunderclap events expose your heart—it’s seems as shriveled as ever it was even after years of longing for better. Just when you think you’ve experienced significant growth you’re brought face to face with outrageous meanness or corruption or bitterness that pours out of you. Those who know nothing of such experiences often find themselves with a smug smile of self-congratulation at their moral maturity and consistency and out of that smugness stems isolation from society–we wouldn’t want to attract into our congregations “the wrong sort” so our “outreach” (where it exists at all) is carefully tailored. When our eyes focus on all this and more Jesus seems more and more distant and beyond us. And in our worst moments disillusionment sets in—weariness comes with it and, Pack it in—walk away, comes to mind. It’s then you understand what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she wrote:

I am battered and broken and weary and out of heart,
I will not listen to talk of heroic things,
But be content to play some simple part,
Freed from preposterous, wild imaginings…
Men were not made to walk as priests and kings.

Thou liest, Christ, Thou liest; take it hence,
That mirror of strange glories; I am I;
What wouldst Thou make of me? O cruel pretense,
Drive me not mad so with the mockery
Of that most lovely, unattainable lie!

And for a while, a day, a week, a month, a year we sulk and snarl and prowl and criticize and, God help us, we sneer, at the Church we were once thrilled to be part of. Then we see him! He’s always been there; we just didn’t notice during that wretched period. We see him looking at us with those big eyes of his, calm and compelling, and as he moves away he looks back and motions with his head, “You comin’?”

Ahhhhhhhh!

Why can’t He leave us alone? 

Why can’t You leave us alone?

Why can’t we who have met Him leave Him alone?

BARE-FOOTED FARM BOYS

 

William Barclay once remarked that there are two important days in a person’s life. The day he is born and the day he discovers why he was born. In contrast to that, in Dale Wasserman’s musical adaptation of Don Quixote, Cervantes rebukes a critic who insists that poets are madmen who take people’s eyes of reality, life as it is, Cervantes says:

Life as it is: I’ve lived over 40 years and seen life as it is
Pain, misery, cruelty beyond belief. I’ve heard all
the voices of God’s noblest creatures. Moans from
bundles of filth in the streets. I’ve been a soldier and
a slave. I’ve seen my comrades fall in battle or die
more slowly under the lash in Africa. I’ve held them
at the last moment. They were men who saw life asit is.
Yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last
words. Only their eyes filled with confusion,
questioning why. I do not think they were asking
why they were dying, but why they ever lived.

All those who found and were found by the Lord Jesus have a destiny and mission (and sometimes they sense it). Called out of darkness to proclaim the praise of God. Called to be part of what Paul calls “Christ’s body” and then again, called to be Christ’s parts. (1 Corinthians 6:15; Colossians 1:18.) Jesus calls them the light of the world, the salt of the earth and Paul says they are the clay jars in which God has placed his treasure. (2 Corinthians 4:7) They proclaim Jesus’ death and its meaning, they are a priestly kingdom that offers up to God the fruit he bears through their proclamation and they are the community of witness to the resurrected and gloried Lord Jesus.

They haven’t been bribed to serve the Lord Jesus—he drew them and they were assured that they would need to count the cost if they wanted to engage with him in the saving of a world. The Church is the extension of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus and their mission is his and his is theirs and this often has and will continue to cost some of us dearly in this life. There was that in the life of Christ and his mission that led him to say, “Do not suppose that I am come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”  (Matthew 10:34.) And then there’s that poignant (and disputed) text that speaks the truth that Jesus often had to go his way alone and in truth, in a real sense he was always alone—he and his Father. “Then each went to his own home. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.”  (John 7:53—8:1.)

In his play Joan of Arc Bernard Shaw brings to us that profound sense of divine mission and what it could cost. Joan faces a tribunal that is bent on killing her and she knows it. The Archbishop tells her she mustn’t depend on her popularity and that she must remember, “You stand alone, absolutely alone…” Joan’s former friend, Dunois, would like her to go free but hasn’t it in him to make a complete and concerted effort—he chimes in with, “That is the truth, Joan, heed it.” Her response is this:

Where would you all have been now if I had heeded that sort of truth? There is no help, no counsel, in any of you. Yes: I am alone on earth: I have always been alone. My father told my brothers to drown me if I would not stay to mind his sheep while France was bleeding to death: France might perish if only our lambs were safe. I thought France would have friends at the court of the king of France; and I find only wolves fighting for pieces of her poor torn body. I thought God would have friends everywhere, because He is the friend of everyone; and in my innocence I believed that you who now cast me out would be like strong towers to keep harm from me. But I am wiser now; and nobody is any the worse for being wiser. Do not think you can frighten me by telling me that I am alone. France is alone; and God is alone; and what is my loneliness before the loneliness of my country and my God? I see now that the loneliness of God is His strength: what would He be if He listened to your jealous little counsels? Well, my loneliness shall be my strength too; it is better to be alone with God; His friendship will not fail me, nor His counsel, nor His love. In His strength I will dare, and dare, and dare, until I die. I will go out now to the common people, and let the love in their eyes comfort me for the hate in yours. You will all be glad to see me burnt; but if I go through the fire I shall go through it to their hearts for ever and ever. And so, God be with me!

Whatever we make of Joan she acted because of an overwhelming sense of destiny and mission and such people are a sight to behold. These people don’t choose, they feel chosen, they don’t debate the matter within; they’re driven. We read that kind of thing in Jeremiah 20:9 when the young man, very upset with God who had given him a single message—a message of doom, a doom that never arrived. The prophet’s peeved and swears he won’t speak another word of the message; but as he passes little knots of people on the street corners and hears what they are saying his message nearly melts him and he has to speak.

Paul has something similar to say. (1 Corinthians 9:16-17 and 2 Corinthians 5:14.) He tells his Corinthian critics, “Don’t think that I choose to preach; I can’t help it. I’m compelled!” Later he will tell them that he has experienced the love of Christ and it has left him no choice but to go tell of it and that’s what drove him all over the Mediterranean world leaving pints of blood on the street of nearly every town he visited.

We’ve heard of men forced by governments, ship owners and brutal captains to go to sea, dragged off against their wills by press-gangs; but that’s only one face of power. We’ve been told too of sailors who had the profound challenge and privilege of sailing with someone like Sir Francis Drake. Back they’d come to their home and speak perhaps to the village butcher about their two-year sail during which they rarely saw land. The butcher would sniff, take come coins out of the till and say to the world traveler, “That’s what I have to show for my two years—hard cash. What do you have to show?”

He’d leave the unimpressed butcher and later we’d see gathered around him farm boys who’d listen to his stories. Not stories about balmy nights when the ship rocked gently in the soft breeze and easy swell, but about raging storms ripping sails to shreds, monster whales and scorching suns. He’d pull off his shirt and show purple scars he got near Madagascar or on some uncharted island where they got water and he fought for his life with a wild boar. Farm boys! Bare-footed farm boys dropped their ploughs and with wide eyes and eager looks would run off to sea, off to toil and pain and adventure.

Arrrrrgh!

Holy Father, will you not enter our hearts and drive us beautifully mad with the admiration of that wondrous Holy Son of yours that we—wherever we find our place in life at this time—will say goodbye to needless sameness and the dullness of our lives and career off into life in His name and find the adventure to which you’ve called us? Call us to it and enable us to respond gallantly, thrilled with the truth that He is ever with us. Do it Holy Father for us and your own glorious Name.

 

WHY CAN’T HE LEAVE US ALONE?

Jesus is to blame. The Christ of the cross is to blame. If it weren’t for him I might be able to find some peace but he and his cross disturb me and won’t let me be content with what I see when I look within and around me. If your loved one is quadriplegic you know that in many ways he or she isn’t physically able to help you care for them and in some sense you adjust to the situation—you expect nothing and in that respect you aren’t disappointed. If you truly believe there’s nothing better to be hoped for in this world I suppose you might rage in your hopelessness or eat, drink (or starve) and die tomorrow; but if hope were dead would there not be some kind of resignation, a reluctant, numbed acceptance of things as they are? Maybe, but would that not be better than vainly hoping? Is that not what the old Greek story means to say in the story of Pandora’s “box”—when she opened the forbidden box everything in it escaped except…hope. And it became the source of torment to all because they could never be content with things as they are.

In an early essay Bertrand Russell said that because we know the truth of human existence—that it’s a pointless accident—we must face it and build a future on “unyielding despair.” Well, it’s into this world, with all its pain, loss, disappointment, loneliness, cruelty, entrenched evils and invincible selfishness that Jesus came, making claims and promising much.

In the first century he offended the Romans and their view of power and empire. He offended the Greeks and their view of God and wisdom. He offended the Jews and their view of God’s faithfulness and their place in his purposes. And he continues to scandalize us all to this day.

The people who care nothing for him—and never did—aren’t affected by him. The crass hedonists think life’s a one way ticket so, to the degree that they can manage it, they party the nights away. Maybe towards the end they think of “fire insurance” (though even that’s not of great concern now). The world can’t be made better—certainly not in their lifetimes—so why worry about it? Get what you can as quick as you can, throw a handful of coins in the direction of the world’s needy during a big public musical concert and get back to the usual partying.

Ignore the tiny churches with their inner squabbles. Or, listen for a while to their squabbles and discover how pathetic they are in the face of the world’s great needs and wrongs, and then go back to the partying. Not a bad philosophy that; a happy life and an endless sleep at the end.

The Jesus of the cross disturbs me in three general areas. There’s the state of the world and the church and my own personal situation.

Jesus is too stubbornly real and I can’t get away from him. Not that I’m trying to, you understand. I neither try to nor want to get away from him but being in his presence and listening to his kingly promises that are written in blood I become impatient with the chaotic, oppressive, confused, rebellious and cruel world. Why hasn’t his sovereignty transformed the world already? As sad-spoken Matthew Arnold said, in the beginning, the tide of faith was fully in and covered the earth like a garment. But now—it would appear—all we hear is the faint sound of its “melancholy long withdrawing roar” as it retreats and leaves bare the naked shingled shores of the world. Sometimes I sorely want the present King of Kings to show himself more powerfully—more powerfully, that is, in the more common understanding of power. I’d like him to obliterate all the oppressive structures of the world—structures that we have neither the desire to destroy nor the strength to do it, supposing we had the desire. And why would we desire it, aren’t we the ones that build them? The state of the world is completely contrary to the Christian’s claim that Jesus is Lord of Lords.

And when I look at the church as a whole and consider how pathetic and weak it is, how self-serving, as it fine-tunes its theology and gorges on rich truth while a world of Lazaruses starves. Not content to draw lines of fellowship in places where the heart of the gospel is attacked, many church leaders insist on keeping us all in separate pens based on the flimsiest differences and call it “defending the faith.” We pay our ministers to “stand for the truth” if they’re willing to stand for the truth that we pay them to stand for.

It’s much easier to believe the too-rich-to-be-fully-grasped doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ in and as whom God revealed himself than it is to believe in the church as it church-shops its way from one assembly to another. And as we shop our first question is not, “What is your gospel here?” it’s, “What programs do you have to suit me here?” At one end of the spectrum we have these primetime hucksters that ceaselessly beg for money to fund their programs (or other hidden things) and on the other there are churches that are offended if there’s talk about sharing our wealth. Time and money is spent on leadership agendas that usually have to do with “making our church grow.” Then there’s the “preaching” [?] that is nothing but a series on sessions filled with secular suggestions on how to fine-tune your marriage or raise nice kids or cultivate nice friends. This kind of “preaching” is done by secularists, agnostics and atheists every bit as well as preachers. It changes nothing that preachers throw in some Bible verses for religious coloration. The Lord Jesus is ignored in the “preaching” for months of suggestions that might be of some use socially.

And then there’s the personal, bitter disappointment with oneself. There are times when you think you see real progress and then like a bolt of lightning and a thunderclap events expose your heart—it’s seems as shriveled as ever it was even after years of longing for better. Just when you think you’ve experienced significant growth you’re brought face to face with outrageous meanness or corruption or bitterness that pours out of you. Then you understand what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she wrote:

I am battered and broken and weary and out of heart,
I will not listen to talk of heroic things,
But be content to play some simple part,
Freed from preposterous, wild imaginings…
Men were not made to walk as priests and kings.

Thou liest, Christ, Thou liest; take it hence,
That mirror of strange glories; I am I;
What wouldst Thou make of me? O cruel pretense,
Drive me not mad so with the mockery
Of that most lovely, unattainable lie!

 

And for a while—a day, a week, a month, a year—you sulk and snarl and prowl. Then you see him! He’s always been there; you just didn’t notice during that wretched period. You see him looking at you with those big eyes of his, calm and compelling, and as he moves away he looks back and motions with his head, “You comin’?”

Why can’t he leave us alone?

Good question.

Here’s another.

Why can’t we who have met him leave him alone?

 

DON’T TELL ME OF GREAT THINGS

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

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

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

A BARREL-ORGAN IN THE FOG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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