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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Where did they put Him?

Photo credit: www.southerncrossreview.org
Sometimes, I can't find Jesus. 
Oh, He's out there all right. He might even be in here, in my heart.
But I can't feel Him. I can't see Him, and I can't hear Him..
Where did He go?
Like Mary Magdalene, I wonder where they put my Lord.
They have taken my Lord away and I don't know where they have put Him.--John 20:13

Go and find Him, my friends tell me.
He's right here. All the time.
Pray.  He'll come.
Ask and you shall receive.
Seek and you shall find.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It's not working.

Still, I remember. He was here just the other day.. I can still smell Him. We put Him in this tomb with our own hands.
I left Him in this place. I know I did. And He's gone. Just plain gone.
I am beyond sad. It's like every light in the world has gone out.
Tenacity does not bring Him. Trying harder does not bring Him.
 
I must be looking in the wrong place. 
Maybe I need to open my vision, to look in another place.
What was it that He said? Don't look for my dead body.
Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?--John 20:15-16
He is not here; He is risen, just as He said.--Matthew 28:6 

I'm alive! He tells me.
No, you're not. I saw You. You were dead. Dead. And I felt like I was, too.
I still do.
Desolate. Alone. Back to the same place all my former sins consigned me. The same lonely darkness I started in.
Everything was wonderful while You were here, but now...what happened to the sweet, bright hope You brought us? When I can't find You, I can't find the hope anymore, either.

Then, there it was...that smell. Nard. Can it be?
I look up and see an stranger. No. Not You. A gardener.
"Where have they laid Him?" I want to take hold and shake the man.
But he can't help.
I might as well go home. You're not here. You've gone. Forever.

"Mary..."--John 20:16

What? Where are You?
Do not touch me now...John 20:17

It's You. It is You. You've never gone, never.
It was me. I let you go. How could I ever have done that?
Never stop calling my name. I never want to lose you again. I don't need to touch You. I just need to trust You.
You're alive...forever.
I will never leave you nor forsake you.--Deuteronomy 31:6
Of course.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Way of Sacrifice

credit: www.soulshepherding.org
It's almost impossible to approach Easter without remembering that this is a season of sacrifice. And sacrifice is almost always harder than we think it will be. Our fasts leave us hungrier. Our good deeds leave us more tired. Our almsgiving digs deeper into our pockets than we expected. Sacrifice, we find, hurts.

But the degree of pain that a sacrifice inflicts is not a good measure of its efficacy. Our sacrifice can hurt plenty, but still have little worth in the eyes of God. 

I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), God tells us. In other words, sacrifice for its own sake or sacrifice with any other object or person in mind than God Himself is, in the end, futile, a chasing after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14).

Our sacrifice cannot have any other object than to please God. Period.

That's what Jesus did.
I come to do the will of my Father.--John 6:38
It is a near-misnomer to say that Jesus came to save us. 
He did save us, but that was not His main aim. His aim was to obey His Father. His Father wanted us saved, so Jesus saved us. But, had His father wanted Him to do something else, He would have done the other thing.
Jesus was more obedient than He was sympathetic. And we are to follow His example.
If we don't, our sacrifices become dependent on their results.

Think about it. We naturally want our sacrifices to bear fruit. We want our children to respond to us when we do something special for them. We want the money we donate to be well spent. We want the unbeliever we befriended to come to follow Christ. We want the person we took in to amend their life.
But often, they don't. And we feel drained, betrayed, taken advantage of.
That's the clue.
If, when we have done something for someone and they have not responded in the way we hope for, making us angry or disappointed or discouraged, we have done it for the wrong reason.
It's true.

Remember Jesus. We often say that Jesus would have died for the sake of saving just one soul. That's true. but it's also true that He would have died for the salvation of no souls at all.
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.--Romans 5:8
He died equally for those who repent and those who do not. He died for us all. And whether one or a thousand or a million souls or none come to Him as a result, He was successful in what He set out to do.He did His Father's will and it was enough.

When our Lord healed one sick person and not another, He was responding to what His Father asked of Him. When He raised some from the dead and not others, He did the same. When the rich young ruler asked how to be saved, He let the man walk away. He showed Himself to the Samaritan woman, but did not chase after her.
Christ did not consider the feelings of those He loved above those of His Father. He called Peter 'Satan' when Peter opposed Him. He rebuked the apostles for retaliation at Gethsemane. No one, not even those He loved, prevented His obedience. That way, He always stayed in a state of grace. That's how He never sinned.

People often get  between us and our God. They don't mean to. And we, I'm convinced, don't mean to put them there. After all, God made them, just like He made us. Loving them is a privilege and one of the wonderful parts of this life.

But we can't confuse loving people with loving God. They are not the same thing. 
Everybody's problem will not be ours to solve. We are not to bind up all wounds. We are to sacrifice ourselves to Him and only to Him. He owns us, no one else. We cannot elevate anyone's need above God's.

Sometimes, God does send us as Samaritans to bind up the wounds of someone on the Jericho road, but not always. Sometimes, that man is for someone else or for God Himself. That's why Jesus tells so emphatically to seek God. We have got to learn the difference, or we will add burdens to our lives we were never meant to have.

Any cross we pick up in this life has to be a cross God has given us. 
The cross anyone else gives us will be too heavy to carry.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Son of Man

photo: natepyle.com
Jesus Christ. Son of God. Son of Man.
The Bible tells us that He is both these things and simply by the exalted nature of them, these statements carry a lot of weight. I want to understand them, and understand well.
The idea that Jesus is the Son of God seems the easier of the two. After all, the Father Himself declares a number of times that Jesus is His Beloved Son. And I know what a son is. I have two of them.  So, if God the Father has a Son, their relationship and shared common nature make sense. 

Son of Man, not so much. If Christ is the Son of God, how could He be the son of men as well? And why? And yet, in the Bible, He declares that He is. Son of Man is Jesus' name for Himself.
What do men say that I, Son of Man, am?--Matthew 16:13

Well, it turns out that I'm not the only one who wanted to understand this better. Iraneus, the bishop of Lyons from 177-200 AD, had quite a bit to say about it.*

First, he observed, Jesus passed through every stage of human life. As Adam was made from untilled virgin earth never knowing rain, so did Christ begin His human life in the womb of a virgin. That was the beginning. Afterwards, He grew through common years like any man--preborn, infant, juvenile, adult, and even corpse--so that no man can say he has been left behind in his peculiar state. Christ became fellow of us all. He did not live outside human frailty at any time in his earthly life. Instead, He sanctified all stages and states of life by sharing them.
Christ, as Son of Man, was like me, no matter who I am.

Second, by the very act of taking on flesh, by participating in incarnation, Christ reunited man to God. The fact of His humanity made Him mediator between God and Man. 
I think that this is kind of like forgiveness--it happens in stages. The first stage is that in which we forgive an unrepentant sinner to free our own spirit from bitterness and hatred, but in which the complete relationship is not yet restored. So did God come down to unrepentant, clueless man and present Himself, ready and waiting.  The second stage, in which our relationship with the sinner is restored through repentance, Christ lived out in His own suffering and death. That freed all penitents to walk through the now-torn veil directly back to the Father.
Christ, as Son of Man, led the way for all men.

Third, Christ overcame Satan as only a man could have done. From the very beginning of His ministry, He exposed Satan's rebellion when He said, 
It is written: Worship the Lord thy God and Him only shall you serve.--Luke 4:8
So man, through the Son of Man, nullifies the power of Satan that Adam admitted in Eden. By His own obedience and submission, Christ put Satan in his place.
Later, He goes even further by subjecting Himself to disgrace and physical suffering. Had He not done so, God would have asked men to endure the scourge and turning the other cheek, something He Himself had not endured, effectively elevating the servant above the master. This, He could not do.
And then, when He became the first man to die and rise again, He showed Himself to be the Author of Life, who goes before us all to show the way.
Christ as Son of Man shows me what He created man to be.

In the end, if Christ is not Son of Man, I have no way to understand either the nature of God nor the nature of Man. Only through Him can I understand what I am created to become. Only through His humanity do I understand my own. 

*Iraneus, Against Heresies, III

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

'Believe' is a Verb

credit: thenobleheart.com
It all sounds so simple.
Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved...--Acts 16:31
All I have to do is to believe, to have faith in Christ and His saving work on the cross. I have to do nothing, bring nothing of myself to the party. I'm in.

Oh, but then, there's this:
Faith without works is dead.--James 2:26
Did I misunderstand? Maybe not.
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.--Philippians 2:12
No, I didn't misunderstand. I need faith. I need to believe, and I need to do something about it. I need to work my faith out.

Is there anything else? Well, it turns out there is.
...this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God--1 Peter 3:21
and this--
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved...--Mark 16:16

OK.
So, I am to believe, and work, and be baptized.
Anything else?
Yes.

I need to endure.
He who endures to the end will be saved.--Matthew 24:13
Whoever endures to the end will be saved--Matthew 10:22

Believe. Work. Be Baptized. Endure.
Well, which one is it?

Why does it have to be just one?
Why is the instruction to be baptized more important that the others? Or the requirement to believe? Can't they all go together? Don't they have to? And more importantly, why do we beat each other up about this? Is it really that important for us to be right so that we can make everyone else wrong?

You see, I think that the  Bible is very deep. It's full of rich meaning and we could spend a lifetime unpeeling its layers of revelation, but it's also very simple. God never stutters. The simple answer is not to figure out which of these requirements for salvation apply, but to take them at face value, all of them, the plain way that God says them.

'Believe' is a verb, not just a mental exercise. Believing is not diminished by doing something about our belief.

Imagine a tightrope walker about to cross Niagra Falls. He asks the crowd, "Do you believe I can make it?" "We believe!" they answer and so he sets out. An hour later, he reaches the other side. Then he asks them, "Do you believe I can cross blindfolded?" "We believe!" they answer again. And again, he crosses successfully. The third time he asks the crowd, "Do you believe I can cross with a man on my back?" Again they answer, "We believe!" That's when he asks for a volunteer. The one not willing to go, of course, is the one who does not believe.
Belief and action go together. One is not better than the other. They all exist together. They have to. 

Grammar. Semantics. We spend way too much time, as Christians, differentiating between ourselves, pointing fingers, so sure that we are right and the folks across the street are wrong. Christ died for us all. The least we can do is to show Him that we were worth it.

Belief lives not only in our brain or our emotions. It has arms and legs. It moves and testifies. It not only changes us. It helps change the world.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

'Remember' is a Verb

photo: sangrywords.blogspot.com
I forget stuff all the time--where I put my glasses, what I'm supposed to get at the store, the name of that great deli downtown. Remembering, for me, is an effort sometimes and I write down more than ever before just so it doesn't get lost, so I don't commit some embarrassing faux pas.

God, however, does not forget. Not in the same sense that I do, anyway. He doesn't remember the way I do, either.

For me, remembering is a mental exercise, something I do in my head. For God, however, remembering is an action verb. God doesn't have a brain, after all. He's a spiritual being and doesn't have...well...parts. He's one thing. He can't forget, so He doesn't have to remember.

But the Bible says He does.
I will remember my covenant...--Genesis 9:15

So, when God promises to remember, what exactly does He mean?
Let's see--
When God remembered Noah in Genesis 8:1, He sent a great wind to dry off the earth.
When God remembered Abraham in Genesis 19:29, He rescued Lot from Sodom.
When God remembered Rachel in Genesis 30:22, He opened her womb.
When God remembered the Israelites in Exodus 6:5-6, He brought them out of Egypt.

What, then, is remembering to God?
It's action.
When God remembers, He doesn't just slap His forehead saying, "Oh-that's where I left the Hebrews." When He remembers, He is acting. In every one of these examples, He is enacting rescue.
To God, remembering = doing something.

And the reverse is also true.
When God stops remembering, He does not forget in the same way we do. It's not only His memory that's affected. To God, not remembering means not acting.
And, for us, God's forgetting is good.
I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.--Isaiah 43:25

He remembers your sins no more.
This forgetting does not only describe an act of memory. It is God declining to act.

This is the Good News of Jesus and the cross.
Because of what Christ did on Calvary, God forgets. He will no longer mete out the punishment we earned for our sin. He no longer remembers. He chooses not to act.

Remembering is acting.
Forgetting is declining to act.

That's how God does it.
We can do it that way, too.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Gentle as a Hawk

photo: news.wsu.edu
Years ago, we had a friend, Luke,  who trained hawks and he sometimes brought his favorite over to the empty field beside our house to exercise and train him. I never forgot the way they looked. The bird would perch on the leather gauntlet Luke wore on his arm, lean over to nuzzle into Luke's neck, and stare at us. Just stare. With those beady eyes, looking down that hooked beak. And he kept staring, looking like he was ready to tear us apart the same way he'd just torn apart a mouse or some other dainty we'd watch him catch.

But the bird loved Luke. He obeyed him and delicately took treats from his hands. He looked like he wanted to tear my head off, but at the very same time he showered affection on his trainer. He always seemed to me a study in contradictions, but now that I think of it, maybe not. Maybe he was simply an illustration.

The fact is that I am sometimes very much disturbed by the military imagery and examples in the Bible. I don't like them and don't want to study them. But they're there, and I can't ignore them.

God tells us that we are to put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:13), and that we are to take sides.
Whoever is not with me is against me.--Matthew 12:30
Our faith brings us into conflict:
If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.--John 15:18
It makes us choose:
Choose today whom you will serve-Joshua 24:15
It makes us find one way and one way only, leaving the rest behind.
Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a word behind you saying, "This is the way. Walk in it."--Isaiah 30:21

The Bible unveils so much battle, so much warring between good and evil. It just leaves me wanting a time of peace, but doesn't promise it any time soon.
They give assurance of peace when there is no peace.--Jeremiah 8:11

How is it possible, then, to wear the unfading beauty of a quiet and gentle spirit? (1Peter 3:4) How am I to learn to be calm and tender when I am also to be arming myself for war? 

And then I remember Luke's hawk.
How he loved and nuzzled his owner.
I remember its eyes after Luke removed the hood that covered its head while they traveled--how it looked at me with cold challenge, sinister and dangerous.
He scared me, not because he intentionally wanted to, but because he could do nothing else. He was always armed for battle and it showed. His threat was always part of him. Even if he did nothing but sit on Luke's arm, wings folded back, talons tense on the gauntlet.

The hawk did not inspire gentleness or mercy. Instead, he inspired caution and warning. I didn't want to get anywhere near him.

But Luke did. Luke knew what the hawk would do, when he would do it, and to whom. He knew that the hawk, with all it's power to hurt, even to kill, could also sit quietly by his side, content to wait with him. To Luke, the hawk was indeed quiet and gentle.

When I think of a gentle bird, I think most readily of a dove--its soft, grey song, nearly a moan, and its soft round profile. A dove has almost no hard edges and it harms nothing. She is quiet. She is calm. She is gentle.
Not the hawk. Even while the hawk sits silent, it carries a mute threat.

So, who is gentler--the dove that cannot hurt, or the hawk that can but chooses to refrain? And which kind of gentleness does the Bible tell us to wear?

Me, I'd prefer to be like the dove--harmless and full of grace. But I don't think I'm given that option.

I am supposed to be a warrior, skilled in destruction, single minded in defense of the Truth. I am to arm myself for battle and be ready to attack when my master gives me direction. I am not allowed pacific helplessness. I am not allowed to let others fight a battle for which God instructs me to prepare and, when necessary, to fight.

God made doves, but He did not make us doves. Doves do not arm themselves, but I must.
I am told to be humble, but also not to faint when tested.
I am told to be charitible, but also to reject whoever rejects God.
I am told to be kind, forgiving, and meek, but to stand for the Lord.

I am told to be a hawk.
Quiet until the time for action comes.
Controlled and focused until I am released.
Peaceful until the day of battle arrives.

Put on the full armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground and,when you have done everything, to stand.--Ephesians 6:13


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Our Father, Who Art in Heaven

photo: biblethingsinbibleways.wordpress.com
Father. Our Father. Father God.
It rolls off the tongue. So easy. So natural. So....well, true.
God is our Father. He made us. He nurtures us. He loves us.
But not for everyone.

I got a real eye-opener recently when I heard the story told by Scott Hahn* regarding the discussion/debate he had with a muslim cleric about God. Actually, Hahn didn't want to engage in the debate--he was convinced by his sister and brother-in-law because he was the only person they knew who was theologically educated well enough to even try and, well, the cleric wanted to. After all, it wasn't an opportunity that presented itself every day.

And, actually, it started out pretty well. They agreed about a lot of the attributes of God--His perfection, His majesty, His sovereignty, His might. They agreed about many of His works--His creation and sustenance of the world, His destruction of mankind through flood and their preservation through Noah,  His liberation of the Israelites through Abraham, and more. But the trouble started when Hahn first referred to God as 'Father'.

The first time Hahn called God Father, the cleric slammed his fist down on the table, shouting that he would not tolerate any more blasphemy. Blasphemy? wondered Hahn. For calling God 'Father'? Apparently. For a muslim, it is blasphemy to ascribe any human characteristic to God. God, to him, is not Father, nor is He a Son. He does not love with a Father's heart, and He does for forgive with it, either. 

Then what, Hahn asked, is God if not Father?
"Master," declared the cleric. "God is Master."

Master--as in slave master. Master--with complete authority but no obligation to affection. Master--owner and source of all sustenance, but with no need of mercy. Master--user, ruler, absolute commander. Worshiped and followed without question, unforgiving of failure, not hesitating to deservedly punish. God.

And that was the problem. God the Father loves. God the Master rules.

If this sounds unduly harsh, maybe we shouldn't be too surprised. We were warned of this. Sarah, Abraham's wife, made it obvious:
Get rid of the slavewoman and her son, for that slavewoman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.--Genesis 21:10

Ishmael and Isaac, both Abraham's sons, would not share the same inheritance. Ishmael would forever be a slave, but Isaac would inherit all of Abraham's riches--his herds, his wealth, the best of what Abraham had to give. Ishmael would never again know his father's love. And neither did the cleric, the spiritual descendant of Ishmael. God was not his father.
He never heard this--
So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.--Galatians 4:7

As Christians, we will never fully understand the yoke under which some people have to labor. God is, after all, our kind Father, who, when we stray, waits at the gate for us with open arms. He forgives. He has storehouses of blessings He is saving to shower down on us. He guards and protects and nurtures. He quite literally holds us in the palms of His hands. Not so for everyone, however.

The cleric eventually stormed out of the restaurant where he sat with Hahn, having warned Hahn for the third time that he was not to use terms like Father or Son in relation to God. He'd had enough. God was not, and would never be, his Father.

I admire the cleric for his clear understanding of God's exaltedness, but I have never had to associate God with harshness or with a supremacy that exercises itself without mercy. What terror would God bring without love? How would He use His infinite power? It scares me even to think about it. In the end, though, I am so glad for this perspective. It uncovers the real depth and privilege of the prayer that Christ, the Son of God Himself, gave us. It illustrates vividly the boldness and the favor with which we say,
Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name...

*Allah or Abba, Lighthouse Catholic Media