Sunday, July 31, 2011

Waiting for Freedom

I've heard stories about soldiers who missed news that their war had ended. Either they hid in some remote location for months or years, still nurturing terror for their own particular conflict, or they lived under the torment of captors who never told them they'd already lost. Either way, these poor souls had already been liberated, but didn't know it.

I am reminded that, if I believe in God, if I acknowledge that an entity exists who created me and our entire astounding, complex, beautiful world, then I open the door to a complete other existence. If God exists, so does eternity, so does evil, and so do other forces we call names like angels, demons, spirits, forces, powers, dominions, heavenly realms. I can't touch them or will to experience them in any way, but because God exists, they are there, all around, all the time.

Men like me were made to have dominion over the earth, but we share that dominion with all these other forces and beings, and with God having power over all. Our world approximates a battlefield, squirming with wounded, some of whom who don't even know they are hurt, some who can't or won't see the struggle going on around them.

I am often like the soldier who had no idea his own war had already ended. The enemy is here, as are my comrades, but I can't see them. How can I possibly know what is happening? I am detached, deliberately kept out of the supernatural loop, yet engaged. I know opposition and attack. I recognize rescue, but don't see what's going on at the command post.

I live in the limbo where the battle continues even though the war has already been won. God did this on the cross, declared victory, and sealed my fate. My place awaits. Until then, I have to keep my gun loaded and ready at my side.

And, having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.--Colossions 2:15
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms.--Ephesians 2:6

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fame and Holiness

What are dreams made of? Not the dreams we have while sleeping, but those we live with, the ones we hold before us while making decisions, while planning the future. Yesterday, I saw again how deeply recognition plays a part in those dreams. It's not enough to be an architect, or a musician, or teacher. Somebody needs to know our names. We desire significance.

You, however, do not agree.

As for those who seemed important, whatever they were makes no difference. God does not judge by external appearance.--Galatians 2:6

Whatever gifts You give me, You give by intention. If I have physical strength, You expect me to use it; if I have imagination, You expect me to use it; if I have intelligence, You expect me to use it, but you do it to better define my relationship to You, not my relationship to other men. Fame, position, title, caste, nobility, office all define us, but only before one another. They provide platforms of easy, thoughtless, relation based on external importance, meaningless before You.

President. General. Winner. Her majesty. Professor. Doctor. Reverend. Chief. Supervisor. First Assistant Bookkeeper. As titles measure accomplishment in obedience to your commands, they have meaning. As they become vehicles of pride or ends in themselves, titles become snares.

I am to love You first, work for You first, serve You first. My intersection with other men can never obscure my vision of You. Whatever success I attain, whatever praise or recognition, must be measured not against other men, but against what I have done in obedience to your specific command to me. I can easily succeed before men, but fail before You. This is holiness: the measure of my success in seeking You, finding You, and obeying You with joy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

So Close in This First Hour

Around here, summer nights often bring sudden storms. Thundering, shaking rumbles become a startling alarm reminding me that men do not comprise the most powerful force on earth. I remember that You never appear to men in sun-bathed meadows, but in fire and flash. You dwell nearer in a thunderstorm.

I doodle through so much of life...sashaying from one task to the next, making phone calls, picking up a broom or a book, going to the movies. So little consequence.

Someone told me recently that most folks live a life of 25,000 hours. Only that. If that is true, and the math bears it out, of how much value is each one of those? How much have I sacrificed if I lose the full value in even one of those hours?

But hours with You are never wasted. Your very presence demands significance. And I think you intend us to understand this, too. I have always though that life is more important than most people suspect.

You gave life, above all precious gifts, and expect me to LIVE it.

For those God foreknew, He also predestined, to be confirmed to the likeness of His Son, so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those He predestined, He also called. Those He called, he also justified. Those He justified, He also glorified. --Romans 8:29-30

My life draws an unbroken line from Your glory through all of creation to my own glory, a superb gift of eternity directly from You. 

You make me, you choose me, you call me, you save me, you transform me. You give me Yourself.

This is LIFE. The same life I wake up to every morning. Each of the 25,000 hours gifts from You to be lived with and for You.

You knew this from the creation of the world and You flash Your presence in shining thunderbolts before a rising sun just to say 'Hello.' You want me to know that You are near and sharing Your best. This is the Life You have put in me, miraculous Life, unreproducable Life, resounding with a thunderous crash, echoing Your glory across the whole earth.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Swine in Pearls

They have chosen their own ways and their souls delight in their abominations.--Isaiah 66:4a

I can still delight in abominations. I can support them, work for them, grab them with two eager hands and draw them close. I can justify them, decorate them so they look beautiful, put them on display and show them off. I can spend my life studying or saving for them, I can collect them; I can whisper in their ear in the quiet dark of night.

But this is what waits for me if I do:

So I will choose harsh treatment for them and will bring upon them what they dread...--Isaiah 66:4b

I get what I choose. If I choose abominations, I get them. But if I choose You, I get You. It's simple, really. You call constantly. You rise up before me, moment by moment, waiting for me to look for You.

...for when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.--Isaiah 66:4c

But it does not have to be this way. I have to hear You when You call, so an abomination is anything that muffles my ears. I have to see You all around me, so an abomination is anything that blocks my view. It is You, always You.

I am still confident of this--I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.--Psalm 27:13

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Whoa there, feelings!

I've been trying to understand emotion's place in my faith life. The Bible is full of commands to action and obedience, but as far as I can tell, the only emotion You recommend to me is joy.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds--James 1:2
Shout with joy to God, all the earth!--Psalm 66:10
Be joyful always--1 Thessalonians 5:16
Be of good cheer--John 16:33

You are not nearly as keen regarding other emotions:

Do not be afraid or discouraged--2 Chronicles 20:15
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath--Psalm 37:8
Do not be anxious about anything--Philippians 4:6
Do not sorrow--Nehemiah 8:10
Brothers, we do not want you to...grieve like the rest of men--1Thessalonian 4:13

Emotions, evidently, are not my friends. And yet, they constantly drive me. They prompt me to act. They lift me out of the realm of the ordinary. Hmmm. Maybe that's the problem.

Emotions elevate everything, and often falsely. They can make me believe something is important when it may be trivial or foolish. They can manufacture false relevance. They can cut off experience and wisdom. They can cancel rationality and obedience. They can make me believe in the necessity to act in a certain way, even when I know better. They can cut off my clear vision to You.

Emotions can have legitimate uses, too, but only if I discipline them in the same way I discipline everything else in my life. I need to form and use reins for emotions in the same way I would need to rein in a wild horse. You give permission for only one real emotion--joy in knowing You.

The joy of the Lord is your strength--Nehemiah 8:10


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Only Dance There Is

I have an old book titled "The Only Dance There Is" by a eastern mystic called Ram Dass. I don't like the book much anymore, but keep it because I still like the title a lot. It reminds me of You.

Lots of folks talk about how the Christian life is a walk and in many ways it is, but that walk can sometimes feel like a plod or a trudge. I don't think You mean it that way. In fact, I am sure You have more. You want us not only to travel together, but to dance.

When my dad first taught me to dance, I stood on his feet, and while he moved, I automatically followed him. Later, I stood my own ground, but had to learn to follow him or our feet would become hopelessly tangled. He always seemed to know the way and when I got it right, our movements flowed like smooth water. Gentle pressure guided me in the right direction so that we made something beautiful. Moving through the steps did not feel like work. With practice, they came effortlessly and felt like flight, light and full of clear air.

In all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew, He also predestined to be confirmed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.--Roman 8:28-29

The Greek word for "good" here is agathos, which means moral goodness, eternal goodness, Your goodness. It does not mean a new car, the job I want, or even good health. And, in context, You tell me that You have the plan. You have had it from the beginning, conceived it before I was born, for the sole purpose of making me look like You.

In the same way as I practice dances according to a fixed plan drawn beforehand, I need to rise up everyday with clear understanding that I have a purpose to fulfill before You. I need to step onto the tops of your feet and learn to follow until I can do it effortlessly, without thinking. You have the dance, and it is beautiful.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Sincerest Form of Praise

A few weeks ago, we went to see an illusionist. We had seats in the third row center, about ten feet or so from center stage. We were sure that, from there, we could figure out how he performed his tricks. But, when the curtain opened, the stage was empty, and the first person to walk out was his wife. She welcomed everyone, strolling back and forth, then took hold of a banner-like cloth, about four or five feet high, and drew it quickly across the stage so that we couldn't see anything behind it. As soon as she reached the other side, she dropped the banner to reveal, where the stage had been completely empty a moment before, sat a stunning Lamborghini, a bright red sports car, engine revving, and her husband climbed out.

It looked like it came from nowhere. We knew better, but darn, how in the world did he do that? At the time, the whole experience seemed little more than entertainment, but then today, a song rose in my heart:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. I know that full well.--Psalm 139:14
Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.--Jeremiah 32:17

What You did when you created was no trick. You started with nothing--Adam's lump of clay an unnecessary prop--and turned Your infinitely variable imagination into everything from rising sun to living cell. "Look!" You said. "I did this for you!" And You daily drop the curtain to reveal Your work.

Then You do something else:

This is my prayer--that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that You may be able to discern what is best and be pure and blameless until the day of Christ--Philippians 1:9-10

You reveal Your creation not only for my enjoyment, but for me to share. You put me in a place that reflects You and tell me to see You in it, to become as much like You as I am able. You tell me that patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control, obedience, submission, and love in my life make me look like You. As I wear these, I not only resemble You, but learn to know You, to become pure and blameless before You.

You want me to imitate You, not so that I flatter You, but so that I understand the magnificence of who You are and what You do. You want me to praise You, and once You drop the curtain, how can I help it?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Time Out in the Big Chair

Most people understand that children need discipline. Without it, neither manners nor morals take hold and the resultant adults range from selfish to sociopaths. We want more, both for the sake of the forming human and for our own. We do, after all, have to live together.

I accept the need for childhood discipline, even when I have to administer it. It's harder to accept the need for my own. I am far from childhood, and when discipline comes from authorities in my own life, its source is often younger and less experienced. I don't like it one bit.

When someone feels the need to correct me, I also often find that the discipline's severity or emphasis outstrips the nature of the offense. We just want to control each other, to impinge our own wills on one another. We want our way. We want to win. I am just as guilty of this, but feel it most when I am on the receiving end.

Human authorities rule out of a need to prove their superiority. You do not do that. You have complete confidence in Your own rule, so You discipline for another motive. You do not discipline for Your benefit, but for mine.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best, but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness.--Hebrews 12:10

Adults correcting one another do so in full knowledge of their mutual imperfection. We often fear another's competence and confidence. As a result, we grind down one another's spirits, deflating and destroying, lacking love and redemptive goals. We fear exposure of our deficiencies.

You, however, do not need to prove anything. When You discipline, you teach with one hand and lift up with the other. You do not desire less for me, but more. You want me to learn and grow. Even more, You want me to know holiness. I welcome a time out for that.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Love Letters

Your word holds so much, God, that parts of it get lost sometimes. It's easy to remember the big stuff--the ten commandments with their shalts and shalt-nots, the blessings of the sermon on the mount, Moses and the ten plagues, Your tragic and triumphant walk to Calvary, but some parts of the Bible are almost embarrassing:

I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness and you will acknowledge the Lord.--Hosea 2: 19-20

For your Maker is your husband. The Lord Almighty is His Name. The Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer. He is called the God of all the Earth.--Isaiah 54:51

These declarations of love come down from heaven, from You. Hosea married a harlot and made these statements to her as an example of your promise and bond with me, and a good example it is. I am as unfaithful as she, but You are not. Yet You declare Yourself as my husband, close as flesh, intimate as an embrace.

In saying this to me, You inspire shame, but I cannot shrink from You, because You also offer an irresistible hope, and a compelling exultation at the same time. You have written an instruction book, but You have also written a love letter. I cannot part one from the other, and I will gladly take the correction if I can cling to Your perfect faithfulness and Your everlasting love. I run to You, arms wide, not because I am free of care, but because only You know who I am and still receive me. Only You stand glorified before all creation and still cast kind eyes on me. I cannot resist You.

Who have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.--Psalm 73: 25-26

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sinking Feelings

I don't think it says anywhere in the Bible that I am supposed to feel my way to You. You want me to know You, to love You, to obey You, to follow You, to fear You, but how I feel will not lead me to You. Yet, my feelings seem so urgent when they arise in force. When I feel something powerful, like joy or hurt or anger, those feelings stand up front and center, demanding notice. "Pay attention," they cry, and then grab hold of my actions with both hands and drag me down into the quicksand they have prepared for me.

You say that You are a solid rock, a firm place to stand. You have led me to a safe pasture, to a secure, fenced area where you stand near and on guard. The quicksand of feelings lies outside that place, and I keep running to it.

Lord, You have assigned me my portion and my cup. You have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.--Psalm 16: 5-6

Wherever I am, You either put me here or allowed me to come here on my own. Either way, you effectively assigned me to this place, and it is safe because You stand beside me. You erected a fence around it to keep me in not because you restrict me, but because this place guarantees my well being, and this place holds me up on the firm ground of truth.

Every time I begin a thought or a statement with "I feel...", I charge those fences. When I act on feelings, I break through into unsafe ground. No wonder they are called sinking feelings.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Becoming the Hammer

Last week, my husband taught three six and seven-year-old boys how to use a maul for chopping wood. The tool they attempted to lift weighed around twelve pounds and they weighed only forty or fifty, so they struggled through their task, but they also gloried in the result--a satisfying crack, then the clatter as the wood parted, and they stood tall in its aftermath. They had mastered a powerful tool and done something worthwhile with it. Had my husband given them a small axe, they would have eventually achieved the same practical result, but not the same satisfaction and accomplishment.

Tools figure large in most of our lives. Almost anything I put in my hand to accomplish a task is a tool--a pen, a can opener, a paintbrush, a broom, a hammer. Almost everyone uses a succession of them every day. They make our lives if not easier, then more efficient and, the more well designed and manufactured the tool, the better it can accomplish the task. As I use a tool, it becomes an extension of my own hands, acting at my will as a means to an end I have chosen.

God wants to use me as His tool:

Commit your way to the Lord. Trust Him and He will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him.--Psalm 37:5-6

God wants me to give my ways to Him, to trust Him to use me for His own purposes. The Bible bursts with examples of how God did that with other men, from Moses and Abraham and David to the apostles and Paul. They placed themselves in God's hand and let Him wield them. Sometimes God wielded gently, administering succor and gentle healing. Sometimes, God wielded boldly, cutting down and weeding out, but both accomplished His purpose.

As sons and daughters of the New Testament, we tend to see our purpose most readily as mild tools, feeding and washing and administering sweet help to sad souls, and indeed, that is part of what we are called to do. However, there are times when God requires that we be used for harder work. He gave us armor for that, both offensive and defensive weapons, so that we are not ourselves destroyed in the process because these occasions tax us more heavily, but we cannot shrink from these uses, either.

As I step out, I need to know that God will use me today. I must feel the hand of the Master at my controls, and subordinate my power to His. I settle my will and it begins. He holds me in His hand and raises it. Only He knows whether it will soothe or correct. I can feel the backswing. I am ready.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Logic of Faith

God makes sense. Philosophy, and even sometimes theology, contend that God defies logic, that miracles operate against the laws of nature, that God functions outside of reason. They are all wrong. God, if He is who He says who He is, who He must be, transcends the laws of nature that bind both the earth and the humans who live on it. God invented reason because only He has ever seen chaos. He constructed His earth to operate according to logical demands, and therefore epitomizes it. God is logic.

No one denies that our world operates according to logical systems: physics, chemistry, biology all specify cohesive systems that are detailed, varied, and consistent. We depend on them so heavily that none of us could conceive of any kind of world without them. I won't even entertain the idea that all this complexity evolved by accident. I know this instinctively--when I dump out my puzzle box, not one piece ever falls perfectly into place with its intended neighbor. I have tried this hundreds of times over the years. It never happens. Never. To conceive that such a chemical or physical event occurred millions of times to create our perfectly ordered world is ridiculous. It violates reason, the same reason God planted in human beings to understand. God wants us to use the reason He gave us and says so:

Come now, let us reason together...Isaiah 1:18

This is a sublime invitation. The Lord of the universe wants us to think. And He has something important for us to think about. This passage in Isaiah has God reminding us of the mess we have made:

Ah, a sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruptions! v. 4
Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? v. 5
Stop bringing your meaningless offerings! v. 13
Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. v. 16
If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. v. 19-20

This passage is supremely logical. Stop doing what causes you misery and start doing what will result in your benefit. This is God's reasoning. He has the plan that results in our benefit. He begs us to see take advantage of it.

But there is one thing missing from all this. Feelings. God did not ask how anyone feels about any of this. He did not say He wants to make anyone happy nor does He show any concern for whether this plan brings anyone pleasure. He says to do it because it make sense.

Logic goes hand in hand with faith. Reason points directly to God. Feelings work contrary to both.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Squiggles of Fate

A few years ago, when I was still teaching English, I always wanted a good example of punctuation's importance in the grand scheme of life. After all, using a comma rather than a semicolon to join a two sentences into one, or adding an erroneous apostrophe to the possessive pronoun 'its' just didn't seem very important to students. I knew, though, that I could prove punctuation's grave implications with the right example, if I could ever find one. Eventually, I did.

To my delight, the example in question involved one of the most memorable of Bible verses:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.--Isaiah 9:6, Thompson Chain Reference NIV

These words bring with them some of the most beautiful truths of Christianity: the existence of the Trinity as three distinctive parts of one almighty entity, and the prediction of Savior and Christ born as a baby human being. They exalt God with both their meaning and their beauty.

I also have a Hebrew Tanach that I often read and I find the same passage there with essentially only three differences: changed tenses of two verbs and the location of three, and.....wait for it.....punctuation. These almost inconsequential changes transform this verse from prophetic to historic.

For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us, and the dominion will rest on his shoulder; the Wondrous Adviser, Mighty God, Eternal Father, called his name Prince of Peace.--Isaiah 9:6, Stone Tanach

The punctuation change occurs after the word 'shoulder' where the translators replace a period with a semicolon, turning the phrase that follows into a corollary of the first rather than a continuation. The effect is that the four titles no longer belong to the same almighty being, but the Wondrous Advisor, Mighty God, and Eternal Father refer to God, and Prince of Peace refers to a man, in this case according to the commentary, Hezekiah, whom God will some day honor with dominion. Suddenly, the Messiah whom the NIV's Isaiah so clearly prophesied vanishes like smoke.

Neither translator erred regarding the original punctuation; Hebrew has none. Each, therefore, brought prejudice along with expertise to their table in this work. I will not argue which is right and which wrong, but at least allow that those little punctuation marks can carry momentous worldviews on their small shoulders.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Rock and a Hard Place

Therefore, as we have the opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers--Matthew 22:39

I do so want to get along with everyone, to be kind and considerate, to put others' needs before my own. But, darn, why is it so HARD? I have good intentions every day. Part of my morning prayer is to find a way to bless someone else, and I rise from it with hope and a smile, and then something happens. The phone rings. The cat throws up. The first person I contact has a burr under their saddle. Either my mood erodes or theirs does. Somebody asks me to do something that I didn't plan for or, worse yet, something that I shouldn't do. I want to live in friendly communion and end up in conflict. I don't like it one bit. Then I remember the part of the Lord's Prayer I just said:

Love your neighbor as yourself.--Matthew 22:39

This helps. Whether I delight in God's assignment, or disagree, or am unprepared, or tired, or compromised, this covers everything. With this in mind, I can always act correctly. I can welcome a situation with joy and open arms or I can disagree with the kind of love that comes with plain speaking. Either way, if I handle a situation with as much care as I would like to be dealt, I am safe.

The brotherhood I share with others is a gift from God just as much as practical gifts like preaching and teaching and evangelizing. My ability to walk alongside my brothers and sisters in Christ without punching or poking them builds us all up. We will have disagreements, of course, because everybody goes off course once in a while, but I can exhort, correct, even argue in the interest of defending God's holy Word as long as I do it with the same love with which I would like to be exhorted, corrected, and argued.

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.--John 4:11-12
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.--Psalm 133:1

We can live in unity even when we do not agree as long as our differences recall our common ground, our own sins, and the hope we share.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bread in the Desert

The desert. Hot, dry, desolate, stretching in seemingly endless, shifting dunes. Hunger and thirst in a sad place offering neither food nor water. A metaphor for times of trouble, but how much of a metaphor is it really?

It is true that, when life takes a difficult turn, when problems or illness or disappointment loom large, I feel like I am alone in a vast place of desolation, a place much like I imagine the Sahara. My throat dries, my skin burns, and panic can begin to descend. You call these times of testing.

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands.--Deuteronomy 8:2

But then You did something else...

He humbled you, causing you to hunger, then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.--Deuteronomy 8:3

You fed your children. You rained down food they had never seen, sweet flakes of bread like honey. You took them to a place that bore no food of its own and gave them food they could not mistake for something they had made themselves. No sweat from their own brows planted or gathered it. No scythe reaped it and no mill ground it. Manna just fell and lay there for them. And you didn't drop it in great hunks, to pick up in a moment, but tiny flakes, like snow, so that the gathering took time, time to think about its source. Manna was food, but it also brought humility.

And all of this happened in the desert. Flakes fell like sweet words from Your mouth. "Gather me," You were telling them. "Eat and know that I am God." The heat and desolation never relented, but You came as morsels of sustenance every day. The desert magnified Your people's perpetual condition, a condition I share. The unadorned landscapes of desert or strife bring you into crisp focus. They hold nothing beautiful but You, no comfort but Your company.

My sustenance still falls from heaven. When I prop up my world with what I seem to have made or have done, it falls onto hot sand and disintegrates. Then You again drop your perfect manna. The bread is real. I eat it I am humbled, but restored.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why I'm Not Bothering to be Good Anymore...

Kindness. Goodness. Generosity. Patience. Compassion. I look for virtues like these in friends, and value them in family. They define nice people, people I want around me, and the kind of person I want to be. Most people do, I think. Hardly anyone wants to spend most of their time with someone crabby and mean. So I try to be nice and so does most everyone I know. Sometimes, though, I wonder why.

After all, what's the point? Life doesn't last all that long, and I have spent much of it either growing up or growing old. Out of the eighty years I will most likely live, only forty of them encompass my strength. Why not spend them doing exactly as I please? Of course, laws prevent me from doing some things. I can't physically hurt anyone and I have to pay my taxes, but no law says I have to understand or help or be pleasant in the WalMart checkout line. Because, frankly, sometimes I just don't want to. So why bother?

If life ends at death, and many say it does, then many virtues fade into irrelevancy. Honesty prevents the immediate ease that lies often allow. Patience causes me to lose precious moments of my all-too-fleeting life. Perseverance causes me to suffer longer than I might have to. Self-control delays satisfaction. Goodness often means I put someone else's needs ahead of my own. Kindness causes me to stuff down my own feelings. Generosity demands I give to someone else something I could use for myself.

Virtues, then, cause me to waste my life. If this life is all I get, why in the world would I want to do that? Just forget it. Give them up. Crassness, unkindness, selfishness, deceit mean nothing because I am on my own and everybody else is, too. If nothing I do lasts, then it doesn't matter whether I do good or evil. I will disappear like smoke anyway and leave no trace behind. I do not care what people think of me because none of it matters.

I do care, however, and so does most everybody else, but in the context of a temporal world, denying my own comfort or desires makes no sense because I do it for no reason. I have nothing to gain. But what if I did have something to gain, something so important that achieving it makes all the difference?

In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,...In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.--1Peter 1:3, 6-7

I do have something to gain, then. If You exist, God, if you died and rose, then virtues make sense and my suffering through them bring me hope for a life that never dies. You provide the only answer to the impossible contradiction of suffering to live a good life that dies with me. Anyone who believes it right to live a good life believes in You whether they admit it or not.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Dichotomy of the Holy Place: Terror and Rest

Five or six years ago, a local summer camp erected a replica of the tabernacle, the wood and animal skin structure that the Israelites carried around during their forty-year wanderings, erecting and dismantling it at each stopping place. In it, Moses' people sacrificed and worshiped. It served as the center of their communal lives, and God visited them there.

Our local tabernacle replica started out as an attraction, I think. School and tour groups came to it, touching the bells on the priests' robes, handling the instruments of sacrifice, tasting shewbread. The structure stood in a open field away from the camp's main cabins and kitchen and meeting rooms, past a small woods and a stream filled with watercress, into a sun-filled clearing that may once have been a farmer's field. It rose against the distant hills as improbably as one of Frank Lloyd Wright's angular homes against fragrant forests and waterfalls. But after all the school groups got back on their bus, the tabernacle had a hush about it.

Its door faced east, and the sun rose beyond it, drawing all the courtyard structures into morning shadow. Entering in expectant silence, I lingered over the altars and basins, remembering that these places washed with blood most of the time. The hangings of the courtyard closed in. Within their high walls, hills and forest disappeared. The Holy Place, silent and covered with rich brocades and hairy pelts, stood at the far end. Like Moby Dick to Ahab, it beckoned.

Its draped door was heavy and moved aside reluctantly. Inside, the lampstand flickered in deep gloom. Incense burned lazily. Loaves waited for a priest or a hungry David that never came. At its far end hung another curtain. I knew what waited beyond: the Holy of Holies, the Arc, and the place where God met men.

I knew that the Israelites feared this inner chamber. They tied a rope around the priest's ankle when he entered in case God struck him dead when he approached. Even in this make-believe place, I sensed that fear. The Holy of Holies had no light and, although the sun had risen high in the outside sky, no ray of light, no breeze penetrated its thick coverings. No light, no sound, no motion. Like a sensory deprivation chamber, this inner sanctum allowed for only once presence: God's. The cherubim topping the arc bowed to one another in expectation, their wings almost touching in homage to the God who did not come that day. I found that I was relieved. The place itself brought pause enough.

The Israelites' God was awesome and terrible. Their tabernacle, awash with blood outside and with terror inside, drove this home. But God wants me to know him this way:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of His wings.--Psalm 91:1
How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of Your wings.--Psalm 36:7

God wants to shelter me under the same wings beneath which the Israelites so feared Him. He wants me to approach. He wants to protect me, not slay me, in His tabernacle. He wants to be my refuge. What changed? Why the shift from trepidation and suspicion to reassurance?

Moses' Jews could not approach God, but I can. In fact, He has invited me by name. Their sacrifices did not provide entry. Jesus' sacrifice, however, did. Today, I enter the tabernacle behind Jesus and because He has full access, so do I. God called me, God chose me, God drew me to this, and once there, offers the only true rest known to any man.

One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him in His temple. For in the day of trouble, He will keep me safe in His dwelling. He will hide me in the shelter of His tabernacle and set me high on a rock.--Psalm 27:4-5

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Finding My Way

A constant battle wages in my life. Its front line stretches across the corner of my desk where my calendar and my reminders usually rest. Its combatants are those written urgings on one side and Your whispered confidence on the other: "Trust me."

How much to plan and how much to trust? On one hand, I can't sashay through life without any goals in mind, can I? Yet, I know that my future is already written in the palm of your hand. This goes way beyond theoretical doctrinal issues about free will. This has to do with whether I should do the laundry and go to the grocery store today or just sit and pray for direction.

God went ahead of you in your journey, in fire by night and in cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.--Deuteronomy 1:33

Hmmm. Fire by night and cloud by day. Pretty easy to see, wasn't it? And big. Very big. So what does that have to say to me? First, that You already know where I am supposed to go. You have already planned my proper, safe, and holy course. Second, You have given me clear signals regarding how to get there.

Now, I know that the days of cloud and fire have passed, so what are my signposts today? I think that, for me, You have again provided two: Your Word, and my circumstance. Your Word points and my circumstances dictate. Sure, there are choices, but only one way shows Your clear marks. In this, You do not come behind or beside, but lead. Christ said simply, "Follow Me."

I have to look where you might be found, then go there. That is my job, my to-do list, this day and every day. So where does that leave the dirty laundry and the sink full of dishes? They call for attention, but do not really matter. These tasks need doing, but You mark the way to a higher road.

This is why my plans diminish in Your sight--they lack eternal imagination. With Your knowledge of the end from the beginning, with Your vision for the highest and the best, You can lead me to I place I can't even imagine. Your way may take me through some plain tasks like dishes or groceries, but it always goes far beyond. Your way may ignore those things, too, and only You know when it must.

So, I can fill up my calendar and my to-do list as long as I remember that they take a back seat to yours. In the end, all I have to do every day is wake up and look for You.

I have placed before you an open door no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.--Revelation 3:8