Sunday, December 9, 2018

What if I Could Not?

This is my niece Jocelyn. She's sitting here, a little over two years ago, between my younger son and her husband, and she's smiling.

She's not smiling today.

Today, she is dying. Not fighting for her life anymore....just dying. Her liver has failed, her other organs ceasing to function one by one, and her blood has ceased to clot. She's 38 years old.

She is more than 600 miles away. I can talk to her if someone holds up the phone, but she can no longer respond. Her mother says that she squirming with discomfort. She knows. There is no doubt that she knows she won't live much longer.

The problem is this: The ones who love her struggle not only because she is way too young for this to happen, but because she has, for at least the last ten years, professed to be an atheist. She is a young woman without hope for any future, any life beyond this one.

She and I have talked often about this. She was churched as a youngster, even tried to worship for awhile, but the contradictions in her church and the hypocrisy of the people who worshiped there became too much for her. She gave up. She just gave up. And, in recent years, although she would tolerate, even sometimes ask, for prayer, she still would not profess to any belief in God. She saw the contradiction, of course, but would not open her heart.

And here we are today. The end of her road.

And it is Sunday. This morning I went to church.  As I moved into the usual pew, and stood at the appropriate time to say, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty", I was struck nearly dumb. So simple a phrase, so easy. I've said it pretty much all my often, it has become automatic, taken for granted as normal. But it isn't normal for everybody. What would life look like, particularly the end of life, if I could not? What if I could not honestly say I believe in God?

I can't imagine it, frankly. Unlike Jocelyn, who said that God made no sense to her, I can make no sense of a world without Him. And I am frozen by the enormity of it all...the vast implications of a simple phrase, the everyday working out of it in ways that have become so much a recurring part of my life. I marvel at the symbols that carry such heavy implication, yet are so ridiculously common-- pieces of wood and thorn, bread and wine. No wonder some struggle with belief.

We are seemingly given so little. Small, fleeting representations that are monumentally life-altering. Out-of-the-box game changers. Leaps of faith. A word in the right place or time that sinks to the core. A conviction that honoring my creator trumps all other endeavors. Loving for no other reason.

This is why, I'm thinking today, that just being good is not enough. It keeps us pinned to Earth. It does not provide for the God who explains everything we don't understand. It does not give us a reason for having lived. It does not answer the whys pretty much everyone seems to ask when their last day arrives. If God is not real, everything lofty and important dies in that last breath. Transcendence doesn't exist. Without Him, we are left to squirm.

I told Jocelyn this morning that she should trust now. Rest in God, and trust, and everything will be all right. Even now. Even when she has come to this. She can still open her heart and I pray that she does. God is loving and merciful. He will meet her there. This is the day.

And I will raise you up on the last day--John 6:40

Sunday, November 4, 2018

What Food We Are Offered

The part of my house I like the best is the kitchen. Some years ago, I designed it with meticulous care, measuring up each cabinet and drawer with relish and precision, planning exactly what I would keep in them and sizing them for their specific purpose. And all the planning paid off--everything fits where it belongs, and I wouldn't change a thing.
I took great pleasure in this not just, I think, because of its order and beauty, which it has, but because it brought a fresh vision for what I would make there. And the space has rewarded me with many meals shared in fellowship with people I love. I wouldn't change a thing about it.

I can't leave behind the notion of the importance of food in our lives. Of course, in practical thought, we'd die without it, but most of us realize that food is more than fuel, more than filling our stomachs. In very real, maybe even mysterious ways, food is love. I really think so. Who doesn't have fond memories of  meals prepared and shared together? Of chicken soup, or turkey dinners, or birthday cakes made with loving hands? Food is life in many more ways than one.

My camera files are filled with plates of food I've made, either alone or with friends and family, arranged carefully on dishes or in bowls, and presented with satisfaction and anticipation. These are my offerings to the ones I care most about, or ones I want to know better. I want the food to say "I care about you" when words fail.

And I think sometimes of the food that God has offered us, our New Testament manna, His own body, presented to us on a plate as we gather to worship:

 Image result for the body of christ on a plate

 "This is my body...."
The moment when food becomes something else--love of a very different kind. Sacrificial love given at a cost way beyond hours spent in the kitchen. That plate holds a promise. That plate becomes, for the moment it holds the bread of heaven, holy ground. That meal, on that plate, feeds us unto eternity.

And this morning I read,
And when the daughter of Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod, and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatever you will, and I will give it to you. And he swore to her, Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you, even to half my kingdom. And she went forth and asked her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightaway with haste to the king, saying, I want you to give me in a charger the head of John the Baptist.--Matt 14:22-24

Do you know what a charger is? It's a serving plate. A big serving plate. Chefs still call them that--chargers. But think of how it would look to any observer...could a plate bear anything more revolting? Death instead of life. Evil rather than nourishment, as though it were something we would actually eat:
Image result for John the baptist head on a platter

The very place we expect to find something tasty and filling and sometimes even beautiful, we find instead....this. Death. Blood.

And so does God surprise us again. He turns, with the help of man-made evil, something beautiful into something violent. And He gives us a sneak peek at what to expect from Him in the future. It will be His death that He serves up to us soon. His sacrifice. His challenge to recognize what He's doing.

He's turning our world inside out.

Think, He says. Recognize Me. Even as John dies, even as I will die, I fill your plates with what you most need. See the faithful nourishment I provide. Body. Body and blood. Not always beautiful, but always perfect and always holy.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

With Feet Firmly in Both Worlds

Image result for the narrow way
I'm confused. I'm a Christian, supposed to be freed by Christ. Then if I'm so free, why do I feel so bound? Bound, as is rooted in the physical world rather than liberated in the spiritual one. Bound. Caught. Confined. Limited. Anything but free.

Being stuck is not my favorite thing. And I'm stuck. But I know not everybody feels like this. I can tell.

Contrary to what my Christian friends sometimes say, people who absolutely don't believe in God don't seem stuck. They're pretty carefree, in fact. And why not? Nobody's judging their every move. They don't have to measure up to much. Just being as nice as the next guy is good enough. It's pretty easy.

And folks just as rooted on the other end, the ones you and I might call saints or seers, well, they live in peace, too. The physical world fades clearly into the background for them. The live pretty much on a spiritual plane unknown to lesser beings. They're happy. Oblivious, sometimes, it seems, but happy.

So it's easy to be ungodly and easy to be holy. But here in the middle--not so much. This is where the tension lives. And this is where we spend most of our time. The middle ground, where both sides tug at us, and we live here. With feet planted firmly in both worlds.

How did I get here? First, there's sin. What have I done wrong and not despised? What does God clearly forbid that still secretly makes me smile? Surely they're not as bad as the letter of God's law dictates. They make good stories, at the very least. What's the big deal? I don't do most of those things anymore. I'm better now. But that doesn't matter. What's wrong is still wrong.

And then, what do I love that clearly belongs to the earth? What pulls on me whose other end has no constructive place in heaven? Animals? My kids? Art or music? The doing of good deeds? Those aren't bad. I mean, even unbelievers help out other folks and love their kids and their dogs, and as much as we do. What I love may even cause me to think of and thank God. But even if they do, they're not God.

I'm thinking that the rationalizations we nurture and emotional and physical ties we retain are the milk of faith. They're presentable on the surface, but they're not helpful. They're the spiritual slack we cut ourselves, and they don't get us where we say we want to go.

If we want full view of God, we have to brush away whatever blocks that view. Somehow, we need to release everything to His care. Cut loose our deluded past and the excuses we make for it. Unleash our confused present and the comfortable talismen with which we block our clear vision.

Take a baby, for instance. Dang, she's cute. The way she smells, the sound she makes, the way she looks into my eyes. But what do I see when I look at her? When I reach for her, am I reaching for God? And if not, how in the world do I look beyond her? She's so there.

But if I do reach for her, and bask in the pleasure she gives, I've stopped short of what I might otherwise have. If I see past her, if I release the moment completely to God, then I miss this feeling, this satisfaction, this fun.  But then, if I aim for the pleasure of the baby, what's the difference between that pleasure and any other kind? Is it substantially different from sexual excitement or drug-induced euphoria? Plain pleasure, regardless of its earthly source, ties me to the earth.

Pleasure is a such a lovely stopping place,though. So nice, but not holy. People in all walks of life have had to give up pleasures to get where they so desperately wanted to go. Athletes, artists, folks on a diet. And then there are those looking for even more...missionaries, monks, Jesus Himself. They didn't live in pleasure. Instead, they find their victory amid privation, even misery.

And that has to be our road, too, if we are truly going to throw off the bonds of this world. We have to find what we want among the bones of what we might have had.

You will have trouble in this world.--John 16:33
Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.--John 14:1
No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of heaven.--Luke 9:62

In the end, we will continue to be bound to either earth or heaven. In order to gain heaven, we have to throw off the bonds of earth, even the ones we love and make us happy. If we want to be free, we have to throw off what ties us to this place. We are given so much. The challenge is to hold it loosely--very loosely, always ready to grasp instead what lasts forever.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why Daniel Didn't Die

The king spake and said to Daniel, O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions? Then Daniel said unto the king, O king, live forever. My God hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lion's mouth that they have not hurt me:--Daniel 6:20-22a

Good old Daniel. Don't you just love to hear this story? It pushes all the buttons--that gut-wrenching fear when we are faced with tragedy or trouble or doubt as Daniel is cast into the midst of a pack of hungry beasts all set to tear him limb from limb and lick their lips when they have finished making a meal of him; our admonishment from God to depend on Him, to pray, and to be confident that He will save us or someone we love as Daniel watches the lions approach--their hot, fetid breath, their plate-size paws taking step after step closer; and then the perfect working out of that confidence, God's ultimate rescue when Daniel is spared--our assurance that our prayers, too, will be answered.

But then I hear what Daniel says next:

 forasmuch as before Him innocence was found in me: and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt. --Daniel 6:22b

Wait a minute. Daniel didn't need to be saved. He already was. He was already innocent before God and knew it. Even if he were chewed to bits, he knew he would simply be delivered into eternity and before the Lord he loved. Many of God's children had already done this through the ages. They had died in His service in the arena, at the stake, or beneath the sword. Why should Daniel expect any different? What was different about him?

Well, probably nothing.

So, why, then, did he live?

I suspect it was this, the king's reaction:
I make a decree, that in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God and steadfast forever and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and His dominion shall be even unto the end.--Daniel 6:26

As much as I like the end of this story, the saving of Daniel's life, I don't think that was the result that mattered. God loved Daniel. He'd created him for a purpose, and this was it. Daniel was about to fulfill God's will for him and, in his case, it was to live, to bear witness to His power before the king so that the king would believe.

But that's not true for everyone. It is not always the living that draws people to God. God had, and would, and will still sacrifice one life to save another. Remember Jesus? Oh yes, even Him.
Image result for christ on the cross

Sometimes, it is in the dying that God's will is done. God will, without doubt, continue to either allow sacrifice or spare from it , to grant prayer or to refuse it, in order to produce exactly the result that His intervention with Daniel did: faith and salvation in an unbeliever. That is what God wants more than anything.

God can and does grant our prayers, but not when a greater good is produced by denying them.  As believers, we will still die, but God would have even our deaths accomplish something in His kingdom.

This is sovereignty. This is ultimate power over creation. This is what it means to be God. And somehow, even as we bow before Him, we have to understand that we are safe in God's hands--safe not as in the ultimate preservation of either our own flesh or the flesh of someone we love, but in His Everlasting Arms.

photo credits:, cocorioko