Saturday, November 29, 2014

Simplicity: The Freedom of One


“God made man simple; man’s complex problems are of his own devising.” (Ecclesiastes 7:30)
 
When we looked at houses in the summer we had to keep track of several at one time: “The one near South St. has a nice yard…The one on Pine Lake is close to work…The one on Sewell has a lot of character.” When someone looks for a job or person to marry it can be a worrisome process too. But, when you land on one house, one spouse and one job you are free. You don't have to think about any other houses, potential spouses or jobs...
 
We have one God too - only one God and one path to focus on. It simplifies life to have one of something. But, just because it’s simpler doesn’t mean it’s easier, because we unnecessarily complicate our lives. Here’s an example…
 
A couple days ago I sat down with a National Geographic as I turned the TV and opened Facebook on my phone. I put myself in a predicament. I was divided. I was not free to focus on one thing, because I had three going. Options are more limiting than freeing. I should have done away with two things so I could focus on one. This principle applies to spiritual single-mindedness too.
 
Not being single-minded is what got humanity into trouble in the first place. And it keeps getting us in trouble. We have one God (one master), not many, yet we let ourselves be mastered by many things, so then how can we focus on God who is one? It’s hard. We fail, but we may be more capable than we give ourselves credit for, because the power of God is in us.
 
In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster wrote, “Everything hinges upon maintaining the “first” thing first…The central point of the Discipline of simplicity is to seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of his kingdom first and then everything necessary will come in its proper place…Simplicity is freedom. Duplicity is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear.”
 
I’ve experienced this. I know it’s true. Duplicity messes with our souls. It screws up our minds. It ruins our lives. It makes us forget who we are. But, duplicity is the way of our culture – we think more is better. We think options guarantee freedom. We don’t want to be boxed in. We complicate our lives more than simplify them.
 
Foster wrote, “Soren Kierkegaard captured the nucleus of Christian simplicity well in the profound title of his book, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.” Kierkegaard wrote, “If thou art absolutely obedient to God, then there is no ambiguity in thee and…thou art mere simplicity before God."
 
There is happiness and liberty, but only in one - only in simplicity.

 

 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Jesus, the Incarnate Word, Our Bible


There is great value in reading our Bible and running through our heads during the day the things it (He, Jesus, the Incarnate Word) says. In the last couple days this fact has been more pronounced to me. Perhaps, because I am trying to figure out how to help our daughter know who and what she exists for – and to somehow cultivate a desire to want and think about what is pure and lovely. And to teach her she is wonderful and beloved. How can we help her piggyback, like this little polar bear, onto God who carries her?
 
I often take it forgranted, but it is a gift to have life-giving, nourishing words on pages which we can buy for as little as $4.95. Our Bibles, or more importantly contact with God, grounds us, quiets us, center us and invigorates us. He, Jesus, the incarnate Word, gives us stout wisdom and knowledge in a day and age when other options for those commodities are watered down. We read our Bible and study it (Him), as Richard Foster says, to interpret, and reflect and mediate on, it's overarching meaning, not just what it means to us. “What it means to us” at a given time may vary depending on our mood and circumstance, which needs spoken to also, and God does that...
 
But, our Bible is always speaking about and to the broader universe and sweeping humanity. Of course, we are “us, now” in the present tense (who or where else can we be?), but it (He) speaks to our collective past and future, which includes, but is greater than "me, now." He, Timeless Jesus, the Incarnate Word, our Bible, stakes claim to ultimate reality which we are hopefully striving and finding strength in today.

The last few days I have run these scriptures (sweeping ideas) through my head. Psalm 106:4-5…
 
“Remember me, Lord, when you show favor to you people;
come near and rescue me
Let me share in the prosperity of your chosen ones.
Let me rejoice in the joy of your people;
Let me praise you with those who are in your heritage."

This is a marvelous prayer. There’s a lot in that Psalm. We believe, because we learn it in the New Testament, those who have faith in the Jesus the Messiah are God's chosen ones. We believe it is they (us) who are His heritage. This should make us humble, not proud. We believe those in Jesus the Messiah are right in God’s right - on His good side – and in His sect. We believe it is us who are and will be blessed as God's very own special people. This speaks to who God's people actually are. That's a big deal.

I've also been dwelling on this short verse, “Blessings on the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David.” (Mark 11:10) This is what the people surrounding Jesus were shouting when He rode in on a borrowed donkey. (The rightful owner of all donkeys humbled Himself and asked to borrow a donkey.) Linking Jesus with their ancestor David and God's coming reign was huge - they knew God's promised blessings were nearing in Jesus. And now, today the blessings of the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David have now saturated the Earth and impinge on the space you and I walk. Paul would probably consider those true, pure and excellent thoughts to think about -during our busy days.
 



 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My Art, Your Deer Rack


My senior year in high school I had two consecutive periods of art. I was the only person in the class, because it was an independent study. I did whatever I wanted and loved it. I used airbrush, watercolors, calligraphy, and felt tip pens. All my pieces came from my imagination – I never did a still life of fruit or drew a ’65 Mustang. So, whatever I did was an expression of what was in me - like I was baring my soul.
 
I remember thinking, “Man, people must think I’m weird. There’s a side to me that makes me feel like I’m weird to them.” Once I finished a piece it went on display in the trophy cases in the main hallway of the school.  My classmates often made fun of what I made– even my best friends. “What is that?” they would say and laugh as their voices became meaner and more distant than usual. I think it was easy for them to mock it, because they didn’t understand it.
 
It’s easy to hate what we don’t understand. And it’s hard to hate what we do understand. I was reminded of this truth as we were driving on the interstate a few weeks ago. There was a giant new pickup truck pulling a couple 4-wheelers on a trailer. The 4-wheelers had deer racks mounted on the front. “What is that crap?” I said to my wife with a mean voice. I don’t understand that culture. But, then I thought about two of my co-workers…
 
I like to listen to them talk about bow hunting and putting fake deer pee on their faces. They go to the forest, just them and Jesus, before sun up with the wind-chill below zero and hang, mute and still, off the sides of trees. Owls use their heads as landing strips and squirrels fly into their crotches. They pull their bow back, and hold hundreds pounds of pressure as their nose runs like a faucet and wait for a buck to walk to the perfect spot 30 yards away, but the buck doesn’t. So, they wait seven more hours. That's fascinating.
 
I understand the deer rack on the 4-wheeler better because I have gotten to know my co-workers. I hate that culture less because I understand it a little. The same principle is true with racists and the people they are racing against. No white racist in the 1960’s ever sat down with an African American and sincerely tried to know them, because that would have led to understanding them better, which would have led to compassion, which crushes racism, favoritism and injustice. (Here's a picture of a South Carolina man who didn't die with hate in his heart.)

The moral of story is, try to get to know those you turn your nose up at. If we do this we will understand them and understanding crushes racism, nationalism, all types of partisanships and injustices.
 
It is right in God’s sight when we deal justly with others – when we are free of favoritism we are free indeed. The gospel of Jesus means we are free from what hinders us to love.

 

 

 

 

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Case of the Dilapidated Cookie


It was the 4th of July. Two cookies sat on a platter between my 6 year-old nephew and I. I asked if I could have one. He deliberated. Then he handed me the small dilapidated cookie and took the big round one for himself. (I believe in what Christians call "original sin.") He hasn’t yet learned how to mask his selfishness like me. In my experience, children do not give you what they want for themselves. They give you the lesser cookie. What adult, let alone what child believes, “It is more blessed to give than to receive?"
 
My nephew did not give me the dilapidated cookie because he needed the bigger one for basic survival (he is well fed) but because he, like me, is “turned in on himself,” as Martin Luther put it.
 
Unlike starfish, caterpillars and even infants, mature humans operate on more than basic instincts and reflexes. We have the skill of deliberation, the ability to make voluntary choices, an innate sense of right and wrong and intrinsic values that correlate to our Creator’s in whose image we were made. The higher a being is made the more culpability it has –a mudslide cannot be charged with domestic violence, but an adult can. We have been endowed with the power to make moral choices that can affect millions (Hitler). If not millions, more than we can imagine. The laws of the land imply we can justifiable be held accountable because of our culpability. If we were merely reflexive, instinctive creatures every behavior and action would be justifiable and we could have no laws of the land. Nor would we have laws built into the human heart.
 
The Christian says cookie selfishness is not only an isolated incident of selfishness, but symptomatic of a persuasive illness, a brokenness, which may be called “original sin." The word “original” carries with it the meaning that we are born with it or in it...
 
“So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.” -1 Corinthians 15:21-22
 
My Dad taught our catechism class “we are born in reverse.” We cannot stay as we were born and expect things to end well. If our ship is not righted, if it stays its natural course, we will end up apart from who we were made to be joined to.
 
Someone might say, “It is not fair that we are born this way. How can we be held accountable for a choice we did not make?” That’s a slippery rebuttal because all of us have clearly gone our own way, and as Eugene Peterson put it, “littered the land with heartbreak and ruin.” All of us are amateur musicians who think we know the tune better than the maestro.
 
With that, we should wonder who can change our direction. Who intervenes so we do not stay, as we were born, “in Adam,” in reverse? Who can change our hearts? Who can unstop our ears? Who can give us new minds? Who can give us sight? Who can raise our dead bodies? Who can turn us away from ourselves - so we can delight to give away the the bigger cookie away?
 
 
 
 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bitterness


Andy Mineo has a song powerful and transparent song called “Bitter.” It would be good for our personal health and the renewal of world if we would heed his message. Mineo says...
 
“Sometimes things just happen in life that don't make any sense, but, bitterness is a choice…God I don't wanna be bitter, teach me to forgive, let me see my own sin…”
 
“If I got unforgiveness in my heart, then there really ain't no room for love,
Plus it's stupid cause, I've been so forgiven,
That if I hold a grudge, I don't show He's risen,
But I know my sins removed since Jesus came,
With no reason to forgive me but He did so I do the same”
 
Bitterness is not part of our new life, though we go back to it. It is part of our old, lower, lesser and ugly life. I think all of us have people, places, events or institutions that have embittered us. It's like we have been mentally, spiritually and emotionally assaulted by that person or event. We have been hurt and angered. Think of that person, people or thing and how it makes you feels. It doesn’t feel light, does it? It doesn’t feel happy, does it? It feels restrictive. When I think of who makes me bitter I have a physical reaction – my heart speeds up, I get a lump in my throat, and my mind, which has stored ways I’ve been hurt and angered for years gets flooded with memories of assaults and injustices. I want to make those people know how much they have hurt me. I want to let them know how ignorant they have been to how much they have injured and angered me. I either want to anger and injure them to even things out, or never see or speak to them again - and pretend like they never existed. But, getting even is not part of our new life, neither is totally cutting people out. God didn't totally cut us out. He reconciled, redeemed and healed. He is a mender and so are we because we are His and do what He does. Jesus was talking exactly about bitterness when He taught us to pray, "...forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
 
“Bitterness is a choice.” When someone hurts us, a seed of bitterness can take root. If we are humble, honest, aware of our own shortcomings, and near God’s grace that seed can’t sprout, because it doesn’t have the environment and nutrients it needs to grow. But, I have fed and watered my tree of bitterness. And the tree has been growing for years and the people that embittered me keep doing it. They keep giving me reasons for new branches to grow on this giant, ugly, twisted tree that, like a vine, has attached itself to my heart, soul and mind. And it feels like that hatred can control me at times. Bitterness is greedy - it seems like it refuses to be confined to one area of my life, it wants to invade every area. It feels like it is going to squeeze the goodness out of me and I’m going to turn into a pumpkin or frog. Bitterness makes forgiveness, reconciliation and love impossible. Part of me hates it and part of me must not mind otherwise I’d let God chop the tree down.
 
I go back and forth. One moment I am free of bitterness when I think of who has embittered me and the next moment I am enslaved to it. When I am free from it I can see how much it has enslaved me- and it makes me cry tears of sorrow and also makes me grateful Jesus has a better way. Hope springs here. My tree greens. I feel free. Some of the dark, knarled bark falls to the ground.
 
God, I don’t want to be bitter.
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Makara’s God


The first morning our new baby girl woke up in our home flurries moseyed through the air. They refused to land. I looked out the window. A red-tailed hawk was perched on our neighbor’s wooden fence. Near the fence were two bushes full of robins. The hawk left his perch and swooped with a vengeance and chased out the robins. He flew up and down, side to side chasing them out one by one. In the small domesticated bushes, the hawk’s wide wingspan looked like a pterodactyl in an aviary.
 
Let’s pretend we are the bushes and the robins were damaging the bushes and the hawk was the protector of the bushes. God is like that hawk – He chases away the things that hamper, limit and hurt us, and things in us that hurt others. God chases those little birds away.
 
This is what God’s jealous love is like. Like the hawk God is tenacious. God is tender too. Timothy Keller said it’s important to believe that God is both thundering and compassionate. God made the crevasses on Mount Everest and the hummingbird – He made black holes and daises.
 
Once the hawk chased all the robins away he flew back to the fence. The robins slowly occupied the bushes again. The hawk waited until the full number was in and stormed the bushes. It was awesome. I rejoiced in the Lord who is like that hawk – who is able to chase Makara’s little birds away.

 

 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Plainly Spoken: His


“He made us and we are his.” (Psalm 100:3) That may be the most potent sentence ever written. To be created by and possessed by – what could be more? What could matter more? “He made us and we are his” is plainly spoken. Paul said he didn’t rely on clever and persuasive words, but relied on the power of the Spirit to work in plainclothes words. What could be less cleverly crafted than “He made us and we are his?” If we could grasp this one sentence we would better off than reading 1,000 books. “He made us and we are His” clears up all debates as to how we got here, what we are here for and where we look for help, meaning, value and hope. Amazingly, the sentence leaves no stone unturned. It carries immense weight. The word his alone is so powerful it can transform a person's life. You are his. See?
 
I get hung up on a couple things though. For one, “He made us.” I dispute God; if He made us why didn’t he make us better? For example, why are we able to worry - why did God give us this capacity for self-torture? Why can we feel pain? It sucks to feel pain. Also, we might ask, “Why did God make that person I loathe that way?” Ok, yes, God made me and you and He made us certain ways, but who we are and the situations we are in are effected by sin too. My complaint, I think, has to do more with our falleness than why didn't God make us better.
 
Secondly the “we are his” part. Apparently, that means “we are not our own.” This is only one of the hardest truths in the world. It butts up against who we think we are. We are apt to think we are our own. How could we not be right, right? We are autonomous, right? The word his clashes with ideologies about modern man. “We are his” speaks of possession. God has custody of his people. God is not messing around tentatively putting in a low bid for us – He died for us to make us his. “We are his” refers to the death of Jesus and speaks to every aspect of our life and every part of our body.
 
He made us and we are his.
 
His.
 
 
 
 
 

 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Who Stands with Us?


My two friends and I often made fun of a classmate in high school. We made jokes about him behind his back and often to other people. None of us stood with him and said, “Hey, let’s not talk about Mitch like that.” (Not his real name.) None of us upheld him. He had no friend among us. He had no pity or compassion on his side. No one to plead his case or speak a good word for him. I hate writing that.

“The first time I was brought before the judge, no one came with me. Everyone abandoned me.” –Paul when he was brought before Nero’s throne (2 Timothy 4:16) No one stood with him. No one came to speak a good word for Paul.
 
Everyone abandoned Mitch too. I wonder if Mitch cried out like the Psalmist: “Who will protect me from the wicked? Who will stand up for me against evildoers? Unless the Lord had helped me, I would soon have settled in the silence of the grave. I cried out, “I am slipping” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me.” (Psalm 94:16-18)

Why, as Mitch’s oppressor does this topic catch my interest 16 years later? Because life can treat us like me and my two friends treated Mitch. We might wonder, like Mitch may have “Who stands for me? Who speaks a good word for me? Who has pity on me and has compassion? Who or what is upholding me?” Don’t those questions form in us? We look for footing, but it’s hard to come by- food alone, alcohol alone, music  alone and nature alone help, but only for a brief time. We want to feel supported and upheld, but we feel like we are floating or in the dirt. In the privacy of our own minds we lay down and get up. We face our vices, devices, temptations and tribulations mostly internally. There are, as Matthew Henry put it, a “multitude of perplexed entangled thoughts within us concerning the case we are in and the construction to be made of it.”

The good news is God does uphold us. God speaks a good word for us. God stands with us in Jesus. God befriends us in Jesus. I hope Mitch knows that, though we didn’t give him any reason to believe it.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Like Jenga


We think to lead is to lord over, but to lead is to serve. We think to be great is to enjoy privilege, but to be privileged is to serve. To be great is greater than being great - to be great is to become small.
 
When the disciples discussed who among them was the greatest no doubt they were defending their greatness with their accomplishments and character. They were honoring themselves. But, God honors those who humble themselves, so Jesus made their Jenga tower tumble. He said, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else."
 
Paul wrote, “God chose thing despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important.” (1 Corinthians 1:28)
 
God brings to nothing what the world considers important. And He counts things considered by the world to be nothing to be important. The things we look at and judge ourselves by and others by often do not matter to God. I.E. How a person looks, their aura, how they dress, their status and resume. I think we consider our auras important. By aura I mean the sensations, impressions and feelings we give off. Our auras determine how others perceive us. We can enhance and invent our auras. But, to God a public image is only a public image - it's not important. With this being election season we can see a politician's aura is the difference between winning and losing. In a way, we are always campaigning for ourselves like the disciples were.
 
I liken myself to the disciples this morning. I picture myself having a discussion with you about who is really following Jesus. I would bring up a few things to make my case and so would you. We would probably bring up things that the world, but not God, consider important. Then Jesus would make our Jenga tower crumble. He says to us what He said to His disciples over 2,000 years ago. Like the disciples we are bewildered and realize how much we have to learn about how our Lord thinks.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Like a Grandmother


We recently moved into a neighborhood that was built in the 1990s. In the neighborhood we moved from the houses were built in the 1950s. The trees in our old neighborhood were older and bigger. There are birds in our new neighborhood, but not as many.
 
Like a Grandmother is lonely for her grandchildren to visit her home, I am lonely for birds to visit my trees. (You might think I am crazy. That's ok.) We have two trees in our backyard and I sit on our deck and hope a bird will visit my trees. I hope they will because my tree has plenty of branches for them. I hope they stay and don’t fly away quickly. I hope they sing songs and talk to each other. That's when they are fun to watch and listen to. When the word gets out in the bird community that I have good trees for them I hope they remember my trees.
 
This morning when a blue jay (not pictured) landed in my tree, Jesus’ words came to mind: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:27) I long for birds to land in my treess - maybe Jesus meant something like that when He said He longed to gather His people as a hen gathers her chicks. To me it sounds like God is like a Grandmother wanting company at His house. He is like a tree and longs for us to occupy His branches. He longs for our company. Why else did He makes us?
 
*First picture is "Visit to my Grandmother" by Danny Dutch










 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Fury


“Ideals are peaceful, history is violent.” –Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) in Fury
 
Asha and I went to Fury Saturday night. I didn’t like the movie until Sunday. And I like it more today (Monday) than I did yesterday. Like 12 Years a Slave, there were scenes that were hard to watch. But, like 12 Years a Slave the payoff is an intimate portrait of humanity, which might be impossible to capture without the brutality. The movie is about five men and their tank named Fury in World War II. It reveals how war requires we suppress our honest, fearful, human interior and put on a metal dehumanizing façade. That façade for these five men was a smokescreen – a way to cope with the fleshy carnage. (I have not been to war. Have mercy - this is is a layperson's assessment.) Wardaddy and his tankmates were ruthless, but also reflective, which made for an interesting dynamic.
 
Why does brutality and violence make it human? Because history is violent and our history explains us to ourselves. Only in fury do peace and kindness have names. Only in voilence do we learn love is not the status quo, but the hard won exception. That is true in war and it is true in our lives.
 
That is why we relate to war on a deeply personal level. Fury has happened in your life. It is a part of you. Do you not face, as the Psalmist wrote, “Terrors of the night, the arrow that flies day, disease that stalks in the darkness and the disaster that strikes at midday?” (Psalm 91:5-6.) Like war, we have battlegrounds. We face attacks. We injure others and others injure us. We are scarred. We get weary. We question our choices. We have safe havens. We have people on our side. We have foes – even “mighty powers of the dark world." Paul said we have equipment; belts, shields, helmets and swords. (These are all metaphors of course. Jesus doesn’t lead a cut-off-the-ear revolution.)
 
And like war, it seems life requires we suppress our honest, tearful, fearful, human interior. It seems like life requires a façade or normalcy – a smokescreen – a way to cope with it's carnage.
 
“Ideals are peaceful, but history is violent." This is evident. Ideals went out the window when sin and death entered our story. But, we weren't made for war, so God returns us, even amidst the violence, to our ideals. The beginning scene in Fury it is quiet. The ending scene in Fury is quiet. Right now, it seems, we are in the middle of the movie.