Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Little Light Reading

One of my blog readers told me that I have been of a serious bent of mind lately. I took that as a gentle request to lighten it up. Others have asked after learning that I have been reading books like Irenaeus’ Against Heresies or John of Damascus’ Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, if I ever read lighter fare. When I answered, “Yes, I enjoyed Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame very much,” they rolled their eyes in disbelief. It seems they, too, in their non-confronting manner were encouraging me to get a life. Deep theology, philosophy, and science make for a dull boy, not to mention exhausted readers.

Okay, this week we all get a break. I’m going to relate a short and hopefully humorous story that I was reminded of recently when I had the chance to visit one of my old friends during my daughter’s wedding.

I worked in a camp in the mountains of Colorado during the first two summers of my college career. I would have worked a third summer except my father wasn’t a happy camper with me earning only twenty-five dollars a month—chump pay even in the seventies. Somehow my father had seen how the summer camp experience suited me, so he forgave my not securing a real job—like I said, for two summers, anyway.

Summer camp was where I first met my aforementioned friend whose name is Brad. We became fast friends, and before long were known far and wide as the BB brothers. We were also counseling partners.

The camp where we worked was divided in a girls’ side and a boys’ side. This meant that during joint-activity times, the boy counselors could meet with the girl counselors and kindle all those romances summer camps are famous for. I digress. Each side was comprised of five or six cabins with two counselors assigned to each cabin. The BB brothers had the Arapaho cabin. Our friend Bill and his partner had the Apache cabin next to us.

Every morning we would have to wake the kiddies, make sure they dressed and ordered their areas, and herd them off down the hill to the lodge for breakfast. The counselors had to stay behind and feel inside all the sleeping bags to see if there were any bed-wetters. Brad always stuck me with that job (see, Dad, I earned my lousy twenty-five a month). I don’t remember what Brad did during those daily inspections—probably groomed himself for Betty-Lou, who was from the Chippewa cabin; Brad and Betty-Lou had the first of the great summer romances that year.

On one of those typical mornings we noticed the Apache mob heading down the hill without Bill (he never stayed behind for any reason), so Brad and I went next door to find out why. Bill had decided to sleep in, and was still lying on his bunk when we arrived. On the nightstand by his bed was a brand new bar of Irish Spring deodorant soap.

Brad said, “Look, Bruce, Irish Spring!”

“Yes,” I replied, “guaranteed to leave you clean and fresh like the green of Ireland.”

Brad removed his jack-knife from his pocket, and opened the blade. Grabbing the bar of soap, he said in his best Irish brogue, “Notice the green and white stripes!”

Bill quickly intervened, “You cut into that and I’ll kill you.”

Non plus, Brad replied, “Manly yes, but Bill uses it too.”

That’s it--no morals, philosophical implications, or theological metaphors, just life in the raw from my rapidly receding past. See you next week.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mayella's Dilemma is Everybody's Dilemma

My daughter has to read To Kill a Mockingbird for English. Apparently, everyone has had to read that novel for English. I never did. We had to read The Godfather and other intellectually stimulating books of that kind when I was in High school. I may have seen the movie with Greg Peck, but I don’t remember the story; so I decided to read the book.

I can see why TKMB won the Pulitzer Prize; it is a beautiful piece of writing—penetrating in its understanding of the human condition, and tragic in its exposé of racism in 1930’s America. Yet even in that, TKMB is not heavy-handed, but attempts to gently guide both the interested characters and readers out of the darkness of prejudice; TKMB makes its case from a Christian worldview. The protagonist father and lawyer, Atticus Finch, is perhaps the best definition I’ve come across of what Jesus meant when He said, “Blessed are the meek.”

It would be only a few years after TKMB hit the bookstores that the Civil Rights Movement ushered in a new America. Interestingly, TKMB wasn’t cynical of such a future event, but presented itself with an undercurrent of optimism for love triumphing over hate. It perhaps could have been no other way because the story was told from a child’s perspective. It seems TKMB saw something good in people, and accurately foretold a new era of openness and equality in our great country. I worry, though, that the specter of racism still lurks just beneath the surface of American society. I hope I’m wrong.

But as important as it is to stamp out racism, that is not the topic of this posting. Nor do I believe TKMB was written solely as a polemic against racism; it is far too good a work to be that mono-dimensional. A recurring theme in TKMB, and one we should all take heed, is trying to walk in the shoes of another person before we jump to hasty conclusions and judgments of him/her. Another way to state this is we need to try to see everyone as God sees them. And this I intend to do with the character Mayella Ewell.

In case you are like I was up until a few days ago and have never read TKMB or it’s been too long, I will reprise the situation with Mayella for you. She was a poor illiterate white nineteen year old who was forced by her equally white and illiterate father to trump up rape charges against a poor but gentle African-American man named Tom Robinson. What really happened was Mayella, in the manner of the Pharaoh’s wife with Joseph, hungry for love and attention, made advances at Tom. Her father witnessed this, and in the confusion Tom ran away; Mayella’s father beat her, and then fabricated the rape to save face.

Tom ends up in court looking at an electric-chair with his name on it, defended by Atticus Finch. Mayella is on the witness stand, and Atticus is questioning her.

Here is a brief snippet of what transpires:

After the prosecuting attorney referred to Atticus as “big bad Mr. Finch,” Atticus opens his questioning.
“Miss Mayella,” he said, smiling, “I won’t try to scare you for awhile, not yet. Let’s just get acquainted. How old are you?”
“Said I was nineteen, said it to the judge yonder.” Mayella jerked her head resentfully at the bench.
“So you did, so you did, ma’am. You’ll have to bear with me, Miss Mayella. I’m getting along and can’t remember as well as I used to. I might ask you things you’ve already said before, but you’ll give an answer, won’t you? Good.”
“Won’t answer a word you say long as you keep on mockin’ me,” she said.
“Ma’am?” asked Atticus, startled.
“Long’s you keep on makin’ fun of me.”
Judge Taylor said, “Mr. Finch is not making fun of you. What’s the matter with you?”
Mayella looked from under lowered eyelids at Atticus, but said to the judge: “Long’s he keeps on callin’ me ma’am and saying Miss Mayella. I don’t hafta take his sass. I ain’t called upon to take it.”

Isn’t Harper Lee a brilliant writer; you get sucked in with even that little piece of her novel.

What we must see is that Atticus was not patronizing Mayella. He was doing his job, but his treatment of Mayella was genuine; Atticus treated everyone with respect and decency, in and out of the courtroom. Mayella knew his reputation, so she knew in her heart that he wasn’t stroking her. So why did she react the way she did? That’s the question I want to answer because it says something about all of us.

Mayella was a squashed person. Any self-respect or self-worth she may have had had long been beaten out of her by a vile, angry, ignorant, cruel man called her father. All she wanted was to be loved and desired and respected. Of course she did; we all want that because God created us to walk in love and holiness. For this reason she threw herself at poor Tom. Now Atticus was offering her genuine respect and worth, and she pushed it away; she never confesses the truth of what happened that hateful afternoon. If she had, she would have opened up for herself the love and respect she sought. People would have forgiven her, even Tom, I have no doubt. Her father would have probably come down hard on her, but I suspect the town folk would have rallied around her—certainly Atticus would have; she’d have been safe, and young enough to make something of herself. Yet despite all that promise calling out to her, Mayella didn't confess; she didn’t because she was afraid.

Here’s my point (long in coming, I know). Mayella feared a beating, but she feared being wrong even more. To admit she was wrong meant giving up her last vestige of control; she must be seen as right, or lose her precious self-sufficiency. Her dilemma was either to take hold of the hand of love extended to her and start down the road to being an authentic human being, or forfeit it all for her pride--to find the love she desperately wanted and needed by loving Tom, or turn it inward to harden into hate.

Mayella faced the same dilemma we all face. God extends His hand to each of us in love for us to become the authentic humans He created us to be forever with Him in love and holiness; all we need do is admit we have been wrong in our selfish-ambition and turn back to Him and love Him by obeying Him.

Will we turn back to a faithful and loving God and truly live, or will we cast our lot with Mayella and die with our alleged self-sufficiency?

Listen to what the Scriptures tell us:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness. “There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years. “Therefore, I became provoked at that generation and said, ‘Their hearts are always wandering and they have not known my ways.’ “As I swore in my anger, ‘They will never enter my rest!’”
Hebrews 3:7-11 (NET)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

God's Vision is the Real Deal

Vision provides the impetus for progress. As humans we revere our visionaries. Only recently one of the greatest visionaries in human history passed away. Many have mourned his passing, some even venerate him. We love visionaries. They see what we wish we could see, dream the impossible, and then somehow make it happen. And we reap the benefits.

I've been a great dreamer. As far back as I can remember I have set before myself visions to aspire to. When I took up the violin, I dreamed of becoming a great violinist. I polished my violin, admired it in its case, learned all I could about music, composers, and violin music. Today, I can hardly speak of being a violinist without couching it with a thousand caveats and apologies. Why didn’t I achieve my vision? I never wrote it down, but I easily could have in precise terms; so what went wrong? Simple, I didn’t practice enough. And what practice I did, I did wrong. Someone once said practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. They were right.

Juxtaposed to this glorious musical vision of mine has been an even grander vision to be a great scientist. I remember when I was in Junior high my next-door neighbor, who worked for the atomic energy commission, handed me a radioactive piece of uranium about the size of a large walnut (yes, you heard me; this was back in the days when one could build a nuclear reactor in his garage, and nobody cared). He then admonished me: “You know, Bruce, you play at being a scientist; you’re never going to amount to anything unless you work at it.”

A year passed by, and after not submitting a project to the local science fair, my teacher scolded me in front of the entire ninth grade science class: “Bruce, you’re nothing but a tape-recorder. You know a lot of facts, but you don’t know what to do with any of them!” Certainly he had no tact, and my already miserable life in Junior high became more unbearable after that.

But he was right, and so was my neighbor. I’ve maintained many grandiose visions in my lifetime, but failed to work hard enough to achieve any of them. That is why after fifty-five years I remain more of a consumer than a producer—a state I loathe. Sure I am trying to catch-up, but the nerves aren’t as good as they used to be, and it seems the old brain is running out of room; everything has been so hardwired over the years I have to work twice as hard as I would have had to in my youth just to reach the starting box. One cannot go home again.

Companies teach the importance of a vision. No doubt some of them actually believe this. My experience has been that visions are something the employees spend hours of company time drafting, and post around the facility to admire and inspire. But the executives pay little heed to these vision statements, despite the lengths they go to endorse them. The reason is the real short-term vision is always to make as much money as possible with the least cost; and the long-term vision is to continue making increasingly more money each year without incurring increasing costs. There is nothing wrong with these visions; they drive the economy, after all. It would be better if they were upfront about it so everybody could do their jobs with minimal rancor, frustration, and disillusionment.

We see then that there is vision few have the resources, talent, luck, and power to realize; it is a genuine vision that when executed is truly a wonder to behold. There is another kind of vision that is little more than day-dreaming; and there is third type of vision fabricated by the powerful to placate the masses.

Don’t misunderstand me, having a vision is essential if we are ever to progress; vision is a good thing. The trouble is within the framework of human society, visions can more often than not be elusive, corruptible, and devastating; how many people have died without realizing truly great visions because they had been cheated, or were unable to find that right place at the right time, or were too lazy? I grieve for them all because in every case failure arose out of weakness in humankind.

However, there is another vision, one that we can count on despite our corruption, one which is not duplicitous, nor unattainable, nor subject to chance. In fact, this vision was conceived in eternity before the creation of time and space. It is a vision wrought by love and guaranteed to happen because it is God’s vision.

As I have pondered my last several blogs I worried my readers might see me as insensitive somehow; no one has attained to the lofty goals I have enthusiastically espoused. I’m afraid my readers will walk away one by one, disgruntled by my idealism. I do understand.

But it hasn’t been idealism; I haven’t been trying to sell you a bill of goods; I have been trying to give you a vision, not one of my own making but God’s vision—at least as best we can understand it from what He has revealed to us. And this vision is not idealistic, because it is doable. We think it is only a fantasy because so few have even come close to embracing God’s vision for His creation. This is so not because the vision is untrustworthy, but because we have forgotten the vision and supplanted it with a series of our own visions, and in the process lost trust in God.

I haven’t harangued on being authentic human beings, the kingdom of heaven, true freedom and on and on because I want us to feel guilty, or miserable, or hopeless; quite the contrary, I want us to rediscover the true vision and hope we have in Christ so we can effectively walk in Christ today so both ourselves and those who witness our walk and like what they see can be a part of God's glory, for His glory, forever. Without knowing God’s true vision in creating us and the cosmos, it becomes too easy for us to lapse back into selfish-ambition, which if not repented of is fatal.

God’s vision is certain to happen; God has proven Himself faithful because Christ is alive. Let’s embrace that vision, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Saint Paul taught us. And we know we will succeed because of what Paul said immediately after this, “for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.”

God’s vision is not an ideal but a reality for all those who love Him by doing what He says. God will have His vision. And He has made it possible through the faithfulness of His son, Jesus the Christ, to be a part of that most certain vision. It behooves us, then, to let go of all the distractions and sin that blind us, and by the power of Christ remain fixed on the vision of God’s glory for His glory; for God’s vision for us is His glory and He is glorified through it. God’s vision is the real deal.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Faith, it ain't easy

The apostle, Thomas, has often been called doubting Thomas because he was the last of the eleven apostles to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. When Jesus confronted him, and Thomas felt the nail holes in Jesus' hands and placed his finger on the wound in Jesus' side, Thomas finally believed.

What Jesus then said, as with all things Jesus taught, was true: "Thomas, you believe because you see me; blessed are those who don't see me yet still believe."

Faith is a difficult proposition for us humans because we are sentient creatures. When Moses left the Israelites to go up the mountain and receive the Law from God, he was gone a long time. As the time passed and still no Moses, the people became impatient and agitated. We can only wonder if they weren't pacing back and forth in the desert thinking about the certainty of home and hearth back in Egypt on the one hand, and an unfulfilled promise of a paradise flowing with milk and honey on the other.

Finally, with no sign of Moses, the people caved in and cast an idol for themselves. The golden calf they constructed gave them something to see and touch, and, perhaps more importantly, a measure of control.

The Israelites were quite wrong in what they did. Every time I read that account I shake my head in disgust. God had proved Himself faithful time and time again in objective and observable ways. He had protected Israel through all the plagues, liberated them from their oppressors in Egypt, parted the Red Sea for them, routing the pursuing Egyptians in the process, and went before them day and night as a visible pillar of fire. God miraculously fed and watered them. Yet, with the first sign that their leader, Moses, wasn't coming back, the people panicked, and, forgetting everything they had witnessed, took matters into their own hands.

I mean, how stupid and fickle could they be? If I was given a tenth of what God had given them in terms of validating whom He is, I would never worry about another thing again.

How stupid and insensitive can I be? I'm a Christian. By that I'm supposed to mean my leader, Jesus the Christ, has temporarily disappeared to the mountain, where He is writing His laws on my heart, so that when He returns we can be one together in the eternal paradise flowing with milk and honey--the kingdom of heaven. And He has given me the Holy Spirit to teach me, strengthen me, and light my way during the long slog through the dark and treacherous desert. God has given me all He had given Israel and more; yet, at the first sign of trouble in my life, I panic, and more often than I care to admit, take matters in my own hands.

Faith is tough. It's hard to keep our eyes focused on God whom we cannot see, and hope in a promise so long in coming.

Dense stands of trees of doubt tower all around us, cutting off much of the light. Many of these have grown from saplings we planted, ourselves. For example, debt overwhelms us in our pursuit of the American dream to the point that we start to doubt God's faithfulness. Of course, everyone else has planted their trees, including those spiritual forces opposing the kingdom of heaven. Regardless, selfish-ambition provides the seeds, and conceit cultivates and nurtures the forest.

There is no paucity of persons urging us to turn back, claiming that nothing lies beyond the trees except more trees. And in the midst of a burgeoning darkness, we wonder if they might be right.

None of this should surprise us. Jesus taught us that the gate leading to Life is narrow, and few would go there. He also said the times will become so dire that even those who truly love Him will begin to doubt.

His words should bolster our resolve to remain patiently fixed on Him, clinging, despite the doubt screaming in our ears, to the certain hope we have in Him; we need His strength because His words also tell us that faith ain't easy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Be Still..."

Back in the day (you know you're getting old when you can refer to your college years as back in the day), my then agnostic brother and I had one of our frequent debates. He asked me that infamous question designed to silence the theist: "Can God build a rock so big that he cannot lift it?"

The answer is God can do anything that isn't impossible. Some will balk at this claiming that I have limited God. This is, of course, the objective of the above query; the agnostic wants to force the hapless theist into admitting that God has limitations, and therefore show there is no God.

But only God knows what is truly impossible because He created all things, including knowledge. From what He has revealed about Himself to us, one impossibility is God ever ceasing to be Himself; God will never contradict His own nature because God cannot not be God. We cannot add anything to this because who and what the boundless, incomprehensible God is forever remains beyond us; it is impossible for us to ascertain what an action might be that would constitute God contradicting Himself, except what He has told us: "God is neither tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone with evil."

Instead of despairing on account of the inscrutability of God, we should rejoice and heave a deep sigh of relief. Our biggest encumbrance as Western people is our need to explain everything. But God is infinitely greater than our intellect because He is truly God. We can be glad in this because we know the God we are confronting is really God and not some invention to placate our particular whims. The fact that God is unchangeable should comfort us because it means we can totally trust Him.

In order to put feet on the last point, I must remind us of a historical event critical to the restoration of Mankind and, ultimately, the cosmos. God freeing the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt was a pivotal moment in history because it, in objective terms, illustrated for us all 1) Mankind's plight that is its captivity in death, 2) that only God can save us from our plight, 3) that the means of liberating us would come through the nation of Israel, culminating in the crowning moment of history, the incarnation of God, Jesus the Christ, and 4) God's faithfulness to His promises. It requires the whole Bible to prove these points. I want us to see from them that we can trust God.

God chose Moses to be His instrument for leading Israel out of captivity. During the course of those events, Moses twice asked God for God's name. The first time, God answered simply, "I AM." This speaks to God's infinite, unchangeable, and inscrutable being that transcends existence. On the second occasion, God's answer regarded His character: "I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, and compassion on whom I will show compassion."

The Hebrew word translated mercy is khanan. God will be gracious, particularly in forgiving sins. The Hebrew word rakham, translated compassion (above), means a deep, abiding love. The word's noun root means womb. God will cradle us like a baby in its mother's womb.

Therefore, don't wait to approach God until you have Him all figured out because that day will never arrive. Instead, simply admit you are lost because you have forsaken Him, and turn back to Him, confessing Jesus as King, and trust Him by doing what He says. And even though you cannot know all the whys, you can be confident that God will provide the grace to succeed and for the pardoning of your mistakes, and you will be forever safe--even should there be great affliction for a time.

Cherish in your heart these words from our God: "Be still and know that I am God."