Tuesday, September 25, 2012

My Yoke Is Easy....

Every so often a person enters your life who restores your hope for humanity.  The person so evinces the character of Jesus, any doubt you might have about the existence of God quickly vanishes.  Those of you who have faithfully followed this blog will know my beautiful wife fits the description I mean, and that is one of the zillion reasons I love her so much.  Even though she is constantly on my mind, my wife doesn't happen to be the person I'm thinking about in this context at this moment, though.

Years ago, Clarence Wildes came on board the pastoral staff at the church I was attending.  They made him the visitation pastor.Clarence has one of the gentlest hearts I've known in a fellow human being; a model of meekness and purity, Clarence is the poster child of the beatitudes; so you can imagine how popular he became with the sick and infirm parishioners.  The rest of us cherished him, too.

This humble man possesses the childlike attributes of trust and faithfulness our Lord stressed as fundamental to entering His kingdom.  These childlike qualities manifest themselves in Clarence in impishness, as well.  His quiet demeanor easily distracts one to the coming salvo of insightful and clever humor that rarely disappoints, and is always accompanied by a sparkle in his eyes.  But this childlike nature in no way implies simple-mindedness.  Clarence is an avid scholar of C. S. Lewis, and always quite prepared to hold his own in the meatiest of theological discussions.  But what I admire most about Clarence is he never lets doctrine or abstract ideas get in the way of serving King Jesus by loving people by always trying to see them as God sees them.

Clarence came to mind recently because I have found myself in one fashion or another embroiled in the endless conversation about God's sovereignty and human responsibility.  Wait! Step away from that escape key!  I'm not going to drag you into that fray, here.  No, I only want to share a relevant lesson Clarence had taught me years ago concerning Jesus' invitation to all of us:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.” [NET]

Clarence explained how his father had employed oxen for certain tasks on their farm; I don't recall what the tasks were, but it's not important.  He said the way they trained an adolescent ox for the job was by yoking it to an adult.  The adult actually bore the load of both yokes, but the young ox in this manner remained involved, learning the process of the job as it followed the experienced oxen.  The young ox shared, therefore, in the work of the other oxen, and walked the same path they did.  But the adult ox carried what the adolescent couldn't, while showing it what they both would do together more completely when the young ox fully matured.

It's just like Clarence to cut through all of the theological jargon and hair-splitting, and bring us to the simple truth and power of faith.

Clarence has grown old and afflicted with Parkinson's disease; yet none of this has dimmed the light of the Holy Spirit shining unabashedly from his soul. And this light will continue to shine because Clarence never forgets to whom he must remain yoked.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but lives such as Clarence's take us out of words, altogether, where we are no longer encumbered by them and  so can finally begin to understand what the apostle John meant when he wrote, "By this we know that we are in him. The one who says he resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Build a Bigger Better Bomb

Last week I finally sat down and watched the 1930 film rendition of Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war story, All Quiet on the Western Front. Some of you might be wondering what took me so long.  All I can say is my life's riddled with imperfections, one of which is the tendency to overlook diamonds lying out in the open in the tall grass of life.  Remarque's grim tale certainly falls in the category of a rare gem.

It had been said that WWI was the war to end all wars; AQOTWF should've been the story to end all wars.  Sadly, both prognostications have long since been obliterated by an unrelenting barrage of ordinance of incalculable quantity.  Since the days of WWI, when millions of faces of pawns had been sent up against dispassionate walls of machine gun lead to no purpose other than pride of might and nationalism, the slaughter has continued unabated.  Only, today we are more sterile in our execution; we launch missiles from aircraft deployed hundreds of miles away from a target.  We watch the unsuspecting target via satellite as the rocket surgically incinerates human beings--nameless faces of both the guilty and the innocent.  And we congratulate ourselves because, as one person explained to me, "If we don't destroy our enemy, our enemy will destroy us."


In this week's issue of the American Chemical Society news magazine, C&E News, I read about the extensive research being conducted to build the bigger better bomb--that is, chemists are working to improve upon the ever faithful explosive RDX by synthesizing a new explosive of equal or more explosive power, less sensitivity, and--get this--less toxicity to the environment.  I can only comment as the physician did at the end of Bridge on the River Kwai while witnessing senseless and futile carnage unfolding around him: "Madness. Madness."

It may be the old Prussian idea of soldiering as essential to completing a man has largely died out; but clearly other drivers such as nationalism, prejudice, and fear live on.  Don't be fooled, though; as misdirected as these motivations are, governments have institutionalized them in order to more easily goad the taxpaying public into war.  People willingly leap in front of bullets for some vague sense of justice contrived by their leaders, who we have to suspect are actually in it for self-interest and power.

Did I mention power?

Power belongs only to our creator God to wield and allocate, because only God is Good.  And the only path to the justice and peace we all claim to want will be through the proper dispensing of this power according to God's kingdom principles of love in holiness.  Only through the consistent extension of mercy in the face of opposition will we ever hope to see the end of war.

Some have suggested I want a free ride on the backs of those willing to risk their lives for my home and country by going off to war.  But war has never bettered the world, and it never will.  War cannot solve the problems of human society because it contradicts what is truly human.

Of course, war is here to stay until Jesus returns to fully establish His kingdom; so I know all too well Christians must be a part of this ongoing tragedy.  But we must do this by giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, and giving to God what is God's.  Walking with Jesus in His kingdom juxtaposed with the kingdom of this fallen world is a both/and proposition, not an either/or proposition. Thus, Christians must not sit in the bleachers; instead, they must willingly sacrifice themselves by first working in their local spheres of influence to relieve the poverty, injustice, prejudice, and fear fueling human conflicts;  Christians accomplish this without trying to make the people they minister be something the people are not--that's God's job to do--but by encouraging them towards the eternally satisfying condition they can find only in God's kingdom.

And, yes, Christians, must enter the battlefields--no free rides; not to kill, but to pick of the pieces, mend the wounds, and grieve with the mourners.  The actor who portrayed the main protagonist, Paul, in AQOTWF became a pacifist during WWII, to the detriment of his career.  Yet he bravely risked his life countless times as a medic during the many raging battles.  I don't know if he did this for Christ's sake, but his actions illustrate the both/and concept I'm advocating here.

Understand, I am not judging my fellow Christians who have taken up arms for their country; that is not my intent, nor do I even have any right to pass such judgment. C.S. Lewis, the premier Christian thinker of the twentieth century, fully embraced war.  He spoke glibly of how two Christians on opposite sides could kill each other one minute, and be laughing together in heaven the next.  It might be convincingly argued, as well, that the only way to stop a Hitler is to kill him.  Certainly, Chamberlain's brand of pacifism--peace in our times--wasn't up to the task.  But are we really confident that a third non-violent approach wouldn't have worked to bring down the Nazis?  We'll never know.

In any event, so-called just wars such as WWII are rare exceptions in the long course of bloody human history.  In one sense it doesn't matter.  Should the day ever come, I will without hesitation use any lethal source at my disposal to protect my family, friends, and neighbors against a clear and present danger.  But only because I lack the faith to defend them the right way.

If we profess Jesus as Lord, then our Master demands us to address injustice in this world through means contrary to this world's methods.  We are to love our enemy, pray for those who persecute us, and never repay evil with evil, but repay evil with good.  All of which requires us to be living sacrifices through the renewing of our minds.  And whether we live or die in the process, we live; because our King, Lord, Master, Jesus overcame death on the cross.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Presence

As with most young people growing up in Colorado, my friends and I enjoyed camping and hiking in the mountains.  I've since moved away to the flatlands; so should the opportunity present itself, I now prefer to experience the mountain scenery through large windows of a lodge, with a glass of wine in hand before a fire crackling in a cavernous fireplace under the watchful eyes of a moose head.  My friends who have remained in Colorado tell me they still love to get up close and personal with the Rocky mountains, and it shows in their thin and lithe physiques.

But back in the day (there's that dreaded phrase again), we enjoyed the mountains.  And so it was, my friend and I decided to hike up Pikes Peak on one of the trails carved out for that purpose.  I don't remember if our intent had been to climb to the top; it may had been; in any event, we ended up camping about half way up before meandering our way back to civilization.

It was just after dawn on a Sunday morning when the mountain disgorged us into the back of Manitou Springs.  I recollect the sky being overcast and the site quite deserted.  The air was still like the Sargasso Sea.  I seem to recall a pumping station for the western slope water shed, but I could be mistaken.  If so, the pumps would have made the only sound we had heard--like when the time traveler first entered the lair of the morlocks in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine.

And then I felt it.

My friend did, too, and at the same instant; his eyes told the story.  An invisible cloud of gloom diffused around us like Indian ink does in a pool of clear water.  A distinct disquiet enveloped us, displacing the fresh air with an oppression that weighed on us.

"You feel it, too," my friend whispered.

I would like to be scientific about the whole experience, but I cannot; an unmistakable Presence closed in around us that morning.  And its evil was palpable.

My friend and I were Christians, so we wasted no time analyzing or entertaining the Presence.  Indeed, after terse conversation, we bowed our heads and openly but unceremoniously prayed against it.  And as quickly as it had infected the atmosphere, it dissipated, leaving behind the cool, fresh, and thin air so welcome on Colorado mornings.

It must be noted that neither my friend nor I were prone to dwelling on matters of the occult or witchcraft; we certainly hadn't been discussing such topics during our excursion that weekend.  The Presence had appeared totally unexpectedly; we had arrived at the spot without any thoughts or suspicions of even the possibility of such a manifest evil rearing its ugly head.  You must believe me, boogie men were definitely not on our radars.  Nor had we been unnerved by the solitude of the place; my friend and I tended to be introverts in those days, so we welcomed the absence of people; we had been quite content to come off the mountain into the deserted back-streets of Manitou Springs.  No, the Presence we encountered that Sunday morning was real and malevolent.

You might be asking yourself about now why some nebulous evil should happen to pop up on a Sunday morning at such an obscure place as the foot of Pikes Peak.  Well, in the great tradition of the late Paul Harvey, here's the rest of the story.

Months later, in the commons at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, I struck up a conversation with a fellow student who had recently become a Christian.  He told me he had  come out of the occult.  He went on to explain he had been a prominent warlock at one of the local witch covens.

"Witch covens?  We have those around here, for real?" I asked.

"Quite a few," he answered.

"I don't believe it," I said.

"Believe it."  He looked at me with that kind of expression of cold certainty indifferent to how I might react.  "Point of fact," he continued, "except for perhaps San Francisco, Manitou Springs is home to the largest concentration of covens in the country."

Okay, so what's my point?

The next time you turn on the news, open a newspaper, or just walk out the front door into our mad, mad, mad world, tell yourself the chaos is not solely the handiwork of evil human beings, but also that of the Presence, who exploits men and women for the Presence's own evil purposes.  And even though the Presence had been defeated two thousand years ago by Jesus on the cross, it still menaces and influences our tormented world.  The Presence draws its strength from its deceptions; for Jesus described Satan, the despot of the Presence, this way: "...Whenever he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies." [NET]

Therefore, my point is this.  Our hope and security are not in our politics, politicians, philosophies, science, wealth, and the rest because they all are ready pawns in the hands of the Presence.  Rather, our hope and security are in Jesus, and Jesus, alone.  For Jesus is King; the Presence knows this and shudders.  And Jesus' kingdom cannot be shaken;  indeed, Jesus' kingdom will one day be all and in all;  and Jesus' kingdom lasts forever.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why's it so Tough to Trust God?

At the risk of being a broken record, I want to again say we need to trust God for everything.  I suspect you are the same as I am in thinking this is easier said than done.  You may have also noticed how I endeavor to distill things down to root principles.  I do this because even though the details are important, we easily become overwhelmed and lost in the minutia.  And yes, no doubt I can be guilty of oversimplification.  I'm willing to take the risk, though, because I firmly believe simplification can lead us to fresh perspectives of what we claim to believe;  if I make an oversimplification, you jolly well know it because the exercise provoked you into thinking more deeply on the subject; and that's a good thing.

To remain true to my form, then, I propose we struggle with trusting God because we are afraid.  When we peel back all the layers of the onion of our complex lives, the flag we find at the core of our soul--flying motionless, I might add, like the American flag on the moon--that had been planted there by the first of our race to explore that cold desolation, has written on it in large bold black font the obscene four letter "F" word, FEAR.

I could end this posting right here and now by telling you to stop being afraid!  trust the Lord!  But I don't think that will help you much.  I mean, the angels who have visited various persons during the course of millennia, what is the first thing they always say?  Don't be afraid.  And how often did the visitee actually do that?  You know, how often did the person so visited relax, put his arm around the angel's shoulders and say something such as, "Que passa, dude, what's comin' down from on high?  Ah, say, Gabe.  That's your name, isn't it?  Yeah, ah, Gabe, I have, or should I say had this uncle Wooly.  I think he's up there someplace.  I don't suppose I could impose on you to ask him something for me, when you get back and aren't busy?"  The answer is never.  All of us would have been shaking in our boots.  And we will continue to shake in our boots until we successfully pull that flag from its moorings in our soul and replace it with one bearing the beautiful five lettered "F" word, FAITH, which in essence is trust.

Therefore, the way to trusting God begins with recognizing we are all afraid.  But it won't do to simply admonish each other to not be afraid; it's true, of course, but it ain't gonna pay the bill when it comes.

For me, it always helps in praying for matters such as fear, if I can approach God with some idea of what I am up against.  This is not universally the case; sometimes all I can say to God is "HELP!"  That's good, too.  However, knowing the landscapes helps me to pray intelligently and--and this is most important--more clearly recognize God's wise responses and direction.

First, then, we pray for understanding of what feeds our fear. Here are seven back-stories of fear that God might reveal to us.  Please comment on others I may have overlooked; the more insight into this fear gripping us, the better.

1) Someone we should have been able to trust, let us down.
2) I, who should have my best interests in mind, have failed myself.
3) I don't want to suffer.
4) I don't want to die.
5) I don't want to be ostracized by my people.
6) I have an inflated ego (either self-deprecating or narcissistic).
7) I need to be in control.

Hmm, some of those categories seem pretty obvious, but the others--in the words of my beautiful wife--not so much.  Let me quickly demonstrate how I might contemplate a couple of these in order to better identify the fear in my life and so better know what to pray about.

Point 5 is fear of estrangement, but the more fundamental issue is where one is placing his/her loyalty.  Certainly we all want to be accepted by our people; and our people should accept us.  But when we curry their favor at the expense of truth, which is a response of fear, we drive ourselves further into fear because the basis of trust--that is, our peoples' good favor--is wholly unreliable.  If however, we submit to God, loving our people out of the desire to please God, fear will be replaced by love.  In other words, instead of seeking what we can get from our people, which will lead to fear of their disapproval, we seek to please God, and therefore, seek what it is we have to offer to our people--fear turns to love.  Understanding our situation this way helps us to pray more effectively and expectantly for God to help us overcome our fear.

Point 6 is fundamentally fear of being found out who the real me is, or more precisely, fear of exposed inadequacy.  In his novel, Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse wrote, "...self hate is really the same thing as sheer egoism, and in the long run breeds the same isolation and despair."  I would only add that the same fear is behind both self hate and sheer egoism.  And it is this fear that leads to the despair Hesse describes.  Ironically, both types of personalities are accomplished in one or more things; indeed the more accomplished either person might be the more they actually fear their inadequacies, and defend themselves from possible exposure through sheer egoism.  The extreme offensiveness of the narcissist and the false humility of the self-hater are defense mechanisms in response to the same fear of inadequacy.  And just as in point 5, the fear responses only serve to intensify the fear.  Only when they see that their talents--and we all have talents--are a gift from God to express and act in love for the profit of others, will the fear that grips them begin to turn to love.  Understanding this will help them to focus their prayers to overcome their fear.

The apostle John quite correctly wrote, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears punishment has not been perfected in love.  We love because he [God] loved us first." [NET]