Saturday, February 25, 2012

God is in the Beauty

The kingdom of God reveals itself through the beauty in this world. The fact that we speak of beauty and recognize beauty and distinguish beauty from the alternative evidences the existence of God. In a materialist’s world all we would have would be stimulus responses; everything would simply be, and therefore preclude aesthetics. The closest one might come to conceiving beauty in such a godless world would be when considering something useful. But in this our real world, our notions of beauty roam far beyond that which practically fulfills our needs. Indeed, beauty can sometimes be hazardous to our existence, such as standing atop a mountain overlooking a panorama stretching out three hundred sixty degrees, thousands of feet below.

What is beauty? Well, it has oft been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. True, how we view ourselves and the world will certainly influence our aesthetics. Sure, some people might pawn off something truly ugly as beautiful because it gratifies some hidden rage, fear, or sickness, or gets a response, such as a laugh in embarrassment of a dirty joke. But I’m talking about a transcendent beauty that everyone would confess as beautiful, if asked, when the truth wouldn’t cost them anything.

It is valuable to contemplate this transcendent beauty because, as I said, we will always find God there. One discipline to help keep us in God’s kingdom and fixed on King Jesus is to step back and open our eyes to the beauty that permeates this dark and all too often ugly world. And one way to reveal God’s kingdom to this same dark world is to remind it of this beauty. So we see that beauty is, well, a beautiful thing.

To put my paintbrush where my mouth is, I offer for your consideration the following collection of recent observations.

Some mornings I awake to sunshine pressing against the shutters with such determined vibrancy, it nearly knocks me over when I let it in.


I enjoy watching my neighbor dutifully walking his or her dog that, obviously intoxicated by the fresh air and opportunity, invariably will test the limits of its lead to sniff, spot, and study his way down the lane.


Sometimes a young mother stops to chat; her baby boy--usually with only one foot fully sock clad, with the other bare or with a sock dangling--coos, leans against her, then sits up; sucking on his dimpled hand he listens and watches wide-eyed to the conversation, facial expressions, colors, sounds, gestures, and other things we have long since become insensible to—quietly taking it all in for that day when he will leave her embrace.


Other times the laughter of children can be heard as they run in and out of sprinklers on a hot afternoon, draw pictures on the driveway and sidewalks with fat pieces of colored chalk, circle their friends on scooters, and fall backwards on the wet lawn, lost in their mirth, dreams, and the timeless moment of summer.


There was that poignant moment that passed beyond my grasp like a loud echo fading away, when my daughter, radiant in her wedding dress and luminous as a perfectly cut diamond, floated across the room like a swan gliding silently on a water mirror, leaving in her train a wake of memories. Then, in the manner of that mythological cygnet, she dipped her head in contemplation and then lifted toward the sun.


And those intimate moments at dinner, oblivious to the busyness of the servers and the discordant talking thickening the atmosphere around us, when I gaze into my wife’s eyes sparkling in the dim candle light as she laughs discretely at a joke only the two of us know, and touches my hand, wordlessly leaving nothing unsaid.


An old woman took my hand the other day, clutching it as if it were life. She told snippets of bygone days with her deceased husband, saying how pleased he would have been with his funeral, and smiled at me with brave eyes. Even as she greeted others, the melancholy widow unwittingly held my hand for a strength that had been taken from her and as an anchor against drifting away too soon in to a brief yet certain loneliness. We stood together resolutely—I a second heart beat--until courage pulled her hand away.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why I'm Bummed

Recently, I got my ears slapped back by the theist evolutionists because I attempted to bring discussions about the veracity or not of the account of Adam, Paul's understanding of Adam, etc. back to focus on Jesus and His kingdom. Since the theistic evolutionist accepts evolution as the means by which God created the biosphere, they are struggling with, among other issues, whether or not Adam was a discrete individual or a representation of Mankind, and what did Paul really understand about this. If evolution is correct, then Adam almost certainly wasn’t a single person, which threatens the inspiration of Paul because he pretty much spoke of both Adam and Eve as individuals. See the problem?

During this fracas, I quickly read the 2006 textbook of theist evolution, Language of God, by the premier scientist, Francis Collins. After this, I capitulated to the theist evolutionist for the sake of peace, and agreed that Collin’s DNA evidence is compelling. His analysis is based on the so-called junk DNA and how it has been distributed across the various genetic lines. Dr. Collins made the comment that he cannot see why God would purposely put in non-functioning or junk DNA, so it must be an artifact of the evolutionary process, and the manner it has been concentrated in genetic lines is most easily explainable by an evolution process. Therefore, in my response I added that just because the DNA patterns are predictable across the interrelated lines of organisms doesn’t rule out the possibility that God simply created each organism and its DNA would necessarily relate with other organisms in a predictable manner. In any event, I also cautioned whether we’re talking theology or science, it’s always dangerous to tell God he wouldn’t have done something because it would make no sense to us if He had.

All they heard was my finding Collin’s arguments compelling, and I was told with a virtual extended hand, "Congratulations, we wish you well in your journey as a theist evolutionist; here are some web-sites you might consider...." It’s this latter comment that is the focus of this posting, not a discussion of evolution. What troubles me is it is symptomatic of the disturbing trend of castle building--complete with moats—going on in Christianity, today.

Another example of this castle building is in the long standing debate between the Arminians and the Calvinists. Representative of the former is Dr. Roger Olson, who in his recent blog wrote on the proper criteria of Arminianism in support of what he calls the Arminian cause. Opposing him is the highly popular Dr. John Piper who has all but said outright that unless you hold to extreme 5-point Calvinism you aren’t a Christian; Piper will not allow the teaching of any theology except Calvinism in his church. To Dr. Olson’s credit, Olson doesn’t draw such a solid black judgmental line between those of the Arminian cause and those opposed to it; Dr. Olson has always been clear that his objection is with extreme Calvinism and not the people who hold to it. Nevertheless, Dr. Olson positions himself in terms of the Arminiam cause, and Piper the absolutism of 5-point Calvinism. And these distinctions, along with theist evolution and many others I haven’t mentioned end-up diverting us from the only important cause of Jesus the Christ.

Here’s how this is being played out. If I were a Calvinist (I'm not) who "saw the light" and came over to the Arminian cause, no doubt the Arminian would extend the same warm hand of acceptance that those theist evolutionists extended to me their dubious proselyte. Or as an Arminian who suddenly sees Calvinism as "the right way", I would be welcomed into that fold with equal enthusiasm. What is wrong with this picture? I’ll tell you: we are putting more value to adherence with our theological constructs than to all of us walking as true dwellers of Christ’s kingdom.

I will once again risk being accused of at best naiveté and at worst closed-mindedness, and provide the list of what I believe Jesus taught us to be critical to Him: 1) To acknowledge Jesus as King; 2) Love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength by obeying Him first and last, and this by 3) loving our neighbor as Christ has loved us, which is to ALWAYS act from a servant's heart characterized completely by the inextricable union of sacrifice and humility, so that 4) we tirelessly work to bring justice, which is righteousness, to an unjust world by extending the hand of mercy. In short, we are to be kingdom dwellers who trust Jesus completely for our good conscience, our needs, and our work--that is, by faith; all of which is what God created us for in first place. Everything else, the fine points of theology, forms of worship, music we play, dress, what we eat--all of it--is superfluous.

Jesus' death on the cross and subsequent resurrection has restored His kingdom, and this means breaking down the dividing walls: first those between Jew and Gentile, and then, sadly because they shouldn't have been constructed, the walls that have cropped up between those who confess His name, and finally and ultimately the wall that stands between God and us whom He created in His image for the purpose that His love could be shared in the unity of holiness as He dwells with us forever.

If we as brothers and sisters in Christ would stand on these points (above) and live them, it would go a long way in silencing all the bickering both within and outside the church because people would see in objective terms that God who is both love and holy is. No one will be able to explain it completely, and some will still scoff, but doggone it they will be hard pressed to argue with the data. It was this kind of faithfulness borne by the points (above) that brought so many pagans to Christ during the plagues and persecutions of the first three centuries AD. But in subsequent centuries we've seen this faithfulness hamstrung by the weight of sectarianism and endless arguments about theology, protocols, rituals, and on and on.

Is Jesus pleased with this? I don't think so. But maybe I’m naive. Someone recently argued that the 1600 plus years of infighting has been needed to keep the church strong and vital. Okay, but the whole thing smells of the same divisiveness St. Paul encountered in the church at Corinth. He described the situation this way:

So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people? For whenever someone says, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” are you not merely human? [NET]

I don’t believe it would be too much of a stretch to replace the names of Paul and Apollos with the more contemporary names of Calvin and Arminius. In fact, they need not be names of people; we could easily insert science, theology, or any system we might choose in place of Christ. Paul suggests that one can truly stand on the foundation of Christ, and yet build on that foundation structures based on human traditions, philosophies, and personality cults. In the final judgment, all such monstrosities will burn up.

Wouldn’t it be better to build on the foundation of Christ structures designed by the above principles that please Christ? Shouldn’t this be our heart’s desire, rather than defending at all cost, however eloquently and persuasively, our pet theories, philosophies, or personalities?

Someone might rightfully say at this point that it is valuable to rethink what we understand of God’s revelation—especially in the light of new verifiable information--and discuss the nuances among ourselves, if for no other reason than to be better able to defend the faith. Absolutely! But we shouldn't allow such discussions to build walls between us. In the final analysis, the unbelieving world whom God is trying to reach through us will be persuaded more by a genuine love we share as we walk as a holy people in Christ’s kingdom.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Marvel

According to Webster’s, a marvel is something that evokes awe, amazement, inspiration, wonder, and astonishment. A marvel is an unexpected beauty such as a lush garden growing up in a vast arid and lifeless desert, or a pristine gold palace standing forgotten in a clearing of an unexplored jungle, or you, my dear wife.

When Pastor Rob Renfroe spoke yesterday at the Woodlands United Methodist Church in Houston about Dorcas, which means gazelle in the Greek, as a woman who Luke in his book of Acts specifically called a disciple of Christ because she had walked intimately and completely with Christ, I thought of you.

When Rob further explained that the reason Peter had been summoned after Dorcas died was most likely not because they wanted him to resurrect her—even though he did exactly that--nor speak kind words over her corpse, but to see a true disciple by the holes her passing had left in the hearts of those who survived her, I thought of you; for I, as did those who had known and loved Dorcas, want the world to meet this testimony of God’s intervention in the fallen world of a desperate and lost humanity, look into her face, and find there a true reflection of Christ.

And when Pastor Renfroe concluded that residents of Joppa (modern Jaffa) where Dorcas had lived and Peter had rightly called Dorcas a disciple because she hadn’t merely talked about love but truly loved, I thought of you.

This is why. You bravely confronted the grotesque, after others had turned away, and reached through it to rescue a soul in anguish; on countless occasions you rolled-up your sleeves to clean messes exceeding the delicacies of most people for the sake of human dignity; you dared to enter frightful places to comfort and care for the infirmed; and you would do it all again should the need arise. Even now, you suffer as you reach out to catch little ones before they disappear between the cracks, and you grieve those who have already fallen beyond your grasp; you feed Christ when He is hungry; you clothe Him when he is naked; you heal Him when He is sick.

Some might claim I exaggerate, that my love for you has blinded me to the truth. Not so, because I have seen the fruit of your work. Lives have been changed; souls have been freed; I regularly observe people gravitating to you just to experience, if for only a moment, a piece of heaven. Indeed, in your presence we all discover love.

Dorcas lived what God calls good, and so have others after her. Today, my beautiful wife, you succeed them by your faithfulness to Christ; at this very moment, my sweet girl, you show us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

I urge everyone to come and see a true disciple. I call people from near and far to learn from a woman who walks in the kingdom of God. I invite all to study her love in Christ. Maybe with such a sure witness of God’s grace we can finally put away the bickering, the posturing, the politics, the endless search of proofs, and determine to submit to that same grace and love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly before God.

Come one and all, and watch as justice unfolds in love. Join me, and behold a marvel!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Crank That Volume

The big rage these days is 3D. It might simply be the revival of an old gimmick the electronics industry has been able to dress up with 21st century computer technology and then foisted on a bored populace. Then again, people might actually be seeking more depth in their lives—perhaps they don’t even know it. Maybe they’re all interrelated such that the boredom exploited by the industry has been caused by a sense of an unspoken dimensionlessness in society. Whatever the reason, and despite the apparent marketing potential, 3D is worth pursuing because our world and the people who populate it exist in more than two dimensions. If we can, we should try to see things in at least three dimensions because invariably something is lost whenever we try to flatten things out into two.

A friend and elder at my church, Scott Ribble, recently explained how he has been trying to show his fifth grade Sunday class the importance of reading the Bible in 3D. Actually he called it volume; he encouraged them to crank that volume, which of course any pre-teen is ready to do. But what does Scott mean?

Scott observed how easily it is for us to regurgitate the Scriptural narrative accounts quickly in monotone—what he calls low volume storytelling. He used the account of David confronting the giant Goliath as an example. If we just gun out the story all we’ll conclude is a vague sense of how cool it was the pipsqueak David took out the formidable Goliath. Yet if we slow down our reading of the narrative and crank that volume a little we begin to hear the account in all its humanness. These were real human beings struggling with the same issues of fear, popularity, jealousy, shame, purpose, dreams, and on and on we all struggle with. Only when we hear in 3D the resentment of David’s brothers, the jealousy of King Saul, the hauteur of Goliath, and the faith of David can we take away something powerful, genuine, and applicable to our own modern lives. Only when we ponder our humanness do we begin to fathom the Divine.

Scott is quite insightful in teaching us to crank that volume. And this I intend to do with another familiar Bible account.

On His last journey to Jerusalem, Jesus and His disciples passed through the town of Jericho. Jericho was the garden spot—dare I say it—Eden of Palestine. All the rich and famous gathered there, and it was the logical last stop before Jerusalem. Jesus’ fame preceded Him, and everyone wanted to get a look at the famous Rabbi, even a little man by the name of Zacchaeus. But he was prevented.

If we read the account of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 in low-volume here’s what we’ll get: Jesus entered the crowded streets of Jericho. Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax-collector, wanted to see Jesus, but he couldn’t because he was too short. So he climbed a sycamore tree. Jesus told Zacchaeus to come down because Jesus and His disciples would stay at Zacchaeus’ house that night. Zacchaeus repented of cheating his countrymen and would make restitution, and Jesus said salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house.

Let’s crank that volume.

Zacchaeus was a rich man who got rich as the chief of tax collectors by lining his coffers by cheating his beleaguered fellow citizens of their hard-earned cash. Zacchaeus coordinated all the tax collectors and made sure he was paid handsomely for it. When Zacchaeus later said, “If I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!” the Greek construction of that statement (i.e., for all you grammar buffs: a first class conditional statement) tells us that he was admitting to having committed fraud. Zacchaeus wasn’t simply trying to look good before Jesus and the others witnessing the scene. Why did he openly admit to being a crook and then repent?

Zacchaeus was a very short man. When he came out into the streets of Jericho that day, one can only imagine how much everyone jeered him, repulsed him, and took advantage of the situation to get a little payback. He likely heard things such as, “Back of the line, twerp,” or “My mother died because of you, so get lost before I break your face,” or “How much will you pay me for a place up front?” or “Short people got no reason; short people got no reason to live!” (That last person was obviously an ancestor of Randy Newman).

When Zacchaeus climbed that tree, he carried with him a lifetime of ridicule, marginalization, anger, resentment, guilt, and yes maybe a degree of satisfaction with his revenge. Have you ever been put down, treated unjustly, rejected, or abandoned? What was your first thought of response? I’m not saying Zacchaeus was a victim; he could have chosen to rise above it all, but he didn’t; and he was culpable for his sins. But he was also the human tragedy.

Where this story picks up, all Zacchaeus had was his wealth; and the revenge that brought him that wealth had likely lost its luster in the face of loneliness. This is all of us; this is fallen humanity; this is the result of the chain-reaction of grasping, competition, jealousy, posturing, snubbing, and selfish-ambition among human beings; this is the outcome of hate.

But something amazing happened. Jesus reached with the hand of mercy through all the muck, misery, avarice, anger, and shame that clung to Zacchaeus. Jesus knew who Zacchaeus was and how he got to be that way. More importantly, Zacchaeus knew that Jesus knew it. But for the first time Zacchaeus heard, ”Despite of who you are by both the world’s and heaven’s standards, you still have worth; you are precious in God’s sight.” Jesus demonstrated His willingness to sacrifice His own reputation in order to love Zacchaeus and ultimately save him. This was a colossal action on Jesus’ part because the lines separating the classes of society in those days were many and inflexible (hmm, some things don’t change, do they?).

It was Jesus’ sacrificial love that changed Zacchaeus. When Zacchaeus experienced God's love, it clearly showed him his own lack of love. Had Jesus taken the tack that we most often take—regretfully even some confessing Christ—of telling Zacchaeus how he had cheated people and so deserves what he gets, and if he wants things to go better for himself he had better mend his ways, Zacchaeus probably would have sheepishly given to Jesus and His disciples what they needed, but more than likely dug in his heals even more against people he had grown to hate. Not that Jesus would have been wrong in saying all those things, but judgment as a first response to someone only builds defensive walls. Mercy, on the other hand, doesn’t condone the sin, nor does it need to condemn it because the light of love that shines from mercy always illuminates the truth, even if a person refuses to see it; the contrast love creates is compelling. Zacchaeus certainly saw the contrast, and he repented.

Zacchaeus’ response to God’s love was justice. Justice is a course adjustment back to the right order of things; justice is a course adjustment back to the righteousness of God. We see this justice clearly in the actions of Zacchaeus. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus would give half of his possessions to the poor and he would repay four times all he had cheated from people. So his justice would punch holes in the walls between the poor and the wealthy, and would work to restore right relationships. For this reason, Jesus said salvation came to Zacchaeus’ home, and that Zacchaeus was a true son of Abraham.

Crank that volume.

Don’t miss what Jesus said. The kingdom of God, which is what He created us in His image to dwell with Him forever, must necessarily be just so that relationships can flourish in love; and relationships must flourish in love for the kingdom to remain just. The kingdom of God is righteousness because love and justice reign together in perfect harmony.

It was for the restoration of this kingdom that God made His covenant with Abraham. Through Israel and ultimately the faithfulness of Israel’s representative, Jesus the Christ, God restored His kingdom. And everyone who trusts King Jesus is therefore a true son of Abraham; for Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. In other words, we like Abraham become true kingdom dwellers and therefore walk in righteousness—justice and love--when we simply believe Jesus. And believing Jesus is to trust Him and consequently do what He says. Zacchaeus demonstrated his trust of Jesus in love by his acts of justice, so Jesus rightly called Zacchaeus a true son of Abraham.

Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ home because he entered the kingdom of God by bowing to King Jesus. Because of Jesus’ faithfulness on the cross, Zacchaeus received forgiveness, which is God righting (justifying) Zacchaeus’ life; that is, making the necessary course adjustment of Zacchaeus’ unjust state to a just one. By trusting King Jesus, Zacchaeus then received power to maintain justice in love, which is walking in the kingdom of God. Under the kingship of Jesus, Zacchaeus would be upheld in the kingdom even should he make a mistake—his conscience would be kept clear. And in the end, Zacchaeus will be made perfect and walk without error in the pure righteousness of God’s kingdom forever because the justice and love by which he walked all along proved he had truly entered the kingdom of God in the first place.

This, then, is salvation: forgiveness, walking in justice and love by faith in King Jesus, and culminating in the purity of holiness in love between us and God and everyone else who dwells with us in the kingdom of God, forever. Jesus said salvation came to Zacchaeus’ home. And Jesus said elsewhere that it would come to the homes of everyone who believe Him.

Sadly, there are countless hurting people in the world, hurting because they are caught up in the injustice both within themselves and in the world around them. As with Zacchaeus, they need a hand of mercy extended to them, so that through the light of such love they can understand their plight and see Jesus who has for them the place that God intended for everyone, all along—the place of true justice bonded in love—righteousness—true salvation--the kingdom of God.

What a breathtaking beauty we encounter when we simply crank that volume and listen. Thank you, Scott, for reminding us of this.