August 29, 2007

Throned Above

Well, Mr. Gonzalez has resigned amid much murkiness, Mr. Vick has apologized for killing dogs, and Mr. Bean has made another cornball movie. Yes, my friends, it's another exciting week here on planet earth. And yet,

God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.
God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.

Psalm 47:6-8

I suppose this is silly, but sometimes on Sunday mornings, during worship, I like to imagine that there are great holes in our sanctuary roof. You know, punctures … so we can see, and breathe—like how a kid punches holes in a metal lid, such that his newly-caught specimens can respire in their new glass dwelling. (I guess, by inference, we are God's little bugs!)

Like I was saying: holes in the roof. And when we sing, especially when we are singing well—in one of those magical Sunday morning moments when, even if just for an instant, it all comes together: mind, heart, and body—I guess I like to imagine that each of our words mingle together in shared song and sort of waft their way right up through those apertures—upward, heavenward, toward God. I guess this is why, by the time I finish singing the Gloria Patri with you, inevitably I find I am staring at the rafters. It's not so much that I like the color brown; it is almost as if I can see right through them. It is as if for a moment I can see what is really real in this life.

What I most want to see, what I think I am looking for up there, Sunday to Sunday, on the other side of our brown board ceiling, is a vision of God grand and gracious enough to grab my preoccupied attention again, one stout enough to lift my eyes above all the strangeness and silliness of these times. In a world suffused with governments' shortcomings, with the rise and sudden fall of superhero after superhero, with the antics of cheap entertainment (I'll confess though, I love Mr. Bean), I guess I need my eyes raised up just a bit. I need to see that which is eternal in the heavens—he who is above all this folly, more lasting than whatever chattering news update comes off the ticker hour by hour.

"Alberto-Vick-BeanAlberto-Vick-Bean Alberto-Vick-Bean" Enough already. Show me, please, the life of another trinity, a far better consortium, one offering far better news. Let me see the Lord—Speaker, Word, and Breath—high above all this predictable press. Let the songs of my mouth arise to God alone.

Sing praises with a psalm. God sits on his holy throne.

Mr. Gonzalez, Mr. Vick, Mr. Bean … and for that matter, Mr. Hawkins as well: look up and look alive. See the One who sits enthroned above all this curious chatter, all this nebulous noise. Look up through the holes in your roof and see One who will not pass away, whose word outlasts even the cable news, and to whom all good and glad praises are due.

Look up to him … and live.

August 28, 2007

Righteous Roots

No one finds security by wickedness, but the root of the righteous will never be moved. -- Proverbs 12:3

"Righteousness" gets a bad rap lately, in popular conception too often confused with self-righteousness. (Try not to imagine overly pious Christians thumping their chests and judging the rest of us for our various infidelities.) The good news is that a person can be righteous without it absolutely ruining him … or his friendships! Thank God.

Simply speaking, in the Bible, the righteous man or women is one committed to God, one loyal to the bond God has made with us. In the Old Testament, that bond was the great covenant secured with Abraham and Sarah, later through Moses. The Lord says to Israel: "I will be your God. You will be my people." In a sense, they get married … and just like in a marriage, each side must stay committed to the relationship. So, the righteous members of God's family were those who took seriously what God had done for them and then pledged to live accordingly (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, etc.). To be a part of God's covenant brood was both a blessing and a burden, both a gift and calling.

In the New Testament, the wide beam of the covenant is narrowed to shine squarely and solely on Christ, and what secures us to God now is the living bond that Jesus makes with us. What we celebrate as believers is that God has accredited us as righteous, i.e. allegiant, in good standing, faithful—not of our own merit, but by virtue of Jesus' immense qualifications (see Romans 5). The free gift of grace is that we are accounted in God's family by God's generous action, not our own credentials. This is why self-righteousness will never do in Christian faith: Our good standing with God is wholly God's own doing, a free act of his ineffable grace. Show me an arrogant Christian and I will show you someone who has never really experienced God's grace. In the New Testament, he who is righteous not only accepts this remarkable gift with humility and gratitude, but pledges to live a life of love in light of such good news (Colossians 3:12-17).

Now we are ready to hear the promise of Proverbs 12:3. The root of the righteous will never be moved. Most of the schemes and shortcuts available to us for securing ourselves turn out to leave us empty, ashen, and without substance. Winds of trouble blow hard, and our house falls for lack of any livingness. (See Matthew 7:24-27 for Jesus' parable on the matter.) But the gospel is a strong tap root that anchors our lives in God's good grace. There is a durability to the covenant, it will not come undone because both God and we have pledged our part. (Compare Proverbs 10:25, 18:10, 28:1, and 30:5)

Note well, however, that righteousness—both the free gift and the resulting calling—is not a get-out-difficulty-free card. The mystery of why sometimes things are not the way they are supposed to be broods over all of us, righteous or not. The difference, I imagine, is that in righteousness one is not "moved" out from under the canopy of God's good provision. The "wicked" have nothing on which to stand in a storm, but the winds of trouble do not blow a righteous one out of the grip of God's grace. The promise of Proverbs 12:3 teaches one to say in all matters under heaven, "Whatever my lot …"

"Whatever my lot." These are perhaps the best three words in the classic hymn It is Well With My Soul. When five of our members offered Spafford's words and Bliss' tune as their anthem last Sunday, I sat humming along and was again reminded of the promise and power of standing firm in God's grace—regardless of circumstances.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well with our souls; we are counted as righteous. In this we rejoice. Let us once again commit ourselves to a life of grateful obedience.

August 15, 2007

There Is a Future

Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always continue in the fear of the Lord. Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off. - Proverbs 23:17-18

One of the more challenging features of this life is that its most important endeavors—those efforts that matter most from an eternal perspective—usually take a long time to come to faithful fruition. Few fruits worth tasting spring forth from their branches overnight. The wise gardener knows she is in it for the long season.

A loving marriage, raising faithful children, becoming competent and proficient in your professional work, being a good steward of the retirement years—none of these are matters in which hasty impatience bears much fruit. And this is not even to mention a lifetime of Christian faith along the way: loving the Lord and loving your neighbor in the manner that Jesus both models and makes possible. In all these efforts, both public and private, we have to take the long view. One must labor with an eye toward the future.

This is perhaps why it is so aggravating when we see someone taking shortcuts with life, "getting ahead" by abbreviated or unscrupulous means. What can be much worse than, after many months of carefully and diligently practicing your craft at work, some joker on his own accelerated agenda leap-frogs over you with a grin and the latest promotion. No matter that he cuts all the wrong corners (everyone knows it) and flatters the boss every chance he gets (everyone hears it). It's easy to get angry over the injustice of it and envy his quick result.

But the counsel of Proverbs speaks well: Do not let your heart envy those who are fast-tracking around you, taking advantage of easy (if not sinful) shortcuts to get ahead in this life. Their pursuits are inevitably based on fleeting things, but your hope is based on the Lord's eternal goodness. When it all shakes out for good in the end, what they have amassed so quickly in this life will be consumed by a purifying fire (Proverbs 11:7, 2 Peter 3:10). God's word, by contrast, will not fade away. If there is a solid future to be found, surely it will be found there.

It is a faithful act of prayer regularly to consider what constitutes our most important endeavors, especially since the list can change as we age and mature. St. Augustine (the great Christian thinker from the 5th century) called such a list "ordered loves." Take a moment now and then to jot down your top five on a piece of paper. Then ask yourself: What are my best hopes for these endeavors? What are my deepest longings? What future for these efforts do I hope for, do I imagine in my mind?

Once you've fleshed out some answers to those questions, fashion them into prayers. Regularly invite the Lord to guide you and to bless the results, however far in the future those "results" may be. In the case of a big project at work, it may be merely days; in the case of parenting, it may be a lifetime! Whatever the span, these prayers are important. If anything good is to be born out in our lives—in our homes, our families, our vocation, our church, our community—surely it will require the blessing of the only Lord who can provide a solid future, who will not "cut off hope."

Don't envy those who race by you in this life or seem magically to have it all together with little or no effort. Instead, through prayer, commit all of your most important labors and loves to the Lord. The triune God is faithful and good. He will see them through to the end (Philippians 1:6).

Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, you will find a future, and your hope will not be cut off. - Proverbs 24:14

August 14, 2007

Don’t Say It

Paid as I am to be a full-time student of the Bible, even I am surprised sometimes by just how relevant such an ancient text can still be in our strange, modern times. To be sure, relevance is in large part a gift of the Holy Spirit, who broods over a passage when we approach it prayerfully, bringing new life to old words. But I also think the Bible is relevant to us today simply because people are people—regardless of the millennia.

This is a large part of what I am enjoying so much about the book of Proverbs as we preach through many of its themes this summer. I like how just a simple sentence of common-sense-instruction can reach across the eons and sort of 'zap' us with fresh insight and timely correction. Take Proverbs 11:12, for instance:

Whoever belittles another lacks sense,
but an intelligent person remains silent.

Once, when Elizabeth and I were dating, I somehow thought it would be funny during dinner with some friends to make fun of the fact that she was a really good student, with much better grades than I. Turns out, it wasn't funny at all. And the really twisted part was that somehow I imagined the whole episode would be endearing. What strange creatures we are.

What I like about Proverbs is just how straight-forward it is: We should be smart enough to know that belittling words will backfire on us and hurt others. Keep silent! If my Jr. High band director had written 11:12, it would advise: Zip that upper lip! He always said that when we were mouthing off.

And yet many daily conversations in homes, workplaces, classrooms, and—God forbid—marriages seem riddled with little belittling words. And why is it that the closer a person is to your life, the more tempting it is to fire off a remark?

Maybe we think it will somehow impress. Maybe we are afraid to show straight-up affection, so instead we make fun of others we love. It's as if we are trying to tell them something, but it's upside down, inside out. Maybe we've been worn down ourselves by other's comments for so long that we'd just assume strike first before someone else strikes us. Or maybe (I'm just speaking for myself on this one) we're just plain old garden variety sinners, and it comes out in our speech! The reasons are as endless as our stories.

But the problem with little belittling comments here and there is that such remarks are like termites. One or two soon begets ten or twenty. Before you know it—maybe it takes months, maybe even years—the foundation for whatever relationship we're in has been completely eaten away. A weighty moment comes along; there's nothing there to hold it up anymore. That's a tough place to be, but I've always been a believer that nothing is impossible with God. Grace abounds in the rebuilding.

If the amount of attention Proverbs in the Old Testament and the book of James in the New give to our tongues is any indication of how important good words are to us Christian folk, then let us all do well to watch our speech, especially with those closest to us. Take an honest accounting of your words, especially at home. When you feel a remark coming out of the quiver of your mind and into the bow that is your tongue, turn aside and aim squarely into silence. Says Proverbs, it's just the smart thing to do.

Rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
- Proverbs 12:18

August 1, 2007

O Thou Who Changest Not

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:17

One of my favorite lines from Dicken's A Christmas Carol—An out-of-season text to be quoting on the 1st of August, I admit!—is Scrooge's response to his old friend Marley's ghastly ghost hovering about his living room.  Ebenezer cannot believe what he is seeing, and when the apparition inquires into why he does not simply "trust his senses," Scrooge replies:

Because, [such] a little thing affects them.  A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.  You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.  There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!

Dickens may be on to something. So many little things affect our view of reality. One is never quite sure why one day the world is green and the next gray.  Who can finally say why we sometimes feel the way we feel, why we see what we need to see, or why each of us experiences the cosmos the way we do on any given day?  There are plenty of physiological explanations, of course, as Scrooge suggests. Your doctor is quick on the draw with those. Yet "slight disorders," often real enough, are ultimately not very satisfying explanations for the deep mystery of perception and reality. As many days as exist, there seem to be just as many moods.

A few weeks ago, pondering our susceptibility to so many short-lived dispositions, I jotted down these lines:

So many moods
And they change
By the hour, week

One day, all despair
Hope anew the next
Third, all is ordinary

Thank God there is a
God who if he bends
Bends only in grace

The old theologians used to speak of God's impassibility, a Latin word essentially meaning "not able to suffer." They reasoned that since God is an active subject in the world (Psalm 46:10), not a passive object able to be acted upon, God cannot change in the way we frequently do and therefore is not susceptible to suffering or pain the way we are.

At its worst, this traditional view has imagined God's innermost nature as impenetrably uncaring, unmoved and unfeeling—a sort of plastic deity quite unaffected by the cries of his children. Though promoted in a few Christian circles down through the centuries (usually in an attempt to protect God from the problem of evil), this rigid view is finally hard to square with the gospel's compelling tale of a compassionate Father who does not spare even the Beloved Son in mending the world (e.g. Exodus 3:7-9; Matthew 9:36; John 3:16). In the Bible, "unchanging" cannot mean "uncaring."

Yet the best of impassibility reminds us that God is not simply a much bigger version of us, moods and all. In saying that God does not change, the church appreciates that God is not subject to the passing emotion, the fleeting perception, or the many moods that come and go within a week. Whereas we are fickle and prone to fits and starts in our seeing, God is thoroughly consistent and unaffected by passing whims of perception. This is what James 1:17 celebrates: a God in whom there is "no variation or shadow due to change." Every good gift finds its home in this unalterable God.

Beloved, in a world chock full of change and decay, let us give thanks for God's insusceptibility to alteration. No matter what our mood may be at any given moment, no matter if the sky is bright with promise or dark with doubt, no matter if our distorted realities are caused by afflictions in body or soul, we the baptized can daily celebrate the good news—the certain relief!—that our perception is only a small slice of reality. There is One whose eternal perception is really real, whose outlook sets the true course for the world, whose only bending is to move toward the world in inexplicable grace. And so the old hymn can pray:

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see.
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

In all your comings and goings, beloved, may the "Father of lights" bolster and bless you along your way.