Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mark's Gospel Box

Today while I was listening to Pastor Ken preaching about the Gospel of Mark and thinking about the things he has taught us in his sermons and in our Bible study classes, I was pondering the thought that Mark was in such a hurry to tell his story, that he encapsulates the stories about which the other gospels expand and share details. He leaves out these details, even though it seems that some of them might help make the point that Mark is trying to portray in the telling of the Gospel story. Mark is in a hurry, he gives a couple of sentences and then rushes on to the next item..."immediately" is his word that ushers each story along, keeps us in step, grabs us by the elbow if we try to dawdle. And a picture came to my mind as Pastor spoke--this picture compiled basically from what I've been learning along the way.
Mark is showing us, his readers, a box full of his treasures. He has a collection of various mementos, and pulls them each out one by one, and he tells us just enough to tell why he has that figurine in the box. The speed with which he does so reminds me a little of a child telling about each toy in his toy box, flinging each one aside, scattering each on the floor as he goes on to the next. Mark's clear goal is to get to the bottom, where he has the one that really shows why the rest of the box is there.
First, he pulls out the Book of Isaiah the Prophet. It's bookmarked to Isaiah 40:3-5:
A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." He quickly explains how this fits into what John the Baptist had to say and how he fulfilled that Scripture. Then he lightly puts it aside and pulls out a sandal. "John said, 'After me will come one more powerful than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.' I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." But he's not stopping there. He pulls out a dove. "John baptized Jesus, and as He came out of the water, the Holy Spirit came down upon Him like a dove, and a voice came down from heaven, 'You are My Son, whom I love; With You I am well-pleased.'" You would think Mark would have more to say about that, but no; he puts the dove to one side. He digs around in the box again. He pulls out a clear plastic box that is half-filled with sand, which shifts at each turn. "The Holy Spirit ushered Jesus into the desert, where He stayed for 40 days, being tempted by Satan. He was there with the wild animals, and angels attended Him." Well, that's about all we get about that, and he tosses the sand aside.
With each story, there is another figurine, momento, reminder. He pulls them out quickly, hurrying in relating the stories as he breathlessly tries to tell you just a little bit about each one! His goal becomes apparent as he goes along: to get to the bottom of the box without forgetting to tell you just enough about each little item. He pulls out: a figure of a boy who had been possessed by a demon; an older woman who had been sick with a fever; a man who had been a leper and now was clean. On and on he goes.
Some of the stories show Jesus' power and wisdom and authority. Some also show that there's strong opposition to His very existence, to what He says, to that very power, wisdom and authority that single Him out as unique among all who have ever lived. He's doing great things: healing people, teaching about God, bringing hope...and there are those who want to kill Him. They're jealous. They're power-hungry. They're hateful. And they refuse to benefit from the message that Jesus brings.
Mark gets down toward the bottom of the box, and he slows down. He moves slower, he talks slower. He adjusts his position so that he can really settle in and tell the last part clearly and not miss any details. It's increasingly clear that Mark is trying to emphasize its importance.
Mark has reached about the point of Chapter 12 of his Gospel, the point where Jesus starts emphasizing His coming death to the disciples. Mark pulls out a jar carved from a beautiful creamy stone. It's jagged at the top, where it's been broken. This is the story of Mary anointing Jesus for His burial. Mark stops and talks quite a while about this before he goes on. He puts the jar to one side, a bit more carefully than some previous items. He pulls out a wooden donkey, and tells the story of the Triumphal Entry...and the pace is similarly slow, intense, reverent. The reason that the speed is slower is becoming evident, that Jesus is going to die, and there's an important point involved. It isn't just your ordinary death of a man. It isn't just a man being killed because people don't like Him, because they're jealous. It's more than that. It's the climax of a long-standing battle, the ultimate, cosmic battle of good-versus-evil, more significant than anything else that the world has ever seen, or ever will see, more intricate and unfathomable than anything any human could fabricate. We needed the battle that is represented in this Gospel with more desperation than any of us will ever realize while we stand on earthly soil. And that's the point John's making as he slows down. Jesus didn't go to the cross accidentally. He didn't die against His will. He didn't die pointlessly. Mark takes time to make sure we understand that point. He brings out more figures, and while he talks to us about each figure, he relates more of the heart attitude, the confusion, of the disciples. He pulls out a communion cup from the box and tells us how Jesus said one would betray Him; relates about Jesus' prayer time at Gethsemane. The clearer Jesus is about His imminent death, the more confused and scared the disciples become. They understand very little of why He says what He does, how His death could fit in with His purpose as the King of the Jews.
Mark gets closer, right down to the bottom of the box of figures in his Gospel. He relates the mockery, disregard, cowardice, and indifference that surrounded this crucial point in history. He relates Judas' betraying kiss, and the arrest. Next is the figure of a rooster; he talks all about Peter, and how he denied three times that he knew Jesus. He pulls out Pilate and tells of his half-hearted effort to spare Jesus. He pulls out a group of figures that are huddled together, obviously conspiring together--these are the chief priests and elders, who have pursued and opposed Jesus all through this Gospel account. Barabbas is next, the murderer in whose place Jesus dies. Mark then pulls out the crown of thorns and tells how Jesus was mocked by the soldiers who hardly knew anything about Him.
Now Mark is near the last items in his box. He pulls out the cross, the point of the whole story. He tells about a stranger, Simon of Cyrene, who helps Jesus carry the cross up the hill. With more detail, he tells about the crucifixion and the death; more mockery. The disciples and His other followers seem to all have disappeared for some time now; it's all strangers nearby now. Jesus is essentially alone among the enemies, and even God has forsaken Him for now. Mark relates how the curtain was torn from top to bottom, and how the centurion, who had seen many other crucifixions, acknowledged the inesecapable conclusion of what he saw: "Surely this Man was the Son of God!" It's a story of sorrow, of suffering, and of victory. The victory isn't so evident to the observer at the cross, but that's where it happens.
It seems like the end of the story, but Mark continues. He pulls out a large disc-shaped rock. He tells about how Joseph of Arimathea obtains Jesus' body, wraps it in linen, and puts it in a tomb, closing the tomb with an enormous stone--and how three days later, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James discover that the stone is gone, that Jesus is resurrected. He is risen from the dead! He lives! The reliable part of the manuscript goes no further than to relate the angel telling the women about His resurrection and that they should tell the disciples "and Peter." Mark's story goes only as far as their confused and fearful reaction. He is done telling all of the essentials of the story. Jesus' journey to the cross was filled with battles, it brought confusion and opposition all around, but it brought love and hope to humanity. Mark's box is empty. He has no more to share, but we do. Now the contents of the box have become ours--to share with all who will receive them.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What Would You ask Jesus if You Visited with Him for a Day?

Well, what WOULD you ask Jesus if you visited with Him for a day? I know, it's actually a quite silly question for a believer to ask. We have the indwelling Holy Spirit; we abide in Christ, and He in us; why would we need to see Him, say, sitting across the table from us, drinking a coffee, and expect Him to sit and answer our questions? Why would we not just ask in prayer? Why does it seem (and I have to admit, it does to me) that it would be so much easier to ask Him while He is visible and when I can expect to hear His audible voice speaking in human speech? Why is that seemingly preferable? It's a stumbling block, it isn't God's ideal. I think that the fact that Jesus abides in us should be far more ideal than sitting across the table. Is it that I am dull, that when I ask Him things I am not always sure of His answer? Maybe I'm being dull, and deaf, and hard-hearted, and slow to understand. Maybe for this reason I'm not fully appreciating the greatness of having Him always with me, not just near, not just within earshot. Within. That's a pretty profound difference, and my humanity gets in the way.
When I see someone, I think of communicating with them. When I don't, I have to admit, chances are, they are out of sight, out of mind, because of the distractions that surround me and that I think up along the way. I may be thinking of someone, but of all the people I know, I may not be thinking of you at a particular moment. And if I think of you, am I thinking of you in the context of my faith? Perhaps. Even then, does it remind me to pray for you? I wish I could say it always does. Even when I think of someone in the context of my faith, sometimes I look back and realize, "I should have prayed for them at that moment." I have come ever-so-close, and still forgotten. If Jesus were sitting with me in the car as we went somewhere, I might more readily have thought to speak to Him of you. "Hmm. Jeremiah (substitute this name for yours for the moment) is struggling. Good thing he has Christ in his life, and his family is so good to him...." and perhaps the thought dwindles away. It is so within a breath of where it should be, but it ends up useless!
But if Jesus were sitting next to me, I would say, "Jesus, I know You already are fully aware of this, but Jeremiah, well, he's having such a hard time these days. Could You help him to get through it? What can You have me do?" Those types of things might come to mind if Jesus were visible to me there. Why do I need a visual reminder? God's word is there, His Spirit is within me, my thoughts are almost on track. I am frail of thought!
So, stupidly, I am trying to think of the questions that I would ask if He were sitting across from me at the table. I can't belittle the disciples for withholding questions, or for not even thinking of them, now, can I, if I can't come up with anything useful? (And I realize, please don't point it out to me, that if He were across from me, I should be speechless! We'll ignore that detail for now, for the purpose of imagining these things.)
So here are my questions. What are yours? Would you expand upon mine, or would you have entirely different things to ask Him? If I were wise, I'd have enough of them to fill our entire visit. I should anticipate that His answers might bring up more questions, so that could be allowed for in this imaginary, one-sided interview that should be my prayer, my daily prayer, until I see their result in my life.

1. Jesus, why, when I have the Holy Spirit within me, why am I not so clear of mind and purpose, so useful for the purpose of the Kingdom of God, as I should be; as I see Paul being? Why is my mind still frail and impetuous like that of the pre-Church Peter?
2. What do You want me to do with the rest of my life? How can I be more useful to You? I know, it's a pretty general question, and the answer is, for the most part, there for the reading in Your Word.
3. What do You see as my worst stumbling blocks, my worst traits? What can I do to get rid of them? Will You help me?
4. Would You please teach me how to be a better wife, and parent, and student of Your Word? Open my eyes, and my brain, and my me make the connections I need to make...
5. There's a song that speaks this, Brandon Heath's very popular Christian song..."Give me your eyes for just one second, Give me your eyes so I can see Everything that I keep missing, Give me your love for humanity. Give me your arms for the broken hearted, The ones that are far beyond my reach; Give me your heart for the ones forgotten, Give me your eyes so I can see..." Lord, that would be my's a scary prayer because I'm afraid I might be overcome, completely overwhelmed if I really saw humanity as You see them. Please change me, so that as You make me able to see them as You see them, I am also able to respond rightly, as You would have me do.
6. Would You purify my heart? Take the dross away, and make me better reflect who You are? Some of these types of requests are the scariest. I remember praying this before and not expecting to see how bad the dross was that came to the top. This is surely a scary prayer, but I need to pray it often.
7. Would You please help me to produce more of the fruit of the Spirit? I know, this includes praying for patience. I've done that before, and You have a way of testing that fruit and seeing whether I'm learning and growing, or dismissing Your help. It's a painful prayer, and the fruit of the Spirit is not only patience, but so many other things!
8. When I am praying for others because I find them difficult, would You also remind me that I need prayer because I may be part of that difficulty? I'm thankful, though, that lately I don't face many difficult people. Please help me to engage in the lives of difficult people if in fact I'm avoiding it. Please give me the opportunity to be a witness, for example, to the neighbors who are difficult, who don't engage in my life for whatever reasons they have--and some of those reasons may be valid. Will You help me to work those things out with them?
9. I've learned a lot of cultural Christianity that in practice in my life tends to trump Biblical Christianity. It's insidious, it clings to me, and I don't fully know how to recognize it and replace it. Some that I recognize, I don't know how to replace. Is this because I'm not to replace it with anything, that I am instead to rely on Your Spirit for the moment-to-moment living? I have found that cultural Christianity has a lot of convenient, preset attitudes. It tends to exclude and reject other Christians, and the unbelievers--the sinners and the tax-collectors--so that it hinders not only the potential for fellowship, but for witness. Please, could You clarify these things for me and help me to untangle myself more from them? Help me to love people who see things differently from how I see them. Help me to see them as You see them--I guess this goes with #5 above...and #8, those neighbors. Ouch! Help me to love my neighbor. It's sort of like, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!" Well, "Lord, I love, help my hate, my rejection, my withdrawal!" I actually don't feel that I hate them. But I have to admit, I'm not sure how I love them.

Again I find that composing the questions that I have always thought it would be good to ask Him, in such form as this, is more exhausting than I anticipated. Perhaps it is because I have to acknowledge my own weakness. Now maybe I understand more why the disciples refrained from asking more questions. Exposing one's own weakness, one's own sin and inadequacy, acknowledging the need for His help and wisdom, is demanding stuff. These aren't all the questions I have, of course. But for now, I need to stop, and breathe, and think and pray before I advance with more questions.

Friday, November 21, 2008

You'd Think Moving Baskets Was a Lot of Work

In our study of Mark, last lesson our pastor asked us some questions at the end of it to summarize, and I loved those questions. It made me ponder what I would like to have asked Jesus. I'm not saying that if I was living at that time, and in the same culture and education and surroundings as the people of Israel, that I would have known to ask these questions. But from my perspective in the here and now, it's an interesting pondering.
Here is what Pastor Ken asked us:
"Imagine yourself being one of the disciples that Jesus had called. After several days of listening to Jesus and watching Him in action, you would have much to explain to those back home. Use your imagination to record your first impressions about Jesus--your fears, your hopes, your questions. As a devout Jew, you would have wanted to talk to God about this experience as well. What might that prayer have sounded like? Now, how about you? Are you encountering Jesus daily? Is He alive and active in your life? What is He saying? What is He doing? What is your response?"
So I ponder. If I can criticize the disciples for their dullness (and truly I can't), I had better be ready with some valid questions that I might have supplied. Shall I play the part of a reporter, as a 13-year-old in our class did, and interview Jesus for the culture around me? That seems like a good approach. Still, the questions might not be as personally applicable as if I was asking just as a wanderer, a searcher, a lost person in need of finding the truth. So I will do that, and grant myself the privilege of having Jesus' full attention at the end of every chapter. I am not going to pretend that I would know what He would answer. You can always ask God to help you with that part. His answer may very likely be different for you than for me! And don't we all, at all times, have that access? To read a chapter of the Bible, and stop, and ask God, "What do You mean by this? Why was it written? Why did it happen this way? Why did You respond this way? How is this writing supposed to change my life, my attitude, my view of self and of God? How does it make me know You better and love You more? How does it help me obey You more fully? How can I become less because of it?" There must be an infinitude of questions we could ask at the end of every chapter! These questions come to mind as typical to fit probably any chapter in the Bible, some to which the answers would be more obvious depending on what chapter you are reading. The questions that I am going to ask specifically for each chapter may or may not be with specific spiritual growth in mind. Some are just compelled because I find various verses intriguing. Don't you? I'm sure you do! So if I'm just being nosy in idle time, maybe you are too, if you find the questions are things you have wondered as well.
So here I am with Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Mark, many of these more from a reader's view than a participant's view. I am not promising that I will finish posting questions for the whole book. I am honestly just writing this as I sit and type; I haven't pondered a list of questions beforehand, so if they're a bit disheveled, that may be why.

Questions from Chapter 1, from a present-day reader:

1. What did You do to draw people to come out to John in the first place? What instigated their interest, and how did word start to spread regarding him?
2. These Jews got a baptism that is different from ours today, in that it was before they were specifically believers. Why was it done that way? I know that many picture the present-day Christian baptism as a picture of death and resurrection, but the Jews hadn't seen You undergo that yet, so that wasn't the picture for them. What were the Jews picturing?
3. Were there people who turned completely to follow You from that day, especially since Your Father spoke to affirm You from heaven? Were they as amazed as it seemed they should have been?
4. Did the people see the Holy Spirit as He impelled you to go to the wilderness?
5. Why doesn't Mark tell more details about Your temptation in the wilderness? It seems that more specifics about what temptations You resisted would have shown more of the suffering role, if that was what he was trying to portray. That particular scene seems strangely lacking for what would seem pertinent detail.
6. What kind of ministering did the angels do for You? That is such an intriguing picture!
7. Why did You pick fishermen as your first followers? And what compelled them to follow You without question?
8. What did You teach on that first teaching in the synagogue?

Questions from Chapter 1, imagining that I'd been a Jew in those days, just seeing what the crowd saw (these are harder for me to come up with):

1. Why did John come looking so reminiscent of Elijah, and so clearly deny being him?
2. Why do I need to repent, if I'm one of God's chosen people, and if You already have us giving sacrifices for our sins?
3. What sins did You commit, if You needed to be baptized by John?
4. Why did You go away so suddenly after being baptized? What were You doing?
5. How did You learn so much about the Scriptures that is so different from what the Scribes teach?
6. After hearing You preach, I could sit and ask questions for quite a while, I'm sure.
7. You have a new way of teaching; You have power over demons and fevers and leprosy. Why didn't You use Your wisdom and authority and power to get John out of jail? What can You do in my life?

Here are my questions for Chapter 2, from a present-day reader:

1. Why did You start with the paralytic by forgiving his sins, even though judging by what is written, he hadn't asked for it, hadn't acknowledged his sin before You? Were these things on his heart?
2. How could the healed paralytic stand the thought of leaving, when he'd just been healed physically and spiritually by You? I'd be so inclined to stay and listen and watch, and shout hallelujahs!
3. Again, I don't know how Levi got up without question and followed You, except that by now word would have gotten around...maybe he'd heard about You?
4. Why did John have disciples that hadn't made the transition to be Your disciples?
5. I was always amazed at that story of David receiving consecrated bread, that both he and the priest didn't get in trouble. How did they understand their freedom to do that on the Sabbath even though the bread was specifically supposed to be for the priests?

Questions from Chapter 2, imagining that I'd been a Jew in those days:

1. How do You know whose sins to forgive, and whose not to? Do I need forgiveness, even though I'm a Jew, and in spite of all of the sacrifices? Can You forgive mine?
2. How did You know what the scribes were thinking about Your forgiving the paralytic?
3. Why did the paralytic need to go home rather than stay and listen to You?
4. Why was it okay for David to eat the consecrated bread? Was it because God's compassion trumps His desire for orderly worship and observance?

Here are my questions for Chapter 3, from a present-day reader:

1. Why is it that demons don't seem to avoid You, but rather are quite willing to talk to You? Why do they always seem compelled to announce who You are?
2. On what basis did You choose the Twelve? How do You choose believers overall?
3. How did Your family forget who You were, to think that You could have lost Your senses?
4. What types of things have I seen/experienced that You would qualify as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Are there ways that Christians today criticize other Christians and the Holy Spirit's work in them, that would be such blasphemy? Have I ever done any of that?

Questions from Chapter 3, imagining that I'd been a Jew in those days:

1. Why do the demons always seem to say that You are the Son of God? Why do You tell them to be quiet?
2. Have I ever blasphemed against the Holy Spirit?
3. How can I do Your will and be sure to be Your sister?

Here are my questions for Chapter 4, from a present-day reader:

1. Would it be reasonable to expect that one out of four people who hear the gospel would respond rightly to it?
2. Since You want all to come to You and be saved, why is it that You also say that You speak in parables so that "while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand; otherwise, they might return and be forgiven"? I realize it's an OT quote, but why would it be that You wouldn't consistently seek all men in whatever way worked to reach them, and make it an easier thing for them to turn to You? The answer I come up with is that those who seek You will find You when they seek You with all their heart; that You want them to persist and meditate, and ask and seek and knock until they get it.
3. It seems a strange placement to talk about a lamp being put under a basket rather than on a lampstand, right on the heels of Your telling them why You speak in parables. The parables seem a little like a basket over a lamp. Why did You place these thoughts together? Perhaps it "comes to light" in the next sentence, "For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light." Maybe You're lighting the lamp, and setting a basket over it, but anyone could ask for help removing the basket, and You would reveal it to them, as You did with the disciples. Is that it?

I have to say, I'm tired. I thought about as much as my old brain can think for a while. I'll have to return to this when I can, and finish my pondering. Asking questions in the faith is a funny thing: I find myself wishing, "I wish I could talk to Jesus face to face. I have so many questions I could ask Him." And then I realize. "I can ask Him any question I want. If He abides in me and I in Him, I'm actually better off than those old disciples. Ha!" So why am I not more savvy about all the Bible? I guess that like them, I get tired of asking, tired of thinking. I want it spoon fed, but there are places where there's this basket over it, and oh, I'm tired of moving baskets.

When Heaven has Visited Earth

While we've been studying the Gospel of Mark, I've been noticing the expressions of amazement that are expressed from among the people who saw Jesus. Their amazement is right, when it is expressed, because Jesus is so different from anyone else who has walked the earth. What He says, the authority He bears, His clarity of purpose, His wisdom, His unpredictable answers, His healings, His lovingkindness, His patience, His resistance against sin, His steadfastness in progress toward the unthinkable cross; His sacrifice; His power over sin and death. There are many right reasons to be amazed at Jesus. There is one aspect at the beginning of Mark, where I (having the advantage of the whole New Testament at my fingertips, having heard sermons and read study materials for the last 20 years, and thereby seeing from the comfort of this ultra-extravagant level of exposure to what was going on that the crowds in Mark were just happening upon at this moment in their lives)...I just can't help but be amazed that there is no expression of amazement when God speaks, and says, "You are My beloved Son; in You I am well-pleased."
Not even that there is no expression of their amazement; perhaps there was an awestruck amazement that Mark simply doesn't record. But after that...what? If you heard a voice from heaven, might that not change you for life? Might it not redirect your steps? If you heard a voice from heaven say "This is My beloved Son" (standing right in front of you), would you not think you would follow Him everywhere? Or at the very least, stand for Him no matter what stood against Him? Wouldn't you think that you would never let any human argument cause you to waver, because you had personally, audibly heard God's voice from heaven?
That is what is amazing to me. They heard God's voice, and it seems that it all became just another part of the event in front of them, something like the loudspeaker at the football game. There were other times when God intervened in such a way from heaven and the response was likewise substellar. The birth of Jesus, the star that shone down from heaven upon His home while He was small, such that followers were able to locate His home specifically from countries away. That the whole city did not crowd the house and want to discover for themselves--not even just the city, but the country, and the surrounding countries? What is the matter with the human response, why are we made so dull? It would seem that there would be more curiosity, and people would be following the development of this Child through His lifetime...that once He was starting His ministry, they wouldn't be discounting what He said. If nothing else, they would say, "Remember when He was a baby, and that star shone down from heaven upon His house all that time? I always knew there was something from heaven going on with Him." If nothing else, they would refrain from saying, "Isn't this the carpenter, the son of Mary and Joseph, who played with our kids in the streets?" You would think that they would know that they were calling down judgment upon themselves to so despise Him.
There are other places, too, such as the Transfiguration and Paul's conversion...and of course in the Old Testament, God spoke so often that it was stunning that He had been quiet for 400 years before Christ came. Wherever He speaks, the reason He speaks is clear, and the purpose He lays out is accomplished, but past that it seems to fizzle. The people who are present (except in Paul's case) seem less changed than one would expect as a result of hearing the very voice of God the Father, or the ascended Christ. Paul is the only one I can think of who seems as fully redirected by his encounter with God as one might expect--maybe even more so, depending on who is doing the expecting!
I suppose it is because without the indwelling Holy Spirit, it is impossible to have that sense of amazement continue--the Holy Spirit enables us to be softened to amazed and to remember; otherwise Satan is quick to eat up the seeds that are scattered on hard ground. Praise God for His Holy Spirit! And I am fully aware that I sound prideful and judgmental toward those who have a less than full response to His voice. I am in a different circumstance, seeing from a different vantage historically and I have the advantage of having the indwelling Holy Spirit; who knows, too, but that perhaps I have dismissed God's similarly stunning works in my own life, perhaps regularly? It is always easier to see others' weaknesses than one's own. And so this should be my prayer: "Lord, let me continually be stunned by You, by Who You are, by what You do in the Scriptures and in my life. Let me ask You the questions I need to ask. Let me seek You before and above all else. Don't let me forget Your amazing love, amazing grace, amazing being. Help me always to be soft-hearted and tender to receive You, not to dismiss You who are above all other seemingly good things. Let me listen to the voice from heaven, and heed it, whether the one in the Scriptures, or the quiet one I hear whisper in my prayer time. Don't let me be sneering at these people for their dullness, because I am merely human, just as weak as anyone else; let me be aware of my own dullness and ask You to keep me alert, aware, amazed at You...for all my life, that I might point others continually to You and Your greatness. Amen."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Basis of Abstinence, the Basis of Obedience

The other day I watched a show (well, while I was at the computer, Tim turned on a show and I saw it from the corner of my eye, or over his shoulder, so to speak)...the show featured a number of families who were celebrating their daughters' entrance into a covenant with the parents for chastity, purity, get the idea.
The announcer tried to be kind to them, but she was skeptical. You could tell she didn't buy into it, and they did their best to be some salt and light to her. By the end of it, I'm sure they convinced her of nothing, and I can't blame her for keeping her point of view by the time they were done.
These families obviously made a huge emphasis on this one ideal, that their daughters remain pure until marriage. There was, strangely, extremely little mention of sons following this same ideal. The families had yearly celebrations, for which there was great preparation complete with expensive dresses and much fanfare. The fathers spoke at the dinner about their daughters, and danced with them and basically tried to show them how a virtuous man would behave so that the daughters wouldn't fall for a man whose intentions might be less than pure.
The announcer interviewed one woman who had grown up in such a family. She, however, had not followed her family's ideal. She had become pregnant, become engaged at her family's wishes, lost the baby, cancelled the wedding, and continued in a lifestyle rebellious to her parents' ideals. She considered herself happy, except that her parents had not met the boyfriend with whom she was presently living. She expressed gladness in various terms for the turn she had made against her parents' wishes. There was no mention of how she stood with God. In fact, generally, I gathered far more stressing in general that these daughters please their parents, their father, than that they please and obey God.
The announcer interviewed two young sisters who were trying to explain to her the reason behind this emphasis on purity, and you could still sense that the announcer wasn't buying it. They said that it was one of the commandments. "Which one?" the announcer asked. The girls looked at each other. The older one said, with uncertainty, "The seventh." One said that it was about adultery. The announcer asked, "Well, adultery's only once you're married, right?" The older daughter slowly explained, as if she was trying to remember the right reasoning, that a girl wants to remain pure when she's married, because especially if the husband has remained pure, it wouldn't be fair to not remain pure for him too. It would be as if she had committed adultery beforehand. I've heard this argument before in the youth ministry at a church we used to attend, and I consider it an inadequate argument, especially in light of the fact that there are such more direct ways to address the issue of purity before marriage, and how readily the tempted mind will dismiss such an argument.
The Bible says that we are supposed to be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is within us. I think this also could mean that we should be able to give an answer for why we obey God in ways that are strange to unbelievers, such as the idea of abstinence. We obey because we have love for God, we have hope in Him, and our obedience isn't to what might seem a convoluted application of a commandment. There is a reason for abstinence clearly laid out in the New Testament; no one can deny its straightforward meaning, and no one can deny the consequence that is laid bare there. 1 Corinthians 6:8-10 says, Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Now this seems like an odd verse from today's human view of sin; there are many attitudes mentioned here in such a way that it is clear that God takes a much stronger stance against them than we tend to; there are some we consider extreme, and some we seem to consider minor. God, however, sees it all the same: sin is sin. The fact that fornication is clearly one of those things that so offends God that the hope of heaven is lost as a result is sobering. Now this is an argument that would be very clear, hopefully convincing, when an unbeliever asks why a person would abstain.
And yet, that is not enough. It is not enough for a person to realize that there is behavior that offends God; it might deceive them into thinking that if they abstain, they will go to heaven, or that now that they may have messed up, there's no road back. It is important that everyone also hear Hebrews 11:6, And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. They need to know that there is nothing on their own that they can do that would clear the matter up. Abstinence in itself will not please God. Nothing we do in our own strength can please God! Ephesians 2:8-9 says, For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. God gives us faith as a gift, by His grace, and saves us; it's not any obedience that earns it. Obedience is a fruit of knowing Him--of our love and thankfulness toward Him, a realization of what He has done for us and how we can never deserve His salvation.
They also need to know that God is a forgiver of sins, that they can be washed clean of the sins they have committed: 1 John 1:9 tells us that If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Not only that, Isaiah 1:18 states it more vividly: "Come now, and let us reason together,"Says the LORD," Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool."
So the show saddened me, that the whole reasoning for obedience was not presented and did not even seem to be fully known, when the fruit of that one particular obedience, in itself, seemed so important. In fact, the emphasis they placed on abstinence seemed way out of balance. Obedience to Christ isn't a singular item, it isn't a list, it's an attitude. It's a life, a progression, a response. A whole life of abstinence could still result in an eternity in hell. A life headed for heaven is a life lived out in love for God, in joy of knowing Him, in the fruit, many-faceted, of obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit. It isn't something that comes from us, but from Him, and reflected back to Him.
New American Standard Bible (NASB) Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Vast Importance of Summer Sausage

Tim is already looking toward Christmas, though it's not even quite Thanksgiving time. He has been asking for summer sausage (why it's named summer sausage, I don't know--I only see it in the winter...maybe it's made in the southern hemisphere or something), and he says that since Dad always gets it for his stocking, it's a tradition. A tradition. Now there's a lot of weight put upon one unholy unsuspecting summer sausage.
The word "tradition" always sparks a guilt of sorts in me, a guilt that I never instituted absolute traditions for all of our holidays--things a bit more meaningful than summer sausage. Though there are neat things we have done on many of the holidays, and some more than once, such that I might call them a habit--still, I might not call them traditions, because if we didn't do them, I would hope that the holiday would come through quite intact.
That word "tradition" bears such a lot of weight, responsibility, and assumption. Weight that the holiday's enjoyment rests on the expected means of observing it. Responsibility that once a tradition is established, we'd better not mess up and leave it out. Assumption that we will indeed be able to observe every holiday with every established tradition and not disappoint the family if we don't. I think of our roller-coaster finances, our roller-coaster economy, and our...not roller coaster...but still unpredictable health, especially as we get older. Besides my tendency toward disorganization, forgetfulness, and changing personal preferences, where one year I thought something was great and this year, it's passe. Our kids' ages change, so we drop some holiday details and adopt others with that influence.
There are, unavoidably, things we do that are tradition but I overlook them because they are so assumed; they didn't spring out of my creativity and originality; they sprang out of the culture that has us by the throat. A Christmas tree for example. I can't really explain why we do that crazy thing, but we do it. No matter what, we've always had a tree. It doesn't always have to be a real tree, it doesn't have to be fake, but there has to be a fairly big green triangle in the front room. Last year's was our shortest ever, and we put it on a little table for the needed height--because we got it for $10. Why pay $20 more for five more feet of green triangle? No one cared, and it was fine.
There is freedom in inconsistency. If we do something one year, and not the next, we can pick and choose, and the children, though not "steeped in tradition" which seems such a noble thing, will accept it and still enjoy the holiday. The unnegotiable core matter is that at Thanksgiving, we focus on thankfulness to God; at Christmas, we focus on the remembrance of God's gift of Christ's birth to the best of our ability. After all, the holidays are to be observed for their core meaning, and not for the sake of the summer sausage. Praise God, Hallelujah!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Central Issue is Always Jesus Christ

Not long ago, I got into an unexpected discussion with some dear friends that ended up in almost a debate...clearly we were coming from different points of view, though we share faith in Christ. The difference surprised me probably most because of our shared faith, but on the other hand, when two people know Jesus Christ, everything else pales. Everything else is secondary, and knowing Him is the thing that really binds us. I don't believe we differ as much as it seemed then, and with more discussion I think the common ground became more evident--though, indeed it matters so little that we unify on every issue other than our faith.
If we don't share the faith, though, I have so much more to say, and it matters so much more...but I will no longer ever start with the peripheral issues with any unbeliever. I've tried that, and it only leads to unresolvable contention. It's like trying to put a band-aid on someone's knee when they tell you they have pancreatic cancer. The cancer will kill, and even if they have a skinned knee, the band-aid will hardly benefit them like killing the cancer.
When I came to Christ, so many issues that were muddy before suddenly became clear to me. The solution to this imperfect world's problems was pretty clearly delineated in the Scriptures, and so the issues themselves became so important to me that their importance tended to frequently come to the forefront in conversation with unbelievers. That was never fruitful, because the focus was far from Christ, far from His love for them, far from the need of their souls. The focus was on something they opposed, and all they ended up seeing was that Christians were people they disagreed with. That was hardly an effective work of an ambassador for Christ.
There are unbelievers who, having known me then, will now pepper their communication with me with political positioning and they will refer to the causes they support that they know I would not. They will send e-mails bashing the more conservative issues, and I expect that they want a fight. They want me to argue the point, and they anticipate that they can trounce me. And they might be able to, these days; I'm not sure that I agree with every conservative political position, and every decision every conservative politician makes, and I'm definitely not as informed as I would need to be to engage in such a discussion. I'm pretty sure there are a lot of conservative causes and politicians I differ with, though the pro-life issue is the one I stick with. Even then, though, an unbeliever will not get me into a contentious discussion of that issue. It will not bear the fruit leading to eternal life.
I realize that some might think that I am not standing firm if I lie down and take the attacks without addressing them, but working from experience and thinking out the usefulness and the priorities, I cannot push those issues. They will not understand the foundation of it unless they know the Cornerstone Himself. If they come to agree with the cause but haven't come to know Christ, their eternity is still in danger and the stand on that one issue is of limited use. When I can, I point to Christ, and occasionally they tolerate that, though more often they don't. The communication lines even with this are tenuous at best, but if I got into argument about the surrounding issues and could no longer communicate at all with them, I would lose the opportunity to share more of Christ.
And so those issues, though important, aren't part of my discussion with unbelievers. They may be a matter for prayer or other action (prayer being the most likely for me these days), but not for contentious discussion. I know Christ, and Him crucified, and I want to use every opportunity to share His love for them rather than to make them align with my ideals on any artificial foundation.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Struggling with Sticky Notes

We have been working on a Bible study of the Gospel of Mark at our little church in Granite Falls. Last year we did a study that was written by an international organization. This year, our Pastor and his wife put the study together. I have to say, I think this year's study is far more challenging. It makes me think in more depth and asks questions that I don't find in the black and white of my Scriptures. I have to try to get inside the head of Mark, who was talking to the Romans about 2,000 years ago. That's not an easy thing for this sometimes pre-occupied American Christian of 2008, often hindered by assumptions and cultural blindnesses!
The weird thing is, I get something almost physical in my frustration for the answer, a burning...not anxiety...more like an intensity...I almost think a tree must feel pain as it puts out a new shoot! How frustrating, that even when I have the answer perhaps, I am not sure, because it is not found in the lettering in the Bible. "Why does Mark include John the Baptist in his account?" Those types of questions. It won't be found spelled out in Mark 1:anything. Mark doesn't say, "Okay, the reason I'm including this is because you need to know (the mysterious reason included here)...." He doesn't spell it out for us, he just assumes that the reader is benefiting from his writing, that it performs the purpose for which God sent it, and that we understand...a "let the reader understand," "for those who have ears, let them hear" approach. Okay. Let the reader understand, is right!
So I ponder who John is talking to, where he heads with the gospel, the context of John the Baptist's story, how much of it is included, why he left out some that the other gospel writers included. It gets me perplexed next by the questions that they haven't yet asked, and I ask myself--or that were brought up at Bible study night by fellow students: How the account of John's death is inserted where it doesn't really belong. Why there hardly seems to be a response, a reaction, to the fact that he died. Those kinds of things. They flap at me when I read through the pages of Mark, and when I'm "done" and going about my day.
This is not the way I'm used to studying the Bible. If I find the answers written in the Scriptures, I'm satisfied. I found the answer. I wrote it down. On to the next one, or emptying the dishwasher. But with these, even if I write down an answer, is it really the answer? What was Mark thinking? I never met the guy. I don't know his culture. I don't know the people he wrote about (except, of course, Jesus) I am at a disadvantage. I write down an answer, but that doesn't mean I'm finished. It trails around after me, flapping irritatingly, like a sticky note stuck to my sole, making me doubt myself and wonder what the "right" answer would be and whether anyone really knows. Why do they have to make the questions so perplexing?
But I think I'll get more out of this study because of those very things. I think it will teach me to look beyond the page at the culture, the writer, the social context, the purpose, the things that I generally expect to pass over in my reading because they're a bit beyond me. The big picture that isn't spelled out, the meaning and reasoning that is elusive, the stuff that scholars figure out and write so that we can just read and learn about them and have it all fed to us in a matter of minutes and assume that it's true and right and good, because a scholar said so. I think it's more beneficial to the believer, when the brain cells hit a wall and have to probe to find a way through it. I'm glad to be where I am, even though right now you could say that it's a bit painful and humbling. I think I have about 6 nasty little sticky notes flailing around behind me.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

We, the Christian People of the United States of America...

I am trying to put together in my mind what I see as a weakness in the American Christian's view of our government, and our expectations that we have in it. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what we expect, but I have something of a list, and I think it's fairly accurate if too short. It isn't to criticize American Christians; it is only to point out what I think could cause us to dive headlong into despair if we are to depend on a "righteous" government and not on Christ. We should always put our trust entirely on Christ, and not on our government. Humanity cannot govern perfectly, because we are not perfect, and because the power inherent in government appeals to the pride of man. Psalm 118:9, "It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes," and Psalm 146:3, "Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation," are verses that together express that very same thought.
The following are ways that I see that because we have never known anything different, American Christians may be more part of the American culture than of the sheer biblical Christian culture that I hope and suspect is more prevalent worldwide:
1. We tend to assume that we are by our very American citizenship, because we are born here, entitled to freedom of religion (freedom to assemble for worship or Bible study, and acceptance of the fact that we are Christians), freedom of expression (regarding proselytizing, wearing expressions of faith on clothing, Christian radio stations, certain subjects in sermons, etc.), and that we would expect the government to promote family unity and allow us a choice in how our children are educated, such as homeschooling or private school as alternatives to public school. These expectations are because we have enjoyed them in the past; we have been raised with most of these freedoms. It is hard for us to imagine life here without them.
2. We tend to assume that our government should embrace and reflect our beliefs as belonging to the entire population, with the Ten Commandments in our courtrooms and parks, and with Christmas decor and Christmas carols in public places and with Christian beliefs reflected in our public schools, from prayer to Christmas break to Bible classes. The fact that God is Lord of all doesn’t mean that He will be acknowledged as such by earthly governments, or that our own government will continue to do so even though it has to various extents done so in the past.
3. We tend to assume that our government should legislate faithfulness to God by banning at least the extreme expressions of sin and rebellion: abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and the more accepted but no more acceptable other sins as well. These behaviors are becoming more and more sanctioned by our government as time goes on, and aren't likely to be reversed any time soon.
4. We tend to assume that it is our right to live physically comfortable and financially prosperous lives when in fact there is nothing of our faith or our lives that should cause us to expect such comfort. Most Christians throughout the world do not experience nearly the comfort that we Americans do. And there is nothing we Americans have done to deserve any more comfortable lives than anyone else, especially so many Christians in the most difficult circumstances elsewhere in the world. So many Christians not only live less comfortably but are persecuted while their government ignores or even originates the persecution.
It may be arguable that our government should honor some of these things, but it is unrealistic that we should be able to expect any government to actually do what it ought to. No Bible verse said that earthly, human government is a good thing, that governments wouldn’t be prone to being corrupt and doing evil. It was never assured that we could live in happy freedom under human government. In fact, it is clearly an accommodation of humanity’s demands that Israel ever got away with demanding an end to the theocracy that characterized the first part of their existence. There are various ways that American Christians might assume that our life of faith ought to be acknowledged, supported, and defended, but Jesus never taught that we should expect it. We are to pray for those in authority over us; remember 1 Timothy 2:1-4 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to see a president come to know Christ while in office--but who says it couldn't happen? Wouldn't that be fantastic! Lets keep our presidents, present and future, in prayer and hope that we might witness such a change in times to come. Meanwhile, let us be content with (and thankful for) what God gives us, and pray, and watch for His provision and His goodness, His lovingkindness and grace, like no government on earth can ever provide.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Can See The Election Outcome as a Good Thing...

Well, tonight was the election. I see various people on facebook have put their status in various nearly hopeless-sounding terms. I am not very thrilled about the outcome, but it was pretty much as I expected, considering the prevailing attitude toward Bush and the war, and the financial upheavals that have been happening. I feel calm about the election outcome, though, and of this I am certain: God has ordained that it would come out the way it did, and He will be glorified. He is not out of control, He is not off the throne. I'm not expecting that our new leaders will glorify Him in the way they lead; I expect that the pressures that might come upon Christians in the coming few years might bring us to rely more fully upon Him, and the distressing results might bring us to pray more faithfully for the salvation and guidance of those in authority over us.
I remember when Clinton was in office and everything seemed to be pointing to socialized health care. People I knew were praying fervently. Also when homeschooling looked like it was going to be outlawed with HR6, people were praying fervently. When since then has there been such impassioned prayer for the needs of believers, and for our country's leaders? It seems that there has to be such a thorn in our sides, any of various possible threats, to bring us to rely on Him, to realize the dreadful powers that would consume our nation, and to seek protection and defense from a power greater than our government, greater than the evil forces that surround and deceive those in authority.
Of course we should already be praying. Already we have a country where abortion is all too legal and convenient, where the most unthinkable forms of it are defended. There are various rights that should never be rights; whether they are scriptural is not even a concern. Whether these rights are right or wrong is not deemed a concern. Whether there is a God in heaven...well, that's already been under attack as well, in our schools and judicial systems. These evils won't be a new thing resulting from this administration; the avenue to extend them further will just be clearer, straighter, more streamlined. We already have evils in this country, and we have not been as fervent in prayer as we should have been. These challenges haven't been so bothersome for us that they would be as uppermost in our minds and hearts as they could be.
So I think perhaps this election may be the best thing for American believers. We are a complacent, comfortable, self-absorbed and shallow bunch, and I really think we would benefit from a little trouble. This wouldn't be the first time that Christians would ever face an evil government, now, would it? Far from it! The freedoms and comforts we enjoy are, rather, unusual--rare--and we take them for granted; we tend to consider ourselves entitled to them. It wouldn't be the first time, or the first place, that Christians in our world face the possibility that we might be opposed, maybe even some day attacked in some ways, by authorities. Tim today was imagining a time when we might have prayer made illegal (though I'm not sure how it could be enforced). I reminded him of Daniel, asking if he remembered what Daniel did when it was declared illegal; he knew that Daniel just kept on praying, kept on obeying God rather than men.
I also wonder how long homeschooling will be an option, and again I think of Daniel and his friends, who were in Babylon, having the Babylonian culture impressed upon them, and yet they stayed faithful. What we need to be doing, rather than fretting, is praying for those in authority, praying for the schools, praying for our children, and raising them in such a way as to be able to cope and be a light to unbelievers if they were required to attend public schools. Our children need to learn to stand firm for their faith, to know how to follow the Holy Spirit's leading, and to make the most of every opportunity. They need to learn to be Daniels. It could be the best thing that ever happened in their lives, to be made useful to God in their faith. This kind of trouble tends to separate the wheat from the chaff, and I think it will happen in our country at least to an extent; I think God has so directed the outcome of this election, directing the economic and political environment and the hearts of the voters to bring it about, because it will be good for His kingdom.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Older I am, the Less I Know...But I Know One Thing

I don't know when I've felt that I knew so little. I've always been pretty fine with how much I knew, how much I could figure out, whatever the subject I needed or was interested in at the time. I suppose I was cocky at times, having an over-confidence that may have been obnoxious, not too fitting with the reality of my finite understanding of this whole big world, the heavens beyond, or even my own little life and community. These days, though, I'm not sure what got it started, I'm getting a little overwhelmed. By now I should have most things figured out; though maybe in my own life, and at least for the sake of just getting through a day, I know what I need to know.
As I study my Bible lately, I end up with more questions than answers, because I'm paying attention to details that I passed off before, and instead of feeling just satisfied, I feel more perplexed and unsettled. I find that many things I've been taught over the years have carried a slant and a misapplication that makes it all feel about as sturdy and safe as quicksand. I teach Tim in homeschooling and in the process learn some basic things that I never learned in school. I go to the church to hear a missionary, and she turns my vague notion of Israel's current political state upside-down. So my ignorance is showing lately, sometimes to others and sometimes just to me, but it makes me realize how little I know of the world around me, what is here now and what has happened in the past.
Tim has often asked how smart any particular animal is who catches his attention. That question always strikes me in a certain way, and he always gets the same response--that the animal is not stupid because he doesn't know what Tim knows, but he's smart because he knows everything that God designed him to know, everything he needs for this life. A spider may not know how to tie a shoe, but he knows how to make a web, so he's a smart enough spider. A cheetah doesn't know how to turn on the radio, but he knows how to run fast enough to catch a gazelle (maybe a slower gazelle) he's a smart enough cheetah.
So maybe I ought to be content with what I know, when it is enough. God also promises that He is happy to give us wisdom when we lack it, so even what I don't know and I need to know, God will gladly give it to me when I ask it. We live in a culture that values education, and knowledge even of the most trivial items, though it sometimes doesn't value wisdom all too highly. I need to value wisdom above these other things, and put aside the desire to seem knowledgeable, the fear of my own ignorance. Even saying this, I mentally protest and reach out to other lands and the cultures of which I am so ignorant. I reach to know the math I don't know, the history I was never taught or I forgot, and yet it is not the most necessary thing in and of itself. I need not to bemoan being misinformed by sources that were unreliable, or the enormous gaps in my knowledge in general. I just need to follow the leading that God gives me, the Word that gives me a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.
It brings to mind a tiny poem by Emily Dickinson. Though she says she never talked with God (and I read that her life was full of doubt in matters of faith, so maybe the poem is all the more questionable) and so it leaves the rest of the poem in question for me, the poem does otherwise aptly capture the mode I'm in. I don't know so much, but I do know the vital thing:
I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.

It reminds me that God has given me everything pertaining to life and godliness, and all I need to do is be trusting Him, following His leading, and not leaning on my own understanding. Not trying to increase my own secular understanding of this mortal world for the sake of my own perception of adequacy; it's sort of like when Paul speaks of knowing "Christ and Him crucified." He had put aside all the learning that he had received that had been so admirable as secondary, unnecessary, and rubbish; all his years of learning were not so useful in reaching out to the lost, or in knowing his own security. I need to follow that example, and seek understanding of Jesus and His ways, first and foremost, not bemoan what unnecessary things I don't know, and rest in the fact that my future course is already charted, that I can find comfort in knowing that Jesus will lead me there.