Death, Thou Shalt Die

Easter is coming and thank God it is. We need the reminder that God is not fond of death. Sometimes we think God is cozy with it, that death is one of his favorite tools. It isn't. He hates death. God is out to rid the world of it. If I can in this tight, tiny space, let me explain why.

The whole story of the Bible is the story of God ridding the world of death. The story begins with God breathing into Adam so that Adam (Eve, too, of course) has Life with a capital L. And then a warning about a path that, if taken, would kill. Adam takes that path and Life is destroyed. God who feels this loss as keenly as Adam enters the garden asking the lonely question, “Adam, where are you?” Death has been loosed. Romans will tell us that Adam no longer reigns. Death reigns. The rest of the Bible tells the story of God’s war against death. It tells how he sent a Second Adam into the world to put things right. It tells how that new Adam went to the cross and died. It explains in Hebrews 2 why that man, God in flesh, became flesh. It says he did so to die. It says that he had to die so he could destroy the power of death from the inside out. God was on a mission to kill death. He did. At the cross death was fatally wounded. The result is it no longer reigns. Now, according to I Corinthians 15, Jesus reigns. “So he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Mortally wounded death will one day finally be crushed. Revelation 20 closes with the final victory, death and the grave being thrown into hell. Death is finally dead. Revelation 21 opens with a clearly relieved God saying, “Finally there is no more death.” With that the broken story we have been living closes and the real story, the long awaited story, of God and human beings begins again in a new, deathless. This is the story the Bible tells.

People argue with me about this sometimes. I understand. There is space for only one of their objections. “Doesn’t Matthew 10:29 say about sparrows, ‘not one of them will fall to the ground without the will of your Father.’”? Short answer: no it does not. The words “the will of” are not in the original Greek. Translators sometimes add words to try to clarify meaning. Here they added “the will of” and did not clarify the meaning. They changed it. Pick up an old KJV Bible. There it says, “one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father.” The meaning is that God notices what death does even to birds and is compassionately present. It does not mean He wills their death. Even a sparrow’s death grieves God. This is why Jesus was so angry at Lazarus’ tomb. God hates death.

I do not believe it is God who pulls the trigger when someone is murdered. I do not believe He is behind accidents. God is not behind death. To God death is an enemy. He is pouring His own blood into stopping it. He has and He will.

When our loved ones die ours is not the only heart that breaks. The Great Heart at the center breaks, too, and vows Life will win. Easter proves it.

A Word, Maybe

"“In the book of Isaiah (55:10-11) the word of God is envisioned as the rain God sends to earth, and the prophet declares that it will return not empty, but bearing good fruit. If we are made in God's image, perhaps we are also words of God in this sense, and our life's pilgrimage is to determine what our particular word is and how we are to bring it to fruition. Within this frame of reference, we can envision the whole of our life as a journey home."

Kathleen Norris

Acedia and Me

Is it so? Am I with all my fumbling, bumbling, and stumbling really a word of God? I am evaluating Kathleen Norris' statement but as I read it, it is the kind of thing that, whether true or not, I want to be true. I would like to know that like the raindrop, one of God's simplest creations, I come from him and when I return to him I will have accomplished what he sent me to do.
If this is so then part of what it is I am sent to do must be to search because much of the time I do not know why I have been sent. I do not often have the sense of having been aimed. I more often have the sense of figuring it out as I go. Unlike a raindrop, which plummets from the heavens on an unvarying straight line toward the accomplishment of its mission, I wander.
But I suppose even in my wandering God is saying something. To believe such would be the counsel of not only Kathleen Norris but also Frederick Buechner who says we must listen to our lives, pay attention to what is happening in us and to us and through us, because the moments and the days we live form a kind of alphabet, an alphabet of grace, in which the word of God to us can be found. The moments and the days are pouring forth speech as surely as the heavens declare the glory of God and the earth is showing his handiwork.
Listening, paying attention to whatever it is we are paying attention to in our lives is hard work. It requires abiding in Christ, being watchful and thankful, redeeming the time. Or in other words, staying with it every moment. Even though our course may wander we can’t let our attention to Christ do so.
But if we do (pay attention, that is) we may find that Norris and Buechner are right. That not only is God speaking to us but that he is also speaking through us.  We might find that even in our wanderings we are not lost, and that we ourselves have become something God is saying. 

What Was In The Beginning

beginningHow best to describe the arrival of a new thought? It hit me? It dawned on me? For the thought that arrived last night, in the quiet of the evening while dishes rattled in the sink underneath my soapy hands while my mind was free to wander and wonder, I suppose either description would be true. A thought hit me with force and power. It concerned light and brightness so, in a way, I can also say the thought dawned.

I was thinking about the beginning of the story. Not a story. The Story. The story we are living on this earth with God. The story of what is, what we are, and where we are going. I was thinking of the beginning portion of it. The "in the beginning God..." part.

It occurred to me that Genesis 1:1 isn't the beginning at all. John 1:1 is. The verse says "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." That part comes before heaven and earth and sky and land and crawly things and man found in Genesis. It is what was before God spoke his first recorded words, “Let there be.” It tells us that before creation there was something else. There was Father and Son and Spirit.

But that thought isn't the thought I referred to earlier. I was thinking about the beginning. No sun. No stars. Nothing. I saw blackness and emptiness. Darkness so total it rested heavily on my mind. I felt the blackness of it, the nothingness. And then I realized I was wrong. At the beginning there wasn't darkness at all. There was light. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." There was glory and radiance. There was God. Radiant, luminescent, Trinitarian God existing, dancing, whirling, and scattering beams of glory. Light existed eternally before darkness ever cast a shadow. And light will still be long after the last shadows of darkness have been extinguished in flame. Remember the final page, saying, "There was no night there..."

And so what? This... The truest thing about our world is not its shadows. The darkness cannot overcome light. The light will not one day go out as when a candle burns to nothing or a light bulb flickers and dies. The sun may implode. The stars fall, but still, it's the darkness which isn't able to hold out. It's the blackness which one day will be driven out of every corner. It’s light that lasts. Remember the hymn, "O'er all those wide extended plains shines one eternal day. There God, the Son, forever reigns and scatters night away."

It will be as it was before the beginning, but with one difference. We'll be there too, part of the dance of God and Word. And we'll be in a sense words, smaller words but words of God nonetheless. Words that tell chapters in the story of how light conquers dark, life conquers death, and how love that existed in the eternal before and extends into the eternal tomorrow conquers 


All Hail King Jesus

kingJesusChristmas seems to be such a sweet season. The scenes of it, in our minds, have taken on a golden glow.  Mary and Joseph appear so serene. The shepherds are as regal as Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. The star above illuminates all and everything with heavenly light. Someone is humming Silent Night in the background somewhere. A beautiful, sentimental scene. But there is something we cannot forget. This was an invasion. 
The world we live in, and know too well, had become enemy occupied territory. A false king ruled it. When Jesus and this false ruler had their first face to face confrontation the false king showed Jesus the world and said he would give it to Jesus because it was his to do with as he pleased all Jesus had to do was switch sides. But Jesus did not come to join the false king.  He came to dethrone him. 
Christmas is the beginning of a long campaign, a battle, to reassert God’s authority over earth. The much misunderstood book of Revelation is about that battle.  One of its scenes describes a woman giving birth to a child who will rule the nations. It sounds very much like what we know of Bethlehem except for one detail. At this birth scene there is a dragon, a great red dragon who is there to devour the child. We know from both Matthew and Revelation the dragon fails and the battle for earth is on.
Jesus speaks of this. He talks about entering the strong man’s house to bind him, defeat him, and liberate his captives. In John 12, only hours before he goes to the cross, Jesus says the time has come for the prince of this world to be judged and driven out. At the cross that’s exactly what happens. Jesus is lifted up. The title over his head, intended as irony, proclaims exactly who he is. Speaking of irony, by dying Jesus reclaims what rightly belongs to his father and to him as his son. He has achieved his mission. In a few days, alive again, he will stand with his people and say to them “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.” He has truly and genuinely become king.
When the angels announced his birth to the shepherds they used an amazing number of words which pointed to this. Good News, Savior, Christ, Lord were all words used in the first century to announce the ascension of a new king. Jesus is King and Lord.
Let earth receive her king.

What Blew In With Matthew

hurricaneOne day last week, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Matthew blew through Wayne County short circuiting our power grid and crushing our houses with trees, a FEMA vehicle pulled into our front parking lot and four official looking people climbed out and stood looking around for a bit.  The government had arrived.  This is, I’m sure, what they found.

They found the people of Wayne County are self reliant, get ‘er done people.  They found that people here don’t wait for the government to come help.  They do it themselves.  They solve their own problems.  And then they pitch in and solve their neighbor’s too.  By the time the FEMA people were standing on our front parking lot I’m betting they were wondering what was left for them to do.  What needed to be done, we did ourselves.

It especially warmed my heart to see people from First Baptist Church out making a difference.  That happened in many ways.  As soon as the wind stopped blowing Christopher Thornton was out with his chain saw cutting up a downed tree that was blocking the road in front of his house.  Speaking of downed trees Fred and Damon Fender were out using the big equipment their company owns getting trees off of people’s houses.  And while we are on the Fender family Amy and her daughter, Sophie volunteered with Tabitha’s Place to make lunches for people who had no power and no food.  Other efforts to feed people took place in which First Baptist people played big parts.  Martha Rawls Smith Elementary opened its kitchen to the community.  More FBC people than I can name stepped up there including Amanda Phelps and Lynice Jackson.  When the community fed emergency workers Miki Thomaston and others played big roles in that effort.

A dozen or more people here cooked hamburgers, made sandwiches, and cooked spaghetti for the neighborhood around us.  First people grilled hot dogs and fed hungry people in one of Jesup Housing Authority’s communities.  Zach and a number of our teens connected with the kids there, playing games and sharing some love.

And that’s what all this was about.  As big a problem as Matthew was, Matthew was also an opportunity.  Matthew let us love on Jesup a little.  Matthew let us get outside the walls of our church and go into neighborhoods, meet people, love people, pray for people. Matthew let us be what the church is supposed to be.

Maybe, even without a hurricane, we can find ways to continue to be a real church for Jesup and Wayne County.