Messages From The World Around Us

Barb and I have been talking with a young man who is struggling. He’s questioning everything. Struggling to believe there’s a god, struggling even to find a reason to keep living. Recently he told us the world was a “beautiful hell” which he couldn’t wait to escape. I tried to help him understand what’s behind both the beauty of the world and the trouble in it. The following was my answer to him. I’m sharing it hoping someone else might be helped as well.

The world is beautiful. And the world is full of hurt. We can in one moment be stunned by its awesomeness and in the next be staggered by its awfulness. Both of these experiences convey a message to us, if we have the eyes with which to see and the ears with which to hear. The beauty is telling us there is something out there that loves us and wants us to have joy, peace even. Think about it. Things don't have to be beautiful. Oranges and pineapples don't have to taste good to induce us to eat. A pain in the stomach would work just as well. But they do taste good. There are so many other joys too. Sunsets, for example. They don’t have to be so stunning. But they are. There does not have to be the nearly infinite variety of plants and birds and animals. But there are. The world is rich with vibrant color, texture, and flavor when nothing requires it to be so. The presence of so much extravagant and unnecessary beauty in the world is saying something to us, if we listen. It’s saying something wants us to enjoy, to have a rich life. Something cares about our happiness and joy.

But the world is full of hurt and pain and that sends us a message, too. The message that sends is that something has gone wrong. We experience pain at the brokenness around us because we know deep within it's not supposed to be like this. That idea, it’s not supposed to be like this, is a familiar thought to most of us. We think this because somewhere in our souls we have a memory of how things are supposed to be. When we hear a clunk in an engine, or see a wrong answer to a math problem, we know something is wrong because we have heard what an engine is supposed to sound like and we have seen what a right answer looks like. This is the way we distinguish what is supposed to be from what isn’t supposed to be. It’s the same with the world. We know its not supposed to be this way because we have seen the way it is supposed to be. And we feel pain and brokenness at the difference. The fact that we feel this pain and know it's supposed to be better than this is another proof there is something more out there. Something, someone, is grieving at the hurt and brokenness of things and we can’t help but to grieve, too.

What did this something, then, do? He sent Jesus to fix things. Jesus came and absorbed the wrong (sin, if you like) into himself. He did both life and death the way it’s supposed to be. He loved his enemies, even died for them while praying for their forgiveness. He absorbed death into himself. His resurrection shows that. He rose, fully alive in every way, giving us a picture of what we will one day be with him and what the world will be like, too.

So What's Love?

She was one of those people who came up to you and just started talking about things you don’t usually tell strangers. In the first moments of our short conversation I learned she was divorced and I learned why. Her now ex-husband chose to walk a different path. She told me he was an excellent father and a great person and she decided to support him in his new direction. What she said next made me realize she’d figured out I was a preacher. The only hint I’d given about my identity was her hearing me say I wanted to get a new shirt and tie for Easter. After explaining she was helping her ex-husband on his new life she said, “THAT’s what Christianity is about. Jesus was all about love. If you go to church and listen to MAN (she said this word as if it had a terrible flavor) you WILL get messed up. You just have to love people.” And then she walked away.

I wanted to say, “Okay, I agree. Christianity is about love. But what’s love to you?” At this point all I could see was her back as she was marching away. I’m guessing her response would have been something about supporting people in their decisions, being helpful to people no matter what. If that was her thinking, I can agree, to a point. Love is about support. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s about rescue.

What if her husband had something called Body Integrity Identity Disorder? It’s a rare but relevant recognized mental illness. Go ahead and look it up. Or what if her daughter was dying due to anorexia? Would it be loving to support a daughters decision not to eat? Very often, love isn’t about agreeing or standing along side someone. It’s about rescuing. And that’s the kind of love Christianity is about.

Jesus was on a rescue mission. A mental and spiritual disturbance we have named Sin was twisting and warping humankind into false thinking and false identities. We needed to be loved back into reality. So Jesus took on humanity. His humanity went far beyond skin. He took on human nature too, but with this difference. His human nature was a real human nature not a sin distorted one. He was genuinely a human being. Thus he lived. Thus he died. For us. Those words, “for us,” means he was doing something that needed to be done by us but since we were incapable of doing it, he did in our place. We needed to take on this malignant force. We couldn’t. Jesus could. Jesus did.

On the cross he defeated Sin and it’s evil companion, Death. The victory was won there. The resurrection was the proof of the victory. The world has not been the same since. This is what Christianity is about and this is what love is. God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. He did more than support us. He rescued us. Then he sent us to be rescuers too, to “snatch [people] from the fire and save them” (Jude 23). That means one of the things we must do is tell the truth. In love, of course.

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