Sunday, December 25, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions and Stubborn Reality

Speaking of stubborn realities, I’m getting old. Well, we’re all getting old, and at a fairly regular clip, but I’ve gotten a lot farther than many of you – and this business of New Year’s resolutions annoys me more every year.

For one thing, the year does not start in January. I’m a teacher. (I don’t just work as a teacher, I was born that way – it’s a congenital defect.) Teachers know that the new year begins in September. Life starts over in the fall, not mid-winter. I have no idea how, in the depths of the cold dreariness of January, anyone can feel up to beginning again. I’m doing my best to just keep plodding.

After all, we just staggered out of Christmas dragging our exhaustion and emotional hangovers with us. We just depleted our bank accounts. I, for one, have yet to recover entirely from my annual Martha Stewart attack  -- I cook and sew and paint and design and wrap and decorate, all quite happily, but not in wise moderation. By New Year’s I’m cross-eyed and suffering from creation fatigue, my house is a mess and my refrigerator is full of leftovers I shouldn’t eat.

So now I’m expected to begin behaving myself? It’s too cold and dark to start running, I can’t live on lettuce in the winter – I need mashed potatoes and gravy, warm bread and butter, hot chocolate and cookies. Some nefarious, symbiotic relationship must form between my need for vitamin D and carb-fat comfort foods. I can resolve until I’m blue in the face and all I earn for my trouble is a guilt complex and an extra 5 pounds.

So this year I resolve not to resolve. After all, it’s going to be 2012 and all good Mayans know that the world is ending, so why worry about how clean my house is, or whether or not my dog gets a walk every day?  Instead, I’ll worry about the election, which has its own world-ending possibilities, the economy – ditto, and the latest health craze (So far we’re not to eat fruit, meat, starches, sugar, salt, fat, dairy, or cooked vegetables; I wonder what’s next.) That will keep me busy.

I’ll not try to lose weight, or keep my pantry tidy, or run a marathon. I’ll have a glass of wine now and then, some superb chocolate when the sky is dark, and I’ll take a nap whenever I feel like it. I’ll go to the gym because I like to move. I’ll walk the dog because I love moseying around my funky little town. I’ll read and write because I can’t stop. I’ll go to Bible class since I can’t live without it. I’ll teach -- that’s what I do. If I’m going to become a better person this year, God is going to have to handle it for me – which could be dangerous, but this is as good as I get on my own.

I wish you all every possible blessing in the coming New Year. Celebrate. Enjoy. Leave resolving for those poor compulsive souls who can’t help it. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hell and the Christmas Connection

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the net
Bloggers were blogging from New York to Tibet.
Tweeters were tweeting and Facebook went wild
And no one remembered the birth of the Child.

The stores were all filled with shoppers exhausted,
The halls were all decked, the streets, they were frosted.
The children, intent on candy and stockings,
Indulged in annoying behaviors quite shocking.

Lights were all hung from the houses with care
In hopes that the neighbors would all stop and stare.
Cards were all stamped, presents all sent,
Nativities banished, the atheists hell-bent…

Which brings home to me my purpose in writing—
Though the concept of hell is not real inviting,
The idea of escaping is adequate reason
To celebrate Jesus this holiday season…

Boy – that was lame, and I can hear the objections now, “For pity sake, it’s Christmas; why would you talk about hell?” Because freeing us from that inevitable torment was why He came.  That’s why.

Christmas has become meaningless not because of the greedy retailers and the advertising geniuses. Not because we’re so materialistic.  Not because we’re a bunch of spoiled hedonists. No. No one remembers Jesus because no one will admit what it is He saved us from. Time was when hell was taken so seriously that polite people never said the word – it was too real to banter about, too horrifying to let slip into your conscious thought.

But now, our culture is permeated by the vague notion that heaven is a given – if you’re interested. If not, that’s OK too. As long as you are a reasonably decent person – somewhere north of Charles Manson, then you’ll do fine. After all, religion is nothing more than each of us picking a fairytale and sticking with the label. I’m a Snow-Whitean – what are you? It doesn’t really matter, because none of it is true anyway; it’s all just make-believe. That’s the assumption.

But allow me a “What if?”  What if Christopher Hitchens, the famous atheist who just died of cancer, was wrong and God is really out there? That’s a rhetorical question; God is really out there, in here, everywhere and I’m sure that Hitchens has realized that dying is – pardon the pun; I am not trying to be funny – a hell of a way to find out your views were incorrect. What if God really means what He says? "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not believe in the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him," (John 3:36). What if the “wrath of God” is real? And unending?

Look at the story Jesus recounts in Luke 16.

The Rich Man and Lazarus
“There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.  But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried.  And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

 “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’
“Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead,’”(vs. 19-30).

The rich man here is thoroughly miserable – so miserable that just a drop of water seems like a huge boon, and the worst of it is that there is no hope – not for him and not for his stubbornly unbelieving brothers. What did he do wrong? He got rich? No. He didn’t believe what the Old Testament scriptures taught. And what was that? From the Fall of Man to the last page of Malachi, the idea of a Messiah who would come to earth and be a sacrifice for us is clearly the main point. And Abraham? (and obviously the beggar Lazarus) What did Abraham do right? “Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness,” (Genesis 15:6, quoted again in Romans 4:3).

We celebrate – oh Joy to the World! – the fact that many of the prophecies have been fulfilled in the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord. (The rest will come to pass at the Second Advent.) We celebrate the amazing fact that His work allows us the option to escape the horrors of unending torment. And all we have to do is believe. (You’ll notice that the rich man was very much conscious, very much aware. He did not just cease to exist; he didn’t get a pass. The justice of God meted out to him exactly what his unbelief earned him – eternal hell. )

Over two thousand years ago, in Bethlehem, God took on human form. He lived a perfect human life, proved over and over again that He was the Messiah, allowed Himself to be nailed to a cross where He made up the huge difference between perfect God and imperfect man. He died doing it. He rose. And now there is no longer that necessary gap between us; hell is no longer required. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” Hallelujah!

So go out and shop, buy gifts and be jolly,
Indulge in all sorts of silliness and folly
For Jesus has come to save us from our plight --
“Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Tangle of Tradition

 God Rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay---

Things are so nuts right now that we struggle this Christmas season to find rest and be merry, let alone be gentlemen, but I sit here right now looking at my decorated tree and I find myself delighted at how silly, how quirky, and how charming are our Christmas traditions – I’m willing to part with none of them.  How fun to think of a visiting – say -- Martian trying to make sense of a society that, in the dead of winter, cuts down millions of small trees, sets them up in our homes, and covers them with all manner of, well, of junk.

As the only girl in a family of five children I was often disappointed in our Christmas trees – all festooned with pasty construction paper chains, hanks of tinsel, and tiny bells made by sticky-fingered little boys out of foil milk-bottle caps. I yearned for something stylish and sparkly. Though my grown-up tree has never come in contact with library paste, it’s far from trendy. I am of the tasteless belief that there’s no such thing as too many ornaments, so my tree is laden with everything from Fostoria crystal snowflakes to 10-year-old candy canes.  From where I sit right now I can see a square-ish reindeer with 3 glittered trees growing out of his back, a crocheted white angel, a pewter teapot, a bread-dough doll, some brass horns, a knit Santa, a ballerina…. See how confused a Martian anthropologist would be?

My tree, I confess, is a plastic facsimile; in fact we were among the first to own a petroleum by-product tree. Not strictly traditional, but it has saved my marriage and my sanity. My dear husband has always been a gentle Scrooge – “Bah! Humbug!” he’d exclaim at the idea of paying good money for a dead tree, for a tree dry enough to drop needles all over the carpet, dry enough to burn down the house. The grousing stopped when in the late 60’s I spent $25 on a fake tree. I could put it up myself, no need at all to ruffle his crabby feathers. We’re on Tree G-3 now and I adore it.

My perfectly shaped, synthetic tree has, for ages, been topped by a stuffed reindeer, which looks disturbingly like a camel, and carries a load of presents on his back. His limbs wrap around the leader and his facial expression makes it clear that he’s sure he’s falling. He has no symbolic significance – I just find his “How did I get up here?” look amusing and he reminds me of the time I told my 4-year-old, geeky grandson to listen for Santa and his reindeer. Ben put his hands on his little hips and shook his head. “Gravity, Nana. Gravity?” My tree deer is worried about that, too.

Besides the tree, I also love my snowmen. Ages ago I made them out of gourds – one of the dozens of hobbies to which I am unfaithful. The five snowmen gather annually and flirt with each other – Levi and Guinevere have had a thing going from the beginning, and Herkimer still looks like someone just goosed him – Hermione, I suppose; she appears to be having a private giggle.  Henry, who is 2 feet tall, just beams; he’s a merry gentleman, even if no one else is.

And what’s Christmas without my row of hand-painted Victorian houses (another abandoned hobby)? I can imagine the tiny inhabitants “hanging their stockings by the chimney with care in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. ”  Speaking of cultural phenomena that would confuse the Martians -- how would they connect that to the porcelain nativity scene by the front door?

How silly are we? Whatever does a 2,000-year-old Jewish baby have to do with Norwegian reindeer and fat men in red suits? Why do they come down the chimneys? What’s with the angels? Or the gingerbread houses? Or the three kings on camels? And snowmen – were there snowmen in Judea? And what’s with the stockings? And the lights? Oh my goodness, the lights! And people rushing around buying presents and music everywhere. …

Ah, God rest ye merry, silly, endearing gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay, for Christ was born in Bethlehem upon this Christmas Day.

And the Martians will just have to deal with it.

Monday, December 5, 2011

What Man is This?

I love the old hymn set to the 17th century English tune Greensleeves -- “What child is this who’s laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Lovely, soft, and haunting, yet it is not the child that matters; it is the man He became, the man who died, the man who rose again.

Jesus Christ -- Immanuel (God with Us) was, during the short time He was with us, a complete human being, as well as God Almighty. I know -- my brain doesn’t get all the way around that one, either, so for now let’s just look at the man. The Gospels show only glimmers of Who He was when He wasn’t actively involved in His ministry; we talk about his “missing” childhood, but when you go to look for the grown-up, off-stage Jesus, He’s just as hard to discover. We’re used to finding out anything we want to know about someone’s private life, but the personal Jesus eludes us.

I want to see a glint of humor in His eyes when His mother tells him that the wedding wine has run out, yet the words He speaks to her sound curt and purposeful and she responds pretty intensely herself. “Whatever he says, do it, “ she tells the servants. Yet certainly He had a quiet chuckle as the freshly water-filled jugs instantly turned to well-aged wine. It amuses me how narrowly the clueless host escapes embarrassment and how fooled the wedding planner is – surely it all amused Jesus, too.  But He had a serious purpose – He had started showing people who He really was; He had opened the curtain – the show had begun.

But, surely He must have been fun to be with. What did He and the disciples talk about as they walked those dusty roads and ate bread together? (We know of one silly conversation amongst the disciples about which of them would be the greatest, but Jesus was not a part of that.) Did they tell jokes? Talk about politics? Tease each other? We don’t know. 

The Pharisees criticized Him for hanging out with the tax collectors and prostitutes and I can picture Him seated at a table completely at ease with this rough crowd. I like to think of Him throwing back His head in laughter, offering a toast, nodding and smiling, clapping someone on the back, shaking hands with newcomers, but nothing like that is recorded, and His own account tells us we should picture those meetings more like the teaching sessions He held in the synagogues.

I can feel His exhaustion and claustrophobia after those long days healing the multitudes. He was a rock star, on at least two occasions drawing crowds of 4-5,000. They followed Him everywhere, crushed in upon Him, wouldn’t let Him breathe, and each crowd was heavily laced with the vicious hatred of the religious leaders, waiting lustfully for the slightest misstep.

I have a friend who talks about the rebel in Jesus, and it’s true that He had no respect for the man-made law of the Pharisees, and that He found many an occasion to show them that contempt. He was not, however, the rebel the crowds wanted. They thought He came to save them from the Romans, to become their new king, so the pressure from the multitudes must have been overwhelming; they wanted so much from Him – leadership, hope, healing.

When He heals the paraplegic in Capernaum the crowds are so thick that his four friends have to break through the roof of the house where Jesus is speaking to lower their friend into His presence. The intensity of that moment – the pressure of the bodies, the lack of air, the heat – just the thought of it makes me choke. Add into that the hatred of the Pharisees – who had made sure of their spot in the room – and you have a real pressure-cooker. We know that He occasionally escaped to pray by Himself, that He asked the disciples to act almost as bodyguards, that He occasionally spoke to the crowds from the safety of a boat. I would have done that too.

Only twice do we see His calm, patient surface craze a little under the pressure – His weeping for Jerusalem, for His doomed nation, and the night in Gethsemane before His arrest when He was actually sweating blood.

How human He was. Even though we can’t yet know Him the way we would like, we’ve had a peek, a glimpse of the man Who will greet us in heaven someday, the man Whose birthday we celebrate not just because He healed the sick or fed the five thousand, but because He went through with it; in spite of His terror, He finished the job. Tetelestai He said, and He died and then He rose again, as will we who believe. It is indeed a Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Lion of Judah

Please read this sentence, then close your eyes and recreate in your mind your old Sunday school picture of Jesus. There. He’s wearing an ankle-length, white robe; his hair is long and perfectly groomed. He’s sitting, surrounded by attentive children his soft hands extended inclusively toward them, actually touching them, a look of soft yearning on his lean, ascetic face.  He is the personification of love – love at its most sentimental and marshmallowy level.

I’ve held onto that mental picture from my country-club Methodist Sunday-school for over half a century. This Christmas, as I unpack my Christmas decorations, I’m consciously putting away that old mental picture; I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me so long, for it has barred me from really getting to know the strength, the power, and the true love of my Savior. He is not that man in the picture.

I don’t mean that Christ isn’t loving, just that the sappy thing going on in that piece of art, and in most liberal churches, has nothing to do with the Christ of Scripture.  Yes, Matthew records Him saying, “ Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come to me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (19:14).  If you look at that passage carefully, however, it records nothing of a conversation with the children. He “lays hands on them” – He had been healing the multitudes and evidently took some time to heal the children as well.  But Scripture records no conversation with them. That famous picture suggests a lovely little Sunday school scene – or perhaps the absence of context leaves a young mind free to imagine that into the painting. A little story telling, some candy passed around, lots of smiles and nods, but we somehow lose track of the fact that that statement is a rebuke to his disciples, unsoftened by preamble or much explanation. Theywere just trying to protect Him, but He doesn’t acknowledge that; He uses the opportunity to teach them, not the children.

Lately, our pastor, during our evening Bible classes, has been taking us through a comparative study of the gospels following the outline of Life of Christ from a Jewish Perspective by Arnold Fructenbaum. I’m finding there a very different Jesus – one I’d noticed before in the Temple money-changing tirades, but had discounted as flukes; those events were at such odds with my mind’s sweet Sunday-school picture. During over 40 years of intensive Bible study, I had vaguely noticed the direct, abrupt manner that Christ had with people, but I had chalked it all up as being “prophet talk,” just a manner of speaking, a sort of short-hand. No chit-chat is recorded, none of the niceties, no softening of reprimands, no pleasantries, no sweetness -- just tough love for His followers and a heavy, resigned distance with the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Part of my mind had assumed that the gospel writers left out those socially sweet pieces, the “How’s the wife?” bits, like in any good novel, for the sake of brevity, which may be partially true, but the more we study, the more I realize that He had no time, in a sense no patience, for beating around the bush. He had no games to play.

Not once does He try to charm His enemies into loving Him. Not once does He fall into the traps they lay for Him. Not once does He rely on tact and politics. He just tells the truth. Even when He’s healing the sick, He doesn’t fawn over them; He just gives orders. “Go forth and tell no man,” (Matt 8:4) not, “Here, let me help you up. Do you need a ride?”

Even when He’s dealing with His disciples He doesn’t cushion things for them. The night they were caught for hours fighting a strong wind on the Sea of Galilee He could have gone with them, for no doubt He knew that storm was brewing. He could have, had He been operating on “Sweet Jesus” frequencies, calmed that wind from where He was praying on the eastern shore, way before it had exhausted and frightened them half to death. Instead, He waits until their boat is nearly swamped and then scares them even further by walking toward them across those dark, tossing seas.

Then He allows Peter, in his usual Petrine enthusiasm, to try walking with Him on the waves, knowing Peter will muff it and nearly drown. It isn’t until then that He gets into the boat and calms the wind. He wasn’t at all interested in keeping them comfy – He wanted them to learn. (Matthew 14:22-33)

I find that, though this accurate Jesus is thoroughly intimidating, He is more real, more believable, more dependable than the one in the pretty picture. What was that Jesus going to do when bad guys were really after me -- pat me on the head? No, this Jesus is tough enough to calmly tell the cold, open truth even when He knows they’ll kill Him for it – which brings up one last point: had He been that Sweet Jesus person in the painting, they never would have killed Him. They wouldn’t have felt they had to.

I have been, throughout this study, reminded of the discussion Lucy had with the beavers in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lucy asks Mr. Beaver about Aslan, the lion/Christ figure of Narnia. The beaver answers, “He’s not a tame lion…He’s not safe, but He’s good.”

As Christmas approaches this year, that is the Jesus I’ll be celebrating.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Liberty and its Limitations

Thanksgiving ranks right up there with the 4th of July as a quintessentially American holiday. We gather to give thanks to the God who, while allowing us each maximum free will, has managed to bless and protect this most unusual country. You see, freedom is God's idea, so it makes a great deal of sense that He would smile upon a nation dedicated to His concept. Let us during this Thanksgiving take some time to think about liberty, appreciate its largess and the limits that sustain it. May He continue to bless you and yours.  Happy Thanksgiving.  

“This is a free country.” 

“I can say whatever I want.” 

“I have the right to do anything I like.” 

“You can’t tell me what to do.”  I hear these statements in the halls at school, on TV in the evenings, on the radio on the way home, and I find myself wondering: can a nation full of people who don’t know what freedom is continue to be free?  I’m so very afraid not. 

Freedom is not an absolute.  No one is absolutely free.  I can’t just decide to levitate above the back-packed hordes in the hallways.  Or just because I had such a grand time at a party, I can’t rocket back in time to enjoy it all over again. I can’t sing an aria. 

I’d like to do all those things – I can just see the looks on all those young faces as I straddle my broom, rise silently to just below the ceiling, and jet off down the hall, swerving to miss the florescent lights. Students here have long suspected me of belonging in a Harry Potter movie, anyway, so why not? 

Law, that’s why.  Scientific law won’t allow it.  I can’t go back to the party because time only moves forward. (This is a useful law since many of us more timid souls would spend our lives huddled comfortably in our baby cribs; we know what’s out there in the real world and we want none of it).  I would dearly love to sing, really sing, not just struggle to match pitch and pray the melody won’t soar above my measly three-note range.  But alas.  Natural law again.  Both genetics (none of the women in my family tree can sing) and physics combine to rob me of that privilege. We are all subject to natural law. We suffer consequences if we attempt to disobey it; the Darwin Awards recognize those who were rash enough to ignore it.


We are also subject to social law, to moral law.  Social laws have nothing to do with the law of the land.  Congress doesn’t pass them; the president doesn’t sign them.  But here too we suffer consequences if we don’t follow those laws.  If we fail to send a thank you note for a gift, that giver may stop giving. If we’re caught spreading gossip about a “friend,” she’s likely to retaliate by blabbing a few choice tidbits from our own top-secret files.  If a woman runs off with someone else’s husband, she shouldn’t be surprised when said husband runs off with the next woman.  What goes around comes around. Consequences.

Now, it’s true that social or moral laws change more than scientific laws (which aren’t, strictly speaking, “laws,” but absolute statements of what actually and irrevocably is), but social laws do change ever so slightly and usually over long periods of time. We no longer need to be formally introduced to a person before he can become our friend, but we still do introduce people to each other.  Certain words are not to be said in public, yet in spite of Hollywood, and gangsta rap, only the most crude do so. (The current push for political correctness and “tolerance,” are more of an effort to force a change in human nature by means of altering the language, than an actual repealing or passing of new social law.) Each culture, at each stage of its history, has developed its own slight variations on moral rules, yet no culture exists that has none. 

Basically, the laws governing social/moral behavior are anchored in awareness and concern for our fellow man and for the welfare of the group.  No one is exempt. If our actions offend or harm someone, then we have broken a fundamental, unchanging rule, a rule carved in the stone of human history – we have failed to treat another human being the way we would like to be treated.  Granted, no police will come arrest us, there will be no trial, but chances are we will be punished, albeit unofficially, and maybe only in our own conscience, but punished nonetheless.  People who break too many social laws find themselves in fistfights on The Jerry Springer Show.  They become as much of a laughing stock as the winners of the Darwin Awards. They end up friendless, confused, often ill and isolated, and the more of us who behave in antisocial, belligerent, irresponsible ways, the more unstable and unpleasant our entire society becomes.  More consequences.

But this is a free country.  Yes, as free as they come, as free as has ever existed. We may think anything we wish, believe anything we wish.  We have freedom of religion here.  No one will execute us for joining a cult that worships Twinkies; no fines will be imposed if we decide that the true god is the queen of the anthill in our backyard.  Of course this is just judicial freedom.  Our government can’t control what God would think of all that. Let us not be confused on this issue.  We can, from our government’s point of view, believe or disbelieve what we will, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that God is really “out there” and that He has His druthers.  Remember the story about the golden calf?  When God found the Israelites worshipping this statue, He made them grind it up, mix it with water and drink it. The fact that our human government imposes no similar religious requirements on us does not mean that none exist, or that we can willy-nilly invent our own fairy tale and that just because we are comfortable with those ideas or believe them, that they will be true.

In fact, truth is not affected at all by whether or not we believe it; philosophical laws exist as well as scientific laws.  We can stick our intellectual noses in the air and break those laws and carry on in irrational, ideologically irresponsible ways, but many natural consequences ensue.  We become addicted to drugs, to sex, to gambling, to government subsides. 

We get depressed, anxious, or hyper-active.  We suffer heart attacks, contract diseases, sit up at night worrying.  We can travel down the think-whatever- we-want-to path, ignoring rationality and evidence so far that we lose permanently the ability or the will to perform rational thought. And our government will allow us to do that.   However, if too many of us indulge our flights of fancy, it would be hard to maintain a functional civilization. One thinks of the sacred cows of India surrounded by starving Hindus.

Yet, in spite of, and to a large extent because of, all the restrictions imposed by nature and society, we have enormous freedom. In Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron, Harrison wants to be free, “to become what [he] can become.”  That is what true freedom is – a society that promotes, by both its rules and its lack thereof, the blossoming of each and every member. 

Freedom is not a vast void of untrammeled, unguided self-indulgence. It is not the total absence of consequences; it is the carefully controlled atmosphere necessary to nurture and encourage the best in all of us and the best must be protected by rational restraint. It was Ernest Hemingway who once said, “Art begins with limitations.”  He hints here at an even larger truth; life (and freedom) begins with limitations. As long as we keep these ideas in mind we can maintain the nurturing freedom that continues to draw stifled people to this promising land.

Monday, November 14, 2011

God Logic Meets Tirade -- The Width of Love

America has, from the beginning, striven to be a place of tolerance, a wide, welcoming place open to all, but lately that ideal has shriveled into something that looks far more like evil than it does like love.

You see, tolerance, openness, freedom itself, can only thrive on a diet of love – the kind of love that demands nothing from the loved, the kind of love that propelled Christ through the awful day of his crucifixion:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails.           (I Corinthians 13:4-8a)

Love suffers long and is kind – where is that quality in our breast-beating about “oppression” and our union “rights?” Where is our kindness to those who must suffer in order for us to have our way? We see long-suffering in our soldiers, but where else? We seem to have compassion only for far-distant, illusory groups that we feel deserve our pity (the illegal immigrants, the poor, the middle class, the blacks, the Tibetans, non-Muslim women), not for those actual fellow humans in our midst. Do we really want to give up our personal charities in favor of governmental ones?

Love does not envy – yet almost half of us reportedly want to redistribute wealth We indulge in hate toward the corporations that provide us with unimaginable prosperity, and that hate we claim as moral superiority

Love does not parade itself, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely – Occupy Anarchy – did you hear that? There is no love in what you are doing, no love for your fellow Americans – look what you are doing to their neighborhoods; no love for the poor – you accomplish nothing for them; no love for your country—you acknowledge wanting to destroy it, with no thought to the untold suffering that would create. You don’t even demonstrate any love for yourselves, living as you are in filth, dulling your brains with dope

Love does not seek its own – yet watch the election politics – there’s as much smearing of feces in this presidential race as there is in Zucotti Park. Love is not provoked, yet listen to the nastiness. Love thinks no evil, yet note how quick we are to assume the worst We have, instead of love of country, rejoicing in iniquity. We have, instead of rejoicing in truth, the dissemination of some of the worst lies possible.

Love bears, yet believes; endures, yet hopes. Love never fails. True – love doesn’t fail, not the pure, God-driven love that sees each person as God’s individual creation, someone to be valued and recognized, being in some way the very image of God.

Oh – right – America doesn’t “do” God anymore, our president has made that clear, “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation” Well, hmm, that could be a problem. You see, that love we’ve been discussing, if we could live that way, would solve nine-tenths of our domestic problems, sans government expenditures and interference. But here’s the catch – humans, apart from the grace of God, can’t pull that off.  We are, on our own, only capable of loving narrowly – we love those who appeal to us, who please us. We love those to whom we are related, and that we don’t do well. We don’t, on our own, love widely. Only God – who epitomized wide love when He went to the cross for us – can help us love like He does and only that love will heal our national sins.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.   (I Corinthians 13:1-3)

Even if our government manages, by some miracle, to adopt perfect policies in all areas, no good can come of that unless each of us rethinks our place in this world. There aren’t enough laws, regulations, or taxes, in all of history or the future, to cure human society of what ails it, for what ails it is our refusal to learn to love as widely as God loves. No substitutes exist.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Miss Kansas

I’ve written a piece of fiction this time, a small story about the importance of fathers and the resilience of children.  It’s set in a dress shop on the afternoon of prom – won’t you come with me and see what happens?

Miss Kansas

We’re watching a girl choose a prom dress. She must do so alone and her father must not know she’s even been asked. Her mother might have helped had she still been alive, but she might not have, knowing Jane’s date is not on the approved list – no country club membership. And it’s late – her friends are all having their hair done, laughing together at Magnolia’s.

Jane lifts out a small, black dress, holding it at arm’s length and then up against her body. She looks down on it and sighs. Too plain-Jane, her father would say if he were with her. She pulls down a red one, strapless and mermaid-shaped, “Cheap,” he’d say -- she can hear the derision in his voice. Glancing up and down the picked-over rack, she sees turquoise tulle, lime green satin, plaid taffeta – nothing quite right. The mannequin behind her is wearing white chiffon, long and voluminous, ruffles like butterfly wings around the shoulders – very beauty- pageant. Her father would like that. She wonders if the gown comes with a purple satin sash embroidered in gold -- Miss Kansas. She wonders if he’d grumble about the $500 or if he’d just be proud that she picked out something expensive. With him, she never knew.

Jane wants more than anything to please her father, even though he cannot be pleased. Her father expects beauty – Miss America beauty --- perfect bone structure, straight teeth, huge eyes, a confident bust line.  Jane can be pretty, and she is thin and tall, but if the wind blows her fine hair away from her high forehead, or fatigue lies heavy on her lids, the prettiness fades and so does the light in her father’s eyes.

Jane pulls down a cream satin strapless and, holding it to her waist, performs a graceful pirouette. Her father wants talent, the kind he has – musical. Her painting will never be Michelangeloid, so it isn’t important; her dance, in spite of years of lessons and pairs and pairs of pointe shoes, will not take her to the New York Ballet; it’s just a frothy girl thing. She flunked piano when she was six, and a song never comes out of her mouth in good condition – he winces when he hears her sing.  Her writing he doesn’t even know about, and if he did, he’d say that you can’t make money writing poetry. Not even her grades please him, even though they are mostly A’s – it’s the mostly part he hates.

She sees her father as handsome, brilliant, witty. He too can dance, on a ballroom floor, and she had loved watching him and her mother waltz across the living room. She’d loved it when he taught her how, his arm across the middle of her back, his feet weightlessly propelled by the swoop-tap-tap of the music. She and the dress waltzed a few steps together.

She is vaguely aware that her father is tired.  She knows that he rarely sleeps and that when he does it’s martini-induced.  He dreams of being rich – he had enough poverty as a child, enough want, enough humiliation.  He wants his daughter to have wealth; he wants her to marry well; he wants her to excel at anything profitable; he wants her to go to the best schools, though on his salary that will require scholarships. He daydreams about how he’ll brag about her – maybe she’ll win a beauty pageant, maybe she’ll get into Radcliff, maybe she’ll marry someone important. He pictures her in a little black dress, sipping a martini at a sophisticated cocktail party.

She hates it that he rarely looks straight at the fact that he’s merely an accountant for a small chemical firm in a medium-sized town in Kansas, or that he knows nothing of beauty contests. 

And she knows that he rarely looks at her. She is more imagined than real.  He has no idea what longings play across her soul.  He is disgusted that she seems to have no desire to please him; she seems preoccupied, distant, uninspired.  She is to him an extension of himself and should want what he wants.  Instead, she has stubbornly refused to love math or pursue music or make herself beautiful.  She is a disappointment just as was her mother.

Jane is walking out of the store, disappointed, when she notices a sale rack in the corner. Her father never lets her buy things on sale – that’s for poor people, he says.  She rummages through the leftovers: purple satin with pink embroidery, yellow silk with a wide red belt, split-pea green cut down to show navel-length cleavage. Nothing.

Then, at the end of the 4’s, hiding in the forest of rejects, hangs the dress. She pulls it to her and heads for the dressing room.  In the mirror it looks even better --navy blue silk, Egyptian-looking gold and blue beading around the boat-neck and the hem -- a hem that ends high on her thigh.

She stands there remembering the look on James’s face when he called out to her in the hall yesterday. “Hey, Legs,” he’d said loudly enough for everyone to hear, “How ‘bout goin’ to prom with me.”  He had grinned that tilted grin of his. His eyes had looked both apologetic and scared, and then they traveled down her body to her ankles.

She laughs at her reflection remembering the way his eyebrows asked the question again as his eyes finally met hers. “He wants legs,” she thinks, “I’ll give him legs.” She spins around on tiptoe to get the full effect.

She passes the Miss Kansas dress on her way out. She stops and runs her hand down the soft chiffon. We can see her imagining herself carrying roses, the sash across her shoulder, her father applauding wildly.  Then the corners of her mouth dip down as she realizes that he’d only say, “You didn’t stand straight enough.”

We watch her hug the blue dress to her as she walks toward Magnolia’s to get her long legs waxed.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Doorknobs and Broomsticks

How many doorknobs have you turned in your lifetime? Surely someone has stats on that – they know how many hours we’ve spent standing in line at Fourbucks for our caffeine fix and how many years of our lives we’ve spent in bathrooms. Surely they have a rough idea about doorknobs.  Of course, it would be hard to count the metaphorical doors, and we’ve all opened a bunch of those.

Last night I watched a DVD of two renowned men discussing their figurative doorways in a debate at Biola University in the spring of 2009. They met in front of a packed house and TV cameras, which were piping the discussion to filled rooms all over campus, in fact, all over the world. The men – William Lane Craig (Professor of Philosophy at Biola) and Christopher Hitchens (writer and public speaker, famous for his atheistic views) were debating the existence of God.

Now, there are two doors we’ve all stood in front of, rattling the knobs and wondering what was on the other side. Craig, of course, had the advantage because he had looked through the peephole of his door and could describe with scientific, historical, and personal accuracy what he saw there; Hitchens’ door, which opens onto nothing and therefore has no peephole, gave him little with which to counter Craig’s assertions. Mr. Hitchens could only add to the conversation the reasons why he didn’t want to believe in God; he had no way of proving that God didn’t exist, which is an entirely different discussion. The Great I Am is perfectly able to be, whether we want Him to be or not.

Hitchens said, at one point, that he didn’t want anyone, let alone God, telling him what to do, as if his disbelief disarmed God in some important way, and as if the guidance of God was a limiting and repugnant concept. For a person who was once acclaimed as the 5th most important intellectual in the world, this is a pretty sophomoric view, though I’ll have to admit that we Christians are the ones that gave him that idea.

We forget about grace with a frequency that must make the good Lord roll His eyes and shake His head. Christianity is not about following the rules; it’s about how impossible it is for us to do so, but Hitchens didn’t know that. Christianity is not about hog-tying us into a life of prim, pursed-lip propriety; it’s about being so grateful for what Christ did for us that we live out our lives in quiet wonder, keenly aware of the glory that awaits us – and that even blesses us here in Satan’s world. Christianity opens thousands of doors for us, allowing us to (with a nod here to Kurt Vonnegut) “ become what we can become,” what God designed us to be.

Isn’t that what every human being wants? to be thoroughly and completely and successfully ourselves? And aren’t most of our problems caused by our own inability to do so? If there is a God (and evidently there’s little evidence to the contrary), and if He designed us, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that following His instruction manual would result in better outcomes? God isn’t trying to cramp our style; He’s trying to help us make the most of our individuality -- if He’d wanted cookie-cutter people, He would have made us all exactly alike.

Poor Mr. Hitchens, he, like millions of others, was so distracted by all the bizarre, gargoyle carvings on the Churchianity door that he didn’t even notice the modest, simple door labeled Christ. Jesus warned the disciples that the church would start as a small mustard seed and grow into a monstrous tree filled with birds (who, in Scripture, often represent evil). I’ve heard way too many people talk about the apparent – and often real – hypocrisy, the ignorance – not only of science and history, but of the Bible itself -- and the incoherence of our world view to blame this attitude on Christopher Hitchens. That is as much our fault as it is his.

In his book Jesus Among Other Gods Ravi Zacharias quoted Augustine (I think) as saying, “Never judge a creed by its abuse.” I wish someone had taught Hitchens that, for our abuse of the Word of God does a pretty good job of obfuscating who and what God is.  What have we done, representing our Lord so poorly that this unfortunate man is lauded and praised for his disgust with all things Christian? Mr. Hitchens will someday open his door and will have to face the terror that is there, and we are partially responsible for that. Thank the Lord that He died for that sin, too. Meanwhile he, and all those millions like him, will ride their broomsticks all over the world, proclaiming loudly the ugliness of the God who tried to save them.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Down the National Rabbit Hole

If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals.     G.K. Chesterton

As I follow the great upheavals that shake this country, I can’t help but remember this line, penned, over a hundred years ago, by the famous British Christian writer, G. K. Chesterton. I’d like to take him on a tour of one of the Occupy Wall Street sites. I’m afraid the experience would shock him speechless, though he’d have to enjoy seeing how right he was.

I’ve spent decades watching this transformation of American values. I remember well that clear and understandable time when we knew what was wrong and we knew that all of us agreed on that moral code. We weren’t yet sophisticated enough to have our own sets of designer rules, tailor-made for the comfort of our own troubled consciences. We just had to meet the general standards, or suffer the consequences. Pregnancy out of wedlock was frowned upon. The wildest among us used to drive 75 miles south to Marysville, Kansas, to drink watered-down beer, but no one I knew smoked pot – we would have been horrified. We knew that private property was just that – private, and though we may have drooled over someone else’s car, or house, or prom dress, we didn’t assume we the right to take it. We weren’t saints – but we weren’t confused.

Today, however, confusion has become a feather in one’s intellectual cap. I watch the Occupy folk and, whereas I agree with them that, “something is rotten in Denmark, “ the moral ground on which the protesters stand is a very warped thing.

For one thing, neither our personal freedoms nor our nation can withstand the loss of the right to private property. No society can – witness the current non-existence of the Third Reich and the USSR. Nor can we withstand the loss of a sense of personal responsibility; someone has to be the grownup. And no society can long survive the destruction of the family. 

As a long-time public school teacher I watched that one first-hand. I’ll never forget one class period when the students were all so out of sorts I couldn’t get any of my lesson plan going, so I stopped and asked them what was up. Each student had a story to tell – dads walking out, parents kicking kids out, whole families being evicted, parents addicted, siblings going to jail – horror story after horror story.  And these kids were not only supposed to come to my class and learn, they were expected to grow up and hold this country together.

It is that generation who is out there now camped in our city centers. They know nothing about economics, about world or American history. They have no religious training. They only have the sketchiest idea of what family is. They don’t seem to know that anything other than emoting is required of them.

Yet they have learned a new morality and they’re pretty hysterical about it. They’re sure it is no longer necessary to be sexually selective and loyal, or even private, – but you better not drive a big car, or vote Republican. It is just fine to destroy your brain cells with the current chemical available on the black market, but don’t get caught actually producing anything useful – that reprehensible behavior uses natural resources and makes non-producing people feel bad. We must be very careful about which words we use, unless we’re talking about Christians or conservatives. It’s just fine to destroy or deface the private property of others, after all, the end justifies the means, but don’t you dare express allegiance to this country’s founding freedom principles.

Freedom now means a lack of consequences for anti-social behavior. No stigmas allowed. We praise single moms, homosexuals, and promiscuity of all flavors. We accept academic cheating as just the way things get done; I once had a father explain away his daughter’s plagiarism this way: “She has to get good grades to get into a really good school.”  Another father said, “I don’t know how you can give this paper an F; it was an A when we bought it.”

Hate is now good – if aimed at the right people (pun heartily intended; thirty percent of the kids Occupying say they think it’s just fine to use violence to get their way. Stealing is good if the victim is rich enough – though there’s a lack of clarity about what rich is. Lying is fine if it gets you what you want. We openly covet; charity is nothing more than voting in taxes for other people to pay. Killing is good if the victim hasn’t been born yet.

But express an allegiance to the economic system that made us prosperous and you are out of line. Declare an interest in any of our founding documents, or heaven forbid (pun intended) the Bible, now that’s a stigma-worthy moral lapse. Refuse to call perversions normal and you can be fired, shunned or spat-upon.

We have not improved our society in the last 40 years; we have exchanged our birthright for a mess of pottage, and if you’re not as old as I am, you probably don’t know that reference. We have not only loosened the moral rigor that protected our most important institutions, we have ginned up an advanced case of self-righteousness over false ideas. The planet isn’t dying, people here aren’t being “oppressed,” the corporations aren’t trying to kill anyone. Yet our moral behavior puts the “solution” to those “problems” at the head of the line.

If Chesterton thought that morality was getting twisted in the early 20th century, today’s morass would make his head spin. I sometimes suspect that we’ve all fallen down the rabbit hole; I haven’t spotted any Mad Hatter costumes at these rallies, but I keep expecting to; the stoned caterpillar with the hookah has certainly been present. Nevertheless, I still believe the pen is mightier than the sit-in, so I just keep writing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Everywhere

A dear friend recently asked if I thought the “Occupy Everywhere” crowds connected in my mind with Biblical prophecies about the end times.  Good question. These days practically everything seems to yank my mind in that direction; evil seems to be crawling out from under every rock.

Whoa – am I assuming that the “Occupy” movement is evil? Well, let’s see: using drugs, drinking, and having sex in the streets, using cop cars as toilets, making constant noise, having no coherent message, blocking traffic and commerce – that is chaos. Chaos is evil. Ergo, in a perfect logically syllogism, the “Occupy” movement is evil. Since the American Nazi Party and the Communist Party USA have both endorsed the movement – I stand vindicated.

Is this evil connected to the end-of-the-world scenario? Could be. Of course, upheaval weaves through history leaving slubbed wads of nastiness in every decade. Of course, fraud and corruption have walked the halls of government before – remember Tamanny Hall from your high school history class? Of course, power-hungry people have been trying rule the world since Babel.

We do have to remember that this old globe is no stranger to evil. I think of that scene in Job where Satan turns up in the throne room of God, and God asks him where he’s come from.  Satan, no doubt leaning insolently against a pillar and picking his teeth, replies, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it” (Job 1:7). Feels to me like he’s still out and about, doing what he does best.

However, in this age of invention (beyond anything our grandparents ever hoped for or dreaded) we are finally seeing -- not the fulfillment of prophecy -- but the unfurling of the technologies that will make those events possible. Revelation must have been a total mind boggler to earlier generations, but now it’s not at all hard to understand a world-wide economic system which uses a “mark” to identify those who are allowed to participate. It’s not at all hard to picture Christ returning to earth and everyone on the planet seeing Him land on the Mount of Olives.

It’s also not difficult to picture the Anti-Christ taking the reins of a one-world government, and doing so, much to the relief of chaos-torn nations.  Many of the “Occupy” crowd carries placards demanding global government. (They don’t seem able to imagine what the world would look like today if Hitler had come to power under such a system.) Speaking of Hitler, some of the protesters carry anti-Jewish signs. Hmmm… that rings some prophetic bells too, but before I can discuss that issue, I need to prevent some confusions.

You see, the Doctrine of the Immanency of the Rapture teaches that no prophecy need be fulfilled before the Rapture’s occurrence; we don’t want to make the mistake of reading what we’re seeing on the national and global scene as fulfillment of prophecy.  We can, however, see it as the setting of the stage, not only for the Rapture, but for the two major events that will precede the Tribulation.

According to the scholarship of Bill Salus in his new book Isralistine, Psalm 83 presents us with a picture of Israel, after a successful blitz attack on those hostile countries on her borders, becoming wealthy beyond belief.  Picture Israel in control of part of Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, Syria, Jordan, -- well, you get the picture. Oil, oil, oil. It’s not out of the question for Israel, now that the U.S. is not likely to be of much assistance, to pre-empt the hatred that is brewing against her. It’s not out of the question that God would bless that effort. Salus places the timing of this event after the Rapture but before the Tribulation.

Arnold Fructenbaum (In the Footseps of the Messiah) also thinks that the famous Gog and Magog attack on Israel (Ezekial 37-39) will happen because of her vast wealth – and note that the nations involved there are not her current next door neighbors, but distant nations – Russia, Iran, Turkey – as if the buffer nations now occupying the land in between aren’t even there. He places the timing for this event also after the Rapture and prior to the Tribulation.

Today, a fairly casual observation puts Israel on the edge of doing something rash, and probably necessary. And it’s not hard to imagine Russia, Iran and Turkey aiming for her, whether she’s oil-wealthy, or not. Conditions and events that seemed far-fetched just twenty years ago seem totally plausible today.

To go back to my friend’s question:  the world feels to me as if it’s a caterpillar turning to pre-butterfly soup.  The Middle East muddle, the world’s financial stew, the trans-national demonstrations of confused and mostly unbelieving people – any Bible student could list a dozen more symptoms.

I have no idea what a caterpillar feels like mid-metamorphosis, but it doesn’t look pleasant to me, any more than the world’s immediate future looks pleasant. I’ve never been a fan of living through history, which is often painful and messy. I like history tucked away safely in books. That being said, our Lord promised to come for us. He also promised Israel her land, and His kingship. Those things will happen – everything else He’s promised, He’s delivered. So, all things considered, there’s a mess ahead, but I think those of us who belong to Him also have a really exciting flight to look forward to. I hope to see you all then.

1Thessalonians 4:13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.[a]
15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

John 14:3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

John 5:34 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”