Wednesday, February 21, 2007

To Begin Anew

One of the most challenging assignments I’ve ever had involved a paper to be written for an OT survey class. The paper itself was easy enough, I suppose, but there was one cardinal rule that was absolute: there could be NO NT reference whatsoever. The instructor promised us that she would read each paper very carefully and if she THOUGHT that there was even an oblique NT reference, we would lose points.

The purpose of the exercise was to teach us to engage the Scripture as if we were reading it for the very first time, much like those of the day who did not have the benefit of NT perspective. It was probably at this time when I stopped referring to OT as OT, preferring instead “Hebrew Scripture” or “Hebrew Text” because as far as I could tell there was – is – nothing “old” about it especially if we faithfully consider that the Lord’s Word is eternal, with no beginning and certainly no ending.

Lent should be approached with the same perspective. Before we can fully appreciate the intrinsic value of Easter, we must first experience the nature of the journey as if for the very first time. We cannot simply move from the manger of Christmas to the empty tomb of Easter because the journey of the Christ did not start and finish so simply.

It is especially fitting that we begin this journey with Ash Wednesday. We are to be reminded of the limited extent of our physical existence just as when Adam was formed from the dust of the earth until Divine Life was breathed into him: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the Breath of Life, and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7 NIV

In our contemporary society we lament the sins of others whom we believe to be violating all that we know to be good and right; we blame them for the failures of our culture. During the season of Lent, however, our focus must be on our own carnal nature and the constant struggle which I believe exists within each of us to live spiritually and seek to overcome our carnal nature. We know the difference between right and wrong, but sometimes we justify our failures of faithfulness according to what we believe to be most expedient and that perhaps does no “real” harm without understanding that our failure to our faith is a failure in the eyes of our Creator. Making such carnal choices, choices most pleasing to our flesh, to our physical existence, to our worldly nature, render us “dust” and therefore lacking in the substance of Life.

Whether we have experienced Lent every year since childhood or are experiencing it now for the first time, let us be mindful of our need to have Life “breathed into our nostrils” so that we may become beings living faithfully in the knowledge that we, in the absence of Divine Life, “are dust, and to dust we shall return”. Genesis 3:19 NIV

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Martyrdom of Self

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Luke 6:17-26

There is a great day dawning. I don’t know exactly when it will be; I only have the faith to hope that it will be. Soon perhaps. Or maybe not in my lifetime. But one day there will be no more sorrow, no more tears as it is written in The Revelation. Even with this knowledge, however; even with this hope, there is much to be done before the dawning of that Great Day. It is time for a serious evaluation.

I read a short story in the paper this past week called “The Martyrdom of Andy”. It was a short story published by a gentleman named Ben who, at the tender age of 77, remembers his childhood in south Arkansas and a particular kid named Andy with more than a little regret.

Andy was the “poor” kid who never quite fit in but not from lack of effort. Andy’s father was in prison and his mom took in laundry and did other odd jobs just to keep food on the table. Andy wore tattered clothing and seemed always a little dirtier than he should have been. He had an old, rusted hand-me-down girl’s model bicycle that even had sections of garden hose where tires should have been. And even though Andy took a good bit of ribbing from Ben and the boys, they were never so cruel as to hurt him deep. He always seemed to go along with the ribbing with a gentle nature so uncommon for boys; he never fought back, and he never got angry. He never even seemed to be hurt by any of it. Except for one particular day that Ben can remember as if it were yesterday and would give anything to take it all back.

Ben and his buddies were going to camp out in the woods behind Ben’s house, and all the boys were invited. Ben’s mom even made up a special pack for Andy so that he could join in the fun. Somehow, though, the boys decided that they just didn’t want Andy to spend the night with them and because they were in Ben’s yard, it was decided that Ben would have to be the one to send Andy away.

As Ben stood out waiting for Andy’s arrival, the boys hunkered down in the tent with the flaps pulled to. Soon the clattering of Andy’s old rag-tag bike could be heard rounding the corner. Ben could see Andy peddling as quickly as he could, just as any EXCITED kid would. Andy jumped off the bike and waved excitedly at Ben as he began to approach, but he stopped suddenly. Ben was not waving back nor was he smiling.

“Andy, we don’t want you here.”

The countenance of Andy’s face changed so dramatically that there was no way he was misunderstanding what was being said. And Ben writes that a single tear in each eye developed and just sort of hung there, not quite running but definitely building. Andy stood there for only a moment but for what must have been an eternity for Ben, then turned to his bike, picked it up and began pushing it slowly home.

I think that most, if not all, of us can remember an Andy Drake in our lives at some point. It could well be that some of us have suffered in a similar way as Andy did on what must have been for him that AWFUL DAY. And there is no doubt in my mind that ALL OF US can recall moments in our past that we would gladly give our eyeteeth for in order for that moment to be obliterated from history’s mark.

Some of us have learned to move on. Some of us have been so blessed in our lives that it is difficult to remember the hurts of the past. Some of us may still be enduring a little Andy Drake treatment even today. And as I pointed out a week or two ago, there is not a lonelier feeling in this world than to feel completely and totally isolated or unwanted.

Getting past such hurt, such pain, such maltreatment, is part of what the Scripture passages from Jeremiah and Luke are written to contend with. The Lord has never said that He will prevent us from being hurt or being persecuted or mistreated in any way. In fact, Jesus promises His disciples that they will have a hard row to hoe. And St. Paul writes that such sufferings are very much a part of the building of our character that strengthens us to endure future hurts and challenges to our faith. In fact, it must be said that these experiences are very much a part of who we become. The key is in understanding that we fail ourselves and perhaps even make matters worse when we look for healing and comfort from worldly sources.

According to the wording in Jeremiah, the Lord sounds angry: “CURSED are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn AWAY from the Lord.” Jeremiah 17:5

Parents should be able to understand this passage. Many of us have endured a silent child, one who is suffering from something and seems to withdraw from family. It bothers us because our experiences tell us there is hurt and pain. A child seems to withdraw as part of the process of trying to sort out the problem, trying to understand what went wrong, and trying to work out a solution. They are attempting to do it all on their own and when they do, they shut the ones who care the most. Their silence is both deafening and maddening because we know something is amiss, but we can’t help because we are not being asked to help. We feel shut out, a little isolated, and it hurts.

Soon, however, it begins to appear as though our child does not trust us. Oh sure, if they need money they know where to come. When it really seems to matter, though, when the need is most acute, they don’t seem to have much need for us. They would rather both isolate themselves and depend on their own limited resources, or they might rather talk to friends, perhaps even the very same friends who “helped” them get into this particular predicament. Only they cannot see this because they have yet to develop that very adult level of cynicism which teaches us to keep certain persons and things at arm’s length; a safe distance so that we are not hurt again. Now WE’RE angry because the ones they should trust the most they seem to trust the least.

“They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”
Jeremiah 17:6

It seems to me that passages like this one are mostly misunderstood and even cause some to shy away from the Lord because it seems to portray Him as mean, petty, and vindictive. He is “cursing” us to the wilderness; He is isolating us from Himself just to get back at us, so show us how it feels.

I don’t think, however, that this portrayal is fair. Instead, it seems to me that this passage and others like it are testifying to the “curse” we bring upon ourselves when we deliberately choose to isolate ourselves from those who care most about us. Whether we are merely trying to work out the problem or don’t want to seem negative or needy, we hurt those who love us when we shut them out. So rather than get the help we so desperately need, the help that those who love us want so desperately to provide, we isolate ourselves to our own private “wilderness”.

Jesus is reiterating something that people need to know. He is speaking to a people imprisoned and bound in spiritual chains. This is a people under the thumb of the Roman Empire and bad spiritual teachers. And He was crucified by the same people who failed to “see when relief comes”.

I would think that if it could be rewritten to be more accurate, it might read something like this:

Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of Heaven – IF YOU WANT IT TO BE.
Blessed are you who are hungry for you will be filled – IF YOU WANT TO BE

No, I’m not proposing that Scripture be rewritten. What I am proposing is that there are blessings and comfort we cannot begin to comprehend because we, in our quest for independence, are too proud to admit that there are some things that are just much too big for us to handle. We can sometimes be so wrapped up in our own self-pity that we cannot lift ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. We cannot see light at the end of the tunnel because we will not open the door.

Jesus says in the Revelation: “Here I am. I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and him with Me.”
Revelation 3:20

The world can be an overwhelming place and for those who are weak in the faith, it can be downright terrifying. For those who have no faith at all, life and all its challenges can be disabling. We seem to insist, however, that we have resources available to us to help combat these problems and help us to overcome. What we fail to see, however, is that the Source of any help that will do us any good must first come from above.

Jesus promises that those who are hurting through no fault of their own will one day find comfort for the Lord watches over His faithful. The “bad”, as long as we remain in this world, is not going to go away. The sense of peace, however, that comes from Christ is that peace which gives us the strength to endure. It is the strength that will help us to “finish the race”. It is the peace which reminds us that no matter how overwhelming life can be, there is nothing to be put upon us that cannot be removed by Divine intervention.

But first we have to open the door and let Him in.