gratitude & hoopla: April 2006

gratitude & hoopla

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton


Heading South!

This is my last post until May 3 (I'm guessing). I'm very excited that Laurie and I will be traveling south to Pennsylvania (to visit my mother) and then on to North Carolina, to visit the one and only Nate. What's more, our path runs very near the home of Milton Stanley of Transforming Sermons, so it looks like we'll be having a brief blogger meet-up there! Woo-hoo! Finally, we'll be spending a few days at Merlefest, where we will see, among many other outrageously talented players and performers, the likes of EmmyLou Harris, Bela Fleck, John Prine, Nickel Creek, and Gillian Welch! Double woo-hoo!

I said yesterday that I thought I might be undergoing a kind of reformation in my spirit. All that I really desire for my life is that I represent the Gospel with freedom and joy on an every-day basis. You've heard the metaphor of the camel's nose under the tent? The idea is, once the camel gets its nose under, the rest is soon to follow. Well, I want to be the camel's nose under the tent of this world (my little day-to-day portion of this world, anyway). It's a Gospel-camel, you see, and when I interact with people around me who are, to their unbeknownst danger, citizens of this world, I want to be that impossible-to-miss snout of one honking great camel called the Kingdom of God! How's that for a flamboyant metaphor!

So I leave you with this. Let's be as bold and stubborn and as recklessly unstoppable about the love of God as that camel. See you in a coupla weeks.



The Kingdom of God

As I'll be going on vacation in a couple of days, I'm loath to start anything new here. But not only that--it seems I've been going through a period of re-assessment and re-focus in my spiritual life lately. Maybe it's even a "reformation"! This is something I'll probably blog more about when I get back, and perhaps the time away will even help me in this process.

But for now, I'd like to share a passage from another book I've been reading. The book is called The Kingdom of God in Bible and Church, by John Bright. Published back in 1953, it is an examination of the Biblical concept of a "kingdom of God" as it evolved within the pages of Scripture as well as the pages of Biblical history. Each chapter is for me a kind of mountain trek. The reader senses he is following and expert guide, with the last pages of the chapter providing a kind of grand vista from the very peak. Thus, in his chapter on Isaiah 40-66 (what is often called the Second Isaiah), Bright elucidates the historical and theological significance of Isaiah's Suffering Servant theme. As Bright sees it, the Suffering Servant is far more than a conveniently conforting metaphor ("He died in my place"), but a direct challenge to all who call themselves followers of Christ. And his words are every bit as relevant now as they were 50 years ago:
As for the cross of the Servant, it is not strange to us. We own to a crucified Savior. In that we stand in the mainstream of the Christian faith from the beginning onward, and we do well to do so. We enthrone the crucified Savior in stained glass, wood, and stone--and in doctrine. To that cross we look for salvation. But we want that cross not at all. Indeed we would have it the chief business of religion to keep crosses far away. We want a Christ who suffers that we may not have to, a Christ who lays himself down that our comfort may be undisturbed. The call to lose life that it may be found again, to take up the cross and follow, remains mysterious and offensive to us. To be sure, we labor to bring men to Christ, and we pray, "Thy kingdom come." But our labor we see as a labor of conquest and growth, successful programs and dollars. Can it be that we are seeking to build the Kingdom of the Servant--without following the Servant? If we do so, we will doubtless build a great church--but will it have anything to do with the Kingdom of God?

Let us then be reminded that the task of the Church is not and cannot be other than the Servant task. We pray as we have been taught to pray, "Thy kingdom come." And the answer we get is the answer of the Servant: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross." We renew our prayer, "Thy kingdom come," because we have no other prayer to pray. But we renew it with the deepest confession of sin: have mercy upon us, for we are unprofitable servants! [emphasis added]


Closing Off the Light

The following quotation was found on page 106 of Fergus M. Bordewich's Bound for Canaan, which is a history of the "Underground Railroad." Bordewich is describing the means by which slaveholders used the legal system to insure that slaves would remain in perfect ignorance. This goal was all-important to the maintenance of the slave system, and it was pursued assiduously, especially after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1832. For example, all blacks (slave or free) were banned from attending religious services unless accompanied by whites.
Where schools for slaves existed, they were suppressed. The Virginia House of Delegates declared, in 1832, "We have, as far as possible, closed every avenue by which light can enter . . . [their] minds. If we could extinguish the capacity to see the light, our work would be completed; they would then be on a level with the beasts of the field, and we should be safe.
I am astonished by the sheer bluntness of this remark. And notice how completely at odds it is with the intent of the Gospel . . . a Gospel that these men professed. Amazing!

Five Days until Vacation!

That's right. We leave Saturday morning, heading south to the great state of North Carolina. We will be cruising down to Ashville to see Mr. Eight Strings himself and enjoy some Piedmont hospitality. We may take in a Civil War battlefield along the way, gander at the Blue Ridge Mountains, and spend a few days at Merlefest, listening to some of the finest bluegrass players in the world. All of which is my way of explaining that gratitude & hoopla will be dormant for about 10 days, starting next Saturday. Until then, however, I'll be making my usual morning blog-rounds.


I Dare Not Ask to Fly from Thee

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

[from O Love that Will Not Let Me Go, by George Matheson and Albert L. Peace]


"A Violent Grace"

A couple of weeks back I started reading a little book by Michael Card called A Violent Grace. With this book Michael entered into the long literary tradition of written meditations on the crucifixion of Jesus. I've been reading a chapter a day, and I realized about half-way through the book that at that rate I would be reading the last chapter on Easter morning! There's something really sweet about that!

Anyway, I love this little book. Michael Card is of course a songwriter, a creative artist, and the really special quality of his book is the way in which each "meditation" balances the rational and the imaginative. It is, throughout, the work of a mind and imagination that has been humbly submitted to the Cross, and the joy of this book is the deep joy that that can only be received in that place.

Here's a passage from the book, from a chapter entitled "He Died and Was Buried so that the Grave Could Not Hold Me":
Meanwhile, in the borrowed tomb, God was keeping His promise. "For I am going to do something in your day that you would not believe, even if you were told" (Habakkuk 1:5). "I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death...." (Hosea 13:14).

In some mysterious way that I don't understand, the tomb during those hours became God's workshop to undo the tragedy of Eden.... Only one man--completely just and holy--fully man and fully God--could undo such a disaster. A second Adam. And that one man had just allowed himself to be brutally executed and buried. Jesus was not unconscious; He was dead. He was not holding out with a last-minute miracle; the last minute had passed. He was not waiting; His will and mind and pulse simply were no more.

But God--His Father and yours and mine--had a plan: "For if by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ" (Romand 5:17).

Jesus' corpse lay stretched out in that tomb because it was God's will that, in order to pay our ransom, He meet sin and death alone in the dark.

In those hours, violence reigned absolute, and all creation waited for the Father to make His move.


On Not Moving On from the Gospel

I said yesterday that even very fine things, "Biblical" things, can distract us from that which is in fact the essence of all Biblical things--that is, the cross of Christ. Matthew Henry said:
Though the Scriptures are the circumference of faith, the round of which it walks, and every point of which compass it touches, yet the center of it is Christ; that is the polar star on which it rests. [HT: Gospel-Driven Life]
All truly Biblical things cluster around the Cross in varying degrees of proximity, but all of them point in awe-struck wonder to the Cross, to Christ's victory at Skull Hill.

If "I am not ashamed of the Gospel" means anything at all, it means I am willing to see all things in the light of that victory. Why? "For it is the power of God to everyone who believes." (Romans 1:16) As John Stott has said, "Let us never move on." And as Mark Lauterbach says, "Let us never give our people any hope of heaven or holiness but the Redeemer's glorious work for us."

Some people might say, "Oh, but I'm all about the Holy Spirit." Be careful with that, because in fact the Holy Spirit is "all about" the crucified Christ. Some Holy Spirit teaching seems to have "higher knowledge" pretensions. For some, the Gospel is nothing more than a memento from the past, brought down from its honorary shelf and dusted off each Eastertide, perhaps, only to be put back in its proper place afterward so that we can all move on to bigger and better things. But listen to what Andrew Murray says in his book, The Prayer Life:
The Holy Spirit ever leads us to the cross. It was so with Christ. The Spirit taught him and enabled him to offer himself without spot to God. It was so with the disciples. The Spirit, with whom they were filled, led them to preach Christ as the crucified one. Later on he led them to glory in the fellowship of the cross when they were deemed worthy to suffer for Christ's sake.
Paul said, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1Cor 1:22) And he said that, be it noted, to a Spirit-filled church. In the final book of the Bible--which is called, significantly, "The Revelation"--the second Person of the trinity is depicted at times as a wounded lamb, and then again as one who wears a white robe that has been dipped in blood. Even in eternity, you see, our attention will be riveted by the visible reality that all the glories of that place were purchased for us by the crucified Jesus. Halelujah to the Lamb!


The Gospel in Church?

A while back I wrote a sentence--expressed an opinion--that has continued to echo in my mind, to persist in my thoughts, to pop up again and again, requiring attention. The thought was this--I don't hear the Gospel much in my church.

Now, I don't mean this as a bitter complaint. I mean it as an observation, one that needs testing. Furthermore, I love my church, but I'm also realistic about it. Sunday morning is not always going to satisfy my deepest spiritual longings. Lord knows, I wouldn't want to be put to the test every Sunday morning, as our pastors are, week after week. We need to give these folks a lot of grace. Not only that, but I may be wrong! If there's something that I think I'm not hearing, it could be because I'm not listening.

Nevertheless, I believe it's true that in the the course of all the Sunday morning hullabaloo, the Gospel of Christ often slips through the cracks. If you've been keeping up with the gang over at Together for the Gospel, you've probably given some thought to a couple of questions C.J. asked a while back:
1) What is the Gospel?
2) What is the most serious threat to the Gospel today?
Good questions, both. Really good questions, that we should all consider carefully. C.J.'s post on this subject is here.

The fact is, we can espouse Biblical themes, talk about God, exegete the Scriptures to our heart's content, and yet never come to a clear rendition of the Gospel of Christ. In fact, there are plenty of worship songs about God that would pass muster in any Unitarian church on the planet: God is great, God loves us, let's party! Can I just say this: I'm really tired of those songs.

What is the greatest threat to the Gospel? Forgetfulness, maybe. Or the normal human thirst for something new. Or moralism. Or the sincere desire not to offend. Or perhaps just spiritual a.d.d. All of these things, I suppose, and more.

Daniel Cruver at Eucatastrophe is in the midst of an excellent consideration of this theme. The series of posts addresses the question, "Is it a Christ-centered sermon?" People, this is a really good series, addressing a a question that every Christian church-goer needs to be asking. I urge you to read the whole series, beginning here.

And that's really all I have to say for now. It's frighteningly easy to drift away from a Gospel-centered message, and not even know it! It is frighteningly easy to talk much about Jesus but completely miss the Gospel. We should be careful about this. That is, we should be full of care. It should matter above all other things.


Life is Short . . . Read a Book!

Libraries are a problem for me. They are full of books, free books, and well, how do you resist that kind of temptation? You get a good book in your hand. You flip its pages casually, wondering if you have time to read it. Perhaps its new, and the volume has a crisp feel to it, the pages have that fresh-paper smell. You turn it over in your hand, get a feel for it, read a blurb or two from the back cover. You flip it open and read the opening paragraph. Oh, yes, that's the real test. The opening paragraph will cinch the deal. Next thing you know, you're taking another book home, a book you can't possibly find the time to read.

This is at least one version of "the good life" that I can relate to. An abundance of books. At the library. Yours. Mine. Just waiting for you. Yesterday the book in my hand was called Bound for Canaan, by Fergus M. Bordewich. Subtitled, "The Underground Railrad and the War for the Soul of America." Mmmm, I've always wanted to read about that. Here's the opening paragraph:
The year is 1844 or 1845. The night air is acrid, as it always is in Madison, Indiana, with the smell of the slaughterhouses and tanneries that line the north shore of the Ohio River. It is almost ten o'clock, and in this era before electricity, the night is profound.
That's it! A historian with a flair for story-telling! I'm bringing this one home. No, I haven't got time, but nevermind that. Life is short. Read a book.


The Other Sinner: Relational Decline and It's Antidote

I picked up an old notebook yesterday and found the following words scrawled on the final page. They're my words, written some time ago, I don't remember when. It's rough, and I'd obviously intended to polish it up, to work out its thought, but here it is unpolished.
We're all living in the aftermath of one sin or another. Our own, and those of others. That's an ongoing reality--life as we know it. In our relationships we encounter him often--"the other sinner." We learn to be careful, to not be drawn out into the open, to be guarded, wary, untrusting. And the gifted among us learn not to show it.

Let me take you back to the Garden, where it all began. You are Adam. You are Eve. You've just listened to the serpent and allowed yourself to respond to his carefully calibrated nudge. This little parable is going to to be repeated again and again, ad nauseum. There will be the hiding, then the faux "coming out," fig-leaves and all, that is only a more subtle and deceptive kind of hiding. This "here I am" is just a more carefully considered lie.

And the thing is, we all know that this is the way of it. Thus, in our relationships, there is always an element of suspicion, a questioning of motives. This seems absolutely necessary, reasonable, and justifiable. But it is a tool of the destroyer. This justifiable mistrust leads inevitably into relational decline--the progressive corruption of relationship. Who has not seen this? Who is not sadly familiar?

What is required here--Lord, help us--is that we respond to others as if they were not sinners. As if there were no ground for judgement. Is this not the essence of enacted forgiveness? And is this not the way back from the precipice of relational despair?


A Reader's Prayer

[excerpted from John Baillie's A Diary of Private Prayer, p. 133]
O Thou who art the Source and Ground of all truth, Thou Light of lights, who hast opened the minds of men to discern the things that are, guide me to-day, I beseech Thee, in my hours of reading. Give me grace to choose the right books and to read them in the right way. Give me wisdom to abstain as well as to perservere. Let the Bible have proper place; and grant that as I read I may be alive to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in my soul.


Well Said

Oh my, this is so good, I'm going to quote it in full. Find it at Aron's great blog, Some Thoughts:
Someday I’d like to be flipping by the token “Christian” channel and hear, instead of (and I loosely quote) “send us your special Passover double portion blessing seed gift of $200 or more today, and we’ll send you this plastic Jewish Mazuzah for your doorpost with the 7 promises of God written on a scroll inside,” –instead, I’d love to hear, “but please, if you’d really like to thank us for this programming, don’t send us anything unless or until you’ve supported your local congregation first. Then, and only then, donate to us if you wish. But your local church family comes first. And no, we don’t have any operators standing by to pray with you–please call a friend from your local congregation and go for a chat over coffee–or better yet, share your prayer needs with your small group, and pray about them on the spot. And finally, if you want to help feed the hungry or clothe the naked, call your local soup kitchen or homeless shelter first–then, if you wish, call us afterward. Fight the inclination toward anonymity, and the tendancy for easy-bake relationships. Do not forsake the gathering together of your local church community.”

A Nation of Sojourners

You can make a kind of portrait or character-study of a person who reads a lot simply by mapping the books he reads. Each reader will have a unique list, unlike that of any other, so that the list itself is a kind of character-study or mindprint.

One important aspect of reading is that it connects us with the flow of human thought and imagination through the ages. In our age we have largely abandoned the notion that this is at all important. We are expected to be aware of the past only insofaras we can justify scorning it as irrelevant. It is considered more important to revel in pop culture than to know and relish our human heritage.

But for others, their is a kind of thirst for books which, once acquired, is never lost. I know people who would walk through a bookstore with bored disinterest. I know people, intelligent people, who believe they have a kind of mental-block or disability which prevents them from reading, even though they'd like to. I confess I don't understand this attitude.

This morning I began reading a book called The Kingdom of God, by John Bright. The book was written in 1950, but the author draws on a wealth of knowledge acquired through his own reading and study, which he then passes on to his readers. His book then is our access point to his lifetime of study. Or think of it this way: his lifetime of study was molded into the unique shape that is his book, and the book is a "view-finder" through which we catch glimpses of earlier thinkers and writers. In reading his book we are looking back over a path that he alone tread, and seeing along that trail the signposts of other thinkers and writers who contributed something to his understanding. That's why, if you like the book, its footnotes and bibliography are a kind of goldmine from which to select further fruitful reading.

Well, I had no intention of saying all this when I sat down to blog this morning. In fact, I didn't know I had these thought rattling around up there at all. What I really wanted to do was share a passage from Bright's book. Bright is considering the establishment of the Israelite kingdom under David, and the close association of that kingdom with the "temple cult." The temptation for Israel, he says, was to so closely associate the promises of God with the Davidic kingdom as they knew it as to believe that God's purposes in history were realized and completed in "the existing order."

I think this qualifies as a "deep thought," and it raises a question we would do well to ask ourselves. With regard to Israel, Bright puts the matter this way:
Would the robust confidence in the future which had activated her and driven her on to the Promised Land, and written in her spirit--though she may not have known it--the vision of a city not made with hands, be saitisfied with the city of Jerusalem and the material plenty which Solomon could provide?
Applying the same questions to our own situation--or, more precisely, to the United States in 1950--Bright asks,
Will our destiny as a nation which calls itself Christian be satisfied in terms of the economic prosperity and the national might which we have created? Will we seek no higher salvation than that the present order can provide in terms of increased income, autmobiles, and television sets? What is worse, will we, because we have churches and because our political forms are hospitable to their growth, assume that the present order is the God-ordained order which God--if he be just--may be called upon to defend always? The people that answer that question so, will see it as the sole function of religion to support and to hallow in the name of God its own material best interests. But it will never begin to understand the Kingdom of God.
Think about these things. It is always good to remember that, if we truly are a Christian nation, then we are a nation of sojourners for whom no earthly nation can really be considered home.


A Grace-filled Misfit

This morning I finished reading a little collection of the writings of Rich Mullins: The World as I Remember It: Through the Eyes of a Ragamuffin. This book reminded me of why I loved Rich's music, and also that he was one of the rare ones. I know one or two guys like Rich. They are my favorite people in the world. Grace-filled misfits. Ragamuffins. People who, once having heard the words, "What does it profit a man that he should gain the whole world, but lose his soul," live the rest of their lives in ernest abandonment to that truth.

Anyway, Rich was one-of-a-kind. I'd like to quote his little book at length, but in the interest of brevity, I'll just try this one on for size:
I hope you see the faithfulness of God in everything He has made. I hope you learn to trust that all of this is His care sworn to you. But mostly, I hope you know Jesus through whom God has wildly and ferociously loved us. I hope you know and that you become sacramental to your neighbor who God also loves passionately. I hope you leave them little doubt about His love and the victory Jesus won over hate and death.


Dead White Blogger Alert!

Oh boy, now Geoffrey Chaucer has a blog. I mean, "hath." Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog.


Vietnamese Noodle Soup for Four Please

Well, the list of "people I know who blog" is growing longer all the time. Check out Vietnamese Noodle Soup for Four Please. Josh and April, who are worship leaders at my church, are blogging their adoption adventure, as they prepare to travel to Vietnam to meet Ruby, their new adopted daughter. Go on over and say hello, why don'cha?


Leanness of Soul

Psalm 106:15 says,
KJV: "He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their souls"
ESV: "he gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them."
Message: "He gave them exactly what they asked for--but along with it they got an empty heart."
Of this verse, T. Austin-Sparks writes:
The phrase "leanness into their souls" indicates that, firstly, thinness, scantiness, smallness, starvation, tenuity, weakness, and contraction in spiritual stature and measure are quite contrary to a God who is so full, abundant, and beneficent. Such contraction and limitation could never be a testimony to Him.

In the next place, the words indicate that the heavenly, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the way of faith is really the way of spiritual robustness and substance.

How lean-souled many of the Lord's people are! How little many of them and many churches have to give! How rare it is to find those - individually or collectively - who have much more than they need themselves and plenty for others! Starvation conditions are all too common among the Lord's people. There are many reasons for this, but our verse says that it is the preference for the earthly to the heavenly, and an unwillingness to forego the natural for the spiritual.... At any cost let us set the highest value and importance upon spiritual fulness, the fulness of Christ, and never by any means limit Him, or be instrumental in limiting Him in others!


Saturday Rewind: Kingdom Communication

[This post originally appeared at Mr. Standfast, 5 August, 2004.]

Communication in the Kingdom of God is going to be perfect. Did you ever think about that? What you say to me then, and what I say to you, is going to be perfectly understood. It's going to come across with perfect clarity. There will simply be no possibility of misunderstanding. This is going to be totally amazing, don't you think?

The Bible says, "We'll know even as we are known." That means, we'll know God even as we are known by Him. But I believe it can be applied also to our knowing of each other. I will see to the depths of you. You will see to the depths of me. We'll know each other even as God knows us. Nothing hid. Nothing. And my response to you will be one of pure love, despite that I'll know the worst about you, and you're response to me will be one of pure love, despite that you'll know the worst about me.

Think of it. Right now we don't know each other that way, and we don't know ourselves that way. There is mistrust and fear between us. There is deception. We deceive each other, and we deceive ourselves. We are mixed up people and we don't even know just how mixed up. We don't appreciate, most of the time, the depths of our own depravity. And yet, in Heaven we will. We will know ourselves, and each other, even as God knows us. We will understand--thoroughly understand--what we have done and what we have been! And the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ will be all the more precious, all the more amazing! And the praise of him that will then rise from our whole being will be worship "in purity and truth," as Jesus promised the Samaritan woman.

That's going to be remarkable. Of course, we can hardly do this theme justice. Words can only hint at the wonder of it all. There is no model in our own experience for this kind of pure communication. It's rare in all human history that one man might trust another so much, so thoroughly, that (if it were possible) he would be willing to be completely and shamelessly transparent. But that will be the relational norm in the Kingdom of God. Perfect trust. Pure love ruling all our interactions. The old bad things not forgotten, but understood, and responded to with pure love.