Friday, April 28, 2017

A Lifetime of Books – Musings (4)

Now I’m looking at one of my favorite books, one that I’ll keep; A Fly Went By, by Mike McClintock with illustrations by Fritz Siebel. First published in 1958, it is still available, which says something about its staying power. I love the rhyme and rhythm of the book, wonderful for reading aloud. It also lends itself to profitable instruction, beginning with:

“I sat by the lake. I looked at the sky, and as I looked, a fly went by.

“A fly went by. He said, “Oh, dear!” I saw him shake. He shook with fear.”

And the story rockets from there. A fly running from a frog who is running from a cat who is running from a dog who is running from a pig who is running from a cow who is running from a fox who is running from a man…and what is the man running from? Well, I can’t be a spoiler and tell you, now can I? Everyone running from fear, yet at the end there is nothing to fear – but there is someone who needs help.

Fear drives so much of life, and yet what people ought to fear they don’t, and what they often fear they shouldn’t. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom – no doubt about that…yet few fear the Lord. People fear what others will think, they fear they won’t measure up to the world’s expectations, they fear they won’t look just right or have just the right things or be thought important or attractive or…well the list goes on doesn’t it?

People fear each other, sometimes with good reason, but most times with no reason at all other than we may look different or talk with different accents or prefer different foods or music or dress. We fear the unfamiliar. We fear failure and therefore often don’t move out of our comfort zones.

Jesus came to destroy the one fear that pervades humanity – the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14 – 18; 2 Timothy 1:8 – 12); He did this by conquering death, by dying for us and rising for us. When we come into a relationship with Jesus Christ we share in His victory over death and the portal of death is transformed into a portal of eternal life in the presence of God. Followers of Jesus Christ need not fear death – Christ awaits us as we pass through its portal. A Day will come when death in all its forms will be manifestly defeated (1 Corinthians Chapter 15).

And yet…and yet…there are those who ought to fear death, they are those who choose to continue living life outside of Jesus Christ, outside of a relationship with God – they live in denial of God, of their sinfulness and rebellion, and of the eternal trajectory which they are on – separation from God. If this sounds harsh to you, it is no more harsh than the observation that people on an airplane ought to fear if they have engine failure at 30,000 feet – their fear ought to motivate them to do something.

Some people fear what they ought not to fear; others do not fear what they ought to fear.

I need to go now, I just saw a fly go by and want to see if it’s running from a frog. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 87

“Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), pages 75 - 76.

“There is also a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say…And it is certain that here, too, in our attitude toward other Christians we simply see reflected our own relationship to God” (page 76).

Is today my day or is it God’s day? This is a question I must ask myself when I arise and also ask throughout the day. Am I in such a hurry to consume the hours of the day that I usurp the place of God? Do I talk past God and others? Do I half listen to God and others? Do I presume to know what others have to say? Do I presume to know what God has to say?

Can there be any greater “task” than to listen to God, and then to listen to others with the ears of God?

We approach the day the way a sprinter approaches a race; when we arise it is as if we are out of the starting blocks and we don’t slow down until we retire to bed. Even then many of us don’t sleep well, for we lie in bed between the race we’ve just run with thoughts of the race we will run in the day ahead. Listening requires trusting rest in God, but we dare not rest or we will miss something and yet in seeking not to miss anything we can miss everything. Trusting rest in God means that the day is not mine but God’s; since the day is God’s I am called to acknowledge His ordering of the day and I am prepared to stop and listen to Him and to others. 

When we order our days too often we order them with no expectation of God speaking to us and God reordering our day – therefore we may have every minute scheduled – and when every minute is scheduled we are always thinking of what we need to do the next minute, and the minute beyond that, and the minute beyond that – we cannot listen to God and others when we are always thinking, “I need to do this now, I need to do that next, and that next, and that next.” People become things to be processed minute by minute, task by task. And God? What of God? Surely He understands that we have things to do, surely God is practical about these things.

A sad irony is that busyness is not fruitfulness, and that since busyness is not conducive to creativity or quality thinking that busyness retards progress and deep growth in individuals and groups. Busy people not only pass people by, they pass by opportunities.

Do we presume to know what God is saying? Do we assume lordship over the day? Does the day belong to us or to God? How can we “redeem the time” if we are always giving away the time by insisting on our own agendas, our own importance, and our own willful insistence that we must move on to the next thing?

How sad that we, who were made for relationship with God and with each other, throw away opportunities for relationship countless times during our days and weeks.

This is a matter of lordship – who is the lord over today? How does the way I live answer that question?

At the end of today, at the end of every day – let us ask, “Who I have listened to today? How have I listened to God today?”

Monday, April 24, 2017

Built Upon Sand

“A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, for such a society is a house built upon sand.” Dorothy L. Sayers

As I ponder this I wonder what the difference is between an object at the waste dump and a newly-purchased object that will eventually be sent to the waste dump? May not newly- purchased objects simply be waste with new paint? Advertising does not sell content, it sells images – as John reminds us in Revelation, we ought to pay attention to the images we worship. When we see advertising all too often we are looking at idols – but do we know it?

Consumption is a tiger that will eat us. We cannot get off. It is devouring our souls. It is devouring the soul of the church. How much is enough? Just a little bit more.

If the Cretans were liars with fat bellies (Titus 1:12), what are we but spin doctors, with gorged egos, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God…with famished souls?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Lifetime of Books – Musings (3)

I’m looking at Green Eggs and Ham, and also at A Fly Went By. These are keepers. I’m not keeping them for kids that might visit us, I’m keeping them for me. Oh I guess if we don’t have kids visit that I might have to borrow or rent a kid now and then so that I can read them aloud, but the truth is that I’ll get more pleasure reading them than any child will get listening to them.

Many folks are familiar with Green Eggs and Ham, especially on Saint Patrick’s Day, or annual days that celebrate reading in school. It could be a manual for sales, marketing, evangelism; it could be an example of the delight we can find when we try new things…even green eggs and ham. The eggs were still eggs, the ham was still ham – I don’t imagine they tasted any different than usual eggs and ham…but then again, maybe they did. Once one of the cola companies came out with a “clear” cola – it flopped…looks matter when it comes to food and drink.

Green Eggs and Ham is an example of persistence and of continually seeking new avenues of communication – what is the best way to deliver the message of green eggs and ham? On a boat? With a goat? In the rain? On a train? In a tree? In a car? In a box? With a fox? In a house? With a mouse? We must not dilute the content of the message, and not confuse the method of delivery with content – and if our content is clear, such as in Green Eggs and Ham, then those to whom we are communicating will hopefully understand both the content and the response that is required of them.  

Well, I am going to close for now and pick up A Fly Went By in a future post. In the meantime I think I’ll drive over to the seminary library and research an ancient Ugaritic text that has much the same message, some of the text is obscure since we only have fragments, but I’m told that there are similar Hittite and Egyptian and Babylonian stories – and that similar stories also exist in the hollows of the Blue Ridge.

Too bad the professing church doesn’t have the passion of Sam-I-am in sharing the Gospel; come to think of it…I’d better look in the mirror.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 86

“The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 75.

Bonhoeffer reminds preachers that they ought not to think that they always need to be talking, but that listening can be a greater service than speaking – good advice for us all. He then writes that “Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God” (page 75).

“The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words” (page 75).

I cannot know God if I will not listen to God; I cannot know others if I will not listen to them. The actions of others, the way others look, and the superficial “social” speech of others can deceive me – they may hide inner struggles, hopes, dreams, sorrows, and joys. They may be intended to hide them, to mask pain and disillusionment; to cloak aspirations that the person thinks can never be fulfilled. We live in an incognito society, we hide who we are; even in the church we are seldom known – social interactions in the church are often little different than social interactions at work or in our civic community. In fact, there may be times interpersonal relationships outside the church are more genuine than those in the church for they do not carry the weight of religious pretension or conformity.

Many of us enjoy travel. Many of us would love to travel around the world, to see new things, to experience other cultures. And yet, virtually every day we have the opportunity to travel to places we’ve never been; to places we may not even know exist – we have the opportunity to share a few steps in the lives of others…if we will only listen. If we listen we may find ourselves climbing a mountain, or traversing a desert, or enjoying a placid pond, or on a ship taking on water in a raging sea, or hiking in a field of wildflowers. We will never know these places if we do not stop, be quiet (in mouth and mind!) and listen.

Listening means going beyond initial pleasantries and allowing the other person to trust us, offering ourselves in a certain time and place to another person; it means not looking at our watch or phone, it means saying to the other person by our listening, “You are important, God has placed us here, in Christ I will listen to you.”

On page 76 Bonhoeffer writes, “We should listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God.” While I will come back to this statement in a future post, in this post I want to point out that, “We should listen with the ears of God…”

Is God listening to the other person? Of course He is. If God is listening then should not I be listening? Am I too important to listen? If I am too important to listen to others, and yet if God is listening to others, then am I more important than God? God is calling me to join with Him in listening, shall I tell God that I am too busy?

I cannot know a book unless I open the book and read it and ponder it. While I cannot open another person, I can allow another person the time to open himself to me – but if I am not listening it is not likely that the other person will trust me enough to be open with me. There are people who do not want to read a book but to only read a short summary – they will never “know” the book. There are people who do not want to listen to others but only want a few short facts about the person – they will never know the person.

In society, and sadly in many churches, people are not listened to and they are not known. They don’t know others and others do not know them. We are too busy; too busy with religious activities, with spiritual chatter, with Christian faddish jargon. We are bombarded with verbal noise that shatters our souls and cheapens speech – we cannot listen any more than we can drink from the base of Niagara Falls. This pattern of noise and rapid-fire communication which is unable to sustain serious thought molds us into people unable to connect with others, unable to listen and understand. We are pinballs unleashed all at once bouncing around life pinging here and pinging there – caught up in lights and noise and frenzied action.

Our talking can be an expression of our own sense of self-importance – but it can also be an expression of our desire for someone to listen to us. Is this something we will admit? Will we admit that we can be self-important? Will we also admit that we need others to listen to us…to know us?

Today, will I listen to others “with the ears of God”?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Psalm 23 - Jesus and You and Us

As we ponder Psalm 23, do we see the Resurrection? What does this Psalm look like in the life of Jesus Christ?

If we write our autobiography using this Psalm, taking each verse as a chapter title, what is the content of each chapter?

How can we see the People of God in this Psalm? That is, how might we write our collective autobiography based on Psalm 23?

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Lifetime of Books – Musings (2)

I have three books about wedding ceremonies; while I am sure that I glanced at them at one time, I’ve never used any of the ceremonies – so they are going in the trash. I’m sure the authors meant well, and it isn’t that there aren’t useful tips in them, but weddings are so personal that I can’t imagine using something canned; same with funerals – but I don’t have any books on funerals. I’m told that there are preachers who use Sunday messages prepared by others – I don’t get that either. I’ve carried these three books too many miles, it’s time to say “goodbye”.

Here is another book that is going in the trash. It is written by a well-known ministry leader in the Richmond region…very well known. The author makes it clear that he does not believe that Jesus is God. I have a problem with someone in “Christian” ministry not believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ. I have a problem with that person teaching that Jesus isn’t God and yet holding himself out as a minister of the Gospel. A friend of mine, who heads a Christian organization, once endorsed a ministry partnership with this author’s organization – when I pointed out to my friend that the author did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ and that I found it difficult to see how my friend could endorse a partnership with the author’s ministry, I was in effect told that there were donors that had ties to both organizations and that no one was going to rock the boat. Well, it can be all about money can’t it? Anyway, no need to hang on to this book.

Ah, here’s a book on Ezekiel’s Temple; it’s about a secret to be found in the temple. I met the author a few years ago and he gave me a copy of the book. I read it and sent him some thoughts. They were gentle thoughts, but they did point out some concerns with the book. He was gracious and surprised, he told me that no one had ever given him any criticism of the book – he thanked me and I think he meant it. I didn’t get the impression that he thought I might have a point or two, but he was nice about it. Anyway, I hope the brother is doing well these days. As I said in my last post, when I see the word “secret” I become skeptical.

Here are two face books from seminary. It’s nice to reminisce when flipping through them, but hey, we’ve moved on haven’t we? Memories are nice, and that was a sweet time, but these two thin volumes need to take a journey out of the house.

The next book cover tells the reader that the author “shares the secrets of church growth”. There is that word “secret(s)” again. Why did I purchase it? I must have been looking for a secret, a quick fix, a shortcut, a formula. Why do we think that if something “worked” there that it will “work” here? Isn’t that word “work” the problem? Aren’t we called into relationship with the Trinity and with one another? Can’t we trust our Lord Jesus to build His Church? Can’t we rely on the Holy Spirit to do “here” what He desires to do, which may not be what He is doing “there”? This is not to say that we can’t learn from one another, that those “here” cannot learn from those “there” – but it is to say that when we package how-to formulas that we run the danger of seeking to manipulate the One who cannot be manipulated; we run the danger of descending into the realms of sociology and marketing. We would never do that…would we? When Jesus Christ ceases to be our focus what do we become? What happens? This book is exiting the library. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Lifetime of Books – Musings (1)

Next week I’ll get back to Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and perhaps other lines of thought as well; sometimes life’s interruptions give us a break from rhythms which in turn provide new perspectives. While interruptions may be unwelcome, they need not be unprofitable.

In preparation for “retirement”, a word I find obnoxious because I hardly plan to retire from life, I have been agonizingly evaluating and downsizing my library. If you do not love books this may make no sense and you may classify me as a loony; but if you love books, if you love to read their titles, to ponder the journey you’ve taken through them; if you have come to call some of them “friends”; if, when you scan your bookshelves you relive decades of reading and life’s experiences…well then…you know what I am talking about. Just the way an old song may remind us of a season of life, a book may remind me of the season of life I was in when I read it.

I had a forlorn hope that my books may one day be in a library, a church library perhaps, a mission-school library, someplace where others could enjoy them and learn and make their own friends. Maybe when I leave this place for Narnia my reference books will find a home in such a place. I had also hoped that some of my more personal books, both from childhood and adulthood, would find homes with special people – maybe that will happen when I move to Narnia, one can only hope.

I asked my brother Jim about some books the other day, telling him that I would send them to him – I was especially asking about Sandburg’s multivolume biography of Lincoln (we both love history); alas his own books, he says, are mostly in boxes and he now uses Kindle. I use Kindle too, but I’ve never made a friend of a book on Kindle – I can’t hold it or smell it or finger its pages or underline it or make notes or write symbols in its margins (yes, yes, I know you can highlight and make footnotes in Kindle – but that is worse than kissing your cousin).

Some books I am throwing away. There are two reasons for this, one is that used books have, as a rule, no value and that they are not likely to interest anyone should I donate them – a particularly sad thought for a booklover; the other is that some of the books, in and of themselves, are not worth reading – I kept them for reference so that I could use them as teaching examples of poor thinking, heresy, and downright weird “spirituality”. I guess it is like the CDC keeping strains of germs that, should they escape, could sicken and kills thousands of people. Among the former are books that are simply not well-written, among the latter include a volume that was a New Age bestseller that came into my possession (I can’t recall if I purchased it or it was given to me) years ago so that I could try to help a friend who was caught up into its message. Also among the latter is a book that was, as I recall, at the top of the “Christian” bestseller list and whose author was touted on the front page of Christianity Today – that was the year that I canceled my subscription to CT; that front page article along with other editorial choices was just too much – I don’t care about what is popular, I care about what is true.

I have been struck by how much of what I have accumulated is ephemeral. This isn’t always a criticism; some books are written for certain times and places, but then some are simply faddish. Am I reading anything today that will be with me 10 or 20 years from now? If not, then perhaps I should broaden my diet.

Augustine wrote a lot, some of what he wrote has a long shelf-life, some is almost impossible to relate to because it was written for a certain time and place. It’s good to know the difference.

Any title that has the word “secret” in it is probably not worth keeping. Why do Christian publishers use that word? Why do Christians run after this secret and that secret? All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Jesus Christ (see Colossians Chapter 2). Sometimes “Christian” publishers will take something written decades ago and repackage it with the word “secret” – they take something someone wrote who lived 100, 200, 500 years ago, something that was never meant to be presented as a “secret”, and put the word “secret” on it to get Christians to buy it. What is that all about? It’s about money…and about professing Christians not knowing that Jesus is all in all.

Some of my faded books are good books, but folks don’t read faded books. I guess that’s age discrimination.

I wonder if UPS delivers to Narnia? If so I might ship some of these volumes ahead so they will be there when I arrive. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 85

“Finally, one extreme statement must still be made, without any platitudes, and in all soberness. Not considering oneself wise, but associating with the lowly, means considering oneself the worst of sinners…There can be genuine knowledge of sin that does not lead me down to this depth. If my sin appears to me to be in any way smaller or less reprehensible in comparison with the sins of others, then I am not yet recognizing my sin at all…Those who would serve others in the community must descend all the way down to this depth of humility.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 74.

The above passage is the way of liberation and of service. It liberates us from the pitfalls that Bonhoeffer describes in this chapter; the danger of pride, of not preferring my brother above myself, of not honoring my brother, of seeking to control others, of attempting to create others in the image of what I think they should be, of living in self-justification. The above passage liberates us to serve others in humility – the comparison we make in our service is to think, “Well, whatever my brother may be dealing with, I have descended far below him, I am the worst of sinners. I shall freely serve him.”

Yet there is another comparison that enables the above comparison, and that is to behold our Lord Jesus Christ, the holy Lamb of God, without spot or stain or sin or any such thing. When I behold Him in His purity, bearing my sins and myself on the Cross – then I am overwhelmed with a comparison that breaks my heart and shuts my self-justifying mouth, and I am stripped of pretension and self-justification – I am indeed the worst of sinners and I know that outside of Jesus Christ that I am capable of anything and everything…and I know that I would be a fool to think otherwise.

Yes, in Jesus Christ I am a saint, as is my brother; but oh let there be no mistake about who I was and who I would be outside of Jesus Christ – let me not be a pretentious fool and a blasphemer and presume to assume my own righteousness and justification and glory and thereby distance myself from the Cross.

Furthermore, let me not trivialize sin by making it something less than it is, let me not excuse sin in my life as “just one of those things” or “that’s just the way I am.” While I am called to cover my brother’s sin as a member of the priesthood of believers, I must confess my sin to Jesus Christ and seek His mercy and grace – I painfully rejoice when the Holy Spirit and the Word of God reveal sin in my life and I throw myself on the Christ of the Cross. Let there never be any question as to who in all of human history is the worst of sinners – it is Bob Withers.

Now that I am free from myself by the Cross of Christ I can serve others; I must serve others. I have been freed from slavery not to be my own person, but to be the bondservant of Another, and through Him to be the servant of all. If Christ died for all then how can I not serve all? Paul wrote of the debt he had to all, to all ethnic groups, to the wise and to the unwise (Romans 1:14).

When, at the foot of the Cross, I know that I am the worst of sinners I am liberated from trying to be something I am not; I am liberated from the works of the Law, I am liberated from the religious traditions and expectations of man, I am liberated from hypocrisy – from wearing a religious mask. I am also liberated to serve others through love (Galatians 5:1, 13) as I learn to live in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 25 – 26).

Now that the fact is settled that I am the worst of sinners, who can I find to serve today?