Archive for March, 2012

“Push Out into Deep Water”

March 4, 2012

In the first story in Luke 5, Jesus teaches the crowds in the shallow waters, but tells Peter, “Push out into deep water” for the real catch. Several of the other stories in this chapter relate to this idea of “deep water,” depth of commitment and involvement—the leper cleansed who can’t stop talking about Jesus, the four friends of the bed-ridden paraplegic tearing the roof off to put the guy down into the house to allow Jesus to heal him, the breadth of the spread laid out by Levi to celebrate Jesus, and even Jesus’ counsel about being totally committed to the Bridegroom, illustrated by images of matching fabrics for patching and putting new wine into new wineskins.

I wonder how deeply I’ve been committed in the past. I thought at the time I was totally committed to Jesus, but in light of the way I feel recently, I can’t help but wonder. I’m being overwhelmed with a sense of being close to him, drawing in, pushing out into deep waters, studying, learning, obeying, knowing his presence moment-by-moment in a way that hasn’t seemed as alive to me ever, at least in my memory.

And I feel he is calling us all to that depth of commitment. “Get in or get out,” he seems to be urging. “I don’t want you half-hearted!” Half-hearted is no-hearted, is deadness, is dividedness, is death waiting until the oxygen has gone out of the blood because there is none incoming. “I want your all, or none at all.” Serious words, yes, but a call to a life that is fully alive, brilliant, beautiful, strong, awake, vibrant, pulsating, energized. Oh, the beauty of what is offered so outweighs the negative! Why haven’t I seen that before? How I have been blinded and cheated by the enemy!

So I push out into deep waters. What does that look like? Deeper study. More intense focus on him moment-by-moment. More willingness to step out and do something different, challenging, risky. More willingness to obey that small quiet inner voice that I hear more and more as I listen, not really with my ears, but with the ears of my feelings.

It means getting past my objections: “But, Lord, we’ve worked ALL NIGHT…” “Yes,” he quietly lets me know.  “I know that. And it WAS work, and it WAS night—but this is different—and you’ll see…” And yes, like Peter, I’m blown away—and I almost want to ask him to leave—it’s that deep an impact! I can’t handle the feelings, I’ve stuffed them so long. The tears burn and sting.

But , then, I can’t NOT be with him. The pain of separation, looked at from inside this closeness and depth of relationship, is far more excruciating, far less tolerable. Desire overwhelms me like never before, for a relationship I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg of. And I want to ride that iceberg, let it melt in the flow of the ever-warming pacific waters I’m being drawn into. Deep, deep, Mindanao deep. Waters deeper than I can imagine, deep enough to swallow my Everests and never know they are in there. And then I’ll swim and dive and flow like I’ve never done before.

I’ve always had a fear of drowning, and even lung problems like bronchitis and pneumonia seem to me to be that same threat, of drowning in my own fluids, unable to breath. And I’ve never liked swimming, really can’t swim beyond the basic keeping my head above water. But I sense that this kind of swimming would be different, like the guy in Ted Dekker’s Circle series (I call them the “color” novels: Black, Red, White, Green), where he can swim underwater effortlessly, breathing the water as easily as air. This immersion is not drowning: Though there is a losing of the self that holds me back, there is a finding of the self that I was really meant to be.

It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to relate to unless you have had some similar experience. James and John and “everyone” were impressed with the “catch of the day” along with Peter, but none of them fell down and asked Jesus to draw back because it was too much. Glory is something we’re not accustomed to, particularly when it overwhelms with awe in our work-a-day lives, in our bedrooms while we’re sleeping, or in our cars while we’re driving. I remember hearing a story of John Wimber seeing through the windshield of his car the heavens dripping with honey, and another one where he told of the Lord telling him, “I’ve seen what the church you’ve built” in a way that had John beaming inside, and then the Lord said, “Now I’m going to show you what I can do!”

I am finding some of those depths through writing, and it has been decades in the coming. I am 59, and I feel as though I’m waking up like Rip Van Winkle. Perhaps it’s my own fault to some extent—maybe I’ve been as un-diligent as he was prior to his 20-year-long nap. But I would not have anyone wish to have gone through the un-awake-ness I’ve known in order to have what I’m experiencing now.

Yet I can’t help but wonder: How many of us are truly awake? Don’t most of us settle for “shallow-water teaching”? We are content to “just get by,” to settle for mediocrity, even to want to be “normal” or “average.” We aren’t really the unique “you” we were meant to be. There’s a Dr. Seuss quote on this which is pretty famous: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Excellent observation! Oh, if we could only manage to live it!

To compound the problem, not only do we not really want to be the “you” we were created to be, we don’t even want to live in the only moment we have—the present one. (Some have pointed out that it’s appropriate for it to be called the “present,” because it’s a gift.) We either rue the past, or long for the “good ol’ days”; yearn for the future, or fear it.

And even as I write this, I find myself losing that present-ness that was so wonder-full just moments ago! How quickly it evaporates. But I find it comforting that I am finding it more regularly, and so it doesn’t worry—I need to take my own advice and move in the moment.

Jesus did that so powerfully—I still remember the revelation that came to me about that as exampled in his first miracle, water-into-wine. One moment he states to his mother, “It’s not my time.” Minutes later, he has moved into a time-frame where it clearly IS his time—he does the miracle that somehow his mother already knew he could and (evidently) was supposed to do. It had to be “moment-specific obedience”: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son does also.”—John 5:19 NIV—the only way to apply this verse to the earlier passage in John 2 is to postulate that somehow, in those few moments, Jesus “watched” his Father turn water into wine—and he moved into deep waters, never to come back into shallow ones.

I am ready to go there too, and not come back…

What Right Does the Church Have to Speak to Social Issues in the World?

March 3, 2012

Recently, someone posted on Facebook a comment asking what right the church has to speak to social issues. The specific statement was, “Churches don’t pay taxes, so why would they have anything to say about contraceptives and medical procedures.” This actually brings up at least two deeper questions. The first one is, Should churches perhaps pay taxes? (or, perhaps, Do they already pay sufficient, through their members paying individual, corporate and multitudes of hidden taxes?) This however is a question not addressed here.

The second question, deeper (in my opinion), is, What right does the church have to speak into any social, cultural or moral issue? In the midst of this question niggling at me, I had a friend send me the book God in the Dock by C. S. Lewis. Published in 1970, it is a compilation of 48 essays, many not previously accessible and at least one never published. The essay from which the title comes actually addresses this issue head-on. It is a brief five pages, and concludes abruptly and unsatisfactorily (stopping right when I thought it was getting into the meat of the matter), but in the few paragraphs right before the end makes two startling and definitive statements: 1) that our modern cultures have almost no concept of “sin,” whereas those to whom the early Christian writing was addresses (Lewis calls them “Jews, Metuentes [God-fearing Jewish proselytes] and Pagans) had a universal sense of guilt based on some sense of sin, as witnessed by the writings of the Epicureans and Mystery Religions sought to address this feeling and offer relief from it); and 2) that today “Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.” (p. 244)

We have essentially, he claims, put God on trial, something it seems to me has been considered reasonable and unquestioningly and universally accepted only within the last few hundred years.  God may well be acquitted, he says, but the important thing is the stance it represents, the worldview from which it derives. Thus, the question “What right does the church have to speak into our culture?” is actually a form of placing God “in the dock.”

I wonder if we are really ready to pursue the question to its logical conclusion. I know that personally I tend to shy away from intense philosophical and theological discussions (arguments in the non-angry sense of the word), partly from feelings of personal inadequacy, partly from seldom seeing any actual results from them (as Paul, I think, found on the Areopagus, Acts 17), partly because I don’t actually know how to carry logic out to its full conclusion, and who knows what other reasons. I am part if this modern culture of fast food (McDonald’s [“We do it all for you!”] and Burger King [“Have it your way!”], Campbell’s Soup and Wal-Mart (everything instantly available), and Facebook and Twitter (140 characters or less; keep it on a surface level).

What would such a logical conclusion look like? Lewis has another essay titled “Meditation on the Third Commandment” (interestingly, he never explicitly states the commandment he’s referring to; Catholicism has it listed as keeping the Sabbath, but according to Wikipedia, the traditions of Augustine and Luther have it as the one about keeping the Name holy). In that essay, he argues whether a “Christian Party” as a political reality could ever really work, identifying at least 3 possible positions on the political spectrum and how positioning on any one would necessitate denying the other 2 any input and aligning with non-Christian (i.e., those who stand against traditional Christian beliefs either in word or deed) political elements. He seems to conclude that the only reasonable solution is simply to be involved in politics from a distance, by “pestering” through letter-writing to encourage righteous political agendas. Then, in one fell swoop, he concludes the real answer is for Christians to become the majority by the “most practical Christian-political act of all”: converting one’s neighbor! (p. 199)

In my heart, I long to conclude that, yes, the church has the right to speak vocally into the culture. But in our culture, such speaking often leads to no impact at all, to a watering down of ideas without any substantive conclusions, and certainly no impact or change. Admittedly, our world is too large and diverse for an individual to have much impact anyway, but still, we are called to be “salt and light.” What does that look like?

I recently listened to the audiobook of Bonhoeffer’s biography by Eric Metaxas, and am currently reading Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. Bonhoeffer surely was as deep a thinker and as radical as Lewis, but operated in a totally different milieu, and thus his witness ended in a radically different manner. He wrestled with whether as a Christian he could throw his lot in with those who would assassinate Hitler, and concluded that unless he did, he would have no say in a post-war defeated Germany because of having silently condoned all that Hitler and the Nazi atrocities represented. But his thinking in Life Together is interesting in light of this conclusion to act in a way that would ultimately lead to his execution. Here he argues that true Christian community has as its only basis the directive of the Holy Spirit that, like it or not, we ARE already united as the Body of Christ. Any sort of human or soulish (German seelisch, as opposed to geistlich, “spiritual”) attempts to “make” community work are doomed, and we must operate solely on the basis of obedience, even when it appears perhaps aren’t being “loving.”

Here again, I’m finding in my own life that there has to be a retreating into a privacy with the Lord that allows the world to go its way, not in the sense of wishing it to “go to hell” and “leave me alone,” but rather that I have to find internally some “basis of stasis,” a foundational anchoring that allows me to know who I really am (in terms of the One who really has created me and thus has the right to define me), and out of that foundation to live a life fully alive, that abundant life Jesus spoke of (It was St. Irenaeus who said, “The glory of God is man fully alive”).

Ultimately, I think, the speaking into the culture by the church has to be both individual and corporate, both silent and spoken, both reality and faith. Individual in that it must, like Bonhoeffer and Lewis, like Zinzendorff and Luther, and ultimately like Christ and Peter and John, find individual expression that takes a stand; corporate in that it must be supported and find anchoring in a community that is faith-based and Spirit-directed. Silent in that it must rest in its own inner conscience and know the rightness of its position (even when something so radical as willingness to stand with assassins!); spoken as in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Reality in that it must find a way of reaching out into the actual living, breathing world in some form; faith in that it is so internalized that the agonizing of questioning the rightness has been settled enough to act.

Our witness will not always be accepted in or by the world. Nonetheless, we must BE witnesses. Witnesses may go to court and not even be called to get on the witness stand (“in the dock”), but they have still witnessed an actual happening. “False witnesses” fabricate; true witnesses validate. The greatest validation is a life simply lived. I think of Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, a “carpenter-god” who could make a plank come alive and sing, whose timelessness came out of a life simply lived and fully alive.

Should churches pay taxes? Should they speak to issues of contraceptives and medical procedures? I can see potential validity in concluding “yes” or “no” to either. In the final analysis, for me at least right now, it comes down to a life simply lived, radically free, abundantly alive, overflowing with the life of Jesus, an ember glowing and growing into flame. I can’t answer everyone’s questions and issues—nor am I called to. I have been planted where I am and have to grow there. I can only be the “me” I am right now, with the hope and prayer that I will fully realize the “I” God intends me to be. And I have to trust that right here, right now, that is enough.

If I haven’t really answered the question, maybe it’s because I’m not sure I’m even asking—or being asked—the right question. In my college days (oh, those ages ago!) I used to love the quote by Walt Whitman from “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large; I contain multitudes.)

Great quote for avoiding being confronted with my inconsistencies. But more and more, I long NOT to contain multitudes, simply to contain what is really “me.” I can only actually be me. I can only actually “live and move and have my being” in God in this present moment, in the current here and now. I can’t live in the past; I can’t make the future get here any sooner. But somehow, I feel I am getting closer to being fully alive in this moment, and that excites me. THAT is my witness.

I don’t have answers to the “hard” questions like the one I chose for the title. But then, maybe I don’t need to. Or maybe the answers are really not as hard as I’m thinking. More and more I want to simply follow Jesus, to find a way of simply following the path I believe was chosen and mapped out for me from before the foundation of the world.

And writing for me helps clarify my thinking and, perhaps, helps bring me into that alignment.

Abraham’s Three Months of “Faith-Sex” (Genesis 17)

March 1, 2012

Imagine you’re Abraham. Well, actually, you WERE called Abram until just a little while ago. You’re 99 years old, and your wife Sarah (and she was called Sarai until just that same little while ago) is 89. You and she had been childless your whole life, but God had promised you 24 years ago that you’d have a son, and you thought it was supposed to be by Sarai, and she did too, but you’d both gotten discouraged, so she had talked you into going ahead and trying to have a surrogate baby, using Sarai’s slave/handmaiden Hagar. That had worked when you were about 86—you had named him Ishmael— and NOW—13 years later!—along comes the Almighty God telling you, “Nope, Ishmael’s NOT the one! You, Abraham, and Sarah—newly-named—are going to have a brand new little baby of your own, just between the two of you, by this time next year!”

So, at the glorious old age of 99, you’re a year away from being a new daddy, and Sarah, at age 89, is looking at being a first-time mommy! Whoa! No wonder you laugh in God’s face, and Sarah snickers, hoping God won’t hear!

So, it’s time for you and Sarah to “party-down!” Three months of mad passionate lovemaking? Or maybe half the time you just go through the motions, hoping something will happen, that maybe the hope alone will be enough to make it work this time, after all these decades… I’ll leave you to your own imaginations on that count. (Actually, it must have been longer than 3 months, because it wouldn’t have been obvious at first that Sarah was pregnant. Maybe some morning sickness at 4 or 5 months. So, really, it’s maybe 6 months before you’re able to pinch yourself to see if it’s really real.)

What went through Abraham’s mind in those 3-6 months? How much of a test would it have been? Well, obviously Abraham believed enough to go ahead and do the circumcision gig on himself, Ishmael, and the 318 men (Gen. 15:14). That took some doing—not something you just do on your day off for the fun of it.

I’m 59, and if Abraham felt anything at age 99 like I do at 59, it must have taken some faith work-out, at least some of the time. Scripture says he “grew strong in faith” (Rom. 4:20 NASB). The previous verse says he “contemplated his own body, now as good as dead, since he was about a hundred years old.” THE MESSAGE paraphrases it this way:

Abraham didn’t focus on his own impotence and say, “It’s hopeless. This hundred-year-old body could never father a child.” Nor did he survey Sarah’s decades of infertility and give up. He didn’t tiptoe around God’s promise asking cautiously skeptical questions. He plunged into the promise and came up strong, ready for God. (Romans 4:19-20 THE MESSAGE)

He went ahead and “grew strong in faith.” So what did that look like? Without going into a lot of speculating, how much fun did he and Sarah have over those few months? Or was it fun? Did they intellectualize it and force themselves? Was it a “second honeymoon”?

Maybe we’ll never know, but I have a feeling that those three months weren’t by any means a “forced faith.” I’ve had too much of that kind of faith in my life, where I was trying to make myself believe when deep down when it really wasn’t happening. I think somehow, Abraham and Sarah had a good time.

Obviously Sarah found the results worth laughing over, and it was no problem naming the baby “Laughter” (the meaning of Isaac), even though it was a reminder of her laughing in disbelief when told it would happen.

And there must have settled into both Abraham and Sarah a deep-seated, rooted-and-grounded sort of peace, a certainty in God’s pleasure in them, a fulfillment beyond anything they had ever known. I know I felt different when my first child was born over 36 years ago, and then different again in another kind of way when my first grandchild was born, and that’s been almost 17 years ago. Now that I have 4 grandchildren, there’s an even deeper settledness, a peace of acceptance, a feeling of fruitfulness even if they’re still not where I would want them to be in closeness or in spiritual anchoring. I can identify with Abraham growing “strong in faith” in my own limited way.

Since Abraham lived to be 175, his age of 99 probably equates pretty well with my present age of 59, if I managed to live to be 104. How would I handle it if God told me next year, at age 60, I was going to be a daddy again, maybe of triplets or quintuplets??? I don’t even want to think how my wife would handle it…definitely no partying in that case…