Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lunatic Fringe

It could be that our faithlessness is a cowering cowardice born of our very smallness, a massive failure of imagination.  Certainly nature seems to exult in abounding radicality, extremism, anarchy.  If we were to judge nature by its common sense or likelihood, we wouldn't believe the world existed.  In nature, improbabilities are the one stock in trade.  The whole creation is one lunatic fringe.  If creation had been left up to me, I'm sure I wouldn't have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that.  No claims of any and all revelations could be so far-fetched as a single giraffe.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Friday, November 25, 2011

Psalm 119: Teach me

Praise be to you, LORD;
teach me your decrees.

Psalm 119 Beth
Purity is learned the hard way, through the hard parts of life.

I have a choice: Will I let God purify me through trials? Or will I let Satan drag me down through trials?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Psalm 119: On Fire


How can a young person stay on the path of purity? 

By living according to your word. 
I seek you with all my heart; 
do not let me stray from your commands. 
I have hidden your word in my heart 
that I might not sin against you. 

Psalm 119 Beth
The purity talked about in scriptures is the kind that comes from exposure to flame, the purifying of molten gold, the cauterizing of a wound.

Standing close to the flame doesn’t cauterize a wound – it only gives you a tan, makes you look good.

Putting the Word into your heart is like handling hot coals. The Word purifies your heart, burns it.

Are you standing close to God, going to church, carrying a Bible just to look good? Or are you clutching His Word close to you, letting it purify you, setting your life aflame?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Psalm 119: Pure Study

I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.

Psalm 119 Beth
David didn't say, I have filed away your word in my brain, so that I might an encyclopedic knowledge of your Word.

There's a place for studying for theology or studying for outlines. But the Word is meant to transform your heart, not just educate your mind.

Memorization is the topic usually associated with this verse, but it goes beyond that. It's not just recommending the storage of words and phrases in your brain, but memorizing the meaning and intent of the words as well – Memorization with Meditation.

Studying and meditating on the Word must be about absorbing the words and the intent and the transforming life of God's Word into your heart.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Meditation Metaphor: 4 Hours

Over a shared meal with my wife at the romantic venue of Wendy's, I found myself reading the carefully composed verses on the side of the small chili bowl.
So-so chili simmers for 2 hours
Good chili simmers for 3 hours
Our chili simmers for 4 hours
Wendy's chili is very good, I must agree.  I can even say it's better than it was the last time I ordered their chili, a few years back.

I was disappointed with the chili on that prior occasion because the meat in the chili consisted largely of broken-up pieces of Wendy's hamburger patties.  I spent the entire time wondering if the patty pieces were left-overs from the day before {not a particularly appetizing thought), burgers that were rescued from the floor (not at all appetizing), or - charitably - simply the result of convenience, all the ground beef ingredients for Wendy's menu coming from the same packaged and delivered source.

But this chili, the current cardboard bowl of chili in front of me, contained no pieces of patties, but has been made from loose ground beef, providing a more pleasurable - and less distracting - dining experience.

And the long simmering of their claim is no doubt true.  The flavors of meat, stock, sauces and spices present themselves as a single flavor, the result of prolong intermingling and absorption of one another's essence.

Wherein lies the Meditation Metaphor.

Occasional times spent reading small sections of the Word, quickly read and quickly done, are of some benefit.  They're certainly preferable to no Bible time at all.

The longer we spend in the Word the better, obviously.  But also, the more we vary our diet in the Word the better.

We all have our pet sections we can never get too much of, whether it's the Psalms or the Gospels or those great Old Testament stories of kings and patriarchs.  But our meditation on the Word will e richer, more filling and satisfying, if we spice it up with a few Proverbs or add in a particularly meaty but obscure section of the minor prophets.

And spending "quality time"  in the vast variety of the scriptures is like letting the recipe simmer in the mind and heart.  The sundry and diverse flavors and varieties of His Word begin to blend together, to absorb characteristics from one another, until what we are tasting and allowing to transform our lives is a unified experience of the full-bodied nature and character of God Himself.

I did make one mistake in my approach to the bowl of chili tonight, though.  The young man at the counter asked if I wanted hot sauce with my chili.  Being in a mood for muy caliente, I said Yes.

But when I added the small packet of hot sauce into the chili after the first few spoons-full, I found that it distracted from the good taste of the chili.  You see, the hot sauce hadn't been included in the 4 hours of simmering, and it therefore stood out distinctly from the well-blended presentation of the perfect Wendy's chili experience.  It somewhat overwhelmed the other flavors.

We risk doing the same to our absorption of God's well-rounded Word when we take it upon ourselves to top off a session reading the Bible with a too-hasty and too-distinctive dash of reading the opinions in our Study Bible notes or a separate commentary.

We will learn and absorb the character of God best by spending hours simmering in the very Word itself before we reach outside the scriptures for other flavoring.


Either by happenstance or by the providential nudge of His finger, just a couple of hours after we finished our meal at Wendy's, a friend of mine came to our house for the monthly "Guys' Night" portion of our Small Group, and brought with him his supper, which he had picked up on his way.  A bowl of Wendy's chili, of course.

Guys' Night turned out to be just Steve and I on this night - due in great part to deer season.  But we had a good talk and prayed together.

After the prayer, I pointed out to Steve that his chili bowl had a great spiritual lesson - a meditation metaphor - written on the side.

He looked at the bowl for a moment, and then smiled.

"Rich & Meaty!" he exclaimed.  "That's what I'll tell my wife when she asks how Guys' Night went.  It was Rich and Meaty!  And then then I'll lick my lips."
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
  Colossians 3

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Psalm 119: Pure Direction


How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.

Psalm 119 Beth

The key to purity is not found in focusing on God's commands as a list of rules, but by seeking a pure direction through seeking God Himself. Purity comes through seeking a pure relationship with Him:. “I seek YOU with all my heart”

My heart seeks God’s heart; I seek to understand the heart and mind that produced those commands.

The reason police officers ask drivers to walk a straight line is because a drunk person has difficulty keeping their mind focused on the right thing. They'll either focus on the officer's directions to walk "a straight line", and thus look down at their feet and the imaginary straight line, or they'll be looking all over the place at whatever is a momentary distraction. A person in their right mind knows to just focus on something in the distance, along the path you want to walk, and just begin walking.

The pathway to purity is the pathway to God.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12

Monday, November 7, 2011

Read beyond your borders

Reading has given me fluency in the language of sorrow, the grammar of grace, experiences that unite us across borders and time zones.
Marita Golden, The Word
I believe that it's the duty of of every truly free citizen to read, especially to read beyond your borders.
Edwidge Danticat

Saturday, November 5, 2011

In the beginning was the Word

"If you open up scripture, the Gospel according to John starts: "In the beginning was the Word." Although this has a very particular meaning in Scripture, more broadly what it speaks to is the critical importance of language, of writing, of reading, of communication, of books as a means of transmitting culture and binding us together as a people "
- Barack Obama, then US senator from Illinois speaking before the annual conference of the American Library Association, July 23, 2005

copied from The Word, edited by Marita Golden, Broadway Paperbacks, 2012

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Seeing

"I've been thinking about seeing.  There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises.  The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But - and this is the point - who gets excited by a mere penny?  If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go on your rueful way?  It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.  It is that simple.  What you see is what you get."
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Aim for the Heart

Fishermen get a bad rap. They've been pegged for centuries as a class of sportsmen who love to tell “fish stories”, embellishing the adventurous story of their latest catch, and exaggerating the size of “the one that got away”.

Let me tell you – fishermen have nothing on deer hunters for the gift of gabbing about their experiences in the field.

For over thirty years I've worked with and been friends with a never-ending succession of men who plan their annual vacations around mid-November, when deer season opens in Missouri. And without exception they love to talk about their sport.

One friend, Jack, came back to work from a weekend in the woods with a tall tale about seeing an enormous buck silhouetted against the sky in the first light of pre-dawn.

“I was absolutely mesmerized by the size of the thing, and the beauty of the scene,” he said. “Of course, I had to wait until actual sunrise to legally shoot it, and I sat there praying the buck would stay where he was for another fifteen minutes.” The part about the praying was for my benefit, since I doubt Jack had prayed more than a sentence or two since he last uttered “Now I lay me down to sleep” as a very, very young child.

Just as the legal hunting time was arriving, the deer took a step forward. Jack nearly pulled the trigger at that moment out of fear he was about to lose his prey one minute before he could legally shoot it. But then he saw something that truly amazed him.

“It wasn’t one buck at all,” he said, awe filing his voice. “A second deer – a doe – was standing on the other side of the buck. She had been completely hidden by the buck in the shadows of the sunrise."

“I checked my watch, and when the second hand hit twelve, I sighted on the buck’s heart and squeezed the trigger. I figured if I dropped him I might still get a chance at the doe behind him.”

Now, here comes the part that separates Jack from the other “deer story” tellers I’ve known. He’s already got a great story going, but he adds the whipped cream on top.

“To my surprise,” he added, “the buck bolted and ran off as soon as he heard the shot. The doe behind him, though, dropped dead on the ground. In the sunrise silhouette, I thought I was aiming at his heart, but it passed right beneath him and struck her in the kill spot.”

That, he explained, was why he only filled his doe tag that year, and missed the buck he really wanted.

Then there was Bob. Bob was a firearms nut. A collector. He loved to talk about his guns and to engage other hunters in spirited debates about the relative merits of different models and manufacturers and the endless choices of accessories and features.

One year Bob went to the big city and bought the rifle he had wanted for years. A Ruger International. Mannlicher-stocked, 18" barrel, trim classic style walnut stock, controlled feed, integral scope base. Short action .308 Winchester caliber. A real beauty.

As deer season approached, Bob talked endlessly about his new rifle and how great it was going to be to have it in November for the big hunt.

When deer season ended, all the guys asked Bob how the new rifle worked.

“Didn’t get a thing,” he said. “I saw several, including a huge buck with irregular antlers - at least 20 points. But every time I would site a deer in with the adjustable iron sites, I just couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger and spoil the perfect condition of the new rifle."

As the little gecko says in the commercial, "that story is a complete dramatization".

But my imaginary friend Bob reminds me of some preachers I know. They’ve spent years in seminary, studying the scriptures, honing their exegetical and homiletical skills. They’ve filled their office shelves with all the best books. But when they get up into the pulpit to speak, all they end up doing is showing off their fancy skills, failing to actually take aim at the specific needs and problems of the specific people in front of them, too enamored with their eloquence to actually pull the trigger and risk messing up the performance by offending someone.

They're like a hunter waving his fancy rifle at a buck, expecting the deer to fall over dead because it's so impressed with the hunter's arsenal.

The apostle Paul never had that problem. Just picture the scene as Epaphroditus is standing in front of the church at Philippi, reading the letter he has carried from Paul's Roman prison to these Christians. The congregation has been inspired by Paul's exhortations to live a life of joy, they have wept as Paul talked about the real possibility of his death and his courage in the face of it, they have pondered Paul's words about fellowship and unity in Christ. A very well crafted piece of exhortation.

And then, when they least expect it, Paul drags out into the open the dirty little secret that has been dragging the Philippian church down for a very long time:
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. 
Philippians 4
I can picture jaws dropping all over the crowd.

Jesus was also not afraid to offend.

He could have gone on literally forever putting on a dazzling miracle show, hoping to impress the Jewish religious leaders with His powers. Instead, he called them a "brood of vipers" and "whitewashed sepulchers", and cataloged their many sins against the flock they were supposed to be leading.

Maybe the pulpit isn't always the best place to "call out" church members who are squabbling – and maybe sometimes it is the right place. And maybe the preacher doesn't need to always refer to the sinners who are in the audience by pejorative names and accusatory titles. Then again, maybe sometimes he should.

Sometimes what people need is not encouragement and edification, but correction and rebuke.

And sometimes we could stand to deliver a dose of rebuke and correction to ourselves. Our time spent in the Word shouldn't just be spent looking for an uplifting quote. We need to be looking for God's blessings, even when the blessing is in the form of a well-aimed shot to the heart.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

II Timothy 3