Life

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ sermon/essay “The Weight of Glory,” which opens with these lines:

“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.…”

His ideas were still rolling around in my head during a discussion at church this past Sunday.

We were studying Leviticus, and the focus was on blood and the regulations surrounding it. With broad brush strokes through the Old Testament, we concluded that, to the best of their understanding at the time, life resided in the blood. The literal Hebrew phrase in many passages is, “its life, its blood”—which led to the translation “lifeblood” in some cases. To lose blood meant to lose life—in other words, to die.

Of course the discussion propelled us forward into the New Testament, to Jesus, His death, the impact of His words as he held aloft the cup at the last supper, solemnly proclaiming it to be His blood, inviting us to partake.

I can’t adequately reproduce the breadth and richness of that discussion in these few lines, nor could our words then fully explore the depths of this holy mystery. But many were struck with the conviction that we, following Christ’s example, were called to death.

This is very true, and very biblical. Die to ourselves, to the world, to the flesh.

But something nagged at my mind. “This is my blood, poured out for you.” Lifeblood. Life. Life poured out for you.

What if we were to look at our Christian walk, not so much as dying, but as pouring out our lives. I know it might be semantics, two sides of the same coin, but what a difference it makes in my outlook.

One seems inward focused, the other outward. One seems like a truncation, an ending; the other a beginning with limitless potential.

Our lives are not, indeed, meant to be preserved, protected, held in reserve. Instead, we are to pour them out into others, into the world around us. Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t begin and end in His death at the cross. The gospels record again and again that He poured Himself out continually into the lives of those around Him. Yes, He gave His life, and that process began years before Calvary.

What’s more, we aren’t even called to give out of our own resources. The truth is, on our own we have nothing to offer. If we try to pour out life in our own strength and wisdom, we will ultimately be depleted, offering only death and disappointment. But Jesus, as the source of all life, once again offers His Life to flow through us to others. In relationship with Him we are tapped in to the limitless spring of Life, which will never run dry.

“This is My blood, poured out for you.” Take it in, drink deeply of My Life. Then pour out Life to others.

I think C. S. would back me up.

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Moving a Cat

Mar10

Caring for a cat has taught me many things about myself and God and our relationship. Non-cat-lovers might roll their eyes, but it’s true. Here’s the most recent example.

Last week we moved our belongings from Pennsylvania to Indiana. That included my cat, much to her dismay. The trip presented countless strange sights and smells, the roar and rattle of a moving van, and many unexpected jolts and bumps. It also meant 8 hours in a carrier one day, and 4 the next. Now—although I have seen said cat squeeze herself into many less desirable places—the fact that the incarceration in her carrier was for such an extended period of time, and not of her own choosing, left my feline friend less than happy. She yowled loud and long, often biting and scratching and growling for emphasis.

A friend, considering my cat’s point of view, remarked, “Well, I guess as far as she knows, this arrangement is permanent. She doesn’t know there’s an end in sight.”

And, bing! The light bulb went on and another lesson presented itself. So, here is what I would say to my cat if I could, and what I believe God whispers to each of us in times of trouble or distress.

1. I am here, and I still care.
I wanted very much to take my cat out of the carrier, to hold her, pet her, and comfort her. But she had to stay in that little bag for her own protection; it was the safest place for her. My kitty was probably unable to understand my stand-offishness. She could have accused me of being distant and uncaring. But I heard every pathetic mew, and my heart ached at her distress.

2. This pain has a purpose.
I could have tried to prepare the cat for the move; I might have shown her a map of our route. Neither would have done any good. As far as she could understand, this unexpected, unexplainable trauma came from out of the blue and served no rational purpose whatsoever.

3. This too shall pass.
My cat’s plight would not last forever. I knew the exact duration and destination of our trip. But she had no way of knowing that this was only a temporary transition, nor where or when the tortuous trip would end—if ever!

4. I have only your best in mind.
I had seen the place we were moving to, and knew the cat would like it. It has lots of windows and there are no other cats around. There’s even a room just for her! Better yet, it allowed her to stay under my care. This disruption in my cat’s life represented the best I had to offer, despite the discomfort it caused her.

Just as there’s no way my cat could grasp the details of our move, neither can you or I understand the intricacies of God’s master plan, or how our little lives fit into it. If the communication gap is so wide between two created, earth-dwelling beings of flesh and blood, just think how great it must be between us and the Eternal Self-Existing Limitless God of the Universe—try as He might to get through to us.

But the great comfort is this: His best is always truly Good. He never errs in judgment or lapses in His care for us. And someday, when we arrive at our final Home, we are going to be very glad for the journey that brought us there.

Handling It

Feb28I frequently hear people say that God won’t send us more than we can handle, and I’m coming to think that’s a terribly unsound bit of theology.

I have been very distracted the last few months. With the end of our sabbatical looming, I felt the pressure of questions unanswered, decisions pending, the future in general waiting to be sorted and straightened out. And, armed with almost a year of rest, prayer, and reflection, I set out to “handle” it.

The problem is that, in truth, we are utterly powerless. From the next breath we take, to our next meal, to next week, we don’t really control anything. But we are so deceived about the scope of our abilities that we actually think we determine our own destiny.

And so we struggle and scheme and worry, trying to handle things. We lose sleep, our minds churn, we fret and frazzle ourselves devising endless scenarios and solutions.

In the past weeks I have been a foolish sheep, scrambling off on my own to discover “greener” pastures. I have been Martha, worried and bothered by many things. I have been Peter sinking in the water—focused on the waves, the wind, the storm.

I got so busy trying to figure things out that I forgot my most basic responsibility: to keep my eyes fixed on Him—to surrender, to trust, to rest. I forgot to let Him handle it.

Now, I know what you are going to say. “I can’t just do nothing. If I stop now everything will come crashing in on me. I’m barely keeping my head above water as it is.”

I understand. I, too, am a problem-solver and a fixer. I have this optimistic idea that if I just try hard enough—work, think, even pray hard enough—that I will be able to unravel all the uncertainties and see the path clearly before me.

But the truth is, that simply is not within my power. My sole responsibility is to keep my eyes, heart, mind focused exclusively on Him—and sometimes that’s even a bit more than I can manage. All those other things that clamor for my energy and attention are diversions.

I am not saying our various roles and responsibilities are unimportant. I am simply suggesting that the surest way to excel in those areas is to stop striving so hard and simply sit at Jesus’ feet. It might seem like we are shirking our duties, but in actuality, spending time in His presence is the only way to be the best spouse, parent, worker, friend, we can be.

I am not saying He expects me to be inert. I think He asks me to come to Him minute by minute, moving when He does, only as far as He shows me and no further. He desires me to be utterly dependent on Him, and patient with His process and His timing. Every decision, every step should be His call.

This is not particularly comfortable. We prefer to have a bit more say in the matter. How tempting it is to step in and take control! “Don’t worry God, this is a no-brainer. I’ve got this one; I’ll take it from here. I can handle it.”

I believe God sends us things we can’t handle every day. But we are too stubborn to realize it, and we exhaust ourselves trying to manage in our own strength. We miss the joy, confidence, and peace that could be ours if we just kept Him as our center and our focus, and allowed Him to handle things.

Nature

Jul18

I love nature because it speaks to me of God. When the trees whisper to one another I hear His voice. The intricacy of a flower makes me wonder at His creative power. The detail He has invested in one little ladybug thrills me. I love nature. It draws me to Him.

And so I walk. I walk to find Him, to worship Him, to soak in as much of Him as possible. I take to the nearby nature trails and drink deeply of trees, wildflowers, wind, water, and Him.

But last week I was drawn deeper. Not far from our house is swampland, untraveled and untamed. About 50 yards from the road grow a few weeping willow trees, marking the border between manicured lawns and this marshy wilderness. And the secrecy and seclusion of those drooping branches beckoned me.

With a sense of adventure I left concrete sidewalk, struck across lawn, and then dove into the shadowy undergrowth. Almost immediately the ground grew soft and muddy. Ugh. Fortunately, numerous fallen branches and twigs lay about, so I began to teeter from one to another. But my movements disturbed a swarm of mosquitoes, who buzzed up around me. I swatted at them and lost my balance. Catching myself on a tree trunk I thought, “Good way to twist an ankle!” Then, to my distress, I realized the tree trunk was covered with some sort of climbing ivy. Oh dear. “Leaves of three, leave it be.” Let’s see… 1, 2, 3, 4… Five leaves. Whew. That’s OK then. Wait… how many leaves does poison oak have?!?

Things were not going as I had imagined. Resolutely I pressed on, and spotted a fallen log. Balancing from branch to branch, swatting mosquitoes, I made my way to the log and settled gingerly on its rotting bark. I noticed it was rather hollow, but refused to allow myself to imagine what kind of creepy crawlies could be hiding inside, as I determined to focus on the nature around me.

And slowly (buzz buzz, swat swat) I settled in and became aware of the glory of that wild place. Various birds swooped in and out; I started identifying the unique song of each. The grasses and trees swayed and softly sang backup to the bird melodies. I started to relax and take it all in.

Suddenly a movement caught the corner of my eye. Holy Crap! Less than two feet away an honest-to-goodness snake calmly slithered its way into the very log on which I sat. Mud and poisonous plants forgotten, I sprinted out of there in five seconds flat!

Shaken and upset, I headed home. What had gone wrong? I am a nature lover, am I not? But that had been a little too much nature for my liking! It was so unpredictable, wild, and frankly, uncomfortable.

Then I wondered. Do I love God the way I love nature? The thought disturbed me. As long as He is kept tidy and manicured and tame, I find Him quite enjoyable. But what happens when God spills over the boundaries that we set for Him?

God cannot be contained in a creed, a chorus, or a flannel graph story. As much as I try to know and understand Him, there will always be parts of Him that are shadowed in mystery. Do I dare strike off the beaten path and risk being uncomfortable to know Him in a deeper way?

I can learn more about nature—plants and bird calls and even snakes—so that I can move more and more confidently into the untamed places. But no matter how much I know, there will always be a certain wildness, unpredictability, and—yes—even danger about nature. Because I cannot control it.

The same can be said for God. Both He and His creation are bigger than I am. And that’s just the way it should be.

I love nature, because it speaks to me of God.

Magic

May24

I used to think magic was the stuff of fairy tales. Later I understood that magic had a more real, sinister expression. But in any case, I always saw magic as something far removed from my every-day life.

Until I discovered it woven into the very fabric of my faith.

The realization came as I stumbled upon this definition of magic:
Magic is the attempt by humans to control their destiny through the management or manipulation of supernatural powers in such a way that results are virtually guaranteed. 1

Although the piece I was reading described pagan practices, as I thought the matter through, I realized I had little room to judge. In truth, I have subtly been raised to believe that I can control and manipulate God. For example, God blesses those who live in a certain way, He keeps His promises, He always acts consistently with His character.

While each of these claims is true, modern Christianity has twisted them into the mistaken belief that God must behave in a certain way. I have heard (and done it myself) people demand things of God, citing “promises” in the Bible, or holding Him to His character. I have seen others blind-sided when trouble comes their way, saying like Job, “But I did everything right…”

Peter Scazzero, in his book “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” writes quite candidly:
“I like control… I also like to remind God of His need to behave in ways that fit in with my clear ideas of Him. For example, God is just, merciful, good, wise loving. The problem, then, is that God is beyond the grasp of every concept I have of Him. He is utterly incomprehensible.
“Yes, God is everything revealed in scripture, but also infinitely more. God is not an object that I can determine, master, possess, or command. And I still try to somehow use my “clear ideas” about God to give me power over Him, or to somehow possess Him.”

I see two problems with this kind of Christian magic. First, it puts us in the place of God. Any belief that we can manipulate Him, control Him, or demand anything from Him places us above Him. To insist that He fit within our finite definitions of “goodness” or “justice” or keep His promises as we interpret them is to insinuate that our judgment, timing, and understanding of the big picture reigns supreme.

Don’t get me wrong. I think God loves lively discussions and spirited debate with His children. Be real, be passionate, be persistent, reason with Him. In truth, people such as Job, Abraham and Moses actually argued with God, and were called His friends. But at the end of the day, they all allowed God to be God.

The second danger is that a faith built upon the mistaken belief that God is predictable or controllable, can be severely shaken when God does not behave in the ways we expect Him to. Believing wrong things about God creates an image of Him that is false. Indeed a “tame” god who we have comfortably “figured out” seems reassuring and safe. But, this is not God at all. As St. Augustine wrote, “If you understand, it is not God you understand.”

True faith in the one and only God of the universe demands that we fall to our knees in utter humility and risk letting go of control to Someone whose ways and thoughts are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth. (Isaiah 55:8–9)

Paul Hiebert, in his article “The Excluded Middle,” summarized the issue beautifully when he wrote, “…the church and mission must guard against Christianity itself becoming a new form of magic. Magic is based on a mechanistic view—a formula approach to reality that allows humans to control their own destiny. Worship on the other hand, is rooted in a relational view of life. Worshipers place themselves in the power and mercy of a greater being. …The difference is not one of form, but of attitude.” [italics mine]


1 From Paul Hiebert, “The Excluded Middle” and Clinton E. Arnold, “The Colossian Syncretism.”