Not Exactly a Prayer

God,

I think I understand now why the Charlie Anderson character in “Shenandoah” feels more comfortable talking to his dead wife than he does talking to You.

I understand Charlie’s dinner-table prayers better now. The anger. The insistence on self-sufficiency. The determination to pray anyway because that was what she had done and it would have made her happy if she were still there at the dinner table.

I comprehend better what he feels to have a son distant and a daughter to whom awful things have happened.

Is that what this is all about, God? Becoming more compassionate toward a character in a drama?

No. Of course not.

But it’s not like You’re going to tell me what it’s all about, either. Those days of You speaking out of the whirlwind are gone, aren’t they?

Even Your answers to Job were mostly questions. Like that would help.

And It’s not like I blame you that Angi’s gone. You didn’t do that. I know who did, and I hate the evil that urges sin that leads to death at least as much as You do.

Yet you permit it. Sin and death, I mean. You let it happen. And there are millions of us who are trying to figure out why. Some will pin their disbelief on it. If You existed and You are good, they say, You wouldn’t permit it.

As if they understand all about You and can judge You any better than Adam and Eve did. Or what good is. Or what love really means.

Oh, I have my theories. That You created us to choose, and to make the choice fair You make it based entirely on faith and our perception of good in what we experience. You give us the choice to love You and others more than self or to love self more than anything else. And it doesn’t always work. A lot of us choose to love self thinking somehow that in spite of all the consequences of social alienation and personal guilt and even some perception of Your absence in our lives, being in love with self feels so good that it’s the best thing ever. I get that.

What I can’t fathom is why You would put someone in my life and the lives of so many others who loved self less and others more — someone who did that with such grace and abandon, like Angi — only to allow her to be taken away when so many years of that exemplary love could have blessed so many more, and so deeply.

I don’t get that at all.

I suppose it’s part of this whole faith environment that You remain inscrutable as a stone Buddha on the matter.

No, I haven’t forgotten Your Son. I know you allowed the same thing to happen to Him, and worse, and at probably half Angi’s age. I also know she went out of this world with all of the confidence in Your power to bring life back and better that He did.

Is that what this is about? Faith at the end? Faith that doesn’t quit? Faith that looks ahead in love?

Because I’ve got to tell You that, even with all the faith I can generate, life without her seems pretty awful right now, no matter how many other blessings You may send. Maybe I should see them better for what they are, but the proportion of pain seems so gigantic in my life that they are often eclipsed.  Life is empty and dark and cold, and its purpose is murky and its foundation is shaky and its ultimate end is never in sight — like the horizon of a planet too big to circumnavigate in a thousand years.

My friends say it’s all right to be angry with You. That Job got angry with You. That the psalmists were often angry with You. That You’re big enough to take it.

But being angry doesn’t help. And blaming doesn’t help. And being theoretical about theodicy doesn’t help. And being overwhelmed by grief doesn’t help.

Nothing. Helps.

Angi’s gone. And I’m still here. And, with the tiniest fraction of all her extraordinary gifts, I’m supposed to muck through all of this life stuff without her.

I get that, too.

She’s not around to talk to anymore. She’s not here to listen, not here to offer advice, not here to comfort or counsel or give warmth or a sweet embrace when words don’t work anymore. She was never stingy with any of that.

So I hope You understand that, just like Charlie Anderson, sometimes I’d rather talk to her.

Than to You.

And I trust that You really are big enough to take that.

Amen.

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A Thundering Answer

 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”  The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

~ John 12:27-29

jesusprayingrockI have prayed and prayed. My soul, like my Lord’s, is troubled as surely as His was on that day when, still freshly arrived in Jerusalem, Phillip brought to Him two Greeks who wanted to see Him. And He told them it was time for Him to die.

That a seed must die before it can grow.

That one must hate life to save it.

That one must follow and serve Him.

My soul is troubled, because life as I knew it and wanted it to be will change in the weeks and months to come; will be overshadowed by fear and pain and death — and none of us in our family knows what those days will hold for us.

I have prayed and prayed. And, like Jesus, I don’t know what to pray for anymore. The very Son of God, God in essence talking to Himself in prayer, shared my perplexity about what to pray.

But Jesus’ answer came immediately, and it has come to me this morning. Thundering. Unnerving. Blowing me away.

“Father, glorify Your name.”

He can glorify it by taking away Angi’s pancreatic cancer and liver lesions; by completely conquering the depression that Laura has been courageously battling these many months. I understand that. It’s what I want, and what I’ve prayed for.

Yet, I also know somewhere deep within that He can also glorify His name by doing only one of those things, or neither, or something exceeding abundantly beyond all that I can ask or imagine. I don’t understand that. It’s what I’m afraid to want, and what I’m unable to pray for.

Jesus’ answer is simple: “Trust Him.”

He doesn’t need the thundering answer from His Father or through an angel; it’s for our benefit. For my benefit:

“I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

That, of course, it what must matter most.

Not because God is any less if His name is not glorified, but because we are.

Not because God will shrivel up into a powerless dry myth if His name is not made known, but that the power of His name will not be made known in order to explode the dry myth into powder.

Not because God will be blown away, but because sometimes “me” needs to be blown away, and replaced with “He.”

I write these words now while I can still write them in faith, because I know me and I know I will need to read them again later as my faith is stretched and pulled and yanked out of socket by the unseeable future. I will need to remind myself of the commitment of faith I’ve made to praise Him as the only One whose name is to be hallowed; to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven;” to offer as my only plea, “Father, glorify Your name.”

I will still tell Him what I want and need and beg for in His unique love, mercy and providence.

Yet I will still need to temper my petitions with the recognition that He knows me better than I know myself; He knows what we need more accurately than we do; He knows and loves my family more dearly than I ever could.

He alone can — and will — do what will best glorify His name, to the blessing of all whom He loves.

And His grace will be sufficient.

Scholars, Logic, Faith, and Making Sense

I have as much respect for biblical scholars, theological thinkers and ancient language experts as anyone else. Great men are great men. Great women are great women. But opinions are also opinions, which means that great scholars’ opinions are just great scholars’ opinions.

And, obviously, when something doesn’t make good sense … well, then it doesn’t good sense, whether it’s a great scholar’s  opinion, or yours, or mine.

I don’t believe God breathed inspiration into scripture with the overarching intention to confuse us and conceal His will for us, or to make it the private authoritative domain of biblical scholars. Their expertise can certainly help, but of all people, scholars who teach should know the difference between fact and opinion and be able and honest enough to distinguish them.

Our purpose cannot be to defend the historical interpretations, doctrines and opinions of scholarly men and women without question – however great, intelligent and faithful they might be or might have been.

We’re not responsible for their reading of scripture or their knowledge or their faithfulness, but of our own — and how we live accordingly.

Our purpose must be to seek Truth, for in doing so we seek Jesus who is also the Way and the Life. And through Him we seek the Father, our God.

“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
That said, when seeking to make sense of scripture that seems perplexing:
Logic has its place in Christian thought. But it’s not first place.

Faith has first place.

Because logic is what tells you not to believe when you see or hear something impossible. Logic is what tells you, “That’s impossible! I can’t believe that. That did not just happen!”

Yet it did.

So faith comes first, and we all know what faith is: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.” (My scripture text is “Miracle on 34th Street” by Valentine Davies, of course. However, John 20:24ff or Hebrews 11will do nicely, too.)

Now, logic will help you sort out what you have/have not seen or heard, and what is or isn’t possible. It will help make sense of that which does not immediately make sense. But it must work within the context or framework of faith.

We believe in gravity, mass, air, airless vacuum, love, justice, mercy and courage though they are invisible. We believe because we see their effects. Logic tells us there must be a cause for these effects, and faith puts a name to each cause because we believe it must exist.

They work together.

But faith first.

Logic later.

(First published on Facebook in two parts, 8/11/12.)

What Constitutes Heresy?

At first glance, that might be hard to answer. You won’t find the word “heresy” in your Bible very often.

Unless, you have the King James Version; there, you will find it in Acts 24:14. There it’s used to describe what the pagans called “The Way” – Christianity.

Peter uses its plural, once, to warn:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. ~ 2 Peter 2:1

There are, however, plenty of false teachings and descriptions of false teachers and what they do outlined in New Testament scripture:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. ~ Romans 16:17-19

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. . . . Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. ~ Colossians 2:8, 16-23

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. ~ 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. ~ 1 Timothy 4:1-5

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. ~ 1 Timothy 6:3-5

Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. ~ 2 Timothy 2:14-18

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone. ~ 2 Timothy 3:1-9

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. . . . They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. ~ Titus 1:10-11, 16

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. ~ Hebrews 13:9

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work. ~ 2 John 1:7-11

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. ~ 3 John 1:9

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. . . . These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. . . . These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. ~ Jude 1:3-4, 12-13, 16

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. ~ Revelation 2:14 . . . Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. ~ Revelation 2:20

These are the false teachers and what they taught and did, whether out of Jewish exclusivity or pagan inclusivity … whether out of piety or selfishiness.

You learn a lot about these false teachers from those phrases I put in italics. They love to be first and call themselves prophets; they slip in secretly; they will lie, lie about where their teaching came from, flatter, cajole, take control of others, take over their homes, will not welcome others, and cause divisons and controversies. They are boastful, proud, arrogant, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, treacherous, rash … the adjectives go on and on. (You’ve got to admire Jude’s very poetic description of them!) They like to quarrel about words. They are control freaks. They must have their own way. And some of them hope to make money from teaching what they think they know. If that were the worst of it, one could teach them and ignore them – keep away from them; not associate with them – if they ignored the teaching, so that they would be shamed.

But it’s what they teach that makes it impossible for them to repent; they confidently assert the rightness of it; their consciences have been seared. And what they teach include these heresies: impose circumcision and kosher dietary laws; cause trouble over celebrating holidays; encourage participation in idolatry; teach myths and genealogies as crucial; add worship of angels; forbid marriages; that Christ has already come; deny that He is Lord; and deny that He came in the flesh.

All of these things stab at the very heart of Christian faith: the sufficiency of the blood of Jesus manifesting the love and grace of the one and only God. They contradict the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These were no mere quibblings over what can or can’t be done in worship; who can or can’t preach Christ and Him crucified; or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

But hear me out on this, please.

When quibblings are elevated to a level that rivals the sufficiency of Christ to save, they become heresies. They don’t even have to produce the kind of personalities described above, although they can and probably will. Whatever empties the cross of its power and causes divisions (1 Corinthians 1:20) almost always is – or becomes – extricated with personalities and ego and personal preferences.

Those are the kinds of personalities Jesus had to deal with among the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had elevated their human teachings to the level of law and attributed them to God – even though some schools of human teaching didn’t agree with others (Matthew 2:22-23).

Quibbling matters are earthly things (Colossians 3:1-17); and when they become elevated to something more than they are, these teachings of men render worship vain (Matthew 15:9, Mark 7:7).

Ultimately, they bring swift destruction to the one who teaches them.

Answers

Answers are overrated.

Answers to difficult questions about God and His relationship to mankind are overrated, anyway.

I don’t mean to completely downplay the value of having good, reliable answers to honest and fair questions. Unlike the poster (at left) seen in the quaint-but-ominous “Village” of the enigmatic mid-1960s British TV series “The Prisoner,” my purpose is not to discourage curiosity or control freedom to ask.

I just want to point out that at a certain point, human wisdom ends (Ecclesiastes 1:16-17). At a certain point, God’s willingness to explain Himself ends (Ephesians 1:9). At a certain point, our ability to understand what God might try to reveal to us, ends (Job 38).

Where believers too often go wrong – to the right or to the left, as the books of Moses say – is in latching on to the answers/interpretations of one man (or one group of men) and anchoring our souls to them as if they necessarily were the very words of God.

May I suggest a rule of thumb? If a belief system has the name of its human creator attached to it, or can be traced to a human creator; if it has “ism” at the end of its name, it is a teaching of man (Matthew 15:9 et al). It is not a doctrine of God. It is a disputable matter (Romans 14:1). It goes beyond a doctrine of God; beyond what God was willing to teach us in His word (2 John 1:9).

And it’s not worthy of your time or mind or heart … certainly not your soul.

Oh, it may have value in illuminating some aspect of the questions you have in your heart; I don’t discount that for a moment.

Calvinism has much to teach about God’s sovereignty (Psalm 68:20; Jude 1:4) – as long as we don’t let it persuade us that His sovereignty invalidates the gift of choice He has given us.

Universalism reminds us that God, indeed, is patient and is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9) – as long as we don’t permit it to convince us that “… but that all should come to repentance” is somehow optional.

Even legalism can serve to nudge our memory about the importance of obedience over mere “mental assent” belief – if we see obedience as the response of a grateful and believing heart rather than as the works by which we somehow earn salvation (Philippians 7:11; Epehsians 2:4-10).

“Being certain of Scripture’s authority is humility. Being certain my interpretation is always right is arrogance.” ~ Rick Warren, on Twitter (not too many hours ago)

“Faith is not opposed to knowledge; it is opposed to sight. And grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning.” ~ Dallas Willard, Hearing God

I don’t have to agree with everything these two fellows teach in order to see wisdom in these words. What they – or you, or I – might be wrong about does not negate what we are right about, and what we know: God’s grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:9); that His revelation of His will for us is sufficient (Romans 1:16-17); that His grace supplies everything that we need (Philippians 4:19; 2 Corinthians 9:8).

So if you catch yourself thinking (as I still frequently do): “I have to understand the answer to this, or I just can’t believe anymore!” – just remember how much He has already revealed, provided, given and therefore forgiven:

His Son, in a manger, on a cross, in a tomb, now at His right hand.

Don’t you think that’s enough?

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” ~ Romans 15:13

Questions

Why Acts 20:7, but not Acts 2:46-47?

Why 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, but not 1 Corinthians 11:5?

Why 1 Timothy 2:12, but not Acts 2:17?

Why Ephesians 5:19, but not Psalm 150? Or Revelation 5:8-9?

Why 1 Peter 3:21, sometimes with Romans 1:16 and 2 Corinthians 7:10 and Romans 10:10 and Hebrews 5:9, but hardly ever with Titus 2:11 or 1 Thessalonians 5:9 or Philippians 2:12? And almost never Luke 10:27-28 or Luke 12:33 or Mark 10:29-30 or John 12:25?

Who gets to decide which? Elders? Preachers? All of us? And why do we decide the way we do?

And what does it say about us when we choose the weekly over the daily, the easy over the difficult, the traditional over the Christ-like, the exclusive-of-others over the inclusive-of-others, the silent over the expressed, the selfish over the selfless?