Zachary Bright

The Wonder of it All


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What We Are

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During the last season of “The Voice”, a friend would come to our home on Monday, and sometimes Tuesday, nights to watch the T.V. show. I had my favorite singer who was in the final three but not the winner. There was a glitch in the Itunes voting for another contestant, and all the Itunes votes were cancelled to ‘make it fair’ for everyone. I found myself muttering about ‘hanging chads’. But I started thinking for the last week, not so much about the contest, but about how pleasant the experience can be to admire the skills, talents and even personal qualities of talented people. For me this is often of musicians, since I am a musician myself. The pictures above are of two artists you may not know, but that I follow: Ash Soular in New Mexico and Sarah Brendel in Germany. However, I also give sudden expressions of thanks to God throughout the day for the authors I read and the thinkers that stimulate or help me. I admire non-human creation also: like my dog, Jack Lewis, that he wags his tail apparently involuntarily, that dogs’ paws are so perfectly made, that Jack is completely black, that he loves to play. It seems that the ability to admire and appreciate, which can be very similar to worship, is important to human flourishing. Being a habitual critic ‘goes a long way’, as we say. St. Paul recommends appreciation and praise, and not only of God, to the Philippians: “…[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8, NRSV)

What are humans basically? I contend that we are created to be worshipers. The basic designation of humans, that you learned in middle school, is: Homo sapiens, Man the Wise, the thinking animal. For Karl Marx we are: Homo faber, Man the Worker. For John Calvin, the 16th century French Reformer, humans are almost perpetual idol factories. I take that to be because if we refuse to worship our Creator, the true and living God, we will worship substitute gods, idols, because we are created to be worshipers. St. Paul described this human tendency: “…[T]hough they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or four-footed animals or reptiles.” (Rom. 1:21-23, NRSV) Our tendency to worship something (family, country, possessions, an ideology, our abilities, our lover, etc.), if we will not worship the true God, shows that, for good or ill, we are inveterate worshipers. So, I want to suggest that we are Homo adorans, Man the Worshiper. Our capacities to admire, appreciate, adore, follow and enjoy are necessary abilities for engaging in the activity of worship, for which we were made.

There is a supremely important feature of worship. If you miss this, you will not be understandable to yourself. You tend to become like what or who you worship. Israel’s critique of idolatry makes this point memorably. The Psalmist explains in Psalm 115 (but check out Isaiah 44:12-20 too; it’s hilarious!):
“Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats.
Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them.
O Israel, trust in the LORD!
He is their help and their shield.”
(Psalm 115:4-9, NRSV)
I told the congregation, where I was a guest preacher last week, that an idol is anything or anyone that takes the place of God in our lives. Other people cannot bear the weight of us placing them in the place of God; you cannot be the meaning of life for your lover – you will crack! Worship of anything else, except for the Living God, is to worship something less than yourself, and therefore to become like it, and so, less human. As the Psalmist has it, one becomes deaf, dumb and blind. Or as St. Paul has it, one’s mind is “darkened”, and if one persists in idol worship, a depressing list of sins (Rom. 1:28-31) are the result. Alternately, to worship the true God, who is more personal and alive than us, is to become more human and alive. I trust that you can come up with many examples of this phenomenon. We could do that together if we sat down and spoke together.

Also, if we sat down over our favorite espresso beverages, with many added ‘shots’, we could enjoy together some of the wonders of God, his great love for us, his forgiving grace, all that he has done for and in and through us, the amazing creatures he has made and the beauty and truth he has placed in our world for us to discover. Oops the sentence is getting long! Let’s not forget to discuss our favorite artists, Christian, non-Christian and unclassifiable whose abilities and visions God has given to amaze us and to blow our minds! When I ran a music venue/coffee house for a couple of years, I especially liked one particular expression. If a band gave a particularly awesome show, they were said to “melt your face off”. I want that more than you know.

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What If They Can’t See the Beauty? – Update

Daniel with his children

Meriam has given birth to a girl in the hospital wing of the Khartoum women’s prison. Her husband, Daniel Wani, and her lawyer, hope to meet with her in prison. An Islamic Sharia Judge has said that Meriam can be spared the gallows if she renounces her Christian faith. She has said, “I refuse to change. I am not giving up Christianity just so that I can live. I know that I could stay alive by becoming a Muslim and I would be able to look after our family, but I need to be true to myself.” Christians in majority Muslim countries are made of titanium (so to speak). They need to be. Amnesty International launched a petition last week in Meriam’s behalf. It has already been signed by more than 660,000 supporters. Unintended Islamist irony alert: now Meriam has two years to nurse and wean her child before she is whipped 100 times and then hung. Pray.

What If They Can’t See the Beauty?

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gabriel-wani-meriam-yehya-ibrahim

Let’s consider the heart-breaking predicament of Dr. Meriam Yehva Ibrahim Ishaq in Sudan. Meriam’s Muslim father abandoned her when she was 6 years of age and she was raised by her Orthodox Christian mother. She went to college, graduated from medical school and married a Christian who reportedly holds U.S. citizenship. After the couple had one son, Meriam’s brother lodged a complaint of adultery against her on the grounds that her marriage to a non-Muslim isn’t valid. The court later added the charge of apostasy for abandoning the Muslim religion that she never held. Now Meriam is eight months pregnant and in prison with her 20 month old son. The court will not release her son to his father. The plan is to wait tell Meriam gives birth, then administer 100 lashes for adultery and then hang her to death for apostasy.

Of course the Islamists, with their interpretation of Shariah law, who contemplate complacently this treatment of Meriam are barbarous and earn our outrage and indignation. You might ask, “Do you mean to insult Muslims?” No, I do not. I understand that most Muslims are peace-loving and are not terrorists. I recognize also that atrocities have been committed by non-Muslim people of various religions and cultures. Moreover, all people (Christians believe) are created in the image of God, and should be treated with the dignity that is appropriate to that reality.

But you might ask, “Do you mean to criticize Islam?” The answer: “You betcha!” The roots of the treatment of women as inferior to men are in the Prophet and the Muslim scriptures. The attitude that non-Muslims have no right to practice their religion or pursue their happiness unmolested: ditto.

However, what has caught my attention in Meriam’s predicament is the perverse logic of Islamists’ interpretation of Sharia that has led the Sharia court, Meriam’s brother and others to defy Reality and not see the awesome realities that are right before them. Realities like: the love between Meriam and her husband, that no one can be converted to another religion solely by force without reasons, that carrying out the sentences will leave two motherless children, that Sudan needs medical doctors like Meriam, the sheer beauty of Meriam (faithful, skilled and principled) and then the laughable, if it wasn’t so tragic, absurdity of “Hey, let’s imprison a woman with her son until she gives birth, then publicly give her 100 lashes before Muslim men with impure hearts and then hang her until she’s dead!” Doubtless you can think of others. I can too, but I am tired of this post and have a more edifying one to write when I recover from the subject of this one. The point? No religion or worldview is adequate that leaves massive realities unseen.

Please pray for Meriam and her family and Christians in many places being persecuted for their faith. Pray for deliverance, courage, powerful witness to Jesus the Christ and changed hearts. And you might call your congressperson, senator or Secretary of State John Kerry about Meriam Yehva Ibrahim Ishaq.

This post was partly based on reporting in The Heritage Foundation’s “The Foundry” that originally appeared in “The Washington Times”.


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Addendum to Why Is God Hidden?

I saw this Bible text yesterday in Jeremiah that relates well to my post of May 20:
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart…” (Jer. 29:11-13, ESV) Of course in the first instance these words are part of the word of the LORD through the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles from Judah in captivity in Babylon. God assures them that they will be brought back to their land and their fortunes will be restored to them. But also, these words, “I know the plans I have for you…” show us the heart of God for his people. In this time for me of semi-becalmed waters, while I am on temporary long-term disability, I find these words reassuring. Perhaps you are struggling, like some of my friends, with the terrors of Obamacare or you are facing a major illness or you are burdened with severe financial pressures or maybe your life has just not turned out the way you thought it would and should. Then these words are for you too! They show the heart of the all-powerful Father for you. While I am writing this, I am listening to “Guide You Home” (2008) from Remedy Drive’s Daylight EP. The words “I will guide you home…” seem so appropriate.

However, it is the end of verse 13, “When you seek me with all your heart…” that seems to dove-tail so well with the May 20th post. Jesus said that if you seek, you will find.


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Why Is God Hidden?

ImageDon’t you sometimes wish that it was that easy? Shouldn’t truth, reality, God just be obvious? Especially God. Doesn’t he reveal himself in Jesus of Nazareth? Jesus said: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life”. And yet… reality is what it is and it is complex and God is what he is and sometimes he hides himself so that we must seek him if we are to know him. I can think of several reasons why this might be so (and I’m not forgetting that in our sin we also hide from God like Adam and Eve in the Garden). But I am reflecting on one today.

What we seek, what we must give all for and to, is more valuable to us than just information dropped into our minds. And it shapes us more and transforms us as we struggle and search. In Jesus’ stories the kingdom of God is like a man who found a treasure in someone’s (!) field and he sells everything he has to buy that field or it is like a pearl merchant who finds such a wonderful pearl that he sells everything that he has to buy that one pearl.

In the book of Proverbs we are assured that “…the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding…” (Prov. 2:6, NRSV). And yet we must still seek knowledge: “[I]f you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures – then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.” (Prov. 2:3-5, NRSV) Even though Jesus invites disciples to follow him and be with him and teaches them how to live in the kingdom of God, still we must follow and obey and learn; we are not to be passive. Even as Jesus invites us to “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,,, (Matt. 11:29a, NRSV), still the Father has hidden some knowledge from “the wise, the intelligent” and has “revealed them to infants” (Matt. 11:25b, NRSV) and knowledge of the Father is given to “…anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matt. 11:27c, NRSV, emphasis added)

Knowledge of persons is of the kind that requires experience and a learning to trust and love so we can receive the mystery of the Other, rather than closing our hearts through fear or a narrow self-centered agenda. However, Jesus promises that when we learn from him, we find that his “…yoke [teaching] is easy…” (Matt. 11:30, NRSV).

Almost everything reminds me of a song. Of course the obvious one is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (1987) by U2. The title almost says it all. But there is this:
“I believe in the kingdom come
When all the colors bleed into one
When all the colors bleed into one
[snip]
You broke the thorns
And loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Carried the cross of my shame
You know I believe it
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”
So, Bono is not proclaiming unbelief or doubt. But, nonetheless I think that he is expressing that longing we each have in our heart of hearts for something more. More, because God has placed us in an amazing and complex world where there is always something more to learn. More, because knowledge of persons is immersion in the mystery of the other person and because, at least I, am always changing and need a new grip on God and his world every day. More, because there is always more of God’s kingdom to live into and to live for. More, because I am made for the New Earth and I will not be satisfied until I am there and see God face to face, until I am on the other side of the door.

The song I have been thinking about the most though, is “Relapse” (1995) by Adam Again. It has some mysterious words that have long expressed something primal for me. I am strangely moved by these words (whatever they meant for Gene Eugene, the song is rather dark):
“I’m working on a riddle
I pray to God to keep this secret safe another day
So I can find some time”
Fortunately, the song has some happier words:
“I’m leaning on forever
God knows I want to have it in my sights”
However, the ‘working on a riddle’ part is what resonates with so much of my life; and now I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And now, one of my all-time favorite songs is “You” (1997) by Switchfoot:
“There’s always something in the way
There’s always something getting through
It’s not me
It’s You [God], It’s You
Sometimes ignorance rings true
But my hope is not in what I know
It’s not in me, It’s in You
It’s all I know, It’s all I know
I find peace when I’m with You
I find hope when I’m let down
Not in me, me
In You, It’s in You
I hope to lose myself for good
I hope to find it in the end
Not in me, me
In You, In You
It’s all I know, It’s all know
It’s all I know
In You, It’s in You”
Aren’t those first words so true? Especially if one is a Christian, seeking to know God and live in the world in his light, but also I think other perceptive persons have this experience of  ‘always something in the way’ but also ‘always something getting through’. We have revelation and yet it is always incomplete and sometimes there are obstacles to knowledge and sometimes the obstacles are ourselves.

Probably, many would answer the question by speaking of free will. I would rather think of that as the reality that God gives us enough to know and trust him, and yet, preserves for us the ability to make unforced choices (or true choices) appropriate to personal knowledge. What amazing wisdom and love! God has kept the secret safe and I am still working on a riddle…