Zachary Bright

The Wonder of it All


2 Comments

A Dog’s Christmas

Jack Hairless1

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15:27, NRSV)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-47, NRSV)

Jack Lewis, the Balding Bible Study Dog (BBSD), has had reason to celebrate Christmas this year: First, since Terry has been home for a few days, the pack is together. Jack Lewis is a social dog and enjoys having as many of his peeps around him as possible. Second, my son, Chris, brought his dog, Asher, over on Christmas Day. The Balding Bible Study Dog enjoys wrestling with and chasing other dogs. Jack calmly watched Asher finish eating Jack’s food, just for the pleasure of a good romp afterwards. Furthermore, yesterday the neighbors’ dog got loose and came flying into our house, giving the BBSD the opportunity to happily chase the intruder around the house. Third, Jack Lewis received some personal grooming. Terry gave him a bath in the shower, while Jack happily danced around in the water; Jack loves water. And then, Terry took Jack to the vet where Jack Lewis had his nails clipped and received a required shot.

However, the most excitement for the Balding Bible Study Dog, was the realization that there was so much food in the house, and with guests coming over, there were multiple opportunities for a long tongue or a sudden lunge to score some food. (1) An intense, alert but patient stare was also found to be effective in motivating humans to give up some of their food. The Bible Study Dog’s studies this past week centered on the story of Jesus responding to the creative faith of a Canaanite (that is a Gentile, a non-Jew and an outsider) woman, by releasing her daughter from a tormenting demon (Matt. 15:21-28; parallel, Mk. 7:24-30). Jack’s memory verse was Matthew 15:27: “…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The BBSD energetically applied this verse all through the Christmas celebrations.

I read somewhere that among the kinds of predators, dogs are opportunistic predators. I also saw a nature show which speculated about how wolves evolved into dogs and how dogs and humans came to have a symbiotic relationship. The theory is that, however many thousand years ago, wolves began to follow the camps of hunter-gatherer humans, picking up bones and tidbits that the humans left behind. Eventually, people noticed this lupine behavior and gradually domesticated the wolves to use for help in hunting. Whatever. I like to think that God intended the canine-human relationship as a small taste of what our relationship with the rest of creation would have been like, if sin had not entered our world.

The Canaanite woman was desperate for help for her demon-tormented daughter. To the irritation of the disciples, the woman shouted, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus did not answer her at first. The disciples recommended sending her away. Finally Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” and “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Dogs” was a derogatory term for Gentiles, a racial slur, if you will. But the woman would not be denied. She answered, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” I think that Jesus was impressed with the woman’s logic, and of course, with her tenacity and faith, for he answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” The woman, an outsider, was brought into the influence of the kingdom of God and it’s blessings.

About twenty years ago, I would sometimes see a bumper sticker on a car that said, “S**t Happens”. We could say “Stuff Happens”, but that’s not what the bumper sticker said. The sentiment seemed to be that, whatever else happened, inconvenient, unpleasant, irritating, and even, bad events, are inevitable. As I drove around, I asked what my response could be. The thought came to me: “Grace Happens”. Not having the technology to make bumper stickers, I made cards on heavy card stock that said, “Grace Happens”, that I would give away as conversation starters. Often, people ask why bad things happen to good people or why we experience troubles that we don’t think we deserve. But the thought occurred to me that even non-Christians experience a lot of good that is undeserved. In theology, the good in human life given to those outside the Church, is sometimes called common grace. We should also ask the question, why do good things happen to bad people? Or why does our foolishness sometimes fail to catch up to us?

Around the time that I thought of the “Grace Happens” idea, I was driving around one weekend, somewhat preoccupied and absent-minded. I think that during that weekend, I inadvertently ran three stop signs and two red lights. I was not caught and no one was hurt. To cap off the weekend, after waiting for the light to change, and then beginning to accelerate, the second car in line (I was the third), suddenly stopped. I gave it a light tap on the bumper. We both pulled to the curb, after the intersection, to exchange information. A woman jumped out of her car and yelled, “What were you thinking!?” “I wasn’t.”, I admitted. The woman checked her bumper, and then said, “No harm done.” We left without exchanging information. Now wasn’t that a lot of undeserved good luck? Or grace? I assure you, I’m a much more careful and alert driver today!

Jesus taught us, in “the Sermon on the Mount” quoted above, that our Father “..makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45b and c, NRSV) In an agricultural economy, sun and rain are necessary and good. I am grateful for the “amazing grace” that we sing about, that “saved a wretch like me”. But I am also grateful for common grace that rules this created world in which we have been placed, so that we benefit in countless ways from the predictable course of a good, though damaged, creation.

Note that Jesus taught that we are to be like our heavenly Father, and also shower indiscriminate grace on people around us, to the point where we are to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, NRSV). “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” and “…if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matt. 5:46a and 47a, NRSV) Imitating your heavenly Father, may you go out today and commit unprovoked acts of kindness! And throughout this new year, may you remember that “grace happens”!

(1) I was distracted for a moment when Jack Lewis, that canine predator, pounced on, killed and ate a cricket.

This post was powered by the CD, “The Best Of The Lost Dogs” (1996) by The Lost Dogs, the CDs, “Luxury” (1999) and “Health and Sport” (2008) by Luxury, and the CD, “The Lumineers” (2012) by the Lumineers.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

“Songs For Christmas” (2014) by Branches – A Recommendation

Branches Songs For Christmas

I have one more Christmas gift for you: “Songs For Christmas” by Branches. The sheer joy in making music is what strikes me most about this album. The more I listen to it, the more details of instrumentation, arrangement and sense of rhythm, of being “in the pocket”, I find. Care, creativity and attention to detail are in evidence throughout. The vocals give the album an Indy feel. All the songs are spiritual rather than secular. I regret that I am only making this post the day before Christmas. However, you may follow the Church year, in which Advent is observed in the four weeks before Christmas Day, and then Christmas is celebrated for awhile after Christmas Day (remember “The Twelve Days of Christmas”?). Or you may want to download the album in preparation for next Christmas. Maybe you are one of those happy souls who celebrate Christmas in your heart all year long. In any case, you can (and should) download the album for free (though tips are appreciated) at noisetrade.com. They also have an EP and a single at noisetrade. You can also download “Songs For Christmas” and other Branches offerings at Itunes. I booked bands for a music venue/coffee house from 2008 through 2011 and some members of Branches performed there. If you have a music venue in Southern California, consider inviting Branches to perform.

Branches3

Like Branches on Facebook and download “Songs For Christmas” at: http://noisetrade.com/soundslikebranches/songs-for-christmas

Branches1

Branches5

This post was powered by the CD, “Songs For Christmas” (2014) by Branches, of course!


Leave a comment

Making Room For God

manger1

“And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 1:7, NRSV)

“Away In A Manger”
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his his sweet head.

The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.

After amusing myself by titling the last two Advent and Christmas posts in Spanish, I was going to tile this one in French, a language that I am more fluent in, something like: “Mes pensees sur le temps de l’Advent et le jour de Noel – lesson trois”. (1) But the title I did use, encompasses much of what I want to say. (2)

But first, doubtless, after my last post (12/ /14), you are wondering how Jack Lewis, the Balding Bible Study Dog (BBSD), and I are doing. A little while ago, Terry, sounding righteous and clean, announced that she was going out to a church worship service. Of course, the Balding Bible Study Dog, and the Bible study teacher, would have liked to go, if we could. But disability, our labors, dear reader, on this post, and a silly no dogs-in-church policy, precluded our attendance. Naturally, our thoughts turned to our nocturnal miseries of the previous night: the cold, the perspiration under the blanket, dry eyes from the cold and the heater, Jack’s allergies causing his right eye to run and the difficulty we had in getting the blanket back over us after Jack would go to get a drink of water. About 3:30 a.m., I jumped up and landed awkwardly on my right foot, the one that had had the recent surgery; I was afraid I had sprained my ankle (no worries, it’s OK now). “Ouch! ouch! ouch!”, I yelped. “Hey! That’s the sound that prey makes!”, Jack said suspiciously. Just kidding! Of course! Jack didn’t say that. Actually, Jack, the canine predator in our pack, said, “I have a joke you could tell on our blog. Question – ‘What does prey say?’ Answer – ‘Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!’ Ha, ha, ha.” “Very funny, Jack.” The BBSD is primarily responsible for the humor and illustrations in our blog. Well, after getting me started, Jack Lewis, the BBSD, has moved off to pursue other interests. So, let’s get started, shall we?

We are thinking, during Advent, of the Incarnation, a theological word; but an earthy and gritty reality. Incarnation = to enter flesh, to become flesh; and of course, flesh = meat (“That’s great writing!”, exclaimed Jack Lewis, momentarily intrigued.). You can hear the word echoed in the Spanish words, chili con carne, that is, chili with meat. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14a, NRSV) The Word, God, the second member of the Trinity, the Creator: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5, NRSV)

Surely when the Creator entered creation and “became flesh”, took on a mortal, fallible body, a great explosion occurred! But actually, the Word made flesh that entered our world through a small opening in time and space, was hardly noticed by the geopolitical world. The Word came among poor and oppressed people in a backwater of the Roman Empire. The event was noticed by the parents, Joseph and Mary, of course, and some of Mary’s family; and some shepherds, almost the lowest class of first century society; and a paranoid, homicidal King, who was a half Jewish, traitorous client of Rome; some astrologers from “the East”; and perhaps a few others. No coin was minted or postage stamp issued, in honor of the birth of the King of the Jews and the Lord of creation. In a 24/7 cable TV news cycle, the birth of Jesus would probably not even merit a short human interest segment.

Why then does this event explode within us, and overwhelm us with wonder and awe, even still today? Because the Son of God became the Son of Man that the sons (and daughters) of men might become the sons of God; because Jesus came to die so that we might live forever; because Jesus who knew no sin became sin for us on the Cross, so that we who are sinful might become righteous, clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ; because when the Light of the World slipped into our dark world, the invasion of this demon-dominated world began, and nothing has been quite the same since, and we his troops, disciples, agents are living increasingly in the blessings of the Kingdom of God, and the light from the future Dawn shines more and more upon us because the New Day is almost here.

When I was a child and we bought seed packets, I always chose the miscellaneous exotic wild flowers packet. Against instructions, I planted the seeds too close together, fearing that otherwise, the plants would take forever to grow and be unobservable. Predictably, the plants eventually choked each other to death. Until I got a MAC, I used to worry about having too much material on my computer, even after installing an extra memory stick.

Is it possible to lack room for something or someone in our bodies or souls or minds? Of course spiritual and mental realities take up no physical space at all (contrary to some of my professors). But is there a spiritual and an intuitive sense of not having enough room to receive something of great importance into our lives? Yes, there is. Let’s look at a few biblical examples.

In Jesus’ parable of the four kinds of soils (hearts), one of the soils where the seeds were sown contained thorns “that grew up and choked them” (Matt. 13:7, NRSV). Here is Jesus’ interpretation: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth choke the word and it yields nothing.” (Matt. 13:22, NRSV) “Cares of the world”, worries about practical, mundane things, and “the lure of wealth” can choke out the word of the Gospel and other important words. At our last Thursday evening Bible study, someone brought up the Bible’s warnings about get-rich-quick schemes and wondered about how they apply to our lives today. It is good to gather wealth steadily, by doing work that provides what people want (and ideally need). Looking for a windfall tends to crowd out everything else, until this “urgent” activity is finished, and of course it’s never finished. I am extremely skeptical of offers of wealth that require huge amounts of time, crowding out that which is really important, like God, family, Jack and planting seeds for the kingdom of God.

A similar idea can be seen in 1 Peter. Christians are reminded that, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23, NRSV) “That word is the good news that was announced to you.” (1 Peter 1:25b, NRSV) When we are exhorted to, “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” (1 Peter 2:1, NRSV), presumably we understand that malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander are incompatible with the seed of the word of God planted within us, and will, when present, crowd out that word. Also, note that the love of the world can crowd out the love of God: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16, NRSV)

You see where I am going with this. It is possible also, to fail to make room in our hearts to receive Yeshua (Jesus): “He was in the world, and the world was made through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God [that is, born from above or born again – see John 3:1-16].” (John 1:10-13, NRSV)

Christians, and even whole congregations, can fail to make room for Yeshua, to receive and welcome him. That is the meaning of the passionate call of Jesus: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20, NRSV)

Stay with me; there are more take-aways to come. Have you noticed that many children’s rhymes and fairy tales have a dark side or at least a bit of an edge? Our civilization seems to have had an instinct that children in the world we live in, need to be prepared for danger, challenges, and especially death. “Now I lay me down to sleep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” Whoa! The child is given a nightly reminder that he or she might die in sleep, might not wake up. Or remember these examples: “Rock A Bye Baby” raises the specter of an infant in her cradle placed in a tree top, so that any gust of wind will cause the baby to fall from a great height; and “Ring Around the Rosie”, which was created to teach children, during the Bubonic Plague of the European Middle Ages, how to recognize plague sores. The fairy tales that the Grimm Brothers collected and initially published, often were very dark, with horrifying endings.(3) In subsequent 19th century editions, they sanded off the rough edges and gave the tales happy endings. Now, of course, the tales have been Disneyfied. But the 2005 movie, “The Brothers Grimm”, and the current NBC television series, “Grimm”, certainly emphasize the dark side of these tales. This brings us to the carol at the beginning of this post, “Away In A Manger”.

“Away In A Manger” is a very popular carol in the English-speaking world; according to the Gallup Poll, in 1996, it was tied for the second most popular Christmas song in Britain. It’s authorship has been attributed to the great German reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546), and known as Martin Luther’s Lullaby. However, Martin Luther is almost certainly not the author. The first known publication of the carol was in “The Myrtle” (1884), a publication of the Universalist Publishing House in Boston, MA. It was published as just the first two stanzas, which have a safe feel, with no edges, and no mention of death, as one would expect from the Universalists who deny the Trinity, hell, and many other orthodox doctrines. The one particularity that appears is, “no crib for a bed”, which equals “no room…in the inn” (KJV), and points to “laid him in a manger”. The following stanzas appeared, one or two at a time, over the following decades, under the auspices of more mainstream Christian denominations. Notice in stanza three, the “Lord Jesus no crying he makes”, which led some to charge the stanza with Gnosticism, that is Jesus wasn’t truly human (the orthodox formula is “fully human and fully God”). In stanzas four and five the true bedtime children’s lullaby becomes clearer. Note the sentiment in stanza four, “stay by my bedside until morning is nigh”, which parallels the sense of nighttime danger in the children’s prayer, “if I should die before I wake”. And finally in stanza six, death appears, albeit the positive aspect, that is, heaven. The “if I should die” concern of the children’s prayer is unstated, but it hangs all over the last three stanzas. The carol/lullaby is saved for me by “fit for heaven”, which could include a lifetime of discipleship to Jesus, increasing mirroring of Christ, and even a saving faith in what Jesus did for us in his life, death and resurrection; and the final phrase, “to live with Thee there”, at least acknowledges that we are made to know God in Jesus, not just to have a thin happiness, however we choose to define it.

As we head down the home stretch, I take from “Away In A Manger”, several themes: 1) I acknowledge that I still need Jesus to care for me, and “all the dear children”, until “morning is nigh”. 2) I make no apologies for noting the relevance of pondering death at Christmastime, really anytime. Any worldview, philosophy, religion, or attitude toward living, that does not deal truthfully and helpfully with the problem of death, considering the predicament we find ourselves in, does not deserves my allegiance. I agree with St. Paul: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:19, NRSV) 3) The place where the carol touches down in the historical record, “no crib for his bed”, “no room…in the inn” is an implicit challenge to us every Christmas, indeed everyday.

Joseph and the pregnant Mary were set on the road, with much of the Empire, because of the kind of news that does get reported: The Emperor made a decree that everyone should return to their ancestral towns to be registered. Can you imagine the chaos that would be set in motion by such a decree today? And so Mary and Joseph arrive in their ancestral home: Bethlehem, the town of King David, the town where the Messiah was to be born. With all the travelers in town, there was “no room for them in the inn” (KJV). There was a stable, some say it was a cave. In today’s terms they were placed in the parking garage of the Motel 6. There was no crib for Jesus, but there was a manger. It was not like the wood frame structures that are typically seen in Christmas pageants, which helpfully contain the straw for the comfort of the child. No, it was more like the stone manger pictured above, which could contain slop, water and grains without losing them on the ground. A manger is a food trough. I know something about this: both sides of my family were farmers/ranchers. The smell of cattle eating in the barn is pungent and overwhelming. Whether in the barn or in the pasture, watch your step! While we are at it, the “swaddling clothes” that Jesus was wrapped in, according to the KJV Bible can sound to us much too pretty; I mean it is not like going to K-Mart: “He’s much too young for a jumper; he’s not even walking; we need swaddling clothes”. “Bands of cloth” (NRSV) captures the makeshift nature of the arrangements.

Is there a more hospitable place in our lives for our Lord Jesus? Is there room in our hearts for him? As much room as he desires? Or are our hearts crowded with worry, anxiety, greed, malice, envy, insincerity, self-centered focus or “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches”? One thing is certain: where the Lord Jesus is known, experienced and welcomed, there is JOY, for he is Love, and the Laughter at the Heart of All Things (I think I made that one up myself)! Moreover, wonder of wonders, he wants to be with you (Rev. 3:20)! Our mission this Christmas: “Let every heart prepare him room” (the carol, “Joy To The World”). I’m thinking about the chorus from an original Christmas song by The Violet Burning, “Room in My Heart (a Christmas Song)”:

Baby Jesus,
There isn’t any room in the inn;
There’s room in my heart.

Baby Jesus,
There isn’t any room in the inn;
There’s room in my heart of hearts.

Wait! Did you hear that? I think it’s for you… “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

(1) Sorry, my English keyboard does not have the French accents. Notice I personalized it a bit: ‘mes’ instead of ‘les’?
(2) This theme will remind some readers of the classic booklet by Robert Boyd Munger: “My Heart – Christ’s Home” (Inter-Varsity Press, first edition – 1954, revised edition – 1986). My point though, is slightly different.
(3) The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales include: “Cinderella”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Snow White”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Rapunzel”, Rumpelstiltskin”, “The Frog Prince”, and many others.

This post was powered by the CD, “Divine 3.0 – Songs for Christmas” by The Violet Burning, the CD, “Songs For Christmas” (2014) by Branches, and the CD, “Brutal Romantic” (2014) by Brooke Fraser.


Leave a comment

Reflexiones para Adviento y Navidad – parte dos

Mary3

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble state of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and his offspring forever.”
And Mary remained with [Elizabeth] about three months
and returned to her home. (Luke 1:46-56, ESV)

You may remember that in my last post, we saw the angel encouraging Mary in her trust in God’s promise of the miraculous birth of a son to Mary, a virgin, with the news that her relative, Elizabeth, too old to have children, was now six months pregnant. Pregnant women might want to have conversation about their common experiences and hopes and concerns; two relatives expecting miraculous births, certainly would. After all, Mary and Elizabeth knew, just as well as you and I know, how improbable it is, seemingly impossible even, that a virgin or an elderly woman would give birth. So Mary “went with haste into the hill country” to visit Elizabeth. You can read in Luke 1:39-45 of how Mary greeted Elizabeth, of how Elizabeth’s baby (who would be known as John the Baptist) “leaped in her womb” in response to that greeting, and then, of Elizabeth joyfully blessing Mary, because Mary “…believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

And then Mary passionately and joyfully lifted up praise to God. And yet, the form and content of Mary’s praise reflected the Psalms, the prayerbook of Israel, and the longings of poor and crushed people through the centuries for justice, and the national longings of Israel, and the hopes of faithful Jews for God to fulfill his promises to them. This prayer/praise/song is often called “The Magnificat” after the verb ‘to magnify’, which you can see in the second line of the text that begins this post.

In my last post, we saw Mary’s decision to trust God and his promise: “Let it be to me according to your word.” Now let’s see what follows from that decision.

I find myself needing reading glasses increasingly; sometimes I even need to use the magnifying glass that I keep in the drawer beside me. That which I aim the magnifying glass at, becomes larger in my eyes. The words or other objects that I don’t aim at or focus on remain smaller. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? Mary “magnifies the Lord” and the Lord is large in her eyes. Since she is praying aloud, she is implicitly calling others to join her in magnifying the Lord. It’s as if she said, “Everyone join me in making much of God, magnifying and focusing on him. Let’s show (exhibit) his greatness!”

All of us have a decision to make. Will we make God big in our eyes and ourselves small or will we make ourselves big in our eyes and God small? You really can’t look down and up at the same time!

Note that Mary’s praise is not contentless; it is not merely saying, “Yaay God!”. God’s gracious and redemptive acts are displayed, especially his faithfulness to the poor, the oppressed and to Israel. One hears or sees in this Advent and pre-Christmas season, expressions of good will or celebration that are, shall we say, a bit thin on content. It takes a certain passionate intelligence to, as Mary did, take the forms of Hebrew poetry and fill them with audacious claims for God.

Recounting God’s mighty acts give us confidence and faith to have hope for what God will do in the future. What God has done leads us to anticipate what God will do. Let’s use two Greek words to hang this thought on. The practice of ‘anamnesis’ (remembering) leads us to ‘prolepsis’ (anticipation). Israel’s history is punctuated frequently with divine calls to remember what God has done for God’s people. The Lord Jesus told us to receive the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of him. Jesus’ finished work for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension gives us confidence that he will continue to work in and through us by the Holy Spirit, and that he will come back for us and fulfill his promise to us that when we see him, we will be like him. To saturate our minds with all that God has done for us, is to also, live on our tiptoes, to live alert, awake and in anticipation of God’s goodness to us. I am thinking of a verse of the Hymn, “Amazing Grace”, that is often not included: “The Lord has promised good to me; his word my hope secures.”

Note also that Mary’s prayer/praise/song is not merely sentimental. There are edges to Mary’s words: “..he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones…”; “…he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” Somewhere C.S. Lewis wrote that, humanly speaking, Jesus might have received his severe aspect from his mother. Think of Jesus calling the religious leaders “white-washed tombs full of bones” or calling them “the blind leading the blind” or saying that they made converts for hell. Mary does not only proclaim that God “…filled the hungry with good things…” but also that God “…has sent the rich empty away.” One is reminded of these words from Psalm 23:5a (ESV): “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”. I must not only be rescued, with the enemies overcome, but the enemies must know they are wrong. This is in tension with some of Jesus’ teaching: “bless and curse not”, “whoever is not against me is for me”, “turn the other cheek”, “go an extra mile” and “…if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:15, ESV) Of course Christians seek, above all else, to become like Jesus and to let him teach us how to live, but the extra twist of the knife in Mary’s praise and David’s psalm reflect the perspective of those who are truly poor and oppressed. They show us what our actions can create in the souls of those we crush. But they also show us that we may pray what we feel, not only what we should. Annie Dillard wrote somewhere in, “Teaching A Stone To Talk”, something like, the Psalms are a record of what has been successfully launched at God without one being fried to a crisp. God is not fragile; he can take what we have to say. God knows what we are thinking and feeling, so we might as well be candid with him.

Notice also how Mary’s prayer reflects, the paradoxes of the kingdom of God: “Blessed are the poor in spirit [the spiritually bankrupt!], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3, ESV); “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6, ESV); “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5, ESV); the first shall be last and the last shall be first; “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43b-44, ESV) This is how God works: he raises up the humble, the meek, those that fear the Lord, the poor and the hungry; he casts down the proud, “…those of high estate” (Lk. 1:52b, ESV), the rich and the enemies of God’s kingdom.

We have seen how Mary, the servant of the Lord, the one who received and welcomed the will of God for herself, and through her, for the world; the one who said, “…let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38b, ESV); turned her focus on God, making God big and herself small; proclaiming the works of God, with herself his humble instrument.
Her praise was not vague or contentless, but was specific and intelligent. She prayed the great themes of God’s wonderful works of salvation, not vague sentiments. Her prayer had edges; it was not sentimental (Hallmark would not accept her language for a Christmas card.) She was not afraid of dangerous prayers, but prayed candidly. Mary was at home in the paradoxes of God’s ways, of God’s kingdom. Praying God’s mighty acts, she was confident that God would fulfill his promises. Mary lived awake and alert to God’s acts, and in anticipation of what God would do for Israel in the future.

May we be awake and alert in this Advent season as we live with anticipation of all the ways Jesus the Christ comes to us: in our Christmas celebrations; into our hearts, offered to God “promptly and sincerely”; into the dark places around us where we can shine a light; and when Jesus will come to create new heavens and a new earth. And may our prayers be like Mary’s.

The temperature has dropped at night and Jack Lewis, the Balding Bible Study Dog (BBSD), and I are trying to keep warm. Terry will not let us turn the heater on because she fears it might warp the wood on a nearby piece of wood furniture. The furniture is a little closer to the heater than usual because we have placed our Christmas tree on the other side of it. As a practical, Reformed and Protestant dog, Jack suggested that we toss the @#$%*!# tree,,, I think (he’s hard to understand sometimes). But that will not do. So instead, Jack is sleeping as close to me as he can, with my blanket over both of us, including Jack’s head (until the cold nights came – not nearly as cold as some of the places my readers live – Jack would not let me place a blanket over his head). Jack Lewis shivers for awhile when we first go to bed, and then we both settle down for a warm, toasty night. For me, we have a one dog night, not a colder Alaskan three dog night (think about it a minute – you’ll get it). The Balding Bible Study Dog tries various schemes to keep me in bed as long as possible. Now here is an interesting wonder: the BBSD is growing a little bit of hair back on the crown of his head, on his chest and on his stomach. Perhaps, Jack’s body is responding to the cooler weather. I may need to change his title, either back to the BSD or maybe to the Dog Formerly Known As the Balding Bible Study Dog (DFKABBSD). BTW, don’t tell Terry that sometimes we turn on the heater for a few minutes to take the chill off of the room (Let’s see how far she reads! lol).

23393_408207735923738_599354153_n

This post was powered by the CD, “Divine 3.0 – Songs for Christmas” by The Violet Burning”, the CD, “Songs For Christmas” (2014) by Branches, the CD, “Brutal Romantic” (2014) by Brooke Fraser and the single, “This Holiday – Single” (2011) by Brooke Annibale.


1 Comment

Reflexiones para Adviento y Navidad – parte uno

Mary1

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God. And behold your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the six month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:30-38, ESV)

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness,
She is standing right in front of me,
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. by The Beatles (1970, Lennon-McCartney, really written by Paul McCartney)

Jack Lewis the Balding Bible Study Dog (BBSD) is a little at loose ends in Advent and the time before Christmas, because schedules have caused us to suspend the Thursday evening Bible studies until after the holidays. The social interaction, culinary opportunities, excitement, shoe laces to be untied and times of comfort on someone’s lap, all combine to make the Bible study a high point of the BBSD’s week. In the Bible study community, if Jack Lewis has not become a Christian, at least he lives under the blessings of God’s kingdom where humans exercise something of the dominion over creation they were meant to have. In this season, Jack usually has about two good days and one bad day. A good day is when Jack Lewis is not too demanding, after he has had his basic ritual of the predator game, he sleeps without anxiety, and greets all visitors that Jack knows with canine courtesy. On a bad day, Jack Lewis demands a lot of attention and he gives his challenge bark to all visitors, even those he knows. The challenge bark is different from the ear-splitting, deafening bark that I have told you about, which seems to mean, “There are Vikings coming up the walkway, brandishing swords and shields, and I will not stop until I see clear signs of panic from everyone (and I mean everyone!) in the house.” No, the challenge bark is a briefer deep bass guttural bark which seems to translate as, “Who are you?” In these moments, what Jack lacks in courtesy, is matched by his conscientious performance of what he sees as his role in our pack.

Jack the Bible Study dog is relearning the protocols of living in a house where Christmas is celebrated. For instance, one does not take an ornament off the Christmas tree and proudly bring it to the pack leader to play with or one does not take the stocking off of the front door and drag what’s left of it all over the front lawn. For Jack Lewis, the blessings of Advent and Christmas are mixed with challenges.

For many of us, the holiday season brings challenges. Shopping, decorating, partying, worry, the blues can crowd out poise, calm, peace and worship. What we need is an inner center focused on the One that we worship, out of which our words and actions flow. One of the various types of Christian meditation is to focus on a word or phrase. The word could be “love”, “peace”, “joy” or some other meaningful word. A phrase might remind us of what we believe about God, perhaps even a biblical phrase or sentence like, “God is love”, “the peace which passes all understanding”, “God is light and in him is no darkness”, “My peace I give to you”, “the Light of the world”, “I AM” or “the LORD will provide”.

I learned the following meditation many years ago. Let me guide you. Find a place free of distractions, and a comfortable position, or you can walk if you prefer. Set aside about 10 minutes. Relax and slowly turn your heart toward God. Be present to him. We are going to take a portion of a Bible verse, break it down and just live with whatever associations come to us with each phrase or word: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10a, ESV) Let’s proceed like this:

“Be still, and know that I am God.” – Ponder and feel. Consider what this means for your life.
“Be still, and know that I am…” – Ponder and feel. Lean back in God’s ‘arms’.
“Be still, and know…” – Ponder and feel. Let trust and confidence arise within you.
“Be still…” – Do it.
“Be…” – Consider how over time this word can point, for you, to all the meanings of the whole sentence.

Now come back to your everyday world slowly and gently. Try to bring awareness of God with you into all your activities. Thank God for what you have seen and understood.

It is hard to believe that the Beatles’ song, Let It Be, could be written in a culture that has no Christian memory. The words, “let it be” echo Mary’s words in response to the angel’s announcement of Mary’s call as a virgin to bear the Messiah, the King to rule in David’s line, the Son of God. Also, several other phrases in the song seem to be direct quotes from the Psalms. The choice of the name, Mary, can’t be ignored either. However, Paul McCartney insisted the song was about a dream of his mother, who died of cancer when he was 14 years old. Mary, his mother, whispered to him to “let it be”, that everything would “be alright”. The religious overtones of the song, in the studio, seemed obvious enough to John Lennon that he tried to dial them back. Let It Be was performed by three of the Beatles at Linda McCartney’s memorial service. (1)

In any case, there is a wide canyon between “let it be” and “…let be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38b, ESV). A great space yawns between “take it easy”, “it’s all good”, “no worries mate”, “chill”, “don’t worry, be happy”, “everything will work out”, on the one hand, and “I am the Lord’s servant; I trust You; do with me as you will, or as you have promised (and announced); and I offer myself to be an instrument of your kingdom, an instrument of revolt against the evil and disorder of this world”, on the other hand. There is a big difference between trusting your life to the universe and trusting your life to a loving, wonder-working God. There is a big difference between ‘whistling pass the graveyard’, mere psychological comfort, and joining the revolution, expecting to meet God and his guidance, as we step out moment by moment, in obedience. After all, as the angel said, “…nothing will be impossible with God”!

Mary2

If you find belief in miracles, like a virgin birth, difficult, I ask you to suspend disbelief for awhile, and to try on Mary’s attitude. Let’s make Mary’s words, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”, our mantra this season of Advent and Christmas.

(1) To verify the Beatles lore, see the book, “The Gospel According to The Beatles” by Steve Turner (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006). Find the song, “Let It Be”, in the index, for page numbers. This is probably the most accurate, fair and profound book about the Beatles and their beliefs.

This post was powered by the CD, “Divine 3.0 – Songs for Christmas” by The Violet Burning, by the CD, “Songs for Christmas” (2014) by Branches, the CD, “Midwinter EP” (2013) by The Western Den, the single, “Oh, Holy Night! (Single)” (2013) by All Delighted People, the CD, “Advent One” (2014) by Already Not Yet, the song, “Let It Be” (2000) by the Beatles, and the CD, “Christmas” (1993) by Bruce Cockburn.


Leave a comment

Understanding With Your Heart

childlike-awe

“‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophesy of Isaiah that says:
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn –
and I would heal them.
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.'” (Matthew 13:9-16, NRSV)

I conceived this post as a sequel to my posts, “Why Is God Hidden?” of 5/20/14 and “Addendum to Why Is God Hidden?” of 5/24/14. I chose the tongue in cheek title, “Why Is God Hidden? – Part Zwanzig”. Instead, I will let you make the connections, while I make a fresh start.

Jesus ended the Parable of the Four Soils with words he frequently used: “Let anyone with ears listen!” He sought openness and receptivity in his listeners (those are the qualities that attracted the “more” and the “abundance” of knowledge in Jesus’ teaching). Jesus told parables to discover to his hearers their receptivity or lack thereof, and to awaken desire for God. C.S. Lewis wrote of using imaginative literature to get past “the watchful dragons” that seek to guard against God and the undermining of the self-centered heart. Jesus’ parables rarely even mention God. To those who heard them, at first, they seemed to be safe stories about a woman losing a coin or a man stumbling on a treasure, but not about God or the hearer. As the listener walks away, suddenly a bomb goes off in her heart and an abyss opens at her feet, and she realizes the stories are about God and about her!

Jesus explained in the above scripture text, that his parables also reveal those whose “heart has grown dull” and who have “shut their eyes”. To understand spiritual truth, one must first want to see and hear and understand. One might say that intent precedes content. Do you really want to know truth and are you willing to shape your life by truth? Jesus insisted that one must have childlike openness and humility to enter the kingdom of God:

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:14b-15, NRSV)

childlikeness

Let me remind the reader that I use the word, ‘heart’, roughly the way that Dallas Willard does in his very helpful book, “Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ” (2002). The heart, in distinction from the soul, the body, the mind and the emotions, is synonymous with the spirit and the will. The heart is the decider. Taking input from the mind, the body, the emotions, the external world, social relationships and the spiritual world, the heart makes choices and sets the fundamental direction and orientation for a human life.

Your heart, your intention, your will should be to understand and believe truth. Your mind, emotions, soul, are designed to detect truth. Your heart/will is to keep you oriented toward truth, toward the Son, like my bamboo plant in the kitchen turns to face the sun. Willingness, openness, desire, precede knowledge, and then, you understand or stand under, submit to truth. Once the choice is made, the heart helps us to stay turned toward reality/truth. The 19th century Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald wrote, “To give him truth who loves it not, is to give him plenty of reasons for misinterpretation.” Intent precedes content. Humility and an honest heart are necessary for understanding God’s revelation to you rightly.

Jack Lewis, the Balding Bible Study Dag (BBSD), awoke this morning to his morning routines. They include dancing (!) under the bed, while Terry helps me get ready for the day (I am getting closer to the day when I will have recovered enough from my foot surgery and will not need Terry’s help in this way), and then when Terry leaves the room, Jack enjoys an invigorating game of what I call “the predator game”, just ‘like the next bloke’. The game involves me moving my hands quickly (!) around the BBSD’s head while he snaps his teeth at them. Sometimes I am quicker and sometimes I become painfully aware that Jack Lewis has added to his skills, even over night. We all need some routines and assumptions, or the need to make thousands of choices everyday about trivial actions would paralyze us.

Here is the interesting part of the story. To get on the bed to play the predator game, the BBSD must propel himself almost straight up since there is almost no ‘runway’. Jack Lewis hesitates, makes some false starts, worries about whether he has enough room, tries to visualize success, and looks to me for encouragement, before finally, propulsion and altitude are achieved. Jack’s desire must become strong enough and his intention definite enough before he can become airborne.

To understand, to stand under, truth/revelation we must have a strong desire to know God and his will and make a definite choice to follow truth wherever it leads us. We need a good and open and discerning heart. We need a healthy heart, working as it was created to work. We need a surrendered heart. Half-hearted surrenders make our hearts unreliable and introduce into our lives a false note, a shiftiness, a growing lack of honesty. Further, an incompletely surrendered heart will never be able to escape the specter of doubt. C.S. Lewis asked will you be “a man or a rabbit”?

Our hearts can grow “dull”, as Jesus says in our opening text, so that we shut our eyes and fail to hear, as we seek to avoid God’s claim on our lives. The 16th century Reformer in Geneva, John Calvin (1509-1564), had this motto: “God, here is my heart; I give it to Thee promptly and sincerely.” You may have seen Calvin’s symbol on a Presbyterian pulpit, perhaps where especially the preacher can see it: a hand holding out a heart with flames above the heart, a heart aflame. What if our hearts were so surrendered to God that in every moment, we promptly surrendered control of our heart to God in response to his every desire? And so, our hearts were always turned toward God, like a compass needle always points North?

A heart can become “sick” from simply being frustrated over and over and waiting a long time for it’s godly object: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Prov. 13:12, NRSV) God, in the Bible, often complains that his people have hard hearts, that is, they are insensitive and unresponsive. Notice in these verses that hardness of heart is associated with willfully not hearing, and therefore not understanding, like in Jesus’ instruction about parables:

After the plague of frogs, “But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, and would not listen to them, just as the LORD said.” (Ex. 6:15, NRSV)
After the plague of gnats, “But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD said.” (Ex. 6:19b&c, NRSV)
After the plague of boils, “The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.” (Ex. 9:12, NRSV)
After Moses warned Pharaoh of the plague of the killing of the firstborn, “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.’ Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened his heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.” (Ex 11:9-10, NRSV)
Over 1,500 years later Christians were warned, “And it is said, ‘Today if you hear [God’s] voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.'” (Hebrews 3:15, NRSV)
And finally, Christians were warned, “…[God] sets a certain day – ‘today’ – saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.'” (Hebrews 4:7, NRSV)

“Today, if you hear [God’s] voice…”, not later, or as Calvin said, “promptly”, respond sensitively to God’s every desire: offer your heart!
“Today, if you hear [God’s] voice…”, “do not harden your hearts”!
Or more vividly, God speaks through Ezekiel of a “heart of stone”. As Bob Dylan sardonically sang in the song “Property of Jesus” on the album, “Shot of Love” (1981): “He’s the property of Jesus, resent him to the bone; but you’ve got something better, you’ve got a heart of stone…” Just as we don’t want hard arteries in our physical body, we don’t want our will/spirit/heart to be hard. But for us hardhearted disciples, these are hopeful words indeed: “A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27, NRSV)

childlike faith1

Sometimes we can sense an incongruity between someone’s outward demeanor and the words they say, on the one hand, and where their heart is taking them, on the other: “Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are smooth lips with an evil heart.” (Prov. 26:23, NRSV) This is another way of saying that someone with a delightful way of speaking but an insensitive, hard or misdirected heart or otherwise disordered heart, is not to be trusted. And yet we shape each other, heart to heart, for good or evil: “Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects the other.” (Prove. 27:19, NRSV) How important it is that one’s heart is directed toward life in God/Christ and that it is continuously sensitive to God and is “promptly” and “sincerely”, moment by moment, offering the whole person to God! “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt. 6:21, NRSV)

Is there a knowledge that is appropriate to the heart? Yes, if the heart is receiving good input from the soul, body, spiritual world, etc., and it is a healthy heart (open, childlike, desiring to know and do truth). The heart knows what to choose (copywrite, 2014, Zachary Bright, lolstc). This is the heart that is turned toward Jesus and is listening to him and is filled and saturated with the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit/the Living Water is flowing out of her or him to others:

“[Jesus]…cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart [Gk out of his belly) shall flow rivers of living water.”‘ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive…” (John 7:37b-39a, NRSV)

woman prause2

This post was powered by the following high octane tunage: the CD, “Silence Worth Breaking” (2011) by Brooke Annibale; the songs, “Lifeline” and “Mystery” on the CD, “What to Do With Daylight” (2004) by Brooke Fraser, and the CDs, “Albertine” (2008), “Live At the Aotea, Auckland, New Zealand” (2008), “Flags (Special Deluxe Edition) (2011), and “Brutal Romantic” (2014), all by Brooke Fraser; and the song, “Planet Waves”, a gorgeous tune, on the CD, “The Ladder” (2010) by Andrew Belle. Probably the most appropriate song for this post is “Hosea’s Wife”, which can be found on the CDs, “Albertine” and “Live At the Aotea, Auckland, New Zealand”. “The C.S. Lewis Song”, also on both those CDs, will appeal to admirers of C.S. Lewis, and also those with a philosophical bent. BTW, if you don’t know where to hear full versions of songs like these before you buy them, than you obviously don’t know about Spotify, Noisetrade or enough about YouTube.

*Footnote – You may find instances of the English word, ‘heart’, in the Bible, where it is not used in the way I used the word in this post. This is primarily because of two realities: 1) there really is a range of meaning for Hebrew and Greek words used to refer to different aspects of humans; and 2) the wide variety of English translations may use different English words to translate the same Hebrew and Greek words.