February 13, 2016

Another Look: All Fall Down – The Wilderness Within

Barren Hill

Broken lines, broken strings
Broken threads, broken springs
Broken idols, broken heads
People sleepin’ in broken beds
Ain’t no use jivin’, ain’t no use jokin’
Everything is broken…

• Bob Dylan

• • •

We must first learn that the wilderness is within us.

Though we dwell in dry and discouraging places, the barren land that surrounds us is the effect and not the cause of our misery. We are not the “good people” to which bad things happen. We are the fools who have fouled our own nests and now move about in the dirt and stench.

Our rebel rain-dance has awakened the storm clouds and now we find what pleasures we can splashing in puddles and rolling in mud. Fun though it may be, we end up soaked and shivering, and it’s hard to avoid making a mess everywhere we go.

“Ashes, ashes, all fall DOWN!” the children sing, smacking the ground with their butts and squealing with delight. If only they knew. These little Jacks and Jills will spend their whole lives tumbling, fighting gravity, trying to avoid breaking their crowns. All the while, the king’s horses and men will rush about, triaging the damage, sweeping up bits of shell, spraying away the goopy mess of foolish Humpties who had no business sitting atop walls in the first place.

The very earth is groaning as ice caps melt, forests dwindle, and species die off.

You and I can’t seem to talk to each other without getting our feelings hurt or at least wondering about motives. We find it hard to quiet the noise within and we avoid quiet places because that’s when it gets so loud we can’t stand it. So we keep busy with trivial matters and call that life. We convince ourselves that we’re mad at the government or appalled at the latest scandal. We watch the cooking shows and imagine we’re full. We live for Sunday, paint our faces and don our jerseys, and dine on bread and circuses. The antics of our virtual “friends” amuse us or at least keep us occupied until the next show starts.

It’s a wilderness out there because it’s a wilderness in here.

Come on, it’s not as bad as all that, is it?

It must be said that the wilderness is a place of breathtaking beauty as well as desolation. Rarely must anyone in this world face unambiguous ugliness. The late John Stott called this “the paradox of man.”

We human beings have both a unique dignity as creatures made in God’s image and a unique depravity as sinners under his judgment. The former gives us hope; the latter places a limit on our expectations. Our Christian critique of the secular mind is that it tends to be either too naively optimistic or too negatively pessimistic in its estimates of the human condition, whereas the Christian mind, firmly rooted in biblical realism, both celebrates the glory and deplores the shame of our human being. We can behave like God in whose image we were made, only to descend to the level of the beasts. We are able to think, choose, create, love and worship, but also to refuse to think, to choose evil, to destroy, to hate, and to worship ourselves. We build churches and drop bombs. We develop intensive care units for the critically ill and use the same technology to torture political enemies who presume to disagree with us. This is “man”, a strange bewildering paradox, dust of earth and breath of God, shame and glory. So, as the Christian mind applies itself to human life on earth, to our personal, social and political affairs, it seeks to remember what paradoxical creatures we are — noble and ignoble, rational and irrational, loving and selfish, Godlike and bestial.

• Stott, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today

And so this week we have moved through Ash Wednesday and have begun our Lenten journey in a wilderness that is both beautiful and bedeviled.

We submitted to the marking of our foreheads, a liturgical act by which we acknowledge the wilderness in our hearts. We confess our inner barrenness. We also admit that we are lost in a “in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1 NIV). We abandon hope that there is a permanent oasis near enough to sustain us. The pools of refreshment calling to us are mirages.

Dust we are, on dusty roads we travel, and to dust we will return.

Lord of the winds, I cry to thee.
I that am dust,
And blown about by every gust
I fly to thee.

• Mary Coleridge

Edited from the original post in 2012.

Beginning our walk across Lenten fields

Lenten Fields

Beginning our walk across Lenten fields
For Ash Wednesday

The picture above is the first in a series of photos that I will use to focus my Lenten meditations this year. Click on it to see the full size image.

I took this in the early morning at Gethsemani Abbey, Bardstown, KY, in March of 2014. I call it “Lenten Fields” because it speaks to me of both the barrenness and fecundity of the Lent season.

The vast swath of earth in the foreground speaks to me on this Ash Wednesday — “dust you are, to dust you shall return.” We are animated earth, filled with potential for life and fruitfulness.

The deer foraging the fields remind me that God cares for his creatures. Even when the earthly landscape seems barren and circumstances unfavorable for nourishment, there is provision.

The trees so stark and apparently lifeless tell me life is more than meets the eye. Soon the life within will bud and flower and produce a sea of green.

There is a road hidden in the midst of the landscape on which people travel. It goes around curves and up and down, through fog and toward hills, its destination unseen.

All this, the Lenten journey.

All this, the lengthening of days and the coming of light.

Randy Thompson: Jesus Christ or Jesus Caesar?

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Note from CM: We’ll reflect on Ash Wednesday tomorrow, after I return home. Thanks to Randy Thompson for helping out with today’s post.

• • •

Jesus Christ or Jesus Caesar?
An Open Letter to Senator Ted Cruz

“Just spend a minute, saying, ‘Father God, please continue this awakening, continue this spirit of revival,’ Cruz said. ‘Awaken the body of Christ to pull us back from the abyss.'”

• Senator Ted Cruz, at Crossing Life Church, Windham, NH
Reported by WMUR-TV News, Manchester, NH

February 2, 2016

Dear Senator:

Clearly, you are a man of prayer, and that is a good and honorable and God-pleasing thing to be. Likewise, it is a worthy and noble thing to pray for one’s country, especially if one believes that one’s country is at the brink of the abyss and about to fall in.

Honestly, I have no problem with your concern about the abyss, although I’m not sure we would completely agree on what, exactly, the abyss is, and why we’re on the brink of it. However, I’m writing you about another matter, a problem I have, Senator, which I hope you can shed some light on. You see, it appears to me that you are running not so much for the Presidency of the United States, but to become its Messiah.

Recently, at one of your rallies here in New Hampshire, at a church in Windham, you began to pray and encouraged those present to pray with you or for you, I’m not sure which, and what you asked them to pray bothered me. Specifically, you asked everyone to pray that “this awakening” would continue, and that God would continue this “spirit of revival.”  Now, forgive me if I’m missing something here, but I got the distinct impression that the awakening you referred to was not what Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield would understand by that term. Nor was the revival you mentioned the yearly event that good Baptists know and love.  Rather, the awakening and revival you wish God to continue and people to pray for is your presidential campaign.

That, Senator, is my problem. And, I believe, it’s a big problem because it’s a spiritual problem. Because you are a godly man and presumably not indifferent to spiritual problems, especially of a political sort, let me explain why I believe this is a big deal.

I suspect you have a pretty good idea of where I’m going here. I’m sure my remark about your running to be the country’s Messiah tipped you off. To put it simply, I believe it is a dangerous thing to blur the distinction between the Kingdom of God and any nation state, including the United States. No matter how exceptional America might be, it is not the Kingdom of God. Because of this, your candidacy is not an “awakening” or a “revival” as those terms are commonly understood by American Evangelicals. “Revival” centers either on a spontaneous surge of enthusiasm for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or it is an attempt to ignite such an enthusiasm. Either way, it focuses on spiritual rebirth centered on the person of Christ. To tell people in an Evangelical church, that they should pray for “this awakening” and “this revival” to continue is to subtly change the meaning of these words. As you used these terms. “awakening” refers to a surge in the polls of your candidacy, and “revival” refers to the enthusiasm among your followers that accompanies such a surge. God’s favor and God’s blessing are being invoked here, and I’m left with the sense that the awakening and the revival to which you refer is an awakening and a revival of the Gospel of Ted Cruz.

Please know that I’m not saying that this is your intent.  On the contrary, I think you’re too bright and too theologically astute to go down that road. However, you are doing politics using a religious vocabulary, and I think that is a dangerous thing to do, for I fear that you are making it easier to for many people to confuse being a citizen of heaven with being a citizen of the U.S, or, God forbid, the opposite, confusing United States citizenship with being a citizen of God’s heavenly Kingdom. People have a hard enough time as it is keeping Augustine’s Kingdoms separate in their thinking, and you aren’t helping them, to say the least.

This is a big deal to me because I believe there’s a huge difference not between you and Jesus, but between Jesus Christ and Jesus Caesar. Jesus Christ creates Christians. Jesus Caesar creates other Caesars, who then return the favor by re-creating Jesus in their own image. Jesus tends to stay relevant and current this way, trotted out when needed to give legitimacy to all political causes. The Liberal Protestant bureaucrats of the mainline churches trot out Jesus to legitimate progressive agendas and leaders, and have done so for decades. Maybe inspired by Jesus’ usefulness in this way, Conservative Evangelicals are now doing the same thing.  Over the decades, Christian people have demonstrated an astounding aptitude for accommodating Jesus to wildly diverse political agendas.

And then there’s you, apparently now the anointed centerpiece of an “awakening” and a “revival” of this old time Jesus Caesar religion. Senator, do you remember the “German Christians”?  Alarmed by the perceived decadence of German culture after the World War I, upset by social and economic upheavals of the 1920’s and 30’s, and fearful of Communism, they found that Jesus Caesar wore a little mustache  and talked a lot about the need for strong leadership. Sound familiar? I know that you do not wear a mustache and don’t expect people to greet you with an upraised arm salute, but do you see what happens when people confuse heaven and earth, God’s Kingdom and earthly kingdoms?  The earthly kingdoms get delusions of spiritual grandeur, they become intolerably self-righteous, and then do horrible things to folks who don’t share their “righteousness.”

You have strong convictions. I may or may not agree with them, but having thought-out, prayed-about convictions is a good thing, provided you hold them with a humble, gentle, and listening heart. (You have prayed about what you believe, right? Just curious, but has God made any suggestions? Has he pointed out any Scripture passages? If so, I’d love to know what they are. But, no out-of-context, cheap fundamentalist proof-texting, please. That only works with fundamentalists.)

You have strong convictions. (Sorry, but I got carried away in that last paragraph, so here we go again.) But, convictions become something scary and dangerous when they are rooted in self-righteous delusions of grandeur where God shows up so He can be on your side.

Senator, if you are elected president, the Kingdom of God will not  arrive on inauguration day.

There will be no gay people dancing in the streets because they are now ex-gays.

The global conspiracy of climate scientists to promote global warming in order to increase government regulation and expand Federal bureaucracy will continue, with melting glaciers making this conspiracy all the more plausible.

We will not magically have clean air and water because you abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.

You’ll bomb the hell out of ISIS, only to discover that ISIS is like a deadly virus, and your bombing has spread the virus all over the civilized world, or what passes for it.

Bernie Sanders will still be one of the senators from Vermont, and there will still be a lot of people who admire him. (There’s a lot to like about Bernie, by the way; he’s a likeable guy. You really ought to get to know him.  He has some interesting ideas, and they seem to be his, not God’s, although God has a way of surprising us in such matters. If he ends up getting elected president, I have a letter in mind for him as well. While I’m thinking about it, I wish you’d work at being more likeable, like he is. Just a suggestion.)

No, the Kingdom of God will not have arrived. You’ll take the oath of office on a big Bible, but it will be Jesus Caesar center stage among the celebrities, not Jesus Christ.

If you’ve read this far, Senator, I admire and respect your perseverance. I realize I’ve been a bit snippy here and there, but I hope gently so. If I hurt your feelings in any way, please know I didn’t intend to do so. Nor did I intend to insult you as a person, although I musts confess that I find some of your ideas worth insulting. I dare say you might well say the same about me.

It’s indeed fortunate that God is love, and is bigger than both of us, isn’t it?

If I may, let me close with a Bible reference. As you know, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert by the devil. One temptation in particular stands out, and I think it’s worth thinking about.

The devil offers Jesus the whole world if he will only bow down and worship the devil. This temptation consists of taking over the world and doing so on the world’s terms. One can take over the world in only one way, and that is through power.  The Roman emperors used military power. But, politics is a means of gaining power too. The idea is, if we can get enough votes and enough allies, then we have power to accomplish our purposes. If we get enough money we can buy the best propaganda and influence the most people, and so we gain power to accomplish our purposes. Such is the logic and wisdom of the world. And you know what? It really does make sense. Except, Jesus didn’t think so.

What is most important about this story of the temptation of Jesus is that Jesus says no to the devil and to power. He takes a pass on conquering the world so he could do “good,” which too often turns out to be something delayed further and further into the future. You see, getting power is only the first step. You then have to hold on to it, and holding on to it is tricky business, requiring deal-making and compromises, where the good you intended to do ends up the good intentions paving the road to hell. Jesus said no to the whole package.

Instead this Jesus who taught that the poor, meek, hungry, and mournful are blessed, emptied himself, took on the form of a servant, went to the cross, and offered his life to death. Instead of doing something practical, like Jesus Caesar might, he did something supremely impractical that demonstrated that he was indeed Jesus the Christ. He chose death on a cross.

Contrary to all expectations, by giving all and losing, he won. And not only that, God, his Father, was pleased. Enough so, that He not only raised Jesus from the dead but set him over all earthly powers as well.

That’s good enough for me. A Jesus who strives for power ends up being just another Caesar. A Jesus who dies demonstrates that he loves me. God’s raising him from the dead demonstrates that God is present, and that God loves not only His Son, but me too. What the world needs isn’t political victories and victors, but a people who know that the only sane way of living is to lose one’s life for Christ and thereby gain it, who know that there is a love surpassing knowledge that Caesar cannot understand or offer, but which Jesus Christ can.

And, Senator, if there is to be an awakening or a revival, let’s have one with Jesus at the center of it, OK?

La Mer

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