A Love Story

Genesis 29: 9-12
And while he yet spake with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them.
 And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother.
 And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.
 And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, and that he was Rebekah’s son: and she ran and told her father.

We’ve spent the last few class hours talking about the concept of membership.  We’ve noted that CS Lewis says that the Greek word that is translated to “member” in our English Bibles is actually “of Christian origin.”  And he says that it originally meant something nearly opposite of what it is commonly taken to mean today.  That is, today we think of being “members” of a collective of some sort; say, for example, the Sophomore class at Saint Albans High School.  In that sense, individuals are members of a class because of what they have in common.  They have all completed their freshman year of high school; they all live within the boundaries of the Saint Albans High School school district.

But when Paul wrote of “members” he meant something quite different from that.  The word he used, Lewis tells us, meant something like “organs.”  As in body organs – the liver, kidneys and lungs.  That points to the notion that membership in the church is membership in a body and in a body there are diverse parts and diverse functions and to the idea that we are all different, one from another and that we are to act together in harmony, mutually supporting one another and thereby being and accomplishing things that we could never have otherwise done.

What we have not yet emphasized is what a beautiful and wonderful thing this can be when it is actually practiced – that is, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!  Here, again, is Lewis:

A dim perception of the richness inherent in this kind of unity is one reason why we enjoy a book like The Wind in the Willows; a trio such as Rat, Mole, and Badger symbolizes the extreme differentiation of persons in harmonious union which we know to be our true refuge from both solitude and from the collective.

I was reminded of that paragraph as I read and re-read Joe Bird’s recent and very affecting blog posts about his mother and father.  Each of their stories is interesting; they are both very handsome, winsome, intelligent people.  But what also comes through in these fine pieces is how very different they were.  He, the left-brained electrical engineer in charge of planning and executing the construction of major, corporate chemical plants.  She the red-headed rose of little town USA with firecracker wit and a way with paint and brush and line and rhyme.  Boy, their story is surely one that could launch a thousand romantic comedies; and I mean good ones.

One thing Joe did not tell us about his dad is that he was a high-school athlete.  A quarterback, I think.  When I look at this photograph of him at his work as a young man I see a guy who could have been a leading man in a movie and it is not hard to imagine him as the guy who, in his day, had his pick of the girls.

Eugene Bird at work

And then he runs in to this one, who is like none other.

GCB-sailor edited

This one who has a witty response for his every notion and whose relaxed and unrehearsed and radiant smile made him forget every logical, rational objection he might have had and every other girl in the town.  “Oh, my gosh,” he must have thought, “What am I gonna do about this?”

I could imagine something like that.

When I hear this story, I want to hear more.  And I am sure that there is more to tell and I hope that Joe, capable writer that he is, will get to it and continue to share with the world this story that is the reason he is here on the earth.  I think this may be about as good as it gets . . .

Weeping In Secret Places

But if ye will not hear it, [God’s word] my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride

Jeremiah 13: 17

I try to read some in the Bible every day.

I read the Psalms because they are generally readable in small bites (Psalm 119 is a rather drastic exception) and I often read in short bursts.  I’m still wading through the Psalms for the umpteenth time, but for some reason I have also started going on Jeremiah, too.

Maybe not for the highest of reasons.  I have discovered lately – that is, I think I have discovered,  I might be fooling myself – that I can actually hear the different voices in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.  That is, I can hear a different voice when I read Habakkuk than when I read Isaiah.  I have never really tried to make these discernments and I know that if someone gave me a passage from one of the prophetic books and said, “Okay, Mr. Scholar, based on the voice you hear, tell me which of the great troublers of Israel this bit came from” I would be at a complete loss, unless it was one of the passages that I have committed to memory and  already knew the author.

That being said, I do find that when I read one or the other of the prophets I find in them different poetic sensibilities.  And, yes, they are poets.  One of the interesting things about this study is the notion that prophesy and poetry are kind of linked.  A prophet was one who proclaimed, not predicted,  and his messages had more to do with interpreting what was happening in the moment than with predicting the future.  I’m sure that some readers with object to this, and they have grounds.  I know that the prophetic books are full of predictions of doom and then of a messianic age when all will be put to rights.   I know.  But I had a very trustworthy teacher, years ago, who emphasized the idea that biblical prophets were “forth-tellers,” and not so much “foretellers.”  And I just read – or maybe heard in one of Carl Trueman’s excellent lectures on the history of The Reformation – that the Biblical prophets were interpreters of the events and circumstances of the day – kind of like today’s pundits, but with the perspective of what God meant in and by those events, and that those who attempted to predict the future were “diviners.”

If you will bear with me for a moment, then, and assume with me that the Biblical prophets were primarily concerned with interpreting the meaning of the events of their day, then the notion of poetic expression and the idea that prophesy and poetry are linked comes back into view.

If we think of prophets as those who interpret and proclaim the meaning of the events of the day, we might compare them to the singer-songwriters of the sixties and seventies who wrote about the meaning of current events – for example, the Viet Nam war, the civil-rights struggle and the ruin of the environment.

Okay, I can just hear the wailing now.  “You – you little blogger, you!  You have the temerity to compare Isaiah, whose words have lasted for three thousand years – whose words were quoted by Our Lord Jesus Christ – with Jackson Browne and Stephen Stills?  Ugh!”

Well, no.  Well, yes and no.  I don’t mean to imply that their writings are at all of the same value.  But what I am saying is that they were doing the same thing – commenting on the affairs of the day and trying to interpret the meaning of those events.  The difference, of course, is that the Biblical prophets were inspired by God’s Spirit and spoke from God’s perspective and with His authority.  No such thing for Stephen Stills.

Still, when we look at it this way – that the prophets of Israel and the songwriters of the sixties were trying to do the same thing, we may start to understand the relationship between poetry and prophesy.  A poet is a maker.  A poet is someone who attempts to convey meaning and emotion through the creative use of language.  A poet employs metaphor to spark the imagination and meter and rhyme to trigger the memory.  Would we have understood – would we have “gotten” – the meaning of the Viet Nam war – as the songwriters wanted  us to get it – without the music and rhythm and rhyme of, for example “Have You Ever Seen The Rain,” or “Run Through The Jungle”:

Whoa thought it was a nightmare
Lord it was so true

They told me don’t go walking slow
The devil’s on the loose

Better run through the jungle
Better run through the jungle
Better run through the jungle
Whoa don’t look back to see

Thought I heard a rumblin’
Calling to my name

Two hundred million guns are loaded
Satan cries “take aim”

“Run Through The Jungle,” John Fogerty

And Jeremiah, for my money, at least, did those very things.  Although meter and rhyme cannot survive the translation from ancient Hebrew into modern English, I can still see and feel the poetic expression in Jeremiah’s writings.  They are full of metaphor and emotion.

Today I was reading in Chapter 13 and came upon this verse:

But, if ye will not hear it [God’s word], my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride

 In spite of the three thousand years in between us, I think I get this verse in a way I could not if Jeremiah had not been a poet.  What does “in secret places” mean?  Other English translations suggest it means that Jeremiah goes off and hides somewhere before he cries; that he is referring to “secret places” in a physical, geographic sense.  I don’t think so.  I think he is referring to the secret places in the heart.  His grief is so great and so woven together with shame that he even hides his tears.  Jeremiah’s grief is so terrible and so unique that it finds expression only in those places in his soul that are  secret; that are hidden, even to himself.

“It is finished . . .”

John 19:28-30
28 After this, Jesus, knowing[a] that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst!” 29 Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. 30 So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.

 

 

“It is finished.”  These are words of our Lord spoken immediately before He died on the cross.  What do they mean?  The Greek word that is here translated “finished” is the word “teleos.”    That word does not merely imply that something is “over.”  It means more.  It connotes the idea of completion, accomplishment, and fulfillment.  If we go back only a few verses to verse 28, we read “Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished. . .”   The Greek word there translated “accomplished” is the same word – teleos.   And look at Luke 22: 37, where our Lord says “For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me. . .”  Again, the underlying Greek word is teleos, here translated “accomplished.”

What our Lord is saying then is not simply that he is now ready to die and that His physical suffering is over.  Not at all.

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I have spent 35 years working for and awaiting verdicts.    Verdicts are words of decision and finality and consequence and power.  When a verdict is pronounced, the battle is over.  Someone wins and someone loses.   I have experienced the rush of joy at a favorable verdict and the bitter disappointment of an unfavorable verdict, time and time again.   I know a verdict when I see one, and these three words of our Lord Jesus Christ are a verdict.  Or, rather, the verdict.

These three words mark the end of a spiritual battle that has been raging since the fall of humanity; since the rebellion of Satan.  These words mark and announce the final and ultimate victory; the inevitable defeat of evil.  It is accomplished.

It is all very fine, you may say, for one to take to the pulpit on Good Friday and speak of grand spiritual abstractions such as the final, universal defeat of evil, but what, you may fairly ask, does it mean to me?  It seems very much like I face potent evil every; I face the fallen world and my fallen nature every day.   Do these great words of Christ mean anything to me, here and now?

Yes, they do.    These words not only have universal and ultimate consequences; they have immediate personal consequences for each of our individual lives, here and now.   These three words are perhaps the most compact statement of the gospel anywhere in the Bible.  They not only speak of the last chapter of history, they speak to us directly, in the very fallen circumstances in which we find ourselves.

And one of those immediate, personal consequences is rest.  Once we understand that God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves; that all has been accomplished; that all will be well, then we may rest in His grace, rest in His assurance, rest in His promise.  Our eternal destiny is fixed; it does not depend on our own merit.   The Christian life may be one of striving, but for the Christian, there will be no anxious striving.  We are fighting battles in a war that has already been won.

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These words give us rest and they also give us perspective.  How many times have you heard a coach say “get your head up?”   When the team is down and all looks lost, we tend to drop our gaze and look not ahead, but at our feet.  It is a sure sign that we’ve given up the fight and if we are to have any chance of victory, the coach knows that we’ve got to change the way we’re looking at things.

Tim Anderson, the author of several best-selling books on strength and conditioning, takes the matter deeper.  He says that the human body is designed for a forward gaze:

We are made to keep our heads on the horizon both physically and mentally. When we drop our head, when we drop our thoughts, the body and mind follow. We slouch, we get depressed, we lose confidence and we “wilt.” Holding your gaze on the horizon helps keep your posture strong and your mind agile. When you can see the horizon, you have confidence and hope. You also have awareness and peripheral vision – if threats and attacks are coming, you’re more likely to notice. People that slouch, or mope, look like victims. People that stand tall look like victory.

What is the horizon?  It’s the place where the edge of the earth meets the edge of heaven.  It is the place where our hopes and aspirations meet with mundane life – with the frustrations, disappointments and decay of this mortal life.  It is where all of our unfinished symphonies meet the perfect music of the spheres. The horizon is the farthest focal point we can stretch our gaze to.   It is, if you will, the place where time meets eternity.  Dare we turn our gaze there? In light of all that life has thrown at us, in light of all our failure and disappointment and loss, do we dare to keep our heads up and our gaze forward?

These final words of Christ on the cross tell us that we may.  Indeed, they invite such forward- looking optimism.  In light of Christ; in light of His completed work, what we see on the horizon is not death, but delight.  Not frustration, but fulfillment.  We see an empty cross and an empty tomb and hear the Master’s voice saying “All has been accomplished.  Follow me.  I have prepared a place for you.”  And this is enough.  It is all we need.  Despite our failures and losses, our disappointments and frustrations, we may keep our heads up and our gaze forward and walk on to Him who did finish the work, who has accomplished all.  Then we walk with confidence and awareness, from strength to strength, and on toward Him in whose presence is fullness of joy and in whose right hand are pleasures forevermore.

The Spiritual Is The Real

spiritual

In light of Pastor Joel’s letter that mentions the fact that many people attend First Baptist regularly and for long periods of time without joining the church, we’ve spent some time in the last few weeks talking about the whole idea of church membership.

We’ve been looking at the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians and Romans 12: 5 that emphasize the idea – no, not the idea, the fact – that he who is in Christ is a member of the church.  When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ, that is, into His body, which is the church.  We considered whether the formal registration of that membership in the local body – in our case, First Baptist Church – might be seen the same way we see Baptism – as an outward sign or recognition of an inner, spiritual reality.

We spoke of our inclusion in Christ’s body and then we spoke of the idea of the metaphysical as something higher and greater and even more real than the physical.  That is, the spiritual is not less real or substantial than the physical, it is more so.

I said that the Bible teaches that there is a spiritual world that is greater and more real than the physical world that we can see, hear and touch.  I didn’t consider that a controversial statement, but I was nonetheless asked to find passages in the Bible that supported this idea.  I couldn’t come up with anything there on the spot.

But a couple of hours of reflection suggest that we might find the most direct support for this idea in the story of Elisha and his servant.  [all at II Kings 6: 13-21] They find themselves surrounded by powerful enemies and Elisha’s servant is about to lose heart.  Elisha tells his servant not to be worried:

“Don’t be afraid,” Elisha answered.  “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

(Remember, right then, as far as the physical eye could see, it was only Elisha and his servant, surrounded by the king’s “horses and chariots and a strong force.”)

In this context, Elisha prayed for his servant’s eyes to be opened “so that he may see.”

Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”

We may find further support in the words of our Lord on the night of His arrest.  When the Roman soldiers approach, Peter draws his sword and lops off the ear of one of the members of the arresting party.  Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword.  This is supposed to be happening, He says, that all may be fulfilled.  Besides, He says,  “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” [Matt 26: 53]

These are in fact fine examples of the reality of the spiritual world and evidence that the world we cannot normally see is more real and more powerful than the physical world around us and the powers that have sway in it.  But all of this is just spooning water from the ocean.  The whole of the Bible, the whole of the Christian faith,  is about the miraculous – about the intervention of the spiritual world into this mundane world of ours.  Paul is bold to tell us that the whole of the Christian faith turns on a supernatural event.  If there is no resurrection – “if Christ is not raised from the dead, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain”  and we are “of all men most miserable.”

If we try to separate Christianity from the miraculous, from the idea that there is a spiritual world that is greater than the physical and impinges on and invades the physical, we have nothing left.

Membership

so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
Romans 12:5 English Standard Version (ESV)

 

 

As we think of the meaning of church membership, we should look closely at what the Scriptures say about it.  They say plenty, and – as is so often the case – they say things that might be counter to what we thought before.  CS Lewis, in his address to the Society of Saint Alban and St. Sergius, entitled “Membership,” informs us that the Greek word that is translated to “members” in our English bibles is actually a word “of Christian origin.”  And – as is also often the case – the word, as its usage has evolved over these two millenia – has come to be understood to mean something quite different from what it originally meant.

Nowadays we say “members of a class” to indicate how individuals are alike.  That is, a “class” is defined by a particular shared characteristic.  We have a class of men who are over six-feet tall.  These men, in our modern usage, are “members” precisely because of the characteristic that they share.  In the ancient, Biblical usage, individuals are “members one of another” for exactly the opposite reason.  They are members because they differ, they vary.  They are parts – differing and complimentary parts – of a body.

Slow Train Comin’

From Rod Dreher, the author of The Benedict Option:

 

The more serious and pressing question has to do with gay rights, marriage, and religious liberty. Christians must understand that Obergefell is a popular decision that is not going to be overturned. If it were, most states would respond by passing gay marriage legislation instantly. This is a settled issue, politically. We are now fighting for our right to be left alone to run our institutions (especially Christian colleges and schools) as we see fit. This is a fight that most local congregations have chosen to ignore. It is an enormously important fight — but it’s one that we are not likely to win. I was talking the other day to two conservative Christian activists deeply involved in this political struggle, and they say prospects for our side grow ever dimmer. Republican lawmakers are highly susceptible to big business pressure, and terrified of being called bigots. And most Christians are saying nothing, either because they don’t know what’s happening, don’t care about it, or are too intimidated by accusations of bigotry.From a Benedict Option point of view, we conservative Christians simply must start thinking about and planning for the day when we lose these political and legal fights. The culture is moving swiftly against us. Look at the polling on US Christians and their beliefs. We cannot even keep our young people within  Christian orthodoxy. We are fast moving into a world in which Christian orthodoxy will be seen legally and culturally as equivalent to racism. This will have far-reaching implications for the practice of Biblically orthodox forms of Christianity in America.

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I believe that a lot of conservative Christians are desperately attempting to fight the last war, because the last war was one in which we had a chance of winning. To change the metaphor, increasingly our side is like sending the Polish cavalry out to face the Panzer blitzkrieg. All the valor and courage in the world cannot compete against the kind of political, economic, and cultural firepower being thrown at us — especially when the churches have grown so feeble in their witness.

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The churches have grown so feeble in their witness because they have assimilated modernity to an astonishing degree. This is why the Benedict Option is so badly needed among Christians: because it champions the traditional Christian model of the human person, and advocates for practices that incarnate it within our own communities.

(emphasis added)