Meditation on Psalm 24

 

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.

This Psalm begins with a basic, yet profound proposition: God made the earth and it belongs to Him.  That notion is so deeply embedded in Christian thought and teaching that those of us who’ve been around awhile might tend to glaze over when we see or hear it once again.  Oh, yeah.  God made the world and it belongs to Him.

But, like so many other things that we tend to ignore or sleepwalk through, these ideas have great consequences and they merit our continual contemplation.

There are (at least)  two problems raised by the proposition:

  1. If God made the world and it belongs to Him, why in the world is it in such a shape? Why do the innocents suffer?  Why do tyrants rage?  Why does wrong seem to prevail so often?
  2. When Christians start talking about God having “made” the world, the whole subject of the creation accounts in Genesis – you know: On the first day God said “Let there be light: and there was light.” Then on the fourth day, God created the sun and the moon and stars in the sky.   The question, of course, is: How literally do you believers take this?   Are you one of those who holds that all was done in six, twenty-four hour periods?

The first question has been around for so long that it has been given a name: “theodicy.”

Theodicy is defined by some as the defense of the omnipotence and goodness of God in the face of overwhelming evil in the world.

Suffice it to say that an in-depth discussion of this issue is far beyond the scope of this blog and far beyond the powers of its writer.  I’m no theologian and the purpose of this blog is simply to read and react to the Psalms as they hit me on that day, with the hope that my sort of normal and unprofessional thoughts might be of some aid or interest to others.

Having said all of that, I will also say that I have spent some time thinking about the whole theodicy problem.  I mean, it does kind of force its way on you.  And I think there is a one-word answer: freedom.  There is evil in the world because God has allowed his creatures freedom.  And freedom, if it is real, means the freedom to rebel; to refuse God’s grace and plan.

The bible teaches that the first evil is rebellion in heaven.  The first rebel was Satan, who has been banished to earth and who hold some limited sway here.  Not really hard to see that.  The Rolling Stones put this into the vernacular of the age:

I watched with glee while your kings and queens

Fought for ten decades for the gods they made

I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?”

When after all, it was you and me

Let me please introduce myself

I’m a man of wealth and taste

And I laid traps for troubadours

Who get killed before they reach Bombay

 

We don’t tend to think of Jagger and Richards as theologians, but this song is really pretty consistent with Christian thought.  That line about who killed the Kennedys – “after all, it was you and me” – really captures the idea of

the falleness

 of all of us.

Now, with regard to the whole business about creation occurring in seven, twenty-four hour periods, let me give you my own take on it.  I think those accounts in Genesis – although they are the word of God, although they are authoritative as scripture and although they contain enough truth to fill every one of us up forever – I do not take them literally, as to time.

I spent a career as a prosecutor.  One of the things that happens when you start putting a case together for trial is that you start believing your own theories.  You should, of course.  Nobody should bring a prosecution that they don’t believe in – that they don’t believe is true.  But here is a corollary problem:  when you start believing in your own theory, you might tend to ignore contrary evidence.  The defense counsel presents you with other facts and these tend to undercut your case.  Do you take them seriously or do you brush them away for one reason or another because you are so confident in your own case?

Let me tell you, it is very easy to do the latter.  And we do it – I have done it – to our own peril.  Many times the contrary evidence should not be believed.  Sometimes it is cooked up; sometimes it is based on the testimony of unreliable witness.  But not always.

Here is what happens when we ignore evidence that is inconsistent with our theory:

  1. You will get your butt kicked in the courtroom
  2. You will lose the most precious quality that any prosecutor can own: credibility with the court.

For my money, there is overwhelming evidence that the universe is very, very old.  I have heard the number 14 billion years kicked around, but after you get past the first couple of billion years, it all starts to run together for me.  There is also overwhelming evidence that life on earth as it now appears, took countless ages to appear.

Like I said, this is all way beyond the scope of this blog, but a serious consideration of the evidence that the sciences have come up with – and there is a rather impressive consensus on this matter among the various disciplines – is set forth compellingly in Frances Collins’ fine book The Language of God.   That book is a serious and satisfying effort to harmonize the scriptures with the evidence that science has uncovered over the centuries, written by the man who headed the Genome project and who is, himself, a devout Christian.

There are those who will argue that once you consider any part of the bible as poetic expression, i.e., not literally, scientifically true, then it all goes by the wayside.  Not so.  Take the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example.  The evidence for the Resurrection, even taken from a legal and philosophical point of view, is overwhelmingly strong.  For that, read NT Wright or any of Lee Strobel’s books.

 

The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the strongest evidence we have for any historical event in antiquity.  If we would dismiss the Resurrection as being based on unreliable evidence, we’d have to do the same for everything we know prior to the advent of videotape.  The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is stronger – much stronger – than the evidence for the Battle of Thermopylae.

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Meditation on Psalm 18

Christians cannot be shy about poetry.  It is an indispensable part of our heritage.  So much of the Bible is poetry – the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and lots of passages from the Prophets.  On top of that, our faith is a singing faith.  The second most important book in the Christian tradition is the hymnal and although not every song is poetic, lots of them are.  Lots of them employ metaphor and exalted expression.  Here is how one hymn writer expresses the birth of Jesus Christ:

. . . Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung . . .

 It only makes sense that writers would have to employ poetic expression, poetic imagination, in this context.  They are trying to communicate a world that is invisible and outside of normal, sensory experience.  It is only logical that they would have to employ metaphor.

It is with this poetic perspective that I consider this great Psalm.  Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and scholars disagree about which or how many of them David himself wrote.   Here is C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on The Psalms:

I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 might be by David himself.

It is far beyond me to make any judgement about the authorship of this or any Psalm.  I am not taking any position on the question of whether all of the Psalms that are “attributed” to David (about half of them) were actually written by him.  But I will say this: Psalm 18 is a distinctive work.   It is personal and experiential, like many others, but it is poetic in ways that many of the others are not.  David, in his troubles, calls on the name of the Lord.  Now look at the imagery used in describing God’s response to David’s prayer:

Then the earth shook and trembled;
the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken,
because he was wroth.
There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
and fire out of his mouth devoured:
coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down:
and darkness was under his feet.
10 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly:
yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his secret place;
his pavilion round about him were dark waters
and thick clouds of the skies.
12 At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed,
hail stones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Highest gave his voice;
hail stones and coals of fire.
14 Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
15 Then the channels of waters were seen,
and the foundations of the world were discovered
at thy rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.

If this is not poetry; if this is not the poet’s vision, I don’t know what is.  This is – and is clearly intended to be – staggering.  The earth shakes and trembles; the hills move.  God rides upon a Cherub, flying on the wings of the wind.

What are we to make of it?

In the book of Revelation, Saint John shares his vision of the altar before the throne of Godin heaven, attended by an angel who offers there incense mixed with “the prayers of all the saints.” (Rev 8: 3 NIV)  What results?  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “reversed thunder:”

Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8: 5 NIV)

What do these two passages have in common?  First, and most obviously, they both describe fantastic occurrences: the shaking of the earth, lightning and thunder.

But in both instances these fantastic events are the result of prayer.  In the Psalm, it is David’s prayer for deliverance.  In the book of Revelation it is the prayers of all the saints for God’s justice.

Whatever else these passages may be interpreted to mean, they at least point to the power and effectiveness of prayer that is so profound that it is hard for us to imagine.   These answers to prayer are “above all that we ask or think.”

We need powerful, fantastic imagery to even begin to wake us up to the reality of it.

Cain and Abel

So many of the stories in the Book of Genesis leave me wondering.

What is wrong, for example, with humanity gaining the knowledge of good and evil?  Isn’t that the very thing that separates us from all of the rest of creation?  We know good and evil.  We can tell right from wrong.  Seems like half of the Bible is about refining that sense and putting that knowledge into practice.  Why is that a curse?  I think I may have a better sense about this now, after having read Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and I may blog on that story later.

Today I want to talk about the story of Cain and Abel.  Everybody knows this one – the first murder story.  No doubt there are many lessons that can be drawn from the story and no doubt there have been thousands of sermons preached on this text, but the thing that always struck me about this story – that left me kind of cold and unsatisfied – is that the text gives us no explanation of why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God.  It always seemed to me that such a story in such a book should at least tell us why God acted as He did in rejecting Cain’s offering.  I’m sure that preachers and scholars along the way have come up with a thousand theories in answer to that question, but I think it is fair to say that the text itself does not give us an answer and, it seems to me, is deliberately obscure or dismissive of the issue.   Here is the text:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

The omission of any mention of God’s motive or reason for rejecting Cain’s offering bothered me till now.  It bothered me because it made it seem that God was acting arbitrarily and capriciously.  Unjustly, even.  It seemed to me that there must have been some just motive or reason and that the story would have been much better as a moral lesson if we had known that reason.

But now I believe just the opposite.  I now believe that the story is more true to life and better as a moral lesson because it does not explain why Cain’s offering was rejected.  Again, I have Mr. Peterson to thank for this.

In 12 Rules, Peterson spends quite a bit of ink talking about sacrifice.  At the most profound and fundamental level, writes Peterson, sacrifice is the forgoing of some immediate pleasure or gain in the hope of a greater, future benefit.   Under such a definition, work is sacrifice!

That brings the whole matter a lot closer to home for me.  I have always viewed the sacrifice rituals in the Old Testament as a forerunner or foreshadowing to the ultimate and all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Make no mistake, I still believe exactly that.  But the idea that sacrifice – other than ritual sacrifice – is a fundamental part of every human life, including mine, made me think harder about that dynamic and gave me a different slant on the Cain and Able story.

When we go to work we are giving up immediate freedom and pleasure and involving ourselves in something that, although it may be meaningful, takes something out of us.  It absorbs our time and energy and strength and in doing work a part of us gets used up.

We do this because we have an aim or goal in mind.  Cain, ostensibly, had the goal of directly pleasing God.  This would have led to his own good – the blessing of his efforts on the farm; the growth of his family; that kind of thing is what he probably hoped for.

By the same token, we hope that our efforts – our sacrifices – will lead to God’s blessing, too.  We may have a very specific kind of blessing in mind.  We may meet and fall in love with someone and accordingly make sacrifices for them.  Our time and our effort are focused on pleasing them with the goal of winning their love.  We may have vocational goals.  And so we practice and plan and study and make decisions in favor of the pursuit of that goal that take us away from other avenues that might have led to pleasure or gain.

We may have such goals and we may work toward them and yet so often we find that our sacrifices are not accepted.  We are not blessed.  The person we fell in love with and made sacrifices for rejects us.  The medical school that we sacrificed our youth to get into rejects our application.

And when these things happen it is more common than not that we really don’t know why we have been rejected.  At least it is not obvious at first.  If the reason for our rejection had been obvious, then we would have made a different kind of sacrifice.  The common experience is that we’ve laid what we thought was our best on the line and it has simply not been enough.  The blessing we so desired is denied us.  Our sacrifice was rejected and we, like Cain in the story, are not told why.

That makes the Cain and Abel story seem true to life and something that we moderns can relate to, but what is the moral?  So Cain is rejected – no reason given – and we are often rejected in the same way.  Interesting.  But what instruction or insight for living does the story give us?

I think it is this: faith is patience in the very face of what appears to be unfair and unexplained frustration and disappointment. Faith is that which does not rebel or give up when rejected but instead waits in the humility that says that maybe I don’t know everything I thought I knew.  Maybe there is something else; something more.

This is extremely difficult, particularly when your brother’s sacrifice – which did not seem all that different from your own – was accepted.  He gets the girl.  He gets into med school.  And here you are with nowhere to go and no one to run to.  But accepting such a judgement – such a verdict – and continuing to listen and to wait and to work, that is faith.

Recap of Yesterday’s Lesson

 

 

Old Testament Lesson:  Psalm 16: 4

Gospel Lesson: Mark 4: 24

Epistle: Galatians 5: 19-23

 

What is the most famous line from the movie “When Harry Met Sally?”

 

 

 

 

When we ended last week we were talking about the Peterson brothers, Eugene and Jordan.  Actually, they are not brothers.  Jordan Peterson is a professor at the University of Toronto and a clinical psychologist.  Eugene Peterson is a Presbyterian pastor and a theologian.  They do have this in common:  both of them are well known for what they have written.

Jordan Peterson has published two books, the most recent of which was released only weeks ago and is now one of the top selling books in the country.  That book is called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.  Eugene Peterson has been around much longer.  He is over eighty years old and has spent his life pastoring various churches around the country.   He has written a score of books, including the interpretation of the Book of Revelation that we studied here years ago, Reversed Thunder.  But Eugene Peterson is best known for his translation of the Bible.  It’s called The Message, and it has been around for more than a decade now and we’re referred to it, time and again, in this class.

The first chapter in Jordan Peterson’s book is about lobsters.  He tells us that extensive research has taught us that lobsters are territorial animals.  Like so many other animals, they fight for the best real estate; the best niches for their safety and well-being.  Not much news there, but what is interesting is what happens to the lobsters – inside the lobsters’ brains – after they tussle over the best rock to hide under.

Winning the fight gives the dominant lobster a real shot in the arm, so to speak.  When he wins, his body releases a chemical called serotonin and that makes the world a rosy place for him.  His posture and stature changes.  He stands straight with his shoulders back, like – as Jordan Peterson puts it – “Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western.”  He is more likely to win his next fight and – no surprise here – he becomes more attractive to female lobsters.

“Them that got shall get, them that’s not shall lose.  So the Bible says, and it still is news. . .”

 

It’s all downhill for the losing lobster.  In fact, after losing a fight his brain disintegrates.  He grows a new brain – the brain of a subordinate, a subservient.  He rarely, if ever, wins another fight, even against a weaker opponent.  He’s banished into shallows and miseries.

Why is this business in the world of crustaceans of any more than novelty to us?  Why does it matter?  How can it be relevant in a book that tells us how to live?

Well, anybody who has ever won or lost a fight will not find this next proposition surprising: what happens to lobsters also happens to human beings.  With humans, we are not necessarily or usually talking about physical altercations, but we are talking about the overall competition of life.   Jordan Peterson tells us that there is a sort of calculator at the base of our brains, so deep below consciousness that we are not aware of it, which measures our social rank; where we fit in the world around us.

Our calculators measure social position by making note of how we are treated by others.

If our calculator finds that we are treated poorly, it adjusts the chemical flow to the brain to increase our alertness.  After all, life at the bottom of the scale is dangerous.  This hyper-alertness has another name: stress.  And it does all the things we’re heard about before.  It depletes the energies that might have been used more productively if life were a little more secure.  Life is not much fun, so, as Jordan Peterson puts it, low-serotonin people will:

Jump . . . at any short-term mating opportunities, or any possibilities of pleasure, no matter how sub-par, disgraceful or illegal . . .

And now, back to cousin Eugene and his translation of Paul.  This is from the fifth chapter of Galatians:

19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.

 

 

On the Other Hand

 

If we rank highly, our calculator permits the release of serotonin – the same stuff that the lobsters release – and, accordingly, our world becomes a rosier place.   According to Jordan Peterson, your brain is assured that:

Your niche is secure, productive and safe, and that you are well-buttressed with social support.  It thinks the chance that something will damage you is low and can safely be discounted.  Change might be opportunity instead of disaster.

Therefore:

You don’t need to grasp impulsively at whatever crumbs come your way, because you can realistically expect good things to remain available.  You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever.  You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen.

How about them apples?  Now let’s look at what the Apostle Paul – as translated by cousin Eugene – has to tell the churches in Galatia about the life in Christ:

what happens when we live God’s way?  He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity.  We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart . . we find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely . . .

I’ll have what she’s having . . .

The Mark of The Beast

Revelation 13:16-17

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

 

 

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, poetic works, prophetic works, histories and letters.  If we are to understand a biblical text; if we are to get the most out of it; we must come to it recognizing the kind of writing it is.  Thus, we don’t come to the Psalms expecting a lesson in physics.  The Psalms are songs and thus are often poetic and use metaphor to convey truth.  When we read in the Psalms that God “rides on the wings of the wind” we do not conclude that the wind actually has a set of wings.  Because we know we are reading poetry we recognize that the description is metaphorical and communicates the swiftness and majesty of God at work in the world.

Another type of writing we see in the Bible is so-called “apocalyptic” writing.   When you hear the word “apocalypse” these days, what is the first image that comes to mind?  I’m willing to bet that for most people, that first thought has to do with disaster of unimaginable proportion.   You know, like the ending of the first Ghostbusters movie:

Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.

Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?

Dr. Raymond Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.

Dr. Raymond Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!

 

 

In fact, even Merriam-Webster defines the word “apocalypse” as “a great disaster: a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.”

But – and you must have known I was going to say this – that is not the original meaning of the word.  The word “apocalypse” is Greek in origin and it literally means “uncovering.”   Thus, an apocalyptic writing, such as the biblical Book of Revelation, is one that aims to draw back the curtain on obvious and superficial appearances and expose the spiritual realities beneath it all.  Thus, the primary focus of such a work is on revealing the true nature of what is present or immediate, with far less emphasis on what may happen in the distant future.

While it cannot be denied that the Book of Revelation does speak of the end of history and the final consummation of God’s perfect kingdom, if we treat that as the sole focus of the book and lose sight of what the book had to say about the immediate circumstances the original audience of the book – the churches to which the book is expressly addressed –faced even as they read the letter, then we are far from doing justice to the work and far from receiving the insight and encouragement it may provide.

We must admit that there are mysteries about the Book of Revelation.  The precise meaning of many of the individual symbols used in the book has been lost over the centuries. But the point is not to speculate about the meaning of this or that detail, but instead to focus on the central and overarching message of the book.

One thing that is not mysterious about the book is the identity of its original audience.  In fact, we may fairly think of this book as a letter that is still in its postmarked, addressed envelope.  We have the advantage of knowing who wrote the letter, who it was written to and the approximate time that the letter was sent.

The book itself identifies the writer as the Apostle John and the intended recipients as the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  There can be little doubt that the book was written late in the first century A. D.  It may have been the last of the New Testament books to have been written.

What does that well-established information do for the contemporary reader?  I suggest that it does a lot.  For the first principle in interpreting and understanding the book is the principle of original intelligibility.  That is, we must begin our study of the book with the idea that it would have been intelligible – it would have had obvious meaning – to its first audience.

Many of the contemporary and popular interpretations  point to passages in the book as references to this, that or the other historical event, all of which occurred long after the churches to whom this Book was written were history themselves.    It is almost as if they assume that when the first-century churches received this letter from John that they could not have had any real idea about what the book was talking about.  You can imagine a bunch of first-century Christians in Philadelphia or Laodicea puzzling over the letter, saying to each other “Okay, we understand bits of this, but a great amount of it is totally impenetrable for us.  It must be aimed at generations hundreds of years in the future.”

I hope you see how silly this is.  This Book, by its very terms, is written directly to particular churches and if we are to begin to understand it at all, we must start by thinking about what John intended it to convey to them.

We’ve spent a good deal of time talking about that very thing in this class.  We’ve referred to the works of Eugene Peterson (Reversed Thunder) and Vernon Poythress (The Returning King) that approach the book in this way and offer compelling explanations about what many of the symbols in the book would have been immediately recognized as by those Christians in Asia Minor, to whom the book was addressed.

Two of those symbols – the “Land Beast” and the “Sea Beast” we recognized as – in reverse order – coercive government power and the apologists who supported that power.  In the first century, the coercive government power would have been Caesar, the Roman Emperor, who in that day demanded to be worshipped as a deity.  The Land Beast represented the magicians, false religionists and other sycophants who worked hand in hand with the government to project the image that the Emperor was in fact divine.

If we understand the book in this way, we can apply its meaning to every age, including our own.  For although the names and flags change over the generations, it is the recurrent impulse of leaders and governments to demand more than is legitimately theirs: to demand absolute allegiance from citizens and subjects.

 

 

Such a knuckling under to coercion is symbolized in the book as the taking on of the mark of the beast.

In this week’s passage we read that those who refused to bear the beast’s marking; in other words, those who refused to compromise their faith in God and their loyalty to him were forbidden to “buy or sell.”

If we understand the book in this way, we can see that the spiritual forces John describes play out in every generation.

During the twentieth century the great Sea Beast reared its head in the ideologies of Fascism and Communism.  Both movements demanded total control – the total commitment and subservience of the men and women under their jurisdiction

Whittaker Chambers, an American intellectual, fell under the spell of Communism early in the 20th century.  After more than a decade in active service to the Beast, he realized the error of his ways and his own need for God.  He thus deserted the Communist party and converted to Christianity.  He knew there would be repercussions.  He writes in his autobiographical book, Witness:

One form of attack the Communist Party invariably makes upon all ex-Communists, big or little.  It tries to make it impossible for them to live by preventing them from getting a job.  If they succeed in getting one, the party tries to make it impossible for them to keep it.  This is very easy [for them] to do.

There we have it.  Chambers removes from his forehead the mark of the beast – his membership in the Communist party and his total allegiance to the revolution – and the penalty the Beast tries to impose is to deny him the means of a living – the ability to buy and sell.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

I am writing while standing on my back deck in the middle of an electrical storm.

 

I’m cozy and dry under this roof and I hear the rain tattering on the slates above and the lawn below.  It’s not a violent storm, at least not right here, right now.  There is an occasional flash of distant lightning and then the accordant, low roll of thunder, coming near and then trailing off to the west.

I absolutely love these warm, summer rains.  This one is gentle enough for me to take in this way, only a few feet away from the rainfall itself, and I feel in the moment like I am somewhere far away in the mists of highland Scotland or on some outpost in the Brazilian rain-forest.  When the storm escalates and I see the leaves nodding and the grass soaking and the dimpling sheets of clear water rinsing street and walk and the stream out back rising in its flow I am reminded again that rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  I guess what most of us remember about rain in the Bible is the Great Flood, brought on, so the scripture tells, by forty days and nights of rain.

But there are other references.  Here is one of God’s promises to Israel, if they will keep His commandments:

[I] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil . . .

The rain, when it falls in buckets as it is doing now, reminds me of God’s abundance, His power and His ability and desire to bless us, over and above even our own imaginings.    There is one place in scripture where God tells the priests to “bring the tithe into the storehouse” and, in response, He will “open the very sluices of heaven and pour down on us a blessing so great” that (this last bit is from a Scottish paraphrase) “we can scarce receive it.”

It’s a great time to write.

Which, if you are a follower of this blog, you know I have not been doing very faithfully these last few days.  Sorry about that.  I really do appreciate my followers and make it something of a point to try to deliver something pretty regularly to keep up the interest in this blog.  Kind of lax there, lately.  But I do have an excuse:  I’ve been reading.  Filling the mind and soul with the thoughts and emotions of one great man.  Any writer must do this often.

If you’ve kept up here, you know that I’ve been on something of a Bob Dylan kick lately.  I am a lifelong fan of his and very much interested in his spiritual life and in the way he creates.  The two books I have just finished – Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life and Chronicles, Volume I – address both of those subjects in satisfying depth.

I won’t say much else about those two books in this post.  I’ve reviewed them pretty fully in my last few posts here.  I do recommend that you read them – particularly if you have any interest in Dylan’s life or work.

But today I want to talk about another book that is of another order entirely.  I recommend the Dylan books, but I beg you to read this one.  It is by any measure a masterpiece and there is a good argument to be made that it is the seminal book of the American twentieth century.

The book I’m reading is titled Witness, and it is written by a man named Whittaker Chambers.

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I had heard of the book years ago through the writers of some political and social commentators I used to read.  Their praise of the book was effusive.  These men, all of whom had made names for themselves as writers, all pointed to this book as “life changing.”  And now, only about a quarter of the way through the book, I know why this is no exaggeration.

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Whittaker Chambers was, during the 1930s, a Communist.

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He was active for years in an underground operation in Washington, D. C., working with several American citizens who held high positions in the Federal Government to steal and copy official documents and provide them to the Soviet Union in preparation for the war that, so they believed, would inevitably come.

In 1938, in response to what he learned of the so-called “Great Purge,”  Chambers lost faith in Communism and saw it as the great, enslaving, murderous evil that it is.   At that moment he decided to desert the party, even though he knew that such desertions usually ended in the deserter being killed.  He also then believed that the Communists would be successful in undermining the west and achieving world domination.  Upon his decision to desert, he told his wife: “You know, we’re going from the winning to the losing side here.”

His desertion was also a conversion to faith in God.  That is no mere coincidence, as he describes it, for he says that Communism is itself a faith.   It is a faith that says first of all that the world must be changed and, second, that humanity can accomplish that change without the aid of God, without reference to God.  Thus, any sort of tactic can be justified in pursuit of the ultimate goal of perfect justice.  One such tactic was Stalin’s Great Purge that resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Russians and eastern Europeans, many of whom were themselves active Communists but had been determined to not be loyal enough to Comrade Stalin.

One of the many strengths of this book is its description and definition of Communism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union over twenty-five years ago, the idea of Communism has become kind of a Seinfeld joke.  But it was no joke in the early and mid-20th century.  This book, written by a man who had seen the movement from both the inside and out, explains the phenomenon clearly.  He tells of its psychology and its attraction.

And its attraction, even here in the United States, was much greater and pervasive than I had ever imagined.  I thought of American Communists as a few, crazed radicals who, even taken all together, never posed much of a threat to our freedoms, our constitutional system of government, our individual rights.  I don’t believe that now.

Chambers, as an operative for the Soviet Union, worked hand in hand with Americans from well-to-do families who had been to our best colleges and who held lucrative and powerful positions in government for the express purpose of undermining that government and subordinating our democratic institutions to the control of party bosses.  This was business as usual, for years on end.

It is a scarier story than I knew; a closer call than I ever believed.  It is worthwhile to consider this structure, at one time gigantic, that had for its floor human arrogance and for its ceiling an accordant naivete.

 

I’ll have more to say as I make my way through the book.

What Are We Waiting For?

 

We talked this Sunday about what a big part of life waiting is.

 

We must wait for this and that, it’s inevitable and usually not enjoyable.  We wait, but we wait impatiently.  We also talked a bit about how central the idea of waiting is to our faith – the Christian faith.  We wait for the promised Second Coming, when all will be set to rights:  perfect justice, complete fulfillment, full adoption as sons of God, every tear wiped away.

Yep.  That’s what we are waiting for.  And we – the church – have been waiting for that for around 2000 years now.  But are we waiting for anything else?  Someone in class mentioned the idea that we’re waiting for death, so that we can enter heaven.  Well, yes.  I guess so.  Paul wrote that to him “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  But are we waiting for anything else?

 

Someone in class mentioned having inadvertently listened to a gospel-music radio program the other day and being impressed by how all the songs were about getting away to heaven.  You know, “this world is not my home” and all of that.  Undoubtedly, there is a sense in which that is true, but it seems to me that there is a possibility of an unchristian escapism here.  In many ways, this world is our home.  It’s where our living friends and relatives are and the place where all of those relationships unfold and flourish (or not).

Maybe when we say “the world” in the sense used here we don’t mean “the earth.”  Rather, we mean the mess that Satan and fallen humanity have made out of society and the conditions of the human race.  But the earth – this place where we, ahem, live, is a place of staggering beauty and wonder and we don’t honor God or really know His grace if we don’t appreciate the beauty of His creation.

 

Are those gospel songs the product of an unhealthy escapism?  Are they written maybe not so much by inspired saints as by those who have simply failed at their own duties to love, flourish, prosper, and to appreciate life here and now?  Are they written by those who may be jealous of the success and happiness of others – who may have flourished – and want to sing about the day when they will “get even?”

What are we waiting for?  The Second Coming?  Well, yes.  Heaven?  Well, yes.  But look at these verses from Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message) of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?”

Romans 8:  15

And:

3-5 There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Romans 5: 3-5

 

I don’t know about you, but I can’t read these verses – at least this translation of them – without concluding that we are right to wait expectantly not only for the Second Coming and not only for death, but for life, here and now, as God unfolds it before our eyes.  If that is the case, it occurs to me to ask of myself: am I waiting in the right way?  Am I waiting for the right things?  Do I even see God’s grace as it unfolds?  Do I thus frustrate His plans?  And fail to appreciate Him and this life He has given me?

Am I living in black and white when God has offered me life in color?