About Last Sunday . . .

 

 

As so often happens, the best parts of last week’s class were the questions raised.

 

There were several good ones, but the two that stick with me most were raised by Terry and Don.  Let’s take Terry first, for his question is a little more definite.  Although this isn’t a perfect, word-for-word quote of the question, I think it is fair to say that in essence Terry asked whether there is evidence in the Book of Ruth that our protagonist, Ruth herself, had converted to Israel’s God – Yaweh.

That is an important question – the ultimate question, actually – in any circumstance and it is particularly important here – to our consideration of this little Book.  For we are concerned with Ruth’s motives and with the results of her decisions.  We won’t really understand the Book unless we understand what moved Ruth to act as she did and unless we understand the reason for her great good fortune.

So the question – and we’ll be discussing this next Sunday – is what, if any, evidence is there in the text that Ruth had – or had not – converted to Israel’s God before she left Moab?

The second question is broader and not so well defined, but is of ultimate importance for our study.  It was something like this:  “What about the God part of this story?”

Well, yes.  What about that.  I am reminded of our Lord Jesus Christ’s admonition to a group of Pharisees who were (as was their bent) trying to trip Jesus up on the scriptures.  Jesus – as was His bent – stops them dead in their arrogant tracks with this statement:  “You study the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, and they are they that testify of me.”   Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Jesus’ admonition this way:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!

John 5: 39

And our Lord’s words here are certainly words to us as we take up the study of this beautiful little Book of Ruth.  It is a poignant and romantic story, full of heroic and heart-rending acts.  So much so that we might be tempted to take our eye off of the ball here and consider the story only for its human content.  If so, then we might as well be in the public library and not the church.  We read the scriptures because they testify of Jesus Christ and the life we are offered in Him.

Given that, the next, obvious question becomes this: “Where do we find Jesus Christ in this story?”  The short and glib answer would be this:   At the very back of the book where he is mentioned by name as a direct descendant of Ruth and Boaz.  That’s correct of course and also very important; but let’s consider the whole book.  Where do we see Jesus Christ in the story as it unfolds?

Where do we see His character?  And what part of His character do we see?  What in this story is Christlike?   What do we see of His grace?

Meditation on Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a poem about the heart.

 

Authorship is attributed to David, and David was a warrior and we can imagine the struggles that this psalm speaks of as being quite literal.  That is, when David speaks of his enemies, he means literal, flesh-and-blood enemies – guys who are wearing the other uniform and who are really out to kill him.

 

For most of you reading this blog –and certainly for the writer of this blog –  the enemy is not so solid and well defined.  In this leveled and paved and air- conditioned world that you and I inhabit, we may even think that the idea that we have enemies who are out to get us and who have “made us to dwell in darkness” to be a bit over dramatic, a bit exaggerated, maybe even ridiculous.

But if we give any attention to the New Testament, we must admit that we do have enemies and that they very much do want to “smite” our lives “down to the ground,” and to “make us dwell in darkness.”  Again, listen to what St. Paul says to the church in Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.   Ephesians 6: 12

Likewise, the expression of desire in this psalm should not be strange to us.  David is sure of  the object of his desire.  That object is God: “my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land.”   We may not be so sure of the object of our desire, but if we are honest with ourselves and if we have not hidden it beneath some wall of self-deception, we must admit that we want and want very badly something that nothing in this world can satisfy.

That is why this psalm continues to resonate with men and women even in this modern age.  Even among those of us who are privileged to live in secure democracies and in peaceful neighborhoods where we are not threatened physically; even those of us who have every convenience and entertainment.   Even we desire; even we hunger and thirst, like a thirsty land.  Here is C. S. Lewis:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

 

When David writes that “my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate” we should have little trouble relating to him.  We should know.  If we have attempted anything at all – a career, a marriage, the raising of children – we know that we are opposed and powerfully so.  We know that we can be defeated; we can be crushed; we can be depressed.  We know that our desires always outstrip the satisfactions that this earthly life affords.

And so, this psalm is our psalm, and we pray with David, the warrior:

Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
For in You do I trust;
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
For I lift up my soul to You.

Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
In You I take shelter

Meditation on Psalm 140

Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers;
    protect me from the violent,
who devise evil plans in their hearts
    and stir up war every day.
They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;
    the poison of vipers is on their lips.[b]
Keep me safe, Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
    protect me from the violent,
    who devise ways to trip my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a snare for me;
    they have spread out the cords of their net
    and have set traps for me along my path.

 

 

This psalm, like many others, is the prayer of a warrior.

There is not a general agreement that David actually wrote this one, but it is attributed to him in the heading and its theme and expression are quite consistent with what we know of David from our study of the Old Testament.  Here the writer finds himself compassed about by enemies – violent and evil men who are determined to undo him.  The psalmist spends some ink describing what low-down creatures his enemies are and then cries to God for deliverance, asking that his enemies be drastically and violently punished.

How is it that people – people like me – have continued to find value and inspiration in this poem when most of us are not warriors?  Most of us are not military men – soldiers on an active battlefield.  Most of us don’t have evil men plotting to take our lives.  How is this poem anything to us?

Because, soldier or not, military career or not, active battlefield or not, all of us are at war.  Well, maybe not all of us are at war.  Some of us may be so oblivious to it that we can’t really be seen as participants.  But there is a war raging that affects us all.  If we give any credence to the New Testament, then we know that there is a spiritual battle being fought right here and in our time between good and evil.  The Bible tells us that the players in this conflict are not mere mortals:

Ephesians 6:12  English Standard Version

12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

I’ve spent some time lately here on this blog taking about these “rulers, authorities and cosmic powers” that Paul refers to more than once. (see Colossians 2:8 and Galatians 4:9)  These passages have always intrigued me because they seemed to point to beings or forces that are not directly identified elsewhere in the scriptures.  Kind of spooky in a Stephen King sort of way.  I have never seen any Christian writer say much about them until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book, Playing God.  He suggests that they are

“shadowy [and supernatural] powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world”   They “are at the root of . . . cultural patterns . . . that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.”

All of that is pretty dramatic.  I don’t doubt it for a minute, but I wrote this post for the purpose of suggesting that most of us normal, non-super-hero type people do have some experience with this kind of thing.  How many times have we, perhaps after years of frustrated effort, said something like “There is just something in that [here insert personal preference: school, town, country, company] that will not let me loose, or that will not let me succeed.”

I wonder if this complaint is truer that we even suspect!   And if it is, how necessary for you and I to recognize what we are up against and to align ourselves with Christ, before whom such powers tremble and flee.

God As Initiator

Oh Lord, thou hast searched me and known me . . .

Psalm 139: 1

I’ve been posting lately about self-deception, how it obstructs our relationship with God, our knowledge of God.  And I have emphasized how deep and involved these deceptions often are and I have at last said that our way out of these prisons we make for ourselves does not lie in ourselves.  That is to say, once we make our own trap, we can’t get out of it by ourselves.

Then this morning, in my devotional reading, I ran across this old poem that says the same thing.  The poet, Francis Thompson, says it much better than I have.  But, it is comforting to me to see the same theme expressed by a great writer.  Makes me more confident that what I am saying is true.  Here is the quote from the poem “The Hound of Heaven:”

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him down the arches of the years;

I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears

I hid from Him

Deception and Enslavement

In my early years I hid my tears

And passed my days alone
Adrift on an ocean of loneliness
My dreams like nets were thrown
To catch the love that I’d heard of
In books and films and songs
Now there’s a world of illusion and fantasy
In the place where the real world belongs

Jackson Browne, “Farther On”

 

Colossians 2:8

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

I’ve been writing for the past few posts about self-deception.  It’s a worthy subject and inexhaustible.  The dimensions and depths of the lies we tell ourselves and about ourselves have no limits.

My college roommate was, and remains, a great friend of mine.  He was and is a practical guy – smart, able, willing to help – and his career as an orthodontist has been a big success.  I gained a lot by being around him those four crazy years.  But he was no philosopher.  He did not deal in speculation or pontificate about the great existential questions.  I guess that’s why this little bit about him has stuck with me for so long.  It was, in a way, out of character for him, but it was one of the most perceptive, trenchant, and perfectly-stated observations I have ever witnessed.

He was arguing with his girlfriend.  This was not a rare thing.  She was a prim, sort of business-school type, who felt she had all things coming to her and rather kept book on my roommate to remind him, as often as necessary, that he was never really quite measuring up.  She was from Pennsylvania and had condescended to attend college in West Virginia, my own – and my roommate’s – home State.

People from Pennsylvania talk differently from people from West Virginia.  They say “you’uns,” we say “ya’ll.”  That kind of thing.    They call that NFL team in Pittsburgh the “Stillers.”

But on this occasion she was complaining to my roommate about his “hillbilly accent.”

“Well, you’ve got an accent, too.”  He replied.

“No, I don’t.  You’re the one with the accent.”

At this moment – this golden moment, in my book – my wise roommate said, without fanfare or ado:

“You’ve got it so bad that you don’t even know you’ve got it. . .”

And that is just it!   With regard to self-deception generally – we’ve got it so bad that we don’t know we’ve got it.  So, it is a very hard trap to get out of, even though we designed it ourselves.

But today I want to write a bit about how the deceptions that imprison us and keep us from being honest to God and thus enjoying a fuller communion with Him are fed and watered by the “powers and principalities” of this world.  If you’ve spent much time in the Bible, you’ll recognize that term.  If you haven’t, it will be a mystery to you.  In my case, both things were true, at least until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book Playing GodYou see, I had read that phrase about the “powers and principalities” time and again and was in that sense familiar with it, but had no real understanding of what it meant.  I guess I thought it was a reference to Satan and his minions.  That is true, I still believe, but look at what Andy Crouch has to say:

The first-century Mediterranean world did not know about zombies, but it did know about shadowy powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world.  The Greeks called them the stoicheia, a word that in our English Bibles is translated “elements” or “elementary principles.”  A handful of times in Paul’s letters we find references to them, as when Paul refers to “the stoicheia of the kosmos” (Colossians 2:8) that once kept his Colossian readers bound in ignorance.

**

In the early Christian’s view, then, there are powerful patterns of life, with more than merely earthly reality, that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.

That helps me.  And what I see in our modern world, for one thing, at least, is the spirit or powers that lurk behind advertising.

I am thinking in particular about the ads I see on television for pickup trucks.  They are all about image – all about cachet.  If you buy this $50,000 truck, you’ll be one of the boys.  You’ll be a tough guy.  A guy who can handle a shovel and a square and who can knock back a few with the boys when the ten-hour shift is over.

 

This is naked exploitation and the people who are doing it have to be aware of that.   I really wonder how many of these trucks are sold to guys who don’t make $50,000 a year, who don’t have construction jobs, who don’t know how to use a square, who don’t know the difference between a joist and a stud, and who couldn’t do a pull-up if their lives depended on it.  I really wonder how many of these $50,000 vehicles are never put into 4-wheel drive.  I really wonder how many of them have clean, unused beds three or four years after purchase.

And yet.  And yet.  These guys buy the big red truck and that’s what they spend their lives paying for.  As Tyler Durden put it in Fight Club:

“working jobs we hate so we can buy [stuff] we don’t need.”

This is deception.  And it is deception that exploits and enslaves.  Is it not the product of some elemental spirit.

Getting Ready for Love

 

Philippians 2: 12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

This is my same old coat
And my same old shoes
I was the same old me
With the same old blues
Then you touched my life
Just by holding my hand
Now I look in the mirror
And see a brand new girl
I got a brand new walk
A brand new smile
Since I met you baby
I got a brand new style
“Brand New Me” by Kenneth Gamble, Theresa Bell, and Jerry Butler

 

 

When I thought more about my last post – the whole business about our relationship with God depending on our own honesty, our willingness to recognize and let go of the delusions that we’ve created to protect our own egos – I thought maybe I had made things appear like “Okay, you’re saved, but I’m not having any more to do with you until you get it all cleaned up here.  No more light and no more word from Me until you get your act together.”  I didn’t really say that in the post, but, nonetheless, today I want to actively disabuse any reader of any such notion.

The honesty on our part that is essential to a growing relationship with God is not some bar that God wants to see us jump over before He rewards us with His presence.  Rather, our dishonesty – our false face – is at bottom a withholding of our true self.  This, of course, is a profound impediment to any real relationship.  But even here, God initiates, provides and empowers.  This taking off the mask and the drawing out of our true, vulnerable self is also the work of God.  He will not override our personality and our coming clean involves the exercise of our own will, but God provides the means and the energy.

As I thought this over, I remembered a passage in Rod Dreher’s wonderful book How Dante Can Save Your Life.   What I remembered, unaided by a review of the book or my notes from the book, was his recounting of his years of living according to the sexual morays of the modern, secular world.  In other words, of his being promiscuous.

When he began his relationship with God, he started to understand that what he’d been doing was wrong and he embraced – though not perfectly, at first – the discipline of chastity.  It’s a beautiful story, all in all, and he tells how this resolution – this effort – wrought changes in his life and outlook that prepared him to meet and then wed the love of his life.  His “coming clean” prepared him for a relationship – made entering in to that rewarding and fulfilling relationship possible for him.

Yep.  I was going to talk about all of that.  But when I went back to Rod’s book, and particularly to my kindle notes and highlights, I was a bit overwhelmed.  It’s not that there is something here or there in the book about opening ourselves to God.  The whole book is about that very thing.  I said earlier, quoting Donald Miller, that everyone has a story to tell and it’s not the one they’re telling.  But in Rod Dreher’s case – in this book at any rate – he’s coming very close, I think, to telling his true story.  Close enough to make the book a captivating and worthwhile read.

More Thoughts on Christian Patience

I left off the last post this morning with a note toward balance.

It was kind of an afterthought.  The post was about patience and waiting and I ended with just a bit about what that waiting should be like.  Maybe I should have said a little more about that.

While we, as Christians in this age after the resurrection but before the Second Coming, live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”  That’s old news to any of you readers who have spent much time in church.  It’s kind of a cliché in our circles, I guess.

But I thought more about what I wrote this morning as I pedaled up and down the hills and hollows here in my home State of West Virginia on my daily bike ride.  I do almost 17 miles on a “short day,” and that’s what I did today.  This exercise in the open air – and today in the sunlight – always seems to get the mind stirring.

And as it stirred this morning, and as I thought again and again about this morning’s post, some language from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the New Testament (The Message) popped into my head.  It relates to the concept of waiting, which I wrote about this morning.  But, like so much of Peterson’s translations, it gives us just a little more emphasis here and there.  I love Peterson’s translations of the Epistles, particularly Galatians and Romans.  He has said that his aim in translating was to give the reader not a literal, word for word translation, but a translation that would be faithful to the look and feel of the original writing.  That is, this writing would sound to us modern readers – have the same “ring” as – the original Greek would have had to the early churches.

Peterson translates a couple of passages in Romans that deal directly with the kind of “waiting in tension” that I wrote about this morning.  Look at this:

Romans 5:3-5

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!

 

Look at that!  Patience, yes, but passionate patience that includes great expectancy;  that expects surprise and fulfillment.

Here is one more bit, this one around Romans 8: 23-24 or so:

These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

 

Don’t you think these passages help to understand the nature of the Christian’s waiting?  It’s not a dull, grinding thing that is too timid to hope for much.  Rather, it is “alert expectancy,” “joyful expectancy.”