EARTH-LIVING AND BEYOND

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I have a funeral to attend. I have to face the inescapable; the naked truth of the human condition cannot be ignored when a funeral interrupts the routines of life. Ever been there? Ever had to face the fact that the organic nature of earth-living always involves earth-dying?

Strange question to ask, isn’t it? We all know, intellectually, that death is a fact of life, but when a loved one dies the truth plunges eighteen inches from head to pierce heart. What do we do about it? Mourn? Yes. Grieve? Of course. Anything else?

The Psalmist has a few thoughts to express on death that are worth considering: “The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow”(Psalm 116). Yes, it sounds like the Psalmist knew the angst of the human condition too.

He didn’t stop there, though, as too many of us do. He didn’t shove the heart-rending truth of life’s great tragedies out of heart and into the recesses of mind. He did something that is still available to us two millennia later: He prayed.

“I called on the name of the LORD: ‘O LORD, save me!’” he recalls. Very simple. Calling on the name of the LORD does something deeper than organic to us who are in the throes of this problem of death. It moves the difficulty into the realm of the soul, where the core of our being, our will, is involved. To pray is to connect with our Maker on the soul level. To pray right is to turn our will in alignment with the great Will of God.

The Psalmist describes himself in this condition as simplehearted, observing, “The LORD protects the simplehearted; when I was in great need, he saved me.” This is not to say that the organic drift of earth-living toward earth-dying is thwarted; that can never be. But something of greater importance can happen at the soul level. Listen to what he says.

“Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you. For you, O LORD, have delivered my soul from death…” The Psalmist has revealed something like balm for our weary eyes and salve for our aching hearts. He has shown us the plan of God for all humanity, the gist of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation in those few words: earth-dying is not an end.

Someone once described it in terms of an infant being forced to leave the comfort of the womb where all she knows seems to be coming to a traumatic end. The merciless contractions of the walls of her existence force her through a dark tunnel of unmatched confusion. She feels the cords of death entangling her and the anguish of the grave is upon her. Then suddenly, light appears. Light and sound, breath and smell surround her. Warm hands clasp her and place her against the skin of one she will later call Mother. She drinks her first draft of warm sweet Mother’s-milk and rests. The old life is over; the new one is incredibly bigger.

I think when the Psalmist goes on to say “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” he is saying the word ‘death’ tongue in cheek. He has learned that turning the soul’s will toward God, accepting the humiliation of needing God’s saving work, is a new kind of life, and is incredibly meaningful to the Father of our souls. He awaits our arrival in the vast environment of eternity like an earthly mother does her infant at childbirth.

So the funerals will continue to happen. Earth-dying will be the end of every earth-life. But for those who choose to admit their soul needs a Savior, God’s plan through His Son Jesus is a birthing. It’s a choice we each make. Pull out a Bible and see if it’s not true. There’s an amazing birth waiting on the other side of death.

(Photo Credit: Gobonobo, Wikimedia Commons)

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DEFENDERS, RESCUERS, DELIVERERS

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Picture God—in all His magnificence and might—in a group huddle, preparing to give his team the play, the mental blueprint every player needs to know. They wait expectantly, envisioning the glory, the acclaim and renown of playing for God on team ‘gods’.

Then they hear a great roar, the mighty waterfall-like voice of God saying, “Go now! Use my wisdom and great insight to bring justice to all people. The nations are my inheritance. The weak, the fatherless, the poor and oppressed must be given hope. I am God; you are gods. Use my wisdom, power and love to raise up those who have been treated unfairly.” The players blink in surprise.

“You mean,” they ask, “it’s not just about us? It’s not exclusive? We’re not the whole team?”

No, it’s not just about us, the inner circle of players. It’s not even a game. Those of us who have heard God saying those words to us are gradually coming to see it as more of a race than a game. We have a task and time is running out. We have each been given a finite opportunity here on planet earth to do His bidding on behalf of the downtrodden, to be salt and light, bring hope and love, insist on justice for the oppressed. This is not a game where those who have been brought onto the team can just bask in the glory. We can’t look blankly toward the stands at those who are left out of the game and see only a sea of shapes. We have not been given freedom to ornament and embellish our own jerseys for the glory of the team. Jesus calls us to give our jersey to others, to the weak and disheartened, the lost and the lonely. And like the fish and bread served to five thousand our back will never be short of jerseys to share.

Asaph, psalmist of two millennia ago, describes a similar picture of playmaking in Psalm 82. Here’s the dialogue:

Psalmist narrates: “God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”.

God to team: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. They know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.

Psalmist to God: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.”

It’s a rather sharp correction God gives to us, isn’t it? God’s team is not an exclusive Old Boys’ Club. Living in insular security our wealthy and programme-oriented lives is not the play God has called. Players on this team must move off the artificial turf, the falsely smoothed ice, the perfect court of what we have considered our playing field and get into the stands.

Our Defender calls us to defend the weak; our Rescuer’s desire is that we rescue the needy; our Deliverer’s power is for delivering the oppressed. As sons and daughters of the Most High we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of padding our own coffers while there are yet some in this world who could benefit spiritually, emotionally, physically and financially from what we can offer.

How did Jesus live given the context He was born into? How did He practice justice? The record of history tells us His feet stepped out to find the needy. His hands touched the untouchables in healing comfort. His voice spoke words of truth and hope and challenge.

Are we rising to the challenge Asaph records in the Psalm? Are we imitators of Jesus? We have a high calling—let’s answer it.

(Photo Credit: BillyBatty, Wikimedia Commons)

THE CORNERSTONE OF JUSTICE

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Two hundred schoolgirls kidnapped. How does that happen in this day and age of human rights and technology and unprecedented wealth?

We can pardon our ignorance for forgetting that those nouns describe us in the West. We have been busily caught up in the drive to preserve our animals’ freedoms, ensure drug addicts can continue their self-destruction in a safe manner, keep silent while thousands of unborn fetal hearts are forced to stop beating, provide venues for sports fanatics to riot when their drug-enhanced teams fail to produce results, and other very Western excesses. Our insular mindset has prevented us from remembering that not everyone on this green and blue planet has access to basic human rights we take for granted. Put that way, perhaps we can even pardon the kidnapping Boko Haram militants in Nigeria for their dis-ease with anything Western. If we are willing to pardon our own disoriented mindset oughtn’t we also be willing to pardon theirs? It’s a problem, isn’t it?

Listen to this: “See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.” That is Isaiah, God’s mouthpiece of twenty-eight centuries ago. He goes on: “Justice will dwell in the desert and righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isa. 32:1,2,16,17)

We desperately need justice, don’t we? But we cannot have justice without something Isaiah calls righteousness. That’s a blatantly religious word we’d rather not entertain, isn’t it? But it is integral to the discussion on justice. It’s something the leaders of the Boko Haram and we have failed to consider in our thoughts on justice. We can include the Boko Haram, because they, like we, want a sort of justice. They want what they see as their rights realized, and they’re willing to put lives on the line to get it. Unfortunately for more than two hundred girls it’s their lives that are being risked.

We desperately hope it will all turn out right. We want those girls safely returned to their homes, their families, their schooling and their plans for a happy future.

But something much deeper is going on here, something integral to each of our lives. Did you notice how Isaiah begins his comments? He calls us to see, “A king will reign in righteousness”. He’s not talking about Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, American President Barak Obama, or Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. There is only one king that could ever reign in righteousness: Jesus Christ. He is the cornerstone, core, heart, thrust, and essence of justice. His work of righteousness on earth, culminating in His death, burial and resurrection has given us on this planet-gone-wild the one hope we need to get back on the right side of justice. It has invited us to be partakers in something far bigger than we could manage on our own. It has made us, in the very core of our souls, right with God. The name ‘Christian’ is the external label reserved for those who have willingly accepted a new identity in Jesus, Lord of their lives. It is from that internal transformation that Christ propels His followers to get involved in justice with renewed vigour. Injustices around the world will prevail until we allow the righteousness of Jesus to transform our hearts and wills from within.

Isaiah observes the constructs of civilization becoming a moral wasteland, “till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest.”

Are we ready to allow the Spirit of God to be poured out upon us, to embrace the resulting changes He will do in our hearts and minds? Will we release the desert of disinterest in justice to a springtime of fertile action? The forest of lush harvest that follows when we, each and every one of us, make justice our cause is a promise of God.

Pray with me, “God reign your righteousness in me, that I may step up to the call of justice in this world.”

(Photo Credit: hdptcar, Wikimedia Commons)

POP-UP PROBLEM

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The pop-up notification has been annoying. You know what I mean: in the middle any task it interrupts our train of thought and our view of the screen with its bold message. Finally, after several days of ignoring it and clearing it from view I decided to respond. Something struck me that I may have a real problem here. The icon on my screen showing a stethoscope poised over a hard drive indicates an error needing diagnostic help. If I follow the prompts and instructions the prognosis is significantly better than if I ignore the problem. I have found out my backup hard drive needs to spend some time in a recovery programme—I am assured there are only a few minutes remaining until that is complete.

Little did Isaiah know twenty-eight centuries ago that something he would write would have a counterpart illustration in my world today—maybe in your world too. He says the mind, the hard drive of every person, has a problem that needs repair. Listen to a few of his phrases:

“For the fool speaks folly, his mind is busy with evil: He practices ungodliness and spreads error concerning the LORD; the hungry he leaves empty and from the thirsty he withholds water.” (Isaiah 32:6)

That describes all of us at times, doesn’t it? We none of us are as consistently good as we long to be. We find ourselves caring less for others than is good for them, and more for our own selfish wants than is good for us.

Isaiah goes on to say, “But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands.” Now that’s a high standard. That’s like the perfect condition my computer should be in, but desperately needs some diagnostics and recovery before it can achieve. What does our recovery require?

“The fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure”, explains the ancient writer in the next chapter.

Yes, that’s what we need. The LORD is the source of true and good character leading to noble plans and deeds. Fearing Him is the only route to avoiding the hacking destruction of our own characters, to recovery from our temptation and tendency to speak folly, practice ungodliness, spread error, leave the hungry empty and withhold water from the thirsty.

“God, we want our lives to count. Our deepest core yearns to be productive and effective, to live noble lives. Help us, Father, to take note of your soul-warning words that alert us to error, to apply the key of fearing You to our lives that desperately need you. Help us submit to the sometimes difficult process of becoming noble, as You, Jesus, designed us to be.”

(Photo Credit: Richard Wheeler, Wikimedia Commons)

JUSTICE: IDEA OR ACTION?

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Fifty-one years ago, a man sat incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama’s city jail, in the name of justice. Restricted from the activities that had brought him there, the man wrote a long letter, explaining, “What else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”

That man was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the letter he wrote is known as “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”. The reason for his incarceration was the active nonviolent protest he and others were leading to end the injustices of racial prejudice. Where legal agency had viewed justice as being put into effect by jailing King, and where a group of prominent Alabama clergymen had denounced King’s actions, King’s letter challenged that idea of justice in a stunning public reply[1]. It’s worth reading.

His comments quite beautifully parallel the words penned by the Jewish Prophet Micah, twenty-eight centuries earlier, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah, too, has learned that justice is not merely an idea. It is not a word to be carved into beautiful and stately edifices at city hall and left there. It must be prayed for and acted upon. It must be the fuel that fires every person’s spiritual and social role if we say we love God and value justice. Listen to some of the phrases King pens:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Groups are more immoral than individuals.”

“Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

“An unjust law is no law at all.”

“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”

“There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.”

“The time is always ripe to do right.”

“Right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

He has many more eloquent and inspiring comments with which he describes justice. But he writes with more than just words. He has put action to those ideas and he calls others to do the same. I am convinced he spent many hours on his knees beseeching the Father for wisdom in that situation; complementing that, he devoted his time and energies, sacrificing his own liberty, to bring justice to a segment of society that was under oppression.

In King’s day, the bulk of the population held a passive stance regarding racial prejudice. The church reflected a similar acquiescence to the laws that oppressed a people distinguished and repressed by skin colour alone. It might be time to ask a searching question. What areas of injustice does our generation sit idly by and accept with equal apathy and passivity? Will our children and grandchildren look back at this era in disbelief that we, people of such affluence, influence and resources, blindly ignored and failed to act on behalf of a people similarly oppressed?

Perhaps it’s time to move from justice’s idea-forming stage and, through focused prayer, seek direction to begin to act justly. Perhaps there exists a group of individuals today that is denied legal personhood, like in King’s day. Perhaps they have been refused access to any of the tenets of the Charter of Rights. Might there be some who have been systematically oppressed, brutally destroyed, and carelessly disposed of? Surely not in our enlightened society…

 

[1] King, Dr. M. L. King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”, 1963.