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Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Terrible Good

In Charles Williams’ novel Descent into Hell, one of the characters describes something as being “terribly good”. A discussion ensues about whether or not something terrible can be good. This leads to the question as to whether it is possible to describe something as being a “terrible good”. Another of the characters, who has paralyzing phobic fears, questions whether her fears could ever be considered good. The answer given to her is an assertive “Yes, surely”.

We can easily wonder the same thing. How can anything that is terrible be considered to be good? Yet as we go through life, we often find that many of the little things that happen to us, which in the heat of the moment we consider to be terrible, have actually helped us to grow. The failing grade we received in a class spurred us on to better grades. The difficulties we go through in our lives build character. The trials we experience make us stronger persons. We may find that we are better persons because of living through these experiences. Yet at the point we were going through them we thought them terrible. If at all possible, we would have avoided them. But perhaps these are examples of something that we might call a “terrible good.” Though at the time we thought them terrible, in the long run they actually had a beneficial effect upon our lives

The celebrated Olympic speed skater, Apollo Ohno, said that the most devastating point in his life was when he, the number one speed skater at the time, failed to make the team for the 1998 Nagano games. Speaking of this excruciating experience he recently said in a news conference “It was a devastating moment for me … but looking back it was the single greatest thing that ever happened to me… It fuelled me to become a better athlete. I look back on those hard times … that was one of the biggest turning points in my career. I haven’t looked back since.” For him, this experience has proved to be a terrible good. The success which he has experienced in the Vancouver games comes from the blackness of the terrible despair he felt twelve years earlier.

There are also those things that are so hideous and barbaric and cruel that no sane person could ever call them good? What of them? The 911 attack and the Nazi atrocities come to mind. Yet it was through having to deal with hatred learned in the death camps that Corrie Ten Boom was able to even love the former camp guards and gain an understanding of what it means to love one’s enemies. But there is in the annals of ancient history one account that is so hideous, barbaric and inhuman that it practically defies description. An innocent person, condemned to death on a trumped up charge, is bruised and beaten to a pulp, barely alive. His bruised and swollen face is practically unrecognizable, even to his close friends. The loss of blood from the wounds inflicted upon him is excessive. His suffering is intense. He is tortured repeatedly and dies by experiencing a slow, excruciating, painful death at the hand of his executioners. There is absolutely nothing that could be considered humane about the treatment to which he is exposed. Anyone even reading the account of his death can’t help but be repulsed. It is utterly hideous and horrible. How can anything so terrible be considered good?

We all have experienced this terrible good. It is called Good Friday!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Is it I?

The story of the Passover has been carried forward through several millennia down to our present time. Each time the story is remembered, there is a part that makes it personal. The litany states that not only did God rescue the Israelites who where enslaved in Egypt, but also he has rescued us who are alive today. There is an identification of the present with the past. In a sense, each time the Passover ceremony is reenacted, the celebrants are transported back in time to the original event of the first Passover where God sent the Angel of Death to destroy the firstborn of the Egyptians while passing over the homes of the faithful Israelites. They identify in smearing the blood on the doorposts and eating the lamb. In this way, the reenactment is personalized to each generation.

The same can be said when we celebrate the Eucharist. In the Eucharist there is also an identification of the present with the past. The liturgy of sacramental churches declares that the body and blood of Christ is truly present with us. While there may be divisions as to the exact form this takes, all affirm his presence. In this way, the inauguration of the Eucharistic ceremony by Jesus with his disciples just a few days prior to his crucifixion is also personalized and brought forward to each generation.

But there is also the sense, just as in the Passover litany, in which we also are transported back and participate in that Last Supper that has come to be so celebrated in the life of the church. We also experience the love Jesus showed that night as he washed the disciple’s feet. We hear the institution of those words he said at the table that are so familiar to us all.

But along with the disciples we also hear those shocking words that “one of you will betray me”. If we didn’t know the end of the story, we would join them in looking from one to another, wondering who would do such a thing. We would hear them each asking him “Is it I?” Since we do know the end, we know that it was Judas. We also know to what extent God and Jesus love us – so much that Jesus would die a horrible death on the cross to rescue us, not from the slavery of Egypt, but from the slavery of sin. His sacrifice brought us back into a relationship with God. It’s because of this that we celebrate the Eucharist.

One of the major elements of the liturgy is confession and absolution. Together as a body we acknowledge before God that we have sinned, ask for his forgiveness and receive absolution. The liturgy then builds in a crescendo to its climax, the celebration of the Eucharist. We hear his majestic words spoken in love “This is my body, broken for you” and “This is my blood, shed for you.”

But as we place ourselves at the table with him and hear his words, we are forced to face our own culpability. We know that we are sinners in need of a savior. We have just affirmed this fact during our confession. We know that we have not loved him with our whole heart. When Jesus comes to us with his words of “One of you will betray me” can we honestly say “not I’? Or when we take an honest hard look at ourselves will we find ourselves having to truthfully say “Lord, it’s me. I have betrayed you. Forgive me.”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Surprised by Faith

Faith is often full of surprises. Through faith many things happen that are totally unpredictable. For instance, it never struck Goliath that he might be felled by a little stone. Elisha’s servants could not have floated the idea as to how an ax head might be retrieved from the river. Joseph never dreamed he would rise from prison to be second in command of all Egypt. And Jonah could not have fathomed his rescue from the sea. Faith is often full of surprises. In God’s world the unpredictable happens as thought it were the norm. Many times this makes people uncomfortable. We often don’t like surprises. They make us feel as though we aren’t in control. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were definitely among those who intensely disliked surprises. They had effectively placed God in a box and had established procedures for how one’s religious life was to be lived. In doing this, they were able to be in control and maintain power. Life was predictable. They could dictate what would happen and when. They falsely believed that they were in control of their own destiny. They hated Jesus because he did things out of the box. He healed on the Sabbath, pointed out their own inconsistencies, and taught his followers a totally new way of living. When Jesus was around, they no longer were in control. Afraid of losing their power, they couldn’t stand that thought, and so they killed him.

I wonder if the reason we sometimes have difficulty with faith is due to our also not liking surprises. Surprises take away our own control. We prefer to be in control of situations, just like the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. We want to be the captains of our own destiny. We also want life to be predictable. And so we place God in a box. We tell him how he is to act and when. We become upset when he does things outside of the box in which we have placed him. We are forced to realize that we aren’t in control, God is. And that can be uncomfortable.

Some people are fearful of charismatic renewal for this very reason. If the Holy Spirit is in control, they are not. Denying his activity allows them to maintain control. They are fearful of the unexpected happening which might upset their understanding of the way things work. Denying that he works in the world today becomes the easy way out.

But what does this fear of surprises really say about our faith? I think it implies a lack of trust in God. We are less comfortable with God in control than we are having it ourselves. We don’t really believe he can handle all of the variations which life brings to us. We desire to have tangible evidence that things are working out OK. Having the power of control gives us a false sense of security, which we find comforting. Ultimately though, it comes down to the fact that the fear of surprises is really a lack of faith in God. We really don’t believe that he is big enough or strong enough to take care of us. We prefer to keep God in his box, never wanting to let him out.

By refusing to accept his surprises, we miss out on much of what he has for us. We willingly accept a diminished faith and the excitement it brings. We lose the spontaneity of the joy of seeing him work in our lives. How willing are you to let God surprise you?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Official Business

An elderly man was once asked “Why are you still here on earth since your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life?” He replied. “If you look closely, you will see an asterisk next to my name, with the note ‘On leave to earth on official business.’ He continued. “I have lived here on earth for 90 years. When the business God has given me to do is completed, he will take me home. But until then I am going to continue doing the work he has given me to do.”

Do we think of ourselves in this way? Do we see ourselves as being on loan to earth from our heavenly home or do we think of earth as our home? Do we think of ourselves as having been assigned a task to complete?

The New Testament writers frequently speak of our being strangers and aliens here on earth. The author of Hebrews, speaking of the great men and women of faith, states “And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” (Heb 11:13b) We are God’s ambassadors to earth, representing Him to the world. Yet we often have a tendency to settle in and become so comfortable in the culture in which we live that we totally blend in. We don’t often consider ourselves to be strangers. We also don’t think of ourselves as being God’s representative to the communities in which we live.

God gives us gifts to use in his service. He gives them in order to enable us to better serve and love others. We are to faithfully use them to further his kingdom. He has a purpose for our being here. There is value in asking the questions: “What business has God given me to do during my time here on earth? Am I faithfully carrying it out?” I started this essay a year ago, but was having difficulty completing it. The message I was attempting to write about was forcefully brought to my attention this past summer when I found myself in the hospital with a heart attack, having an artery 100 % blocked. While this could have easily been fatal, I came through it with only minimal damage. This experience clearly brought into focus the fact that God has me here for a purpose and is not done with me yet. He has given me a task that is not yet completed. He has given all of us a mission to accomplish during our time here on earth. Perhaps the larger question is “How faithfully am I carrying this purpose out?”

For many people, the only Christ they may ever see is us. They may only come to know Christ through our incarnational living in their presence, based on how well we live transformed lives. Like a magnet, we can either attract people to or repel them from Christ. For many, the greatest drawbacks to becoming a Christian are the Christians who live in their midst. Their lives may not indicate much of a relationship with Christ, thereby detracting from the call of the gospel. But God expects us to be his faithful representatives as we live out our lives here on earth. This is the assigned task he has given us to carry out. He expects us to be faithful to this calling.

How faithful are we in this? It is worth pondering the question “Am I as diligent and productive at my heavenly job as I am at my earthly one?” Hopefully we will not all find ourselves in Heaven’s unemployment line.