Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A personal note

"And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above;and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.  But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase...But go your way till the end.  And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.”

When most people think of the book of Daniel, they remember the lion's den or think of the hand writing on the wall or perhaps his prophetic visions or Nebuchadnezzar's dream, indeed, that is usually what comes to mind for me, but the above blurb from the last chapter caught my eye the other day.  Daniel has just finished seeing all these odd things, some involving his own scattered and exiled nation, and he's rather curious about what it all means and how it will all turn out.  But he isn't given the exciting details, save the puzzling prophetic visions he's already recorded, rather he's told how the whole grand tale ends, not the details concerning Israel's exile, moreover, it ends on a personal note, which is rather astonishing, and reassuring, coming from a book addressed to all nations, tribes, and tongues, written for all people in all times.  This particular part of the grand and epic story of the universe and our reality ends on a personal note!

I was overlooked as a kid, forgotten on more than one occasion, neglected or ignored when I wasn't being criticized or publicly humiliated, thus I have a very hard time understanding that I can be loved, that I am lovable, that I have value and worth and that I matter.  So when I am personally remembered, when someone does something specifically for me, it touches me deeply.  And here, after all these grand visions of things yet to come, a sweeping saga touching empires and vast stretches of time, a simple man is remembered, he is asking about the future and well-being of a whole nation, but it is he himself that is remembered and reassured.  He is not to know all those things pertaining specifically to his nation's fate, of which he is vastly curious, but of his own he is assured.

And that is the promise of this great book, for each and every human soul.  We can have an 'allotted place at the end of days.'  We can shine like the stars in their courses above!  Or we can run to and fro after knowledge, vain and ever increasing (were they envisioning google with that prediction?) and go down into darkness and infamy evermore.  As grand and epic as this tale is, it is also a very personal tale.  That's why the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; he had friends and enemies, joy and sorrow, a name and a face.  We each desire to be known and loved individually, and that is the very promise of this marvelous book, though it deals with happenings throughout all of time and history and that yet to come.  I love that I can still discover little gems like this, tucked away in various places though I've read and reread it time and again.  Written to all peoples, but also to me. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Life is war

Do you ever feel like your life is pointless, that you are weak and useless, that your existence in general is a string of dull and tedious nothings?  Sometimes it is good to remember we're in a war, and that while things seem quiet and peaceful, the Enemy may come at any moment and surprise us, hoping to ambush us or break through the defenses.  Not that war is all that exciting at every moment,  I think I once read somewhere that it is, 'long stretches of tedium interrupted by periods of sheer terror.'  Whether languishing in the trenches of the first World War or slogging through the endless swamps of Vietnam or sweltering in a desert somewhere, soldiers of every age have never had an easy time of it, but the next time you think about being 'bored,' just remember what you're fighting against:

"And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him...Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Not that we wrestle against such things physically or even on a level we are much aware.  For there are mightier warriors than we mere mortals of flesh and blood, and they fight on a level we cannot comprehend, as hinted at in this passage from Daniel:

"And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling.  Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.  The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.”

This mighty angelic warrior was delayed in delivering his message to Daniel because of this dreadful Prince of Persia, whom he could not counter without the help of one of the greatest angels known to mankind.  If such great and mighty beings cannot overcome such evil, what hope have we, fickle and fallible creatures of flesh and blood that we are?  Paul gives us some idea of this struggle in his letter to the Ephesians:

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  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."

Wow!  But how do we fight against THAT?  He continues:

  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.  In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.  To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints."

It isn't with swords or bows, guns or knives, bombs or even our fists with which we are called to fight, a strange thought to our violence obsessed culture.  Rather prayer, God's word, and a virtuous life are our only weapons and protection, for the fight is not ours, but the Lord's.  We who have no power or strength or virtue in ourselves, can be competent and valiant soldiers in this war from beyond the reach of time that has spilled over into our own reality.  So the next time you are tempted to be bored silly with your dull and tedious existence, remember, you're at war, a soldier manning the walls of some remote outpost, with the enemy snarling and hissing beneath you, looking for a breach in the defenses, a weak point by which to invade.  We don't need a video game to feel like we live in a war zone, it's in our own backyard, our living rooms and cubicles, but do we ignore it and pretend it isn't there and hope it just goes away, do we allow ourselves to be conquered and live as prisoners and slaves of that grim dragon, or do we stay at our posts and fight the fight set before us with all faith and confidence in the One who has thrown down the dragon and waits only until the time is right to vanquish it forever?    

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sweet and salty

The place where I used to work sold a product boldly proclaiming: 'orphan no more!'  I think they have since rebranded themselves but the idea is the same: a powder you sprinkle on a motherless calf to help bond it to another cow.  Cows are strange creatures sometimes, some wanting to kill or abandon their own calves and others so desperate to mother that they'd steal another cow's calf before their own was born.  Most happily fall somewhere in-between.  But life happens and some calves lose their mothers and some cows lose their calves, so if you could match up the orphaned calf with a calf-less cow it is a wonderful thing, but as I said cows can be a little weird about that sort of thing.  Perhaps you've read the stories or seen the movie where the orphaned lamb, foal, or calf is clad in the skin of the stillborn and placed under the bereaved mother's nose in hopes of her adopting the stranger that smells like her dead offspring.  This wondrous powder is supposed to do the same thing but without the grisly effort: just sprinkle it on and voila!  The farmers raved about it, so it must work, so one day, curious, I looked for the magic ingredient.  Molasses and salt.  That's it (and maybe some anti-caking something or other).  Sweet and salty!  They knew the miracles of salted caramel before it was trendy.  But it isn't so easy with people.

"I will not leave you comfortless," was one translation but my version read, "I will not leave you as orphans." Wow, I'd read it a hundred times but never before had it sunk in, never before had I understood those simple words.  In the modern West we don't struggle with orphans in the same way they did in a backwater realm in the first century where the poor kids were pretty much on their own.  If there are no parents or family to step in, the government sees that the physical needs of such children are met, but our society struggles just as desperately with a different sort of orphan: the spiritual, the emotional, the social orphan.  It is very possible to have two actually living parents and still grow up an orphan; I did.  I never lacked for clothes and food, but I never had love, acceptance, encouragement, direction, attachment, understanding, or belonging; I was never wanted.  We all just lived in the same house with no more emotional or social connection than indifferent roommates thrown together by chance.  I never understood why the idea of 'family' was so important to some people; I just didn't get it.  They did their best but they couldn't give what they never had; emotional neglect and abuse runs back at least three generations in my family and probably even further back than that.  How many have grown up in homes where this is 'normal?'  It leaves you empty, awkward, and sad, wondering what's wrong with you and why nobody likes you, but even if you had an ideal childhood and great parents, each and every man, woman, and child is an orphan, in a spiritual sense.  We all thirst for something: that meaning, that purpose, that direction, that belonging.  But something isn't right, we're all empty and lost and wandering aimlessly about, seeking that 'something more.'

Social media exists because so many are hollow and empty inside, desperate to be filled.  We form 'tribes' with those of like circumstance, interest, or cause hoping to find community and meaning.  We lose ourselves to addictions or even suicide when the world grows too dark.  We try to lose ourselves in and live through our pets, our children, or some hobby or cause.  We're all orphans to some degree, no matter our family origin or lack thereof, we've all run away and lived selfishly and wonder if there is such a thing as Home.  But there is, Dad's waiting on the porch, and He'll joyously come running the moment He glimpses that wandering child coming dejectedly up the road.  It's a promise from the same Source that said we wouldn't be orphans.  I never knew what home was, what the big deal about family was, I didn't understand.  Now that I do, I so desperately want it, and it is mine, and can be yours, for all we need do is come Home.  He won't leave us as orphans, but first we need to admit that we are and then we get to start counting the days until the biggest and most fabulous Family Reunion in history, where we'll be welcome guests and people will know our names and be happy to see us, rather than being merely tolerated due to social obligation.  We'll finally be home!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Through a glass, darkly

I was reading C.S. Lewis's 'The Great Divorce' the other day and found his portrayal of Hell quite unique.  Most people imagine cloven-hooved and bearded tormenters (a sad caricature he addressed admirably in 'The Screwtape Letters') frolicking amidst the flames while secretly hoping to meet some notorious and interesting sinner of yore or to at least 'hang out' with the set they preferred during their earthly tenure, a strangely fascinating contrast to the dull and tedious vision of Heaven so common to modern sensibilities: overweight middle aged folk dressed in shapeless gowns, sitting upon clouds, harp in hand.  Lewis imagined Hell as a seedy town of immense and ever expanding dimension trapped beneath a perpetual drizzle amid an autumnal twilight whose residents can't stand to live within two streets of one another, where you can imagine up anything and everything you can desire yet the most exquisite roof won't keep out the rain and all the great sinners live so far away and are so absorbed in their own vital concerns that they haven't a thought for anything or anyone else.  His vision of Hell isn't that dissimilar to many people's idea of Heaven (if you can shake off the 'Far Side' inspired caricatures previously mentioned): an idealized earth like experience.  His Hell is a seedy town, to many, Heaven is merely the ultimate gated community where you never have to mow your own lawn.

But why do we have such a hard time envisioning Heaven?  So much so that many say they almost find the theory of Hell more tenable, or at least more fun.  It is the one subject that is never explicitly described in the Bible.  We know a few things that won't be there (marriage for example), but we have no idea what it will be like.  Everyone who has ever had a glimpse of it can only paint in metaphors or is forbidden from speaking of it (John, Paul, Ezekiel) while Hell seems a much more approachable subject and seems the more comfortable or even preferable just from sheer familiarity.  What gives?  Perhaps it is because Hell is that more approachable, understandable, and familiar to mortal minds, being a conception of reality a mere step below our current predicament: we are far closer to Hell than to Heaven in our current state.  I can understand and am far more comfortable with the people and culture in the next town over than I am with those on the opposite side of the globe.  Fallen creation is far nearer Hell than Heaven, it is merely more habitable and joyous because Heaven has not utterly forsaken it.  We can catch little glimpses of Heaven here, like sunbeams through a dirty window, that make life in this dusty cellar livable but we are far more familiar with its dank and dark corners than we are with the surface of the sun from whence comes the light.

Heaven isn't the province of Men, rather it is the domain of God, whither He invites all who would come, but it is His Kingdom, not ours, and we must accept it on His terms: vast, grand, wonderful, terrifying to mortal minds.  Meanwhile, we dwell uneasily in our earthly fiefdom and happily He graces our unhappy land with the least of His smiles from time to time, aside from that rather memorable visit of state some two millennia ago.  Hell however, is our very own domain, whither we can escape His irksome Presence, be that our wish, but it would be to draw the blinds on that dirty window and plunge our cellar into absolute and utter night.  We would never think of breaking down the door and escaping into that unknown and dreadful Dawn, we'd rather dwell in our 'safe' and familiar prison.  But He has broken the door!  Will we willfully sit in the dark, pretending the outer world is but a lie or will we peek around the corner and look upon things too great for mortal words?