MCDOWELL.S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

The World to Come 

The story goes of a sociology professor who questioned his students about what changes they would make to the world in which they find themselves, assuming they had the power to do so. One immediate response was that the world should have no more wars, that nations would be at peace. Further responses called for an end to poverty, crime, violence, injustice. They would banish all evil. Everyone should be well clothed, fed, and housed, and able to enjoy worthwhile pursuits. If they had the power to do so, the students at last decided they would end all pain, sickness, and even death. 

The question is often asked if God is indeed benevolent and all-powerful why did he not create such a world they describe instead of what we have? While I will not address that question here, I will claim that such a world and one even more glorious than the one the students described is in the plan of God. Indeed, the students were describing, as limited as it was, the world to come. We can believe, as Alexander Pope put it, that such a hope springs eternal in every human breast. It is hope in God’s tomorrow. 

The Scriptures speak now and again of the world to come, which refers to far more than the heaven that awaits us at death. In fact, those now in heaven can anticipate the world to come as well as those of us yet on earth. It is a hope and a promise that goes back to Isaiah 65:17: “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,” a promise repeated in Isaiah 66:22: “As the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me,” says the Lord, “so shall your descendents and your name remain.” This promise is referenced in 2 Peter 3:13. After describing the dissolution of the present heaven and earth, the writer says: “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell.” 

It is appropriate to ask at this point if we, the 21st century church, look for the world to come as did the first century church? Are we as impressed by the promises God gave to the prophets as they were? If the apostle John had such faith when he was confined to Patmos, his faith soon became sight, for while on that island he wrote, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea’ (Revelation 21:1). He sees what Isaiah had envisioned long centuries before. But both are referring to the future. While Isaiah clearly writes of the world to come as future, John writes as if it were occurring at that moment. He writes of the future as if already occurring. 

The reference to there being no more sea provides a tiny clue to the nature of the new earth. Space will matter. With something like seven-eighths of the earth’s surface covered by sea, the new, actually, renewed, earth will have far more room for what John goes on to see: “And I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” He goes on to describe the size of the holy city as a 1500 mile cube, ample size for a capitol, and with the seas now terra firma, the huge city will not crowd the earth. 

Yes, I believe the renewed earth will be the permanent (eternal) heaven, and it will be the capital of all the new heavens, with the New Jerusalem as the capitol. The temporary heaven, where the redeemed family of God now resides (Ephesians 3:14-15) is the New Jerusalem that is now “above,” according to Galatians 4:26. So John saw this “heaven above,” the holy city, New Jerusalem, come down to earth, and he says this is where God will be with his people. “He will be their God, and they shall be his people.”  

We ourselves will be gloriously transformed into spiritual bodies, like unto Christ’s glorious body (Philippians 3:21), and thus prepared for cosmic assignments… “In the regeneration (the world to come), when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). 

But when it says “They shall see the face of God” (Revelation 22:4), we should see this as one more anthropomorphism, attributing to God a human trait. Since “No one has seen God or can see him” (I Timothy 6:16), and since God is spirit and incorporeal, of course has no face, this is to be seen as one more precious symbol of the holy city “along with golden streets, jasper walls, pearly gates” – and as referring to the glorious presence of God in the world to come. We will “see” God when we witness that “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminates it. The Lamb is its light” (Revelation 21:23). 

As far back as Abraham God’s covenant people “waited” for this city, and they “saw it afar, a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). The prophets looked for that time when nations would beat their swords into ploughs and study war no more (Micah 4:3), and when “the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Jesus promised his disciples that he would go away and prepare a place for them that had many mansions (John 14:2). Then there is “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of the Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign forever” (Revelation 11:15). And the Bible closes with the promise: “Blessed are those who keep his commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14). 

Apart from whether I have all the details right, the world to come in all its glory is as certain as the promises of God. We do not know when that will be, but we are called to “the one hope of our calling” (Ephesians 4:4), and that hope will motivate us to help prepare this world for the great transformation that awaits it to become heaven itself. It may come incrementally, and hastened by our prayers and efforts. Thy kingdom come!

 

  

MCDOWELL’S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER”

 I saw the name of Thomas McKean mentioned somewhere in my reading. I would wager that you do not know who he was or why anybody should remember him. Well, he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1781. And why, you may ask, is that noteworthy? Only because it was four years after it had been adopted. If the other signers had been of this man’s quality, the whole course of our history would have been different but not better. Quite a contrast between McKean and John Hancock who signed the Declaration with a flourish in the hour of danger and commented that George the Third read that without his spectacles.

There are people who are late to everything. They always have an excellent excuse which, the first time you hear it, is convincing. Finally, it dawns on you that they are late because they do not care how much they inconvenience others, and because they get some satisfaction out of keeping other people waiting. I lost a friend one time because, finally, I was sick and tired of always having to wait. Perhaps God gets equally weary of waiting for me, and I am saved only because of His infinite patience.

How many people will cheer a cause when its success is assured? How much encouragement a fellow gets after he has taken the risk of the apparent defeat of the good enterprise. How many church members eventually get on the band wagon who must wait to make up their minds when only a brave few start the march? May the good Lord send us more brethren who come in at the right time when they are needed.

I suggest that we make Felix the patron of all who are too late. You remember the story in Acts. With his Jewish wife Drusilla, the Roman governor of Caesarea heard Paul speak about faith in Jesus Christ and argue “about justice and self-control and future judgment.” Then Felix was alarmed and said: “God away for the present: when I have an opportunity I will summon you” (Acts 24:24, 25).

 

The fellows who wait to see which way the ball of success is going to bounce seem so wise and clever. But they are not so smart after all. For life is commitment and the bystander never gets into the action. If it is right, better sign up immediately.

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

The Fun of Process 

Have you ever discovered a two-year-old boy busily coloring upon a freshly painted wall with a delight equaled only when he smears spaghetti in his hair? All his needs have been met (he’s dry, warm and full), so we presume he is fulfilling some non-physiological need such as self-actualization. He probably has no clear goal in mind, save the enjoyment derived from scribbling. All this suggests that it is just plain fun to act, even to the point of becoming oblivious of goals or even disregarding them. This is the phenomena which I want to term, “the fun of process,” which manifests itself in many areas of life and finally has important consequences in theology and practical religion. 

We often find the pursuit of a goal more rewarding than the goal itself. Isn’t it often almost more rewarding planning and anticipating a trip than the actual event itself? Judging from the way some parents want to hold on to their late adolescents, it must be more enjoyable raising our children than having raised them (mothers of pre-school children omitted, of course). Biblically, we ponder why the rich man decided to build bigger barns and we are tempted to conclude that it was because he found little delight in just the mere celebration of his full ones. 

The importance of process prevails in life’s most serious situations as well. That process of “fun” in life as a whole ironically can be demonstrated in suffering. Suffering produces value, in that we seem to prize most highly those things for which we save the longest, pay the most, or give up the most for. Paradoxically, the phenomenon of suffering which is so closely allied with process, is a source of pleasure (fun?) for us if for no other reason that the fact that it causes us to appreciate life more. 

Living is a worthy end, though not a complete or sufficient end in itself. We have been reconciled to God through Christ and thus have the promise of eternal life. Since we have confidence in our reconciliation and that we shall participate in the future existence Jesus prepares for us, we should then turn our attention to increasing the quality of the life we now live, finding satisfaction in the process of living. 

Jesus said much about the quality of life we are to live – that we best love God by loving others (the Jesus Creed), that we love Him by doing as well by verbalizing, and that our love for others communicates His love for them. 

Our problem is largely definitional. We have too narrowly defined the word spiritual, usually limiting it in meaning to cerebral activities relating to the soul’s pursuit of God. In so doing, we simply and easily disconnect our spiritual nature from the matrix of life, forgetting that who and what we are, how we respond to the gospel, and how we express our faith are integrally related to all processes of life including social, sexual, recreational, and the rest. The processes of life can only be affected and rejuvenated by our participation in them, which as Christians must necessarily include the working of the Good News through us. 

We need to view and live life as participation (process) and not as mere preparation for another life. In so doing, the preparation for that life will be made complete by participation in this life, and we’ll have a lot more fun.

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MUSINGS

The Turning Point 

Psalm 73 

Everyone has a turning point in life. Some are quiet and ordinary, but others are dramatic and sometimes traumatic. They are the times of important changes, usually involving new ways of thinking and of seeing things as they had not been seen before. In the religious life, these turning points are what we often call conversions. Some of them are famous in Christian history. In 386, Augustine of Hippo was struggling for faith and satisfaction in his troubled life. In the garden of a house in Milan, with Alypius his friend, he heard a child in a neighboring house say, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it” which was an unusual thing for a child to say. Augustine took it as a divine command to open his Bible and read the first passage he found, and he did. The passage was Romans 12:13:  “Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and envy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.” He said that he needed to read no further, because something like the light of full certainty infused his heart, and all the gloomy doubt he had suffered vanished away. It was the turning point in his life, and he went on to become one of the most important leaders and teachers of the early church. 

In his commentary of Psalms (1557), John Calvin wrote of a “sudden conversion,” but he did not explain it further and he spoke very little of any conversion experience. We assume that the “sudden conversion” came as he studied the Psalms. It was some kind of turning point. John Wesley, already a minister but not doing very well (torn within himself and “beating the air,” as he put it), went to a Moravian service on Aldersgate Street in London, on Wednesday night, May 24, 1738, and felt his heart “strangely warmed” while Luther’s preface to the Epistle of Romans was being read. It was a turning point, and he went on to become a great preacher and the leader of Methodism. There have been many others. 

The speaker in Psalm 73, who is unidentified, was unable to deal with envy and doubt until, he says, “I went into the sanctuary of God” (v. 17). The psalm indicates that the speaker was near a total spiritual collapse, which he expresses in his words this way: “My feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.” The trouble was a futile attempt to reconcile faith in the affirmation of God’s goodness to the pure in heart in Israel and the well- being of those who scorned such commitment. (Note:  the reading of the first part of verse 1 is frequently changed to “Surely God is good to the upright,” but it is better to keep “good to Israel” and understand the reference to the upright and faithful in Israel). The speaker in this psalm finds it very difficult to sustain the proposition set forth in verse 1. The problem is the prosperity of the wicked, which causes envy to arise in the mind of the speaker. How can it be true that God is good to the pure in heart when those who scorn God are always at ease in using their power to mislead and exploit the poor? They are the sleek, well-dressed people, always going to parties and speaking with arrogance. They seem to have no pain and no trouble. The speaker on the other hand, finds every day a torment of painful and discouraging experience (vv. 11-14). Walter Bruggemann says that the trouble of the psalmist is caused by “secular seduction.” He is strongly tempted to join the way of those who have no moral commitment to God and “who regard religion as stuffy, pompous coercion and will not fool with it,” living as if there is no God or anything sacred. (1) 

The great distress of the speaker is described for us in verses 15-16. Unable to resolve the matter in his own mind, he was tempted to deny the goodness of God to the pure in heart and join the partygoers and exploiters. That way he could enjoy what seemed to be the good life. However, he refused to yield to the urge to make his distress public. Thus he was in the position of personally believing something that he did not think he could share with others of faith. In this condition, he came to the sanctuary of God (v. 17). There the turning point came:  “I understood their end.” We are given no detail about this expression. Perhaps we should think of a participant in worship in the Temple in Jerusalem on one of the great days of festival time, who has a vision as Isaiah did (see Isaiah 6). Or the speaker may have come to a new awareness of the reality of the situation while the priests and people chanted, “O give praise to the LORD of Hosts, for his stead fast love endures forever.” Or it may have been in a time of quiet mediation and reflection on the ways of God in the world. In any case, it was a moment of disclosure, a turning point, when the eyes of a mind blinded by personal torment from envy regarding the material glory of the wicked were opened. Who can say what the exact nature of the turning point was:  it matters little. 

The results of the turning point are dramatic with a new orientation toward those matters that have been so painful. First, there is new perception of the real situation of the wicked (vv. 18-20). They no longer seem invincible, despite their apparent strength and power. But their security is an illusion, because their prosperity can be gone in an instant, leaving behind no more than a nightmare. Indeed, they are in “slippery places” (v. 18) although they may not seem to be. There is comfort in knowing that the wicked are not as well off as they think they are. We find reassurance in the perception that their “end” is grim – reassurance, but not joy. 

Second, there is a new understanding of the psalmist’s own self (vv. 21-23). In a flashback, he recalls that the trauma described in verses 2-16 was largely a matter of the heart (“heart” is one of the key words in this psalm, appearing in verses l, 7, 13, 21, and 26). A “soured” or “embittered” heart left him reacting to the wicked like a brute beast, while the real problem was a “stupid and ignorant” heart. He had a “heart problem.” (It is always well to keep in mind that biblical “heart” includes what we call the mind, the center of will and action). The power of the wicked is so often the power to arouse coveting in the hearts of others. 

The third new orientation, or reorientation, was the realization that God has been present with the psalmist throughout the ordeal of envy and doubt. An awareness of God’s presence surges up into the consciousness of the distressed person. Despite all appearances to the contrary, “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.” The guidance of God never ceases, and the future is good. There is a question about the reading of the last part of verse 24. The Hebrew words are literally “and afterwards glory you will take me.” “Afterward” rather clearly refers to the future, but does it mean after death? or from this time on? The “glory” is often understood as heaven, but it does not normally mean that in the Old Testament. Should we read the expression as “afterwards (in the future) God will take me to a glorious place”? More probably, we should understand the words here to mean that in the future God “will take me gloriously (to himself)” – as his own and with honor. This would satisfy the desire of the psalmist’s heart: “There is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.” Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to conclude that the glory of verse 24 has a dynamic quality that has the power to transcend death and restore it with life. The psalmist declares, “My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the rock of my heart and my portion forever.” These words point to an enduring relationship that will not be terminated, now or forever. The “rock” does not wear out, and the word “portion” has its referential basis in a permanent entitlement to a portion of land passed on from generation to generation. 

The new orientation of the turning point allows the psalmist to declare that “for me it is good to be near God; I have made the LORD God my refuge” and he will tell others of all the works of God. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Hold on to your faith until you come to a turning point; then you will understand that “it is not profit but presence that counts; not succeeding, but communion. . . . [it will be] a moment of amazing recognition.” (2)

 

(1)          Patrick Miller (ed.) The Covenanted Self (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), pp. 66-67

(2)          Walter Brueggemann, Prayers of Walter Brueggemann: Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003,) p. 69.

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

The 4th of July is an American institution. It is as American as ice-cream, hot dogs, and the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The spirit that produced this day, and still throbs in it, found expression in the Declaration of Independence. This document is one of the noblest of our State papers.

Thomas Jefferson, the brain behind this document, probably borrowed his ideas from the English philosopher, John Locke. Locke specified, as the fundamental rights of man, “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson considered this list inadequate. So, he made a change and substituted the word “happiness” for “property.” In this change, Jefferson meant to picture America as a place where human rights ranked above all others. So he affirmed that all men are endowed by their Creator with “certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I have often wondered about this last right. I do not doubt that a beneficent Creator intended us to be happy. Even so, I ask myself whether happiness is ever gained by deliberately pursuing it. Everyone has a right to pursue happiness, but one seldom gets it by going after it. Indeed, to go directly after it is one of surest ways not to obtain it.

Yet, we all crave it, and actively search for it. However, multitudes of us miss it. Why?

People miss happiness because they pursue it in the wrong way. As someone has put it: “Happiness is essentially and inevitably a by-product that comes invariably by indirection.” It cannot be pursued, it must ensue! Indeed, the finest and best things in life come that way. Set your heart on them, go after them, and they elude you. You can pursue honors, but not honor. You can pursue a reputation, but not influence.

So it is with happiness. Seek it for its own sake, and you will not find it. As Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote: “Make it the object of your pursuit, and it leads you on a wild-goose chase.” One of the paradoxes of human life is that the things people struggle for most, such as success, wealth, and position, are not those things that bring the deepest joy.

What then are some of the ways to “find” happiness?
Happiness is the result of inner stability, not of outer security. It is at this point that the illusion of the pursuit of happiness begins, and why so much of it terminates in the aspirin bottle.

Happiness is the indirect result of creative, useful living. Michelangelo said, “It is well with me only with a chisel in my hand.” We are made by our Creator to be creative.

Happiness is redemptive usefulness. Mature people seldom think of happiness. They do not ask, “What do I want?” but, “What is wanted of me?”

The way to find happiness is to lose yourself in service to others, to do something for somebody without any thought of reward.

These are some of the ways to find happiness. “If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:7).

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

YOU GET MORE THAN YOU GIVE 

One of my favorite humanitarian organizations is Habitat for Humanity. I am impressed by its stated raison d’etre: “Habitat for Humanity International is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian organization dedicated to eliminating substandard housing and homelessness worldwide and to making adequate, affordable shelter a matter of conscience and action. Habitat is founded on the conviction that every man, woman, and child should have a simple, decent affordable place to live in dignity and safety.”

A decent home for everyone the world over. What a vision! When Clarence Jordan, the fund raiser, and Millard Fuller, the founders of Habitat, first had this dream back in 1970 they may have thought, “We can build at least one home for a poor family, then perhaps another, and then another, depending on how it goes.” Now, since 1976, Habitat has built 800,000 homes for over 4 million people, many of them in the poorest areas of the world.

And I like their method. They do not build a house and give it to some family, making that family an object of charity. A local Habitat chapter selects a family. Local supporters build the house, designed by Habitat. Many local churches have cooperated with others in building several houses here in the greater Huntington area. The family helps build the house, and they contact to pay Habitat for the cost at a low rate of interest. Habitat uses that money to build more houses. The builders of course give their time, and local suppliers sometimes donate materials or sell at reduced prices. So the family, never able to own a home of their own, gets a big bargain.

A friend of mine told me he was present on one occasion when a house had been completed for a Hispanic family with several children. The builders, friends, neighbors, family kin were all on the porch. They all applauded when the Habitat chair ceremoniously gave the keys to the house to the parents. The family’s first home of their own ever! It warmed the heart he said.

I viewed the Habitat for Humanity Calendar for 2010 which tells similar stories, along with pictures, one for every month of the year, from all around the world – Bolivia, Ivory Coast, China, Mozambique, Brazil, Cambodia, Alaska, Sri Lanka, Chile, Kyrgyzstan, Canada, U.S.A.  All pictures are of non-whites except one.

One of my favorite pictures is of a little girl sweeping the floor with the caption reading Room of my Own. It was not a dirt floor as she had before.

But two stories I specially want to share with you comes from another Habitat publication called Habitat World. The first is a story of Ron Terwilliger, a Dallas builder, giving $100 million to Habitat. I see that as gloriously novel for a man who became wealthy building dwellings for the rich giving his money for the building of homes for the poor. He said in reference to his gift: “In my professional life, I’ve seen housing strengthen health, education, families, communities and economics. Since housing is such a special focus of mine and it is so fundamentally important to human beings and families, I thought that is where I would leave the balance of my wealth.”

The other story is about David Rubel, a noted scholar, who has written a book about Habitat titled If I Had a Hammer, for middle schoolers. He tells the kids stories about how cool it is when one of their own has a clean, decent home after living in a shack all his life. When he was asked what he hoped for the book, he said, “It will be reward enough if someday a young man shows up at a Habitat building site with a hammer and is asked why he had come, and he says, “When I was ten years old I read this that ….”

The author said something else that provides the title of this blog. When asked what preparations he had made for writing the book, he replied that he had read everything he could find about Habitat, along with interviewing lots of people. Then he said that along the way one thing began to surface, “You get more than you give.”

How true that it is of all of life! Whether it’s the money we give, or time, or effort, or kindly words and deeds, we get more than we give. It is God’s law of reciprocity. We cannot give without receiving, and often in abundance.

Our Lord stated this truth in extravagant detail: “Give and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).

But is this to be the motive for our giving, rewards? While our Lord emphasized “… and great will be your reward in heaven” he himself did not suffer and die for what he might get out of it. Doing good for just the sake of reward could be a selfish thing. We are to give because it is the right thing to do, and because the need is there, and not to get. When one is motivated by love, rewards or no, he has the heart of God.

Our Lord drew a distinction between those who followed him for the loaves and fishes, and those who followed for higher motives. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” is a glorious truth, “but it is also true that we are to give whether blessed or not.

It is an important lesson to learn. Yes, we get more than we give, but that is not to be the reason to give.

 

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

SUCH A TIME AS THIS – ORLANDO AND BEYOND

 I awoke Sunday morning to hear the news of the tragedy at Orlando. There were reports of dead and wounded that later numbered 49 people dead 53 wounded. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to friends and family of the victims. As Christians we comfort all in their grief.

Such tragedies come from sinful behavior. And we must continually remove ourselves from evil – hatred of those who differ from us in their thinking, feeling, and beliefs, who are of different color, religion, sexual orientation and political persuasion. Orlando is another gruesome reminder of the need to follow Jesus. He requires we love our enemies, even murderous ones – whether they target us or those with whom we sympathize.

We Christians recognize that this is at heart a spiritual battle, with what the apostle Paul calls the “principles and powers.” The crucial hour is upon us as it was with Esther when Mortdecai advised: “… and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this (Esther 4:14). Such a time as this!  Matthew asks, “Whereunto shall I liken this generation” (Matthew 11:16). I shall liken it to the image described by Plutarch in his Lives of Great Greeks and Romans. It seems this particular Roman had passed away, had been placed on his funeral bier, and was observed by two of his former friends who came to pay tribute. Upon viewing his remains, they remarked, “He can’t be dead, his feet, legs, arms, head, body – they are all here.” So they proceeded to prop him up to a sitting position, and when they released him; he slumped back. Then one of the Romans commented, “There must be something missing inside!”

Indeed, “such a time as this” comes equipped with impressive credentials. First, it is a time of exploding knowledge. Eighty-seven percent of all the scientists who ever lived are alive at this very moment. We live in an era of abounding knowledge which doubles every eight years. We are caught up in an explosion of knowledge which has led to an unprecedented scientific-technological revolution.

The ancient enemies of polio, T.B., malaria, typhoid and scarlet fever have been conquered by medical science. Television, supersonic jets, Telstar communication and instant transmission of news have shrunk the earth. Yes, the body comes equipped with the arms, the legs, the head.

And yet, “There must be something missing inside.”  Nine people are murdered at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; six people are killed and three injured at a Wisconsin Sikh temple; December 9, 2007, two people are killed at Youth With A Mission training center in Arvada, Colorado, and another two at New Life Church in Colorado Springs; Jews have been regularly subject to a number of murderous rampages since 2000, with fire bombings at synagogues in the Bronx and Syracuse New York in October 2000, the LAX shooting at the El Al ticket counter on July 4, 2002, the Seattle Federation shooting on July 28, 2006, and the Overland Park, Kansas, attack on April 13, 2014; and while Mexican Americans have not been murderously attacked, on May 1, 2007, five members of an anti-immigration militia in Birmingham, Alabama, were arrested for planning to mow down “Mexicans” with machine guns.

And I’m only referring to what’s happening in the United States, International attacks on specific groups are even more horrific.

I would not endorse simplistic solutions to such hateful targeting. There is certainly a matrix of political, social, and psychological issues that must be addressed, but this I know - loving our enemies does not come naturally to us. I read about a preaching professor who used to take his students to a cemetery every semester. Standing on the perimeter overlooking scores of headstones, he would ask his students in all sincerity to speak over the graves and call people from the ground to rise up and live. With some embarrassment and an awkward chuckle or two, they would try it. Of course, one by one they would fail. The professor would then look at his students and remind them of a core truth of the gospel: people are spiritually dead, just as those corpses in the cemetery were physically dead, and only words from God can bring them to spiritual life. The something “missing inside” of us is God.

This is the reality about humanity. We are each born with an evil, God-hating heart. Genesis 8:21 says that every inclination of man’s heart is evil from childhood, and Jesus’ words in Luke 11:13 assume that we know we are evil. Many may say, “Well, I have always loved God,” but the reality is, no one has. We may have loved a god that we made up in our minds, but the God of the Bible, we hate. Until we respond fully to the gospel we are incapable of being Christ’s loving, forgiving presence in the world

How then shall we respond in “Such a time as this?” The issue is shall be God’s chosen people, or God’s frozen people? In “Such a time as This,” let us “Press on toward the high calling which is in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).  

 

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

THE UNCHANGING CHRIST

Someone with a flair for paradox observed that there is nothing permanent but change. Time passes we say, though, as Keats reminds us, it would be more exact to say that we pass, time remains.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten, as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

The relentlessness of time and change may become a nightmare to us if we allow ourselves to brood upon it. Perhaps in protest against the fugitive, ephemeral nature of things, we tend to exaggerated speech. There is a feminine hair arrangement called a “permanent.” As it has to be renewed at intervals, it would be more accurately be called an “impermanent.”

A hymn ends: “Till these eternal hills remove, and spring adorns the earth no more.”

This is poetic license. Hills are not eternal. There was a time when they were not. There will come a time when they are gone.

We know too well the changes that come in our family. How permanent it seems when we are children, seated around the long table at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But with the years the old die out of it, the young marry or move away and thereafter are but visitors in the old home. Joys come. We fain would hold them tight so they cannot escape; but escape they do. Sorrows come. It seems as though the stars are blotted from the sky, that life will never be the same again. But the sharpness of our grief passes. Time gently heals the wound, though a scar remains.

On a worldly plane, the answer to the question, “Is anything permanent?” is no. On a higher plane, there is another answer which the writer of Hebrews gives in a terse triumphant sentence: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). It is like Mt. Everest, jutting up above the clouds, its base buried deep in solid earth, its snow-capped peak lifted to the sky: the changing world, the unchanging Christ. When we lay hold of Him, we lay hold of the eternal.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever because he meets needs that do not change. Human nature can change, and he can change it. But we need never expect it to progress beyond the need of forgiveness and need of love.

The language of religion, the language, for example, of the penitential psalms, is timeless and universal for it voices our unchanging need and God’s response to it.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever because he is a disclosure of the will and character of God. It is not the highest up reach of humankind but the outreach of God, God offering himself to humankind. The Scriptures assert that his life on earth was an act of God in history, the central act in the drama of God’s dealing with us.

If Jesus is a disclosure of God, he has eternal meaning, for God does not change. We speak of God as omnipotent, but one thing – according to the New Testament – he cannot do. He cannot change his own nature. He remains faithful, for he cannot be false to himself.

 

Almost two thousand years ago the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and that word is true yesterday, today, and forever.

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

THE SLEEPING GIANT 

The British Navy has a strange custom. If there is a sudden disaster aboard ship, “the still” is blown. This particular “still” is not a place where moonshine is made, but a whistle which calls the crew to a moment of silence in a time of crisis. When the still is blown, every man aboard knows what it means: “Prepare to do the wise thing.” Needless to say, this moment of calm has helped to avert many a catastrophe.

The value of a moment of calm reflection rather than an hour of scatter-brained action can be noted in places other than aboard a British ship. Long ago, the Psalmist wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). He, also, was pointing out the secret of living with poise in the midst of difficulty.

Jesus believed in sounding the still when things looked tough. Time and again, he drew himself away from the burden of his work to pray. Sometimes his prayer was only a short exclamation of joy or thanksgiving. Sometimes he remained all night in prayer. He was always urging the disciples to pray. Jesus believed that prayer works. “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Let me hasten to add that Jesus did not believe that every prayer will work the way we want it to work. Jesus did not preach that prayer is like a signed blank check drawn on the Bank of Providence, requiring only that we fill in the amount and all the Fort Knox’s in life would be ours. Nor did Jesus teach that prayer is like a rabbit’s foot, carried in the pocket as a talisman, its furry surface ready to be rubbed every time we get into a jam.

Prayer works, but it doesn’t always work the way we want it to work. Sometimes God says, “Yes,” sometimes He says, “No,” and sometimes He says, “Wait a while.”

One reason many people don’t think God answers their prayers is that they have never prayed for anything important. Instead of using prayer for the high purposes for which it was intended, they reserve it for such mediocre matters as pay raises, new fishing rods for Christmas, good grades in mathematics, handsome husbands and honeymoons in the Bahamas. They pray, “Give me,” and nothing happens. If they prayed, “Use me,” or “Change me,” instead of “Gimme,” they would find their prayers quite beneficial.

Too many people pray for an improvement in their situations instead of improvement in themselves, for changes in their own attitudes. Prayer is not a tool by which we talk God into changing all our problems into peaches and cream. Prayer is a tool by which we allow God to talk to us about what he wants us to do about our problems.

Somebody said, “Prayer changes things.” That’s true, but it might be more accurate to say that, “Prayer changes people so they can change things.” It is a well-known medical fact that prayer is a powerful instrument in the treatment of illness. It changes people and therefore it changes things.

If you will permit me the metaphor, prayer is a thinking person’s reality filter. It helps them filter out life’s non-essentials and lets in the flavor that makes life worth living.

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

"Slot Machine Religion" and The Hard Sayings of Jesus 

Mark 8:27-38 

Many who read some of the sayings of Jesus find much comfort and assurance in thinking of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, our friend, comforter, and guide. But others of the sayings of Jesus often challenge and disturb our thinking and leave us uncertain how to understand, apply, or discern the meaning intended by Jesus. Some of his more difficult sayings have been used by the enemies of Christianity to throw derision and ridicule on the teachings of Jesus. 

Some scholars have suggested that there might be 70 or as many as 150 “hard” or difficult teachings of Jesus. Some believe that many of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to comprehend clearly in today’s world. All these writers note the difficulty in translating the words of Jesus from Aramaic or Hebrew. They believe that much of the difficulty may be in Jesus’ use of simile, metaphors, puns, hyperbole, overstatements, irony, and paradox; use of proverbs, riddles, or poetic forms; and use of parallelism. 

The kind of difficult sayings of Jesus I am referring to include the following: “Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26ff). “You must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), “Love your enemies” (Mark 11:14), “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (Matt. 5:29), and many more of course. To try to ignore the difficulty of these teachings or simply to act as though they are not puzzling is dishonest. As Christians we need to see if we can grasp their message, even though they may seem perplexing. 

There is one hard saying of Jesus I should like to briefly explore with you. It is found in Mark 8: 34 “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me!” 

What strange words! How foreign they sound to modern ears! Of course, these words may have become so familiar to you that they have lost their cutting edge; perhaps they no longer shock you. They should, you know. 

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself….” I suppose that these words are among the most difficult and unwanted words in the Bible! I, for one, wish they were not there. I wish that Jesus had never said them. But say them he did, and I can’t get around them. 

I remember hearing a college student say: “I am not much for this religion business, but I just love the teachings of Jesus.” That’s interesting. I don’t “love” the teachings of Jesus at all. He taught some uncomfortable things and we cannot get around them without getting around Jesus as well. 

The truth of the matter is:  if we wish to worship and serve this Christ of the Christian faith, we have got to take seriously his commands. “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, if you are not willing to do the things I say?” You see, Christ was always suspicious of an emotional religious faith that didn’t make much difference in the way a person lived. And so with these words he anchored discipleship in reality.” If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” 

What strange methods our Lord used to recruit disciples. He promised them a cross! Certainly nobody could say that he followed Jesus out of false pretenses. 

One day a group of enthusiasts came running to Jesus, eager to be disciples. “Have you sat down to count the cost?” he asked them. And these words threw cold water over their enthusiasm, for they wanted a religion that would cost them nothing. 

A rich young ruler came to Jesus and Jesus asked: “Are you willing to place your love for people ahead of your love for things?” He went away sorrowful for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 

I wondered what would have happened had we been there instead of Jesus. We certainly would not have turned the man away. Perhaps we could lower the standards a little bit; what an addition the man would have been in the church. This is to say that there is a great deal of difference between the appeal of Jesus and the appeal of popular religion today. Christianity has been beset by an epidemic of what might be called “slot-machine religion.” The big question asked today is: “What’s in it for me?” We have come to expect that, if we put in a nickel’s worth of religion, we ought to get a nickel’s worth of results. 

I once saw on the dust jacket of a book on prayer these words: “Now You Can Get What You Want From God!” Is this what religion is for? Is it to help me get what I want? What if what I want is different from what God wants? Will I still be content to serve him? 

The disciples who came to follow Jesus did not necessarily find their troubles were suddenly taken away. On the contrary, they inherited a whole new set of troubles. They were persecuted, hounded, ostracized, even crucified. “In the world you shall have tribulation,” he said, “but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world!” 

R.R. Maltby has said: “Jesus promised his disciples three things. They would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” 

Perhaps modern Christianity has lost some of its spark and power and sense of adventure because we have failed to warn people enough concerning the risk of following Jesus. It costs something to be a Christian. It is not the line of least resistance. In fact; Jesus said it was the line of most resistance. 

Straight is the gate and narrow is the way and few there be that find it.” Jesus was at least honest with his followers. He knew his way meant a cross and told them so. 

In the dark days of the World War 11, when Sir Winston Churchill took the helm of the floundering British ship of state, he offered his people not a bed of roses, but “blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” After the siege of Rome in 1849, the Italian patriot Garibaldi cried out: “Who will follow me? I have nothing to offer you but hunger and thirst, hardship and death!” The men rallied to follow him. 

Jesus never sought to lure men and women to follow him by the offer of an easy way. Instead he challenged them to the way of the cross. He sought to awake their sleeping souls, to inspire them to take the high way instead of the low. He promised peace, but not the peace of relaxation. It was the peace that is only found in the midst of great struggle. The peace of launching forth on a new adventure in faith, knowing that “underneath are the everlasting arms.” The peace even of the cross, confident in the faith that God will ultimately win the victory of resurrection. 

Jesus did not come to offer us an easy peace but an eternal victory. He came not to make life easy but to make men great. 

This, then is the hard saying of Jesus: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” Notice the “if.” He is saying: “You don’t have to follow me.” Nobody will force you to do so. But if some of the glory and wonder of the kingdom of God has come to possess your soul, if you want to take the glorious adventure of faith, this is the way.