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.

 

 

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

Christian Discipline

 

Hear the most welcoming and encouraging invitation ever offered: 

“Are you having a real struggle? Come to me! Are you carrying a big load on you back? Come to me – I’ll give you a rest! Pick up my yoke and put it on; take lessons from me, I’ll  be gentle with you! The last thing in my heart is to give you  a hard time. You’ll see – rest you need, and rest you shall        have. My yoke is easy to wear, my load is easy to bear.”

(Matthew 11:28-29, (Trans. N.T. Wright,Kingdom New Testament) 

Robert Frost was once asked how he would define freedom; without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “I would define freedom as being easy in your harness.” Thus he enunciated a basic and paradoxical truth about life. It calls to mind this teaching of Jesus about taking his yoke upon us in order to learn about him, and adding that the yoke is easy. 

Upon first hearing both of these statements sound like the antithesis of reality. How can freedom be found in a harness? Surely the wearing of a yoke could never be easy. The Pharisees had spoken of people being called to carry “the yoke of the Torah,” the heavy burden of the Jewish law with its commandments. But Jesus offered a different “yoke,” which, because it came from his mercy and love, was easy to bear. 

How could following Jesus really be that easy? Didn’t he himself say that people had to be prepared to leave behind family, possessions, even their own life? Yes, he did. But the ease and the joy, the rest and the refreshment which he offered, all spring from his own inner character, his gentleness and warmth to all who turn to him, weighed down by burdens moral, physical, emotional, financial or whatever. He is offering what he has in himself to offer. 

Yet it is a fact of human experience that we need discipline, and that unless we submit to it, we are not likely to find life in its largest dimension. 

The word “discipline” has many unfavorable or negative connotations. When we speak of an “undisciplined” child or adult, we usually mean that the person is uncontrolled, misbehaving, underachieving or unstructured. It suggests a rigorous effort to keep oneself or others under control and to acquire efficiency in human behavior. However, “discipline” as understood in the Christian context is not the rigor of self-discouraging, breast-beating, doing more and more “good deeds,” mere obedience to rules, or sophisticated techniques. 

Rather, as McNeil, Morrison and Nouwen suggest in their book Compassion, “In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden and to put on the lamp stand what has been kept under a basket. It is like raking away the leaves that cover the pathways in the garden of our soul. Discipline enables the revelation of God’s divine Spirit in us. Discipline in the Christian life does indeed require effort, but it is an effort to reveal rather than to conquer.” 

Even so, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Every generation is tempted by the lure of the undisciplined life. Oh, to be free and easy with no responsibilities and no restraints! But the lure proves deceitful and the freedom false. We look forward to idleness; but after we are away from our work for awhile, we are at loose ends. The student who ignores the requirements of the curriculum to let the mind wander at will inevitably becomes a slave to ignorance. The man or woman who chooses to ignore the precepts of morality in order to give free reign to the impulses of the body may wake up to find himself or herself in bondage to the flesh. Strange though it may sound, it is the accumulative experience of the race that the carefree life is not free from care. We are meant for discipline. 

When Jesus declares, in the old translation, that he is “meek and lowly of heart,” he isn’t boasting that he’s attained some special level of spiritual achievement. He is encouraging us to believe that he isn’t going to stand over us like a policeman, isn’t going to be cross with us like an angry schoolteacher. And the welcome he offers, for all who abandon themselves to his mercy, is the welcome God offers through him. This is the invitation which pulls back the curtain and lets us see who “the father” really is – and encourages us to come into his loving, welcoming presence. 

 

May God grant to all of us the grace to gladly accept the disciplines of the spiritual life, and may we find that the yokes which at first may feel heavy, at last become light and uplifting. Amen!

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

What Do You Get From Life?

  “Thou art what I get from life, O thou Eternal” -- Psalm 16:5 (Moffatt). 

Here are words which everyone uses somewhere along the trail of life. Somewhere a wayside altar is raised, knees are bent, and the deep affirmation of the heart is uttered. “This is what life means to me. Thou art what I get from life.” What is the image on the altar which calls forth this admission from us?

It is not always, probably not often, a clearly formulated prayer. But it is a real one nevertheless. Down in the mist, beneath the threshold of consciousness, this avowal of life’s supreme good is made, and it silently determines conduct. 

The altars of deepest desire are many and varied. On one of the main corners of New York City there is a broker’s office where a congregation of the faithful gathers every morning. The passer-by may look into the window and see them sitting in awe, worship, and hope before the sacred image on a raised platform, the stock ticker. This group of worshippers has continued during days of adversity, when faith in the ticker god has been sorely tried. The whole place has the aspect of a chapel. On a blackboard the sacred symbols of the cult, its solemn liturgy are inscribed, U.S. Steel, IBM, A.T.&T, Exxon. With the fervor of cupidity the declaration is made, “Thou art what I get from life, O Profit.” 

In Arthur D. Howden Smith’s life of John Jacob Astor, is recorded the last act of Astor’s life, signing the foreclosure of a mortgage. The name was affixed, and the pen dropped from the nerveless fingers. The ruling passion strong in death. “Thou art what I get from life, O New York Real Estate!” 

Often the god of deep desire is more subtle. It is in the symbol of position, of power, of exclusiveness, the plaudits of admiration, which are life’s elixir. It is a sobering thing to remember, that, so great is our capacity for self-deception, that the stark truth about a preacher, speaking in the name of God, would sometimes be that he says in his heart, not “Thou art what I get from life, O Thou Eternal,” but, rather, turning his eyes to waiting crowds and his ears to fluent compliments, says to them, “Thou art what I get.” 

Often the inner worship is down in a crypt, in a subcellar of human nature, where with head bowed not so much in the dust as in primordial mud, before animal appetites, a man says, “Thou art what I get from life, O thou ephemeral!” 

To this psalmist God was life’s supreme quest and reward. In him was life’s yield of meaning and zest. This entire hymn of Psalm 16 focuses on the goodness of the Lord. The personal pronoun “my” is used over a dozen times (my trust, my goodness, my cup, etc.). David’s joy (vv. 9, 11) is expressed in words like “delight” (vv. 3, 6), “pleasant” and “pleasure” (vv. 6, 11), and “glad” (v. 9). David finds his delight only in the Lord and confesses that everything good in his life has come from God. Can that be a permanent interpretation of experience? What does religion add to life, that a man can say of God, “Thou art what life means most richly to me?” 

A first thing which faith gives to life is a sense of security for the highest and dearest things of experience. The black pitch of darkness which a godless universe holds has never been more discriminatingly described than by William P. Montague, where he says in his Belief Unbound that with such lack of faith we are living in a universe where the things we care for most are at the mercy of the things we care for least. He says: 

"If God is not, then the existence of all that is beautiful and in any sense good, is but the accidental and ineffectual by-product of blindly swirling atoms, or of the equally unpurposeful, though more conceptually complicated, mechanisms of present-day physics. A man may believe that this dreadful thing is true. But only the fool will say in his heart that he is glad that it is true. For to wish there should   be no God is to wish that the things which we love and strive to realize and make permanent, should be only temporary and doomed to frustration and destruction. . . . Atheism leads not to badness but only to incurable sadness and loneliness." 

Faith in God gives to life an access of confidence, by which we can walk forward through the maze of life, in fellowship with One from whom we came. We get a new conception of ourselves, a new grounding of social hope, a new deepening of human relationship. As to this last, there is a profound theological implication to the familiar lines of Lovelace, 

          “I could not love thee, dear, so much,

               Loved I not honor more.” 

It runs through all human relationship. We could not love so deeply, so richly, where love did not move in a heightened conception of human personality, which in turn is grounded in a faith in the personality of God. 

To come back to where we started – to ourselves. What do we get from life? the second rate, or the fifth rate, or the highest and deepest it can give?

 

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

Grief and Glory

 “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . .” (Isaiah 53:3).

 Isaiah’s great description of the Messiah is one who is smitten and despised. It has long been debated as to whether he was thinking of a person or of his nation. The main point, however, is clear enough. The Messiah will not be regarded as success and victory, but as defeat and sorrow. Our Lord filled that ancient word with such profound meaning that, whenever we read the words of Isaiah, we think of Jesus.

 We ought to note, in the beginning, something of the sorrow and sadness of Christ. The medieval artists all labored this to such an extent that their portraits of him are nearly always a pain-drenched figure in anguish. This is the realism of the Bible and of our religion. We begin with the worst; we start with defeat and sorrow. An institution that cannot face bad times will not last very long. The cause that cannot stand defeat is not worthy of our loyalty. A leader whose appeal is only in success will not endure. 

Yet we must find something more than sorrow for men. Life demands joy. The church must be more than lugubrious. A person whose life exhibits only the grayness of failure has not become truly human. Yet, this is the place we have to start and ask what happens to us or to our purposes in the midst of defeat. Remember that H.G. Wells wrote a small book with the title, Mind at the End of Its Tether. A prophet of the hopeful dawn had become a prophet of the gloomy twilight and of death. 

The second thing we ought to note is the happiness and joy of Christ. Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles shows pictures of him smiling, for this is the impression that institution wants to give to those who sorrow. There is much to be said for this, and the ministry ought to be ready with a word of encouragement for those in trouble. The revival songs are all full of hope and optimism. 

But woe unto us if this is the only mood that we can create. The sects of our time sometimes try to make a religion out of happiness and joy. They endeavor to establish a proposition that to follow their way is to know only laughter. There is no realism here. The one who can be only sentimental stands on no real foundation that can endure. 

Let us look at a third point: these two seeming opposites must come together. The Christ who is the man of sorrows is also the Christ of victory. He is the one the Book of Revelation refers to as “the bright and morning star.” He is the one the crusader’s hymn describes as “Fairest Lord Jesus.” If we look at suffering in the world, we are overwhelmed, for everybody seems to be having a very difficult time. Life is not easy. Yet there runs through it sudden bursts of joy and hope. The Frenchman, Claudel, says that, when he heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he knew there was joy at the heart of the universe. In some strange way, out of the suffering, there comes the joy. 

Or think of love in all its beauty, but also in its sadness. Once we get involved with one another, we share extra burdens. Once we give hostages to fortune, as parents do, we have extra trouble. Yet there is in this love a strength and a power that finally brings to us refreshment and happiness. In spite of all its cost and demand, its reward is inspiration and confidence. 

If we turn to sacrifice, we discover the same truth. The worldly-wise man does not want to be taken in, as he says, and he never wants to get out on a limb. But to the man who finds something worth giving himself to, there is revealed the meaning of life and the awareness of its eternal significance. 

The last thing to say is that Christianity comes with a great paradox. Out of its suffering there comes triumph, and out of its stripes there comes healing. The Law which seems so severe can become the source of our liberty. The psalmist professes that he loves the Law. The moral law of life which is so severe proves to be that which sets us free and brings us fulfillment. Duty, which the poet called the stern voice of God, seems to be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. How amazing it is that duty turns into laughter and freedom. 

We find this in our lives. Were our parents beautiful or not? The question seems entirely minor as we think of our mother and her love. She was above our ordinary standards. Someone may comment that a friend of yours is very strange looking. You never noticed it because he is your friend, and in the qualities of his life you see beauty and wonder. So Jesus Christ, who to the world may be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, becomes to the Christian the Rose of Sharon and that which is altogether beautiful. When the Gospel touches us, it has the strange power of transforming what to the pagan is only grief and sorrow into triumph and hope. 

MCDOWELL'S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

“Expected the Unexpected”

While I am convalescing from my recent surgery I am forced into watching a lot of television. Mostly it has been viewing the unimaginable spectacle of politicians running for the office of President. Over my almost 80 years I have watched many of these and always marvel at the lack of logic – both secular and biblical – of those who see and hear these diatribes of fear and misdirecting blame. Our certainties and expectations change from day-to-day. It is still so.

Few of us older folks who watched will forget the embarrassment of the TV commentators when Lyndon Johnson renounced his political candidacy. Edwin Newman on NBC told us he had prepared an analysis of the speech based on the de-escalation of the Vietnam War. The President’s surprise announcement suddenly made canned analysis inappropriate, and Newman changed his mind. Roger Mudd on CBS plaintively asked that he be given permission to go home and go to bed. Most of us were similarly moved.

In that instant on March 31 a funny thing happened to a number of our political certainties and expectations. For a week I had to throw away new periodicals because the President’s decision had made their contents obsolete.

Alan Nevins called this the “explosive excitement of history,” and so it is. We live in an age of change and flux when words like “never,” “permanent,” “final,” “irrevocable,” ultimate,” and “status quo” have been replaced by words such as “process,” “chance,” “breakthrough,” “open-ended.” Ours is a time when institutions are finding the going tougher, whether they be nations or universities. It is a time when ethical decision, for so long the conventional wisdom of previous generations handed down, is today being wrought in the crucible of action and involvement. We live amid the volatility of history. In a time of systems analysis we have discovered that the only system upon which programming breaks down is the human system.

I saw a poster recently that pictured a man awakening from a good night’s sleep and opening his eyes to peer at the underside of an enormous elephant which was straddling his bed. The title of the poster was: “Expect the Unexpected.”

SENT INTO THE WORLD

Remember the old song: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” What is the Christian’s relationship to this present world? Are we to settle down and make ourselves at home, or reserve our energies for that world which is to come? Is the church to concern itself with the agonies of this age or stand aloof?

 One of the earliest teachings of Scripture is the Christian is different and is to live by nobler principles and higher values than those of carnal men (I John 2:15-17). But the devil is wise. As Christians earnestly seek to overcome worldliness, he will offer this apparently easy but ultimately disastrous solution: avoid the world altogether. He will tempt the church to substitute isolation for separation.

Christ spoke on the relationship between the church in the world in his great prayer (John 17:11, 15-18). In stressing the contrast between the world and the church, we must remember that Christ prayed: “Do not take the church completely out of the world. As you, Father, sent me into the world – to be involved in its problems, to be part of its agony, to be concerned about its sin, to be nailed to its cross – for these purposes send I them into the world.”

One of the early heresies of the church was that the world was not actually one but two. Two worlds! How tidy and convenient. It is an easy but wrong way out. The New Testament, in speaking of two worlds, speaks in reality of two ages: this age and the age to come, demanding that Christians prepare for eternity by following eternal standards. Paul literally says, “Be not conformed to this age” (2 Tim. 4:10). The repudiation the Christian is to make is of the values of this temporal age, not a repudiation of the people of this present world.

 This is no academic discussion. The error of dividing life into two entirely separate worlds results in practical damage to the church. It encourages the false compartmentalization of life into two practical spheres, secular and sacred. God is seen as working differently in two worlds and the Christian life is presented as an adjustment to such separated living. We come to believe that God is more interested in religion than life. We come to regard the Christian’s business on Sunday as sacred, but his business on Monday as secular. How artificial! This unreal, unbiblical division will not stand. My commitment to God is total; it knows no cubbyholes or compartments.

 The church has too often successfully called its members out of the world, out of community and civic life, and as a result it now often resembles an irrelevant island of piety surrounded by an ocean of need, a flickering light hid under a bushel. Jesus would say, “Get the bushel off the light and let it shine within the world.” Let us remember Jesus’ sermon:

                      “You are the light of the world. A city that is set

                     on a hill cannot be hid . . . Let your light so shine         

                     before men, that they may see your good works,

                     and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16).

 

Light is in the world, and that is where Christ’s church must go for that is where lost people need saving.

Help! 

For more than thirty years I taught people preparing to be counselors. Counseling is considered to be one of the helping professions. I have therefore had a lot of time to think about helping. What does it mean to help someone – and what does it mean not to help someone. They go together, of course, as most people discover sooner or later. The word help strikes me as belonging more to Buber’s I-Thou relationship, (assuming I have grasped Buber) than altruism because the other cannot remain detached from the evaluation of my acts and because help is always an action. The other gets to weigh in on whether it was a help and on how much help I was. 

Help cuts about as close to the bone of what it means to be human as any subject I can think of. We are, almost by definition and certainly from the beginning of our lives, creatures who require a lot of help. We are born dependent on others to live. Therefore it strikes me as odd that “sucking” has become a bad word. Teachers suck, you suck, the world sucks, are terms I have heard from young and adult alike. But sucking is good. Sucking is how we come into the world and how we are sustained – first, sucking air, then sucking milk. How did this nurturing behavior (help) get such a slanderous reputation? 

I have the sense it’s because sucking has come to mean that you are attached to something or someone other than yourself and therefore not functioning at optimal self-sufficiency – you’re suffering from a disease called dependency. You do realize this is nonsense! All of have dependent needs, and seeking help to fulfill them isn’t a disease. We are not always number one and doing our own thing; sometimes we’re sick and afraid and would like someone else to paddle our canoe. Feeling dependent is part of being human: that’s how we come into the world, and hopefully, it’s how we get out. Dependency is different from the neurotic condition of codependency, in which you submerge all your needs to fulfill someone else’s. 

Everybody is dependent because nobody makes it alone. That’s why we all have belly buttons – to remind us that we were once attached to and dependent on someone other than ourselves. Our ability to give and receive help may be our best alternative for defining humankind. The poet Goethe seemed to think so:

          Noble let man be,

          Helpful and good!

          For that alone

          Distinguishes him

          From all beings

          That we know of. 

The centrality of help to human nature is expressed in the biblical story of our human origin. Eve is created as “an help meet,” to use the English of the King James Bible, which in 1611 meant “a fit helper.” Popular usage has tended to misquote this as “helpmate.” Since Eve is fit to help Adam, we have to assume that he must also be fit to help her. He too seems to have been created to help. He helps the Creator by giving the animals their names, and a chapter before he is cursed with the punishment of toil, he is blessed with the work of tending to the Garden of Eden. 

Our pagan ancestors, who built great bonfires on the tops of hills to help the sun rekindle its warmth at the winter solstice, were thinking along the same lines. We tell ourselves we have grown out of such nonsense. We have now “developed” to a stage where, if we refuse to help nurture each other, we not only will cease to be human, we will cease to be. 

No less than we use help to define the human, we use help to invoke the divine. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth,” says one of the psalms. “Heaven help us!” we pray; “God help you!” we threaten, invoking help even for those we should like to kick. God is love according to the Scriptures, but it would seem that love, whether human or divine, is help. The medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich says in her Revelation of Divine Love, “I say that for us [God] is everything that is good and comforting and helpful.” 

Then too we discovered that we could refuse help. We could insist on accomplishing something by ourselves – “By self!” – though this insistence did not automatically mean (yet another epiphany) that we could actually do it by ourselves. Surely the revelation of our abilities to receive, give, and refuse help are among the most exciting and, shall we say, messy developments in the life of a young child. When we came to understand our needs and our desires in relationship to those people we could count on to meet them we were growing up (maturing), there followed the heady discovery that this helping business could be a reciprocal deal, that patty-cake wasn’t just a game; it was a demonstration of torah. The desperate cry of “Mommy, help!” could be turned into “Help Mommy.” 

Help is like the swinging door of human experience: “I can help!” we exclaim and go toddling into the sunshine; “I was no help at all,” we mutter and go shuffling to our graves. On the other hand, a sense of impending mortality has the potential to make us more compassionate. “I shall pass this way but once” and all the rest of that, so I ought to be as helpful as I can. I want to have made a difference.  

“Teach us to care and not to care,” T. S. Eliot prays in his poem “Ash Wednesday.” Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to be taught – or teach others – not to care. But I should like to learn when caring comes down to an honest appreciation of those creatures and persons who flourish without my help. In short, I should like to learn to be more humble. Run the roads with Eliot’s line, and it reads something like this: “Teach us to stop at the scene of accidents, and teach us to drive straight by.” Teach us to keep out of the way of the ambulance crews. 

It is the nature of us all to be selfish and want to put our own needs and desires before others. The Bible gives clear direction however on our need to give glory to God by helping others. We are to love as He loved us. He is “our help in ages past.” 

I would leave you with two verses from the Bible, one from Paul and one from our Lord for your consideration in being a helper. 

“Carry each other’s burdens; that’s the way to fulfill the Messiah’s law” (Galatians 6:2). 

            Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come here, you people who my father has blessed. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world! Why? Because I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome. I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you looked after Me; I was in prison and you came to me’” (Matthew 25”34. 35).

 

 

IS IMMORTALITY A CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE? 

I have too often heard ministers at funerals say that the human body is just a shell and how “you have an eternal soul that will live forever.” I know that people including Christians try to be of comfort, but this is in no way Christian doctrine or teaching. The idea of an immortal soul is an old Greek idea that has infected the Christian church, despite the church’s alternative – and quite distinct – teaching called the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. 

The early Christian belief in future resurrection was based on Jesus’ own resurrection, which they rightly saw as an event within history, bringing to birth God’s future world in advance of its full appearing. Paul drew out the significance of this, not least in terms of the renewal and redemption of the entire cosmos (Romans 8:18-25). 

Resurrection took center stage and would involve the transformation of the present body into a new type of physicality, incapable of incorruption (and hence immortal; “immortality” need not mean, and as used in 1 Corinthians 15:52-54 does not mean, “disembodied immortality”). 

Shirley C. Guthrie, a great theologian in his classic book Christian Doctrine, outlines what I mean as clearly as anyone:

 “If we hold to the genuinely biblical hope for the future, we must firmly reject this doctrine of the soul’s immortality for several reasons. 

First, the Christian faith does not pretend that death is not so bad after all …. For the biblical writers death is real, total and terrible….

Death is hideous, because, so far as we are concerned, it means the death of us, not just the death of our bodies. 

“Secondly….the Christian hope is not in the indestructibility of man, but in the creative power of God…..God alone has immortality. If there is life beyond death for men, it is not because they possess in themselves some immortal quality death cannot destroy, but because God has given them eternal life or immortality … Christians are not optimistic about man and the potentialities he has in himself, but about God and what he can and will do…. 

Finally, Christians reject the doctrine of the immortality of the soul because of the unbiblical split it makes between body and soul, physical-earthly and spiritual-heavenly life …. The Bible does not teach that the body is only a worthless or evil prison which degrades our true selves….The biblical hope is not for the soul’s escape from the bodily-physical into some purely spiritual realm. Our hope is the renewal of our total human existence.” 

Indeed, as N.T. Wright makes so clear in his book Simply Christian, the Christian belief is that God will renew not just human existence but the whole of creation. 

Person who speak of the deceased person’s body as just a shell from which one’s immortal soul is now evacuated could learn true Christian theology by reading the Scriptures more carefully. I would also suggest learning more about this doctrine from reading such books as Faith Seeking Understanding by Daniel L. Migliore and Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long. 

Somehow I expect Christian ministers to understand traditional Christian doctrine and am always disappointed when I find them offering something else.