Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THE SONG WE LIVE BY

        It is not uncommon for a poet to describe life as a song.  For example, the 16th century English poet, Edmund Spenser, concluded each stanza of a poem with the refrain: "Sweet Themmes runne softly, till I end my song" (Prothalamion).  What is our song?

        One of my favorite novelists, Wendell Berry, is also a poet.  In one poem he reflects on life as he sits in a cemetery.  It begins, The valley holds its shadow.  My loves lie round me in the dark.  There, in that dark valley of graves he considers where his life is going.  Then, in the last stanza he says.

Sitting among the bluebells
in my sorrow, for lost time
and the never forgotten dead, 
I saw a hummingbird stand
in air to drink from flowers.
It was a kiss he took and gave.
At his lightness and the ardor
of his throat, the song I live by
stirred my mind.  I said; 
"By sweetness alone it survives.*

                                                       What is the song we live by?

        A praise song that I really like, one that we sometimes sing in our worship, is titled "10,000 Reasons."  Do you remember this part?

The sun comes up, its a new day dawning.
Its time to sing your song again.
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me,
Let me be singing when the evening comes.

        But what is our song?  And what is it about?  The world has a lot of songs to offer.  There is the seductive melody of materialism.  There is the exciting anthem of applause and fame.  There is the blood-stirring drumbeat of conflict, competition and war.  But those songs have no hope in them.  Their promises are empty ad those who sing them end up singing the blues.

        What is the song that the people of God have always sung?  We can hear it after the Lord saved Israel from the Egyptians when Moses and the people sang:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation" (Exod 15:1-2)

        When Isaiah looked down the long corridor of time and saw the Messiah coming he said, You will say in that day, ... behold, God is my salvation.  I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation" (Isa 12:1-2).

        What is our song?  Certainly one expression of it comes from John's vision of the Lamb, standing as if slain, and he reports in Revelation 5:9, "they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.'"

        The Lord's Supper reminds us that the song of our life is one of praise for the Lamb who has given us redemption and victory over evil and the forces of evil.  And so we go from this table, saying with the song writer,

The sun comes up, its a new day dawning.
Its time to sing your song again.
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me,
let me be singing when the evening comes.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

STANDING IN THE BREACh

        Before the devastating exile of Israel to Babylon Ezekiel, in chapter 22, delivered a word from the Lord that was a blistering indictment upon Jerusalem.  He called it a "bloody city" and then described in detail the violence, sexual immorality, idolatry, extortion and corruption within it.  He left no one out.  Princes, prophets, priests and people were all guilty.  In the Lord's eyes, he said, you are dross, a useless slag heap of dross that will be thrown into the furnace and melted into nothingness.

        With the threat of destruction at the hands of the Babylonians on the horizon he added this sad word:  I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.

        Sometimes it takes only one courageous, righteous man to stand in the breach, stop a great evil and save the land.  Psalm 106:23 points to a time when this happened.  It was in the Sinai wilderness when the Lord was ready to destroy disobedient Israel because they were worshiping a golden calf.  The Psalm says, Therefore, He said he would destroy them -- had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them. 

        As I read the sins of Israel that Ezekiel listed I thought of Paul's equally blistering indictment of both Gentile and Jew that covers nearly three chapters in Romans.  I am afraid that all of us can find ourselves someplace in his description.  He concludes, in part, with these words in Romans 3,

None is righteous, no, not one;
No one understands, no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
No one does good, not even one ...
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

        Can destruction be far behind?  Is there someone who can stand in the breach on our behalf?  Yes, Paul continues in Romans 3, there is one.  God himself has put forth his chosen one, his own son, to provide redemption for all who believe.  As he hangs on the cross he stands in the breach, faces the greatest enemy we could ever have, and wins the victory.  Therefore, we can join Paul as he says later in Romans, We are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

        For him we give thanks as we partake of this bread, which he said was his body given for us, and of this cup which he said was the new covenant in his blood, shed for the remission of sins.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

IS YOUR HARP IN TUNE?

        David Pavlovich is a professional harpist who has played in hospitals many times, first in the San Francisco bay area and now in Arizona.  He wrote a book, Music In Hospitals, in which he provides many inspirational stories about how music, especially live harp music, aids the healing process.  However, he says, there is this joke about harpists: "We spend half our  lives tuning and the other half playing out of tune.  Its true.  The modern harp is a very delicate instrument. ... Oxygen, gravity, humidity and temperature creation continually affect the tune of the harp" (p 47).

        In biblical terms a hospital full of sick people is like the world we live in, a world full of sick people.  Sin affects all of us to one extent or another.  Like a hospital that includes all ranges of illness, from the barely sick to those near death, the world of sinners includes all kinds of sinners, from compassionate servants like Mother Teresa to genocidal monsters like Adolf Hitler.  As the Bible says, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).  First John 1:10 puts it more bluntly, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar ..."  

        And yet, we humans are part of the creation which Paul says in Romans 1:21 demonstrates "His eternal power and divine nature."  Or as he put it in Eph 1:11-12, we who are chosen and privileged to receive His blessing are chosen explicitly to live "to the praise of his glory."  In other words, God, as the Great Musician, wants to use us as his instruments to play the kind of music that brings Him glory, attracts others to Him and brings healing to the world  Thankfully, He is able to use instruments that are always at least a little out of tune.

        The only person who was ever totally in tune with God's will was Jesus and think of what beautiful music the Great Musician was able to play with him:  the soothing notes of his comforting presence, the challenging music of his teachings, the sad strains of his crucifixion, and the triumphant anthem of his resurrection, all combining to make a world-healing symphony.

        In Revelation 14 there is a picture of heaven where multitudes of the redeemed, thousands and thousands, are standing with the Lamb.  John hears a loud sound.  He listens and then he uses three ways to describe it.  He said it was "... like the sound of many waters, and like the sound of loud thunder, and the sound that I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps."

        Doesn't that vision make you want to keep your harp in tune ... to keep your life in tune with God's will?  We go out of tune so easily.  Today, now, at this table we can listen again to that one whose life was perfectly in tune with God and tune our lives to His.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

GIVING THANKS

      If you are asked unexpectedly to pray at your family's thanksgiving gathering it might be well to avoid what one man said. Ben Witherington, in a book on the Lord's Supper, tells of a particular thanksgiving dinner at his aunt's house in Statesville, North Carolina.  He wrote, "As we were all sitting down, she asked by father to pray impromptu over the meal she had been preparing for many hours.  Somewhat flustered and unprepared he prayed, 'Dear Lord, please bless our sins and pardon this food in your son's name.   Amen.'"  (Making a Meal of It, 17).

      It is no surprise that  prayer on Thanksgiving day, said with family gathered at a table covered with delicious food, would express heartfelt thanks.  But what of other days, in other circumstances?  Prayers have a way of getting at the heart of a matter.  If you want to know how you feel about life, you might examine your prayers, especially prayers offered when you face a crisis of some kind.

      Jesus was very much aware of the crisis he faced when he met with his apostles in the upper room.  He knew the danger he was in.  What was his prayer at that time?  Three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, along with Paul in 1 Corinthians, record what happened at the meal.  There are variations in the wording, in the sequence of events, and in other aspects of their descriptions, but one phrase is found to be the same in all accounts.  It is simply this" "when he had given thanks...".  Whatever the prayer went on to say, at the heart of Jesus' prayer was thanksgiving.  Jesus must have been at heart a thankful person.

      Through the centuries since then four terms, all based on NT passages, have been used to name this observance.  One is "the bread breaking," or "breaking of bread," based on Jesus' words and action in the upper room.  Also, we call it "communion," which translates the Greek word used by Paul in reference to it.  We also call it "the Lord's Supper," based on the evening meal Jesus had with  his disciples in the upper room.  The fourth is a term you and I, in our non-liturgical tradition, seldom use but it is probably the most common name used throughout the world: "Eucharist."  It comes from that phrase, "when he had given thanks."  In doing  this, Jesus provided a model, not just for how to observe communion, but how thanks can be a way of life expressed in prayer.

      I am not saying that we should start using the word "eucharist" more often, although that would certainly be appropriate, but I am saying that our observance here should express a thanksgiving that carries over into all of life.  The former secretary of the United Nations, Dag Hammerskjold, must have had that kind of outlook on life because shortly before his untimely death he said something that could very well be our prayer at this table, or on Thursday at the family table, and at all times of life -- especially times of crisis.  He said simply, "For all that has been, thanks; for all that shall be, yes."

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Our Historical Faith

        It is good to have international students in our service.  Through the hospitality of Nick and Anita we have come to know young adults from Asia, South America, and other places in the world who have come to study at the University of Oregon.  Meeting students from China always reminds me of a history course that I took as an elective at the University of Oregon on the history of China.  This was only a few years after World War II and my professor had been an army intelligence officer stationed in China during the war.  Ironically, his name was Professor Dull -- but he was anything but dull as a professor.  He made it interesting but above all he demonstrated how important it is for us to know such history.

         Certainly, the history of our faith, particularly of Jesus and his actions, is particularly important and full of life.  I heard an atheist on Larry King Live one day say that there is no secular evidence that Jesus ever lived.  Of course, she denied the validity of many eye witness accounts in the New Testament, and ignored Josephus and other writers who provide important evidence.

        The historical character of the Christian faith sets it apart from some other world religions that are based more on myth and philosophical ideas.  We can point to specific historical events in which our faith is rooted. The sermons in the book of Acts demonstrate how our faith is rooted both in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus as well as in the life of the early church.  One of the historical events that is of particular significance to us now is the execution of Jesus on the cross, and his meeting with the apostles for the last supper in the upper room.  As we think about these and other events in the life of Jesus our faith comes alive.  It is anything but "dull."

        We remember, therefore, what Jesus said in the upper room.  Paul was the first to record the history of this event when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, 'this is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.'  In the same way, he took a cup also, after supper, saying, 'this cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'"  Paul concluded by saying, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."  So let us do what Paul says and proclaim history -- proclaim his death until he comes.

Monday, August 19, 2013

WHY BOTHER?

        I visited briefly not long ago with Doug Priest.  Doug and Marge were in Athena where he was the minister of the Christian Church part of the time that I lived in Milton-Freewater.  We spent several happy hours hiking and fishing in the Wallowa Eagle Cap Wilderness before he took his family to Ethiopia for missionary work.  They served in a remote area where the gospel had never been preached before.

        One day, when he was on furlough, he mentioned a problem that they had in Ethiopia concerning the Lord's Supper.  There were no grapes in their out-of-the-way area.  How do you have the Lord's Supper without grape juice?  It was not feasible to ship it in and they certainly did not want to introduce wine to the area.  Instead, they brought in packets of grape Kool-Aid.  However, some areas did not have Kool-Aid so they used lemon juice.  He also told me of missionaries in Papua New Guinea where no flour was available for making bread, so they used sweet potatoes.

        A more desperate situation was faced by J. Russell Morse when he was a missionary in Southern China.  In 1951 he was arrested by the communists and held in solitary confinement for 15 months.  He suffered many deprivations and was tortured both mentally and physically in ways that he never described even to his own family.  For a long time he expected each day to be his last.  He said:

Back in my prison, I prepared to die and I followed a procedure that I feel sure was followed by     thousands in the early New Testament Church. ... Daily, for months, I partook of those emblems,       using steamed bread and water, which I had saved from my meals.  And each day I prepared             myself for that death which I thought might come at any hour.

        When I think of how so many Christians, in so many places, over hundreds of years have persisted in observing the Lord's Supper in whatever way they could I have to ask, "why bother?"

        Morse answered that question for himself -- and I expect for countless other Christians also -- when he said:

I remember that [the early Christians] had been admonished to forsake not the assembling of             themselves.   Also, in regard to the Lord's Supper, they had been told, "This do ... in remembrance     of me", as they partook of the emblems of the Lord's broken body and shed blood.  As they                 themselves faced death, they partook of them, remembering that He had been scourged by Roman     soldiers; a crown of thorns had been pressed down upon his head; ... He had been forced to carry       the cross upon which he soon was to be nailed to die there.  And Jesus had said, "A servant is not       greater than his Lord."*

        Why do we bother to assemble each Sunday?  Why do we bother to take the Lord's Supper?  Why bother?  How would you answer?

*Gertrude Morse. The Dogs May Bark But the Caravan Moves On, 304.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Snatching Victory From Defeat

        We have just celebrated Independence Day.  In his book 1776 David McCullough reminded us of how we came to not winning independence.  He described a rag-tag, undisciplined, poorly equipped, often unpaid bunch of laborers, farmers, tradesmen, and business men who fought against a superior force of experienced military people.  Not surprisingly, they lost battle after battle.  How they won the war is difficult to say.  As the old saying goes, they "snatched victory from the jaws of defeat."  The outcome was, in the opinion of many, both providential and miraculous.

        An even greater victory through defeat occurred when Jesus died on the cross.  In chapter 11 of Ron Heine's book, Classical Christian Doctrine, Ron explains that there are "three major ways the redemptive work of Christ as been understood by Christians."  One of these is most clearly consistent with what can be seen in both the church fathers of the second and third centuries and also in the New Testament.  It portrays Christ as "doing battle with the devil and the forces of evil that hold this world captive."  It would come to be called by the term Christus Victor."

        In the Gospels the battle with the devil can be seen from the very beginning of Jesus ministry.  His temptations set the theme for all that would follow.  Sometimes his confrontation with evil was in the form of evil spirits, but more often it was in the form of sickness, prejudice, violence, and sinful actions or attitudes.  The battle was fierce.  Often he would withdraw to pray.  Finally, we see him, as Isaiah prophetically said, "despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief ... we esteemed him stricken, smitten, and afflicted ... he was wounded for our transgressions ... bruised for our iniquities ... he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth ..." (Isa 53).

        As Jesus hung upon the cross all appeared to be lost.  His disciples thought so.  The women mourned and the men ran away in fear.  Peter denied him.  It appeared that the forces of evil had won.  Jesus was dead -- really dead and buried!  Defeated!  But then angels rolled away the stone and God raised him from the dead -- snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.  As a result we have freedom from death, hope for life to come, and peace with God.

Many texts in the NT mention this battle and victory but one that I particularly like is Hebrews 2:14 that speaks about Jesus partaking of flesh and blood so "that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil."  It was this that led Paul to express our praise in 1 Corinthians 15:57, "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."