Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dealing With Opposition

Mark 11:12-14, 20-24

“Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none…”

Luke 13:7

Jesus and his disciples were making their way down the west slope of the Mount of Olives when our Lord caught sight of a fig tree in the distance. When he approached it he found “nothing but leaves,” not even the buds that normally precede the mature fruit. The tree was utterly barren. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” And his disciples “heard him.”

What is this? His pique seems out of character.

The next day, Jesus and his disciples passed by the fig tree and saw that it had withered away. “Look,” Peter said, “the fig tree has withered.” “Have faith in God,” was Jesus’ laconic reply. Then He pointed to the temple mount (the demonstrative “this mountain” suggests that conclusion) and spoke of its ultimate removal. Mount Zion and the temple built on its crest was the center of official resistance to Jesus’ work. There was no spiritual fruit there; only hostility. Israel’s leaders even then were plotting his death. Faith, he insisted, is the means by which this “mountain” of resistance would be removed.

What is this, but a lesson in dealing with opposition. How do we meet resistance? Not by bitter engagement, violence, force and fierce debate, and surely not by passivity, but by faith, i.e., by prayer, the expression of our utter dependence upon God (vs. 23,24). We must put our opponents in His hands, put them out of our thoughts, and go about our work. He will deal with them in due time. As Jesus put it on another occasion, “Every plant that my Father has not planted will be rooted up. Leave them alone” (Matthew 15:13,14).

There is a postscript here: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him…” (vs. 25). We must pray that God will deal with our opponents, and we must forgive them. This is the face that grace turns toward opposition.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

I Heard a Voice Behind Me

-George Matheson

"I heard a voice behind me, as of a trumpet" -Revelation 1:10

I heard a voice behind me;
On the road I had passed it by;
It was lost in the way of the garish day;
It was powerless while it was nigh;
It was like the ram in the thicket
That Abraham did not find
Till he turned his back on the coming track,
And looked on the days behind.

And so, my soul, it is ever
With the blessings round thy head;
They are not known till the bird is flown,
And the bloom of the flower is dead.
Thou art pressing on to the future,
And the past is out of mind
Till the hour of pain calls thee back again
To dwell in the days behind.

Thou art asking a revelation

Of thy Father's guiding love,
And it seems to thee that thy light shall be
From the things that are stored above,
But the path whereon now thou movest
Is itself with mercy lined,
And the brightest gleam of the upper stream
Shall be caught from the days behind.

0 Father of light and leading,
From the top of each rising bill
Let me cast my eye on the road gone by
To mark the steps of Thy will!
For the clouds that surround the present
Shall leave this heart resigned,
When the joy appears in the path of tears
That led through the days behind.

God's will is better seen in retrospect than in prospect, or so it seems to me. It's by casting our "eye on the road gone by" that we most clearly "mark the steps of (his) will."

God has an itinerary for each of us, I believe; a "course" that we must run.[1] Our route is charted in the councils of heaven and rooted in the sovereign purposes of God. Yet our choices are not irrelevant. We make decisions every day, large and small, many of which have life-altering consequences. The question then-forgoing the confounding mystery of God's sovereignty and human free will-is this: How can we, in our choices, correctly reflect his will?

The answer is clear to me, now that I'm older and have more of the past to see. It is by looking back that I see my Father's guiding love. I may not have seen it in process, but I see it now: Love and Wisdom have led me all the way.

So...though clouds "surround the present" and much uncertainty lies ahead, my heart is duly resigned. The "Father of light and leading" will be faithful to show me the way. My task is to follow Him in love and obedience, and leave the next step to Him.

And how will I know the next step? I do not know. I do know, however, that I shall know it when I need to know. "My light shall be from the things that are stored above." On what basis do I make that assertion? By "dwelling on the days behind."


[1] Cp., Acts 20:24 and 2 Timothy 4:7 Paul's word, dromon, means "a race course."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


By George Herbert

As men, for fear the stars should sleep and nod
And trip at night, have spheres[1] suppli'd;
As if a star were duller than a clod,
Which knows his way without a guide:

Just so the other heav'n they also serve,
Divinity's transcendent sky:
Which with the edge of wit they cut and carve.
Reason triumphs, and faith lies by.[2]

Could not that wisdom, which first broacht[3] the wine,
Have thicken'd it with definitions?
And jagg'd[4] his seamless coat, had that been fine,
With curious questions and divisions?

But all the doctrine, which he taught and gave,
Was clear as heav'n, from whence it came.
At least those beams of truth, which only save,
Surpass in brightness any flame.

Love God, and love your neighbor. Watch and pray.
Do as ye would be done unto.
O dark instructions; ev'n as dark as day!
Who can these Gordion knots undo?

But he doth bid us take his blood for wine.
Bid what he please; yet I am sure,
To take and taste what he doth there design,
Is all that saves, and not obscure.

Then burn thy Epicycles,[5] foolish man;
Break all thy spheres, and save thy head.
Faith needs no staff of flesh, but stoutly can
To heav'n alone both go, and lead.

Herbert was a contemporary of philosopher René Descartes who, allegedly, was looking for a way to ground the Christian faith in reason, but, in a striking instance of the Law of Unintended Consequence, set in motion the so-called Cartesian Revolution, a movement away from faith to rationalism.[6] Herbert, aware of Descartes' growing influence, may have penned this poem in response.

He begins with astronomers' efforts to map the skies and develop constructs for the movement of the stars. Presumably, they did so to serve "Divinity's transcendent sky," the world of spiritual realities. They "cut and carved" with human wit (wisdom), but only darkened wise counsel with words. Reason triumphed and faith was laid aside.

Could not the wisdom that "broacht" (opened) the wine at Cana have supplied an explanation for the miracle and "thickened it with definitions"? Jesus could have, but chose not to, nor has he explained everything else that puzzles us. The universe is shrouded in paradox, contradiction and mystery, a phenomenon Rutgers' philosopher, Colin McGinn, calls the Mysterion Position: the notion that our minds are simply incapable of knowing all there is to know. There are absolute limitations to the human intellect that cannot be overcome.

God does draw lines, but, as George MacDonald said, his lines are very thin, and often invisible. To draw hard lines everywhere, therefore, is futile. Worse yet, hard lines divide us and become occasion for acrimonious debate. Hence the old cliché, "No one damns like the orthodox."

For this reason, as I've grown older, my list of absolutes has grown correspondingly shorter. There are essentials of which I have no doubt, but much is mystery to me. I ponder these puzzles periodically, but they don't bother me anymore. I know "there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in (my) philosophy." This is what "saves my head."

This is the sentiment echoed by George MacDonald's father in a letter to his son about the long-standing, divisive debate over God's sovereignty and our free will: "[I cannot] bear to see that which is evidently gospel mystery torn to pieces by those who believe that there is no mystery in the Scriptures and therefore attempt to explain away what it is evidently for the honor of God to conceal. I see so much of mystery in nature, and so much of it in myself, that it would be proof to my mind that the Scriptures were not from God were there nothing in them beyond the grasp of my own mind." [7]

That being said, our Lord did not leave us in the dark with regard to the things that matter, but has given instruction that is "clear as heav'n from whence it came." He has revealed "beams of truth, which only save (sanctify)." These he enumerates: "To love God, and love your neighbor. Watch and pray. Do as ye would be done unto"-simple directives Herbert describes, with subtle irony, as Gordion knots,[8] and "dark instructions; ev'n as dark as day!" To love and to pray and to do good to others-a few things I know I must do. This is the more excellent way.

Mark Twain said, "It's not the things I don't understand in the Bible that concern me, but the things I do understand."[9] Exactly. It is my prayer that I, at last, may do those things that matter.[10]


[1] spheres: Concentric hollow globes that were thought to rotate around the earth and carry heavenly bodies, according to the Ptolemaic astronomy of Herbert's day.
[2] lies by: is unused
[3] broacht: opened
[4] jagg'd: torn
[5] Epicycles: In Ptolmaic astronomy, each of the seven planets was thought to move in a circle, the center of which rotated around the earth. Circles within circles, ad infinitum.
[6] Another contemporary, Blaise Pascal, said, "I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God."
[7] In a letter to his son, May 31, 1850
[8] The Gordian Knot is a legend associated with Alexander the Great and is a metaphor for an intractable problem. The irony lies in the fact that this "knot" can be untied by anyone and the darkness of these instructions is "as dark as day(light)."
[9] Mark Twain and Scottish preacher and poet George MacDonald were friends. I do hope MacDonald's gracious Jesus, at some point, found his way into Mark Twain's heart.
[10] Cf., Philippians 1:10. Paul's verb, diaphero, here translated "matter," means, "to make a difference."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Call to Failure

By George Matheson

I had a call to a mission,
Signed in my heart and sealed,
And I felt my success was certain,
And the end seemed already revealed;
The sea was without a murmur,
Unwrinkled its even flow,
And I heard the master commanding,
And I was constrained to go.

But, out from the peaceful haven,
There woke a terrible storm,
And the waves around were in chaos,
And the land appeared without form
And I stretched my hands to the Father
And cried in a chilling fear-
"Didst not Thou pledge Thy presence!
And naught but failure is here!"

Then in the midst of the thunder
There rose a still, small voice,
Clear through the roar of the waters,
Deep through their deafening noise:
"Have I no calls to failure!
Have I no blessing for loss!
Must not the way to thy mission
Lie through the path of thy cross!"

It came as a revelation-
It was worth the price of the gale
To know that the souls that conquer
Must at first be the souls that fail-
To know that where strength is baffled
I have reached the common ground
Where the highest meet with the lowly
Where the heart of man is found

O door of the heart's communion
My Father gave me the key
When he called me out to the ocean,
And summoned the storm to me;
For the wings of the storm that smote me
Were the wings of humanity's breast
As it moved on the face of the waters
And sighed for an ark of rest

Years have gone by since that sadness
And many an hour has come
When the storm in the ships of others
Has signaled me out from home;
Yet I never can see that signal
But I feel how much I owe
To the day that, when called to failure,
My steps were constrained to go.

History is unrepeatable, historians say, but it can be re-lived many times in one's memory. Our successes we like to savor; our failures we'd rather forget. I'm gradually learning, however, "how much I owe to the day that, when called to failure, my steps were constrained to go."

I'm learning that blunders, mistakes and missed opportunities are means of grace and great blessing if we accept them as part of our call. "Souls that conquer must at first be the souls that fail." There is no other way.

Through humiliation our "strength is baffled," we're disabused of our illusions of grandeur and brought low. There, we learn "to meet with the lowly."[1] Our losses enable us "to find the heart of man," i.e., to get "in touch" with its feelings. We can empathize with those who have fallen; we can accept and love them as no other can.

But we must let go of regret. "As long as
we remain [constrained] by things that we wish had not happened, about
mistakes we wish we had not made, part of our heart remains
isolated, unable to bear fruit in the new life ahead of us."[2] Brooding over past disasters intimidates us and turns us away from love; feelings of inadequacy isolate us. We're afraid to venture ourselves again.

But when we accept our failures as simple proof that we're inadequate in the core of our being, God's strength is made perfect in weakness. We have grace to turn outward to others and to do so with greater compassion, wisdom and understanding. Thus our mistakes, by God's grace, are turned into good.

Failure is not ruinous; we are called to failure and owe much to each day that we fail. The lessons that we learn there, "are worth the price of the gale."


[1] Matheson is thinking here of Romans 12:16 and Paul's admonition to "associate with the lowly."
[2] Henri Nouwen

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Nobody Knows My Name

“As unknown, and yet well known…” (2Corinthians 6.9).

Consider those nameless individuals whose stories appear on the pages of scripture: the woman at the well; the boy who offered his loaves and fishes to Jesus; the widow who gave her last mite; the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus; the Good Samaritan; the repentant thief on the cross. All these good folks live in anonymity; nobody knows their names.

Perhaps you too are unknown, one of those unsung workers who toil for years in obscurity, overlooked and unrewarded by family, church or community, while others “make a name for themselves.” Your life is hidden, your work is unrecognized; no one knows your name.

Rejoice! Your name is written in heaven.

God knows who you are and what you’ve done for his sake. Your labor is not in vain. You may receive little or no recognition in this life, but on the day when you stand in our Lord’s presence you will receive unqualified praise (1Corinthians 4:5). He will say to you as he will say to all who have loved and served him, “Well done my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 5:21).

Unknown? You are well–known in the highest circles!


Putting Us Right “An’ noo, for a’ oor wrang-duins (wrong-doings) an’ ill-min’ins (misjudgments), for a’ oor sins and tre...