Friday, October 28, 2011

Star Shepherd

“Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these…” (Isaiah 40:26)

Some night, when you’re away from the lights of the city, look up. There in the heavens you’ll see a luminous band of stars, stretching from horizon to horizon, the “Milky Way”—our galaxy.

Our galaxy is a massive, flattened, rotating disk of stars 80,000 light years in diameter. If you could travel at the speed of light (approximately 186,000 miles per second) it would require 80,000 years to traverse our galaxy. It contains about 400 billion stars.

In 1995 two astronomers in Baltimore, Md. conducted what became known as the Hubble Deep Field Study: They took an exposure of a small patch of sky and discovered over 3000 galaxies (not stars, galaxies) in that tiny portion of space. Based on that discovery, astronomers now estimate that there are more than a trillion galaxies in the cosmos, each containing billions of stars!

Yet, each night, without fail, God “brings out their host by number …He knows them all by name. By the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26).

Sometimes, when I fly into a large city, and see innumerable lights below I wonder how God can possibly care about me. I think, “My way is hidden from the Lord”  (Isaiah 40:27). Perhaps you do too.

Please know that the Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, the one who names and numbers the stars knows you by name!

You will never be forgotten.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

As in a mirror

The Readiness is All

Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd opens with a farmer, Gabriel Oak, spying on a young woman from his hiding place in the woods. She gazes at her face in a mirror and smiles to herself, fully satisfied with her appearance. “She did not adjust her hat, or pat her hair, or press a dimple into shape… She simply observed herself as a fair product of Nature in the feminine kind.” Gabriel’s terse assessment: “Vanity.”

I think of James’ comparison: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.[1]

Obedience is not agreeing with truth and intending to do it. It’s doing what God asks us to do as soon as possible. He does not ask us to do everything at once, and he does not ask us to do things that are impossible to do. Nor does he ask us to do anything by ourselves. He is within us to will and to do his good pleasure.

But he does ask, and sometimes he asks very hard things. It’s no good merely wanting to do them. “Good intentions must take advantage of their first ripeness,” George MacDonald wrote. Otherwise we may one day cease to have any good intentions at all. 

Why, then, do I fail to act? Vanity. I see my face in the mirror and smile to myself, fully satisfied with my appearance. Pride has blinded me to the need for alteration. The answer, as James continues, is to “receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21). The word must fall into a humble heart.

So, I must ask God for the humility to look into my heart and take heed to his words. Then I must make a start and ask Him to perfect it. He waits to be gracious.


[1] James 1:22,23 The Message

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

“Break their teeth in their mouth, O God!” (Psalm 58:6)

What can we say about the so-called imprecatory psalms—poems that breathe out vengeance and reprisal? Can we justly pray that God will break the teeth of the wicked and leave them like toothless tigers?

Of course we can. The New Testament speaks of a day of reckoning when God will judge evil and set everything right and we can pray for that day to arrive. God allows tyranny to run its course because, among other reasons, he is not willing that any should perish,[1] but tyrants will have their comeuppance. There is a God who judges the earth: A day is coming when He will send out his angels with their razor sharp scythes, “to gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, and throw them into the great winepress of the wrath of God (Revelation 14:18ff). We can pray that God will hasten that day.

But Jesus made it very clear that we must never avenge ourselves and these prayers should never be used for personal revenge. “The prayer for the vengeance of God is the prayer for the execution of his righteousness in the judgment of sin.”[2] These petitions are valid only for those who wish to see justice upheld and God's glory manifest in the world.  

In the meantime, we are called to overcome evil with good. The weapons of our warfare are not retaliation, but love, personal righteousness, prayer, faith and patience. We must do all we can to act justly and bring justice to our sphere of influence, but then we must wait for the day God has appointed to set all things right. He will do so in due time.  “Vengeance is mine,” God has said, “I will repay” (Romans 12:19). Then, men will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; Surely He is God who judges in the earth” (Psalms 58:11).[3]

To be sure, we may suffer while God delays. The harvest of righteousness is almost always sown in trial and tears and we must wait in patience for God’s day to come (James 5:1-11). But it will come and then the whole earth will be filled with justice and “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

So, we must not fret over the actions of lawless, ruthless men and women.[4] God is doing all things well.  

He is working out his purpose
      'spite of all that happens here.
Lawless nations in commotion,
      restless like a storm-tossed ocean.
He controls their rage and fury
      so his children need not fear.
Let our hearts then turn to heaven  
      where he bides his time in peace
Giving him our heart's devotion
      till the present troubles cease.

[1] 58:3 “They (tyrants) go astray as soon as they are born…” may be a gentle reminder that we are all little tyrants at birth…
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible
[3] There is a subtle twist in this verse that doesn’t appear in translation. The subject of the sentence is elohim (gods) and the verb “judges” is a plural participle, which suggests the reading, “Surely, the gods are judging…” This may be nothing more than an acknowledgement by unbelievers that we live in a just world.
[4] Nor should we speak evil of our rulers. Peter’s instruction is very clear: we must “honor the king” (1 Peter 2:7). It’s worth noting that the “king” in Peter’s day was Nero or Galba, two notoriously evil rulers. Media hosts and others may entice us to harsh rhetoric, but we must never speak of our leaders as they do, nor should we repeat their slanders. We may choose to vote evil–doers out of office, but while they hold that office we must honor them and show them due respect (“It is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” Acts 23:5). And may I add, we should never attribute evil motives to our leaders unless they reveal them. It is slanderous to attribute subversive motivations without confirmation. We cannot know the secrets of the heart. An inspired Apostle enjoins us to, “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts…” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Only God knows the heart. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Time and Eternity

“Before Abraham was, I am” —John 8:56

Years ago, when I was a child, I was invited to participate in a backyard gathering in which a neighbor told stories from the Bible. The first story was about “the beginning” of the heavens and earth.

I don’t remember the lesson, but do I recall a child asking, “What was before ‘the beginning’?” I also recall thinking, “What a dumb question.” (It wasn’t dumb at all, of course—St. Augustine asks the same question. I just wasn’t smart enough to ask it.)

Our teacher answered the question with one word: “Eternity.” “What is eternity?” the child persisted.“ ”A long time,” she said, and then explained: “Suppose a bird flew from Texas to Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, rubbed its beak on the mountain and wore away one grain of sand, and then flew back to Texas. Imagine that the bird made one round trip every year and rubbed away one grain of sand on each occasion. When Mount Everest has been worn down to the ground it will be like one second in eternity.”

“Wow!” I thought, duly impressed.

I suspect this concept of “eternity as a very long time” is one that’s generally accepted these days, but what if eternity is not prolonged time at all, but timelessness?

That’s not a novel idea, you know. Plato and other philosophers toyed with the notion of time and eternity and concluded that the invisible world of forms (the ultimate realm of reality) is outside of time and thus is timeless. Time did not exist before creation, Plato said. It was “begotten,” to use his word, when “the Sun, the Moon, and five other stars” were created (Timaeus 38b).

Augustine elaborated Plato’s idea in Book 11 of his Confessions. Whatever time is, he said, it began with creation, for time is a construct for the material world alone. God created time when he created the cosmos. As he famously put it: “Beyond doubt, the world was made not in Time, but together with Time."

Surprisingly, theoretical physicists now endorse this hypothesis. I don’t pretend to understand Albert Einstein, but I do know that he believed that time does not exist apart from the physical universe. In one of his more popular statements, Einstein put it this way:  “Before relativity, one believed that space and time would continue existing in an empty world. But, according to the theory of relativity, if matter and its motion disappeared there would no longer be any space or time” (Philipp Frank, Einstein, His Life and Times, p. 178). No matter, no motion. No motion, no time.[1]

There may be an essential corollary to this theory, namely that in eternity, i.e., in heaven, no one will experience the passage of time. There will be no past or future; only the present. That’s a difficult concept to wrap our minds around—indeed impossible—for like the concept of infinity we have no analogies in our experience, and no language to explain it. But, bless my soul, it could be true.

“So what?” you say. Well, for one thing, if there is no time in heaven there will be no waiting. So, if I predecease Carolyn (and my family and others that I love) I will not have to wait for her to appear. She will be present when I arrive.

Intriguing, I must say, but I dare not think further in that direction, for as Paul cautions us we must not go “beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).


[1] This would give us the answer to that vexing, medieval question: How many angels can stand on the head of a pin? Since angels are heavenly (spiritual) beings and there is no matter in that realm, there can be no progression, no movement, no motion. Every object would be “present" at once. Thus, “How many angels can stand on the head of a pin?” An infinite number. As George MacDonald wrote, “If two things, or any parts of them, could occupy the same space, why not 20 or 10,000?" (Lillith).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Things That Matter

“That you may approve the things that are excellent …” 
—Philippians 1:10

The Stoic philosophers of Paul’s day spoke of the diapheron—“the things that matter.” The diapheron, in classical ethics, were those subtle aspects of character that set one person apart from others—what one did, but also a special way of doing it. Paul probably had this distinction in mind when he wrote of “things that are excellent,” or literally, “things that matter” (ta diapheronta).

The “things that matter” have to do with manner, demeanor, bearing, voice inflection, and facial expressions. It’s what we do but also how we do it. “A man ranks according to how he does a thing,” George MacDonald wrote.

I Think that's what Jesus had in mind when he queried his disciples: “what do you do more than others? (Matthew 5:47). The “others” were the Pharisees who were “good” in the worst sort of way. True goodness brims with gentle wisdom and loving–kindness. It’s not off-putting, but wonderfully attractive in the fullest sense of that word, in that it attracts others to the beauty of our Lord. 

Jesus said, “The good (and here he uses a Greek word that means “beautiful”) person brings goodness (beauty) out of the good (beauty) stored up in him (Matthew 12:35). This is the beauty of holiness, a radiance that comes from within, from the One who dwells there, who is incomparably lovely, and who, in his quiet love will gradually turn our actions into something truly beautiful. 

Our part is to ask and ask and ask again...


Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me
All his wonderful passion and purity
Oh, Thou Spirit divine, all my nature refine
Till the beauty of Jesus be seen in me

—Albert W. T. Orsborn

Ferns Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the sh...