free web stats Lost in the Eternity of the Here and Now: March 2010
Sola Scriptura · Solus Christus · Sola Gratia
Sola Fide · Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, March 25, 2010

...then there was darkness

Staring up into the darkness he could see the faint glimmer of moonlight as it shimmered along the surface of the waters above, its pale glow distant and obscured by the murky haze that seemed to surround the light, to press in on it from all sides until it was a wonder that the oppressive darkness did not swallow even that last bit of light. His hand outstretched before him seemed something apart from him, as if it did not belong to him, was not his own. It moved back and forth, flowing with the gentle currents around him, briefly casting shadows across his eyes as it blocked the pale, but distant light above. There were no sounds here, no voices, not even his own. Even his thoughts seemed distant and muted. Silence surrounded him even more that the cold water, coldness that he no longer felt, pressing in on him from every side. No sound. No feeling. There was only that eerie light. Something about the light tugged at his memory. There was something familiar about it. He could remember that light, but it was so much brighter before. It was supposed to be warm. That was it. It was supposed to be warm.

It was early in the morning. The sun had not yet risen, but he was already up and about. He had set his alarm for 5 o’clock so he could get a head start on the day. He had been looking forward to this day all week. All week long he sat in an office that felt like a prison as often as not. The sedate walls, painted in soft pastels so as to be pleasing to the eye, were the type of thing that could make a person crazy. But today was different. Today he was leaving that behind, even if only for a few hours. Today he would take his boat out onto the waters and enjoy a day of sailing. Today he would escape the drudgery of his daily life, escape the confines of those nauseating colors and immerse himself in the vibrant colors of nature as only the open waters could paint. That was why he was up so early. There was nothing so wonderful as a sunrise on the horizon, surrounded by nothing but the water in every direction. That was freedom. That was what he looked forward to today.

It did not take long to prepare the boat, a 20 foot day-sailer that he had purchased just a few months back. Though the boat was new, he had been sailing since he was a teenager. His grandfather had taught him everything he knew about sailing. With a wry grin, he remembered when the idea of sailing had seemed old fashioned and boring, along with his grandfather. He had been so engrossed in the world of his video games as a teenager that the thought that anything else might exist beyond the pale glow of the gaming screen seemed ludicrous. He could not help but laugh at the silly child he had been. Luckily, his grandfather had not been the kind of man that you said no to. He had dragged him out onto the water one morning not much unlike this morning, casting off from the dock while the sun was still sleeping beneath the distant horizon. Even the seagulls were not awake yet as he maneuvered the boat past the rows of other boats, each one tied snugly in their slips. The faint sound of the water lapping against the sides of the hull as he motored out into the harbor was like music in his ears.

There was already a decent breeze picking up in the predawn twilight. Once past the other boats and out into the empty harbor, he killed the engine and just sat for a moment looking up into the sky. The stars were still out, though the light pollution from the small port town behind him obscured all but the most brilliant. Still, it was a peaceful view. Just him and the stars. He smiled as he craned his neck to look into the heavens, remembering his grandfather pointing out the constellations used for navigation, used way back when computerized equipment and compasses had not even been imagined. Already the sky was turning a lighter shade of dark, a pale hint of light starting to edge over the horizon in the eastern sky. With a content sigh he set about raising the main sail which rippled in the breeze as he hoisted it up the mast using a hand crank nearby. Adjusting another crank that controlled the boom, the sail caught full of the breeze and went taut as it swelled outward and the boat surged forward toward the open waters.

The gentle swaying motion as the boat rose and fell along the ocean swells made some people seasick. Not him. With his hands on the wheel he closed his eyes, tilting his head back and inhaled deeply. The smell of the ocean was magnificent, fresh and clean, tinged with salt. A faint mist of seawater suffused the air, dampening his face, occasionally splashing as the boat hit the bottom of a swell. The breeze whipped by him carrying with it the scent of the wide open expanse before him. The sound of the wind catching the sail, of the water flowing by, filled his ears. Soft clouds stretched out across the sky, a sky which was quickly growing lighter off to his side, promising a grand display once the sun broke. Looking back he could no longer see the land behind him. Smiling to himself he turned slowly, just taking in the freedom into which he had sailed. There was nothing here, just him and the ocean. Dropping the sail he let the boat glide to a halt, now bobbing with the gentle swells, and dropped the anchor. Seating himself on a cushion he kicked his feet up and waited for the sun to rise.

The sun, much like him, was in no hurry. It would get where it was going when it got there. Stars began to disappear as the dark twilight faded to a light gray. And before long, the gray began to reveal soft blues and pinks that seemed to stretch out from the distant horizon. The soft clouds reflected the predawn light like something out a fairytale or a painting. The blue and pink pastels steadily grew in intensity until the entire sky seemed to come alive under the deft brush of a master painter. The pink became a brilliant red that refused to sleep any longer. The sky was a living thing now, a symphony in blues and reds and pinks, slowly building up to its crescendo. Just then, when it seemed that all the color in the world had been poured out before him, the sun broke the horizon like a conquering hero, entering the praise of the song being played out before him. Golden rays shot forth in triumph, glittering on the surface of the water, rushing forward on the water, washing over him. The clouds above echoed the golden song being played out on the rippling water as golden tendrils spidered across the sky, transforming the once red and pink painting into a blinding thing of golden radiance. The clouds looked like the pebbles at the bottom of a crystal clear stream, only painted in brilliant gold from horizon to horizon. He let the warmth of the rising sun wash over him, taking in every bit of its heat. Tears welled up in his eyes. He had never seen anything so amazing. Each sunrise was unique, special. Each one had the power to evoke this feeling, and never the same one twice. Those were his grandfather’s words, etched in his memory and upon his heart - words that seemed spoken only yesterday, and at the same time, spoken so long ago. Sometimes he could hardly remember the sound of his grandfather’s voice, but not so here. Here his grandfather spoke clearly, as if still sitting next to him. As he sat there watching, the golden chorus faded back to the reds, and soon even the reds faded, revealing a deep blue sky streaked with white clouds.

Raising the anchor and the main sail, he glided on after the sun has finished its morning song. Now overhead, the sun had taken the chill from the air so that the wind rushing by him was pleasant instead of cold. He was not sure where he was going, and honestly, it did not matter. He had the entire day to go as he pleased, and he was happy to let the wind take him where it would. Though he was alone, he could hear the voices of his friends, his family. They enjoyed coming with him on days like this. But today it was just him and his boat. Him and the water. The day was perfect.

By mid-afternoon he noticed that the wind began to pick up. Clouds were moving in, and moving quickly. The warmth that he had enjoyed not so long ago became nothing more than a pleasant memory. In the distance he could see dark clouds forming. They loomed menacingly on the horizon, a gray sheen between them and the water, evidence of heavy rains. The wind, now blowing from that direction, carried the faint smell of rain. Even as he turned the boat around and started heading back to the shore, he knew there was no way he would outrun the storm. The breeze was strong now, and the gale whispered threats in his ear even as the ocean began to swell with anger. The sky grew dark, both with the return of twilight and the clouds rushing in, as ominous thunder pealed overhead while lightning fingered across the sky above. Gone was the perfect day and tranquil breeze, replaced by a rage that had been welling up beneath the surface, now breaking forth in all its fury. The swells, once pleasant, now sent the small boat rushing up and down their steep inclines with reckless abandon. Water splashed up over the bow, more than a gentle spray. Quickly lowering the main sail, he started the engine, hoping that maybe he could outrun the worst of it. The howling wind played tricks on him, as if faint voices could be heard on the raging gales. He was glad he was alone now. Best that no one else was here to face this with him. Best that… Suddenly everything lurched forward and there was a loud snapping sound.

He was lying down. That didn’t make sense. Water was streaming over his face and wiping it away did little to help him see. The light was nearly choked out in the deluge and tumultuous clouds that roiled overhead. Lightning that left streaks of purple in his vision still stabbed across the sky as if to glory in its ability to have destroyed the tranquility of the morning. Sitting up in a daze, one hand to steady himself, one against his head, he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. One moment he had been at the helm, the next sprawled out on the short deck several paces forward. His safety strap must have snapped as he flew forward from the cockpit where it should have held him securely. The small craft still rolled wildly with the swell of the waves, and he had to grab wildly at the railing to keep from being hauled over the side as the water rushed over the top of the deck. Determined, his grip tight on the rail, he began to make his way back to the cockpit. He would be safe if only he could make it back. A noise behind him was the only warning he had, turning just in time to see the now unsecured boom rushing toward his face. Then darkness.

Darkness and a pale light above. He vaguely remembered coming to as he hit the cold water. He remembered losing sight of the boat as it sped away in that darkness, broken only by the brief flashes of lightning. He remembered flailing wildly to keep afloat in the storm, and failing to stay above the water more often than not. The salt water stung his eyes and burned as he tried to swallow more than he inhaled. He had struggled for as long as he could, even as he gasped for each breath, even as he had known it was pointless. His limbs grew numb and felt like jelly from the effort. He could vaguely remember the storm going as quickly as it had come. One moment the skies had dumped their fury on him, the next the clouds had parted, revealing a pale moon in a silent sky. But all that came and went through his mind in a blur now. The moments rushed together and it was hard to make sense of anything. His mind was growing sluggish. He no longer heard the sound of the ocean, even from underwater. His own heartbeat seemed far away, just like his thoughts, just like the pale moon above, still rippling with the surface above, but now even farther away as he continued to sink into the depths. There was no fight left in him. His eyes fixed themselves on the light above. Even the cold of the water was a distant thing now. His eyes stung, briefly, though whether from tears or the salt water, he could not say. It was so quiet here. Alone. But that was alright. There was the darkness. He was sure there was still light, somewhere in the distance. There was still… hope? There was still… What was there still? What was hope? What…

Then there was darkness. The pale light was forgotten, lost in the depths, lost beneath the surface now calm. There was only darkness. Cold, silent darkness.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Paul: from a man to a man of faith

It’s easy to look at the New Testament writers and hold them in a certain high regard. After all, these men actually walked around with Jesus Christ, in the flesh. These men saw his miracles, performed countless times. These men’s words became scripture, being inspired of God to write about this Jesus. And yet, when you get past all the hype, past all of the awe, the reverence that we often have for these men, we realize that they are indeed just that: men. It is hard, at least for me, to think of Peter as being just a man. After all, it’s Peter! This is the guy who walked on water. This is the guy who spoke out on Pentecost and three thousand people believed in Jesus! But this is also the guy who began to sink, for his lack of faith. This is the guy who denied Jesus three times. Peter was just a man; flawed and utterly human. What changed for him? A man, afraid for his life on that fateful night, but a mere fifty days later stands up and proclaims boldly that not only did he believe that Jesus was the Christ, but that the thousands of Jewish men and women around him were guilty of his blood, at great risk to his own life! What changed? How did he get to be that man, willing to forsake all for this simple message? One word. Resurrection.

I think about Paul, too. Certainly, we do not know much about the man, but we see enough. Paul was a man among men in the Jewish society. He was leagues ahead of his contemporaries, without equal in his zeal for his ancestral traditions. He was an ascending student of Gamaliel, a Jew among Jews. His contemporaries looked to him for approval, and received it as they assaulted those blaspheming apostates, those who followed “The Way.” Again, we do not see much about Paul, only brief glimpses of the man; momentary snapshots, before and after pictures, if you will. One day he’s on his way to Damascus to kill him some blasphemers, and the next moment he gets knocked on his backside, seeing a vision of Christ. That one moment changed his life forever. He became the chief voice of the gospel message to the Gentile world, and by extension, you and I. He became a pariah, an exile among his own people, all for the sake of this simple message. How did he get to be that man? One word. Resurrection.

Sometimes I think about what it must have been like for these men, what their transformation from their old life to the new must have been like. Take Paul for example. I am of the persuasion that he was likely married, may have even had children. And yet, there is no mention of them, not once. Certainly, that could be because he remained celibate his entire life. But, assuming he did have a wife, it seems more likely that she disowned him completely. In fact, we never once hear about Paul’s family after conversion; nor that of any of the other apostles. Their message was one of conflict, a wedge driven between husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother. They were as dead men to those who would not believe, cast out and forgotten. Imagine that. Imagine the pain of being abandoned by those you love, who love you, for the sake of this simple message. Imagine having the entire world at your fingertips, as an aspiring young Jew, only to have every last vestige of hope torn away from you. Your family: gone. Your dreams: gone. Your reputation: gone. We do not have much in the way of a record of Paul’s life imediately after conversion. We know that he goes about preaching the gospel shortly after his conversion, for a period of three years. We know that he then returns home for another fourteen (Galatians 1-2). While this is certainly never a topic that the Bible feels the need to address, it is one that consumes my thoughts of late. What must those fourteen years have been like for Paul as he realized that his life as he knew it was over? Old friends would no longer even talk to him, or if they did, it was to insult and call him down. His family, perhaps even a wife and children, disowning him as an outcast. All his education, seemingly for naught. His hope of life, of the very promises of God, shattered; replaced with a person, Jesus Christ.

The next time we see Paul, we see him with Barnabas. There is never any detailed mention of those things that he left behind, only the faint shadows that surely exist from every man’s past; shadows and dust of a life now over. We look at the man he was prior to coming to the knowledge of the resurrected Christ, and we look at the man after. Before, a murderous villain opposing the very Son of God; while after, a man whose only hope rests in the risen Christ. Just consider a few passages that highlight this change. Consider a man who has so fully cast his lot in with this Jesus that he can honestly say:
“20I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Philippians 1:20-24

Think about that! We read these words and we agree to them like they are some mental proposition with which we should concur, but never actually reading these words, realizing that these are the words of a broken man, a man whose life has been so altered by his belief in the risen Christ that he honestly says that death is gain (and believed it!), for death will see him with Christ! No man comes to that place lightly, without having every last hope, save Christ alone, methodically ripped away from him over the years. But, this is exactly the man we see in Paul, a man who left behind his life, including his very identity, and found another.
“5circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. 7But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:5-11

Notice he calls his entire life rubbish. I’m not sure that translation carries the correct imagery for that word. We think of rubbish as trash, or refuse. This word can also mean dung. So, without being too vulgar, perhaps it might be fair to say that Paul saw his entire life prior to Christ as a nice, big, steaming pile of crap; of zero value; rank and malodorous; buzzing with the flies in a midden heap. How does one come to a place where they can look at their entire life, all the things in which they once placed their hopes and dreams, their security, their very identity, and say it is nothing more than a pile of crap? It surely does not come easily, or quickly. For Paul, it may have taken those fourteen+ years, during which time he divorced himself from a life now pointless. During that time, he realized that the only thing of true value was Christ, and the hope of his Kingdom. Because of that hope, it did not matter what condition of life he found himself in; he was content (Philippians 4:12, the context for the oft-misquoted 4:13 “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me”).

In the end, God had so thoroughly removed Paul’s hope of life now that he wrote that he was ready to go.
“6For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:6-8

Paul’s was a life transformed by the resurrection of Christ. If Christ be not raised, then “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32) And yet, that last phrase is exactly what we are taught to do in our churches. At least, that is what I was taught. Sure, it was not explicit, but the message was the same. I long for the kind of faith that Paul had, that Peter had; a faith in the resurrection, so sure, so solid, that life itself is singular in purpose. But such a belief does not come easy. A life that you cherish is hard to give up if you do not really believe that what Christ offers is better; that the resurrection and the Kingdom are worth pursuing without hesitation.
“26If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.' 31Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. ” Luke 14:26-33

Maybe these words of Jesus are more than a kind admonition to make sure Jesus is number one in your life; a life filled with the pursuit of money, family, activities, church programs, Bible studies; oh, and Jesus, too. Maybe these words show the absolute nature of that desire required of us, the release of all hope and dreams bound to this world, instead wholly casting our lot with this Jesus, and his gospel message. Oh, but the pain necessary to bring that about, to convince us that our lives and everything we value are nothing more than a pile of **** compared to the unsurpassing value of the Kingdom of God... Only God can accomplish that kind of transformation of heart and mind. But be forewarned. The cost is great.

Do we dare ask?

Dare we not?
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