Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sleeping with the Lions

I first realized how unsafe the world was through a news story I heard my parents discuss sometime during my eighth year. Even though I remember hearing about the death of President Kennedy, it didn’t rock my world. My concerns were more pointed and personal: whether the bully would be looking for me at school the next day or if I would want to eat what was on the cafeteria menu. Not so after this day.

The story I am thinking about involved a circus lion that had escaped its cage and gotten loose in a small town in a neighboring state. That night my imagination ran away with me. I made sure to lock my bedroom window and I lay in bed with a baseball bat across my chest just in case. The world had become a dangerous place and I needed to be able to deal with it.

Eventually, I fell asleep that night. Since then, though I have had some sleepless nights, I have never faced even the remote threat of being devoured, save in a metaphorical way. I went to work this morning unarmed and even though the snows of winter are coming, I expect that I will survive to the spring.

With all that is going on around this world, how is it that all of us are not emotionally paralyzed? Are some of us just made of sterner tuff? I think that what makes life meaningful and even joyful in the face of very real fears is knowing that the raging beast may be loud, but it is not the only power afoot.

Christian writer Frederick Buechner wrote an essay on the subject of sleep. It says a lot. “It’s a surrender, a laying down of arms. Whatever plans you’re making, whatever work you’re up to your ears in . . . whatever sorrows or anxieties or problems you’re in the midst of, you set them aside, find a place to stretch out somewhere, close your eyes, and wait for sleep.

“All the things that make you the particular person you are stop working – your thoughts and feelings, the changing expressions of your face, the constant moving around, the yammering will, the relentless or not so relentless purpose. But all the other things keep on working with a will and purpose of their own. You go on breathing in and out. Your heart goes on beating. If some faint thought stirs somewhere in the depths of you, it’s converted into a dream so you can go on sleeping and not have to wake up to think it through before it is time.

“Whether you’re just or unjust, you have the innocence of a cat dozing under the stove. Whether you’re old or young, homely or fair, you take on the serenity of marble. You have given up being in charge of your life. You have put yourself into the hands of the night.

“It is a rehearsal for the final laying down of arms, of course, when you trust yourself to the same unseen benevolence to see you through the dark and wake you when the time comes – with new hope, new strength – into the return again of life.”

The nightly news hasn’t been good lately. The roaring lion is making a fearful amount of noise. Maybe he is breathing his foul breath into your life. You can shutter your relational windows and dead bolt your finances, but you’ll soon feel the temperature dropping as your heart freezes in place.

There’s another option. “Do not be anxious about anything. As you take your needs to the God of peace, He who is far more capable than you will guard your heart and mind as befits the relationship you have developed together in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7, my translation)
I got up that next day and went back into my life with its decisions and hazards and pleasures. I still run scared of things more often than I like to admit, yet at the end of each dark and fearful path, I learn once again that God has been with me all along.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Coming to Love God

Jesus identified the greatest thing a human being can do. His wisdom contrasts with many contemporary spiritual teachers who promote that complete self-knowledge is the goal of the fully actualized human being. Jesus has another answer and it is agrees with the whole message of the Old and New Testaments.

The whole point is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. He equated eternal life with “knowing God and Christ Jesus whom God has sent.” (John 17) This is a call to relate intimately and positively with the invisible, infinite, and all-knowing Person who created everything that is. Jesus saw his death and resurrection as providing the opportunity for this relationship.

How does a human being like me express this love? The Bible instructs us to show our love by a radical adjustment of behavior toward God. “He who loves me will do what I command,” Jesus said. But love is more than mere conformity to authority, even a benevolent one. Love is a relationship that grows from what starts as an initial acquaintance and develops into a full appreciation. Love is something received and given. Jesus said that He wasn’t after mere servants, but friends. Servants can be acquired fairly quickly through either adequate pay or threat of loss. Friends/lovers are the result of an interchange involving the heart, soul, and mind.

Fullness of love between two people takes time and much attentive labor. It is no different when the two people are God and one of His creatures. While some of God’s “best friends” have their stories recorded in the Bible, many others are lost to human history. The good news is that each tale is recorded in the books spoken of in Revelation (Rev. 20: ). Perhaps it will take the first part of eternity to listen to the “diaries” of the saints. Abraham’s volume might be called God’s Friend. David’s, The Man After God’s Own Heart. Paul’s record is titled Knowing God and Being Fully Known.

I Corinthians 13 is a teaching poem about love. For nearly two thousand years, newlyweds and mature spouses have resorted to it to build up their homes. Countless sermons have been given by preachers concerned for the quality of fellowship in their churches. Even secular authors realize its value.

Perhaps the primary application of the text concerns the individual’s relationship with God? People pass along to each other the quality of the relationship they share with their Creator. While many people are committed to believing and doing the right things in their religion, they stop short of relating to God at the personal level. They bow before Him as a king, thank Him as they would a lifeguard that has pulled them from the waves, and even give their lives as a soldier might in battle, but still not experience the closeness with God for which they were created.

This text raises some serious and exciting implications. Is it possible for a human being to extend patience and kindness towards God? How could jealousy, pride, or arrogance against God crop up? What does it mean to “act unbecomingly” toward God? Are there things that will happen in this relationship that necessitate the forgiving of God? “Love is not provoked [by anything God might do] or does not take into account a wrong suffered [done by God upon me].”

It is for good reason that the Scripture uses the illustration of marriage when speaking of Christ’s relationship with those who believe on Him. Believers enter this relationship in a powerful moment in which their minds are changed towards Him (i.e. repentance). They become convinced that God is for them and not against them. They come to believe that God has their best interests at heart. They come to hope in his offer of eternal life and forgiveness of sins. They express that repentance through the obedient ritual of faith that is Christian baptism.

But the heart is another matter. A mutually fulfilling relationship is the result of much work. People fall into love, but marriages are built. Sooner or later, the relationship is tested. Husbands disappoint. Wives act irresponsibly. The needs of children require a renegotiation of responsibilities. Even in the best marriages instances will arise that require deferment of gratification and hope for the best.

What will the Christian do when God allows something in her life she had not bargained for? How will she treat God when it seems that everything is being asked of her while nothing seems to be offered in exchange? What will she do when God disappoints? Some would counsel that the “good Christian” acts as if nothing is wrong. He must suppress any feelings of anger or doubt and must never bring an accusation against His Maker.

Any good marriage counselor will say that intimacy comes through openness. Christians who want to experience love with God need to bring everything to God, the good, the bad, and the ugly. When they work through these matters they will experience more intimacy as both partners know each other better. Even though God knows everything about us and though He has had countless “lovers” through the millennia, he desires to experience a unique relationship with each of us anew.

Love is always a choice. God has chosen to express Himself towards us as described in I Corinthians. Will we return the favor?