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Twilight Musings: “What’s Most Important to Know? Who’s Right? or Who’s Hurting?”

 

By Elton Higgs 

I feel the need for something of a follow-up on last week’s commentary on a church devastated by controversy.  It could take the form of asking the question above: What’s most important to focus on in the midst and in the aftermath of a split: “Who’s right?” or “Who’s hurt?”  Giving priority to “Who’s right?” means limiting the scope of concern, since determining the answer to that question assumes that the most needed response to the situation is to assign blame and give comfort to the injured party.  This approach necessarily narrows the scope of concern for whose pain should be recognized and ministered to.  On the other hand, starting with discerning “Who’s hurting?” emphasizes the need for healing in the whole community, including those who may be considered manifestly in the wrong.

“But,” you might respond, “Should we not be concerned with justice?”  Yes, if we regard the conflict as primarily judicial.  But Paul makes it clear that treating disputes between Christians as law-court matters is scandalously wrong and harmful to the church.  “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? . . . .  Why not rather suffer wrong?  Why not rather be defrauded?” (I Cor. 6:1, 7b).  Paul’s objection here is not concerning merely the technicality of where a case is heard, but rather addresses the entirely different principles applying to disputes in a court of law and conflicts between Christian brothers and sisters.  In a civil court, the whole point is presenting evidence for and against each claim of being injured, determining where the truth lies, and meting out judgment to compensate the injured party and to punish the offending party—i.e., determining who’s right.  Among Christians who have differences, the emphasis is not on determining justice and assigning rewards and penalties, but with showing healing deference to one another, being willing even to accept personal injury rather than allow injury to the church.  We see the same emphasis on gentleness over justice in Paul’s instructions to the Galatians: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1-3).

Jesus repeatedly showed people that the priority of his concerns was with the hurting, rather than with those who were “right.”  When he entered conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, she responded with a reference to the differences between them.  “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” she asked (John 4:9), anticipating the question she will ask later regarding which of the two groups is right religiously.  In response, Jesus diverts her attention to an even deeper spiritual need than determining the proper geographical place to worship God, that is, the soul’s need for the “water of life” that satisfies forever.  Jesus’ disciples also needed to reassess their principal concerns.  When they returned with food for the Master and themselves, they “marveled that He was talking with a woman,” and, they no doubt thought, especially with a Samaritan woman.  If they wondered at that, how astounded must they have been when Jesus chose to be with the Samaritans for two days, exemplifying to the disciples what it meant practically to pay attention to the “fields that are white for harvest” (Jn. 6:35), rather than only to the Jews, who were right about the rules.

We can all call to mind several other times that Jesus chose to give priority to the hurting, rather than to those who insisted on emphasizing the rules.  Later in the Gospel of John, the Jewish leaders bring to Jesus a woman taken in adultery, and they put pressure on Him to join them in enforcing the rules, for the woman is clearly in the wrong (Jn. 8:3-11).  He turns their professed concern with “righteousness” against them by proving that they cannot judge her without also judging themselves.  He then turns to the hurting woman and restores her to spiritual health.  In Mark 3:1-6, Jesus found in a Sabbath synagogue gathering a man with a withered hand, whose condition cried out for healing.  But the only concern of the Pharisees was to see whether Jesus would once again heal on the Sabbath (breaking the rules in their eyes).  Jesus made clear His priority by healing the man and reproaching the Pharisees, who then went off and plotted how to kill the man who was troubling their nation (and their power as authoritative law-enforcers).  There is in Luke 5:1-6:11 a whole group of examples of Jesus choosing to heal the hurting, whether it fitted the accepted “rules” or not.

Choosing to pursue justice rather than mercy, punishment rather than reconciliation, and self-vindication rather than gentle partnering to restore the community of faith that the innocent Son of God died to make His bride.  Can we be so set on anybody’s rights as to forget that we are all subject to One who gave up all of His rights to save all of us?

 

 

 

 

Image: By Carl Heinrich Bloch – http://masterpieceart.net/carl-heinrich-bloch/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18138698

Twilight Musings: “Church Bombing”

 

By Elton Higgs 

Our church was bombed last night.  Everybody in it was injured; time will tell whether there were any fatalities.  I’m sitting in the rubble, stunned at the damage, as I suspect many others are.  Even those who were not in the building at the time experienced collateral damage from the bombing.  It’s hard to sort out the extent to which any individuals or any group of people were responsible for the damage, but we are all corporately culpable for not adequately defending against it.  Although the maker and dropper of the bomb was outside the church, the church had adequate warning of his intentions.  Such things are disturbingly ordinary in the history of the Church and its individual congregations, and it’s disturbing that in spite of that instructive history, too few congregations are completely armed to defend against the implacable and always active Enemy.

The physical building occupied by the church is still standing, and passers-by will not see that anything has happened.  The destruction was wrought on the spiritual building made up of God’s people.  As a part of that group, I share the group’s failure to defend adequately against what happened to us.  As I told my wife this morning, I am very tired of dealing with human frailty and inadequacy, including those qualities in myself.  In my deep sorrow at what has happened, I feel a desire for God’s release from the battle, since I’ve had such limited success against the Adversary.  But even if we are merely survivors of the Enemy’s bomb, as long as we are alive, we must assume that, although God must be as tired of working with us as we are with ourselves, He means for us to continue.  The question is, how?

I will speak for myself, and others must judge by the Spirit of God whether my convictions have wider applications.

  • First, I must severely examine my own motives and actions and acknowledge any specific instances of manifesting pride, defensiveness, self-righteousness, self-interested slanting of information, or assuming the worst rather than the best in the motives of others.
  • Secondly, I must be so saddened by the outcome of all the strife that led to the “bombing” that my governing and overwhelming attitude toward the outcome is deep sorrow for the pain and injury that people on all sides of the issues have experienced. It is incumbent on me to suffer with those who suffer, even if I think that their opinions and motives are wrong.  Nobody won last night.  We all lost, and the only victor was the Adversary.
  • I must try to get past determining who was (or is) right or wrong. In the midst of high emotions and the compulsion to draw clear lines, I must acknowledge that only God knows the hearts and minds of people and can sort out their motivations.  And even if I am thoroughly convinced that the evidence supports a clear indictment, I must be careful not to take over either God’s role as judge or the Accuser’s role as prosecuting attorney.  If I am obligated to pray for my enemies, how much more must I pray sincerely for a brother or sister whom I believe to be in error.
  • Finally, I must not assume that any rupture in fellowship is beyond repair, if the estranged parties submit mutually to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I am not allowed to assume that attempted reconciliation is entirely the responsibility of the person or persons I am at odds with.  Whatever led up to it, alienation between God’s people is not something that can be merely accepted as irresolvable.  If we take the risk of moving toward mending the breach, God will take it from there.

Twilight Musings: “Groaning Together”

 

 By Elton Higgs

One day when I was reading the familiar passage in Rom. 8 on our hope for the final deliverance from sin through the resurrection of our bodies, I was struck with the recurrence of the verb “groan” in the space of eight verses:

20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom. 8:20-27)

There is an interlinking in these uses of “groaning,” with the first occurrence referring to the whole of creation, the second referring to all of God’s people, and the third to the agency of the Holy Spirit interceding for us with God.

This section of chapter 8 was introduced by the affirmation that as believers in Christ we have been certified by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit as children of God and heirs of His kingdom.  However, our walk in the Spirit as sons and daughters of God entails suffering with Christ “in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17).  Accordingly, both of the first two occurrences of groaning in this passage are associated with a particular kind of productive human suffering, childbirth.  The first, the groaning of the physical creation to be “set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v.21), is then linked to the inward groaning of each Christian for our “adoption as sons [and daughters], the redemption of our bodies” (v.23).  Our suffering with Christ is not meaningless, but like the pains of childbirth, it ends in great joy, so that, as Paul has assured us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18-19).

But the final rebirth into eternal form that we share with the rest of creation is something that we must wait for in patience and faith, and while we endure in steadfast hope, we cry out to God in our weakness.  That is, we try to articulate our groaning as we find our spiritual resources taxed to the breaking point, and the same Holy Spirit that dwells within us and guides us in His way becomes an interceding translator, presenting our petitions “with groanings too deep for words” (v. 26).  What an abundance of mercy that God, in listening to our prayers, hears beyond our power to know just what to ask for and takes instead what the Spirit tells Him of what we really long for and need.  In a sense, the groanings of Christ on the cross have been transmuted as a form of grace to all of creation, including ourselves, and this earthly groaning is in turn transmuted into the groaning of the Holy Spirit on our behalf that transcends human capabilities.  And the Son who initiated the process partners with the Third Person of the Godhead to bring us redeemed, but as yet imperfect mortals into the Presence of the Abba Father to whom we pray.

Image: Pentecost Mosaic. Public Domain 

Twilight Musings: “The Heady Cocktail of Righteous Indignation”

 

By Elton Higgs 

Recently I have been made aware of some confrontations between Christian brothers and sisters that highlight how easy it is for people who differ to retreat into opposing fortresses of righteous indignation, thereby effectively guaranteeing that there will be no resolution of their contentious differences.  Of course, this happens in the secular realm as well, as the present polarization of political groups in our nation illustrates.  But this kind of standoff is especially distressing in a Christian context, where humility and mutual charity are the prescribed norms for attitudes and behavior.  It’s worth examining why Christians are so easily led to indulge in the heady and dangerous cocktail of righteous indignation.

As in every human argument, the fleshly way of dealing with conflict is to concentrate on defending one’s own point of view.  Particularly is this true when the opposing point of view is seen to be unjust, unfair, or unscriptural.  That perception pushes us toward taking on the role of defender of the faith or champion of the oppressed.  Certainly it is sometimes necessary to launch bravely into these roles, but doing so always carries with it the danger of very easily slipping into the feeling that we are morally superior to those we oppose.  This attitude will lead quickly to the mutual entrenchment that leads to church splits and divorce, as well as to political deadlock in the secular realm.

How do we avoid getting to this kind of impasse?  A good place to start is the admonition of the Apostle James: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19b-20).  Anger is one of the first ingredients to go into the cocktail of righteous indignation, following immediately on the shock of learning that we or somebody we feel responsible for has been abused or treated unfairly.  Taking the trouble to listen carefully to someone we feel in conflict with slows down the kindling of anger, and delaying speaking provides time to examine whether we have correctly understood what we have heard.  Speaking too quickly tends to harden our position prematurely, to lock us into our words and make it more difficult to make concessions that can lead to a middle ground of agreement.

Another key element to avoiding intoxication from that “heady cocktail” of self-righteous rigidity is the cultivation of humility, coupled with its companion, a desire to think the best of others, so as not to assume that their actions or opinions necessarily indicate malevolent intent or perverse objectives.  As Paul puts it, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  Humility enables each side in an argument to reaffirm that we are all fallible and subject to error, even when we behave with the best of intentions.  Humility is a retardant to assuming the worst about our opponents, because we value them as much as we do ourselves.   Humility makes us keenly aware that all of us are of equal value in the eyes of God, all equally in need of and receiving His love and grace.  Humility prevents the emotional detachment that enables us to demonize and depersonalize an opponent.

Finally, just as going into battle gets the adrenalin flowing, so sometimes the thrill of defending what we regard to be a just cause or belief tempts us to make an emotional investment in it that overcomes both our objectivity and any desire to do the hard work of maintaining or restoring harmony.  The battle assumes a life of its own that perpetuates and escalates the conflict, each side feeling increasingly justified by the literal or figurative atrocities committed by the other.  In other words, we imbibe in the emotional high of battle, rather than sipping on the profounder and more complex nectar of swallowing our pride and giving up our partisanship in order to pursue the sober work of being peace-makers.  We are instructed to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3-4).

Although Paul’s words in Eph. 5:18 are addressed to literal drunkenness, they also apply as cautionary words against tippling in the heady cocktail of righteous indignation: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”

 

Twilight Musings: “Two Child Sacrifices”

By Elton Higgs 

The account of Abraham being ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering is shocking, not only to our natural sensibilities, but to our understanding of God.  The same God who issued this command to Abraham says through the prophet Jeremiah that Judah’s burning of its children as sacrifices is one of the “detestable things” they have done, something that God says never came into His mind to command (Jer. 7:30-32).  But as I was reading the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis 22, it occurred to me that its deepest meaning is not just as a general foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus, but as an analogy of the relationship between God the Father and His Son when Jesus was crucified.  It may be that parallel with God’s purpose to prove the faith of His servant Abraham was His desire to enlighten us about what was happening when the Almighty Father refused to respond to the pleas of His Son to be delivered from the cup of suffering that His Father was asking Him to drink.

The scriptural account of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac gives us one of the most poignant bits of dialogue in the Bible.

“And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son.  And he took in his hand the fire and the knife.  So they went both of them together.  And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

The key words of this whole account are “God will provide,” which occur here and at the end of the story, after God has supplied the ram that Abraham can substitute for his son: “So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (22:14).  When father Abraham first said those words to his apprehensive son, there was no objective assurance that it would be so.  But as the writer of Hebrews says, “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:19).  “God will provide” describes both the intangible faith before the fact, and the fact that fulfilled the faith when God provided His substitute ram.  God then commends him for not having withheld his “only son” from God.

That phrase “only son” was also used when God first issued His command to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering . . .” (Gen. 22:2), and of course that designation is appropriate for a story that foreshadows God the Father’s sacrifice of His “only Son.”  As in the case of Abraham and Isaac, there was a conversation between the Father and the Son about how the project underway perhaps needed to be reconsidered.  Abraham’s answer to Isaac referred to a Higher Power that could resolve their difficult situation, albeit in some way yet to be perceived by the two of them.  Abraham was not responsible for the outcome, but only for his acceptance of the outcome, since he was subject to God.  Jesus’ implicit question to His Father is, “Isn’t there some other way than the path you’ve set me on?”  And though an angel came to strengthen Him, the Father remained silent (see Luke 22:41-44), even when the Son renewed His prayer and sweated drops of blood.  Father God was in the position of Abraham, but there was no higher power for Him to defer to.  This Father is called to make the sacrifice of His Son through the necessity of His own great love for mankind, which supersedes even His love for His Son.  This fact is borne out in the words of the familiar passage in John 3:16: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

God could spare the son of Abraham, but the ultimate cost of sparing Isaac and countless others from paying the penalty for sin was for His own Son to die instead.  What anguish the Father must have felt when He had to allow His Son to drink the bitter cup, and ultimately had to turn His face away while Jesus was on the cross.  The final meaning of the substitutionary ram provided to Abraham was to be played out in the  sacrifice of the very Lamb of God.

 

 

Twilight Musings: “Women – Paragons or Pariahs?”

 

By Elton Higgs 

One way of describing the Fall is to say that Eve and Adam “bit off more than they could chew.”  They plunged into territory that they were utterly unable to cope with, and the end of their escapade had terrible consequences for all their descendants.  On a much smaller scale, one which I trust will cost my children nothing, I may nevertheless be “biting off more than I can chew” in trying to explain why, in the Bible and in Western culture, the depictions of the extremes of both virtue and perversity tend to cast them in feminine form.

The subject came up with my wife and me one morning as she was reading the description of the Great Whore of Babylon in Rev. 18.  “Why does this symbol of consummate corruption have to be a woman?” she asked.  That got us both to thinking of other feminine figures in Scripture which were seen in terms like those applied to the girl with the curl in the nursery rhyme: “When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid!”  In just the book of Proverbs, we have the figure of the Seductive Adultress (Prov. 7), followed by Wisdom pictured as a woman (Prov. 8:1-9:12), followed in her turn by the woman Folly (Prov. 9:13-18).  In the succeeding chapters of Proverbs (as well as in Ecclesiastes), women are repeatedly seen in a negative light, so much that one is tempted to label Solomon a misogynist.  But in the last chapter of the book we have described the Excellent Wife, who is distinguished by her selfless service to her family, praised by her husband and her children.  And to balance out Solomon’s sour view of woman as sexually threatening, we have the idealized sensuality of the Song of Solomon.

This deeply ambivalent view of womanhood is reflected in the New Testament as well.  Over against the Whore of Babylon is the figure of Mary, mother of Jesus, who is chosen among all women to bear God’s Son, and who, in one tradition of Christianity came to be venerated as the paragon of all virtues.  Paul, when he wants to portray the church as perfected in Christ, describes her as “holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27); and this picture is reinforced in the very book that presents the Whore of Babylon, as the New Jerusalem descends from Heaven “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).  But Paul also refers to Eve as the archetypal “original sinner,” because of which she is to be in submission to men in general and to their husbands in particular.  In this passage and elsewhere, women are cautioned against using adornment to get attention, but are admonished to distinguish themselves by “good works” and to let their “adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.  For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands,  as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.   And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (I Pet. 3:4-6).

So here’s the part where I may have bitten off more than I can chew.  The alternate demonization and idealization of women in the Bible seems to come down to what appears to moderns as blatant sexism. Why should women on the one hand be seen in a worse light than men (the cause of the Fall, sexually dangerous and tainted ) and on the other hand be exalted in impossibly idealized ways (Lady Wisdom, the Perfect Wife, analogous to the Bride of Christ).  I think a possible answer lies (paradoxically) in the very passages that, on the surface, seem to demonize women.

The penalties imposed by God on Adam and Eve are different in ways that can be interpreted as gender-oriented, with the woman’s pain in childbirth and her being ruled over by her husband being consequences with sexual overtones.  In contrast, Adam’s penalty was focused on making difficult for him the task of providing food for his family, including the children that Eve would bear in pain.  The beginning of Eve’s life as a fallen creature established the precarious relationship between the sexes that all humanity has experienced since the expulsion from the Garden.  No longer was the couple’s sexual relationship natural and equal, but problematic.  First is the paradox that the natural result of intercourse would be pregnancy culminating in painful and perhaps dangerous birth, a situation which increases the dependence of the woman on her husband, while also increasing the responsibility of the man to provide for her and the children.  But with the birth of children came also a reward for the woman: through nursing the children she discovered a kind of intimacy with them that was denied the man; an intimacy that must have nourished a love that overcame any bitterness that she might have experienced at being punished by God through the pain of childbearing.

Which leads us to the enigmatic statement by Paul about the connection between Eve’s being the first to sin and her being “saved through childbearing,” if she endures it “in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”  There is reflected here a potential of experience and character development that is greater and more subtle than the opportunities available to men.  It is commonplace to speak of women as natural nurturers, and though it can become a facile stereotype, there is deep truth to it as well, and in that truth lies perhaps some explanation of why extremes of virtue and vice are so often presented in feminine form.  Generally speaking, women have a greater range of moral potential than do men, because they are more vulnerable to suffering, which is the chief developer of moral character.  Pain in childbearing is symbolic of this vulnerability, and it is further manifested in a woman’s dependence on her husband (as mentioned in Gen. 3), and to some extent in her dependency on men in general.  A woman’s nurturing potential finds its most profound expression in birthing and breast feeding a child, but not every woman has to give birth in order to be saved, and there are other ways of manifesting the inborn instincts for nurturing that have to be consciously cultivated by men.  There can be no greater model for God’s love and willingness to sacrifice for a greater good than the love and nurturing that a woman is especially called to; and by the same token, there is no more monstrous a perversion than a woman who has gone against all her nurturing instincts and has hardened herself to all mercy and tenderness.  Thus the tendency toward polarization between feminine-based idealization and feminine-based demonization.

That’s as much as I know to say, but I feel I’m still chewing on the cud in this matter.

Twilight Musings: “Why Does New Year’s Day Come After Christmas?”

By Elton Higgs 

There is no inherent reason that the celebration of New Year’s Day should be only a week after the observance of Christmas, but Westerners have accommodated quite comfortably to the opportunity to have an extended holiday.  Historically speaking, the juxtaposition of Christmas and New Year’s Day seems not to have been designed, but rather came about as a concatenation of institutional decisions.  The earliest Roman calendars set March 1 as the beginning of the year, and our names for September, October, November, and December came from the Latin numbers for seven through ten.  In 153 BC the Romans designated January 1 as the beginning of the new year because it marked the installation of the Roman Consuls to their year-long terms.  The name of January was particularly appropriate to this purpose, since it was named for the god Janus, who was pictured with two faces looking in opposite directions, forward and backward.  Jan. 1 as the beginning of the calendar year was continued by Julius Caesar in his reconstructed calendar in the first century BC and was adjusted by Pope Gregory in the late 16th century into the form we use today; but the church did not give Jan. 1 any religious significance, except that it was dedicated to the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.  Protestant countries, especially England, didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until the eighteenth century, so they were even less concerned with any religious connection between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

However, I have been thinking this year of how there is a spiritual and philosophical dimension to this juxtaposition of the Feast of the Nativity and New Year’s, in that it lends itself to a consideration of the interaction of light and time.  God’s first act of creation was with the words, “Let there be light,” and His second act was to separate darkness from the light to create Day and Night—that is, out of light came time, even before the physical markers of time, the sun and moon.  Since all of God’s creation was seen to be good, there was no association of darkness with evil until sin entered the world.  In its unsullied form, darkness provides a time of rest for mankind and a meaningful rhythm between work and renewing sleep.  As a result of sin, God’s orderly balancing of light and darkness was thrown into disarray.  Thus, when Jesus, the Light of the world appeared on the scene, He was sent to pierce the darkness and to overcome it (John 1:4-5)—one might even say, to redeem it.  The birth of Jesus came at the proper time according to God’s plan and mankind’s need (Mark 1:14-15; Gal. 4:4-5).  Through the Incarnation, God re-enacted His original initial act of creation, the insertion of light into chaos.

So in this new beginning, the sowing of the seed of regeneration, we have also an incipient redemption of time, a covenant to translate us into a timeless New Heaven and New Earth, in which there is such perfect rest that there is no night, and no need of sun and moon, for the Light of the Father and the Lamb are perpetually banishing sin-blemished night (Rev. 21:22-25).  Thus, the new beginning represented in Christmas can lead us naturally into a celebration of our New Birth as children of God through the grace of the sacrificed Lamb of God.

Our human celebration of the New Year has something of the ambivalence of the God Janus for whom January is named.  When we look both back and forward in time, we experience a mixture of regret and hope, while recognizing our limited ability to do any better in the future than we have in the past.  But that double view has been redeemed and unified by the Perfect Link between past and future, our Lord Jesus.  It is that thought I have expressed in the following poem.

 

For the New Year

Would to God

That one of the faces of Janus

Were altruistic; but both,

So far as I can see,

Reflect the inability of mortal me

To espouse the good for its own sake.

I hardly make the turn toward love

Before I find my comfort

Has not been left behind.

There seems but relative difference

Between the good I choose

And the evil I refuse.

Thanks be to God that He makes

Neither too much of the backward aspect

Nor too little of the hopeful prospect.

He set the model when He looked

Two directions at once,

But with a single eye.

                              –Elton D. Higgs

Image: Nativity with a Torch by the Le Nain brothers, c. 1635-40, Public Domain 

Twilight Musings: “The Ambiguous Branch”

By Elton Higgs 

Two Messianic passages in Isaiah speak of the Savior as a shoot from an apparently dead source, but they are starkly different in tone.  In Isaiah 11 we have a mighty King:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. . . .  [W]ith righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

(Is. 11: 1, 4)

Here the emphasis is on the Messiah as triumphal ruler, exercising divine power to bring justice and peace on the earth.  In contrast, the other passage, Isaiah 53, presents a despised and rejected Messiah who is put to death unjustly:  He

grew up . . . like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53: 2-3)

His role here is seen, not as ruler, but as one “wounded for our transgressions” (v. 5) and “oppressed” (v. 7).

I find it both startling and instructive that that there should be such contrasting uses of the same image of the Messiah as an unexpected offshoot or sprout.  Both applications of the image are, of course, true, but they depict different stages of the Messiah’s impact on the world, and they need to be seen in the proper sequence.  The presentation in Isaiah 11 focuses on the Davidic lineage of Jesus and on the ultimate rule of Christ on the New Earth when he reigns as David’s heir, exercising power over the “Peaceable Kingdom” depicted in Isaiah 11 and 65:17-25.  However, this manifestation of the Messiah was not to come merely as a renewal of the flawed political Kingdom of Israel, nor was it to be a direct outcome of the First Advent of the Christ, but as a component of His Second Coming.  Before the full fruition of Jesus as the Son of David must come the fulfillment of His mission as the Son of God, accomplished through His death as the perfect sacrificial Lamb of God.  Only in that way could the temporal throne of David be transmuted into the Eternal Kingdom.

Moreover, that is also the pattern for us as God’s children.  If we are to be glorified with Him, we must first participate in His suffering (see Rom. 8:17).  Reflecting that truth, and in the spirit of the Advent season, I present the following poem.

 

The Budding Stump

(Isaiah 11:1-3 and 53:1-3)

The Stump of David,

Cracked and grey with age,

Neglected, cast aside,

Now sprouts again, as God had said.

Not couched in beauty, or in power,

Comes this obscure and unexpected Branch;

Nor with glory sought by swords,

Drenching Israel’s enemies in blood–

Though bloodshed nascent lies within.

O Lord of stumps,

Whose sapience informs

What men have cast aside,

And makes to grow again

What You Yourself have pruned away:

Take now the hopes of glory

Grown and nourished by our pride;

Reform them by Your promised Shoot,

That we may find the power

That lies in roots, and not in mighty trees.

Elton D. Higgs (Dec. 26, 1982)

 

 

Image: “Winter Bloom” by MelissaTG. CC License. 

Twilight Musings “Co-Guardians for the God-child”

By Elton Higgs

I like the 2007 movie “The Nativity Story,” because it presents the story of Mary and Joseph and the events leading up to the birth of Jesus with a gritty realism that easily (and usually) gets lost in the romanticized crèches and Christmas pageants that depict the Christmas narrative.  Both of the couple God chose to raise His Son had to face excruciatingly difficult circumstances and attendant decisions when Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”  In the two poems below, I have attempted to portray the consternation felt by each of them when an angel brought the message that they had been chosen to be parents to the Holy One of Israel, Emmanuel, the Messiah.

               The Husbandry of God

                       (Luke 1:26-35)   

How can I contain this word from the Lord?

His light has pierced my being

And sown in single seed

Both glory and shame.

Content was I

To wed in lowliness

And live in obscurity,

With purity my only dower.

Now, ravished with power,

I flout the conventions of man

To incubate God.

In lowliness how shall I bear it?

In modesty how shall I tell it?

What now shall I become?

But the fruit of God’s planting

Is His to harvest.

No gleaner I, like Ruth,

But the field itself,

In whom my Lord lies hid.

–Elton D. Higgs

    1980

                                  

Joseph In Waiting

     (Matt. 1:18-26)

Familiar wood now nears its goal,

Purpose carved from formless block.

My wife sits waiting by,

Custodian of promised Son,

Full with Spirit-crafted child.  

.

How strange has been

This celibate intimacy

Since angel-visions

Translated besmirched betrothal

Into Holy co-habitation.

Others praise an act of mercy,

Taking shameful form into my house;

I know that in her Spirit-quickened womb

Lies more than chaste maid

Could ever have been.

Match made on earth

Transmuted now to Heaven’s pairing,

We dwell together with nascent God

And await the Day of Deliverance.

Elton D. Higgs

Dec. 12, 2015

Image: “Rembrandt van Rijn 195” by Workshop of Rembrandt – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_van_Rijn_195.jpg#/media/File:Rembrandt_van_Rijn_195.jpg

 

Twilight Musings: “Chatting with Santa Claus”

 

 by Elton Higgs 

I had a conversation with Santa Claus this morning.  It came just after my wife and I had noted, while taking our morning walk in a small mall, that the piped-in music was unrelentingly secular; and that led us to lament the season’s loss of religious meaning in our society as a whole.  We met “Santa” as he was strolling the central corridors of the mall.  He wasn’t in costume yet, but he was dressed festively in a green vest and a red cap, with other seasonal colors as decoration.  He greeted us affably, and we fell into brief conversation.  He affirmed that he was, indeed, “Santa Claus,” and he cheerfully confided to us that he considered it a great privilege to have the children on his lap and to listen to their hopes and stories.  “They warm my heart,” he informed us in the robust voice that enables him to boom out “Merry Christmas” to passers-by as he sits on his Santa throne.  We parted from him to continue our walk, but we saw him a couple of times more as we perambulated.

We noticed that he was consciously engaging people who were standing around waiting for the shops to open.  At one point we observed him grasping a man’s hand and having earnest conversation with him.  The next time we saw him, we asked if he was praying with the man, and he affirmed he was.  “I try to be of help to people if they’re willing to talk.”  It was obvious that he regarded his pre-duty time at the mall as a ministry opportunity.  “Take a look at my van out there in the parking lot.  It has a ‘Put Christ back in Christmas’ sign on it.  I try to do what I can to point people to Jesus, whatever their religious affiliation.”  We wished him God’s blessings in both his official and his unofficial activities, and in turn he blessed us on our way.

Reflecting on this experience, I accepted it as God’s answer to our lament about the secularization of Christmas in the world around, and about the general increase of hostility toward religion in the past few decades.  In the face of that discouraging situation, God is working through a portrayer of Santa Claus (a prime icon of secularization) to touch people’s lives with divine love and concern.

Keep up the good work, brother!  The mall management may be paying you to be Santa for the kids and their parents, but you are obviously working for a higher Master.  And when I walk by and see the kids on your knee and the parents looking on, I’d venture to say that they’re getting more out of the encounter than they know, for I suspect that they’re being prayed for as well as being given a listening ear and a jolly laugh.

As for me, perhaps I would do well when I walk in the mall this Christmas season to lay aside my self-righteous carping about secularization of the holiday and be on the lookout for opportunities God may open up for me to be a blessing to someone else who is there, even if it’s only to say a prayer for someone who looks sad or unhappy.  And if the piped-in music distorts the season, I can always hum some real Christmas music to myself.