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Twilight Musings: “Random Ruminations about God”

 

By Elton Higgs 

Once again I present some “Random Ruminations” from my notebooks.

Rumination 1 – How presumptuous of me to think that I can love mankind more than God does!  And such a presumption is the basis of my difficulty in accepting the uniqueness of salvation through Christ.  I assume that it is my respect and regard for other people which makes it difficult to consider the possibility that good people can be lost, even if they are sincerely moral and religious by their own lights.  But my reluctance is really an unwillingness to relinquish my own finite viewpoint for God’s infinite one.  It is a refusal to admit that if there are spiritual realities, they are not going to be changed by my not accepting them.  It is foolish to refuse a physician’s services because you consider your illness unfair.  By the same token, if sin is a mortal illness and God’s grace is the answer, my view of whether human beings ought to be held responsible is irrelevant—this aside from the fact that God has not obligated me to make the leap from believing that “good” people can be lost to figuring out who is going to be damned.

My choice is whether to accept the fact that God is Love.  If He is, then He only is the measure of real concern for others; if He is not, He is either not worthy of consideration, or merely a construct of human ideals.  I cannot presume to show God’s love apart from God’s truth; I cannot consider the eternal good of my fellowmen apart from God’s perspective.  The last and most stubborn stronghold of myself is my determination to maintain my own sense of fairness rather than God’s.  If our warfare is spiritual, the weapons and the tactics are no more of my choosing than is the battle itself.  If it isn’t, the “life of the Spirit” is a psychological illusion and a distraction from the concerns of the “good life.”

Rumination 2 –  God absolutely IS, but He is also BECOMING.  He will not stand still for us to analyze Him, nor will He permit us to stand still while we seek Him.  Only that which is in motion lives; stagnation does not belong to God. There is infinite variety in God, but it is variety with an unchanging core.  Only when we see Him as He is will we fully realize how that which is Immutable is also an endless chain of newness.  Until then, we must be content to accept even that which appears to be mutable as an integral part of His design.  That He is always one step ahead of us assures us that the unknown is His; we need beware only that which we know.

Rumination 3 – It is difficult for humans to put God’s wrath in perspective, because we see wrath only as we ourselves exercise it to fulfill a need.  God’s wrath is absolute, springing from His absolute Holiness, and not something needed to build up His image or as an emotional outlet.  Man understands only his own self-satisfying wrath and is confused because he imputes that kind of wrath to God.

Rumination 4 – The mind of God, it seems to me, is more analogical than logical.  Mere logic is too neat and tempts one to believe that he has reached the limits of consideration.  God prescribes from absolute, unconstructed wisdom; humans can prescribe (be dogmatic) only by the artificial frameworks of logic applied to the supralogical  Word of God.  God’s absolute edicts are probably altered when they are put into human language; at any rate, humans should be careful not to dilute them even further by trying to enclose them completely by logic.  Logic can systematize truth in a limited way, but it must be tempered by a more spiritual way of understanding God.

 

 

Twilight Musings: “The Messiness of Power”

By Elton Higgs 

My wife and I recently watched “Gods and Generals,” a movie about the American Civil War. It is a very rich and thought-provoking portrayal of some of the commanders on both sides of the conflict, whose comments on war are profound and sobering. Both sides had idealistic justifications of their resorting to war, but the wisest men among them also realized that war is, at best, an evil used to combat an even greater evil, or to achieve a goal whose good outweighs the terrible price of war in human life and resources. At one point, Robert E. Lee is shown saying, “It is a good thing that war is so horrible; else we should grow to love it too much.” Lawrence Chamberlain, a Northern commander who gained fame for his company’s heroic defense of a key hill in the battle of Gettysburg, explained to his brother Thomas that war is an extreme form of coercion, and only the moral necessity of ending slavery could have motivated him to leave the quiet halls of academe to engage in the directed chaos of war. No thinking person is ever easy with organized slaughter, however worthy the cause behind it.

Although fighting a “just war” is the most graphically focused example of “messy” power to maintain a larger ideal, every exercise of power in a fallen world involves moral ambivalence. There are many less charged situations in which we humans are faced with the necessity of determining how to use power or authority so that it is an instrument more for good than for evil. Actually, this difficulty has its roots in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. If it is true that Satan, as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost, was led astray by his lust for more power, it is easy to see the temptation of Eve and Adam as a seduction into the exercise of their wills to gain more power. So far as we can infer, the prelapsarian world required no conscious exercise of power by mankind, except to rule over non-sentient nature according to God’s commission. Jahweh’s overall power insured the order of the universe, and until humans were confronted with the apparent attractiveness of increasing their power by eating the forbidden fruit, there was no thought or desire to go beyond the established order. With the eating of the forbidden fruit, the use of power by human beings became problematical at best, and disastrous in its potential.

That is why there are so many cautions in Scripture about the use and exercise of power, and why the final, restorative consummation of all things through God’s sovereign power is preceded by His sweeping away the flawed and risky world of human power. But in the meantime, we have no choice but to engage, guided by the Word of God, in the application of power and our responses to it. The core of all moral instruction within God’s Covenants, Old and New, is that we govern our relationships with one another by turning our wills toward applying the principle of love, rather than trying to control others. The Law of Moses repeatedly addresses ways that the strong must act with gentleness and compassion toward the weak and the disadvantaged, not misusing power to oppress and exploit the powerless. At the same time, rulers of God’s people are expected to use their power to administer justice and to enforce the observation of God’s laws.

Some of these general principles of just governance are spoken of in the New Testament, as in Rom. 13:1-7, where Paul legitimizes even secular government as instituted by God to maintain good order and to punish evil-doers. However, the New Covenant pays more attention to the obligation of Christian citizens to submit to established governmental powers, and even to pay taxes to them willingly. This spirit of submission is even more radically presented in instructions about personal relationships between believers. The foundation is laid in the Gospels, which show the heart of Jesus, the Son of God, to be with the most vulnerable people of society. However, His ambitious disciples were not quick to pick up on this emphasis, and He had to instruct them that if they wished to be great (that is, in a position of power), they must learn to be servants (see Mark 10:42-45). He exemplified this lesson in washing the feet of His disciples just before he was tried and sent to the cross (John 13:1-17); as He said to them then, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (vv. 13-14).

This admonition is reinforced in the epistles. Paul admonishes the Ephesians to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21) and then proceeds to speak of submission in particular relationships: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (5:22), followed by a call to husbands to subordinate their own welfare to the care and enhancement of their wives (vv. 25-33). Children are to honor and obey their parents, but parents are also admonished not to exercise their power in ways that are not consonant with “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4) and therefore merely provoke their children to anger. Church leaders are held responsible for disciplining false teachers and those who would disrupt the Body of Christ, and church members are to respect those who have spiritual authority over them (I Tim. 5:17-21). But these leaders are also admonished to exercise their authority gently and by example, not by “domineering over those in your charge” (I Pet. 5:1-3).

All of us who have experienced much of life can testify that it is often problematic to exercise power, even by divine assignment; and that submission to authority must always be ready to discern when that puts us into conflict with God’s clearly revealed moral laws. But there is no escape in this fallen world from making decisions about the responsible use of and response to power, and no escape from the messiness of doing so. With the best intentions I may anger my children unnecessarily, or fail to encourage my wife, or do something unfair to an employee. And if I’m on the receiving end of the exercise of power, it’s not easy to submit to someone with whom I disagree, or to someone who is not showing concern for my welfare.

All of this highlights the fact that the only way to have peace of mind about either exercising power wisely or submitting to it willingly is to recognize that both the power-wielder and the one who submits to power are answerable together and individually to the Lord of all. It behooves us, then, to conduct ourselves with humility, recognizing that the grace either to submit to authority or to exercise it for good has to come from the One to whom we must all submit. Until we reach that place where God takes back all power to Himself and delivers us from the ambiguity of using tainted power to achieve imperfect good, we persevere in trust that He will empower us with discernment.
Image: “Throne” by R. Panhuber. CC License. 

Twilight Musings “Perspectives on the Lord’s Supper”

By Elton Higgs 

A Lutheran friend of mine recently visited our church on what happened to be the once-a-month Communion Sunday. This was the first time she had participated in a “low-church” Communion service, and she was shocked and taken aback by the comparative casualness with which the elements of the Lord’s Supper were distributed and partaken of. The bread was tiny squares in a tray to be picked up with the fingers, and the grape juice (not wine) was in tiny plastic cups set in a tray, and both elements were passed down each row. I gave her some whispered explanation of these procedures during the service, and after the service she pursued the conversation further. “I couldn’t believe we were passing the Blood of Christ down the row,” she said. Her own Lutheran way of having Communion was much more formal, with communicants going up to the altar rail to partake from special wafers and a shared cup of wine (not grape juice), both held by an officiating clergyman or his assistant and presented to each communicant. Underlying her reaction was the Lutheran conviction that the bread and the wine, though not physically changing into the Body and Blood of Christ (as Catholics believe), are nevertheless invested with the mystical Presence of Christ.

All of this led me to some consideration of the differences between “low church” and “high church” customs of worship, particularly in regard to the Lord’s Supper (the common “low church” term for it), or Eucharist (most usual “high church” designation). Evangelicals may be seen as typifying the “low church” end of the spectrum, and Catholics as representing the other end. I think that the contrast between the two can be understood in reference to Paul’s recap of Jesus’ establishment of the Communion service and the Apostle’s comment on the church’s observance of it in I Cor. 11:17-34.

In Jesus’ words of institution, He made statements and gave commands. The statements were, “This is my body which is for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” The command in regard to both of these statements was, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In general, I think, the low church approach to the Lord’s Supper emphasizes the command, and the high church approach emphasizes the two statements concerning the elements. The low church focus is on the clearly understandable, intellectually uncomplicated instruction, whereas the high church takes Jesus’ two statements as the primary and most basic truth in understanding the act of Communion. To put the contrast another way, the low church interpretation and practice centers on the rationality of the command, whereas the high church focuses on the mystery of Christ’s supernatural Presence in the elements used in the observance. So we can see how the variance in modern observances of the Lord’s Supper reflect these two kinds of starting points in understanding its meaning and significance. High church communicants regard Communion as a mystical experience; low church communicants see it as primarily carrying out the command to remember.

What are we to say about the relative validity of these two approaches to the meal that we all see as one of the required corporate observances of the church? When presented with two poles of perceived truth, it is usually best to see the strengths of each of them and see how they can perhaps be complementary to each other and not merely an endless source of argument.
As one who grew up in a low church setting, I appreciate that an informal observance of the Lord’s Supper has a sort of leveling effect, with minimal distinction between those who administer the elements and the rest of the congregation. This may be seen as practicing both the letter and the spirit of Paul’s instructions in I Cor. 17 that the Supper must show no distinction in the status or wealth of those who participate, for to partake in that manner would show that we “despise the church of God” (v. 22). At the same time, I have noticed over the years the hazards in the low church approach to the Lord’s Supper. In most evangelical Protestant congregations, it gets deemphasized by practicing it only once a month, or even once a quarter. On the other hand, even when it is observed weekly, the time and effort put into preparing for a meaningful presentation of it in worship tends to become secondary to other elements of worship, particularly the sermon.

There is no gainsaying the deep seriousness with which the high church participates in the Communion, or Eucharist, and Evangelicals need to observe and learn from their expectation that communicants will experience a special kind of connection with Our Lord as they partake of the bread and the wine, which Jesus Himself said are, in some sense, to be regarded as His body and blood. The chief danger in the high church practice is that to one extent or another it divides the laity from the people who administer the elements. This difference is most stark in churches in which only priests can officiate for a Eucharist, since they alone are empowered to speak the words by which the substances of the Supper are turned literally into the Body and the Blood of Christ.

I came away from the discussion with our guest about the Communion at our church with a renewed conviction that our congregation needs to have a deeper respect for the Lord’s Supper, manifested in the way it is prepared for and presented. In the absence of an established liturgy that typically uses set prayers and comments on the Communion to put it in context, Evangelical churches need to make sure that the planning of any service in which the Lord’s Supper is to be observed provides for sufficient time and a lead-in that show understanding of and respect for what is being done. High churches can profit from understanding that the observance of the Supper referred to by Paul was probably a gathering in a home, with all of the informality that would be expected in such a setting.

Since Communion is meant to testify to our unity in Christ as we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26), it behooves us to seek for common ground that brings together all of us who observe it in honor of Christ. If we eat and drink without humility before each other and without discernment of our Master’s Presence, we are “unworthy” and risk eating and drinking judgment on ourselves (vv. 27-34). Let it not be so among us.

Twilight Musings: The Unsafe Lion

By Elton Higgs

Two encounters with Aslan, the Great Lion in the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, serve to illustrate the idea that meeting this being (a Christ figure) is risky business. The first instance is in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when the Pevensy children are having a meal with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. In the course of their conversation, the Beavers speak of Aslan and are questioned about him by the children. Told that he is a lion and not a man, and is moreover the Great Lion, son of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, Susan asks, “”Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” To which Mrs. Beaver replies that indeed, any sane person would tremble in his presence. “’Then he isn’t safe?’ Said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver . . . . Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’” Later, when children do meet Aslan, they finally come to understand that joining his cause means leaving behind their conventional ideas of safety.

Another “dangerous” encounter with the Great Lion is in The Silver Chair, when the girl Jill is left alone with Aslan after she has foolishly endangered her companion Eustace and inadvertently forced a premature separation between them. She finds herself suddenly very thirsty, and when she discovers a stream to drink from, the Lion is between her and the water. She stands there terrified of what the Lion might do if she goes to the water, but increasingly tormented by thirst, so that “she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the Lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first.” When Aslan invites her to come on and drink, she responds, “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” When he says, “I will make no promise,” she is nevertheless desperate enough to come forward and drink. It is a risky step that results in her being in a frame of mind, after she has drunk, to be corrected and instructed by Aslan.

These and perhaps another half-dozen or so of Narnia meetings between Aslan and humans or sentient animals demonstrate the mixture of terrifying presence and gentleness that these meetings entail. They may be taken allegorically as parables of our relationship with God. Coming into His presence is entirely on His own terms. We have no right nor power to make demands or cut deals. In the Gospels, Jesus Himself challenges people who hear His call to respond in ways that seem contrary to prudent regard for safety and security. He called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to abruptly leave their nets (for James and John even to abandon their father) and become “fishers of men” with Him (Matt. 4:18-22). He chided some who wanted to tend to reasonable business, like saying goodbye to loved ones or burying one’s father, before following Him (Luke 9:57-62). He called Matthew to get up from his profitable, if disreputable, tax-collecting table and join Jesus’ itinerant, dusty band of disciples (Matt. 9:9). Jesus set a severe standard overall for being His disciple: one must forsake father and mother and all possessions, if these interfere with following Jesus (Luke 14:-33, 18:18-33). The Master concludes that “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 18:33). Serving this Master entails the paradox that “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39). According to human wisdom, walking with Jesus is unsafe at any speed.

But on the other hand, serving Christ with the abandon He asks of us is a risk well worth taking, for at the core of the risk is trust in God’s justice and mercy and in the sure hope that He will always be faithful to His promises.. Since God will not waver in turning our holy recklessness into great gain, casting our lot with Him is the “sure thing” that earthly gamblers are always looking for. A prime illustration of this is the passage in Hebrews where the writer speaks of the faith of Abraham, who gave up his homeland to start out for a destination only vaguely represented to him by God; who accepted the promise of the Lord to give him a son from whom a great nation would, even when his wife was barren and both of them were advanced in age; who, in the face of all common sense and human feeling, proceeded to obey God by sacrificing his only son, the son of divine promise. These “foolhardy” actions were to human eyes extremely risky, but they were based on the words of a God so great that there was none higher by whom He could swear (Heb. 6:13-18).

And we also, heirs to the modeling faith of Abraham, “we who have fled for refuge . . . have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf . . . “ (Heb. 6:18-20). To come back to Mr. Beaver of Narnia, “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’” Paradoxically, then, He is to be both feared and trusted.

Twilight Musings “Necessary, but not Sufficient”

By Elton Higgs

In philosophical writings one reads of proofs or segments of evidence that are “necessary but not sufficient,” which I take to mean that a substance or idea or argument has several constituent parts, all of which, in the right proportions and quantities, are necessary to complete the whole.  Water consists of 2 units of hydrogen and one of oxygen.  Each unit is necessary, in correct proportion to the other, but not sufficient in itself to be called “water.”  There are also some interesting biblical passages and stories that illustrate this principle.

For example, when the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus answered that he should obey the commandments of God (particularly the Decalogue), the Young Ruler replied that he had done so from the time of his youth.  Jesus then delivers the answer that turns him away: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).  All of the Young Ruler’s  good works were necessary (though we might question whether he was as good as he thought he was), but not sufficient to make him a part of God’s kingdom.

Similarly, Jesus faults the Scribes and Pharisees for trying to be righteous through minute attention to the command to tithe.  Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.  These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:23-24).  James makes much the same point in his discussion of faith and works: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” for “faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:18, 20 [my italics]).  As Abraham’s faith was manifested by his putting Isaac on the altar and taking up the knife to slay him, and Rahab’s was shown by helping God’s spies to escape, so all who express faith must complete faith by obedient works.

But as shown by the insufficiency of the virtuous works of the scribes and Pharisees, good deeds without faith are also insufficient for pleasing God.  Both faith and works are necessary, but neither apart from the other identifies us as children of God and members of His kingdom.  In the Old Testament, the prophets often pointed out the insufficiency of ritual obedience to make a wayward people right with God, as in Amos 6:21ff.  (See also Is. 1:10ff.)

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of them I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

How, you will say, is this to be applied to our modern situation?  I think of the frequently heard comment of people questioned about their religious identity: “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” by which they usually mean, “I believe in a spiritual reality that transcends the surface meaning of the material world, but I don’t thereby feel required to accept a personal God or to be a participant in any religious organization.”  Certainly we as Christians see some sense of supra-material spiritual reality as necessary to knowing God, but it is not within itself sufficient to bring us to God.

But the application can be closer to home.  In what ways do we Christians try to turn “necessary” things into “sufficiencies”?  Good Christian fellowship is a necessary part of being a church, but it isn’t sufficient to be the whole reason for attending services, nor is the absence of fellowship that “meets our needs” sufficient reason to forsake the assembly.  I Cor. 13 presents a number of activities that are necessary to Christian character (generosity, willingness to die for Christ, powerful use of spiritual gifts), but they are insufficient virtues if not embedded in love.  Tolerance, compassion, and social justice are both necessary characteristics of Christian living and commonly held secular principles, but when they are made sufficient within themselves, they are often given precedence over adherence to God’s commands and His Truth.

Ah, yes, Truth, which together with Beauty and Goodness constitute a traditional metaphysical triad that evokes the only Reality wherein each of its parts is sufficient to be counted as the whole: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Three-in-One and the One in Three.       Those who have seen the Son have seen the Father, for in the Son “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 1:9, KJV).  The whole of John 14 is devoted to Jesus’ assurances to His disciples that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him, and that after Jesus is gone from the earth, the Holy Spirit will be the new Presence of the unified Son and Father, functioning as Comforter and Teacher for the disciples.  Embracing the Light of the Holy Spirit banishes the darkness of our poor attempts to find sufficiency in anything but God Himself. The best antidote to substituting any part for the whole is submitting wholly to the total sufficiency of God’s love and grace, wherein we can integrate the parts of our lives.

Image: Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler By Heinrich Hofmann – Riverside Church, New York, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14265296

Twilight Musings “Two Calls to Peter”

By Elton Higgs

Peter was called twice from his fishing by the Lake of Galilee to follow Jesus (Lk. 5:1-10, Jn. 21:1-19). The first time was full of hope, promise and excitement, a new beginning for a man who had lived a rough life (“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”); Jesus said to him and his partners, James and John, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” The second calling was to a Peter much chastened after his overconfidence in his own strength and ability had led him into actually denying that he even knew his Master. And this second call was much more ominous than the first, promising that his answering Jesus’ call to “feed my sheep” would result in his martyrdom. The parallels between these two accounts are striking. In each case, Jesus comes unexpectedly into Peter’s life while he is fishing, advising him and his companions to cast their nets once more, even though they have been repeatedly unsuccessful in catching any fish. As a result, they catch more fish than they can haul in. In both instances, there is dialogue between Peter and Jesus that ends in a call by Jesus for Peter to follow him. But there is also a big difference between the two calls Jesus gives to Peter, and only a Peter who had been brought up short by his insufficiency within himself could have responded to the second call.

Peter, like all strong and outgoing personalities, had to learn the hard way that his strong points were also his weak points. He could be insightful and spiritually informed, as when he was the only one of the disciples to answer Jesus’ question about who people thought He was with an explicit, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). But he could also be dense and uncomprehending, even to the extent of rebuking Jesus when He told the disciples that He was going up to Jerusalem to be put to death (Mark 8:31-33). Throughout Jesus’ ministry Peter was recognized as the leader of the disciples, and Jesus repeatedly singled him out in ways that anticipated his taking a leading role in the early church; nevertheless, in the midst of his boldness was a blindness to his faults, as in his boast that he would die to defend Jesus, followed shortly by his triple denial that he even knew Jesus. Peter had some hard learning to do between the first call of Jesus and the second.

In the following poem, I have depicted the enlightened Peter, looking back on His time with Jesus.

Sacrifice, Not Martyr
(Matt. 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, John 13, 18, 20, 21)

How glorious it seemed to me,
To die for Jesus.
And so I shall,
But not for my glory.
His story, not mine, defines my death.

He knew
My peril as prey of Satan,
And prayed for me;
But His warning found no place
To pierce my pride.
I turned aside His words,
And plunged headlong into the trap
The Enemy had set for me.
In the Garden I was ready,
Sword in hand, bold for battle!
But the Master stayed my hand
And healed the man I struck.
Disarmed and cowed,
I fled.

Following from afar,
Defenseless now for the real assault
(For I could not shift to the plane of His example),
I stood by the fire to observe,
Hoping yet to save Him from Himself.
And then those questions—
Pointing to me as one of His.
But none of His I proved.
Oblivious to my sin,
I betrayed Him from within.
And then His gentle gaze
Drove home cock’s crow,
Soul-piercing sound
That brought the bitter tears.

That purging, though,
Was not the end,
For Him nor me.
As Thomas touched His wounds
And healing found therein,
So I was also called anew
Beside Genessaret,
When one last time He supped with us.
Not my boast this time
Was focus for His words,
But gentle probing of my love for Him.
Profounder death he called for then
Than sword could bring:
Living sacrifice to serve His sheep,
And glory at the end,
When God would send
His cross for me.

Elton D. Higgs
July 1, 2014

Image: The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew by  Caravaggio 

Twilight Musings: “Sitting on the Bench”

By Elton Higgs

Let’s consider the idea of God as Coach for a few minutes. A coach is a guide, a mentor, an encourager, a challenger, and an overall strategist for the team, all of which functions are characteristics of God in regard to the people on His “team.” For example, imagine an intense basketball game in which a player is thoroughly engaged and feels he has finally hit his stride, and suddenly the coach calls him back to the bench. “But coach,” he might say, “I was really hyped up and hitting on all cylinders!” And he might well be right, but the coach has a different perspective from that of any individual player. First, he has to plot his strategy by setting the success of the team as a whole as his first priority, not the showcasing of individual talent. Secondly, he needs to manage the efforts of each individual so that each player is able to contribute his maximum to the team’s success. I can imagine the coach who has pulled the player from the game to be thinking, “Joe is going great guns, and his efforts so far have really empowered the team; but if I leave him in, he’s going to burn out completely and maybe not be of much use to us for the rest of the game. He needs to take a break and recover his strength, so that he’ll be ready when he’s needed to spearhead another drive.”

God sometimes interrupts a ministry in which we are intensively engaged to make us “sit on the bench” and rest; or He may even ask us to play a different position (i.e., take on another ministry). When I was a young man, I took it for granted that my early development in leading congregational worship meant that I would be doing that for the rest of my active life. When I became a part of a new congregation in my fifties, I felt rejected and unappreciated when I found that my abilities as a worship leader were not needed and moreover were not even recognized. It was hard to accept that I had been “benched.” But then the Lord opened the way for me to teach adult Sunday School classes and to serve as an elder for nine years. At that point we moved yet again, and our new congregation gave no consideration to my qualifications as an elder (benched again!) and gave me only fill-in assignments as a Bible teacher. What they did ask me to do was to serve in the newly-created position of deacon of prayer, which left me struggling to define exactly what the responsibilities of the position were. I have finally, in my late 70s, accepted the pattern of God’s reserving the right to change my assignments. It’s obvious now that each move to another congregation (or even just to another stage of my life) carries with it a new definition of what it means to serve God—and that definition is usually different from what I expected.

There are plenty of examples in Scripture of God’s “benching” and redirection of His “players,” sometimes repeatedly. Abraham was ordered out of Ur to embark on a journey to a far-away Promised Land. When He got there and was settled in and prosperous, but had no heir of his own blood, it seemed that his migration was pointless, until God promised him a son from whom a great nation would develop. But as God delayed fulfilling the promise and Sarah grew past the age of child-bearing, the old couple decided to modify the “game plan” on their own by using Sarah’s handmaid to conceive a child with Abraham. (We all know the disastrous results of that attempt to give the “Coach” some unsolicited help.) Finally, the promised son came, but when Isaac was a teenager, God seemed to contradict his previous Grand Plan for Abraham’s progeny by demanding that Abraham offer his son as a sacrifice. But by that time, however, the patriarch of our faith had learned to trust the Coach and to obey Him beyond what he could understand.

Joseph experienced a similar series of radical redirections. He was on a roll as a dutiful and gifted youngest son, favored by his father over his older brothers. But he engendered their jealousy and hatred, and they sold him into slavery. Nevertheless, he prospered again as the faithful steward of his new master, ruling Potiphar’s house so well that he left it to Joseph and turned to other matters. But then a cruelly unjust accusation against Joseph landed him in prison, where he had only the cold comfort of being in charge of the other prisoners. However, when the time was ripe with God, He called Joseph to “get back in the game” to fulfill the grand design for Joseph’s life as second ruler of Egypt at a crucial time in the life of that kingdom and the history of the children of Israel.

There is another set of biblical stories, though, that show the problem of being in the game too long. Consider the accounts of the reigns of the few good kings of Israel after David. Solomon started magnificently, but his youthful successes were greatly marred by his foolish and perverse departure from God’s principles in his polygamous old age. That resulted in the kingdom being divided after his death, and the only good kings afterward were a few in Judah, where the lineage of David was preserved, but even these would have been better remembered if they had been “benched” before they committed the errors at the end of their reigns. Consider the cases of Asa, Hezekiah, Amaziah, Jehoshaphat, and Josiah in the historical books of I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles. Surely it is a mercy of God when He “takes us out of the game” and redirects us before we begin to decline and mar what He has done to make us fruitful so far.

I will presume to conclude with another personal reference. My wife and I have been intensely involved during the last five years in being caregivers for our daughter, who suffers from a slowly progressing but incurable genetic affliction called Huntington’s Disease. Its symptoms are loss of both physical coordination and mental stability, which require an increasing amount of caregiving attention and energy. My wife and I have realized and said for years that it is a marvel of God’s power that we have been able to look after her for as long as we have. He has now made it clear that we have reached the limits of our ability to care for her on a day-to-day basis, and over the last month or so He has been in the process of providing an adult foster care home for her to move into. Yesterday was spent in getting all the papers filled out and signed and actually getting her moved in. The completion of this long and intensive stage in our lives leaves us with some ambivalent feelings. We are relieved that the daily pressure is no longer there, but we have deep regret that the disease has reached the stage that a radical change in her care is necessary and we can no longer have her with us. Our heads tell us that this is God’s way of continuing to provide abundantly and appropriately for her care, but our hearts mourn that things have reached this point. Previously, we said no to some ways of serving God that would have been good for us to do (e. g., visiting the sick, mentoring people who are struggling in their lives) because we just couldn’t take on any more. Now that we have been freed from our home caregiving, we have to consider (while we “sit on the bench” for a while) how God wants us to use the life and energies still available to us. Hey, Coach, what’s the new game plan?

 

Image: “Benched” By Jay Phagan. CC License. 

Twilight Musings “Greater Than the Mess”

By Elton Higgs
Several days ago, during my morning devotional time with my wife, we were talking about some disturbing things in our domestic life and in the nation, and I ended up saying, “Boy, what a mess!” I then opened up a book of daily readings that I use, and the headline for the meditation of the day was “Greater than the Mess!” We both responded with a laugh and a rush of amazement at how God often gives comfort and instruction in unexpected ways. We talked later about personal and biblical experiences of God’s showing Himself to be “greater than the mess.” The most notable of these in our life was the time in the mid ‘90s when we were under great stress from caring for our emotionally troubled daughter and her young child, whom we had adopted at birth. Our home was in disarray because of the complexities and pressures of our situation, and we were desperate for relief. As my wife commented, “One of us is going to wind up in an institution. We just don’t know yet which one.” Then, when it seemed we couldn’t cope anymore, the Lord supplied a politician who had a word with a mental health director, who cut through the red tape and supplied us with an adult foster care home for our afflicted daughter within a week. Our daughter’s psychological counselor told us she had never seen such a fast placement. God was greater than the mess!

Scripture is full of examples of this truth. The Israelites were caught between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s terrible chariots—what a mess! But God opened the sea for them to pass over and closed in on Pharaoh’s army. God was greater than the mess!

Elijah destroyed the prophets of Baal while Jezebel was away, but when Jezebel came back she sent her soldiers in hot pursuit of him, so that he had to run and hide in a cave—what a mess! But God showed Elijah that 400 other prophets were also on God’s side, and He sent Elijah out in renewed hope to anoint his successor, Elisha. God was greater than the mess!

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego dared to refuse Nebuchanezzar’s order to bow down to his golden idol, and the king in his wrath cast them into a furnace so hot it killed those who put them in. Quite a mess! But a fourth figure was seen in the furnace with the three faithful Hebrews, and they came out of the furnace without even a singed hair. The God they had trusted to deliver them was greater than the mess!

Paul and Silas cast out a prophetic demon from a poor, exploited young woman, and they were seized and arrested and beaten for their merciful deed. What a mess! But while they were singing in jail at midnight, God sent an earthquake and broke them out, so that they could preach to the jailor and convert his household. Once again, God was greater than the mess!

All of us who have served the Lord any length of time have personally seen many instances of His being greater than the mess, and the Scriptures are full of illustrations as well. Why, then, do we find it so hard to feel that truth when we are still in the midst of some mess? I will suggest three reasons. First, although we rejoice in the times when God has shown Himself to be greater than a particular mess, we forget that God is in His essence greater than any and all manifestations of evil and suffering. In a sense, He does not have to prove Himself in each instance to be Master of the Mess, for He is the one than whom no greater can be imagined. His power simply has no rival, and there is no threat He cannot overcome.

Second, we find it easy to focus on the particular mess that we are involved in, and we lose sight of the many other personal, social, and environmental messes in the world at large. Therefore, we aren’t aware that our suffering is interlocked with the larger suffering in the world around us. As my high school principal used to say, “If you’ve got a boil on your neck, it’s hard to be concerned about starving people in Africa.” But God, of course, sees the whole picture, and His timing in solving our particular mess may be connected with what’s needed to remedy some other mess or messes. That larger concern is illustrated in II Peter 3:9, in answer to the question of why God delays his righteous judgment on an evil world: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (ESV).

Third, our difficulty in seeing past our immediate pain may blind us to the possibility that God is in the process of transforming us in ways that we don’t even see the need of. As the writer of Hebrews says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).

At the center of the “peaceful fruit” spoken of in this verse is the sure hope we have as children of God that Father will complete the supreme and overarching example of His being “greater than the mess.” His ultimate solution has already been launched in the coming of Jesus Christ, His own Son, who was sent to die the sacrificial death which would take care of the systemic mess of sin and death for which Adam and Eve were the catalysts. Therefore, we endure in confident faith that, although we still live in the weakness of our own mortal flesh and exist in a sin-stained and disordered world, these bodies we live in, the scarred planet we inhabit, and the corrupt society in which we carry on our daily lives will be gloriously replaced by immortal bodies in a perfect world, living in the harmony of full communion with the eternal Master of the Mess—Jehovah Jireh, the God Who Provides.

Image: By Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24564985

Twilight Musings “Victor, not Victim”

By Elton Higgs

A linguistic quirk in the history of the English language has resulted in the term “Good Friday” being applied to the day on which Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified. Other languages, though, have more intuitively appropriate designations for this liturgical day, such as “Sad” or “Dark” or “Mournful” Friday. This variation of nomenclatures can serve as a catalyst for some comments on the fact that the events of Crucifixion Friday in scripture can be seen as both sad and good. Today, of course, we have the advantage of knowing what came on the Sunday after Dark Friday, when Jesus burst out of the tomb. On Friday, He appeared to be the victim, but on Sunday, He was clearly the Victor. On Friday, the darkness eclipsed the light; on Sunday, the Light overcame the darkness.

In our life experiences, the shadow of Friday is sometimes all we see and feel, but we still walk in the Light of that Resurrection Sunday, with an additional firm hope of eternal glory to come. We mourn the events of Dark Friday when Jesus was the victim of evil men, but we are buoyed by the realization that Jesus’ death was the necessary door that He had to go through to become the Victor over sin and death. He did not so much overcome His victimization as transform it by showing that victory was embedded in the very act of willing sacrifice. So His death can be seen as a sort of mine planted in the cross that the Devil stepped on unawares, bringing about his own doom and the explosive Life of the Resurrection.

This point of view is very effectively conveyed in the Old English poem, “The Dream of the Cross” (or “Dream of the Rood,” to use the Old English word for cross). In this poem, Jesus is represented as a hero coming to do battle with and overcome his foes. In the narrator’s dream, the cross of Christ speaks:

Then I saw the King of all mankind
In brave mood hasting to mount upon me.
. . . .
Then the young Warrior, God the All-Wielder,
Put off His raiment, Steadfast and strong;
With lordly mood in the sight of many
He mounted the Cross to redeem mankind.
When the Hero clasped me I trembled in terror,
But I dared not bow me nor bend to earth;
I must needs stand fast. Upraised as the Rood
I held the High King, the Lord of heaven.
(trans. Charles W. Kennedy, 1960)

This is a lovely picture of Christus Victor as He “mounts” the cross, fully capable at any time of exercising His heavenly power to defeat His enemies. But scripture makes it clear that He had a more profound purpose than the exercise of worldly power. His design was to implement the “deeper magic” of God’s world (to use C. S. Lewis’s terminology in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), and through the redemptive power of the Lamb of God to bring about an eternal victory, not just a temporal one. Jesus did indeed come as a conquering hero, but in the heavenly way of things, He had to endure defeat as an avenue to victory. Let us be willing to follow Him through that door of suffering and sadness to reap the victory in Jesus that lies on the other side.

 

Image: “Crucifixion” by Rooztography. CC License. 

Twilight Musings: Samson: Emptied to Be Filled

By Elton Higgs

The story of Samson in the book of Judges (Judges 13-16) is one of the two longest narratives in the book, and the saddest and most incredible of all.  How can a man endowed with such a gift from God, and born with such promise, be so utterly and stupidly reckless?  It seems that God wanted to show in him how personal exploitation of a gift from God, without regard to the holy purpose for which God intended it, leads to a folly as great as the holy gift.  It ends up as a supreme example of God’s strength being made perfect in weakness, as the blind and bound Sampson, in one final reckless act, slays more Philistines in his death than he had in his lifetime.

Samson’s story begins with a kind of annunciation and a supernatural conception and birth (Judges 13), strangely foreshadowing the birth of Jesus.  At the center of these events is the strict charge that Samson be dedicated from birth as a lifelong Nazirite, which required that he  never cut his hair, that he imbibe no strong drink, and that he have no contact with dead bodies (see Num. 6).  Although his final violation of the first of these is at the climax of his story, he had already by that time violated the first two, as well as having gone against the spirit of God’s sanctification of him by being sexually promiscuous.  But at the core of his downfall is his failure to realize that God’s gift of supernatural strength to him was itself holy, and that to use it to satisfy his own pride was to set himself up for a profound fall.

The marvel is that God went along with his self-indulgence for so long, for we are told that he judged Israel for twenty years (Judges 15:20), presumably holding the Philistines at bay for that entire period.  At first, God is behind his apparently reckless and inappropriate actions, as he goes down to Timnah to get a Philistine wife, “seeking an opportunity against the Philistines,” an action he took because it was “from the Lord” (Judges 14:4). In all the rest of his great feats, even though we can infer that he revels more and more pridefully in doing them, God was still using him to deliver His people from their oppression.  

It was only at the end of this period that he had his disastrous encounter with Delilah (Judges 16).  The narrator of the story does a superb job of teasing out the degrees of Samson’s downfall, showing how the hero taunts Delilah and her Philistine masters with false (but increasingly true) answers to her pleas to be told the secret of his strength.  When he commits the final desecration of his Nazirite sanctification, and his hair has been cut and the Philistines are upon him, he says to himself, “’I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.’  But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20).  I think that must be among the most poignant statements in all of biblical history.  When Samson’s eyes are gouged out, it is but a physical confirmation of his spiritual blindness which had occurred long before.

Another mark of the inspired literary quality of this tragic story is that the account of Samson’s first great feat of strength, the killing of a lion and later finding honey in its carcass, foreshadows God’s final act of strength through a helpless (but enlightened) Samson.  As the following poem indicates, Samson’s use of the experience with the lion to pose a riddle to his enemies was, ironically, even deeper than he himself knew.

Samson’s Riddle

(“Out of the eater came something to eat,

out of the strong came something sweet.” – Judges 15:14)

How strange that honey could grow

In the carcass of a lion,

Lying broken by Samson’s hands.

And now those hands are full of sweetness

Where before they dealt out death.

The breath of God blew here,

Although the strong man shares not yet

The transmutation God has wrought.

The day will come when One

Who gave him more than lion’s strength

Will make him brim with honey, too;

There will occur a true encounter

With the Source of that sweet lion:

When all is ripe and strength has run its course,

An empty Samson will be filled once more,

And God will scoop the honey of His vengeance

From the broken bones of a lion-hive.

–Elton D. Higgs

Image: “Empty” by Anthony. CC License.