Monday, 26 January 2009

A Rare Perspective on God and Africa

This is for my little sister, who lives and breathes Africa and its beautiful, amazing people:
As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God
Matthew Parris - Times Online

Monday, 19 January 2009

Putting Off Childish Things: On Reason and Responsibility

Is it enough to have an epiphany, an experience, a vision? Are we then excused from the heavy work of thinking, comparing, reasoning?

A thousand times, no.

The human mind is a flighty, deceptive thing. It lights on one line of thought, then another, as it pleases. Given rein, it is prone to all sorts of dreams, hallucinations, illusions, and delusions. It is easily overcome by stress, strain, shock,fear, great emotion. It wavers, projecting ideas backward onto memory, and at other times blocking out entire chunks of memory.

For each of us there are two sentinels posted just outside the shadowy, billowing curtains of the mind, and we esteem them lightly at our peril: they are conscience and reason. Both are fallible, and know little of what is, but they are quick to identify what is not. Conscience raises a ruckus over all that is not right; Reason is quick to point out all that is not true. Both may be silenced, but in their silence we are forced to submit to the tyranny of whim and whimsy.

Every adult with an adult's mind bears responsibility to her own conscience and her own ability to reason. The mind that knows light and chooses darkness pronounces its own judgement and damns itself.

Epiphany
an appearance or manifestation, esp. of a deity.
a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

If an epiphany be no more than an appearance or manifestation, then what can it give, more than a kind of comfort? What good is the appearance of a deity that has no relevance to the real, that makes no sense, after he has again disappeared into his pale and hazy realm? Only if we mean, by "epiphany", something that rearranges the thinking; that offers some insight into reality, can it bear any weight. Even then, that insight must be guarded by reason until its trustworthiness has been firmly established.

When I say that I am coming to know the Living God, himself the very source of all Truth, what does that mean unless I submit it to the thrashing of reason? Shall I tell that I know God, who made me a rational creature, and lie to say that he bids me discard reason to know him?

An epiphany can never be the climax of knowing, but the introduction. If my thinking is changed to take a whole new direction, then I must not discard reason, but cling the more tightly to it. If it stands under reason's measured blows, and can be reconciled, too, with conscience, only then can I begin to trust it with the weight of my own thinking.

Reason is a weak guide, but we have no better gatekeeper. It never produces its own material, and works instead on the material of conscience and the senses. It compares, analyses, reconstructs; but it never introduces new things - only new combinations of things. That is why it can never, on its own, lead us into what stands outside of us: Truth. But let reason not be undervalued, for it protects us from any number of apparitions pretending to be Truth; they fall under its flashing blade. And once Truth, however dimly, has been perceived, reason will go all about it, marking its foundations, and broadening its reach. Reason allowed to do its work will not rest until Truth has been fully stripped of paint and facade and revealed in all its rich lustre.

Be sure that the comfortable, harmless Gods of epiphanies allowed entrance without reason will all turn tyrant. The only God worth knowing is that One who is called Truth; who fully reconciles and perfects the knowledge and the work of body, mind, and spirit: he is the One who makes meaning out of the gathered questions and answers of sense, reason, and being. If I may not know Him, then call me atheist. Any other God is a lie.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Do Not Go Gentle: Searching For Truth

Exrelayman, this post is for you. It is the story of my journey towards truth and knowing. I have not completed the journey, but I have found the source of all that I am looking for.

For I am confident that given a choice between a warm and comfortable delusion and a cold and harsh reality, we want reality...

There is a bliss in ignorance - but that ignorance walks with innocence, and it belongs to children. A willful ignorance knows no such bliss. To those of us who speak of knowing, and who have tasted the rich delight there is in understanding, there comes a longing only Truth itself can satisfy. All other bliss is wrecked on reason's encircling rocks.

So truth is the principal thing. Furthermore, we can each see in the human experience evidence that, while truth is not without beauty, it is rarely comfortable - at least to begin with. Thus the seeker of comfort rarely finds truth.

My education is average, and my knowledge of all things scientific, philosophical, historical, and theological, must be called a "smattering"; and while I don't know what is my IQ, I know that I am no genius. I have no great apologetic that will convince the atheist that God does, in fact, exist. That said, I will attempt to tell how I, an unremarkable person (except perhaps in laziness!), am coming to know One who is called Truth.

People speak of faith, and by that they often mean the belief that God exists. Why there should be particular merit in believing that a God exists is incomprehensible to me, especially since the ideas of most of the "faithful" about who that God is are so widely varied as to be hardly the same thing at all, save for two qualities: of those who believe in a God, most agree that he is all-powerful, and that he is invisible. The invisible part is understandable, since if God were visible, then their faith would hardly be warranted. The all-powerful part becomes problematic when other qualities, such as goodness, are added to the mix: all sorts of troublesome questions arise, like "Why does a God who is both all-powerful and good allow the evil we can clearly see around us?" It is at this point that such "faith" again becomes necessary. The real question is, can this be called faith, or is it simply a very human cowardice and a willful gullibility?

I was taught from before I could speak about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He wasn't the warm, cuddly God in circulation today, but he was both all-powerful and invisible. I was taught to fear not his power, but his holiness - clear and blinding and unassailable and impossibly pure. My mother read me stories from the Bible, and I knew that its stories about people encountering angels didn't have them shivering in warm delight, but falling on their faces and shaking with fear. And so behind my sense of God was a fear of his holiness - but it was his holiness that could be trusted, too. He wouldn't lose his temper, or change his mind, or fail to keep his promises, as my parents, being human, sometimes did. I also knew that to my grandfather, (who spent long hours reading while we played, but always had time to tell a story or teach my sisters and me to fly paper airplanes; whose beliefs about God were rarely spoken but often evident) God was both father and ever-present friend. Later, when my grandfather's mind was ravaged by Alzheimer's disease and he couldn't recognize my grandmother or remember how many children he had, his sense of God remained unblurred. On the subject of God alone he was lucid and sure; unchildish; reasonable. Near the end, he had a series of heart attacks, and I spent long hours with him in the hospital. He was often confused, but there was no confusion when he prayed aloud or spoke of the Bible.

So as I child, with my child's thinking, I didn't question God's existence, or my need for God to rescue me, even though I hardly knew what from. I accepted easily the truth that I was a sinner - not that sin made me something to be loathed, but that I, made to be more, was trapped by some evil that separated me from the good I could imagine but failed to do and become. I hardly understood what sin was, but I didn't have any trouble understanding that I wasn't exactly heaven-material. From age five until about age nine, I tried to "have faith" in a God whose existence I had never questioned. At the last, I was running out of hope and patience. I pleaded with God, asking him to tell me how to "have faith"; how to do what he wanted me to do. I can't quite explain how the answer came - whether I heard something in my mind, or if it was an comprehension as sudden as if someone had spoken, but in my mind was this understanding, at once clear and relevant: "You don't have to do anything. It's all been done."

That settled my restless searching and pleading for some years. I had asked, and had received. I was content that Jesus' death and resurrection meant that nothing more was required to make me acceptable before a holy God. Though I had struggled and failed, he had satisfied his own terms on my behalf.

But then came university, and my introduction to philosophy. I felt a new urge and a responsibility to examine my knowledge, to understand as well as know. I was shaken by Descartes' questioning of the basis for knowledge, and oddly, both comforted and disturbed by Anselm's seemingly circular answers. Looking back, it wasn't really God's existence that seemed so shadowy, but my own ability to know an invisible, un-prove-able God. In any case, a great cavern of questions unasked opened up in my mind.

I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. My grandfather was dead. I appealed to my parents. They had encouraged my siblings and me to think and to ask questions as we grew older, so I felt that I could trust them - but they didn't offer me the answers I wanted. They advised me to read the Bible and ask God whatever questions I had. I am thankful they didn't ask me to stop reading philosophy, because it was from Plato that I came to understand that empirical knowledge is not the only, or necessarily the best, kind of knowledge. From then on, I began, half-subconsciously, to put my knowledge of God to the test. I wasn't looking for miracles or empirical proofs - instead I wanted anwers to all the 'why's. I asked and waited for him to answer. One by one, the answers came. Sometimes the 'why' became clear with a new piece of knowledge or a fresh perspective; other times I realized that the question had been based on a flawed understanding in the first place. I gained confidence in God. The realization at nine years old that my relationship with him wasn't based on my own ability to have "faith" but on his own provision, made me less afraid to ask questions, and bit by bit, I was coming to understand that there were answers. Even the ones that were beyond my intellectual grasp were not unreasonable. (For example, I spent a long time trying to wrap my head around infinity and mostly failed, but I had no trouble accepting infinity as a rational concept.)

It was not until after university that my world came crashing down. It wasn't one thing, but many things that converged at a single junction in my life. I had moved far away from my family and friends. I took on a job that was too big for me and that stripped my confidence in myself and in humanity. I stepped out with big dreams of making the world a better place, and was shocked to find myself full of selfishness and other flaws, and with nothing worthwhile to oontribute - certainly nothing that would offset what I found myself greedily wanting to take. I was hit hard by depression and the seemingly impossible struggles of everyday life. I had no friends, and neither energy nor motivation to maintain relationships or build new ones. I felt that there was no one who could understand. Desperate, I went running to God, but he, too, had withdrawn.

It is hard for me to explain the terror and extreme loneliness I felt. It lasted for over a year, and ebbed but didn't entirely lift for almost three years after that. During that time, almost every relationship I had was strained to breaking. I was a deadweight. Most days, I was struggling just to get through the day. I felt unloved and unloving and unloveable and abandoned. My thinking became negative. I gained weight. I was out of control. These things sent me spiralling into self-loathing and a deep hopelessness.

Worst of all was the absence of God. I read my Bible, but its words went flapping and cawing like flock of crows through my head. I prayed, and I could almost hear the clang as my pleas bounced off the ceiling and fell clattering back down to mock me. I had no reassurance that anyone was speaking to me; no sense that a living God could hear my calls or take pity on my hurt and bewilderment. I longed for a way to die without hurting my family. In my darkest night, God was nowhere to be found.

I couldn't understand what had happened; why he had disappeared. I had trusted him and tried to please him. I had asked him for answers - wherever they had come from, they were meaningless to me in the bleak dim fog that had wrapped itself coldly about me. Had I been naive, believing I knew God? After all, wasn't it kind of arrogant to think that I, among so few, could know and be known by God? Suddenly, I could see myself and my motives clearly. I had hoped to help people, thinking that was love - but really, I was seeking approval and appreciation. I was terribly disappointed in myself and in other people. Was it possible that we had been wrong about God, too?

Deep down, I wanted to know the truth. If there was nothing more. Since I felt myself powerless to do what I wanted - either simply cease to exist or find a way to make my life enjoyable - I wanted to know what was so that I could begin to deal with it. How quickly the things that had comforted the young me became empty platitudes that highlighted my emptiness. In my mind, I heard the reproaches of Job's friends: 'If you had tried harder to please God, this wouldn't have happened.' 'You must have done something wrong, and this is your punishment.' But despite my fear and self-hatred and the newly-discovered selfishness within me, I knew that I had sought God and followed him. I had tried my best to please him. It seemed that he simply wasn't there.

I began re-thinking what was there. I considered the possibilities. Christianity as it is generally presented in our world seemed not implausible so much as irrelevant, empty. It sounded nice, but faded away to nothing in the face of the vast, howling wilderness that gaped at me. I was falling. I could throw it all away, but one thing remained: the God my grandfather knew. He was the One I both feared and longed for. I had seen him in my grandfather's eyes, suddenly sure in the midst of his confusion. I knew simply and surely that if there was anything worth having in life, it was what my grandfather had found. It had given him peace when his own mind became an enemy. He had had joy when his life was stripped of all its meaning. He had known love when every human relationship had been forgotten. Whether it was God or something else, that was what I wanted more than anything. I determined to find it, or to die searching. If I failed, my life wasn't worth much to me anyway.

After more than a year of jarring loneliness and bewilderment, I picked up my Bible again to read and something - or Someone - spoke softly from a small verse in the book of Psalms:

You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy... (Psalm 16:11)

That was what I needed: a purpose and a path for my life, a kind of joy that wasn't related to my situation, and a living truth that was more than a maxim - something I could trust no matter how I felt. I didn't want any empty religious rags, or the equally irrelevant measurements of things I found in reason without God. I needed a truth that could reach to the very bottom of life and remain meaningful.

I sought that truth in the Bible because that was where my grandfather had found it. I couldn't pray as I had before, but I went outside and looked up into grey skies and spoke to the One I longed to know. I begged him to speak to me. I no longer knew who he was; sometimes I was simply speaking to that great energy evident in living things, the Goodness I could vaguely sense in trees and sky and sea. I asked him to reach through my expectations and my preconceptions and let me know him. (I use the masculine article here not because I looked for something masculine - but I was looking for something personal, so "it" doesn't suffice.) It wasn't God I was looking for. I wanted to know what was Real - I only called him God because my grandfather had called him that.

How can I describe that way he came to me? Shall I tell you my feelings, my thoughts? Shall I tell you what sorts of things I was doing when I knew him present? It all seems trivial and immaterial. The real difference was that my concept of God had been blasted out of the little corner I called my "spiritual" self. He cared about me, but my comfort was a small thing to him compared to my knowing, growing, being. He was concerned with the dusty details I would never have expected him to bother about, but he was far bigger than I had imagined, and his priorities rolled right over mine like a train over a penny placed on the track. He wasn't contained to Sundays and hymns and my evening prayers. He was secular. He was warm earth and wild wind and deep, restless sea. He was Love and Light and Life and Truth. The majesty of trees, the austerity of mountains, the bleakness and the purity and the silence of snow were all his. He had revealed himself to human intellect in the measured meter of words and history, but he could never be comprehended by those things. The Living God is not a comfortable truth, nor easily understood - but comfort was paltry and my understanding meagre when I placed them next to truth.

To my surprise, it isn't answers, smooth and pat and carefully arranged, that come with knowing God. There are answers, to be sure, but it was the questions that came springing that shocked me. If God is really-real, not what we think of as spirit-real, then things have to make sense. And if things have to make sense, then the Bible is a book full of questions to be understood rather than divine incomprehensibilities.

I had asked to know God, but I hadn't understood the foolishness of wanting to know Love or Truth with my intellect alone. I had opened my mind and asked him to come in, but I had left him room only in a box marked "religious". Why had he deserted me? To show me that the God I had allowed him to be was too small, too unreasonable, too inadequate; that what I needed wasn't a spiritual mascot, but Truth; Love; a Father; a Mother; a Friend. It was when I came to understand my own need that he came rushing in to fill that void.

And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. “Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. “In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
‘YOU WILL KEEP ON HEARING, BUT WILL NOT UNDERSTAND;
YOU WILL KEEP ON SEEING, BUT WILL NOT PERCEIVE;
FOR THE HEART OF THIS PEOPLE HAS BECOME DULL,
WITH THEIR EARS THEY SCARCELY HEAR,
AND THEY HAVE CLOSED THEIR EYES,
OTHERWISE THEY WOULD SEE WITH THEIR EYES,
HEAR WITH THEIR EARS,
AND UNDERSTAND WITH THEIR HEART AND RETURN,
AND I WOULD HEAL THEM.’

(Matthew 13:10-15)

Like the Jewish people, I had decided what the truth was, what it had to be. I gave more credence to the things I "figured out" than to the knowledge that imposed itself on me without being courted by my intellect. Let me give you an example of the difference. I knew, as we all know, that careful study leads to learning. Somehow, though, when I entered university, I thought I was smart enough to beat the system. I thought I could get by on my ability to understand rather than on gathered knowledge. I put my trust in my intellectual ability rather than in my knowledge of the way things are. For a while, I did beat the system, but eventually my poor study habits caught up with me. I was in a strict program: I failed a course, and was dismissed from the program. That shook my thinking and humbled me, but it didn't completely change me.

My concept of truth had a lot to do with my concept of myself. Without knowing it, I was full of arrogance. God had to show me that truth before I could ever see him. He didn't want me to keep trusting him just because he answered the questions my intellect asked. He wanted me to learn who he was, and he stopped answering so that I could understand what I really needed.

Does truth require faith? Knowing it does not. It stands on its own. Finding it does, but not faith of the sort that ignores questions, trampling on reason and denying the observable. It is not the kind of faith that decides what the end ought to be and then sets about making it so. Rather, the sort of faith that is required is a refusal to deny what we know, no matter how uncomfortable it is. It is this sort of faith that spurs people to throw off their "hope-so, maybe-so, think-so" beliefs. It sometimes leaves us without something to call "God", but it is the way to knowing Truth.

I wouldn't dare tell someone else why they have searched but haven't found God, but I know why I didn't find him right away. First of all, I was searching for my idea of God, which didn't exist. Such a search, though it be for something called "God", ends nowhere, because it is usually a search for something else entirely - intellectual satisfaction, comfort, tradition. I wanted the truth, but in the beginning I was unwilling to accept the truth that made me uncomfortable. When I was desperate enough to search for Truth, whatever it was, rather than my too-small conception of God, I found Truth - and it was God.

Do I have bullet-proof evidence to lay before the skeptic and show him where he is wrong? No. Neither truth nor God is a precept to be pounded in. Moreover, my own understanding of those things that offer evidence even of material truths is far too lacking to offer anything to the educated person.

What can I offer, then? Only hope for the one who seeks truth, refusing to deny that truth is worth all that must be sacrificed of comfort or pride. I can only tell that I have found what satisfies not merely my senses, or my intellect, or my spirit - but my whole being. I don't ask that you believe that it is God, but that you believe it is what you need, too.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Ancient Wisdom (Part II)

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.
- Lao-Tzu

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

On Prayer and Magic: Our Universe as a Demonstration Garden

My friend is in the hospital tonight with her small baby. The baby has been having seizures, and my friend, not a Christian, has been praying. The only problem is, she says, if she notices an improvement in the baby, she can't tell if it's the medicine or the praying that's making things better.

Why does our praying seem so impotent? Why are the things we ask for so sporadically granted? Why do we need to pray to a God who is supposed to know already what we mean to ask for?

What does it mean to pray, anyway? Shall I beg God to do things my way? Will he wait, like a dog trainer, while I shake a paw, before he drops down a little blessing-biscuit from heaven? Can I believe that he, forgetful, need be reminded of my desires? Is it possible that He who is also called Love must be pleaded with to give good things?

If this is true, how can he be God? If my own flesh-and-blood father, whose love is imperfect, takes pleasure in giving me good things even to his own hurt, can I expect less from the God who created fathers?

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matthew 7:7-11)

But we do know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to purpose. (Romans 8:28)

I used to live near a demonstration garden. It was planted and maintained by those who wanted to show what could be grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and how earth-friendly habits like composting could be used to grow food and flowers. More than simply beautiful, the garden was practical on a number of levels. It grew healthy food. It also took its premises out of the realm of philosophy and into real life. It offered proof of what was possible, and ultimately, what was preferable. It taught people how earth-friendly principles could be made to work with their own lifestyles and used in their own gardens. The gardeners could have, with much less work, bought chemical fertilizer. They could have omitted the walkways and signs and instead, planted more seeds. But they weren't in the business of simply growing large numbers of things. Their goal was to demonstrate the best way of growing things sustainably.

Earth is a demonstration garden in our universe. Long ago, some, making the mistake of thinking that it is God's power that makes him God, questioned his right to absolute rule. They did this by a challenge to his power. Had God met that challenge with a display of his infinite might, he would have won - but in winning, he would actually have lost, because he would have proved that power was indeed the basis of his infinite right to rule. Instead, He who is Love lay down power and held Love up to meet the challenge.

God is in the process of showing that Love is not only the most powerful force, it is also the dearest and the best and the most beautiful, the most profound, the most pure, the most precious thing in the universe; infinitely worthy of all that may be sacrificed to it and for it. Like the earth-friendly gardeners who grow things without chemical help (not because they don't have access to it, but because they want to show that it is not as important as we think), God has subordinated his power (not because he lacks power, but because he is showing that it is not his power that makes him worthy). As Love, he is inherently worthy to reign. His right to rule is not only rooted in his power, but in his essence. He is not content to settle challenges with force.

Instead, he sets up what is really a bit of a panorama-box - what you and I call the Milky Way galaxy. In it is a little planet called Earth, populated by creatures called humans. Humans have all of the attributes of God which are not related to either power or love. The most important of these attributes are personality and the power to choose. On earth, all that is not God is allowed freedom to present itself - to lay out its claims, to show its power, and demonstrate its superiority to God; to Love. God's power, and all other power, is unleashed as it is chosen by humans.

It is interesting to note that the Bible does not say "all things work together for good to those that God loves", because that would leave both the love and the power in God's hands. Instead, it says that all things work together for the good of those who love God. The great forces of the universe, which belong to Love, work together for good to those that choose Love.

When I pray, I am not begging God to have pity on me, and use his power to help me. I am simply offering the choice I have as a channel for Love. When I pray for another person, I identify myself with them. I link their good and my good. To the extent that I allow God to work for my good, he is then able to work for their ultimate good.

Does this mean that if I choose God, I will get everything I want? No. It means that if I choose God, who is Love, then Love is what I want - and I will get that. To the extent that I choose it, I will receive Love. The struggle in prayer, is never with God - it is with my own will and my desire for power. Through prayer, I offer my desires to God. He is then free to revise them and allow me to take on his desires. If I choose, I can want what Love wants.

In choosing Love, I say that Love is the greatest good. It is greater than all my wants. It is greater than power - my power to reject it and serve myself. I demonstrate that even if it makes me powerless, love is worth it. And then all of Love's might is set loose to work for my good. Not for my pleasure, which is power; but for my good, which is Love.

Our problem with prayer is that we want to treat it like magic. Magic is power. It must be coaxed; conjured. It must be used and manipulated. The magician is tricked into thinking he is greater than his magic, but he is natural and it is supernatural: he is the one who is used in the end. Prayer is just the opposite. When I have struggled with my self, and subordinated my own will to my choices, then I need only lie down become a road for Love's trucks to roll through on. They are waiting at the portal. In praying, I wield no power, no control. I need not coax or beg. I am neither beggar nor magician, but a child receiving good gifts - gifts chosen with such love that they might be carrots when I ask for candy.

When I pray, bending my spirit before Love and subordinating my power to Love, I thus give Love a right to be in this world; a place in which to do the work of loving. When I pray, I open up the doors of my life and my heart to God. In telling him my desires, I give them to him. I allow him to fulfill them or, if they are less than Good, to sacrifice them. When I pray, I give my choice back to God, and allow him to give the good he longs to give.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

The God Who Cried

If you stop and take a look around at the world for a few minutes, it's enough to break your heart. From war-ravaged Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda and the Congo, to the orphanages of Turkey and Romania, to the Untouchables of India, to the illegal immigrants hiding out in USA and China, to the First Nations children of Canada and the Maori in New Zealand, there winds around this beautiful earth a great line of sorrow and suffering and awful-ness. We who can do our best to forget it, but the cries of our fellow humans sound just beyond the great walls we have erected to keep the sadness out. A great darkness deepens and widens, even as we protest that things are getting better. And though we find ways to distribute food and build shelters and cure diseases, a great wail yet rises. It is not enough.

For if we could find a way to feed and clothe and house them all, and keep them all safe, there remains a gaping need that cannot be filled by us. It sucks life from those who live in abundance and purpose from those who would. People are dying and living dead for want of not food, nor clothing, nor shelter - but love, and you don't have enough to give them, nor do I.

Sometimes it overwhelms me, and I look to the only One who ever could help. Why is he so long in coming? Does he see?

Then I remember that he cried. Not once does the Bible say that Jesus laughed, but it tells us that he cried.

I love him, my weeping God. What a thing for a God to do! Is there another such God in all of our imaginations? A God who cries?
Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?” (John 11:32-37)

His longings are unanswered, too.
When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!” (Luke 19:41)
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling." (Matthew 23:37)

When I stand, heavy and helpless, before the terrible things that take place in our world, to whom can I turn, but to the Man of Sorrows?

He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
(Isaiah 53:2-11)

Isn't this what humanity needs? A God who can be touched? A God who weeps?

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Blessing

The Bible's description of Isaac, the Jewish patriarch, is an interesting one. On the surface, it doesn't seem to go anywhere, and wouldn't make a very good drama. To put it bluntly, Isaac comes out looking like a bit of a patsy. His father offers him as a sacrifice; his servant finds him a wife; he gets kicked around by King Abimelech; and finally, when he is an old, blind man, his wife and son together dupe him into giving a blessing to the youngest son rather than the oldest. Poor old Isaac. He kind of stands in the way of the popular belief that God helps those who help themselves.

So who does God help, and how exactly does he help them?

Genesis 26 - Isaac's encounter with Abimelech:
Now there was a famine in the land--besides the earlier famine of Abraham's time--and Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines in Gerar. 2The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, "Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. 3Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. 4I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, 5because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My requirements, My commands, My decrees and My laws. 6So Isaac stayed in Gerar." ...

12Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the LORD blessed him. 13The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. 14He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him.15So all the wells that his father's servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.

16Then Abimelech said to Isaac, "Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us."

17So Isaac moved away from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. 18Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Phlistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.

19Isaac's servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. 20But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen and said, "The water is ours!" So he named the well Esek, because they disputed with him. 21Then they dug another well, but they quarreled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. 22He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it. He named it Rehoboth, saying, "Now the LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land."

23From there he went up to Beersheba. 24That night the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of My servant Abraham."

25Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.

26Meanwhile, Abimelech had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces. 27Isaac asked them, "Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?"

28They answered, "We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, 'There ought to be a sworn agreement between us'--between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you 29that you will do us no harm, just as we did not molest you but always treated you well and sent you away in peace. And now you are blessed by the LORD."

30Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank. 31Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they left him in peace.

32That day Isaac's servants came and told him about the well they had dug. They said, "We've found water!" 33He called it Shibah, and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba.


How many times can you say, "Now the LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land", before it starts ringing a little hollow? Sure, Isaac had a huge household and herds and flocks. But none of that was going to last long if he couldn't give them water. And while it must have been great to be wealthy, it can't have been terribly fun to have to lug all that wealth through the desert every time Abimelech's servants got cranky and wanted a fight.

If I had been Isaac, it wouldn't have taken me too long to give them the fight they were so obviously picking. I'd also be complaining to God. After all, he gave Isaac all this wealth, and then left him at the mercy of a few servants with a grudge for the one resource he needed to maintain his riches: water. From a PR standpoint, it wasn't a move likely to garner a whole lot of believers. Even Isaac went up to Beersheba to have a little talk with God about the whole thing. What did he get? No apologies, no big promises, no miracles - just a gentle reminder: Don't be afraid, Isaac. I haven't forgotten my promise to your father. You'll get your blessing.

So what was the blessing, if it wasn't protection from Abimelech's hoods, or water to maintain the herds - not to mention Isaac's own family?

Genesis 12:2-3 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.

The wealth, it turned out, wasn't Isaac's 'real' blessing at all. The blessing wasn't something he was going to get; it was something he was going to be.

So often, our disappointment with God causes us to take things into our own hands. We think we need to fight with those who cause us trouble, and wonder why God isn't striking them down. But look what happens to Isaac. He hasn't done a thing to protect himself. His father, Abraham was a great leader who, with his servants, fought off multiple marauding armies, but Isaac has gone running like a girl at the first hint of conflict.

Abimelech and his men come knocking. Isaac must have groaned and thought, "Not again! Why has God set me up to look like a fool?" Amazingly, Abimelech isn't there to fight. Instead, he's scared. He wants to make a peace treaty with Isaac - with Isaac, who has appeared incapable of hurting a flea; who has hit the trail every time Abimelech's servants raised a ruckus. Abimelech is afraid of him? There's not the faintest smell of greatness on Isaac, but Abimelech says that he and his people know God is with Isaac, and is blessing him.

What? They do?

And so God has done it again, revealing himself to others in his chosen one's weakness rather than his strength. We are always waiting for God to sweep in with miracles and wonders and signs that will prove to everyone we aren't gullible fools after all. When he refuses to fill our order for blessings, we are disappointed and figure he's not there after all. The problem is that we have failed to understand what is important. Our own comfort is of paramount importance to us, and we assume that God shares our values.

The High and Holy God of Eternity is not to be conjured. He refuses to be made a pet "genie", kept on hand to grant our wishes. He's no magic fountain, spilling out holy water with which we can heal all of our ailments. He's not a waiter, ready to fill our orders. He'll make the order - we can decide whether or not we want it. It might not come out looking like a blessing.

To those who love God, he will give what is good - but that might hurt us, embarrass us, make fools of us, as it did Isaac. But through Isaac, Abimelech and his people came to know God, the city of Beersheba was born and blessed with a water source, and of course, the Jewish nation was built. Ultimately, it was through this nation that the whole earth was set free by Jesus, the Christ. Isaac got his blessing, and he got to be the blessing.

How many blessings have I turned down, because I was looking for the wrong thing? How many times has my hope turned to distrust because I expected God to think like me, and value what I value?