His divinity is kneaded in the clay of your humanity like one bread

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Paradox Number Seven: Dying to be born; born to die

Death is not a popular subject, whether it is the death of the body or the death of a desire or want. The definition of death is this: The act of dying; termination of life or something else.

Termination of life. Ouch! That's so final. So harsh. So....

Completely out of our control.

So what do we, as humans, do when something is out of our control? We try to ignore it, or dismiss it, or just plain pretend it doesn't exist.

But it does. We all know that. Without even broaching the subject of the death of loved ones, it is all around us. We see death every day: Beautiful flowers plucked and placed in a vase only to wilt, colorful insects with a 24 hour life span that flutter and then turn to dust. And then there are the leaves on the trees that go from green to glory to brown...and then back to green.

Ah, as Hamlet put it, there's the rub.

Is it possible death is not the termination of life? Can it instead be life itself?

This, of course, is the Christian belief, and it is yet another paradox. Christians believe you have to be born again, and to do that, you have to die. Okay, the words are all used figuratively, but the death is real because being born again means the death of what mankind holds most dear - self. This death, and rebirth, the Bible says, comes with Baptism.

Romans 6:2-4 (English Standard Version)
By no means! How can
we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Most of us are familiar with this scripture, spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus.

John 3:6-8 (English Standard Version)
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

C.S. Lewis once said that he had believed Christianity to be real just because it was so odd - because of the paradoxes. Anything pat, he went on, would be suspicious. Well, being baptized into Christ's death - dying to sin and your old life - and then being reborn as one of God's new creations certainly fills the bill. To we mortals dead is dead.

With God, anything is possible.

The photo accompanying this post is this writers' baptism into that death, and proclamation of her faith in the risen Christ. You gotta love the Midwest, as a friend of mine put it - no river so we used a hog trough. (No hog jokes please.) But as Pastor Johnathan said, baptism water is not holy water. It holds no miracle in itself. It is simply water that holds a precious child waiting to be born, this time in the spirit and not the flesh. Our God is mysterious and awesome, is he not?

Oh, and by the way, if you wonder about that expression - I forgot to hold my nose.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Paradox Number Six: Having nothing, but having everything

In 2 Corinthians 6:2-10, the Apostle Paul wrote:

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: great endurance in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity,knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live;as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing,yet possessing everything.

So the guy is crazy, right?

In this world, the answer to that question would be a resounding 'yes!' We work very hard to make certain neither we nor the people we love have to suffer. Calamities? Hardships? Afflictions? Not for us. Beatings and imprisonment, sleepless nights? Hunger? These are things most of us would not wish on our worst enemy, and yet, here is Paul not boasting, but displaying them as a sort of badge of honor for obedience to, and love of his Lord. And then he goes on to claim in verse 10 that even though he has nothing, he possesses everything.

As I said at the beginning of this series, faith in God in Christ seems to be riddled with paradoxes. Here we confront another one: How can we be poor and yet, rich?

There are two kinds of poverty - physical and spiritual. A man may own the world, but have no soul. I thought it was interesting (and telling) when I heard recently that the people who give the most as far as charities, are those who have the least. Sort of like the widow Jesus mentioned who gave all she had, compared to the rich young man who gave up a chance to follow the Savior because he could not surrender his wealth. God, of course, is interested in your 'spiritual' bank account, and not the earthly one on the corner down the street in your home town (the one with the locks and guards). That may be full to the brim, or even overflowing, but it means little if you are spiritually bankrupt.

As a student of history, I know people are people, and gaining wealth and holding onto it have always been foremost in people's minds. The desire to own land and to 'get ahead' was what made America. In the Old World, most of the land was owned by the families who had held it for centuries. There was no way to move up the social and financial ladder other than to go where there was land just waiting to be purchased (never mind that there were already folks living there. That's another post!) The difference today, I think, is in the tempation to have more and more and more, and more that we don't need and can't possibly use. Everyday we are bombarded by commericials - on our tv, on the phone, via books and magazines and on and on - telling us that we NEED this and that and the other thing in order to be safe, well, good, beautiful and perfect. And in order to have all those things, we need money. So focusing on money and making it and hoarding it is good.

But is it?

As our earthly bank accounts grow, often - not always - but often our spiritual bank accounts dwindle. Everyone knows Jesus' words in Matthew (19:28) "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." We don't like those words. They don't fit with our idea of success, of getting ahead, of 'possessing everything.'

Now, God doesn't call on all of us to go without shoes and starve in order to be godly or blessed. And He doesn't say it is 'impossible' for a rich man, just hard. When you think of the state the majority of the people on this planet, aren't all of us in the Western World rich? Shouldn't we all be on notice? It's easy to think this applies to the Donald Trumps of the world, but it applies just as much to all of us. If I have enough money to spare that I can hop on Ebay and buy a CD I just heard just because I want it, I'm rich.

So, when Paul and the Bible speak of being rich but poor, of having nothing, but possessing everything, it isn't really a paradox. It just depends on whether you are looking to pile up those riches on this side of eternity, or on the other.

Art: Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Paradox Number Five - The greater shall be less

Jesus said, "If anyone would be first, he must be last...."

Now wait a minute! Isn't it all about winning? About being the best?

What is this nonsense?

From childhood on, I have been puzzled by competition. I, you see, am one of the few people on the face of the Earth who has no interest in sports. There is a simple reason - for someone to win, someone else has to lose. Humans, as a whole, seem to be bent on determining who is fastest and brightest, the most clever and the best. My little granddaughter, who is only six, is already indoctrinated. We have to have contests whenever we do art or crafts or play school. Someone has to be first. Someone has to win, because if we don't win -

What are we?

So then, what do we do with this man Jesus who had the audacity to say more than once, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." Mark 9:35 ESV


Wow. Not many of us aspire to be a servant. One of the online dictionaries defines a servant as 1) a person working in the service of another (especially in the household) 2) one who expresses submission, recognizance, or debt to another. Traditionally servants, as stated in definition one, occupied the lowest 'rung' of the ladder of society. Emptying chamber pots and mucking out barns, spinning and weaving and dyeing cloth, bleaching linen and beating rugs - all of these were labor-intensive chores that left the ones performing them exhausted and often wasted. Servants didn't generally have the life expectency say, of a bank president or king. And as for definition two, well people in the 21st century have 'an issue'(as some like to put it) with submission of any kind.

And yet, Jesus - the King of Glory - did not.

One of the most touching moments recorded in the Holy Scriptures is that of Jesus washing the disciples' feet. Who can forget Peter (who seemed to have a penchant for placing his ten digits in his mouth) telling his master that it was wrong for him to do so? Or Jesus' reply in John 13:8, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." Jesus also said in verse 7, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand."

I wonder, do we?

Jesus was, of course, modeling his own words, showing that the greatest among them must become the least. The first, must be last. It boggles the mind to realize that God himself, incarnated in the form of Jesus, did this - that he knelt on the floor and wiped the dust and dirt from simple mens' feet in order to illustrate the overwhelming love and compassion of the Father.

The culmination of this servanthood, of course, was Jesus' death upon the cross, which was a form of execution reserved for criminals and one depised by the Jewish community.

Talk about the bottom rung of the ladder.

Those of us who desire to be like Christ, who live in this 'me' generation, in a century that rewards only the brightest and the best, must come to grips with the meaning of Jesus' actions. Their meaning, plain and simple, is that we are to be servants to everyone around us, regardless of what we think of them, and that - in direct opposition to that 'All American Spirit' of being first - we must choose to be last. We must humble ourselves and wash the dirty, stinky feet of people we don't like, of people who persecute us; of people who, as the Bible puts it, will find their only reward here on Earth.

Our reward lies elsewhere, with the King who chose to be a servant and showed us the way.

The painting Jesus Washing Peter's Feet is by Pre-Raphealite Artist Ford Madox Brown

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Paradox Number Four - The broken made whole

In searching the internet for scriptural references for this topic, I have come across a number of blog entries and website rants that have trouble with the concept of God 'breaking the spirit' of his followers and believers. A search run through http://www.BibleGateway.com returns five verses that mention the term 'broken spirit'. For my purposes, these three are the most relevant:

Psalm 34:18
The LORD is near to the brokenheartedand saves the crushed in spirit.

Psalm 51:17
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Isaiah 61:1
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,because the LORD has anointed meto bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,to proclaim liberty to the captives,and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.

The people who take exception to the concept of God 'breaking' the spirit, focus on the breaking and not the fact that God is near to the brokenhearted, that he saves the crushed in spirit, and that he has sent his son to bind up the brokenhearted. In other words, God uses that brokenness to make people whole.

Hence the paradox.

In our modern world when something is broken, most often it is thrown away. It's useless right, if it isn't perfect? Not so long ago - back in the dark ages of the 1950s and 60s - when something was broken, it was not tossed out, but mended. We didn't have the money to throw things away and replace them. Still once mended, the item - whatever it was - was never the same. Often, it was not as strong.

And yet it seems that God is saying that after people are broken and HE fixes them, they are better, stronger; in fact, they are whole.

How can this be?

Years ago I wrote a short fan fiction story called 'Two for the Breaking'. http://www.marlafair.com/files/Two_For_The-Breaking.htm It was based on the 1980s British TV Show, Robin of Sherwood. It dealt with two broken people who decided to try again. In spite of the fact that they were both wounded, they joined together to become stronger. The title was based on something my father taught me. His name was Dale Cummins and he was a Scout Master, so naturally, he was well versed in woodlore, etc. He took a slender stick and gave it to me and had me break it in two. It was easy. Little as I was, I just snapped it in half. Then he took twine and bound the two pieces together, side by side, and handed it back to me and asked me to break it again. The two short stout sticks firmly anchored together resisted every effort of mine - and his - to break them. In breaking, and then being bound up, the branch became a whole different thing - stronger and, in a strange way, even more whole than it had been before the breaking.

When I think of God 'breaking the spirit' of his people in order to make them stronger, this is the image that comes to mind. God does not break our spirit in the way we mortals think of it, which usually involves destruction of self-esteem and all the consequences that entails. God 'breaks' us with his love in order to reveal our flaws, our sins, and our earthly desires that supercede him, so that he can remove these obstacles - so important to us - which stand between us and him. God breaks us to make us contrite, 'to feel regret or sorrow for our sins' as the dictionary puts it, and most importantly of all, to humble us. It is only in humility that we can see and acknowledge what our great and good God has done for us.

Interesting, isn't it, that the cross on which Jesus hung was two pieces of wood bound together, through which we all became whole?