Shout for Joy
It is interesting that what may be one the best insights into the nature of poetry was written by a theoretical physicist, Paul Dirac. He said, "In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite." It’s certainly true that the task of science is to gather data, discern how they relate, and provide workable paradigms for the complexity of what we call reality. More simply, science tells people what they don't know in a way they can understand.
Then Dirac goes on to claim that poetry is "the exact opposite.” At first I took this to mean that poetry tells people what they have always known, but in a way they can't understand. His statement seemed to say that it was a literary form that intentionally restates what we already know, but makes it more confusing by putting it in highly figurative language. In short, science explains, poetry obscures.
However, as I thought about it, I began to see that he may not have been putting down poetry at all, but saying something very important about it. I realized that what at first seemed to be a negative regard, may well have been the exact opposite. It could be that while science seeks to clarify, poetry uses a different language that takes us behind the obvious to see the "data" of life in a different way. I began to understand that while science explains for functional purposes, poetry "confuses" for artistic purposes. They are the "exact opposite" in method, but in method only. Both methods reveal truth, but in two different ways and for two different purposes. Science is functional; poetry embraces the larger context of life that lies outside the test tube.
Certainly, both are necessary. Getting to the library is, in a sense, a scientific endeavor. One has to be consider such things as distance, time, weather, possibility of interruption, to say nothing – if I’m allowed a big of levity– of the validity of the coordinate system being used. On the other hand, to experience meaning – once you get there and have settled down with a good book – calls for the use of metaphors, which by definition lie outside the realm of science. Getting to the library is impossible apart from some understanding of our material world, but it provides no reason why we should go there. Poetry would like you to put the precision of science on hold for a moment and move instinctively to why you wanted to go there in the first place. Poetry would free you from the limitations of the material, in order to take you via the imagination to some sudden insight into the “whys” of life.
William Blake, the 19th century English poet wrote, “Sweet sleep with soft down, weave thy brows an infant crown” (from A Cradle Song). Today’s scientific mind may well appreciate the insights of poetry, but find it impossible to quantify them. Science and poetry each have their goals, but for me, at this stage of life, the great sweeping generalities, as penned by a poet, are what bring me the greatest satisfaction.
Once past the introductory items in his letter to Timothy, Paul deals with payer as a matter of significant importance in the church. He urges his readers to pray not just for the immediate concerns the congregation, but for “all people,” and especially ”those in authority” (2:1-2). Apparently he deemed that to be more important than issues like qualifications for leadership (chap. 3) and the care of widows (chap. 5). In making his point he uses four different Greek words for prayer, each reflecting an increasing degree of intensity. After “petitions” and “prayers,” Paul lists “intercession” (a semi-technical term for gaining access to royalty in order to submit a request) and concludes with “thanksgiving.” I know of no better pattern for corporate prayer.
So what shall we say of the importance of prayer in today’s worship service? Normally it is a regular part of the service, but it certainly is not central. Now if Paul could come and plan next Sunday’s order of service what do you think it would look like? How about 30-40 minutes of Spirit-inspired prayer, followed by exposition of the Word, a hymn that restates musically the theme the “sermon,” and then a time of rich spiritual fellowship? I think Paul’s pattern would put prayer in that dominant role and allow it to determine the nature of all that would follow. Sometimes it would be non-stop praise, at other times, the sharing of mutual concern. In that church one would never know for sure just how God had intended to bless the day. It could be a time of spiritual excitement, or a time a deep concern for a world apart from God? In any case, it would follow from an experience of corporate prayer in which God would refresh his people with a awareness of His actual presence.
One thing we can know for sure is that God wants us to pray for “all people,” not just those who happen to be part of our group. As you walk through your day, every person you meet is in some way, “standing in the need of prayer.” Many need to learn that God loves them, others that you as part of His family would like to let God do His loving through you. Others need help, someone to talk to, someone to learn from, someone just to be with. As Paul says, we are to pray for “all people.”
It may have come as a surprise to the group in Ephesus to learn from Paul’s letter that they were to pray for “kings and all those in authority.” The Roman emperor at that time was the infamous Nero who burned Rome to the ground and blamed Christians for it. Before him a bit was Julius Caesar, identified by the elder Curio as “every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” Paul would say to us, as he did to Timothy, pray for the Caesars or the Neros of your nation, because that’s what “pleases God” and because He “wants everyone to be saved and come to know the truth as it really is” (vv. 4-5)
"To lead the orchestra you must turn your back on the crowd" is James Crooks' advice for those who would lead in any field. Leading from behind may be a valid principle for management but not for leadership. The effective leader doesn't ask where his con¬stituents want to go, but turns them in the direction they should go. This requires both vision and resilience.
Every field has its leaders. Never do they strike us as average individuals performing at a slightly higher level than their colleagues. They seem to have an uncanny sense of which route will take us where we should go. We may or may not ever get there but along the way we will have a growing respect for the one who could look beyond and have the courage to head us in that direction. Quite a bit has been written on the difference between coercive and authentic leadership. History is full of examples of leaders who by sheer force have taken a nation to an undesirable goal. Who would have thought that a nation like Germany, as advanced and sophisticated as it was in the early 20th century, would have earned a reputation for unimaginable cruelty? Coercive leadership in any of its forms is an admission of moral bankruptcy.
Effective leaders focus on the raison d'etre of the organization. Their role is to make it possible for the group to get to where it should go. Discovering new goals is more the task of the visionary. JFK didn't tell us that it would be a good idea to go to the moon (as if no one had ever thought of that before) but redirected our energies so we actually got there. Had he kept looking at the audience he could never have conducted the orchestra. We all had our instruments ready, but someone had to give the downbeat. That is the essence of leadership – not to ask the musicians what they would like to play but to give them the score and tell them it is time to start.
I’ve been asking myself how does this understanding of leadership relate to the church. We have a lot of local “leaders,” or are they “managers” because they do not tell us where to go, only how to get there. The true leader of the church is Jesus Christ. But he is not here so how does he lead us? I can see why you ask and I believe that he leads today by speaking through his Word. Our leader may be in heaven, that’s true, but he’s left us both a purpose statement and a strategy to arrive at the goal he has given us. Scripture is a sole option for today’s manager. Just draw back and let him speak. We may cloth an idea with words and illustrations but only God can make it all speak to the heart
The apostle loved a good metaphor and frequently used the military as a source. In 1 Tim 1:18-20 he orders Timothy’s to wage a successful military campaign. He is to “fight the Lord’s battle like as good soldier” (v. 18) using “faith and a good conscience as his weapons.” Hymenaeus and Alexander put them aside and “suffered shipwreck” (v.19). As a consequence, Paul (the ship captain) “ordered them below deck to be with Satan so they’d learn not to blaspheme” (v. 20). Yes, Paul was a master of the mixed metaphor.
The campaign that Timothy is to carry out is against all those who are trying to pervert the gospel. He is not to conduct this battle as did those two who deliberately violated their conscience and made a shipwreck of their faith. It is interesting that heresy doesn’t result from careful examination of evidence, but from people who turn a deaf ear to their conscience. Error in the church is motivated not by a new intellectual understanding, but by man’s innate tendency to do the wrong thing. It begins in the heart and is rationalized by the mind. Faith and a good conscience are the Christian soldiers’ weapons to defeat error, not to aid in surrender.
In war, a nation trains men and women to face the opposing army as well trained combatants who are deeply committed to the welfare and safety of those they protect. It is an honorable calling to put your life at risk for fellow citizens. Like Paul, today’s Christian warriors need to get ready for the battle. The primary obligation is to remain focused on what the Commander and Chief has to say about the battle that’s underway. And the “Boss” (Hawaii Pidgin for God) has laid it all out in his Manual for Engagement, the Word on God. No one goes out on a sortie unaware of who the enemy really is and how he plans to win the present skirmish. Bibles need to have that well worn look from taking part in the battle. They instruct us how to carry out the assault against Satan; they give us the rules of engagement. I believe he has ordered us forward, not warned us about firing until we are fired on. The battle is aggressive (“Go and make disciples of all nations” Matt 28:19), not defensive. The old hymn we sing with such enthusiasm is not “Backward Christian Soldiers.”
To borrow a custom of Joni at firstname.lastname@example.org I close with a prayer: “Dear Lord, I may be only a private in your army against sin, but I desire with all my heart to carry out your orders faithfully and in a manner worthy of you, my King. Amen.”
Dostoevsky’s observation that "the second half of a man's life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half" set me to thinking about the way we go about living. By and large, most everything we do is an expression of a habit. Many of us sleep in on Saturday because we've always slept in on Saturday. We have an early cup of coffee and get ready to watch a game (doesn't everybody?). We are truly creatures of habit. It is a comfortable way to live and involves little or no conscious thought.
But are habits good? In what way do they aid us in our progress toward our goal in life? Why is it that good habits have to be formed, but we simply fall into bad habits? A lot of questions can be raised on the subject.
Obviously, some habits are good, they help us get where we want to be. If physical wellbeing is a goal, then regular exercise and a proper diet are habits that help us get there. If we have always gone to the gym three times a week then we don't have to debate it with ourselves when the time arrives. Habit is a faithful friend who helps us toward our goal. But it is equally true that some habits work against our best interests. In fact, they are unusually powerful in denying us our goals. As the old saying goes, "Habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into but hard to get out of.”
It has often been observed that character is the sum total of our habits. The sequence runs like this: what we think we say; what we say we do; what we do becomes habit, which shapes character and determines destiny. To the extent this is true, and I believe it is, habit is perhaps the crucial element in the formation of character. Good habits are powerful agents toward a desirable end but bad habits are equally powerful in preventing it.
So goes the theory, and I believe it is right. In fact, that’s what I’ve been writing about! It’s when we get to the point at which theory is to be applied to life that things begin to go wrong. Who was it that said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The good habits I have been writing about are at best theory as long as they are words on paper (or a file on your computer). The idea has to morph into action, so even though it isn’t January 1st here is one “good idea” that I intend to put into action right now and trust it will become a habit – I’m going to slow down. The old tortoise and hare story that you get further by moving at a more relaxed pace is absolutely true, but it will never become a habit for me unless I start slowing down right now. When you see me, ask how I’m doing.
In 1 Timothy 1.16 Paul tells us that it was because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners that he, Paul, was shown such great mercy. He reasoned that If God could save him, “the worst of sinners” – and He did! - then God could save anyone. (The New Jerusalem Bible translates the apostle’s self-description with “the leading example of his inexhaustible patience for all.”) And that is what I would like you to join me in thinking about. Was Paul the worst? Did he actually think he was the worst? Or is this simply the use of metaphor?
That Paul was a sinner, there’s no question about that, we all are. But he claims to be “the worst” so from Paul’s point of view no one else can make that claim. We know that he was a zealous young Rabbi, which ought to argue the opposite, but he viewed the burgeoning Christian faith as such a heretical menace that he secured permission to hunt down those who had embraced such a terrible heresy and throw them into prison. In fact, he stood by and watched the rabid religionists stone Stephen to death. He even gave them his permission and guarded their clothes while they killed him (Acts 22:20.)
Does that make Paul the worst? I don’t know for sure, but I am quite sure he qualifies. The reason I hesitate is that all sin is wrong. It may be that some does far more damage to society, but in the long run, sin is sin. There’s a tendency to separate sins on our own scale of seriousness. We judge things like killing, stealing, hatred of the other as really bad – about 8 or 9 on a scale of 10. But then we seem to be not quite so turned off with such bad habits as arrogance, envy, or greed and score their “badness” no more that 2 or 3 at the most. Perhaps we could call them “Christian sins.” But wait! Doesn’t Paul put ”greed” right there in the middle of a group of “really bad sins” (as we would say) such as wickedness, evil, and depravity? (Romans 1:29)
The truth is that from God’s point of view, sin is sin; it separates us from God. All Adam and Eve did was to pick a piece of fruit from a little tree and mankind has suffered the results from then until now. Paul may have been the “worst of sinners,” but in terms of separating man from God, any sinful act could have accomplished that. The point the reaches me is the hideous nature of all sin. Some sins have a greater and more immediate affect on society, but each and every one kills in the very real sense of separating us from communion with the source of all life, even God. We are all “worst sinners.”
Since God the Father, for the benefit of his wayward children, sent his only Son to the cross where he would experience the unutterable desolation of separation from the Father, every thought or act that played a part in that unthinkable tragedy is a sin for which there is none greater. We are all “worst sinners,” but we are loved by God and forgiven. As the more expressive among us would say, “Hallelujah!”
I have noted from time to time how remarkable is the gift of communication that God has given us. The animal world is able to “converse” with each other on a level that meets their basic needs. A mother bear can listen to her cubs “tell her” that they are afraid, that it’s time to eat, that they want to play, but you and I can go infinitely beyond that. Not only can we transfer basic information but we can actually transfer ideas and even think together.
But like so many gifts of God, man has a habit of using the gift of speech to confuse rather than clarify. Words can be put together in a way that helps you accomplish what you want. Take the common phrase, gun violence. I know that one use of a gun can be to perform a violent act and I am against violence, but we need to think a bit clearly on the role of the gun in the phrase gun violence. I believe the term is misleading because it implies that the gun must pull its own trigger. After all, it is gun violence, something the gun does. From that it is reasonable to conclude that we need to get rid of the perpetrator, the gun. If a person killed with a knife we don’t call it knife violence, or if a person has a fatal accident in a car, call it “car violence.”
Another thing about words is the Buddhist position on the limited ability of words to express the full existential meaning of what they would like to say. In art, music and poetry words point us toward what they want to express, but how could words ever make clear your profound reaction to a moving piece of literature or an outstanding work of art. Words take their meaning from context and everyone has a context unique to that person alone. To repeat myself (from another blog) a friend of mine still has the hair on his neck stick straight out when he hears a pit bull bark because unlike most of us, he was attacked by one many years ago.
To move from words to the ideas they express, there is one writer that stands as a mentor for all, C S Lewis. He had the unique ability to clarify his thoughts and express them so clearly that when we read his work we tend to say to ourselves, “Oh, now I see.” So, here is an example of the “lucid clarity” of Lewis’ thinking and his ability to convey a thought.
“My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?”
See what I mean?
In a world where everything seems to be in continual flux, it’s good to be reminded of one thing that will never change – and that is that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). It is amazing that God, in the person of his incarnate Son entered this world of ours with one specific purpose in mind, and that was to save sinners. This fundamental truth is focused and comprehensive. It is focused on our need to be forgiven. It is comprehensive in that the faith that makes it possible is available to all. Nature itself reveals enough of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Rom 1:20) to make man responsible and the redemptive intervention of Christ clarifies the issue even more.
Other religions picture people as pursuing God. They are involved in a struggle to gain the favor of some god who isn’t particularly interested. In dramatic contrast is Christianity in which a loving God takes the initiative and in his Son, Christ Jesus, pays the necessary ransom for our sins. (Cf. Philippians 2:6-11). The formula is simple: Repent, believe, and be saved. And what is the repentant sinner saved from? The first thing is permanent separation from eternal goodness. Matthew pictures it as a place of “eternal punishment” (25:46), where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:50), and John, in the book of Revelation, calls it a “fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Rev 19:20). Not a pleasant picture, and even if the writers were speaking metaphorically, all that means is that the place called hell is so incredibly terrible that there is no other way to portray it. As we read earlier, Christ came into the world to save us from that place.
But the saving activity of God isn’t limited to what can happen at death, but is described in scripture as something He is doing right now. Paul describes believers as “those who are being saved” (2 Corin 2:15). And what is it that I am being saved from right now as I complete this column? It is the continuing power of my old sin nature. While defeated on the cross, it continues its battle to make my life (and yours!) as least beneficial as possible. But God is at work in the believer’s heart to help transform us from the egocentric disaster we were to the loving and outgoing person that God wants us to be. It is absolutely true that justification inevitably involves transformation. To fail at this point would be to reveal that our commitment is fraudulent.
“Come, Lord, and keep up your saving work in us right now. It began when we turned to you in faith and we want you to continue it until we arrive home.”
Mary Anne Evans (or George Eliot as she was known in her writ¬ings) was an English novelist of the Victorian era, known for her realism and psychological insight (novels include such notable works as Adam Bede, and Silas Mariner). She is quoted as hav¬ing said, "It is never too late to be what you might have been.” I genuinely like that. Having lived three years in a retirement home (and it had everything that a good retirement home should have), I began to realize that its very ambiance was redirecting my focus toward the past. What was becoming important was either what had been or one's health. As one resident said, "Ask a person how he is and you get an organ recital" I don't mean to belittle the aging process, but George Eliot's reminder that "It is never to late" is a strong deterrent to what might be called the premature surrender of life. Let's think about it.
Along with taxes, death is inevitable. The oldest person, whose life span can be validated, was Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1995. She lived for 122 years and 164 days. She is quoted as saying, "I've never had but one wrinkle and I'm sitting on it." She may have lost her health but not her sense of humor. Life can be a wonderful sequence of experiences from the innocence of childhood, through the frantic activity of adulthood, to the serenity of age. In so many ways the latter days of life can be the best. We enjoyed the zest of youth, then the challenge of the productive years, and now we have the opportunity to enter a time of reflection on what is truly important. I'm speaking in gen-eralities of course, but what is generally true is not invalidated by the exception the exception merely "proves [or tests] the rule." Rather than resist aging would it not be better to embrace it?
And how does this relate to becoming what we might have been? It doesn't mean to do what we might have done or to get what we might have had, but to be become what we might have been. Life is about being, not doing or having. If our personal his¬tory doesn't sketch a lifetime of authenticity – and that's quite true of everyone – there is still time to live out our days as one could wish they might always have been. The trick is to live each moment true to the way we know it should be – no subterfuge, no duplic¬ity, no pretense, no casuistry. Impossible, you say. I don't think so. At least it deserves the decision to try. For the Christian additional help is provided by the Holy Spirit. It was Jesus who said, "with God all things are possible" (Matt 19:26). The close of life can be better than the beginning because the redirection from doing and having to being is life's most exciting and rewarding experience.
Paul writes, “The law was not intended for people who do what is right” (1 Tim 1:9). What? I’ve always thought that laws were for everyone and that no one was outside the law. To clarify this dilemma we’ll need to look a bit more carefully at the context. In vv. 8–10 we are told that there are three things that we know. We know that (1) the law is good as long as it is used legitimately. We also know that (2) the law was intended for the “lawless and disobedient” (twelve kinds are listed). But, according to this text we know that (3) “the law was not intended for people who do what is right.” Since those who have come to Christ by faith been set free from the penalty of sin, the purpose of the law for them has been fulfilled.
While that is true, it should also be said that the law (as one way of describing a life pleasing to God) plays a certain role in the life of the believer. At one time I was able to devote a serious amount of time to the subject of Jesus’ relationship to the law. A helpful insight for me was that the purpose of law is not to restrict the believer, but to protect us from anything that would be harmful in the long run. For example, God did not say, “Thou shall not steal” to prevent us from stealing, but to inform us that not stealing will spare us the misery that stealing brings into life. The point is that law does not take away, it gives. It is not restrictive but beneficial.
There are so many Christians, it seems, that are not experiencing the quiet joy of sins forgiven. The way we lived prior to conversion did put us in debt. We pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” But the incarnate Christ came and paid that debt in full by his sacrifice on the cross. And the result is that we are free! The debt is gone! It is unfortunate that that so many continue to view themselves as though the payment wasn’t adequate and we have to help by being miserable, even hating ourselves for what we are by nature. But believers should not view themselves in terms of what they were before conversion, but of who they are now as forgiven sinners. When God forgives us he . . . how else can I put it . . . he forgives us. His incomparable act doesn’t need to be supplemented by any of our self-serving attempts to help him out. God doesn’t dig up the past to make us miserable, that’s the devious work of Satan. He is the one who wants us to feel guilty. It’s time to praise God that “Jesus paid it all; all to Him I owe, sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow” (Alvina Hall, 1865).
Robert H Mounce