Turning the Corner

My beloved Razorbacks football team did not have a good year.  Up and down.  Win one, maybe win big, then lose one, maybe by a wide margin.  Most are talking about the defense and they were bad but I think the offensive line bears some of the burden.  We couldn’t run the ball and that led to three and outs and that led to our bad defense getting back on the field.

They would win big, like against Florida, and people would talk about them having turned the corner.  Then they would lay an egg the next time out.  Turning the corner talk is detrimental.  Turning the corner may mean meeting an eighteen wheeler head on.  (Another spin on ‘the light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train’.)

The basketball team seems to be stuck in the same turning the corner syndrome.  They look good for a few games.  Then they get their heads handed to them.  They haven’t turned the corner.

There is no turning the corner.  There is only preparation, focus, concentration, intensity, a certain dogged determination.  Do this week what you did last week.

In the days of my callow youth I spent my Saturdays playing golf .  I wasn’t very good.  One Saturday everything fell right and I shot an eighty-five.  I still have the scorecard, just to show you how pathetic I was.  I was proud of an eighty-five.  I still am.

So anyway it was clear that I had a lock on the game of golf.  I had turned the corner.  All I had to do was get on that tee and swing away.  We played another round.  I didn’t save that scorecard.  I don’t remember what I shot.  I tried to forget it.  I may have not broken a hundred.  I had not turned the corner.

There is no turning the corner.  There is only preparation, concentration, focus, intensity, a certain steely-eyed dogged determination.

The Christian life is like that.  Sure I’m a new creature in Christ.  I am the righteousness of God in Christ.  I am a member of the royal priesthood and a holy nation.  But there’s that thing about walking in the Spirit vs. walking in the flesh.  If I ever get the idea that I’ve got it knocked, that I can put it on cruise control, that I can ‘swing away’, then I’m probably heading for trouble.  Next week I’ve got to do what I did this week.  I’ve got to pray.  I’ve got to read the Word.  I’ve got to stay in communion with Him.  I’ve got to abide in the vine.

There is no turning the corner.  There is only preparation, concentration, focus, intensity, a certain steely-eyed dogged determination.

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Rest

Works are born out of faith.
Faith is not born of works.

My wife and I are going through a study of Romans.

My favorite stuff in Romans is in chapters 8 and 12 but there is a lot of good stuff in the first seven chapters too.   There are key scriptures in there that are familiar to us.  ‘All have sinned and fallen short.’  ‘There is none righteous, no not one.’  And several others.

When you close read verse by verse it gets kind of deep.  That’s the thing about Paul (and the Bible in general).  You can read on one level and be enlivened and enriched.  Or you can dig deeper and find stuff that excites and inspires.  One process is not more righteous or more spiritual than the other.  God can reach us, can minister to us, can use us wherever and whoever we are.  Having said that…

This stuff in Romans 3 and 4 got me really excited.  ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.’  That’s familiar.  We know that and we cling to it but I wonder if we miss the full reality of it.  Abraham circumcised himself and all in his household as God had commanded but the promise was not in the circumcision.  Circumcision was an outward statement of Abraham’s confidence in the promise.  The promise came first.  God said it.  ‘Blessing I will bless you.’  ‘In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’  It was not what Abraham did. It was what God said.  God’s Word.

The children of Israel got it wrong over and over again.  They marched through the wilderness, sacrificing and eating the right things and not eating the wrong things and keeping all the special celebrations and feast day.  They came to the Jordan River but they would not cross over because they were dependent on what they did instead of what God said.

If my righteousness and my salvation and the promise of Heaven is dependent on what I do, what I do will never never never be enough.  My righteousness, my salvation, the promise of Heaven are based not on what I do but on what God has said.

Somehow in the midst of Romans the Holy Spirit connected the dots for me and led me to Hebrews. I’m going to paste a rather long passage here because I think it’s important to get the whole thought covered.

16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

4 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,

“As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest,’”

although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said,

“They shall not enter my rest.”

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.  Hebrews 3:16-4:10

Google ‘There remains a rest for the people of God’ and you will get all kinds of Greek and Hebrew and stuff about going to church on Saturday and what you can and can’t do on Sunday.  I don’t know about all that.  I only know what the scripture says to me and what it says is that there is a rest for me, a here and now rest.

I don’t see the other side of the Jordan as a type of heaven.  There were battles to fight over there.  We have battles to fight in the here and now but in the midst of the battles there is a rest for the people of God.

The children of Israel traveled in the wilderness doing the right things but never learning to trust, never learning how to rest.  And when they came to the Jordan they balked because they trusted in their works instead of God’s promise and they knew that they did not measure up.

We do all the right things.  We go to church.  We give.  We volunteer. In our desperation we witness because it’s a command and we think we will not make heaven if we don’t.   And deep down we know that all our works are not enough.  We have it upside down.  We have it backwards.  And we are not at rest.

There is a better way and that way is to put our confidence not in what we do but what God has said.  All of those things happen and are effective when we find our rest in what He has said instead of what we have done.

It’s Sunday, January 22.  I opened my browser this morning and everywhere I look on Google News I see things that are determined to destroy my rest.  In the coming months and years it will be increasingly difficult to stay anchored in that rest if I don’t keep my focus on what God has promised.  And what He has promised is that…

There is a rest for the people of God.

Works are born out of faith.
Faith is not born of works.

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I’ve Gotta Be Me

I try to pray my prayer list every other morning.  The other mornings I pray free style.  I try to make it fellowship, relationship, communion.  I try to let my spirit take control.  I try to just talk to God and let God talk to me. On those mornings I begin by telling God who He is.  Like this:

You are love, joy, peace, and righteousness

You are grace and mercy and forgiveness and cleansing.  (Here I sometimes always spend time asking for Him to forgive me of specific things.  Because I need forgiving.)

You are power and authority.  (Here I can get wrapped up in thinking about Him as creator of all things.  That He commands all things.  That my times are in His hands.)

You are wisdom, provision, health and healing, direction and purpose, favor.  (My success is in His hands.  All I have, all I am is because of Him.)

Sometimes I get through this list and go back through it, saying ‘I am’ instead of ‘You are’.  No arrogance in that.  It is only in Him (and Him in me) that I can say that I am peace, joy , and love.  It’s only in Him that I have power and authority.  I John 4:17 says that ‘As He is so are we in this world.’  This reminds me of one of my favorite Bible passages.

Jesus came to Nazareth to the synagogue and read from the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me,
because He has anointed Me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim deliverance to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then He rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him, and He began by saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Luke 4: 18-21

I wonder why Jesus said ‘this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’  instead of ‘I’m the one, you guys.’  I wonder if it was because He was looking forward to the days when countless millions would also have the Spirit of the Lord, who would, in Christ, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

There it is, that ‘in Christ’ thing.  How can we have this power and authority?  How can we be peace and joy and grace?  How can we be ‘in Christ’?

Paul wrote this:

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.  Galatians 2:20

Was Paul delusional?  Was he practicing self delusion?  Was he playing psychological tricks with himself?  No, I think Paul really believed that He had to become less so that Jesus could become more, that Paul had to die so that Christ could live in him.

  So there’s the answer.  I must be less so that Christ can be more.  I must die so that Christ can live in me.  There’s only one problem.  I kind of like me.  I don’t want Jesus to save souls.  I want to save souls.  I don’t want to sit here and type the words the Holy Spirit gives me.  I want to type the words I come up with.  And I don’t want God to get the credit.  I want get the credit.

Sammy Davis Jr. had a hit record way back in the sixties.  I Gotta Be Me.

So there it is.  I don’t Gotta be me but I Wanna be me.  And that won’t work.  If I let me hang around then the bad stuff that’s in me will come out at the most inopportune moments.  And the Jesus in me will not have ascendancy.  And Jesus will not be seen in me.

And therein lies the problem.

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New Every Morning

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.  Lamentations 3:22-23

We used to sing a chorus based on this scripture, a slow, peaceful, worshipful chorus.  It really brought home the truth and promises contained in these verses.

God’s love never ceases.  His mercies never end.  Great is His faithfulness.

But what about that third line?  New every morning.  There is a promise for you.  We go to bed at night secure in God’s love and when we rise in the morning His love is there to greet us.  Remember when you were first saved and everything seemed new and fresh and clean?  We can still know that feeling, like the world is new and fresh and washed clean like a spring morning after rain.

But there’s another way to look at this.  There is a part we have to play to appropriate His love and mercies.  Now I’m not saying His mercies expire overnight like a magazine subscription or Amazon Prime.  His love and mercy and faithfulness are there every morning just like the scripture says.  No, what I’m saying is that our perception of His promises can fade unless we actively remind ourselves of them, unless we actively appropriate them.  And the earlier, the sooner the better as we start the day.

I work three days a week and on those days I rise early and spend some time in prayer and Bible reading.  The other four days I sleep later and when I rise the day just seems to get rolling on it’s own and I don’t get around to praying.  I look back on those days and I realize that I tend to wander spiritually.  Somehow God’s presence (and His promises) seem to be less real to me.  And Satan steps in and makes me aware of all the things that can go wrong.  And the things that can go wrong become, in my mind, the things that will go wrong.

Has God changed?  No.  Has He moved away?  No.  Has He gone back on His promises?  No, but my perception of His presence and His promises has faded.

It would be better that I start each day in His presence, reminding myself of His love and mercy and faithfulness.  Better that I start each day making His love and mercy and faithfulness new all over again.

It’s not His promises that have faded.  It’s my perception of  His promises that has leaked away.

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Hallelujah

I wrote this a few weeks ago.  I’ve been wrestling with ever since.  It may be a little confusing because it’s been written and edited and kicked around for so long.  It may not be for everybody.  If it doesn’t say something to you just kick it out of your head and move on.  It may just be for me.

So anyway here it is.

====================================================================

I recently saw a video of a group doing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah but with lyrics about the birth of Jesus.  A Christmas song.  It was good.  I liked it but I think I prefer the original.  Everybody’s done it.  If the Lennon Sisters were still about they would probably do it.  There are a lot of good ones but I think the best is still Leonard Cohen himself.

If you read the Wikipedia page you get that there are a lot of opinions on what the song is about.  It means different things to different people. Cohen went more for imagery than strict narrative so I can see how it’s open to interpretation.  To me, though, it’s about David’s sin with Bathsheba.

We just saw the movie Arrival.  If you haven’t seen it and you want to you may want to stop reading here.  On the face of it the movie is about the arrival of aliens but at it’s core there is a deeper meaning, a deeper question.  If you knew the end from the beginning, would you take the step?  If Mary had known all the heartaches, the doubts, the pain ahead of her would she have said ‘Yes’?  If you had known what was ahead would you have said ‘Yes’ to God?

But I didn’t know, did I?  I couldn’t know, could I?  It was all joy and light back then.  Now, looking back, I see all the mistakes, the thoughtless failures, the deliberate sins, and I can understand what Mr. Cohen is saying.

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and broken Hallelujah

When I come to the end maybe I won’t be shouting victory.  Maybe I’ll be on my knees before the Lord of Glory in humble adoration. I think it will be more like the last verse:

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

No, it hasn’t all gone wrong (no Bathshebas in my past) but enough has that I can understand what the song means.  And in this Christmas season I think we need to be reminded.

It’s not me.  It’s Him.

==========================================================================

Wikipedia says that Leonard Cohen wrote more than eighty drafts of the verses while holed up in a hotel room in New York City.  He was sometimes reduced to beating his head against the floor.  If you’ve ever attempted to write something of value you can probably remember a time when the right words would not come, when you were reduced to beating your head against the floor, figuratively speaking.  But I don’t know if that’s what Cohen was struggling with.

John Knox said, “Give me Scotland lest I die” and maybe we need that pain, that struggle, that passion.  But given the subject matter of the song I don’t know if that is what Cohen was feeling.

We look at the world around us and we are in despair.  And we  point our fingers and say, “Those people.  Those people are the problem.”  I find something different in this song.  I listen and I am reduced to beating my head against the floor, spiritually speaking, and I say, “God forgive me.  God cleanse me.  God change me.”

We begin a new year and we think about new beginnings.  Maybe what we need is a new focus.  A new administration, a new congress, new laws and a new Supreme Court?  They won’t solve our problems.  A call to arms against ‘those people’?  That won’t change our culture.

Maybe we do need a new beginning.  Maybe this is where it begins.  With our faces to the floor. And with nothing on our lips but a cold and broken Hallelujah.

=========================================================================

Well it appears that I’m not through yet.

You may read this and think ‘What the heck is wrong with him?  What horrible things has he done?’  Nothing wrong.  I’m not suicidal.  I’m not in deep depression.  And I don’t guess I’ve done stuff that’s any more horrible than most.  I just think…

Maybe 2017 is not the year of warfare.  Maybe it’s the year of surrender.

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Listen

Here it is again, back by popular demand (my demand).  I almost missed it this year.

Listen

A Children’s Story for Grownups

By Angus Lewis

 

            The Man picked an ornament from the cardboard box and held it up to the light.  It was a round silver ball but it was not bright and sparkly like the newer ornaments.  It was dull from rubbing against tree limbs, from bouncing around in cardboard boxes, from years of repeated handling.

He worked his way carefully between the couch and the tree to the back, the side of the tree that faced the wall.  He slid a hook through the loop at the top of the Ornament and looked up, searching for the right place to hang it.  There, a likely looking space near the top.  He reached as high as he could and hung the Ornament in its place.  Then he gently edged his way out from behind the tree to get another ornament.

The Ornament swung gently from its hook as the tree shivered from the Man’s contact.

 

The Ornament looked around to get his bearings.  He was at the back again.  That’s the way it had been the last few years.  The newer, brighter ornaments got the best spots, up high and at the front.  He didn’t mind.  At least he was not down close to the floor.

There was nothing to see back here.  He liked the front because you could see things.  You could see people walking by, people with children, people with their dogs, people enjoying the crisp weather, enjoying each other, enjoying the Season.  Sometimes it snowed.  That was the best, the white flakes drifting silently down, covering everything in a soft, pure blanket of white.  But there was nothing like that to see from the back of the tree.

Still, it was peaceful back here.  He could hear the constant buzz of conversation from the other side of the tree.  He had never been like that.  He enjoyed the peace and quiet.

The Ornament was stirred from his silent meditation by a sudden shaking of the tree.  It wasn’t just a shiver or a shudder.  The tree was shaking from fright.  What could it be?  The Ornament looked around.  Nothing.  He looked up at the tree topper.  No problem there.  He looked down.  There it was.  He should have known.  The Cat was climbing the tree.  Every year the Man and the Woman decided the Cat had learned her lesson and could be trusted around the tree.  Every year she got caught climbing the tree and got pitched into the garage for the rest of the Season.

The Cat was at eye level now, looking straight at him.  There was no telling what this animal would do.  She started toward the Ornament, evil intentions in her eyes.  The Ornament tried to make himself smaller.  It was no use.  The Cat was coming for him.

But the Cat slipped by without as much as a glance.  The Ornament looked over his shoulder.  There it was, a bright red ornament, flashing with glitter and sequins, chattering away with his friends.  The Cat had picked her target.

She was almost past him now.  The Ornament was almost out of danger.  Then the tail got him.  Flicking this way and that, alive with the excitement of the hunt, the very tip of the tail caught the Ornament’s hook and lifted it clear of his limb.  The Ornament began to tumble down through the tree, bouncing from limb to limb.  The Ornament could see the hard floor rapidly approaching.  This was the end of him, he was sure.

The Ornament bounced off the last limb.  He closed his eyes, waiting for the crash.  It never came.  He opened his eyes.  He had snagged in a collection of electrical cords not six inches from the floor.  He was safe.

 

“What’s this?”  It was the Man.  He had discovered the remains of an ornament under the tree.

The Woman looked where he was pointing.  “Oh.  That’s one of the new ones.  So bright and sparkly.  What a shame.”

“How do you think it happened?”

“I know good and well how it happened.  It was the Cat.”

“You think so?  I was hoping she would have learned her lesson.”

“It was the Cat alright.  Looks like it’s the garage for her again this year.  Once I get my hands on her.”

“Here’s another one.  Not broken, though.  It got caught in the wires down here.”  The Man pulled the ornament out from under the tree and showed it to the Woman.  She took it and turned it over in her hands, looking at it from all directions.

“That’s one of the older balls.”  She looked up at the tree.  “Where are the rest of them?”

“They’re around in back, facing the wall.”

“Why is that?”

“I put the older decorations in the back where nobody could see them.  You don’t want these dull old things in the front.”

The Woman folded her arms and looked thoughtfully at the tree.  “You know, I’ve been thinking there’s something I don’t like about the way the tree looks but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with it.  What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s too noisy.”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“All of these bright sparkly ornaments shouting for attention.  It’s too much.  We need some of those older, quieter ones around front to give balance, to quiet things down.  See that red ball in the center near the top?  Take it down and put that one in its place.”

He reached for the ornament the Woman had indicated.  “I guess this means another round of decorating.”

“You’re so perceptive.”

The Man reached up high with the salvaged decoration and hung it where the red one had been.

 

The Ornament settled his weight onto the support of his hook and looked around.  It was a bright sunny day outside.  People were out walking their dogs, pushing baby carriages, shouting greetings to one another.  The Ornament smiled contentedly.

The Ornament was happy.  The volume of the conversations around him had been reduced to a more tolerable level once some of the more vocal ornaments had been moved to the back of the tree.  And he got to enjoy the excitement of the Season, the decorations on the mantle, the clutter of brightly wrapped gifts under the tree, the comings and goings of visitors.  One couple brought a baby.  They held her up to get a good look at the tree.  The Ornament could see the joy in her eyes as she waved her arms and kicked her legs with excitement.

 

It was Christmas Eve, near midnight.  The Man and the Woman had been in bed for a long time.  It had started to snow around sundown.  The wind was blowing, piling the snow up into big drifts and making a frigid howling sound as it wrapped itself around the corners of the house.  The Ornament hung on his hook, listening.  Even at this late hour the hum of conversation continued around him.  But there was something.  He heard something else, something besides the conversation, something besides the wind.

“Shhh. Listen.”  It came out loud, louder than he had expected.  The conversation stopped.

A bright green ornament next to him spoke.  “I don’t hear anything but the wind.”

The statement was repeated from various parts of the tree.

“It’s nothing.”

“Just the wind.”

“Nothing but the wind.”  The volume of conversation began to climb again.

“Hush.” This time it was a command and the other quiet ornaments echoed it.

“Shhh.”

“Hush.”

“Quiet.”

“Listen.  I hear something, something besides the wind.  Can you hear it?  It’s singing.”

The tree fell silent, listening.  And, one by one, they all tuned in to the whisper that the Ornament had first heard.

Glory to God

Glory to God

Glory to God in the Highest

Peace on earth

And good will to men

And if you will be still and listen, you can hear it too.  There, just under the wind.  There. Can you hear it?  Down through the centuries from that hillside in Israel you can hear the angels sing.

Glory to God

Glory to God

Glory to God in the Highest

Peace on earth

And good will to men

Copyright © 2013 by Angus B. Lewis
All rights reserved

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What Christmas is All About

I’ve had a tough time getting into the Christmas spirit this year.  I’ve been listening to the songs since Thanksgiving.  We’ve watched our favorite Christmas movies.  But I haven’t been caught up in the emotion of it this year.  Maybe it’s the politics.  Maybe it’s the fear and anger and hate.  I don’t know.

We just finished our last Christmas movie, White Christmas.  The end of it does create a kind of vibe.  The tree, the sparkly decorations, the red outfits, the snow.  It is touching.

I switched back to TV from PS3/DVD device and landed smack in the middle of A Charley Brown Christmas.   Not just anywhere in the middle.  I landed just where Charley Brown is saying ‘Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?’

It’s pretty simple when it comes down to it, what Christmas is all about.  It’s pretty simple really.  The answer to fear and doubt and pain and suffering and anger and hate.  There is one answer and only one answer to all our troubles.  His name is Jesus and He came to save us from fear and anger and hate.

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