Ernie Campbell, former pastor at Riverside Church, NY, NY, tells a story about a man who visited the New York Public Library. He passed the sculptured lions that keep their vigil at the gates, climbed the marble stairs that would do a palace justice, walked between those two towering renaissance pillars and through the doors. He was ill-prepared for what he saw inside: Glass covered display cases, mounted stamp collections hanging from the walls, busts of notable benefactors, a store, rest rooms, checkrooms, telephones stairs and more. Finally, in a dark mood of rising desperation, the man turned to a member of the staff and cried, “Where do they keep the books?
Archive for December, 2011
Jonah is the story of a man who learns to love. Who overcomes–does not necessarily understand–God’s unpredictability. Because he has been broken, because he has been honest, Jonah is ready to move on with God. He has been in the darkness so now he knows the light.
Suffering and love are strange bedfellows. But very akin to one another. Without suffering, I fear, we would never direct our attention beyond ourselves and the gratification of our own desires. We can reach to God–a reality far beyond ourselves but intimately involved with our lives.
Through suffering we rediscover a God who means business. A God who can be trusted. Ultimately we discover that God wants nothing more of us than the exercise of our faith. Faith is believing the incredible. It has no proof (Hebs. 11:1). It is hanging on to life without all the answers.
As the theologian Thomas Merton reminds us, we are all on a journey to Nineveh. And all that we can expect is the sign of Jonah. We are people whose lives are a living witness to the providential action of God. Every one of us is a sign and witness of Christ. Even our mistakes are eloquent witnesses to God’s mercy!
The sign we have today is the sign Jesus promised to His generation: His own resurrection. Our lives are signed with this Resurrection. And while it does not answer all our questions it helps us live in tentativeness and frees us to ask the questions we must. We are, it is true, in a belly of the paradox–He loves us and He could stop our suffering. But He does not. And, yet, with the sign of Jonah in our hearts, we love Him still.
The history of modern times is the history of
how our culture has tried to replace its Judeo-
Christian roots. The German philosopher
Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely
candidate would be what he called the “Will to
Power.” In place of religious belief, there will be
secular ideology. This “secular ideology” has
been manifested in everything from commercials
on televisions to the surrogate messiahs—like
Stalin and Hitler—uninhibited by any religious
sanctions and with an unappeasable appetite for
controlling humankind. To a Christian, though,
reality is Christ. We are not in free-fall—as
Nietzsche concludes—we are held in the palm of
His hand! I understand now why Galatians 2:20
has had such a strong pull on my life: for it is at
the Cross where I find hope and new life. I am
forever captured in this paradox.
I cannot remember a more beautiful Christmas tree than the tree my dad found, every Christmas eve, somewhere near 4 Mile Creek not too far from the Monticello Highway. Certainly I have seen some beautiful trees–one cannot quite surpass the beautiful of a northern Douglas Fir or a Scotch Pine. My Arkansas Christmas trees oozed pathos if they feel short in aesthetics.
South Arkansas Christmas trees inevitably were afflicted with the soft effervescence of warm winters and hot summers–they never really filled out. Never evidenced a hardy deciduous nature so important to beautiful Christmas trees. No, our pathetic trees could not compete with upstate New York State firs. But they were the most beautiful trees I ever saw. Of course I am not sure how much Christmas tree competion was to be found in McGehee, Arkansas. The Myers, and Meirs, and Fleisigs, went somewhere else I suppose–Greenville?–to get their trees. We went to 4 Mile Creek. Dad would take his Browning Automatic 12 gauge (with the golden trigger)–in case we were attacked by unwary wood ducks– and hand saw and we would drive our 1954 Black Chevrolet pick up truck with the full front mirror to 4 Mile Creek, walk about a half a mile through an aspiring slough, and we would reach Christmas tree Shangri La AKA Drew County Arkansas. Inevitably we would have several choices. Do we go for the small, compact convenient Scotch Pine? Or the shapely Douglas Fir. Nope, not my dad. He always choice the biggest skinny white pine in the forest. The last time I was with him was the first winter I was in college. I was home from Vanderbilt. We picked the scrawny pine and then sat quietly together on a log.
Dad was like that. I never knew someone who liked to sit quietly on logs as much as he did. Made me uncomfortable. So we sat there. He smoked his low tar and nicotine Winstons–do you notice how the safer the cigarette the more noisome the smell they exhibit?–and we admired the tree. “Do you think mom will like it?” I always said “yes” even though it was inconceivable that mom would. For one thing, Dad chose 14 foot pines and we had 8 foot ceilings. “Surely he knows that we are going to have to neuter this tree unmericlessly,” I thought. But if he knew this he never said it because every year it was the same thing–a 14 or 16 foot tree for our 8 foot ceilings. He could not help himself. It was as if he wanted to push the card on the Christmas thing. Christmas was more than he could ever have, but less than he knew in his heart. That 14 food tree was his valecdictory address to the universe. We carried the darn thing back to the truck that thankfully was open and even though within hours about 1/2 of it would be cut off to be deposited later in the Anthrax Hole to attrack early spring brim, we carefully, lovingly placed the Christmas tree into the truck and took it home. Dad, who never was a swift driver–drove even slower as we moved cautiously along gravel roads to the formidable Highway 4 East that sported about no one on Christmas Eve. We were always home in time to take communion at First Methodist which was cool. No sermons. We just went in at our leisure, as a family, to kneel at the altar and take the Lord’s Supper. On the way, in the Chevrolet car of course–Dad always drove Chevrolets–once bought a Buick and felt deliciously wicked about it. I loved being with my brothers on this occasion. All sibling rivalries ceased for the duration.
Oh Yes, but I digress. The Christmas tree. Well, it was too large, and, yes, mom loved it, bless her heart, or so she said. She loved my dad a lot I guess. And we went to the Lord’s Supper and then home to open one present. Usually Uncle Bobby’s present–because inevitably it was exotic. He lived everywhere but where we lived and we had never been farther north than Little Rock so wherever he lived seemed farther than we would ever go. And in our minds the farther away a gift came from proportionately inflated its value. When I went to Vanderbilt I was only on the second interstate in my life. But, I digress again. The tree was beautiful. With beautiful lights that bubbled. The bulbs contained unusual tubular extentions onto the bulbs. As the bulbs heated up the colored water would bubble. It was beautiful. The tree smelled so nice. The smell of fresh cut pine and corn bread dressing in the oven will forever tease my memory. Clean and natural. Silver tinsel. I loved those Christmas trees. The most beautiful I have ever seen.
While vacationing on an island off the coast of
Maine, I observed a bald eagle flying over a stand
of fir trees. He was magnificent! Suddenly, without
warning, he was attacked by a score of angry
crows. What happened next surprised me. The
eagle was obviously the stronger adversary. But
he chose not to fight: He chose to run! Like a
rocket he shot up to the sun! The crows were
unable to follow and the eagle escaped. It is sagacious
to know when to fight—and when to run. If
others attack you, stand firm on the Word of God.
But be careful not to return evil for evil. Fly into
the sky! Go to the Father! There is no dishonor in
calling your parents to pick you up at a party
where others are drinking or doing other ungodly
things. Soar with the eagles!
“When you go up North,” she continued, “watch out for those Yankee women. They are shrewd and wiry. You are young and naive [a euphemis for stupid]. Yankee women are immoral and they will stay away from them. Study the Bible but stay away from Yankee women!”
How prophetic my Mammaw was!
Within two months I met and within four months I was engaged to the most wonder, chaste, and not at all “shrewd” woman in the world.
But I am glad Mammaw took the time to warn me. I really do. Mammaw woud live long enough to love my wife and conclude “she was sent from God for you Jimmy–and you need her!”
I remember just such a case in my own life. While I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, becoming a pastor, visited a girl friend from Eudora, Arkansas. She was spending the summer at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, with other Baptist youth, sharing her faith with vacationers.
Now I know that some of you pr…obably think that Hampton Beach is beautiful–but I have to tell you, in 1976 at least, it was a loathsome commericalized stretch of pop machines and greasy hotdog stands.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed spending the afternoon with my Arkansas girl friend–whose father’s one million dollars and 1500 acres of rice somewhat mitigated her marginal good looks and bland personality–and we returned to her headquarters to end our date the way we always ended our dates . . . we prayed!!!
“Oh Lord,” she began as I poured sand out of my Converse tennis shoes, “Thank you that some day I will marry a minister.”
Well, I do not know id this young lady married a clergyman or not, but I knew that I had no intentions of marrying her–1500 acres notwithstanding–so I figured I better end that prayer and our relationship as soon as possible. I was delighted to end my first day in New Hampshire and to return to Harvard Yard.
This friend of mine was operating from the wrong set of assumptions. All her sincerity, innocence, and good intentions–and they were legion–while they were laudatory, did not help her get a husband.
I think we approach Christmas that way. We are happy with a few elves and snow flakes when, really, God wants to give us His Son. His only Begotten Son. The Child in the Manger. Enjoy your snow flakes and egg nog and good feelings, but don’t stop until you push through to the cave and Bethlehem and bow down and worship the King.
One of the awful, maybe unjust aspects of unforgiveness is that it consumes the guilty and innocent alike. If we do not forgive, we are strangely drawn into the web of our crime.
Bruno Bettleheim, a Jewish psychologist held in Dachau Concentration Camp during WW II, illustrates my point well. No one disagrees that the Jews were treated horribly during the War. They were unjustly brutalized, even exterminated by the Nazi regime. But, in a way, the survivors were left with an awful legacy. The Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Bettleheim suggest, became no better than their captors. They began to emulate the cruelty of their prison guards; because of unforgiveness, in effect, many of them, became as angry, hateful, and sadistic as the ones who once tried to destroy the. Because of unforgiveness, they became the evil influence.
We must forgive one another, even if the person who hurt us has not repented. Even if we are completely in the right, even if we are the victim. Christ did. As Francis B. Sayre suggests, “Christ depends upon us to show others what he is truly like. It is an awesome thought. But how better can the knowledge of Christ be gained in a world of men and women imprisoned with human bodies?”