Smoother than a Billiard Ball

I have written about legalism partly because of my own bruising encounters with it and partly because I believe it represents temptation to the church. Legalism stands like a stripper on the sideline of faith, seducing us toward an easier way. It teases, promising some of the benefits of faith but unable to deliver what matters most. As Paul wrote to the legalist of his day, ” For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

At first glance legalism seems hard, but actually freedom in Christ is the harder way. It is relatively easy not to murder, hard to reach out in love; easy to avoid a neighbor’s bed, hard to keep a marriage alive; easy to pay taxes, hard to serve the poor. When living in freedom, I must remain open to the Spirit for guidance. I am more aware of what I have neglected than what I have achieved. I cannot hide behind a mask of behavior, like the hypocrites, nor can I hide behind facile comparisons with other Christians.

The Reformed theologian J.Gresham Machen wrote, “A low view of law leads to legalism in religion; a high view makes one a seeker after grace.” The ultimate effect of legalism is to lower one’s view of God. We tend to think of the stricter denominations and Christian institutions as more “spiritual.” In truth, the differences between Bob Jones University and Wheaton College, or between mennonites and Southern Baptist, are minuscule when compared to a holy God.

I once read that proportionally the surface of the earth is smoother than a billiard ball. The heights of Mount Everest and troughs of the Pacific Ocean are very impressive to those of us who live on this planet. But from the view of Andromeda, or even Mars, those differences between one Christian group and another. Compared to a holy and perfect God, the loftiest Everest rules amounts to a molehill. You cannot earn God’s acceptance by climbing; you must receive it as a gift.

Behind the Curtain

An encounter with the hiddenness of God may badly mislead. It may tempt us to see God as the enemy and to interpret God’s hiddenness as a lack of concern.

An incident in the life of a famous Bible character makes this point. The prophet Daniel had a mild–mild in comparison with Job’s–encounter with the hiddenness of God. Daniel puzzled over an everyday problem of unanswered prayer: why was God ignoring his repeated requests? For twenty one days Daniel devoted himself to prayer. He mourned. He gave up choice foods. He swore off meat and wine, and used no lotions on his body. All the while he called out to God, but received no answer.

Then one day Daniel got far more than he bargained for. A supernatural being, with eyes like flaming torches and a face like lightning, suddenly showed up on a riverbank beside him. Daniel’s companions all fled in terror. When he tried talking to the dazzling being, he could hardly breathe.

The visitor proceeded to explain the reason for the long delay. He had been dispatched to answer Daniel’s very first prayer, but had run into strong resistance from “the prince of the persian kingdom” Finally, after a three-week standoff, reinforcements arrived and Michael, one of the chief angels, helped him break through the opposition.

I will not attempt to interpret this amazing scene of the Universe at war, except to point out a parallel to Job. Like Job, Daniel played a decisive role in the warfare between cosmic forces of good and evil, though much of the action took place beyond his range of vision. To him, prayer may have seemed futile, and God indifferent; but a glimpse “behind the curtain” reveals exactly the opposite. Daniel’s limited perspective, like Job’s, distorted reality.

The big picture, with the whole universe as a backdrop, includes much activity that we never see. When we stubbornly cling to God in a time of hardship, or when we simply pray, more—much more–may be involved than we ever dream. it requires faith to believe that, and faith to trust that we are never abandoned, no matter how distant God seems.

Loosening the grip

Living in downtown Chicago, I became aware of needs around me that fit no rational giving scheme. My wife, who was working among the low-income elderly, often came home with heartrending stories of senior citizens who were about to be evicted or have their electricity turned off. A hundred dollars or so would see them through another month–but try to get a government bureaucracy or even a closely audited charity to respond quickly to such a need. We began putting fifty-and hundred-dollar bills in envelopes and slipping them under the door, with an anonymous note that said simply, “From someone who cares.”

It seemed like sacrilege the first few times, to give with no assurance the money would be well used and with no tax receipt making it worth out while. Those feelings betrayed the real sacrilege, I soon realized. I had adopted a rational economic viewpoint that exalted money as the supreme value, and I needed to profane it and break its hold over me, as Jacques Ellul had suggested in his book on money. I needed to see money for what it is, a loan that God has entrusted to me for the purpose of investing in the kingdom of heaven, the only kingdom that pays eternal dividends. Give to the needy in secret, said Jesus. “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

I also needed to learn to laugh at the somber actors on television who warn me what may happen if I don’t choose the right mutual fund or buy the right insurance policy. I needed to treat Fortune magazine and the money programs on CNN as if they were pornographic, for I recognized they had that effect on me. Money works on me much like lust and pride: it holds me in pythonic grip and attracts me to fantasies it can never fulfill. And, like lust and pride, money presents an arena of personal struggle that I will never “get over.” It is a force with a personality. It is, in truth, a god, and Jesus called it that.

Soul Force

Martin Luther King Jr. recorded his struggle with forgiveness in Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Outside the jail Southern pastors were denouncing him as a communist, mobs were yelling “Hang the Nigger!” and policemen were swinging nightsticks at his unarmed supporters. King writes that he had to fast for several days in order to achieve the spiritual discipline necessary for him to forgive his enemies.

By forcing out evil out into the open, King was attempting to tap into a national reservoir of moral outrage. After Selma, Alabama, that outrage flooded its banks. There, mounted troopers spurred their horses at a run into the crowd of marchers, flailing away with their nightsticks, cracking heads and driving bodies to the ground. As whites on the sidelines cheered, the troopers shot tear gas into the hysterical marchers.

Most Americans got their first glimpse of the scene when ABC interrupted its Sunday movie, Judgement at Nuremberg, to show footage. What the viewers saw broadcast live from Alabama bore a horrifying resemblance to what they were watching on film from Nazi Germany. Eight days later President Lyndon Johnson submitted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the U.S. Congress.

King had developed a sophisticated strategy of war fought with grace, not gunpowder. He never refused to meet with his adversaries. He opposed policies but not personalities. Most importantly, he countered violence with nonviolence, and hatred with love. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he exhorted his followers. “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with sour force.”

Belly of the Beast

Zagorsk Prison, oldest in Russia, was constructed in 1832. The builders set its stone wall below ground to cut down the need for heating. To reach the prisoners’ quarters, we went through four steel gates, down, down, down worn stone steps that led progressively toward the source of an oppressive stench, the prisoners’ cell on the bottom level.

The first cell we entered was about the size of my bedroom in Chicago. Eight teenage boys–the youngest was actually twelve–jumped to attention when the door opened. The room hold only four beds, so two boys shared each bed. There was a rickety table, but no other furniture. A thin, soiled blanket covered each bed, but there was no sheets or pillowcases. 

In one corner of the room was a ceramic-lined hole in the ground, with two footpads marked out for squatting. This hole, open to view on all sides, functioned as both toilet and “shower”, although the only water came from a single cold water spigot and arm’s length away. The basement cell had a single six-inch window, which was frosted over and did not open, at the very top on one wall. A bare bulb hung on a wire from the ceiling.

I saw no board games, no television or radio sets, no diversions of any kind. For security, Zagorsk observes a permanent twenty-four hour lockdown. All day every day for a year, two years, maybe five, these boys will sit in their tiny dungeon cell like animals and wait for freedom. Most of them, I learned, are serving time for petty thievery.

The warden of the worst prison in the Soviet Union turned out to be a dedicated, even courageous man. Two years before, when the government cut off his supplies of food, this warden approached the monks at the famous Zagorsk monastery for help. Out of their own storehouses, the monks supplied enough bread and vegetables to feed the prisoners throughout the winter. Their selfless response impressed the warden, a Communist at that time. In 1989 he authorized the monks to rebuild a chapel in the prison basement–an act of remarkable boldness for a Communist functionary in the atheistic state prevailing then.

to be continued……..

Touch Love

I received a copy of a letter from a woman who experienced the healing touch of the body of Christ. For seven years she ministered to her husband, a well known church musician afflicted with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He died, and on the first anniversary of his death, the widow sent out a letter of gratitude to her many friends at church. It read, in part:

Ever since the first symptoms of ALS appeared, you have surrounded us with love and support. You have cheered us with innumerable notes and letter and cards.

You visited and phoned, often from faraway places….You brought marvelous food. You ran errands for us and repaired our broken things while yours waited. You shoveled our walks, brought our mail, dumped our trash. And you brought gifts of love to brighten our hours.

You “doctored”….and even repaired a tooth right here in our home. You did ingenious things that made life easier for both of us, like the “coughing jacked” and signal switch that Norm was able to use until the last few days of his life. You shared Scripture verses with us and some of you made it your ministry to pray for those who came to our home regularly to give respiratory treatments. You made him feel like he was still a vital part of the music ministry.

And how you prayed!!!! Day after day, month after month, even year after year! Those prayers buoyed us up, lifted us through particularly hard places, gave us strength that would have been humanly impossible to have, and helped us to reach out on our own for God’s resources. Someday we’ll understand why Norm’s perfect healing did not take place here. But we do know that he was with us much longer and in much better condition than is the norm for an ALS victim. Love is not a strong word enough word to tell you how we feel about you!

This widow’s fellow church members had became the presence of God for her. Because of their loving concern, she was not tormented by doubts over whether God loved her. She could sense his love in the human touch of Christ’s body, her local church. 

Why I don’t attend a Megachurch

I resist the trend toward megachurches, preferring smaller palaces out of the spotlight. i never fully understood why until I cam across this paradoxical observation in G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics : ” The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world…The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.”

Precisely! Given a choice, I tend to hang out with folks like me: people who have college degrees, drink only Starbucks dark roast coffee, listen to classical music, and buy their cars based on EPA gas mileage ratings. Yet after a short while I get bored with people like me. Smaller groups( and smaller churches) force me to rub shoulders with everybody else.

Henri Nouwen defines “community” as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives. Often we surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, which forms a club or a clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community.

The Christian church was the first institution in history to bring together on equal footing Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free. The apostle Paul waxed eloquent on this “mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God.” By forming a community out of diverse members, Paul said, we have the opportunity to capture the attention of the world and even the supernatural world beyond(Ephesians 3:9-10).

In some ways the church has sadly failed in this assignment. (Yes, Billy Graham, eleven o’clock Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America.) Still, even all-white or all-black churches show diversity in age, education, and economic class. Church is the one place I visit that brings together generations: infants still held at their mother’s breasts, children who squirm and giggle at al the wrong times, responsible adults who know how to act appropriately at all times, and senior citizens who may drift asleep if the preacher drones on too long.

I deliberately seek a congregation comprising people not like, and I find such people less avoidable in smaller churches.