He Lives

Sometimes, words can sting. Like when I was having lunch with a group of friends, most of whom are ostensibly atheist. At times, I feel like I’m the token Christian in the group. I hear lots about the excesses of many who claim to be followers of Jesus. I often find myself telling them that not all of us are like that. I try to be at least a small beacon of rational faith in a sea of suspected superstition and perceived hypocrisy.

But sometimes words still sting, like today, when a casual remark was made about the upcoming “Zombie Day.” Maybe I’m not the sharpest knife in the block, but I saw the intention quickly enough. That comment was in response to having been wished a “Happy Easter.”

The emphasis of this friend was on what he considered the impossible, a man rising from a tomb after having been dead for two days. He looked only at the surface, and didn’t consider the symbolism and significance to life.

And that was indeed a life of significance.

Jesus’ life was teaching. Jesus’ death was a continuation of that. His resurrection completed the lesson. He taught love, peace, meekness, forgiveness. The payoff of such a life would be eternal life. Yes, it sounds incredible.

But life itself sounds incredible, too. And yet, against steep odds, it continues in myriad forms and places. If physical life exists against probability, why is life on a different plane, in a different dimension of being that hard to accept? Because no one has seen it and come back to report. At least not in 2,000 years.

I wish that these guys knew the Jesus I know. Not the one that looks like the pasty milk-toast in the Renaissance paintings. Not the one who seems to be sad all the time. Not the one who judges first and shows compassion later—if at all.

The Jesus I know is bigger and smarter and deeper and more compassionate than that. Here is a man who had the strength to forgive the men who crucified him. Here is the man who asked that his burden be taken away from him, but shouldered it and soldiered on to meet his destiny. The Jesus I know had friends that he loved, not just followers that he commanded. He went to parties. He used humorous images. He delighted in the company of children. He respected faith. He demanded a change of heart. He was really compassionate. He cared. He cares.

The idea of equating a risen Savior with a zombie is not only monstrous, it is sad beyond measure. It says the speaker doesn’t know the peace that accompanies real faith. It says that somewhere, that person likely had a very bad experience with religion. And that—religion—may be a common root of such problems.

Religion for some people is more form than family, more rules than refuge. The accretion of 2,000 years of human tinkering has produced a fragmented farce of what Jesus wants: changed people who live their faith, not chained people who are imprisoned by what they call “the” faith.

Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom. He was not power hungry, even though it was said that all power was given to him. He did not come to establish an institution called “church.” He came to call people to action and service, to call them out from the order of the entropy of human experience to something more.

Some would say that we can do that by ourselves, that our self-initiated humanitarian drive will do the same thing. But the result is constantly dissipating. Like the universe, our resolve is constantly losing energy, losing focus, and we spiral into a morass of moral degradation, of decay into disparate aliquots of selfishness rather than the synergistic state of unity of purpose.

We need a model. We need a rallying point. We need a savior to save us from ourselves.

And that focus, indeed that of all of the Bible and by faith I believe all of human history is Jesus. It is through him that God accomplishes his purpose of bringing humankind back from the corruption of the fall. His very name says it all, “God saves.”

My Jesus is not “undead.” He is very much alive. He is more alive than his time on earth would ever reflect. He is alive beyond the scope and reach of our feeble comprehension. And through his example of selflessness, we can live and experience greatness; not fame or fortune, but being like him in character and action, partake of that divine nature. We transcend the corruption of the physical and touch the perfection of spirit.

As I think about that lunchtime exchange, I still feel that words can sting. But in my heart, I know the truth. And like he promised, that truth—Jesus himself—has set me free from such trivial concerns. I know that he lives.

And while some choose one day to celebrate the miracle of the life of Jesus and his sacrifice and renewed life, he brings hope and better life to his friends each and every day. One man who walked the earth some two millennia ago has changed everything. The seemingly incredible events of that long ago day still ring in hearts that catch the sound and amplify it.

He lives.

And Happy Easter.

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In Search of Real Zeal

“Zeal” is an interesting word denoting intensity or fervor. To be zealous for something is good, but to be overzealous is obviously not good. In the Bible, some people are said to have zeal without knowledge, which is not good, but others are encouraged to show their zeal.

So what has me thinking about zeal? Well, I heard a sermon on zeal today, and it set me to thinking: according to the message, we must show zeal for God by being bold, tenacious, and uncompromising, among a number of other points. All of these may be fine in their own way. But that sort of zeal for God can really take a bad turn. People can turn “bold” into “brash” without even thinking hard about it. “Uncompromising” may become “unyielding” to the point that we are unwilling to listen to alternative views and become unwilling to be corrected if we should be found to be in error.

When I think of zeal, one of the first things that comes to mind is found in Titus 2.11-14:

“11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

Paul says that Jesus sacrificed his own earthly life to redeem the lost and establish his community of believers for what purpose? He wanted them to be zealous for good works. This echoes the comment in Ephesians 2.10:

“10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

For those predisposed to limiting their view of works to those things necessary to become a Christian—especially focusing on baptism—perhaps this means to them that Jesus’ followers must be unrelenting in the pursuit of baptism. But once that is accomplished, what then?

I realize that may be too simplistic a view. But I have heard too many discussions of James 2 that focus completely erroneously on “faith without works” as being the expectation of salvation without completing the 5 point plan.

In my reading of all three passages, the focus is on exactly what it says: good works, which we will do because we are being molded into the likeness of Jesus. No, not the physical likeness, but in manner of life. Luke records in Acts 10.38 that “…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Certainly, we cannot heal those oppressed by the devil. But we can be Jesus’ instruments to help the oppressed to find healing.

The real test of one who is zealous for God is in what he or she does, not in the fact that they can out-yell an opponent. Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the earth. There, “meekness” denotes a quiet strength, which Easton describes as a calmness of mind such that one is not easily provoked. This is in rather pointed contradiction to the easily abused bold and uncompromising terms. Boldness is good, as long as it is grounded in grace. To be uncompromising is commendable, as long as we understand the difference between dogma and true doctrine. Too often, those who are the most uncompromising have the most dogma to defend.

Returning to Paul’s comment in Titus 2, being zealous for good works is one of those positive feedback sorts of affairs: the more good you accomplish, the more you want to do. The zeal fuels itself. It defies physical law because it is borne of spirit. In other places, Paul tells his readers not to grow weary in doing good, that a harvest of goodness and blessing will ripen if we don’t give up. That side of “unyielding” works, and quite well at that.

Zeal is good. Zeal without mercy is oppressive. Zeal without knowledge is misguided. Zeal without grace is cold, and doomed to fail. Modeling zeal for God by being the embodiment of good works can go a long way. Actions speak louder than words and a life guided by God’s light and directed by God’s love will go a lot farther than threats. That is the zeal Jesus lived. And he is the example I choose to follow.

Stronger Back

I am a fan of country music. I am not ashamed of that in any way. It is the music of my people. When I was very young, I heard the music and the words on the radio, but I was not a listener. In fact, when I was fairly young, I really didn’t like it at all. It was the age of twangy honky-tonk, divorce and cheating songs. I didn’t get it, and I guess for the most part, I still don’t today.

But when I was in college, I took a job one summer in a sewing factory in the town where my parents lived, and in fact, it was the town where my dad had grown up. (I don’t always think of it as my hometown, because I had lived so many places in my life. I feel rather “rootless” at times, but such is the state of person whose childhood bordered on the nomadic.) The first summer I worked second shift, something like 3:30 to midnight, doing really menial tasks—I trimmed fuzzy belt-loops on blue jeans for a major national label. I learned from a couple of summers of working there that I was not cut out for factory work, and this made me focus more on what would one day be my profession. 

In that hot, dusty sewing factory, the music playing over the PA system was quite democratically selected: one night it was country, the next it was top 40 pop/rock. It was there I grew to really love country music. I listened to artists like Gary Morris, whose song, “See the Love She Found in Me” made me view country music in a different light. That year, George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning,” was popular. If I had to pinpoint the moment I became a country music fan, it was probably somewhere in one of those two songs.

I was a close follower of country music in the ‘90’s. Since I lived in Nashville, I might have even run across a star or two then. I came to enjoy songs by some of the old guard, like Conway Twitty and George Jones. I enjoyed the music of women like Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss. I enjoyed the complexity of music by artists like Ronnie Milsap (“Smokey Mountain Rain” is still one of my all-time favorites.)  

Country music was on the rise in the ‘90’s, and with increased popularity came lots of pretenders. I lost interest in the current country scene when it became  populated by “cookie-cutter cowboys,” each one sounding exactly like his identical, short duration predecessor. I heard one old hand describe some of these guys as “hat acts,” but being “all hat and no cattle.”

I haven’t completely abandoned country music; but a lot of country music has abandoned me. And although I don’t listen to it as much as I used to, I’m a lot more selective about what I do listen to. I still keep up with some of the “new traditionalists,” like Alan Jackson and George Strait. And any time I see that the Gentle Giant, Don Williams, has new music, I have to check it out.

On several albums in the past few years, I have heard some very profound lines. George Strait’s, “Where Have I Been All My Life?” comes to mind here, but more recently, on the just released Don Williams’ album, “Reflections,” Don sings Doug Gill’s song, “Stronger Back.” The chorus of that song says,

“I pray for a stronger back
I pray for a bigger heart
I pray for the will to keep on walking
when the way is dark
I follow that winding road
I just try to stay on track
I don’t pray for a lighter load
I pray for a stronger back”

Now when I heard those words, they immediately struck a chord with me. I tried to find the lyrics online, but since the album is so new, none had been posted. So I queued up the song and listened in phrases until I got the words down. And I was struck by just how profound they were, and how they echoed themes from the Bible.

Immediately, Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane comes to mind, where he prayed to the Father that the cup of anguish and sacrifice be taken from him. That sounds like he was asking for a “lighter load.” But then, he offered the resolute alternative, “Not my will but yours be done.” There’s the “stronger back.”

Paul reflected in I Corinthians 10.13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,”—there’s the provision for the “stronger back.” Similarly, in Philippians 4.11(b)-13, he says, “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” God provides that “stronger back.”

That’s a message I need to remember each and every day. Dealing with a child on the autism spectrum is about as trying as anything I think I have ever encountered. Every time a new issue arises, my first inclination is to ask for a “lighter load” even though I know others have far heavier loads than mine. Rationally, I know that short of some absolute miracle, whether wrought by modern medicine or by a higher power, there will be no “lighter load.” All I can really ask for is the ability to deal with the problems that may arise, and to do so resolutely with that “stronger back.” That is within my control. I can only deal with my own state and my own attitude. I may need reminding and I may need some shoring up, but I know who has promised to do that, and who can provide the “way of escape” when I am tempted or tried beyond what I thought I could handle.

There are passages in the Bible that do promise a lighter load, too. Jesus’ great invitation says his yoke is easy and his burden light. Peter reassures his readers that we can cast our anxieties on God because he cares for us. If that isn’t load-lightening language, I’m not sure what would be.

The second line of the chorus really can’t be underestimated, either. To “pray for a bigger heart” means greater capacity to love and help and serve others. I have often dreamed of what good I could do if only [fill in the blank]…” But I’m missing the boat on that one. Although figuratively posed, the heart in the song is a lot like the physical heart, a muscle, and that gets stronger by exercise. The more we love, the more we serve, the more we care about others the bigger and stronger the heart becomes.

A lot of songs just seem to let you down: they are 2:57 of commercial fluff that fills the silent void and maybe give us something to hum absent-mindedly as we go about other things. But the best songs lift you up, give you something to think about, and maybe even a goal to aspire to. “Stronger Back” is that kind of song. I think we need more music like this that isn’t just ear candy but reminds us of more important things and maybe even challenges us to become better people.