Monday, June 27, 2011

Thoughts at the Beach

Are you a beach person?

I have to say that I am, though I haven't come close to logging the kind of hours in the sand and surf that would qualify me as a bona fide "beach bum". Much to my regret, I rarely see the beach in person, but when I do, I find that there are few places on earth that turn my thoughts heavenward quite like this place does.

When I am here, I can't help but remember...

*God's words to Job, about when He created the sea: "Here your proud waves must stop!"

*God's mention of something called Leviathan, which makes me wonder just what all is swimming under there...


*The terror felt by Jesus' apostles when their boat was threatened by a stormy sea, and what must have been a flood of thoughts and emotions at His mastery over nature.

*Jesus walking along the top of the water.

*The resurrected Jesus grilling fish on the beach, and Peter the fisherman jumping overboard and swimming ashore to see Him. (Have you ever wondered how Jesus lit the coals for his cookout? I love to imagine that He spoke them into flame, just to save the time and aggravation.)

*Paul's mention of having been shipwrecked, and spending "a night and a day in the deep". Just the mere thought of this is terrifying to me.

The picture above was taken this afternoon, from my perspective, ankle-deep in the Gulf of Mexico, at Mustang Island, Texas.

I'll be visiting this spot again over the next few days, but I won't be venturing out into the water much further than I did to take this picture. I'm painfully aware of my limitations when it comes to the ocean. While its beauty and vastness inspire me, and I do love to swim, I just know that I don't belong out there. While I want to show our two little boys God's beauty in this place, I also fear what a moment's inattention here could cause.

Yes, I'll be trusting in God this week to keep my family safe in His care at the seashore, where I'm an alien and don't know what I'm doing.

Then we'll all return home, to solid ground, with no waves in sight, where I know what to do and can handle whatever comes along.

Maybe I should come here more often.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

No Mulligans

Did you see the sports highlight the other day about the golfer who broke his club in frustration after a bad shot, only to find that he had cut his hand open in the process?

Pretty embarrassing for him, to say the least, and kind of ironic, that in his anger over a poor shot, he would unwittingly impair his own ability to make the shots he was hoping for.

In a way, though, he might have been fortunate. Really, when do you think he will break another golf club? I highly doubt he ever will. The memory of this self-inflicted injury will probably be enough to spare his caddy the trouble of having to replace another broken club in the future. While this wasn't the ESPN moment this golfer would have preferred, it might end up being a valuable lesson learned.

If only it were always so with outbursts of anger.

If you're like me, it's not hard to compile a list of shameful memories of moments of unbridled anger. Moments marked by regrettable words and perhaps even physical displays of wrath. Moments that embarrassed, disappointed, or even frightened others; moments that changed other people's view of you; moments that made someone wonder about the depth of your commitment to Christ.

The difference between those moments and the golf highlight is who suffers the wound caused by the outburst.

Yes, the golfer made a bad impression, set a bad example, etc, but at the end of the day, he cut himself. No one else was hurt. No one else bled because of this impulsive act.

When it comes to the outbursts of anger you and I remember, it's usually the complete opposite. Usually the person delivering the blast walks away unscathed, and leaves others cut and bleeding, trying to process and recover from what just happened. The frightened child, the tearful spouse, the beleaguered co-worker, the suddenly cautious neighbor, all bear the wounds of outbursts they didn't want or ask for, and often carry these wounds alone, without even the basic first aid that allowed the golfer to at least stop the bleeding.

And I believe every one of us, when we look back on those moments, wish we could have somehow absorbed the wounds of our words ourselves, if it meant sparing others the hurt feelings and offenses we caused them.

And if we could immediately feel the hurt our own anger can cause, as the golfer did when he broke his club, might we too be less likely to "lose it" in the future?

Maybe so, but it doesn't work that way.

It's no wonder this specific danger is called out by name in scripture, as being the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:20), the opposite of the qualities to seek in a friend (Proverbs 22:24), and the opposite of the qualities sought in the shepherds of God's church (I Timothy 3:3).

Outbursts of anger.

You don't get a mulligan.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Tale of Two Prodigals

You remember the parable of the Prodigal Son.

After the son has left his father's home, his father anxiously awaits his return, watches for his coming, and rushes out to meet his son when he finally appears on the road back home.

The father barely even listens to his son's prepared apology, but instead restores him fully, immediately, and wholeheartedly. The father kisses his son, embraces him, and leaves no room for even a shadow of a doubt as to whether the matter is resolved.

It is done. The son is home.

In a lesser-known story, another prodigal son finds himself in a homecoming that is much less clear or comforting, in fact, highly ambiguous and open for interpretation.

King David, like the father in Jesus' parable, also kisses his prodigal son Absalom, but the kiss does not convey resolution or completion, but an ambiguity that leaves open the door for the worst disaster of David's reign.

The story begins in II Samuel 13, when King David's daughter Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. This bizarre and disturbing incident ends with King David being "furious", but doing nothing, and Tamar retreating in shame to the home of her brother....Absalom.

In the absence of any reaction from the King, Absalom's heart is allowed to nurture a vengeful grudge against Amnon, and Absalom resolves to carry out his vengeance when the time is right.

2 Years Later:

After everyone else has apparently moved on and forgotten about the rape of Tamar, Absalom arranges to murder Amnon in the middle of a high-spirited feast, and makes good his plan. With Amnon dead and Tamar avenged, Absalom flees the country. King David then "mourned his son every day", but still apparently does nothing in response to what has now evolved into a series of heinous events.

3 Years Later:

King David's feelings have now moved from grief over the death of his son Amnon, to longing for his prodigal son Absalom. David still does not act, but leaves the situation as it is. Joab, the head of David's army, realizes the king's heart will not be at ease as long as Absalom is estranged, and devises a scheme using an emotional story from a widow to persuade David to allow Absalom to return to the kingdom.

But David still will not erase all doubt. While he grudgingly relents to Absalom's return, there are stipulations: "He must go to his own house; he must not see my face." So, Absalom returns to Jerusalem, three years after sinfully avenging a rape that is now five years old, but still has no place before his father.

2 Years Later:

Absalom's resentment grows over his continued status as an outsider, and he twice sends for Joab to appeal for an audience with King David. Joab twice ignores Absalom's request. The increasingly bold Absalom responds to this rebuff by burning Joab's field, forcing a response from the chief of the army. Joab finally hears Absalom out, and finally arranges a meeting between father and son.

Read out of context, this reunion after seven years of separation might sound heartfelt: "...the king summoned Absalom, and he came in and bowed down with his face to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom." (14:33) But, considering the reasons for the separation, and the resentment surely felt by Absalom by this time, this scene is more likely forced and awkward, so very different from the scene described by Jesus when the prodigal in His story returns home.

So much that had needed to be said was never said, and now so many things that might help are so hard to say, perhaps impossible to say.

4 Years Later:

After Absalom's ambiguous reunion with his father, he immediately sets upon a deliberate campaign to undermine his father's authority and win the hearts of his father's people. For four years this goes on, without a word from King David. And all at once, it happens. Absalom overthrows King David, and it takes a bloody battle and Absalom's demise to restore David's throne again.

All this, in 11 years. 11 short years. 11 long years. Imagine having your life turned upside-down by a chain of events that had gone unchecked, with their origin in a wrong left unresolved, eleven years before.

It was a very different story for David and Absalom than the story Jesus told about the Prodigal Son.

Both stories feature a son gone astray, and a father facing the painful aftermath of the sins of his son. Both stories build up to a moment of return for the lost son.

But only one story's reunion is happy, fulfilling, or lasting.

These stories speak to what can happen when a person needs to be restored, and when a person needs to forgive.

The son in Jesus' story repented completely of his sin, and threw himself at his father's mercy. The father forgave immediately, restored fully, and left no room for misunderstanding, in sharp contrast to David, whose responses to Absalom were marked by delay, procrastination, and grudging, conditional compromise. While Jesus' prodigal knew where he stood, it's clear Absalom did not.

We're not told exactly what Absalom's attitude was about his sin. We tend to think poorly of him all around, but one has to wonder how the story might have been different had David intervened from the beginning. Is it possible Absalom's vengeful spirit might never have taken root? Is it possible this father might have been able to guide his son to the God whose heart he knew so well?

We'll never know.

But we do know that this relationship was never restored, and this prodigal was never brought home.

Forgiveness, restoration.

When the story is told by Jesus, the way home is clear.

Friday, March 18, 2011

God's Movers

What ever became of the Kohathites?

Introduced with several verses of ink in Numbers 4, but only mentioned in passing a few times beyond that; entrusted with what initially sounds like a refined responsibility, but in reality the ancestors of those indispensable guys you never think about till you need them: movers.

Never heard of them?

The Kohathites were a division of the Levite tribe in Israel, and were therefore assigned a responsibility related to the tabernacle during the years when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness.

Their task, as presented in Numbers 4:4, was "...the care of the most holy things."

How can this job description not conjur up images of white-gloved hands polishing shiny things, stocking breads, refilling oils, lighting candles and generally keeping oneself clean and out of the heat?

If you thought those things like I did, the image is busted in the next several verses. It turns out the Kohathites didn't get to dust, shine, or refill the holy things at all. In fact, they didn't even get to see or touch them. The fancy parts of this job were reserved for Aaron and his sons, and whenever God called on His children to pick up camp and move across the wilderness, the holy things inside the tabernacle were packed up carefully by Aaron's sons, covered and concealed by the curtains from the tabernacle, the hides of sea cows, and solid blue cloths.

Once the holy things were secure and unseen, "...and when the camp is ready to move, the Kohathites are to come to do the carrying. But they must not touch the holy things or they will die. The Kohathites are to carry those things that are in the Tent of Meeting." (verse 15)

"Do the carrying" would certainly fall into the "Care of the Holy Things" chapter, but it sure isn't the first thing that comes to mind.

What must this job have been like? Over and over again, to transport the same hidden items across the wilderness, only to arrive at the next stop, turn over the precious cargo to Aaron and his sons without seeing or touching it, and go back on standby till the next move is called for.

What was it like for these servants of God, to carry a burden for Him that they themselves could never see, never touch, never fully comprehend or appreciate? They doubtless saw the rough outline of the holy things of God, shrouded by mystery they were never permitted to uncover. They knew the strength it took to carry the load a long way, but they never saw the load itself, and, so far as we know, were never given a reason why they weren't allowed to see it.

Did the Kohathites bear their burden gladly? Was there ever any resentment felt over the limits of their privilege? If not resentment, at least a longing to know more, to become fully familiar with the burden God had assigned them to carry? Might a full appreciation for the splendor of God's holy things have made the burden easier to carry? (Or, might the Kohathites have thought so, at least?)

We're just not told.

One thing we do know, however, is that the Kohathites are not the only ones God has ever tasked with carrying a burden they could not comprehend.

"Have you considered my servant Job?" -- Job 1:8

"For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it." -- Matthew 13:17

"It was revealed to them [the prophets] that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things." -- I Peter 1:10-12

From Job to the Kohathites, to the prophets to the angels, the children of God can find kindred spirits in scripture during times of confusion created by burdens we bear but can't comprehend.

Illness, loss, good deeds seemingly unnoticed or even punished, attempts at godly influence spurned. Seemingly aimless periods in which God's direction is sought after, but just doesn't seem clear.

Why doesn't God always supply the full context for these burdens at the time we're carrying them?

Why doesn't he always satisfy our desire to know more, to comprehend fully in this life?

There are deeper waters to dive in search of scholarly answers to those questions, but a sense of His mystery can be found in the story of Jesus' healing of the man blind from birth. (John 9) Jesus makes clear that the man's affliction, his burden in life, was not caused by anyone's sin, but was rather an opportunity for "...the works of God to be displayed in him." (verse 3).

Ultimately, the burdens we bear without full comprehension can only be accepted on faith as God's opportunities to display His work in our lives.

And, ultimately, our ways are not His ways, and our thoughts are not His thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8)

Lord, please sustain us when we don't see what You see, when we can't comprehend what You ask us to carry, when it seems so clear to us that we just need You to tell us Your plan.

Help us to trust you more, Father, and to rest assured that You will never forsake us, even when the burden seems heavy, and the purpose seems unclear.