Sunday, January 30, 2011

Quietness and Renewal

It was Sunday evening, and I was sitting by the fireplace in our son's home, quietly listening to old hymn tunes beautifully arranged and recorded on piano recently by a long-time friend and colleague, Roland Tabell. I was not at all surprised by his artistry--a truly gifted musician who was for many years the worship minister at our Pasadena, California Covenant Church. What especially moved me, however, was how his artistry was serving a certain simplicity, drawing one who knows the hymns from memory to be blessed and renewed by the message of their texts.

The medium in Roland's case is not the message. It exists rather to serve the message, to lift up texts God has inspired to encourage and sustain his people. The very nature of his artistry invites quieting down before it--setting aside whatever one is doing and giving time and attention to messages the music is meant to convey.

Quietness is hard to come by in our culture. Noise abounds everywhere, seeking both to entertain and entice us. But somehow its strident sounds never seem to reach the depths of mind and heart within that are so in need of God. It was no waste of time, therefore, to be still on Sunday night--to just sit and listen by my son's fireside. For in the surrounding warmth of burning wood and music arranged to serve texts rich in content and memory my faith was renewed and my hope restored.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Our Choices Matter, Our Motives Even More!

Though it is abundantly clear that life itself--taken as a whole--is not under our control, we each have been endowed by our Creator with the sovereign right to respond to it as we see fit. No one can take that sovereign right from us. Nor can we take it from others.

This power we all have to choose for ourselves is awesome. It can also be scary, as when we see in others how easily what is chosen is self-serving, little more than the building of fences around themselves to declare their independence and defend their space.

Surely when God endowed each of us with this gift he had more in mind. What matters to him is the whole of life, not just ours but everyone's--indeed, the life of creation itself. Though he honors anyone's choice not to pay attention to him, for example, and seek our neighbor's good, ample warnings abound in Scripture of the deadening affect of such choices, not least on those who make them.

In today's economic, political, and religious climate, the greatest challenge for us as Christians may well be to keep assessing not only what we choose but what lies behind the choices we are making. We cannot command what others choose to think and do. But what we ourselves think and do does matter. And in the long run our motives for choosing may well matter even more to God--not to mention those we are seeking to influence.

Monday, January 24, 2011

'I Will Awake the Dawn' (Psalm 57:8)

It was just before 4:00 a.m. this morning and for the first time in several weeks I awoke feeling whole. Not just well, I mean--on the brink of recovery from a few physical maladies of late--but whole in spirit and soul as well.

Aware that the sun would soon be rising and I would need to be on my way to an early morning hospital call, a favorite verse in Scripture came to mind: Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! (Psalm 57:8).

Was I foolish enough to think I could do that, at a time and hour that most consider ungodly in the first place? And why, for goodness sake? Why not sleep a bit longer? The answer follows in the psalm: I will give thanks to thee, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to thee among the nations. For thy steadfast love is great to the heavens, thy faithfulness in the clouds. Be exalted. O God, above the heavens. Let thy glory be over all the earth (vss. 9,10).

To "awake the dawn"--or "prevent" it, as another version translates--is not to command it, the power to do which belongs only to God. It is simply to "go before it," get up in advance of it, like our Lord so often did when he was on earth. Why? Simply to pray--to praise God, to honor his majesty, thank him for his goodness, seek his blessing, and pray for his guidance, that his will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.

For the first time in a long series of mornings I feel physically well. Ought that not be enough to get up and praise him before the day even dawns? Yes, of course! But even more, I feel whole--blessed in mind and soul, forgiven and received, loved and cared for by God, and called to be about his work in the world.

We sang his praise in concert as a congregation on bringing forward our morning offerings yesterday in church. I sing it again this morning in advance of a whole new day full of grace and the joy of belonging to him.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow; / praise him all creatures here below; / praise him above, all heav'nly hosts; / praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Epiphany on the Way to Lent and Easter

Shattered shards of clay pots, that’s all we really are. Knowing it deep within and being reminded often—whether in dreams by night or everyday events--there is no hiding from our own brokenness as human beings. Is that why the pervasive anxieties all around are so hard to truly face, much less absorb? The Old Testament Nathan’s prophecy to King David was hardly spent on him. It continues through the ages, coming down on us as well: “You are the man!”

One can, of course, like so many keep doing, run and hide from it all, proudly pretending innocence. We see it all the time in others and know it in ourselves, deep within. Ought we not rather thank God that he persists in calling the likes of Nathan to break through our hidden nature and confront us with our sin?

What’s so amazing about grace is that the God who thus probes our depths does so not to destroy our lives but to recreate them from within. Stay up on your own high hill and you will be brought low. But receive him in the valleys of your life and you will be exalted.

Read the hymn by Joseph Hart (1712-1766) below—even sing it to the Beach Spring tune if you can. Allow it to illumine the darkness within you. And let it awaken the joyous reminder that God sent his Son to make us whole.

Come, you sinners, poor and needy, bruised and broken by the fall;
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pard’ning grace for all.
He is able, he is able, he is willing, doubt no more;
he is able, he is able, he wis willing, doubt no more.

Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;
all that he requires of sinners is to turn and trust in him.
He will save you, he will save you, ‘tis the Gospel’s constant theme.
He will save you, he will save you, ‘tis the Gospel’s constant theme.

Lo! th’incarnate God, ascended, pleads the merit of his blood;
venture on him, venture wholly, let no other trust intrude:
none but Jesus, none but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.
None but Jesus, none but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.

The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 324

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Laugh a Little--at Yourself!

I've always felt that one measure of good people is their ability to laugh at themselves! We all know folks, of course, who love to poke fun at others. But play a joke on them, or tell one at their expense, and they are easily offended. Why is that, if not that they are too insecure to face up to their own foibles?

I once heard my father refer to a hymn often sung by the earliest Covenanters that included a phrase something like "tell me my faults." Pietists recognize the wisdom in that, even while resisting the spirit of some who take it too far. What matters in the long run is one's ability both to tell a joke and receive one at his or her own expense. A good rule of thumb in that regard is probably learning the high art of telling jokes occasionally on oneself.

J.J. Daniels (1862-1957), a Covenant pioneer pastor, put it well, balancing his gifts as a story teller with the willingness to be a story receiver as well. His advice, written down by Herbert Palmquist, is full of communal wisdom and well worth pondering: "There is so much bad in the best of us, and so much more in the worst of us, that it behooves all of us to keep our eye on the rest of us."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Wandering and Wondering

It was late October, last year. My son Peter and I were wandering with a tour group among the ancient pyramids in Egypt. Full of wonder at their magnificence I was already entering into my biblical inheritance as the spiritual son of a wandering Aramean.

How much deeper than my nationalistic roots, so rich in themselves, do my roots in the faith extend? Am I not, like my biblical fathers, still going forth as Abraham did "to a land he knew not where"? Shall I identify myself only as a Swedish American and not an Egyptian? Caucasian only, and not Middle Eastern as well?

Some thought it silly to purchase a Bedouin head covering, but it seemed natural doing it, feeling somehow as at home in their native habitat as in my own. Where is my home after all, I wondered in those moments? Who are truly my father and mother, and who truly my sisters and brothers?

To be thus drawn beyond oneself into the broader stream of life, even if only momentarily, was to be reminded that life in God is so much broader, so much deeper than we tend often to realize. It is also far more satisfying, as was immediately manifest in the shielding from the sun and its heat my new acquisition was providing.

What followed over two weeks on tour were further illustrations of the same awareness, in yet more climes and circumstances. My Lord came out of Egypt--"that Scripture might be fulfilled," the Bible says. He also came out of Bethlehem of Judea, and Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee. And in the city of God that is Jerusalem he so identified even with those who crucified him that he made clear the concern and love of God for everyone.

On one of our last days in Jerusalem before returning home, I bought for my son and me--from a Muslim merchant, no less--two lovely handmade liturgical stoles, each embedded with a series of Jerusalem crosses. "I have Jesus in my heart," that Muslim said with deep emotion, "and you have Jesus in your hearts. Someday when all the foolishness of this life is over, we will meet together with him in eternity."

Surely wearing a Bedouin head dress doesn't make me a Bedouin. Nor does buying a liturgical stole from a Muslim make me a Muslim. But both of them bought will linger in my possession as sacred reminders of my own calling from God to see and regard all humanity in the greater light of his love.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

'The People, Yes!'

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote in his letters and papers from prison (Prisoner for God, Macmillan, 1959): In the last month or two I have learned for the first time in my life how much comfort and help I get from others.... We often want to do everything ourselves, but that is a mark of false pride. Even what we owe to others belongs to ourselves, and is a part of our own lives. And when we want to calculate just how much we have learnt ourselves and how much we owe to others, it is not only un-Christian but useless. What we are in ourselves and what we owe to others makes us a complete whole (p. 78).

Other greats in human history have witnessed to the same. Carl Sandburg's epic poem ("The People, Yes!") pays similar tribute. And Harry Truman, when asked in leaving the presidency of our nation whether he felt diminished by becoming just another commoner once more, flashed back by declaring that he was "highly honored to be returning to the people."

Covenanter L. Arden Almquist, after a lifetime of service as a missionary doctor and later as head of our world missions program, said in his marvelous book, Debtor Unashamed (Covenant Press, 1993), that he learned more from the African people than he taught them.

In my own life as a human being--not to mention my vocation as a minister--I can witness in my own small way to the same. It is people that matter to God, and all who learn to love and serve them as he does, even in their foibles and imperfections, finds not only the high honor of being named among them but the reward of losing one's life for his sake and the gospel's in service to them.

Ariana Paz has written of Carl Sandberg: "His words are still relevant today and his belief in the power of people to go forward no matter the odds is simply yesteryear's 'Yes We Can.' These are tough times for our country and for all of us individually but his words to me say, 'yes we will prevail.'"

All leaders, religious and secular, would do well to pray daily and earnestly with hymn-writer Fred Kaan:

Teach us, O Lord, your lessons, as in our daily life
we struggle to be human and search for hope and faith.
Teach us to care for people, for all, not just for some,
to love them as we find them, or as they may become.

The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 589)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

'A Capable Wife Who Can Find?'

"Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy,
her husband too, and he praises her.
'Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.'
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates."
Proverbs 31:25-31

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Redemptive Light Sometimes Hurts!

One sign of a great leader is his or her capacity to accept criticism and learn from it. In our own history as a Covenant Church, C.V. Bowman (1868-1937) was that kind of man. Though one day to become president of our denomination, his autobiography, Son of the People (Covenant Publications, 1988), was not about that but about his childhood years in Sweden and what it was like to emigrate to America as a young lad of 11 in 1879.

A favorite story concerning him is one he himself told on being assigned as a student to preach a sermon in a homiletics class at North Park Seminary. Listen:

I was assigned to make a sermon outline on the text about Jesus feeding the five thousand in a desert place. I had done my work honestly and now was to give my outline in class. As my title I announced, "A Feeding in the Desert."

Responding quickly as usual, [President David] Nyvall said, "Yes, yes, just so, that's good," and with his lovely and unexpected acknowledgement ringing in my ears I continued to give the disposition of the contents: main points, subordinate points, and conclusion. When I had finished, the professor sat quietly looking at his Greek New Testament. Then he said, "Well, that was like being invited to dinner without getting any food." What a crushing moment! But the professor was right. As realized later, I had issued an invitation to dinner but had not put anything substantial on the table."

Redemptive light shed on our work often hurts. We all know how crushed one can feel. What is remarkable in C. V. Bowman's case is the humility with which he received his wise professor's criticism. In truth it was but one of many occasions that made clear to others the character of the man and the qualities of spirit that ennobled him in their sight and caused them later to elect him Covenant President.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Darkness Transformed by Light

Artur Weiser, in his seminal Old Testament Library Commentary on the Psalms (SCM Press, 1962), writes that spiritual assurance is "the indestructible energy of a life fed by the invisible resources of communion with God." In Psalm 73, for example, which begins with the psalmist's confession of weariness and frustration over the prosperity of the wicked, it is not until he enters the sanctuary of God that he truly perceives their sin and his own.

As long as he was enamored by all the things the wicked seem to have that he didn't have he was filled with nothing but cynicism and anger. He had not yet realized that the life of those people was as filled with as much sorrow as his own. Short of turning to God their way of living was "like a dream" that when one awakens from it "you despise their phantoms."

And not only so. On beholding God's glory he himself was transformed. As if for the first time, he sensed that God had been standing beside him in the company of the faithful, holding his right hand even while his eyes were dimmed and his heart was hardened. Though he himself had forsaken God--acting "like a brute beast" toward him, "stupid" and "ignorant"--God had been standing beside him the whole time, holding his right hand.

The vital energies now transforming him are different from what material pleasures he so long envied in others could ever have provided. His whole life now rests on a new foundation, and "its wealth consists in the inner possession of opportunities of life provided by God."

The life of faith, we learn, is not bound to circumstance. It is an inner thing, lit from within us by the Holy Spirit, sovereign over every darkness known to human beings, "the indestructible energy of a life fed by the invisible resources of communion with God."

A Blessed New Year Reminder

Prone as we all are this time of year to focus renewed energy on resolutions of our own, I was both braced and blessed by a poetic reminder from Fred Moeckel, an old seminary colleague of mine now home with the Lord, on what really matters looking forward.

From one collection of his poems we published in 1969, now out of print but perhaps still available through sources like Amazon, I came on the following poem he called "Objection." Read it, and re-read it carefully as I am doing, and respond yourself to the Lord's clear intention for all of us--not to project our will onto the future but to accept his, surrendering our souls to the power of his Spirit.

If Jesus had only argued,
we could have answered Him.
If Jesus had only said,
"Don't you think ... ?" instead
of "You must believe ..."
we could have answered Him.
But since He came
with all the authority of eternity
behind His every word,
and since He was Himself the Word,
we have no way to argue,
no way to connive, debate;
no right to speak.
If Jesus had sought an argument,
we might have given one.
But He seeks our souls.

Braced by my brother, and the Lord speaking through him, my resolutions seem vacant and pale indeed. What God wants of me is not my energies first, or my determination to do better in the new year. He wants my soul, that in and through it he may work his will in his world for his people. Have you given him yours?