Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

I find myself in an odd situation today.  I am surrounded by family, I have a beautiful wife, I have eaten my fill, and I have all the blessings that come from living in middle class America.  I know that I will have a bed to sleep on tonight, I have clothes to wear and even a cellphone and a car in case I have an emergency and need to contact someone or go somewhere.  In addition to this, I have a wonderful church family, I have brothers and sisters in Louisville and Savannah, and I know that there are many people who love me.  In all of this, how could anyone not be thankful?

Yet, at the same time, I find myself in the same place as many Americans today: I am unemployed, my financial resources are taxed, and I'm not sure when that situation will change.  In addition to this I, like many others, have an advanced degree, and feel a specific calling on my life that I would like to accomplish, and that I have dedicated years to fulfilling.  Even though I have been the beneficiary of the wonderful generosity of family, so that I have a place to live, there is a distinct enjoyment missing.  An enjoyment that comes from working and providing for my family.  This situation is frustrating, and the reality of it cannot be escaped.

 In thinking about these two situations I am forced to conclude that being thankful really is about what perspective we choose to have in life.  We can look at what we want, what we have not yet accomplished, what we have lost or our ills and pains, and we can conclude that life is not as good as we would like.  Or, we can choose to look at what we have received and what we have, and we can be appreciative for life itself.

The second mindset, the one that looks at life with appreciation, is the one to which the Christian is called.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:7, "What do you have that you did not receive?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?"  The point being that everything we have, from life, to love, to wealth, to family, all of it is a gift to us from God.  In addition to this we can add salvation, hope, enjoyment, and any number of other blessings.  For the Christian, we are called to be humble, acknowledging that God has given us great blessings, but that also then means we must be thankful, because in acknowledging that we have received blessing, what else can we do but be thankful to the one who has given those blessings to us?

So, on Thanksgiving, and on every day, let us consider what attitude we will have in ourselves, whether being thankful, or holding life in contempt.  And, as we are challenged to be thankful for all the many blessings we have received, let us remember who we are thanking.  Being thankful necessarily assumes being thankful to someone or something.  So, let us give God the glory, both for what we have received, and because he is the one who gives us these things.  Let us always remember what James says, "For every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change."

Let us be humble enough to appreciate the good gifts we have been given.  As I said to a friend not too long ago, when I was in Virginia I saw beautiful sights from the tops of mountains.  I saw valleys of green laid out before me and watched as below me hawks flew in search for prey.  Such wonderful sights remind me that I do not know what the future holds, whether I will stand on mountain tops and look across open valleys, or walk on the sea shore and hear the roar of the ocean.  But, I know there is still beauty in the world, even if I am in the midst of gray and dreary day.

So, I will be thankful for what I have seen, knowing that those beautiful days brought me to where I am now.  I will be thankful for today, knowing that where I am now must yield to the hope of what I will see tomorrow.  So, let us always give thanks to the Father of Lights.  Let us worship him who gives to us perfect gifts.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Isaiah 6:1-8

Recently (a couple of weeks ago) my pastor asked me to read this section of Scripture and lead the congregation in prayer as part of our worship service.  Reading this passage, and the sermon of that day, both changed the way I have looked at sin since.  I wanted to address this passage of Scripture and share a few of the things that really impacted me.  A couple of the points come from the Hebrew in this passage, so I beg your leave to discuss those, and I ask that you trust what I'm going to say.  Alternatively, I hope that my reading of this passage might encourage you to do some research on the passage yourself, that you may be challenged and transformed by the Word of God.

First, the English of this passage:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim.  Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one called to another and said:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  And I said: "Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.  And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"  Then I said, "Here am I!  Send me."

The first thing that struck me was the declaration made by the Seraphim: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!"  (A better rendition might note that he is called the Lord of armies, but that's a secondary point.)  The reason this declaration struck me is because of the triple repeated, "Holy!"  In the original Hebrew and Greek there was no punctuation.  No exclamation marks, no periods, no commas, no way to separate or accentuate a word other than either its placement in the idea, or a play on its form, or a repetition of the word itself.  Thus, when we see a repeated word or term it is there for one specific reason: emphasis.

For the Seraphim to call God "holy" three times indicates a serious emphatic statement.  It would be like standing in the midst of a courtroom and suddenly the bailiff picks up a bull horn and screams as loud as he can that the judge is honorable and just.  If you miss the implication, it is because you choose to ignore that which has been screamed at you.

God is holy!  He is utterly, indescribably holy!  His holiness is to be shouted, it is declared by those beings which are in his presence day and night.  This is the first and most important descriptor of God.  His holiness defines his other attributes, because it puts them in proper perspective.

God's holiness is his transcendence above and beyond this world.  He is like nothing in this world, utterly distinct and incomparable.  It is for this reason that Scripture says of God, "Who is like the Lord?" (Psalm 40:5; Psalm 89:6; Isaiah 40:18, 25; 46:5)  And here, you have heavenly beings, flying above the throne of God, which is itself a high and loft throne, and they are declaring this holiness, over and over again, yelling it loudly to one another.  That's how important it is that we get that God is holy, the seraphim yell not to creation, but to one another, even though they dwell in the presence of God.

This point only began to really come home to me when I began to consider the rest of God's attributes in relation to this holiness.  Think about it this way: God demonstrates his power so that we can understand that his power is beyond what we can comprehend, it is holy.  God works great and wondrous miracles so that we can understand that if God is able to do things which amaze us, how much greater are his works which we can not fathom!  His holiness, his indescribable nature, is declared by comparison with that which we can understand.  Likewise of any of God's attributes, his anger, his patience, his justice, and particularly his love.  We cannot really comprehend any of these attributes of God, because his holiness puts them beyond our grasp.  We can witness a declaration of his love or justice, but that only gives us a glimpse into the reality that we cannot fully grasp, because God is beyond us.

But, here's what blows me away more than anything else, what made me really begin to consider the beauty of God's holiness: he does not do his great works for himself!  What I mean is that God is holy, by his very nature, and there is nothing that adds to or takes away from this holiness.  Thus, when God shows his glory through his great works, he does not add anything to himself, but simply shows us, mere humans, how wonderful he is, out of a great love for us.  Remember, God has seraphim declaring his holiness, he already knows his holiness, he does not need us to praise him, but he gives us the opportunity to praise him for our good, because he loves us.

God is the only being who deserves this praise, because his beauty is perfect.  So, for us to be able to praise God is a gift to us, because being able to praise God means that we are getting some glimpse of perfection, some participation in the amazing glory of the one who defines everything good and beautiful.  It's like getting an invite into the most amazing art gallery ever.  God is not changed or made more amazing by our worship, but we who witness his holiness are changed, because we experience that which is truly beautiful.  This is the situation Isaiah found himself in: ushered into the presence of glory, confronted with that which left him dumbfounded (literally) because of how wondrous it was.

God is holy, he is awesome, and he shows his holiness to us because of his love for us, but this is only the beginning of this passage.  Add to that the very beings who are declaring this: seraphim.  (In the Hebrew the "im" ending is simply a plural ending, hence some translations read "seraphs" as a valid plural form of the term, since the Hebrew "seraph" is the singular form.)  The word itself means "burning ones".  Thus, here are "burning ones," or beings whose own glory makes them appear to be on fire (or who really are made of fire), who are declaring how holy God is.  His glory is made manifest through comparison with their glory, because they are declaring his holiness, and not their own.

Then, Isaiah gives utterance to words that simply do not translate into the English with the same nuance which they have in Hebrew.  Isaiah looks to the Lord and says, "Woe is me! For I am [compelled to be silent, brought to silence, made silent, or undone, ruined, destroyed]."  (Everything within the brackets could be viable interpretations of this passage.)  Thus, when we read from Isaiah, "I am undone" what he is saying is, "I am brought to silence."  Here the idiom of silence represents the idea of death or total destruction.  This ties the statement in with the rest of what Isaiah says, "For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips."

The idea of unclean lips goes far and beyond simply the words of the people, it goes to their lives, their very being.  Thus, as Christ declared, "For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34)  For Isaiah, for his mouth to be silenced was a condemnation of his very life.  So, likewise, when Isaiah complains of the uncleanness of the lips of the people, he is condemning the way they live.  They are unclean in word and deed.  And he is one of those people, he is not innocent, he is not holy, he is not good.  I realized as I read those words what a condemnation that should be to me: though I might know how to say the right things, though I might appear to be a "good Christian" to the world, my heart ought to be condemned before God because of my sinfulness.  I am in the position of Isaiah, and I need to declare, "Woe is me!  I am compelled to be silent, I should be destroyed before my holy God!"

Yet Isaiah was not left there.  Here the Hebrew again plays on words and imagery: one of the burning ones takes a "glowing coal" and touches Isaiah's mouth with it.  One of those who is on fire takes a coal of fire and touches that which symbolizes Isaiah's wickedness, his lips, and declared Isaiah to be clean.  Imagine that scene for a minute, a flying being of fire holding a burning coal in his hand reaches out to you and touches your lips with a searing fire, and declares you to be clean.

Here the full imagery of the situation is brought out: Isaiah is not simply standing in the temple, he is standing in the middle of a sacrifice.  Remember, the temple was filled with smoke after God's holiness was declared.  Why would the temple be filled with smoke?  Because a sacrifice was taking place.  We know this because the smoke is not merely from the altar of incense, but there is a burning coal, which came from the altar, which means that a sacrifice was burning on the altar of God.

Here we tie into the imagery of Christ, because he is the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. (1 Peter 1:19-21)  He is the sacrifice that God accepted to quench his anger, which allows a guilty people to approach a holy God.  Isaiah was standing in the presence of the God who makes redemption for his saints, offering up a sacrifice to himself which we could not offer up.  And Isaiah was made a participant of that sacrifice.  A coal from the fire of God's sacrifice was taken and placed upon Isaiah's lips, so that he became a participant in this symbolic sacrifice that would one day be fulfilled in the death and suffering of the Messiah.

And look what happens to Isaiah because of his exposure to the sacrifice of Christ: the man who was brought to silence, who was compelled to recognize the sinfulness of his life before the holy God of the universe, suddenly has the courage to speak up and say to God, "Here I am, send me!"  Because Isaiah saw the holiness of God, he was brought low, he considered himself already dead.  But, because Christ died on his behalf and he was able to participate in that sacrifice, his words, the actions of his life, were made acceptable before God.  Isaiah was given a boldness to go from laying on his face to standing before the awesome God of all creation, all because of the sacrifice that God prepared for himself.

The more I studied this passage, just in preparation to read it at church, the more I was faced with the reality that I had lost sight of the holiness of God.  I had forgotten his glory, and I had forgotten that when I sin I am transgressing that holiness, that glory, that awesome and amazing attribute of God that cannot be fully understood here on earth, because it is the reflection of how utterly incomprehensible and beyond us God really is.  But, in addition to that, my sins made light of the sacrifice God prepared for himself.  Instead of allowing the coal from the altar of God to touch my lips, I would draw near to it, I would feign to touch it, and then I would go back again into the secret realms of my heart, and I would not let myself be singed by the purifying fire of God.

For this reason, for the last two weeks, I have been continually thinking to myself, "Would it glorify God for me to do that?  Would it glorify God for me to go there?  Would it glorify God for me to watch that, think that, or listen to that?"  The seraphim constantly declare God is holy, so how could I, who have enjoyed the benefits of the death of Christ, do anything less in my own life?  Do I really think God is that holy?  In being confronted with these questions I was forced to reconsider how I was living, so that I could be like Isaiah, transformed by my experience of seeing the holiness of God.

To be honest, for those who have read this far, I can only apologize.  There is something about being exposed to an experience that cannot quite be captured by simply writing about it.  Particularly when it is the Word of God that we are confronted with, there is an intrinsic and personal challenge that is hard to express to others.  I can only hope that you will be challenged by this section of Scripture as I was.  I can only hope that as you have read of my experience of going through this passage, you will be able to appreciate the imagery, the nuances, and the power of this passage more.  I hope you are challenged to think about the awesome holiness of God a little bit more, so that you can too can live a life changed by meeting the God of Isaiah, the God of the universe.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

To Birmingham and Back

Yesterday, Jen and I went to a wonderful wedding.  Our dear friend, Brandon, married his beloved, Tara.  I can't tell you how excited I was and am for both of them.  I haven't been excited about someone else being married in a long time.  Perhaps it is because of the way Brandon became such a brother to me in the years we spent together in Louisville, perhaps it is just a matter of having learned more of the wonderful bliss that marriage is.  I have no idea.  I know this, Brandon and Tara are going to have one of the most blessed experiences possible, because they actually get what marriage is supposed to be about, in a way I know I didn't when I first got married.

Later, sometime, I suppose I'll go into a long reflection on marriage itself, but that isn't really why I started writing this post.  In part I just wanted to mention that wonderful wedding.  Believe me, it was really beautiful.

My favorite chuckle of the evening: the processional of the Bride was "Come thou fount of every blessing."  I know, the song is about Christ, but I love the double meaning, the symbolic nature of marriage, and the way a bride represents, for many a man, that idea: she is the fount of every blessing (I know this is, metaphorically speaking, the way I feel about my bride, I can only hope it is the same for others).  I actually did laugh a little when I saw it, though I have a feeling I'm probably the only one who really thinks or thought it was funny.

On the way back I told Jen I was feeling a bit poetic in thinking about driving there and back.  She asked me what I meant, and I told her:

Today, I have driven over 200 miles.  That means that for 200 miles the engine of this car has been compressing gas, combining it with heat and pressure and causing the release of energy with explosive force.  The force that this engine harnesses would rip my body to shreds were I to seek to contain it.

At the same time, this energy has not only been contained, but directed, put to work turning crankshafts and powering the many aspects of this car that are essential to its function.  All of that turning and energy has created friction and heat.  That heat, were I to try to hold it, would singe my flesh and burn me down to the bone.

The turning shafts of metal in the car are hooked up in such a way that they spin the tires of this car.  Those tires spin and move with such speed that my muscles would tear and my tendons snap if I were to try to keep up with them.  And in those tires is air, countless molecules, bouncing and moving, impacting each other so often that I cannot even comprehend the number of collisions occurring within any one of those tires, much less all four of them.  And we are not the only ones on the road, there are so many vehicles on any one stretch of road in America that I doubt I could count them if they were all brought together at one time.

In all of this I am brought back to what Hebrews says, that Christ "upholds the universe by the power of his word."  For 200 miles, for 4 hours of driving, Christ has been keeping all of this together, where I could not hold together even one part of it.  Then I realize, it is not just these 200 miles, it is for the thousands of years that the world has existed, it is through eternity past, before creation began, when he with wisdom knew what he would do, with no teacher, no educator, no instructor, and no councilor, according to his awesome power and knowledge.  My God is so great he has been upholding all things, at all times, and he will do so even unto the last judgment, when he will create all things new, a perfect world for his children.

Grasp this: that this is the God we serve, this is the God we know and love, this is the power of God who is our all in all!  A spinning tire, a turning crank shaft, the compression and explosion of gasoline for the purpose of travel, my God holds all of this in his hand.  His word has spoken it into being and allows it to continue, and all of it is for his glory.  This is the God I serve, this is my God!  To whom will you compare him?  To what would you hold him up as his likeness?

How great and wonderful our God is, who does all things well!  His glory is proclaimed by all things, both the simple and the complex.  If we but meditate on any one part of creation and seek to understand what goes on within it, we are laid low in humility as we come before the awesome might, and awful reality, of the living God.  Hebrews so rightly says that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  For if he can do all of this, how much more are we assured that he can, and will, judge us who will stand before him when he calls us?

But, how wondrous it is to know that because of the death and resurrection of Christ, I stand innocent, justified before the judge of the universe!  He, who has the power to number and order the collisions of atoms within the heart of a star, has the power to wipe away my sins.  He, who has the glory of all of creation as a testimony to his beauty, gave that up to die on a cross for my sake.  And his Father, my God, has given him a greater reward: A bride more beautiful, because she partakes of his glory, covered in his blood.  This is the God I love.  How could I do anything else?

Yesterday, I went to experience one wedding, and I rejoiced with my dear brother as he married his beloved, but one day, I will enjoy a better wedding.  I look forward to that day, because then I will see the one for whom I have longed.  How then can we not rejoice, knowing what is coming?  How then can we not praise God when he demonstrates his glory for us on a daily basis?  Our God, he is an awesome God.  Hallelujah!