Friday, April 28, 2006

Release, Part 2

(From my last post: Rodrigo Mendoza is played by Robert DeNiro in the 1986 movie The Mission.)

Mendoza: “For me there is no redemption, no penance great enough.”

Father Gabriel: “There is. But do you dare to try it?”

Mendoza: “Do you dare to see it fail?”

Mendoza believes he is so far from God and his guilt is so terrible that he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. The Jesuits try to explain to him that God’s forgiveness is free, a gift of grace. But Mendoza can’t see it; he won’t let anyone cut loose the symbolic bag of heavy armor he drags around, even though it causes him great hardship, even endangers his life.

We are like that. We feel so unworthy that we drag around for years our chains of regret, grief, hurt, anger, and guilt, maybe a lifetime. They weigh us down and cause us unspeakable pain. We may even become so used to them that we’d feel strange without them. They are part of us. And we may not even be able to speak of them, even though they loom huge with us. We say we are not worthy of God’s forgiveness. We live pitiful half-lives.

A friend once told me, “I’ve been too bad in my life. God doesn’t want to hear from me.”

Well, it is true that we are not worthy or deserving of anything. But it is not true that God’s back is turned to us because of it. God is not a human being. He does not play games with people or manipulate us with accusing voice. He longs for us to bring that heavy bag of junk to him so that he can make it instantly disappear. Being worthy has nothing to do with it. He is all love and light. It’s all about him—not us. He loves unconditionally, no strings attached. We don’t have to deserve anything.

Once we give up that huge baggage, life becomes different. Maybe you just discovered that on, say, the Walk to Emmaus. Maybe as a result, you have a new spring in your step, a twinkle in your eye, a smile on your face.

You have tapped into the awesome, breathtaking power of the Holy Spirit. Because of him, you can rid yourself of that nasty voice that might be saying to you now, “Who do you think you are? You think God has really forgiven you and given you your life back?” Satan is the source of that voice. Many people today don’t believe in him, but he’s real; we know for certain because we can hear his voice whispering those things in our ear. Through the Holy Spirit, we can defeat his influence.

You have the power to banish Satan; just say, “Get out of here and leave me alone, in the name of Jesus!” Just put on the whole armor of God, and you’ll be protected. The Bible says, in Ephesians 6, that we must “be strong with the Lord’s mighty power” and “stand firm against all strategies and tricks of the Devil.”

We can be sure that this battle is “against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world,” the “mighty powers of darkness who rule this world.” Here’s what Paul says, in the New Living Translation:

Use every piece of God's armor to resist the enemy in the time of evil, so that after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the sturdy belt of truth and the body armor of God's righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News, so that you will be fully prepared. In every battle you will need faith as your shield to stop the fiery arrows aimed at you by Satan. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times and on every occasion in the power of the Holy Spirit. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all Christians everywhere.

Wield the sword of the Spirit and don’t let him rob you of your joy!

“Sword of Solomon II-s.” Real Armor of God. 28 Apr. 2006

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Rodrigo Mendoza is an 18th-century Spaniard played by Robert DeNiro in the 1986 movie The Mission. You could say he carries around a lot of personal baggage.

Mendoza’s guilt is symbolized by a large net filled with armor and weapons. He keeps it tied to his back by a long rope and makes himself drag it as he and the Jesuit monks travel on foot through forest and river.

Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, tries to convince Mendoza to stop punishing himself, but nothing anyone can say persuades him to release the burden.

Mendoza: For me there is no redemption, no penance great enough.

Father Gabriel: There is. But do you dare to try it?

Mendoza: Do you dare to see it fail?

He believes he is too far from God to deserve anything. He refuses to allow anybody to cut it loose, even though it almost makes him fall to his death, climbing up slippery rocks beside a mountain waterfall.

Finally, he almost makes it to the top, but the net is caught on rocks. One of the Jesuits takes out a knife and cuts the rope. The heavy bag of armor falls a long way into the river. Mendoza is released from his impossible burden and saved.

Maybe you have been feeling a lot like Rodrigo Mendoza. Maybe you have been symbolically dragging around for years some tremendous bag of rusty iron scraps or stuff that smells like death. Maybe you just got back home from spending a few days at some event, like, say, the Walk to Emmaus. And maybe as a result of what happened there, you feel closer to God now than you had ever dreamed possible—and maybe you feel like Mendoza did when he reached the top of the rocks by the waterfall and the Jesuit cut loose his burden—alive and freed.

The air at the top is cool and fresh and the music is sweet . . . .

Earth’s Biggest Movie Database.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Perfect Lamb

Last night I saw Who Is Jesus? I was afraid it might be one of those television shows that try to prove that Jesus was just a man, not the son of God. But it was a review of his life from the Christian viewpoint. It was well done, without being sappy, like some things like that are.

One of the main points of the documentary was that Christianity has its roots in Judaism. Jesus was a Jew. The narrator said, “He was an observant Jew” who was “trying to purify his religion.”

The New Testament, of course, confirms that fact—rather, more accurately, what the narrator said confirms the Bible. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

The film described several important aspects of Christianity that are deeply rooted in the Jewish religion, especially baptism, resurrection, and communion. Communion originated with the Seder meal, in celebration of the Jewish Passover. The first Christian communion, we could say, was when Jesus and his disciples ate the Seder meal together to celebrate Passover the last night before he was arrested. In Luke 22:19, we're told that he said to the disciples, "Do this in remembrance of me." The film’s narrator said that the early Christians continued to celebrate Passover with the Seder meal for a time, but eventually, it was shortened to the bread and wine—or grape juice and wafer—that we know today.

The Bible tells us that the Passover was instituted by God as a holy time to be commemorated through all generations as the time that God liberated the Hebrews from Egypt where they had been held in slavery for four hundred years. The Egyptian Pharaoh had stubbornly refused to let them go even after God sent plagues to punish the Egyptians. It came time for the final plague.

On the first Passover, then, God told the Hebrews to kill a perfect, spotless lamb and put some of its blood around the doors of their homes. This would protect them as his Spirit passed among the obstinate Egyptians to kill the firstborn of every family. The Egyptians finally agreed to release the Hebrews, and God used Moses to lead them out of captivity, eventually into the promised land, Israel. Exodus 12 details the celebration of the Passover.

The ancient Hebrews celebrated the Passover for centuries; comprehension of the meaning of the perfect sacrificial lamb ran deep in their blood. Years later, in the perfect timing of God, he sacrificed his own perfect lamb, his son, to deliver them—and all mankind—from captivity, into the promised land of eternal life. It was a complete circle of saving sacrifice, life in the blood of a lamb, from the night of Passover in Egypt to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

The complete Jew, then, is the Jew who sees the sacrifice of God’s lamb as the completion of the circle and believes that this lamb was the long-awaited Messiah.

Who Is Jesus? Fox News Channel. 16 Apr. 2006.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Truth: To Be Right

When I was about seven years old, I got into an argument (one of many) with my younger brother about what day of the week it was. I was older and smarter, I thought, and he should know that. I argued and insisted, until I turned red and sweaty, that it was Wednesday. He eventually fetched the ultimate authority, our mother, who affirmed that it was, indeed, Tuesday. I cried and was mad and humiliated.

Happily, I grew out of that tendency to be so sure of myself. Some adults are always right. Or at least they think they are. And they are pretty sure of it. The fact of being right can become sort of an obsession, so that the obsessed one can’t face the idea of even the vague possibility of being wrong. Why are we so driven to be right?

I believe the inner need to be right was hard-wired in us by God when he first scooped up a handful of dirt to make a man. This drive makes us want and need to find truth. Because we are made that way, we recognize his truth when he reveals it to us—we know that it is truth.

God also pre-programmed us to need love. It’s deeply connected to our need to find truth, this desperate hunger to love and be loved, to see our lives through the beauty of love. We can’t live without love and function at all.

We seek the beauty of truth and love. God is all loveliness and love and truth, and he made us seekers so that we would yearn for him. He is love, in his nature and in his word; his love is truth; in truth is great beauty. John Keats said in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” (Remember, most English teachers are poetry nuts.) He was right, but he didn’t take that thought far enough. It’s an unending circle—love, beauty, truth.

Truth is revealed to us by the Spirit of God, when we seek to be taught by him. When his Spirit lives in us, we have a sense of discernment so that we can recognize truth when he reveals it. But if his Spirit is not in us, we don’t see it: it goes right over our heads, and we settle for untruth and half-truth. And we often bind our lives to ideas that are not truth. We may even get to point where we would argue that it is Wednesday, when in fact, it is Tuesday.

The Bible says in First Corinthians 2:12-14,

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

. . . what God has freely given us—love, grace, acceptance, forgiveness—that’s the beautiful truth.

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. Ed. M. H.
Abrams, et al. New York: Norton, 2000. 851-53.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

To Enter the Kingdom of God

Can a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven—or do you have to be poor?

The Bible says a young man asked Jesus what he had to do to gain eternal life. And Jesus told him to obey the commandments. The man said he had always kept the commandments. “What do I still lack?” he asked. Jesus told him he should sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor so that he would “have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man went away, very sad, “because he had great wealth.” Jesus’ disciples were there, listening. This must have been an awkward and disturbing moment for them.

This comes from Matthew 19, verses 16-26, in the NIV translation of the Bible. I looked at the more informal, paraphrase-type version in The Message, and I like how it presents the rest of this scene.

As he watched him go, Jesus told his disciples, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for the rich to enter God’s kingdom? Let me tell you, it’s easier to gallop a camel through a needle’s eye than for the rich to enter God’s kingdom.”

The disciples were staggered. “Then who has any chance at all?”

Jesus looked hard at them and said, “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off yourself. Every chance in the world if you trust God to do it.”

I believe the key to the central question lies in what Jesus said, with that piercing look. Here’s the real point of the whole scene: “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off yourself. Every chance in the world if you trust God to do it.”

I don’t think he meant that people have to literally sell all their possessions; he often spoke in ways that had multiple meaning. I believe he meant that the wealthy are just like the rest of us. If we value anything more highly than God, we don’t have a chance of entering his kingdom.

If we think we can take care of our own problems—unload our own baggage—dump out the trash of our lives—all by ourselves, we’ll get our chance to do that. And we’ll find out that we can’t do it. Usually, we have to hit bottom before we realize what control freaks we have been and give over to him our precious, beloved “control of our own lives.” We find out that all our “cool stuff” like our computers, cell phones, MP3’s, and sports cars can’t come close to filling the empty holes in our hearts. The list is long of celebrities who have drug addiction problems and terrible unhappiness, in spite of all their riches and fame. Wealth can’t buy peace of mind.

It is harder, certainly, for people who have plenty of money to come to the place where they realize that God is the only source of lasting peace. After all, they are more able to buy what the world teaches us we need for peace and fulfillment, things—more and more possessions. And they can, for a while, at least, afford to buy drugs and alcohol, those substances that give people a temporary, imitation sense of peace.

On the other hand, there’s a long list of wealthy people who love God, who realize that their riches are gifts from him, to be used for good purposes, according to his guidance. Their hearts are peaceful, humble, and generous. They follow his direction, help other people, share their possessions—and belong to the kingdom of God.

It isn’t the fact of having riches that causes despair and keeps a person out of the kingdom of God. It’s a heart condition, the fact that a heart, wealthy or not, doesn’t know God. It is love that brings peace—love comes from God. His love brings us into his kingdom, regardless of whether we are rich or poor.

Night--A Remembrance--3/26

The New York Times called Elie Wiesel’s book Night “A slim volume of terrifying power.” That’s what it says on the front cover. It is a choice of Oprah’s Book Club. It is indeed powerful—and disturbing.

Wiesel, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, has written over forty books, both fiction and nonfiction. Night was his first. In his preface, he says, “If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one. Just as the past lingers in the present, all my writings after Night, including those that deal with biblical, Talmudic, or Hasidic themes, profoundly bear its stamp, and cannot be understood if one has not read this very first of my works” (vii).

He explains that if he had not written this book, he would not have been able to write any of the others. It is easy for me to see why, after reading it. He had to write it, to be able to deal with what happened and to be able to have any kind of life afterwards.

The book is about his experiences in 1944-45. He was only fifteen years old when his family was taken by the Nazis, along with the many other Jewish residents of Sighet, Transylvania, to Auschwitz and later, to Buchenwald. He and his father were separated from his mother, his little seven-year-old sister Tzipora, and his two older sisters as soon as the railroad cars unloaded at Auschwitz. He never saw his mother and sisters again. He asks, “How was one to speak of them without trembling and a heart broken for all eternity?” (ix).

It is a terrible story of how the Jews discovered “a demented and glacial universe where to be inhuman was human, where disciplined, educated men in uniform came to kill, and innocent children and weary old men came to die” (ix). Families were torn apart; the oldest, youngest, and most infirm were murdered because they were not useful. The strongest survived, at least for a time, because they could be made to work. They lived in inhumane conditions, starved, frozen, tortured. Wiesel says he became less than human at times, a starved, walking corpse.

He tells of the deep concern he and his father had for each other. Many times, one or both of them would have died if it had not been for the other urging him on. Near the end of the war, thousands were moved from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. Many died during the all-night march, running and trekking through below-zero weather. Exhausted, at one point Wiesel fell asleep in the snow, but his father made him get up so that he would not freeze to death. In the last hours, the death-thin people were transported in open cattle cars, a hundred to a car. He and his father were among only twelve of the hundred who survived to leave their cattle car.

On the way to Buchenwald, in a freezing barrack at the village of Gleiwitz, the men were allowed to sleep, but sleep was difficult. The sixteen-year-old Wiesel was able to survive the ordeal because of his youth, no doubt; but his father was sick beyond mending. Juliek, a Jewish musician, had risked all to bring with him his violin, and he began to play in the dark barrack “here, at the edge of his own grave” (95). The musicians had been forbidden to play anything written by Beethoven. But now, Wiesel says,He was playing a fragment of a Beethoven concerto.

Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound. In such silence. . . . .

The darkness enveloped us. All I could hear was the violin and it was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.

I shall never forget Juliek. How could I forget this concert given before an audience of the dead and dying? Even today, when I hear that particular piece by Beethoven, my eyes close and out of the darkness emerges the pale and melancholy face of my Polish comrade bidding farewell to an audience of dying men.

I don’t know how long he played. I was overcome by sleep. When I awoke at daybreak, I saw Juliek facing me, hunched over, dead. Next to him lay his violin, trampled, an eerily poignant little corpse. (95)

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Wiesel said that the “honor belongs to all the survivors and their children and, through us, to the Jewish people with whose destiny I have always identified” (118). He has dedicated his life to making sure that people remember what happened—that they don’t forget that this kind of thing can happen—and to all victims of injustice and suffering everywhere.

Broken Cisterns--3/22

In my last entry, I wrote about my church’s prayer list. Near the end of it, I said, We have noticed that the people in the “Physical need” section come and go from there, in general, much faster than they do in the “Spiritual need” section. Many more inhabit the “Physical need” section. I am pondering this fact, and I think I will have more to say about it soon. Today, I have some more to say about it.

I believe people are much more likely to notice that they have physical problems than spiritual ones. We would readily admit that we have chest pains or difficulty breathing or a broken leg and would get ourselves quickly to a doctor or even a hospital emergency room. We want to be fixed—as soon as possible. We can’t live with an open wound or hobble around on a sprained ankle or go around bleeding.

On the other hand, people do not want to tell anybody else that they feel miserable, angry, mistreated, guilty, or lonely. They figure they can deal with those things themselves. Many will suffer along for years and never ask for help or even sympathy from either their closest friends or God.

And then some people won’t admit to themselves that they actually have problems—too painful to look at them. It’s easy to limp along as an emotional cripple, hiding the pain of the moaning spirit. We think others won’t know if we don’t even acknowledge it to ourselves. But they can tell—those who love us and spend time around us.

In the “Spiritual need” section of our prayer list, hardly anyone is there because they asked us themselves for prayer. It’s the people who love them who ask us to pray for them. We call that section “For people who need special prayers and support.” We have about ten soldiers in Iraq listed and one person who was lost in the Philippines. Most of the others are there because somebody was concerned about their emotional pain and blockages of the spirit.

Many of us think our problems are too insignificant to put before God; he couldn’t possibly be concerned with such things because, after all, he has the entire universe to run. One of my friends told me, “I’ll go to him when I kind of get it all together. I’m too much of a mess now.”

But the truth is, he does care, and he wants us to come to him just the way we are, however messed up we may be. And he has cool, living water for our parched lips, salve for our burning souls. In the Old Testament, God mourned over the fact that people wouldn’t come to him for help: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

Jesus suffered over people—how harassed and worried they were, “helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). In Matthew 11:28-30, he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Five or six people are on our list in that section because they actually asked us themselves to pray for them—that God will help them deal with their crisis or pain. When we finally find out how his healing can mend our poor broken hearts, we learn to run to him for every kind of need—not just the sprained ankle or headache, but every heartache.

Power of Prayer--3/19

Our church has a two-page, single-spaced, small print prayer list that gets updated every Sunday. We circulate it in our Sunday school classes. Here’s how that got started.

In my Sunday school class about five or six years ago, we started keeping a list of young pregnant mothers who we wanted to pray for. We prayed and cheered for them and were blessed by that. After a few months, people with other kinds of needs began to ask us to pray for them. So we started adding everybody who asked for prayer and also people we knew of who had needs. We started printing a Bible verse at the bottom.

After a couple of years, our list grew so long and tangled that we decided to organize it. So then it got two more categories, besides the young mamas-to-be: people who needed prayer for physical healing, and people who had some kind of spiritual struggle going on. We listed beside the people’s names a brief description of their problem. Sometimes people don’t want their names on the list, but they want us to pray; in that case, we just say something like “a man who is in a crisis.” We believe God knows who and what it is, so it isn’t important that we print his problem in detail.

The list grew and grew. We removed their names when their problem was resolved. But we found that many people needed long-term prayer; they couldn’t ever be moved off the list. So then we decided to create categories for them. At that point, we had five categories: For expectant mothers and fathers; For people with ongoing physical problems; For people who need physical healing; For people who have ongoing needs for prayer and support; and For people who need special prayers and support. That kind of organization helped a great deal.

After a couple more years, the other Sunday school classes wanted us to give them copies so that they could pray with us. But then we realized we needed a “Praise” section—because it was amazing how often people told us how much our prayers helped them—what wonderful results they were seeing—how they felt the presence of God. So from then on, our “Praise” category always has at least one entry: “God because he answers prayer, never changes, and is the beginning & end of everything, the healer & redeemer; the comforter & our refuge in trouble & our savior.” Usually it has at least two or three more, because somebody is healed of either a physical ailment or a nagging spiritual problem. We don’t just remove them from the list; we praise God for their healing.

Since then, we have added a couple more categories: For people who have immediate, critical need for prayer, for any reason; For our church; and For our leaders (national and local). We leave the “Critical need” category there, even if there’s nobody currently in that situation. People don’t stay there very long.

We have noticed that the people in the “Physical need” section come and go from there, in general, much faster than they do in the “Spiritual need” section. Many more inhabit the “Physical need” section. I am pondering this interesting aspect of the list, and I think I will have more to say about it soon.

We have found that prayer is very real and powerful, and it binds us together. We know that God hears our prayers and answers them in loving ways. He is concerned about even our smallest needs.