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Archive for March, 2012

Infinite Memory

Walking last evening in mid-town Manhattan, I was struck, as always, by the vast multitude of people, walking past and with me from all directions. At most, I will “know” these people in the fleeting depth of one glance, barely registering on my consciousness; soon unseated in my very limited memory by a million other sights and sounds and ideas and thoughts.

A chance visual encounter, never to be repeated; a passing glimpse that doesn’t even qualify as a passing acquaintance.

Yet – God, the Creator of us all, knows every one of those people down to the deepest atom of their bodies and souls. Every word, every thought – every moment of their lives. And millions of others in cities large and small throughout the world – towns and villages, too. And every one of our ancestors, generation after generation backwards through time – God knows and has known every person, every event, with undimmed clarity.

He even knows the unborn before we do. And the generations yet to come.

And that’s just our tiny little world. Now multiply by billions of galaxies, with countless trillions of stars – each of which God can recall by name.

I marvel at our current electronic devices, at their accelerating speed and capacity and memory. I well remember the floppy disk era of computers with 8088 processors – and yet, reading this week a new book called Turing’s Cathedral (about the development of the earliest computers in the 1940s and 50s), even those DOS-powered clunkers of the 1980’s were utter powerhouses compared to the truly primitive efforts of our earliest, room-sized machines with tiny memory and capacity.

What those earliest machines could store and compute, as marvelous as they were back then, is ant-sized compared to the most compact smartphone of today. Let alone any modern-day WOPRs (old movie trivia reference!).

Either the true God is an infinite Creator, or he is not. The Bible is refreshingly clear on this point, even if some of those who claim to believe it are rather fuzzy about who is really in charge around here. Give a fresh read to Psalm 139, which contains such provocative phrases as, “…even before there is a word on my tongue, You, O Lord, know it all…” and, “My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret…Your eyes have seen my unformed substance, and in Your book was written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.”

I will only learn a millionth of a miniscule percentage of what there is to know, and my memory, full of Swiss cheese as it is, will soon fade and fail altogether. Yes, as the psalm above beautifully affirms, I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” – yet God, the Maker, is far more fearfully and wonderfully not-made. Our minds and machines are mere molecules in the face of an infinite Creator and Sustainer of a massive (but finite) universe, whose fingerprints are all over everything created inside and outside of us.

Sometimes, people very casually employ the phrase, “God knows!” Perhaps we should never hear that phrase casually again.

It’s no wonder that we are called, first and foremost, to worship.

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From the earliest pages of the Bible, a very interesting principle emerges – a reality-check which shaped and continues to inform the practices of the nation of Israel (and others) until this very day.

Sabbath rest.

Even those who disbelieve the Bible as a source of divine revelation are often compelled to acknowledge that a day of rest – one day in seven – is a pretty sound idea. We’re not designed to push non-stop through life. Those who cannot or will not rest often pay a steep price in their health, psychological well-being, and family relationships.

But the biggest challenge of the Sabbath principle is not the observance of a calendar day. As with so much in the Bible, God uses external realities to point to deeper spiritual truths. To stop working for one day in seven is one thing. To have a heart at rest is quite another.

In his book King’s Cross, Tim Keller (a favorite contemporary author*) reminds us of the contrasting dispositions of two great runners in the wonderful movie Chariots of Fire:

The movie Chariots of Fire was based on the true story of two Olympians in the Paris competition of 1924. One of them, Eric Liddell, was a Christian, and he refused to run on the Sabbath. As a result he lost the chance for a gold medal in a race he was favored to win. At one level, taking a day off for rest is what the movie is about. But the movie added another level and contrasted Harold Abrahams with Liddell. Abrahams and Liddell were both trying very hard to win gold medals. But Abrahams was doing it out of a need to prove himself. At one point, speaking of the sprint event in which he was competing, he said, “I’ve got ten seconds to justify my existence.” Liddell, on the other hand, simply wanted to please God who had already accepted him. That’s why he said to his sister, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” Harold Abrahams was weary even when he rested and Eric Liddell was rested even when he was exerting himself. Why? Because there’s a work underneath our work that we really need rest from. It’s the work of self-justification. It’s the work that often leads us to take refuge in religion.

Religion – external works and rituals – is a poor substitute for God Himself. It only leads to greater weariness, when not accompanied by heart-rest.

What makes our hearts rest-less? Fear of the future (or past). Unbridled ambition. Hyper-responsibility. A craving to be noticed. Unresolved guilt. Loneliness. Unfulfilled expectations (our own, or those of others). Doubt. Distrust. Anger. We can take a day, a week, or a month off from every form of work, and none of that will tame a rest-less soul. The Sabbath we crave is, ultimately, peace with God. Until our hearts are at rest in Him, we’ll continue to seek our fulfillment from religious acts, irreligious acts, other fallible people, and our own mental gymnastics. All of that is like trying to recover from a marathon by hopping on a treadmill.

I freely confess that I have struggled long with a rest-less heart. Unlike Eric Liddell, I have not well learned the lesson of living, and feeling His pleasure. But this is a marathon, not a sprint. We don’t have 10 seconds to justify our existence. In fact, we don’t have to justify ourselves at all. God is the one who justifies us.

*Highly recommended book by Tim Keller, for both believers and skeptics: The Reason for God.

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Reflection

For several weeks, I have felt a deep need to pull back from the normal noise and activity of my biz/networking life, and spend some time beside the peaceful waters of reflection (metaphorically speaking – actually, a lot of the time has been spent in front of the outdoor fireplace!).

The results have been surprising and productive.

When endlessly churning to create new business and strategize new opportunities, there is little time for mind and soul rest. Psalm 127 has been my companion during these days – meditating on the truth that human effort only carries so far, and that only the active blessing and protection of God really makes us prosper.

I am discovering that, for many years, I have striven to carry out all the roles I’ve been expected to fulfill. Up to a point, that’s OK. But sometimes, that can come at the cost of being…me.

For weeks, I’ve not been able to articulate the upwelling of…something…going on deep in my heart. I’m not sure I can even now. But I have a sense that it involves re-learning to be all that I am, not everything I’m expected to be (by everyone else or by my perfectionistic inner voice).

It feels a bit like breathing fresh air. Like springtime. Like a trail heading in a good direction, even if I can’t see exactly where it’s going.

So, if I seem a little quiet, don’t worry. It’s reflection season.

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Jesus a la carte

A young couple begins to fall in love. There is warmth, and affection, and a lot of time that once went to other pursuits now being devoted to a relationship that everyone around whispers is heading in an inevitable direction.

These two are meant for each other.

The man and the woman agree to marry. As the day draws near, the woman suggests that they write their own vows, instead of using the old tried-and-true, “I take you…’til death do us part” routine. They eagerly go off to write their own personal expressions of love and commitment, and get together over coffee on a Saturday morning to share what they’ve composed and finalize their vows.

The man takes out his simple 3×5 index card, and pours out heartfelt words of undying love and acceptance and commitment toward this woman, for whom he is ready to forsake all others. He pictures them on the altar, before a crowd of witnesses, making this vow of faithful, self-giving love before family and friends. Eagerly, he waits to hear what his bride-to-be has written.

She pulls out a sheaf of papers. Having very carefully thought through every aspect of their potential life together, and how it might impact her future well-being and sense of self, she begins to read her vows:

“I, __________, take what I like of you, __________, and agree to give you access to whatever of me I feel I can safely impart to you at any given time. I receive your intelligence, your rugged good-looks, your 401K, your disposition when it is happy, and your willingness to cater to my desires. I will be loyal to you as long as it isn’t excessively inconvenient or painful to me, and as long as things are for the better, and not for worse, I’ll agree to be your affectionate companion.”

Her vows go on, detailing the aspects of her potential husband that she’ll gladly accept, while leaving unspoken the clear implication that her love is quite selective, conditional, and ultimately entirely self-centered.

Reverse the “he” for “she” if you’d like, then ask yourself – If you’re on the other side of that ridiculous agreement, are you going to be showing up at the altar that day? Pffffft.

We’d never accept a menu approach to marriage vows, even among mere mortals. If I love your cooking, the upper half of your body, your eyes, your family wealth, and your sense of humor – while the rest is negotiable – then I don’t love you. I love only what you do for me.

Yet are we willing to have Jesus a la carte? Do we pick and choose aspects of the Savior, parts and pieces of the truth, and decide what we will and will not have of Him? Some Christianity as a main course, but with an appetizer of this, a side of that, and oh…can we substitute that all-or-nothing discipleship thing for some carrots sprinkled with a generous dash of autonomy? I fear that we often do. It’s idolatry – and amazingly, Jesus came to save us even from that sin, that form of incomplete and impure attachment to Him. Amazing grace, that He would give vows of perfect and undying love, while accepting our feeble expressions of half-formed attachment in return.

Yet that does not warrant our continuing to take an a la carte approach to Jesus. The Bible is not a menu of options; faith is not ours to re-shape into whatever image we choose. Some restaurants have a “prix fixe” approach – this is the one price, and this series of courses is exactly what you get for it. That’s the agreement – no picking and choosing, no substitutions, no changing the menu in the middle. Marriage is like that (for which I am personally quite thankful!). Following Jesus is like that. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and strength.” Plus, the fixed price for us is zero – He has even paid that.

Here’s who I am. Take Me or leave Me. I am Lord over your mind, your heart, your past, your future, your gender, your body, your soul, your thoughts, your actions. Nowhere in the Bible is God presented as uncaring about any aspect of our lives – nor does He cater to politically-correct notions of personal choice and societal conformity. 80% of a Jesus we’re comfortable with, is an idol of our own making. If we pick and choose what we’ll have of God, we’ll be left with a god in our own image.

You will search in vain, from the first words of Genesis to the last paragraph of Revelation, for a God who says, “take me a la carte!” What you will find is a Savior who says, “I’ll take you as you are – and you’ll have Me as I am.” Any God who will stoop to being re-shaped by our fickle imaginations isn’t worthy of worship.

Jesus and syncretism don’t get along. Pick one. Choose your life partner. Bigamy is not an option.

The altar is before you. His vows are long-ago written, and they are full of grace and faithfulness. Will you try to come with your sheaf of choices and clauses, dressed in rags of your own devising? Or will you put on the white of full pardon and gladly receive the One who will gladly receive you – prix fixe, and not a la carte?

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