Redefine Strength

Last night to close a gathering of law enforcement spouses, I shared a very brief word that may be an encouragement to you as well: God does not promote weakness; He redefines strength.

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10 | ESV)

A Special Day

Wednesday was a special day for me as I was sworn in at Camp Mabry by Commanding General Robert J. Bodisch as Chaplain (CPT) of the Texas State Guard, 6th Brigade.

My first act as Chaplain was to autograph a copy of my book Ordinary Glory that the Chief of Chaplains brought with him to my swearing in ceremony.

Book signing in Lt. General Thomas S. Bishop Texas Guard All-Faiths Chapel, Camp Mabry, Austin, Texas

Faith

Each new day I stand on a precipice not of my own choosing. I will then either remain perched on its uncertain edge paralyzed by an onslaught of reminders of how miserably I have failed to that point and how utterly inadequate I am for any task at hand, or I will hurl myself forward whooping a prayer like a battle cry that Almighty God may save me from impending destruction. Refuse the hellish lie that you have nothing to offer. Allow the Father to salvage what remains of an abandoned life and make of you a champion of dependence. After all, the companion to reliance is expectation, and another word for expectation is faith.

“If we do not die to ourselves, we cannot live to God, and he that does not live to God, is dead” (George MacDonald).

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
Hebrews 11:6 | ESV

Whose Image?

Uncanny how closely God resembles ourselves these days. We consistently whittle Him down to size, as if the Almighty is under our thumb and not the other way around. We remain in constant danger of remaking God according to our own image; there is no longer room for an Wholly Other. We encounter fierce rebuke in holy writ, only to worm and squirm our way to a more palatable position. Imperatives are neutered into suggestions; precepts become culturally conditioned preferences. We ridicule those whose ethics emerge from an “everyone else is doing it” attitude, while choosing our own allegiances and establishing what passes for values along much the same line of reasoning. When God offends, we let Him off the hook by shrugging aside the intended course correction and proceed down our own self-determined path.

What in the world are we thinking? The Church of Jesus Christ stands in jeopardy of succumbing to peer pressure as she bends to cultural winds in the guise of remaining relevant. Relevance is essential; trendy is absurd. How long will we obscure holiness? Jeremiah wouldn’t fare so well in our current setting. Elisha would gather a crowd for a time, but numbers would fall off with every “thus saith the Lord.” John the Baptist would be ostracized for being politically incorrect, and Jesus Himself wouldn’t stand a chance. We prefer our savior to be ornamental, certainly not meddlesome in our affairs or demand set-apartness. Friendship is far more palatable than slavery, yet the disciple image cast by Scripture is exactly that—Christ is Master and I am His. This master-slave relationship fundamentally forces us out of sync with popular culture; we cannot remain lockstep with the world while marching under the banner of Christ.

“We are always looking for a religion that has no demands, only rewards—a religion that bedazzles and entertains, in which there is no waiting and no emptiness. And we can usually find someone around who will help us make up some sort of a golden calf” (Eugene Peterson, Every Step an Arrival).

Sacred Mystery

Thingamabob, doomahickey, whatchamacallit—just a few of the words I use when I’m at a loss for other more concrete ones. Advanced academic degrees notwithstanding, I am often at a loss to describe the simplest of objects. That same dumbfoundedness is the common experience of all authentic worship. Much of what passes for religion these days is too easily explained; holy stuttering is in short supply in post modernity. Very little mystery remains after singing choruses in rounds and learning five points for upgrading one’s life, making church more akin to Wall Street than the Via Dolorosa. “Worship” services (I confess I’ve never understood why they are termed “services”—who  exactly is serving and being served anyway?) follow a well rehearsed schedule, such that if the Holy Spirit is to show up at all, He had better take care of business in an hour. Performance claims the prize and somehow we have convinced ourselves that grand productions draw ‘seekers’ to the Gospel, like so many moths to the flame. Conventional wisdom would dictate that if I am looking for slick entertainment I will always find it somewhere other than church, irregardless of how much you spend to convince me otherwise. 

Whatever happened to sacred mystery? The answer may well explain the evangelical impotence evident on many fronts. When did we decide that we could package the Holy Other into bite size portions, easily digested, and just as readily forgotten? When was the last time that a glimpse of the Suffering Savior or the Conquering Christ seized your heart and wouldn’t let go? How long has it been since the Ground of all Being grabbed you and you couldn’t speak or cry or move in response? If I am able to fully plan and explain worship, the object must be something other than “The One Who Was and Is and Is To Come.” True worship elicits wonder, and wonder eventually gives way to transformation.

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:1-5, KJV)

Topsy-Turvy

The kingdom of God may best be described by the theological term ‘topsy-turvy,’ a phrase that comes in handy when ordinary words fail to capture the essence of a moment or the import of a movement. First recorded in England in 1528 as a compound word formed from ‘top’ and the obsolete ‘terve’, meaning ‘topple over,’ topsy-turvy portrays the sense of confusion one feels when things are not in proper order or are metaphorically upside-down. That’s more or less what Jesus meant when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). He was reminding us that the kingdoms of this world are not identical with the kingdom of God, a fact that is frequently lost on Church leadership. Rather than standing in relief or opposition to these kingdoms, Christianity has often imitated them, and is still hard at it. A modern trend is afoot to redefine the pastor as CEO, the church as a business corporation, parishioners as customers, and to judge the whole ecclesiastical kit and caboodle according to a numerical bottom line. This obsession to imitate Maddison Avenue explains the popularity of prosperity theology and edges the Church precipitously toward the abyss of conformity. Under this scenario the Gospel is more akin to a good stock tip, or picking the right horse at Louisiana Downs, or lucking out with the right number in the Lottery, than to changing the world. “The righteous get rich and the poor get what they deserve” (James Mulholland).

The consistency with which the kingdom of God is not the opposite of the kingdoms of the world should serve as a warning to us. In his book, “The Upside-Down Kingdom,” Donald Kraybill suggests that “the kingdom of God points to an inverted, or upside-down way of life that contrasts with the prevailing social order.” Jesus of Nazareth was well versed in topsy-turvy theology. Speaking to some rudely religious people, he warned: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). He shocked his disciples by saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Before we shout ‘Amen’ too loudly and continue on about our business, it would behoove us to repent from acting like Christianity is a status rather than a calling, for downplaying the responsibilities of a relationship with God and only emphasizing its benefits. No wonder so many are rejecting the Church. If the Church is not committed to changing the world, it has become irrelevant. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” must move from being a prayer to becoming our vow (Mulholland).


“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray ye: ‘Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.'” (Matthew 6:7-10, KJV)

Not Strange

I learned a long time ago there is no plot without conflict. Stress makes muscles grow, and as unsettling as the reality may be in our obsessive bent toward least resistance, it isn’t easy living the Christ life and according to all available evidence it was never intended to be. “Think it not strange …” Quite honestly, I prefer things that come easily, and if not careful I make that my criteria for judging something to be God’s will, as if friction and strain somehow invalidate God’s purposes. That would be American hermeneutics, not biblical interpretation. Rigorous discipline, challenge, struggle, hardship—I may not gravitate naturally toward these, but such harsh descriptors are not incompatible with divine guidance. 

Although I have invoked it from time to time, I remain leery of the familiar Christian vocabulary of the “open door.” I find many more examples in Scripture of hardship to be overcome than I do of walking through open doors like the opening segment of the old Get Smart TV show with Don Adams walking down a corridor as various secure doors open before him in rapid succession. The story of Joseph in Genesis disquiets me more than all others put together. His tale is replete with mistakes, misunderstanding, false accusation, imprisonment, abandonment, servitude—and all for a preferred son. The kicker is the commentary that comes at the end of the narrative: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Genesis 50:20 KJV). Seriously? Or take Paul’s unwelcome thorn in the flesh. God was obviously not unaware as he responds to Paul’s petition that divine grace is sufficient to carry him through the pain. Sounds good if you are not the one with the thorn, likely malarial induced headaches that stabbed like a red hot poker running through Paul’s skull.

The point to all this rambling is simply a compassionate caution against falling prey to the fallacy of open door theology. Judge God’s will against His kingdom purposes, His Word, and His call on your life, rather than in relief of the path of least resistance.

“Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf. For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.” (1 Peter. 4:12-19, KJV )

Heaven on Earth

A legend from India tells of a mouse who was terrified of cats until a magician agreed to cast a spell and transform him into a cat. That resolved his fear until he met a dog, so the magician turned him into a dog. The mouse-turned cat-turned dog was content until he met a tiger, so once again the magician turned him into what he feared. But when the mouse-turned cat-turned dog-turned tiger came to the magician complaining that he had met a hunter, the magician refused to help. “I will make you into a mouse again, for though you have the body of a tiger, you still have the heart of a mouse.” Attitude is everything. 

Once Winston Churchill was sitting on a platform waiting to speak to a large crowd that had gathered to hear him. The chairman of the event leaned over and said, “Isn’t it exciting, Mr. Churchill, that all these people came to hear you speak?” Churchill responded, “It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that if, instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.” While poverty of character is never encouraged, Jesus himself raises the right estimation of one’s self to the highest possible priority. “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, KJV). Only when I see myself in light of Christ and evaluate myself according to service to humanity, am I able to embrace the heart of God rather than that of a mouse.

Encompassed by angry faces, and bombarded by dissonant voices, how will we ever steer the right course? Only by staying fixed on true north. For the believer that means struggling against all odds to retain Christ as Center. Dallas Willard writes: “A vision of God secures humility. Seeing God for who He is enables us to see ourselves for what we are. This makes us bold, for we see clearly what great good and evil are at issue, and we see that it is not up to us to accomplish it, but up to God–who is more than able. We are delivered from pretending, from being presumptuous about ourselves, and from pushing as if the outcome depended on us. We persist without frustration, and we practice calm and joyful noncompliance with evil of every kind.”

When I reclaim focus on Christ, the things of earth still matter very much, yet they do so only in reference to eternity. This eternal/ temporal dialogue was voiced by Jesus himself when he prayed: “on earth as it is in heaven.” Do not lose sight of Christ’s necessary order—heaven forms the pattern for earth, not vice versa. Pray and seek to know Jesus Christ to a degree and measure you have never before attempted, and you will gain a deeper and more authentic understanding of yourself. When that happens, you will begin to recognize your God-given role in advocating for and pursuing God’s will as a reflection of what it is in Heaven.

Memory

Sitting in front of a crackling fire while enjoying a rare window framed glimpse of wintry mix in Bosqueville, I recall cold mornings in southeast Texas huddled before my Grandma Richey’s Dearborn, toasting bread over gas flames and imagining wilderness camping on a great hunt for grizzlies. Memory can be fickle, but though elusive at times, it protects us from losing teachable treasures. I remember where I was the first time I heard Billy Graham preach. It was the 1968 Houston crusade held in the brand new Astrodome, and I was proudly carrying the Bible my grandmother had given me for Christmas. I can’t remember what was said or who was with Dr. Graham, but I do recall that the air smelled like plastic and cotton candy, an odd but unforgettable olfactory combination. I remember where I was the moment we learned that John F. Kennedy had been shot. I was about to enter the J. C. Penny store in old downtown Port Arthur with my mother and Grandma Richey, when a woman burst through the doors, arms waving frantically in the air, screaming “The President’s been shot! The President’s been shot!” I was three years old, but I can still see the scene and feel the emotion attached to it. 

A memory is deepened when formed from exposure to multiple senses. If you think about it, it’s what makes possible, in fact, impossible not to remember experiences in your grandmother’s kitchen, a childhood classroom, or Christmases past. You need only be exposed to a similar scent or situation and the result is instant recall. Others are remembered only briefly: an outline for an exam, a verse that you need to recall for a specific occasion, someone’s name that’s important at that moment. Hearing or seeing does not necessarily forge a memory. Remembering comes from hearing and seeing and tasting and touching and smelling. “Touch has a memory” (John Keats).

There’s a reason for remembering; memory is as much about today as it is yesterday. “‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ says the White Queen to Alice” (Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass”). God created memory so that I may learn from my past, for the purpose of either repeating or avoiding it. “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real” (Cormac McCarthy,  “All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, #1”). 

Jesus answered and said unto him, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me. These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” (John 14:23-26, KJV)

I Forget I Remember

Funny how often I forget that I remember something. It happened again this morning when I happened back upon a hymn that elicited emotions so powerful that I was physically affected (I discreetly wept). By the way, hymns are those archaic forms of teaching theology and establishing core values embedded in mnemonic tunes that once graced the worship of God’s people, more recently displaced by trendy lyrics repeated ad infinitum set to pop melodies. But I digress….

I had forgotten that I remember the moving text of, “My lord is near me all the time.” From the first line, this hymn composed by Barbara Fowler Gaultney awakened deeply embedded childhood memories. One moment I was standing on aching knees downing cup number two of my morning wake up call; the next I was transported back to Trinity Baptist Church in Port Arthur, Texas, sitting as a boy on curved plywood theater seats that were fastened to an asbestos tile floor. Men wore polyester suits with wide ties, women were in knit dresses and panty hose, and choir members wrapped in blue lustrous robes with gold satin stoles belted out:

“When the thunder shakes the mighty hills
And trembles ev’ry tree,
Then I know a God so great and strong
Can surely harbor me.”

More than anything else I remember God’s closeness. Years later, I read the works of Francis Schaefer who liked to speak of the “God who is there.” I do not disagree with his theology, but more than ever I cling to the memory that God is near, and am increasingly reliant upon the present reality of a God who is here. I had forgotten that I remember just how much I need a loving Father to embrace and harbor me.

In the lightning flash across the sky
His mighty pow’r I see,
And I know if He can reign on high,
His light can shine on me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time,
My Lord is near me all the time.

When the thunder shakes the mighty hills
And trembles ev’ry tree,
Then I know a God so great and strong
Can surely harbor me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time,
My Lord is near me all the time.

When refreshing showers cool the earth
And sweep across the sea,
Then His rainbow shines within my heart,
His nearness comforts me.

I’ve seen it in the lightning, heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My Lord is near me all the time,
My Lord is near me all the time.

(“My Lord Is Near Me All the Time”, words and music by Barbara Fowler Gaultney)