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Friday, August 25, 2017

A Total Eclipse of the Sun

I do not worship the sun (I do, rather, the Son), but it holds a place of deific significance. Its ministrations are often taken for granted, as it rises in the East, traverses the sky, and sets in the West, with no need of reminder or encouragement from me or anyone else I know, but without which we would all certainly perish in cold and darkness. Its imperturbable faithfulness at being present in every season of life, every turn of fortune, every miscalculated opportunity, steadfastly giving abundant life-giving Vitamin D to many and life-taking skin cancer to others, is unmatched by anything else in nature. We not only set our clocks by it, it is the external standard by which we define that which is day, or, by its unmistakable absence, all that which is night. We depend upon it so heavily, not just for light or for measuring the passage of time, but for life itself, as its magic is manifested through the chemical reactions that continuously take place within the inner workings of plants, trees, and vegetable gardens, a process - was it photosynthesis? - that we used to almost understand in high school.
A couple of years ago, the astronomical prophets began to foretell the arrival in these United States of the grandest of all natural spectacles: a total eclipse of the sun. One must not settle for a partial eclipse, they warned, but one must be sure to locate oneself within the 70-mile wide path of totality, that region where the moon would entirely blockade the sun's light for mere minutes and reveal other mysteries incomparable to other natural events. I succumbed to their teaching, possessing, at least in this case, a vulnerable mixture of celestial fascination and thirst for adventure. A faithful student of these new doctrines, I succeeded in converting several of my older children as well. Thus, armed with high hopes and our eclipse glasses, we set our course for Columbia, Missouri, to camp in the back yard of people we did not know, to see this, the grandest of all natural spectacles: a total eclipse of the sun. We also prayed for a lack of clouds.
The appointed day arrived, and after a camp breakfast of scrambled eggs and pre-cooked bacon, we waited. I made a few phone calls, read a book, and waited some more. We scanned the sky, searching for those demons of eclipse watchers: clouds. Seeing none, we hoped to somehow hasten the eclipse. The sky is clear now! But our hopes could not alter the celestial plan. We must wait. Such interminable waiting.
At last, the appointed time arrived. The partial eclipse - that moment when the moon began to encroach upon the sun - had begun. We donned our special glasses and were eventually able to perceive that some dark mass had begun to prevail upon the sun. Had we not known that it was the moon, I suppose we would have surmised that it was just another piece of sky, boldly presuming upon the sun's territory. For nearly the next 90 minutes, the partial eclipse progressed, this dark mass, meeting apparently no resistance from the powerful sun, just taking more and more and more.
At about 50% of the partial eclipse, we began to discern subtle changes to our environment. The lighting became somewhat hazy, as though we had suddenly been overcome with a wave of polluted air. A few minutes later, as the lighting became more diffuse, the more perceptive among us took note of a weird vibe in the atmosphere. Something was not right with the world; we could not put our finger right upon it, but we knew something was out of order. The last 15 minutes or so of the partial eclipse gave us more ammunition for our increasingly confused senses. Through our special spectacles, we were able to see that that dark mass had claimed nearly all of the sun for its own. Would it ever be satisfied? It was 1:00 in the afternoon, yet the temperature began to moderate - and maybe even decrease. It was as dim as dusk, yet the sun was still overhead, faithfully producing shadows with what little light was left. The birds of the forest, apparently agreeing with our sensation of weird vibes, quieted their singing in anticipation, or apprehension, of what strange fate would soon befall us. We peered again through our eclipse glasses and watched as the sun was completely defeated. Just a sliver, then a few small beads, then nothing. The partial eclipse had ended.
Without fanfare or special pronouncement, we were plunged into the deep darkness of mid-day. Something was dreadfully wrong with the world. Surely the ancients were correct when they concluded that we had angered the gods and, in our selfish ignorance, inspired them to initiate the apocalypse, unleashing upon the world a disordering of all that we thought we knew and understood. The end of all things must be near at hand.
But I could not dwell on such existential anxieties very long; indeed, they fled my mind as I turned my attention to that black orb in the sky where the sun had just been moments before. I am awestruck. I am speechless, unable to identify any words more profound than "Wow!" so I just repeat that one over and over again. My new friends and fellow spectators are oblivious to my verbal insufficiency, though, as they all are preoccupied themselves with shouting, cheering, clapping, or simply being stunned. Clearly, the sun reserves its most beautiful demonstrations for those who, by persistence or luck, are entirely behind the shadow of the moon. Then, and only then, is the sun's corona visible to the naked eye. For 2 minutes and 39 seconds - a frightfully fast allotment of time - we stare at its incomparable beauty. Its radiance of silvery-white light projects out from behind the moon, in defiance of that black mass and rewarding those behind it with a spectacle unlike anything else they have ever seen before. The Scriptures say that the heavens declare the glory of God. Indeed. Before us is a declaration like none other, provoking one to borrow from Job what seems like the only suitable response: "Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth."
We stole a few precious moments to take note of our surroundings. We observed what appeared to be the first light of dawn, not just in the east, but in every direction. Several stars and planets were visible throughout the sky. The cicadas and peepers had taken up their nighttime chorus, and the two cats had darted here and there, searching for cover or some safe space in which to hide themselves. Furthermore, the temperature dropped 10-15 degrees, providing sweet respite to those of us not acclimated to the mid-August heat and humidity of Missouri.
Before we could agree to let it be over, or protest its insufficient duration, small beads of light began to appear on the edge of the dark orb. Then a diamond ring. Then the brightness and brilliance of mid-day sun. The total eclipse had ended.
For the next 90 minutes, the sun fought back against the black mass, eventually beating it off entirely. The temperature quickly rebounded and the cicadas and peepers repentantly quieted themselves, apparently embarrassed for their false start. The cats emerged, relieved that their world had not come to some calamitous end; the rest of us dispersed, ready to re-engage in the mundane pursuits of life, but now with a new appreciation for the celestial order and the God who created it, for we had just seen the grandest of all natural spectacles: a total eclipse of the sun.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"It Would Take a Miracle"

“How big is your God?” This question was posed to me by a colleague while we were discussing a topic that held great importance to both of us and on which unity was of the utmost importance. Agreement was elusive and it seemed as though negotiations were going to break down. Before all was lost, however, we found that we could agree on an answer to this question – He is big enough to cause us to agree – so we determined to leave our respective positions with the Most High and to continue our discussion, if necessary, at a future date. I remember thinking, “It would take a miracle…” But over the course of the next six months, I found such a miracle taking place, as God changed my perspective of the issue and cause me to alter my position on the topic. So, in the end, not only was all not lost, but unity was restored and God’s omnipotence was vindicated.

While I’m sure nearly all of us would affirm that God is capable of performing whatever He deems necessary, I imagine that many of us do not live in such a way as to expect the miraculous on a daily basis. And for good reason: we live in an age of such technological advancement as to make our perceived capabilities seem nearly endless. So what need have we of any contravention of the natural order? Furthermore, we live in a culture where science, being synonymous with rationality and logic, is granted the final word; it thereby presumes to be the external standard by which all that we perceive is judged to be real, or valid. Events that are unexplainable, or seem unnatural, are discounted, dismissed, and certainly not sought after.

But Jesus said in John 14:12 that those who believe in Him will perform even greater works than those observed by the disciples and Jesus’ first century audience. Even greater works than those performed by Jesus? Although this seems to be too magnificent to contemplate, it may be worth examining our experience in light of this plumb line. If Him to whom all authority has been granted dwells inside of us, should we not see evidence of His power in our experience? Shouldn’t we see miracles – from transformed lives and physical healing to timely provision and weather events – on a frequent basis? Indeed, shouldn’t we expect to see these things?

There are a number of ways of discounting the implications of this discrepancy between what Jesus said was possible and what many of us experience. Many Christians simply believe that God does not perform any miracles anymore. After all, it is much easier to assume that God has decided not to demonstrate His power in miraculous ways than to explore the possibility that my faith is too lazy, or timid. A similar thesis – increasingly popular in the Western Church – is that we do not see miracles very often because we don’t need them. This is a dangerous assertion and one that implies, if taken to its logical conclusion, that our faith has somehow “arrived” and that we are no longer in need of God’s supernatural assistance. Additionally, we can become so comfortable with our construct of what the Christian experience is supposed to be like – an upward slog characterized by barely perceptible sanctification and the illusion of struggle – that we fail to look for, much less believe for, the miraculous.

I believe that God has much more in store for us than lives limited to the natural. A truly abundant life should include encounters with the supernatural, and often enough to keep our faith vibrant, our testimony strong, and the glory of God foremost in our minds. Is your God big enough to do these things? Mine has certainly demonstrated a sizeable track record, and I trust that we’ll each be inspired to look “to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine,” and see His power turning our world upside down (Acts 17:6).

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Appointed Time

Have you ever experienced an unexpected jolt of adrenaline, as you suddenly remembered an important appointment? Perhaps your mind had been elsewhere, engaged with the issues of life, when your awareness was invaded by the memory of a previous commitment, the time for which was rapidly approaching. I was reading in Psalm 102 recently, and my attention was similarly arrested when I read the following words in verse 13:

Thou wilt arise and have compassion on Zion;

For it is time to be gracious to her,

For the appointed time has come.

I came away with the distinct impression that it was as though God had reached a particular item on His to-do list, and He wanted to me to participate. Or, to put it in other words, a moment previously designated for some purpose – the extension of grace and compassion to Zion – had arrived, and I was invited to cooperate.

Although most commentators believe this passage to be a reference to the 70-year Babylonian captivity at the time of Daniel, I thought of the beginning words of Isaiah 40: “Comfort, O Comfort My people…speak kindly to Jerusalem.” The passage goes on to prophesy the arrival of John the Baptist, foretell the ministry of Jesus, and explore the immeasurable greatness of God. Notably, though, is the compassionate nature of this description of Jesus’ objective: “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arms He will gather the lambs.” It is interesting to note that only 13 chapters later, Isaiah describes the ministry of Jesus in similar themes, but with strikingly different roles. How immense Jesus’ compassion must have been, to lovingly shelter the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and then become as vulnerable as a defenseless lamb when they turned against Him.

We all know that, by and large, the lost sheep of the house of Israel rejected their Shepherd’s ministry. However, Zechariah prophesies that a remnant will be preserved and will – at the appointed time – be in a position to receive the compassionate Spirit of grace, look upon Him whom they’d pierced, and repentantly mourn for Him (Zech 12:10). Paul affirms this end-time revival in his analogy of the olive tree, noting that “God is able to graft them in again” (Rom 11). He adds, later in the same chapter, that, after the fullness of the Gentiles has been grafted in – at the appointed time, all Israel will thus be saved.

Two other aspects of Psalm 102 are worthy of note. The 15th verse indicates there are some pretty significant consequences to the gracious extension of compassion on Zion: “So the nations will fear the name of Jehovah, and all the kings of the earth Thy glory.” This juxtaposition of Divine attention on Israel, followed by a global movement towards repentance, is reminiscent of the 7th chapter of Revelation. In this account, John observes twelve thousand from each tribe set apart for some purpose, and a short while later, he witnesses an innumerable host, including members from every nation, tribe, and tongue – indeed, every ethne – standing before the Lamb and worshipping with a loud voice. Could it be that the gracious compassion extended to Zion in Psalm 102 represents the first of the final steps in completing the Great Commission? Is it possible that the latter-day revival foreseen by Zechariah is the key that unlocks repentance from every people group, resulting in the production of an inheritance truly worthy of our Savior’s glory?

If indeed the appointed time is upon us, look no further than Psalm 102:17 for some practical advice: “He has regarded the prayer of the destitute, and has not despised their prayer.” When Daniel determined that the days allotted for his people’s exile were about to elapse, he “gave his attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Dan 9:3). Daniel was no spectator; he saw the promises of God from afar, mixed them with his faith, and somehow, in some mysterious way, cooperated with God in returning His people to the Promised Land.

This is the call for us today. The appointed time has come for God to be gracious to Zion; the time has come for the nations to fear the name of God, and all the kings of the earth to see His glory. Let us bestir ourselves to give our attention to the Lord God, to seek Him as Daniel did, using every expression of faith at our disposal. May we then cooperate with the Creator of the Universe and see Him as the Savior of all mankind.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The All-Purpose Cleaner

Did you know that a five-pound bag of wheat flour can have as many as 3,000 insect fragments? Or that a 1.5-ounce chocolate bar could contain up to 30 microscopic insect parts? Although none of us would choose to make insects a regular part of our diet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration kindly reminds us that “it is not possible, and never has been possible, to grow in open fields, harvest and process crops that are totally free of defects.” Thus, while we might have a natural aversion to dining on such things as aphids, unless we restrict our consumption exclusively to Twinkies and Cheese Whiz, we have undoubtedly eaten many such creatures inadvertently over the years.

Supposedly, the FDA’s Food Defect Action Levels are set such that the natural or unavoidable amount of insects contained in our food do not present a health hazard to humans. So, while we may consume some amount of aphids or other insect larvae, no remedy is necessary or even desired (except, perhaps, refraining from reading the FDAL handbook!). However, there are things out there that all of us encounter in our experience that are more serious and do present a hazard to us, and consequently, must be addressed effectively. Chief among these are sin, and the effects of living in a world full of iniquity.

James tells us that pure and undefiled religion is, among other things, keeping oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27) If it is desirable, then, that we keep ourselves unspotted from the world, we must posit therefore that it is possible to become spotted from the world. The question is, how does this happen? I think we would all agree that our own sin creates undesirable consequences: the wages of sin is death. But what about the cumulative effect of other’s sins? We are certainly not held responsible for other’s actions, or inactions, but could this be how one would become spotted from the world? Isaiah observed that the world is polluted by its inhabitants, because they have disobeyed God. (Isaiah 24:5) It is encounters with this pollution that, I believe, causes us to otherwise become spotted from the world.

Peter recommends that we make every effort to be spotless, blameless, and at peace with God. (2 Peter 3:14) But how can we do this with so much iniquity in the world? Encounters with the moral pollution around us are just as unavoidable as the inadvertent consumption of insect fragments. It is possible, therefore, I would suggest, to be blameless, but not spotless. To paraphrase the FDA’s caveat quoted above, “it is not possible, and never has been possible, to live in the world and keep oneself unspotted from it without the application of some remedy.” But, thank God, there is a remedy! A remedy which is effective and, when applied, makes us spotless, blameless, and at peace with our Creator.

This remedy is, of course, none other than the blood of Jesus. John reminds us that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7), and even though it probably goes without saying, it is worth noting that the blood of Jesus is superior to any other spiritual cleansing agent – there is no stain, spot, or blemish that it cannot remove. The seventh chapter of Revelation speaks of a particular group of people that had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” They were not strangers to the unavoidable pollution found in the world, but they had made liberal application of the remedy – the remedy that kept them spotless, blameless, and at peace with God. May we, too, make daily application of this Divine Remedy and keep ourselves unspotted from the world.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Guard Your Heart

The sixth chapter of 2 Samuel tells of the triumphant story of the return of the ark of God to Jerusalem by King David. This historic event comes itself on the heels of several successful military campaigns by the nascent leader. He had captured the stronghold of Zion, despite its seemingly impregnable defenses, and he had executed the ground breaking defeat of the Philistines at Baal-Perazim. It was against this backdrop – of the house of David steadily strengthening – that David went to the house of Obed-edom to retrieve the ark of God “with gladness.”

Things were looking up for David, and he knew it. But he recognized that his success was a result of divine favor. He realized that God had established him as king over Israel and that his kingdom would be exalted for the sake of the nation. Moreover, his breakthrough of the Philistine armies came about after receiving strategic counsel directly from the Most High. So when he realized that God was going to favor his efforts to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem, he had every reason to be jubilant.

As is often the case with expressive people, David knew how to be jubilant. After the first six steps of the ark-bearers, he offered a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. As the procession entered the city, he leapt and danced before God with all his might. Indeed, the whole house of Israel was with him, shouting and playing trumpets. When the ark of God arrived at the tent that had been pitched for it, David offered further sacrifices of thanksgiving, and even gave gifts to all the multitude that were there, celebrating with him. Needless to say, I think it is safe to conclude that this was widely viewed as a joyful occasion.

But not by everyone, unfortunately. David’s wife Michal – who was also the daughter of King Saul – had taken in the parade from her window and was apparently embarrassed by her husband’s behavior. In his celebratory actions, David had put on the priestly garment and, presumably, shed his royal vestments. This bothered Michal, but the Scriptures don’t tell us clearly why she was upset.

Perhaps her personality was more reserved, and she felt disconcerted by David’s unmitigated expressions of joy. Perhaps other activities had kept her busy, keeping her from fully engaging with the celebration and therefore understanding its significance. Perhaps she was feeling the effects of pride in her heart: “My father was never that undignified when he was king…”. We don’t really know. But we do know that she allowed, tragically, this difference to transact something far more serious than a mere personality difference might otherwise suggest: she despised him in her heart. This, as we know, went on to have severely debilitating effects on their marriage.

Undoubtedly, none of us are stranger to the periodic encounters that highlight differences of personality or expectations. These occurrences are not, in and of themselves, wrong or necessarily indicative of a problem. But we should do everything we can to avoid the fate of Michal, who allowed them to develop into something which eroded the effectiveness of one of her most important relationships. A key antidote to this fate is given for us in I Peter 4: “Keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins,” and, I would add, a sea of idiosyncrasies and a mountain of quirks. As we navigate those seas and mountains especially, may we each be diligent in expressing the love of Christ to those around us.