The gay fig tree

There is a popular argument against criticizing certain choices that were condemned in previous generations.

The basic premise asserted is God made me this way. The premise seeks to force critics into the position of claiming God has made a mistake, an untenable conclusion for one who believes God exists and doesn’t make mistakes. The only apparent alternative is that it is the critic who has made the mistake. Or past generations (mom and dad) made a mistake.

I have never felt satisfied by any response I could think of to that argument. The argument assumes the truth of the premise and it would seem awkward to deny it, given the opening declarations of the Nicene Creed: We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things….

It requires some discernment and subtlety of mind to raise the question, Why would God want anything He made to change if He made it perfectly and good to begin with? And to ask that question forces one to ponder why Jesus went around telling people to “repent,” that is, to change? Are there some things that are not now the way God made them or intended them to be?

This old argument came back to mind as I was reading Matthew’s brief mention of a curious episode in Jesus’ final return visit to Jerusalem.

Matthew 21:18. Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.

19. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!”

Immediately the tree withered.

I considered that scene and heard those old questions echoing in my mind. Didn’t God make that fig tree? How could the fig tree be at fault if God made it that way? Was Jesus bringing an unjust expectation to the fig tree?

Surely that last question is also untenable. The tree was “advertising” with its leaves that it had fruit. It was misrepresenting itself as a normal, fruit-bearing tree with a right to grow right where it was, just like any other fig tree. But no tree like this one would have ever been cultivated in the first place. It was, in parable terms, just a weed or thorn bush. It raised false hopes for the hungry travelers going by (like Jesus).

The incident stuck in the memory of the disciples because this happened the same day that Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem. Similar questions could be raised about the Temple. Didn’t God make that, too? He had given detailed instructions on how it was to be built and how the ceremonial liturgies were to be conducted there. How could anything be wrong?

Yet Jesus upended tables and disrupted all the business going on there that day, saying, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Get out!” And he told the disciples not one stone of the Temple would remain standing. He called it his Father’s House and said it was all coming down. How could that be if God had wanted it built in the first place?

Is it possible that the choices people made with the free will granted to them by their Creator resulted in outcomes that had no resemblance to God’s original plans and intentions? Is it fair or logical to credit (or blame) God for such results when they deviate so far from what He intended?

The fig tree ended up dead. Did Jesus make a mistake? Did he not have a right to his expectations of that tree?

Or of me?

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Simeon, Ananias, and Mma Grace Makutsi

Recently Melanie and I discovered a delightful TV series that we missed when it came out ten years ago. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is based on the series by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. He was born in Africa and writes with an affectionate sympathy for the contemporary social plight of African women in a modernizing land. The TV series was adapted with wonderful performances from Jill Scott as Mma Precious Ramotswe, who sells her late father’s herd of cattle in order to open shop as the Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone. Her assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, is played by Anika Noni Rose (who went on to voice the Princess in the Disney cartoon The Princess and the Frog).

I am beginning to suspect that McCall Smith is a Christian. There are moments in the stories that remind me of serious Christian themes and morals (And in fact Botswana’s Anglican Bishop played a small part in one episode).

One underplayed scene that grabbed me was part of a story with Grace, the eager secretary who wants to be a detective herself. She has run interference for a shy local girl who has entered a beauty pageant. Grace makes sure the shady promoter of the pageant gives this girl a fair chance. The girl has a dream of entering Botswana’s Secretarial College, the very one Grace attended (she is proud that she graduated first in her class with a grade of 97%!). When the young girl wins the pageant, Grace proudly tells her that “someone” has prepaid the girl’s tuition to enter the college. But now that she has won the pageant, the girl blithely tells Grace that she has set her sites even higher.

We are given just a moment to see Grace’s reaction. There are no words. Just a flicker of mixed feelings that flash across her face.

I remembered a blog I wrote several years ago about sitting on the shoulders of giants. At the time, I was being thankful for the privilege and advantage we enjoyed from the sacrifices of those who went before us. This scene with Mma Grace turned my attention to what those sacrificing forerunners must think as they watch us take their lead and go farther.

I thought about Simeon’s visit to the Temple the day he saw a baby in a young mother’s arms. Simeon spoke out to God. “Dismiss your servant in peace!” (Luke 2:29) All he had seen was a baby. There would be much more to see. But this moment was enough for Simeon.

A few years later in Damascus, Ananias emerged from obscurity long enough to lay hands on blinded Saul and bless him. (Acts 9:10ff) We never hear from him again. But the Roman Empire and world history were upturned by the intense Jewish convert he prayed for.

When I stop to think about it, Jesus knows what it is like. He prophesied, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these…” (John 14:12) This from one who raised the dead on at least three different times that we’re told about. His measure of “greater things” must be spectacular.

Jesus doesn’t seem one bit worried for his reputation, or that someone else may better his record somehow. As in every other way, he has left us the pattern to follow. Particularly when it includes helping others to pass ahead of wherever we are.

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John’s father

I have been working on a book of Gospel commentaries. I’m expanding on material I wrote for the daily devotional The Journey. The project has me slowly rereading and thinking more deeply about the texts. I am looking at the familiar single stories I’m used to hearing in isolated lectionary readings. But I’m seeing them in a wider context, in sequences that turn on fresh light for me.

I’ve heard the story from St. Luke about John the Baptist’s father. I’ve tut-tutted Zechariah’s question to Gabriel, asking what sign can reassure him the promise of a child in old age is true. Gabriel, God’s right-hand angel, is surprised Zechariah doesn’t believe him. He declares the old priest will be unable to say another word until John is born.

When he and Elizabeth bring the baby to the temple to be circumcised eight days after he’s born, Zechariah faithfully names his son as Gabriel has instructed. The attending neighbors are all surprised that the baby is not being given the name of someone in Zechariah’s family as was the custom. I’ve always read the incident as a demonstration Zechariah had learned his lesson during those nine speechless months.

But as I wrote about the moment now, another factor sank in on me for the first time.

Luke has reported that Mary, her own annunciation meeting with Gabriel still vivid in her memory, has been visiting in the home of her cousin Elizabeth and her husband for three months. Three long months in which speechless Zachariah could only sit and listen to the two women discuss in wonderment what was happening in their lives. The pious and obedient priest probably heard Mary recite many times the words she had spoken to the angel.

I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said. (Luke 1:38)

What must have gone through Zechariah’s mind and heart hearing those words from that young girl? As a devout priest he would have been well aware of the penalties for sexual misconduct in Holy Scriptures. Yet here was an innocent young girl willingly trusting the God of Israel, effectively placing her life in danger and risking the loss of her fiance, trusting an angel’s promise. Mary’s example had to weigh heavily in Zechariah’s thoughts as he pondered that.

I am thinking it had an effect in solidifying his resolve that day in the Temple when he was asked about the decision over naming the baby, in the face of custom and the expectation of the people. The dedicated priest was done with questions about what or who he could trust.

His name is John.

Then, his voice once more restored, filled with the same Holy Spirit that would guide his son’s ministry to the nation, the old priest delivered the last prophetic message to be given to God’s people by anyone serving in the line of priests that started with Aaron. As was fitting, he began with a shout of praise and thanksgiving to the faithful God Who had not forgotten His people.

One of the early Church Fathers, Origen, said it was John the Baptist’s father that Jesus spoke of when recalling Zechariah “whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”   (Matthew 23:35) The Eastern Church says his death came as King Herod was ordering the slaughter of every male child under two years old.

Zechariah refused to speak or say where his own son was to be found. No doubt he knew that Joseph and Mary had already fled the country for safety. This time, Zechariah’s silence was a sign of his own resolve to be a trusting servant of the Lord.

After all, his name meant “remember God.”

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Looking back, it seems to me now that, before it happened, God was preparing me for the stroke that would change my life.

I remember one day I was called to pray with a young mother who came to the church office with her husband, mother, and sisters. They had all come straight from a doctor’s office where she had been told that tests confirmed she had a cancer.

While praying with them, a thought came to mind that astonished me. I hesitated to speak it because it seemed an audacious thing to say to someone who had come for encouragement. The thought was a question for the young woman. Are you willing to let God use you in teaching the doctors something that may help others, from what they learn treating you?

I had no clear idea what that might be and still don’t. The question was about trusting God to do whatever. The young woman was already sitting there with tears in her eyes and fears in her heart. We had been speaking so quietly in the group we were practically whispering. I was waiting for her or anybody in the group to rise up angry at me and stalk out. Instead, she just nodded her head and we prayed awhile longer, laying it all down in Jesus’ hands.

That moment and the challenge I spoke to her then has come back to mind many times in the years since I had to lay everything down myself. My question to her echoes back to me often.

A couple of years before this, I taught a series of Sunday School lessons on the Book of Job. I learned something preparing for that series. (One major realization: Job never asked for healing.) At my old church blog, I wrote a summary of what I was learning. It is the last nugget from that archive that I have to share:

Job, the suffering man of the Old Testament, did not, at first, receive any of the answers he looked for.

He believed help was owed to him and he was ready to explain that to God. But he did not receive any of the satisfaction he sought to relieve his pain.

His friends invited him to confess sins he had not committed. They invited him to change his thinking in ways that did not make sense to him.

It’s a bit chilling is to realize that, although his friends failed to bring him any comfort, his ultimate conversation with God Himself brought even less. God did not speak soft, tender words to Job. God looked at his broken servant and told him, “Brace yourself like a man.”

That shut Job up. After 128 verses of withering questions from God, Job can only lie down in the dust and ashes and say, “I despise myself.”

It does not seem a warm, pastoral encounter. Or do I have it wrong? Is it possible that this stark lesson shows what pastoral care really should be like?

Because it seems that Job’s comfort is not the first priority to God. That place belongs to Truth. No comfort is possible without it. No healing will begin apart from it. Job can not frame the discussion and ask God to fit into it. It will be the other way round.

I noticed an echo of Job’s encounter in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus is already aware the crowd following him must be hungry. The way John tells the story, it is Jesus who first raises the issue with Philip. “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5) John adds the comment that Jesus was only testing Philip. Jesus “already had in mind what he was going to do.” So it’s not that Jesus is really asking for any advice. It’s more like Jesus wants Philip to see the situation clearly.

So while the hungry crowd waits, Jesus teases Philip. Philip takes it as a serious question and a serious problem. “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Looking at the hungry people and their suffering only seems to magnify the crisis in Philip’s mind. Starting with the problem does not help him find the answer he needs. That is going to come when Jesus demonstrates that He Himself is the answer and provider.

Those of a pragmatic mindset say we must feed first, and clothe and bathe and heal and comfort those who are suffering, before we try to teach or disciple. You cannot expect to get the attention of sufferers unless you first pay attention to their agenda.

Pragmatically, I guess this is the approach to take when addressing a child, at least for awhile.

But is there a time when that approach no longer is helpful? Is that how God treated Job? Is that how Jesus decided who to listen to for direction?

Lord, do you mean to tell me that, before we talk about my issues, I have to get straight about Yours?

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Turning down prayer requests

From my old church blog:

On certain occasions Jesus turned down prayer requests. One of those occasions happened when he visited the home of Martha and Mary. Mary was sitting down listening to the Lord talk. Martha was trying to get lunch ready for everybody. But she stopped long enough to give her prayer request to Jesus.

“Lord, I want my sister to help me fix lunch! Make my sister do what I want!”

Jesus didn’t say her prayer request was unreasonable or bad. But he noted that Mary had made a better choice about what to do with her time and he refused to interrupt what Mary was doing.

Many times Jesus would ask people, “What do you want me to do?” And Martha certainly made her request clear.

But “make people do what I want” does tend to disorganize the proper order of relationships that God wants. What if God replies, “But they’re already doing what I want…”? Are we going to say we don’t like that?

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Whoever you are

A warning up top. I’m going to indulge some obscure, trivial, warm memories that I’ve had for 50 years before I get to my point.

My first radio deejay job was at a small “Top 40” station in my hometown. The format meant we only played the top forty best-selling tunes (as determined by sales of 45-RPM singles across the country and reported in Billboard magazine). Live deejays played them randomly one after another off two studio turntables, 24 hours a day. At about 3 minutes a pop, with time for commercials in between, each record got played about every three to four hours, with the top ten of the week being played a bit more often.

The record companies sent dozens of new demo records each week. These were tossed, unexamined, into a big box on the floor by the program director’s desk. The PD of this small station consulted the Billboard chart each week and then looked through the pile of demos to find our copy once new songs showed up on the chart. And every few weeks he would toss out the demos that seemed to have no future as hits.

That’s where I began my collection of lost and overlooked treasures. These often included singers with big hits in the past who were no longer competing as successfully as the Beatles and other British rockers who were overwhelming young record buyers in the ’60’s.

One of those discarded singles that I salvaged was by Johnny Mathis. (Melanie loved him.) He had been huge in the late ’50’s. His album of greatest hits was still listed among the current top 100 albums each week for ten years after it was released. His albums all sold steadily. Overall, only Sinatra and Elvis sold more records than Johnny. After fading from hit charts in the ’60’s, he would have a modest airplay comeback with duets he recorded in the ’70’s with younger pop singers. The obscure single I am remembering would have been one of the last ones he released in his original romantic ballad style.

The single was a song from a new Broadway musical, a platform that was also finding it harder to produce hits like it had in the hey day of Irving Berlin and Rogers and Hammerstein. The musical had a book by Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl) and music and lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (who had written a string of Top-40 hits for Dione Warwick and others). Promises, Promises was based on the Oscar-winning Billy Wilder movie The Apartment. It opened in the winter of 1968 and ran three years, winning several Broadway awards.

In the story, a girl falls in love with a married guy who thinks nothing of cheating with every girl he can catch. When he walks out on this girl, she expresses her mixed up broken heart in the song, “Whoever You Are, I Love You.”

This song was on the “B” side of the Johnny Mathis single I found on the radio station scrap heap. It was intended only to take up space, not actually be played. I listened to it. I have considered it his finest work ever since, although it had no chance against the Rolling Stones lighting up the rest of the radio world. It was never released on an album until it showed up 46 years later in a grab bag box set CD collection of Johnny’s other singles. I am disappointed to report that the track on the CD was not in stereo, only the mono mix originally thrown away on the old 45 that came out and disappeared in 1969. (You can listen to it here.)

When I recently rediscovered Johnny’s recording online, it triggered a spiritual reflection and reinterpretation in me. The opening line that Hal David wrote is typical for the kinds of work he and Burt had been successful with. That is to say, it didn’t sound fuzzy and romantic at all. It was practically clinical:

Sometimes your eyes look blue to me
Although I know they’re really green

The short lyric goes on to outline changes and betrayals of trust that the girl has seen. But she feels stuck. Her heart is broken, but still given to her cold lover.

But however you are
Deep down, whatever you are
Whoever you are, I love you

The second time Johnny sings that refrain, his voice drops nearly to a whisper on the final words, almost as if he cannot believe what his heart is feeling.

Now I was hearing that song again years after losing my copy of the old 45. This time the song was putting words to my frequently confused feelings toward Jesus. The song was never written with any spiritual overtone or intent. I was listening with different ears.

I do not, can not, understand Jesus much of the time. But I cannot turn from him. I was reflecting on this privately, thinking it was much too personal  and unhelpful to admit publicly.

Then, as Melanie and I sat down to breakfast, I picked up the devotional The Journey to read the day’s entry. It was one I had written. Last year. It was about the disciples who went with Jesus to the mountain where they saw him transfigured.

When Peter saw Jesus and Moses and Elijah all lit up in glory, he scrambled for an interpretation of what he was seeing. In doing so he assumed that what he could see told him all he needed to know. The three men looked equally glorious. So they must be equally glorious. Peter didn’t ask for help in understanding the sight before him. That was a mistake.

God Himself quickly entered the situation to provide the correction and instruction Peter and the others needed to avoid spreading the mistake.

I point out two facts. First, Jesus didn’t try to defend himself from the confused conclusion Peter was reaching. Jesus left the defense of his honor and position in his Father’s hands. Second, although the whole thing started with what was made visible to the disciples, when Father God entered the scene to clear things up He remained invisible to their eyes. The correction and instruction came by words they heard spoken aloud. It was by listening, and by listening specifically to Jesus, not primarily by seeing him, that they avoided going wrong.

In the song I’ve discussed, the point of view assumes that the singer is seeing and understanding correctly the behavior of the lover. When we are watching God at work in our lives, we cannot make that assumption. Jesus will always be true to his word, but we are prone to misunderstand and misinterpret him if we are first trusting our eyes and our natural brains ability to sort out what we see.

We must reach the same conclusion as the song. Regardless of what we think we have seen or think that we know — regardless of however, or whatever, or whoever this Immanuel, this God-With-Us is — we can, we  must, in the end, say “I love you.”

Not because of how we feel. But because we should. Because we must. It is the great command. Obedience to that command is the one gift we have to give.

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Another nugget from my old church blog.

Reading the thoughts of saints who have gone before us often confirms to me that there’s nothing new or strange about any particular hindrance I am facing.

For example, have you ever struggled with consistency, trying to live a disciplined Christian life? Herewith, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the distinguished Anglican priest who later joined the Roman Catholic Church:

Nothing is more difficult than to be disciplined and regular in our religion. It is very easy to be religious by fits and starts, and to keep up our feelings by artificial stimulants, but regularity seems to trammel us and we become impatient. This is especially the case with those to whom the world is as yet new, and who can do as they please. Religion is the chief subject which meets them, which enjoins regularity; and they bear it only so far as they can make it like things of this world, something curious, or changeable, or exciting.

Who, me? Ah, me, yes. Trying to make the Christian faith be more like the curious and exciting things of this world.

I recognize that itch.

Must. Not. Scratch.

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