Looking Forward

In the autumn many people begin to think of next spring and plant some lovely trees, shrubs, and bulbs to bring color to those post winter days.  In this process are some good tips for our lives as well.  What can a church or a heart of faith do to look forward and prepare for a burst of life and color in their future?

1.  “Let the seed break open.”  Continue to embrace the idea of being a dedicated person or a dynamic church.  In the imagery of the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies, let the heart or the community be  willing to explode with fruitfulness.  The single seed in its package accomplishes nothing, but when it meets the moisture of the soil and surrenders to the destruction of its shell, it accomplishes a feat that never ceases to amaze the observer.  Do not be willing to remain in the package, but be sown into the soil.

2.  “Love one another.”  It has been my experience that tremendous potential emerges when a church or person steps outside of their personal concerns and simply pours out love for people around them.  This includes both others in the congregation, and those in the community and beyond.  Yes, like all churches, there are times when we rub the fur the wrong way, but I have noted that humans have the ability to put such frictions into their proper place and move on.  Please build upon that love in every way possible.  It is a worthy effort.

3.  "Protect the work."  Gardeners spread a layer of mulch down to protect the tender plants. A lot of effort goes into getting things to grow and it is important to protect that work.  Safeguard the tender shoots, nurture the growing, and see the results bloom.  A church or person who throws away efforts by not protecting the work they have done, nurturing the tender spiritual plants around them, and providing a warm place of love and growth will see no bright spring.

Like so many truths of scripture, looking forward involves us minimizing the "Me" window on our life computer and reaching out to others with encouragement, investment of self, and a promise to safeguard their journey to spring.


Obedience: All Alone, Part 2

Part 2: All Alone
With the Garden experience behind them, the descendents of Adam and Eve spread out to the far corners of the ancient world to find a place for themselves.  The humans were now on their own searching to recapture the sanity, the justice and the peace of that Garden sanctuary.

It would be convenient to state absolutely what early humanity understood obedience to be, but harder to prove. What we do know is that from the earliest written records there was a searching to reestablish the order of the Garden, the peace, and the stability through standardized  written legal codes .  These set the limits for “right” and “wrong” and listed the consequences of doing what was unacceptable in the society they represented.

In about 2050 B.C.E. one of the earliest such “ law books “ was written. Today, only fragments of The Codex of Ur-Nammu exists but it reveals clearly an early attempt to follow some higher course than humanity’s own basic, and often base, instincts.  These laws consisted of social justice that addressed issues of taxation, standardized measurements, legal recourse, and the rights of the widows and orphans. (The World of The Bible. Eerdmans, 1986, p.223).

Like its predecessors, The Code of Hammurabi attempted to set up a standard of ethical conduct for the people of Babylonia and the regions which adopted the code for their own use.  The Code was written about 1700 B.C.E. and was inscribed on a stone slab (stele) of black diorite eight feet tall discovered in Susa in 1902 (The Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Merrill C. Tenney, ed. Southwestern Company. Nashville. 1972, p.332).

Some of these laws have a familiar ring to them : 196, “If an awilum has put out the eye of a mar-awiliam (lit.’son of an awilum’), they shall put out his eye.”  (Babylon, Joan Otes. Thames and Hudson, 1979, pg. 75). Others are quite harsh: 195, “If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand.” Consider laws 229-30 stating a builder whose work was shoddy, causing the death of the owner, the builder was put to death.” (Babylon, Joan Otes. Thames and Hudson, 1979, pg. 75).

Both laws, and the later Law of Moses, are examples of what scholars call the “casuistic” style.  Each law or code shows how a wrong action “causes” an opposite reaction as society deals with the lawbreaker.  Each attempted to correct the imbalances in society by saying what was right and what was wrong. Humanity was learning that limitations on conduct  were needed so that the rights of another were not trampled.

No matter how far away humanity might roam from the garden, the instinctive urge and innate need for obedience to a standard of conduct dogged their steps. In all cases, the ingredients do not match, but the basic formula was there: the recognition that humanity need to be obedient to something in order to achieve a small portion of the harmony known in the Garden setting.

Why was there one set of laws in 2050 B.C.E., another in 1700 B.C.E., and yet another around 1280 B.C.E. (The Hittite Code)?   If humanity realized the need to a obey a higher standard of life, why was there a constant move to rewrite and reiterate the laws?  Without a doubt, even the earliest human found it impossible to respond effectively to the sense of “moral oughtness” existing within.

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene H. Peterson tells of being in a hospital room with a man who swung between rational thought and harsh hallucinations of death, which caused him to scream out “I’m going to die!”   He would then beg his pastor, Peterson, to pray for him.  Later, in moments of lucidness, the man would recant any such prayer.  “The parabolic force of the incident is this”, Peterson noted. “When the man was scared, he wanted me to pray for him, but in between…he didn’t want anything to do with a pastor.” (Peterson. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. Inter-Varsity, 1980, g. 17-158).

Early humanity was in this condition. There was a need to obey that sense of moral oughtness when the individual was violated, when his property was stolen, or her burdens were intolerable.  Sometimes, a person might rise to altruistic heights and cry out for the rights of others. Yet, those urges were at war with a stronger urge to see to his or her own needs met, even if it meant at the expense of another person.  When the stark injustice was pointed out, they would decry the situation. When injustice visit her home, she could pull her hair and cry, “It isn’t fair!”  In between those times, the commitment was not always as clear or strong as might be wished.  Man  found he wanted to obey, but found he could not unless he was made to through accepted legal codes.

The old joke about when it rains we see the need to fix the roof, but when it stops – where’s the need, could apply to early humanity ability to and desire to keep the moral laws.  Repeatedly the rules , the codes, had to be set down, recognized and set into action because of the fallibility of humanity.

In Romans 1:19-21, Paul hints at this innate search for answers to what is “right”:
“because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse; Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

People were given a witness of God and a chance to respond to those “higher” urges of morality which were evidences of God.  In addition, there was no doubt, especially in these early years that a remnant of those Garden days lingered on in stories around the campfires and in the towns.  The “witness” of right and wrong was there, weak at times, but definitely there.

The discoveries of biblical archaeology seem to illustrate clearly that certain things were accepted among nearly all early people of the Ancient Middle East.  A close reading of the Pentateuch reveals the people had followed many standards of conduct and law later formalized into the Code of Moses.  Even today people become tangled in “customary laws” or common ethics that allow a person to be “good” without being righteous.  They allow modern mankind to attain a degree of ‘civilization’ and harmony, but, as always, these are supports of glass that shatter under the weight of daily use because a crucial element is missing. 
Secular history presents us with documented records of both the human failure to live up to the moral expectations as well as the tendency of depraved humanity to distort understanding of the nature of right, wrong, and obedience.

The Code of Ur-Nummu and the Code of Hammurabi were both collections of social laws listing the expectations and accepted legal , religious, social and civic actions of the Mesopotamian cultures.  The tenor of each is constantly harsh and negative, dealing primarily with death and mutilation.  Humans understood a need for obedience but of what that obedience was to consist of was largely unknown.

In seeing obedience defined as laws limiting activities, enforcing life styles and plainly stating specific ethics,  the laws underscore the inability of humans to live up to their own expectations of what was right.  They could envision , but could not reach the goal.

Humanity was ever aware of a desire to do right, but was always unable to achieve that vision in reality.  Some piece of the puzzle was missing and until that piece was found, obedience had become, and would remain, a tantalizing elusive goal.


What If??

Since the State of Oklahoma instituted a lottery, I have heard the reports of this or that person winning a large jackpot.  Of course, we all take note when it is a story from somewhere of a person who wins millions from a random numerical drawing.  If you are like me, it is easy to play a relatively harmless mental game called “What if?”

This game involves imagining what one might do if somehow we were the lucky winner of a huge lottery.  This is not a great danger in my case, for as my daughter-in-law points out to me, you have to actually buy a lottery ticket to win.  However, this trivial fact does not diminish the fun of the game.  

One of my favorite scenarios is that I would establish a foundation that would fund grants to families who earnestly desire to adopt babies from India.  I admit complete bias here as my oldest granddaughter if from Calcutta and is an amazing treasure.  Simply ask me and I will show you several pictures.  In any case, there are many children there and too few adoptive families.  Part of the reason is that it is expensive to adopt.  Typically, it will cost twenty to thirty thousand dollars to bring a child to your home.  I envision in my game a foundation that would aid qualified families with financial assistance to fund the necessary bureaucratic costs that would help them to adopt.  

In my imaginary world, I would do all of these great things, but since I have never purchased a lottery ticket, it is only a fancy.  Yet, wait does it not suggest an alternative?  I do not have millions, but what might I do with what I have.  Are there ways for me to make a great difference with much smaller resources?  

 We know the answer.  As the old hymn states it, “Little is much when God is in it.”  The disciples who brought a simple lunch of bread and fish to Jesus discovered that it could be multiplied into something amazing.  All over our country, people discover the power of the small gift.  We give what we can; not millions, but together they accumulate into a powerful tool to accomplish something great. 

 I hope the next time we have the opportunity to give, we will not stop short simply because we perceive that we do not have a jackpot to draw from, but will place our small gift with the many others to accomplish much good.

Poland Music Trip