My playlist in the vehicle keeps me going in the morning. My commute, when relatively free of the vehicular zombie hordes on the road, and including my playlist, is my most productive time of the day for thought and introspection.
The driver’s seat is my chapel.
The music is my choir.
The music and lyrics to Bethel’s ‘It is well’ bowl me over on this morning. I’m singing along:
Except I suddenly realise in the last few days, my eyes haven’t been on Him at all. I had been consulting Google about a set of facts but they were wrong.
Google can provide facts, but little context.
Emoogle (my emotions) can motivate for good or bad, but the signals are often murky and transitory.
The Bible is the only source of truth.
I recently begun starting off my prayers with: ‘I look to You’. I was supposed to have been but last week I was totally swayed by context-less information harvested from Google coupled with emotional troughs.
In realizing I wasn’t looking to Him, I started to look inward, disgusted, but also to Him after a sufficient time spent grovelling in self-pity (useless, but unavoidable). A Louie Giglio DVD message about the human body references the ability of our brain to filter out about 95% of the signals reaching our brain from the rest of the body. This is essential because there is a glut of signals and the brain prioritizes.
Similarly, our worldview is formed by the information we sample and taste and Google is easy and instantly accessible. Most often however, its agenda-driven and wrong. Looking to Him is counter-intuitive, but I reckon it involves consciously filtering out most of the internet and allowing His word a bit of time and space to change us.
For me, it doesn’t happen as often as it should, however I do endeavor to persevere.
The 1965 novel, ‘The Dirty Dozen’ by E.M. Nathanson opens with an aloof, factual report in military-speak that details the execution by hanging of one Enos Gardiner at Marston-Tyne prison in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) during WW2, before the author re-examines the same event through the eyes of the novel’s protagonist, Major John Reisman.
E.M. Nathanson wrote the novel after hearing whispers about a famously raucous unit from WW2, although he was never able to confirm anything more than rumour.
Loose lips sink ships and all that; it was different time and philosophy where in the service of the war, secrets were more willingly kept by that generation.
Subsequently, the story came to light of a notorious outfit that was named the ‘Filthy Thirteen’, a particularly rambunctious unit in the 506th PIR in the 101st Airborne.
Although the Filthy Thirteen were not composed of condemned men or military prisoners, they were kind of rough.
In the novel, ‘The Dirty Dozen’, the army devises a scheme that seems unlikely to work, specifically, to yank a dozen guys off death row, or from long sentences, the most disagreeable, rebellious malcontents and form a functional military unit to conduct a brazen assault of a Nazi chateau in France just prior to the D-Day landings, thereby inspiring confusion in the Wermacht officer class.
When I read Romans 5 and think about this novel (I’m reading both simultaneously), I get yet another picture of Christ saving the helpless, hopeless, and otherwise irredeemable.
We were yet sinners at the point just before we were saved. Not unlike the Dirty Dozen awaiting punishment for horrible crimes, destined for the hangman’s noose like Enos Gardiner, but at the last second when all seems lost, we got a reprieve.
I’m trying to conceptualise what it must be like to be a condemned man on death row and then to suddenly, without expectation, be told that the hanging is no longer happening. It would be simultaneously real and unreal the next morning on waking up.
Real, as in I expected to be dead but I’m waking up alive.
Unreal, as in, how can this be? And will pinching myself actually convince me that it’s true?
It’s in a state of abject hopelessness that we have suddenly been presented with hope. I glimpse a picture of this scene through the lyrics to ‘Come to the table’ by Sidewalk Prophets:
Paul writes: ‘Very rarely will someone die for a righteous person, although for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.’ (Verse 7).
I’ve never been a member of the military, although I have great admiration for those who have served in the finest units with valorous distinction. I wouldn’t have ever been any good at it: I prefer to not be cannon fodder for what could possibly some nameless battle in a pointless war that is predicated on the exercise of politics instead of a righteous cause of defeating a moral evil.
Politics and power? Not worth dying for.
A man who serves a cause that is right? It’s rare that someone would give up their lives for such a person.
A good man? A benevolent man? Some people might.
Scripture contrasts this with what He did for us. In the logical economy, were we even worth a drop of sweat? Worth even a thought?
And yet He considered it worth His life.
It’s a profound thought to get one’s head around. Paul then argues that if God saved us when we were his enemies, how much more will He love us now that we are His children.
I’m not your typical prayer warrior but there is definitely a list of people that I pray for on a regular basis. Owing to the fact that I miss a day here and there, I’m not that guy that lives and breathes prayer like some people do.
That being said, my prayer landmarks are as known as the features on my face (I’m no oil painting).
Hello small nose, Buenos Dias grey hairs and recently shaven neck-line. Howdie there male-pattern hairline and Austin Powers spectacles.
I run through the familiar list in my head as I find my regular bay in the parking lot every morning
…those who need repentance and faith; sometimes classified by generation, sometimes by family grouping, sometimes by patriarchal delineations…
…then those waking up in pain that morning – physical pain, pain from mourning, both fresh and longer term wounds, years in the past but still remembered, like scar tissue in the mirror every morning…
…then those who follow other religions…
…sometimes the prodigals.
All people the Father has a heart for.
Strange thing happened though: the week before last, I was working my way through the list, and without consciously thinking about it, I heard myself praying for my Chinese brothers and sisters being persecuted.
I hadn’t been thinking of China at the time and yet there they were in my prayer all of a sudden. It was like noticing something on my face that I’d skipped over for a long time.
And in the interim, its not like God used my prayer to re-order the geopolitical landscape in the Orient, and I’ll probably never find out, but I really think it was of God – a Holy Spirit moment.
It took on a different meaning in church the following Sunday when from the pulpit, they mentioned a fresh round of persecution for Chinese Believers by the Xi government. Naturally, we were urged to pray for our brother and sisters. I like very much that God had me offer a short prayer for them in advance of knowing what was happening.
It reinforces the idea that He knows what we’re going through. He saw the Children of Israel oppressed by the Egyptians and He sees His children being persecuted all over the world.
These Holy Spirit moments are unpredictable and authentic.
Like some random lady beaming out a 500 MW smile at me for no particular reason when I was having a rough morning (It made me remember that He smiled on me).
Like that time we skipped church on Sunday to do some time-sensitive banking and before we had to get ready, and on a whim, we put a Louie Giglio DVD on and the whole family engaged and sat still for a half hour – a miracle in and of itself.
Like the early Saturday morning I woke up and instead of putting on a DVD, I cracked on with Romans and yoghurt and was fed both nutritionally and spiritually.
Romans 5: Paul is moving on from the fundamental truths of what happens in and to the Believer to the question of what happens next, how we grow and mature. The question is whether this whole way of living simply by faith will work. There are two ways of being hit in the head, with not much difference in the result. We either see it coming and wince, or we are sucker-punched.
We immediately have peace with God, access to God and the hope of glory. These fit us for heaven but it is our duty and calling to live the Christian way on earth.
The use of hardship as a tool to the Christian is much like war to a soldier. From reading a stack of books over a long period of time I know that professional soldiers are not war-junkies. Their eyes are fully open to the horrors of war and what it can do to themselves and their brothers and yet they are alive with excitement when they’re called upon to deploy.
Every soldier engages with discipline to prepare himself and the only way he can know if he is what he thinks he is, is to test himself in combat. Will he pass the test? Will he thrive as a soldier in battle? It’s the same for the Believer.
I realise the implications of what I’m saying: People have been hammered by circumstances, some are going through a spiritual battle even now. I do not relish the idea of hardship, which I suppose makes me a below-par Christian. I was thinking a lot about the thesis in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about the baddie, Thanos, and his Malthusian notion that the universe is overpopulated and needs culling. To achieve the balance, he sets out to acquire the infinity gauntlet with the applicable stones and snap half the universe out of existence. Our heavenly Father has created and refuses to uncreate. Nobody is phased out of existence and His goal is not balance (which is sufficient as a comic-book level motivation but that’s about all) but salvation and thereafter maturity.
For all men to be saved.
For all saved men to be mature.
And it’s in the service of both of these outcomes that God uses suffering. I wish there were another way, but it’s His wisdom, His prerogative and the best that I can do is let my wounds make me a better soldier, a sharper instrument.
Do me a favour, and go to the live US debt clock which constantly updates a running number as to the debt accumulated by the Federal government:
That’s some scary stuff right there. As at Monday, 22 July 2019 the debt stands over $22 trillion. The guys in Congress seem disinclined to deal with the problem and the clock just keeps on ticking like a quaint gimmick that can tickle the funny bone of a person who has the curiosity to look it up.
According to a gander of Forbes.com, the world’s ultra wealthy are only collectively worth $8.7 which is far below the level of US Federal debt.
Taking the difficult path to settling this debt, or rolling it back ever so incrementally, is not politically on the table, an unsolvable problem created by congressional intransigence combined with the thrill of spending other people’s money.
The math problem isn’t only inherent in scenarios with pure numbers, but with potential numbers as well. Like a debt clock ticking ever further away from a solution, peace in the Middle East hurtles towards greater levels of unsolvability. Numbers rack up: days since the last violent incident, the number of victims on either side, the compounding of incorrigibility in succeeding generations.
Plot social trends on a graph and you will see that Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. have moved so far away from each other that there is barely common ground. Trends in South Africa also present a problem when it comes to statistics for joblessness, social security, and upward mobility.
These are all problems that people with far greater knowledge than me grapple with today, and have for years, decades, sometimes centuries. Simply put, the math doesn’t add up. These are only the problems I know about…there’s a whole six-pack of cans full of worms worth of problems and unresolved questions:
All these problems and questions are actually beyond us. We cannot solve them, which should be a blow to our hubris. I glimpsed an equation in words to a song this Sunday in church, words I had heard often and suddenly saw the algebra of Grace at work: one one side my moral debt, on the other side God’s righteousness and in-between the not-equal sign.
The words: ‘of the grace that is greater than all my sin’.
The symbol for greater-than.
Grace > my sin. This is an equation that takes place daily and the debt clock is reset to zero. Grace is scandalous (why should He pay it?), breath-taking, load-lifting and frankly, not truly comprehensible.
My sin may not be as bad as some, but it may as well have been $22 trillion. I couldn’t pay it.
It would be a trip to picture such a thing: a 99 year old geezer and his wife younger by a decade preparing for their first baby.
Not even in the history of movie-making – and taking into account the wacky comedies of Adam Sandler – would any producer have pitched an idea so strange as a 100-year old first time Dad. Maybe its something they should look into.
Paul references this account from Genesis in his 4th chapter of Romans, to illustrate how simple faith is.
Genesis 15: the word of God comes to Abram in a vision with a promise that God would be Abram’s shield and that his reward would be great, to which Abram replies that he doesn’t know what the use of a reward would be as he doesn’t have anyone to leave it to. Being as he had no children and a servant in his household would inherit everything.
God promised him a son and showed him a starry night on display, promising descendants too numerous to count, as dazzling as a vista of the Milky Way on full brag. Would you have believed it? Wrinkly, gap-toothed, with sore knees and knowing you’re close to a century?
‘Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.’ (15:6, NIV)
Can you put yourself in Abram’s position? Or Sarai’s? They probably hadn’t been intimate in 30 years and they had to set up a date…dust off some of the old moves, re-acquaint themselves with the birds and the bees and the peacocks and peahens.
I even have the soundtrack in my mind: Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s get it on’.
And, wham! Just like that Abram was made right with God. Simply by believing. And believing something so unlikely. This is what Paul circles around when he’s talking about righteousness.
When reading about righteousness in a Biblical context, the word just pops off the page now because of what Paul has been writing and what I’ve been reading of it. Paul points to the promise of God to Abram and Abram’s faith as resulting in righteousness, and specifically points out that Abram’s action of being circumcised (to comply with the Law) did not make him righteous at all but that it was faith.
In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul describes himself in the following terms when considering the flesh:
The Jews in Paul’s day (and even now) saw the act of circumcision as doing something to be made righteousness, abiding by the Law. Paul is saying in Philippians that he has the pedigree; he’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt and the circumcision but that it actually doesn’t mean what he thought it used to mean.
You can almost imagine the subtext of Paul, the older Christian, talking to Saul, the younger Jew in the text: Yes, I was faultless as far as the law was concerned, but I still wasn’t in right-standing with God…it was all dung.
If I may make use of poetic license, it wasn’t a lone doggy doo in the corner of the backyard; it was a collected mound of offense straight from a farm. All those years of working to earn righteousness from God was about as useful as a load of dung. And Paul is breathing easier now that he is free of it.
A message that was doubtless infuriating to the Rabbis in Paul’s day – simply by believing God about Christ, everything is already done and the Believer gets to walk in a new reality where sin has lost its power. Paul writes that Abraham was the forerunner of the process that every Christian should follow, not to try to live with a sin management philosophy and limit the damage where possible, but walk in the nature of the Christian, as a new creation, in faith.
I realise it sounds simple.
But maybe it’s not meant to be complicated. After all, it won’t do to get into a street-fight with sin every other evening; sin has more experience at brawling than you or I ever will.
If you or I are a child of God, we entered this reality by simple belief and our way of entering this life is the way of living this life…the just will live by faith.
Walking in faith (after Abraham’s example) makes us a son or daughter of Abraham.
Lately I’ve come to appreciate the thought that goes into writing lyrics to music, especially Christian music.
The non-Christian lyricist does not have to be diligent in their efforts to write a song. The subject matter can be subjective feelings, a thinly veiled advocacy of any cause, a naked celebration of emotion.
There are no fact-check websites devoted to the question of whether in fact Beyoncé’s break-up (real or imagined) involved ‘a box to the left’.
There has never been (as far as I know) a ‘Mythbusters’ episode examining the idea posed by Roy Orbison that a person can bit the bullet, then chew it.
There has never been a feasibility study by a think-tank on the question raised by John Lennon of what would happen if there were no governments and no religion.
There are woke SJW’s however, who review classic hits through the lens of the current political climate and mangle old favourites:
Songwriters and singers like Steven Curtis Chapman, Chris Tomlin and Big Daddy Weave have to do their homework when it comes to Christian music. I appreciate the effort that goes into the process. Steven Curtis Chapman for example decided to write a song with Chris Tomlin to collaborate on the lyrics to ‘The One true God’. If you’re making music about God, it has to conform to the highest standards.
In listening to a Big Daddy Weave track this past month, I just know that they were in-part inspired by Paul’s letter to the Romans: from references to the kindness of Jesus (Romans 2:4) and to where ‘justice was served and where mercy wins’ (Romans 3:25 – 26).
This is not some jingle scrawled on the back of a napkin. These guys do their homework. Currently, I’m working my way through a Small Group study on Romans by Messrs Blackaby.
In the introduction they begin by saying that the central theme of Romans is righteousness – right standing with God.
I’m circling around the idea of righteousness and there are two perspectives: from the human perspective, righteousness involves our standing with God, how we get there and stay there! From God’s perspective (if I may speak in the abstract, and not for Him) it’s about His perfect standard, the sensitivity with which He applies His standard (since He could at any moment kill every person for their moral debt) and the seriousness with which He views unrighteousness.
He has a situation on His hands with the human race, but He has not washed His hands of us. It is incredible to me that He wishes to impute righteousness to man.
The psalmist and king, David wrote about how blessed it is to be forgiven for unrighteousness:
Blessed is the man ‘whose sin the Lord does not count against them’. Not merely taking a Tipp-Ex to sin, but imputing righteousness.
Paul has already argued in the strongest terms that no one can ever earn righteousness. It would be impossible for God NOT to count their sins against them in their moral failure.
So, David must have been talking about another way (other than obeying the Law) to experience this blessedness of being acquitted.
I was speaking with an acquaintance this week about righteousness and his idea was that God cannot possibly be so strict, or to put in in terms I would use, benign. I think that type of reasoning is personally reckless. I think that Paul was right, that God views sin in the most serious light as an insult to His spotless, holy character.
Despite the world’s consensus, I don’t think God is good humoured about moral failure, that He winks at the whole thing and chuckles good-naturedly at the fumbling drenched in blood and tears that goes on. Without this idea of God being justifiably full of wrath, what amazement would there be in the cross?
Paul’s words encapsulate the point better than I could; God demonstrates his righteousness in Christ by being ‘just and the one who justifies’. (Romans 3:26, NIV)
There had to be a punishment. Payment was due. Paul writes that ‘in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished’. (Romans 3:25, NIV). The tab had been accumulating, sins piling up in a stack of IOUs twenty feet deep.
In one act, His justice was satisfied and righteousness was offered to the unrighteous.
It is unfathomable to me that God the Father should punish God the Son, but that is what happened. The word ‘punish’ hardly encompasses the depths of agony described by crucifixion, or the mental and spiritual anguish of a cry being met by the Father’s silence.
It is incomprehensible that He made us righteous, but those are the facts.
Just and the one who justifies. Of when justice was served and where mercy wins.
The Father showed the most extreme level of diligence in working out a way for us to be restored to Him after all the rubbish we pulled.
Having this in view, what now? Faith and righteousness, righteousness and faith. The way to understand this, and walk in it is faith. It’s almost too simple since we expect 18 thousand moving parts and several hundred cogs in a ponderously complex blueprint of religion.
As Paul quoted Habakkuk in Romans: The just (those made righteous) will live by faith.
I have a playlist of Christian songs for anytime I’m on the road, and the opening lyrics to a Matt Redman song took on deeper meaning as I’ve been going through Paul’s epistle to the Christians in Rome:
Who O Lord could save themselves?
Their own soul could heal?
(Produced by Robert Marvin, 2009 under Sparrow/Sixsteps; Matt Redman)
To me, the question posed by Redman is obvious. In fact it’s beyond obvious: Of course I cannot save myself or heal my own soul. Neither can anyone else. And this is Paul’s point in chapter 3 of his epistle.
For the person who thinks that they’re doing okay by moral standards, Romans chapter 3 is like a finger poke to a raw wound. Without thinking we tend to measure ourselves against other human beings who are far more ethically questionable than we are, thereby finding ourselves more superior on the moral continuum.
We should measure ourselves against God’s standard of righteousness. I know what some people may be thinking…how do we know what His standards are? So many religions, so many Christian denominations. The waters could get muddy.
Paul presents evidence from the Scriptures that no one measures up:
The Law, the Prophets, the Psalms all testify that no one is righteous. Our posture towards Him stinks, our words condemn us, our works condemn us. We’re like that guy walking down the street who sees someone he despises, pretends he didn’t notice and then proceeds to cross the street and duck into a side road. Arrogant nose still in the air. We are masters at refusing to see the obvious and avoiding facing tough questions.
What about those who didn’t have the Law? God isn’t unfair, where the Law wasn’t available for the pagan, the law was hard-wired as it were, in the human heart. Perhaps not the ceremonial particulars of not eating shellfish or pork, but the biggies certainly were. Ten Commandments are easily programmed into the moral centre of the human being.
We have something to go on that tells us how we ought to live, but the main point is that we don’t live up to it. That’s what Paul is getting at. The whole world is accountable and the law silences our defence. Our excuses, our rationalisations, our legal arguments don’t measure up. They’re the logical equivalent of the guy accused of assaulting another man whose defence is that the victim ran into his fist repeatedly.
No one is declared righteous by observing the law, primarily because we are not able to obey the law.
Before, I wrote that the question was beyond obvious: no one can save themselves or heal what is wrong with their soul. Yet it’s a persistent idea. Almost a zombie idea: although it’s proven time and time again ad nauseum ad infinitum that no one can measure up to a moral code, the collective human race keep trying to do it. The idea should be dead, but it keeps coming back like a rotten corpse of a zombie that it is.
I know something about both Islam and Scientology, having been exposed in past working environments to both ideologies. Outwardly, they identify vastly different explanations for life and its meaning, and how to solve moral failings. Fundamentally, they share the common idea that one has to work for salvation.
To work for salvation means that you need to take sole responsibility for reaching the goal of your belief system; in the case of Islam, Jannah; in the case of Scientology, becoming an Operating Thetan (OT).
It makes little difference whether you work your way repeatedly through five pillars or in steps across the ‘Bridge to Total Freedom’, the salient point is that no matter what your goal is, you will never reach it. It struck me this week that the followers of both religions must be exhausted (instead of refreshed).
We can’t do it on our own, and as Paul points out, our Heavenly Father doesn’t intend for us to. Simple faith will give us access to salvation.
Apologies for playing the pronoun game which exists only to artificially heighten the drama.
The religious professionals, the Jewish populace at large in Israel in the 1st Century missed the Messiah. The biggest event in their redemptive history and it seems like barely a London telephone box full of people stumbled onto the truth because Jesus said that the Father revealed it to them.
The majority were seemingly closed to the idea.
They had the advantage of the Scriptures, the promises, and still He was barely recognized. What a missed opportunity!
Would I have been one of those handful that recognized him? I’m fairly sure I know the answer to be no.
There is so much that I don’t know about God. In fact, who can ever know enough? I’ve barely scratched the atomic surface but what I do know is that God is not merely written about in a book, but personal. Accessible by anyone who is looking in His direction. I also know that theology is like a rock-star waiting to be discovered, like the coolest music from your youth that you didn’t know existed and you discover a trove of audio cassettes and a rainy weekend with time on your hands.
I find myself realizing that it is possible to miss awesome things about Christ because I’m not paying attention, because I haven’t done my homework, because I haven’t asked the right questions. It’s all there in front of me, just like it was for the people who missed the significance of His coming two millennia ago.
I realize that small things can make a big difference. Having the right motive. A quote I read somewhere this week:
“Here lies the supreme missionary motivation. It is neither obedience to the Great Commission, nor compassion for the lost, nor excitement over the gospel, but zeal (even “jealousy”) for the honor of Christ’s name….No incentive is stronger than the longing that Christ should be given the honor that is due his name.” (John Stott)
I was thinking about the Lord’s prayer this week, in part because I realized I hadn’t prayed it in some time, but also because it is a perfect summary of what we ought to pray for. Of course it would be because the Lord taught us to pray it.
After addressing ‘Our Father in heaven’ the first thing we pray for is that His name would be praised, that his kingdom would come and his will be done.
Its counter-intuitive for people to put Him first, it goes without saying. Listening to the lyrics of a Big Daddy Weave song this week, I was struck by the opening idea: the lyricist writes of ‘my story’ actually being about Him.
That’s a very Pauline thing, a motive that is primarily about His glory. That’s something I don’t want to miss.
Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. Ephesians 6: 10, 11