Unwound

Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” – Jonah 4:3,4

Wound in God’s mercy
I sat beneath the shade
Of His surprising blessing
At peace with all He made.
But worm and wind unwound
In sickness unto death
Stripping self to the ground
Begging for my last breath.
God queries my quarrel
With compassionate questions—
Rhetorically leading me to the moral
Defeated in Grace’s suggestions.
And now on a hill, hung up in alienation
I see how God’s mercy makes for reconciliation.

(c) Randy Edwards
artwork: from The Story of the Bible by Charles Foster (Illustrations by F.B. Schell and others)

Overthrown

Overthrown

Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Jonah 3:4

He preached to Nineveh’s proud, hardened heart
Both to high and low in station and in rank,
And hearing and humbled they rent garments apart
They fasted in sackcloth, neither feasted nor drank.
The mighty King of Nineveh in ashed humility
Cried out for mercy from Jonah’s God alone.
And hearing his cry, God in mercy received
Forgiving his violence, his prodigal o’erthrown.
For forty days I walked here bewildered
To this wicked, foreign, unwelcoming land,
Having spent mercy’s portion from justice delivered
How forgiven again? How received by his hand?
What king will pay out the forgiveness I seek?
Whose righteousness redeem this rebel become weak?

(c)Randy Edwards
artwork: Jonah Preaches in Nineveh Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

An Easter Meditation

Thoughts on Easter and my wife’s recent hospitalization. You may listen to it here.

1 Peter 3:18“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit…”

Brought to my senses by a phone call at 6:30 am, I answer the regular, morning call from my wife who will, no doubt, give me an update of the night’s activities as she continues in her recovery from surgery six days earlier. Rather than hearing the refreshed morning voice of my bride, I hear the concern and the tiredness–a tone I have heard all too frequently over the past two months. I learn a new word, “dehisced” — one of several I feel more competent using and one of many I’d rather not have a personal acquaintance with. She told me that the sutures from her surgery had failed, and she was being taken back into surgery to repair and bolster the incision site.

Moving with the quick urgency of adrenaline, I make arrangements to get to the hospital. One of the numberless angels we have called upon, comes to the house to watch our youngest while I rush to the hospital hoping that I make it there before she is wheeled into surgery. I make it in time, and after kisses and prayers I find my way back to the Surgical Waiting Room to sit it out with the other shell-shocked family members of other unknown patients and stories.

Though this a repair, it’s this surgery that brings me to the end. The fear and what my wife calls “catastrophizing” find a foothold, and I am brought low by the fragility of our human frame and the ridiculous presumption that my body has and always will work as it should. That is foolishness. Breathing is a miracle so too is digestion. Our frailty coupled with my own powerlessness makes all this hard to swallow.

This is the second time in as many weeks that circumstance has brought me to this room. The previous week, on Good Friday, a surgeon, named Jennifer was brought in to consult with my wife on the possibility of surgery should the Remicade she had received a day earlier fail to send her ulcerative colitis into remission. A mere 45 minutes after the morning’s x-ray, sent to measure the progress of healing or to alert to the onset of what her doctors referred to as “megacolon”, Dr Jennifer was back in my wife’s room suggesting that the pharmaceutical treatments thrown at my wife’s disease had failed and that surgery was necessary to avoid a perforation which would likely happen, and if it did, would be deadly.

Dr Jennifer is a straight shooter, and we were looking for straight shooting. So much of the previous month, had for me, the ambiguous qualities of abstract art. Lot’s of activity, but not much in the way of clarity. Dr Jennifer said, that it was “time to cut bait”. I know the expression, “fish or cut bait”, and I appreciate the metaphor. But in this particular circumstance? I know there will be cutting. But who’s the bait? And to what is she being offered?

So, in a matter of two hours, we went from waiting for medication to bring the hoped for relief and remission to the urgent alacrity of emergency surgery. Good Friday. I sit alone in the Surgical Waiting Room and keep vigil for one who suffers, and I await the news. Because there is nothing I can do, all I can do is receive. I hope to receive good news, a report that surgery was successful, that healing is immanent, that my wife’s discomfort has been dealt with. But I am an object of grace, I can do nothing, and I can only watch and wait for God to send and for others to bring what I do not have. He did and they did. God sent messengers. He sent them through emails, phone calls, texts, and visitors — all of whom I received as angels and whose comfort and company I needed. Though this wasn’t the news that was most pressing, it was important news. That though powerless, I was not alone, nor was Jennifer.

God had shown Jennifer that he was present. Just as he had sent the friends, physicians, and nurses, he had sent Stan, the transportation orderly from OR who wheeled my wife down. He had a simple manner about himself. When he said he would pray for Jennifer as he was leaving the OR staging room, Jennifer asked if he would pray then and there. He boldly and gladly prayed. He prayed that Jennifer would have faith to trust Jesus as the woman who reached out and touched Jesus and was healed, he prayed that she would have the submissive graciousness of Mary, who when she was told that she would bear the savior, she replied, “Let it be unto me as thou hast spoken.” And on that Good Friday, he remembered Jesus, who when given the cup of affliction to empty on our behalf and who would have rather had it taken away, nevertheless, he submitted and took that cup for us, for me, the powerless husband, and for my wife, the bait.

As we arrived in the OR, next to appear was Christy, the niece of a dear friend and herself a childhood acquaintance of Jennifer’s. Christy, who as it turns out lives in our neighborhood, was scrubbing up to assist in the surgery. For Jennifer these presences were evidences of God’s presence in her illness which was now culminating in this angling end game.

As I sat in the Surgical Waiting Room, I was a witness to how the suffering of one person, was bringing into my life friends from almost every part of my life–friends, from high school, college, seminary, ministry, family members from across the state and country and globe. Friends who had moved out of my life and friends who were mostly my wife’s friends but who were relegated to engaging with me because my wife was often too weak or in too much pain to text let alone talk. God brought all sorts, and because of their love, and because of our need, we asked them to pray, and they received those requests and brought them to God. I cannot adequately describe the expansive sense of gratitude which has frequently squeezed tears out our eyes as we received. The thinly veiled venier of keeping it together was often wrinkled and torn through by the offer of a seemingly insignificant service or thoughtful duty.

Three hours later, Dr Jennifer appeared and gave me the news. My Jennifer did great, and was doing well. I know that I asked other questions and that she shared more information, but I had fixated on the most pressing news, and once I heard that news, all other news was only a curiosity. Good Friday.

What was it that brought Jesus to Jerusalem during the Passover that spring when Tiberius ruled the Empire? He might have brought an army with him to Jerusalem, but in the end he only brought eleven disciples, and three of them would keep vigil with him as he entered the heart of his mission. And having been worn out with the day’s expectation of an unforeseen glory, the disciples would fall asleep not knowing that in twenty-four hours their worlds would come crashing down in catastrophe.

One of those disciples, Peter, came to the Garden ready to fish or cut bait. He brought a sword and thinking he would strike the first blow of the revolution and cut a path to glory found that the one for whom he was willing to strike others was still healing the stricken. And so Peter watched Jesus heal the cut Peter himself had given Malchus. As the guards bound Jesus and took him to the Sanhedrin, Peter, quite literally, would cut and run.

You probably know what happened then: that the religious elite of Jerusalem brought Jesus to Pilate and Pilate sent him to Herod (Antipas), that he was brought to the Roman guards who flogged and mocked him and handed him over to the executioners who brought him a robe and a crown of thorns by which they intended to bring this Galilean to his knees before them. They had their way with him, and they brought him the final and greatest token of his mission, the wooden cross of his execution. And to Golgotha, Jesus took that cross, and the sins of the whole world (1Jn 2:22), and he did as Isaiah foretold: the punishment that was upon him, brought us peace.

But on that day and the two that followed, there wasn’t peace–there had been and was, catastrophe  And so the disciples gathered in the Upper Room which would become for them, a waiting room–a room to sit out the time until hope against all hope someone brings better news.

Early on Sunday morning, Mary brought the spices by which she would do the last thing left to do for the one who had brought her so much. When she arrived at the tomb where Joseph and Nicodemus had brought the body of her Lord Jesus, Mary found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Mary’s arms, full of what she brought to offer, were stripped of the remaining honor, devotion, and service she could give because the body of her Lord was not there. And so, all that she had left to give, she gave–the tears of grief and the great sobs of loss. Having witnessed the shame and degradation of a public execution, the loss of death and hope, even now must she bear the pitiless ignominy of a grave desecration? A question brought her back, “Woman, why are you crying, who is it you are looking for?” And with a word of personal address, “Mary!”, the worst possible circumstance gave way to the best imaginable news. The waiting was over.

As I sat for the second time in as many weeks in the Surgical Waiting Room, fearful and catastrophizing–recalling the circumstances that had brought my wife and my family to this, I was bolstered by the news of One who brought me. I brought my wife to the ER. In the rooms of our waiting, Jennifer and I were brought to tears in pain and weariness. I was brought to the end of my rope. But as I sit in that room, I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude for the one who came to bring us to God.

And how about you? Do you know the events which have brought you here this morning? How is it that you got here? What did you expect to find? This room is not unlike that Upper Room or the Forsyth Hospital Surgical Waiting Room. You can keep yourself occupied, you may divert yourself with the t.v. or your smartphones, but the fact of the matter is, you’re waiting for news and it is the most urgent news: either the one who has suffered is alive or that all hope is lost. On Good Friday, those many years ago, the news seemed to be of the most tragic: the just one was condemned, the healer was dead. But on that Easter morning, Mary brought news that the restorer of health and life and the world was alive.

 “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit…”

The Good News which gives all my circumstance meaning, is not that I must bring this or that so that I might come to him, but that I, having been brought to the end of myself, have been brought by him, to God — the righteous for the unrighteous, once for all.

"This intolerable calling…

This intolerable calling requires courage and humility. It requires a life full of God. It also requires that the preacher become as wise as possible. Even an expository preacher has to become a kind of sage, a person who is conversant on the range of biblical topics and who can speak on them to healthy spiritual effect. In this calling, the Bible itself is the preacher’s first teacher. His experience of life helps a lot. So does the preacher’s wide reading of fine writers—storytellers, biographers, poets, journalists. Reading them tends to make the preacher wiser, which is perhaps, beyond sheer delight, the principal reason for doing so.

Cornelius Plantinga on a preacher’s reading diet.

(HT: Andy Jones)

"he won’t be angry with you"

“Not too long ago I conducted a funeral for the spouse of a very dear friend of mine. The spouse died of AIDS. My friend moved in a very fast crowd, and the funeral service in the home was quite informal. There was a keyboard artist playing jazz and plenty of booze and balloons. The people who came to the service were not the kind of people who are generally found sitting on the front row at the the First Church by the Gas Station. In fact most of the folks who were at the service had long since given up on religion. I could understand that. I’ve almost given up myself on several occasions. I went to the keyboard artist and said to him, “Son, when you finish this piece bring it to an end because I’m going to say something religious.” When he stopped playing and there was silence, I decided to follow Jesus’ example. He would probably (judging the report of the gospel writers who chronicled his life) be more comfortable with people like this than with the normal folks who attend normal funeral services. So, after saying a quick silent prayer, I said to the folks there: 

“I don’t do many funerals with balloons and booze. But it’s okay because that’s the way [my friend] would have wanted it. The balloons are appropriate because this is not a funeral service, it’s a graduation service. Our friend isn’t here. She’s in another place where there isn’t any more pain. She’s in heaven, and I’m going to tell you why.” 

I told them about the people Jesus loved. I told them that their friend wasn’t in heaven because she was a ‘good’ person (they knew better than that) but because she knew she wasn’t and had turned to One who loved her enough to die on a cross in her place. 

“I’m here. I went on, “for only one reason. You needed someone to tell you the truth. I’m just one bad person telling other bad people the most important thing you will ever hear: God is God, and you should remember that. But if you go to him, he won’t be angry with you. In fact, he’ll love you. Our friend found that out, and we wanted to make sure you knew.”

As I looked around the room, there was hardly a dry eye. I didn’t have to tell them they were guilty. At least they had that right. They needed someone to tell them about a God who would love them and forgive them if they would only go to him.

Steve Brown, Approaching God

Are We in a Grave Story?

A series of events conspired which led me to reflect on how we view the meaning of our circumstances. Firstly, my eldest had to do a report on Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. In turn we watched the Kenneth Branagh screen adaptation. As she and I discussed the play and movie, I began to wax on Alan Jacob’s discussion of the play in the Epilogue of his book, Original Sin, and in particular, W.H. Auden’s category of Christian comedy. (To my daughter’s credit, she recognized Much Ado as a “garden story” — that is a story in which the innocents in the garden fall and become alienated. What is remarkable about Shakespeare’s garden story is the manner in which the restoration and reconciliation is effected.)
At the same time I was preparing to preach on the account of Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau from Genesis 33. What struck me in the passage was not so much the didactic messages in the passage, but rather the beauty of the story. What sorts of qualities are present for such a warm and sweet reconciliation? One of those qualities which is necessary is a “lightness” with respect to one’s own rights and privileges. And so Dr. Jacobs helped me again in that same discussion in commenting about the trap of taking ourselves too seriously. Indeed, it was for the “joy set before him” that Jesus endured the cross and scorned its shame. In talking about the danger of taking ourselves too seriously, Jacob’s writes,

“Well, these are sobering thoughts, indeed, and we should take them seriously—as seriously as we can take any thoughts. The immensely difficult trick is to do so without taking ourselves seriously, because one could argue that at or near the very heart of our bent wills is a determination to uphold our own dignity. Milton tells us that Satan decided to rebel against the Almighty because of his sense of ‘injured merit’: he was the one who deserved to be named Messiah, not God’s Son who surely was chosen not because of his ‘merit’ but on account of some divine nepotism. Looked at in the proper way, this idea of Satan’s is simply laughable, which is what G.K. Chesterton was indicating in one of his wisest aphorisms: ‘Satan fell by force of gravity.’”

Alan Jacobs, Original Sin 
The patriarch, Jacob, it seemed to me, could have only received the promise and appropriately humbled himself before Esau, if he did not take himself too seriously. Therein’s a beauty.
Serendipitously, just a few days later, Dr. Jacob’s posted the Auden quote on his online common place book, more than 95 theses. Reflection upon Auden’s categories and Jacob’s commentary has proved to be fruitful soil to contemplate the meaning of the stories which make up my life and of course those things about which I am so serious.

“Comedy … is not only possible within a Christian society, but capable of a much greater breadth and depth than classical comedy. Greater in breadth because classical comedy is based upon a division of mankind into two classes, those who have arete and those who do not, and only the second class, fools, shameless rascals, slaves, are fit subjects for comedy. But Christian comedy is based upon the belief that all men are sinners; no one, therefore, whatever his rank or talents, can claim immunity from the comic exposure and, indeed, the more virtuous, in the Greek sense, a man is, the more he realizes that he deserves to be exposed. Greater in depth because, while classical comedy believes that rascals should get the drubbing they deserve, Christian comedy believes that we are forbidden to judge others and that it is our duty to forgive each other. In classical comedy the characters are exposed and punished: when the curtain falls, the audience is laughing and those on stage are in tears. In Christian comedy the characters are exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are laughing together.”

W. H. Auden

And, after Christmas, I will celebrate Twelfth Night by watching a play entitled the same. In Twelfth Night one finds one of the gravest of Shakespeare’s characters, Malvolio who is the virtuous rascal classified by Auden.

(HT: Alan Jacobs)