Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Counterfeit Gods (when the gods that give us what we want encounter the God who has teeth)

We live in an ironically polytheistic culture. 
I say “ironically” because we do, in fact, live in a culture that has done its utmost to abandon all thought of the divine. And I say “polytheistic” because in its attempt to distance itself from the archaic, primitive worship of “divine beings,” the culture has simply shifted focus. The focus is no longer to be freed from the concept of gods, if it ever was; rather, the focus is on the simple (not so simple) escape from that uncomfortable God who is too big, too demanding, too strict, and in short, too contrary. It is a focus on replacement (an easier version of eradication). 
Of course, we (the culture) have made a brilliant show of educating ourselves, since those long bygone days of paganism. Paganism hit puberty. It grew up; became self-aware. It became human. It became Atheism. We have escaped the dark ages of human sacrifice and alter-groveling, and even the least educated of our young, freshly mustachioed representatives, in their prescription-free glasses and denim legs, can say with the utmost confidence, with an elbow-patch firmly on the table, “I don’t believe in God.” 
This may be true. Not believing in God is, after all, safe. He can’t reach you, if you don’t believe in him. He can’t even see you, if you cover your own eyes tight enough and assume the two-year-old hide-and-seek-fetal position. It is safe. That is, it seems safe. It seems safe in the same way that saying “I don’t believe in gravity!” and jumping off a cliff might seem safe to someone who has never experienced falling (or gravity or cliffs or logic). 
The unfortunate fact of the matter is, that our belief does not dictate our universe. It is as unswayed by human opinion as a roomful of bored kindergarteners. I do not, for instance, believe in chemistry. Not because I actually don’t believe in it; not even because I don’t understand it. But because I don’t like having to learn it. Because I don’t like it. 
Simple enough. Safe enough. Disbelieve what you don’t like, and everything is that much easier. Whole Holocausts disappear, shipwrecks, scandal, catastrophes and cancer, all cease to exist.
The only problem is that everyone, whether they know it (acknowledge it) or not, worships. Humans were created to worship, and we do. If not at the altar of God (who, after all, does not exist) than at the altar of a thousand other gods. The counterfeit gods. The gods we make for ourselves. 
Sometimes, though, we must remember that our idols, the altars to which even the most granola-induced of suspender-bound individuals, with their PhD in human philosophy from the school of H&B (that’s Hipster and Blog, for those who don’t know) kneel, are not like the idols that civilization overruled. Humans are not afraid of stone statues, any longer. 
Our gods are much more powerful than that. Our gods are much more beneficial than that. They are strong and supportive and based only on the most educated of principles, and so very distinctly nothing at all like that. We are too mature, obviously, for such childishness. Our gods are, in short, so very agreeable, that it is a marvel that not everyone sees eye to eye with us—or that is to say, them. 
To put it even shorter: Our gods are very much like God to begin with. That is, we start with him as a rough model. But then we take a very large opinion-shaped knife, and we start to trim. We start to customize the creator of the universe. We cut out all of the grim bits, and shave off things that don’t fit in like “wrath” and “doom” and “destruction.” 
We take the same scalpel to his word, and we decide that some things don’t need to be there, any more. They are outdated, arcane. We say things like “I don’t think I can believe in a God who would wipe out the whole world in a flood. I don’t think I can believe in a God who would command the destruction of Canaanite women and children. I don’t believe in a God who is jealous or a God who can be provoked to anger.” We trim out everything that separates God from us. 
We leave all of the beneficial bits, of course; omnipotence is handy. Only an omnipotent God can give me what I need and want. But we can leave off things like omnipotent justice. It’s not necessary, after all. It is too harsh. Too extreme, for my god. My god would never hurl sinners into hell (but the God of the Bible would). 
We want gods without power to go against us (but power enough to go for us.) We want gods who act like us (but do we really?). 
We do our best to make God look as much like us as we can. Albeit, a very powerful, very good version of us. We are all for the gods who are all for us. And we forget that there is only one God who is truly for us. 

Newsflash: God does not give us what we want. 

And never once has he promised to. No, rather, he has promised to always give us what we need, and do to us what is best for us. Even if the only thing we need is him. He is so much like that loving parent who tells his child “No” when it is best. And we are so much like that child who, when father says no, turns to the mother. Turns to anyone else. “God won’t give me candy before supper. Will you?” 
That is the thing about the counterfeit gods; they make a point of giving us what we want. That’s how they win us, and that’s how they keep us. Candy before supper? Every night. Whatever you want. 
Whatever you want. 
(Thank God that we serve a God who loves us far too much to ever say that to us!) 
We want to carve gods in our images. In the images that we want to save us.  Into pocket sized portions and necklace-hung compactability. We string them on beads and tattoo them, because it is easier. Because golden calves are easier. Because neutered gods are so much safer. Because gods without teeth and claws are far more acceptable to flash around on keychains. 
We forget one thing, though, in all this. God is the Carpenter of Souls. He cannot be shaped; he cannot be sculpted or stuffed into cookie cutters. He is the infinite God. And he is the one who shapes us, as he shaped the universe. He who carves us. Who trims off our impurities and carves us into his image. 
So go ahead. Stuff God into a bag. Pour him into molds and try as hard as you can to make him look like you. Good luck. You can’t carve God. No one can. And the counterfeits cannot save you. 
The reality is that God is the God who floods and the God who destroys. He is also the God who loves, the God who disciplines, the God who dies to save. He is the God who cannot be contained. Who cannot be represented in images. He is the God who demands (and solely deserves) the worship we are hardwired to bring forth. 
So sorry (not sorry). But God does not fit into sacks. He cannot be trimmed, his teeth cannot be pulled. He is not pocket sized. So try (if you want) to put the sustainer of universe neatly folded into your wallet, or in the box under your bed. Try to catch Niagara falls in a waxy little Dixie cup. And when those don’t work, try one more thing. Hide. 
Clap your hands over your ears and pinch your eyes tight as they’ll go. Hold your breath. Assume human position 1.0 (Womb-dweller fetal). Curl up and retreat from existing. Repeat these soothing, empowering words: “There is no God. He does not exist. I don’t have to answer to him.” 
And when you are done, repeat after me: “There is no gravity. It does not exist. I can fly if I want to.” And float away, if you can. Free yourself, from it, if you can. Again, good luck. 
Try hiding in a closet, with all of your little gods, your puny, miserable you-shaped gods. And let them stand before Him, and defend you. Let your bloodless gods handle the wrath you tried to take from Him.
We cannot stand with a foot in heaven and a foot on earth. We do not have the capacity to love them both. As they grow further apart, as your life progresses and you find that you can only do the splits so long, you will have to choose. You cannot have both. So cut your chains. 
And when you can’t, let him. Tear free. Struggle, and tear down the altars you have made. You tried to take the teeth from God, but he still has them. And he will use them. He is the Lion—the jealous lion—and you tried to replace him with house-cats. And when house-cats become jackals, he will save you. 
If ever I am comfortable with my image of God, then my image is wrong. It is too small. It is too tame. A god without teeth cannot protect me. A god who cannot damn cannot save me from damnation. A God with teeth is one that I cannot be comfortable, in the face of; God, don’t let me get comfortable. 

God, tear down the altars. Give us you, and no one else.

God, tear free our chains. God, destroy our counterfeits

Monday, August 4, 2014

He Will Be With Us (A Confrontation of my Fears With the Stone-Flinging God)

As a kid, I was never scared of monsters (that I remember). They were too cool to be scary. I was never afraid of them hiding under my bed or lurking in my closets. Frankly, the notion might have actually excited me (I was that kid). There was nothing to be afraid of in the dark.
Then I grew up (relatively speaking). And let’s be honest: It would be nice, sometimes, for someone to just tuck you in, then check the closets, and issue those reassuring words from the doorway: “There are no such things as monsters. There’s nothing and nobody outside that wants to eat you, or crush you into the ground, or bury you alive, or tear you into pieces.”
But that’s not quite true, any more. Life itself wants to eat you. The world wants to crush you. Time wants to bury you alive. And there are plenty of people and things that seem perfectly eager to get at having a piece of me. They all want some, and frankly, it is terrifying. I am staring down the throat of the future like some enormous game of Russian Roulette. The cylinder spins, and you twist your fingers for all your worth. What will you wind up with? What kind of fate will click back its hammers and pump two cartridges of responsibility and anguish into your face?

An Unpleasant Newsflash(1): Life doesn’t pull punches. It hits hard, and it hits as often as it can. It beats you down, and then kicks you. 

An image for contemplation: Twelve spies. A Deuteronomic people, on the verge of victory or destruction. Ten spies agree, shaking in their boots:
“Moses, dude, we can’t go over there.”
“Yeah, man. Those cities are huge. And the people are giants. There’s no way that we would survive out there." 
(It’s dangerous outside. Unbelievably dangerous. Grab a power-drill and some screws and make sure that door stays closed. Board up those windows, pull the curtains. Put spikes in the bottom of your chimneys. Never shower during a lightning storm.)
But then there were two voices that were different than the others. Joshua and Caleb stood by, tight-fisted and square-jawed. “Hey,” they shouted. “What are you talking about? God said that the land is ours. What do you have left to be afraid of?”

An Unpleasant Newsflash (2): They never once said: “Oh come on, the giants aren’t that big. We can take them.” Because they knew that they couldn’t. Not alone. 

And we know how that story ends. Joshua conquered those giants. Not by himself; and not thanks to any strength of his own. He survived because of a promise. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Judges 1:9) Joshua was brave because he had a sure promise of victory. 

A Pleasant Newsflash(1): We have the same promise. 
Another image for contemplation: A man hiding in a winepress. A God who told him to come out. Gideon was afraid; there were too many enemies (more than could be counted). What chance did one man have? He whimpered. “But I’m not that guy. My clan is small, and my tribe is small, and who am I to lead them?” There are too many. (The giants are too big.)

God disagreed. He did not see Gideon as he was (refer to hiding in a winepress). He called him “mighty man of valor.” 
Mighty men of valor do not hide in winepresses. They do not hide (period). Gideon was not that; not yet. But God did not see him as he was, then; he saw the finished product. He saw a man pursuing His glory. He saw Israel’s victory, and Gideon’s role in it. 
He saw the ending, not the middle. He saw the victory, not the overwhelming odds. He saw Gideon as he should have been, and as he would be. Not as he was.  
He calls men not because they are right for the job. But because he is. He calls weak men. Because he is a strong God. 

God: “33,000 men are too many for me to work with.” 
Gideon: “How about 10,000?” 
God: “Too many.”
Gideon: “Well how many do you want?” 
God: “Try 300.”
Gideon: “300?!?” 
(Note: He didn’t say “Oh come on, Gideon. There aren’t that many.) 
God: “I am with you. What do you have to be afraid of?” 

Well, not Midianites. Not giants. 
Numbers don’t mean anything to God; not millions, not dozens. Size is meaningless to the One who balances the universe on a fingertip. Not hugeness; not smallness. He doesn’t use boulders; sometimes he uses pebbles. 
Sometimes he flicks pebbles at giant’s heads from a little boy’s strap of leather and shatters them. Sometimes he calls 300 men to destroy a countless army with nothing but jars and torches and trumpets.

Another image: A storm is trying to swallow a boat, like a cork in a whirlpool. Fishermen are panicking, spitting water and trembling in terror. The boat is filling. In the front of the ship, a sleeping Godman sits up, eyes them, and speaks. (Note: He doesn’t say “Guys, come on. The waves are nowhere near big enough to hurt you.” Not even close.) “I am with you. What do you have to be afraid of?” 
He speaks. Storms die. He breaks their spirits, and the water goes calm. The storms fear him. 

Some Things God has Said:
Never: The giants aren’t very big.
Always: Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. I am with you. 
Never: There aren’t that many Midianites out there. 
Always: Come out, mighty man of valor. Peace be to you. You shall not die. 
Never: The waves aren’t that big. There’s no way you’ll get wet. 
Always: Have faith. I am in the boat beside you. And the storms belong to me. 

A Happy Newsflash(2): God does not call the qualified. He calls the terrified. 

He is not in the practice of calling the qualified. He does not (has not) waste(d) his time looking for someone just right for the role. He does not glorify himself through the qualified. He glorifies himself through Gideons without enough men. Through Joshuas who aren’t afraid. Through Davids who did what armies could not. Through Fireproof Shadrachs and Lionproof Daniels. Through Peters who had the faith to put his feet on a different side of the water. Farmers and Fishermen. 
The armies really were endless. The giants really were gigantic. The fire was hot, and the lions had teeth. But God did not call a lion-tamer; he called Daniel. And he closed their mouths himself. 

Because I am afraid. I am afraid of many things, lots of the time. I am afraid of the bigness of the world, of the hugeness of the future. The endlessness of infinity, the depths of eternity. I am afraid of loneliness and boredness and lifelessness. I am afraid of wasting my years. I am terrified of what is going to happen to me, on this boat. Outside this winepress. On the other side of Canaan’s borders. 

There are (fill in the figurative blank)s out there. Giants. Armies. Enemies. Waves. Futures. Dangers. Dragons. Lions. 

It’s all true. (So don't let anyone lie to you.)
But God is the God who calls men out of winepresses (and into his glory). God is the God who is not afraid of giants (neither should you be). He is the Chain-Breaker and the Star-Breather. The Stone-Flinger, the Storm-Tamer. 
He is the Decapitator of Giants. The Devourer of Jerichos. 
The Captain (and Conscriptor) of Shepherd Armies. 

A final piece of good news: There are giants out there. Cities of them. And waves, higher than ships, oceans hungrier than black holes. There is a world that wants, more than anything, to eat your very soul. 
There are giants out there. But God has promised. (So don't let anyone lie to you.) We are not made to fear them. We are not made to fear anything. Not because it isn’t frightening. 
But because he is not frightenable. 
He is unchanging and unchangeable. And he is the God who is near. 
The God who is near shall always be near. 

What, then, do you have to be afraid of? 

All Men Wear Chains (A Story of the Chain-Breaker)(Revised)

All Men Wear Chains 
[Imagine] You are standing in a single island of light, surrounded on all sides by darkness, thick and clawing. A puddle of light. And there are chains dripping out of your chest. They hang off your arms, thick as tree-limbs. They bind your legs and cling heavy to your shoulders, all trailing off into the endless, devouring gloom. 
All men wear chains. 
Some we are born with. Chains, heaved out of lungs. Out of hearts. Out of eyes and ears and mouths. We are born strapped down. And as we live, we bind ourselves to more. We chain ourselves to people, things, ideas. To family, to friends, to loved ones, to possessions. And we chain ourselves to the darkness. Our tendrils trail away, and our pillar of light shrinks. 
You are in the spotlight. Your audience wants to eat you. You had better perform, or you'll be dragged off. 
All men wear chains. And they are heavy. 
They drag and pull and tug and tear, fused to our flesh and latched to our bones. Some chains burn, but we can no more remove them than we can remove our own limbs. They become part of us, with their rust and their razors and iron, their freezing bite inside us. Their infectious metals become one with our flesh. We wear our chains and we love them and we show them off. We chain ourselves to statues, to the unreal.
They kill us. They drag us away. And we let them. 
All men wear chains. From first breath to last, we are chained to Death. He holds the other end, somewhere out there, with a thousand distractions beside. Tugging demons. He wears a mask and masquerades as life. 
All men wear chains. And none can tear them. 
Except for one. 
The chains grow heavier; there are so many, so thick, strangling and poisonous. They steal sleep, they steal innocence and beauty. They leave scars. The drain you, even as they promise to fill you up.     
Then, though the weight of them shows no signs of diminishing, the pool widens. The light spreads. A new spotlight. A man draws near, huge as you grow small, as mighty as you grow weak. His muscles bulge, and they are strewn with scars not from chains, but from whips. His hands are decorated with holes, but they are strong. In them, he holds an axe. A reaper's blade. There he stands, glowing and magnificent. 
Voice cracking, you peer through chains to eye him. “Who are you?”
“I am Conqueror,” he says. “Star-speaker. Death-Tamer. Chain-Breaker. The darkness will come, it will drag you off, and feast on you. But I have come to free you.” 
And he lifts the axe, he who hewed death’s ankles and noosed her neck, he who climbed out of the pit. The axe falls and chains burst apart, they scatter and scream and you scream with them. 
Pain. Parts of you are being removed, torn free. Your bones break under the weight of his tugging arms, your flesh tears and tendons pop. The agony of being dismantled. Your foundations are being uprooted by his plow; your trunks leveled by his blade, until there is nothing for you to hold yourself up with. 
One moment, you scream for him to stop, to leave you be, to give you back everything you had. But he will not. He will not surrender you up. The next moment, your pleas change, and you shower him with tears and thanks and praise. Hatred, still rooted in your bones, fights back. But he fights harder. His scalpel is inescapable, and no part of those rusted cancers are left. He cuts them out, and he flings them away. 
The axe sweeps and the coils splinter, until you are free to stand and he lifts you, your arms light and legs unbound. Fissures boil on your flesh, gaping wounds and staring bones. You are free. But next to the glorious Chain-Breaker, you feel unworthy. Naked. 
There is one chain left. It hangs out of your chest, front and back, running through your heart. “It is the chain of life and death,” says the Chain-Breaker. “And it has been infected. It will be painful.” 
You want to protest, but can't. You don't. Maybe you want to. Either way, he reaches out his hand and dips his fingers into your flesh. They burn and tear and the pain makes you scream, scream for him to stop, to leave. But then, the chain pulls free, snaked through you, and your heart is tugged out with it. You are hollow. You are a skeleton. A husk. 
And then, the chain breaker shows you the heart, still growing around its chain, and it seems rotten, blackened and infected, polluted and dead. “You must be regrown,” he says. He reaches his hands into the hole of your chest, and in it, you feel fire growing. New flesh is squirming, a new heart. A stronger heart. Unpoisoned. Unmolested. Unbound. It swells in your chest and fills you up anew. 
The Star-Speaker waves his hands over your wounds, spills his precious, shining tears onto the gaping scabs and horrible gashes. He mends your bones, and supports your wavering spirit. The flesh returns. You grow strong, and lifted by his mighty hands, you can stand. No longer do you look like you once did, when you were prisoner to the parasite darkness. Now, you look like some pale copy of the Chain-Breaker. As though, someday, you could become like him.
“Here,” says the Chain-Breaker. “I have made you a new chain. A new anchor. Bind yourself with it. Cling to it. If you do not, the darkness shall return.” 
The chain he offers you is bright and made out of shining silver, untarnished, fresh-forged by some heavenly hammer. The Star-Breather's hammer. His anchor is huge; it stands upon a hill, thrust through the heart of death itself, and there he binds you, as you bind yourself. “The darkness shall be burned away, soon,” says the man. “And all those who are in it shall be swallowed. But not here. I will keep you in the light. I will keep you strong. I shall hold you here, and I shall bind you to my anchor.” 
And there are no other words to say. None that seem adequate, none appropriate. Only tears, hot and new on your cheeks, washing the dark rubble that remains from your soul. “Thank you,” you cry.
He leaves his axe beside you, because the shadows will draw near again. The chains will reach out, to claim their old victim. “But they have no hold,” says he. “You are new. You do not belong to them any more. Peel them off. And if they seek to subdue you, I will return. For always, I will be with you. You are mine.” 
And into the darkness he returns. There are others who must be freed. 
Because all men wear chains. And none can tear themselves free.
Except one. One man who was born with chains. One man who tore them out, pried them from his bones and dug them from his chest. One man who scratched and tore and roared and could not be overpowered. One man who took the grave in his hands and broke its back. 
The willing amputee. The willing dead. 
One man, one God. Star-Breather. Death-Tamer. Slayer of dragons, freer of souls. He who breaks chains. 
And who gives eternal ones. 
He who keeps us in the light.