Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Kind of Government Does the Constitution Give Us?

When the Founding Fathers hammered out the words of the U.S. Constitution it was not their first attempt to create “a more perfect union”. The first U.S. attempt – the Articles of Confederation – had proven a failure. Our forefathers were very likely less confident that they had succeeded in finding the ultimate formula for “a more perfect union” than they are portrayed as being by some in our society today. They were hopeful. They were also fearful. Benjamin Franklin, when asked what kind of government the Constitution created, reputedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

There has been no end to the arguments, since Franklin’s time, about the nature of our government, both as it was conceived, and as it has evolved. We hear the terms “Republican” and “Democracy” flung about as synonyms at times, as complimentary systems at other times, and as irreconcilable opposites of each other at still other times. It is not altogether certain which, if any, of these concepts of “Republicanism” Franklin had in mind. He had so much to say about so many things that he often used both sides of his mouth to say it, leaving us uncertain which side spoke for his real beliefs. But he was certainly right to point out that, whatever it was that the Constitution created, it was not a foregone conclusion that it would succeed.

Ours is not the first era of U.S. history in which the success of our system seemed in dire jeopardy. However, I would argue that we are at a point where serious damage has been done, at least, to the principle that elected representatives can be trusted, in times of great need, to put aside partisanship, and work for the good of the nation as a whole.

We hear much these days about “the people” speaking, presumably through elections, and representatives feeling obliged to respond to what their constituents “said” at the last election. Compromise has become a dirty word for a significant portion of our elected officials. They would rather pull the house down on their own heads – and on the heads of all the rest of us – than move one inch off the position they took in their most recent election campaign.

There are a number of flaws in that kind of thinking. First, it assumes that the position they took at the most recent election cycle was wise and defensible. Second, it assumes that the people who voted for them did so because of the position they took on the particular issue about which they are refusing to compromise. Third, it assumes that those who did agree with them still do so in light of changing conditions. Fourth, it ignores the fact that almost no election reveals the “will of the people” on any one particular issue.

Lets look at that fourth flaw more closely: 1) most citizens decide upon a candidate either out of party loyalty, in which case their position on any issue is irrelevant, or based upon a range of issues, making it impossible to know what they “said” about the particular issue about which the representative is refusing to budge. 2) in almost all elections in the U.S. it is rare that more than fifty percent of the eligible voters cast a ballot, so even if a candidate received 100% of the vote, his/her election would hardly amount to a “mandate” from the people. 3) most elections are decided by a plurality of no more than 60%, more often about 50-52%, meaning that the candidate very likely was elected by about 25% of the eligible voters in his/her district. How then, can he/she claim that “the people have spoken”? Of course it is nonsense to say so.

If Franklin were asked today, what kind of government we have he would probably say, “a Democratic Republic if you can keep it.” The “democratic” part of the equation gives the greatest number of adults an opportunity to say who will represent them in the halls of government. The “republican” part of the equation should mean that those elected will represent the best interests of their constituents to the best of their ability. But only fools would assume that they can know what “the people said” based on the last election. Wise representatives will say, “I’ve been elected to do what is best for the nation and my district. If that means I must change my mind, or compromise, then that is what I must do.”

The path our politics is on is not sustainable. It is the folly of ideologues, egotists, and opportunists to believe that it is. We need men and women of principled wisdom, foresight, flexibility, humility, and selflessness. Does anyone know where we can find them?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Song Not All His Own

   Thoughts While Listening to Music
                           by Jim Rapp

All creatures squeal in time of fear,
or make their call when their mate is near,
or roar to make their prowess clear,
or sing a song to fill the sea or air.

But what creature commands the glut
of sounds that man has mastered;
strings a gourd with cords of gut
to make of it a living bard;

hollows out and shapes a pithy reed,
inspiring it to sweetly play
a tune to meet the human need
for sad or joyous melody;

mines and smelts earth’s heart,
shaping tubes and valves and bells
to take his human voice apart
and send it out, recast, to weave a spell;

puts a bridle on the unseen waves
that circle all the world around,
forcing them to serve as slaves
to carry electronic sounds?

Singing, in thousand given human tongues,
with instruments of earth and bone,
and borrowed breath that fills his lungs,
he makes a song not all his own.

Friday, July 29, 2011

One Human Influence

I had never consciously read a single word written by John Stott who died yesterday (July 27, 2011) at the age of 90 years. Perhaps a quotation here and there had slipped by me without my taking note of its author. But last evening I spent an hour or so reading the tributes to his memory in Christianity Today.

Of course I had heard his name mentioned, seen his work referenced in various theological books, and was aware that his was a respected and trusted voice in Evangelical circles. But, for some reason, I had never read any of his dozens of works. Perhaps now I will. Reading samples of his thought and wisdom last night whetted my appetite to know more. Those who may not be familiar with his thought might find the interviews I read interesting and informative. I found the 1996 interview by Roy McCloughry most comprehensive and interesting. Another 2006 CT interview by Tim Stafford, on the occasion of Stott’s 85 birthday is informative as well.

The interviews revealed a number of things about Stott that make me want to learn more about him and from him. But one thing in particular stood out. Stott’s life illustrates how influential one human being can be if he or she determines (ascertains) what their purpose on earth is and determines (resolutely decides) to stick to that purpose, undeterred by other attractions or temptations.

Stott spent his entire ministerial life, beginning with his ordination in the Anglican Church in 1945, serving the congregation of All Soul’s Church in London. Although his opportunities for ministry expanded during the years that have followed he resolutely refused to change his primary focus of pastoral preaching, passing up opportunities to advance to the office of Bishop in the Anglican Church, and enticements to engage in other areas of Christian ministry.

It is rare to find a truly focused soul in our “wired” world. The opportunities to know all things and the urge to influence all things pulls most of us away, in greater and lesser degrees, from those core activities and endeavors that we are best suited to perform. Our fear is that we’ll pass up a vital opportunity.

One eulogist compared Stott to Robert Frost who, when faced with a choice of two paths, chose one but reserved the other for another day. Stott, he said, chose his path with no intention of returning to take the other way another day. That is an almost impossibly hard decision to make when both ways are admirable and attractive, but in the end Stott has left a wealth of wisdom from which the world will benefit for years to come. Perhaps more importantly, he has served one congregation through nearly seven decades, drawing souls to Christ and feeding them on the Word of God, demonstrating in his own life what Christian commitment is really like.

In the end it is the life that John Stott lived that has impacted his world; a steady pace, a focused direction, a confident attitude, and an unfailing commitment to the cause of Christ. It is conceivable, to me at least, that every book he wrote could be destroyed and his influence upon the evangelical movement would still be felt for as long as the Church exists on earth. Those he touched with his enthusiasm and wisdom carry on, some consciously, and some unconsciously, emulating the life he displayed.

But I want to read some of his books just the same.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Gift of Mortality

                              The Duel
                                        by Jim Rapp

The time between hearing that you may die,
And hearing that you will, or will not,
Is torturously cruel.

We should have clearly heard, in our infant cry,
The tenuousness of our human lot
And bravely faced the duel.

The firm fact is that all who live will die,
That as a race we died in utero
Long before our birth.

Still, cling we all to Satan’s soothing lie,
“God hath not said you’ll die. Oh, no!
You shall possess the earth.”

Death, at last, the only gift we have to give to You,
Oh God – a living, dying ambiguity,
Sending back alone, our breath.

But knowing, knowing, knowing You who
Purchased life by dying willingly,
Have, for our sake, defeated death.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Good News in a World of Tragically Bad News

Nothing takes God by surprise; no evil perpetrated by mankind, no natural event, no joy or sorrow that visits human hearts. When God shattered the silence with His thundering, “Let there be . . .,” (or was it a whisper – a mere thought?) and unleashed upon the void the power of His image (and His imagination), all that ever would exist rushed to be included in that first attosecond of explosive creation. What we call evolution is merely the resolution – the working out – of an image that existed in the mind of God before the start of time.

If I have freewill – and I believe I do – its existence did not prevent God from knowing, before He created me (along with everything else in that initial “let there be”) what I would do with it. He did not, I believe, wish me to do evil, but He did wish me to be free so that, if I chose to do so, I could willfully love and serve Him. But I could willfully love Him only if He gave me the possibility to not love and serve him.

So, the God who numbers the hairs on every human head, foresaw the course of every speck of solar dust, likewise knew the path each human soul would take. He did not dictate that path, but like an observant parent – but infinitely more knowing than any human parent – He could say with certainty the way that every human soul would go.

Then why didn’t He choose to create only those who would love and serve him?

That is a hard question to answer, but someday soon – and to some degree already – human parents may stand where God stood. With infinitely less knowledge of the future than God had, and far less understanding of the nature of their potential offspring, parents will decide what characteristics to allow their children to have; or whether to allow them to live at all.

 It was an awful day (in the ancient sense of that term) in the course of human history when Cain assigned himself the place of God, became the human arbiter of life and death, and made a choice God Himself refused to make. Faced with the “choice of Cain” God granted life to those whom He knew were destined to do evil as well as those who would do good. Of course, He knew what modern science has yet to learn; that good and evil are two sides of the same coin; that evil cannot be destroyed without doing damage to the good. The “tares” cannot be removed without damaging the wheat.

We stand, appalled at the evil of our world, too often forgetting the “little evils” we perpetrate from day to day, and ask, “God, why? Why did you allow this ‘great evil’ to be? Why didn’t you eliminate evil from your creation?” But we must consider that a creation without evil would be a creation without us. God is a redeemer, and He knows that some evil creatures can be redeemed; some of the most horrifically evil creatures can be redeemed. You and I can be redeemed. It is hard for us, who have judged ourselves “less evil” than the worst, to endure the evil of those who are “far more evil than we.” It is hard for us to believe that God would even want to redeem them, or that they would accept redemption. But how glorious will be the praise of our God when we see the “chiefest of sinners” made clean through the redeeming grace of God in Christ.

There is little comfort in a time of evil; only pain and sorrow. Comfort comes later, with reflection. And it comes only to those who mourn, not just for the pain and loss they, or others have suffered, but for the brokenness of all humanity. Those who mourn for the sinfulness of our world will be reminded of their own sin, but more, that God, in Christ, is redeeming sinners.

You are (and I am) the reason God did not eliminate all evil from His creation; He knew that you (and I) would someday choose to serve and love him – willfully. That is the only truly Good News in a world of tragically bad news.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Making Sense of Senselessness

    A Haiku for Oslo
              by Jim Rapp

pain distilled by time
condensed and rid of rancor –
wine that’s bittersweet

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Part of a Poem

In Honor of Dogs

My friend Forrest requested that I write a poem about a dog. I'm unable to come up with a fresh inspiration right now, and I'm under pressure to have something posted for tomorrow, so I'll grant his wish by posting this "part-of-a-poem" previously written. The entire poem has a noble title of its own but, for this posting, I'll call this section of the poem:

                Let it Be
                 by Jim Rapp

No one who loves a dog ties it to a tree,
Makes it heel, or sit, or fetch,
Scolds it when it barks, or drapes it in a shawl.

Dogs are made to run and wander free,
To dig and sniff; to hunt and chase and catch;
To snarl and growl; to bully and to brawl.

Oh true, some may love their Spot,
But scold him when he’s being dog;
Their love is for a “dog” that’s not.

True love for dog is only got
By letting dog be truly dog;
Insisting that it not be what it’s not.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Days of our Life - Sunday

        What’s Sunday For?
                     by Jim Rapp

Precious hearts-within-my-heart,
We rise again this day to start
Anew our praise, and do our simple part,
By sending forth, on man-made cart,
A man-made Ark of God;
Another human start
To bring into His presence
Our wayward stubborn hearts.

Oh come again Shekinah, sought;
Oh come and rest within our thoughts,
And take abode between the cherubim;
And make the gifts that lie within,
The life, the law, the living Bread,
Our food this day that lies ahead.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Days of our Life - Saturday

  Saturday: A Play Without A Script
                                by Jim Rapp

Have I ever penned words in praise
Of Saturday, penultimate of days?
Alas, Saturday, in all her varied ways
Is hard to capsulate in tidy lays.

For some, a day of lazing rest;
For others, travel is the best
Of ways to celebrate with zest
This hard earned day of rest.

A day to catch-it-up,
Or perhaps to ratchet up;
A day to clean it up,
Or exercise to lean it up.

Poor Saturday, so non-descript
That none can make its glory trip
With lightness o're the praising lip;
Alas, a play to play without a script.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Days of our Life - Friday

                              TGIWMOF
                (Thank God It Wasn’t Made On Friday)
                                           by Jim Rapp

Don’t buy a car, they say, that’s made on Friday;
Only Monday’s products rival Friday’s trash.
Friday equals, dress-down, kick-back, get-away,
So if it’s something big you’re buying, don’t be rash.

As a child I thought that Friday equaled “fish” –
That Fri-day was the day they’d fry it.
Now all I really know about the day is this:
It ushers in the weekend, so don’t fight it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Days of our Life - Thursday

           Thursday – A Day Seeking Fame
                                        by Jim Rapp

Despite its daunting name – “Thor’s day” –
Thursday is a full colossal flop:
It’s only claim to fame – Black Thursday –
Was the day the markets dropped.

If it ever wishes to redeem itself
And once again receive acclaim,
It must cough up all that stolen pelf
And hope that that will clear its name.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Days of our Life - Wednesday

            Weird Wednesday
                        by Jim Rapp

Wednesday is a strange one;
It doesn’t even spell its name correctly,
Never has a job completely done,
But leaps to center front, directly.

Some have named it “Hump Day,”
A name, I’m sure, that makes it blush.
Calling from the center, hear it say,
“Slow down guys! So what’s your rush?”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Days of our Life - Tuesday

Is it – snicker, snicker – Tuesday Again?
                                  by Jim Rapp

You have to wonder about Tuesday;
Nothing starts or ends on Tuesday.
It is, admittedly, a clever way
To get from Monday to Wednesday.

I use it for my medical appointments
Since it has no business of its own.
It seems to feel no discontent,
Relegated to its mundane zone.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Days of our Life - Monday

            What Day Is Monday?
                             by Jim Rapp

Is Monday the first day of the week?
It has that feel, doesn’t it?
The engines slowly turning, start to creak,
As do my week-end weary bones
            a little bit.

I know God designated Sunday, by default,
Day One, so I should do so too –
But Saturday seems to me, penult,
Making Sunday “ult”, with Monday
            starting something new.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thoughts On Heaven – Inspired by Christianity Today’s Interview with Kevin Kelly

So what does heaven look like? And what will life in heaven be like? I just read, on the Christianity Today Website, an intriguing interview with Kevin Kelly, editor at large of Wired magazine. Kelly, an Evangelical Christian, has some stimulating ideas about the future of technology, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. He imagines a time – not too far in the future – when man may have the ability to create robots who possess free will. The theological implications of that are both frightening and, as Kelly describes them, heart-warming. The frightening aspect, of course, is the old Frankenstein scenario, of a non-human creature run amuck. But the heart-warming aspect, as presented by Kelly, is that mankind will then be put into the position that God is in, having a created a being, capable of good or evil, and needing to provide moral guidance to that creature. Kelly imagines a time when man’s created being might come to him and say, “I am a child of God, may I join your church?” Kelly would admit him.

Such possibilities would have seemed too far-fetched to even consider a few years ago but now one is reluctant to deny that they might someday exist. I can think of Biblical and theological arguments in opposition to Kelly’s suggestions but, at the very least, he is raising questions that permit humans to put themselves in God’s shoes, so to speak, and understand the dilemma of a Creator with a fallen creature whose redemption might depend upon the intervention of its creator.

I found Kelly’s suggestions about heaven of particular interest. He speculates that heaven will be timeless and immaterial. The notion of immateriality seems not to agree with Paul’s description of the resurrected body in I Corinthians. And even the Apostle John who, in The Revelation, quotes the angel as declaring that “time will be no more,” finds that he cannot abandon time-laden descriptors such as “forever and forever,” either for heaven or for hell. But Kelly’s speculation that heaven will be a place where goodness can evolve into better goodness; where perfection will not be a static state, but where it can become more perfect, is an idea that addresses a question often raised about the moral agency of the redeemed after their arrival in heaven. Kelly’s concept suggests a solution to the paradox of a heaven in which perfected beings nonetheless retain free will. What purpose would free will serve for those rendered, through static perfection, incapable of using it?

The vast majority of Christians seem content to live and die without wondering, too deeply, about the things that Kelly is occupied with. For most Christian believers, if heaven’s streets are made of gold, and if eternity is one long reunion banquet, that is sufficient to keep them striving to get there. Besides, the alternative alone is enough to prod one toward heaven, even if, in the end, it consists only of a never ending church service.

The experience of man has taught him that life at its fullest is one in which choices determine destiny. There is something in the heart of man that longs for life to be eternal, free, and abundant. The good news of the Gospel is that “because Jesus rose from the dead, we too have hope for life everlasting. But, to merely be zapped into some kind of static perfection upon leaving this life, and entering the next as a robotic praise machine, is a cold comfort to one who longs to be eternally capable of relationship with his or her creator and savior; who longs to be knowingly reunited with loved ones whom Christ has redeemed. The hope of the Church consists of more than being transformed into “ten thousand times ten thousand” Victorolas, spinning out the doxology through endless (timeless?) ages.

Kelly’s idea, of a perfection that moves on to greater perfection, makes sense given what Scripture tells us about God; that He is infinitely unknowable but nonetheless always seeking to make Himself known to, and through, His creation. If heaven consists of one eternal church service, as some have portrayed it to be, it will not be because we are simply spinning out rote praises to God. It will be because we are continually learning more and more of God’s Glory and praising him for it. But perhaps, rather than sitting in rows chanting “holy, holy, holy,” we will be praising God by striving to be like Him; becoming, as we observe and extol His perfection, more and more perfect ourselves. To what degree we will ever be completely like Him is an open question, but we are told that, to some degree we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is.

Jesus told his critics that the miracles he performed came from his imitation of the Father; that he did nothing that he did not see his Father doing. That may be a good description of what life “in heaven” will be like; watching the Father at work, learning more and more what He is like, and then imitating Him in our thoughts, and words, and behaviors. It works in this life; why wouldn’t it work in eternity?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Four By Six View From My “Shanty”

God Himself could not design a view that would fulfill the requirements of my ideal vista. Well, I must revise that; He actually has done so but not all in one place. My ideal is a composite made up of all the beautiful scenes I’ve encountered through my lifetime. But one cannot have it all, at least not all at one time – in one place. So I’ve coined the term “Shanty” to characterize the many different scenes I would like to combine into my ideal place.

I grew up in “Shanty” – literally a simple, crudely built structure – and have never lost my love of it. It keeps popping up in my life and never fails to bring comfort when it does. I used to show my history classes an old black and white, sixteen millimeter movie film, depicting scenes from the Great Depression. One of the scenes in the film was shot from inside a mountain cabin during a rainstorm. The impoverished farmer who lived there stood helplessly on the porch of the cabin watching the water pour over the edge of the roof and out onto his land, carrying away his valuable soil and with it his hopes for himself and his family.

As a civic-minded Social Studies teacher I should have been most moved by the farmer’s plight, and, to my credit, I did attempt to impress students with the importance of the work of the Tennessee Valley Authority in teaching such farmers improved farming methods and helping them adopt soil erosion abatement programs. But what I loved about the film – which kept me showing it long after it ceased to run smoothly through the projector – was the raw splendor of the scene, even in black and white. The rugged beauty of the farmer’s weathered and wizened face, the deceptive power of the rain water flowing off the eaves of the cabin, the seemingly eternal strength and endurance of the land despite all that man and nature could do to it, left an enduring image on my mind and imagination. That “Shanty” – undoubtedly equipped with a fireplace or some other simple source of heat, sparsely populated with simple furniture, and offering a marvelous view of wooded hills and valleys – has become, for me, an ideal place on earth.

I’ve never owned such a place, and seldom visited one either. But I’ve been turning the places where I’ve lived and worked into “Shanty” for most of my life, choosing to see, from whatever window or porch has been given to me, the power and beauty of God’s creation, whether in the flutter of the butterfly’s flight or the flash and crash of a thunderstorm.

My “Shanty” at present is a basement office in an urban condominium. The four by six window looks out under an overhanging deck at a narrow yard stretching a mere 100 feet toward a bus barn. It is all well maintained, but it is neither urban elegance nor awe-inspiring natural flora and fauna. Scruffy oaks and elms and whatnot are finally reaching a height on the far side of the yard that hides the bus barn in summer. Nearer to the deck a pine tree that probably should have been removed during construction, has now grown too big for the space it occupies but now must stay to provide a stopping off place for cardinals and other birds on their way to the neighbor’s feeder. An oak, nearly bare of limbs twelve years ago now provides a canopy of shade over half of our deck. Squirrels, rabbits, and on at least one occasion, deer, have visited the yard in summer and winter. The seasons come and go, painting the scenes I view from my “Shanty” gray on cloudy, rainy days, and dappled gold on sunny ones. The yard wears green all summer and yellow, red, and brown in fall. Winter delights in laying a pristine blanket of white over the yard but she must battle with squirrels and rabbits who seem to delight in leaving their trails of footprints in her snow almost as soon as she finishes spreading it.

Some would call my view a “poor man’s ‘Shanty’”. I won’t argue with that. With only one small window looking out on the world it will never be featured in National Geographic. But enough can be seen from my four by six view to feed a desire for “Shanty.” And if I need more than this view affords I just close my eyes. I can still see the rain pouring over the eaves of a cabin on a wooded hillside somewhere in the Tennessee Valley eighty years ago.

Friday, July 15, 2011

If It’s Like I Think It Is, And I Think It Is

How much is your opinion worth . . . or mine? It would be futile to try to count the number of times I heard a student in my high school classroom or between classes, in the hallway, declare, “My opinion is as good as yours.” Or, my favorite: “This is America; everyone’s opinion is a good as the next guy’s.”

Well we just don’t believe that for one minute. There are those whose opinions carry great weight with us and those to whom we ascribe no value at all. The factors that go into making an opinion credible are legion, and some that we lean heavily on are not worth the air it takes for the opinionator to utter them. A two year-old toddler may be more credible than her mother if you are trying to discern what happened to the doll she was recently playing with. But on most matters, Mom’s opinion outweighs that of the infant. The opinion of your crazy aunt, regarding the cause of the persistent pain in your chest may be offered very sincerely, but you’ll be wise to regard the Cardiologist’s diagnosis above hers.

Television and the Internet have increased the ability of snake oil salesmen (and saleswomen) to reach us with their fabulous remedies and their philosophies for living. It is nearly impossible for the average person to weight the value of the opinions offered by these “experts”. For those with less than average reasoning acumen . . . well, they are at the mercy of the ad men and hucksters.

It is serious enough when those with limited financial resources are milked by the unscrupulous purveyors of worthless (worth less than advertised) merchandise, but a far greater danger lies in the proliferation of expert opinion on the web, on the radio, or on Television. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are just the most visible examples of “opinion makers” about whom no one asks, “Why does their opinion matter? What have they done in life that gives them the credibility to speak to the nation on any subject that comes to their mind?”

And now we have a twenty year-old unwed mother who was impregnated in a tent while too drunk to know what was happening to her, making tens of thousands of dollars promoting abstinence and virtuous living. We should all hope that she has thoroughly and permanently reformed her own behavior, but it is a little too soon, in this writer’s opinion, for her to be touting her success story in a memoir. She will, no doubt, reap additional thousands of dollars, and perhaps some television contracts as a result of her notoriety. But does she really have anything to say to the thousands of young girls who are about to enter motherhood without the hope of a book contract or television exposure? How much is her opinion worth in the struggle to raise a child in the slums of L.A., or even Anchorage?

My father was an uneducated, but savvy tinkerer. He could figure out a lot of things, just by connecting what he knew with what he imagined might be true. One day, while arguing for a particular point of view he made a statement that has become famous in our family. He said, “If it is like I think it is, and I think it is . . .” That kind of “reasoning” carried Dad through a long and, for an uneducated man, successful life. But it is rather scary to think how far he might have gone had he lived into the era of 24/7 mass media and Internet. No doubt he would have had a daily show to rival that of Oprah, Home Improvement, Car Talk, and The 700 Hundred Club combined.

And when the time came to write his book (ghost-written, of course) the title surely would have evolved into , If I Know What I Think I Know – And I Know I Do – You Can Trust Me With Your Wallet And Your Life.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Living Life Straight Through

        Live Drama
                                                   by Jim Rapp

Some movie actors say they never watch their films.
I understand; if my life were lived,
a series of disconnected scenes,
pieced together in a cutting room at some director’s whims,
I’d be loath to call it mine, nor give
a rip about the scenes that happened in between.

I’d rather spend my life as one upon a living stage;
an actor with a living part to play
in company with other living souls.
On stage or off, I’d be a party to the action; know the page,
and own my part in such a way
that I’d contribute to the Playwright’s goals.

There will be lines flubbed, and entrances missed,
and no chance to recover them;
no way but forward, scene by scene.
But better that, than acting when there is no risk;
when every scene gets shot again
until the product satisfies a predetermined scheme.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In Support of Poetry

No Prose In Heaven
                    by Jim Rapp

Poetry, were told, preceded prose;
it was an easy way the ancients had to stow
away some thoughts they’d later like to know
when seated ‘round a fire, or on the go.

“Rhyme and rhythm” was the tether
ancients used to hold together
random bits of news they’d gather
on their journeys yon and hither.

A song, a poem, or limerick,
carved or painted on a walking stick,
helped to make a lengthy story stick
in skulls, by modern standards, thick.

Modern man has turned his back
on poetry because, he says, it lacks
precision; holds only sentiment, can’t track
a thought that goes beyond a dozen facts.

Prose, of course, is great for storing details,
but bulging bags of facts preserved today’ll
be hard-pressed when time reveals
the holes in what was once thought sealed.

I think if heaven has to choose between the two,
it’s likely that the poets will be wearing golden shoes;
will write the songs and sermons that declare the news:
“Prosaic thinking, speaking, writing is eschewed.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Serious Humorist

My father was a serious man. Three things were paramount for him, his faith in God, his interest in politics, and his concern for the health of all the cars on the road. He was an amateur in all three areas but approached each of them with the seriousness of a professional. There is a sense in which all three blended together creating a sort of seamlessness in his thinking. I’ve always thought of him as a man of integrity. And when I use that term I’m not thinking just of honesty and truthfulness, although those were things he was known for. I’m using “integrity” in the sense of things hanging together, making sense individually but each adding to and helping to define the whole of who he was.

But Dad was not humorless by any means. I don’t think I ever recall him “telling a joke.” He may well have done so from time to time but it was so rare as to not be a part of my memory of him. What I remember are the little “setups” he would create to play with our minds.

When my brothers and I were young we were builders like our father. And like him we struggled to maintain our projects with limited resources. Any rumor of materials for the taking was good news to us. So, one winter evening, when we were gathered in the living room around the wood stove, Dad asked if anyone would like some large nails, we all indicated an eagerness for them. “There are some nice ones on the stove board,” he said, indicating the metal-clad asbestos pad that lay under the stove, keeping its heat from setting the floorboards on fire. One of us made a dive for the floorboard and then emitted a disappointed groan. They were, indeed, fine nails; those recently trimmed from Dad’s toes.

Or there was the time that he told me he had drawn a picture of me “on the range.” One of my desires was, like most other boys, to be a cowboy. I ran to see the picture and found a crude drawing (crude was part of the fun for Dad, although it may have been all he was capable of too). It showed a boy sitting on a kitchen range. Inscribed on the drawing, in Dad’s simple printing was, “James on the range.” When I complained, he offered to make amends by drawing a picture of me on the ranch. I agreed to give him a second chance. When he was finished he handed me his drawing, again a crude creation showing a boy sitting astride an open-end mechanic’s wrench, with the caption printed below, “James on the wrench.” “Oh, isn’t that the way you spell “ranch,” he asked when I objected.

Most of the time Dad presented his serious side, arguing about points of religion or Biblical interpretation with his Southern Baptist brothers, or defending Franklin Roosevelt against those who depreciated the value of his New Deal programs, or bending over an ailing automobile, diagnosing its problem and prescribing the remedy. It is that side of him that most people came to know and appreciate. Those are strong memories for me too. But the humor is the thing I miss most. The quiet smile of satisfaction when he had pulled one over on you.

There may not be a place in heaven for politics, auto repairs, or even religious disputation. I’m hoping though, there will be a place for joy. It was joy, after all, that Dad's humor was intended to create and share.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Few There Be That Find It

I wouldn’t dare estimate how many times I heard, as a child, in “revival meetings,” that the gate is small and the path narrow that leads to eternal life . . . and few there be that find it. That is a quotation taken from Jesus’ own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount so it must be taken seriously. But there is a danger that, in taking it seriously, we will discount the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in the world today.

Much of what is touted as part of a world-wide revival strikes me as shallow and sensationalized. The focus is on the size and character of the gatherings, the charisma of the leaders, and the prominence the meetings can achieve. Stimulation of the senses, through sound and visual effects, seems, too often, to be paramount. The message preached, promising a life of prosperity and health, can only be fulfilled by a blind denial of the real circumstances in the lives of those attending the meetings, and in the particular culture where the message is delivered. Such “revival” is destined to be short-lived and leaves behind a residue of cynicism and, far to often, an army of religious practitioners guided (or driven) by bad theology.  That kind of “revival” draws huge crowds and gives the appearance of a rapidly expanding and triumphant Christian Church, almost denying the statement of Jesus that, small is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leads to eternal life . . . and few there be that find it.

But what is the definition of “few” on a planet soon to be inhabited by 7 billion souls; a planet that, over the course of human existence, has hosted 100 billion individual human beings? If only one percent of all the souls who have occupied, and now do occupy, this globe were to find their way into God’s eternity it would amount to nearly 1.1 billion eternal souls. Granted, that is one thousand times more than the “ten thousand, times ten thousand” that the Apostle John saw in his heavenly vision recorded for us in the Revelation of John. But neither Jesus, nor John, I believe, was speaking statistically. In Jesus statement he was emphasizing the relative unpopularity of the Gospel message among sinful men. The Father is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. He will deny no one who puts his or her trust in Christ. But Jesus knew that would be a relatively small number. John, in his vision of “ten thousand times ten thousand”, was exalting over the expansive scene of glory in his heavenly vision. It seems likely that the “few” who inherit everlasting life by placing their trust in Jesus, will, nonetheless, be a vast host. Sadly, the “many” whom Jesus said were on the way to destruction, will be vastly larger.

The New Testament writers seem more concerned about the quality of faith among believers than their numeric quantity. I believe that needs to be the focus of the church today. Reports I read today, of the spread of Christianity among the lowest castes of India are indicative of the kind of “revival” the Holy Spirit is seeking to effect in the world. To people who have no status in their culture, and whose lives are bereft of the barest of comforts, the message of Jesus love for them and acceptance of them strikes a note of hope. Those bringing the good news to them make no promises of either wealth or health (although they pray for their sick and some are healed); only a promise of life everlasting. Some estimates indicate that as many as seventy million have come to faith in that Hindu/Muslim land. That is only a tiny fraction of their population, which is approaching 1.3 billion, but the “few” that find the narrow way, leading to the small gate, are finding the way to everlasting life.

A similar story can be told about China and, to a lesser degree, many Muslin countries. And in all those cases, the glitzy, loud, sense-based, health and prosperity message of Western Christianity is banned. Mass meetings of Christians are not permitted. They would make little sense in those cultures anyway. They don’t represent the Gospel. So, humble and practical indigenous believers are reaching out in real-life ways, through charity, medical care, education, and above all, love. The life of Christ in his disciples becomes the power of God unto salvation for thousands every year who are beginning their trek on the narrow way that leads to everlasting life. Pray for them.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Is The Church's Mission In The World?

          Device to Root Out Evil - Dennis Oppenheim - Vancouver, British Columbia

      A Dangerous Mission
                           by Jim Rapp

Dennis Oppehiem’s sculpture,
placed in downtown Vancouver,
is a challenge to the culture –
a greater challenge to the “rooter.”

Can the Church, a roto-rooter be,
and still allow the world to see,
through its transparency,
its Lord in pristine purity?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Song that Never Ends

Norman Martin is credited with writing “The Song That Never Ends” in 1988 but I encountered a song, designed to never end, thirty years before, in the early 1950s. It was my Sophomore year of high school and I was recruited to sing the baritone part in a male quartet. Opinions would vary, I sure, about the quality of our singing but we were, for a couple of years a “popular” choice to provide a small vocal program at various community club meetings and events. Our repertoire was varied but leaned heavily toward barbershop harmony pieces and what could, at that time, still be called “Negro Spirituals.”

One of our favorite songs – so popular with the quartet that I’ve forgotten its title – was a piece, sung, a cappella, that featured a key change raising the pitch for the succeeding chorus by one half note. The song then ended with a standard resolution at the point where we had previously been led to a new key. The lead singer (second tenor) was responsible for taking us into the key change by executing a chromatic progression that was his special secret; a mystery to the other members of the quartet. We simply followed the leader. It eventually became obvious that it was a mystery to him as well. But through most of our career together he ably executed the transition and audiences were duly impressed and pleased.

On one occasion, though, we intended to end our performance with the special crowd pleaser. We had, thankfully, already consumed our cherry pie, the dessert we received as payment for a job well done. But that day our concert took an unexpected turn. The lead singer took us smoothly through the modulation and into the second and, we believed, final rendition of the chorus, but when we reached the critical point at which we were to end the song, receive the applause, take our bows, and leave, our leader repeated the modulation, taking us another half-note higher and requiring us to sing the chorus another time. That was fair enough; the pie had been good, and we could wait for the applause through one more chorus. But, when he failed to bring us to a resolution after that repetition, and transitioned us once again to a higher pitch, we knew we were on an unsustainable course. There was a “I’m sorry, guys, I don’t know what to do!” look on his face as we moved into our fourth modulation.

When the wagon is careening wildly down the hill each man must decide when he should bail out, leaving the others to their fate. It is every man for himself!

One by one we bailed; the quartet became a trio, a duet, a solo, and finally four young boys convulsed in laughter. Our audience joined us in our mirth and gave us a polite and amused send off, thankful, no doubt, that our song had finally ended.

I’ve speculated that the reason our version of the “song that never ends” failed to catch on, and Mr. Martin’s became a success, lies within that pesky key change. Without it, we might still be onstage, four graying old men, circling endlessly through a chorus that never ends.