Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Glory of God in a Semi-Truck

My wife texted the word “treacherous” to her mother as I gripped the wheel hard. 

Christmas had been a delight, but year-end inventory demanded a hasty exit.  Christmas in Michigan on Tuesday, inventory in New York on Thursday, one travel day between.  But Wednesday, a wide swath of snow was predicted to settle over our intended route.

We had hoped to stay ahead of the blizzard, forgoing a farewell breakfast outing to get an early start.  As we left Grand Rapids, severe weather was chasing us.  As we crossed into Ohio, it was licking our heals.  By Cleveland we had been overtaken, deep in the soup of wintry squall. 

Snow was pouring down heavy, not the large wafers, like billowing frosted flakes, but the small crystalline nuggets, like granules of sugar flung through the sky.  Wind swept, the tiny pellets fell in erratic waves, like a swarm of gnats, bleached white, swirling this way and that, then pummeling our windshield with a steady “tink.”

The roadway gradually surrendered, reduced first to ruts, then to barely visible tracks.  Snow was piling on faster than plow and salt could contend with.  We lumbered along, speedometer hovering near 40 mph.  The number of cars spun off the road began to add up  - a dozen, then two.

The right lane was inhabited by the overly cautious, hazards blinking, signaling a crawling progress.  The left lane was commandeered by the reckless, confident in their four-wheel drive SUVs and plunging ahead at speeds near normal.  We were somewhere between these two extremes, forced to navigate between the lanes. Each lane change entailed easing our way out of the established ruts and into fresh snow that offered little traction.  Each time I nudged the van across the centerline, I could sense its loosened grip on the road.  Gently, I urged it back into the furrows of the lane, where rubber and asphalt could pull together in some limited traction. 

This was harsh enough in waning daylight.  It became more so as darkened night descended.  Limited visibility, restricted even more.  Lanes on the thruway were mere approximations, loosely gauged off mounted reflectors on the shoulder and median.  We had been texting my mother-in-law throughout the trip to keep her updated on our progress and to assure her of our safety.  The darkness inspired the “treacherous” text.  Still, we drove. 

Somewhere near Rochester, a double-cabbed semi-truck passed us, barreling through this interstate with determination.  He was driving with confidence – not so fast as to be reckless, not so slow as to be a hazard. We settled in behind, drafting off his bulk.  His twenty some-odd tires were carving a path deep into the snow under the weight of his load.  Our four irresolute tires found traction in the wake and gripped the road tighter. 

The rear of the trailer was illumined by red lights along the top and in the bottom corners that served as lane markers.  Eyes fixed on these beacons, we were guided through the blanket of white, the road clearly marked with illumined red.

We followed that trailer the rest of the way home.  His lights became our beacon, his trailblazing became our tracks.  Treacherous conditions were made navigable by a steady and reliable guide. 

In the tense stillness of driving, as I concentrated on the road, I saw the parable unfold. I was granted ears to hear and eyes to see.  Each of us is traveling a road that is more slippery than we realize.  The tires that grip one moment can loose traction the next.   Slight drifts to the right or left can suck us into an irrecoverable slide off the road. We need a semi truck to follow.  The answer is found in the glory of God.

In the Old Testament, God provided a cloud to lead the Israelites through the wilderness by day and a pillar of fire to lead them by night. This was a visible manifestation of the glory of God (Exodus 40:34).  A cloud in the desert and a fire in the darkness are about as noticeable as any visible manifestation could be.  Impossible to ignore, they were to follow where ever this beacon wherever it went. 

By the end of the book of Exodus, the cloud had filled the tabernacle.  “So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and the fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during their travels” (Exodus 40:38, NIV).  The tabernacle in general, and the mercy seat above the Ark of the Covenant in particular (Leviticus 16:2), became the dwelling place of the glory of God for the ancient Israelites. 

Hundreds of years later, in 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites used the ark as a talisman, hoping to improve their odds against the Philistines by bringing it with them into battle.  The plan backfired and their losses multiplied seven fold over their initial Arkless outing.  Moreover, the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philisitnes.  When Eli the priest hears this news he falls over and dies “for he was an old man and heavy” (1 Samuel 4:18). This note of his portliness is not incidental.  Interestingly, the word for heavy (kabod) is the same as the word for glory.  Eli’s daughter in law goes into labor and delivers a son whom she names Ichabod (which means “no glory”) saying “the glory has departed from Israel.” (1 Samuel 4:21).  Indeed it has, in more ways (or, should I say “weighs”?) than one.  In one sense, the heaviness had departed with the death of plump Eli.  In another sense, the glory had departed with the capture of the ark, the throne of God’s glory.

The word play is intentional…and insightful.  God’s glory can be thought of in terms of his heaviness.  Not heavy like the chubby Buddha in the Chinese restaurant.  Rather heavy in the sense of dense.  All the attributes of God – his love and power and mercy and wisdom and justice and knowledge and grace – are dense in their concentration.  God’s love is the densest love ever known.  Place my love on one side of the scale and God’s love on the other and the side of God’s love drops with a thud.  His love is weightier than any other love.  This is true of all the other attributes when placed on the scale.  This is the glory of God – his attributes in all their density compared to the feather light attributes of any others.  

So here is glory…light and heavy (an oxymoron).  Light in the sense of clarity, heavy in the sense of density.  He offers clear direction charted with densely precise instruments of navigation to insure that he can guide me through this snow storm.  He is the semi-truck barreling down the highway, brightly lit and heavily laden carving a path and bidding me to follow.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

My Blue Mug

This new year has been full of starts.  I have begun work on over a half dozen posts.  But I've been sluggish in the finishing.  I'll buckle down soon.  I'm focusing more of my attention this year on writing for paying markets.  So some of my writing time has been gobbled up editing previous posts to prepare them for submission elsewhere.  This piece I wrote from scratch for Vista, a Sunday School quarterly.  It was accepted, but won't be published until this fall.  I figured I could share it here, since most of the other stuff that is finished or near finished has already appeared on the blog in one form or another.  

As I sit at the computer to write, I am accompanied by a mug.  I received it a few years ago for Christmas, picked up from a second hand store by one of my young children for some spare change. 

It is dull; a simple blue glaze exterior with a cream interior, stained through use to a dull tan.  Otherwise, it is nondescript; simple and unpretentious.  This is not a specimen of exquisite craftsmanship.  It is mass produced and generic.  Nothing about it invites a second glance. 

But it is a workhorse, well seasoned with repeated use. I am a tea drinker, consuming many cups a day.  This mug is the vessel for my beverage of choice.  It has endured much scalding, steeping, and sipping, and rinsing.  It has been often neglected, left to sit on a counter half full of tepid tea. It has been reheated in the microwave many times over.

It is endearingly familiar.  It has been my companion through many early morning quiet times and late night conversations.  It has helped open bleary eyes with a strong cup of Irish Breakfast, held me steady through the day with a refreshing cup of Darjeeling, and welcomed drowsiness with a soothing cup of Chamomile.  Even now, I warm my hands on it sides as I raise it to my lips and allow the steam to fog my glasses.  The aroma clears my mind. 

And this is why I treasure this cup.  Not for its physical beauty or monetary value, but for its usefulness.  While the dainty tea cups with complimenting saucers sit in the cabinet glorying in their fine bone china craftsmanship, this simple porcelain mug spends more time on end tables and desks, fulfilling its function. Lacking artistry, it is employed without worry of defilement.  Durable and rugged, it can withstand daily use.  Designed to be a cup, it functions that way, serving up hot drinks day after day.

When Jesus says that “whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44, NIV), he is inviting me to be the mug that is used daily, not the tea cup that sits in the china cabinet, ornate but unemployed.  According to Jesus, greatness is determined by service.  This is a step beyond humility, which is an attitude, to servitude, which is a function.   Humility unleashes me to be useful.  I spend less time and energy worrying about appearance.  Instead of preserving my image, I can focus on doing what God has called me to do even when it is servile.  Designed to be a cup, I raise no objection to daily use.  My place is on a coaster, not in the cupboard.  Steeped in God’s grace I bring drink to a thirsty world. What I offer is not a beautiful cup, but a satisfying drink.  And this is greatness, to serve up that drink well.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

All Things New

A new year offers a fresh start, an opportunity for reflection and anticipation. Resolutions are made as to how things will be different this time through the calendric rotation, from January to December. Vices will be conquered and goals will be met in this new bundle of 365 days.

Familiar and Unfamiliar
A new year is unmistakably familiar. From the cooling of winter, to the blooming of spring, to the color of summer, to the bounty of fall, each season has its own recognizable character, a pattern that holds year after year. Birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays will crop up with expected regularity. Car inspections, health club memberships, and magazine subscriptions will all invite renewal. Even now, tax season is visible on the horizon, a hazy outline visible through the fog of holiday bills. The filing deadline will arrive with stubborn regularity in mid April. Winter, spring, summer, and fall each proceed in orderly fashion as a new year unfolds. We’ve been through this all before. 
And yet, it is new – familiar, but not the same. This year will be different from last, as each year is. These 12 months will unfold a unique blend of opportunities and experiences never before encountered. February will predictably follow January, and splatter me with unpredictable variables. Like a coil, each year is another loop arcing around a familiar course at an unfamiliar level. 

The Thread of Renewal
The thread of renewal has been knit into our experience of time, whether measured by the clock and its recurring seconds, minutes, and hours, or the calendar, with its recurring days, weeks, and months. This same thread reaches beyond this one swatch of time and is woven throughout the tapestry. We see the gleam of rebirth and regeneration in countless cycles – weather cycles, anatomical cycles, life cycles, agricultural cycles, astronomical cycles, migration cycles, tidal cycles, and on the list goes. This stitching is part of the distinctiveness of God’s quilted creation. In each case, it is this same balance of familiarity and novelty. It is a well-known pattern that unfolds with unexpected details.

A Reminder of Fallenness
These cycles remind us of fallenness. All is not right. The book of Hebrews makes the case that same sacrifices repeated year after year were a reflection of the inadequacy of those sacrifices to purify (Hebrews 10:1-4). They were a reminder of sin, a string around the finger recalling the brokenness of this world. They couldn’t fix the problem, but they could keep it in the Israelite’s field of vision.
Jesus sacrifice completed the cycle.  “When this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:10, NIV). The cycle of sacrifices was complete. Even so, the fallenness is not fully resolved. “Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool” (Hebrews 10:13, NIV).
Sin has infiltrated more than just our hearts. It has infected our world. This is a creation groaning for redemption, heavy laden with the burden of corruption, held in bondage to decay (Romans 8:20-22). A new January is a reminder that the same fallenness that tarnished last January is still present. The world is still fallen. This new year will have it’s share of natural disasters and human corruption, as every year does. We ache for final resolution when a new age will entail more than just a new wall calendar. 

An Opportunity for Advancement
But these cycles are an opportunity for advancement, a reminder that God does not lock us into our failures. Brokenness may infiltrate the cycle, but so does renewal. When Scripture speaks of newness, it is in settings of hope for transformation. We take off the corrupted old self and put on the new self with a renewed attitude (Ephesians 4:22-24, Colossians 3:9-10). Because of the resurrection, we may live a new life (Romans 6:4) for we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:18). We are not resigned to failure. We are encouraged that progress can be made. Each new year is an occasion to start again. And these opportunities are not stranded 365 days apart. Each new month, each new week, each new day, each new hour, each new moment is another opportunity for renewal. God invites us to begin again.
This new year is an opportunity for renewal within brokenness. In Christ, the new creation begins on a micro level.  He is changing the world by changing me. In this there is hope. Failure can be righted. Addictions can be overcome. Broken relationship can be mended. Growth can be nurtured. Healing can be administered. Sin can be forgiven.  Emptiness can be filled. Silence can be broken. Fragility can be strengthened. Barrenness can be impregnated. Shallowness can be excavated. The God of renewal can be exalted anew as the calendar turns a new page.