Saturday, March 16, 2013

"...and all the day long." (In His Hands, Part II)

"[God] caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them. He cleaved the rock, and the waters gushed out." Isaiah 48:21

We all assume that God is arbitrary, that He is shooting from the hip and working off the cuff. It is natural for us to think so, for we are arbitrary, and we make God in our own image. Like pagans of old, we presuppose that the world and the universe are both fundamentally chaotic, and why wouldn't we? It is larger than us, and its laws (if it has any) are hidden from us. Men are mad with their violence and corruptions, and the earth is mad with its disasters and calamities. And there we stand, small and infinitesimal before it all, overwhelmed by constant floods of mixed messages, random actions, and indifferent nature.

Standing where we are, it is easy to shrink all souls to our own size, to think that if we're overwhelmed then everyone's overwhelmed, including God. He tries His best, of course, and His all-power and all-wisdom come in handy for cleaning up messes (when He gets around to them). But from our point of view, we cannot help but think that He to gets frustrated and can only make decisions on the fly. Perhaps we're being reverent when we think this, trying to "excuse" God; but we still think He's a bit out of His league.

The key, however, is "from our point of view". It is one of the greatest faults of humanity that we always reduce everything down to our size, to our position and place. It is understandable. We want sympathy with others; it helps us feel like we're not alone in our situation. But here's the thing: God already sees from our point of view, both as God (Ps. 103:13-14) and Man (Heb. 4:14-15). Thus, He is not in need of seeing from our position. On the contrary, we need to learn to see from His. If we do, then we will learn this startling, offensive truth: there is no arbitration in God; it is all plan.

Look at Israel. God knew beforehand that they would sin (Is. 48:3-8) and had already planned the purging, perfecting punishment (vs. 9-11). But he had also preplanned Cyrus to be their salvation from that punishment (Is. 45:1-7; 48:12-16), a salvation coming in spite of all their sins (Is. 48:17-21). He had already planned out the whole thing. The exile was not an accident, and Cyrus was not "Plan B". It was all "Plan A". God knows there is a snake in the garden, and He already has a Seed fit to crush its head. He is never surprised.

We are frequently surprised, however, because we only see from our finite position. One of the marks of growing in holiness and sanctification and spiritual maturity is being torn from your agoraphobic bubble and led into the big country of our big God. True, there are many layers to our bubbles, but if you belong to God He will pop every one of them to finally let in some air and light, clean like an ocean breeze and clear like the noonday sky. Even then we will have only just begun to comprehend the height and depth and length and breadth of the love of God, which covers all angles as well as a multitude of sins.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"In the night season..." (In His Hands, Part I)

"Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have tried and chosen thee in the furnace of affliction." Is. 48:10

In the Divine Comedy, Dante discovers an odd rule of Mount Purgatory. Every soul there may ascend the mountain as they will except at night, where a great and horrible darkness falls over everything. At times like that, the only thing to do is to sit and wait in the dark. Throughout the poem (and in typical Medieval symbolism), light is representative of God. Those in Hell, being separated from God, have no light. Those in Paradise, being in God's presence, have all-light (or all the light that they desire). Purgatory, however, goes through times of light and dark, of ascension and stillness. It alone bears that dichotomy.

In the Comedy, Purgatory is not just a Roman Catholic image of the afterlife. It is also an image of the human soul as it lives in the here and now, going through the birth-pangs of sanctification. What Dante (good Christian that he was) was trying to point out is that sanctification is necessarily a halting affair. You cannot move onward without the gracious light of God's truth, and the times that light is hidden are part of the proceedings. If you are to love God, then you must not only know God but also have the humility to trust His goodness, especially in the dark.

The idea of being purged through dark times is biblical to the core. Sometimes it is a direct result of living in sin, such as Israel in both their wilderness wanderings and (in the case of Isaiah) their Babylonian exile. Other times, it is a means to prove your reliance on God alone, such as Jesus' temptation in the wilderness or Paul's "thorn in the flesh." In either case, the end result is to be the same: God is your all in all, and His grace is sufficient for you. This principle is vividly apparent in Isaiah, where God wages a ceaseless war against hubris, the hubris that sees itself as God and its own salvation (Is. 47:8-14). God will smash all of our false hopes and counsels, smash them with a furious, unrelenting love that will not leave you in the rot of your idolatry and ignorance.

We must understand: too often we view "the furnace of affliction," those dark nights of the soul, as a bad thing, as a hindrance and a failure. It is true (as said before) that those times can be a result of sin in your life, but we will know those times because we will know our sin, even though we have refused to deal with it. But there are other times where there is no conscious sin that has beset us, and you do yourself no favors by racking your brain to think of one. This is because in either case (whether by sin or not), the purging is not a failure. On the contrary: it is all a part of the plan.

Look at the Babylonian exile. Though it was a result of Israel's longstanding and sinful obstinacy, it was still under God's purview. He knew from the beginning that Israel would be obstinate, and thus He planned accordingly (Is. 48:3-11). The "thus" is always present, always paramount. What happened did not surprise God at all, and the subsequent purging was not 'Plan B". It was always Plan A, for everything is all plan. God knew, and thus He planned. Whom He foreknew, He predestined to justification and glory. The days of purging are not about God's displeasure (as we so often think). Rather, it is about the sovereign grace of God. Remember Mount Purgatory: the Sun's shinings were not arbitrary, nor was the darkness an accident. It is all plan, all within the scope and scheme of redemption. If God has called you and set you on the path, then you will make it home.

To be sure, your journey will not be a straight line. God does not work in a straight line, because He is not a straight line. He is not the prime principle of some system working out its logical conclusion, nor is He a cosmological administrator working out kinks, cleaning up messes, and keeping everything within protocol. He is not mindless or helpless. He is the loving Creator, and all His movements are artful, purposeful, and loving. Always loving, for the Great and Glad Creator is your Great and Glad Father, and He will lead you home on a path wrought for you, wrought by His own hands, intentionally infused with sunlight and tears. Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Gospel of Water (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"Harken unto Me, ye stouthearted that are far from righteousness: I bring near My righteousness; it shall not be far off, and My salvation shall not tarry...." Is. 46:12-13

This chapter of Isaiah devotes itself to two common themes of the whole book. The first is God's absolute uncategoricalness (vs, 5, 9) and the second is the idiocy and irony of idol worship (vs. 6-7). The former necessarily leads to the latter. God alone is the holy one, the one who is fundamentally other than and different from us. That is significant because of the contrast with our inherent weakness: we are naturally transgressors (vs. 8) and children of iniquity (Is. 53:6). That contrast leads straight to an unavoidable truth: we are incapable of saving ourselves, either individually or as a race.

That we cannot save ourselves is what creates the farce of idol worship. We worship things that we bought with our own money (from the vendor who made it), and we have to take care of it (moving it, cleaning it, maintaining it). The whole imbecilic display is still true today: we still worship at the altar of our own weakness, our own creations of money and sex and power and our best-life-now. Yet we are not our own salvation; even worse, we are our own damnation. If we are to be saved, then it must come from outside of ourselves, from One who is not like us, not weak like us. One who is strong and mighty to save.

God's omnipotence and our impotence are what make damnation so sad. We think we have found our salvation, our liberation from drudgery, despair, and guilt. We think we found it in that man, this woman, that cause, this movement, that career, this calling, that vice, this virtue. It is all folly, horribly sad folly. We think that we are drawing near to salvation, but we are far from it. We think we have found what will fix our souls, make us right, and give us peace. But behind all our idols and substitutions for God, there is only the same old gnawing self, never filled, always hungry, drinking up worlds of water and never quenching its thirst. How can it? In God alone is living water, the well that never runs dry. Our impotence means that we could never acquire so great a salvation on our own, but by His omnipotence He has come near, bringing His salvation with Him, and any one who listens can hear His call coming over the hills and cutting deep into your heart:

Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy, and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourself in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live....

(Isaiah 55:1-3a)

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013