Friday, September 23, 2016

Zero and Agatha, PZ, Scofield, the Kingdom, and Debbie

A kingdom is defined by the character of the King.  The King's disposition towards his subjects reflects the character of the King.  So, to understand the Kingdom of God (one of Jesus' favorite topics), we have to understand the character of the King.

C.I. Scofield says that, in the "treasure in the field" parable, we (not God) are the treasure.

Paul Zahl says that romantic love most clearly reflects the love that God has for us.

God told Hosea to marry Gomer to demonstrate God's love for His people.

Jesus is often spoken of as the Bridgegroom of His people.

For years, I thought Zahl, God and Jesus were a little crazy in likening our relationship to God to the romantic love of a man and a woman.  Then, I came across Scofield's interpretation of the "treasure in the field" which, in conjunction with The Grand Budapest Hotel, has given me a much greater understanding of God's love for us.

For the past couple of years, I've told my wife that I'm shocked that I've been faithful to her for so many years.  It sounds weird to say this (shouldn't my being a Christian be sufficient to keep me on the straight and narrow), but I'm shocked that I haven't wanted to have an affair, given that I struggled with lust for many years.  In fact, in around 2002, one of my law partners came to me and said:  "Ellis, what's happened to you?  You were the most lustful person that I knew, but now you're not."

In preparing a Sunday School lesson, it finally hit me that it wasn't duty or morality that had kept me from having an affair--that had freed me from lust--it was that my lust had been replaced by the love of Christ.  I was and am so enamored by His love for me that I don't have to seek that love from other women or even from my wife.

The beauty and magnitude of Christ's love has allowed me to put my love for my wife in its proper place.  I'm no longer grasping so for her love that I'm strangling that love--think of a child loving a kitten to death--hugging it so much that it's life breath is squeezed out.

Christ's love has stolen my heart.  How did this happen?

Christ first began working on me when I found out within a six month period that:  1)my wife wanted to divorce me;  2)my best client was possibly a crook;  and 3)I had an auto-immune liver disease which would necessitate a liver transplant in about 10 years.  This all happened around 13-14 years ago.  Thankfully, I had been attending Paul Zahl's bible study where I was hearing that:  1)grace, not the law, is the only thing that can change our hearts;  2)that I brought nothing to God but my sin;  3)that God's love was made manifest in weakness, not strength.  I had never heard these truths before.  They were such a "breath of fresh air," and I was at such a low spot, that my heart became captivated by this God.

Yet, I still didn't get the bridegroom idea.  Frankly, it sounds weird when applied to a man's relationship to Christ.

Then, along came Scofield's interpretation of the "treasure in the field" parable and the love of Agatha and Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Kingdom of God is like:  "a man who found a treasure in a field and sold everything he had to buy the field and therefore obtain the treasure."

I had always thought that this parable was likening the Kingdom of God to a treasure, but the parable doesn't say that.  It says that the Kingdom of God is like a man who sells everything to buy the field, because that man wants the treasure.  The parable is telling us the character of the man who is running the Kingdom of God--the character of the man who is the King.  Who sold everything?  Jesus.  Would we ever really sell everything to obtain the Kingdom?  No, but Jesus sold everything (on the Cross) to obtain us.  If Jesus is the man in the parable, then Jesus views us as His treasure.  If that's true, then we live in a kingdom where our King views His subjects as His treasures.

This is a love that goes beyond parental love.  This is a love reflected by the quickening of our hearts by romantic love. Cue The Grand Budapest Hotel and the love of Zero and Agatha.

The love of Zero and Agatha is young love at its best--fresh, new, exhilarating and to its observers--intoxicating.  Zero is the lobby boy at The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Agatha is a baker at Mendl's where they create the most beautiful and wonderful sweets--think Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory--except even better.

Zero and Agatha fall in love--they are all of 16 or 17.  They marry, then the movie goes silent on their relationship.  In fact, their love and relationship is like a "treasure hidden in a field."  It's not the main relationship or even the main story of the movie.  The main relationship and story is between Zero and his boss--the head concierge--Mr. Gustave H.  So, the love relationship is even that more compelling, because it has to be teased out from short vignettes amongst the overall prevailing story.

At some point, we learn that Agatha has died in child birth.  At the end of the movie, we learn that Zero has sold everything for love.

When Zero was a lobby boy, he had a tiny room in the hotel where he stayed--where he and Agatha stayed.  We learn that Mr. Gustave H inherits many amazing properties from one of the hotel's longtime customers and that, when Mr. Gustave H dies, he leaves all of these properties to Zero.  Zero, as a young man, becomes the wealthiest man in the country!

Then, the fascists take over--fascist communists.  They nationalize all of Zero's properties, but they allow him to keep one.  Which one does he keep?  The least of the properties in terms of its value--the Grand Budapest Hotel which had become run down and lost its splendor.

Yet, Zero keeps the Grand Budapest Hotel, because it is a treasure to him.  We learn why.

When Zero in his elder years continues to visit the hotel, he always stays in the tiny room that he had when he was a lobby boy--the tiny room which he and Agatha shared.  Zero gave everything (sold everything) but kept the rundown hotel (the field with the treasure)--the treasure being his love for Agatha who was long since dead--dead for many a year but still captivating Zero.

This love was so beautiful that it broke my heart.  It was so beautiful because Agatha and Zero were each other's treasures--just as we are God's treasures--just as my wife, Debbie, is now my treasure.

But Debbie is only my treasure, because I am Christ's treasure!

Monday, May 23, 2016

My Many Marriages

Paul Zahl, in Grace in Practice, says that our marriages are begun with a spark of grace.

"Wow, that beautiful girl loves me."--Ellis

"He bought me a white linen Ralph Lauren dress.  He really cares about me."--Debbie

Then, Zahl points out that the law comes creeping in.  We all know that "law is death"--it almost killed our marriage.

For the first ten to twelve years of our marriage, I tried to establish marital and familial relations which were consistent with my upbringing and my personality.  Debbie did the same.  (Of course, we can also reject what our parents had, but then we still bring the law into our marriage trying to do the opposite of what our parents did.)  In other words, our view of what a marriage and family should be like became instruments of judgment over against our spouse.  This almost resulted in a divorce.

Then, as I've written before, I began attending PZ's Bible Study and began learning that God, rather than judging us, was graciously loving us.  This knowledge of God's demeanor towards me allowed me to begin displaying (in some part) this same demeanor towards Debbie.

Thankfully, Debbie found a wonderful Bible Study at Covenant Presbyterian.  Debbie wanted to fix our marriage and family.  Like me, instead of finding a Bible Study that focused on how to fix yourself and/or your family, she found one in which the grace of God towards His beloved children was taught.

Debbie and I learned to forgive each other.  We began to see each other, albeit only dimly, as God saw us.  This brought about a metamorphosis in our marriage.  Our first marriage died, and a second one was born.

During our second marriage, we had learned to forgive each other for our weaknesses.  Debbie forgave me for my temper, and I forgave her what I perceived to be stubbornness--but which was actually Debbie protecting her heart.

As the years have rolled by, God has brought further changes in our marriage.

First, we began to appreciate one another for our strengths--appreciation which we had when we married but which had been subjugated by recrimination over the years for all the things we do wrong.  Debbie's empathetic nature gave her the ability to minister to my mother--who can be off-putting.  Debbie's tireless care towards my mother changed my mother and dramatically improved my relationship with my mother.

Second, we began to understand that you don't get certain strengths without the concomitant weakness.  Since Debbie was so empathetic, she was disorganized.  Her focus was on people, so she was not good at setting and accomplishing tasks.  On the other hand, I am task-oriented, which means that tasks come before people.  We realized that her strengths offset my weaknesses and vice-a-versa. We realized that the marriage is to be a partnership--a symbiotic relationship--that, as written in Genesis, we were to be One.

Third, when reading Zahl again recently, I realized that the "leave and cleave" language in Genesis refers not just to putting our new family first (in some sense) but that it also means that one's marriage should be, and has to be, different from the one that my parents had and from the one that Debbie's parents had.  Our marriage is to be a new entity--formed by the meshing of my strengths and weaknesses with Debbie's strengths and weaknesses.  In other words, we are not to "do" our marriage like our parents "did" theirs--no matter how good our parents' marriages were.

Where will our marriage be in another five years--if God lets me live that long, I can't wait to see.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Fifty-five (55) and Counting...Grace in Death

I was checking out at the doctor's last week, and they give you a printout with your prescriptions and it has your name, address, and there it was:  55 (my age).  How did it get to be 55?

What's it like being 55?  Well, I've been thinking about death a lot.  The last time that I spent this much time thinking about death, I was 36 and in a state of deep depression.  I was considering taking my life.  Then, I heard about a Jesus that I had never heard about...the Savior of sinners--deep-down irrepressible sinners...sinners who would be sinners until they died.  A god who would love His children even if they never changed!!!  It saved my life.

Now, at 55, my thoughts of death aren't depressing, but they do make me ponder about the God that I began learning about in January, 1998.

I've heard a couple of sermons lately that deal with death.  The first was by Bishop Sloan at the Advent on Ash Wednesday.  This man is full of grace.  From what I can tell, he is more liberal than the Advent.  Yet, he appreciates and supports the proclamation of the Gospel at the Advent.  The Bishop is a true Christian--he is not put off by others with different views.  Instead, he supports those that proclaim Christ's grace to mankind.  He doesn't group people.

At the end of his sermon, when he was talking about man returning to dust, he proclaimed:  "We are returning to that from whence we came--love."

The second sermon was given at the funeral of a friend dating back to 5th grade.  The pastor said that, when he was talking with David about the state of his cancer, David said:  "When I was first diagnosed, I thought I was on a path to recovery."  Three weeks before his death, David learned that his "path wasn't headed where he thought."  His cancer had taken a turn for the worse.  "I won't recover, but I wouldn't change anything--I have Jesus."

As the pastor continued, he read verses from the Scripture dealing with our afterlives.  He kept reading verses which said that "all" would be saved.  After the funeral, I asked him if he believed in "universal redemption."  What?  "The salvation of all by virtue of Christ's death on the Cross." I replied.  No, he doesn't believe in that, but he had not considered it before.  I told him that I had only come across this idea about 3 years ago.

So, at age 55, I take heart that, when a friend is facing death, he says that he wouldn't change anything.  He, like Bishop Sloan, understood that he was going back to pure love.

At age 55, I take heart that Jesus came to redeem everyone and, if that's Jesus purpose, then it denigrates Christ when we claim that only those with faith will be saved.

At age 55, it hurts me when I hear a person thanking Christ for saving him and others with faith.  It's that group thing--our group is okay, our group is preferred, and yours is not.

Thank goodness that God knows nothing of groups---Jesus came for both the Jews and the Gentiles.  In other words, Jesus came for the believers and unbelievers.  God wouldn't have it any other way--after all, He is love, and we are day by day getting closer to our reunion with that love.

Thank goodness that my thoughts of death are no longer about suicide but about reunion with our one, true Father.

Thank goodness for those who, wittingly or unwittingly, proclaim these truths, truths which allow us to enjoy each day of our lives--whether in health or illness, whether in riches or poverty--and which give us the basis for proclaiming God's love to all.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A "Hamilton" Weekend--Anger at God turns to Hope

A dear friend turned me on to Hamilton a couple of months ago.  "Ellis, my entire family is listening to and loving this play--it's so beautiful."

After I finally succumbed to paying monthly for iTunes Music, I began listening.  Each time I listen, I learn more about the Founding Fathers (not just Hamilton), how our country was established, am amazed by the genius of the author, and finally I became mad at God.

I became mad at God, because Hamilton cheats on his wife, loses his eldest son (who seems to be a "spitting image of him") to a duel, and finally loses his own life in a duel.  If you believe in "free will," you can be mad at Hamilton.  As one who believes like Luther (as confirmed by social scientist Jonathan Haidt) that we all have deep down libidinal urges that frame our actions, I lay all of this at the feet of God.

God made us the way that we are.  You can't get around this fact.  Sure, some folks try to lay the blame with we humans--the "fall in the Garden"--but it's difficult to be an observer of humanity and not question whether we actually have "free will."

How many times have you vowed to make changes in your life?  to lose weight, to love your wife better, to spend more time with your children, to spend more time with your elderly parents, to love the sibling that you has hurt you, to banish anger from your life, to do more for your neighbors.  Well, how's it going?

And for men, how's it coming with porn?  Enough said.

So, then God is responsible for the sad state of affairs of this world.  For what it's worth, if God is not in control, then that means we are (and the Devil) and that's even more scary.

As I was brushing my teeth yesterday, and contemplating my being mad at God, two things hit me:

1.  If God allows (or causes) the world to be in such a mess (and it always has been), and if God is just, then God must be eternally loving to everyone that ever lived.  Given how difficult life is on earth, the only way for God to make it right is to save everyone for all of eternity.  That is--if God is just.  If God isn't just, well, we're all screwed.

2.  God raised Jesus from the dead.  This seems to actually have happened.  First, there were over 500 witnesses, many of whom were still alive when the Gospels were written.  Second, this miracle is the only way to explain the tremendous growth of Christianity.  Third, the Apostles all died martyr's deaths.  Sure, we might give our lives for a good person, for a good reason--but for all of these men to give their lives based upon a lie (that is, if the resurrection didn't happen)--so, I take it that the resurrection happened.

If God actually raised Jesus from the dead, and if God is a just god (a god whose love trumps our sin and the Devil), then God will also raise us.  God will bring us to be with Him eternally!!!

This is the hope that I have in the God who created a fallen world inhabited by fallen humans.  This is the God who had an answer all along for death, sin, and the Devil.

This is a message that I can share with a friend who is dying.  This is a message that allows me to persevere in this world.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Christ--the Stumbling Block--Unequivocal Love to the Immeasurably Unlovely

2 2 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom2 3 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

"The man stands in front of [Pilate] with his hands tied behind his back.  You can see that He has been roughed up a little.  His upper lip is absurdly puffed out and one eye is swollen shut.  He looks unwashed and smells unwashed.  His feet are bare--big, flat peasant feet although the man himself is not big."--Frederick Buechner, "Telling the Truth, the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale."

"He uttered nary a mumblin' word."  Negro Spiritual

We Christians are a strange bunch.   We worship a man who, when arrested and beaten and standing before Pilate with his "big, flat peasant feet" "uttered nary a mumblin' word." We are unlike the Jews (the religious people), who "demand signs," (miracles for the benefit of the religious people) or the Greeks (the intelligentsia), who "seek wisdom" (a better way to live.)  No, instead, we follow a man who suffered the most ignominious death ever devised by we cruel humans.  We follow a man who, rather than calling down the wrath of angels upon his oppressors, went silently to His death on a cross. 


Because it is true.  Because what was foretold in the Garden--that the serpent would nick the heel of Eve's offspring (hang Jesus on the Cross), but that Eve's offspring would crush the head of the serpent (through His death and resurrection)--came true.

We don't follow Jesus because he will perform miracles on our behalf (give us better lives, happy families, job promotions, victory for our country in war).  We don't follow Jesus because he will give us wisdom so that we can live better lives.

We follow Jesus, because the Cross (not signs or wisdom) speaks the ultimate truth about man and about God.

The Cross first is a mirror for each of us--we stare at it and into it--and realize that, like the Jews and Romans, we would have crucified Jesus.  Our innate sinfulness leads us to hate love, and Jesus was that--the embodiment of perfect love.  We don't like the fact that He chose the thieving tax collector over the upright, successful businessman.  We don't like the fact that He saved the adulteress.  We don't like the fact that He loved the non-religious people of his day and upbraided the religious.  We don't like the fact that, instead of throwing out the Romans occupiers (the enemies of His people), He allowed himself to be killed under their governmental authority.  

The Cross second is a reflection of God's response to our innate sinfulness.  God didn't prevent the death of Jesus.  God didn't seek retribution after His death.  Instead, God forgave those who crucified Jesus.  For, from the Cross, Jesus exclaimed:
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."  If Jesus asked His father to forgive those who murdered Him, would His father not heed his Son's wishes?  If God forgives them, will He not also forgive us?

The Cross is the victory of God over man.  It says to us that we are immeasurably unlovely, but nonetheless unequivocally loved.  Praise God for giving us the Cross, rather than signs or wisdom.  Praise God for not giving us what we desired or deserved, but rather for once and for all expressing His infinite love to us while we were yet His ultimate enemies--the murderers of His son.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

God works "sub contrario"

2 2 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 2 3 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.   1 Cor. 1:22-25

18So the Jews said to him, "What sign do you show us for doing these things?" 19Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  John 2:18-19

"And he said not a mumblin' word..."--Spiritual

"God works 'sub contrario' ('under his opposite')."--Martin Luther

In order to determine whether God was at work, the Jews demanded "signs"--they wanted to see miracles to prove that the person claiming to be acting for God was telling the truth.  Moreover, they wanted the miracles to be positive actions--actions for the seeming good.  We modern day Christians are no different.  We want to see "signs" that God is at work--healing someone from cancer; having our country prevail in war; providing us with a loving spouse, healthy children, and job promotions.  Indeed, Jesus had already performed numerous "positive" miracles.  

Yet, when the Jews asked Him for a sign, He didn't refer to any of them.  He didn't refer to restoring sight, or curing leprosy, or even raising the dead.  Each of these was more than sufficient to demonstrate that Jesus was "acting for God."  Instead, Jesus answered: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  The "sign" that Jesus pointed to was His crucifixion and resurrection.

Death at the hands of the Jews--death at our hands--death from those who want God to work in strength.  Instead, God works "under his opposite"--through death, rather than life; through weakness rather than strength; through loss rather than success.  This is why Jesus was a stumbling block to the Jews and why, so often, He is a stumbling block to us.

This is our God--one who is acquainted with the suffering of His people; one who went to His death while saying "nary a mumblin' word;" one who could have called down angels to kill those who would kill Him but instead withheld His power; one who we can always turn to in our times of sorrow, suffering, and grief.  

He is a god unlike any other.  God's "sign"--"Christ crucified"--was unequivocal love to the immeasurably unlovely.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Debbie--My "Dancing Queen" (Abba)--Our Marriage after "Waterloo"

I had dated two women that I had seriously considered marrying.  I realized that the first was not the "one for me."  Unfortunately, I didn't break off the first relationship as definitively as I should have.  When it reared it's head again, the second relationship didn't survive.  I was despondent.  Both of these women--particularly the second--had met my definition of a woman to be married--they were both attractive and they came from a certain background--they had successful fathers.  Then, I met Debbie.

The first time that I saw Debbie I was out with friends at the old Upside Down Plaza--the one which is now occupied by Hot n' Hot Fish Club.  I was instantly mesmerized.  Debbie was the most beautiful woman that I'd ever met.  As we talked, I realized what an amazing, kind disposition she had.  To me, she was "young, sweet, only seventeen"--a "Dancing Queen."  I recall trying to get her phone number, but she wouldn't give it to me.  She had some excuse (true I'm sure) of having recently given it to someone else, and he wouldn't stop calling her.  She told me that we would see each other again--out on the town.  Well, one of my friends got the phone number from Debbie's roommate (this was before cell phones--all they had was a house phone).  The next day I called and invited Debbie to lunch.  Debbie: "I'm sorry, I'm running out the door to have lunch with a friend."

So, rebuffed TWICE by Debbie or, at least, that was my perception.  I was crushed and mad.

That Sunday, Debbie and her roommates were having a housewarming party.  I went to see Debbie even though I didn't see much chance with her.  When I got to the party, I found out that Debbie's sister was there, and I immediately began talking her up--"hitting on her" in the vernacular of the day in hopes of generating a reaction in Debbie.  After 10-15 minutes, Debbie came over.  She swears that it wasn't because she was jealous.  Maybe so, but I was intent on getting Debbie, which was the only reason that I was "hitting on" her sister.

We went to dinner Monday nite, and then had a second date Tuesday nite.  I had to work fast, because she was the "one for me," and I was leaving Birmingham to work the rest of the summer in D.C. and then back to law school.

So, I PROPOSED, on our second date.  Debbie thought that I was crazy.  She was right.  I couldn't imagine life without her.   Over the next three weeks, she met my family, and I met hers.  My father approved, and Debbie's grandmother approved.  From what I recall, the other family members didn't say anything--I'm sure they thought we were crazy as well.

Marriage is rough.  Your wife goes from being your "Dancing Queen" to being your chief enemy.  I had a picture in my head of what I wanted our family to be like--a good Southern Baptist family--with a successful husband, dutiful wife, and respectful kids.  I did everything I could to achieve this goal.  In doing so, I killed my "Dancing Queen."  We had a picture of Debbie as a 3 or 4 year old in which she had a mischievous grin--a really mischievous grin.  I lost this person over the first 12-13 years of our marriage.

Even though my friends would have told you that I was a passionate person who cared about others, I was screwing my marriage up terribly.  Rather than letting Debbie be who she was, I was trying to turn her into a Southern Baptist "Stepford wife."  Sometimes, I did this with express admonitions, and sometimes with only implicit ones.  This was death.

Over time, I learned that Debbie didn't have a very high opinion of herself and I was making it worse.  I was squelching the life out of her--so much so that in 2000 or so--she told me that she was "plotting her escape" for when the kids graduated from high school.

I was floored.  I had no idea that I was her "prison guard."  Thankfully, we had both been going to life-giving Bible studies for a couple of years.  This allowed us to pray together, and from that day forward, things began to change.

I had come to my "Waterloo."  In addition to learning that I had screwed up my marriage and family, along about the same time, I received a diagnosis of a rare auto-immune liver disease, and I learned that my efforts for one of my best clients had all been for naught.  I had lost.  My efforts to create a good Southern Baptist family had failed.  In retrospect, I'm so thankful that I failed.  I finally learned that I had no control over anything and that my efforts at control were damning, not helpful.

Over the last 12 to 15 years, Debbie and I (through nothing but the grace of God) have begun accepting each other as we are.  I'm so thankful for her strengths that her weaknesses pale in comparison.  What's more, you don't get certain strengths without the concomitant weaknesses.

Over and over, we lose--we give up expectations--we accept failure--and we forgive.  To the world, failure and forgiveness are an anathema.  They feel that way to us at the time.  But over time, they are the work of the Holy Spirit.  It's only when we give up trying to achieve our aspirations, that we receive those as pure gifts from God.

Debbie is my "Dancing Queen" once again and even more so.  She has the mischievous grin from her picture as a 4 year old.  She has the best sense of humor of anyone that I know.  She's like Tina Fey, but her humor is simply natural.  She and I have a marriage that we never thought possible.  We're "having the time of our lives." I see Debbie as "young and sweet, only seventeen, (my) Dancing Queen, feel(ing) the beat from the tambourine--oh yeah."

At the same time, we're still deep-down sinners, which is not cause for despair.  Because we're both sinners, we get the opportunity to forgive one another daily (on minor and major things).  We daily meet our "Waterloo."  This opportunity to forgive allows us to exhibit (albeit in a small way) the forgiving love of Christ to one another.  It gives us a present taste of the Kingdom which, according to Christ, has broken through partially, and is breaking through, but isn't yet present in all of its fullness.

Praise be to God who makes all things new, and gives us the desires of our hearts, but only after He has killed us.  So, God, bring quickly death--death to control;  death to our aspirations;  death to our self-birthed identities, and then give us life--life sensitive to the control of the Holy Spirit;  life that gives birth to our aspirations; and life that breathes new identities into our dead selves.