The Doors Are Closed

This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints. (Revelation 13:10; NIV84)

Yes, the saints are protected.

Yes, God will wipe away every tear.

Yes, victory is within God’s hands, and he offers it to us.

The future is ours, because the future is his.

But patient endurance can melt. Revelation 13, to me, poses one of the most difficult temptations for the church.

In the vision, the dragon, the supreme force of evil, on earth, gave incredible power to the beast who seemed to withstand a wound that should have killed him. This beast became the object of worship for all of humanity. He was aided by a second beast, who led this unholy worship by force, marking the foreheads (or hands) of everyone, to control the world’s economy, in the name of the beast who was worshiped.

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So to me, of most of the symbols in John’s vision, this one is pretty clear.

The first beast, which was seemingly invincible, was the Roman empire. It was an evil government, particularly when it began various local persecutions against believers. Many emperors accepted worship from the entire Empire as if they were gods.

The second beast? Undoubtedly those who pushed this agenda in the various imperial cities across the Empire.

But there must be some real-time significance, and I think for us, it means we need to be especially careful about what we decide to worship.

__________

Presidential elections, in America, cause such a state of frenzy, as if our hopes and dreams depended upon the person in the White House. How petty are we, to believe something like this. The book of Revelation, with its visions and signs, declares, at the beginning, in Revelation 4, that God is on his throne, and not one human action escapes his sovereignty. He knows everything. And, if there are times of caution and danger, then we are only told to have patient endurance and faithfulness.

God knows what he’s doing.

__________

It’s not just that he knows what he’s doing, though, but what’s happening here, on planet earth, even in modern America, is a continued sign that this is not heaven.

If a secular government could provide for every longing and need (which they can’t, even when they make awfully big promises), then what need would there be for God? For heaven? For rest?

Revelation 13 speaks of the danger of falling in line with such worship, with such frenzy. No mortal can provide for your implicit safety. The only way that can happen, according to Revelation 13, is if they mark every single person, and control every single moment. If a mortal can only provide for you by limiting you, then that certainly is no god worthy of any sort of worship. And obviously, there is only One who can control everything.

Yet, in our reading today, we find, again, that God is not willing to overwhelm John with such despair that he cannot see the ultimate hope. Revelation 14 opens to another sign of the Lamb, and the protected church, on Mt. Zion, with beautiful music and new songs and supreme worship of the true deliverer.

Hope.

Because in the next few verses, in Revelation 15, we see the beginning of the end. As the multitude praises God Almighty, the God of all, the sovereign God over time and space, angels leave the tabernacle with golden bowls of wrath, and then the doors of the temple are closed, and smoke fills John’s vision. This final judgement against evil cannot be stopped.

I agree, too, with some commentators, that these visions aren’t to be interpreted in a chronological order, but rather, should be seen as the vision John sees – a God, orchestrating every moment in history and at the end of time. If that is the case, then, for today, we get the result of our decisions to worship anything other than God.

And we see the result of our allegiance to the Lamb.

________

Today is day 88.

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Crossing the Racial Divide

Romans 10 through Romans 12 is quite clear about one thing. Harmony.

Different notes. Chords. Beauty because of the differences, not in spite of them.

Which is never, ever easy. And it is much easier to write, than to live.

It is right, though. Let’s not forget that.

The New Testament letter to the Romans, through a long and deep argument, eventually explains this with clarity. These three chapters are powerful. Here is but a part:

There was a time not so long ago when you were on the outs with God. But then the Jews slammed the door on him and things opened up for you. Now they are on the outs. But with the door held wide open for you, they have a way back in. In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in. (Romans 11:30-32; The Message)

Everyone — every believer — has been on the outside at one time. Everyone.

But before we make this preach something it isn’t, understand this. There was an ethnical obstacle in Rome that was preventing the harmony God wants for his believers.

It was — dare I say it? — a racial divide.

Their division was based on skin color, ethnic heritage, political rulings and cultural preferences. And those things kept the church divided. Jewish people were expelled from Rome, which left the Gentile church to grow in a different direction. Now, the Jewish believers were coming back to town, and weren’t finding the welcome they anticipated. So Paul appealed to them on a much deeper level.

Behind and underneath all this there is a holy, God-planted, God-tended root. If the primary root of the tree is holy, there’s bound to be some holy fruit. Some of the tree’s branches were pruned and you wild olive shoots were grafted in. Yet the fact that you are now fed by that rich and holy root gives you no cause to crow over the pruned branches. Remember, you aren’t feeding the root; the root is feeding you. (Romans 11:16-18; The Message)

God is the tree. Everyone grows from that holy tree as branches. Some fall away. Some are pruned. And some are grafted back.

The sober truth of this passage is that if today, in modern America, we choose to not bridge cultural and racial and political divides, then we look more like culture than heaven.

Our churches, for the most part, mimic our own preferences. We build buildings on the outskirts of town, away from the dirtiness of our cities, because our membership has “moved.” Maybe we’ve believed we’ve led our membership in capital campaigns to build bigger structures. We feel good about what we’ve built. But it could also be true that leadership — or the lack of it — has led our churches to believe personal preferences for location can override the mission of God.

Or, we refuse to go to the “better” part of town for fear of acceptance. We’ve been told, politically, that we should receive the graces of social justice at the expense of those with more, and we’ve been taught that our “have not” should be satisfied by those who “have.” So we believe that, and hold tight to that, refusing to take the bigger step of faith.

Or, we “plant” churches on the other side of town, or just a mile or two away, because we fear what would happen if we begin to combine all of the cultures.

But those actions do not make us look like believers. They make us look like skeptics.

We don’t trust God to bridge the differences.

Would it be messy if wealthy churches stayed in the middle of our cities, and in the middle of impoverished neighborhoods?

Would it be messy if we actually invited, and accepted people of a difference cultural lifestyle into our sanctuaries?

Absolutely. It would be messy. There would be all sorts of issues, and most of them wouldn’t be easy to bear.

But it would be harmony. And miraculous. We would be asking God to do something we obviously can’t do, and obviously don’t want to do. Here are Paul’s words:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1, 2; The Message)

Our lack of mutual acceptance tells our world we don’t believe God can do the unthinkable, in our own hearts and against our own spoken or non-spoken prejudices.

Here is the miracle, as described in another translation:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1, 2; NIV84)

We need a transformation, so our churches will not look like the world — or the neighborhoods — around us.

Churches, and church gatherings can prove God is alive by our diversity alone.

Because only God can walk us across racial divides.

Fresh Cut Flowers. In Winter.

The Remains of St. Valentine, in the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street, in Dublin, Ireland

Today is all about the card.

Specifically, a $4 card with a beautiful envelope. Maybe it has a witty picture. Or maybe it has a poem that you think is beautiful. Because today is all about the card. Because we are horrible at expressing our true feelings, and a pre-written sentiment seems just right for the person with whom we share our lives. Right?

And we probably loathe this day. This Valentine’s Day. Just a mere six weeks after Christmas, when most of us are still trying to pay for the explosion of presents we bought, that are probably now completely overlooked.

So we are here, in the darkest days of the year, in the dead of winter, in the coldest time of the year, and we have to buy fresh-cut flowers.

Fresh-cut flowers.

In the winter.

For guys, this entire day is a set-up for complete disaster.

Yet, if we have love in our lives, and share that with someone, we simply can’t afford to ignore it. Even if we can’t afford to recognize it.

So we go shop for a really great Valentine’s Day card. And we can blame a lady named Esther A. Howland for that.

She opened the first professionally printed gift card shop in the 1840s, in America, specifically to cater to the card-writing practices that, for years, was typical of Valentine’s Day. And her first cards were elaborate, with real lace and ribbons. She’s even known as the “Mother of the Valentine.” An annual award is even given in her name.

And today, over 1 billion cards are sold for Valentine’s Day. And, guys, we should be ashamed. Women buy 85 percent of cards sold for this holiday.

(I assume, too, that the remaining 15 percent of those cards, purchased by guys, are probably purchased the day after.)

She wasn’t the first to think about Valentine’s Day cards and letters, though. The earliest known Valentine poem was written in 1417, and the text from the earliest Valentine written in the English language, from 1477, was written from a lady in waiting to her future husband. Margery Brews was trying to convince her father to increase her dowry, which was the amount of money the family was willing to give along with their daughter, to their future son-in-law. It seems the young man, John Paston, had some doubts that he would not be getting an adequate enough financial package with Margery, and the letter was to convince him to forsake all these earthly goods and notice that she loves him, and would make him a great wife.

The dowry price was a point of contention, until the mothers of the two lovebirds intervened for a settlement. Then, and only then, did the marriage take place. They were married, and had a son together. Romance, and true love, won — even over money.

We’re not sure if the dowry was ever increased, though.

But the holiday existed long before even 1417. And, initially, the holiday was nothing about flowers, greeting cards, or chocolates.

Well before all of this, it was actually called Saint Valentine’s Day.

Historians believe that it celebrated the lives, and deaths, of as many as fourteen various Christians, and three of them were recognized later by the Catholic Church as saints. All were named Valentine, and they were all martyred for their faith.

One lived in the third century, when the Roman emperor Claudius II decreed that only single men could serve in the Roman army. Valentine, a Christian in Rome, risked his life to marry those soldiers who would not forsake their true loves. He was killed for this risk.

Some of the early stories state that another Valentine, a bishop of in the modern city of Terni, helped Christians escape the torturous Roman prisons. And, as love would have it, Valentine, a Christian himself, was in love with the daughter of the Roman jailer. Before he was killed, though, for the assistance he gave, and for the discovery of his admiration, he wrote her a letter, and signed it “From your Valentine.” It was the last thing he wrote, before he met his violent death. (His remains are believed to be in Dublin, Ireland, and you can see the casket which holds those remains in the above image.)

And the third Valentine, of which very little is known, may have been martyred in Africa.

Stories of martyrdom, to me, are so intense. We gloss over them with a historical eye and file them for later use in great conversations.

But these men lost their lives. For the name of Jesus. They brought their entire lives to the altar of worship, and laid them there, only to take them up again in the presence of God.

And now, we celebrate this holiday, and maybe their memory, by buying a $4 card. We lay, at the altar, $4 – maybe a bit more for other gifts. We celebrate love with meager offerings of money and plastic. Because a day like today dictates the maxim of we have to do it.

There isn’t much sacrifice involved when we purchase a $4 card.

We’ve turned true sacrifice into true acknowledgement.

Sacrifice requires complete selflessness … a complete loss of personal identity, because we give all of ourselves to the one we love the most. Forget everything you’ve ever heard about great marriages and great loves. Forget all the books and lectures and sermons.

True love requires sacrifice. Every day. Every moment. With no expectation. True love can never be repaid. It can never be equaled.

Yet, if you are in a complete relationship, built upon the name of Jesus, you will never want for affection. You will never want for love. Because the one you love will love you in return.

That is how we are loved by God.

I want to call us to worship on this Valentine’s Day. I want to encourage you to sacrifice today – to give all of your heart, all of your soul, all of your mind, and all of your strength. Offer what is most precious to you. If the lives of three men have aided the memory of this day, then let our love for God be as intense.

Sparkle

Mat Kearney is a poet.

mat-kearney-21

When I first opened his album Bullet, in 2004, I was completely overwhelmed at his acoustic stylings, playing against spoken words and great hooks. And then I dissected each song, and was drawn into the music.

I burned it, though, played it until I was no longer interested, until I picked up my acoustic and learned a few of the tunes, and that catapulted my interest again. This week, the album is once again spinning, and this time I was drawn to his song “Girl America.” The song itself, as well as Bullet, was repackaged into his second album, Nothing Left to Lose, and right now, I am awaiting his third album, and trying to be patient.

When you first listen to his song Girl America, you’re left a bit confused. He speaks the words so fast, and the chorus and the bridge, the songful parts of the tune, are good, and you start to wonder a little. And then you break apart the song, find the lyrics from a Google search, and realize that the song itself is quite powerful. And quite poetic.

I’m not sure what he planned for this song. I’m not sure if he thought he was writing something so poetic and contemporary and raw. And maybe, through the fiasco of the last presidential election, with all of the image and pomp and American degradation, this song speaks to me even more now. I’m not sure, but I have found a new realness in this song that was somehow missed in all of the previous listens.

Click here for his site, and listen to the song by shuffling through his tracks in the music tab at the top. Then read these lyrics, and then maybe you’ll see America in a much different way.

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Girl America
by Mat Kearney

My girl America is just a youth in this world,
Her smile is more precious than the sparkle of pearls.

And though her age reads, she’s just a young girl,
The age behind her eyes show the pain that she’s swirled, through the hand that’s been dealt,
Though it’s quiet as kept,the weight that she felt last night when she slept,
And as she crept into the dreams of the things of her past.

Seems to have grown so fast, way beyond her own class,
Though they’re right there with her, her brothers and her sisters.
A natural born leader even when her peers dis her.

My girl, she’s at a crossroads, people praying for her.
Some are preying on her.

Magazine ads, sex, drama, smoking marijuana,
Longing for a father to call her “daughter.”

She’s part of a generation longing for reconciliation,
And this future that they’re facing and this poison that they’re tasting,

My girl, I know this love you’re chasing.

****

My girl America’s crying when she’s lying on her bed at night,
I can see that she’s screaming when she’s dreaming for her freedom.
My girl America’s dying while she’s trying just to stop this fight.
Don’t stop believing, my girl America.

****

Boys with hungry eyes have been beating her door,
Telling her that’s what she’s for, trying to rob at her core,
Then leave calling her a whore, but still she knows there’s more.

I know she knows there’s more because there is a voice she can’t ignore,
‘Cause it was founded in the foundations, from the day of her creation.

“In God we trust” engraved on the treasures of her nation,
And the void that the boys can’t fill,
With the tipping of the bottle or the popping of the pill.

But still most of her friends don’t care as they glare,
Ready to drown down the funnel as they frown down the tunnel.
They stumble and they tumble breaking down into rubble.
My girl America, stop! Can’t you see?

It’s not the circumstances that determine who you’re gonna be,
But how you deal with these problems and pains that come your way.

It’s for you that I pray with hope for a brighter day,
And so I say, your deliverance is coming.

****

My girl America’s crying when she’s lying on her bed at night,
I can see that she’s screaming when she’s dreaming for her freedom.
My girl America’s dying while she’s trying just to stop this fight.
Don’t stop believing, my girl America.

****

Faith like a child from your first birth.
You left it in the dirt on your worst hurt.
And I see each tear and every scar,
The hands that have held you where you are.

And I can see we’ve strayed so far.
A king born under that morning star.
As a crown of thorns was placed to erase
Each tear that’s touched your face.

And his palms and sides were pierced with spears
He hung in love just to draw you near
My girl, out of this whole world,
Can’t you see this is where we started?

****

My girl America’s crying when she’s lying on her bed at night,
I can see that she’s screaming when she’s dreaming for her freedom.
My girl America’s dying while she’s trying just to stop this fight.
Don’t stop believing, my girl America.

**********
Powerful, isn’t it?

Confused

A neighboring church hosted a group of bell ringers from a local university to perform a concert in their full and beautiful auditorium. Exquisite woodwork adorned the foyer, and once inside, my eyes were treated with a Christmas tree, tall and adorned in white angels. Candles burned before every stained glass window. As the concert began, the minister stood before us to pray that we would receive the gospel in the bells. Soon after, a group of people walked into the nave of the auditorium, singing a carol and playing their brass bells in perfect timing, soon arranging themselves at the altar of the church, and playing Christmas carols in beautiful music.

But the prayer of the minister, a simple prayer with eloquent language, broke my heart. I received the gospel that night, and was again, reminded, that Christmas is a celebration much larger than ribbons and bows.

And yet we continue to celebrate a practice of excess during this most wonderful time of the year, for Americans will spend close to $450 billion this year for gifts to be unwrapped on just one day — gifts which will lose their meaning quickly in the mix of other gifts you and I will open.

Just a tenth of that amount could provide clean water and food for the starving of the world for an entire year. Some estimates say that one could stretch $40 billion over two years, and still provide enough sustenance for the starving.

The recipients of our gifts are people with means. They have an abundance of gifts under a tree in their home, and have spent much money to give, so much so that the practice of giving is really nothing more than the practice of trading. We exchange gifts with similar costs, and feign surprise when we unwrap a package and discover an item disliked. We have displaced the specialness and warmth of giving a gift with the thought and guilt of doing the same. Long gone are the days when one person holds some special place in our heart, and we treasure the time and the day when they can open a gift given with such thought.

We give our children the idea of gift-giving because of obligation, while on Christmas morn, there are some in our world without food and water, and we forget those people, once we are taken and consumed with an excess of things beneath a tree and the food on long tables. We participate in conversations when families are long gone, when we silently complain about the gathering of our family, or the time we wasted when giving a better gift.

We have sorely, and to our demise, confused the meaning and thrust of Christmas with packaging and tape and plastic cards.
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I want to encourage you, today, to visit a website. Called the Advent Conspiracy, it is a movement designed to spur our thinking about Christmas, about our worship, about our expenses, and about true giving. I’ll say no more here, in hopes you visit, and spend a moment of your time there, today.

You may just change the way you see Christmas. I hope you do.