Identity–Beloved of God: John 3:13-17

With the three children, things can get a little crazy around the rectory sometimes.  There’s a fourth on the way, due to arrive in March, so I don’t suppose that will end anytime soon.  Some of the things we find evidence for, or catch the kids in-the-act-of, just leave us asking, “Why in the world would you…?”  When frustration is great, it seems that one must scour the whole earth to find an answer for that “why.”  For some reason the question is never: “Why in the basement would you…?”  Nicky Gumbel shares, in The Alpha Course, the story of an ESL nanny who hadn’t quite mastered the nuances of the language, and upon catching her charges up-to-no-good asked, “What are you doing in the world?”  Which is a good question in it’s own right, but a different one.  Have you ever found yourself asking that question?  Looking for reasons, you ask, “Why in the world…?”  Baffled by events, you ask, “What in the world…?”  Boggled by a task, you ask, “How in the world am I supposed to…?”  Today I want to take the enterprise of being God’s people, and ask those questions of it.

Why in the world would anyone follow God?  Jesus answers our “whys” from the get-go.  God loves us.  The answer to why we would follow God is rooted in the answer to why God would have any of us follow Him.  God’s action toward us is the basis for our response toward Him.  So God’s love for us gives us the space and the impetus to love Him in return.  Because God acts out of love, to us, we can offer Him our lives.  When I was young we used to sing the chorus, “Oh, how I love Jesus.”  Do you remember the final line of that chorus?  “Because He first loved me.”

Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, put it this way: “Christ loved you before you loved Him.  He loved you when there was nothing good in you.  He loved you through you insulted Him, though you despised Him and rebelled against Him.  He has loved you right on, and never ceased to love you.  He has loved you in your backslidings and loved you out of them.  He has loved you in your sins, in your wickedness and folly.  His loving heart was still eternally the same, and He shed His heart’s blood to prove His love for you.  He has given you what you want on earth, and provided for you an habitation in heaven.”  That is God’s great love for you – surpassing that of a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent.

It’s been said that when Christians really believe that God loves them, nothing can stop them from doing what He desires.  Think of your own experience:  how easy it is to do what those who love you desire of you – you trust their desires for you, and you can trust them because they’re desires for you that rise from love.  Love makes trust easier.  But when someone whose love we aren’t sure of desires something of us, then we double-check before we act, don’t we?  Are they trying to hurt us?  Are they trying to make fools of us?  And so it is when Christians have trouble trusting, or when they doubt, that God loves them; when we think that God hates us, or is out to get us.  We avoid Him.  We run away – like Adam and Eve in the garden, we hear Him and we hide.  Painfully aware that we’re not perfect, deceived into thinking that He couldn’t love anything short of perfection.  Rather than drawing comfort from the knowledge that He’s watching over us, we fear.

Our attitudes need to be like the young girl’s, who learned that Jesus watches over her to see everything she does.  She was asked, “Does it bother you that He sees everything you do?”  Her response: “Oh, no – He loves me so much that He can’t keep His eyes off of me!”  So listen to Jesus’ words from the Gospel lesson that we heard today: “For God so loved the world that…”  Notice that it’s not hatred that motivates God’s action toward us; not manipulation; not evil intent.  Just love.

And if the answer to the “why” of being God’s people is in His great love to us, which moves us to love Him in return, and to trust His desires for us, then our second question is “what.”  What in the world is following God about?  Again, the answer we seek is rooted in the “what” of God.  God loves us, we’ve seen, but what in the world has God’s love moved Him to do?  He comes through on His commitment of love to us, and you’ve heard about it your whole life, in Jesus’ crucifixion.  Statues and pictures of Christ hanging on the cross could quite fittingly each have inscribed at their base: “This is how God loved the world!”

It was for love that Jesus died on the cross, for love that God gave Himself for us.  Our answer to this question, of what following God is all about, is just that: Jesus’ self-sacrifice.  Following God is about giving of ourselves.  You’ve heard it said, and there’s something to it, that the measure of a man is in what he gives, not in what he gets.  We look to the Cross to see that great act of love, where God gave Himself for the people He loved, because He loved them.  Because He still loves even you.  He shows, He proves, His love for us through the things that He does.  How did Jesus say it?  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”

There was a young couple who sat gazing at the sky as the sun set.  Hand-in-hand.  Enthralled with the glory and beauty of nature.  She asked him, “Do you love me?”  He pulled his eyes away from the view and glanced at her.  “You know I do.”  She turned her head, and their eyes met.  She asked him, “Would you die for me?”  He answered, “No, dear…mine is an undying love.”  But God’s answer to that question is “Yes!  Yes I will die for you.  I have died for you!  Though I am immortal I send my Son and experienced mortality and death for you.”  What in the world would make anyone want to follow God?  He loves us that much.

And so let’s look at Jesus’ words again “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…that all might have everlasting life.”  Seems straight-forward enough, but there is a “how” involved.  It’s not an automatic thing.  The question might rightly be asked, “How in the world does God loving us enough to send His Son to the world for us – how does that give us everlasting life?”  And Jesus’ answer is in the verse, and you know it already.  All that believe in Him will have everlasting life.  That’s the “how” of being God’s people, of following after Him.

Why in the world…?  Because God so loves us.

What in the world…?  He sent His only Son, Jesus.

How in the world…?  All who believe in Him may have everlasting life.

Beloved of God, know today that God loves you.  Know today how He has shown that love to you.  Know today what His love can mean for you, if you will only believe.  This is the game-changer.  Amen.

Marionettes

Arms and legs attached by strings which are pulled by another.  Our first father signed a deal, and we’ve all been marionettes ever since.  The deal wasn’t what he thought it was.  He didn’t get what he thought he was getting.

He thought he’d be immortal.  He thought he’d be invincible.  Instead he became more mortal than ever; more breakable than ever.  That deal is what strung him up… strung us all up.  Above us, the great booms that these strings hung from, manipulating us – pulling us this way and that.

Some fight their whole lives to resist these little influences.  To no avail.  Even their fighting is the result of the tightening and slackening of different strings attached to their various members, all hanging down from the branches of the tree of death – as we came to call it.

Far away, farther than the length of the puppet strings would let us roam, stood the tree of life.  Legend is that we once lived under its branches, rather than dying here.  But we lost that opportunity in the deal.  It really wasn’t a very good deal.

I remember the day that He arrived.  He walked among us from the direction of the tree of life.  He had no strings.  He couldn’t be manipulated by the tree of death, as we all were.  After a time among us, He walked past us and took a good long look at us all.  I’m sure he could see the tree of life through the tree of death, though it obscured his vision.  But the way to the one is through the other – and so he climbed.

When he arrived at the booms that jutted out from the trunk, he reached his arms along either of them.  The strings that had so long bound us all released us.  They snaked their way along the booms and attached themselves to Him.  He became the embodiment of its puppeteering, its manipulating, and set us all free.

But the story doesn’t end there: He couldn’t be held!  In a way that none of us had ever dreamed possible, He used the strings, not to be controlled by – but to control, the tree with its great booms.  It bowed before Him, and death – the puppeteer – became the puppet.  He was released from the tendrils of the tree.

He spoke with a voice like thunder, and invited us all to follow Him to the tree of life.  Some did not heed his invitation – they had known only the enslavement to death, to which they returned and were gladly received back.  They practically fastened its manipulative strings back to their limbs.

Others followed after Him, but when any obstacle arose in their path, they turned back – preferring the familiar guidance of the old puppeteer to the purposed hike through swamp and over rock, of the saviour.  Others followed for a time, chased by the searching strings we’d left behind.  Whether through complicity, exhaustion, or even unwillingly, these were caught again, tied to and manipulated by death.

For those of us who followed Him to our destination, however, the situation was similar – pursued by the cords of death that had been cast off of us.  Yet when we were taken ahold of, we would cry out to our leader and guide for help, and He was sure to rescue us again and again.

A Final, in the fourth ?

Well, this is the fourth and final part of the little delving into fiction that I was inspired to the other day.  I hope it makes for some interesting reading; or though-provoking in some way; or something.  At any rate, here it is.  Special thanks to my friend Kim Salo who read through and helped me with some detailing.  He’s a good guy.

Four

Someone has said that we must look out for ourselves first, because if we won’t do it, then nobody will.  I know that someone will.  Someone else has said that our enemy, in this war, will succeed if we stop resisting.  I know otherwise.  This enemy has already been defeated; this war has already been won; this foe has already been routed.  To stop resisting would make one a casualty of the enemy’s retreat; to press on resisting, in the prince’s armour, will make me a victor.  Some people, of noble heart, will lay their lives down for friend or family, though there seem to be few of these left.  I will offer mine in the service of the prince who has already offered his for me.  I will not look out for myself; he will.  I will look out for those he has given to serve under me, however.

The gibbering shouts of our enemies reached my ears, and I drew the sword that now hung by my side, from the belt that had formed around my waist in my vision.  I was equipped for this war as I never had been, in the gear of the prince himself, and I was ready for whatever the enemy threw at me.  As I ran toward the source of the sound, a pair of boots with deep, aggressive cleats formed on my feet, and when I broke into the clearing where my brave soldiers held their ground against a force thrice their size, I could see relief in their eyes – and desperation.

My initial onslaught was calculated to inspire fear in the enemy, to push them back and give ground to my soldiers.  It took them by surprise – both by the quarter it proceeded from and by it’s ferocity.  Some swung their weapons at me; swords, spears, maces; some actually made contact with me before they retreated beyond arm’s reach.  I felt no impact.  The various implements that touched me shattered.  I made my way across the front line of my soldiers from one end of the field of battle to the other.

There were two results from this: first, the prince’s forces got physical relief from battle, of the same kind that they’d received emotionally when I had arrived; second, the enemy (who had initiated the battle – an aggressive assault against a small contingent), the enemy trembled.  They trembled and ceased their advance.  When I turned and faced the field, back the way I had come, I saw many of them slain.  At the time I thought it was strange – I hadn’t swung my sword against them.  I made my way back to the centre of the line, and called the troops to take their places behind me.  They rallied themselves quickly, and fell in.

It is a peculiar capacity that we have, and which our enemy lacks, to gain such resources from another – such heart, such confidence, such nobility, such fortitude.  Perhaps our prince’s fighting on our behalf would be of no benefit to us if we had no such capacity.  The flip side of this is that we also have the capacity to drain one another, and to despair.  It is this side that our enemy would profit by, if possible.  But this was the time for us to shine.

What had been a scramble for our side to lose the least ground possible, and to take the most time they could in doing it, having been caught unawares, became an advance against the enemy line.  I could hear my lieutenants calling orders.  We had no strategy for such circumstances.  Our tactics, our marching orders, had always been to hold and call for help when outnumbered, never to advance.  Now, outnumbered by a ratio I had never before experienced, we advanced.  We gained ground.

I wondered if they mistook me for the prince himself.  I was sure I must have looked like him, to them, decked out in his armour.  They fled before me, and this fuelled my interpretation.  They fled before all of us.  At some point though, I was sure they’d realized that I wasn’t actually him.  They must have, for they regrouped and faced us – the hillside below them, where we continued our advance, was filled with their slain.  Had they thought I was him, at this point, I doubt they would have been foolish enough to stand against us in such circumstance.  None can stand against him.

A champion broke through their ranks, through their hordes, and the sound of war horns filling the air spoke of reinforcements arriving from their rear, to bolster their already-superior numbers.  Their champion, clearly someone of some import among them, roared at me, “When you fall, the rest will scatter.”

I opened my mouth to answer him, but didn’t feel the words coming from my throat… yet they were my words, weren’t they?  “These do not fight for me, and they stand against you if I am with them or not.  I lead them against you now, but I am not their leader.  The one I follow is.  This is not my army.  I will not fall this day.”

Was it disgust or terror in his face?  I could not tell.  He pointed at me and snarled, “That one.”  At those words, they launched a counter-assault to our counter-assault.  Our whole force would be surrounded by their incredible numbers if we weren’t careful.

“Remember who you fight for.  Know who fights for you.”  The words I opened my mouth to call, though they sounded on my ears without being uttered by my mouth.

As I watched the enemy before me, it became clear that their main force was directed at me.  I dug in my heels and called to their champion, “I stand here.”  Where did that voice come from?

With shouts and screams their hordes came on, running and leaping – eager to engage in combat with us.  His voice roared above them all, “You will be cut down there, then.”

At first we held together.  The first wave of attackers broke against us like water on the seashore.  We were unmoved.  But over time, as wave upon wave struck, fatigue set in.  We had pursued them, slaughtering, for some distance, and many of these enemies were fresh reinforcements.  In places our line began to buckle.  My feet hadn’t moved.  Their strategy was shown to me.  They cared little for defeating my allies.  They thought that they could break their spirits by defeating me.  I knew better.

At times I was able to glance around the field and see how my friends fared.  Their trust in our leader was displayed in this: many of them now wore small shields on their arms.  They would be alright.  As I continued to hold against those enemies who came against me, I wondered how many of my friends would be visited by our prince that evening, and offered a suit of armour.  I wondered how many would take it from him.  I wondered how many of them would let him remove their personal armour.

A voice thundered above the clashing of weaponry, “You’re undone – you stand alone, and we are legion!”  Their champion appeared out of the throng, a head taller than any other, and ploughed his body against my shield.

As the blow came to me with full force, I made my reply – or I meant to.  It was my voice, and my words, but somehow… “The one with me is greater than all you can muster.  You err in this – I am never alone!”  Though, I did note that they had managed to separate the entire entourage from me, driving them away in different directions across the hillside.

It is not unreasonable to expect that when one body hits another, as his hit mine, then the second will stagger back.  I think that, for the would-be champion’s size, that was the least he expected.  More likely, he thought he would knock me to the ground.  But these boots weren’t made to go backwards.  It wasn’t in their design.  There was the noise of a loud impact, and the wind was visibly knocked out of him because of it, and my posture and position remained unchanged.  Under the sound of that impact, had I heard another war horn – this time, of our reinforcements arriving on the field of battle?

“I will not falter.  I will not back down.  I will not be shaken.”  I thought those words, but I heard them audibly spoken.  It was my voice, though there was no breath in my mouth.  We two pushed against one another, a gridlock of might; of prowess; of will.  “I will stand.  I will not fall.”  Others attacked me, thinking that I was distracted and that their chance had come.  Blades shattered; handles splintered; nothing phased me – all they threw against me came to naught.  “I am not a destroyer, but a conqueror – nay, more than a conqueror, because of the prince’s gift to me.”  Many enemies piled behind their “champion,” and aided him in the struggle against me.  “I do not fear you.  I have let go of that way of thinking.”  I heard the sound of marching in the tops of the few trees where we were.  “I can do this, not in my might and effort; but his.”  More of the enemies circled around me – I thought they meant to attack me from behind, but those attacks never came.  What became of them was not obvious until later.

The pushing match came to an end.  They fell back.  The standstill finished, I advanced.  Pushing many before me, I heard screams from behind and from further ahead – the cavalry had joined the battle on multiple fronts.  Finally, I heard my first lieutenant call to me, “Sir, we stand with you, the…”

I stopped him short when I finished his sentence for him, “…the prince himself is here.”  I turned around, and found the prince standing behind me.  It was he who had spoken my words, in battle.  It was he who had slain the foes that I could only irritate.  It was he who had guarded my back in the thick of it.

He smiled, and said to me, “There is no backplate.  But when you wear my armour, I am, to you, all the rear-defense you need.”

The remaining enemies turned and fled as best they could.  It occurred to me that this was how we were always to have faced the enemy.  Why hadn’t we done so before?  Would we remember, and do so again?

A day late for the third…

Here’s the third part of the little story I’ve been posting in sections… I should have posted it yesterday, but with the turmoil of coming home from retreat I just didn’t get to it.

Three

I dreamed as I slept.  I’m sure it was a dream.  The colours were too vivid, and the scenery too bright and full of life for it to be the waking world.  On the battlefield everything is grey.  Grey, and brown.  And sometimes red.

“Walk with me.”  The familiar voice from behind was the prince, standing in a field of wheat.  I joined him, and we walked by one another in silence, for a time.  Finally he broke the silence, “So you know?”

My unconscious mind had pieced together what my waking mind had not been able to. “It’s not about what’s being taken off; it’s not about what’s being put on, is it?  It’s all about who is doing it.”  As I said this, probably the truest statement I’d ever made, I noticed a strange sensation around my waist, a constriction; a belt.

“Yes.  I can remove your armour.  Not because it can be removed, but because I am able.  Before I do so, do you understand the pain it will bring you, to have it done?”

We strolled on together, as I pondered this, and I plucked some heads of wheat as we did so, and ate them, “I suppose it’s because of what the armour is to me.  It’s the product of all of my deeds, of all of my hopes and dreams.  I shouldn’t like to lose all of it…”

“You cannot don my armour unless you let it all go.”

“I see.”  We walked on in silence.  “I think that the benefit would outweigh the cost.”

“My friend, what you think is already known to me, and it’s truth is known to me also.  It does.  But losing your armour will be more painful than you expect.”

“How so?”  I remember asking, in the vision, and receiving no verbal response.  Instead I saw all of my hopes and dreams and habits and memories and defensive and aggressive behaviours – and their opposites – all of my behaviours, flash before my eyes in an instant.

“You must let it go.”  I staggered from the flash in my mind, I think, rather than from the prospect of the realization of the prince’s words, but he caught my hand and loaned me strength to keep me from falling.

I pondered my hopes.  I wanted a family.  I really did; I dreamed of training my own children the way that my father had prepared me.  I wanted to advance my career, perhaps even rising to colonel one day; I dreamed of famous and exciting exploits in this war.  I wanted to know that there was a purpose behind all of the things I did, and that it was large enough to actually support them all.  I wanted to really be valued by others, and to be able to open up to someone enough that I could truly value them, also.  I wanted my name to be remembered.

“You mean that I won’t have any of that, if I put on your armour?  But these things I aspire for, and aspire to, those are the things that make me who I am.  What would I be, then?”  Suddenly taking up his offer had soured in my mind.

“I will give you more than you’d ever hoped.  But trust me.  Wear my armour, rather than your own.”

“But I desire a family.”

“I will give you one.”

“Advancement…”

“Beyond your wildest dreams.”

“Meaning, value, longevity…”

“All this and more.”

“But my armour is my security, my own promise to myself that these things will not be lost…”

He smiled, then, at my naiveté.  “Your armour is but a tribute to all of your fears and insecurities.  To all of the methods you’ve devised to move yourself toward promises you have no power to fulfill.  None of these things you aspire to is within your reach – not because of your efforts, at any rate.  But wear my armour: I will be your security; I will be your guarantee that none of those dreams will be lost.”

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, sire.  I goes against my way of thinking.  You expect me to change a lifetime of worldview based only on your word?  You are my prince, and I owe you my loyalty and respect, but how can I?”  I couldn’t even look him in the face, at this point – so ashamed of my pride and resistance to him.

“All of that will change.  Your body forms your armour naturally, based on your way of living and thinking.  Mine will form your way of living and thinking, when it is on you.  You know that your armour used to be one with your skin…”

“Yes, when I was young.  When I was old enough and enlisted under you it detached.  That made a big difference.”  I could feel him smiling on me.

“But your age had nothing to do with it.  Your enlistment was the cause of its detachment, solely.  It detached from you so that my armour could be put in its place.”

I believed him.  I trusted him.

I had been standing with my eyes down.  As I focused on his feet, I saw scars atop his sandaled appendages.  When I was about to inquire about these wounds, a strange sensation on my arm drew my attention there.  A small buckler was fastened to me.

“Captain, you’ve fought for me in your own strength for long enough.  Rest yourself.  Fight in my strength, now; wear my armour, rather than your own.”

“But how can I take it off?  I don’t want it on, and if it remains then I may change my mind –but in this one moment, against all of my previous way of thinking, I would gladly be rid of it, for the sake of your promises to me, spoken just now.  But, and this is a question of method, how do I get it off?”

“You cannot, as we said earlier.  Not because of the armour, but because of the hands that would do it.  Know that this will not be pleasant in the moment, but will be in the remembrance.  While it is the testament to all you have been, and had planned for your future, my armour on you will be the guarantee of my promises for your future.”  He reached out his hands to me; I saw the buckler on my arm grow to the size of a swordsman’s shield, and I noticed scars in his hands that matched those I’d seen in his feet; I thought of all of my character forming habits, and I checked the prince once and withdrew from his outstretched arms; I considered my dreams and the prospect of never having them fulfilled, as I feared they wouldn’t be, and I submitted to him again; my armour turned to dust in his hands, and the tighter he held it the more it began to flake off of me; it was disintegrating before my eyes, all that I’d spent a lifetime fashioning, and he pushed against it harder and harder, and it crumbled to the ground at my feet;  I was terrified, and he was concentrating so hard that beads of blood formed on his brow, and I felt cold; all of the images that had flashed through my mind earlier returned to me again – all of those images of the life I’d made and lived and planned, so familiar, so comfortable, and I panicked; I wanted to put my armour back on, and the prince’s breath sounded in my ears, “Sshhh…,” and I let go; I was exposed, and I was tender, and I was vulnerable, and I fell to the ground in shock, and he stood above me.

In my dream I saw him standing over me, smiling.  And I realized I was already wearing his armour, and a flash in my mind told me that this was why my own armour had detached from my skin when I enlisted – it had been there all along, but my own armour had masked it and its influence.  I saw a wound in his side that I had never noticed before.  I could have wept, that my prince had suffered such wounds – what a witness to how we, his army, had failed to protect him!  I wondered where they had come from.  He did not hesitate in his mission, but stood me up and looked me in the face.  His words rang long and loud in my ears, “You are only able to fight for me now because I have already fought for you.”  He pulled tight the belt that had appeared on me earlier.

There was a new flash in my mind.  Not the honour of being ranked colonel, but the privilege of being a prince; not the glory of battle, but the benefit of victory.  There was a burning sensation in my temple – a helmet formed around my head.

Suddenly I awoke in my tent.  I looked to the corner where I had left the prince’s armour, but it was not there.  It was on me, as in the dream.  the prince’s words echoed in my mind as I stepped from my tent with new resolve.

A Second Time Round

Now, I’ve finished this work.  There were four parts, tonight I’ll just share the second.  I’ve got a little bit of reworking to do, and it will involve a slight but significant change to the first section.  But I’ll leave it as it is, here.

Two

As I walked back to my camp, I turned things over in my head.  My armour wasn’t designed to be removed.  This I knew well – my parents had taught me, long before, that what was in our nature, what we were when we acted with personal integrity, was what formed our armour, as it hardened around us, released from inside by our pores.  Not designed to be removed.  How, then, was the prince’s taken off so easily?  It must have been designed that way.

This only raised further questions in my mind.  If our nature formed our armour, how could his be designed to be taken off?  The wildly foreign and inconceivable notion that perhaps his nature, what came to him naturally, was to give himself away – it passed through my mind sharply, but quickly.  I dismissed it, because I could not imagine what that would look like.  And yet I held his armour in my hand.  It was so light, not heavy… not cumbersome like my own.  And yet it was strong!  The armour of royals was reputed to be indestructible; it certainly was not flimsy, but how could something of such light weight be impervious to piercing?

I arrived at my own tent and set the prince’s armour in the corner, continuing to mull over the question in my mind as I went to join the others around the fire.  How could I get my armour off so that I could get his on, and do justice to this extravagant gift, through using it?

The soldiers grew quiet as I approached the fire.  When I sat down they could see that my mind was busy – they would have had to be daft to miss it.  They knew I’d been to the field marshal’s, and I could see it in their eyes that they were curious about that meeting.  My thoughts were occupied elsewhere, though.

One of my sergeants asked what Michael had summoned me for.  I heard his voice; could make out the words; could not comprehend their meaning.  Did he say that it would be painful to remove?  Painful… in what way?  I knew that it was fashioned by my body, like a shell, but it was not attached to my skin – hadn’t been since I was a teenager; it was not part of me.  I didn’t have a psychic connection with it, and didn’t feel pain when it took a blow.  What would be the point of armour, otherwise?

I could see my officers conversing, with worried expressions on their faces as they glanced at me, but I didn’t hear what they said – it just didn’t register.  I opened my mouth to speak, and they all fell silent.  They likely expected me to answer their inquiries about the meeting.  It was in my mind that perhaps the armour had to be cut off, or maybe torn off, but who could perform such feats?  What I did say was clearly not what they’d expected.  “How do you take your armour off?”

For a moment they all looked at one another, and then the questions and comments started:

“Why would anyone want to?”

“You don’t!”

“Are you planning to leave the army?”

“Say again…?”

“I’m not going anywhere.  I just… need to get it off…”

“What happened?  What did the field marshal say?  New orders from the top?  Some new mission for us?”  She was one of my most trusted lieutenants, and I felt that she deserved an answer from me.

“I didn’t really speak with him.  The prince was there, and…”  Suddenly all of their faces grew very intent, “…well, I’d met him before.  He recruited me into this army…”  Surprised but understanding looks showed that we had all shared that personal contact with him at enlistment.  I went on, “…and, I just need to get my armour off.”

“Well,” another of my lieutenants, this one a recent transfer from another division, “I’ve known of people that have tried.  It never turns out well for them.  One chap I knew, a great fighter until then, became obsessed with getting his off.  Drove him mad.  His armour turned tacky, instead of hard… what use is tacky armour?  He dropped out.  Let me respectfully submit, sir, don’t pursue this line of inquiry.  Nothing good can come of it.”

“Take this, too, then, if you’re looking for advice:” one of my older sergeants, with whom I had served since the beginning, raised his voice, “I wouldn’t be surprised if that one, whose story we’ve just heard, wasn’t kicked out of the army (rather than dropping out).  We can’t just have people running around unprotected – this is a was zone!  His treasonous behaviour probably had him removed, before he corrupted other people’s minds.  Take it from someone who’s been around, and knows how this operation works.”

I nodded, and felt inwardly that both had offered some good advice.  Maybe I should just forget it.

Another Lieutenant offered her advice.  Her voice sounded clearly in the crisp night air, “We’re made for battle, or we wouldn’t grow this armour naturally.  Your armour is suited to you in a way that nothing else ever could be.  Taking it off, even if it were possible, would be denying the natural order.  What would put an idea like that in your head?”

It seemed that if the conversation was to progress, I would have to tell them what had happened.  So I did.

“You mean he just stood there and watched you make a fool of yourself, dancing and stumbling around like a nut, trying to reach something that wasn’t even there?”  Good-natured ribbing had always been allowed among us.

“You mean he offered to help, and you refused?”  A serious and sobering question that put an end to the joviality… briefly.

“So you took it from him and left?  What were you thinking?”  They all laughed at my expense.

When things calmed down again, I was asked, “What were the clues, again?”  Good question…

“Well, it’s not designed to be taken off, but somehow it can be removed, but somehow that process will hurt.  I don’t know – his came off of him so easily, and he just offered it to me.  I was thinking, what it we could cut it?”

“You know as well as we do that whenever armour gets pierced the blade cuts the skin beneath, too!  We’ve lost friends that way.”

“But is there somewhere we could slash it clean across – from top to bottom, and clean through, without fatally injuring me?”  I was doubtful about the prospects, and not at all excited about the idea of any of them striking something so close to my skin hard enough to sever it through, with a sword.

“You’d have to do it on the front and the back, both – armour doesn’t have any give in it to open a single slash enough to get you out through it.  We’d have to cut both sides, and pull it off either way.  I don’t think you should try.”

I didn’t either.

Another spoke up, “Why not just be honest – the prince gave you his armour to drive you mad.  There’s no solution to the question.  Just give up!”

With all of these things cluttering my mind, I returned to my tent and lay on my cot.  Sleep never comes easily when the mind is occupied.  It certainly would not come easily this night.  I tossed and turned over all of the facts.  It was hard to argue with experience, even when it was had by another and comes to you third-hand, and I knew that lunacy was a possibility for me, if I didn’t solve the riddle.  A flash of insight that made everything seem clear and obvious broke upon me – yet as quickly as it had come, it was gone, and what it was had escaped with it.  I had no memory of it, just that it had been.  Hope!  There was a solution!  Where had I been when the epiphany had broken upon me?  “This will drive me crazy if I don’t solve it!”  I was already starting to.  I knew so.

What was the final clue?  Perhaps the answer was in it somewhere… no, it couldn’t be.  The final clue was that after I’d figured out the solution, I’d return to him.  Why would I go back to him, he’d already given me his armour… maybe it would fit on overtop of my own?  No, that couldn’t be it.  None of us could get our armour off, but the prince could take his off, as designed.  Plus, he’d offered to take mine off of me.  Why had I refused?  How could I be so blatantly overt in my prideful will while in his presence?  Maybe it wasn’t about what armour we were wearing, but… I drifted off to sleep, on the edge of the precipice.

A First

Chapter?  I don’t know.  Yesterday I said that I had something more to write, but that it wasn’t ready yet.  Well, it seems to split into sections somewhat well, and I’m not done yet – but I’m currently writing the third section of it.  This is the first.  I don’t want to call it a chapter, because I’m not a writer.  But I did write this… down.  It sort of builds on two passages in Scripture.  The first is Ephesians 4:22-24; the second is Ephesians 6:10-20.  You’re welcome to read them both first, or just to read what I’ve got written, below.

One

As is well-known in this land, we all form and forge our own armour.  We raise our defences as barriers; we eliminate, as much as is possible, any opportunity for an unguarded moment to arise.  We show ourselves to be invulnherable, to others, and sometimes we believe the lie ourselves.

I was one of those.  I was on the frontlines in the war, and my confidence had earned me prominence and dominance in some of the earliest skirmishes I’d seen.  Even before I’d been given rank there were a number of my peers who looked to me as a leader.  I had caught the eye of a general – not the field marshal, mind you, but a general – and had risen through the non-commissioned ranks quickly.  Lieutenant even faster.

My career as a captain had been full of hits and misses.  Experimenting with leading my soldiers from both the front and the back, I had found that they were far less effective, far less brave, and far less confident unless I was out front.  But being out front is more dangerous, one runs the risk of getting hurt.  And we like to appear invulnerable.

To be in front I had found that I required a deep trust in the soldiers following me.  A traitor would find an attack from behind me far more effective than an attack from the front.  I learned about traitors through experience.  I bear the scars to prove it.  Then there were the battles against the overt enemy!  I had to face these head on and hold ground in the thick of it, and they were fierce and unrelenting.  At times I gave up ground to them simply because of their numbers and strength; to my shame, at times I had yielded them territory because I was afraid.

There had certainly been successful campaigns against them, also, but somehow every loss seemed to loom far larger than any victory.  Recently it had seemed like the losses weren’t just larger, but also far more numerous.  I pondered this as I approached the tent to which I’d been summoned.  I had never even met the field marshal before – now I feared it was this recent trend of losses that had spurred the summons.  I stumbled in my mind for reasons, explanations to give, pretending that they weren’t excuses.

When I entered the tent, Michael stood before me, radiant in power and authority.  He spoke clearly and quickly, enunciating each syllable as is common when individuals speak in a second language rather than their native tongue, “Things are not what they seem, young captain, and you base far too many of your thoughts on your own perceptions…I have not summoned you for myself, but for the prince.”

This last phrase he added as I opened my mouth to ask why he had summoned me (but before I could get any words out), which question I now didn’t bother to utter.  He walked out through the opening I’d just entered by, revealing the prince’s form at the back of the tent.  He and I had met before on a few occasions.  My father had prepared me for service in this war, and the prince had enlisted me himself.  Whatever glory I had perceived in the marshal was now undone in my mind, swept away by the splendour of the prince’s presence.

“You’re going about this all wrong.”  His words bit me with conviction—though the tone told me it was not conviction for what I had dreaded.  He smiles and approached me, unstrapping his own breast- and back-plates from around his body.  He held it out to me, “Not in the results you’re seeing, but in the way you’re going about getting them.  Put this on.”

I reached for the straps that held my armour to my body, thinking that I would have to remove my own before I could put his armour on.  At first I couldn’t reach the strap, and assumed that this was due to the limitations of the armour itself.  It protected me well, but it also restricted my movement.  Nervously I glanced up at him, only to my surprise, the prince looked amused rather than annoyed.  He almost opened his mouth to speak, as I quickly reach around with my other hand, straining for an armour strap to loosen.  My fingers sill found nothing.  I reached around back; I tried reaching down my back from over my head; to no avail.

I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye, again.  He stood there still, his arm fully extended, offering his armour to me.  While I was becoming increasingly agitated with my situation – seemingly trapped in my own armour – there was no frustration in his face.  Did that anger me further?  It certainly caught me off guard, which shocked my system, as my armour was designed to prevent such happenings.  Again, he looked as though he were about to speak.

I returned to my initial efforts, reaching across my chest to fumble at my side for a strap – for anything!  I was in a bit of a panic by this point.  In entertained tones, he asked, “What are you doing?”  Thinking it was self-evident, I took his question as rhetorical, or even sarcastic, and as though it were intended to speed me on with what I was doing.  I redoubled my efforts.

By this point I had decided within myself that it was not a flexibility issue.  It could not have been simply a matter of the armour restricting my motions.  Rather, I reasoned that either I was reaching to the wrong locale, or I was searching for the wrong feature.  Perhaps I needed a metal tab, rather than a leather thong.  Again, the prince’s voice rang out in the tent, “What are you doing?”

I glanced up at him, his posture unchanged.  I answered, this time, “My lord, I’m trying to remove this armour.  Surely it must come off if I’m to put yours on.”  He nodded in agreement, which I took as an affirmation of my continued fumbling.

Now, understand that as I shifted my weight, as I reached around my body, I involuntarily moved within the tent’s entryway.  All I could think of was the prince waiting for me to be ready to receive his armour, his royal gift.  Thoroughly embarrassed at the length of time I had been doing my dance, and the lack of results that I was getting; frantic to have the business done with; I stumbled to my knees on the cold earth before my liege’s feet.

Panting from exertion, I looked up at him, “My lord, I cannot.  I’m sorry.  Yours came off of you so easily, I thought mine would do the same.”

“Oh, it will come off of you easily enough – though it will be painful to remove.”  There was compassion in his voice for my embattled position.

“But how?  I cannot find any means of removing it!  There is no strap or thong; there is no tab or slot.  How may I take it off?”

He face fell slightly at this question.  Still, he spoke with a strong voice, “It is not designed to be taken off.  This is why you cannot do so.”

“So there’s a trick to it, is there?” mischievously, the thought came to me that it was some kind of riddle.  I determined, in my own mind, to solve it.  As I rose to my feet I found that his armour still hung at the end of his outstretched arm, offered to me.  “Give me time to uncover the secret, sire.”

The prince chuckled, “Finding will only bring you back to me – why not just let me show you?  Let me help you.”

In my pride I refused.  I felt that I had enough clues, and was intelligent enough to run with them for a time.  He took my hand in his as I turned to leave, “Take this, it is for you.”  He placed his armour on my shoulder, and let me go.

Plato’s Cave?

This week I’m on retreat.  I’m not running away from a battle, but I’m taking some “me” time.  The church recommends these periodically, and provides outlets.  This week the clergy of my diocese (Qu’Appelle) and of the Diocese of Saskatoon are at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre in Lumsden, SK.  Our guest speaker is Bishop Mark MacDonald, and it will prove to be a great retreat.

The Lord has inspired me in a couple of ways since leaving Swift Current today.  I’m not sure if it’s the music I was listening to (my friend Keith Kitchen is my travel companion), or the events of the last few days, or just God’s initiative (which it ultimately relies on, whatever other factors may have paved the way for Him to inspire…), but I’m sharing one thing now.  The other isn’t ready just yet.  Only He knows what else might come, in time.

I was always struck by Plato’s Cave.  If you’re unfamiliar, it’s in The Republic.  Basically, humanity is tied in a cave, and all that people can see is shadows on a wall, being generated by people carrying things past a fire that’s burning at some location behind them.  The philosopher is the human who has broken free from the cave and found a tunnel to the surface.  Upon seeing what things really are, in daylight, he returns to the cave and tries to share with the people there what he has come to learn.  They are resistant to his “new” knowledge, and generally prefer the darkness and the names and items they have imagined from the shadows.  That’s a pretty rough paraphrase, but it will have to function for us just now.  There was always something about that story that seemed to resonate with me, but there was always something missing, something “off” about it, from the reality that I’ve come to know through the Christian faith.

Humanity is trapped in an Imax theatre.  The giant screen in front of them makes them think that they’re travelling, makes them think that they’re interacting with the truth, makes them think that they’re living life.  But they’re deceived.  The truth is that they’re prisoners, and their life is a mirage.  There is a way out of the theatre, and one man, Jesus, who has come in via that way can lead them out.  If they’ll follow Him.  He’ll take them out, if they’ll give up their theatre seats.  Real life, all of the things flashed in front of them on the screen, exists outside of the theatre.  Jesus came into the theatre so that they might have real life, not the mockery of it that the theatre seduces them into.  Many don’t listen to Him: the things He’s describing seem so much like the things they already see before their eyes – isn’t He just imagining something more?  Many don’t listen to Him: the theatre seat they’re in is so comfortable, what if they get up and someone else takes it – or, worse yet, it gets cold (nobody likes sitting in a cold chair!)?

The question before each of us is this: will we go with Him, or will we stay in the theatre?  There is no other way.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

How do we talk about what we believe?  I ask this question in a response to a recent letter-to-the-editor in our national church newspaper.  I was surprised at the letter for a couple of reasons, but pertinent to this blog article was its request (?) that we (I suppose the Anglican Church of Canada) would refrain from adopting a liturgical change(?) which the RC Church had made.  The author shared an experience of attending RC mass at Christmas where the Apostles’ Creed was declared.  The point of contention was that it had been edited to say that Jesus descended to hell.  There was another letter placed with it, in which a bishop suggested that there were no changes in store for the Apostles’ Creed.

Now, I can’t say for sure what the deal is.  The Roman Catholic liturgical reform, of late, has changed their liturgy to use language very similar to the old Anglican Prayerbook language (ie. “And with thy spirit,” rather than, “And also with you” as a response).  I’m not clear on all of the changes, but my suspicion is that the “new” Apostles’ Creed used is the same as the old Anglican BCP one, which says that Christ descended to hell after his crucifixion and burial.  If this is the case, then the bishop’s letter which states that no changes are in the works for the Anglican liturgy can be true – but somewhat misleading.  What it might seem to say is that our version of the creed would never say what the “new” RC one does; however, the truth of the matter is that our version of the creed already does.

Regardless of how many parishes and clergy choose to ignore it, the Prayerbook of 1962 is still the standard for Anglican worship in Canada – not the Book of Alternative Services (BAS).  Here, however, is where I think the problem lies – that is, the “between” that we find ourselves in, with the rock on one side and the hard place on the other.

I suspect that some of the disgust expressed by the first writer to the idea that Christ descended to “hell” has to do with popular depictions and sentiments regarding hell.  To someone who imposes the popular image of hell onto the Bible’s use of that word (and also, then, of the Prayerbook’s use of that term), the idea could indeed be ugly.  The preference would certainly fall to the BAS language of “descended to the dead.”  So the word “hell” is a rock that we come up against, because of its popular usage and the imagery associated with that.

But if we think about what “descended to the dead” means, in popular usage, I don’t know that we find any more of a Scriptural view (or “prayerbook-ian,” for that matter) than “hell” conjures up.  Descending to the dead seems to only mean that a person isn’t physically alive – with no particulars beyond that.  I think that Scripture does suggest some particulars, and it is my suspicion that the people who were versed in Scripture to the extent that the compilers of the prayerbook were, knew of this.  At any rate, it would seem that “the dead” can be as much of a “hard place” as hell, and so I think that we get stuck between the two.  One, popularly, defines the intent incorrectly; the other, popularly, under-defines it.

The truth lies somewhere in-between, and is hinted at in Scripture.  Where did Jesus go between His crucifixion and His resurrection?  Did He go nowhere, and simply cease to be?  Was He simply beginning to rot in the tomb, with no existence beyond it?  The Bible, the canon of which has been received and accepted in the Christian Church as authoritative and sufficient, suggests otherwise.  He preached to those “in prison since the days of Noah.” (1 Peter 3:20).  The Odes of Solomon mention this same phenomenon.

The picture painted for the Church is a picture of Jesus “tasting” the fullness of death.  What would be the point of Him sacrificing Himself for us if He failed to do so?  His vicarious atonement/sacrifice, for it to be vicarious, required Him to bear the punishment of our sin, so that there is no punishment for our sin left to fall to us.  He saves us from that punishment because He took it all already.  What