Tag: #prayer

The Feast Of John The Baptist.

John the Baptist Head on a Platter

A Very Merry Unbirthday To You!

There are two requirements, I’ve learned, to successful blogging: quality and quantity.

So, how is yours truly doing about a year and a half into this blogging thing?  I hope you believe that the quality of what I put out is generally acceptable.  Usually understandable.  Mostly interesting.  Sometimes even provocative or entertaining .

My real problem is quantity.  I’ve put out about 45 posts over a span of over 75 weeks.  You gotta’ be kidding!  That’s not even one a week.  I hope the only way from here is up.

The Mad Hatter And Me.

My intent was to put out a post about John the Baptist in time for his “birthday”-which many Christians celebrate on June 24.  Which, to my chagrin, is now rapidly fading in the rear view mirror.

So, John, as they sang at the Mad Hatter’s party: a very merry UNbirthday to you!

John The Enigma.

There’s no question that John is a man to be reckoned with.  Jesus says of him, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” (Lk 7:28).

For the longest time, however, John was an enigma to me.  But it wasn’t the strange stories of a wild man in the Judean desert, eating locusts and honey, clad in camel hair, that puzzled me.  Odd?  Yes.  But straight forward enough.

Nor, during his early ministry, did I have any trouble seeing John fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way-
a voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.'”
(Mk 1:2-3)

During those few, shining moments John’s out front where he’s supposed to be.  Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to SRO crowds.  Telling of the One to come, “more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”  Even baptizing Christ, seeing the heavens torn open, the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. And listening in as the voice of the Father tells Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:7;11)

Yes, it’s easy to see John making those straight paths.

But thereafter, aside from some brief, apparently random glimpses, John is almost entirely eclipsed by the brilliance that is the eternal Word Himself.  How can John be the pathfinder, if the trail he leaves is so faint and uncertain?

Making Sense Of The Forerunner.

So what do we make of John’s other appearances?  His birth?  His brutal death?  Even the troubling scene where, from prison, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Mt 11:2)  Do we treat these events as mere surplus?

Definitely not.  The key is understanding John is just like what it says:  “I will send my messenger ahead of you . . .”  Wherever you see John, look for Christ to show up.  But later.  True, John’s story, by comparison with Christ’s, is writ small.  In some cases, barely a wisp.  But it’s there.

Count on it:  where John leads, Jesus follows.

Two Miraculous Births.  And In The Right Order.

The “Christmas Story” only shows up in two Gospels:  Matthew and Luke; Mark and John say nothing.  Matthew is silent with regards to how the Baptist’s birth interacted with Christ’s.

Luke, in contrast, more than makes up for what the others fail to say.

In Luke, it’s clear that John goes “ahead”-he was born before Jesus.  (Lk 1:57-66)

And, like that of Jesus’ birth, John’s nativity was replete with “signs and wonders.”  His parents, “well along in years,” were past the age of child bearing (Lk 1:7).  Elizabeth gets pregnant anyway (Lk 1:24).  Angels run wild (Lk 1:11).  His skeptical father is struck dumb (Lk 1:20).  And then speaks again (Lk 1:64).

No, John wasn’t born to a virgin.  But it’s also clear this was far from your run of the mill L&D.  And that what we see through a glass darkly in John’s birth, we see face to face in Christ’s.

Two Public Ministries.  And In The Right Order.

Saint John the Baptist preaching to crowd

I’ve already talked about John’s public ministry:  huge crowds, preaching repentance, baptism.  Very explicitly pointing to the One who is to soon come.  What else can be said?

Probably no more than this pithy summary in the Gospel of John at the close of the Pathfinder’s public ministry: “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease.”  (Jn 3:30).

Two Gethsemanes.  And In The Right Order.

As those paragons of Christian theology, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, put it, “I was ’round when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain.”  But, to our everlasting gain, Christ’s response to Lucifer in the garden was, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  (Lk 22:42)

But Christ’s moment of doubt and pain was, again, foreshadowed by John.  His public ministry came crashing down when he told King Herod that “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mk 6:18).  Herod was no doubt upset, but his wife, Herodias, was furious.  So she persuaded her husband to have John thrown in the slammer.  (BTW, if you’d like to get a sense of what prison conditions in the ancient Mideast may have been like for The Baptist, watch the gut wrenching movie, Midnight Express.)

From the inky depths of Herod’s prison, John is likewise in Satan’s icy grip.  Wondering how something that had begun so well could have gone so badly so quickly, he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”  (Lk 7:19).  How ironic, but understandable, that The Pathfinder would have his own moment of doubt and pain right after his disciples had reported that Jesus had pulled back the centurion’s servant from the jaws of death.   And raised the widow of Nain’s son from the dead (Lk 7:1-15).  John’s anguished prayer can almost be heard: “Lord, you healed the centurion’s servant.  You raised the widow’s son from the dead.  Why don’t you get me out of Herod’s prison?”  

Two “Trials.”  And In The Right Order.

But Herodias wasn’t satisfied with John merely being held in a wretched dungeon.  She wanted his head.  But Herod resisted; for some reason he took a perverse pleasure in listening to John (Mk 6:20).

But that resistance melted away in the face of incestuous lust.  At a drunken birthday party, Herodias’ daughter’s dancing so pleased Herod that he promised her anything, even “up to half my kingdom.”  After consulting her mother, the daughter demanded “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”  Unwilling to back down in the presence of his guests, Herod ordered it done.  He, in turn, “presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.” (Mk 6:21-28)  Talk about a grizzly party favor.  And one that still lives in infamy.

Does this travesty rise to the level of a “trial?”  Obviously not.  But neither did Christ’s.  And, again, Jesus followed where John led.

A Coincidence?  You Decide.

To me, the most poignant account of John’s disciples telling Jesus of the beheading in Herod’s dungeon comes in Matthew:  “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.”  (Mt 14:13).  What was Jesus doing in that solitary place?  Praying?  No doubt.  Mourning?  Sure.

But let me suggest one more thing:  pondering his own fate.

It is only after John is murdered that Jesus begins predicting his own death.  (Mt 16:21; but also true in the other synoptic gospels).  A coincidence?  I doubt it.  Surely, by now, Jesus saw the pattern himself, as certain as night follows day:  where John leads, I must follow.

Two “Resurrections.”  And In The Right Order.

What more can possibly be said of Christ’s death and resurrection?  These events are the cornerstones of Christianity.  They’re the culmination of all four gospel accounts.  Who could miss them?

The same, most certainly, can’t be said of John’s “resurrection.”  By contrast with Christ’s, it’s the barest wisp.

Why?  Consider the source:  Herod.  That’s right, John’s murderer.  But it’s there:

“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead!  That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.'” (Mt 14:1-2).

Is Herod a reliable source?  No.  He was more likely suffering from a guilty conscience.  Had John come back to life in Jesus and was he performing the miracles Herod heard about?  Again, no.

But it’s only after Herod’s delusional “prophesies” that Jesus begins predicting his own resurrection.  (Mt 16:21).  And if Herod’s ravings about John are good enough for Jesus, they’re plenty good enough to demonstrate to me that Christ was paying attention. And following where John was leading.

But that’s not really the point.  John wasn’t meant to be the highway, plain for all to see.  Jesus was.  John was the path.  For Jesus to see.  John’s “resurrection” is just the next paving stone in the path.

It’s Not If.  It’s Who.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to  sympathize with our weaknesses,
but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin.”  (Heb 4:15).

This is an interesting, two edged passage of Scripture.  Sure, it means that Christ is just like us-except without sin.  But it also means that we are just like Christ-except with sin.  Granted, that’s a huge difference.  But, as I take it, there are also huge similarities.

In relation to The Baptist, consider what the author of Hebrews meant.  Did Jesus really need a leader?  Unless we are to conclude that the carefully woven skein between the lives of John and Jesus was just play acting, how can it be otherwise? And isn’t this just like the Lamb of God?  To humbly submit to the Pathfinder’s leadership. Even after John’s reckless enthusiasm was reduced to bitter ashes in the furnace of Herod’s prison.

And if Jesus needed a leader, how much more us?  But the difference?  While Jesus chose just the right leader and played the game flawlessly, we’re free to err in both regards.  And how often we do.

But our consolation?  If we, like Christ, humble ourselves and choose the right Leader, He has our backs.  Because, with even greater recklessness, the Lamb humbly stoops beneath even us, making

“. . . himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death-
even death on a cross! (Php 2-7,8).

To what end?  To rise to heights of unimagined glory.  And, bearing on His broad shoulders all those who also humble themselves, climb aboard, and go along for the ride.

The Kindness of Strangers

pot of beans on fireI practiced law for 10 years, which, according to one of my favorite gag lines, “was about five years too many.”  But law was by no means my only career mistake.  And today, shortly after having cleaned out my office in preparation for retirement, is not a bad time to reflect on a life that could serve as an illustration of Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time.

But, in such a target rich environment, where to begin?

An image that easily comes to mind is in the upper reaches of Gore Creek, beneath Red Buffalo Pass and above Vail in about the spring of 1975.  Alone with my backpacking gear, I had parked my ’69 VW Bug at the foot of Vail Pass when it was still a two lane road, and hiked several steep miles up the trail to timber line.  I pitched my yellow pup tent on a huge ledge, just as the sun was setting down the valley to the west.

As I sat there admiring the view, a small herd of deer cautiously emerged from the dark shadows of the forest to graze in the lush meadow beneath me.  Then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, they vanished; something had spooked them.

Not too far away, a faint column of smoke rose from another campsite.  On my way up, I had talked briefly with the man, about my age, who was camped there.

“Mind if I sit down for a bit?”

“Go ahead,” he replied, “make yourself comfortable.”

I lowered my pack, found a smooth spot on the log on the opposite side of the fire from him, and took out my water bottle.  The grass around the rock fire ring was gone, beaten down to ash smudged dirt.  Pinto beans seethed in a soot encrusted pot over the flames; I didn’t see anything else on the menu for dinner.

Assuming that he was in need of my back packing expertise, I said, “It’s going to take forever  for those beans to get cooked at this altitude.”

“That’s ok,” he replied, “I have time.  I’ve been up here about a month.”

“Wow,” I replied, regretting I had said anything about the beans.  “You’ve been up here since before the snow melted.  What have you been doing?”

“I got home from Vietnam a while back.  I wanted to get away and try to clear my head.”

Vietnam: that miserable war had just wound down to it’s miserable conclusion.  But, unlike our current miserable wars, at least it did, finally, come to an end.

I don’t remember much else about that encounter.  And it’s likely that I wouldn’t remember it at all if it hadn’t been a sort of echo of my own experience in the Gore Range that weekend:  camping alone, seeking direction. Having just graduated from Colorado University with a European history degree, I wanted time alone to think and pray about what I was going to do with my life.

The decision facing me was a binary career choice:  law school or seminary to study church history.

Why nothing beyond more schooling?  For one, I had actually grown to enjoy the academic life since becoming a Christian two years earlier. Unlike my first years in college, I had taken school much more seriously, was learning how to write, and had excelled in most of my classes.  One semester, for the first time, I got straight A’s (not counting the Russian History class that I had dropped when I got so hopelessly behind.)

But there was also an element of fear, fear of facing the real world.  School was a safe, familiar environment.

A few weeks before, at a loud graduation party a friend who was getting an engineering degree asked me over the din of Led Zeppelin, “What are you going to do when we’re done?” When he heard that I was thinking of law school, he scornfully asked, “Why don’t you get a real job?”  I had no ready answer.  Maybe this time in the Gore Range would help.

I had submitted law school applications at CU and Denver University.  And for the graduate program at Princeton seminary for church history.

With my checkered academic record, the Colorado University law school rejected me outright.

The Denver University law school was only willing to admit me to the night program.  And, to make that achievement even more dubious, it was about then that DU was in financial hospice care; they were probably admitting anyone who could fog a mirror.

With the encouragement of a German History professor who took an enthusiastic liking to me, Robert Pois, I applied to Princeton Seminary.  They rejected me, but I figured there were plenty of other places out there where you could study church history.  True, I had only the vaguest idea of what I would do with such a degree: even I knew that the job prospects for teaching history at the college level were dismal.  Nonetheless, I stubbornly clung to the notion that this was an option worth keeping open.

I was certain of one thing, however: I wasn’t going to seminary to become a minister.  To this day, I can’t attempt much more than speculation about why I was so averse to that career path.  It wouldn’t have been without precedent in my family.  My grandfather Swalm was a Nazarene pastor.  My uncle was a Nazarene Army chaplain in Korea; he was killed by friendly fire during the chaotic retreat down the peninsula in the first few days of that war.

Yet another war in a far distant part of the world which, even now, threatens to drag us into a conflict that should be none of our business.

But it wasn’t just family history that could have led me into the pulpit.  Since shortly after becoming a Christian, I had been an enthusiastic participant at the Hillside Church of the Savior. It was a Jesus Freak  church that met in the home of Gene Thomas.

Like Gene himself, the house was a hulking, physically unattractive structure overlooking Boulder Creek just north of the CU campus.  On Sunday evenings, the place would be packed with students sitting on the floor and the overstuffed chairs strewn through the house.

Before church began, dinner would be served; one evening I made split pea soup for 100 in the Thomas’ cramped kitchen.  The congregation, many of whom looked like the main reason they had come was for a free meal, formed a line around the dining room table and then found a place to sit.  How much split pea got spilled on the carpets?  Plenty, I expect. Very young families were just making an appearance at the church; infants on blankets, some discretely at their mothers’ breast.  Gene’s wife, Gerri, put up with a lot.

Dinner over, Doug Bush led the rousing choruses on his ringing, 12 string guitar.

Gene, whose day job was operating his phone answering service, would then perch himself on a stool at the foot of the stairs that led to the second floor.  From there, he made Jesus’ parables come alive.  He was generous with his talents and resources, nurturing young leaders, allowing his home to be overrun each week.

I was baptized by one of Gene’s young assistants in the CU swimming pool; it wouldn’t have made sense for Gene to haul his bulk in and out of the pool.  My parents came from Denver to see me get dunked.

For my last two years of college I shared a two story house with a few other guys from the church in Boulder’s “The Hill” neighborhood just west of the campus.  To this day, it’s a good memory; one of my roommates became a brother in law.

Years later, after I had moved back to Denver, I learned that Gene had been forced to resign when it came out that he was a homosexual.  When I heard it, my stomach was tied in a knot of disbelief.  With a new Believer’s naivety, it was unimaginable.  But, it would not be the last time my church life was touched so nearly by such a resignation.  Gene died in 2012, survived by his wife of 63 years and a host of grandkids.

Somewhere along the way, I spoke with one of the guys at the church, Bobby Winters, about my career dilemma.  Young, in his 20’s, bold in sharing the Gospel, he was nonetheless dying from kidney failure.   His intense face had already taken on a sallow, yellow pallor; he died when his first kidney transplant failed and a second organ couldn’t be found.  His advice was straightforward:  “Have you prayed about it?”  He asked the question with a calm certainty that my answer would be forthcoming.

“I have,” I replied.  But I said it with what I hoped was a poker face that didn’t betray my uncertainty.

My problem with prayer is long standing:  it’s more like daydreaming than prayer.  Much of what I did that weekend was daydream.  And, truth be told, not much has changed for my prayer life in the intervening decades.

So, how was the decision made?  Not by me.  I flipped a coin.  Not much of a career counselor.  So, sometime during the weekend, it came up “law school.”  And that’s what I did.

In “A Street Car Named Desire” Blanche DuBois utters the play’s most famous line:  “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  So have I.  And despite having treated Him at times like a stranger, He’s been kind to me far beyond my just desserts.