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ASPECTS

a monthly devotional journal
by David Lampel
Issue No. 126
May 2001

RISING TOWARD
THE BRIGHT SWEETNESS


A life pays itself out like a plumb line in a windstorm--always wishing to stay straight and true, but bowing to the insistent demands of the gale as it reaches for the one, true point. Life has a way of telling the truth through a series of small inconsistencies that keep us perilously off-balance, always reaching for something straight and solid, while never quite understanding the twists and turns of the life in which we have been set.

Man is a blithe spirit borne down by the weight of flesh--a soul desperately in search of freedom. He is created with a longing for someone larger than himself, someone who (unlike him) does not dwell on quicksand. He longs for someone with a surer footing and strong arms.

Life is the spirit's never-ending search for a way out of its corporeal bonds.

Human life is a quest--a quest up from the soil that fills our veins, toward the purity of heaven. The problem is, for most of mankind's time on earth, humans have defined a multitude of different heavens, each imagined and crafted into a comfortable dwelling place for a multitude of eternities.

There was a point in time when there was heaven on earth. For a brief moment, paradise dwelt upon the dust of earth, and man and woman enjoyed a blissful, perfect harmony with God. But then the dust from which they had been made drew back from God--like its cousin, gravity--to pull them into the deceitful clutches of one who had once been beautiful, but was now the epitome of dark evil.

In one dark, ugly moment, heaven left the leaden gravity of earth, not to return until sin and its father had been forever vanquished. Between these two points in time--between the bliss of Eden and the New Jerusalem--man and woman would be condemned to be born in sin, creatures of depravity, spirits condemned to the claustrophobic woolen cloak of the flesh, longing for the bright sweetness they had once enjoyed.

 

THE DECISION

There is poverty in the United States, but it is a poverty on such a higher level than the poverty in other parts of the world that it should, in all fairness, not presume to borrow the same word. Those typically situated within the 'poverty' level of our society may still enjoy a home, a car in the drive, a color television glowing into the night. Their children get an education, and, if they choose, the adults have employment. And for those few who are truly living on the baseline, there are usually any number of government or private services available for their relief.

Poverty in other countries--especially Third World countries--meets the truer definition of the word. A peasant family eking out survival from a tin-roofed hovel on the outskirts of Mexico City, or clinging to the Santa Marta hillside overlooking Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, has slim hope of climbing even to the level of US poverty--a level of relative wealth of which they can only dream. The dirt-caked children playing in the dust outside their family's mud brick dwelling in Egypt, or those who scavenge for food and saleable rags in Cairo's city dump, will never receive an education, never live in a furnished apartment, never own a car or draw a fair salary for a day's work.

By contrast, in the United States there are always possibilities. We really do not have a 'peasant' class, since, by the measure of other lands such as India or Russia, we do not have a class-structured society. Change is always possible; in the US, one is not necessarily destined to die in the station to which one was born. (We do, thanks to liberals, have class *envy* in the US, but that is another thing entirely.)

In a free, democratic republic, such as the United States today, change is not only possible, but almost inevitable. One does rise, one generally does become more tomorrow than what one is today. One is not born into a permanent, societal station.

And no matter the country of one's birth, one is not necessarily destined to remain in the sin-laden dust from which one is born. Man and woman are born into sin, into earthbound depravity, but that need not be a permanent condition. The spirit of a man (if not his body) dwells in a free, democratic republic, where tomorrow always holds out the possibility for change. One may be born into abject spiritual poverty, but one need not remain there.

Sadly, many do make the choice to remain where they are, stuck in the muck of their own birth. They have turned a deaf ear to the cries of their soul, listening instead to the Siren song of the earth from which they sprang. Like their parents, Adam and Eve, they have blindly reasoned that they know better than the Spirit that beckons them upward.

The beginning of change is the decision to make it. The Spirit comes into the heart of man to ignite a longing for God--a longing not just for redemption, but for something better; not just for holiness, but for a higher plane. There is something better, and God knows what it is. But man and woman must decide whether they will live with God on His higher plane, or remain stuck in the foul muck of earth.

Without question, it is a mystery, and difficult for the temporal mind to grasp. God is all-powerful and all-knowing; He knows the way of every individual ever born. Yet--and here is the mystery--man is still a free agent. God is not a gangster forcing His will at gunpoint, but a wise Father offering a better way. A wise dad counsels and influences his teenage children; he corrects and chastises when they do wrong, but he also recognizes the folly in dictatorship. The wise parent dictates the way of a two-year-old, but allows the eighteen-year-old to become bruised by his own decisions, learning the hard lessons that will, ultimately, develop character. The dad understands the risk: the child may not seek higher ground, but be lost to the enticements of earth and flesh. But it is a necessary risk, for without learning self-determination the child will never grow up at all.

God is nothing if not a wise dad. He is not interested in raising up brain-numb weaklings who must be told everything to do, but desires the fellowship of bruised-but-mature adults who have consciously made the decision for Him.

 

A LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE FAMILIAR

A decision made for God through Christ is not, in itself, a decision to also rise out of the tenacious bonds of the earth. Redemption is not sanctification; justification is not holiness.

Most believers have only a pale vision of the rich, deeply colored tapestry that God has planned for their life. Most Christians are either ignorant of the existence of the higher life--or have consciously decided to avoid it. Man and woman have so filled their built-in longing with other things, there is no room left for the one for whom it was created. As the landlord of his person, man has filled the rooms of his life with the accoutrements of a lower plane: corporate ambition, physical pleasure, acquisition of wealth, and the warm glow of human relationships. But in those who already know Christ, that longing is often filled with an insidious roomer known as 'religion.'

Religion removed from its pristine state, as practiced by believers the world over, has degenerated into the activity of 'playing church.' We so busy ourselves with the activity that is expected from a Christian, that we have separated ourselves from the Spiritual engine meant to drive it. Here is a partial list of real weekly activities taken from the mailout of a modestly large evangelical church:

Monday - EFL & Citizenship classes
Monday - Deacon Board meeting
Tuesday - EFL & Citizenship classes
Tuesday - Spanish Class
Tuesday - G & H Circle
Wednesday - New Bible Study in Spanish
Wednesday - Supper
Sunday - Sanctity of Human Life
Sunday - Growing Kids God's Way
Sunday - Deaconess meeting

Add to this all the other committee meetings, all the various choir and ensemble practices, play rehearsals, nursery and greeter assignments, visitation, and, oh yes, worship. Soon the local church presents a rosy, contented, self-satisfied picture of busy activity 'for the Lord'--but, curiously, the Lord Himself is nowhere to be found.

The fault lies--as is so often the case--not with the activities themselves, or even their calendar-stuffing number, but with the pervasive philosophy they can represent, that busyness equals nearness to God. It is appropriate for the leadership in a church to create opportunities for the saints to use their gifts in service to the Lord. The one gifted with financial expertise should be involved in balancing the church's checkbook; the one gifted to help children grow into adults should indeed be involved with the youth group. But service is not synonymous with holy communion, and potluck dinners are not synonymous with worship.

The plain truth is that man has always had a love affair with the familiar, the comfortable, the seen. God then comes in and says, "I want you to have a relationship with Me--but it will be based not on flesh, but on spirit. I want you to love Me--but you may not look upon Me. It will be a love affair of faith, not sight." And his demands make us uneasy, for we are people of the earth, people of flesh, and many of us are uncomfortable with even our own spirit--much less His.

So we cling to what we know: doing, rather than being. It is far easier to join a committee, or serve coffee at the social, than to have an intimate relationship with an invisible God. And, as a result, our faith becomes root-bound--not rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, but rooted into the familiar soil from which we came, and thus firmly anchored in the plane He is inviting us to leave.

The higher life begins with understanding that a foot in the door is not the same as dwelling inside; buying a ticket for entrance through the Pearly Gates is not the same as living a life comfortable with what is inside.

 

ADAPTATION OVER IMMUTABILITY

Ordinarily, people seem to favor consistency over change. In politics the incumbent typically wins; in institutions the inventive idea is often met with, "That's not how we do things around here." In churches we want to hold onto pastors who have been there a long time, preferring their known foibles over anyone unfamiliar. And in our own life most of us will prefer the old familiar routine over anything new and potentially inconvenient.

It seems to be a part of our culture, established even in the minds of the young. Paging through one of my old high school yearbooks, try as I might I cannot find any notations that say, "I look forward to seeing what you become," or, "I just bet you will have changed for the better in twenty years." Instead I find the saccharine litany, "Good luck to a great guy!" and, "Always stay as you are--never change," and, "You're a great kid, so stay that way!"

Well, I can say with some accuracy that after thirty-four years, I have most definitely changed: in some respects for the worse, but mostly for the better. I may have substantially added to my girth, and deducted from my pate, but thank goodness I am no longer that pimply faced class clown, chronically unsteady around the fairer sex, and more interested in extra-curricular activities than actually learning anything.

Oddly, however, man seems to take a different tack when establishing a relationship with God. While in our more mundane living we favor consistency over change, in our dealings with God we favor adaptation over immutability. Uncomfortable with His eternally unchanging character, we set out to re-mold Him into our own image.

We live in a world that, if it cares about God at all, cares only to redefine Him into a benevolent buddy who abides by its standards. Instead of seeking a God who exists on His own terms--a God who can offer a firm foundation against the quicksand of man's society--this world seeks only to pursue a God of its own making.

Many people doggedly avoid any search for God for fear of what they'll find at their goal. The result of their search will surely be uncomfortable, they surmise, and certainly inconvenient. God the Father is too holy and detached, they assume, and Jesus the Son is too dated to be of any use to this present age.

Their ignorance aside, the believer cannot thrust a bony finger of condemnation at the world without first pointing it at himself. Sadly, this reluctance to take God as He is has a comfortable dwelling place even within the body of Christ.

The bright sweetness of God cannot be enjoyed after it has been dulled by any of the earth's darkness. Indeed, by such treatment it is rendered unrecognizable. And it is the height of man's arrogance to presume to refashion an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal God. To remake God is to reduce Him (in the mind) to a small god--that is, no God at all, but a mere idol. Of what earthly good is a God fashioned from the soil? What profit is there in rising toward someone already lower than oneself? For whatever is fashioned by man is something lower than he who made it; the creator is always superior to the thing created.

To change God from what He is, is to set man above Him. And any attempt to change Him is to say, "I will remain who I am, and bring God down to my level." To change God is to reverse the universal order of our being, for in His universe, He is the one who creates and refashions.

God does stoop to our level--as He did most dramatically at the cross--but it is only to reach down and lift us up to Him. He will not be soiled by the earth--that was the point of the cross. His desire is to bring us into the paradise of His dwelling--to restore the bright sweetness He once enjoyed with His creation.

We may squander our precious opportunities for communion by vainly trying to modify God's personality and character. We may remain stiff-lipped and arrogant, demanding that He bow to our wishes. We may remain stubborn and resolute, waiting for Him to reconcile His precepts to our more manageable traditions. But in that we will ultimately lose, and God will remain what He always has been: unchanged.

 

BORN WITH THE YEARNING

The longing is there. In some it may be papered over, or suffering under five coats of hard enamel paint; it may have been stuffed back into the pile of mildewed sneakers and old T-shirts turned into rags, that has taken over the furthest recesses of a long-forgotten closet; it may have been banished to the coal bin buried in the basement--but the longing is still there, in every person, waiting to once again see the light of day.

There is something in every person that longs to rise higher than the dirt at his or her feet. Some may become sidetracked in their quest, following down some rabbit trail leading to nowhere, but others have identified the goal of their quest, and have set out down the straight path.

The longing to rise is not something detached, a mere wisp of vapor floating about in the ether, or an abstract concept, first lost and later found, in the journals of the past. It is not something that must be discovered, then nurtured or learned, as a brand new idea that surprises. The longing does not begin outside of ourselves, but begins within.

In a believer, the Holy Spirit also dwells within. But that fruitful companion was someone from without who, in a grand moment, became part of the person professing Christ. No one--not even a believer--is born with the Spirit inside, but He is a gift from the Father, received at the moment Christ is believed. The longing, however, is a part of us from the womb. We are born with the yearning for God--even if we, in our ignorance, do not know it for what it truly is.

The longing, though congenital, may still surprise. It comes upon us during moments of wonder and grace, moments of rapture tinged with the spiritual. It may take our breath away in moments we understand, but that are too wonderful to contain, such as moments when we cradle our newborn child, or gaze upon the face of a loved one just passed. Because all of nature is His, it very often comes upon us when we are surrounded by those things for which man is not responsible, such as during a stroll in the early morning wonder of God's creation.

We carry it within. It is as much a part of us as our first breath. To reject it is the same as to cut off an arm or gouge out an eye. To embrace it is to accept the fact that we are forever incomplete without God.

 

THE SOUND OF HIS GLORY

The early morning air was crisp and clean. After a night unseasonably cold, my breath was visible, caught in the sharp first rays of the sun. Wisps of vaporous steam rose from the surface of the pond--its placid waters still full from the last thunderstorm. Though the sounds of machines could be heard coming from the distant highway, it was yet a tranquil setting--the first sounds being not the machines, but the contented calls of myriad birds.

I was on one more jaunt to release one more mouse from the confines in which it found itself after being found out in the house. Though the bright-eyed pests now had every reason to remain outside, I was still having to continue my catch-and-release program. And while I wasn't any too thrilled with the idea of more mice in the house, I was beginning to enjoy these early morning strolls to the woods.

During the winter I had crunched atop packed snow and ice, bundled against the frigid conditions. But now I could slow my pace, breathe in the earthy aromas of fresh spring, listen to the chorus of winged neighbors celebrating the dawn. The deer were still plentiful, prancing off into the underbrush when surprised by my footsteps, always scolding my impertinence with a harsh snort. This morning, too, with the air just a bit warmer and the sun piercing golden rays through the dew-sparkled grass, I trudged up the drive to release yet another furry invader. And the chorus of winged visitors crescendoed in greeting, filling the tranquil morning with the sound of fluttering angel wings.

Who in his right mind can deny God when faced with such overwhelming evidence! Who can turn away from His grandeur, or His kind condescension? Who, but a fool, could deny Him a place in their heart?

(from Reflections by the Pond)*

 

NAKED BEFORE GOD

The Rising takes place only in the painful transparency of abject humility. Before man there may be some small merit in hiding the full measure of the heart's content, but before God the gates of the heart must be swung wide, and its contents spilled out into the glare of light. Thus emptied of the weight of our duplicity and conceit, we begin to rise.

And it is just this weight--the full weight of our own glorification--that binds us so tenaciously in the grip of the soil. Our mind understands what is missing; our deep longing hungers for the bliss of what it once knew. But the heart remains closed upon its dark contents, fearing the examination of the bright light.

One Sunday morning a gentleman--a church elder--sat in on our Bible study, one in which we were discussing prayer. He asked after the nature and duration of our own prayers, then, before we could answer, volunteered that his own were brief, pithy, and to the point. "Lord, here is a bullet list of my concerns, typed up in triplicate for your convenience. Thank you very much. Good day." He didn't see why much more than that was necessary.

Here was a man buried up to his knees in the soil of the earth. "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'" Luke 18:10-13

Every prayer should be at least one step higher toward the bright sweetness. It is a long journey, but small steps count. Every prayer should be an emptying of the heart's contents, a humble revealing of a sinner's dependency on God. Only then do we begin to experience even a small part of the glorious communion man and woman once enjoyed with their Creator.

And the longing does not wait for the prayer on bended knee, but considers the person as a whole, inhaling the hours and minutes of a life and exhaling them up to God. Man and woman are born with an emptiness that can only be filled by their Maker, and a longing to rise up from the soil of their birth to meet with Him in a better place--not a place awaiting their ultimate demise, but a place available to them even now, in the Garden of His presence.


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Issue No. 126
May 2001

COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

Aspects is Copyright © 2001 David S. Lampel.
Permission is hereby granted for this original material to be reprinted in newsletters, journals, etc., or to be used in spoken form. When used, please include the following line: "From Aspects, by David S. Lampel. Used by permission." Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture is from the New International Version. NIV quotations are from the Holy Bible: New International Version, Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission. NASB quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by The Lockman Foundation.

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