The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3

thefataltree_coverAnd so, with the turn of the final page of The Fatal Tree, the Bright Empires series, the five-book epic Christian science fantasy by Stephen Lawhead, has come to an end. It’s hard for me to put into words the last installment of such an ambitious project. Part of me wants to give a series review, but I’m inadequate to do so since I read the five books as they released. What details have I forgotten?

And yet, merely reviewing The Fatal Tree feels inadequate. I wouldn’t expect anyone to start with this book, so a review of it as if it were a stand alone seems disingenuous. I think the best way to approach this daunting assignment is for me to give my random thoughts . . . randomly, as opposed to writing a formal review.

With that decided, here goes.

The Fatal Tree continues the story where The Shadow Lamp left off. The ley travelers suspect something serious has happened in the omniverse to upset the way things work. In fact, they believe that in all probability, an anomaly has taken place which has caused the omniverse to slow, leading ultimately to contraction, or the complete destruction of everything.

The main character, Kit, thinks he knows what this anomaly is—an event he witnessed at the Spirit Well. The problem is that a giant yew tree is growing over the place that would give him and his fellow questers access to the Well. Their job is to find a way to the Well and reverse the event in hope that they will also reverse contraction. The yew tree, however, emits huge amounts of energy, enough to kill anyone who touches it.

Some bloggers have mentioned that the quest for the Spirit Well is a shift from the original series quest—to find the Skin Map. The shift took place in book three, however, so from my perspective it would be odd to once again take up the search for the Skin Map. In The Spirit Well the focus becomes the object to which the map led and not the map itself. That Kit found the Well, saw it, and believes he can lead others to it, is a game changer. But problems of one kind or another continue to block him and the others.

Some bloggers also felt as if the high stakes didn’t ring true. I’d have to agree with this thought. The fact that I’m reading a book about the possibility of the end of everything obviously means (were it true and not fiction—a sensation novelists try to create) that the questers were successful which reduces the tension of the story.

Some CSFF tour participants felt the characters weren’t particularly deep or developed. I didn’t think so. Rather, I thought some of the minor characters like Lady Fayth made great changes; others showed their true colors more clearly; several relationships were furthered; but most importantly, an unlikely character changed and an unlikely character took heroic action.

I have to think that Mr. Lawhead’s use of the omniscient point of view may have been the reason some readers didn’t feel the story showed great character development. Without a doubt, it is a writing technique that doesn’t bring readers as close as first person or even close third person.

I was probably more aware of the omniscient voice in The Fatal Tree than I had been in the previous books. With this book wrapping up the many strands of an epic tale, omniscient voice may have been the only way to move from one set of characters in various locations and times to another. Perhaps all the movement drew more attention to the voice, however.

I did wonder from time to time if all the characters and all the movement were necessary. For instance, a good amount of time was spent on one character looking for another. When at last the connection was made, nothing came of it—that is, the encounter ended quickly and badly, and the questers were no closer to finding a way to the Spirit Well.

Along that line, there seemed to be a couple threads for which I saw no purpose. For example, at one point Mina, in trying to reach a certain spot by traveling along the ever less-stable ley lines, landed in a blizzard—with the Burly men’s wild cat. The animal ends up running off, dragging its chain, and nothing is heard about it again. At the same time, Mina sees a pool that doesn’t freeze over, though everything else is ice and snow. She steps into it and is transported to a different place and time.

A pool, I think. And they are looking for the Spirit Well. Might this be connected? A prehistoric version of what they’re looking for? Or a form of it before the yew tree grew? We never visited that pool again, and it didn’t have any apparent connection with the over all quest.

Another subplot had to do with one of Arthur Flinders-Petrie’s descendants, Douglas. He had stolen a book which was supposed to be important in the quest for the Skin Map. The book never factors into the resolution and Douglas has little to do with the main plot line.

In the same way the secret ley travelers organization, the Zetetic Society, which seemed so important in The Shadow Lamp, fades in importance in The Fatal Tree, receiving only a mention from time to time.

All this to say, I liked this final book of the series better for paring down the cast to the most significant characters. And still there was, what felt like to me, an utterly useless thread with Tony Carter and the scientists back in the US who were trying to corroborate that the omniverse was indeed about to contract. These scenes felt by and large, superfluous to me though I understand some found them of great interest and thought they gave the book a greater science fiction feel.

Well, yes, probably. Since I’m not a big science fiction reader, you can see why I felt those sections could have been left out!

I could go on. There’s so much to say about this book, and I haven’t touched upon the key theme—in fact, I don’t recall any of the tour participants discussing this theme either, which is a little disturbing.

Here’s the end before the Epilogue and the author essay in which this theme comes forward again:

“It looks like we’re just in time,” observed Cass, tapping the pewter carapace [of the Shadow Lamp].

“You know there’s no such thing as coincidence,” Kit replied lightly. “Right?”

“Yeah, right,” said Cass. “Let’s go home.”

No such thing as coincidence is a repeated phrase in this book, and it’s not by coincidence! ;-)

This book also contained the greatest spiritual content of the five, and yet it left me wondering. What I had taken in earlier books to be symbols of new birth or of redemption were not. What they were, I’d like to think about some more. And I’d like to understand better what actually happened in the climax. I’ll be re-reading that chapter, most certainly.

All in all, I highly recommend the Bright Empires series to readers who love epic stories and appreciate the writing style made possible by the omniscient voice—Mr. Lawhead has full command of the language and is able to provide rich description of the varied places and eras about which he writes. This series is a unique blend of speculative and historical fiction. Readers who enjoy either genre or both will be swept up in the expansive tale.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a gratis copy of The Fatal Tree so that I could write my thoughts about the book in this post.

The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2

Bright Empires posterStephen Lawhead aimed big when he began the Bright Empire series, a five-book epic Christian speculative story which concludes with The Fatal Tree, this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature. In fact, you might say the series is cosmic in scope, incorporating omniverse theory, philosophy, and theology into his fascinating tale of ley lines travel.

And still, characters rule—the good and the bad. In Day 1 I took a peek at my favorite character, Mina Klug. Today I want to zero in on my least favorite—Archelaeus Burleigh, Earl of Sutherland and story antagonist.

In Book 4, The Shadow Lamp, Burleigh seems at last to reap what he has sown, and I experienced a sense of justice and a bit of relief that now at last the questers could move freely as they sought to set to right the events that threaten the entire cosmos.

How wrong I was, given the nature of ley line travel. Not only do people using ley lines move from place to place, they move from time to time within those places. Hence, Kit and Mina and Cass can come face to face with Burleigh and his gang of thugs at points before their capture.

More interesting to me than this suspenseful twist in the story, is the unexpected thread in The Fatal Tree expanding on Burleigh himself. While he was free, he operated like a selfish, mean-spirited bully, taking what he wanted, manipulating others for his purposes. He was cruel for his own pleasure, impulsive, scheming—a thoroughly evil villain.

But when he lands in the dungeon, when he’s forced into solitary confinement, he suddenly has more time than he wants for contemplation, and his inner life comes alive. His encounter with the character I most admire in the Bright Empires, the baker Engelbert Stiffelbeam, provides the contrast to his life that ignites reflection.

What fascinates me so much is the similarity between Burleigh’s position and that voiced by a number of atheists I’ve encountered in recent online conversations. Here’s an excerpt from The Fatal Tree revealing the character’s thoughts:

[Burleigh] had an epiphany: Engelbert Stiffelbeam was not the problem—it was his Jesus. Why should this be? Burleigh wondered. What difference did it make to Burleigh what the big oaf believed?

The Grand Imperial’s chief baker might also believe in pink-spotted green leprechauns for all he knew; people believed a multitude of ridiculous things up to and including the existence of mermaids, unicorns, and fire-breathing dragons. But those deluded beliefs did not inspire in him the same visceral disgust. And just like the imaginary unicorns that haunted the dells and hidden glades of folklore, Jesus was merely an irrelevant nonsense. The brutal indifference of the world proved that much beyond doubt; and Jesus, God’s insipid Son, was a phantom, a figment, a myth. In actual fact, the whole of religion everywhere, so far as Burleigh could discern, was a rag-tag bundle of superstition and make-believe: wholesale foolishness concocted by lunatics, peddled by charlatans, and swallowed by the ignorant benighted masses.

Burleigh had always held that organized religion amounted to a kind of madness, a collective insanity embraced by the weak and powerless because it allowed them some small degree of comfort, a grain of solace in the face of the harsh reality that their lives were meaningless, existence had no purpose, and there was no good, wise, all-knowing God looking out for them. The naked truth was that existence had no significance beyond the random shuttling of mindless forces that had produced a blob of sentient matter that was here one day and gone the next. (p 147, emphasis added)

Burleigh voices the same attitudes as ones I’ve encountered from contemporary atheists:
* Jesus is a myth
* religion is a form of superstition
* morons came up with the idea of religion
* frauds and deceivers push religion on people
* the masses swallow religion because they’re stupid
* the truth is, life is meaningless
* there is no kind, all-knowing God
* life came about by chance
* a person is here today, and gone tomorrow, the end

I can’t help but wonder if atheists today were to have an encounter with someone like Engelbert Stiffelbeam, who forgave because Jesus had forgiven him, who gave because Jesus had given to him, and if those atheists would reflect on their lives as Burleigh was forced to do, would they re-evaluate their position?

There’s no formula for a person changing their belief system, certainly. God has used far less than the acts of kindness Engelbert Stiffelbeam performed for his enemy, and such acts do not insure a positive change of heart, as Burleigh proves.

But what if? Isn’t it the Christian’s place to be Engelbert Stiffelbeam to the Burleigh in our lives?

And now, see what others on the CSFF Blog Tour are saying about The Fatal Tree by clicking on the links provided in the Day 1 post.

You might especially be interested in seeing Julie Bihn sporting Skin Map-like tats as the Illustrated Woman, or in reading a review by Audrey Sauble or Rachel Starr Thomson or Rebekah Loper. Then there is the always thoughtful Calvinist perspective offered by Thomas Clayton Booher.

The Fatal Tree by Stephen Lawhead – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1

thefataltree_cover The Fatal Tree, this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, brings to a close Stephen Lawhead‘s intriguing Bright Empires series, a science fantasy centered on ley line travel—similar to, but not the same as, time travel.

The series is a cosmic undertaking with cosmic implications. And still, I’m struck by how important character is, especially to my interest in the story.

My favorite character—though not the one I most admire—is Wilhelmina Klug, most often known by her nickname, Mina. In book one of the series, The Skin Map, she started as my least favorite. She seemed mean-spirited, needy, demanding, a bit cynical. As it turned out, she didn’t thrive in her own time period, but given a change of circumstances, her innate abilities began to surface.

As The Fatal Tree opens, Mina is capable, resourceful, take-charge, clever—the definition of a strong heroine. Her change during the four previous books, enforced on her by her circumstances, is believable and even inspiring.

It also raises a question: can someone be born in the wrong era? Of course, I don’t really believe this because that would suggest God made a mistake. He doesn’t. But perhaps our temperament might be better suited to a situation different from the one in which we live.

For example, I think of a young woman named Katie Davis who was living in Tennessee, attending high school and doing typical high school things—she was homecoming queen, went shopping at the mall with her friends on the weekend, had a boyfriend. But when she took a three week mission trip to an orphanage in Uganda, she found her niche.

In the next seven years she moved to Uganda, adopted thirteen girls, and started her own mission organization, Amazima Ministries. Apparently she “belongs” to a different place and time from the one in which she was born.

Mina is like that. In contemporary London, where she was working, where she and Kit Livingstone, the other protagonist of the Bright Empires series, had a serious relationship, she was stifled. Transported to nineteenth century Prague, she thrives.

And still, she’s not the character I most admire. But I’ll save that for another day. Now I suggest you jump over to Meagan @ Blooming with Books’ first tour post to read a wonderful, concise summary of the previous books.

Afterward start the tour! Check out what the other CSFF tour participants have to say about The Fatal Tree and the Bright Empires series. Keep your eyes open for Skin Map-like tattoos which may abound. Stop back here and report any you happen to spot.

Peace And Blue Christmas

christmas-background-2-1408232-mMy church is holding a special service to address the needs of those who enter the Christmas season with heavy hearts. I understand that our culture can project unrealistic expectations which may cause some to be aware more keenly that they will never have a Hallmark Christmas.

The truth is, we’re all in that predicament. I mean which of us has 2.5 perfect children? ;-)

Because we live in an imperfect world with other imperfect humans, we have to expect conflict and things not going our way. We have to expect some sadness, maybe loneliness, and disappointment.

Grown children don’t visit enough or call as often as their parents wish. Grown children watch their parents grow feeble and die, and wish they had called more or visited more.

We have wonderful things to enjoy in this world—it really is a beautiful, majestic place—and yet there are atheist sponsored billboards with a message about children wishing they didn’t have to go to church. And there are actual children wishing they didn’t have to go to church. I was one of those more often than I like to admit.

We have a host of people who will be dissatisfied with their Christmas celebration and another host dissatisfied that their Christmas break isn’t longer or that they have to wait 364 days before Christmas rolls around again.

Blue. It’s more a wonder that we aren’t all blue and in need of a special service teaching us how to get through this merry season. The thing is, the more we talk about how understandable it is that some are sad or lonely or needy or discouraged, and Merry Christmas is hard for them, the more I think we’re creating blue Christmas.

Christmas, after all, isn’t supposed to be a celebration of family—as wonderful as family is—or a season of bright lights and evergreen trees, of carols and bells, of eggnog and candy canes. All those are fun, beautiful, tasty. Traditions are great! But none of those things are what Christmas is about.

Or, let’s say, it’s not what Christmas has to be. For the Christian, Christmas is a day that gives us a chance to celebrate Christ’s first coming. If you think about it, there has never been anything so long anticipated than Christ’s coming.

So celebrate we should! I mean, the celebration of a follower of Jesus Christ should be filled with hilarity.

The long-expectant One came, as God promised. He who brought healing and hope and restoration made it here! It’s a done deal—the great move to abolish all the reasons for a blue Christmas has happened in the most unexpected, surprising way imaginable.

And by coming once, He gives us assurance that He will come again, as He said.

The peace, then, which we all can enjoy is that found only in the Prince of Peace. He is our peace.

So here’s what that means. Jews, Gentiles, men, women, those with an eastern thought pattern and those with a western one—we believers in Jesus Christ have been reconciled with God and now are part of His family. We have a new relationship with God, we’ve been renewed ourselves, and we have this new connection with all other believers.

Here’s how Paul explains it:

Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2: 13-14; 19-22, ESV, emphasis added)

So no matter what our individual external circumstances look like, we’re not alone, we have a forever family, we have a unique unity and purpose, we belong and are secure—all because Christ is our peace, the Christ who came as a child to the declaration of those angels—peace among men with whom He is pleased.

I’d say that’s cause for a Merry Christmas!

The Peace That Is Up To You

mall-at-christmas-699243-mMuch of the time, when we talk about peace, we’re referring to the absence of conflict. Most of us don’t relish conflict in our lives. Oh, we love it in the novels we read, the movies we watch, and in our favorite TV programs. When it comes to stories, conflict makes them tense and puts us on the edge of our seats.

Some people might even like conflict in an intellectual way, so they encourage debate and get involved in controversial Internet discussions.

But few of us like conflict with our family or friends or boss or co-workers. We don’t have that fictitious expectation that the conflict will work its way out for the good and the protagonist (ME) will reach a new state of happy equilibrium. In real conflict, we get thrust into uncertainty. What if this problem is so great it leads to divorce? What if my son defies me? What if my friend pulls away? What if I get fired? What if my co-worker takes his complaint over my head? What if . . .

Conflict is so uncomfortable, some people just wish it away. If we wait long enough, the thinking goes, emotions will simmer down and we won’t have to confront these ugly conflict issues because the other party won’t care so much. Honestly, that tactic can work. Except there’s an unspoken list of grievances that gets started. At some point, that list gets so long, the person keeping it simply has had enough and out comes every fragment of unresolved conflict that’s been added from the start.

The explosions of temper can be hard to handle. One party may have no clue where this sudden and seemingly unreasoned flare up has come from, and the other, armed to the teeth, lets loose with every vindictive accusation imaginable. It’s not a pretty scene and one that will be much harder to dig out of than the original conflict.

But we don’t like conflict. So are we destined to face either huge blow-ups from time to time or a steady diet of smaller conflicts we have to resolve?

Certainly some conflicts are inevitable. You can’t both have the last piece of pie. You can’t both drive. You can’t both pick the movie you’re going to see. These are small things, but they illustrate the point that some conflict will come our way and must be resolved.

In the resolution we have some guidance from Scripture. 1 Thessalonians 5:13b says, “live in peace with one another.” But clearly this is not an admonition to avoid conflict because the next verse goes on to say, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men.”

Hebrews adds another layer to these commands: “Pursue peace with all men . . . See to it that . . . no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble and by it many be defiled” (12:14-15).

The command nature of these passages suggests this peace is dependent upon what we do. We can live in peace or not. We can pursue peace or not. In Romans Paul gives instruction how we’re to do this:

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:9-21, emphases added)

So much wisdom there. In a nutshell, we aren’t going to achieve peace in every circumstance because it isn’t entirely up to us, but we should take care of what we can take care of.

We can be devoted not to ourselves but others, give preference to the other guy, hang in there when it’s hard, share what we have with people in need, speak kindly to those harassing us, empathize with people whether they’re in good circumstances or hard ones, keep from being proud, realize we aren’t all that, refuse to pay back those who hurt us, defeat bad behavior with good.

Peace at Christmas seems to be a tad harder than at any other time. We have more to do, for one thing, but we may also have more people in our lives than usual. We have the annoying aunt spending the week with us or the guy from the mail room we usually avoid who we end up sitting next to at the office party. We have the kids’ Christmas program to go to and all that shopping in the overly crowded malls.

Even looking for a parking place can send peace flying from our minds. Preference to others? No way! That was my parking place. I saw it first and I’ve been circling this lot for the last ten minutes!

Here’s the key. Imagine we’re servants (think Downton Abbey and the downstairs servants). We are at the beck and call of the upstairs people we serve. We eat and sleep according to their schedules. We go to them when they ring, no matter what they might be interrupting. Our focus is simply on their needs, not ours.

That, I believe, is the way of peace this passage sets out—so far as it depends on us.

Published in: on December 11, 2014 at 5:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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Peace For The Duration

ambulance-206474-mGod is our peace, and yet there are lots of things in this life that are not peace-inducing. Monday night an ambulance pulled up in front of my neighbor’s house. In due time (after the EMTs arrived and the required fire truck), the attendants wheeled out the daughter on a gurney. The family has been back and forth to the hospital ever since and still don’t know what’s causing her intestinal condition.

Peace? I don’t imagine so.

My dear uncle who has been in and out of the hospital this past year and has been on dialysis, decided to end that treatment. He’s home now and under hospice care.

Peace? It’s hard to think of life without him. Much harder for his children than for me, I’m sure.

And what about the person who lost his job this week or the college girl who’s boyfriend broke up with her? What about the family separated because one of the parents is in the military?

What does peace mean for these folks?

The fact is, nothing changes even though the circumstances change. God is still sovereign and good and can be trusted. He spells it out for us in His world:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God which surpasses comprehension will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)

The important thing to note here is that God does not promise to give us whatever it is we make supplication for. What He promises is His peace.

Our prayers are really a way of turning our problems over to God and saying, There, I’m done trying to solve this. It’s your baby now.

And that’s actually what God wants. He wants to take care of us—to shepherd us. That’s what Psalm 23 is all about. He wants to lead us, provide for us, guide us, comfort us, rejoice with us and over us.

Of course, our expectation is that with God in charge our way will be smooth. But God has so much more in mind than our temporal condition. He has so much more for us than new toys. His desire is for us to become like His Son, which means we have to have rough places sanded off so we’ll conform to His image. Or we might have knobby places chiseled away or dents pounded out, nails pulled or a pin inserted. We may have to be melted down and the dross skimmed from our lives.

This “in His image” stuff isn’t a bed of roses, and it isn’t for the faint of heart. But as odd as it sounds, it’s the way of peace.

Paul said, “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

So we can lay aside our anxiety resulting in the peace of God which surpasses comprehension, and we can act in obedience to the word of God resulting in the God of peace being with us. Two very practical ways we can be sure we have peace for the duration.

Published in: on December 10, 2014 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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False Peace

Christmas cactusThe other night I watched the last half of a made-for-TV Christmas movie, a romance between a guy who couldn’t stand Christmas and a widow with a nine-year-old son who saw Christmas as EVERYTHING. As their individual motives unfold, we learn that the woman’s husband had been in the military and was killed three years earlier, four days before Christmas. She decided she didn’t want to spoil her son’s Christmas by giving him the news about his father, so she pretended everything was fine and went about creating the most perfect Christmas possible.

Ever since, she has tried even harder to make Christmas like a story-book holiday so her son won’t miss his father too much. The thing is, the boy confides in the I-hate-Christmas boyfriend that he feels sad but doesn’t let on because his mom has gone to so much work to make a magical Christmas. But all the lights, garland, decorations, cookies and candy, presents, and trees can not substitute for the boy’s dad.

That part of the movie defines false peace, I think. The idea is that peace consists of externals—just the right decorations, just the right presents, just the right dinner menu, just the right people, just the right met-expectations.

But if just one thing slips—one person changes plans, one ornament breaks, one string of lights doesn’t work, one pot boils over, or one sink clogs, then peace is shattered.

Interestingly, I experienced a little of this shattering today. I’d gone shopping for a gift for our church Angel Tree venture—a very cool opportunity to buy a present for a child whose parent is in prison—had stopped to get a Christmas gift bag, then delivered it to church. On my way home, I’m feeling happy because I picked up a few other items I needed and because I love Angel Tree. I even volunteered to help deliver some of the presents.

I’m on my way home thinking about this blog and settle on writing about false peace. When I get my packages out of the car and walk to the door of my apartment, I notice something is amiss with my flowers on the porch. Again.

In October someone had taken my Christmas cactus, the last plant of my mom’s that I had. At Thanksgiving my sister had given me clippings from her Christmas cactus—the one she’d gotten from mom. Now that plant, pot and all, was gone.

I have no idea why anyone would take that plant. It makes no sense to me—it certainly would not be of any value to anyone else. But because it’s something from my mom, it matters to me.

Yet when I came inside after looking around to see if perhaps whoever took it had put it in the backyard or in the trash, I realized I had a choice. I thought about skipping blog writing. Who wanted to write about peace?

Well, of course that hit me between the eyes. Was my peace dependent upon a plant? Upon a sentimental connection with my mom? That’s false peace, as much as the Christmas folderol the character in that movie clung to.

My memory of my mom is not tied to that plant. It’s a thing—not one I wanted to lose, but not one that defines my life as peace-filled or despairing.

I can try again, if my sister will give me more cuttings. I’ll buy a new pot and put this one inside. And this one will not only remind me of my mom; it will remind me that my peace does not depend on that plant that can be here today and gone tomorrow.

In fact, my peace doesn’t depend on any of the temporal stuff of this life. Peace is first and foremost reconciliation with God, and that is dependent only on my relationship with Jesus Christ. Because He loves me, gave His life for me, sent His Spirit to be with me, what more can I want?

A plant?

I have the hope of heaven and the joyful anticipation of spending eternity with Christ my Savior and with all the saints who have gone on before me—my parents, my grandparents, several uncles and aunts, even some friends, as well as a host of faithful followers of God whom I have yet to meet.

I love flowers. But Scripture says more than once that the flowers fade. Their glory is a passing thing. The Christmas cactus is a perfect example of that. It blooms once a year, and is glorious, but those flowers fade and fall off. They don’t last.

True peace, not the false kind, is rooted in the permanence of the everlasting relationship we can have with God through Jesus Christ.

Published in: on December 9, 2014 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Peace On Earth

Red_Christmas_candlesWeek two of the Advent season, and my church is focusing on Peace.

When Jesus was born, an angel appeared to a group of shepherds and announced that a Savior, Christ the Lord had been born that night. A host of angels then joined him saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14).

The KJV skewed the angelic praise by translating it, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will to men.” The logical conclusion was that Jesus would bring an end to conflict on earth, that God would treat humankind with good will. And of course, history is filled with war and any number of “not good will” kinds of circumstances.

The hope of the Jewish people at the time was that the Messiah would set up an earthly kingdom and rule as David had during the golden age of Israel’s history. He conquered their enemies and brought peace. He brought the ark of the covenant to his city, Jerusalem, and set in motion the construction of the great temple, the house of God. He instituted sacrifices and the appointed feasts before the LORD, in accordance with the law, blessed his subjects, and gave them each a gift.

When David had finished offering the burnt offering and the peace offering, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts. Further, he distributed to all the people, to all the multitude of Israel, both to men and women, a cake of bread and one of dates and one of raisins to each one. Then all the people departed each to his house (2 Samuel 6:18-19).

This was the kind of Messiah the Jews were looking for.

People in more recent times haven’t done much to change the false idea perceived about the angels’ blessing. Granted, we recognize that Jesus didn’t come to establish His kingdom in the here and now. Instead we either ascribe His peace to the future or to an internal peace each person can achieve in the midst of the turmoil around us.

I do think God wants us to have peace in our hearts regardless of the circumstances that can throw life into confusion, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the peace to which the angels referred.

The peace inside us depends to a degree on us, as we’ll see later in the week, but the peace the angels announced came as a result of the birth of this Messiah. So what peace did Jesus bring, what peace does He give?

The peace of Jesus is the result of reconciliation with God. Without Jesus, a person is in rebellion to God. But Jesus rescues us from the dominion of darkness. He makes possible peace with God—not just a truce, but full-blown peace. We are no longer at enmity with Him if we have become those with whom He is well pleased.

Yikes! What do we have to do to please God? Well, nothing.

This well-pleased position is also something that comes to us from Jesus. In fact, the word used in Matthew 3:17 translated “well-pleased” which God declared about Jesus at His baptism is the same word used here for those God will favor with peace.

It is Jesus with whom the Father is well-pleased. Through Jesus we are reconciled to God—brought into relationship with Him, afforded peace with Him.

That above all else is the peace of Christmas. Yes, there’s more, but without that life-changing peace that ends our determination to go our own way and puts us in right standing with God, there is no peace, only temporary truces.

Published in: on December 8, 2014 at 6:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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A Living Hope

toddler-in-leaves-631626-mThe Apostle Peter starts his first letter, after his greeting, with a statement about God. First he identifies Him as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” then as the One “who has caused us to be born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:2, emphasis added).

Hope is a noun but not something I usually think of as animate. So what does Peter mean, “living hope”? Some commentary anchors this phrase in what Peter says next: our living hope comes “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Almost this makes it sound as if Jesus is our hope! ;-)

Such an idea fits with other passages in Scripture. Jeremiah refers to the LORD as “the hope of Israel (17:13a) and Paul referred to Jesus “our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1). But if this living hope comes through Christ’s resurrection, is He the object as well as the means? Through Jesus we have Jesus? There’s truth in that statement.

But what’s the “living” part? First, Jesus is alive. We don’t hope in a man who lived and died, merely leaving us an example to follow. Yes, Jesus is that, but He is a living example, a living Savior, a living Lord.

Second, our hope has a purpose: we hope as a means “to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:5).

All those describers indicate life. Something that is imperishable is alive, something undefiled will not spoil, something that will not fade away is permanent, something reserved in heaven is everlasting.

Backtracking a bit, this living hope is something we have because God “who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope.”

Birth yields life. Until God causes us to be born again, we are dead in our sins. When He causes us to be born again, we are alive in a new way. Old things have passed away. New things have taken their place.

An analogy of this new life might be the change that occurs when a baby learns to crawl, then walk. His life used to consist of lying on his back watching shifting shapes pass by and listening to the music or voices of those nearby. When he was hungry, he cried; when thirsty, he cried; when wet or poopy, he cried; when tired, he cried; when bored, he cried. He was about as dead as any living thing can be.

But one day, he learned to crawl, then to walk. Slowly his world expanded and he came alive to all that this world has to offer. Now he could follow his mom and dad and imitate them. He could discover beauty and kindness and faithfulness and love. He could aspire to more than watching the world go by and listening to the sounds around him. He could now do the things he saw his parents do.

In a nutshell, that’s what our living hope, our new life in Christ is all about. Colossians 3 says we have “laid aside the old self with its evil practices and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the one who created him.”

In other words, our new birth enables us to walk so we can be like God, our Creator. The old self, the dead self, has no hope of becoming like Christ. It’s dead. It doesn’t become anything. Only a living being, someone born again, can become like God’s Son.

Our living hope is Jesus, the one who is the means by which we are born again and the one in whose image we’re being recreated. That’s now, and it’s an imperishable inheritance as well. Living and everlasting.

Published in: on December 5, 2014 at 7:07 pm  Comments (1)  
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Hope And The Here And Now

westcoast sunsetWhile I acknowledge that this world is filled with disappointment, I also recognize the beauty of God’s handiwork. Yes, there is sadness, but there are also joys. People get married, and babies come into the world. People get promotions and book deals and raises. People go on vacation and spend an evening with friends.

There are so many joys, I can’t help but be hopeful about today.

There are friends, too, bringing laughter and acceptance and companionship. How about family and loved ones—people who don’t care what our hair looks like in the morning and aren’t afraid to tell us if something is hanging from our nose. They love us in such everyday ways we sometimes overlook them, but when we list what we’re thankful for, they come to mind first.

snow_road-winter-xsYes, the joys and the people are part of God’s handiwork, but of course the natural world can’t be left out. Which of the beautiful things tops the list—the white-capped Rockies, the sunset over the Pacific, the snow-dressed forest, the green and golden fields, the woods clothed in autumn finery, the dew-kissed rose, the yellow-breasted song bird . . . the list is endless.

Joy, people, creation. God’s fingerprints are everywhere, and each one brings hope. If things are this good today, can’t tomorrow be just as good? Or better?

The greatest present hope is God Himself. The amazing truth is that God IS, though all else fails. God is the greatest treasure, so I may be poor in this world’s estimation, but if I have Jesus, I am rich. I may mourn, but joy comes in the morning. I may feel defeated, but Christ is the victor. I may be grieving, but not without hope.

Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord GOD is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
And makes me walk on my high places. (Hab. 3:17-19a)

God, in His great mercy, gives us memorials so that we don’t lose sight of hope. He gives us sun after the rain, spring after winter. He gives us comfort in the midst of sorrow, kindness from unexpected places.

He tells us to remember Him in the broken bread and shared cup at Communion. He established His Church as the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” He gave us the Lord’s Day and reminded us to continue gathering together then.

He gave us His word that is sharper than any two-edged sword—the perfect weapon against the false teaching our adversary throws at us. He taught us to pray and gives His Holy Spirit to interpret when we don’t know what we ought to say.

This is the same Holy Spirit that lives in us—which is why we can truthfully say we are never alone. He is the One Jesus sent when He left earth, promising that it was to our advantage that He go.

God’s presence in the form of His Spirit, His communication with me through prayer, His word, His fingerprints all over the world—these are things I have now that fill me with hope.

Though our society is far from God, why not revival, I think. God changed my heart. He can change anyone’s heart, even atheists putting up anti-church billboards—Nebuchadnezzar was just such a man, and God brought him to his senses. Even people killing others in some mistaken view that they’re doing God’s work—the Apostle Paul was just such a man, and God opened his blind eyes.

With God, there are no limits.

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable.
He gives strength to the weary,
And to him who lacks might He increases power. (Isaiah 40:28-29)

To him who lacks hope, I daresay, He gives that, too.

Published in: on December 4, 2014 at 5:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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