Sunday, March 25, 2018

Personalize Your Commiment

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

During my seventy years of marriage I sometimes had fun with my Irish-Cherokee in having the last word. When she delivered her ultimatum that usually made it final, I always had the privilege of the last word, “Yes, mam!”

What we do comes out of what we are, and this final word of Jesus from the cross best reveals who he really is. We are allowed to listen in on his personal testimony. It reflects the fullness and finality of his commitment. It shows his trust in a loving Heavenly Father as well as recording his responsive and obedient final word. It says, “I submit my spirit to your planned action, Father and that is my final answer!”

“Yes, mam” spoke my light-hearted jest, but for Jesus it announced his final word of absolute, undivided obedience to the cause for which he came to earth. It expressed his agreement that God gets the last word. It declared finally and forever that even in our most abysmal circumstances and our deepest depths of failure; happiness, wholeness and holiness all lurk close by.

Jesus spoke to God as no one else ever spoke to him, calling him what no man ever dared call him. Many have called upon God in various ways, but only Jesus called him “Father.” This word may offer the greatest tribute ever paid to Joseph, that humble Jewish carpenter who put his misgivings aside and married his betrothed in spite of her besmirched reputation. In life’s worst moment, Jesus gave Joseph the finest tribute one man could give another. In recognizing Joseph, Jesus also gave us our clearest insight into the character of God Almighty.

The commitment Jesus made turned the eternal spotlight upon ultimate values. His well-timed birth became the occasion for symphonic anthems from angelic lips. Born in a manger, and living as a carpenter’s son, Jesus learned woodworking skills from Joseph and enjoyed the privileges of a two-parent home that lived upright before God and observed all the Lord’s commandments, As a result, Jesus developed the integrity of a wholesome character.

People recognized his good reputation and called him a good man. History acknowledges that he was a good man and one that went about doing good. There have been doubters and distracters from time to time and much remains unknown about his life, but we know he became a prophet and that he ministered to the people during a span of three years. As a prophet, he faithfully followed that long tradition that had preceded him.

Nevertheless, before three years passed, the nation’s religious leaders rejected him. Being easily threatened, the leaders of the Jewish temple establishment gathered other community activists and railroaded him through five quick trials, none of which would stand the scrutiny of a fair and legal justice system.

Before he could win greater popularity with the masses and further reveal the abuses the authorities heaped upon the ordinary people, those same leaders had nailed him to a rough-hewn Roman cross. They left him there to die under a misplaced sign that facetiously proclaimed him “King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38).

Once Jesus was dead, a wealthy benefactor we know only as Joseph of Arimathea begged for the broken body and placed it in the tomb he presumably intended for personal use. The leaders now returned to their places, assured they had done what was best for the nation, and again feeling secure in the power and prestige of their position. Meanwhile, the people returned home, smiting their breasts in disappointment, grief, and perplexity. For a time, the bewildered disciples only followed at a safe distance.

Jesus seemingly gambled everything he had; he put his life on the line for what he most valued, and in the eyes of a few he lost everything. Others look back with nostalgia and see him as the sad victim of misguided values and misdirected aspirations. Yet, if we have hearts to understand, this last word from the cross reveals some of life’s truest values. It shows us we can trust God. It assures us that God remains fully trustworthy, even in the worst of times.

Across the decades, I have had the privilege of hearing some of America’s great preachers. I remember one such friend sharing his experience of preaching from that verse in the bible that says, “Having done all, stand. . .” He then told how he met a stranger riding the local city bus to a park near the church where he preached. This lady from his city planned to commit suicide by overdosing with the bottle of pills she carried in her purse.

As fate would have it, her bus route required her to transfer busses at the corner occupied by his large congregation. She arrived at the corner just as people were entering the sanctuary for Sunday worship. Having a few minutes before her next bus came, she paused to listen to the playing of the chimes. “Nearer My God to Thee” invited worshippers to join the gathering crowd.

Feeling an unusual inner impulse, she impetuously joined others entering the church building. Once inside, she sat transfixed throughout the entire service. What she heard that day created an unexpectedly powerful internal response and she accepted the pastor’s invitation. Meeting the pastor in his office for prayer, she related her unhappy story.

In a climactic decision, this non-churched woman committed herself to a whole new set of values.  Her act of faith launched her onto a new road, a higher level than she had ever lived, and one she had never before traveled. In taking this formative step, she discovered a whole new life she had not known existed. She already knew life was not fair, but she now discovered that God is always very fair.

She had thought to end all her problems by ending her life at the park. Instead, she found a new and fresh life in a most unexpected place. New values brought her such unexpected joy that she began celebrating her spiritual renewal annually. What was intended as the last day of her miserable existence became the very first day of the rest of her life--new, whole, happy, and completely satisfying. She had found a knot at the end of her rope that offered her a place where she could hang on and feel secure.

Her bottle of suicide became that pastor’s symbol of achievement for lavish living. It took up residence on his library shelf, where it retold its story to anyone willing to listen. When her story no longer had value and she no longer found anything to live for, this dear lady discovered a secret that brought her a whole new life with everything to live for.

Her new commitment began her success story, and life bloomed brightly. Once dormant in a hostile environment, her life became a blooming “yes” to success.  Like the last word Jesus spoke from the cross, her life became her word to a God who lifted her up among the peaks of excellence, in a range she never expected to encounter or climb.

This last word of Jesus from the cross confirmed the wisdom of the prophets who confessed in their laments that it is “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). Whatever one’s existence, such experiences make life worth living. Yet, some want all the good gifts of life without ever acknowledging the giver of those gifts.

William Earnest Henley, the English poet, lay in a hospital for a long time hopelessly crippled. His courageous spirit made him many friends and a few enemies. His handicap, however, did not keep him from experimenting with the adventuresome style of the poet, Walt Whitman. Nor did it keep him from practicing other kinds of precise and formally structured verse.

Such critics called Henley dogmatic, but most agreed to his brilliance. As an editor, he influenced literature by promoting the fortunes of younger writers. Living most of his life as an invalid, Henley knew what many believers never discover--something Jesus modeled from his cross— 
            It matters not how straight the gate.
                        How charged the punishments the scroll,
            I am the master of my fate:
                        I am the captain of my soul.
English Writers by Tom Peete Cross, Reed Smith,
Elmer C. Stauffer, and Elizabeth Collette.
 (Boston: Ginn and Company, The Athenaeum Press, 1940), p. 577.

This word from Jesus affirmed for all time both who he was and why he came to earth! It remained for God, the eternal optimist of the universe, to have his last word and bring to completion his Mighty Act of Grace. Through the perfect life and love of Jesus, God overcame sin and made a way for salvation. Through Jesus, God created the church out of the followers of that cross-experience.

Through Jesus, God transformed an ordinary fisherman and converted him from a bragging blowhard into a billowing blessing. Through Jesus, God converted a brilliant Jewish scholar in spite of his opinionated arrogance and transformed him from a hostile prosecuting attorney into a holistic healer.

When God has the last word, two men meet. One is black. One is white. Neither speaks the other’s language. The Word of God, nevertheless, makes them brothers in the same family, members of the same church. God creates a fellowship that becomes worldwide, a church comprised of those whom God has called. In fellowship they study the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. That story becomes their authority and God commissions them to deliver the hope contained in that story to a world without much of a story to tell.

 God takes people’s unproductive struggles and potential failures and gives them a new hope-filled future. He takes people’s self-serving attitudes and ideas and recreates them as responsible stewards. He takes a person’s money and manners and shapes them into motivational missionaries who inspire others to better living. He takes that missionary’s time and talents and converts the trivialities of life into securities of eternal value. And for anyone willing to become a dispenser of God’s gracefulness, God promises to become an unlimited resource.

When filtering our life commitments through the life of Jesus, we see that our commitments focus in those values we hold dearest. That compels us to reflect on our humanity and consider the matter of conscience--a problem we all face sooner or later. Whatever we believe about conscience, we all makes choices and those choices are determined by our values. Whether or not we accept conscience as a valid concept, we still face the necessity of reconciling our values with our choices.

The guilty conscience has been said to cause more personal problems than any other one thing we know. From a moral point of view, Christian conversion relates itself to guilt, confession, interpersonal relationships, and conscience. Carl Henry claimed the conflict between theism (God) and atheism (no God) reduced to two competing views of conscience and its significance. On the one hand, atheism insists that cultural attitudes determine right and wrong. On the other hand, the bible points to conscience as a moral mirror that reflects right and wrong in terms both absolute and eternal.

The word conscience comes from the Latin prefix “con” meaning “with” and “science” suggesting knowledge, or science. Join the two and you have conscience as knowledge with science; i.e. knowledge accompanied by theoretical knowledge, or the common knowledge of facts. Our values set the standards of our conscience and determine the power it exerts in our lives, as well as the efficacy of our response.

A strong conscience without wisdom may repress a given impulse. A weak conscience may find itself impotent before that same urge. A wise and healthy conscience will redirect the expression of a given impulse, and lift it in a worthy direction by leading it toward the life it most values. Wise and healthy, weak and impotent, our value system expresses itself in each of our lives.

Being human, we never fall too low to experience conscience, nor do we ever stand above it. On the one hand, Peter faced his own conscience, with the help of Jesus. Thus, he conquered his admitted failure. On the other hand, Judas died from a guilty conscience, although his immediate cause of death came by hanging. The efficiency of conscience depends largely upon those dispositions and habits of character and will formed by that individual.

Through the process of repeated searing and callusing, the bible acknowledges that God hardened Pharoah’s conscience. When faced with their pretentious lifestyle of living in the furthest suburbs of the City of God where their real values were, Annanias and Saphira died of a guilty conscience. Yet, when we look at Jesus we see him face his humanity with a pure conscience. His singleness of commitment challenges us to accept our conscience as our best friend; “but” some quickly add; “don’t try to live a peaceful co-existence with a scorned conscience.” That can only suggest that all of us occasionally need to make peace with a sometimes-clobbered conscience.

Health-care professionals talk much today of holistic medicine. Doctors remind us to avoid treating our bodies separately from our spirits. Many people are discovering that living a holy life has a lot to do with living a life of wholeness. The bible suggests that people who are unhealthy in their body will begin their journey back to health by beginning with an emotional cure rather than a physical treatment. The Apostle Paul alluded to this when writing his Corinthian letter (I Corinthians 11:30).

We understand that a clobbered conscience can re-act in many ways, seen and unseen. Therapists help heal various neuroses and illnesses of mind and body by assisting people in coming to terms with their inner selves. The biblical story admits Judas killed himself after betraying Jesus; he could not live with the results of his chosen behavior.            

A Dallas Therapist suggested to me that repressing an urge or feeling is like having an intruder force his way into our home. We throw him out. We then ignore his knock at our front door, so he goes around the outside from window to window seeking entry by various means. Getting no attention from us, he continues his annoyance until his presence is no longer noticed. At some point then, he slips in unnoticed, under cover of some disassociated behavior. The point being, either way he needs to be dealt with.            

Paul insisted the Galatian church avoid the stringent legalism of their pretentious advisors: “Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised.” They act out of unseen, unknown, even misunderstood, motives. They do this, Paul reasoned, “to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12). According to Paul, those advocates of circumcision were acting out of twisted motives, and unseen factors, which they themselves had not sorted through.            

Our humanity allows us to value some pieces of life’s pie more than other pieces. Regardless of what we believe about the place of conscience in our lives, we still have that value system that causes us to prefer some things to other things, good and bad depending on the effect those things have on our lives.

Making peace with a clobbered conscience may take one of several options. We can accept conscience as a good friend, and make peace with it. Accepting conscience as a friend rather than an enemy positions us to allow the Spirit of God to act as a radar picket ship, cautioning us about identified objects, and even warning us against unidentified foreign objects. We may pursue our circumstances and choices as opportunities for personal growth, and let them do in our lives what God intended. Or, we can deny the existence of our conscience, reject its friendship, spurn its promptings, and risk its reactions.

When the oil light on the dashboard of my car shows red, I can add oil to the crankcase, rather than kicking it angrily and hurting myself. In doing so, I extend the life of my automobile and I make traveling easier. If I ignore it, like one man I know, I burn up the motor in my vehicle and pay an exorbitant price to get it repaired. Likewise, ignoring that red light on the dashboard of my life reduces me to the level of animal savagery and psychological behaviorism. It leaves me a victim of my own instincts and biological urges, and unable to choose for myself.

Acknowledging the demands of a sensitive conscience, however, elevates me to the highest level of humanity, created in the image of God, the Imago Dei. George MacDonald understood this well when he described someone as “sorely troubled by what is, by huge discourtesy, called a bad conscience--being in reality a conscience doing its duty so well that it makes the whole house uncomfortable.”              

Freeing my conscience to do what God intended for it to do leads me to raise the hood of my vehicle and pour the needed oil into the crankcase, rather than wasting time and effort beating the dashboard with a ball-peen hammer. Not only did Jesus come to conform us to God’s purposes, that remained the singular focus of his life as he testified later in Jerusalem: “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29, italics mine)

The barbarous crucifixion of Jesus only revealed the further climax of a chapter seeming to end in pathos and defeat. The event comes to an eventual and tragic conclusion, an unavoidable event wrapped in sordid blankets of human envy, hatred, and rebellion. This single event in history might well have written “cancelled” across “blessed are the poor …the meek … the merciful … ” But while the Christian Church wrestled with the divine comedy, the eternal light of resurrection slowly dawned across the horizon of time.            

This was neither a cancellation nor surrender! It loudly exclaimed a personal choice, giving unashamed commitment to a trust fully discharged. The commitment of Jesus reverberates in human hearts across twenty centuries of time, confirming for us that we too are persuaded that neither death nor life shall separate us from the love of God.  In facing us with the fact that God always speaks the last word, Jesus pointed us toward the potential conversion of our own choices and values.            

Echoing through the halls of history, we hear the commitment, “Into Thy Hands.”
            Into Thy hands my spirit I commend;
            From Thee it came and drave me to and fro,
            Drave me to that to which I would not go.
            Thou, its beginning, art its proper end;
            I thirsted with a thirst men could not slake.
            I drank the cup no other man could drink;
            Thou did’st sustain me, for I truly think
            Mine was a loaf no other man could break.
            Thou gavest me a vision of Thy church,
            Thy power and the glory of Thy reign.
            The vision dimmed; Caesar were there again;
            Yet Spirit drave me to unending search.
           And though the search has not achieved its end,
            Into Thy hands my Spirit I commend.
 Loren W. Burch, “Into Thy Hands,” Christ in Poetry, 
ed. by Thomas Curtis Clark and Hazel Davis Clark.
(New York: Association Press, 1952), p. 123.

“My Father,” Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives, “if it is possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). Thus, some berated him as the “Gambler:”
            And sitting down they watched him there,
            The soldiers did;
            There, while they played the dice,
            He made his sacrifice,
            And died upon the cross to rid
            God’s world of sin.
            He was a gambler, too, my Christ,
            He took his life and threw
            It for a world redeemed.
            And ere his agony was done,
            Before the westering sun went down,
            Crowning that day with crimson crown,
            He knew that he had won.
 Ibid. G. A. Studdert-Kennedy. p. 120.

Some say he gambled, but he won the trust of his father and as the son he was “counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who hath builded the house hath more honor than the house” (Hebrews 3:3 KJV). Consequently, I committed to following his words from the cross. His was the trust of one trusted to do the will of him whose very existence makes our living that of a manager overseeing the estate of a beloved master who has left him to manage its affairs.

Once he was convinced of his own stewardship, Paul told his friends, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

Because he humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross, argued Paul, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place … above every knee, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … in heaven and on earth … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).

Herein, God made provision for the humblest of players on the team of humanity to hit a grand-slam homer against the worst curves that life can pitch to us. I was further away from home than ever before, but my new bride and I were enjoying the fulfillment of presence rather than waiting for the fulfillment of a promise. We were very young and married only four months when the Air Force shipped me from Scott Field, Illinois to Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. 

Drastic surgery had forced Tommie to drop her classes at Anderson University, but we pushed ahead and married. Now we were told I would receive my discharge from the Air Force so she could go home to die. Their diagnosis promised her three months to live, not more than twelve.

We had increasingly suspected something was seriously wrong. Her frequent blackouts occasionally lasted a couple of hours. Finally, we had comfortable quarters in the annex that was part of Highland Park church’s educational wing. The rooms has been vacated by Sister McNeil, the elderly widow of a longtime Texas pastor. Life was looking up for us.

Tommie’s frequent visits to Fort Sam Houston on the north side of the city posed no threat, not until Captain Van informed her she should not return without me accompanying her. Unfortunately, my Personnel Officer, G. I. Poole, a B-25 Flyboy, refused to release me on the day of her next appointment and she rode the transit line to Fort Sam without me.

When she blacked out on the bus, the kindly driver remembered her from a previous trip and made a special effort to deliver her to the same building as before. Furious that she came unaccompanied, her doctor called Kelly Field and demanded to know why I did not accompany her per his request--only to hear, “He has been sent to Japan.”

“Why didn’t you tell me your husband was gone?” the angry medical officer demanded of his bewildered patient. If he is,” she reported quietly, “he left since this morning,” explaining that we had breakfast together at home earlier that same day.

The story of a young Airman who had been on orders and shipped to Japan the week before now slowly unfolded. His departure was assumed, although he worked in the office every day that week and enjoyed commuting from their cross-town apartment at the church. He knew his job, as a clerk typist, was only temporary until he received shipping orders overseas as a radio operator.

We never knew the details, but Captain Van called in the Colonel, his superior, and the Colonel quickly placed a phone call to AACS Headquarters at Langley Field, Virginia and spoke to someone he knew.

“Joe, we have a man down here that I need a discharge for. We bring men home from overseas for less than this. . .” and she heard her diagnosis for the first time - “Cancer in the last stages.”             

She had not heard it before, although she had some suspicions. She knew it was in members of her family and that Aunt Leora had a serious bout with it, but now she learned far more than she ever wanted to know - just when she was ready to settle down, live a full life raising her own ball team, and follow her preacher-to-be. Counsel on where to go for further treatment accompanied her diagnosis - a very bleak future.

The recommended Cancer Institute would treat her, provide living quarters and give me work for as long as she survived.  By the end of the month, however, I was a civilian and we were on the bus for the long ride from San Antonio, Texas to South Haven, Michigan. In the meantime, we prayed.

She asked God specifically to release her from the searing pain that burned internally, sometimes causing her system to shut down in a temporary blackout. “God, if you want me, I’m ready,” she prayed, “but if you have still have a job for me to do, with your strength I’ll do it.” We made this prayer the essence of our personal but private commitment to God, determined to trust him and pursue whatever he had for us to do. We did it on our own and without the counsel of “Brother B” our Highland Park pastor who remained a good friend until his death decades later.

Ignoring the offer of the Cancer Institute, we began a four-year Exodus that led us back to Michigan, to Anderson University and a first-of-the-year transfer to Portland, Oregon. By the time I received my Bachelor of Theology degree in 1951, I was father of a six-week old infant we had been told we could never have.
Some time earlier, Tommie’s doctor had asked if she would allow him to examine her in the company of several other doctors. She and her Adventist doctor, a man of devout faith, often talked about spiritual matters. They traded off as she listened to his disappointments at not becoming a medical missionary and he helped her through her experiences such as losing twins by premature abortion.

Following her examination, the doctor reported sixteen physicians had examined her. Then, placing his hands at the top and bottom of his abdominal area, he announced, “We can see where you had cancer … the scar tissue. But you don’t have it now!” She had stumbled along on a narrow, poorly lit and rocky road of ill health for four trying years. Had I not graduated when I did, we would have been forced to leave the damp, low altitude of Portland‘s Willamette Valley after three successive episodes of pneumonia that last winter.

However, the cancer that brought my discharge was gone, g-o-n-e- without any help from the Cancer Institute. As I re-tell this story once more; it is hard to remember the details accurately, especially those earlier and more difficult days. She went home finally, after more than seventy years and there are some things I cannot forget.

The Irish-Cherokee depression baby born in the Indian Territory that I married in 1947, was still alive and free of cancer at seventy-five. Whatever other problems she had, she forgot she was supposed to die within the year; she ignored the warning that she could never birth children, and although she lost five premature babies, she gave two children a raising they never forgot. In the meantime, she supported me through graduate school, maintained our home in church and community ministries, and touched literally hundreds of peoples’ lives--many completely outside the church.

One such person was the physician who became her close confidante, treating her during a critical period of fragile and leaking arteries and the passing of a blood clot through her heart. While we entertained friends at our Texas home one holiday, the phone rang. It was the hospital, calling for “Sister Warner.”

This gruff old-school teaching-Medic, a former executive of the American Medical Association, was making his first phone call after suffering from a heart attack. A hard-shell Baptist; he could swear like a sailor, but he called to say, “Thank you for your prayers” and to ask would you please pray for his favorite son-in-law who had been critically injured shortly before.

He concluded his confession to “Ms Preacher” that he would now be much more understanding of his heart-care patients.During this period, she knitted twenty-seven sweaters within the year, just to keep hurting hands busy. Her arthritic hands had swelling joints and protesting fingers. The pain caused the tears to freely run down her cheeks, but she continued. Such behavior might appear obsessive-compulsive, or neurotic to the reader, but at seventy-five she rejoiced with hands whose fingers remain permanently deformed but still able to serve. She lost her crafting abilities long before ninety but she still used her hands well at ninety-one.

In her prayerful commitment made at twenty; she gave God whatever future she had and she spent it like a spendthrift that knew no limits. Promised three to twelve months by doctors trying to mechanic her body, she survived seventy and one-half years of a marriage expected to terminate within that first year--1947.

Through the years, I often saw her struggle for strength to get through a day. Drawing upon a reservoir of strength that was not her own, she lavished life and love on family, friends, and any along the way she thought needed it. Those who turned her way found her a fountain of unending joy, compassion and discernment, a fellow traveler with a standard of excellence and integrity that offered a useful measure by which any and all could profitably measure.

I was a boy when I met and married her. When full of years, and wiser, I became more aware that she lived far longer than promised. I helped her guard and conserve her declining days, turning them loose like valued coins of time only when certain of receiving full value. She lived her ninety-one years and six months fully, one day at a time, fortified by deep faith and fully committed to That One who long ago cried out from his rough-hewn Roman cross on Golgotha’s hill, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
This is the fortifying personal faith I witnessed firsthand! Like Paul, I am “convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). Becoming a disciple of Jesus helps us view life differently, like Timmy’s Grandma in the introduction of the book from which this has been edited.            

Little Timmy confided to his young friend, “She sees how to fix a lot of things. She sees what a fellow meant to do, even if he didn’t do it. She sees when a feller is about to cry and she sees what to do to make him feel right.”      

            For me, seeing is believing! _______

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