Head in the Clouds

“And what He hath seen and heard, that He testifieth…” (John 3:32a)

That was John the Baptist speaking of Jesus. He leads into that statement with “he that cometh from Heaven is above all.” (John 3:31b) It isn’t just that we see Jesus as descended from the clouds (i.e. Heaven), but that we understand all He went through in order to be ordained a “high priest” (see Hebrews 4:15-16).

Silver linings

There’s a scene in Luke’s Gospel (12:14) where this guy calls on Jesus to talk to his brother so that he would “divide the inheritance” (verse 13) with him. Jesus answers back and says “who made me a judge or divider over you?” Evidently the guy trusted Jesus enough to be able to settle the dispute but we also see that Christ was more pragmatic than that. Jesus goes one further and warns everyone there about getting caught up in wordliness an an overreaching materialism. The thing that you’ll find as you read through the gospels is that Jesus is always changing the subject, derailing long-established trains of thought and generally disrupting patterns and norms with, as John described up top, “what He hath seen and heard.”

One of the most amazing incidents happens in the Gospel of Mark at which time we see Jesus tell a palsied man that his sins are forgiven. The thing about that statement I find so remarkable is that it looks, for all intents and purposes, to be a simple religious-sounding utterance. Like, “Blessings be upon you!” In other words, something purely platitudinal and that’s great. Those that were there (whose hearts were blinded) thought Jesus was crazy for saying something so outlandish, thinking that only “God” could do something like “forgive sins”. In other words, it was like Jesus was opining on something He wasn’t qualified to talk about. What happens next is pretty cool however: He parries the scribes’ petty complaints and then goes on to prove that He can reach into another realm for wisdom and inspiration. He tells the paralyzed man to “Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.” (Mark 2:1-12) Which the man does, proving that the former statement Jesus made carried weight. One cannot simply say these things and have them take the intended effect unless they really know what they’re talking about. And Jesus definitely knows what He’s talking about. “What He hath seen and heard…”

“And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.” (Matthew 21:27)

Jesus knew stuff, He had been around. His parable about the steward who was audited, so to speak, by the man for whom he was employed (see Luke, chapter 16) not only includes some very practical instruction on dealing with debt (pay it down little by little) but also allusion to a higher kingdom, one that doesn’t revolve around money and capital (see verse 8). Where does He get this stuff? Probably from the same place one gets cloudberries. Just joking, cloudberries are common in the northern hemisphere. But one would necessarily have to go higher in order to be able to talk about stuff of another plane and have it make sense in light of ours.

“Whence then cometh wisdom? And where is the place of understanding? Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air.” (Job 28:20-21)

I haven’t the foggiest

The following paragraph comes to us from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason:

“We can a priori and prior to all given objects have a knowledge of those conditions on which alone experience of them is possible, but never of the laws to which things may in themselves be subject without reference to possible experience.” (my emphasis)

Suffice it to say, Kant is looking to explain away the idea that there can be knowledge of things without actually having experienced them for ourselves. I think we all encounter that temptation to merely “talk the walk”. The implication behind everything (true) written about Christ is that He actually went through the things He talked about. But He wasn’t alone in doing so: His Father was with Him.

“Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself (i.e. from myself): but the Father that dwelleth in me, He doeth the works.” (John 14:10, emphasis mine)

God the Father ensured that Jesus went through everything necessary in order to be your advocate, my advocate (see 1 John 2:1). God was not about to allow someone to die on behalf of everyone if that person wasn’t willing to live everyone’s life. See, Jesus has secrets (see Deuteronomy 29:29). Things He’ll share with you if you endeavor to get close to Him. It says in Hebrews that because of what He did, we can “come boldly unto the throne of grace” (4:15). Paul’s letter to the Colossians (2:3) says “in [Him] are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” I have found Jesus to be the most giving and generous person in this (or any other) world and more than willing to answer what questions I have.

“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Colossians 3:2)

Phantom Pain

“It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:44)

Having a heart

Paul is writing to the Christians in Corinth (for the first time) and he’s using the metaphor of seeds and harvest and whatnot (as Christ was wont to do on occasion; see Mark 4:26-29) as a means of helping us wrap our minds around the fact that we are more than our physical body. Let me just skip ahead a little bit and show the end result of what Christ came to do and what Paul sought to elucidate throughout the letters and missives he sent off that make up about half of the Protestant New Testament:

“For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in His flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in Himself of twain one new man (or woman), so making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-15, emphasis mine)

Have you ever thought about the seeming-dichotomy inherent to life? There looks to be this fissure between our insides and our outsides. Even for Christians, it looks sometimes for-all-intents-and-purposes that the body in which we live would look to supplant every good thing that we would like to do for the Lord. Paul talks again (this time to the Christians in Rome; Romans 7:20-22)

“Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:”

I other words, Paul is talking about the very real thing known as desire. This is something—much like Jesus’s parable alluded to in the big paragraph up top—that grows in us slowly upon receiving Christ. And the King James version is admittedly a little archaic (400 years old) but when Paul says “when I would do good”, it literally translates to “when I have the desire to do the right thing…” (the word “would” being the past tense of “will”). This is so much more than just doing charitable works and helping those who are less fortunate; it refers to having a heart in synch with the Father. This is from where true motive springs. And it is also from where we struggle with a malady or handicap, call it “spiritual phantom pain”, that is flat-out against the newfound life of Christ that has altered us down to the very fiber of our being.

“We are confident, i say, and willing to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8)

Look again at the passage from Ephesians. This dawned on me the other day, but Christ was complete when He died. It says in that little verse that He made “in Himself, from two, one”. This means that He was perfect inside and out when He died. As we were born in sin, the Father sees us on the inside and likes what He sees. This is purely by virtue of the perfection of Christ. The body dies. But the spirit lives. And yet, how come we still feel the effects of this thing known as sin?

“Behold I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part Thou shalt make me to know wisdom.” (Psalm 51:6-7)

Here’s the thing. That God allows us to feel the pain and the struggle and that He even lets us make mistakes on the road to where He’s bringing us—all of these things are gifts. He’s waiting for our mind to catch up. It isn’t about becoming smarter, it’s about filling our mind with what He said on whatever matter we’re dealing with. And if the Bible doesn’t contain some pointed scripture that addresses your situation verbatim, then there’s a deeper issue it does address. An issue that has its root in a lack of closeness to Him. Draw close to Him through praise and worship and meditation (quiet time in whatever way you choose) and He will reveal just what it is that’s causing that elusive phantom pain. He knows, and He loves you.

“Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.” (James 4:8)

Day Labor

“I must work the works of Him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” (John 9:4)

Dawning on us

What does that mean to you? When I read it—it’s also good to take in the next verse—I think about how the things that Jesus was doing (i.e. “work[ing] the works”) were so bright that they pushed the forces of darkness back out into the recesses of space (see Colossians 2:13-15). It would seem that Jesus only had a short time in which to do things we’re still talking about and learning from over two thousand years later. Here’s the next verse:

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Earlier on in your Bible, in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5:14a), He brings the disciples in on this truth: “Ye are the light of the world”. What He’s looking to show us is that we have the right to do the same things as He. It isn’t about standing up from your seat at the restaurant at which you just had lunch and walking across whatever body of water is nearest in order to prove a point. It’s simpler than that. The “works” to which He’s referring, the ones done “in the daytime”, so to speak, begin with an understanding of who you are by virtue of being one of God’s children, and, subsequently, whence you came. Paul speaks to that in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:5-6):

“Ye are all children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.”

High noon

Jesus understood the seriousness of the state of the world. He grew up for thirty years in the company of peers and neighbors that made up the community in which He was known as “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55). He then stepped foot on the world’s stage one day when He announced to the audience in the temple that the prophecy concerning the Messiah was really about Him (see Luke 4:17-20). That’s huge. All around this event, this same little inconspicuous (globally speaking) community had been overrun by the first world superpower—you gotta know they were feeling it. After thirty, He began to do things that clashed with the establishment. The seemingly-insignificant references to His interactions among the “chief priest and scribes” (see Matthew 2:4, John 3, et al.) and the Roman Empire (see Matthew 8) were like tiny cracks and fissures that would end in the widescale destruction of everything that had been built up at that point in history. This, among other reasons, is why we demarcate our calendar with B.C. and A.D., but that’s beside the point. Jesus gives us the standing confidence and also brightness in order to affect the same kind of changes in our world as did He. But it begins with the elementary, childlike things of kindness and warmth and playfulness, and love, that were resident in Him with each interaction He had with those whose hearts were right. These are the things that scale and grow and cause widespread, permanent change. You can do this.

“And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” (Mark 15:33)

That crepuscular feeling

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

In closing, that deep-orange, sort-of gamboge/blood hue that makes sunsets so romantic is called Rayleigh Scattering. Feel free to look it up if you want to understand the particulars. Thing is, though, as days come and go in our lives (seasons, too) the Lord will envelop you in an atmosphere (made possible by Christ alone) that is intended to see you through a forthcoming night season. David talks a little about that:

“I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel: my reins (i.e. the lessons I’ve learned) also instruct me in the night seasons.” (Psalm 16:7, emphasis mine)

Jesus, Paul, David. They were in tune with a broader understanding of what was going on with reference to the rotation of this world. Trust God to keep you in the right place at the right time and you’ll make it through this night.

Judging a Song by its Cover part one

I was reminded, aurally, of The Fugees’ suburb rendition of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly two nights ago while out with a friend. I bought it the next morning. Lauryn Hill brings her strong persona to a song about an unassuming woman who goes to see a celebrated young musician only to find herself undone by the end of the evening. Flack must be acknowledged as the initial purveyor of the song—the one who introduced into the public consciousness—but Hill’s expression is, in my opinion, much, much better. She may have been “miseducated” but she is in consummate control on this track. She knows what she’s doing. Her melodic vocalization from 3:12-3:48 against a simple R&B backbeat is worth the price of admission–it might leave you undone as well, be careful.
How can an artist take an original track and improve on it? I mean, the vision was birthed, so to speak, in the heart and mind of the initial performer and yet, somehow, someone can catch that vision and bend it ever-so-slightly and produce something familiar, yet altogether refreshing, and in some cases, better. Consider Aretha Franklin’s exceptional version of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. The original has long been a great strength to me: one of those few songs in my phone that will actually clear up any mood in which I may find myself—should I remember to listen to it amidst the bustle of a miserable day. Franklin opens with a little-bit-different introduction (“Still waters run deep…if you’ll only believe”) then proceeds to express a minute-or-so long ditty on the piano with a somber organ accompanying; this is the Gospel according to Aretha. She says towards the end, “sail on Silver Boy” (as opposed to “Silver Girl” from the original) and it feels like she’s speaking right into me. Then again, as I take in the original in contrast, I am reminded of one of the purest expressions of selfless friendship I know. Either one, however, is pure poetry set to music that heals the heart.
Then there’s Cream’s reimagining of the seminal blues tune Crossroads. While it’s mythologized in Americana that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for a little musical acumen (it could be that he stole it from Satan, who knows?), Eric Clapton takes it one further in adding his Sixties rock sensibility to one of the greatest blues songs of all time. Taking on such a heavy responsibility as representing the flagship song of an entire genre is sobering and Cream pulls it off with aplomb. Going further, Rush’s rendition from their 2004 album Feedback is even better and, dare I say it, the live album from that year’s tour features a performance that edges out the studio version ever so slightly.

What about those songs that may not have been given the best polish in subsequent recordings? I was impressed with Guns N’ Roses Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door when first I heard it. Upon discovering Dylan’s original, however, that admiration was broken. I don’t mind the aforementioned cover but Bob Dylan is that total package of hopeless yearning somehow extruded in an honest way and that Axl Rose and his crew cannot hope to touch. Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm is done up right by Rage Against the Machine but again, his resignation and subtle carelessness is not to be found in De la Rocha’s complaint over working for a tyrannical family. Doesn’t mean that either cover is bad, just that in my opinion, Dylan’s emotional vein was not tapped and therefore the author’s original intent may not have been conveyed as well as it could have (or was).

For lateral covers—songs that are reimagined without respect, so to speak, to what the first artist had in mind—nothing impresses me more than The Punch Brothers’ Bluegrass take on Radiohead’s Packt Like Sardines in a Crush’d Tin Box (Amnesiac, 2000). Thom Yorke said it well when he said “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”. And yet the Punch Brothers take the original and imbue new life into what is essentially a song about a crazy man coming to his senses a little after the fact (this is my interpretation). The way The Punch Brothers translate Radiohead’s gamelan-sounding (Indonesian orchestra) first track to fiddle, guitar and banjo (and upright bass) is brilliant.

Extrabiblical

Extrabiblical—the prefix in this case meaning “outside” from the Latin—refers to or instance or event or happenstant (singular of happenstance) that is tied in some way back to God. I suppose if you wanted to get extra picky with the etymology, you might just see “extra” as I’ve outlined above and then “biblical” as meaning “pertaining to a book”. Any book, albeit one that is the authority on whatever subject it addresses. For the case of argument, let’s assume we’re talking about “The Holy Bible”.

“I will worship toward Thy holy temple, and praise Thy name for Thy lovingkindness and for Thy truth: for Thou hast magnified Thy Word above all Thy name.” (Psalm 138:2, emphasis mine)

Playing outside

Jesus, when teaching about trusting the Father for the things that fathers provide uses the illustration of the “lilies of the field” and the “fowls of the air” (Matthew 6:28, 26 respectively) as proof there’s a God who provides abundantly. The psalmist takes all of Psalm 104 to detail the grandeur and majesty of the Lord, even going so far as to make mention of the “innumerable” things in the sea that “wait all upon Thee” (verses 25 and 27). The Lord truly is good and you don’t have to crack open the Good Book to know this. The beauty of it, though, is that once you do start reading it with an open heart and mind, you will begin to see a true picture of the author form.

“Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: Thou hast the dew of Thy youth.”

Another implication of the word “extrabiblical” could reference a mis-management or misconstruance of something found in the Bible. Peter says “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20) The idea of taking the information contained that very definitely points to a certain thing—even something as-yet unseen or unknown—and then making it mean what we want it to to somehow ensure we’ll get out ahead, is dangerous.

“But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? Seeing thou hatest instruction, and castest my words behind thee.” (Psalm 50:16-17)

“Wherefore is there a price in the hand of a fool to get wisdom, seeing he hath no heart to it?” (Proverbs 17:16)

There is power in the Word of God. But even then, if one doesn’t know the “Lord Christ” (see Colossians 3:24), then the sea of lies and misinformation in which we wade around day in and day out will inundate. It’s hard (impossible) to keep one’s head above that tide. And if we think we can get through this life without the “Spirit of Truth” (See 1 John 4:6), we are supremely mistaken.

Even things of the interior, while beautiful and wondrous and remarkable will lead us astray if we don’t take them to the Lord for appraisal. Say you had a dream full of ambiguous and obscure symbolism and action and you awoke with a mixed feeling akin to what John experienced in Revelation (Revelation 10:10): “and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.” What would you do? Would you dismiss the evident message-from-God as heresy, something from the enemy? Wait a minute before you do that and pray. Understand the God that Jesus talks about in the parables referenced up top. There are things that He tells us that maybe aren’t meant for us or about us. Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and He’ll sift through, not just lies and truth, but meaning. The Lord is still speaking to this day and He wants to speak to (and through) you. But it’s not one-sided. He wants to hear your thoughts on the matter.

In closing, look at Peter. He had gone through all he had with Jesus—we know his story—and it would seem that he went back to some of the old ways of thinking that he had, for lack of a better term, waded around in during his time before meeting Christ. But that’s okay. The Holy Spirit is still speaking. In the tenth chapter of Acts (verses 10-17), the Holy Spirit visits him with a vision (He has to show Peter “thrice”; verse 16), the vision that would forever solve Peter’s adherence to the old ways of the Law of Moses in favor of the Grace offered through Christ (see John 1:17). This is serious! The Holy Spirit continues to clean out Peter’s mind and thinking to be more in tune with Heaven and then look what it says in verse 17: “Now Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean…” Peter is still dealing with an old, dusty, cobweb-filled thought process as to what the pure word of God really sounds like. And remember, the Holy Spirit doesn’t speak anything to us that isn’t directly from the throne of God (see John 16:3) and intended to bless and help us as we serve Him. In the eleventh chapter, he recounts the story of this vision and says “the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting (verse 12, emphasis mine). Peter was doubting. The more we live and grow and learn, the more information we process, the, not harder but more important it is to remain in the simplicity of the words of Christ and of His presence in our lives as provided by the Holy Spirit. They will speak to you—they want to, they are—but nothing they say will contradict what He’s already told you in His Word.

The Full Complement

“For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in Heaven a better and an enduring substance.” (Hebrews 10:34, emphasis mine)

Not required to sell

There’s this attitude that creeps up on me every once in a while. While I didn’t have everything I wanted growing up, my needs were met and I was consistently surprised with the big Christmas and birthday presents I received. The major things that inspired a slack-jawed and drooling fervor did I find wrapped under the tree or hidden at the end of a brief scavenger hunt or beneath the small hill of lesser presents that shared the space on the dining room table with my birthday cake. My parents did well in keying what I wanted to what I actually received. But I still want stuff even today—fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years removed from my childish materialism.

“A gift is as a precious stone in the eyes of him that hath it: whithersoever it turneth, it prospereth.” (Proverbs 17:8)

The one thing, however, that I’ve found growing up and growing older is that I have the authority and the ability to surprise myself (not really, it’s God who surprises us) with things I didn’t know I needed or wanted. This being said, as I continually look for that better thing I think complements my person, the paradigm of atrophy and apathy and complacency (in a word: depredation) continues to gnaw at me. This is why God continues to show mercy and love and grow in me His contentment. It’s in Him that we are able to stop reaching out for more to the neglect of what we already possess. And we possess Him in full if you didn’t already know that (See 1 Corinthians 3:21).

Required to tell

Keep your eye on your stuff, but not in that way; and not in that way either. What I should have said was “keep your eyes on God”. Because if you get your eyes off Him and begin to show too much interest in what He’s given you without seeing that He is the greatest gift, the natural course of the aforementioned cycle of the wearing-down of things will show with more poignancy. The writer of Hebrews says “knowing in yourselves that ye have in Heaven a better and an enduring substance.” Our treasure truly is in Heaven (See Luke 12:33-34). But God is so generous! What do we do when once we cross that threshold of having enough and then enter into having “more than enough”? Here’s a good watchword (Psalm 116:12-14):

“What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all His people.”

You’ll reach a point where the harvest in your life is more than you can handle (See Luke 6:38). Don’t let that dissuade from giving thanks and enjoying what the Lord gives. Give out what you feel led to give out to whom you feel led. But don’t let it eclipse His face. Continue to “take the cup of salvation” and talk to the Lord. Maintain that childlike relationship that got you where you are today. And when it says “I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all His people”, understand that there are things you agreed to do for the Lord when once He brought you out “into a wealthy place.” (Psalm 66:12) Do those things for Him and don’t be afraid of what other people think. That second part of the passage reminds me of the injunctions of the Lord against being ashamed of Him before those who don’t know Him (See Matthew 10:32-33). This is serious stuff.