Up in flames

When I went to bed last night, I wondered if I would think in the morning that the day’s events had been just a bad dream. But the smell of smoke was too pervasive and the memories too vivid for me to think that I had dreamed about the fire.

The day began normally. I had been at work for two hours when the phone rang. I answered it and heard a voice saying, “The storage shed is on fire! I’ve called 911, but they aren’t here yet!”

People like me want to believe that we respond calmly to a crisis. Sometimes people like me say foolish things calmly in a crisis. “Do you think I should come home, then?” I asked. Of course I was out the door and on my way home as quickly as possible.

The drive home takes twenty minutes. I spent those minutes praying two things–that no one would be hurt, and that the house would be protected. I also reminded myself to breathe and to pay attention to traffic. The fire trucks were there when I arrived home, so I parked down the street. The fire was contained by then, and the firefighters were preparing to soak the contents of the shed to ensure that no hot spots would reignite.

A family member had used a power tool in the shed that morning. She did nothing wrong–she used the tool correctly and put it away when she was done. But some fault in the outlet began a small smoldering that was not immediately evident. Twenty minutes later, the same family member took some garbage to the curb and decided to bring back the recycling bin–the latter task is something I generally do when I come home Friday evenings. Her spontaneous decision to do so yesterday gave the opportunity for her to see flames and smoke far sooner than they would have been noticed otherwise.

When we bought the house, the shed was already part of the property. It is about ten feet wide and twenty-five feet deep. The front end had workspaces with shelves underneath and pegboard on the walls for hanging tools. The back end had shelves on the walls for storage. To the right of the entrance we kept lawn and gardening tools and an area for potting plants; to the left was workspace for carpentry and the like, with hand tools hung on the wall and power tools on the shelf below. Beyond that was a work table with boxes of clothing and an antique, homemade dollhouse that had been given to the children. Beyond that were boxes of outgrown toys and clothing, disassembled cribs, and the like. On the back shelves were boxes of holiday decorations.

I was already doing triage in my head while I drove home. The tools were all replaceable and probably covered by insurance. The children’s clothing and toys were things we were slowly removing, donating them to the church for its rummage sale. The Christmas decorations would be the saddest loss, but I was resigned to that loss already so long as no one was hurt and the house remained safe.

No one was hurt. The house remained safe. The fire fighters had been delayed because they were giving a program at a school. One of the children had asked them what would happen if there was a fire somewhere while they were at the school. They had said they would leave to fight the fire. A minute or two later they got the call about our fire.

The lieutenant told us there was a clear V-shape of damage from the outlet where the fire began. It traveled up and then crossed the length of the shed, following the air flow. The lawnmower was on the floor of the shed. Although charred boxes fell onto it, it was undamaged. A tank of gasoline, half-full, was on the floor of the shed about five feet from where the fire began. It survived unscathed. The power tools, on the shelf under the work area, were likewise unharmed. The hand tools that had been hanging on the wall were gone. Our grill for cooking with charcoal was, of course, unharmed, but the electric starter for the coals melted completely and will need to be replaced.

After the firefighters left, I called our insurance company. As they began the claim process, they advised me to take pictures of the building and its contents, then to begin removing contents that were not damaged. After taking pictures, we started at the front, taking out the lawnmower and power tools and other items that had survived. The antique dollhouse was, ironically, harmed much in the pattern of the shed that contained it–most of the damage to the roof and upper structure. As we worked our way to the back of the shed, moving aside charred and burned boxes, we could see that the boxes holding Christmas decorations were darkened and soaked but not burnt. One by one we carefully carried those boxes to the driveway and inspected their contents.

We did not have time to do an item-by-item inspection. Some of the ceramic and glass decorations had been damaged by the fire, but we set all that aside to handle later. Most of the clothing that had been on the work table was merely soaked and smoke-scented. We spread those items out on the grass to dry and to freshen in the breeze. The day was dry, sunny, and windy, which made it ideal for rescuing the clothing. It looked much as if we were preparing for a garage sale, and we wondered if we should post a sign saying that these things were not for sale.

Some items came to mind before we could enter the shed; others came to mind as we worked our way through the shed. Four wooden folding chairs–probably older than I am–survived, although they will be to be refinished. Handmade children’s clothing of sentimental value was found and proved to be unhurt. Even a box holding a stamp collection was retrieved from a lower shelf, essentially unharmed. The primary loss was the building itself, but the insurance adjuster has not yet looked at it to tell us so.

In spite of the trauma of enduring a fire on our property, my family and I feel that we have been blessed by the Lord. No one was injured by the fire. The house was spared. (The corner of the shed where the fire began is about ten feet from the nearest corner of the house. Two large oak trees next to the shed could have spread the fire, but we’ve had a wet spring and they remained unsinged.) Insurance will cover most of the loss. I expect to order a dumpster and clear the remaining contents out of the shed. I have been hoping for a while to receive a job offer in another city; this event may have helped to prepare for a move by forcing us to deal with extraneous possessions before the urgency of packing. Many people (including some of our neighbors) can see only loss in a fire like this. My family and I see instead how all things work for good. J.

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Christ in Genesis: the Promise to Abraham

When Abraham is introduced in the book of Genesis, one of the first things we learn about him is that God has made him a promise. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Abraham does not earn God’s blessing by traveling to Canaan as God commanded. The blessing is a gift, unearned, and Abraham’s journey is a result of the blessing, not a cause of the blessing. Over the years, God repeats his blessing to Abraham, also to Isaac, and to Jacob. He says it different ways on different occasions, but generally it comes in three parts: Abraham’s family will become a great nation, they will live on the land to which God sent Abraham, and from that nation on that land will come a blessing for the entire world.

Abraham had to wait twenty-five years for a beginning to the first part of the blessing. Isaac was not born until Abraham was one hundred years old. Isaac did not marry for another forty years, and then he had two sons. His son Jacob had twelve sons and a daughter. The family had grown to seventy members by the time they moved to Egypt. When they left Egypt several generations later, the Israelites included 603,550 men of fighting age, as well as children, women, and the elderly.

They returned to the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and land became a very important part of God’s covenant with the Israelites. Each of the tribes of Israel was assigned a certain portion of land, carefully described in the book of Joshua—except the tribe of Levi was given no land. The Law of Moses ordered strict punishment upon anyone who tried to steal land by moving a boundary stone. Land could not be sold; families in debt could rent out use of their land for a time, but they would receive their land again at the next Jubilee Year, which came every fifty years.

Generally when the Romans conducted a census, they simply went door-to-door, counting the members of each household and collecting a tax. The Jews made this census more complicated than anyone else in the Empire. Joseph (and many others like him) was determined to be counted at his family’s land rather than at his current residence; so Joseph took Mary his espoused wife and traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, because Joseph was a descendant of King David. David had many other descendants who wanted to be counted in Bethlehem, so the inn (more of a guest room than a motel) was full, and Mary and Joseph had to take shelter in a cave, one that generally was used to shelter sheep. There Mary gave birth to her firstborn, the ultimate Son of David, who was swaddled and placed in a manger. According to the Law of Moses and the prophecy of Micah, the Son of David was required to be born in Bethlehem to inherit his kingdom.

Jesus is, of course, the blessing for the entire word who came from the family of Abraham on the land that had been promised to Abraham. He was born to inherit a kingdom and to win a victory. His victory was not over King Herod or the Romans. His victory was over all the forces of evil, including sin and death. His kingdom was for all people, not just for the Jews. John the Baptist and Jesus and the apostle Paul all insisted that the children of Abraham are all those who share the faith of Abraham in God’s promises, not necessarily those who can trace their family tree back to Abraham.

God affirmed his promise to Abraham several times. In Genesis 15 God commanded a ceremony involving several animals that were cut in half. I have read that this ceremony represented a form of covenant that was practiced in western Asia three thousand years ago. Generally two people making an agreement would walk between the halves of a slaughtered animal. In this case, Jesus walks alone (with a fire pot and a torch) between the halves, showing again that the fulfillment of the promise depended upon Jesus entirely and not upon Abraham in any way.

When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God gave another ceremony to Abraham and to his family: the ceremony of circumcision. A small bit of skin was snipped away from the most vulnerable part of a man’s body. Some pain was felt, and a little blood was shed. For the rest of his life, that man had a private reminder of his relationship with God. Babies born into the family, if they were male, were circumcised on the eighth day (the same day of the week that he had been born). Jesus was circumcised in this way, shedding a little blood to foreshadow the blood he would shed more than thirty years later in the battle that won the victory.

Abraham never owned any of the land where he lived, except for a cemetery he bought when his wife died. His descendants claimed that land under Joshua when they battled the Canaanites with the help of God. When they were unfaithful to God, they lost control of the land to Midianites and Philistines and other enemies. This was God’s judgment upon his people for their sins. As their sins grew worse, God called the Assyrians and the Babylonians to remove the people from the land; but because of his promise of a blessing for the entire world, God called the Persians to send the Jews back to the Promised Land. God’s Promise is always bigger than his Judgment.

God always keeps his promises. The accounts of Abraham and his family cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the promises of God. J.

An unexpected allegory

“What to do if you find yourself stuck in a crack in the ground underneath a giant boulder you can’t move, with no hope of rescue. Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn’t been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won’t be troubling you much longer.”  Douglas Adams

I was writing an essay about thankfulness, how the Bible says that we should be thankful in all circumstances. We are not thankful for all circumstances, of course. We are not thankful for sin or evil or suffering. But in all circumstances we can be thankful and we should be thankful. I remembered a quip from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series on that topic. When I couldn’t find it in the books, I explored the internet, and I discovered the version above, which was used in the radio show before it appeared in a different form in one of the books and in the movie. I would have preferred that he spoke of being thankful rather than lucky, but I think that the illustration is valid.

I meant the quip to be no more than an attention-gathering introduction. As I wrote the essay, I listed many reasons we should be thankful—food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, and so forth. I pointed out the number of times we complain about these things instead of being thankful for them. I added that I didn’t intend to make people feel guilty for their times of ingratitude. After all, when we stand before God for judgment, he has much bigger sins to call to our attention. Ingratitude is hardly the greatest of our sins. But, all the same, we should rejoice in God’s blessings even in the hardest of situations.

I wanted to make a transition from the blessings of creation, through the idea of the coming Judgment, to the blessings of redemption. Something was missing. Then the introductory quote from Douglas Adams reappeared. We are trapped in a hole in the ground. That hole is our sins of omission—the times that we have not done those things God commanded us to do. We are trapped under a giant boulder. That boulder is our sins of commission—the many times we have done those things God commanded us not to do. We cannot remove the boulder or emerge from the hole. We are truly trapped. The best we can do is count our blessings, whatever they may be.

The greatest blessing is a Redeemer who lifts the boulder from us and bears it away. He takes it on himself to set us free. How far does he remove our sins? “As far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). The earth has a north pole and a south pole, but if a traveler starts heading east or west, that traveler can go on forever without ending—there will still be more to the east or more to the west. Our sins are removed from us by an infinite distance.

Jesus pulls us out of the hole in the ground, cleans the dirt off us, and puts us on our feet. His forgiveness is complete and unconditional. The boulder is gone, and we have been taken out of the hole in the ground. The blessings of forgiveness, of life, and of victory over all our enemies belong to us because of the work of our Redeemer.

And just imagine: a quip from the atheist, Douglas Adams, became an allegory of the work of our divine Savior! J.

Beatitudes

The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapter 5, have been called the Beatitudes. Tom Sawyer tried to memorize them for his Sunday School class because they are short verses, but he found them confusing. In fact, many people have been confused by these lovely and simple verses.

Jesus describes the people he likes to bless. He calls them poor in spirit—which has nothing to do with how much money and property they own. “Poor in spirit” means that your money and property does not own you. He calls them those who mourn. He calls them meek. He says that they hunger and thirst for righteousness. He calls them merciful. He calls them pure in heart and peacemakers. He also warns that they will be persecuted, reviled, and the targets of vicious lies, all because of their relationship with Jesus.

Some Christians take these Beatitudes to be commandments from Jesus, additions to the famous Ten Commandments given through Moses. Others treat them as suggestions about how to live, or rules to be followed only by a few special people in the Church. This misunderstanding is caused by the mistake of overlooking the word “blessed.” This word adjusts the meaning of everything else Jesus says in these verses.

The original Greek word in Matthew’s Gospel, “makarios,” is used elsewhere to describe a royal grant. A blessing is given, never earned. It indicates the goodness of the giver, not the goodness of the receiver. Far from being a list of commandments, the Beatitudes are a list of promises, indicating that Jesus wants to bestow gifts on all people, and those who follow him will receive those blessings.

What are the blessings? They are seven, an indication of completeness when found in the Bible. The blessings are the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheriting the earth, being satisfied, receiving mercy, seeing God, and being called sons of God. (Why sons and not children? Because God looks at Christians through the work of his Son. He sees the righteousness of Jesus. Of each Christian, God the Father says what he said about Jesus: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased.”)

The kingdom of heaven, the mercy of God, being called sons of God: all of these are gifts from God to his people. His people do not earn these gifts; Jesus earned these gifts with his righteousness and shares them because of his goodness. Think of it: blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. The mercy of God was already there for you long before your first opportunity to show mercy to others. The mercy you show to others is a result of God’s mercy, not a cause of his mercy.

That is the way all the Beatitudes work. The gift is named second, and the result of the gift is mentioned first. Because we have the treasure of the kingdom of heaven, we can be poor in spirit, not owned by the material treasures of this world. Because we are already being comforted, we can mourn over our sins and over the evil in this world. Because we will inherit the earth, we can afford to be meek today. Because we will be satisfied, we can hunger and thirst for righteousness. Because we will see God, we can be pure in heart today. Because we are already called sons of God, we can work for peace today.

The world will reject us. The world will treat us the way it treated Jesus. Yet because the kingdom of heaven is ours, we can accept the rejection of the world. After all, we remind the world of Jesus by resembling him and by imitating him.

The Beatitudes describe Jesus. He is perfectly poor in spirit, pure in heart, and all the rest. The Beatitudes help us to imitate Jesus by describing him to us. Our power to imitate Jesus comes, not from our efforts, but from his blessings. Because the kingdom of heaven is ours and we will inherit the earth, we can today act as if we belong in God’s kingdom. For Jesus has done the work necessary to make that kingdom our home. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we are satisfied, for the righteousness of Jesus has been given to us. To Christ be the glory! J.