Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

Jezebel for President?

8-29-16

Nations almost always have traitors in their midst, and their motives are myriad – money, revenge, alien doctrines, contrary loyalties. Benedict Arnold probably is America’s most prominent traitor. He escaped to England, for whom he betrayed the Revolution and his supporter George Washington, to an appropriate life of loneliness and opprobrium. His go-between, British Major John André, was hanged as a spy. (In Tappan, NY, a bicycle ride from my high school in Old Tappan NJ; near old stomping grounds of Palisades, where I briefly ran an antiques shop; and Blauvelt, where some cousins lived.)

The spot of Maj. André’s hanging still has a marker, outside the Old ’76 House, a tavern where André was jailed awaiting the gallows. When I was a boy, the proximity, if not the reality, of historical events was almost romantic.

But I mean to address traitors and false prophets, not recount the peregrinations of a young teen, or old, naïve views of history. Treason is a serious thing. It is no longer fashionable, if I might use the word, or considered righteous to execute traitors these days. Many spies and traitors since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg have committed espionage – caused commensurate harm – to the United States, but I believe the Atom Bomb thieves were the last to receive the justice of every society’s severest penalty.

To lack the will to ultimately punish traitors is to condone treason; and is to encourage disloyalty. A hallmark of our times.

What traitors are to nations, false prophets are to believers.

We know that the Bible warns of false prophets – signs of the End of the Age – as well as the Anti-Christ and other dark figures. But looking back, so to speak, and not forward in prophecy, the Bible’s history is replete with false prophets. The most prominent (indeed, living now in subsequent general parlance) is Jezebel.

According to the book of I Kings she lived around 900 BC, a queen married to King Ahab of Israel. She persuaded the king and much of the kingdom to abandon Yahweh and worship Baal instead; she conspired, framed, and persecuted Hebrews for their faith. Ultimately she was rejected and was literally overthrown: pushed to her death from a palace window, her flesh devoured by dogs, as the account goes.

Readers of my essays, or casual visitors, might wonder in this election season, and by the title of this essay, whether I am going to identify Jezebels in our midst. False prophets? A woman?

That is not a Hill I will climb here. My use of the term “President” here is metaphorical: our virtual and generic leaders can be considered as “presidents” in their realms. But I want to look at the array of persuasive, influential, prominent, consequential figures in our culture. Our bosses. In biblical days, and through feudal times, “lords.” Trend-setters; role models. All virtual “presidents” – presiding over areas of our lives.

How many are Jezebels, male or female? How many are false prophets? These days, most of them. Remembering my distinction between traitors and false prophets, we can truthfully say that almost all of our modern leaders are false prophets.

Many of them “preach” such “truths” as:

There is no God;
There is no such things as sin;
There is no heaven or hell;
We may eat, drink, and be merry with no consequences;
Drug use need not be discouraged;
Adultery is fine;
Abortion is not murder;
Truth is relative, everyone’s personal choice;
Black is white;
Up is down.

I added a couple… not really stretches, though. These Contemporary Ten Commandments come at us rat-a-tat from government, media, journalism, the educational establishment, entertainment, and, sadly, much of the church. What do false prophets do? Using a biblically historical paradigm, they induce us to worship false idols. Mammon, of course. “Instant gratification” is a sacrifice to the god of Self. Abortion – infanticide, little different except for labels and settings of clinics instead of volcanoes – is child-sacrifice to the gods of convenience and a new morality.

As I said above, what traitors are to nations, false prophets are to believers. And to innocent folks trying to make their ways in this world. They are glitzy celebrities and influential politicians, and bling-bling entertainers and heroes, so-called. But remember the words of Jesus:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-16b). He also said that in the end times, “Many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many” (Mt 24:11).

We can make lists, long lists, of ways to recognize false prophets. These times are upon us. I would ask you to remember two important things that can sum up the (broken) law and the (false) prophets:

1. When Jesus said that false prophets will deceive many, He did not mean “many of the unbelievers”! Unbelievers are already out in the spiritual “cold.” No. Many believers, members of the Church, faithful followers of Christ, devout and pious folk, even the Elect… shall be deceived. Be. on. your. watch.

2. All the warnings and checklists and litmus-tests and watchwords are worthless against the only dispositive standard: do the people, and their policies, glorify Christ? Is the Bible the bedrock? Are you directed to Jesus?

Is there a “shadow of turning”? Any compromise that is “hoped” will make people amenable to the Gospel? Reject it! The World System hates us, and lies to us.

Remember what Paul wrote in his second letter to the church at Corinth (2:1-2): “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

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Click: Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand

Our Pentecost of Calamity

8-22-16

There are many worldviews by which people live today, as there always has been in all societies. The difference in contemporary America, I think, is that the majority of citizens have no idea of what a worldview is, or whether or not they care about operating under any established and consistent precepts.

Even Christians, including dedicated and fervent church-goers, often fail the test of worldview standards. Many Christians love God and believe in Jesus, but as if in the world but not of the world, know more what they oppose than what they should defend. As we recently noted, most people these days are not so much ignorant of history as indifferent to its relevance.

In the political realm, partisans on the Left know their socialist and Marxist dogma, even if they reject the labels. On the Right, there are patriots who love liberty and know the Constitution. In the vast Middle, well-intentioned people are malleable, their opinions inevitably shaped less by events than by the media and the culture.

This situation in America and the West was foretold by Aldous Huxley in a letter to George Orwell (both notable futurists and dystopian thinkers) in 1949: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than [sticks] and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”

The Bible, inevitably, put the same thought – the same prediction – most clearly: “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (II Timothy 4: 3-4). Indeed, we love our servitude.

Counted among those “teachers” are not only members of the educational-industrial complex, but also politicians, role-models from popular culture, and… “people of the cloth” – ministers, preachers, priests, rabbis.

I am pessimistic about the future of American civilization (as well as of our “democracy,” republic, and government) because we are the inheritors of at least 500 years of a corrupted worldview. The worst aspects of a cultural secularization were unlikely to have coexisted with theocentric virtue. America was a “last best hope” of mankind, not for democracy’s sake – never an ideal of the Founders and Framers – but of a virtuous society. Respect, self-respect, order, justice, charity: these were among the characteristics recommended, and recognized, by Pilgrims and Great Revivalists; by our civic architects like John Adams and James Madison; by admiring observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, who retained enough equanimity to state: “When America ceases to be good, she will cease being great.”

One of the infections of the half-millennium cited above is the belief in progress, a hallmark of the Modern Age. Most Americans will think my definition, and certainly my analysis, is loopy. But that shows how pervasive this worldview has become. Earlier societies and civilizations, however, neither believed in the inevitability of human progress nor its efficacy, if they thought much about it at all.

Inherent in the concept of progress, and history’s plodding march “forward,” is perfectibility. Once that belief is subscribed (and we have made a fetish of it in the West), then it naturally follows that laws can be passed, rules enforced, behavior modified, all to achieve perfection. In society; in individuals. Justice. Heaven on earth. Utopia.

Of course, this leads not to progress but to schemes, warring factions, and, for example, the parade of monsters of the past century who consigned millions to servitude and battlefield slaughters. Secularism, the glorification of Self, will do that. Human nature without its restraints reveals the worst, not the putative best, aspects. We have arrived at the 21st century thinking we know better than all societies, in all of history – better than the Word of God – about the structure of the family, the role of authority, the sanctity of life, and a host of such truths. Gosh, we’re great.

I cannot decry progress in certain areas by certain characterizations. My late wife, a diabetic since the age of 13, would not have had a 14th birthday party if not for medical science. I could not be enjoying Bach as I type a message that (still magically, to me) will be read by thousands of people. I am not an all-in Luddite.

But our conceited conviction that, quoting Dr Pangloss from Voltaire’s “Candide,” this is the best of all possible worlds, is as self-swindling and ridiculous as, well, Pangloss himself. It might just be the case that the world will never host a greater philosopher than Plato; no better sculptors than Michelangelo and Rodin; no better composers than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The works of Rodin and the Viennese masters do not vitiate my point, but encourage us always to create and emulate. Not be perfect, because only God is perfect; but to create as He inspires us to be creative. (I mention Rodin, having last week stood in awe before sculptures in the Rodin Museum…)

The most pernicious effect of this modern malady is that we humans make a god of perfectibility: to the extent we can think, innovate, reform, and devise according to a faith in Progress, we commensurately surrender faith in God. We have replaced it with a faith in humanistic progress, in humankind’s perfectibility, in our selves.

Foolish us, we are doomed to fail. If you can lift your gaze from the muck – the bread and circuses as well as the disintegration of our social fabric – you will see how well the seduction of Progress’s inevitability and modern definition is working.

“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served… or the gods… in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

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Purcell’s Funeral Sentences

The Festival of the Empty Nest

8-15-16

The end of summer is nigh… Schools are back in session… Once upon a time, it was the “new television season”… Labor Day around the corner and the traditional beginning of the presidential campaign (I wish it WERE only starting now, instead of two hundred weeks ago)….

Anyway, these few days are called many things, but they are also regarded by countless families as the Festival of the Empty Nest. Many young people are going off to college for the first time.

Leaving home, whether it is to dive into life, or for the intermediary step of a college career, or the military, or a job opportunity, is a Rite of Passage. For parents and children alike it is, or should be, the essence of Bittersweet. All of a sudden, 17 or 18 years seems like a blur; everyone becomes conscious of unfinished projects and unshared words.

But the clock is ticking, the calendar is calling, and life awaits. Oddly, the hours drag, but the years have flown.

I watched the recent conventions and wondered about the rising class of future leaders. Old leaders and newcomers spoke. Many times I asked myself: “A third of billion people in America, and this is the best we can do?” Who are next on the horizon? Do they know? Can they dream? – Can they prepare well? It is a lesson framed many ways: “Carpe diem” – seize the day. “Never a second chance at a first impression.” “Strike while the iron is hot.” “We pass this way but once.”

I see lessons to be applied in family situations when children leave home, too. Our regrets should not equate with inability to let go. Every one of us should say all that we can to our children; express everything, without reservation. As we should have all those years past. Now is the time to make up for uncountable lost opportunities! Or so we feel.

Children juggle the loss of the family’s pod-like security and the excitement of independence. I was always a little disappointed when my own children did not resist getting on the school bus on the first days of their school lives, as I fought back tears. But, to them they were new chapters; to me, chapters ending.

For parents there is no way properly to describe the mixed feelings of the mixed blessing. You will miss the daughter or son. For many of us, despite the contrary assurance of worldly logic, a crater suddenly exists in our everyday lives. But we are wired as parents to possess an indescribable joy in seeing our children take their next steps into the world. Spread their wings. It is RIGHT. It is what you have prepared your child for – even if not yourself, fully – all these years.

Being a parent was never easy. Oh, all the challenges and crises… but then how is it that the hardest part comes when they leave home?

I’m not sure science has ever analyzed tears. Those salty droplets. Maybe one of our budding students will win the Nobel Prize for such research. But there are tears of pain, of regret, of sorrow, of bitterness, of lost opportunities, of lost love and found love, and surely tears of joy. The tears that parents shed during these rites of passage are of a special composition. Distilled, they somehow confirm to us God’s loving “wheel” of life – “there is a season,” He tells us. Whether a little scary, or seemingly sudden, or a guarantee of big changes in our lives… we must seize more than the moment, but the season too.

“Letting go?” Think of it as spreading your arms in fond farewell, so that they can be open to receive… when the next season comes.

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I have never heard a song, or read lyrics, that more beautifully reflects the bundle of emotions in the Rite of Passage of children leaving home (in this case, a college student) than “Letting Go,” by Doug Crider and Matt Rollings.

She’ll take the painting in the hallway,
The one she did in junior high.
And that old lamp up in the attic,
She’ll need some light to study by.

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day.
She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.
Letting go: There’s nothing in the way now,
Oh, letting go, there’s room enough to fly.
And even though she spent her whole life waiting,
It’s never easy letting go.

Mother sits down at the table,
So many things she’d like to do.
Spend more time out in the garden,
Now she can get those books read too.

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day.
She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.
Letting go: There’s nothing in the way now,
Oh, letting go, there’s room enough to fly.
And even though she spent her whole life waiting,
It’s never easy letting go.

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For a music video of this song, amazingly performed by the amazing Suzy Bogguss (wife of Doug Crider), click: Letting Go

“It’s Me Again, God…”

8-8-16

Have you ever called out to God in a moment of crisis? Or, better put, how often have you cried out to God in a moment of crisis?

Of course we have all been there, and it will not change. God, after all, did not promise to keep us from life’s troubles. He just promised to be with us through them.

Christoper Hitchens, famous as an apologist for atheism, once wrote, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer soon after writing those words, wrote books and articles against God, and debated across the continent with the fervent Christian Dinesh D’Souza. None of us can evaluate the emotional wrestling-matches he endured with himself (and his God) – he evidently was touched by a widespread “Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day” in September of 2010. But I shudder to contemplate if he was tempted to cry to God… but was deterred by pride.

If a reliance on God (please: no “higher being”; no “man upstairs” – I mean the God of the Bible) is a basic yearning of every person’s soul, then we must admit that pride is a universal stumbling-block to exercising that reliance. How common is the realization that we turn for help… when we need help? The logic of it does not mitigate the embarrassment: “God, it’s me again. Sorry it’s been awhile…”

Too often we pray fervently in times of crises, and pray casually – or not at all – when blessings are flowing. Human nature.

God knows it is human nature. That is why He provided ways to counter that aspect. Communication, constant communication, which He calls “prayer.” And the testimony of our hearts, which He can read, and knows better than we ourselves do.

God seeks communication with us – and half of that is hearing from us. He takes joy in every manner of our turning to Him. He is grieved when we do not. In Micah 6:3 we have the picture of a God who is offended and hurt when we ignore Him: “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!”

So. If God receives pleasure when we seek Him and communicate through prayer, and if we generally tend to seek Him and pray only when things go bad… wouldn’t it be in the nature of a loving God to “allow” some “bad” things to buffet us?

I do not believe that He sends sickness or disease on His children – the Lord of the universe is not a child abuser – but in order for us to see Him as “an ever-present help in times of trouble,” there must be trouble. Following that, He will answer, and help, and communicate what we need to know: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17); “Thou, LORD, hast not forsaken them that seek thee” (Psalm 9:10).

Is God at work in our lives when crises and problems beset us… when those happen to be the only times when we seek fellowship with Him? Is this good theology? I don’t know. Just sayin’…

Think about it. If God desires to hear from us, but we ignore Him except when trouble comes… Well, my advice is to not tempt God. Keep those lines of communication open. The voice of experience: then blessings can flow your way.

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Here is a heartfelt spiritual song that briefly illustrates the anguished call to God we all experience at times. It is one of the very last songs that a feeble Johnny Cash recorded, but one of the most powerful of messages about asking God’s help:

Click:  Help Me, Lord

The End of End Times

8-1-16

Tim LaHaye died this week. Many people know him from – indeed, were mightily affected by – his books, the famous Left Behind series.

I never met Tim, but had mutual friends across the landscape. I attended the church he pastored, Scott memorial, later Shadow Mountain, in California. A magazine I edited, Rare Jewel, promoted Beverly LaHaye’s organization Concerned Women for America, and we interviewed him. Likewise we profiled the Institute for Creation Research in El Cajon, which spun off the college Tim founded, now known as san Diego Christian College. My friend Stacy Hollenbeck from girlhood was a friend of the LaHayes, and Tim married Stacy and my buddy Mike Atkinson (I mean… he officiated at the ceremony). Finally, my agent, Greg Johnson, was Tim’s literary rep on many of his books.

It sounds amazing, actually, that we never met. In my San Diego years, I did get to know quite well some Christian luminaries (of different camps, truth be told): Mike Yaconelli; Wayne Rice; Jim Garlow; David Jeremiah; Miles McPherson;
Josh McDowell – forgive me for name-dropping, one of my cardinal sins. Which
reminds me, I saw a cardinal in my back yard yesterday…) Maybe I was just Left Behind.

The Left Behind books were a publishing sensation. Co-authored (actually written) by Jerry B Jenkins, they numbered more than a dozen titles and sequels; movies; and uncountable debates. They brought the Tribulation (the awful events at the end of history, foretold in many Bible prophecies), the Rapture (the physical disappearance of believers before the end of the world), and the apocalypse of Daniel and Revelation (and many other places in scripture), into mainstream discussion.

LaHaye’s views and books formed a sort of Second Blessing of Eschatology (study of End Times), following upon the wave of interest generated by Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and other books in the 1970s. My wife was one of the followers of the Left Behind series, and followed the news with informed interest, finding Biblical parallels that LaHaye’s books made more evident.

The phenomenon peaked about a dozen years ago, and will, if the End Times do not come first and subsume humanity and rapture the faithful in the meantime, assert itself again.

Just as with the “other end” of the Bible’s timeline – Biblical archaeology – modern science is explaining things to us that once seemed like fantasy or even nonsense. Ancient cities and rulers once described by “experts” to be of mythology or legend… are appearing in diverse places like desert plains shorelines, and under Jerusalem’s streets. Likewise, coins and amulets with faces and names and dates, are now confirmed as real, not fictional. (Just wait – I have had a glimpse – until you see the National Center of the Bible, opening soon on the National Mall in Washington DC. It will open many eyes.) (Need I say? NOT sponsored by the Federal Government…)

It is remarkable, just as science is explaining, if not confirming, many of the “mysterious” events and occurrences of Bible prophecy. Thank you, God, for Your timing. Some of us have waited patiently (sometimes impatiently) for scientists to catch up with you. Our next chuckle is when some chucklehead with a degree realizes that the Big Bang is just tech-language for Genesis.

Having asserted all this wise-guy stuff, however – and no offense to the late Dr LaHaye – there are some things about End Times that pastors, theologians, fiction writers, and scientists will never explain. And I hope they never do.

The Book of Revelation – Jesus’s dictation to John on the Isle of Patmos – even specific letters to specific churches, are shrouded in the type of mystery that leaves us ever conflicted. Literal words? Imagery? Poetry? Warnings? Fearfulness? Hope? Of course, Bible prophecy is a bit of all these… but in what mixture, with what emphasis here, or there, I believe God means to be ambiguous.

The mysterious aspects of the End Times, to the extent they are mysterious, are intended to KEEP US ON OUR SPIRITUAL TOES.

It is a sin that eschatological questions often are the basis of angry disputes among believers. They can claim to be well-intentioned, but Christians think they can improve on God – who always has been quite clear when He wanted to be. Let us speculate: that is useful. But let us not obsess.

We’ll find out… maybe sooner than we think.

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Click: Midnight Cry

God’s Word for Worried Christians This Election

7-25-16

Pray.”

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Click: Oh, God Our Help in Ages Past

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“I Will Heal Their Land”

7-18-16

Our recent essay “Welcome To the Revolution” has excited a bit of discussion, some readers claiming I am an alarmist, and others granting that I might be predicting the future instead of, as I believe, reporting on the present. To the charge that I am an alarmist, I would reply that doctors operate when there is disease; firemen rush to houses on fire; when I see alarming things, I sound the alarm.

There are many subjects that American schools do not teach any more, and we generally are an anti-intellectual society. In that vein – specifically, the danger of even right-thinking Americans being ignorant of the Current Crisis – I recall what Alexander Boot wrote about Hellenistic Man, that “he was not ignorant of history; he simply did not see how it affected his life.”

For the immediate future, I believe we are headed for the Summer of Our Discontent. Where once a polite diving-line was drawn between Democrats and Republicans, even liberals and conservatives, now there are bottomless chasms between family members. Ugly schisms divide former friends. “Occupy” and “Black Lives Matter” partisans ascribe blood libels to Tea Partiers, and vice-versa.

Those who think murdered soldiers and policemen are victims of random gunfire, and those who think we are seeing war in the streets. Now, Baton Rouge. Next?

The conventions and campaigns will be ugly – and the Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas parties of many families likely will be bloodier. These rifts will slowly – if ever – heal: people must first desire healing; and for all the empty clichés about Getting Along, the contemporary American is quite happy to excoriate his opponent. Hate Thy Neighbor.

So this is a classic case of “inability to see the forest for the trees,” America’s fatal state of decline. We have gone from decadence to destruction, and when we catch a glimpse of the “forest” – an active society where things continue to happen, where we still wake up, go to sleep, and scurry about our affairs – it is rather a case of inertia that masks the crisis.

Our fall has not been the result of a sudden explosion, but gradual poisons in our cultural water supplies.

One of the favorite Bible verses of Christians in recent years has been II Chronicles 7:14: “If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

How many of us are guilty of quoting that verse, even applying it, superficially? For one thing, it seems, in a forest-for-the-trees manner, like a fortune-cookie aphorism. “Straighten up your act, people,” to be followed by spontaneous revival and Heaven on earth.

But the verse needs to be parsed – examined phrase by phrase. In the first place, linguistically, it strictly is not a promise of God. It is a conditional statement: “If… then.” The Bible is filled with many such conditions, warnings, threats, and yes, promises. But God requires things of His people. Humility. Prayer. Seeking Him. Repentance. All of them “big time.”

THEN He will forgive transgressions and heal the land.

“If.” That is the condition – a big “if.”

“My people.” Not necessarily the entire population, but the Children of God. The saved; today, Christ-followers.

“Who are called.” All of us must be open to the specific call of God on our lives: His will for us.

“Humble themselves.” This does not mean to stop being haughty in church, but to adopt true servants’ hearts.

“Pray.” Jesus Himself prayed fervently before every important act. How less should we?

“Seek My face.” Request guidance and acknowledge God as the source of all good things.

“Turn from their wicked ways.” Here God means true repentance… transformative changes in our personal lives.

Then you “will hear from heaven.” Prayers will be answered.

Then He will “Forgive your sins.”

Then He will “heal your land.”

That makes this verse more than “words to live by.” Or something for Christians to claim in agreement or to memorize for a Bible study or Sunday School class. Not those things alone – good start – but incomplete. Even the famous verse is incomplete! It is the second half of a sentence, not a new sentence in Two Chronicles, as Donald Trump would call it.

Can we, o average American and Christian Patriot, read the context, and learn what the Lord was really saying? Starting with Chapter 7, verse 11:

Thus Solomon finished the house of the Lord, and the king’s house: and all that came into Solomon’s heart to make in the house of the Lord, and in his own house, He prosperously effected.
12 And the Lord appeared to Solomon by night, and said unto him, I have heard thy prayer, and have chosen this place to Myself for an house of sacrifice.
13 If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people;
14 If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
15 Now Mine eyes shall be open, and Mine ears attent unto the prayer that is made in this place.

First, that is a lot of IFs. Second, there are severe warnings. A third point might be that these are specific instructions to David’s son Solomon and the people of ancient Israel. However, it is valid for us to draw lessons.

The most sobering of lessons, chastisements, and warnings of punishment (indeed, God’s promise) is a few verses later:

19 …If ye turn away, and forsake my statutes and my commandments, which I have set before you, and shall go and serve other gods, and worship them;
20 Then will I pluck them up by the roots out of My land which I have given them; and this house, which I have sanctified for my name, will I cast out of My sight, and will make it to be a proverb and a byword among all nations.
21 And this house, which is high, shall be an astonishment to everyone that passeth by it; so that he shall say, Why hath the LORD done thus unto this land, and unto this house?
22 And it shall be answered, Because they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods, and worshipped them, and served them: therefore hath He brought all this evil upon them.

In effect: We bring this evil upon ourselves.

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Click: Leaning On the Everlasting Arms

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Welcome To the Revolution

7-11-16

Next week the next chapter of the political season commences, a national political convention. Otherworldly events, horrible and startling, have intruded on the already turbulent political news of recent weeks. We scarcely can catch a breath.

Nevertheless the conventions will come. Partisans and opponents prepare for a summer of conflict and confrontation, claims and calumny. And these things seem to be the mode à la mode for most people. Reasonable discourse is obsolete; debates are extinct; persuasion has been replaced by insults and invective.

We are in the midst of a revolution in America.

Of this there is no doubt. It is one of those revolutions, as approximately half of history’s examples, that did not begin with a Lexington and Concord or 95 Theses; that is, one seminal moment or event. Some profound revolutions have commenced with general discontents and scattered protests. Cultural angst usually derives from myriad sources, and then manifests itself in myriad ways. And when the dust settles (as ephemeral as dust is, things slowly come into focus), societies have been transformed.

To consider the ironies of many cultural revolutions, and citing the two examples above, Lexington and Concord led to a military confrontation, bloodshed, and a course-change among nation states. Yet the United States, newly free and independent, was in most ways indistinguishable from Great Britain. But Martin Luther’s mere petition and modest hammer and nails resulted in convulsive changes to Christian theology and worship, the political alignment of the European continent, literacy of the masses, and democracy.

We can also look to the Protestant Reformation – properly, Revolution – and see why it is difficult to distinguish between hard and soft revolutions in their midst. The Counter-Reformation’s Council of Trent was so intent on proving the reformers incorrect that it doubled down on dogma, rather than meeting minds and answering questions. Galileo’s requirement to make the sun stand still, so to speak, was a result of the revolutionaries’ challenges and the church’s orthodoxy. The Inquisition resulted. Ironic, but so goes the course of intellectual effects.

Even in anti-intellectual periods of history (and they outweigh the sober, rational times) intellectualism directs the affairs of humankind, like Archimedes’s fulcrum. So: by these criteria, I claim we are in the midst, not on the verge, of a revolution in America. And likely in all of the West: Europe also.

The breakdown of social order hurtles along with compounding velocity. We can fool ourselves that it is otherwise. Or that “incidents are merely more reported than in the past.” Or that this is a passing phase. No, the tentacles of Islamic terrorism have reached into the American and European heartlands, and, scarcely rebuffed, are met with excuses and “tolerance” as unique welcome mats. Domestic terrorism, in the guise of Black Lives Matter, gangs of illegal drug and gun lords, and other PC-protected thugs, inflict fright on the homeland.

In the Land of the Free, legal abortions have killed more babies than all the “holocausts” of recent history combined. Among Blacks, unwed mothers account for 80 per cent of the babies who are not snuffed. Urban-school dropout rates are at all-time highs, and increasingly so. Academic test scores fall, despite constantly lowering definitions of passable scores. (I think the math competency of American students currently is behind that of Chad.) (Which is a country, not a high-school kid in the next town.) Borders, the security of which is a historical marker for statehood, are a joke. The flow of drugs is less a function of porous borders than a perverse population of addicts and moral zombies who provide lucrative markets. Failed marriages; homosexuality; spousal abuse; human trafficking; political corruption; sexual perversion; kids into cutting; poverty; violence; prejudice; child predators; suicide among veterans…

Et cetera. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.

And the church. Supposed to be a bulwark, in this supposedly Christian nation. The church – you and I, may I presume? – has been the Great Enabler. The church has compromised its standards. Christians became so deadened to Peter Abelard’s warning (in Expositiones) against “the world, flesh, and the devil” that it surrendered. It became so “tolerant” of alien beliefs that it lost its own. It was so centered on contemporary culture that it morphed from roaring lion to timid chameleon. We have lost our faith in faith.

The great historian of culture Jacques Barzun wrote in his monumental book From Dawn to Decadence that “the cultural predicament after a revolution is how to reinstate community, how to live with those you have execrated and fought against with all imaginable cruelty.” His use of the world “community” is dispositive in this discussion, the canary in the mineshaft of our cultural abyss.

For a generation we have been hearing of “community”; in fact the popular culture harangues us with the word. “The African-American community.” “The gay community.” “Community organizers…” Where are these communities? Are there boundaries and welcome signs? No, today, “community” is a concept of diffusion and disruption, not comfort and cohesion.

“Diversity” is the deceptive enemy of unity… the camouflaged term, like “community,” that divides America. For years, America exercised goodwill to build a unified nation, a melting pot. To cherish traditions but eliminating differences. But forces today work to divide and separate us one from another. To incite resentment instead of fostering fellowship.

The Entitlement Society celebrated by the enemies in our midst force-feeds Identity Politics as the new American creed. Divide; hate our heritage; destroy not only the ideals but the people themselves who cling, yes, to their Bibles and guns. Glorify Diversity even if might offend you in any way; but accept Community with those who might hate you.

“Do not put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there,” is our reminder from Psalm 146:3 (NLT). As the political conventions draw nigh, we have this command, not necessarily to reject all leaders and potential leaders… but to not put confidence in them. Psalm 46:1 – The LORD is our refuge and our strength, our ever-present help in times of trouble.

And these ARE times of trouble.

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Click: Bruce Springsteen – Satan’s Jewel Crown

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

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Wanted – a Declaration of Dependence

7-4-16

Our recent essay concluded with a question posed by the successful Brexit vote, wherein the United Kingdom voted to end its membership in the European Union, and the certainty that many other countries soon will do the same. That question is this: If the current mode of virtually unbridled democracy had existed on July 4, 1776, how different would that world, and our world, be?

Men gathered from 13 colonies in Philadelphia to air and share their grievances. The Mother Country had dismissed their concerns, levied taxes, and arbitrarily stationed troops throughout the colonies. An emerging people – a nation of newly minted, self-conscious Americans – had chased off their lands the armies and representatives of the Netherlands, France, and Spain; pacified or cowed numerous native tribes who previously had squabbled among themselves for the same pieces of earth; and generally adopted English as the common and legal language.

In short time there arose common bonds of affection within the colonies, also trade and “commercial intercourse,” and the shared values of daily life’s fabric. Many “Americans” believed that the Crown and Parliament owed deference and special status to these British colonies. So did some prominent Britons, like Edmund Burke, whose “Conciliation With the Colonies” is still a literary classic. But London answered with less, not more, deference.

Eventually the leading figures of politics, government, business, trade, and society gathered in Philadelphia. They knew it was not to compose another letter, another petition, to the Crown. They had schooled themselves in biblical history, Greek democracy, Roman law, the Magna Carta and English Common Law, and philosophers of the Enlightenment. They were a remarkable collection of intellects, representing yet other luminaries of American history who did not attend these sessions, but supported the deliberations.

Those deliberations were no mystery; there was no shroud of secrecy, no imminent surprises. Their councils were idealistic… but grim.

The men who gathered were not, strictly speaking, suicidal. Yet they all declared – they so agreed and announced to the world – to “pledge their lives, their fortunes, their scared honor” to declare independence, to formalize nationhood.

Independence. It is a word that should still cause inchoate swelling of pride and even defiance in the descendants of those rebels, 240 years later. It is, strange but true, the motivation of the Brexit campaigners in the UK, and the nationalist movements in a dozen other European nations right now. The establishment press and political elites are trying to argue for 2-out-of-3; or claiming that voters were unprepared for the vote; or… any desperate evocations they can muster of King Canute of legend: the futile inability to order back the crashing ocean waves.

Ironically, King George III is reincarnated in the Bureaucrats of Brussels. It is the critique of Kafka and the jibes of Jefferson, however, that animate the workers and middle classes of traditional Europe these days. The soul of Sobieski, martyrdom of Martel and others who, over 15 centuries, battled to keep Europe Christian and white. But today we remember the Declaration of Independence.

The question I have posed is not rhetorical: if the document that was introduced to England and the world on July 4, 1776, in all its literary and ideological brilliance, had not been a manifesto and call to arms, but rather a Brexit-like Referendum, what would have happened? If Parliament had bound itself to the results of such initiatives, well… just think.

Historians agree that the colonies of ’76 were fairly divided in their passions: roughly one-third each loyal to the Crown, favoring independence, and indifferent. Alexander the Great felt no such restrictions; nor the Roman legions; nor waves of conquering Vikings, Huns, Mongols, Vandals, barbarians, Saracens. The European imperial powers for centuries enforced their worldwide hegemonies by means ranging from suzerainty to brutality.

Athens would have voted to be free of the Spartans; India attempted plebiscites against British rule; Zionists resorted to terrorism to establish Israel and in turn Palestinians employ bombs when ballots are not available.

Let us return to July 4. If the Declaration had been a Writ of Attainder against the King (more pacific Colonists did try to cast it so), there might not have been battles of Monmouth and Saratoga, nor the stirring examples of Valley Forge. No Yorktown, no Lafayette or Steuben, no heroes like George Washington. We cannot know these things.

But we do know that a list of grievances, not a declaration of war or even a “declaration of independence” was nailed to a church door in a German village in 1517. Martin Luther’s 95 “theses” were, basically, opinions, complaints, and pleas for reform within the Roman Catholic church. Luther was a priest in that Church, and had no desire to start a revolution.

But Christian reformers, German princes, and God Himself had other visions. The Protestant Revolution, in substance and in effects, has been as profound as the famous battles at Thermopylae, Marathon, Hastings, and Waterloo.

But I am not asking us, even on July 4, to turn to history books. Let us turn to our Bibles. Scripture tells us that we are pilgrims and strangers in this world – indeed a world of woe, a “vale of tears” – but we are Citizens of Heaven. Nevertheless, here we are now, and we are commanded to be, if not “of” this world, to be obedient residents in it. Uncomfortable passages for Tea Partiers of 1775 and today alike, but we “render unto Caesar” and recognize the Divine Right of Kings; and read that God ordains the positions of those in positions of power.

More dilemmas, especially for Christians in democracies. And more reason for us to search the scriptures and seek spiritual guidance. All the time. To pray, not just over jobs or romances, but in EVERY question affecting our daily lives… and our country’s future.

We should adopt the mindset that every choice between candidates is also a spiritual question. Every ballot item – referendum – presents us with spiritual choices. Electing representatives who decide questions of education policy; judges who will rule on abortion; presidents who send us to wars, or not – these are all decisions that God would have us consider prayerfully.

“Consider prayerfully” is not an empty cliché – well, yes it is, if we allow that. The problems in America virtually all stem from Christians surrendering their prerogatives. We have lost our way, insecure in our faith, ignorant of our heritage. Otherwise we would be throwing bums out of office, overturning noxious laws and regulations, and storming courthouses.

Whether it is time for a Convention of States (as per Article Five of the Constitution), civil disobedience, or armed resistance if, God forbid, things get that bad, Christian Patriots should think about a new Declaration of Independence. Read the old one, write a new one!

Better yet, Christians should act according to a Declaration of DEpendence… dependence upon God Almighty. Among other things, that will make America great again.

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Click: Looking For a City

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

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Brexit for Believers

6-27-16

The UK has sued for divorce from the European Union. In fact the United Kingdom was not fully united, because England and Wales voted Go; Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Stay. Whether this will be a trial separation or an ugly split cannot be forecast. The proponents of every shade of Brexit’s arguments failed to anticipate consequences and adjustments attendant upon any result.

Trade will continue and probably thrive. Regulations – one of the onerous justifications for the revolt – might, or might not, continue, as Whitehall so chooses. And the same for the challenges posed by immigration, the other major irritant. There are myriad issues, small in the metanarrative but major in everyday life: what about sports leagues; the re-imposition of passport and customs policies; pensions of Brits who worked in Brussels; the status of long-term EU residents, for instance the numerous Polish workers who have lived in the UK and Ireland.

In fact the European Experiment always has been an uneasy arrangement. The countries that flocked to join, as they did to NATO, often were motivated by fear of the Russian bear that lingered outside their territories. And just as often, many countries flocked toward an EU trough of subsidies and debt forgiveness, a continent-wide and endless (they hoped) Christmas party.

As time marches on, and historians dissect this failed experiment (as I assume it will be – further disintegrating), the EU will be perceived as designed and nurtured as much from negative as positive impulses. Back during Churchill’s propositions, a United States of Europe was seen either as a non-military NATO or a muscle-flexing counterbalance to the USA. Countries that were non-Atlantic, marginally European, and congenital mendicants scurried into the tent, as Common Market, common-currency factors, and bizarre regulations on Slavic rutabagas and Greenland’s fish; annoying rules for chefs and smokers and vacationers; smothered the Euroquality of life.

The confusion about a thousand things, and (I predict) the rush of similar referenda in (pause for breath) France, Italy, Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere – all suggest that this Brexit vote was an effect, not a cause. A symptom, not (as some allege) a disease. An electoral tantrum of deep-seated legitimacy, no less valid for its flailing and dramatic aspects.

Brexit thrived not in a vacuum. This same week, the populist, anti-statist Five Star Movement in Italy elected a young female mayor of Rome; a mayor of Turin; and strengthened the separatist Northern League – a quiet but significant revolution. Italy has as many course changes as gelato flavors, so let us take that pulse in 12 months. However, the LePens of France’s Front National have knocked on the door of power. Holland’s Geert Wilders is poised to become leader of the Netherlands.

Formerly “fringe” political leaders now are charting the courses of nations. The establishment is losing its power of imprimatur. If Lech Walesa was a credible leader after a life spent as a shipyard worker, or Václav Havel could turn from writing plays to writing policies… so can Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, lead a popular movement in Italy; or a lifelong college teacher, anti-establishment, be elected president of Iceland (this week); or a businessman and media celebrity possibly become president of the United States.

Do Americans “have a dog in the fight” of Euro-politics? Surely. We are still one big family, if not happy. Western Civilization is one of the remarkable stories – remarkable achievements – of world history. I generally applaud any people’s impulses toward self-identity, cultural pride, folkish traditions, and robust independence. Everywhere in the world, every moment in history’s timeline, it has led to vibrant expressions in art and music, literature and poetry, fashion and cuisine.

Nationalism is a positive virtue. When it has mutated into bullying, that problem should be addressed by means other than imposed homogenization and bureaucratic strait-jackets. One size does NOT fit all. Suppression can cause as many ills as indulgence.

And so… Brexit. The common people – the middle classes, working people, the so-called (thanks again, mass media) “non sophisticates” – are fueling the revolt in every one of the nations listed above, for instance in Brexit’s margins, the Midlands and working communities. Also the core of Marine LePen’s support, and the essence of Donald Trump’s victories.

Our media savants treat Brexit as a seismic crisis, as they will describe the dominoes that will fall across Europe. “Anemic PR; bad salesmanship; voters’ ignorance.” But there is a much, much larger picture.

We are not in a major place, but rather a virtual snapshot, maybe a mere moment in a vast continuum, of Western history. Perhaps (only perhaps) the first inklings of pulling back from deadly secular statism. Does Kafka live, or continue to loom? A major aspect of this continuum has been nation-state politics. In succeeding centuries, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain, virtually ruled the virtual world. When Germany united 150 years ago and gained similar strength, the party largely was over: prospective colonies gone, the seven seas jealously retained by Her Majesty’s navy. World War I can be seen as the attempt of the Entente countries to deny the Central Powers hegemony, or even much economic mobility, in Europe. The subsequent war can be seen as Germany’s attempt, aided by brutality and bigotry, to assert itself again.

With the EU, it is possible that the industrious and resourceful Germans will be seen by history as having discovered the optimum method of gaining lebensraum after all, their place in the sun, only by economic and peaceful means. And not incidentally, beneficial to almost everyone affected, natives and neighbors alike.

Notice that, for all the nations agitating to leave the European Community, Germany is not one of them. That is because Germany, for all intents and purposes, is the EU. Its nationalistic Pegida movement (also on the rise, certainly) is more concerned with migrants than with seats at EU tables in Brussels. Vladimir Putin has praised the Brexit vote, and the West ought to realize that recent developments have realigned the interests, no longer automatically antagonistic, of Russia and the West.

Continuums? In the more significant sweeps of history, Europe has successfully resisted scores of determined invasions by Muslims since the 700s. This is a major theme in Western history; as are unchecked migrations in many global settings. Whether European resistance and that of Christendom is now flaccid animates the fervent debates of our recent times.

In another meta-narrative, socialism has been viewed as a panacea, or a curse, hatched by Marx in the 1840s; but paternalistic schemes and associations were in fact the foundations of serfdom, feudalism, and the beneficent Craftmen’s associations, guilds, and enterprises like that of the Fuggers of Augsburg, in the Renaissance.

As the world has become more complex, state socialism has become a seductive solution to social problems; so has state capitalism. Centralization. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in a naïve but prescient description, foresaw centralization as the wave of the future – “every wave has scum on its crest, but a wave of the future nonetheless.” Waves recede after they crash… but are also followed by other waves. Where are we now?

And what is next in the headlines? As Communist states fell and Germany reunited, so might Ireland, especially in the wake of Brexit’s anomalies. Unthinkable, a generation ago. Scotland finally might (re)achive independence. London, a “Remain” island within an island – because of internationalist elites and many immigrants – might become a city-state like the Vatican. Improbable, but borders possess dimished sanctity in this changing world. A multitude of speculation: if rampant democracy had seized the world earlier than it did, the Declaration of Independence might have been a Referendum instead. Imagine.

And as the world has become more complex, so too do Christians find themselves in a new place. Or at least in place they have read about, and when equipped by study of the scriptures, ready for. Really? Are we ready? Not really. Even the most studious eschatologist cannot anticipate the twists and turns of history… of the enemy… even of the Lord. We are watchmen at the gate.

End Times obsessions sometimes are counter-productive. To be an apocalyptic sometimes can persuade people to abandon not just temporal hope, but defenses and self-defenses as well. We have been advised for a long time (at least since the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel, quoting Jesus) that we should be “in this world, but not of this world.”

Do we withdraw? … from everything? Political parties, schools, associations, alliances? No, but we must be willing to assert spiritual as well as civic independence. “If the world hates you, remember that it hated Me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you” (John 15:18-19).

Despite many Christians surrendering the prerogatives, every day is Independence Day for believers. Don’t hesitate to vote NO; vote “Leave”; vote “exit” for many of the things of this world.

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Click: I Don’t Want To get Adjusted

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Dad’s Day – “Daddy!”

6-20-16

Father’s Day. A bit of an ersatz holiday started, actually in fits and starts, about a century ago, mostly as an answer to the more successful, and sentimental, Mother’s Day. Calvin Coolidge was one of several presidents and officials to resist any formalization – on grounds that would be antithetical to our contemporary standards: fearing it would become too commercialized. It was only President Johnson who issued the first proclamation, in the 1960s; and President Nixon a few years later signed the observance of Father’s Day into law.

We need a law to honor our fathers? Well, manufacturers of socks and ugly neckties did. Do we have stronger impulses to honor our distaff parental units? Perhaps so, instinctively, aided and abetted by Hallmark and florists.

This weekend we can suspend the cynicism, however. I honor and miss my father. He has been gone more than 15 years yet I still reach for the phone, sometimes, to share something with him. When I finish writing a book, or discover a piece of classical music, my first impulse is to think what he would say about it.

This is proper. The “scarlet thread” is not solely of Redemption in our lives: we are, or should consider ourselves, members of a continuum that is stronger than blood. Family traditions, the fabric of memories, shared experiences – these are truer resemblances than overbites or freckles.

You will expect me to enlarge the topic to our Heavenly Father, and so I shall.

It is a cliché, or a chestnut, to say that, regarding God Almighty, every day should be Father’s Day. But like most clichés it is true. The sheer magnificence of God can sometimes be overwhelming… similar to when we try to think of the size of the universe. How big, how far… and what is beyond the farthest reaches we can imagine? How old is the universe? Forget the Big Bang… what came before the Big Bang (or, to use the Bible’s parlance, Creation)?

The Lord is one God but present through the Trinity; manifested in one Incarnation but with uncountable attributes; the One True God, the “I Am,” yet with endless aspects; and so forth. The “God of the Old Testament” is often an appellation for a God of Vengeance and Justice. The “God of the New Testament” is described as a God of Love and Mercy. Yet, of course, these attributes – and more – are consistent, frequent, and immutable. Not changeable; just faceted.

Then there is “Abba.” Don’t worry. I am not going to discuss the Swedish pop group ABBA. Many Christians use “Abba” in addressing God, relying, whether consciously or not, upon three passages in the New Testament:

“And [Jesus] said, Abba, Father, all things (are) possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Mark 14:36).

“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6).

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15).

A little etymology for a moment. These are the only times in the New Testament that “Abba” appears. It is an ancient Aramaic word for Father, adopted and adapted into Hebrew, probably through the Syriac or Chaldee tongues. The Greek texts use it, always follow by “Pater,” father, emphasizing the respect implied in addressing a father, or Father God. In turn the Romans made the word “Pater” their own – the Greek and Latin root giving us “paternal,” paternity,” and so forth. It exists, of course, in Arabic too, and survives in forms like “Abu” in kunya (honorific) names; for instance, the President of the Palestinian State Mahmoud Abbas has the honorific “Abu” Mazen – father of Mazen. “Abba” is possibly the root of Ab-raham, Ahab, Joab, et al. In English it lives in descendent words like “Abbot.”

It is everywhere, once you start looking. Just like our Heavenly Father.

In recent Christianity, “Abba” has been taught and urged upon worshipers as a form of “Father” that actually means something close to “Daddy.” Most recent scholarship debunks that interpretation, asserting that Abba – especially “Abba, Father” as Jesus prayed and Paul wrote – is, by doubling down, a term of heightened respect, not familiarity.

To be formal one last moment, it appears that Abba, especially in prayer, is neither symbolic nor diminutive. Not baby-talk (like Mama, a common utterance in many cultures) as some Christians maintain – a primal vocative. “Father” is a translation; “Abba” is a transliteration. These scholars even tell us that “Abba,” when people in prayer cry it out, is irreverent.

But. Words are tools. Most of us are not linguists or semanticists. And, frankly, if people intensely are praying, we can dispense with a nit-pick about a term being obscure, or irreverent, or deeply sincere. God reads our hearts, anyway.

I have witnessed, and been in the place myself, where someone is under intense spiritual anguish. Conviction, guilt, helplessness, yearning, need. Or joy unspeakable, thanksgiving, praise. People with addictions. Challenges of health or finances. Wives distraught over their marriages; fathers worried about their children; teens fighting bondage.

You pray. You remember biblical models. You seek the prayer-language of angels. And then you get to the point where you just want to say – to cry out! – “Abba!!!”

Yes, “Daddy.” We want to run to Him, hug and be hugged, feel forgiven, and know that we are loved. That’s what Daddys do.

Happy Father’s Day. And say hi to Dad for me when you pray.

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This relevant song is not Christian, but very spiritual – those family threads I wrote about. Steve Goodman, who also wrote “City of New Orleans,” sings about his father who died and inspired this emotional song. This is only for people who have had fathers; everyone else may pass it by.

Click: My Old Man

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

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Remembering the Greatest

6-13-16

This seems to be the year of celebrity deaths. To those of my generation, we read of people we sometimes did not realize were still alive, TV stars of our childhood. Singers. I will never get over Merle Haggard’s passing. I met him a number of times, but his work would have been a part of my life if I never had.

Celebrities are dying and in predictable cycles, a period of public consternation often is followed by the unsurprising “news” that drugs were the murder weapons, so to speak. I have yet to hear one saddened fan or, say, TV commentator, treat such news of lethal overdoses as anything but a sorry mistake by the decedent.

Some deaths, the visible ones, are under scrutiny because we should pause over the self-infliction of drugs and dangerous lifestyles. As I said, our society does not draw lessons, so these useless suicides (as we may see them; all suicides being horrible), routinely roll forward, festooning every fourth or fifth cover of People.

Some people kill themselves with drugs, some with unsafe sex; many with many assorted and, sadly, time-tested paths of drink, gluttony, greed, and so forth. Then there is the gray area of practices we know are self-destructive if not outright deadly. California just passed a law allowing people to choose suicide if two doctors sign off, and people administer their own poison. California is not the first state, nor is the United States the first country, to legalize suicide.

Then there are the people like Muhammad Ali.

My friend Milt Priggee, the editorial cartoonist from Washington State, drew a brilliant cartoon after Ali died, a switch on the famous photo of Ali in the ring after a knockdown of Sonny Liston, savagely growling over his opponent, almost inhuman. But in the cartoon, Ali was on the mat, and the victorious fighter was the figure of Death, with the label “29,000 head blows induced Parkinson’s.”

Would Ali have quit boxing if he knew Parkinson’s awaited? He grew up among old-time fighters who were “walking dead,” insensate, laughingly called “punch drunk.” The last 30 years, or more, of his life, were wracked by physical and mental debilitation. Junior Seau, whom I met in San Diego and seemed to all the world like an affable and contented retired football hero… shot himself to death, and his autopsy revealed Chronic Brain Damage, a common condition to pro football players. Today, many football players refuse to allow their sons to play football. A major movie, Concussion, is devoted to the sport of personal destruction.

I met Muhammad Ali once. My college invited him to speak in the late 1960s, and I was on the Programming Board so was able to spend a few moments with him. I was caught up in the audience’s frenzy after his bombastic speech – actually, a lot devoted to black self-sufficiency – and I was among those who wanted just to pat his back as he walked past. He was charismatic.

A few years later I was comics editor of a newspaper syndicate in Chicago when a black cartooning aspirant came to my office with an idea for a daily cartoon based on the quotations of Ali. I thought there were commercial possibilities in the concept and went to the law firm Sidley&Austin, which represented the boxer. As I remember the sad incident, his reps were interested but did not like the work of the artist, and were willing to discuss going forward with some other cartoonist… with no compensation to the fellow whose idea this was. I declined to proceed. (I am reasonably certain that the samples never went before Ali, but I do not know. It is interesting to note that a few year later, the future Michelle Obama was an associate on staff of Sidley&Austin; and Barack Obama worked one summer there.)

Not much personal, but it is interesting to note that until the recent canonization, there was legitimate debate about whom among Jack Dempsey or any of a number of heavyweights including Ali, was the best pound-for-pound boxer of all time. In recent eulogies, little was made of his refusal to register for the military draft. When referred to, people now often cite Ali’s courage and convictions. He was, however, sentenced to five years in prison, overturned in a virtual conscientious-objector judgment after he claimed that 10 per cent of his life would be boxing, and 90 per cent to be spent as a Muslim minister.

I come not to criticize Ali but to think of him in perspective. We are hearing of acts of kindness, for example a virtual tug-of-war to give a hitchhiker money for the Bible the man offered in thanks. I hope these stories are true; and they seem to be of a kind with other celebrities performing kindnesses. A Somali woman recently braved retaliation from two groups by calling Ali a great fighter but not a great man, that when he converted from Christianity to Islam “he essentially sold his soul to the same kind of [Muslim] racists who rounded up his African forefathers and sold them into slavery… and are still doing so in the Middle East today.”

That gets close to something that always repelled me when I was young, and since; even as the world found his routines compelling. “I am the greatest.” Of course he meant the greatest boxer, but he didn’t stop there, and neither have his acolytes. The hagiography, fertilized and insulated by the horrible Parkinson’s Disease that plagued him, will continue. He will be a role model whose main achievement was punching people senseless; who refused the uniform of the nation that nurtured him; whose legacy is seen in the illiterate jabber of interviewees in the Louisville neighborhood of his youth. That is to say, black youths, supposedly inspired by The Greatest all these decades, are poorer, more illiterate, and specialize in illegitimacy, in ever-greater numbers. Not the legacy that is ascribed to him.

But what specifically repelled me, and still saddens me, is the choice he made to turn his back on Jesus. Worse, to cast himself as the “Greatest” when humility and a recognition of Jesus’s greatness was there for the taking. And especially as his adopted Islam widely is being associated with barbarity and slaughter. LIKE AT THE HOMOSEXUAL NIGHTCLUB IN ORLANDO.

God “is the great ‘I am’”; and His Son Jesus Christ – not a prophet but the Son of the Living God – is Advocate (1 John 2:1); Almighty (Rev. 1:8; Mt. 28:18); Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8; 22:13); Author of Life (Acts 3:15); Author and Perfecter of our Faith (Heb. 12:2); Author of Salvation (Heb. 2:10); Beginning and End (Rev. 22:13); Bread of Life (John 6:35; 6:48); Christ (1 John 2:22); Creator (John 1:3); Faithful Witness (Rev. 1:5); Heir of all things (Heb. 1:2); High Priest (Heb. 2:17); Horn of Salvation (Luke 1:69); Image of God (2 Cor. 4:4); Lamb of God (John 1:29); Lord of All (Acts 10:36); Only Begotten Son of God (John 1:18; 1 John 4:9); Our Righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30); Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6); Savior (Eph. 5:23; Titus 1:4; 3:6; 2 Pet. 2:20); Truth (John 1:14; 14:6); Wonderful Counselor (Isa. 9:6); The Word (John 1:1).

We can all “float like butterflies.” As with the lowly caterpillars, we can be transformed into beautiful creatures, through Christ Jesus, the one and only Greatest.

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Click: Great Is Thy Faithfulness

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

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Our World, Gone Crazy

6-6-16

There is a danger in being a historian. Even the amateur historian and those who love to read history benefit from the special aspect of what my lodestar Theodore Roosevelt called “History as literature” – the thrill of past glories, the tragedy of conflicts, sensing the real lives of real people long ago. We gain perspective as we confront our own challenges. Even better, we legitimately feel like a player in the world’s great events – a part of the contending ideas and possibly grand visions; a soldier in conflicts, if not military then intellectual and spiritual.

Well, you can tell I am enthusiastic about history. The study, the pursuit, the lessons. George Santayana famously said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. A cartoon-meme popping up on the web these days has an old guy reflecting that those who DO know history are doomed to watch other people repeat the mistakes.

That IS a danger. But I began by saying that being a historian – having a historical perspective – can have its pitfalls. The broader the view, more seductive is the tendency to believe in cycles… pendulum swings… and what the writer of Ecclesiastes averred: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Indeed. The awful aspects of human nature are unchanged. So too are the propensities in the human breast to hope. There are elemental virtues and common sins. I believe these are the things referred to in Ecclesiastes. But too many people think – when they think at all about such things – that our challenges and problems can’t be all that bad, because countless civilizations have experienced them before us.

Experienced, yes. Survived? Usually not – and especially not when we talk about moral decline, fiscal irresponsibility, decline in family values, sexual immorality, addictions, loss of patriotic fervor and appreciation of heritage and tradition, lessened charitable impulses, and turning away from God’s Word. Yes: review history. We are not the only culture to experience these things.

But, in your review, notice that few societies, precious few, have redeemed themselves and crawled back into the sunshine. Virtually all have withered and died. Some over long, painful gray periods of dissolution. Some quickly, as by invasions. But the law of civilization and decay is that when societies fall, it is usually from within.

I pivot from the panorama of history, behind us, to the current situation about which I will say as dispassionately as I can: The world has gone mad. To me, the only question is the tense: future-progressive (still occurring) (by the way, I am inclined to capitalize Progressive, but that is another essay…) or present tense. In either case, it is still a tense situation.

I employ benchmarks from history’s record of self-destructive societies. I have considered that the great march of personal freedom, intensifying in the West over the past 500 years, has allowed humankind to let human nature overtake the structure of governments, laws, arts, and science – and resulted in the previous century birthing more slaughter than any other century; and this century, so far, reviving (to take an example) slavery on a grander scale than ever before.

So it is not only a madness of the West, although we madly lead the mad parade to “the dawn of nothing – O make haste,” as Omar Khayyam wrote. Savagery, abuse, hatred: all alive and well around the world. Wars and rumors of wars.

We have rejected in many ways the concept of Absolute Truth, the possibility of its existence, and the benefits of seeking to know it. History’s masses often suffered, but often they believed in improvement; in advancement; in better things and better days. They believed in themselves, in leaders they respected… in God.

The world, in turning inward instead of outward, living for today without regard to an afterlife, abandoning standards that nurtured their ancestors, of course will reflect disharmony and chaos. Art imitates life, after all (what Plato called “Mimesis”). This should worry us very, very much about the state of things ’round about us. This world is not one politician, or one new fad, or one hangover, away from righting ourselves.

We have become lovers of our own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good; traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.

You might have heard these words before. They were predicted about our times – or, anyway, the End Times. Do they describe this age? If not revealed in our actions, and conflicts, and multiple crises… then in the writing on the walls of our art and culture. Our headlines.

Never since the Flood has humankind, over the face of the earth and not in isolated pockets, rejected Truth in such determined ways. II Timothy 3 continues: “In the last days, perilous times will come,” and names the attributes of our times we listed above.

It concludes: “From such, turn away.”

These were not merely warnings; not simple predictions. They were prophecies – the Bible’s “sure things” if we do not “turn away from such.” Will it be difficult, for each of us, and as a people? About that, the Bible does promise: Yes. Very difficult.

But our world depends on it.

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Click: Whispering Hope

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

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Teacher of the Year

5-30-16

Graduation time. As much as part of the season as the swallows “coming back to Capistrano”; the welcome of “sweet springtime, we greet thee in song”; and all that. Smart investors would have looked, in winter months, for manufacturers of caps and gowns, T-shirts that proclaim “I finally made it!” and makers of Dollar-Store trophies – brass filglagees with bronze oak-leaf palm and plastic plaques that read “Teacher of the Year.”

It is the time of year, also, for news stories about teachers, students, achievements, and academic statistics. We hear that the United States falls yet farther down in the world’s ratings of student grades and scores. We learn about dropout rates in urban schools, and meth epidemics in rural schools. Again, and again, of lowered minimum standards of aptitude tests, artificially to counteract the galloping moronization of American education.

On the other hand, bright spots. A student who scored perfect verbal and math SAT scores. Impressive winners of spelling bees. But the smaller numbers of quality student graduates are doomed to attend colleges where sensitive feelings and useless degrees predominate.

A bright spot for me this week was judging a competition (yes, the word is still legal) of students delivering orations. They had to compose and deliver – as I furiously took notes and assessed them – informative or persuasive speeches. Ages 10 to 15, any subjects of their choosing. I was impressed by maturity, self-awareness and self-assurance, and indeed, first-rate information and persuasion.

My easiest task was to critique and encourage; the toughest challenge was to choose the top three of impressive presentations. I felt a renewed hope for the future of our culture. Of course, eventually I stepped back out into the springtime air of Michigan. (Not incidentally, this was a group of home-schooled students.)

With the seed of a message planted in my mind, I did research into the Teacher of the Year concept. Like ants at a picnic, they are too many to count. Every state has an official Teacher of the Year – in fact, every county, district, town, school, and, often, grade-levels have them. There are rival associations that sanction Teachers of the Year. Every year. If you feel overwhelmed by the ubiquity of it all (how many Bests can there be?), save yourself the trouble of looking for sanctuary: even the North Marianas Islands have multiple Teacher of the Year awards.

By itself, this is encouraging, even if it says more about courtesy and gratitude than excellence. But there is that inevitable Other Side of the Coin. Teachers make headlines these days, sadly, for more than classroom excellence or inspiration. I did a Google search of “Teachers Charged with Sex Crimes” and 59 pages of stories and reports (each page, of course, with multiple links) were displayed.

Enough said about what we may call “mixed grades” to American education in 2016. Back when I was an elementary-school student I respected my teachers as people, but recognized that many of them were nitwits drawing paychecks. This generalization might be a rule of life, overall, and ultimately students excel by overcoming the mundane, perhaps a greater challenge than overcoming more blatant handicaps. But… today. A different world. Metal detectors in schools; the Bible proscribed; sex instruction and indoctrination masquerading as “sex education”; teachers whose names appear in sex-offender registries.

My mind, still racing if not reeling, thinks about some of humankind’s greatest teachers. Many were not from classrooms; many great teachers never were trained as educators. Indeed, some of our greatest teachers – I think of Abraham Lincoln – spent nary a day of their lives even as students, in the classroom-attendance sense. That mind of mine went back to Jesus, as all our minds would do well frequently to do, who at places in the Gospel accounts is addressed as Teacher (Rabboni).

It is funny that many people who deny the divinity of Christ – no, actually, it is not funny – quickly will concede that He “was a great teacher.” Usually, that is to assure us believers that they sufficiently respect Him… so that we are not offended in a conversation. They don’t mind offending the Son of Almighty God; but they want to avoid offending us.

Jesus was indeed a great teacher, the greatest in human history. But, sorry, friends, that has nothing at all (conflict-avoidance or not) to do with His claims on us.

Jesus was born of virgin, fulfilling prophecy. Accept or reject that, but do not dwell on it in relation to His claims on us.

Jesus performed miracles, healed the sick, raised the dead, which astonished witnesses, both followers and enemies; but those miracles alone did not make him divine – and is separate from His claims on us.

What Jesus really cares about is that we come face to face with the same thing He did: the Cross. He could have done nothing after fulfilling uncountable prophesies; the virgin birth; turning water into wine; walking on water; feeding 5000; raising Lazarus from the dead… and it would not mean that He was God Incarnate, or not. We are not saved by believing that a blind man could suddenly see. Salvation is, rather, in the Cross.

Without the Cross – the death that the Christ was destined to suffer, the punishment in our place, for our sins – and the Resurrection from the Dead, Jesus’ life would be the stuff of information and persuasion, perhaps; but not of Divinity. Those claims on us are the most compelling, and cannot be explained away or hidden behind honorifics of Jesus solely as “a great teacher.”

He was, of course, a great teacher. The greatest. But if that were the extent of His ministry, or His Incarnation… then His plastic nameplate would be lost among thousands of the Teacher of the Year trophies that, eventually, gather dust in our closets and storage boxes.

Jesus is the Teacher of every year, let us agree. But for Eternity, He is the Savior.

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Click: At the Cross

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

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Odd Ducks, Missing the Fountain of Youth

5-23-16

Back when I was a writer for Disney Comics, I was given a bible – not the Holy Bible, although it had the properties of life and death in its pages. Like “script bibles” or “story bibles” in filmmaking and TV series, it is a summary of characters, personalities, traits, and background data, to keep writers and artists on-target. The essence was plainly stated: “Stick as close to Barks and Gottfredson as you can.”

Many of us grew up with Disney comics, and the definitive creators, although they were anonymous at the time, were Carl Barks (“the Duck Man”) and Floyd Gottfredson, who drew all the Mickey adventures. What a dream: write and draw like Carl and Floyd (each of whom I was blessed to know), and get paid for it.

I had monthly conferences with my editors, and for a while things went swimmingly. I even bought a house from all the stories I wrote. But there was one major bump in the road that I remember, decades later.

Scrooge McDuck and his nephews often set out on adventures. Humor and suspense, mysteries and slapstick, conflicts and surprise endings – what fun to dream up those stories. Once I was excited to invent a premise that contained a “switch” on a famous historical legend. Just as the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon sought the mythical Fountain of Youth, I wrote an outline with Scrooge, Donald, and the nephews coming across the Fountain of Age.

The story possibilities were great. Of course Unca Scrooge inadvertently would drink from it; his instant decrepitude would be more than dismaying; it would materially threaten their quest in that story – I think it was a race against his rival; the attempts to counter the guzzling could be funny; and so forth. I was surprised, for all the ink spilled over the centuries about the Fountain of Youth, that nobody ever utilized its opposite as a possible storyline.

One of my editors, in a meeting, rejected it out of hand. “A Fountain of Old? That’s nonsense; it can’t be possible.” No; other editors tended toward my point of view; there could indeed be minerals or properties that could speed the aging process. Maybe a local tribe of elderly looking people could warn Donald and company at the last minute.

But that one editor persisted. “It simply doesn’t make sense that there could be a fountain, or a lake somewhere, whose waters make you age rapidly.”

I remember the session. After a moment of silence, I looked around the room and said, “Wait a minute. We are dealing with ducks here – ducks that walk and talk and dress themselves. One of them is richest duck in the world, and we carefully make sure he has his top hat, spats, and cane, every story. Huey, Dewey, and Louie, each of whom speaks a third of a sentence. Talking ducks!!!” And we were stymied about a plot where a hidden lake’s water aged you quickly.

The larger absurdity – or maybe it was ultimate logic – was that a room full of grown men, indeed an entire industry, made careers out of creating a “universe” of talking ducks and mice. The logic rested in the fact that the American public (and the world’s population, deep down) likes fantasy.

I was struck at the time (by the way, the story did make print), and I still am impressed, by the fact that many of the world’s great stories and legends have to do with water. Of course water is elemental source of life, irrigation, navigation, and all manner of sustenance: no mystery. Considering the dramatic possibilities – but not to be over-dramatic – the great poets and artists and writers and dramatists did not enthuse over air in the same manner as water.

Yes, they breathed; and manned flight might have been more of a technical challenge awaiting these professions. But, for instance to my case, humankind could have ventured into the waters of the world to fish… and been satisfied. But rivers became roads beckoning elsewhere; seas and oceans were irresistible, if frightening, gateways to the unknown. And we are back to Fantasy’s role in humankind’s DNA. From the arts to commerce.

The first chapters of Genesis make seemingly disproportionate references to water and “the waters.” It was through a Flood that God first judged the human race. Water, throughout the Bible, is a “type” of the Holy Spirit over and over. Jesus turned water into wine… His FIRST miracle. When Christ’s side was pierced on the cross, it is reported that both blood and water flowed. Start searching for references to water in the Bible and you will be deluged, by the number of them, their variety, their significance.

Are any of them references to a Fountain of Youth?

In a way, yes. The fourth chapter of John records that Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman who was drawing water at Jacob’s Well. He asked her for a drink and she was surprised, since she was a despised foreigner. Nevertheless she was sarcastic when He said that she would thirst again from the world’s water but He offered water after which no one would thirst again.

She still scoffed, and then He identified her as an adulteress, and other facts that made her call Him a prophet. But He said of Himself that, more, He was the Christ, and His meaning became clear. As clear as pure water.

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  The woman then said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

Augustine has explained that the woman was a “type” of the world, the coming Church, for whom Jesus came: gentiles, pilgrims, and strangers who needed the Living Water. “So the woman left her water jug and went into town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this indeed be the Christ?’”

Truly Jesus provides – and is – the Eternal Water of life. It occurs to me that we all, in a way, are drinking from a Fountain of Old without really intending to do so; and we scurry about, all our lives, looking for a Fountain of Youth – or some other elixir of life, happiness, or prosperity.

And we thirst again, and again. And again. What odd ducks we are.

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Click: There Is a Fountain

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

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What Is Beauty? Where Is Truth?

5-16-16

I don’t know if this is proper horticultural protocol, but I have long defined weeds as flowers and plants that are ugly or inconvenient. After one springtime battle with pretty purple crownvetch that misbehaved – seeming to grow four feet along the garden every night as I slept, choking delicate and expensive plantings – I decided on this definition.

In the same way, there are things in life that have elusive dictionary definitions, but are commonly accepted by humankind. “Beauty” is one of these things. Classic episodes of “The Twilight Zone” aside, we humans all pretty much agree with what is beautiful. In appearance, music, art, sunsets, and buffet tables. (A Supreme Court justice made the same point in a very different way when he stated he could not define pornography “but I know it when I see it.”)

There is a popular saying that did not originate (as 90 per cent of popular sayings seem to) in the Bible or Shakespeare. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is from the novel “Molly Bawn” (1878) by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. There’s a trivia question, or answer, for you. We hear it all the time. It is not true; but it rings true.

I say this because there are certain innate perceptions and instincts, and an elemental sort of consensus about what constitutes beauty. Not without exception, but largely. Once upon a time, but… less and less it is the case.

People Magazine has an annual issue announcing its “Sexiest Man Alive” (Esquire claims the distaff honors) and it is revealing of our sorry age. First, we see that “Sexy” has replaced “Beautiful” in our estimation. And it is dismissive of almost anyone other than Hollywood stars. Where are the Africans, Asians, Semitics, Martians? Beauty has been debased. I usually disagree, actually, with their coronations… but who am I to argue with supermarket checkout-line pronouncements?

One of the first philosophers, Plato, had beauty, and other things, figured out when he celebrated harmony in music. Why chords and harmony please our ears he did not ascertain, and neither have we; but he theorized that harmony on earth – in music, poetry, debates, colors, fashion, relationships – is a reflection of heavenly harmony. Heaven? The pagan Plato? Yes, he believed that there is such a thing as abstract truth.

Abstract Truth might be unknowable, Plato thought, but humankind ennobles itself by striving for it; to try to know it; to manage to practice it. Unlike his rival Aristotle, he was on to something. In fact it is why the early Christian fathers considered themselves Neo-Platonists. The Bible, and the Person of Jesus Christ, embody Absolute Truth.

Harmony: the goal of artists, composers, musicians, poets for millennia. Today, a lot of music employs dissonance. Literature dwells on chaos. Art depicts the sordid and degenerate. Drama and movies are obsessed with conflict and disaster. These tendencies do not vitiate our conception of Beauty and Harmony, or Plato’s postulation, no. They confirm the fact that people who love beauty and seek harmony are seeking, consciously or subconsciously, Absolute Truths in their lives. And a world turned ugly is reflected in the arts.

Where is Beauty? We have replaced the concept with many perverted versions. Where is Harmony? It has been drowned out by the cacophony of self-indulgence and hate in contemporary life. God planted these instincts in us! He programmed His children to love and seek Absolute Truth and the beautiful, harmonious things of God.

A lost generation cannot cherish beauty, harmony, and truth, when it believes those qualities do not beckon them in wonderful ways, abstract but attainable. They think, if there is no such thing as Absolute Truth in a Heaven that does not exist, how can it have relevance on earth? Hence, everything is polluted, from art to treatment of our fellow man.

If beauty and harmony are good things, there is a universe that is home to them.

If Abstract Truth exists, giving us all a conscience and a sense of justice, then something… some One… has placed them within us.

With history’s exceptions (let us call them people yielding to sin) like war and persecution, we all seek lives and hope for a world of beauty and harmony. We sense, and we know, that Creation, uncorrupted, is what once we collectively shared, and what innately we seek.

Beauty, harmony, and Truth must have authors. And so, if there is a Creation, there must be a Creator. Why people fight against this self-evidence is a mystery, but no more so than people who temporarily go mad and choose today’s things we listed above: dissonance, chaos, the sordid and degenerate, conflict and disaster. Hate. Sin.

The God of the Universe – the God of the Bible, author of Salvation – exists. And He grieves at our current course. Jesus was and is our substitutionary payment, suffering death that we deserve before a Holy God, so that we might be free to commune with the Author of Beauty, Harmony, and Truth, forever.

Like the man with the muck-rake in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” let us take our eyes from the slop we live in every day, somehow getting muddier and muddier. And look upward. “Abstract” does NOT mean “non-existent.” It means of a different substance. Manifested in different ways, through other ways. Like Truth, and in beauty and harmony.

Jesus, recorded in Mark 21, said that “our hearts incline toward evil.” A desperate condition. But our souls seek beauty, harmony, and Truth, and on that path with Him lies our redemption.

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

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Click: Beauty and Harmony: Grimaud plays Beethoven
The second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Helene Grimaud; The Hessicher Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester, Frankfurt; Paavo Jarvi, conducter.

People of Faith Ask, To Trump Or Not to Trump

5-9-16

I have been asked many questions these days about the proper attitude and informed decisions to be made by Christians and people of faith about the elections this year. To be more precise, I have been asked the same question by many people: Is Donald Trump someone to be trusted; does he know or understand biblical principles and basic Christian creedal tenets; is he someone who will “make deals” with the devil – so to speak – once in office?

I am asked those questions by a variety of folks, in my putative role as a social critic, political commentator, and Christian writer. I have no special insights, not holy ones I claim, anyway. Among those who ask me these burning questions is… myself.

A crazy political season. A crazy world, crazier and more ominous by the day. If it is not the advent of End Times, we might wish it were. We all should be primarily seeking spiritual, moral, and ethical answers – because our major challenges in America are, and have been caused by, spiritual, moral, and ethical lapses.

I will don another one my hats, my actual training as a historian, and posit some observations. Those who make stark critiques and censure are Jeremiahs. Most of us historians, as Gibbon and Macaulay did, wait millennia to make sense of history, to discern missteps.

There is an aspect of the human spirit that tends to think that contemporary crises are unprecedented, perhaps apocalyptic. It cannot always be true; but someday it will be. Oddly, we occasionally adopt the attitude of Dr Pangloss, that “this is the best of all possible worlds,” and in certain ways it too sometimes is correct.

But has our society, in our days, begun its ultimate dissolution? Is it possible that we are past “sliding down the slippery slope” and, rather, in the maelstrom of the flushing toilet of history, a vortex going “down the tubes”?

I think it is reasonable to think so. Too many of our foundations are crumbling, too many moral traditions are denigrated or ignored. But our political season, as crazy as it is, is not unprecedented.

We can look back at other crises in presidential contests. In 1800 the election was deadlocked – at the time, the House of Representatives, not the general populace, voted for president and vice-president, separate votes for each of two candidates; all later adjusted by a Constitutional amendment. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each had more votes than the incumbent president John Adams, but a secret deal withheld some of Burr’s electoral support and resulted in his defeat. The invective, chicanery, and dirty dealing all led to what history calls the “Revolution of 1800.” A few years later, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and eventually fled west where he reportedly attempted to organize an uprising against the United States and/or Mexico.

Let us gloss over the social aspects of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, bereft by scandals, charges of “loose women” in the White House kitchen, and White House events where the president invited the general public, leading to shredding of carpets, destruction of furnishings, and theft of property. Jackson’s presidential campaigns led to the “spoils system” of trading votes for jobs.

In the 1860 election, the Republican Party, then only six years old, gained the White House as beneficiary of four candidates in the field. Abraham Lincoln’s nomination was secured by his manager who forbad Honest Abe from attending or knowing anything about their machinations – such as promising the same federal offices and cabinet positions to more than one person. The campaign was dirty (Secession was imminent) and dangerous (Lincoln reportedly travelled through pro-slavery Baltimore on his way to the inauguration in a plaid cloak and Scottish cap to evade assassins).

In 1896 a virtual unknown, William Jennings Bryan, delivered a speech (the “Cross of Gold”) to the Democrat convention that stampeded the delegates to nominate him in a frenzy. Barely old enough to serve as president, Bryan’s radical, socialist agenda split the party in two and had Americans, those who were not seduced by the firebrand, fearful of blood in the streets.

Theodore Roosevelt, wildly popular on his retirement in 1909, went on an African safari and tour of Europe for a year, partly to grant the spotlight to his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft. But during Taft’s term, there were personal slights of TR; reversal of many Roosevelt policies; serious broken promises; and a calamitous decline in the GOP’s popularity, including the loss of Congress. Severe affronts to Roosevelt, and an irresistible demand from many Republicans, persuaded him to challenge Taft for the nomination.

An ex-president versus a sitting president. Friends became enemies. “Liar” and “Fathead” were among the many epithets. There were mass defections from the GOP after the nomination was wrested from TR, who had won most of the new-fangled primaries. The speakers’ platform at the Republican convention had barbed wire under the bunting, in fear that riots would break out. TR’s bolt of the convention led to the independent Bull Moose party, which soundly trounced the GOP; Taft won only two states. A Socialist, Eugene Debs, polled nearly a million votes. In late October, a bartender who had been persuaded against a Third Term shot Roosevelt point-blank in the chest. TR insisted on continuing to his speech; with blood streaming down his shirt, he spoke for almost 90 minutes. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the four-way election.

Another year of the gun, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, after a primary victory in California, were killed. A sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, was forced from running again when he could not endure widespread protests and a rebellious Democrat Party. Millions in the streets and campuses; a bitter primary; riots outside the convention; the anarchist Yippies; a candidate nominated (VP Humphrey) who had not even run in the primaries; the return of the has-been Richard Nixon; and the amazing grass-roots revolt of third-party candidate George Wallace. The story of 1968.

So… does this year’s election cycle seem tame yet? For all the elements that foreshadowed our current season of discontent, I think the campaign of 1884 has the most parallels. So far. The GOP, in the White House for 24 straight years, was rife with divisions. Factions called “Half-Breeds” and “Stalwarts” hated each other and vied for power. An office-seeker of one faction had assassinated President James Garfield, of another, when he was frustrated in securing a federal job. Bosses continually attempted a comeback for ex-president Ulysses Grant, whom they could control.

Sen. James G Blaine was the favorite for the nomination. A former Speaker of the House, he had been involved numerous. He sold influence; he had solicited bribes. He arrogantly admitted many of these discretions, but he was a magnetic speaker who swayed crowds and inspired devotion. He faced opposition, however, not so much from strong candidates, but a field of lesser names.

The major threat to Blaine instead was from the reform movement in the GOP, a gaggle of veterans and newcomers. Among the former were George William Curtis and Carl Schurz, whose political careers went back to the Civil War. Leaders of the latter group were young Henry Cabot Lodge and 24-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, a major force in the convention. Their efforts to advance reform candidates failed on the floor.

There was public revulsion against Blaine (“Blaine, Blaine; James G Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!” street crowds chanted) but a lot of GOP voters fell in line. Grover Cleveland, the Democrat candidate, was “ugly honest,” a good reputation for 1884; but midway through the campaign it was revealed that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child – remember, this in the staid Victorian era. (“Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” rival crowds chanted.) THAT was some campaign.

As in 2016, a large number of Republican politicians and activists faced moral and practical dilemmas. Many of them sincerely believed that Blaine was toxic for the party’s self-esteem and for its future; and they had made threats – or promises – never to vote for Blaine. Excruciating.

There was, collectively, a Solomonic decision. Reformers like Curtis and Schurz and Henry Ward Beecher, America’s most prominent pastor, whose sister had written “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” left the Republican Party, and supported Cleveland. They were dubbed “Mugwumps.”

Reformers like Roosevelt and Lodge, however, reluctantly remained within the party. Never endorsing Blaine, they “supported the ticket,” stating that the only way to influence the party was from within the party. Young TR, whose wife and mother had died a few months earlier (on the same day), left for an understandable “sabbatical” on his cattle ranch in the Dakotas. For two years he was a cowboy, out of the public eye. He made one or two campaign speeches for down-ticket candidates, including Lodge who ran for Congress.

Lodge lost. He and Roosevelt both considered their political futures ruined.

Both were mistaken, of course. Many of the Mugwumps eventually returned to the GOP, which thereafter always had – has had – a reform wing. Cleveland won, but a dozen years later he and many establishment Democrats boycotted the agrarian radical Bryan. Blaine lost the 1884 election, but by a whisker.

The final detail of the final moments of that crazy 1884 campaign might be relevant if not dispositive to troubled Republicans weathering Hurricane Donald this year: a moral, specifically a religious, aspect.

Just before election eve, Blaine attended a dinner of industrialists and monopolists at Delmonico’s in New York. One of the speakers, a nonentity minister, in his speech described the Democrats as the “party of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Rum was a smear on lowlife aspects of stereotyped Democrat voters; Rebellion was a reminder of the Democrats’ association with Secession.

Romanism, however, was a word that touched social and religious nerves. It was a direct reference to Catholicism, imputing a congenital association between Democrats and the Pope; and was not meant as a compliment. The consequent furor over the insult (which Blaine had ignored) energized New York City’s Irish immigrants. New York City went Democrat; New York State and its electoral votes narrowly went for Cleveland… enough to tip the national outcome away from the GOP.

The scenario is a different animal than whether to endorse a candidate you distrust or despise in 2016 – but it reminds us that religion is never far from the larger debate. Our civic consciences might still roil over whether to Trump, or not to Trump. Life has gone on in America despite, as Kipling wrote, “The tumult and the shouting dies.”

Myself, I greet with dubiety Trump’s assurances that he is familiar with the Bible, understands doctrine, and has a saving knowledge, as we say, of Jesus Christ. But we are not to judge: I question, however. “God judges the man; voters judge the candidate” is, this year, less of a maxim and feels like more of an excuse.

Many of us have the nagging feeling that things are different this time, that past is less than prologue. The Captains and the Kings may depart, yet we seem closer to our destiny, maybe an apocalypse.

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

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Click: I Am a Pilgrim

The Simplest Prayers Are the Most Sincere

5-2-16

The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived between 1685 and 1750, universally is regarded as one of the great music-makers of the human race; certainly on almost every critic’s list of the great composers of all time.

Bach received additional plaudits when in 1977 the Voyager spacecraft was sent to nowhere in particular except up, with the hope that, hurtling beyond the solar system and maybe the galaxy, it might some day intersect some civilization in a remote part of the universe. Perhaps, it was hoped, aliens would discover and understand something of mankind from the spacecraft’s unique payload – a copper and gold alloy disk with images and music, estimated by its designers “to last a billion years.”

Among the playlist of global music, Bach was the only composer represented thrice: the Second Brandenburg Concerto, first movement, performed by Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra; the Gavotte from the Violin Partita No. 3; and the Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 were chosen to represent humankind’s creative profile.

At the time, biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what he would have nominated for this message to unknown civilizations about humankind. “The complete works of J.S. Bach,” he suggested. “But that would be boasting.”

Such are the sorts of tributes due to Old Bach, among countless heartfelt tributes when trained musicians and common laymen and everyone in between have their hearts melt and their souls stirred by his music.

Bach himself saw his music – and his entire life – as a tribute, instead, in all humility and with his priorities straight, to God Almighty. He was aware, but not vain, about his music-making gifts, gifts from God. Therefore his talents deserved to be raised up to God. In his life, he was first a Christian; second a family man; third, a man who made music. He made music, wrote music, composed music, taught music, was an innovator of music, breathed music, as did his family tree of 40-odd Bachs before, during, and after his own lifetime.

More than half of his approximately 1800 compositions (1200 of which survive) were of Christian focus: cantatas and chorales, motets and masses, Passions and Oratorios.

Yet for all his mighty “secular” works of keyboard and organ pieces, suites and concerti, songs and fugues (whew!)… he viewed all of them, too, to be written as unto the Lord. He knew the Source of his inspiration, and the One to whom credit was due.

Bach began virtually every composition, even his secular music, with a blank paper on which he wrote, Jesu, juva (“Jesus, help me”) on the upper left corner of the first page; and Soli Deo Gloria (“To God alone the glory”) on the bottom right corner of the finished ending.

His was a personal relationship with the Savior, not a professional duty even when he was employed by churches.

Such “bookends” were as anointing oil over all of Bach’s creative work. So did he begin and end his days – and his life – with such petition and praise: “Jesus, help me” and “To God alone be all the glory.” With or without the mode of music, such dedication speaks to us through the years.

The “S.D.G.” (his occasional abbreviation) should have a special meaning to us today. Most people of the 21st century, understand “God,” and understand “glory.” But it is hard for us, in contemporary times, to understand how a man like Johann Sebastian Bach could say, and mean, “alone” in that Credo. Can we?

Emerging cultures and emerging churches have compartmentalized every aspect of life, including God, and arguments are made that God would have it that way. Not so! “Personal fulfillment” is the artist’s goal in today’s world. But to Bach’s worldview, such an idea was an offense.

God “alone” is the source, the content, and the goal of artistic expression. Alone.

These prayers, and the prioritization of “ALONE” when we thank God, is how we should live, and how we should pray. Not (virtually) “thanks for helping me in this way or that way, God”; but “Thank you for being my inspiration, my helper, my right hand, my goal… my all in all.”

When we are too busy to pray, we are… too busy. We all know this, yet it happens. But if – at least – we start every day with the brief “Jesus, help me” as Bach began his compositions; and if we ended every day with “To God alone be the glory,” we will be in appropriate frames of mind.

We will start dwelling on the profound and proper life-truths of those simple prayers. We will not escape from their gentle but deep implications. We will expand on them in our active thoughts, and in our subconscious moments. We will hide those words and their implications in our hearts.

The truths spoken to our lives will become like… tunes we cannot get out of our minds. Like many of Bach’s themes. Musical and spiritual.

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)
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The second movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite:

Click: Bach’s “Air”

Earth Day and “My Father’s World”

4-25-16

I noted the annual observance of Earth Day. And right about now I am making ready for my annual pilgrimage to the top of that earth.

Not quite Mount Everest or Mont Blanc or Mount McKinley, but high enough: Rocky Mountain High. Not a holy trek… although it is associated with the annual Greater Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference (attendance at which I urge on all aspiring writers, published authors, casual readers, and everyone in between). Is it a true pilgrimage? Yes, it is.

Many pilgrimages have been undertaken by pilgrims (obviously) to sites of holy or historical significance; sometimes in celebration or in observation of dates or past events. They can venture to the unknown (think the New World) or to very familiar places (think Jerusalem or Lourdes).

Or they can serve to re-charge one’s battery, so to speak. To savor the sustenance one expects to be waiting. To commune in a way unavailable elsewhere.

I will re-create the experience for those of you not from bumpy lands. I was born in New York City, where all the peaks are of stone, but piled up by man, not God. (Ask me about trips to Bavaria and Switzerland and Austria sometime, too.) You arrive in Denver, nestled in mountains a mile high. You drive to Estes Park, a frontier-flavored town half again as high above sea level. Local landmarks are the Stanley Hotel and the sprawling YMCA retreat and conference center, which hosts the writers’ conference. And, of course, 360 degrees of mountains, snow-capped year-‘round.

Every year after the conference a few faculty members and friends make the trek upward – so it seems, straight up! Past the Theodore Roosevelt National Forest, into the Rocky Mountain National Park, passing scattered cabins and lazy elk and deer, we climb farther, into thinner air. The deciduous trees disappear; we are above the pine line. Soon, even the pine trees can grow no more, and there are only strange scrub plants, jagged rocks, and frozen snow.

At summits you stop to walk – carefully and slowly, because the thin air ensures that you easily become winded. If the temperatures are cold, even when you see your breath, you still shed jackets and sweaters because the sun strangely compensates. At these levels, discreet signage informs you of the height; of the fact that nearby snow scarcely melts and might be many years old; and strictly warns against stepping on the only discernible vegetation: lichens and moss. The organisms, actually not related to each other, form greenish shadows on rocks, and – as the signs warn – can take hundreds of years to reestablish themselves if stepped on and destroyed.

As high as I and my friends have ever ventured, there are always peaks not far away (probably many miles!) that reach higher. Birds with magnificent wing-spreads float above, not having to flap their wings, seemingly ever, as they catch the upward wind drafts. We stand at cliffs’ edges and look down, down, down, seeing four-legged animals we can hardly distinguish, gaily leaping between precarious peaks.

One year, in glaring sunlight and amidst unearthly silence, our group beheld these scenes and someone started singing the old hymn, “This Is My Father’s World.” One by one, everybody joined in.

“This is my Father’s world, And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and ‘round me rings The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.”

Perfect-seeming. A natural setting, an appropriate response, a love song to God as He has revealed Himself. Who would not have the same reaction?

Very few of us, that’s who. Yet God, I think, would have us remember that such glorious scenery can be seductive; pristine nature is only part of the Father’s world. I believe God would have us remember two categories of truths that easily elude us, especially after we plan pilgrimages or encounter the stunning beauty of Creation.

The first category of truths – reminders, I will call them – is comprised of realities that are as hard and sharp as those of mountains. We can occasionally drive away from, but not escape, the concurrent existence of sickness and disease; of hate and sorrow; of wars and rumors of wars; of crying mothers and crying orphans; of abused women and aborted babies; of poverty and injustice; of persecution and oppression; of pollution and waste; of prejudice and corruption; of slums and poverty; of greed and envy; of empty hope and no faith. All around us.

THESE are also parts of my Father’s world. Just as much as pretty landscapes and joy-filled nature.

The second category of reminders, no less significant in God’s plan, tells us that the first category is not a random list of uncomfortable truths. Rather, they are God’s checklist of matters we must address. Christians are familiar with forebears who knew about the Promised Land. All of Creation once looked like the snow-capped Rockies. The Garden of Eden we know. The Land of Beulah was sought in Old Testament days as representing a virtual marriage feast, preparing for fellowship with the Lord.

Heaven has been described to us: The land of milk and honey, where sorrows shall cease, where joys will never end, where the buildings shall be as mansions prepared for us. If it were not so He would not have told us.

But the pathway there requires all of us to climb down those mountains, often to dwell in dark valleys. Vales of tears, usually. Valleys of the shadows of death. We will not merely encounter unpleasant things in life: we must confront and do battle with them. God’s work must be our own. We must wrestle with more than flesh and blood “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Not a warning; not an option; more like a prediction; in fact a promise from God. These are not assignments to win God’s favor. They are simply the duties of a follower of Christ.

In fact, they are privileges.

To care for those who hurt, to minister to their souls as well as their bodies, is what Christians do. Not often enough, maybe… but it is what we do. To comfort, to feed and clothe, to sacrifice and serve, to share Christ and to BE Christ; to love. To love.

Marlene Bagnull, Director of the conference in Estes Park, always remembers among the hubbub of seminars and programs and fellowship, to highlight two missions programs each year; one at home, one overseas. Truly, it is meet and right so to do. The work God gives us is as likely to be halfway around His world as across our hometowns.

And surely those tasks are also in our neighbors’ houses; in our schools and offices; in the hallways and bedrooms of our own homes. These places, these people, these problems… are all squarely in “My Father’s World,” too. As we redeem His people, we redeem His planet. His world. Let us all remember every corner of creation; pleasant and – for the moment – unpleasant. By the way, Earth Day is not a celebration of Mother Nature but Father God, Creator.

“This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world. The battle is not done.
Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and Heaven be one.”

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Click the embedded link to learn more about the Colorado Writer’s conference.

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Click: This Is My Father’s World

The Stones, Not the Cathedrals

4-18-16

We should always be growing as Christians. In fact we should grow in all aspects of our lives: a dead curiosity, an atrophied sense of adventure, are mere reflections of a life winding down. We SHOULD keep growing in our life activities, but our faith MUST keep growing.

Faith is not the destination, after all. We recently shared that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This verse that opens Hebrews 11 – the “Hall of Fame of Faith” – confirms that we keep hoping as we keep believing.

In the six years or so that I have been offering these blog essays, and have been carried by RealClearReligion.org, which sadly is closing up shop, I have not so much lectured, as learned. That is how ministry is supposed to work. You gain insights more than fashion them; you are blessed more than you bless; the responses from random readers, usually unknown to me, have kept me humble, and have strengthened my faith.

Humility is one of the bedrocks – one of the cornerstones – of Christianity.

To be used of God is what we must seek, fervently. There is a seduction to compose mighty messages and memorable sermons. We – the contemporary church, especially in the West – have a frequent sense of urgency to seize the moments. To gather everyone we can into church or small groups or para-church or youth ministry. To “close every deal.”

In fact that is the job of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said so. It is our job, rather, not to subvert the work of the Holy Ghost, but to plant seeds. Let the Spirit nurture and harvest.

Humility.

How often do we realize that, in our scrambling to “reach” others, that maybe God grieves that we neglect ourselves – our own souls, our own spiritual growth, our very salvation? Jesus died and rose for us… not our programs, our ministries, our notches on a spiritual belt.

Humility.

How often do we realize that for all the good we do, for all the myriad aspects of our spiritual lives, that God’s call on our lives – one Mission that is pre-eminent in His eyes – might be ONE encounter, one person, one circumstance where He has placed us?

Humility.

In that sense I have come to an increasing awareness that we all are “mere” stones. Rough-hewn, seemingly not significant, almost interchangeable, in life. But in God’s view, indispensible! Mighty, God-glorifying cathedrals are built stone upon stone upon stone. Usually rough, or seemingly indistinguishable one from another.

But after the cornerstone who is Christ, those stones, piled correctly, and high, and interlocking, ultimately make a cathedral.

But if some are defective, or arranged wrongly, or missing… the cathedral collapses. Our profiles are humble. Our roles, however, are vital. We must see ourselves in this perspective. God resists the proud, but exalts the humble. Just as importantly, however, we must see others, and all of life’s work, in this manner also.

I always reminded my children that not every student who does scales becomes a great violinist; few do. But EVERY great violinist, without exception, began by doing scales. There is a humble way to “do” life that our contemporary culture fights against. Try-it-all, taste-it-all, do-it-all is not a formula for success… nor happiness. The Bible warns against the allure of “wine, women, and song.” You know the rest of the verse: “… for tomorrow you die.”

So, fellow “stones.” In humility let realize our roles, and not exalt ourselves or our meager efforts, even on behalf of the King. Later in that chapter of Hebrews we are reminded of Abraham, who properly “looked for a city, whose builder and maker is the Lord.” In humility let us anoint our writing, our ministries, our… appointments God has arranged for us.

In humility let us rejoice in the work we can do. It’s is God’s work, after all; not our own. Some day, here or on the other side, we will look up, and look around, see what a mighty spiritual edifice we have been blessed to be part of.

And keep in your mind that Jesus said that even if the world withholds its praise of Him, “even the stones would cry out”!

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This is a valedictory of sorts to Real Clear Religion, which has seemed to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare: news, sermons, surveys, essays, so much more. Jeremy Lott and Nicholas Hahn were superb editors, and generous to share MMMM every week for years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please continue to receive our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.) May God bless all you “stones”… even pebbles, such as “who am I.”

Click: Who Am I

Welcome to Post-Christianity’s Brave New World

4-11-16

What would you call the age we live in? When I was a child, we were told that the Machine Age had been superseded by the Atomic Age. But that was marketing of sorts. Anyway, nuclear energy and the ability to incinerate the planet have become mundane topics. We might be in the Computer Age, but that term soon will sound as musty as new-fangled “horseless carriages” and “talkie movies” that once inspired awe.

I think we all flatter ourselves that we are blessed to be “modern,” up-to-the-minute (if not quite hip). So is this the Modern Age?

Actually, philosophers and artists maintain that the Modern Age ended long ago, followed by Post-Modernism… which has also ended. Eclipsed by – Post-Post-Modernism? Some people use this term. Do you get the feeling that we have just taken our seats at the stadium, and the game is already in extra innings?

My preference, and it seems very logical to me, is that our age is best described, in perspective of history’s grand sweep, as the Post-Christian Era. Some people would dismiss that as being too theocentric… but in view of the cultural, artistic, intellectual, economic, even diplomatic, and yes, religious, core of two millennia: yes, “Post-Christian” describes where we are.

“Modern” and its permutations are terms that tend to elude us. Whether the Renaissance was the last whiff of Classicism or the dawning of Modernism is debated. But we must go back in history that far. Luther was the last Pre-Modern. The Age of Reason was on the horizon in Europe, espied from the platform of Humanism. Yet Luther, the last Medievalist, held fast to the proposition that “reason is the enemy of faith.”

More than two centuries later, Luther’s artistic disciple Johann Sebastian Bach summed up the heritage of the Gothic, Renaissance, and early Baroque eras. Intending to summarize more than innovate, he was not seduced by potential acclaim nor his effect on the future. In fact, he was rejected by the first “Moderns” in Rococo Europe. Bach’s scientific contemporary, Isaac Newton, was representative of the Age of Enlightenment.

I am aware (all too aware, because it is clearly counter-factual) that many schools today teach, when they teach at all, that Enlightenment scientists and philosophers freed Western Civilization from the shackles of religion and superstition. That’s what “enlightened” meant, right?

Wrong. Philosophers like Pascal and Locke; scientists like Galileo and Newton; and creators like Bach and William Blake, all saw the substantial advances in their fields as confirming, not disproving, the existence of God and His plans. Newton concluded, it has been said, that we live within the space of God’s mind. The poet Alexander Pope wrote: “Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night; God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ And all was Light!”

But then, 50 years or so later, the mad swirl of Romanticism, revolution, industrialization, and social turmoil broke forth as like a lanced boil. It has not healed; the burst dam has not been mended. We have had Marxism since the 1840s, Darwinism since the 1850s, wars and rumors of wars since the 1860s, and the Industrial Revolution that brought many blessings but also brought poverty, injustice, dislocation, and wage-slavery instead of less pernicious traditional slavery.

Many people have not yet come to full realizations about the enormous disruptions caused by elements of contemporary life specifically of the past 200 years. As people became educated; climbed the ladder of prosperity, or were crushed under it; and earned the new commodity of leisure time… religion became less important.

People relied less on God. And for those vulnerable souls who need God’s blessings, the Modern State and its Socialist and Marxian manifestations are there, attempting to substitute for the Church. These tendencies have multiplied and accelerated. Not only the Dynamo (Henry Adams’ term for the Machine Age’s deity, supplanting the church) but the arts and ever-more secular philosophers, all worked to convince people that God was dead.

God has indeed died, in the Nietzschean sense that society no longer acknowledges Him, depends on His Word, worships His Son, or serves Him.

This is true. The inclination of sinful souls to reject God finds comfort in a culture that makes it safe to reject Him. Denominations even twist scripture and call evil good. Humankind’s soul is no less dark then ever, wars are more brutal, and the world hurtles toward unprecedented chaos, envy, and strife.

The Secularists have an answer: that we distance ourselves even further from God and His Word.

We have itching ears, as the Bible foretold – we hear what we want to hear. We invite cultural enablers.

We are happy to revel in wine, women, and song – or what seduced the decadent Romans, called “Bread and Circuses.”

How do we respond to all the biblical prophecies, all the warnings of our wise forebears, all the lessons of fallen civilizations gone before? We laugh and ignore the certainty of calamity.

The anti-religious impulse of scientists, of Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Relativism, Secularism, the negative effects of finance capitalism and repressive Socialism, the pollution of the earth and of our minds; indeed, human nature unfettered for the first time in history – where has it gotten us? Where are we headed? Adherents of those false gods should repent, as should we ALL.

Given the signs of the times and biblical prophecy, those who reject God ought to repent or at least desperately HOPE there is a God. For their alternative ideas have not worked, but rather have brought the world to chaos. Welcome to the brave new world of Post-Christianity.

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Our Click this week is a song by Merle Haggard, the iconic American poet, songwriter, and singer who died this week on his 79th birthday. Of the many genres he mastered, God and Country predominated. This song is among his best. Sadly, it is as pertinent now as when he recorded it, 1971.

Click: Merle Haggard – Jesus, Take a Hold

The Quick and the Dead

4-4-16

My cousin Irene called this week to tell me that her brother Paul died. He had been a longtime victim of Alzheimer’s – technically, frontal-lobe dementia. My late wife showed signs of Lewy-Body Syndrome, another relative of Alzheimer’s. Do you ever get the feeling that we humans are not getting healthier, but merely sustaining more specialized ailments? Anyway, a sad phone call turned less sad – we were able to summon some chuckles as we shared memories. Memories are the best ointments in such circumstances.

This last week I reached out to two friends who are beset by cancer. Old friends from the cartooning world, one of whom I met when I was 13 and encouraged me to follow that profession. He is, happily, in part to blame, because I did. We kept in touch through the years; became near-neighbors; and worked on many projects together. He is now in home-hospice care. Our call went longer than his son thought it would – filled with silly memories, old friends, doing voices, finding humor in his grim prognosis. Laughter is the best ointment in such situations.

My other cartooning friend is battling a rare form of cancer that has taken him to several states for opinions. If you wonder whether his “journey” is fodder for ironic observations, even rim-shot lines, you would be correct; and he continues to write gags and a weekly newspaper column. When I was out East a few months ago, we talked about old friends and new revelations – he always has been a philosopher masquerading as a cartoonist – and his dear wife was surprised at his energy that afternoon. No surprise, really: friendships are the best ointments in such situations.

This all might seem gloomy to some, but that’s only because it IS gloomy. But only partly. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure. … Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life…” When face-to-face with the illness or death of a loved one or a good friend, it occurs to us how ultimately selfish or sadness and sorrow actually is.

WE grieve; WE miss the person; WE have to face the empty spaces. Of course, that is a skewed definition of selfishness, but we should also be aware of the peace that a sick person yearns for. Of the “life well lived” that should be celebrated. Of the home in Heaven that – if we are Christians – we should rejoice has been prepared.

It was only a couple of decades ago that I became aware, or rather participated in, “home-going” services. In the Black church, in Pentecostal churches, funerals are transformed to celebrations. Joyous laughter, happy songs, encouraging sermons. Our loved ones, our friends, are in Heaven; how can we be sad? This is genuine, and it is proper. Appropriate for the situation, and uplifting for those who remain.

All this is the case, and sweet if we may experience it as something new, only if we are in fact Christians. Otherwise these are empty charades. After all, if Christ had not conquered death Himself, our faith is in vain; there is no Heaven. Many church-goers are not comfortable with “sharing Jesus.” I understand this; I identify with this. But if you had a cure for the cancer or dementia we loathe so, would you not share THAT with those who are afflicted? Why in hell do we go through the motions of being “Christians” if we are so hesitant and ashamed to share Jesus? Excuse me for being literal.

These thoughts have come to me by a coincidence of circumstances this week, and ironic as they closely follow Easter.

But I am grateful to have my heart turned to the Gospel, and to the Resurrection, in a new way. I often have wondered about those 40 days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. We don’t know much about things Jesus did. The Bible says He taught and healed, but with few specifics. Contemporary historians recorded sightings and appearances, but no quotations. The last words of the last Gospel (John 21:25) tells us, “Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.” But we don’t know them all.

I am curious, but not disappointed. At that point, it was the FACT of Jesus, and the truth of the Resurrection, that were important. He had done His teaching. The people had sought Him out. Now it was His time to seek people.

As busy as He must have been those 40 days, I have a picture in my mind of Jesus alone, also, maybe when darkness fell, down lonely paths, maybe through storms and cold silences, walking the dark hills, not responding to the curious crowds, but seeking out the troubled and the hurting individuals. The sick of body and mind. Those who did not yet know Him.

This is a plausible picture, because Jesus still does this today.

He walks the dark hills, looking for us – piercing the gloom with a joyful hope that may be ours. And it is especially the case, I believe, if you are one of those people who is skeptical, or has “heard enough,” or cannot crack the shell of hurt or pain or resentment or rebellion or fear, or all the other hindrances that prevent us from experiencing the love of Christ. He is closer than a shadow, no matter what you think, or what you might prefer to believe.

He shared of Himself. We should share Him with others. With friends, loved ones, strangers. Jesus Christ died for all of us… but He also died for EACH of us.

“God walks the dark hills, To guide our footsteps. He walks everywhere, By night and by day. He walks in the silence, On down the highway; God walks the dark hills, To show us the way.”

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A favorite of gospel music is the haunting “God Walks the Dark Hills,” embodying mystery in its origin. It was written by a lady named Audra Czarnikow, who lived in Liberty, OK. Little is known about her; she apparently wrote no other hymns or songs. Small groups sang her song, and others recorded it; eventually it became a favorite of many people. Here it is sung by the appropriately haunting voice of Iris DeMent; image display by the incomparable beanscot channel.

Click: God Walks the Dark Hills

Easter – The Real “His Story” Lesson

Easter 2016

An early Easter message. Appropriate, because I would like us to wrap Good Friday, the “world’s three darkest days,” the Easter Resurrection, and the Ascension all in one meditation. Besides, the Easter story was foretold many years before Jesus’s Passion – throughout the Old Testament, most comprehensively and accurately in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. That’s an even earlier telling.

The essentials of Jesus’s life on earth are scarcely questioned any more, except by the intentionally scornful: which means that some people do not doubt, but rather reject. The fact of His Resurrection, on the other hand, is a dubiety to some. It is interesting to consider that people saw the risen Christ after the tomb, and yet not everyone believed. They believe Jesus somehow came back to life, but not that He was divine.

Many did come to faith. But even the Jewish historian Jospehus recorded the facts of Jesus’s life and ministry and miracles and resurrection – that Jesus mingled with people for 40 days – yet never came to belief himself. It is not unusual, frankly, to imagine people, even ourselves, to hear about a miracle, possibly witness one, and yet… shrug. Or consider it “one of those things we can’t explain.”

This happens, and it says less about a Resurrected Savior than it does about our stubborn, contrary, or lazy human nature.

Yet there were many records of That Week.

Jesus not only performed miracles, He was a miracle. Everything about His birth, life, and ministry were prophesied. He did amazing things; random things, sometimes, to bring blessings or to prove His divinity. He spoke amazing words, unassailable lessons. He was God incarnate; fully God and fully man, who loved and sorrowed, laughed and wept, ate and drank and traveled. He read minds, calmed storms, and healed the sick.

Yet vulnerability proved to be His major miracle. During His last week, He emptied Himself of divine prerogatives.

He went to Jerusalem, knowing death awaited. And more: scorn, insults, lies, torture, painful crucifixion. It is said that death on the cross is the most excruciating of slow deaths. Myself, I believe that the betrayal, denial, and abandonment of His friends was more painful than His physical end.

As a man, he prayed fervently, we know not all. As God, He willingly bore the humiliation and death, speaking only words like “It is finished” – it being the plan established before the foundations of the world: that this holy Incarnation would satisfy the substitutionary death we all deserve. If we believe and confess this belief, we are saved. Another miracle.

Our contemporary world wants us to believe strange things… strange lies. Not only that there is no God, but that there are no sins. Only mistakes and bad choices. And that medicines, or therapy, or education, or the government will make everything OK. Humankind has asserted mastery of our own souls for several centuries, ever more intensely, inventing reasons to reject God and deny His fingerprints on creation. Lo and behold, the past century was the bloodiest freaking 100 years in history, starring the most savage monsters a secular world could imagine.

Were the events of Holy Week in vain? Christ, with calm determination, fulfilled His destiny. He entered Jerusalem to public acclaim, preserving His humility. By the end of the week the Jewish zealots and the puppets of the Roman government caused people to scream for His murder. It happened… after what we mentioned: humiliation, injustice, abandonment, torture, and death that, perhaps, no mortal among us ever has endured.

He hung on the cross for three hours, comforted, at least, by His beloved mother who did not leave Him. He died; a spear was thrust in His side; the centurions affirmed His death; He was taken to a tomb, washed and prepared for burial, wrapped in cloths. A large stone sealed the tomb, guarded by Roman soldiers with special instructions.

Then, the three darkest days of humankind. What were those like, in Jerusalem? His enemies were satisfied that Jesus, the major troublemaker, celebrity, pretender in their eyes, was finally gone from the scene. But His followers – who should have known better, since they knew scripture and His prophesies – nevertheless despaired. They went into hiding: perhaps His fate would be theirs?

There are records of an earthquake, of stormy skies – of nature groaning – of the veil in the temple spontaneously ripping in two. Could His followers been more despondent and terror-stricken? What days they must have been!

But… Easter dawned. Jesus rose. He lived. He lives. Mary, having met Jesus in the garden, became the world’s first evangelist of the Good News when she ran and told the cowering Disciples.

The rest, to coin a phrase, is history. But it is not quite history as we know it. His story, literally. Mary and her friends saw, and believed. The Disciples, first scared and skeptical, believed, and saw, and believed in ever greater numbers. Jesus, in a transformed body, preached and blessed and taught and performed miracles. More people believed. Within a generation there were churches, gatherings of devout believers, not only in faraway Rome, but in pagan outposts like the island of Britain.

And after 40 days, the final prophecy fulfilled – more than a miracle, but the confirmation of His divinity – the bodily Ascension of the Christ into Heaven. “It is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Holy Spirit cannot come. If I do go away, then I will send the Advocate, the Comforter, to you.” Thus, Christ in us.

But remember That Week. If you are ever tempted to think that your faith would be stronger “if you only could have seen the things of that week,” or if you hear others say that… remember that His Disciples, who lived every day with Him for three years, scattered like autumn leaves. Remember that people who had witnessed miracles wound up demanding His death. Remember that many who saw Him after the tomb still were skeptical.

You can believe in miracles – or not – but believing in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; confessing His Resurrection; and inviting Him to live in your heart and life, is the summation of This Week, and the Gospel itself.

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Have you listened to Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime? Even if you have not, I invite you to listen to an equally great masterpiece. The St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach tells the story of Easter week. On (coincidentally) this week of Bach’s birthday, number 331, I offer a link to one its greatest performances, conducted by Karl Richter. The art direction is stark! Appropriate, but note the changing backgrounds, the over-arching cross, the mood reflecting the spiritual import. With English subtitles. Three hours, 22 movements. Be prepared!

Click: Bach: St Matthew Passion

After 1500 Years the Man, Not the Myth, Endures

3-21-16

St Patrick’s Day is over, a mini-holiday in the commercialized America that likes to observe at least one holiday a month. The truth is, the American economy might collapse if it were not for our periodic celebrations, three-day weekends, and “holiday” sales.

Approximately one-fourth of all retail sales are in the Christmas season. When you consider the hoopla and commercials built upon Presidents’ Days and Easter Bunnies and Halloweens, you can believe that without formerly Christian holy days and once-patriotic commemorations, our economy would collapse.

Where, once, Christian observances and patriotic anniversaries inspired us, now their superficial and counterfeit shades prop us up.

St Patrick’s Day is in that category. Bins of discounted green plastic hats, and the few remaining posters for green milk shakes, confirm this. Sic Transit gloria mundi. Until next year. Until the next holiday – bunnies and peeps hot on the trail this season. Some Americans even assume that “Saint Paddy” was one of the fictional or dubious Catholic saints, like St Christopher and St George.

But Saint Patrick was real, and is real.

St Patrick knew persecution. There understandably is some obscurity about a man who lived in the late 400s, but two letters he wrote survive; there are records of his deeds; tremendous influences surely attributable to him are still felt; and he did die on March 17. These things, and more, we do know.

He was born in western England and kidnapped by Irish marauders when he was a teenager. As a slave he worked as a shepherd, during which time his faith in God grew, where others might have turned despondent. He escaped to Britain, became learned in the Christian faith, and felt called to return to Ireland. On that soil he converted thousands, he encouraged men and women to serve in the clergy, he worked against slavery, and quashed paganism and heresies. Among his surviving colorful lessons is using the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, the Triune God, to converts.

He was an on-the-ground evangelist – possibly the church’s first great evangelist/missionary since St Paul, planting churches as far away as Germany – and he preceded much of history: living more than a hundred years prior to Mohammed; 500 years before Christianity split into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; and a thousand years before the Reformation.

I am not Irish; I am American. And my background is not at all Irish; it is German. But propelled, I am eager to admit, by a remarkable book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, I have learned about a gifted people who, not unlike other ethnic groups, endured persecution through generations; and learned about a land that was repository of many tribes, not least the Celts, until its craggy Atlantic coast became the last European stand against pagan barbarism. Those tribes became a people, and their land virtually became, for quite a while, the defiant yet secret refuge of literacy and faith, in lonely monasteries and libraries.

As Lori Erickson recently wrote in a series on St Patrick for Patheos, “In the eighth century, Celtic Christians created a masterpiece of religious art called the The Book of Kells, a book whose vividness, color, and artistic mastery reflect Christian traditions laced with Celtic enchantment. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the four Gospels. While scholars don’t know for certain, it was likely created on the remote island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, and later brought to the monastery at Kells, Ireland.

“Made from the finest vellum and painted with inks and pigments from around the world (including lapis lazuli from Afghanistan), the book is almost indescribable in its loveliness, with designs that are convoluted, ornate, sinuous, and dreamlike in their complexity. Some scholars have called it the most beautiful book in the world,” she wrote. I can add that it can be seen as an early graphic novel.

It is on display at the magnificent Trinity College Library in Dublin – whose famous, cavernous, multi-balconied library room is akin to heaven for bibliomaniacs like me – and surrounded by back-lit photos and displays of enlargements, it sits in an environment-controlled case, one page at a time turned every few months. To behold that book, so magnificent in its reproductions, in its reality, was one of the great experiences of my life.

The Book of Kells is awesome for what it is, surely one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human hand, head, and heart. A majestic monument to faith, all the more remarkable for being anonymously produced, unlikely by one person; possibly by a virtual army of creative souls. The Book of Kells is significant, too, for what it represents:

The tenacity of faith; the triumph of trust; the assumption of lonely devotion in the face of worldly temptations and the world-system’s persecutions; the joy of creativity; and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing Him; making Him known. Not incidentally investing artistic beauty along the way… and having obvious, visceral, evident fun in the process.

Back to Saint Patrick. When the ancient masterpiece we behold as The Book of Kells was created, the man Patrick who bravely and no less tenaciously fought for the gospel on that beautiful soil was already, himself, 500 years in the past. The church has been blessed with famous saints like Paul and Augustine; and those who touched souls for Christ but never were designated saints subsequently, like Martin Luther and J S Bach; and many, many saints who mightily served Christ in obscurity, like the monks who made The Book of Kells, and uncountable missionaries and martyrs.

Saint Patrick, born a pagan, made a slave, once a fugitive, was transformed by a knowledge of Christ. He taught us how to overcome challenges, listen to the Holy Spirit, formulate a vision, and change the world. Not just his world; but the world ever after.

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For more than a millennium a hymn, set to the haunting Irish tune “Slane,” and using St Patrick’s teaching in the words of the 6th-century Irish poet Saint Dallan, has spoken to the hearts of believers and non-believers: God is our All-In-All: Be Thou My Vision. It is performed here – with obvious and profound extra layers of meaning – by the blind gospel singer Ginny Owens.

Click: Be Thou My Vision

More Fools Than Wise

3-14-16

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

This was written by David, the “sweet singer of Israel,” who, given his lifelong relationship with the Almighty and his activities as Psalmist, warrior, and king, could be considered prejudiced on the matter. He was described in I Samuel as “a man after God’s own heart.” He was a blood ancestor of Jesus. He is even revered as a prophet by Islam.

So this citation from Psalm 14:1 is not a fortune-cookie slogan. David knew whereof he spake, if I may. And I invite us to meditate on the fact that the statement says as much about fools as it does about God.

It is the natural inclination of human beings to say “there is no God.” Sometimes, deep in our dark hearts, we wish it to be so. I think that many sociologists and anthropologists – even atheists among them – recognize that everyone is, nonetheless, born with innate desires to worship… to sense that there is something “greater” than ourselves… that we are coded with something commonly called a conscience.

Believers in the God of the Bible – “People of the Book” as our archaeogenetic spiritual ancestors are called – acknowledge One God. The Father Almighty, maker of heaven and of earth. We believe by faith, and reassure ourselves, and sometimes instruct people, or debate with others, on various bases of logic, history, revelation, the mathematical probability of prophecies and fulfillments, archaeological records, and so forth. We can cite miracle – miracles written about, and miracles we have experienced or witnessed.

But mostly, and ultimately, we rely on faith. The testimony of inner conviction is stronger than any rational formula or reasoned assurance. Truth is not subject to qualification or modification, except ratifications like “Absolute Truth.” What’s true is true. It invites, but cannot be reworked, adjusted, or amended, by arguments or theories; even those of science. Truth is truth. Otherwise, it is like being “sort of pregnant” or “relatively dead.”

The question comes when one asks, “What is Truth?” Ah. That question is also part of the human race’s DNA, so to speak. At some point, at some time, we all ask it. The most famous positing was by Pontius Pilate. I have never been sure whether he asked in genuine humility, or mocking. In any event, Jesus answered, “I am the Truth,” and that wasn’t enough for Pilate nor the rabid Jews whose rebellion he feared.

We will not wander into high weeds or deep swamps here. Accepting the existence of God, or denying Absolute Truth, are both matters of faith to every person.

What does interest me, and should concern us all no matter what our views on these elemental topics, is how quickly and substantially our culture has changed its views on these matters. We cannot see the forest for the trees that are right in our faces, but in the broad sweep of history, the reversal of attitudes about the existence of God and the reality of Absolute Truth is tantamount to intellectual whiplash.

It was my perception, when I was a young student, that all of society (European Christendom as well as the American culture) assumed the existence of God, the immutable nature of His laws, and the biblical foundation of customs and laws. Non-believers, in our democracies, were tolerated, even cordially so, and largely unmolested. Today – in one long generation or two, that’s all – those attitudes have been reversed.

And almost savagely so, with hostility toward Christians replacing cordial tolerance of secularists.

This is the real crisis of our age. It is not a question of being “welcoming” to those with different views; it is more: an entire people denying their intellectual birthrights, surrendering their spiritual inheritance. It is not a matter of favoring “pluralism,” because that dubious term has never meant abandoning one’s own heritage.

We have become a soulless society. Polls say that citizens feel adrift… but average Americans have loosed their anchor-chains, torn up their navigation charts, and long ago set sail away from Home Ports. Well-meaning Christians who have invited this cultural drift (to continue the nautical analogy) then wonder why they have spiritual sea-sickness.

Everyone in this rotting old boat known as America, be they Christians or the new pilots, secularists, can argue, or not, about “values.” In the current political campaign, Christians have been co-opted by spokesmen who “guarantee that in department stores you will be able to put up Merry Christmas signs” (Mr Trump) and have been pigeon-holed as “evangelical” voting blocs, to be delivered to the loudest panderers. This is why Jesus came to earth?

However. Take heart. Take heart for your soul, and the kingdom of God; even if we lose heart over our nation’s well-being and our culture’s future. The waters that roil have been calmed by a Savior before. Above those storm clouds is a heaven, and lodestars by which to navigate. Past the darkest storm clouds is God’s bright sunshine.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10).

Let us remember that the God of mercy is still a God of justice. Many will call it vengeance when God’s justice comes. No matter: God’s will is going to prevail, and His Word will be manifest.

“Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God, or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools…. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.”
(Romans 1: 20b-22, 25)

How can anyone continue in unbelief, rebellion, and hostility to His Truth? They would be fools. But their actions – or inactions – are worse, more dangerous, than foolishness.

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“The Silver Swan” was published in composer Orlando Gibbons’s “First Set of Madrigals and Motets of Five Parts,” 1612. A beautiful and challenging poem built on the legend that geese might honk all their lives, but swans let out one note just before death: “More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

The silver swan, who, living, had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Click: The Silver Swan

Through Death to Life: Two Stories

3-7-16

My good friend Cyndy Hack forwarded an internet message this week, the kind that make the rounds. It is a story behind the writing of a hymn. A book of such stories is something I wanted to write almost 20 years ago… before dozens of such books eventually were published! The amusing aspect of these stories, these books, is that (with all good intentions) some of the stories about the same hymns and gospel songs are quite different!

The story that Cyndy forwarded is about the writing of the great Gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

Rev Thomas A Dorsey wrote that song some 85 years ago. The circumstances as he later related: He left Chicago to visit a revival service in St Louis. His pregnant wife Nettie was due to give birth some time soon after his scheduled return. When he arrived in St Louis, however, he received a message that his wife had died in childbirth. He rushed home, where two days later his baby boy also died.

Disconsolate and bitter, he yelled at God and cried to God, and a friend, hearing how he addressed the Lord, remonstrated and told Dorsey to say, “Precious Lord.” Almost immediately the words and music of that great song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” came to his mind.

It has become a standard in hymnals of the Black church and evangelical White churches; and in recorded music, touching millions, in familiar versions by Mahalia Jackson to Johnny Cash, sung at the funerals of Martin Luther King, Jr., and US presidents. It is Dorsey’s most popular gospel song, except, possibly, for “Peace in Valley,” recorded by Elvis Presley, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and many others.

But Tom Dorsey began his career better known for blues, jazz, and “juke” music, raunchy songs that made him rich and famous. He was associated with blues legend Ma Rainey, and had one of the first best-selling records in 1928 with “Tight Like That.” In those days he was known as Georgia Tom and Barrelhouse Tom.

In 1930 his wife and son died. And his own soul was reborn.

The internet story I received was about the song, and the circumstances of its composition… but focused on the “little-known fact” that Big Band leader Tommy Dorsey had this story as part of his autobiography. Actually, all he had was the same name as Thomas A Dorsey. Never a Christian music-maker, Tommy Dorsey was already a famous jazz musician by 1930 in a big band with his brother Jimmy. But… sometimes “viral” stories are false-positives.

Also this week, millions of people learned of the death of Joey Martin Feek, the distaff member of Joey+Rory, the country/ gospel/ bluegrass duo. Millions of their fans were shocked by not surprised at the death of the 40-year-old singer, who fought a valiant battle with cervical cancer.

The performing couple had seemed to come out of nowhere. They won Grammy awards and attracted a following among fans of traditional music – and traditional lifestyles. Joey and Rory remained close to the land, raising food on their farm amidst growing demands of their musical lives. Around the time of her cancer diagnosis, Joey gave birth to a little girl, Indiana, with Down Syndrome.

The internet giveth: fans and strangers by the multitudes began following the careers; the anguish and joys of motherhood; the horrible diagnosis, prognosis, and defiance of cancer; and Joey’s last days… in the hospital, recording at home, holding Indie till the end.

Joey Feek lost her hair and her weight but she never lost her faith.

Her husband Rory posted this week: “My wife’s greatest dream came true today. She is in Heaven. The cancer is gone, the pain has ceased and all her tears are dry…. At 2:30 this afternoon, as we were gathered around her, holding hands and praying, my precious bride breathed her last. And a moment later took her first breath on the other side.

“When a person has been through as much pain and struggle as Joey’s been through, you just want it to be over. You want them to not have to hurt anymore, more that you want them to stay with you. And so, it makes the hard job of saying goodbye just a little easier.”

“Coincidentally,” when Cyndy forwarded the internet account of Tom Dorsey, it was the day that Joey Feek died… and I remembered that one of Joey+Rory’s favorite songs and biggest hits was their version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” I share it here.

Two music makers, their stories united by the same Gospel song. Two stories of Christians’ trials, and triumphs, ironically motivated by grim death. Circumstances that could discourage… but, instead, they inspire!

Different versions, different stories, different life experiences… but the same Savior! The same hope! The same sweet fellowship.

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Click: Take My Hand, Precious Lord

Stop.

2-29-16

Just for a moment, stop. Savor the good; calculate the not-so-good. We must live our lives, even as the culture tells us to put on costumes and spout lines, letting our selves go past our eyes as if we were spectators, not the players. We, all of us, go around and around and around in our worlds, always meaning to start, or finish, something or other.

Parents know: running kids from here to there and back again. Activities. They’ve got to enjoy themselves, right? But how often do they enjoy talking to their parents… talking with their parents? How many times have you returned from a vacation, feeling that now you REALLY need a rest; whew!?! Even leisure has become an industry.

A while ago I wrote an essay based on Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” in which I suggested that great wisdom comes from a deliberate parsing: “Be.” “Be still.” “Be still and know.” “Be still, and know that I am.” “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Profound wisdom in each portion, each inviting deep contemplation – maybe a lifetime’s! Yet the essence that we of the 21st century take away is the admonition to be still. It is hard to hear God above the noise. It also is difficult to hear ourselves above the noise.

And when that happens, we stop even trying to listen to ourselves. In the next step – a downward step on a spiral staircase, I’m afraid – we finally stop talking to ourselves. Not talking to ourselves like mad people do, but conversations with the “inner selves” God has placed in our make-ups. Our creative selves. To stop that, I believe, is a sin.

When God created mankind, He made them in the likeness of God. (Genesis 5:1)

The question of listening to ourselves, to responding to the “creative spark,” is something that long interested me. My father, a polymath and omnivorous reader, encouraged me to draw and paint and write; to love music and art and history. But I came to realize that our earthly fathers and mothers only can cultivate such interests. It is our Heavenly Father who plants the seeds.

For a while, as a baby Christian, I was persuaded by some people that we are rebellious if we claim to create anything – that Only God can create, and that nothing can be created that is not of Him already. Pretty soon I realized that this is only a word game; and, when that game is played, it would rob the Lord of one of His great joys. He is Creator-God, yes; but when creating us in His image, He puts creativity within us!

If we are to be “imitators of Christ” in our standards and actions, so we can be imitators of God, and seek to create in His spirit; to dream and imagine, and dare. Attempting the likeness of God’s very creativity, we can seek perfection, look for beauty, and bless others.

We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

I humbly suggest that in God’s eyes, “good works” are more than sharing Christ and being charitable. It is good work indeed to be all that God intended you to be, to fulfill the creativity wherewith He graced you. To me, it comes close to insulting God to dismiss the talent and imagination you have – and Yes, you have gifts; we all do.

If you doubt, this is when you should stop and be especially quiet, and listen for the Holy Spirit, and to the voice of your creative self. My daughter Emily is tenfold more talented than I, and she draws and paints and writes, beautifully. She has proposed collaborating on a children’s book with her Pop – can anything honor a father more? She has dreamed, lately, of opening a restaurant. When life intrudes, as it will, creativity just sprouts elsewhere, like the pretty shoots and buds and reeds appear every spring, sometimes in the most surprising places. Emily now is designing a website about cooking and baking and serving others through kitchen-fun.

Another Hero of Creativity, and a poster child for quietly listening, obeying, and sharing God’s spark in her life, is Eva Cassidy. I only learned of her from friends in Ireland, where her acclaim commenced after her death. A singer born in the Washington DC area, she played in local clubs and made only a few recordings, partly because she loved so many genres she was hard to categorize; partly because she was intensely shy. But… she was warmed by that creative spark.

Her performances were astonishing. Just past 30 years of age she died, suddenly, of melanoma cancer. After a few years her tapes made it to England, where, played on the BBC, her songs suddenly topped the charts. Eventually her music sold millions, in the UK, Ireland, throughout Europe, and back in the USA.

I cannot listen to her without getting teary. Not just her voice and interpretations. But her example. She stopped and savored life, with the stereotypical obsession to be a superstar; but she sang to please others, where she was, with what she had. She listened; she loved God; she dared to step out. She sang because she loved to. She mastered her craft and surrendered to her heart – when, today, most of us try our hardest to do the opposite, often failing at both.

“How lucky am I,” she once said, “to just do what I love: play the guitar and sing songs.” How many of us can savor the satisfaction of doing what we really love… and really loving what we do?

There’s the pursuit, and often the attainment, of happiness. That is one way to please God. It is not selfish: it is doing what He has prepared you to do. Go thou and create!

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Eva Cassidy died in 1996. The Georgian/Northern Irish/British singer Katie Melua is about as old now as Eva when she died; they never met. However through the creative use of technology, they have performed duets, sensitive and powerful in their beauty. Eva’s “half” is from a serendipitous video-cam capture of a performance 20 years ago. Stop and watch and listen.

Click: What a Wonderful World

What IS a Christian?

2-22-16

Some of the most pleasant travel experiences of my life have been atop the ancient wall surrounding the small city of Lucca in Tuscany. I have stayed in the Medieval town a number of times in my life, perhaps a dozen Autumns. High, thick walls once surrounded many Italian city-states. Built for safety, as boundaries, some even encasing apartments; today many are gone or survive as random portions, as relics of previous times and expired functions. But Lucca has Italy’s only complete and intact ancient wall.

On its top, it is wide enough for several lanes of traffic, but it strictly is for pedestrians, who encounter cobblestones and bricks, with many old trees and inviting benches. A favored restaurant is built into the wall at one of its road-portals – La Mura (“The Wall”). On many Autumnal mornings I betake myself to the wall’s long, circumferential boulevard – “Passegiata della Mura” – and jog. More often, stroll. Invariably, see the mists rise from plowed fields as the morning sun kisses them; listen to the city of red-tiled roofs come to life; smell the stoking fireplaces of wood and chestnut shells.

Such thoughts came back to me recently with the latest chapter of the controversy over a possible wall to be built, or not, along America’s southern border. On the endless carousel of debaters, the surprise figure on the horse this week was none other than Pope Francis.

He issued a version of President Reagan’s eloquent defiance of Communism in Berlin (however, before a structure scarcely begun): “Mr Trump, tear down that wall!”

While we are paraphrasing, I will borrow from Gertrude Stein and suggest that “a wall is a wall is wall.” And just as Theodore Roosevelt said that a vote is just like a rifle – that its usefulness depends on the character of the user – we surely can say that walls, throughout history, are functional, of course, but are totally neutral apart from their architectural purpose… which can be transformed anyway, as Lucca’s wall has been.

So, Lucca’s wall, once a standard architectural defense, then a symbol of independence in more political and trade-oriented times, is now a tourist attraction. The Great Wall of China, a Wonder of the Old World and a rare man-made structure that can be seen from outer space, likewise now attracts more photographers than invaders. On the other hand, the Berlin Wall, mentioned above, was a literal city-wide outdoor prison wall, trapping a population in Communist East Berlin. And seldom spoken about in America is Israel’s crude, and effective, cement curtain that cuts through the West Bank.

American objections to porous borders and uncountable illegals incited a papal protest that presumably was metaphorical (walls of separation in our hearts vs. bridges of understanding); presumably. The Pope did not mention Donald Trump by name, but said that “any man” who would propose such walls “is not a Christian.”

Many Christians and conservatives rushed to document the 50-foot high walls that surround the Vatican, which is, though small, a city-state, an independent country. Surrounded by a wall, and with some of the toughest citizenship requirements in the world. And the same folks scurried to Bible concordances and found examples of God sanctioning, even commanding, construction of walls.

Throughout the Bible: walls for defense; walls as parts of temples; walls to interrupt migrations and preserve spaces. Not much different from the sweep of history’s other religions, societies, cultures. So this sudden turn in the immigration debate directs us to far more logical place… and a far more pertinent question than Francis asked.

The Pope declared that people who “build walls and not bridges” are not Christians. No one, least of all Francis, is talking about the essential issue, the real offense. The Jesuit pope should understand, and emphasize, that what makes someone a Christian is belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Since he addressed the theological aspect.

What makes someone “not a Christian” is rejection of Christ’s incarnation, substitutionary death, Resurrection, and Ascension. NOT somebody’s opinions on immigration laws, walls on the US border (or the Vatican’s), or other political issues.

With all due respect, one can be a Christian and have bad ideas, Francis. I believe it is your dogma that having “good” (?) ideas, doing good deeds, yet not professing Christ is yet a pathway to salvation, according to recent press reports. But it is not the Bible’s teaching. The Church, by such statements, is opening itself up to charges of asserting the Works Doctrine. Is approval of a California border fence enough to qualify to “be a Christian”?

Aside from, excuse me, anti- or extra-biblical theology, there are practical questions. If the Pope is concerned about conditions in Mexico, so horrible that millions flee northward in desperation, would not the better act as a Church be to help alleviate poverty and misery in Mexico? There are few Catholic countries with more extreme anti-clerical histories, aside from the excesses of the French Revolution. Insurgents blamed centuries of Church corruption and oppression.

Make things right WITHIN Mexico! So that people will want to stay in places where they were born… and the Church can fulfill its mission… and the US not be threatened and burdened. I have also been to the Vatican many times; the immense wall is about the ONLY thing there that is not opulent, extravagant, even gaudy. There are funds available, I am sure, in the Vatican Bank.

Back, however, to the main point, of pivotal importance: “The man who says such a thing is not a Christian.”

The man who said THAT clearly places his politically correct definition of good deeds ahead of what Jesus and the Disciples and the Holy Bible say about the requirements for salvation. Did the Pope mean, “That’s not how Jesus would act”? or even “That man is a bad Christian”? Very different matters. The Pope usually is aware of his words even when not Ex Cathedra or Infallible. The border towns that suffer violations, the victims of financial burdens and crimes in America – I used to live in San Diego; ask me about them – are they to be defined as “not Christians” when they resist invasions of their neighborhoods and homes?

This Pope did not recognize the metaphorical wall built around the island of Cuba when he hugged its leaders and ignored the Christians in Cuban jails. Or when he was on US soil and was quieter about the issue of the proposed border fence. And he somehow missed the opportunity to scold political leaders he met here about the ongoing horror of abortions, the killing of babies. Mother Teresa had done so… right to the faces of Clinton and Gore, when they were in office and they met her.

Or was Mother Teresa “not a Christian”?

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Click: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

The Big Lie About Evangelical Voters

2-15-16

This crazy political season is notable for several things. First… its craziness. Second, its politics; that is, we have a virtual saturation of political arguments, political bitterness, political warfare. Like never before.

I am a political junkie. Politics is my second-favorite spectator sport after baseball; and, as a sometime cartoonist and columnist, politics is also among my favorite team sports.

Unfortunately, in America today, politics virtually has become a contact sport too; a blood sport.

I was reminded of that fact this week when I listened to two people arguing over issues, using the most abusive and foul language, personal attacks and insults, dirty words and exaggerated claims. And that was just two grandmothers at a local McDonald’s. OK, not really, but nearly the case across the fruity plain.

The problem is that politics permeates every aspect of our lives these days. You cannot think of an issue that has not been politicized, from children’s playground activities to workplace conversations, the size of soda containers to opinions on movie awards. Notice I do not address partisanship – I do not mean Democrat vs Republicans; nor even liberals vs conservatives.

The Political Tendency is a virus that is, rather, an aspect of our busy-body culture, basically a totalitarian impulse. We have been persuaded that it is our duty to persuade. Or cudgel. People must agree with us. Every idea is merely the first half of a debate… that must be won. People who disagree with you are not only wrong or even deluded, but morally reprehensible.

When I maintain that this imperative has infected all of society, I cannot exclude religion. It is within our faith life, as a nation, in fact, where this new ethos runs most rampant. It doesn’t merely run; it sprints; gallops.

One of the distillates of this cultural fermentation is being served up in the current presidential campaign. I have come to the point of gagging every time I hear the term “Evangelical” in the news, in speeches, in analyses.

Are you an Evangelical? There is no denomination simply called Evangelical (in Germany the Lutheran Church, though, is formally called Evangelische) although it survives in a couple adjectives. The word and its root is associated with evangelizing… and only a small percentage of “Evangelical” voters are those who approach strangers or ring neighbors’ doorbells to convert people to belief in Christ.

No, the word “evangelical,” to paraphrase Peter (who referred to love), covers a multitude of sins. That is, under the umbrella can be found Fundamentalists and Pentecostals and Born-Again believers and Orthodox and traditionalists. Uneasy allies like Primitives and Catholics, meeting in anti-abortion battles. Socially conservative Seekers and socially liberal Emergents. Old-school worshipers and Post-Modern innovators. Black, White, Hispanic. Mennonites, Quakers, and the Urban Churches.

We have differences, but common interests. We might not be unified, necessarily, but we are united on many, many issues. We all believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and our hearts bleed for His Kingdom. And, by the way, also among us, according to surveys about attitudes among people of faith, are conservative and Orthodox Jews; Mormons and other traditions; and I am sure certain conservative Muslims who also care about patriotism and safety, morality and security.

Memo, then, to politicians and the media: stop lumping us all as “Evangelicals” and taking us for granted until election day. You display your ignorance, and your contempt. Let me explain it this way – not exactly a verse from scripture, but you will get the gist: Shut up. Stop pretending that you know us (or are one of us!)… learn who we are… share our concerns, or don’t; but get to know us.

This political junkie, offered the distilled spirits from the political still this year, is ready to take the pledge. To “swear off.”

Ever since I was a child in chronological terms, I have heard people claim they were resigned to voting for the “lesser of two evils.” I have said so myself, scarcely acknowledging that the lesser of two evils is still, by definition, evil. I used to say, “I don’t vote for any of the politicians; it only encouragers them.”

This year, for me, there are more candidates than usual who I can tolerate, or even admire. But the campaigns, in both parties, have devolved to infantile food fights. Insults. Petty “gotchas.” Wild claims. Personality clashes. Name-calling. “Did too / did not” spitting matches. And not, this time, old birds in McDonald’s, or even my young grandchildren. But, among them, leaders of the greatest country on earth, ready to sit for portraits to be displayed next to Washington, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

It is demoralizing. The insults really are suffered by us, the voters. I think I will cast my vote for the first candidate who says, “I don’t care what you say about me. I am going to talk about what I propose to do as president.” Even if that is somehow uttered by a candidate’s dog.

But as a Christian, especially, I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of candidates who talk down to me… who take my vote for granted… who stereotype us… who pander to our supposed views, which are precious and basic and essential; views that are not for sale at any price.

Politicians and candidates should learn-and-earn. If they thirst for our votes, let us require them to recognize our standards and values, not our clichéd labels. We are patriotic citizens of faith who care about our nation, its heritage, and our common future. We have shadows of difference, as significant as, yes, the things that unite us as a bloc. Learn what they are! It is not difficult. Then talk to us.

Stop insulting each other; stop insulting us; and, for once in your careers, all of you… remember us between elections.

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Click: How Firm a Foundation

Presidents Day and An American Caliphate

2-8-16

In a season, during this time, in American history, when traditions are being abandoned; myriads of concepts and lifestyles are “new normals”; and basic assumptions are no longer basic nor widely assumed… we had an American president, this week, who spoke at a mosque associated with the murderous Muslim Brotherhood. And the next day he argued before the annual National Prayer Breakfast about the “fundamental contributions” Islam has made to American society.

Obama did not mean current contributions, such as his usual focus on voting blocks, or even the negative effect of violence, terrorism, or such fears: those contributions. No, he maintained that Islam has been here from the start. Typically, few lovers of Christianity – or of history, or of common sense – spoke up in protest, there or afterwards in print or speeches. More astonishing, to me, than his bizarre claims.

It was a peculiar re-spinning of history, as if the Declaration of Independence were drafted by Abu-Ben Franklin, or the Constitution advocated by Al-Exandir Hamilton, or that presidents swore upon the Qu’uran or fought the Civil War to uphold Mohammed-sanctioned slavery.

His speech (not his first such with distortions of history and slights against Christianity) was more like a revision of the classic collection of fairy tales, “The Arabian Nights Entertainment,” rich in lore and imagination. His speech could embellish that book’s alternate title: “A Thousand and Two Nights.” Aladdin, Sinbad, Scheherazade, Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves and… Barack Hussein.

On this Presidents Day, in this month when we ought to discern the actual birthdays of two of America’s great sons, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I would like to leave the hot burning desert of our national spiritual wandering, and return to the oasis of America’s Golden Age. Whether we can reestablish ourselves in that cultural oasis, or reclaim our unique birthright… or whether our moment as a blessed society in history’s grand sweep was, to continue the nomadic metaphor, ultimately a mere mirage.

Obama’s greatest display of ignorance, or cultural subversion, has been when he has decried claims of “American Exceptionalism,” as if people think they are special by virtue of their pulses or ZIP codes. American Exceptionalism does not refer to people; it refers to the American experiment of biblical foundations, systems of laws, recognitions of rights, devotion to liberty, a brilliant Constitution, and balance of rights and responsibilities. As a result of these unique factors… we have been blessed with gifted leaders; we have succeeded in correcting inevitable flaws; we have been generous-minded in uncountable ways; we have forged a nation out of many peoples. We have been blessed because we bless.

If we (loosely) turn an Arabic word and Islamic concept to English and the American context, the United States never was tempted to be a Caliphate because its foundation was as a democratic republic; citizenship was borne and maintained by loyalty, initiative, and merit; and its “Caliph” was the God of the Bible. We have stumbled, in my opinion, by the seduction of Empire – the deadly prescription of all of history’s great civilizations – but can redeem ourselves of that, and further distance ourselves from a Caliphate’s model.

Returning here to the presidents we should remember specially this month, I recall first something Lincoln said to a group of visiting ministers who advocated for firmer military measures – in effect that we should not be as concerned that “God is on our side,” as, always, that we be on God’s side.

This, from a supposed skeptic and one who rejected the Bible. Nothing is further from the Truth. Progressively and almost constantly during the last 15 months of his life, Abraham Lincoln read the Bible, quoted scripture, and appealed to God as much as, say, any preacher might have. His speeches and letters often were virtual sermons.

We recall Washington’s words:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Years after Lincoln’s death, his old friend from Kentucky days, Joshua Speed, recalled: “As I entered the room, near night, he was sitting near a window intently reading his Bible. Approaching him, I said: ‘I am glad to see you so profitably engaged.’ ‘Yes,’ said he, “I am profitably engaged.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.’ Looking me earnestly in the face and placing his hand on my shoulder, he said: ‘You are wrong, Speed. Take all of this Book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.’”

To honor these amazing Americans – whose lives and service we must consider as gifts from God, appearing at the right time, in the right places, and doing the right things – I will quote another great American, Theodore Roosevelt:

“As a people, we are indeed beyond measure fortunate in the characters of the two greatest of our public men, Washington and Lincoln. Widely though they differed in externals, the Virginia landed gentleman and the Kentucky backwoodsman, they were alike in essentials; they were alike in the great qualities which made each able to render service to his nation and to all mankind such as no other man of his generation could or did render.

“Widely though the problems of to-day differ from the problems set for solution to Washington when he founded this nation, to Lincoln when he saved it and freed the slave, yet the qualities they showed in meeting these problems are exactly the same as those we should show in doing our work to-day.”

“There have been other men as great and other men as good; but in all the history of mankind there are no other two great men as good as these, no other two good men as great.”

Amen.

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Click: When I Get To the End Of the Way

A Revolutionary Way To Do Church

2-1-16

First, I want to state that I generally do not like phrases like “doing church”; I might prefer “being church,” but that debate is for another essay. “Doing church” is in the parlance of many of the people I want to address here.

Our two previous essays have enabled me to vent (I hope not rant) about trends in contemporary American churches. Worship music that is neither, as I put it; styles that are alien to many church-goers; abandonment of hymnals, songsheets, and printed music to follow; lyrics that often are “me-oriented” and not praising God. The subsequent message criticized services that have no form or structure; and how “spontaneity,” otherwise a worthwhile goal, has itself become a paradigm as rigid as the dogmatism it rejects.

I here will close those subjects, or least my prescriptions, because I do not want merely to be a scold, but rather a man in the arena on a topic I consider vital to Christendom today. A third aspect.

In America, parts of Christianity suffer from the seduction of… well, America. I mean the American character as it has evolved: sound-bite attention spans, instant gratification, an affection for glitz and multi-media entertainment. As churches worry about losing members, attracting new ones, and serving youth, there are inducements to throw out old bath water. Without recalling the second half of that cliché.

Our culture has engendered a pick-and-choose approach to worship and music styles… and, not ironically but tragically, a similar theological menu. Pick and choose the verses to obey. Have your religion conform to your attitudes. Justify your problems, and your family’s challenges, by selecting the right Bible passages. Presume to know what Jesus thought, despite what He said. These attitudes are very common in America today.

If Christianity has moved “outside the box,” and free-form worship is the symptom, I will suggest that we can get things in order… make sense of faith by making religion be sensible again… return to the comfort, security, and spiritual value of meaningful worship practices.

So: Some suggestions for “doing church” in a revolutionary way, and, I think, potentially very interesting for all shades of the religious spectrum.

* Design services so that, as they unfold, every aspect of Jesus’s life and ministry be represented. That is, by prayers, readings, music, perhaps dramatic presentations or testimonies, part after part of the service would be a reminder of Old Testament prophesies, the Incarnation, Jesus’s teaching, His persecution, suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection; all – in various ways – informing meditations, prayers, and worship.

* Be intentional about the music during the service. Some can be performance, but also value the spiritual joy in congregational singing. Mix the old and new. Encourage artistry and creativity – even to drama, poetry, special art. Remember that “worship” is derived from “worth-ship.” God is worthy of praise; everything we do should be worthy of Him. Revolutionary: invite Him to speak to us through worship.

* Speaking of art, re-fit the worship area with symbols of Christianity. Many contemporary churches behave like the stern, churchy iconoclasts of old. Celebrate the cross! Resurrect (ha) the meaningful symbols of the church – the rose, doves, a flowing river, Trinitarian designs. Be colorful, as stained-glass windows were!

* Of course, retain the sermon; but too often these days, except for holidays, sermons are random messages amid random music. Make everything integrated, and complementary, and thematically unified. Have the soloist or worship band (who I don’t want to banish; just be focused) write or perform other songs germane to the theme of the season or the sermon. The same with music while worshipers seat themselves; between parts of the service; during communion… all intentional as to the spiritual topic.

Does this sound revolutionary? Certainly a change from the services in a lot of contemporary churches! More exciting? More meaningful? More chance for involvement, from the pews to the worship? Closer to what church should be. Yes.

But, as some of you might recognize, I have not described anything new, or even Post-Modern, but something very old – the basic forms of worship, orders of the service, and worship environment, of churches going back almost 2000 years. It worked, it was cherished, it was valuable. More than mere corporate fellowship, it traditionally was a fulfillment of planned meditation, worship, prayer and petitions, joy and spiritual renewal. Too often, in too many places, it has been lost.

If believers want to gather with friends to share, follow no special forms of praise or songs, they can join in home fellowships and small groups. The first-century Christians did. If Christians want to listen to a concert of Christian music, they can go to concerts or buy CDs. Church – the “doing,” not the building – is indeed a “service.” We serve God, and in Liturgical traditions, it was believed that in a mystical way, God meets and serves us through organized worship.

That is what I have meant by “the Logic of Liturgy.”

The traditional parts of the service, in their Latin names, meant specific things, reminders of Christ. Exactly like the Creeds remind us, point by point, of the essentials of our faith. Through the centuries (and surviving in some liturgical traditions) the parts of the service included these – their Latin names, although no longer sung in Latin, and what they celebrated:

Introit (Entrance); Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy; asking to be blessed); Gloria (Praise to God, recalling Jesus’s birth); Allelujah; Sanctus (“Holy,” with special emphasis in Communion services); Pax Domini (“The Peace of God”); Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, focusing on Jesus’s sacrifice); Nunc Dimittis (“Now we dismiss,” with words quoting Simeon, “We have seen Thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people”); Benediction (“Now let us Thy servants depart in peace”).

With a few variations between faith traditions, these parts comprised the worship services of Christians wherever they gathered across the world for most of two millennia. Throughout, of course, at appropriate places, are the three readings (Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel); a Creed; hymns; the sermon or homily; the Lord’s Prayer; and offering with offertory music.

In addition, throughout history’s churches, every image, every symbol, every color represented something in the story of Christ or the church calendar. Literally, every wall and corner of churches shouted and sang the Gospel message! Worshipers understood all this. Stained-glass windows were not mere colorful decorations: they were graphic novels of spiritual content.

I profoundly believe that a return to this blueprint of worship would unite various faiths and trigger a revival in today’s church. John Paul II said that the future starts today, not tomorrow. In my essay I suggest that today can only have validity if we recognize that it started yesterday. We can honor strict customs, or be innovative within the boundaries. We can be mystical, “contemporary-sounding,” or in ethnic traditions. We can dance in the Spirit, or kneel in the pews. No matter if we fold our hands or lift our arms. There has to be nothing lockstep about the walk down this path! Old hymns or modern songs; strict readings or creative new wording; traditional spoken sermons or multi-media messages – why not? But… staying accessible to worshipers helps God be accessible to our yearning hearts.

Returning to my first thesis, that a lot of contemporary worship music is neither: in such a back-to-the-basics shift that I suggest, worship leaders would not merely be kids in the church who have talent and volunteer to perform. The position of Worship Leader should be restored as a vital component of a church staff, a pastoral responsibility. Someone who not only performs, but ministers.

The American Syndrome is that we tend to reject the past because it is over. We cheat ourselves and defy history’s lessons – our DNA, so to speak; cultural and spiritual. We need to cherish what is good in the past. We must build on it. It is the basis of wisdom. And a means to connect, or re-connect, with the Heart of God.

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Our vid clip this week is not a commercial! It is a documentary explaining the devotion of one American church that has embraced “ancient” liturgy. Even more than many liturgical churches, Grace Lutheran Church, Tulsa, practices “high-church” traditions – the sign of the Cross, incense, votive candles. But the faces of the young and old congregants, and the pastors’ explanations of liturgy, sum up what we have been saying in these messages.

Click: The Logic of Liturgy

Christianity’s Towers of Babel

1-25-16

Last week’s essay on “worshiptainment,” Worship Music That Is Neither, excited quite a bit of notice and debate across the spectrum. It was picked up by many websites and newsletters, posted and re-posted on Facebook, and promises to be, I am told, the subject of sermons and small-group discussions.

In the essay I addressed the form of musical worship that has overtaken many mainstream-denomination, independent, and “mega” churches. Worshipers singing hymns have been replaced by performance musicians; organs and pianos by guitars and drums; hymnals and songbooks by words roughly projected on screens. Worshipers now are audiences. Congregational singing is optional, effectively discouraged.

I have been in uncountable churches where MCs tell everyone when to smile, when to clap, and to repeat “Good Morning!” if not yelled loudly enough. Dissent from such was the thrust of my essay.

The problem – my point – is that what is represented as free-form worship, in their own way, is more regimented than Medieval chants or sitting under Jonathan Edwards sermons. Congregants do not feel parts of a congregation, communicants cannot commune, and some people who go to church to find their still, small corner… find no corners. Some people yearn for church not for pep rallies, but needing to weep quiet, sincere tears; or to lay on their faces, as it were, at the altar. Not smile on cue, wave, and jump in place. To go out and face the world refreshed, not to see face-painters and cappuccino stands in the parking lot.

We should be discomfited by more than music and worship paradigms in large swaths of today’s church, however. A virtual Tower of Babel within the church it seems, but is not necessarily bad, nor unprecedented. In ancient times, the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity developed along local preferences and traditions. Resistance to Papal authority actually began centuries before Luther. During the height of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and, yes, the Counter-Counter-Reformation, churches affixed themselves to varying worship modes.

… but, within Christendom, they were modes and styles – very seldom, aside from the role of the Pope, dissension about basic doctrine. Luther, in fact, did not want to leave the Catholic Church. J. S. Bach, the “Fifth Evangelist,’ hymnist of the Protestant Affirmation, was proudest among his 1800 works (approximately 1200 of which have survived) of his B-minor Mass – a Catholic mass.

And so forth. With few exceptions (Salem, the Inquisition) the internal battles of Christendom – the Thirty Years’ War; Tudors vs. Stuarts in England; the “Troubles” in Ireland – are tattooed with religious arguments and justifications in history books. But almost all of these were political or economic or military or geographical or personal wars, fought under the convenient banners of Christian exegeses.

I have been to Northern Ireland. I have spoken with many who survived the Troubles. Many who are now reconciled, many who buried relatives killed by those they now call friends. Virtually none fought over transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation, back in the day. People simply preferred to hate. Christ’s love covered all… when it was accepted.

My point is that all these groups, over history, that I have named (including the Orthodox communities, about we in the West know little) were remarkably similar in worship settings. The peripheral things (hate, politics, rivalries) clearly and ironically were separate from the central spiritual core.

That is, worship was to the same God, the same Savior, using the same Bible… and virtually the same worship. The early “Church Fathers” met, and prayed, and fashioned creeds – to codify the basics of Christian belief; to combat heresies, and to spread the Word. Similarly, they designed a template of worship – to, likewise, have the worship service address, in its part after part, the essentials of the faith.

There is a Logic to Liturgy.

Liturgy is the order of service, designed to address and remind worshipers of the essential doctrines of faith. You can listen to recordings of recreated services of the 5th-century churches, and identify the orders, and even the (translated) words of the service, if you were reared in a 20th-century liturgical church. The orders, words, chants, prayers, invocations, responses of the Catholic Mass of 500 years ago, are substantially as today (or pre-Vatican II); substantially as services in Lutheran, Anglican, and High Episcopal services.

I have visited churches throughout Europe where I did not know the local language, yet I knew the liturgical melodies, and the order within the services, as if I did. I knew what was being prayed, celebrated, petitioned. That is how it has been… and, I submit, should still be.

In liturgical churches these traditions survive, even if sometimes barely. In Evangelical churches, there might be free-form worship, but usually in a prescribed format each Sunday. Quakers have had their own traditions. And Pentecostals frequently invite the Holy Spirit to move over a service.

So, I understand, and I hope readers do, that my unease with contemporary worship music is not based on reactionary devotion to ancient and dry music (which traditional music of the church is not!). We see that, for 2000 years, Christians at all times and in all places have inherited and exercised the essence, if not the forms, of worship.

What is new in our times, in Post-Modern services, is content (or, today, the dearth of content) – has changed or disappeared in many churches. To many observers, it honors God less, and “self” more; it is less about the message of Jesus and more about the massage of ego.

I know the complaints about traditional church music, about liturgy. About dry sermons. About “everything from the book.” I know the complaints because I shared them. When I was young, I noticed that grownups in pews around me droned through the Settings – the printed orders of service. Those routines seldom changed; virtually only on Communion Sundays or a few holidays intruded.

Everyone could recite the long petitions in their sleep. I know. I saw it on Sunday mornings. I still can myself, never setting out to memorize the passages. Just like ministers and priests (you see it on TV, maybe when the Senate is called to order, or a president is buried) reading prayers. Shouldn’t they be familiar enough with God by now to pray extemporaneously?!?

So. I concluded, and many still might, to reject ordered tradition, to conclude that rites can become rituals can become rote. Empty repetition. Spiritually empty. Sure: that is the danger.

But, today, my argument is – and it has taken us a generation or two to recognize this – that spontaneity can grow just as empty.

“Free form worship” can become as programmed as printed liturgy.

“Forced spontaneity” is an oxymoron. It is what we bring, not what we receive, that makes for worship.

Contemporary “praise music,” un-programmed services, and the Post-Modern church can grow just as cold as anything. Colder, when Jesus is absent from the Focus as well as the Form.

If many parts of the contemporary church have morphed from hymns to concert performances, I fervently pray that those talented musicians simply would perform in concerts! Many of them do; more of them should. Worship in church is different than attending a concert, no offense meant. There is a Logic to Liturgy.

And there is a 2000-year-old tradition to resume.

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No organ, no church pews. But, performance that is inclusive. Worship and praise that worships the Lord and praises Him… and uplifts musical worshipers. The great gospel song of Fanny Crosby. Blind nearly since birth, she began writing hymns at age 40, and wrote approximately 8000 before she died. Her music has blessed worshipers in church… and concert-goers in great auditorium like London’s Royal Albert Hall. A BBC concert.

Click: To God Be the Glory

When Worship Music is Neither

1-18-16

My wife and I were a little late for church one Sunday in San Diego about 10 years ago. In the lobby we saw an elderly lady, frail and looking lonely, sitting against the wall. We paused to ask if she needed assistance.

“No,” she explained, “I always wait out here until that awful rock and roll stops. It’s always so loud, and I still can’t hear the words or sing along.”

That poor lady’s reply encapsulated something I had felt, myself, for a long time; and even more so in subsequent years. I have groused before friends and in speeches. I have listened to laymen and argued with pastors and worship leaders. These are not the words of a cranky music critic, but from someone who is concerned that church music in America has morphed from Worship to Watching; from Praise to Performance; turning the congregational worshippers into concert audiences.

It is not even a matter of wanting arbitrarily to preserve ancient music and traditional hymns – my readers know that I enthusiastically offer up Christian music from chants of the Middle Ages to Southern and Black gospel. Rather, the transformation of church music says something about the culture in general – not just our expressions of spirituality. It reveals something that should have us troubled.

The transformation of church music across the American landscape (not in every church; but every Christian will know what I mean) has been rapid and fundamental. It goes to the notion of corporate worship. It is essential to our identification as believers in God and followers of Christ. It is a manifestation of the nature of our faith, the validity of faithfulness, the object of our faith.

Well before I encountered that “orphaned” elderly lady a decade ago, I was talking about this general topic to Dr Bill Bright, founder of the mighty organization Campus Crusade for Christ. Agreeing with my critique, he referred to “7-11 music,” which I assumed meant the ubiquitous Muzak we hear in stores and elevators. But he said he meant church music that repeated the same seven words 11 times. That states the formula.

In formal terms, hymns are sermons in song, stating biblical themes or exhortations. Look at the words of traditional hymns: they describe the situation of the world and the position of Christians in it; challenged, threatened, but hopeful. The difference with songs – gospel songs, revival tunes, camp-meeting music – is more than the simpler harmonies and popular melodies. Gospel songs that live today in white Southern Gospel and Black Spirituals feature choruses to which singers return between verses.

The “contemporary” “worship” music we refer to here is similar to the earlier forms… but far different. Some of it purports to praise God, but its praise is diluted by the lack of focus or substance, characterized by those endlessly repeated lines. In truth, much of it is “me” oriented. Examine lyrics and see how often the first-person pronoun “I” is used. The emphasis is on the singer (more than God?), on how we feel (instead of worshiping or understanding Him), or what we receive from the musical experience.

None of these impulses is wholly bad. Of course. But the up-ending of church music does not end there.

In the Apostolic days of the young church, music was not particularly encouraged. Saint Cecilia reversed that attitude (and is honored as the Patron Saint of Music) and for a thousand years or so, music accompanied worship. Sometimes somber, sometimes joyously, eventually in certain liturgical orders. In Luther’s time the congregation was encouraged to sing, in ever-expanding portions of the service; beyond chanting and the liturgy, to hymns. For almost half a millennium, church music has included settings of the service; cantatas; anthems; choruses; and hymns. And it has been inclusive of worshipers… an integral part of our service, our worship.

But the new music that has overtaken traditions so quickly has done more than supplant Luther, Wesley, and Fanny Crosby with Pop, Folk, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. It has changed the essence of music’s role in Christian worship.

Plugging in the amps has unplugged the purpose of musical worship.

From that AG church in San Diego to my daughter’s Lutheran mega-church in Michigan, from “Seeker-Sensitive” churches in the heartland to evangelical churches in the South, the stages are set the same:

Worship leaders who instruct the listeners when to smile, when to clap, when to stop and hug their neighbors;

Musicians who wear casual, even dirty, clothes;

Solo singers who attract the spotlight, musicians who take “hot licks” between the choruses;

Words sometimes projected on screens – never the music, never the music, which leaves newcomers confused and makes the words confusing;

Hymnals are almost regarded as toxic relics, and printed songsheets without music are worthless… but they would serve futile purposes anyway, because few people sing in their seats (or, when instructed to do so, standing);

Audiences – because that is what they literally have become – seldom sing. They might clap and sway; and, in some churches, raise their hands. But they are audience members of Sunday-morning concerts, plain and simple.

Do you disagree? See how often these audiences applaud after each performance’s song (it used to be anathema to applaud in a church). Take note of the elaborate (if deceptively sparse) staging and sets; the lighting, the video effects, the close-ups where cameras “kiss” the soloists. Listen to your neighbors’ comments about the singer’s voice or the guitarist’s solo riffs (compared to the comments on the sermon).

Too many of us are going to shows, not church. We savor presentations, not prayers. We are presented with performers, and we are less concerned with seeking the Savior. People are encouraged to love the worship… but how often to love Jesus?

Yet the formula is followed as rigid dogma would be: drums, loud solos, emotional effects, a concert atmosphere, sloppy dressers, regimented applause. Who needs those old hymns? OK, they touched people and turned souls to Christ for 500 years? But… this is the 21 century!

These churches reveal a Post-modern mindset about eternal standards: they regard few things as eternal, and standards can shift with the times. Heretical, really.

The churches are saying that they will change almost anything in order to be “relevant.” No matter if those kids visiting the pews are bored by the Contempo Lite up on the stage. Even youngsters realize that today’s American church has few standards, and is willing to stand on its head – even to offend lifelong Christians like that old lady in San Diego – to put on a good show. “How sincere are they,” that young visitor might ask, “about their theology, too?”

Good question. Bad music. The Gospel message itself is sweet enough – sometimes hard enough, yes – to draw all people unto the Savior. Traditional musical, mighty hymns, persuasive songs, support the Good News preached to all men. “Music” that drowns it out… works against the Message people need to hear. The Church’s one foundation… is cracked?

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In the world… of the world. Post-Modern, Post-Christian. What’s the difference?

Click: The Church’s Worshiptainment

The Nature of Human Nature

1-11-16

Solomon, who seldom got things wrong, wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun,” in Ecclesiastes. The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The subject of such aphorisms, and much of the world’s wise sayings, is not, say, the weather, or taste in fashion. It is human nature.

We humans, most of us, have shinier toys, and live in somewhat more comfortable homes, than of generations ago; and eat more food, or in more variety, than did our ancestors.

Yet we still bash each other’s heads in at every opportunity: the last century was the bloodiest in world history. We still get sick and die, and in general terms plagues and poxes merely have been replaced by heart conditions and cancers. And stress, and psychological disorders, and addictions – the demons of the 21st century.

We complain about the same things that the ancients did. I am reminded that Mark Twain said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” It is probably true that the early Egyptians and Chinese and Athenians and Romans and Persians and Mayans complained about their bosses, spouses, landlords, scheduled events, children, shoddy footwear, and mothers-in-law.

And when human nature got more serious about things… well, there always has been cheating and jealousy and theft and lying and murder. Pride and arrogance. And, more constant than any of these things, brokenness, hurt, the need for forgiveness. The need for a Savior.

God provided that Savior, and He inspired love and forgiveness, sacrifice and charity; all in precious scant supply now as forever, thanks, once again, to the fact of human nature.

Recently it occurred to me that we have scarcely progressed from the essential afflictions of our distant ancestors in another important manner. I love these revelations, because I maintain that the human race requires periodic lessons in humility. In important things, and in the many trivial things that are the mortar of the important things. These wake-up calls can even be amusing, but are wake-up calls nonetheless.

Many of us consider the “cult of celebrity” a normative cancer. You know: movie stars, singers, and sport stars vs heroes. Skewed standards. Truly this is a contemporary phenomenon, because protean antecedents of our times’ celebrities – painters, composers, poets, artists – often dedicated their work to God and were fulfilled by serving Him. “Less of me; more of Him.” In researching my biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, I continually was struck by how utterly humble he was about his work, his accomplishments, his “celebrity,” in contradistinction to his God.

When we think we in America have been liberated from the trappings of royalty, repressive social and economic systems, and checks against free thought, is when we swindle ourselves most extravagantly, however. A very common denominator illustrates this the best.

We frequently hear complaints from, say, sports fans about ticket prices and athletes’ salaries. In the proverbial next breath the same fans often admire those salaries (“hey, if the owners didn’t have the money, they couldn’t pay it, right?”). Of course, owners – just like shop or factory bosses faced with higher labor costs – pass it along to the consumers. In sports, fans themselves pay those obscene players’ salaries by accepting higher prices for cars and candy bars and shaving creams that sponsor the games. Ticket prices for cold, hard seats. And stratospheric fees, parking costs, merchandise, and absurd prices for hot dogs, popcorn, and drinks.

The same with concert tickets, apparel festooned with logos, and advertised items hawked by celebrities paid millions to sell them to us gullible consumers. Little different than “tributes” paid to robber barons in the Middle Ages. Except that we willingly put these exalted peoples’ feet on our heads. We have thrown off royalty – oh, yeah? look at the faces on supermarket tabloids. We do them honor; we practically worship them. Plus ça change…

Compounding our foolishness, we are supremely inconsistent. Half of the people in America grouse about oil company profits – usually citing income, not profits – and ignoring research, development, costs of operation and such. In contrast, I have heard nobody offer anything other than admiring whistles over George Lucas’s $4-billion sale of the Star Wars franchise. Who do we think is funding that crazy purchase?

Neither any resentment, ever, of the rapid and mammoth wealth accumulated by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. “Oh, but they made things that people need.” Yes. Like… oil products and gasoline?

Why do people hate – yes, hate – the CEOs whom Michael Moore tells us to hate – “oh! those big houses!” – but have no problems with actors being paid $20-million and more per film? Most of the money paid at the gas pump goes to government taxes, not the gasoline or research or development or executives’ salaries. And a portion of every movie ticket is obeisance to the glamorous stars. In effect, a celebrity tax. Few complaints.

These are only a few reality-checks about our value systems. And, as I said, some reminders that human nature has not changed that much.

Returning to the spiritual aspect of our lives, more important than any of this. We think we have graduated from a society where highwaymen once lurked behind trees, whereas a multitude of internet pirates lurk behind our computer screens today. Wall-street cheats. Our jails more crowded than ever. Nothing new under the sun.

No, in God’s world we need to remember the old days, good or bad, by better or worse standards.

But there were times in human history when the vast majority of artists and writers and scientists acknowledged God as behind everything, the Maker and Redeemer. And they sought to honor Him in all they did. Common people toiled and sometimes suffered, but always consoled themselves in the ministrations of the Holy Spirit. Communities were built around churches, and the Word was central to everyone’s lives. Prayers were lifted daily – often continually throughout the day – and church attendance was weekly, or sometimes daily. Jesus was at the center of peoples’ lives, in all classes, in villages, towns, and cities.

But we know better in the 21st century. We are smarter – smart enough to dismiss God from our lives. We are happier – at least we pay more for things that promise to make us happy. We live more comfortable lives – if we would slow down for a moment to enjoy them once in a while. Our religion, as a society, is something we are so comfortable with that we don’t feel the need to “force” it on others… even our children.

Maybe the French got it wrong. The more things change, it might be that the worse they become. Is there anything new under the sun? Well… we still need a Savior.

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Some people think that the greatest creation of Franz Josef Haydn was not one of his 104 symphonies; or a string quartet, the genre he molded; or the mighty oratorio The Creation. Here is his Mass For Troubled Times, an astonishing, stirring, church piece, one of 14 masses he wrote. We live in troubled times, no less than his 1800 Vienna. Let it minister to you – traditional Latin words, in Kyrie; Gloria; Qui Tollis; Credo; Quoniam; Sanctus; Et Incantus Est; Et Resurrexit; Sanctus; Benedictus; Agnus Dei; Dona Nobis Pacem. Conducted by Grete Pedersen in a magnificent Oslo church.

Click: Mass for Troubled Times

The Two-Faced God

1-4-16

Happy new year. Out with the old, in with the new. Happy January. A time for new beginnings. For all those resolutions to be broken!

Many of our days and months have names that were inspired largely by ancient mythologies and pagan customs. Even Easter, for instance, was named for Isis (no, not that ISIS), the Egyptian mythological deity who married her brother Osiris, was also known as Ishtar, and perhaps inspired the word for East. Germanic tribes had a Spring festival (Oestern, a cognate of Easter) that looked eastward, to the sun and fertility.

So it is with what we call January. Its name is derived from the Roman god of beginnings and transitions – hence “presiding” over the end and beginning of the year. One of the few Roman gods not inherited and transmogrified from the Greeks, Janus became an important figure in the mythological pantheon. He lives in more than calendar pages; when I stay in Bologna, my favorite hotel is the Torre di Iano (Tower of Janus), an ancient villa originally dedicated to the god.

Does all this fit with Christianity? Deeper than we might think at first. January is an appropriate time to reminisce, “process,” and look forward. But so is every day of the year! OK, we all need “hooks,” reminders, disciplines. Does God sanction such activities? He does more: He encourages them.

Interestingly, Janus was always depicted as a two-faced god. On coins, in carvings and mosaics, he looked both forward and back. To play Bulfinch and parse the Roman myths, Janus specifically was the god of transitions. Here is where, as always, the God of the Bible is superior to any deities of the world’s mythologies or false phenomenologies. Our God should be, has been, will be in our relations and transitions. He is in our pasts and futures. In truth, He is our past, and our future.

But Christians, today, tend to think less and less of the past. In our contemporary and often post-Christian world, we take the past for granted… or decline to be convicted by its lessons. We might pray ourselves through troubled time; but – consistent with our consumerist culture? – look ahead. Like the right-half of Janus. Hope, confidence, optimism if we can summon it… we have become a people who look ahead.

But we would do well to think a little more than we do about the past. What brought us here? What are the details of our heritage? What have our forebears sacrificed for us? What lessons from the past present themselves to us?

These are important questions! For without understanding our past, our futures are gambles… aimless wanderings… games with no yard-markers, goalposts, or rules. The past is more than prologue: it is certain; the future is uncertain.

And the past is often painful. Parents will know – and all former children will remember – that lectures about a hot stove do little good, compared to the one time that the hot stove actually is touched! We must pay attention to what brought us here, to avoid Prof. Santayana’s aphorism that “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat.”

There is specific lesson – I would call it, rather, a powerful reminder – from something related to the Christmas season recently commemorated. As we re-pack our ornaments and take last looks at pretty greeting cards, it is important to remember something that we might have overlooked amidst the Christmas music and colorful wrapping paper and cookies. The past often holds a lot of pain. Much distress. Hurts, and sometimes excruciating angst. Life, in other words.

But this is good for us to know. Among the “whole armor of God” you will not find rose-colored glasses. Life is real, life is earnest. Even Christmas was associated with much pain and distress. As we approach the Feast of the Epiphany, it is decidedly an observance of transitions… but not neutral, as those of Janus. It is literally the celebration of the Incarnation: not merely Christ being born, but His introduction to humankind.

Traditions assign the Epiphany to the visit of the Magi; to Jesus’s religious dedication; to the 12th night; even to His baptism. The point is – remembering Jesus as Messiah: God-with-us.

Do you remember that Jesus’s birth was not all angels and harps? It was, for this world He came to save, like painful birth pangs, as a mother in labor would experience. Do you know that one of the sweetest-sounding of ancient lullabies actually is one of the saddest of laments that could be sung?

Matthew, Chapter 2, and historical tradition tell of King Herod’s obsession with preventing a rival to his authority; and when he was convinced that biblical prophecy was close to fulfillment, he ordered the death of boys less than two years old throughout the land. It has become known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”

It was symbolic, of course, of the world-system’s vicious resistance to the very concept of a Messiah. The presence of Jesus is a rebuke to those feel no awareness of their sin and dependency, who elevate Self over Revealed Truth. Christ’s enemies are not trivial nor easily dismissed, no matter how surely to be conquered. It was so, then; and it continues to be so, today. The Slaughter of the Innocents – a part of the Christmas story as relevant as the shepherds and angels – reminds us that ugly forces in life tried to keep our Savior from us. And still do.

The most haunting of Christmas carols, to which I referred, is known as The Coventry Carol. It was written in the 1500s, and its plaintive melody is one of the great flowerings of polyphony over plainsong in Western music. “Lullay, thou little tiny child,” is not a lullaby, and does not refer to the baby Jesus.

The carol is a lament by a mother of one of the babies slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do, For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight, All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for Thee! And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Utterly melancholic, as the harmonies are hauntingly beautiful. It is a fitting creation that must be part of our Christmastide observances, and Epiphany. Kings are still in their raging, but Jesus cannot be stopped by debates. He has never long been thwarted by bureaucratic rules. He was not even subject to death and the grave.

This January, look forward, yes; pray God’s blessing in your transitions; but remember the past. Hold to what it teaches. Be nurtured by the blessings it holds. And be thankful that our God is not, in the parlance of world, “two-faced,” but ever faithful.

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The Coventry Carol is so named because this song, in Old English first called “Thow Littel Tyne Childe,” had its origins in a “Mystery Play” of Norman France and performed at the Coventry cathedral in Britain. The play was called “The Mystery of the Shearmen and the Tailors,” based on the second chapter of Matthew. The anonymous lyrics are a mother’s lament for her doomed baby boy. All but this song from the mystery play are lost today. The earliest transcription extant is from 1534; the oldest example of its musical setting is from 1591. It still speaks to our hearts today. Performed here by Collegium Vocale Gent, conducted by Peter Dijkstra, in the
Begijnhofkerk at Sint-Truiden, Flanders.

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Click: Coventry Carol

The Bethlehem Bell-Ringer

12-28-15

On Christmas Eve, the news stories were filled with stories about Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, NOT being filled with pilgrims, worships, locals, as usually the case for 2000 years. Violence between the Israeli forces and Palestinians had broken out, harshly. Again. As before, during random days of the years. Again this year, but at Christmastide.

There is a powerful song about a heart-wrenching story that was in the news a dozen years ago. Britain’s Independent newspaper reported then: “For 30 years, Samir Ibrahim Salman had made his way dutifully to his task as bell ringer and caretaker at the fortress-like stone and wooden church revered by millions as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.”

Salman “crossed Manger Square to get to the church to climb the steps to the fourth-century bell tower” as he did every day of the year. “Minutes later, Samir was struck by a bullet in the chest. It was an hour before an ambulance could reach him but by then, he was already dead. The Palestinians claim he was killed by an Israeli – the Israeli army says they did not fire a shot near the church. Samir, who was mentally disabled, may have been unaware of the danger.”

It was a time when Palestinian fighters, running from advancing Israeli troops, took refuge in the church. They and 40 Franciscan brothers, four nuns and approximately 30 Orthodox and Armenian monks were trapped in the basilica complex. There were also disputed claims about damage to the holy site, which was built over the manger where Jesus reportedly was born.

This story about hatred, violence, and bloodshed in Jesus’ hometown, perhaps over the spot where He was born, has resonance this Christmastide.

I shared with some friends that I would be writing this message. “Why make a martyr of an Islamic person, especially at this time of year?” some responded. “Why cite a song that talks about ‘Palestine?’” asked others. “That’s provocative!” However, Salman was an Arab, but not Islamic – he was a Palestinian Christian. How many Americans realize that Bethlehem was traditionally governed by a Christian mayor and majority Christian council; and that there is a higher percentage of Christians there than in Israel — or was, before “Christian cleansing” became the Mideast Mode? Concerning ‘Palestine,’ Bethlehem is not even in Israel but in the West Bank, under the Palestinian Authority with Israel’s full sanction.

But I want us to return again, remembering the Christmas season, to Nativity Square in Bethlehem. Samir Ibrahim Salman lay there alone. He died in the pool of his blood, maybe instantly, maybe slowly… no one was brave enough (or simple enough, as he was) to go out in the open. He had been beloved of the town, and special to the church, because he rang those bells as a volunteer every day of the year for decades, different bells for different occasions, serving Christ and his neighbors.

Let us not lament only the hatred that shatters the calm of Bethlehem, or the peace of Jerusalem. Christians today are being slaughtered by the thousands, and driven from Iraq, which the US has “stabilized.” Likewise Syria; areas that ISIS touches; Christian parts of Africa, north and south of the Sahara.

In a brilliant but deeply disturbing report for World Magazine a few years ago, my friend Mindy Belz provided details of the US military’s (and NATO representatives’) answer to a question about whether persecuted Christians would be protected in Iraq. By us. Their answer even then was “No.” Under Saddam Hussein, 1.5-million Christians lived in relative security; today, fewer than 400,000 Christians remain in Iraq, many in fear. Likewise the Alawite Bashir el-Assad was the Christians’ protector.

Protected by the US? By our military security? “No.” Mindy correctly calls this “extermination by any other name.” If American Christians betray Christians in Iraq (and Syria, and Egypt, and Nigeria, and China, and Myanmar, and…) we are not merely ignoring the wrong, or decrying the wrong; we are on the side of the wrong.

Back to Bethlehem, where God chose to come in human form to reconcile ALL men unto Himself. This holy ground is where God chose to fulfill His promise from ages past, that through Him “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

Who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed the simple Christian Bell Ringer of Bethlehem? To those of us who are ignorant of the issues, who blindly perpetuate stereotypes, who support missions we don’t understand – and don’t support missionaries we ought to – we can shudder at the thought that we might have been closer, in commitment of spirit, to the triggerman than to the Bell Ringer that morning.

As children of God, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, to be ambassadors to a fallen world – peoples of all faiths, and no faith. Now THERE is a peace treaty! For the little town of Bethlehem. For everywhere.

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Click: The Bethlehem Bell-Ringer

An ancient church in Bethlehem,
A target in a battle of men,
Stands on the ground where Christ was born
Trapped inside the eye of a storm

Soldiers move from door to door
Mortar fire, it’s all-out war.
Army tanks patrol the street,
They treat civilians with conceit

Oh Jesus, please, help Palestine
Turn all that blood back into wine
Oh Turning Wheel, Divine Design
Please bring peace to Palestine

Samir Ibrahim Salman
Fulfills his task the best he can.
Each day at dawn he tolls the bells,
While all around the army shells

He walks across the Manger Square
For thirty years he’s lived near there,
A simple man who spends his time
In quiet prayer at Jesus’ shrine

Upon the roof a sniper aims
His bitter heart with hate inflames
Samir walks slow, his back bent low
And is struck down by the bullet’s blow

For many hours Samir lay there
Bleeding on the Manger Square.
No ambulance permitted near,
And so the bell ringer died here

An ancient church in Bethlehem
The bells of peace won’t chime again
The people now all live in fear
Grieving wails are all you hear

Oh Jesus, please, help Palestine
Turn all that blood back into wine
Oh Turning Wheel, Divine Design
Please bring peace to Palestine.

Christmas, the Least Necessary Holiday

12-21-15

I don’t know about you, but along about Thanksgiving time I start getting really tired of Christmas.

It’s not that I have anything against religious holidays. But Christmas is not really a religious holiday any more. This will not be a message about how Hallmark Cards and Rudolph and Santa’s elves and striped candy canes have overtaken Christmas. Or the rush of parties and presents and cookies overtaking the “meaning” of Christmas. We say that each Christmas… and every next Christmas too.

This will not be a message complaining about those things. Oh. Wait. I already have. Well, it won’t be a message about those things alone.

It seems, year after year, that those traditional (?) complaints have been distilled to a new bitterness. Now Christmas also is a political holiday; more political than the way America celebrates the Fourth of July these days. A holiday that is so “inclusive” that it includes everything; therefore, nothing. Things that were once sacred, whether foundational to the culture or intensely personal, have been sacrificed on the altar of Political Correctness.

As our society has been spared the litany of beloved carols of the season in schools and public places, I will spare you the litany of crude attacks on our “free exercise” of religion; and the successful “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…” by courts, legislatures, the press, schools, and the entertainment-industrial complex. There. You have been spared.

Once upon a time the New Totalitarians in our midst rejected charges that they engaged in many and varied forms of prior censorship and bigotry. Now, rather, they boast about such things.

Christians have been reduced to defending displays in public parks and shopping malls and maintaining that YES – Santa Claus and red-and-green ribbons ARE symbols of Christianity. Fine. I wonder how close we are to seeing mainstream churches, in the spirit of “welcoming” “compromise,” will suffer the little children to believe that it was the Easter Bunny who was nailed to the cross.

When Christmas and its essential theological centrality becomes no longer a “holy day,” and a mere holiday, in our culture, it becomes the least necessary holiday. We can, after all — and should — hug children and celebrate family every day. That’s not what Christmas “is about.”

But what can we, the remnant, do to salvage our spiritual self-respect? Sure: free ourselves of the fetish of wrapping paper, cartoon specials, and annoying secular seasonal songs – not necessarily in that order. We can reinforce the lessons that largely survived as artwork on Sunday-school bulletins:

That we give gifts because God’s greatest gift – the Lord Himself incarnate – is thereby honored;

That Jesus could have come as a King in the clouds, but instead was a baby lain in a dirty manger from which animals ate, is a reminder to be humble;

That innumerable threads of prophecy, from many times and many places, written by many hands, were all fulfilled in Jesus’ birth;

That countless MIRACLES – not poetic convergence or imputations of wisdom – occurred that day, that week, in that place, to those people; and to us;

That sinful humanity, unable to reconcile itself before a Holy God, was graced with a Person, a plan, to redeem itself, receive eternal forgiveness, and embrace the Savior of their souls.

Those are the elements of the Christmas story. “Oh, yes, we know,” people absent-mindedly might say, as they put a David Bowie Xmas CD in the car player. “Chestnuts Roasting,” indeed.

The best observances and celebration of the Christmas story would be for households and churches to shift it, and tell parts of it in, say, May, July, and October. To listen to Handel’s “Messiah” at Eastertime – it is about the Savior’s entire life, after all. Let’s exchange gifts at Pentecost, and contemplate God’s spiritual gifts that He offers. Or, at any time of the year, gather to buy or make and wrap gifts… and send them to needy neighbors or foreign missions. And so forth.

The Christmas holiday is one that many scholars (not Orthodox scholars) believe is arbitrarily observed on December 25, perhaps an early-church marketing ploy to attract pagans on one of their holy days. I have no problem with marketing ploys, in that case, if they draw upon, meaningfully observe, and point to the Savior.

In that sense our Christmas is perhaps the most superfluous of the church’s holidays. The Person of the Christ, His moment of birth as God-with-us, was the nexus of history. In the baby Jesus all that was before, everything that had been prophesied, all the miracles and teachings, the scourging, crucifixion, sacrifice, Resurrection, and Ascension, were manifest. The Creator of the Universe became flesh and dwelt among us. The Hope of humankind came to us as a baby who would be able to identify with our needs, hurts, temptations, joys, and sorrows.

It does seem unnecessary, and perhaps should be redundant, that we reserve “Christmas Day” to think on these things. More than any other holiday, the entire sweep of the Bible coalesces here. Too often we let it become “only” on December 25. Yes, Jesus came as a baby; but to freeze that image in amber – or in snow globes – can cause us to forget that Jesus grew up! From a manger to a throne to our hearts.

Oh, it is good marketing to choose a day to remember Christ’s birth; or so we hope. To write meaningful hymns, at least before they are overtaken by jingles and reindeer songs.

But it is a sin to compartmentalize the Incarnation. Let us observe, contemplate, and celebrate it every day of the year. We don’t need a “hook” to remember what “Christmas” is all about. In that sense Dec 25 is the least necessary of our holidays.

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Music Video:

I want to take you back as far as we can travel, musically, to the worship of Jesus’ time and place.

It is not known exactly when this Hymn of the Nativity (Christmas Troparion and Kontakion) was written, but it was a mere few centuries after the life of Christ on earth. It is from the early Byzantine era, although not from Byzantium (Constantinople, present-day Istanbul), and its words are Greek of the time. They exist too in Syriac and Aramaic (Aram being another name of Syria), and other local and ancient tongues. These primitive tropes are what early music sounded like, in the Middle East, and into Europe.

I choose this not only for its historic or informative function this Christmas, although interesting enough. But the changes I refer to in the essay, our culture’s onslaught on Christian traditions, are made evident by this music, and the images – look at the the images! (They are all labeled at the end of the clip.)

A few short years ago, the world took note of persecution against Christians in totalitarian states like China and North Korea. Christianity was proscribed in Muslim, Hindu, atheist, animist, and Communist societies. But today, many thousands of Christians are being slaughtered every year. Tortured, raped, crucified, beheaded. Threatened with death if they do not renounce Christ. Forced from homes by the millions.

Some of those homes and their church communities go back to the times immediately following Jesus’ ministry. For the first time in history, often, these communities of believers are being martyred, “cleansed” from their 2000-year-old homelands. Do we know? Do we care? Sadly, many of these people are being as betrayed and forgotten by the church, as Jesus was by his “friends” at Crucifixion.

Our president does logical contortions to explain away Islamic radicalism in our midst. Yet persecuted Christians around the world receive scant notice from our government. Islamic refugees are welcome; displaced Christians are not. A sin.

These are people from Christ’s time and place; and the music video here shows sites and churches and shrines from those times and places – birthplaces of Christianity. Here are images of the mighty ruins of Petra (where the Wise Men reportedly stopped on their journey); from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; significant sites in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan; the West Bank. Places where Jesus walked. Now being swept of Christianity.

Be filled with wonder; and with sorrow. And be reminded of our heritage. Have a blessed Christ’s Mass.

Hymn of the Nativity

A Different Present This Christmas

12-14-15

A guest message by my friend Lucille Zimmerman, a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, Colorado. She also teaches psychology and counseling courses at Colorado Christian University.

I woke up with Jesus on my mind.

Many years ago, I felt embarrassed when I walked into a home that had scripture verses or crucifixes on the walls. I thought those people were dorky. Backwards. I had grown up attending church, but it was meaningless. A series of motions.

But after many horrible years of emotional pain, I met someone who radiated love and joy. I began to study the faith that gave him peace: Christianity. I wanted what he had. When I was 27, I fell head over heels in love with my Savior.
 
I began studying the Bible, and realized it was a book you could make sense of. It contained 66 sub-books written hundreds of years apart, but each book supported the other. Then I read books from critics who tried to disprove the historic evidence for Jesus… but those people ended up believing Jesus was real, too.
 
There is more historical proof that Jesus walked this earth than about any person in history. Hundreds of witnesses verified his miracles. He was killed because he was a threat, but this was His plan all along: His blood would be shed for our sins.
 
After three days He rose from the dead and sits with God just like He said he would. Just for fun, pick up a Bible or go to Google and read what Jesus told his closest followers in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, just before He gave His life, and upon which sacrifice we might believe.
 
In the past 23 years I have continued to study who Jesus was. And I am only more convinced that He is the way.

In these days, when 80 per cent of Americans believe another ISIS terror event will happen, soon, on our soil… these days when ISIS has stolen the machines to make fake passports…. these days when our government cannot tell us how many people with Syrian passports were allowed in the US this year… these days when our leaders cannot even tell us how many people have overstayed their visas: the threat is real.
 
It is scary these days. But you can have a more solid peace. When the Columbine tragedy happened in my Colorado community, one of our pastors said you can never be ready for the scary things that happen in this world; but you can be ready nonetheless.
 
John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world He gave His only son that whosoever believes in Him would have everlasting life.”
 
You are the “whosoever.”
 
You don’t have to be good, or go to church, or pray a certain number of times a day. If those things were the way, you wouldn’t need Jesus.
 
All you have to is believe. Or want to believe. Whisper a prayer to God and ask Him to show you if this is the truth. The Bible says God honors those who seek Him.
 
If you don’t know Him, I pray this year you would consider it. I can’t think of a better time, when the world is in such chaos and danger, and Christmas is two weeks away.

This can be the merriest, happiest, most rewarding Christmas you ever can experience by following Lucille’s version of God’s plan , and Jesus Christ’s invitation. And if you know Jesus already, consider printing or forwarding this message to friends or family members who do not. A Christmas gift of love!

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Click: Trust

Lucille Zimmerman is the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy In an Overwhelmed World and What Does God Say About Suffering?
www.LucilleZimmerman.com

God Won’t Fix This

12-7-15

“God Won’t Fix This.” This was the four-word headline splashed over the front page of the New York Daily News after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino.

They printed four small photos, insets of public officials, with their quotations asking for, or offering, prayers. “Thoughts and prayers,” in the current parlance; and the News yellow-highlighted the word “prayer” in each instance. Their copy, on the front page and successive pages of the “news”paper, criticized Republican candidates for offering prayers “and not solutions.”

Put aside for the moment the point of view that prayers to God might be solutions, it was interesting – no, that’s not quite the precise word; ah, yes: disgusting – that the editors politicized the horror by ripping solely into Republicans’ statements. And noting that three Democrat candidates for the presidency did not ask for prayer or invoke God. And not mentioning that President Obama, whatever else he says, routinely assures the nation that “our thoughts and prayers go out” after such incidents. Politics 101? I give ‘em an F.

Personally, my spirit bristles when people talk about prayer and God in superficial ways. Prayer is a powerful tool designed to communicate with our Heavenly Father. “Our prayers go out” is so clichéd – often, but not always – as to weaken its sincerity. If a Christian proposes prayer, having God’s ear, so to speak, he or she should pray then and there. Not the Sinner’s Prayer, not necessarily a rambling list of petitions, but a “Dear God”… followed by the plea or praise… ending with an “Amen,” is sincere, sufficient to most occasions, and effective.

Even Gov. Huckabee, an ordained minister, used to end his TV shows with, “God bless.” Finish the sentence! Is it a request or a demand? God bless what, or who? A pose, a mask; get real!

But I digress. The Gospel According the Daily News was very significant. In journalistic terms, it was symbolic. The tabloid, founded in 1919 and for many years boasting the second-highest circulation in the United States, has fallen like a rock and has been up for sale for some time. Owned by the mogul Mortimer Zuckerman, it was on the auction block for months, reportedly at one point offered for a single dollar… if the new owner would assume the gargantuan debts. No takers. After firing entire department staffs and abandoning categories of coverage, it teeters between going digital and folding outright.

Mortimer Zuckerman’s property was launched by Captain Joseph Patterson, cousin of the Chicago Tribune management. For decades both papers were two of the most conservative and traditional-values organs in the nation. No more. It is tempting to think of cause and effect (crummy stands and low readership); evidently Mortimer Zuckerman does not.

Whether the blasphemy splashed across the paper’s front page was a publicity stunt or not – here we are, after all, discussing it — Mortimer Zuckerman’s disgraceful display is perfectly emblematic of a deep problem in post-Christian America. The mockery of the screaming headline was not so much directed at politicians’ statements, or their failures to join, lockstep, liberals’ solution of laws, laws, and laws, in the face of violence of Islamic terror.

No, the scorn was directed at peoples’ natural reactions to turn to God in crises and troubled times. Candidates, everyday citizens, neighbors, the wounded, the children and families of the dead – they (we) are ridiculous hypocrites or deluded wastrels in the eyes of contemporary society. Today’s reigning culture hates us.

More, the sacred institution of prayer, ordained of God; and God Himself, are the real targets. Scornful, mocking, blasphemous. America, 2015. We have laws – California’s among the strictest – but the impulse to seek God is “futile,” we are told in today’s secular sermons and front pages.

This just in: Next in the parade of the Misplaced Moralists was the News’ neighbor, the New York Times.In its Saturday, Dec 5, print edition, the “Paper of Record” printed a front-page editorial for the first time in 95 years. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger wrote that “America’s elected leaders” should be ashamed of themselves for “offering prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequences, reject[ing] the most basic restrictions of weapons of mass killing.” By the way, the public scolding made no reference to Islam or Muslims, or jihadi terrorism; rather to do away with the Second Amendment, promote “reasonable regulation” and outright confiscation of firearms.

In the larger picture, we have barred God and the Bible from classrooms… and classrooms became incubators of rebellion and false values. We have stripped the public forums of our Christian heritage… and America enjoys (?) drugs, sex, abuse, violence, social dislocation of all sorts.

Some call this coincidence. People like Mortimer Zuckerman and Arthur Sulzberger do. I call it Judgment. “God is not mocked,” the Bible warns. Who are the hypocrites? I remember when Hurricane Sandy slammed New York City, flooded its basements and filled its tunnels, Mayor Bloomberg, who had been on a crusade to remove God from public events and public places, all of a sudden called on churches to come to the city’s assistance. Bloomberg and Zuckerman and Sulzberger, the New Prophets of the Religion of No Religion… until needed.

Is it an empty cliché to say “God has been barred from classrooms”? God, of course, is sovereign. He can be anywhere, and do anything. But He has principles and consistency as part of His person, too. God cannot contradict Himself.

When He became incarnate as the Christ, Jesus returned to His native Nazareth, as recorded in two of the Gospels. Not a happy homecoming: many of the people were scornful of Him and unbelieving of His divinity. Matthew 13:58 relates: “And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” That is the King James translation; in the Aramaic Bible in Plain English direct translation, we read, “And he did not do many miracles there because of their suspicion.”

Could Jesus have performed miracles? Of course. The incarnate Deity was sovereign. Was He scolding the population, petulantly withholding miracles to “get even” or teach them a lesson? Not likely. If He had performed tremendous, showy miracles, many people might have been affected.

But the ways of God are many, and mysterious, and just. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts,” saith the Lord (Isaiah 55:9). After all, one lone Centurion who believed was blessed; the woman touching the hem of His garment was healed, and so forth. In contemporary America and its media and Hollywood elite, to reject prayer and a turn to God – by victims themselves – displays our society’s hard heart and stiff neck.

Where does this leave us, in this all-too-common environment of fear and terror? Let us pray: Not in the Councils of the Ungodly. Can we Americans be so arrogant to think that God owes us mercy or pardon, while we offend Him daily in so many ways as a society? Even the non-Zuckermans and non-Bloombergs and non-Sulzbergers among us have become content to place our affection with corrupt things; to put our trust in man’s laws; to have faith in worldly things.

Liberals might scoff and say we need fewer prayers and more rules, but, even objectively, why must they be mutually exclusive? Rather, we need more love and less hate; more sincere hearts than know-it-all heads; more prayers and fewer laws; more God and less government.

“God Isn’t Fixing This”? Can anyone wonder?

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/gop-candidates-call-prayers-calf-massacre-article-1.2453261

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Click: The Faith Of Our Fathers

Gifted Hands

11-30-15

There has been a firestorm of chatter – accusations, distortions, smears, confusion, explanations – lately about Dr Ben Carson and elements of his biography. Whether he had violent tendencies in his impoverished youth in inner-city Detroit. Whether he attacked, or wanted to, kids and even his mother. Whether, as an excelling young student, had the SAT scores he has spoken of, and whether he was told he would be a good candidate, with reason to feel confident, for the US Military Academy.

Et cetera. Dr Carson has noted that the rabid press has not pursued for almost a decade the mysteries and inconsistencies of Barack Obama’s past. Dr Carson’s modesty has not made an issue of the fact that all the calumny has been disproved – the charges have, one by one, been refuted by facts and history and eyewitnesses.

Myself, I am just as (not) surprised that the tsunami of questions at Dr Carson’s press conferences are not about, say, being named head of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. At the age of 33. The landmark surgeries he performed. Becoming a world-renowned, encyclopedia-named brain surgeon. The number of lives he saved. His dozens of honorary degrees. The work of his foundation, which encourages and supports academic excellence in youth. His Christian witness and talks, inspiring millions. Where are THOSE stories?

… in fact they are in Dr Carson’s book “Gifted Hands.” It is his autobiography, written years before he retired from medicine and turned to public service (what a term – he has been serving the public all his life!), and from which an inspiring movie was produced (Cuba Gooding Jr portrayed Carson).

And that brings me to why I am writing this essay. The “man in the news” I want to share is not Carson, here, but his co-author on “Gifted Hands,” Cecil Murphey. That book is being cited, mis-characterized, and everything in between.

Cecil Murphey is a friend of mine, if I may boast, and I would like to share some things about a man who, to many people at the moment, is just a name. Cec is the author or co-author of almost 150 books. He is the absolute master of co-authoring the works of notables, interesting people, and average but inspirational folks; as well those who are inexperienced or too busy for the nuts-and-bolts of putting a book together.

“…With Cecil Murphey” appears on the covers of life stories of Ben Carson, Don Piper (“90 Minutes in Heaven” and others), Shaun Alexander, Dino, et al., including many famous names on whose books he did not receive credit (which is a common practice in publishing).

He also assisted on Dr Carson’s book “Think Big – Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence.” He has also written scores of other books – Bible apologetics; romance mysteries; travel and self-help; devotionals; and inspirational books addressing addiction, recovery, loss, healing, caregiving, grief, exercise, aging, sex trafficking, loved ones with dementia, and living with sexual abuse. Specifically, sexual molestation from the family’s point of view, living with the victim; and from the victim’s own viewpoint. Cec himself suffered abuse as a child, and his own book (“When a Man You Love Was Abused”) on the subject was difficult to write, challenging to have published, and… is touching, powerful, and useful.

Behind the scenes (for many) – Cec has also written books on the craft of writing. He holds seminars and has mentored many writers; he is an encourager. He has appeared at many writer’s conferences (Marlene Bagnull’s Christian Writers Conference is where I was blessed to first meet Cec) and has – anonymously – donated thousands and thousands of dollars for scholarships to aspiring writers.

He has received honorary degrees, many awards, was a pastor in the Atlanta area, has served as a hospital chaplain, and was a missionary in Kenya for six years. He is a man of unbelievable energy (myself, I am worn out just listing a few of his accomplishments!), with a generous heart, tremendous talent, and – pertinent these days, as his name is being dragged into mud-slinging political smears – utter integrity. A man of God, serving God and humanity. No less than the similarly modest, gifted, and brilliant subject of certain of his books, Dr Ben Carson.

The Founding Fathers of the United States fully intended – and fervently prayed – that future leaders would arise not from a permanent political class but from the general population. They would be farmers, and lawyers, and shopkeeps, and… doctors; they would serve as law-makers for a spell, representing their neighbors, always feeling responsible to them and obligated to serve them. And then they would return to their farms, their offices, their shops, their patients. Citizen Patriots.

Dr Carson understands that vision, and fulfills that aspiration. He lives it. And Cecil Murphey, the man who wrote Dr Carson’s story almost 20 years ago, understood it too, and communicated. In the same manner, he is a journeyman writer with his own Gifted Hands.

Every news item has a back-story. Cecil Murphey is the story behind a lot of other stories, and the stories of a lot of impressive people. There is a good chance that you have read a best-selling book he helped to write, or ghost-wrote, without your being aware of it. I am glad to share his story here, and proud to have him as a friend. He is also a Christian worker who is a Citizen Patriot serving his nation.

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The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will not deter Dr Ben Carson as he seeks the presidency and, perhaps someday, even higher positions; nor Cecil Murphey, whose pen is a mighty sword of God. Here, a contemporary song of Christian encouragement, sung by Joni Eareckson Tada.

Click: Alone Yet Not Alone

Cecil Murphey

Calm Down and Hold On

11-23-15

An ironic side-effect of the current wave of bombings and attacks against Christians by fringe-group Mohammedan jihadis is the revival of disputes between Christians. Not Moslems vs Christians; but Christians vs Christians.

On the airwaves, in churches, on street corners, over dinner tables, proponents range and rage. Put aside the ancient debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin: I would not be surprised if even those angels are arguing as they dance on the heads of pins.

What would Jesus do? Should we stop the flow of refugees? Are some of them “refujihadis”? Should persecuted Christians from the Middle East receive preference? Are we being bigots as we express wariness of Moslems? Do we invite slaughter on our doorsteps? Isn’t it about who we ARE as a people? What is wrong about wanting to preserve our inheritance and traditions? And so forth.

It seems certain that there is not one answer to each question. There might be no good answers. They might all have bad answers. Maybe the choices of the Christian West, speaking generically of our background and heritage, are Bad and Worse. Challenges that shift and morph are difficult to solve wisely. Enemies who declare their blood-lust hatred but refuse to expose themselves are complicated adversaries, surely.

Theoretical, even theological, responses, in the face of secular and Christian dissenters with whom we contend, are influenced by putting ourselves in the places of persecuted refugees (I hope none of us identifies with embedded terrorists)… or innocent potential victims.

There are many aphorisms in folk wisdom, which we all revere, that nevertheless contradict themselves. “He who hesitates is lost,” yes; but “Look before you leap.” Life lessons whose wisdom, sometimes, is difficult to discern. The Bible is no different – in fact it contains the pre-eminent life lessons.

Yet we have Jesus adjuring uncharitable listeners with the parable of the Good Samaritan… but told His disciples to tend to the Jewish “lost sheep” before the Samaritans. He tells us to “turn the other cheeks” but overturned money-changers’ tables and called people “fools, blind guides, hypocrites, murderers, brood of vipers, tombs with rotting corpses inside, hell’s offspring,” etc. Was Jesus inconsistent? No, God cannot lie, and Bible scholarship relies on scripture confirming scripture – contexts, cases, prayerfully perceiving God’s will.

So it is with “secular” issues… many of which, today, are not so secular after all.

In 1988 I took my family on a vacation to Europe, landing in Paris and proceeding through France to Germany. In 1988-89, the Eiffel Tower was painted a tan color that looked dull up-close, but at night, in floodlights, gave it a look of pure gold. It was for the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World’s Fair.

One evening we took a boat ride around Paris on the Seine, watched a fireworks display, then went up the Eiffel Tower to view the city, and for a late snack. It is not a one elevator-ride express, ground level to top: there are platforms with shops and restaurants. But we decided to go all the way to the top, and then walk down the iron-rail steps a level or two.

My daughter Emily, who was only five, suddenly froze in fear halfway down one of the stages. It was hard to get her to move… until we suggested that we all hold hands and walk down together. Some people joined us (including an Australian couple we met again on a tour bus in Germany a week later!).

At one point, Emily smiled and looked up and said, “If we all hold hands, we can do ANYTHING!”

That is true today as well. In Paris, certainly. And all over the world. And… in our own neighborhoods.

Before we can join hands with our enemies, even potential enemies, we must learn to join hands with one another. But does it seem, these days, that this is the more difficult challenge?

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Click: Jesus, Hold My Hand

Foes of Our Own Household

11-16-15

“Your enemies will be right in your own household!” a prophecy of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 10:36, New Living Translation. In King James language, “there will be foes of your own household.”

The monstrous attacks in Paris this week – coordinated, well-planned, replete with torture, and gunmen praising Allah – will, I fear, someday be looked back upon as mild foreshadows. We already have lists, three-dozen incidents long, of terror attacks on Western buildings, trains, ships, sporting events, restaurants, and schools. These atrocities have largely been perpetrated by Moslems, and have been accompanied, generally subsumed by, bloodier and more vicious attacks on Christians.

Christians all over the world have been targeted by means of displacement, ethnic cleansing, prison, torture, rape, slavery, dismemberment, crucifixions, and beheadings.

Without exception, these barbarities are committed by members of the Islamic religion, followers of Mohammed (blessed be his name). And this is not in the seventh century – I mean, not ONLY in the seventh century – but in the year of our Lord 2015. Last year there were an approximate 16,800 terror attacks worldwide, and approximately 43,000 deaths (State Department figures, therefore probably low).

The recent carnage in the City of Lights, Paris, is different than targeted attacks against military bases or naval vessels. And I can understand the blind rage of populations who have lost their homes and liberty, pushed into, or out of, occupied lands. Another topic, and very important.

But it is a condition, not a theory, that confronts us.

The Christian West is being attacked and eaten at the edges, just as Rome was in its last phase. The self-destructive West (including the United States) is morally flaccid as it refuses to defend its values and heritage. In a paroxysm of folly, however, these days we invite the hordes in. Do you call it madness, the Spirit of Contemporary Western Civilization seems to ask. “Very well, then,” it answers, paraphrasing Walt Whitman; “So I am mad.”

Jesus explained the past and prophesied the future that will usher the End Times: “…it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be…” (Matt. 24: 37-39 NLT).

We all go to bed, get up, manage households, do our jobs, worry about finances, raise kids, follow sports teams, love our favorite entertainers, watch movies, “give in marriage and being given”; and go to bed all over again. Meanwhile the apocalypse is coming. When we are made aware, we wish it away. That is, we wish it goes away.

Our leaders, and our celebrity sheepherders, soothe us into false serenity by telling us that less vigilance will keep us safer. That not calling our enemies by their names will make them go away. That abandoning our faith is the answer to the world’s current crisis of faith.

The extreme predicament, the jeopardy that threatens us and our children and our precious heritage, is not material or geographic or economic; it is spiritual at its core. The only solution, therefore, is spiritual. Not the best response, but the only response.

Many Facebook posts after the Paris bloodbath objected to people who urged prayers for the French and the families of those slaughtered. A common meme: “We need less religion, not more prayers.” “Religion is what fuels all this.” Like rats eating at a rotten corpse, like bacilli devouring a host organism, the foes of our own household want to destroy Christianity and Western Civilization. Few of these who whine are Mohammedans – and, if history provides a pattern, they would be the first to be slaughtered by revolutionaries. Even before the holders of the flames of our heritage. Violent revolutions routinely “eat their babies” first.

As all this continues to play out (and there are few signs that matters will reverse themselves), Islamic radicals flooding Europe display little humility and gratitude, much hatred and bloodlust. On Facebook, the world’s bulletin board, we see numerous promises to rape our daughters, burn our churches, and kill us all.

But these murderers and murderers-in-waiting are second-in-line to receive blame. They are Refujihadis, doing their jobs, after all. They despise Christians, but, if anything, hold secular cultures in more contempt: hence, attacks on France, the US, and Western Europe.

The guilty parties, dear Brutus, are not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. The contemporary Christian – you and I? – are of the generation that has lost our way, failed to discipline our children, allowed ourselves to be deceived by seditious leaders, numbed by mass entertainment, and… we no longer believe or live by the faith of our fathers. Having, some among us, the form of godliness but denying the power thereof.

Another prophecy: “You live among rebels who have eyes but refuse to see. They have ears but refuse to hear. For they are a rebellious people” (Ezekiel 12:2 NLT).

Foes of our own households.

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A larger view of life, representing our duty to view the world and Christendom, written by Don Moen. Don was, neat coincidence, the college roommate of my friend Michael Cardone. Sung by Robin Mark.

Click: When It’s All Been Said and Done

Answer My Prayer!!!

11-9-15

One of the unique attributes of our God, one of the astonishing ways He relates to us, is communication. He could be what pagan religions imagined, a stone statue or a golden idol. Or He could have revealed Himself through a wise man, now dead; or a prophet, instead of becoming an incarnate human to whom we can relate, who confirmed His divinity by overcoming death.

He is a Holy God – not a cool next-door neighbor – so there are attributes that are also remote and mysterious, an appropriate dichotomy for the Creator of the Universe. But the most mysterious communication He ordains is also the simplest: prayer.

And now about prayer. … When you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly, and your Father, who knows your secrets, will reward you. Don’t recite the same prayer over and over as the heathen do, who think prayers are answered only by repeating them again and again. Remember, your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!
(Matthew 6:5-8)

He knows our needs before we pray… yet we are commanded to pray… He hears us… He promises to answer prayer. Even Jesus set an example for us by frequently going aside, seeking solitude, praying alone before trials and important challenges.
God can already read our minds, know our thoughts, so why does He desire that we pray? Knowing our innermost desires or requests is not communication. How wonderful that He has established prayer as a way for us to focus: to order our priorities, to approach Him with proper attitudes; to put into “groaning,” as sometimes happens, the anguish of our souls.

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)

So we have a spiritual situation – truly, a gift – where we do not approach a stone idol or open the sayings of a dead teacher. We can approach, and boldly, the Throne of Grace. Answers? We know from Bible accounts, and testimonies of uncountable believers through history and in our midst, and from our own experiences, how answered payer comes.

God works through circumstances. Let the skeptics laugh, but Christians “know that we know that we know.” My wife, several times in her life, heard audible words from God. My daughter Heather has a remarkable manner in which she sometimes prays – walking, driving, moving about, having a conversation with Jesus. He is our best friend, after all.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4: 6,7)

There are many people who might not be skeptics, exactly, but yet be skeptical, or still seeking about this thing called prayer. What about prayers that are not answered? (If asked sincerely, we must know that God still answers – sometimes in His timing; sometimes in His wisdom; we are to wait.) What about prayers that go against our desires? (We must test our prayers – making demands upon God are not prayers, any more than a threat is not a conversation.) What about heartfelt pleas for things we deeply want? (God will lead us to know the difference between our needs and our desires.) What about answers to prayer that are disappointing? (God, who loves us, and knows what is best for us, should be trusted when He sometimes answers “no.”)

Despite these guideposts, troubled people can still have problems finding answers in, or through, prayer. I realize that; this sometimes describes myself.

Let us create a hypothetical. A couple has desired to adopt children, and prayed fervently over the commitments and practicalities. They feel in their hearts a “leading” to go forward. They faithfully proceed through the long and tortured process. Every step of vetting and screening is bathed in prayer. They are “matched” with children, eventually take them into their home, praise God for answered prayer, and rear them with the same love as for their biological children.

Continuing the hypothetical, the adoptees – from a very troubled background – manifest behavior that indisputably make the adoption untenable. Despite the application of prayer, and the best efforts of family, the agencies, police, doctors, and the parents’ hopeful hearts, circumstances make necessary the reversal of the adoption.

In these or similar situations (hypothetical or very real), what are people to say of prayer, which guided believers at every step? “The fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,” the Bible assures us. What “much”? Obedience can never be regretted. Seeds are planted, lessons learned, and there are answers we do not see. Or see right away. Or ever see. But God works His ways.

Souls that grieve, especially after prayerful decisions seemingly gone wrong, benefit from a certain type of prayer. Above is the verse that speaks of “groanings” we do not verbalize but are carried to God by the Holy Spirit. Praying in the Spirit is as old as Pentecost after Christ’s Ascension; the invitation for us to communicate with God by praying in tongues, the Bible’s “prayer language.”

But however communicated, the prayer line that was valid during your hope-filled crisis is just as valid afterward. The peace you sought is still waiting for you. God has the same “ears” to listen, and you have the same heart to receive. He is whispering this to you.
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. (Psalm 34:17)

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Through prayer, and in prayer, because of prayer, we realize that the God of the mountain is still God in the valley. At a recent Isaacs Family concert at the First Baptist Church of Kearney, Missouri, they spotted Lynda Randle (sister of Michael Tait of dc talk and Newsboys) in the audience. She was persuaded to sing her signature song.

Click: God On the Mountain

Jesus Christ’s Memo to America

11-2-15

Yes, He wrote to us. Many Christians wonder why the United States is not mentioned or referred to, even by allusion or imagery as with other world cultures, in scripture. The Roman Empire is, directly, and symbolically. Even Russia seems to have a place in prophecies of a “northern kingdom, Rosh,” playing a role in the Battle of Armageddon. Yet, seemingly, no America, no power beyond the seas, no specific place in interpretations of the elect nor of the 10-nation confederacy aligned with false prophets, anti-Christ…

Besides passages in books like Isaiah and Daniel, most of the curious and anxious folks – curious and anxious about the End Times, that is – pore through the Book of Revelation.

There is much that confounds people, from the purest spiritual seeker to the most profound biblical scholar. Eschatologists fall into the latter camp: those who find theology in speculating about said End Times. I passed through that phase of inquiry, not to trivialize it at all; and millions who read The Late, Great Planet Earth or were devoted to the Left Behind franchises also contemplated the Last Days.

Most of the Bible has been inspired and transcribed to be taken literally – except to those who literally deny the Word of God, or, in effect, edit Him by selectively accepting or rejecting portions. But there surely are parts of scripture that are poetic or speak through allusions, symbology, and numerology.

And then there is prophecy. Theories and interpretations abound. With the Book of Revelation alone – the “letter” from Jesus Christ, delivered by His angel to John, a Christian martyr exiled to the Isle of Patmos – there are pretarists (those who think the events were fulfilled in the first century); literalists, who think the seven churches addressed were actual congregations with the spiritual challenges described; dispensationalists, who believe the descriptions of the seven churches prophesy the unfolding fidelity of the church through the centuries… etc., etc.

… and that’s only the first few chapters! Scholars and believers, saints and sages, debate and dispute the majority of the book, which famously deals with such things as the Seven Seals, the Four Horsemen, the 144,000 remnant, Wormwood, the Two Witnesses, the Mark of the Beast, 666, the Whore of Babylon, the Battle of Armageddon, the False Prophet, Gog and Magog, the Millennial Reign, and the New Jerusalem.

All of a sudden, chapters 2 and 3 – messages to seven churches, whether real (they did exist at the time, ca 60-90 A.D.), or symbolic, or prophetic – seem quite easy to understand!

In fact I believe it is reasonable, and profitable, to be persuaded that all views of the praise and scolding of these seven churches can be taken together and accepted, a stew that is spiritual comfort food. All scripture, after all, is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work (II Timothy 3:16-17, NLT).

Frankly, if I were God, I would make certain elements of my message purposely ambiguous! Keep us on our feet, so to speak. Let us consider all that we should do, and what might happen. Watch and wait.

And in that regard, the lessons that Jesus shared with John are meant to speak to us, today, and on the several levels that we comprehend. Re-visit Revelation, and see if you fall under the praise, or warnings, described in the descriptions of those seven bodies of believers.

Or… whether America does.

To me, the Message to the Church in Laodicea is a chillingly appropriate description of America today. Revelation, Chapter 3, verses 14-17, 19-22:

Write this letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea. This is the message from the One who is the Amen—the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s new creation: I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth!

You say, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!” And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. … I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference.

Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear My voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. Those who are victorious will sit with Me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat with my Father on His throne.

Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what He is saying to the churches.

Is America lukewarm? Are you? If someone were to ask if you are a Christian, would you answer, “Well, yeah; I mean I am not Jewish or Hindu!”… or do you have Jesus in your heart, and show Him? Do you live for Christ? Would you die for Him?

Have you gotten the memo?

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Click: He Took Your Place

Rosebud Archives has reprinted a deluxe edition of “The Apocalypse” passages from Revelation, with enlarged images of the iconic 500-year-old woodcuts by Albrecht Durer. A “PadFolio” whose pages can be removed for framing. Details:
http://www.rosebudarchives.com/wp/products/the-apocalypse/

When NOT To Turn the Other Cheek

10-26-15

A Reformation lesson.

The observance of Reformation Sunday also provides an umbrella over a discussion of “tolerance,” Christian charity, “turning the other cheek,” loving your enemies, and similar topics. In the United States Reformation Sunday has come to be observed on the last Sunday in October, but is conterminous with All Saints’ Day. It is a legal holiday in parts of Germany, in Slovenia (despite its majority Catholic population), in Chile, and elsewhere.

October 31 is when the German monk Martin Luther, pushed to holy exasperation by the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences (certificates promising to keep one from hell) and other extra-biblical practices, nailed a list of his complaints to the cathedral door in Wittenberg. These were the “95 Theses” – a lengthy set of arguments indeed – and are regarded as the spark that ignited the kindling of resentment and reform within the Catholic church.

Protestantism – now myriad denominations – resulted. First followers of Luther, then Calvin, the Wesleys, Pietists, Puritans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, through evangelicals to perhaps the church’s very first manifestations again, Pentecostals. The Roman Church remains, as do various Orthodox traditions.

The Reformation came to my mind when, as occasionally happens, a subscriber to this blog “unsubscribed.” Actually it was an old friend, and the spark for him was an essay in which I criticized recent social trends, and took President Obama to task, I think over his advocacy of homosexual marriage or abortion, contrasted to his professed Christian faith; or perhaps it was his Administration’s virtual silence in the face of Christian persecution around the world.

I thought, and think, that such attitudes and national policies deserve criticism. “Not interested in political critiques,” my friend wrote. To me, policies make politics, no avoiding it. And Protestants originally were those who Protested.

Once I asked the cartoonist Al Capp about making a distinction between commentary and pure humor. He saw none, and replied, “Every cartoonist is a commentator. Even when you draw a cat, you automatically are commenting on cats.” In a similar manner, contemporary life has tuned everything political: much affects us, and reactions are inevitable; this is politics, in a way. But everything is not “partisan” – this party or that; liberal or conservative – and many people confuse the two P words.

Many Christians cite the scriptural admonitions to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, “render unto Caesar,” and, at the extreme of these modes, to honor the “divine right of kings.” My friend objects to receiving blogs with points of view, and I can sympathize. Many of us fends off scores of these every day. I have a friend who submits magazine articles critical of the Christian Right, a shorthand term, and even has invented conversations with Christ in the manner of the Socratic elenchus. Between this and an essay mentioning policies that are counter-Christian… a distinction perhaps without a difference.

Speaking personally – which I do in these messages – I wrestle with the challenge of resisting laws, rules, and practices that I consider inimical to the cause of Christ.

Yes, we should obey laws; and the Bible says that has God has ordained those in authority, that He has placed those in authority. But, obviously, we are free in God’s eyes to resist the appeals of incumbents to vote for them, and instead support their opponents. No? Should Jews have been compliant in Nazi Germany? Were Blacks wrong to commit civil disobedience against segregation? If our Christian beliefs convince us that abortion is murder, must we remain silent? decline to work for change if we can?

God has given us brains (that is, consciences — not always the same thing) as well as hearts, and I am quick to acknowledge the slippery slope of applying the argument that we can love our own enemies but not God’s. Possibly too facile, so we rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit. But yet, challenges and contradictions confront us.

It brings me (a happy inspiration) to Reformation. The attitude that we must without deviance obey ecclesiastic and civil authority, as Christians, would condemn the martyrdom of uncountable saints past and present. What of those in the Age of the Apostles who defied Rome in order to establish Christian communities? What of those who defied their superiors to translate Scripture, and to evangelize? What of the reformers, in centuries before and centuries after Luther, who worked to return Christianity to biblical foundations?

Among others, if the Wesley brothers had been compliant clergymen, not dissenting nor resisting, where would our faith, our hymnals, our churches be today?

Welcome back to the dichotomy: one man’s “injecting politics” is another man’s “defending Christianity” or defining morality. To navigate the slippery slope recognizes the need, as we said, for prayer and Holy Spirit guidance at all times.

I am reminded of David’s petition to God, in Psalm 109, that He punish and discomfit those who accused and disagreed with him. And – on Reformation Day – I cite the words of Martin Luther, the priest who defied the Pope; criticized his fellow, corrupt, churchmen; published 95 scathing critiques; publicly burned the Papal Bull (arrest warrant) against him; refused to renounce his writings; was caught up in the “politics” of the day and went into hiding to save his life; and, commanded to renounce his views, declared: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

From his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

Though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.

That Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!

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I have heard the Battle Hymn of the Reformation performed, in many venues large and small, including on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth, in the cathedral chapel in the city of Augsburg, Germany, where he defended his faith. And I have sung it myself uncountable times, frequently with tears in my eyes. But few performances have the impact of Steve Green, singing it a cappella before 70,000 men at a Promise Keepers gathering.

Click: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

An American President Tells Why We Should Attend Church

10-19-15

Later this month we will observe the 157th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth. One of the greatest presidents of the United States; the “Most Interesting American”; and, often forgotten, one of the most devout and observant Christians to have served as Chief Executive.

TR frequently quoted Bible verses (and titled two of his approximately 50 books from Biblical passages); he volunteered to teach Sunday School while a student at Harvard; he often delivered impromptu sermons when requested at churches he visited (and seldom missed Sunday worship throughout his life, whether in the wild west or in the White House); and, despite higher-profile and more lucrative offers after he retired from the presidency, he became Contributing Editor of The Outlook, a modest weekly Christian opinion journal.

His faith, of course, was “manly,” in the parlance of an earlier age – bold, unapologetic, encouraging. He once said, in an address to the newly formed Gideon Band: “The Christianity that counts is the kind that is carried into a man’s life. The man who does ordinary work well is working for the Lord. I do not like to see a slack man…. If you do not find in a man any outward manifestations of the Spirit, I am inclined to doubt if it ever has been in him. I like to see fruits…”

In the same manner he also spoke at a church dedication: “In business and in work, if you let Christianity stop as you go out of the church door, there is little righteousness in you. You must behave to your fellowmen as you would have them behave to you. You must have pride in your work if you would succeed. A man should get justice for himself, but he should also do justice to others. Help a man to help himself, but do not expend all your efforts in helping a man who will not help himself.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite Bible verse was Micah 6:8 – “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Imagine this today, but in 1917 Roosevelt wrote an article for the Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, and the subject was “10 Reasons Men Should Go To Church.” Imagine a president of our time writing for magazines as diverse as Ladies’ Home Journal, The Outlook (and National Geographic and the children’s magazine St Nicholas and The American Historical Review and Cosmopolitan and The New York Times and American Museum Journal and…). And imagine a president today exclaiming Christian faith. Frequently. But to TR every venue was a pulpit, and a bully one at that.

Words for then, words for now: here is his article on Why men should attend church.

In the actual world, a churchless community, a community where men have abandoned and scoffed at or ignored their religious needs, is a community on the rapid downgrade.

Church work and church attendance mean the cultivation of the habit of feeling some responsibility for others and the sense of braced moral strength, which prevents a relaxation of one’s own moral fiber.

There are enough holidays for most of us that can quite properly be devoted to pure holiday making. Sundays differ from other holidays, among other ways, in the fact that there are 52 of them every year. On Sunday, go to church.

Yes, I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the Creator and dedicate oneself to good living in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in one’s own house, just as well as in church. But I also know as a matter of cold fact the average man does not thus worship or thus dedicate himself. If he strays from church, he does not spend his time in good works or lofty meditation. He looks over the colored supplement of the newspaper.

He may not hear a good sermon at church. But unless he is very unfortunate, he will hear a sermon by a good man who, with his good wife, is engaged all the week long in a series of wearing, humdrum, and important tasks for making hard lives a little easier.

He will listen to and take part in reading some beautiful passages from the Bible. And if he is not familiar with the Bible, he has suffered a loss.

He will probably take part in singing some good hymns.

He will meet and nod to, or speak to, good quiet neighbors. He will come away feeling a little more charitably toward all the world, even toward those excessively foolish young men who regard churchgoing as rather a soft performance.

I advocate a man’s joining in church works for the sake of showing his faith by his works.

The man who does not in some way, active or not, connect himself with some active, working church misses many opportunities for helping his neighbors, and therefore, incidentally, for helping himself.

Think about Theodore Roosevelt on October 27… and then think about the things one of our greats president thought about!

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Judy Collins and the Boy’s Choir of Harlem, at the U S Capitol:

Click: Amazing Grace

The “Man Upstairs” Has Moved Out

10-12-15

As most of you know, Dr. Pangloss was a character in Candide by Voltaire. As with many characters in fiction and literature whose sayings (“Something will always turn up,” said Micawber in Dickens’ David Copperfield) and very names (Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals) have entered the language, Pangloss manifested the universal tendency to accept what life dumps on us: “This is the best of all possible worlds.”

It is very seldom that anyone who believes he or she really is living in the best of all possible worlds says so. Usually we are whistling in the graveyard; that is, putting up a confident front, trying to convince ourselves (and anyone else who will listen) that we are not as bad-off as things seems.

The saying, and the attitude behind it, is more than resignation to life’s vicissitudes. At its best it is a temporary surrender in one of life’s battles, a choice not to respond or fight or overcome. At its worst it is a false sense of security that replaces wisdom and joy; a counterfeit theology that rejects the rescue-and-recovery operation laid out for us by God.

The counterfeit theology is deadly… and common. Many Christians, deliberately or unconsciously, employ it. It is, really, saying “no thanks” to God when He offers comfort, solace, wisdom, understanding, strength, hope.

Truly, superstition. If we utter it, we think it will become so, and our troubles will be calmed.

The deadliest aspect of believing that “This is the best of all possible worlds” is on people who, ironically, are relieved from reaching low-points, feeling desperate, realizing that they must run to the Lord. Knowing they must run to the Lord. Having to crawl to the Lord, if necessary. It sounds hard, but we are talking about those hard moments we all face.

Seeking the Lord (who, always, always in these circumstances is closer than we think) is not a bad thing in the end. It is, in fact, the Best Thing. It is where He wants us. What a shame that it takes horrible situations – or that we let ourselves be so separated – that we have to experience that desperation.

But what a wonderful thing that we seek and arrive at the foot of the Cross, before the Throne of Grace.

“This is the best of all possible worlds”? The phrase is often said after a death, an accident, a disappointment that we cannot explain. Personal sorrow, economic distress, dashed dreams. “Oh, well, maybe it’s for the best…” is a denial-fed mantra. Its efficacy is self-swindling balm, because many people will then say, “Anyway, I have to believe that; it helps me get through.”

This puts the saying in company with wishing-stones, rabbit’s feet, lucky charms, necromancy. What a waste of the joy unspeakable, full of glory, that God offers. If this – in the larger, non-specific sense – were the best of all possible worlds, there would be no need for prayer, spiritual guidance, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit; indeed, no need for a Savior.

There is sin in the world. Sometimes, often, we sin; we fall short of the glory of God. Our problems are always some result of sin, corruption, junk in the world around us. And sometimes the result of our own actions. Whatever. God provides a refuge. Jesus is the cleft in the rock during life’s storms. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter.

“Come to Me, weak and heavy-laden,” Jesus invited. “Peace that passes understanding,” we are promised. “I am the bread of life,” when our very souls are starving. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Understand me: the Sovereign Lord declares that without Him, this is NOT the best of all possible worlds.

If you are a believer and you find yourself falling back on that empty mantra, shake that dust from your sandals, and learn again how to walk with the Lord through this imperfect world.

If you are casual about your faith, or a nominal believer in God, or have a “universal” trust in the goodness of a supreme being – and you find yourself trusting, when “necessary,” that this is the best of all possible worlds – realize how empty this is. It is as sad, horribly sad, for people to decline God’s gifts as it is to defy Him.

And be more spiritual than to refer to “the man upstairs.” That “man” has moved out. In fact he was never home.

The Creator of the Universe not only is “upstairs,” but lives right next to you. He knows your answers; He has your answers; He IS your answer.

And He is your guide to the best of all possible worlds.

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Johnny Cash sang a song, late in his life, that captures the desperation we sometimes feel.

Click: Help Me, Lord

When Christianity Is Outlawed, We Will Be the Illegals

10-4-15

Faith has been in the news recently. More precisely, news about faith has confronted us, almost daily, of late.

The Pope visited America, and his words were examined, feared, or cheered. He put some current issues in a religious context. He secretly met with a Baptist woman from Kentucky who went to jail rather than certify, as a municipal clerk, marriage licenses for homosexuals; he reportedly encouraged civil disobedience like hers.

The scandal and controversy about selling harvested body parts of aborted babies has, of course, a religious cast, whether the faith in question is biblical or secular-humanist; its battles are fought, however, with religious fervor.

Christian expression, from signs and symbols to prayers and oaths, are being attacked by some citizens and suppressed by some governmental and military agencies.

Very recently there was another school shooting, at an Oregon college, where the murderer asked the victims’ faiths. Those who answered “Christian” he shot in their heads; others were shot in their legs. Echoes of Columbine, and other violent attacks. President Obama, almost immediately, addressed the nation and deplored the guns.

In a familiar pattern, Obama and the media not-so-subtly assign mass shootings and gun violence into one of two categories. If white people commit the crimes, they are deranged radical Christians whose guilt is shared only by an evil society obsessed by weaponry. If the shooters are black or Muslims, they are misunderstood victims of a bigoted society who justifiably retaliate in a form of workplace violence. So goes the analyses and their logical extensions.

This all might look like random bits, issues of war and terrorism and Constitutional rights and women’s rights and free speech and random violence or mental-health… but they are all, as I said above, religious matters at their core. Spiritual crises; spiritual warfare; spiritual solutions that are lacking. In fact I think the problems are deeper than news headlines or society’s fads: I think the many problems facing our neighborhoods and nation and the world are fundamental, not momentary, troubles.

History might be at a turning point. Our Western heritage is on the verge of extinction.

I might be one lonely essayist making these observations, and you might agree or disagree. But I invite you to read the words of someone who might surprise you, because they scarcely have been reported in the press. So I am happy to quote some presidential passages here:

“Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values… Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan.”

“I did as [my mother] said and then put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since.”

“First and foremost we should be governed by common sense. But common sense should be based on moral principles first. And it is not possible today to have morality separated from religious values.”

“The… Church plays an enormous formative role in preserving our rich historical and cultural heritage and in reviving eternal moral values. It works tirelessly to bring unity, to strengthen family ties, and to educate the younger generation in the spirit of patriotism.”

Quiz time is over. Not Washington nor Adams. Not Lincoln nor Theodore Roosevelt. (Not, either – need we say? – Barack Obama) These are quotations from speeches by President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Russia has reinstated the churches that were outlawed by the Soviets; and encourages religious expression. Putin has been baptized, has testified to faith in Christ, and attends church regularly. Russia’s foreign policy has been victim of radical Islam, and has pursued policies against it at home, in provinces, and abroad.

In Syria, Russia recognizes that ISIS is at heart an anti-Christian movement. President Assad, for all his sins, is of the Alawite minority, as are Syrian Christians; and Christians generally are protected in Syria – and were similarly protected by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But after the US invasion and withdrawal, Christians have been slaughtered wholesale or driven from their ancient towns – now virtually extinct as a people in Iraq after 2000 years.

Russian law now bans homosexual “propaganda,” abortion advertising, abortions after 12 weeks, and has criminalized the “insulting” of people’s religious sensibilities – a refreshing twist of the American fetish with “hate crimes.” Rev. Franklin Graham has applauded these priorities. President Putin has declared Russia a “Christian country,” not that other religions are outlawed (he recently attended a mosque dedication) but respecting his nation’s heritage and traditions. As once was the case in Christian America.

I, and many friends, are in the odd position of wanting automatically to defend our flag and our country that stands, today, for hedonism, pornography, homosexuality, feminism, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, assisted suicide, sale of baby body parts, Hollywood “values,” easy divorce, easy abortions, easy immigration, easy drugs… And we are in the odd position of seeing an old foe, Russia, suddenly championing Christian values, calling Islamic expansionist radicalism what it is, and acting where the weak-kneed (or treasonous) American leaders will not.

The Administration favors killing babies, but not ISIS murderers, and Islamic terrorists.

Our government forces the entry of illegals across porous borders and from terror states, but initiates lawsuits against nuns who resist being forced to support abortions, and husband-and-wife bakers who decline to decorate cakes for homosexuals.

This week the presidential candidate Dr Ben Carson widely was criticized for saying that he would not vote for a Muslim for president. Lost in the din were details about those Mohammedans who elevate Sharia law above the Constitution; and the fact that Dr Carson does not advocate the banning of Islam or the deportation of Muslims. He would not vote for one, absent the conditions he stated. We still have freedom of conscience and freedom of action in America. Maybe not for long.

Secularists have almost convinced America that Abraham Lincoln was an atheist, but he once said: “I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”

In the year of our Lord 2015, America is making life hell for Christians at home, and acquiescing in Christian persecution abroad. While worship and freedom of thought are still legal, before our liberties slip away, while all these religious and pseudo-religious battles rage, let us recall another admonition of Lincoln. Let us not worry so much whether God is on our side… but whether we are on God’s side.

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Click: The Old Country Church

The Last Day Of the Rest Of Your Life

9-28-15

A tweenager I have gotten to know was saddened by the recent death of her grandfather. As a young Christian she displayed a concern that many youngsters otherwise would not feel: “I never had the chance to tell him about Jesus!” I thought of this yesterday when a neighbor told me he invited another neighbor to church one Wednesday evening; unable to attend, the fellow was invited on the following Saturday night. But the next morning the invited guest, in his 30s, was found dead in his living room. My friend had not inquired of the guy’s “standing with the Lord,” but church would have been a time to open such conversation.

These are poignant stories. Timing – as with so many things in life! – can be excruciating.

In significant matters like a person’s relationship with Jesus, making the simple but profound decision to accept Christ and be secure about eternal salvation, to be a child of God and a citizen of Heaven, we all have responsibilities. Jesus commanded us to share the Gospel. Not just with grandfathers and neighbors, but to all the world.

Yet, we can only do so much. It is my opinion that the contemporary church either makes too little of evangelism – diluting the Gospel – or too much, trying to “seal the deal” with professions of faith, signed pledges, and obligatory testimonies. We need to remind ourselves that our commission is to share the Gospel; it is, by holy design, the work of the Holy Spirit to convict, lead, and witness to people’s hearts.

Do we think the Holy Spirit inadequate to do the work Jesus foretold?

We should not stop coming alongside those new in faith, of course not, but we do not seal those deals, so to speak. We cannot. Individuals do, and only by the prompting and power of the Holy Spirit of God.

Further, to be humble about our roles can give us a clearer picture of things we are doing… and not doing, as Christian servants. That young lady who cried, “I never had the chance to tell Grandpa about Jesus!” did not mean she never had the chance. Nothing against her sincerity or naiveté – we all share such grievous regrets of timing – but what happened was she never took the chance. She had the chance; we all do. My neighbor took the chance by issuing an invitation. But, wow, what a reminder.

Right here, I only want to expand on this in a different way. You might be reading this, and might be someone who does not buy in to the act of “accepting Jesus,” or the importance of a “decision.” You might not be comfortable or consider it your role to “share the Gospel.” Or to respond to such forms of outreach. You are not alone, even in this land of many churches.

Well… then, this message is for you. You might not share; you might be shared to; you might dismiss the importance of “accepting Christ.” Maybe you have heard about such things, but never actually heard them directly. You are hearing now. Stick around for another paragraph or two.

We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. A just God cannot accept sinners determined to reject Him. As humankind discovered its inability to please the Lord by offerings and works, and our “clean” garments were still as filthy rags, God provided the Perfect Offering. He sent His Son to earth to teach and heal and preach and inspire – to save – a lost world. Christ became the sacrifice for our sins, that whoever believes in their hearts He is the Son of God; and confesses that God raised Him from the dead, shall be saved.

To this statement of Good News, if you add anything, that is foolish; if you subtract anything, that is dangerous. The Gospel invitation, condensed.

Now you have heard it. Whether you live a few more days or a few more decades, the Gospel has been shared with you. Next? Search the Bible; and pray to God for His Spirit to come into your heart… and your mind, that any questions you have will be answered. It is a prayer that never goes unanswered!

“Timing” still is important. This might be the last day of the rest of your life!

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We might stray, we might feel alone, we might think we are far from the Shepherd’s sight, or care. But remember the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Ninety-nine sheep might be in the fold, but He will seek out the one who is lost. This song was written by Elizabeth Clephane; melody by Ira Sankey, 150 years ago. Sung here by Dean Phelps.

Click: The Ninety and Nine

When NOT To Follow Jesus

9-21-15

I once worked for a youth-ministry resource company, as “Director of Product Development.” Actually it was as editor, sometime conference speaker, and seldom directing the development of new products, despite the title; unless books are called Products, which I suppose they are.

Anyhoo, an excellent editor and I oversaw the publication of about 50 books a year. Now that I look back, even between the two of us, that was a book every week, which we did, yes, “develop,” from brainstorming sessions, to proposals, to outlining, to many author conferences, to helping design and work on cover art; along the way contributing gems of wisdom about people who might write introductions and endorsements, suggesting promotion and ad copy; ultimately to develop comebacks for a Christian bookstore in, say, Pittsburgh, that objected to the way a kid looked on a back-cover photo.

But, a book every two weeks, as we, Solomon-like, divided the chores. No wonder we went crazy. Holy crazy, of course; sanctified bonkerdom. Biennial conventions, various office duties, and office picnics broke the monotony if not the workload.

But it was a wonderful company, a for-profit “ministry,” and thousands of pastors and youth workers – and by extension multiple thousands of kids – relied on our books, conferences, and products.

While I was at the company, the owner died in a horrible auto accident – one of those deaths when you automatically say, “Too young, too young.” He was too young, and it still would have been a tragic loss if had been 108. His widow picked up the reins. Soon into said reign she inaugurated a monthly book review group. It was voluntary in the office; Christian books were assigned; and she led a free-flow discussion.

In one of the sessions, talk turned to being secure about going to Heaven, as it does sometimes among members of old-line churches and even among skeptics. Our leader announced that she was pretty sure she was going to Heaven, because she and her husband “had given so much money to charities through the years.”

I paused. One way to put my reaction.

We all live in a land that was founded and settled by Christians, in a society that largely was designed and informed by Protestant theology. It is not against the law for anyone to dissent from these situations and their implications. But to be ignorant of them – especially as the owner and life-worker in jobs devoted to sharing the gospel among churches – is astonishing.

It is very common in America for average citizens to be ignorant of dogma that onetime permeated Western societies, however. It is common for people these days to be quite unaware of doctrines and traditions of the churches they attend – if those churches, many of them, “independent,” even hold to such things.

And the surprise I evinced that afternoon might have been unwarranted, because I had developed doubts that any shade of orthodoxy inhabited any corners of that office. And these are days when popes question traditional doctrine, and pastors gut the gospel and newly interpret – or couldn’t be bothered to – the Bible.

But the logic of revealed truth, if there is anything to the Bible, and Christ’s ministry, includes the fact that we cannot buy our way into Heaven. We cannot fool God with promises, bribe God with good deeds, or impress Him (that is, unto Salvation) with good works. If so, rich people writing checks would elbow themselves into Glory… and we know what Jesus said about the rich getting into Heaven. Indeed, if salvation were that easy, Jesus’ incarnation, birth, ministry, miracles, teaching, persecution, torture, condemnation, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, would all be worthless shams. Hoaxes. A cruel trick on the Christ, first of all; and then us. All in vain.

All through humankind’s history, people have been susceptible to “natural” curiosity about, say, reincarnation. Superstitions about karma. And false hopes that good deeds now and again will be sufficient to please a Holy God. Wouldn’t it be nice? And easy? The bad news is that it’s not true.

The good news is that there is a satisfactory substitute available to all. With our sinful inclinations, we cannot do it on our own, anyway – but God has provided the substitutionary and atoning death of His Son to pay the price of sin. Simple. Easy. Not cheap. But free.

Next, how do we live that new life with changed hearts? Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow Him. Yes, we should be Christ-followers. At the same time, as we are pilgrims and strangers in this world, we proceed forth, “stepping out in faith.” Alone? No, we know that Christ is there, leading from behind (as current phraseology goes)!

Over, under, above, below, however, the best we can ask for, and hope for, and have, is Jesus holding our hands. He will guide us day and night. He, working through the Holy Spirit, will correct us when we are mistaken.

That is, sometimes we follow; sometimes He is behind us; and sometimes it is best to hold His hand… the security of knowing that He is with us. At our sides; what a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

If we happen to slip into error or heresy… well, think of it this way: if you are persuaded to buy your way into Heaven through offerings or donations, if Jesus is holding your hand, it will be hard to reach for loose change or a checkbook. You will find yourself being reminded that charity is from a pure heart, and giving is the result of Salvation, not the price of a ticket to Heaven.

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The great gospel song by Albert E Brumley, “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” is a virtual sermon in song. It is a song I have sung solo in churches more than any other. Here is a heartfelt and, um, enthusiastic version by Jerry Lee Lewis.

Click: Jesus, Hold My Hand

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More