Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

Broken

5-29-17

I attended a church once where the Invitation at the end of the service invariably was unique. I did not grow up in churches where this was common, a situation I regret. In the church of my heritage it was assumed you were already in the family of God; or did not need a public act to show it or prove it or address it before others; or… such things were too embarrassing.

It would seem strange to be in a “family” if you are too embarrassed to share your joy. Or admit to shortcomings. Or show your feelings. It would seem stranger, frankly, to be embarrassed to confess anything – joy, emotion, guilt – before God Himself. Yet many Christians act that way. How many people share virtually everything in their lives with another person, or people, yet not their faith? Is it a real faith, or is it not a real relationship, in those cases?

Back to the “Invitation” at the church later in my life. It was a large congregation, and two aspects always impressed me. The pastor would end his sermon with the Salvation message; the importance for every person to ask forgiveness, to accept Christ; and to have a genuine relationship with the Savior. As Jesus instructed, to confess Him before all; to be public as His baptism was public.

Many times there would be silence. Often it grew awkward; nobody came forward to kneel at the altar. Was everybody, even among two thousand, already confident about their souls? Then invariably, one by one, people came forward. And as they did – better, believe me, than if dozens had immediately rushed forward – the congregation encouraged them. No embarrassment. They clapped. Cheered.

It was very much a picture of what the Bible tells us in Hebrews Chapter 11, that we are always compassed about by “a great cloud of witnesses.” Watching us… but supporting us, cheering us toward Heaven.

The other aspect I remember from Pastor Focht was his encouraging word to those who hesitated, those who perhaps made mental excuses for their spiritual shyness.

“You might not think you are quite ready to make confession, and to accept Jesus,” he said, “But you don’t need to take a bath before you take a shower. Come as you are.”

Profound. In truth, even after we are “saved,” forgiven and accepted into the Family of God, we might still sin. The difference between the Old You and the New You, of course (quoting a Holy Bumper Strip I saw once) is that we are not perfect, but we are forgiven. Also profound.

We grow closer to God when we have the spiritual maturity to say “God, I need You so much. I am broken. Heal me. Help me. I cannot do things (including this thing called Life) on my own!” And we grow not one inch closer when we say – as many of us are wont to do – “God, I’ll take it from here. I understand it all now. Thanks for bringing me this far. I’m OK now.”

None of us are OK now, without Jesus. All of us are broken, in some way or other.

Broken in body, frequently. Broken in spirit, more often. Sustaining broken expectations. Battered by broken promises, broken relationships, broken friendships.

I have always loved the not-so-incidental fact that Jesus was a carpenter. First, continuing His father’s craft. But more so, He was carpenter who mended broken bodies. Profound.

Being broken, however, is not a lowly state; we only make it so.

Cathedrals are constructed with broken stones, chosen and arranged just right.

Beautiful stained-glass windows are made of uncountable pieces of broken glass.

Mosaics are made of little broken chips of ceramic, odd and insignificant in themselves, but stunning – and making sense – when a master sees the big picture… and fits everything together.

God loves the Broken Ones, and honors us when we admit to our brokenness. And he sees that Broken Ones come into our paths. We do His work when we bind them up, encourage them, and cheer them forward.

It is why the poor are, somehow, always with us. It is why little girls frequently choose tattered old dolls to fancy new ones. It it why our selves and our churches (despite governments’ efforts to co-opt these impulses) minister to the lost, the hurting, the… broken souls in our midst.

In those times we see the broken ones; we see Jesus; we see ourselves. Whether we have a loose button and torn dress as happens to dolls, or are physically abused or addicted, or have felt betrayed and friendless, we all could use some real patchin’ up. Oh yes. Common, but profound.

+ + +

Click: Broken Ones

What Does God See in You?

5-22-17

The worst prayer – the worst kind of prayer – that a Christian can pray begins from the attitude of “Forgive me, a poor sinner”; or “Unworthy!” or “Lord, I am not fit to approach Your Throne of Grace”…

We do need forgiveness, all the time. We are poor sinners. We are unworthy and not deserving of being in His presence. These things are true…

Except for the factor of Jesus. The Person of Jesus. We are less than worthy, but we are more than conquerors.

I do not contradict myself although, like Walt Whitman, I sometimes say, “Very well, I contradict myself!” But not as to what the Bible teaches – the core of Christianity. Above, I said that prayers offered with those ATTITUDES are mistaken. If we see ourselves in those relational positions, we reject the Truths of God to whom we pray. We insult the work of Jesus on the cross. We insult the Holy Spirit of God, who is sent to be our Helper, our Guide, our Counselor.

What do people think – what do Christians think – God sees when He looks at them?

Through history, many Christians have thought, hoped, and operated on the belief that He sees our good deeds. He does… but scarcely the totality of what He sees.

Many Christians take comfort that He sees their charitable activities, missions works, volunteer efforts, even the merciful acts performed. Surely the case… but, I submit, not the main things He looks for.

There are Christians who are confident, even in spiritual modesty, that their sacrifices and their service, their sweet spirits of forgiveness, please God. Of course these “fruits” please God… but we are told that such things are as dirty rags to a Just and Perfect God if we believe that they guarantee our home in Eternity once God sees them.

The Bible is full of believers who were at the other extreme of spiritual modesty: presumption. We know of “whited sepulchres”; of show-off givers; of those who pray loudly in the temple to be noticed; of hypocrites and vipers and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Of these types God will say… “Be gone, I never knew you! Depart from Me!”

So, what does God see when He looks down (or up, or over, or through) us? Many Christians will say, “He looks at our hearts.”

Yes, He does look at our hearts. He knows us better than we know ourselves. I happen to believe that if there is a choice – however, this is not a choice in life – but if there had to be one direction of “knowing the heart,” we should desire more that that we seek after God’s own Heart, and fear that He sees ours. Which is the point of this message.

Yes, when God sees us, He sees and knows our “hearts” – our thoughts, motives, desires. But that is STILL not what sees first, last, and most important when He looks at us.

I want us all to be reminded, and take comfort, and seize for dear life, the spiritual truth that when God looks at a Christian, a believer, a Christ-follower, those who believe in their hearts that Jesus is the Son of God, and confess with their mouths that God raised Him from the dead…

And when we are in that proper relationship with God… He does not see our deeds or our merciful works or our sacrifices or our forgiveness or our offerings or loud prayers or our memorials and names on church buildings or seminary dorms…

He sees these things, and He sees, yes, our hearts.

But what God sees first and, I believe, most importantly – He sees the Blood.

When we accept and confess Jesus, we are “covered in the Blood.” As surely as its foreshadowing – the blood on the doorposts of the pesach lambs, so the Angel of Death would Pass Over – the believers in Christ are shielded from judgment.

Those who truly believe on the Saviour can be free of guilt and shame and fear. Because when God sees you… He sees your elder brother Jesus, His only-begotten Son. The precious Blood was shed in order that God’s judgment would pass over your sins and shortcomings and failings. “Do not fear,” as Jesus so often said to people.

And the precious Blood also completes what you started, in faith and hope at your best times, in areas of charity and sacrifice and forgiveness. Jesus “finished” many things on the cross, among them the spiritual assignments we accepted when we first believed.

Thank God we did not conceive these things in our puny minds, but by the Great Commission He would have us undertake. We cannot really do them except by the teachings and directions of the Christ. We cannot find the required strength and wisdom but by His Holy Spirit.

Hallelujah, when He sees us, God rather sees the Person and the Blood of Jesus. What does God see in you? He sees the Blood covering you, and the Christ in you. The proper relational understanding of God, and the confidence we can gain, should give us confidence in the ATTITUDE of the prayers we raise to God!

+ + +

Click: Come Thou Fount of Blessing / Nothing But the Blood

Preachers in Aprons, Saints in Curlers, Ceaseless Forgivers

5-15-17

One of the pathologies of contemporary life – a sure sign of the culture of death that has subsumed Western civilization – is the assault on motherhood.

Feminism was a harbinger that was perverted; “women’s liberation” was a movement birthed in economic justice that has, currently, extended to a futile but aggressive war on biological imperatives. Now we are awash in euphemisms like “gender identity” that would turn upside-down simple assumptions of all cultures from all lands and all ages.

But we in the 21st-century West know better. If boys somehow wish they were girls, we should yield to their fantasies. If women desire to be fathers, we change laws to re-define families. The prerogatives and standards of parents, and the sensibilities of the children they raise, are denied in order to accommodate statistically infinitesimal numbers of biological or emotional outliers.

Majoritarian traditionalists and Christians are sanctioned and stifled, yet the New Wave of moral nihilists – those who hate the natural and the immemorial – compose lists of proscriptions and Hate items of thought, attitudes, and speech.

These comments are not choleric, but are laments occasioned by Mother’s Day. Our thoughts should go to the institution of Motherhood, as much as to our own mothers. Theodore Roosevelt once said that “Equality of right does not mean equality of function.” He was the first major politician in America to be an advocate of women’s right to vote – even when his wife herself dissented – yet he revered the institution of motherhood: the role of women in the scheme of life. Toward women and mothers he was almost worshipful, regarding their work and responsibilities as more difficult, and perhaps more valuable, than men’s.

“Equality of function” to him did not imply mere functionality, but addressing roles – where life finds us; where we confront life; where we assess God’s will for our lives – and doing our work honorably.

The humorist Jean Shepherd (possibly the first time he will be paired with Theodore Roosevelt in any essay) devoted a lot of his radio monologues in the 1960s when I was a young addict of his wit and wisdom, to what he called the “Great Role Reversal.” He made many observations, frequently inspired by news items. Minor, everyday occurrences seemed, as often the case in the world of Popular Culture, more dispositive than academic papers and scholarly statistics.

Shep milked chuckles from the effluvia of such reports… but mainly he ruminated on the enormous cultural shift underway in the US. Indeed, the trickle became a tsunami. The nuclear family is under attack. Traditional gender roles are ridiculed. Legal reshuffling for cohabitants is insufficient; the dictionary must contort itself to re-define “family” and “mother.” Male predators must be allowed to enter girl’s rooms. New genders, and names for them, are being invented by the dozens.

I never have had the privilege of being a mother. As closely bound as I was to fathering, fatherhood, being present at the births, then nurturing and rearing my children… I am aware it all is a far-distant second. The special relationship of mother and child, among all species, in fact, is a unique and precious blessing.

A birthright, in fact.

For all the good feelings engendered by Mother’s Day, I reserve a portion of contempt for those creatures who denigrate the institution of Motherhood; who deny the privilege – to others, not only for themselves – of sanctifying the foundation of the family; for hating what we love.

I reserve a portion of pity, too. I must. What I call the Culture of Death extends beyond the trashing of motherhood and women’s traditional roles. Biologically, homosexuals cannot naturally procreate (pro-create). Abortion fanatics crusade for death – disguising their advocacy as convenience for the mothers. And so on. They are to be pitied, and prayed for.

In the meantime, my Mother’s Day is filled with memories of the Mom I knew. I loved her, and love her. She was an example whose nurture appears stronger through the years: seeds, planted, and growing in my life. A servant’s heart, making silent and willing sacrifices. Was she perfect? Smoking and drinking were regrettable but did not affect her salvation. Big deal. We prayed for Jesus to turn the wine back into water. Of vital importance is that she knew Jesus, was active in churches, and related almost every question I ever had to the gospel.

A preacher in aprons. A saint in curlers. An invariable Forgiver.

I believe God created Woman not only as a helpmeet to Adam, but as an Assistant to Himself. As Mothers, to show unconditional love; to bond in unique ways with their children; to bear the essence of comfort, understanding, acceptance.

I admired my Dad, oh yes; I still finish every project wondering if he would approve; to be a good professional. But Mom? If I can be as good a man as she was a mother, I will die grateful and content.

There are some women who, by circumstance or infirmity, sadly cannot become mothers. Most women whom I have met from those groups have hearts even more tender for families and for children.

However, sorry to tell all of you radical harridans who hate, you have disinvited yourselves from family reunions – not at ballparks on summer afternoons, or Grandma’s house on Winter evenings – but from that mystical, privileged, and sacred Family that truly is a gift of God.

+ + +

Does this essay seem to dwell on old-fashioned things? I plead guilty! There are too many old fashions that we are losing. Here is one: a tender lullaby, a mother’s song, written by Stephen Foster 150 years ago. Sung by Alison Kraus.

Click: Slumber, My Darling

The Crisis of Bullying

5-8-17

I recently talked to a friend about the issue of bullying, which has become a big issue in our society and a major concern of contemporary life.

Whether bullying is more prevalent these days, or only more reported and discussed, is to me an open question. If incidents with kids are in fact more numerous, I ask the same questions I do about autism: Why now? Why so common? Does it merely have a new name? Is there something in the environment that precipitates these things?

There is a question, too, of whether the “bullying” issue among kids is a matter of rougher behavior and victimization; a culture of wimpiness that has fastened itself on American life, its children in particular; a predilection to raise fusses over things formerly overlooked… or is something in the middle of those triangular points.

Autism and the alphabet-soup of children’s emotional disorders, if caused by factors in the environment, will someday be discovered and solved. Bullying, such as we understand it, might also be blamed on the environment – but its case would be more in the moral environment. Insensitivity… video games… violent entertainment… dissolution of the nuclear family… lost values?

My friend and I decried a common response, especially among some Christians, to advise children to “turn the other cheek,” to love the bully until the offensive attitude adjusts itself. That is, to make these responses automatic, even autonomic. Ignore causes, outcomes, right, or wrong: just yield.

Every case is different, of course, but since Jesus was quoted here, His famous admonition should be seen in context. “Do not respond in kind,” a paraphrase, can be God’s will – no; we can agree it is God’s will – in certain situations. There are many, many times we need to show the world Christ’s love; how we are different; what new wine fills our old wineskins.

We are to be, in the words of Thomas à Kempis, imitators of Christ.

But, without composing a concordance of verses here, we recognize that sincere and observant Christians can both support and resist non-violence. There are biblical injunctions against anger, revenge, and unforgiveness. And scriptural admonitions – in fact, actions of our Holy Role Model – to strike back, put people in their place, overturn tables in temple courtyards.

Jesus scolded Peter to sheath his sword against Roman soldiers in the garden, yet also said in Luke 12: 34-36: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”

Is God intentionally ambiguous about rules for our lives? Does every commandment have a negation elsewhere in scripture? Is the Lord a God who hedges His bets?

No ambiguity in the word of God. No negations in scripture, but rather confirmations and supporting verses. The Lord does not bet; rather, we take a deadly chance when we ignore of deny His word.

When we reach times when we fall short of true understanding, even to matters that confound us or that have caused schisms in the past… I believe that God intends those junctures to be teachable moments, for us to search the scriptures, to pray and seek wisdom. Then, to pray more.

Short, perhaps, of those extreme spiritual questions, are matters whose exegesis seem easier. Context. Which also prompts us to “empty ourselves,” try to substitute God’s wisdom for our own prejudices – our own natures – and dig deep in the Word.

Back to bullying. And to transition, as my friend and I did, to larger challenges that face contemporary Christians. Kids often are bullied these days for their lunch money, their sneakers, or their faces – meaning, mindless hatred. Christians, the church at large, are being bullied too. It is not new, and was in fact foretold (one might say “promised”) often by prophets and Christ. Prejudice; opposition; persecution.

But it is different today – also a feature of the End Times – and it requires different responses by Christians and the church. In some instances there are no cheeks to turn. Believers must stand their ground, and even be aggressive when defending ourselves and the faith. And we must positively disciple and evangelize.

I argue that Mohatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King practiced non-violence as political acts as much as spiritual acts. In any event the results were political, surely consistent with their hopes and dreams. Properly so.

In the 19th century there was a term, Muscular Christianity. It did not mean punching non-believers in the face; it meant knowing Jesus and making Him known. It meant not being ashamed of the Gospel. It meant transferring one’s faith into action: being a Christian every day in every way. Representing Christ. And defending His church.

These qualities are in retreat today. Like recessive genes, the abandonment of such traits surely will lead to mutation and death. Not of God’s Truth, which is everlasting to everlasting, but of His body – the church on earth. And, no less, our nation, our families, our souls.

America is a Christian nation, settled by Christians, claimed for Christ. Affirmed in foundational documents. Called so by the Supreme Court (1892). Should we proscribe immigration by other faiths? No. Should we persecute other faiths? No.

However – like people who buy homes near airports and then file lawsuits seeking noise reduction – neither should people of other faiths proscribe, persecute, and exercise prejudice against Christians. Every week in the news we hear of government edicts, court orders, and media pogroms against Christians. Not “people of faith,” because Muslims and of course atheists routinely are coddled, but Christians.

The body of believers – the remnant? – in the Year of our Lord 2017 need to carry “swords”; to risk “variance” with family, friends, and neighbors; and not submit to being bullied.

Do we choose to defend ourselves? Pray for wisdom. Must we defend God, His people, His church? Yes. Push back against the cultural and spiritual bullies. Overturn some tables in the temple courtyard!

+ + +

Taped at the Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany, where Luther translated the Bible from Latin; and the birthplace of J S Bach.

Click: Stand Up For Jesus

May Day

5-1-17

Recently we noted that throughout history, pagan observances and celebrations often were co-opted by the Roman church, roughly conterminous with the expansion of the faith. And when expansion was not tractable in lands or with peoples, organized-Christianity found ways to incorporate the names of tribes’ festivals, or certain practices, or pagan gods with new names. Theories abound about the word “Easter,” for instance, and the calendar-date of Christmas.

Such traditions of organized religion better can be filed under “marketing” more than theology; ecclesiology more than evangelism.

Christendom since the Reformation has split in two ways in this matter too. Generally, Protestant peoples of northern Europe have revived Springtime pagan observances, often calling, and sometimes believing, that they are mere celebrations of Renewal, Nature, and Fertility. Holidays run the gamut from countryside dances to dedications of animals, seeds, and celebrants’ resolutions for the year ahead. Catholic lands often have named or invented saints who overlook the prospects of farmers and planters; Harvest Festivals in advance.

From back in hazy pre-history, May 1 was the date agreed upon as the appropriate day, regarded as the beginning of Spring (advent of Summer in some ancient cultures). It is roughly halfway between the Spring equinox and the Summer solstice.

The fertility goddess Maia, a figure in both Greek and Roman mythology, inspired the name “May” and other related words in many languages. Springtime celebrations of fertility were common to all societies. Singing, dancing, special pastries, and the presence of flowers, as in the May Pole, were common to all. So were bonfires, whose smoke was deemed to have protective properties. Faces were sometimes washed in the day’s morning dew.

In Nordic lands, Walpurgisnacht festivals still are held – nighttime activities including bonfires, wreaths of flowers, planting of seeds, and burning of branches, lending a pagan veneer that even an attempt to retroactively honor a patron saint cannot dispel (Saint Walburga is claimed to have introduced Christianity to German lands… but history bestows that honor on St Patrick). In countries like Estonia and Poland, May 1 – Walpurgis Fest – is a national holiday. In Germany, people still gather around bonfires and dance around May Poles festooned with Spring flowers.

In Ireland and nations of Celtic origin, “Beltane” is honored still, even in sight of ancient churches. Neopagans and wiccans have revived the old practices, often adding incantations. Italians harken to pre-Christian days, celebrating Rebirth in its larger senses as “Calendimaggio,” but retaining pagan rites of the ancient Etruscans and Ligures… whose languages are lost to us, but whose superstitions endure.

In Catholic lands, statues of Mary frequently are adorned with wreaths of Spring flowers. (She is the “Queen of May,” to the uninitiated.) In Britain, Morris dancing, decorating May Poles with garlands of flowers, and such outdoor rituals date back to Anglo-Saxon fertility fetes when May was called the “Month of Three Milkings.”

There is another May Day with which we are all too familiar. Known alternatively as International Workers Day, many people assume its own origins are also shrouded in the musty past and in obscure lands, or at least as a holiday of Socialists and Communists, the progeny of Karl Marx or Soviet conspirators.

The red May Day, however, was inspired by an event in America, as recently as 1886, thereafter adopted by Bolsheviks around the world. Disaffected radicals – workers and farmers, anarchists and socialists – agitated for a national strike in 1886, but in Haymarket Square, Chicago, things turned ugly when a bomb was thrown by persons unknown. When the smoke cleared, police and strikers were dead, many injured. The radical Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW or “Wobblies,” was founded there soon afterward. The Haymarket Riot inspired Communists to commemorate it with labor’s May Day.

From the Soviets’ Moscow to Beijing to Havana to Pyongyang to Harvard and Berkeley, that traditional has continued.

The other May Day we know about is the international distress signal. It is only about a century old, displacing wireless telegraphy’s SOS soon after it was first implemented by the sinking Titanic. “May Day” was the vocal shorthand, as the Morse Code was superseded, for emergencies, probably the transliteration of the French “m’aider” – “help me.”

I am not sure whether towns and schools, in the US anyway, have May Day events any more – at least not like when I was a schoolkid, when there actually were dances around Maypoles, threading garlands of flowers; and assigned essays about Spring, and we were allowed to mention God. Now, in this brave new world that is realizing the dreams of Socialists, from Europe on the brink to major forces in the US, every day is May Day.

But the May Day that has the most relevance – that is, immediate import – to Patriots and Christians, is the international Distress Signal.

We are indeed adrift and in distress. As a society, as a culture, we need help. We need to be rescued. “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

IFs aplenty. We need revival, but we cannot pray for God’s magic wand. He has never worked that way. We cannot effect it without the Holy Ghost; but God will not bring revival if we do not repent.

Unlike the distress call that went out when the Titanic was sinking, we have the ability to influence our rescue. We can save our lives as He heals our land. But May Days will end sometime. Help us, Lord.

+ + +

Click: Help Me

The Truth About Progressivism

4-24-17

Not quite the same thing, but I might address the Fallacy of Progress. Being skeptical of Progress is akin, in these times, of ancient heresies deserving of the stocks and public derision.

Our human family, “advancing” through culture, literacy, prosperity, science, and democracy, has ambled through history, ultimately through eras of Humanism, Enlightenment, and Universal Democratic Principles, to the Twentieth century. Was the promulgation of a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” a landmark of humankind’s progress… or a shining example of human folly, pretentiousness, and folly? Its self-delusion might be measured by the effectiveness of its “universal” application since 1948.

In any event, its Twentieth Century – even after its somber adoption – was a period of unimaginable cruelty and barbarity, which saw the shedding and squeezing of blood from uncountable millions; wars and scientifically refined methods of slaughtering one another; virulent hatred and oppression, and mothers’ tears, probably exceeding those of all of history’s previous centuries.

We, humankind, have arrived at the present time, riding into town, as it were, on the horns of a dilemma – which sounds like a Dr Seuss animal, but represents, rather, a crisis in world history. All nations and peoples have come to realize that monarchies and serfdoms and dictatorships are dysfunctional at best and brutalizing at worst…

No. All nations and all peoples have NOT realized that. Only dullard high-school teachers and meaningless United Nations resolutions maintain this fallacy. Is this Progress? – billions of people around the world live under dictatorships; some of the enslaved people are restive and desperate, but some are relatively content because they have creature comforts their parents lacked. Some percentage of humanity retains a totalitarian strain, happy to profit by it at least in some emotionally selfish manner. If they are not among the persecuted, of course.

Even in America, the first nation to overthrow its monarchy, many citizens still act like subjects. That is, a fannish slobbering over “Royals.” Seemingly a trivial fascination, this reveals that the average American craves to be subservient to random groups of “superiors.” No offense meant to Queen Elizabeth, especially at the time of the old girl’s birthday, but how any of her breed should be called “high-ness” or “majesty” is degrading; a mystery to me.

The American obsession with subservience extends beyond Accidents of Birth. It is no different, but surely costlier, when Americans idolize athletes, movie stars, and “celebrities.” Not heroes, but Personalities, that bizarre euphemism for people otherwise lacking in admirable characteristics beyond good looks or the ability to pretend to be other people before cameras. The modern equivalents of taxes paid to the local lords are higher ticket prices and higher product costs due to funding their salaries, endorsement fees, etc.

Have computers and the internet brought heaven on earth… are not they proof of Progress? Surely the increase in knowledge is impressive, and has vast potential for good. Yet pornography is the most-visited category of web hits. Students have access to virtually limitless data, yet are ignorant (and increasingly so, each year that passes) of foundational facts of government, history, and religion.

Able to learn about history’s greatest figures, and humankind’s most significant conflicts, Americans choose the Kardashians and video games.

If one accepts that human nature is dark, then any system with few restraints is going to be dark too. That applies to democracy and politics, or lowest-common-denominator popular culture. The computer’s mouse makes a sorry compass. Human nature, allowed freedom to its Nth degree, is not going to turn benign because we take a wrong turn in the direction of Instant Gratification.

The horns of that dilemma I spoke of is this: We cannot turn back any clocks. It is rare when a nation votes itself fewer freedoms. When it has happened, an awareness of sclerotic licentiousness is never the reason. “Those who surrender freedom for security end up with neither.” Churchill is supposed to have said that “democracy is the worst form of government, until you consider any alternative.” Yet democracy has brought us corruption and self-indulgence.

The malicious impulses behind democracy and finance capitalism are cancers that have, and will, spread. I pointed to the celebrity culture as an example of a free people returning to false values again and again, as the Bible describes dogs returning to their own vomit. The Caesars knew: bread and circuses keep an exploited population fat and happy… until a culture rots from its core.

Progress? The word is becoming odious. “Turn back the clock”? History never really regresses, either. The answer is a Third Way. It is in the Bible – the wisdom of the ages for all things. It holds the answers to all questions. Its knowledge is dispensed from the Throne.

Two verses from Proverbs, of course, are keys that can unlock the door of our cultural dilemma:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7); and

“Gold there is, and a multitude of rubies: but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel” (20:15).

If our land were to rightly regard the Source of all knowledge and wisdom, and lean not to our own understanding and lusts, that dilemma would be tamed, and we could know genuine spiritual progress indeed.

+ + +
Click: Do You Know?

What If the Easter Story Were True?

4-17-17

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Easter is complicated enough in its significance without us poor humans festooning it with spiritual irrelevancies and celebratory ornaments like bunnies and painted eggs. The early church, which practiced forms of marketing, perhaps named it Easter after pagan fertility rites (Springtime; the rising sun in the east; the fecundity represented by rabbits and eggs); perhaps after the Egyptian fertility goddess Isis or Mesopotamian fertility goddess Ishtar; perhaps the Anglo-Saxon tribes’ goddess of the dawn, Eostre. Names, not substance, of course.

Easter is at once the densest theological concept, its history and meaning easy to reject by the skeptic; and the easiest message to accept by the lost, the hurting, the confused, the hungry, the searching souls of humanity.

That is to say, the truth of the gospel is audacious in its simplicity. Too good to be true, we are tempted to think. It is welcomed, and has been for 2000 years, by all but the hard-hearted and stiff-necked.

It takes more hatred and more hostility to dismiss the gospel, than it requires an open mind and an open heart to believe.

It requires more skepticism to reject the incarnation, Jesus’ ministry and atonement as concentrated in the events of Holy Week, than the faith required to believe it – the countless prophecies precisely fulfilled; the accounts of many eyewitnesses; the life-changing testimonies… Well, I am not writing to convince skeptics today, but rather to be persuasive with those who identify as Christians.

The world asks, “What if the Easter story is not true?”

To contemporary Christians, I ask:

What if the Easter story IS true?

Can people see a change in your life?

Do you go into the whole world – even just your neighborhood – proclaiming the Gospel?
Are you a “fisher of men,” as Christ commended we become?

Can the world clearly see you as “born again,” living a new life?

Because there are laws, we render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s… but do you render unto God the things that are God’s?

Do you display the Fruits of the Spirit? More, do you seek the Gifts of the Spirit? Do you pick and choose among Christ’s commands and God’s blessings?

Do you love?

Do you forgive?

God became flesh and dwelt among us. He taught wisely, but did not come to earth primarily to teach. He performed miracles, but perhaps largely to confirm His divinity. The details of His life, as we have said, fulfilled prophecy to levels of mathematical improbability… confirming to a doubting world that He was indeed the Messiah.

Jesus did mighty works modestly and He did loving acts mightily. He performed miracles, raised the dead, healed the sick, read minds, walked on water, produced food for the hungry, calmed the wind and troubled waters. What manner of man was this?

As Emmanuel – God-with-us – He emptied Himself of His divinity when He chose. He wept for the lost. He allowed Himself to be ridiculed, rejected, betrayed, persecuted, accused, tortured, jailed, humiliated, killed.

Sacrificial lambs never did have an easy time of it.

We should see the events of Holy Week not as rituals Christ had to endure, as pages of a script. They were the mightiest of His miracles! To do all that for us – when He could have waved away enemies and soldiers, even Satan – were mighty miracles. Even mightier, to a lowly observer like me, was forgiving those who did these things during His last earthly days. Forgiving me, like Paul, chief among sinners; dying for us all while we were yet sinners.

Indeed, What manner of man is this?

+ + +

Click: He Lives

The King Was Coming. Mere History

4-10-17

We recently observed here that Bible passages in many printed versions have italicized verbs. The old King James committee was making theological, more than grammatical, points. Philological, really: to be exquisitely precise; to use the correct words that reflect the correct context, correct meaning, correct implications.

Not to be pedantic (although this realization has enormous significance), and to encourage readers to comb their Bibles is never a bad thing. But notice the number of times that Jesus referred to something that previously had happened, but spoke in the Present tense; and described things of prophecy likewise in the Present tense.

In fact, philology fans, that brings me to my point after only two paragraphs – Holy Week, more than any other time of the year, focuses our attention on things that seem ancient, but are of today. The Present.

Jesus made His entrance on this week we commemorate. People rejoiced at the news of His coming. Steadily, however, the people’s enthusiasm waned. Their leaders, both religious and secular, denied His status; they dismissed His message; they denigrated His divinity. From officials to individuals, Jesus the Christ became the inconvenient and marginalized Jesus the mere rabbi and troublemaker. Their adoration turned to indifference, which turned to rejection, then to hostility. He endured it all – friends who disappeared; disciples who betrayed Him; recipients of His miracles who found other things to do other than plead or weep for their Friend. He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. He did that to take away the punishment the people deserved for their sins. Till the last moment, He forgave them.

Or… to use the King James method of reminding us that God’s truth of yesterday is identical to the truths of today and eternity – that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever – let us apply the Present tense to the previous paragraph:

Jesus makes His entrance this week. People rejoice at the news of His coming. Steadily, inevitably, people’s enthusiasm wanes. Our leaders, both religious and secular, deny His status; they dismiss His message; they denigrate His divinity. From officials to individuals, Jesus the Christ becomes the inconvenient and marginalized Jesus the mere “teacher” whose teachings are annoying. Our adoration turns to indifference, which turns to rejection, then often turns to hostility. He endures it all – friends who disappear; followers who betray; recipients of His miracles who always find other things to do other than serve or worship their Friend and Savior. For us, He is the continuous reminder of obedience unto death, even the death of the cross, ever willing to bear the punishment we deserve for our sins. Till the last moment of time, He will forgive us.

All that He requires is that we repent and ask for that forgiveness; to believe in our hearts that He is (not merely “was”) the Christ who made that sacrifice; and that God raised Him from the dead.

The only aspect of this Holy story that is not timeless – that is, an element that actually might expire – is the chance you and I have to accept Christ, to embrace the simple requirements Jesus offered. Or, using the Present tense, offers. You and I still have the awesome, and potentially awful, power to accept or reject Jesus.

There is no time like the “Present.”

+ + +

Click: The King Is Coming

The Time of the Songbirds is Come

4-3-17

A guest essay by one of my favorite writers, Leah C Morgan

Winter serves its purpose necessary for cycles of life and growth. Including sorrow and darkness. But no one mourns its departure. There are no weeping farewells, no fierce clinging to its coattails. Winter’s last cold breath could easily be mistaken for a communal sigh of relief.

But Spring. . .

Spring is like hope, often suppressed by doubt and crushed by fear before finally bursting out of the barrenness with such lush beauty we would think it audacious if it were a woman crossing the landscape.

Or a dream on the horizon.

But Spring is so universally pined after, we allow her to paint the town in pastels and festoon it with flowers. To declare a new season and prophesy a resurrection of all dead things. We are so in need of warmth, we want to believe.

Snow comes just as we’re tempted to forget coats and gloves; and we’re buried again in self-doubt, certain that winter is eternal. And that second chances, green buds, and fresh starts are myths.

Then the smallest patch of sunlight shines its way indoors, warming our faces. A song of warbled notes reaches our ears, and the perfume of living things wends its way to our senses. Our hearts thaw. Something flutters within and pushes its way forward like a new beginning.

And there we are against all odds, in spite of the dead branches and brown grass, joining the parade, waving banners, and getting all caught up in the longing. We believe in the getting up, in the rising again.

If forgotten bulbs buried beneath the frozen ground can resurrect their remembrance, and dormant plants survive long months of deprivation, if distant birds are spurred to make lengthy migrations in expectation of better days, and insects lie quietly in wait for a feast about to commence, how can the human heart settle for dearth? The very bowels of the earth offer up an invitation to rejoice. To hope. To muster up enough courage to try again.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Spring is the season to put away the wool and furs, the weighty things that make for despair.

It is the reminder that buried things are not always dead things, and that dead things can live again.

Spring is the occasion to pray for the miraculous, for rebirth and resurrection. It is the opportunity to enjoy perpetual youth. Nothing is so young as new life, and new life can sprout in the faith of a fertile mind, coming to life in a fresh idea. It can spring up in the purpose of heart, taking the shape of brilliant creativity.

Buried talents, forgotten intentions, failed attempts – they all want to be born again, and Spring makes the yearning reasonable. If daffodils can fan out their pretty bonnets after keeping still for a year, what unexercised muscle of faith might be stretched out in the light of understanding?

The time for understanding has come. Flamboyant Spring steps forward on a pale, monochromatic stage to pantomime the Gospel in living color. The Old Man Winter is past, and now a light shines in the darkness, its transformative power producing new life. The fields and forests are born again, their naked knolls and branches clothed in glorious wardrobes. They develop, mature, producing fruit and dropping seeds. The seeds are buried, left to die and decay, before shedding their form to be resurrected, coming forth from the ground in a new body.

“Sown in weakness, raised in power” (I Corinthians 15:43). How we begin is not how we’re destined to remain.

A sweet, scented breeze is blowing, whistling a melody. And a voice that sounds a lot like Spring sings:

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

 The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10-13).
+ + +
Click: Rise Again

This Should Be Your Favorite Bible Verse

3-27-17

The title I have given to our thoughts here is, on its face, presumptuous. I do not mean to dislodge anyone from their verse or passage of personal affection or wellsprings of faith and strength. Nor is there is there any reason to intrude on the essential symbolic and subjective value of a Bible passage any person holds dear.

In a larger sense, objective rather than subjective, I have often held that Red-Letter Bibles contain unconscious irony. “The words of Jesus in red,” the title page reads. But in a true sense the entire Bible should be printed in red type, no? Every word is inspired by God; dictated, as it were, by the Holy Spirit.

“All Scripture 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 NLT).

Another pitfall in addressing “favorite” verses, or being too mechanical about them, is my recollection of a youth group getaway when I was young. A few of us snuck off to the chapel one night to read the Bible together. We had fervor, but we had nervousness too. We went around the circle, reading our favorite passages. I prayed for God to back me up, and trusted to share whatever page’s verse I opened to. It turned out to be one of the interminable lists of “begats.” Not only endless and, in that context, thin of relevance… but I scarcely could pronounce any of the ancient Hebrew names in the genealogy.

There is the story, too, of the businessman who had escaped debts by declaring bankruptcy. He cited the Bible as his inspiration – that he opened the Book one night, pointed his finger at random, and saw it was on the words “Chapter 11.”

But to be serious, John 3:16 is often claimed as a favorite verse, and surely it is a foundation stone of our faith, or the essence of the gospel message. Other verses and passages sum up the law; or the doctrine of Grace; or the distinction between works and faith; or promises about healing, salvation, or eternal life.

At one point in my life, enduring measures of distress, I heard the passage about God feeding even the sparrows; three times in one day, from three different sources – radio, TV, and a friend. That day I knew that God was shouting, not whispering, a reminder of that promise to me. And that has become a favorite passage.

But my suggestion of a verse that could join every believer’s list of favorite verses is what Jesus said on the cross as He breathed His last earthly breath:

“It is finished.”

The verse demands more attention than most of us give; and it deserves more contemplation than most of us exercise.

Some teachers explain that it was Jesus’s way of saying was dying. Like, “I am finished.” To graft a Message sort of street-parlance contemporary version, “I’m outta here.” Please forgive the unplugged spirituality – or in evitable worldly devolution of the Bible’s sacred aspects. But, Jesus was not saying at that moment that He “was finished” as a man, or even as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Neither was He saying that His earthly ministry was finished, although this is closer to the implications of His words.

“It.”

What was “it” that was finished?

Especially, now, during Lent, as we should be looking forward to the significance of Holy Week, it helps if we think of the Easter season – the rejection, suffering, sacrifice, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord – as the nexus of history. Before then, everything looked forward to the Jesus moments. God’s love; God’s forbearance of His people’s rebellion; God’s commandments; God’s wrath; God’s forgiveness; God’s laws and requirements of sacrifices; God’s miracles; God’s prophesies; God’s promises, ultimately, of a Saviour.

Then came the events, foretold uncountable times in written and oral history by many and diverse writers in prose and poetry and song, looking toward the plan God always had – the salvation of humankind. The means to be reconciled to God. The only way to avoid damnation for our sins. The only path to communion with the Holy God. The plan of forgiveness. “It” is the gospel message.

All of humankind’s history turned during those days… centered, as it were, on the cross itself, literally where His heart was. All Heaven and Creation listened, and all of us, afterward, hang on those words, even as He hung on the cross.

Or… we should hang on those words. Favorite Bible verse of ours or not, the meaning of “It is finished” can be cherished as the perfect synopsis of the Bible’s gospel message – the entire history of God and man in one phrase.

Because with His sacrificial death, “It” was more than the ending of His ministry — No more healings? No more miracles for the Palestinian locals? His teachings were finished? All these things were true, but He had already promised that the Holy Spirit would come, enabling and empowering believers in Christ to do great things as He had done. However, none of those factors is the “it” Jesus meant.

Returning to Red Letter Bibles, I will note that older translations have verbs in italics, in many passages. This is because original texts wrote of events that HAD taken place, or WERE of earlier prophesies, but written in the present tense. Not “were,” for instance, but “are.” Or “will be.” Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It could be confusing to readers, but the original texts spoke of spiritual matters of their times, or earlier times, in the present and future tenses.

In the same manner also, Jesus did not live – He lives. As my friend Rev Gary Adams of Kelham Baptist Church in Oklahoma City has pointed out, “tetelestai,” the word for “It is finished,” grammatically is the perfect tense. Completed action! Jesus dies for us every day… present tense. And we must die to self, and live for Him, every day.

When Christ said “It is finished,” he was not referring to a chapter that closed when He breathed His last earthly breath. He means that at that moment that a new chapter begins. A chapter about each one of us, chapters in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Comprised of many favorite verses!
+ + +
Click: It Is Finished

What Is Plausible About God?

3-20-17

I hope you will indulge me a stroll down Memory Lane.

In one of my former lives – not that I believe in reincarnation; I have had several careers – I was a writer for Disney Comics. That was back in more innocent days. Having been weaned on Disney, “visiting” with Walt every week on TV, I had my own pair of Mickey Mouse ears when I was six. OK, I wore them into my 20s, but we all have our affections. OK, probably into my early 30s, but it’s my own business. Still on my wall office, amid a few other awards and citations, is my framed membership certificate, my name printed in red, in the Mickey Mouse Club.

My work with Mickey and Donald was back in the day when Disney comic books were experiencing a lull in interest. Superheroes, television, and video games were making it tough for the ducks and mice. Sales of the comic books were almost nil in the US… but thriving in Europe. So my work, at great page rates, and more pages assigned than I could well handle, was for European publishers. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, England, Finland. I had monthly editorial meetings, either in New York City, or in Copenhagen.

I felt especial warmth for the late Uncle Walt in those days. Again, this was before days at Disneyland or afternoons watching a theatrical Disney cartoon were comingled with gay rights rallies.

Along that ride, I conceived of a story “hook” that I thought was pretty clever. Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and the nephews, in the style (I hoped) of the master cartoonist Carl Barks, would be on an adventure, in a remote jungle, on a quest for treasure. They stumble upon an unknown small lake and discover, almost too late, what superstitious natives knew: it is the dreaded Fountain of Old.

The Fountain of Old, to be avoided – of course – at all costs: a sip of its waters turns you older… and older… and older. Eventually to die, if you drank enough.

A switch, of course, on the legendary Fountain of Youth that enticed and eluded Ponce de Leon and so many other explorers through the centuries. Ah! A happy twist on a popular legend. I don’t remember the details – whether Scrooge or Donald, or perhaps their rivals, drank of the waters; or fell into the lake; or got into a dilemma, or escaped. Immaterial now.

My editor nixed the story proposal. I was deflated; why? “Who ever heard of a Fountain of Old?” he asked. My response: “Nobody. That’s what will make it an interesting story premise.”

“No, Rick, it’s not plausible. How could there be such a thing?” he asked. I thought a moment, mostly incredulous. “Well, there can’t be such a thing. Neither can there be a Fountain of Youth, yet that is a common theme in history and fiction.”

“That is my point. Many people through the centuries have sought a Fountain of Youth. Nobody thought about a Fountain of Old,” he asserted. “Rick, it simply is not plausible.”

He was correct, or course. But irrelevant. We went back and forth. “Not plausible,” he had me there.

Finally I came to what was left of my senses, and I said, “Wait a minute. We are discussing talking ducks. The richest duck in the world, his irascible nephew; all dressed up top, and naked on the bottom. And mice who dress the other way around; and talk, and reside in suburban houses. A dog, Goofy, who has a “real” dog, Pluto. And so forth.

“Where does ‘plausible’ start and end?”

We all live in different realms of reality. And non-reality. We choose to live in these zones, and we choose to suspend belief or non-belief as, frankly, it suits us.

People who follow horoscopes and read tarot cards dismiss the Bible as mumbo-jumbo. Kids who are obsessed with superheroes don’t want to think about Jesus walking on water or through walls. Victims of terminal illnesses will grasp at copper bracelets and expensive herbal remedies and the Power of Wishful Thinking, but reject the Lord Who Healeth Thee – and discard documented cases of miracles.

What is plausible?

Is it “plausible” that the Creator of the infinite universe created each of us… loves us?… knows us and everything about us?

Is it “plausible” that such a God created us with free will, and that humankind chooses to sin, and that a Holy God cannot accept sinners in His heaven… but provided a substitution for the punishment we deserve? That He displayed His love – His willingness to forgive – by becoming incarnate, a spotless man-god whose death would be ransom for ours; whose resurrection would confirm His divinity; that belief in Him would save us unto Eternity? Is this plausible?

Is it “plausible” that we can have this God live in our hearts; an actual Holy Spirit who can fill us, guide us, comfort us, empower us?

Is it “plausible” that, while many millions throughout history have accepted this simple plan of Salvation, many, many other millions of people have rejected this God? Have cursed this gentle Saviour? Have blasphemed the Holy Spirit?

Is it “plausible” that so many people cling to superstition and errors and frauds and lies… and death? They can have life, and that more abundantly, despite the promise offered them.

These things are not only plausible; they are true. There is a supernatural world. There are spirit beings. Biblical miracles are documented and happening still today. These plausible truths are waiting to be embraced. Many people choose not to.

They reject the beautiful promises, the Truth of the Gospel. They choose to wander about in their ignorance and rebellion. Whether they know it exactly or not, they are looking for the Fountain of Old.

Rejecting Christ, they are sure to find it.
+ + +
“Escapist” entertainment. To America in 2017, the fantasy has become the reality. Is life in America so awful that we need to construct alternate universes, false heroes, and new versions of what is genuine, authentic, and… real?

Click: It’s a Small World, After All

Let Us Go Forward To the First Century

3-13-17

There are rhythms to all things in life, and in life itself. Cycles. In Ecclesiastes chapter 3, they are called “seasons.”

“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die”… Later, “A time to break down, And a time to build up; A time to weep, And a time to laugh; A time to mourn, And a time to dance”… Condensing the chapter’s long list of dichotomies, Byrd-like, “A time to tear, And a time to sew; A time to keep silence, And a time to speak; A time to love, And a time to hate; A time of war, And a time of peace.”

To everything there is a season, indeed; we all know this by intuition and experience. But most of us do not notice a huge qualification to this wisdom and poetry… later in the same chapter:

“I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken from it. God does it, that men should fear before Him.”

In other words, one thing does not change. Truth is immutable. Truth does not depend upon cycles, nor rely on “times” or seasons, nor wait upon our opinions. God’s Word is unchanging; God Himself is eternal. Jesus came once, for all.

There have been cycles of reform in the church of Jesus Christ. As inspired by the Holy Spirit, faithful servants of the Word have seen the need for renewed fidelity to scripture, and acted – often at the peril of scorn, rejection, ostracism, persecution, and sometimes death at the hands of fellow… Christians.

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses – complaints – to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It is a convenient numerical commemoration, but no less worthy of recognition for it.

Change is not needed in the body of Christ every 500 years. Sometimes it urgently is needed more often, and has been throughout history. Councils and creeds were plentiful in the battles against errancy and heresy. The Truth of God does not need defense in the realm of ideas; but it does need protection “under this inverted bowl we call the sky, whereunder crawling, cooped, we live and die.” Hence, apologetics and evangelism. And reform.

Every 500 years? Every generation? No, every day.

Some of the greatest persecution of believers has come, and is coming, from fellow “Christians.” Yes, we face opposition from Muslims, the secular culture, governments, the world, the flesh, and the devil; but we also have Error and counterfeit Christianity as foes of our own household. In the Last Days, even the saints will be decieved. And we now are at a crisis point in spiritual history.

God has never needed the dilution, or perversion, of His Word in order to “attract the lost.” Just the opposite. Steel sharpens steel, as Proverbs reminds us! Today, the church in America, in the West, is conforming itself to the world instead of being transformed, instead of having others be transformed by the Holy Spirit to the renewing of minds. It is doomed to failure. Not of God, it is hellish.

In the many stresses of daily life in the 21st century, our paths to spiritual comfort ought to be clearer, not more complicated, than they have become… easier to embrace, not inaccessible. The church, itself in its blind flailing of good intentions, is a prime offender.

Relativism – substituting our logic for God’s Truth – is rife. The contemporary gospel would create God in mankind’s own image.

Religious imperialism – missions outreach that imposes our sort of Christianity on the third world – is offensive. And counterproductive: as the spread of the gospel explodes south of the Equator, even outpacing Islam, missionaries from Africa and South America now see Europe and North America as mission fields.

The deadly “works doctrine” – holding that we can earn our way to Heaven, or buy God’s favor – sparked Luther’s outrage but unfortunately did not die with him. Indulgences have new names, and they are not all Romish. Pentecostalism has been perverted by the Prosperity Gospel. “Seed faith” and “faith offerings,” paired with assurances of God’s material payback, are a stain on the church.

Mega-churches; uncountable “versions” of the Bible; Christian 12-Step programs; retreats and seminars; encyclicals; media ministries… do you notice a pattern? They all tend to be about selves, about each other. Abstractly, not horrible in such a hurting world. But. How many of them are about God? About meeting, knowing, loving Jesus? This should be the “first step” in any “12 Step” program that addresses our challenges.

Our problem – a sin, really – in the contemporary church is this: Too many programs, and Not enough Jesus.

The church has become fluent in identifying needs and creating programs to help alleviate stressors. But the Church itself should be discipled in such a way that these programs need not exist!

We are to bear with one another, not reflexively direct each other to a local church’s ministry program. We ought to shoulder each other’s burdens, umbrella each other when we can, in order to protect and love them. We are not only God’s children, but His witnesses as well. What more could we witness to others than the love, care, and protection that a Father offers? 

In the first century, when the Church was new and exciting and vital, before cathedrals and media ministries, believers met in small circles. Families and extended families. Neighbors. People who knew each other, and wanted to. Brothers and sisters who cared, and served. No microphones and rock bands and back-screen projections or gold-encrusted crowns and robes, or bingo games or mega-anythings…

“Yes, but…” missions? Youth trips? Building programs? Let the dead bury the dead. When Jesus looked down from the cross, he looked into our eyes, each of us, mysteriously, separately. He did not say that He came for programs and ministries. He certainly did not die for Denominationalism that parsed His word into irrelevancy.

He came for you, and your soul. You can take it from there… or, actually, the Holy Spirit can: it is the reason the Paraclete was sent to us.

God sent Jesus to save our souls, and the Spirit to be our Umbrella, our inspiration to overcome the vicissitudes of an evil and false generation. “For me and my household…”

We have been blessed to visit sites of the First-century church. In Roman catacombs (whose primary functions were as places of worship, not hiding) and Irish fields. The goal of Christian pioneers was to withdraw to intimate fellowships; not to expand so as to boast of unmanageable numbers and programs.

Do you yearn for the spiritual comfort and true fellowship of the first-century church?

Rick Marschall and Emily Joy McCorkell

+ + +

Click: Faith of Our Fathers

Family Christian Stores, Rest in Pieces

3-6-17

A possible Sign of the Times. But this sign says “Going out of business.” Not Sears nor Macy’s nor Outback Steakhouse nor JCPenney nor Kmart nor Office Depot nor Aeropostale. Not American automakers, either; nor air-conditioning plants; not other businesses being yanked back to our shores.

No, this week it was announced that Family Christian Stores, the self-proclaimed “World’s largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise,” is giving up the ghost. For several years, the chain’s financial woes widely have been discussed, inside and outside the camp.

There were bankruptcies, reorganizations, proposals, takeovers, conversions from for-“profit” status to non-profit; promises to earmark income to charity; inventories that disappeared; unpaid invoices; at least one publisher and one distributor who were forced to go out of business because of Family Christian’s actions; and, of course, approximately 3000 employees in 240 stores across 36 states.

Beyond this recitation of facts, no more will be said, even as employees in the home office in Michigan are not being told much more than their final dates to report. Many good people tried to make Family Christian Stores work, and the causes perhaps will be fully revealed someday.

The chain began 85 years ago when brothers Pat and Bernie Zondervan (yes, those Zondervans) opened stores. Their bookstores were re-christened Family Christian Bookstores when HarperCollins bought the Zondervan publishing arm. This was about the time, in the interest of disclosure, that books I edited were distributed by Zondervan, and books I wrote were sold in FCB shops. So Zondervan begat Family Bookstores begat Family Christian Bookstores begat Family Christian Stores…

When I noticed that the logo changed – removing “Books” from the name – it told me more than did gossip on business pages and in Christianity Today. Two years ago, in a court-sanctioned bankruptcy move, the chain “shed” $127-million of its obligations; and soon thereafter was sold for $55-million. Customers were little affected, but publishers, authors, manufacturers, and distributors were, negatively.

Excuse me for already breaking my Commandment to recite no more facts. We have the sad reality of this major go-to source for everyday Christians… no longer is a reality. In any form of reorganization.

Time and chance, however, happeneth to all. “The business of America is business,” Calvin Coolidge famously said (and, little appreciated by many, not as a valedictory to capitalism but as a spiritual rebuke to shallow materialism) – and there is a macro-narrative about companies that outlive their usefulness. Manufacturers of buggy-whips were mightily depressed when Henry Ford coldly threatened their existence.

Similarly, as many American manufacturing jobs are moving overseas, history might record that it was the “turn” of emerging economies as the United States moved on to other technologies. To the extent this is true, despite the discomfort and dislocation of middle-aged factory workers, a lot of Economic Nationalism might be retrograde.

Lucky for me, digressions are still in vogue, and I shall return from mine. My point is that times are a-changin’ in retail publishing, as elsewhere. Another Michigan-headquartered chain, Borders, was a recent casualty. Barnes & Noble retains a measure of viability because, and to the extent that, it has become a bookish theme-park in each store, with coffee bars, easy-chair oases, gifts, toys, music, puzzles, and kids’ zones. Smart.

Family Christian did the same thing, accelerated in the past few years. Unlike Barnes & Noble or Starbucks’ pastry and CD counters, the move was doomed to fail, however. Family Christian was in a different line of work, and when it forgot that fact, its days were numbered.

Ken Dalto is “retail expert.” These days, despite the Trump Bump, I fear, his line of work – that is, performing autopsies – will be a growth industry. But his post-mortem of Family Christian’s demise is: “I don’t think it has anything to do with religion – I see it as pure business.”

Indeed, that was the problem: the stores had less and less to do with religion; the Christian religion, specifically.

Which was the chicken; which was the egg? Did the customer-base of believers hanker for more jewelry, pictures frames, wall hangings, travel mugs, driftwood with Bible verses, and baseball caps? Or did Family Christian’s strategic planners cast bigger nets to capture larger numbers of fish? The question is not rhetorical, nor is the answer dispositive: both trends must be true. However, it would have been difficult to hew close to the bedrock commitment to offer of solidly Christian material; and to remain a retailer of books and music.

Being “all things to all people” failed St Paul’s injunction when, say, FCS refused to carry Chick tracts but ballyhooed the latest Osteen books or Christian-lite DVDs. No, Family Christian had tried to become some thing for some people according to the dogmas of marketers and focus groups. In so doing it fell between the pier and the boat.

A Christian literary agent, Steve Laube, was quoted, I think about the consequent failure of Send the Light Distributors: “One less [sic] major distributor to feed the Christian store market.” Beyond the cold analysis, which is unavoidable at any temperature, we arrive at a snapshot of Christian publishing, 2017. Literary agents using bad grammar; Christian book stores that scarcely carry books (during this morning’s visit to my local Family Christian store, a large outlet, I counted only four short aisles of books); and many of the “Christian” books are relativist, celebrity-oriented, motivational, sometimes heretical.

“The Shack” and “Silence” are touted, and consumed, as contemporary substitutes for the Gospel itself. So many new translations of the Bible appear these days that I wonder if God sees this, ultimately, as a churchy Tower of Babel redux.

But times does march on, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there?

I love my 14 commentaries, most of them the size and weight of car batteries. I am proud of my 40-volume set of Luther’s works. Yet I will admit that I haven’t cracked them in several years, not the commentaries anyways. After almost everything I write, I literally thank God and Google. And Wikipedia, sure. Change.

As a Christian author I lament the death, and perhaps dearth, of Christian stores.
But the internet allows us all to sell, and to buy. Smartphones and iPads allow us conveniently to follow scripture passages in our pews. Bibles have not yet been outlawed; and they have margins to accommodate home study.

Up to the minute, the great site FaithHappenings is a one-stop shop for ordering books, reading reviews, following debates, learning about concerts and speakers – more than “old-fashioned” (ouch) retail outlets ever could.

Roughly concurrent to the Family Christian announcement, Tim Keller of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian shared the news that he would retire from his pulpit… however to shepherd his megachurch into three smaller congregations; each in turn to plant three “daughter” churches of their own. Thus (through the City to City program) has Tim encouraged the establishment of almost 400 churches in 54 cities around the world.

It’s hard to keep a good Gospel down. But my daughter Emily made a prescient point about the trend, perhaps death-spiral, of Family Christian’s product-line decisions. Christian jewelry and decorations and toys were not co-opting Target and WalMart – who will, after all, pick up Jesus products in new corners of their stores, complete with the superficiality.

No, it might all be illustrating the stark fact that contemporary Christianity in America has become jewelry and decoration and toys.

If belly-up Family Christian Stores across the landscape is what we need to demonstrate that sad fact, then may the chain Rest in Pieces.
+ + +
Click: Lachrimosa

Two Hands, One Heart

2-27-17

There was a wise saying that was popular in the time of the Jesus generation, the Born-Again movement, and I am a great believer in it, as in most every example of bumper-strip theology. “God gave us two ears and one mouth! Try listening!”

A wise aphorism. A life lesson. Indeed, a rule to live by. I stink at math, but I understand the irresistible logic of this saying. Two ears, one mouth.

A friend recently employed a variation of this. Whether it is an old saying I never heard before (very possible) or new to this clever friend, its logic is also irresistible and powerful.

“God gave us all two hands, two eyes, two ears… but one heart. That makes it our job to find that other heart, to complete the picture.”

That can have poetic and romantic, even mystical, applications, but also spiritual relevance. Just as the actor-comedian-author Orson Bean, a late convert to Christ (and, incidentally, Andrew Breitbart’s father-in-law) said, “We were all born with a virtual hole in our middles, in our hearts, by God’s design, because the Holy Spirit was sent to fill it.”

And nothing other than God’s love can soothe our hearts; nobody other than Jesus can save our hearts; nothing else than the Holy Ghost can fill our hearts.

In this world, we are ultimately lonely people in a lonely place. It does not have to be so, but often it is. Finding love is rather a rare thing. Facebook unintentionally teaches that we can have a lot of “Likes” and “Friends,” but there is no category of “Loves” in its galleries. On dating sites, profiles ask “Who I seek,” but not “Who I need.”

I realize that every person, especially the emotionally needy and vulnerable, would be reluctant to expose their neediness.

On the other hand – and to continue the spiritual aspect of these common but seldom-discussed truths – we humans are different in uncountable, sometimes radical ways. Different sexes, different colors, different talents, different sizes, different values and attitudes…

But there is one common element. We share one thing, whatever other things are different —

We all need a Savior. We all are sinners. Each of us… has one heart. And like the poetic, romantic, mystical imperatives to which my friend referred, our spiritual hearts are lonely too. Even pagan savages look to heaven; inchoately desiring something greater in life; and – as do the most “civilized” amongst us – instinctively know that a greater power exists.

Paganism does not stop there. And how sad that there are so many superstitious and secular and paganistic people with whom we interact every day. Not in far-off jungles, but our neighbors, in this land of many churches.

But that “greater power” does not have to be a mystery, as many people make it. He is Almighty God, Creator of the universe and lover of our souls. He revealed Himself, becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us. When Jesus ascended to heaven, He said that it was better that He leave, because One would follow who would be the Comforter; and that greater things we will do when the Spirit comes.

Into our hearts.

In that way, we find that “second” heart; our hearts are joined as one with the Lord’s. In the same manner as the promise that whenever two or more are gathered in His name He will be in our midst, that union of our lonely hearts with His perfect heart… makes us complete.

+ + +

Back when I was Director of Product Development at Youth Specialties, I conceived a project wherein some performers at our Youth Workers Conventions could work on two print and video projects for us. One would be for them to write new music, or least new performance versions, of classic hymns and gospel songs. The other would be to devise lessons and demonstrations for worship leaders and church music directors.

Too often, contemporary worship leaders would sing random songs, randomly repeating lines, aimlessly segueing to other music. Sometimes this was blamed on “Holy Spirit leading” but mostly it was lack of discipline… spiritual discipline. Chris Tomlin was great at intentionally building ascending keys and tempos, knowing when to pause for prayer, and be sensitive to worshipers’ reactions, and so forth.

For various reasons that never happened while I was at YS. Some singers and bands subsequently have done these things in published formats and in seminars. I am not claiming to have planted any seeds, at all, but I am grateful for the discussions I had with Chris, with David Crowder, and with Paul Baloche.

Paul is truly gifted as a composer, writer, musician, and worship leader. His ability to communicate his inspirations is impressive. Maybe his most beloved worship song is “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord.” Listen in the context of today’s essay.

Click: Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord

Presidents and Their Faith

2-20-17

When James Garfield was elected president, he left his position as an elder in his church and said, “I will resign the highest office in the land to become President of the United States.”

The religious beliefs of presidents and presidential aspirants has become more important to segments of population than ever before, in America. More than “religion,” many citizens look for spiritual commitment and individual testimonies from their political representatives. As the influence of organized religions – that is, denominations – has waned in the United States, peoples’ personal relationships
with God and His incarnate Son has increased.

The intensity has increased, I feel safe to say, in the general population; and therefore as a box to check in the list of criteria that are important to voters.

Despite the widespread suspicions of (and evidence of) corruption among the political class, the percentage of fervent spiritual belief has increased in Washington. Again, I feel safe to say this, but the evidence is elusive. Public expressions of belief were more common, more PC even, in times past. Yet prayer breakfasts, weekly Bible studies, faith fellowships on Capitol Hill thrive now, and were not regular events in earlier times.

Or… maybe they were needed, as the general level of Christian “walks” might have been higher in those earlier days.

We cannot know, but the question makes for useful study. The Supreme Court declared in Holy Trinity v. United States (1892) that America “is a Christian nation.” It has never been overturned. Justice David Brewer, who wrote this finding, wrote a dozen years later (not from the bench) that he considered the fact a cultural, not a legal, proposition.

It generally has been forgotten that the First Amendment is not a tool to attack religious expression, but a preventative against governmental policies that would otherwise pass laws that would restrict the free exercise of people’s religious beliefs. Moreover, the national government is prohibited from passing laws establishing religions – that is, specific denominations, as in Great Britain and many European countries. Nothing to do with “Merry Christmas” or Nativity scenes in community parks; or athletes choosing to pray before or after games; or bakers being free to say “no thank you” to customers requesting cake-decorations they consider offensive.

It also in generally little known that Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “the wall of separation” between church and state, was written to a church group about a narrow issue, and years after the Declaration of Independence and even his presidency. But is has been misappropriated by secular and atheist zealots who seek to drive Christianity, faith in God, even religious traditions, from public life.

David Barton has made a career of documenting the signposts of religious freedom in America. As a collector and archivist of documents and statements he is superb. It will be superseded only by the national Museum Of the Bible, a project of Hobby Lobby’s Green family. (The traveling exhibition of these artifacts, called “Passages,” which I have seen, is astonishing in its breadth and depth. The forthcoming Museum of the Bible, on the National Mall, will be an important site among the District’s many museums.)

But David Barton has written books, advised officeholders, and spoken widely about Christianity and the fabric of American life. I know David slightly, having appeared at some of the same conferences, and assigned him articles in Tim Ewing’s “Rare Jewel” magazine a dozen years ago. As much as I admire his work, and his intentions, I was uneasy about his tendency to over-reach, even before he made some claims that caused a recent book to be withdrawn from stores.

David Barton’s discretion was to impute more Christianity to historical figures than they likely embraced. He grasped straws in – forgive my hyperbole and paraphrases – claiming that Jefferson was a follower of Christ. That many of the Deists among the Founders and Framers were secret Jesus freaks (hey, we can all over-reach). Or he would focus on the early words of patriots like John Quincy Adams and Noah Webster; and not their later comments on faith. Both of these men, and many other New Englanders of the day, became Unitarians.

In truth, the list of Americans is not like a virtual Sunday-School pageant, everyone wearing little pins indicating perfect attendance, so to speak, or adherence to an air-tight orthodox Christian, biblical, Protestant faith. Jefferson certainly was a Deist. The second Adams was indeed a Unitarian; so was Taft. Lincoln was one of several presidents whose church attendance was virtually nil throughout their lives.

But these are not “aha!” facts. The first Adams, susceptible to Transcendentalism, never declared himself “a church-going animal”! Benjamin Franklin (a President’s day message should not exclude him, nor should any essay on any topic) was a professional skeptic, yet made many affirmations of the divinity and pre-eminence of Christ. Lincoln seldom attended church, yet the last year of his life, he was a virtual preacher – invoking Christ, quoting the Bible, confessing to praying often. In conversations and public documents.

There are, it seems to me, at least three pertinent facts to be recognized and respected on President’s Day.

The first is prosaic, only honored in the breach: What we call personal faith, personal beliefs, personal relationships with Jesus… were in the past, “private” as well as “personal.” The most exuberant and transparent of presidents, Theodore Roosevelt was (I have written here and elsewhere) perhaps the most observant Christian of our presidents, nevertheless today would be viewed askance, by some Christians, for not proselytizing.

The second perhaps is hard to reconcile today. But many Christians, not only Christian presidents, assumed the divinity of Christ, but as folded into a greater appreciation of the entire Bible – pointing, as Christ Himself did, to the Father. We cannot assume all these men thought of Jesus as merely a Teacher.

The third is an extremely important distinction. Even if the Framers were not only Episcopalians and Presbyterians but Catholics and Quakers and Deists, they relied upon the Bible as a model for the creation of a government and the maintenance of a just and civil society. This fact is a cornerstone of American Exceptionalism.

A conclusion, on President’s Day? Here: for all the nihilistic tinkering with our heritage and foundational documents by secularists – for all the rats who nibble away at America’s civil/sacred documents, rotting our cultural underpinnings – they play with fire. Their success so far has not been by strength or argument, or logic, it has been the supine surrender of Christians.

But if they press their subversion of religious freedom too far, they will fulfill the prophecy of Hosea 8:7: “They who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”

Try removing the Ten Commandments from the Supreme Court. Try outlawing the Senate Chaplain. Try denying the President the choice to affirm his or her oath on a Bible. Try taking “under God” from the Pledge.

Then shall Christians finally rise up – and maybe a few agnostics who realize that Freedom itself would be in death throes. Pitchforks would replace petitions. Again might we see the loosing of the “fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword.” And President’s day would take on meaning of renewed spiritual clarity again.

+ + +

Click: In God We Trust

Patience and Timing, Endangered Species

2-13-17

I heard about one of those Management Consultants who conduct weekend seminars, telling a story about his advice to a trainee.

“There are two… essential… things… never to forget…” and he paused some more – “when you set out… to navigate your… career.”

Annoyed by the strangely lugubrious rollout, the trainee insisted, “Yes? YES? Well???”

The instructor replied, “Patience.”

Point taken. But the trainee pressed on. “What’s the other thing???”

Before he could finish the question, the instructor interrupted: “Timing.”

Good advice, if we think about it. (By the way, you just saved two whole days, and a $300 registration fee, for the seminar!) (You’re welcome.) Like most good advice, the best source is not a Management guru, or even Life’s Experiences, but the Bible.

The famous verse – so famous that even irreligious people often quote it during their marriage ceremony – from I Corinthians 13, offers “patience” as the first of the words that define Love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” Wow. “Patience” leads the list.

A verse we all should remember when things are wrong, or insecure, or bleak, or threatening, or dangerous… and we fret – “Be still and know that I am God.” How much simpler can an assurance of God be? My daughter Heather meditates on Psalm 46:10 by parsing its words individually: each phrase brimming with meaning.

“Be.” “Be still.” “Be still and know.” “Be still and know that I am.” “Be still and know that I am God.” Thus comes spiritual patience.

Then there is the closely related virtue, a sense of timing. Many of the Israelites’ woes, and their leaders’ mistakes, came from disobeying God’s directions, being impulsive, jumping the gun, so to speak.

Many Christians do this from mistaken confidence that they have God’s Will; are full of the Spirit; when often it is old-fashioned Pride.

Peter walked on water as his Savior did and instructed him to do… until he looked down. Impulsive.

Of all the Apostles, I identify the most with Peter, I must admit. Impulsive, sometimes too eager to please God, when all He asks is obedience. The “other side of that coin” concerns Peter, again, and those who were told to “wait” for the Disciple to replace Judas. They were impatient… they substituted THEIR timing for God’s… and drew straws. A guy named Matthias was chosen.

I describe him that way because we never hear of him again in the Bible. He was chosen by 11 men holding an election. But the Holy Spirit, in God’s timing, would APPOINT the successor: Paul.

Peter was an impulsive, bumbling, flawed follower of Jesus. After swearing he would never do so, he denied Jesus three times, leading to the crucifixion. But in God’s timing, Peter soon became a wise, inspirational, strong leader. A great Manager, in fact, of the early church, it could be said. On his confession of Jesus as Lord, the church had its foundation.

What changed? Obedience to God’s timing. In that timing, baptism played a role in the step-by-step timing we are to obey, ourselves. When Peter and the Disciples had been baptized in the Spirit – and as other converts were to experience in a tidal wave of belief after Pentecost – the promise of Zechariah 4:6 was confirmed: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, said the Lord of hosts…”

Jesus Himself had no earthly ministry we are told about, for the first 30 years of His life. Then he was baptized in the River Jordan, according to God’s timing. The Holy Spirit came upon Him, and His heavenly ministry commenced.

Patience is a virtue. And timing? Always remember to set your clocks and watches to God-Standard Time.

+ + +

Click: Waiting On the Lord

“Hey – I Know That Guy!”

2-6-17

This is something of a continuation of last week’s essay. I seldom attempt this, reckoning that for most people, one week’s worth of my opinions is quite enough on any subject. But circumstances, and some feedback, illuminated the reflections, so to speak, about friendship. I hope that all the flavor is not chewed out of this gum.

At the risk of revealing some repellant form of insularity I might suffer, I have the opinion that despite increased travel, more frequent communication, easier social interaction… the average person has fewer friends – true, intimate, close friends – than ever in years past. I suppose there is way to ascribe logic to this state of affairs, a reasonable explanation, but that is not to avoid regretting it.

The Pace of Life must bear a large share of the blame, if this is true; so the contemporary world’s cornucopia of blessings surely is mixed. In fact it is on almost matters.

These little bubbles we create for ourselves – last week I referred to the temptation for believers, for example, to grow more insulated from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, as the Bible lists – these bubbles seem to us secure, womb-like. But bubbles burst. All the time.

This week I was reminded of the urge – no, the necessity – of Christians to engage the World. It is frequently our lot; and we can never be sure whether circumstances are orchestrated by God, or not, to test our Witness.

A friend (though casual) on Facebook (where else?) commented (in 2017, many of us seldom converse, but we frequently Comment) on a political thread (what else?). To some perceived outrage by a president I will not name, she commented, simply, “Jesus.” By her own subsequent admission, she is not a Christian, and I perceived of what she wrote to be a curse. (By her subsequent attestation, she said she uttered it in the same manner a Christian might. I was not persuaded that she was praying; and, besides, I have heard plenty church-goers take the Lord’s name in vain. In any event, obviously there was no reason to continue, in private or public, without voicing skepticism about her intention being reverent.)

I yielded to the temptation to refer to her own faith tradition, which I had suspected but did not know, and cite the Second Commandment. But that hinges on the technicality of whether the utterance “Jesus” in that context is an imprecation. A further technicality (not in my friend’s case, but among many people) might be the loophole – “Those shalt not take the Name of the Lord the God in vain”… but taking the name of another person’s Lord or God in vain is okay.

It is not an irrelevant matter, because it leads us to wonder (have you ever wondered?) why people do not yell, “O Buddha!” when they are angry; or “Con-fucius!” when they stub a toe. Never “Mohammed damn it!” when frustrated or disappointed. “By Jove!” is the nearest I can think of.

Why? Inching ever more relevant, for Christians, is the implication of this matter, which is more consequential than we are apt to realize. My lifetime is replete with many Jewish friends, which I happily stipulate despite the snide comments that the concept of “some of my best friends…” always inspires. And I have heard uncountable numbers of them over the years use Jesus’ Name as a curse. Or the formal title Jesus Christ, which seldom sounds more pious in those contexts.

We Christians invariably take it in stride. No – “in stride” is an insufficient term. If my own experience is a standard, we “wimp out,” try to ignore it, take the offense on our Savior’s behalf, and, usually, attempt not to offend the person.

Shameful we are, rather.

We shut up when the Creator of the Universe, the Savior of our Souls is made into a curse in our presence. Because we are too timid; or because not offending an acquaintance is more important than being complicit in an offense to the Son of God.

“Whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33 NLE translation).

By the way, my use of NLE means “No Loophole Edition” of the Bible. From the Commandments to Jesus’ own Words, to the Epistles, God Almighty requires respect. No loopholes, sorry. He actually asks little of us… but respect is one things. A defense is another.

Through the years I have done certain things – may God forgive me, not often enough – but when I have heard a supermarket shopper or fellow office-worker utter “Jesus Christ!” as a curse, I sometimes tell them that they are insulting my Best Friend. Being rhetorical, I have asked, “Do you know Jesus that well? Do you want to continue… and talk to Him in prayer together?” When I discern that I ought to be serious, I will ask if the person realizes that the Incarnation of God Almighty became Jesus in the flesh, and loved us both so much that He became the sacrifice for our sins. In other words… show some respect.

It is easy to be rebuffed. Be scorned and perhaps insulted. To be spoken about as nosy, or worse (?), as a religious nut.

So what? You have stood up for a Friend. You probably would do so in defense of your spouse or child. Why not your Savior? Your Best Friend.

Jesus stood up for you. He laid Himself down. He scrambled up that cross, virtually, to bear your sins. To suffer and die. Defending His Name – and then sharing His love – is the least we can do.

+ + +

Click: Do You Know My Jesus?

Frienemies

1-30-17

“The old order changeth,” and sometimes it changeth pretty dang fast. With the sum of human knowledge doubling every 17 months, they say – whoops, this just in: it doubles every 16-1/2 months – our heads spin.

Surely this is the case beyond facts and scientific data. Common folk feel a disconnect with changing morality, musical styles, social policies, and fashion. Such things have always evolved, but never before between breakfast and bedtime. To the extent that essentially evanescent matters change, humankind has always been assured, and relied upon, and embraced the Word of God as immutable, everlasting.

That contemporary churches and denominations are re-shaping their brands of theology to accommodate contemporary mores, instead of the opposite, is disturbing. It offends the faithful, subliminally. It is incendiary to spiritual activists, Christian soldiers, as the hymn identifies us. It is odious, we are persuaded, to God Almighty, whose Word commands that we not conform to this world.

The nature of friendship has changed, or rather has been changed. Once upon a time if you fell out of affection with an associate, you discussed the problem. In the misty past, and in extreme cases, opponents would fight duels… but only then after elaborate notices, challenges, appointments, nominations of “seconds,” and scheduling. Swords or pistols must have seemed virtually inconsequential after all those preliminaries.

Fast forward to today, when people Unfriend others on Facebook. It is the equivalent.

Inherent in Unfriending, except when clearing one’s In-Box (or re-establishing order and sanity to the daily grind, another topic) is condescension, disapproval, and exclusion. Safer than swords or pistols, the e-version of casting someone from your social circle and yelling “unclean!!!” is to Unfriend.

It has happened to me lately, although not specifically. I have been gathered, like a happy fish minding my own business, in wide nets cast in the waters by people who demand that folks who voted the way I did recently remove myself from their site. Anathema! – we are denounced, condemned, excommunicated.

In a few cases I have taken the trouble to say, in effect, “It’s been swell; have a nice life.” In every case the response has been that their outburst was not personal, and, gee, we can still talk and Message (now a verb, ugh) but simply avoid politics. My cheek should become Unslapped by the glove.

Beyond the evidence of a culture hurtling toward terminal superficiality, there is a deeper and more disquieting trend at work here at the nexus of Politeness and Politics. Relevant Magazine recently published an article about the dangers of social isolation and the resulting indifference to other people and their needs. It is true that Internet Etiquette has transformed our computer and smart phone screens into virtual shields, or allows us that option.

I think it is an objection without full force; apart from spiritual regrets we might have, it is largely a mechanistic argument. In any event, what is more alarming to me is the visceral effect: it is a condition, not a theory, that confronts us.

The election of Donald Trump – I would say the America of both Obama and Trump – has our society in a more contentious state than at any time since the Civil War. This is a major malady, no longer a possible passing case of civic indigestion. We are headed for some form of crack-up; it is inevitable.

As in the Civil War, families are split, arguments are heated, friendships are… Undone. I have not one single (or married) friend who does not have a story about dinner-table arguments, holiday disruptions, emotional scenes, snide insults, rolling eyes, snarky comments, about politics in general and the election specifically. Liberals AND conservatives. In person, and online.

Before and during the Civil War this was the case, despite the issues being deeper and the bloodshed flowing redder. But every family and every neighborhood was affected, and tensions were high; friendships ended.

I cannot think of other civic strife in America that tore the social fabric more. Civil Rights? The Vietnam War? Prohibition? Perhaps back to Senator John Calhoun’s calls for Nullification (which I lump with Slavery issues) or Andrew Jackson’s dissolution of the National Bank… no. New England’s threats of Secession in the 1810’s? Not likely. Those issues fomented debates, not divorces. Maybe the Revolution itself, when Loyalists, Revolutionaries, and the indifferent split the Colonial population into thirds.

Now there is a national nastiness, and the word proudly has been appropriated by the women and “others” who marched on the day after the Inauguration. Despite protestations, the national media largely has waged an ideological war on the public, and the public’s awakening to the assault is branded illegitimate – so says the man behind the curtain in the Emerald City.

My daughter Heather, thinking about this dilemma in our midst, wishes for a National Game Night that might re-set the meter of comity and amity. But she knows that dream is a metaphor: unrealizable wishful thinking.

The Bible’s words to be “in this world, but not of this world” shout to us more than ever before. I have shared the impulses, for years, of gathering the communion of saints around us; encouraging one another; joining home schools and small groups. Yes, we should witness. No, we should not leave the non-believers outside the camps. Christians are withdrawing into spiritual cocoons. Good or bad?

I understand that God is our real Friend, an ever-present help in time of trouble, and in every other aspect of life. When we are Unfriended by a hostile world, are we to sigh Relief? Or find new friends? Or Re-friend? It is not an Internet “meme” yet, but might become one: Refriending.

“Hear ye now what the Lord says; Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice” (Micah 6:1).

+ + +

Click: Prayer

We Love Him for the Friends He Has Made

1-23-17

A quick, virtual GPS for some readers: this essay will be entre nous – between us, assuming some common ground; not arguing to change minds or convert anyone. Nor even to persuade; only some observations.

The title is a paraphrase of a description of Grover Cleveland when he was nominated for president in the 1884 Democrat convention. Gen Edward S Bragg of Wisconsin complimented the reform governor of New York with those words. Cleveland was little know nationally, having served as governor fewer than two years; and had been mayor of Buffalo just as briefly.

In an era of cesspool-corruption – in 1880, President James Abram Garfield was assassinated by a frustrated office-seeker from a different party faction – Cleveland was what supporters called “ugly honest.” Rock-ribbed integrity, and the sort of man who could, and did, hang convicted criminals himself when executioners were squeamish.

As a New York Democrat, it took courage and daring to buck the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine in New York City. But Cleveland did, and gained approval from more and more voters in his state and around the nation.

“We love him for the enemies he has made.”

My observations today are about President Trump, and very much about the status of faith in America; even, possibly, the politics of faith.

Early in the campaign season, I was skeptical of some of Trump’s pronouncements (if not testimonies) and expositions of his faith. Attempting to “judge not, lest I be judged,” believe me, it caught my attention when he spoke of “Two Corinthians” and thinking he never needed forgiveness, and not wanting to bother God with such things. And so forth.

But readers know that my opinions of Trump changed over the course of the campaign. He named Mike Pence, a sincere, consistent, and bold Christian public servant. He grew more sincere, forceful, and detailed about conservative policy positions… as, oddly, his opponents grew imprecise and rudderless. Toward the end of his campaign, and certainly since election day, he rebuilt his platform of solid oak, so to speak, and, one by one, incorporated the long-held goals of conservatives, nationalists, non-interventionists, libertarians, laborers, home-schoolers. And Christians.

Among many “surprising” voter groups who came as if from nowhere to support Trump was the so-called “evangelical” bloc. They did not, in fact, come from nowhere. They have been in the ideological heartland – not merely the geographical heartland – of America, a sleeping giant. We do not riot; we do not burn cars or smash windows. We do not scream obscenities at every opportunity. But we did launch, spontaneously, the Tea Party movement. A sleeping giant that stirred.

Well… fast-forward to Inauguration Week, just concluded. We awakened; we stopped caring what the elites called us; we are happy – wherever we came from – to have a leader who is willing, maybe eager, to break some china.

“We love him for the friends he has made.”

It is as dangerous to judge, even definitively assess, someone when you agree with them, as when you dissent. It is risky, and it is wrong. So I am not claiming that President Trump is a tongue-talking, snake-handling Fundamentalist. I do not know his soul, or how he is versed in scripture now or in his past.

But it is worthwhile for us to look at details of recent days, otherwise easy to overlook. The Trump inauguration featured more prayers and invocations than any in history. Many of the ministers were not “mainstream” clergy but strong Evangelicals, Pentecostal, some fundamentalist.

The same with the Saturday service at the National Cathedral. More dedicated, notable, evangelical and Pentecostal figures, many of them. As the National Cathedral requires a broad range of faiths at such services, over the two days the nation, and the President, heard from Franklin Graham and his daughter Cissie, Paula White, Greg Laurie, David Jeremiah, Alveda King (Dr MLK’s niece), Robert Jeffress, Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist, and Darrell Scott.

President Trump is a onetime disciple of Norman Vincent Peale, the famous pastor of New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, but an exponent of “Christianity Lite.” He could have invited fewer faith leaders, or ones blander in their faith expressions. But he did not. He did not have to form an Evangelical Advisory Board, with whom he meets and prays regularly. But he did; and does. And… watch for the nature, character, and, yes, “litmus test” of the person he will soon nominate as Supreme Court Justice.

Again, I am not presuming anything about the President’s faith, or his relationship with Jesus Christ. I do not believe he surrounds himself with people of faith out of superstition or artifice or camouflage. I am not inured to his evident, or manifest, flaws. But he could be presenting himself as a different man who has evolved in recent months. In certain ways, this man of huge ego is as transparent as could be.

And we can love him for the friends he has made.

+ + +

A few words of thanks, and a medical bulletin, for those friends who have been praying about the procedure performed this morning on my forehead. Yes, Suturday morning. My trusted doctor was pretty snippy with me, but he saw a little spot the other day, and advised that we take care of it right away. “We” is term that always makes me chuckle – “This won’t hurt us…” – but, no matter how you slice it, I followed his advice.

What was it? What was it? I didn’t take note of the medical term the other day, but friends demanded I give them a name. So I named it “Spot,” just like a pet in my childhood. I had so many friends talking about Basal, I thought I was in the Spice Market. No, it was the Slice Market.

Needles to say, I first received anesthesia. The whole procedure reminded me of when I walked into a baseball bat way back in my skull days, in third grade. Fortunately Doc has a great sense of humor – you know I will say he had me in stitches. Honestly, I could not tell how many stitches the old sew-and-sew used, but he did a head-count. Four.

The meat he excavated looks like a cherry Hershey’s mini-kiss, as I saw it floating in a vial ready for biopsy. What’s even more vile is the splitting headache I have now, probably to be expected. But if he had gouged an inch or two deeper, I would have a splitting-head ache now instead.

Seriously (?) all this was rather minor and Doc assured me that it likely was nothing for worry (there we go again: it wasn’t his forehead) but precautionary. Really minor… but these descriptions are easier fare for puns. I followed our Savior’s command to Render unto scissors the things that are scissors’. And very seriously, thanks to all for your concern and prayers.

+ + +

Click: Tell Me the Story of Jesus / I Love To Tell the Story

A Leader Anointed of God?

1-16-17

Four years ago this week my wife lay dying. She had been sick for a long time – all her life, really – but in recent years the diabetes and heart attacks and strokes and cancers and heart and kidney transplants and amputations and much else, had taken their toll. She suffered a hemorrhage, lost most of her blood before transfusion, and was in a coma for a week. Our children flew in from far and wide – half an hour away; from across the continent; from Ireland.

It was on Monday, January 21. In the hallways of the hospital, and from other rooms, we could hear the TVs turned to news: Inauguration Day. It was pushed back from January 20, as the Constitution respects Sundays. We stood around Nancy’s bed, with monitors blinking, and we faintly could hear the pomp and circumstance, the music and announcers, from the Capitol steps, echoing in shiny hospital hallways.

At the moment, the very moment, that Obama took the oath of office, Nancy died. The monitor flat-lined. The first of us to break the silence was my son Ted: “Mom always said that if Obama actually became president a second time, she’d just die.”

Families have different ways of coping. Seeped in humor and politics for years, we evidently found ours. Lest we be thought cold, my daughter Emily will tell people that we had grieved for Nancy in many ways for many previous years.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord
(Isaiah 55:8-9). Thank God.

This anniversary of sorts has me thinking of the upcoming inauguration, also. Meditating upon God’s ways, I thought about that famous unpredictable, larger-than-life character; intemperate and over the top in uncountable ways; notable for prowess and strong actions, but also for womanizing and crazy hair. Well known to history. An unlikely person to be chosen by God to lead and perhaps redeem His people.

Donald Trump?

No, actually I was thinking of Samson.

We can find parallels, antecedents, and foreshadows wherever we look, if we look hard enough; affinities as well as exceptions to rules that tempt us to draw lessons. So I will only go so far. I mean, Samson was flawed, yet ultimately obeyed the commands of righteousness. He tore down the temple; yet to reform the system he deigned to destroy its artifice.

With Trump a new era begins – and I think this is, for once, not a quadrennial cliché. At the beginning of the campaign I opposed him, wrote against him, saying that I would not want to vote for someone whom I would not want as a neighbor. I still am not reconciled to his coarseness… but I have learned to discern between scatology and straight talk. The vocabulary of hard truths and agenda of bold solutions.

As the campaign progressed, he defined his message and platform, even to enumerating specific grievances and remedies, while his opponents in the primaries and general election actually grew less explicit about their own views. Week by week, citizens in living rooms and kitchens, churches and taverns, offices and factories, started to think that things they had complained about last week – and even since the ‘60s – were finally being articulated. And by someone who they seemed to trust would not forget them, as politicians always do.

The silent revolt of the Silent Majority is thus explained. No mystery. People with grievances; evangelicals; disillusioned working people; long-suffering victims of stagnation and rising crime rates and economic insecurity and public corruption… did not stay home this year. No mystery. People who had become too cynical to vote for president, for years, trekked to the voting booths. I know. I was one of them.

But, now what? Who knows? A man as unpredictable as Donald Trump might wind up disappointing his legions. But I don’t think so. More likely, he will disappoint nervous Republican politicians who are hoping he will revert to form in Washington DC – to be the same old, do the same old.

But the entrenched interests – those within his own party; and those who thirst for his blood, even before the inauguration, from the Disloyal Opposition – sense their possible doom, and they will fight like wounded rats. Return to this essay in a year, in four years, in a decade, if the nation and the world last that long. Let’s see: I say that myriad things will never be the same. We are at a turning point.

Civility; good will; public discourse; genuine bipartisanship; legislative compromise; political traditions… all are now virtually extinct. Those geniis will never return to those bottles. And if your first mental response to this was, “Yes, but remember what so-and-so did…” inserting the name of your favorite enemy, you have proven my point.

Samson tore down the temple, a necessary act of obedience. Daniel calmed vicious lions. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego endured the fiery furnace. David was a horrid and lustful sinner who yet was anointed of God for great works. Review the heroes of faith and history, and pray that President Trump may be found not wanting.

Get ready for a ride. Whether Donald Trump is a committed Christian I know not. But he can receive, as any of us can, and act upon, God’s call. Buckle up your prayer sandals: the new president will need our prayers, as does the nation, as do we all, every one of us.

+ + +

Click: Battle Hymn Of the Republic

Don’t Ask Me.

1-9-17

Everybody is an expert these days. Pundits know more than politicians. Bloggers know more than pollsters. People at McDonald’s know more than the president. (The funny thing is, many times these things are true! But, to continue the thought…) Our brother-in-law knows more than we do, whatever the topic; our spouses usually are correct, even when we don’t admit it; and the most aggressively ignorant voter has the same power as policy wonks do.

It is the Age of Experts. Not “expertise,” not wisdom, necessarily, but opinions transcendent. Opinions are not facts, but these days they carry the same weight.

With all the humility I can muster, I want to go on the record and say that there is a LOT that I don’t know. Many of us are tempted to assume, or project, or – let’s be honest – fake an answer, when we are asked things. People ask casual questions or sometimes cry out with anguish about heavy issues. How dare we presume to know things we don’t, whether from positions of false pride or assumptions of merciful comfort.

It is honest to answer casual questions, “Beats me!” And it is liberating to respond to a hurting soul, “I don’t know! I just don’t know either.”

I don’t know why a child who has been loved and nurtured “turns out bad.”

I don’t know why a lovely, innocent child is brutalized by a predator, or killed in an accident.

I don’t know why a youth who turned into an addict, a drunk, an abuser, or a criminal, one day turned his or her life around and became a redeemed soul, ministering to others.

I don’t know why people, especially the kindly folks among us, contract deadly diseases.

I don’t know why people with “incurable diseases” get healed; as I have seen, cancers disappearing, dead limbs coming to life, restored sight.

I don’t know why spouses who are in loving marriages cheat.

I don’t know why rich people steal, or powerful people needlessly scheme, or political leaders oppress.

I don’t know why some people forsake all worldly goods and live among the poor, serving the weak and rejected.

I don’t know why religious people unfairly discriminate, or some of the clergy sexually abuse children.

I don’t know why, in lands of freedom and opportunity, people are lazy, “entitled,” lawless, anti-intellectual, hateful.

I don’t know why our society, despite all its blessings and its heritage, careens to the bottom of the culture’s dumpster, glorifying low morals, lack of respect, and self-glorification.

I don’t know why a nation founded on liberty and goals of equal rights, marches toward government controls and regulation.

I don’t know why a scientific society can, at the same time, devise miracle cures and means of prolonging life… and perfect ways of killing babies more efficiently, with easier consciences, and increasingly by edict.

I don’t know why a country can brag about democracy at home and impose non-democratic systems on other nations.

I don’t know why a country with crumbling roads, bridges, tunnels – and morals – insists on scurrying after such concerns elsewhere in the world.

I don’t know why, with all of our “progress,” humankind seems worse off than ever. Religious persecution, deaths and torture, ethnic cleansing and barbarity, are rife. I don’t know why.

I really don’t know why the Creator of the Universe loves me. Knows me, cares for me, sacrificed His Son for the punishment I deserve as a crummy, rebellious sinner. I don’t know. He tells me; it’s in the Bible; the Holy Ghost whispers to my spirit. Sometimes I know, with gratitude, but sometimes it overwhelms me.

Those are a few things I don’t know. I don’t know why people forgive – or how they can forgive, sometimes. I know we SHOULD, but… I just don’t know why or how.

But God does. That I DO know: God knows.

Comforted by that fact – not opinion – I know that there are things I do not need to know, personally.

When we don’t know the answers, and don’t even know the questions sometimes, that’s when we pray. Pray for answers. Pray alone. Pray together.

When I am comforted by the assurance that I do not need to know all the answers because He does, I have come to the definition of Faith.

I don’t know. He does. Ask Him! He will lead you to all Truth.

+ + +

Click: Go Ask the One

Thank You To the god Janus

1-1-17

Our secular world inherited a lot of things from ancient cultures and societies that have gone before. This is logical, as life is a continuum, not a shoebox of snapshots. History is ongoing. This is also proper, because we learn from history (or should) and, at the other end of the spectrum, it is interesting to learn what trappings have remained of customs, beliefs, names, and traditions.

Even the Christian religion owes much to ancient and pagan religions. The name of Easter; the dates of Christmas and Easter; the veneration or invention of some saints, are among the inspirations or compromises that made Christianity palatable to pagan peoples.

Christ’s Resurrection speaks of New Life; Springtime does too; ancient tribes used to celebrate nature’s regeneration in the Spring and face East, where the sun rises. “Branding” Resurrection observances with the associations of Spring – if not taken too far – does not violate any theological truth, and in fact seems virtuous.

… which is a long way around to invite a consideration of January, this January. The month is named for the Roman god Janus, the representation of endings and beginnings; the past and the future; of gates and doorways; of old and new; of transitions; of changes. Janus is called the Two-Faced god not because he was a hypocrite, but as his representations show, the fellow looked backward and forward. Our modern world has inherited more than a month’s name from him. For instance, understanding his traditional characteristics, we know better why New Year’s Resolutions are made in his month.

He bequeathed much, from special stones at the doors of Roman houses, to all manner of traditions and names. When in Bologna, Italy, I stay at the magnificent ancient villa named Torre di Iano – literally, the Towers of Janus. (Twin emotions, of sorts: I love to go; I hate to leave!

Here we are at another January, as always an invitation to contemplate the Old and New. We will welcome a new administration which, partisanship aside, bids fair to be a momentous and history-making (or -changing) presidency. Janus-like events ahead. An inordinate number of prominent people have died this year. But overall, and in deference to ol’ Janus, the numbers of deaths probably will be the same next year as last year. The more things change, the more they stay the same? Sounds wise and likely is wise, as it reflects Ecclesiastes’ “nothing new under the sun.”

Questions about Old and New invite profound thoughts, or trails toward them. They might mostly be variations on glasses “half empty or half full,” which I have never precisely understood; but I know what people grapple with. In nature, we see Janus-attributions everywhere, every day – and how we regard them says less about nature than ourselves.

Things die: flowers, trees, animals, people, theories, civilizations. If you choose to see death all around you, there are myriad examples.

Yet things live! Plants regenerate; succeeding generations of animals and people arise. Even seedlings fight their way between cracks in ugly urban jungles; after the worst of wildfires, “dead” trees grow buds, little animals appear, seemingly from nowhere; even the driest of deserts occasionally bloom – and with the most colorful flowers imaginable.

A variation of the sameness and dullness of life – to those who choose to be gloomy – is the belief that the world of people and the flora and fauna around us, plod on and on and on. Herds of dumb beasts; the bleakness of winter snow; the dulled masses of people.

Yet, facing the opposite direction, we see – and we serve – a different God. The animal and plant world He has created with infinite variety! No zebra nor giraffe has the same markings. Wild animals are different and sound different, one from another in the most populous of species. A rose is not a rose is not a rose!

And, for good or ill, people are different too. That is not only a cliché: we would not it any other way, would we? Approaching seven billion people on earth, there are doppelgangers – our “doubles” exist only in fiction. We miss loved ones, we regret the passing of favorites celebrities, but time marches on. When a harsh dictator or a brutal terrorist, say, dies, those people are almost instantly succeeded in the mortal coil by a baby whose smiles can make the hardest person feel new too… whose innocence blots out any imputed evil record… who is, again and again and again, a symbol of the Newness in life.

The Newness OF life.

We need to be reminded – from ancient traditions if we see them aright, to the vibrancy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that things die “unto” life. That for every old and even regrettable thing, there are second chances, U-turns, and life more abundant. That God is a god of New Life.

Happy January!
+ + +
Click: St Patrick’s Breastplate

A Different Christmas

12-26-16

One of the things a lot of us like about Christmas is the comforting security and tradition of it. Right? The one time of year, we are wont to think, when conflicts and arguments are suspended; when families gather; when people go to church for time-honored services and familiar hymns bathe our souls. Even if it is the only day of the year that some people go to church.

I am not going to be Scrooge here, but the Christmas we know so well would have been a mystery in many ways to history’s generations of Christians.

Christmas cards really commenced, in thoughts and printed versions, in the 1840s. The image of Santa Claus as we know him – know him?? – dates from about the same time. Thomas Nast depicted the basic Santa we know; illustrator Haddon Sondblom created the definitive version for Coca-Cola ads in the 1940s. Many familiar Christmas songs were written in the past few decades; and the “old favorites,” with only a few exceptions, were unknown before two or three centuries ago – a blip in 2000 years of Christian worship.

Most of us know, even if we do not dwell on the facts, that Christmas trees, red-and-green, probably the exchange of gifts, and certainly the date of December 25, all are of pagan origins. “Gifts” can be grafted onto God’s purpose of the Incarnation; and various Christian faiths disagree on the date of the Christ’s birth.

But the actual observance of Jesus’s birth was for centuries one of the Church’s minor festivals and commemorations. Easter was, of course, a focal point of belief and believers. At one time Ascension was – I think properly – the major holy day that Christmas was not, quite. Pentecost, also.

So, am I a Scrooge after all? I have no problem, at all, with observing all the “traditional” cultural trappings of Christmas. Yes, I am glad that many people feel free to say “Merry Christmas” again. I never stopped; and I am fine with the presents and the colors and the decorations and the food. Street lightings in October, and radio marathons, annoy me.

What annoys me a lot, however, is the mandatory cheer of this “season.”
If some people, some Christians or well-intentioned revelers, try hard to be cheery at Christmastide, it is not bad… but only to the extent that we should always be charitable and exercise good will to men.

But we should all – all of us – temper our cheer. Stick with me. There are many aspects of Christmas that should turn us contemplative, not into elves with frozen smiles. The Incarnation was the most incredible miracle of God, the greatest gift to humankind. And we should be joyful. Scrooge has left the building, OK?

But. God became flesh and dwelt among us… because the human race was corrupt and lost, headed for damnation, loving sin more than God. That is sobering, especially because so many of us are still lost in sin; still needing a Savior after 2000 years.

Hallmark cards have sanitized the Birth story. I personally am persuaded that there was “no room in the inns” because inn-keepers rejected providing rooms to teenage girls who conceived before marriage. Abuse and calumny likely followed Mary and Joseph through the streets of Bethlehem.

The stable was “humble”? Certainly, but it was less than that. The manger is where animals’ food was placed, so the Baby Jesus lay amongst old food scraps and the spittle of various animals. If frankincense were needed, it was then… because that stable undoubtedly reeked of excrement.

The advent of Jesus into a needy and hurting world was, sadly, akin to the birth pangs of a mother, all mothers in painful labor. Herod knew of the prophecies about a Savior (isn’t it odd, by the way, that even Herod believed, in his way; yet millions of our contemporaries think that Christianity is a fairy tale?) – and Herod, fearing a rival to his authority… ordered the deaths of boys under age two, throughout his realm.

That is what history came to call the Slaughter of the Innocents. One of the most beautiful-sounding Christmas tunes is the lullaby we know as the Coventry Carol. Mother sings to child, “Bye, bye, lully lu-lay,” a transliteration of ancient French. It is sweet, certainly; but many have forgotten that the mother in this lullaby is whispering good-bye to her son, about to be slaughtered.

And so forth. We dishonor God when we willfully neglect the full meaning of Christ’s Mass. We are happy to assert that Jesus is the reason for the season: just so. But the ancients pondered the truth that “God, with a heavy heart, His Son did impart.” Heavy heart? Yes… God was Incarnate in order to suffer and die for us.

At least we humans have learned much in these two thousand years.

No… we haven’t. That is what I have been arguing. We have managed to sanitize, subvert, corrupt, and disguise Christmas. We make it about our memories, not God’s meaning. The Lord made it all about His Will; and we make it all about our wants. Ultimately, His focus was on us, His beloved children, and our salvation; and we make it… also all about us. Something’s not right.

Indeed, something is not right. After two thousand years of “doing” Christmas, this is still – perhaps more than ever – a needy and hurting world. More Christians were persecuted, tortured, and martyred in the last century than in all the centuries, combined, since the Holy Birth. Around us, here at home, we are beset by hate, injustice, infidelity, apostasy, self-delusion, materialism, and corruption.

Abroad – well, we can just look at the lands where Jesus was born, walked, preached, died, and rose. And loved. Let us just look at Aleppo, where the world has been looking… and looking away. Again, slaughter of innocents.

The “Middle East” is comprised of countries where Christians recently have been in the minority, but sometimes in substantial numbers. Those numbers are depleted, diminished, decimated now. “Ethnic cleansing,” refugee purges, forced conversions and rapes, beheadings and slavery.

Herod was an amateur.

After 2000 years we still await a Savior without really knowing why; or knowing He already has come. Or how to greet Him if we were to meet Him.

If Jesus showed up at your house for Christmas dinner, would you set Him an extra place at the feast, or would you fall at His feet? Would He have to remind you why He came to earth? Would we rethink just what it is we celebrate? Should we accept the present of His Birth… or make a gift of our lives and hearts? And would we cover it up with wrapping paper and fancy ribbons?

+ + +

This video is dedicated to all displaced children and in particular Assyrian children who have suffered the most by war and bloodshed in the Middle East. The familiar carol is sung here by people of Jesus’s neighborhoods and languages, Assyrian-Aramaic. These faces like Jesus knew, loved, and was.

Click: The Coventry Carol (Acapella)

The Bell-Ringer of Bethlehem

12-19-16

Last week, our essay was about the “Little Town of Bethlehem,” the village where God chose to become flesh and dwell among us. Last month, there were violent clashes and civic friction there. Last year, we recalled the sad story of a simple Palestinian Christian who served his church there, gunned down in crossfire in Manger Square. For the last generation, we almost have gotten used to – no: we have not – news stories of hatred, violence, oppression, persecution, and blood in the streets of the birthplace of Jesus.

NOT filled with pilgrims, worshipers, locals, as once was the case for 2000 years. Violence between the Israeli forces and Palestinians had broken out, harshly. Again, this year. 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-wood 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 – reportedly where Jesus 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 and tend to him. 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 from 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 pr rotected in Iraq. By us, the United States. Their answer even then was “No.” Under Saddam Hussein, 1.5-million Christians lived in relative security; today, fewer than 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq, many in fear. Likewise, in Syria, 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 and aid workers 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. God forbid.

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.

+ + +

The news story from The Independent was picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald, where the Australian singer-songwriter Carl Cleves spotted it and was moved to write this song:

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.

The Little Town of Bethlehem, Where “Unto” Becomes “Into”

12-12-16

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.

From all appearances, nothing was happening in the quaint little town of Bethlehem. Businesses had closed, and residents shut themselves in for the night. Mary and Joseph had arrived and settled in a stable because there was no room for them in the Inn.

In the fields nearby, shepherds made themselves as comfortable as possible on the cold, hard ground as they guarded their sheep. An inky sky stretched above them like a never-ending wrap of peace and tranquility.

But, suddenly, great activity stirred the shepherds from their rest. Peace and tranquility, instantly replaced with fear and trembling. For among the silent stars above, the Christ star appeared, remarkably distinct from any other.

At the same time, a brilliant light blinded the shepherds. They dropped to their faces, acknowledging the glory of the angel of God standing before them.

The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people! Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

Then, before the shepherds could even process what the angel had said, the very heavens opened, and a great number of heavenly hosts joined the visiting angel in celebration and praise. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”

The shepherds probably looked from one to the other when the angels had gone; joyous, giddy laughter bubbling from their souls. Could this really be true? The Messiah they’d learned about as children? The Messiah promised to come to Bethlehem to be ruler over Israel?

“Come,” they said to one another. “Let’s go see this Child in Bethlehem. For the prophets have said that ‘a Child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace’” (the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6).

Can you imagine the shepherds’ joy and excitement as they tromped across the fields in expectation of witnessing the birth of the promised Messiah?

Today we sing Christmas carols and music that retell this miraculous story of Christ’s birth. One begins, “For unto us a Child is born.”

But unto us isn’t enough, for the value of a gift is nothing until the gift has been willingly received.

A verse in O Little Town of Bethlehem changes the wording just slightly, but the change makes a significant difference in application to our personal lives. The verse says, “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.”

I love that. Enter in. Be born in us today.

We, too, can witness Christ’s birth. Not in a stable far away in another country, another era. Here, today. In my heart. In my life. And in your heart and your life.

Our response? Let’s hearken and respond to the timeless call of the heavenly hosts, saying, “Come and worship. Come and worship. Worship Christ the newborn King.”

+ + +

Today’s essay is a Guest Blog by my friend Barbara E Haley, gifted in words and music. She is an educator and Reading Interventionist, and lives in San Antonio, Texas, where she enjoys writing at IHOP, playing classical piano, and spending time with her grandchildren. www.barbarahaleybooks.com

Click: O Little Town of Bethlehem

The ancient town of Bethlehem, whose story is very real and very true, is also eternal as Barb’s essay reminds us. And in that sense, picturing it in a later context is worthwhile. This drawing is by the German cartoonist Wilhelm Schulz, who, early in the last century, depicted the Story and its holy players in the setting of a rural German town. Schulz’s collaborator was the poet Ludwig Thoma; the book was “Heilige Nacht: Eine Weihnachtslegende.”

We Can Escape the Savior, But Not the Judge

12-5-16

Christianity as a Christmas tree: The consumerist culture of America – more generally, of the materialistic West — has brought us opportunities to choose.

— Choose from among material goods. Once upon a time, Henry Ford reportedly said that his millions of Model Ts were available in any color you wanted, as long as that color was black. Yet his industrial miracle was a boon to middle-class America; and now customers can choose from many manufacturers, many makes, many models, many new designs and options. And many colors.

— Choose among foods. Seasonal fruits and vegetables out of season. Varieties of ethnic foods. Fast food, and faster food. At home or in the car.

— Choose between fashion styles. “Do your thing.” Dress codes mostly out the window. Cargo shorts at church. T-shirts at weddings. Jeans at funerals. Pajama bottoms in public; underpants on display; adornment of permanent outerwear – tattoos and piercings on every inch of bodies.

— Choose amongst lifestyles, and change lifestyles at will. Choose to switch identities and genders. Declare to be a member of a different race. Let rebellion become conformity. Adopt moral codes – or none – depending on your whim, with no regard to long traditions, the effect on contemporaries, or implications for society’s future.

— Commit to any religion, or none; or all. Pick and choose. Dismiss that which makes you uncomfortable; accept those aspects that sound logical to you. Our contemporary world does not recognize that those who embrace all, believe in none.

There is the Christian religion, with its hundreds of permutations and dogmas. And then there is Christianity, a very different thing. There are things we are taught, and believe; and then, sadly, things the Bible teaches that often are different. “Sad,” that is, for us, not God. Through history, people have held to comfortable beliefs and doctrines that are at variance with scripture. Thus were denominations born. And breakaway churches. And schisms. And, sometimes, wars.

These human tendencies are not exclusive to Christianity. The varieties of Islamic sects, practices, and beliefs are many, and have covered much of the Middle East with blood for almost 1500 years. The schisms have brought grief and terror to all parts of the world… and, still, most of us cannot label the factions, their roles, and their headquarters. One needs a scorecard, not the least to comprehend the ancient justifications for their fratricide. Factions within Mohammedanism can be so contentious that some of the faithful lose their heads. And others lose their heads for them.

At one extreme we humans are contrary sorts of folks, or we have an attraction to wanting to monopolize the truth. Such is called Pride in the Bible – it was so called immediately in the Garden. Perhaps, ultimately, pride is humankind’s greatest sin. At the other end of the spectrum, no less toxic to peoples’ souls but merely quieter, are those who think there is NO truth. They exist is self-delusional bliss, but never knowing peace, forgiveness, grace, and elemental joy.

One of the mordant by-products of a secular, pluralistic, “open and welcoming” democracy is that, absent a very strong ethos or a succession of inspired leaders through the generations, these positive values corrode. They rust and lose their strength. Moral codes grow brittle and they break; and eventually are forgotten.

The fault is not in the rules of morality. Morals and ethics do not become less relevant: in a changing world they become better guides for us. But we know better, right? But there IS such a thing as Absolute Truth. Jesus declared Himself to BE the Truth. Truth is truth… and does not at all depend on our opinion of it.

The Spirit of the Age would convince us that we know better than the Bible; that history – all the civilizations that fell because of internal corruption and the abandonment of morality – is no guide. Our “progress” and inventions and science convince us that we know the truth… and God, up there? Jesus, over here? the Bible, over there? Hey, we don’t need You any more.

Blasphemies from Old Testament days, heresies from the days of the early Church, relativistic lies of our contemporary movements, are all the same, small group of lies that have seduced people through the millennia. We eat, drink, and are never quite merry… because one of those lies has just got to be true. Right?

Relativism is the new religion – “what’s right for ME is right” – and Pride is then same old god. We embrace this, spinning with its doomed promises in a dance of death, becoming insensible to the simple, pure, loving Message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In God’s order we are invited to accept Christ and live as a follower of Him. We are free, at our peril, to reject that invitation. We can avoid the Master, and ignore His loving invitation. But One whom we cannot avoid, nor ignore – nor escape – is the God of Judgment.

In the meantime, be your own God. Everybody’s doing it.

+ + +

Click: Can It Be That I Should Gain?

Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing

11-28-16

I was a young boy in 1961 when I heard on my transistor radio that a Russian “cosmonaut,” Yuri Gagarin, had orbited the earth. A few years after the Soviets had launched Sputnik – the first man-made satellite – into earth orbit I remember being amazed at these scientific developments, as I was aware that the American government was scrambling to keep pace.

I was aware because 1957 had been declared the International Geophysical Year, and that all sorts of school programs and textbooks had begun posing the challenge to nervous 12-year-olds like me the rhetorical question: “You don’t want us to fall behind the Communists, do you?” So kids seriously thought of doing their physics and chemistry homework, and dreamed of being astronauts instead of cowboys or G-Men.

In my naiveté, after hearing that radio news bulletin, I scrambled for pencil and paper, as if this moment would be lost to history if I didn’t write the name of Yuri Gagarin. I recall that I could only phonetically scrawl, “Eeuree Gaggarin.”

Ironically, many people have forgotten Gagarin and Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, Gene Cernan, and many others, including astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders, who read from the Bible to earthlings during a lunar mission. Even President Obama seems to have forgotten a lot of the mission of space exploration, as he transferred many American capabilities to Russia.

There is no more Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Twenty-five years ago many nations of Eastern Europe and the “Warsaw Pact” foreswore Communism, with hardly a drop of blood shed. Other nations have discovered freedom – sometimes with steps forward and back along the way – and the very latest movements are toward nationalist pride, and the rejection of centralized control.

Winds of liberty blow across the globe. Except in spots like North Korea and Cuba.

These memories returned this week when Fidel Castro died, aged 90. He was 90 in human years – some would say “inhuman years.” He kept alive ancient strains of selfish totalitarianism, a regime built on hate and resentments rather than love and constructive fellowship. Democracy might not be the panacea for every society, but you can be suspicious of the leader who cloaks his tyranny in mantles like “peoples’ republic” and “democracy” when self-determination is forbidden.

I was 10 when a TV in the local bowling alley was turned to the news, and the anchor warned parents against letting their children see the disturbing footage… so of course I gazed intently. Black and white movies of Havana streets with dead bodies and pools of blood. “Batista flees” was a headline I remember in the New York Daily News about the dictator, scarcely less brutal or corrupt than Castro would be, whom Fidel routed. My father quoted the New York Times description of Castro as an “agrarian reformer.”

A year or two later Castro declared himself a Soviet-style Socialist and visited a United Nations General Assembly session in New York. He famously stayed in a shabby hotel uptown; trashed his rooms; and embraced Soviet leader Khrushchev. I attempted one of my first caricatures and political cartoons as a budding artist – it was a natural subject because Castro dominated the news in those days. The bay of Pigs invasion. The Cuban Missile Crisis.

Through the years he settled in as the hemisphere’s resident dictator, often shunned on the world stage and frequently accommodated by neighboring and worldwide economies.

My wife, as a girl, had neighbors who fled Castro and had their sugar lands confiscated. I worked summers in college at a factory manned almost exclusively by Cuban émigrés. Many of them – some, doctors and lawyers whose credentials were not yet recognized in the US – told me with tears in their eyes of murders they witnessed at the hands of Castro’s police; and telling me earnestly how they appreciated freedom and loved America probably more than I did. I eventually met Fidel’s sister Juanita, whose shame and abhorrence of Cuban Communism was not matched by the other sibling Raul.

Cuba remained grindingly poor during Castro’s term. He would bleat, and international leftists continue to maintain, that the US embargo was the cause. This was palpable nonsense. It was a policy not to engage in trade: not a blockade. Canada, other Latin countries, all of Europe, and of course the Soviets traded all they could; and provided aid to Cuba.

Three points are dispositive, especially as the media now will be awash in rosy nostalgia for the eccentric guy with the beard.

First, Cuba was, and remained, poor for precisely the same reason that the citizens of Socialist economies in Latin America, in Africa, and around the world, suffer poverty. Stifled initiative, inherent corruption, and artificial allocation of resources.

Second, there are thousands and thousands of Cubans who had their property confiscated or their businesses shuttered. My wife’s neighbors were sugar growers before they fled the island. Neither Cuban citizens nor American investors ever received compensation, even almost 60 year later. THAT is why Washington refused to “normalize” relations – that, and the righteous rage of hundreds of thousands who emigrated to the US with nothing their lives.

Finally, Castro summarily executed many opponents; imprisoned many more; set criminals and mental defects on boats alongside multitudes who braved the open sea in flimsy boats. His defenders in Noo Yawk and the media point to universal health care and free college in Cuba as glories of Castro’s regime, but have been unmoved for decades by closed churches, spying on Cuban citizens, and the denial of political activity.

Stooges like Jimmy Carter and John Kerry weep tears for Castro; popes like John Paul II and Benedict, surprisingly, visited him, and the current wearer of the Shoes of the Fisherman admired the dedicated Cuban atheist. Other people, the usual gang of leftists, love Castro for reasons of their own (romantic?) but more likely, and frankly, would be in favor of closing Christian churches in America, too; and suppressing political dissent, as in that promised land.

In a sense, Castro had more integrity than his apologists in America: you can trust a Communist to be a Communist. Liberals will excuse any offense if there is lip-service paid to “education,” “health,” or redistribution of someone else’s property (except their own). Castro was a wolf in wolf’s clothing, worse than Jesus’ memorable warning in Matthew 7:15.

And as Kipling wrote,
“As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins.”

+ + +

Click: Komm, Susser Tod

Thinking About Thanking

11-21-16

Thanksgiving approacheth.

Oh, good! (or, “Oh, no!”) – Turkey. Trimmings. Leftovers. Football games. Black Friday sales. Take down the Indian corn and gold-and-orange decorations quickly, and put up pine wreaths and red-and-green.

I wonder, and I hope, about the number of people who remember the “real” origin of the holiday. Not the Pilgrims and Indians in casting-call costumes… but remembering our blessings and their Source.

I am wondering about a couple other things this season. As in past years, I note how few people say “You’re Welcome” anymore. Have you noticed? Take a survey – listen to interviews on TV, or how store clerks respond. “You’re welcome” is an endangered phrase.

Notice, it has been replaced by “No problem,” or “No prob.” Or “Sure thing.” Or “You betcha.” Or “Thank YOU.”

Curious.

This is not a moral failure; just a conversational tic of the sort that enters the language. Similar to so many people larding their sentences with “y’know,” or beginning conversations with “So…”

But I have a serious thought whose way-stations are observations like this.

The first American Thanksgiving celebration was organized specifically to give thanks to God for bountiful harvests, safety, and peace with neighbors and environments.

“It is meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord…” So reads the ancient liturgy preceding the Sanctus.

We give thanks to the Lord, for it is good; we present offerings; we make joyful noise unto the Lord.

It has occurred to me that God covets our thanks, because it shows our hearts are mindful of His many blessings, and this is proper. But have you ever thought that sometimes we should say “You’re Welcome” to God?

“You’re Welcome, God”???

When we think on this, we better appreciate the unique relationship God has – and wants – with us: He does thank us. Often. Humble servants that we are. He thanks us abundantly.

When you receive answers to prayer, the sovereign Lord is also thanking you for faithfulness.

When you are blessed, it is a Thank You from God for seeking His face, and praying earnestly.

When a loved one is healed, or saved, or in some way moved, it may also be in some small way God thanking you for having faith, witnessing, sharing Christ.

Like prayer itself, Thanks is not a one-way street. God honors our faith; the Bible reassures us of this many times. And what is that except a “Thank You” from the Lord of Creation? Can that humble us?… but remind us, too, of how we are loved.

“For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Back to football! – these are the words of the “John 3:16” signs you see in the stands.

Some people like to refer to Jesus’ birth as God’s Christmas present to humankind. Yes. But we also can see Jesus – God in the flesh to dwell among us – as God’s Thank-You note. The best Thank-You note possible… while we were yet undeserving. But He thanks His children who have open hearts and pure spirits.

When you pray, pray literally: “You’re welcome, Lord: You are welcome in my heart.”

+ + +

Click: Thank You

A Little More About Veterans

11-14-16

The thing I like most about holidays is that they remind us, at least one short day a year each, of things worth remembering or commemorating or honoring.

The thing I like the least about holidays is the human tendency to compartmentalize, especially in these busy days.

Check the box… put away the decorations… the events are over for another year… back to work.

Except for Halloween, I guess I can’t think of a holiday where that is not a crying shame. We should anticipate, meaningfully celebrate, meditate, share, teach our children, and linger over the heritage and purpose of holidays (and holy days, their first ID).

Surely is the case with Veteran’s Day. It is almost an awkward holiday, with its curious history, shrouding legends, and hybrid purpose. Several countries observe it – mostly the remnants of the victorious nations in the Great War. Originally called Armistice Day, it was designed to observe the day, or, ironically, the minute, when World War I ended. In America, arguably a post-patriotic place in some corners, its goals are somewhat lost in the wash of July Fourth, Memorial Day, and other holidays festooned with flags and fireworks.

The 11-11-11:11 legend, if true, has a monstrous presence in the PR Hall of Fame. For even one soldier to be gassed or to die during the stopwatch-interregnum for the sake of a convenient publicity ploy, was appropriate only as an aspect of what already was the stupidest of history’s stupid wars. The “Armistice” associated with the 1914-18 war, as it receded in relevance and the awful shuffle of subsequent bloodlettings, was changed to “Veteran’s.” Its purpose is parsed this way: on Memorial Day we honor those who died; on Veteran’s Day we honor those who served.

Worthy. That is, if we observe it “worthily” (as in partaking of the Host worthily) – which puts the onus on the rest of us. Something to pause and contemplate.

It is well and good that we honor veterans and thank a service member. Vets don’t feel the love enough. But, honestly, the value of this holiday is for us, the living, rather, that we not merely shake a vet’s hand, but join arms and continue the work we recognize them for having undertaken. That would be a meaningful celebration of Veteran’s Day.

At the risk of denigrating the holiday or any single military veteran, I want to share my thoughts this weekend, as I contemplated those who have served… and what kind of people are veterans of what kinds of service.

My father was a conscientious objector before the United States joined World War II. He relented, enlisted, and went on the serve as an Army gunnery instructor in Kentucky and Albuquerque; and then in the newly formed Air Force as a meteorologist who overflew the Normandy invasion. No less cynical about war after his discharge as Captain than before enlisting, he was proud of his service.

I thought of him this weekend when I watched a terrific movie, Hacksaw Ridge, about WW II c.o. who served as a medic in the bloody battle of Okinawa. Desmond Doss, a Christian opposed to taking up weapons, performed miraculous and numerous acts of heroism, dragging wounded soldiers from active battlefields. He modestly estimated 50 soldiers; his Medal of Honor citation said 75 soldiers; his platoon mates claimed more than a hundred. The movie, directed by Mel Gibson, is a must-see.

Pfc (later Cpl) Doss was a hero – a super-hero? can we imagine? – but he was also a veteran, and not “merely” a veteran. Service members who were not deployed overseas are also veterans. Wives and daughters who worked in defense factories also were vets. Those who “kept the home fires burning” – teachers, farmers, firemen, weathermen – also were veterans of the war effort, serving where they could, the best they could.

But I don’t want to cast this in the past tense. Those who wear the uniform around the world will be vets when they return. And I think, with a wonderment that frankly I cannot describe or, I fear, emulate, of those who redeploy and return, again and again, to theaters of war. Those vets deserve special thanks. And so do their wives and children and parents, many of them worrying and praying, but also prideful and cheering; sometimes, curse this government, on food stamps or public assistance.

We admire these service-men and women. They serve. Serve what? The flag? Of course, but they serve us. They will never meet most of us, but they serve us. They do not love war; that is not why they serve. They love peace… especially the peace, and security, of the neighborhoods that produced them. And the flag that, earlier, inspired them.

Thinking larger, true patriotism is not only about flags and uniforms. That is when we think of patriotism as love of country in the larger sense. Love of nation. We don’t really have equivalents of the German words “heimat’ (roughly, home town, homeland) or “volk” (roughly “folk,” of course; but the people we love, our heritage, shared memories and loyalties). Veterans there are who serve the same flag and country that the military does.

Teachers who work 60-hour weeks and lay out their own funds for classroom supplies… factory workers who still take pride in their work, their place in the line… charity workers who do work for the poor… parents who adopt… and so many more. My wife was in hospital for many ailments, including heart and kidney transplants, and I was astounded at the service and sacrifice of nurses. Doctors have skills; nurses have hearts.

When people serve people and the community, they serve the country too. When they rest their weary selves, they are veterans, and should be honored too.

A step further, to appreciate the nature of heroes and veterans. At the risk, again, of being misunderstood. It should be recognized that, say, the 9-11 responders were brave… but, honestly, they were doing their jobs. That is not to denigrate their service: it is to recognize and encourage each other, all of us, that our jobs are honorable. And unique. And worthy of recognition on days like Veteran’s Day… veterans of our individual challenges and triumphs.

Veterans of war ought to be honored (and cared for back home). Veterans of life’s toils in this one nation, under God, indivisible, if we can maintain that, should honor laborers and creators, teachers and preachers, even political volunteers, too; and every loyal citizen who loves country.

+ + +

A song that has become associated with veterans actually began life as a song, by Bill Carlisle, written after his grandfather’s death. It has been recorded by groups as varied as Flatt and Scruggs and the Grateful Dead. He tells the story and song in this video, recorded shortly after I met the country music legend.

Click: Gone Home

Watering the Tree of Liberty

11-7-16

For a few weeks here, I have been pointing my usual concerns to the presidential election. It has been a legitimate detour because the choices – the crises – we face are more momentous than any in memory. Also, the nature of our regular topics, including spiritual and patriotic matters, are dispositive this year. That is, the nation is about to reconfirm our standards and values, or depart into uncharted territories. Everyone senses it.

Many people will think that Hillary represents continuity, and Trump will bring the Unknown to office. I argue, in these days before the election, that the situation is precisely the opposite.

I have urged friends and readers who, like most citizens, are enthusiastic about neither candidate, to ignore the candidates as much as possible, and vote for the policy outcomes most important to them. This is why parties have platforms, why congressional caucuses compose manifestoes, why candidates offer “contracts with voters.” Officeholders, once elected, often break their pledges, but we still have yardsticks to measure and hold them accountable.

In this regard, “I hate them both” becomes a fatuous position. Generally, people dislike Trump but distrust Hillary: reason enough for a thoughtful choice. Personally, my view of Trump as a vulgarian of malleable principles has evolved – mostly because, during the campaign, he has evolved, and actually has articulated a set of positions. These positions are strong, consistent, and far more detailed than of any presidential candidate since Reagan.

Oddly, his manifesto has come under the radar – not, for instance, with the PR fanfare of Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994 – and, ironically, subsequent to the primaries and his nomination. Yet on immigration (moderated), international trade, school choice, abortion, Constitutional issues, taxes, judicial appointments, health care, regulation, and other issues, he has become this generation’s issues-oriented candidate. Who would have thought?

Moreover, his positions, especially for a man of chameleonlike attitudes and ideological U-turns through the years, are consistent with longstanding goals of Christian activists, right-wing loyalists, and “movement conservatives.” Many of these goals have been frustrating failures to activists, but Trump trumpets them. Not timid because of past failures of the governing class, he doubles down. Liberals decry these stands, but Establishment Republicans, in whose hot-houses these views were hatched, strangely are silent. Why?

Well, Trump is not one of “them.”

Surely he is not, and that is one reason he has caught the imagination of the electorate. Many prominent elected Republicans have not endorsed him; and only one major newspaper has. He has, by traditional standards, repeatedly committed political suicide; but he refuses to die. Scandals, gaffes, embarrassments… and he rises in the polls. The “world” “hates” him, but he is dead-even in polls now; and I believe will prevail.

There is something extremely profound at work. For all of Trump’s brand of charisma or his unorthodox appeal, it is not about him. And it is only partly what he says. It is what he represents. Almost despite of himself. He is giving voice to an inchoate but tsunami-like Spirit of the Age. He is the inheritor of a bubbling brew of protest figures. Barry Goldwater; Howard Beale, the maverick TV newsman in the movie Network (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”); George Wallace; Spiro Agnew; Ronald Reagan; Pat Buchanan; Ralph Nader; Pat Robertson; Ross Perot; and various columnists, talk radio hosts, and cable news people.

Beyond that, Trump represents the same, or similar, packages of discontents that have fueled the Le Pens in France; UKIP and Brexit in England; Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and anti-immigrant, small-government, nationalist leaders in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, and even Iceland.

Given the tide of right-wing populist passions throughout the West – none of it coordinated, not yet – it is evident that if Donald Trump had not emerged, the Silent Majority would have manufactured someone like him.

What kind of president would he make? Hillary, as noted above, surely would be a continuation… of Obama, of Bill, of ObamaCare, of endless and purposeless wars in the Middle East, of endless and purposeless bureaucrats, of the familiar old faces and tired old policies. Trump might come to office, with no baggage and few commitments, and run the government as a CEO would. He could appoint powerhouses to Cabinet posts; would formulate programs and deadlines to deal with priority issues; and hold periodic board meetings to check the progress on his agenda. How refreshing a prospect; what a difference.

Or… he could appoint lackeys; bluster his way through controversies, and relish arguments more than solutions. Unlikely, but a possibility. But hour by hour, Americans are willing to take the chance rather than vote for Hillary. And that is apart from the larcenous and perhaps treasonous future of Clinton Inc., about which facts are being revealed, also virtually hour by hour.

As in other parts of the world, “the old order changeth.” Citizens are now eager to break with their old parties, to punish and abandon old politicians. Apart from the over-arching issues I listed above, I can explain the flight from Hillary and Democrats, and the tide toward Trump, in a way I have not seen analyzed elsewhere.

In recent years, many social conservatives often remained loyal to Democrats – at least their House members; or because of unions’ appeals; or with sympathy for Obama as a Black, or other ethnic concerns. This year I politely have eavesdropped in areas of Michigan and Pennsylvania and Colorado. In factory and suburban and executive neighborhoods. And I have heard people who used to caricature Republicans now bitterly complain about Democrats and leaders like Hillary. Why? Their priorities of unrestricted immigration, sanctuary cities, LBTGBTQ (sorry) “rights,” and pedophiles’ access to Women’s rest rooms. Candidate aside, the Party has changed.

On one less inflammatory issue, liberals like Obama and Hillary boast about the increased numbers of people on food stamps. Conservatives, and, once upon a time, even Democrats, used to work toward the day when nobody needed to be on welfare assistance.

The coming populist wave is easy to understand.

If the wave is postponed, Canute-like, four or eight years, or fails in its essentials, ugly things might happen in America. I already anticipate violence in the streets, looting, and other such “civic protests,” if Trump wins. Count on it.

If Trump loses, many of us, patriots and Christians, will recognize that our country is lost. Suburbanites, shopkeepers, and churchgoers might not take it to the streets, maybe not, but many of us will be ready for radical action and fundamental change. We will say “thank you” to the old system, keep portions of it, and work, really work, to build something new. There will be opposition to us; we will have to accept the rejection of friends and family members; and we will turn to civil disobedience.
All of which, counterintuitively, would be a very traditional reaction to our current crisis. Thomas Jefferson himself said that in each generation, the Tree of Liberty might have to be nourished with the blood of patriots.

I will enlist. But it is my belief, with a couple days to go, that Enthusiasm and Momentum are building, as they always do, toward an election wave. Let us pray.

In any case.

+ + +

Click: Turn the Tide – A Prayer for America – Abigail Miller

Are We Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don’t?

10-31-16

One of the opportunities afforded blog essayists is to see how many “hits” we
attract; how readers find you; and what links they wander to. Some people respond with messages; some to the blog’s address, some to my personal address; some readers appreciate the music tie-ins; many ignore them.

And I can tell when people click on messages from years past. That is satisfying to me, because I intend that most messages be “evergreen” – as pertinent today as, say, seven years ago. Just (I hope) as the Bible’s lessons have the same relevance to God’s children as they did in millennia past.

Over the past week I have purposely focused on the presidential election, not a typical pattern here. But I think the issues are so critical that we should take special notice. Moreover, the issues (as in the larger American culture) relate to biblical principles, biblical warnings, and horrible consequences of “biblical proportions.”

I have read some of my essays from years ago, and I think that most still are relevant. Even points I shared during the previous presidential campaign seem to me (as I attempt to be objective) neither moldy nor mistaken. But in the 2016 election cycle, things – not only facts but factors – change in days. Or hours. This is a campaign that is unprecedented for vituperation, lies, irrelevancies, numerous endorsements and abandonments, and, of course, scandals.

I might enter the previous sentence in the sweepstakes for Greatest Understatement Of the Year.

Through this political year I have written articles, as a historian, for national newspaper about previous political controversies – where bigamy, murder (Jackson); drunkenness (Andrew Johnson and Grant); an illegitimate child (Cleveland); an illegitimate child while president (Harding); sexual affairs (FDR, Kennedy, Clinton) – were commonly discussed. Et cetera. In other words: “Nothing new here.” And I never got close to the frequent charges of imbecility over 240 years.

Early in our campaign, this was a valid set of reminders; pacifiers, perhaps. But things are different, very different right now.

I am not being an alarmist. One who legitimately rings an alarm technically is not alarmist. An alarmist is a Chicken Little, one who falsely spreads fear and unnecessary warnings of impending doom. No, there is doom. It impends.

America has become two – or more – nations. I truly think that whether Trump or Hillary is elected, there will be riots here or there; no, here AND there. And not only on election night, but on Inauguration Day. And when major initiatives are undertaken by either putative president. (I use the word “putative” carefully – not “eventual” or “likely” president, but “generally assumed” president, because the legitimacy of Trump or Clinton surely will be challenged.)

Major questions, serious scandals, and hitherto disqualifying revelations have been commonplace this year. Our heads spin. Seismic civic explosions are forgotten scandal after scandal, because they are eclipsed by worse ones – always more bizarre. I believe that we long ago passed the point of a Hollywood studio accepting any recent news stories as possible treatments for a political thriller… or comedy: too unlikely!

OK, you know all this. I must remember to get over the astonishing and unprecedented events (partly because the two remaining weeks are bound to drop more bombshells). We must, all of us, come to grips that we very possibly are coming face-to- face with a constitutional criss.

Can a president pardon herself? Possibly… but, then, would the hundreds of millions of the “governed” be governable?

Can institutions once regarded as sacrosanct (the “most scared of holies”), for example the FBI and great charities, ever redeem their integrity?

Will personal probity ever return as a standard of public officials, or be demanded by a moral public?

Look at what has happened to us in this campaign. Except for the lurid flashes in the pan, the “breaking news,” the debates have largely centered on polls, trends, voting blocs, daily charts – in other words, the game more than the issues. Surely, the three “debates” centered more on name-calling than national challenges. We have come to assume the worst, including the worst motives, to our opponents. Hence, the two Americas: we have come to assume hatred… and adopt hatred.

I have suggested we Americans have deserved all this, and surely we do. What are we supposed to do, blame it on the Russians? We held primaries and caucuses (interminable, at that) and the voters spoke. At least in the Republican primaries there was a huge crop to choose from and a clear winner, and unlike elsewhere, no charges of rigging. So the system worked like systems do. To challenge the winner is to insult the voters.

As I also have suggested, Christians ought to look at likely results – desirable policy outcomes – instead of candidates’ personality tics or appearances.

Very slowly, but surely, Donald Trump’s speeches have featured fewer boasts and paranoid fantasies. More and more he ticks off his checklist: opposition to abortion; defending Christians overseas; reaffirming the First Amendment (freedom of religion) and Second (the right to bear arms); championing home schools, parochial schools, charter schools; ending Federal Government interference in education; and so forth.

He has fine-tuned his policy on immigrants. Not that all Mexicans are thieves and rapists, but unchecked floods of people at the borders might allow such to enter. The same with unvetted Muslim immigrants vis a vis terrorism. And so forth. Eventually, he has made sense.

This weekend Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty spoke directly of how he recently witnessed to Donald Trump. Explained the Gospel as nobody else has done. He believes that Trump accepted Christ, and he sees a work in progress.

But no matter how the election goes, voters must remember that the “perfect might be the enemy of the good.” In any event, as vital as this election is… there are many, many, many deep, deep, deep problems with this society. From schoolyards to the Supreme Court; from those who make movies to those who watch them; from those who reject Christ to… those who are faithful church-goers. One man cannot change all, so we should work with those who will try. And One who knows.

How far have we drifted? Are “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” – is it that late? Have we slept through our alarms?

+ + +

Click: Where Did America Go?

Praying for Revival? Forget It.

10-24-16

Democrat Vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine grew up in Kansas City KS. Recently, that city’s Archbishop, Joseph F Naumann, described the senator as a “Cafeteria Catholic” for picking and choosing the Church doctrines he chose to respect.

Kaine, who has a rare lifetime Zero rating from the American Conservative Union – which I realize is not a religious organization – favors abortion, and voted for its legality, extension, and federal funding; among opposing other teachings of the Church.

There are Protestants who have conflicts, too – claiming belief in the God of the Bible, but denying large portions of the Bible of God. “Pick and choose Christianity” is a cancer in Protestant (and Evangelical and Pentecostal and mainstream and post-modern) churches too; a cancer that metastasizes rapidly.

Kaine, and others, predictably fall back on the crutch of Relativism and say, “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I will not impose my view on others.” You have heard such things. Maybe you have said such things.

Some Day, these nominal Christians will answer for their hypocrisy. Abortion, death penalty, whatever the issue, if you believe something… stand up for it. If, further, your opinion is informed by your faith – if you believe it involves God’s will – then I worry for your soul if you fail to share His truth in public.

“Whoever disowns Me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” That’s Jesus, quoted in Matthew 10:33.

Hey, politician – Hey, neighbor; Hey, person in the mirror – if you “personally oppose” abortion but tolerate it in society, how were people wrong to “personally oppose” slavery back in the day, but permit its practice? Slaves were private property, it was argued – who would you have been to interfere? Hey – what about the persecution and slaughter of Jews during World War II? It was argued that Jews were sub-human, after all; and how would have it affected you? Was it your business?

Since babies who are murdered up to hours before natural birth cannot speak for themselves, I will make their plea: Why are their lives less important than babies one day old? Or two years old and disabled? Or… why are their lives less important than your life?

The administration and party whose power Mr Kaine wants to perpetuate frequently has shown less compassion, and expended less political capital, on behalf of little victims of infanticide, and uncountable Christians martyred for their faith around the world, than toward trans-sexual persons who claim that landlords don’t like them; or sexual predators who demand free access to women’s restrooms in malls.

America, 2016.

Republicans are not off the spiritual hook. The Supreme Court that has written offensive rulings, and “discovered” rights that were not enumerated in the Constitution, have largely been Republican courts. Republican Congresses have been Big-Brother enablers since the 1930s. Conservatives, let’s admit it, have become mere foot-dragging liberals.

Speaking personally – c’mon, that’s what we all do – when Donald Trump, for all his many flaws, said that he is opposed to abortion; describes “late-term” abortions in graphic detail; and promises that any Supreme Court nomination he makes will be committed to overturn Roe vs Wade… that did it for me. No matter what other promise he makes or breaks; no matter what Hillary advocates and pledges… Trump deserves the vote of Christians and those who respect life (including descendents of slavery and holocausts).

Can we step back and realize that as few as four years ago, even most Republicans, conservatives, and “faith-based” candidates, refused to voice approval of Roe vs Wade being overturned? to dare to admit that they had a “litmus test” for judicial nominees? Mr Trump does. It is a political earthquake few have noted. In his Gettysburg speech, he further committed to positions — school choice, for instance — that conservatives and people of faith have wished for in living-room discussions and Republican “leaders” have failed to commit.

To those many people of faith, so-called, who lament our spiritual crisis, and the moral swamp wherein we slog: I am often among you, and hear many prayers for God to “bring revival to this land.”

I am not optimistic about a response that you people pray for. God could send revival; He is sovereign. Of course. But just as He did not send ten thousand angels to pluck Jesus from the cross… so He will not cause the Supreme Court building to spontaneously combust; or The New York Times building to float into the Hudson River and sink.

True revival comes less from God, and more from the hearts of His people.

And, when it comes, things are directed to Him, and not to rulers or candidates or politicians.

Everything else – everything – will fall into place when we seek revival as a people. Be not deceived, God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7). Do you believe God wants a relationship with a people who snap their fingers so He can clean up their holy mess?

Until and unless true revival comes, we deserve the mess we have created. I will support any candidate who commits to core biblical principles (apart from generic “caring” and compassion” as even the heathen do), and who is forthright about it.

We have sunk so low in America that I actually am grateful to have spiritual straws to grasp.

+ + +

Click this Johnny Cash performance: Help Me, Lord

Slippery Slopes

10-17-16

Once upon a time there was a president named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. No… I will start this story earlier, and in another way.

Once upon a time there was a different America. Different than we know now. Not only different presidents and candidates, but different manners and morals. Different standards. You and I could go back in time and might recognize places and relate to interactions. But it is possible that Americans of earlier times, if they could materialize in our midst today, would be lost and bewildered.

U. S. Grant, the superior general and inferior president, was known to like his cigars and whisky. After a dinner with a group of generals or politicians – those details are lost; but a group of men who enjoyed after-dinner cigars and whisky – one man rose and proposed to tell a story or two. He signaled that the humor would be bawdy (“purple,” in the day’s parlance, meaning naughty) by announcing, “I see there are no ladies present.”

Grant reportedly said, “No, but there are gentlemen present”; and told the man to leave. The good old days. Can you imagine?

Theodore Roosevelt, exuberant hunter and woodsman and cowboy, was sometimes photographed and frequently caricatured in informal attire, however was respectful of the dignity of the presidency. He chose frock coats and top hats. He hated newsreel cameras.

But almost every day the weather allowed, he played tennis on White House courts. Other presidents had “kitchen cabinets” – unofficial advisers and confidants who met in friendship or for policy brainstorming. TR’s was on the tennis court. Yet not one photograph exists of TR playing in his tennis whites.

At the end of his term the Tennis Cabinet met for one last time, and TR was presented with a gift from the assembled friends. Finally they were photographed as a group… in formal attire. Dignity (even if readers from 2016 think it was irrelevant) was important.

Now I will mention TR’s distant cousin, FDR. The nation knew that Franklin Roosevelt suffered from polio; that he was in braces, unable to walk, barely able to stand. He had run – sometimes literally – for vice president in 1920, hale, hearty, handsome. But then polio struck.

Common knowledge it was, but he seldom was photographed struggling with crutches or arm-braces. Occasionally a news photo showed him tightly, and awkwardly, gripping a podium. Or when sitting with Churchill and Stalin at a wartime conference, his leg-braces could be seen peeking between his pants-cuffs and his shoes.

Dignity on his part; respect on the part of photographers and newsreel cameramen.

Fast-forward to 1976. I covered a George Wallace rally in suburban Chicago during the Democrat primaries. “The Fighting Judge” was the victim of an assassin’s bullet four years previous. Paralyzed from the waist down, he was dependent upon wheelchairs and assistants.

In those days the press’s role had changed – on a track toward today’s blatant partisanship. Wallace was viewed with opprobrium by most of the liberal media for his earlier segregationist stands, as was the incumbent president, Nixon, for a variety of excuses and justifications.

At that rally, a few photos were snapped during the speech. And then reporters and news photographers gathered at the hall’s exit, where a car would meet Wallace, who waited in his wheelchair. When the car pulled up and opened its door, Wallace’s aides did what was necessary and routine. Nowadays these maneuvers can be effected differently, but that night, two men joined arms to raise Gov. Wallace like a bundle of bones, from underneath, and awkwardly trundled him into the seat of the car.

It was inelegant. Embarrassing, clearly, to Wallace. Which is why the assembled photographers of the press corps instantly snapped their flash photos for every nano-second of that clumsy scene. I never did see any such photos on front pages… but the reporters seemed intent on making Wallace uncomfortable.

My point is not so much about presidential dignity, itself (remember that Lyndon Johnson surprisingly lifted his shirt to show a gall-bladder scar; and Jimmy Carter chatted about his hemorrhoids), but more about society, that it has changed. Our culture is cheapened; we have lower standards; manners and morals are endangered species.

“F Bombs” are dropped with total-war intensity. Movies are replete with filthy language and filthier behavior. Young girls in malls are heard talking in ways that once would have embarrassed stevedores. Plotlines of TV shows deal in topics once too “delicate” to raise in family or social circles; that is, in private. Athletes who denigrate the flag are stoutly defended; athletes who affix slogans to their shoes, supporting the police, are threatened with suspension. An upside-down world.

In politics, which, traditionally, closely follows and carefully leads the normative values and aspirations of society, cutting-edge outrages now are indulged. Onetime taboos – for instance, allowing men into any public restroom where little girls might be – is suddenly decreed to be a Constitutional Right. And, as with monarchs or tyrants of old, is allowed with a stroke the pen, a punishable crime if violated.

In this year’s politics we have a candidate who is endorsed by “Evangelical” leaders and immediately salts his speeches with hells and damns. Instead of issues, we hear discussions of sex allegations about him, and about a former president. The latter’s wife, a current candidate herself, is cast as an enabler, almost a harridan persecuting the putative victims. Whether true or half-true, these become part of the evening news, press conferences, dinner-table conversations.

That other candidate continues the march toward re-defining customarily deviant behavior. Discovering “rights” in the same manner as the incumbent president, her new discoveries routinely offend traditions, always under fraudulent banners. Inventing “rights” for sexual deviants or criminal aliens is to dishonor those who fought for racial justice, female suffrage, and other civil rights.

So Hillary would enshrine privileges for “women” with male accessories, and pedophiles, into the Constitution. She would continue her predecessor’s crusade to denigrate Christians at home and abroad. She frequently boasts of her early, and continuing, passion for vulnerable children, yet evinces no second thoughts about the killing of viable children sucked from wombs in their ninth months, and murdered by a blade to the bases of their skulls. Suddenly, in Hillaryland, these children are “formerly vulnerable.”

Debates and speeches seem to be ghost-written, now, by headline-writers of supermarket tabloids. What, in 2020? Spitballs and water-balloons at 20 paces?

Our current level of discourse has been cheapened, I believe irretrievably. All these things I have mentioned – and myriad others – are, none of them, splotches of toothpaste that possibly can be put back in their tubes.

Are we on a slippery slope?

Rather, a vortex in the unfortunate toilet-bowl of contemporary life, almost flushed away completely. And deserving of it.

Anyone who teaches something different is arrogant and lacks understanding. Such a person has an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words. This stirs up arguments ending in jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions. These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth.
I Timothy 6: 4,5a NLT

They prove the truth of this Proverb: “A dog returns to its vomit.” And another says, “A washed pig returns to the mud.”
II Peter 2: 22 NLT

+ + +

Click: Sin City

The Election, “Acts of God,” Acts of Man

10-10-16

This week an enormous storm brushed by the United States. It was a long time building, it moves deliberately, and forecasters say that it likely will circle around and hit again, causing even more distress and severe adjustments to a fearful population.

In other news, Hurricane Matthew pummeled the East Coast.

But back to the election campaign.

The Election of 2016 is a plain illustration of how bankrupt our political system – our culture – is. A nation of a third of a billion people, and these two are the best we can do? Trump might be the “citizen politician” that the Framers hoped for; but scarcely of the caliber they envisioned. He is a messenger: a mailman carrying the accumulated complaints of a restive population. Many people love him for it… understandably, for all his faults. It seems like everyone else has failed us.

Hillary’s rise – or, rather, her decades-long hovering presence – is disturbing evidence of our civic insolvency. Once again, a population as large (and, supposedly, as diverse and resourceful) as ours, and we lately subsist on dynasties? The Kennedy royalty? Bush – Clinton – Bush – Obama – maybe Clinton / almost another Bush / talk of Michelle Obama / Chelsea Clinton / George P Bush / … and more Kennedys being spawned?

Incest. It results in mutants and defects, in politics as well as genetics.

In this interminable campaign, Donald Trump has had more lives than a litter of cats. Part of his relative stability in the polls is his strong (and, to me, inexplicable) support from “Evangelicals.” Christians, following Christian celebrities, have chosen, endorsed, and largely remained loyal to, Donald Trump.

His agenda, largely nationalist if not nativist, and generally in the tradition of economic royalists, Manchester Liberalism, and an America-First foreign policy – at the least the most recent iteration of his positions – is an agenda with which I generally am comfortable. Many conservative Christians feel the same way, at least manifested by an inchoate attraction.

Trump has given voice, or more appropriately speaks with the same voice, as those of the Goldwater-Wallace-Agnew tremors across our political landscape in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Of the Reagan Revolution’s foot-soldiers. Of the Tea Party insurgencies. Of the decentralization earthquakes in the Europe of Thatcher and UKIP and Brexit; the LePens in France; Geert Wilders in Holland; of anti-immigrant and nationalist movements in Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

He is not unique… except for his unique baggage. His “evolving” positions (for instance, on abortion) might be more encouraging than troubling. His boorish social skills might be overlooked by supporters who think there are many butts that need kicking here and abroad.

That his morals, seemingly those of a pig, should surprise anybody is absurd.
Least of all should Christians be startled by the words in the tape that recently surfaced. Like other supporters and politicians, some of whom are now abandoning ship, they should not be discomfited, because nothing new is on display. Merely a new soundbite.

When James A Garfield was elected president, he left his position as an elder in his church, saying, “I resign the highest office in the land to become president of the United States.”

In William McKinley’s first inaugural address he said: “Our faith teaches that there is no safer reliance than upon the God of our fathers, who has so singularly favored the American people in every national trial, and who will not forsake us so long as we obey His commandments and walk humbly in His footsteps.”

Is Trump or Hillary capable of saying, or believing, such words? Especially the “humbly” component?

The real crisis in America is not deficient candidates. They are the symptoms, not the disease. To focus too much on these individuals is like a weatherman pointing to humidity levels in Arizona but ignoring Hurricane Matthew.

Ah, back to the Hurricane. An act of God, so-called. Our political storms, however, are man-made. We get what deserve, and what we have constructed. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings. Look in our mirrors for the authors of this current mess.

Meanwhile, Trump’s major political sin is not what he bragged about doing on the tape; nor in being careless to speak when being recorded. To me the political (that is, not only personal) sin was bragging, even fabricating, to a nobody. Trying to impress a Hollywood hack. Sounding like a wolf in cheap clothing. That manner of discretion, that twisted sort of probity, is spoken by loose lips that sink ships.

To apologize “to those who are offended” is a weasel-worded deflection. To claim that Bill Clinton did worse things, or at a faster rate, is the very opposite of contrition; more jealousy than remorse. To condemn Hillary for persecuting Bill’s mistresses and girlfriends is almost irrelevant, when Trump needs to reassure his supporters. To say that other world leaders (France, Italy, Russia) have had affairs, is a startling reversal of his attitude about foreign leaders. Those justifications are irresponsible efforts to distract people. It is an insult to his followers. It is cynical exploitation of the “Evangelical” “leaders” who support him.

Should Christians or patriots therefore abandon Trump and vote for Hillary? I think that the worst that can said about Trump – politics, integrity, probity – is insignificant compared to her resume, which is half sordid and half empty.

Is a third party (“What’s a Leppo?”) or a write-in a viable option? I think that these are virtual ballots for Hillary. She will have enough dead voters, illegals, and multiple fraudulent ballots already.

Should Christian patriots “grow up” and realize the world is “that way,” as some friends who decry what they see as a self-defeating rise of Neo-Puritanism argue? Nonsense. Most of us are loath to accept “things as they are” in any other sphere; political activism, even mere commentary, is (as Omar wrote) to smash the world to bits “and then re-mold it nearer the heart’s desire.”

What should Christians do? I am asked this frequently, a month from Election Day.

Once upon a time, the president was a minor part of the campaign. The PLATFORM was what attracted, or repelled, voters. Vote for the representatives of the positions you favor.

Myself, I think that if Hillary does everything she promises we are in a very bad place. If Trump fulfills only 25 per cent of his promises, we are in a much better place.

Christians, patriots, all voters: If this candidate is horrible; if that candidate is disgusting; if the other candidate seems like a dope; if others seem clearly dangerous… look at the policy options. Vote for likely outcomes, the best bundle of policies you can hope for.

Then, pray.

And vote.

And pray.

+ + +

Click: Funeral March

The Evil of Two Lessers

10-3-16

Ever since as I was a young boy, I heard adults talking about elections, and resignedly saying that they would, sigh, be voting for the lesser of two evils.

I picked up the mantra when I achieved majority, not as a matter of patrimony, but because the choices invariably were and are crummy. There were exceptions – I enthusiastically supported Ronald Reagan – but I frequently have voted for third-party candidates or skipped presidential ballots.

For a while I would not vote at all, local or national elections, on the premise that doing so would just encourage the scoundrels.

Eventually I realized that a wisecrack is an inadequate substitute for civic responsibility. Slightly more sophisticated was my objection that illiterate welfare scammers had the same “say” that I did… but abdication in the game we call democracy only enhances the self-defeating aspects of my inchoate protest.

Now I am fully engaged, voting and debating and writing columns and drawing political cartoons and glued to C-SPAN like a dog in heat. But, the more engaged I am, the more enraged I am.

That a nation of approximately one-third of a billion people cannot produce better presidential candidates then the two (or four) major candidates we are stuck with… is demoralizing. With troubling implications for the future – heck, the present state – of our republic. We have a flawed system, surely; but we also are in a tailspin in almost every sphere of national life. Politics is merely the mostly visible symptom. In this season, the nearest whipping-boy.

As I have evolved to a Christian Patriot, and as an essayist in this realm, the choices would seem to be clearer, the decisions easier to make. We all have checklists and litmus tests, whether clearly biblical or informed by our faith. Even secular voters have criteria, perhaps more so.

So why do so many Christian patriots – “value voters” – feel seriously conflicted this year? Being on the horns of a dilemma has never been so uncomfortable!

This week the author of books in Christian field Philip Yancey said in an interview that he was “baffled” that “Evangelicals” (a term of deliberate ambiguity, but that is another topic) could support a Donald Trump. He defined Trump as a “bully” who has taken positions contrary to the Bible and has been thrice-married and has built casinos.

Yancey is correct on the resume of Trump. I do not disagree. Personally, I don’t think I would like Trump as a neighbor, much less as a president.

There was a relative firestorm of response on social media, and Yancey quickly stated that he was not implicitly endorsing Hillary Clinton. In fact, without the clarification, of course the “implicit” endorsement was inferred by his many followers. To me, his greater offense was pretending to be “baffled” by “Evangelical” support for Trump. Our angst, our debates, our essays, our, yes, social-media posts are legion. Everywhere. For many people – many Christians, even many Yancey acolytes – support for Trump has been discussed endlessly.

For some, support is reluctant. For some, it might be automatic. For some, it is painful and anguished. Two prominent names in Christianity (neither of them ministers, by the way) have reached different positions: Falwell Junior, Yay; Yancey, Nay.

Christians in a democracy must realize the implications of supporting Hillary Clinton. She has also lied, is corrupt, doesn’t act like Jesus in myriad ways. Her hands arguably are dirtier, or bloodier, from her militant support of abortions. Lying to Benghazi parents. Spinning new absurdities about her e-mails, servers, and Foundation shenanigans. Start there.

Any (and every) candidate is going to be flawed. Does Yancey think “Evangelicals” should not vote for anyone? Of course not. He now says he will not vote for any presidential candidate this year. For my part, “been there, done that.” I think the only thing that Christian voters can be sure of about this election, about the choices facing us, is that there is no easy choice. You will not wake up tomorrow morning, slap your forehead in a V-8 moment, and realize that you have missed the obvious answer.

Another thing I did when I was a kid was to go to Union Square Park in lower Manhattan and listen to the speakers, most of them crackpot and most of them Communist, spout off to ersatz audiences of transients and passersby. A dying phenomenon, really – maybe the young Obama, on ghetto street corners of Chicago, was among the last – but I considered them to redolent of earlier days, and London’s Hyde Park. (I honed my debate skills, such as they are, in Union Square. Also my talent for heckling.) Like so many other things, this phenomenon has not so much disappeared as it has morphed into electronic social media. Now, gasbags (save yourself the Comments) float on electrons instead of standing on soap boxes.

… which is either democracy at work, or a pressure-valve from more serious dissatisfaction and dissent. I think violent days of protest and civil disobedience are coming soon, from sides of the political spectrum. But that, too, is for another time here.

In the meantime, we still are face-to-face with a seething, ugly, menacing dilemma. And we cannot escape it. We are in a horrible place — we Christians in this “democracy” — and nothing will save us but One thing. We know that Person. But other things can guide us, good, bad, and “Mister In Between.” Am I going to vote, once again in my life, while holding my nose?

Yes. I am going to hold my nose and vote. Any well-intentioned Christian patriot wanting to stay home, or abide a Clinton presidency, explicitly endorses an extremist Supreme Court, further erosion of Constitutional rights, more regulations favoring abortion and the homosexual agenda, uncountable immigration numbers from Mexico and from terrorist lands. Et cetera. That can sound like my opinion, but Hillary would thank me for stating her positions succinctly.

If Christians stay home, they should be consistent, and withdraw from all government activities and programs; all schools and institutions; all media… because everything is corrupted. “Let the Supreme Court [a response might say] go wacko. God is in control; He will see us through; His eye is on the sparrow and He watches over us.”

I agree. But He is watching us kill ourselves, too.

Under a sovereign God, Christianity is not a democracy. Conversely, once the Founders accepted pluralism, this is not a theocracy. I hate the thought of voting for “the lesser of two evils”… because that implies that both choices are evil. Neither Christianity nor a republic are roulette-tables, either. But I will take my chances.

One candidate is certain to continue the secular agenda, the war on believers, and a Frightening New World. The other has, among other things, promised to maintain Constitutional guarantees, restore traditional values, reverse governmental overreach, respect Christian expressions in school, courtrooms, public squares… If Trump keeps only a quarter of such promises, we will be better off.

One is the Lesser of two evils.
The other is the Evil of two Lessers.

+ + +

God DOES watch over us. That should bring us comfort! Here is the wonderful Ethel Waters, near the end of her life, singing the great song about God’s Eye on the Sparrow, at a Billy Graham crusade. BUT, as we take comfort from these lyrics, let us remember that He feeds the sparrows… but as He watches, we are accountable for how we respond to His care.

Click: His Eye Is On the Sparrow

Many Happy Returns

9-26-16

Leave it there, leave it there,
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there;
If you trust and never doubt, He will surely bring you out—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there
.

One of the many remarkable things about the Lord – the God of the Bible we worship, and the faiths that are built on His word – is that He instituted the gift of prayer.

Other religions have gods, some of them have myriad gods. Gods who might be worshiped, or demand sacrifices, or exist as dead prophets or wise men, or statues. The God of the Bible we know, who revealed Himself by inspiration, intervening in history, causing laws to be written, performing miracles, and ultimately revealing Himself through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, also bestowed the gift of Prayer on His children.

We take this for granted, but other “gods” did not do this. They cannot have conversations with their followers. Those religions are one-way streets. We should daily be awestruck that God wants to hear from us. He wants to know us. He wants to whisper truth and love to us, answering our prayers.

We can take our burdens to the Lord. And what’s more, in the words of the old hymn, we can with confidence “leave them there.”

If the world from you withhold of its silver and its gold,
And you have to get along with meager fare,
Just remember, in His Word, how He feeds the little bird—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

I have a personal connection with that old gospel song. The story behind its writing is a wonderful story.

After the heart and kidney transplants of my wife Nancy at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, she and I and our three children conducted a hospital ministry to heart-failure and transplant patients. For six years until moving to California we conducted services and visited patients’ rooms once or twice every week.

In our services, Leave It There became a favorite hymn, often requested by patients, some of whom heard it for the first time in those services, and by patients who came and went through the years.

If your body suffers pain and your health you can’t regain,
And your soul is almost sinking in despair,
Jesus knows the pain you feel, He can save and He can heal—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

After a time I learned the amazing coincidence (?) that the gospel song had been written only a few blocks from where we met for those services. Charles Albert Tindley, born in 1851, was the son of a slave. By age five he was orphaned, but at 17, after the Civil War, he had taught himself to read and write. He moved from Maryland to Philadelphia, working for no pay as a church custodian but, aspiring to the ministry, he learned Greek and Hebrew. The African Methodist Episcopal Church accredited him on the basis of outstanding test scores and preaching skills. For several years he was placed in different churches in different cities, impressing his congregations and winning converts.

Eventually Tindley received a call to a congregation in Philadelphia, and this servant of God became pastor of the church where he once worked as an unpaid janitor. When he preached his first sermon there, 130 members sat in the pews. Eventually under him the church had more than 10,000 worshipers. He preached, he championed civic causes, and he wrote astonishing hymns and gospel songs. One of his hymns, I’ll Overcome Someday, was transformed with different words and tempo into the Civil Rights anthem We Shall Overcome. Tindley Temple United Methodist Church was his “home,” and today there is a C A Tindley Boulevard in Philadelphia.

Another song was Take Your Burden To the Lord, and Leave It There.

When your enemies assail and your heart begins to fail,
Don’t forget that God in Heaven answers prayer;
He will make a way for you and will lead you safely through—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

Today I write to recall those great truths, that we can communicate with God; to remember those days of ministry and sharing Jesus with people who were wracked with pain and, sometimes, doubt; and that we don’t have to bear our burdens alone.

But I also want to remind us that there are many prayers and petitions and requests and burdens at the foot of the cross, left by God’s children… but, I wonder, are there the proper number of thanksgivings, praises, prayers of gratitude?

It is our human nature to turn to God when things are bad. He welcomes these prayers, never turning away a hurting heart that contains sincere anguish or pain or confusion or repentance. Never. But it is human nature also to turn to God less often when we have joy.

Do you find this happening? When there are problems, we seek God. Even insurance companies call disasters “acts of God” (boo, by the way). But when things go “right,” how often do we ascribe it to good luck, or the result of patience, or brag about our talent or hard work…?

No, bring Gratitude to the Lord, and “leave it there.” There is room at the cross for that, too.

I humbly would add to this great hymn, about the glory side! One of my verses would be:

When the answers start to come, and your days no longer glum,
And God’s blessings have so sweetly cleared the air,
The joy is not your own; Father sent them from the Throne!
Take your praises to the Lord and leave them there!

+ + +

Leave It There became a signature song of the husband-and-wife duo Joey + Rory. Their bittersweet story has “gone viral.” Rising stars of gospel-bluegrass-country music, their fans were happy when sweet Joey became pregnant; and shaken but prayerfully supportive when their baby Indiana was born with Down Syndrome. Soon thereafter, Joey was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Her illness, prayers, surgeries, and “life at home” was shared with fans and prayer partners… right to the end. Joey died on March 14, 2016. This video shows singer Bradley Walker – who has Muscular Dystrophy – with Val Storey and the legendary Carl Jackson. They sing Leave It There where Joey Feek is buried, a wooden cross marking her gravesite.

Click: Leave It There

Mother Sang a Song

9-19-16

I have a good friend, a neighbor who is a faithful Christian. As happens to devout believers, she is facing challenges and tests. I will quickly add that we know that “the rain falls on the good and the bad” alike, but tests seem most severe on strong Christians.

Properly seen, the devil has less reason to attack those of little faith. And as my wife once pointed out in a way I had never heard it explained, the devil has less reason to attack us, than to rail against Jesus — we will suffer attacks according to the amount of Jesus we invite to have a home in our hearts.

More Jesus in our lives, more persecution and challenges will come our way. But in God’s providence, the Jesus in our hearts does not merely provide answers… but IS the answer, our sword and shield; the Holy Spirit our protector.

My friend is strong, and a strong witness, but at time is spiritually discouraged. Sickness in the home, a disabled spouse, put burdens on her. Her three little kids – bless their hearts – are handfuls. She has wanted to finish her education and start a business with a friend, but cannot. Two sets of good friends are going through awful times, and she feels helpless to assist them, yet tries.

Through it all, despite prayer, discouragement yet looms.

It is the lot of us all, these challenges and, sometimes, tragedies. For the majority of human history, and over many cultures, people have believed that Man should be the Provider, and Woman the Nurturer. But there is thin theology in clichés. The Bible itself is full of examples of women as role models, as carriers of the seed of the Messiah, as special servants and leaders.

It is just different with women, wives, and mothers. The kind of “different” that means special.

One of the Bible’s most beautiful and profound prayers is the “Magnificat,” the response of Mary when she learns that she is carrying Jesus, the Savior of the world:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior;
For He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden.
For behold, from this day all generations will call me blessed.

It is not blasphemous to say that all women may rejoice in this prayer, and see their situations in that which was visited upon Mary. Motherhood is a holy thing. “Lowliness” is exalted. The character of one’s family, the future of the race, and the perpetuation of God’s Kingdom, is the cherished possession of every mother.

It is one thing for neighbors to encourage others to “look to Jesus” and trust in God. But mothers – often lonely and vulnerable, sometimes having to be wife, mother, friend, sister, brother, father, leader, and warrior too – need to be reminded that while they look to Jesus… Jesus is looking at them. So are their children and family members, and hurting friends, and strangers.

This advice could invite greater realization of burdens, but always does the opposite. Sharing Jesus; making a “small group” of your home; being the fierce spiritual protectoress that God desires, brings peace, healing, victory.

Another friend recently asked me what my “religious life” was when I grew up. My father, a traditional German Lutheran, was a believer, and active in church. But beyond dinner-table prayers, he seldom talked about Jesus. My mother, however – also a German Lutheran – emotionally prayed, frequently talked about Jesus, answered many of my life-questions in biblical contexts. She had smoked nonstop since her teens years and had a problem with drinking… but she wept every time she prayed. Cause and effect? I don’t know, but she taught me the reality of a personal relationship with Christ.

My own wife Nancy, whose 63rd birthday would have been this week, died after years of horrendous medical problems – heart attacks, strokes, cancer, diabetes, heart and kidney transplants, dialysis – yet the most vulnerable member of our family was the strongest example of faith.

Painfully shy, she yet began a noted ministry to those who suffered what she did. Physically challenged in myriad ways, she yet fretted that her children were inconvenienced by her illnesses. Never attending Bible school, she studied and became a powerful exegete – a “doer of the Word, not a hearer only.”

Although it is not Mother’s day – another cliché, but true: all days are mothers’ days – I want to encourage the friend I wrote about; I remember my mom; I honor my late wife. And I want us all to remember that the opposite of discouragement is encouragement. That the “fort” buried in the word “comfort,” and the Holy Spirit’s other name, the Comforter, remind us that strength can be ours, and not only in us, but granted to us, by grace.

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning, Psalm 30:5 reminds us. Thank God for mothers, their prayers, and their songs.

+ + +

This is an old standard, written by Bill Anderson (sung by him here at a 50th anniversary tribute to his career) and recorded through the years by everyone from Walter Brennan to jazz bandleader Stan Kenton.

Click: Mother Sang a Song

Remembering an American Icon

9-12-16

Anniversaries are convenient things to help us remember and commemorate what we ought. The 15th anniversary (integers are cooperative) of the 9-11 attacks will evoke appropriate tears, and possibly inspire people to actions of some sorts. This week – and I hope not lost in the political rhubarbs and 9-11 remembrances – we lost another iconic American Tower, so to speak.

Phyllis Schlafly has died.

Of course there will be people in 2016 who don’t know her name, but many do; and virtually every American has been affected by her work, her dedication, her crusades, the force of her personality. For more than half a century, this elegant bulldog of a lady changed politics and public policy in America. She inspired millions; she caused laws and regulations to be enacted, and – doing what even King Canute of legend could not – she withheld many waves of political “change,” for instance almost single-handedly preventing the requisite number of states to make the Equal Rights Amendment part of the Constitution.

I was an impressionable teenager in 1964, persuadable by both sides in that momentous presidential election. Until, that is, I read two books: Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of Conservative, after which I became one of “Barry’s Boys; and Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice, Not an Echo, a history of American politics and a tocsin about the Current Crisis. Hers was an informed, logical blueprint: appreciating the genius of the American Experiment; learning the nature of threats to the Republic; and the essential importance of activism.

Nothing, for me, was the same after that. Advocacy in high school; engagement in college (in Washington DC during the Vietnam era); community work in local politics; work as a newspaper columnist and political cartoonist. Phyllis taught me, and uncountable others, what we could do and should do if we want to rescue, redeem, and restore traditional and vital American principles.

She did this through the most minute efforts, the old-fashioned neighborhood work of persuading neighbors, attending meetings, writing to officials. And, in “major” ways, she wrote almost two dozen books, founded the advocacy group Eagle Forum, established Stop ERA, which battled the radical-feminist attempt to add an intrusive amendment to the Constitution – despite massive push-backs and abuse, her efforts stopped the states’ passages of the Act at 35 when 37 were necessary. Eventually, thanks to Phyllis, five states even rescinded their approval. She championed the Defense of Marriage Act, and many other pro-life and pro-family initiatives.

President Reagan appointed Phyllis to commissions in honor of her ability and accomplishments (by the way, she was a practicing lawyer, and received a Masters degree in Government from Harvard) (and not by the way, she was also a mother of six children). In his diaries there are notes of his breathless admiration of her work and dedication. I remember a column by Bob Novak, written during Platform deliberations at the 2004 – usually dry sessions, devoid at attention – when he encountered Phyllis Schlafly, alone in a vast side-room. The 80-year-old bulldog was going through drafts line by line, determined as always to find devils in details, to keep politicians’ feet to the fire.

All politicians. All their feet. All the fires.

Obviously, she was a heroine to me. I followed he through her long-running newsletter. Through her weekly newspaper column. Through the five-day-a-week radio commentaries. Seeing her on C-SPAN, making speeches, testifying before Congress. I once interviewed her, by phone, for a magazine I edited, the late lamented Rare Jewel, published by Tim Ewing.

But I never met her until we both attended a conference conducted by Dr D James Kennedy. And it was like this: I walked into the hotel’s breakfast room, and there sat Phyllis, alone. We both were earlier than our appointed breakfast-mates.. There she was, in person, and I suddenly realized her resemblance to Margaret Thatcher. Without the overbite. With preternaturally and, seemingly, permanently coiffed hair. Warm smile and steely eyes. Yes – Phyllis was American politics’ “Iron Lady”: how she would have done if we had a parliamentary system and she stood at Question Time! Her last book, by the way, was the recent Conservative Case for Trump.

I nervously introduced myself, and explained that I merely wanted to tell her what a difference she made in my life, and continued to; and how I could attest to what I hoped she knew, that there were many, many committed warriors like me. Like her, if we could manage.

With genuine humility she thanked me but then asked what I did, where I worked, how things were going, what was next… and suggesting even moiré ways I could be engaged. Amazing. A general with the passion of a recruit, and the enthusiasm of a common foot-soldier.

I have not yet mentioned what motivated Phyllis Schlafly. A love of America, certainly. But she was a committed Christian… and she willingly admitted – insisted – that her faith informed her patriotism. Christianity was the foundation of her concerns. The essential urgency she continuously evinced was of a kind with an evangelist’s zeal.

She was the person who put “Christian” in the Christian Right, and “Right” in the lexicon of Christian patriots. As the culture rapidly grew more and more secular, she was the girl with her thumb in the dike, fighting the good fighting at same time as alerting the rest of us to the tides of opposition. Amazing.

To the extent the crisis in our culture has involved secularism in all spheres, she said to me in my magazine interview: “I think the secularists have mounted a force on every front. You see this in the attack on the Pledge of Allegiance, the attack on the Ten Commandments, the attack on any public acknowledgment of God.

“What they want to do is treat Christians like smokers. ‘You can do it in the privacy of your own home, maybe down a dark alley, in a little corner somewhere, but not out where anyone can see you.’ … We have a big battle in the political sphere, in the cultural sphere, and the spiritual sphere.”

And who responds to battles? Soldiers. We have lost a mighty soldier in our society’s wars. But Phyllis Schlafly was a von Clausewitz, a Sun Tzu, a Saint Paul: equipping us for the tough work ahead. With the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in her other, Iron Lady Schlafly, dignified yet ferocious, showed us the way. We should all be, not followers, but actual leaders in her fashion.

+ + +

Click: Mozart’s Lacrimosa

The Sweetest Songs I Know

9-5-16

I have told this story before. It is about a holiday far away from home… but very close to my heart. It happened on a Fourth of July years ago, and was duplicated virtually unchanged two months later, on the Labor Day weekend.

A number of years ago I was working on a book, a three-part biography of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis; evangelist Jimmy Swaggart; and country-music superstar Mickey Gilley, all first cousins to each other. My good friend Maury Forman offered me his unused condo in Montgomery, Texas to get away for a bit of a personal research and writing one summer. Since Lewis lived in Mississippi, Swaggart in Louisiana, and Gilley in nearby Pasadena Texas, it made geographical sense.

Once settled, I took out the Yellow Pages (remember them?) to chart the location of Assembly of God churches for all the weeks ahead, intent on visiting as many as I could. East Texas was in every way new to me, and I wanted to experience everything I could.

Well, the first one I visited was in Cut and Shoot, Texas. That’s a town’s name; you can look it up. A small, white frame AG church was my first – stop that summer… and I never visited another. For one thing – coincidence? – I learned that a member of the tiny congregation was the widow of a man who had pastored the AG church in Ferriday, Louisiana, the small town FOUR HOURS AWAY where, and when, those three cousins grew up in its pews. She knew them all, and their families, and had great stories. Beyond that, the pastor of the church in Cut and Shoot, Charles Wigley, had gone to Bible College with Jerry Lee Lewis and played in a band with him, until Jerry Lee got kicked out. Some more great stories.

But there was more than that kept me there for that summer. In that white-frame church and that tiny congregation, it was, um, obvious in three minutes that I was not from East Texas. I was born in New York City. Yet I was treated like family as if they had known me three decades. A fellow named Dave Gilbert asked me if I’d like to go to his farm for the holiday where a bunch of people were just going to get together and “do some visitin’.”

I bought the biggest watermelon I could find as my contribution to the pot-luck. Well, there were dozens and dozens of folks. I couldn’t tell which was family and who were friends, because everybody acted like family. When folks from East Texas ask, “How are you?” they really mean it. There were several monstrous barbecue smokers with chimneys, all slow-cooking beef brisket. (Every region brags about its barbecue traditions, but I’ll fight anyone who doesn’t admit low-heat, slow-smoked, no sauce, East-Texas BBQ the best) There was visitin,’ surely; there were delicious side dishes; there was softball and volleyball and kids dirt-biking; and breaks for sweet tea and spontaneous singing of patriotic songs.

I sat back in a folding chair, and I thought, “This is America.”

As the sun set, the same food came out again — smoked brisket galore; all the side dishes; and desserts of all sorts. Better than the first time. Then the Gilberts cleared the porch of their house. People brought instruments out of their cars and trucks. Folks tuned their guitars; some microphones and amps were set up; chairs and blankets dotted the lawn. Dave Gilbert and his brothers, I learned, sang gospel music semi-professionally in the area. Pastor Wigley, during the summer, had opened for Gold City Quartet at a local concert, playing gospel music on the saxophone. But everyone else sang, too.

In some churches, in some parts of America, you are just expected to sing solo every once in a while. You’re not expected to – you want to. So into the evening, as the sun went down and the moon came up over those farms and fields, everyone at that picnic sang, together or solo or in duets or quartets. Spontaneously, mostly. Far into the night, exuberantly with smiles, or heartfelt with tears, singing unto the Lord.

I sat back in the folding chair, and I thought, “This is Heaven.”

I have grown sad for people who have not experienced the type of worship where singers and people who pray, do so spontaneously. From the congregation. Moving to the front. Sharing their hearts. Crying tears of joy or conviction. Loving the Lord, freely. If you have not… visit a church where this is commonplace; even witnessing it is an uplifting balm to the soul. Where there is freedom and joy in singing spontaneously.

I attach a video that very closely captures the music, and the feeling – the fellowship – of that evening. A wooden ranch house, a barbecue picnic just ended, a campfire, and singers spontaneously worshiping, joining in, clapping, and “taking choruses.” There were cameras at this Gaither get-together, but it took this city boy back to that holiday weekend, finding himself amongst a brand-new family, the greatest barbecue I ever tasted before or since… and the sweetest songs I know.

+ + +

Click: The Sweetest Song I Know

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.”

+ + +

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).

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.

+++

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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

Click: Midnight Cry

God’s Word for Worried Christians This Election

7-25-16

Pray.”

+ + +

Click: Oh, God Our Help in Ages Past

+ + +

“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.

+ + +

Click: Leaning On the Everlasting Arms

+ + +

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.)

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.

+ + +

Click: Bruce Springsteen – Satan’s Jewel Crown

+ + +

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.)

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.

+ + +

Click: Looking For a City

+ + +

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.)

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.

+ + +

Click: I Don’t Want To get Adjusted

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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

+ + +

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.)

Welcome to MMMM!

A site for sore hearts -- spiritual encouragement, insights, the Word, and great music!

categories

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