Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

The “Good News” Was Good… But Not New

4-21-14

In a generation after the first Easter, Christianity had spread to the far corners of the known world. There were churches in the future lands of England and Ireland; after a century, church settlements in “barbarian” northern Europe; and around 300, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the formerly pagan Roman empire.

The Bishop Eusebius wrote remarkable histories during the reign of Constantine that traced the lifelines of the church: communities; outposts; heresies; theological and leadership rivalries; miracles; persecution (for instance in Gaul, which made Rome’s look like child’s play) and martyrs. Christianity spread, subsuming the cultures and arts… as, it seems to me, any movement fostered by the Creator of the Universe, was proper to do.

“Gospel” means “Good News.” The early church fathers, in the manner of Mary at the tomb, were Newsboys in a very real sense; so were the rising corps of evangelists, missionaries, and pastors.

But have you ever stopped to think of what enabled the Gospel to spread so rapidly? There is a temptation to think it was the witnessing of Christ’s miracles. Eusebius, for instance, had spoken to people who had spoken to people who knew Jesus, heard Him preach; seen His miracles, encountered His resurrected self.

I think it was different; I think it was more. After the Ascension of Jesus, it was as if the scales fell from peoples’ eyes. Gentiles had the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament explained to them. Jews, multitudes of them, remembered those prophecies anew, and recognized how Jesus fulfilled them to the smallest detail. As the Roman centurion said, in a sudden moment of clarity, “This Man indeed is the Son of God.”

Additionally, what happened was the miracle of Pentecost. On that feast day, the frightened Disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which Christ had promised to them – to us – and told them to wait. After it comes, as on that day, believers share their head-knowledge with heart-knowledge. They becomes doers of the Word, not hearers only. They supernaturally gain wisdom and knowledge… and boldness.

So: my view was that the sudden spread of Christianity, even despite (and maybe because of) persecution, was due less to the MIRACULOUS elements of Christ’s ministry, and more to the LOGIC of His incarnation. Some people were late to the party – oh, what a party! – but their minds were clear, in those first centuries. It became the most natural thing on earth (and beyond) to live (and die) for the God-with-us, Jesus.

Among the logical evidence that Gentiles learned, and Jewish believers recalled, were the words of Isaiah, written an amazing 700 years BEFORE Jesus was born. Without verse numbers and footnotes, it is a startling narrative:

“Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? … He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked – but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. … He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

What does this tell us? That after Jesus rose to Heaven, His followers shared the Good News – the Gospel message. It was indeed good; humankind’s best. But it was not “news.” It, and uncountable other details about the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, had been planned and written before the foundation of the world.

Not “breaking news,” but Good News indeed.

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It took “breaking through the clutter” to hear, for the first time, or thousandth time, the STORY of Jesus. Then, as now, the simple logic overwhelms our minds and hearts and souls. The supernatural becomes natural. This ordinary paradigm has been summed up touchingly by songs of two female poets of the 1800s. I implore you to click this short video, watch, listen, and learn… or re-learn. “Tell Me the Story of Jesus” is a beautiful plaint by “America’s Blind Poetess.” Fanny Crosby was blinded at birth, began to write poems in her 40s, and before she died in her 90s had written nearly 9000 hymn-poems, many beloved today. “I Love to Tell the Story” was written by Katherine Hankey, a well-to-do British girl who shared the gospel with factory workers and street people until she became too sick to leave her deathbed. But, she wrote, “I Love To Tell the Story.”

Click: The Story of Jesus – Telling and Being Told

Observing the Annual ‘Pick Your Own Savior’ Day

4-14-14

Can we remember from our Sunday School lessons – Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowds of common people going wild, welcoming him with shouts of praise, laying down their garments and palms spread before him on the dusty road. The images are strong; we took away mementoes of the cut palms we often kept for a year. The facts of the story were clear enough.

Jesus entered Jerusalem, having recently performed mighty miracles of healing and even raising Lazarus from the dead. The population marveled at His wisdom and power; His preaching and moral challenges; His feeding of peoples’ empty stomachs and empty souls.

By all accounts (even of skeptics of the day, and secular historians) Jesus was making a triumphal entry, as, today, a rock star or political favorite would do.

We even remember the anomalies: Why get in the face of the Jewish temple leaders who were poised to take Him down; why challenge the Roman authorities who tolerated everything except revolution among the Jewish masses? Or, why not walk boldly, why not enter on a charging horse, why not organize the adoring public?

We understood in Sunday School. Numerous prophecies were being fulfilled, down to the donkey and how it would be obtained by the disciples. We understood the meaning and significance of it all. But the multitudes that week in Jerusalem did not understand everything. Even the disciples themselves understood little.

We can recall those stories, and cherish those images, in the same way many of us tucked the palms behind pictures on the wall, or atop the bookcase with our Bibles. But have we forgotten the points of significance about Palm Sunday, the same way the people around Jesus never really understood everything?

They called out “Hosanna” and “Son of David” and shouted “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” but we know that the general enthusiasm of the crowd was for one they hoped would be a political savior. They craned their necks to see the one who performed all those miracles… but perhaps as curiosity to see a magician or celebrity. There probably were more shouts of “prophet” than “Savior,” but in either event the Chief Priests felt threatened.

In other words, many of those people hailed Jesus as the hope of quick fixes; momentary comfort; or as an emergency manager.

How about today? Jesus, after all, without much imagining on our part, is riding down that dusty road still, coming towards us. Do WE know who He is? Before you say “Of course,” remember that his disciples, who lived and traveled and ate and slept with Him for three and a half years – who saw miracles, had their lives touched, heard divine wisdom – even they did not understand everything about Him.

To many in the Jerusalem crowd, this Jesus was many things, but not always the Son of God, their Savior. With their passions and grievances, many of those people knew what they wanted, but they did not know what they needed. And day by day, the following week, the cheering people fell away. Remember, “He came unto his own, and His own received him not.”

I call Palm Sunday the national “Pick Your Own Savior” day, because this understanding, or lack of understanding, infects our lives no less. We, too, might speak words like “Lord” and “Master.” But how many people mostly regard Jesus as a crutch during crises? As a good-luck charm instead of the One who died for our sins? To how many of us is He a stranger… until we need Him?

Are we, too, like the rabble in Jerusalem? Oftentimes, we too know what we want from God, but we don’t seek what we truly need from Him. We lay down palm leaves according to our momentary agendas… for the health-crisis Jesus… or the financial-problems Jesus. But He is Lord of ALL: that is why He rode straight into Jerusalem.

Do we really think God’s plan is for us to pick our own Savior?

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The Jews of Jerusalem shouted “Hosanna!” based on the Hebrew word in Psalm 118:25 – “Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord: O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity!” It has come to us a pure shout of praise, but had a subtext for those who laid palms.

Click: Hosanna!

Terrorism, Like We Never Knew

4-7-14

Words. Words can liberate our minds. They can be used to sway the masses and instruct our children. They can bring joy and comfort. Remembering that the Bible calls words potentially dangerous – “No one can tame the tongue; it is restless and evil, full of deadly poison,” says James 3:5 – we know that words can misinform, confuse, and be harmful.

In that regard I noticed that two recent news stories – the disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines plane, and another shooting at Fort Hood – were accompanied by speculation about terrorist involvement. Indeed, most news anchors spouted, in advance of any journalistic reason to raise the topic, “It is too early to speculate on whether there is a terrorist connection.”

Game, set, match. Thus the speculation begins. Moreover, by contemporary journalistic-speak, what more evidence of terrorism than a missing plane or a shooting rampage? What the media mean in 2014 is “Islamic Terrorism.”

“Terrorism” has become another kidnapped word, ripped from dictionaries and traditional parlance. “Gay” and “Holocaust” are two other such words. When the storm troopers of Political Correctness are on the rampage, we become haters if we do not conform. And so “Terrorism” is now equated with “Islamic Terrorism.”

I maintain there is a third spin to this neologism. Quick: a pop quiz. How many victims of terror were there on 9-11? An approximate number will do.

It is likely that you thought, Approximately 3000. More, some would reckon, adding to the Twin Towers, the horrors in Shanksville, the Pentagon, the planes, the Pentagon employees.

Those numbers are ‘way off the mark. I would have us realize that the 3000 or so who died on 9-11 were not victims of terrorism. They were murder victims. The victims of terrorism are approximately 300-million who were left with pain, hurt, sorrow, fear, anxiety, inconvenience, and life-routines forever altered. Such a result is the goal of terrorists. The dead were murdered; the living are terrorized.

They commit murder to spread self-doubt, fear, and even hatred. To terrorize the survivors. Innocent people can never be reconciled to terror, and therefore terror triumphs in the prevalence of paranoia, the surrender of security, eventually the loss of liberty.

These are not matters of “sticks and stones”: words have meaning, and can define how we navigate the troubled waters of life, as citizens and as Christians.

In the civic realm, we are seeing lawbreaking condoned, and criminals excused. Acts regarded as harmfully anti-social a generation ago – actually, throughout human history in all cultures – are being promoted today as beneficial and “progressive.” To oppose dependency and sloth is (to the Compassion Police) committing “hate crimes,” whatever that really is.

In the spiritual realm, we are witnessing the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. Men are calling evil good, and good evil; putting darkness for light, and light for darkness; putting bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20). We see traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God (II Timothy 3:4). And the Bible prophesied: “For 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” (II Timothy 4:3).

So is it a surprise that many Christians are quiet when religious expression is attacked by our own government? Why are Christians afraid to proclaim Christ against the attacks of false faiths and aggressive atheists? Why are those who claim the title of Christian so numb to the horrific persecution of believers around the world? – greater in numbers, in the past century, than in all previous centuries, added together, since Christ?

The answers include the facts that “truths” from the new pulpits have lulled us to sleep. That heresy and error have subverted the churches. That we have become more interested in pleasing other people, than pleasing – obeying – God.

WORDS have made truth relative, and irrelevant. Words are encouraging people to abandon the faith of their fathers. Words enable feeble minds to think that God’s precepts depend on our opinions of them.

Words are sending America to hell.

And that alone should terrorize us.

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An old-fashioned but utterly relevant musical coda to this message can be found in Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have Is You Soul.” Whether it is a grandmother’s message to a vulnerable child, or a symbolic lesson to a nation gone astray, through all the struggles and temptations and false hopes and glory, and shiny apples… in the end, all that we have is our souls.

Click: All That You Have Is Your Soul

The Annoying Thing About Jesus

3-31-14

I have come to realize that a lot of things they say about Jesus Christ are not true. Oh, I’m sure He smiled a lot, and sometimes wore perfectly starched robes, and went around patting children on the head, like I saw on the covers of all those Sunday-School pamphlets. And, if I remember correctly, we have stories of Him preaching and dispensing wisdom, and then moving on to the next towns and lakesides. He was misunderstood; people were jealous of Him or threatened by Him; and He was an innocent victim of persecution. I understand all that.

But why can’t He just leave me alone with those images? Messiah, I get it. Died for my sins, fine. Shouldn’t that be enough for Christmas and Easter?

A lot of people think that’s the whole package… but that’s what is not true. And that’s what makes me annoyed, drives me crazy.

A Jesus who smiles all the time? No… I see Him. Sometimes He is angry. Sometimes He is disappointed and looks sad. Sometimes I see tears in His eyes. In those moments He is confronting ME. He reminds me that I sin, that I am lost in this crazy world. He pleads with me to make a choice. To change. To believe in Him. To replace the junk in my heart with the goodness He promises.

Another annoying thing: He never shuts up. I wish there were a fishing village down the road He could move on to. He persists. He won’t let me go. Those Sunday-School paintings of Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Don’t let that kid you. He knocks at the front door, the back door, He scratches at the windows, He is like an alarm clock; like virtual phone calls and texts. “Why do you ignore Me, reject Me?” is what He seems to be saying. “I love you!”

And how annoying is this? – I’ve gotten the feeling that Christmas and Easter are not enough for Him. Or church once in a while; or even every Sunday morning. He wants me, not my schedule or habits or family customs. Don’t I pray, or think about praying, when someone is sick, or I’m having a crisis? What does He WANT from me, anyhow???

Why, why can’t Jesus be like the guys in those other religions? A wise man, a powerful teacher, a prophet, a role model… those are good enough gods for all those followers, and their lives are OK. Well, maybe not, but at least those religions are sensible. I mean, Buddha and Mohammed and Confucius and the rest didn’t ever claim they were sons of God, or “God With Us.” Isn’t it just like Jesus, though, to be the only One claiming that this is exactly who He is? That accepting Him is the way, the only way, to eternal life? It gets annoying.

Because if it’s true… I’m fried. If that persistent, sincere, earnest, holy, logical, annoying Person called Jesus is telling the truth, I should be scared crazy. I remember that writer named C. S. Lewis said something: “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Annoying, right? Then I heard that Bono, the singer and activist, recently said, “Jesus isn’t lettin’ you off the hook… When people say, you know, ‘Good teacher,’ ‘Prophet,’ ‘Really nice guy’… this is not how Jesus thought of Himself. So you’re left with a challenge in that: which is either Jesus was who He said He was, or a complete and utter nut case… You have to make a choice on that.”

Annoying! “Make a choice!” First Jesus says it; and then these guys; and then… then… then I know I do have to make a choice. Annoying! Everything else in life these days frees us from having to make choices. Or, if we make bad choices, someone is there to say “It’s all right” and “No problem.” That’s what is great about modern life, right? But… “Make a choice, make a choice!”

It’s not like my life depended on it. Can’t you see how annoying this Jesus is? Why? WHY?

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The simplest Sunday-School song, maybe the very first hymn a lot us remember hearing, answers the question of Why Jesus is so… well, annoying, sometimes. But Jesus loves me, this I know.

Click: Jesus Loves Me

‘Tis the Season To Be…

3-24-14

At Christmastime many people listen to Handel’s “Messiah.” Some of us listen to excerpts; some listen to the entire work. Some people attend performances at local churches or watch television broadcasts. For some people it is their only exposure to Baroque music during the year… and for too many, sadly, their only exposure to church music. Yet, in the words of the Sursum Corda portion of the liturgy, it is meet and right so to do. In all times and in all places – or, as often as possible – we should commune with our God. And that should apply to Easter as much as Christmas; with other supernal music as much as the traditional “Messiah.”

If we would wade into the waters of debate about the relative importance of dates in the Christian calendar, we would be reminded that over the centuries, Christmas was a relatively minor celebration, at least compared to Easter. (And that the Feast of the Ascension – marking Jesus’s physical rise to Heaven, completing the affirmation of His divinity, closing the theological circle of the Incarnation, begun with the Virgin Birth – was once more observed than it is in today’s churches.)

A propos these observations, I offer a suggestion that we all reverently replicate the consideration we give to Easter, and the attention we pay to the “Messiah,” by something new this Lenten season. Lent should be more than giving up chocolate, anyway!

Additionally, Lent gives us 40 days (that is, more than the week or so that Christmas affords) to enjoy music, and contemplate this season, concerning the most profound event in the history of humankind.

Let us avoid the temptation, for a time, to watch and wait upon events that explode in our midst, as compelling as are Russian osmotic invasions, or the perplexing disappearance of passenger planes. Let us look inward and commemorate an event 2000 years old but as immediate as the seconds and minutes of our fleeting lives.

I suggest we listen to one of the greatest creative works of the human race, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Passion According to St Matthew.” The word Passion refers specifically to the rejection, betrayal, suffering, humiliation, torture, pain, and death of Jesus. That we should focus on these details indicates no prurience: that any person, much less the Son of God who could have waved it all away, endured such things, for us, ought to inspire our devotion.

So the “St Matthew Passion” enables us to understand, to internalize, to enrich our faith. There is a link below to an astonishing performance. I commend it, to watch in portions or in one dedicated private time. If you cannot, I will still explain why it is beneficial, and how art can serve our appreciation of the gospel.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s setting of the Passion story is based on Matthew chapters 27 and 28. Christian composers, as early as the eighth century, but mainly in the 16th-18th centuries, wrote Passions to be distinct from other church music. Passions used large ensembles, sometimes two choirs, orchestras, and organs. They were dramatic presentations, with “narrators” and soloists. Sometimes they were performed outside churches, occasionally in costumes and with dramatic action, a halfway-house to oratorios or opera.

In Bach’s version, he declined costumes but achieved great drama. In our video link you will see a stark and spare performance stage, singers in simple suits or dresses. There are no props; it is not in a cathedral. However you will notice profound symbolism in the changing placement of the singers; the colors that light the performance stage; and the illuminated Cross that floats above the performers – changing shades, morphing from dark to light to dark.

This video – made in 1971, and conducted by the legendary Bach interpreter Karl Richter – is an immense work of art in itself.

You will be grateful that the text, translated to English, is on the screen. When subtitles do not appear, it is because singers are repeating phrases. This impactful video allows you to appreciate the myriad of subtleties Bach used to emphasize the STORY of the Passion, behind the lyrics and melodies. Words are biblical passages, or the librettist’s paraphrases.

Take note of the highlighting of meaningful words, by orchestral emphasis. Notice that solo voices have keyboard accompaniment; Jesus has keyboard and strings… except for His dramatic cry “Why hast Thou forsaken me?”

Notice the music (instrumentation and style of play) reflecting singers’ hope, sorrow, or desperation.

Notice the musical (and the camera’s) emphasis on words like “Barabbas!” and “kill Him!” and “crucify!” Notice Bach’s use of musical devices – pulsating rhythms for tension; short bursts by the flutes to suggest tears; upward modulation when hope is displayed.

Note the repetition of musical themes (popular church tunes) by the choruses to unify the narrative themes.

This is a monumental work of art.

The “St Matthew Passion” was considered by Bach to be his most significant work. It was first performed in Leipzig at the St-Thomas Church in 1727, and many Holy Weeks thereafter; he frequently revised it. His autograph score shows loving attention, written in red or brown inks according to the biblical and dramatic libretto sources, and employing calligraphy in careful Gothic or Latin letters. He preserved it as an heirloom.

Baroque music and Bach’s genius temporarily were out of fashion after his death in 1750, and the “St Matthew Passion” was never performed again until 102 years after its debut. Felix Mendelssohn had discovered it, conducted a condensed version in Berlin… and the Bach Revival, which has never stopped, began. Mendelssohn, a Jew converted to Christianity, found his Lutheran faith much strengthened by Bach’s work.

Other famous Passions of our time include the play in Oberammergau, a small Bavarian town of two thousand inhabitants, half of whom stage and act in the seven-hour re-creation of Holy Week events. The play has been produced every ten years since 1634 when the town, threatened by the bubonic plague, collectively prayed for mercy and vowed to share with the world this portion of the gospel story if they were spared. In Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, every July the Canadian Badlands Passion Play is presented in a thirty-acre canyon bowl that forms a natural amphitheater. And of course many people watched the movie “The Passion of the Christ” a decade ago.

None can be more powerful than Bach’s version. If you are unfamiliar with, or dislike, “classical music,” this video will not kill you. If the hairstyles or once-cool eyeglasses of 1971’s performers look squirrely, just imagine how we would look to them; or how a magical capture of the actual 1727 debut in Leipzig would look to us. Or how the original suffering and death of Jesus, nearly 2000 years ago, would have seemed if we were there…

… ah! THAT is the art of J S Bach. This performance of the “Passion of Jesus Christ as Recorded by St Matthew,” DOES bring us back to the amazing, profound, and significant events of our Savior’s willing sacrifice for us. It is REAL. All the elements of Art – not just music and words, but the nuances of staging – drive the meaningful messages home. To our hearts.

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Click: Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”

The conductor and musical director of Munich Bach ensembles, as noted, is the great Karl Richter. The members of the instrumental and vocal ensembles are more numerous than in Bach’s more intimate times. This performance is longer than three hours (and was originally performed in segments during the weeks of Lent in Bach’s churches) but I beg you not to make it “background music.” The staging – the arrangement of the singers, the lighting, especially the position and illumination of the cross that floats above all – is profoundly significant.

The Logic of Loving God

3-17-14

Logos. It’s the Greek word for our English word, “word,” from which we also derive “Logic.” Logos is to speak intelligently.

Today’s message is a guest essay by Leah C. Morgan.

When God, who IS wisdom, wanted to communicate with mankind, He sent His son.
“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1,2). God has spoken intelligently. He spoke the Word – the Logos – the Son.

“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. And the Logos was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14).

More than 300 years before Christ lived and before His disciple John wrote of the Word becoming flesh, Aristotle presented LOGOS as one of three methods used to persuade another to a point of view. Through logic, reasoning, and sound supporting evidences, the thoughts of an individual can be turned.

He taught PATHOS to be another means of bringing a counterpart to a change of opinion – the process of stirring the emotions, of appealing to a sense of justice over the unfair.

Aristotle identified ETHOS as the third vehicle of persuasion. It is the tool of credibility, lending weight to a point of view when presented by an expert, or by someone of respectable rank or position, on a topic. It is present even in the simple act of trusting, when a relationship exists between the parties of a discourse.
 
John, who writes of the Logos being God and becoming man, also writes of the compelling force behind both. “For God so loved the world he gave His only begotten Son that whosever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). God so loved the cruel ungrateful world that He offers up to that world the transformation of His divine, all-powerful Son into a vehicle of vulnerable flesh.

I find that a convincing argument to love Him back.
 
God offered up Jesus with Ethos. You can’t find anyone more credible than the One who fashioned the universe and upholds it in His palm, deciding to send His offspring to step foot onto a fleck of dust, within the realm of His vast cosmos, called earth. He made it. He operates it.

He visits it; I’ll pay attention to His words.
 
And what Pathos! We respond to the dog tied to the tree in the yard, left out in the summer heat without a drink, or shivering there in the winter exposed to the elements. It’s not right that an innocent creature, something made to be our companion, is so mistreated for no fault of its own. Christ was no dog on the street. But there He was, nailed to a tree, hung up to thirst, exposed to the onlookers with none to pity or defend. The injustice of an innocent One coming to befriend us, to rescue us, dying for our lies and greed, for our meanness and selfishness.

This wrings my heart. It secures my love and gratitude.

God really did set out to commune with us, to convince us, to reason with us. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

When looking upon the pride of man, the degradation, the violence, God responds not by wielding His hand in wrath, nor by withholding His hand. He extends it. He opens it with the best of heaven’s treasure, the life of His Son.

I’ve read the Logos, and I believe. I’m convinced. I am persuaded “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38 39).
 
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Religion, of course, is mankind’s effort to reach up to God. Christianity is God reaching down to mankind. Leah has limned three major ways God reaches down to us, easy and powerful ways to appreciate His love. The summation of our response? — How can we keep from singing?! Here is the late (and great) Eva Cassidy performing the favorite gospel song. It dates from 1868.

Click: How Can I Keep From Singing?

Nostalgia for The “Dark” Ages

3-10-14

As a period in history, the so-called Dark Ages probably could use a Marketing Specialist or a Branding Team. The term has been applied to the period between the Third-century fall of Rome and the Carolingian Renaissance (Charlemagne’s rule of the briefly reconstituted Holy Roman Empire) or, usually, the Late Gothic and Florentine Renaissance, around the 13th century. Certainly, sanitation and plumbing declined and virtually disappeared during the Dark Ages; literacy was uncommon; life – in Europe – was simpler, less ambitious, less creative after Rome. The lack of records and paucity of artifacts means that a certain darkness descended over the centuries about which we are curious.

I have often said, and I know that “futurists” hold, that if a social catastrophe were to hit the United States – perhaps on the order of cessation of electricity; stoppage of water supply; production, transport, and delivery of goods – a New Dark Age would descend. Would you know how to raise meat and produce for your family’s table? Could you resume a livelihood without computers and electricity? How, long-term, to make clothes from scratch, or build houses? Most of us would bemoan the New Dark Age.

All this is not implausible. But it would not really be a Dark Age. It would be hard, brutal even, a radical change in so many lifestyles.

But it would not be “dark.” Presumably we would all remember (those who possess it now) elements of culture. We would savor traditions, and pass them along more fervently than now. We would form associations, standing together. We would probably turn again to religion, not out of emotional desperation, but for spiritual succor, and because we would realize the perilous nature, and the fragility, of self-sufficiency.

So it was in the Dark Ages. The term, by the way, has been variously applied, re-invented, connoted as negative and positive through the subsequent years, so as to make it virtually meaningless except as temporal book-ends. But we shall visit a moment with a man who, perhaps better than anyone else, saw things to admire – greatly admire – in the so-called Dark Ages. His reasoning can light our path today in the Post-Post-Modern Digital Age where people are so sure they have everything figured out.

Henry Adams was the great-grandson of America’s second president, and grandson of our sixth president. He was a diplomat, author, journalist, professor, social critic, friend of the intellectual and political elite of two continents, and by nature somewhere between a cynic and a misanthrope. In 1880 he wrote, anonymously, the scathing indictment of Gilded-Age society, “Democracy.” Even his friends never knew he was the author.

Two books, however, led Adams to a unique perspective on the Dark Ages. His autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams,” was published in a small edition for friends only. It was published for the general public the year after his death, 1918, and soon won the Pulitzer Prize… and is considered one of the great books of the 20th century. Among many other wonderful observations, Adams reported visiting the Paris World’s Fair of 1900, and being transfixed by the Dynamo – a gargantuan machine that moved, roared, displayed myriad moving parts, all to no specific purpose! But it was built to suggest that such machines were the wave of the future, able to do all, manufacture all, satisfy all.

Henry Adams saw even more in it: the dawn of the machine age, when such mechanisms would not only supplant labor, but be a unifying Force in the modern world… a new Church, even a Savior, that would draw all men to it. The Machine. Including of course, by extension, in our day, the Computer.

He was primed for such a point of view, based on obsessive private scholarship about yes, the Dark Ages. What the Dynamo was in 1900, he saw French cathedrals, especially, as representative of a certain ethos in the past – regrettably, the dead past. He studied every little corner, and every grand architectural metaphor, in cathedrals; the major book that resulted was “Mt St-Michel et Chartres,” and it too was meant for few eyes, in fact written as a treatise for the edification of his niece. Almost a decade later he was persuaded to publish it for architectural students; but it was embraced by the general public.

To our point: Adams recognized in the Dark Ages not a suppression of knowledge but a singular devotion of all of European societies to an ideal, a unifying force, commonly held beliefs, a loyalty to something bigger and nobler than themselves. In Europe, generally, Jesus; in France particularly, around 900-1100, the Virgin.

People worked their jobs, and then worked harder and longer to build these colossal cathedrals. Every family member lived around, and for, the church. They knew scripture, debated little, and found fulfillment in serving the church. Thousands of design elements, colors, symbols in the exteriors and interiors, stained-glass windows and vestments, MEANT something, theologically… and therefore meant important things to the daily lives of locals and worshipers. For those who could not read, signs and symbols told the gospel story.

There was cultural unity in the “Dark” Ages. And they were better societies for it. At least, we have not seen this in the West for centuries; and today we are fractured, disputatious, rudderless, “diverse,” and unhappy.

In a civic sense, there was a season in America when an astonishing maturity of purpose, a common understanding of political ideals devoted to liberty, bound a happy society together. It ran through the times of the Founders, the Framers, and the “Era of Good Feeling” when de Tocqueville visited in the 1840s. We surely do not have this harmony today, neither in civic nor religious senses.

I cannot end this tour on a happy note. Can the UNITY represented by majestic, consequential cathedrals of the Middle Ages – by the US Constitution, in the civic sphere – return in America? Would people, all across society, again agree on common principles, goals, and sacrifices worthy to bear?

Today, denominations argue over points of social policy more than points of theology. One result is seen in a recent news story about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In the five years since the denomination formally embraced homosexuality, including in the clergy, it has lost half a million members and 1000 congregations. Maybe there IS unity among believers, but it is different from that of the enlightened Christians of the Dark Ages.

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For anyone who thinks that peasants of the “Dark” Ages were insect-infested dirt-eaters, a quick tour of Chartres Cathedral will dispel that notion. The massive scope, the architectural challenges that were solved, ambitious feats of construction, the multitude of delicate artistic and design touches… these were people, a thousand years ago, who lived not in the Dark but in a special Light. In future essays we will visit Mt St-Michel, built on a monolithic rock off the Brittany coast.

Click: Chartres Cathedral

When Will Life Ever Make Sense?

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“Farther along we’ll know more about it, Farther along we’ll understand why; Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine, We’ll understand it, all by and by.” We have many hymns of faith to uplift us and remind us of God’s promises. But this old song can rightly be called a “Hymn of Doubt.” It does not intend to shake our faith, but rather it expresses the pain, the confusion, the questions – and yes, sometimes, the doubt – we all experience when life collides with life.

That is to say, when circumstances go radically off-script. The scripts we write for ourselves.

I have a friend who has been making some breakthroughs in her chosen field of writing, and has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, tearing her world apart. Another friend has made a place for herself after a hard road, or several of them, early in life; and now is at the top of her chosen field. Yet she is under attack, and will suffer, from intrigues and corporate politics – as old as human nature, a fact that never makes the devastation any easier. Another friend has been involved in ministries and charities for years, and now is virtually destitute, feeling hopeless.

“Tempted and tried, how often we question Why we must suffer year after year, Being accused by those of our loved ones, E’en though we’ve walked in God’s holy fear.”

We accept the fact that bad things happen to good people: Are we being tested? We remind ourselves, sometimes grasping for straws, that Job was tested, too. In that eponymous book, the oldest of all the books in the Bible, we are told that Satan accused Job and taunted God, saying, “He doesn’t love You; he just loves Your blessings.” Without knowing it, Job issued a challenge to our own faith with such an argument – an encouragement to seize upon what was later written: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Job ultimately answered, “Though He slay me, I will put my trust in Him,” the Lord God.

But yet – I know this; we all do – the crud of life is still crud. To my friend dealing with the worst cancer news, what can I say, what can any of us say? Of course we pray for healing. Of course we trust God’s mysterious ways. Of course we try to believe that some “greater good” will be served. But. BUT…

“Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to wonder Why it should be thus all the day long; While there are others living about us, Never molested, though in the wrong.”

I recently wrote to a friend that God never promised a detour from the Valley of the Shadow of Death, only that He would BE with us when we have to walk through it. There is sin in the world – besides the sins we commit that contribute to our problems – and we simply are assigned the task of dealing with those consequences. Planning against pitfalls, battling disease, fighting corruption, deflecting hatred, protecting the weak, comforting the sick, and… loving. And loving. And loving.

“Sometimes I wonder why I must suffer, Go in the rain, the cold, and the snow; When there are many living in comfort, Giving no heed to all I can do.”

The mysteries of God – why, indeed, some of the unrighteous might enjoy material comforts; or how forgiving others can bring forgiveness to our own souls, those kinds of mysteries – are not to be understood now. The friend to whom I wrote about the Valley was once at the lowest of low points in her life, an alcoholic. Now that she has magnificently overcome, she admits that she might have gone through those horrors so that she can now be a better witness, counselor, friend to uncountable others. She gained a genuine voice after walking a difficult road but now is in a serene place, rescuing other lives. God’s way? Maybe.

“Farther along we’ll know more about it, Farther along we’ll understand why; Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine, We’ll understand it all by and by.”

This chorus, true as it is, does not promise that we will understand life’s cruelties and God’s mysteries, and blessings, after a few more prayers. Or more Bible study. Or another sermon message. Or reading a few more blogs. “By and by” refers to Glory: Heaven.

In Heaven we will not know all things – that would make us like God. But we will understand better, by and by. Can we suffer less by loving God more… by yearning for Heaven more? Yes – another mystery, a comforting mystery. As Joni Eareckson Tada, well acquainted with mortal distress, as a quadriplegic in constant pain, and recently afflicted with breast cancer, proclaimed, “God permits what He hates, to accomplish what He loves.”

“Faithful till death, says our loving Master; Short is our time to labor and wait; Then will our toiling seem to be nothing, When we shall pass the heavenly gate. / When we see Jesus coming in glory, When He comes from His home in the sky, Then we shall meet Him in that bright mansion; We’ll understand it, all by and by.”

Martin Luther letter

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Joni has been in the news because she sang the title song for the Christian-themed movie “Alone Yet Not Alone,” which, amid controversy, was pulled from Oscar consideration recently, after receiving a prestigious nomination. Here she offers great testimony and the comforting old song “Farther Along,” with Homecoming friends, legendary gospel singers. Affirmation and a second chorus by Vestal Goodman. I once had the privilege of interviewing Joni at Billy Graham’s retreat center, the Cove. She spoke at length of her trials, and she sang, as here. Some day I will share that video in the Monday Ministry blog. (Also present that day were Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, and Joni’s mom; see photo.)

Click: Farther Along

The Peace of God vs. the God of Peace

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I have a great new friend, and in the process of getting to know each other, she has been condensing portions of her life story into what she calls “Reader’s Digest versions,” as do I, and we return, and will, to share details. Life is about the stories, of course, not their titles. I have come to appreciate, in literature and not only in conversations, that the gift of revelation is in storytelling, but the gift of self-revelation is in our choice of labels, titles, and summaries.

So – setting aside, here, the conversations with a friend, but in larger senses – I have been thinking about the codes we all use, whether short stories tell about great narratives, or a phrase can represent great truths. A major risk we face is “reductio ad absurdum”: oversimplification. I have observed, in the Christian context, that some churches today “reduce” certain messages of God to present, in effect, the Six Commandments (or so) instead of 10; or, worse yet, repackage what effectively becomes the “10 Options.” Or, you know, Jesus’ “Suggestions From the Mount.”

But the opposite risk is to pile on, adding to the gospel: over-intellectualization. Martin Luther called Reason the enemy of Faith. With encyclopedia versions instead of Reader’s Digest versions of biblical truths, we can lose God’s Word in the weeds! The simplest message is the most profound. What doth the Lord ask of us? I am reminded of a conversation between Jesus and Peter.

“Do you love me?” he asked Peter, recorded in the 21st chapter of John. In fact, He asked Peter – the impulsive, the quick and often presumptuous apostle – “Do you love me?” three times. We should note that He did not challenge Peter with the agendas of contemporary Christianity: Do you know Me? Do you serve Me? Do you defend Me? Or even, Do you work for Me?

“Do you love Me?”

Jesus asks us the same question. Don’t be quick to answer, “Why else would I be serving others and doing good works and attending church and praying? I do these things because I love You! Of course I love You!” If that is the nature of our answer, we get the order of importance reversed. And we should realize that Jesus really, simply, merely asks us a Yes or No question.

It is not only greed and sin that lurk in the verse that warns, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26). It surely can refer to Christians who fall short in nurturing their souls, who interfere with the Spirit’s nurture of their own spirits, because they scurry about like wind-up Christians. In love with projects, and worship services, and meetings… and maybe, not quite so much, in love with Jesus.

“Do you love Me?”

Christians who were once messed up and found their Savior… can mess themselves up again. For “churchy” reasons. This is sin, too; and grieves the Heart of Jesus. We need to look beyond the Reader’s Digest and bumper-strip versions of the Gospel, and likewise strip away the ponderous rules and restrictions of men – the barnacles on Jesus’s fishing-boat – and be still. Be still and know that He is God. Listen.

Listen to the question Jesus asks. Listen for the Heartbeat of the Savior.

Then, although both things are profitable to our troubled souls, we can discern the difference between our personal cries in certain situations for the peace of God… and the life-long Love affair we should desire with the God of Peace.

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An anthem about the bare-bones, essential priority of loving God, in spite of everything else in our lives, is the powerful “Yet Will I Sing,” by Audra Lynn Hartke, singer and worship leader at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City. Graphic slideshow by beanscot.

Click: Yet I Will Sing

Dead Presidents

2-17-14

When searching for a music video for this blog essay, I surfed through YouTube as per usual. More and more there are commercials, at least for first-time clickers of a link, lasting anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 seconds. Some must be endured, some can be clicked off. A fact of internet life. This week, intending to write about Presidents’ Day and the Christian beliefs of our presidents, as I am wont every year, I was struck by the common theme of the advertising pop ups.

Presidents’ Day – that is, Presidents’ Day mattress sales. The $5-bill face of Abraham Lincoln with moving lips, reminding us of Two-For-One sales. An animated George Washington saying, “I cannot tell a lie. I am CHOPPING prices this Monday!”

It is odious enough that the American culture effectively stopped honoring great men like Lincoln (whose birthday was February 12) and Washington (February 22). It is offensive enough that nonentities and shady characters who held the presidential office for a season are elevated to equal status with Lincoln and Washington by the invention of a vacuum-cleaner holiday like Presidents’ Day. It is depressing that America, at a point when we should be mature as a civic society, has descended to such base materialism.

Patriotic displays largely have withered and died in the public square. Prayers have disappeared from schools and civic events. Politicians seem more grasping than ever. There are exceptions, but these things mostly are true. People wear flags as apparel decorations, and stick them to bumpers, but how many people, even of such patriotic extroversion, can name the presidents of the United States, in order, or the Bill of Rights so frequently invoked?

I have been reading a book, “The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor,” by Rear Adm. Robert A Theobald. It details the impossible diplomatic position the United States put Japan in during the months leading to Pearl Harbor, with the intention to invite an attack by the Japanese; the purposeful failure to alert US commanders of the imminent attack; the scapegoating of Naval and Army personnel after 3300 lives were lost; the reason for the machinations – an obsession to enter a war against Germany, Japan’s ally, and to save Great Britain. This was at a time when American public opinion was overwhelmingly against participation in any foreign war. Franklin Roosevelt unilaterally skirted Congress and committed arms, bases, ships, and diplomacy to one side of a foreign conflict. Germany didn’t take the bait; Japan did.

It matters little whether FDR was betting on the right side of history. He could have proceeded honestly and openly to persuade the American people. That he did not might cast him as a war criminal. Other presidents have lied, betrayed the trust of their people, and occasionally spent lives and fortunes unwisely.

I state these facts to say that I don’t think US presidents all deserve halos. Even the greatest have clay feet. Not all were well-intentioned.

But many had sterling intentions. In this polyglot nation of immigrants we have produced a class of presidents whose ranks are generally above any average group we could gather. The Framers were a remarkable assembly whose faith, maturity, and foresight was extraordinary. We have been blessed. As Theodore Roosevelt said, in Abraham Lincoln we had a man whose greatness was due to his goodness. Theodore Roosevelt himself was the most accomplished, intelligent, well-prepared, visionary, and… religiously observant of our presidents.

On this last aspect we discover the major difference – perhaps the dividing-line – between exceptional and ordinary presidents; between the old America and the new. We are told that Washington’s circle was comprised of Deists; yet his famous prayer, the injunctions to pray by Franklin, the language of the Declaration and Constitution, prove to us that these men knew, and feared, God.

We are told that Lincoln seldom attended church. Yet we can read in the notes of his associates, in his letters, in his speeches, an evolving awareness of God – and a reliance, a summons, a sharing of biblical principles – in the last two years of his life. His last speeches, his Second Inaugural, read like sermons.

And Theodore Roosevelt became an editor of a weekly Christian magazine when he left the White House. He titled two of his books after Bible verses. He made impromptu speeches for five nights at a prominent seminary. He wrote an article for Ladies Home Journal about why men should go to church. This irrepressible personality quietly, but largely, lived his faith.

Are these days past? Do giants still walk amongst us, in American civic life?

Most of the faces on our currency consists of presidents of the past. Since Presidents’ Day has been distorted and perverted to be a glorification of sales and commerce, it might be appropriate that the currency that is King for a Day on the third Monday of February is nicknamed “Dead Presidents.”

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I have chosen a song that goes ‘way back in the American heritage for the music video with this essay. No message, but, as we have recalled Washington, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt of an earlier, and greater, time in America, here is a moment of nostalgia for the time when American held promise. “Oh, Shenandoah” is an old folk tune about the pioneer’s relentless move westward, remembering the Shenandoah Valley, and determining to “cross the wide Missouri” River. This is a remarkable “virtual” duet with the legendary Tennessee Ernie Ford and Sissel Kyrkjebo, the stunning Norwegian soprano. With members of the Chieftans. Click the YouTube button if prompted.

Click: Oh, Shenandoah

Broken Things

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All through the Bible are examples of gifts, sacrifices, and responses that God’s children lay before Him. Tithes, ten per cent of income. First fruits. Rams without blemish. Spotless sheep. Burnt offerings. Service. Penance. Repentance.

Looking ahead to visions in the Book of Revelation, we have the mysterious questions of crowns awarded to certain saints – not salvation or eternal life, but some rewards in Heaven – no longer a mystery when we are given the picture of those saints laying down the crowns before the throne of God. From Chapter 4: “The four and twenty elders fall down before Him who sat on the throne, and worship Him who liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created.”

The beautiful picture of a perfect gift rendered into a perfect offering.

Indeed, all the instructions to gives thanks and tribute to a Holy God, and the inclinations of our hearts, should be to bring the purest and holiest things we can – including our souls and our confessions and our best efforts here on earth – because Holiness demands holiness. It is meet and right so to do.

But God tolerates one thing that is broken, not whole, and even is soiled. No, He does more than tolerate: He welcomes… the broken heart.

“You can have my heart, though it isn’t new,
It’s been used and broken, and only comes in blue,
It’s been down a long road, and it got dirty along the way,
If I give it to you, will you make it clean and wash the shame away?”

Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

Continuing wonderful lines from Julie Miller’s “Broken Things”:

“You can have my heart, if you don’t mind broken things,
You can have my life; you don’t mind these tears,
Well, I heard that you make old things new, so I give these pieces all to you,
If you want it, you can have my heart.”

Life is a road with many speed bumps and pot-holes; and, as we read recently in this space, from “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” many detours and pitfalls. God encourages us to make the journey, to press on, to acquit ourselves well, to have integrity as Christians. As witnesses we should be modest servants, confident soldiers, and shining “Imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1).

Yet, even wearing white robes, we can be holding shattered, broken, and even soiled hearts in the cup of our hands. God is a Potter; Jesus was a carpenter; the Holy Spirit is the Comforter. A broken heart God will not despise.

Our Heavenly Father can see the band-aids and paper clips. That we bring broken hearts and even messed-up lives before Him (which we resist doing, in our natures, too often) does not mean we are faulty Christians. We are just… Christians. Who “have heard that You make old things new.”

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The lines quoted here are from Julie Miller’s amazing song, “Broken Things.” Here she sings with her husband Buddy Miller. Graphics by the great beanscot.

Click: Broken Things

The Highway to Heaven

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I recently have re-read “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan (or re-re-re-read, actually forgetting the number of times I have read it). It is the most remarkable of books, once held to be the most printed book in the English language after the Bible. Despite our culture’s sudden and virtually total disassociation from it, that record might still hold.

Bunyan’s book is an allegory: the journey through life of the everyman hero, Mr Christian. It once was required reading in schools, beside the Bible – yes, in bygone times – but also for its masterful allusions, exquisite language, and impressive construction. The hero’s name, and those of myriad characters (Valiant-for-Truth; Worldly-Wiseman), were not crudely conceived of an impoverished imagination but to be clear about metaphors and symbols. Bunyan was teaching a lesson.

He wrote “The Pilgrim’s Progress” while he himself presumably was being taught a lesson. The Englishman Bunyan, who lived 1628 – 1688, had been a poor tradesman of relatively loose morals, but was converted to Christianity when he heard the voice of God. Like Martin Luther more than a century previous in Germany, he became conscious of his sinful nature, and grew to faith in fear of God. He was moved spontaneously to preach, and attracted a following. But at that time, in England, it was forbidden to preach unless ordained by the Crown’s church.

During two prison sojourns Bunyan wrote “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” The texts were received, the writer said, through visions, in the manner of St John transcribing the Book of Revelation on the Isle of Patmos.

Quotations from this great book strike us like lightning-bolts through the centuries. Its truths are still true. The nature of humankind – our needs and temptations and failures and hopes and triumphs? There have been no changes to our natures: we still need the message!

“What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.”

“A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he cast away the more he had.”

“The man that takes up religion for the world will throw away religion for the world.”

“It is my duty to distrust mine own ability, that I may have reliance on Him that is stronger than all.”

But the most significant allegorical aspect of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” – in any event, the metaphor on which the narrative depends – is the Road. The Path. The Way. The journey’s channel; the Highway. Mr Christian proceeds amidst detours, roadblocks, false advice… toward the Destination, the Cross. To Heaven.

“Now I saw in my dream, that the Highway, up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back. He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.”

The Highway to Heaven is an allegory easy to comprehend. But it is hard to travel! As hard as the poor, beleaguered Mr Christian found it. Bunyan likely was under no illusions that his book would turn the world upside-down. Indeed it had great impact – it is possible that millions have accepted Christ because of it through the centuries – yet it can only be expected to speak to readers one by one. One by one.

Despite books of old and mass-media today, the personal appeal of the gospel, which in fact was the mode of Jesus and the Apostles, is just that: a PERSONAL appeal. God’s plan… Christ’s Great Commission… the Holy Spirit’s ministry. “Go and make disciples.”

It is a temptation of human nature, and a specific spiritual malady of contemporary Western culture, to think that knowing ABOUT the “Highway,” being generally supportive, is enough. Or that wandering down detours at least corresponds to good intentions. Or that “other” Highways are efficacious, if the traveler, after all, means to arrive at a similar happy place to where the cross stands.

These relativistic lies and deadly heresies will result not only in others (and ourselves) walking aimlessly through life… but being “lost.” Fatally lost. Eternally lost. The Bible makes clear that all other roads lead to destruction. God is a guide; the Bible is our road map; and millions of sermons, songs, allegories, and books like “The Pilgrim’s Progress” graciously have been laid before us as spiritual MapQuests.

Even more, God allows U-Turns, as my friend Allison Bottke has called her ministry. However, He doesn’t allow short-cuts. He has not cancelled, nor even postponed, our journeys. And to use another Web-Age reference, it is Jesus’s voice we hear in the GPS, reminding us that there is no way to Heaven – no other way – but through Him.

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“Walking Up the King’s Highway” is a standard song in many hymnals. It is a favorite of the Black church, written by the great Thomas A Dorsey and Mary Gardner. Here it is performed in rousing fashion by more than a hundred “Gospel Legends,” giants of influential Spirituals of the past half-century. The late Rev Donald Vails leads the singers. Billy Preston is on the organ.

Click: Highway To Heaven

Happiness vs. Joy

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There is a difference between happiness and joy, and the difference is not just one of grammar or philology, but of theology – that is, the nuances can hold lessons for our lives. At the least, let us consider the two words and take away some things that we might pass on to others, or remember ourselves in future reading or conversations.

The real distinction can, “unhappily,” be a bit frustrating to ascertain, as dictionaries these days tend to be sloppy. Too many dictionaries help us this way: “Happiness, n. The state of being happy.” And “Joy, n. The emotional result of being joyful or cheerful.” These should be moved in such dictionaries to the “D” section… for “Duh.”

Dictionaries I consulted helped when synonyms for Happiness included Bliss, Blessedness, and Bliss (in other words, an emotion on the path to Joy). A definition for Joy I found wrote, “A feeling of extreme happiness” (also holding happiness relatively subordinate). So… general consensus is that Joy is the superior state of emotion.

Years ago my daughter Emily had the insight that Joy (her middle name, by the way) corresponds to spiritual matters; and Happiness – no matter how extreme or elevated – is a human emotion related to our worldly, temporal, and indeed temporary pleasure. No matter how valuable: contentment, satisfaction, gratification.

To further validate the primacy of Joy, we recall some Bible verses:

“I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Not mere “happiness” in Heaven; it falls short of Joy.

James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” Here is an example of Joy being more mature, more efficacious, than mere Happiness.

And finally the most familiar Bible verse about Joy: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). We recall, too, the admonition to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”; “happy noise” would sound very superficial!

In America’s civic life we recall that the Founders proclaimed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a right. Later politicians elevated “happiness” alone as a right, not the freedom to “pursue” happiness. A tremendous difference, since governments have taken to defining the meaning of happiness. Even more egregious, re-calibrating a Happiness Meter for its citizens, and announcing why everyone should be resentful of their lot.

So Happiness has become the secularists’ Holy Word.

Whittaker Chambers once wrote about this attitude adjustment: “The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence, spirit.” Too true… and another example of the fact that if lines are being blurred between church and state, the guiltier party is the government, usurping the prerogatives, outreach, and role, of established religion.

(Actually. A point of clarification. This can go on for longer than a blog message in itself, but for the record: I often think that “established religion” has been a major enemy of God’s heart and humankind’s souls. Not always, but often. Better we should seek personal relationships with Christ than with “Organized Religions.” Just sayin’… this is what I meant.)

The phrase “pursuit of happiness” has become a part of everyday discourse. In the same manner, many recognize the strains of Beethoven’s great “Ode to Joy” without knowing its meaning – or understanding the words, as it is Friedrich Schiller’s German poem set to music. In today’s little lesson, these words can inspire us. They remind us that Beethoven was a profound Christian, in a direct line from Johanes Kepler (not a composer but subscribing to the Pythagorean theory of “music of the spheres,” and Plato, who saw musical harmony as a reflection of heavenly perfection) in his “Harmony of the World” (1619). Enter the Enlightenment!

Today, schools teach that the Enlightenment was when smart guys threw off the shackles of religion and superstition, and let Reason illuminate mankind’s affairs. This was not so. Kepler, a skeptic about church laws that persecuted Copernicus, was nevertheless a believer, a bit of a Christian mystic. He devoted himself to seeing how mathematics and science proved God’s existence. The same with Isaac Newton. And, on the continent at the time, the musical scientist, Bach. After him, Haydn and Mozart, profound Christians… and Beethoven, whose ego was astride everything he surveyed, except Christianity: he was a humble believer.

Here, some of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” that Beethoven chose for the chorus to sing in his revolutionary Ninth Symphony. Take joy from the words!

And – to drive home my modest points in full blast-furnace fashion – try to click on this video clip. This performance is by a Japanese ensemble in an outdoor stadium. Not counting the audience, you will see 10,000 singers and musicians joining, in German, in a scale the composer would have relished, to transmit Beethoven’s genius… Schiller’s thoughts… and powerful reminders of the Joy of the Lord.

Do you fall down, you millions? Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek Him above the starry canopy, Above the stars He must live.

Joy is the name of the strong spring In eternal nature.
Joy, joy drives the wheels In the great clock of worlds.

Escape the tyrants’ chains, Generosity also to the villain,
Hope upon the deathbeds, Mercy from the high court!
The dead, too, shall live!

Brothers, drink and chime in, All sinners shall be forgiven,
And hell shall be no more.

A serene departing hour! Sweet sleep in the shroud!
Brothers—a mild sentence From the final judge!

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Click: Ode to Joy

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NOTE: WordPress, through whom we create and format the MondayMinistry blog, recently informed me that we have passed the 200th message mark with them; previously MMMM was a weekly e-mail blast for subscribers. But the “anniversary” marks the milestone of when our webmaster Norm Carlevato came aboard. He receives the raw manuscript each week, pours it into the right formats, attends to the details of links and subscribers… all as a volunteer. So are we all — this is a ministry — but Norm routinely goes Above and Beyond in this work, amidst his other activities and large family. I am profoundly grateful for his service and his friendship. We are approaching, after four years, 70,000 hits. Someone is watching! And Norm helps it happen.

No Stranger To the Rain

1-20-14

Seventeen years ago (on the next Valentine Day, ironically) my wife Nancy received her heart transplant. For the subsequent six years, until we moved to California, our family conducted a hospital ministry at Temple University in Philadelphia. We visited weekly, at least, conducting services, praying with patients and their families, and ministering as we could, even to staff.

There were breakthroughs, some healings, conversions to Christianity, and, as you can imagine, uncountable emotional moments.

Our services invariably were comprised of the most random assortment of people… as random as the population is vulnerable to heart disease. Protestants and Catholics happily sat side-by-side. Hispanics and Asians who sometime barely understood the rest of us would attend… and often prayed earnest words that we all somehow understood. Skeptics and Jews were among our most faithful attendees. Wives and children of those waiting for hearts… or widows and families of those patients who sadly slipped away while waiting, or after unsuccessful procedures. (Even our eclectic music provided surprises. Blacks usually liked Southern gospel, rural whites appreciated black spirituals. We had a Jewish couple who loved, just loved, old Christian hymns. Moved to tears.)

Pastors would ask Nancy how she, untrained as a speaker or exegete – and terminally shy, otherwise – could face the questions, the crises, the cries and sobs: “Why?” WHY?

Our only answers were consistent with scripture. There is sin in the world, and disease; nobody is immune. The Bible does not promise that we will be free of trouble; just that God will be with us through troubles, sometimes healing bodies, sometimes healing spirits. And the best answer to the burning questions “Why? Why me?” – “I don’t know.”

This answer is not a counselor’s sign of surrender; not a loss of wisdom. Rather it is the wisest course any of us have through many of life’s crises. We cause some of our own problems; and the devil can bring things upon us. But. The mark of a mature Christian is not to load all the Bible verses we can into the knapsack, and whip out the best ones at the best moments. No: it is to admit that we need God. To call upon HIS wisdom. To pray without ceasing. God forbid we ever have the attitude of “OK, God. Take a break. I’ll carry it from here!”

In fact, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That is in Psalm 111:10.

It is a familiar verse despite its spotty application in many of our lives. There were other verses, in our hospital services, that patients and their families would often quote, to pass wisdom along, or to explain their brand of spiritual comfort-food.

“God will never give us more than we can handle.” “Into each life a little rain must fall.” “God helps those who help themselves.” These words are familiar to many of us. But would you fail a pop quiz about in which books of the Bible they can be found? The maxim about rain was written by the poet Longfellow; the last saying was written by Benjamin Franklin.

God gives us burdens mercifully short of our breaking-points? Probably a corruption of I Corinthians 10:13, about God not tempting us beyond our powers to resist.

This is an important point. God surely DOES allow things, and might even “give” us things, that are more than we can handle. Why should we kid ourselves? It is an empty sort of security to think that this is not so. It is a false conception of God to think that a loving God would not allow such things. Tough to deal with, but true.

Why else would we rely on Him? How can we seek His face otherwise? What would be the purpose of a Spirit-led life? Who would we go to, otherwise, in times of trouble? When we are in pain – emotional, spiritual, not only physical – what instincts should be automatic? Where can we go, but to the Lord? As Andrae Crouch wrote in his great song “Through It All,”

If I’d never had a problem,
I wouldn’t know God could solve them,
I’d never know what faith in God could do.

Nancy used to say that she would not choose to go through again everything she endured… but she wouldn’t trade the journey for anything. Behind those words was a saint who also received a kidney transplant, had diabetes, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, eye problems, amputations, dialysis, and more.

January 21 is the one-year anniversary of her death. The testimony of a believer whose faith remained strong, and kept looking forward, and trusting even when she didn’t understand, is encouraging still. It was the path of a Christian.

There are other sayings that come to mind, that we always hear. Vince Gill, the singer-songwriter, properly dismissed a discussion about “filling someone’s shoes” by just declaring that sometimes they don’t make a certain kind of shoe anymore. Which mirrors another proper definition: “Some people cannot be replaced. They can only be succeeded.” There is no shame or regret in that.

The same Vince Gill wrote a song when his brother died. “Go Rest High” has become an anthem in churches and the country-music world, at funerals and memorials. His brother had a difficult life, and the words of the song, with a change of tense or nuance, could apply to Nancy and other faithful “Overcomers.”

I know your life on earth was troubled,
And only you could know the pain.
You weren’t afraid to face the devil;
You were no stranger to the rain.

Oh, how we cried the day you left us.
We gathered ‘round your bed to grieve.
I wish I could see the angels’ faces
When they heard your sweet voice sing.

+ + +

This clip of Vince Gill’s classic song was performed at the memorial service of George Jones. Vince shows his emotions during the song – as he frequently still does, and can anyone who watches it do otherwise? – and is assisted by the great Patty Loveless.

Click: Go Rest High

Too Much Stuff

1-13-14

The recent comments about capitalism and socialism by Pope Francis – although he never used the terms – probably excited more interest than the many other topics of his lengthy Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. A new pope, especially history’s first from south of the Equator and from the Western hemisphere, will have theologians and the laity alike looking for tea leaves to read.

A religious leader’s predictable censure of materialism was heightened by sharp condemnation of secularism and relativism in today’s world. But he went steps further, with several and specific denunciations of capitalism, free-market finances, and even “trickle-down” economics by name. Some commentators and apologists (that is, those who advance Christian apologetics) have claimed that selected passages were taken out of context, that the Pope condemned socialism and collectivism elsewhere with equal reproach.

In fact this is not the case. His harshest words for totalitarian governments were directed against persecution of Christians, and relatively few words of that. Little about suppression of rights and basic liberties around the world, even in some countries where the Catholic Church predominates. As a non-Catholic and as a basic free-marketeer (but not a capitalist, a distinction I make because prefixes like “corporate-” and “crony-” too often are endemic these days), I come neither to bury nor praise Francis, but to consider his comments about wealth. It would do us all well.

In Point 54, Francis wrote: “…some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the… workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.” From this, not only capitalists but statisticians can dissent. While the poor we still have with us, more souls have been lifted from poverty by the prescriptions of Adam Smith than any other system: surely more than have benefited from Karl Marx.

Later, in Point 56, he continued: “[Economic] imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, [some people] reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”

I suggest that Francis confine his Absolutes to the areas of morality and theology. There are no countries in the world, and virtually no political economists, who advocate “absolute autonomy” of the marketplace or “any form of control.” Some ideologies might pay lip service to such theories, but in reality even the most extreme libertarians compromise on myriad points.

So we have the Pope’s words as one of our culture’s periodic talking-points. My own talking point, just stated, is that the lack of balance he displayed about world economics does not mean that the critiques on the heavier side of his scale are not correct.

It is accurate, as he wrote, that materialism has tended to create a “globalization of indifference” where the prosperous are “incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them.” I don’t think the logical extension of this observation – whose remedies are, after all, as old as any commands in scripture – is to advocate governments and economic systems that co-opt Christian charity. Can we not let free people grow their prosperity freely, and governments cease micro-managing… which has evolved to include managing the work of churches and the charitable work of individuals? Not to mention having become everyone’s Conscience Police and Compassion Monitors?

In the meantime, we do have a moral crisis, not just an economic crisis, in the United States. We rot from within because of false values, overweening materialism, and deadened consciences. Pope Francis can stand behind me, no one ahead of me, in this line of criticism. The problem is as old as human nature, and is not capitalism per se – money — but, as the Bible specifies, the LOVE of money. It is the root of all evil. It is difficult not to notice, by the way, that despite press-agentry about the Pope’s decision to live in less opulent sleeping quarters, and wear simpler vestments, that the jewel-encrusted aspects of the Vatican – thrones, crowns, rings – contradict his words. He is neither the first pope nor the first human being to hunt for sawdust in the eyes of others:

“And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye” (Jesus quoted in Matt. 7: 3-5 NLT).

But we all are awash in contradictions, and we seldom feel the need to set the course straight. Francis made some wise observations. I am praying that he is saving fusillades against totalitarian governments and repressive “planned economies” for a future encyclical. For surely, in this world there are crises of hearts and minds, not only stomachs. In the meantime, there are places to look to start solving this crisis from which we all may be infected. We look to moral leaders; we look to the Bible.

And we can look around us. Even comedians and singers, wise in their way, have characterized our moral predicament in simple terms: Do we just have too much stuff?

+ + +

The comedian George Carlin, not exactly a Prophet Jeremiah, nevertheless made some sensible observations about “stuff” in a famous routine. Recently the singer Delbert McClinton, with Lyle Lovett and John Prine, put the observation to music. Zeppo’s slideshow is money… er, classic. When opening the link, if prompted to click “YouTube,” do so to open the vid.

Click: Too Much Stuff

And Now You Know the Rest of The Story

1-12-14

… This was the name of one of Paul Harvey’s famous radio features. We have just passed through, or survived, Christmas and New Years, times when we are obliged to deal with, if not actually think about, the concepts of God-with-Us and the New Year as a New Beginning. Thank goodness THAT’s all past us, eh?

Rather, we enter the season when the dust settles and we CAN think about these things. We should not forget them. Who was this Jesus… who IS this Jesus? And, do we need new beginnings? … Well, who doesn’t?

Jesus’s profession, we presume, was that of carpenter, like His earthly father. Of course, He was a carpenter who also mended broken bodies; but that ministry came after He was anointed by the Holy Spirit. No, his profession was carpenter, but His job was assigned from the day of His birth… indeed, from the foundation of the world: to die. For us. To assume upon his shoulders and brow the sins we all have committed, to receive the punishment we all deserve for rebellion against God.

Who was this Jesus? How did people know Him?

Did He have a halo, like in ancient paintings? No, He did not. He did not stand out from the crowd.

When Judas betrayed Him to Roman soldiers, the traitorous Apostle had to kiss Him, so He could be identified from among a small group of men.

There are times when “He passed out from them…” withdrawing from opponents, almost unnoticed. When He was a boy and separated from Mary in the marketplace streets, her descriptions of Him did not resonate with pedestrians. When He was discovered in the temple, it was the boy’s wise teaching, not His appearance, that indicated He was Jesus the Christ. For His whole earthly life, it was who Jesus was, not how He looked, that marked Him as the Holy One.

And with us, it is what’s in our hearts, more than our outward appearances or even actions, that God cherishes.

“Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground,” the prophet Isaiah described Jesus 700 years before He was born.

“He has no form or comeliness, and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

“He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken.

“And they made His grave with the wicked – but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth.

“Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days… By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. … He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
The Christmas season is over. And now you know the rest of the story.

+ + +

Click: Go Ask

Now You Know the Rest of The Story

1-6-14

…This was the name of one of Paul Harvey’s famous radio features. We have just passed through, or survived, Christmas and New Years, times when we are obliged to deal with, if not actually think about, the concepts of God-with-Us and the New Year as a New Beginning. Thank goodness THAT’s all past us, eh?

Rather, we enter the season when the dust settles and we CAN think about these things. We should not forget them. Who was this Jesus… who IS this Jesus? And, do we need new beginnings? … Well, who doesn’t?

Jesus’s profession, we presume, was that of carpenter, like that of His earthly father. Of course, He was a carpenter who also mended broken bodies; but that ministry came after He was anointed by the Holy Spirit. No, his profession was carpenter, but His job was assigned from the day of His birth… indeed, from the foundation of the world: to die. For us. To assume upon his shoulders and brow the sins we all have committed, to receive the punishment we all deserve for rebellion against God.

Who was this Jesus? How did people know Him?

Did He have a halo, like in ancient paintings? No, He did not. He did not stand out from the crowd.

When Judas betrayed Him to Roman soldiers, the traitorous Apostle had to kiss Him, so He could be identified from among a small group of men.

There are times when “He passed out from them…” withdrawing from opponents, almost unnoticed. When He was a boy and separated from Mary in the marketplace streets, her descriptions of Him did not resonate with pedestrians. When He was discovered in the temple, it was the boy’s wise teaching, not His appearance, that indicated He was Jesus the Christ. For His whole earthly life, it was who Jesus was, not how He looked, that marked Him as the Holy One.

And with us, it is what’s in our hearts, more than our outward appearances or even actions, that God cherishes.

“Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground,” the prophet Isaiah described Jesus 700 years before He was born.

“He has no form or comeliness, and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

“He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken.

“And they made His grave with the wicked – but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth.

“Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days… By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. … He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

The Christmas season is over. And now you know the rest of the story.
+ + +

Click: Go Ask

Out With the Old, In With the Old

12-30-13

When I have visited Bologna through the years, mostly to attend the International Children’s Book Fair, I stayed at an ancient villa outside the city. Its site went back to pre-Christian Roman days; it is named “Torre di Iano” – Tower (or castle or fortress) of Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings; of transitions; of endings and commencements. The grounds were beautiful, patrolled, believe it or not, by peacocks. The twenty-somethings who bought the decaying structure restored it to a comfortable hotel and restaurant status one room at a time, one floor tile at a time.

Iano. Jano. Janus – the two-faced god invented by the Romans, looking backward and forward. It is where we get the name for the month January, representing the year ending and the year beginning.

Thank God (not Jupiter) that we have a Lord who is never two-faced! He is, on the contrary, the fullness of creation, the Alpha and the Omega – who is, the Bible tells us, “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” He is constant, reliable, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Remember this on New Year’s Eve, through your New Year’s resolutions, whether (or how soon) you break them. We mortals always do.

In fact the new calendar gives us reason to think of Jesus anew – not because He takes to Himself a new or changing set of characteristics… but because He doesn’t. This is a remarkable attribute. A God who is faithful even when we are not. A God who is invariable. A God who is an ever-present refuge in times of trouble. A God who is just but merciful, and whose promises are forever.

… a God who doesn’t break HIS resolutions, even when, as surely we will, we try and fail, try and fail ourselves. A one-faced God, whom we see through Jesus, the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”

Happy new year!

+ + +

The composer Vep Ellis wrote a gospel song with the same title as a beloved ancient hymn, that is no less beloved or impactful. “The Love of God” speaks to the Lord’s never-changing faithfulness and His eternal worthiness as an object of our devotion. The Gaither Vocal Band sings:

Click: The Love of God

Christmas Without Presents

12-23-13

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “How many people observe Christ’s birthday! How few observe his precepts! O! ’tis easier to keep holidays than commandments.” The man who filled his annual almanacs with such wisdom, under the name of Poor Richard Saunders, was never closer to the truth.

Franklin had no crystal ball, looking ahead to the “commercialization” of Christmas that we all decry as we rush around, finishing our shopping lists. Rather he made an observation on human nature. How do we break our culture’s cycle of spending-orgies every year … or every 12 months since the last holiday of the Religio-Industrial Complex calendar? My children had an idea this year that we all agree to forego presents, and focus on the Savior’s birth.

My son went a step further, proposing an idea for those in the family who already bought some presents (since every time the resolution has been agreed to in years past, it routinely has been broken by us all). His idea was that we donate those gifts to needy families, Toys for Tots, or other worthy, hurting families. In his city, people can “adopt” a family whose father or mother is with the military, serving overseas; and address their diverse needs.

Consider trying this. The blessings you bestow are appreciated, of course, but the blessings you receive by such acts cannot be measured.

An ancient scriptural word for Love was translated as Charity, through the centuries acquiring a meaning quite separate from its origin. Unfortunately. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” He was not sighing in defeat. It is part of God’s plan for us that we cultivate and maintain the charitable impulse: loving strangers, because they are God’s children, and binding their physical, economic, spiritual wounds.

As contemporary governments usurp the function of individual consciences and organized churches by taxing, deciding, and coercing in the name of “caring,” we suffer the larger assault on God’s prerogatives as well as our own.

The scurrying around malls, and now computer screens, continues unabated, even in the face of economic slowdowns. “Oh, everyone already knows the Christmas story,” some may say. Is that so? It might be, but some people need to be reminded that the entire Christmas story began more than 700 years before the Manger Scene. Isaiah and other prophets foretold of the Savior’s birth, with details, players, facts, places, signs in the skies and acts of friends and enemies, in such a cascade of confirmations that make a mockery of the word “coincidence.” Indeed, even the first chapters of the Book of Genesis contain specific prophecies of the Messiah Jesus.

We can always gain new insights from familiar stories. But we can confront startling truths that have eluded us, too. Messiah. Long prophesied. Fulfilled in the flesh. Growing up to understand the world, to share our temptations, to take our deserved punishments upon Himself. We, whom He didn’t know, in the world’s sense. Because we are poor in spirit and in need of His gifts.

… welcome back to the larger meaning of giving at Christmastime. May we be cleansed of corruption, of worldly agendas and false values, no matter how well-intentioned, and “be” Jesus Christ to some really needy, or ailing, or to the poor; or lonely people, this season. As Franklin suggested, do not merely observe the holiday, but live it.

+ + +

Benjamin Franklin might, just might, have foreseen shopping malls, but one wonders if he would have endorsed the frenzy. Today, however, many shopping malls are being redeemed. By “flash mobs”! Maybe you have seen this phenomenon, or taken part in one. Journey of Faith perform
at the South Bay Galleria, Redondo Beach CA. Enjoy. Be touched:

Click: Go Tell It In the Malls!

You Can’t Lose a Friend You Never Had

12-16-13

The title of this essay is a double negative of sorts, but a decent aphorism. Its truth would be measured in doses of wisdom and experience and maybe a few bruises and scars: life. It is from the gaggle of family advice we tell children: “This hurts me more than it does you,” and “Some day this will all make sense.”

Like many life-lessons – and all aphorisms – we can harvest wisdom from turning the sayings around, maybe even discovering greater truths. At least fresher truths, which become attractive portals. I have often thought about the locutions of such life principles. Not catchy phrases, but succinct truths.

For instance, anent friendship, how often do we realize – how often do we, in fact, cherish – that we cannot know true friendship until we become a friend. Maybe, more so, until we NEED a friend.

Similarly, we cannot fully know forgiveness until we receive forgiveness… but the biblical principle is that we must forgive in order to be forgiven. To be conscious of the need to be forgiven, and to savor the feeling of truly being forgiven.

Again, the next step, for our meditation, is that we cannot know the joy of salvation without having sinned. A common saying in churches these days is, “To get a blessing, be a blessing.” These sayings are true, but we have to be careful to see them as principles, not “Christian karma.” There is nothing wrong with being mechanistic if it is spiritual – remember, after all, the Latin phrase “Deus ex machina,” which, classroom drama lessons aside, means “the way God works.”

The irony in that truth about salvation should make us stop and think, and respect, this life we lead under God’s grace. Is it good that we sin? Of course not. Is it God’s will? God forbid. But He has provided pathways for us, and answers to life’s problems. “Where sin abounds, there grace abounds more” (Romans 5:20).

Let us remind ourselves of partially obscured principles of the kingdom that we see through a glass darkly. We are more special than the angels, and among the reasons is the fact that angels can never know the joy of salvation. They are never able to sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” The bonds of sin seem different to us, less oppressive, when we consider this.

We can gnash our teeth when we feel like victims of life’s circumstances. But how sweet when we hold to that thread of hope, maintaining by God’s grace a glimmer of faith, and deliverance comes. To venture back to concise aphorisms, we cannot know answers unless we cry out with questions. There is no progress until you actually take that pesky first step.

I wrote above that we might never know real friendship until we need a friend. Self-evident? Not always. And we need to recognize that God sometimes works through circumstances (my source: um, the entire Bible, and the lives of uncountable believers through history). He also works through unlikely channels – that is called Grace. And He works through sometimes unlikely persons – they are called Friends.

“God works in mysterious ways”? His ways are not all that mysterious. We just don’t see them clearly enough, or often enough.

+ + +

The trio Selah provides a musical illustration to these thoughts, melding two time-honored hymns of the church… as only they can.

Click: Be Still My Soul/ Jesus Loves Me

How Can They Believe…?

12-9-13

If you had a child playing at the edge of an ever-widening sinkhole – and sinkholes lately have been in the news, including ones that swallowed people as well as houses – you would call that child to move back. If your friend were eating something poisonous without realizing the dangers, you would advise that friend of the fact. We do the same, some of us, with people, even strangers, who smoke. “Intervention” today increasingly is employed on behalf of people with drinking problems.

Followers of Christ, who subscribe to the beliefs that all of us make mistakes and are sinful at heart; that therefore a wide gulf separates us from a Holy God; that this God nevertheless desires eternal fellowship with us and offers forgiveness and salvation; and that “accepting” Jesus – believing in our hearts and confessing with our words – these Christians cannot do anything else than have the same regard for other people’s souls as we do their health and comfort.

How often do contemporary Christians fit that last puzzle-piece in place?

Failing this, we condemn ourselves; and we are implicit in sending others to the cold darkness of eternity, separation from God. How often do we avoid sharing even the smallest portion of Jesus with someone because we might “offend them”? Hurt their feelings? “Hey buddy, don’t smoke in your apartment, but I don’t care if you go to hell.”

It’s not always comfortable, but neither was that splintery cross. Living in a multimedia culture makes it easy to assume everyone thinks like we do, or has access to the same facts that we process. Not so. When the Apostle Paul arrived in Ephesus, word-of-mouth about the Savior had already led to the establishment of several Christian communities. But not every word had been shared by every mouth:

“…he reached Ephesus, on the coast, where he found several believers. ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ he asked them. ‘No,’ they replied, ‘we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ ‘Then what baptism did you experience?’ he asked. And they replied, ‘The baptism of John.’ Paul said, ‘John’s baptism called for repentance from sin. But John himself told the people to believe in the one who would come later, meaning Jesus.’ As soon as they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:1-6, NLT).

Paul wrote letters to local churches and church leaders, sharing the good news, and answering questions. These letters comprise the majority of the New Testament. We shared last week how papyrus letters from a generation or two after Paul are extant. Before Christ’s time, spiritual news and God’s words were shared by Torah scrolls, inscriptions, sacred texts. After him we have the successive march of letters, manuscripts, tapestries and stained-glass picture stories, parchment books, printed books, mass-production, tracts, evangelistic crusades, recordings, radio, short-wave, television, and the internet.

The SHARING of the good news is central to the good news itself. “Go into all the world…” Jesus said, commissioning His disciples. Romans 10:14-15 argues: “How can they call on Him to save them unless they believe in Him? And how can they believe in Him if they have never heard about Him? And how can they hear about Him unless someone tells them?  And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, ‘How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!’ (NLT) Like much of the Book of Romans, this is like an advocate summarizing his case. How can they hear about Jesus unless someone tells them?

Right about in the middle of humankind’s list of ways to share the good news – not in a timeline, but in the numbers of methods and technologies – is the radio. After its invention it was available to almost every community on the earth. And much of its message, especially today on short-wave broadcasts, is Christian. I went to Sunday school as a child, but it was preachers on my AM transistor radio from whom I really heard the first hard (and sweet) truths of the Gospel; and came face-to-face with decisions to make, or avoid, regarding Jesus Christ.

Albert E. Brumley was an American gospel songwriter of the past century. He wrote more than 800 sermons-in-song, many of which are favorites today in churches, hymnbooks, and recordings. Among them are “I’ll Fly Away,” “If We Never Meet Again (This Side of Heaven),” “I’ll Meet You In The Morning,” “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” “I’d Rather Be An Old Time Christian,” and “Rank Strangers to Me.”

He told a story about another of his classics… and the role of radio in spreading the gospel:

“I wrote ‘Turn Your Radio On’ in 1937, and it was published in 1938. At this time radio was relatively new to the rural people, especially gospel music programs. I had become alert to the necessity of creating song titles, themes, and plots, and frequently people would call me and say, ‘Turn your radio on, Albert, they’re singing one of your songs on such-and-such a station.’ It finally dawned on me to use… ‘Turn your radio on’ as a theme for a religious… song.”

Like the poor, radio we will always have with us. In the words of the song, “turn your radio on and listen to the music in the air; Turn your radio on and heaven’s glory share…”

Are you tuned in… to what God is saying to you? Don’t touch that dial! You can broadcast (as it were) a brief public-service announcement, or a personal message, every once in a while yourself.

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Many folks’ favorite version of Brumley’s classic song is by the great Ray Stevens. Fun, upbeat, infectious… meaningful. Here he sings at the piano, surrounded by friends who sing along, as you might, yourself.

Click: Turn Your Radio On

Will the Bible Survive?

12-2-13

There is an exhibition quietly and modestly making its way across the United States that is one of the most astonishing displays I have ever witnessed. I choose my words carefully – actually, an unbreakable habit of mine, even on good days – but I have been to America’s great museums, as well those of the world, including the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Uffizi, down to treasure-filled Halls of Fame. But currently (until Feb 1) housed in an otherwise ordinary former retail space in a neighborhood of Colorado Springs, is “Passages: The Experience.”

I think the weak link in their chain might be “branding,” since it is impossible to guess the exhibition’s theme from its title. And this is counter-intuitive, since the person behind this exhibition is one of America’s great marketers: Steve Green. The President of Hobby Lobby, Steve recently has been the focus of news – and prayers – because of his determination to resist the government’s ObamaCare guidelines to provide and pay 100 per cent of abortifacients , contraceptives, and abortion procedures for his employees. He and the Green family have sacrificed much to fight this battle, which has this week been accepted by the Supreme Court for a hearing.

“Passages” is an exhibition of Steve Green’s substantial collection of Bibles, illuminated manuscripts, ancient scrolls, biblical relics, and artifacts of the faithful. After Colorado Springs
( http://www.explorepassages.com ) the exhibition will continue its tour to other cities, ultimately top reside permanently in Washington DC.

pogos pict
Papyrus 39

After the Colorado Christian Writers Conference in May, my friend Diane Obbema read about the exhibition and suggested we visit. It was a great day of my life. First, we were impressed by the sheer scope. An iPod audio guide is eight hours long, for visitors who visit every display case and presentation. Cases, captions, actors and robotics, videos and interactive stations. Portions are designed for younger visitors. History comes alive. You see a Gutenberg press, you can pull one’s own prints.

More than that is the impressive display of scarce, often one-of-a-kind, artifacts. The second-largest private collection of Dead Sea Scrolls. Many cuneiform tablets; illuminated manuscripts; the world’s largest collection of vintage Jewish scrolls and ancient Torahs. Wycliffe’s likely Middle-English translation of the New Testament; the majority of the rare Gutenberg Bible; many of the famous early printed Bibles, like the Geneva Bible and the first King James Version. The exhibition’s surprises are… very surprising, and inspiring to see: a letter Martin Luther wrote night before his trial in Worms, half will and testament of the presumed martyr, half a rehearsal of his defiant “Here I Stand’ statement. In another display case, the manuscript copy of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Amazing.

Martin Luther letter
Martin Luther’s Will

This is the story of Christendom – the Church through the ages, managing to survive and spreading gloriously.

There is an overarching story beyond the gospel story itself, yet usually missed by most of us. Often it is willful ignorance or rejection. My mother-in-law was one of myriad, in this land of many churches, who fundamentally doubted the Bible’s authenticity or reliability. “It was written by men,” its first putative offense, and she also indicted its authorship “by many people, over many places, across many years, and through many translations.”

A slippery slope it is, of course, to dismiss the Bible as a collection of fables, or purloined wisdom, or irrelevant stories and lies. And, at first glance in the presence of the Green Family’s collection, the sheer variety of translations and versions can seduce the credulity of an average believer.

But none of us should be average believers! We are indwelt by the Holy Ghost, the same Spirit of the Living God who inspired – literally, “breathed life” into – these scriptures. “The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). It has advanced despite hideous persecution. It has survived, sometimes, in remote outposts where Christianity was anathema and believers were hounded. It has also at times triumphed, in the worldly sense… inviting corruption and diluting its tenets.

Yes, many men wrote the first lines; and many were there who copied, and translated, and transliterated, and remembered verses, and strove to record the words of Christ and the testimony of apostles and martyrs, who saved the songs of poets, the wisdom of the anointed, and the letters of evangelists. When men first sought to put the Words of God into the languages of the people, they were, for hundreds of years, pursued, humiliated, tortured, and killed for so doing. Yet more than a thousand tongues now have Bibles in their own languages.

… are these prescriptions for error and mistakes, prejudices and bias, carelessness and sloppiness; for local churches and leaders with tempting agendas, to bring distortion? Would it not be logical – with all the people, places, and possibilities over the years represented in the display cases of “Passages” – that, instead of one True Bible of thousands of translations and versions, that there be thousands of competing Bibles?

Yet discrepancies are a tiny fraction, seldom close to any major theological or historical point, and always quickly reconciled. To me, THIS is the evidence of the authority, even inerrancy, of scripture. Tried, tested, true: a living document that is not malleable to suit every generation’s distractions. No: living, to be a vital source of hope, truth, and salvation; a reality to every one in every time and every place.

The texts studied in Northern Africa, in the Fourth Century, say; or the lessons taught in Asia Minor or to the heathen in northern Europe at the same early times; or the sermon themes in faraway Ireland – all are virtually identical to the words of the Bibles we have in our homes today. About what other books can this be said?

To visit “Passages” is inspiring. Yet when Diane and I left the “Experience,” I could not help but see the physical evidence of devotion, scholarship, sacrifice, martyrdom, and enterprise of uncountable saints through the millennia… and not feel a chill of caution.

Is America today capable of such fidelity to the Word of God? Does Western civilization have the loyalty to Christianity that it once did at Saragossa and at the Gates of Vienna? Right now, no.

The Word of God will survive always: axiomatic for the Eternal Truth. But if the Church of Christ dies in what is left of Western Civilization, it ultimately will be due not to persecution by its enemies, but neglect by its adherents.

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For those who cannot visit the “Passages” exhibition, or until its goal of a permanent home in the nation’s capital, books and other materials are available from the organizers: https://store.explorepassages.com

I have chosen a beautiful performance in a beautiful setting of Mozart’s beautiful “Laudate Dominum.” The text is the entire Psalms 117, shortest in the Bible, followed by the doxology. The music, if I might presume to characterize it so, is by the Holy Spirit, received and passed to us by Mozart. One of his supernal masterworks. The singer is the beautiful – yes, beauty abounds – Katherine Jenkins. The captions are the Latin text and Czech. Here is the English:

Praise the Lord, all ye peoples,
Praise Him, all ye peoples.
For his loving kindness
Has been bestowed upon us,
And the truth of the Lord endures for eternity.

Glory to the Father, Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen.

Click: Laudate Dominum

Let’s Try a ‘You’re Welcome’ Day

11-25-13

There has been increasing controversy in America about stores that stay open, or lengthen their hours of operation, on Thanksgiving Day. For my part, I am opposed to ever more obeisance to commercialism; and it is not an matter of families, employees in particular, being together around the turkey and such, important enough to be sure. But by focusing on families, who should cherish their times together all the time, and turkeys, then we are on the slippery slope of Hallmarking America (I’d be afraid that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day would be next to be enshrined) (that is, instead of giving thanks to the Lord.)

It is altogether fitting and proper that we recall the words of Abraham Lincoln, who responded to a tradition, informal, of Days of Thanks, and officially proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day as a national day of observance. His words had meaning – and, significantly, give lie to the canard that he was not a man of faith. Year by year, through his presidency, Lincoln infused conversations, letters, and official documents with references to the God of the Bible, His mercies and His judgments.

Read from his second proclamation (His secretary, John Hay, reported that William Seward was author of the first):

“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”

If this is formal, or seems obligatory for him to have proclaimed – which it was not – consider his Proclamation earlier in 1863, appointing a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer:

“It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord. …

“But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.  Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”

Yes, a president of the United States wrote such words. More has changed than clichés and phrases we exchange in chats. In fact, does our understanding of the need to thank God need a reassessment too? Maybe a hit of the Reset button?

Let’s see it this way: Of course we should thank God, in many ways and all the time, for the uncountable blessings He bestows. But are THANKS all that we can raise? In a real sense, God’s gift of salvation, sacrificing His Son so that we might be free of sin’s guilt, is God’s Thank You to us.

“God’s Thank You to us?” Can that make sense? Yes, the Bible tells us that God so loved the world… and that, significantly, Christ died for us WHILE WE WERE YET SINNERS (Romans 5:8). To me, that sounds like God saying “You’re Welcome” before we even say “Thank You”… but it is what He has done.  

The mysterious ways of God are always like this. He challenges us, yet He knows us. We have free will, yet He holds the future. We seek Him, yet we can know Him. His yoke is easy, and His burden light. We are in the world, but not of the world. St Augustine was not the first nor the last, but maybe history’s most contemplative believer, to gather these apparent contradictions and see them as evidence, not of a capricious and confusing God, but a God who loves us in myriad ways and always meets us where we are, and where we need Him.

All important, as I say, but they are not the meanings of Abraham Lincoln’s words… or our hearts’ duties. We should remember Lincoln: people should set themselves apart; pray; give thanks, give thanks, give thanks. Let the stores close for a day… for the proper reasons.

Three things should be open in America on Thanksgiving Day: open hearts. open Bibles, and open soup kitchens. No one could complain of having nothing to do, or no communications, or no one to be with.

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Yet another aspect, but all part of the mystical whole, is expressed in the classic Ray Boltz song, “Thank you.” Spend a moment with it sometime this week, and see its impactful images.

Click: Thank You

The Profound Promise of Tadpoles and Caterpillars

11-18-13

The late Malcolm Muggeridge was an iconic figure in British life and English letters. An essayist and critic, soldier and spy, journalist and satirist – he served as editor of Punch, the venerable humor magazine – he was, until his death at age 87 (1990) a thinker who was forever interested, and always interesting. He walked a path that similar intellectuals walked: an early interest in Socialism or Communism (his wife’s aunt was Beatrice Webb, the famous Fabian Socialist), then a roughly simultaneous conversion to conservatism and Christianity.

Those others include G. K. Chesterton; C. S. Lewis; Hilaire Belloc; in America, Whittaker Chambers – literary men whose early views were either Marxist or atheist or both (Lewis’ friend J. R. R. Tolkien wound up his journey as a profound Christian, but did not commence from a radical origin). Like these persuasive apologists, Muggeridge not only came to understand the gospel’s relevance to the contemporary world, but he was an extraordinarily gifted apostle, a missionary to his own people.

I recently came across Muggeridge’s thoughts inspired by, of all things, a caterpillar: “Quite often, waking up in the night as the old do, and feeling… like a butterfly released from its chrysalis stage and ready to fly away. Are caterpillars told of their impending resurrection? How in dying they will be transformed from poor earth-crawlers into creatures of the air, with exquisitely painted wings? If told, do they believe it? Is it conceivable to them that so constricted an existence as theirs should burgeon into so gay and lightsome a one as a butterfly’s? I imagine the wise old caterpillars shaking their heads – no, it can’t be; it’s a fantasy, self-deception, a dream.”

These are reflections not so much on the miracles of resurrection and of new life in Eternity – or, indeed, new life on earth after accepting Jesus – but upon humankind’s congenital disinclination to accept supernatural gifts of God. Deliverance? Healing? Forgiveness? Salvation? Eternal life with God? Available to ME? “No, it can’t be; it’s a fantasy, self-deception, a dream.”

At another time, perhaps inspired by the same encounter with a caterpillar, Muggeridge was challenged by his friend William F Buckley, on the latter’s television program “Firing Line,” to invent a parable whose meaning was unambiguous.

“I was actually watching a caterpillar in the path of my garden, a furry caterpillar. And I thought to myself: Now, supposing the caterpillars have an annual meeting, the local society of caterpillars. And my caterpillar, an older caterpillar, addressing them, says: ‘You know, it’s an extraordinary thing, but we are all going to be butterflies.’

“‘Okay,’ the caterpillars say. ‘You poor fool, you are just like an old man who is frightened of dying, you’re inventing something to comfort yourself.’ [But] these are all the things that people say to me when I say I am looking forward to dying because I know that I am going to go into eternity. You see?”

Buckley asked, “Please explain.”

“And so he – the caterpillar – abashed, draws back, but in a short time he is in his chrysalis, and, sure enough, he’s right. He extricates himself from the chrysalis, and he is no longer a creeper, which is what caterpillars are; he is flying away.”

As before, the lesson I derive is not – I should say not ONLY – that there is a New Life. Because we know that truth from God’s word; from examples of uncountable transformed sinners; and because some of us have experienced profound inner, spiritual changes. And in terms less prosaic but no less miraculous, we see examples of amorphous tadpoles become distinctive bullfrogs, and, indeed, creepy caterpillars become beautiful butterflies.

But in the parable of Muggeridge there are, once again, the other factors as old as humankind’s sentience: doubt, skepticism, ridicule, denial, and the old “scientific proofs” against the miracles of God Almighty. These attacks, and myriad attackers, can be daunting to a lonely believer.

Yet that scenario does not affect, at all, the Truth. Yes, it is the case that we can be (and, as Christians, are in the process of being) transformed from ugly and common, to precious and unique. The Truth does not rely on people’s opinions of it. Neither do God’s promises wait for the world’s vote on whether He will keep them.

Muggeridge’s predecessor C. S. Lewis wrote of the night his frankly intense devotion to atheism was transformed, melting (kicking and screaming at first?) to a realization of the Fact of God’s existence: “You must picture me alone in that room… night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. … I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most… reluctant convert in all England.”

And the rest of his days were glorious. The author of “Mere Christianity” and “The Screwtape Letters,” as Malcolm Muggeridge was to do a generation later – and as you and I may do this week – spread his new and colorful wings in splendor, affirming God’s transformative power… as a new creation in Christ.

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I have taken us back a century or so, visiting names of great converts, great exegetes. We can also visit the 1970s, when the Jesus Movement and other manifestations of “Born-Again” Christianity swept the nation. A children’s song that was savored by adults too – still, to today, as we all are a little grayer or (in the case of singer-songwriter Barry McGuire) balder. But still appreciating the joy, and the truth, of “Bull Frogs and Butterflies.” From a backstage interview in Australia recently:

Click: Bullfrogs and Butterflies

Victories vs. Veterans

11-11-13

I am glad that, through the years, the name “Armistice Day” was transformed to “Veterans’ Day.” There are legends that assert the choice to order the end of hostilities in World War I – 11:11 on 11-11 – was a public-relations conceit. Maybe so, but surely there were scattered soldiers – maybe hundreds or thousands? – who died as the artificially set clock ticked down. This, in conclusion of the “War to End All Wars,” the “Great War,” the war to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.”

World War I was none of these things, except “great” in terms of its numbers of participants, scope, and abject – not to say useless – horrors. And, as any examples would be superfluous to assert, neither the war nor its armistice, ended all wars. Indeed, its “peace treaty” rather sewed seeds of the next world war, as many commentators of the day cynically predicted. For neither the first nor last time in history, war’s victory was illusory; peace’s triumph was elusive.

As I write this, I am listening to Handel’s “Dettingen Te Deum” in the background. A church piece dedicated to a British battlefield victory on the banks of the Rhein, in Germany. It is, like much of Handel’s, wonderfully stirring music. Stick with me on the background of this battle so celebrated: it was part of the War of Austrian Succession, although Austrian troops were not in the battle. The British were commanded by King George II, the last time a British monarch led troops in battle. The Brits were allied with Hessians and Hanoverians, but not (looking farther northeast on a map of German states) Prussia, which was an enemy. The Brits arrived on the continent in the Netherlands, which was then ruled by Austria. The enemy was France. And all this was memorialized in a mass by the German composer living in England, Georg Friederich Handel.

Confusing enough, but not unique in history. Similarly convoluted was the array of grievances behind World War I – Czar Nicholas was cousin of the Kaiser, whose aunt was Queen Victoria. Under slightly altered circumstances, that war could have been conducted as a parking-lot fistfight of drunks after a wedding reception. And 22-million lives would have been spared.

Listening to the Te Deum also had me thinking about all the music and poetry and anniversaries dedicated to wars and battles; and how few dedicated to peace. Yes: there are some – the consecration of Armistice Day, and several poems and masses. Thanks to God (“Te Deum”) for victory presumes that peace will follow.

But I return to the new, and better, name, Veteran’s Day. Like precious few other holidays, the justification for this holiday should be universal, observed every day on the calendar. Wars come and wars go, but veterans we always have with us. I realize that is a facile aphorism whose elements can be switched, but I mean for us to remember that views about Rights and Justice, as in the War of Austrian Succession or the Great War, shift with the years, and are temporary passions.

But veterans – that is, the soldiers, seamen, and fliers who survive – are with us all. Whether they don uniforms willingly, or are conscripted, through history they have been the people who risk odds and defy death, performing amazing tasks. They wear those uniforms to love, more than hate: love their nations, their homelands, their families’ security, their children’s future.

For motivations as complex as the charts explaining the logic of some wartime leaders, veterans serve and sacrifice. They seldom complained or revolted. Traditionally they return to societies that try to forget they exist (that a splendid organization like Wounded Warriors had to be established, doing what the government should be doing for veterans, is a repugnant shame on America). Their selfless service to fellow-citizens is astounding, light-years beyond questions of “following orders.” Sacrifice does not demand attention or rewards, but the recipients of their service – that’s the rest of us – ought to honor veterans in any and all ways possible.

The seemingly discordant juncture of mercy and war is in fact not uncommon. One example is found with President Abraham Lincoln. I have been researching the life of his secretary John Hay for a possible novel, and learned this story: A Union soldier was recommended for severe punishment, perhaps death, for falling asleep on duty in a dangerous theater of war. His case reached Lincoln’s desk amidst a pile of other cases of other soldiers. All the others, however, carried appeals by important officials or “connected” figures, arguing for clemency in each case. A weary Lincoln asked Major Hay about the order at the bottom of the pile. “Has this man no ‘friends’?” His secretary said No. Lincoln said, “then I shall be his friend,” and issued a pardon.

Yes, there is military justice. But there is also heavenly pardon. In the 21st century, for good or ill, American soldiers fight fiercely, and they build communities too. They do war, but they do peace. They are remarkable creatures, doing remarkable things. May we, as a nation, be remarkable enough to deserve such servants.

In 2013, as on many Veterans’ Days of the past, I take flowers and a little flag, drive to a random cemetery, find a gravestone marked with a military legend or symbol, and honor that man or woman. Random representation. It seems more appropriate than seeking out a statue of a general on a horse. So many risked all… some gave all… we should honor all.

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I had the pleasure, when interviewing country music legends for a book on American roots music, to meet Bill Carlisle. Once part of a “brother act” with Cliff, Bill largely was known for novelty songs, and for jumping high on stage while singing and playing his guitar. But his best song, perhaps, is a solemn gospel favorite called “Gone Home.” Here it respectfully is sung by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Images of my father’s generation of servicemen, by that amazing video producer Beanscot.

Click: Gone Home

The Sins of the Lukewarm

11-4-13

Some years ago I was in the New York City studio of Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, and his wife Francoise Mouly, now Art Director of The New Yorker magazine. We have many convergent interests across the graphic arts and in cartooning history, as well as events and locations across two continents. But a cartooney light-bulb went off over their heads when they remembered a question they wanted to ask me. Or someone like me, a Christian who might be able to explain an advertisement they saw in a magazine.

The ad was in an underground magazine, placed by evident Christians; another cartoony image adorned T-shirts for sale, with the legend: “Jesus, don’t spit me out of your mouth!” It clearly was not meant to be disrespectful, yet seemed random and confusing. Could I explain it? They did have a Bible with the New Testament in their loft, and I showed them the passage from Jesus’ letter to John, known as the Book of Revelation: “To the… Church in Laodicea write: These are the words of… the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Some scholars think the letters to the seven early centers of the church addressed literal challenges the communities faced as pioneer Christians. Others believe the seven churches represent periods of future church history through which the larger corporate church would pass before the End of the Age. A prophecy; “dispensationalism.” No matter here, and no matter for Art and Francoise: the point we CANNOT miss is that God scorns the lukewarm.

God can deal with us as sinners, or as members of the Redeemed. It is impossible to believe that He cannot cope with lukewarm people, but He confesses (human-like) to frustration! If we cannot figure things out ourselves, God seems to be saying, even Christ Almighty feels like spitting you out!

The spiritual lessons – that is to say, virtual commands! – are clear. How often do believers whose souls have been saved, and lives redeemed, by the grace of God, the Creator of the universe… how often do we act like we are the beneficiaries of such unspeakably glorious gifts? (Answer: not often; not often enough!) If we hear, say, a good joke, we share it with friends; but how often do we share the Good News? Even when I was a child it amused me that, in parts of the liturgy that included the word “hallelujah,” our congregation would say it with all the enthusiasm of reading an actuarial report. Lukewarm.

My father used to answer my questions about this by saying that he didn’t cheer at sports events or New Year’s parties, either. And he didn’t. As the next generation German Lutheran, I suppose that I too am less demonstrative than the average citizen of this world or the next. But I generally allow, or invite, the emotions wrought by hard preaching and sweet assurances, to be manifested by heartfelt tears. Gentle precipitation, perhaps, rather than the calm or the storm; my brand of emotional response. We have our own responses, but never should they be lukewarm.

Further, I believe that Christ’s words for the church at Laodicea are properly applied, and perhaps even addressed in part, to aspects of life beyond our worship and our manifested faith.

With an apology, of sorts, to legalists who scorn exuberance in the arts, or the freedom of our talents, minds, expressive visions, and our bodies, to celebrate unbridled joy — the Creator of the universe has imbued his children with gifts of creativity, and I believe He is well pleased when we exercise creativity. For it pays tribute to the One who planted such seeds, the One who breathes on such sparks, the One who has always made Himself manifest to the world through His children’s works of art.

I cannot dance (I look ridiculous enough just walking), but I admire those who do – and appreciate those who dance with abandon. I find joy in writing books and essays, and always do so as unto the Lord. If poets and songwriters and composers have the gifts, they should not be casual but take their talents to the max. Singers and musicians and actors commit cultural crimes, and cheat themselves, if they are desultory in their expressions. Especially as all these things are, after all, metaphors for life.

Jesus told a parable in Luke chapter 8: “No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a bushel or puts it under a bed, but sets it on a lampstand, that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light. Therefore take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him.”

This is more than encouragement to let your light shine, display your faith to the world, and reflect the glory of the Lord through creative expression. It is His reminder that in all things – even joyful dancing, and music, and the talents used to share your feelings and to move other peoples’ hearts (unless those expressions are meant to offend God, but that is a general rule of life), take them to the max. The Creator of the universe, after all, never did any of His mighty and joyful works “halfway.”

There is nothing lukewarm about the ways of God.

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A different vid for a different message. Exuberance in creativity, joy in exercising God’s gifts. Here is pianist and composer Silvan Zingg, and dancers William Mauvais and Maeva Truntzer. It was taped at a festival in Switzerland. It is interesting that ragtime, stomps, and, especially, boogie woogie music is so much more popular today in Switzerland, Germany, France, even Russia and Australia, than in the land of their birth. Share the joy these performers express!

Click: Dancin’ the Boogie

The Chasm Between Belief and Faith

10-28-13

Deeds of faith are mightier – more consequential, more lasting, more essential to our living – than physical deeds are. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, our souls and spirits must always squarely be in the Arena of Life, where a person’s “face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

And so with faith as well as deeds. I cannot imagine never being curious about new ideas, discovering new things, reading new (and old) books, attempting new projects, and (not to sound sappy) dreaming new dreams. I have said, and I hope we would all have this attitude, that I want my retirement party and my funeral to be on the same day. Life is more than about accumulating baubles.

But these sentiments are a cruel joke, worse than empty clichés, if not accompanied by the spiritual component. We can be “secure in our faith,” but that never means we should stop learning the Ways of God, or seeking after the Things of God, or obeying the Will of God. Just as other things in life attract us… except that the essentials of faith are more important. We can be, yes, secure in our faith, but it will be tested; in fact, over and over again. The tests are not what matters. What matters is our response to the tests.

To those people who continually seek the Truth, which I hope means all of us, there are many pitfalls and detours on the way to the destination. Read the classic book, second only to the Bible in terms of copies printed, but regrettably neglected today, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” And to continue the metaphor of a pathway to Truth, there is an enormous gap between Belief and the next station, Faith.

It would seem a small step, but it is not. My wife used to say that all the possible “head knowledge” was nothing compared to even a portion of “heart knowledge”; that is, faith. Even Solomon, in all his wisdom, writing three books of the Bible, building the Temple, lord of a wealthy, united Israelite kingdom, ultimately displayed belief but not as much faith. He wrote well, but acted little as a man of faith… and then he failed. He became apostate, married hundreds of wives and was seduced by their diverse pagan religions, and earned the enmity of God. He died broken in spirit, and his kingdom was split irrevocably, broken into contending provinces.

“Faith without works is dead,” but works without faith is like “building a house on shifting sand.” God forbid that any of us are like Solomon, writing and speaking and appearing to be wiser than we really are.

Faith is something we can have, and we must regard it is a living thing, not a relic or prize: it must be nurtured and fed. But it is also something we can DO – in philological terms, a verb as well as a noun – in that we must exercise it. Share it. Live it. And not an abstract faith that the world has kidnapped as a term – a synonym for optimism or self-assurance or goodwill. “Have faith,” “keep the faith,” can be empty terms, baby-steps, or maybe backward-steps. Romans 10:17 says that real faith “comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” This journey of ours is sometimes hard. Where could we be without the gift of Faith?

There is an even more precise definition of that Faith which we seek across the chasm. The Bible tells us, and wants us to learn through contemplation and experience: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

This is not a riddle for intellectuals. It is not a postulate for scientific measurements. It can be difficult to understand. But it is easy to accept. It is the wisdom of God.

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We can find biblical wisdom mirrored in secular works of art. The tragic tale of Dido and Aeneas, from Virgil’s epic poem, was written for the operatic stage; libretto by Nahum Tate, author of many hymns, music by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the greatest of all English composers. Its excruciatingly sad ending is “Dido’s Lament,” sung as the Queen of Carthage commits suicide because she thinks her lover, the Trojan hero, has abandoned her:

“Thy hand, Belinda. Darkness shades me, On thy bosom let me rest,
More I would, but Death invades me; Death is now a welcome guest.

“When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create No trouble, no trouble in thy breast. Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate. Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”

As with the unrelated story of Romeo and Juliet, the death was useless – tragic – because of misunderstanding. In fact Aeneas was rushing to her side even as she sang her dying words of love. But the lesson of great art, indeed the lesson of life, is not how we scheme to avoid the hard choices facing us, but how we exercise faith, and faithfulness, even to what the world calls “tragic” ends, as overcomers who will never dwell with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Please do not cheat yourself: Watch this brief vid, sung by the incomparable Norwegian soprano Sissel Kyrkjebo; graphics by animation student Ryan Woodwart. Goodnight, Nance.

Click: Dido’s Lament

When You Don’t Know What To Say To God

10-21-13

My father, US Army Air Force captain, was involved in the D-Day invasion. He used to say that you could always tell the true military heroes at get-togethers: they were the ones who listened quietly and didn’t brag. The braggarts usually were the phonys, he said. What did he do on D-Day? “I was in the Weather Squadron,” he answered. “We just flew over the coast and battlefields, safely looking at clouds.” The toughest part for him, he said, was counting the planes, every day, of buddies who never returned to the English airfield at Bury-St-Edmunds in Suffolk.

There is a similar dynamic with prayer. Christ Himself warned us against the types who make big shows, loudly praying, in prominent places in the church. We are to emulate those who steal away and pray modestly; and give, even if only mites, like the humble widow did.

About personal prayer, we should be modest. We keep phone conversations quiet, or should; and a conversation with God is really no one else’s business. But sometimes Christians are quiet because… they just don’t know what to pray.

I suspect that two people who are among the first names we all would cite as the saintliest amongst us, Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, often had times they simply were at losses over exactly what to pray. Not to compare ourselves to them (believe me) but when our family conducted a hospital ministry after my wife’s heart and kidney transplants, and when, frequently, patients or families or spouses, or even doctors and nurses, would ask us with tears in their eyes, “Why?” – we discovered that sometimes the best answer was, “I don’t know either.” Honest prayers are starting- points. Presumption fools no one, least of all God.

Such a surrender of our almighty wills and self-important knowledge can be liberating. We should not always pray for answers: sometimes we should pray for understanding. Both goals may elude us, but to seek understanding requires trust, and faith, and surrender.

The Bible has a further solution for those moments of spiritual stammering. It is one reason that the Holy Ghost was sent into the world, in fact one of the job descriptions. “The Spirit also helps our weaknesses: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And He who searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26,27).

Body, mind, and spirit: they are not one, but our own trinities. When our bodies ache or we are troubled, and our minds stumble as we seek God… our spirits are able to connect with the Holy Spirit of God. We can pray in the Spirit, utter a gifted prayer language, or simply surrender our spirits to God. And we can feel it when that connection is made. Some Christians say “we know that we know that we know.” We not only communicate with the Father, we commune with Him at those moments.

Worse than being spiritually tongue-tied in moments of crisis or distress, is when we simply don’t feel like praying. Why approach God? We might be resentful; we can feel abandoned; frequently we are confused. But fear not; do not be discouraged. All the saints of history have confessed to occasionally having such emotions. Those who don’t, like those bragging war “heroes,” might not be truly seeking God anyway, but that’s their business. Our business, however, when we don’t feel like praying, is simple:

Do it anyway. Offer a “sacrifice of praise.”

“Let us go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here, we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that openly profess His Name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices, God is pleased.” Hebrews 8:13-16, NIV

Praise Him for His many gifts. For the fact that your problem is not worse. For the unspeakable joy that awaits the Christian. For a godly perspective on our challenges. For the problems that did not come our way. For the incarnation and sacrifice of God’s only Son for you. For a love so marvelous that a place has been prepared for you in glory. For… God so loved the world.

When you can’t think of what to pray, start with “Thank you.”

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Click: I Know How to Say Thank You

A Wedding Is a Happy Day. A Marriage Is a Joyous Life.

10-14-13

I’m going to conduct a little tour today. To a place called Beulah Land. It is a place of relationship, though not actual geography, mentioned in the Bible. It appears in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is the subject of more than a dozen well-known hymns and gospel songs. Our brief journey here will look over that land as much for what Beulah is NOT, as much as what it is. A clearer picture of the Bible’s message is never a bad thing.

Many people, including some teachers and many hymn-writers, have assumed that Beulah Land is a picture of Heaven – if not an alternate name, then a poetic allegory. Such connections are also frequently ascribed to “Canaan Land,” “The Promised Land,” and other terms. They all point forward, spiritually, and are meant to encourage God’s people to persevere. But they are not literal nor allegorical nor biblical pictures of Heaven.

The reference to Beulah Land appears only once, actually, in the Bible, and only in earlier translations. Isaiah 62:4: “Thou shall no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shall be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah; for Jehovah delights in thee, and thy land shall be married.”

At a certain point in the history of Israel and Judah, those nations were apostate and they “married” themselves to foreign gods. The Lord had in fact briefly abandoned His people (Desolate, Forsaken) in response (Isa. 54:7), but the verse of chapter 62 refers to God later bringing them to the Holy City, called Hephzibah in this reconciliation. And the picture of a full, restored relationship with God – as a marriage would be – is called a state of Beulah.

Hephzibah means “My Delight Is in Her.” The word “Beulah” means “Married.” Neither, however, means Heaven. The recent English Standard Version translation is more literal: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.” A wonderful place to be… a blessed relationship there… a Land to strive toward… but not Heaven.

Many believers through the centuries have prayed to attain Beulah Land as Heaven, to live at least at in Beulah land as Heaven’s border region. The idea was propelled by the allegorical writer John Bunyan in “Pilgrim’s Progress” – “The Enchanted Ground is a place so nigh to the land Beulah, and so near the end of their race”; the place “where the sun shineth night and day.” A wondrous place, but… not Heaven.

Why do I think it is important that we recognize the distinction? What could be so bad about all the depictions of Beulah Land, a marriage relationship with the Lord?

As beautiful, paradisiacal, fragrant, pleasing, the Land of Beulah is – described by the most fervent writers, poets, and songwriters – and for all the images our spirits can summon, all the pictures of Beulah Land are NOTHING compared to what Heaven will be!

The Land of Beulah is wondrous because we compare it our lives here on earth. Having a relationship with God akin to a marriage is amazing. Yet Heaven will be all the more wondrous – superlative – and there we will have an eternal lifetime of joy with Him.

Is “the Good the enemy of the Perfect”? Sometimes. But our recognition of a Land of Beulah, the most beautiful place we can imagine, should not be substitute for seeking Heaven, the most beautiful place we can scarcely imagine. A Wedding is a happy day. A Marriage is a joyous life.

“I can see far down the mountain, Where I wandered weary years,
Often hindered in my journey By the ghosts of doubts and fears.
Broken vows and disappointments, Thickly sprinkled all the way,
But the Spirit led, unerring, To the land I hold today.”

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We closed with lines from what is probably the most familiar hymns about Beulah Land. This version is sung by Squire Parsons, who also wrote another song that is beloved in the contemporary church, “Sweet Beulah Land.”

Click: “Is Not This the Land of Beulah”

We CAN Go Home Again

10-7-13

Many popular sayings that are regarded as embodying folk wisdom are, in fact, as crumbly as the fortune cookies where they should stay. I have always been struck by how almost every handy, traditional capsule of folk wisdom is cancelled by another such time-honored saying. “Look before you leap”? But… “He who hesitates is lost.” You can “roll with the punches” OR “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” And so forth.

I recently thought the oft-quoted Thomas Wolfe aphorism “You can’t go home again” when I did in fact visit the home in New York City where I was born, and the address in the New Jersey suburbs where I was reared. I drove from the Philadelphia Christian Writer’s Conference with my friend Shawn Kuhn, who was born in a different neighborhood of Queens. We were each a little surprised that our neighborhoods were clean, appeared safe, and had not fallen prey to real or clichéd urban blight: just the opposite.

Later in the week, with my sister Barbara, we visited the address of our adolescent years – I call it such because it was recently razed and replaced with what regretful “natives” like me are calling “McMansions,” ridiculous mini-estates on half acres. Most of the new owners likely suffer from the affliction common to parvenus, the Edifice Complex.

It was sad to see my home no longer there; our Village School boarded up; the town’s Swim Club closed and overgrown; and the church of our youth condemned, doors chained closed, neglected.

However. Paging Thomas Wolfe: “You CAN go home again.” I understand that I am supposed to understand that the past is past, a rose is a rose, and all those other syllogisms. The more important facts relate not to whether our parents have died, or our homes have been demolished, but what value they had in our development. The important corners of our memories. Then, the question is not whether we can “go home,” but whether those “homes,” our foundational values, can, or should, ever leave us.

I will call someone else, George Santayana, into the discussion, and mangle his own famous aphorism: “Those who forget the past are not only in danger of repeating it, but of having no past at all.”

I recently quoted Theodore Roosevelt in this space: “Both life and death are parts of the same great adventure.” And we should be reminded that Wolfe’s adage refers to the emotions and our intellectual growth, as much as nostalgic real-estate tours. My childhood is not a house; it was spent in a home that stood there. What I am, or have achieved, as a man is no less real because my parents died after my formative years. The chapel of my affectionate memories is gone, all the more bitter because it stands as a skeleton; but my faith was not diminished because the doors are chained shut.

Indeed, the pasts we miss and the futures we distrust are seldom pieces of real estate or schoolrooms or, say, battlefields. They are of the mind, the intellect, of life-choices, emotions… in fact, the spiritual realm.

Even when we know this fact, whether we are filled with joy or anxiety, it is easy to forget: a most human part of our humanity. My heart currently grieves for the director of the writer’s conference Shawn and I attended, because she is beset by personal problems, health trials facing herself and family members, business challenges galore… (Please look for the website of Write His Answer Ministries and see the wonderful things Marlene Bagnull has done and is doing)

Christians know the Author all good things, and know who is the enemy of our souls, who comes to seek, and kill, and destroy. Words are cheap (if I can cite another old cliché) but, being a frequent victim of discouragement myself, I feel qualified to remind anyone who will listen that there is a Larger Story. We cannot always see it. But we need to remember it.

“I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee,” Joshua 1: 5.

We call to our memories: we should summon the best of them. They call to us. And, whether our children live near or far, we should always be in the mode of calling them home too. Just as our Heavenly Father does to us.

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We can visit our old houses, or not. But we remember our homes. When parts of our past remember us, so to speak – “call to us” – it doesn’t mean we look backward, either to change course or to summon regrets. We are reminded, properly, that life is a continuity of traditions and values. Memories of homes, schools and churches are represented by parents, calling; just as we will be calling our children “home.” The classic song by Doyle Lawson, sung by Emmylou Harris.

Click: Calling Our Children Home

When Jesus Looked Down On Us

9-30-13

Jesus on the cross surely is one of the most depicted moments of humankind’s history. Think of icons, crucifixes, paintings, stained glass windows, mosaics, tapestries, statues, murals, tableaux, movies, and even Sunday-School lesson illustrations. I cannot think of any that do not depict this tender and powerful scene either straight-on or, occasionally, from some upward angle, the perspective of those at the foot of the cross.

Actually, I can think of one exception – the famous “Christ of St-John of the Cross,” the realistic/mystical painting by the master Salvador Dali. In this famous canvas, Dali painted Jesus from above, but front-on, hanging near the cross, without nails, or crown of thorns or scourges or blood. Beneath Him are not the gathered Mother and guards and random curiosity-seekers, but open water. At the extreme bottom, from a different perspective, the surrealist painted a shoreline of fishing boats. It is arresting, and thought-provoking.

Dali based his painting on a sketch by St John of Avila, a 16th-century monk, that came to both artists in dreams.

Yet I don’t think I have ever seen a depiction of the Crucifixion from the actual viewpoint of Jesus… as if through His eyes. Such a painting would not only suggest Christ’s perspective to us – literally and metaphorically – but Father God’s perspective too.

Jesus looked down, through encrusted, swollen, eyes, at His dripping blood and bruised body. He saw the splintery wood of the rough-hewn cross. On the ground He saw people looking upward – a collection of grief-filled, angry, regretful, indifferent, and hateful people. Looking toward the horizon, He saw the environs of Jerusalem, God’s Holy City, the scene of biblical history of the past, and of the future.

God’s perspective, as if to look down over the shoulders of Jesus? To think upon it is to come closer to understanding the mysterious separation yet unity of Father and Son, especially to meditate on the Incarnation: why God poured Himself out to become human flesh at this fulcrum-point in mankind’s history. Such an image would be to reassure a lost humankind, as if we need one more narrative – but we always do – that God sees us through the eyes, and the pain, of Jesus, who gave Himself so as to fulfill God’s provision, in turn, and so on! The Godhead identifies with our failings, our confusion, our need of salvation, our pain, our hopes.

It would be wonderful to see such a painting, or to paint such a perspective in our minds.

I have one more thought about that setting, seen through the eyes of Jesus lifted up on the cross. It is another example of what I call “virtual theology” – not in scripture, but not at all anti-biblical. In fact I think it might distill the sweeping message of the Bible’s entire narrative.

Jesus died for all. God’s plan, once mankind understood, or could be shown, that the Law was insufficient to lead people to right standing with a Holy God, was to cancel the blood-sacrifice of sheep and rams, and offer Himself as a sacrifice. This was according to prophecy. His children no longer would invent works or propose offerings to try to please an angry God. He would ask them only to BELIEVE in Him through the substitutionary sacrifice of the Messiah, thereby please a loving God.

Humankind. Here is my virtual theology: When Jesus looked down at the assembled few at the foot of the cross, I believe that He looked also into history past and history to come, and see the entirety of humankind. As God-in-flesh, He had managed more extravagant miracles.

Further, I believe that He was able, and did, look down, past the faces of Mary and the centurions, past the shades of millions of souls, into your face and mine, eye to eye, individually. After all, He came for us, and loves us, individually.

Still further, my theological understanding proposes this: that if every other person in history were perfect and sinless; that is, everybody except you or me out of billions of people, He still would have gone to the cross.

Willingly He would have gone. Eagerly. In fact, since He could have avoided the cross or miraculously changed those circumstances at Golgotha’s hill, the truth is that He virtually scrambled up the cross… answered the question “How much do you love?” by spreading His arms wide… and invited the nails.

He would have done that for you or me. In fact, that is NOT virtual truth: He DID do that for you and me.

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A great gospel song that parallels and illustrates the theme of this message was written around 1985 and has become a standard in hymnbooks and on concert stages and Christian radio. It was written by Ronny Hinson and Mike Payne. Here performed at the Family Worship Center, Baton Rouge.

Click: When He Was On the Cross, I Was On His Mind

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Jesus on the Cross

Theme Songs Of the Hopeful

9-23-13

A theme song of cynics – there are many; many cynics and many are their themes – is the famous sentiment written by Shakespeare: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar, Act 3, i). But the hopeful among us must see that this is honored in the breach, that the exception proves the rule. We must not merely be convinced that fights for righteousness and honor and creative expression are worth the fight in this difficult life… but that the fight ITSELF, not only the goal, is worthy.

Cynicism is challenged by uncountable examples of service and sacrifice by kind souls, by acts of charity, a word whose original meaning is “love.” Challenged in the over-arching sense by the work of weary toilers in the fields who sometimes are bent but never broken. And in the very personal examples of artists who die without ever knowing the effect their work eventually has on other people. There are stories we all know from history.

We think of van Gogh; of Poe; of the composer Schubert and the novelist John Kennedy Toole… and of Eva Cassidy.

Some serious critics have called Eva the greatest American vocalist. Do you ask, “Who?” Her relatively sparse playlist has swept record charts around the world. Some of the era’s greatest singers and producers have attested to her uniqueness. The acclaim and sales have all come years after she died. Eva was born in Washington DC in 1963. Self- (and dad-) taught on several instruments, she listened to the great performers of several genres she rapidly mastered herself: blues, jazz, gospel, country, pop standards.

Eva played in several clubs in the Washington area. A college town, DC is replete with jazz clubs, music venues, performance clubs. As a student there myself in ancient times, I was privileged to enjoy, in places like the Cellar Door, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Randy Scruggs before they were nationally famous. Later, Eva Cassidy attracted a local following and made a few CDs, but her fame was fairly restricted to the District. Pros and record execs who heard her music were astonished, but many of them simply did not know in which category to place her. All of them later regretted their short-sightedness. Her voice was angelic (if angels were to sing the blues); her interpretations were miraculously emotional; her guitar style was unique.

When she was 30 she had a malignant tumor removed from her neck. Three years later she was dead, the melanoma having survived within her body, spread to bones and lungs. After her diagnosis (three to five months to live, no hope of survival) she returned once more to her stage of choice, DC’s Blues Alley, and sang “What a Wonderful World.” That choice, as much as hearing her music, confirms what a wonderful person, not merely a musical talent, Eva Cassidy was.

But it was five full years after her death before the world really heard about her, and heard her. A stray CD made its way the BBC Radio studios in London. Airplay on a morning show lit up the proverbial switchboard. Fast-forward this story to Number One on British record charts; five CDs in the Top 150; continuing presence in England and Ireland, especially, but also Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Australia… and, finally, America; and sales exceeding 10-million CDs.

It is easy to lapse (thusly) into numbers and statistics. But it was Eva Cassidy’s astonishing talent, and her effect on listeners, that is the story. She had a gift for making mundane lyrics special, for discovering spiritual nuances in standard love songs, for making happy tunes blues-y and turning sad ballads hopeful.

That her “success” is posthumous is ironic at least. Yet once we take account of life’s vicissitudes, we should take heart. The good that we may do DOES live on “after our bones are interred.” When we do the Lord’s work, sharing hope and sunshine, we are eager to see the “seeds” we plant take root and bloom. But we don’t always know if, or when, it will happen. Mostly, we cannot know. As servants of the Word, it really is the Holy Spirit’s job to “close the deals,” and we should resist the temptation of pride if we are too concerned with the seeds we plant. We can plant those seeds; we can even cultivate; but only God can make life grow.

In fact there is a legitimate spiritual satisfaction in not knowing these details. When writers, artists, singers, songwriters, poets, and all people graced with God’s creativity set their works out (as it were) like baby Moses in a basket, among the reeds and into unknown waters, we don’t know who will discover them. But, trusting the God whom we serve by serving our fellow men and women, untold numbers of people, and their families after them, may be profoundly touched. Even if one person’s spirit responds, we have done our jobs.

If we, any of us, exercise the talents wherewith we have been graced, if we see our lives as parts of the cultural continuum of civilization, just as we are woven with the scarlet threads of redemption, then some of us might be the next van Goghs, Poes, Schuberts, Tooles, and Eva Cassidys. And be content that the value is in the working and the works, not the accolades of the world. And the rest of us? We can feel blessed that we are witnesses of these great talents.

Remember the Yogi Berra quotation, “It ain’t over till it’s over”? Memo to Yogi: sometimes it only BEGINS when it’s “over.” The theme song of THAT truth is sung by Eva Cassidy.

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One of the only videos of Eva Cassidy singing is an amateur camcorder capture of her and her guitar at Blues Alley. It often brings tears to viewers’ eyes for the unique interpretation and commonly untapped meanings from a pop standard previously considered without spiritual depth. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was recorded the year of Eva’s death, 1996. I commend this performance to you, and its compelling whisper to your soul: “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream, really do come true. … If happy little bluebirds fly above the rainbow, why, oh why, can’t I?” When Eva sang, she made it a spiritually rhetorical question: We can.

Click: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

The God Proposition

9-16-13

Either God exists, or He doesn’t.

The question this statement poses, among uncountable other speculative, philosophical, ontological, and even religious questions, is THE most basic and most important that can be asked of human beings, or any beings.

As someone who is secure in the answer, I was confronted by the question this week in a way that never escapes anyone’s imaginings. The Voyager I spacecraft, NASA announced, has left the friendly confines of our solar system. Not the universe, of course, for that ends… well, we are not quite sure where. But Voyager has crossed the border of our Sun’s “bubble” of “plasma” – charged electrons in “empty” space whose density changed, though differently than expected, when Voyager passed over the line into interstellar “space.”

The inherent limitations of conceptualizing scientific facts, no less than imperfectly understanding scientific theories, has us turn to inverted commas and air-quotes. I will save electrons, myself, by dropping all these quotation marks. But we should keep them at the ready, because they represent the intellectual crutches we often need when discussing such things. We – humans – know more and more every day; by one estimate, every eight months we discover and learn more things than in all of mankind’s previous history. Yet even with Voyager the assumptions about the density of outer-space electrons, in these otherwise empty-seeming neighborhoods of the universe, have been revised. Interstellar plasma is acting differently than scientists predicted. And brand-new questions about magnetic forces in space, not just as carried by solar wind inside the solar system, have presented themselves.

My brain starts to hurt too, despite the thrill of such data. Perhaps we will learn more when Voyager reaches its next sun’s neighborhood. Be sure to stock up on provisions, if you plan to wait for that news; that will not happen for another 40,000 years. Such is the vastness of our universe.

By then, Voyager probably still will be hurtling along, but its information-gathering and transmitting facilities expired. Interestingly, the probe, which was launched in 1977, has computers far less complex than of any smartphone today. It records data on… yes, an 8-track cassette. And it sends that data back to earth by a 20-watt signal. By comparison, a radio station near where I live has a thousand-watt transmitter, and can be heard for a range of 25 miles or so. Yet, we launched Voyager, it observes, and we learn: a modern, and more peaceful, turn on Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” – “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Amidst this week’s tsunami of news of wars, rumors of wars, crises, corruption, killings and beheadings, revolutions, disasters of weather, economies, and human folly, we have this news that takes our minds (and I hope the imaginations of our spirits) to other things. Out of this world. Almost by definition, eternal things. If you didn’t see photos or artist conceptions, or movies of distant solar systems and planets, watch the video whose link is at the end of this essay. We inevitably are in awe.

In awe of what? There is that question again. If God doesn’t exist, the theories of atheists and agnostics and secularists about when the universe was formed, why it was formed, and how it was formed are interesting (or not) only as speculation.

Although theories abound, no one comes close – absent the God Proposition – to advancing any sort of a definitive idea about when the universe began (including the question of what was here previously, wherever here is); how large the universe is (when the question includes “what, then, lies beyond its borders?”); and how, just how, then, did we get here? There are scientific ideas… that often change. And these questions are lights-years from the larger question facing scientists: Why?

The fact that no human has, by oneself, answers for such questions does not automatically prove the existence of God. There is no proof, which is why it is called Faith. But it does suggest a universal prerequisite, humility, when one addresses such questions without what I call the God Proposition.

My explanation of why many “intelligent” (yes, I will resurrect the quotation marks) people reject God is that we all of us have a latent desire to BE God, to be in control of our situations, to have all the answers. Unfortunately, among the primitive, including sophisticated primitives, this leads to superstition. At the other extreme it leads to oppression, destruction, and death; that is, when clever and resourceful men presume to be gods, the eternal temptation consumes. Never has a mortal been able to benignly control others – an oxymoronic concept anyway – when none ever has been able to control his own self, and the “base passions” of our spiritual DNA… absent the God Proposition.

More than the rudimentary computer systems on Voyager was something of greater significance. In the hope that the craft might meet some alien civilization in a remote part of the universe, it carried a unique payload – a copper and gold alloy disk (estimated by its designers “to last a billion years”) with greetings in 115 earth-languages; some images of our species and schematic maps of earth; and music. The first selection was a recording of the Second Brandenburg Concerto, first movement, by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra. Among the playlist of global music, Bach was the only composer represented thrice; the Gavotte from the Violin Partita No. 3, and the Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 were the other pieces chosen to represent humankind’s creative profile.

Biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what he would have nominated for this message to unknown civilizations. “The complete works of J.S. Bach,” he said. “But that would be boasting.” I love the (proper) tribute to mankind’s greatest music-maker, but it is interesting that our greetings, our physical likenesses, and our greatest artistic expressions were sent aboard Voyager, in hopes of telling the Universe about us.

… but, significantly, the designers and programmers chose to skip the crowded narratives of human history that are filled, like this week’s headlines, or any week’s headlines, with war, cruelty, murder, and oppression. A half-truth can be no different than a lie. We wanted to show what earth is like, what humanity has done. We just wanted to sanitize the story.

But in my view, there comes that “God Proposition” once again. The dirty little secret, deep down in all our souls, is that our natures are sinful, and many humans have tended to kick and scratch and resist God… but there is also a part of us that yearns for the God who sees good things, and has created good things, and wants to share good things. Part of us – because God planted such yearnings – seeks the good: sometime, occasionally, we have the same impulses as our God.

We don’t need to understand every little (unknowable) thing about the universe and God; we do need to accept Him. It should not be difficult! We cannot be God, no matter how hard some will try. And though we know Him imperfectly, and even love Him imperfectly, we can rest assured that He knows us, and He loves us, perfectly.

Just look at the stars and the galaxies and the universe, fellow voyager.

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I chose another of Johann Sebastian Bach’s immortal works, the second movement of his Third Orchestral Suite, BWV 1068, commonly known as “Air On the G-String.” Images are from NASA probes, including from the Hubbell Space Telescope. N.B.: the text’s passage about Bach’s music aboard Voyager is adapted from my biography of Bach published by Thomas Nelson, 2011.

Click: Bach’s Air On the G-String

As Oft As You Do This…

9-9-13

“This do in remembrance of me.” A few thoughts that do not pretend to be Theology 101, but have long been impressed on my heart. Communion… the Last Supper… the Eucharist… the Lord’s Table. Some few Christians make special daily observance; many churches celebrate each Sunday. The church of my youth offered it on the first Sunday of each month, common cup at one service, individual cups at the other. The church where I worship locally celebrates it twice a year, accompanied by foot-washing. Some churches have returned to the ancient practice whereby every celebrant passes the bread and wine, with spontaneous blessings spoken.

These are all celebrations, and indeed we should celebrate what Jesus did for us: breaking His body, shedding His blood. He did not merely prophesy: He announced at the Passover meal what would happen not many hours hence. “Ritual” has sometimes become a disparaging word, yet rites are instituted to honor things – events, ideas, truths – worth honoring. With reverence.

Here is what has roused my spiritual heart: the Church in all places and at all times has made a set-apart ceremony of the Lord’s Supper. It is observed in divers ways mentioned above, and others. There is something special about “breaking bread”: in every culture, every generation, the dinner table – no, the kitchen table – has represented the ultimate in hospitality and fellowship. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” The One who could not lie never spoke a clearer truth.

So, should we not regard EVERY meal, every time we “break bread,” whether it is literal bread or any food, and share a cup, whether wine or juice, or whatever in a meal… should we not be reminded every such time of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus? Why just at a designated Communion Service?

Of course I do not think less of 2000 years of church traditions. Neither do I mean to visit disputes over Communion’s symbolism or literal essence – consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation – we are, I think, past the time when bloody wars were fought over the debate. I am trying to commune, here, with the Heart of Jesus, and what the Holy Spirit would have us do.

As reverent as a weekly or monthly observance can be, would not a… remembrance, every time we eat (“breaking bread”) and drink at a meal, be holier? To bring ourselves to think more often, virtually constantly, three meals a day or more times, of Jesus’s amazing sacrifice for us?

Would it lose its meaning? That depends solely on us. Is it, practically, too burdensome, especially in these busy times? No, many of us offer brief prayers before meals, and thanksgiving has been a traditional part of meals among many. Thanksgiving, usually for material blessings, can be joined by thanksgiving for spiritual blessings. To be reminded, and think upon, ever fresh, the sacrifice of broken body and spilled blood represented by the meal before us… is holy.

It is not the calendar, or a tradition, but the hunger in our hearts, fed by spiritual food, that institutes the sacramental aspect of the Lord’s Supper. True communion in all ways.

Read, maybe in a new way, from I Corinthians 10 and 11:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. … Therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. … What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? … I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.

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A contemporary song, “Breaking Bread,” visits these questions. This version, with meaningful images, is a studio session of Johnny Cash from end of his career. Harmonies are by internet fans of the Man in Black. The lyrics recall the Bible portions cited above, as well as “bread cast upon the waters,” the feeding of the 5000 miracle, and other associations with breaking bread.

Click: Breaking Bread

We Have Met the Enemy

9-2-13

An excuse to combine a spiritual message, or so I hope, and to pay tribute to a hero this week. It is 100 years since Walt Kelly was born. Presumably, as a baby, and his Philadelphia home having no particular bearing on the situation, he came into the world crying, but maybe for the last time. Soon and ever thereafter, the world responded to Walt by laughing. And thinking. Loving. Sometimes misty-eyed. Often angry – sometimes at him, but usually with him.

Walt was the cartoonist who created the “Pogo” comic strip. It was almost the perfect comic strip – gags, continuity, literary allusions, puns, slapstick, parody and satire, irony, poetry. And Walt might have been the perfect cartoonist. Trained as a Disney animator, he then drew comic books, and political cartoons, and a newspaper strip, and book illustrations, and children’s books, and magazine covers. There were dozens of volumes that collected his work.

I met Kelly as a child (me, not him). It is not a knock to say that I regret never to have seen him sober. He managed quite well, I suppose, but I always wondered whether I communicated the fervor of my admiration. I collected “Pogo” strips as a child; my father knew the automatic presents and rewards I coveted as a boy were “Pogo” and “Peanuts” books – footballs and erector sets meant nothing to me. I am grateful to have autographed sketches and original strips from Kelly. Just after he died in 1973, I became comics editor of the syndicate that handled his strip, which limped on by other hands for a while.

One great afternoon in Los Angeles, Walt’s daughter Carolyn drove me around to spots associated with Walt during his Disney days, including the church where he first married. Walt had, I believe, three wives (serially) and five children, one of whom became prominent in the pro-life movement. Kelly himself never evinced hostility to religion, as far as I know, but his philosophy, while humanitarian, was not sectarian.

Yet he did fight the “good fight,” in fact many good fights. A committed liberal, his most resonant commentary was, however, on broader themes – like his advocacy of the environmental movement. For the first Earth Day, in 1971, he drew the iconic poster that showed a downtrodden Pogo in a littered Okefenokee Swamp with the caption, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I once owned the original artwork of this.

I am not going to claim that Walt Kelly had a subliminal biblical message in this; he didn’t. Yet, very often in life, perceptive and creative people mirror the messages of scripture. After all, God’s truths OUGHT to be plain as day!

We ARE our own worst enemies – Satan leads us astray, and tempts us, but he does not drag us; we choose to sin. This message is all through the Bible… especially in Christ’s admonition to Nicodemus, that we must all be born again (John 3:3). Shakespeare had Cassius speak another version of the truth: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Julius Caesar: I, ii, 140-141).

Walt Kelly did more than argue against littering. As “Pogo” was, all things considered, a commentary on human nature – in the best tradition of that first anthropomorphist, Aesop – Kelly’s famous catchword is a clever way to remind us about personal responsibility, whether to the environment or for our own souls.

In text, Walt Kelly expanded his thesis: “Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle. There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.”

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One of the few songs Roger Miller recorded that he did not write himself is this week’s music vid. He must have liked it a lot; I do; I think Walt Kelly would have. I hope you like Scott Avett’s version.

Click: Where Have All the Average People Gone?

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pogos pict

The Hours Drag, the Years Fly

8-26-13

It is a familiar scene this time of year. Children go off to school, some walking up the steps of the yellow school bus, some into the front doors of the school where you drop them off, some into the car, off to college. Familiar scenes; also familiar feelings, at least for parents.

Separation anxiety, of sorts. Landmarks. Turning points. All very emotional. For me, as a father, these scenes were especially emotional, because my children appeared to seldom notice anything special at all about them. Tra la la, they couldn’t wait to board the buses or run for the schoolyard. The most sentiment ever displayed was my son Ted’s annoyance at my insistence to photograph him on the porch, each first day of school year after year (because, um, I KNEW that some day he would cherish the memories) (that day might yet arrive).

It all threatened to get really slobbery when they went off to college. At those points I was ready to grab each of my three kids around their ankles, unwilling to let them go. They reflected no such emotion. I have chalked this all up, by the way, to their active sense of curiosity and adventure, nothing to do with me being the Weirdest Dad On the Street, proven by such episodes.

OK, I exaggerate a little (I tend to exaggerate at least a million times a day). But we need to remember – which means, when I write it, that I often forget – that the “saddest” things in life really are sometimes the sweetest.

When we sign up to be parents, part of the contract is to let go some day. Actually day by day. It is not a mixed blessing, even if we get, in the immortal words of Maynard G. Krebs, misty in those moments. In a recent essay I quoted Theodore Roosevelt, when he said that both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure. Likewise, no less, are dirty diapers, silly tantrums, going off to school, asking for help with homework, the first date, the second broken heart, going off to college or the military, and watching them get married.

“Time and Chance happeneth to all,” we are reminded – and we do need reminders – in Ecclesiastes. If God sees sparrows falling to the ground, He also sees them when they leave the nest… and fly. If Mama Sparrow is not sad about that (which is my guess), neither should we regard our tears as anything but droplets of joy.

Our first born, Heather, I assumed to be exceptional from her first breath, so when she was three months old or so, I festooned the house with large signs labeling everything, just to help her to read a day or two sooner than otherwise. My son Ted entered a more sensible world. Our youngest, Emily, we knew would be our last child. My subliminal response to this, I now realize, was to keep her a baby forever, to preserve her like amber in childhood (hers, not mine). I tried to hide from her the knowledge of things like bicycles and solid food.

I kid again, a little, but rearing children, after all, is more about your values at the time than their “molded” personalities afterward. It is unavoidable, and not to be regretted but rather celebrated. Savor it all, parents, even the separation of day care, summer camp, or college in some state you cannot locate on a map.

Part of God’s sweet plan of life is that when you have children, and nurture them, and train them, and endure (and share) all the dramas of childhood, the hours drag by slowly.

… but when the kids have left home, for whatever the myriad reasons, the years then go by quickly. Remember that, while you still have the gift of remembering.

One of Emily’s friends is Amy Duke Sanchez, whom we would not know except for having “let go” of Emily when she left for a faraway college right about this time of year. Recently AmyDuke forwarded to me a very wise saying – “Don’t ask God for anything until you’ve thanked Him for everything.” That is not merely a template for constructing your prayers.

It is a reminder to stop and think about the implications of “everything.” We know that all things can work for good, and we need to see that our momentary regrets, especially in this, the Season of Empty Nests, can really be puzzle-pieces in God’s eternal and joyful plan.

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Even after mxplf years (gee, how strange: a typo) since my youngest went off to college, I still get as misty as Maynard G. Krebs when I listen to Suzy Bogguss’s bittersweet classic about a child’s Rite of Passage, “Letting Go.” The lyrics about the empty nest, and turning the page on memories, are wonderfully captured in the video with the song. Please treat yourself.

Click: Letting Go

Daddies’ Little Girls

8-19-13

I attended a local theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” this week. The legendary musical and the Yiddish story that inspired it concern themselves with assimilation, and, of course, tradition – the writer Sholem Aleichem was a sensitive genius – but I found myself, this week, seeing it as a strong treatment of the relationship of fathers and daughters.

One reason might be that this week was the first anniversary of my granddaughter Sarah’s birth; followed after nine days by her death. The precious preemie, in the words on the grave marker her parents placed over the tiny casket, will always be loved and never forgotten.

We cannot quantify, and scarcely begin a manner to measure, the loss and grief in the hearts of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, when death visits us. “Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life. Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure,” said a hero of mine, Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote this after his son Quentin was killed in a World War I dogfight over French battlefields; we he left unsaid is the anguish of those left behind as others join that Great Adventure. And those who watch die a child not yet of the age of knowing.

I thought further about the notable paucity of father-daughter relationships in sacred writings, mythology, and literature. Unless there is a hole in my memory (and I invite discussion) the subtext of Aleichem’s story is a rare theme. Think: most of the resonant generational male-female stories in the myths of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. are mother-son, not father-daughter. Isis married her brother and became mother of Horus. The legend of Oedipus was, famously, a son-mother tale. The complicated cosmogony of Roman deities was comprised of some father-daughter relationships, as of course anything emanating from life, real or invented, cannot avoid – however, virtually all of the significant relational myths are father-son, brother-brother, or, sometimes, mother-son.

In the Bible it is rather the same. Fathers have daughters, of course, but the significant stories and lessons seldom involved fathers and their daughters. Adam and Eve had two sons; Noah had three. Abraham was challenged to sacrifice his son… with the attendant emotions and reflections readers cannot avoid. Indeed, God the Father arranged that His only begotten Son be sacrificed. Lot’s daughters? Not our role models. Naomi and Ruth: meaningful story, but not father-daughter. We revere Mary through the Magnificat, and empathize with her presence at the cross and the tomb, but by inference.

In literature we find, again, numerous enough examples of fathers and daughters, but portrayals are seldom invested with the cathartic implications of male-to-male relationships, or mothers-and-sons. Curious, really. Often, characters who are the daughters of fathers are cast as manifestations of rebellion or symbols of fulfillment – filling roles of the weak paterfamilias. Interesting literary devices, but, again, failing to examine the love, the special love, that exists between father and daughter.

A few examples: Shakespeare’s daughters often were social surrogates more than generational, emotional partners. In “Romeo and Juliet,” Juliet came of age and was willful in part because her father, Capulet, was not. The rebellions of Desdemona and Jessica (in “Othello” and “Merchant of Venice”) were as two-dimensional as the compliance of Ophelia in “Hamlet”; that is, bereft of mature love. Pure hate we see in the daughters Goneril and Regan in the tragedy of tragedies, “King Lear,” while their sister Cordelia is an exception that proves my rule.

In more recent literature, the daughters in the novels and plays of Goldsmith, and the novels of Austen where they rose to be lead characters, asserted themselves almost always as patient surrogates for weak-willed fathers. Their fulfillment usually was prompted as much by duty, or pity, as much as by love. The same can largely be said of the daughters in Thackeray and Dickens.

Well, I have broken my intention of keeping this introduction to a compelling riddle brief. I will segue by wondering (a facile escape, not a logical answer) whether fables, and the Bible, and literature, come up short on treatments of father-daughter bonds for same reason they seldom address why the sky is blue or why trees are made of wood: the obvious need not be addressed. But 10,000 speculative essays cannot convey the truth, and the depth, of father-daughter love as to experience, as a shy and crusty bad dancer, the invitation to dance with your daughter to the corny “Daddy’s Little Girl” at her wedding reception.

So the “Fiddler” performance reinforced my thoughts on the anniversary of Sarah’s death. Early and in distress, she lived only nine days.

Pain and sorrow, especially for Pat and my Heather and Sarah’s two brothers Gabe and Zach, will never disappear and scarcely dissipate, although God grants peace and acceptance in His measurements of grace.

From the blog Heather started after Sarah’s death (http://sarahs-baby-steps.blogspot.com/ ):
“Can I let you know that grief isn’t like a pit that you climb out of or like a fork in the road that you walk away from? Our grief and sadness will be a part of our lives until we are reunited with Sarah in heaven. We are healing from the ‘rawness’ of the grief, but we still have difficult moments…. I’ve heard it said that we learn from our children even as we are teaching them and I believe that is true…. We didn’t know Sarah personally very long, but the experience of having known her and then dealing with the grief of missing her has changed us deeply.”

There is a way that fathers can bond with departed daughters… or any readers, with any families of babies who have died. After Sarah died, a nurse offered a dress that was, sadly, unused in a similar situation, for a photo to be taken. Heather continues the story: “We decided to just lay the dress on Sarah and tuck it around her so as not to move her much. It was a beautiful white crocheted dress with a pink rosette and was just what I had envisioned for her baptism dress. Later, after pictures, I asked about it and if they had lots of dresses–I assumed there was a closet-full. [The nurse] said that she had been given the dress awhile ago and told to give it to a family who needed it. For whatever reason, she felt we were the right family. That kindness shown to us and our daughter took a bit of the rawness out of the day. Our girl was ‘dressed up’ for a bit and we got to have sweet pictures taken as a family.

“We started a fund to provide dresses to families whose preemies are in the NICU where Sarah was. Much more was generously given that we ever thought. The [nurse] says that the donations given in Sarah’s name ‘have currently purchased over 75 beautifully handmade layette sets for infants and their grieving families.’”

What a beautiful concept. If anyone is moved, please consider a donation. See below.

Otherwise, take a moment any time (or many times) during the anniversary of Sarah’s life, Aug. 14-23, and remember a brief life, a tender life situation, a lost life… the precious gift of Life itself, in all its ways and promise.

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“Going Home” has become a sacred song for those who have passed from life. It is actually a Negro spiritual based on the tune of the second movement of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” Performed here, in church, by the London churchboy’s choir Libera.

Click: Going Home

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NICU Dress fund
Donations can be made to “William Beaumont Hospital NICU” in memory of Sarah Shaw…. We would like to provide dresses in Sarah’s memory for other families who have to say goodbye to their little girls. This is a fund we started to support families in their grief. Checks or micro-preemie dresses (button or closures in the back, please) may be sent to William Beaumont Hospital, 3601 W. Thirteen Mile Rd. Royal Oak, MI 48073-6769 Attn: Mara Sipols). Please put “Sarah Shaw” in the memo of checks so your donation goes to the right fund.

Angels Just Like You

8-11-13

A friend, the noted theatrical impresario Charles Putnam Basbas, recently forwarded one of those oft-forwarded internet stories to me. The story of a miracle baby born prematurely, it was not outrageously implausible (not to me anyway; my children were born 10 weeks, five weeks, and eight weeks early around 30 years ago when those factors were dicey; and they had, and have, healthy, robust lives). Yet this story, as full of meaning as of surprises, checked out as true when I pursued “truth or fiction” sites.

Maybe you, too, have read it:

The Smell of Rain

A cold March wind danced around the dead of night in Dallas as the doctor walked into the small hospital room of Diana Blessing. She was still groggy from surgery. Her husband, David, held her hand as they braced themselves for the latest news. That afternoon of March 10, 1991, complications had forced Diana, only 24 weeks pregnant, to undergo an emergency Cesarean to deliver couple’s new daughter, Danae Lu Blessing.

At 12 inches long and weighing only one pound nine ounces, they already knew she was perilously premature. Still, the doctor’s soft words dropped like bombs.

“I don’t think she’s going to make it,” he said, as kindly as he could. “There’s only a 10 per cent chance she will live through the night, and even then, if by some slim chance she does make it, her future could be a very cruel one.”

Numb with disbelief, David and Diana listened as the doctor described the devastating problems Danae would likely face if she survived. She would never walk, she would never talk, she would probably be blind, and she would certainly be prone to other catastrophic conditions from cerebral palsy to complete mental retardation, and on and on.

“No! No!” was all Diana could say. She and David, with their 5-year-old son Dustin, had long dreamed of the day they would have a daughter to become a family of four. Now, within a matter of hours, that dream was slipping away.

But as those first days passed, a new agony set in for David and Diana. Because Danae’s underdeveloped nervous system was essentially “raw,” the lightest kiss or caress only intensified her discomfort, so they couldn’t even cradle their tiny baby girl against their chests to offer the strength of their love. All they could do, as Danae struggled alone beneath the ultraviolet light in the tangle of tubes and wires, was to pray that God would stay close to their precious little girl.

There was never a moment when Danae suddenly grew stronger. But as the weeks went by, she did slowly gain an ounce of weight here and an ounce of strength there. At last, when Danae turned two months old. her parents were able to hold her in their arms for the very first time. And two months later, though doctors continued to gently but grimly warn that her chances of surviving, much less living any kind of normal life, were next to zero, Danae went home from the hospital, just as her mother had predicted.

[Five years later] Danae was a petite but feisty young girl with glittering gray eyes and an unquenchable zest for life. She showed no signs whatsoever of any mental or physical impairment. Simply, she was everything a little girl can be and more. But that happy ending is far from the end of her story.

One blistering afternoon in the summer of 1996 near her home in Irving, Texas, Danae was sitting in her mother’s lap in the bleachers of a local ball park where her brother Dustin’s baseball team was practicing.
As always, Danae was chattering nonstop with her mother and several other adults sitting nearby, when she suddenly fell silent . Hugging her arms across her chest, little Danae asked, “Do you smell that?”

Smelling the air and detecting the approach of a thunderstorm, Diana replied, “Yes, it smells like rain.”

Danae closed her eyes and again asked, “Do you smell that?”

Once again, her mother replied, “Yes, I think we’re about to get wet. It smells like rain.”

Still caught in the moment, Danae shook her head, patted her thin shoulders with her small hands and loudly announced, “No, it smells like Him. It smells like God when you lay your head on his chest.”

Tears blurred Diana’s eyes as Danae happily hopped down to play with the other children. Before the rains came, her daughter’s words confirmed what Diana and all the members of the extended Blessing family had known, at least in their hearts, all along.

During those long days and nights of her first two months of her life, when her nerves were too sensitive for them to touch her, God was holding Danae on His chest and it is His loving scent that she remembers so well.

Back to MMMM. As I noted, in recent years, Danae’s story has circulated on the internet. It first was published in Richard L. Scott’s book, Miracles In Our Midst: Stories of Life, Love, Kindness, and Other Miracles (Wessex House). Scott, the former CEO of Columbia Health Systems and currently the Republican governor of Florida, sought out tales of triumph over medical odds. Danae’s story (then titled “Heaven Scent”) is his favorite. That little girl Danae, without knowing it, has inspired many people. An angel, in her own way.

To me, the spiritual “icing on the cake” to this story Charlie forwarded was someone’s legend at the bottom:

ANGELS EXIST, but sometimes, since they don’t all have wings, we call them FRIENDS.

And this summation reminded me of a song with a spiritual message, sung by a secular singer, the great Delbert McClinton (who is great even when Vince Gill and Lee Roy Parnell are not backing him up…) –

Click: Sending Me Angels (Just Like You)

Our Telescopes, God’s Microscope

8-5-13

A guest message by one of my great friends and a most insightful and sensitive writer, Leah C. Morgan:

I’ve never been acquainted with stress. People throw the claim around, and plenty act like they indeed really are stressed over everything, but it’s always been a stranger to me. Now because of some recent challenges I am fighting to push the weight off my chest, to keep the sickness in my gut at bay.
 
Here’s how. My husband Bonnard has been teaching on Creation and Evolution at church. We have talked about laws of probability and physics, many wonderful things. But the facts presented last week did something supernatural for me: facts inspired my faith.
 
If the distance from the earth to the sun were represented by the thickness of a single sheet of paper, do you know how close we are to the next nearest star? Using the same scale, we would need a 71-foot stack of paper to span the distance. We would need 310 miles of stacked paper of that normal thickness to reach outside our galaxy. And 31-million miles of stacked paper to reach the end of the galaxy known to us.
 
If the sun were hollow, it could hold 1,300,000 earths. But the star Antares could hold 64-million suns! And the star Hercules could hold 100-million Antares; and the star Epsilon could hold 125- million Hercules.
 
“What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”
 
The earth that we live on, and love, is smaller than a speck in the universe; and I am microscopically smaller than that. And yet God tunes his ear to my pleas, He listens to my cries for help and my words of adoration, and is moved for me.

I know He is near. He’s so far away in the vast, wide sum of his creation, but yet He is close by. I’m so absolutely convinced of His love for me. He is for me. For some reason, like a love that’s bigger than Epsilon, He’s interested and compassionate and busy for me.
 
The weight on my chest is gone, the crowded thoughts in my mind are swept clear, when I think that although I might need a telescope to see God, He’s got a microscope on me. 

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The group of “Christian Tenors” known as Sing! Tenore is comprised of Shane Wiebe, Jason Catron, and Mark David Williams. On this vid, illustrating Leah’s spiritual cosmology, they perform, with the Prague Orchestra, “This Is My Father’s World.”

Click: This Is My Father’s World

Urban Legend, or Urgent Lesson

7-29-13

News, stories, jokes, and gossip have always spread quickly through communities and societies. The same happens today, only slightly faster – at the speed of electrons – but currency of narratives depends less on the means of transmission than the willingness of ears to hear. Uplifting stories and heartbreak. Irony and tragedy. Humor and horror. The Bible says we have “itching ears”… for everything.

This is particularly evident with a familiar component of the internet age we all know, the “Urban Legend.” A recent story going the e-rounds tells of a pastor being introduced to his new congregation. It is emotional and plausible; it sounds authentic and seems genuine. It could be seen as criticism of the American church, or as an observation of human nature. By these descriptions you will have gathered that the story is not true.

But that does not mean it is not truthful.

Storytellers – and truth-tellers – have forever used metaphors, allegories, and capital-s Story to convey meaningful aspects of life’s relevant narratives. Jesus Himself frequently employed parables to explain the truth. “Earthly stories with heavenly meanings.”

The pastor of my youth, C. Alton Roberts, once told me that he was disappointed, not flattered, when he would greet people leaving church, and they would tell him, “I really enjoyed your sermon!” He said his aim – his mission – was more often to discomfit, challenge, prick the consciences of his congregation, not charm them. As the humorist Finley Peter Dunne said, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Whether genuine, not actually authentic, or pure fiction, how does the following “urban legend” affect you?

Pastor Jeremiah Steepek transformed himself into a homeless person, messy hair and ratty clothes, and went to the 10,000-member church where he was to be introduced as the head pastor that morning.

He walked around his soon-to-be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service. Only three people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food, but no one in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people, only to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, some people looking down on him….

As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation. “We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek!” The congregation looked around, clapping with joy and anticipation. The homeless man sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the aisle. The clapping stopped with all eyes on him. He walked up to the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment. Then he recited:

“The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

After he recited these Bible passages, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame. He then said, “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will YOU decide to become disciples?”

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We might not respond to this story as comforted… but is your soul afflicted at all? Is Christianity something we claim as a title, or live as believers? The fictional Pastor Steepek, and his alter-ego (altar-ego?) of a homeless character, was a man. When I read this I thought, beyond, of the millions of children around the world, not just destitute but even more helpless and vulnerable. Let us not turn blind eyes to them.

Click: Tears Of an Angel

Ancient Is the Next New

7-22-13

What has happened to American religion in the past generation? The solid rock of the simple gospel, the “good news,” has not changed, but other things have, radically: responses; core beliefs; church attendance; worship practices; new denominations; no denominations; new Bible translations; views of Heaven and hell and sin and salvation.

You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, as the sports expression goes. That scorecard used to be the Bible itself, but no more.

This is not a mere matter of mature believers finding their way. Is it American consumerism that gives believers the temptation to pick and choose the worship-flavor the week? Or the best concert and show on Sunday mornings? I think so, yes. And, by the way, this has led, in my opinion, to the major uncategorized denomination in America – Pick-and-Choose Theology. But that is for another time.

As a Sunday morning pilgrim and stranger of late, I notice that many churches have been treating hymns and hymnals as if they carry deadly microbes. Every song’s words are projected on big screens now (oddly, never the music, making a challenge for those not in the club, confronted with unfamiliar songs). Churches have Masters of Ceremonies. The music is pop or rock – even if most of the congregation dislikes those forms of music on their car radios. Worship is often a concert, as I say; minimal congregational singing. People are in love with the music, or a soloist, or a multi-media show… but not necessarily with Jesus.

It is significant that where once statues of saints, and meaningful religious symbols, stood behind the pulpits, many churches today have drum sets and Peavy amps. Our adoration finds focus “out of the abundance of the heart…” (Matthew 7:34).

I have been in dozens of churches where the service will be opened by someone like a pitchman in a car commercial: “Good Morning! How ARE you? I can’t hear you!! Turn around and give your neighbor a smile!!!…” Is there no place in the American church for the person who wants to enter, lay before the altar, and cry? Where do the broken-hearted sit? Is there a section for the desperately yearning? (“Oh, didn’t you get last week’s handout, telling you to turn lemons into lemonade?”)

Creeds are seldom recited any more. Tell me it is not because churches don’t believe in anything anymore. Confessions are seldom spoken, or even read. Tell me it is not because churches tell their flocks that there is no such thing – serious, anyway – as sin or hell. I’m OK; you’re OK; but this whole thing sucks. Excuse me.

The church in America is losing souls because, collectively, it has lost its own soul.

Speaking personally, I realized that the hole in my heart was that I have been missing the Liturgy. I was born Lutheran and drifted, hungry, into Pentecost, mega-churches, and other options. But starting in the first generations of the church 2000 years ago, the main tenets of Christianity were codified to answer skeptics and heresies… and Creeds were capsule statements of foundational beliefs. Likewise, the “Lord’s Prayer,” which Jesus gifted as a model prayer. Likewise the catechisms. Likewise again the bedrock hymns that stood the test of numerous generations – as sermons in song.

If the Liturgy became empty, as many of us recognized years ago, it was not the fault of the forms or the words… but in ourselves, that we grew lazy. Every part of the traditional worship service, Catholic and Protestant, represented a different essential fact about Jesus as Lord – from the Introit (entrance) to the Gloria Patria (Glory to God) to the Kyrie (Lord have mercy)… all the way to the Agnus Dei (sacrificial Jesus, the Lamb of God) and Nunc Dimitis (“Lord, let now thy servant depart in peace…”). Beautiful. Meaningful. Cliff’s Notes of the entire Bible message. Liturgy is a rite. But it is right.

I have a vision that the church of Jesus Christ can be revived in America and Europe by being what it was in the First Century. And what it is, I am happy to say, where the church IS expanding, on fire, elsewhere in the world. South of the Equator. In Asia. In persecuted lands, even. House churches, neighborhood groups, families and friends. Not “small groups” that are spinoffs from mega-church franchises; but small groups who don’t need the show biz, who gather because they want to and need to… and because they know they meet Jesus when they do.

One hopeful sign in the Post-Christian West is the Taize Community. It is an ecumenical monastic order that began in Burgundy, France in 1940. Its founder was Brother Roger Schutz, a Swiss Protestant, and its first community, on the border of Occupied and Free France, sheltered people displaced by the war, and Jews. Now its staff is more than a hundred brothers from Protestant and Catholic traditions, drawn from approximately 30 countries. They are not Catholic monks nor pastors of specific Protestant denominations; but they are people who live, and serve, in the manner of age-old monastic practices.

To describe the Taize community (and its work, for it now holds services and events around the world) is difficult, because it is disarmingly simple. It is simplistic in the manner I gave voice to above. It is not a denomination. It is truly ecumenical, asserting basic Bible beliefs. It has been accepted by churches, and former church members, across the board. Two Popes received and endorsed Brother Roger’s work; and he also received the Templeton Award, traditionally a media prize of the contemporary American church.

Every year more than 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taize for prayer, Bible study, and various projects. They commune, and then go back home, refreshed and equipped to worship in intimate group settings where they live.

Sometimes, to discover truths to guide our future, we must look backwards, in a way, to re-discover the truths of the past. Not everything “new” is good; in fact, much of it will be bad. Why have we forgotten that rule of life? Here we have examples before our eyes: youths, and new Christian believers around the world, are embracing Christ, not because of electric guitars or changing-flavor beliefs of the month, but because of the simplicity, the utter simplicity, of the gospel, and of authentic community.

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This video clip is a brief look at a Communion service in Taize (Taizé, actually; pronounced tay-ZAY), displaying the simplicity and what the brothers have been able to achieve as a harmony between foundational beliefs, traditions of the ancients, and contemporary life with its challenges. Worshipers and pilgrims return to their homes around the world, transmitting the simplicity of the gospel, of renewed lives, and of obedience.

Click: Worship at Taizé

Is There Enough Evidence To Charge Us As a Christian Nation?

7-15-13

One of the severe downsides of living in a prosperous society is… “What? Downsides? Can’t you see the glass as half full?” (I have never really understood that one. Half is half, period.) “We have achieved the greatest material prosperity in world history. America is the Promised Land for millions, and what people throughout history have dreamed about!”

Yes, all true. We are, on the whole, prosperous, well-off. And happy, even joyful. Just look at some of the signs: an epidemic of obesity proves we are well-fed. Divorce rates, suicide rates, infanticide, all at record levels in human history, indicate that were are happily well-adjusted. We are told that prejudice and hatred still run rampant; “hate crimes” are codified to resist those emotions. Even in the church: how many preachers think we are not prosperous ENOUGH, so now the “Prosperity Gospel” is preached.

And meanwhile, large sections of the church, while absorbed in such “theology,” surrenders its former domains of charity and morality, while governments and courts and media decide standards for the culture. A militant Compassion Police, without uniforms.

As I was saying, one of the downsides of living in a prosperous society… well, I have listed several already. But I think the biggest danger is the tendency of prosperity to dehumanize people. It might be ironic, but tends to be true, that the less we THINK we have to worry about sickness, poverty, hatred, and death, the less sensitive we are to those facts of life. Less aware of their implications. Less worried about those effects on other people.

The less we tend to think about eternal rewards and damnation, the less we think about Heaven as a goal of life’s long, hard journey – that is to say, less long and hard than it has been for the majority of humankind – the more irrelevant Heaven becomes.

Not obsolete, just seemingly irrelevant. What about this anomaly? Do we prohibit complacency and prosperity? Of course not. But it becomes more important a job of the church to increase the preaching about righteousness. Just as patriots, from the Founders to Ronald Reagan, recognized that Liberty is never more than one generation away from extinction.

Believers around the world are bearing unbelievable burdens these days. The last century saw more Christians martyred for their faith than in any previous century. Today, persecution, torture, slavery, displacement, ethno-religious cleansing, legal harassment, and spying are added to the deaths. Many churches in prosperous Western and first-world countries like America argue amongst themselves about Absolute Truth vs relational truth; and whether the Bible’s teachings about, say, homosexuality should be silenced, so to encourage new members to stop in; and whether there is a hell or not.

The remnant – today’s People of the Word – in America have a job that is somewhat easier, but also more challenging, than members of the persecuted church in other lands. In China, North Korea, Pakistan, and other societies, Christians risk their lives to worship and fellowship. They meet in secret places, sometimes each member hiding, then exchanging, one page of the Bible to avoid detection of the whole Book by authorities. Believers in America increasingly do battle with powers and principalities of the air; hard to see, hard to fight.

How many of those foreign believers DO those things for their faith? How many of us here AVOID things that would nurture out faith and service?

If it were against the law to be a Christian in America, would there be enough evidence to convict some of us?

Hebrews, Chapter 11, is nicknamed “the Hall of Fame of Faith,” listing many of the Old Testament heroes who were chosen, who were persecuted, who battled, who overcame, for their faith and their God. But, interesting to note, not every man and woman in the list reached the putative goal or version of the Promised Land. Some were rejected and persecuted, even killed for their faith; yet they fought on.

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

A prosperous America is a fine place, but it can be finer still – as fine as it was in our earlier days – if we keep our eyes on a yet finer place indeed: the life of God’s commands, the Heaven of God’s promises.

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Today’s musical clip is a musical encapsulation of this message. Sung plaintively, solo, by the late Rich Mullins, it sounds like an ancient biblical strain, or a slave song of the primitive church, or the lonesome sound of the Sacred Harp songbooks in America’s past. But it was written about a half-century ago by Albert E Brumley Sr… and has been embraced by the white and black churches, rural and “mainstream,” in church services and concerts alike. It calls to us. If you “can’t feel at home in the world any more”… maybe your spirit is in a good place.

Click: This World Is Not My Home

Home

7-7-13

The man was an “average believer,” or maybe an average non-believer. A lot of people find themselves in spiritual comfort-zones in Post-Christian societies. When we are told that we are born as basically good beings; that sin is a matter of contemporary, and changing, points of view; that “doing good” should guarantee our place in Heaven (if there is a Heaven); that a loving God (if there is a God) would never send one of His children to hell (if there is a hell); and so forth – when people are told such things, they easily can resist appeals to repentance. To deal with their problems.

When churches themselves, over and above the secular media and the community of counselors, hold such ideas, that people can barely navigate the turbulent seas of morality and spirituality is a certainty. And a certainty – as with this man we visit today – to be insecure. More: frequently, if privately, terrified.

He was having a heart-to-heart talk with God. He was not convinced that God existed – through the years he went back and forth on that issue – but it seemed to be a good way to organize his thoughts.

“God, I read Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins,’ and I liked it. I know it is criticized for being ‘Universalist,’ arguing that You will keep everyone from hell in the end. Can I confess? I liked it because I thought I found a book that will support my desire to avoid the Hard Questions that You ask. In other words, a loophole.

He thought he heard God answer, “It IS My desire that none should perish. But My Son the Messiah said that no one shall come to Me except through Him.”

The man said, “I know these things; anyway, I have heard them. But this Heaven thing… I don’t know if it exists. Or if it so important. And hell? Sometimes it’s like I’ve already been through hell here on earth. Why is this so important?” He grew agitated. “I once heard Rob Bell speak and he criticized that old hymn I used to love, ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ and he said he wishes he could rip it out of every songbook.”

He continued; “Rob Bell said that we shouldn’t wish for Heaven – we have work to do here on earth. That people who desire Heaven so much are missing the point of being Christ-followers.”

He thought he heard God say, “It is good to hope. Some people cannot identify with the meek and the suffering who seek release. It is well that my Children keep their eyes on Heaven; seek first the Kingdom of God.”

The man felt confused. Does desiring Heaven imply that we should be eager to die? And how much do we do to earn Heaven? “By grace you are saved, not by works,” he heard God say.

He sensed God challenging him, even as he doubled down on his skepticism.

God said: “I have sent a Perfect example to guide you through life, to Heaven.”

The man said: “Perfect? Jesus was arrested, thrown in prison, and executed like a criminal.”

God said: “Look, I have made it such that a strong, loving hand will take yours.”

The man said: “That hand? It is bloody, and has a hole in it.”

God said: “The fullness of the Godhead is in this Guide I have sent you.”

The man said: “I know all the verses, God, but, still, if Jesus ‘died for me,’ why am I still unhappy? Why is there still injustice in the world? Why the sickness, cruelty, hunger? Why should I think about some far-away Heaven?”

For a while he didn’t hear the voice he thought was God’s. Had it all been a dream? Surely He hadn’t stumped the Creator of the Universe!

Presently he thought he heard the same, warm voice as before: “There are already multitudes of angels who know not sin nor sorrow; but neither do they know the joy of overcoming… of salvation. You are not an angel; you are more precious to Me. My children, like you, will be touched by pain and sorrow – that “vale of tears” – because there IS sin in the world. But, accepting My salvation, you can know joy unspeakable in this life. And thereby know that there is a mansion in Heaven, awaiting you.”

And, “This world’s people once knew Me as so holy as to be unapproachable. Works, sacrifice, rituals – humankind tried it all. I wanted My children to know Me through a humbler manifestation. A poor baby, born to despised parents, living as a man, then as a servant and teacher; a healer; a Savior; finally a resurrected and risen Incarnation. If you cannot understand My holy will through this, if you cannot reconcile your duty on earth and your hope of Heaven…”

The man thought the voice trailed off. But he understood things differently. He would walk, and work, and believe, and serve, and be obedient, because he sensed the presence of Guide who would assure him that one day he might “fly away,” but in the meantime – through this “vale of tears” – that Guide would be saying, “Home: Come on home!”

“Home, come on home. Ye who are weary, come home.”
Softly and tenderly calling, “Home, come on home.”

Sometimes when I’m feeling lonesome, And no one on earth seems to care,
I’m all by myself in the darkness With no one and nothing to share.
Just when it feels like it’s hopeless, And I’ll never make it alone,
I hear the voices of angels, Tenderly calling me home.

I try to keep it together, I never let on that I’m scared,
Still sometimes I fall to pieces, Scattered and lost everywhere.
Just when it feels like there’s no one To mend all my broken-down dreams,
I hear a voice deep inside me, Tenderly calling to me:

“Home, come on home. Ye who are weary, come home.”
Softly and tenderly calling, “Home, come on home.”

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Today’s musical clip is not “I’ll Fly Away,” nor even the familiar “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is calling,” but the beautiful contemporary song “Tenderly Calling,” quoted in the blog essay. It was a song from John Denver’s next-to-last album. The graphics are by the eternally amazing Beanscot.

Click: Tenderly Calling

“Now We Are Engaged In a Great Civil War”

6-31-13 / 4th of July, 2013

The Fourth of July is as close as the United States has to a secular holy day. Considering that actual holy days rapidly are becoming secularized, July 4th deserves our attention, more than mere celebrations. The days around July 4th are when the rebellious representatives of the American colonies put their names (“and fortunes, and sacred honor”) to a revolutionary declaration that continues to stir hearts around the world. The days around July 4th are when the ragtag Rough Riders, on the heights above Santiago, Cuba, fought through withering gunfire on open ground and captured Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, effectively sealing the land operations of the enemy in the Spanish-American War.

And the days preceding July 4th – three long, bloody, momentous days – are when the Army of Virginia’s invasion of the North was repulsed in the streets, wooded hills, and fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There, and in faraway Vicksburg, Mississippi, which surrendered to the US Army’s forces of Gen. Grant on the 4th itself, the outcome of the Civil War largely was sealed. Hundreds of thousands of deaths still lay ahead, but the dreamers and the fearful in the North and South alike generally apprehended the outcome.

The coincidence of significant national events around July 4th is just that, a coincidence. But modern holidays are observed too often as artificial consolidations for vacationers and retailers. The Declaration of Independence, the impromptu heroism and success represented by the Spanish-American War, and the salvation of the Union – and the hundreds of noble impulses and human dramas that hover, as benign angels, over Gettysburg’s fields – are well worthy of our contemplation today.

“Revisionist” history has become a cottage industry of late. Napoleon defined history as “lies agreed upon” by succeeding generations. To challenge conventional wisdom is seldom a bad thing, even when Revisionists have points of view to advance. But the exercise – that is, a society’s discussions and considerations of new viewpoints – is beneficial only so far as solid facts underlay. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

So it becomes a disgrace when bad history, or, worse, “no” history replaces the proper sense of heritage in a culture. We read polls today that large percentages of American youth do not know why the colonies sought independence; who major presidents were; why important wars were fought. I am afraid (in the context of a pop-culture society, which we are) that more teenagers know Lincoln as a vampire slayer than as the central character of another movie, “Lincoln.”

Recent events persuade me that we might be engaged in another civil war, or its opening stages. And it is hard to answer, or resist, or overcome, when you have no sense of self, in a civic context. How can we know who we are and where we are when we don’t know how we arrived here?

But among the things we do know – or should know – is that a nation was founded on a set of noble ideals, dedicated over and over again to God, and was established in various places and by people of different backgrounds with a common, burning devotion to liberty. Or, to be precise, an UNcommon devotion… unique in human history. Among the anomalies the founders knew would have to be solved, never assuming it would be easy, was the institution of slavery. When the time came, men – and their wives and children – took a collective breath and prosecuted a grinding, nightmarish, burdensome conflict. A somewhat bloodier reflection, Lincoln was wont to wonder, of slavery itself: perhaps national penance for its sin.

Past the fratricide and carnage, a century and a half later, we still are astonished by the bravery and nobility and sacrifice and endurance and faith of those soldiers.

Theodore Roosevelt said, when he visited Gettysburg: “As long as this Republic endures or its history is known, so long shall the memory of the Battle of Gettysburg likewise endure and be known; and as long as the English tongue is understood, so long shall Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech thrill the hearts of mankind.”

Every American should know this by heart:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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Julia Ward Howe, a poetess, met President Lincoln in the White House in November, 1861. That night, as a guest at the nearby Willard Hotel, she responded to requests to write new words to the popular song “John Brown’s Body Lies A-Moldering in the Grave.” It was an incitement to fight the Confederacy, but Mrs Howe took it a step further, writing the immortal Battle Hymn of the Republic to its tune. Ironically, Mrs Howe’s life-long crusades included abolitionism, women’s suffrage… and pacifism. But she knew that some battles were proper to fight. This amazing video clip is of Judy Collins performing before tens of thousands of citizens on the National Mall 30 years ago, with the US Army Band Soldiers’ Chorus, and the Harlem Boys Choir. Significantly, Judy sings some little-known verses – reminding us that this is a Christian hymn, not just a battle song.

Click: Battle Hymn Of the Republic

You Can Move That Mountain… Even with Sandpaper

6-24-13

There is a town about an hour northwest of Florence, Carrara, that, after many visits to Italy, I finally had to see. More precisely: after visiting the statues of Michelangelo so often – the Pieta; David; Moses – I needed to see this town. Carrara, on Tuscany’s Mediterranean coast, holds the marble quarries that yielded the chunks that became his awesome masterpieces. And Carrara remains the source of the world’s great marble.

There is something extra special about Carrarian marble – its tone and texture. And there was something special about sculptors from Renaissance Italy – their anointed skills. I am only one of adoring millions of cultural tourists who wonder at the humanity exuding from rock. At the spiritual statements that can emanate from chiseled stone. Especially, from the viewpoint of a creator, HOW the sculptures could be so smooth and seemingly supple and glowing and close to perfection.

These days Carrarian marble is harvested by workers with mighty machines, bulldozers, and sophisticated drills and band-saws. But in Michelangelo’s day it was harvested by a fascinating process. Somewhere on the face of a mountain, at top or on a craggy slope, a monolithic section was identified, destined for statues or building columns or the facings of public monuments. (The pock-marks in the ruins of the Coliseum, by the way, are not the result of some battles, but when its beautiful marble facing was deemed to be of better, decorative use elsewhere in Rome, sections were pulled off for recycling. Easier than cutting massive new blocks from Carrara.)

Workers of Michelangelo’s day in the marble quarries looked for a crack, no matter how small. A small wooden wedge was hammered into that crack. You wonder: did that make the massive chunk fall off conveniently? No; it merely wedged into its narrow space. But workers would pour water over the soft wooden wedge, as much as it would soak up. The next day, the expansion of the wood – strange as it may seem – expanded that crack ever so slightly. Then the workers inserted a slightly larger wedge, and soaked that too.

… and so on, until the coveted chunk of marble was ready to break loose from the mountainside. Of course, harnessing the rock, navigating its fall, and transporting it to Florence, Rome, and beyond, were different challenges in themselves.

But then, to the master’s hand. Masters like Michelangelo Buonarotti were able to transform those cold slabs of rock. Did they extract humanity from stone, or imbue humanity? Such points of view are for another discussion. But I can tell you, if you have not done so, standing in front of his Pieta transports one to a spiritual realm. Much larger than life; multiple wrinkles of fabric appear genuinely silky; we see anatomical precision; and the faces – more, the “body language” of Mary holding her Son taken from the cross, and the dead Jesus, relieved of torture and strife – are miracles in themselves.

You can stand for hours, looking, identifying, grieving, loving. Being loved. The Gospel story bursts forth from the onetime ugly hunk of rock… but bursts gently. This is a momentary portrait of a dead Man, yet is also a portrait of Life.

And it is a life lesson that the marble quarries at Carrara, and the exquisite statue of the master Michelangelo, has for us. As I noticed the smooth skin of Mary’s face, the soft folds of her robe, and the shiny, smooth skin of Jesus – I beheld a life-lesson.

There are rough mountains in life. We can be “mountains” ourselves: parts of things, often big, bad things, and we wait to be liberated. Myriad happenstances in life will chip away at us; maybe we will fall; sometimes we feel like we are shattered. But then we are taken under care of the Master’s Hand. Even then, we must be prepared for more hammers and chisels, knocking away the unnecessary parts of our life. When we look at unfinished pieces by Michelangelo and Rodin, we can still see the rough marks of chisels, scars-before-the-fact. The process is sometimes long, and never without “hard knocks.”

But those wooden wedges, day by day, slowly expanding until they literally split mountains apart, can remind us God’s persistence, as well as His gentle methods to transform us unto better, more beautiful things. In MY case, I know that is as daunting as moving a mountain. But God can do it.

And there is the other end of the process. The features that give the Pieta and other sculptures their miraculous, other-worldly look – the smooth, shining, flowing surfaces, the appearance of glowing from within – are thanks to the tiniest of all the tools in the whole process! After mighty work in the quarries, transporting, chopping away, making stony chunks fall to the studio floor and fill the air with clouds of rocky particles, the final work of FINISHING is done with the smallest files, and the finest-grain sandpaper.

Marble is receptive to the microscopic burnishing that finishes the sculpture and provides the smooth texture. So it is with the real Master’s hand. It is easy enough for us to accept – intellectually – that major events can affect us, and that God can be in the re-ordering of our steps.

But we should realize, too, that the Holy Spirit often works to finish the work begun with our salvation – to live purified, spiritual, sanctified lives – with a type of holy sandpaper. Reminders, improvements, encouragement, deeper knowledge, fuller trust, richer faith, and peace that passes understanding: these are the grains of sand that bring us to look as God wants to see us.

So the smallest things (even the daily annoyances, until we “make all things work for good”) we should accept as little applications of the Creator’s hand, perfecting and finishing our faith. Oh, how marble-ous!

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Please watch today’s music-video, a spirited rehearsal by a youth choir of “Lead Me To the Rock” – with its references to this message. But it also represents a fascinating travelogue that most Americans, and American Christians, would find remote and surprising. No, not Renaissance Italy – but northeast India. On the border of Myanmar (Burma) is the state of Nagaland, whose main city is Bangalore. Its 2-million inhabitants are predominantly of Indo-Mongol racial stock, and predominantly Christian. In fact the state is between 95 and 99 per cent Christian. There is a higher percentage of Baptists in Nagaland than in any American state; and there are Pentecostals, Revivalists, and Catholics. Very few Hindus, and fewer Muslims. Jesus dwells in those beautiful hills – how many Americans know of this place? English is the official language of Nagaland. Here, visit with the Naga Christian Fellowship Bangalore. And they clap on the back beats! (“Friends should not let friends clap on the first beat.”)

Click: Lead Me To the Rock

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marble for statue

Jesus and Mary

The “Daddy Plan” – Two Months or 100 Years?

6-17-13

Thinking about Father’s Day, there is someone in the news who, perversely, might be deemed “Father of The Year.” Not that he is a great role model, or has been honored by his children. Someone named Desmond Hatchett has fathered 30 children by 11 different women in the past few years.

Proud, not ashamed, of himself (“the wimmins just be lovin’ me”), Hatchet recently petitioned the courts to reduce or void his child support requirements. Although a previous court divided his financial responsibilities among the children he was found to have fathered (some of them slated to receive, thereby, $1.47 a month), he claims that chronic unemployment, partly due to his criminal record, prevents him from meeting the obligation.

In some American cities, unwed pregnancies account for 70 per cent of births, at least among certain ethnic groups. To discuss ethnicity in relation to such social maladies is virtually verboten in today’s politically correct culture. We will never “right the ship” in America unless honest debates return: it is just as wrong, for instance, to excuse a person due to race, as it is to condemn a person because of race. And that applies from reckless baby-makers to presidents. Nobody is immune from personal responsibilities, and nobody is immune from the responsibility to address social and spiritual crises.

Similarly, it is a mistake to exempt some citizens – that is to say, every citizen – from frank discussions. I take the news item about Daddy Hatchett as a take-off point for this essay. But illegitimacy, irresponsible parenting, crummy and absent fathers infest every group, every class, every race, and, yes, the church population too… almost in the same numbers as the overall population.

The courts can only go so far (except when they overturn deep traditions and voters’ referenda about, say homosexual marriage and legalized drugs), but it is a sad commentary how they address irresponsible fathers. Enforced employment? Prison? Sterilization? No, child support, alone, is the routine application of justice. Justice… to the children? And child support frequently goes unpaid, and often is scarcely sufficient, even on paper, to begin with.

But officially, when we are at a cultural crisis, the System’s official definition of Fatherhood is boiled down to “child support.” Spare change, and you’re done, dad.

To read other headlines, you would think that neglect, abuse, and all manner of dysfunction inhabit every home on Main Street, every apartment on Broadway, in contemporary America. To the extent this is true (and can we all generally agree we live in a flawed, corrupt, society?) let us fix things, starting with the nearest mirror we can find, and proceeding: our households, our larger families, our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, our governments and courts, our nation.

It is proper to relate all those problems, and all these areas where solutions can be made, to Fatherhood.

Fathers are heads of households, or should be (I mean there should BE fathers present in family units). Fathers are role models. Mothers make physical sacrifices; fathers do, too, but must add to the qualities of nurture. Guidance and example, counsel and wisdom, integrity in the workplace and in relationships, forbearance and leadership, strength and tenderness. All in ways much different than mothers’ duties to their children. Not more or less important, but, certainly, different.

It is best to look beyond the statistics and the poor examples in our news and neighborhoods. Work to correct… but look beyond. We should even look beyond the great examples – surely we all have them! – of our own loving fathers, tender parents, grandfathers who dispensed wisdom. For those of us whose fathers were heroes, as I can say, and who miss them every day, even then, even on Father’s Days, we may look past them.

The example is our Heavenly Father. Almighty, Omnipotent, Giver of life and of laws, Who loves us so much that His Son gave Himself so that all His other children might be free of their sins and commune eternally with Him. Father. “Abba” in the Bible – it means “Daddy”!

There is a story that James Abram Garfield, 20th president of the US, once gave advice to a father who asked about the possibility of the man’s son’s short-cutting his training. “Certainly,” Garfield is supposed to have replied. “But it all depends on what you want to make of your boy. When God wants to make an oak tree, He takes a hundred years. When He wants to make a squash, He requires only two months.”

The story says a lot about the type of children we may produce in this country. But it also says a lot about the proper attitude of proper fathers in this country.

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One of the great sentimental songs about Daddy was written by Elsie McWilliams and Jimmie Rodgers, and recorded by Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music.” Elsie was Jimmie’s sister-in-law and wrote many of his hits. Here it is performed with feeling by Tanya Tucker, a tribute to her own dad.

Click: Daddy and Home

Western Civilization “Already a Wreck from Within”

6-10-13

I recently visited an exhibition of biblical artifacts that, weeks later, still has me breathless. Properly, the traveling exhibition called “Passages” is an enormous presentation of ancient texts, original documents – letters from the early Church Fathers; even a portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls – illuminated manuscripts, Torah scrolls, first printings of the Bibles of Wycliffe, Tyndale, Gutenberg, Calvin, and more.

One item particularly caught my attention: a letter – not a reproduction, you understand – from Martin Luther to a friend, written the night before his trial before in Worms, Germany. He thought it likely he would be convicted of heresy, surely then to be tortured and executed. So there were elements of a Last Will. But in a slight rehearsal, he wrote in strong words that were spoken the very next day – that before God and his conscience, he could not recant what he had written about the Bible and about corruption in the Church.

I lingered over this letter. It is not only a foundational document of the Protestant Reformation; nor is it merely a notable artifact by a famous figure in history. That humble hand-written letter is one of the great documents of mankind, representing a fulcrum of history. Metaphorically, a stone thrown into the lake of Western civilization, and among its ripples were the liberty of men and women to know Scripture on their own… the invitation to people to learn to read… to be free to think… to challenge people in authority… to worship freely. These were the ripples that also empowered people to assemble freely and form their societies and governments just as they could run their churches.

The simple letter represented a wind that would blow across Europe to the American colonies and back to Europe, ultimately around the world. Religion, philosophy, the arts, science, economics, and government were never the same.

It is seldom that one document can represent so much: sum up, codify, and forecast great shifts in human history.

Another such document is a book, an American book. I thought of it this week, with everything going on in the headlines. It once was a best-seller, and its author one of the major celebrities of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Except for occasional historical reassessments, the book and its author have tended to slip into relative obscurity. And that is why every year or two, I re-visit “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers.

Chambers was a genius, a sensitive product of a troubled family. He drifted for a while in the corridors of intellectual and artistic pursuits, a student at Columbia University and a convert to radicalism. He became a Communist, and a spy; he also translated “Bambi” to great acclaim. He underwent a spiritual journey that led to his break with Communism, and embracing of Christ. Thus began his painful testimony against former friends in the Communist underground who had risen to the highest posts in government.

It was his conflicts — the pain of revealing old friends as enemies of the nation, of the American heritage, of Christianity; as well as his one-time adherence to these heresies – that makes “Witness” compelling reading. Chambers captured the sweep of history and the war of ideas. He precisely defined the choices that thoughtful people of his generation had to make, in eloquent, persuasive words.

… those choices still confront people today. Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss are dead. So are Stalin and his Soviet Union. Yes, the American flag still waves.

But the brutal choices of the recent century still confront us: liberty vs tyranny; spirituality vs secularism; values vs relativism; the Bible vs “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx. The choices should be easy. They always have been easy. But the wrong choices almost prevailed in Chambers’ day. And it is clear they are losing today, in America, in Western Civilization.

At a flash-point in Chambers’ conversion, he wrote in “Witness”:

At some point, I sought relief from my distress by trying to pray … As I continued to pray raggedly, prayer ceased to be an awkward and self-conscious act. It became a daily need to which I looked forward … The torrent that swept through me … swept my spirit clear to discern one truth: “Man without mysticism is a monster.” I do not mean, of course, that I denied the usefulness of reason and knowledge. What I grasped was that religion begins at the point where reason and knowledge are powerless and forever fail — the point at which man senses the mystery of his good and evil, his suffering and his destiny as a soul in search of God.

This brings me, here today, full circle, because Martin Luther, the harbinger and prophet of individualism, freedom, and democracy, also once declared that “Reason is the enemy of Faith.” Does this mean we are to reject our learning, distrust our intelligence, deny science? No! But it does remind us that Man cannot serve two masters.

This week, many citizens are face-to-face with a situation that seems like it is from another popular book of the recent past, “1984” (Saturday was the 64th anniversary of its publication, coincidentally). Americans are reaping a harvest of years of social policies that encouraged trust in the state before trust in God. We see the fruits of denying God in schoolhouses and courthouses – a culture and an Establishment that have no anchors, adrift. And a government that has grown to be a power unto itself, seeking us ill instead of serving us first.

Whittaker Chambers, despite his spiritual conversion, was convinced he had joined the losing side in the world’s great, historic battle. Liberty against tyranny; self-reliance against entitlements. He was aware of the forces at work. He knew how the public could be flattered into submission. He was familiar with the ways of infiltration and subversion. Whittaker Chambers wrote to Bill Buckley toward the end of his life a rueful assessment and prediction:

The enemy – he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within.

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When society – Western Civilization itself – is threatened and seems doomed, we need to remind ourselves of one sure thing on which we may rely: It is described in Psalm 62:2, “He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be greatly moved.” Millions of people have found comfort in this truth through the hymn composed by Augustus M. Toplady in 1775. This impressive video features a performance of “Rock of Ages” by the Antrim Mennonite Choir, thanks to the Sesamonte Channel.

“Witness” and other books by Chambers are in print today, published by Regnery. Click “Passages” for information about the biblical artifacts exhibition.

Click: Rock of Ages

Not ‘God Bless You’ but ‘God Blessed You!’

6-3-13

Do you have memories that come unbidden to your mind? There is one I have recalled a thousand times through the years. Not a bad recollection; in all, a good memory; but it convicts me – there is always a little wince that accompanies it.

Decades ago, before I married, I worked in Manhattan for a newspaper syndicate, editing comics and columns. Often I worked late and would walk cross-town in the dark to catch a late train. But one evening it was bitterly cold, and I hopped a bus. As I settled into my seat I overheard an elderly couple behind me sharing the fact that the icy cold obliged them, too, to take the bus despite the fact that an occasional bus fare affected their meager budgets.

It was hard not to listen, as they sat right behind me. They were friends, maybe closer than friends. She shared some cute facts about what she had done during the day: little babies she saw; fancy window displays; how she called to a lady who had dropped her gloves; and how she couldn’t wait to meet her companion for what was this impromptu and warm bus ride. For his part, he told little stories about people he met and conversations he had. A magazine article he read at the Public Library; music he heard outside the Record Hunter store. They had each stopped at churches during their day. With delight, he said he bought some hot chestnuts. He opened the bag and they shared them.

This sounds almost charming, but – shame on me – I let other senses trump my sentimentality. I turned my head as if to look at something out the window, and could see that they were as ragged as could be. Today, in political correctness, they would be filed away as “homeless.” They probably had homes, or shelters, but anyway were clearly in extremely straitened circumstances. They exuded an aroma – wet clothes on a warm bus – that was redolent of urine and other city smells. Shame on me, I moved to another seat.

My new seat, however, let me observe them better. They took joy in each other’s stories and little gifts, in each other’s smiles and eyes. It is a cliché to say they didn’t care about each other’s clothes or fragrance; and I didn’t know about their commitments or relations, but they loved each other. They loved being with each other. I don’t think I have ever seen another couple so much in love as those two raggedy denizens of the bus.

I shed tears for them – not in pity, not at all. I was touched, I was envious, I was scolding myself: I almost missed, and dismissed, an example of pure and unconditional love as we seldom see in this life. I realized this was a manifestation of Jesus’ love for us. Jesus could have been the dispenser of love as I beheld; He should always be the recipient of love that we are told to share “even unto the least of these.”

And… I had a sense that these people were, in a way, manifestations of myself relative to Jesus. Believe me, for I know: there is no one more raggedy, at times, and stinky too, than I. I am speaking metaphorically – but not sarcastically. There we sit, ungainly, unattractive, reeking of sin and who knows what else… and Jesus comes alongside us with a smile. And joyful words. And little gifts. In a warm, comforting place. With the assurance of friendship. More: love. Pure and unconditional.

How odd, I thought then, and think now, a thousand recollections later. Finding another person who shares such love, in this world, is actually a rare occurrence, precious and to be cherished.

… when the love of Jesus, freely offered and available to every one of us – especially those who need it most – is often ignored or rejected. Odd, and sad.

Those raggedy denizens of the bus were happier, and luckier – that is, more blessed – than they knew, I thought. God bless them. But on second thought, I think they knew quite well how happy and “lucky” they were indeed. And such a realization, when it happens to any of us, is even rarer than the fact.

How often do we say “God bless you”? How much more often should we recognize reality, and encourage people, and say, “God blessed you!”

“I have learned how to be content with whatever I have” (Philippians 4:11b).

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Approaching Jesus, or receiving Him, surely is a “come as you are” party. Not only are there no conditions He places on fellowship, or healing our wounds, or receiving our confessions or needs – it would be as ridiculous as thinking we have to bathe before we take a shower. He already knows not only who we are, already, but how we are. So we approach Him “Just As I Am.” There is powerful meaning in the old hymn, here sung in a Celtic version by Eden’s Bridge. Designed by the great Beanscot Channel.

Click: Just As I Am

‘Thanksgiving’ Was Already Taken

5-27-13

Hey, Soldier. Or Sailor, Airman, Marine. Late servicemen, fallen or passed on.

It’s Memorial Day. Your day.

Back when all the holidays meant something – and meant something different – this began as “Decoration Day.” When people decorated military graves, or commemorative statues, or monuments and plaques.

That’s why I’m addressing you as one group, and as anonymous veterans, because Decoration Day was designed to memorialize, to remember and honor, dead servicemen and women. All of you. You know, on the Fourth of July we celebrate our independence; on Veterans’ Day we honor the retired military among us.

That’s the way it was supposed to be. Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day, maybe because the act of placing decorative flowers and flags was becoming an empty gesture. Or simply wasn’t being done that much anymore. Whatever: most Americans think of it now as “the beginning of summer,” the vacation season. So, backyard barbecues have replaced parades and cemetery services.

Maybe that’s what you fought for, and many of you died for. “The American Way of Life.” My dad didn’t fight in World War II because he hated the Nazis or Japs like the government told him to hate; he didn’t even believe that Main Streets in the American heartland were about to be invaded. He volunteered and served because it was his duty. That’s another old-fashioned concept.

The dirty little secret about history is that the best fighting forces have met success not because they hated, but because they loved. You American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines, in your graves through the land – throughout the world, sometimes buried where you fell – loved the flag, loved your people, your homes, your Main Streets; and you loved the concepts of duty and honor.

Most of you guys are probably like my father, and would tell me that you just “did what you had to do,” and most of your kids are probably like me, in awe of dedication and sacrifice. You would tell us to honor the people in uniform right now, and we do.

I am aching to ask you questions, if I could: is it different now? Today we fight enemies so far from our shores, toward victories that have not been defined. So often fulfilling missions to build roads and schools and deliver classroom computers, when back home here, where many military spouses are on food stamps, there are American communities in need of roads and schools and classroom computers.

I know one thing that’s not different, because I have met some of the returning service people today, and have seen them on TV too. The uniforms still grace good people; people who have a sense of honor and duty; brave people who serve because service is honorable.

So maybe if anything is different now, it’s not the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines; and maybe, when all is said and done, it’s not so much the service they are asked to perform. Maybe the biggest difference is what kind of America they have been fighting for, what Main Streets they return to. I pray they are not much different than those of your day.

… but it was you men and women, now in your graves and represented in those memorials, who brought us to the point where we can even discuss these questions. You didn’t give us Freedom – God did that – but you all defended it. You knew the difference, and you did it well. Often it was brutally difficult, and usually it was far, far away from your homes.

So I’m going to tell you about trips we will take, many of us, this Memorial Day. Not as far away as your places of service and sacrifice. Some of us are not close to our relatives’ military graves, but all of us are close to some military grave or memorial. I am going to suggest that we, the living, pick some flowers or buy some flowers, or get a little flag, and visit a military cemetery. Or any cemetery, and then look for a military emblem on the stone. Or a town’s war memorial. We are going to place a “decoration,” maybe a thank-you letter or a prayer, to brighten your memory and honor you… whoever you are. We are going to pray thanksgiving for your service. For those of us who cannot get out, we are going to make that trip in our minds.

My friend Ron Ferdinand drew an absolutely brilliant Sunday page for this year’s Memorial Day. Dennis the Menace, of all places! Check it out, if you can. Dennis and Good Ol’ Mister Wilson, and Mrs Wilson, are discussing the meaning, and the changing names, of Memorial Day. Dennis observes: “Maybe it’s called Memorial Day because ‘Thanksgiving Day’ was already taken.”

I look forward to visiting the grave of a stranger. I will symbolically shake your hand, and salute you. You represent much that was great about America. You represented us. God bless you.

Dennis the Menace

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Many songs – patriotic, traditional, military – could follow this message. I have chosen this old Johnny Cash recitation that decorates the memories of our late military members with the colors red, white, and blue.

Click: That Ragged Old Flag

Paradise Lost: Notes from the Post-Christian Front

5-13-13

“To sacrifice what you are, and to live without belief: that is a fate more terrible than dying.” So declared Joan of Arc. “One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it.” Joan was a martyr, but she was also a revolutionary. No less a hero of the faith was Martin Luther a few centuries later. Offered a pardon from excommunication, torture, and death if he merely recanted his written opinions, he declined and said to his accusers words that have thundered through the ages: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Heresies nibbled around the edges of the early Church two thousand years ago. Often they were persuasive enough to some believers that creeds were codified in order to resist error. “What do we believe? Let us keep things fresh in our minds, and write these principles down, that we might meditate on them, and bequeath them, properly, to our children.”

Today most churches have forgotten the creeds. Protestant churches often ignore them. Many churches no longer recite the Lord’s Prayer. There is no vacuum, however: their places have been filled by rituals like Exchanging the Peace. “Peace be with you.” A holy kiss. A three-pat hug. We care, as Christ commended. Programs exist to facilitate, and prove, that caring impulse, for all the world to see.

The impulses that Jesus admonished us to adopt, as His followers – charity, for instance – frequently have been co-opted by governments. It would be wrong to say that the Modern State has been a pickpocket or a thief of our prerogatives and rights and inclinations, however. Contemporary Christians largely have surrendered the traditional tenets of their faith, willingly ceding the role of the church to the state. No “separation” there.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” So declared Satan in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Book I, 254-255. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” (263).

The Bible predicts that in the End Times, people will call evil good, and good evil. Even the saints – devout churchgoers – will be deceived. Even believers will have “itching ears” ready to listen to perversions of the Truth and excuses for immorality.

In recent days the trial of a Philadelphia abortionist accused by his employees of killing babies after live births, and causing the deaths of some mothers, has trickled through the filters of news media that do not think such atrocities are newsworthy… or blameworthy. He was found guilty, and Planned Parenthood hoped the killing would continue… but in facilities “cleaner” than Philadelphia’s angel of death. A Cleveland man is accused of imprisoning three girls as sex slaves for a decade, inducing abortions by physical abuse. Elsewhere, judges who prevent 15-year-old girls from having aspirin pills or cigarettes in school, ruled that girls of that age, and younger – no age restrictions – can buy “abortion pills” over the counter, with no doctors’ approvals nor parental notifications.

We have been taught that ancient cultures practiced infant sacrifice to appease their gods, and we have been taught to regard those societies as triangulated somewhere in the middle of barbaric, primitive, and deluded. Just so. But what is it about our own culture – Our GDP and economy? wide-screen TVs? iPods? college degrees? sports cars? – that makes us any different?

We sacrifice children, even babies, to the gods of Convenience, of Lust, of Selfishness, of Political Correctness. The older cultures burned babies on flaming pyres, or threw them into volcanoes. We sever babies’ necks and toss them into dumpsters, or let them sift between the culture’s cracks into basement dungeons or for sale to “trafficking” networks.

This, in Christian America. Or what has become – let us be honest, no longer “threatening” to become – Post-Christian America.

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How many of us long to return to simpler times? Do we need to be in the shadow of Solomon’s Temple? Is there no substitute for the fire of the First-Century Church? Should we burn with the fervor of biblical reform, as did Martin Luther? Must we sit under “hard preaching,” as Puritans under Jonathan Edwards? Maybe. But some of us would just like to live in a world, again, where a simple “mother’s faith” nurtured us, protected us, guided us. And these scenes were sacred, not ridiculed.

Click: My Mother’s Faith

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More