Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

God Forgets Our Sins. We Forget His Blessings.

8-31-15

When I was a “baby Christian” I had been familiar with scripture verses and Bible stories, but was new in the personal knowledge of the salvation message and a relationship with God in Christ. When “born again” I often prayed in a certain way that I thought was appropriately humble.

I began my prayers – and sometimes filled them and ended them – with confessions of unworthiness. I was conscious of my lowly status before God. A sinner who felt presumptuous to approach the Throne of God. This realization was humbling, and I thought was a step forward in my proper relationship with God. A spiritual breakthrough.

In fact, it is just the opposite. The pilgrim’s progress on the way to Heaven, to the presence of God for eternity, certainly has way-stations of setbacks but also, yes, those of clear realizations. It is hard to move to the next spiritual step until we approach, appreciate, and pass by the stages that include, say, the overwhelming understanding that the gulf between a Holy God and us, lowly sinners, is enormous.

The consciousness of sin, and the awareness that we cannot save ourselves, is essential in our walk. Likewise the full knowledge of God’s awesome holiness. But…

… these steps come during our journey, not after we are assured of Heaven and the security of forgiveness and acceptance. When we achieve Heaven there will be no shadow of turning, no doubts, no anxiety about past transgressions, no nervous feelings that we have sins yet to be dealt with.

In fact we can know that peace now. No Pearly Gates, no giant book with ledger-sheets of good and bad.

When we are saved, we are saved. The Bible speaks of judgments, yes, and also crowns and treasures delivered after we are in Heaven. Whether we can “lose” our salvation before Heaven is occasionally debated by theologians… but not that we can lose it in Heaven. These are all mysteries that fill us with joy, but not with dread or even insecurity. God does not issue counterfeit entrance passes. There will be no U-Turns once you get to Glory.

The Joy Unspeakable we can know now is because of a simple fact. When we invite Jesus into our hearts, where He lives and reigns after our happy surrender to Him, God looks at us and… sees Jesus. He sees the “new” us. And the Bible tells us that when we receive Him, and receive the forgiveness He promises, we are forgiven indeed.

He casts our sins over His shoulder into a sea of forgetfulness. God can do anything, but in that mystery He forgets our sins: He chooses not to remember them. Not only in Heaven, but now, He remembers our transgressions no more. A neat trick. Thank God. Literally.

And that means those prayers couched in abject humility as a sinner, groveling in guilt and unworthiness, are out of place in the life of a born-again, saved and redeemed believer. Once upon a time, appropriate – even necessary – but no more! We stand on our feet, washed and covered by Jesus’s Atonement, and approach the Throne of Grace! He looks at us, and sees the Blood.

There is another side to the coin. Just as we tend, unnecessarily, to remind God of sins that He has forgotten, how often do we forget our prayers that He has answered? How often do we neglect the Source of gifts and good things? How often do we fail to thank Him for uncountable blessings?

In my case, I’m afraid the answer is “often.” Probably with you, too.

Those items of Neglect are sins. God is the author of all good things, and whether we rudely fail to acknowledge His move in our lives, or simply (?) ignore the grateful responses due Him, we horribly fall short. Salvation is not free – the sacrifice paid by Jesus made God cry, not only Mary – but it is easy, and it is eternal.

Surely, after He has forgotten our sins forever, we can occasionally remember His forgiveness, His blessings, His love.

We have traded our dirty clothes for a shining robes, and a crown, and diamonds in that crown. Remember what awaits. We have foretastes even now. Let us act like we know it!

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Click: A Diamond in My Crown

Angels Among Us

8-24-15

Angel-mania seems to have cooled off in our culture. A few years ago there was a spike in television shows and movies about angels. Angels who adorned jewelry and ornaments were common. In these manifestations, among the unchurched as well as with Christians, there was an acceptance of angels that transcended their biblical roles.

No: “transcended” is the wrong word. Angels in our commercial culture generally are separate from the angelic beings of scripture. As such, caricatures. Or counterfeits.

Many Christians ascribe to angels powers that don’t exist. Sometimes people who attend church faithfully will pray to angels, which is error. I wonder whether in America there is more superstition than spiritual clarity associated with angels. The fads in jewelry, fiction, and the World According to Hallmark have abated somewhat, but almost are a permanent part of our culture.

Some people are determined to be dogmatic about things that are not even Dogma.

I am not disputing the existence of angels. No, I believe in the Bible, and therefore – as Jesus did – I believe in the existence of angels and demons, Heaven and hell, in the account of Creation, where angels are described; and in End Times, where angels likewise are depicted.

But I invite a thought about angels that is different than those who perch on our shoulders with cute devils in cartoons, or the angel Clarence who tends to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Angels are real; created before mankind, which means we are “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:6); and of course Satan and his minions were rebellious angels. St Michael the Archangel is, roughly speaking, the counterpart of Satan in heavenly disputation. The devil is not, therefore, the opposite of God, nor Christ, which should remind us of how little power we should grant him. There are multitudes of descriptions of angels in scripture, and we inherit portraits of their glorious beings, their specific roles and assignments… and the Bible’s metaphorical references to them.

We shall linger in the metaphorical. That there are varying allusions to angels in the Bible reflects God’s multi-faceted glory, but also, a little bit, the occasional paucity of the English language. “Angel,” the word, derives from the Greek “aggelos,” and the related Latin “angelus.” The most employed Hebrew word we translate as “angel” means “messenger.”

This helps us understand the job description of angels! We know that they praise God before the Throne; always have, always will. But we know from the Bible that they indeed have been messengers, sometimes imparting specific news or warnings in earlier dispensations. And sometimes they are (in another translation) “ministering spirits,” a sweet picture.

Angels cannot be in several places at once; they have no more wisdom and no more knowledge of God’s ways than we do – otherwise they would be as God.

We should never be envious or jealous of these heavenly figures. They are created spirits whose roles are ordained, and without sin… but as such, unlike us “lowly” humans, they cannot know the joy of salvation, the loosened shackles come by repentance, the unspeakable gift of God’s forgiveness, or be recipients of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. No angel can ever sing – and feel the power of – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…”

But I promised to address angels in the way the Bible occasionally does: metaphorically. The same words translated from Ministering Spirit and Messenger are also used to describe things like the Pillar of Cloud the Israelites followed in the desert, and plagues. St Augustine took the larger, metaphorical, point and wrote angelus est nomen officii – that is, “angel is the name of the office.” In other words, God wants to speak and minister to us in supernatural ways, and sometimes He administers through spirits called angels.

Sometimes, by other means.

I have a friend who has a five-year-old daughter, the same age as my granddaughter. The little girl has been away for the summer, although in daily phone contact with her mom. She was reared a Christian but was going through… well, some typical behavioral things all five-year-olds go through. On a recent phone call, the upset girl confessed to wanting to be closer to Jesus, feel Him nearby, talk to Him.

It was time for an innocent little girl who knew the Truth to act on it. Five is not too young! She understood, and her mom asked if she wanted to give her heart to Jesus, which she did. Right over the phone. “Jesus on the main line.”

I tell the story because – back to metaphor – my friend, a Christian mom, surely had been a ministering angel to her daughter. The power of this moment of dedication, and many more to follow, reveal that little Sophie will, perhaps many times, likewise serve the role of angel to her mom Jen. Christian mothers never forget such moments, and there will be reminders to come.

We may be angels to each other. Think of the times someone has made a difference in your day, in your decisions, in your life. Metaphor? If we are “to be Jesus” to others, as the Bible directs, it cannot be wrong to consider that humans can sometimes do the work of angels, too.

Angels are not only pieces of jewelry and cartoons. Nor are they only cherubim, seraphim, and archangels, “all the company of Heaven.” Metaphorically, they can be kids. Neighbors. Strangers.

Yourself.

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Click: Sending Me Angels

The Abortion Issue Made Simple

8-17-15

Well… actually, that’s a lie. If it really were simple, in America and many places in the world, there would not be hot debates, policy fallouts, family feuds, “litmus tests,” stockpiles of weaponized arguments, court cases, broken churches, broken families. Or, often, broken women, erstwhile moms, bitter regrets. And, not recalled enough: tens of millions of dead babies.

But I hope any pro-abortion, “pro-choice,” readers will stick with me here. I acknowledge the “issue” is not simple… and my thoughts here, which have evolved through my life and I feel have arrived where they should be, might yet be a snapshot in time, evolving still. I think theology is clear, but public policy is difficult. Family management, counseling friends, is challenging.

And my theological point of view – where colleagues might part company – is that I believe the Bible is clear, although without the preponderance of specific references, on the proper spiritual and ethical attitude toward abortion. But I do not think that it is the Unpardonable Sin. It should not be encouraged in or out of the family of God… but mothers who made the euphemistic “choices” to “terminate” should be welcomed, not shunned, by Christians.

Friends know that I once was quite comfortable with the practice (not alone among other issues I have abandoned). Even before Roe vs Wade it was legal in Washington DC, where I went to college, and there was a culture that was very mechanistic – arguments about affordability, family “planning,” the soulless nature of blobs.

In truth, two attitudes fueled that culture, in those days: Washington, with its large black population, was a focus of abortion advocates like Planned Parenthood, whose founder, Margaret Sanger, frankly targeted her work, hoping to minimize or eventually eliminate the black population in society. Ugly, but true. And in the 1960s and ‘70s there was the attitude, if not explicit argument, that abortion simply was after-the-fact contraception.

My views changed through the years, the closer I drew to Jesus; but, also, the more I thought about the “issue,” the implications, the repercussions, the legacies. Abortion says something about the women, and men, involved. It says something about the society that permits – or encourages – it. It says something about dead babies. Not aborted fetuses: shut up. Dead babies.

The “issue,” once thought settled after Roe vs Wade, is more contentious than ever in America. Less settled. Science has made astonishing advances, both in maintaining viability of the pre-born, and in determining what, frankly, is a human – what is life, who is living – after conception. Traditionalists often are labeled “anti-science” about issues like evolution and global warming, but science is on the side, today, of the anti-abortionists. Or pro-life advocates.

The “issue” has invaded politics. Candidates might disagree on war and peace, the economy, government snooping, the threat of Iran, anything and everything… but (to employ the extreme labels) killing babies or a woman’s “right to choose” are defining issues of the age.

The “issue” is such today that almost every day its implications rise before us. At least for me. The news stories, of course, that disclose videos of Planned Parenthood leaders discussing the sale and efficient harvesting of babies and their organs. (Opponents fulminate against the hidden cameras, or the relatively small profits, shamelessly ignoring the horror of it all.) This week is the anniversary of my granddaughter Sarah’s birth. She lived nine days, a fragile preemie, and I look at the photo of my daughter Heather holding the tiny baby; I still cry to see the hope in Heather’s smile – and then I look at tiny Sarah and cannot help, today, picturing “scientists” and abortionists who would have swept in and carved her up at so many cents per pound. I watch an afternoon of Smithsonian documentaries about primitive societies and realize, peripherally, how many practiced infant sacrifice. Primitive. societies.

I believe abortion is current-day infant sacrifice. We appease the gods of convenience, guilty conscience, and callous morals.

History has a term for these primitive, and contemporary, practices writ large: infanticide. China long has practiced selective – and mandatory – abortions and infanticide in order to manage its economy. And the world shrugs.

Again, not an issue easily discussed or dispatched. Does it come down, after all, to women grasping for a legal sanction to resist biological, as well as moral, imperatives? Five Supreme Court justices aside, there still are differences between the sexes, and always will be. We have a generation of women – I know not all, despite the implications and claims of surveys, or, rather, poll-takers – who refuse to be women, at least in the most defining, distinctive, and glorious, way possible: motherhood.

Theodore Roosevelt once said (a propos expanding women’s right to vote), “Equality of rights does not mean equality of functions.” He did not mean cooking and cleaning; he meant to resist the revolutionary and degenerate aims of his contemporary, Margaret Sanger.

Of course there are the assertions, whether sincere or convenient, of those who argue that many children born to disadvantaged families are abused; that one “mistake” of passion should not be “punished by a baby,” as President Obama rationalized; that our planet cannot support more people. With these arguments the “issue” finds itself shifted alongside those of barbarians, Nazis, and ethnic cleaners.

To me, certain responses are increasingly hard to resist:

If death is determined by when a heart stops beating, why is life not measured when a hearts begins beating?

If fetuses are not human, why are their little body parts considered human?

We are told that people have rights to health care, to food, to schools, to hospital care; why not a right to life?

If a single cell were discovered on a distant planet, the world would celebrate life existing elsewhere in the universe. If it were found in a woman’s womb, why is it not considered life?

Women abort – let us say, kill their children – when babies are inconvenient. Under Hitler, Jews were deemed inconvenient; their mistreatment was legal; their slaughter not punished. Are pre-born babies guiltier, more deserving of execution, than Jews?

If these unborn babies can be dismissed as tissue masses and “blobs,” why do we not discuss “blob control,” so nice and antiseptic, instead of “birth control”?

This is not a man/woman perspective. I know as well as any man can, how life-altering an “unwanted” pregnancy can be. Well, there are millions of women who cry for babies, their own and others, who are more militant than I. There are uncountable women who were spared being aborted, sometimes at the last minutes, who thrive today – happy, healthy, and grateful for life. There are women who decided to give their babies up for adoption – maybe the second most wrenching decisions they could make – and those children live amongst us.

Our society is not sensitive to fathers of “unwanted” babies who are bound to support their child until majority; but have no say if their girlfriends kill the baby. I have met women who were consumed with grief for being misled, for killing their babies, and have lived with their “choices,” to use the hallowed word. One I know, have interviewed, is Norma McCorvey – the “Jane Roe” of Roe vs. Wade – remorseful and a pro-life advocate today.

But still, not an easy issue. This is my determination, and a plea to my allies – celebrate life, all life; welcome sinners (as we all are) who repent; wrap them, as we wrap ourselves, in Jesus’s love; and exercise forgiveness. As God offers forgiveness to us.

To those who still wrestle with the morals and ethics of the abortion issue, I close. Like it or not, there is a Heaven and a Hell. And as we understand God’s mystery, in Heaven we will all have “perfected” bodies. More than that we really don’t know. But consistent with what the Bible teaches, one’s aborted babies will be there, too.

Can you imagine looking into the eyes of these? “Why, Mommy? Why, Daddy?”

You might think you would answer, “I was afraid I would fail you. I was afraid you would stumble through life…”

And what if the answer is, “But what if you had not failed but succeeded? And what if I had not stumbled, but blossomed and flown and danced… and lived?”

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The poignant lullaby by Stephen Foster, sung by Alison Kraus:
Click: Slumber, My Darling

Jesus a Savior, Not an Enabler

8-10-15

It has been said that Jesus, by the evidence of Bible accounts, displayed more mercy and forgiveness, certainly more compassion, to sinners He encountered, than to Pharisees, Scribes, and members of the religious establishment of the time.

Post-modernists often run with that scorecard and flame the embers of anti-clericism still glowing from at least the glory days of the French Revolution. But the angels are in the details. Just as Christ called the love of money, not money itself, the root of all evil, so must we notice that Jesus scorned the corrupt and empty religionists in His midst – the whited sepulchers. Their corruption, not their robes.

A tendency in the church since the start has been pick-and-choose Christianity. Believers and skeptics alike often are readier to say “Aha!” than “Amen.” Quick to say, “Gotcha!” and slow to pray, “God bless…”

The post-modern church, if a church it be, and the “emergent” movement, tend to seize upon half of Jesus’s teachings… indeed half of His messages, parables, and even simple sentences. I quickly confess that traditionalists like I am, and orthodox friends, are often guilty of these sins too. We all must constantly check our thoughts, words, and deeds against scripture.

But the contemporary church, and many theological writers amongst us, often discard the traditional views of sin, of heaven and hell, of the need for forgiveness, of the efficacy of evangelism… even personal salvation, Absolute Truth, and the Divinity of Christ. We don’t sin, we humans, they say: we make bad choices. These people are Enablers, but call themselves Christians.

Actually, many of them insist on identifying themselves instead as “Christ followers.” Whatever. They play more words games than you’d find at a Scrabble convention, intoning about “relational truth” and claiming to know that if Jesus returned to earth now, He would be more concerned with “community” and being “welcoming” than about those old biblical injunctions to believe in Him and seek eternal life.

These folks stick their thumbs in Jesus’s eye, no more – and no less – than their ancestors, the heretics of the ages. In the Apostolic Days and the first centuries of the Church, disciples and bishops were obliged to combat error and heretics. Seeking to adhere to Jesus’s teachings, and the inspired texts, delivered by and tested against the invocation of the Holy Spirit, Christian leaders convened Councils and wrote the basic creeds that define our faith (and often preemptively answer false doctrines). We need the guidance of the Holy Ghost, and the truths of the orthodox creeds, no less today than in past crises in church history.

Those who would distort the gospel – and the very lessons inherent in the gospel accounts – point to the criticism, Jesus’s visceral anger, with the religious leaders. So should we all be vigilant against corruption in the church, not just those attacking from outside. Of course. More so, in fact, than against secular leaders and the laity. Leaders must be held to higher standards.

But I have sat with, discussed, and hotly debated contemporary “Christian” writers and celebrities who insist that Jesus’s mercy, His frequent lack of condemnation, toward sinners, adulterers, prostitutes, meant that He “met people where they lived.” Indeed He did. He did not avoid, and often sought, their company. And as He did not condemn, neither should we, these new popes say.

But there we have the Half-Gospel that is overtaking the church in America.

Jesus usually did not condemn sinners in these Bible accounts. But He never endorsed anyone’s sin. In fact He would always tell the person to “go and sin no more.” He loved sinners so much that He desired that they turn from sin. Today? Jesus might go to a biker bar, say, or a gay rights parade. And I don’t believe He would overturn tables or bring out the lash. But He WOULD discern their sinful ways, and He would lovingly forgive, coupled with His invariable injunction to “sin no more.”

Jesus came to be the Savior of sinful humankind, not its Holy Enabler. Otherwise Bible prophecy, His ministry, His suffering and sacrificial death, the Atonement, His resurrection, is insulted – a useless charade designed by God Almighty. Heaven forbid.

A friend of mine, Harvey Corbitt, recently shared the thought: If Jesus DID return right now and preached the messages that many of our pastors and priests preach, He likely would not be perceived as an opponent of the corrupt world system… nor seized, nor put to death. Sad. True.

Enablers do not save people. But the Savior enables people to know forgiveness, to be redeemed, and to have the hope of eternal life.

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Kris Kristofferson tells the story behind his salvation experience and the writing of the iconic “Why Me, Lord.”

Click: Why Me, Lord

Hard Times

8-3-15

Hard Times. A relative term. Not only within our own situations, but compared to others… America, compared to other nations… our days, compared to the past. Truly, materially at least, we are blessed.

I have been sad, but not in sorrow. I have been in debt, but never destitute. I have had regrets, but never grief. How many of us can share such relatively comfortable testimony? In my case, to whatever extent I rightly judge my “insulation,” it is largely due to my standing as a Christian – receiving joy that passes understanding. But we also have to credit modern life, in America, with its technology, medicine, and general prosperity. Right?

Hard Times happen in America, but somehow many of the crises have the lengths of TV mini-series, and when not, the public grows impatient for the next one. Our culture has a sound-bite mentality. We used to face our challenges; but now we are distracted with the modern equivalents of the Romans’ “bread and circuses” — pop entertainment, push-button gratification. The Bible paints a picture of awful distress in earth in the End Times, and we are not prepared for that.

In many ways this indicates that we are not advancing as a culture. I’m not sure we are “going backwards,” either, because that might actually be beneficial. Giuseppi Verdi (yes, the composer otherwise known as Joe Green) once said, Torniamo all’antico: Sara un progresso — “We turn to the past in order to move forward.”

I got thinking of Hard Times in America when I pulled an elegant old volume off my bookshelf. Folk Songs was published in 1860, before the Civil War. This book is leather-bound, all edges gilt, pages as supple as when it was printed, a joy to hold. The “folk songs” of its title refers not to early-day coffee houses, but to poems and songs of the people, in contradistinction to epic verse or heroic sagas; the way the German word Volk refers to the shared-group spirit of the masses.

Many of the titles are charming: “The Age of Wisdom,” “My Child,” “Baby’s Shoes,” “The Flower of Beauty,” “The First Snow-Fall”… However, such sweet titles mask preoccupations with children dying in snow drifts, lovers deserting, husbands lost at sea, fatal illness, mourning for decades, unfaithful friends. No need to guess the themes other titles from the index:”Tommy’s Dead,” “The Murdered Traveler,” and “Ode To a Dead Body.”

It reminded me that people 150 years ago were not gloomy pessimists: they were not. But Hard Times were a part of life, and therefore part of poetry and song. On the frontier, life could be snuffed out in a moment. In the imminent Civil War, roughly every third household was affected by death, maiming, split families, or hideous disruption; yet anti-war movements never gained traction; life went on. A young Abraham Lincoln had almost lost his mind over an unhappy love affair; his wife likely did lose her mind when her favorite son died in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt’s young wife (in childbirth) and mother (of salmonella) died on the same day in the same house. Hard Times, I’d say.

Also before the Civil War, a composer named Stephen Foster wrote a song called Hard Times. He is barely recalled today, sometimes as a caricature, but he might be America’s greatest composer. He wrote My Old Kentucky Home; I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair; Old Black Joe; Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginia; Way Down Upon the Swanee River / Old Folks At Home; Oh, Susanna; Camptown Races; Beautiful Dreamer… and Hard Times, Come Again No More. This last song has been resurrected lately to a certain repute, or at least utility. In some circles it has become an anthem for charities and lamentation of poverty. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, even the Squirrel Nut Zippers, have sung it. It has taken on the air of a secular anthem. But in fact, although Stephen Foster did not embed a Gospel message in the lyrics, he had written many hymns in his life. It is clear that the “cabin,” and its door, in the song are metaphors, endowing a spiritual subtext to the song.

If we can turn back our minds to the world of 150 years ago — it is clear that the Hard Times he wrote of were the world’s trials, to be relieved in Heaven. We have a haunting melody, but a clear truth: Hard Times will be endured and become things of the past. We must keep them in perspective. Trust in Him. God provides a joyful relief from life’s disappointments when they come. By and by, they will “come no more.”

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Here is a memorable video to evoke the reality of life’s Hard Times, the promise heaven holds, and the beauty of Stephen Foster’s music to you. The seven singers are from the amazing project of a few years ago, “The Transatlantic Sessions” — singers and musicians from America (US and Canada), Ireland, and Scotland singing old and new “folkish” songs in a living-room setting.

(By the way, they are, left to right, Rod Paterson, Scotland; Karen Matheson, Scotland — hear her incredible soprano harmony on the left channel; Mary Black, Ireland; Emmylou Harris, US; Rufus Wainwright, his mother Kate McGarrigle, and her sister Anna McGarrigle on the button accordian, all Canadians. The other musicians are fiddler Jay Ungar — he wrote the haunting “Ashokan’s Farewell” tune of the PBS “Civil War” series — and his wife Molly Mason on the bass; and the project’s shepherds Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, and American dobro player Jerry Douglas.)

The lyrics are printed out under the link:

Click: Hard Times Come Again No More

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times, come again no more.

Chorus:
‘Tis the song, the sigh, of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times, come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times, come again no more.

There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times, come again no more.

Candidates and God

7-27-15

That America is no longer a Christian nation, the theme of our most recent message, struck a chord. Many people sense this sea-change in our culture.

A few people, we know, celebrate the facts that the church, and traditional values, no longer underpin our society. They are like maggots on a rotting corpse. But the vast majority of Americans today, the virtual silent majority, are troubled. They recognize the shifting sands; they despise the new morality; they reject the Brave New World.

America once bragged about being a pluralistic society. All forms of thought, all stripes of opinion, were welcome. No longer: Christian patriots are bring attacked. Cultural traditionalists are on the run, seeing nowhere to turn. A complete turnaround from what pluralism was supposed to preclude.

Where to turn? What options are there in a culture that has been hijacked, a nation that is no longer pluralistic, scarcely tolerant of our foundational principles? Threats of arrest for dissenting from homosexual marriage? A publicly funded agency caught discussing more efficient and profitable harvesting and sale of baby parts?

Traditionally, despite the “dirty” connotations, we turn to politics. Every mature society throughout history has, perforce, established rules, codes, and laws. When laws have been capricious (from dictators and mad monarchs) they have disappeared; sometimes quietly, sometimes bloodily. But the other societies, in natural if not always smooth evolution, codify the prevalent manners and morals, beliefs and byways, of the people. In recent centuries, this happened more and more (more or less!) through democracy.

Therefore, politics. Leaders and statesmen, for the most part, rise from the people… and represent them. Think Abraham Lincoln. When – not so long ago – our societies were more organic, it mattered little whether leaders reflected public opinion or molded it. In the main, it was the same thing, for our societies were organic. We knew our origins, we shared our faith, we accepted the same premises, we were unified, if not quite uniform.

That has all passed, hasn’t it? But I will put my pessimism aside and focus on the topic of politics – not to be partisan or to boost any candidate – but remembering the time when the public looked to leaders in their midst during crises.

I want to be specific about the topic of candidates and Christianity here. In the past, oh sure, some politicians were adulterers or drunks, but we are all sinners. In the past, most politicians clung to the principles of the Bible, dedicated themselves to Christian principles, honored the nation’s heritage. So voters could count on candidates, generally, to be of one mind on morality.

Today, we have examples of the Catholic Church, in various dioceses, denying Communion to politicians like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi for their advocacy of abortion.

Today, we have a president who often has been dismissive of Christian beliefs, of Christian martyrs and hostages around the world, of persecuted Christians; and at the same time has been strangely tolerant of Islamic extremism, at home and abroad.

Today, we have a recent presidential candidate, Romney, a Mormon – member of a counterfeit Christian-sounding sect. I am not saying LDS should be outlawed or proscribed, but I had trouble voting for someone, not who would “take orders” from his church any more than John Kennedy did… but who could believe the mumbo-jumbo about figgy underwear and magic glasses and such. But, you know, President Taft was a Unitarian and denied the divinity of Christ, and America survived him.

But I want us to think more about candidates who fill our airwaves in the run-up to 2016. Again, will they represent the values of the broad public? As Christians, we have, and we should have, views on issues that our central to our lives. And, yes, our faith… because our faith is under attack.

We are losing our freedom of religion. The very first words enshrined in the Bill of Rights are: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”

Congress never has tried to establish an American denomination, and never will. But it – and the courts (and the press, and the educational complex, and the entertainment industry) – are trying to destroy organized religion, and the small-c church of Jesus Christ. Certainly, examples are numerous of the government prohibiting the free exercise of our faith these days.

We have some candidates indicating a perception of these threats, and a few sharing our (proper) alarm.

What will they do? We must watch. We must study. We must apply pressure. We must challenge. We must work. We must push back. We must speak out, or shout out. We must sacrifice. We must organize. We must… pray.

There is a high percentage, thank God, of candidates who have heard, or even rung, the alarm bells! Support them. Some are not afraid to share their faith, to pray in public, to invoke Jesus and the Bible. Join them. They are not saviors; only Jesus is our Savior. But they might be prophets: godly leaders.

I have avoided most names in the news here, but one news clip prompted this rant. Donald Trump was asked this week if he believed in God. “I am an Episcopalian,” he replied, as if it were a rhetorical question. It is not. And it would have been easy to confess Jesus Christ right there.

Then he was asked if he ever sought forgiveness from God. In his life. Trump said no; if he thought he did something wrong he would try to correct it on his own. He displayed no understanding of the basis of the entire Bible or the life, ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus Christ: as much understanding of Christianity as the most ignorant aborigine from the dankest jungle somewhere. “I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Then Trump volunteered: “When we go [to] church and when I drink my little wine – which is about the only wine I drink – and have my little cracker, I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed, OK?” My little wine? Cracker?

This is Christianity, according to one candidate.

I don’t want a Christian caliphate in America, but I do want us to support a candidate who shares our values, understands our bedrock beliefs, who embraces our heritage. Knowing what, in fact, to defend in these perilous days. This week’s opinion about immigrants should not be the only bell whose ring invigorates us. I was shocked at the appearance of a candidate who evidently feels on a par or superior to God, or irrelevant to Him, if he in fact does believe in Him.

One candidate or many candidates; one party or different factions; one nation or diverse communities – what ever happened to the idea, and the humble application, of One Nation Under God?

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Click: In God We Trust

America: A Form of Godliness

7-20-15

America is a land of many churches.

America is a Christian country.

Do these statements confirm each other? Did they ever? Are they less true today than in the past? The Supreme Court, in an 1894 ruling, declared America a “Christian country.” No “separation of church and state” then – a phrase, by the way, not found in the Constitution or laws, but in a personal letter written by Thomas Jefferson years after he left the presidency.

If you drive around America, you do indeed see churches and steeples galore. Many town-limit welcome signs across America display the shields of charitable organizations, perhaps some population data… and the names, locations, and service times of churches. Placemats in many diners likewise often list the local houses of worship.

Of course, if the churches are empty – or nearly so, or emptier than ever – our open questions ultimately are silly questions. We know from statistics that mainstream churches, Protestant and Catholic, as well as synagogues, are declining in attendance. As traditional denominations wither and shrink, or merge, the evangelical, Charismatic, and Pentecostal churches generally are on the rise.

The crux (no pun intended) of the debate is, regardless of whether the landscape is dotted with churches, or if attendance is up or down… are Americans the people of faith they once were?

Many surveys say No. Fewer people attend worship services. Fewer people identify with a biblical doctrine or tenets. Fewer people claim belief in the One True God of the Bible; fewer people believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Fewer people hold to traditional doctrines of their churches – no divorces, for instance, in the Catholic church; teachings about homosexuality in Protestant denominations. Fewer, in all these cases, than traditionally, even a few short years ago.

I have noticed something about American churches over several decades. I have worked and lived in New England, and in Southern California, and in several parts of America in-between. I have worshiped wherever I have gone. Through my life I have grown – or evolved – from orthodox Lutheranism through the Charismatic Church and Pentecostalism, evangelical churches, “seeker” and mega-churches, and back to a love for the liturgy and strict Bible teaching. From hymns to worship choruses to praise music to gospel songs to Southern Gospel to hymns again.

In a way, I can say I am, in theological terms, an American, plain and simple. An observer and participant in many forms. (American social mobility makes pick-a-church an easy pastime.) I have avoided postmodern churches, and have seldom visited Catholic churches in America, or synagogues or mosques anywhere, but to the extent that America was and barely remains a Protestant nation, I have sat in most sorts of pews. Much as Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” not ego-motivated but possessing an open spirit, I have felt the currents of the contemporary life blow through my hair, influence my ideas, and season my words.

From my perspectives I am aware of an anomaly that is widespread and persistent, yet little remarked upon, in American churches. Broadly speaking (yes, a generality), the older and traditional denominations and their churches – think of the Colonial-era, white-frame, tall-steeple churches that dot the New England landscape – largely do not preach old-fashioned and traditional sermons.

Once their walls reverberated with fire-and-brimstone fury. Bible lessons, scripture memorization, strict social codes and moral rules predominated. But today, broadly speaking, most of America’s old “mainstream denominations” and the congregations of New England and the Atlantic Coast, the vestiges of our Founder’s religions, though still using hymnals and following liturgies, preach a liberal theology, “welcoming,” frequently denying the inerrancy of scripture and sometimes even the Divinity of Christ.

Conversely, many of the newer denominations or non-denominational “independent” churches eschew hymnals and organs. They often meet in high-school gyms or local auditoriums. They frequently have no dress code – except, perhaps, virtually to discourage men’s ties and women’s dresses. Drums and guitars; projected lyrics and images; social fellowships, are all parts of these new “churches.”

Yet very often these get-togethers, or para-churches, so welcoming of dress and visitors’ backgrounds, ironically preach hardcore, straight-from-the-Bible, literal interpretations; Adam and Eve, the wages of sin, Creationism, and the necessity of personal salvation.

This irony is mostly that: irony. Yet to the extent it is true, it leads me to another observation. American society, where wide swaths of the landscape have these liberal denominations and social-gospel churches, coupled with a culture that has discouraged the discussion of theological and spiritual matters – except to discourage or deny their truth – has become the Land of Empty Churches. Or irrelevant churches.

How often is the Lord’s Prayer offered in your church anymore? Are the creeds taught and spoken? Is the pastor or priest who delivers a sermon extemporaneously an endangered species? Why do so many clergymen have to write out and read prayers to their God? Is your preaching from the “head” or “heart”? Does your church still require confirmation classes? Can children – and staff members, teachers – defend the tenets of their particular faith? Is there zeal to share the gospel, to engage the “lost”?

Religionists have not merely grown lazy. The culture wages war against us. Newspapers, magazines, television, movies, the entertainment industry, politics, the education establishment, have been run by people, a majority of whom were never Christians or are “lapsed” Christians. In, say, the 1930s, executives in, say, the movie business largely were not Christians… but they respected tradition and realized the value (moral AND commercial) in affirming the traditional culture. No more, at all. And Christians have been swayed.

Religion today is mocked; not merely dismissed, but attacked. Church tax exemptions are the least of Christians’ worries. The assault on Christian heritage now is fierce and unrelenting. Not content with legal civil unions and rights, the barricaders must attack the word – and, of course, concept and sanctity of – “marriage.” Lawsuits and charges of “hate speech” against Christians have accelerated.

This week it was revealed that Planned Parenthood, an agency that receives tax money, harvests and sells the organs of aborted babies. Beyond the horror of the practice, and the widespread defense of it, this confirms that, for the most part, Christianity in America is an obsolete force, a moral irrelevancy, a spent movement in the lives of the American people. These abominations would not be happening except for the moral vacuum created by the wholesale retreat of Christians.

America, the Land of Many Churches, is no longer a Christian country.

This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;

Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.

All who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. But continue in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from a child you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (From II Timothy Chapter 3)

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Click: Ave Verum Corpus

Let’s Stop Kidding Ourselves

7-13-15

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

I try to do the same thing with my writing, even secular writing. A posted note, or prayer, before I begin anything. Even if not a Christian piece, still, a prayer for inspiration, and that my work not be displeasing to Him. And at the end, to God – alone – the glory, that I have made something. “Made something of nothing,” an aspect of the creative process that forever astonishes. The notes are good discipline, but primarily a proper view of things.

I acquired a similar habit when I was a cartoonist, from the example of the cartoonist TAD, Thomas A Dorgan, who died in 1929. The legendary social satirist and sports cartoonist was an observer of human nature, and in his panels depicted everyday people kibitzing, wisecracking, and commenting on the simplest things. TAD developed his own slanguage, and was famous for coining terms like “hot dog.”

The best way TAD found for being an honest and dispassionate commentator was to be removed from the presumptions, prejudices, and pride of his characters. Over his drawing board he tacked the legend, “Don’t Kid Yourself,” to keep him honest. He knew that if he were to consider himself above his everyday cast of characters, he would be cooked. Humility.

I keep Post-It notes around my office, too; stuck to the top of my computer screen. “Don’t Kid Yourself.” Do I think something I do is pretty good? Wham! No… it’s likely from God; and hey, I’m not so great after all.

Is there a theological message in these creative hints? You bet. We are to be humble before our God. To my readers who are Christians, and those of you who are not, I will spare both camps, and not turn to a concordance for verses on being humble before the Lord. The scriptural admonitions do not refer only to imagining ourselves before the Great Throne. We are to know our place when we pray, when we seek guidance, when we ask forgiveness. In every circumstance.

What about “boldly approaching the Throne of Grace”? That refers, again, to knowing our place – saved and redeemed – but NOT presuming anything more from the Creator of our souls. God forbid.

We tend to presume, we believers. We will be children of the King, not Kings of children or anyone else. Many of the rebels we can think of in the Bible – the Hebrew children building a statue of Baal; the money-changers in the Temple – were just short of being total mutineers. They stayed close by; they grafted their own “improvements” on what God ordered; they thought they knew better than God. In many, many ways we all tend to go off half-cocked in our “walks,” thinking we can do different works than God intended… or better works than He willed. The sin of pride.

Mother Teresa was never so wise as when she said, “God does not care about our success; He only wants our obedience.”

Jesus told us to be “salt and light” – to preserve the Truth, and present it to the world with savor, as salt does; and to be a light showing forth the Father’s love, as cannot be hidden under a bushel. These words in the Sermon on the Mount were directed to individuals… indeed, to you and me no less than to the multitude.

I believe we have lost sight of the fact that Jesus came to save us; I mean you and me as individuals. Sometimes we get caught up in causes and works. For God, yes; for the Kingdom, yes. To His glory, yes. But. He wants us to be Salt and Light. Not necessarily to be leaders. Or speakers. Or committee chairs. Or cheerleaders. Or fundraisers. Or professional singers. Or even writers of blogs. Not solely.

These things can be good… are good. And the Holy Spirit is promised to endow preachers and teachers and evangelists, and those with hospitality gifts and everyone in between. But these are gifts, to be accepted, and used, as gifts, in humility.

These are tough “memos to self,” especially when our times are so fraught with threats and peril; a dying world, and Truth under attack. “Who do we think we are?” was a plaint from Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent in the “Marriage” “Equality” case – arguing in the name of Humility against a finger-snap ruling that flouted thousands of years of humankind’s traditions, many cultures’ sacred beliefs… and God’s law.

In all spheres of life, we need to return to looking out for Number One. When that means us, we are reminded that Jesus came for us, as individuals, not merely our causes and works. Oh, crusades will come; tribulation bids it. Be we need properly to be equipped.

When “looking out for Number One” means the real Number One – God Almighty – let us not kid ourselves. We must, in true humility, ask Jesus for help, seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and give God alone the glory. Soli Deo Gloria.

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… and in humility, let us maybe hold back on dreams of enormous projects and great works; and desire, first, one-on-one communion with our Savior and Friend, Jesus Christ. He speaks, and the sound of His voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing. He speaks to you; listen.

“In the Garden” was written in 1912 by C Austin Miles. It is sung here by the Avett Brothers.

In the Garden

The Declaration of Decadence

7-6-15

Imagine the year is 2215.

If the world is still around then – or as we Christians are wont to say, if the Lord tarries – there will be history books. Well, maybe not books, but there will be histories. We humans do not always learn from history, yet we study it and are curious about the past in various ways. And are doomed to repeat what we fail to learn.

As a student of history, with degrees in history, and as an author of many biographies and histories… I nevertheless claim no special insights. Yet I think a text like the following is plausible, even likely. I don’t wish it. In fact, I fear it. But I expect it. Two very different Fourths of July.

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This “history” is written in 2215, which is far fewer years since the watershed year in American history we choose (2015), than between the Declaration of Independence and 2015. Therefore, rapid changes were recorded. The United States of America is gone now, a historical memory like Egypt of the Pharaohs or ancient Greece or the Roman Empire. It was divided into regions that became new countries, or portions that were swallowed up by former rival nations and ambitious neighbors.

At one point in its history, America was a nation that surprised the world. Its early generations. It was “discovered”; settled by mostly European peoples and cultural values; it expanded, became wealthy and powerful, and incorporated the wisdom of the ages as well as recent philosophies. Religion, Christian tradition, Enlightenment thought, respect for human rights and responsibilities, all were there from the beginning, or grafted onto the American stock.

Then, what surprised the world even more – or, perhaps, what stands out in history – is how quickly those qualities disappeared.

All the words of its Founders and Framers, that the promise of a republican democracy could only succeed in the hands of a godly people… were forgotten.

The insights of countless foreign observers, that “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great,” were disregarded, instead of being appreciated as a warning.

One by one, America’s original sins, like slavery, were painfully expunged, but hard fought nonetheless; yet generations after the signs of progress, Americans descended into ugly recriminations, as if slavery and poverty were worse than ever.

Military power that represented, and protected, America’s material wealth, soon morphed into imperial ambitions. Despite the lessons of history that every nation that sought boundless conquest – republics that became empires – America rotted at the edges first, and lost land, allies, and its very citizens’ loyalties. The United States had bases in more than 100 countries in the year we chose, 2015. Unsustainable.

Some of the many qualities that made the United States stand out from other nations in history were its industry, invention, trade, and the widespread prosperity that followed. Never were more people more comfortable, and able to pursue education and leisure. Yet an entitlement mentality overtook the United States. Redistribution, envy, resentment of success, were the fruits of the free enterprise system.

Finance capitalism nurtured currents of greed, and materialism replaced idealism. Far more common was the desire to penalize achievements. Where once America applauded those who accomplished things, a mindset took hold whose impulse was to tear down. And confiscate. Instead of elevating the talented to the first-class, America began to tear everyone down to the third-rate level. In schools, in society, in the workplace.

Language, borders, and culture became dirty words. Traditional heroes were attacked, and “celebrities” took their places. Talents that might have served the arts were turned toward jingles, advertising, and diversions designed to be obsolete in a season. Military veterans had to rely on private organizations for their care; their families were thrown to public assistance.

Sex replaced love; drugs replaced thought; relativism replaced religion; “being nice” replaced being right; government programs replaced charity; TV and movies replaced books. The Self replaced the ideal of private responsibility for others. The Moment replaced the Future. The accumulation of things became the standard of success, and respect; personal integrity became irrelevant.

Divorces increased. Illegitimacy soared. Addictions and abuse were like epidemics. Despite the clear evidence of … history… the United States became a society where human nature and human relationships were turned inside-out. Drugs became acceptable. The family unit was not merely challenged, but attacked. Religion was transformed into an object of hatred and ridicule, instead, with all its faults, of being a lodestar. Gender roles were reversed. People “became lovers of themselves,” and engaged in debasements.

Gender roles, family structures. Those who ruined America thought that the inclinations and traditions of the human community could be, should be, changed by laws and courts. It was little different from the French Revolution, which tried to change clocks and calendars and mathematics. Doomed; futile at best, self-destructive at worst. But those who did not learn from history were doomed to repeat it.

American schools, run by the state, became propaganda mills. So, in effect, were voices of the entertainment and news complexes. Traditionalists – descendents of those who had established and had long underpinned the culture – were silenced, and persecuted.

As surprising as the decline, these and many other examples, and how quickly it happened, was the fact that so many citizens welcomed the radical changes. As in a Bacchanalian orgy, after a certain point the self-loathing destructiveness fed upon itself. History be damned; posterity be damned. God Himself be damned.

… for that was the underlying motive force of the agents of decadence, destruction, and degeneracy: rebellion not only against tradition and a unique heritage in world history; but nihilistic mutiny against God. The God whose blessings enabled that former nation, the United States of America, to briefly stand in world history as a Shining City On a Hill.

Some people think that politicians invented that slogan; or that Ronald Reagan coined the phrase; or that one of the very first Pilgrims, John Winthrop, imagined it. But Jesus first envisioned it and spoke of it, in His Sermon On the Mount. The United States saw it, had it, and lost it.

For awhile it seemed so unlikely. But the United States became merely one more page in history’s book, to turn and move on…

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It is not amiss, on this 4th of July, 2015 (to return to the present) to quote some words Ronald Reagan did write on the issue at hand – whether America can retain its precious birthrights of freedom and liberty:

“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom, and then lost it, have never known it again. … It is inconceivable to me that anyone could accept… delegated authority without asking God’s help.”

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I have chosen a recent anthem, “Lead Me Home,” concerning one’s last days, with videos of military funerals and cemeteries, because the juxtaposition of this great song and these powerful images illustrate my point, here – that the American culture is slipping from the moorings that once held it together. Honestly, we should be mourning, as much as celebrating, this particular July Fourth. Christian patriots need to roll up sleeves, become better informed, prepare to fight, and expect tougher times.

The challenges, and our current parlous situation, are outlined in scripture. You know that. Justice of a righteous God. End Times. But the rewards of the faithful, and the glory that awaits us, are also written in the heavenlies.

Click: Lead Me Home

God Delivers Us… But To What?

6-29-15

As sure as there are troubles in our lives, there is deliverance. Not always, or so it seems to some of us. Not immediately: that is certain. It can come. When it comes – any manner of relief, answers, healing, comfort, understanding, peace – we often to pray thanks to the God whose pity and mercy we so recently sought. Or, we do give thanks or do penance or share with the world what God has done.

It is a tempting thing to suppose, especially when the Creator of the Universe wonderfully has intervened in our affairs, that the crisis is settled, that God has done His work. We adjust our sandals and move ahead, refreshed, toward the next goals in life.

But that is not exactly God’s way, not the Bible way. It is more the case, when He has delivered His people, His children, that He not only saves us from something… but for something.

St Augustine, before the year 400, preached the following words in a sermon. This important man is an essential figure in the theology, cosmology, and philosophy that is a continuum that includes Plato, other early church fathers, and Martin Luther, as readers of this column know (or at least know of my sympathy and wellsprings). It is a miracle that so many of Augustine’s sermons, lessons, and books have survived, lighting our paths through the centuries.

Anyway, he wrote about the idea of deliverance, and God “bringing His people through”:

Brothers, look and see: The Judeans [Jews] were liberated in the sea, the Egyptians were destroyed in it…. The Judeans go beyond the Red Sea and walk through the desert. It is the same way with Christians after baptism: they are not yet in the land of promise, but they live in hope….

The Egyptians who chased the Judeans out of Egypt were not their only enemies – but they were their old enemies. In the same way, our past life and our past sins… continue to haunt us. There are enemies in the desert as well…

Interesting! We know the story of Exodus; and we think of other examples in the Bible of God saving His people. When we think of it, many individuals and populations were saved… only to face greater challenges. Is these the acts of a kindly God? Yes! God is love! We remember the “Hall of Fame of the Heroes of Faith” in Hebrews chapter 11: the Bible’s greatest champions of faith and obedience are there honored.

And every one of them came short of his goal, never making it to each one’s “promised land.” Also interesting, and instructive. The Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey, the desert after captivity, “over the Jordan,” Canaan Land, Beulah Land – have you heard these terms?

Exodus 33 has the account of God speaking to Moses:
‘Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.’…  And when the people heard this bad news, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, ’Say to the children of Israel, You are a stiff-necked people. I could come up into your midst in one moment and consume you.’… [But] He said, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’

Rest? These people yearned for even more, and more, and more, deliverance. Free of the Pharaohs, they wanted also to be free of… God. They wanted to live as they wished – to sin and be rebellious – and not merely trade metal shackles for moral restraints. They were free of the bondsman’s lash, and thought they deserved license to revel in decadence and debauchery. (If this sounds to you like a description of America-up-to-date, we share the same shrinking desert island…)

But God knew the basic natures of His children; He knew the desires of their hearts; and He would not answer those prayers to be free of responsibilities as well as actual chains.

The Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey, the desert after captivity, “over the Jordan,” Canaan Land, Beulah Land… many people believe these were earthly symbols of Heaven in the Bible, poetry and hymns. But they were not, never were. Heaven is… Heaven. If there were a physical Promised Land with miracle blooms, and flowing milk and honey, why should any inhabitants desire the real Heaven?

“Beulah,” in the Bible and in many hymns through the years, refers to “marriage,” a word, and a land, where believers might commune with God, even be in a relationship akin to marriage with the Son. But. That all precedes Heaven. Paradise, Eternity, Heaven is our final home.

As sweet as God’s promises, His deliverances, His dwelling-places of communion on earth, are… Heaven will be sweeter. A wise-guy skeptic friend of mine once challenged me: “If Heaven is so wonderful, why don’t you end it all, and go straight there for eternity?” Apart from the proposition that God hates murder, including of one’s self (and, by the way, that includes morally, not just physically), that is not in His plan, either.

We stay on earth, and should desire to, to serve Him. We cling to this life in order to fulfill whatever plans He has for us. We embrace life so that we can share His glory, bring others to saving grace, to minister to a hurting world as “imitators of Christ.”

In that perspective, we need to see, first, that the mercies He offers us here – in ways represented by Beulah Lands, “milk and honey,” Promised Lands – are havens of rest, foretastes of Heaven, gifts to make our days here sweeter as we work for the Master. Not Heaven… but on the way! We have jobs to do for Him, and they become easier, perhaps; or maybe more challenging. But the Hope, and Victory, are within view.

Truly – and always – when God saves us from something, He saves us for something.

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An old hymn, Is Not This the Land of Beulah, and a more recent gospel song, Sweet Beulah Land, share the distinctions and the reality of that place we may all seek. Wonderful words. Here, the two are explained and performed by the composer of the latter song, pastor and singer Squire Parsons. “I’m kind of homesick for that country, where I’ve never been before…”

Click: Beulah Land

Hate Crimes and Love Acts

6-22-15

Here we are again. TV news filled with glimpses of carnage and videos of crying mothers and friends. The illogical scenarios, the horror, of multiple murders at innocent settings. The perpetrator, a “loner” – oh, those loners.

Here we are again. The instant prescriptions. The dictators of democracy telling us what is wrong, what must change. The president of the United States, as before, while bodies virtually are still bleeding, lecturing us that the problem is not so much hate nor racism – which would open the door to a special perspective – but gun laws.

Here we are again. We have another national trauma before us. News magazines and cable news will get their bumps, activists will raise dust, and nothing will change. Laws will not change, but neither will attitudes. And this is because human nature will not change… not much. It can change, but the history of humankind teaches that people must desire their natures to change, and that seldom happens. People have to want it, and that box is seldom checked on the list of humanity’s progress.

“Guns don’t kill people,” folks used to say; “people kill people.” Technically, it’s those shiny little bullets. But I am not trying to be a wise guy or insensitive: the clear view is that haters will hate, and sometimes kill, with any means at their disposal. If guns are available, guns are used. Jim Jones passed out poison Kool-Aid. ISIS uses scimitars: guns are less efficient for that sport of theirs, and the objects of their hatred “need” to die by hook or crook. Or sword.

If the United States has, arguably, the greatest freedoms in the community of nations, then it stands to reason – that is, it no longer is a paradox in contemporary America – that the greatest abuses of freedom will take place in the United States. Unbridled liberty carries the seed of unchecked license.

A culture that kills its babies – with so many people, the Establishment, courts, and government inventing all reasonable cases for infanticide – can be expected to likewise be a culture of death, including death by guns, guns, guns. If the world lasts long enough, future anthropologists and archaeologists will study our “action movies,” cop shows, violent video games, toy weapons… and wonder how the same culture could also so loudly have demanded gun control.

You know: how the directors and producers and actors from Hollywood, who finance the gun-confiscation campaigns, became millionaires from the blood-and-gore crime movies and kill-or-be-killed computer games. But the enemies of our peace and security are not Pop-Culture moguls, nor hateful individuals with dark agendas (all of them, it seems, from broken homes and histories of behavior-modification drugs). But “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Do I argue that we must resign ourselves, forever, to these nightmare scenarios? No, I argue that we should not be surprised; and that we need to look to the proper answers – not counterfeit remedies.

When the president and others characterize these maniacs, we are told that they are products of something particularly American. Hmm. The recent history of other “advanced” nations reminds us of the murder of Sweden’s Prime Minister Olof Palme on a city sidewalk; of Norway’s Anders Breivik, who killed 69 people with his guns and wounded 110 others; of a 2002 school shooting in Erfurt, Germany (18 killed) and in Winnenden, Germany in 2009 (15 shot and killed). And somehow the massacres committed by Muslims do not get classified by liberals as gun-related. But the victims are just as dead. The recent list of mass shootings in schools and malls in places not called the USA goes on: Dunblane, Scotland; Veghel, Holland; Tuusula, Finland; Toulouse, France; Taber, Alberta; Freising, Germany; Montreal; Kauhajoki, Finland; Paris…

So the problem is not, automatically, our society, except as lack of normative restraints leads to lack of… behavioral restraints. Jesus said, “The poor ye will always have with thee,” and I don’t think it is blasphemous to suggest that a valid paraphrase would be “Hate ye will always have with thee”; and that in each case we would do well to remember the rest of Jesus’s words: “But ye will not always have Me” (Matt 26:11).

In other words, no Jesus, no peace.

While I am paraphrasing, we can apply the principle that “anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28) – that when one looks at fellow human beings with evil hatred in his heart, he in God’s eyes commits murder.

It is not the gun in the hand but the evil in the heart that provides the perspective we need to employ against these maelstroms in our midst. Dr Alveda King, to whom I turned for help when writing my book “The Secret Revealed,” said this week that neither guns nor race was the main issue in the Charleston shooting: it was hate. And this is a woman who is the niece of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who had preached at this very church, and who was himself gunned down by a hater, and whose father was also shot and killed in a church.

Alveda King said hate is the core issue. Although – of course – she is sensitive to racial injustice, her own ministry is devoted to the hate crime of millions upon millions of abortions performed in America. She knows hatred. And she knows the antidote.

It is very telling, speaking of hate, that the Establishment is ready to point to guns and racial prejudice after this murder spree. We are told that the monster Roof reviled the influence of blacks in America. And he did. But it did not stop there, as the Establishment would have us believe. Isn’t it typical, those who would redistribute our money also want to program every individual’s perceptions. Yes, he specified hatred for “what blacks were doing to the country.” But if that were the whole story, this stereotypical white redneck would more likely have sought out a hip-hop club or a corner where black gangs hung out. We learn that he had several close black friends. Confused, aimless, random?

No. He went to a church. During a Bible study. Where model citizens were praying, and studying the Word of God. On virtual holy ground, the oldest black church in the south, a longtime symbol of faith and spirituality. “Mother Emanuel” church. This twisted kid hated Christians. After toying with the idea of shooting up a college, he went to church.

He hated Christians more than he hated black folks. In fact, he loved to hate. Increasingly across the world the hatred of Christians is turning from prejudice to murder. Guns, swords, imprisonment, beheadings, torture, forced repatriation, take your pick. The haters do.

Love is the answer that is otherwise missing. “Love has no fear, because perfect love casts out all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced His perfect love” (1 John 4:18). That love is Jesus Christ, in Whom there is peace and eternal security. “God is love.” He expressed His love for us in His Son. As Frederick M Lehman wrote,

The love of God is greater far, Than tongue or pen can ever tell. It goes beyond the highest star, And reaches to the lowest hell. A guilty soul bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win; His erring child He reconciled, And pardoned from his sin.

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong! It shall forevermore endure – The saints’ and angels’ song.

The effect of Christian love was evident this week at the killer’s bail hearing. In court, surviving relatives confronted him via video camera. One by one, they confessed their hurt… forgave him… and prayed he would come to know Christ and seek forgiveness. Love triumphed over evil. Outside, there were no riots or incitements by outsiders, only prayer vigils, a memorial service, and hymn-sings. Miracle of miracles, those who grieved became the healers. No demonstrations in Charleston… except demonstrations of love.

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Lehman’s words are from the favorite old hymn. Another church song of the same title was written by Vep Ellis years later – just as powerful and convincing:

Click: The Love of God

What Do You Really Pray For?

6-15-15

Last week we shared thoughts about the anguish of suffering and illness, and the topic of God’s will regarding healing. It should not be a matter of debate; but it is. It should not be complex, but we make it so.

And we said this week we would discuss coping with the burdens that, naturally, remain when infirmities attack our bodies, our loved ones, our families. How standing strong in faith… can sometimes, still, leave us shaky when the “major” crises are past or covered. We will discuss a surprisingly little-used source of strength, little-used by even the most reverent of Christians.

And that is God.

I am preaching to myself, so I know whereof I speak.

How often do we pray, and pray for a specific result? Do we really pray – and mean – “Thy will be done”?

Do you ever pray for strength in order to go it alone, to be God’s warrior, to be an example to others? How often do you pray to just be God’s obedient servant?

Are your prayers for God to give you strength, or that God BE your strength?

What percentage of your prayers do NOT have a specific result in your request? Do you ever pray, in effect, “I don’t know, God; I am helpless; I am clueless; I trust You, in all You have, all You are, and in all You do”?

Do you remember that God manifests Himself as the Holy Spirit in order to inhabit our prayers, and bring spiritual gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and faith when we cannot summon these things ourselves? Do you remember that Jesus promised, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7)?

You will notice that most of my challenges – most of our “discussion” – has been in the form of questions. Well, life (and its recipe of burdens and grief as well as its menu of joys and hopes) consists of questions. In our personal journeys, we can have questions without answers, but for useful wisdom it is hard to appreciate the answers unless we ask informed questions.

And if life consists of questions, we know that Jesus does not only HAVE the answers. He IS the answer.

This seems like a paradox, or at least a challenge to the spiritual wisdom we are supposed to exercise. God circumvents our fervent thoughts, insights, education… even our theology? Yes. Christianity is, at its core, a counter-intuitive, upside-down, revelation of God. So it is not about what we pray, necessarily, but Who we trust.

Not what He can do, but who He is.

Not framing our desires, but knowing our needs.

Not trusting our own wisdom, or faith, but obeying Him, and trusting all His ways.

My friend Linda Evans Shepherd recently reminded us of St Isaac’s words: “The highest form of prayer is to stand silently in awe before God.” God knows all, anyway.

Christianity, where you can only stand by being on your knees.

Christianity, where rebellion leads to slavery.

Christianity, where obedience leads to freedom.

Christianity, where surrender leads to victory.

Oh, the burdens of our hearts! The desires of our souls! Too often do we pray backwards, ready with a heavenly shopping-list. Yes, we understand the momentous aspects of awful illness and tortured love affairs, of family crises and personal dilemmas. We know the reasons we pray for certain outcomes! But Martin Luther once said that Reason is the enemy of Faith, and so it is.

May God help us always to pray believing… in His wisdom, His love, His strength.

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Click: Please Be My Strength

Divine Heeling

6-8-15

Yes, I can spell; hold on. I want to address the topics of disease and sickness; and of God’s will and whether God allows infirmities – or whether He visits them upon us at times. Hot-button topics, always. I want to consider spiritual gifts, whether Divine Healing is a grace available to the contemporary church, or whether it was a “sign” to heathens and believers only in the first century.

The questions are not arcane, nor abstract. To the afflicted they can be of burning urgency. To some believers, some factions, they represent attitudes that, for all intents and purposes, define one’s faith.

My own life-experiences reflect different theological viewpoints. Rather, changing viewpoints through the years. Apart from the Theory of Evolution, about which theory I am a skeptic, my views on Divine Healing have evolved. I am persuaded that God has worked a sort of progressive revelation on my spiritual views.

I am not being flippant: I believe we always should invite God to inspire us – to have the Holy Spirit guide and inform us – as we search scripture and exercise our prayer life, our conversations with Christ. As our faith matures, we are “baby Christians” when that state is sweet and seemingly sufficient, but eventually we graduate from such mother’s milk and subsist – require – heartier spiritual food. The Bible assures us that this characterizes the life of the believer.

When I became a fervent Christian, born-again with all that implies, including multiple blessings, my wife and I were convinced about God’s invariable will to heal. We never quite ventured into “name it and claim it” territory, but if God can heal, and He answers prayer, and the fervent prayer of righteous men availeth much… healing was only a prayer away.

Right? Or a prayer hankie, which could be purchased off the TV ministry. Or a “love offering,” taken up at the preacher’s crusade, with promises of the hundredfold return, not just healing. I saw miracles. I did. A crippled leg extended; deaf ears opened. But when such things did not come, many preachers blamed the sick person’s faith, not germs or viruses or accidents or heredity or self-destructiveness or…

Eventually, I wondered why the evangelists who promised perfect health all wore glasses. Surely they were not fashion statements.

During this time my wife developed illnesses. Diabetes led to heart attacks and strokes. Celiac disease struck. She was listed for heart and kidney transplants. Her faith was never shaken, but at the point of death she received two organs. She believed that God worked a miracle through surgery, science, and doctors’ hands. Healing came. Christ’s promise of “life, and more abundantly,” she came to believe, was about more than money.

Also in her life she was healed of blindness, and, later, thyroid cancer, when the healing prayers were not as fervent, but they were cases “where the doctors can’t explain it.” Spiritual evolution: God was displaying His sovereignty, and we learned obedience.

Where once we thought that “by His stripes ye are healed,” that Jesus guaranteed Divine Healing for all because of the cross, we came to realize that we should pray as we are instructed, the burdens of our hearts; then trust and obey; and when and if healing comes, to give God the glory. By those stripes – Christ’s sacrifice, not a preacher’s sermon – He identifies with us, our fears, and, yes, our pain and infirmities.

Recently I have been acquainted with close family members and close friends with mysterious, serious, troubling afflictions. How should we pray?

Always – for healing. That is the burden of our hearts. There is NO instance in the Bible where God’s prophets, or Jesus, EVER claimed that physical affliction is from the Lord; or that disease is from God; or that sickness is sent to “test us.” Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? Just as likely temptations or distractions as illness. So: we pray, believing.

If healing does not come… or as we desire… or as fast as we want… or at all… we trust and obey. Our puny selves, with maturing but never matured faith, when it comes down to the paths we walk, cannot even walk without God holding our hands. It should never be, “heal me that I may run away,” but “hold me close that I may walk with You.”

This understanding is not a safety-valve for those who pray and their prayers go “unanswered.” No, it is a mature exercise of faith.

Why is there sickness in the world? God does not send it. But there is sin in the world; in this broken world there is sickness and death; dangers and strife; hostile natural forces (insurance companies have a nerve calling them “acts of God”). The rain falls on the just and unjust. God does not promise that we would be free of these things – only that He would be with us, comforting us, increasing our faith, sometimes healing us, always loving us. Holding our hands.

Does God bring (or even allow) sickness in order to chastise us, keep us in line? God forbid, I say. I know that many believers (orders within the Catholic Church, for instance) believe that sorrow is a virtue and that some people are meant to suffer. I had a friend with many infirmities who memorized the entire Book of James, for its verses that seem to accept and embrace suffering.

However, it can become, it should become, our duty, when illness strikes, to turn to God, to trust Him, to ask for wisdom, to plead mercy for loved ones… all the time praying for healing, and acknowledging that He is the Lord who healeth thee. Of course. He can, and He will. Let us not forget the “Divine” component of Divine Healing. He is the God of Understanding.

And in the meantime, acknowledge that we can’t even walk without His holding our hands. In obedience classes, that would be called “heeling.”

My son-in-law Norman is going through trials of body, emotions, and his work with family and ministry. In his faith, seeking understanding, he has turned to Proverbs 3, and its following verses. Good prescriptions indeed:

3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding;  In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.

3:19-20 The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; By understanding He established the heavens; By His knowledge the depths were broken up, And clouds drop down the dew.

3:24-26 When you lie down, you will not be afraid; Yes, you will lie down and your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden terror, Nor of trouble from the wicked when it comes; For the Lord will be your confidence, And will keep your foot from being caught.

Next week, some thoughts on how to cope with the burdens that, naturally, remain when infirmities attack our bodies, our loved ones, our families. We will discuss a surprisingly little-used source of strength.
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Click: I Can’t Even Walk Without You Holding My Hand

Happy Tears

6-1-15

Many of us have come to assume that “commencement,” as in every June’s spate of Commencement exercises, means the end: ceremonies that mark the end of high-school or college or grad school stints; the end of studying; for some people, the end of emergency calls from your kids needing money in their accounts at college. (Um, it doesn’t end with diplomas.)

But of course “commencement” means beginning. It is not a mere word-exercise to keep the meaning straight. It is well that we always have the attitude that almost everything we do is preparation for the next stage. This is true about one’s first job, and it is true about one’s last job, so to speak, in Glory, for which we always should prepare.

A personal note as I commence this little essay. I will write about endings and commencements and seasons of life. I usually do in June, for graduations are useful reminders of the larger cycles wherein we spin. I have just returned from a month overseas with my daughter and son-in-law Emily and Norman; my grandchildren Elsie and Lewis; my hosts Kenny Morrison and Ann Campbell and so many other new friends. It was not easy to arrange the trip there… but less easy to leave. Circles and cycles.

Parenthetically, this week is the exact fifth anniversary of this blog. And coincidentally, we just passed precisely 100,000 subscribers, hits, visitors, and, perhaps, even eavesdroppers. And respondents, from all over the world. It is truly humbling. I thank God and Google; the web and YouTube; my amazing Web Master (and I do mean Master) Norm Carlevato; and sites that pick us and share to places unknown – RealClearReligion, AssistNews, CBN.com, etc.

Ironically the germ of these messages was, five years ago, sharing a music video with a precious friend, singer/songwriter Becky Spencer… and I shared the link below, on the theme of kids’ graduations (and my enthusiasm for the singer Suzy Bogguss).

So here we are, back again. Circles and cycles. And thinking about the seasons of life. For me, enjoying my grandchildren after two years. For many, children graduating, and preparing for college or some other schooling or the military. You don’t have to be a parent or a grandparent to savor the unfathomable mixed but sweet emotions at the commencements of new chapters in life. You can be a child or grandchild. The pathos might take longer to be evident, but you eventually will feel it.

When Emily’s pastor Keith McCrory drove me to the Dublin Airport last week I wept for several minutes after waving to the family. Keith finally sympathized, “It must be hard to say good-bye.” I don’t think he believed me when I protested that I had merely jammed my fingers in the car door.

But these feelings of pathos, these tears we cry, are not sad, or not 100 per cent sad. There is an elemental part of us that appreciates when a significant transition of life takes place. It is natural, it is proper, it is what comprises life, as much as breathing and sleeping and eating. But because these moments come at fewer times, and with concentrated emotions, they seem more poignant. They ARE more poignant… but not unwelcome.

When kids go off to college, or the military, or professions, they are just doing what you reared them to do. When they marry, they fulfill your dreams, not only theirs. When they leave home, sometimes to live in other states or countries… you will miss them, but you feel the pride a mother bird must feel when a young one spreads its wings and flies. Elemental.

The tears we shed when we welcome our babies to the world have the same real and virtual ingredients as the tears we shed when the world, in turn, welcomes them years later, and we say Farewell. What different emotions! But parents holding on at first, after all, is the same sort of act as parents letting go later on.

“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1,2, New Living Translation)

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Music vid: Singer Suzy Bogguss was barely a newlywed when her husband Doug Crider wrote this song, an early hit record of hers, about circles and cycles of life, the mysterious poignant joys of parenthood. Two decades later she drove her own daughter to college before singing it on the Grand Ole Opry. Not an easy task. To every parent this June. Happy Commencement!

Click: Letting Go

Memorial Day’s Special Creatures

5-25-15
(Memorial Day)

They are special creatures. And rare. They do jobs not everyone understands, but they do understand. They are willing, and often do, “pay with their bodies for their souls’ desire,” as Theodore Roosevelt, whose son Quentin was killed in an aerial dogfight over German lines, said of fallen servicemen.

The finest tribute we can pay
Unto our hero dead today,
Is not a rose wreath, white and red,
In memory of the blood they shed;
It is to stand beside each mound,
Each couch of consecrated ground,
And pledge ourselves as warriors true
Unto the work they died to do.

— Edgar Guest

Throughout history there have been many military forces stocked of conscripts, sometimes unwilling, even ignorant of their “cause.” But often – and especially in this era of the volunteer military – service people take their oaths, don their uniforms, and support their missions. Victory is their goal, but they all know that death is an option. Other options include the certainty of family separation and changed civilian lives if and when they return; and, increasingly these days, cruel injuries and challenging disabilities.

But they volunteer, these special creatures. Sacrifice and Service are what their loves become. Gen. George S Patton is supposed to have said: “War is not dying for your country. It’s making the other bastard die for his country.” True as far as it goes, even a brilliant distinction; and a great motivational aphorism on a battle’s eve. But discordant on Memorial Day.

Heroes of old! I humbly lay
     The laurel on your graves again;
Whatever men have done, men may,—
     The deeds you wrought are not in vain!

— Austin Dobson

We don’t have to agree with the “cause” of a war or the decision to put a nation’s young men and women into battle in order to admire the fallen. I dissent from many adventures of recent years – or at least their strategies and tactics – but I am in awe of those who serve, sacrifice, sustain wounds, and die. They do not hate, for the most part, as soldiers and sailors and marines and airmen have been taught throughout history. Rather they love.

The motivations of those dead military souls whose we honor this weekend was more love of country than hatred of enemy. Not killing a foreign leader but protecting their families. Not focusing on distant spoils but venerating their spouses, kids, friends, and lives back home. Not against “them” but for “us.” Paying with their souls for their hearts’ desires.

To slightly parse another popular phrase, as I did with Patton’s above, the military man or woman did not bring us our freedom. Only God can do that, and has done that; and such a proper perspective has nurtured America for centuries, in war and peace alike. I am tempted to say that the service members might preserve our freedoms… except for this New Day and Age where civilian politicians and judges erode liberty faster than our military can “defend” it.

All we have of freedom, all we use or know–
This our fathers bought for us long and long ago.

— Rudyard Kipling

It saddens me that in recent American wars – let me say, larger, in recent generations – disputes rage not only over grand causes. But behind the battle lines, at home, wars claiming thousands have been undeclared, by politicians afraid of committing themselves as members of the military do, to the ultimate point. The public is often disunited, and too frequently dismissive of military service per se. Orders are countermanded; war aims abandoned; world and national politics subsume military goals.

Military families are neglected and often live in poverty, on welfare benefits. Veterans organizations and private charities care in innovative and effective ways – but their every success is a blot of shame on a government that should thus care by itself for its valiant. Scandals in military hospitals and veteran’s administrations are many, and continue.

… It is this situation – an America far different than the nation’s previous soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines fought for – this situation for which our uniformed heroes are willing to die. And an America where their chaplains are being denied the freedom to share Christ. Where the values many of them cherished or desired to defend, have changed or been perverted by courts and bureaucrats.

Yet they die, and are willing to die.

Because you passed, and now are not,—
     Because, in some remoter day,
Your sacred dust from doubtful spot
     Was blown of ancient airs away,—
     Because you perished,—must men say
Your deeds were naught, and so profane
     Your lives with that cold burden ? Nay,
The deeds you wrought are not in vain!

— Austin Dobson

Special creatures, these fallen heroes. Let us honor them in our minds and hearts, in ceremonies public and private. A flower, a flag, a prayer. Prayers of thanksgiving for such as these – in all humankind, special men and women admirable for their amazing devotion and sacrifices – and prayers that their kind may not perish from amongst us.

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Music vid: I had the pleasure once to meet the legendary singer/songwriter Bill Carlisle, in the course of writing one of my books on country music. He was part of a “brother act” with Cliff, and famous for leaping high on stage, guitar in hand, during one of his trademark novelty songs. I was not aware at the time that he was the writer of one of the great gospel songs, “Gone Home.” He was reluctant to perform it often because he was identified as a comic singer – so Flatt and Scruggs, GrandPa Jones, Ricky Skaggs, and others made it part of their repertoires. Another singer who revered the song, and sang it often, was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who enjoyed bluegrass and gospel music. Here is his acoustic version – appropriate here because its lyrics have become identified with fallen soldiers, brave family members, and missing friends, on Memorial Day: those who have Gone Home.

Click: Gone Home

Burning At the Stake, 2015

A last report, for awhile, from Ireland. The Republic is much agitated right now over “The Referendum,” a national vote scheduled for May 22, ostensibly for or against “Marriage Equality.” YES and NO signs, advertisements, handbills, lapel buttons, billboards, and colored balloons infest the normally Spring-green landscape. Speeches, sermons, television ads, comedy routines, and chat-show conversations have addressed little else of late. Almost every lamppost in Dublin city has signs, almost every street corner in little Leixlip village has proponents who accost pedestrians.

It is widely predicted that the YES vote will prevail, granting even more liberal “rights” (or removing existing “wrongs”), at a level of 60-70 per cent.

This campaign, for all its inherent issues, is a subset of Ireland’s recent obsession with joining the 21st century in a variety of ways. Long a depressed economy, it enjoyed the “Celtic Tiger” of rapid growth not long ago, only to crash in major fashion, due in part to over-expansion and the worldwide depression seven years ago. It climbs back, aiming toward a voice in European and world affairs. In civil matters it is taking a quantum leap to join societies with permissive policies on sex, drugs, abortion, and such.

It is a rather startling social revolution for this formerly traditional and traditionally Catholic country. Only in 2013, for instance, anti-abortion restrictions were modified; and recently even the sale of contraceptives was not allowed.

Much of the attitude adjustment largely is deemed to be part of a seismic reaction against the Catholic Church, its hidebound activities and dominance in Irish life. More than its counterparts in Latin European nations, or as with “state churches” in the Protestant north, the Catholic Church permeated every aspect of social and political life, and institutions like the educational system. When the fossilized church and especially the multitude of appalling sex and pedophilia scandals reached critical mass, the critical Mass became irrelevant to millions of Irish.

Church attendance and membership drastically is down; local churches have merged or closed; and the voice of the clergy suddenly is reviled. Traditional Protestant and new independent Christian fellowships have gained adherents, but not at a rate that mirrors Rome’s loss.

This is the background of the scene in Ireland, and the details surrounding the Referendum vote. But I would not be addressing it here except for its role as a manifestation of the larger profile of my recent and frequent concern, the post-Christian West. The “Marriage Equality” referendum is about marriage in the same manner as “birth control” is about birth. Ireland already permits civil unions, and the perceived flaws in pertinent codes could be addressed by simple, even bureaucratic adjustments.

No, the discussions about marriage equality, so-called, are not designed to guarantee or preserve so much as to attack and destroy. The YES proponents immediately and continually refer to LSMFT, or whatever, classifications, as well as Q for Queer… in fact, 41 various sexual classifications (a bureaucratic word for deviations). Surely some of these orthographical gymnasts comprise microscopic populations, their bizarre practices not merely obscene but obscure. I am civil libertarian enough to maintain that rights do not depend upon numbers.

Lord knows, when practicing Christians themselves have been reduced to small numbers, we likewise will seek basic protections.

But the advocates of the New World Order have something else in mind than being champions of women with wieners. Like the crazies of the French Revolution, who sought to abolish calendars and ordinary social constructs, the moral sociopaths in our midst want to re-write the Pledge of Allegiance; supersede Mr, Mrs, and Ms with honorifics reflecting peoples’ sexual pastimes; outlaw men’s and ladies’ toilets; and criminalize the reading of most Bible passages.

It constantly astonishes me that our generation of nitwits thinks than they know better, in every area, than hundreds of previous generations and scores of world cultures, and all the perceived and inherited wisdom of civilizations’ evolution. The advance of years does not automatically result in “progress” in morals, arts, and other fields of human endeavor. In truth, the human race has regressed except in a few areas like medicine and industry.

Our toys are shinier, but they are hollow and quickly grow obsolete. The human race, instead of reverting to our great theology, or great traditions, or great standards of creativity, chases more and more chimeras and wills-o’-the-wisps. Instead of an increase in moral clarity, we are, as the Bible says, like dogs returning to our own vomit.

The things that astonish me, just mentioned, pale in comparison to my amazement at the number of Christians who allow or even promote the current and ongoing lunacy. The Bible, for instance, is clear about God’s disapproval of “abominations.” It is obvious (alert for professional loophole-hunters) that Scripture nowhere describes, except disapprovingly, homosexual sex.

Yet many Christians defend “marriage equality” on the basis of collective guilt for unknown and various folks who insulted homosexuals. Is the rape and pillage of biblical standards, Western traditions, and the foundations of our national life justified – worth it – because of ancient nastiness? If Christians are confronted by God in judgment and asked why they condoned and promoted deviancy and abominations as He proscribed, and if their only answer is “a desire not to hurt peoples’ feelings,” can that meet a requirement of a just God?

Pastors: is your desire to be politically correct, your need to attract new members (never mind the ones who will desert you), your denial of biblical commands, so strong that you think, in 2015, that your wisdom is superior to Almighty God’s?

This is not Ireland’s challenge alone: this crisis faces all of the Christian West, all of the rotting corpse of post-Christianity. The Trojan Horse of “Marriage Equality” is emblematic of the wide range of history’s second Revolt of the Angels – man thinking he knows more than God (if a God there be in their eyes), choosing time after time after time death over life, degeneracy over decency.

For it is an assault on our families and our future, as much as on “unfairness” or the Church Triumphant, when homosexuality assumes the mantle of a protected species. When deviancy is promoted in state-run schools. When the traditional family is demoted and supplanted. When expressing opinions such as here will be a crime that would send me to prison. When the Sexual Whatevers are no longer content with being allowed civic protections but must attack the word and the concept of Marriage (a Sacrament, an Ordinance, to the religious).

If this be hate speech, make of it what you will. The lunatics have been running the asylum for some time, actually. Soon they will staff the Thought Police, the Conscience-Gulags, the Gas Chambers of Freedom. In the year of our Lord 2015 the prophets and apostles of the New World Order have set fire to the stakes on which are lashed our heritage and our futures. Soon, believers themselves will feel the flames too.

“Eighty and six years have I served him, and He never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” — Polycarp, a Disciple of John the Apostle and Bishop of Smyrna, before he was burned at the stake for his faith.

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Click: On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand

Imitating God

5-11-15

And Moses said to the children of Israel, “See, the Lord… has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of artistic workmanship. And He has put in his heart the ability to teach… He has filled them with skill to do all manner of work of the engraver and the designer and the tapestry maker, in blue, purple, and scarlet thread and fine linen, and of the weaver – those who do every work and those who design artistic works” (Exodus 35:31-35).

There are some Christians who write to correct me when I refer to creativity, creative accomplishments, creators of prose and poetry and painting, of drawings, sculpture, and dance. Of course we know that God created all things, that nothing was created that was not created by Him. Or, technically, can be created. They say, “Only God can create.” Of course this is true for physical elements, for resources – a reminder that is either sobering or revelatory to extremists who think we might run out of water or oxygen or soil or minerals. We might indeed squander resources, spoil or misuse the earth’s treasures, and pollute the environment. But under this inverted bowl we call the sky we cannot add to God’s resources or make any disappear: the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof… all of it.

Having parsed those terms, I believe it is not unscriptural to say that God’s children can create. Not in terms of alchemy, but to create stories from the mysterious depths of our imaginations. To create ethereal music where silence once reigned. To create images – paintings, drawings, sculpted figures, movies, graphic novels – by that magical process that exists between blank pages or canvasses and finished works of art, attended by simple speculation or profound genius as midwives.

We hear the clichés about what separates us from animals – laughter, compassion, intelligence – but I think the principal distinction, beyond having souls, is that we humans are creative beings. Not only created, but creative.

And I believe God endowed us with this spark of creativity. It is neither a theological “stretch” nor blasphemy to see ourselves this way. If we are to be “imitators of Christ,” in matters of relationships, forgiveness, discipleship, then surely we may be imitators of God, the Creator. In fact it is true, not suggestive but affirming, that most generations of humankind’s history, including in other faith traditions than our own, the majority of artistic expression has been exegetical of religious beliefs, expressing praise in unique ways, simply glorifying God. (That much artwork of the 20th and 21st centuries has been secular or anti-God, inimical to tradition and rejecting inherited values, is evidence, I think, of the cultural nihilism that infests our age. Do artists reflect their culture? Then yes, we have a proven case of societies tragically adrift. The contemporary arts tell us that we do not merely hate traditional standards; we of this age hate the very concept of there being standards.)

I have noted recently in this space that because of family matters I am in Ireland for month, and missing the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, an annual event where I endeavor to counsel aspiring writers and where (dirty-little-secret alert) I am replenished by fellowship with other creative types. I hasten to add that in God’s providence I am finding time, and making new friends, with writers and artists in Dublin, Ireland. And this is today’s context of the message I compose about once a year on creativity.

Dublin has a great literary tradition. I have already been to a few of the sites where Leopold Bloom “visited,” still marked as real locations and attractive to literary tourists. I will visit the Dublin Writers Museum, Trinity College Library, and the Chester Beatty Collection to see rare manuscripts and literary relics. The International Writers Festival will be held next week. Just to look upon the Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript whose display turns one page each day – to realize that I look upon an astounding work of art, and a manuscript representative of monastic traditions that kept Christianity alive during the bleakest years of the barbarians’ dominance of Europe – floods the soul.

I have met, by chance or because of my daughter Emily’s affinity for the arts, writers and artists who are particularly gifted. Stacey Covell deconstructs and reconstructs poems, collaborating with visual artists who contribute to the new morphological creations, published in a revolutionary format of loose pages in an envelope, to be read, rearranged, spread out, and itself reconstructed. Another new friend is Martin McCormack, an artist whose invented medium is turf – mixing iconic Irish peat with glue and acrylics, applying the substance to boards and then scraping away negative portions of Irish cultural figures’ faces to produce portraits that are arresting.

There is in Dublin a fledgling group called the Creative Collective. Founded by James and Laura Pettit (he a musician, she a painter), it is a gathering-place where “we explore what creativity is and encourage every person to understand why imagination, beauty and truth matter in life. Everyone has imagination and ability to create, and everyone is welcome. We are involved in visual arts, music, theatre and performing arts, design, new media, literary arts and film.” Those who attend the meetups are from many different countries, all ages. The motivators and hosts of the Creative Collective are Christians, but wide-ranging, free discussion of the arts and creativity is the only “liturgy.”

Recently James formed a spin-off community, Art & Faith Together, to encourage those who wanted to explore the nexus of the disciplines. His own manifesto described the community: “Passion for creativity. My encouragement for everyone to understand how they are particularly made to create. Helping people understand what that means in their lives.” He said, “I love how any discussion about any art can have applications to another.”

I attended a meeting of Art & Faith Together in Dublin’s unique coffee shop Third Space last week. I was very impressed with James’ views of the arts and creativity (himself, among things, a classically trained trombonist who espied jazz and blues) but especially his views as a Christian artist. The American church community, with pockets of exceptions, I think tends not to encourage artistic expression and creativity. I hope I am mistaken. Too often, people of faith equate the arts with iconoclasm (in itself, not necessarily a bad thing), scatology and worse.

To the extent that Christian nay-sayers have any point, our response should not be to withdraw from creative communities and artistic expression, but to embrace them… reclaim them… redeem them.

James Pettit was firm in this view the night I met him at Art & Faith in Dublin. It was a commitment to something I had not fully considered: that Christians in the arts were not merely expressing their creativity; not only praising God in unique ways; but can fulfill themselves and in so doing, attract the world to the Word by the beauty, singularity, complexities, simplicity, fragrance, and elemental attractiveness of God-inspired, God-honoring art. I would add, as above, perhaps even be reverently God-imitative.

A few nights after that session in the Third Space Café in Dublin’s Smithfield district, James Pettit died of a massive heart attack. I, who knew him but a few hours, was as shocked and saddened as those who knew the transplanted American for years. This essay is a tribute to him, and the values this gentle giant of a man gently but firmly embraced.

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Click: Sweet Is the Melody

Happy Birthday to Infinity

5-4-15

Hubble deep space (see more Hubble images)

Let us toss a pinch of cosmic pixie dust this week to the Hubble Telescope, the latest toy – a term I use with deep, proper, appropriate reverence – that allows us to view the universe more clearly. To appreciate creation better. To renew our sense of awe. To understand God more fully?

Not really, no. The stunning images of the universe we have received for 25 years allow us to see God’s handiwork in ways that scientists throughout history could never dream, and dreamers could never explain. At best – which is very good – the images we are graced to receive from Hubble’s penetrating gaze remind us of a God who is all-powerful, bigger than our biggest thoughts, and audacious to a degree we cannot comprehend. But… we don’t automatically understand Him better. I “understand” Him less, in fact, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In sixth grade, the father of my friend Eric Wells took a group of neighborhood kids to New York’s City’s Hayden Planetarium for Eric’s birthday. We beheld, there, that era’s best representation of the infinite heavens, the projection of an enhanced night sky on the planetarium’s interior dome. Under thousands and thousands of virtual stars and planets, I leaned over to Mr Wells and said, “It makes one feel rather insignificant, doesn’t it?” I later heard that the remark impressed him, but I was either swiping a Peanuts gag, or simulating one. (I was destined for a life in comics. More than a life in astrophysics. Believe me.)

These images do, however, make us feel insignificant. Even if we are on the “inside track,” knowing God, satisfied with the mystery of creation and God’s ways – that is, not having to know every detail of matters that are wholly God’s domain – and grateful to be part of His plan. Even then, as King’s kids and co-heirs with Christ, we are still awestruck by the majesty and mystery of Creation.

Are we Luddites, living in happy ignorance and distrustful of knowledge? Of course not. It is an exciting time in history, to look heavenward, as did Adam and Eve, or the Neanderthals Ug and Glug did, or as the impressionable wise men in Egypt and Greece and Phoenicia, or as did uncountable poets and philosophers and lovers, and ask “What is there? What more is there? Do we see what we think we see?” For the first time in history, humans nudge a little closer to seeing, almost feeling, the reality of unknown worlds.

Like the first Enlightenment thinkers, we appreciate science for opening paths to God. (This is contrary to what our schools teach about the Age of Reason, ostensibly when science “liberated” itself from superstitious religion.) Science should not make us greater skeptics: it should bring us closer to an appreciation of God’s greatness; better to behold His handiwork; to advance civilization by rational incorporation of spiritual inspirations. Newton saw things that way. As did Bach. Their main goals were to explain and glorify God by the scientific tools they employed.

Other questions, like How did the universe start, and When did it begin, almost seem like setting off stink bombs at a debutante’s ball. The questions are real… but ultimately more silly than profound. The “Big Bang,” only recently a rock-solid explanation of creation, is now undergoing a sort of scientific recall. Second thoughts. New facts. Matter and anti-matter, once the property of science-fiction writers, has now been appropriated by PhDs and professors. Good for them. Carbon-dating, for instance on the Shroud of Turin, is now being reassessed too.

I have always thought that the more detailed the explanations were of the Big Bang, the more they simply sounded like mumbo-jumbo restatements of the Book of Genesis anyway. All the saints and sages who have discussed of the universe’s origins inevitably are stymied. The universe started… when? And what was it the moment beforehand? Creation started as an atomic particle exploding? What surrounded it before the explosion; who caused the explosion? The universe is expanding? Into what? How far? What is beyond that? Who started all this? If “nobody,” then…

When your head stops hurting, you will affirm that unanswerable questions do not prove the existence of God by themselves, but abstract skepticism – ultimately, rebellion – surely does not disprove God’s existence. I’ll take Awe. I don’t often quote Matthew Harrison Brady, who inherited the wind, but I am persuaded to be more concerned with the Rock of Ages than the Ages of Rocks.

“Have you not known? have you not heard? has it not been told you from the beginning? have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He that sits upon the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are as grasshoppers; Who stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in: Who brings the princes to nothing; He makes the judges of the earth as nothing. Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown: yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth: and He shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble. To whom then will you liken me, or shall I be equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and behold Who has created these things, that brings out their host by number: He calls them all by names by the greatness of His might, for He is strong in power; not one is missing” (Isaiah 40: 21-26).

It pleased the Creator God to fill this mysterious void with billions of galaxies, colorful, ever-changing, intriguing. It pleased Him to create a species of beings in His image, and fill our world with wondrous animals and plants and mountains and seas. It pleased Him to embrace us with love, and provide a means of salvation so that, wherever and however, we will spend eternity with Him. And it pleases us that He ordained science, which confirms His greatness and omnipotence, more and more frequently. Thank you, Hubble. Happy birthday!

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Click: Adagio by Tomaso Albinoni

A Mountain-Top Experience Accessible to All

4-27-15

The Colorado Christian Writers Conference will be held in a couple weeks in Estes Park, in the Rocky Mountain National Park. I have been attending for a dozen years as faculty member, speaker, and invariable participant in the great opportunities for fellowship and worship.

I will miss it this year because of family matters in Ireland, whence I write this week. Great regrets. Ironically, if circumstances permit, I might attend, the very same days, the International Literature Festival (formerly the Dublin Writers Festival) in one of the world’s great literary cities. …but it is nothing like CCWF for Christian creators. I will miss the inevitable mountain-top experiences!


My good friend, writer Barbara Haley writes here about doubts and fears common to all writers – all creative people, even the most successful professionals – at times. She is our guest writer today.

In a few weeks, I will be attending the Colorado Christian Writers Conference for my 16th year. Same location, but a new inspirational and informative experience every year.

As I prepare for the conference, I’m reminded of the time just before my first conference when I didn’t feel like I was really ready to go. I didn’t know if I was a writer, and I felt guilty squandering our money just for a fun trip. Our finances were tight at the time, and I wondered if I were being a good steward of the money God gave us.

As the days before the conference ticked off, my anxiety grew. I rushed to get projects finished, but life happened and I seemed to get little accomplished. I would be presenting projects for critiques by professional writers and editors – work I was not yet proud of, writing not yet perfectly matched with my plans and expectations.

I couldn’t figure out how to be perfect. How to impress the editors and agents with whom I would be meeting. How to know ahead of time exactly what they wanted to see and hear. How to avoid the horrible experience of embarrassment or failure.

In all honesty, though I didn’t see it at the time, my anxiety boiled down to pride – not being able to control what others saw and felt about me. All my life I had been an over-achiever, because my self-worth was totally wrapped up in my performance and the affirmation of others.

The excitement I first felt when I registered slowly dissipated, replaced by dread and insecurity. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t write.

Finally, I talked to my husband about my situation. “I’m so sorry, honey,” I said. “I feel like I’m wasting our precious money. I wonder if I could cancel and get a partial refund.”

With warm eyes, my sweet husband just smiled in his special reassuring way. “No, you’re not going to cancel. I don’t care if all you do is go sit under the mountains and spend time with Jesus. That would be worth every penny we’re spending!”

Wow! What a relief. The pressure to perform was off. I was going on a vacation with my precious friend and Savior, Jesus. With His help, I would do the best I could—and that would be enough. I could trust Him to walk beside me and show me His plan for my writing.

Each year, I remember those wise words from my husband. And each year, I consciously take time to lay aside the pressure of “being ready” and focus on my time with God. For when I turn my eyes to Him, the things of earth truly do grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

Hebrews 12:1-2a urges us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

For me, the sin of pride had colored my world, entangling my thoughts, feelings, and actions. Once I consciously threw that off and turned my eyes back to the Lord, my world instantly brightened. Energy to run the race God had for me returned. Grace allowed me to accept my imperfections and, instead, glory in His strength and guidance.

As you listen to the following song, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, take time to allow God’s grace and presence fill your soul, transforming your thoughts, feelings, and actions by the renewing of your mind.

That even “accomplished” creative people are beset by such feelings, ironically should reassure the nervous neophyte. Yes, we are in the same boat. Yes, we are “naked before the world” with our often tentative efforts. “Who are WE to presume that what we write [or paint, or compose] will interest anyone else?”


There are several answers to that question. As Bach did, we write as unto the Lord, and we seek to please Him first; other results follow. After that: write to please yourself; if you know your subject, and know your target audience, you will succeed. Solicit the opinions of fellow creators; share the pains and joys; be encouraged and be an encourager. Venues like the Colorado Christian Writers Conference are pure gold.


Sometimes having a “mountain-top experience” can even include spending part of a week on one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world.

For information about the Conference, go to Colorado Write His Answer

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Click: Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

We Should Make Waves, Not Ride Them

4-20-15

I recently was at a dinner party and discussed reading habits with a lady. “When you write fiction, I’m sure you know how the story will end,” she asked “but when you read a novel, do you ever peek ahead to the ending?” I have heard that some people do this, but it sort of defeats the purpose, don’t you think?

There is only one book where I think it is worthwhile, even advisable, to peek ahead to the ending. To the very last chapter. And that is the best of books, the Great Book: the Holy Bible.

It is a good idea to do more than peek. We should be as familiar with End Times as we are the story of Creation; with the requirements for Salvation as the Commandments of the Decalogue; with the “signs of the times” as the signs and wonders of Christ’s ministry. God desires that we know what is coming – for the faithful, the faithless, and the apostates.

The Bible is very clear about what is coming at the End of Time, the end of this world as we know it. And when the Bible is not clear – which is frequently, as many details are wrapped in allusions, poetry and, yes, mystery – I believe this too is intentional. God has not been sloppy nor the Holy Spirit an inadequate inspiration. God wants us to be forever on watch, always anticipating His return, constantly following Scripture for its signposts.

To these ends we must study the Last Days, during which many believe, plausibly, we live today.

We know that “the saints will be deceived,” that many Christians, and churches, and entire denominations, will follow false doctrines.

We know that “men shall be lovers of their own selves” – more than selfish, but given over to their own desires, substituting their wills for God’s.

We know that the Bible speaks of a time when there will be “wars and rumors of wars,” more than usual; and “people cry ‘peace, peace,’ but there is no peace.”

We know that “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” This is only happening with the advent of modern communications.

We know that, speculations about the anti-Christ aside, the world will be beset by false Messiahs.

Many are the prophecies of violent weather, “distress” around the world, plagues, famines, oppression, persecution of the church. And many people see these as imminent… or already here. We do not have to wander into the tall grass of preterist debates and arguments for and against pre-millennialism, millennialism, and post-millennialism, as prerequisites to gain familiarity with scripture’s pictures of the End of the Age. Whether Israel is the fulfillment of the biblical restoration of Jerusalem or a secular country unrelated to the spiritual dispensation of God’s chosen, the spiritually circumcised, et cetera, et cetera…

… the earth as we know it will end. We are on paths toward destruction. Judgment draweth nigh. Numerous prophecies are being fulfilled (from Daniel, Isaiah, and other Old Testament books, as well as from Jesus’s words, Paul’s letters, and the Book of Revelation) that could not have been imagined or understood just a few short years ago. Heresies abound. Men call evil good and good evil, right in our midst, even from our pulpits. All as the Bible predicted.

I am not being pessimistic; I am being realistic.

I am not voicing alarms; I am sharing the Truth.

I am not showing lack of faith in God’s working; I am reading the Bible about His ways.

I am not decrying God’s coming judgments; I know absolutely that He is a Just God.

So. Now what, believers? I urge that we not get caught up in whether the Great Tribulation happens in the middle of the 70 weeks and what passages are literal and what references are true but allusions. We must deal with facts, not disputes; God’s will, not our theology.

We must be ready. We must look up. We must be pure and faithful. We must correct the misguided, witness to the lost, convert the rebellious.

More, we must be willing to suffer for the gospel. We must be willing to be criticized by neighbors. We must be willing to be shunned by family members.

We must be bold. We must speak up, speak out, and speak loudly against the horrible things in our midst – laws, rules, education, the courts, the schools, entertainment media, popular culture.

We must take stands, even commit civil disobedience, on matters like suppression of the gospel, freedom of religion, infanticide and euthanasia, moral abominations.

If you need a list, look in the Bible’s descriptions of the days preceding End Time destruction. Our scripts – our marching orders – are there. Woe to those of us who wrongly apply “turning the other cheek” when His church is being attacked. Be not deceived: God is not mocked.

It is time for Christians to stop trying to “get along.” We should be making waves, not riding them. This is not an option. Peek ahead, and read the end of the story.

“What sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn? According to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish…” (II Peter 3:11-14).

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Click: I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted

Not Praying That God Be On Our Side

4-13-15

April 15th. A Day That Will Live in Infamy. No… not Income Tax day. It is the day Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed. This year, it is the sesquicentennial of the horrible crime – 150 years ago. My readers know that I revere Theodore Roosevelt above almost all Americans in history, and for myriad reasons. Yet I think that Lincoln was the closest we have had to a civic saint: certainly a secular saint for his wisdom, actions, and imparted words. I think so partly because he was not exalted, except by ballots, but more as he was the simplest of men; common; honest.

TR’s way of reaching the same assessment of Lincoln was to say (also about
Washington): “There have been other men as great and other men as good; but in all the history of mankind there are no other two great men as good as these.”

Anniversaries are useful things when they suggest to us reasons to remember, or set us to seriously think about worthwhile things. Lincoln left us 150 years ago. But that sentence is wrong, at least certainly inadequate as to the situation. And the situation is this: Abraham Lincoln was a once-in-a-lifetime man; that is, the lifetime of a nation. There was little that could have predicted his greatness; his elevation to the presidency, over many famous and seasoned rivals, was an anomaly; and his decisions, despite frequent controversy, were brilliant – exactly what was needed to preserve the Union.

More than anything, we are struck by Lincoln’s humanity. He was forever patient. He arrived at policies through anguish, but he executed them firmly. He knew firsthand the turmoil of broken families, brothers fighting brothers. And suffered all these painful tests and duties. We know he kept his sense of humor. But what I have come to admire as much as any other trait is Lincoln’s faith.

It is a matter of debate how “religious” Lincoln was; whether he accepted Jesus as the Son of God; whether he believed in salvation or the need of personal salvation. It is not a matter of debate that he seldom attended or joined churches. It is a matter of record that he read the Bible his entire life, quoted even obscure verses often, and laced his speeches and writing with Bible quotations, scriptural allusions, King James cadences.

We cannot judge most of these things: some close friends like his longtime Illinois law partner Billy Herndon claimed that Lincoln was a gnarly heathen – but Herndon’s relationship was always rocky, and he wrote a biography of Lincoln after the assassination that sniped at a hundred particulars. Lincoln’s personal secretary John Hay, however, testified to Lincoln’s spiritual struggles, and his reliance on prayer in the White House. This at a time, generally, of private expressions of faith, when many Christians thought that respecting Christ’s teachings was more important than affirming His divinity (this is not a recent phenomenon!), and when Old Testament lessons were preached more than New Testament parables. And most babies received Hebrew names.

But I am here to appreciate the aspect of Lincoln’s faith that is beyond doubt. God never resents whatever crises bring us to our knees, but clearly the pressures of holding a country together and prosecuting a horrendous war… coincided with Lincoln’s growing faith. It is inspiring to read of this evolution (and I have read more than 65 books on Lincoln, including his complete letters and all his speeches), but more inspiring is to read his own words themselves.

There was a steady progression of appeals to God… invocations of Providence… seeking the Lord’s guidance… biblical quotations… allusions to Bible history… setting aside national days of prayer, as well as fasting, humiliation, and thanksgiving, multiple times. By the end of the war, the speeches and proclamations of President Abraham Lincoln resembled sermons. Always beseeching God in humility, never presumptuous. Always inspiring.

It is this Lincoln we remember today. Some of his quotations included his
reference in the first inaugural address to “a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land.” In the second address, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” And of course his reference in the Gettysburg Address that this “nation shall under God have a new birth of freedom.”

A proclamation:
It is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to His chastisement; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offenses, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action. And whereas when our own beloved country, once, by the blessings of God, united, prosperous and happy, is now afflicted with faction and civil war, it is peculiarly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals, to humble ourselves before Him and to pray for His mercy.

In private communication, 1862:
We are indeed going through a great trial – a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happened to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out His great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to His will, and that it might be so, I have sought His aid.

About his black moments when Lee’s army invaded Pennsylvania, Lincoln wrote:
When everyone seemed panic-stricken… I went to my room… and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed… Soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that God Almighty had taken the whole business into His own hands….

During the war, Lincoln responded to someone’s wish that “the Lord was on the
Union’s side.” Lincoln responded:
I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.

Lincoln said about the Bible:
In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say I believe the Bible is the best gift God has given to man. All the good Savior gave to the world was communicated through this Book.

And other reflections:
I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction
that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed
insufficient for that day.

God loves us the way we are, but too much to leave us that way. I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.

As we remember Abraham Lincoln on the sesquicentennial of his murder, his
martyrdom, we should be inspired anew by his words. And reflect on the contrast between the words of a president once called an “agnostic, deist, infidel”; and the words of a contemporary president whose mentions of Christianity are often to criticize it and its adherents, even if having to reach back a thousand years.

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Here is a country version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” – perhaps evoking Lincoln’s roots in Kentucky, Indiana, and central Illinois – with a story of the president granting a condemned soldier’s pardon, in the spirit of Christ. (The secretary in the real story was not Secretary of State Seward, as pictured here, but his personal secretary John M Hay.)

Click: What a Friend

Gone.

4-6-15

It’s strange. This Jesus, who told us all the time that He stands at the door and knocks – at the doors of our hearts – is “not home” when we come to His door. My name is Mary; you have heard of me. I went to His tomb this morning, and the stone was rolled away. He is not there. His burial cloths are, but not His body.

Gone.

Where has He gone?

It’s a few hours later, and the Disciples, who have been hiding in fear and confusion, some of them came, too, and see the empty tomb. “Gone,” they say. The few days since Jesus died on the cross were the blackest days of our lives. Maybe in humankind’s history. The Savior was promised and prophesied… He was made flesh and dwelt amongst us… He performed miracles and talked wisdom and preached love and told us what to do to receive forgiveness… and be reconciled to God… and to live eternally with God. Now… gone.

It is a few days later. Jesus is alive! He has appeared to us. He has mingled with multitudes. He showed His scars; He let a doubting Thomas touch His wounded side. Those who condemned Him are seeing Him, and they fall at His feet. Even Romans and Jewish historians like Josephus see Him. Gone… but returned.

He died for all sinners, He said. He loved us while we yet rejected Him, He said. His sacrifice substituted for the punishment we rebels deserve, He said. Before He was gone, all that made no sense. Now that He lives, we understand.

I am not sure, but now that He is not gone, and is showing Himself to people, I have an idea that since He left the tomb and lives again, maybe He is seeking out some of the people He died for. They were gone, too, when things got rough. He wants to bring them home.

Now I can tell more, from the perspective of 40 days after the Resurrection. Jesus ascended bodily into Heaven. Gone again? Not really; He promised a Holy Spirit to take His place in our hearts. Gone? Hardly.

I remember the Virgin Birth; and His many miracles; and all the prophecies fulfilled, but if Jesus did not rise from dead – if the “gone” was REALLY “gone” – it is all a useless, cruel joke. [“And if The Messiah is not risen, our preaching is worthless and your faith is also worthless,” I Corinthians 15:14]

But… He is not gone.

No. Jesus is not gone. Our faith is NOT worthless, not in vain!

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In Jerusalem, on a stage under the night moon, gospel legend Jessy Dixon sings “Gone,” the classic song by Eldridge Fox.

Click: Gone

Passionate About the Passion

4-3-15

Some non-Christians, and many Christians, are a little confused about the term “Passion” when describing the final week of Jesus’s earthly life, the pre-risen Savior. Normally, being passionate is a good thing, something we all seek or endorse.

In fact Passion is from the Latin, patere, meaning to suffer. It describes an emotion at the extremities of enthusiasm or sorrow. Diderot, father of the modern dictionary concept, described Passion as “penchants, inclinations, desires, and aversions carried to a certain degree of intensity, combined with an indistinct sensation of pleasure or pain.” The fine line between joy and aversion, desire and rejection. (The passion fruit is not a putative aphrodisiac; when sliced in half, the pulp encases seeds bundled in the shape of a cross.)

Advising students, “Be passionate about what you pursue,” and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ are different sides of the very same coin.

And so, on Holy Week, we may pause at the supernal St Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. Listen to it. Learn from it. For Holy Week vespers services, Bach wrote the St Matthew Passion, performed in Leipzig’s St Thomas and St Nicholas churches on alternate years, for decades. He periodically made improvements to this, possibly his most favored of approximately 1800 works he composed.

Bach employed a “surround-sound” structure in the St Matthew Passion:
stereophony. At St Thomas Church, certain movements were performed from the
east organ loft, the “swallow’s nest” opposite the main musician’s gallery at the
west end of the church, a double-choir structure “that produced a splendid and
festive effect.” Smaller groups of musicians and singers performed from the church’s many corners; worshipers heard music coming from every direction.

The structure of Bach’s Passions were strictly traditional; he changed little of the form he inherited. The straight biblical narrative was distributed among soloists (evangelists and various soliloquentes, or individual speakers including Jesus, Peter, Pilate, et al) and choirs (various turbae or crowds: high priests, Roman soldiers, Jews, etc). The Passion’s flow was dotted by narration, hymn strophes, and contemplative lyrics, “madrigal pieces” of free verse, mainly delivered as arias. One can begin to appreciate the spectacle that audiences beheld: a combination of church and theater, Greek-style drama and opera, music and voice, costume and acting.

Bach revised the St Matthew Passion several times through the years (his best works were repeated in his churches, and performed elsewhere, just as he occasionally performed works of esteemed contemporaries), and, of his manuscript scores that survive today, none bears such respect as St Matthew. In 1736, at least, he considered it his most significant work. His autograph score shows loving attention, written in red or brown inks according to the biblical and dramatic libretto sources; calligraphy in careful Gothic or Latin letters; and preserved as an heirloom. In fact it appears that a later accident, perhaps a spill, damaged portions of some pages, and Bach lovingly repaired those sections with paste-overs.

For half a century after Bach’s death his musical style was out of style, and he slipped into relative obscurity. Eventually, however, the floodgates opened. The great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe discovered Bach’s music and described it: “Eternal harmony carries on a dialogue with itself on what God felt in his bosom shortly before the creation of the world.” The composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, a Lutheran converted from Judaism, was awestruck by the St Matthew Passion and staged a legendary performance on Good Friday, 1829. Its revival was repeated, and Mendelssohn brought his enthusiasm for Bach to England, where Felix was a favorite of the German-descended Queen Victoria (of Saxon and Hanoverian royalty).

Since then it is performed regularly, everywhere and at any time through the year. However, it is most appropriate during Holy Week. Its parts were performed on
separate nights of daily services between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, each re-creating the events of Holy Week – Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem; the contention with the Jewish Sanhedrin and Roman authorities; the Last Supper; His betrayal; the trials and persecution; the Crucifixion.

… The Passion that Christ endured for us, willingly taking on Himself the punishment and death we deserve as sinners who have separated ourselves from God.

As I have recommended before, if you are a person who listens to traditional hymns or Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime, or even if you are not, you will profit from setting some time aside and listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and absorb its musical grandeur, its setting, its cultural history… its meaning. No less today than when it was first performed 275 years ago. Or when events took place, 2000 years ago.

Bach took the same care that the early evangelists, or recipients of their Epistles, might have shown to ancient events and texts. It is notable that history came to call Bach “The Fifth Evangelist,” the accolade bypassing even his spiritual mentor Martin Luther.

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A performance of the Passion based on St Matthew’s Gospel. The great Bach interpreter Karl Richter conducts the Munich Bach Orchestra and the Munich Bach Choir. With English subtitles. This production is a work of art in itself: an appropriately bleak but very expressive setting. The cross, overhead the performers, grows lighter and darker responding to the dramatic narrative.

Click: Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”

One Thousand Years of Easter Music

4-1-15

I recently have quoted St Augustine, from more than 1500 years ago, to the effect
that “He who sings, prays twice.” In the early days of the church, it was music
that helped attract worshipers… and was, naturally and powerfully, an irresistible
means to praise God and express joy.

Before the church fathers (and mothers; St Cecilia becoming the Patron saint
of Music) Plato identified not only music but harmony as capturing – as best
humankind could – the abstract but Perfect Good that reigns over us. Plato did not
particularly ascribe it to the manufactured Greek gods, but he believed that there
existed an Absolute Truth; and that, even if we could never fully know it, humans
are ennobled by seeking it. Although he lived 300 years before Jesus, the early
church recognized his philosophy in some ways as proto-Christian; and many of
them were neo-Platonists.

So the musical impulse, in many ways, was concurrent to the institution of
worship, formal and informal. Plainsong and chants predominated, and in the
evolution of corporate worship, the trends moved from singing individuals to
ensembles and choirs. In the Gothic era, polyphony – “many sounds,” part-
singing, basic harmony – entered church music. There was actually a time when
the Roman church considered banning harmony as rebellion against tradition, but
the impulse of reformers from Luther to Bach opened the floodgates of glorious
harmonies, attractive melodies, the regal organ, full organs, and the resumption of
congregational singing.

This is a brief introduction, in Holy Week, to a brief introduction to the history of
church music. Linked here is a 90-minute BBC-TV documentary on sacred music,
using Easter themes as the touchstone.

It covers approximately a thousand years of Western church music, from Plainsong
to Polyphony, simple chants to the complex but captivating musical expression of
J. S. Bach. The setting is St Luke’s in London, staged as a reverent mixture of the
ancient and modern. There is tasteful narration between numbers. It ultimately is
a concert, not a church service, and I hope the occasional audience applause is not
disconcerting.

If you are a person who enjoys listening to the Messiah at Christmastide, or even
if you are not, sometime during Holy Week you should find this interesting.
The church’s heritage; musical history; the sweep of cultural changes; artistic
expression of another time, almost another world, are here. And, by the translation-
subtitles of chants, songs, choruses, and motets, the essence of the Easter story is
told.

… as, maybe, only music can bring it to our souls.

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Click: An Easter Celebration

The Many Mysteries of the Cross

3-30-15

In this changing world, it might be possible that some day the death penalty will be outlawed everywhere. On the other hand, if governments are being kinder and gentler with miscreants, we are seeing more summary death penalties these days – executions of infidels, troublemakers, and… “others.” I think of scimitars used by Moslems for beheadings, and remember when I was a child, I wondered if Jesus lived today, whether He would be put to death by firing squad or electric chair.

If so, would Christianity adorn its churches with representations of guns, or an electric chair, or a lightning bolt, or the symbol of poison we see on vials? Would Christian women wear jewelry in the shapes of a noose, or a sword?

It is not an impertinent question. It is pertinent if we think again, and perhaps with more focus, on the death of Jesus – and on the manner of His suffering and sacrifice. Experts on such things as torture say that crucifixion is one of the most horrible forms of meting out death in the charming history of our species. The forms of execution mentioned above surely are quicker and therefore higher on the scale of mercy. Burning at the stake was relatively quick, as were other “medieval” forms of torture and death, compared to crucifixion.

To be nailed to a cross, awful in itself, and left to hang and die, took several hours; sometimes longer. The arrangement of internal organs and the law of gravity combined to bring slow death, not so much by unbearable pain but by suffocation of the lungs.

But for a moment we can consider what else Jesus endured – aspects that were not usual with other Roman victims. The painful, mocking, bloody crown of thorns was unique to this condemned Man. Some prisoners were tied by rope, not nailed through the wrists and ankles, to crosses. Other factors were “either/or” in the Roman justice system: bearing the patibulum, the 100-pound crossbeam, through the streets to where the vertical wooden stipes awaited; whipping to within an inch of life; flogging by the worst instrument, the flagellum – not a normal whip or cat-o’-nine-tails, but leather strops with lead balls and animal bones filed to sharp points – would break the skin, catch it, and pull strips (“stripes,” as the Bible prophesied) off the back. Scourging, when ordered, often killed the prisoner, and seldom reached 40 in number, as Jesus endured. Of course, we know that He was mocked, poked, punched, and spat upon also, during His “trial.”

Over and above that – the combination of which few if any men ever sustained – I believe the worst thing for Jesus was the knowledge that, during those hours and days, He had been betrayed, denied, and abandoned by His followers, those who knew Him best. During this period of testing and trial, when fulfilling the Father’s plan and completing numerous details of Old Testament prophesies, when, perhaps, He was MOST human, the rejection by His friends and disciples must have hurt more than anything else. “The body they may kill…”

And Jesus went to the Cross. It was difficult (I say with irony), interrupted by all those things like trials, beating, scourging, humiliation, carrying a rough, heavy crossbeam along the via Dolorosa on lacerated flesh. I say that they interrupted the walk, because despite the agony – the human side of the Messiah asking the father if the “cup” could pass from him – it is true that, metaphorically, Jesus virtually scrambled up the Cross.

So we approach the Mystery of the Cross we can never fully comprehend.

Jesus knew His whole life that He would, as the lamb of God, be the Sacrifice for humankind’s sins. The Israelites had sought to please God by sacrifices of spotless lambs. God was pleased, at this moment, to offer His spotless son, without stain or blemish, as a sacrifice so that we, believing, might be cleansed of sin.

The Mystery further includes that Jesus did not merely die, as we have stated, but that His torment might have been worse than any individual has ever suffered.

The Mystery further includes that He suffered in silence. In his “trials” and hanging from the Tree, as ancient writings and hymns sometimes called the Cross

The Mystery further includes that He could have called down 10,000 angels to rescue Him, but did not. He might have struck His Jewish accusers dumb; or Pilate and his court dead, but did not.

The Mystery further includes that Jesus’ suffering and death were not only recorded in the harmony of the Gospels, some in more details than others, but cited by secular contemporary historians like Josephus. The predictions, details, and implications of the Cross are there for the world to see.

The Mystery further includes that we are told that our simple acceptance of Jesus’s substitutionary death on the Cross is the first, simple, requirement for our sins to be forgiven and to spend eternity with Jesus. (The other requirement is to believe and proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead. “To be continued…”) So simple. Such a miracle. Such a mystery.

The Mystery further includes something that is not in the Bible, but I believe is totally consistent with every word in the Bible:

I believe that if every other person who ever lived, or ever will live, were sinless, as impossible as that would be – but stick with me – that Jesus Christ still would have sacrificed Himself; served his ministry; allowed Himself to be captured, tortured, and sentenced; and would have endured death, even the death of the Cross. He would have done this even for one individual out of human history.

For me. Or for you.

God’s love is as wide as a universe: without end, without walls or ceilings. But as laser-focused as to know the names of you and me. The facts of our lives. He knew us before we were born. He knows our all. He counts the hairs on our head.

He loves us that much. Jesus DID die for you, and me. The Messiah died for mankind, and, just as accurately, He died for you and me as individuals. A sacrifice not for “most.” Not for “many.” Not for 51 per cent of us, like in a democracy. He died that ALL might be saved as the human race deals with the invitation. But He also died for individuals, who make decisions as individuals. A mystery, really.

You and I were not in the ragtag group of scoffers and the curious – and His mother – at the foot of the Cross. Yet I believe that when Jesus looked down, through swollen and bloodstained eyes, He clearly saw… you and me. Individuals.

As we meet His gaze, we have to confront the Cross, and respond to all that it implies. A Mystery.

We become aware that every time we sin, with every act of disobedience or rebellion, we nail Him to the Cross as surely as the Centurions did. Do think how often you betray, deny, insult, and abandon the Savior? A Mystery… that chills our bones.

Behold the force through which the universe was formed, become human for a season and for our good (yes, Good Friday, thank God), enduring all these things and hanging limp on a Cross. Can we fail to respond to this? He died but He rose; He was not defeated but He conquered. He was very man, but is Very God.

Another Mystery: This Jesus is a King… who rules from a Tree.

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Click: When He Was On the Cross

The Second Most Important Day of Your Life

3-23-15

Here is an anomaly – something like Winston Churchill once called, in another context, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: It is possible in America today, a “Christian” nation founded by Christians, many of them pilgrims and many who dedicated their lives, their lands, and their legacies to Jesus Christ; a country where churches dot the landscape and where sermons and Christian music are common on airwaves… it is the case that many people in America today grow up never hearing the gospel presented.

Multitudes reach adulthood, and live their lives, without the basics of the Christian faith being explained to them. America, “one nation under God,” land of the Pilgrims’ pride, of religious holidays, of the Ten Commandments?

This is certainly the case in Western Europe, despite some countries still having “state churches,” and where tax money is levied to support denominations. Many people are aware of churches, and traditional holidays, and have heard familiar hymn tunes without being at all aware of the tenets of faith.

When church attendance is a matter of indifference – or avoiding church is a matter of pride – and when rejecting every reference to Jesus, or every mention of the gospel is as easy as changing the radio dial or clicking the TV remote, millions in these “Christian” United States live in the spiritual condition of many savages from remote corners of the earth, and the vicious heathens of history. Strange. Seemingly unlikely. But true.

Believers throughout the millennia have endured torture to learn and savor the gospel of Jesus Christ – the Good News. Many believers have sacrificed their all in order to know and serve the Savior. Many believers have risked, and lost, their lives in order to share Christ.

These facts are yet true today. In lands where it is most difficult and dangerous, there are martyrs we hear about. We read of secret house churches in China, meeting in whispers and in danger, yet boldly reading the Bible one page at a time each meeting. We know of imprisoned believers in North Korea and Cuba and Iran. We read where, in the face of persecution and death, hundreds and thousands from other faith traditions convert to Christianity, in places like Egypt and Syria.

Yet in the Christian West, so-called, millions are indifferent to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Worse, our culture grows hostile to the faith.

In an ironic way, many people who are skeptics and rejectionists – agnostics and atheists – cannot be faulted as nonbelievers if the culture has conspired to shield them from the gospel, from Christ’s gentle invitation. How can they believe unless they hear?

I do not have to tell those who HAVE accepted that invitation some time in their lives, who know the life-changing and soul-cleansing New Life offered by Jesus, that the day they made that decision is the most important day of their lives. We have the knowledge that “our lives,” after that encounter with the risen Savior, means eternity, not just the days we shuffle around here.

And the second most important day in someone’s life, although it is of course the other side of the same metaphorical and significant coin, would be the day a person rejects Christ. But… just as consequential.

One might say that people can’t be accountable for things they have not heard; and we have agreed that this unlikely scenario is possible in our secular society. It might be the case that people have heard sermons, but sermons that encourage people to, say, be nice to others… and not about the crisis of sin and rebellion, and the fatality of separation from the Savior. Very possible.

But at some time, I believe the Holy Spirit will arrange events so that every person at least one time hears the simple message of the Messiah, and the challenge of the Cross. And will have the opportunity to open ears, mind, and heart. Ignorance is not bliss; ignorance, one Day, will not be an excuse.

It might be a word of a friend. It might be a stray gospel song or random TV preacher. It might be messages like this. Maybe you are reading this by “accident”; maybe a friend has forwarded it to you. But by any of these happenstances, you can no longer, ever, say that you never really heard the gospel explained to you. The personal invitation from the Lover of your Soul –

There is one God, creator of the universe; who always was and always will be. He created vast domains of the heavens, yet counts the hairs on your head.

In love He created the human race and our bountiful earth. In love He granted humankind free will; and we all have gone astray. We rebel, we sin, we think our puny selves sufficient; and that grieves God.

Through His inspiration, in writings and through prophets, He has offered rules of conduct; He delivered miracles, chastisements and blessings; and yet His children sin. We all have gone our own way, and God, not having created robots, grieved.

As only an awesome God would do, He emptied Himself and became human, walking amongst us and posterity, sharing Truth, showing His power by miracles, and showering us with His love through teaching and by example. He was incarnate so we might be assured that He knows our suffering and sorrows. He offers the mere acknowledgement of Him to be our path to reconciliation. That is what God yearns for in us.

Because He is so holy, and we are sinners, we cannot otherwise be reconciled. How can we approach the presence of One so holy, except, once offered, through justification, by faith, in Jesus? When – true to form for humankind – the Christ was once again rejected and was betrayed, tortured, and put to death, prophecy was fulfilled. But at that turning-point of history, Christ overcame death and the grave, and rose from the dead.

Miracle of His many miracles, He lived again, ministered and preached, all this in ways that His contemporary skeptics reported and no other founder of another religion can claim. Confirming His divinity, this man born of a virgin then ascended bodily to Heaven, where He lives today, interceding for the believers. The blood He shed at Calvary is what paid for our sins that separated us from God.

We are “covered in the Blood,” so that when God sees us, he no longer sees rebellious children, but the precious blood sacrifice of His Son. We form the Blood-bought church. Too special for you to treat with indifference.

And in the place of Jesus on earth, the third incarnation of God was sent to live in every believer’s heart. The Holy Spirit empowers, inspires, and encourages Christians today. Healings; deliverance from sin and addictions; restoration of relationships; new beginnings – these are what the Holy Spirit accomplishes. I have been the recipient of the born-again experience. So have millions. So can you be.

So… there. If this is the first time you have read the Gospel message, or maybe the first time you have heard it so simply reduced, you cannot claim, when your life on earth is judged, that “you never knew.”

You can say the Bible is a book of fairy tales… you can say that man created God and not that God created man… you can say that Jesus never lived or that the Resurrection was a plot… you can say that billions of believers are deceived and have been, for 2000 years… you can wrestle with the fact that uncountable Christ-followers have known the Truth so completely that they have endured torture and death, refusing to deny His existence… you can spend sleepless nights trying to comprehend how this or that person’s life has been amazingly transformed… you will scoff, perhaps, at displays of love and sacrifice that seem crazy to you… you might still think that you know better than this “God” and the preponderance of history and the evidence in writings and cathedrals and chapels and art and music and in changed lives. Transformed natures. New births. Joy unspeakable.

… but you cannot claim that you have never heard the message of the Gospel, the Good News. The details will follow later – when you accept Christ, you become hungry and thirsty for them, no worries. But to believe Jesus was the Son of God, and that God raised Him from the dead: believe it in your heart, and confess it with your mouth (in a prayer; to a friend) and you have satisfactorily accepted God’s simple invitation.

God honors sincere seeking, and never lets the yearning prayer of a hungry soul go unanswered. In the midst of a sinful and secular society, a culture of cold churches, people can still move on this or any day from the second most important day of their lives (as dangerous as rejecting Christ is) to feeling like they have arrived at that most important day. Welcome home.

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The first time in almost six years of Monday Morning Music Ministry that we share a video from Family Worship Center, but this infectious performance by Nancy Harmon of her classic gospel song says it all about the role of Christ’s shed blood in our salvation:

Click: The Blood-Bought Church

A Clash of (Surprising) Civilizations

3-16-15

I have begun reading “A Chronicle Of the Crusades,” a massive 15th-century illuminated manuscript – in translation, believe me – originally titled “Les Passages d’Outremer.” I am interested in history of all eras and all places, so this is not exactly required reading. However, I am also prompted by President Obama’s recent scolding of Christians to “get off their high horses” and realize that many awful acts were committed “in the name of Christ,” citing the crusades of a thousand years ago; and not mentioning atrocities committed by radical Moslems a thousand years ago or – famously – last week either.

It is not mere (and common) self-loathing of Christians and whites to assume that the Crusades were birthed and maintained in Christian brutality, blood lust, and racism. Aggressive educators and supine defenders of our faith have transformed this contention into a “fact of history” – despite its substance being very much in dispute. Rather, historical facts, if they shall become the subtext of our identity and rationale for today’s policies, must be dusted off and honestly viewed.

Christianity had “holy sites,” associated with the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Islam, a religion founded centuries subsequent to Christianity, determined to seize lands and sites, sometimes desecrating them. Christians sought to restore ownership, if not management, of holy places in the “Holy Land.” Its center of gravity having shifted northward and westward, Christian expeditions were launched to that end. In succeeding campaigns, there were battles, sieges, pillaging, many deaths, and uncountable examples of bravery and brutality on both sides, on all sides.

It is rather useless, and perhaps intentionlly subversive toward a different agenda, to re-ignite those flames of passion. Yet it is being done, and not only by our president. Wars frequently are bad enough in their first incarnations, without declaring and waging them anew. Perhaps the huge book on my lap will teach me some new things, even though, yes, I realize that it was written by Europeans.

I want to pause for a moment, however, over a larger picture – the illuminated manuscript, as it were, of Western Civilization before and after the Crusades, and what once was rightly called Christendom.

People use the phrase “the barbarians are at the gates,” applying it to everything from video games to the corporate history of Nabisco to the threats posed by ISIS. Oddly, there is no consensus on the origin of the tocsin “at the gates!” but it seems that Barbarians, generally, were called such by the cultured civilizations of Athens and Rome based on the invading tribes’ purportedly unintelligible language: an approximation of “ba-ba-ba” morphed into “barbarian.” Today, alarmists use the phrase because they feel threatened by forces attacking the virtual gates of our culture.

Alarmists legitimately can be alarmed by legitimate threats, just as paranoiacs sometimes DO have people stalking them. Nevertheless the dominant thrust of Western Christianity’s contemporary cultural attitude is that the so-called challenges to our traditions and heritage are real… but are not threats.

Cultural rebels are in command. Anarchists and nihilists ironically are setting many of the rules in society. “The end of history” has happened: the postulation of Francis Fukuyama that millennia of the world’s cultural traditions have been up-ended, enabling disaster or, at best, an unknown new system. Just as with Nietzsche’s “God is dead” – when a culture no longer recognizes God, He is dead to that culture’s life. “How shall we then live?” was the question asked by Francis Schaeffer in a monumental study almost 40 years ago. It is a question posed by philosophers since Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle… but never losing its relevance. Or, today, its urgency.

The difference today is the exquisite and apocalyptic precipice upon which we teeter. A death-struggle in the twilight of a once-great civilization. Barbarians are past the gates; they have been welcomed, they live amongst us; they are A-list celebrities.

I am not singling out Hollywood, but our Barbarian culture. We have willingly celebrated barbarism. Sometimes this suicidal syndrome is called anti-intellectualism, but is far deeper, of far more serious consequences. It threatens destruction from which survival is impossible. The contemporary morals and mores of Western Christianity (often masquerading as the new sacraments of “tolerance” and “lifestyle choices”) are nothing more or less than the poisoning of our culture’s well.

Our society’s rejection of God, denial of Christ’s divinity and teachings, and demonization of our Western heritage, is not a minor and enlightened bend in the road of progress. It is a complete U-turn, back to… barbarism.

Hilaire Belloc wrote of the barbarian that he “hopes – and that is the mark of him – that he can have his cake and eat it too. He will consume what civilization has slowly produced after generations of selection and effort, but he will not be at pains to replace such goods, nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that has brought them into being.

“Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is ever marveling that civilization should have offended him with priests and soldiers…. In a word, the barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this: that he cannot [build anything]; he can befog and destroy, but he cannot sustain; and of every barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilization, exactly this has been true.

“We sit by and watch the barbarian. We tolerate him in the long stretches of peace, we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence; his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creed refreshes us; we laugh.

“But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond, and on these faces there are no smiles.”

We will revisit this theme, because it has more aspects and should engage us in many ways. But for the moment – to return to those barbarians at the gates of Western Christianity, Western Civilization – the barbarians have overtaken our culture, either incorporating themselves or coldly obliterating us and what we hold precious.

The historian Arnold Toynbee observed that civilizations seldom die from invasions (gates and barbarians notwithstanding) but by suicide. In that sense the ghastly Clash of Civilizations is not so much prompted by Communist states or Islamic terrorists or extremists who work to do us harm. It is the clash of traditional Christianity versus the barbarism of modern Christianity and post-modernism. Western Civilization has lost that clash of values.

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The Litany of St. James, written in the 4th century, sung by Cynthia Clawson.

Click: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

A Man Who Knows the Valley of the Shadow

3-9-15

“Friends have wondered if I get mad at God for not healing me. Um, sorry, but He’s been healing me since the day I accepted His forgiveness 42 years ago. He has healed bad habits, thoughts, behaviors – a MOUNTAIN of ugliness in me over the years. How can I question how He works in my life now? I am blessed WAY beyond what I deserve. A few times lately I’ve actually learned to thank God for this illness. He has worked in me more than ever before.”

Those are words written by my friend Mike Atkinson of San Diego. He is on the verge of Stage 5 kidney failure, preparing these very days for dialysis that will keep him alive until he can receive a kidney transplant. I am concerned for Mike as a brother in Christ, but also because my late wife received a kidney transplant at a critical time of need, so I can relate on several levels. (Hers was a 17-year health and success story.)

Readers can learn about some health questions, but also be inspired by Mike’s faithful responses. (His regular e-mail posts, “Mikey’s Funnies,” recommended as one of our links, confirm the sense of humor that helps sustain him.) Here are excerpts from his profile in Refreshed Magazine:

Is this your first health crisis? Yes, at least the first serious one.

What is the prognosis? Kidney failure is imminent. Once that happens I will start peritoneal dialysis, a home version that will do the business my kidneys no longer do – cleaning out toxins and water from my body. Basically dialysis will keep me alive until I can get a kidney transplant. I am blessed in that many people have offered to be donors. I am humbled.

How are you coping during this trial? Like a roller coaster. Obviously any physical ailments come with their share of emotional struggles. Since I’ve never dealt with health problems like this, I’ve run the gamut of emotions. I love King David, since he’s a man after God’s own heart. When you read his psalms, you see him yell and wail at the almighty God, and then ultimately fall in the loving arms of his Heavenly Father. He really knew how to process tough stuff; a great model for everyday life.

What are your fears? That I won’t qualify for the new kidney or if I am that the transplant won’t take or it won’t last long, in case the disease attacks it as well. A big question mark when looking forward. I read an article recently that said everyone gets healed: Medically, divinely, or by going “home.” I’m ready for any of those options. An adage like “I don’t know the future but I know Who holds the future” really becomes real in these situations.

Was there a specific moment you recall when you questioned God? And if so, how did you work through it? Not really. Not because I’m any kinda SuperSaint, but because I believe in His sovereignty. I live by the motto, “Accept the reality. Hope for the Divine.”

What advice would you give to another person going through a similar journey? While physical ailments can bring you down, there are some things that I’ve learned that help remind me that I’m a human and not a blob in a recliner:

Laugh. It is the best medicine. Whatever makes you laugh, return to it often.

Keep your hobbies. The weakness from the disease doesn’t let me do everything I need to with my plumerias in the yard, but I do what I can. And that brings me much pleasure. [Mike is an award-winning grower of the exotic Hawaiian flower, and has a sign in his garden that reads, “Gardening is cheaper than therapy.”]

Find community. For me it has been a couple groups on Facebook of folks around the world with this same disease. It really helps to converse with others going through the same things I am.

Go to church. Every word of every song and sermon has taken on new meaning for me, especially the new-found depth in our classic hymns (Just keep the Kleenex close). God has used all that to bring me strength when I needed it.

Embrace help. I’ve learned that people want to help. And as hard as it is to accept it, I realize that by accepting it I’m allowing God to bless them.

Get outside. I need that. Makes me feel human again.

Get outside yourself. I found I retreated into myself at times – getting too self-focused. It’s very easy to do with a chronic illness. But I don’t read anywhere in the Bible that people with chronic illness get a pass on serving others. We understand the power of encouraging, serving, caring for others, but I’ve learned that to do all that from a place of weakness is real power. God wants to live in our weakness. The best way I’ve found is being the face of Christ to the hundreds of medical personnel I’ve met in the last year. They don’t get joy from their patients very much, so I can bring some into their lives by relying on God’s joy and hope.

Thank God. Every night when my head hits the pillow, I force myself to thank God. No matter how bad the day may have been, it should could have been worse.

What have you learned about your faith during your journey? That faith alone can’t always carry you through the deepest valleys. We are human after all. You need others who can help and even carry you. That’s so hard for me to accept, but I’ve lived that this last year many times.

Some days I just felt like #lifesux. This illness and the related side effects has brought a lot of loss in the last year – energy, mental abilities, strength, activities, fave foods and drinks, and more; and now struggling with the realization that I will be kept alive by a machine (dialysis).

What have you learned about your family during your journey? That I can’t do this without them. Just being with them is fuel for life. Even though my grandkids wear me out, it’s worth every precious ounce of energy. My family’s love and support has carried me many times this past year. I’ve also learned that my family was bigger than I thought, with friends, Bible studies, and churches all around the world praying for me. The “great cloud of witnesses” has taken on a whole new meaning. Just blows me away.

What have you learned about God during your journey? That He is still God. He doesn’t promise us escape from hard times. He promises to be with us, to walk with us through the dark nights of the soul. Good Christians die every day; they lose their homes; they lose their jobs. God is not a magic potion to get us out of life’s challenges. He wants to be our crutch, so we can lean on Him daily.

Let me finish by saying that just because I may have communicated these views does not mean I live them – or even believe them – all the time. As I said it’s a roller coaster, and God has a lot more work to do on me.

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Mike Atkinson and I worked together (at least when the bosses were watching) at Youth Specialties. Today he is Chairman, Board of Trustees, San Diego Youth For Christ. Mike’s daily blast of wholesome humor is found at Mikeys Funnies. Subscribe! And read the full article about Mike in the current issue of Refreshed magazine

Click: Abide with Me

Hard Times

3-2-15

In a recent visit here we discussed Bad Things that inevitably dot the path of our life’s walk. Sometimes more like speed bumps, roadblocks, or outright broken bridges, that we encounter when we have no alternative but to proceed. The reality of bad things, versus the sometimes-illusory mantra about the “God thing,” if you remember our thoughts.

There have been many reactions to that theme, with suggestions to broaden our discussion to Hard Times – those moments in a nation’s history, or our own, when events conspire to beat us down. Distract us. Threaten to demoralize us. But, Christians, this is for you: …never to defeat us. We can only do that to ourselves.

Stephen Foster was a songwriter, perhaps America’s greatest. He lived from 1826 to 1864. He was born on July 4, on the exact 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; and he died, penniless and fraught with care, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the middle of the Civil War. During his short life, he wrote some of the most popular music ever listened to and sung in these United States.

Many of his songs live today. For a while they were considered moldy or politically incorrect or merely light-weight, but they endure because of their solid, not diaphanous, sentimentality; and their hauntingly beautiful melodies. You know many. They were generally of three categories: Parlor Songs (popular music of many themes); minstrel songs (sympathetic songs inspired by black folk tunes, although Foster never lived in the South); and gospel songs —

Oh! Susanna; Nelly Bly; Camptown Races; Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon the Swanee River); Old Dog Tray; My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair; Hard Times Come Again No More; and Old Black Joe. Foster wrote more than a hundred songs, maybe hundreds; he gave many away. Or he sold the rights for a few dollars. Or he let other people take credit for his compositions. His was a life of penury. He battled alcohol addiction in his last years, after his wife left him. He died of a fall in his tenement bathroom, much loved but much beset.

He experienced hard times yet by all accounts never despaired, always of a cheery and trusting disposition. Hard times didn’t get him down – or not for long – and one of his most enduring songs, if not most famous, is “Hard Times Come Again No More.” It is extremely popular in Ireland, so much so that some people think Foster was Irish. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples, and Nanci Griffith have made it part of their standard playlists.

Its lyrics are more descriptive than pessimistic, and more resigned than hopeful. Yet the prayerful “come again no more” weakly shakes a fist at the hard times we all encounter:

“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, While we all sup sorrow with the poor; There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears; Oh! Hard times come again no more.

“There’s a pale, drooping maiden who toils her life away, With a worn heart whose better days are o’er: Though her voice would be merry, ‘tis sighing all the day, Oh! Hard times come again no more.

“‘Tis the song, the sigh, of the weary: Hard Times, hard times, come again no more. Many days you have lingered around my cabin door; Oh! Hard times come again no more.”

These lyrics are at the beginning, not the conclusion, of our meditation on hard times. America is going through Hard Times right now.

I do not refer specifically to the wave of terrorism filling our headlines and TV screens… and maybe, many think, on our doorsteps soon. I do not refer specifically to the fragility of a high-unemployment economy, of the many families living paycheck-to-paycheck. I do not refer to the social cancers of crime, addiction, illegitimacy, illiteracy, abuse – I do not refer to these specifically or even in a group. But I DO refer to all these things as part of our national crisis.

America has been fond, or full of pride, in pointing to statistics that tell us, despite stagnant wages or numbers of people on welfare, that we are better off than many nations around the world. And that our poorest and least educated are still living well, compared to previous eras, other cultures.

These statistics are delusional, self-swindling nonsense. Many nations are racing past the United States in measures of comfort, literacy, proficiency in science and math, health, safety, security, and contentment. These criteria are important, but not essential, yardsticks of a society’s value; or an individual’s.

The United States of America has squandered its inheritance. What once made us rich in these areas, in themselves, and relative to history and other countries – the spiritual values – have been wasted. They are more than unfashionable: our government, our establishment, our media, our educational and legal systems maintain that they are somewhere between irrelevant and despicable.

And those of us who have predicted a social breakdown if we surrender our standards and coddle the enemies of our heritage… we have been proven correct. But that is no comfort.

When people hear the phrase “Hard Times,” they often think of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Indeed times were tough; life was miserable for years for multiple millions. Yet I believe the nation was stronger, morally, and more content overall, than in our recent “prosperous” times. Does anyone disagree?

A world war immediately followed the Great Depression, and virtually every citizen mobilized at home or in uniform, and made unbelievable sacrifices. Do we “have it in ourselves” to respond in that way if another true world war were thrust upon us? Or would selfishness, disagreements, indolence, jealousies, illusory “rights,” and such factors interfere with national unity?

Surely our erstwhile unity has evaporated in these times when it should have been easier to achieve, replaced by the institutionalization of that socially centrifugal force, “diversity.”

Attributed to Georges Clemenceau – but so correct that many vie for authorship – is the observation that America is the only nation in history that miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.

There was an in-between period, of course. When lands and communities were established in the name of Christ, and operated according to biblical principles. When constitutions and laws codified the basic ideas of responsibility and personal liberty. When immigrants were welcomed, according to rules; and immigrants willingly abided by those rules. When horrible flaws like slavery were corrected despite the blood and angst to see it through. When the population was able to find common cause in confronting the contradictions of social and industrial progress; and fighting common enemies.

But we lost our way. We have lost our way. We lost our faith, after losing our faiths by the wayside. We lost self-confidence. We became more concerned with gaining dubious friends than defeating real enemies. We became happier to compromise than to convince. Our priority has become not to offend those who are determined to be offended, instead of standing for something – anything. We pretend that our hypocrisy and weakness will bring security, all the while knowing, deep down, that we are only buying a nervous, temporary security for ourselves… and certain, miserable destruction upon our children.

We can sing the beautiful, haunting Stephen Foster song from the 1850s, “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” knowing that it brought comfort in those troubled times. But for us, in the 21st century, I have the feeling we can hear it only as a musty museum-piece, and nothing more.

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Click: Hard Times, Come Again No More
Another version, if you, like me, cannot get enough of this great parlor song:

Hard Times

“It’s a God Thing”… Isn’t It?

2-23-15

All the time, all the time, I hear the phrase, “It’s a God thing.” And, frankly, I dislike it — because half the time people are explaining (that is to say, NOT explaining) horrible things. Explaining away, as it were. Sometimes it is not a “God thing”; sometimes it’s a Satan thing.

“Why? Why?” my kids, and friends I pray for, and strangers, would ask, as kids and friends have asked throughout history (not always of me). “Why me?” “How can a God who loves me…”; “How could a loving God…” Even skeptics and agnostics and atheists pose that question; in fact it is a question with which they frequently begin their arguments. Well, there is sin in the world. It’s all very clear. Mosquitoes suck, and so do a lot of other things. The Bible calls life a vale (valley) of tears. God DID promise a time free of care and a place of perfection – Heaven.

Until then, He promised comfort, wisdom, acceptance, encouragement, and faith. Not a bad group of second-choices. Especially when promised by the Lord of the Universe. Especially since His plan for us provided the Holy Spirit to deliver comfort. Thou shalt not whine.

…I shalt not whine; we shalt not whine. As with all my messages, and all proper sermons, this is directed at myself as well as anyone with eyes or ears. So you may eavesdrop.

Bad things happen to nations and to individuals. We need only the most cursory glances at recent headlines to know what the world is experiencing: wars and rumors of wars; natural disasters; slavery; genocide; revived practices of barbarity. We see that religions are suffering prejudice, oppression, and persecution; innocents are murdered in the name of faith, and people die for their faith.

Individuals no less than nations, races, and institutions are experiencing bad things. I do not think that matters are especially worse than at other times in history – or better, either – but, as is natural, for a spell I have been more aware of bad things endured and sustained by family, friends, and self. Sometimes I think a definition of “Happiness” is when, by circumstance, we merely are less aware of the distress of others.

This is not gloomy pessimism; it is reality. I think it is consistent with God’s nature, not to cause suffering, but occasionally to allow it – for a variety of spiritual reasons. The poor we will have with us, so we should cultivate charitable impulses in response. People with spiritual needs cross our paths so that we might comfort them. We are sensitized to the horrors of war, in order that we have clarity to do battle for righteousness and peace. And we, ourselves, might suffer anguish, insecurity, or even doubt, until we are receptive to the ministrations of friends. That we see the Jesus in each other.

My heart has fairly been breaking lately for people in my immediate circle who experience anguish in various forms, from various sources. A friend from church grows progressively sicker, and in pain, and her doctors are unable to determine a cause, much less a cure. A friend’s husband has had a heart transplant and another friend is listed for a kidney transplant. My wife went through both: so if I cannot minister better, at least I can pray more wisely; or at least join that mystical bond of fellowship that sufferers share.

My sister, after losing her daughter, having her apartment ruined by Hurricane Sandy, recently escaped the new apartment’s ruination by fire… and now she has been given a short prognosis for life, several serious illnesses having overtaken her. A dear friend’s grandson just attempted suicide. Another close friend has had some professional frustrations and economic hardship, on top of family distress. Usually an encourager, my friend feels like Bad Things are piled on his plate, not only professionally and financially, but emotionally and spiritually.

Nevertheless, while all these circumstances might not be strictly “God things,” God can work through circumstances when we let Him.

That is the exegesis of Romans 8:28 – “All things work for good to those who love God and are called according to His purposes.” This doesn’t mean that all things ARE good. Surely, they are not. But it is our job to turn the bedevilments of Bad Things around on their source, to MAKE them “God things,” and slay those dragons. And to accept wisdom and comfort from, often, unexpected places. My friend confessed to finding comfort in the companionship of another friend who in turn said, no doubt compassionately, that he would be given his space. So to speak. But then, almost immediately, a virtual acquaintance appeared and assumed a burden of caring and sharing.

Is that a “God thing,” or a “Life thing”? Neither… if we are not open to such things in the first place. George Eliot wrote: “What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined… to strengthen each other… to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories.”

To finish the look at Romans 8:28, its mystery becomes a reality when every word is appreciated. “All things work for good…” We have noted that this does not say that all things are good. They WORK for good.

For whom? “To those who love God…” Let us whisper a prayer of thanks that God is not a dispenser of fortune-cookie promises – worthless pastries. We should love and honor God, surely not a burden but a sweet privilege.

How will this work in our lives? “… and are called…” This is the conversation with God; answered prayer; His leading; the inspirations of the Holy Spirit as promised. We will know that we know that we know His call on our lives when we earnestly seek Him.

What is our confirmation? “… called according to His purposes.” We know that God cannot contradict Himself, either in promises or what He allows for us. A God we can know, never changing or causing doubt, is a solid rock on which we can stand.

Before we know it, problems shrink, and we realize the blessings we have, and can expect. Our perspectives change; we no longer see through a glass darkly. Old things are made new. All things work together for good. Bad things become good things; “God things” we see, indeed, as good things. We love God, and accept the call, according to His purposes.

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Nearer, My God, To Thee

When Presidents Urged Church Attendance and Warned of Islamic Extremism

2-16-15

President’s Day, 2015. I’m not sure I could have written this a year ago; certainly five or 10 years ago I would have considered even my pessimistic and alarmist self straining credulity. The events of our time; the lack of leadership from the presidency; the transformed nature of our civic culture… remind me of my warning only months ago, now a reality. America looks for wishbones, when we should be finding backbones.

Never have the men who filled the presidential chair seemed more historical – that is, remote.

Regular readers will expect me to invoke Theodore Roosevelt, and I shall. Not a reflexive habit, but I think this year, more than most, he stands in starkest contrast to the current resident of the White House. Also, of TR’s many wise words that thunder down through the years to guide us, two topics he addressed resonate today.

In some ways Roosevelt was very private about his faith – odd for this most extroverted of men – but he nevertheless quoted scripture, referred to God, cited Bible verses, and lived the life of Christian faith as much, if not more, than any other president. When in college he organized Sunday School classes; when he was a young hunter in Maine he slipped out of his camp on early mornings to read his Bible (that spot is now a designated landmark, Bible Point); when he retired from the presidency he shunned lucrative offers from many quarters to serve as an editor of a weekly Christian opinion magazine; he called his most significant speech in the heat of the Bull Moose campaign “A Confession of Faith” (“We stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord!”); he titled two of his books from Bible verses.

Even so, he was private about aspects of his faith. Yet to his diary he confided after the death of his father: “Nothing but my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ could have carried me through this.”

TR soft-pedaled theology, and stressed the personal and social benefits, of church attendance in an article for Ladies’ Home Journal. Here is my point: imagine an American president today writing in a high-circulation magazine, urging church attendance. These were his words:

There are enough holidays for most of us that can quite properly be devoted to pure holiday-making. Sundays differ from other holidays, among other ways, in the fact that there are 52 of them every year. On Sunday, go to church.

Yes, I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the Creator and dedicate oneself to good living in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in one’s own house, just as well as in church. But I also know as a matter of cold fact the average man does not thus worship or thus dedicate himself. If he strays away from church, he does not spend his time in good works or lofty meditation. He looks over the colored supplement of the newspaper.

He might not hear a good sermon at church. But unless he is very unfortunate, he will hear a sermon by a good man who, with his good wife, is engaged all the week long in a series of wearing, humdrum, and important tasks for making hard lives a little easier.

He will listen to and take part in reading some beautiful passages from the Bible. And if he is not familiar with the Bible, he has suffered a loss.

He will probably take part in singing some good hymns.

He will meet and nod to, or speak to, good quiet neighbors. He will come away feeling a little more charitably toward all the world, even toward those excessively foolish young men who regard churchgoing as rather a soft performance.

I advocate a man’s joining in church works for the sake of showing his faith by his works.

Church work and church attendance mean the cultivation of the habit of feeling some responsibility for others and the sense of braced moral strength, which prevents a relaxation of one’s own moral fiber.

The man who does not in some way, active or not, connect himself with some active, working church misses many opportunities for helping his neighbors, and therefore, incidentally, for helping himself.

In the actual world, a churchless community, a community where men have abandoned and scoffed at or ignored their religious needs, is a community on the rapid downgrade.

“On Sunday, go to church.” Good advice for TR’s time, our time, all the time.

Another contemporary topic where Roosevelt’s words thunder through the years, grabbing our attention, are from his book – note again the title – “Fear God and Take Your Own Part” (1916):

“Christianity is not the creed of Asia and Africa at this moment solely because the seventh century Christians of Asia and Africa had trained themselves not to fight, whereas the Moslems were trained to fight. Christianity was saved in Europe solely because the peoples of Europe fought. If the peoples of Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries, and on up to and including the seventeenth century, had not possessed a military equality with, and gradually a growing superiority over, the Mohammedans who invaded Europe, Europe would at this moment be Mohammedan, and the Christian religion would be exterminated.

“Wherever the Mohammedans have had complete sway, wherever the Christians have been unable to resist them by the sword, Christianity has ultimately disappeared. From the hammer of Charles Martel to the sword of Jan Sobieski, Christianity owed its safety in Europe to the fact that it was able to show that it could and would fight as well as the Mohammedan aggressor.

“The civilization of Europe, American and Australia exists today at all only because of the victories of civilized man over the enemies of civilization… The Christians of Asia and Africa proved unable to wage successful war with the Moslem conquerors; and in consequence Christianity practically vanished from [those] two continents… During [a] thousand years, the Christians of Europe possessed the warlike power to do what the Christians of Asia and Africa had failed to do – that is, to beat back the Moslem invader.”

The lessons of Roosevelt’s history were hard; the truth often is. Today, evangelists have done what warriors did not: advance the gospel in Africa and Asia, bringing light to millions. But, of course, they sustain persecution, torture, and murder in their defense of Christian faith.

But on President’s Day 2015 we must come face to face with the possibility that Western Civilization – “Christendom” – has lost that pride of heritage and reverence for the traditions of our faith, for the first time in 1500 years. Are we to bear the shame, invite the obloquy, of all those previous brave and faithful generations?

Our precious communities and nations, claimed for the gospel and open to its free exercise, were sometimes established amidst strife, and sometimes were opened freely to believers. All, however, tell inspiring stories. Can this all be slipping away in our lifetimes, so quickly before our eyes? Where is our responsibility? Is this not the Land of Beulah?

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Click: Is Not This the Land of Beulah? / Beulah Land

The New Source of Anti-Christian Bias

2-9-15

Today I will continue the theme of a couple recent essays, and the credit, or blame, goes to the president of the United States. In recent essays we have visited the clash of Islam and Christianity and Western civilization. It is a history that goes back farther than 9-11. By my mail I know that many people are surprised to learn that physical and military assaults on Europe and Christianity by Mohammedans began almost 1500 years ago. Indeed, during the first generations of that faith.

After the recent murders of magazine writers and cartoonists (two of whom I knew) in Paris, I wrote an essay for the website RealClearReligion discussing the response of Western civilization in general and Christianity in particular to militant Islamic extremism.

We should understand and clarify the issue to an even greater degree.

I do not need to be disabused of the fact that President Obama is not among my readers. Or that, if he were, I should expect him to be converted either to Christianity or to my views on certain issues. I realize that questioning the president’s devotion to the Christian faith is presumptuous. And I also mean to be provocative.

My concern (Yes! it IS a concern, for his soul, and the nation’s) grows as weeks and months pass; with each speech; and with his policies. Some policies are enunciated; some are quietly put into effect. Some people see anti-Christian sentiments. Some people see principles that are inimical to exercises of faith. Some people see pro-Islam actions. And I don’t mean to employ the “passive” mode: I often find myself among the “some” in those camps of observers.

He invites these suspicions and observations.

Christianity is under attack. There are scarcely other items in the news since forever, it seems, except for the perennial scandals in the federal government. It is under attack, not from, say, the Dalai Lama, who was a guest at this week’s national Prayer Breakfast in Washington. No, even the dullest nitwit knows that Islamic Extremists lately have been bombing, hijacking, kidnapping, torturing, and killing. They have been reviving the ancient modes of beheading, stoning, burying alive, and immolation. They are proud of these things, using modern technology to brag to the world of ancient barbarities.

It must be noted that, surely, some of their quarrels are with co-religionists who decline to subscribe to their levels – that is, depths – of savagery. But, except for targeting an ancient Zoroastrian sect called the Yezidis in their neighborhood, their hatred is reserved for Christians.

Christians. Have we heard of Hindus or Buddhists or followers of Confucius or those who follow the Shinto practices, have these people been kidnapped and slaughtered? Even the recent Japanese victim of beheading was a convert to Christianity. Atheists are not targeted, and you would think the Prophet might despise them more than any others.

Curious – with Israel so close to ISIS territory. Jews have not been targeted in these recent campaigns. Jews, with whom the Arabs and their religionists have contended since the infancies of Esau and Jacob. Look it up. Jews, whose establishment of Israel has so inflamed the Middle East for almost 70 years. Is it not curious that ISIS has withheld its holy fury from them?

Most people think, properly, that one reason might be the absolute certainty of a massive, obliterating response by the magnificent defense capabilities of Israel.

There is always a back story to every controversy and news event; and one day we might know why Israel chooses not to be preemptive; or why Obama insults Israel at every opportunity. Anyway, the fact remains that so far, ISIS has been as hostile to Jews as card-carrying members of the Anti-Defamation League.

That leaves the question of the assault on Christians, which, of course, not a question but a fact, as I hope we agreed a few paragraphs ago. And when this fact is clear (as not all facts are) to virtually everybody – notably violent Islamic extremists themselves, as per ISIS press releases – the real question is why the president averts the truth. If that question is a little ember that glows in your mind, let it become, rather, a Burning Question.

That the president, acting for us (in fact, committing all of us: this is the sometime unpalatable aspect of democracy) does not call Islamic terrorism Islamic terrorism, although Islamic terrorists do; and Islamic leaders like King Abdullah does. While Rome – so to speak – is burning, Obama fiddles with pronouncements about “hijackers of the religion of peace,” as a jerkwater professor would do. Meanwhile Islamic terrorists are hijacking cars, trucks, planes, and land.

Christians must stop thinking this man is oddly misguided or sadly mistaken. He is not stupid. At stake is not an election cycle but the lives of millions, the preservation of our culture, the future of our civilization.

At the National Prayer Breakfast this week, noted above, President Obama had a chance to seize an appropriate platform to deliver unambiguous words about this nexus of religion and statecraft. And he did! Yes, there were words about biblical injunctions to love, and to serve. I never regret the citation of Bible verses, even if they are selective. The president acknowledged the presence of missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been imprisoned (“held,” the president parsed) by North Korea for two years; no embarrassment that the mighty USA could not effect that release sooner. He noted that a Christian convert, Pastor Saeed Abedin (no: he did not note Abedin’s conversion to Christianity) is still in Iranian jails, variously condemned to death and then pardoned and then back again; and that he met with the pastor’s wife and children – cornered in Boise, Idaho, after years of attempts for an audience with Obama.

After those niceties, the president summoned his rhetorical arsenal. He lectured those assembled (who convened in the Name of Christ) about the sins of Christianity. He called himself a “person of faith,” not a Christian. He warned believers not to mount “high horses,” and then tarred Christianity with thousand-year-old specters of the Crusades; and ancient atrocities perpetrated by the Inquisition; and the Christian sanction of “slavery and Jim Crow” laws in America.

No one spoke up there – can we do so now? – to note that the Crusades were a reaction to offenses; and that both sides sometimes acted cruelly as well as nobly. And that the Inquisition, even witch burnings, did take place… but also were localized, brief, and well in the past, without ameliorating our stipulation that they were horrific.

We are dealing with very current threats, not passages from textbooks of ancient history. When Obama says “persons of faith,” presumably even about himself, one gets the feeling that he is a bureaucrat talking about a sociological classification, and not a confession.

The major take-away that should animate our reaction and resolution is that the dark moments of our collective past… all right, let’s take the predictable topic, slavery. It existed throughout humankind’s history; and still does. But in the United States it was instituted by Christians, but not as a Christian imperative. It was instituted out of greed, yes; and cruelty, and severe insensitivity. BUT NOT BECAUSE SLAVE-MASTERS THOUGHT TO PLEASE CHRIST. Some of justified themselves by quoting ancient Bible history. But that cart was well after the horse: a futile rationale.

That is the opposite of the Islamothugs: they claim to be following and therefore serving the Prophet.

But a worse offense, because sin we will always have with us, and we need leaders who can organize our defense: Obama cited ancient crimes committed by Christians WHEN HE COULD HAVE PRAISED CHRISTIANS FOR ENDING THEM and numerous examples of Christian persecution, and Christian service, charity, bravery, sacrifice, persecution, and martyrdom TODAY.

This deliberate distortion of history, and conscious perversion of proper priorities is a menace, a national crisis. In his entire speech, Obama mentioned the name of Christ twice, each time damning the sins of the past committed “in the name of Christ.” Never once even the name of Jesus. Several times, though, the word “humility” – an attribute that was in short supply, when Christians at a Christian event were being lectured about how bad Christians are.

May God help us.

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Click: Carl Orff: Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi – Carmina Burana

The Newfound Power Of the Individual

2-2-15

If the world survives long enough to look back and reflect on recent historical trends, I think we have an inkling that Posterity might view the past half-millennium as the Age of the Individual. (How’s that for “recent”?) By my estimation, individual rights and individual responsibilities reached their apogees sometime in the 1700s, about the midway-point since Luther and now, and I regard Luther’s “Here I stand” defiance of arbitrary church threats as the trumpet-blast of Individualism.

But rights have been taken for granted of late; responsibilities are being surrendered to entitlement mentalities. In spite of individual initiatives in commerce, industry, and the arts, it was our 20th century that saw new solutions in anti-individualism: Marxism; Leninism; Syndicalism; Socialism; Communism; Fascism; the Corporate State. Hardly humanity’s nostalgia for boots on their necks, but, likely, a mob psychosis arising from Individualism run amuck (“WE know better than you”)… or a subconscious insecurity about the duties that are incumbent upon Individualism.

Last week I was asked, after a speech, whether there has been a time in history when an individual (or, perhaps, a movement or even a nation) has made a difference in policies regarding life, respect for life, ugly policies like genocide or (specific to this query) about the issues we collectively call Sanctity of Life.

The great founders of religions around the world, through history, often were quite comfortable with, say, infant sacrifice. Mohammed engaged in bloodbaths before he was himself consumed in one. Luther was indifferent to Jewish persecution. Catholics, including “reformers,” made a sport of torture and death; so did Calvinists and Covenanters, et al.! Christian reformers who came to the Colonies more often escaped persecution than exercised toleration; the land was broad and empty enough to accommodate sects, here and there, not dissolve the differences between them. Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston for being not only a Quaker, but a Quaker preacher; and a woman preacher.

The Aztec and Incan cultures practiced infant sacrifice; and to a lesser extent did the Mayans. To a greater extent, around the world and at another time, ancient Carthage practiced it actively. But no individuals or reformers succeeded in cultivating the consciences of those groups. I don’t think there are records of anyone trying, actually. It is only when the societies disappeared that the practices disappeared.

It is troubling that religions generally practiced these horrible practices more than governments did – or, when governments exercised such practices, it was often with the initial sanction of the prevalent religious establishment. Religious reformers who argued against, say, genocide or infanticide were either a) quickly dispatched themselves (i.e., not successful in the efforts); or b) simply unable to persuade their societies of such horrors.

Indeed, persecution and even slaughter very often are adopted, rather than vanquished, when cultures and nations collide. In the frontier wars of the American colonies, white men (colonists; British troops; French settlers alike) became adept and brutally casual about scalping the natives. It was not revenge as much as adopting local customs.

If my intimations of pessimism are justified, then at least we can see a ray of sunshine – and only in these latter days – that are fruits of Individualism. Not often, in history, have individuals or nations “made a difference” when basic societal attitudes have been prodded and needed change. And it is in things happening right now, most notably, in areas as Right to Life and the Sanctity of Life. Not a complete U-turn! – but evidence of change.

Abortion has been legal for a generation in the United States, codified in court decisions, and virtually set in stone, yet this week’s polls say that 84 per cent of Americans now oppose abortion after 20 weeks, maybe sooner. A major turnaround; a harbinger.

A different topic… but of the same flavor: Cruelty to animals (including wanton slaughter, such as of the buffalo) used to be commonplace. In the world’s history. The same with cruelty to children, which still remains a major problem, but now widely condemned. In Dickens’ time it was as common as oatmeal, a virtual “right” of brutal parents and employers. That is changing, and among other agencies we can point to is the SPCA and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Another different but related topic: the fall of Communism. It was the cancer of the 20th century; we have witnessed its downfall in so many countries, largely bloodless. Similarly, the rock-ribbed, entrenched apartheid system fell in South Africa. Battles continue in our world against hunger and disease, and – I am not a Pollyanna – against religious persecution, more brutal than ever. So, the sanctity of life is not yet universally embraced. But let us return to my point about individuals.

Latter-day reforms, attitudinal improvements to the human spirit, changing views about life before and after birth, have come from INDIVIDUALS. Some analysts say that Communism fell because Gorbachev decided to “ease up” the system. No, that viewpoint is an insult to thousands or millions of individuals who resisted: those who were willing to die, or did die. For freedom. Also, usually, for their faith. Martyrs.

And so with the changing attitudes toward abortion, which was the focus of the question I was asked. God knows (literally) that it was not politicians or judges – they are the villains. It was thousands of protesters, like the people in DC last week (the anniversary of Roe vs Wade); you know, the multitudes ignored by the Mainstream Media. Christians, almost all. Henry Bergh, founder of the SPCA – Christian activist. Founder of the Salvation Army, Gen Booth, and so on – Christians all. Mother Teresa, Samaritans Purse: not revolutionary figures and movements… but arguably more efficient as individuals working together.

Maybe for the first time in history, INDIVIDUALS are making a difference. Humanity is wising up? Better technology / communication? Maybe. But things are different these days. I think, and hope, and pray.

These successful reformers have been Christians. Some other religions, but frequently Christians. And I recognize that sometimes the reforms needed to be made against institutions FORMED by other Christians, but that makes the fight ironic, not less worthy, or holy. Individual Christians.

Why is this? We need to recognize that the only honest, bedrock, challenging, successful, and demanding “voice” in human history, against such horrors like infanticide, genocide, persecution, and hatred, is the Voice of Jesus.

This is not only religious apologetics; I believe it is a statement of fact.

Secularists will scoff, but the historical evidence is preponderant, as is recent history. The voice of martyrs, the faith of martyrs, the witness of martyrs, the sacrifice of martyrs. Many martyrs who sacrifice comfort, family and friendships, careers; not only their lives. Any other “motivation” than the Voice of Jesus is futile when it confronts the darkness of human nature, even the Culture of Death that threatens to consume us.

That darkness – sin – scarcely changes down the pathway of human history. But love, even the love of individuals, like single candles that can pierce the blackest darkness, slowly, slowly enlightens humankind’s often stumbling steps.

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Music video: Monks performing a somber masterpiece by Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

Click: Funeral March for Queen Mary

Train Up a Child… In Obama’s America

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After President Obama’s recent State of the Union address he spent an hour being interviewed. As usual he handpicked the questioners, but they were not of the predictable softball corps of friendly journalists. He chose three internet blog hosts of irreverent, even absurdist sites, like one girl with green lipstick famous for filling her bathtub full of milk and Fruit Loops and eating breakfast. His hour of questions, not surprisingly, were either banal, as were his replies, or loopy. Not Fruit Loopy: just weird, random, irrelevant.

His defenders claim that the President was going where the votes are, or will be, and “connecting” to young people. By implication his allocation of time and attention is clear. This same month he declined to be present at an anti-terrorism event in Paris that virtually all other major world leaders attended; and refused to meet the Prime Minister of Israel who soon will visit Washington. The President wants to be seen, rather, with semi-literate, foul-mouthed internet curiosities.

A sharp contrast for me was an invitation I received, this past week, to address a group of home-school students several towns away from where I live. Polite, well-dressed, courteous, curious, thoughtful. Many of them introduced themselves as they filed in; most thanked me afterward; all sent written appreciation of my talk. The Q&A period was sincere and lively.

If the president had invited three such students to interview him, or to have a televised conversation, how much better a picture of young America would that have been?

What better encouragement for other youngsters to be intellectually curious and determined to face the questions of society?

Could there have been a higher standard, a better example, for our culture – to set a bar of self-respect, to show other kids, adult citizens… to demonstrate his own self-respect?

What kind of leader trolls the lowest common denominators of our culture to… lead? to be an example? to create a legacy? (I am tempted to say that he doesn’t have a legacy to stand on.) Perhaps, as with Trayvon Martin, the internet’s GloZell reminded Obama of one of his daughters.

Such actions by our leaders today cannot be seen as infrequent occurrences, or in vacuums. By the way, I should rather more precisely say, our celebrities, not “leaders,” because leadership today is an endangered species in the United States and Western Civilization. As the business leader and possible presidential candidate Carly Fiorina pointed out this weekend at the Freedom Summit, America has an abundance of people who consider themselves managers… but has very few real leaders.

For all the aggressive acts by prominent people in politics and popular culture that leave traditionalists astonished, and make responsible citizens worry for the future, the bad things that plague us today could not happen if the culture itself neither created the degenerate conditions, nor was not ready for even more downward momentum.

Maggots generally eat away at organisms that have first begun to rot. It is a rule of nature that things generally do not decay until they have been neglected, or rust sets in, or decomposition has been introduced and tolerated. And societies never spontaneously regenerate. Rather, the law of civilization and decay ends in disintegration, putrefaction, and death.

At the other end of the spectrum, in reality as well as metaphor, is a strong organism: healthy, upright, long-lasting. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” it says in Proverbs 22:6.
 
So when Christians and patriots and traditionalists despair, we should resist the temptation to blame, too much, the representatives we identify as agents of decline. That would be a president whose small acts, like the demeaning love-fest with YouTubers, to substantial decisions like inaction against Islamic terrorism or defending persecuted Christians around the world. And politicians and judges who enable the advance of abortion and drugs. And the education monolith that presumes to know better than parents what values to instill in children. And the Hydra-headed entertainment monster that seductively inculcates destructive standards of violence, sex, ethics, and civility.

Our complaints cannot be laid totally at their feet, because, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault… is in ourselves. We let our guard down. And we tolerate the things we now claim to despise.

But. Before we leave, we can remind ourselves of a few pertinent Bible verses about leadership, and about evil or false leaders:

“For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure” (Proverbs 11:14).

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).

“Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (I Timothy 3:1-3).

“Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (II Timothy 3:1-17).

Let us return to the stark contrast I experienced this week: President Obama’s portrayal of the rising generations of Americans, exemplified by the green-lipped Fruit Loop bather; and the young citizens I met in a home-school event.

The students I met stayed my tendency toward pessimism about this nation. God help us, that a generation, even a remnant, might arise and be the leaders we need.

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (II Chronicles 7:14). Incidentally — or not so incidentally, speaking of contrasts — this verse was Ronald Reagan’s favorite Bible verse. His mother’s Bible, with this verse underlined and with a margin notation, is where Reagan placed his hand when he took the oath of office as President.

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An old American folk-gospel song aurally illustrates this essay. The plaintive song is sung by the Swedish singer Jill Johnson, who has mastered American folk and rural music, in Uppsala.

Click: Calling My Children Home

A Guaranteed Cure For the Hopeless

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Words matter. They matter to me, as a writer; they matter to me when I teach and mentor; they mattered to me as a father around the dinner table, correcting my kids when they would say “quote” instead of “quotation,” or “may” when they meant “might.” Yes, they did roll their eyes, continually (NOT continuously)… but in later years have thanked me for instilling rules of grammar. My son is a TV news writer and producer, so his skills were honed.

Words matter to God Almighty too. The Holy Bible is His written Word. He WROTE the 10 Commandments. And “in the beginning was the Word, and the was with God, and the Word was God.” These are the very first WORDS of the Gospel of John, and as we soon learn in verse 14, the pre-incarnate Jesus was the Word through which the worlds were called into creation: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

I generally am not a fan of bumper-strip theology or slogans, but they have their place; sometimes a very good place, if people can grasp truth in a phrase or sentence. So I value words highly, yet realize they must be respected. Over-simplification can be as dangerous as contumelious obfuscation. (See? I mean mean-spirited confusion.)

In that spirit of caution, I venture to make good on the promise of this essay’s title, a guaranteed cure for the hopeless. A little play on words – but not a game. Thinking about the words, and considering what they mean, can lead to new ways of thinking about a lot of other words… and attitudes… and directions in your life. Stick with me:

Hopeless. We have all experienced this emotion, whether a fleeting mood or a profound form of grief. But try to act on this: when you are hopeless – when you hope less – resolve to HOPE MORE. Easily said, right? Yes, it is. And usually hard to do. At first. But we can hope, always. There is always that better place. Faith, after all, is the substance of things HOPED for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1); that’s what faith is.

I once had a friend in a men’s Bible study years ago who was having the worst luck, as we call it, in his career, financial situation, family security. Disappointment followed disappointment, and his news was always bad or worse. Finally he passed some hurdles in a job search, and everything seemed sure for him. On an appointed Saturday morning we waited for his arrival so we could hear the good news. He reported that at the very last moment the whole thing fell through, and he was back at the starting-line. We all felt like crying; a few of us did weep for him. But he was virtually cheery. How could this be, we asked. He replied, “For a few weeks there, I experienced hope. Sure I’m disappointed, but it was so sweet to experience that joyful hope the Lord granted me!”

A superhuman faith, I thought. But he let Hope-less turn into Hope-more and it soothed his soul.

Once you think of similar word-surgeries it can change your attitude in uncountable ways – maybe throughout life, not only in a current crisis:

Thankless? Turn it into “Thankful.”

Does “Sorrowful” describe your mood? Trade it in for “Joyful.”

Are you prone to Counteract? Try to Interact.

A buzz-word is “maladjusted.” Tell it to buzz off, and choose to be well-adjusted.

Are you fearful? Remember that Jesus said “Fear not” dozens of times. Fearless you will become.

Is your habit to be tasteless? Be tasteful. Do you always ask, “Why me?” Emphasize correctly when you think how God loves you: “Why… ME!” Do you worry that your boss or friends think you are a “good-for-nothing”? Be good for something!

Being friendly will transform being friendless into being a friend and having friends… and having the most important Friend.

Romans 8:25 explains, “hope that is seen is not hope. Who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Hopeless no more, an attitude of hope – the foundation-stone of faith – can change your life.

My Word!

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Our music video answers a question that some hopeless-feeling readers might ask, “how can I turn things around so easily?” Well, on our own, it CAN be difficult. But God sent the Holy Spirit to be our guide, to instruct us, encourage, grant us supernatural portions of wisdom, knowledge, strength, faith… and hope. Here, the Forbes Family sings a gospel song written just more than 100 years ago by George A Young. Young was an obscure preacher living in poverty. Also a carpenter, he built a modest house for himself and his wife, which village thugs burned down when once he was away preaching. Not trained as a poet or musician, nevertheless he wrote this song in response to his devastating situation:

Click: God Leads His Dear Children Along

Andrae Crouch – He Just Couldn’t Turn Off the Love

Andrae Crouch has died. For the few who don’t know his name, that gap is filled by the fact that all of America and much of the world knows his music. His pop credentials included movie scores (“The Lion King,” “The Color Purple”), producing and working with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, and many others. But he was a gospel singer, composer, preacher, first. And foremost. His father pastored the New Christ Memorial Church of God in Christ, a Holiness / Pentecostal church in Los Angeles; and he and his sister Sandra succeeded in the pulpit.

His many hymns and gospel songs became hits on gospel radio and especially, at first, in churches of the Jesus Movement and the Charismatic Renewals decades ago. Then they spread, ironically (for Andrae was Black) more and more into the Black church, and into the hymnals of mainstream denominations. The songs God gave him are eternal: if the Lord tarries, people will be moved to tears, and to repentance, by Andrae’s songs for generations to come.

They will hear in his lyrics the same problems they have; the same doubts and overcoming; the same humility and gratitude; the same victories; the same joy.

Andrae did have many problems and challenges. The Holy Spirit gave him spiritual persistence. Because he prayed for that. This man who performed at humble urban missions and at vast Billy Graham crusades, winning seven Grammys along the way, fought throat cancer for a decade, and died at 72 from a heart attack.

His very first composition was “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” now a standard Communion hymn in many churches. Other familiar gospels songs are “My Tribute,” whose familiar incipit line is “To God Be the Glory”; “Take Me Back”; “Soon and Very Soon”; “Jesus Is the Answer”; “Let the Church Say Amen”; and “Through It All.”

My old friend Craig Yoe, who knew Andrae before either of them was a household name, is our Guest Essayist today:

What a week! First my cartoonist comrades, their co-workers and others – and freedoms – were murdered by horrible, horrible masked terrorists. And on January 8, I learned that the great Andrae Crouch has passed from this coil that is so mortal. 

I feel for and pray for the musical artist’s family. 

They might find some very small comfort in their great loss to know that in reviewing Andrae’s signature song “Through It All,” after hearing of his demise, that I have found some healing for my own heart troubled by the world’s agony.

Andrae Crouch was such a great human being. I had him sing at the hippie-church in Akron, Ohio in the early 1970s that I pastored. And I engaged him to perform with his musical associates, including his gifted sister Sandra, for a special concert I produced back in the day.

I’ll always remember when he came to my little home. After dinner the smiling Andrae jumped up to scrub the dishes. Jesus set the example of leadership by washing feet; Andrae, in that spirit, washed and dried my rummage sale-bought chipped-up dishes. 

After the concerts of Andrae Crouch and the Disciples, Andrae would jump up from the piano to talk to folks who came forward to shake his hand and offer thanks. And he’d seek out the often forlorn ones of that group suffering from drugs and other abuses of life, and share with them into the wee hours of the night. You know, the people who were the “least of these.” 

Andrae and I disagreed on things, like his belief that faith should bring people wealth, but he certainly was no respecter of persons and generous with his time – and wealth. 

Andrae would always look people straight in the eye with love, leaning in close and call the folks he was conversing with “brother” and “sister.” That wasn’t just some off-hand catch-phrase with the singer/minister. He deeply believed it, and so did the people he talked to as a result. 

Everybody was family. I even remember Andrae generously inviting me and my ex to come stay with him. He told me there were plenty of people there. I got the idea that his home was always open.  

He just couldn’t turn off the love. 

Oh, and, of course, Andrae Crouch was a brilliant, moving, singer filled with the Holy Spirit – that goes without saying.

And he was recognized by the non-brethren and sisters. Andre was the go-to guy when people like Michael Jackson and Madonna wanted a gospel sound for a song they were recording. The dude won seven Grammys – not too shabby! 

I’m sure Andrae wasn’t perfect. But he lived a life that was exemplary. Lord knows we need the likes of more of him in this world. He has left the world and we all now must step up. 

We’ll miss this brother’s example. But, wow, the heavenly choir just got better!

I remember Andrae closing his concerts with “Through It All” and asking the audience at the end to sing along. And this part is still in my head decades later… 

I’ve had many tears and sorrows,
I’ve had questions for tomorrow,
There’s been times I didn’t know right from wrong.
But in every situation,
God gave me blessed consolation,
That my trials come, to only make me strong.

Through it all,
Through it all,
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus,
I’ve learned to trust in God.

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Craig Yoe has been a worker with the blind, a sewer worker, a nightclub owner, a church pastor, a banana salesman, a toy inventor, a creative director for The Muppets, Disney, and Nickelodeon, an author, a book designer, and a cartoonist of sorts. 

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Many Christians have memorized the words, even if not the tune, to an internal verse of “Through It All,” explaining brilliant mysteries of life’s challenges: “I thank God for the mountains, and I thank Him for the valleys; I thank Him for the storms He brought me through. For if I’d never had a problem, I wouldn’t know that God could solve them; I’d never know what faith in God could do.” A sermon in song. I dont’t know if ever made a song of this, but in last painful years, Andrae said he was given a message, and prayed to God: “Lord, heal the wounds, but leave the scars.” A humble, gifted servant. Performing here: CeCe Winans and a room of gospel legends at the Billy Graham Retreat Center, the Cove.

Click: Through It All

No Man Can Tame the Tongue

How many terrorist victims were there in the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices this morning? Before you scramble for the latest numbers, the answer is: None.

Cartoonists, writers, and security people were murder victims, not terrorism victims. The distinction is important. The victims of terrorism are citizens of Paris; Christians, Jews, and secularists throughout Paris, France, Europe, and the West; and cartoonists, satirists, thinking people.

Never again, at least for years to come, will average people be able to think skeptically, critically, humorously, even heretically, without looking over our shoulders even in some small way. That is the definition of terrorism, to instill fear and alter our lives.

Charlie Hebdo (Weekly) is a newspaper that is the second incarnation of the comics magazine Charlie Mensuel (Monthly), a magazine named in honor of Charlie Brown. Its original version was satirical but also a reprint vehicle for comic strips, including from the U.S., in the manner of Linus, Tintin, and other character-named European monthlies. In its current version it is aggressively left-wing and had been the object of arson attacks, government censorship, and concomitant success as a humorous, iconoclastic institution.

As a former cartoonist and a publisher and writer who has worked with the European comics industry, I knew two of the cartoonists who were murdered in the Charlie Hebdo offices, Georges Wolinski and Jean Cabut. Amiable fellows — more than amiable; like most cartoonists, personally merry and friendly — they were left-wing and perhaps a bit nihilist. They, and their paper, were equal-opportunity intellectual anarchists: all religions received savage treatment. There were far more attacks on Christianity than on Islam; many more personal and insulting depictions of clergy, and of Mary, God, and Jesus.

This is not to excuse or mischaracterize their work; they never asked for nor expected such defense. Wolinski also scripted a series of pornographic comics, so I seldom was in sympathy with any of their work. Properly regarding satire as free speech; that is, written words and drawings are as of spoken words, we remember that James 3:8 says, “The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”

When the Bible tells us that, it is a warning to devout believers, but also a key to discerning the nature of attacks, harmful speech, and even satire. But after millennia of investing in, and living in, democratic cultures, we are also committed to the dictum misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Liberals and conservatives are quick to quote Voltaire, but often are absent when push comes to shove. Radio’s Michael Savage was banned from travel to the United Kingdom because he called terrorists “Islamo-Fascists.” Not only did the federal government fail to protest, but fellow conservatives, especially the prominent in media, were relatively silent about his case. The British historian David Irving has told me about his incarceration in solitary confinement for two years in Austria because he entered the country years after he spoke there, questioning not the fact but the numbers of people slaughtered during World War II. No governments and few fellow historians protested the violation of free speech, freedom of opinion, in his case. In countries like Canada, Australia, and Germany it is against the law to voice opinions on this subject; yet the West deplores Muslim objections to criticism of the Prophet.

Nativists, xenophobes, and cultural traditionalists have been rising in Europe in recent years. In Austria and Germany (some would say, predictably) but also in countries like Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark. We see rallies, movements, and laws that are anti-immigrant and, because of the statistics, less religious-oriented than economic, social, and cultural.

In a perfect world, Christians would not mirror the intolerance of Muslim extremists. In a perfect world we would reach the lost, convert them by love, and work toward St. Augustine’s “City of God” wherein few are motivated to commit such acts.

We are called to love, but embracing suicide, even cultural suicide by a thousand accelerating concessions and surrenders, cannot be so described.

The Piece That Passes Understanding

1-5-15

Life has been likened to a game through the ages by saints and sages, by poets and even pastors. We are warned on one side against a game of “eat, drink, and be merry,” because one day we die. Or sometimes we properly are reminded that like some sports, life can be a very grim game indeed. Me? Sometimes I see life as a grand chessboard. Unfortunately I see myself a checker, not a chess piece. Gulp.

Today we think of our lives as vast jigsaw puzzles, not at all illogical.

See how the pieces fit: babyhood, youth, adolescence, nonage, adulthood, dotage. They usually fit together well, although some of us, putting this puzzle together, really have to search for the piece that depicts maturity. But into each life also come pieces that represent curiosity, hope, disappointment, joy, sadness, grief, happiness, greed, ambition, pride, modesty, temptation, sin, desires, charity, unforgiveness and forgiveness, envy, intellectuality, faith…

Have I left any pieces out? Surely. But I have not only described life’s jigsaw puzzles of me and you, but everyone who has, or has had, a pulse, on this earth. Those pieces, in my analogy, will be of different shapes, some of mine larger than yours; some of yours smaller than his or hers. We all, when complete, form different pictures.

And we know, don’t we, that even the kindly old lady down the street has had bouts with envy or pride. “There is not one amongst us in whom a devil does not dwell,” Theodore Roosevelt once wrote to the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson; and we note he metaphorically used a lower-case “d” in “devil.” He continued, “It is not being in the “dark house,” but having left it, that matters.”

In the same way as the kindly old lady we all know, or TR’s Everyman, there are awful folks and hardened criminals who have tender spots, and are capable of conversions. Think of Ebeneezer Scrooge; of St Paul who, as Saul, persecuted Christians; of John Newton, slave-trader who saw the light and write the words to “Amazing Grace”…

But I want to suggest that no life, no matter how long, or how many pieces make up the picture, is or complete without a piece I did not list above. Did you catch that? Can I give you a hint? – it is shaped like an “L.” Ah! There are a couple holes in the jigsaw puzzle of completed lives.

See the missing piece, shaped like an “L,” for Love.

We have all experienced love, even the most miserable amongst us. We have expressed it and shared it – given it away – some of us more than others. But it is a common and irresistible force. To humans it is mysterious because, as serene as it should be, it can also bring heartache and disappointment. It can be the basis of charity but also frustration of broken dreams.

There is a reason that 95 per cent of songs have love lyrics. Even “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” is a love song, about dashed dreams. So are the melancholy lieder of Franz Schubert, and the many grief-toned piano sonatas of the perpetually lovelorn and frustrated Beethoven.

OK… that “L” piece fits there. One more hole in life’s jigsaw puzzle. It looks like an L-shape could fit there, but a little differently. Maybe, turned around a little bit, it looks like a “J.” Yes, J for Jesus. Now our life’s jigsaw puzzle is a complete picture.

Those similar-looking pieces, L and J, in fact make any life complete – especially puzzled lives, to reinforce my metaphor! They are the most important of our lives’ components. Indeed, we are not complete without them. We occasionally might flatter ourselves that we are pretty good puzzle-masters; and perhaps so, occasionally. But we are not puzzle-makers, and cannot be. God plays that role.

I sometimes wonder if Love did not exist, could we imagine it? Like a color that might exist but we’ve seen; or a seventh sense: hard to imagine what we cannot imagine. God’s Love, expressed in the Person of Jesus. He loved us so much as to create us and place us on this beautiful earth; loved us so much as to be forbearing as we humans have sinned and rebelled generation after generation; loved us so much as to share the Truth, offer forgiveness, to open Heaven’s gates…

… loved us so much as to lower Himself to the form of a human, His Son, to share our sorrows, show us the Way, and to offer healing and salvation to those who believe on Him; loved us so much as to remain amongst us in the form of the Holy Spirit, to guide, comfort, and empower us. To have His Son take our sins, our deserved punishment, upon Himself – could we imagine such love? And all this, while we were yet sinners?

Surely this love – our puzzle-piece “L” and the similar-shaped “J,” signifying Love and Jesus – can make the puzzles of our lives complete, whole… making sense.

Look at either one, and if you really can’t understand them fully, just accept them and fit them into your life’s picture. Each one is a piece that passes understanding.

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“The Love of God” is a traditional hymn performed here by the three brothers Aaron, Nathan, and Stephen Nasby, The “NCrew,” their band called Eli Eli. It is a hymn that comes as close as any to defining the indefinable, indescribable unspeakable mystery that is God’s love. There is a legend that a madman in an asylum once heard the song through his barred window and wrote the words of the third verse on his wall. Somehow the plausibility of that story reflects the love, the peace, that passes understanding.

Click: The Love of God

The Slaughter Of the Innocents

12-29-14

One of the most beautiful lullabies anyone has heard or sung is known as the Coventry Carol. A mother’s song to her child, its lyrics from the late Medieval era remind us of Olde English, when the presence of French still sweetened the tongue: “By by, lully, lullay,” its comforting choruses end.

It is soothing but eerily compelling, and even mysterious. Certainly, melancholia is a part of its appeal. Why? A lullaby (note the common roots with the comforting words of the chorus), identified with Christmas? Sad? Its tune, especially its oddly modern harmonies and dissonance, seems to transcend the ages.

In truth, no matter how re-purposed by contemporary performers or loving mothers at children’s bedtimes, the Coventry Carol is indeed melancholy: it was meant to solemnly memorialize an event full of sorrow, dread, and grief. The song imagines the lament of a mother protecting her child about to be slaughtered by soldiers of King Herod. As recorded in the Book of Matthew, the Roman-appointed ruler of Palestine was aware of the Wise Men’s prophecy that the King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem… and that they had warned Joseph to hide the Child of Mary as a precaution against a cruel ruler’s deadly intentions. All this fulfilled Old Testament prophecies (Jesus’ parents fled with Him to Egypt).

In Herod’s bloodlust, and in fear that another king of the Jews would be his rival, he decreed that male babies under the age of one in Judea should be killed. Precise history or legend, this became known as the Slaughter of the Innocents or the Massacre, or Martyrdom, of the Holy Innocents.

In annual Christmas programs during the Middle Ages, Nativity plays akin to Passion plays of another time in the church calendar were performed in many chapels and towns. In Coventry, England, the Guild of Shearmen and Tailors between the late 1300s and the late 1500s traditionally staged Nativity plays. One Robert Croo is tentatively ascribed as the author; the tune’s origins are unknown. It became a day of observance, an event in the church calendar, of profound significance, a call to introspection – and is similar to many other spiritually momentous holidays (holy days) that our contemporary world scarcely recognizes any more.

But here we are: the “Innocents’ Day,” sometimes called Childermass – following Christmass – was celebrated around this time. December 27 for many of the ancient churches in the Middle East, the ancient rites of the Syriacs, Chaldeans, Maronites, Syrians. December 28 is the traditional observance date of the Roman Catholic church, the Lutheran and Evangelic churches, and the Church of England. Eastern rites, most of the Orthodox churches, celebrate the day on December 29. In a German tradition of that time, youngsters exchanged roles with adult clergy and teachers on Childermass; sometimes students for the priesthood presided over worship services, with clergy in the pews.

My purpose today, however, is not to open our eyes to obscure or neglected history, despite its fascinating features or appealing music (please click the link, below, to a haunting performance). It is to have a look around us, not just back in time.

We are reminded that all the aspects of Christ’s Birth were not unalloyed joy. The birth pangs of Mary were prophesied in Scripture, even from the Garden… but the purport was not solely one mother’s labor. We have the grief of Judean mothers. The Bible addressed the difficulties attendant to the coming Messiah’s birth… and, indeed, His life, ministry, rejection, betrayal, and death. Yes, the Resurrection was foretold, but His life would not be one without pain and suffering, clearly. The same is foretold of believers like you and me: a startling prediction, but also a challenging warning.

Jesus, centuries before His Birth, was identified as a Man of Sorrows.

And many of the sorrows occurred around Him, and because of Him – such as the Slaughter of the Innocents – are a sorrowful side of this King’s incarnation. This truth, infrequently recognized in today’s churches where clapping, hopping, smiling, and colorful banners predominate… is still truth. Joy is ours, and we rejoice at the reality of God-with-us, and the peace that is to come; but we need to remember that there is much that is serious about Christianity.

To be a Christ-follower – to go where He leads today – sometimes obliges us to be grim. Holy, but grim. The stakes are high. His church, our civilization, the heritage we share, our families and children, the well-being of fellow Christians around the world, are in serious jeopardy. I am not being pessimistic; I am being realistic. I read my Bible.

The Slaughter of the Innocents continues today – the evil world’s gift that keeps on taking, to coin a phrase. Yes, we can look to adults who are being persecuted and martyred for their faith, and we can see them as Children of God, which they are. But let us here remember the children. We start (but sadly do not end) with the slaughter that is abortion. Some children can at least protest or cry out, but millions and millions of the innocent unborn are massacred in routine fashion.

The young girls in Nigeria who were kidnapped and violated because they were Christian… schoolchildren who were massacred by Muslims for not following Mohammed… the children in East Asia who are imprisoned or executed when they refuse to renounce Christ. I could detail places and dates, but you see the headlines. Please read the stories, not just the headlines; and pray. May God forgive us as a nation for not condemning our government – our selves – for condoning such atrocities.

Permit me to list a few more latter-day slaughters of innocents in our own land: youngsters reared in a society that virtually outlaws Christian expressions of belief and faith… children no longer allowed publicly to pray or have Bibles in schools… classrooms that discuss bizarre sex and secular scientific theories but ban Christian viewpoints… the bombardment of worldly, even deviant, lifestyles from every corner of the “entertainment” media… the apostasy and heresies of many churches themselves, who ought to be children’s first responders…

I could go on. We all know it. Our children’s minds and souls are threatened with hideous slaughter. And sometimes, for the cause of their consciences and the Kingdom of Christ, they also are physically massacred. In the Year of Our Lord 2014.

Can we sing with the mothers of the Coventry Carol: “Lully lullay, thou little tiny child, By by lully lullay. That woe is me, poor child, for thee; And ever mourn and pray, For thy parting, neither say nor sing, By by lully lullay.” Can we identify? Can we do more, beyond singing and praying?

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A performance of the ancient carol in the ancient chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, England, by a youth choir.

Click: The Coventry Carol

Heaven’s Love, Still Reaching Down

By Leah C. Morgan

He’s only 10. He’s not a threat. He’s rather ordinary, but the girls in eighth grade who ride his bus target him as the object of their ridicule. Day after day, they humiliate and torment him, and there’s no one to care. The school is contacted but nothing changes. The boy cries, inside and out, his agony overtaking him.

Then one day, right about the time people out there are celebrating God’s love come down, talking about Advent, and the visit of an advocate from heaven, a new ninth-grade girl moves to the area and starts riding his bus. She sees the cruelty of her peers. She doesn’t care much about impressing them. But she becomes outraged, incensed with their behavior.

She is moved with compassion for him and comes to sit with him in his misery, right beside him, on his seat on the bus. She associates with him, the outcast. She smiles at him and identifies with his suffering. At Christmas time, the greatest gift appears in the most unlikely forms, the shape of his tormentors.

And the unthinkable happens.

The girls who had picked on him begin to ridicule the new girl and punish her for showing him kindness. They tell her she’s ugly. This one, who is beautiful like an angel. But she is unflinching, unmoving. She stays by his side taking his pain, absorbing the blows. And the faces of the tormentors contort with rage, their mouths spewing out hatred. The angel girl, the one surely sent down, begins to laugh.

She looks on at the ridiculous, outrageous scenario, the mean girls angry at kindness, and she laughs. She laughs and laughs, inflaming the bullies even more until one of the girls grabs the heaven-sent one by her long beautiful hair, and bangs her head against the bus window. Over and over they hurt her for loving him and he is as helpless to save her as he was to help himself. Is there a God anywhere to stop the injustice? Even his savior is subject to this evil?

At this very moment, the principal of the school walks by the school bus window. She sees the abuse and rushes to help.

Finally, the boy is heard. After months of humiliation and scorn, someone listens. In fact, it really does seem that God has listened, as though He heard his cries and sent a representative of Himself to hurt alongside him and bring a rescue. It sounds a great deal like the Christmas story itself.

This encounter happened yesterday in our neighborhood, and is the greatest Advent experience of the season for me. It is the most picturesque. My niece, Eden, is the one putting on the Christmas robe, playing the role of the suffering, humble Savior, loving the outcast, defending the weak. Her example of love has brought Christmas down to me.

UPDATE: 12.23.14 – Christmas keeps coming down, falling like love. The mother of the angel-girl lives with her daughter, and knows too well that she is very human. Mom cheers her compassion for the boy, but is concerned for the hostile relationship between her daughter and the angry girls. She pleads with her daughter to consider their struggles, to see them as needing love every bit as much as the boy.

The daughter considers this as she enters her home after school. She reaches for the door, and hears the taunting girls behind her: “You’d better go home! You better run!” She whirls around to face them. They throw down their backpacks, readying for a fight.

She looks into their angry faces and says, “I want to apologize.”

The girls’ jaws drop so low, they nearly make contact with the backpacks on the sidewalk. “What?”! They demand an explanation.

“I was really mad at what you were doing to that boy on the bus, but that didn’t give me any right to call you animals. You’re people with feelings too,” said the very human, heaven-sent one.

The girls answered, talking together at once. “It’s okay. We’re sorry too. Maybe we could be friends? You seem like a really cool girl.”

And today, the one “giving” Christmas, received a Christmas present from an apparent former enemy, because she “looks like a princess.” Pink lipstick.

This is what Jesus living in us is meant to do. Love the unlovable. Pierce the darkness of hatred with the blinding light of love.

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This tender but powerful guest essay, a true story just days old – no: actually 2000 years old – was written by our friend Leah C. Morgan. She writes about beauty, laughter, and life here and after as witnessed from her home in Western Maryland. Your comments can be directed toleahcharlenemorgan@gmail.com. The music video is by Joy Williams.

Click: Here With Us

100 Years Ago — The Christmas Truce

12-22-14

A century ago this week, one of the most miraculous of Christmas miracles occurred. It is known today by some people, but largely has been forgotten. At the time it was scarcely acknowledged and, when discussed, was often criticized. Had it been more widely respected and discussed – if its effects had spread in place and time – we would be living in a different world today.

I refer to the “Christmas Truce” of World War I.

The “Great War,” so called at the time, was what I have called in my historical writing the most useless of history’s many useless wars. It had been a ticking time bomb, so to speak, for years. Rival monarchies of Europe, and their growing economies and colonial empires, were increasingly restive and jealous of each other. Germany was late to the game of unified nations (only having become a country in 1871), and asserted its merchant marine, except that England wanted to preserve her own supremacy; and wanted to stretch its borders to include the German-speaking minorities in neighboring countries, which no neighbor was willing to cede.

Also, the war rolled out as a family feud – as ugly as the drunken wedding-reception brawls you see on TV news – since most of Europe’s “royalty” were related and interrelated, swapping titles for land, to the point that hemophilia was almost as common as dusty crowns and musty robes. Royal cupids shot arrows for the sake of trade advantages and national alliances, many of which proved temporary anyway. It was a pile of dry twigs, a bonfire waiting to be set aflame. When the fire was lit – by a crazed anarcho-patriot from Serbia shooting an Austro-Hungarian archduke – the response became a virtual wildfire, then like a forest-fire of Western Civilization, monarchs tripping over each other to declare war left and right. Secret alliances were revealed; new alliances were formed; old alliances were abrogated.

Doddering royals and their overly decorated retinues strutted, waved flags, and called the masses to defend them. It was like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta except for the bloodthirsty nature of it all. And the gore. And the new inventions of death – “Big Bertha” guns that could land shells six miles away; Zeppelins that could survey and drop bombs from the air; mustard gas that killed soldiers from the inside out; destruction of civilian populations; airplanes that could shoot, drop bombs, and attack each other in the air; submarines that could sink ships from unseen places in the seas.

The war, begun with a burst of patriotic fervor on all sides by the docile masses, was maintained by propagandists and absurd atrocity stories. But after the first few months, the soldiers in the trenches – in Belgium and France, principally, where British and French soldiers squared off against German counterparts – faced each other, sometimes dug in as close as 60 yards apart. And for three years there was virtual stalemate: despite advances and retreats, offenses and repulses, campaigns and campaigns, hardly any land changed hands. Battles made headlines, but the details consisted of tens of millions of the dead, their drained blood and rotting corpses feeding the weary soil.

The first winter of the war heaped cruelty upon cruelty. Cold, wet rain and snow turned battlefields and trenches into flooded swamps. Dysentery, rot, and gangrene visited the soldiers, just as the horrors of snipers and ‘round-the-clock shelling frayed their nerves. The “No Man’s Land,” between sets of trenches, was in fact no land for any living creature, as even trees and bushes were destroyed by the constant withering gunfire.

But a funny thing happened – if you could call Peace breaking out “funny.” It was more Happy than Funny. During Christmas week, a hundred years ago this week, strange things occurred. Strange to the war culture that had been whipped up; strange to the hatred that was force-fed the common soldiers; strange to the history and practice of warfare. Peace sprouted, if not fully “breaking out.”

It became known as “The Christmas Truce,” and there was a danger that it would spread. Danger?

Many legends subsequently arose after the Christmas Truce, such as a soccer game between fraternizing German and English troops (not true), but a lot of facts were documented about those days before Christmas. Evidently German soldiers made the first moves. Accounts say that during a lull in the fighting, Germans under a white flag delivered pastries sent from home, to the English, with a request that the Allies hold fire over Christmas so the Germans could sing and worship. The Brits apparently assented, returned Christmas goodies of their own and, when hearing the singing, joined in from across No Man’s Land.

After that, there was an impromptu Peace Offensive. Undoubtedly spurred by the words of love and peace that permeated Christmas carols, soldiers from each side soon left their lines and met in between. They exchanged cigars and drinks, and they sang Christmas hymns together. This reportedly spread along the entire 27-mile battle line, south of Ypres and east of Armentieres, site of the song about les Mademoiselles.

Superior officers, up the chain of command, tried to prevent this fraternization – the root of the word meaning “brother.” But it was futile. Many of the “enemies” could understand each other, and when they couldn’t, chocolates and cigars and beer and photos of each other’s sweethearts, wives, and children, served as a common language. So were familiar Christmas carols and hymns, no matter what words each man sang. So were prayers, as candles and torches lit the scenes.

A British soldier recalled the Christmas Truce almost two decades later: “On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. … Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.

“[The Company Commander] rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. … One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn’t the only one that was fed up with it.” (Frank Richards, “Old Soldiers Never Die,” 1933)

Another history records: “[The British] Brigadier General G.T. Forrestier-Walker issued a directive forbidding fraternization: ‘For it discourages initiative in commanders, and destroys offensive spirit in all ranks. … Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices and exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.’” (Stanley Weintraub, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce,” 2001)

To the military brass, such fraternizing, these celebrations, even prayers and hymn-singing – maybe ESPECIALLY prayers and hymn-singing – were discouraged. “Discouraged” is too mild a word; historian Weintraub records that “strict orders were issued that any fraternization would result in a court-martial.” Summary executions of soldiers who fraternized with the enemy were also threatened.

It is tempting to think of how the 20th century would have been different if peace had in fact broken out. No more carnage, no harsh “peace terms,” no crushing reparations, no nation-building with resentments, no post-war economic crises; likely no rise of Communism and Lenin and Stalin; or social disruptions and Fascism and Mussolini and Hitler. Probably no seeds of the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War.

Hardly less consequential, the men who dared to stop killing, and to sing hymns and pray with other men – most of whom probably died in short order, themselves – would have rejoined their families and led normal lives. A special moment in history, virtually unprecedented; and I don’t think repeated, anywhere, since.

Such moments should not be rare “miracles.” They are what God intended for us, His children. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

There have been, and still are, many such opportunities. What a concept. Men singing Christmas hymns of love and peace, and actually listening to the words. And acting on them.

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A song written by Garth Brooks was built around the Christmas Truce, moving its location to Belleau Wood, the French site of a mighty battle in 1918. So: slightly fictionalized lyrics, but the powerful memory and message of the Christmas Truce comes forth in this video. I have chosen a cover version for its excellent and powerful graphics and slide show.

Click: Belleau Wood

Moral Alchemy

12-15-14

Many generations ago, in the hazy origins of science and the scientific method, alchemy was a respected pursuit of the learned, the powerful, and the greedy. Turning “base metals” into “noble metals,” after all, was to seek a shortcut to gold; wizards and doctors seldom were invited to turn, say, daffodils into broccoli. In similar distant times, astrologers looked up rather than down, and charted the stars… and tried to reckon what they tell us.

Through the ages, as alchemists became chemists, and astrology gave birth to astronomy, humankind’s primal impulses broadened. But they have not gone away. For instance, although we (that is, the human race) recently have sent our mechanical devices to Mars and small, distant comets, a large percentage of our neighbors still subsists on horoscopes. The putative message in the zodiac consistently is in the first-five items people read in newspapers; on many dating sites it is impossible to cleanse one’s profile of your “sign.”

My friend Dan Rupple once led the Christian comedy troupe Isaac Air Freight, and I have always remembered one of his characters dismissing the zodiac and horoscopes as useless nonsense, mistaken, evil, and warned against by the Bible… “but I’m an Aquarian, and we tend to be skeptical.”

We believe, and we want to believe.

So with alchemy. We might think the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life were rendered obsolete by philosophy, the scientific method, tummy tucks and Botox, but not so. Alchemy continues apace. Maybe not turning iron to gold, except as dross is discovered to have commercial uses.

But I often have wondered just how different the ways and means of old alchemy are from the development of hybrid plants and the genetic modification of our foodstuff. Gregor Mendel and Luther Burbank are regarded as benefactors of humankind. They did, frankly, with plants and animals, what wizards could not do with tin and bronze: a different sort of gold.

There are still geniis, so to speak, and they keep escaping bottles. As we (that is, the human race) hurtle toward the logical extensions – GMOs, transplants, cloning, the “invention” of new species – we bid fair to become helpless spectators, like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The Meyer Lemon is a cross between a true lemon and the mandarin orange. Tasty. The Cockapoo is a hybrid dog, the result of arranged marriages of cocker spaniels and poodles. Cute. (To some.) Pigs have been “bred” to be leaner, but now discriminating cooks and fans of gool ol’ pork fat are growing nostalgic.

So old scientists and new alchemists work at their business still. Having generally given up on gold, they invent things as valuable as gold. To an extent, this is an affirmation that God creates and men fiddle. There are no new elements, apparently even on distant comets, and as the human race transforms things – even, in our minds, ruins or eliminates things – in fact the earth yields, accepts, and yields again.

If the physical realm is intransigent and malleable at best in the face of our efforts at transformation, a certain form of alchemy is still common amongst us. Rife, in fact.

Everyone practices it: we do not need lab coats or college degrees. If the “scientific method” prevailed, we would abandon it, for it has proven over and over and over and over again since the dawn of history to be a failure. Worse – dangerous and deadly. Yet we fool ourselves it is plausible, and has merit. And that we might be the first generation to find success in it; the first people to make it work.

I speak of moral alchemy.

The world, generally – and I am afraid the church itself, lately – has tried to genetically modify the Ways of God. Of all the new theologies and versions of truth that are offered up, we can categorize many of them as the Loophole Gospel. The Word made safe for Modern Man. God created, but in our flawed hearts and misguided souls we try to create a different God. The loving Jesus required of us a modest yet meaningful life-choice, but people’s inclinations are to manufacture a different Christ, and His message modified to comfortably clothe our sins. The 10 Commandments have become 10 Suggestions.

“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil,” it was warned in Isaiah 5:20, “who put darkness for light, and light for darkness.”

When you have a chance, rush to your Bible and read what God says in the entirety of Isaiah’s fifth chapter. “Woe” is the most extreme form of pity that can be felt toward those who suffer. Read what God says – He has laid out for us, His children, riches and promises of joy, yet we tend toward rejecting Him and toward our self-destruction. And toward His inevitable wrath! Again, do we think we are the first generation in history to turn up the “Get out of jail free” card?

“Therefore, as the fire devours the stubble, and the flame consumes the chaff,
so their root will be as rottenness… Because they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One…. Therefore the anger of the Lord is aroused against His people; He has stretched out His hand against them and stricken them, and the hills trembled. Their carcasses were as refuse in the midst of the streets. For all this His anger is not turned away, But His hand is stretched out still.”

Modern alchemy is a moral experiment, doomed not only to failure but reproach and disaster. Our sophisticated brains subliminally rejoice that we have developed a substitute for justice. New words, new excuses, new rationalizations for sin. An acceptable alternative to obedience… we hope.

In the process, contemporary man has achieved a sort of alchemy the ancient sorcerers never could approach. We have succeeded to transform the shining, precious gold that God offers each of us into cold, dull chunks of common iron that represent the inclinations of our evil hearts.

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Faithful believers, and in end times the remnant, are rooted in Truth and not persuaded, nor dissuaded, in their spiritual walks. Like a tree that’s standing by the waters, they shall not be moved. Those are the words of the favorite Negro spiritual, sung here by Blind Pig and the Acorn, kitchen music from the heart of Appalachia. Paul Wilson, lead, and Jerry Wilson, harmony.

Click: I Shall Not Be Moved

Not Christmas Again

12-8-14

This is awfully secular, but a lot of us have memories from television’s black-and-white days. On Thanksgiving afternoon, before, after, or in-between the turkey and four varieties of carbohydrate side dish meals, a local station would air Laurel and Hardy’s “March Of the Wooden Soldiers,” based on Victor Herbert’s “Babes in Toyland.” The tenuous connection to Christmas was trouble in Santa’s workshop, but it was enough to usher in the Christmas season.

Now, black and white movies are most obsolete. Laurel and Hardy have been banished, too. My friend Jean Shepherd’s classic “A Christmas Story” does make it annual appearance now, usually in a 24-hour cycle on TCM, but closer to Christmas, warning boys everywhere to be careful not to shoot their eye out. But. Thanksgiving is no longer the starting-line for the Christmas race.

After Hallowe’en, these day, stores start festooning aisles and windows with Christmas decorations and merchandise. Some stores before THAT. Observant chambers of commerce start decorating Main Streets with lights and messages while pedestrians underneath often still wear shorts and Ts.

You know the complaints, because you probably complain, as most of us do – and not all from a theological perspective, of course: everyone has internal Tackiness meters and Tawdry antibodies in our systems. I hope. It is all too early… too cheesy… too pushy… too commercial…

… and, of course, even atheists take note, very little about Jesus. And “He is the reason…” etc. Shop owners and greedy legal consultants can say that secularists should not be offended, but in truth merchants, window decorators, chambers of commerce, and many of our neighbors, could not care less about the advent of Jesus, the Incarnation of Jehovah, God-with-us, the Word made flesh, the Savior of humankind. But: Disney characters around a cartoon manger do not cut it, folks.

“Getting ready for Christmas,” it is argued. “All for the kids.” Heaven forbid. Never in the history of ideas has a civilization worked so hard to commemorate a holy event by straining so mightily to deny its holy significance.

Interestingly, “getting ready for Christmas” does not depend on commercial, sanitized fluff, and never did. God does not need our sophisticated understanding to become flesh and dwell among us. He did not, despite the announcement via angels, 2000 years ago. Nor did He, approximately 700 years before those events, when He prophesied through Isaiah the birth of the Savior.

A great teaching of Mark Driscoll laid out many of the prophesies, meanings, and fulfillments concerning Christ’s Incarnation – God becoming human and living amongst humankind:

Jesus will come from the line of Abraham. Prophecy: Genesis 12:3. Fulfilled: Matthew 1:1.

Jesus’ mother will be a virgin. Prophecy: Isaiah 7:14. Fulfilled: Matthew 1:18–23.

Jesus will be a descendent of Isaac and Jacob. Prophecy: Genesis 17:19 and Numbers 24:17. Fulfilled: Matthew 1:2.

Jesus will be born in the town Bethlehem. Prophecy: Micah 5:2. Fulfilled: Luke 2:1–7.

Jesus will be called out of Egypt. Prophecy: Hosea 11:1. Fulfilled: Matthew 2:13–15.

Jesus will be a member of the tribe of Judah. Prophecy: Genesis 49:10. Fulfilled: Luke 3:33. 

Jesus will be from the lineage of King David. Prophecy: Jeremiah 23:5. Fulfilled: Matthew 1:6.

Jesus’ birth will be accompanied with great suffering and sorrow. Prophecy: Jeremiah 31:15. Fulfilled: Matthew 2:16.

Jesus will live a perfect life, die by crucifixion, resurrect from death, ascend into heaven, and sit at the right hand of God. Prophecies: Psalm 22:16; Psalm 16:10; Isaiah 53:10–11; Psalm 68:18; Psalm 110:1. Fulfilled: 1 Peter 2:21–22; Luke 23:33; Acts 2:25–32; Acts 1:9; Hebrews 1:3.

Many Old Testament writings prophesy the coming of the Messiah and His birth. All without snow bunnies and frosty snowmen. No electric lights, no cartoon characters, no commercial jingles. For those who have not read Isaiah (especially) 52-53, many of its themes and words are familiar anyway through the citations of Christ, St Paul, the Book of Revelation, the libretto of Handel’s “Messiah,” which was not a poetic paraphrase but the actual words from the Bible.

God let the world know Christmas was coming. Shame on us: unlike the shepherds in Bethlehem’s hills, we KNOW the tremendous spiritual significance of this humble birth that was also the most life-changing moment in history.

He is coming. He was coming. He died and rose. He will come. He rises every day. “If He be lifted up…” We lift Him up. We are crucified with Christ. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He sits at the right hand of the Father. He comes again with glory. He is forever Mary’s son, the Babe in the manger.

The Resurrection is as real – and is as fresh – as the Incarnation, the birth of the Holy One. They are new every day, or should be to us, and renewable as sources of Truth and Strength and Life.

Actually, Christians could, and perhaps should once in awhile, think of the Easter message on Christmas Day, and celebrate the advent of our Lord, Jesus’s birth and Incarnation, on Easter Sunday.

It is the same Message; He is the same Savior. We could even exchange gifts at random times. After all, the Father’s Gift to a lost humanity was not meant for one day, one season, or one people, or one time.

For ever and for ever, amen: Jesus, the Gift that keeps on giving.

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A relatively new song that has become a commercial standard but also a sacred favorite, sure to find a hymnbook home is “Mary, Did You Know?” by Mark Lowery (lyrics) and Buddy Greene (music). Sung here by the Christ Church Choir to images from “The Passion of the Christ,” all reflecting our message that what was, is; and what is, was, in the providence of God.

Click: Mary, Did You Know?

Questions and Answers, Wants and Needs

12-1-14

A dialog, as if overheard. This has been a “crowded” week in America – a confused jumble of social unrest and riots; of Thanksgiving holiday and prayers – or at least thoughts, maybe – of traditions and faith.

“Look at those protesters! They have no hope!”
“Are they protesting or looting? And, I think they have plenty to hope for.”
“OK. They have nowhere to go but up. But they need schools.”
“Schools are not magic. If kids don’t attend, no learning can take place.”
“Well, look around the world. Drugs, prejudice, oppression, greed!”
“It sounds like the end times the Bible talks about.”
“Oh, the Bible. Christians haven’t helped anything – they’ve caused a lot!”
“You ignore Christian charity? The Words of Christ?”
“I’m smart enough to see the bad that has been done, is done, in His name.”
“So your problem is with followers who are mistaken, who sin; not Him.”
“My problem is with the hypocrites who fill the churches.”
“How about the Ferguson church that was torched? It had preached peace.”
“So why didn’t their Jesus save that church?”
“Why do you hate the gospel message of love so much?”
“Why do YOU talk about messages? Can’t you see what people WANT?”
“In Ferguson?”
“No! People everywhere, oppressed by the system, who want justice.”
“Justice… Peace. Those things begin with each one of us.”
“Fool! People everywhere want self-esteem!”
“I think people everywhere need self-respect.”
“Churches don’t deliver self-respect.”
“Maybe not; sometimes not. But Jesus does.”
“Jesus doesn’t bring justice to the streets.”
“But Jesus brings justice to our hearts. His sacrifice justified our sins.”
“All religions say those things. And life is still miserable everywhere.”
“No other god than the Lord defeated death and promises life… and peace.”
“Fairy tales. I don’t see that working anywhere.”
“Then you haven’t looked around you, at healed, saved, peaceful souls.”
“I hear stories, but that’s all they are!”
“Well, you are talking to someone who knows that peace.”
“Easy for you to say. You don’t live in poverty, you are not oppressed.”
“Christians, missionaries, everywhere are some of the poorest of people.”
“But Christians are still on the side of the powerful classes.”
“Nearly a thousand Christians every day are imprisoned, tortured, killed.”
“Maybe THEY should rise up and riot and take the streets back!”
“Maybe they’re busy praying God’s mercy on the souls of their oppressors.”
“And where will THAT get them?”
“Maybe to eternal life. Certainly to a place where their souls are at peace.”
“We’re back to that again. They’ll still be poor and get no respect…”
“Go on: no self-respect? No hope? Still with that awful hole in their souls?”
“You just don’t understand. You don’t understand what people WANT!”

Actually, the answer-man in this dialog might be right. We cannot always understand want people WANT.

What do people want? is a question that doesn’t go away, and burns hotter every day. But to me, more important is: What do people NEED?

Answer to the quiz: People need the Lord.

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“We are called to take His light To a world where wrong seems right. What would be too great a cost For sharing life with one who’s lost? / People need the Lord, people need the Lord. At the end of broken dreams, He’s the open door. People need the Lord, people need the Lord.” These are words from the beautiful song by Steve Green. Covered here by Fiona Hui.

Click: People Need the Lord

Being Thankful Even When the Shirt Hits the Fan

11-24-14

The Rosetta, a mother craft that hurtled through space for 10 years, recently dropped a landing craft called Philae on a distant comet called by scientists 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet is relatively small, fewer than three miles in diameter, its arcane name bestowed to distinguish it from thousands of other comets and asteroids. Gotta keeps things straight when these objects are a third of a trillion miles from earth, speeding at something like 35,000 miles an hour.

These numbers alone should make us take notice. It is not a bad thing, amidst cruelty, oppression, barbarity across our own planet, to appreciate the potential of the human mind – and the human spirit – by focusing on other planets, other objects in space, fellow residents of the universe.

The saints and sages of ancient Egypt and Athens used to gaze at the stars, and chart them. Before them, primitive grunters around the world would look heavenward and wonder. Most of us still do more than occasionally. What is out there? How long has this all been spinning? Where does it end? – and, then, what is beyond that boundary? What is our place in all this?

Such has been the inspiration for theologians, philosophers, scientists, poets, and lovers since time immemorial. Which is good. It is good to look up. It is good to look away, sometimes, from our own concerns. “Keep your eyes on the stars,” Theodore Roosevelt once said, “but keep your feet on the ground.” The scientists behind Rosetta had a very specific goal: to test the comet for the presence of elements, and water, that might be similar to those found on earth.

Their idea, since current theories identify comets as leftover crumbs from the Big Bang, like rock-solid dust bunnies under the universe’s bed, that if any of them slammed into Earth in primordial times, then perhaps a droplet of water eventually led to… well, you get it, iPads and all the rest. Maybe so. I am not a proponent of a 5-billion-year-old universe, but let them have their fun. Who knows what will be discovered?

Whilst I seriously am in awe of this mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the inspiration it will foster, I am amused by some aspects of the mission and its guiding earthbound crew. As I chuckle I am also grateful for the following:

When the scientists made their first joint comments to the world’s press, they fumbled with microphones that didn’t work, or got tangled between them;

The lander bounced like a tennis ball on the low-gravity comet. This was always a threat, especially if (as turned out) solar panels were turned from, instead of toward, the sun. A shame, but some data was collected and beamed to earth;

One of the scientists wore a wild shirt in a press conference, a colorful silky affair festooned with drawings of sexy women. It was decried by various troops of the Thought Police as sexist and inappropriate, but a) it was hand-made for him by his girlfriend; and b) the fellow, as a scientist, should have a right to assert his Inner Nerdiness;

In a subsequent press conference, the brainiac broke down crying, as he apologized for wearing the shirt. He plants a (virtual) spec on a (virtual) dot almost a trillion miles from home, and he loses his composure when the Shirt hit the fan.

… all are examples, or reminders really, that humankind is not approaching superhuman status, neither our emotions nor even our brains. We still bumble and stumble, sort of walking into trees and puddles while gazing at the stars. We build fancier toys, shinier too, but hardly are closer to understanding Everything about life – hardly Anything. The Big Bang is the latest answer to Why and When questions about creation. But… the more I hear scientists explaining it, the more, it seems to me, that they are just restating the first chapter of Genesis. Merely with less clarity.

Those news stories about chess masters playing against computers? Sometimes the computer wins, and folks start talking about the threat to human beings, if computers become smarter than we are. I would remind the nervous folks that there are always the options of removing batteries or pulling plugs; and at the root of the matter, human beings make computers, human beings program computers, and human beings, at least around here, screw them up on occasion. I think we are safe.

How is this essay a message for Thanksgiving Week? To me, simple; a lot simpler than landing a vacuum cleaner on a comet. The ESA triumph, even with glitches, makes me give thanks for the minds wherewith God has graced us. The renewed inspiration provided by an astonishing space mission makes me give thanks for the spark of creativity God has placed in all of us – we literally cannot create anything, but we can rearrange and discover things, therefore able to appreciate the quality of creativity that He allows us to emulate.

And I am thankful as a child of God that my fellow creatures – all of us – whether through space missions or a sport-shirt selection, may remain humble. Servants knowing our places in the universe. We don’t have to be rocket scientists to be thankful for that.

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Human achievements. Creativity. Mysteries of the universe. Let us give thanks this week, by resting upon sincere prayers of gratitude. Also I nominate on oratorio by Franz Josef Haydn, “The Creation.” An amazing work of profound spirituality. Haydn is remembered for his symphonies, string quartets, and chamber works, but seldom for his choral, religious, and oratorical work. “The Creation” is a masterful account of the Genesis story. This video (Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, dir.; performed in English) is a work of art in itself, with orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a magnificent cathedral… and the camera examining every corner of the cathedral’s design and decorations, and amazing, amazing videos of nature’s glories – God’s glories!

Click: The Creation by Josef Haydn

Feel Like Going Home

11-17-14

A few years ago I moved from San Diego to Michigan (people in Michigan STILL ask me why. Not only why I moved from a place like San Diego… but why to Michigan?) (Long story, not for here.) But one thing I missed in San Diego, after having lived most of my life around New York City, in the New England-to-Philadelphia corridor, was Autumn.

Calendar photos cannot fill the void. Neither can videos nor, if such things exist, air-fresheners with fragrances named Burning Leaves, or even Rotting Leaves. The aromas of Autumn, once inhaled, become part of your DNA, at least the nostalgic and sentimental mitochondria. The smell of ripe apples in the orchard; the elixir provided by the first blast of cold, clean, crisp air filling your lungs; and, yes, the smell of burning leaves.

Some of that has been stolen from us by dictatorial bureaucrats who prohibit – I think everywhere in the United States – the burning of leaves in backyards or township facilities. They are protecting our (yearning) lungs, you see, and keeping the air pure. Yes. If they had been around in 1868 Chicago, there would have been draconian prohibitions of lanterns, cows, and probably O’Learys, across the fruited plain, subsequent to the famous fire.

And I have not even mentioned, partly because it can be experienced better than described, the glorious colors of Fall. God’s palette.

The suppression of leaf-burning is much more than a denial of primal olfactory pleasure. For all of mankind’s history there has been a warp and woof of life, irretrievably timed by the changing seasons, just like winding an old clock maintains the comforting sound of the pendulum’s ticking. I tell you the truth: the comforting ticking of my grandfather’s clock in quiet moments is more important to me than the time on its face during busy moments.

The uncountable companions of time’s progression – call it Nature’s Choreography – are fast disappearing, thanks (or blame) to modern life.

Different than phenomena like verifiable weather cycles and crackpot predications of global doom, I don’t think we can dismiss the import of elemental transformations. Some things in history “happen,” but not for the better; some things in our basic lifestyles “change,” clearly to our detriment. The earth handles ice ages better than humans are coping with revolutions in values, norms, standards, traditions, and our souls’ inclinations toward faith and belief.

We do not have to engage in disputes about evolution to recognize that mankind (anyway, north of the Equator and especially in the “West”) all of a sudden has experienced abrupt changes in daily life-cycles, and life-cycles overall. We are evolving, rapidly. “All of a sudden” – that is, relative to the sweep of history – we no longer have to regulate our activities by daylight vs. night-darkness. We generally are able to maintain larger pursuits without regard to the seasons. For instance, we no longer live without certain fruits and vegetables “out of season” because of chemicals and bio-engineering and transportation and refrigeration – not that the fruits and vegetables taste as good as our grandparents’ did.

Mankind’s traditional fears of plagues and storms and thieves and oppressive rulers are, mostly, no longer everyday concerns. Surely this has caused an adjustment of self-assurance, community reliance, and faith. Hope and prayers have lesser roles as this new paradigm offers a “middle class,” a new station for its many citizens; and its governments replace the traditional roles of families, churches, and even God. Insecurity gave way to security, and in turn to prosperity, abundance, moral lassitude, and economic dependence. Democracy, leavened by irresponsibility, is threatening Anarchy. Liberty has led to license.

At one time the majority of mankind depended on harvests – as we return to thoughts of sniffing the air for Autumn aromas – and the insecurity of harvest bounty made cooperation, thrift, planning, and prayers as natural as seeding and cultivating to those who farmed. And so in other basic pursuits. These matters manifested causation, not mere correlation. It is how life worked, and, we are persuaded, should work. But no longer does work. Where farmers once trusted for months to God, the weather, lack of pestilence, and the sweat of harvesters… now supermarket shoppers get annoyed if winter tomatoes are out of stock until tomorrow.

This is called progress.

Call it what you will, but I believe that cultural dislocations of this most basic sort have implications that far outstrip the matter of fruit on our plates or night baseball or air-conditioned malls, all contrasted with the lifestyles of our recent ancestors. While in the midst of these dislocations, we are loathe to notice and largely unable to consider the radical changes in the human story. The timeline becomes the lifeline.

The most significant change has been a loss of faith. Our prosperity and liberty, because we have not been careful to nurture the elemental values, have “freed” mankind from reliance on God. Never has a civilization self-destructed so fast in this regard. Partly because we have seemingly tamed the weather and the clock and the calendar and eating patterns and the soil and infirmity (our second-greatest blind spot, in my opinion), we are not merely rebellious toward God, but indifferent to Him.

This is clearly regression.

Even the most primitive of societies acknowledge some sort of god; in all peoples – except contemporary Western civilization? – there is a yearning to worship, to serve something greater than ourselves. In the West, our vestigial consciences want the government, impersonally and by coercion if necessary, to tend to matters of charity.

If, during these few ticks on Eternity’s clock where we find ourselves right now, we seem to get along without God’s daily counsel and protection, it does not mean He is not here. He is here, and I think we can agree that the God of Love nevertheless feels wounded. The Bible says He can be a “jealous God.” He is angry; He should be, if His Word is true.

And despite our prosperity and liberty, Western civilization finds itself unsure, self-doubting, violent, confused, insecure, unhappy, immoral, and adrift.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” Jesus said (Matthew 9:37). But He also used the analogy of the harvest in Revelation (14:14ff) about Judgment on mankind, the great sickle gathering clusters of grapes for the winepress of God’s wrath. These words – and the truth of our situation, a lost and sinful generation – should make us shudder.

We have work to do here: God’s will for our lives is manifest. We seek to know it; we yearn to please Him. But aren’t there times, maybe as Autumn gives way to Winter and things around us are dying – and at this point in history when mankind resists not only God’s will but His ordained ways – that you just feel like going Home?

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Gospel Blues? The message of today’s essay receives its coda in a classic Charlie Rich song. Sung here by Trisha Yearwood and Bonnie Raitt; Jools Holland on
piano (his late-night UK TV show is “Later…”). That his blues playing is not quite that of Charlie Rich or Ray Charles, each of whom recorded this song, surely says more about them than about Jools or anybody else. Yet this is a powerful performance of the song and its challenging lyrics.

Click: Feel Like Going Home

How Great Art Thou?

11-10-14

Families of certain traditional observances pray before every meal. This is probably less common than in the past; I do not know. I migrated from a faith tradition where rote prayers were recited, to an exercise of spontaneous thanks; from leading or corporate prayers, to an individual thanking God. Usually the latter prayer has a correlative effect of letting the meal cool, but God will see that many are cold but few are frozen.

My sisters and I, in unison, recited the sing-song verse (that did not, actually, rhyme perfectly): “God is great, God is good; and we thank Him for this food. Amen.”

As I grew up I understood quite clearly that such thanks were due God even when we had boiled beef tongue, or liver and onions, waiting. It is the principle of the thing; another meaning of “good taste.” In that spirit I never failed to pray, sometimes to myself, when dining at my mother-in-law’s table, years later. If you ever had one of her meals you would understand why most of my silent prayers were lifted AFTER I ate what I could.

Back to topic, which is not so much an early Thanksgiving meditation as to offer some thoughts about “God is great,” as per the childhood prayer.

God, being God, and as much as He reveals of Himself, surely is great. Our understanding is imperfect, partly because He reveals Himself through scripture and in the Person of His Son… and yet we have but the smallest, most fleeting, impression of who He is. We see as through a glass darkly, as with many things. Yet, though we might someday understand Him more – let us say as the angels in Heaven see and understand – that will still fall short. If we were to know Him fully, we would be as God, and that will never be.

His mysteries are to be wondered at, not jealously coveted. I like it that way (which is just as well, because that is cosmic reality). SEEKING to know Him better, wanting new ways to please Him, desiring His will so that I might obey more and more – these are the sweet assignments of the believer.

Can we see these mysteries and sometimes-hidden attributes of God, the continuous revelation of His character, as a definition of Great in the context of that childhood prayer? – “God is great, God is good”?

Indeed we can. And that goes beyond the reminder of very different meanings of “great” and “good.”

That childhood prayer, despite its innocent simplicity, addresses the crux of the contemporary debate about the existence of God. That debate is, I believe, the defining proposition of Western Civilization’s crisis. We are, without doubt, in a post-Christian society. Nietzsche first posited the question, “Is God dead?” not as theological argument, but to observe that when God is no longer the motive force behind a civilization’s standards and judgments; when mankind ceases to acknowledge Him in the arts, in law, in morality, in education, in science… He is, very much in effect, dead to that culture.

Christians must resuscitate God in our culture: not that He needs our assistance, being God; but so that we assert His rightful place in our affairs, so that we properly honor Him again, because it is, as the old liturgies used to say, “truly meet and right so to do.” After all, when we let our foundation-stones crumble… well, you don’t have to be an architect to know how houses can fall.

So, believers, it is our duty to fight back against the creeping (galloping?) secularization of our society.

I ask you notice something, however, that is inherent in that childhood prayer. Remember this as you assay the issues (and, believe me, this issue underlies EVERY worldview topic you can think of) or discuss matters with skeptics and agnostics and atheists and secularists and relativists. Many of those folks begin their arguments with “How can there be a God who…” or “Why would a loving God permit” this or that.

When people begin their arguments about God in those ways, notice that they are not denying the existence of God: they are complaining about His ways, or His attributes, or how He doesn’t follow the scripts that skeptics would lay out. They are not demanding that you admit there is no God, even as they might think that such is their belief (or non-belief)… they are just annoyed that He is not fitting their own job descriptions.

Truly, if people did not believe in God, or a god, at all, they would simply go home to their knitting. What difference would it make? So even if they do not realize it, they basically – deep down in their hearts – acknowledge a God. We should talk to them, and pray for them, with the attitude that these people are already on the road, and just need guiding hands.

A case in point that we should think about is the late skeptic Christopher Hitchens, who made a career in his last years, before cancer claimed him, doing roadshows with Dinesh D’Sousa debating the existence of God. Hitchens’ best-seller at the time was a book titled “God Is Not Good.” Blasphemous? Just short, maybe, but my point is that the title automatically supposes – rather than denies – the existence of God. Skeptics like Hitchens are only lingering at the Suggestion Box, perhaps, we pray, on their way to the sinner’s rail.

A hymn that I think could be the theme-music of this message is reportedly America’s second-favorite hymn after “Amazing Grace.” As such, “How Great Thou Art” often is assumed to be an ancient hymn, but it is barely 125 years old. A poem written by the Swede Carl-Gustav Boberg was translated into English by Stuart K. Hine. Its origin is the account of Boberg walking home and beset by a sudden violent storm. When it cleared he was not only grateful for his safety but impressed by the suffused sunlight, birdsongs, and distant church bells. At home he wrote the familiar words so loved by many.

Its tune was from a Swedish folk tune that is so elemental that it has similarities to later songs like the gospel “Until Then,” and, ironically, the march “Horst Wessel Lied.” But “How Great Thou Art” wended its way from Sweden to Germany to the Baltic states (Estonia, principally), to Russia, England, and America. It was still largely unknown to the church community in the US when it was sung by George Beverly Shea at a Billy Graham crusade in Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1957. Cliff Barrows has reported that it was sung more than a hundred times during that crusade, and possibly was the reason the crusade services were extended and held over.

It has been a standard ever since, not only of the Billy Graham services, but of church meetings, funerals, camp meetings, and concerts.

Attractive tune, certainly. The song’s structure “builds,” and makes an emotional impression. But surely the impact derives from the message – the song says what we cannot otherwise easily put into words. When our hearts burst, when our minds are excited, when our lips fail us… then sing our souls, How Great Thou Art!

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Here is one of the impactful renditions of “How Great Thou Art” you will ever hear (and that would rival Bev Shea and Elvis and Carrie Underwood and hundreds of others). RoseAngela Merritt singing the hymn a cappella in St. Anne’s church that was built next to the Pools of Bethesda in Jerusalem, where Jesus healed the crippled man. The site, and acoustics, the emotional rendering, are outstanding.

Click: How Great Thou Art

Just Leave It There

11-3-14

We believe Jesus in many ways and about many things; or we like to believe we do. But often, when He speaks most directly, His humble servants – you and me – tend to either miss the significance of His words, or sometimes over-think them. Does that happen in your life?

In either of those cases His words lose their effect! Unplugging Jesus? That’s not just foolish; it could be dangerous.

I am speaking specifically of His promises to us, and when we don’t act on them. Why would the Son of God “go out on a limb” and promise us peace and healing and forgiveness and wisdom and strength and power, unless He can fulfill those promises; and wants us to take Him at His word; and have us try to exercise spiritual gifts? And if we don’t – if we hear them, but are timid, or weak in faith, or exercise excuses – are we not, in effect, calling Him a liar?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (11:28-39, NET).

Could there be a sweeter promise? We don’t have to be farmers or ploughmen to understand the analogy. All we have to be is human beings – with our usual problems and fears and disappointments; and, sometimes, doubts – to FEEL the unspeakable joy that such an invitation holds. But yet, we do not always avail ourselves of the promise.

How often do we feel unworthy to bring all our problems for the Lord to deal with, especially if they are of our own making? How often do we feel that our spirituality should not admit to needing any help – “we can take it from here, Lord”? How often do we over-intellectualize, searching scripture, seeking counsel, even praying, praying, praying? Those all might represent good “B” answers… when the “A” answer is the promise of Jesus!

How often do we do these things (or not do these things)? The answer is – often. Too often.

“Take your burden to the Lord leave it there.” You know, there is a lot of room at the foot of the cross. More than we can imagine. One burden. Many of our burdens. Huge burdens. The burdens of many. And in the meantime – on our way to the cross to leave them, so to speak – Jesus will be our yoke, lifting the load, carrying our burdens for us.

There is a hymn, “Leave It There,” describing this very practice, taking our burdens to the Lord. It has special significance to me and my family. After the heart and kidney transplants of my wife Nancy at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, we conducted a hospital ministry to heart-failure and transplant patients. For six years we (that is, Nancy and me and our three children Heather, Ted, and Emily) would conduct services and visit patients’ rooms once or twice every week.

In our services, “Leave It There” became a favorite hymn, often requested by patients, some of whom heard it for the first time in those services, and by patients who came and went through the years. Among its comforting, and strengthening, lines: “If your body suffers pain and your health you can’t regain, And your soul is almost sinking in despair, Jesus knows the pain you feel, He can save and He can heal; Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there. ~~ Leave it there, leave it there, Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there; If you trust and never doubt, He will surely bring you out! Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”

It was written by Charles Albert Tindley, born in 1851, the son of a slave. By age five he was orphaned, but at 17, after the Civil War, he had taught himself to read and write. He moved from Maryland to Philadelphia, working for no pay as a church custodian but, aspiring to the ministry, he learned Greek and Hebrew. The African Methodist Episcopal Church accredited him on the basis of outstanding test scores and preaching skills. For several years he was placed in different churches in different cities, impressing his congregations and winning converts.

Pastor, Deacon, Elder… eventually Tindley received a call to a congregation in Philadelphia. Thus did this servant of God become pastor of the church where he once worked as an unpaid janitor. When he preached his first sermon there, 130 members sat in the pews. Eventually under him the church had more than 10,000 worshipers. He preached, he championed civic causes, and he wrote astonishing hymns and gospel songs. One became the basis of the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

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

Doing research during the course of our hospital ministry, I was surprised to learn that the author of our makeshift congregations’ favorite hymn lived and preached in Tindley Temple, just down North Broad Street from where we met every Sunday morning. We had a connection with Dr. Tindley, who died in 1933, that seemed more than coincidental. Did he, with all the challenges he faced and, yes, burdens he bore, always “trust and never doubt”? That likely is not the case… but he was, as an overcomer, an example of someone who took those burdens to the Lord and left them there.

Those very acts, trusting and fighting the temptation to doubt, will be honored by God. He will surely bring you out.

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The great Jessy Dixon sings the anthem of faith, “Leave It There,” as only he could.
Click: Leave It There

Protestantism’s Birthday – A New 95 Theses Needed

10-27-14

This is Reformation Week, commemorating the traditional date of October 31, when the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed 95 theses – point-by-point criticisms of contemporary Roman Catholic practices – onto the wooden door of Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany. All throughout northern Europe, churches were the centers of each town’s social, as well as spiritual, life, and their doors were the precursors of our day’s “postings to your wall.”

Everyone in the town square saw Luther’s manifesto. It was not startling except, perhaps, for its formality and audacity. But Luther had been complaining about practices in the Church for some time: corruption in its operation, committing errors in doctrine. And so had many others complained. In other German cities and states. And in Switzerland. And the Netherlands. In northern Italy. Even a hundred years earlier, when a dissident Moravian priest, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake. I have stood in reverence before his statue in Prague’s Old Town Square. And even before Hus, one who protested the ethical and doctrinal corruption in Rome: John Wycliffe, of England. One of his “crimes” was translating the Bible into English (the “language of the people,” instead of Latin), as Luther later dared to do with his German translation.

For all the brewing opposition to the Vatican, the Reformation, if not Reformed theology, is popularly regarded as having begun with Luther, and specifically on that day in 1517 when he nailed those 95 indictments to the church door. That is because a dam burst, metaphorically, in the Catholic Church, in larger Christendom, in society, in politics, in the arts, on all cultural levels. Half the German princes opposed the Pope’s political and military prerogatives, as well as papal ecclesiastical authority. After Hus’s martyrdom, major social upheavals led to Bohemia soon becoming 90 per cent Hussite (today’s Moravian church) or other variety of Protestant.

So the 95 Theses were the spark that lit a bonfire, but there were burning embers and brushfires aplenty for two centuries previous. Also, the times were right for a revolution like the Reformation. Rome’s corruption was outrageous; extra-biblical doctrines were offending the pious; and, hand-in-hand with the ideas behind the Renaissance, men were learning to think for themselves. And act for themselves; and organize, and trade, and read, for themselves. Literacy: a few centuries earlier, Luther’s manifesto would have a been a paper with meaningless scribbles to passersby. On that Sunday, however, the theses were read, and devoured, and discussed. The Pope was furious when he was told that Luther’s tracts were best-sellers of the day in Germany.

It is frankly the case that the revolution that Luther sparked was not fully intended by him. He did not want to break away from the Catholic Church, least of all have a denomination named for him. He scolded his followers who stormed Catholic churches and knocked over statues (“idols,” to them). But… he was excommunicated. For a time he was hidden by protectors because the Church wanted him dead. He married a former nun, settled into a life of preaching and writing (many volumes!) and preaching “sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone) as the basis for faith, and for salvation.

His era’s handmaidens, Renaissance thought, humanism, and neo-Classicism, were not particularly welcome movements to Martin Luther. If anything he was closer to Orthodoxy, at least in rejecting “modern” trends in theology. He went so far as to say that “Reason is the enemy of Faith.” Remember, he relied on “Scripture Alone.” Ironically, he was especially venerated during the Enlightenment because (despite some history books claiming the period to be one of liberation from the Bible) Newton and others saw scientific discoveries as explaining God, not marginalizing Him. So Luther, father of the Reformation, was not the first of the Moderns, but the last of the Medievalists.

In spite of Luther – or, rather, an inevitable component of the Protestant Reformation – social and political freedoms were unleashed. Literacy spread, and as people split from the church they increasingly asserted their civil rights too. In a very real sense, we can say for convenience’s sake if not dramatic effect, that Western civilization was one way before Oct 31, 1517; and another way afterward. With Martin Luther, formally, on that day, began the battle of the individual against authority, the primacy of conscience over arbitrary regulations.

Those battles continue, of course. But blessings flowered… and malignant seeds sprouted too. Democracy has led to social disruption and near-anarchic relations between classes and nations. With broken ecclesiastic authority, public morality has degenerated. And as denominations have multiplied, their influence has virtually evaporated in Western culture and in the United States.

It can be said – and has been said, frequently – that the Roman Catholic Church brought the Reformation onto itself. Perhaps (for instance) some of the mistresses and illegitimate children of Popes would have a say in that discussion. The widespread device of selling “indulgences” still stands as a major offense: common people were persuaded to pay money to guarantee that their dead ancestors would be delivered from torture in Purgatory (despite the fact the Bible does not say that we can have influence of the souls of the departed… or even that there is such a place as Purgatory). Yet an enterprising priest, Tetzel, invented a rhyme, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Much of this was a scheme to build and decorate St Peter’s in Rome. Clever venture capitalism, bold entrepreneurial management, perhaps; but rotten theology.

Very specifically, these vile offenses confronted Luther when he travelled on foot from Germany to the Holy See on a mission. He was aghast at the corruption, decadence, sin, money-grubbing, and countless heresies – not in the city of Rome, but in the Vatican itself. A biographer of Luther wrote, “the city, which he had greeted [from afar] as holy, was a sink of iniquity; its very priests were openly infidel and scoffed at the services they performed; the papal courtiers were men of the most shameless lives.”

Let me fast-forward 500 years, and let us ourselves enter the Holy See of Protestantism (as it were) and assess what Reform has brought to the Church of Jesus Christ, those portions of the Body.

Do we see denominations inventing and “discovering” their own doctrines? Do we see churches bending their theology in order to fill the pews? Do we see widespread moral failings in the clergy – everything from pedophilia to homosexual encounters? Do we see story after story in the news about financial shenanigans? How many churches wallow in obscene opulence, as the poor live in their shadows? How many charities are shams; how many mission outreaches, we learn with sad hearts, are looted? How often are “modern” sins excused by the heretical lies of relativism in the church? How have seminaries become breeding-grounds of Progressivism; why are entire denominations denying the divinity of Christ, the existence of Absolute Truth? What is this extra-biblical “Prosperity Gospel”? – when preachers procure “seed-faith” offerings, and offer “prayer hankies” to customers who are assured of God’s blessings – HOW is that different from selling indulgences?

Racing through that list, you will recognize problems that are endemic to this or that denomination; sometimes still the Catholic church; mainstream or evangelical Protestants; Pentecostal or post-modern; “Seeker” or emergent. I believe that the Christian churches of contemporary Europe and America might grieve the Heart of God no less than the corrupt Church of the Popes 500 years ago.

We need a New Reformation. We need “Scripture Alone” as our guide again. We need holy indignation from the remnant of faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

I intend to compose a New 95 Theses (knowing that a list of problems with today’s churches could be a larger number!). I will be writing more, as I compose this, but as I look for hammer and nails to post them, or publish them, I invite readers to nominate some of the practices in today’s churches that need reforming. We ARE Christ’s representatives here on earth; and a royal priesthood of believers. We have a responsibility. And let us be guided by Martin Luther, in one of the greatest moments of human history. Hauled before a court of the Holy Roman Empire, condemned by the Pope himself, threatened with excommunication and death, ordered to renounce his thoughts and denounce his books and sermons… nevertheless he was defiant in opposition: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

A mighty fortress is our God.

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Two clips this week. The first is the dramatic confrontation, and Luther’s dramatic defense, at the Council in Worms, Germany, that presumed to judge him. From the classic black-and-white, award-winning biopic starring Niall MacGinnis. The second clip is a signature performance, a cappella, by Steve Green, singing “A Mighty Fortress” before thousands. “Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His Kingdom is forever!”

Click: “Here I stand”: Luther’s defense

Click: The Reformation’s battle hymn, composed by Luther; sung by Steve Green

The Story of Two Women

10-20-14

I want to tell you about two remarkable women.

Fanny Crosby’s name is known by some people today, but her great number of gospel songs fill the hymnbooks of many denominations, and the airwaves even today, sung in every musical style you can think of. She lived almost 95 years (1820-1915) and was a prominent poet and librettist until about the age of 45. Then she began writing lyrics for hymns. Before she died she wrote almost 9000 hymns, many of them, as I said, familiar today.

These and many other works were accomplished despite the fact that Fanny Crosby was blind. Little Frances had an eye infection as a baby in Brewster NY, was mistreated with medicines, and thereafter had no sight. It was a handicap she endured without complaint, testifying that if she had “normal” sight she “might not have so good an education or have so great an influence, and certainly not so fine a memory.” She further testified that “when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.”

She was a teacher of blind students at an institution in New York City – where her secretary, transcribing her dictated poems, was a teenaged future president, Grover Cleveland – and a published poet, a librettist for opera-style stage cantatas, author of patriotic works during the Civil War, and an evangelist. She shared the gospel message from street corners to rescue missions to crusade meetings.

Fanny Crosby wrote words for her hymns, and seldom the music. Dozens of prominent and amateur composers provided the music to her miraculously simple but profound verses. In fact many of her poems were published under assumed names, so hymnbooks could maintain the appearance of variety. She and her husband, a blind organist, shared evangelistic work.

She never received more than five dollars for a song, and routinely much less; sometimes nothing. While her songsheets sold millions, she invariably lived in poverty. She was befriended by many, including Ira Sankey, the “music man” in D. L. Moody crusades in the US and England; but whatever money she made through her long career she did not tithe – she usually gave away half, sometimes all, of income receipts, to churches or missions. In New York City she served at the Bowery Mission, and lived in extreme poverty in places like the Tenderloin District or Hell’s Kitchen.

If you don’t know Fanny Crosby’s name, you might know her hymns including “Blessed Assurance,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “Safe in the Arms of God,” “Near the Cross,” “Jesus is Calling,” and “He Hideth My Soul.” She is buried in a humble cemetery outside Bridgeport CT, her modest gravestone telling the world: “Aunt Fanny: She hath done what she could.”

When I met Cliff Barrows of the Billy Graham Crusades, he told me how the words of Fanny Crosby had touched his life, sometimes with the impact of Bible verses themselves. That day I had with me an old copy of Fanny’s autobiography, “Memories of Eighty Years,” and I presented it to him. A jewel-encrusted heirloom would not have meant more to him; it was impressive to see evidence of how, indeed, he had been touched by Fanny Crosby in his life.

Fanny never considered her affliction a handicap, and she did not complain about her poverty. She wanted to write hymns; and, in countless humble missions and fetid soup kitchens, she wanted to share Jesus with “her boys.” Her work lives on, beyond the people she met, in the hymns that still affect listeners today.

The other woman we visit today was Fanny’s contemporary and, like her, a poet, evangelist, missions worker, when these activities were uncommon, in churches and in general society, for women. She also suffered physical affliction, and wrote the words to at least one hymn of great fame and comfort to generations of people. Katherine Hankey, 1834-1911, was born in London and did all her work in England except for a period as a young woman, as an evangelist in “darkest Africa.”

Katherine’s father was a prosperous banker, so she never endured the privations of a Fanny Crosby. Yet she caught the evangelistic zeal – despite her staid Anglican roots – and preached on street corners of poor urban neighborhoods, in factories, and at docks. While only in her thirties she contracted a disease that had doctors confine her to bed, not merely her house.

Her greatest regret over this news of a life-threatening illness was that she could not preach, share the Word, and talk about the love of Jesus to “her boys.” She determined, if she had to find an alternative, to write what was on her heart. From a very long poem grew the verses that embodied her zeal to “tell the old, old story.”

Two women in two cities, two different societies – different from each other; different from today, especially regarding the role of women – both challenged by horrible afflictions, but overcoming them. Gloriously.

Their biographies are lessons for us all, not only contemporary women, young or old. They are inspirations to what we may do as fighters in the arenas of life, as warriors wielding the gentle weapons of God’s love and mercy.

Two women speak, and sing, to us over the many years. One, blind, wrote, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” The other, weak and bedridden, wrote, “I Love To Tell the Story.”

Two women’s stories are… one story. The story of Jesus and His love.

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The separate but equal testimonies of two remarkable women live on through two powerful and beloved gospel songs. As musical sermons they have touched the lives of millions since they were written in quiet and humble circumstances by two servants of God.

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

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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