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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

1-26-15

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

1-19-15

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

Intangible Remnants of Life

10-13-14

Sometimes when we make life-transitions, what we leave behind is ugly: think of a chrysalis and a butterfly. I am reminded of Mark Antony’s oration over the body of Caesar: “The evil that men do oft lives beyond them; the good is interred with their bones.” But when I “process” Shakespeare’s words what comes to my mind is not only the question of evil. Because good – good works, good deeds, sacrifice and service – can survive our lives to encourage others, at least.

In fact, sometimes we confront the anomaly that what is “left behind’ (please, I am not talking of the movie) can be beautiful – maybe more memorable than what is supposed to be more important! The wisdom that can be drawn from this, and life-applications, struck today’s guest essayist, my friend Laura Pastuszek. She will state her revelations better than I just attempted to do:

Laura writes, My friend collected many colorful shells at the beach on Sanibel Island in December of 2011. And it appears she had a reason in mind for how she wanted artistically to display these dead creatures. However, she never did tell me.

If anything, she may have placed them with care, and they were purposely arranged, or maybe done in a random act? I really can’t recall. And yes, in a way, it matters because these shells helped me through some of the most difficult events that I could have never imagined.

In the three years since we spent this week at the beach together, both of us have had our share of tragedy. Mostly random. Funny how life works that way. It is inconvenient to say the least, unbelievable to sound almost cliché when describing sickness and death. Little did I know that I would experience losing eight people that I cared about, including my brother, mother, and father within one year. And I never dreamed that the “collector of the seashells” would go through radical breast and lymph surgery due to an aggressive cancer that nearly took her life.

The shells I photographed are beautiful!

But they are dead.

How can this be? The sickness and deaths I have experienced were anything but beautiful. In the months and years that I have suffered great loss, I have often asked myself where to find the beauty in the midst of my world. Quite frankly, it has been hard to see, and I have often prayed for the ability to look through such lenses.

Looking more closely at the photograph of beautiful and colorful shells, I could not help but notice the red, brown, purple and other hues of colorful shells. Vibrant, even in death. Really? Death is certainly not vibrant, it is depressing and painful, at least from my vantage point.

Some of the shells are smooth, some are rough. Death came like that for my loved ones. For some it was sudden, for others it stalled for months and it was a brutal road.

One day, just like I took the picture of the beautiful shells, I took inventory of the memories of my loved ones. Was there a big difference between the shells and my loved ones? I realized that the hardest thing to accept about death of a loved one is the absence of a physical “shell.” I only have my memories to rely on for preservation of the inner beauty of my loved ones, and this intangible act is difficult, especially when the territory is foreign.

I have always loved shells for what they looked like on the outside, never for the creatures that were alive within. I never really bothered to know or enjoy the inner being of most of these creatures. But it was that inner being that caused such beauty to last.

Revisiting the photograph caused me to think about death in a whole new perspective. That is the beautiful thing about grief. I realized that I get through it by seeing little glimpses of life, mostly in the obscure; and this revelation about dead seashells definitely is obscure… or at first seemed obscure. But I am being reminded to make the intangible remnants of my loved ones’ lives matter. Intently, I place such memories in my heart and mind, often.

I recall my mother’s words saying, “Honey, you always do a great job…” and my father taking the toothpick out of his mouth, tilting his head my way, waiting for a kiss on the cheek when I greeted him; my brother reminding me to defrag my computer; and my friend chatting with me over the phone about each of her four young children. I capture remnants of my loved ones’ characters, accomplishments, dreams, and spirituality, often. Those things are what I picture deep inside.

They have become my beautiful shells, arranged nicely, each showing their distinctive wonder.

And each morning, as the sun rises, I can walk along the water’s edge, and have trust that God is with me in my grief. It is He that helps me to rearrange the picture of my new life, and to heal. It is His spirit that enables me to live through the death of loved ones, through grief, as an act of faith and II Corinthians 5:7 reminds me of this: “For we live by faith, not by sight.”

sea shells

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We should always feel the assurance of knowing that if we don’t see our friends and loved ones again, whatever the circumstance, we surely may see them on heaven’s shore. In the meantime the lives we lead, and leave some day, will be seen by others as beautiful testimonies of who we were, what we did… and who we served. Like shells on that beautiful shore.

Click: If We Never Meet Again

Art Imitates Death

10-6-14

Some years ago I was a guest on a local program somewhere in New England on a National Public Radio station, “The Man and His Music.” Under today’s politically correct strictures, especially on NPR, I suppose the series would be called, “The Person and His/Her Predilections,” or some such nonsense. (Maybe even “His/Her/Its”) Anyway, the premise of the series was to explore a guest’s personality through discussions of musical taste and favorite pieces, in addition to the standard celebrity-interview fare.

We authors or actors or athletes were, naturally, asked to send our choices in advance of the studio interview, and to provide (ancient history, kiddies) cassette tapes of our favorite songs or snippets of music. The hostess was well-versed in music, and could discuss or at least intelligently explore any style of music from any period of history, from Renaissance to jazz.

True to my catholic tastes, as old friends of this column will know, my choices ranged from Baroque to Bluegrass. And at least half the choices, for the two-hour program, were church pieces. Movements from cantatas and masses; traditional hymns; contemporary gospel. The man and his music, right?

It developed that eclecticism was fine for the show, but only so much. Between discussions of my books and travels and hobbies were the musical cut-aways, followed by chats about them. The hostess was glad to discuss the fact I knew several jazzmen who had played with Bix Beiderbecke; and had heard Mozart performed in Salzburg; and that I had been backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. But when my choices were Christian pieces, the conversation turned cold. Invariably we rushed to a new topic.

Not only did those musical clips carry a gospel message, but my discussion – why these pieces were special to me, the putative theme of the series – perforce touched upon what made them special, too, to the composers, performers, and the intended audiences. The stories behind the songs; the messages in the music.

I don’t think it was a particular prejudice of the hostess. Clearly, it reflected the culture at (taxpayer-supported, we constantly are reminded) National Public Radio. But, more, it reflects the culture of contemporary America. The post-modern, post-Christian world.

There is a reason I tie my weekly messages to music. I believe music is the most imaginative language devised by mankind, and always a pulse-reading of the broader culture. My ideas about music are based on those of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. They believed that harmony is a somewhat elusive quality that is yet irreducible when achieved: we know it when we hear it. Harmony is to be sought in life as well as in music. Harmony represented the Absolute Truth that Plato knew existed, and whose perfect possession might be impossible for mortals, but whose pursuit is essential for our worthwhile selves. (This philosophical summary three centuries before the birth of Jesus explains why early Christian theologians were called Neo-Platonists.)

Renaissance artists found a “new birth,” artistically, in the arts of the ancients, specifically the Greeks. Sculpture and architecture, principally. Literature followed, though awkwardly; and eventually dance and music, in ideals rather than forms (which were historically obscure until very recently). All through the church age, and finding its apogee in the Renaissance despite an interest in outward Athenian expression, art’s main function was to embody the meanings and purposes of God. Gradually, aided and abetted by political freedoms, the empowerment of the printing press, and a philosophical zeitgeist in the West that morphed from Humanism to Individualism to Selfishness, the rationale for all artistic expression, in all manifestations, changed.

Now, instead of artists striving to please God, they strive to please themselves.

Beginning in music (and speaking very generally) around Beethoven’s time, the artist became more important than his music; the music more important than the One it once served. Beethoven, however, was truly a transitional figure in this discussion; although something of a “tortured soul,” he was a fervent Christian, as were his immediate contemporaries among composers. Hummel, Field, Czerny, and especially Mendelssohn (ironically, a Jew, converted to Lutheran Christianity) were intensely personal in their compositions without rejecting traditional forms, or faith. But the next generation of composers felt it necessary to be rebels in morality as well as in their music. Composers were expected to have troubled personal lives, to bare their souls in their music, and to offer cathartic or excruciating exposures of their selves. Portraits of the artists. Listeners came to assume that artists were tormented. Artistic heroes are encouraged to wallow in personal revelations, the uglier the better.

True in music and painting, it became the norm in all of the arts, and in fact throughout all of society: that the world, our lives, our very civilization, is so rotten and contemptible that we must honor the artists who struggle to express their disdain and their doomed efforts to resist. Honored the most are those who can describe the best what stinks the worst. Of course, then, society honors leaders and politicians who base their programs on similar perceptions of a loathsome society. They can only address the evils (as they see them) of the Old Order with solutions and systems that reject any trace of traditional wisdom.

This explains where we are as a culture, and why we are doomed, I believe. (Really doomed; not the trendy ennui of parlor dyspeptics.) Beyond music, every expression from poetry to politics reflects the fact that we are a people who have cut ourselves off from God. We no longer make decisions – personal or civic, artistic or political – based on God’s Word, on praying for divine guidance, on trusting the faith of our fathers, on seeking to please Him. And – I hope this is obvious – this analysis pertains to all societies and their religions, not only the Christian West. But as a legatee of Western Civilization that crumbles around me, that is what I address today. So should we all.

And I am quite happy to debate which package of factors is the cart and which is the horse. “Art imitates life” is an ancient maxim. Its apposite response (called anti-mimesis) was provided by Oscar Wilde, who maintained that “life imitates art.” But most recently the real challenge – I should say a lucid perception of our world’s post-Christian dilemma – was voiced by the brilliant Russian émigré, the critic Alexander Boot: that among the ruins of Western Civilization that we have come to call home, Art imitates death.

Having ignored, banned, ridiculed, insulted, and rejected God for so long in the post-Christian West, how can we expect otherwise?

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I could choose a hundred thousand musical pieces, few from the past 150 years, to accompany this essay. I have chosen a video that is in itself a work of art, the DeutscheGrammophon production of the supernal Helene Grimaud playing the second movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concert Nr 23 in A, K. 488. Close-ups of her technique, her sensitive expressions, and nature scenes. God is glorified.

Click: Mozart Adagio

In the Presence Of Our Enemies

9-29-14

One of the most familiar, and comforting, of Bible passages is the 23rd Psalm. Back when I was young, and prayer was still allowed in public schools, once a week a designated kid read from the Bible, before the Pledge of Allegiance, in home-room observances.

Not by written regulations of the School Board, or under legal threats from the Federal Government (why would it be any of their business?) but by a custom of courtesy, the readings were usually from the Psalms. Not always, but the presence of a few Jewish students prompted the circumspection. And as students were, relatively, free to choose the reading each week, the 23rd Psalm was about Number One on the hit parade. It is only six verses long, which perhaps is another reason why many students chose it.

But why not? It has universal appeal, offering promises to humanity; it is a spiritual palliative – soothing, encouraging, offering security.

I read it again recently. After reading and reciting it perhaps hundreds of times in my life, subsequent to the 6th grade, something struck me as new and challenging. There is one phrase among the promises and word-pictures that stands out. It is from God via the “Sweet Singer” David, so its authenticity is not suspect, but the verse is, at least superficially, of a different flavor.

In the Psalm we are assured that the Lord provides care and shelter as shepherds do; that He lovingly leads us, restores us, comforts us, protects us, anoints us, and so forth. He offers us green pastures, still waters, “paths of righteousness,” protection in life’s valleys, cups that overflow, goodness, mercy, and an eternal dwelling place.

Surely you remember the actual Psalm, especially after all these prompts: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Have you, too, noticed the passage that is seemingly of a different flavor?

The world has changed much since my childhood days… and yours, too, even if you did not survive the Village School in Closter NJ, as I did. “God is dead,” as the Existentialists say because our culture rejects and dismisses Him. In the same way, Norman Rockwell is dead, relegated to the walls of the cultural Remnant.

We had “enemies” then, at the height of the Cold War. We were ready to survive those enemies by scrambling to the school’s basement and tucking our heads between our knees if nuclear bombs were to fall on the playground. Our society’s enemies now, today, include anonymous killers who want more than to overtake our courthouses. Our enemies want to torture and kill us; by their asservations, to be preceded by attacking peoples’ bedrock beliefs; and then committing heinous and despicable methods of murder. For Christians, it includes bondage, sometimes crucifixion, and beheading. For their fellow, but less enthusiastic, religionists, their promises and practices include bondage and mass executions leading to unmarked ditches. Except for those who are buried alive.

These descriptions are not the usual reports of propaganda (as I recall the dictum that “in every war, the first casualty is truth”). Our self-proclaimed “enemies” brag about these goals and acts, and post videos on the internet.

To return to the Psalm, of course the phrase that stands out is, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Would it seem that consistent to the entire Psalm, David might have written, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my friends”? Every other promise and description is of peace, joy, happiness. Surely a picnic beside the still waters, near the Path of Righteousness, with our friends whose cups are running over, would fit into the picture.

But David, taking dictation from the Holy Spirit, knew what he was writing. Therefore, so should we.

We shall never be free from enemies. Just as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death – that is, obliged to endure it occasionally, not switch on the GPS for detours – God is with us. He will protect. Moreover, we should not want to live in a daisy-world (sorry, Norman Rockwell) that is totally unrealistic. We have enemies, and God prepares tables before us in their presence. Why? To confront them, to witness for Truth, to boldly share our convictions, maybe persuade our enemies.

This does not mean to roll over, declaring that their belief systems are peaceful and merely have been perverted. That is moral cowardice. That will only prompt them to laugh louder. NO. God sets our placemats in the presence of our enemies to confront, not to compromise.

The real menu in this imaginary meal with our enemies is their hatred (however, we are determined to bring sweet desserts of love, making our boldness palatable). And – let us not fool ourselves – these enemies might kill us, but the One they really hate is Jesus Christ. One by one by one among us, the enemy hates us in direct proportion to the presence of Jesus in our hearts. Remember how Satan denigrated Job to God: he doesn’t love You, just Your blessings, Satan charged. Well, Satan hates us according to the amount of Christ that lives in our hearts.

For those cultural self-haters among us who abandon religious tenets and civilization’s traditions, supposing that enemies will be appeased… they are mistaken. They will not even be at the virtual table; they will be despised and eliminated with even less thought than enemies expend on attacking those with strong Christian faith.

God wants us to be in the presence of our enemies. That is, not to avoid, appease, or compromise with them. David did not, in his life. Neither did Jesus. We are to contend… to represent Christ. And we are promised to be equipped, comforted, anointed, blessed, and victorious. God prepares a table before us… right smack in the presence of our enemies. Are you hungry?

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

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A song about the everyday enemies of life, behind which is Satan, no less than the enemies on nightly news programs, is by Jami Smith:

Click: You Prepared a Table For Me

Pity the Angels

9-22-14

People sometimes are more attracted to fantasy than reality, which amuses me. When it doesn’t amuse me it disheartens me. I understand real life can be grim; that our souls seek poetic escape; that fiction often codifies the moral tendencies of a culture, and we thereby create comfort zones. Blah, blah, blah, as literary critics say.

But why is this true, when reality can also be sweeter than any fiction? As a former editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney, I spent a lot of time trafficking in the contemporary versions of civilization’s epic confrontations and traditional fairy tales. But I have to report that I wondered, during my Marvel days, why millions of readers were so invested in superheroes, forever asking “what if?” about characters with super powers, invincibility, the ability to defy nature, fighting life-threatening foes and defeating evil, as good as good guys can be… but how so many of those young (and older) readers could be indifferent about Jesus.

Jesus was the greatest superhero of them all, doing all those things quite easily – and we can add attributes like time travel, walking through walls, and rising from death. Everything but the Spandex, right?

Yet many people prefer fantasy to reality. Speculation to truth. Mythological heroes to men and women of history. Of course, I suspect that a major factor is pride: humans have the tendency to monopolize the truth, or persuade themselves that they can do so. Malleable stories are therefore more comforting than stark reality.

For instance, what about angels in this essay’s title? Well, it struck me a few years ago when the Angel Fad was coursing through the bloodstream of America, that many people equated that with a rise in spirituality.

Yet Angelmania was spiritual only if Hallmark stores are churches, only if costume jewelry is sacramental, only if Della Reese (“Touched By an Angel”) is an ordained minister of the gospel. (In fact she does pastor a church – in Los Angeles, where else? – called the Universal Foundation for Better Living, a non-Christian Unity or New Age sort of church whose pope is someone called The Reverend Doctor Johnnie Colemon.) So she and Rev. Dr. Johnnie are ministers, but not of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But angels did populate the Christian culture for a season. Now they largely populate storage closets and the backs of dresser drawers, along with posters of elves and fairies, garden gnomes, and WWJD bracelets. Odd, no?

I do believe in angels – I mean I believe they exist – just as I believe it is useful to ask myself “What Would Jesus Do?” in daily situations. I am fairly certain He would not have worn angel pins, but that is not my point. These things are not evil, and I might yet seek forgiveness for being spiritually flippant. BUT.

I am quite serious when I regard anything that takes our eyes off the gospel message of salvation can be the essence of sin: missing the mark. Yes, I believe that angels exist, but not the angels of popular culture. The Bible describes them, and that’s enough for me. But we need to understand certain things:

1. There are actually many things we DON’T understand about angels, and cannot understand, because the Bible often is intentionally vague;

2. Their role, as described in the Bible, principally is as messengers and “ministering spirits”;

3. They are not humans in heavenly bodies; they are separate creations; they can appear sometimes as humans (my family had such an encounter), but are spirits;

4. Except for the seraphim, only occasionally are they described as having wings;

5. All angels are not good: Satan attracted one-third of them in his rebellion;

6. They are not omniscient nor can they be omnipresent… or they would be as God;

7. In their perhaps uncountable numbers, they are not anonymous – Michael and Gabriel are two who have central roles in the heavenly realms, and will play mighty parts when prophecies are fulfilled – cherubim, seraphim and others are ministering spirits to us, and comprise worshipful choruses before the throne.

So. No offense to my own guardian angel, if I have one, but I am suspicious of Christianity that lives in jewelry and not necessarily in our hearts. Or expressions that serve as statements of our faith, when our very lives, instead, should show our love – faith in action.

Ultimately, there is, I think, one important thing to remember about angels. And this will prove I am not a spiritual abuser of these mysterious creatures, far from it. Angels, created by God before mankind was created, and not glorified souls of humans, have never known what you and I have experienced.

Never sick? Never feeling loss or betrayal or pain or grief? Never sinning? How can that be a negative? I feel sorry for them precisely for those reasons. No angel knows the shackles of sin, broken by the power of salvation. No angel knows the joy of forgiveness. No angel has experienced bondage and blood-bought redemption. We are more precious in God’s sight even than angels, more than all creation.

All angels can sing “Jesus loves me, this I know.” None can sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

Jesus came to die for human beings, every one of us who will accept His sacrifice. Sorry, angels, He didn’t die for you. Yet the Bible tells me so, that you will be ministering to us, just the same, as we enter Glory. As we gather around the Throne together, that’s when I really will feel the touch of angels’ wings.

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An old American hymn (ca. 1860) is the comforting “Angel Band,” written by Jefferson Hascall with music by William Batchelder Bradbury. It originally was known by its incipit, “My latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run.” It has painted a true picture of the heavenly orders for generations of Christians.

Click: Angel Band

Endure.

9-15-14

I want to tell you about one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met. His name is Stan Cottrell. He is a runner. But to say that is sort of like saying Rembrandt could draw, or Shakespeare wrote stuff. Stan has run all his life, all over the world. He has run in dozens of countries; he has earned certificates and keys to dozens of cities around the world; he is in the Guinness Book of World Records; he has been welcomed by most of the world’s famous leaders of the past generation.

I didn’t know his name, but Stan has been on magazine covers, on many TV programs, and had his picture taken with presidents, prime ministers, and even dictators. His list of achievements and recognitions seem almost as long as, well, the Great Wall of China, which Stan has run atop many times.

But Stan Cottrell is not an Olympic runner. He seldom runs in the famous marathons. Stan has set records for time, especially long distance runs – very long distances, like across entire nations — but those races are not his forte.

He is an endurance runner. Not (necessarily) speed, not those kinds of records. Stan Cottrell runs because he has been gifted with musculature and body chemistry that enable him to run, run for long periods, and run for long distances. All his life he has run. He runs for causes. He will set a course intended to attract attention to causes. He runs across finish lines when nobody thinks he can do it… and he frequently has been met by hundreds or thousands of local children who join him for the last stretch, in a memorable finish to the race.

Stan has called many of his endurance races “Friendship Runs,” often raising awareness and funds for charities, most frequently of late for orphans and the welfare of endangered children. He currently is planning a World Friendship Run – to circle the globe. Not to run non-stop – there are those pesky oceans! – but to step his fleet feet in every country on earth; running courses in conjunction with local people; always to benefit orphans who are in need in every land; and to be joined by children at each finish line.

These goals are remarkable, and logistically daunting, in themselves, but the added astonishment is the fact that Stan Cottrell is 71 years old. Ready, set… he WILL go.

Stan’s example is reminding me of the difference, the vast difference, between speed racing and endurance racing. As with so much we encounter day by day, there is profound metaphor waiting at the finish line. Do you recall the famous Bible passage, from Hebrews 12: 1-3:

“Since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting Him, He endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility He endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up” [NLT].

Life is a race. So true as to be mundane – yet we do not always act like we realize the fact. Days turn into weeks; weeks turn into years; we plod along anyway, whether we walk or run. As to life’s challenges, how often are we conscious of that “great cloud of witnesses” of whom we are aware, or not; or who are unseen… but are cheering us on? When we encounter MORE than challenges – grief, tragedy, sorrow – then, I think, another aspect of this passage pertains to us.

Notice the number of times “endure” is used by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. “Let us run with endurance…”, “Because of the joy awaiting Him, He endured the cross…”, “Think of all the hostility He endured from sinful people…”

Ecclesiastes 9:11 had instructed: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle always to the strong…” Endurance is a quality that we should seek and cultivate. In races. In battles. In life.

The rubber (as per soles and souls) hits the road, then, according to our powers of endurance. Christ does not only want us to finish races – yes, He does – but to run with strength, purpose, and to good effect, as we are being watched. And encouraged. A sailboat regatta relies on the wind; airplanes, when they sought world mileage records, did it with fuel.

The wind under our sails, the fuel in our personal tanks, is endurance. It is a moral commitment as well as a physical attribute. And reaching the finish line seems less daunting, within view.

+ + +

There is a difference, sometimes fatal, between being headstrong and running with endurance. One of our time’s great songs about spiritual endurance is Andrae Crouch’s “Through It All.” Here it is, sung in a living room setting, by the angelic young Church Sisters.
Click: Through It All

We Need Backbones, Not Wishbones

9-8-14

History knows two kinds of war, generally: those that are declared, with precise commencements, formalities, and peace treaties; and those that begin from a host of various grievances or jealousies, have hazy – usually multiple – flash-points, and drag on, and on, spreading misery and atrocities over civilian populations no less than enemy forces. Both sorts of war can change the course of history to equal degrees.

The United States – the West; the Christian church – is engaged in the second form of these wars. We are not anticipating it. We are IN it. And we have been for some time. That the “enemy” can be defined in several ways does not diminish the fact that there is one war. And it is not new, although our dim-witted realization, as if awakening from a dream, might be new.

I am writing of Islam, of course. It is instructive, even vital, that we review how we got here. “Past is prologue,” Shakespeare wrote.

The hideous barbarism of ISIS / ISIL is the latest. We should call it the Islamic State, as its leaders do, although our own “leaders” believe that would reveal us to be politically incorrect if we call them either Muslims or terrorists. (They are merely “extremists,” you see). We can go back to 9-11; to the various Palestinian terror groups, modeling themselves, by the way, after the Zionist terror groups before 1948. We can go back and back in history.

The history of Islam, or the Mohammedans, as the West used to call them, is as rich in politics and warfare as it is in theology. After the death of Mohammed, probably in 632, Muslim factions started warring, partly as a byproduct of factionalism, but also to spread their religion’s overall influence, expanding in an imperialist mode. Throughout the Levant, to Asia Minor, to north Africa. And to Europe.

Through formal invasions and persistent incursions, Muslims spread into Europe. It was a time after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Civic, military, and social systems had deteriorated, and Islam tried to fill the vacuum. The remnants of the Visigoth Empire were supplanted in modern-day Spain. Pockets in southern France were overrun. Strongholds of the old Byzantine Empire were no longer strong, and Mohammedan armies pushed them back.

For a millennium the Arabs and Islam continued squabbling over men’s minds and men’s land, while over the time also mastering various cultural advances in mathematics, science, poetry, astronomy, medicine, and art. But the doors of Europe and Christianity, whether to knock or kick down, were seldom far from the expansionists’ minds, either.

Around 700 and for roughly a half-century, a fierce battle over the survival and character of Christian Europe was fought on the Iberian peninsula and in southern France. The romanticized legend known as The Song of Roland, a landmark in Western literature, nevertheless tells the facts that Charles Martel, his son Pepin le Bref, and his son Charlemagne, combined through persistent bravery and bloody sacrifice to defend Western civilization.

Not only was militant Islam turned away from Europe, but Charlemagne, in present-day German lands, reestablished the Holy Roman Empire. Yet the inexorable “soft” invasions continued. After a siege on Constantinople roughly contemporaneous with the Battle of Saragossa in Spain, the Bulgarian Emperor Khan Tervel turned back vicious Moslem fighters and earned the title “Savior of Europe.”

Around 900, Moslems attacked the Italian peninsula. Rome was sacked, and an emirate was established in Sicily. Three centuries later a resurgent Mongol empire swept across Eurasia, defeating Moslem strongholds in their path, most notably as far south as in the Battle of Baghdad, 1258… but then its leaders, following the mighty Timur, converted to Islam. The effect was a victory for the consolidation and spread of a militant Islam, from Egypt through Syria to India.

Thereafter, the Islamic Ottoman Empire invaded Western Europe and colonized Greece, all of the Balkans, Romania, Bessarabia, and Hungary, and was stopped only at the outskirts of Vienna. In 1683 a brutal force of militant Islamic soldiers besieged Vienna, which literally, geographically, was a gateway to Europe. Only the fierce rescue by brave Polish, Austrian, and German Hapsburg troops led by the Polish king Jan Sobieski turned back the Muslim invaders.

The Ottoman Empire remained a diminished irritant to European Christianity, and was dispatched after World War I after it chose the wrong side – the defeated Central Powers – and was dismembered. Greece became independent, the British typically gained territories-by-peace-treaties, and Turkey became a constitutionally secular country in 1923.

With that – and buying off Islamic leaders with protected artificial statehoods (Iraq, Iran, Trans-Jordan, etc), trade favors, and other emoluments after both world wars – Western Europe thought that radical Islam was a thing of the past.

But as recent events have shown (including a quiet resurgence of a radically Islamic Turkey), the last century was just a breathing-period. The incessant 1500-year war of Islam against Christianity continues.

I do not apologize to readers for this brief history lesson. As George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Shame on Americans for being generally ignorant about such vital matters. I will go further and wager that most Americans could not fill in the names of many Middle East countries on a blank map of the region. Nor assign the Sunni or Shi’ite loyalties of the players in the current crises, much less Alawite or Ba’athist roles in the conflicts.

(Neither can most Americans identify the role of British and American manipulation of events since the end of World War I, prompted by trade and oil and geopolitical interest, including doing others’ bidding; and usually bungled. But that is another essay.)

The fact – the hard fact – remains: we are engaged in a religious war. And that is very bad news, because America is hardly a religious nation any more.

We are, therefore, losing before we realize we are being attacked. Feeding our lack of conviction is the notion that to recognize Islam’s war on us is to be “unfair.” “Prejudiced.” The political and cultural leaders who feed these concepts are, simply, traitors to the nation, to our culture, and to our faith.

We should recognize them as traitors, and deal with them as traitors. And shame on the American public – traditional Christian patriots – for surrendering. Not just to notions of “Arab extremism” or “Islamic terror,” but surrendering to the traitors who soften or minds and wills.

The United States is a Christian nation, founded by Christians, dedicated to God by countless pilgrims and pioneers in the name of Christ. That does not means we hate or should exclude others, but it traditionally meant that we invited others to live at peace in a Christian nation. Christians like to say “Judeo-Christian” often so they will not be accused of wanting another “Holocaust,” but our values and traditions are Christian.

We are under attack. “We” are not only Americans – Islam does not care so much about our passports. It is not a question of their wanting more real estate.

Christianity is under attack. You can respond by softening your faith. By being “tolerant” of those who wish you dead and happy to help in the effort. Or you can join the historic ranks of forgotten heroes and martyrs like Charles Martel, Pepin le Bref, Charlemagne, Khan Tervel, and Jan Sobieski, willing to die if necessary for Western civilization and for Christianity.

The war, like it or not a real war, is being waged by Islam.

But the real enemy, admit it or not, is our own culture’s loss of faith.

We cannot pretend that — for the first time in history — this condition, a lost foundation of faith, will not be fatal to a culture. We cannot wish this away. We need backbones, not wishbones.

The first battle – or is it our last? – seems to be lost already. How many of us will enlist?

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We are not helpless or clueless if we choose to engage. We have the words of the Bible, and the example of Christ. There is the example of uncountable martyrs and warriors who loved the Word so much – who savored the sacrifices of those who have gone before; and who cherish the dream for the sake of their children – so we might be encouraged. For Christ’s sake, not just our own. An inspiring version of an old hymn of the church, and a rousing video message, by Michael Card.

Click: How Firm a Foundation

Good Grief

9-1-14

How many of us have attended church services where the pastor, or perhaps a WalMart-style greeter (some larger churches today have designated Hospitality Pastors) flashes the salesman-white smile and asks everybody how they “are”? Assisted by throat-microphone and ubiquitous large-screen image confronting the audience, the minister often follows with the robotic demands: “I can’t hear you! Good morning!! I want to see everybody smiling!!!”

It seems to have been forgotten by today’s commercialized and cookie-cutter churches that, sometimes, people go to a church to cry, not to laugh. To be reverent and contemplate, not to be jolly and high-five. To approach the altar-rail and be prostrate before the Lord, not to dance. It is a fact that many pastors will earmark a portion of every sermon for jokes, even trolling the internet for the designated yuks. Hellfire and brimstone have been replaced by face-painting and cotton candy.

As a confirmed class clown, I hasten to specify that I am not a sourpuss. Even in church. But it does bother me that the Joy that is our birthright as Christians – which once, in American Christianity, itself succeeded “hard preaching” and judgmentalism – has been replaced by fluff and counterfeit emotionalism.

Joy, indeed, is our unique blessing; not mere happiness, but spiritual joy. But that cannot mean that life’s other emotions are radioactive. Life’s negative aspects can, at the least, teach us lessons. And other elemental emotions – I nominate Grief in this discussion – are part of life, too. And as we cannot avoid grief, it is best to deal well with it.

Scripture tells us that Christ Himself was “a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). In part we can assume it was so Jesus could identify with us in every particular. But I believe it was also to show us that grief and sorrow are parts of life as common as inhaling and exhaling… and how He dealt with them.

I have recently dealt with sorrow and grief, but claim no special burden over others; whining does not become a Christian. But my ears have tuned in to ministrations of others as Christians deal with grief. Random eavesdropping:

“Me? I have two children here and one in Heaven.”

“Pop, don’t feel bad about not grieving heavily. You grieved for Mom while she was alive.”

“Oh! Mourn, honey; don’t hold back the tears. God’s comfort will be sweeter.”

And a new friend from the Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference, telling me of an unbelievable succession of recent accidents, diseases, and deaths among her family and friends, uttered the wisest words I have heard in many months:

“We must not let anybody steal our grief.”

Of course we are used to being warned against those who would steal our joy. But grief is neither foreign nor malignant. It can be healthy, if we let it. Certain emotions we must release: easily said. But more than that, grief can allow us to appreciate things more, even as we miss them; to love people better, even in their absence; to add to our lives… even when it seems like we have lost pieces of our lives.

To suppress grief, or deny the healthy process it requires of us, is really only to postpone it. I do not say we should invite it – surely it is more bitter than sweet when it visits – but, rather, we should befriend it. It is part of life, which by God’s plan in its totality, we must meet unafraid, without apologies, and with a bold, conquering spirit.

“We share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (I Corinthians 1:5).

The poet Longfellow put his refusal to let anybody steal his grief in these words:

“Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul.”

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No offense to the feel-good style of today’s churches, but it has always been true that tears are a language God understands. He sees us when we laugh, but hears us when we cry. I believe our tears are prisms through which He sees into our souls… and we see Him better.

Click: Tears Are a Language God Understands

It’s Never Easy Letting Go

8-25-14

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

For parents there is no way properly to describe the mixed feelings of the mixed blessing. You will miss the daughter or son – for many of us, despite the contrary assurance of worldly logic, a crater suddenly exists in our everyday lives. But we are wired as parents to possess an indescribable joy in seeing our children take their next steps into the world. Spread their wings. It is RIGHT. It is what you have prepared your child for – even if not yourself, fully – these 18 years or so.

Being a parent was never easy. Right? Then how is it that the hardest part comes when they leave our homes?

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not sure science has ever analyzed tears. Maybe one of our budding students will win the Nobel Prize for such research. But there are tears of pain, of regret, of sorrow, of bitterness, of lost opportunities, of lost love and found love, and surely tears of joy. The tears that parents (and, I can remember back that far, children too) shed during these rites of passage are of a special composition. Distilled, they somehow confirm to us God’s loving “wheel” of life – “there is a season,” He tells us.

Whether a little scary, or seemingly sudden, or a guarantee of big changes in our lives… we must seize not only the day, but the seasons too.

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

Click: Letting Go

Return to Ork

8-18-14

The suicide of Robin Williams has had many people talking. The columns and airwaves, lunchrooms and sermons, are filled with the gamut of opinions and emotions. Sympathy, criticism, speculation, curiosity; “expert” judgments on whether suicide is the act of cowardice or aggression.

Christians have gotten into the act with stories of Robin Williams “accepting Christ” or talking about God in his final months, or during rehab. Maybe so, maybe so. I am not referring to any of my friends, of course, but I sort of wish some of these Christians would shut up. Whether Robin Williams accepted Jesus or not, was between the two of them, and not just as a matter of privacy.

We do not know what anyone does, really, in their spirits and in their last moments, sometimes even if we are at their bedsides. If they ask for prayer, if they confess Jesus then, or had done so years previously, that is a different matter. Why can’t we leave things to God in those sacred last moments; to the Holy Spirit, when crucible-conversions might take place?

If Paul was chief among sinners, I surely am chief among name-droppers, I will confess. So I can understand those who once buttonholed celebrities and now love to tell the stories. How often do those stories reveal more about the tellers of tales than the persons in question?

And, we must be careful about tales of presumed deathbed conversions that are related in order to be “an encouragement” to the rest of us. If Robin Williams, for instance, had drawn closer to God… did he find spiritual “fulfillment” in killing himself? That is a tenuous argument for the gospel’s efficacy (not that being born again is a magic wand, of course) to the world’s hurting and desperate souls.

I am trying neither to presume not condemn. But the omniscient spiritual post-mortems are not only foolish things, but dangerous. My friend David Barton (whoops), historian and expert on America’s spiritual foundations, recently was embarrassed when his publisher pulled his books from shelves and their catalog because of his overreaching claims about the Founders and Framers of the nation. I always thought his attitude – that virtually every Colonial was a born-again Christian – was patently false. (He is not the only Christian historian to make such claims.)

In fact many establishmentarians of that time, in and out of churches, were not the fervent Christ-followers of today. Some were Deists, but Unitarianism had not yet developed. Many thought Jesus the teacher and not the carpenter WAS God’s conception of an only-begotten Son. That is to say, good and obedient Christianity was of a slightly different template in those days. Evangelicalism was both more circumspect and more common in those different times. Believers of the “Dark Ages” might view today’s born-again Christians as whited sepulchers. Same Savior, different times, different modes.

As in Robin Williams’s case, the peace between the Founding Fathers and God (“Providence”) has been sealed and is none of our business, literally. (What IS important about the Framers, and missed by Barton et al., is that the Founding Fathers to a man respected the Bible as a blueprint, morally and civically, for the new nation. THERE is America’s biblical foundation.)

Our time would be better spent, whether we consider celebrities or neighbors, on their moments before death… not speculating on their afterlife. We can do something about the former; we are powerless regarding the latter.

To whatever extent you know someone, you can never rightfully say, “I never had the chance…” after they die. You can only say “I never took the chance.” We have opportunities. We can invest in a conversation with a Bible verse or word of encouragement. We can share a witness, draw a spiritual lesson from what the person says. You can end a conversation with a prayer. You can send brief e-mails with a verse or a prayer. You can check in at random moments, and if the Spirit encouraged you, say so. You can introduce them to Jesus, leading to conversion.

You might be resisted as that “religious nut.” You might be thought of as foolish. Pray for discernment, but you might risk offending them. You will be out of your “comfort zone.”

But every chance you take will make the world’s discussions of therapy and counseling and medicines a little less exclusive. Every word you share will be a little seed planted in a person’s soul. And if they are troubled, you plant in fertile ground. If Robin Williams had recalled one strong witness that however was never shared… well, I don’t know, and don’t presume to.

But we all can be better Christians one-on-one before certain events. The Bible IS the best therapy, counsel, and medicine. For those who find solitude, loneliness, and insecurity to be frightening and horrible things, recovery can start with the words of Psalm 32:7: “You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.”

I am one who knows the satisfaction of amusing friends, and the legitimate goal of making the world laugh, but the greatest ambition of us all must be to receive the simple but profound smile of acceptance from our loving God.

+ + +

I cannot be judgmental about any suicide. What drives people to that extreme is, almost automatically, incomprehensible to the rest of us. Robin Williams was depressed by career downturns, with all his successes? Maybe. He was disheartened by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease? Tell Michael J Fox; so I doubt that. There were “demons” we don’t know. Joni Eareckson Tada is someone who received more than a “normal” portion of life’s junk: quadriplegic from a swimming accident when young; the victim of cancer in later years; and many challenges in between. Yet she has been more than a conqueror, and an inspiration to millions. Among her gifts is a beautiful singing voice, heard here in her (almost) Oscar-winning song, “Alone Yet Not Alone.” A condition, a promise, that many despairing hearts should claim:

Click: Alone Yet Not Alone

Oil and Water

8-11-14

Old and new. Up or down. Happy or sad. Passive or aggressive. Fast or slow. Liberal or conservative. Hot or cold. Yin and yang. Life is a story of extremes, and our choices between them. Can’t everything, basically, be understood through such a view?

Black or white? Right or wrong? … Good and evil? Not all things that seem like opposites ends of the spectrum are even on the same spectrum. Even mother-daughter relationships can seem, or be, at times anyway, like oil and water. But the bonds are hard to break. And, they are not opposites, really.

Aristotle thought so, that there were the extremes of thesis and antithesis, and the truth, or best formula for living, lay in the center: the “Golden Mean.” His friend Plato disagreed, sensing that there were abstract principles of right, and justice, and truth; and that humans should strive toward that truth, ennobling themselves by the quest for truth, and the fidelity to certain standards. Even before Christ, Platonists recognized Abstract Truth. Aristotelians claimed Relative Truth. The early church fathers were neo-Platonists.

In a civic sense we can say that the Founding Fathers of the United States proclaimed the “pursuit of happiness” as a right. Later politicians elevated “happiness” alone as a right — bestowed by government, since government would define the meaning of happiness every so often, and re-calibrate the Happiness Meter for its citizens.

In the spiritual realm, in religion, the question (and answer!) about two extremes is essential to our existence, not just our happiness or moral equilibrium. Many otherwise serious people secretly subscribe to the cartoon portrayal of good and evil as two silly characters sitting on our shoulders: the cartoon angel, and the cartoon devil. Yes or no; do it or don’t; speak up or shut up.

Many people believe that the figures, silly as they are, represent God and Satan. Of course. Our consciences roil. Whom shall we let persuade us?
But in this life-view of good and evil, such a view is fatally flawed. The opposite of God is not the devil. Neither is Satan’s counterpart Jesus. The Bible tells us that Satan is a fallen angel. In the heavenly realms, Satan’s counterpart is St. Michael, the Archangel… about whom many Christians neither know nor care much, and do not have to, really.

God is above all. Before all, and pre-existent. God is all-powerful, not co-powerful. All-knowing, not a partaker of certain knowledge. Creator, not co-worker. Judge, not jury.

God, not partner.

There is no counterpart to God. The spirit of evil, the devil whom we know, is so far beneath God that if we only realized that true relationship, we could better understand that sin has no power over us. Jesus confirmed this by the Resurrection and Ascension, which should ever remind us of God’s pre-eminent position in the universe, and in our lives, whether we fully comprehend it or not.

The opposite of God is not the devil, but the ABSENCE of God. He is so all-present that the only way we can find an opposite extreme is to shut him out completely from our hearts. This we are free to try, and result is not a variety of things we call sin, but worse: a coldness, a total isolation, a frightening awareness of separation that is horrifying.

Attempted suicide victims, despairing of God, have spoken of that coldness. Listen, by the way, to many atheists, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, who, in spite of themselves, often argued against God as unfair or demanding or confusing. But NOT non-existent. Such positions place them somewhere on the road to belief, not non-belief. Hitchen’s famous book, after all, was called “God Is Not Good,” not “There Is No God, So Why Are We Even Talking?”

Fortified with such understanding — whose points are posited hundreds of times in hundreds of ways in the Bible — we can stand stronger when we face moral dilemmas and ethical challenges. Jesus reigns in our hearts, and that funny character with a tail and a red suit never really sat on our shoulder at all. And if Satan’s jewel crown (sung about in those terms in an old and profound gospel song) is on your head, you placed it there once when you thought false choices were real. Let God reach down and cast it away.

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Many singers have sung the amazing gospel song of the obscure past by the forgotten composer Edgar L. Eden. One was Bruce Springsteen, of all people, in a stirring version:

Click: Satan’s Jewel Crown

Who Cares?

8-4-14

“Caring” is a buzzword that has become – as most buzzwords do – overused, oversold… and underappreciated, to the point of emptiness. In our society, Caring is a word that covers a multitude of sins: bureaucratic assembly-lines; government overreach; the tyranny of a minority. All in the name of Caring.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with caring. Quite the opposite. But it is a word that must be coupled with something, or else it is a disembodied emotional phantom. Abstract.

It has entered the realm of “Politalk.” A few years ago, some politicians received memos suggesting they insert the words “Caring” and “Children” every so often in speeches. We listeners were supposed to start wagging our tails like Dr Pavolv’s dogs at the words. Enough of us did. “Do anything to me, but just tell me you care.”

The inherent problems are more than emptiness of meaning. The Caring meme charts a steady course from compassion to compulsion to coercion. Next, the Compassion Police come knocking at the doors of our conscience, serving writs of Guilt.

Lest I sound like Scrooge, think of what the vulgarization of Caring has come to mean in the 21st century. In the name of Caring and Compassion, we have allowed governments to co-opt the role of individuals, and individuals’ consciences. The point of the parable of the Good Samaritan was that an individual was moved, and acted alone – in fact, out of character and social expectations. Jesus Himself healed, and empowered His followers to heal… notice that He never empowered or commissioned the government of His day. In fact it was “render unto Caesar,” not “demand from Caesar…”

Through history, the great agencies of Caring, after individuals and family, were more than governments. The authorities in ancient Greece and Rome did build public baths. But it was the church, in a thousand ways, that delivered charity and succor. Also, it was guilds and businesses. The Fuggers, bankers and merchants of Augsburg in the Middle Ages, established almshouses for the poor. In 1858, individual donors enabled a doctor to open baths and health facilities for the poor in County Cork, Ireland. By 1860, around the engine works of the Great Western Railway in New Swindon, outside London, the directors built worker’s cottages, libraries, and hospitals; they provided health care and free medicine.

The point of this history lesson is that in recent years, governments have co-opted care-giving functions from individuals and associations. To cite “efficiency” is to worship a false god, because in the process, individuals are being robbed of the option to emotionally notice; denied the challenge to intellectually consider; discouraged from the initiative to assist. In fact, when governments collect taxes in order to be the agents of Care, people eventually will feel less obliged to do charitable work themselves.

St Augustine (in his Confessions) speculated that the meaning behind the reminder “the poor you will always have with you” is that God desires to set before us circumstances to which we will be inspired to act charitably. Our broken hearts touch His heart.

Through it all (or despite it all), Americans still contribute more money and more missionaries and social workers than do most other countries to most world needs. But the relentless socialization of charity has brought us to a realization – confirmed as we watch the nightly news these very days – that regimes that ruled in the name of managing peoples’ fates, are having their true natures revealed: corruption, theft, oppression.

We give our lives over to institutions that care… but they crumble. Leaders who care… but they get turned out. Officials who care… but they play the system against us. Politicians who care… but they lie. Programs that care… but they run out of resources. Meanwhile, all the time, Jesus has been standing at the door, knocking. When Jesus cares for us, it is not because He has compassion, but because He is the essence of compassion.

And when He cares about us, and cares for us, something happens. He offers healing, provision, and the peace that passes understanding. Those things are not in the fine-print of anything the world’s “compassion” can deliver.

We should not suspect the motives of the compassionate in our midst; not at all. But we always need to remember that without the godly component, the world might care about, but truly cannot care for, its people.

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Does Jesus Care?

A powerful, simple song was written a hundred years ago around this question – and this answer: Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you (I Peter 5:7). It is sung here a capella by the Isaacs – brother and sisters Ben, Becky, and Sonya. From the excellent beanscot Channel on YouTube. It will stay in your heart all week!

Click: Does Jesus Care?

Born-Again Miracles

7-28-14

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly….” (I Cor. 13: 11, NKJV) Although I came to belief in Christianity as inextricably related to Holy-Spirit Christianity as an adult, I can still put myself in this scenario.

But it has become evident to me that portions of the church have corrupted Biblical doctrines, or exaggerated them, even violated them. Can I put it this way? – some preachers, today, have actually made that glass darker, not clearer, for believers.

I have to come to see that God’s power is mightier than the misinterpreted promises shared by some preachers. His miracles are more profound than those recounted by television preachers. His mysteries are more intense AS mysteries, than theologies that explain God as a spiritual butler on hand when we have desires.

I am talking about healing, and abundance, as in the “prosperity gospel” we hear preached.

“By His stripes we are healed.” Some people preach that Christ’s suffering and death, by this verse, means that healing is ours, and we only have to claim it. That physical ailments, when not healed, indicate that our faith must be weak. Yet I have noticed that the most prominent “claim it” preachers wear glasses. Is this their choice – a fashion statement?

My wife had diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, celiac disease, amputated toes, a heart transplant, a kidney transplant, dialysis, and other health problems. Yet her faith was secure, and she was a mighty witness. She was miraculously healed of a cancerous thyroid, yet underwent a heart transplant despite prayers to be spared. She believed she received emotional and spiritual healing, and accepted God’s sovereignty. By Jesus’ stripes, not an evangelist’s, she was healed.

I believe that verse means that when we are healed, it is BECAUSE of Jesus’s “stripes,” that He ordains healing, guides the hands of doctors and nurses… and deserves the glory when healing does come. Spiritual priorities.

Likewise the verse “I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). That’s King James; other translations say “… Christ who strengthens me.” Words are important. “Claim it” preachers will say that God clearly gives us the power that Jesus had… to move mountains , for instance. Yet we do not see mountains moving. “Yes, but ALL things…”

First, we can sense metaphors more than hyperbole in this verse. Spiritual roadblocks, or spiritual mountains, we all have them. But my new understanding of that verse hinges on the emphasis of certain words. Can we not think that we possibly are being taught – return to the King James translation – that whatever we do, we should determine to do in, and through, Christ (to stay in God’s will); and that fact will strengthen us?

Yes, to answer my own question. I can touch on the prosperity gospel, and I remember how one preacher actually printed a chart – how much you would donate to his ministry, and (by the “hundredfold return” of Mark 10:31) how much money you could expect to receive, probably by miraculous surprises, in return. That, and “have life, and that more abundantly,” was answered by my wife with the realization that God can bless us in uncountable ways. If we define Him by cash we are sorry examples of Christ-followers.

Yes, God is a miracle-working God. Yes, we need miracles in our lives, often. But I would suggest that, even in our brokenness and desperation, we chase after miracles, and healing, and prosperity – even just subsistence – when we should be more passionate about chasing after and pleasing God, doing His will, and being obedient.

By the way, concerning miracles: I have seen some that people classify by that term, for instance a withered leg being made whole at a service. But, personally, the greatest miracle I have witnessed is the experience of my sinful life being forgiven, my heart turned from rebellion. I know what a miracle that was.

We will understand it all better farther on, but in the meantime the Holy Spirit can lead us, better than evangelists, in the ways of God: that is why He was sent, and why He dwells in our hearts.

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An ancient American hymn, a frontier hymn whose writer and composer are lost to history, is “It Is Better Farther On,” also known by its incipit, “As We Travel Through the Desert,” first appearing in a hymnal in 1877. (Not to be confused with the standard, “Farther Along.”) It speaks of the proper priorities of life’s journey, meeting our challenges, and trusting the Savior’s leading, as well as our destiny. “Oh my brother, are you weary Of the roughness of the way? Does your strength begin to fail you, And your vigor to decay? Jesus, Jesus will go with you, He will lead you to the throne, He who dyed His garments for you, And the winepress trod alone.” Here it is sung by the Zahasky Family, the Alaska String Band.

Click: Farther On

How God Keeps Us On Our Toes

7-21-14

Christians ought to concede one of the arguments of scoffers. The Bible CAN BE, and sometimes IS, ambiguous. Not on matters of essential doctrine, of course. There enough unambiguous words from Jesus and the Apostles, for instance, about the way to Heaven, the path to Eternal Life: Believing in Jesus as the Son of God, and accepting His atoning sacrifice for our sins. Repentance will follow; as will confessing Him in your life.

The “ambiguous” parts come with issues that have railed or raged through the centuries, in discussions between friends, to the basis of wars between nations. Lack of biblical clarity has caused numerous councils to meet in deep debates, and has led to divisions, schisms, and uncountable splits and new denominations. And wars.

End times – when will the End of the Age come? And will the tribulation be at the beginning, middle, or end of the millennium? Is the Book of Revelation given to John literal or allegorical? Are the letters to seven churches contemporaneous or prophetical? Do they address periods of the future church’s dispensational practices? Did Jesus mean that His sharing of bread and wine was to foreordain consubstantiation or transubstantiation? Is the Body of Christ the New Israel? Can believers lose their salvation? Are the gifts of the Holy Spirit for today, or did they expire in the first century? Infant or “believer baptism”?

I believe these ambiguities of the Bible – the “confusing” parts about which, counter-intuitively, much dogmatism reigns – were purposely put there by God. Many men wrote the scriptures, inspired (literally , “breathed-in”) in every case; that is, not of their own thoughts, as coffers say, but God’s. Therefore, don’t you think that if some things might be interpreted this way or that, it is because God wants to keep His children on their toes, spiritually?

None of those “stumpers” affect our salvation, you’ll note. No, they are “side issues” to our belief in God, our acceptance of Jesus, and (or should be separate from) our service to fellow humans. For instance, “No one shall know the time or the hour” of the Second Coming. Nevertheless, Christians argue. Nevertheless, the question has nothing to do with our salvation. But the ambiguity leads to… keeping us on our spiritual toes.

One of the ambiguities has to do with prayer. The other side of ambiguity’s coin, so to speak, is “mystery.” God cannot contradict Himself, so when we are told things that seem inconsistent, we may be sure that our puny minds are at times insufficient, not that we have not caught God in an “Aha!” moment.

We have “Aha!” moments when we listen to God. We cannot catch God in an “Aha!” moment.

In my baby-Christian days I made myself a victim of what I misunderstood about God’s will, and I still fall prey, as do many believers. When conscious of my sins, or a specific transgression, I would pray. And pray. And seek God. And fall on my face before Him. Don’t we all do this, sometimes?

Yet we know that God answers prayer. “He rewards those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6), among many similar verses throughout scripture. Yet what does “diligently” mean, precisely? Among multitudes of examples are stories of mothers who prayed daily for years for the salvation of their children. Surely this cannot contradict scripture; we are taught in Matthew 21:22, “You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it (NLT).” Is it against God’s will to pray, and pray, and pray, for something? Does it mean we don’t trust Him to hear?

Sweet mysteries. We stay on our spiritual toes. We pray, we believe, and we seek Him.

However – back to when I was a baby-Christian – one trap into which believers should NEVER fall is this: once we have accepted Jesus, and He lives in our hearts, we must never pray prayers that approach God as “me, a lowly sinner.” Ashamed to lift our faces. How many Christians ruin their “walk” – cripple their faith – pollute their relationship with God – by adopting this attitude? MANY OF US!

Remember God throwing our sins into the Sea of Forgetfulness? This is similar. As God promises, and we cannot do, He both knows and forgets. But don’t you forget this: if Jesus is in your heart… then, when God sees you, He sees His Son. When He looks upon you, He doesn’t see the person who still fights sin and temptation. He sees that you are covered in the Blood Of the Lamb. Stand up, and claim that right standing with God.

The “defeated one,” Satan, also sees the Jesus in your heart, and cannot attack you unless you give him quarter.

Christians are too modest, or least about the wrong things, too often. Jesus lives in you! No matter what your transgressions or burdens, or how you are attacked… how can you keep from singing?

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How can we keep from singing? This is the title of a classic American hymn, its author somewhat obscure, but music by Robert Lowry, and it first appeared in printed hymnals around 1868. Here, performed in a style undoubtedly different than then, is the late Eva Cassidy.

Click: How Can I Keep from Singing?

Dying for Jesus… or Living for Jesus

7-14-14

“Both life and death are part of the same Great Adventure,” Theodore Roosevelt said, through tears but with pride, after he received word that his son Quentin had been shot down and killed in a World War I dogfight. This is no less true, and what I believed TR meant, not just in our lives but in all particulars of the Christian walk.

Jesus Christ was God who chose to live among us; He died to take the punishment for our sins upon Himself, that we might live. We must die to self. We can be Born Again. The cycle of life and death, life and death – with, for God’s children in Christ, eternal life as the final state.

One of the super-logical confirmations of Jesus’s existence, who He was, and what He did – against those say the Gospel accounts are legends, or are ready to believe in “Passover Plots” – is the fact that all but one of the Disciples were murdered for their faith. Believers were scattered after the Resurrection. Rome harassed Christians. Jewish leaders stoned them. The Disciples could have kept quiet, or been secretive. If they had a sliver of a suspicion that Jesus was a fraud, or that their faith was in vain… would they have endured prison, rejection, exile, torture, humiliation, poverty, stoning, and cruel martyrdom?

No. They chose death. Yes, in order to live eternally, but also because they witnessed to the truth.

“Here I stand,” said Martin Luther, threatened with excommunication and death if he did not recant his faith; “I can do no other.”

Early believers in Rome were persecuted by Nero. Murdered Christians were immolated, impaled on stakes, and set afire, lighting streets where citizens, including Christ-followers having to face choices, walked. Christians persisted. And died. Followed by others who persisted.

Stephen, an early follower in Jerusalem, refused to renounce his faith, and was stoned to death; his last words were asking God to forgive his tormenters. The future evangelist, Paul, was in that crowd. Death ironically (to us) led to life.

The story of the church’s first three centuries is the story of uncountable martyrs. The slaughter of Christians in pagan Gaul made Rome’s horrors seem tame, according to the histories of Eusebius.

The cruel sanctions, torture, and murders of reformers in Europe – so many, that their names are now dim to Christians, from Jan Hus in Prague onward for centuries – are mighty testimonies to those who were willing to die for Christ.

The Twentieth Century, withal, contained more martyrdom than the combined deaths in all previous centuries combined. Specifically: those who were persecuted AS CHRISTIANS, for BEING CHRISTIANS, for refusing to refute THEIR FAITH, who paid the price for CONFESSING CHRIST. For choosing – even when given an “out” – to die for Christ.

We remember the stories of students, in the 1999 Columbine massacre, being asked if they believed in God, answering yes or continuing to pray, before being killed.

If you have eyes to read, you know that it is now daily news, not a random story once a decade from some unknown place, not even merely once a month any more, but daily news of Christians around the world being persecuted or killed for their faith. Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani Minister for Minority Affairs. Asia Bibi, in a Pakistani jail for refusing to convert to Islam. Wenxi Li, owner of a Christian book store in China. Meriam Yahia Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death for apostasy, for confessing Christ. Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor jailed in Iran for refusing to convert to Islam.

China. India. Pakistan. Burma. North Korea. Iraq today, where Christians, once relatively comfortable even under Saddam, have been slaughtered or exiled; and are now as a church practically an extinct species in the “country the U.S. saved.” Syria, where there had been co-existence with the Allawites, a similar situation – some of the oldest Christian communities, being slaughtered by the ISIL Sunni hordes. Egypt, where, similarly, churches founded a generation after Jesus are, today, being razed and their believers killed. Nigeria, where hundreds of girls have been kidnapped, for being vulnerable girls, but also as hated Christians. Somalia. Afghanistan. Indonesia. Columbia.

Christians are suffering horribly. Christians are dying. People are willing to die for Christ.

And then we might think about attacks on the church, restrictions on believers, prejudice against Christianity, in… the “West.” In Western Europe. In Canada. In the U.S. In our states. In our courts. In our schools. In our theaters and TV shows; in our “entertainment” and in magazines. In politics. In our towns. In our homes. Horribly, sometimes in our denominations and “churches.”

Yes, it must be a glorious burden but a hard, hard thing to die for Jesus.

But is the church in the West, as we react or don’t react, telling the world that it is, somehow, a harder thing to LIVE for Jesus? Think on this. God forbid.

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Click: I Have Decided to Follow Jesus

Serving Different Holy Gods

7-7-14

How many of us serve two gods? Even believers, not excepting born-again Christians, are not immune from the biblical injunction against serving God and Mammon. But this will not be a message about greed, avarice, and covetousness. In Western cultures we are more gaudily materialistic than in poorer societies – but the sin of serving false gods is not a matter of uncommon opportunities before us, but our common and rather dark, unfaithful hearts, the sin nature we all share and must resist.

Today, though, I invite us to think about two Gods that devout Christians unfortunately serve. That is to say, two natures – in our perception – of the same God. Not the “vengeful” Old Testament God vs the “loving” New Testament God. Not the manifestations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But the God we know imperfectly, despite His desire that we know Him; despite His plans for us to know Him better. Worst: the God we divide in two – approaching Him one way, in one attitude of prayer; and another God of another nature (in our minds), approaching Him in contrary fashion.

Just in case this starts sounding preachy: none of us are immune to this tendency, least of all, among humanity’s members, me. So you are eavesdropping on my confession.

We all turn to the Lord in bad times, hard times, difficult times, confusing times. Disaster, sickness, crisis – it makes no difference. And we quickly note that there is nothing wrong with this! Scripture fairly drips with the overarching message that God wants to hear from His children. If you are a parent, don’t you want to hear from your children – even more so if they are undergoing trial or, simply, that they NEED you? Even if we approach God in humiliation and shame, remember that “a broken and a contrite heart God will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).

Possibly less often do we approach God when things are going swell. Human nature again. “Praise God” and “Thank you, Jesus,” after we wash out the auto-phrases, likely are lifted heavenward less often than they should be by most of us. And probably less often that those other requests and spiritual shopping lists.

I suggest that the problem – perhaps I should say the solution – is not so much that we lack constancy. I think the matter at hand is that we tend to divide God. Not literally, because He is unified, the One True God; but if we treat Him far differently at different times, we are, in the process, denying His divinity in our own lives. Insulting Him. Cheating ourselves.

The point is, despite what we know in our heads, our hearts – the exercises of our faith – too often see separate Gods whom we access. Bad.

We should pray confidently and in full faith, that is, in the same manner, whether things are “bad” or “good.” Take note of the quotation marks, because our definitions might not be God’s! Give everything to the Lord! When things are “bad,” offer the sacrifices of praise. When things are “good,” still petition Him for mercy and forgiveness.

A great poetic version of this truth is found in the lyrics of the gospel song “God Of the Mountain” written by Tracy Darrt.

“Life is easy when you’re up on the mountain, And you’ve got peace of mind like you’ve never known. But then things change and you’re down in the valley. Don’t lose faith, for you’re never alone.

“You talk of faith when you’re up on the mountain. But the talk comes easy when life’s at its best. But it’s down in the valley of trials and temptation – That’s when faith is really put to the test.

“For the God on the mountain is still God in the valley.
When things go wrong, He’ll make it right.
And the God of the good times is still God in the bad times.
The God of the day is still God in the night.”

The operative words remind us that the God ON the mountain is still God IN the valley. He cares for us the same way; we should approach Him the same way, no matter the circumstances. The God OF the good times is still God IN the bad times.

The God OF the day is still God IN the night.

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A powerful performance of this gospel is a click away. It is associated with many people (Tracy Darrt’s own family band; the McKameys; others) but no one more than Lynda Randle. She is the great contralto gospel singer, the sister of Michael Tait of the DCTalk and the Newsboys. This is a video recorded at a church concert of the Isaacs, the (mostly) Bluegrass group comprised of mother Lilly, daughters Sonya and Becky, and son Ben. You want impromptu? In this concert, they spotted Lynda in their audience, invited her onstage, prodded her to sing; they discussed keys and ranges; they backed her up on a song not in their repertoire – and we have a memorable moment of spiritual music, delivered from the heart to our hearts.

Click: God On the Mountain

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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