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The New Puritanism

11-13-17

Curioser and curioser.

Usually I cite the Bible here; often Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln. Today it is Alice’s turn, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And I am well aware that there are few new things under the sun, yet things surprise us every week.

The revelations of sexual advances and disgusting behavior are new… yet their existence surely is not. Few people are, or should be, shocked that Hollywood producers and powerful executives, politicians, and bosses have acted this way. In fact it is almost a cliché – one could say a stale stereotype from am unimaginative movie script – that women have had to deal with disgusting suggestions, “casting couches,” and threats of blackballed careers. An afternoon’s work for Harvey Weinstein, by reports at least.

We all knew it, not only the women under pressure. Men occasionally felt bizarre pressures, too – not always sexual, but of the “dirty little secret” varieties, for instance the soft pressure of racial bias and class preference. Homosexuals have been pressured negatively and sometimes favored, as have people of political persuasions.

Racial and sexual injustice are at the forefront these days, and the major surprise to me is that people are acting surprised. For years it was common talk – not whispers – that directors like Alfred Hitchcock were perverts who demanded favors; in politics, Bill Clinton; in sports, Jerry Sandusky… and so on.

I have been on the periphery of some of the players in the Clinton scandals. Kathleen Willey (attacked by Bill in the White House the same day her husband committed suicide) bears emotional scars. I know Lucianne Goldberg, who convinced Linda Tripp to convince Monica Lewinsky to record Pres. Clinton’s phone messages and to keep the infamous blue dress. And 21 years ago I interviewed Gennifer Flowers, who related that Bill Clinton, in pillow talk when she was his mistress, laughed about Hillary having more girl friends than he did.

Seemingly overnight, the “establishments” of Hollywood and the media regard it all as taboo, even when charges are unsubstantiated (as are, at this writing., the accusations against a US Senate candidate). The anomaly is that people are suddenly opposed to sexual predation, not that they are surprised by it. Yesterday an accepted joke, today an offense, tomorrow anathema.

If we sniff a bit of inconsistency, I do not demand that society be consistent! Sometimes we awaken to harmful things, to bad behavior, to sin. The unfortunate pattern in social mores is that what offends people one bright day… they are often inured to in days subsequent. God forbid it will be that way with sexual predators and gross insensitively of the kinds in recent headlines.

The human race has changed its attitude toward slavery, for instance – except when it hasn’t. The public attitudes might be different, but the practice around the world is still with us.

The human race has changed its attitude toward wanton slaughter of animals – except human animals. War, oppression, trafficking, ethnic cleansing, euthanasia, and abortion are rampant.

The human race has changed its attitude toward freedom of expression – largely when threatened by governments; but seemingly comfortable when “soft” censorship exists by Big Media, news monopolies, internet moguls, and dictators of Political Correctness.

I can quote Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Law of Compensation – things get better here, and worse there. Healthier in some ways; toxic in others. Maybe that is how life works.

Let us not be cynical, however. We should pray that what recent societies called Puritanical attitudes – courtesy between the sexes; probity; common respect – might not be fads but a moral palliative, a New Normal.

And while we are praying… if the grosser aspects of the Sexual Revolution might become extinct, if predators might become an endangered species, is it too much to add items to our prayer lists?

Human trafficking? The drug culture? Persecution of Christians and minorities? Child abuse, spousal abuse? Divorce?

Readers of the future will look back on this essay and know, as we cannot, whether the New Puritanism, at least as it concerns Hollywood and Celebrity sexual predators, is a tool for the self-righteous to attack others, or is the beginning of a return to civility and respect, manners and solid social standards. As Emerson might observe, while we conquer physical diseases, we are infected by moral blight. Epidemics.

Writers like H L Mencken and Ralph Barton Perry almost a century ago decried the Puritan strain in the American culture, but such manifestations as Prohibition were purged. There were no crippling effects on the onward march of society. When corrections need correction, they are corrected. When things needing correction are ignored or enjoy benign neglect – enabled, really – they fester. And we die.

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The question, ultimately, is a personal question, because we are the building-blocks of society. And it concerns our hearts, not our political affiliations or backgrounds or economic status. Bennie Tripplett of the Church of God wrote a gospel song made famous by the Blackwood Brothers:

Click: How About Your Heart

We Are All Vets. Some Have Not Served Yet.

11-6-17

George Santayana famously said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. A cartoon-meme popping up on the web these days has an old guy reflecting that those who DO know history are doomed to watch other people repeat the mistakes.

That IS a danger. Rather, it is a reality. We see it around us, every day.

Without delving into whether this is unprecedented or one of history’s tragic cycles is open to question, but ultimately the question is silly – in the face of reality. In this world, today, it surely seems that a large portion of humankind has gone mad. We have rejected in many ways the concept of Absolute Truth, the possibility of its existence, and the benefits of seeking to know it. History’s masses, let us say in the West, often suffered as a lot in life. However they usually believed in improvement; in advancement; in better things and better days. They believed in themselves, in leaders they respected… in God.

The world, in turning inward instead of outward, living for today without regard to an afterlife, abandoning standards that nurtured their ancestors, of course will reflect disharmony and chaos. Art imitates life, after all (what Plato called “Mimesis”). This should worry us very, very much about the state of things ‘round about us. This world is not one politician or one new fad or one hangover away from righting ourselves. We fool ourselves when we think so. And meanwhile we are diverted by bread-and-circus movies and sports and TV shows and celebrity orgies…

Never since the Flood has humankind, over the face of the earth and not in isolated pockets, rejected Truth and Purity in such determined ways.

So, we fight. We fight as individuals, we fight as nations – or, we give in as individuals and as nations. This truth reflects a crisis of the age, and the great challenge of our time. It has always been our portion to fight – “Life is real; life is earnest,” Longfellow wrote:

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, Is our destined end or way; But to act, that each tomorrow Find us farther than today.

In the world’s broad field of battle, In the bivouac of Life, Be not like dumb, driven cattle! Be a hero in the strife!

Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time.

About these fights as individuals and as nations, Theodore Roosevelt reminded us that it is beyond our choosing to participate in our fate. Our only choice is whether we play our parts “well or ill.”

For more than a generation America has had a volunteer military. I cannot imagine American society, our country’s youth, ever returning to a military draft. To have to interrupt (or fulfill) your life’s path by having to serve in one of the military branches? Frankly, I wonder even if America were attacked whether the spirit of service and sacrifice, across the population, would exist again as in the past. I wonder, further, that even if there were universal social-work service for one, two, or four years whether American youth would comply.

We have compartmentalized military service. In an intellectual manner we have come to treat the military as slaves. We “thank them for their service,” yet keep our hands clean of their work; the sacrifices; the threats; the separation, injuries, deaths; the stress and trauma. At the same time, sadly, we also separate ourselves from the glory of service, the thrill of victories and fights well fought, and the pride of wearing those uniforms.

That is a tragedy. Unfair to the servicemen and women; robbing the rest of the population of necessary components of healthy souls.

In these days of “advanced warfare techniques” (a sanitized term for more efficient means of maiming and killing) it is almost beyond comprehension how men and women enlist – and often re-enlist, and volunteer for repeated tours – knowingly assuming the collateral “oncoming” of separated families, variable support from the System, oftentime insufficient medical and psychological care as veterans.

We cannot admire these servants enough. Even if we dissent from foreign policies, overseas involvements, controversial missions and nation-building… we must stand in awe and gratitude to the people who serve.

And. For those of us “at home,” we cannot forget that we serve too. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines do our bidding in faraway places. Which makes it easier to be seduced by the feeling that all our battles are being waged by others. But we, all of us, have battles too, every day.

We must fight for our souls, against evil. We fight for our families, against all manners of threats. We fight for our culture, against corruption. We fight for our civilization, against enemies seen and unseen. We fight for our God, against the devil and all his ways, and for the Kingdom that is to come.

Or… we should.

If we don’t fight these battles, we surely will be subsumed.

On Veterans’ Day let us honor those who have served… and let us re-enlist, the rest of us, for the battles of life. Sooner or later, we too will be counted as veterans of those good fights.

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Click: Gone Home

The Priesthood Of All Believers

10-30-17

I recently have been thinking, and writing about, the Protestant Reformation, whose anniversary is October 31 – the 500th anniversary, and traditionally observed on All Saint’s Day, when Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses (arguments, theological complaints, debating points) to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Regular readers here might be tired of these reflections, but on the other hand, “hits” and “shares” and comments have increased, to use internet indications of response. Speaking personally, I think that, as with other spiritual topics, it is good for us continually to contemplate certain things.

So: back to Luther on this birthday party of sorts. Readers will know that I revere Brother Martin as a biblical scholar whose dedication opened his mind to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. That his clarity of thought was what the church, and Western civilization, needed at that moment in history. That his personal bravery was a thing to admire, and is an example to beleaguered believers in our day.

And that we need to compile, and dedicate ourselves to engaging, 95 theses – at least – today.

But I will finally address the significance of Martin Luther and the Reformation from a different perspective. Yes, he sparked a spiritual purgative, even a catharsis, in the Church that he never intended to split. I want to consider the secular aspect of Martin Luther.

Lost in the ecclesiastic disputes is the fact that Martin Luther was a transformative figure in Western Civilization. Apart from theology. Let us appreciate his contributions to culture, and where we might be, or might not be, today without him.

He stood for the individual against the state – the Establishment of the day.

He elevated the role of Conscience and personal responsibility.

He advocated turning the Church’s role in every life and institutions to the opposite – bringing Christian sensibilities and priorities into civic life.

He democratized worship: under Luther, services were held in the local languages; singing was permitted by members of the congregation; women became participants in services.

He translated the Bible into German, and encouraged other translations into other languages. Of “the people.”

He championed the “priesthood of all believers” based on the Bible (I Peter 2: 5-9 and other passages) – the assertion that believers do not need intercessors to approach God; not fathers or nuns or pastors or even saints or Marys.

Also citing the Bible itself, he led to the disposal of man-made additions to scripture like Purgatory. Contending with the Book of James, but citing the Letter to the Ephesians, he recalculated the Catholics’ reliant view of works in God’s (ultimate) judgment unto salvation… and saw that by grace, through faith, we are justified; and that, instead, good works flow from a pious heart.

He held that Salvation was not mere “fire insurance” (i.e., avoidance of hell) but a thing much to be desired, and that Christians can have the assurance now, not dependent on prayers of survivors, their offerings, candles, beads, or lists of good deeds.

He encouraged literacy, was responsible for home libraries throughout Germany, which spread the concept of schooling and the education of women.

The German princes who hid Luther from persecution and death were emboldened to assert their independence from Rome and the political arms of the Holy Roman Empire. The “Germ theory” (no pun) of political liberty such as led to the American constitution, fostered in the forests of Germany, was godfathered by Luther.

He challenged other extra-biblical traditions of the Roman church. Priests marrying – after his excommunication, he married and had children. Mariology – he denied the divinity of Mary, arguing that the temporal mother of Jesus was not the Mother God, and pointed to scriptural accounts that an incarnate Deity in the person of Mary would not have done.

He was not perfect, and Luther immediately and violently silently stopped any such talk, even that he was a Prophet. He was an imperfect man but for the shed blood of Christ. He sometimes was intemperate; he had a bawdy sense of humor; he was prejudiced against Jews of his day; he drank and argued more than, perhaps, he should have.

And he was not a revolutionary, by design anyway. He was forced to rebuke his followers for excesses against Catholic churches and clergy. (In his wake was Rome’s Counter-Reformation… spawning what history knows as the Counter-Counter-Reformation.) In his aftermath was the Concordat, which made peace between German princes of Catholic, Lutheran, Pietist, and eventually Calvinist communities. Yet religious differences contributed to wars like the Thirty Years War in the 1600s that left one-third of the German population dead. Luther would have deplored such things.

Yet even the deplorable conflicts sorted things out throughout Germany and the remnants of the old Holy Roman Empire. Independence, literacy, increased liberty, and a stable middle class all followed. As part of universal education, musical instruction was promoted in and outside the church. Johann Sebastian Bach, although his birth was 200 years after Luther’s (and in the small town where Luther had hidden from assassins) was a virtual disciple. It is he and not Luther whom history has called “The Fifth Evangelist” – but Bach was a firm and learned Lutheran.

Christians, even adherents of the Roman Church, therefore still have much to learn from Martin Luther’s theses, his debating-points. But citizens of Western Civilization, indeed the world, are also indebted to the teachings, the boldness, the influence of this priest from the small German town. He was no special priest, he would tell you; but however no less a priest than the Pope himself in God’s eyes.

All that was left, in his teachings and the examples of his life is… that what he did was not in vain. That we, today, exercise the fidelity to scripture, a mature understanding of grace and faith, and the boldness to stand, as he did – a humble servant who declared his conscience “captive to the Word of God.”

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Today’s clip is not a music video but a full-length movie. The magnificent 1953, award-winning (and two-Oscars nominated) “Martin Luther.”

Click: Martin Luther

Let Goods and Kindred Go

10-23-17

America, 2017. When our story is written we will note the bizarre nature of our national discourse at this frozen moment in time. Serious and silly. Aggressive and passive. New values and no values. Decadence versus… degeneracy.

The Wasteland of the Free?

What I have called Soft Anarchy accelerates. I do not assess based on an overheated stock market, but by spiritual, moral, social markers. Let us look at events clogging the news headlines. Harvey Weinstein and the tsunami of rumors, revelations, and regrets – America’s new Three Rs. The death and accolades surrounding Hugh Hefner. The continuous confirmation that Bill O’Reilly is a sleazy boor.

Two latecomers to the anti-Weinstein party have caught my eye. Scott Rosenberg, whom I once knew peripherally in the comics business, has come come out in sackcloth and ashes, confessing that he was well aware of Weinstein’s loathsome habits for years.

Almost 25 years ago, I had a Yugoslav friend who wanted to establish a publishing beachhead in America, and recruited me as a partner. The venture would have been called Spring Comics, and for various reasons including my disinclination to be a pawn instead of a partner, I faded from the enterprise. He hooked up with Scott Rosenberg. Soon afterward, he wanted to sue a cartoonist acquaintance of mine whose idea (about cowboys and Indians vs invaders from outer space) clashed with his own similar idea. My Yugoslav friend wanted me to do all I could to support that claim, but I could not join the claim, based on my knowledge of the timelines of their concepts. My foreign friend – up to then, a better and older friend – bitterly dropped me like a nuclear potato. But he soon took Scott Rosenberg as a partner.

The two “went Hollywood,” produced a movie about cowboys and aliens; and TV series; and books, if I remember. Then – gee, what a surprise – they had a falling out: attorneys, lawsuits and counter-suits. Did they deserve each other? I left those angels to dance on the heads of pins.

But last week Rosenberg went public with tales, and tears, about his eventual relationship with Weinstein. He knew (a phrase repeated again and again in his mea culpa: “I knew,” “I knew”), but the benefits of membership in the Friends of Harvey club had been too seductive for him.

The director Quentin Tarantino issued a similar confession, also recently – he knew, he knew (even that his girlfriend Mia Sorvino was sexually assaulted by Weinstein) and he did nothing. These men and others have cited all the familiar excuses designed to exonerate themselves. They knew, they whispered to others, they sublimated, they feel bad now. I have friends who admire Rosenberg’s newly minted “apology,” which is a repulsive farce: whether they are sorry for his inaction or their inaction (sorry that Weinstein got caught, that is) is immaterial.

None of the saints with dirty faces like Rosenberg and Tarantino in their “confessions” ever admit what they should have done: confront Weinstein himself. They would have lost work; been kicked off the gravy train? Likely so. But today’s hollow confessions condemn, not excuse, them.

The new “O’Reilly Factor” Talking Point should be How can anyone be surprised about Bill? Night after night the FNC host alternately leered at women and demeaned them. Calling male guests by their last names was merely rude; calling females by their last names was distasteful. The manner in which he treated Lis Wiehl on his TV panel and especially on his mercifully canceled radio show, where she was a sort of co-host, was a recurring nightmare of a predator on display. The $40-million “settlement” recently revealed says all we need to know.

The recently departed Hugh Hefner widely has been praised as a free-speech pioneer and – bizarrely – credited with raising the status of women in our time. I never met him, but have many mutual friends because Hefner first dreamed of being a cartoonist, and routinely attached vellum overlays to cartoon submissions with his little changes suggested in pencil. Ultimately, of course, he was not a cartoonist but a successful and gold-plated pornographer.

The objectification of (airbrushed) women – and, in ultimate irony in his magazine’s tribute issue, a “transgender” being – did not free women, or men, from voracious and predatory sexual perversion. It dignified and codified such things. Sexual Revolution indeed. And its curious prophet! Even as a young boy, naturally curious about such things as found in Playboy, I wondered about this obviously gay man posing amid mammaries and strangely dressed, or undressed, women-as-ornaments. He evidently thought that pipes, silk pajamas at three in the afternoon, and Admirals’ caps were… sexy? Manly? He established a sexual landfill, not a Sexual Revolution.

The ways of nations – even nation states, their boundaries, their thrones, even their treasures – come and go. It has always been thus. But our hearts and souls are eternal; our civilization, the children we bear, and their security, are things that must take priority in our daily lives. We are warned against the lifestyle of eating, drinking, and being merry.

My point is that the pig Weinstein, the bully O’Reilly, and the smut peddler Hefner, could NEVER have succeeded for a week if America were not receptive or envious of them; or willing, vicarious, partners. Not only customers, but junior Weinsteins and Hefners. America has been a fertile field just waiting to be planted with seeds of destruction. These things do not surprise us from behind and force attitude adjustments. If Playboy offended people, there never would have been an Issue 2. If the facts about Weinstein were stated and circulated early, decent people would have boycotted his movies before the next popcorn was popped.

The activities of Weinstein and O’Reilly, long condoned and ultimately encouraged or rewarded, were blatantly egotistical fingers thrust at the world, not individual women. When all is said and done, pathetic people like them have problems with pride more than sex. “Pride goeth before a fall…”

Shakespeare correctly observed, “The fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Jesus said (Matthew 7:13-14), “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

It is not difficult, really, to see the Right. For many it is a challenge to do the Right. It should be the opposite, but this is America, 2017.

Which returns us (did you expect otherwise?) to this month’s theme, Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Brother Martin saw the Right – fetid corruption at the highest levels of the Church. He knew what was right – to create the conditions for average believers to read the Word of God. He calculated the risk of Righteousness – a world-system that threatened him with excommunication, torture, and death for his convictions.

Instead of merely (merely?) standing tall in the face of the most powerful forces of his day, Martin Luther, 500 years ago, composed a checklist of complaints about the Church, the spirit of the times, and the world in which he found himself. Ninety-five “theses.”At first, his was a lonely voice.

How many Theses would you compose today? How many complaints about our contemporary world?

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This Sunday is the traditional observance of Reformation Day, commemorating Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the Church door at Wittenberg. Get thee to church where this is celebrated; or think anew, be rededicated, to Reformation.

Click: “Reformation” Symphony by Mendelssohn

It All Depends

10-16-17

You have heard the expression, “It all depends whose ox is gored,” or maybe you haven’t. It is the basis of a common-law precedent, and even a couple of Biblical references. Back when just about everybody had some beast of burden for a little farming or transport, or I suppose for eventual food, we kept oxen or cows or old horses.

If a horned ox injured another, or a person or property; or was injured somehow itself, the bedrock question of adjudication and responsibility – and an owner’s attitude – often boiled down to depending on whose ox was gored.

Outrage was relative; demands for justice were dependent on whether you were the aggrieved party – or owner – or, well, had no control over what a dumb beast did on its own…

The phrase in other words meant and means that our reactions often relate to how much we will suffer inconvenience or liability. Your ox? Get over it. My ox? I demand compensation!

The formal term for this attitude, most exercised in religion and philosophy, is “relativism.”

In broader terms today – taking it, as our culture does, to its logical extension – relativism is a moral disease that infects religion. The contemporary church, in many of its corners, defines Right and Wrong not by traditional biblical revelation, but by what is thought to be right and wrong in each situation – an ethical lapse also known as Pragmatism.

In the legal world, neither the 10 Commandments nor even English Common Law are called upon as they once were, by common consent. What seems right? What can be explained away? What is convenient? Who can say what’s “right” and “wrong”? These attitudes echo in our courtrooms.

When people reject standards and values, there are, by definitions, no standards by which they can live, or will be governed. It is what American society has slipped into: Soft Anarchy.

Relativism? Sex scandals in politics and the entertainment industry? The left howls when preachers and newsmen (for instance) are exposed; and the right drives the stories of political leaders and major entertainers committing atrocious acts.

Relativism? Political and financial corruption are decried by the right and left… selectively.

Relativism? The sanctity of life… attitudes toward war and military action… which Constitutional amendments or principles to champion or ignore… how God’s earth and Creation itself is to be respected… when protest is legitimate or crosses the line… all “depend on whose ox is gored.”

It is hard to remember that at once time the world – the West, the United States – had values and standards that nearly every person honored. If they did not believe them all, they were anyway observed in the breach. A priori ideas were first defined by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, but the idea of theoretical truths whose validity is independent of deduction or experiments, extended back in time past Kant, to Luther, to the Magna Carta, to Augustine, to the Gospels, to Plato, to the Old Testament – the Decalogue.

Once, despite all the other problems and challenges to humankind, societies operated on accepted truths, agreed-upon principles, “givens.” That is hardly the case in America, in the West, any more. Soft Anarchy. That we roll along, deluded that we advance, is more inertia than progress.

I mentioned Martin Luther, and have in recent essays, and will again until the 500th anniversary month of the Reformation has passed. His revolutionary life (I am ever more persuaded that he was a revolutionary, not simply a reformer) was more than the nexus of previous centuries’ growing contradictions and the world’s future vistas of faith, democracy, literacy, and liberty.

More? Yes – more, to us, than these possibly abstract principles. Luther’s imminent persecution and death; the challenges to his mind and his conscience; the affront to his relationship with Christ – the “free exercise thereof”; where have we heard that, since? – were on trial that fateful day 500 years ago.

He defended himself before the Holy Roman Emperor, to representatives of the Pope, to influential princes present in the court… and to us, 500 years in the future. Would he recant (deny) his writings? As legend tells us, he said:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted; and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

I cannot, and will not, recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.

Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me.

These words, properly, should thunder through centuries, down to us.

But how many Christians, say, think abortion is murder, but fail to do anything for fear of offending their neighbors? Or are outraged that the Bible has been taken from schoolrooms, instructions, and the courts, yet are too timid to act? Or are bothered when their churches stray from the Word of God, but label their own lack of response “not wanting to rock the boat”?

Our oxen are being gored every day, friends. What are we doing about it?

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Click: “I Can Do No Other”

God’s Truth Abideth Still, In the Face of Death

10-9-17

We observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, of Dr Luther nailing his 95 Theses (complaints to be debated) on the Church Castle door in Wittenberg, Germany.

What momentous forces collided in that sleepy burg! The Holy Roman Empire was shattering; Medievalism was ending; Humanism and the Renaissance were dawning; literacy was sprouting, and with it the seedlings of personal freedom; the arts fiercely bloomed; the Enlightenment was nigh; European land wars and incredible maritime exploration commenced – both of them fueled by nascent commercialism and appetites of a growing middle class; serfdom was yielding to feudalism… and in turn, soon, to democracy and republicanism.

In the death-throes of the Old Order, hoary courts and royals entrenched themselves by  committing atrocities of race, religion, and conscience. The Church of the humble Savior had grown opulent and gaudy: corrupt. To finance the construction and ornamentation of St Peter’s in Rome, schemes like the selling of indulgences – buying late relatives spots in a fictional rest-stop to heaven called Purgatory.

We have outlined this, and I have lost some subscribers, presumably because I mention 500-year-old theological disputes (which objections I do not dismiss strictly on the basis of the vintages). But let us look beyond theology!

Martin Luther was the prophet of a new age. He stood for the individual in the face of organized power. He stood for popular culture, if I may go there, because he reformed the church’s trappings – the Bible for everyone to read; German, not Latin, scriptures and liturgy; congregational singing; priests who could marry; and so forth. He stood for scripture; “Scripture alone,” he bellowed to councils and popes.

He stood.

That, to me, is a notable takeaway from the life of Martin Luther. He was a Reformer, but also a Revolutionary.

In America there is a controversy over people kneeling during the National Anthem. To me, ironies abound: On matters of conscience, Luther stood, he did not abjectly kneel. Viewed from another angle, the press and the liberal Establishment in America (not to mention the NFL) condemned Tim Tebow for kneeling instead of dancing silly after touchdowns. A short prayer to God. However, countless black players are praised for kneeling symbolically to criticize their country. Consistency, thy name is not America 2017.

Luther, standing, was extraordinarily brave. There is a letter in his hand, written the night before his trial, in the Museum of the Bible that is soon to open in Washington DC (I saw it in Steve Green’s traveling exhibition). In the letter Luther calmly assumes he will be put to death and instructs his friend how to dispose of his possessions. And he asserts, once again, his “stand” for truth and for his conscience as informed by the Holy Spirit.

The Individual had come of age in humankind’s history. In Luther’s mature view, he realized that he stood for a world of more, not fewer, responsibilities – something that is scarcely appreciated today.

The crisis of the age – and for many ages – was upon Luther’s shoulders. Ironically (as we may think in the 21st century) Luther fit no mold. He was a Medievalist, not a Modern, even in the dawning days of Modernity. He really did not want to break from the Catholic Church, much less have a denomination rise in his name; but merely desired to reform it. And as the Age of Reason approached, he proclaimed that Reason is the enemy of Faith.

Yes, this New Man, harbinger of a new era and individualism – he considered Reason the enemy of Faith. So he was not a simple contrarian – he had clear but complex standards, living by them; and was prepared to die for them.

Martin Luther would die for what was sacred to him. In 21st-century America we have become a society where nothing is sacred but pleasures of the moment. Life is disposable, increasingly so, at birth and at death. Drugs supply counterfeit tastes of heaven, and our cultural heritage widely is mocked. Our civic life has devolved to games of “gotchas” and revenge. Self-indulgence and materialism are the new religions.

To the remnant and faithful, crises await our contention. We no longer have to wait, surprised when a serious life-dilemma confronts us. But we are at one of those moments in history when crises are unavoidable… and likewise our engagement is unavoidable, every one of us.

I cry for our culture; I cry for what we have squandered of our religious heritage, Western civilization, and our intellectual patrimony.

And I cry, too – every time in my life, I think, when I sing the last verse of my favorite hymn: Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever!

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Click: The “Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Here I Stand

10-2-17

This month is the occasion for a grand remembrance. The last Sunday in October traditionally is observed by Protestants as Reformation Sunday, when, on All Saint’s Day, Father Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses – basically, theological complaints – to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Extra special is the fact that his act was in the year 1517, so the 500th anniversary is now observed. Half a millennium, roughly 25 per cent of the age of Christ’s Church on this earth. Even unchurched people know the basics of the revolution that commenced with those hammered nails – Luther’s nails ironically recalling the nails that Christ endured as He offered Himself a living sacrifice for us.

I wonder how the church will observe the “anniversary” of the Reformation. I have noticed that package-tour groups are available to cities in Germany and places associated with Luther’s life. More than that, I don’t know. I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Augsburg, Germany, in 1983, the place and 500th anniversary of his birth. In the Augsburg Cathedral I had reasonable expectations of a grand worship service, and a stirring rendition of his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

There was, however, a small service attended by mere dozens of worshipers, in a side chapel and a charming but very modest, ancient free-standing pump organ.

Martin Luther is honored only in the breach, as they say, in many of the lands where his spiritual revolution once seized the hearts of men. The reforms of the reform-ation are evanescent; or in dire need of revitalization. Brother Martin is, possibly, in 2017 more of a historical than a theological figure.

I have said that unchurched people know something of his life. That is, to be precise, only to the extent that anyone knows much or cares much about history these days. To paraphrase George Santayana, those who have not learned from history are already doomed. The young Luther, training to be a lawyer, decided after what he perceived to be a life-saving miracle to join the clergy, and became an Augustinian monk. God’s hand might have been in that choice, because there are clear philosophical and theological lines from Platonism to the early Church fathers to St Augustine to Luther.

As a faithful clergymen he made a pilgrimage to Rome, walking from Germany. At the Vatican he was repelled by corruption and open scandals. Even back in Germany, the Roman church was becoming an agency of money-hustling, famously among other acts selling “indulgences” that promised poverty-stricken givers that souls of dead relatives would be boosted closer to Heaven in proportion to their “donations.”

Other offenses Luther identified, such as non-Biblical cosmology, veneration of saints, and Mariology, also led to the 95 Theses. Local Catholic clergy, representatives of the Vatican, and the Pope himself were much displeased, especially as Luther’s critiques gained currency. Germany was a land of greater literacy and ecclesiastical freedom than other corners of Christendom. Rome, already making a practice of suppressing and executing other critics (Luther was not the first voice of protest) sanctioned Brother Martin; demanded that he recant his many writings (including, strangely, those that were quite orthodox); excommunicated him; and sought to imprison him.

Luther was certain that Rome intended to kill him for his ideas, as it had done with previous reformers like Jan Hus in Prague and John Wycliffe (posthumous excommunication of desecration of his remains) in England. But the rising spiritual sophistication of German princes coincided with their growing desire to be free of the Catholic Church’s political and military dominance.

Religion, culture, and politics coincided. So did another great factor: Literacy. The average German could read better, and with more depth, than other Europeans to whom words and ideas were anathema, as so decreed by Rome. Largely proscribed from reading their Bibles and having to sit through Latin church services, Christians outside the German states beheld Christianity as dear to their hearts but largely alien relative to their daily lives.

My Catholic friends will dispute my characterizations of the fervor of Catholics of the day, or of the spiritual hunger of Luther’s fellow Germans and Scandinavians, yet two counter-arguments stand: Luther’s foundation-stone, based on Ephesians 2: 8,9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, Not of works, lest any man should boast,” which confronted the authority of the Pope and efficacy of indulgences and putative good deeds. And… the empirical evidence, the speed at which the Reformation spread through Europe. And the world.

A lightning lesson. We will visit some other aspects of the Reformation in coming weeks. When I refer to “literacy,” I mean more than Luther translating the Bible into German, and common believers having access to God’s Word. We must understand:

Suddenly, men and women could read the Bible themselves. And think for themselves. They could write, and publish, and exchange ideas. Literature, poetry, and philosophy flourished – contemporary works, and those of the past – and political ideas were exchanged. Luther became the patron saint of democracy and the Enlightenment (although he must be considered a Pre-Modern, just as his musical disciple J S Bach, two hundred years later, must be similarly regarded, theologically).

Not a Humanist, yet of the Age of Humanism; living during the Renaissance but not a typical Renaissance man, Martin Luther astonishingly bridged the worlds of total subservience to Word of God, and the absolute independence of the human spirit. The soul. By looking back, to the faith of Jesus Himself, he was able to portend the future.

Threatened in the Church’s kangaroo court in the city of Worms – knowing that torture, burning at the stake, and death awaited him – he nevertheless refused to recant any word he had written, any sermon he had delivered, any “thesis” in his list of complaints.

No.

“Here I stand,” he said. I can do no other.”

At that moment one of the great souls of Christianity, and one of the greatest figures in Western civilization, changed the course of history. Fortified by utter conviction, Luther was also secure in the fact that when when one stands by God, one never is truly alone.

Martin Luther challenged more than Rome – he challenged humankind. In the face of authority, in the face of injustice, he challenges us today.

How would we have responded? How do you respond today… because Authority and Oppression are ever present. No less threatening, even more dangerous.

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From the sublime to the ridiculous? Many readers might consider the knee-jerk reactions of football players during patriotic exercises, in relation to Luther. They kneel; he stood. Not an absurd contrast to discuss. We shall take it up.

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Protestantism has spread worldwide. More than one-fifth of South Korea, for instance, is Protestant. Here are the famous SoKo Christian singers “Golden Angels”: –

Click: Where No One Stands Alone

Truth Doesn’t Have a Side, But Does Have a Champion

9-25-17

This weekend I had a conversation with Dr Bennet Omalu. He has been in the news lately and you will know his name as the doctor who identified, named, and fights the brain injury CTE. Or the man whose challenges are upsetting applecarts of the National Football League and network television because people have become acutely aware of the virtual certainty of long-term, debilitating effects of concussions. Or that he wrote a bestselling book, the basis of a popular motion picture, Concussion, where he was portrayed by Will Smith.

You might not know, but would not be surprised, that Bennet Omalu has received tremendous, vicious, and unrelenting pushback, even persecution, because of the discoveries he has made. Specifically, because his discoveries have rung true… and because he has been an effective advocate. Not just Big Money but favorite pastimes are jeopardized.

Anyone can have an opinion, but if they keep it to themselves, they will be of no consequence in life. You can spot a fire, but if you do not raise an alarm or help extinguish it, you are complicit when a structure burns down. If you have faith, but hide it under a bushel, as Jesus painted the picture, you betray the gifts God has bestowed.

So, you might not know, but should not be surprised, that Dr Bennet Omalu’s latest battle (or a variation of continuing as Valiant-For-Truth) is a spiritual battle. It is the theme of his new book, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side.

This is not a departure for Bennet Omalu, because he has been a committed Christian all his life. The ultimate harmony of the Christian life was reinforced to me once again when I chose the lamp-under-a-bushel allusion. Jesus’ parable is found in the Gospel account of another of history’s great doctors, St Luke!

This current chapter of the amazing Dr Omalu’s fascinating life is a logical extension of all that has gone before.

“I believe I was led to diagnose CTE [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the neuro-degenerative brain disease most often caused by trauma] by my faith. When I examined Mike Webster [the Pittsburgh Steeler player whose last years exhibited bizarre behavior] I saw me on that table.” Dr Omalu was aware that we are all made in the image of God, and that he, given other circumstances and life choices, could have been a similar victim.

He was motivated to dig deeper into “sports injuries” that were once the subject of jokes… but represent serious dangers. Football. Boxing. Rugby, Hockey. And lifelong conditions in the military and construction. Veterans and retired workers who were “punch drunk,” had “shell shock,” “took one too many to the head.” These phrases were not jokes to Dr Omalu: he saw serious problems, ruined lives, grieving families, and tragedy.

Possibly needless tragedy, he began to think. Spurred, and sustained by, his faith, he knew that naming the brain-trauma condition and conducting further research might lead him to conclude that some sports simply are not safe… no matter how many rules on the field are tweaked. Some games are not safe… no matter how many bionic helmets and industrial shoulder pads are invented.

And that many parents, first unknowingly but now – given the publicity of Dr Omalu’s discoveries – face hard choices… now aware that they commit virtual child abuse by allowing their children to participate in many contact sports.

We return again to Bennet Omalu’s faith, because he had to proceed in faith; and his faith has gotten him and his family though the tsunami of organized opposition and the multi-billion-dollar defensive playbook of the sports industry and entertainment colossus. For a while, he virtually was a lone voice.

But truth does not depend on the opinion of those who receive it.

Dr Omalu’s research, tenacity, and struggles in his profession, career path, and home life, were documented in Concussion. But the story of his faith – tested, tried, and triumphant – is brilliantly shared in Truth Doesn’t Have a Side. “My spirit is like a boat on the sea,” he says humbly, acknowledging that he trusts God and the Lord’s guidance.

The maturity of his faith is illustrated in his favorite Psalm, 27, an inspiring combination of humility and boldness upon which a believer can draw. I asked about coping with the pressures arrayed against him these days: “It is not easier now, no. But I have the elixir of daily faith exercises. I pray every morning, certainly every day; I read the Bible daily; the Spirit leads me to two chapters or passages that always speak to me in a special way. I am more conscious than ever of the Blood of Jesus!”

Dr Omalu does not speak in cliches. His message, like his whole story, is heartfelt, sincere, passionate. He chokes back tears when sharing letters he has received from people – often mothers – who have been touched by his message. And his conversation is frequently interrupted by unrestrained laughter that mirrors a joy only the believer can know.

I asked if he had an inkling, as a boy in Nigeria, that in some way or other he would grow up and change the world, even in a field he could not then know. I expected a rote answer about premonitions or ambition.

He laughed and said, “No! Not an inkling! I never imagined where I’d be!”

The world cannot imagine either where Dr Bennet Omalu might be in another 10 years. His intellectual and moral vision continuously surveys the horizons of life. “But ‘not my will, but Thine’ is how I have lived,” he says. “My middle name, given back in Africa, means ‘Life Is the Greatest Gift of All,’ and the Spirit reminds me of that every moment.

“I am not afraid to let people know I am a man of God. These days I speak to all sorts of groups – faith itself is not a religion! And so I am led to share. We must do everything we can.”

And everything in Dr Bennet Omalu’s case means in science, medicine, healthy life choices, and spirituality. For all of his crises and trials, and what the rest of us behold as a journey of boldness and bravery, he makes it all seem so logical:

“I follow the example of Jesus, who reminded us that He came for the sick, not so much the healthy!”

And he let loose another irrepressible laugh, this doctor who also ministers to the soul, the unlikely preacher who does not preach but who lives his Christian message.
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Dr Omalu’s new book can be found here:  Truth Doesn’t Have a Side

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Click: I Will Roll All Burdens Away

Jesus Wept.

9-18-17

Near the beginning of my relatively modest career as a political activist, I committed an act of passivity rather than activism, de-fusing instead of igniting.

It was during the Vietnam War. I was a student at American University in Washington DC, and during a stretch of time when there were almost monthly Marches on the Pentagon, huge protest rallies in the Nation’s Capital, and sit-ins on campus, AU was the focus of “activity,” if not activism. I bought into none of the anti-war theatrics – despite my actual opposition to the sitting-duck war of LBJ – and was a frequent sole “no” vote on the student Senate, whether the issue was opening dorm rooms to protesters from around the country or resolutions to (virtually) make the political sun stand still.

The student body was not composed purely of aimless hippies. Some of us went on to prominence, even accomplishments of sorts. Petra Karin Kelly returned to her native Germany after graduation, founded the world’s first viable Green Party and was elected to the Bundestag. (She later died in a murder-suicide with the elderly retired German general with whom she lived, ugly on world news reports.) Patricia Glaser of West Virginia was Chair of the Board of Culture when I was a member, and we also had frequent exchanges. Patty is now partner in Glaser, Weil in L.A., a high-profile entertainment lawyer, and “one of America’s Top 100 Female Litigators.” She has again been in the news as representing a reporter sued by Fox News anchor Eric Bolling. The harassment charges against him unfortunately are the least of his worries right now.

Anyway, one day back around 1969 there was a huge crowd of students gathered on the steps of the student union building. Someone had provided a portable mike-and-loudspeaker; and, impromptu, kids stepped up and railed against This and That. Each pronouncement was met with cheers and boos and clenched fists. I noticed that the “dead” time between harangues grew longer, from seamless to seconds to half-minutes.

Realizing what was going on, and that few students wandered away, I finally stepped up to the mike myself and said, “That’s all. Who cares about more of the same? Disperse, and go do something useful.” Sheepishly, the assembled liberals and hippies shuffled away.

It was an afternoon, back then, of dissatisfaction in search of a voice – sheep, indeed, looking for a shepherd. It reminds me of America today, especially after Charlottesville and copycat riots, protests, and statue desecrations.

We have noticed – because we cannot avoid noticing – 24/7 press coverage of certain such events. On the ground. Reporters bumping into each other. Nonstop helicopter views. If there were not blood in the eyes of protesters, the media virtually pleaded for theater.

Going back to my days at AU, one Friday afternoon, the “respected” electronic journalist Martin Agronsky, whose career spanned ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS, showed up with a cameraman and collared a few students. He asked us if we would be willing to stage some sort of disruption for his camera at the coming weekend’s event.

I learned early about partisans’ willingness to perform; and Big Media’s eagerness to manufacture.

Fast-forward to our current “crisis.” We are seeing those sorts of seeds, planted in the turbulent ‘60s, sprouting today. The apt description for a contemporary social malignancy is “identity politics.” Who you are has become important than what you believe or how you act – when “who you are” means your race, your sex, your political affiliation, and NOT your beliefs, loyalties, standards.

It is lack of integrity on both sides of the equation when people demand to be known by their superficial qualities, and their agendas; and when society today – the press, the educational establishment, and, increasingly, employers – are content to accept others by those rubrics.

Judging, or pre-judging, people by, say, the color of their skin was wrong when there was resultant bias against them… and is wrong when there is prejudice the other way. Left in the dust is the free marketplace of ideas; honest treatment of honest people; and a culture that seeks the truth. As so much of the anger and radicalism and violence stems from economic critiques, we should remember that the sin of envy is no less corrosive than the sin of greed.

There is a spiritual component to this 21st-century malady. Of course: when societies decline, it is all aspects – none in their own vacuums. Compounding the cultural and economic offenses is the number of churches that participate in the hijacking of tradition and heritage.

They mask their headlong descents into relativism and heresy with kindly bleats about “changing with the times.” Many churches are so nervous about losing members, or presiding over shrinking membership rolls, that they undertake mad dashes to be “relevant.” Relevance should be judged against Scripture and Revealed Truth, not how many people a church “runs” every week (where did that phrase originate?)

Churches that deny the Virgin Birth of Christ are keeping people from someday, in Glory, meeting the Virgin and the Incarnate Son. Preachers who deny the existence of hell pave the way for their followers toward an eventual encounter with that very real place.

The Bible talks about a time when people will have “itching ears,” when they will prefer to hear about their desires instead of uncomfortable truths. And, in the End Times, we are warned, even the saints shall be deceived by false teachers and false prophets.

And false news?

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Sometimes Jesus was moved to righteous anger. But sometimes — as when he grieved for his apostate and wayward people — He wept.

Click: The Holy City

Warnings, Judgments, or Weather Reports?

9-11-17

Our recent visits here have centered on phenomena of nature – hurricanes, floods, wildfires, rare solar eclipses, and, before them, Donald Trump. And parts of America, we tend to forget, are still in drought conditions. Further, other hurricane systems wait patiently behind the paths of Harvey and Irma.

I am not making light of them – some day a wildfire, a flood, and an eclipse might all descend on me at once – but it does occur to me that some people might make too much of them.

I am referring to some Christians, and I refer to theological subtexts. I cannot gainsay peoples’ scholarship nor their prayerful conclusions about what the Bible has said, or what God might be saying, to America through these phenomena.

Are these Signs? Bible history is replete with examples of God speaking to His people. Actually, to all the human race: judgment and destruction to wicked generations and sinful peoples. Rebukes and chastisement to His wayward children. Rules via the Ten Commandments; the plan of Salvation through Christ’s atonement.

Often the judgments and sometimes the punishments were preceded by signs, natural phenomena, and prophesies.

God ordained some of these signs, even numerology and divination by dreams. But the Bible has also warned against “signs and wonders” – at least against our looking for them, if not to them. In the End Times they will appear in accordance with prophesies of the Apostolic Times and Old Testament days.

But – here I wonder about signs and wonders – not too many prophesies since the time of Jesus.

That persuades me to think about “signs” my brethren and sisters see today. Are they correct, that a solar eclipse, for instance, portends the Final Judgment? Are End Times finally here, signaled by wildfires in the Northwest and hurricanes in the Southeast?

I am persuaded against the idea. Oh, I think we might be at End Times… and sometimes I wish we were. Do we deserve judgment in America? If not (I am also persuaded) Sodom and Gomorrah could demand apologies.

But… are America’s sins black enough to bring the whole world into judgment? Can the expanding Church south of the Equator be a momentary expiation in God’s eyes for humankind’s rebellion, or the spiritual sins of North America and Europe?

In short, I wonder whether well-meaning students of the Bible might be focusing more on Signs… than what they think the signs might be signaling (the same root word). In fact I have asked such questions of armchair eschatologists, who often have replied – as if it should be plain for me to see – that signs have been sent by God to help us see our sins… to point to abominations in His eyes… to warn of coming judgment.

What is plain for me to see, actually, is something different.

Unless judgment is nigh, signs (and wonders) is not how God has dealt with humankind since Jesus’ day. I believe in gifts of wisdom and prophecy; and I know that ancient prophetic visions were given to be fulfilled some day. And that day might be soon.

However, fellow saints, we are horribly failing our God, His call on our lives, indeed the Great Commission, if we continually look for signs. Jesus was the sign!

Do you seek a sign of coming judgment? Look to pictures of mutilated and aborted babies in your local hospitals.

Do you seek a sign of coming judgment? Look at the suffering and the poor, “the lame, the halt, the blind” all around us.

Do you seek a sign of coming judgment? Look around the world, and in our own nation, where persecution of Christians is on the rise.

Do you seek a sign of coming judgment? Look at the Land of the Free and the Home of abuse, trafficking, drugs, divorces, sexual perversion, and twisted values in schools and the media.

Do you seek a sign of coming judgment? Look at many of our churches, where relativism and secularism have replaced the Gospel; where the Bible is no longer honored as the Infallible Word of God; where His Son is not lifted up as our incarnate Savior.

Signs and wonders. Let us leave cosmic coincidences to astronomers, and weather reports to meteorologists and TV reporters. The signs of our corrupt times are all around us, and we should not need to be reminded of this proper perspective… because we ourselves have allowed these conditions to take hold.

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Click: When He Calls Me, I Will Fly Away

The Least of These

9-4-17

“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Many times we have heard those words of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 25: 40a. Almost everyone knows the parable, if not the full meaning, behind the story of the Good Samaritan.

Another little-understood passage is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John, when Jesus said that we shall “have the poor with us always.” Almost always misapplied. It was St Augustine (in his Confessions, written around the year 400) who opened the eyes of my heart to this. Jesus was not being a defeatist, that poverty is inevitable in our midst. Nor did He sanction a spirit of resignation in His followers.

No, Jesus instructed us to keep things in proportion – that we need to keep our eyes on Him while we can; that even good deeds can distract us from salvation. Further, Augustine argued, God has a certain loving plan for us, that we cultivate a spirit of charity. We must care for the least of those among us; we must practice compassion… because God Himself is Love.

Can we do that if everyone were on the same plane as we are? just as secure? comfortable? healthy? No. We should be aware, and compassionate, toward the lame, the halt, the blind. So we should be aware that these live among us.

Thoughts like these occur to us especially in days like these, after natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

I share here an editorial I wrote this week in response to the responses to Harvey. In the form of a memo to President Trump:

MEMO TO PRESIDENT TRUMP

The flood area in Texas and Louisiana is larger than Lake Michigan, and larger than several of our states, combined. The devastation, by several metrics, is already the worst in American history… and getting worse.

As rains cease, flood waters continue to rise. After flood waters recede, the apocalypse of ravaged homes, buildings, roads, and bridges will have been visited on those lands; as will spoilage, irretrievable ruin, pollution, deaths, and displaced persons. And, of course, massive economic challenges.

We do not need a North Korea in the news to remind us that this aftermath will resemble the devastation of a war – maybe even a lost war – across a broad swath of land and a large population.

As there has been no real precedent, there likely will be no real replication of these conditions for quite some time, so this suggestion would not be activated with every “normal” hurricane or tornado in the future.

Mr President, you should treat the entire area, when this is “over,” like a virtual war zone. Take extraordinary measures of aid and mobilization. Cooperate with locals, but also get involved as if it is a national emergency… because it is.

MAJOR emergency housing, relocation, funding, rescue, cleaning, new infrastructure. Not “normal” sandbags and box lunches and temporary shelters, but renewal as if the whole area had been flattened by an enemy. Because (damn you, “Mother” Nature) it was.

Do I suggest a “statist” response, a federal takeover of others’ functions? No – this response would fulfill one of the few legitimate Constitutional duties of the federal government.

Would cabinet secretaries and current federal departments be stretched too thin with these extraordinary “marching orders”? Borrow from your predecessor and appoint “czars” and “civilian generals” to take charge, category by category.

If Texas and Louisiana had been hit by thousands of bombs and instead of trillions of gallons of water, such a plan would be in place immediately. Move alongside the excellent local and regional (and private!) agencies… do not supplant, but partner… be forthcoming with more than checks, even blank checks, from across the continent.

In an odd way, this might be one reason why you, with your background and instincts, were elected to do.

Trump the Builder and Kelly and the military guys… could do this. Heck, it is what the US military has been doing for 15 years overseas, in places we can’t pronounce and most of us can’t find on maps – planning, building, rebuilding, paving, irrigating, cleaning, planting… even providing kids with hundreds of thousands of laptops.

Why not Texas and Louisiana?

Well, who knows what the President will do… however, already, my first impressions of his first acts are hugely positive. The same with state and local officials. And various agencies. And – not to quantify the acts being performed, because as Portia said in The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of Mercy is not strained” – the uncountable random rescuers we see on TV.

Spontaneous, courageous, sacrificial – these angels of mercy have come from down streets (or, now, rivers) or from across the country. Shoulder-deep in water, paddling makeshift crafts, hoisting old folks, pets, and children. Awe-inspiring. No less is the impressive outpouring of donations – money, food, furniture, meds.

And a hurricane – no, a tsunami – of prayers.

Despite my call for federal action, almost a military response, however, is an unshakable belief I have that is underpinned (I think) by the words of Jesus, and by Shakespeare, while I’m at it.

The government can help in these situations. As I said, however, these situations are among the few actually assigned to the federal government by the Constitution. It is our job, our duty, to respond as individuals. Our hearts, hands, resources.

One of many things I hate about Socialism and the paternalistic state is that they wean us from reliance on God; they persuade us that we should turn to the ubiquitous government for every answer; the State substitutes itself for faith, genuine cooperation, a real sense of compassion… and a true spirit of charity.

“Why do any of these things ourselves, when the government is there? Isn’t that why we pay taxes?”

We do not pay taxes in order to absolve ourselves of the (glorious) burden of helping our fellow travelers along life’s road. Thank God those basic, biblical impulses were not washed away in the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey!

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Click: He Reached Down

Empty Nesters

8-28-17

It is that time of year again. What time? End of summer? Labor Day? Back to school… off to school… off to military service? Well, yes; but also the time of year I think again about that season when kids leave home.

A friend and I have been talking about the situation generally known as the Empty Nest. In popular parlance, it means when kids go off to school… and some parents feel pretty darn sad on the first day of kindergarten, much less college, a job or the service, or marriage.

I was always a little upset that when my three kids first ran to their school buses at the commencement of their school lives… and that they all climbed aboard cheerily. No looks back; no tears. Except mine. Oh, well, merciful for them.

And there ARE different varieties of empty nests. My friend and I compared notes and agreed that the phrase is more appropriate when used when the home is (especially) empty after the death of a spouse. Or when a disagreement has given separation a new meaning: “Apartment” is not simply a place you live; “loneliness” is far different than being alone.

But just as the sadness we feel at the death of someone close is essentially a selfish impulse – not negative, just self-ish – so is the Empty Nest not always a bad thing.

Don’t get me wrong: it can feel bad, and we can hurt. Very much. Ultimately, however, with children, we ought to remember that we have reared them precisely to spread their wings… which means, to fly. Away. Usually it is amicable, thank God; and close families grow closer, somehow, by multiplying.

When separation is not amicable, however, barring ugly or inexplicable situations, even that is part of life, and family members must trust God, and trust the seeds of proper rearing. Parents, trust your children, and those “seeds”; Children, trust God, and believe in answered prayer. God’s language is recorded in teardrops.

I think – among many, many examples that come to mind – of a dear friend, a Monday Ministry reader in Kansas who had precious Christian relationships with two of her children; saw those relationships, at different times, shatter in rebellion. But today she enjoys better-than-ever loving relationships with each. Answered (multitudes of) prayer; God’s Grace.

Have I strayed from my subject? Yes, but only to a degree. I think of Empty Nests at this time of year and remember a song I heard before my eldest started high school – but I knew it would make me sad when she left for college. Well. All three children have started high school, graduated from college, and two have families of their own. Yet the song, about a child leaving home, still tugs.

I am not claiming that these thoughts, or any here today, are exclusive to me; or to either of my friends here cited. No, these thoughts are about the most elemental of human emotions… and why I can claim that even the seemingly unpleasant can be “good” in life’s schema.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 reminds us that The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.

Time and chance happeneth to us all.

These are the words of the song I remember each year, “Letting Go” (the music video follows):

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

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day. She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.

Oh, letting go… There’s nothing in the way now. Letting go: there’s room enough to fly. And even though she’s spent her whole life waiting… It’s never easy letting go.

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

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day. She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.

Oh, letting go… There’s nothing in the way now. Letting go: there’s room enough to fly. And even though she’s spent her whole life waiting… It’s never easy letting go.

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Click: Letting Go

Faith, Hope, and Clarity

8-21-17

Do we need one more essay or column on the cultural/political divide in our country? When certain points of view have not been articulated, I think so.

Crowds gather to vent their spleen in Ferguson, Charlottesville, Boston, ready for fights. Itching – hence the ersatz riot gear, the homemade armor, the hoods, the intimidating costumes, and, sometimes, mace and sticks.

Any of us who watched coverage of the day in Charlottesville knew beforehand that protesters were there to dissent from Robert E Lee’s statue being torn down. The larger assembled group, armed and wearing hoods, were there to protest the protesters. The police were ordered to not keep the groups separated, for reasons still be to be explained.

Initial reports noted that the driver of the car had a stone thrown through his windshield, and protesters rocked his car. Whether out of fear and panic, or premeditated vehicular homicide… we saw what happened. Copycat of Nice and London? Precursor of Barcelona?

In coverage of the Boston protest, networks spent hours talking about “protesters” and “counter-protesters,” with no hint of which “side” was defined as free-speech advocates. Both? Neither? By the way, eventually the crowd estimates were released – about 100 conservatives; about 39,900 lefists.

It is a circus, but largely a media circus. Many people are merely sheep, feeling the need to be angry; expressing inchoate frustrations; and willing to test the limits of discourse… for the cameras.

A few years ago I had a meeting in the Summit Ministries office of Dr David Noebel at the Brannon Howze’s Worldview Weekend headquarters. These are people and organizations that do much good, but I was struck by pictures framed on the wall – large, vintage portraits of Stonewall Jackson and other Confederate leaders.

I am not a crusader on the slavery issue, mostly because it is, thankfully, dead and buried; or should be. There still is slavery in the world, but not of the “South will rise again” variety; on present-day slavery I am a crusader. Nobody in America dreams of its re-institution; however there are multitudes who profit from phony controversies and threats. I agree with Lincoln that “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” and I wish more people felt the same about abortion, our current social abomination.

I remarked on the portrait of Stonewall Jackson in Dr Noebel’s office and was reminded that he was a Christian who prayed every day with his troops. I replied, “He was also a ‘gentleman’ who defended slavery; and, after taking an oath to defend the United States, proved himself a traitor.”

Treason, vintage 1860s, does not bother some people. But neither does treason and anarchy today bother other people. Not “Antifa” protesters; not the slobbering media.

As a historian, and an artist, and a patriot, I am deeply disturbed by actions to pull down and destroy statues and paintings. I am Christian, yet I was aggrieved to see the demolition of ancient Buddha statues by the Taliban. ISIS has destroyed priceless religious artwork in Africa and the Middle East. The Nazis burned books. Good company of the Antifa movement and Black Lives Matter. Role models?

Even the French Revolutionaries let cathedrals stand. Bolsheviks did not destroy the Amber Room or the Winter Palace of the Czars (although the Palace was looted by Bolsheviks, especially its wine cellar, leading to the “longest hangover in history,” as it became known). Stalin, on the other hand, airbrushed his enemies from photographs. Futile, but it is what totalitarians attempt.

In the rush to eliminate immobile “vestiges” of history, self-appointed censors have climbed up statues like monkeys and defaced or toppled statuary, a few of which, ironically, have been artistic allegories having no relation to slavery.

There is a joke that goes: “Do you know how to save a drowning bigot?” “No.” “Good.” Bigotry, in whatever cause, and the crime of re-writing history, can never be allowed – at least by a society that needs to know where it has been, in order to know where it is going.

In another nod to good intentions, I suppose, the county executives of Lee County FL, reached an agreement this week to hire an artist to doctor a portrait of Robert E Lee in the county seat. Lee will remain, but soon he will be clad in a business suit, not a general’s uniform. Strange. Maybe his statue can be altered so he rides a Harley.

Where will it end? Will black people refuse to drink from Dixie Cups? Stop driving through the Lincoln Tunnel? Before white radicals move their next nihilistic cause (remember when the names of “Christian” cities like St Louis and Los Angeles were targets? They moved on from that) will they burn those portraits of Andrew Jackson in their wallets? Teachers are fired for saying positive things about Southern authors, but a Missouri state senator is praised for openly calling for Pres. Trump’s murder.

Statues are works of art (except when poorly executed, another matter) – but provide teachable moments. Talk to your children; don’t teach them to make paint balls. Live a life so your grandchildren will honor you, maybe hang a portrait in your honor, or theirs; not slash a painting of someone else. Martin Luther King denounced homosexual marriage; should his statue on the Mall be felled?
If you do not – if you cannot – learn from history, you will be its next victim.

I have a solution to the current furor: Stop shouting, and learn sign language. What do I mean by that?

I urge a variation of Marschall’s Solution to the Pete Rose controversy. Should he kept out of the Baseball Hall of Fame because he gambled and lied? No, I say. His statistics earned him a place. But his plaque should include, alongside his dates and numbers, the facts that he gambled and lied and was banned for life. History.

In the same way, write new signs beneath or next to statues and paintings of “controversial” historical figures. Birth and death dates; training, accomplishments, failures; then the “negative” information. Numbers of slaves owned or people killed. If Civil War generals, the good (valor) and the bad (carnage) (both sides, sure; Trump was correct). And so forth.

History, laid out. The truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. If future generations are too stupid to be informed and instructed by such signage, we are lost anyway. But let people glimpse history, and reflect.

And then they can yell at each other about the signs, instead of statues and paintings. Bad television, but good public policy.

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Isaiah 1:18
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Click: Iris DeMent’s Keep Me, God

Eclipse

8-14-17

The Eclipse will come. And go. A magnificent coincidence of nature, it is virtually a mathematical impossibility that our earth, sun, and moon are of such sizes. The moon, occasionally in its orbit, can precisely blot out the sun, like two stacked quarters. Or that, between the sun and moon, the earth’s shadow occasionally covers, neatly and precisely, the entire moon, without even a crater rim peeking out.

Well, you know those facts, and many more, because of the Eclipse-mania that has filled the news lately. This excitement about science has itself eclipsed the concerns about possible nuclear war, government scandals, and protesters killing each other. For a moment, anyway.

I have noticed that, more and more, people marvel at scientific wonders AS scientific wonders; mathematical improbabilities; freaks of nature. Less and less do we hear average folk discern the Hand of God… or even His marvelous Fingerprints. So to speak.

That three large and ancient celestial objects can align so precisely is… chance?

Maybe so, maybe so. But skeptics would also have to believe (and they do) in other pseudo-scientific fairy tales like the Big Bang. I’ll stop there. Apart from the fact that the Big Bang Theory sounds suspiciously like a counterfeit Genesis Creation description, what – without God – was there the moment before the Big Bang? Who created matter, whether size of a proton or of a huge volume? Where does the universe end? – and what, then, is beyond it?

Secularists say that questions difficult to answer do not, in themselves, prove the existence of God. This is true. But neither does their ignorance prove the non-existence of God. Myself, I am more concerned with the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks. I know God exists because He lives in my heart; I have met the Savior.

To return to the Eclipse for a moment, I have a friend who read all the dust-up about one of the last Great Eclipses (they seem to come every 12 years ago or so, always advertised as the last of its kind we shall see for 320 years…). Anyway, she read all the warnings against looking directly at the sun; about the dangers to the eye; advice about making pinholes in cardboard, and what kind of smoked glass to look through; and so forth.

During that Eclipse, I was in California and I can still remember the sudden and very strange purplish semi-darkness that overtook, and then vanished, from San Diego. My friend in New Jersey, on the other hand, burned holes in her retina.

She read the advice about making pinholes in cardboard. She got the cardboard, she made the pinhole. Then (obviously missing the rest of the directions) she thought the pinhole was to use in order the look at the Eclipse. She held it next to her nose, squinted toward the sun in the sky. Brrr-zap.

I kid you not, as Jack Paar used to say.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” This is not a Bible verse, but was written by Alexander Pope, who also wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine,” which also is somewhat applicable here.

In ancient barbaric cultures, eclipses caused people to panic. Wise men and priests reacted in mad ways, even ordering child sacrifices. Today, we know more about science… and, contrary to the secularists, this has drawn us closer to God, not further from Him.

The Eclipse specifically reminds us that behind the darkness is light. That truth can be hidden, but only for a while. That, whether from nighttimes or eclipses, the sun is always there. Just like rain clouds – even in the worst of storms, the sun still shines, above those dark clouds.

Yes, I mean the storms of life, not only rainstorms or strange Eclipses. We poor creatures might panic or fret or fall prey to confusion, even burning holes in our eyes. But the sun still shines; God remains steady, immovable; and He is in control.

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Click: From the Rising Of the Sun

The Matter of Unanswered Prayers

8-7-17

The sweetest things you will ever hear from Christians might be “prayer reports,” testimonies, shared experiences of answered prayer – sometimes accounts of miracles, breakthroughs, heavenly surprises. Even (in a phrase you hear a lot these days) that something has been a “God thing.”

I am not here to question whether God answers prayers. He has answered prayers that I have lifted with an anguished heart; the same with family members and friends. We have witnessed miracles.

I am one hundred per cent certain that God answers prayers. Let the skeptics be in no doubt. God promises that He will do so, and He delivers. Many times the Bible cites it in great specificity, for instance that “The fervent prayer of a righteous person avails much.” God does not lie. He cannot.

But His children – you and me – are flawed. Even after we are saved, we make mistakes and suffer from misunderstandings. Naturally! Not even the angels know all, and certainly cannot answer prayers. Poor things, they can praise, but cannot pray. That is among the attributes that make us different from angels, and special in God’s eyes.

No matter how favored, we are not little Gods. We must be “imitators of Christ” the best we can; we must seek guidance, which is one reason the Holy Spirit was sent to Earth when Jesus ascended; and we must pray. “At all times and in all places.”

Too many Christians – well-meaning, mostly, bless our hearts – believe that prayers will be answered according to our desires. Yes, yes… according to His will; but we misinterpret being “in His will.” There are preachers who teach that it is God’s will to answer our prayers as we pray them, and imply that our faith is weak when “answers don’t come.”

There are pastors who quote (as a promise of God) “mountain, be thou removed,” but have caused no earthquakes or tremors themselves. Or precious few metaphorical mountains, by the way.

There are leaders who pray among their audiences for healing, yet they wear glasses and have progressively slower steps, themselves, in their lives.

But. God answers prayer. All the time.

Except for prayers offered as insincere shows, or with unworthy knowledge of the gospel, God hears our prayers, and answers them. God promises that He will, and He delivers, as a wise man once said (whoops, that was me, a little bit earlier).

My point, though, is deadly serious, because we frequently rob ourselves of blessings. I am trying to encourage faith, not cast doubt.

God is not an errand boy, and prayer is not a magic wand.

Try to think of all the prayers you have prayed for things you want… not things you need.

If we truly trust God, in all His wisdom and love, why are we dissatisfied (even quietly, too often, discouraged) when “nothing seems to have changed?

God is a sovereign God, who loves us. Can we not understand that sometimes the answer is “No”? Sometimes His reply is “Not now.” Sometimes He says “That will be bad for you, trust Me.” Sometimes He tries to remind us that His ways are not our ways. Sometimes – He knows – our faith needs to be strengthened, and sometimes that comes through trials, further prayer, and even chastisement. (The Bible says that God exercises that only on those whom He loves. Take heart.)

How often do circumstances like a job or a relationship or finances seem “right” to desire? And our prayers about them can be summed up like: “This is clear to me, God – can’t you see it?” I have a suspicion He is seldom moved by a recitation of our deeds; and maybe less so by a list of promises we make… if the prayer is answered the way we want.

I know it is hard to operate on these truths. I have scars on my soul from the times I have come to this understanding only slowly and often kicking. However, true faith – a stronger, healthier faith – can come from dealing worthily with what we used to call unanswered prayer. All together now: “What we USED TO CALL unanswered prayer.”

Our faith will grow when we pray believing. Believing that God hears our prayers. Believing that God answers our prayers, always. And believing that in His loving care it is HIS answer, not ours, that will be our path forward.

As hard as it seems, we must learn to praise God when it is clear that OUR script was not followed by Him… but that He is the Master, the “Author Of All Creation.”

Listen, I know that prayer is a mystery. The Bible keeps us on our toes, right? Should we pray for something once, trusting? Should we pray without ceasing? Do we accept His will, but stay ready to be startled by an “answer” when we least expect it?

Yes, yes, and yes. But that is when prayer is a conversation, not a message to be left on God’s answering machine. Keep talking… and keep listening.
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In 1887 at a Dwight L Moody revival, a man stepped forward and said that he did not quite understand the gospel message, but he decided to trust God and obey God. One of the musicians, Daniel Towner, took those words and sent them to hymnodist John H Sammis. The man’s name has been lost to history – yet his transparent honesty and declaration has touched more souls since then, than have many preachers, because of the song that resulted.

Click: Trust and Obey

Mere Christianity, That Unspeakable Burden

7-31-17

I recently returned from two weeks in Ireland, a fact that might be wearying “news” to my readers and correspondents, but I am one of those people who experience new things, or visit a place for the first time, and come away with delight, enthusiasms, and a desire to share. (For instance, I invariably return from overseas and try to replicate dishes or cuisine methods in my own kitchen. This week I made fish and chips – with major variations – having been not tired of them but challenged.)

All of which is a justification for one more Irish reference.

There were many coincidences and random discoveries while traversing the Emerald Isle. To digress again, briefly, the joy – and hallmark – of a seasoned traveler is to program your itinerary, and your mind, in such ways that “coincidences” and “discoveries” will meet you at almost every turn.

Near the end of the trip, having circumtraversed the island’s two countries, we spent a night in the delightful Old Inn at Crawfordsburn in Bangor, County Down, outside Belfast. It was a random booking suggested by friends because there was no room in the other inn, so to speak – the nearby Hotel Culloden Estate and Spa of Holywood, a magnificent ancient five-star wonderland so exclusive that Room Service has an unlisted number. (That is a travel joke.)

The sprawling, creeky, artifacts-crowded ancient in Crawfordsburn had numerous charms of its own, not the least of which was a plaque modestly stating that C S Lewis and his bride Joy had spent their honeymoon (“a perfect fortnight”) there, before an eventual trip to Greece; and through the years he and his literary circle would convene there. Not Shadowlands but Crawfordsburn.

For generations of children, the association with “Chronicles of Narnia” and “Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe” is compelling. For generations of Christians, and surely generations to come, his simple classics of Apologetics and lay theology will continue to touch uncountable souls. “Mere Christianity,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Problem of Pain,” “Miracles,” “The Pilgrim’s Regress,” and other books by Lewis explained the tenets of faith to believers (and non-believers, as he once was) second only to the parables of Jesus, in some people’s opinion.

Lewis had been an atheist and had traveled the same path to faith, or back to faith, that his literary fellows (some of them the fraternal members of the “Inklings”) like J R R Tolkien, G K Chesterton, and Malcolm Muggeridge. Fallen-away, agnostic, skeptical, Socialist, atheist… all became not merely orthodox Christians but fervent believers, uniquely sharing the gospel in ways that we categorize as “apologetics.” The young Lewis even met the brilliant Irish poet William Butler Yeats – whose modest gravesite, again “coincidentally,” we stumbled across when stopping for a photo-op at a picturesque old church ruin on a country road! – and whose own relationship to Christianity was complicated but thought-provoking.

Lewis’ marriage was to an American Jewess who also converted to Christianity. After a short marriage (there IS a touchstone: Crawfordsburn; I have not forgotten!) she died of cancer. Lewis wrote a tender and thoughtful book on spiritual confrontations with death – but published it under a pen name, not to traffic in his loss.

It was such a meaningful and profound book that on its publication, many of Lewis’ friends sent him the book as perfect reading to assuage his grief, not knowing he was the author.

It is more than these coincidences – except the coincident result of my contemplating the great man since the trip – that inspires this essay. One of C S Lewis’ great books about faith is the modest yet intense “The Weight of Glory.”

Literary-minded people always are  impressed by phrases or titles that immediately capture an argument, or augur compelling thoughts. I suggest that “the weight of glory,” as a proposition, is pregnant with implications and challenges. I will briefly (you’re welcome) and feebly recommend its contemplation in a few rehashed words.

Glory. God’s glory. Salvation. When someone comes to “saving knowledge of God” – a personal relationship with Jesus – they have joy unspeakable, the greatest experience of this life. Or, naturally, eternity.

Christianity. The Bible, and C S Lewis among other exegetes, tell us how simply “mere” Christianity can be achieved in our lives. But the Bible, and relatively few evangelists through the centuries, remind of of how difficult it is – even weighty and sometimes burdensome – to be a Christian, to receive the glory of the Lord.

When you are a Christian, you must share Christ. If you knew the cure for someone’s fatal illness, you would share that information. Well… you do.

When you are a Christian, you cannot get enough of Him; you will have insatiable thirst. Your passion does not end when you swear an oath.

When you are a Christian, you pray without ceasing – praise and requests; desires and confessions.

When you are a Christian, it is because you are a Christ-follower in all ways; not merely Not a Jew, Not a Muslim, when people ask.

When you are a Christian, you will not only “put away childish things” of belief; you will BE renewed in mind and spirit – and feel it, and show it, and live it.

When you are a Christian, you will have charitable impulses you never felt. You will sacrifice. You will tend to the sick and hurting; you will ache to have your family join you in Glory.

These impulses are not simple membership rules. They will be the “fruit” you bear. And you will be “convicted” in your spirit if they do not become part of your conscious DNA.

Are they worth it? Oh, yes. But salvation will involve more than a refreshing moment and a spiritual “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It is what C S Lewis called “The Unspeakable Burden of Salvation.”

I do not believe in ghosts, but the lobbies and halls of the Old Inn at Crawfordsburn reminded me of C S Lewis’s life and career and writings: his clarity and his impact. Worthwhile remembrance! Christianity is “merely” simple, and profoundly transformative.

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Mo Pitney sings:

Click: Give Me Jesus

We See Our Power; God Sees Our Values

7-24-17

1.
Last summer, learning about Michigan trip by trip, I visited Grand Rapids and the Gerald R Ford Presidential Library. I came away with a new repect for the modest accidental president. This week, returning from my latest European trip, I came home with a new respect for America. It was in an unexpected manner, in unexpected ways.

I have waved the flag in many ways through my life. I support our heritage and our military in traditional, and often fervent, ways. My patriotism – the catch-all word for the bundle of impulses – has an aspect that is somewhat unorthodox these days, but not unique.

I favor a strong military, but I think we have used it far too often in recent years. I am for peace, but not always going to war on its behalf. I endorse democracy, generally, but I do not think it is perfect for every society, especially by our imposition. I have been uneasy about America having bases in something like 140 countries. I think we breed resentment among other nations by interfering in their affairs, their trade – and, yes, their elections – when we wantonly define our own self-interest. I think “nation-building” is noxious and pretentious elsewhere when our own nation is crumbling in many ways – structurally, economically, morally.

My patriotism, then, is not qualified but has standards. Neither is it blind; and not defined by knee-jerkers of the left or right.

It is informed by the eternal wisdom of the Roman military tactician Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus in his book De Re Militari: “Si vis pacem para bellum” — “In times of peace, prepare for war.” Unfortunately, he lived in the Fourth Century when Rome, about to be overrun by by Vandals, most needed the advice. Rome was paying the price of choosing Empire over Republic, however.

My patriotism is informed by George Washington, who warned his countrymen, and posterity, to be free of “entangling alliances.”

And it is informed by Theodore Roosevelt, who combined both outlooks, and, typically, other sober considerations when he said: “To be rich, aggressive, and unarmed, is to invite certain disaster and annihilation.”
2.
I mentioned Gerald Ford because upon my arrival on home shores, the commissioning ceremony of the USS Gerald R Ford, the biggest and most powerful battleship in the world, and world history, took place this weekend.

It was worthwhile for any patriot, indeed any citizen, to watch. It is a ship possessing as many superlatives, perhaps, as weapons systems and lethal innovations. The length of more than three football fields and powered by two nuclear reactors, the floating fortress will be head of a battle group, not even a solo player on the world’s oceans.

I was unexpectedly moved by elements of the ceremony that, to military people, could have been the most mundane. But the uniforms; the protocols; the orders, salutes, and marching; all impressed me. Military life is a way of life from which the American public has largely grown ignorant, even immune, since Volunteer Service created a segregated system almost half a century ago.

Thank God for aspects of that system, that tradition, for instance the discipline that still flows therefrom.

Perhaps my sensibility was tilled by two weeks in Ireland, where I was struck by comments from all manner of people about the current state of things in America. After many overseas trips since the age of 14, I am used to Europeans being curious about the United States. Whether as a tourist peppered by questions about blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll; or making appearances on behalf of the US Information Service of the State Department about… well, often again, blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll, I was aware of a fascination with America.

Seriously, I have also parried questions about Pershing Missile deployment under Reagan; the first Gulf War under the first Bush; and, now, about Donald Trump.

Trump largely is despised by the European public, left and right. When he is not despised, he is dismissed or merely dissed. That is a given, at least at present, and was not a surprise.

But what did surprise me, in many (and unscientifically charted) conversations was a common feeling among all types and classes of my encounters. Generally stated, it was not a basic resentment of the United States as a country, even as a power. Rather, many people confessed to a realization, even a conscious reliance, on America’s role in world affairs… European security… even country-by-country’s occasional internal matters.

Not about all details of their lives, surely; but, nowadays, more than blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll. “We need America.” You ask them about paying their share of NATO, and they will shrug in embarrassed agreement, but there is little “America, Go Home” sentiment in Europe. They cannot understand Trump – as if all Americas can – but they appreciate our presence, including our military shield, in inchoate ways.

3.
Which brings me again to the commissioning of the USS Gerald R Ford, and what the battleship (and the commissioning ceremony) represents.

Ultimately, even if the battleship sees action in some virtual holocaust, it is more of a symbol than an arsenal. The USS Gerald R Ford represents American might. Our entire military complex manifests our strength. American power has been in danger of losing its effectiveness over the past decade because the world came to realize that some presidents and some parties are unwilling to deploy; that bluffs have become seen as substitutes for action; that red lines are empty threats and “resolve” can only be found in the dictionaries, not operations manuals, of the White House and Pentagon.

Americans, and Europeans, can be sure that the current president is not ambiguous on such matters. Significantly, Russians and Chinese, as well as Iranians and North Koreans, can be quite unceratin about how Trump will act – and that is a powerful stealth weapon in and of itself.

However, deflating my swelling breast a bit, I have legitimate worries that America of the 21st century is too much like Rome of the 4th century.

Are we an empire being eaten away at the edges? Are we a society whose spiritual core has rotted? Are our priorities chiefly wealth and it accumulation? pleasure? license? relativism? Do we project power, and not values, any more?

Of course, the questions are rhetorical. II Chronicles 7:14 says, “If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways….” We read the holy promise, but we can hear the holy warning.

God forbid that the elements of the American arsenal like the USS Gerald R Ford will be just so much metal and wires and tubes and diodes. Things that rust and decay were never what made America great.

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The Naval Hymn, with a photo of Gerald Ford in uniform. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy.

Click: The Naval Hymn / Eternal Father, Strong To Save

St Patrick, Relevant To Us

7-17-17

Sent from Ireland this week, revived while visiting my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.

Unlike some saints of trinkets and wall-hangings, Ireland’s Saint Patrick was real, and is real.

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

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

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

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

As Lori Erickson recently wrote in a series on St Patrick for Patheos, “In the eighth century, Celtic Christians created a masterpiece of religious art called the The Book of Kells, whose vividness, color, and artistic mastery reflected Christian traditions laced with Celtic enchantment. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the four Gospels. While scholars don’t know for certain, it was likely created on the remote island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, and later brought to the monastery at Kells, Ireland. Made from the finest vellum and painted with inks and pigments from around the world (including lapis lazuli from Afghanistan), the book is almost indescribable in its loveliness, with designs that are convoluted, ornate, sinuous, and dreamlike in their complexity. Some scholars have called it the most beautiful book in the world,” she wrote. I can add that it can be seen as an early graphic novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Be Thou My Vision

What It Means To Abide

7-9-17

I am reviving this message today from Ireland, where, among other peregrinations, I am visiting my daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildrem Elsie and Lewis.

I noted a few years ago that we frequently tend to think about times we have gone through, and days facing us. About short-term anxieties and losing sight of God’s long-term blessings, and His care. Headlines about good economics news… and anxiety about our finances. “Have a good week!” is the implication of sharing messages on Monday mornings, and is a common wish we speak to each other. Almost (too often) like a mantra: “Have a good day,” “Have a nice week,” even a vague “Have a good one.”

My friend Chris Orr of Derry, Northern Ireland, put these pleasantries in perspective to me a while ago. He wrote, “It is great to start the week knowing that time does not exist to God. He already has seen the end of the week. Because of that, He has no worries at all about any of His children… so why should WE worry? … and, after all, we are only given one day at a time.”

Chris’s insight made me think of the hymn Abide With Me — a musical prayer that God be WITH us, that we be blessed by the realization of His presence, every moment of every day, right now and in the limitless future.

It was written by Henry Francis Lyte in 1847, as he lay dying of tuberculosis. Once again, the Holy Spirit strengthened a person at life’s “worst” moments with strength enough for that person… and for untold generations to take hope from it. Many people have been blessed — often in profound, life-changing ways — because of this one simple hymn.

Mr Lyte died three weeks after composing these amazing words.

I urge you to watch and listen to the wonderful Hayley Westenra’s performance of Abide With Me … and then return here and read the full words to the hymn.

… and then ask God to abide with you today, and this week. And ever more.

Abide With Me

Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close, ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changes not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, or passing word;
But as Thou dwelled with Thy disciples, Lord—
Familiar, condescending, patient, free—
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus abide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth did smile;
And, though, rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord: abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

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Click here: Abide With Me

Lincoln. Trump. Gettysburg. Commemorations.

5-29-16

July 4 is a pivotal date in American history, not only the date when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Fifty years later, to the day, two of the Framers, erstwhile political opponents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States, respectively, died. After the Siege of Vicksburg, U S Grant accepted the surrender of that Confederate stronghold of the Civil War. The battles around San Juan Hill were fought and won by Col Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.

And, of course, it was on the 4th of July that Southern troops under Gen Robert E Lee withdrew after three bloody days at Gettysburg PA in 1863, and retreated to Virginia.

It was to establish a National Cemetery and commemorate that Battle of Gettysburg during the iconic Fourth, that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address. It was one of the great state papers in America history; and indeed one of the finest orations in the history of humankind.

It is, not at all, to denigrate that speech – how could anyone? – nor to criticize our current President, whom I have grown to admire, if for nothing else, daring to keep his commendable campaign promises, that I offer here the Gettysburg Address as it might be delivered by Donald J Trump (stick with me!):

Four score and seven years ago – that’s eighty-seven years, folks; a long, long time ago, let me tell you – our forefathers brought forth, upon this continent, this great, great continent, believe me, nothing like it anywhere in this country, a new nation; conceived in Liberty – right? Liberty, nothing like it, I tell you – dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Great, great men. And women too, don’t forget the women.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, the greatest – maybe the greatest ever in this country, and I know what I’m talking about, believe me – testing whether that nation, or any nation so concerned, and so dedicated, and so civil, let me tell you, can long endure. Long. Endure. I tell you, long endure, right? We are met here on a great, great battlefield of that war, that great war. The greatest; you know that, right? See, I told ya. We have come to dedicate a portion, a wonderful, wonderful portion of it, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. Resting and living, how great. Rest and live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. Fit – we fit, right? C’mon!

But in a larger sense, a much, much larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hollow this ground. Hollow ground, believe me. I love hollow ground. The brave men, living and dead and many other ways, many wonderful wonderful ways, I tell you, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or subtract. But not poor for long, just wait! The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. Never. Forget. The great state of Gettysburg, which supported us in November. Right? Remember? C’mon – the world WILL remember!

It is for us, the living, rather, you and me, and Corporal James Tanner – where are you, James? Where are you? Stand up! Somebody help him stand – we are dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on, ahead of schedule and under budget! It is rather for us… to be here dedicated… to the great task remaining before us… that from these honored dead, all those dead, those many, many dead, believe me, to take increased devotion to that cause… for which they gave the last full measure of devotion… to which we are devoted… a great, great devotion, let me tell you… that we hear. Highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, I tell you. That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, great freedom; and that this government will Drain. The. Swamp. I tell you. With all of the people, to all of the people, from the people, shall not perish from the earth. I tell you, you will be tired of not perishing.

Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Well, I beg forgiveness to those who think I being irreverent to either Lincoln or Trump… or those hallowed dead. In fact, Gettysburg, and Lincoln’s address, are the closest things we have to civic holiness in America. I am tweaking the president’s rhetorical style, as a friend – and as an admirer of his most recent speech to vets and Christians, on July 1, 2017.

There is a larger point, perhaps, that as thinkers and writers and speakers we should be careful about our presentations. Words matter. Lincoln’s genius was in part his pellucid thoughts… and his flawless delivery. Not his voice, which was remembered as high and raspy, but his brilliant arrangement and construction.

This attends whether we argue legal cases, preach the Word of God, teach classes, or instruct our children. Everyone’s business is communication.

End of “lesson”! I am loth to finish, however, without citing the actual Gettysburg Address. It is something I long ago committed to memory; and I think every American should.

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

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

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Finally, we go from Fake News to Fake History if we believe the books that say that Lincoln was a religious skeptic or agnostic. Year by year through his life he increasingly invoked God and the Bible. In his last years his speeches, writing, proclamations, letters, and conversations were so spiritual that he sometimes sounded like a preacher.

Of the many biblical affirmations he made, to me among the most profound is:

My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.

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Click: Battle Hymn Of the Republic

Be Not Deceived. God Is Not Mocked.

6-26-17

Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

That familiar verse – or maybe not familiar enough – is from Galatians 6:7. The rest of the verse is: A man reaps what he sows. And another translation of this verse reads, Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked.

This is one of the most profound verses in the Bible. In a way, a chilling spiritual threat by God Almighty. Throughout the Bible God is revealed variously as a God of Mercy and Anger and Love and Vengeance and Compassion. He is, and has been through all of humankind’s history, all those things.

As humble believers and fallible souls, sinners yet saved by Grace… the aspect of God that might concern us the most is when He acts as a God of Justice.

For it is just that we deserve punishment. We fall short. We are sinners in the presence of a Holy God. Yes; saved, we are covered by the Blood; God does not expect perfection, but He demands that we seek perfection. Yet… surely, as bold as we can be to approach the Throne of Grace, we may fear the justice of that Holy God.

What is it to “mock God”?

If you know His Commandments, but willfully rebel,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you are a regular church-goer, and pay your tithes, and can list good deeds; and think that you therefore deserve Heaven,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you were a fervent Christian, but have “back-slid,” yet still have good Christian friends and think your membership the local church, or your kids in Sunday School, are enough to please an “understanding” God,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you are a leader; or a pastor, priest, or rabbi, with a hidden sin, yet think that influencing the community for good will tip the scales in your favor,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you believe that Jesus was a great teacher but not necessarily the Son of God; or that the Bible is book of well-meaning myths and stories but with powerful lessons; if you believe this,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

This is all to say that we humans have an infinite capacity for self-deception… but in vital cases like these, our “selves” are the only people we deceive – maybe a few weak minds around us – but certainly not God.

There is a God; He is Holy and He is just; He does not require more of you than that of which you are capable. Many people think that applies only to grief or temptation or worries… but it applies to obedience too.

Do not plan to discover loopholes or plead extenuating circumstances:
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

In Glory we will discover the ultimate fate of ancient peoples, or faraway tribes that never hear the gospel. That has nothing to do with you. We cannot know what we cannot know, but in the meantime, in this land of many churches, and ministries on all airwaves, even atheists cannot claim never to have heard the invitation of Christ. Skeptics cannot say they never were confronted with arguments about sin. Believers in other gods have still heard the claims of Christ.

These people might maintain that, thanks to their willful cocoons, they never actually heard that Jesus is the Son of God; that He died to spare us the judgment for our sins; that He conquered death; and that belief in Him assures us eternal life. You can you say that you never heard these things in the past… except that here, at least, you have just heard them.

And if readers share this message, or reproduce these words, other folks who claim ignorance of the Good News can no longer avoid the consequences – the choice God presents.

And then, be not deceived:

Neither can God be deceived. And God does not countenance being mocked.

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Click: Abide With Me

Bullets and Ballots

6-19-17

The subject of this essay has been on my mind for some time, and was outlined before the assassination attempts at the Republican baseball practice this week. I will not intone about the “need for civility,” as many are doing and which of course I endorse. But I fear that such hopes are futile, and that was, and is, the sad conclusion I want to discuss.

First, what I substantially had written and still believe:

Donald Trump is likely to be assassinated. Of course I do not urge such I thing. I largely support him, and in fact am happy with his initiatives, and the president he has become. I will take one day – one hour – of his Administration to eight years of his predecessor.

So it is prudent for me to repeat that I do not favor nor encourage his assassination. Neither do I think that raising the topic will inspire any nutcase. To be precise, I am not even prophesying or predicting the heinous act. I am not in that business. I am only reckoning that a personal, physical attack is likely, given the arc of ugliness, violence, threats, and extremism – not infesting politics in general, which is the case, but specifically directed toward President Trump.

Not occasionally; not every day; but virtually every hour since his election. It grows uglier and bloodier. It serves no reason to claim that candidate Trump suggested that thugs at his rallies be given the bum’s rush, or other coarseness; everybody, even leftist protesters, were taught by their mommies that two wrongs don’t make a right. And blue-haired ladies at Tea Party rallies cannot be conflated with Antifas or Bernie and Hillary supporters who set cars on fire and smash store windows.

Ugly words that quickly turned to violence, and “satire” that transformed itself into an ISIS-like depiction of a decapitated President, or his bloody murder on a New York stage, inevitably will inspire weak minds to turn thoughts to deeds.

More, I fully believe that the despicable act can be committed not by an impressionable left-wing nitwit, but by a celebrity. An actor or actress, a “journalist,” a celebrity whose access to a president is easier to achieve than among normal, sane, folks.

John Wilkes Booth was a prominent actor in his day. The moment people heard of Lincoln’s assassination, they immediately recognized Booth’s name. Today, it could be a Baldwin brother, or a Maddow, or a Madonna. I suppose many leftists would be happy to do the deed and be considered martyrs. In a nation virtually free of the death penalty, the perpetrator would a) be considered a hero by half the country; and b) serve less than a life sentence.

Does any reader think this is implausible? Booth thought Lincoln a “baboon” who ruined the South (while the Reconstruction President would have been the defeated South’s best friend). Garfield’s assassin Guiteau was disappointed that he had not received a political appointment; the president represented a faction different than Guiteau’s. That was it.

McKinley’s assassin Czolgosz was an anarchist, plain and simple. Largely forgotten by history is the fact that between the 1880s and World War I there was a worldwide epidemic of bombings and political assassinations. Royalty; elected leaders; prominent businessmen – dozens were killed by anarchists and leftists, down to the “match” that lit the fires of the Great War in 1914: the murder of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist.

When Theodore Roosevelt was shot point-blank in the chest during the Bull Moose campaign (and, with the bullet in him and blood pouring from the wound, he insisted on delivering his 90-minute speech) it was by an unemployed bartender whose “mind” was inflamed by newspaper editorials calling TR a tyrant.

Given the fever-temperature of our political health these days, an attack on President Trump seems not unlikely.

So. This week an apparently average liberal activist and Bernie backer, after months of stalking, and preparing a written hit-list of Republicans found in his pocket, targeted an enclosed field of GOP politicians warming up for a charity baseball game. That his guns were legal and registered, and he was a liberal, there were few calls for the Second Amendment to be repealed. That nobody died, and only a few people maimed, liberals felt safe, outside the comments and prayers at second base during the game, to blame Trump’s “rhetoric” and other diversions.

The New York Times even wrote, immediately, about Gabby Gifford’s attack six years previous, citing a Sarah Palin campaign sheet with “targeted” Congressional districts. Aside from the canard, “equivalency” is losing its meaning in the United States of Alinsky.

Should we remind ourselves?

During the campaign (thanks for notes to The Daily Caller), anti-Trump protesters attacked, pushed, spit on, and verbally harassed attendees forced to walk a “gauntlet” as they left a Trump fundraiser in Minneapolis, and beat an elderly man. Protesters also attacked Trump’s motorcade;

Protesters in El Cajon CA, chased and beat up a Trump supporter;

A GOP office in North Carolina was firebombed and spray-painted with “Nazi Republicans get out of town or else”;

The president of Cornell University’s College Republicans was assaulted the night after Trump won the election;

Maryland high school students punched a student who was demonstrating in support of Trump, and then kicked him repeatedly while he was on the ground;

California GOP Rep. Tom McClintock had to be escorted to his car after a town hall because of angry protesters. The tires of at least four vehicles were slashed;

Protestors knocked a 71-year-old female staffer for California GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher unconscious during a protest outside the representative’s office;

Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech at the University of California-Berkeley was canceled after rioters set the campus on fire and threw rocks through windows. Milo tweeted that one of his supporters wearing a Trump hat was thrown to the ground and kicked. Ann Coulter and other speakers have been prevented from speaking on campuses;

Protesters at Middlebury College rushed the conservative Dr Charles Murray and Prof Allison Stranger, pushing and shoving Murray and grabbing Stranger by her hair and twisting her neck as they were leaving a campus building. Stranger suffered a concussion. Protesters then surrounded the car they got into, rocking it back and forth and jumping on the hood;

Republican Rep. Tom Garrett, his family, and his dog were targeted by a series of repeated death threats deemed credible by authorities;

-FBI agents arrested a person for threatening to shoot Republican Rep. Martha McSally over her support for Trump;

-Police in Tennessee charged a woman for allegedly trying to run Republican Rep. David Kustoff off the road;

After the shooting of Rep Steve Scalise and others, GOP Rep Claudia Tenney received an email threat that read, “One down, 216 to go.”

These were overt acts. Following is a list complied by Breitbart News of threats spoken and threatened by the celebrities I spoke of earlier. It is not unreasonable to foresee one of these people, or simple minds inflamed by them, to follow through:

Kathy Griffin “beheads” Trump in a graphic photo

Madonna – “I’ve thought a lot about blowing up the White House”

Snoop Dogg “shoots” Trump in the head in music video

Robert De Niro: “I’d like to punch him in the face”

Joss Whedon: “I want a rhino to [F—] Paul Ryan to death”

Shakespeare in the Park stabs “Trump” to death in performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

Rapper YG threatens Trump in “[F—] Donald Trump” song

Marilyn Manson kills “Trump” in music video.

A New Jersey “Democratic Strategist” issued a statement the day after Rep Scalise’s shooting that the attack might have been deserved, echoing comments by elected Democrats across the country. Surely, there were many sincere offerings of regret by the political establishment. Nancy Pelosi’s impromptu comments from the House well were eloquent and heartfelt, about Scalise’s recovery, and about political amity.

Will these expressions bear fruit? They did not, after 9-11; the state of our nation grew bitterer.

Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, until you consider every other. Democracy gone wild is what we have in America today, and the world, similar but worse than 125 years ago: akin to anarchy. The outrageous has become normal. People’s own agendas are considered not only more valid, but exclusively valid, over opponents… and “opponents” have become “enemies” today.

People throughout history have debated with opponents. But enemies are deemed deserving of being killed. This paradigm is what is unfolding in America today.

Welcome to the End Times. Your road map can be II Timothy 3: 1-5: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof. Have nothing to do with such people.

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click: Trauermusik (Funeral Music) Marche Funebre by Chopin

 

Growing In the Valley

6-12-17

A guest blog essay this week by my old friend Pastor Gary Adams of the Kelham Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. Gary and I went to high school together in Old Tappan NJ and shared, among other things, an admiration for William F Buckley. I could quote Bill, but Gary was able to add a dead-on impersonation and the distinctive pencil-tapping of the conservative hero.

Our most memorable adventure was the afternoon we got booted from Mr LaFemina’s Economics class. Our crime? Gary made a joke, and I laughed. The teacher was actually the funniest person in the entire school, so this must have been a bad day for him. Silver lining: we were banished to the History Department Office… where I cleverly (?) engaged its chairman, Mr Newman, in a discussion of our favorite scenes in Mozart’s Magic Flute.

We turned an embarrassment into a plus; climbed from the valley to a mountaintop that afternoon. Well, sort of. This is a segue to Gary’s guest column here, inspired, he suggests, by our Monday Ministry blog last week about life’s valleys. He wrote this for his church’s newsletter, Kelham Korner, and he packed a lot of Biblical history and Christian wisdom into an e-mail’s confines, better than I did.

In last week’s blog, titled “Are You Tired of Living in the Valley?” Rick mused on mountaintop experiences and mentioned a song by Dottie Rambo, “In the Valley He Restoreth My Soul.” The song notes, “Nothing grows high on a mountain, so He picked out a valley for me.”

I had never really considered that.

Some quick research revealed that in Colorado’s mountain communities “only three non-indigenous species (not native to the area) were found thriving above nine thousand feet,” the Piñon pine, Rocky Mountain juniper, and Green Ash. Food crops that grow at high altitude include leafy greens (lettuces, spinach, collards, turnip greens); root vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, potatoes); peas; broccoli; cauliflower; Brussels sprouts; as well as various herbs. Some growers have had limited success with varieties of corn and pumpkins and Russian tomatoes (under cover). Food crops generally grow poorly on the mountaintop. Too little moisture, harsh conditions, and limited space to plant contribute to the difficulties of growing enough on which to survive when living on top of a mountain.

Mountaintop experiences draw our attention in the Bible: Noah and his family landing the ark on top of Ararat (Genesis 8); Abraham offering Isaac and receiving God’s promise of a Lamb (Genesis 22); Aaron and Hur holding up Moses’ arms (and staff) in the battle against Amalek (Exodus 17); Moses receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32); David buying the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24); Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18); Peter and James and John with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration (Matthew 17). All draw us into visible signs of God’s presence.

Each mountaintop experience comes surrounded by valleys. The ark rested on Ararat after the greatest worldwide disaster in history in which all but eight people died. Abraham journeyed to Moriah knowing God had called him to sacrifice his only son. Moses’ experience against Amalek came after the people of Israel were on the verge of stoning Moses for having no water.

While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel were in the valley building and worshipping a golden calf, and three thousand Israelites died as a result. David bought the threshing floor to build an altar to God to stop the plague that came as a result of his foolish numbering of the people. Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel came in the midst of widespread idolatry and suffering (a drought of three and a half years) and was followed by Elijah fleeing to the cave in the desert where he heard God’s still, small voice call him back to complete his service.

And Peter and James and John’s experience on the mount of transfiguration followed Jesus’ announcement of his coming betrayal and crucifixion, followed by rebuking Peter for acting in the place of Satan.

Then there was Mount Calvary.

Truly, that was a great mountaintop experience for us. We sometimes forget it was preceded by Jesus’ sweating “as it were great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44) in the garden of Gethsemane. We forget that on Mount Calvary our Savior paid the horrendous price of bearing our sin. Could Jesus have borne the sufferings of Calvary without the prayer of Gethsemane?

Just as few crops grow on the mountaintop, we cannot live on the mountaintop. Rambo’s song says, “The Lord knows I can’t live on a mountain, so He picked out a valley for me…. Then He tells me there’s strength in my sorrow and there’s victory in trials for me.”

While we might prefer the mountaintop, the conditions for growth lie in the valleys. If we were never tested, we would never know God’s strength. If we were never tried, we would never know God’s faithfulness. If we were never broken, we would never know God’s ability to remake us and mold us into His image.

Craig Curry’s song, Still, is a declaration of faith in the faithfulness of God affirming that we will still trust, we will still praise, even when we are broken and wounded and in the valley, because “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. … to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:28-29).

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Click: Still

Are You Tired of Living In the Valley?

6-5-17

Mountaintop experiences. We yearn for them. Many of us have experienced them. Ministers promise them.

Significantly, Jesus did not promise them, not all the time; very seldom, in fact. His ministry was about meeting us where we are, as we are. When we are spiritually transformed we are not promised a transfiguration to a mountaintop except, perhaps, in poetic terms. But even then, it it clear that the Lord wants us, when called, to stay where we are, or go where He wants us, and do His work… sometimes to live and work in places far removed from any semblance of an exalted mountain top.

This will not be an invitation to exult in sorrow, as some religious extremists seek to do, thinking that self-willed suffering proves their faith. In both earthly destinations – the bright mountaintop and the dark valley – we dishonor God if we substitute residency for seeking and accepting His will.

We should be careful, naturally, if we send ourselves into dangerous overseas missions or domestic ministries – or if we send our zealous children – without fervent prayer. But my real concern today is with people who long for the “mountaintop experiences,” and, sometimes prodded by certain preachers, think they are missing God’s favor, or out of His will, if instead they continue in circumstances generally regarded as “living down in the valley.”

You know it… and probably have felt it at times. Never able to get out of financial challenges. Unlucky in love. Frustrated at work. Suffering aches and pains.

“Is such a life a good witness, to the world, of what a Christian’s life is?”

Maybe.

Actually, I will add to that. It has little relation to what a Christian’s life is.

What the world looks at – what God looks at – is not where you are but how, as a Christian, you deal with it. If you are there for a reason, if He has given you a task or even a burden, you insult God Almighty by lusting all the time for that shiny resort up on yonder mountain.

Dottie Rambo wrote one of her most profound gospel songs with the following lyrics:

When I’m low in spirit, I cry, “Lord lift me up, I want to go higher with Thee!”
But nothing grows high on a mountain, so He picked out a valley for me.

Then He leads me beside still waters, Somewhere in the valley below.
And He draws me aside to be tested and tried, In the valley He restoreth my soul!

Dark as a dungeon, the sun seldom shines, And I question: “Lord why must this be?”
But He tells me there’s strength in my sorrow, And there’s victory in trials for me!

Then He leads me beside still waters, Somewhere in the valley below.
And He draws me aside to be tested and tried, In the valley He restoreth my soul!

Yes, more things grow in the world’s valleys than on the highest mountains’ tops. And that can include you and me, growing. I have been in both environments, literally and figuratively. Oh, there is beauty, and great perspectives, from the heights; and we should never disdain the upward trail.

But in the meantime, the valleys can be special places.

Let us remember – a propos the valleys of life – that even the most horrible valley described in God’s Word, the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” is not a place from which our loving Father promises to spare us, no!

Psalm 23 assures us, “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.

We can not avoid such places in our lives. We can not escape such moments in our “walks.” Rather, we should trust God; lean on the Everlasting Arms. He does not promise to find detours for us. He promises to be with us, protect us… and comfort us, when we are in those dark valleys.

When Jesus gave the Great Commission, neither did He send His disciples to the mountaintops of all the world, but to all the world.

One more perspective, based on personal experiences. I have been on mountaintops – high above the “pine line” in the Rockies, with friends after Christian Writers conferences in Estes Park. We behold the vistas and have been moved to sing, “This Is My Father’s World.” Moving. I have also been so high in the Alps that nothing grows but lichen, that moss-like composite of fungus and algae (yes, this IS my Father’s world! Who could imagine that hybrid organism, not a plant?) – wondrous and mysterious and ancient. Yet… moss-like.

At the other extreme, to find something indigenous, think of the beautiful, fragrant, colorful Lily. “Of the Valley,” as it is known and loved.

There is victory in trials, the song reminds us. If mountaintop people never have trials, they can not lean on the promises of God; or savor His protection; or experience His sweet comfort.

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Click: In the Valley He Restoreth My Soul

Broken

5-29-17

I once attended a church where the Invitation at the end of the service invariably was unique. I did not grow up in churches where altar calls were common, a situation I regret. In the church of my heritage it was assumed you were already in the family of God; or did not need a public act to show it or prove it. It was regarded as no one else’s business. Such things were too embarrassing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Broken Ones

What Does God See in You?

5-22-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preachers in Aprons, Saints in Curlers, Ceaseless Forgivers

5-15-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A birthright, in fact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Slumber, My Darling

The Crisis of Bullying

5-8-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Stand Up For Jesus

May Day

5-1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Help Me

The Truth About Progressivism

4-24-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Do You Know?

What If the Easter Story Were True?

4-17-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To contemporary Christians, I ask:

What if the Easter story IS true?

Can people see a change in your life?

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

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

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

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

Do you love?

Do you forgive?

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

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

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

Sacrificial lambs never did have an easy time of it.

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

Indeed, What manner of man is this?

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Click: He Lives

The King Was Coming. Mere History

4-10-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no time like the “Present.”

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Click: The King Is Coming

The Time of the Songbirds is Come

4-3-17

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

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

But Spring. . .

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

Or a dream on the horizon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Should Be Your Favorite Bible Verse

3-27-17

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

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

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (II Timothy 3:16 NLT).

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

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

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

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

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

“It is finished.”

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

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

“It.”

What was “it” that was finished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comprised of many favorite verses!
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Click: It Is Finished

What Is Plausible About God?

3-20-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where does ‘plausible’ start and end?”

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

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

What is plausible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: It’s a Small World, After All

Let Us Go Forward To the First Century

3-13-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Marschall and Emily Joy McCorkell

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Click: Faith of Our Fathers

Family Christian Stores, Rest in Pieces

3-6-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Hands, One Heart

2-27-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into our hearts.

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord

Presidents and Their Faith

2-20-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: In God We Trust

Patience and Timing, Endangered Species

2-13-17

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

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

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

The instructor replied, “Patience.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Waiting On the Lord

“Hey – I Know That Guy!”

2-6-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shameful we are, rather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Do You Know My Jesus?

Frienemies

1-30-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Prayer

We Love Him for the Friends He Has Made

1-23-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Leader Anointed of God?

1-16-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Trump?

No, actually I was thinking of Samson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Battle Hymn Of the Republic

Don’t Ask Me.

1-9-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Go Ask the One

Thank You To the god Janus

1-1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Newness OF life.

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

Happy January!
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Click: St Patrick’s Breastplate

A Different Christmas

12-26-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herod was an amateur.

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

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

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

Click: The Coventry Carol (Acapella)

The Bell-Ringer of Bethlehem

12-19-16

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

NOT filled with pilgrims, worshipers, locals, as once was the case for 2000 years. Violence between the Israeli forces and Palestinians had broken out, harshly. Again, this year. As before, during random days of the years. Again this year, but at Christmastide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a brilliant but deeply disturbing report for World Magazine a few years ago, my friend Mindy Belz provided details of the US military’s (and NATO representatives’) answer to a question about whether persecuted Christians would be pr rotected in Iraq. By us, the United States. Their answer even then was “No.” Under Saddam Hussein, 1.5-million Christians lived in relative security; today, fewer than 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq, many in fear. Likewise, in Syria, the Alawite Bashir el-Assad was the Christians’ protector.

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

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

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

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

For the little town of Bethlehem. For everywhere.

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

The Bethlehem Bell-Ringer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12-12-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: O Little Town of Bethlehem

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

We Can Escape the Savior, But Not the Judge

12-5-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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