Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

Being Thankful Even When the Shirt Hits the Fan

11-24-14

The Rosetta, a mother craft that hurtled through space for 10 years, recently dropped a landing craft called Philae on a distant comet called by scientists 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet is relatively small, fewer than three miles in diameter, its arcane name bestowed to distinguish it from thousands of other comets and asteroids. Gotta keeps things straight when these objects are a third of a trillion miles from earth, speeding at something like 35,000 miles an hour.

These numbers alone should make us take notice. It is not a bad thing, amidst cruelty, oppression, barbarity across our own planet, to appreciate the potential of the human mind – and the human spirit – by focusing on other planets, other objects in space, fellow residents of the universe.

The saints and sages of ancient Egypt and Athens used to gaze at the stars, and chart them. Before them, primitive grunters around the world would look heavenward and wonder. Most of us still do more than occasionally. What is out there? How long has this all been spinning? Where does it end? – and, then, what is beyond that boundary? What is our place in all this?

Such has been the inspiration for theologians, philosophers, scientists, poets, and lovers since time immemorial. Which is good. It is good to look up. It is good to look away, sometimes, from our own concerns. “Keep your eyes on the stars,” Theodore Roosevelt once said, “but keep your feet on the ground.” The scientists behind Rosetta had a very specific goal: to test the comet for the presence of elements, and water, that might be similar to those found on earth.

Their idea, since current theories identify comets as leftover crumbs from the Big Bang, like rock-solid dust bunnies under the universe’s bed, that if any of them slammed into Earth in primordial times, then perhaps a droplet of water eventually led to… well, you get it, iPads and all the rest. Maybe so. I am not a proponent of a 5-billion-year-old universe, but let them have their fun. Who knows what will be discovered?

Whilst I seriously am in awe of this mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the inspiration it will foster, I am amused by some aspects of the mission and its guiding earthbound crew. As I chuckle I am also grateful for the following:

When the scientists made their first joint comments to the world’s press, they fumbled with microphones that didn’t work, or got tangled between them;

The lander bounced like a tennis ball on the low-gravity comet. This was always a threat, especially if (as turned out) solar panels were turned from, instead of toward, the sun. A shame, but some data was collected and beamed to earth;

One of the scientists wore a wild shirt in a press conference, a colorful silky affair festooned with drawings of sexy women. It was decried by various troops of the Thought Police as sexist and inappropriate, but a) it was hand-made for him by his girlfriend; and b) the fellow, as a scientist, should have a right to assert his Inner Nerdiness;

In a subsequent press conference, the brainiac broke down crying, as he apologized for wearing the shirt. He plants a (virtual) spec on a (virtual) dot almost a trillion miles from home, and he loses his composure when the Shirt hit the fan.

… all are examples, or reminders really, that humankind is not approaching superhuman status, neither our emotions nor even our brains. We still bumble and stumble, sort of walking into trees and puddles while gazing at the stars. We build fancier toys, shinier too, but hardly are closer to understanding Everything about life – hardly Anything. The Big Bang is the latest answer to Why and When questions about creation. But… the more I hear scientists explaining it, the more, it seems to me, that they are just restating the first chapter of Genesis. Merely with less clarity.

Those news stories about chess masters playing against computers? Sometimes the computer wins, and folks start talking about the threat to human beings, if computers become smarter than we are. I would remind the nervous folks that there are always the options of removing batteries or pulling plugs; and at the root of the matter, human beings make computers, human beings program computers, and human beings, at least around here, screw them up on occasion. I think we are safe.

How is this essay a message for Thanksgiving Week? To me, simple; a lot simpler than landing a vacuum cleaner on a comet. The ESA triumph, even with glitches, makes me give thanks for the minds wherewith God has graced us. The renewed inspiration provided by an astonishing space mission makes me give thanks for the spark of creativity God has placed in all of us – we literally cannot create anything, but we can rearrange and discover things, therefore able to appreciate the quality of creativity that He allows us to emulate.

And I am thankful as a child of God that my fellow creatures – all of us – whether through space missions or a sport-shirt selection, may remain humble. Servants knowing our places in the universe. We don’t have to be rocket scientists to be thankful for that.

+ + +

Human achievements. Creativity. Mysteries of the universe. Let us give thanks this week, by resting upon sincere prayers of gratitude. Also I nominate on oratorio by Franz Josef Haydn, “The Creation.” An amazing work of profound spirituality. Haydn is remembered for his symphonies, string quartets, and chamber works, but seldom for his choral, religious, and oratorical work. “The Creation” is a masterful account of the Genesis story. This video (Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, dir.; performed in English) is a work of art in itself, with orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a magnificent cathedral… and the camera examining every corner of the cathedral’s design and decorations, and amazing, amazing videos of nature’s glories – God’s glories!

Click: The Creation by Josef Haydn

Feel Like Going Home

11-17-14

A few years ago I moved from San Diego to Michigan (people in Michigan STILL ask me why. Not only why I moved from a place like San Diego… but why to Michigan?) (Long story, not for here.) But one thing I missed in San Diego, after having lived most of my life around New York City, in the New England-to-Philadelphia corridor, was Autumn.

Calendar photos cannot fill the void. Neither can videos nor, if such things exist, air-fresheners with fragrances named Burning Leaves, or even Rotting Leaves. The aromas of Autumn, once inhaled, become part of your DNA, at least the nostalgic and sentimental mitochondria. The smell of ripe apples in the orchard; the elixir provided by the first blast of cold, clean, crisp air filling your lungs; and, yes, the smell of burning leaves.

Some of that has been stolen from us by dictatorial bureaucrats who prohibit – I think everywhere in the United States – the burning of leaves in backyards or township facilities. They are protecting our (yearning) lungs, you see, and keeping the air pure. Yes. If they had been around in 1868 Chicago, there would have been draconian prohibitions of lanterns, cows, and probably O’Learys, across the fruited plain, subsequent to the famous fire.

And I have not even mentioned, partly because it can be experienced better than described, the glorious colors of Fall. God’s palette.

The suppression of leaf-burning is much more than a denial of primal olfactory pleasure. For all of mankind’s history there has been a warp and woof of life, irretrievably timed by the changing seasons, just like winding an old clock maintains the comforting sound of the pendulum’s ticking. I tell you the truth: the comforting ticking of my grandfather’s clock in quiet moments is more important to me than the time on its face during busy moments.

The uncountable companions of time’s progression – call it Nature’s Choreography – are fast disappearing, thanks (or blame) to modern life.

Different than phenomena like verifiable weather cycles and crackpot predications of global doom, I don’t think we can dismiss the import of elemental transformations. Some things in history “happen,” but not for the better; some things in our basic lifestyles “change,” clearly to our detriment. The earth handles ice ages better than humans are coping with revolutions in values, norms, standards, traditions, and our souls’ inclinations toward faith and belief.

We do not have to engage in disputes about evolution to recognize that mankind (anyway, north of the Equator and especially in the “West”) all of a sudden has experienced abrupt changes in daily life-cycles, and life-cycles overall. We are evolving, rapidly. “All of a sudden” – that is, relative to the sweep of history – we no longer have to regulate our activities by daylight vs. night-darkness. We generally are able to maintain larger pursuits without regard to the seasons. For instance, we no longer live without certain fruits and vegetables “out of season” because of chemicals and bio-engineering and transportation and refrigeration – not that the fruits and vegetables taste as good as our grandparents’ did.

Mankind’s traditional fears of plagues and storms and thieves and oppressive rulers are, mostly, no longer everyday concerns. Surely this has caused an adjustment of self-assurance, community reliance, and faith. Hope and prayers have lesser roles as this new paradigm offers a “middle class,” a new station for its many citizens; and its governments replace the traditional roles of families, churches, and even God. Insecurity gave way to security, and in turn to prosperity, abundance, moral lassitude, and economic dependence. Democracy, leavened by irresponsibility, is threatening Anarchy. Liberty has led to license.

At one time the majority of mankind depended on harvests – as we return to thoughts of sniffing the air for Autumn aromas – and the insecurity of harvest bounty made cooperation, thrift, planning, and prayers as natural as seeding and cultivating to those who farmed. And so in other basic pursuits. These matters manifested causation, not mere correlation. It is how life worked, and, we are persuaded, should work. But no longer does work. Where farmers once trusted for months to God, the weather, lack of pestilence, and the sweat of harvesters… now supermarket shoppers get annoyed if winter tomatoes are out of stock until tomorrow.

This is called progress.

Call it what you will, but I believe that cultural dislocations of this most basic sort have implications that far outstrip the matter of fruit on our plates or night baseball or air-conditioned malls, all contrasted with the lifestyles of our recent ancestors. While in the midst of these dislocations, we are loathe to notice and largely unable to consider the radical changes in the human story. The timeline becomes the lifeline.

The most significant change has been a loss of faith. Our prosperity and liberty, because we have not been careful to nurture the elemental values, have “freed” mankind from reliance on God. Never has a civilization self-destructed so fast in this regard. Partly because we have seemingly tamed the weather and the clock and the calendar and eating patterns and the soil and infirmity (our second-greatest blind spot, in my opinion), we are not merely rebellious toward God, but indifferent to Him.

This is clearly regression.

Even the most primitive of societies acknowledge some sort of god; in all peoples – except contemporary Western civilization? – there is a yearning to worship, to serve something greater than ourselves. In the West, our vestigial consciences want the government, impersonally and by coercion if necessary, to tend to matters of charity.

If, during these few ticks on Eternity’s clock where we find ourselves right now, we seem to get along without God’s daily counsel and protection, it does not mean He is not here. He is here, and I think we can agree that the God of Love nevertheless feels wounded. The Bible says He can be a “jealous God.” He is angry; He should be, if His Word is true.

And despite our prosperity and liberty, Western civilization finds itself unsure, self-doubting, violent, confused, insecure, unhappy, immoral, and adrift.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” Jesus said (Matthew 9:37). But He also used the analogy of the harvest in Revelation (14:14ff) about Judgment on mankind, the great sickle gathering clusters of grapes for the winepress of God’s wrath. These words – and the truth of our situation, a lost and sinful generation – should make us shudder.

We have work to do here: God’s will for our lives is manifest. We seek to know it; we yearn to please Him. But aren’t there times, maybe as Autumn gives way to Winter and things around us are dying – and at this point in history when mankind resists not only God’s will but His ordained ways – that you just feel like going Home?

+ + +

Gospel Blues? The message of today’s essay receives its coda in a classic Charlie Rich song. Sung here by Trisha Yearwood and Bonnie Raitt; Jools Holland on
piano (his late-night UK TV show is “Later…”). That his blues playing is not quite that of Charlie Rich or Ray Charles, each of whom recorded this song, surely says more about them than about Jools or anybody else. Yet this is a powerful performance of the song and its challenging lyrics.

Click: Feel Like Going Home

How Great Art Thou?

11-10-14

Families of certain traditional observances pray before every meal. This is probably less common than in the past; I do not know. I migrated from a faith tradition where rote prayers were recited, to an exercise of spontaneous thanks; from leading or corporate prayers, to an individual thanking God. Usually the latter prayer has a correlative effect of letting the meal cool, but God will see that many are cold but few are frozen.

My sisters and I, in unison, recited the sing-song verse (that did not, actually, rhyme perfectly): “God is great, God is good; and we thank Him for this food. Amen.”

As I grew up I understood quite clearly that such thanks were due God even when we had boiled beef tongue, or liver and onions, waiting. It is the principle of the thing; another meaning of “good taste.” In that spirit I never failed to pray, sometimes to myself, when dining at my mother-in-law’s table, years later. If you ever had one of her meals you would understand why most of my silent prayers were lifted AFTER I ate what I could.

Back to topic, which is not so much an early Thanksgiving meditation as to offer some thoughts about “God is great,” as per the childhood prayer.

God, being God, and as much as He reveals of Himself, surely is great. Our understanding is imperfect, partly because He reveals Himself through scripture and in the Person of His Son… and yet we have but the smallest, most fleeting, impression of who He is. We see as through a glass darkly, as with many things. Yet, though we might someday understand Him more – let us say as the angels in Heaven see and understand – that will still fall short. If we were to know Him fully, we would be as God, and that will never be.

His mysteries are to be wondered at, not jealously coveted. I like it that way (which is just as well, because that is cosmic reality). SEEKING to know Him better, wanting new ways to please Him, desiring His will so that I might obey more and more – these are the sweet assignments of the believer.

Can we see these mysteries and sometimes-hidden attributes of God, the continuous revelation of His character, as a definition of Great in the context of that childhood prayer? – “God is great, God is good”?

Indeed we can. And that goes beyond the reminder of very different meanings of “great” and “good.”

That childhood prayer, despite its innocent simplicity, addresses the crux of the contemporary debate about the existence of God. That debate is, I believe, the defining proposition of Western Civilization’s crisis. We are, without doubt, in a post-Christian society. Nietzsche first posited the question, “Is God dead?” not as theological argument, but to observe that when God is no longer the motive force behind a civilization’s standards and judgments; when mankind ceases to acknowledge Him in the arts, in law, in morality, in education, in science… He is, very much in effect, dead to that culture.

Christians must resuscitate God in our culture: not that He needs our assistance, being God; but so that we assert His rightful place in our affairs, so that we properly honor Him again, because it is, as the old liturgies used to say, “truly meet and right so to do.” After all, when we let our foundation-stones crumble… well, you don’t have to be an architect to know how houses can fall.

So, believers, it is our duty to fight back against the creeping (galloping?) secularization of our society.

I ask you notice something, however, that is inherent in that childhood prayer. Remember this as you assay the issues (and, believe me, this issue underlies EVERY worldview topic you can think of) or discuss matters with skeptics and agnostics and atheists and secularists and relativists. Many of those folks begin their arguments with “How can there be a God who…” or “Why would a loving God permit” this or that.

When people begin their arguments about God in those ways, notice that they are not denying the existence of God: they are complaining about His ways, or His attributes, or how He doesn’t follow the scripts that skeptics would lay out. They are not demanding that you admit there is no God, even as they might think that such is their belief (or non-belief)… they are just annoyed that He is not fitting their own job descriptions.

Truly, if people did not believe in God, or a god, at all, they would simply go home to their knitting. What difference would it make? So even if they do not realize it, they basically – deep down in their hearts – acknowledge a God. We should talk to them, and pray for them, with the attitude that these people are already on the road, and just need guiding hands.

A case in point that we should think about is the late skeptic Christopher Hitchens, who made a career in his last years, before cancer claimed him, doing roadshows with Dinesh D’Sousa debating the existence of God. Hitchens’ best-seller at the time was a book titled “God Is Not Good.” Blasphemous? Just short, maybe, but my point is that the title automatically supposes – rather than denies – the existence of God. Skeptics like Hitchens are only lingering at the Suggestion Box, perhaps, we pray, on their way to the sinner’s rail.

A hymn that I think could be the theme-music of this message is reportedly America’s second-favorite hymn after “Amazing Grace.” As such, “How Great Thou Art” often is assumed to be an ancient hymn, but it is barely 125 years old. A poem written by the Swede Carl-Gustav Boberg was translated into English by Stuart K. Hine. Its origin is the account of Boberg walking home and beset by a sudden violent storm. When it cleared he was not only grateful for his safety but impressed by the suffused sunlight, birdsongs, and distant church bells. At home he wrote the familiar words so loved by many.

Its tune was from a Swedish folk tune that is so elemental that it has similarities to later songs like the gospel “Until Then,” and, ironically, the march “Horst Wessel Lied.” But “How Great Thou Art” wended its way from Sweden to Germany to the Baltic states (Estonia, principally), to Russia, England, and America. It was still largely unknown to the church community in the US when it was sung by George Beverly Shea at a Billy Graham crusade in Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1957. Cliff Barrows has reported that it was sung more than a hundred times during that crusade, and possibly was the reason the crusade services were extended and held over.

It has been a standard ever since, not only of the Billy Graham services, but of church meetings, funerals, camp meetings, and concerts.

Attractive tune, certainly. The song’s structure “builds,” and makes an emotional impression. But surely the impact derives from the message – the song says what we cannot otherwise easily put into words. When our hearts burst, when our minds are excited, when our lips fail us… then sing our souls, How Great Thou Art!

+ + +

Here is one of the impactful renditions of “How Great Thou Art” you will ever hear (and that would rival Bev Shea and Elvis and Carrie Underwood and hundreds of others). RoseAngela Merritt singing the hymn a cappella in St. Anne’s church that was built next to the Pools of Bethesda in Jerusalem, where Jesus healed the crippled man. The site, and acoustics, the emotional rendering, are outstanding.

Click: How Great Thou Art

Just Leave It There

11-3-14

We believe Jesus in many ways and about many things; or we like to believe we do. But often, when He speaks most directly, His humble servants – you and me – tend to either miss the significance of His words, or sometimes over-think them. Does that happen in your life?

In either of those cases His words lose their effect! Unplugging Jesus? That’s not just foolish; it could be dangerous.

I am speaking specifically of His promises to us, and when we don’t act on them. Why would the Son of God “go out on a limb” and promise us peace and healing and forgiveness and wisdom and strength and power, unless He can fulfill those promises; and wants us to take Him at His word; and have us try to exercise spiritual gifts? And if we don’t – if we hear them, but are timid, or weak in faith, or exercise excuses – are we not, in effect, calling Him a liar?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (11:28-39, NET).

Could there be a sweeter promise? We don’t have to be farmers or ploughmen to understand the analogy. All we have to be is human beings – with our usual problems and fears and disappointments; and, sometimes, doubts – to FEEL the unspeakable joy that such an invitation holds. But yet, we do not always avail ourselves of the promise.

How often do we feel unworthy to bring all our problems for the Lord to deal with, especially if they are of our own making? How often do we feel that our spirituality should not admit to needing any help – “we can take it from here, Lord”? How often do we over-intellectualize, searching scripture, seeking counsel, even praying, praying, praying? Those all might represent good “B” answers… when the “A” answer is the promise of Jesus!

How often do we do these things (or not do these things)? The answer is – often. Too often.

“Take your burden to the Lord leave it there.” You know, there is a lot of room at the foot of the cross. More than we can imagine. One burden. Many of our burdens. Huge burdens. The burdens of many. And in the meantime – on our way to the cross to leave them, so to speak – Jesus will be our yoke, lifting the load, carrying our burdens for us.

There is a hymn, “Leave It There,” describing this very practice, taking our burdens to the Lord. It has special significance to me and my family. After the heart and kidney transplants of my wife Nancy at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, we conducted a hospital ministry to heart-failure and transplant patients. For six years we (that is, Nancy and me and our three children Heather, Ted, and Emily) would conduct services and visit patients’ rooms once or twice every week.

In our services, “Leave It There” became a favorite hymn, often requested by patients, some of whom heard it for the first time in those services, and by patients who came and went through the years. Among its comforting, and strengthening, lines: “If your body suffers pain and your health you can’t regain, And your soul is almost sinking in despair, Jesus knows the pain you feel, He can save and He can heal; Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there. ~~ Leave it there, leave it there, Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there; If you trust and never doubt, He will surely bring you out! Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”

It was written by Charles Albert Tindley, born in 1851, the son of a slave. By age five he was orphaned, but at 17, after the Civil War, he had taught himself to read and write. He moved from Maryland to Philadelphia, working for no pay as a church custodian but, aspiring to the ministry, he learned Greek and Hebrew. The African Methodist Episcopal Church accredited him on the basis of outstanding test scores and preaching skills. For several years he was placed in different churches in different cities, impressing his congregations and winning converts.

Pastor, Deacon, Elder… eventually Tindley received a call to a congregation in Philadelphia. Thus did this servant of God become pastor of the church where he once worked as an unpaid janitor. When he preached his first sermon there, 130 members sat in the pews. Eventually under him the church had more than 10,000 worshipers. He preached, he championed civic causes, and he wrote astonishing hymns and gospel songs. One became the basis of the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

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

Doing research during the course of our hospital ministry, I was surprised to learn that the author of our makeshift congregations’ favorite hymn lived and preached in Tindley Temple, just down North Broad Street from where we met every Sunday morning. We had a connection with Dr. Tindley, who died in 1933, that seemed more than coincidental. Did he, with all the challenges he faced and, yes, burdens he bore, always “trust and never doubt”? That likely is not the case… but he was, as an overcomer, an example of someone who took those burdens to the Lord and left them there.

Those very acts, trusting and fighting the temptation to doubt, will be honored by God. He will surely bring you out.

+ + +

The great Jessy Dixon sings the anthem of faith, “Leave It There,” as only he could.
Click: Leave It There

Protestantism’s Birthday – A New 95 Theses Needed

10-27-14

This is Reformation Week, commemorating the traditional date of October 31, when the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed 95 theses – point-by-point criticisms of contemporary Roman Catholic practices – onto the wooden door of Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany. All throughout northern Europe, churches were the centers of each town’s social, as well as spiritual, life, and their doors were the precursors of our day’s “postings to your wall.”

Everyone in the town square saw Luther’s manifesto. It was not startling except, perhaps, for its formality and audacity. But Luther had been complaining about practices in the Church for some time: corruption in its operation, committing errors in doctrine. And so had many others complained. In other German cities and states. And in Switzerland. And the Netherlands. In northern Italy. Even a hundred years earlier, when a dissident Moravian priest, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake. I have stood in reverence before his statue in Prague’s Old Town Square. And even before Hus, one who protested the ethical and doctrinal corruption in Rome: John Wycliffe, of England. One of his “crimes” was translating the Bible into English (the “language of the people,” instead of Latin), as Luther later dared to do with his German translation.

For all the brewing opposition to the Vatican, the Reformation, if not Reformed theology, is popularly regarded as having begun with Luther, and specifically on that day in 1517 when he nailed those 95 indictments to the church door. That is because a dam burst, metaphorically, in the Catholic Church, in larger Christendom, in society, in politics, in the arts, on all cultural levels. Half the German princes opposed the Pope’s political and military prerogatives, as well as papal ecclesiastical authority. After Hus’s martyrdom, major social upheavals led to Bohemia soon becoming 90 per cent Hussite (today’s Moravian church) or other variety of Protestant.

So the 95 Theses were the spark that lit a bonfire, but there were burning embers and brushfires aplenty for two centuries previous. Also, the times were right for a revolution like the Reformation. Rome’s corruption was outrageous; extra-biblical doctrines were offending the pious; and, hand-in-hand with the ideas behind the Renaissance, men were learning to think for themselves. And act for themselves; and organize, and trade, and read, for themselves. Literacy: a few centuries earlier, Luther’s manifesto would have a been a paper with meaningless scribbles to passersby. On that Sunday, however, the theses were read, and devoured, and discussed. The Pope was furious when he was told that Luther’s tracts were best-sellers of the day in Germany.

It is frankly the case that the revolution that Luther sparked was not fully intended by him. He did not want to break away from the Catholic Church, least of all have a denomination named for him. He scolded his followers who stormed Catholic churches and knocked over statues (“idols,” to them). But… he was excommunicated. For a time he was hidden by protectors because the Church wanted him dead. He married a former nun, settled into a life of preaching and writing (many volumes!) and preaching “sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone) as the basis for faith, and for salvation.

His era’s handmaidens, Renaissance thought, humanism, and neo-Classicism, were not particularly welcome movements to Martin Luther. If anything he was closer to Orthodoxy, at least in rejecting “modern” trends in theology. He went so far as to say that “Reason is the enemy of Faith.” Remember, he relied on “Scripture Alone.” Ironically, he was especially venerated during the Enlightenment because (despite some history books claiming the period to be one of liberation from the Bible) Newton and others saw scientific discoveries as explaining God, not marginalizing Him. So Luther, father of the Reformation, was not the first of the Moderns, but the last of the Medievalists.

In spite of Luther – or, rather, an inevitable component of the Protestant Reformation – social and political freedoms were unleashed. Literacy spread, and as people split from the church they increasingly asserted their civil rights too. In a very real sense, we can say for convenience’s sake if not dramatic effect, that Western civilization was one way before Oct 31, 1517; and another way afterward. With Martin Luther, formally, on that day, began the battle of the individual against authority, the primacy of conscience over arbitrary regulations.

Those battles continue, of course. But blessings flowered… and malignant seeds sprouted too. Democracy has led to social disruption and near-anarchic relations between classes and nations. With broken ecclesiastic authority, public morality has degenerated. And as denominations have multiplied, their influence has virtually evaporated in Western culture and in the United States.

It can be said – and has been said, frequently – that the Roman Catholic Church brought the Reformation onto itself. Perhaps (for instance) some of the mistresses and illegitimate children of Popes would have a say in that discussion. The widespread device of selling “indulgences” still stands as a major offense: common people were persuaded to pay money to guarantee that their dead ancestors would be delivered from torture in Purgatory (despite the fact the Bible does not say that we can have influence of the souls of the departed… or even that there is such a place as Purgatory). Yet an enterprising priest, Tetzel, invented a rhyme, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Much of this was a scheme to build and decorate St Peter’s in Rome. Clever venture capitalism, bold entrepreneurial management, perhaps; but rotten theology.

Very specifically, these vile offenses confronted Luther when he travelled on foot from Germany to the Holy See on a mission. He was aghast at the corruption, decadence, sin, money-grubbing, and countless heresies – not in the city of Rome, but in the Vatican itself. A biographer of Luther wrote, “the city, which he had greeted [from afar] as holy, was a sink of iniquity; its very priests were openly infidel and scoffed at the services they performed; the papal courtiers were men of the most shameless lives.”

Let me fast-forward 500 years, and let us ourselves enter the Holy See of Protestantism (as it were) and assess what Reform has brought to the Church of Jesus Christ, those portions of the Body.

Do we see denominations inventing and “discovering” their own doctrines? Do we see churches bending their theology in order to fill the pews? Do we see widespread moral failings in the clergy – everything from pedophilia to homosexual encounters? Do we see story after story in the news about financial shenanigans? How many churches wallow in obscene opulence, as the poor live in their shadows? How many charities are shams; how many mission outreaches, we learn with sad hearts, are looted? How often are “modern” sins excused by the heretical lies of relativism in the church? How have seminaries become breeding-grounds of Progressivism; why are entire denominations denying the divinity of Christ, the existence of Absolute Truth? What is this extra-biblical “Prosperity Gospel”? – when preachers procure “seed-faith” offerings, and offer “prayer hankies” to customers who are assured of God’s blessings – HOW is that different from selling indulgences?

Racing through that list, you will recognize problems that are endemic to this or that denomination; sometimes still the Catholic church; mainstream or evangelical Protestants; Pentecostal or post-modern; “Seeker” or emergent. I believe that the Christian churches of contemporary Europe and America might grieve the Heart of God no less than the corrupt Church of the Popes 500 years ago.

We need a New Reformation. We need “Scripture Alone” as our guide again. We need holy indignation from the remnant of faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

I intend to compose a New 95 Theses (knowing that a list of problems with today’s churches could be a larger number!). I will be writing more, as I compose this, but as I look for hammer and nails to post them, or publish them, I invite readers to nominate some of the practices in today’s churches that need reforming. We ARE Christ’s representatives here on earth; and a royal priesthood of believers. We have a responsibility. And let us be guided by Martin Luther, in one of the greatest moments of human history. Hauled before a court of the Holy Roman Empire, condemned by the Pope himself, threatened with excommunication and death, ordered to renounce his thoughts and denounce his books and sermons… nevertheless he was defiant in opposition: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

A mighty fortress is our God.

+ + +

Two clips this week. The first is the dramatic confrontation, and Luther’s dramatic defense, at the Council in Worms, Germany, that presumed to judge him. From the classic black-and-white, award-winning biopic starring Niall MacGinnis. The second clip is a signature performance, a cappella, by Steve Green, singing “A Mighty Fortress” before thousands. “Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His Kingdom is forever!”

Click: “Here I stand”: Luther’s defense

Click: The Reformation’s battle hymn, composed by Luther; sung by Steve Green

The Story of Two Women

10-20-14

I want to tell you about two remarkable women.

Fanny Crosby’s name is known by some people today, but her great number of gospel songs fill the hymnbooks of many denominations, and the airwaves even today, sung in every musical style you can think of. She lived almost 95 years (1820-1915) and was a prominent poet and librettist until about the age of 45. Then she began writing lyrics for hymns. Before she died she wrote almost 9000 hymns, many of them, as I said, familiar today.

These and many other works were accomplished despite the fact that Fanny Crosby was blind. Little Frances had an eye infection as a baby in Brewster NY, was mistreated with medicines, and thereafter had no sight. It was a handicap she endured without complaint, testifying that if she had “normal” sight she “might not have so good an education or have so great an influence, and certainly not so fine a memory.” She further testified that “when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.”

She was a teacher of blind students at an institution in New York City – where her secretary, transcribing her dictated poems, was a teenaged future president, Grover Cleveland – and a published poet, a librettist for opera-style stage cantatas, author of patriotic works during the Civil War, and an evangelist. She shared the gospel message from street corners to rescue missions to crusade meetings.

Fanny Crosby wrote words for her hymns, and seldom the music. Dozens of prominent and amateur composers provided the music to her miraculously simple but profound verses. In fact many of her poems were published under assumed names, so hymnbooks could maintain the appearance of variety. She and her husband, a blind organist, shared evangelistic work.

She never received more than five dollars for a song, and routinely much less; sometimes nothing. While her songsheets sold millions, she invariably lived in poverty. She was befriended by many, including Ira Sankey, the “music man” in D. L. Moody crusades in the US and England; but whatever money she made through her long career she did not tithe – she usually gave away half, sometimes all, of income receipts, to churches or missions. In New York City she served at the Bowery Mission, and lived in extreme poverty in places like the Tenderloin District or Hell’s Kitchen.

If you don’t know Fanny Crosby’s name, you might know her hymns including “Blessed Assurance,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “Safe in the Arms of God,” “Near the Cross,” “Jesus is Calling,” and “He Hideth My Soul.” She is buried in a humble cemetery outside Bridgeport CT, her modest gravestone telling the world: “Aunt Fanny: She hath done what she could.”

When I met Cliff Barrows of the Billy Graham Crusades, he told me how the words of Fanny Crosby had touched his life, sometimes with the impact of Bible verses themselves. That day I had with me an old copy of Fanny’s autobiography, “Memories of Eighty Years,” and I presented it to him. A jewel-encrusted heirloom would not have meant more to him; it was impressive to see evidence of how, indeed, he had been touched by Fanny Crosby in his life.

Fanny never considered her affliction a handicap, and she did not complain about her poverty. She wanted to write hymns; and, in countless humble missions and fetid soup kitchens, she wanted to share Jesus with “her boys.” Her work lives on, beyond the people she met, in the hymns that still affect listeners today.

The other woman we visit today was Fanny’s contemporary and, like her, a poet, evangelist, missions worker, when these activities were uncommon, in churches and in general society, for women. She also suffered physical affliction, and wrote the words to at least one hymn of great fame and comfort to generations of people. Katherine Hankey, 1834-1911, was born in London and did all her work in England except for a period as a young woman, as an evangelist in “darkest Africa.”

Katherine’s father was a prosperous banker, so she never endured the privations of a Fanny Crosby. Yet she caught the evangelistic zeal – despite her staid Anglican roots – and preached on street corners of poor urban neighborhoods, in factories, and at docks. While only in her thirties she contracted a disease that had doctors confine her to bed, not merely her house.

Her greatest regret over this news of a life-threatening illness was that she could not preach, share the Word, and talk about the love of Jesus to “her boys.” She determined, if she had to find an alternative, to write what was on her heart. From a very long poem grew the verses that embodied her zeal to “tell the old, old story.”

Two women in two cities, two different societies – different from each other; different from today, especially regarding the role of women – both challenged by horrible afflictions, but overcoming them. Gloriously.

Their biographies are lessons for us all, not only contemporary women, young or old. They are inspirations to what we may do as fighters in the arenas of life, as warriors wielding the gentle weapons of God’s love and mercy.

Two women speak, and sing, to us over the many years. One, blind, wrote, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” The other, weak and bedridden, wrote, “I Love To Tell the Story.”

Two women’s stories are… one story. The story of Jesus and His love.

+ + +

The separate but equal testimonies of two remarkable women live on through two powerful and beloved gospel songs. As musical sermons they have touched the lives of millions since they were written in quiet and humble circumstances by two servants of God.

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

Intangible Remnants of Life

10-13-14

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

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

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

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

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

The shells I photographed are beautiful!

But they are dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sea shells

+ + +

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

Click: If We Never Meet Again

Art Imitates Death

10-6-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Mozart Adagio

In the Presence Of Our Enemies

9-29-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: You Prepared a Table For Me

Pity the Angels

9-22-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Angel Band

Endure.

9-15-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

We Need Backbones, Not Wishbones

9-8-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: How Firm a Foundation

Good Grief

9-1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We must not let anybody steal our grief.”

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Tears Are a Language God Understands

It’s Never Easy Letting Go

8-25-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Letting Go

Return to Ork

8-18-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Alone Yet Not Alone

Oil and Water

8-11-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, not partner.

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Satan’s Jewel Crown

Who Cares?

8-4-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+

Does Jesus Care?

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

Click: Does Jesus Care?

Born-Again Miracles

7-28-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Farther On

How God Keeps Us On Our Toes

7-21-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: How Can I Keep from Singing?

Dying for Jesus… or Living for Jesus

7-14-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

Click: I Have Decided to Follow Jesus

Serving Different Holy Gods

7-7-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: God On the Mountain

Faith Of Our Fathers – Distinguished Guests Bloggers

6-23-14

We approach the Fourth of July again. I am going to suggest we save a little time apart from our backyard barbecues, or town parades if your town still holds them. In addition to ketchup and mustard, add some of these patriotic condiments to your picnic fare; in addition to cheering the flag or the Boy Scout troop in the parade, cheer some of these quotations.

In fact, in addition to prayers, or the Pledge, at your gatherings – even if your family does not already exercise those traditions — draw together and exchange the quotations by our distinguished “guest bloggers” here. (And they are verified quotations, not those manufactured by well-intentioned patriots or challenged by Snopes and Urban Legend watchdogs.)

Long ago, a Frenchman visited the United States, toured the great cities and smallest towns, and came away astonished. Alexis deToqueville reportedly said, “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Our president has denigrated the term of current popularity, “American Exceptionalism.” He has said that he is sure every nation thinks of itself as exceptional. We can worry that his complete misunderstanding of that term reflects his complete misunderstanding of America. Americans are not exceptional by virtue of birth certificates or driver licenses. American farmers or American firefighters are not different, or “more exceptional,” than human beings anywhere doing their jobs honorably. Heroes are heroes. And American villains can be as villainous than any others.

“American Exceptionalism” refers to the American system. What “is” the USA? The first of nations, not to declare independence, but to enshrine Liberty. To acknowledge God in the foundational documents of its Declaration and Constitution. To be a nation of laws, not men. To be a Republic, not a Democracy: elevating individualism, under law, over institutions and governmental whims. To respect religion, and religious freedom, as vital components of our American system. In revolutionary fashion – yes, the first; exceptional in world history – to protect minority rights but guard against majority tyranny.

Here, our guest bloggers may remind Americans of things we might have forgotten, God forbid.

“The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” George Washington, first Inaugural Address.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens.” George Washington, Farewell Speech, 1796.

“I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning.” Benjamin Franklin, 1787, Constitutional Convention.

“I’ve lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth — That God governs in the Affairs of Men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that except the Lord build the House they labor in vain who build it. I firmly believe this…” Benjamin Franklin.

“Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” John Adams.

“I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a sinner. I look to Him for mercy; pray for me.” Alexander Hamilton.

“Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” John Jay, Constitutional framer, First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

“[The Bible] is the rock on which our Republic rests.” Andrew Jackson.

“It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.” Abraham Lincoln, Proclamation Declaring the National Day of Fasting.

“My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Abraham Lincoln.

“Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian.” United State Supreme Court, 1892.

“Ever throughout the ages, at all times and among all peoples, prosperity has been fraught with danger, and it behooves us to beseech the Giver of all things that we may not fall into love of ease and luxury; that we may not lose our sense of moral responsibility; that we may not forget our duty to God, and to our neighbor.… We are not threatened by foes from without. The foes from whom we should pray to be delivered are our own passions, appetites, and follies; and against these there is always need that we should war.” Theodore Roosevelt.

“Can we resolve to reach, learn and try to heed the greatest message ever written, God’s Word, and the Holy Bible? Inside its pages lie all the answers to all the problems that man has ever known.” Ronald Reagan

These are exceptional credos. It would be an exceptional disaster if a free people would forget such an inheritance. Happy Fourth. GO forth.

+ + +

Many songs, many hymns, many patriotic airs could be the background music for this essay. “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Battle Hymn of the REPUBLIC,” many would be appropriate. But since I have quoted aphorisms of the past, I offer you a recent song about America a different-yet-similar rallying cry. “America First” by the poet of the common man, Merle Haggard.

Click: America First

Christianity By the Numbers

6-23-14

A lot of Christians think about Heaven in the same way that agnostics sort of hope about the afterlife, and even as assorted Hottentots of the world’s pagan cults think about appeasing the gods. That is, that good deeds might earn the way to eternal life.

Just act nice, nothing more? Jesus didn’t believe it, and told us so. I have gotten to think about numbers – the numbers of times the Bible tells us that our hearts matter more to God than our deeds. The number of times Jesus and the apostles affirmed it. The number of good deeds we’d have to do to persuade God that unbelief doesn’t matter.

Numbers.

A big number, 2000. Two thousand years since Paul wrote: “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Charities, nice; but they do not equal Heaven. If so, Jesus could have saved Himself some major grief. Or 500. Five hundred years since Christians rediscovered Ephesians 2:8,9 – “For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

Two thousand years, five hundred years, are a lot years to neglect when thinking about the Bible’s truths. Here are other numbers for Christians to think about. Forget good deeds like charities. Think about sins. We all sin. Yours might be small ones, but let’s count some.

Do you sin once a day? Think an impure thought, or hold onto an unforgiveness? Maybe a white lie? Share a little gossip? Don’t pray when you know you should? Fail to whisper a Christian blessing when someone needs it? Anything you don’t confess?

Let’s say you do any one of these things just once a day – which would make you a virtual saint among all the rest of us, but, anyway… that one sin a day makes for 365 a year. Over 10 years, that’s 3,650. If you have, say, 30 more years to live, that’s more than 10,000 sins.

On the other hand, if you commit these sins, even “little” sins, once an hour during your waking hours – still not an absurd standard – that’s a total of 160,00 sins. For 30 years. Let’s count starting at, say, age 12, and go until the statistical life expectancy of an American female, 82. That would add up to more than 400,000 sins. Careful: transgress a couple times an hour, and you’ll wind up a millionaire… in the sinner’s lottery.

Viewed in that statistical perspective, you’d need a lot of good deeds, a pile of charity receipts, to face eternity fearlessly, right? Well the good news – the Good News – is, we don’t have to pile up numbers of this OR that on scales of justice. Not about this. Confess with your mouth, believe in your heart.

But let’s not put the math books away yet. It is human nature to think we must do good deeds… and don’t get me, or the scriptures, wrong: We SHOULD. And we DO. When Jesus lives in our hearts, we want to do good, we cannot hold back from taking joy in good deeds. Charity becomes our response, not our “meal ticket”!

Final numbers-crunching, for those who want to: on the general basis of the mathematics above:

In your waking hours, each day, you have approximately 250 opportunities to do those good deeds – kind thoughts, helping hands, reassuring words. That’s if you show charity only every five minutes. That’s 1,750 times a week.

Expand those “good deeds” plus the time-frame: if you raise your children aright, if you pray with a hurting soul, if you seek God when He wants to talk to your spirit – added to the others, at the same pace, would approach 100,000 chances to do “good deeds” every year.

You see it coming, math wizards: Live a normal lifespan, have the love of Jesus in your heart, do good deeds because obedient and joyful Christians are good-deed-doers… and your are in the neighborhood of 7-million acts of love. The root meaning of “charity,” they’ll tell you in other classrooms, is “love.”

So, you do the arithmetic. Count the acts of charity, planning for the payoff. Or lose count of the acts of love, knowing you’re already “home,” knowing “all these things shall be added unto you.” We don’t love because we have to. That’s not love! When we act charitably from the overflow of our hearts, God’s showers of blessing will follow.

Numbers. Did you ever count the number of raindrops in a Spring shower? Not too easy, not too practical, not possible! Yet God’s response to our acts of love will be “showers of blessing” – oh, for the showers we plead!

+ + +
Speaking of numbers, and “showers of blessing,” here is a choir from churches in Chennai (formerly Madras), Tamil Nadu, India, singing an old favorite, and reassuring, hymn.

Click: Showers of Blessing

In God We Trust – Oh, Yeah?

6-16-14

The Pledge of Allegiance added the phrase “under God” in 1954, on Flag Day – 60 years ago this week. So Happy Birthday… not to God, but to the phrase. Its inclusion has been a matter of some discussion since it was appended.

Theodore Roosevelt was criticized during his presidency for wanting to take “In God We Trust” off American currency. This seems counterintuitive about the man I have elsewhere called possibly the most observant if not the most intensely Christian of our presidents. One of his missions was to reform and beautify American coinage, and his friend Augustus St-Gaudens in fact designed the most impressive coins in our history, the $20 “Double Eagle” gold piece, and the $10 “Indian Head” gold eagle.

Why did TR want “In God We Trust” off our coinage? In fact, he considered it irreverent, making a cheap slogan of a sacred matter. He said he was witness, in his rancher days in the Bad Lands, to cowboys in saloons citing it coarsely; “In God we trust – all others pay cash,” and so forth. “My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege,” he wrote.

“It is a motto which it is indeed well to have inscribed on our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls, and in buildings such as those at West Point and Annapolis – in short, wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon. But it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.”

His view did not prevail; an aroused public and Congress overcame his objection. A similar groundswell of popular support added “under God” to the Pledge 60 years ago. Anent both matters, debates have not merely continued but intensified of late.

I am generally of the Theodore Roosevelt school regarding the nation’s confirmation of belief on public buildings, monuments, courtrooms, and legislative halls. It is a matter as much of tradition as of faith. Commonly, societies tend to codify their basic tenets by such means – dispositive acts like public prayers, and displays of the Decalogue in public squares. I understand TR’s disinclination to have a sacred concept coarsened – but I would take that chance, trusting to peoples’ eventual conviction. And simply asserting universal, foundational, shared beliefs. After all, dumb jokes are occasionally made about “e pluribus unum.”

Further, myself, I would proceed on such matters to avow in every pertinent manner that the United States were settled as Christian communities; that Founders and Framers alike cited biblical principles and reliance on God; that the Supreme Court formally declared the United States of America a “Christian country.” This is no knock on Jews or Muslims or atheists, who are guaranteed every legal right the majority enjoys. But if I moved to Israel, I would never think of agitating, say, to have the Star of David removed the nation’s flag because I would be “offended” as a minority. If I moved to an Islamic society I would be embarrassed to attempt to eliminate Muslim symbols, traditions, and observances, simply because I as a newcomer had a pulse and “feelings.”

But… genii are out of the bottles in America. So debates rage, Christians are on the defensive, and traditions are upended. I believe this is due as much to the moral lassitude of Christians as to the aggressive pursuits of rampaging lawyers. Shame on us.

It has become easier to insist on the retention of slogans on currency, phrases in pledges, and crosses in cemeteries, than to be bloodied in the dusty arena of ideas. Ultimately, the real, burning question for Christians in 2014 is this: what exactly are we defending in these debates? What in hell – I choose my words carefully – are we really supporting in contemporary America?

“In God We Trust.” Oh, yeah? Then why have we allowed a runaway government to be our primary source of security in life? Why not God? Why not each other? Why not ourselves?

“In God We Trust.” Oh, yeah? Then why have we, as a culture, turned from biblical ways of finding comfort in God, and bowed to drugs, drink, decadent entertainment, and false gods of pleasure?

“In God We Trust.” Oh, yeah? Then how has America suddenly transformed itself from a traditionalist society of manners and morals to a country awash in abortions, addictions, physical abuse, divorce, illegitimate births, and myriad sexually transmitted diseases?

“In God We Trust.” Oh, yeah? Then why have traditional expressions of faith been banished in favor of secular concepts and moral relativism? Legislators and judges sit in halls with “In God We Trust” on their walls, and open their sessions with prayer – yet day by day, now, they mock that very pledge. In hypocrisy we trust.

“In God We Trust.” Oh, yeah? As a people? Then why do our movies, TV shows, pop-music lyrics, literature, graphic novels, political discourse, judicial decisions, and bureaucratic rules dedicate themselves to be, not “neutral,” but hostile, toward God and His Revealed Word?

“In God We Trust.” Oh, yeah? America is America – the essence of the misunderstood term “Exceptionalism” – because a diverse group of peoples came here through the centuries, disparate in uncountable ways, but spiritually unified, somehow: United, before the fact, in trusting God, being suspicious of authority, loving liberty, embracing tradition, reliant on selves, and therefore – yes, part of American Exceptionalism too – loving their neighbors.

Is the next chapter of the American story to be entitled, “In God We Once Trusted”?

+ + +

Since we are discussing traditions, our musical video for this message is “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” an old hymn sung here in Sacred Harp fashion. This is a purely American musical expression that took root centuries ago in rural areas and the South, where instruments and musical literacy alike were once scarce. The hymns were sung a capella; out of books with “shape notes”; often sung with the musical terms Do, Re Me Fa, So, La, Ti, Do corresponding to the notes; then followed by lyrics of the hymns; singers arranged in a square, with a leader in the “hollow”; forceful vocals (a euphemism for joyously loud!); emphasis on four-part harmony; arm gestures that emphasized the rhythm; often, strong foot-tapping to carry the beat; a large number of standard hymns in the songbooks, often identified by their numbers instead of titles or first lines.

These exuberant, evangelical, exhortations almost died out until recently. Now they are being revived in churches and – God works in mysterious ways – in secular shape-note and Sacred Harp groups in the North, in urban centers, among (not yet) religious singers, singing conventions, and in more than a few European communities too. Here, an amateur video at Mount Pisgah Primitive Baptist Church in Stroud, Alabama, few years ago.

Click: Nearer, My God, To Thee

The Other D-Day

6-9-14

Anniversaries, as the root of the word implies, are annual observances, but some years are more significant than others. D-Day, just commemorated 70 years after the invasion, attracted a little more consideration than usual this year because of its “big, round” number, just as its 75th anniversary will elicit even more attention. This is never a bad thing: we humans occasionally need a kick in the awareness.

In spite of my intense research as a history buff, I can appreciate D-Day only vicariously. My father was part of the invasion force – ‘way above it. A member of the US Army Air Force’s weather team – technically, Detachment 113, 18th Weather Squadron, 8th Air Force, which routinely performed weather reconnaissance during daylight, and dropped “leaflet bombs” (propaganda literature) at night – his planes scouted weather conditions before the invasion and overflew Normandy, monitoring, during the assault.

He talked very little, actually, about D-Day, and firmly declined any plaudits. Although planes were lost in air fights or accidents, he said he was seldom in harm’s way. The hardest part of the war, to him, was counting his buddies who never returned, and noting the fewer number of planes that returned from every mission. Compared to the soldiers who landed on Normandy’s beaches and scaled those heights.

Dad never glorified war. He always said that most of the “heroes” who spent their lives boasting of their actions probably were no-names in the action; the heroes he knew who went through hell and back seldom bragged about those experiences. He characterized D-Day as the biggest suicide mission in history. The soldiers in that invasion force mostly all knew that it was a Mission of Attrition.

The only way to breach that booby-trapped shoreline, advance along the bullet-riddled beaches, and scale the nearly impregnable heights, was to climb over and crawl past the dead and wounded who preceded you, wave after wave. The soldiers didn’t land on Normandy’s beaches as much to kill, but to be killed. Men knew that. Men did that.

In dwindling numbers now, the veterans – the Boys of Pointe du Hoc, Ronald Reagan called them – return and reminisce; they embrace each other and former enemies of the horrific crucible; they celebrate survival and, at D-Day reunions in France or at home, keep their misted eyes focused on the middle-distance of life’s random challenges and blessings.

Remembering those boys, these men, reminds us also of the nearby anniversary of another holiday – Father’s Day – the “other D Day”… D for Dads.

There was a generation of men who sacrificed, or were willing to, more than their bodies. They sacrificed careers and relationships and many other things to fight in World War II. However, every generation demands some sort of sacrifice. I have always dissented from Tom Brokaw’s appellation “The Greatest Generation.” To me, the remarkable thing about the men (and women) who endured and triumphed through Depression and World War was not that they were especially “great,” but that they were ordinary. That is: America produced a generation of ordinary, average citizens whose ordinary, average habits were to suck it up, meet challenges, overcome obstacles, not complain, “make do,” sacrifice, and report for duty in the battles of life.

Can we have a discussion about whether THAT America still exists?

In the meantime, we should similarly recognize, especially on Father’s Day, the other D Day; that our dads should not be honored because random accidents of genes made us their children; or that they should be honored in accordance with their worldly success, or big salaries, or fame, or newsworthy accomplishments they might have accumulated.

Let us remember our dads for the little and “unremarkable” things. For in countless modest examples or quiet words do we find the building-blocks of the lives of children. Through unconscious revelations of character, dads influence the moral growth of their children. And when we children absorb, often subliminally, the creditable acts of fathers in good times and bad, we are nourished in our souls as surely as dads, “putting food on the table,” have nourished our physical maturation.

Heroics can take many forms, but godly dads, providing solid examples, sustaining sacrifices for their children, and positively nurturing the next generation, are heroes no less than the Boys of Pointe du Hoc.

In my youth I went through a brief period of wiseacre agnosticism. Before I left for college, I shared this with my father, wanting him to know that I arrived at these ideas on my own, and not to blame it on “college life” afterwards. “It’s a stage,” he replied. “You’ll grow out of it.”

I resented that response at the time, and subsequently. Wasn’t his faith strong enough to confront my arguments? Didn’t he care about my salvation? Years later, I asked him about this. He said, “You were raised well. You know the Bible. You never left church after Confirmation like your friends did. Everyone doubts just about every THING at that age. But I trusted you.”

“I trust you.” I realized that I HAD received that implied message, internally. Dads should be fathers to children, not to robots. And the wisdom of those few sentences to me was not of the moment, but made possible by a lifetime of quality rearing, good examples, godly wisdom, and appreciating a role model. My Dad.

Yesterday’s hero… a soldier… but I remember not in a uniform beyond bedroom slippers, and smoking a pipe, talking with his son, for uncountable evenings on innumerable subjects, bringing me, this week, to an emotional celebration of the “other” D Day.

Rick, Dad and fishRick, Dad and fish

Rick (left), his Dad (right) around 1968. The figures in the middle are unidentified…

+ + +

Not exactly cosmic convergence, but with D-Day and Fathers Day only a week apart, we are reminded of the role of dads, the heroes of our families’ battles. “He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” Malachi 4:6.

Click: Seeing My Father in Me

Playing On Fields with No Boundaries or Goalposts

6-2-14

Schools, public schools anyway, these days are de-emphasizing the standards of the past, the values of our culture, the traditionally cherished aspects of our American heritage. Progressives do it; conservatives decry it; and the vast center of society is populated by folks who largely are intimidated, confused, defensive… or guiltily change their views about once-cherished “foundational” beliefs.

People try to be open-minded, and are frequently made to feel at fault if they are not sufficiently “compassionate.” Or they are branded as racists or bigots when such feelings had never been part of their thoughts. Or they feel forced to confront, and accept, all forms of social deviancies or political abnormalities that, privately, are anathema to that Great Middle of every culture.

Sometimes, one’s mind can be so open that one’s brains fall out.

Ours is a society that is experiencing relatively sudden, and seismic, changes to manners, morals, and traditional, foundational beliefs. Throughout history such philosophical dislocations are usually signs of cultures in decline. Decadence comes to all civilizations; it is merely a matter of when… not how.

No matter how much a society thinks it has discovered new truths that applied to all previous societies but not them – in matters of morality, public virtue, family structure, respect for authority, encouragement of spiritual values – it is a certain template that one civilization’s moral “liberation” is coldly recognized, after its inevitable fall, by future generations, as common decadence.

I began by criticizing public schools, but that was to note that such institutions merely codify what the society believes. Our children would not have lost their moorings if we had not loosed the ropes to the mother ships. And, with the kids, if it were not schoolbooks – let’s say we turn to home-schooling – they see the rotten movies from Hollywood. If not there, it’s television; if not there, the musical culture that is everywhere; if not there, the advertising in magazines; if not there, the displays in shops at the mall; if not there, the conversations they overhear on the street, and the drugs they will be offered; if not there, the unavoidable trash on the internet; if not there, the corruption of politicians and execrable news stories; if not there, the dictates of bureaucrats and decisions of judges.

And so forth. With such a blueprint of shame, we can scarcely blame children who go astray. Rather we should pity them, and rescue them.

And, by the way, note that all the attacks I have just listed are self-inflicted. Our Christian culture has foreign enemies, but we can only be defeated from within. And… it is happening.

The first rescue attempt, if we wake up some Monday morning with cleansed hearts, stiffened spines, and firm resolution, would be to reform the rotten culture that we as adults serve up to our children. It is our creation, and our parents’ – the “finest generation”? – because the earlier challenges of society were routine problems of human nature… until our contemporary downward spiral began. Seldom, once again looking at the sweep of human history, seldom has a culture disintegrated so quickly as ours.

It is as if society is playing on a virtual football field… but in this 21st-century game of life, there are no boundaries on either side of the field; no yardline-markers; no goal posts – because we no longer have goals, and we deride competitiveness – and no rule books, referees, or time-limits.

The virtual “game of life” in Western culture sees us scurrying around, making and breaking rules, committing infractions and ignoring penalties, dismissing the concept of teammates, craving the approval of the crowd, hogging the ball or throwing it away carelessly, and believing that we have invented the greatest game in the world.

If this analogy is apt, then we must go at least one step further, and consider that the Western Church, the Church in America, has failed even more so. It had been the foundation of our civilization; the builders’ plan of our democratic republic, the American Experiment. And, in stark truth, it is not the Church itself (in biblical parlance) that has failed: for the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.

The American Church has not failed. But its leaders have.

Like the chaotic football game I described, significant segments of the church today are aimless, self-centered, denying rules and traditions, inventing playbooks as they go along, discouraging the belief in goals or individual progress, focusing on ticket sales and the roars of the crowd, and declaring that there are no such things as rules, infractions, or penalties.

It is an ugly game – not, of course, a game at all. The Church in America, the American establishment, and too many families, are proving the adage that when you believe in everything (that is, what is pleasing and convenient for the individual, at any moment)… YOU BELIEVE IN NOTHING.

Will we wake up that theoretical Monday morning with clear heads and restored hearts? My guess is no, but there are always surprises. On a societal level, masses in Europe seem to be awakening to the attacks on Western heritage, and asserting borders, language, and culture in their voting booths. On the spiritual front, I am heartened by the explosive growth in Christian belief, both evangelical and Pentecostal, south of the Equator. And, more, that Africa and South America are sending many missionaries to Europe, the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the US — lands these new believers see as “mission fields” needing to hear the gospel.

Our playing-fields might again paint yardline markers, and erect goal posts, yet. Let us dream. Let us work. Let us pray.

+ + +

The way things are now, do you ever feel that you don’t belong? “The Sojourner’s Song” opens with, “It’s not home, Where men sell their souls And the taste of power is sweet. Where wrong is right, And neighbors fight, While the hungry are dying in the street. Where kids are abused, And women are used, And the weak are crushed by the strong. Nations gone mad; Jesus is sad; And I don’t belong…” This short music vid from a church service contains a few more sobering words… and then glorious hopeful ones. Watch:

Click: I Don’t Belong (Sojourner’s Song)

Dead Presidents

2-17-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Oh, Shenandoah

That Ragged Old Flag

5-26-13

Revisiting some old thoughts, at the request of some old friends. A day for reflection, and to ask some questions relevant to today’s Memorial Day:

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

It’s Memorial Day. Your day.

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

That’s why I’m addressing you as one group, and as anonymous veterans, because Decoration Day was designed to memorialize, to remember and honor, dead servicemen and women. All of you.

You know, on the Fourth of July we celebrate our independence; on Veterans’ Day we honor the retired military among us.

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

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

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

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

If we are not inspired by uncountable acts of bravery, because the news media dismiss your service, or because we are too busy back home here with bread and circuses, then we are reminded, often enough, when we notice your missing arms and legs, when we learn of tearful surprise reunions with your kids… or when we see your weeping widows.

We are reminded of you, despite ourselves, when we read of crowded and shabby Veteran’s hospitals. We cannot forget you any more when the headlines reveal delays and needless deaths at VA facilities. Many of your families were forced to subsist on food stamps when you were “defending our freedom” overseas, and now that you are home, are poverty and neglect America’s real memorials to you?

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

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

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

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

So I’m going to tell you about trips we will take, many of us, this Memorial Day. Not as far away as your places of service and sacrifice. Some of us are not close to our relatives’ military graves, but all of us are close to some military grave or memorial. I am going to suggest that we, the living, pick some flowers or buy some flowers, or get a flag, even a little flag, and visit a military cemetery. Or any cemetery, and then look for a military emblem on the stone. Or a town’s war memorial.

We are going to place a “decoration,” maybe a thank-you letter or a prayer, to brighten your memory and honor you… whoever you are. We are going to pray thanksgiving for your service. For those of us who cannot get out, we are going to make that trip in our minds.

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

+ + +

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

Click: That Ragged Old Flag

Sins Of the Fathers

5-19-14

A report from Colorado — Estes Park YMCA Conference Center, surrounded by late snows, young deer and elk, hundreds of professional and aspiring writers at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference. I have been on faculty, and critiquing the work of creative people yearning to Write His Answer, in the words of the conference motto.

In keynotes and session speeches, in prayer circles, the topics were many, but — as in other years, and without human direction or agenda — a matter of concern kept asserting itself: children. The crisis with children. Poverty here; AIDS in Africa; child sex trafficking in Asia; schools, orphanages, corruption in Swaziland; forced prostitution of young girls — children — in Thailand.

And when children are not parts of the headlines, they are parts of the story, the subtexts.

To speak about decline in morals and the media… we recognize that children are prime targets.

To speak about human trafficking… children are the victims.

To speak about the AIDs crisis in Africa… children suffer as the infected AND as orphans.

To speak about the persecuted church worldwide… children are the battleground of cultures suppressing Christianity.

In America – drugs: children. Education: children. Pornography: children. Poverty: children. Homelessness: children. Broken homes: children. Abortion: children.

It is a cliché to say that children are our future. But clichés are clichés because they are, first of all, true. However, children do not HAVE to be the first-in-line victims of a culture in decline. But they are. They cannot defend themselves; they believe what the culture tells them; they are the most vulnerable.

When I talk about headlines, it is literally the case. Recently 300-500 girls were kidnapped by a radical Islamist group in Nigeria. The kidnapper’s leader has gone public, blatantly threatening horrific fates, hinting of swaps of the innocent children for his fellow monsters in local jails.

Almost lost in the media coverage, and clearly a subordinate concern of the US government, is the little detail: the children are Christians.

If it is not becoming acceptable in the eyes of our media and government, it is at least a reflection of the frequency — almost to the point of boring triviality — that children, and Christians, and Christian children, are persecuted, brutalized, raped, jailed, and driven from their homelands.

In 1904 an American citizen was kidnapped in Africa. The businessman, Ion Pedecaris, was a pawn in the factional rivalries of the Pasha Raisuli and his Arabian government. A little history lesson: the First Lady of the United States did NOT pose for a photograph with a sign (as Michelle Obama did this week with the handwritten Twitter hashtag and “Bring Back the Children”). No, her husband, President Theodore Roosevelt, sent a message to that African government: “Pedecaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

The man was freed.

I know it is a fantasy, but I got to thinking, this week in Colorado, if Mrs Obama — I would settle for a cartoon of Uncle Sam — could hold a sign that said: #Bring back our sense of proportion… or justice… or honor… or respect for children… or defense of Christianity. As I said, I am afraid this is a fantasy.

Let us remember the children – care for them, protect them, cleanse their environment. If our generation has messed up, maybe the best thing we can do – not the only thing, but surely the FIRST thing – is to beg their forgiveness. And God’s.

+ + +

Here is a tender lullaby Slumber My Darling, written more than 150 years ago by a man I am increasingly persuaded was America’s greatest composer, Stephen Foster. It is performed by Alison Kraus, (amazing) vocals; and YoYo Ma; Mark O’Connor; Joshua Bell; and Edgar Meyer. The images are by the amazing Beanscot Channel.

Slumber, My Darling

A Selfie with Jesus

5-12-14

“Selfie” is the latest neologism – a newly invented word – to enter the dictionary. These days, everybody, it seems, has been infected with the need to photograph themselves and publish the images far and wide. No matter that one’s arm is extended awkwardly, to hold the camera; that angles are askew; that silly smiles predominate; that people crowd the frame, even if a chinbone or cowlick are all that appear.

Well, it’s fun. Evidently, because everyone, inevitably, smiles. Facebook would look like a dry ledger-sheet if selfies were banned. The Pope has been in selfies. President Obama even took a selfie with Prime Minister David Cameron and the hottie Prime Minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning Schmidt, at what should have been a somber occasion, the funeral of Nelson Mandela. (You remember: Michelle Obama, NOT in the selfie, was not amused.)

History, and the history of art, tells us something about the changing manners and mores of societies. Some cultures and religions proscribed images of faces. Peoples have believed that depicting individuals robbed them of their souls. “Iconoclasm” originally was a term applied to those who were against any artistic portraits, and believed that icons led to idol worship. For several generations, photographic portraits of presidents and peasants mirrored stone faces and serious miens. Eventually, people in family portraits and on driver licenses felt the need to smile like fools.

Whether selfies are narcissistic or merely an amusing triviality will likewise come and go, similarly hinting at what our civilization is about, or not. The relevance of such things has a shelf-life, with expiration dates.

So maybe we should call them shelfies. In a sense, selfies have been a part of human history, because – whether we have cameras or not – we humans tend to gather with our like-kinds. We want to be seen with certain people, whether friends or celebrities. We want to remember, and be remembered. We are joiners, we form loyalties, we associate. With or without photographs, humans have always tended to compose selfies.

In this form of “virtual” selfies, how often is Jesus one of the group of people who gather around you?

Think back over your “crowded hours.” At significant times, was Jesus next to you? Was He one of the smiling pals? Was He in your circle of friends? Have you, by implication, always invited Him, wanted Him near, held him close?

The answer about whether Jesus has been next to you… is Yes, of course. Even if you have not regularly included Him in your activities, associations, and fellowships. He is always with us.

Go deeper and you can realize that Jesus is “in” those virtual photos, in the virtual album of your life. But is He a background figure, waiting for your invitation to get in the shot? Or have you let Him be a major presence by your side – in moments of joy, or times of sadness; in triumphs and trials; in happiness and grief?

The answer to such questions, the title on the cover of your life’s family album, so to speak, will reveal whether smiles in those selfies and shelfies are real and warm and life-affirming, or silly and frozen and artificial.

Say “cheese!” Someone IS taking a picture.

+ + +

There is an old folk song that deals with the regrettable aspects of life’s random snapshots, if we let sadness overtake us, if we choose to be pictured solo. A lot of people think Hank Williams wrote “A Picture from Life’s Other Side” because he a great version; but it was an old standard when he recorded it. Likewise the Blue Sky Boys and Bradley Kinkaid. Some people think that J Frank Smith wrote it, when it became the first big seller in recorded gospel music in 1926 (by his Smith’s Sacred Singers, a shape-note quartet)… but it was an old standard even then. It existed as sheet music in the 1890s. But, its message is timeless. This is a Mac Wiseman cover. The “Voice With a Heart” was inducted in the Country Music Hall of fame this year – long overdue for the man who has kept traditional American ballads alive than any other recording artist

Click: A Picture from Life’s Other Side

The Judgment None Can Escape

5-5-14

Judgment Day. The stuff of legends, and lessons, and sermons. Depicted in art from ancient stained-glass windows to the steel engravings of Bibles and tracts, to cartoons of God (or maybe St Peter), looking stern with an enormous white beard and on an august throne, hearing the individual cases of cowering humanity. Some are consigned to hell; some are promoted to heaven.

I had been a Christian – or, rather, a church-goer – for a long time before I became aware of the biblical assurance, indeed the promise of Christ, that we can know whether we will spend eternity in heaven. We can know right now, or any time; we don’t have to hope and die and hope again, nervously awaiting the judgments of a capricious God.

Neither will our citizenship in heaven depend upon a balance of our good and bad deeds during our lives. “Our righteousness is like dirty rags” before a holy God, anyway. None, not one, can “earn” heaven.

To believe otherwise is to deny biblical texts, the words of Christ and the apostles, and would be an insult to the Plan of Salvation; the cross; the resurrection.

There is unbelievable comfort in knowing, not having to guess, about our souls’ status in eternity. Some denominations believe (I do not) that we can lose our salvation by apostasy, but that is one of those matters, while important, that we can leave until that Day to discover.

The Bible is intentionally vague about some matters (for instance, details of End Times) which I regard as God’s wisdom: keeping us, spiritually, on our toes. In similar fashion there ARE aspects of our eternal standing with God that likewise are challenging to our understanding. For instance, we are told that some of the saints (us, not necessarily Vatican conferees alone) will receive treasures and crowns.

Saved is saved, right? No, God will confer crowns to some (we presume to martyrs and defenders of the faith)… and then, it is my own belief, there will not be a hierarchy in heaven. Those saints will lay down their crowns before the throne, by the glassy sea. Some will be given that extra opportunity to praise God.

“Saved is saved”? Yes, but let us look at the different judgments to come. The “Great White Throne Judgment,” pictured in Revelation, is an End Times trial for anyone who has rejected Jesus; has refused to accept God’s plan of redemption from sin. The Bible says that all will acknowledge God and Jesus Christ as Lord. Even too late, but all Creation will acknowledge Him in this scenario.

“And then will [Jesus] profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matthew 7:23).” “And I saw a great white throne, and Him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is [the book] of life… (Revelation 20:11-12).”

Chilling. And reason to take solace in Eternal Security of those who have accepted Christ.

But we have that challenging question of what is informally called the “believers’ judgment”: “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).” “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things [done] in [his] body, according to that he hath done, whether [it be] good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).” No threat of hell, but… judged.

I have an idea. It is not in the Bible, but I don’t believe it is anti-biblical. There are several instances in scripture of God judging His people. Satan tried to condemn Job before God. The devil, we are taught, is Accuser of the Saints. I believe, however, that part of the “believer’s judgment” will not only be Christ on His throne, or God holding the Lamb’s Book of Life, or Satan like a devilish prosecutor, accusing us of sins or shortcomings in life.

I can picture other people surrounding us. It will be their eyes, not God’s, who meet ours, and accuse us. Can you picture it? These will be people who failed to accept Christ in their lifetimes, destined for damnation. But we failed THEM, by not sharing Christ.

Unsaved loved ones will cry: “Why didn’t you try harder to tell me about Jesus?”

Jewish friends will lament, “I knew the basics of the faith. Why didn’t you lead me to Yeshua??”

Someone you met once will say, “I expressed curiosity about the Bible one day; you could have shared things with me. Why were you silent???”

An associate who had self-destructive tendencies, that you knew about quite well, could sob: “That was when I needed Jesus! Where were you?”

A friend you were with during his or her dying days might shout out, “THAT was the moment I needed to get my life together. You knew the Truth! Why did you never say a word to me?”

This circle of people cannot condemn us, but they can accuse us, indict us. God forbid that their names are written under our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life. I’m afraid we all have people we have met in our lives, who could populate that crowd of accusers – our Lost Chances.

Looking ahead to this possible aspect of Judgment should bring us up short now. We can store up treasures in heaven… by not squandering them on earth.

+ + +

Click: I Do Not Know You

The Forgotten Days of Jesus

4-28-14

The last verse of the last gospel’s last chapter (John 21:25) tells us, “Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.” Even more under-reported is what Jesus did during the 40 days between His resurrection and His ascension to Heaven. I have thought, and shared thoughts, about this period before, and its appeal does not let me go.

Let’s visit the topic again… and imagine Palestine in those days, mysterious because we have been told so little.

Jesus walked and talked in places where His ministry had been; He was seen in His restored body by thousands; He healed many; He continued to preach, He continued to love. And then He ascended to Heaven, taken up in the sky, which also was witnessed by others.

For 40 days Jesus showed the world that He lived again. The Sanhedrin had called Jesus a blasphemer, and others claimed His miracles were of the devil… but His 40 days in Jerusalem and surrounding areas, being seen by multitudes, was scarcely disputed. We shared, in the recent Easter message, how the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus referred to it, as did other writers, matter-of-factly. A few generations later, the writer Eusebius interviewed many people who had known people who saw Jesus during these days, told of miracles, even cited sermons and letters of the risen Jesus.

In other words, some people might not have joined the Christ-followers – although believers multiplied rapidly, even in the face of persecution soon thereafter – but very few people disputed that He rose from the dead.

The number 40 appears 146 times in the Bible, a number of God’s significance. We think of Noah; of the years in the wilderness; of the days Moses was on the Mount; of Jonah and Nineveh; and, in Jesus’ case, the number of days He was tempted of the devil… and the number of days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Usually this number signifies testing, trials, probation, or a provision of prosperity. We must believe the last comes closest to the risen Lord’s season before He ascended. They certainly were active days.

Yet as busy as He must have been, I have a picture in my mind of Jesus alone, also, maybe when darkness fell, down lonely paths, maybe through storms and cold silences, walking the dark hills, not responding to the curious crowds, but seeking out the troubled and the hurting individuals.

This is a plausible picture, because Jesus still does this today.

It was in His nature: Remember the “ninety and nine,” and the one lost sheep the shepherd sought; remember Christ’s words, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”; remember His story of the father rejoicing over the prodigal son who repents and returns and is restored; remember His admonition to be “fishers of men”; remember Him weeping over Jerusalem; remember the promise that “Whosoever” believes should not perish but have eternal life.

He walks the dark hills, looking for us – piercing the gloom with a joyful hope that may be ours.

And, continuing to reconstruct an image of what Jerusalem and surrounding areas must have been like those 40 days, abuzz with talk of the Miracle Man, let us also remember that we don’t have to respond to a shout from the street – “Come! They say that Jesus is down by the river! Let’s see Him!” No… He will come to us.

And it is especially the case, I believe, if you are one of those people who is skeptical, or has “heard enough,” or cannot crack the shell of hurt or pain or resentment or rebellion or fear, or all the other hindrances that prevent us from experiencing the love of Christ. He is closer than a shadow, no matter what you think, or what you might prefer to believe.

“God walks the dark hills, To guide our footsteps. He walks everywhere, By night and by day. He walks in the silence, On down the highway; God walks the dark hills, To show us the way.”

The risen Savior, Lord of Creation, walks the dark hills, seeking out… me? and you? where we are? in our hurts, in our messes? That’s the real miracle of the Miracle Man, to me, still –- that He loves you and me. Looking for us; finding us; hugging us; loving us; healing us; teaching us; saving us. Those 40 days were a practice run for eternity – His and ours.

+ + +

A favorite of gospel music is the haunting “God Walks the Dark Hills,” embodying mystery in its origin. It was written by a lady named Audra Czarnikow, who lived in Liberty, OK. Little is known about her; she apparently wrote no other hymns or songs. Small groups sang her song, and others recorded it; eventually it became a signature song of the Goodmans; here it is sung by the appropriately haunting voice of Iris DeMent.

Click: God Walks the Dark Hills

The “Good News” Was Good… But Not New

4-21-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not “breaking news,” but Good News indeed.

+ + +

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

Click: The Story of Jesus – Telling and Being Told

Observing the Annual ‘Pick Your Own Savior’ Day

4-14-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Hosanna!

Terrorism, Like We Never Knew

4-7-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the spiritual realm, we are witnessing the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. Men are calling evil good, and good evil; putting darkness for light, and light for darkness; putting bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20). We see traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God (II Timothy 3:4). And the Bible prophesied: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (II Timothy 4:3).

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

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

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

Words are sending America to hell.

And that alone should terrorize us.

+ + +

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

Click: All That You Have Is Your Soul

The Annoying Thing About Jesus

3-31-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Jesus Loves Me

‘Tis the Season To Be…

3-24-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a monumental work of art.

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

Click: Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”

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

The Logic of Loving God

3-17-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve read the Logos, and I believe. I’m convinced. I am persuaded “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38 39).
 
+ + +

Religion, of course, is mankind’s effort to reach up to God. Christianity is God reaching down to mankind. Leah has limned three major ways God reaches down to us, easy and powerful ways to appreciate His love. The summation of our response? — How can we keep from singing?! Here is the late (and great) Eva Cassidy performing the favorite gospel song. It dates from 1868.

Click: How Can I Keep From Singing?

Nostalgia for The “Dark” Ages

3-10-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Chartres Cathedral

When Will Life Ever Make Sense?

3-3-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Luther letter

+ + +

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

Click: Farther Along

The Peace of God vs. the God of Peace

2-24-14

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

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

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

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

“Do you love Me?”

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

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

“Do you love Me?”

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Yet I Will Sing

Dead Presidents

2-17-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Oh, Shenandoah

Broken Things

2-10-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Broken Things

The Highway to Heaven

2-3-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Highway To Heaven

Happiness vs. Joy

1-27-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Happiness has become the secularists’ Holy Word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

Click: Ode to Joy

+ + +

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

No Stranger To the Rain

1-20-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Go Rest High

Too Much Stuff

1-13-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Too Much Stuff

And Now You Know the Rest of The Story

1-12-14

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

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

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

Who was this Jesus? How did people know Him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

Click: Go Ask

Now You Know the Rest of The Story

1-6-14

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

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

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

Who was this Jesus? How did people know Him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Go Ask

Out With the Old, In With the Old

12-30-13

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

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

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

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

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

Happy new year!

+ + +

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

Click: The Love of God

Welcome to MMMM!

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

categories

About The Author

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