Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

People With No Country?

2-5-18

Edward Everett Hale wrote a short book, originally a magazine story, about a sailor who denounced the United States, was convicted of treason, and was sentenced to sail the seas thereafter for entire life, never allowed to step foot on American soil nor receive any news of the US from fellow sailors.

Gradually this Philip Nolan grew repentant, then homesick, finally desperate, for any news of his native country. In his final days he invited another sailor to his cabin, there to see flags and eagles and patriotic symbols painted on the walls. He died and was buried at sea, a “man without a country.”

Published in 1863, the tale is a message about loyalty, clearly a metaphor for the Civil War and the essential appreciation of patriotism. It also addresses the primal attraction we have for Identity. “Identity Politics” is a theme of our day – everything from joining clubs to trying to choose one’s sex midway through life. It is a very different thing than nationalism or even chauvinism. As Abe Lincoln said, about as alike as a chestnut horse is to a horse chestnut.

We choose names for our identities and loyalties, usually good tries, but usually insufficient.

President John F Kennedy, at the height of the Cold War, famously spoke in front of the recently constructed Berlin Wall, the city’s demarcation from the Communist East. Before an enthusiastic half-million people, he twice delivered a pledge of solidarity: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

There were a few problems with the stirring line, despite the audience’s raucous response. He spoke in his trademark Boston accent, a challenge to local English-speakers. He was prompted to pronounce “Ich” as “ish” – more Yiddish than German, causing some confusion about his intention. Despite subsequent historical revisionism, however, the crux of the speech’s reception was the identification with Berlin.

Europeans often name foods after cities. Frankfurters and Hamburgers and Wieners are the kinds that originated in Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Vienna. We can know where Limburger cheese and Bologna originated. French toast and English muffins are virtually unknown in France and England; but marketers knew the value of geographic identification. A popular pastry from Berlin is called by the locals a “Berliner.” Basically a jelly donut.

So, yes, John F Kennedy declared to half million people, the Soviet leaders, and the world in general, that he was a jelly donut. I think I mentioned that the crowd noisily erupted. As I said, revisionist historians have since disputed… what they cannot really dispute.

In a way, that story can unmask patriotic passions as sometimes being silly, or at least futile. But in the end, most of us still are proud of our backgrounds and our nations. Perhaps in fewer numbers, but many of us still get misty-eyed when the National Anthem is played or a veteran is laid to rest. For those who do not, shame on them. For athletes who ostentatiously dismiss the flag, more shame.

I have said I regard patriotism as a primal impulse, and basically one of self-protection, pride, and nurture. Like the difference between country and nation. In Europe, volk translates to more than a population – the family of fellow countrymen; the group with shared values and experiences. Similarly heimat is more than home or homeland or community. “Soul” and “soil” are more than cognates.

We don’t have such earnest but inchoate words in English, or in America. In our case, however, we inculcate – because we have inherited at great cost – values like Democratic Republic; free enterprise; equality of opportunities; freedom of religion, press, assembly, speech.

It is why a Swede, say, moving to, say, Argentina will always be called “that Swede down the street”; and an American in Paris will always be… an American in Paris; not a Frenchman. But – as current debates reinforce – immigrants and migrants are fairly soon called “Americans” after they arrive. And are so.

The Bible addresses this issue, because there are larger truths involved. We are spirits, intimately known to God while yet in the womb; and will live eternally according to Judgment and the Grace of God. That is, in this vale (valley) of tears, we are passing through for a moment of all eternity.

“We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace” (I Chronicles 29:15, NLT). “Sojourners” in some translations; “Pilgrims” in others. “Strangers” in all.

This world is not our home. We reside here awhile, and sometimes it seems all too real, and hard. Sometimes we fully experience, or occasionally have mere glimpses of, joy. I am not a cynic, but a reporter: it is useful to remember our “temporary status.” As Christians we have green cards, so to speak, because we are on the way to another place… a better place.

God creates a universe, and a wondrous world, and His family of children, to live a relatively few seconds in His eternal Forever? No thought is needed, and our heads would start hurting anyway. It pleases Him to design things this way. We pass from life to death to… life eternal. Somehow that seems like a good deal. Heaven will be our home, with mansions. “If it were not so, I would not have told you.”

God could have made us as jelly donuts, but He created us in His own image. He loves us passionately – enough to create us with free will; enough to have given us a “Get out of jail free” card in the form of His Son assuming our death sentences. Enough that, wherever we live or die, we are not people without a country.

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Click: The Sojourner’s Song

Those Lights Along the Shore

1-8-18

Sometimes, when our minds wander, we think of inconsequential things that seem important for a moment, no more. This evening, for instance, I started wondering about souls in hell – When some other soul makes them angry, where do they tell them to go?

Frankly, beyond the fraction of a chuckle, that does suggest a serious matter. There is a hell, it is a place of everlasting damnation and torment. We are told there are eternal fires burning there – but I have had visions of a worse reality. A couple times when I have felt apart from God – when I have forsaken Him, not vice-versa – I have a sense that there is no worse feeling, or fate, than being separated from God. The prospect of that loneliness, apart-ness, solitude in Eternity, represents a coldness to me that seems worse then any flames.

Which is all a reminder that part of our jobs as Christians is to work to save people from hell. Is this the same as steering people toward Heaven? Actually, yes: there is no third way, no alternative destination.

Sharing Jesus and the Gospel – the good news, literally – is to have people confess with their mouths that Lord Jesus is the Son of God, and believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead. They will be saved, according the Romans 10: 9, 10. Thus forgiven and redeemed, souls are spared judgment unto hell.

The job, as I call it, of believers is relatively simple. Not unimportant – quite the opposite. Too many Christians make the Great Commission from Jesus to go and make disciples to be a complicated or onerous job by thinking everything is on their shoulders. They risk offending the Holy Spirit… whose job it is to “close the deal.”

We are only charged with planting the seeds. The Holy Spirit cultivates… and harvests.

In that way my wandering mind today recalled how the Bible is replete, in virtually every chapter, with symbols, “types,” meaningful numbers, minerals and woods and gems that have specific and consistent import. So has been religious art, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, poetic verse, Christian literature, and the lyrics of songs and hymns.

One reliable symbol of Christ in song and story is the lighthouse. A couple of favorite hymns or songs build on that symbolism – Ronny Hinson’s I Thank God for the Lighthouse; the Rend Collective’s My Lighthouse.

I want to share here that we miss a sweet truth if we seize that symbolism and take from it a lesson that we should be lighthouses that attract sinners, unsaved loved ones, the “lost.” In fact the imagery that reflects the Bible’s truth is that Jesus is the lighthouse – His beams are seen by those in peril; the piercing light attract those “at sea” in their troubled lives.

Our jobs, however, are different but vitally important. In the words of an old Dwight L Moody sermon that inspired hymn-verses by Philip P Bliss in 1871, “Let the lower lights be burning.” What are the lower lights? Once ships in dark and stormy seas know where the shore is, where safe harbors might be found… lighthouses have had lower lights that shine, not ‘way out over the dark waters and to distant horizons, but that illumine the rocks and shoals and harbors and docks.

God shines, Jesus calls, the Spirit guides… and then we, as the “lower lights,” welcome the lost. Provide safety. Care for the struggling seamen. Am I nit-picking about God’s commands and our role in discipleship? No. Understanding where God wants us, and what He would have us do in the Kingdom, is essential to understand.

It is interesting that despite the passage of time and the development of technology, lighthouses still are used! I spent every boyhood summer near the famous lighthouse at Barnegat Beach NJ; and my parents lived in the shadows of the Twin Lighthouses at Atlantic Highlands NJ. Now I live in Michigan, whose periphery is dotted with dozens of picturesque lighthouses.

Lighthouses, even those that double as maritime museums, often still operate. Lights – once flames, then incandescent, might now be halogen – but still send their beams across the waves. Seamen and shore men might use sonar and computers… but somehow, also, still rely on the time-tested beams of light. And the “lower lights” to guide ships to safety.

Let your lower lights keep burning. Hurting friend, weary pilgrim, struggling seaman… welcome home!

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Click: Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

The New Puritanism

11-13-17

Curioser and curioser.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: How About Your Heart

The Priesthood Of All Believers

10-30-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He elevated the role of Conscience and personal responsibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Martin Luther

Let Goods and Kindred Go

10-23-17

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

The Wasteland of the Free?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: “Reformation” Symphony by Mendelssohn

It All Depends

10-16-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: “I Can Do No Other”

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

10-9-17

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

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

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

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

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

He stood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Matter of Unanswered Prayers

8-7-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But. God answers prayer. All the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Trust and Obey

Mere Christianity, That Unspeakable Burden

7-31-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mo Pitney sings:

Click: Give Me Jesus

St Patrick, Relevant To Us

7-17-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Be Thou My Vision

Bullets and Ballots

6-19-17

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

First, what I substantially had written and still believe:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should we remind ourselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Griffin “beheads” Trump in a graphic photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marilyn Manson kills “Trump” in music video.

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

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

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

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

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

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click: Trauermusik (Funeral Music) Marche Funebre by Chopin

 

Broken

5-29-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Broken Ones

The King Was Coming. Mere History

4-10-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no time like the “Present.”

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Click: The King Is Coming

What Is Plausible About God?

3-20-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where does ‘plausible’ start and end?”

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

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

What is plausible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: It’s a Small World, After All

Let Us Go Forward To the First Century

3-13-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Marschall and Emily Joy McCorkell

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Click: Faith of Our Fathers

Family Christian Stores, Rest in Pieces

3-6-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Hands, One Heart

2-27-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into our hearts.

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord

Presidents and Their Faith

2-20-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: In God We Trust

Don’t Ask Me.

1-9-17

Everybody is an expert these days. Pundits know more than politicians. Bloggers know more than pollsters. People at McDonald’s know more than the president. (The funny thing is, many times these things are true! But, to continue the thought…) Our brother-in-law knows more than we do, whatever the topic; our spouses usually are correct, even when we don’t admit it; and the most aggressively ignorant voter has the same power as policy wonks do.

It is the Age of Experts. Not “expertise,” not wisdom, necessarily, but opinions transcendent. Opinions are not facts, but these days they carry the same weight.

With all the humility I can muster, I want to go on the record and say that there is a LOT that I don’t know. Many of us are tempted to assume, or project, or – let’s be honest – fake an answer, when we are asked things. People ask casual questions or sometimes cry out with anguish about heavy issues. How dare we presume to know things we don’t, whether from positions of false pride or assumptions of merciful comfort.

It is honest to answer casual questions, “Beats me!” And it is liberating to respond to a hurting soul, “I don’t know! I just don’t know either.”

I don’t know why a child who has been loved and nurtured “turns out bad.”

I don’t know why a lovely, innocent child is brutalized by a predator, or killed in an accident.

I don’t know why a youth who turned into an addict, a drunk, an abuser, or a criminal, one day turned his or her life around and became a redeemed soul, ministering to others.

I don’t know why people, especially the kindly folks among us, contract deadly diseases.

I don’t know why people with “incurable diseases” get healed; as I have seen, cancers disappearing, dead limbs coming to life, restored sight.

I don’t know why spouses who are in loving marriages cheat.

I don’t know why rich people steal, or powerful people needlessly scheme, or political leaders oppress.

I don’t know why some people forsake all worldly goods and live among the poor, serving the weak and rejected.

I don’t know why religious people unfairly discriminate, or some of the clergy sexually abuse children.

I don’t know why, in lands of freedom and opportunity, people are lazy, “entitled,” lawless, anti-intellectual, hateful.

I don’t know why our society, despite all its blessings and its heritage, careens to the bottom of the culture’s dumpster, glorifying low morals, lack of respect, and self-glorification.

I don’t know why a nation founded on liberty and goals of equal rights, marches toward government controls and regulation.

I don’t know why a scientific society can, at the same time, devise miracle cures and means of prolonging life… and perfect ways of killing babies more efficiently, with easier consciences, and increasingly by edict.

I don’t know why a country can brag about democracy at home and impose non-democratic systems on other nations.

I don’t know why a country with crumbling roads, bridges, tunnels – and morals – insists on scurrying after such concerns elsewhere in the world.

I don’t know why, with all of our “progress,” humankind seems worse off than ever. Religious persecution, deaths and torture, ethnic cleansing and barbarity, are rife. I don’t know why.

I really don’t know why the Creator of the Universe loves me. Knows me, cares for me, sacrificed His Son for the punishment I deserve as a crummy, rebellious sinner. I don’t know. He tells me; it’s in the Bible; the Holy Ghost whispers to my spirit. Sometimes I know, with gratitude, but sometimes it overwhelms me.

Those are a few things I don’t know. I don’t know why people forgive – or how they can forgive, sometimes. I know we SHOULD, but… I just don’t know why or how.

But God does. That I DO know: God knows.

Comforted by that fact – not opinion – I know that there are things I do not need to know, personally.

When we don’t know the answers, and don’t even know the questions sometimes, that’s when we pray. Pray for answers. Pray alone. Pray together.

When I am comforted by the assurance that I do not need to know all the answers because He does, I have come to the definition of Faith.

I don’t know. He does. Ask Him! He will lead you to all Truth.

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Click: Go Ask the One

Thank You To the god Janus

1-1-17

Our secular world inherited a lot of things from ancient cultures and societies that have gone before. This is logical, as life is a continuum, not a shoebox of snapshots. History is ongoing. This is also proper, because we learn from history (or should) and, at the other end of the spectrum, it is interesting to learn what trappings have remained of customs, beliefs, names, and traditions.

Even the Christian religion owes much to ancient and pagan religions. The name of Easter; the dates of Christmas and Easter; the veneration or invention of some saints, are among the inspirations or compromises that made Christianity palatable to pagan peoples.

Christ’s Resurrection speaks of New Life; Springtime does too; ancient tribes used to celebrate nature’s regeneration in the Spring and face East, where the sun rises. “Branding” Resurrection observances with the associations of Spring – if not taken too far – does not violate any theological truth, and in fact seems virtuous.

… which is a long way around to invite a consideration of January, this January. The month is named for the Roman god Janus, the representation of endings and beginnings; the past and the future; of gates and doorways; of old and new; of transitions; of changes. Janus is called the Two-Faced god not because he was a hypocrite, but as his representations show, the fellow looked backward and forward. Our modern world has inherited more than a month’s name from him. For instance, understanding his traditional characteristics, we know better why New Year’s Resolutions are made in his month.

He bequeathed much, from special stones at the doors of Roman houses, to all manner of traditions and names. When in Bologna, Italy, I stay at the magnificent ancient villa named Torre di Iano – literally, the Towers of Janus. (Twin emotions, of sorts: I love to go; I hate to leave!

Here we are at another January, as always an invitation to contemplate the Old and New. We will welcome a new administration which, partisanship aside, bids fair to be a momentous and history-making (or -changing) presidency. Janus-like events ahead. An inordinate number of prominent people have died this year. But overall, and in deference to ol’ Janus, the numbers of deaths probably will be the same next year as last year. The more things change, the more they stay the same? Sounds wise and likely is wise, as it reflects Ecclesiastes’ “nothing new under the sun.”

Questions about Old and New invite profound thoughts, or trails toward them. They might mostly be variations on glasses “half empty or half full,” which I have never precisely understood; but I know what people grapple with. In nature, we see Janus-attributions everywhere, every day – and how we regard them says less about nature than ourselves.

Things die: flowers, trees, animals, people, theories, civilizations. If you choose to see death all around you, there are myriad examples.

Yet things live! Plants regenerate; succeeding generations of animals and people arise. Even seedlings fight their way between cracks in ugly urban jungles; after the worst of wildfires, “dead” trees grow buds, little animals appear, seemingly from nowhere; even the driest of deserts occasionally bloom – and with the most colorful flowers imaginable.

A variation of the sameness and dullness of life – to those who choose to be gloomy – is the belief that the world of people and the flora and fauna around us, plod on and on and on. Herds of dumb beasts; the bleakness of winter snow; the dulled masses of people.

Yet, facing the opposite direction, we see – and we serve – a different God. The animal and plant world He has created with infinite variety! No zebra nor giraffe has the same markings. Wild animals are different and sound different, one from another in the most populous of species. A rose is not a rose is not a rose!

And, for good or ill, people are different too. That is not only a cliché: we would not it any other way, would we? Approaching seven billion people on earth, there are doppelgangers – our “doubles” exist only in fiction. We miss loved ones, we regret the passing of favorites celebrities, but time marches on. When a harsh dictator or a brutal terrorist, say, dies, those people are almost instantly succeeded in the mortal coil by a baby whose smiles can make the hardest person feel new too… whose innocence blots out any imputed evil record… who is, again and again and again, a symbol of the Newness in life.

The Newness OF life.

We need to be reminded – from ancient traditions if we see them aright, to the vibrancy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that things die “unto” life. That for every old and even regrettable thing, there are second chances, U-turns, and life more abundant. That God is a god of New Life.

Happy January!
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Click: St Patrick’s Breastplate

The Bell-Ringer of Bethlehem

12-19-16

Last week, our essay was about the “Little Town of Bethlehem,” the village where God chose to become flesh and dwell among us. Last month, there were violent clashes and civic friction there. Last year, we recalled the sad story of a simple Palestinian Christian who served his church there, gunned down in crossfire in Manger Square. For the last generation, we almost have gotten used to – no: we have not – news stories of hatred, violence, oppression, persecution, and blood in the streets of the birthplace of Jesus.

NOT filled with pilgrims, worshipers, locals, as once was the case for 2000 years. Violence between the Israeli forces and Palestinians had broken out, harshly. Again, this year. As before, during random days of the years. Again this year, but at Christmastide.

There is a powerful song about a heart-wrenching story that was in the news a dozen years ago. Britain’s Independent newspaper reported then: “For 30 years, Samir Ibrahim Salman had made his way dutifully to his task as bell ringer and caretaker at the fortress-like stone-and-wood church revered by millions as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.”

Salman “crossed Manger Square to get to the church to climb the steps to the fourth-century bell tower” as he did every day of the year. “Minutes later, Samir was struck by a bullet in the chest. It was an hour before an ambulance could reach him but by then, he was already dead. The Palestinians claim he was killed by an Israeli – the Israeli army says they did not fire a shot near the church. Samir, who was mentally disabled, may have been unaware of the danger.”

It was a time when Palestinian fighters, running from advancing Israeli troops, took refuge in the church. They and 40 Franciscan brothers, four nuns and approximately 30 Orthodox and Armenian monks, were trapped in the basilica complex. There were also disputed claims about damage to the holy site, which was built over the manger – reportedly where Jesus was born.

This story about hatred, violence, and bloodshed in Jesus’ hometown, perhaps over the spot where He was born, has resonance this Christmastide.

I shared with some friends that I would be writing this message. “Why make a martyr of an Islamic person, especially at this time of year?” some responded. “Why cite a song that talks about ‘Palestine?’” asked others. “That’s provocative!” However, Salman was an Arab, but not Islamic – he was a Palestinian Christian. How many Americans realize that Bethlehem was traditionally governed by a Christian mayor and majority Christian council; and that there is a higher percentage of Christians there than in Israel — or was, before “Christian cleansing” became the Mideast Mode? Concerning ‘Palestine,’ Bethlehem is not even in Israel but in the West Bank, under the Palestinian Authority with Israel’s full sanction.

But I want us to return again, remembering the Christmas season, to Nativity Square in Bethlehem. Samir Ibrahim Salman lay there alone. He died in the pool of his blood, maybe instantly, maybe slowly… no one was brave enough (or simple enough, as he was) to go out in the open and tend to him. He had been beloved of the town, and special to the church, because he rang those bells as a volunteer every day of the year for decades, different bells for different occasions, serving Christ and his neighbors.

Let us not lament only the hatred that shatters the calm of Bethlehem, or the peace of Jerusalem. Christians today are being slaughtered by the thousands, and driven from Iraq, which the US has “stabilized.” Likewise from Syria; areas that ISIS touches; Christian parts of Africa, north and south of the Sahara.

In a brilliant but deeply disturbing report for World Magazine a few years ago, my friend Mindy Belz provided details of the US military’s (and NATO representatives’) answer to a question about whether persecuted Christians would be pr rotected in Iraq. By us, the United States. Their answer even then was “No.” Under Saddam Hussein, 1.5-million Christians lived in relative security; today, fewer than 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq, many in fear. Likewise, in Syria, the Alawite Bashir el-Assad was the Christians’ protector.

Protected by the US? By our military security? “No.” Mindy correctly calls this “extermination by any other name.” If American Christians betray Christians in Iraq (and Syria, and Egypt, and Nigeria, and China, and Myanmar, and…) we are not merely ignoring the wrong, or decrying the wrong; we are on the side of the wrong.

Back to Bethlehem, where God chose to come in human form to reconcile ALL men unto Himself. This holy ground is where God chose to fulfill His promise from ages past, that through Him “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

Who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed the simple Christian Bell Ringer of Bethlehem? To those of us who are ignorant of the issues, who blindly perpetuate stereotypes, who support missions we don’t understand – and don’t support missionaries and aid workers we ought to – we can shudder at the thought that we might have been closer, in commitment of spirit, to the triggerman than to the Bell Ringer that morning. God forbid.

As children of God, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, to be ambassadors to a fallen world – peoples of all faiths, and no faith. Now THERE is a peace treaty!

For the little town of Bethlehem. For everywhere.

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The news story from The Independent was picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald, where the Australian singer-songwriter Carl Cleves spotted it and was moved to write this song:

The Bethlehem Bell-Ringer

An ancient church in Bethlehem,
A target in a battle of men,
Stands on the ground where Christ was born
Trapped inside the eye of a storm

Soldiers move from door to door
Mortar fire, it’s all-out war.
Army tanks patrol the street,
They treat civilians with conceit

Oh Jesus, please, help Palestine
Turn all that blood back into wine
Oh Turning Wheel, Divine Design
Please bring peace to Palestine

Samir Ibrahim Salman
Fulfills his task the best he can.
Each day at dawn he tolls the bells,
While all around the army shells

He walks across the Manger Square
For thirty years he’s lived near there,
A simple man who spends his time
In quiet prayer at Jesus’ shrine

Upon the roof a sniper aims
His bitter heart with hate inflames
Samir walks slow, his back bent low
And is struck down by the bullet’s blow

For many hours Samir lay there
Bleeding on the Manger Square.
No ambulance permitted near,
And so the bell ringer died here

An ancient church in Bethlehem
The bells of peace won’t chime again
The people now all live in fear
Grieving wails are all you hear

Oh Jesus, please, help Palestine
Turn all that blood back into wine
Oh Turning Wheel, Divine Design
Please bring peace to Palestine.

The Election, “Acts of God,” Acts of Man

10-10-16

This week an enormous storm brushed by the United States. It was a long time building, it moves deliberately, and forecasters say that it likely will circle around and hit again, causing even more distress and severe adjustments to a fearful population.

In other news, Hurricane Matthew pummeled the East Coast.

But back to the election campaign.

The Election of 2016 is a plain illustration of how bankrupt our political system – our culture – is. A nation of a third of a billion people, and these two are the best we can do? Trump might be the “citizen politician” that the Framers hoped for; but scarcely of the caliber they envisioned. He is a messenger: a mailman carrying the accumulated complaints of a restive population. Many people love him for it… understandably, for all his faults. It seems like everyone else has failed us.

Hillary’s rise – or, rather, her decades-long hovering presence – is disturbing evidence of our civic insolvency. Once again, a population as large (and, supposedly, as diverse and resourceful) as ours, and we lately subsist on dynasties? The Kennedy royalty? Bush – Clinton – Bush – Obama – maybe Clinton / almost another Bush / talk of Michelle Obama / Chelsea Clinton / George P Bush / … and more Kennedys being spawned?

Incest. It results in mutants and defects, in politics as well as genetics.

In this interminable campaign, Donald Trump has had more lives than a litter of cats. Part of his relative stability in the polls is his strong (and, to me, inexplicable) support from “Evangelicals.” Christians, following Christian celebrities, have chosen, endorsed, and largely remained loyal to, Donald Trump.

His agenda, largely nationalist if not nativist, and generally in the tradition of economic royalists, Manchester Liberalism, and an America-First foreign policy – at the least the most recent iteration of his positions – is an agenda with which I generally am comfortable. Many conservative Christians feel the same way, at least manifested by an inchoate attraction.

Trump has given voice, or more appropriately speaks with the same voice, as those of the Goldwater-Wallace-Agnew tremors across our political landscape in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Of the Reagan Revolution’s foot-soldiers. Of the Tea Party insurgencies. Of the decentralization earthquakes in the Europe of Thatcher and UKIP and Brexit; the LePens in France; Geert Wilders in Holland; of anti-immigrant and nationalist movements in Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

He is not unique… except for his unique baggage. His “evolving” positions (for instance, on abortion) might be more encouraging than troubling. His boorish social skills might be overlooked by supporters who think there are many butts that need kicking here and abroad.

That his morals, seemingly those of a pig, should surprise anybody is absurd.
Least of all should Christians be startled by the words in the tape that recently surfaced. Like other supporters and politicians, some of whom are now abandoning ship, they should not be discomfited, because nothing new is on display. Merely a new soundbite.

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

In William McKinley’s first inaugural address he said: “Our faith teaches that there is no safer reliance than upon the God of our fathers, who has so singularly favored the American people in every national trial, and who will not forsake us so long as we obey His commandments and walk humbly in His footsteps.”

Is Trump or Hillary capable of saying, or believing, such words? Especially the “humbly” component?

The real crisis in America is not deficient candidates. They are the symptoms, not the disease. To focus too much on these individuals is like a weatherman pointing to humidity levels in Arizona but ignoring Hurricane Matthew.

Ah, back to the Hurricane. An act of God, so-called. Our political storms, however, are man-made. We get what deserve, and what we have constructed. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings. Look in our mirrors for the authors of this current mess.

Meanwhile, Trump’s major political sin is not what he bragged about doing on the tape; nor in being careless to speak when being recorded. To me the political (that is, not only personal) sin was bragging, even fabricating, to a nobody. Trying to impress a Hollywood hack. Sounding like a wolf in cheap clothing. That manner of discretion, that twisted sort of probity, is spoken by loose lips that sink ships.

To apologize “to those who are offended” is a weasel-worded deflection. To claim that Bill Clinton did worse things, or at a faster rate, is the very opposite of contrition; more jealousy than remorse. To condemn Hillary for persecuting Bill’s mistresses and girlfriends is almost irrelevant, when Trump needs to reassure his supporters. To say that other world leaders (France, Italy, Russia) have had affairs, is a startling reversal of his attitude about foreign leaders. Those justifications are irresponsible efforts to distract people. It is an insult to his followers. It is cynical exploitation of the “Evangelical” “leaders” who support him.

Should Christians or patriots therefore abandon Trump and vote for Hillary? I think that the worst that can said about Trump – politics, integrity, probity – is insignificant compared to her resume, which is half sordid and half empty.

Is a third party (“What’s a Leppo?”) or a write-in a viable option? I think that these are virtual ballots for Hillary. She will have enough dead voters, illegals, and multiple fraudulent ballots already.

Should Christian patriots “grow up” and realize the world is “that way,” as some friends who decry what they see as a self-defeating rise of Neo-Puritanism argue? Nonsense. Most of us are loath to accept “things as they are” in any other sphere; political activism, even mere commentary, is (as Omar wrote) to smash the world to bits “and then re-mold it nearer the heart’s desire.”

What should Christians do? I am asked this frequently, a month from Election Day.

Once upon a time, the president was a minor part of the campaign. The PLATFORM was what attracted, or repelled, voters. Vote for the representatives of the positions you favor.

Myself, I think that if Hillary does everything she promises we are in a very bad place. If Trump fulfills only 25 per cent of his promises, we are in a much better place.

Christians, patriots, all voters: If this candidate is horrible; if that candidate is disgusting; if the other candidate seems like a dope; if others seem clearly dangerous… look at the policy options. Vote for likely outcomes, the best bundle of policies you can hope for.

Then, pray.

And vote.

And pray.

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Click: Funeral March

The Evil of Two Lessers

10-3-16

Ever since as I was a young boy, I heard adults talking about elections, and resignedly saying that they would, sigh, be voting for the lesser of two evils.

I picked up the mantra when I achieved majority, not as a matter of patrimony, but because the choices invariably were and are crummy. There were exceptions – I enthusiastically supported Ronald Reagan – but I frequently have voted for third-party candidates or skipped presidential ballots.

For a while I would not vote at all, local or national elections, on the premise that doing so would just encourage the scoundrels.

Eventually I realized that a wisecrack is an inadequate substitute for civic responsibility. Slightly more sophisticated was my objection that illiterate welfare scammers had the same “say” that I did… but abdication in the game we call democracy only enhances the self-defeating aspects of my inchoate protest.

Now I am fully engaged, voting and debating and writing columns and drawing political cartoons and glued to C-SPAN like a dog in heat. But, the more engaged I am, the more enraged I am.

That a nation of approximately one-third of a billion people cannot produce better presidential candidates then the two (or four) major candidates we are stuck with… is demoralizing. With troubling implications for the future – heck, the present state – of our republic. We have a flawed system, surely; but we also are in a tailspin in almost every sphere of national life. Politics is merely the mostly visible symptom. In this season, the nearest whipping-boy.

As I have evolved to a Christian Patriot, and as an essayist in this realm, the choices would seem to be clearer, the decisions easier to make. We all have checklists and litmus tests, whether clearly biblical or informed by our faith. Even secular voters have criteria, perhaps more so.

So why do so many Christian patriots – “value voters” – feel seriously conflicted this year? Being on the horns of a dilemma has never been so uncomfortable!

This week the author of books in Christian field Philip Yancey said in an interview that he was “baffled” that “Evangelicals” (a term of deliberate ambiguity, but that is another topic) could support a Donald Trump. He defined Trump as a “bully” who has taken positions contrary to the Bible and has been thrice-married and has built casinos.

Yancey is correct on the resume of Trump. I do not disagree. Personally, I don’t think I would like Trump as a neighbor, much less as a president.

There was a relative firestorm of response on social media, and Yancey quickly stated that he was not implicitly endorsing Hillary Clinton. In fact, without the clarification, of course the “implicit” endorsement was inferred by his many followers. To me, his greater offense was pretending to be “baffled” by “Evangelical” support for Trump. Our angst, our debates, our essays, our, yes, social-media posts are legion. Everywhere. For many people – many Christians, even many Yancey acolytes – support for Trump has been discussed endlessly.

For some, support is reluctant. For some, it might be automatic. For some, it is painful and anguished. Two prominent names in Christianity (neither of them ministers, by the way) have reached different positions: Falwell Junior, Yay; Yancey, Nay.

Christians in a democracy must realize the implications of supporting Hillary Clinton. She has also lied, is corrupt, doesn’t act like Jesus in myriad ways. Her hands arguably are dirtier, or bloodier, from her militant support of abortions. Lying to Benghazi parents. Spinning new absurdities about her e-mails, servers, and Foundation shenanigans. Start there.

Any (and every) candidate is going to be flawed. Does Yancey think “Evangelicals” should not vote for anyone? Of course not. He now says he will not vote for any presidential candidate this year. For my part, “been there, done that.” I think the only thing that Christian voters can be sure of about this election, about the choices facing us, is that there is no easy choice. You will not wake up tomorrow morning, slap your forehead in a V-8 moment, and realize that you have missed the obvious answer.

Another thing I did when I was a kid was to go to Union Square Park in lower Manhattan and listen to the speakers, most of them crackpot and most of them Communist, spout off to ersatz audiences of transients and passersby. A dying phenomenon, really – maybe the young Obama, on ghetto street corners of Chicago, was among the last – but I considered them to redolent of earlier days, and London’s Hyde Park. (I honed my debate skills, such as they are, in Union Square. Also my talent for heckling.) Like so many other things, this phenomenon has not so much disappeared as it has morphed into electronic social media. Now, gasbags (save yourself the Comments) float on electrons instead of standing on soap boxes.

… which is either democracy at work, or a pressure-valve from more serious dissatisfaction and dissent. I think violent days of protest and civil disobedience are coming soon, from sides of the political spectrum. But that, too, is for another time here.

In the meantime, we still are face-to-face with a seething, ugly, menacing dilemma. And we cannot escape it. We are in a horrible place — we Christians in this “democracy” — and nothing will save us but One thing. We know that Person. But other things can guide us, good, bad, and “Mister In Between.” Am I going to vote, once again in my life, while holding my nose?

Yes. I am going to hold my nose and vote. Any well-intentioned Christian patriot wanting to stay home, or abide a Clinton presidency, explicitly endorses an extremist Supreme Court, further erosion of Constitutional rights, more regulations favoring abortion and the homosexual agenda, uncountable immigration numbers from Mexico and from terrorist lands. Et cetera. That can sound like my opinion, but Hillary would thank me for stating her positions succinctly.

If Christians stay home, they should be consistent, and withdraw from all government activities and programs; all schools and institutions; all media… because everything is corrupted. “Let the Supreme Court [a response might say] go wacko. God is in control; He will see us through; His eye is on the sparrow and He watches over us.”

I agree. But He is watching us kill ourselves, too.

Under a sovereign God, Christianity is not a democracy. Conversely, once the Founders accepted pluralism, this is not a theocracy. I hate the thought of voting for “the lesser of two evils”… because that implies that both choices are evil. Neither Christianity nor a republic are roulette-tables, either. But I will take my chances.

One candidate is certain to continue the secular agenda, the war on believers, and a Frightening New World. The other has, among other things, promised to maintain Constitutional guarantees, restore traditional values, reverse governmental overreach, respect Christian expressions in school, courtrooms, public squares… If Trump keeps only a quarter of such promises, we will be better off.

One is the Lesser of two evils.
The other is the Evil of two Lessers.

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God DOES watch over us. That should bring us comfort! Here is the wonderful Ethel Waters, near the end of her life, singing the great song about God’s Eye on the Sparrow, at a Billy Graham crusade. BUT, as we take comfort from these lyrics, let us remember that He feeds the sparrows… but as He watches, we are accountable for how we respond to His care.

Click: His Eye Is On the Sparrow

Remembering an American Icon

9-12-16

Anniversaries are convenient things to help us remember and commemorate what we ought. The 15th anniversary (integers are cooperative) of the 9-11 attacks will evoke appropriate tears, and possibly inspire people to actions of some sorts. This week – and I hope not lost in the political rhubarbs and 9-11 remembrances – we lost another iconic American Tower, so to speak.

Phyllis Schlafly has died.

Of course there will be people in 2016 who don’t know her name, but many do; and virtually every American has been affected by her work, her dedication, her crusades, the force of her personality. For more than half a century, this elegant bulldog of a lady changed politics and public policy in America. She inspired millions; she caused laws and regulations to be enacted, and – doing what even King Canute of legend could not – she withheld many waves of political “change,” for instance almost single-handedly preventing the requisite number of states to make the Equal Rights Amendment part of the Constitution.

I was an impressionable teenager in 1964, persuadable by both sides in that momentous presidential election. Until, that is, I read two books: Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of Conservative, after which I became one of “Barry’s Boys; and Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice, Not an Echo, a history of American politics and a tocsin about the Current Crisis. Hers was an informed, logical blueprint: appreciating the genius of the American Experiment; learning the nature of threats to the Republic; and the essential importance of activism.

Nothing, for me, was the same after that. Advocacy in high school; engagement in college (in Washington DC during the Vietnam era); community work in local politics; work as a newspaper columnist and political cartoonist. Phyllis taught me, and uncountable others, what we could do and should do if we want to rescue, redeem, and restore traditional and vital American principles.

She did this through the most minute efforts, the old-fashioned neighborhood work of persuading neighbors, attending meetings, writing to officials. And, in “major” ways, she wrote almost two dozen books, founded the advocacy group Eagle Forum, established Stop ERA, which battled the radical-feminist attempt to add an intrusive amendment to the Constitution – despite massive push-backs and abuse, her efforts stopped the states’ passages of the Act at 35 when 37 were necessary. Eventually, thanks to Phyllis, five states even rescinded their approval. She championed the Defense of Marriage Act, and many other pro-life and pro-family initiatives.

President Reagan appointed Phyllis to commissions in honor of her ability and accomplishments (by the way, she was a practicing lawyer, and received a Masters degree in Government from Harvard) (and not by the way, she was also a mother of six children). In his diaries there are notes of his breathless admiration of her work and dedication. I remember a column by Bob Novak, written during Platform deliberations at the 2004 – usually dry sessions, devoid at attention – when he encountered Phyllis Schlafly, alone in a vast side-room. The 80-year-old bulldog was going through drafts line by line, determined as always to find devils in details, to keep politicians’ feet to the fire.

All politicians. All their feet. All the fires.

Obviously, she was a heroine to me. I followed he through her long-running newsletter. Through her weekly newspaper column. Through the five-day-a-week radio commentaries. Seeing her on C-SPAN, making speeches, testifying before Congress. I once interviewed her, by phone, for a magazine I edited, the late lamented Rare Jewel, published by Tim Ewing.

But I never met her until we both attended a conference conducted by Dr D James Kennedy. And it was like this: I walked into the hotel’s breakfast room, and there sat Phyllis, alone. We both were earlier than our appointed breakfast-mates.. There she was, in person, and I suddenly realized her resemblance to Margaret Thatcher. Without the overbite. With preternaturally and, seemingly, permanently coiffed hair. Warm smile and steely eyes. Yes – Phyllis was American politics’ “Iron Lady”: how she would have done if we had a parliamentary system and she stood at Question Time! Her last book, by the way, was the recent Conservative Case for Trump.

I nervously introduced myself, and explained that I merely wanted to tell her what a difference she made in my life, and continued to; and how I could attest to what I hoped she knew, that there were many, many committed warriors like me. Like her, if we could manage.

With genuine humility she thanked me but then asked what I did, where I worked, how things were going, what was next… and suggesting even moiré ways I could be engaged. Amazing. A general with the passion of a recruit, and the enthusiasm of a common foot-soldier.

I have not yet mentioned what motivated Phyllis Schlafly. A love of America, certainly. But she was a committed Christian… and she willingly admitted – insisted – that her faith informed her patriotism. Christianity was the foundation of her concerns. The essential urgency she continuously evinced was of a kind with an evangelist’s zeal.

She was the person who put “Christian” in the Christian Right, and “Right” in the lexicon of Christian patriots. As the culture rapidly grew more and more secular, she was the girl with her thumb in the dike, fighting the good fighting at same time as alerting the rest of us to the tides of opposition. Amazing.

To the extent the crisis in our culture has involved secularism in all spheres, she said to me in my magazine interview: “I think the secularists have mounted a force on every front. You see this in the attack on the Pledge of Allegiance, the attack on the Ten Commandments, the attack on any public acknowledgment of God.

“What they want to do is treat Christians like smokers. ‘You can do it in the privacy of your own home, maybe down a dark alley, in a little corner somewhere, but not out where anyone can see you.’ … We have a big battle in the political sphere, in the cultural sphere, and the spiritual sphere.”

And who responds to battles? Soldiers. We have lost a mighty soldier in our society’s wars. But Phyllis Schlafly was a von Clausewitz, a Sun Tzu, a Saint Paul: equipping us for the tough work ahead. With the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in her other, Iron Lady Schlafly, dignified yet ferocious, showed us the way. We should all be, not followers, but actual leaders in her fashion.

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Click: Mozart’s Lacrimosa

The Sweetest Songs I Know

9-5-16

I have told this story before. It is about a holiday far away from home… but very close to my heart. It happened on a Fourth of July years ago, and was duplicated virtually unchanged two months later, on the Labor Day weekend.

A number of years ago I was working on a book, a three-part biography of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis; evangelist Jimmy Swaggart; and country-music superstar Mickey Gilley, all first cousins to each other. My good friend Maury Forman offered me his unused condo in Montgomery, Texas to get away for a bit of a personal research and writing one summer. Since Lewis lived in Mississippi, Swaggart in Louisiana, and Gilley in nearby Pasadena Texas, it made geographical sense.

Once settled, I took out the Yellow Pages (remember them?) to chart the location of Assembly of God churches for all the weeks ahead, intent on visiting as many as I could. East Texas was in every way new to me, and I wanted to experience everything I could.

Well, the first one I visited was in Cut and Shoot, Texas. That’s a town’s name; you can look it up. A small, white frame AG church was my first – stop that summer… and I never visited another. For one thing – coincidence? – I learned that a member of the tiny congregation was the widow of a man who had pastored the AG church in Ferriday, Louisiana, the small town FOUR HOURS AWAY where, and when, those three cousins grew up in its pews. She knew them all, and their families, and had great stories. Beyond that, the pastor of the church in Cut and Shoot, Charles Wigley, had gone to Bible College with Jerry Lee Lewis and played in a band with him, until Jerry Lee got kicked out. Some more great stories.

But there was more than that kept me there for that summer. In that white-frame church and that tiny congregation, it was, um, obvious in three minutes that I was not from East Texas. I was born in New York City. Yet I was treated like family as if they had known me three decades. A fellow named Dave Gilbert asked me if I’d like to go to his farm for the holiday where a bunch of people were just going to get together and “do some visitin’.”

I bought the biggest watermelon I could find as my contribution to the pot-luck. Well, there were dozens and dozens of folks. I couldn’t tell which was family and who were friends, because everybody acted like family. When folks from East Texas ask, “How are you?” they really mean it. There were several monstrous barbecue smokers with chimneys, all slow-cooking beef brisket. (Every region brags about its barbecue traditions, but I’ll fight anyone who doesn’t admit low-heat, slow-smoked, no sauce, East-Texas BBQ the best) There was visitin,’ surely; there were delicious side dishes; there was softball and volleyball and kids dirt-biking; and breaks for sweet tea and spontaneous singing of patriotic songs.

I sat back in a folding chair, and I thought, “This is America.”

As the sun set, the same food came out again — smoked brisket galore; all the side dishes; and desserts of all sorts. Better than the first time. Then the Gilberts cleared the porch of their house. People brought instruments out of their cars and trucks. Folks tuned their guitars; some microphones and amps were set up; chairs and blankets dotted the lawn. Dave Gilbert and his brothers, I learned, sang gospel music semi-professionally in the area. Pastor Wigley, during the summer, had opened for Gold City Quartet at a local concert, playing gospel music on the saxophone. But everyone else sang, too.

In some churches, in some parts of America, you are just expected to sing solo every once in a while. You’re not expected to – you want to. So into the evening, as the sun went down and the moon came up over those farms and fields, everyone at that picnic sang, together or solo or in duets or quartets. Spontaneously, mostly. Far into the night, exuberantly with smiles, or heartfelt with tears, singing unto the Lord.

I sat back in the folding chair, and I thought, “This is Heaven.”

I have grown sad for people who have not experienced the type of worship where singers and people who pray, do so spontaneously. From the congregation. Moving to the front. Sharing their hearts. Crying tears of joy or conviction. Loving the Lord, freely. If you have not… visit a church where this is commonplace; even witnessing it is an uplifting balm to the soul. Where there is freedom and joy in singing spontaneously.

I attach a video that very closely captures the music, and the feeling – the fellowship – of that evening. A wooden ranch house, a barbecue picnic just ended, a campfire, and singers spontaneously worshiping, joining in, clapping, and “taking choruses.” There were cameras at this Gaither get-together, but it took this city boy back to that holiday weekend, finding himself amongst a brand-new family, the greatest barbecue I ever tasted before or since… and the sweetest songs I know.

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Click: The Sweetest Song I Know

Our Pentecost of Calamity

8-22-16

There are many worldviews by which people live today, as there always has been in all societies. The difference in contemporary America, I think, is that the majority of citizens have no idea of what a worldview is, or whether or not they care about operating under any established and consistent precepts.

Even Christians, including dedicated and fervent church-goers, often fail the test of worldview standards. Many Christians love God and believe in Jesus, but as if in the world but not of the world, know more what they oppose than what they should defend. As we recently noted, most people these days are not so much ignorant of history as indifferent to its relevance.

In the political realm, partisans on the Left know their socialist and Marxist dogma, even if they reject the labels. On the Right, there are patriots who love liberty and know the Constitution. In the vast Middle, well-intentioned people are malleable, their opinions inevitably shaped less by events than by the media and the culture.

This situation in America and the West was foretold by Aldous Huxley in a letter to George Orwell (both notable futurists and dystopian thinkers) in 1949: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than [sticks] and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”

The Bible, inevitably, put the same thought – the same prediction – most clearly: “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; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (II Timothy 4: 3-4). Indeed, we love our servitude.

Counted among those “teachers” are not only members of the educational-industrial complex, but also politicians, role-models from popular culture, and… “people of the cloth” – ministers, preachers, priests, rabbis.

I am pessimistic about the future of American civilization (as well as of our “democracy,” republic, and government) because we are the inheritors of at least 500 years of a corrupted worldview. The worst aspects of a cultural secularization were unlikely to have coexisted with theocentric virtue. America was a “last best hope” of mankind, not for democracy’s sake – never an ideal of the Founders and Framers – but of a virtuous society. Respect, self-respect, order, justice, charity: these were among the characteristics recommended, and recognized, by Pilgrims and Great Revivalists; by our civic architects like John Adams and James Madison; by admiring observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, who retained enough equanimity to state: “When America ceases to be good, she will cease being great.”

One of the infections of the half-millennium cited above is the belief in progress, a hallmark of the Modern Age. Most Americans will think my definition, and certainly my analysis, is loopy. But that shows how pervasive this worldview has become. Earlier societies and civilizations, however, neither believed in the inevitability of human progress nor its efficacy, if they thought much about it at all.

Inherent in the concept of progress, and history’s plodding march “forward,” is perfectibility. Once that belief is subscribed (and we have made a fetish of it in the West), then it naturally follows that laws can be passed, rules enforced, behavior modified, all to achieve perfection. In society; in individuals. Justice. Heaven on earth. Utopia.

Of course, this leads not to progress but to schemes, warring factions, and, for example, the parade of monsters of the past century who consigned millions to servitude and battlefield slaughters. Secularism, the glorification of Self, will do that. Human nature without its restraints reveals the worst, not the putative best, aspects. We have arrived at the 21st century thinking we know better than all societies, in all of history – better than the Word of God – about the structure of the family, the role of authority, the sanctity of life, and a host of such truths. Gosh, we’re great.

I cannot decry progress in certain areas by certain characterizations. My late wife, a diabetic since the age of 13, would not have had a 14th birthday party if not for medical science. I could not be enjoying Bach as I type a message that (still magically, to me) will be read by thousands of people. I am not an all-in Luddite.

But our conceited conviction that, quoting Dr Pangloss from Voltaire’s “Candide,” this is the best of all possible worlds, is as self-swindling and ridiculous as, well, Pangloss himself. It might just be the case that the world will never host a greater philosopher than Plato; no better sculptors than Michelangelo and Rodin; no better composers than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The works of Rodin and the Viennese masters do not vitiate my point, but encourage us always to create and emulate. Not be perfect, because only God is perfect; but to create as He inspires us to be creative. (I mention Rodin, having last week stood in awe before sculptures in the Rodin Museum…)

The most pernicious effect of this modern malady is that we humans make a god of perfectibility: to the extent we can think, innovate, reform, and devise according to a faith in Progress, we commensurately surrender faith in God. We have replaced it with a faith in humanistic progress, in humankind’s perfectibility, in our selves.

Foolish us, we are doomed to fail. If you can lift your gaze from the muck – the bread and circuses as well as the disintegration of our social fabric – you will see how well the seduction of Progress’s inevitability and modern definition is working.

“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served… or the gods… in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

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Purcell’s Funeral Sentences

Teacher of the Year

5-30-16

Graduation time. As much as part of the season as the swallows “coming back to Capistrano”; the welcome of “sweet springtime, we greet thee in song”; and all that. Smart investors would have looked, in winter months, for manufacturers of caps and gowns, T-shirts that proclaim “I finally made it!” and makers of Dollar-Store trophies – brass filglagees with bronze oak-leaf palm and plastic plaques that read “Teacher of the Year.”

It is the time of year, also, for news stories about teachers, students, achievements, and academic statistics. We hear that the United States falls yet farther down in the world’s ratings of student grades and scores. We learn about dropout rates in urban schools, and meth epidemics in rural schools. Again, and again, of lowered minimum standards of aptitude tests, artificially to counteract the galloping moronization of American education.

On the other hand, bright spots. A student who scored perfect verbal and math SAT scores. Impressive winners of spelling bees. But the smaller numbers of quality student graduates are doomed to attend colleges where sensitive feelings and useless degrees predominate.

A bright spot for me this week was judging a competition (yes, the word is still legal) of students delivering orations. They had to compose and deliver – as I furiously took notes and assessed them – informative or persuasive speeches. Ages 10 to 15, any subjects of their choosing. I was impressed by maturity, self-awareness and self-assurance, and indeed, first-rate information and persuasion.

My easiest task was to critique and encourage; the toughest challenge was to choose the top three of impressive presentations. I felt a renewed hope for the future of our culture. Of course, eventually I stepped back out into the springtime air of Michigan. (Not incidentally, this was a group of home-schooled students.)

With the seed of a message planted in my mind, I did research into the Teacher of the Year concept. Like ants at a picnic, they are too many to count. Every state has an official Teacher of the Year – in fact, every county, district, town, school, and, often, grade-levels have them. There are rival associations that sanction Teachers of the Year. Every year. If you feel overwhelmed by the ubiquity of it all (how many Bests can there be?), save yourself the trouble of looking for sanctuary: even the North Marianas Islands have multiple Teacher of the Year awards.

By itself, this is encouraging, even if it says more about courtesy and gratitude than excellence. But there is that inevitable Other Side of the Coin. Teachers make headlines these days, sadly, for more than classroom excellence or inspiration. I did a Google search of “Teachers Charged with Sex Crimes” and 59 pages of stories and reports (each page, of course, with multiple links) were displayed.

Enough said about what we may call “mixed grades” to American education in 2016. Back when I was an elementary-school student I respected my teachers as people, but recognized that many of them were nitwits drawing paychecks. This generalization might be a rule of life, overall, and ultimately students excel by overcoming the mundane, perhaps a greater challenge than overcoming more blatant handicaps. But… today. A different world. Metal detectors in schools; the Bible proscribed; sex instruction and indoctrination masquerading as “sex education”; teachers whose names appear in sex-offender registries.

My mind, still racing if not reeling, thinks about some of humankind’s greatest teachers. Many were not from classrooms; many great teachers never were trained as educators. Indeed, some of our greatest teachers – I think of Abraham Lincoln – spent nary a day of their lives even as students, in the classroom-attendance sense. That mind of mine went back to Jesus, as all our minds would do well frequently to do, who at places in the Gospel accounts is addressed as Teacher (Rabboni).

It is funny that many people who deny the divinity of Christ – no, actually, it is not funny – quickly will concede that He “was a great teacher.” Usually, that is to assure us believers that they sufficiently respect Him… so that we are not offended in a conversation. They don’t mind offending the Son of Almighty God; but they want to avoid offending us.

Jesus was indeed a great teacher, the greatest in human history. But, sorry, friends, that has nothing at all (conflict-avoidance or not) to do with His claims on us.

Jesus was born of virgin, fulfilling prophecy. Accept or reject that, but do not dwell on it in relation to His claims on us.

Jesus performed miracles, healed the sick, raised the dead, which astonished witnesses, both followers and enemies; but those miracles alone did not make him divine – and is separate from His claims on us.

What Jesus really cares about is that we come face to face with the same thing He did: the Cross. He could have done nothing after fulfilling uncountable prophesies; the virgin birth; turning water into wine; walking on water; feeding 5000; raising Lazarus from the dead… and it would not mean that He was God Incarnate, or not. We are not saved by believing that a blind man could suddenly see. Salvation is, rather, in the Cross.

Without the Cross – the death that the Christ was destined to suffer, the punishment in our place, for our sins – and the Resurrection from the Dead, Jesus’ life would be the stuff of information and persuasion, perhaps; but not of Divinity. Those claims on us are the most compelling, and cannot be explained away or hidden behind honorifics of Jesus solely as “a great teacher.”

He was, of course, a great teacher. The greatest. But if that were the extent of His ministry, or His Incarnation… then His plastic nameplate would be lost among thousands of the Teacher of the Year trophies that, eventually, gather dust in our closets and storage boxes.

Jesus is the Teacher of every year, let us agree. But for Eternity, He is the Savior.

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Click: At the Cross

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Odd Ducks, Missing the Fountain of Youth

5-23-16

Back when I was a writer for Disney Comics, I was given a bible – not the Holy Bible, although it had the properties of life and death in its pages. Like “script bibles” or “story bibles” in filmmaking and TV series, it is a summary of characters, personalities, traits, and background data, to keep writers and artists on-target. The essence was plainly stated: “Stick as close to Barks and Gottfredson as you can.”

Many of us grew up with Disney comics, and the definitive creators, although they were anonymous at the time, were Carl Barks (“the Duck Man”) and Floyd Gottfredson, who drew all the Mickey adventures. What a dream: write and draw like Carl and Floyd (each of whom I was blessed to know), and get paid for it.

I had monthly conferences with my editors, and for a while things went swimmingly. I even bought a house from all the stories I wrote. But there was one major bump in the road that I remember, decades later.

Scrooge McDuck and his nephews often set out on adventures. Humor and suspense, mysteries and slapstick, conflicts and surprise endings – what fun to dream up those stories. Once I was excited to invent a premise that contained a “switch” on a famous historical legend. Just as the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon sought the mythical Fountain of Youth, I wrote an outline with Scrooge, Donald, and the nephews coming across the Fountain of Age.

The story possibilities were great. Of course Unca Scrooge inadvertently would drink from it; his instant decrepitude would be more than dismaying; it would materially threaten their quest in that story – I think it was a race against his rival; the attempts to counter the guzzling could be funny; and so forth. I was surprised, for all the ink spilled over the centuries about the Fountain of Youth, that nobody ever utilized its opposite as a possible storyline.

One of my editors, in a meeting, rejected it out of hand. “A Fountain of Old? That’s nonsense; it can’t be possible.” No; other editors tended toward my point of view; there could indeed be minerals or properties that could speed the aging process. Maybe a local tribe of elderly looking people could warn Donald and company at the last minute.

But that one editor persisted. “It simply doesn’t make sense that there could be a fountain, or a lake somewhere, whose waters make you age rapidly.”

I remember the session. After a moment of silence, I looked around the room and said, “Wait a minute. We are dealing with ducks here – ducks that walk and talk and dress themselves. One of them is richest duck in the world, and we carefully make sure he has his top hat, spats, and cane, every story. Huey, Dewey, and Louie, each of whom speaks a third of a sentence. Talking ducks!!!” And we were stymied about a plot where a hidden lake’s water aged you quickly.

The larger absurdity – or maybe it was ultimate logic – was that a room full of grown men, indeed an entire industry, made careers out of creating a “universe” of talking ducks and mice. The logic rested in the fact that the American public (and the world’s population, deep down) likes fantasy.

I was struck at the time (by the way, the story did make print), and I still am impressed, by the fact that many of the world’s great stories and legends have to do with water. Of course water is elemental source of life, irrigation, navigation, and all manner of sustenance: no mystery. Considering the dramatic possibilities – but not to be over-dramatic – the great poets and artists and writers and dramatists did not enthuse over air in the same manner as water.

Yes, they breathed; and manned flight might have been more of a technical challenge awaiting these professions. But, for instance to my case, humankind could have ventured into the waters of the world to fish… and been satisfied. But rivers became roads beckoning elsewhere; seas and oceans were irresistible, if frightening, gateways to the unknown. And we are back to Fantasy’s role in humankind’s DNA. From the arts to commerce.

The first chapters of Genesis make seemingly disproportionate references to water and “the waters.” It was through a Flood that God first judged the human race. Water, throughout the Bible, is a “type” of the Holy Spirit over and over. Jesus turned water into wine… His FIRST miracle. When Christ’s side was pierced on the cross, it is reported that both blood and water flowed. Start searching for references to water in the Bible and you will be deluged, by the number of them, their variety, their significance.

Are any of them references to a Fountain of Youth?

In a way, yes. The fourth chapter of John records that Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman who was drawing water at Jacob’s Well. He asked her for a drink and she was surprised, since she was a despised foreigner. Nevertheless she was sarcastic when He said that she would thirst again from the world’s water but He offered water after which no one would thirst again.

She still scoffed, and then He identified her as an adulteress, and other facts that made her call Him a prophet. But He said of Himself that, more, He was the Christ, and His meaning became clear. As clear as pure water.

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  The woman then said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

Augustine has explained that the woman was a “type” of the world, the coming Church, for whom Jesus came: gentiles, pilgrims, and strangers who needed the Living Water. “So the woman left her water jug and went into town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this indeed be the Christ?’”

Truly Jesus provides – and is – the Eternal Water of life. It occurs to me that we all, in a way, are drinking from a Fountain of Old without really intending to do so; and we scurry about, all our lives, looking for a Fountain of Youth – or some other elixir of life, happiness, or prosperity.

And we thirst again, and again. And again. What odd ducks we are.

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Click: There Is a Fountain

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Earth Day and “My Father’s World”

4-25-16

I noted the annual observance of Earth Day. And right about now I am making ready for my annual pilgrimage to the top of that earth.

Not quite Mount Everest or Mont Blanc or Mount McKinley, but high enough: Rocky Mountain High. Not a holy trek… although it is associated with the annual Greater Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference (attendance at which I urge on all aspiring writers, published authors, casual readers, and everyone in between). Is it a true pilgrimage? Yes, it is.

Many pilgrimages have been undertaken by pilgrims (obviously) to sites of holy or historical significance; sometimes in celebration or in observation of dates or past events. They can venture to the unknown (think the New World) or to very familiar places (think Jerusalem or Lourdes).

Or they can serve to re-charge one’s battery, so to speak. To savor the sustenance one expects to be waiting. To commune in a way unavailable elsewhere.

I will re-create the experience for those of you not from bumpy lands. I was born in New York City, where all the peaks are of stone, but piled up by man, not God. (Ask me about trips to Bavaria and Switzerland and Austria sometime, too.) You arrive in Denver, nestled in mountains a mile high. You drive to Estes Park, a frontier-flavored town half again as high above sea level. Local landmarks are the Stanley Hotel and the sprawling YMCA retreat and conference center, which hosts the writers’ conference. And, of course, 360 degrees of mountains, snow-capped year-‘round.

Every year after the conference a few faculty members and friends make the trek upward – so it seems, straight up! Past the Theodore Roosevelt National Forest, into the Rocky Mountain National Park, passing scattered cabins and lazy elk and deer, we climb farther, into thinner air. The deciduous trees disappear; we are above the pine line. Soon, even the pine trees can grow no more, and there are only strange scrub plants, jagged rocks, and frozen snow.

At summits you stop to walk – carefully and slowly, because the thin air ensures that you easily become winded. If the temperatures are cold, even when you see your breath, you still shed jackets and sweaters because the sun strangely compensates. At these levels, discreet signage informs you of the height; of the fact that nearby snow scarcely melts and might be many years old; and strictly warns against stepping on the only discernible vegetation: lichens and moss. The organisms, actually not related to each other, form greenish shadows on rocks, and – as the signs warn – can take hundreds of years to reestablish themselves if stepped on and destroyed.

As high as I and my friends have ever ventured, there are always peaks not far away (probably many miles!) that reach higher. Birds with magnificent wing-spreads float above, not having to flap their wings, seemingly ever, as they catch the upward wind drafts. We stand at cliffs’ edges and look down, down, down, seeing four-legged animals we can hardly distinguish, gaily leaping between precarious peaks.

One year, in glaring sunlight and amidst unearthly silence, our group beheld these scenes and someone started singing the old hymn, “This Is My Father’s World.” One by one, everybody joined in.

“This is my Father’s world, And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and ‘round me rings The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.”

Perfect-seeming. A natural setting, an appropriate response, a love song to God as He has revealed Himself. Who would not have the same reaction?

Very few of us, that’s who. Yet God, I think, would have us remember that such glorious scenery can be seductive; pristine nature is only part of the Father’s world. I believe God would have us remember two categories of truths that easily elude us, especially after we plan pilgrimages or encounter the stunning beauty of Creation.

The first category of truths – reminders, I will call them – is comprised of realities that are as hard and sharp as those of mountains. We can occasionally drive away from, but not escape, the concurrent existence of sickness and disease; of hate and sorrow; of wars and rumors of wars; of crying mothers and crying orphans; of abused women and aborted babies; of poverty and injustice; of persecution and oppression; of pollution and waste; of prejudice and corruption; of slums and poverty; of greed and envy; of empty hope and no faith. All around us.

THESE are also parts of my Father’s world. Just as much as pretty landscapes and joy-filled nature.

The second category of reminders, no less significant in God’s plan, tells us that the first category is not a random list of uncomfortable truths. Rather, they are God’s checklist of matters we must address. Christians are familiar with forebears who knew about the Promised Land. All of Creation once looked like the snow-capped Rockies. The Garden of Eden we know. The Land of Beulah was sought in Old Testament days as representing a virtual marriage feast, preparing for fellowship with the Lord.

Heaven has been described to us: The land of milk and honey, where sorrows shall cease, where joys will never end, where the buildings shall be as mansions prepared for us. If it were not so He would not have told us.

But the pathway there requires all of us to climb down those mountains, often to dwell in dark valleys. Vales of tears, usually. Valleys of the shadows of death. We will not merely encounter unpleasant things in life: we must confront and do battle with them. God’s work must be our own. We must wrestle with more than flesh and blood “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Not a warning; not an option; more like a prediction; in fact a promise from God. These are not assignments to win God’s favor. They are simply the duties of a follower of Christ.

In fact, they are privileges.

To care for those who hurt, to minister to their souls as well as their bodies, is what Christians do. Not often enough, maybe… but it is what we do. To comfort, to feed and clothe, to sacrifice and serve, to share Christ and to BE Christ; to love. To love.

Marlene Bagnull, Director of the conference in Estes Park, always remembers among the hubbub of seminars and programs and fellowship, to highlight two missions programs each year; one at home, one overseas. Truly, it is meet and right so to do. The work God gives us is as likely to be halfway around His world as across our hometowns.

And surely those tasks are also in our neighbors’ houses; in our schools and offices; in the hallways and bedrooms of our own homes. These places, these people, these problems… are all squarely in “My Father’s World,” too. As we redeem His people, we redeem His planet. His world. Let us all remember every corner of creation; pleasant and – for the moment – unpleasant. By the way, Earth Day is not a celebration of Mother Nature but Father God, Creator.

“This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world. The battle is not done.
Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and Heaven be one.”

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Click the embedded link to learn more about the Colorado Writer’s conference.

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Click: This Is My Father’s World

The Stones, Not the Cathedrals

4-18-16

We should always be growing as Christians. In fact we should grow in all aspects of our lives: a dead curiosity, an atrophied sense of adventure, are mere reflections of a life winding down. We SHOULD keep growing in our life activities, but our faith MUST keep growing.

Faith is not the destination, after all. We recently shared that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This verse that opens Hebrews 11 – the “Hall of Fame of Faith” – confirms that we keep hoping as we keep believing.

In the six years or so that I have been offering these blog essays, and have been carried by RealClearReligion.org, which sadly is closing up shop, I have not so much lectured, as learned. That is how ministry is supposed to work. You gain insights more than fashion them; you are blessed more than you bless; the responses from random readers, usually unknown to me, have kept me humble, and have strengthened my faith.

Humility is one of the bedrocks – one of the cornerstones – of Christianity.

To be used of God is what we must seek, fervently. There is a seduction to compose mighty messages and memorable sermons. We – the contemporary church, especially in the West – have a frequent sense of urgency to seize the moments. To gather everyone we can into church or small groups or para-church or youth ministry. To “close every deal.”

In fact that is the job of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said so. It is our job, rather, not to subvert the work of the Holy Ghost, but to plant seeds. Let the Spirit nurture and harvest.

Humility.

How often do we realize that, in our scrambling to “reach” others, that maybe God grieves that we neglect ourselves – our own souls, our own spiritual growth, our very salvation? Jesus died and rose for us… not our programs, our ministries, our notches on a spiritual belt.

Humility.

How often do we realize that for all the good we do, for all the myriad aspects of our spiritual lives, that God’s call on our lives – one Mission that is pre-eminent in His eyes – might be ONE encounter, one person, one circumstance where He has placed us?

Humility.

In that sense I have come to an increasing awareness that we all are “mere” stones. Rough-hewn, seemingly not significant, almost interchangeable, in life. But in God’s view, indispensible! Mighty, God-glorifying cathedrals are built stone upon stone upon stone. Usually rough, or seemingly indistinguishable one from another.

But after the cornerstone who is Christ, those stones, piled correctly, and high, and interlocking, ultimately make a cathedral.

But if some are defective, or arranged wrongly, or missing… the cathedral collapses. Our profiles are humble. Our roles, however, are vital. We must see ourselves in this perspective. God resists the proud, but exalts the humble. Just as importantly, however, we must see others, and all of life’s work, in this manner also.

I always reminded my children that not every student who does scales becomes a great violinist; few do. But EVERY great violinist, without exception, began by doing scales. There is a humble way to “do” life that our contemporary culture fights against. Try-it-all, taste-it-all, do-it-all is not a formula for success… nor happiness. The Bible warns against the allure of “wine, women, and song.” You know the rest of the verse: “… for tomorrow you die.”

So, fellow “stones.” In humility let realize our roles, and not exalt ourselves or our meager efforts, even on behalf of the King. Later in that chapter of Hebrews we are reminded of Abraham, who properly “looked for a city, whose builder and maker is the Lord.” In humility let us anoint our writing, our ministries, our… appointments God has arranged for us.

In humility let us rejoice in the work we can do. It’s is God’s work, after all; not our own. Some day, here or on the other side, we will look up, and look around, see what a mighty spiritual edifice we have been blessed to be part of.

And keep in your mind that Jesus said that even if the world withholds its praise of Him, “even the stones would cry out”!

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This is a valedictory of sorts to Real Clear Religion, which has seemed to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare: news, sermons, surveys, essays, so much more. Jeremy Lott and Nicholas Hahn were superb editors, and generous to share MMMM every week for years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please continue to receive our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.) May God bless all you “stones”… even pebbles, such as “who am I.”

Click: Who Am I

The Quick and the Dead

4-4-16

My cousin Irene called this week to tell me that her brother Paul died. He had been a longtime victim of Alzheimer’s – technically, frontal-lobe dementia. My late wife showed signs of Lewy-Body Syndrome, another relative of Alzheimer’s. Do you ever get the feeling that we humans are not getting healthier, but merely sustaining more specialized ailments? Anyway, a sad phone call turned less sad – we were able to summon some chuckles as we shared memories. Memories are the best ointments in such circumstances.

This last week I reached out to two friends who are beset by cancer. Old friends from the cartooning world, one of whom I met when I was 13 and encouraged me to follow that profession. He is, happily, in part to blame, because I did. We kept in touch through the years; became near-neighbors; and worked on many projects together. He is now in home-hospice care. Our call went longer than his son thought it would – filled with silly memories, old friends, doing voices, finding humor in his grim prognosis. Laughter is the best ointment in such situations.

My other cartooning friend is battling a rare form of cancer that has taken him to several states for opinions. If you wonder whether his “journey” is fodder for ironic observations, even rim-shot lines, you would be correct; and he continues to write gags and a weekly newspaper column. When I was out East a few months ago, we talked about old friends and new revelations – he always has been a philosopher masquerading as a cartoonist – and his dear wife was surprised at his energy that afternoon. No surprise, really: friendships are the best ointments in such situations.

This all might seem gloomy to some, but that’s only because it IS gloomy. But only partly. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure. … Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life…” When face-to-face with the illness or death of a loved one or a good friend, it occurs to us how ultimately selfish or sadness and sorrow actually is.

WE grieve; WE miss the person; WE have to face the empty spaces. Of course, that is a skewed definition of selfishness, but we should also be aware of the peace that a sick person yearns for. Of the “life well lived” that should be celebrated. Of the home in Heaven that – if we are Christians – we should rejoice has been prepared.

It was only a couple of decades ago that I became aware, or rather participated in, “home-going” services. In the Black church, in Pentecostal churches, funerals are transformed to celebrations. Joyous laughter, happy songs, encouraging sermons. Our loved ones, our friends, are in Heaven; how can we be sad? This is genuine, and it is proper. Appropriate for the situation, and uplifting for those who remain.

All this is the case, and sweet if we may experience it as something new, only if we are in fact Christians. Otherwise these are empty charades. After all, if Christ had not conquered death Himself, our faith is in vain; there is no Heaven. Many church-goers are not comfortable with “sharing Jesus.” I understand this; I identify with this. But if you had a cure for the cancer or dementia we loathe so, would you not share THAT with those who are afflicted? Why in hell do we go through the motions of being “Christians” if we are so hesitant and ashamed to share Jesus? Excuse me for being literal.

These thoughts have come to me by a coincidence of circumstances this week, and ironic as they closely follow Easter.

But I am grateful to have my heart turned to the Gospel, and to the Resurrection, in a new way. I often have wondered about those 40 days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. We don’t know much about things Jesus did. The Bible says He taught and healed, but with few specifics. Contemporary historians recorded sightings and appearances, but no quotations. The last words of the last Gospel (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.” But we don’t know them all.

I am curious, but not disappointed. At that point, it was the FACT of Jesus, and the truth of the Resurrection, that were important. He had done His teaching. The people had sought Him out. Now it was His time to seek people.

As busy as He must have been those 40 days, 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. The sick of body and mind. Those who did not yet know Him.

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

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

He shared of Himself. We should share Him with others. With friends, loved ones, strangers. Jesus Christ died for all of us… but He also died for EACH of us.

“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.”

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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 favorite of many people. Here it is sung by the appropriately haunting voice of Iris DeMent; image display by the incomparable beanscot channel.

Click: God Walks the Dark Hills

Easter – The Real “His Story” Lesson

Easter 2016

An early Easter message. Appropriate, because I would like us to wrap Good Friday, the “world’s three darkest days,” the Easter Resurrection, and the Ascension all in one meditation. Besides, the Easter story was foretold many years before Jesus’s Passion – throughout the Old Testament, most comprehensively and accurately in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. That’s an even earlier telling.

The essentials of Jesus’s life on earth are scarcely questioned any more, except by the intentionally scornful: which means that some people do not doubt, but rather reject. The fact of His Resurrection, on the other hand, is a dubiety to some. It is interesting to consider that people saw the risen Christ after the tomb, and yet not everyone believed. They believe Jesus somehow came back to life, but not that He was divine.

Many did come to faith. But even the Jewish historian Jospehus recorded the facts of Jesus’s life and ministry and miracles and resurrection – that Jesus mingled with people for 40 days – yet never came to belief himself. It is not unusual, frankly, to imagine people, even ourselves, to hear about a miracle, possibly witness one, and yet… shrug. Or consider it “one of those things we can’t explain.”

This happens, and it says less about a Resurrected Savior than it does about our stubborn, contrary, or lazy human nature.

Yet there were many records of That Week.

Jesus not only performed miracles, He was a miracle. Everything about His birth, life, and ministry were prophesied. He did amazing things; random things, sometimes, to bring blessings or to prove His divinity. He spoke amazing words, unassailable lessons. He was God incarnate; fully God and fully man, who loved and sorrowed, laughed and wept, ate and drank and traveled. He read minds, calmed storms, and healed the sick.

Yet vulnerability proved to be His major miracle. During His last week, He emptied Himself of divine prerogatives.

He went to Jerusalem, knowing death awaited. And more: scorn, insults, lies, torture, painful crucifixion. It is said that death on the cross is the most excruciating of slow deaths. Myself, I believe that the betrayal, denial, and abandonment of His friends was more painful than His physical end.

As a man, he prayed fervently, we know not all. As God, He willingly bore the humiliation and death, speaking only words like “It is finished” – it being the plan established before the foundations of the world: that this holy Incarnation would satisfy the substitutionary death we all deserve. If we believe and confess this belief, we are saved. Another miracle.

Our contemporary world wants us to believe strange things… strange lies. Not only that there is no God, but that there are no sins. Only mistakes and bad choices. And that medicines, or therapy, or education, or the government will make everything OK. Humankind has asserted mastery of our own souls for several centuries, ever more intensely, inventing reasons to reject God and deny His fingerprints on creation. Lo and behold, the past century was the bloodiest freaking 100 years in history, starring the most savage monsters a secular world could imagine.

Were the events of Holy Week in vain? Christ, with calm determination, fulfilled His destiny. He entered Jerusalem to public acclaim, preserving His humility. By the end of the week the Jewish zealots and the puppets of the Roman government caused people to scream for His murder. It happened… after what we mentioned: humiliation, injustice, abandonment, torture, and death that, perhaps, no mortal among us ever has endured.

He hung on the cross for three hours, comforted, at least, by His beloved mother who did not leave Him. He died; a spear was thrust in His side; the centurions affirmed His death; He was taken to a tomb, washed and prepared for burial, wrapped in cloths. A large stone sealed the tomb, guarded by Roman soldiers with special instructions.

Then, the three darkest days of humankind. What were those like, in Jerusalem? His enemies were satisfied that Jesus, the major troublemaker, celebrity, pretender in their eyes, was finally gone from the scene. But His followers – who should have known better, since they knew scripture and His prophesies – nevertheless despaired. They went into hiding: perhaps His fate would be theirs?

There are records of an earthquake, of stormy skies – of nature groaning – of the veil in the temple spontaneously ripping in two. Could His followers been more despondent and terror-stricken? What days they must have been!

But… Easter dawned. Jesus rose. He lived. He lives. Mary, having met Jesus in the garden, became the world’s first evangelist of the Good News when she ran and told the cowering Disciples.

The rest, to coin a phrase, is history. But it is not quite history as we know it. His story, literally. Mary and her friends saw, and believed. The Disciples, first scared and skeptical, believed, and saw, and believed in ever greater numbers. Jesus, in a transformed body, preached and blessed and taught and performed miracles. More people believed. Within a generation there were churches, gatherings of devout believers, not only in faraway Rome, but in pagan outposts like the island of Britain.

And after 40 days, the final prophecy fulfilled – more than a miracle, but the confirmation of His divinity – the bodily Ascension of the Christ into Heaven. “It is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Holy Spirit cannot come. If I do go away, then I will send the Advocate, the Comforter, to you.” Thus, Christ in us.

But remember That Week. If you are ever tempted to think that your faith would be stronger “if you only could have seen the things of that week,” or if you hear others say that… remember that His Disciples, who lived every day with Him for three years, scattered like autumn leaves. Remember that people who had witnessed miracles wound up demanding His death. Remember that many who saw Him after the tomb still were skeptical.

You can believe in miracles – or not – but believing in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; confessing His Resurrection; and inviting Him to live in your heart and life, is the summation of This Week, and the Gospel itself.

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Have you listened to Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime? Even if you have not, I invite you to listen to an equally great masterpiece. The St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach tells the story of Easter week. On (coincidentally) this week of Bach’s birthday, number 331, I offer a link to one its greatest performances, conducted by Karl Richter. The art direction is stark! Appropriate, but note the changing backgrounds, the over-arching cross, the mood reflecting the spiritual import. With English subtitles. Three hours, 22 movements. Be prepared!

Click: Bach: St Matthew Passion

More Fools Than Wise

3-14-16

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

This was written by David, the “sweet singer of Israel,” who, given his lifelong relationship with the Almighty and his activities as Psalmist, warrior, and king, could be considered prejudiced on the matter. He was described in I Samuel as “a man after God’s own heart.” He was a blood ancestor of Jesus. He is even revered as a prophet by Islam.

So this citation from Psalm 14:1 is not a fortune-cookie slogan. David knew whereof he spake, if I may. And I invite us to meditate on the fact that the statement says as much about fools as it does about God.

It is the natural inclination of human beings to say “there is no God.” Sometimes, deep in our dark hearts, we wish it to be so. I think that many sociologists and anthropologists – even atheists among them – recognize that everyone is, nonetheless, born with innate desires to worship… to sense that there is something “greater” than ourselves… that we are coded with something commonly called a conscience.

Believers in the God of the Bible – “People of the Book” as our archaeogenetic spiritual ancestors are called – acknowledge One God. The Father Almighty, maker of heaven and of earth. We believe by faith, and reassure ourselves, and sometimes instruct people, or debate with others, on various bases of logic, history, revelation, the mathematical probability of prophecies and fulfillments, archaeological records, and so forth. We can cite miracle – miracles written about, and miracles we have experienced or witnessed.

But mostly, and ultimately, we rely on faith. The testimony of inner conviction is stronger than any rational formula or reasoned assurance. Truth is not subject to qualification or modification, except ratifications like “Absolute Truth.” What’s true is true. It invites, but cannot be reworked, adjusted, or amended, by arguments or theories; even those of science. Truth is truth. Otherwise, it is like being “sort of pregnant” or “relatively dead.”

The question comes when one asks, “What is Truth?” Ah. That question is also part of the human race’s DNA, so to speak. At some point, at some time, we all ask it. The most famous positing was by Pontius Pilate. I have never been sure whether he asked in genuine humility, or mocking. In any event, Jesus answered, “I am the Truth,” and that wasn’t enough for Pilate nor the rabid Jews whose rebellion he feared.

We will not wander into high weeds or deep swamps here. Accepting the existence of God, or denying Absolute Truth, are both matters of faith to every person.

What does interest me, and should concern us all no matter what our views on these elemental topics, is how quickly and substantially our culture has changed its views on these matters. We cannot see the forest for the trees that are right in our faces, but in the broad sweep of history, the reversal of attitudes about the existence of God and the reality of Absolute Truth is tantamount to intellectual whiplash.

It was my perception, when I was a young student, that all of society (European Christendom as well as the American culture) assumed the existence of God, the immutable nature of His laws, and the biblical foundation of customs and laws. Non-believers, in our democracies, were tolerated, even cordially so, and largely unmolested. Today – in one long generation or two, that’s all – those attitudes have been reversed.

And almost savagely so, with hostility toward Christians replacing cordial tolerance of secularists.

This is the real crisis of our age. It is not a question of being “welcoming” to those with different views; it is more: an entire people denying their intellectual birthrights, surrendering their spiritual inheritance. It is not a matter of favoring “pluralism,” because that dubious term has never meant abandoning one’s own heritage.

We have become a soulless society. Polls say that citizens feel adrift… but average Americans have loosed their anchor-chains, torn up their navigation charts, and long ago set sail away from Home Ports. Well-meaning Christians who have invited this cultural drift (to continue the nautical analogy) then wonder why they have spiritual sea-sickness.

Everyone in this rotting old boat known as America, be they Christians or the new pilots, secularists, can argue, or not, about “values.” In the current political campaign, Christians have been co-opted by spokesmen who “guarantee that in department stores you will be able to put up Merry Christmas signs” (Mr Trump) and have been pigeon-holed as “evangelical” voting blocs, to be delivered to the loudest panderers. This is why Jesus came to earth?

However. Take heart. Take heart for your soul, and the kingdom of God; even if we lose heart over our nation’s well-being and our culture’s future. The waters that roil have been calmed by a Savior before. Above those storm clouds is a heaven, and lodestars by which to navigate. Past the darkest storm clouds is God’s bright sunshine.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10).

Let us remember that the God of mercy is still a God of justice. Many will call it vengeance when God’s justice comes. No matter: God’s will is going to prevail, and His Word will be manifest.

“Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God, or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools…. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.”
(Romans 1: 20b-22, 25)

How can anyone continue in unbelief, rebellion, and hostility to His Truth? They would be fools. But their actions – or inactions – are worse, more dangerous, than foolishness.

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“The Silver Swan” was published in composer Orlando Gibbons’s “First Set of Madrigals and Motets of Five Parts,” 1612. A beautiful and challenging poem built on the legend that geese might honk all their lives, but swans let out one note just before death: “More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

The silver swan, who, living, had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Click: The Silver Swan

What IS a Christian?

2-22-16

Some of the most pleasant travel experiences of my life have been atop the ancient wall surrounding the small city of Lucca in Tuscany. I have stayed in the Medieval town a number of times in my life, perhaps a dozen Autumns. High, thick walls once surrounded many Italian city-states. Built for safety, as boundaries, some even encasing apartments; today many are gone or survive as random portions, as relics of previous times and expired functions. But Lucca has Italy’s only complete and intact ancient wall.

On its top, it is wide enough for several lanes of traffic, but it strictly is for pedestrians, who encounter cobblestones and bricks, with many old trees and inviting benches. A favored restaurant is built into the wall at one of its road-portals – La Mura (“The Wall”). On many Autumnal mornings I betake myself to the wall’s long, circumferential boulevard – “Passegiata della Mura” – and jog. More often, stroll. Invariably, see the mists rise from plowed fields as the morning sun kisses them; listen to the city of red-tiled roofs come to life; smell the stoking fireplaces of wood and chestnut shells.

Such thoughts came back to me recently with the latest chapter of the controversy over a possible wall to be built, or not, along America’s southern border. On the endless carousel of debaters, the surprise figure on the horse this week was none other than Pope Francis.

He issued a version of President Reagan’s eloquent defiance of Communism in Berlin (however, before a structure scarcely begun): “Mr Trump, tear down that wall!”

While we are paraphrasing, I will borrow from Gertrude Stein and suggest that “a wall is a wall is wall.” And just as Theodore Roosevelt said that a vote is just like a rifle – that its usefulness depends on the character of the user – we surely can say that walls, throughout history, are functional, of course, but are totally neutral apart from their architectural purpose… which can be transformed anyway, as Lucca’s wall has been.

So, Lucca’s wall, once a standard architectural defense, then a symbol of independence in more political and trade-oriented times, is now a tourist attraction. The Great Wall of China, a Wonder of the Old World and a rare man-made structure that can be seen from outer space, likewise now attracts more photographers than invaders. On the other hand, the Berlin Wall, mentioned above, was a literal city-wide outdoor prison wall, trapping a population in Communist East Berlin. And seldom spoken about in America is Israel’s crude, and effective, cement curtain that cuts through the West Bank.

American objections to porous borders and uncountable illegals incited a papal protest that presumably was metaphorical (walls of separation in our hearts vs. bridges of understanding); presumably. The Pope did not mention Donald Trump by name, but said that “any man” who would propose such walls “is not a Christian.”

Many Christians and conservatives rushed to document the 50-foot high walls that surround the Vatican, which is, though small, a city-state, an independent country. Surrounded by a wall, and with some of the toughest citizenship requirements in the world. And the same folks scurried to Bible concordances and found examples of God sanctioning, even commanding, construction of walls.

Throughout the Bible: walls for defense; walls as parts of temples; walls to interrupt migrations and preserve spaces. Not much different from the sweep of history’s other religions, societies, cultures. So this sudden turn in the immigration debate directs us to far more logical place… and a far more pertinent question than Francis asked.

The Pope declared that people who “build walls and not bridges” are not Christians. No one, least of all Francis, is talking about the essential issue, the real offense. The Jesuit pope should understand, and emphasize, that what makes someone a Christian is belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Since he addressed the theological aspect.

What makes someone “not a Christian” is rejection of Christ’s incarnation, substitutionary death, Resurrection, and Ascension. NOT somebody’s opinions on immigration laws, walls on the US border (or the Vatican’s), or other political issues.

With all due respect, one can be a Christian and have bad ideas, Francis. I believe it is your dogma that having “good” (?) ideas, doing good deeds, yet not professing Christ is yet a pathway to salvation, according to recent press reports. But it is not the Bible’s teaching. The Church, by such statements, is opening itself up to charges of asserting the Works Doctrine. Is approval of a California border fence enough to qualify to “be a Christian”?

Aside from, excuse me, anti- or extra-biblical theology, there are practical questions. If the Pope is concerned about conditions in Mexico, so horrible that millions flee northward in desperation, would not the better act as a Church be to help alleviate poverty and misery in Mexico? There are few Catholic countries with more extreme anti-clerical histories, aside from the excesses of the French Revolution. Insurgents blamed centuries of Church corruption and oppression.

Make things right WITHIN Mexico! So that people will want to stay in places where they were born… and the Church can fulfill its mission… and the US not be threatened and burdened. I have also been to the Vatican many times; the immense wall is about the ONLY thing there that is not opulent, extravagant, even gaudy. There are funds available, I am sure, in the Vatican Bank.

Back, however, to the main point, of pivotal importance: “The man who says such a thing is not a Christian.”

The man who said THAT clearly places his politically correct definition of good deeds ahead of what Jesus and the Disciples and the Holy Bible say about the requirements for salvation. Did the Pope mean, “That’s not how Jesus would act”? or even “That man is a bad Christian”? Very different matters. The Pope usually is aware of his words even when not Ex Cathedra or Infallible. The border towns that suffer violations, the victims of financial burdens and crimes in America – I used to live in San Diego; ask me about them – are they to be defined as “not Christians” when they resist invasions of their neighborhoods and homes?

This Pope did not recognize the metaphorical wall built around the island of Cuba when he hugged its leaders and ignored the Christians in Cuban jails. Or when he was on US soil and was quieter about the issue of the proposed border fence. And he somehow missed the opportunity to scold political leaders he met here about the ongoing horror of abortions, the killing of babies. Mother Teresa had done so… right to the faces of Clinton and Gore, when they were in office and they met her.

Or was Mother Teresa “not a Christian”?

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Click: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

A Revolutionary Way To Do Church

2-1-16

First, I want to state that I generally do not like phrases like “doing church”; I might prefer “being church,” but that debate is for another essay. “Doing church” is in the parlance of many of the people I want to address here.

Our two previous essays have enabled me to vent (I hope not rant) about trends in contemporary American churches. Worship music that is neither, as I put it; styles that are alien to many church-goers; abandonment of hymnals, songsheets, and printed music to follow; lyrics that often are “me-oriented” and not praising God. The subsequent message criticized services that have no form or structure; and how “spontaneity,” otherwise a worthwhile goal, has itself become a paradigm as rigid as the dogmatism it rejects.

I here will close those subjects, or least my prescriptions, because I do not want merely to be a scold, but rather a man in the arena on a topic I consider vital to Christendom today. A third aspect.

In America, parts of Christianity suffer from the seduction of… well, America. I mean the American character as it has evolved: sound-bite attention spans, instant gratification, an affection for glitz and multi-media entertainment. As churches worry about losing members, attracting new ones, and serving youth, there are inducements to throw out old bath water. Without recalling the second half of that cliché.

Our culture has engendered a pick-and-choose approach to worship and music styles… and, not ironically but tragically, a similar theological menu. Pick and choose the verses to obey. Have your religion conform to your attitudes. Justify your problems, and your family’s challenges, by selecting the right Bible passages. Presume to know what Jesus thought, despite what He said. These attitudes are very common in America today.

If Christianity has moved “outside the box,” and free-form worship is the symptom, I will suggest that we can get things in order… make sense of faith by making religion be sensible again… return to the comfort, security, and spiritual value of meaningful worship practices.

So: Some suggestions for “doing church” in a revolutionary way, and, I think, potentially very interesting for all shades of the religious spectrum.

* Design services so that, as they unfold, every aspect of Jesus’s life and ministry be represented. That is, by prayers, readings, music, perhaps dramatic presentations or testimonies, part after part of the service would be a reminder of Old Testament prophesies, the Incarnation, Jesus’s teaching, His persecution, suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection; all – in various ways – informing meditations, prayers, and worship.

* Be intentional about the music during the service. Some can be performance, but also value the spiritual joy in congregational singing. Mix the old and new. Encourage artistry and creativity – even to drama, poetry, special art. Remember that “worship” is derived from “worth-ship.” God is worthy of praise; everything we do should be worthy of Him. Revolutionary: invite Him to speak to us through worship.

* Speaking of art, re-fit the worship area with symbols of Christianity. Many contemporary churches behave like the stern, churchy iconoclasts of old. Celebrate the cross! Resurrect (ha) the meaningful symbols of the church – the rose, doves, a flowing river, Trinitarian designs. Be colorful, as stained-glass windows were!

* Of course, retain the sermon; but too often these days, except for holidays, sermons are random messages amid random music. Make everything integrated, and complementary, and thematically unified. Have the soloist or worship band (who I don’t want to banish; just be focused) write or perform other songs germane to the theme of the season or the sermon. The same with music while worshipers seat themselves; between parts of the service; during communion… all intentional as to the spiritual topic.

Does this sound revolutionary? Certainly a change from the services in a lot of contemporary churches! More exciting? More meaningful? More chance for involvement, from the pews to the worship? Closer to what church should be. Yes.

But, as some of you might recognize, I have not described anything new, or even Post-Modern, but something very old – the basic forms of worship, orders of the service, and worship environment, of churches going back almost 2000 years. It worked, it was cherished, it was valuable. More than mere corporate fellowship, it traditionally was a fulfillment of planned meditation, worship, prayer and petitions, joy and spiritual renewal. Too often, in too many places, it has been lost.

If believers want to gather with friends to share, follow no special forms of praise or songs, they can join in home fellowships and small groups. The first-century Christians did. If Christians want to listen to a concert of Christian music, they can go to concerts or buy CDs. Church – the “doing,” not the building – is indeed a “service.” We serve God, and in Liturgical traditions, it was believed that in a mystical way, God meets and serves us through organized worship.

That is what I have meant by “the Logic of Liturgy.”

The traditional parts of the service, in their Latin names, meant specific things, reminders of Christ. Exactly like the Creeds remind us, point by point, of the essentials of our faith. Through the centuries (and surviving in some liturgical traditions) the parts of the service included these – their Latin names, although no longer sung in Latin, and what they celebrated:

Introit (Entrance); Kyrie Eleison (Lord, have mercy; asking to be blessed); Gloria (Praise to God, recalling Jesus’s birth); Allelujah; Sanctus (“Holy,” with special emphasis in Communion services); Pax Domini (“The Peace of God”); Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, focusing on Jesus’s sacrifice); Nunc Dimittis (“Now we dismiss,” with words quoting Simeon, “We have seen Thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people”); Benediction (“Now let us Thy servants depart in peace”).

With a few variations between faith traditions, these parts comprised the worship services of Christians wherever they gathered across the world for most of two millennia. Throughout, of course, at appropriate places, are the three readings (Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel); a Creed; hymns; the sermon or homily; the Lord’s Prayer; and offering with offertory music.

In addition, throughout history’s churches, every image, every symbol, every color represented something in the story of Christ or the church calendar. Literally, every wall and corner of churches shouted and sang the Gospel message! Worshipers understood all this. Stained-glass windows were not mere colorful decorations: they were graphic novels of spiritual content.

I profoundly believe that a return to this blueprint of worship would unite various faiths and trigger a revival in today’s church. John Paul II said that the future starts today, not tomorrow. In my essay I suggest that today can only have validity if we recognize that it started yesterday. We can honor strict customs, or be innovative within the boundaries. We can be mystical, “contemporary-sounding,” or in ethnic traditions. We can dance in the Spirit, or kneel in the pews. No matter if we fold our hands or lift our arms. There has to be nothing lockstep about the walk down this path! Old hymns or modern songs; strict readings or creative new wording; traditional spoken sermons or multi-media messages – why not? But… staying accessible to worshipers helps God be accessible to our yearning hearts.

Returning to my first thesis, that a lot of contemporary worship music is neither: in such a back-to-the-basics shift that I suggest, worship leaders would not merely be kids in the church who have talent and volunteer to perform. The position of Worship Leader should be restored as a vital component of a church staff, a pastoral responsibility. Someone who not only performs, but ministers.

The American Syndrome is that we tend to reject the past because it is over. We cheat ourselves and defy history’s lessons – our DNA, so to speak; cultural and spiritual. We need to cherish what is good in the past. We must build on it. It is the basis of wisdom. And a means to connect, or re-connect, with the Heart of God.

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Our vid clip this week is not a commercial! It is a documentary explaining the devotion of one American church that has embraced “ancient” liturgy. Even more than many liturgical churches, Grace Lutheran Church, Tulsa, practices “high-church” traditions – the sign of the Cross, incense, votive candles. But the faces of the young and old congregants, and the pastors’ explanations of liturgy, sum up what we have been saying in these messages.

Click: The Logic of Liturgy

Christianity’s Towers of Babel

1-25-16

Last week’s essay on “worshiptainment,” Worship Music That Is Neither, excited quite a bit of notice and debate across the spectrum. It was picked up by many websites and newsletters, posted and re-posted on Facebook, and promises to be, I am told, the subject of sermons and small-group discussions.

In the essay I addressed the form of musical worship that has overtaken many mainstream-denomination, independent, and “mega” churches. Worshipers singing hymns have been replaced by performance musicians; organs and pianos by guitars and drums; hymnals and songbooks by words roughly projected on screens. Worshipers now are audiences. Congregational singing is optional, effectively discouraged.

I have been in uncountable churches where MCs tell everyone when to smile, when to clap, and to repeat “Good Morning!” if not yelled loudly enough. Dissent from such was the thrust of my essay.

The problem – my point – is that what is represented as free-form worship, in their own way, is more regimented than Medieval chants or sitting under Jonathan Edwards sermons. Congregants do not feel parts of a congregation, communicants cannot commune, and some people who go to church to find their still, small corner… find no corners. Some people yearn for church not for pep rallies, but needing to weep quiet, sincere tears; or to lay on their faces, as it were, at the altar. Not smile on cue, wave, and jump in place. To go out and face the world refreshed, not to see face-painters and cappuccino stands in the parking lot.

We should be discomfited by more than music and worship paradigms in large swaths of today’s church, however. A virtual Tower of Babel within the church it seems, but is not necessarily bad, nor unprecedented. In ancient times, the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity developed along local preferences and traditions. Resistance to Papal authority actually began centuries before Luther. During the height of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and, yes, the Counter-Counter-Reformation, churches affixed themselves to varying worship modes.

… but, within Christendom, they were modes and styles – very seldom, aside from the role of the Pope, dissension about basic doctrine. Luther, in fact, did not want to leave the Catholic Church. J. S. Bach, the “Fifth Evangelist,’ hymnist of the Protestant Affirmation, was proudest among his 1800 works (approximately 1200 of which have survived) of his B-minor Mass – a Catholic mass.

And so forth. With few exceptions (Salem, the Inquisition) the internal battles of Christendom – the Thirty Years’ War; Tudors vs. Stuarts in England; the “Troubles” in Ireland – are tattooed with religious arguments and justifications in history books. But almost all of these were political or economic or military or geographical or personal wars, fought under the convenient banners of Christian exegeses.

I have been to Northern Ireland. I have spoken with many who survived the Troubles. Many who are now reconciled, many who buried relatives killed by those they now call friends. Virtually none fought over transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation, back in the day. People simply preferred to hate. Christ’s love covered all… when it was accepted.

My point is that all these groups, over history, that I have named (including the Orthodox communities, about we in the West know little) were remarkably similar in worship settings. The peripheral things (hate, politics, rivalries) clearly and ironically were separate from the central spiritual core.

That is, worship was to the same God, the same Savior, using the same Bible… and virtually the same worship. The early “Church Fathers” met, and prayed, and fashioned creeds – to codify the basics of Christian belief; to combat heresies, and to spread the Word. Similarly, they designed a template of worship – to, likewise, have the worship service address, in its part after part, the essentials of the faith.

There is a Logic to Liturgy.

Liturgy is the order of service, designed to address and remind worshipers of the essential doctrines of faith. You can listen to recordings of recreated services of the 5th-century churches, and identify the orders, and even the (translated) words of the service, if you were reared in a 20th-century liturgical church. The orders, words, chants, prayers, invocations, responses of the Catholic Mass of 500 years ago, are substantially as today (or pre-Vatican II); substantially as services in Lutheran, Anglican, and High Episcopal services.

I have visited churches throughout Europe where I did not know the local language, yet I knew the liturgical melodies, and the order within the services, as if I did. I knew what was being prayed, celebrated, petitioned. That is how it has been… and, I submit, should still be.

In liturgical churches these traditions survive, even if sometimes barely. In Evangelical churches, there might be free-form worship, but usually in a prescribed format each Sunday. Quakers have had their own traditions. And Pentecostals frequently invite the Holy Spirit to move over a service.

So, I understand, and I hope readers do, that my unease with contemporary worship music is not based on reactionary devotion to ancient and dry music (which traditional music of the church is not!). We see that, for 2000 years, Christians at all times and in all places have inherited and exercised the essence, if not the forms, of worship.

What is new in our times, in Post-Modern services, is content (or, today, the dearth of content) – has changed or disappeared in many churches. To many observers, it honors God less, and “self” more; it is less about the message of Jesus and more about the massage of ego.

I know the complaints about traditional church music, about liturgy. About dry sermons. About “everything from the book.” I know the complaints because I shared them. When I was young, I noticed that grownups in pews around me droned through the Settings – the printed orders of service. Those routines seldom changed; virtually only on Communion Sundays or a few holidays intruded.

Everyone could recite the long petitions in their sleep. I know. I saw it on Sunday mornings. I still can myself, never setting out to memorize the passages. Just like ministers and priests (you see it on TV, maybe when the Senate is called to order, or a president is buried) reading prayers. Shouldn’t they be familiar enough with God by now to pray extemporaneously?!?

So. I concluded, and many still might, to reject ordered tradition, to conclude that rites can become rituals can become rote. Empty repetition. Spiritually empty. Sure: that is the danger.

But, today, my argument is – and it has taken us a generation or two to recognize this – that spontaneity can grow just as empty.

“Free form worship” can become as programmed as printed liturgy.

“Forced spontaneity” is an oxymoron. It is what we bring, not what we receive, that makes for worship.

Contemporary “praise music,” un-programmed services, and the Post-Modern church can grow just as cold as anything. Colder, when Jesus is absent from the Focus as well as the Form.

If many parts of the contemporary church have morphed from hymns to concert performances, I fervently pray that those talented musicians simply would perform in concerts! Many of them do; more of them should. Worship in church is different than attending a concert, no offense meant. There is a Logic to Liturgy.

And there is a 2000-year-old tradition to resume.

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No organ, no church pews. But, performance that is inclusive. Worship and praise that worships the Lord and praises Him… and uplifts musical worshipers. The great gospel song of Fanny Crosby. Blind nearly since birth, she began writing hymns at age 40, and wrote approximately 8000 before she died. Her music has blessed worshipers in church… and concert-goers in great auditorium like London’s Royal Albert Hall. A BBC concert.

Click: To God Be the Glory

The Two-Faced God

1-4-16

Happy new year. Out with the old, in with the new. Happy January. A time for new beginnings. For all those resolutions to be broken!

Many of our days and months have names that were inspired largely by ancient mythologies and pagan customs. Even Easter, for instance, was named for Isis (no, not that ISIS), the Egyptian mythological deity who married her brother Osiris, was also known as Ishtar, and perhaps inspired the word for East. Germanic tribes had a Spring festival (Oestern, a cognate of Easter) that looked eastward, to the sun and fertility.

So it is with what we call January. Its name is derived from the Roman god of beginnings and transitions – hence “presiding” over the end and beginning of the year. One of the few Roman gods not inherited and transmogrified from the Greeks, Janus became an important figure in the mythological pantheon. He lives in more than calendar pages; when I stay in Bologna, my favorite hotel is the Torre di Iano (Tower of Janus), an ancient villa originally dedicated to the god.

Does all this fit with Christianity? Deeper than we might think at first. January is an appropriate time to reminisce, “process,” and look forward. But so is every day of the year! OK, we all need “hooks,” reminders, disciplines. Does God sanction such activities? He does more: He encourages them.

Interestingly, Janus was always depicted as a two-faced god. On coins, in carvings and mosaics, he looked both forward and back. To play Bulfinch and parse the Roman myths, Janus specifically was the god of transitions. Here is where, as always, the God of the Bible is superior to any deities of the world’s mythologies or false phenomenologies. Our God should be, has been, will be in our relations and transitions. He is in our pasts and futures. In truth, He is our past, and our future.

But Christians, today, tend to think less and less of the past. In our contemporary and often post-Christian world, we take the past for granted… or decline to be convicted by its lessons. We might pray ourselves through troubled time; but – consistent with our consumerist culture? – look ahead. Like the right-half of Janus. Hope, confidence, optimism if we can summon it… we have become a people who look ahead.

But we would do well to think a little more than we do about the past. What brought us here? What are the details of our heritage? What have our forebears sacrificed for us? What lessons from the past present themselves to us?

These are important questions! For without understanding our past, our futures are gambles… aimless wanderings… games with no yard-markers, goalposts, or rules. The past is more than prologue: it is certain; the future is uncertain.

And the past is often painful. Parents will know – and all former children will remember – that lectures about a hot stove do little good, compared to the one time that the hot stove actually is touched! We must pay attention to what brought us here, to avoid Prof. Santayana’s aphorism that “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat.”

There is specific lesson – I would call it, rather, a powerful reminder – from something related to the Christmas season recently commemorated. As we re-pack our ornaments and take last looks at pretty greeting cards, it is important to remember something that we might have overlooked amidst the Christmas music and colorful wrapping paper and cookies. The past often holds a lot of pain. Much distress. Hurts, and sometimes excruciating angst. Life, in other words.

But this is good for us to know. Among the “whole armor of God” you will not find rose-colored glasses. Life is real, life is earnest. Even Christmas was associated with much pain and distress. As we approach the Feast of the Epiphany, it is decidedly an observance of transitions… but not neutral, as those of Janus. It is literally the celebration of the Incarnation: not merely Christ being born, but His introduction to humankind.

Traditions assign the Epiphany to the visit of the Magi; to Jesus’s religious dedication; to the 12th night; even to His baptism. The point is – remembering Jesus as Messiah: God-with-us.

Do you remember that Jesus’s birth was not all angels and harps? It was, for this world He came to save, like painful birth pangs, as a mother in labor would experience. Do you know that one of the sweetest-sounding of ancient lullabies actually is one of the saddest of laments that could be sung?

Matthew, Chapter 2, and historical tradition tell of King Herod’s obsession with preventing a rival to his authority; and when he was convinced that biblical prophecy was close to fulfillment, he ordered the death of boys less than two years old throughout the land. It has become known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”

It was symbolic, of course, of the world-system’s vicious resistance to the very concept of a Messiah. The presence of Jesus is a rebuke to those feel no awareness of their sin and dependency, who elevate Self over Revealed Truth. Christ’s enemies are not trivial nor easily dismissed, no matter how surely to be conquered. It was so, then; and it continues to be so, today. The Slaughter of the Innocents – a part of the Christmas story as relevant as the shepherds and angels – reminds us that ugly forces in life tried to keep our Savior from us. And still do.

The most haunting of Christmas carols, to which I referred, is known as The Coventry Carol. It was written in the 1500s, and its plaintive melody is one of the great flowerings of polyphony over plainsong in Western music. “Lullay, thou little tiny child,” is not a lullaby, and does not refer to the baby Jesus.

The carol is a lament by a mother of one of the babies slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do, For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight, All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for Thee! And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Utterly melancholic, as the harmonies are hauntingly beautiful. It is a fitting creation that must be part of our Christmastide observances, and Epiphany. Kings are still in their raging, but Jesus cannot be stopped by debates. He has never long been thwarted by bureaucratic rules. He was not even subject to death and the grave.

This January, look forward, yes; pray God’s blessing in your transitions; but remember the past. Hold to what it teaches. Be nurtured by the blessings it holds. And be thankful that our God is not, in the parlance of world, “two-faced,” but ever faithful.

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The Coventry Carol is so named because this song, in Old English first called “Thow Littel Tyne Childe,” had its origins in a “Mystery Play” of Norman France and performed at the Coventry cathedral in Britain. The play was called “The Mystery of the Shearmen and the Tailors,” based on the second chapter of Matthew. The anonymous lyrics are a mother’s lament for her doomed baby boy. All but this song from the mystery play are lost today. The earliest transcription extant is from 1534; the oldest example of its musical setting is from 1591. It still speaks to our hearts today. Performed here by Collegium Vocale Gent, conducted by Peter Dijkstra, in the
Begijnhofkerk at Sint-Truiden, Flanders.

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Click: Coventry Carol

The Bethlehem Bell-Ringer

12-28-15

On Christmas Eve, the news stories were filled with stories about Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, NOT being filled with pilgrims, worships, locals, as usually the case for 2000 years. Violence between the Israeli forces and Palestinians had broken out, harshly. Again. As before, during random days of the years. Again this year, but at Christmastide.

There is a powerful song about a heart-wrenching story that was in the news a dozen years ago. Britain’s Independent newspaper reported then: “For 30 years, Samir Ibrahim Salman had made his way dutifully to his task as bell ringer and caretaker at the fortress-like stone and wooden church revered by millions as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.”

Salman “crossed Manger Square to get to the church to climb the steps to the fourth-century bell tower” as he did every day of the year. “Minutes later, Samir was struck by a bullet in the chest. It was an hour before an ambulance could reach him but by then, he was already dead. The Palestinians claim he was killed by an Israeli – the Israeli army says they did not fire a shot near the church. Samir, who was mentally disabled, may have been unaware of the danger.”

It was a time when Palestinian fighters, running from advancing Israeli troops, took refuge in the church. They and 40 Franciscan brothers, four nuns and approximately 30 Orthodox and Armenian monks were trapped in the basilica complex. There were also disputed claims about damage to the holy site, which was built over the manger where Jesus reportedly was born.

This story about hatred, violence, and bloodshed in Jesus’ hometown, perhaps over the spot where He was born, has resonance this Christmastide.

I shared with some friends that I would be writing this message. “Why make a martyr of an Islamic person, especially at this time of year?” some responded. “Why cite a song that talks about ‘Palestine?’” asked others. “That’s provocative!” However, Salman was an Arab, but not Islamic – he was a Palestinian Christian. How many Americans realize that Bethlehem was traditionally governed by a Christian mayor and majority Christian council; and that there is a higher percentage of Christians there than in Israel — or was, before “Christian cleansing” became the Mideast Mode? Concerning ‘Palestine,’ Bethlehem is not even in Israel but in the West Bank, under the Palestinian Authority with Israel’s full sanction.

But I want us to return again, remembering the Christmas season, to Nativity Square in Bethlehem. Samir Ibrahim Salman lay there alone. He died in the pool of his blood, maybe instantly, maybe slowly… no one was brave enough (or simple enough, as he was) to go out in the open. He had been beloved of the town, and special to the church, because he rang those bells as a volunteer every day of the year for decades, different bells for different occasions, serving Christ and his neighbors.

Let us not lament only the hatred that shatters the calm of Bethlehem, or the peace of Jerusalem. Christians today are being slaughtered by the thousands, and driven from Iraq, which the US has “stabilized.” Likewise Syria; areas that ISIS touches; Christian parts of Africa, north and south of the Sahara.

In a brilliant but deeply disturbing report for World Magazine a few years ago, my friend Mindy Belz provided details of the US military’s (and NATO representatives’) answer to a question about whether persecuted Christians would be protected in Iraq. By us. Their answer even then was “No.” Under Saddam Hussein, 1.5-million Christians lived in relative security; today, fewer than 400,000 Christians remain in Iraq, many in fear. Likewise the Alawite Bashir el-Assad was the Christians’ protector.

Protected by the US? By our military security? “No.” Mindy correctly calls this “extermination by any other name.” If American Christians betray Christians in Iraq (and Syria, and Egypt, and Nigeria, and China, and Myanmar, and…) we are not merely ignoring the wrong, or decrying the wrong; we are on the side of the wrong.

Back to Bethlehem, where God chose to come in human form to reconcile ALL men unto Himself. This holy ground is where God chose to fulfill His promise from ages past, that through Him “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

Who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed the simple Christian Bell Ringer of Bethlehem? To those of us who are ignorant of the issues, who blindly perpetuate stereotypes, who support missions we don’t understand – and don’t support missionaries we ought to – we can shudder at the thought that we might have been closer, in commitment of spirit, to the triggerman than to the Bell Ringer that morning.

As children of God, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, to be ambassadors to a fallen world – peoples of all faiths, and no faith. Now THERE is a peace treaty! For the little town of Bethlehem. For everywhere.

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Click: The Bethlehem Bell-Ringer

An ancient church in Bethlehem,
A target in a battle of men,
Stands on the ground where Christ was born
Trapped inside the eye of a storm

Soldiers move from door to door
Mortar fire, it’s all-out war.
Army tanks patrol the street,
They treat civilians with conceit

Oh Jesus, please, help Palestine
Turn all that blood back into wine
Oh Turning Wheel, Divine Design
Please bring peace to Palestine

Samir Ibrahim Salman
Fulfills his task the best he can.
Each day at dawn he tolls the bells,
While all around the army shells

He walks across the Manger Square
For thirty years he’s lived near there,
A simple man who spends his time
In quiet prayer at Jesus’ shrine

Upon the roof a sniper aims
His bitter heart with hate inflames
Samir walks slow, his back bent low
And is struck down by the bullet’s blow

For many hours Samir lay there
Bleeding on the Manger Square.
No ambulance permitted near,
And so the bell ringer died here

An ancient church in Bethlehem
The bells of peace won’t chime again
The people now all live in fear
Grieving wails are all you hear

Oh Jesus, please, help Palestine
Turn all that blood back into wine
Oh Turning Wheel, Divine Design
Please bring peace to Palestine.

Christmas, the Least Necessary Holiday

12-21-15

I don’t know about you, but along about Thanksgiving time I start getting really tired of Christmas.

It’s not that I have anything against religious holidays. But Christmas is not really a religious holiday any more. This will not be a message about how Hallmark Cards and Rudolph and Santa’s elves and striped candy canes have overtaken Christmas. Or the rush of parties and presents and cookies overtaking the “meaning” of Christmas. We say that each Christmas… and every next Christmas too.

This will not be a message complaining about those things. Oh. Wait. I already have. Well, it won’t be a message about those things alone.

It seems, year after year, that those traditional (?) complaints have been distilled to a new bitterness. Now Christmas also is a political holiday; more political than the way America celebrates the Fourth of July these days. A holiday that is so “inclusive” that it includes everything; therefore, nothing. Things that were once sacred, whether foundational to the culture or intensely personal, have been sacrificed on the altar of Political Correctness.

As our society has been spared the litany of beloved carols of the season in schools and public places, I will spare you the litany of crude attacks on our “free exercise” of religion; and the successful “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…” by courts, legislatures, the press, schools, and the entertainment-industrial complex. There. You have been spared.

Once upon a time the New Totalitarians in our midst rejected charges that they engaged in many and varied forms of prior censorship and bigotry. Now, rather, they boast about such things.

Christians have been reduced to defending displays in public parks and shopping malls and maintaining that YES – Santa Claus and red-and-green ribbons ARE symbols of Christianity. Fine. I wonder how close we are to seeing mainstream churches, in the spirit of “welcoming” “compromise,” will suffer the little children to believe that it was the Easter Bunny who was nailed to the cross.

When Christmas and its essential theological centrality becomes no longer a “holy day,” and a mere holiday, in our culture, it becomes the least necessary holiday. We can, after all — and should — hug children and celebrate family every day. That’s not what Christmas “is about.”

But what can we, the remnant, do to salvage our spiritual self-respect? Sure: free ourselves of the fetish of wrapping paper, cartoon specials, and annoying secular seasonal songs – not necessarily in that order. We can reinforce the lessons that largely survived as artwork on Sunday-school bulletins:

That we give gifts because God’s greatest gift – the Lord Himself incarnate – is thereby honored;

That Jesus could have come as a King in the clouds, but instead was a baby lain in a dirty manger from which animals ate, is a reminder to be humble;

That innumerable threads of prophecy, from many times and many places, written by many hands, were all fulfilled in Jesus’ birth;

That countless MIRACLES – not poetic convergence or imputations of wisdom – occurred that day, that week, in that place, to those people; and to us;

That sinful humanity, unable to reconcile itself before a Holy God, was graced with a Person, a plan, to redeem itself, receive eternal forgiveness, and embrace the Savior of their souls.

Those are the elements of the Christmas story. “Oh, yes, we know,” people absent-mindedly might say, as they put a David Bowie Xmas CD in the car player. “Chestnuts Roasting,” indeed.

The best observances and celebration of the Christmas story would be for households and churches to shift it, and tell parts of it in, say, May, July, and October. To listen to Handel’s “Messiah” at Eastertime – it is about the Savior’s entire life, after all. Let’s exchange gifts at Pentecost, and contemplate God’s spiritual gifts that He offers. Or, at any time of the year, gather to buy or make and wrap gifts… and send them to needy neighbors or foreign missions. And so forth.

The Christmas holiday is one that many scholars (not Orthodox scholars) believe is arbitrarily observed on December 25, perhaps an early-church marketing ploy to attract pagans on one of their holy days. I have no problem with marketing ploys, in that case, if they draw upon, meaningfully observe, and point to the Savior.

In that sense our Christmas is perhaps the most superfluous of the church’s holidays. The Person of the Christ, His moment of birth as God-with-us, was the nexus of history. In the baby Jesus all that was before, everything that had been prophesied, all the miracles and teachings, the scourging, crucifixion, sacrifice, Resurrection, and Ascension, were manifest. The Creator of the Universe became flesh and dwelt among us. The Hope of humankind came to us as a baby who would be able to identify with our needs, hurts, temptations, joys, and sorrows.

It does seem unnecessary, and perhaps should be redundant, that we reserve “Christmas Day” to think on these things. More than any other holiday, the entire sweep of the Bible coalesces here. Too often we let it become “only” on December 25. Yes, Jesus came as a baby; but to freeze that image in amber – or in snow globes – can cause us to forget that Jesus grew up! From a manger to a throne to our hearts.

Oh, it is good marketing to choose a day to remember Christ’s birth; or so we hope. To write meaningful hymns, at least before they are overtaken by jingles and reindeer songs.

But it is a sin to compartmentalize the Incarnation. Let us observe, contemplate, and celebrate it every day of the year. We don’t need a “hook” to remember what “Christmas” is all about. In that sense Dec 25 is the least necessary of our holidays.

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Music Video:

I want to take you back as far as we can travel, musically, to the worship of Jesus’ time and place.

It is not known exactly when this Hymn of the Nativity (Christmas Troparion and Kontakion) was written, but it was a mere few centuries after the life of Christ on earth. It is from the early Byzantine era, although not from Byzantium (Constantinople, present-day Istanbul), and its words are Greek of the time. They exist too in Syriac and Aramaic (Aram being another name of Syria), and other local and ancient tongues. These primitive tropes are what early music sounded like, in the Middle East, and into Europe.

I choose this not only for its historic or informative function this Christmas, although interesting enough. But the changes I refer to in the essay, our culture’s onslaught on Christian traditions, are made evident by this music, and the images – look at the the images! (They are all labeled at the end of the clip.)

A few short years ago, the world took note of persecution against Christians in totalitarian states like China and North Korea. Christianity was proscribed in Muslim, Hindu, atheist, animist, and Communist societies. But today, many thousands of Christians are being slaughtered every year. Tortured, raped, crucified, beheaded. Threatened with death if they do not renounce Christ. Forced from homes by the millions.

Some of those homes and their church communities go back to the times immediately following Jesus’ ministry. For the first time in history, often, these communities of believers are being martyred, “cleansed” from their 2000-year-old homelands. Do we know? Do we care? Sadly, many of these people are being as betrayed and forgotten by the church, as Jesus was by his “friends” at Crucifixion.

Our president does logical contortions to explain away Islamic radicalism in our midst. Yet persecuted Christians around the world receive scant notice from our government. Islamic refugees are welcome; displaced Christians are not. A sin.

These are people from Christ’s time and place; and the music video here shows sites and churches and shrines from those times and places – birthplaces of Christianity. Here are images of the mighty ruins of Petra (where the Wise Men reportedly stopped on their journey); from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; significant sites in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan; the West Bank. Places where Jesus walked. Now being swept of Christianity.

Be filled with wonder; and with sorrow. And be reminded of our heritage. Have a blessed Christ’s Mass.

Hymn of the Nativity

A Different Present This Christmas

12-14-15

A guest message by my friend Lucille Zimmerman, a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Littleton, Colorado. She also teaches psychology and counseling courses at Colorado Christian University.

I woke up with Jesus on my mind.

Many years ago, I felt embarrassed when I walked into a home that had scripture verses or crucifixes on the walls. I thought those people were dorky. Backwards. I had grown up attending church, but it was meaningless. A series of motions.

But after many horrible years of emotional pain, I met someone who radiated love and joy. I began to study the faith that gave him peace: Christianity. I wanted what he had. When I was 27, I fell head over heels in love with my Savior.
 
I began studying the Bible, and realized it was a book you could make sense of. It contained 66 sub-books written hundreds of years apart, but each book supported the other. Then I read books from critics who tried to disprove the historic evidence for Jesus… but those people ended up believing Jesus was real, too.
 
There is more historical proof that Jesus walked this earth than about any person in history. Hundreds of witnesses verified his miracles. He was killed because he was a threat, but this was His plan all along: His blood would be shed for our sins.
 
After three days He rose from the dead and sits with God just like He said he would. Just for fun, pick up a Bible or go to Google and read what Jesus told his closest followers in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, just before He gave His life, and upon which sacrifice we might believe.
 
In the past 23 years I have continued to study who Jesus was. And I am only more convinced that He is the way.

In these days, when 80 per cent of Americans believe another ISIS terror event will happen, soon, on our soil… these days when ISIS has stolen the machines to make fake passports…. these days when our government cannot tell us how many people with Syrian passports were allowed in the US this year… these days when our leaders cannot even tell us how many people have overstayed their visas: the threat is real.
 
It is scary these days. But you can have a more solid peace. When the Columbine tragedy happened in my Colorado community, one of our pastors said you can never be ready for the scary things that happen in this world; but you can be ready nonetheless.
 
John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world He gave His only son that whosoever believes in Him would have everlasting life.”
 
You are the “whosoever.”
 
You don’t have to be good, or go to church, or pray a certain number of times a day. If those things were the way, you wouldn’t need Jesus.
 
All you have to is believe. Or want to believe. Whisper a prayer to God and ask Him to show you if this is the truth. The Bible says God honors those who seek Him.
 
If you don’t know Him, I pray this year you would consider it. I can’t think of a better time, when the world is in such chaos and danger, and Christmas is two weeks away.

This can be the merriest, happiest, most rewarding Christmas you ever can experience by following Lucille’s version of God’s plan , and Jesus Christ’s invitation. And if you know Jesus already, consider printing or forwarding this message to friends or family members who do not. A Christmas gift of love!

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Click: Trust

Lucille Zimmerman is the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy In an Overwhelmed World and What Does God Say About Suffering?
www.LucilleZimmerman.com

Calm Down and Hold On

11-23-15

An ironic side-effect of the current wave of bombings and attacks against Christians by fringe-group Mohammedan jihadis is the revival of disputes between Christians. Not Moslems vs Christians; but Christians vs Christians.

On the airwaves, in churches, on street corners, over dinner tables, proponents range and rage. Put aside the ancient debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin: I would not be surprised if even those angels are arguing as they dance on the heads of pins.

What would Jesus do? Should we stop the flow of refugees? Are some of them “refujihadis”? Should persecuted Christians from the Middle East receive preference? Are we being bigots as we express wariness of Moslems? Do we invite slaughter on our doorsteps? Isn’t it about who we ARE as a people? What is wrong about wanting to preserve our inheritance and traditions? And so forth.

It seems certain that there is not one answer to each question. There might be no good answers. They might all have bad answers. Maybe the choices of the Christian West, speaking generically of our background and heritage, are Bad and Worse. Challenges that shift and morph are difficult to solve wisely. Enemies who declare their blood-lust hatred but refuse to expose themselves are complicated adversaries, surely.

Theoretical, even theological, responses, in the face of secular and Christian dissenters with whom we contend, are influenced by putting ourselves in the places of persecuted refugees (I hope none of us identifies with embedded terrorists)… or innocent potential victims.

There are many aphorisms in folk wisdom, which we all revere, that nevertheless contradict themselves. “He who hesitates is lost,” yes; but “Look before you leap.” Life lessons whose wisdom, sometimes, is difficult to discern. The Bible is no different – in fact it contains the pre-eminent life lessons.

Yet we have Jesus adjuring uncharitable listeners with the parable of the Good Samaritan… but told His disciples to tend to the Jewish “lost sheep” before the Samaritans. He tells us to “turn the other cheeks” but overturned money-changers’ tables and called people “fools, blind guides, hypocrites, murderers, brood of vipers, tombs with rotting corpses inside, hell’s offspring,” etc. Was Jesus inconsistent? No, God cannot lie, and Bible scholarship relies on scripture confirming scripture – contexts, cases, prayerfully perceiving God’s will.

So it is with “secular” issues… many of which, today, are not so secular after all.

In 1988 I took my family on a vacation to Europe, landing in Paris and proceeding through France to Germany. In 1988-89, the Eiffel Tower was painted a tan color that looked dull up-close, but at night, in floodlights, gave it a look of pure gold. It was for the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World’s Fair.

One evening we took a boat ride around Paris on the Seine, watched a fireworks display, then went up the Eiffel Tower to view the city, and for a late snack. It is not a one elevator-ride express, ground level to top: there are platforms with shops and restaurants. But we decided to go all the way to the top, and then walk down the iron-rail steps a level or two.

My daughter Emily, who was only five, suddenly froze in fear halfway down one of the stages. It was hard to get her to move… until we suggested that we all hold hands and walk down together. Some people joined us (including an Australian couple we met again on a tour bus in Germany a week later!).

At one point, Emily smiled and looked up and said, “If we all hold hands, we can do ANYTHING!”

That is true today as well. In Paris, certainly. And all over the world. And… in our own neighborhoods.

Before we can join hands with our enemies, even potential enemies, we must learn to join hands with one another. But does it seem, these days, that this is the more difficult challenge?

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Click: Jesus, Hold My Hand

Jesus Christ’s Memo to America

11-2-15

Yes, He wrote to us. Many Christians wonder why the United States is not mentioned or referred to, even by allusion or imagery as with other world cultures, in scripture. The Roman Empire is, directly, and symbolically. Even Russia seems to have a place in prophecies of a “northern kingdom, Rosh,” playing a role in the Battle of Armageddon. Yet, seemingly, no America, no power beyond the seas, no specific place in interpretations of the elect nor of the 10-nation confederacy aligned with false prophets, anti-Christ…

Besides passages in books like Isaiah and Daniel, most of the curious and anxious folks – curious and anxious about the End Times, that is – pore through the Book of Revelation.

There is much that confounds people, from the purest spiritual seeker to the most profound biblical scholar. Eschatologists fall into the latter camp: those who find theology in speculating about said End Times. I passed through that phase of inquiry, not to trivialize it at all; and millions who read The Late, Great Planet Earth or were devoted to the Left Behind franchises also contemplated the Last Days.

Most of the Bible has been inspired and transcribed to be taken literally – except to those who literally deny the Word of God, or, in effect, edit Him by selectively accepting or rejecting portions. But there surely are parts of scripture that are poetic or speak through allusions, symbology, and numerology.

And then there is prophecy. Theories and interpretations abound. With the Book of Revelation alone – the “letter” from Jesus Christ, delivered by His angel to John, a Christian martyr exiled to the Isle of Patmos – there are pretarists (those who think the events were fulfilled in the first century); literalists, who think the seven churches addressed were actual congregations with the spiritual challenges described; dispensationalists, who believe the descriptions of the seven churches prophesy the unfolding fidelity of the church through the centuries… etc., etc.

… and that’s only the first few chapters! Scholars and believers, saints and sages, debate and dispute the majority of the book, which famously deals with such things as the Seven Seals, the Four Horsemen, the 144,000 remnant, Wormwood, the Two Witnesses, the Mark of the Beast, 666, the Whore of Babylon, the Battle of Armageddon, the False Prophet, Gog and Magog, the Millennial Reign, and the New Jerusalem.

All of a sudden, chapters 2 and 3 – messages to seven churches, whether real (they did exist at the time, ca 60-90 A.D.), or symbolic, or prophetic – seem quite easy to understand!

In fact I believe it is reasonable, and profitable, to be persuaded that all views of the praise and scolding of these seven churches can be taken together and accepted, a stew that is spiritual comfort food. All scripture, after all, is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work (II Timothy 3:16-17, NLT).

Frankly, if I were God, I would make certain elements of my message purposely ambiguous! Keep us on our feet, so to speak. Let us consider all that we should do, and what might happen. Watch and wait.

And in that regard, the lessons that Jesus shared with John are meant to speak to us, today, and on the several levels that we comprehend. Re-visit Revelation, and see if you fall under the praise, or warnings, described in the descriptions of those seven bodies of believers.

Or… whether America does.

To me, the Message to the Church in Laodicea is a chillingly appropriate description of America today. Revelation, Chapter 3, verses 14-17, 19-22:

Write this letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea. This is the message from the One who is the Amen—the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s new creation: I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth!

You say, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!” And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. … I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference.

Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear My voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. Those who are victorious will sit with Me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat with my Father on His throne.

Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what He is saying to the churches.

Is America lukewarm? Are you? If someone were to ask if you are a Christian, would you answer, “Well, yeah; I mean I am not Jewish or Hindu!”… or do you have Jesus in your heart, and show Him? Do you live for Christ? Would you die for Him?

Have you gotten the memo?

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Click: He Took Your Place

Rosebud Archives has reprinted a deluxe edition of “The Apocalypse” passages from Revelation, with enlarged images of the iconic 500-year-old woodcuts by Albrecht Durer. A “PadFolio” whose pages can be removed for framing. Details:
http://www.rosebudarchives.com/wp/products/the-apocalypse/

When NOT To Turn the Other Cheek

10-26-15

A Reformation lesson.

The observance of Reformation Sunday also provides an umbrella over a discussion of “tolerance,” Christian charity, “turning the other cheek,” loving your enemies, and similar topics. In the United States Reformation Sunday has come to be observed on the last Sunday in October, but is conterminous with All Saints’ Day. It is a legal holiday in parts of Germany, in Slovenia (despite its majority Catholic population), in Chile, and elsewhere.

October 31 is when the German monk Martin Luther, pushed to holy exasperation by the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences (certificates promising to keep one from hell) and other extra-biblical practices, nailed a list of his complaints to the cathedral door in Wittenberg. These were the “95 Theses” – a lengthy set of arguments indeed – and are regarded as the spark that ignited the kindling of resentment and reform within the Catholic church.

Protestantism – now myriad denominations – resulted. First followers of Luther, then Calvin, the Wesleys, Pietists, Puritans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, through evangelicals to perhaps the church’s very first manifestations again, Pentecostals. The Roman Church remains, as do various Orthodox traditions.

The Reformation came to my mind when, as occasionally happens, a subscriber to this blog “unsubscribed.” Actually it was an old friend, and the spark for him was an essay in which I criticized recent social trends, and took President Obama to task, I think over his advocacy of homosexual marriage or abortion, contrasted to his professed Christian faith; or perhaps it was his Administration’s virtual silence in the face of Christian persecution around the world.

I thought, and think, that such attitudes and national policies deserve criticism. “Not interested in political critiques,” my friend wrote. To me, policies make politics, no avoiding it. And Protestants originally were those who Protested.

Once I asked the cartoonist Al Capp about making a distinction between commentary and pure humor. He saw none, and replied, “Every cartoonist is a commentator. Even when you draw a cat, you automatically are commenting on cats.” In a similar manner, contemporary life has tuned everything political: much affects us, and reactions are inevitable; this is politics, in a way. But everything is not “partisan” – this party or that; liberal or conservative – and many people confuse the two P words.

Many Christians cite the scriptural admonitions to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, “render unto Caesar,” and, at the extreme of these modes, to honor the “divine right of kings.” My friend objects to receiving blogs with points of view, and I can sympathize. Many of us fends off scores of these every day. I have a friend who submits magazine articles critical of the Christian Right, a shorthand term, and even has invented conversations with Christ in the manner of the Socratic elenchus. Between this and an essay mentioning policies that are counter-Christian… a distinction perhaps without a difference.

Speaking personally – which I do in these messages – I wrestle with the challenge of resisting laws, rules, and practices that I consider inimical to the cause of Christ.

Yes, we should obey laws; and the Bible says that has God has ordained those in authority, that He has placed those in authority. But, obviously, we are free in God’s eyes to resist the appeals of incumbents to vote for them, and instead support their opponents. No? Should Jews have been compliant in Nazi Germany? Were Blacks wrong to commit civil disobedience against segregation? If our Christian beliefs convince us that abortion is murder, must we remain silent? decline to work for change if we can?

God has given us brains (that is, consciences — not always the same thing) as well as hearts, and I am quick to acknowledge the slippery slope of applying the argument that we can love our own enemies but not God’s. Possibly too facile, so we rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit. But yet, challenges and contradictions confront us.

It brings me (a happy inspiration) to Reformation. The attitude that we must without deviance obey ecclesiastic and civil authority, as Christians, would condemn the martyrdom of uncountable saints past and present. What of those in the Age of the Apostles who defied Rome in order to establish Christian communities? What of those who defied their superiors to translate Scripture, and to evangelize? What of the reformers, in centuries before and centuries after Luther, who worked to return Christianity to biblical foundations?

Among others, if the Wesley brothers had been compliant clergymen, not dissenting nor resisting, where would our faith, our hymnals, our churches be today?

Welcome back to the dichotomy: one man’s “injecting politics” is another man’s “defending Christianity” or defining morality. To navigate the slippery slope recognizes the need, as we said, for prayer and Holy Spirit guidance at all times.

I am reminded of David’s petition to God, in Psalm 109, that He punish and discomfit those who accused and disagreed with him. And – on Reformation Day – I cite the words of Martin Luther, the priest who defied the Pope; criticized his fellow, corrupt, churchmen; published 95 scathing critiques; publicly burned the Papal Bull (arrest warrant) against him; refused to renounce his writings; was caught up in the “politics” of the day and went into hiding to save his life; and, commanded to renounce his views, declared: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

From his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

Though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.

That Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!

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I have heard the Battle Hymn of the Reformation performed, in many venues large and small, including on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth, in the cathedral chapel in the city of Augsburg, Germany, where he defended his faith. And I have sung it myself uncountable times, frequently with tears in my eyes. But few performances have the impact of Steve Green, singing it a cappella before 70,000 men at a Promise Keepers gathering.

Click: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

An American President Tells Why We Should Attend Church

10-19-15

Later this month we will observe the 157th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth. One of the greatest presidents of the United States; the “Most Interesting American”; and, often forgotten, one of the most devout and observant Christians to have served as Chief Executive.

TR frequently quoted Bible verses (and titled two of his approximately 50 books from Biblical passages); he volunteered to teach Sunday School while a student at Harvard; he often delivered impromptu sermons when requested at churches he visited (and seldom missed Sunday worship throughout his life, whether in the wild west or in the White House); and, despite higher-profile and more lucrative offers after he retired from the presidency, he became Contributing Editor of The Outlook, a modest weekly Christian opinion journal.

His faith, of course, was “manly,” in the parlance of an earlier age – bold, unapologetic, encouraging. He once said, in an address to the newly formed Gideon Band: “The Christianity that counts is the kind that is carried into a man’s life. The man who does ordinary work well is working for the Lord. I do not like to see a slack man…. If you do not find in a man any outward manifestations of the Spirit, I am inclined to doubt if it ever has been in him. I like to see fruits…”

In the same manner he also spoke at a church dedication: “In business and in work, if you let Christianity stop as you go out of the church door, there is little righteousness in you. You must behave to your fellowmen as you would have them behave to you. You must have pride in your work if you would succeed. A man should get justice for himself, but he should also do justice to others. Help a man to help himself, but do not expend all your efforts in helping a man who will not help himself.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite Bible verse was Micah 6:8 – “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Imagine this today, but in 1917 Roosevelt wrote an article for the Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, and the subject was “10 Reasons Men Should Go To Church.” Imagine a president of our time writing for magazines as diverse as Ladies’ Home Journal, The Outlook (and National Geographic and the children’s magazine St Nicholas and The American Historical Review and Cosmopolitan and The New York Times and American Museum Journal and…). And imagine a president today exclaiming Christian faith. Frequently. But to TR every venue was a pulpit, and a bully one at that.

Words for then, words for now: here is his article on Why men should attend church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will probably take part in singing some good hymns.

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

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

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

Think about Theodore Roosevelt on October 27… and then think about the things one of our greats president thought about!

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Judy Collins and the Boy’s Choir of Harlem, at the U S Capitol:

Click: Amazing Grace

When Christianity Is Outlawed, We Will Be the Illegals

10-4-15

Faith has been in the news recently. More precisely, news about faith has confronted us, almost daily, of late.

The Pope visited America, and his words were examined, feared, or cheered. He put some current issues in a religious context. He secretly met with a Baptist woman from Kentucky who went to jail rather than certify, as a municipal clerk, marriage licenses for homosexuals; he reportedly encouraged civil disobedience like hers.

The scandal and controversy about selling harvested body parts of aborted babies has, of course, a religious cast, whether the faith in question is biblical or secular-humanist; its battles are fought, however, with religious fervor.

Christian expression, from signs and symbols to prayers and oaths, are being attacked by some citizens and suppressed by some governmental and military agencies.

Very recently there was another school shooting, at an Oregon college, where the murderer asked the victims’ faiths. Those who answered “Christian” he shot in their heads; others were shot in their legs. Echoes of Columbine, and other violent attacks. President Obama, almost immediately, addressed the nation and deplored the guns.

In a familiar pattern, Obama and the media not-so-subtly assign mass shootings and gun violence into one of two categories. If white people commit the crimes, they are deranged radical Christians whose guilt is shared only by an evil society obsessed by weaponry. If the shooters are black or Muslims, they are misunderstood victims of a bigoted society who justifiably retaliate in a form of workplace violence. So goes the analyses and their logical extensions.

This all might look like random bits, issues of war and terrorism and Constitutional rights and women’s rights and free speech and random violence or mental-health… but they are all, as I said above, religious matters at their core. Spiritual crises; spiritual warfare; spiritual solutions that are lacking. In fact I think the problems are deeper than news headlines or society’s fads: I think the many problems facing our neighborhoods and nation and the world are fundamental, not momentary, troubles.

History might be at a turning point. Our Western heritage is on the verge of extinction.

I might be one lonely essayist making these observations, and you might agree or disagree. But I invite you to read the words of someone who might surprise you, because they scarcely have been reported in the press. So I am happy to quote some presidential passages here:

“Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values… Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan.”

“I did as [my mother] said and then put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since.”

“First and foremost we should be governed by common sense. But common sense should be based on moral principles first. And it is not possible today to have morality separated from religious values.”

“The… Church plays an enormous formative role in preserving our rich historical and cultural heritage and in reviving eternal moral values. It works tirelessly to bring unity, to strengthen family ties, and to educate the younger generation in the spirit of patriotism.”

Quiz time is over. Not Washington nor Adams. Not Lincoln nor Theodore Roosevelt. (Not, either – need we say? – Barack Obama) These are quotations from speeches by President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Russia has reinstated the churches that were outlawed by the Soviets; and encourages religious expression. Putin has been baptized, has testified to faith in Christ, and attends church regularly. Russia’s foreign policy has been victim of radical Islam, and has pursued policies against it at home, in provinces, and abroad.

In Syria, Russia recognizes that ISIS is at heart an anti-Christian movement. President Assad, for all his sins, is of the Alawite minority, as are Syrian Christians; and Christians generally are protected in Syria – and were similarly protected by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But after the US invasion and withdrawal, Christians have been slaughtered wholesale or driven from their ancient towns – now virtually extinct as a people in Iraq after 2000 years.

Russian law now bans homosexual “propaganda,” abortion advertising, abortions after 12 weeks, and has criminalized the “insulting” of people’s religious sensibilities – a refreshing twist of the American fetish with “hate crimes.” Rev. Franklin Graham has applauded these priorities. President Putin has declared Russia a “Christian country,” not that other religions are outlawed (he recently attended a mosque dedication) but respecting his nation’s heritage and traditions. As once was the case in Christian America.

I, and many friends, are in the odd position of wanting automatically to defend our flag and our country that stands, today, for hedonism, pornography, homosexuality, feminism, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, assisted suicide, sale of baby body parts, Hollywood “values,” easy divorce, easy abortions, easy immigration, easy drugs… And we are in the odd position of seeing an old foe, Russia, suddenly championing Christian values, calling Islamic expansionist radicalism what it is, and acting where the weak-kneed (or treasonous) American leaders will not.

The Administration favors killing babies, but not ISIS murderers, and Islamic terrorists.

Our government forces the entry of illegals across porous borders and from terror states, but initiates lawsuits against nuns who resist being forced to support abortions, and husband-and-wife bakers who decline to decorate cakes for homosexuals.

This week the presidential candidate Dr Ben Carson widely was criticized for saying that he would not vote for a Muslim for president. Lost in the din were details about those Mohammedans who elevate Sharia law above the Constitution; and the fact that Dr Carson does not advocate the banning of Islam or the deportation of Muslims. He would not vote for one, absent the conditions he stated. We still have freedom of conscience and freedom of action in America. Maybe not for long.

Secularists have almost convinced America that Abraham Lincoln was an atheist, but he once said: “I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”

In the year of our Lord 2015, America is making life hell for Christians at home, and acquiescing in Christian persecution abroad. While worship and freedom of thought are still legal, before our liberties slip away, while all these religious and pseudo-religious battles rage, let us recall another admonition of Lincoln. Let us not worry so much whether God is on our side… but whether we are on God’s side.

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Click: The Old Country Church

The Last Day Of the Rest Of Your Life

9-28-15

A tweenager I have gotten to know was saddened by the recent death of her grandfather. As a young Christian she displayed a concern that many youngsters otherwise would not feel: “I never had the chance to tell him about Jesus!” I thought of this yesterday when a neighbor told me he invited another neighbor to church one Wednesday evening; unable to attend, the fellow was invited on the following Saturday night. But the next morning the invited guest, in his 30s, was found dead in his living room. My friend had not inquired of the guy’s “standing with the Lord,” but church would have been a time to open such conversation.

These are poignant stories. Timing – as with so many things in life! – can be excruciating.

In significant matters like a person’s relationship with Jesus, making the simple but profound decision to accept Christ and be secure about eternal salvation, to be a child of God and a citizen of Heaven, we all have responsibilities. Jesus commanded us to share the Gospel. Not just with grandfathers and neighbors, but to all the world.

Yet, we can only do so much. It is my opinion that the contemporary church either makes too little of evangelism – diluting the Gospel – or too much, trying to “seal the deal” with professions of faith, signed pledges, and obligatory testimonies. We need to remind ourselves that our commission is to share the Gospel; it is, by holy design, the work of the Holy Spirit to convict, lead, and witness to people’s hearts.

Do we think the Holy Spirit inadequate to do the work Jesus foretold?

We should not stop coming alongside those new in faith, of course not, but we do not seal those deals, so to speak. We cannot. Individuals do, and only by the prompting and power of the Holy Spirit of God.

Further, to be humble about our roles can give us a clearer picture of things we are doing… and not doing, as Christian servants. That young lady who cried, “I never had the chance to tell Grandpa about Jesus!” did not mean she never had the chance. Nothing against her sincerity or naiveté – we all share such grievous regrets of timing – but what happened was she never took the chance. She had the chance; we all do. My neighbor took the chance by issuing an invitation. But, wow, what a reminder.

Right here, I only want to expand on this in a different way. You might be reading this, and might be someone who does not buy in to the act of “accepting Jesus,” or the importance of a “decision.” You might not be comfortable or consider it your role to “share the Gospel.” Or to respond to such forms of outreach. You are not alone, even in this land of many churches.

Well… then, this message is for you. You might not share; you might be shared to; you might dismiss the importance of “accepting Christ.” Maybe you have heard about such things, but never actually heard them directly. You are hearing now. Stick around for another paragraph or two.

We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. A just God cannot accept sinners determined to reject Him. As humankind discovered its inability to please the Lord by offerings and works, and our “clean” garments were still as filthy rags, God provided the Perfect Offering. He sent His Son to earth to teach and heal and preach and inspire – to save – a lost world. Christ became the sacrifice for our sins, that whoever believes in their hearts He is the Son of God; and confesses that God raised Him from the dead, shall be saved.

To this statement of Good News, if you add anything, that is foolish; if you subtract anything, that is dangerous. The Gospel invitation, condensed.

Now you have heard it. Whether you live a few more days or a few more decades, the Gospel has been shared with you. Next? Search the Bible; and pray to God for His Spirit to come into your heart… and your mind, that any questions you have will be answered. It is a prayer that never goes unanswered!

“Timing” still is important. This might be the last day of the rest of your life!

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We might stray, we might feel alone, we might think we are far from the Shepherd’s sight, or care. But remember the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Ninety-nine sheep might be in the fold, but He will seek out the one who is lost. This song was written by Elizabeth Clephane; melody by Ira Sankey, 150 years ago. Sung here by Dean Phelps.

Click: The Ninety and Nine

When NOT To Follow Jesus

9-21-15

I once worked for a youth-ministry resource company, as “Director of Product Development.” Actually it was as editor, sometime conference speaker, and seldom directing the development of new products, despite the title; unless books are called Products, which I suppose they are.

Anyhoo, an excellent editor and I oversaw the publication of about 50 books a year. Now that I look back, even between the two of us, that was a book every week, which we did, yes, “develop,” from brainstorming sessions, to proposals, to outlining, to many author conferences, to helping design and work on cover art; along the way contributing gems of wisdom about people who might write introductions and endorsements, suggesting promotion and ad copy; ultimately to develop comebacks for a Christian bookstore in, say, Pittsburgh, that objected to the way a kid looked on a back-cover photo.

But, a book every two weeks, as we, Solomon-like, divided the chores. No wonder we went crazy. Holy crazy, of course; sanctified bonkerdom. Biennial conventions, various office duties, and office picnics broke the monotony if not the workload.

But it was a wonderful company, a for-profit “ministry,” and thousands of pastors and youth workers – and by extension multiple thousands of kids – relied on our books, conferences, and products.

While I was at the company, the owner died in a horrible auto accident – one of those deaths when you automatically say, “Too young, too young.” He was too young, and it still would have been a tragic loss if had been 108. His widow picked up the reins. Soon into said reign she inaugurated a monthly book review group. It was voluntary in the office; Christian books were assigned; and she led a free-flow discussion.

In one of the sessions, talk turned to being secure about going to Heaven, as it does sometimes among members of old-line churches and even among skeptics. Our leader announced that she was pretty sure she was going to Heaven, because she and her husband “had given so much money to charities through the years.”

I paused. One way to put my reaction.

We all live in a land that was founded and settled by Christians, in a society that largely was designed and informed by Protestant theology. It is not against the law for anyone to dissent from these situations and their implications. But to be ignorant of them – especially as the owner and life-worker in jobs devoted to sharing the gospel among churches – is astonishing.

It is very common in America for average citizens to be ignorant of dogma that onetime permeated Western societies, however. It is common for people these days to be quite unaware of doctrines and traditions of the churches they attend – if those churches, many of them, “independent,” even hold to such things.

And the surprise I evinced that afternoon might have been unwarranted, because I had developed doubts that any shade of orthodoxy inhabited any corners of that office. And these are days when popes question traditional doctrine, and pastors gut the gospel and newly interpret – or couldn’t be bothered to – the Bible.

But the logic of revealed truth, if there is anything to the Bible, and Christ’s ministry, includes the fact that we cannot buy our way into Heaven. We cannot fool God with promises, bribe God with good deeds, or impress Him (that is, unto Salvation) with good works. If so, rich people writing checks would elbow themselves into Glory… and we know what Jesus said about the rich getting into Heaven. Indeed, if salvation were that easy, Jesus’ incarnation, birth, ministry, miracles, teaching, persecution, torture, condemnation, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, would all be worthless shams. Hoaxes. A cruel trick on the Christ, first of all; and then us. All in vain.

All through humankind’s history, people have been susceptible to “natural” curiosity about, say, reincarnation. Superstitions about karma. And false hopes that good deeds now and again will be sufficient to please a Holy God. Wouldn’t it be nice? And easy? The bad news is that it’s not true.

The good news is that there is a satisfactory substitute available to all. With our sinful inclinations, we cannot do it on our own, anyway – but God has provided the substitutionary and atoning death of His Son to pay the price of sin. Simple. Easy. Not cheap. But free.

Next, how do we live that new life with changed hearts? Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow Him. Yes, we should be Christ-followers. At the same time, as we are pilgrims and strangers in this world, we proceed forth, “stepping out in faith.” Alone? No, we know that Christ is there, leading from behind (as current phraseology goes)!

Over, under, above, below, however, the best we can ask for, and hope for, and have, is Jesus holding our hands. He will guide us day and night. He, working through the Holy Spirit, will correct us when we are mistaken.

That is, sometimes we follow; sometimes He is behind us; and sometimes it is best to hold His hand… the security of knowing that He is with us. At our sides; what a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

If we happen to slip into error or heresy… well, think of it this way: if you are persuaded to buy your way into Heaven through offerings or donations, if Jesus is holding your hand, it will be hard to reach for loose change or a checkbook. You will find yourself being reminded that charity is from a pure heart, and giving is the result of Salvation, not the price of a ticket to Heaven.

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The great gospel song by Albert E Brumley, “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” is a virtual sermon in song. It is a song I have sung solo in churches more than any other. Here is a heartfelt and, um, enthusiastic version by Jerry Lee Lewis.

Click: Jesus, Hold My Hand

What I Hate About Religion

9-7-15

“He has told you, O people, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8

When I was a college student, there were still such things as loyalty oaths. Students, teachers, applicants for many jobs in the government and the private sector, were required to answer and sign the following yes-or-no question: “Do you favor the overthrow of the United States Government by violence, force, or subversion?” As a young wise guy – now I am on old wise guy, not much wiser – one time I circled the word “subversion,” and added a note that I wished to avoid bloodshed.

Of course, it was not a multiple-choice question. I was no radical, and it was a reasonable question, especially in those times (maybe more so now, but that’s for another message…) and it was not right that my sense of humor eclipsed my common sense.

No less reasonable a question, and more serious, is the famous and favorite verse from Micah. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. Not a multiple-choice, and, overall, not a hard choice in life. Right? I am reminded, when I think on this verse, what always is right about God’s will, and what often is wrong about organized religion.

What I hate about religion is that it turns the simplicity of God’s message into a tangle of rules, conditions, qualifications, codes, and seeming contradictions. In fact, when theologians, clergymen, priests, and pastors get hold of churches and schools, of texts and flocks, oftentimes the contradictions are not apparent but real.

A quatrain (not from the Bible, but pertinent) I discovered and memorized in my youth says: “All the saints and sages who discussed/ of the two worlds so learnedly are thrust/ like foolish prophets forth; their words to scorn/ are scattered; their mouths are stopped with dust.”

Humans, who by our natures are lost and confused, and almost preternaturally, every one of us, yearning for truth and for peace and for Answers – we need simplicity. We fool ourselves that Complicated equals Profound. On such momentous matters as sin and death and afterlife, after all, doesn’t it make sense that the way to the Truth be complex? … and that we need learned leaders – saints and sages – to show us the way? No: They invariably need to tell us the way, not show us the way.

And there we get back to organized religion. New rules get added to scripture, which the Bible says is unforgivable sin (and so is taking away anything in scripture). Remember that for more than a thousand years, believers were not allowed to read the Bible, or translate it to their native languages. People were taught that intercessors in Heaven were needed to petition, or thank, God. Way-stations between earth and Heaven that were never in the Bible were invented. Today, television preachers promise that “seed money” you send them will guarantee God’s return blessings; and other rank heresies. Organized religion or organized rackets?

For those who are confident in having “found the way” to God, no different with those who are lost and confused and wanting to find God – in other words, all of us! – everyone should realize that God is accessible. Knowing Him is easy. He is always as close as a shadow. Talking to Him is simple, not complicated; hearing from Him is clear, not a matter of superstitious mystery.

Oh! His commandments? Jesus’s words? The Bible’s directions? Yes, they exist… and thank God. He doesn’t leave us helpless! But… He is not the Great Pretender, the Author of Confusion. His rules are few. They are for our guidance, and our happiness, our ultimate fellowship with Him. The Commandments are still wise and valid. The words of the Prophets, so many fulfilled, are lamps unto our feet. The teaching of Jesus? His words were surprisingly few, astonishingly full of wisdom, and directly for our salvation.

The essence of the Bible is found in so few words and passages that anyone might memorize them. The 10 Commandments (not the “10 Suggestions”) are rules we need. Micah’s verse about doing justice and walking humbly. Jesus’s summary of the Truth as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength; and… Love your neighbor as yourself.” To get to Heaven? – no classes, exams, ceremonies, or human blessings; only to Believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord; and confess that God raised Him from the dead.

I am grateful for some human agencies in or out of organized religion. Much has been useful: the ancient creeds simply encapsulated the tenets of faith; Martin Luther recalled the Bible verse that by faith we are saved, not (complicated) works; Mother Teresa brilliantly told us that God does not care about our “success,” only our obedience. Clear teaching… genuine humility… patient praying… anointed teaching of God’s word, not mankind’s “improvements”… service and sacrifice… quiet witnessing, even martyrdom… these are the elements of Christianity that humans can receive and provide. The essence of the Gospel life, not the “stuff.”

It has been said, and truly, that religion is mankind reaching up to God, but Christianity is God reaching down to us.

Let us learn to distinguish between the artificial rules and the True Faith. One is confusingly complicated, one is refreshingly simple. One might be wrapped up in memories and sentiment, but the other opens doors to joy unspeakable. One can keep you from peace; the other delivers it. You can discern. If not… that is why God instituted the communication-channel of prayer; and why He sent the Holy Spirit. Such prayers, such questions, such seeking, never go unanswered by your Father in Heaven.

We are aware that many things in our lives are right or wrong, true or false. We know. Experience, if nothing else, teaches us many things. Are the important things in your life mere check-boxes in a multiple-choice quiz?

Is Faith in God?

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The Gospel group Found Wandering sings its version of an old Stanley Brothers standard.

Click: That Home Far Away

God Forgets Our Sins. We Forget His Blessings.

8-31-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: A Diamond in My Crown

Angels Among Us

8-24-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, by other means.

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

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

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

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

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

Yourself.

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Click: Sending Me Angels

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About The Author

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