Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

Not a Hallmark Holiday

12-25-17

I want, as I am wont to do sometimes, to offer a different point of view on topics. Sometimes we, as Christians, need a reminder that matters of faith are more joyful than we realize. When I was a young boy, it struck me how worshipers reciting prayers or the liturgy, or singing hymns, spoke “Hallelujah” as if it were a funeral dirge. No smiles, nor louder voices.

And sometimes we need to realize that things that we celebrate – or observe – and about which we prepare in festive modes… are far more serious than we think, or don’t think. I am not saying they are grim; but are worthy of spiritual contemplation. Those second thoughts, deserving of meditation, is what I aim for here.

So. Not a “downer,” not at all. But if we realize some things about Christmas, for instance, that we seldom think about, we might appreciate the day in a new way.

It is interesting to note that Christmas – “Christ’s Mass” – was not a major holiday in the church for most of its history. Yes, it was observed; it was a holy day (holiday); but it did not eclipse the other church holy days as it does today, with the exception of Easter. Ascension Day, marking the absolute confirmation of Christ’s divinity, scarcely is observed in most Christian churches, and is more significant. Despite the Magnificats and Christmas oratorios, Christmas had not the dominance it does today.

Cards, children’s activities, and commercialism changed a lot of this beginning about 175 years ago. I have a dear friend who works for Hallmark Cards, and I truly appreciate the role of greeting cards, seasonal cheer, and the “sentiments” they generate in Kansas City… but they and Norman Rockwell and Haddon Sundblom, illustrator of the Coca-Cola ads, likely have shaped peoples’ impressions of Christmas as much as the angels and shepherds did.

Do we realize that the birth pangs of the first Christmas were not Mary’s alone? Herod believed the Prophecy of the Savior’s birth – even if people today are more indifferent – and decreed that all baby boys in a wide perimeter of Bethlehem be slaughtered? Historians’ numbers vary wildly on the number of slaughtered sons – from triple digits to multiple thousands, mostly based on population estimates and the area stipulated in Herod’s sweeping decree – but it was a frightening time, whether mothers hid in fear or mourned. Birth pangs that accompanied the Nativity.

The haunting Coventry Carol is not a beautiful lullaby but a mothers’ lament for their slaughtered babies… what history records as the Slaughter of the Innocents.

I have made the point (my own imagining, really) that Bethlehem surely had rooms during the Census, but were told, as the Bible relates, that there were no lodgings. I have a suspicion that that couple were denied rooms because Mary, likely still unwed and at any event a young teen very pregnant, were not respectable to innkeepers. The manger, despite the fluffy, antiseptic setting in Hallmark cards, was a trough of straw from which animals ate, therefore full of bugs and spittle.

Mary and Joseph had to escape the slaughter by fleeing ignominiously to Egypt. Christians seem little concerned about that escape or the subsequent years (although Anne Rice has written interesting speculative fiction about Jesus’ boyhood there). Much in the Bible is symbolic, even down to numbers (3, 7, 40 – you must notice), certain metals and woods, and of course symbolic places: the Promised Land, Crossing Jordan, and the Land of Egypt. The world Moses left and where Jesus found escape.

And so forth. Other symbolism we might draw ourselves, without being in Bible concordances or commentaries. For instance, we might – I say we must – consider more carefully the Slaughter of the Innocents.

We can look at the symbolism to the Slaughter of Innocents today. The abortion nightmare kills babies too – in a scenario crueler than under Herod. Today, mothers sanction the murder of their own babies. Today, these deaths occur not to accompany the birth of a Savior, but to reject His saving power, His miracles, His ability to bless in the face of hopelessness. I am in no way callous to the angst of these mothers when they make tortured decisions; believe me I am specially tender, but always opt for life.

Can that view of the widespread slaughter of babies not be a learning experience from the Christmas Story when we stop, in this busy world at this busy time? To open (metaphorically speaking) the greeting card, beyond the pretty manger scene, and think of the many other implications of the Christmas story? …what really happened back then? …and what can happen in our hearts today, seriously, because of that Birth?

Look to the Bible, friend; not to greeting cards.

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The lyrics Coventry Carol were written in 1534 for the Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors Guild in the English town of Coventry. The mother’s soothing words over a sleeping baby, “Lully, Lu Lay,” are the basis of “lullaby.”

Click: Coventry Carol

Empty Nesters

8-28-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time and chance happeneth to us all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Letting Go

Eclipse

8-14-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: From the Rising Of the Sun

This Should Be Your Favorite Bible Verse

3-27-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is finished.”

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

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

“It.”

What was “it” that was finished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comprised of many favorite verses!
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Click: It Is Finished

Patience and Timing, Endangered Species

2-13-17

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

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

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

The instructor replied, “Patience.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Waiting On the Lord

A Different Christmas

12-26-16

One of the things a lot of us like about Christmas is the comforting security and tradition of it. Right? The one time of year, we are wont to think, when conflicts and arguments are suspended; when families gather; when people go to church for time-honored services and familiar hymns bathe our souls. Even if it is the only day of the year that some people go to church.

I am not going to be Scrooge here, but the Christmas we know so well would have been a mystery in many ways to history’s generations of Christians.

Christmas cards really commenced, in thoughts and printed versions, in the 1840s. The image of Santa Claus as we know him – know him?? – dates from about the same time. Thomas Nast depicted the basic Santa we know; illustrator Haddon Sondblom created the definitive version for Coca-Cola ads in the 1940s. Many familiar Christmas songs were written in the past few decades; and the “old favorites,” with only a few exceptions, were unknown before two or three centuries ago – a blip in 2000 years of Christian worship.

Most of us know, even if we do not dwell on the facts, that Christmas trees, red-and-green, probably the exchange of gifts, and certainly the date of December 25, all are of pagan origins. “Gifts” can be grafted onto God’s purpose of the Incarnation; and various Christian faiths disagree on the date of the Christ’s birth.

But the actual observance of Jesus’s birth was for centuries one of the Church’s minor festivals and commemorations. Easter was, of course, a focal point of belief and believers. At one time Ascension was – I think properly – the major holy day that Christmas was not, quite. Pentecost, also.

So, am I a Scrooge after all? I have no problem, at all, with observing all the “traditional” cultural trappings of Christmas. Yes, I am glad that many people feel free to say “Merry Christmas” again. I never stopped; and I am fine with the presents and the colors and the decorations and the food. Street lightings in October, and radio marathons, annoy me.

What annoys me a lot, however, is the mandatory cheer of this “season.”
If some people, some Christians or well-intentioned revelers, try hard to be cheery at Christmastide, it is not bad… but only to the extent that we should always be charitable and exercise good will to men.

But we should all – all of us – temper our cheer. Stick with me. There are many aspects of Christmas that should turn us contemplative, not into elves with frozen smiles. The Incarnation was the most incredible miracle of God, the greatest gift to humankind. And we should be joyful. Scrooge has left the building, OK?

But. God became flesh and dwelt among us… because the human race was corrupt and lost, headed for damnation, loving sin more than God. That is sobering, especially because so many of us are still lost in sin; still needing a Savior after 2000 years.

Hallmark cards have sanitized the Birth story. I personally am persuaded that there was “no room in the inns” because inn-keepers rejected providing rooms to teenage girls who conceived before marriage. Abuse and calumny likely followed Mary and Joseph through the streets of Bethlehem.

The stable was “humble”? Certainly, but it was less than that. The manger is where animals’ food was placed, so the Baby Jesus lay amongst old food scraps and the spittle of various animals. If frankincense were needed, it was then… because that stable undoubtedly reeked of excrement.

The advent of Jesus into a needy and hurting world was, sadly, akin to the birth pangs of a mother, all mothers in painful labor. Herod knew of the prophecies about a Savior (isn’t it odd, by the way, that even Herod believed, in his way; yet millions of our contemporaries think that Christianity is a fairy tale?) – and Herod, fearing a rival to his authority… ordered the deaths of boys under age two, throughout his realm.

That is what history came to call the Slaughter of the Innocents. One of the most beautiful-sounding Christmas tunes is the lullaby we know as the Coventry Carol. Mother sings to child, “Bye, bye, lully lu-lay,” a transliteration of ancient French. It is sweet, certainly; but many have forgotten that the mother in this lullaby is whispering good-bye to her son, about to be slaughtered.

And so forth. We dishonor God when we willfully neglect the full meaning of Christ’s Mass. We are happy to assert that Jesus is the reason for the season: just so. But the ancients pondered the truth that “God, with a heavy heart, His Son did impart.” Heavy heart? Yes… God was Incarnate in order to suffer and die for us.

At least we humans have learned much in these two thousand years.

No… we haven’t. That is what I have been arguing. We have managed to sanitize, subvert, corrupt, and disguise Christmas. We make it about our memories, not God’s meaning. The Lord made it all about His Will; and we make it all about our wants. Ultimately, His focus was on us, His beloved children, and our salvation; and we make it… also all about us. Something’s not right.

Indeed, something is not right. After two thousand years of “doing” Christmas, this is still – perhaps more than ever – a needy and hurting world. More Christians were persecuted, tortured, and martyred in the last century than in all the centuries, combined, since the Holy Birth. Around us, here at home, we are beset by hate, injustice, infidelity, apostasy, self-delusion, materialism, and corruption.

Abroad – well, we can just look at the lands where Jesus was born, walked, preached, died, and rose. And loved. Let us just look at Aleppo, where the world has been looking… and looking away. Again, slaughter of innocents.

The “Middle East” is comprised of countries where Christians recently have been in the minority, but sometimes in substantial numbers. Those numbers are depleted, diminished, decimated now. “Ethnic cleansing,” refugee purges, forced conversions and rapes, beheadings and slavery.

Herod was an amateur.

After 2000 years we still await a Savior without really knowing why; or knowing He already has come. Or how to greet Him if we were to meet Him.

If Jesus showed up at your house for Christmas dinner, would you set Him an extra place at the feast, or would you fall at His feet? Would He have to remind you why He came to earth? Would we rethink just what it is we celebrate? Should we accept the present of His Birth… or make a gift of our lives and hearts? And would we cover it up with wrapping paper and fancy ribbons?

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This video is dedicated to all displaced children and in particular Assyrian children who have suffered the most by war and bloodshed in the Middle East. The familiar carol is sung here by people of Jesus’s neighborhoods and languages, Assyrian-Aramaic. These faces like Jesus knew, loved, and was.

Click: The Coventry Carol (Acapella)

The Little Town of Bethlehem, Where “Unto” Becomes “Into”

12-12-16

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.

From all appearances, nothing was happening in the quaint little town of Bethlehem. Businesses had closed, and residents shut themselves in for the night. Mary and Joseph had arrived and settled in a stable because there was no room for them in the Inn.

In the fields nearby, shepherds made themselves as comfortable as possible on the cold, hard ground as they guarded their sheep. An inky sky stretched above them like a never-ending wrap of peace and tranquility.

But, suddenly, great activity stirred the shepherds from their rest. Peace and tranquility, instantly replaced with fear and trembling. For among the silent stars above, the Christ star appeared, remarkably distinct from any other.

At the same time, a brilliant light blinded the shepherds. They dropped to their faces, acknowledging the glory of the angel of God standing before them.

The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people! Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

Then, before the shepherds could even process what the angel had said, the very heavens opened, and a great number of heavenly hosts joined the visiting angel in celebration and praise. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”

The shepherds probably looked from one to the other when the angels had gone; joyous, giddy laughter bubbling from their souls. Could this really be true? The Messiah they’d learned about as children? The Messiah promised to come to Bethlehem to be ruler over Israel?

“Come,” they said to one another. “Let’s go see this Child in Bethlehem. For the prophets have said that ‘a Child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace’” (the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6).

Can you imagine the shepherds’ joy and excitement as they tromped across the fields in expectation of witnessing the birth of the promised Messiah?

Today we sing Christmas carols and music that retell this miraculous story of Christ’s birth. One begins, “For unto us a Child is born.”

But unto us isn’t enough, for the value of a gift is nothing until the gift has been willingly received.

A verse in O Little Town of Bethlehem changes the wording just slightly, but the change makes a significant difference in application to our personal lives. The verse says, “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.”

I love that. Enter in. Be born in us today.

We, too, can witness Christ’s birth. Not in a stable far away in another country, another era. Here, today. In my heart. In my life. And in your heart and your life.

Our response? Let’s hearken and respond to the timeless call of the heavenly hosts, saying, “Come and worship. Come and worship. Worship Christ the newborn King.”

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Today’s essay is a Guest Blog by my friend Barbara E Haley, gifted in words and music. She is an educator and Reading Interventionist, and lives in San Antonio, Texas, where she enjoys writing at IHOP, playing classical piano, and spending time with her grandchildren. www.barbarahaleybooks.com

Click: O Little Town of Bethlehem

The ancient town of Bethlehem, whose story is very real and very true, is also eternal as Barb’s essay reminds us. And in that sense, picturing it in a later context is worthwhile. This drawing is by the German cartoonist Wilhelm Schulz, who, early in the last century, depicted the Story and its holy players in the setting of a rural German town. Schulz’s collaborator was the poet Ludwig Thoma; the book was “Heilige Nacht: Eine Weihnachtslegende.”

We Can Escape the Savior, But Not the Judge

12-5-16

Christianity as a Christmas tree: The consumerist culture of America – more generally, of the materialistic West — has brought us opportunities to choose.

— Choose from among material goods. Once upon a time, Henry Ford reportedly said that his millions of Model Ts were available in any color you wanted, as long as that color was black. Yet his industrial miracle was a boon to middle-class America; and now customers can choose from many manufacturers, many makes, many models, many new designs and options. And many colors.

— Choose among foods. Seasonal fruits and vegetables out of season. Varieties of ethnic foods. Fast food, and faster food. At home or in the car.

— Choose between fashion styles. “Do your thing.” Dress codes mostly out the window. Cargo shorts at church. T-shirts at weddings. Jeans at funerals. Pajama bottoms in public; underpants on display; adornment of permanent outerwear – tattoos and piercings on every inch of bodies.

— Choose amongst lifestyles, and change lifestyles at will. Choose to switch identities and genders. Declare to be a member of a different race. Let rebellion become conformity. Adopt moral codes – or none – depending on your whim, with no regard to long traditions, the effect on contemporaries, or implications for society’s future.

— Commit to any religion, or none; or all. Pick and choose. Dismiss that which makes you uncomfortable; accept those aspects that sound logical to you. Our contemporary world does not recognize that those who embrace all, believe in none.

There is the Christian religion, with its hundreds of permutations and dogmas. And then there is Christianity, a very different thing. There are things we are taught, and believe; and then, sadly, things the Bible teaches that often are different. “Sad,” that is, for us, not God. Through history, people have held to comfortable beliefs and doctrines that are at variance with scripture. Thus were denominations born. And breakaway churches. And schisms. And, sometimes, wars.

These human tendencies are not exclusive to Christianity. The varieties of Islamic sects, practices, and beliefs are many, and have covered much of the Middle East with blood for almost 1500 years. The schisms have brought grief and terror to all parts of the world… and, still, most of us cannot label the factions, their roles, and their headquarters. One needs a scorecard, not the least to comprehend the ancient justifications for their fratricide. Factions within Mohammedanism can be so contentious that some of the faithful lose their heads. And others lose their heads for them.

At one extreme we humans are contrary sorts of folks, or we have an attraction to wanting to monopolize the truth. Such is called Pride in the Bible – it was so called immediately in the Garden. Perhaps, ultimately, pride is humankind’s greatest sin. At the other end of the spectrum, no less toxic to peoples’ souls but merely quieter, are those who think there is NO truth. They exist is self-delusional bliss, but never knowing peace, forgiveness, grace, and elemental joy.

One of the mordant by-products of a secular, pluralistic, “open and welcoming” democracy is that, absent a very strong ethos or a succession of inspired leaders through the generations, these positive values corrode. They rust and lose their strength. Moral codes grow brittle and they break; and eventually are forgotten.

The fault is not in the rules of morality. Morals and ethics do not become less relevant: in a changing world they become better guides for us. But we know better, right? But there IS such a thing as Absolute Truth. Jesus declared Himself to BE the Truth. Truth is truth… and does not at all depend on our opinion of it.

The Spirit of the Age would convince us that we know better than the Bible; that history – all the civilizations that fell because of internal corruption and the abandonment of morality – is no guide. Our “progress” and inventions and science convince us that we know the truth… and God, up there? Jesus, over here? the Bible, over there? Hey, we don’t need You any more.

Blasphemies from Old Testament days, heresies from the days of the early Church, relativistic lies of our contemporary movements, are all the same, small group of lies that have seduced people through the millennia. We eat, drink, and are never quite merry… because one of those lies has just got to be true. Right?

Relativism is the new religion – “what’s right for ME is right” – and Pride is then same old god. We embrace this, spinning with its doomed promises in a dance of death, becoming insensible to the simple, pure, loving Message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In God’s order we are invited to accept Christ and live as a follower of Him. We are free, at our peril, to reject that invitation. We can avoid the Master, and ignore His loving invitation. But One whom we cannot avoid, nor ignore – nor escape – is the God of Judgment.

In the meantime, be your own God. Everybody’s doing it.

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Click: Can It Be That I Should Gain?

Thinking About Thanking

11-21-16

Thanksgiving approacheth.

Oh, good! (or, “Oh, no!”) – Turkey. Trimmings. Leftovers. Football games. Black Friday sales. Take down the Indian corn and gold-and-orange decorations quickly, and put up pine wreaths and red-and-green.

I wonder, and I hope, about the number of people who remember the “real” origin of the holiday. Not the Pilgrims and Indians in casting-call costumes… but remembering our blessings and their Source.

I am wondering about a couple other things this season. As in past years, I note how few people say “You’re Welcome” anymore. Have you noticed? Take a survey – listen to interviews on TV, or how store clerks respond. “You’re welcome” is an endangered phrase.

Notice, it has been replaced by “No problem,” or “No prob.” Or “Sure thing.” Or “You betcha.” Or “Thank YOU.”

Curious.

This is not a moral failure; just a conversational tic of the sort that enters the language. Similar to so many people larding their sentences with “y’know,” or beginning conversations with “So…”

But I have a serious thought whose way-stations are observations like this.

The first American Thanksgiving celebration was organized specifically to give thanks to God for bountiful harvests, safety, and peace with neighbors and environments.

“It is meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord…” So reads the ancient liturgy preceding the Sanctus.

We give thanks to the Lord, for it is good; we present offerings; we make joyful noise unto the Lord.

It has occurred to me that God covets our thanks, because it shows our hearts are mindful of His many blessings, and this is proper. But have you ever thought that sometimes we should say “You’re Welcome” to God?

“You’re Welcome, God”???

When we think on this, we better appreciate the unique relationship God has – and wants – with us: He does thank us. Often. Humble servants that we are. He thanks us abundantly.

When you receive answers to prayer, the sovereign Lord is also thanking you for faithfulness.

When you are blessed, it is a Thank You from God for seeking His face, and praying earnestly.

When a loved one is healed, or saved, or in some way moved, it may also be in some small way God thanking you for having faith, witnessing, sharing Christ.

Like prayer itself, Thanks is not a one-way street. God honors our faith; the Bible reassures us of this many times. And what is that except a “Thank You” from the Lord of Creation? Can that humble us?… but remind us, too, of how we are loved.

“For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Back to football! – these are the words of the “John 3:16” signs you see in the stands.

Some people like to refer to Jesus’ birth as God’s Christmas present to humankind. Yes. But we also can see Jesus – God in the flesh to dwell among us – as God’s Thank-You note. The best Thank-You note possible… while we were yet undeserving. But He thanks His children who have open hearts and pure spirits.

When you pray, pray literally: “You’re welcome, Lord: You are welcome in my heart.”

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Click: Thank You

“It’s Me Again, God…”

8-8-16

Have you ever called out to God in a moment of crisis? Or, better put, how often have you cried out to God in a moment of crisis?

Of course we have all been there, and it will not change. God, after all, did not promise to keep us from life’s troubles. He just promised to be with us through them.

Christoper Hitchens, famous as an apologist for atheism, once wrote, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer soon after writing those words, wrote books and articles against God, and debated across the continent with the fervent Christian Dinesh D’Souza. None of us can evaluate the emotional wrestling-matches he endured with himself (and his God) – he evidently was touched by a widespread “Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day” in September of 2010. But I shudder to contemplate if he was tempted to cry to God… but was deterred by pride.

If a reliance on God (please: no “higher being”; no “man upstairs” – I mean the God of the Bible) is a basic yearning of every person’s soul, then we must admit that pride is a universal stumbling-block to exercising that reliance. How common is the realization that we turn for help… when we need help? The logic of it does not mitigate the embarrassment: “God, it’s me again. Sorry it’s been awhile…”

Too often we pray fervently in times of crises, and pray casually – or not at all – when blessings are flowing. Human nature.

God knows it is human nature. That is why He provided ways to counter that aspect. Communication, constant communication, which He calls “prayer.” And the testimony of our hearts, which He can read, and knows better than we ourselves do.

God seeks communication with us – and half of that is hearing from us. He takes joy in every manner of our turning to Him. He is grieved when we do not. In Micah 6:3 we have the picture of a God who is offended and hurt when we ignore Him: “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!”

So. If God receives pleasure when we seek Him and communicate through prayer, and if we generally tend to seek Him and pray only when things go bad… wouldn’t it be in the nature of a loving God to “allow” some “bad” things to buffet us?

I do not believe that He sends sickness or disease on His children – the Lord of the universe is not a child abuser – but in order for us to see Him as “an ever-present help in times of trouble,” there must be trouble. Following that, He will answer, and help, and communicate what we need to know: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17); “Thou, LORD, hast not forsaken them that seek thee” (Psalm 9:10).

Is God at work in our lives when crises and problems beset us… when those happen to be the only times when we seek fellowship with Him? Is this good theology? I don’t know. Just sayin’…

Think about it. If God desires to hear from us, but we ignore Him except when trouble comes… Well, my advice is to not tempt God. Keep those lines of communication open. The voice of experience: then blessings can flow your way.

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Here is a heartfelt spiritual song that briefly illustrates the anguished call to God we all experience at times. It is one of the very last songs that a feeble Johnny Cash recorded, but one of the most powerful of messages about asking God’s help:

Click:  Help Me, Lord

The Nature of Human Nature

1-11-16

Solomon, who seldom got things wrong, wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun,” in Ecclesiastes. The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The subject of such aphorisms, and much of the world’s wise sayings, is not, say, the weather, or taste in fashion. It is human nature.

We humans, most of us, have shinier toys, and live in somewhat more comfortable homes, than of generations ago; and eat more food, or in more variety, than did our ancestors.

Yet we still bash each other’s heads in at every opportunity: the last century was the bloodiest in world history. We still get sick and die, and in general terms plagues and poxes merely have been replaced by heart conditions and cancers. And stress, and psychological disorders, and addictions – the demons of the 21st century.

We complain about the same things that the ancients did. I am reminded that Mark Twain said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” It is probably true that the early Egyptians and Chinese and Athenians and Romans and Persians and Mayans complained about their bosses, spouses, landlords, scheduled events, children, shoddy footwear, and mothers-in-law.

And when human nature got more serious about things… well, there always has been cheating and jealousy and theft and lying and murder. Pride and arrogance. And, more constant than any of these things, brokenness, hurt, the need for forgiveness. The need for a Savior.

God provided that Savior, and He inspired love and forgiveness, sacrifice and charity; all in precious scant supply now as forever, thanks, once again, to the fact of human nature.

Recently it occurred to me that we have scarcely progressed from the essential afflictions of our distant ancestors in another important manner. I love these revelations, because I maintain that the human race requires periodic lessons in humility. In important things, and in the many trivial things that are the mortar of the important things. These wake-up calls can even be amusing, but are wake-up calls nonetheless.

Many of us consider the “cult of celebrity” a normative cancer. You know: movie stars, singers, and sport stars vs heroes. Skewed standards. Truly this is a contemporary phenomenon, because protean antecedents of our times’ celebrities – painters, composers, poets, artists – often dedicated their work to God and were fulfilled by serving Him. “Less of me; more of Him.” In researching my biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, I continually was struck by how utterly humble he was about his work, his accomplishments, his “celebrity,” in contradistinction to his God.

When we think we in America have been liberated from the trappings of royalty, repressive social and economic systems, and checks against free thought, is when we swindle ourselves most extravagantly, however. A very common denominator illustrates this the best.

We frequently hear complaints from, say, sports fans about ticket prices and athletes’ salaries. In the proverbial next breath the same fans often admire those salaries (“hey, if the owners didn’t have the money, they couldn’t pay it, right?”). Of course, owners – just like shop or factory bosses faced with higher labor costs – pass it along to the consumers. In sports, fans themselves pay those obscene players’ salaries by accepting higher prices for cars and candy bars and shaving creams that sponsor the games. Ticket prices for cold, hard seats. And stratospheric fees, parking costs, merchandise, and absurd prices for hot dogs, popcorn, and drinks.

The same with concert tickets, apparel festooned with logos, and advertised items hawked by celebrities paid millions to sell them to us gullible consumers. Little different than “tributes” paid to robber barons in the Middle Ages. Except that we willingly put these exalted peoples’ feet on our heads. We have thrown off royalty – oh, yeah? look at the faces on supermarket tabloids. We do them honor; we practically worship them. Plus ça change…

Compounding our foolishness, we are supremely inconsistent. Half of the people in America grouse about oil company profits – usually citing income, not profits – and ignoring research, development, costs of operation and such. In contrast, I have heard nobody offer anything other than admiring whistles over George Lucas’s $4-billion sale of the Star Wars franchise. Who do we think is funding that crazy purchase?

Neither any resentment, ever, of the rapid and mammoth wealth accumulated by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. “Oh, but they made things that people need.” Yes. Like… oil products and gasoline?

Why do people hate – yes, hate – the CEOs whom Michael Moore tells us to hate – “oh! those big houses!” – but have no problems with actors being paid $20-million and more per film? Most of the money paid at the gas pump goes to government taxes, not the gasoline or research or development or executives’ salaries. And a portion of every movie ticket is obeisance to the glamorous stars. In effect, a celebrity tax. Few complaints.

These are only a few reality-checks about our value systems. And, as I said, some reminders that human nature has not changed that much.

Returning to the spiritual aspect of our lives, more important than any of this. We think we have graduated from a society where highwaymen once lurked behind trees, whereas a multitude of internet pirates lurk behind our computer screens today. Wall-street cheats. Our jails more crowded than ever. Nothing new under the sun.

No, in God’s world we need to remember the old days, good or bad, by better or worse standards.

But there were times in human history when the vast majority of artists and writers and scientists acknowledged God as behind everything, the Maker and Redeemer. And they sought to honor Him in all they did. Common people toiled and sometimes suffered, but always consoled themselves in the ministrations of the Holy Spirit. Communities were built around churches, and the Word was central to everyone’s lives. Prayers were lifted daily – often continually throughout the day – and church attendance was weekly, or sometimes daily. Jesus was at the center of peoples’ lives, in all classes, in villages, towns, and cities.

But we know better in the 21st century. We are smarter – smart enough to dismiss God from our lives. We are happier – at least we pay more for things that promise to make us happy. We live more comfortable lives – if we would slow down for a moment to enjoy them once in a while. Our religion, as a society, is something we are so comfortable with that we don’t feel the need to “force” it on others… even our children.

Maybe the French got it wrong. The more things change, it might be that the worse they become. Is there anything new under the sun? Well… we still need a Savior.

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Some people think that the greatest creation of Franz Josef Haydn was not one of his 104 symphonies; or a string quartet, the genre he molded; or the mighty oratorio The Creation. Here is his Mass For Troubled Times, an astonishing, stirring, church piece, one of 14 masses he wrote. We live in troubled times, no less than his 1800 Vienna. Let it minister to you – traditional Latin words, in Kyrie; Gloria; Qui Tollis; Credo; Quoniam; Sanctus; Et Incantus Est; Et Resurrexit; Sanctus; Benedictus; Agnus Dei; Dona Nobis Pacem. Conducted by Grete Pedersen in a magnificent Oslo church.

Click: Mass for Troubled Times

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/

Happy Tears

6-1-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Letting Go

Happy Birthday to Infinity

5-4-15

Hubble deep space (see more Hubble images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Adagio by Tomaso Albinoni

Not Christmas Again

12-8-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Mary, Did You Know?

Feel Like Going Home

11-17-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is called progress.

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

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

This is clearly regression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Feel Like Going Home

How Great Art Thou?

11-10-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: How Great Thou Art

It’s Never Easy Letting Go

8-25-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Letting Go

Return to Ork

8-18-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Alone Yet Not Alone

Oil and Water

8-11-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, not partner.

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Satan’s Jewel Crown

A Selfie with Jesus

5-12-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say “cheese!” Someone IS taking a picture.

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

Click: A Picture from Life’s Other Side

‘Tis the Season To Be…

3-24-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a monumental work of art.

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”

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

Broken Things

2-10-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Broken Things

Happiness vs. Joy

1-27-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Happiness has become the secularists’ Holy Word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Ode to Joy

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

Out With the Old, In With the Old

12-30-13

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

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

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

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

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

Happy new year!

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

Click: The Love of God

You Can’t Lose a Friend You Never Had

12-16-13

The title of this essay is a double negative of sorts, but a decent aphorism. Its truth would be measured in doses of wisdom and experience and maybe a few bruises and scars: life. It is from the gaggle of family advice we tell children: “This hurts me more than it does you,” and “Some day this will all make sense.”

Like many life-lessons – and all aphorisms – we can harvest wisdom from turning the sayings around, maybe even discovering greater truths. At least fresher truths, which become attractive portals. I have often thought about the locutions of such life principles. Not catchy phrases, but succinct truths.

For instance, anent friendship, how often do we realize – how often do we, in fact, cherish – that we cannot know true friendship until we become a friend. Maybe, more so, until we NEED a friend.

Similarly, we cannot fully know forgiveness until we receive forgiveness… but the biblical principle is that we must forgive in order to be forgiven. To be conscious of the need to be forgiven, and to savor the feeling of truly being forgiven.

Again, the next step, for our meditation, is that we cannot know the joy of salvation without having sinned. A common saying in churches these days is, “To get a blessing, be a blessing.” These sayings are true, but we have to be careful to see them as principles, not “Christian karma.” There is nothing wrong with being mechanistic if it is spiritual – remember, after all, the Latin phrase “Deus ex machina,” which, classroom drama lessons aside, means “the way God works.”

The irony in that truth about salvation should make us stop and think, and respect, this life we lead under God’s grace. Is it good that we sin? Of course not. Is it God’s will? God forbid. But He has provided pathways for us, and answers to life’s problems. “Where sin abounds, there grace abounds more” (Romans 5:20).

Let us remind ourselves of partially obscured principles of the kingdom that we see through a glass darkly. We are more special than the angels, and among the reasons is the fact that angels can never know the joy of salvation. They are never able to sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” The bonds of sin seem different to us, less oppressive, when we consider this.

We can gnash our teeth when we feel like victims of life’s circumstances. But how sweet when we hold to that thread of hope, maintaining by God’s grace a glimmer of faith, and deliverance comes. To venture back to concise aphorisms, we cannot know answers unless we cry out with questions. There is no progress until you actually take that pesky first step.

I wrote above that we might never know real friendship until we need a friend. Self-evident? Not always. And we need to recognize that God sometimes works through circumstances (my source: um, the entire Bible, and the lives of uncountable believers through history). He also works through unlikely channels – that is called Grace. And He works through sometimes unlikely persons – they are called Friends.

“God works in mysterious ways”? His ways are not all that mysterious. We just don’t see them clearly enough, or often enough.

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The trio Selah provides a musical illustration to these thoughts, melding two time-honored hymns of the church… as only they can.

Click: Be Still My Soul/ Jesus Loves Me

Let’s Try a ‘You’re Welcome’ Day

11-25-13

There has been increasing controversy in America about stores that stay open, or lengthen their hours of operation, on Thanksgiving Day. For my part, I am opposed to ever more obeisance to commercialism; and it is not an matter of families, employees in particular, being together around the turkey and such, important enough to be sure. But by focusing on families, who should cherish their times together all the time, and turkeys, then we are on the slippery slope of Hallmarking America (I’d be afraid that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day would be next to be enshrined) (that is, instead of giving thanks to the Lord.)

It is altogether fitting and proper that we recall the words of Abraham Lincoln, who responded to a tradition, informal, of Days of Thanks, and officially proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day as a national day of observance. His words had meaning – and, significantly, give lie to the canard that he was not a man of faith. Year by year, through his presidency, Lincoln infused conversations, letters, and official documents with references to the God of the Bible, His mercies and His judgments.

Read from his second proclamation (His secretary, John Hay, reported that William Seward was author of the first):

“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may then be, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe. And I do further recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”

If this is formal, or seems obligatory for him to have proclaimed – which it was not – consider his Proclamation earlier in 1863, appointing a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer:

“It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord. …

“But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.  Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”

Yes, a president of the United States wrote such words. More has changed than clichés and phrases we exchange in chats. In fact, does our understanding of the need to thank God need a reassessment too? Maybe a hit of the Reset button?

Let’s see it this way: Of course we should thank God, in many ways and all the time, for the uncountable blessings He bestows. But are THANKS all that we can raise? In a real sense, God’s gift of salvation, sacrificing His Son so that we might be free of sin’s guilt, is God’s Thank You to us.

“God’s Thank You to us?” Can that make sense? Yes, the Bible tells us that God so loved the world… and that, significantly, Christ died for us WHILE WE WERE YET SINNERS (Romans 5:8). To me, that sounds like God saying “You’re Welcome” before we even say “Thank You”… but it is what He has done.  

The mysterious ways of God are always like this. He challenges us, yet He knows us. We have free will, yet He holds the future. We seek Him, yet we can know Him. His yoke is easy, and His burden light. We are in the world, but not of the world. St Augustine was not the first nor the last, but maybe history’s most contemplative believer, to gather these apparent contradictions and see them as evidence, not of a capricious and confusing God, but a God who loves us in myriad ways and always meets us where we are, and where we need Him.

All important, as I say, but they are not the meanings of Abraham Lincoln’s words… or our hearts’ duties. We should remember Lincoln: people should set themselves apart; pray; give thanks, give thanks, give thanks. Let the stores close for a day… for the proper reasons.

Three things should be open in America on Thanksgiving Day: open hearts. open Bibles, and open soup kitchens. No one could complain of having nothing to do, or no communications, or no one to be with.

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Yet another aspect, but all part of the mystical whole, is expressed in the classic Ray Boltz song, “Thank you.” Spend a moment with it sometime this week, and see its impactful images.

Click: Thank You

As Oft As You Do This…

9-9-13

“This do in remembrance of me.” A few thoughts that do not pretend to be Theology 101, but have long been impressed on my heart. Communion… the Last Supper… the Eucharist… the Lord’s Table. Some few Christians make special daily observance; many churches celebrate each Sunday. The church of my youth offered it on the first Sunday of each month, common cup at one service, individual cups at the other. The church where I worship locally celebrates it twice a year, accompanied by foot-washing. Some churches have returned to the ancient practice whereby every celebrant passes the bread and wine, with spontaneous blessings spoken.

These are all celebrations, and indeed we should celebrate what Jesus did for us: breaking His body, shedding His blood. He did not merely prophesy: He announced at the Passover meal what would happen not many hours hence. “Ritual” has sometimes become a disparaging word, yet rites are instituted to honor things – events, ideas, truths – worth honoring. With reverence.

Here is what has roused my spiritual heart: the Church in all places and at all times has made a set-apart ceremony of the Lord’s Supper. It is observed in divers ways mentioned above, and others. There is something special about “breaking bread”: in every culture, every generation, the dinner table – no, the kitchen table – has represented the ultimate in hospitality and fellowship. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” The One who could not lie never spoke a clearer truth.

So, should we not regard EVERY meal, every time we “break bread,” whether it is literal bread or any food, and share a cup, whether wine or juice, or whatever in a meal… should we not be reminded every such time of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus? Why just at a designated Communion Service?

Of course I do not think less of 2000 years of church traditions. Neither do I mean to visit disputes over Communion’s symbolism or literal essence – consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation – we are, I think, past the time when bloody wars were fought over the debate. I am trying to commune, here, with the Heart of Jesus, and what the Holy Spirit would have us do.

As reverent as a weekly or monthly observance can be, would not a… remembrance, every time we eat (“breaking bread”) and drink at a meal, be holier? To bring ourselves to think more often, virtually constantly, three meals a day or more times, of Jesus’s amazing sacrifice for us?

Would it lose its meaning? That depends solely on us. Is it, practically, too burdensome, especially in these busy times? No, many of us offer brief prayers before meals, and thanksgiving has been a traditional part of meals among many. Thanksgiving, usually for material blessings, can be joined by thanksgiving for spiritual blessings. To be reminded, and think upon, ever fresh, the sacrifice of broken body and spilled blood represented by the meal before us… is holy.

It is not the calendar, or a tradition, but the hunger in our hearts, fed by spiritual food, that institutes the sacramental aspect of the Lord’s Supper. True communion in all ways.

Read, maybe in a new way, from I Corinthians 10 and 11:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. … Therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. … What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? … I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.

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A contemporary song, “Breaking Bread,” visits these questions. This version, with meaningful images, is a studio session of Johnny Cash from end of his career. Harmonies are by internet fans of the Man in Black. The lyrics recall the Bible portions cited above, as well as “bread cast upon the waters,” the feeding of the 5000 miracle, and other associations with breaking bread.

Click: Breaking Bread

We Have Met the Enemy

9-2-13

An excuse to combine a spiritual message, or so I hope, and to pay tribute to a hero this week. It is 100 years since Walt Kelly was born. Presumably, as a baby, and his Philadelphia home having no particular bearing on the situation, he came into the world crying, but maybe for the last time. Soon and ever thereafter, the world responded to Walt by laughing. And thinking. Loving. Sometimes misty-eyed. Often angry – sometimes at him, but usually with him.

Walt was the cartoonist who created the “Pogo” comic strip. It was almost the perfect comic strip – gags, continuity, literary allusions, puns, slapstick, parody and satire, irony, poetry. And Walt might have been the perfect cartoonist. Trained as a Disney animator, he then drew comic books, and political cartoons, and a newspaper strip, and book illustrations, and children’s books, and magazine covers. There were dozens of volumes that collected his work.

I met Kelly as a child (me, not him). It is not a knock to say that I regret never to have seen him sober. He managed quite well, I suppose, but I always wondered whether I communicated the fervor of my admiration. I collected “Pogo” strips as a child; my father knew the automatic presents and rewards I coveted as a boy were “Pogo” and “Peanuts” books – footballs and erector sets meant nothing to me. I am grateful to have autographed sketches and original strips from Kelly. Just after he died in 1973, I became comics editor of the syndicate that handled his strip, which limped on by other hands for a while.

One great afternoon in Los Angeles, Walt’s daughter Carolyn drove me around to spots associated with Walt during his Disney days, including the church where he first married. Walt had, I believe, three wives (serially) and five children, one of whom became prominent in the pro-life movement. Kelly himself never evinced hostility to religion, as far as I know, but his philosophy, while humanitarian, was not sectarian.

Yet he did fight the “good fight,” in fact many good fights. A committed liberal, his most resonant commentary was, however, on broader themes – like his advocacy of the environmental movement. For the first Earth Day, in 1971, he drew the iconic poster that showed a downtrodden Pogo in a littered Okefenokee Swamp with the caption, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I once owned the original artwork of this.

I am not going to claim that Walt Kelly had a subliminal biblical message in this; he didn’t. Yet, very often in life, perceptive and creative people mirror the messages of scripture. After all, God’s truths OUGHT to be plain as day!

We ARE our own worst enemies – Satan leads us astray, and tempts us, but he does not drag us; we choose to sin. This message is all through the Bible… especially in Christ’s admonition to Nicodemus, that we must all be born again (John 3:3). Shakespeare had Cassius speak another version of the truth: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Julius Caesar: I, ii, 140-141).

Walt Kelly did more than argue against littering. As “Pogo” was, all things considered, a commentary on human nature – in the best tradition of that first anthropomorphist, Aesop – Kelly’s famous catchword is a clever way to remind us about personal responsibility, whether to the environment or for our own souls.

In text, Walt Kelly expanded his thesis: “Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle. There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.”

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One of the few songs Roger Miller recorded that he did not write himself is this week’s music vid. He must have liked it a lot; I do; I think Walt Kelly would have. I hope you like Scott Avett’s version.

Click: Where Have All the Average People Gone?

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pogos pict

Angels Just Like You

8-11-13

A friend, the noted theatrical impresario Charles Putnam Basbas, recently forwarded one of those oft-forwarded internet stories to me. The story of a miracle baby born prematurely, it was not outrageously implausible (not to me anyway; my children were born 10 weeks, five weeks, and eight weeks early around 30 years ago when those factors were dicey; and they had, and have, healthy, robust lives). Yet this story, as full of meaning as of surprises, checked out as true when I pursued “truth or fiction” sites.

Maybe you, too, have read it:

The Smell of Rain

A cold March wind danced around the dead of night in Dallas as the doctor walked into the small hospital room of Diana Blessing. She was still groggy from surgery. Her husband, David, held her hand as they braced themselves for the latest news. That afternoon of March 10, 1991, complications had forced Diana, only 24 weeks pregnant, to undergo an emergency Cesarean to deliver couple’s new daughter, Danae Lu Blessing.

At 12 inches long and weighing only one pound nine ounces, they already knew she was perilously premature. Still, the doctor’s soft words dropped like bombs.

“I don’t think she’s going to make it,” he said, as kindly as he could. “There’s only a 10 per cent chance she will live through the night, and even then, if by some slim chance she does make it, her future could be a very cruel one.”

Numb with disbelief, David and Diana listened as the doctor described the devastating problems Danae would likely face if she survived. She would never walk, she would never talk, she would probably be blind, and she would certainly be prone to other catastrophic conditions from cerebral palsy to complete mental retardation, and on and on.

“No! No!” was all Diana could say. She and David, with their 5-year-old son Dustin, had long dreamed of the day they would have a daughter to become a family of four. Now, within a matter of hours, that dream was slipping away.

But as those first days passed, a new agony set in for David and Diana. Because Danae’s underdeveloped nervous system was essentially “raw,” the lightest kiss or caress only intensified her discomfort, so they couldn’t even cradle their tiny baby girl against their chests to offer the strength of their love. All they could do, as Danae struggled alone beneath the ultraviolet light in the tangle of tubes and wires, was to pray that God would stay close to their precious little girl.

There was never a moment when Danae suddenly grew stronger. But as the weeks went by, she did slowly gain an ounce of weight here and an ounce of strength there. At last, when Danae turned two months old. her parents were able to hold her in their arms for the very first time. And two months later, though doctors continued to gently but grimly warn that her chances of surviving, much less living any kind of normal life, were next to zero, Danae went home from the hospital, just as her mother had predicted.

[Five years later] Danae was a petite but feisty young girl with glittering gray eyes and an unquenchable zest for life. She showed no signs whatsoever of any mental or physical impairment. Simply, she was everything a little girl can be and more. But that happy ending is far from the end of her story.

One blistering afternoon in the summer of 1996 near her home in Irving, Texas, Danae was sitting in her mother’s lap in the bleachers of a local ball park where her brother Dustin’s baseball team was practicing.
As always, Danae was chattering nonstop with her mother and several other adults sitting nearby, when she suddenly fell silent . Hugging her arms across her chest, little Danae asked, “Do you smell that?”

Smelling the air and detecting the approach of a thunderstorm, Diana replied, “Yes, it smells like rain.”

Danae closed her eyes and again asked, “Do you smell that?”

Once again, her mother replied, “Yes, I think we’re about to get wet. It smells like rain.”

Still caught in the moment, Danae shook her head, patted her thin shoulders with her small hands and loudly announced, “No, it smells like Him. It smells like God when you lay your head on his chest.”

Tears blurred Diana’s eyes as Danae happily hopped down to play with the other children. Before the rains came, her daughter’s words confirmed what Diana and all the members of the extended Blessing family had known, at least in their hearts, all along.

During those long days and nights of her first two months of her life, when her nerves were too sensitive for them to touch her, God was holding Danae on His chest and it is His loving scent that she remembers so well.

Back to MMMM. As I noted, in recent years, Danae’s story has circulated on the internet. It first was published in Richard L. Scott’s book, Miracles In Our Midst: Stories of Life, Love, Kindness, and Other Miracles (Wessex House). Scott, the former CEO of Columbia Health Systems and currently the Republican governor of Florida, sought out tales of triumph over medical odds. Danae’s story (then titled “Heaven Scent”) is his favorite. That little girl Danae, without knowing it, has inspired many people. An angel, in her own way.

To me, the spiritual “icing on the cake” to this story Charlie forwarded was someone’s legend at the bottom:

ANGELS EXIST, but sometimes, since they don’t all have wings, we call them FRIENDS.

And this summation reminded me of a song with a spiritual message, sung by a secular singer, the great Delbert McClinton (who is great even when Vince Gill and Lee Roy Parnell are not backing him up…) —

Click: Sending Me Angels (Just Like You)

Our Telescopes, God’s Microscope

8-5-13

A guest message by one of my great friends and a most insightful and sensitive writer, Leah C. Morgan:

I’ve never been acquainted with stress. People throw the claim around, and plenty act like they indeed really are stressed over everything, but it’s always been a stranger to me. Now because of some recent challenges I am fighting to push the weight off my chest, to keep the sickness in my gut at bay.
 
Here’s how. My husband Bonnard has been teaching on Creation and Evolution at church. We have talked about laws of probability and physics, many wonderful things. But the facts presented last week did something supernatural for me: facts inspired my faith.
 
If the distance from the earth to the sun were represented by the thickness of a single sheet of paper, do you know how close we are to the next nearest star? Using the same scale, we would need a 71-foot stack of paper to span the distance. We would need 310 miles of stacked paper of that normal thickness to reach outside our galaxy. And 31-million miles of stacked paper to reach the end of the galaxy known to us.
 
If the sun were hollow, it could hold 1,300,000 earths. But the star Antares could hold 64-million suns! And the star Hercules could hold 100-million Antares; and the star Epsilon could hold 125- million Hercules.
 
“What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?”
 
The earth that we live on, and love, is smaller than a speck in the universe; and I am microscopically smaller than that. And yet God tunes his ear to my pleas, He listens to my cries for help and my words of adoration, and is moved for me.

I know He is near. He’s so far away in the vast, wide sum of his creation, but yet He is close by. I’m so absolutely convinced of His love for me. He is for me. For some reason, like a love that’s bigger than Epsilon, He’s interested and compassionate and busy for me.
 
The weight on my chest is gone, the crowded thoughts in my mind are swept clear, when I think that although I might need a telescope to see God, He’s got a microscope on me. 

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The group of “Christian Tenors” known as Sing! Tenore is comprised of Shane Wiebe, Jason Catron, and Mark David Williams. On this vid, illustrating Leah’s spiritual cosmology, they perform, with the Prague Orchestra, “This Is My Father’s World.”

Click: This Is My Father’s World

You Can Move That Mountain… Even with Sandpaper

6-24-13

There is a town about an hour northwest of Florence, Carrara, that, after many visits to Italy, I finally had to see. More precisely: after visiting the statues of Michelangelo so often – the Pieta; David; Moses – I needed to see this town. Carrara, on Tuscany’s Mediterranean coast, holds the marble quarries that yielded the chunks that became his awesome masterpieces. And Carrara remains the source of the world’s great marble.

There is something extra special about Carrarian marble – its tone and texture. And there was something special about sculptors from Renaissance Italy – their anointed skills. I am only one of adoring millions of cultural tourists who wonder at the humanity exuding from rock. At the spiritual statements that can emanate from chiseled stone. Especially, from the viewpoint of a creator, HOW the sculptures could be so smooth and seemingly supple and glowing and close to perfection.

These days Carrarian marble is harvested by workers with mighty machines, bulldozers, and sophisticated drills and band-saws. But in Michelangelo’s day it was harvested by a fascinating process. Somewhere on the face of a mountain, at top or on a craggy slope, a monolithic section was identified, destined for statues or building columns or the facings of public monuments. (The pock-marks in the ruins of the Coliseum, by the way, are not the result of some battles, but when its beautiful marble facing was deemed to be of better, decorative use elsewhere in Rome, sections were pulled off for recycling. Easier than cutting massive new blocks from Carrara.)

Workers of Michelangelo’s day in the marble quarries looked for a crack, no matter how small. A small wooden wedge was hammered into that crack. You wonder: did that make the massive chunk fall off conveniently? No; it merely wedged into its narrow space. But workers would pour water over the soft wooden wedge, as much as it would soak up. The next day, the expansion of the wood – strange as it may seem – expanded that crack ever so slightly. Then the workers inserted a slightly larger wedge, and soaked that too.

… and so on, until the coveted chunk of marble was ready to break loose from the mountainside. Of course, harnessing the rock, navigating its fall, and transporting it to Florence, Rome, and beyond, were different challenges in themselves.

But then, to the master’s hand. Masters like Michelangelo Buonarotti were able to transform those cold slabs of rock. Did they extract humanity from stone, or imbue humanity? Such points of view are for another discussion. But I can tell you, if you have not done so, standing in front of his Pieta transports one to a spiritual realm. Much larger than life; multiple wrinkles of fabric appear genuinely silky; we see anatomical precision; and the faces – more, the “body language” of Mary holding her Son taken from the cross, and the dead Jesus, relieved of torture and strife – are miracles in themselves.

You can stand for hours, looking, identifying, grieving, loving. Being loved. The Gospel story bursts forth from the onetime ugly hunk of rock… but bursts gently. This is a momentary portrait of a dead Man, yet is also a portrait of Life.

And it is a life lesson that the marble quarries at Carrara, and the exquisite statue of the master Michelangelo, has for us. As I noticed the smooth skin of Mary’s face, the soft folds of her robe, and the shiny, smooth skin of Jesus – I beheld a life-lesson.

There are rough mountains in life. We can be “mountains” ourselves: parts of things, often big, bad things, and we wait to be liberated. Myriad happenstances in life will chip away at us; maybe we will fall; sometimes we feel like we are shattered. But then we are taken under care of the Master’s Hand. Even then, we must be prepared for more hammers and chisels, knocking away the unnecessary parts of our life. When we look at unfinished pieces by Michelangelo and Rodin, we can still see the rough marks of chisels, scars-before-the-fact. The process is sometimes long, and never without “hard knocks.”

But those wooden wedges, day by day, slowly expanding until they literally split mountains apart, can remind us God’s persistence, as well as His gentle methods to transform us unto better, more beautiful things. In MY case, I know that is as daunting as moving a mountain. But God can do it.

And there is the other end of the process. The features that give the Pieta and other sculptures their miraculous, other-worldly look – the smooth, shining, flowing surfaces, the appearance of glowing from within – are thanks to the tiniest of all the tools in the whole process! After mighty work in the quarries, transporting, chopping away, making stony chunks fall to the studio floor and fill the air with clouds of rocky particles, the final work of FINISHING is done with the smallest files, and the finest-grain sandpaper.

Marble is receptive to the microscopic burnishing that finishes the sculpture and provides the smooth texture. So it is with the real Master’s hand. It is easy enough for us to accept – intellectually – that major events can affect us, and that God can be in the re-ordering of our steps.

But we should realize, too, that the Holy Spirit often works to finish the work begun with our salvation – to live purified, spiritual, sanctified lives – with a type of holy sandpaper. Reminders, improvements, encouragement, deeper knowledge, fuller trust, richer faith, and peace that passes understanding: these are the grains of sand that bring us to look as God wants to see us.

So the smallest things (even the daily annoyances, until we “make all things work for good”) we should accept as little applications of the Creator’s hand, perfecting and finishing our faith. Oh, how marble-ous!

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Please watch today’s music-video, a spirited rehearsal by a youth choir of “Lead Me To the Rock” – with its references to this message. But it also represents a fascinating travelogue that most Americans, and American Christians, would find remote and surprising. No, not Renaissance Italy – but northeast India. On the border of Myanmar (Burma) is the state of Nagaland, whose main city is Bangalore. Its 2-million inhabitants are predominantly of Indo-Mongol racial stock, and predominantly Christian. In fact the state is between 95 and 99 per cent Christian. There is a higher percentage of Baptists in Nagaland than in any American state; and there are Pentecostals, Revivalists, and Catholics. Very few Hindus, and fewer Muslims. Jesus dwells in those beautiful hills – how many Americans know of this place? English is the official language of Nagaland. Here, visit with the Naga Christian Fellowship Bangalore. And they clap on the back beats! (“Friends should not let friends clap on the first beat.”)

Click: Lead Me To the Rock

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marble for statue

Jesus and Mary

The Continental Divide

4-29-13

The pilot’s voice came over the speaker system. “For those passengers on either side of the aircraft, if you look out your windows, you will see a line that is rather evident, a line along the top of the Rocky Mountain range.” We all craned our necks. I, for one, was grateful that airlines were still providing information from the cockpit free of charge. I heard a child ask: “Is there a dotted line on the mountains?”

The sight was in fact a virtual line – the Continental Divide. You can discern it from 25,000 feet above; but that “divide” affects every inch of land in North and South America.

The Continental Divide is the separation-line between the vast watersheds that drain into the Pacific Ocean, from those river systems that drain into the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and the Arctic Ocean. The Continental Divide starts in the Bering Strait at its northernmost part, and extends to the Strait of Magellan, at the southernmost tip of South America. There are smaller hydrological divides in the Americas, but the Continental Divide is the most prominent because it extends virtually in a straight line; it is the mightiest and longest of all the watershed sources; and the line of high peaks along the main ranges of the Rocky Mountains and Andes is dramatic.

The phenomenon of hydrological divides refers to more than rivers, which might logically (but not forever) flow away from mountain peaks, even hundreds of miles away. Rivulets, freshets, streams, rivers, aquifers, underground rivers and underground seas are similarly affected. It is remarkable, really, to realize that such things are not random, but mapped and working according to the Creator’s geological determinism.

Continental Divide

There are lessons for us – lessons beyond beating the pilot to the punch on your next flight, and impressing the kids in nearby seats. It is generally true (that is, a scientifically valid generalization) that raindrops or melting snowflakes that land on the west side of the Continental Divide will wind up in the Pacific Ocean. And the same precipitant-units that fall on the east side of the Continental Divide will one day feed the oceans of the continents’ east coasts.

It is also not a scientific stretch to say that many raindrops or snowflakes falling just inches apart, atop the Rockies or Andes, will become components of utterly separate forces of nature – facts of life. The lives and conditions of huge continents (for the same factors attend the world’s other land masses) can be determined by events, even gentle drizzles, a few inches this way, or that.

The lesson for us is the similarity to our own lives and conditions.

We all should think more often about the seemingly natural or random events in our lives that, actually, have altered the course of our existence. Sometimes for the better; sometimes for the worse; sometimes in ways we cannot know… yet incidental factors start us on paths that never would have otherwise happened. Without some raindrop, so to speak, falling to the left or right of our personal Continental Divides.

This should inspire more than “what if” games we can play. It should heighten our awareness of people we meet, things we read, ideas we encounter. We should look for wisdom in our “chance” meetings. We can be eager, and not anxious, about changes that present themselves in our lives – what exciting journeys might be ahead!

And this is particularly true when we consider that God might be IN those raindrops and snowflakes that sustain us, and ultimately carry us. God in the rains? – NOT a stretch, there! All this applies as well to the components of “into each life a little rain must fall.” That is, we must track them all, where they go, where they take us.

Remembering these things, we should look to those showers of blessing: be open to Bible verses you might call to mind, or friends who share a prayer, or hymns you hear on a radio station across the room, or a sermon you might surf by on TV, or the message on a billboard.

… or, less obvious (as subtle as tiny raindrops or melting snowflakes, in themselves), random offerings of kindness you witness, done in Jesus’ name; or you hear of someone’s incredible act of forgiveness; or a homeless person given shelter; or an abused child given comfort; or someone’s prayer for a stranger in a discouraging medical situation; or a hopeless-feeling, battered, wounded, hurting soul nevertheless giving thanks.

These would all be God’s raindrops in YOUR life, as you witness them: not just for the people involved. Mercy-drops ‘round us are falling. They will not evaporate! They will become part of your own spiritual watershed. It is useful to know, no less than the Continental Divide atop the mighty Rockies themselves, that they can carry you this way, that way, in ways you could never imagine, if you indeed let them irrigate your soul.

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Yes, we make life-decisions. But in a deeper, truer sense, God charts the courses of our streams of life. Andre Crouch once wrote “If it had not been for the Lord on my side, Where would I be?” Helen Baylor sings a moving version in church:

Click: Where Would I Be?

The Mysterious Memory of God

2-15-13

Can God make a rock so big that even He cannot lift it? That age-old wise-guy challenge from skeptics is supposed to stop believers in our spiritual tracks. But it is a syllogism, more correctly a syllogistic fallacy. It does not confront the Creator of the Universe in an existential contradiction, but rather exposes puny human minds, especially the smug skeptics (and more than a few of us believers, too) unable fully to comprehend the vast, all-encompassing, limitless powers of God.

It is, besides, a fallacy built on the inherent strictures of language and linguistics. And a philosophical “gotcha” whose purpose is not seeking truth but annoying the faithful. Christians, if they engage in certain debates, should rely more on the “God is God” response: if we could explain EVERYTHING (especially to hostile people), well, God would not be God, because we would be obviating the necessity of His being. No, I am grateful for mysteries.

Skeptics are not at all concerned with God, anyway; nor rocks; nor our souls, except to introduce viral doubts. The character Matthew Harrison Brady in the play “Inherit the Wind” delivered a great line that is constructive: “For my part, I am more concerned with the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.” Or their size or weight.

Oh, rocks count. So do mountains. I heard someone say this week that if mountains were nice and smooth, they would be impossible to climb over. It’s hard enough! – but those crags and rough peaks and jagged crevices, when all is said and done, make it easier to climb over than a vertical, smooth monolith. Yes, we are talking metaphors here.

God’s metaphors and similes, Jesus’ parables and analogies, fill the Bible, for the benefit of our emotional comfort as well as our spiritual understanding. Many of them are related to rocks and mountains. And many of them address the old conundrum I quoted above – the powers of God, and our thoughts about His imputed limitations.

I was frustrated recently by the inability to sublimate certain troubling thoughts in my consciousness. Did you ever have trouble falling asleep because you can’t get something off your mind? I realized: I can do funny things with my eyebrows and tongue, even make my nostrils flare, and make children laugh. I can cross my eyes and, somehow, make the pinkie of my foot shift atop the toe next to it, without using my hands. These all involve muscles. The brain is a muscle. Why can’t I make IT stop doing something when I want?

We remember things, even when we don’t want to; and sometimes we are annoyed that we forget things, also when we don’t want to. In these things we are reflections of God – imperfect reflections, that is. Which confirms our humble status before the awesome magnificence of God. You see, I am remembering the metaphors.

We must climb mountains. But God talks to us of His faithful people moving mountains. We surely are impeded by “rocks” in our path. But we all know of one stone that was miraculously rolled away in the Bible. We talk about “fiery trials.” But we are assured that God has been there for His children to endure the fiery furnace, and be delivered. He created mountains, rocks, and fire. I am quite happy to know that God saves us from such physical and metaphorical challenges; I don’t have to know HOW, except by the lights of my limited understanding, my faith, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Speaking of our limited understanding, here is syllogism that skeptics seldom point to… because it reveals a loving God, not a confused self-contradiction. Can an all-knowing God be aware of your sins, and yet forget them?

How can that be? It can’t… unless you are God. As rocks thrown into the sea of forgetfulness, He promises to forgive – and forget – our sins when we repent. A God who knows all, can “forget” something? Yes. Is there much better news laying around?

It is useful for us to remember: Sometimes when we pray, and pray, and pray again, about some matter of guilt or sin, we can be reminding God about something He forget and promised not to hold to your account.

Finally, countless sermons and prayers and hymns have dealt with the other spectrum of a worry we have about God in our imperfect minds: not that He will forget sins, but the chance He might forget US! “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”; the Bible account of Blind Man Bartimaeus, worried that the Lord will not notice him; the doctrine of public confession, so when the roll is called up yonder… and so on.

As believers we know that God cannot forget us. It is a mystery that He can cancel His memory for the sake of His children’s salvation; and it is joy unspeakable that His memory reaches down to the humblest among us. And remembers. Not only on Judgment Day, but every day, every moment in fact, he remembers our needs, and cares for us.

Remember the rock in that skeptic’s riddle? How thankful we should be that there is NO rock that represents our burdens that He cannot lift and roll it away.

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A great song about God’s forgetting, and remembering, is “He Will Remember Me.” A standard gospel song of Black and White churches alike, it was associated with Albertina Walker, the Sensational Nightingales, and the Staples Singers, as well as the Statesmen and the Blackwood Brothers. It was written by E J Bartlett, mentor of Albert E Brumley. Bartlett also wrote “Everybody Will Be Happy Over There,” “Just a Little While,” and the greatest camp-meeting song, “Victory in Jesus.” This link to a video is priceless session of “Gospel Legends” letting loose over the profound message of the lyrics, “O yes, He heard my feeble cries, from bondage set me free; And when I reach the pearly gates He will remember me.” Featured are the great Rev Donald Vails, Jessy Dixon, and the Barrett Sisters… and a hundred other joyful souls.

Click: He Will Remember Me

God’s New Year Resolution

12-31-12

One of the great Sunday pages of the Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz shows Linus walking outside while it is snowing. He looks up, he catches snowflakes on his hand… and goes wild when he sees that two are identical. He rushes to show them off, but before his sister Lucy, or Charlie Brown, or anyone else, can see them, the snowflakes have melted. Good grief.

What would have made that discovery special, of course, is that we are told that no two snowflakes are exactly alike; of the uncountable snowflakes that fall, or have fallen, their crystalline, geometric appearances are all unique.

This seems miraculous, when we think of it. It IS miraculous. There is no logical, structural, organizational reason it that it must be so, but it is. God could have made snowflakes standard-issue; or of two basic designs; or any finite number. But He chose Infinity for that category in nature – a unique way, to my way of thinking, to reveal Himself. A unique way, but not rare: there are many things in nature that are astonishing in their variety. Consider:

Rainbows arrange themselves by the color spectrum, but we never see the same display in the same place, and they vary in full arcs, portions, double arcs, in different intensities.

We never see clouds that are identical in the same sky, or miles apart, or years apart – even moments apart. They constantly change.

Despite the best efforts of breeders, no two flowers are ever alike. Compare roses, plumerias, tulips, not to mention wildflowers, and you will always find differences of coloring, size, intensity. A rose is NOT a rose is NOT a rose…

The distinctive colorization of birds, even the patterns on peacocks’ tail-feather displays, distinguish them from other species, but are always different – from nuances to brilliant features – from bird to bird.

Famous markings on many animals, like leopards’ spots; giraffe markings; stripes on tigers, zebras, and tabby cats, are like trademarks we instantly recognize. Yet from animal to animal, no two are alike.

And with humans: we each have only two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and hair on our heads – a small number of features that constitute our appearance – yet among the world’s 7-billion souls there are no doppelgangers. The idea that we all have a “double” somewhere is a fiction.

God’s infinite variety is wondrous.

We can choose the same patterns in all our ways, but we humans tend not to. When you think of it, when we create (that is, invent) things, almost immediately a march toward standardization commences. Someone comes up with, say, a Model T Ford, or a Hostess Twinkie, or an iPod… and right away the factory assembly lines stamp out clones by the millions.

Humans tend toward the same in their goods; uniformity in their practices; conformity in their ideas. Do tastes in fashion change? I maintain that is merely a seasonal adjustment in a new set of orthodoxies. The same with musical trends, slang phrases, interior-decorators’ colors, widths of lapels and ties: on the surface we want to be different, but we rush to the same, same, same, individually or in our groups.

Years change – which is what brings me to these thoughts – and time marches on. At New Years’ times we feel obligated to look back and look forward. We look at the same old world, and behold the things that really don’t change, magazine cover stories to the contrary notwithstanding. Some things shouldn’t change; in other areas we are stubborn. It is frightening to consider how little human nature has changed when we think about the wars and brutality and oppression and abuse and the things we do to one another. Sin.

But God, the Unchangeable, declines to stop changing the physical world – the miracle of creation – in which He, in unfathomable mercy and kindness, has placed us. Creation is for His pleasure, but it pleases Him to please us.

And surely there is a message beyond an amazing God choosing to create eye-candy for His children. If we would only notice it more often. Every bit of creation – every different element and aspect – is a manifestation of a God whose love for us is as limitless and infinite, and distinctive, as the numberless snowflakes and rainbows and flowers.

My prayer for us all in 2013 is not only that we stop and smell the roses, but that we stop and BE the roses.

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Like roses among thorns, a profound message can grow in the weed patch of pop music. Such was the case in the late 1960s, another troubled time, when a pair of songwriters approached the jazz icon Louis Armstrong with a spiritual but not sectarian song, certainly not jazz, “What a Wonderful World.” The first rule in the creative process often is that there are no rules, and a classic recording, a perfect marriage of lyrics and meanings and vocal style and personality, was their result. It is worth a listen in this New Year, especially for the spoken introduction by Satchmo (“Pops”) before he sings.

Click: What a Wonderful World

When Mothers Cry

12-17-12

Like a recurring nightmare, we hear once more of carnage and senseless violence, a bizarre attack and unanswerable questions; and a school yet again is the setting. A lone perpetrator, but a million mysteries. Worse than only hearing the news, we see these days the anguish and fear, the confusion and panic; we see distraught children, and we see the tears on the cheeks of mothers.

Before those tears dried, there were calls from some quarters to change laws and outlaw guns. But on the same day a school in China was invaded, children injured at the hands of a knife-wielding maniac. Arsonists have, throughout history, claimed the lives of men, women… and children. Innocents. History’s pages are, in some ways, chronicles of the slaughter of innocents.

Would that we had the power to outlaw hatred and evil, not just guns and knives. Then we might be spared seeing mothers’ tears… and mothers themselves might be spared the constant fears, and all-too-common realities, that continuously, cruelly plague them as protectors of their precious children.

Mothers’ tears must burn like acid. I write as a man, a father, who cannot imagine that special maternal bond. We grieve for mothers as well as their lost children in these nightmarish situations. What I have been slowly comprehending, as time goes on, is the news footage of events around the world, seemingly different, is more and more alike to me. Mideast terrorism, wars in Afghanistan, genocide in Africa, religious persecution everywhere, and random attacks in our own neighborhoods: I used to listen to statistics, see the weapons, read the demands or justifications, the “claims of credit” of armies and groups. They all become as white noise. Now I only see, more and more, the tears on the cheeks of grieving mothers.

Are the tears of a Palestinian mother any less sacred, after a missile strike, than the tears of an Israeli mother after a bus bombing? An Afghan mother whose village has changed “sides” every week for months – are her tears less precious when one faction or other patrols her streets? A Christian mother in Pakistan loses her child to Muslim zealots; a mother from an African tribe loses all her children when a rival tribe sweeps her village; mothers all over the globe lose their daughters to traffickers and slave masters – do we harvest those tears to weigh and measure them… against what? The humble teardrop is a leveling agent.

There was one mother in history who shed such tears, and in fact witnessed almost all these varieties of separate, horrible atrocities happen to her son. She experienced grief a hundredfold, for her son was persecuted, taken from her, framed, tortured, abandoned by almost everybody except her, and murdered. She witnessed it all. The woman who cried those tears was Mary. It is a risky thing to attempt to quantify grief, but hers was unique because she KNEW these things would happen to her son – and to her – 33 years in advance.

Mary was chosen to be the one who would fulfill prophecy, a virgin who would bear the Incarnate God, sent to humankind to assume our sins and suffer the punishment we deserve. Mary knew these Old Testament prophecies, and she listened to the angels who visited her. When she in turn visited her cousin (who was pregnant with John the Baptizer), Mary spoke the classic “Magnificat”:

My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. Because He hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. Because He that is mighty hath done great things to me; and holy is His name. And His mercy is from generation unto generations to them that fear Him. He has showed might in His arm: He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. …

Christians remember Mary’s prayer in the Advent season. We remember the promises of God, knowing they are blessings. We meditate upon the ways of God, as Mary ultimately had to. And we are confronted by the obscene vagaries of life, as Sandy Hook mothers must.

There is sin in the world. A loving God gave us free will, desiring that we experience life. He did not create us as angelic robots. Such beings cannot know sorrow nor joy. Redemption and salvation cannot be experienced by beings who need them not. No angel could ever sing “Amazing Grace” with tears of joy streaming down the cheeks.

But with life, in all its fullness, come the other tears, to which we return in sadness; and, can we all agree, in confusion and bitterness and at times unspeakable grief. There is no escaping it. It is human nature to feel these emotions, even when we trust God fully. In our seasons of pain we can try to understand human nature, and sometimes hear people apologize for it. But our attempts to understand are futile.

In that futility – beyond the fundamental proposition that it is a sinful nature – we must recognize on the other hand that God’s antidotes are easy to understand. He knows our sorrows, He understands our weaknesses, He feels our pain, He identifies with our losses, He has sent the Holy Comforter on whom we can call, He offers us peace that passes understanding.

Let us pray that weeping mothers and grieving families find that peace, and draw closer to, not farther from, God at these times. To lose faith, after losing a child, would intensify the unbearable misery of those who suffer.

It has long been warned that if God were removed, so to speak, from America’s classrooms, that trouble, danger, and evil would fill the void. This week one Adam Lanza entered a school to fill that vacuum. And all the mothers’ tears alone cannot wash away the horror.

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Mary cried tears of joy and tears of grief, as the mother of Jesus. May the timing of the Sandy Hook school massacre in the Advent season find some little connection as we contemplate the tears of mothers. The beautiful and profound new Christmas song “Mary Did You Know” is coupled with images of Mary and her Son. They are moments of birth and joy, pride and love, loss and death, and are from the movie “Passion of the Christ.” As is well known, these are difficult images to behold, so this is a Warning to Viewers; yet the scenes correctly portray the grief of one mother who witnessed, not just learned about, the massacre of her Son.

Click: Mary, Did You Know

Delicious Choices Set Before Us

11-22-12

“Have a seat!” “Help yourself!” “What would you like to drink?” “Feel free to have a second helping!” Every society through history has constructed grand halls for meetings, and decorated lavish living rooms for entertaining, but common to every culture – indeed to every family – is the dining table, even the kitchen table, for conviviality. It is where we bond, relate, and confirm friendships.

Shared meals have always been the signs of sincere respect between host and guest. It is said that sleepers never lie, and perhaps that is so. But it would seem as likely that hearty hosts and welcome guests, over a prepared meal, cannot stay suspicious or hostile for long. “Ess, ess, mein kind!” “Mangia!” “Bon appétit!” “Guten apetit!” “Buono apetito!” – all the world’s invitations to the table are first marinated in friendship.

If these practice,s and customs, are parts of humanity’s DNA, then it is no surprise that we find the recipe, so to speak, in God Holy Word. Many essential points of doctrine, teaching, and examples are related to food, to dining, to hospitality, to eating, to sharing.

The Lord could have couched His warnings and conditions in the Garden in any terms, but it was eating, of the tree of knowledge amid so many other offerings, where humankind met its first test. Of all the challenges to the Hebrew children, wandering the desert for 40 years, sustenance was the most obvious – but the Lord miraculously provided manna. Jesus’ first recorded miracle was at a wedding feast, turning water into wine. A later, celebrated miracle was feeding five thousand from a few loaves and fishes. Where did Christ take leave of His disciples and ordain the possibility of receiving Him as an indwelling presence? The “Last Supper.”

And so forth. This is not a Bible Bee – these are only a few of the many examples God has used to confirm the spiritual significance of nourishment, beyond physical requirements of eating.

When we think of the imagery of a feast prepared for us in Heaven, we can recall these examples and others, ranging from the celebratory feast prepared for the prodigal son, to the signification of the Host – “Take, eat; this My body, given for you.” But we would starve ourselves, so to speak, if we do not fully appreciate the table prepared for us over yonder, in Heaven.

God does not have a simple table setting, or a mere meal, waiting for us. It will indeed be a banquet table. A buffet table is how I see it. To visit various cultures again, think of a smorgasbord, a tapas menu, a dim sum experience, a churrascaria offering. Unimaginable varieties of surprises and blessings.

In fact, we would even more starve ourselves, spiritually speaking, if we restrict the visions of a blessed banquet table to Heaven, where indeed it awaits us. But we should remember that Jesus is the Bread of Life. We have communion now. The Lord does not just promise a spiritual feast sometime later: He IS a spiritual feast. Christians can behold the buffet – there is salvation, here is healing, there is forgiveness, here is comfort, there is wisdom. All prepared for us, sweet to our taste, nourishing to our souls.

Have a seat! Help yourself!

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A video clip of a moving performance of the classic Ira Stanphill gospel song associated with Gov. Jimmie Davis and many other singers, “Suppertime.” Here it is sung by the beloved Southern Gospel singer George Younce, surrounded by friends. George was undergoing dialysis at the time, and this was his last public performance.

Click: Suppertime

Opposites Attract. Or Not.

10-1-12

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

Black or white? Right or wrong? … Good and evil? Not all things that seem like opposites ends of the spectrum are even on the same spectrum.

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

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

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

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

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

God, not partner.

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Satan’s Jewel Crown

More Fools Than Wise

9-24-12

“Regrets, I’ve had a few…” Such words imply a summation, and we humans often stop on the path to wipe our brows and rest, and think about what got us there. There is not one among us who does not think about the What Ifs or the Missed Opportunities, but we seldom give thanks for the wrong decisions we avoided or the opportunities that might have led to grief.

The saddest situation attends those whose regrets outnumber the joys. And sadder still is when people sigh and believe that such is their fate, or that it is too late to change their life’s profile, so to speak. While anyone has one breath remaining, this is a cruel lie.

One of the Bible’s great subtexts is that it is never too late. And the application is in every sphere of life, not a theological corner. (Eventually we all will realize that theology is not a corner of life but the entire room, the broad landscape. Other “important” aspects of life are actually corners and compartments.) That is, it is never too late to receive, and accept, God’s favor. Salvation is offered to the vilest sinner. Think of the worst person you know, or history’s cruelest villains. Not one person will be shut out of Heaven, or receive God’s forgiveness, if that heart seeks God, repents, and accepts Christ as Lord and Savior. The Bible tells us so.

If that seems unjust, it is because you look at things, still, from a human’s point of view, instead of God’s. All Heaven rejoices, as you will too, some day in Glory, when a sinner is saved. And for some detail, or by some perspective, or after altered circumstances, you or I might be that vilest sinner. Shudder that you might be voted off the island of Eternity. Even St. Paul called himself “Chief among sinners.” We are well off when we are aware of our faults

… AND when we are aware of our opportunities. It is never too late. I have friends of great accomplishment who nevertheless regret that they have not mastered new languages, or learned to play instruments, or mastered the arts of painting. Yet any of these things can be done in short months. We all have the capacity to write a poem that will move the hearts of millions, or write The Great American Novel. Or – no less significant, essentially, to our lives – to come to a truth, share a thought, touch another person’s soul, that will “make it all worthwhile.”

Acts and deeds, concepts and creations, all may ennoble us; but the important matter to our self-regard, at least, is that we realize it. God confirms our worth so that we may affirm our courses. We need not be condemned, or condemn ourselves, by either the taunts of unfulfilled dreams or the dubiety of the Now, that things will never change.

To pull back from the brink of blather: Orlando Gibbons, almost four centuries ago, wrote and set to music the simplest illustration of the encouragement that our life’s glory can come even at the last moment. And cancel all the rest, which is prep-time after all for what might be our most satisfying acts. The simple song is about the silver swan, a gangly and sometimes mangy, always awkward – in fact absurd-looking – water fowl. Yet geese can be sillier, right? In the song, at one moment the bird rises to elegance, becomes handsome, and sings a beautiful note which it previously was never capable of “unlocking.”

His lesson, for sinners, for creative minds, for fellow and average humans, is that we are forever capable of that Moment, that act; and that we should never judge ourselves by false standards, or the consensus of the rabble all about us. More fools now live, than wise.

The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approach’d, unlock’d her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.
Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

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The very brief, but very profound, madrigal from the Restoration Period. The haunting and beautiful tune helps fuse this to our consciousness. An early example of polyphonic harmony:

Click: The Silver Swan

Letting Go

9-3-12

Labor Day weekend. The end of summer… Schools back in session… Once upon a time, it was the “new television season”… The beginning of the presidential campaigns (I wish it WERE only starting now, instead of two hundred weeks ago)…. Anyway, these few days are called many things, but they are also regarded by many, many families as the Festival of the Empty Nest. Many young people are going off to college for the first time.

Leaving home, whether it is to dive into life, or for the intermediary step of a college career, or the military, or a job opportunity, is a Rite of Passage. For parents and children alike it is, or should be, the essence of Bittersweet. All of a sudden, 18 years or so seems like a blur; everyone becomes conscious of unfinished projects and unshared words; but the clock is ticking, the calendar is calling, and life awaits.

I watched the Republican convention this week and wondered about the rising class of future leaders. Impressive speakers, comparatively young to be national leaders, boosted the candidate, but also, as part of their assignments, introduced themselves to a national audience. I thought, here are people who might be on the scene four or eight years from now, or 20: should they hold back with their searing testimonies or impressive personal stories, until “their day in the sun” arrives? Of course not!

That day might never come. Or, the way to assist its advent is to tell all, show all, be all, right now. It is a lesson framed many ways: “Carpe diem” – seize the day. “Never a second chance at a first impression.” “Strike while the iron is hot.” “We pass this way but once.”

I saw this as a lesson to be applied in family situations when kids leave home, too. Having regrets should not equate with not letting go. And every one of us should say all that we can, express everything, without reservation. Children can juggle the loss of the family’s pod-like security and the excitement of independence. However, their parents will always be as close as a phone call, e-mail, text, or an ATM.

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

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

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

“Letting go?” Think of it as spreading your arms in fond farewell, so that they can be open to receive, when the next season comes.

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I have never heard a song, or read lyrics, that more beautifully reflect the bundle of emotions in the Rite of Passage of children leaving home (in this case, a college student). “Letting Go,” by Doug Crider and Matt Rollings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For a music video of this song, amazingly performed by the amazing Suzy Bogguss (wife of Doug Crider), click:

Click: Letting Go

The Mystery Of the Wonders He Performs

8-27-11

Life happens. As they say. So does death, which merely is to repeat oneself: “Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure,” Theodore Roosevelt said, after his son Quentin was shot down over France.

How do we respond to death? Or to the mystery of life? Ironically: how to cope with death’s certainty and to life’s fragility? Sometimes we “lose it.” Sometimes we see through a glass darkly. Sometimes those of us left behind proceed headlong into the business of life. Sometimes we pray to discern God’s will. Sometimes we meditate upon His Word.

My idea is that God does not always hand us multiple-choice quizzes. Sometimes we can do all these things together. They are not mutually exclusive responses.

But always we should trust in His mercy. This is HARD sometimes, fighting the tendency to lean to our own understanding. “His wisdom, yes,” we want to cry; “but where is the mercy?”

Almost exactly a year ago our family was saddened by a miscarriage my daughter Emily suffered, and I wrote a message that attempted to collect my thoughts. This week my other daughter, Heather, lost her baby. Emily and Norman’s came early in her pregnancy; Heather and Patrick’s daughter Sarah, however, was born and died after nine days. The challenges of a 24-week-term birth eventually overwhelmed Sarah’s wracked little body. And I am thinking of a friend this week whose nephew drowned, was recovered but was unconscious, and died after several days .

Our natural minds tend to take over when we try to understand the ways of God.

It is a natural idea that, say, God wants the little baby in Heaven more than He wants her down here. But if that were the entire story, we should wonder why a few days of life, which ultimately adds grief to parents’ joy, can be part of His plan. Yet it is. That we cannot understand it all means, basically, that we are not God, and His mysteries are just that: mysteries. There is sin in the world, so there is death in the world. But after our questions and cries and withdrawal, the mysterious ways of God are to be accepted, embraced, and trusted.

One thing is certain. We shall be united with the living God, and re-united with the healed Sarah, in Heaven some day. We will look around for her, and when we see her, we will have to wait one more brief moment to embrace her, because she will be in Jesus’ lap and in His arms, and then He will pass her to us.

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Some of my meditations on these subjects are well reflected in the lyrics of a gospel song from a few years ago. It is not a line-for-line representation of anyone’s actual thoughts over a baby’s death; not anyone I know. But surely many people, from casual Christians to devoted believers, entertain some of these thoughts. Please listen to the moving performance, and watch the tender pictures. And meditate.

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Click: The Mystery Of the Wonders You Perform

Batmania

7-23-12

Death by Pop Culture. The last thing Aurora, Colorado needs is the last thing the world needs in response to the multiplex murders: politicians and news crews infesting the community, imposing hugs on survivors, and “standing together,” whatever that means. Haven’t those people suffered enough?

In America, bizarre killing sprees have become part of the contemporary socio-entertainment complex, down to the killers identifying with fictional villains. A dark night has risen, when people are more willing to adopt psychopaths as role models, eager to endure obloquy, or even self-immolation, than to work toward positive personal achievement.

When people don’t believe in an afterlife, they are happy to grab what they can in this life. And when the culture glorifies violence, and makes celebrities of monsters, the path is clear for too many deluded souls. America has become in many ways a culture of death. Abortion, homosexuality, assisted suicides can all be seen as manifestations of this. As the thought is father to the deed, ubiquitous violence (10,000 violent murders, realistically staged on TV, seen by the average adolescent) begets violence – but the older sibling is a generation of desensitized children.

What we probably need less than staged hug-fests after such horrific events – a few words for cameras and then flights home, mission accomplished – is one more column, sermon, or blog. Nevertheless here it comes. But I have a bit of a different viewpoint that many others might have.

At one time I was an editor at Marvel Comics, and although Batman is in the DC Comics universe, I was close enough to the genre that when the first volume of the DC Archives reprint series was published (now scores of books covering the major characters in their significant periods) I was asked to write the introduction. The essay was about the origin of Batman, the book comprised of the very first stories. I knew Bob Kane, who created the character; Jerry Robinson, who created the Joker, was a good friend. And so forth.

For that essay I thought and re-thought the premise of the iconic character, and the unique premise, a costumed hero without super-human powers. The dedication to justice, fueled by the irresistible motif of revenge. Frank Miller, and then other cartoonists and moviemakers, have accelerated these basic aspects to warp-speed. The Batman stories and movies have been, to me, largely excellent works of art and craft, even politics. The controversies – not the least surrounding The Dark Knight Rises – have reinforced thematic preoccupations with justice and integrity, and toward a society free of violent threats.

Through all my experiences in the comics world, extending beyond Marvel and DC to the Thundercats cartoons and superheroes with European publishers, I never was completely comfortable with the superhero genre. (I also wrote Disney comics, and I never knew why talking ducks seemed more reasonable to me. For another time…) Specifically, I always wondered, and still do, why a formula dependent upon men and women in tights, and who needed fantastic powers instead of their own wits to solve problems, appealed to the American public. Would history conclude that Americans were so insecure that they needed to invent heroes whose powers they could never assume themselves – thousands of costumed attendees at San Diego Comic-Con to the contrary notwithstanding? And further (we apparently see it now in the person of James Holmes) why do so many kids think the villains are cooler than the heroes?

Why does America lack heroes, but embrace “superheroes”? It is ironic that so many people shelled out major money for tickets to see a movie about a superhero, and after the shooting we hear of so many stories of REAL heroes in the audience: those who shielded their spouses, dates, and kids, many of them sacrificing their lives.

Meanwhile, friends have been writing about the movie. Batton Lash, a wonderful cartoonist himself, says that The Dark Knight Rises… to new heights of excellence. Dr Ted Baehr, of Movieguide, reviews the movie and says that themes of redemption are powerfully positive. Just so.

But I have come to the point of asking new questions about the role of popular culture as society is affected in (invariably) subconscious ways. Mankind is evil, and every culture has honed violence, oppression, and death to the same, or greater, degree than its moral, artistic, and spiritual standards. We understand that. And many great works of art have dealt with conflict and resolution. Also understood. And somehow people are drawn to tales of extreme threats, actions, and retribution. But which is the chicken and which is the egg – does popular culture lead, or reflect, the public’s ethos? It is a question that will never be answered but should always be addressed.

But to my friends in the comics and the Christian worlds, I propose that it is time we stop hiding behind mantras that “good ultimately triumphs,” no matter how much blood through which audiences must wade. To invest a story with incredible acts of evil by incredibly evil villains, strung out through incredibly graphic depictions, all toward a conclusion where the bad guys are vanquished – but frequently with a “conflicted” message and subtexts of no resolution at all – is just window-dressing, maybe conscience-salving, for the glorification of violence.

Is violence in itself bad? No; to paraphrase what Theodore Roosevelt said about guns, the relative moral value depends on the character of the user. But we should be aware that technical brilliance, in a culture that has become known for technical brilliance and little else, is a short yardstick. And if we have to weed through, and sit through, hours of violence, to discover moments of relatively positive messages, it might be a small prize at the bottom of the proverbial box. “But the kids love the action movies! They are going to see superhero flicks anyway!” – we get back to the question of the chicken and the egg again.

(It’s like a joke I heard years ago about a man with sexual urges who went to a psychiatrist for help. The doctor showed him ink-blot pages and asked what the man saw in them. “That one looks like a door, with a keyhole, and, oh, what’s going on in there!” “This one looks like a window shade pulled closed, and I’ll bet I know what’s happening there!” And so on, until the doctor said, “Well, it’s pretty clear – you have an unhealthy obsession.” The man responds: “ME? You’re the one showing me all those dirty pictures!” The point is that the creative community needs to ask itself whether it leads audiences to higher planes; or whether there are seeds of unhealthy appetites they cultivate, instead. Does Art imitate Pandering?)

As a Christian in God’s community I am secure that this vale of tears is short; as I wrote above, justice will prevail in the end; His justice. But as an American in our culture I am hugely depressed. We cannot turn back the clock. We are not going to re-establish prayer in schools, for instance. The divorce rate is unlikely to change; broken-home statistics are troubling; abuse of women and children, and trafficking, will not go away next week; drugs and sex and violence will continue to “sell.” Those in positions of influence in the media and the celebrity class will continue to make excuses for the New Morality. The culture of death inexorably will march on.

Do I want these things to change? I pray every day they do. But I know that a just God invariably acts… justly. Does America deserve mercy? Pity, yes. But mercy, really? To quote a bumper-strip of questionable theology but persuasive logic: If God does not mete out justice to America, He owes Sodom and Gomorrah an apology.

In the meantime we may turn our hearts back to Aurora. God doesn’t need photo-ops to hear our prayers over the situation. And I am convinced most of the local people do not either. If we can re-dedicate ourselves to praying for the living; if we can pray for the potential killers in our midst – if we can share Bibles and tracts and personal prayers, and not just comic books and action-flick DVDs, with kids we meet; if we can affirm God’s standards of justice, and not Batman’s or Spiderman’s… this senseless multiplex murder spree might itself rise to have some redemptive legacy.

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An uplifting comment by a brother who lost a sister at Aurora put wind in my sails. He was devastated, of course; but he said he was grateful that he had an opportunity to tell the world for a moment what a wonderful person his sister was. He is anchored; she is memorialized in an inspiring way; and we are left with a unique perspective on grief. “Standing together” might include crying together –a theme we have visited here recently – and that can be healthy too. In 1692 Henry Purcell, in his opera The Fairy Queen, wrote the heartfelt lament, “O, Let Me Weep!” It is touchingly sung here by the counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky and his ensemble Artaserse.

Click: Oh, Let Me Weep

This Upside-Down World

7-9-12

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” The lesson implicit in this aphorism, that we should be satisfied with what we have, discounts the possibilities that you are standing in quite a barren patch indeed, or that the other grass IS greener, or perhaps that a life represented by greener pastures is not just our desire but a necessity.

But human beings have a problem with sorting out desires and necessities. It is always worthwhile, for instance, to pray for discernment so that we might ask God for what we need, not what we want. Spiritual maturity is when we know He will answer along those lines anyway: but we must keep our priorities straight. We should look less to the pastures over the fence and over the horizon, and more to the One who nurtures those pastures.

Our culture (what the Book of Common Prayer calls “the world, the flesh, and the devil”) continually distorts this understanding. The tendencies of our natures to be dissatisfied with what we have, combined with the spirit of the age that tells us that human devices ultimately will be sufficient to satisfy every human yearning, add up to an upside-down world. Upside-down values, upside-down actions, upside-down results.

The world’s literature is filled with tales of men who try to recapture a lost or misspent youth, and, contrarily, youths who aspire to manhood before the wisdom that comes with experience – the literal meaning of premature. Closer to home, I turn to something I have observed about American society. I rely less on charts and graphs when I think about certain things, trusting instead to random half-hours at shopping malls. I have lost count of the number of teenage girls I have seen who, evidently, cannot wait to be women: excessive make-up; clothes and undergarments that (they apparently believe) make them look 30 years older; smoking and rough language; making babies like Mom did. I notice in equal numbers women who need to fool the world, or themselves, that they are still 30 years younger: tattoos; clothes designed for teens; and, again, cosmetics and outfits that are more camouflage than fashion. Upside down.

It extends to more serious realms (not that I don’t think that corruptions of age, gender, and roles are not serious). Ours has become a culture where the blessings of science and medicine run on simultaneous tracks – more miraculous techniques of delivering pre-term children and rescuing at-risk lives… and devising more efficient means to euthanize babies and “mercy kill” the sick, the elderly, and the “inconvenient,” conspiring in laboratories and courtrooms. Upside down.

Politicians say one thing and do another. Upside down. Many of society’s role models would have us think that bodies are indestructible and souls are fragile and off-limits; upside-down advice, because Americans abuse and overburden our bodies to an alarming degree; and even preachers don’t always act like they know our souls can handle all manner of tough love. And they should, to stay healthy.

Competition is good for people. One way we can test this is by observing that self-destructive elements in America have transformed it into a dirty word. Yet there is a fine line – the fence separating the greener grass, if you will – between the healthy impulses of ambition, and mere dissatisfaction or cynical pessimism. If we wallow in hypocrisy, we are a heartbeat away from fatal defeatism as a culture.

… these are all secular observations, very secular. Upside-down values are guaranteed in a secular culture, because secularism by nature does not have an Anchor. Does America yearn for better things, or are we into a cycle where we reflexively will keep hating what we have, and who we are?

By returning to God and to biblical principles, we can be free of the lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil; we can find self-respect in ways other than upside-down role reversals dictated by TV shows and commercials; we can be patient and confident, not impatient and full of doubts.

Boys act like men and men act like boys? Girls act like women and women act like girls? Scientists act like killers and killers act like scientists? Here’s another one: Every day, everywhere, people act like God, or think they can. Does God act like us?

Well, we should be grateful that God does not act like us. But one time, in one unique way, He did. He chose a nexus-point in history to become man, and to dwell amongst us. Of the many reasons for this, chief of these to provide a means for our salvation, God wanted to assure us in case we ever forget (!) that He knows our sorrows, He shared our pain, He understands temptation, He is not offended by failure and He honors repentance, He can forgive sin, He wants to live within us so that we can have a better “self” to self-respect.

He tells us that the color of the grass over the fence does not matter. After all, there will always be other fences and distant pastures. What matters is His promise that all things will be made new. Consider the words of that promise singly, separately, in any combination: All. Things. Will. Be. Made. New.

Meditate on the words of this promise, and the upside-down will pass away, whether green or slightly greener. Whatever. Things are rightside-up in God’s world, the Kingdom Come.

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We have context this week that inspires, supports, and illustrates the message. Beautiful thoughts and images from the anointed Beanscot Channel on YouTube; and a tender but powerful song by the gifted singer-songwriter J. J. Heller. “All Things Are Made New.”

Click: Kingdom Come

Whose World IS It, Anyway?

6-11-2012

One of my favorite books in the world is one I re-read every few years. One of the reasons it is a favorite book is a favorite chapter. (Sometime I would like to edit a book and call it “Chapters” – to ask people to nominate favorite chapters of favorite books, because sometimes an author strikes a chord, composes a masterful scene, captures a special feeling, standing even higher than the whole book.) Anyway, for me, “The Piper At the Gates of Dawn” stands out from the rest of the Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. I am no fan of the Disney commercialization, but the original book, and this chapter, are magically unique. Grahame draws readers into a special world.

Nurturing my interest and affection, I recently read a book by Grahame’s widow Elspeth (I’m sorry: her name could not be anything other than Elspeth), an obscure book now, but written after she was widowed. She shared stories of her family, and of the creation of Wind in the Willows. And the book offers some previously unknown drafts.

In the course of her story, she quoted an appreciation by Clayton Hamilton, a professor of English Literature. He tells a story of visiting the Grand Canyon, seeing a copy of Grahame’s book in a gift shop, and surprising the owner, who had been waiting years for some customer to express affection for her favorite book. In that unlikely setting she was doubly gratified that her customer was actually a friend of its author.

Fans of certain books have an automatic kinship. And I value anyone whose fond instincts draw him to the world that Kenneth Grahame created. But even Grahame realized there were other worlds: he loved the world of nature (real nature, not just that of Toad Hall); and the world of childhood, as he created and defended in his other books The Golden Age and Dream Days. Read what Prof. Hamilton said of the Grand Canyon:

“Having seen it, I am relieved of any desire to see it again. It is the most gigantic chasm in the surface of the earth and is, of course, impressive because of its immensity…. But it is a lonely place, devoid of any human interest. Nobody, in historic or prehistoric times, has ever lived in the Grand Canyon. Though many of its pinnacles and buttes take on at times the look of towered castles, they have been sculpted only by uncounted centuries of wind, and show no touch of mortal hands. That dizzying immensity is empty of all human memories, and offers nothing to stimulate the sense of drama or romance.”

It is not hard to summon pity for people like Prof. Hamilton. My guess is that Kenneth Grahame would have disdained his cold sense of wonder. I do. Theodore Roosevelt (another fan of Grahame) beheld American landscapes like the Grand Canyon and unilaterally preserved them by the millions of acres, so that future generations, even Hamilton’s descendents, could be awestruck by the beauty of God’s creation. In their pristine states. Even if their pinnacles were formed not by men or even winds alone, but by God.

The humanistic phase of human history, where we float now, elevates the human mind and its accomplishments, but unfortunately is unable to separate human passions from that which guides us. It is the dark side of freedom, the residue of democracy – human nature, which never changes on its own, generation to generation. Religion, philosophy, and politics aside, humankind tends to lose something in exchange for greater “self-expression”: the acknowledgment of a marvelous Creator God; finding pleasure in His amazing works; and the enjoyment of His handiwork. In the beginning, it was created for our delight, too.

I have just returned from a three-week trip in which I experienced snow in the mountains of Colorado and 107-degree heat in the Nevada deserts. Bright red sandstone was the coincidental theme: a friend took me to Red Rocks, high above mile-high Denver; Red Rocks is the name of an area north of Las Vegas, similarly dotted with sandstone monoliths and buttes. And my son planned a day in the “Valley of Fire,” so called because its endless stretches of sandstone are so brilliantly hued as to resemble, from a distance, flames.

I have been blessed to visit many of the world’s great cities, and I marvel indeed at buildings and monuments and statues. But I have been doubly blessed to have visited many scenes of God’s handiwork. Sorry, Prof. Hamilton: it is not an “either/or” situation. The natural world of nature’s God is awesome because He intended that we be awestruck. If “towered castles” impress you, remember that it was God’s children and their God-given talents that made them. God still wins, buddy.

The evangelist Ellen G. White put it in perspective: “The flowers of the field, in their endless variety, are always ministering to the delight of the children of men. God Himself nourishes every root, that He may express His love to all who will be softened and subdued by the works
of His hands.

“We need no artificial display. God’s love is represented by the beautiful things of His creation.”

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Is there any more beautiful musical expression of these thoughts than the old hymn (with glorious nature videos)? –

Click: This Is My Father’s World

Retreat

6/3/2012

A few years ago when I lived in California, I helped organize retreats for the people in the office where I worked. Spiritual getaways, opportunities for refreshment. We availed ourselves of landmarks of the state’s rich heritage, and held them at ancient missions that dot the coast. Few of us were Catholic, but the solemnity and Christian dedication of these oases were special indeed.

Early settlers built a network of missions along the Pacific coast so that travelers could be within foot (or horse, or mule) distance of one day from mission to mission. Most still stand today, active as religious communities that also welcome visitors… including individuals or groups who want a place to worship God or meditate on the Word. My friends and I visited Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside.

These experiences were so good for my soul that I gratefully learned about abbeys, fewer in number, also each hundreds of years old, that likewise welcomed visitors. The abbeys are more active religious communities, however; and conforming to the rules of the order was more of a requirement. I arranged to stay at the Benedictine Abbey of St Andrew in Valyermo. It was to be for three days, living, even dining, among the monks. Participation in worship was not required, but silence – one of the order’s strictures – was.

One has free run of the beautiful grounds, including the Stations of Cross, a precious tool to reflect on Christ’s sacrifices; and the abbey’s library. There was no “lights out” policy in the Spartan rooms, because there were no lights. But the library, with many volumes and a cozy fireplace, was open all night.

When I went to the abbey I was not enduring a spiritual crisis, but I needed refreshment (we all do, always; whether we realize it or not is the matter), and I arrived expecting all sorts of insights, breakthroughs, and revelations.

I received none. None that I hoped for, or expected. I was not disappointed, but I was confused. In the silence, I had expected to hear God’s voice, but I did not. In nature I expected to see Him more clearly, but I did not. In the solitude, I expected to be free to bump into God at every turn, but I did not.

Yet after three days, without insights, revelations, or breathroughs to headline a journaling page… I was closer to God than I ever had been.

I had the sense – a reminder, really – that a curse of modern life is that we often are too busy to meet God on His terms. In modern religion, we are taught to construct “expectations” and then devise ways to meet them, all the time thinking that such paradigms will please God. In modern spirituality, we tell ourselves that we are on progressive paths to know God better and better and better.

… where, sometimes, the stark realization that we cannot fully know Him, is to rediscover the sense of awe at His majesty, His omnipotence, and His mystery. We have lost a sense of God’s mystery. It does not threaten to make God more distant; it does, however, make Him more God-like to us. Our goal must not be to be God (if that were possible), but to be Children of God. We should not think we can be Christs, but we are instructed to be Imitators of Christ. Yes, it is one of our charges to “know God and make Him known,” but we cannot have a presumptuous attitude: if we fool ourselves into thinking we can know all there is to know about Him… there would no longer be a need to know Him.

I came to appreciate, not regret, that “space” between our knowledge of God and God Himself. It is not empty, as we sometimes fear, but is that mysterious zone where we can just stop and have reverence and awe and wonder at the unknowable power, and love, of God.

That mysterious zone, of course, is called faith.

Embrace its vastness, do not scurry to shrink it. Love the fact that God created and maintains it as a special gift for His children. To lose yourself in the mystery of real faith is to feel, to KNOW, that you are closer to Him than you can ever teach yourself to be, or work towards. To try is futile, to surrender is divine.

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Writing our stories into God’s song, BEING the glory of God, is the essence of Christa Wells’ moving song “How Emptiness Sings.” Let your tune resonate in the open spaces.

Click: How Emptiness Sings

Iceberg Ahead! Solid Rock Below!

5-7-12

Did you hear enough about the Titanic last month? I didn’t! I actually was surprised that there were not more memorials and anniversary events on the hundredth anniversary of its sinking. It is something that will forever attract people’s attention – fascination, always-fresh horror, disgust, and admiration.

There was another anniversary this past week – of the formal service, a century ago, in honor of one of the ship’s greatest heroes, and most forgotten men.

Major Archibald Butt had been military aide to President Theodore Roosevelt and, after TR’s retirement, to President William Howard Taft. “Archie” was a remarkable man, a combination military aide, social secretary, confidant, political scout, diplomat… and friend. He was like a family member to the Roosevelts. He was just as loyal to Taft, and one could add the trait of protectiveness, for the hapless Taft was narcoleptic, negligent of many duties, careless about political maneuvers. Archie often interceded with whispered advice or behind-the-scenes discretionary moves.

As 1912 approached, many Republicans, disappointed with Taft, wanted Roosevelt to run again. The growing animosity between TR and Taft placed Archie Butt in an excruciating position: he was devoted to the person of Roosevelt, loyal to the office of Taft. Soon his nerves began to wear. President Taft almost insisted that Archie take a leave from office… perhaps join his friend Francis Millet, the famous artist, for a trip to Rome.

Butt and Millet made the trip, and worked their way up the continent to return to America on the marvel of the age, The Titanic.

Some interviews with survivors included:

“When the order to man the boats came, the captain whispered something to Major Butt … the Major immediately became as one in supreme command. You would have thought he was at a White House reception. A dozen or more women became hysterical all at once, as something connected with a life-boat went wrong. Major Butt stepped over to them and said, ‘Really, you must not act like that; we are all going to see you through this thing.’ He helped the sailors rearrange the rope or chain that had gone wrong and lifted some of the women in with a touch of gallantry. Not only was there a complete lack of fear in his manner, but there was the action of an aristocrat.

“When the time came, he was a man to be feared. In one of the earlier boats, fifty women, it seemed, were about to be lowered, when a man, suddenly panic-stricken, ran to the stern of it, Major Butt shot one arm out, caught him by the back of the neck and jerked him backward like a pillow… ‘Sorry,’ said Major Butt, ‘women will be attended to first or I’ll break every damned bone in your body.'”

Another survivor said, “The boats were lowered one by one, and as I stood by, my husband said to me, ‘Thank God for Archie Butt.’ Perhaps Major Butt heard it, for he turned his face towards us for a second and smiled. Just at that moment, a young man was arguing to get into a life-boat, and Major Butt had a hold of the lad by the arm, like a big brother, and telling him to keep his head and be a man. Major Butt helped those poor frightened steerage people so wonderfully, so tenderly and yet with such cool and manly firmness that he prevented the loss of many lives from panic. He was a soldier to the last. He was one of God’s greatest noblemen, and I think I can say he was an example of bravery even to men on the ship.”

Another interview read:

“His last goodbye was smilingly said to Miss Marie Young, formerly a music teacher to some of the Roosevelt children. Miss Young had frequently met Maj. Butt at the White House. She was on the last boat to leave.

“‘Maj. Butt escorted me to a seat in the bow,’ she said …. ‘He helped me find a space, arranged my clothing about me, stood erect, doffed his hat and smiled and said Good-bye. And then he stepped back to the deck, already awash. As we rowed away we looked back, and the last I saw of him he was smiling and waving his hand to me.'”

Roosevelt and Taft alike were devastated. At the memorial service for Archie, in Georgia, Taft could hardly keep his composure. He said something that any person would be proud to have said about him: “When I heard the ship had sunk, I knew Archie must have perished. As long as there was one other person alive on deck, Archie Butt would have made sure that person received preference to himself.”

We are reminded of Christ’s words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life…” In Archibald Butt’s case, there also was the matter of duty. His story, and others, provide some of the compelling reasons that The Titanic disaster will always speak to us.

Another story that has lived in legend is that the ship’s band, a string quartet, played music, heroically, calmly, almost stoically abstract, until The Titanic sank beneath the icy surface. They played the old hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Again: What were people made of a hundred years ago? Would we see their like today? Perhaps: we remember Todd Beamer – “Let’s roll!”

Then, as now, and throughout human history, the God component always seems to be a part of these stories. “Nearer, my God, to Thee.” That old hymn was on President McKinley’s lips when he died of an assassin’s bullet; and countless others have been blessed by the words.

“If on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be:
Nearer, my God, to Thee.”

Births… death… times of crisis and stress… It only feels at those life-moments that we are closest to God because… we are. Better put, He is closest to us. Best put, at those moments we make ourselves aware of His presence. He is always there.

Have you ever wished that sometimes God would shout instead of whisper, when we need reassurance, or guidance? The real problem is not with His voice, but with our ears, our hearts. The next time you face a crisis – God forbid it be as grave as The Titanic’s passengers, but if so, may we all comport ourselves as honorably as Major Butt – hear His words. Remember His promises. Listen for His sweet music.

The Titanic fared ill against an iceberg. But many of its passengers were standing on a solid rock nonetheless.

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Here is an amazing performance of the haunting melody of this classic hymn. Andre Rieu, soloist and conductor of more than 400 brass players, a large orchestra, and a larger chorus.

Click: Nearer, My God, to Thee

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A friend has written a book, to be published soon, about The Titanic’s fateful voyage, through the prism of the unique social conventions – afternoon teas and society’s customs – that largely disappeared from our culture when the great ship did. It is an informative book, and useful (recipes and info about tea) from a recognized expert, Penelope Carlevato.

Click: www.TeaOnTheTitanic.com

Home Is Where God’s Heart Is

4-30-12

I had a friend in college named Danny Platnick. A brilliant but very quirky guy. He never failed to surprise us, his friends, with flashes of brilliance and quirkiness, and sometimes the most random things, which often challenged us to be more random, usually unsuccessfully.

One day we were all talking in the dorm lounge about our homes and families and backgrounds. Our college was in Washington DC; Danny came from Bluefield WV, which seemed light-years farther away than the actual few hours’ drive. We all started to exchange photos of our parents and siblings and homes. Danny pulled a picture from his wallet and passed it around. It was a plain picture of the side of a house, only two windows showing. No front door or back porch. No particularly interesting landscaping.

“Is this your parents’ house?” we asked. “No, it’s the side of my neighbor’s house,” Danny replied. Everyone who had shared photos of front lawns, and fancy cars in the driveways, and swimming pools out back, asked how that snapshot represented his house.

“That’s what I see when I look out my bedroom window,” Danny answered. “This picture reminds me of home.”

I am embarrassed to admit that it was years before I realized that this was not quirky, but wise and almost profound.

My niece Liza – Elizabeth Jane Marschall – died this week. She was born almost 27 years ago with severe birth defects, including cerebral palsy that doctors reckoned froze her at a three-month developmental level all her life. She was not expected to live past a few years, but she did, nurtured by loving care and God’s mysterious grace. She experienced pain in her time; many surgeries and braces; and constantly was connected to tubes and monitors. Medically, she was not inanimate but was termed insensate. Yet she smiled, responded to her mom and to her caregivers, and to expressions of love.

Some churches call the death of a Christian a “home-going,” and so it is. Believers will not just begin the “journey home” to be with Jesus when we die; we already are on that journey.

Liza is healed now, happy, whole, before God’s throne. Unlike some Christians who, perhaps, think too much about certain things, she never had the ability to speculate about angels and wings and harps and being reunited with pets. But now she knows what Heaven is like, and we shall experience paradise for eternity too, some day. And it will be better than anything our imagination or scholarship can suggest.

“In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” Jesus assured us. “If it were not so, I would have told you.” This is recorded in John, 14:2. “I go to prepare a place for you.” Without much effort, I can almost imagine Jesus pulling out a snapshot of “home” – Heaven – and showing me a very, very comforting scene indeed. We need frequently to remind ourselves of God’s home, even if we are not quite there yet.

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One of the most beautiful messages, and tunes, you will ever hear – and one of the most touching performances – is “Going Home,” in this clip. The unlikely pairing of a classic musical theme (the Largo movement of Antonín Dvorák’s Ninth Symphony) and Negro spiritual lyrics, this performance is by the amazing Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjebø. Backed by an orchestra and church choir, she performed the song in Røros, a charming Norwegian town in the middle of a UNESCO Heritage area.

Click: Going Home

Unique Telling of the Easter Story

4/7/2012

RE-POSTED BY REQUESTED. From March 29, 2010, a great Easter-Sunday message.

Here is possibly the most unique, certainly a most memorable, version of the Easter story you might ever see. A little account of a kid’s Easter pageant. Father and son; death and resurrection; humor and Truth.

It is pianist Anthony Burger a few years ago talking about his five-year-old in an Easter pageant. Ironically, not long after this, Anthony himself died, suddenly, at the keyboard on a gospel-music cruise. His life was a mighty testimony… and so was his little boy’s story.

Click: We Shall Behold Him

You Were There

4-2-12

“Ecce homo!” Pontius Pilate stood on his balcony and addressed the blood-lusting crowd. “Behold the man!”

Without knowing it, Pilate was being theological. “The Son of Man” was how Scripture referred to the Christ; and so did Jesus, about Himself. “Fully God and fully man.”

More than theological, Pilate was attempting to be just plain logical. “Look at this man!” Pilate said, in effect. “This sorry, battered, silent, modest, individual… THIS is whose crucifixion you demand of me?”

In the words of The Living Bible (Matthew 27:24,25), Pilate had tried logical arguments… as far as his conscience would take him. He told the crowd: “I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!” And all the people yelled back, “We will take responsibility for his death—we and our children!” [The original Greek the passage reads, “His blood be on us and on our children.”]

The Romans were masters of many things. Various manners and devices of torture were among them. When someone was flogged, the Romans used not a normal whip, but one with many leather straps. The flagellum had as many as 12 thongs. More, they had sharpened pieces of metal or bone woven into their ends. The effect was not whipping but scourging: the prisoner’s back was punctured, laced, and stripped of flesh. Romans knew their torture.

Before this, however, Jesus was subjected to beating and kicking. The crown of thorns was not made from rose-bush stems; the thorns were long and piercing, like filed nails, and this was pressed upon his head. Before this, He was dragged, humiliated, mocked, and spat upon.

The crucifixion, preceded by this tortured man carrying the heavy, splintery cross through the rocky streets of Jerusalem, was another Roman invention. Nails through the ankles and wrists (not the hands, forensics studies teach us, else the body’s weight would have pulled the spikes through the fingers) permitted the body to hang at the perfect angle to prolong life until suffocation of the lungs became the cause of death.

A pertinent fact about the suffering and death of Jesus is that most Roman prisoners condemned to death usually experienced one or maybe two of these trials… seldom all of them. It is plausible that Jesus suffered as much as any human being has ever endured before dying. “Behold the man.”

And yet the worst part of Jesus’ experience, I think, was the betrayal of friends, the rejection of those He came to save, the abandonment by His disciples. Let none of us, not you or me, ever think that WE would have been different; that we would have been with Him till the end. His followers lived with Him more than three years, and saw miracles, experienced His love. But they scattered like leaves in an Autumn breeze. Those whom He raised from the dead; the crippled whom He made walk; the blind who could now see… it is not recorded that they were at the foot of the cross. What significance that the two Marys – His mother; and the woman who received forgiveness of her sins – were there. Family and forgiveness of sins: a foundational lesson to take away from that Good Friday.

To segue again from the historical and logical to the theological, besides a few grieving friends, Roman guards, and the curious, someone else was at the foot of the cross that day.

It was you and me.

We were not there physically, of course, but Jesus saw us. He looked down and looks at you and me. He looks through our eyes into our hearts. He sees our shortcomings and sins. But that look on His face said to us, “I am doing this for you. Whatever separation you have created for yourself by sinning against God does not have to condemn you any more! The old practices of blood-offerings and sacrifices for sins are over. Now. Believe in me as the Son of God, and accept this sacrifice.” Behold THAT Man.

I also believe, impossible as it would have been, that if all humankind up to that moment had been sinless – that if you or I had been the only sinners in God’s creation – that Jesus Christ still would have willingly gone to the cross. He knew what He was doing. After all, the Bible says that He was the agent of Creation, that through Him all things were made. He knew the plan… and He was willing to fulfill it. For you and me.

Behold that MAN.

The old spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” has countless verses, the traditional call-out structure that has resonated in worship songs among slaves, in bluegrass versions by singers like Wade Mainer, in folk renditions by Johnny Cash and others, touching millions.

Were you there? You were. Just as Jesus has been with us at all the times of our lives. Sometimes it causes me to tremble…

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This version of the old spiritual plaintively is sung a cappella by Russ Taff and a choir; with stark images from The Passion.

Click here: Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?

Abide With Me

3-26-12

Recently we have been thinking about times we have gone through, and days facing us. About short-term anxieties and losing sight of God’s long-term blessings, and His care. “Have a good week!” is the implication of sharing messages on Monday mornings, and is a common wish we speak to each other. Almost (too often) like a mantra: “Have a good day,” “Have a nice week,” even a vague “Have a good one.”

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

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

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

Mr Lyte died three weeks after composing these amazing words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here: Abide With Me

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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