Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

Our Pentecost of Calamity

8-22-16

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

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

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

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

The Bible, inevitably, put the same thought – the same prediction – most clearly: “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (II Timothy 4: 3-4). Indeed, we love our servitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

Purcell’s Funeral Sentences

No Man Can Tame the Tongue

How many terrorist victims were there in the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices this morning? Before you scramble for the latest numbers, the answer is: None.

Cartoonists, writers, and security people were murder victims, not terrorism victims. The distinction is important. The victims of terrorism are citizens of Paris; Christians, Jews, and secularists throughout Paris, France, Europe, and the West; and cartoonists, satirists, thinking people.

Never again, at least for years to come, will average people be able to think skeptically, critically, humorously, even heretically, without looking over our shoulders even in some small way. That is the definition of terrorism, to instill fear and alter our lives.

Charlie Hebdo (Weekly) is a newspaper that is the second incarnation of the comics magazine Charlie Mensuel (Monthly), a magazine named in honor of Charlie Brown. Its original version was satirical but also a reprint vehicle for comic strips, including from the U.S., in the manner of Linus, Tintin, and other character-named European monthlies. In its current version it is aggressively left-wing and had been the object of arson attacks, government censorship, and concomitant success as a humorous, iconoclastic institution.

As a former cartoonist and a publisher and writer who has worked with the European comics industry, I knew two of the cartoonists who were murdered in the Charlie Hebdo offices, Georges Wolinski and Jean Cabut. Amiable fellows — more than amiable; like most cartoonists, personally merry and friendly — they were left-wing and perhaps a bit nihilist. They, and their paper, were equal-opportunity intellectual anarchists: all religions received savage treatment. There were far more attacks on Christianity than on Islam; many more personal and insulting depictions of clergy, and of Mary, God, and Jesus.

This is not to excuse or mischaracterize their work; they never asked for nor expected such defense. Wolinski also scripted a series of pornographic comics, so I seldom was in sympathy with any of their work. Properly regarding satire as free speech; that is, written words and drawings are as of spoken words, we remember that James 3:8 says, “The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”

When the Bible tells us that, it is a warning to devout believers, but also a key to discerning the nature of attacks, harmful speech, and even satire. But after millennia of investing in, and living in, democratic cultures, we are also committed to the dictum misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Liberals and conservatives are quick to quote Voltaire, but often are absent when push comes to shove. Radio’s Michael Savage was banned from travel to the United Kingdom because he called terrorists “Islamo-Fascists.” Not only did the federal government fail to protest, but fellow conservatives, especially the prominent in media, were relatively silent about his case. The British historian David Irving has told me about his incarceration in solitary confinement for two years in Austria because he entered the country years after he spoke there, questioning not the fact but the numbers of people slaughtered during World War II. No governments and few fellow historians protested the violation of free speech, freedom of opinion, in his case. In countries like Canada, Australia, and Germany it is against the law to voice opinions on this subject; yet the West deplores Muslim objections to criticism of the Prophet.

Nativists, xenophobes, and cultural traditionalists have been rising in Europe in recent years. In Austria and Germany (some would say, predictably) but also in countries like Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark. We see rallies, movements, and laws that are anti-immigrant and, because of the statistics, less religious-oriented than economic, social, and cultural.

In a perfect world, Christians would not mirror the intolerance of Muslim extremists. In a perfect world we would reach the lost, convert them by love, and work toward St. Augustine’s “City of God” wherein few are motivated to commit such acts.

We are called to love, but embracing suicide, even cultural suicide by a thousand accelerating concessions and surrenders, cannot be so described.

Feel Like Going Home

11-17-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is called progress.

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

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

This is clearly regression.

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Feel Like Going Home

Who Cares?

8-4-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+

Does Jesus Care?

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

Click: Does Jesus Care?

Sins Of the Fathers

5-19-14

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

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

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

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

To speak about human trafficking… children are the victims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man was freed.

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

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

+ + +

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

Slumber, My Darling

Nostalgia for The “Dark” Ages

3-10-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

Click: Chartres Cathedral

How Can They Believe…?

12-9-13

If you had a child playing at the edge of an ever-widening sinkhole – and sinkholes lately have been in the news, including ones that swallowed people as well as houses – you would call that child to move back. If your friend were eating something poisonous without realizing the dangers, you would advise that friend of the fact. We do the same, some of us, with people, even strangers, who smoke. “Intervention” today increasingly is employed on behalf of people with drinking problems.

Followers of Christ, who subscribe to the beliefs that all of us make mistakes and are sinful at heart; that therefore a wide gulf separates us from a Holy God; that this God nevertheless desires eternal fellowship with us and offers forgiveness and salvation; and that “accepting” Jesus – believing in our hearts and confessing with our words – these Christians cannot do anything else than have the same regard for other people’s souls as we do their health and comfort.

How often do contemporary Christians fit that last puzzle-piece in place?

Failing this, we condemn ourselves; and we are implicit in sending others to the cold darkness of eternity, separation from God. How often do we avoid sharing even the smallest portion of Jesus with someone because we might “offend them”? Hurt their feelings? “Hey buddy, don’t smoke in your apartment, but I don’t care if you go to hell.”

It’s not always comfortable, but neither was that splintery cross. Living in a multimedia culture makes it easy to assume everyone thinks like we do, or has access to the same facts that we process. Not so. When the Apostle Paul arrived in Ephesus, word-of-mouth about the Savior had already led to the establishment of several Christian communities. But not every word had been shared by every mouth:

“…he reached Ephesus, on the coast, where he found several believers. ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ he asked them. ‘No,’ they replied, ‘we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ ‘Then what baptism did you experience?’ he asked. And they replied, ‘The baptism of John.’ Paul said, ‘John’s baptism called for repentance from sin. But John himself told the people to believe in the one who would come later, meaning Jesus.’ As soon as they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:1-6, NLT).

Paul wrote letters to local churches and church leaders, sharing the good news, and answering questions. These letters comprise the majority of the New Testament. We shared last week how papyrus letters from a generation or two after Paul are extant. Before Christ’s time, spiritual news and God’s words were shared by Torah scrolls, inscriptions, sacred texts. After him we have the successive march of letters, manuscripts, tapestries and stained-glass picture stories, parchment books, printed books, mass-production, tracts, evangelistic crusades, recordings, radio, short-wave, television, and the internet.

The SHARING of the good news is central to the good news itself. “Go into all the world…” Jesus said, commissioning His disciples. Romans 10:14-15 argues: “How can they call on Him to save them unless they believe in Him? And how can they believe in Him if they have never heard about Him? And how can they hear about Him unless someone tells them?  And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, ‘How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!’ (NLT) Like much of the Book of Romans, this is like an advocate summarizing his case. How can they hear about Jesus unless someone tells them?

Right about in the middle of humankind’s list of ways to share the good news – not in a timeline, but in the numbers of methods and technologies – is the radio. After its invention it was available to almost every community on the earth. And much of its message, especially today on short-wave broadcasts, is Christian. I went to Sunday school as a child, but it was preachers on my AM transistor radio from whom I really heard the first hard (and sweet) truths of the Gospel; and came face-to-face with decisions to make, or avoid, regarding Jesus Christ.

Albert E. Brumley was an American gospel songwriter of the past century. He wrote more than 800 sermons-in-song, many of which are favorites today in churches, hymnbooks, and recordings. Among them are “I’ll Fly Away,” “If We Never Meet Again (This Side of Heaven),” “I’ll Meet You In The Morning,” “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” “I’d Rather Be An Old Time Christian,” and “Rank Strangers to Me.”

He told a story about another of his classics… and the role of radio in spreading the gospel:

“I wrote ‘Turn Your Radio On’ in 1937, and it was published in 1938. At this time radio was relatively new to the rural people, especially gospel music programs. I had become alert to the necessity of creating song titles, themes, and plots, and frequently people would call me and say, ‘Turn your radio on, Albert, they’re singing one of your songs on such-and-such a station.’ It finally dawned on me to use… ‘Turn your radio on’ as a theme for a religious… song.”

Like the poor, radio we will always have with us. In the words of the song, “turn your radio on and listen to the music in the air; Turn your radio on and heaven’s glory share…”

Are you tuned in… to what God is saying to you? Don’t touch that dial! You can broadcast (as it were) a brief public-service announcement, or a personal message, every once in a while yourself.

+ + +

Many folks’ favorite version of Brumley’s classic song is by the great Ray Stevens. Fun, upbeat, infectious… meaningful. Here he sings at the piano, surrounded by friends who sing along, as you might, yourself.

Click: Turn Your Radio On

Well Sung, Thou Good and Faithful Servant

4-22-13

George Beverly Shea, who provided the theme music, in a real way, to the faith of several generations of Christians, died on Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

He lived to the age 104. One hundred and four was the a number that had many people talking when they heard of Bev Shea’s passing. Yet other numbers are more significant. Two hundred million is the approximate number of people before whom he performed his hymns, live, through the years. Sixty-five is how many years ago he joined Billy Graham’s ministry. Seventy is the number of albums he recorded. Ten is the number of Grammy nominations he received.

And “countless” is the number of people who profoundly were touched by Bev Shea’s sincere renditions; and countless the number of souls he ushered into Heaven through his music ministry.

So 104, by itself, is not a significant number. A form of an old joke addresses the chronological milepost: “Just reach 103, and be very careful!” But the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote: “The value of life is not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them; a man may live long yet very little.”

Bev Shea’s career is a testament to a life of value, lived yielded to the Holy Spirit. His part in the story of the three men who were the core of hundreds of crusades – more than 60 years of friendship with each other, and friendship with Jesus – is remarkable. Those men were Bev Shea, singer; Cliff Barrows, musical director and host; and Billy Graham.

Many great preachers and evangelists have surrounded themselves with music and musicians, knowing that between heartfelt hymns and catchy gospel songs, there was “bait” enough to attract people not yet secure in their faith. Martin Luther had Johannes Walther… and J. S. Bach, 200 years later. Dwight L Moody had Ira Sankey, and Fanny Crosby’s hymns. Billy Sunday had Homer Rodeheaver. Billy Graham himself admitted he never would have had a successful ministry without Bev Shea’s singing. Graham’s own singing talents were charitably described by Bev as sustaining the “malady of no melody.”

Many advertisements and handbills for early crusades read, “BEV SHEA SINGS… Billy Graham will preach.” Indeed, it seemed the cart approached the horse when the unknown fledgling preacher Billy Graham knocked on the door of Bev Shea’s office at WMBI, Moody Bible Radio in Chicago, and asked the famous singer to join him. Bev accepted, reminding more than a few people of Jesus calling a diverse group of Disciples.

For all of Billy Graham’s powerful sermons and tremendous influence, one cannot envision one of his crusades without music, without Bev Shea. The associations are many: the altar-call hymn, “Just As I Am”; the inspiring “This Is My Father’s World”; the sermon-in-song “The Ninety and Nine.” Bev himself was responsible for the tune to “I’d Rather Have Jesus’; and he wrote words and music to “The Wonder of It All.” The music at an early crusade in Los Angeles was responsible for the conversion of cowboy star Stuart Hamblin… whose own gospel songs “Until Then” and “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)” subsequently became crusade favorites.

One of Bev Shea’s signature songs is regarded as the world’s favorite hymn, after “Amazing Grace” — “How Great Thou Art.” Today, many people think it is a centuries-old standard, but it was only in the 1950s, at a Billy Graham Crusade in New York’s Madison Square Garden, that Bev Shea first sang it in the form we know today. Audience reaction demanded multiple encores on successive days, and an extended booking for the nightly crusades. The hymn had originated as a poem and an unrelated folk tune in Sweden and had traveled to Christian communities in Germany, Russia, the Ukraine, England, Canada, and the United States… until, with Bev Shea’s variations and powerful performance, it caught fire.

The astonishing appeal of Bev Shea is due only in part to his velvet-toned bass-baritone. It is more than his straightforward presentation of classic hymns, which, sung by any other voice in the 21st century, might have seemed anachronistic. It is not even fully explained by his courtly presence, so manifest on platform and in private, whether with a few personal friends or multitudes of fans.

I believe Bev Shea’s appeal, ultimately, was his lack of guile, using a word the Bible warns against. “No shadow of turning.” He simply introduced Christ. Technically speaking, Cliff Barrows introduced Bev Shea, Bev Shea introduced Billy Graham, and Billy Graham introduced Jesus Christ, all yielded to the Holy Spirit’s direction, according to their respective God-given talents.

That explains his life. To explain his death, I cite my friend Jim Watkins, who recalled the gospel song written by Bev Shea, and referred to that lifetime of friendly partnership with the crusade team: “George Beverly Shea, Billy Graham’s featured soloist for 60 years, is now realizing the full extent of his famous song, ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus.’” It was time, and Heaven is sounding sweeter right about now.

Well sung, thou good and faithful servant.

Rick at the Cove

Cliff Barrows, Rick Marschall, Joni Eareckson Tada, George Beverly Shea, Joni’s mom Lindy

+ + +

I got to know Bev Shea when working on a proposed PBS documentary on gospel music, for producer Don Stillman. Days spent at the Cove with him and Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham staff, even Joni Eareckson Tada, were precious. At the crusades, Bev Shea sang and seldom spoke. When he did introduce a song, however, he spoke from his heart, as this vid from a performance, probably early 1960s, attests. A portion of his testimony. And his classic song…

Click: I’d Rather Have Jesus

How to Paint with No Hands

2-11-13

This is the Age of Specialization. If you don’t agree, look at the Yellow Pages (oh, OK, or a Google search) for local physicians. You will find categories for ailments and body parts – left and right; upper and lower – you never heard of. The same with, say, magazines. They say print journalism is dying, but “niche publishing” flourishes: serving every interest, hobby, and need.

I think of all us accept that God has some specific gift, a certain talent, apportioned to each of us. Surely we sense an aptitude we might have, as we proceed in life; we must. And, I hope, we all pray for guidance and grace as we exercise God’s career counseling, so to speak.

But do you ever wonder whether we short-change ourselves, and neglect more of God’s blessings, when we pursue one “gifting”? After all, the Bible lists nine spiritual gifts, given at different times to His children, when needed for their benefit and His purpose. I believe he has created us all as multi-talented, potentially multi-tasking, budding “polymaths” – people of many interests, capacities, and knowledge. For our fulfillment, and His glory.

The German Enlightenment philosopher (and dramatist, and critic, and, well, polymath) Gotthold Lessing made this point about the arts – about human creativity – when he dissented from Horace’s classic prescription “as painting, so poetry.” In other words, Lessing said, every art form has its own language, structure, and standards; and should be liberated from other forms. In his day, the 18th century, this was a strange concept, and is why his book “Laocoon” was revolutionary.

Stick with me! There is a theological point, and a life application. In Lessing’s play “Emilia Galotti” he takes to another level his question about whether our creative urges and emotional investments must be focused, or may be generalized, in our lives. A painter in the play asks whether Raphael would have been as great an artist if he had lost his hands.

It is a question that is not meant to address discouragement over a handicap, or whether Rafael would have merely retired to a life as a fishmonger. The implication is that we all have the creative spark; we are all capable of sensibility and creativity; and what we have to SAY is what matters. Whether it gets expressed in art or music or poetry or literature or dance; or charity or service or individual devotion, is a mere detail. We might not be blessed with a Rafael’s singular talent for dramatic composition and depiction, or a Bach’s intuitive mastery of melody and harmony… but creative urges, the talents we possess, have similar potential. And can be just as powerful in their expression.

They are from God, after all. He gives us gifts, and expects us to use them. He gives us direction, and instructs us to follow Him. He gives us commands, and He wants us to obey them. To quote Mother Teresa, God does not need us to be successful; He wants us to be obedient.

What is our job – not only our profession – in this world? What would God have us to do? And should we restrict ourselves to just one of the many tools He offers us? The singer/songwriter Stephen Hill thought about these things. He wrote a simple song with impactful lyrics, “Will He Look At Me and Say ‘Well Done’?”

When we imagine that day, that meeting, it can make things clearer for us now. Heavenly perspective. The light burden of great opportunities. The amazing array of gifts God has spread before us.

A week before Hill died last year, he wrote on his Facebook page: “Jesus said a lot of great things. He did a lot of great things. He changed the course of history with His words and deeds. The best thing He said was to love God and everybody else. We can’t judge, and that’s hard. Loving people doesn’t mean changing them. That’s even harder. I hope He gives me a break when I see Him face to face. I also hope that He forgives the mistakes I make in my zeal. Love and forgiveness. Love and forgiveness. Love and forgiveness. I’ll let God change what He wants to in other people. Change me first, oh Lord.”

Be open to the MANY ways God can change you. If you don’t sing, write. If you don’t write, paint. If you don’t paint, preach. If you don’t do anything else, love. And forgive. Be creative. You are made in the image of the Creator.

+ + +

Stephen Hill was a Baptist preacher, singer, songwriter, session musician and singer; a humble servant of God whose musical talents were immense, not easily categorized. In this song he turns blues chords and all manner of minor notes into a joyful message of encouragement. He performed this in the Netherlands in 2008.

Click: Will He Look At Me and Say “Well Done”?

Seeking the Kingdom of God – and Why

1-28-13

I have been thinking lately of insights that my wife shared during her period of ministry. Some I have “swiped” and used in my blogs and other writing; just as any Christian wisdom we all gain has been similarly swiped from the Holy Spirit, after all. One of the Holy Ghost’s job descriptions is to guide us in all ways spiritual.

She once observed that the devil doesn’t hate us for ourselves – he doesn’t give a fig for us – but hates the Jesus in us. And that hatred is in direct proportion to the amount of Jesus we have invited into our hearts; that is, the Christ who lives in our lives, and we display and exercise. Just so. This is why Jesus warned that believers would have trouble in this world, and face persecution from all sources, even from family.

She also once observed that before every major event in Jesus’s life and ministry that is recorded in scripture, He went aside to pray. Here was the Son of God – the Incarnate God, in that great mystery – who nevertheless needed to pray. He prayed in private; He prayed long; He prayed often; and He prayed fervently. Surely an example we must not ignore.

And then, Christ’s many references to Heaven. He did good works, and He encouraged others to do good works; certainly. But He focused on Heaven. It should be our goal. It is our natural home. It is where we will find peace… where we will receive treasures… where we will dwell with the Most High. But Jesus did not try to bribe His followers with glimpses of a dreamy theme park: eternal life should be our goal. It is gained by believing that Jesus is the Son of God, in your heart, and confessing this Truth by your words.

There is a movement in contemporary church circles to denigrate the place of Heaven. A gaggle of propositions is maintained chiefly by the “emergent” church, who merely comprise the shock troops; philosophies have also infected mainstream and many evangelical churches. The simple Gospel message is too, well, simple, in their eyes.

It amuses me that the vocabulary of the movement invests it with a secret-society entre-nous aura that is the spiritual equivalence of certain door-knocks to enter speakeasies or secret handshakes in fraternal societies. Let’s see: it is not a church; it is a “conversation.” They are not Christians; they are “Christ-followers.” It is not about answers; it is about “questions” (many of the proponents deny Absolute Truth). It is not about the destination, but about the “journey.”

When the destination is Heaven, this last emergent commandment stubs its spiritual toe. Recent emergent cardinals or popes have dismissed the relevance of Heaven, and some reject the existence of Heaven and/or hell. The real importance, if I can apply a generous patina to their reasoning, is to do Heaven’s work on earth. That is, charity, caring, assistance, and service to others. It is what Jesus would do if He were now, we are told.

Yes, He would. Yes, He did. But He never missed the opportunity to be up-front about a person’s heart, faith, and eternal life. Salvation. Heaven. The place Jesus talked about, and pointed us towards. It was His priority, to be every person’s priority.

It is simple, really – Christ’s concern was our own salvation, one by one, so that after our standing is sure, we might properly serve others. And for the proper reasons. It is ironic that after 500 years, the “works doctrine” asserts itself again. The same with this modern version of relativism, which has polluted the church for 2000 years. If good deeds earn us eternal life, be prepared to meet a lot of government bureaucrats who otherwise despise the Bible, and Communist commissars who dictate food allotments but who shut down churches.

Our righteousness – the “good deeds” we do, our pumped-up conceits of the works we perform – are as dirty rags to God. The Bible tells me so. Practically speaking, these acts might be worthless, and are surely worth less, in God’s eyes, if we neglect our own salvation and do not preach it to others.

The sixth chapter of Matthew has words about these things. It is one of the Bible’s chapters that fairly overflows with elemental wisdom. The Lord’s Prayer; not letting your left hand know what the right does; the lilies of the field; today’s troubles being sufficient to themselves. And “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.” Read it when you have a chance. Here are some excerpts:

Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing….

And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Your eye is a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is good, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is bad, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is! …why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

So don’t worry about these things, saying, “What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously….

All pointing to Heaven. To earnestly desire Heaven, we will, as our hearts overflow with godliness, serve others. To do service work as a way of earning Heaven – or, worse, to not care whether we will have eternal life with God or not – is the abrogation of faith, of love, and of obedience.

As we think of Heaven – as I believe Jesus wants us to do, continuously – we also look forward to experiencing the joy of fellowship with the saints, communion with God, friendship with Jesus; and the grandest of all reunions. What a meeting in the air!

+ + +

Click: What a Meeting In the Air

Keep Your Dumb Ol’ Christmas

12-10-12

Here is a holiday surprise: Let us celebrate Easter this Christmas! Or Ascension Day, or All Saints Day, or any other day of the church calendar.

The current assault on Christmas around the world, particularly virulent in the United States, properly should be seen for what it really is: a tool, a weapon, just one battle in the war on Christianity. The Brave New World of tomorrow, where piety is mocked, religion is persecuted, and God is denied… is here, today.

The multitudinous forces that attack Christianity are doing a favor to the remnant of believers, in one sense: they clarify the issue at hand. The world has always hated us; the world system works against us; the world, the flesh, and the devil ceaselessly work to do us harm. Rather, they rail against God Almighty, and, often, we are in the way.

But the very specific, and frequently absurd, crusade against Christmas has caused me to sit back and assess matters.

Christians, sitting around the dinner table, or at church suppers, are incensed when municipal governments remove Christmas trees, when restaurants take down colored balls and angels from seasonal ornamentation, when schools and offices yield to pressure and remove red and green decorations, and call Christmas holidays a Winter Break.

All of a sudden Christians find themselves mustering their courage, channeling their outrage, to stand up for Christmas – in the forms of Santa Claus and reindeer; cartoon elves; lawn displays of Scooby Doo and snowmen with red caps and scarves; and, boldly, saying “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” to anyone we choose, in open view. They fight for nativity scenes in public squares (usually if Zoroastrians and Druids can have equal space). They pointedly will say “Christmas tree” and not “Holiday tree.”

THIS is what Christmas means to a lot of Christians? Defending Santa Claus to the death? Preserving plastic Wise Men in the town square? Playing “White Christmas” on the radio where you work?

Where is the Jesus in all this? – except for our “reason for the season” bumper strips. Are we making a god of the fat guy in the red suit? Why doesn’t our religion get it over with, and have a holiday with a pink Easter bunny in the manger, Santa on the cross, and communion with cookies and egg nog? The enemies of Christmas – of Christ – can go to hell, and I am not being coarse: I am stating a biblical truth. But a lot of Christians might join them, if in the process they are seduced into sublimating the Son of God to exalt the Commercial One (Santa), fellowship with the saints (shoppers), share the Truth (madly address Christmas cards), or sing for joy (about Rudolph). We make Christmas more of a secular holiday than atheists can ever dream of.

My suggestion for this Christmas season is based on the text “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” My subtext is that Jesus came not into the world in order to amaze shepherds that a virgin could conceive. God became man and dwelt among us in order to save humankind from its sins.

The cross, indeed, is the purpose of Christmas: the reason for the season.

Why do we compartmentalize Christmas and Easter? I exclude the obvious suspects from the ranks of record producers, TV programmers, and Hallmark cards. I propose we celebrate Easter this year at Christmas “time”! And that on Easter we meditate on the miracle of the Incarnation! On Pentecost, we can celebrate the sacrament of baptism! And so forth.

Is it a sin to sing a beautiful Christmas carol during the other 11 months of the year? What is wrong with saying “He is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” in December? When our faith is full, and our appreciation of the Lord transcends artificial boundaries, we can move in and out of spiritual ghettos to luxuriate in the fullness of God. Time-restricted holidays can be a curse.

So, let us fight as we can and when we can against the secularization of a culture that was built on biblical principles and a Christian heritage. Sure. But in the process, while fighting the atheists and secularists, let us not exalt Santa over Jesus.

Christians: replace “Let’s keep Christ in Christmas” with “Let’s keep Christ in Christianity.”

+ + +

Giants of the church like Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach, and I daresay Jesus Himself, would be pleased, and think it perfectly proper, that even a farmer who raises ducks would pause in the pen and sing praises to God. It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to the holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who overcame death and the grave; and by His glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life. Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify His glorious name, evermore praising Him and singing. Here is a poultryman, making Holy ground of a duck house — a manger, if you will — just as we can celebrate Christmas on any old day of the year.

Click: Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring

Coming — The Most Awful Day in Mankind’s History

2-27-12

Coming — The Most Awful Day in Mankind’s History
This is a Lenten message, but about the end of the Lenten Season, not the beginning. So many holy days / holidays are associated with the period before Easter, that some can lose their meaning, if not their significance. We can think of how Mardi Gras and various Carnivals around the world steal from the unique spirituality of the Lenten Season that begins on Ash Wednesday. And during Holy Week itself, yes, commercialism and carnality intrude, but mostly the immense implications of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, tend to eclipse the other days.

We sometimes can benefit from looking at days on the church calendar that are less celebrated than others; and it is good to think about Christian days “out of order.” In fact it interrupts our appreciation of the fullness of God when we compartmentalize Christmas in the winter, Easter in the Spring … whoops, Palm Sunday comes first, let’s keep things in order. Commemoration is beneficial, and I’ll be the first to admit that I need reminders about some things; but we can let the calendar rule us, sometimes.

Shouldn’t we celebrate Christ’s coming to earth, God condescending to become flesh and identify with humankind – and us better with Him – every day of the year? Not just Christmas day! And woe to us if we contemplate the fact of the Resurrection – an astonishing miracle, with its implications for all of Creation, and for each of us individually – more on Easter Sunday than every day, every minute, of our lives.

In that context I have a thought about “Holy Week,” down at the other end of the Lenten Season. Palm Sunday we know about well, from the festive welcome Jesus received, and many re-creations we see. Some traditions observe Maundy Thursday and solemnly meditate on the sorrows of Jesus’s last hours as a man. Christian churches open, and even the New York Stock Exchange closes, to observe Good Friday. Easter, of course: it is central to believers’ faith; it is when families get together; it is when “Chreasters” (people who attend church on Christmas and Easter) come out to see their shadows, thank God.

But except for ancient traditions and very liturgical and Orthodox churches, and even then never to the degrees accorded other holy days, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday receives scant focus. “Holy Saturday” is the only name it has, and some ancient rites would hold services in stark settings, and exercise fasting, on the day.

It deserves a major portion of our attention.

Many theologians divide history in half: all of Creation and humankind before Jesus; then the Incarnation and redemption of the world after the Resurrection. Mankind was under the curse of the Law until His death on the cross; and, the Bible tells us – Jesus Himself told us – after the Resurrection, life is in Him. It is the message written on every page of scripture… numerous prophecies and prefiguring and foreshadows in the Old Testament, pointing to Christ. The Scarlet Thread of Redemption. And now we are heirs to numerous promises about Eternity.

Glorious! Yet… there was one day in history when humanity must have felt utterly alone. Multitudes had heard Jesus’s teachings. Many did not understand. Some did. But everyone in Jerusalem – haters and scholars, followers and family – all knew one thing that Saturday.

Jesus was gone. He died. There were many witnesses. It was official. He was prepared for burial in the usual way, wrapped and buried. The earth was dark, Jerusalem was silent. Those who followed His ministry faced His absence. Those who knew Him best, even His mother, confronted the void. The Bible’s accounts tell us that nobody remembered, or believed any more, the scripture’s prophecies, or His promises.

You and I know what happened the next day. But we would not have known on that Saturday: no one did.

Was that Saturday not just the most awful day in His followers’ hearts, but in mankind’s history? Literally and figuratively, Jesus was removed from our midst on that day. People whose faith had sustained them… were shaken. People who had witnessed miracles, who had experienced miracles… prayed vainly for another. He had comforted the little children, and the widows, and the orphans, and the sick, and the needy, and the outcasts, and the sinners… would they be comforted no more? “I have come that you might have life”… was His life over? “I will be with you always,” the promise that would be spoken later but surely was a message of His entire ministry… was it a lie?

The nearest I can imagine to the feelings in people’s hearts that Saturday is what I have read about “terminal” feelings of being alone, truly alone. People who have survived suicide attempts, for instance, often confess to an extreme, aching sense of “aloneness,” not normal loneliness or isolation, of being aware that there are no helpers, no friends to call upon. Sometimes people are not aware of God’s presence; they call out but cannot hear an answer in their distress. “Cold” is the word most often used with “alone.”

Surely this feeling, deeper than deep in the soul, is the most awful emotion anyone can feel. Disappointment, failure, defeat, betrayal, standard tragedies, cannot come close. They are not AS close to our core.

And this is the feeling that Jesus’s family and followers must have felt that Saturday we look forward to in a few weeks; before He revealed Himself, and all Truth, to them. Indeed, all Creation felt that feeling on that day. Thank God that humankind has never had another such day, before or since.

Is there a benefit in this morose contemplation? I don’t believe it is morose; it is all in God’s plan. How much greater does the glory of Easter seem? How much more can we appreciate the presence of a Living Savior in our lives? How sweeter is the Christian walk if we remind ourselves of the horror of being alone… but instead, having a Friend who not only overcame death, but takes our hand to lead us to places where we will never be alone!

+ + +

“There’s not a thing in this world that’s worse than being alone… Take my hand, let me stand…”

Click: Where No One Stands Alone

All Things To All People

2-13-12

A political season can get people thinking about promises – promises for the future (by candidates we like) and the potential of broken promises (by those whom we don’t). When I was a kid I wrote a fan letter to Walt Kelly, the cartoonist of “Pogo,” who sent a drawing of Albert the Alligator’s platform as a political advisor: “I promise you voters to not promise anything. And if I do make a promise, I promise not to keep it.”

That would be refreshing, really. But the problem with promises is not politics or politicians – it’s human nature; which, I promise you, will never change on its own.

Truth is something we all must confront, and deal with. Even Pontius Pilate, yielding to public pressure, desperately trying by symbolism to wash his hands of the guilty act of condemning an innocent man to die, looked at Jesus, probably knowing better than the mob did Whom he addressed. He asked, “What is Truth?” People don’t ask such questions of criminals or strangers or even politicians, of Pilate’s day or our own day.

One aspect of human nature is that when we are confronted with Truth, it frequently is our tendency not to change ourselves or our habits, but to bend truth, explain it away, weaken it, even deny it. Heretics through the history of Christianity, “relativists” in philosophy, and leaders of the Emergent movement on the fringes of today’s religion, all have tacked adjectives to the word “truth.” They give us relational truth, conditional truth, relative truth… everything except the firmly rejected Absolute Truth. Which the Bible teaches. And what God IS. And what Jesus embodied – “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

I have noticed that a lot of Christians can be timid about the truth, and frequently they justify it by not wanting to offend non-believers. Some even think that being too bold with the truth about God – maybe at first, anyway – might alienate prospective Christians. “Meet them at the their level,” because, after all, doesn’t God say He loves us just as we are? … and pretty soon, the well-meaning Christian is the enabler of sin and a rebellious lifestyle, instead of speaking the truth.

If someone were to approach you on the street, and say, “Sic enim dilexit Deus mundum ut Filium suum unigenitum daret ut omnis qui credit in eum non pereat sed habeat vitam aeternam,” chance are you would not know what the person said. I wouldn’t. How about if someone in the supermarket called to you, “Denn so hat Gott die Welt geliebt, daß er seinen eingeborenen Sohn gab, damit jeder, der an ihn glaubt, nicht verloren gehe, sondern ewiges Leben habe!” it probably would not be much different. Are they asking a question, telling a joke, or cursing at you? Then you get a phone call: “Car Dieu a tant aimé le monde qu’il a donné son Fils unique, afin que quiconque croit en lui ne périsse point, mais qu’il ait la vie éternelle.”

Well, these are the Latin, German, and French translations of John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” If you went to Sunday School, if you watch football games on TV, you know the verse. Do you know it in Latin?

It makes no difference whether you understand it or not: it is still true.

And this is a lesson for how you and I should relate to non-believers. Some Christian counselors dismiss bad behavior, for fear of offending those who need help. Some youth workers try to dress and talk and act like adolescents, subconsciously (or maybe quite deliberately) thinking that they have found a way to reach kids that is better than sharing God’s truth. No: we should speak the truth, and the Holy Spirit takes over when the seed is planted – part of the job description.

Most of us live on smaller stages, but we should remember that when St Paul explained that he was willing to be “all things to all people,” he didn’t mean compromising his faith; he meant that, unlike haughty priests, he knew it was necessary to meet everyone where they were, literally. He “spoke Greek to Greeks,” and showed up in front of pagan temples – not to join in their rituals but to share Jesus with people who would never otherwise hear such words.

Likewise, Jesus Himself. He had fellowship with Mary Magdalene, and the woman at the well, not to have sex but to discuss their sins. Not even to condemn, but to forgive. But He did not “accept” them “where they were” in terms of accepting their transgressions. Just the opposite. Jesus was, and is, quick and hard with the Truth. “Sin no more.”

If we do less – whether confronting our own sins; or the sometimes excruciating obligation to share the gospel with others; or in confronting integrity in national debates – if we do less, we fail not by slight degrees, but miserably.

For then we brand ourselves as “half-truthers,” which is tradition’s polite term for liars. All things to all people? Unless you define it as Paul did… far better it is to be one thing to the One God. If truth be told.

+ + +

Truth does not vary according to the audience or the culture or the times. That is the definition of truth. Like a rock. Not just as a last refuge but a first affection, we should cling to the Rock of Ages. Here some Homecoming singers at the Cove, Billy Graham’s conference center, gathered to sing the classic hymn. Sitting next to Gloria Gaither that day, under a portrait of Billy Graham, was Billy’s late wife Ruth.

Click: All Things To All People

A Legend of America’s Music, and God’s, Passes

9-26-11

Wade Mainer died last week. He was 104 years old. Born when Theodore Roosevelt was president and only four years after the Wright Brothers first flew, he was just about old enough to vote when sound came to movies, Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, and Babe Ruth hit 60 homers. He was only 22 when the first Great Depression fell… but things actually didn’t change much for the worse in those hard-scrapple hills of Buncombe County, North Carolina, where he was reared. Music was one of the few “releases” folks had, a type of salvation.

But Wade was not notable because he lived longer than is allotted to most of us. Among his plaudits is the fact that he followed his brother J E Mainer into playing music. J E was a fiddle player; Wade got interested in the banjo, which then, in black and white rural Southern music, was strummed (or played “claw hammer” style). Wade experimented, following his own curiosity and taste, and started plucking the strings. He used only two fingers – his own style.

It was a distinctive style of playing, and a sound that fit well with the guitar and fiddle of mountain music. Other local banjo players were influenced; one of them was Smith Hammett, who influenced a few more, one of them being a cousin named Earl Scruggs. Earl “added” a finger to the right-hand picking, learned to slide and bend the strings a little bit on the neck, and the famous “sound” of the Bluegrass banjo was born.

Wade Mainer began that musical thread, but was modest about his role, and in fact never played in the Scruggs style, and firmly declined the Bluegrass label. When I would call his music “mountain” music, he liked that best. Yes, I had the privilege to know Wade.

I had written several books on country music, and written about the Mainers, without knowing he was still alive; or dreaming that I would meet him; or guessing that we would become friends. I had moved from San Diego to mid-Michigan to be close to my daughter who took a job as a youth pastor. A local radio station announced a 97th birthday party concert for Wade Mainer – could it be? – and I met him, wound up joining his church, and becoming friends with him and his wife Julia, whose own stage name in the 1930s was “Hillbilly Lillie.”

Back to the 1930s. The ensemble “Mainer’s Mountaineers” became a major act, and recorded for RCA Victor Records. In the early 1940s Wade played in a Broadway revue, The Old Chisolm Trail, with Woodie Guthrie and Burl Ives. He performed at the White House for President Franklin D Roosevelt. Then came World War II, a postwar recession, and a public’s taste that veered away from traditional mountain songs. Wade could no longer support his family with the banjo. The auto industry was booming, and he took a factory job with General Motors in Flint, Michigan.

At that period of his life, a renewed commitment to God coincided with laying the banjo down. He considered that playing country music – anything that didn’t serve God – should be avoided. He stopped recording, touring, even playing locally. It was only later, when the legendary Molly O’Day, also born again, persuaded him that he should serve God through his music, that he began to sing, play, and record again.(Molly O’Day was one who discovered a young Hank Williams.) Latter-day albums were released by John Morris’s Old Homestead Records.

Until near the end, Wade played a lively banjo, had a great sense of humor on the stage and in his living room… and loved to testify. He would punctuate his monologues with everyday talk about Heaven and Jesus. And Julia, 94, who still plays a great flattop guitar in the style of Riley Puckett and Mother Maybelle Carter, can break out in spontaneous, anointed prayer that can sweep the hearts of everyone in a room.

I wanted to tip my hat to a legend I was blessed to know (a painting I did of Wade and Julia performing is attached to this message) – but also to share the story of a man who was responsible for starting a major trend in American music, but was uncomfortable discussing it; who scaled the heights of show business for a time, but was totally modest about his acclaim; and – most of all – who followed his Christian conscience in forsaking the music business, or returning strictly to gospel music, despite many pleas to hit the road and club venues again. Those are rare traits these days, but Wade Mainer was a rare type of man.


Painting of Wade Mainer

+ + +

The video accompanying this message is a portion of an interview with Wade conducted by David Holt – this generation’s John or Alan Lomax, seeking out pioneers of American music. Wade and Julia perform his gospel classics Sit Down (“I just got to Heaven and I got to walk around”) and Take Me in Your Lifeboat.

Click: Wade Mainer Gospel

A Life-Changing Experience – If You Want to Change Your Life

7-28-11

Back in 2004, I was already the author of a few dozen books, and some experience as a writer of articles and interviews and columns. Now that I start thinking about it, I had done a lot of political cartoons and columns too; essays for journals and liner notes for albums. In between those things, I had been an editor, a publisher, and art director too. And I taught creative writing and ran workshops. Yes, I can keep jobs. But I just love all aspects of writing – communicating. God had blessed me richly.

I received an invitation from a Christian Writer’s Conference to speak and hold workshops. I had just been canned from a job at a Christian publishing house, and I wondered whether I would be appearing under false colors. Well, I thought, maybe I can share with aspiring writers how to cope with being let go. Frankly, I was uncomfortable. But I opened morning devotions – an assignment tossed to me by Director Marlene Bagnull, who always knows what she is doing – and I told the audience that I should let them know I was no longer an editor at that publishing house… that I left on account of sickness… (pause) you see, the boss finally got sick of me.

I don’t know about the audience, but it broke the ice for me. To tell the truth, I was quite all right with my situation, but that didn’t stop dozens and dozens (and dozens) of people that week, coming to me, encouraging me, praying with me – strangers, aspiring amateurs, and idols in my field. It was like family. Christian conferences should be like that… Heaven will be like that… and Marlene Bagnull’s Christian Writer’s Conferences are ALWAYS like that.

That is a personal story. I will now tell you some “business” details that can have a very personal impact on your life.

The next of Marlene’s conferences is the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writer’s Conference, on the campus of Philadelphia Biblical University outside Philly, Aug 10-13. Short notice, but not too late, worth the effort to attend! “Write His Answer” is the evergreen theme, and for anyone with creative urges, a struggling career, a passion to communicate; eager to meet famous and accomplished writers, industry professionals including editors, agents, and publishers; or to network with other aspiring writers – this conference will be pure gold.

The guest list includes (among a faculty of almost 60) Cecil Murphey, amazing author or collaborator on more than 100 books including 90 Minutes in Heaven; Ted Baehr of the Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher of MOVIEGUIDE Magazine; Dan Wooding of the essential ASSIST News Service; Steve Lawson of Regal Publishing, who will hold a seminar on Christian persecution and social justice; and professionals including Craig Bubeck (editor, Wesleyan); Dave Fessenden (editor, CLC Publishing); Hope Flinchbaugh (author and publisher, History Maker press); Jeanette Windle (missionary and author); Tim Shoemaker (author, youth minister); and Becky Spencer (singer, songwriter, author). I will speak on creative peoples’ response and responsibility to a culture in decline. There will also be a day’s program for young writers, a Teens Write track.

Worship… workshops… seminars… classes… devotions… critiques of writing samples… all types of holy synergy. Get thee to the Conference if at all possible! You will profit in uncountable ways… and you don’t even have to show a pink slip to show up and be blessed!

Details are here: http://writehisanswer.com/Philadelphia/

Did You Miss the Birthday Party…

6-13-11

The most holy days of the Christian calendar might not be Christmas and Easter, greeting cards and family get-togethers to the contrary notwithstanding. I have no intention of diminishing their importance, of course, and we should agree that every day “is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice” in them all. The meanings of Christmas and Easter are foundation-stones of our faith.

However, the two Sundays celebrated in this very church season, back to back, traditionally were major observance-days in church history, most of 2000 years. And they are much neglected today.

I am referring to Ascension Day and Pentecost. Christmas reminds us that God sent his Son; on Easter we celebrate that His Son, who Died in our place for the sin-punishment we deserve, was raised from the dead, as He had raised Lazarus. Although Jesus said “It is finished” before He died on the cross, His earthly ministry was really completed when He ascended into Heaven. He went to sit at the right hand of the Father; His divinity was asserted. Then He became Lord as well as Savior.

Then, in just a few days, there was a gathering in an upper room in Jerusalem.

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance….

Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them… “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know — Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it….

This Jesus, God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. … Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” … Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. … And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.

Pentecost is the birthday of the church. It was from this day, and that event, that the church was commissioned to be God’s home – or, more correctly, be Him, to a lost world. Like a proper birthday party, there were gifts galore, as the excerpt from Acts II describes. Not the least of miracles is that Peter was transformed from a wise guy to a wise man. That’s the kind of thing that happens when the Holy Spirit blows in, and settles in your heart.

I would like to share what I think the church is going to start looking like, but that’s for later. Right now I’m enjoying the birthday party.

+

A great birthday tune: a traditional hymn performed in a non-traditional way (and this traditional guy loves it) by Bart Millard, backed by Mercy Me. Visuals by the traditionally awesome Beanscot Channel.

Click: Brethren, We Have Met to Worship

An Ancient Model Speaks to Our Future

6-6-11

In the time we have been doing these weekly messages, I occasionally have referred to the fact that I was in the process of writing a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach – the “Christian Encounters” of history’s greatest music-maker.

Several people have written, asking What ever happened to that book I was working on? Actually, it was published last month by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

This week I will pass along a couple excerpts from the new book, Johann Sebastian Bach. I pray they have relevance to you in the week ahead. We can take away profound lessons from this man, who was an example of someone graced with talent, yet totally humble in desiring to turn those gifts back to God. Artists should “express themselves” and “be transparent” so their audiences can know “where they are coming from”? Such motivations were unknown, or repugnant, to men and women of Bach’s time. Their efforts – indeed their privilege – was to serve the Savior. That was fulfillment.

Bach began virtually every composition, even his secular music, with a blank paper on which he wrote, Jesu, juva (“Jesus, help me”) on the upper left corner of the first page, and Soli Deo Gloria (“To God alone the glory”) on the bottom right corner of the finished ending. His was a personal relationship, not a professional duty, with the Savior.

Such “bookends” were as anointing oil over all of Bach’s creative work. So did he begin and end his days – and his life – with such petition and praise: “Jesus, help me” and “To God alone be all the glory.” With or without the mode of music, such dedication speaks to us through the years of Bach’s relevance today.

+ + +

Not every believer has had a Road-To-Damascus moment like St Paul’s, nor a terror-filled lightning storm in the Thuringian forest (where Luther vowed to study for the priesthood), nor directly contended with Satan (as Luther, in the famous legend, threw an inkwell while translating the Bible in the Wartburg Castle, Eisenach).

Sebastian Bach modestly was born into the Lutheran faith, died a committed Lutheran communicant, and, by all evidence, never experienced any spiritual doubts or crises of faith. His employers were largely ecclesiastical, and his few “secular” (court music) postings always included Christian music in their assignments. Fully half of the music he wrote was Christian. He managed musical staffs at his churches, and he taught Christian education. He was not an ordained pastor, yet the degree of his daily study, and the examinations he was obliged to pass, proved him the peer of clergy. He was indeed one of the most equipped and effective “preachers” of his age. He has been called “The Fifth Evangelist.”

Humble about his gifts, and determined that all his music was unto the Lord, we can see, as he surely did, that the “secular” Orchestral Suites and the Brandenburg Concertos and the Musical Offering and the Goldberg Variations and the suites for harpsichord and ‘cello and violin and flute – and the toccatas and trios and passacaglias and fantasias and fugues – were all spiritual compositions. Just without words.

Is this not the perfect blueprint for any Christian? Willing to forsake worldly acclaim, this modest servant of his Savior thanked God for the talents with which he was mightily blessed… and used them for the propagation of the Gospel, the souls of his fellow man, and the glory of God.

The glory of God alone.

+

Any piece of Bach’s music, Christian or “secular,” could give us a spiritual boost to start the week. I have chosen for you a beautiful transcription of his famous “Air on the G string” from his third Orchestral Suite. Brief, supernal, played touchingly by the electric violinist Vanessa-Mae. The videos are pictures, somehow appropriate, of God’s other corners of Creation (for Bach was a force of nature, one of the crowns of God’s creation, surely), taken from the Hubbell Space Telescope.

Click: An Ancient Model Speaks to Our Future

Children – Not for Sale

5-16-11

I am rounding out the week at the Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference in Estes Park. One of the two such annual events chaired by Marlene Bagnull (the other is in Philadelphia in August), this conference is a magnet for veteran writers, aspiring writers, editors, and publishers. It overflows with practical training and teaching, but not the least of its offerings –- and blessings -– is the spiritual uplift.

Despite this economy, registration was higher this year then last year. Creative people are more passionate about telling God’s story (“Writing His Message,” from Habakkuk 2:2) than ever! And there is a message to tell.

The theme of this year’s conference, for the morning and evening sessions and keynotes, was the crisis in the culture, writers being engaged to save our nation.

It struck me that over the course of the week, no matter what the focus, there was a unifying theme. Of course the decaying culture, and other obvious headlines, connected the dots of all the talks and presentations. But an underlying subtext –- one that should grieve us all -– became evident in spite of ourselves.

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

To speak about human trafficking… children are the victims.

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

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

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

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

Let us remember the children -– care for them, protect them, cleanse their environment. If one generation messed up, maybe the best thing we can do –- not the only thing, but surely the BEST thing –- is beg forgiveness and leave them a better world.

+

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

Click on: Slumber, My Darling

The Miracle of Forgiveness and Healing

4-11-11

Very much a Lenten story.

The sister and brother-in-law of a friend of mine are missionaries in Mexico Their agency is called Last Frontiers, and this is story about their family’s life this week.

Ed and Denise Aulie work primarily with indigenous peoples of Mexico -– specifically the Nahuatl of Veracruz, and the Ch’ol of Chiapas. They also speak in congregations throughout Mexico, giving studies of God’s Word. They are church planters, and they also minister through literacy training, medical service for the sick, agricultural work, and construction of homes for woman who are alone.

They have worked in the mission field with indigent Mayan and Aztec tribes in Mexico for more than 30 years as a married couple; all their children were born in Mexico. Through the years they have mentored many young people who now serve across the world, including in the US, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, China, India, Yemen and Iraq.

Their story, this week, is about one of their own children, however. Ed will tell the story:

Over the years we have seen many a mangled bicycle lying on the ground, with a sheet covering the rider. We have seen crowds gather around a toppled donkey cart with a child or grandfather lying nearby, having been hit by a vehicle. Yet we never thought that one day it would be our son lying in the oncoming traffic lane after being hit by a car at full speed.

But there was no white sheet.

In Mexico, there is a unique legal requirement. It is called “The Pardon.” When there is an accident involving injury to a person, the designated guilty party is taken to prison and held until he is absolved of his offense. This law, in effect, condemns one as guilty until proven innocent. The only way the guilty person is freed is if the offended party authorizes an official pardon.

Three hours after the accident I entered the police station. The man who drove the car that hit my son Mark was anxious and fearful, his face drawn. I extended my hand to Alfredo (not his real name) and said, “Thank you for not running from the scene of the accident.”

“I would never do that,” he replied.

“No,” I said, “but many people do.”

He quickly assured me that his insurance would cover everything. I was greatly relieved.

The “sword” of a prison stay had been held silently over Alfredo’s head all those hours. That “sentence” of the law had been eating away at him. The police chief presented me with the document of pardon. Without hesitation, I signed the release. I looked over to Alfredo and smiled; I saw his shoulders relax and he sighed in relief. Gone was his fear and overwhelming guilt. Choked up, he repeated “Gracias, Gracias.”

“Señor Alfredo,” I said as I stood and faced him. “What I have done for you tonight is very little compared to the need we all have when we stand before God, the righteous judge. There will be no way we can free ourselves — not by bail, and not by influential friends. Our debt to God is enormous.” His eyes welled up with tears.

“Do you know where you will go if you die tonight?” Alfredo was taken aback with fearful surprise, “I don’t know. I really don’t know!” I told him that there was only One who could free him of his debt, only One who could put his signature on that document of pardon.

“It’s just that simple. Just as I signed to give you liberty, in the same way God sent His only Son to offer you freedom. Jesus signed ‘The Pardon’ at a huge cost — not with money but with His own blood. When He died in our place, He bore the punishment we deserve. If you would trust in Him, Alfredo — trust in Jesus as your Redeemer, Savior, and Lord — not only freedom, but eternal life will be yours.”

Alfredo was free to go. There were no longer any charges against him. Yet he didn’t walk away. He followed me outside to see my wrecked motorcycle, saying that he needed to tell me something. “God IS speaking to me,” he revealed. “Just as you have been so noble and kind in forgiving me, I have to forgive. I need to forgive my wife for wrong she has done to me. I have been very harsh toward her. Because of that, we are now separated.”

It was wrenching to see a diagram of the accident and know that the little stick figure lying in the oncoming traffic lane represented my son. As I looked at the battered helmet and the crushed metal saddle bag, I marveled at how Mark’s leg was protected from amputation, and his life was spared. I looked at the mangled motorcycle jacket with its protective armor and thought of the “full armor” of God, which protects us spiritually and physically.

Mark had not one broken bone, despite having been struck by a speeding car that never saw him and never braked. The impact sent him flying into the windshield and bouncing 20 feet to the pavement. The neurosurgeon, after seeing the MRIs, marveled. He told Mark, “These results show that you are on the opposite side of the spectrum of almost everyone who comes into my office.” The doctor fixed his eyes on Mark and declared, “Marcos, you are alive now because you have a purpose and a mission. Fulfill it.”

God is merciful and good. Mark’s recovery will be slow but sure. We ask for your prayers for him and his future, and prayers for Alfredo. God is not finished with his story yet either. He is coming to our home this Sunday afternoon to visit.

Finally, would YOU ask God to give you the grace to give “The Pardon” to anyone in your life, whether they are waiting for it or not? Don’t let a sword hang over that person’s head a minute longer.

“Be merciful as your Heavenly Father is merciful.” [Luke 6:36]

+

I believe that the meaning, and to major extent the essence, of the Easter story is in Ed’s letter. The purpose of the Incarnation… the offer of pardon for our sins… the role of forgiveness… sharing the Good News. The meaning, and to a major extent the essence, of the Easter story is neutralized in our lives if we keep it as a historical episode from 2000 years ago. It is not only relevant for today. It must HAPPEN every day, in each of our lives.

+

Click: I Can Only Imagine (Puedo Imaginarme)

If you are interested in the ministry of Last Frontiers, click its name on the MMMM Recommended Sites list on the right. You can learn about their missions, their news updates, their support opportunities.

The Crown… or the Cross?

3-7-11

The assassination this week of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister of Minorities in Pakistan, is a story that garnered some attention in the news, but for the most part was subsumed by other reports on related issues from the Islamic world.

Shahbaz was the only Christian in the national cabinet, a brave advocate of religious freedom before world forums and in his own land. The news that crowded his murder from the headlines included other assassinations; street protests; Christians being arrested; Muslim factional hatred; Christians fleeing their homelands; government crackdowns; Christian churches being invaded; piracy, kidnappings and murder; and Christian martyrdom, from lowly believers and pastors to prominent officials in several countries.

According to the BBC, “Mr Bhatti, 42, a leader of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), had just left his mother’s home in a suburb of the capital when several gunmen surrounded his vehicle and riddled it with bullets, say witnesses.” He routinely had been receiving death threats for urging reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. “Pamphlets by al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab, a branch of the Taliban in Pakistan’s most populous province, were found at the scene.” Tehrik-i-Taliban told BBC Urdu they carried out the attack.

Four months ago, Shahbaz said in a video, “I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ who has given His own life for us. I know what is the meaning of [the] cross. And I am following… the cross.” He continued, “I am ready to die for the cross,” speaking these words calmly and with confidence. He knew he was reciting his own epitaph. Shahbaz was not a supernatural prophet – he surely knew the dangers to his life – rather he was a humble servant, an obedient follower.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will follow me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross (Matthew 16:24).

Shahbaz correctly pinpointed the center of our world’s coming crisis – not economies nor resources nor pollution; not even religion – but the cross of Jesus Christ. And the persecuted church, in so many of the world’s fiery corners, understands this. Despite the horrible treatment of uncountable Christian martyrs, now approaching one a minute, every day, around the world, that persecuted church is being purified, like gold in a fire.

Some Christians in the West concern themselves with the “Prosperity Gospel,” and debate universalist theories that everyone is going to Heaven, “if there is a Heaven.” But Christ-followers and missionaries and martyrs elsewhere in the world work to “know Christ and make Him known.”

The “crown” is the exclusive focus of too many Christians. Christ promised an abundant life, certainly; but He offered, and warned, and promised, the burden (mysteriously, a glorious burden!) of the “cross.” Plausible Christianity is that the Crown awaits us in Heaven; and the Cross is our lot here.

“It is one thing to kneel at the foot of the cross for forgiveness; it is quite another thing to get on that cross to follow Jesus in His death. But it is the only way to live the resurrected life. This is what it means to be His disciple. When we live the crucified life, nothing can truly harm us. You can’t hurt a dead person.” So wrote a friend, singer/songwriter Becky Spencer, this week. “Our churches are filled with bored, dissatisfied Christians. Not because our God isn’t enough, but because most of them have only visited the cross once for salvation. It is meant to be embraced every day.”

I did not know Shahbaz Bhatti. Three of my close friends did, but I cannot say that I would speak his mind here. However, his murder this week has me thinking more than ever about the persecution of Christians, and our proper response as believers ourselves – response not alone to the situation of martyrs, but response to Christ’s commission. And it all has to do with the Cross, the Cross.

Jesus came to save us from our sins, but not necessarily from the effects of our sins; nor the world’s persecution; nor evil, punishment, or sickness; all because there is sin in the world. And as He offers forgiveness from sin, it might be said that He did not come to grab us from hell or push us into Heaven. His ministry was to keep hell out of people, and put Heaven into us, so to speak. We are to do His work while we are here.

Christians often think we have to “close the deal” and assure that people have eternal life. But all we can do is quote the Promise. To presume that we can do any more might be to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, whose work this really is. Believers, by responding to the invitation to believe on Jesus, have a say in that; and God, of course, is the Judge.

So what is left? To servants like Shabaz Bhatti, and to missionaries in heathen areas (including – think about it – you and me, right in our neighborhoods), our work is to do Christ’s work. Here. And now. Working to keep hell out of people and planting a little Heaven – by sharing belief in Jesus Christ who has given His own life for us, as Shahbaz testified; that He is not just one way, but the way to God – this must be our mission. And our privilege. And our Cross.

Jesus frankly said that the world will hate that message. It hated that message when He spoke it, and He was crucified on the cross. It hates that message when we speak it, and the world will likewise and therefore hate us. To take up the Cross and follow Him is not an option. It is as much of being a Christian as confessing Jesus as Savior.

The Book of Revelation tells us that to add or subtract a word from scripture is anathema, yet I would venture to say that in Heaven another verse has been added this week to Hebrews, Chapter 11. That book is “the Hall of Fame of Faith,” listing great heroes and martyrs of the faith – many of whom did not live to see the fruits of their service and sacrifice. “By faith, Shahbaz…”

God bless you, brother. None of your countrymen will come closer to the Truth through the motives of a dozen cowardly murderers. But I pray that millions will see the Truth through your martyrdom, your purity of faith, your service to the cross of Christ. And He will be glorified. Amen.

+

In honor of Shabaz Bhatti and persecuted Christians worldwide:

Click: Anthem of the Persecuted

I want to acknowledge the words and wisdom of three friends who were privileged to know Shahbaz — Hope Flinchbaugh, Marlene Bagnull, and Dan Wooding, for whom this week has been trying; Becky Spencer (“sure you can quote me – the Holy Spirit doesn’t copyright inspiration!”); and insights I gained this week while researching a book, from messages by Lyman Abbott.

Reform

This week: Swirling days of Hallowe’en, Elections, and Reformation Day.

They are all, sort of, about the same things; this year anyway; if we regard Hallowe’en from the original perspective all All Saint’s Day.

This will not be a message primarily addressing the elections, although Reform is needed and Reform is driving the enthusiasm. It will not be a message about the perversion of All Hallow’s Eve, although it is a manifestation of the nexus of corrupted beliefs and commercial pollution in our culture. ’nuff said. Neither is my concern the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation — specifically, that is, Reformation Sunday, just observed. Nor the issues surrounding the Catholic Church almost 500 years ago.

For I don’t think the Reformation started with Luther’s nailing 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Of course its stirrings were in the protests and martyrdom of earlier believers. But in Luther’s case I believe the Reformation started when he made a pilgrimage to Rome.

(Click for a short movie clip) :   Martin Luther in Rome

He realized, clearly, what had been around him in the culture, especially the church culture — growing in intensity, sinking in shame. Perverted doctrine… sex scandals… monetary corruption… a loss of purity. That is when his conscience, and his Bible training, and the Holy Spirit moved him to revulsion.

Again: I am not thinking here of the Church then. I am thinking of the church now. As a Protestant, I know several of its denominations best, so I can address them best; and I am moved to revulsion too.

Perverted doctrine — Churches more concerned with political correctness than the Word of God — and a “pick and choose” theology that makes sinners the author of new dogmas.

Sex scandals — Shame to the clergy, across all Protestant denominations; the Catholic church rocked to its foundations in the US and Europe.

Monetary corruption — When TV preachers plead for “seed offerings” and “faith gifts” and make links between salvation and buying trinkets or “unlocking” the Prosperity Gospel with “love offerings”… how in hell is that different from buying indulgences, kissing rings, and venerating phony relics? Buy your way to heaven! What has changed since Luther’s trip to Rome?

A loss of purity — “Christian” churches today are more concerned with offending sinners than saving them; more concerned with ministering to bodies alone and not souls; more concerned with what unchurched kids, or agnostics, or Jews, or Muslims, or homosexuals, or Oprah, think… than what God thinks.

If Luther were here today, he would have 95 new theses, maybe more, to nail somewhere. Maybe on a lot of churches’ doors. Maybe on the doors of movie theaters. Maybe on TV screens and computer screens. Maybe on the doors of the White House and Congress and the Supreme Court. Maybe on my door, and maybe yours. But the… should WE be the new Martin Luthers?

If there be real reform on Reformation Week — and election week — let it begin with us. And if push-backs come, if persecution follows, let us remember Luther’s astounding words: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Music and history: Click   Here I Stand

An Anthem to Creativity

A little departure — not a “religious” message; but, I hope, a spiritual one!

It is to share a moment with you who are engaged in creativity. Nobody run for the exit, because in a way, we all are so engaged. I thought of this because I was on the phone this afternoon with a friend, and I bollixed up a couple of things having to do with numbers… typical for me, stupid things. Some of us typically mumble things about “right brain, left brain,” but working in the creative arts is not always the same thing as exercising creativity!

Many of my friends are writers or cartoonists, and what I am about to say is common to them, and to musicians and poets and singers and painters and composers and actors and photographers. And public speakers. And counselors. And designers. And decorators. Teachers. Pastors. Charity workers. Those entrusted with law-enforcement. Ministers, by definition. Even accountants (ha) and politicians making claims and taping commercials (ha ha) have to be creative. Certainly mothers and caregivers, a thousand ways every day.

… Actually, you can’t name a human activity where creativity does not come into play. And if you think you have found someone, or some profession… surely that person ASPIRES to write or perform or draw in private time. Or to receive that mysterious, soul-satisfying sustenance from enjoying the works of people who do — which is, just as real, a Bond of Creativity.

All of this is commonplace — banal if it is in fact so universal — except that we don’t always realize it. We don’t appreciate it in others, but anyone who creates some work of art, on any level, bares his or her soul to a world that can reject or ridicule or despise it. Yet we do what we do because we have to. We have to share it; we have to “let it out”; we have to touch someone we probably will never meet. The cliched creator who lives a hermit-like existence is actually the most open and vulnerable of God’s creatures.

Create… creatures… Creator. Here we bring a message full circle. If we fail to appreciate creativity in others, surely a lot of us tend to miss the creativity in ourselves. It is there, it should be encouraged, and, as a principle of life, must be exercised to be healthy and strong. Some people believe that to say that humans “create” anything is blasphemous — that only God can create anything. I think that is true if you are playing word games.

God has given us, among His unique gifts, sparks of creativity. Anything we “create” is therefore an extension of His grace and His glory. J S Bach began every one of his works with the words, “Help me, Jesus,” and ended every work with the words, “To God be ALL the glory.” Nothing we can create is apart from Him.

Illustrating my message is a secular song, not by Bach but by the singer/songwriter Lacy J Dalton. It perfectly catches the creative process — the inchoate passion, the unquenchable dreams, the insane struggles, the breakthroughs; the success that is not always commercial, but measured by the “Aha!” moment in whatever pursuit you choose. Her metaphor is the singer/songwriter (the best art is inescapably self-referential). 16th Avenue, Nashville’s street of dreams where recording studios and performance stages abound, is her metaphor of the world. Oh, she nails it. Aha!

Appreciate your own creativity this week, and that in others. Celebrate it. Exercise it. And remember its source — the One who is reflected and honored in what you do.

Click:  An Anthem to Creativity

Leave It There

Years ago, when my wife had her heart and kidney transplants, the Lord used the circumstance to give our whole family a burden for others in the Heart Failure Unit at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. He also graced us with a boldness to pray with those patients who waited… or who received the medical miracles… or whose transplants went awry… or their families in those situations, or, sometimes, times of grief.

There were questions, always questions, and we were laymen with few answers. We often were asked by pastors, even, how we managed to deal with peoples’ confusion and fear and doubt and sorrow and terror and loneliness. Well, it was the same as we dealt with faith and hope and conversions and even healing. It wasn’t us, it was Jesus — all we could do was share Jesus. (“All”? Yes, it was everything we could do).

We frequently sang a gospel song that became many patients’ favorite: Leave It There. Its words include:

If your body suffers pain and your health you can’t regain, And your soul is almost sinking in despair,
Jesus knows the pain you feel, He can save and He can heal; Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

Leave it there, leave it there, Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.
If you trust and never doubt, He will surely bring you out. Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

After a time I learned the amazing coincidence (?) that the gospel song had been written only a few blocks from Temple University Hospital, where we met for those services! C A Tindley, the son of a slave, educated himself, moved north to Philadelphia, secured a job as janitor of a church… and eventually became its pastor. His large mixed-race flock of 10,000 enjoyed his powerful preaching and his moving hymns for years. (One of his hymns, I’ll Overcome Someday, was transformed with different words and tempo into the Civil Rights anthem We Shall Overcome.) Tindley Temple United Methodist Church was his “home,” and today there is a C A Tindley Boulevard in Philadelphia.

So every time we sang that song in the Heart Failure Unit, we did honor to a man in whose neighborhood we sang, who taught untold multitudes (and still does, through such songs) that we should “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God”… and leave them there at the foot of the cross.

By the way, another coincidence: this Gaither Homecoming video by Lillie Knauls and Babbie Mason is my favorite version. After my father died, in Florida, my sisters and I did not know what to do with furniture, kitchen appliances, household goods, and such, a thousand miles away from where we each lived. I called my pastor, whose sister, I knew, worked in a church nearby in central Florida. Could they find a needy family, perhaps, who could use these things? A few days later I received a phone call from another lady in that church who said she could indeed direct a couple families to the goods, and took down the information. Her name had rung a bell in my head but I thought, “no, it couldn’t be…” But it was. Lillie Knauls! A professional gospel singer, but also on the staff of that church. I was indeed happy to return blessings I had received from her through this performance…

But through it all, the simple message: through all of life’s challenges: don’t fret. Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

Click:   Leave It There

Softly and Tenderly

Easter Week has ended in the US (of course, we should pray that it never ends — its Truth is everlasting), but it is not so everywhere. Orthodox churches celebrate Christ’s resurrection according to other schedules and, I have just learned from my college friend John Siegmund, now a Lutheran pastor in Germany, there is an “Easter Monday” too:

“Thanks so much for your good wishes for a blessed Holy Week. I will be celebrating Holy Thursday with the mass of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper. Immediately following we will strip the altar, removing everything that can be carried but the remaining eucharistic gifts into the sacristy until Easter Vigil. I will climb up to the main cross in our church and give the Lord a black drape which will hang until the preparations for the Easter Vigil.

“Weather permitting, we will hold the Stations of the Cross in our town following the Good Friday service of penance and veneration of the Cross of Christ. On Saturday night we will celebrate the Vigil of Easter followed by Easter breakfast, donated by church members. On Easter Sunday and on Easter Monday we celebrate the glorious resurrection of our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ with a festive liturgy in the morning.

“Easter Monday is still a legal holiday here, although particularly mainline Protestant parishes don’t observe it with a festive service, but, at best, with evening concerts or the like…”

Isn’t there a comfort — beyond the spiritual reality, which is paramount — but isn’t there a comfort in the old traditions, the old hymns, the old fellowships? Indeed, the Old Gospel? There are reasons they all developed, and established themselves, and became beloved and old. Can’t our world and our lives slow down a little bit, so all of the Old — “Good Old” — doesn’t disappear from view?

Enjoy this old-time gospel song. “Ye who are weary, come home…”

Click:  Softly and Tenderly

Denomination Blues

I have had the privilege recently of reviewing the manuscript of a novel that might be (ought to be) published in the near future. I won’t give away the ending (or the beginning) (or the middle) (or the title) (or the characters) (or the message)…

… but I’d love to give away one of the subtexts, which is to beware of organized religion.

Speaking for myself, I tend to distrust anything organized, but that’s another matter. Now the world, which looks for any stick with which to beat Christianity, invariably points to religious wars as pro forma warning-labels against spirituality. In truth, however, most “religious” wars have probably been waged using religion only as an excuse.

Moreover, the serious attacks, excesses and atrocities committed in the name of Jesus… do not mean that Jesus would commit them. The world too often forgets that Jesus is the standard, True and Holy. When people scurry around, constructing and construing, blaming and naming, if they fall short of that Standard they dishonor themselves more than they dishonor the Savior.

Before the “amens” roll, it is good to recognize that Christians, also, forget this fact too often. The sad truth — the more important deal than wars and doctrinal arguments (although doctrine is important) — is that the church often fails its mission in direct proportion to the extent it is “organized” religion. Youth pastors who serve (Barna Research says) an average of only 1.5 years — what heartache must that represent? Churches that don’t preach the whole Word. Children abused by priests. Pastors involved in sexual scandals. Judgmentalism. “Open-Mindedness” so open that theologians’ brains fall out. Politics, bureaucracy, and pride on church boards and committees. Is this the church Jesus wanted? — the Bride of Christ awaiting His return?

“What sort of music accompanies this heavy message?” Well, it’s the same message, but a more light-hearted delivery. Hilarious, in fact. But the chorus that Buddy Greene returns to in this living-room get-together is the message for this week, and has been for 2000 years: “Jesus — That’s All!”

You can beware — that is, be wary — of organized religion’s pitfalls by keeping this song in your mental iPod!

Click:  Denomination Blues

Welcome to MMMM!

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

categories

About The Author

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