Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

About God and Broken Hearts

2-12-18

St Valentine is one of those saints who has become known as much for not having lived as for the sacred ascriptions to his disputed existence. The Catholic Church removed him from its calendar of actual saints some years ago, bowing to the back-canonical aspect of his legend. Like some other former saints, he might have been invented to fill a need.

Or, there having been several priests and martyrs named Valentine during Christianity’s first few centuries, the saint associated with love and high interpersonal devotion might be an amalgam.

In any case – and to the extent we keep in context the elements of remembering loved ones, and the power of love, and the encouragement to love – we can affirm the flowers and cards and hugs. Hallmark and ProFlowers and CandyGrams aside, it is good to revere love in the larger sense.

Love, actually, is not love if considered, and exercised, outside the “larger” context. People have tried to define the distinctions between humankind and beasts – laughing, cruelty, imagination, disco music – but Loving must be the predominant quality. We can receive love; we can offer love; we can act according to love, at least when we are not hating, and this explains a lot of history’s art and music and literature and poetry.

Can we understand it? Not fully, I say… but that is part of its allure and fascinating essence. I also think we are fated to only imperfectly express love: and even then only to the extent we can receive it.

“Love is patient, love is kind… ”

Which gets us face-to-face with God’s love. His love created the world – the universe and all therein. His love supersedes His vengeful aspects in that while we were yet sinners, He sent His only Son to become flesh and dwell among us, and take upon Himself the punishment we deserve for our rebellion. That is love.

As I asked above, Can we understand it? As I answered, not fully. We never will. But we can accept it.

Recently we shared thoughts here about unanswered prayer. Can a loving God say No to our earnest pleas? As God, fulfilling His job description so to speak, He knows what we need, even when we are persistent about things we want. The basis of that (as if He needs to justify Himself… but understanding this helps our faith) is… Love.

The heart is a fist-sized organ with fleshy tubes in and out, chambers, valves, and uncountable pulsations. How this hard-working bloody thing came to be associated by poets and painters, saints and sages, with the tenderest of often indescribable emotions is another thing I will never understand.

Yet we draw heart shapes when we are in love, despite the fact they don’t resemble hearts. We send drawings of them to those we love; we carve them into tree trunks. Even the worst characters in history have loved someone – a girl or guy; their mothers; a pet. It is a disease for which there is no immunity. Thank God.

On the other hand, the human race is not immune to the Broken Heart either. In a way, these sad experiences validate the positive truth and power of romantic love: it is not abstract, not an illusion. To paraphrase the poet: Love is real! Love is earnest!

Returning to the God-foundation of these matters (as He is the foundation of all things), even God has not escaped the reality of a Broken Heart. He identifies with our sorrow, our grief, and to the aspect of love that can “leave a hole” in our emotions.

God Himself? Yes, despite His plans and ordained Will, He knew – He knows – what it is like to lose a Son. But God so loved the world…

Please think of love, then, as more than the cheap theme for a holiday; and don’t let it ever become a cheap theme in your life.

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Click: Open the Eyes of My Heart

People With No Country?

2-5-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: The Sojourner’s Song

Saving You From Yourself

1-29-18

Any believer, whether casual or seasoned, whether a “baby Christian” or steeped in the faith, who does not have a “promise book” somewhere on the bookshelves, has not gone through a common stage of spiritual evolution. It is not necessary or requisite to have that book of life’s challenges and predictable crises, but it happens frequently among us. Arranged by category they are, with lists of comforting Bible verses, also instruction and encouragement.

Useful things, these promise books. I am in no way minimizing their value. If you don’t have one, get one; there are many you can find. A lot of them are pocket-size, to keep at the ready.

But. After a while their verses will make their way into your memory, at least as the Kingdom Principles of God – the uniform and unified major themes of scripture. The Bible says that we are to know the intentions of the Lord, and “hide them in our hearts.” Consistent study of the Bible itself results in this.

Perhaps the most dog-eared pages in those Promise Books are where the categories address Approaching God; Lifting Petitions and Requests; How to Receive; and Answers to Prayer.

There are verses in the Bible that we often distort. We presume when we should not. Devout believers in solitary prayer closets can do this, just as earnest televangelists speaking to thousands in arenas sometimes do too. “Say to the mountain, be thou moved”… “the faith of a mustard seed”… “greater works you will do”… you must know the verses.

Are they not true? Yes, they are true – God does not lie and can not lie.

However, the whole of scripture also reminds us that Jesus wept on occasion; that He left towns because the level of unbelief prevented even His miracles from being manifested. So… how to proceed? How to appreciate the context of verses?

We must be careful not to treat Promise Books like Wish Lists. Lifting the burdens of your heart to the Lord should not take the form of a shopping list. Even mature Christians can confuse requests with demands.

When you pray, believing, the first beliefs must be in the Sovereignty of God; of His love; and a trust in His will for our loves.

This brings us to an essential element of true faith. Lest I sound like like a skeptic in this essay, I once was persuaded by the “name it and claim it” variety of faith. I saw miracles, yes, and experienced some. My wife prayed healing for her failing heart, and was miraculously healed… by a transplant. And we gave God the glory. Two years later she was diagnosed with cancer, and she submitted to an operation… until the doctors confessed to one of those “we can’t explain it” situations. All traces of the cancer were gone. Answer to a largely unspoken prayer.

That God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform is a non-Bible verse that everyone knows; and is true. It is also true – and our faith is not weak when we accept it – that when God answers prayer, sometimes the answer is No. Sometimes the answer is delayed. Sometimes the answer is different than we hope (or demand).

But all the time the answers remind us that God is God.

It is He who hath made us; and not we ourselves. The same with prayer: we need to remember that when we pray in spirit and in truth – that is, in genuine trust – the Holy Spirit inhabits our prayers. In fact, the Bible assures us that when we are confused, weak, lacking confidence, the Spirit takes over! The Spirit will groan, if necessary, before the Throne of God, with the desires of our hearts.

And that principle is what should save us from ourselves, so not to approach God unworthily.

We know our desires, and want to lift them to God.

But He knows our needs, and will always meet them.

Our desires and our needs are two very different things. We cannot always know them… and we very often confuse them. God knows them. Trusting in His lovingkindness, sublimating our own view of things, is when Faith acquires meaning in our lives.

God reads our hearts anyway, so we don’t need prayers to “make points” with Him. Pray believing… pray trusting Him… and pray knowing that His whole book is full of those Promises.

He knows how to keep them.

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Click: I Know Who Holds Tomorrow

That’s Life

1-22-18

There is a verse in James that admonished us to be “doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” The Bible reminds us often that God sees all we do; and so do the “Heavenly cloud of witness” of Hebrews 11. Often we might be tempted to wear two hats – the secular (when we argue about politics) and the sacred (when we forgive all, forget all).

That is shameful. We all live at the intersection of Sacred and Secular. There is no forwarding address.

I offer this on Celebration of Life week, Sanctity of Life Sunday.

When the mists, or smoke, of current controversies are swept away, I believe the world will see abortion – the act, the arguments, the very concept – in a different light. Most likely the “old” light, history’s traditional attitude. I pray.

Of course, the attitudes of various societies have been mutable, little different than any stands on any controversy. Honestly, there has not been a straight line in manners and morals on monogamous marriage, infant sacrifice, slavery, the role of women, personal freedom and liberty, democracy, even monotheism until the Revealed God revealed Himself fully.

Despite infant sacrifice, with its essentially different set of foundations, abortion is an act that mostly has been regarded as anathema at all times and in all places. By whole societies and by single women. Its sanction, and its approval, have always been exceptions. Mostly it is regarded as something to be discouraged because of the implicit recognition that it is horrible, contrary to human impulses.

Until our generation.

The anguish and severe challenges presented by unplanned, unwanted pregnancies are significant. They represent dilemmas that are endemic to the human family, and – no matter how much abortion might be outlawed – they will take place. To recognize this fact is not to approve of it. But to accept it as the price of a community, a society, maintaining consistent standards and trying to codify a moral code, is, well, the price to pay.

A lot of the world preceded the US, or closely followed us, in the legalization of abortion. Today, we have been reminded this week, we “surpass” most of the world in providing free abortion services… and we are among the few human-rights garden spots like North Korea and China that allow late-term abortions, killing babies otherwise viable outside the womb.

We should not need numbers like almost 60-million American abortions since Roe vs Wade… nor photos of aborted babies… nor facts like the bigoted Margaret Sanger (Planned Parenthood founder) encouraging abortions in the black and brown communities especially… to come face-to-face with the horror of abortion.

Fifteen years ago I interviewed Norma McCorvey, the “Roe” of Roe vs Wade, who had regretted her manipulation, reversed her views, and became a Christian. Pro-Life. Her testimony confirmed my views, but did not change them. That happened earlier; for a long time I was indifferent to the issue, and saw it as more a matter of convenience than morality. I even took that point of view in public, and now am conscious of blood on my hands.

But one does not have to trade Pragmatism for Christianity to realize that abortion is murder.

Why is America so militant, now, about abortion? Why is it a litmus test in broad swaths of society – why does the Democrat Party, for instance, forbid convention speakers and candidate endorsements to “pro-life” people?

I return to looking forward to the mists parting. Whether we go deeper into self-indulgence, or return to traditional values, abortion WILL be the litmus test. One does not have to abandon feminism, or denigrate women, to oppose abortion. The Big Lie that women are pro-choice and men want disposable women and babies, is belied by the profile of marchers at Pro-Life rallies; by fervent advocates I have met; by counselors (like Pam Stenzel, a friend from Grand Rapids MI) who speaks to kids about pre-marital sex – herself a product of a rape, whose mother decided against aborting her at the last moment.

If you don’t like being a woman who is “wired” to bear babies, don’t conceive. You cannot reverse nature. A lot of times it stinks to be a man, but, whatever. People have intimidated the culture to an extent; but they cannot reverse nature. They can tinker with the plumbing, but we still are men and women. Period; no pun intended.

Therefore, abortion, as a litmus-test, is a symbol. It is the result, not a cause, of America having become a Culture of Death. Abortion, homosexuality, the decline of marriage, all are symptoms of impulses that resist life and the advancement of the species – which of course sounds clinical and impersonal. But the truth is VERY personal. We respect life, or we don’t.

And the debate continues, often distracted by questions of a once-in-a-decade death sentence, or war in faraway places. Those arguments are healthy; but in the meantime, many of us CAN do something about the Culture of Death in our midst.

When we have become desensitized to death, we have become desensitized to life.

There is a common impulse behind the totalitarian lockstep attitude some people have toward abortion. It is common to militant homosexuality, to gender-bending, to newfound “rights,” to sex-change operations. To the redefinition of “marriage,” not to welcome legal precision, but to make it socially meaningless. To the ubiquity of Political Correctness. The apparent anarchy of PC attitudes is really the New Religion – the replacement of God.

We are witnessing – and, God help us, enabling – the slow death of God… in the way that Nietzsche really meant his phrase: when God become irrelevant in a society, He IS dead to its people. God is not really dead, of course: if you listen quietly you can hear Him weeping.

And those other sounds, if you listen closer, whether from unmarked graves or hospital dumpsters, are the cries of millions and millions of babies.

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Click: Psalm 139 – Jesus Loves Me

Those Lights Along the Shore

1-8-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

Don’t Mess With Mr In-Between

1-1-18

There is a pop-music classic, and American show tune, that has been covered by every great singer, at least of the Jazz Age. Written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, and its first recording by Mercer – a terrific vocalist whose own singing has been neglected through the years – it has been a hit for many artists.

“You’ve Got to Accentuate the Positive” is sometimes spelled with the song’s lilting “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” but often referred to by its catch phrase, “Don’t Mess with Mister In-Between.” From a 1940s musical, the lyrics were inspired by, and made reference to, a revival sermon:

Gather ’round me, everybody – Gather ’round me while I’m preachin’, Feel a sermon comin’ on me. The topic will be sin and that’s what I’m against. If you wanna hear my story, Then settle back and just sit tight , while I start reviewin’
The attitude of doin’ right.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, And latch on to the affirmative! Don’t mess with Mister In-Between…

Performed in a variety of styles, many Americans today are familiar with it, and it lives in playlists and even commercials. It was background music in the movie L.A. Confidential, and Jerry Lee Lewis frequently uses the phrase – perhaps preaching to himself – in soliloquies at the piano. Its message is deeper than the lyrics of many show tunes, and has applications for revival congregations, moviegoers, and anyone with ears to hear.

Is it grist for a New Years essay? Like any good gospel message, its points are pertinent any day of the year – just as Christmas and Easter sermons ought to be re-visited in seasons apart from those holidays’ traditional festivals.

But if this is a time of year when we all look backward, look forward, and make resolutions (even if, like many promises and laws, they are made to be broken), then it is time indeed to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative… but most importantly, look out for Mr In-Between.

Why should Mr In-Between be avoided?

Jesus Himself provides the obvious answer – obvious and usually ignored or avoided by Christians – speaking to John in the Book of Revelation: And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

This advice is harsh because it cuts to the core of our souls’ sincerity, our position before God. We cannot be lukewarm about spiritual things!

Either God exists, or He does not.

Either Jesus is His Son, and believing in Him, confessing our sins, leads to forgiveness and eternal life, or not.

Either there is a Heaven and Hell, or there is not. Either Jesus is the only way to achieve salvation and eternal security, as He said, or not.

Don’t mess with In-Between. These things cannot be almost true; or mostly true. It’s like being almost pregnant. In the Book of Acts, Chapter 26, Paul’s appearance before King Agrippa in Rome is recorded. He defends himself against charges of the Jews; he relates his own persecution of Christians; his conversion; and his evangelism, the miracles he had seen; and the powerful presence of Christ in his new life.

Agrippa, listening and absorbing all this, admits to Paul that he was “almost persuaded” to become a Christian. This was meant as a compliment to Paul’s testimony.

But a preacher once said that to be “almost” persuaded is to be not persuaded at all; to be “almost” saved is the same as being totally lost. In these times we all seem to seek for compromise… the Golden Mean… the middle position, to satisfy everyone.

But Jesus would have us hot or cold, not lukewarm. To compromise with evil is to be evil. He will spit us out!

The American hymnodist Philip P Bliss heard a Dwight L Moody sermon on this subject, and wrote one of the powerful exegetical songs of the American church: Almost Persuaded.

At New Year, it is a good time to examine where we stand with God… with ourselves, our standing in Eternity. To be almost persuaded is to be certainly nothing. We fool neither ourselves nor our God. Be hot or cold – one of them! Choose today; do not be lukewarm in life. Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.

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Click: Almost Persuaded

Advents

12-18-17

This the Advent Season in Christian churches. In ancient rites its observance actually began four or six weeks, or 40 days, before Christmas. And some contemporary churches today might be surprised that there is such a thing – feasts or fasting or celebration or contemplation, looking forward to the birth of the Savior. Christmas is just another day?

“Advent” comes down to us as a word related to “Coming.” Jesus is coming: this is the promise of the Messiah that was seized upon by the faithful for generations. It became real to Mary when the Holy Ghost came upon her and she was told by angels that she had been chosen to bear the Incarnate God, the Messiah, God-with-us, coming to save humankind from its sins. The “Magnificat” is her humble, holy, awesome prayer.

There is an odd fact – so strange that we seldom think of all its meaning – about the Christmas story. Its clarity is not helped by the limitations of language… or, frankly, the limitations of our ability to fully understand or describe certain things.

In the Advent of generations’ hopes and devotions, Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem (plus other, uncountable bits of prophecy). But believers watch and wait, too, for His Second Coming. He will come again with glory, in the twinkling of an eye; the dead in Christ shall rise first to meet Him in the air… you know the verses: the Rapture of the saints, in which we shall share.

“Jesus is coming soon.” Another Advent we observe.

No less solemnly or hope-filled did the followers of Jesus welcome Him to Jerusalem before Passover. “Jesus is coming!” Advent.

When they laid Him in the tomb, those few disciples who had not lost their faith remembered His promise that He would rise from the dead after three days – as, of course, He did. “Jesus is coming!” Advent.

After the Resurrection, He roamed the land for 40 days, preaching, affirming that He was alive, and ministering. I am sure that, just as in most places and some times during His three years of ministry before Crucifixion, the word spread among multitudes, especially the sick, sinners, and the forlorn… to see Him, hear Him, touch His garment. “Jesus is coming!” Advent.

Today, His remnant church knows He will return for us. The New Jerusalem will be established; the devil and his minions will be defeated; and, crossing Beulah Land, we look expectantly to spending eternity with Him around the Throne, evermore singing “Holy, holy, holy.”

“Jesus is coming soon! Maranatha!”

They are all Advents, hallelujah. Here is where I referred to the sorry limitations of understanding and of language. A thousand years is as a moment to God. Jesus came… and He is to come… and He is here, with us. At the same time. The facts of history are real; and the spiritual realities are facts too.

We think of the Babe in the manger, and cannot help but see the Man of the Cross. We learn of prophecy that came before, and cannot help but see the promises ahead. One God, the Three-in-One – food for thought at the Feast of Christ’s Mass next week.

After Christmas, keep those Advent thoughts going. Advent is more than calendars with chocolates behind the little doors. It must be a way of life.

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This is a Gospel traditionally sung to remind believers of the Rapture of the church – Christ returning in the clouds. But it is rock-solid appropriate in this season, too! Recorded in the great lobby of the lodge at Billy Graham’s “Cove” retreat in North Carolina.

Click: Jesus Is Coming Soon

I Am Sorry… If You Are Offended

11-20-17

This is something of a silly season. These days there is a revolving-door of silliness, actually – fads and fancies of the moment; ever-changing manners and mores.

I am referring to the spate of sex scandals. They are not silly in themselves: I think harassment is deadly serious; and rape should be ranked with murder by our justice system.

What is silly – it is difficult to find a better term – is that this issue is “new.” That people are surprised by the surprises. That anyone pretends that it was not common knowledge that this went on in our culture before a few months ago. It has been a virtual cliché, even the stuff of jokes – by men and women alike – that there were such things as “casting couches,” “favors for promotions,” “indiscretions.”

It is not a surprise but common knowledge that Hollywood producers, Washington politicians, all sorts of celebrities “slept around”; but, more, wielded power through, by, and for sex. The list was long even before Weinstein and the deluge of politicians, actors, and big-shots clogging the headlines lately.

Did President Kennedy’s reputation suffer because of the common knowledge of his affairs? I think he was more often secretly admired by many. Alfred Hitchcock? I think people laugh at the twisted stories. Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton? It depends on your political affiliation, let’s be honest; the same with Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Anthony Weiner, Al Franken.

So this is not new, but reports proliferate as does the selective outrage. As I recently have written, it would be a good thing… if the outrage were to last (not the incidents). I am not so naive to think that the human race will ever be free of dalliances and flirtation, sexual favors and even adultery. But to be frank – not scriptural – about this, a well-functioning and even largely moral society operates on the pragmatic admission that the Big H happens. Hypocrisy. Do I condone it? – that society preaches one way and lives another? Of course not, but on this side of Heaven, the alternative is outright licentiousness.

Which we are near now.

I am convinced of a couple things I have not heard discussed, virtually ever. One is that a large percentage of guys who flaunt their appeal and drape blondes on their arms, usually look gay: they try too hard. Just a theory (think of Hugh Hefner, Exhibit A).

Another theory is that many men who get “caught” in affairs often resemble toads. I am thinking of Newt Gingrich and Roger Ailes and Anthony Weiner and Harvey Weinstein. My theory is that “getting caught” is less important to them than announcing to the world, “Look at me! Women actually want me!” They are willing to endure opprobrium.

A third observation surely is less talked about, but I believe to be true – that as a rule, women are as prone (sorry) as men to seek affairs and use sexuality as a tool, if not a weapon. Mitigating details arise from the relative physical sizes and strengths, and society’s traditional roles, of men and women. But from “attraction” (cosmetics for women; grooming for men; fashion for both) to outright aggressiveness, we are talking about motivations common to all. Maybe not predation, but something of a two-way street. Nature’s old “dance.”

All of which means what? NOT that we should forgive these social horrors as in the past, or ignore them even more; no. It DOES mean that – yes, just as the Bible commands – we should all commit to respecting others. We cannot do that until we all respect ourselves more. And we cannot do that until we all respect the Word of God.

People can hide affairs, sometimes, but they cannot hide from God’s Word.

Another observation: all these sex scandals are really not about sex. Certainly not about love; nor about loneliness or rejection. Excuse me, but [fill in the blank of the rats’ names in the news] often have spouses of evident attractiveness; or a string of such spouses. OR, to be vulgar, in today’s America, they easily can rent sex. To be trashier, they can crawl around alleys and back streets for it.

But I believe most of these people, when you think of how they act, actually desire to be caught. Really? Sure: evangelists subconsciously invite judgment; media stars live to flaunt.

To continue on the Biblical track, and since I have characterized the sexual motivation as secondary, I believe the real sin is that of PRIDE. Predators want to exercise power… they “do” it because they “can”… they derive pleasure from intimidating people. Otherwise self-preservation, if not morality, would determine their actions.

Finally, I have taken notice of all the mea culpas, apologies, denials, excuses, reasons, deflections, and confessions from the predators and their defenders.

You have heard them too. The 21st century’s default apologies – “I am sorry IF I offended someone.” “I really don’t remember.” “I was drunk.” “I agree, it sounds horrible.” “I will get therapy.” And so forth.

You know what we don’t hear? If it is a secular person – “Yes, back then I was a jerk, and in may ways a horrible person. But I have turned my life around, and apologize to the victim, my family, my followers. There were reasons… but no excuses. However, I am a changed person. All this was my fault, and I will be different.” Someone like, say, Sen. Al Franken could say this, and gain respect, perhaps forgiveness. But they never do!

And why can’t Christians – let us say Judge Roy Moore IF he is guilty of the charges, which I am not presuming; but people in his position – say, “There was a time I sinned and made bad choices. Like all of us. But unlike all of us, I have repented; I have been redeemed; I walk with God now as best I can. No excuses; I sinned. But for years I have been a new creature in Christ.” But they never do!

Those are statements we never hear, at press conferences that are never convened.

I am not one to cast stones, believe me, but I search for ways that society can cleanse itself – rather I want to express God’s desires and commands in new ways to new people. That should be the work of all Christ-followers.

If the problem in contemporary life, at this moment, is more Pride than Sex, so is the unfortunate response of too many people today Arrogance and not Humility.

There is too much preying, and not enough praying.

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Click: Jesus, Take a Hold

The Priesthood Of All Believers

10-30-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He elevated the role of Conscience and personal responsibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Martin Luther

Let Goods and Kindred Go

10-23-17

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

The Wasteland of the Free?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: “Reformation” Symphony by Mendelssohn

It All Depends

10-16-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: “I Can Do No Other”

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

10-9-17

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

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

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

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

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

He stood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here I Stand

10-2-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Where No One Stands Alone

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

9-25-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: I Will Roll All Burdens Away

Jesus Wept.

9-18-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And false news?

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

Click: The Holy City

Warnings, Judgments, or Weather Reports?

9-11-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: When He Calls Me, I Will Fly Away

Eclipse

8-14-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: From the Rising Of the Sun

St Patrick, Relevant To Us

7-17-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Be Thou My Vision

What It Means To Abide

7-9-17

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Lyte died three weeks after composing these amazing words.

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

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

Abide With Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click here: Abide With Me

Be Not Deceived. God Is Not Mocked.

6-26-17

Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

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

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

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

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

What is it to “mock God”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, be not deceived:

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

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Click: Abide With Me

Growing In the Valley

6-12-17

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

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

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

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

I had never really considered that.

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was Mount Calvary.

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

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

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

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

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Click: Still

Are You Tired of Living In the Valley?

6-5-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 23 assures us, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: In the Valley He Restoreth My Soul

What Does God See in You?

5-22-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May Day

5-1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Help Me

The Truth About Progressivism

4-24-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Do You Know?

The King Was Coming. Mere History

4-10-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no time like the “Present.”

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Click: The King Is Coming

The Time of the Songbirds is Come

4-3-17

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

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

But Spring. . .

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

Or a dream on the horizon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Should Be Your Favorite Bible Verse

3-27-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is finished.”

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

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

“It.”

What was “it” that was finished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comprised of many favorite verses!
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Click: It Is Finished

What Is Plausible About God?

3-20-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where does ‘plausible’ start and end?”

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

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

What is plausible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: It’s a Small World, After All

Two Hands, One Heart

2-27-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into our hearts.

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord

Frienemies

1-30-17

“The old order changeth,” and sometimes it changeth pretty dang fast. With the sum of human knowledge doubling every 17 months, they say – whoops, this just in: it doubles every 16-1/2 months – our heads spin.

Surely this is the case beyond facts and scientific data. Common folk feel a disconnect with changing morality, musical styles, social policies, and fashion. Such things have always evolved, but never before between breakfast and bedtime. To the extent that essentially evanescent matters change, humankind has always been assured, and relied upon, and embraced the Word of God as immutable, everlasting.

That contemporary churches and denominations are re-shaping their brands of theology to accommodate contemporary mores, instead of the opposite, is disturbing. It offends the faithful, subliminally. It is incendiary to spiritual activists, Christian soldiers, as the hymn identifies us. It is odious, we are persuaded, to God Almighty, whose Word commands that we not conform to this world.

The nature of friendship has changed, or rather has been changed. Once upon a time if you fell out of affection with an associate, you discussed the problem. In the misty past, and in extreme cases, opponents would fight duels… but only then after elaborate notices, challenges, appointments, nominations of “seconds,” and scheduling. Swords or pistols must have seemed virtually inconsequential after all those preliminaries.

Fast forward to today, when people Unfriend others on Facebook. It is the equivalent.

Inherent in Unfriending, except when clearing one’s In-Box (or re-establishing order and sanity to the daily grind, another topic) is condescension, disapproval, and exclusion. Safer than swords or pistols, the e-version of casting someone from your social circle and yelling “unclean!!!” is to Unfriend.

It has happened to me lately, although not specifically. I have been gathered, like a happy fish minding my own business, in wide nets cast in the waters by people who demand that folks who voted the way I did recently remove myself from their site. Anathema! – we are denounced, condemned, excommunicated.

In a few cases I have taken the trouble to say, in effect, “It’s been swell; have a nice life.” In every case the response has been that their outburst was not personal, and, gee, we can still talk and Message (now a verb, ugh) but simply avoid politics. My cheek should become Unslapped by the glove.

Beyond the evidence of a culture hurtling toward terminal superficiality, there is a deeper and more disquieting trend at work here at the nexus of Politeness and Politics. Relevant Magazine recently published an article about the dangers of social isolation and the resulting indifference to other people and their needs. It is true that Internet Etiquette has transformed our computer and smart phone screens into virtual shields, or allows us that option.

I think it is an objection without full force; apart from spiritual regrets we might have, it is largely a mechanistic argument. In any event, what is more alarming to me is the visceral effect: it is a condition, not a theory, that confronts us.

The election of Donald Trump – I would say the America of both Obama and Trump – has our society in a more contentious state than at any time since the Civil War. This is a major malady, no longer a possible passing case of civic indigestion. We are headed for some form of crack-up; it is inevitable.

As in the Civil War, families are split, arguments are heated, friendships are… Undone. I have not one single (or married) friend who does not have a story about dinner-table arguments, holiday disruptions, emotional scenes, snide insults, rolling eyes, snarky comments, about politics in general and the election specifically. Liberals AND conservatives. In person, and online.

Before and during the Civil War this was the case, despite the issues being deeper and the bloodshed flowing redder. But every family and every neighborhood was affected, and tensions were high; friendships ended.

I cannot think of other civic strife in America that tore the social fabric more. Civil Rights? The Vietnam War? Prohibition? Perhaps back to Senator John Calhoun’s calls for Nullification (which I lump with Slavery issues) or Andrew Jackson’s dissolution of the National Bank… no. New England’s threats of Secession in the 1810’s? Not likely. Those issues fomented debates, not divorces. Maybe the Revolution itself, when Loyalists, Revolutionaries, and the indifferent split the Colonial population into thirds.

Now there is a national nastiness, and the word proudly has been appropriated by the women and “others” who marched on the day after the Inauguration. Despite protestations, the national media largely has waged an ideological war on the public, and the public’s awakening to the assault is branded illegitimate – so says the man behind the curtain in the Emerald City.

My daughter Heather, thinking about this dilemma in our midst, wishes for a National Game Night that might re-set the meter of comity and amity. But she knows that dream is a metaphor: unrealizable wishful thinking.

The Bible’s words to be “in this world, but not of this world” shout to us more than ever before. I have shared the impulses, for years, of gathering the communion of saints around us; encouraging one another; joining home schools and small groups. Yes, we should witness. No, we should not leave the non-believers outside the camps. Christians are withdrawing into spiritual cocoons. Good or bad?

I understand that God is our real Friend, an ever-present help in time of trouble, and in every other aspect of life. When we are Unfriended by a hostile world, are we to sigh Relief? Or find new friends? Or Re-friend? It is not an Internet “meme” yet, but might become one: Refriending.

“Hear ye now what the Lord says; Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice” (Micah 6:1).

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Click: Prayer

Thank You To the god Janus

1-1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Newness OF life.

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

Happy January!
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Click: St Patrick’s Breastplate

Many Happy Returns

9-26-16

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
.

One of the many remarkable things about the Lord – the God of the Bible we worship, and the faiths that are built on His word – is that He instituted the gift of prayer.

Other religions have gods, some of them have myriad gods. Gods who might be worshiped, or demand sacrifices, or exist as dead prophets or wise men, or statues. The God of the Bible we know, who revealed Himself by inspiration, intervening in history, causing laws to be written, performing miracles, and ultimately revealing Himself through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, also bestowed the gift of Prayer on His children.

We take this for granted, but other “gods” did not do this. They cannot have conversations with their followers. Those religions are one-way streets. We should daily be awestruck that God wants to hear from us. He wants to know us. He wants to whisper truth and love to us, answering our prayers.

We can take our burdens to the Lord. And what’s more, in the words of the old hymn, we can with confidence “leave them there.”

If the world from you withhold of its silver and its gold,
And you have to get along with meager fare,
Just remember, in His Word, how He feeds the little bird—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

I have a personal connection with that old gospel song. The story behind its writing is a wonderful story.

After the heart and kidney transplants of my wife Nancy at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, she and I and our three children conducted a hospital ministry to heart-failure and transplant patients. For six years until moving to California we conducted services and visited patients’ rooms once or twice every week.

In our services, Leave It There became a favorite hymn, often requested by patients, some of whom heard it for the first time in those services, and by patients who came and went through the years.

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.

After a time I learned the amazing coincidence (?) that the gospel song had been written only a few blocks from where we met for those services. Charles Albert Tindley, born in 1851, was the son of a slave. By age five he was orphaned, but at 17, after the Civil War, he had taught himself to read and write. He moved from Maryland to Philadelphia, working for no pay as a church custodian but, aspiring to the ministry, he learned Greek and Hebrew. The African Methodist Episcopal Church accredited him on the basis of outstanding test scores and preaching skills. For several years he was placed in different churches in different cities, impressing his congregations and winning converts.

Eventually Tindley received a call to a congregation in Philadelphia, and this servant of God became pastor of the church where he once worked as an unpaid janitor. When he preached his first sermon there, 130 members sat in the pews. Eventually under him the church had more than 10,000 worshipers. He preached, he championed civic causes, and he wrote astonishing hymns and gospel songs. One 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.

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

When your enemies assail and your heart begins to fail,
Don’t forget that God in Heaven answers prayer;
He will make a way for you and will lead you safely through—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

Today I write to recall those great truths, that we can communicate with God; to remember those days of ministry and sharing Jesus with people who were wracked with pain and, sometimes, doubt; and that we don’t have to bear our burdens alone.

But I also want to remind us that there are many prayers and petitions and requests and burdens at the foot of the cross, left by God’s children… but, I wonder, are there the proper number of thanksgivings, praises, prayers of gratitude?

It is our human nature to turn to God when things are bad. He welcomes these prayers, never turning away a hurting heart that contains sincere anguish or pain or confusion or repentance. Never. But it is human nature also to turn to God less often when we have joy.

Do you find this happening? When there are problems, we seek God. Even insurance companies call disasters “acts of God” (boo, by the way). But when things go “right,” how often do we ascribe it to good luck, or the result of patience, or brag about our talent or hard work…?

No, bring Gratitude to the Lord, and “leave it there.” There is room at the cross for that, too.

I humbly would add to this great hymn, about the glory side! One of my verses would be:

When the answers start to come, and your days no longer glum,
And God’s blessings have so sweetly cleared the air,
The joy is not your own; Father sent them from the Throne!
Take your praises to the Lord and leave them there!

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Leave It There became a signature song of the husband-and-wife duo Joey + Rory. Their bittersweet story has “gone viral.” Rising stars of gospel-bluegrass-country music, their fans were happy when sweet Joey became pregnant; and shaken but prayerfully supportive when their baby Indiana was born with Down Syndrome. Soon thereafter, Joey was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Her illness, prayers, surgeries, and “life at home” was shared with fans and prayer partners… right to the end. Joey died on March 14, 2016. This video shows singer Bradley Walker – who has Muscular Dystrophy – with Val Storey and the legendary Carl Jackson. They sing Leave It There where Joey Feek is buried, a wooden cross marking her gravesite.

Click: Leave It There

“It’s Me Again, God…”

8-8-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click:  Help Me, Lord

Brexit for Believers

6-27-16

The UK has sued for divorce from the European Union. In fact the United Kingdom was not fully united, because England and Wales voted Go; Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Stay. Whether this will be a trial separation or an ugly split cannot be forecast. The proponents of every shade of Brexit’s arguments failed to anticipate consequences and adjustments attendant upon any result.

Trade will continue and probably thrive. Regulations – one of the onerous justifications for the revolt – might, or might not, continue, as Whitehall so chooses. And the same for the challenges posed by immigration, the other major irritant. There are myriad issues, small in the metanarrative but major in everyday life: what about sports leagues; the re-imposition of passport and customs policies; pensions of Brits who worked in Brussels; the status of long-term EU residents, for instance the numerous Polish workers who have lived in the UK and Ireland.

In fact the European Experiment always has been an uneasy arrangement. The countries that flocked to join, as they did to NATO, often were motivated by fear of the Russian bear that lingered outside their territories. And just as often, many countries flocked toward an EU trough of subsidies and debt forgiveness, a continent-wide and endless (they hoped) Christmas party.

As time marches on, and historians dissect this failed experiment (as I assume it will be – further disintegrating), the EU will be perceived as designed and nurtured as much from negative as positive impulses. Back during Churchill’s propositions, a United States of Europe was seen either as a non-military NATO or a muscle-flexing counterbalance to the USA. Countries that were non-Atlantic, marginally European, and congenital mendicants scurried into the tent, as Common Market, common-currency factors, and bizarre regulations on Slavic rutabagas and Greenland’s fish; annoying rules for chefs and smokers and vacationers; smothered the Euroquality of life.

The confusion about a thousand things, and (I predict) the rush of similar referenda in (pause for breath) France, Italy, Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere – all suggest that this Brexit vote was an effect, not a cause. A symptom, not (as some allege) a disease. An electoral tantrum of deep-seated legitimacy, no less valid for its flailing and dramatic aspects.

Brexit thrived not in a vacuum. This same week, the populist, anti-statist Five Star Movement in Italy elected a young female mayor of Rome; a mayor of Turin; and strengthened the separatist Northern League – a quiet but significant revolution. Italy has as many course changes as gelato flavors, so let us take that pulse in 12 months. However, the LePens of France’s Front National have knocked on the door of power. Holland’s Geert Wilders is poised to become leader of the Netherlands.

Formerly “fringe” political leaders now are charting the courses of nations. The establishment is losing its power of imprimatur. If Lech Walesa was a credible leader after a life spent as a shipyard worker, or Václav Havel could turn from writing plays to writing policies… so can Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, lead a popular movement in Italy; or a lifelong college teacher, anti-establishment, be elected president of Iceland (this week); or a businessman and media celebrity possibly become president of the United States.

Do Americans “have a dog in the fight” of Euro-politics? Surely. We are still one big family, if not happy. Western Civilization is one of the remarkable stories – remarkable achievements – of world history. I generally applaud any people’s impulses toward self-identity, cultural pride, folkish traditions, and robust independence. Everywhere in the world, every moment in history’s timeline, it has led to vibrant expressions in art and music, literature and poetry, fashion and cuisine.

Nationalism is a positive virtue. When it has mutated into bullying, that problem should be addressed by means other than imposed homogenization and bureaucratic strait-jackets. One size does NOT fit all. Suppression can cause as many ills as indulgence.

And so… Brexit. The common people – the middle classes, working people, the so-called (thanks again, mass media) “non sophisticates” – are fueling the revolt in every one of the nations listed above, for instance in Brexit’s margins, the Midlands and working communities. Also the core of Marine LePen’s support, and the essence of Donald Trump’s victories.

Our media savants treat Brexit as a seismic crisis, as they will describe the dominoes that will fall across Europe. “Anemic PR; bad salesmanship; voters’ ignorance.” But there is a much, much larger picture.

We are not in a major place, but rather a virtual snapshot, maybe a mere moment in a vast continuum, of Western history. Perhaps (only perhaps) the first inklings of pulling back from deadly secular statism. Does Kafka live, or continue to loom? A major aspect of this continuum has been nation-state politics. In succeeding centuries, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain, virtually ruled the virtual world. When Germany united 150 years ago and gained similar strength, the party largely was over: prospective colonies gone, the seven seas jealously retained by Her Majesty’s navy. World War I can be seen as the attempt of the Entente countries to deny the Central Powers hegemony, or even much economic mobility, in Europe. The subsequent war can be seen as Germany’s attempt, aided by brutality and bigotry, to assert itself again.

With the EU, it is possible that the industrious and resourceful Germans will be seen by history as having discovered the optimum method of gaining lebensraum after all, their place in the sun, only by economic and peaceful means. And not incidentally, beneficial to almost everyone affected, natives and neighbors alike.

Notice that, for all the nations agitating to leave the European Community, Germany is not one of them. That is because Germany, for all intents and purposes, is the EU. Its nationalistic Pegida movement (also on the rise, certainly) is more concerned with migrants than with seats at EU tables in Brussels. Vladimir Putin has praised the Brexit vote, and the West ought to realize that recent developments have realigned the interests, no longer automatically antagonistic, of Russia and the West.

Continuums? In the more significant sweeps of history, Europe has successfully resisted scores of determined invasions by Muslims since the 700s. This is a major theme in Western history; as are unchecked migrations in many global settings. Whether European resistance and that of Christendom is now flaccid animates the fervent debates of our recent times.

In another meta-narrative, socialism has been viewed as a panacea, or a curse, hatched by Marx in the 1840s; but paternalistic schemes and associations were in fact the foundations of serfdom, feudalism, and the beneficent Craftmen’s associations, guilds, and enterprises like that of the Fuggers of Augsburg, in the Renaissance.

As the world has become more complex, state socialism has become a seductive solution to social problems; so has state capitalism. Centralization. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in a naïve but prescient description, foresaw centralization as the wave of the future – “every wave has scum on its crest, but a wave of the future nonetheless.” Waves recede after they crash… but are also followed by other waves. Where are we now?

And what is next in the headlines? As Communist states fell and Germany reunited, so might Ireland, especially in the wake of Brexit’s anomalies. Unthinkable, a generation ago. Scotland finally might (re)achive independence. London, a “Remain” island within an island – because of internationalist elites and many immigrants – might become a city-state like the Vatican. Improbable, but borders possess dimished sanctity in this changing world. A multitude of speculation: if rampant democracy had seized the world earlier than it did, the Declaration of Independence might have been a Referendum instead. Imagine.

And as the world has become more complex, so too do Christians find themselves in a new place. Or at least in place they have read about, and when equipped by study of the scriptures, ready for. Really? Are we ready? Not really. Even the most studious eschatologist cannot anticipate the twists and turns of history… of the enemy… even of the Lord. We are watchmen at the gate.

End Times obsessions sometimes are counter-productive. To be an apocalyptic sometimes can persuade people to abandon not just temporal hope, but defenses and self-defenses as well. We have been advised for a long time (at least since the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel, quoting Jesus) that we should be “in this world, but not of this world.”

Do we withdraw? … from everything? Political parties, schools, associations, alliances? No, but we must be willing to assert spiritual as well as civic independence. “If the world hates you, remember that it hated Me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you” (John 15:18-19).

Despite many Christians surrendering the prerogatives, every day is Independence Day for believers. Don’t hesitate to vote NO; vote “Leave”; vote “exit” for many of the things of this world.

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Click: I Don’t Want To get Adjusted

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

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Our World, Gone Crazy

6-6-16

There is a danger in being a historian. Even the amateur historian and those who love to read history benefit from the special aspect of what my lodestar Theodore Roosevelt called “History as literature” – the thrill of past glories, the tragedy of conflicts, sensing the real lives of real people long ago. We gain perspective as we confront our own challenges. Even better, we legitimately feel like a player in the world’s great events – a part of the contending ideas and possibly grand visions; a soldier in conflicts, if not military then intellectual and spiritual.

Well, you can tell I am enthusiastic about history. The study, the pursuit, the lessons. George Santayana famously said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. A cartoon-meme popping up on the web these days has an old guy reflecting that those who DO know history are doomed to watch other people repeat the mistakes.

That IS a danger. But I began by saying that being a historian – having a historical perspective – can have its pitfalls. The broader the view, more seductive is the tendency to believe in cycles… pendulum swings… and what the writer of Ecclesiastes averred: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Indeed. The awful aspects of human nature are unchanged. So too are the propensities in the human breast to hope. There are elemental virtues and common sins. I believe these are the things referred to in Ecclesiastes. But too many people think – when they think at all about such things – that our challenges and problems can’t be all that bad, because countless civilizations have experienced them before us.

Experienced, yes. Survived? Usually not – and especially not when we talk about moral decline, fiscal irresponsibility, decline in family values, sexual immorality, addictions, loss of patriotic fervor and appreciation of heritage and tradition, lessened charitable impulses, and turning away from God’s Word. Yes: review history. We are not the only culture to experience these things.

But, in your review, notice that few societies, precious few, have redeemed themselves and crawled back into the sunshine. Virtually all have withered and died. Some over long, painful gray periods of dissolution. Some quickly, as by invasions. But the law of civilization and decay is that when societies fall, it is usually from within.

I pivot from the panorama of history, behind us, to the current situation about which I will say as dispassionately as I can: The world has gone mad. To me, the only question is the tense: future-progressive (still occurring) (by the way, I am inclined to capitalize Progressive, but that is another essay…) or present tense. In either case, it is still a tense situation.

I employ benchmarks from history’s record of self-destructive societies. I have considered that the great march of personal freedom, intensifying in the West over the past 500 years, has allowed humankind to let human nature overtake the structure of governments, laws, arts, and science – and resulted in the previous century birthing more slaughter than any other century; and this century, so far, reviving (to take an example) slavery on a grander scale than ever before.

So it is not only a madness of the West, although we madly lead the mad parade to “the dawn of nothing – O make haste,” as Omar Khayyam wrote. Savagery, abuse, hatred: all alive and well around the world. Wars and rumors of wars.

We have rejected in many ways the concept of Absolute Truth, the possibility of its existence, and the benefits of seeking to know it. History’s masses often suffered, but often they believed in improvement; in advancement; in better things and better days. They believed in themselves, in leaders they respected… in God.

The world, in turning inward instead of outward, living for today without regard to an afterlife, abandoning standards that nurtured their ancestors, of course will reflect disharmony and chaos. Art imitates life, after all (what Plato called “Mimesis”). This should worry us very, very much about the state of things ’round about us. This world is not one politician, or one new fad, or one hangover, away from righting ourselves.

We have become lovers of our own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good; traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.

You might have heard these words before. They were predicted about our times – or, anyway, the End Times. Do they describe this age? If not revealed in our actions, and conflicts, and multiple crises… then in the writing on the walls of our art and culture. Our headlines.

Never since the Flood has humankind, over the face of the earth and not in isolated pockets, rejected Truth in such determined ways. II Timothy 3 continues: “In the last days, perilous times will come,” and names the attributes of our times we listed above.

It concludes: “From such, turn away.”

These were not merely warnings; not simple predictions. They were prophecies – the Bible’s “sure things” if we do not “turn away from such.” Will it be difficult, for each of us, and as a people? About that, the Bible does promise: Yes. Very difficult.

But our world depends on it.

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Click: Whispering Hope

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

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Odd Ducks, Missing the Fountain of Youth

5-23-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are any of them references to a Fountain of Youth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: There Is a Fountain

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

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

What Is Beauty? Where Is Truth?

5-16-16

I don’t know if this is proper horticultural protocol, but I have long defined weeds as flowers and plants that are ugly or inconvenient. After one springtime battle with pretty purple crownvetch that misbehaved – seeming to grow four feet along the garden every night as I slept, choking delicate and expensive plantings – I decided on this definition.

In the same way, there are things in life that have elusive dictionary definitions, but are commonly accepted by humankind. “Beauty” is one of these things. Classic episodes of “The Twilight Zone” aside, we humans all pretty much agree with what is beautiful. In appearance, music, art, sunsets, and buffet tables. (A Supreme Court justice made the same point in a very different way when he stated he could not define pornography “but I know it when I see it.”)

There is a popular saying that did not originate (as 90 per cent of popular sayings seem to) in the Bible or Shakespeare. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is from the novel “Molly Bawn” (1878) by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. There’s a trivia question, or answer, for you. We hear it all the time. It is not true; but it rings true.

I say this because there are certain innate perceptions and instincts, and an elemental sort of consensus about what constitutes beauty. Not without exception, but largely. Once upon a time, but… less and less it is the case.

People Magazine has an annual issue announcing its “Sexiest Man Alive” (Esquire claims the distaff honors) and it is revealing of our sorry age. First, we see that “Sexy” has replaced “Beautiful” in our estimation. And it is dismissive of almost anyone other than Hollywood stars. Where are the Africans, Asians, Semitics, Martians? Beauty has been debased. I usually disagree, actually, with their coronations… but who am I to argue with supermarket checkout-line pronouncements?

One of the first philosophers, Plato, had beauty, and other things, figured out when he celebrated harmony in music. Why chords and harmony please our ears he did not ascertain, and neither have we; but he theorized that harmony on earth – in music, poetry, debates, colors, fashion, relationships – is a reflection of heavenly harmony. Heaven? The pagan Plato? Yes, he believed that there is such a thing as abstract truth.

Abstract Truth might be unknowable, Plato thought, but humankind ennobles itself by striving for it; to try to know it; to manage to practice it. Unlike his rival Aristotle, he was on to something. In fact it is why the early Christian fathers considered themselves Neo-Platonists. The Bible, and the Person of Jesus Christ, embody Absolute Truth.

Harmony: the goal of artists, composers, musicians, poets for millennia. Today, a lot of music employs dissonance. Literature dwells on chaos. Art depicts the sordid and degenerate. Drama and movies are obsessed with conflict and disaster. These tendencies do not vitiate our conception of Beauty and Harmony, or Plato’s postulation, no. They confirm the fact that people who love beauty and seek harmony are seeking, consciously or subconsciously, Absolute Truths in their lives. And a world turned ugly is reflected in the arts.

Where is Beauty? We have replaced the concept with many perverted versions. Where is Harmony? It has been drowned out by the cacophony of self-indulgence and hate in contemporary life. God planted these instincts in us! He programmed His children to love and seek Absolute Truth and the beautiful, harmonious things of God.

A lost generation cannot cherish beauty, harmony, and truth, when it believes those qualities do not beckon them in wonderful ways, abstract but attainable. They think, if there is no such thing as Absolute Truth in a Heaven that does not exist, how can it have relevance on earth? Hence, everything is polluted, from art to treatment of our fellow man.

If beauty and harmony are good things, there is a universe that is home to them.

If Abstract Truth exists, giving us all a conscience and a sense of justice, then something… some One… has placed them within us.

With history’s exceptions (let us call them people yielding to sin) like war and persecution, we all seek lives and hope for a world of beauty and harmony. We sense, and we know, that Creation, uncorrupted, is what once we collectively shared, and what innately we seek.

Beauty, harmony, and Truth must have authors. And so, if there is a Creation, there must be a Creator. Why people fight against this self-evidence is a mystery, but no more so than people who temporarily go mad and choose today’s things we listed above: dissonance, chaos, the sordid and degenerate, conflict and disaster. Hate. Sin.

The God of the Universe – the God of the Bible, author of Salvation – exists. And He grieves at our current course. Jesus was and is our substitutionary payment, suffering death that we deserve before a Holy God, so that we might be free to commune with the Author of Beauty, Harmony, and Truth, forever.

Like the man with the muck-rake in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” let us take our eyes from the slop we live in every day, somehow getting muddier and muddier. And look upward. “Abstract” does NOT mean “non-existent.” It means of a different substance. Manifested in different ways, through other ways. Like Truth, and in beauty and harmony.

Jesus, recorded in Mark 21, said that “our hearts incline toward evil.” A desperate condition. But our souls seek beauty, harmony, and Truth, and on that path with Him lies our redemption.

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

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

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Click: Beauty and Harmony: Grimaud plays Beethoven
The second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Helene Grimaud; The Hessicher Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester, Frankfurt; Paavo Jarvi, conducter.

The Quick and the Dead

4-4-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I am grateful to have my heart turned to the Gospel, and to the Resurrection, in a new way. I often have wondered about those 40 days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. We don’t know much about things Jesus did. The Bible says He taught and healed, but with few specifics. Contemporary historians recorded sightings and appearances, but no quotations. The last words of the last Gospel (John 21:25) tells us, “Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.” But we don’t know them all.

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

As busy as He must have been those 40 days, I have a picture in my mind of Jesus alone, also, maybe when darkness fell, down lonely paths, maybe through storms and cold silences, walking the dark hills, not responding to the curious crowds, but seeking out the troubled and the hurting individuals. The sick of body and mind. Those who did not yet know Him.

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

He walks the dark hills, looking for us – piercing the gloom with a joyful hope that may be ours. And it is especially the case, I believe, if you are one of those people who is skeptical, or has “heard enough,” or cannot crack the shell of hurt or pain or resentment or rebellion or fear, or all the other hindrances that prevent us from experiencing the love of Christ. He is closer than a shadow, no matter what you think, or what you might prefer to believe.

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

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

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

Click: God Walks the Dark Hills

Easter – The Real “His Story” Lesson

Easter 2016

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

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

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

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

Yet there were many records of That Week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Bach: St Matthew Passion

More Fools Than Wise

3-14-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: The Silver Swan

The Nature of Human Nature

1-11-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Mass for Troubled Times

Foes of Our Own Household

11-16-15

“Your enemies will be right in your own household!” a prophecy of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 10:36, New Living Translation. In King James language, “there will be foes of your own household.”

The monstrous attacks in Paris this week – coordinated, well-planned, replete with torture, and gunmen praising Allah – will, I fear, someday be looked back upon as mild foreshadows. We already have lists, three-dozen incidents long, of terror attacks on Western buildings, trains, ships, sporting events, restaurants, and schools. These atrocities have largely been perpetrated by Moslems, and have been accompanied, generally subsumed by, bloodier and more vicious attacks on Christians.

Christians all over the world have been targeted by means of displacement, ethnic cleansing, prison, torture, rape, slavery, dismemberment, crucifixions, and beheadings.

Without exception, these barbarities are committed by members of the Islamic religion, followers of Mohammed (blessed be his name). And this is not in the seventh century – I mean, not ONLY in the seventh century – but in the year of our Lord 2015. Last year there were an approximate 16,800 terror attacks worldwide, and approximately 43,000 deaths (State Department figures, therefore probably low).

The recent carnage in the City of Lights, Paris, is different than targeted attacks against military bases or naval vessels. And I can understand the blind rage of populations who have lost their homes and liberty, pushed into, or out of, occupied lands. Another topic, and very important.

But it is a condition, not a theory, that confronts us.

The Christian West is being attacked and eaten at the edges, just as Rome was in its last phase. The self-destructive West (including the United States) is morally flaccid as it refuses to defend its values and heritage. In a paroxysm of folly, however, these days we invite the hordes in. Do you call it madness, the Spirit of Contemporary Western Civilization seems to ask. “Very well, then,” it answers, paraphrasing Walt Whitman; “So I am mad.”

Jesus explained the past and prophesied the future that will usher the End Times: “…it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be…” (Matt. 24: 37-39 NLT).

We all go to bed, get up, manage households, do our jobs, worry about finances, raise kids, follow sports teams, love our favorite entertainers, watch movies, “give in marriage and being given”; and go to bed all over again. Meanwhile the apocalypse is coming. When we are made aware, we wish it away. That is, we wish it goes away.

Our leaders, and our celebrity sheepherders, soothe us into false serenity by telling us that less vigilance will keep us safer. That not calling our enemies by their names will make them go away. That abandoning our faith is the answer to the world’s current crisis of faith.

The extreme predicament, the jeopardy that threatens us and our children and our precious heritage, is not material or geographic or economic; it is spiritual at its core. The only solution, therefore, is spiritual. Not the best response, but the only response.

Many Facebook posts after the Paris bloodbath objected to people who urged prayers for the French and the families of those slaughtered. A common meme: “We need less religion, not more prayers.” “Religion is what fuels all this.” Like rats eating at a rotten corpse, like bacilli devouring a host organism, the foes of our own household want to destroy Christianity and Western Civilization. Few of these who whine are Mohammedans – and, if history provides a pattern, they would be the first to be slaughtered by revolutionaries. Even before the holders of the flames of our heritage. Violent revolutions routinely “eat their babies” first.

As all this continues to play out (and there are few signs that matters will reverse themselves), Islamic radicals flooding Europe display little humility and gratitude, much hatred and bloodlust. On Facebook, the world’s bulletin board, we see numerous promises to rape our daughters, burn our churches, and kill us all.

But these murderers and murderers-in-waiting are second-in-line to receive blame. They are Refujihadis, doing their jobs, after all. They despise Christians, but, if anything, hold secular cultures in more contempt: hence, attacks on France, the US, and Western Europe.

The guilty parties, dear Brutus, are not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. The contemporary Christian – you and I? – are of the generation that has lost our way, failed to discipline our children, allowed ourselves to be deceived by seditious leaders, numbed by mass entertainment, and… we no longer believe or live by the faith of our fathers. Having, some among us, the form of godliness but denying the power thereof.

Another prophecy: “You live among rebels who have eyes but refuse to see. They have ears but refuse to hear. For they are a rebellious people” (Ezekiel 12:2 NLT).

Foes of our own households.

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A larger view of life, representing our duty to view the world and Christendom, written by Don Moen. Don was, neat coincidence, the college roommate of my friend Michael Cardone. Sung by Robin Mark.

Click: When It’s All Been Said and Done

Answer My Prayer!!!

11-9-15

One of the unique attributes of our God, one of the astonishing ways He relates to us, is communication. He could be what pagan religions imagined, a stone statue or a golden idol. Or He could have revealed Himself through a wise man, now dead; or a prophet, instead of becoming an incarnate human to whom we can relate, who confirmed His divinity by overcoming death.

He is a Holy God – not a cool next-door neighbor – so there are attributes that are also remote and mysterious, an appropriate dichotomy for the Creator of the Universe. But the most mysterious communication He ordains is also the simplest: prayer.

And now about prayer. … When you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly, and your Father, who knows your secrets, will reward you. Don’t recite the same prayer over and over as the heathen do, who think prayers are answered only by repeating them again and again. Remember, your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!
(Matthew 6:5-8)

He knows our needs before we pray… yet we are commanded to pray… He hears us… He promises to answer prayer. Even Jesus set an example for us by frequently going aside, seeking solitude, praying alone before trials and important challenges.
God can already read our minds, know our thoughts, so why does He desire that we pray? Knowing our innermost desires or requests is not communication. How wonderful that He has established prayer as a way for us to focus: to order our priorities, to approach Him with proper attitudes; to put into “groaning,” as sometimes happens, the anguish of our souls.

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)

So we have a spiritual situation – truly, a gift – where we do not approach a stone idol or open the sayings of a dead teacher. We can approach, and boldly, the Throne of Grace. Answers? We know from Bible accounts, and testimonies of uncountable believers through history and in our midst, and from our own experiences, how answered payer comes.

God works through circumstances. Let the skeptics laugh, but Christians “know that we know that we know.” My wife, several times in her life, heard audible words from God. My daughter Heather has a remarkable manner in which she sometimes prays – walking, driving, moving about, having a conversation with Jesus. He is our best friend, after all.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4: 6,7)

There are many people who might not be skeptics, exactly, but yet be skeptical, or still seeking about this thing called prayer. What about prayers that are not answered? (If asked sincerely, we must know that God still answers – sometimes in His timing; sometimes in His wisdom; we are to wait.) What about prayers that go against our desires? (We must test our prayers – making demands upon God are not prayers, any more than a threat is not a conversation.) What about heartfelt pleas for things we deeply want? (God will lead us to know the difference between our needs and our desires.) What about answers to prayer that are disappointing? (God, who loves us, and knows what is best for us, should be trusted when He sometimes answers “no.”)

Despite these guideposts, troubled people can still have problems finding answers in, or through, prayer. I realize that; this sometimes describes myself.

Let us create a hypothetical. A couple has desired to adopt children, and prayed fervently over the commitments and practicalities. They feel in their hearts a “leading” to go forward. They faithfully proceed through the long and tortured process. Every step of vetting and screening is bathed in prayer. They are “matched” with children, eventually take them into their home, praise God for answered prayer, and rear them with the same love as for their biological children.

Continuing the hypothetical, the adoptees – from a very troubled background – manifest behavior that indisputably make the adoption untenable. Despite the application of prayer, and the best efforts of family, the agencies, police, doctors, and the parents’ hopeful hearts, circumstances make necessary the reversal of the adoption.

In these or similar situations (hypothetical or very real), what are people to say of prayer, which guided believers at every step? “The fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,” the Bible assures us. What “much”? Obedience can never be regretted. Seeds are planted, lessons learned, and there are answers we do not see. Or see right away. Or ever see. But God works His ways.

Souls that grieve, especially after prayerful decisions seemingly gone wrong, benefit from a certain type of prayer. Above is the verse that speaks of “groanings” we do not verbalize but are carried to God by the Holy Spirit. Praying in the Spirit is as old as Pentecost after Christ’s Ascension; the invitation for us to communicate with God by praying in tongues, the Bible’s “prayer language.”

But however communicated, the prayer line that was valid during your hope-filled crisis is just as valid afterward. The peace you sought is still waiting for you. God has the same “ears” to listen, and you have the same heart to receive. He is whispering this to you.
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. (Psalm 34:17)

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Through prayer, and in prayer, because of prayer, we realize that the God of the mountain is still God in the valley. At a recent Isaacs Family concert at the First Baptist Church of Kearney, Missouri, they spotted Lynda Randle (sister of Michael Tait of dc talk and Newsboys) in the audience. She was persuaded to sing her signature song.

Click: God On the Mountain

The “Man Upstairs” Has Moved Out

10-12-15

As most of you know, Dr. Pangloss was a character in Candide by Voltaire. As with many characters in fiction and literature whose sayings (“Something will always turn up,” said Micawber in Dickens’ David Copperfield) and very names (Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals) have entered the language, Pangloss manifested the universal tendency to accept what life dumps on us: “This is the best of all possible worlds.”

It is very seldom that anyone who believes he or she really is living in the best of all possible worlds says so. Usually we are whistling in the graveyard; that is, putting up a confident front, trying to convince ourselves (and anyone else who will listen) that we are not as bad-off as things seems.

The saying, and the attitude behind it, is more than resignation to life’s vicissitudes. At its best it is a temporary surrender in one of life’s battles, a choice not to respond or fight or overcome. At its worst it is a false sense of security that replaces wisdom and joy; a counterfeit theology that rejects the rescue-and-recovery operation laid out for us by God.

The counterfeit theology is deadly… and common. Many Christians, deliberately or unconsciously, employ it. It is, really, saying “no thanks” to God when He offers comfort, solace, wisdom, understanding, strength, hope.

Truly, superstition. If we utter it, we think it will become so, and our troubles will be calmed.

The deadliest aspect of believing that “This is the best of all possible worlds” is on people who, ironically, are relieved from reaching low-points, feeling desperate, realizing that they must run to the Lord. Knowing they must run to the Lord. Having to crawl to the Lord, if necessary. It sounds hard, but we are talking about those hard moments we all face.

Seeking the Lord (who, always, always in these circumstances is closer than we think) is not a bad thing in the end. It is, in fact, the Best Thing. It is where He wants us. What a shame that it takes horrible situations – or that we let ourselves be so separated – that we have to experience that desperation.

But what a wonderful thing that we seek and arrive at the foot of the Cross, before the Throne of Grace.

“This is the best of all possible worlds”? The phrase is often said after a death, an accident, a disappointment that we cannot explain. Personal sorrow, economic distress, dashed dreams. “Oh, well, maybe it’s for the best…” is a denial-fed mantra. Its efficacy is self-swindling balm, because many people will then say, “Anyway, I have to believe that; it helps me get through.”

This puts the saying in company with wishing-stones, rabbit’s feet, lucky charms, necromancy. What a waste of the joy unspeakable, full of glory, that God offers. If this – in the larger, non-specific sense – were the best of all possible worlds, there would be no need for prayer, spiritual guidance, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit; indeed, no need for a Savior.

There is sin in the world. Sometimes, often, we sin; we fall short of the glory of God. Our problems are always some result of sin, corruption, junk in the world around us. And sometimes the result of our own actions. Whatever. God provides a refuge. Jesus is the cleft in the rock during life’s storms. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter.

“Come to Me, weak and heavy-laden,” Jesus invited. “Peace that passes understanding,” we are promised. “I am the bread of life,” when our very souls are starving. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Understand me: the Sovereign Lord declares that without Him, this is NOT the best of all possible worlds.

If you are a believer and you find yourself falling back on that empty mantra, shake that dust from your sandals, and learn again how to walk with the Lord through this imperfect world.

If you are casual about your faith, or a nominal believer in God, or have a “universal” trust in the goodness of a supreme being – and you find yourself trusting, when “necessary,” that this is the best of all possible worlds – realize how empty this is. It is as sad, horribly sad, for people to decline God’s gifts as it is to defy Him.

And be more spiritual than to refer to “the man upstairs.” That “man” has moved out. In fact he was never home.

The Creator of the Universe not only is “upstairs,” but lives right next to you. He knows your answers; He has your answers; He IS your answer.

And He is your guide to the best of all possible worlds.

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Johnny Cash sang a song, late in his life, that captures the desperation we sometimes feel.

Click: Help Me, Lord

The Last Day Of the Rest Of Your Life

9-28-15

A tweenager I have gotten to know was saddened by the recent death of her grandfather. As a young Christian she displayed a concern that many youngsters otherwise would not feel: “I never had the chance to tell him about Jesus!” I thought of this yesterday when a neighbor told me he invited another neighbor to church one Wednesday evening; unable to attend, the fellow was invited on the following Saturday night. But the next morning the invited guest, in his 30s, was found dead in his living room. My friend had not inquired of the guy’s “standing with the Lord,” but church would have been a time to open such conversation.

These are poignant stories. Timing – as with so many things in life! – can be excruciating.

In significant matters like a person’s relationship with Jesus, making the simple but profound decision to accept Christ and be secure about eternal salvation, to be a child of God and a citizen of Heaven, we all have responsibilities. Jesus commanded us to share the Gospel. Not just with grandfathers and neighbors, but to all the world.

Yet, we can only do so much. It is my opinion that the contemporary church either makes too little of evangelism – diluting the Gospel – or too much, trying to “seal the deal” with professions of faith, signed pledges, and obligatory testimonies. We need to remind ourselves that our commission is to share the Gospel; it is, by holy design, the work of the Holy Spirit to convict, lead, and witness to people’s hearts.

Do we think the Holy Spirit inadequate to do the work Jesus foretold?

We should not stop coming alongside those new in faith, of course not, but we do not seal those deals, so to speak. We cannot. Individuals do, and only by the prompting and power of the Holy Spirit of God.

Further, to be humble about our roles can give us a clearer picture of things we are doing… and not doing, as Christian servants. That young lady who cried, “I never had the chance to tell Grandpa about Jesus!” did not mean she never had the chance. Nothing against her sincerity or naiveté – we all share such grievous regrets of timing – but what happened was she never took the chance. She had the chance; we all do. My neighbor took the chance by issuing an invitation. But, wow, what a reminder.

Right here, I only want to expand on this in a different way. You might be reading this, and might be someone who does not buy in to the act of “accepting Jesus,” or the importance of a “decision.” You might not be comfortable or consider it your role to “share the Gospel.” Or to respond to such forms of outreach. You are not alone, even in this land of many churches.

Well… then, this message is for you. You might not share; you might be shared to; you might dismiss the importance of “accepting Christ.” Maybe you have heard about such things, but never actually heard them directly. You are hearing now. Stick around for another paragraph or two.

We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. A just God cannot accept sinners determined to reject Him. As humankind discovered its inability to please the Lord by offerings and works, and our “clean” garments were still as filthy rags, God provided the Perfect Offering. He sent His Son to earth to teach and heal and preach and inspire – to save – a lost world. Christ became the sacrifice for our sins, that whoever believes in their hearts He is the Son of God; and confesses that God raised Him from the dead, shall be saved.

To this statement of Good News, if you add anything, that is foolish; if you subtract anything, that is dangerous. The Gospel invitation, condensed.

Now you have heard it. Whether you live a few more days or a few more decades, the Gospel has been shared with you. Next? Search the Bible; and pray to God for His Spirit to come into your heart… and your mind, that any questions you have will be answered. It is a prayer that never goes unanswered!

“Timing” still is important. This might be the last day of the rest of your life!

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We might stray, we might feel alone, we might think we are far from the Shepherd’s sight, or care. But remember the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Ninety-nine sheep might be in the fold, but He will seek out the one who is lost. This song was written by Elizabeth Clephane; melody by Ira Sankey, 150 years ago. Sung here by Dean Phelps.

Click: The Ninety and Nine

When NOT To Follow Jesus

9-21-15

I once worked for a youth-ministry resource company, as “Director of Product Development.” Actually it was as editor, sometime conference speaker, and seldom directing the development of new products, despite the title; unless books are called Products, which I suppose they are.

Anyhoo, an excellent editor and I oversaw the publication of about 50 books a year. Now that I look back, even between the two of us, that was a book every week, which we did, yes, “develop,” from brainstorming sessions, to proposals, to outlining, to many author conferences, to helping design and work on cover art; along the way contributing gems of wisdom about people who might write introductions and endorsements, suggesting promotion and ad copy; ultimately to develop comebacks for a Christian bookstore in, say, Pittsburgh, that objected to the way a kid looked on a back-cover photo.

But, a book every two weeks, as we, Solomon-like, divided the chores. No wonder we went crazy. Holy crazy, of course; sanctified bonkerdom. Biennial conventions, various office duties, and office picnics broke the monotony if not the workload.

But it was a wonderful company, a for-profit “ministry,” and thousands of pastors and youth workers – and by extension multiple thousands of kids – relied on our books, conferences, and products.

While I was at the company, the owner died in a horrible auto accident – one of those deaths when you automatically say, “Too young, too young.” He was too young, and it still would have been a tragic loss if had been 108. His widow picked up the reins. Soon into said reign she inaugurated a monthly book review group. It was voluntary in the office; Christian books were assigned; and she led a free-flow discussion.

In one of the sessions, talk turned to being secure about going to Heaven, as it does sometimes among members of old-line churches and even among skeptics. Our leader announced that she was pretty sure she was going to Heaven, because she and her husband “had given so much money to charities through the years.”

I paused. One way to put my reaction.

We all live in a land that was founded and settled by Christians, in a society that largely was designed and informed by Protestant theology. It is not against the law for anyone to dissent from these situations and their implications. But to be ignorant of them – especially as the owner and life-worker in jobs devoted to sharing the gospel among churches – is astonishing.

It is very common in America for average citizens to be ignorant of dogma that onetime permeated Western societies, however. It is common for people these days to be quite unaware of doctrines and traditions of the churches they attend – if those churches, many of them, “independent,” even hold to such things.

And the surprise I evinced that afternoon might have been unwarranted, because I had developed doubts that any shade of orthodoxy inhabited any corners of that office. And these are days when popes question traditional doctrine, and pastors gut the gospel and newly interpret – or couldn’t be bothered to – the Bible.

But the logic of revealed truth, if there is anything to the Bible, and Christ’s ministry, includes the fact that we cannot buy our way into Heaven. We cannot fool God with promises, bribe God with good deeds, or impress Him (that is, unto Salvation) with good works. If so, rich people writing checks would elbow themselves into Glory… and we know what Jesus said about the rich getting into Heaven. Indeed, if salvation were that easy, Jesus’ incarnation, birth, ministry, miracles, teaching, persecution, torture, condemnation, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, would all be worthless shams. Hoaxes. A cruel trick on the Christ, first of all; and then us. All in vain.

All through humankind’s history, people have been susceptible to “natural” curiosity about, say, reincarnation. Superstitions about karma. And false hopes that good deeds now and again will be sufficient to please a Holy God. Wouldn’t it be nice? And easy? The bad news is that it’s not true.

The good news is that there is a satisfactory substitute available to all. With our sinful inclinations, we cannot do it on our own, anyway – but God has provided the substitutionary and atoning death of His Son to pay the price of sin. Simple. Easy. Not cheap. But free.

Next, how do we live that new life with changed hearts? Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow Him. Yes, we should be Christ-followers. At the same time, as we are pilgrims and strangers in this world, we proceed forth, “stepping out in faith.” Alone? No, we know that Christ is there, leading from behind (as current phraseology goes)!

Over, under, above, below, however, the best we can ask for, and hope for, and have, is Jesus holding our hands. He will guide us day and night. He, working through the Holy Spirit, will correct us when we are mistaken.

That is, sometimes we follow; sometimes He is behind us; and sometimes it is best to hold His hand… the security of knowing that He is with us. At our sides; what a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

If we happen to slip into error or heresy… well, think of it this way: if you are persuaded to buy your way into Heaven through offerings or donations, if Jesus is holding your hand, it will be hard to reach for loose change or a checkbook. You will find yourself being reminded that charity is from a pure heart, and giving is the result of Salvation, not the price of a ticket to Heaven.

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The great gospel song by Albert E Brumley, “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” is a virtual sermon in song. It is a song I have sung solo in churches more than any other. Here is a heartfelt and, um, enthusiastic version by Jerry Lee Lewis.

Click: Jesus, Hold My Hand

What I Hate About Religion

9-7-15

“He has told you, O people, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8

When I was a college student, there were still such things as loyalty oaths. Students, teachers, applicants for many jobs in the government and the private sector, were required to answer and sign the following yes-or-no question: “Do you favor the overthrow of the United States Government by violence, force, or subversion?” As a young wise guy – now I am on old wise guy, not much wiser – one time I circled the word “subversion,” and added a note that I wished to avoid bloodshed.

Of course, it was not a multiple-choice question. I was no radical, and it was a reasonable question, especially in those times (maybe more so now, but that’s for another message…) and it was not right that my sense of humor eclipsed my common sense.

No less reasonable a question, and more serious, is the famous and favorite verse from Micah. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. Not a multiple-choice, and, overall, not a hard choice in life. Right? I am reminded, when I think on this verse, what always is right about God’s will, and what often is wrong about organized religion.

What I hate about religion is that it turns the simplicity of God’s message into a tangle of rules, conditions, qualifications, codes, and seeming contradictions. In fact, when theologians, clergymen, priests, and pastors get hold of churches and schools, of texts and flocks, oftentimes the contradictions are not apparent but real.

A quatrain (not from the Bible, but pertinent) I discovered and memorized in my youth says: “All the saints and sages who discussed/ of the two worlds so learnedly are thrust/ like foolish prophets forth; their words to scorn/ are scattered; their mouths are stopped with dust.”

Humans, who by our natures are lost and confused, and almost preternaturally, every one of us, yearning for truth and for peace and for Answers – we need simplicity. We fool ourselves that Complicated equals Profound. On such momentous matters as sin and death and afterlife, after all, doesn’t it make sense that the way to the Truth be complex? … and that we need learned leaders – saints and sages – to show us the way? No: They invariably need to tell us the way, not show us the way.

And there we get back to organized religion. New rules get added to scripture, which the Bible says is unforgivable sin (and so is taking away anything in scripture). Remember that for more than a thousand years, believers were not allowed to read the Bible, or translate it to their native languages. People were taught that intercessors in Heaven were needed to petition, or thank, God. Way-stations between earth and Heaven that were never in the Bible were invented. Today, television preachers promise that “seed money” you send them will guarantee God’s return blessings; and other rank heresies. Organized religion or organized rackets?

For those who are confident in having “found the way” to God, no different with those who are lost and confused and wanting to find God – in other words, all of us! – everyone should realize that God is accessible. Knowing Him is easy. He is always as close as a shadow. Talking to Him is simple, not complicated; hearing from Him is clear, not a matter of superstitious mystery.

Oh! His commandments? Jesus’s words? The Bible’s directions? Yes, they exist… and thank God. He doesn’t leave us helpless! But… He is not the Great Pretender, the Author of Confusion. His rules are few. They are for our guidance, and our happiness, our ultimate fellowship with Him. The Commandments are still wise and valid. The words of the Prophets, so many fulfilled, are lamps unto our feet. The teaching of Jesus? His words were surprisingly few, astonishingly full of wisdom, and directly for our salvation.

The essence of the Bible is found in so few words and passages that anyone might memorize them. The 10 Commandments (not the “10 Suggestions”) are rules we need. Micah’s verse about doing justice and walking humbly. Jesus’s summary of the Truth as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength; and… Love your neighbor as yourself.” To get to Heaven? – no classes, exams, ceremonies, or human blessings; only to Believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord; and confess that God raised Him from the dead.

I am grateful for some human agencies in or out of organized religion. Much has been useful: the ancient creeds simply encapsulated the tenets of faith; Martin Luther recalled the Bible verse that by faith we are saved, not (complicated) works; Mother Teresa brilliantly told us that God does not care about our “success,” only our obedience. Clear teaching… genuine humility… patient praying… anointed teaching of God’s word, not mankind’s “improvements”… service and sacrifice… quiet witnessing, even martyrdom… these are the elements of Christianity that humans can receive and provide. The essence of the Gospel life, not the “stuff.”

It has been said, and truly, that religion is mankind reaching up to God, but Christianity is God reaching down to us.

Let us learn to distinguish between the artificial rules and the True Faith. One is confusingly complicated, one is refreshingly simple. One might be wrapped up in memories and sentiment, but the other opens doors to joy unspeakable. One can keep you from peace; the other delivers it. You can discern. If not… that is why God instituted the communication-channel of prayer; and why He sent the Holy Spirit. Such prayers, such questions, such seeking, never go unanswered by your Father in Heaven.

We are aware that many things in our lives are right or wrong, true or false. We know. Experience, if nothing else, teaches us many things. Are the important things in your life mere check-boxes in a multiple-choice quiz?

Is Faith in God?

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The Gospel group Found Wandering sings its version of an old Stanley Brothers standard.

Click: That Home Far Away

God Forgets Our Sins. We Forget His Blessings.

8-31-15

When I was a “baby Christian” I had been familiar with scripture verses and Bible stories, but was new in the personal knowledge of the salvation message and a relationship with God in Christ. When “born again” I often prayed in a certain way that I thought was appropriately humble.

I began my prayers – and sometimes filled them and ended them – with confessions of unworthiness. I was conscious of my lowly status before God. A sinner who felt presumptuous to approach the Throne of God. This realization was humbling, and I thought was a step forward in my proper relationship with God. A spiritual breakthrough.

In fact, it is just the opposite. The pilgrim’s progress on the way to Heaven, to the presence of God for eternity, certainly has way-stations of setbacks and also, yes, those of clear realizations. It is hard to move to the next spiritual step until we approach, appreciate, and pass by the stages that include, say, the overwhelming understanding that the gulf between a Holy God and us, lowly sinners, is enormous.

The consciousness of sin, and the awareness that we cannot save ourselves, is essential in our walk. Likewise the full knowledge of God’s awesome holiness. But…

… these steps come during our journey, not after we are assured of Heaven and the security of forgiveness and acceptance. When we achieve Heaven there will be no shadow of turning, no doubts, no anxiety about past transgressions, no nervous feelings that we have sins yet to be dealt with.

In fact we can know that peace now. No Pearly Gates, no giant book with ledger-sheets of good and bad.

When we are saved, we are saved. The Bible speaks of judgments, yes, and also crowns and treasures delivered after we are in Heaven. Whether we can “lose” our salvation before Heaven is occasionally debated by theologians… but not that we can lose it in Heaven. These are all mysteries that fill us with joy, but not with dread or even insecurity. God does not issue counterfeit entrance passes. There will be no U-Turns once you get to Glory.

The Joy Unspeakable we can know now is because of a simple fact. When we invite Jesus into our hearts, where He lives and reigns after our happy surrender to Him, God looks at us and… sees Jesus. He sees the “new” us. And the Bible tells us that when we receive Him, and receive the forgiveness He promises, we are forgiven indeed.

He casts our sins over His shoulder into a sea of forgetfulness. God can do anything, but in that mystery He forgets our sins: He chooses not to remember them. Not only in Heaven, but now, He remembers our transgressions no more. A neat trick. Thank God. Literally.

And that means those prayers couched in abject humility as a sinner, groveling in guilt and unworthiness, are out of place in the life of a born-again, saved and redeemed believer. Once upon a time, appropriate – even necessary – but no more! We stand on our feet, washed and covered by Jesus’s Atonement, and approach the Throne of Grace! He looks at us, and sees the Blood.

There is another side to the coin. Just as we tend, unnecessarily, to remind God of sins that He has forgotten, how often do we forget our prayers that He has answered? How often do we neglect the Source of gifts and good things? How often do we fail to thank Him for uncountable blessings?

In my case, I’m afraid the answer is “often.” Probably with you, too.

Those items of Neglect are sins. God is the author of all good things, and whether we rudely fail to acknowledge His move in our lives, or simply (?) ignore the grateful responses due Him, we horribly fall short. Salvation is not free – the sacrifice paid by Jesus made God cry, not only Mary – but it is easy, and it is eternal.

Surely, after He has forgotten our sins forever, we can occasionally remember His forgiveness, His blessings, His love.

We have traded our dirty clothes for shining robes, and a crown, and diamonds in that crown. Remember what awaits. We have foretastes even now. Let us act like we know it!

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Click: A Diamond in My Crown

The Declaration of Decadence

7-6-15

Imagine the year is 2215.

If the world is still around then – or as we Christians are wont to say, if the Lord tarries – there will be history books. Well, maybe not books, but there will be histories. We humans do not always learn from history, yet we study it and are curious about the past in various ways. And are doomed to repeat what we fail to learn.

As a student of history, with degrees in history, and as an author of many biographies and histories… I nevertheless claim no special insights. Yet I think a text like the following is plausible, even likely. I don’t wish it. In fact, I fear it. But I expect it. Two very different Fourths of July.

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This “history” is written in 2215, which is far fewer years since the watershed year in American history we choose (2015), than between the Declaration of Independence and 2015. Therefore, rapid changes were recorded. The United States of America is gone now, a historical memory like Egypt of the Pharaohs or ancient Greece or the Roman Empire. It was divided into regions that became new countries, or portions that were swallowed up by former rival nations and ambitious neighbors.

At one point in its history, America was a nation that surprised the world. Its early generations. It was “discovered”; settled by mostly European peoples and cultural values; it expanded, became wealthy and powerful, and incorporated the wisdom of the ages as well as recent philosophies. Religion, Christian tradition, Enlightenment thought, respect for human rights and responsibilities, all were there from the beginning, or grafted onto the American stock.

Then, what surprised the world even more – or, perhaps, what stands out in history – is how quickly those qualities disappeared.

All the words of its Founders and Framers, that the promise of a republican democracy could only succeed in the hands of a godly people… were forgotten.

The insights of countless foreign observers, that “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great,” were disregarded, instead of being appreciated as a warning.

One by one, America’s original sins, like slavery, were painfully expunged, but hard fought nonetheless; yet generations after the signs of progress, Americans descended into ugly recriminations, as if slavery and poverty were worse than ever.

Military power that represented, and protected, America’s material wealth, soon morphed into imperial ambitions. Despite the lessons of history that every nation that sought boundless conquest – republics that became empires – America rotted at the edges first, and lost land, allies, and its very citizens’ loyalties. The United States had bases in more than 100 countries in the year we chose, 2015. Unsustainable.

Some of the many qualities that made the United States stand out from other nations in history were its industry, invention, trade, and the widespread prosperity that followed. Never were more people more comfortable, and able to pursue education and leisure. Yet an entitlement mentality overtook the United States. Redistribution, envy, resentment of success, were the fruits of the free enterprise system.

Finance capitalism nurtured currents of greed, and materialism replaced idealism. Far more common was the desire to penalize achievements. Where once America applauded those who accomplished things, a mindset took hold whose impulse was to tear down. And confiscate. Instead of elevating the talented to the first-class, America began to tear everyone down to the third-rate level. In schools, in society, in the workplace.

Language, borders, and culture became dirty words. Traditional heroes were attacked, and “celebrities” took their places. Talents that might have served the arts were turned toward jingles, advertising, and diversions designed to be obsolete in a season. Military veterans had to rely on private organizations for their care; their families were thrown to public assistance.

Sex replaced love; drugs replaced thought; relativism replaced religion; “being nice” replaced being right; government programs replaced charity; TV and movies replaced books. The Self replaced the ideal of private responsibility for others. The Moment replaced the Future. The accumulation of things became the standard of success, and respect; personal integrity became irrelevant.

Divorces increased. Illegitimacy soared. Addictions and abuse were like epidemics. Despite the clear evidence of … history… the United States became a society where human nature and human relationships were turned inside-out. Drugs became acceptable. The family unit was not merely challenged, but attacked. Religion was transformed into an object of hatred and ridicule, instead, with all its faults, of being a lodestar. Gender roles were reversed. People “became lovers of themselves,” and engaged in debasements.

Gender roles, family structures. Those who ruined America thought that the inclinations and traditions of the human community could be, should be, changed by laws and courts. It was little different from the French Revolution, which tried to change clocks and calendars and mathematics. Doomed; futile at best, self-destructive at worst. But those who did not learn from history were doomed to repeat it.

American schools, run by the state, became propaganda mills. So, in effect, were voices of the entertainment and news complexes. Traditionalists – descendents of those who had established and had long underpinned the culture – were silenced, and persecuted.

As surprising as the decline, these and many other examples, and how quickly it happened, was the fact that so many citizens welcomed the radical changes. As in a Bacchanalian orgy, after a certain point the self-loathing destructiveness fed upon itself. History be damned; posterity be damned. God Himself be damned.

… for that was the underlying motive force of the agents of decadence, destruction, and degeneracy: rebellion not only against tradition and a unique heritage in world history; but nihilistic mutiny against God. The God whose blessings enabled that former nation, the United States of America, to briefly stand in world history as a Shining City On a Hill.

Some people think that politicians invented that slogan; or that Ronald Reagan coined the phrase; or that one of the very first Pilgrims, John Winthrop, imagined it. But Jesus first envisioned it and spoke of it, in His Sermon On the Mount. The United States saw it, had it, and lost it.

For awhile it seemed so unlikely. But the United States became merely one more page in history’s book, to turn and move on…

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It is not amiss, on this 4th of July, 2015 (to return to the present) to quote some words Ronald Reagan did write on the issue at hand – whether America can retain its precious birthrights of freedom and liberty:

“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom, and then lost it, have never known it again. … It is inconceivable to me that anyone could accept… delegated authority without asking God’s help.”

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I have chosen a recent anthem, “Lead Me Home,” concerning one’s last days, with videos of military funerals and cemeteries, because the juxtaposition of this great song and these powerful images illustrate my point, here – that the American culture is slipping from the moorings that once held it together. Honestly, we should be mourning, as much as celebrating, this particular July Fourth. Christian patriots need to roll up sleeves, become better informed, prepare to fight, and expect tougher times.

The challenges, and our current parlous situation, are outlined in scripture. You know that. Justice of a righteous God. End Times. But the rewards of the faithful, and the glory that awaits us, are also written in the heavenlies.

Click: Lead Me Home

Welcome to MMMM!

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

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About The Author

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