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Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

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

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

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

The Crisis of Bullying

5-8-17

I recently talked to a friend about the issue of bullying, which has become a big issue in our society and a major concern of contemporary life.

Whether bullying is more prevalent these days, or only more reported and discussed, is to me an open question. If incidents with kids are in fact more numerous, I ask the same questions I do about autism: Why now? Why so common? Does it merely have a new name? Is there something in the environment that precipitates these things?

There is a question, too, of whether the “bullying” issue among kids is a matter of rougher behavior and victimization; a culture of wimpiness that has fastened itself on American life, its children in particular; a predilection to raise fusses over things formerly overlooked… or is something in the middle of those triangular points.

Autism and the alphabet-soup of children’s emotional disorders, if caused by factors in the environment, will someday be discovered and solved. Bullying, such as we understand it, might also be blamed on the environment – but its case would be more in the moral environment. Insensitivity… video games… violent entertainment… dissolution of the nuclear family… lost values?

My friend and I decried a common response, especially among some Christians, to advise children to “turn the other cheek,” to love the bully until the offensive attitude adjusts itself. That is, to make these responses automatic, even autonomic. Ignore causes, outcomes, right, or wrong: just yield.

Every case is different, of course, but since Jesus was quoted here, His famous admonition should be seen in context. “Do not respond in kind,” a paraphrase, can be God’s will – no; we can agree it is God’s will – in certain situations. There are many, many times we need to show the world Christ’s love; how we are different; what new wine fills our old wineskins.

We are to be, in the words of Thomas à Kempis, imitators of Christ.

But, without composing a concordance of verses here, we recognize that sincere and observant Christians can both support and resist non-violence. There are biblical injunctions against anger, revenge, and unforgiveness. And scriptural admonitions – in fact, actions of our Holy Role Model – to strike back, put people in their place, overturn tables in temple courtyards.

Jesus scolded Peter to sheath his sword against Roman soldiers in the garden, yet also said in Luke 12: 34-36: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”

Is God intentionally ambiguous about rules for our lives? Does every commandment have a negation elsewhere in scripture? Is the Lord a God who hedges His bets?

No ambiguity in the word of God. No negations in scripture, but rather confirmations and supporting verses. The Lord does not bet; rather, we take a deadly chance when we ignore of deny His word.

When we reach times when we fall short of true understanding, even to matters that confound us or that have caused schisms in the past… I believe that God intends those junctures to be teachable moments, for us to search the scriptures, to pray and seek wisdom. Then, to pray more.

Short, perhaps, of those extreme spiritual questions, are matters whose exegesis seem easier. Context. Which also prompts us to “empty ourselves,” try to substitute God’s wisdom for our own prejudices – our own natures – and dig deep in the Word.

Back to bullying. And to transition, as my friend and I did, to larger challenges that face contemporary Christians. Kids often are bullied these days for their lunch money, their sneakers, or their faces – meaning, mindless hatred. Christians, the church at large, are being bullied too. It is not new, and was in fact foretold (one might say “promised”) often by prophets and Christ. Prejudice; opposition; persecution.

But it is different today – also a feature of the End Times – and it requires different responses by Christians and the church. In some instances there are no cheeks to turn. Believers must stand their ground, and even be aggressive when defending ourselves and the faith. And we must positively disciple and evangelize.

I argue that Mohatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King practiced non-violence as political acts as much as spiritual acts. In any event the results were political, surely consistent with their hopes and dreams. Properly so.

In the 19th century there was a term, Muscular Christianity. It did not mean punching non-believers in the face; it meant knowing Jesus and making Him known. It meant not being ashamed of the Gospel. It meant transferring one’s faith into action: being a Christian every day in every way. Representing Christ. And defending His church.

These qualities are in retreat today. Like recessive genes, the abandonment of such traits surely will lead to mutation and death. Not of God’s Truth, which is everlasting to everlasting, but of His body – the church on earth. And, no less, our nation, our families, our souls.

America is a Christian nation, settled by Christians, claimed for Christ. Affirmed in foundational documents. Called so by the Supreme Court (1892). Should we proscribe immigration by other faiths? No. Should we persecute other faiths? No.

However – like people who buy homes near airports and then file lawsuits seeking noise reduction – neither should people of other faiths proscribe, persecute, and exercise prejudice against Christians. Every week in the news we hear of government edicts, court orders, and media pogroms against Christians. Not “people of faith,” because Muslims and of course atheists routinely are coddled, but Christians.

The body of believers – the remnant? – in the Year of our Lord 2017 need to carry “swords”; to risk “variance” with family, friends, and neighbors; and not submit to being bullied.

Do we choose to defend ourselves? Pray for wisdom. Must we defend God, His people, His church? Yes. Push back against the cultural and spiritual bullies. Overturn some tables in the temple courtyard!

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Taped at the Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany, where Luther translated the Bible from Latin; and the birthplace of J S Bach.

Click: Stand Up For Jesus

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

Patience and Timing, Endangered Species

2-13-17

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

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

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

The instructor replied, “Patience.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: Waiting On the Lord

“Hey – I Know That Guy!”

2-6-17

This is something of a continuation of last week’s essay. I seldom attempt this, reckoning that for most people, one week’s worth of my opinions is quite enough on any subject. But circumstances, and some feedback, illuminated the reflections, so to speak, about friendship. I hope that all the flavor is not chewed out of this gum.

At the risk of revealing some repellant form of insularity I might suffer, I have the opinion that despite increased travel, more frequent communication, easier social interaction… the average person has fewer friends – true, intimate, close friends – than ever in years past. I suppose there is way to ascribe logic to this state of affairs, a reasonable explanation, but that is not to avoid regretting it.

The Pace of Life must bear a large share of the blame, if this is true; so the contemporary world’s cornucopia of blessings surely is mixed. In fact it is on almost matters.

These little bubbles we create for ourselves – last week I referred to the temptation for believers, for example, to grow more insulated from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, as the Bible lists – these bubbles seem to us secure, womb-like. But bubbles burst. All the time.

This week I was reminded of the urge – no, the necessity – of Christians to engage the World. It is frequently our lot; and we can never be sure whether circumstances are orchestrated by God, or not, to test our Witness.

A friend (though casual) on Facebook (where else?) commented (in 2017, many of us seldom converse, but we frequently Comment) on a political thread (what else?). To some perceived outrage by a president I will not name, she commented, simply, “Jesus.” By her own subsequent admission, she is not a Christian, and I perceived of what she wrote to be a curse. (By her subsequent attestation, she said she uttered it in the same manner a Christian might. I was not persuaded that she was praying; and, besides, I have heard plenty church-goers take the Lord’s name in vain. In any event, obviously there was no reason to continue, in private or public, without voicing skepticism about her intention being reverent.)

I yielded to the temptation to refer to her own faith tradition, which I had suspected but did not know, and cite the Second Commandment. But that hinges on the technicality of whether the utterance “Jesus” in that context is an imprecation. A further technicality (not in my friend’s case, but among many people) might be the loophole – “Those shalt not take the Name of the Lord the God in vain”… but taking the name of another person’s Lord or God in vain is okay.

It is not an irrelevant matter, because it leads us to wonder (have you ever wondered?) why people do not yell, “O Buddha!” when they are angry; or “Con-fucius!” when they stub a toe. Never “Mohammed damn it!” when frustrated or disappointed. “By Jove!” is the nearest I can think of.

Why? Inching ever more relevant, for Christians, is the implication of this matter, which is more consequential than we are apt to realize. My lifetime is replete with many Jewish friends, which I happily stipulate despite the snide comments that the concept of “some of my best friends…” always inspires. And I have heard uncountable numbers of them over the years use Jesus’ Name as a curse. Or the formal title Jesus Christ, which seldom sounds more pious in those contexts.

We Christians invariably take it in stride. No – “in stride” is an insufficient term. If my own experience is a standard, we “wimp out,” try to ignore it, take the offense on our Savior’s behalf, and, usually, attempt not to offend the person.

Shameful we are, rather.

We shut up when the Creator of the Universe, the Savior of our Souls is made into a curse in our presence. Because we are too timid; or because not offending an acquaintance is more important than being complicit in an offense to the Son of God.

“Whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33 NLE translation).

By the way, my use of NLE means “No Loophole Edition” of the Bible. From the Commandments to Jesus’ own Words, to the Epistles, God Almighty requires respect. No loopholes, sorry. He actually asks little of us… but respect is one things. A defense is another.

Through the years I have done certain things – may God forgive me, not often enough – but when I have heard a supermarket shopper or fellow office-worker utter “Jesus Christ!” as a curse, I sometimes tell them that they are insulting my Best Friend. Being rhetorical, I have asked, “Do you know Jesus that well? Do you want to continue… and talk to Him in prayer together?” When I discern that I ought to be serious, I will ask if the person realizes that the Incarnation of God Almighty became Jesus in the flesh, and loved us both so much that He became the sacrifice for our sins. In other words… show some respect.

It is easy to be rebuffed. Be scorned and perhaps insulted. To be spoken about as nosy, or worse (?), as a religious nut.

So what? You have stood up for a Friend. You probably would do so in defense of your spouse or child. Why not your Savior? Your Best Friend.

Jesus stood up for you. He laid Himself down. He scrambled up that cross, virtually, to bear your sins. To suffer and die. Defending His Name – and then sharing His love – is the least we can do.

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Click: Do You Know My Jesus?

Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing

11-28-16

I was a young boy in 1961 when I heard on my transistor radio that a Russian “cosmonaut,” Yuri Gagarin, had orbited the earth. A few years after the Soviets had launched Sputnik – the first man-made satellite – into earth orbit I remember being amazed at these scientific developments, as I was aware that the American government was scrambling to keep pace.

I was aware because 1957 had been declared the International Geophysical Year, and that all sorts of school programs and textbooks had begun posing the challenge to nervous 12-year-olds like me the rhetorical question: “You don’t want us to fall behind the Communists, do you?” So kids seriously thought of doing their physics and chemistry homework, and dreamed of being astronauts instead of cowboys or G-Men.

In my naiveté, after hearing that radio news bulletin, I scrambled for pencil and paper, as if this moment would be lost to history if I didn’t write the name of Yuri Gagarin. I recall that I could only phonetically scrawl, “Eeuree Gaggarin.”

Ironically, many people have forgotten Gagarin and Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, Gene Cernan, and many others, including astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders, who read from the Bible to earthlings during a lunar mission. Even President Obama seems to have forgotten a lot of the mission of space exploration, as he transferred many American capabilities to Russia.

There is no more Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Twenty-five years ago many nations of Eastern Europe and the “Warsaw Pact” foreswore Communism, with hardly a drop of blood shed. Other nations have discovered freedom – sometimes with steps forward and back along the way – and the very latest movements are toward nationalist pride, and the rejection of centralized control.

Winds of liberty blow across the globe. Except in spots like North Korea and Cuba.

These memories returned this week when Fidel Castro died, aged 90. He was 90 in human years – some would say “inhuman years.” He kept alive ancient strains of selfish totalitarianism, a regime built on hate and resentments rather than love and constructive fellowship. Democracy might not be the panacea for every society, but you can be suspicious of the leader who cloaks his tyranny in mantles like “peoples’ republic” and “democracy” when self-determination is forbidden.

I was 10 when a TV in the local bowling alley was turned to the news, and the anchor warned parents against letting their children see the disturbing footage… so of course I gazed intently. Black and white movies of Havana streets with dead bodies and pools of blood. “Batista flees” was a headline I remember in the New York Daily News about the dictator, scarcely less brutal or corrupt than Castro would be, whom Fidel routed. My father quoted the New York Times description of Castro as an “agrarian reformer.”

A year or two later Castro declared himself a Soviet-style Socialist and visited a United Nations General Assembly session in New York. He famously stayed in a shabby hotel uptown; trashed his rooms; and embraced Soviet leader Khrushchev. I attempted one of my first caricatures and political cartoons as a budding artist – it was a natural subject because Castro dominated the news in those days. The bay of Pigs invasion. The Cuban Missile Crisis.

Through the years he settled in as the hemisphere’s resident dictator, often shunned on the world stage and frequently accommodated by neighboring and worldwide economies.

My wife, as a girl, had neighbors who fled Castro and had their sugar lands confiscated. I worked summers in college at a factory manned almost exclusively by Cuban émigrés. Many of them – some, doctors and lawyers whose credentials were not yet recognized in the US – told me with tears in their eyes of murders they witnessed at the hands of Castro’s police; and telling me earnestly how they appreciated freedom and loved America probably more than I did. I eventually met Fidel’s sister Juanita, whose shame and abhorrence of Cuban Communism was not matched by the other sibling Raul.

Cuba remained grindingly poor during Castro’s term. He would bleat, and international leftists continue to maintain, that the US embargo was the cause. This was palpable nonsense. It was a policy not to engage in trade: not a blockade. Canada, other Latin countries, all of Europe, and of course the Soviets traded all they could; and provided aid to Cuba.

Three points are dispositive, especially as the media now will be awash in rosy nostalgia for the eccentric guy with the beard.

First, Cuba was, and remained, poor for precisely the same reason that the citizens of Socialist economies in Latin America, in Africa, and around the world, suffer poverty. Stifled initiative, inherent corruption, and artificial allocation of resources.

Second, there are thousands and thousands of Cubans who had their property confiscated or their businesses shuttered. My wife’s neighbors were sugar growers before they fled the island. Neither Cuban citizens nor American investors ever received compensation, even almost 60 year later. THAT is why Washington refused to “normalize” relations – that, and the righteous rage of hundreds of thousands who emigrated to the US with nothing their lives.

Finally, Castro summarily executed many opponents; imprisoned many more; set criminals and mental defects on boats alongside multitudes who braved the open sea in flimsy boats. His defenders in Noo Yawk and the media point to universal health care and free college in Cuba as glories of Castro’s regime, but have been unmoved for decades by closed churches, spying on Cuban citizens, and the denial of political activity.

Stooges like Jimmy Carter and John Kerry weep tears for Castro; popes like John Paul II and Benedict, surprisingly, visited him, and the current wearer of the Shoes of the Fisherman admired the dedicated Cuban atheist. Other people, the usual gang of leftists, love Castro for reasons of their own (romantic?) but more likely, and frankly, would be in favor of closing Christian churches in America, too; and suppressing political dissent, as in that promised land.

In a sense, Castro had more integrity than his apologists in America: you can trust a Communist to be a Communist. Liberals will excuse any offense if there is lip-service paid to “education,” “health,” or redistribution of someone else’s property (except their own). Castro was a wolf in wolf’s clothing, worse than Jesus’ memorable warning in Matthew 7:15.

And as Kipling wrote,
“As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins.”

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Click: Komm, Susser Tod

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

Mother Sang a Song

9-19-16

I have a good friend, a neighbor who is a faithful Christian. As happens to devout believers, she is facing challenges and tests. I will quickly add that we know that “the rain falls on the good and the bad” alike, but tests seem most severe on strong Christians.

Properly seen, the devil has less reason to attack those of little faith. And as my wife once pointed out in a way I had never heard it explained, the devil has less reason to attack us, than to rail against Jesus — we will suffer attacks according to the amount of Jesus we invite to have a home in our hearts.

More Jesus in our lives, more persecution and challenges will come our way. But in God’s providence, the Jesus in our hearts does not merely provide answers… but IS the answer, our sword and shield; the Holy Spirit our protector.

My friend is strong, and a strong witness, but at time is spiritually discouraged. Sickness in the home, a disabled spouse, put burdens on her. Her three little kids – bless their hearts – are handfuls. She has wanted to finish her education and start a business with a friend, but cannot. Two sets of good friends are going through awful times, and she feels helpless to assist them, yet tries.

Through it all, despite prayer, discouragement yet looms.

It is the lot of us all, these challenges and, sometimes, tragedies. For the majority of human history, and over many cultures, people have believed that Man should be the Provider, and Woman the Nurturer. But there is thin theology in clichés. The Bible itself is full of examples of women as role models, as carriers of the seed of the Messiah, as special servants and leaders.

It is just different with women, wives, and mothers. The kind of “different” that means special.

One of the Bible’s most beautiful and profound prayers is the “Magnificat,” the response of Mary when she learns that she is carrying Jesus, the Savior of the world:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior;
For He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden.
For behold, from this day all generations will call me blessed.

It is not blasphemous to say that all women may rejoice in this prayer, and see their situations in that which was visited upon Mary. Motherhood is a holy thing. “Lowliness” is exalted. The character of one’s family, the future of the race, and the perpetuation of God’s Kingdom, is the cherished possession of every mother.

It is one thing for neighbors to encourage others to “look to Jesus” and trust in God. But mothers – often lonely and vulnerable, sometimes having to be wife, mother, friend, sister, brother, father, leader, and warrior too – need to be reminded that while they look to Jesus… Jesus is looking at them. So are their children and family members, and hurting friends, and strangers.

This advice could invite greater realization of burdens, but always does the opposite. Sharing Jesus; making a “small group” of your home; being the fierce spiritual protectoress that God desires, brings peace, healing, victory.

Another friend recently asked me what my “religious life” was when I grew up. My father, a traditional German Lutheran, was a believer, and active in church. But beyond dinner-table prayers, he seldom talked about Jesus. My mother, however – also a German Lutheran – emotionally prayed, frequently talked about Jesus, answered many of my life-questions in biblical contexts. She had smoked nonstop since her teens years and had a problem with drinking… but she wept every time she prayed. Cause and effect? I don’t know, but she taught me the reality of a personal relationship with Christ.

My own wife Nancy, whose 63rd birthday would have been this week, died after years of horrendous medical problems – heart attacks, strokes, cancer, diabetes, heart and kidney transplants, dialysis – yet the most vulnerable member of our family was the strongest example of faith.

Painfully shy, she yet began a noted ministry to those who suffered what she did. Physically challenged in myriad ways, she yet fretted that her children were inconvenienced by her illnesses. Never attending Bible school, she studied and became a powerful exegete – a “doer of the Word, not a hearer only.”

Although it is not Mother’s day – another cliché, but true: all days are mothers’ days – I want to encourage the friend I wrote about; I remember my mom; I honor my late wife. And I want us all to remember that the opposite of discouragement is encouragement. That the “fort” buried in the word “comfort,” and the Holy Spirit’s other name, the Comforter, remind us that strength can be ours, and not only in us, but granted to us, by grace.

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning, Psalm 30:5 reminds us. Thank God for mothers, their prayers, and their songs.

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This is an old standard, written by Bill Anderson (sung by him here at a 50th anniversary tribute to his career) and recorded through the years by everyone from Walter Brennan to jazz bandleader Stan Kenton.

Click: Mother Sang a Song

Jezebel for President?

8-29-16

Nations almost always have traitors in their midst, and their motives are myriad – money, revenge, alien doctrines, contrary loyalties. Benedict Arnold probably is America’s most prominent traitor. He escaped to England, for whom he betrayed the Revolution and his supporter George Washington, to an appropriate life of loneliness and opprobrium. His go-between, British Major John André, was hanged as a spy. (In Tappan, NY, a bicycle ride from my high school in Old Tappan NJ; near old stomping grounds of Palisades, where I briefly ran an antiques shop; and Blauvelt, where some cousins lived.)

The spot of Maj. André’s hanging still has a marker, outside the Old ’76 House, a tavern where André was jailed awaiting the gallows. When I was a boy, the proximity, if not the reality, of historical events was almost romantic.

But I mean to address traitors and false prophets, not recount the peregrinations of a young teen, or old, naïve views of history. Treason is a serious thing. It is no longer fashionable, if I might use the word, or considered righteous to execute traitors these days. Many spies and traitors since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg have committed espionage – caused commensurate harm – to the United States, but I believe the Atom Bomb thieves were the last to receive the justice of every society’s severest penalty.

To lack the will to ultimately punish traitors is to condone treason; and is to encourage disloyalty. A hallmark of our times.

What traitors are to nations, false prophets are to believers.

We know that the Bible warns of false prophets – signs of the End of the Age – as well as the Anti-Christ and other dark figures. But looking back, so to speak, and not forward in prophecy, the Bible’s history is replete with false prophets. The most prominent (indeed, living now in subsequent general parlance) is Jezebel.

According to the book of I Kings she lived around 900 BC, a queen married to King Ahab of Israel. She persuaded the king and much of the kingdom to abandon Yahweh and worship Baal instead; she conspired, framed, and persecuted Hebrews for their faith. Ultimately she was rejected and was literally overthrown: pushed to her death from a palace window, her flesh devoured by dogs, as the account goes.

Readers of my essays, or casual visitors, might wonder in this election season, and by the title of this essay, whether I am going to identify Jezebels in our midst. False prophets? A woman?

That is not a Hill I will climb here. My use of the term “President” here is metaphorical: our virtual and generic leaders can be considered as “presidents” in their realms. But I want to look at the array of persuasive, influential, prominent, consequential figures in our culture. Our bosses. In biblical days, and through feudal times, “lords.” Trend-setters; role models. All virtual “presidents” – presiding over areas of our lives.

How many are Jezebels, male or female? How many are false prophets? These days, most of them. Remembering my distinction between traitors and false prophets, we can truthfully say that almost all of our modern leaders are false prophets.

Many of them “preach” such “truths” as:

There is no God;
There is no such things as sin;
There is no heaven or hell;
We may eat, drink, and be merry with no consequences;
Drug use need not be discouraged;
Adultery is fine;
Abortion is not murder;
Truth is relative, everyone’s personal choice;
Black is white;
Up is down.

I added a couple… not really stretches, though. These Contemporary Ten Commandments come at us rat-a-tat from government, media, journalism, the educational establishment, entertainment, and, sadly, much of the church. What do false prophets do? Using a biblically historical paradigm, they induce us to worship false idols. Mammon, of course. “Instant gratification” is a sacrifice to the god of Self. Abortion – infanticide, little different except for labels and settings of clinics instead of volcanoes – is child-sacrifice to the gods of convenience and a new morality.

As I said above, what traitors are to nations, false prophets are to believers. And to innocent folks trying to make their ways in this world. They are glitzy celebrities and influential politicians, and bling-bling entertainers and heroes, so-called. But remember the words of Jesus:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-16b). He also said that in the end times, “Many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many” (Mt 24:11).

We can make lists, long lists, of ways to recognize false prophets. These times are upon us. I would ask you to remember two important things that can sum up the (broken) law and the (false) prophets:

1. When Jesus said that false prophets will deceive many, He did not mean “many of the unbelievers”! Unbelievers are already out in the spiritual “cold.” No. Many believers, members of the Church, faithful followers of Christ, devout and pious folk, even the Elect… shall be deceived. Be. on. your. watch.

2. All the warnings and checklists and litmus-tests and watchwords are worthless against the only dispositive standard: do the people, and their policies, glorify Christ? Is the Bible the bedrock? Are you directed to Jesus?

Is there a “shadow of turning”? Any compromise that is “hoped” will make people amenable to the Gospel? Reject it! The World System hates us, and lies to us.

Remember what Paul wrote in his second letter to the church at Corinth (2:1-2): “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

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Click: Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand

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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Through Death to Life: Two Stories

3-7-16

My good friend Cyndy Hack forwarded an internet message this week, the kind that make the rounds. It is a story behind the writing of a hymn. A book of such stories is something I wanted to write almost 20 years ago… before dozens of such books eventually were published! The amusing aspect of these stories, these books, is that (with all good intentions) some of the stories about the same hymns and gospel songs are quite different!

The story that Cyndy forwarded is about the writing of the great Gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

Rev Thomas A Dorsey wrote that song some 85 years ago. The circumstances as he later related: He left Chicago to visit a revival service in St Louis. His pregnant wife Nettie was due to give birth some time soon after his scheduled return. When he arrived in St Louis, however, he received a message that his wife had died in childbirth. He rushed home, where two days later his baby boy also died.

Disconsolate and bitter, he yelled at God and cried to God, and a friend, hearing how he addressed the Lord, remonstrated and told Dorsey to say, “Precious Lord.” Almost immediately the words and music of that great song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” came to his mind.

It has become a standard in hymnals of the Black church and evangelical White churches; and in recorded music, touching millions, in familiar versions by Mahalia Jackson to Johnny Cash, sung at the funerals of Martin Luther King, Jr., and US presidents. It is Dorsey’s most popular gospel song, except, possibly, for “Peace in Valley,” recorded by Elvis Presley, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and many others.

But Tom Dorsey began his career better known for blues, jazz, and “juke” music, raunchy songs that made him rich and famous. He was associated with blues legend Ma Rainey, and had one of the first best-selling records in 1928 with “Tight Like That.” In those days he was known as Georgia Tom and Barrelhouse Tom.

In 1930 his wife and son died. And his own soul was reborn.

The internet story I received was about the song, and the circumstances of its composition… but focused on the “little-known fact” that Big Band leader Tommy Dorsey had this story as part of his autobiography. Actually, all he had was the same name as Thomas A Dorsey. Never a Christian music-maker, Tommy Dorsey was already a famous jazz musician by 1930 in a big band with his brother Jimmy. But… sometimes “viral” stories are false-positives.

Also this week, millions of people learned of the death of Joey Martin Feek, the distaff member of Joey+Rory, the country/ gospel/ bluegrass duo. Millions of their fans were shocked by not surprised at the death of the 40-year-old singer, who fought a valiant battle with cervical cancer.

The performing couple had seemed to come out of nowhere. They won Grammy awards and attracted a following among fans of traditional music – and traditional lifestyles. Joey and Rory remained close to the land, raising food on their farm amidst growing demands of their musical lives. Around the time of her cancer diagnosis, Joey gave birth to a little girl, Indiana, with Down Syndrome.

The internet giveth: fans and strangers by the multitudes began following the careers; the anguish and joys of motherhood; the horrible diagnosis, prognosis, and defiance of cancer; and Joey’s last days… in the hospital, recording at home, holding Indie till the end.

Joey Feek lost her hair and her weight but she never lost her faith.

Her husband Rory posted this week: “My wife’s greatest dream came true today. She is in Heaven. The cancer is gone, the pain has ceased and all her tears are dry…. At 2:30 this afternoon, as we were gathered around her, holding hands and praying, my precious bride breathed her last. And a moment later took her first breath on the other side.

“When a person has been through as much pain and struggle as Joey’s been through, you just want it to be over. You want them to not have to hurt anymore, more that you want them to stay with you. And so, it makes the hard job of saying goodbye just a little easier.”

“Coincidentally,” when Cyndy forwarded the internet account of Tom Dorsey, it was the day that Joey Feek died… and I remembered that one of Joey+Rory’s favorite songs and biggest hits was their version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” I share it here.

Two music makers, their stories united by the same Gospel song. Two stories of Christians’ trials, and triumphs, ironically motivated by grim death. Circumstances that could discourage… but, instead, they inspire!

Different versions, different stories, different life experiences… but the same Savior! The same hope! The same sweet fellowship.

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Click: Take My Hand, Precious Lord

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

Hard Times

8-3-15

Hard Times. A relative term. Not only within our own situations, but compared to others… America, compared to other nations… our days, compared to the past. Truly, materially at least, we are blessed.

I have been sad, but not in sorrow. I have been in debt, but never destitute. I have had regrets, but never grief. How many of us can share such relatively comfortable testimony? In my case, to whatever extent I rightly judge my “insulation,” it is largely due to my standing as a Christian – receiving joy that passes understanding. But we also have to credit modern life, in America, with its technology, medicine, and general prosperity. Right?

Hard Times happen in America, but somehow many of the crises have the lengths of TV mini-series, and when not, the public grows impatient for the next one. Our culture has a sound-bite mentality. We used to face our challenges; but now we are distracted with the modern equivalents of the Romans’ “bread and circuses” — pop entertainment, push-button gratification. The Bible paints a picture of awful distress in earth in the End Times, and we are not prepared for that.

In many ways this indicates that we are not advancing as a culture. I’m not sure we are “going backwards,” either, because that might actually be beneficial. Giuseppi Verdi (yes, the composer otherwise known as Joe Green) once said, Torniamo all’antico: Sara un progresso — “We turn to the past in order to move forward.”

I got thinking of Hard Times in America when I pulled an elegant old volume off my bookshelf. Folk Songs was published in 1860, before the Civil War. This book is leather-bound, all edges gilt, pages as supple as when it was printed, a joy to hold. The “folk songs” of its title refers not to early-day coffee houses, but to poems and songs of the people, in contradistinction to epic verse or heroic sagas; the way the German word Volk refers to the shared-group spirit of the masses.

Many of the titles are charming: “The Age of Wisdom,” “My Child,” “Baby’s Shoes,” “The Flower of Beauty,” “The First Snow-Fall”… However, such sweet titles mask preoccupations with children dying in snow drifts, lovers deserting, husbands lost at sea, fatal illness, mourning for decades, unfaithful friends. No need to guess the themes other titles from the index:”Tommy’s Dead,” “The Murdered Traveler,” and “Ode To a Dead Body.”

It reminded me that people 150 years ago were not gloomy pessimists: they were not. But Hard Times were a part of life, and therefore part of poetry and song. On the frontier, life could be snuffed out in a moment. In the imminent Civil War, roughly every third household was affected by death, maiming, split families, or hideous disruption; yet anti-war movements never gained traction; life went on. A young Abraham Lincoln had almost lost his mind over an unhappy love affair; his wife likely did lose her mind when her favorite son died in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt’s young wife (in childbirth) and mother (of salmonella) died on the same day in the same house. Hard Times, I’d say.

Also before the Civil War, a composer named Stephen Foster wrote a song called Hard Times. He is barely recalled today, sometimes as a caricature, but he might be America’s greatest composer. He wrote My Old Kentucky Home; I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair; Old Black Joe; Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginia; Way Down Upon the Swanee River / Old Folks At Home; Oh, Susanna; Camptown Races; Beautiful Dreamer… and Hard Times, Come Again No More. This last song has been resurrected lately to a certain repute, or at least utility. In some circles it has become an anthem for charities and lamentation of poverty. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, even the Squirrel Nut Zippers, have sung it. It has taken on the air of a secular anthem. But in fact, although Stephen Foster did not embed a Gospel message in the lyrics, he had written many hymns in his life. It is clear that the “cabin,” and its door, in the song are metaphors, endowing a spiritual subtext to the song.

If we can turn back our minds to the world of 150 years ago — it is clear that the Hard Times he wrote of were the world’s trials, to be relieved in Heaven. We have a haunting melody, but a clear truth: Hard Times will be endured and become things of the past. We must keep them in perspective. Trust in Him. God provides a joyful relief from life’s disappointments when they come. By and by, they will “come no more.”

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Here is a memorable video to evoke the reality of life’s Hard Times, the promise heaven holds, and the beauty of Stephen Foster’s music to you. The seven singers are from the amazing project of a few years ago, “The Transatlantic Sessions” — singers and musicians from America (US and Canada), Ireland, and Scotland singing old and new “folkish” songs in a living-room setting.

(By the way, they are, left to right, Rod Paterson, Scotland; Karen Matheson, Scotland — hear her incredible soprano harmony on the left channel; Mary Black, Ireland; Emmylou Harris, US; Rufus Wainwright, his mother Kate McGarrigle, and her sister Anna McGarrigle on the button accordian, all Canadians. The other musicians are fiddler Jay Ungar — he wrote the haunting “Ashokan’s Farewell” tune of the PBS “Civil War” series — and his wife Molly Mason on the bass; and the project’s shepherds Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, and American dobro player Jerry Douglas.)

The lyrics are printed out under the link:

Click: Hard Times Come Again No More

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times, come again no more.

Chorus:
‘Tis the song, the sigh, of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times, come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times, come again no more.

There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times, come again no more.

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

God Delivers Us… But To What?

6-29-15

As sure as there are troubles in our lives, there is deliverance. Not always, or so it seems to some of us. Not immediately: that is certain. It can come. When it comes – any manner of relief, answers, healing, comfort, understanding, peace – we often to pray thanks to the God whose pity and mercy we so recently sought. Or, we do give thanks or do penance or share with the world what God has done.

It is a tempting thing to suppose, especially when the Creator of the Universe wonderfully has intervened in our affairs, that the crisis is settled, that God has done His work. We adjust our sandals and move ahead, refreshed, toward the next goals in life.

But that is not exactly God’s way, not the Bible way. It is more the case, when He has delivered His people, His children, that He not only saves us from something… but for something.

St Augustine, before the year 400, preached the following words in a sermon. This important man is an essential figure in the theology, cosmology, and philosophy that is a continuum that includes Plato, other early church fathers, and Martin Luther, as readers of this column know (or at least know of my sympathy and wellsprings). It is a miracle that so many of Augustine’s sermons, lessons, and books have survived, lighting our paths through the centuries.

Anyway, he wrote about the idea of deliverance, and God “bringing His people through”:

Brothers, look and see: The Judeans [Jews] were liberated in the sea, the Egyptians were destroyed in it…. The Judeans go beyond the Red Sea and walk through the desert. It is the same way with Christians after baptism: they are not yet in the land of promise, but they live in hope….

The Egyptians who chased the Judeans out of Egypt were not their only enemies – but they were their old enemies. In the same way, our past life and our past sins… continue to haunt us. There are enemies in the desert as well…

Interesting! We know the story of Exodus; and we think of other examples in the Bible of God saving His people. When we think of it, many individuals and populations were saved… only to face greater challenges. Is these the acts of a kindly God? Yes! God is love! We remember the “Hall of Fame of the Heroes of Faith” in Hebrews chapter 11: the Bible’s greatest champions of faith and obedience are there honored.

And every one of them came short of his goal, never making it to each one’s “promised land.” Also interesting, and instructive. The Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey, the desert after captivity, “over the Jordan,” Canaan Land, Beulah Land – have you heard these terms?

Exodus 33 has the account of God speaking to Moses:
‘Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.’…  And when the people heard this bad news, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, ’Say to the children of Israel, You are a stiff-necked people. I could come up into your midst in one moment and consume you.’… [But] He said, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’

Rest? These people yearned for even more, and more, and more, deliverance. Free of the Pharaohs, they wanted also to be free of… God. They wanted to live as they wished – to sin and be rebellious – and not merely trade metal shackles for moral restraints. They were free of the bondsman’s lash, and thought they deserved license to revel in decadence and debauchery. (If this sounds to you like a description of America-up-to-date, we share the same shrinking desert island…)

But God knew the basic natures of His children; He knew the desires of their hearts; and He would not answer those prayers to be free of responsibilities as well as actual chains.

The Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey, the desert after captivity, “over the Jordan,” Canaan Land, Beulah Land… many people believe these were earthly symbols of Heaven in the Bible, poetry and hymns. But they were not, never were. Heaven is… Heaven. If there were a physical Promised Land with miracle blooms, and flowing milk and honey, why should any inhabitants desire the real Heaven?

“Beulah,” in the Bible and in many hymns through the years, refers to “marriage,” a word, and a land, where believers might commune with God, even be in a relationship akin to marriage with the Son. But. That all precedes Heaven. Paradise, Eternity, Heaven is our final home.

As sweet as God’s promises, His deliverances, His dwelling-places of communion on earth, are… Heaven will be sweeter. A wise-guy skeptic friend of mine once challenged me: “If Heaven is so wonderful, why don’t you end it all, and go straight there for eternity?” Apart from the proposition that God hates murder, including of one’s self (and, by the way, that includes morally, not just physically), that is not in His plan, either.

We stay on earth, and should desire to, to serve Him. We cling to this life in order to fulfill whatever plans He has for us. We embrace life so that we can share His glory, bring others to saving grace, to minister to a hurting world as “imitators of Christ.”

In that perspective, we need to see, first, that the mercies He offers us here – in ways represented by Beulah Lands, “milk and honey,” Promised Lands – are havens of rest, foretastes of Heaven, gifts to make our days here sweeter as we work for the Master. Not Heaven… but on the way! We have jobs to do for Him, and they become easier, perhaps; or maybe more challenging. But the Hope, and Victory, are within view.

Truly – and always – when God saves us from something, He saves us for something.

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An old hymn, Is Not This the Land of Beulah, and a more recent gospel song, Sweet Beulah Land, share the distinctions and the reality of that place we may all seek. Wonderful words. Here, the two are explained and performed by the composer of the latter song, pastor and singer Squire Parsons. “I’m kind of homesick for that country, where I’ve never been before…”

Click: Beulah Land

What Do You Really Pray For?

6-15-15

Last week we shared thoughts about the anguish of suffering and illness, and the topic of God’s will regarding healing. It should not be a matter of debate; but it is. It should not be complex, but we make it so.

And we said this week we would discuss coping with the burdens that, naturally, remain when infirmities attack our bodies, our loved ones, our families. How standing strong in faith… can sometimes, still, leave us shaky when the “major” crises are past or covered. We will discuss a surprisingly little-used source of strength, little-used by even the most reverent of Christians.

And that is God.

I am preaching to myself, so I know whereof I speak.

How often do we pray, and pray for a specific result? Do we really pray – and mean – “Thy will be done”?

Do you ever pray for strength in order to go it alone, to be God’s warrior, to be an example to others? How often do you pray to just be God’s obedient servant?

Are your prayers for God to give you strength, or that God BE your strength?

What percentage of your prayers do NOT have a specific result in your request? Do you ever pray, in effect, “I don’t know, God; I am helpless; I am clueless; I trust You, in all You have, all You are, and in all You do”?

Do you remember that God manifests Himself as the Holy Spirit in order to inhabit our prayers, and bring spiritual gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and faith when we cannot summon these things ourselves? Do you remember that Jesus promised, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7)?

You will notice that most of my challenges – most of our “discussion” – has been in the form of questions. Well, life (and its recipe of burdens and grief as well as its menu of joys and hopes) consists of questions. In our personal journeys, we can have questions without answers, but for useful wisdom it is hard to appreciate the answers unless we ask informed questions.

And if life consists of questions, we know that Jesus does not only HAVE the answers. He IS the answer.

This seems like a paradox, or at least a challenge to the spiritual wisdom we are supposed to exercise. God circumvents our fervent thoughts, insights, education… even our theology? Yes. Christianity is, at its core, a counter-intuitive, upside-down, revelation of God. So it is not about what we pray, necessarily, but Who we trust.

Not what He can do, but who He is.

Not framing our desires, but knowing our needs.

Not trusting our own wisdom, or faith, but obeying Him, and trusting all His ways.

My friend Linda Evans Shepherd recently reminded us of St Isaac’s words: “The highest form of prayer is to stand silently in awe before God.” God knows all, anyway.

Christianity, where you can only stand by being on your knees.

Christianity, where rebellion leads to slavery.

Christianity, where obedience leads to freedom.

Christianity, where surrender leads to victory.

Oh, the burdens of our hearts! The desires of our souls! Too often do we pray backwards, ready with a heavenly shopping-list. Yes, we understand the momentous aspects of awful illness and tortured love affairs, of family crises and personal dilemmas. We know the reasons we pray for certain outcomes! But Martin Luther once said that Reason is the enemy of Faith, and so it is.

May God help us always to pray believing… in His wisdom, His love, His strength.

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Click: Please Be My Strength

Divine Heeling

6-8-15

Yes, I can spell; hold on. I want to address the topics of disease and sickness; and of God’s will and whether God allows infirmities – or whether He visits them upon us at times. Hot-button topics, always. I want to consider spiritual gifts, whether Divine Healing is a grace available to the contemporary church, or whether it was a “sign” to heathens and believers only in the first century.

The questions are not arcane, nor abstract. To the afflicted they can be of burning urgency. To some believers, some factions, they represent attitudes that, for all intents and purposes, define one’s faith.

My own life-experiences reflect different theological viewpoints. Rather, changing viewpoints through the years. Apart from the Theory of Evolution, about which theory I am a skeptic, my views on Divine Healing have evolved. I am persuaded that God has worked a sort of progressive revelation on my spiritual views.

I am not being flippant: I believe we always should invite God to inspire us – to have the Holy Spirit guide and inform us – as we search scripture and exercise our prayer life, our conversations with Christ. As our faith matures, we are “baby Christians” when that state is sweet and seemingly sufficient, but eventually we graduate from such mother’s milk and subsist – require – heartier spiritual food. The Bible assures us that this characterizes the life of the believer.

When I became a fervent Christian, born-again with all that implies, including multiple blessings, my wife and I were convinced about God’s invariable will to heal. We never quite ventured into “name it and claim it” territory, but if God can heal, and He answers prayer, and the fervent prayer of righteous men availeth much… healing was only a prayer away.

Right? Or a prayer hankie, which could be purchased off the TV ministry. Or a “love offering,” taken up at the preacher’s crusade, with promises of the hundredfold return, not just healing. I saw miracles. I did. A crippled leg extended; deaf ears opened. But when such things did not come, many preachers blamed the sick person’s faith, not germs or viruses or accidents or heredity or self-destructiveness or…

Eventually, I wondered why the evangelists who promised perfect health all wore glasses. Surely they were not fashion statements.

During this time my wife developed illnesses. Diabetes led to heart attacks and strokes. Celiac disease struck. She was listed for heart and kidney transplants. Her faith was never shaken, but at the point of death she received two organs. She believed that God worked a miracle through surgery, science, and doctors’ hands. Healing came. Christ’s promise of “life, and more abundantly,” she came to believe, was about more than money.

Also in her life she was healed of blindness, and, later, thyroid cancer, when the healing prayers were not as fervent, but they were cases “where the doctors can’t explain it.” Spiritual evolution: God was displaying His sovereignty, and we learned obedience.

Where once we thought that “by His stripes ye are healed,” that Jesus guaranteed Divine Healing for all because of the cross, we came to realize that we should pray as we are instructed, the burdens of our hearts; then trust and obey; and when and if healing comes, to give God the glory. By those stripes – Christ’s sacrifice, not a preacher’s sermon – He identifies with us, our fears, and, yes, our pain and infirmities.

Recently I have been acquainted with close family members and close friends with mysterious, serious, troubling afflictions. How should we pray?

Always – for healing. That is the burden of our hearts. There is NO instance in the Bible where God’s prophets, or Jesus, EVER claimed that physical affliction is from the Lord; or that disease is from God; or that sickness is sent to “test us.” Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? Just as likely temptations or distractions as illness. So: we pray, believing.

If healing does not come… or as we desire… or as fast as we want… or at all… we trust and obey. Our puny selves, with maturing but never matured faith, when it comes down to the paths we walk, cannot even walk without God holding our hands. It should never be, “heal me that I may run away,” but “hold me close that I may walk with You.”

This understanding is not a safety-valve for those who pray and their prayers go “unanswered.” No, it is a mature exercise of faith.

Why is there sickness in the world? God does not send it. But there is sin in the world; in this broken world there is sickness and death; dangers and strife; hostile natural forces (insurance companies have a nerve calling them “acts of God”). The rain falls on the just and unjust. God does not promise that we would be free of these things – only that He would be with us, comforting us, increasing our faith, sometimes healing us, always loving us. Holding our hands.

Does God bring (or even allow) sickness in order to chastise us, keep us in line? God forbid, I say. I know that many believers (orders within the Catholic Church, for instance) believe that sorrow is a virtue and that some people are meant to suffer. I had a friend with many infirmities who memorized the entire Book of James, for its verses that seem to accept and embrace suffering.

However, it can become, it should become, our duty, when illness strikes, to turn to God, to trust Him, to ask for wisdom, to plead mercy for loved ones… all the time praying for healing, and acknowledging that He is the Lord who healeth thee. Of course. He can, and He will. Let us not forget the “Divine” component of Divine Healing. He is the God of Understanding.

And in the meantime, acknowledge that we can’t even walk without His holding our hands. In obedience classes, that would be called “heeling.”

My son-in-law Norman is going through trials of body, emotions, and his work with family and ministry. In his faith, seeking understanding, he has turned to Proverbs 3, and its following verses. Good prescriptions indeed:

3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding;  In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.

3:19-20 The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; By understanding He established the heavens; By His knowledge the depths were broken up, And clouds drop down the dew.

3:24-26 When you lie down, you will not be afraid; Yes, you will lie down and your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden terror, Nor of trouble from the wicked when it comes; For the Lord will be your confidence, And will keep your foot from being caught.

Next week, some thoughts on how to cope with the burdens that, naturally, remain when infirmities attack our bodies, our loved ones, our families. We will discuss a surprisingly little-used source of strength.
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Click: I Can’t Even Walk Without You Holding My Hand

Burning At the Stake, 2015

A last report, for awhile, from Ireland. The Republic is much agitated right now over “The Referendum,” a national vote scheduled for May 22, ostensibly for or against “Marriage Equality.” YES and NO signs, advertisements, handbills, lapel buttons, billboards, and colored balloons infest the normally Spring-green landscape. Speeches, sermons, television ads, comedy routines, and chat-show conversations have addressed little else of late. Almost every lamppost in Dublin city has signs, almost every street corner in little Leixlip village has proponents who accost pedestrians.

It is widely predicted that the YES vote will prevail, granting even more liberal “rights” (or removing existing “wrongs”), at a level of 60-70 per cent.

This campaign, for all its inherent issues, is a subset of Ireland’s recent obsession with joining the 21st century in a variety of ways. Long a depressed economy, it enjoyed the “Celtic Tiger” of rapid growth not long ago, only to crash in major fashion, due in part to over-expansion and the worldwide depression seven years ago. It climbs back, aiming toward a voice in European and world affairs. In civil matters it is taking a quantum leap to join societies with permissive policies on sex, drugs, abortion, and such.

It is a rather startling social revolution for this formerly traditional and traditionally Catholic country. Only in 2013, for instance, anti-abortion restrictions were modified; and recently even the sale of contraceptives was not allowed.

Much of the attitude adjustment largely is deemed to be part of a seismic reaction against the Catholic Church, its hidebound activities and dominance in Irish life. More than its counterparts in Latin European nations, or as with “state churches” in the Protestant north, the Catholic Church permeated every aspect of social and political life, and institutions like the educational system. When the fossilized church and especially the multitude of appalling sex and pedophilia scandals reached critical mass, the critical Mass became irrelevant to millions of Irish.

Church attendance and membership drastically is down; local churches have merged or closed; and the voice of the clergy suddenly is reviled. Traditional Protestant and new independent Christian fellowships have gained adherents, but not at a rate that mirrors Rome’s loss.

This is the background of the scene in Ireland, and the details surrounding the Referendum vote. But I would not be addressing it here except for its role as a manifestation of the larger profile of my recent and frequent concern, the post-Christian West. The “Marriage Equality” referendum is about marriage in the same manner as “birth control” is about birth. Ireland already permits civil unions, and the perceived flaws in pertinent codes could be addressed by simple, even bureaucratic adjustments.

No, the discussions about marriage equality, so-called, are not designed to guarantee or preserve so much as to attack and destroy. The YES proponents immediately and continually refer to LSMFT, or whatever, classifications, as well as Q for Queer… in fact, 41 various sexual classifications (a bureaucratic word for deviations). Surely some of these orthographical gymnasts comprise microscopic populations, their bizarre practices not merely obscene but obscure. I am civil libertarian enough to maintain that rights do not depend upon numbers.

Lord knows, when practicing Christians themselves have been reduced to small numbers, we likewise will seek basic protections.

But the advocates of the New World Order have something else in mind than being champions of women with wieners. Like the crazies of the French Revolution, who sought to abolish calendars and ordinary social constructs, the moral sociopaths in our midst want to re-write the Pledge of Allegiance; supersede Mr, Mrs, and Ms with honorifics reflecting peoples’ sexual pastimes; outlaw men’s and ladies’ toilets; and criminalize the reading of most Bible passages.

It constantly astonishes me that our generation of nitwits thinks than they know better, in every area, than hundreds of previous generations and scores of world cultures, and all the perceived and inherited wisdom of civilizations’ evolution. The advance of years does not automatically result in “progress” in morals, arts, and other fields of human endeavor. In truth, the human race has regressed except in a few areas like medicine and industry.

Our toys are shinier, but they are hollow and quickly grow obsolete. The human race, instead of reverting to our great theology, or great traditions, or great standards of creativity, chases more and more chimeras and wills-o’-the-wisps. Instead of an increase in moral clarity, we are, as the Bible says, like dogs returning to our own vomit.

The things that astonish me, just mentioned, pale in comparison to my amazement at the number of Christians who allow or even promote the current and ongoing lunacy. The Bible, for instance, is clear about God’s disapproval of “abominations.” It is obvious (alert for professional loophole-hunters) that Scripture nowhere describes, except disapprovingly, homosexual sex.

Yet many Christians defend “marriage equality” on the basis of collective guilt for unknown and various folks who insulted homosexuals. Is the rape and pillage of biblical standards, Western traditions, and the foundations of our national life justified – worth it – because of ancient nastiness? If Christians are confronted by God in judgment and asked why they condoned and promoted deviancy and abominations as He proscribed, and if their only answer is “a desire not to hurt peoples’ feelings,” can that meet a requirement of a just God?

Pastors: is your desire to be politically correct, your need to attract new members (never mind the ones who will desert you), your denial of biblical commands, so strong that you think, in 2015, that your wisdom is superior to Almighty God’s?

This is not Ireland’s challenge alone: this crisis faces all of the Christian West, all of the rotting corpse of post-Christianity. The Trojan Horse of “Marriage Equality” is emblematic of the wide range of history’s second Revolt of the Angels – man thinking he knows more than God (if a God there be in their eyes), choosing time after time after time death over life, degeneracy over decency.

For it is an assault on our families and our future, as much as on “unfairness” or the Church Triumphant, when homosexuality assumes the mantle of a protected species. When deviancy is promoted in state-run schools. When the traditional family is demoted and supplanted. When expressing opinions such as here will be a crime that would send me to prison. When the Sexual Whatevers are no longer content with being allowed civic protections but must attack the word and the concept of Marriage (a Sacrament, an Ordinance, to the religious).

If this be hate speech, make of it what you will. The lunatics have been running the asylum for some time, actually. Soon they will staff the Thought Police, the Conscience-Gulags, the Gas Chambers of Freedom. In the year of our Lord 2015 the prophets and apostles of the New World Order have set fire to the stakes on which are lashed our heritage and our futures. Soon, believers themselves will feel the flames too.

“Eighty and six years have I served him, and He never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” — Polycarp, a Disciple of John the Apostle and Bishop of Smyrna, before he was burned at the stake for his faith.

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Click: On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand

A Mountain-Top Experience Accessible to All

4-27-15

The Colorado Christian Writers Conference will be held in a couple weeks in Estes Park, in the Rocky Mountain National Park. I have been attending for a dozen years as faculty member, speaker, and invariable participant in the great opportunities for fellowship and worship.

I will miss it this year because of family matters in Ireland, whence I write this week. Great regrets. Ironically, if circumstances permit, I might attend, the very same days, the International Literature Festival (formerly the Dublin Writers Festival) in one of the world’s great literary cities. …but it is nothing like CCWF for Christian creators. I will miss the inevitable mountain-top experiences!


My good friend, writer Barbara Haley writes here about doubts and fears common to all writers – all creative people, even the most successful professionals – at times. She is our guest writer today.

In a few weeks, I will be attending the Colorado Christian Writers Conference for my 16th year. Same location, but a new inspirational and informative experience every year.

As I prepare for the conference, I’m reminded of the time just before my first conference when I didn’t feel like I was really ready to go. I didn’t know if I was a writer, and I felt guilty squandering our money just for a fun trip. Our finances were tight at the time, and I wondered if I were being a good steward of the money God gave us.

As the days before the conference ticked off, my anxiety grew. I rushed to get projects finished, but life happened and I seemed to get little accomplished. I would be presenting projects for critiques by professional writers and editors – work I was not yet proud of, writing not yet perfectly matched with my plans and expectations.

I couldn’t figure out how to be perfect. How to impress the editors and agents with whom I would be meeting. How to know ahead of time exactly what they wanted to see and hear. How to avoid the horrible experience of embarrassment or failure.

In all honesty, though I didn’t see it at the time, my anxiety boiled down to pride – not being able to control what others saw and felt about me. All my life I had been an over-achiever, because my self-worth was totally wrapped up in my performance and the affirmation of others.

The excitement I first felt when I registered slowly dissipated, replaced by dread and insecurity. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t write.

Finally, I talked to my husband about my situation. “I’m so sorry, honey,” I said. “I feel like I’m wasting our precious money. I wonder if I could cancel and get a partial refund.”

With warm eyes, my sweet husband just smiled in his special reassuring way. “No, you’re not going to cancel. I don’t care if all you do is go sit under the mountains and spend time with Jesus. That would be worth every penny we’re spending!”

Wow! What a relief. The pressure to perform was off. I was going on a vacation with my precious friend and Savior, Jesus. With His help, I would do the best I could—and that would be enough. I could trust Him to walk beside me and show me His plan for my writing.

Each year, I remember those wise words from my husband. And each year, I consciously take time to lay aside the pressure of “being ready” and focus on my time with God. For when I turn my eyes to Him, the things of earth truly do grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

Hebrews 12:1-2a urges us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

For me, the sin of pride had colored my world, entangling my thoughts, feelings, and actions. Once I consciously threw that off and turned my eyes back to the Lord, my world instantly brightened. Energy to run the race God had for me returned. Grace allowed me to accept my imperfections and, instead, glory in His strength and guidance.

As you listen to the following song, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, take time to allow God’s grace and presence fill your soul, transforming your thoughts, feelings, and actions by the renewing of your mind.

That even “accomplished” creative people are beset by such feelings, ironically should reassure the nervous neophyte. Yes, we are in the same boat. Yes, we are “naked before the world” with our often tentative efforts. “Who are WE to presume that what we write [or paint, or compose] will interest anyone else?”


There are several answers to that question. As Bach did, we write as unto the Lord, and we seek to please Him first; other results follow. After that: write to please yourself; if you know your subject, and know your target audience, you will succeed. Solicit the opinions of fellow creators; share the pains and joys; be encouraged and be an encourager. Venues like the Colorado Christian Writers Conference are pure gold.


Sometimes having a “mountain-top experience” can even include spending part of a week on one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world.

For information about the Conference, go to Colorado Write His Answer

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Click: Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

The New Source of Anti-Christian Bias

2-9-15

Today I will continue the theme of a couple recent essays, and the credit, or blame, goes to the president of the United States. In recent essays we have visited the clash of Islam and Christianity and Western civilization. It is a history that goes back farther than 9-11. By my mail I know that many people are surprised to learn that physical and military assaults on Europe and Christianity by Mohammedans began almost 1500 years ago. Indeed, during the first generations of that faith.

After the recent murders of magazine writers and cartoonists (two of whom I knew) in Paris, I wrote an essay for the website RealClearReligion discussing the response of Western civilization in general and Christianity in particular to militant Islamic extremism.

We should understand and clarify the issue to an even greater degree.

I do not need to be disabused of the fact that President Obama is not among my readers. Or that, if he were, I should expect him to be converted either to Christianity or to my views on certain issues. I realize that questioning the president’s devotion to the Christian faith is presumptuous. And I also mean to be provocative.

My concern (Yes! it IS a concern, for his soul, and the nation’s) grows as weeks and months pass; with each speech; and with his policies. Some policies are enunciated; some are quietly put into effect. Some people see anti-Christian sentiments. Some people see principles that are inimical to exercises of faith. Some people see pro-Islam actions. And I don’t mean to employ the “passive” mode: I often find myself among the “some” in those camps of observers.

He invites these suspicions and observations.

Christianity is under attack. There are scarcely other items in the news since forever, it seems, except for the perennial scandals in the federal government. It is under attack, not from, say, the Dalai Lama, who was a guest at this week’s national Prayer Breakfast in Washington. No, even the dullest nitwit knows that Islamic Extremists lately have been bombing, hijacking, kidnapping, torturing, and killing. They have been reviving the ancient modes of beheading, stoning, burying alive, and immolation. They are proud of these things, using modern technology to brag to the world of ancient barbarities.

It must be noted that, surely, some of their quarrels are with co-religionists who decline to subscribe to their levels – that is, depths – of savagery. But, except for targeting an ancient Zoroastrian sect called the Yezidis in their neighborhood, their hatred is reserved for Christians.

Christians. Have we heard of Hindus or Buddhists or followers of Confucius or those who follow the Shinto practices, have these people been kidnapped and slaughtered? Even the recent Japanese victim of beheading was a convert to Christianity. Atheists are not targeted, and you would think the Prophet might despise them more than any others.

Curious – with Israel so close to ISIS territory. Jews have not been targeted in these recent campaigns. Jews, with whom the Arabs and their religionists have contended since the infancies of Esau and Jacob. Look it up. Jews, whose establishment of Israel has so inflamed the Middle East for almost 70 years. Is it not curious that ISIS has withheld its holy fury from them?

Most people think, properly, that one reason might be the absolute certainty of a massive, obliterating response by the magnificent defense capabilities of Israel.

There is always a back story to every controversy and news event; and one day we might know why Israel chooses not to be preemptive; or why Obama insults Israel at every opportunity. Anyway, the fact remains that so far, ISIS has been as hostile to Jews as card-carrying members of the Anti-Defamation League.

That leaves the question of the assault on Christians, which, of course, not a question but a fact, as I hope we agreed a few paragraphs ago. And when this fact is clear (as not all facts are) to virtually everybody – notably violent Islamic extremists themselves, as per ISIS press releases – the real question is why the president averts the truth. If that question is a little ember that glows in your mind, let it become, rather, a Burning Question.

That the president, acting for us (in fact, committing all of us: this is the sometime unpalatable aspect of democracy) does not call Islamic terrorism Islamic terrorism, although Islamic terrorists do; and Islamic leaders like King Abdullah does. While Rome – so to speak – is burning, Obama fiddles with pronouncements about “hijackers of the religion of peace,” as a jerkwater professor would do. Meanwhile Islamic terrorists are hijacking cars, trucks, planes, and land.

Christians must stop thinking this man is oddly misguided or sadly mistaken. He is not stupid. At stake is not an election cycle but the lives of millions, the preservation of our culture, the future of our civilization.

At the National Prayer Breakfast this week, noted above, President Obama had a chance to seize an appropriate platform to deliver unambiguous words about this nexus of religion and statecraft. And he did! Yes, there were words about biblical injunctions to love, and to serve. I never regret the citation of Bible verses, even if they are selective. The president acknowledged the presence of missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been imprisoned (“held,” the president parsed) by North Korea for two years; no embarrassment that the mighty USA could not effect that release sooner. He noted that a Christian convert, Pastor Saeed Abedin (no: he did not note Abedin’s conversion to Christianity) is still in Iranian jails, variously condemned to death and then pardoned and then back again; and that he met with the pastor’s wife and children – cornered in Boise, Idaho, after years of attempts for an audience with Obama.

After those niceties, the president summoned his rhetorical arsenal. He lectured those assembled (who convened in the Name of Christ) about the sins of Christianity. He called himself a “person of faith,” not a Christian. He warned believers not to mount “high horses,” and then tarred Christianity with thousand-year-old specters of the Crusades; and ancient atrocities perpetrated by the Inquisition; and the Christian sanction of “slavery and Jim Crow” laws in America.

No one spoke up there – can we do so now? – to note that the Crusades were a reaction to offenses; and that both sides sometimes acted cruelly as well as nobly. And that the Inquisition, even witch burnings, did take place… but also were localized, brief, and well in the past, without ameliorating our stipulation that they were horrific.

We are dealing with very current threats, not passages from textbooks of ancient history. When Obama says “persons of faith,” presumably even about himself, one gets the feeling that he is a bureaucrat talking about a sociological classification, and not a confession.

The major take-away that should animate our reaction and resolution is that the dark moments of our collective past… all right, let’s take the predictable topic, slavery. It existed throughout humankind’s history; and still does. But in the United States it was instituted by Christians, but not as a Christian imperative. It was instituted out of greed, yes; and cruelty, and severe insensitivity. BUT NOT BECAUSE SLAVE-MASTERS THOUGHT TO PLEASE CHRIST. Some of justified themselves by quoting ancient Bible history. But that cart was well after the horse: a futile rationale.

That is the opposite of the Islamothugs: they claim to be following and therefore serving the Prophet.

But a worse offense, because sin we will always have with us, and we need leaders who can organize our defense: Obama cited ancient crimes committed by Christians WHEN HE COULD HAVE PRAISED CHRISTIANS FOR ENDING THEM and numerous examples of Christian persecution, and Christian service, charity, bravery, sacrifice, persecution, and martyrdom TODAY.

This deliberate distortion of history, and conscious perversion of proper priorities is a menace, a national crisis. In his entire speech, Obama mentioned the name of Christ twice, each time damning the sins of the past committed “in the name of Christ.” Never once even the name of Jesus. Several times, though, the word “humility” – an attribute that was in short supply, when Christians at a Christian event were being lectured about how bad Christians are.

May God help us.

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Click: Carl Orff: Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi – Carmina Burana

The Newfound Power Of the Individual

2-2-15

If the world survives long enough to look back and reflect on recent historical trends, I think we have an inkling that Posterity might view the past half-millennium as the Age of the Individual. (How’s that for “recent”?) By my estimation, individual rights and individual responsibilities reached their apogees sometime in the 1700s, about the midway-point since Luther and now, and I regard Luther’s “Here I stand” defiance of arbitrary church threats as the trumpet-blast of Individualism.

But rights have been taken for granted of late; responsibilities are being surrendered to entitlement mentalities. In spite of individual initiatives in commerce, industry, and the arts, it was our 20th century that saw new solutions in anti-individualism: Marxism; Leninism; Syndicalism; Socialism; Communism; Fascism; the Corporate State. Hardly humanity’s nostalgia for boots on their necks, but, likely, a mob psychosis arising from Individualism run amuck (“WE know better than you”)… or a subconscious insecurity about the duties that are incumbent upon Individualism.

Last week I was asked, after a speech, whether there has been a time in history when an individual (or, perhaps, a movement or even a nation) has made a difference in policies regarding life, respect for life, ugly policies like genocide or (specific to this query) about the issues we collectively call Sanctity of Life.

The great founders of religions around the world, through history, often were quite comfortable with, say, infant sacrifice. Mohammed engaged in bloodbaths before he was himself consumed in one. Luther was indifferent to Jewish persecution. Catholics, including “reformers,” made a sport of torture and death; so did Calvinists and Covenanters, et al.! Christian reformers who came to the Colonies more often escaped persecution than exercised toleration; the land was broad and empty enough to accommodate sects, here and there, not dissolve the differences between them. Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston for being not only a Quaker, but a Quaker preacher; and a woman preacher.

The Aztec and Incan cultures practiced infant sacrifice; and to a lesser extent did the Mayans. To a greater extent, around the world and at another time, ancient Carthage practiced it actively. But no individuals or reformers succeeded in cultivating the consciences of those groups. I don’t think there are records of anyone trying, actually. It is only when the societies disappeared that the practices disappeared.

It is troubling that religions generally practiced these horrible practices more than governments did – or, when governments exercised such practices, it was often with the initial sanction of the prevalent religious establishment. Religious reformers who argued against, say, genocide or infanticide were either a) quickly dispatched themselves (i.e., not successful in the efforts); or b) simply unable to persuade their societies of such horrors.

Indeed, persecution and even slaughter very often are adopted, rather than vanquished, when cultures and nations collide. In the frontier wars of the American colonies, white men (colonists; British troops; French settlers alike) became adept and brutally casual about scalping the natives. It was not revenge as much as adopting local customs.

If my intimations of pessimism are justified, then at least we can see a ray of sunshine – and only in these latter days – that are fruits of Individualism. Not often, in history, have individuals or nations “made a difference” when basic societal attitudes have been prodded and needed change. And it is in things happening right now, most notably, in areas as Right to Life and the Sanctity of Life. Not a complete U-turn! – but evidence of change.

Abortion has been legal for a generation in the United States, codified in court decisions, and virtually set in stone, yet this week’s polls say that 84 per cent of Americans now oppose abortion after 20 weeks, maybe sooner. A major turnaround; a harbinger.

A different topic… but of the same flavor: Cruelty to animals (including wanton slaughter, such as of the buffalo) used to be commonplace. In the world’s history. The same with cruelty to children, which still remains a major problem, but now widely condemned. In Dickens’ time it was as common as oatmeal, a virtual “right” of brutal parents and employers. That is changing, and among other agencies we can point to is the SPCA and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Another different but related topic: the fall of Communism. It was the cancer of the 20th century; we have witnessed its downfall in so many countries, largely bloodless. Similarly, the rock-ribbed, entrenched apartheid system fell in South Africa. Battles continue in our world against hunger and disease, and – I am not a Pollyanna – against religious persecution, more brutal than ever. So, the sanctity of life is not yet universally embraced. But let us return to my point about individuals.

Latter-day reforms, attitudinal improvements to the human spirit, changing views about life before and after birth, have come from INDIVIDUALS. Some analysts say that Communism fell because Gorbachev decided to “ease up” the system. No, that viewpoint is an insult to thousands or millions of individuals who resisted: those who were willing to die, or did die. For freedom. Also, usually, for their faith. Martyrs.

And so with the changing attitudes toward abortion, which was the focus of the question I was asked. God knows (literally) that it was not politicians or judges – they are the villains. It was thousands of protesters, like the people in DC last week (the anniversary of Roe vs Wade); you know, the multitudes ignored by the Mainstream Media. Christians, almost all. Henry Bergh, founder of the SPCA – Christian activist. Founder of the Salvation Army, Gen Booth, and so on – Christians all. Mother Teresa, Samaritans Purse: not revolutionary figures and movements… but arguably more efficient as individuals working together.

Maybe for the first time in history, INDIVIDUALS are making a difference. Humanity is wising up? Better technology / communication? Maybe. But things are different these days. I think, and hope, and pray.

These successful reformers have been Christians. Some other religions, but frequently Christians. And I recognize that sometimes the reforms needed to be made against institutions FORMED by other Christians, but that makes the fight ironic, not less worthy, or holy. Individual Christians.

Why is this? We need to recognize that the only honest, bedrock, challenging, successful, and demanding “voice” in human history, against such horrors like infanticide, genocide, persecution, and hatred, is the Voice of Jesus.

This is not only religious apologetics; I believe it is a statement of fact.

Secularists will scoff, but the historical evidence is preponderant, as is recent history. The voice of martyrs, the faith of martyrs, the witness of martyrs, the sacrifice of martyrs. Many martyrs who sacrifice comfort, family and friendships, careers; not only their lives. Any other “motivation” than the Voice of Jesus is futile when it confronts the darkness of human nature, even the Culture of Death that threatens to consume us.

That darkness – sin – scarcely changes down the pathway of human history. But love, even the love of individuals, like single candles that can pierce the blackest darkness, slowly, slowly enlightens humankind’s often stumbling steps.

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Music video: Monks performing a somber masterpiece by Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

Click: Funeral March for Queen Mary

Endure.

9-15-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Need Backbones, Not Wishbones

9-8-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: How Firm a Foundation

Return to Ork

8-18-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Alone Yet Not Alone

Dying for Jesus… or Living for Jesus

7-14-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Click: I Have Decided to Follow Jesus

Terrorism, Like We Never Knew

4-7-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words are sending America to hell.

And that alone should terrorize us.

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

Click: All That You Have Is Your Soul

No Stranger To the Rain

1-20-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Go Rest High

Will the Bible Survive?

12-2-13

There is an exhibition quietly and modestly making its way across the United States that is one of the most astonishing displays I have ever witnessed. I choose my words carefully – actually, an unbreakable habit of mine, even on good days – but I have been to America’s great museums, as well those of the world, including the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Uffizi, down to treasure-filled Halls of Fame. But currently (until Feb 1) housed in an otherwise ordinary former retail space in a neighborhood of Colorado Springs, is “Passages: The Experience.”

I think the weak link in their chain might be “branding,” since it is impossible to guess the exhibition’s theme from its title. And this is counter-intuitive, since the person behind this exhibition is one of America’s great marketers: Steve Green. The President of Hobby Lobby, Steve recently has been the focus of news – and prayers – because of his determination to resist the government’s ObamaCare guidelines to provide and pay 100 per cent of abortifacients , contraceptives, and abortion procedures for his employees. He and the Green family have sacrificed much to fight this battle, which has this week been accepted by the Supreme Court for a hearing.

“Passages” is an exhibition of Steve Green’s substantial collection of Bibles, illuminated manuscripts, ancient scrolls, biblical relics, and artifacts of the faithful. After Colorado Springs
( http://www.explorepassages.com ) the exhibition will continue its tour to other cities, ultimately top reside permanently in Washington DC.

pogos pict
Papyrus 39

After the Colorado Christian Writers Conference in May, my friend Diane Obbema read about the exhibition and suggested we visit. It was a great day of my life. First, we were impressed by the sheer scope. An iPod audio guide is eight hours long, for visitors who visit every display case and presentation. Cases, captions, actors and robotics, videos and interactive stations. Portions are designed for younger visitors. History comes alive. You see a Gutenberg press, you can pull one’s own prints.

More than that is the impressive display of scarce, often one-of-a-kind, artifacts. The second-largest private collection of Dead Sea Scrolls. Many cuneiform tablets; illuminated manuscripts; the world’s largest collection of vintage Jewish scrolls and ancient Torahs. Wycliffe’s likely Middle-English translation of the New Testament; the majority of the rare Gutenberg Bible; many of the famous early printed Bibles, like the Geneva Bible and the first King James Version. The exhibition’s surprises are… very surprising, and inspiring to see: a letter Martin Luther wrote night before his trial in Worms, half will and testament of the presumed martyr, half a rehearsal of his defiant “Here I Stand’ statement. In another display case, the manuscript copy of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Amazing.

Martin Luther letter
Martin Luther’s Will

This is the story of Christendom – the Church through the ages, managing to survive and spreading gloriously.

There is an overarching story beyond the gospel story itself, yet usually missed by most of us. Often it is willful ignorance or rejection. My mother-in-law was one of myriad, in this land of many churches, who fundamentally doubted the Bible’s authenticity or reliability. “It was written by men,” its first putative offense, and she also indicted its authorship “by many people, over many places, across many years, and through many translations.”

A slippery slope it is, of course, to dismiss the Bible as a collection of fables, or purloined wisdom, or irrelevant stories and lies. And, at first glance in the presence of the Green Family’s collection, the sheer variety of translations and versions can seduce the credulity of an average believer.

But none of us should be average believers! We are indwelt by the Holy Ghost, the same Spirit of the Living God who inspired – literally, “breathed life” into – these scriptures. “The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). It has advanced despite hideous persecution. It has survived, sometimes, in remote outposts where Christianity was anathema and believers were hounded. It has also at times triumphed, in the worldly sense… inviting corruption and diluting its tenets.

Yes, many men wrote the first lines; and many were there who copied, and translated, and transliterated, and remembered verses, and strove to record the words of Christ and the testimony of apostles and martyrs, who saved the songs of poets, the wisdom of the anointed, and the letters of evangelists. When men first sought to put the Words of God into the languages of the people, they were, for hundreds of years, pursued, humiliated, tortured, and killed for so doing. Yet more than a thousand tongues now have Bibles in their own languages.

… are these prescriptions for error and mistakes, prejudices and bias, carelessness and sloppiness; for local churches and leaders with tempting agendas, to bring distortion? Would it not be logical – with all the people, places, and possibilities over the years represented in the display cases of “Passages” – that, instead of one True Bible of thousands of translations and versions, that there be thousands of competing Bibles?

Yet discrepancies are a tiny fraction, seldom close to any major theological or historical point, and always quickly reconciled. To me, THIS is the evidence of the authority, even inerrancy, of scripture. Tried, tested, true: a living document that is not malleable to suit every generation’s distractions. No: living, to be a vital source of hope, truth, and salvation; a reality to every one in every time and every place.

The texts studied in Northern Africa, in the Fourth Century, say; or the lessons taught in Asia Minor or to the heathen in northern Europe at the same early times; or the sermon themes in faraway Ireland – all are virtually identical to the words of the Bibles we have in our homes today. About what other books can this be said?

To visit “Passages” is inspiring. Yet when Diane and I left the “Experience,” I could not help but see the physical evidence of devotion, scholarship, sacrifice, martyrdom, and enterprise of uncountable saints through the millennia… and not feel a chill of caution.

Is America today capable of such fidelity to the Word of God? Does Western civilization have the loyalty to Christianity that it once did at Saragossa and at the Gates of Vienna? Right now, no.

The Word of God will survive always: axiomatic for the Eternal Truth. But if the Church of Christ dies in what is left of Western Civilization, it ultimately will be due not to persecution by its enemies, but neglect by its adherents.

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For those who cannot visit the “Passages” exhibition, or until its goal of a permanent home in the nation’s capital, books and other materials are available from the organizers: https://store.explorepassages.com

I have chosen a beautiful performance in a beautiful setting of Mozart’s beautiful “Laudate Dominum.” The text is the entire Psalms 117, shortest in the Bible, followed by the doxology. The music, if I might presume to characterize it so, is by the Holy Spirit, received and passed to us by Mozart. One of his supernal masterworks. The singer is the beautiful – yes, beauty abounds – Katherine Jenkins. The captions are the Latin text and Czech. Here is the English:

Praise the Lord, all ye peoples,
Praise Him, all ye peoples.
For his loving kindness
Has been bestowed upon us,
And the truth of the Lord endures for eternity.

Glory to the Father, Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen.

Click: Laudate Dominum

The Chasm Between Belief and Faith

10-28-13

Deeds of faith are mightier – more consequential, more lasting, more essential to our living – than physical deeds are. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, our souls and spirits must always squarely be in the Arena of Life, where a person’s “face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

And so with faith as well as deeds. I cannot imagine never being curious about new ideas, discovering new things, reading new (and old) books, attempting new projects, and (not to sound sappy) dreaming new dreams. I have said, and I hope we would all have this attitude, that I want my retirement party and my funeral to be on the same day. Life is more than about accumulating baubles.

But these sentiments are a cruel joke, worse than empty clichés, if not accompanied by the spiritual component. We can be “secure in our faith,” but that never means we should stop learning the Ways of God, or seeking after the Things of God, or obeying the Will of God. Just as other things in life attract us… except that the essentials of faith are more important. We can be, yes, secure in our faith, but it will be tested; in fact, over and over again. The tests are not what matters. What matters is our response to the tests.

To those people who continually seek the Truth, which I hope means all of us, there are many pitfalls and detours on the way to the destination. Read the classic book, second only to the Bible in terms of copies printed, but regrettably neglected today, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” And to continue the metaphor of a pathway to Truth, there is an enormous gap between Belief and the next station, Faith.

It would seem a small step, but it is not. My wife used to say that all the possible “head knowledge” was nothing compared to even a portion of “heart knowledge”; that is, faith. Even Solomon, in all his wisdom, writing three books of the Bible, building the Temple, lord of a wealthy, united Israelite kingdom, ultimately displayed belief but not as much faith. He wrote well, but acted little as a man of faith… and then he failed. He became apostate, married hundreds of wives and was seduced by their diverse pagan religions, and earned the enmity of God. He died broken in spirit, and his kingdom was split irrevocably, broken into contending provinces.

“Faith without works is dead,” but works without faith is like “building a house on shifting sand.” God forbid that any of us are like Solomon, writing and speaking and appearing to be wiser than we really are.

Faith is something we can have, and we must regard it is a living thing, not a relic or prize: it must be nurtured and fed. But it is also something we can DO – in philological terms, a verb as well as a noun – in that we must exercise it. Share it. Live it. And not an abstract faith that the world has kidnapped as a term – a synonym for optimism or self-assurance or goodwill. “Have faith,” “keep the faith,” can be empty terms, baby-steps, or maybe backward-steps. Romans 10:17 says that real faith “comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” This journey of ours is sometimes hard. Where could we be without the gift of Faith?

There is an even more precise definition of that Faith which we seek across the chasm. The Bible tells us, and wants us to learn through contemplation and experience: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

This is not a riddle for intellectuals. It is not a postulate for scientific measurements. It can be difficult to understand. But it is easy to accept. It is the wisdom of God.

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We can find biblical wisdom mirrored in secular works of art. The tragic tale of Dido and Aeneas, from Virgil’s epic poem, was written for the operatic stage; libretto by Nahum Tate, author of many hymns, music by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the greatest of all English composers. Its excruciatingly sad ending is “Dido’s Lament,” sung as the Queen of Carthage commits suicide because she thinks her lover, the Trojan hero, has abandoned her:

“Thy hand, Belinda. Darkness shades me, On thy bosom let me rest,
More I would, but Death invades me; Death is now a welcome guest.

“When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create No trouble, no trouble in thy breast. Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate. Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”

As with the unrelated story of Romeo and Juliet, the death was useless – tragic – because of misunderstanding. In fact Aeneas was rushing to her side even as she sang her dying words of love. But the lesson of great art, indeed the lesson of life, is not how we scheme to avoid the hard choices facing us, but how we exercise faith, and faithfulness, even to what the world calls “tragic” ends, as overcomers who will never dwell with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Please do not cheat yourself: Watch this brief vid, sung by the incomparable Norwegian soprano Sissel Kyrkjebo; graphics by animation student Ryan Woodwart. Goodnight, Nance.

Click: Dido’s Lament

When You Don’t Know What To Say To God

10-21-13

My father, US Army Air Force captain, was involved in the D-Day invasion. He used to say that you could always tell the true military heroes at get-togethers: they were the ones who listened quietly and didn’t brag. The braggarts usually were the phonys, he said. What did he do on D-Day? “I was in the Weather Squadron,” he answered. “We just flew over the coast and battlefields, safely looking at clouds.” The toughest part for him, he said, was counting the planes, every day, of buddies who never returned to the English airfield at Bury-St-Edmunds in Suffolk.

There is a similar dynamic with prayer. Christ Himself warned us against the types who make big shows, loudly praying, in prominent places in the church. We are to emulate those who steal away and pray modestly; and give, even if only mites, like the humble widow did.

About personal prayer, we should be modest. We keep phone conversations quiet, or should; and a conversation with God is really no one else’s business. But sometimes Christians are quiet because… they just don’t know what to pray.

I suspect that two people who are among the first names we all would cite as the saintliest amongst us, Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, often had times they simply were at losses over exactly what to pray. Not to compare ourselves to them (believe me) but when our family conducted a hospital ministry after my wife’s heart and kidney transplants, and when, frequently, patients or families or spouses, or even doctors and nurses, would ask us with tears in their eyes, “Why?” – we discovered that sometimes the best answer was, “I don’t know either.” Honest prayers are starting- points. Presumption fools no one, least of all God.

Such a surrender of our almighty wills and self-important knowledge can be liberating. We should not always pray for answers: sometimes we should pray for understanding. Both goals may elude us, but to seek understanding requires trust, and faith, and surrender.

The Bible has a further solution for those moments of spiritual stammering. It is one reason that the Holy Ghost was sent into the world, in fact one of the job descriptions. “The Spirit also helps our weaknesses: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And He who searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26,27).

Body, mind, and spirit: they are not one, but our own trinities. When our bodies ache or we are troubled, and our minds stumble as we seek God… our spirits are able to connect with the Holy Spirit of God. We can pray in the Spirit, utter a gifted prayer language, or simply surrender our spirits to God. And we can feel it when that connection is made. Some Christians say “we know that we know that we know.” We not only communicate with the Father, we commune with Him at those moments.

Worse than being spiritually tongue-tied in moments of crisis or distress, is when we simply don’t feel like praying. Why approach God? We might be resentful; we can feel abandoned; frequently we are confused. But fear not; do not be discouraged. All the saints of history have confessed to occasionally having such emotions. Those who don’t, like those bragging war “heroes,” might not be truly seeking God anyway, but that’s their business. Our business, however, when we don’t feel like praying, is simple:

Do it anyway. Offer a “sacrifice of praise.”

“Let us go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here, we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that openly profess His Name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices, God is pleased.” Hebrews 8:13-16, NIV

Praise Him for His many gifts. For the fact that your problem is not worse. For the unspeakable joy that awaits the Christian. For a godly perspective on our challenges. For the problems that did not come our way. For the incarnation and sacrifice of God’s only Son for you. For a love so marvelous that a place has been prepared for you in glory. For… God so loved the world.

When you can’t think of what to pray, start with “Thank you.”

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Click: I Know How to Say Thank You

A Wedding Is a Happy Day. A Marriage Is a Joyous Life.

10-14-13

I’m going to conduct a little tour today. To a place called Beulah Land. It is a place of relationship, though not actual geography, mentioned in the Bible. It appears in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is the subject of more than a dozen well-known hymns and gospel songs. Our brief journey here will look over that land as much for what Beulah is NOT, as much as what it is. A clearer picture of the Bible’s message is never a bad thing.

Many people, including some teachers and many hymn-writers, have assumed that Beulah Land is a picture of Heaven – if not an alternate name, then a poetic allegory. Such connections are also frequently ascribed to “Canaan Land,” “The Promised Land,” and other terms. They all point forward, spiritually, and are meant to encourage God’s people to persevere. But they are not literal nor allegorical nor biblical pictures of Heaven.

The reference to Beulah Land appears only once, actually, in the Bible, and only in earlier translations. Isaiah 62:4: “Thou shall no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shall be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah; for Jehovah delights in thee, and thy land shall be married.”

At a certain point in the history of Israel and Judah, those nations were apostate and they “married” themselves to foreign gods. The Lord had in fact briefly abandoned His people (Desolate, Forsaken) in response (Isa. 54:7), but the verse of chapter 62 refers to God later bringing them to the Holy City, called Hephzibah in this reconciliation. And the picture of a full, restored relationship with God – as a marriage would be – is called a state of Beulah.

Hephzibah means “My Delight Is in Her.” The word “Beulah” means “Married.” Neither, however, means Heaven. The recent English Standard Version translation is more literal: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.” A wonderful place to be… a blessed relationship there… a Land to strive toward… but not Heaven.

Many believers through the centuries have prayed to attain Beulah Land as Heaven, to live at least at in Beulah land as Heaven’s border region. The idea was propelled by the allegorical writer John Bunyan in “Pilgrim’s Progress” – “The Enchanted Ground is a place so nigh to the land Beulah, and so near the end of their race”; the place “where the sun shineth night and day.” A wondrous place, but… not Heaven.

Why do I think it is important that we recognize the distinction? What could be so bad about all the depictions of Beulah Land, a marriage relationship with the Lord?

As beautiful, paradisiacal, fragrant, pleasing, the Land of Beulah is – described by the most fervent writers, poets, and songwriters – and for all the images our spirits can summon, all the pictures of Beulah Land are NOTHING compared to what Heaven will be!

The Land of Beulah is wondrous because we compare it our lives here on earth. Having a relationship with God akin to a marriage is amazing. Yet Heaven will be all the more wondrous – superlative – and there we will have an eternal lifetime of joy with Him.

Is “the Good the enemy of the Perfect”? Sometimes. But our recognition of a Land of Beulah, the most beautiful place we can imagine, should not be substitute for seeking Heaven, the most beautiful place we can scarcely imagine. A Wedding is a happy day. A Marriage is a joyous life.

“I can see far down the mountain, Where I wandered weary years,
Often hindered in my journey By the ghosts of doubts and fears.
Broken vows and disappointments, Thickly sprinkled all the way,
But the Spirit led, unerring, To the land I hold today.”

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We closed with lines from what is probably the most familiar hymns about Beulah Land. This version is sung by Squire Parsons, who also wrote another song that is beloved in the contemporary church, “Sweet Beulah Land.”

Click: “Is Not This the Land of Beulah”

We Have Met the Enemy

9-2-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click: Where Have All the Average People Gone?

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pogos pict

Is There Enough Evidence To Charge Us As a Christian Nation?

7-15-13

One of the severe downsides of living in a prosperous society is… “What? Downsides? Can’t you see the glass as half full?” (I have never really understood that one. Half is half, period.) “We have achieved the greatest material prosperity in world history. America is the Promised Land for millions, and what people throughout history have dreamed about!”

Yes, all true. We are, on the whole, prosperous, well-off. And happy, even joyful. Just look at some of the signs: an epidemic of obesity proves we are well-fed. Divorce rates, suicide rates, infanticide, all at record levels in human history, indicate that were are happily well-adjusted. We are told that prejudice and hatred still run rampant; “hate crimes” are codified to resist those emotions. Even in the church: how many preachers think we are not prosperous ENOUGH, so now the “Prosperity Gospel” is preached.

And meanwhile, large sections of the church, while absorbed in such “theology,” surrenders its former domains of charity and morality, while governments and courts and media decide standards for the culture. A militant Compassion Police, without uniforms.

As I was saying, one of the downsides of living in a prosperous society… well, I have listed several already. But I think the biggest danger is the tendency of prosperity to dehumanize people. It might be ironic, but tends to be true, that the less we THINK we have to worry about sickness, poverty, hatred, and death, the less sensitive we are to those facts of life. Less aware of their implications. Less worried about those effects on other people.

The less we tend to think about eternal rewards and damnation, the less we think about Heaven as a goal of life’s long, hard journey – that is to say, less long and hard than it has been for the majority of humankind – the more irrelevant Heaven becomes.

Not obsolete, just seemingly irrelevant. What about this anomaly? Do we prohibit complacency and prosperity? Of course not. But it becomes more important a job of the church to increase the preaching about righteousness. Just as patriots, from the Founders to Ronald Reagan, recognized that Liberty is never more than one generation away from extinction.

Believers around the world are bearing unbelievable burdens these days. The last century saw more Christians martyred for their faith than in any previous century. Today, persecution, torture, slavery, displacement, ethno-religious cleansing, legal harassment, and spying are added to the deaths. Many churches in prosperous Western and first-world countries like America argue amongst themselves about Absolute Truth vs relational truth; and whether the Bible’s teachings about, say, homosexuality should be silenced, so to encourage new members to stop in; and whether there is a hell or not.

The remnant – today’s People of the Word – in America have a job that is somewhat easier, but also more challenging, than members of the persecuted church in other lands. In China, North Korea, Pakistan, and other societies, Christians risk their lives to worship and fellowship. They meet in secret places, sometimes each member hiding, then exchanging, one page of the Bible to avoid detection of the whole Book by authorities. Believers in America increasingly do battle with powers and principalities of the air; hard to see, hard to fight.

How many of those foreign believers DO those things for their faith? How many of us here AVOID things that would nurture out faith and service?

If it were against the law to be a Christian in America, would there be enough evidence to convict some of us?

Hebrews, Chapter 11, is nicknamed “the Hall of Fame of Faith,” listing many of the Old Testament heroes who were chosen, who were persecuted, who battled, who overcame, for their faith and their God. But, interesting to note, not every man and woman in the list reached the putative goal or version of the Promised Land. Some were rejected and persecuted, even killed for their faith; yet they fought on.

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

A prosperous America is a fine place, but it can be finer still – as fine as it was in our earlier days – if we keep our eyes on a yet finer place indeed: the life of God’s commands, the Heaven of God’s promises.

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Today’s musical clip is a musical encapsulation of this message. Sung plaintively, solo, by the late Rich Mullins, it sounds like an ancient biblical strain, or a slave song of the primitive church, or the lonesome sound of the Sacred Harp songbooks in America’s past. But it was written about a half-century ago by Albert E Brumley Sr… and has been embraced by the white and black churches, rural and “mainstream,” in church services and concerts alike. It calls to us. If you “can’t feel at home in the world any more”… maybe your spirit is in a good place.

Click: This World Is Not My Home

Home

7-7-13

The man was an “average believer,” or maybe an average non-believer. A lot of people find themselves in spiritual comfort-zones in Post-Christian societies. When we are told that we are born as basically good beings; that sin is a matter of contemporary, and changing, points of view; that “doing good” should guarantee our place in Heaven (if there is a Heaven); that a loving God (if there is a God) would never send one of His children to hell (if there is a hell); and so forth – when people are told such things, they easily can resist appeals to repentance. To deal with their problems.

When churches themselves, over and above the secular media and the community of counselors, hold such ideas, that people can barely navigate the turbulent seas of morality and spirituality is a certainty. And a certainty – as with this man we visit today – to be insecure. More: frequently, if privately, terrified.

He was having a heart-to-heart talk with God. He was not convinced that God existed – through the years he went back and forth on that issue – but it seemed to be a good way to organize his thoughts.

“God, I read Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins,’ and I liked it. I know it is criticized for being ‘Universalist,’ arguing that You will keep everyone from hell in the end. Can I confess? I liked it because I thought I found a book that will support my desire to avoid the Hard Questions that You ask. In other words, a loophole.

He thought he heard God answer, “It IS My desire that none should perish. But My Son the Messiah said that no one shall come to Me except through Him.”

The man said, “I know these things; anyway, I have heard them. But this Heaven thing… I don’t know if it exists. Or if it so important. And hell? Sometimes it’s like I’ve already been through hell here on earth. Why is this so important?” He grew agitated. “I once heard Rob Bell speak and he criticized that old hymn I used to love, ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ and he said he wishes he could rip it out of every songbook.”

He continued; “Rob Bell said that we shouldn’t wish for Heaven – we have work to do here on earth. That people who desire Heaven so much are missing the point of being Christ-followers.”

He thought he heard God say, “It is good to hope. Some people cannot identify with the meek and the suffering who seek release. It is well that my Children keep their eyes on Heaven; seek first the Kingdom of God.”

The man felt confused. Does desiring Heaven imply that we should be eager to die? And how much do we do to earn Heaven? “By grace you are saved, not by works,” he heard God say.

He sensed God challenging him, even as he doubled down on his skepticism.

God said: “I have sent a Perfect example to guide you through life, to Heaven.”

The man said: “Perfect? Jesus was arrested, thrown in prison, and executed like a criminal.”

God said: “Look, I have made it such that a strong, loving hand will take yours.”

The man said: “That hand? It is bloody, and has a hole in it.”

God said: “The fullness of the Godhead is in this Guide I have sent you.”

The man said: “I know all the verses, God, but, still, if Jesus ‘died for me,’ why am I still unhappy? Why is there still injustice in the world? Why the sickness, cruelty, hunger? Why should I think about some far-away Heaven?”

For a while he didn’t hear the voice he thought was God’s. Had it all been a dream? Surely He hadn’t stumped the Creator of the Universe!

Presently he thought he heard the same, warm voice as before: “There are already multitudes of angels who know not sin nor sorrow; but neither do they know the joy of overcoming… of salvation. You are not an angel; you are more precious to Me. My children, like you, will be touched by pain and sorrow – that “vale of tears” – because there IS sin in the world. But, accepting My salvation, you can know joy unspeakable in this life. And thereby know that there is a mansion in Heaven, awaiting you.”

And, “This world’s people once knew Me as so holy as to be unapproachable. Works, sacrifice, rituals – humankind tried it all. I wanted My children to know Me through a humbler manifestation. A poor baby, born to despised parents, living as a man, then as a servant and teacher; a healer; a Savior; finally a resurrected and risen Incarnation. If you cannot understand My holy will through this, if you cannot reconcile your duty on earth and your hope of Heaven…”

The man thought the voice trailed off. But he understood things differently. He would walk, and work, and believe, and serve, and be obedient, because he sensed the presence of Guide who would assure him that one day he might “fly away,” but in the meantime – through this “vale of tears” – that Guide would be saying, “Home: Come on home!”

“Home, come on home. Ye who are weary, come home.”
Softly and tenderly calling, “Home, come on home.”

Sometimes when I’m feeling lonesome, And no one on earth seems to care,
I’m all by myself in the darkness With no one and nothing to share.
Just when it feels like it’s hopeless, And I’ll never make it alone,
I hear the voices of angels, Tenderly calling me home.

I try to keep it together, I never let on that I’m scared,
Still sometimes I fall to pieces, Scattered and lost everywhere.
Just when it feels like there’s no one To mend all my broken-down dreams,
I hear a voice deep inside me, Tenderly calling to me:

“Home, come on home. Ye who are weary, come home.”
Softly and tenderly calling, “Home, come on home.”

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Today’s musical clip is not “I’ll Fly Away,” nor even the familiar “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is calling,” but the beautiful contemporary song “Tenderly Calling,” quoted in the blog essay. It was a song from John Denver’s next-to-last album. The graphics are by the eternally amazing Beanscot.

Click: Tenderly Calling

I Keep On Walking

1-14-13

We all walk along pathways, sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky – inevitably smooth AND rocky – and, taken together, the pathways are called Life. How we walk or run, how we deal with obstacles on the pathway, and our companions we choose or choose us, all define the journey. Today’s guest message is by my daughter Heather Shaw, sharing profound thoughts about her walk. —

I have been on this path for as long as I can remember – sometimes walking, sometimes running, but always moving forward.

Step, step, step.

For years the path was relatively easy. There had been some unexpected twists and bumps, as well as some detours, that had frustrated me. But overall there wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle, and it had been a pleasant path to be on.

After a long, rocky, twisty stretch, the path suddenly turned a corner and in front of me was a smooth, straight path. All around there were signs of springtime. It was a welcome sight after the last twists and turns, and I breathed a sigh of relief. It didn’t happen often to have this kind of an easy path, and I was filled with joy. I ran along happily, excited about all the sights I could see down the way. I couldn’t wait to get to those milestones, and dreamt about what it would be like when I would arrive.

Step, step, step.

Suddenly, without warning, Darkness descended and violently shoved me off my path and onto another path. This new path was not at all like the last path or any I had been on before. I’d done rocky paths before, but this one was covered by sharp, jagged boulders that I had to climb over or around. It was messy – muddy and covered by debris. As I regained my balance and started to move forward again, I realized that I had been severely injured when I had been shoved. I looked down at my legs and saw that both were mangled. Stopping was not an option. I had to keep moving forward on this messy, new path.

Step… step… step…

As I limped forward, I began to hear voices from others who were calling out while traveling on their paths:

“Don’t worry! That must have been the plan for you! It will all turn out good!” Good? I wondered. Darkness shoved me. Does Darkness ever have a good plan?

“You’re strong – you must have been chosen to travel your path since you can handle it!” Huh, I think. Sounds like a rotten gift.

“At least you still have your arms!” Someone yelled out. I wonder how in the world that is helpful as I limp along. I liked my legs. They were different from my arms and very much a part of me.

I nodded my head as each voice spoke. I understand. They try to make sense of what happened to me. I wished they would be quiet; they were hurting me more.

Some others ran up closer, rather than calling from a distance. They briefly came near and said, “Wow. That’s a hard path you’re on. You’re doing great!” and then quickly ran back to the safety of their own path. Again I nodded. I understand. They care for me, but don’t know what to do and are possibly scared that the same thing could happen to them.

Some who traveled my path returned again to tell me that it will be OK – there are some spots up ahead that will be better than where I am now. They said that I would slowly learn to walk better and the pain will lessen… but the limp will remain until the end of my path. These people are brave, to have gone back to places they had already struggled through, to encourage me. I admire them.

And then there were those voices I heard through the fog, calling out, “I’m here! I don’t know what to do or how to help, but I’m here, my friend.” And instead of running back to the safety of their paths, they rearrange their paths to be close to mine. They are getting messy right along with me.

Step… step… step…

People ask how I’m doing. They listen to me ramble on about how unfair it is or how in pain I am. They listen to me talk about my old path and how I miss it and what it would be like if I were still on it. They understand if I need to be silent. They let me cry. They don’t try to make up answers to the whys. They spend time with me just being friends. I can see on their faces that being close to my path sometimes makes them uncomfortable, but yet they stay close. They stay right by me, urging me to keep going. To do one more step, and then another, and then another.

Step… step… step…

And then there’s one more Friend. He doesn’t just walk near me – I feel His arm always around me. I don’t – or can’t – hear Him say much other than “I’m here.” I yell at this Friend often: Did He shove me off the path? Was this His idea to bring me, injured, to this muddy, boulder-filled path? Why didn’t He stop the Darkness as it shoved me and injured me? Other times I just cry to Him. I hurt. I’m not supposed to be here. I get no answers. Just, “I’m here.”

Sometimes when I look to my side, I can faintly see my old smooth path through the trees. I see the milestones and the places where I thought I’d get to. I want to jump off my current path and go over there but I know it is impossible. Sometimes I want to curl up and just escape this nightmare of a path and go back to that dream. But my friends, and my Friend, help me keep putting one foot in front of the other. “You are doing great,” someone says, “You’re stronger than you think!” And that helps me keep going.

Step… step… step…

I hate this new path and the new way of walking, but at the same time I am starting to enjoy parts of it. I have learned to appreciate the moments where the path clears up a bit. I pause to look around and I enjoy the beauty that I see around me. I enjoy the small things, not knowing if around the bend Darkness waits for me again. I appreciate those who have gotten messy with me. I know as I watch them traveling close by that it can be uncomfortable for them, but never before have I fully understood or needed true friendship. And I have come to love the arm of my Friend that is always around me.

I used to think my Friend was just traveling the path near me – guiding me and pointing me the right way. But now I understand that His arm has always been tight around me. It is a love unlike any I have ever known.

And I keep walking.

Step…step…step…

+ + +

Heather has chosen the wonderful song “All My Praise” by the wonderful trio Selah, a music video with some wonderful graphics, to accompany her wonderful message. “Wonderful.” When Jesus is our companion on the journey, everything, in the end, is indeed filled with wonder. To see more of Heather’s writing, find her blog “Baby Steps – Sarah’s Journey” at http://sarahs-baby-steps.blogspot.com/

Click: All My Praise

“God Is Good” – ALL the Time?

1-7-13

Giants of faith do not always act like giants – usually they don’t, not showy – and sometimes don’t look like giants. Pete was a guy in a Saturday morning Bible study, a men’s group I belonged to a couple decades ago in suburban Connecticut. There was not one, but two astonishing aspects of faith he quietly manifested, that have stuck with me through the years.

The group was a mixed lot, as such gatherings probably should be. We had a vice president of a major international corporation. We had a “new Christian” who, bless his heart, in spiritual fervor responded to every comment with “Y’see…” believing he had been graced with all answers to all things. Some of us were hungry for the Word; some felt the need to be hungry all over again.

Pete was the quietest of us all. He was not nervous, nor was he shy. He was just quiet. Short guy, kind of a leprechaun beard. But when he did talk, his faith – the logic of his faith – was memorable.

Once we all shared the moment we came to faith – the new faith, or stronger belief, or committed Christianity, that born-again folks experience. With some of us it had been a gradual process, although the season in our lives, or the year, could be specified. With many there was a “road to Damascus” moment: a crisis, the death of a family member, a career predicament, serious illness, that leads people to look toward Heaven for help, answers, ultimately that new relationship with God.

Pete’s conversion came as no other I have ever heard. At an earlier point in his life everything was “going right.” Unexpected promotions in his job, a windfall salary, affirmation of his professional community, family harmony. He said, one day he stopped to wonder about all his good fortune. “It must be God,” he thought, “who the Bible calls the Author of all good things.” And he decided then, in gratitude and with the light of realization, to dedicate himself to a closer walk with Jesus.

This is NOT the usual path of committed Christians. It should be. It is not.

I have another astonishing memory of Pete. During the course of our Bible studies, things “went south” for him. He lost his job, he had family problems, he was in danger of losing his house, and a passel of other distress. Every week would be grimmer reports as we prayed for him. He set up interviews aplenty, and we prayed with him over every one. And even the “sure shots” came back as disappointments. I would say that many of us wept with him… except that Pete never wept.

He was disappointed, yes; but not discouraged. The high-powered commuter’s enclave outside New York City was more of a pressure-cooker than the average area, and his problems seemed magnified. However, after a while, when he received another rejection letter, or was passed over for a job, we would ask him about discouragement.

Time after time he responded: “No, actually, I feel blessed.” Huh? He said that for a few days there, or a week, whatever, while he waited to hear about a job application, he was able “to experience feelings of hope – and that hope was so sweet, just what I needed in those moments.”

Pete savored the hope, he dismissed the disappointment. That seemed to me supernatural. Our natural spirits do not work that way.

Our natural spirits, even after we come to that level of closer fellowship with God, too often persuade us that we have achieved the level where our faith is sufficient in all situations; that we cannot admit to spiritual inadequacies. Faith IS sufficient, but not always OUR faith. If it were not so, the Holy Spirit would not be the agent of “Gifts of Faith” as promised in I Corinthians. Obviously, the Lord knows that sometimes we need those gifts, and extra spiritual supplies – “I believe; help Thou my unbelief.” God knows all. We should, therefore, admit all.

There is a gospel song, a contemporary classic, that paints this very well. It illustrates Pete’s ability to summon a faith few of us do:

You talk of faith when you’re up on the mountain,
But the talk comes so easy when life’s at its best.

It’s down in the valley of trials and temptations,

That’s where faith is really put to the test.

And, forgive me, but the writer in me wants to point out the songwriter Tracy Dartt’s inspired use of prepositions in the chorus of “God On the Mountain”:

For the God on the mountain is still God in the valley!

When things go wrong, He’ll make them right.

And the God of the good times is still God in the bad times,

And the God of the day is still God in the night.

The lesson of the careful wording is this: all of us, even in darkest moments, will acknowledge that God is God of mountaintops and valleys, good times and bad times – I almost want to say, yada yada. God is God. But this song’s words make a distinction that is exceedingly reassuring during crises: He is God ON the mountain, but we need to embrace the truth that he is also God IN the valley. That is, He is with us.

He is God OF the good times. Many churches these days have replaced the creeds and traditional prayers with the mantra: “God is good – all the time! All the time – God is good!” Which is fine, but this song reminds us of the other side of that spiritual coin: He is not only God OF the good times, but IN the bad times.

Faith, among other things, is acting like you know what you know. Have faith. The faith of a mustard seed, even the faith of Pete, might do you just fine.

+ + +

Songwriter Tracy Dartt brought us the classic “God On the Mountain.” A little over a year ago, he walked through his own valleys as he needed a kidney transplant, which came in God’s timing and providence. This song – performed here by the great Lynda Randle, whose brother Michael Tait has been a member of both DC Talk and Newsboys – has touched thousands of people .

Click: God On the Mountain

Ye Who Are Weary, Come Home

11-26-12

I have become aware of the condition of a friend who has experienced some trials lately. None of the experiences are, perhaps, unusual in themselves, but their almost simultaneous visitations might test anyone’s spirit. He is trying, not to make sense of these sorts of life-happenings – because everything makes sense or nothing makes sense; and “time and chance happen to all men,” as Proverbs says – but to cope, simply to cope. Have you ever been there?

In less than a calendar year his special-needs niece died; his nine-day-old granddaughter died; his wife, after multiple long-term illnesses, is to choose between dialysis and hospice; and his sister, who lost her home in Hurricane Sandy, is losing a battle with HIV that was long held at bay. My friend says he keeps fighting the seduction to moan about his own condition, his own emotions and reactions to these matters.

But he knows – that is, he too infrequently remembers – that it is not about him. It is about these loved ones. And about God. Usually, when nothing makes sense to us, and God seems to be somewhere in the story, it means that God is EVERYWHERE in the story. The man’s wife, for instance, has been cited by many, many people through the decades as an inspiration: encouraging people to faith and endurance as her faith helped her to endure. And his sister, after years of rebellion, has come to know Jesus, drawing closer to God.

Why do we find it so hard to see the silver linings to the dark clouds? Why are we always surprised at the grace that infuses every “crisis”? Why do we forget that the sun shines, not only after the storm clouds pass – but all the time, even when the storm clouds temporarily are overhead and blot the sun from view?

Just like the natural tendency to be sad when a loved one dies, such emotions are a brand of selfishness. Not the nasty schoolyard selfishness, but self-ish focus on one’s own condition. Rather, or I should say in addition to the unavoidable, we should direct all the emotions we can toward the loved ones in their difficulties, and to God on their behalf.

We should not believe that God is in control only when the course of events magically follows our own scripts. God wants us, more than anything else, to trust in Him. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith is not summoning patience until God does what we want. Faith is, sometimes, stopping our obsession to understand everything.

And faith is humility. Obey His commands, trust in His love, accept His plan. My sister, newly a friend of God, is blessed not just by the power and balm of the act of praying, but of praying on her knees, specifically. There is a language of prayer, in some gifted circumstances; and, surely, there is also an attitude of prayer.

And sometimes, my friend has discovered anew, there is the biblical concept of the “sacrifice of praise” – when you don’t feel like praying, and even less feel like praising, is when to do it. Loudly and confidently, or softly and tenderly, do it.

+ + +

If you never have clicked on a music video after one of these messages, please do watch this one, the completion of this message. The classic hymn “Softly and Tenderly” was written a century and a quarter ago by Will L. Thompson on similar reflections, and among its verses, “Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing, Passing from you and from me; Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming, Coming for you and for me.” But followed by: “Oh, for the wonderful love He has promised, Promised for you and for me! Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon, Pardon for you and for me.” And the promise in the chorus: “Come home, come home, Ye who are weary, come home; Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!” Sung by RoseAngela Merritt of NewSpring Church, Anderson, S.C.

Click: Softly and Tenderly

Thanks

11-19-12

I had planned to write today a version of my annual Thanksgiving message – subsection B, the rant about how “Thank You” and “You’re Welcome” have become abused, misused, and confused terms these days. So, you will have a year to notice how people might still utter “thank yous” but how the responses are, these days, almost always “Thank YOU,” or “You bet,” “Sure thing,” or “No prob.” All of which invite us to think about the value of sincere thanks and heartfelt responses, social habits, and the meaning of it all. If there is a meaning.

There is a meaning, but it is worthwhile to think about social graces that expire, and why.

Instead, today, I was knocked off course by an e-mail I received from a friend; in fact, several recent e-mails. They have touched me, especially as I make the obvious link to the essence of Thanksgiving: giving thanks.

I have been rocked recently by professional and personal events, the personal matters mostly due to (and not to be mentioned in the same breath as) health crises of my wife. She has been in the hospital for almost three weeks, and this is, I think, her seventh hospitalization this year. We have had blessings and travels during the “good” periods lately, but this year has been visited by several mini-strokes, pneumonia, kidney failure, and grim diagnoses about her 17-year-out transplanted heart.

Nancy’s faith is strong, but I think she is getting sick and tired of being sick and tired. Through it all, the support of family and friends has been a comfort. And a hundred little things that are not little: the concern and indulgence of my agent and publisher; prayers from unknown and surprising places; and so forth. People who do not just say, “I’ll keep you in prayer,” but, having the face-to-face opportunity, pray right in the moment. Friends who, when they say they are willing to drop everything and help, mean it; and we know they mean it.

And the e-mail I received this morning, from a friend who did not even know of Nancy’s recent crises:

Dear Rick, I’ve been praying every day for you and for your family. I know I didn’t write to you after your grandbaby died, and I feel bad about that, but I don’t want you to think that means I don’t love you, because I do. It’s easy to pray for you. I would find it hard to forget!

It’s getting to be that time of year when I start to long to reach out and connect with loved ones. Normally I don’t write to people because I just don’t have words! Or I’ve used them all up, probably. That’s the price I pay for teaching online.

But something about the season of Advent changes all that. Words start to flow like milk and honey! … If you have some time, I’d love it if I could call you and have a good talk. If not, don’t worry, I get that! But consider this message a hug and an expression of genuine friendship and great regard. My brother in Christ! It’s just so great that God loves us, and love is just such a cool thing!

Well. Is there better medicine that that? And I don’t mean to disparage the precious notes and calls from other friends, from brief “I’m thinking about you,” to long letters, all precious. A friend in Arizona with whom (I regret) I don’t speak to as often as we used to, reminds me that Thursday of every week he prays for me and my family. Another friend is bursting with news she knows I want to hear, but gives me space and a prayer that the space is occupied with blessing. Reaching out in such ways is what friends, especially Christian friends, DO.

In the family of God, NOTHING is more precious than the fact of family: we are brothers and sisters in Christ, children of a loving God who has graced us with salvation and a promise of eternal life, with Him in glory.

And part of that blessed truth is that we have a promise… but we don’t have to wait for the promise to fulfill itself in Heaven. We can know it now, and in the midst of trials, share the love of Christ in a way that the world can hear about but never FEEL, Hallelujah.

This is something we don’t often enough gives thanks for in and of itself; at least I don’t. It is a wonderful gift of God, and truly a gracious thing, because we hardly deserve it. While we were yet sinners, God visited humankind and sent His Son to assume the guilt for our sins. On this Thanksgiving week, I picture it like this: our natural selves rebel and insult God in many ways, uncountable times, and God’s response is almost like “Thank you.” Huh? “I am sending my only-begotten Son as a sacrifice for your transgressions. Believe on Him.”

That is not exactly a “Thank you,” of course, But as His “You’re welcome,” before we even repent, it is a form of advance-“Thank you”… and it merits from us a lifetime of continual “Thank YOUs” and “You’re welcomes,” and praises and gratitudes. And thanks. Of the most profound sort.

What my friend this morning showed is the proof that Christ lives in us. That is to say, such expressions as she made is evidence of the Spirit-filled heart, for we are told that in such things it is not us, but the Christ who lives within us who enables us to do such things.

I am reminded of the mirror-image, an insight Nancy had during our hospital ministry after her transplants. When Satan attacks us, it is not us whom he hates – for, clearly, he has little regard for us – but he hates the Christ within us. The more Jesus in our hearts, the more he attacks.

Abraham Lincoln set aside the third Thursday of November for the nation to gives thanks to God. He summed up sentiments of previous leaders, and anticipated powerful proclamations from some of his successors in the office. Indeed we should give thanks to God for our bounties and harvests, our material blessings. But Lincoln also admonished, and people like my dear friends remind me, that we must remember, and cannot help be thankful for, the Author of those blessings. How He works in our lives; how He lives in fellow believers; how He can, and should, inhabit our works.

Thank God.

+ + +

The moving hymn “Now Thank We All Our God,” appropriate this week and every week of our lives, has an interesting story behind it. The best hymns do. It was written by Pastor Martin Rinckart during the Thirty Years’ War. In the Saxon town of Eilenburg, the site of battles and pillage and plagues, he was the only clergyman who survived to minister to the ravaged populace. At one point he performed 50 funerals a day, and the year he wrote this hymn, 1637, he performed more than 4000 funerals. Nevertheless, in the midst of it all, he wrote “Now Thank We All Our God” for his family. Was there any way to summon peace and praise in such circumstances, except by the Holy Spirit? “Nun Danke alle Gott” was used as a theme several times by Bach, and was – and should be – a vital component of church worship ever since. It was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1856.

Click: Now Thank We All Our God

I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted

8-13-12

Hey, God. It’s Me Again. You know I realize the importance in approaching You in reverence and awe; and I usually do; and it often bothers me when Your people do not. But I need a little more of the way we can also approach You in prayer – I love that you have so many facets! – as if we are on a first-name basis. Which we are.

I have been seeking you hard this week, God. And when I have not prayed, I have the feeling that You have read my heart even better, anyway. And You have answered me in the thousand ways that You always surprise me. Remembering Your promises at odd moments. Hearing from friends who care. Catching an old favorite gospel song on the radio. Thinking of Bible verses I didn’t realize I had memorized… in fact, some of them I KNOW I had not memorized. How do You do that???

And then You spoke to me. No, I can’t tell whether You have a deep voice or a raspy one, or what accent You have. But I found myself KNOWING things, and knowing they were from You. They made sense, they brought me peace, and I could never have such wisdom on my own. Like the other day: I was thinking, with all my problems and frustrations and vulnerability and despair – the day I wanted to just get in a car and drive for three days, with no destination in mind – and, remember?, my cry that I felt like a faulty Christian? It had to come from You that I was not a faulty Christian, but in Your eyes, I was just… a Christian.

And then I felt I knew Your heart that no Christian is “just” a Christian, because that is the best You want for us! And I remembered that Your Word says that problems don’t evaporate when we accept Christ. You tell me they will even increase. I know that. But I have Your arm to lean on, a rod and staff to comfort me, a presence even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, that You are an ever-present help in times of trouble. God, I realized how cold and alone people who don’t know You must feel.

You have brought me peace. I thought a couple times that I understood it. But, you know, it passes understanding.

But in healing my hurts, in being a God who listens and whispers back, You brought me more than peace. You brought me miracles. You might not know this – well, I guess You do! – but I feel like real miracles have touched me now, at the end of this trial. You know what I mean:

I felt so “down”… and now I am filled with joy.

I have felt so dumb and acted so stupidly… but You gave me knowledge of so many profound truths.

I have been blind, and missed so many things right in front of me… but You made me see. Clearly.

I was not listening to You or Your promises or Your children in so many ways… but now I hear Your words, Your sweet music.

I have been lame, feeling crippled in my “walk” with You… but right about now, God, You have me dancing!

And something that’s hard to understand, and harder to explain to other people, is something else I KNOW is true. This has been a tough week, God, and I thank You for answering my prayers; but slap me silly if I ever pray again that I want to live in a world where these trials simply do not exist. In that kind of world I would never need to turn to You, or want to know You better, or feel Your love, or be touched by Your miracles. I don’t want to get adjusted to THAT world. With You just a prayer away, I’ll keep it right here.

And, God… thanks again.

+ + +

North Dakota’s own Mitchel Jon leads a group of singers in a re-creation of a vintage camp meeting. On the grounds of the Billy Graham Conference Center, the Cove, outside Asheville NC. It is the Gaither Homecoming Friends; and, yes, that is George Beverly Shea you see at the video’s end, enjoying every note of this classic song, at age 100+.

Click: I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted

Do You Remember God?

6-25-12

When you write books, or blogs, you never know in advance – and, usually, even afterwards – who your readers will be. In my Christian writing, I begin every work the same way I advise writers I mentor: pray that you honor and please God, but also lift up the readers you don’t see and probably will never know. Our job is to plant seeds, not reap harvests.

In this short piece, however, I DO target specific readers: not curious web surfers nor casual Christians; but rather the “subset” of readers who are committed Christians, on-fire believers, dedicated church workers, lay volunteers, teachers, missions workers, youth workers. You fit these descriptions, and perhaps you came to know Christ in a personal and powerful way many years ago. Your life has been changed, ever since.

For those of you in this group, I have a question:

Do you remember God?

Is the God you serve, and to whom you pray, the same One you met when the Gospel miraculously and joyfully invaded your soul? Are you still surprised by Him every day? Is Forgiveness still something that you crave, and cherish, and share? Does the message of salvation astonish you, and humble you, every time you think of it? Does the sacrifice of Jesus’s passion and death still grieve your soul – and does the miracle of Resurrection thrill you like nothing else?

Did you once shout Hallelujahs in church, and now you merely say the word without passion? Do you shed tears, any more, of sorrow or joy like you once did? Is it possible that your “faith walk” has become, not a challenge nor a privilege, but a habit?

I am qualified to ask these questions because I have come face to face with them, often pleading Guilty. Many times do I MISS the early bloom of New Faith: the excitement, the spiritual hunger, the doubts and the overcoming of doubts, the really real realization that I am a new creature in Christ Jesus.

How do we reclaim the exhilaration of becoming not just a Child of God but a Baby of the King? That is our task, and its answer is within our grasp; just because these pitfalls are common does not mean they are inevitable or incurable. Stay in the Word, and proceed on your faith walk, as it were, on your knees.

But here are some factors I nominate as signals that very good Christian religionists might be slipping from the ranks of very good Christ followers:

You love your church! But do you find yourself, when recommending it to others, talking about the programs and activities… and, less, how Jesus is mightily proclaimed?

You love the worship team; maybe you are a part of it; you tell others about the awesome music. Is it possible, by the evidence of your testimony, that you are more in love with the worship than with the One who is to be worshiped? Do you leave church talking about a new revelation of Truth, or the awesome guitar solo?

Does your pastor interrupt his own greeting with admonitions that the congregation didn’t yell “good morning” to his satisfaction; or that people aren’t smiling enough? What about people who enter a church, risking the Cheerful Police, in order to lay in front of the altar, crying unto the Lord? Such hurting souls seem unwelcome in some of today’s “churches.”

Your involvement in projects, in small groups, in kids’ activities, even social and service work – is it all church-related? And is that good? Are we pulling up the blankets around us, creating a comfy Christian ghetto, when all is said and done? “Go ye into all the world,” Jesus commissioned. Not “Go ye to other satellite home groups…” The world is full of clubs and groups; maybe we should compartmentalize, not blend, our social and our spiritual needs.

I have a suspicion that the Lord grieves when our pattern of “reaching out” to others, so called, leaves the nurture of our own souls behind. After half a millennium, the “gospel of works” is alive and well.

This is not an “either-or” situation for Christians, whether they are “old” or “new” believers. Yet we tend it make it so. I suspect further that God is more honored, and likely is more pleased, that we cherish and cultivate our own spiritual needs first. Public libraries host book-review groups; neighborhood clubs go on day trips; and the Colonel is always there for the fried chicken. Let the church be used again for seeking, and worshiping, God Almighty, once in a while!

Do you remember God? Remember this: He has never forgotten you, nor cooled nor changed. It is not in His nature, and should be resisted in ours.

+ + +

A song that many people cite as describing their initial, impactful, encounter with the Living God, is “In the Garden,” sometimes called “I Come to the Garden Alone.” This year marks the centennial of several memorable events: the sinking of The Titanic, which will always be a compelling story; the exciting Bull Moose campaign of Theodore Roosevelt, a watershed in American history; and the composition of this precious gospel song. C. Austin Miles wrote “In the Garden” in 1912, and uncountable people have felt an affinity with its beautiful tune and narrative, over the ensuing century. In line with today’s message, note that the first line says, “I come to the Garden ALONE…” Showbiz aside, the Lord wants to meet us one-on-one. Lilacs, lupine, hydrangeas on all sides.

Click: In the Garden

Hard Times

5-21-2012

On the heels from a week at the Christian Writers Conference in beautiful Estes Park CO, I come away with a heart exultant from fellowship, encouragement, and creative interaction with creative geniuses (some of them not yet published, but surely to be, soon). We also had reports and prayerful consideration of the cultural and spiritual crises facing Christians in this broken world. Human trafficking, persecution of believers, orphans in desperate situations… these “we will always have with us,” but as followers of Christ we cannot fail to respond.

I actually wonder whether Americans know what “hard times” are. I have been through some difficult patches, but I cannot say that I have known Hard Times in the sense that every previous generation in history, virtually everywhere in the world, has experienced.

I have been sad, but not in sorrow. I have been in debt, but never destitute. I have had regrets, but never grief. How many of us can share such relatively comfortable testimony? In my case, to whatever extent I rightly judge my insulation, it is largely due to my standing as a Christian — receiving joy that passes understanding — but we also have to credit modern life, in America, with /its technology, medicine, and general prosperity.

Hard Times do come in America, but somehow all the wars and crises have the lengths of TV mini-series, and if not, the public grows impatient. The public has a sound-bite mentality. We used to face our challenges; but now we are distracted with the modern equivalents of the Romans’ “bread and circuses” — pop entertainment, push-button gratification.

In many ways this indicates that we are not advancing as a culture. I’m not sure we are “going backwards,” either, because that might actually be beneficial. Giuseppi Verdi (yes, the composer otherwise known as Joe Green) once said, “Torniamo all’antico: Sara un progresso” — “We turn to the past in order to move forward.”

I got thinking of Hard Times in America when I pulled an elegant old volume off my bookshelf. “Folk Songs” was published in 1860, before the Civil War. This book is leather-bound, all edges gilt, pages as supple as when it was printed, a joy to hold. The “folk songs” of its title refers not to early-day coffee houses, but to poems and songs of the people, in contradistinction to epic verse or heroic sagas; the way the German word “Volk” refers to the shared-group spirit of the masses.

Many of the titles are charming: “The Age of Wisdom,” “My Child,” “Baby’s Shoes,” “The Flower of Beauty,” “The First Snow-Fall”… However, such sweet titles mask preoccupations with children dying in snow drifts, lovers deserting, husbands lost at sea, fatal illness, mourning for decades, unfaithful friends. No need to guess the themes other titles from the index:”Tommy’s Dead,” “The Murdered Traveler,” and “Ode To a Dead Body.”

It reminded me that people 150 years ago were not gloomy pessimists: they were not. But Hard Times were a part of life, and therefore part of poetry and song. On the frontier, life could be snuffed out in a moment. In the imminent Civil War, roughly every third household was affected by death, maiming, split families, or hideous disruption; yet anti-war movements never gained traction; life went on. Abraham Lincoln almost lost his mind over an unhappy love affair; his wife likely did lose her mind when her favorite son died in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt’s young wife (in childbirth) and mother (of a kidney disease) died on the same day in the same house. Hard Times? Close enough, we would agree.

Also before the Civil War, a composer named Stephen Foster wrote a song called “Hard Times.” He is barely recalled today, sometimes as a caricature, but he might be America’s greatest composer. He wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” “I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Old Black Joe,” “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginia,” “Way Down Upon the Swannee River / Old Folks At Home,” “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer”… and “Hard Times, Come Again No More.”

This last song has been resurrected lately to a certain repute, or at least utility. In some circles it has become an anthem for charities and lamentation of poverty. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, even the Squirrel Nut Zippers, have sung it. It has taken on the air of a secular anthem. But in fact, although Stephen Foster did not embed a Gospel message in the lyrics, he had written many hymns in his life, and — if we can turn back our minds to the world of 150 years ago — it is clear that the Hard Times he wrote of were the world’s trials, to be relieved in heaven. It is clear that the “cabin,” and its door, in the song are metaphors.

Here is a memorable video to evoke the reality of life’s Hard Times, the promise heaven holds, and the beauty of Stephen Foster’s music to you. The seven singers are from the amazing project of a few years ago, “The Transatlantic Sessions” — singers and musicians from America (US and Canada), Ireland, and Scotland singing old and new “folkish” songs in a living-room setting.

Listen to the wonderful performance, the amazing music, and the important reminder that we should keep Hard Times in perspective… but also that God provides a joyful relief from life’s disappointments when they come. By and by, they will “come no more.”

+ + +

The singers are, left to right, Rod Paterson, Scotland; Karen Matheson, Scotland — hear her incredible soprano harmony on the left channel; Mary Black, Ireland; Emmylou Harris, US; Rufus Wainwright, his mother the late Kate McGarrigle, and her sister Anna McGarrigle on the button accordion, all Canadians. The other musicians are fiddler Jay Ungar — he wrote the haunting “Ashokan’s Farewell: tune of the PBS “Civil War” series — and his wife Molly Mason on the bass.

Click: Hard Times Come Again No More

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times, come again no more.

Chorus:
‘Tis the song, the sigh, of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times, come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times, come again no more.

(Chorus)

There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times, come again no more.

(Chorus)

There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times, come again no more.

(Chorus)

Why Me?

5-14-12

Last week my little corner of the country, mid-Michigan, made the news. Actually, after living here for five years, I still cannot describe the geography well. Some news-readers and weathermen describe the area as “central mid-Michigan,” or “northern southeast Michigan,” or “west of the ‘thumb’,” and “south of the Upper Peninsula.”

But it wasn’t difficult for a freakish thunderstorm to find it last week. Almost 10 inches of rain fell in a five-hour period. Power was out for 15 hours. Experts called it a “Once in 500 years storm.” It was five solid hours of lightning and thunder, very strange, like in a cheap horror movie. I suffered a basement flood, damaging some of my archives and collection of thousands of books and hundreds of boxes just down there. This despite a rather comical – I can say now – routine of trying to keep the rising water from a dead sump pump, by candlelight, one pot at a time. The Little Dutch Boy I am not. Eventually I lost the race with the rising water and leaking walls.

What could be worse?

Well… my neighbors who lost everything. Nearby basement apartments where water on the ground burst through their windows. A friend whose bedroom had water up to his chin. Dozens of cars in town completely covered by water. A tractor-trailer on the interstate (this is what made national news) that was stuck in a flooded underpass, and the driver had to be rescued after climbing atop the truck’s roof.

They all had it worse. No matter how bad things get for any of us, we can always find someone who is worse off. Sometimes that truth is a reality-check about our own conditions. We should not always be Whine connoisseurs. Sometimes this truth inspires sympathy toward others, a good thing. It is a reaction common to the human condition that we wonder whether our suffering (or pain or disappointment or betrayal or sickness) is unique to us. My family started a hospital ministry after my wife’s heart transplant, and we frequently were asked the question by patients and members of their families, and survivors after a death: “Why me?”

I eventually came to a revelation that the question, as natural as it is, is partially misdirected. We walk through this vale of tears; disease and sickness exist around us; there is sin in this world, and humanity suffers the consequences; and “the rain falls on the just and unjust.” Sometimes, a lot of it.

“Why me?” I suggest the real question should rather ask, “Why me – why does God love me so?” or “How do I deserve His favor?” or “While I was yet a sinner… and despite my continual rebellion… God sent His Son to die for… ME?” — Why me?

This is the real meaning of the real question we should cry out every day. It brings a very humbling perspective. While there are possible reasons for “Why did my house get flooded?” or plausible factors behind “Why does someone’s heart fail?” – there is NO answer to “Why me, Lord? How do I deserve You?” … except the answer of His loving Grace.

Let THAT answer flood over us all.

+ + +

A musical treatment of this perspective is expressed in the classic gospel song written by Rusty Goodman, “Who Am I?”

Click: Why Me?

Chuck Colson, Levon Helm: Different Men, Similar Lessons

4-23-12

This week, two iconic figures of American culture, both of whom made their marks in the 1970s, died. Chuck Colson was a powerful political operative, convicted felon in the Watergate scandal, and then a leading force in the evangelical church. Levon Helm grew up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas; played various – and “fused” – forms of country, folk, blues, and gospel music; was a major member of “The Band” that backed Bob Dylan; and became an inspiration to two generations of singers and songwriters.

There is no case to be made for “ideological bookends,” or the irony of two enemies in the culture wars: that is not the fabric I wish to weave. These two men did not face off 40 years ago; Levon, for instance, was not even a part of any major protest movement in the pop music of his day, otherwise a common association.

The lives of these two men, different as they were, offer, I think, powerful lessons for countrymen they leave behind. Their names were seldom paired in a sentence before this week, but should be in a certain way.

They showed us that how you live is important. But how you die is more important.

Colson’s story has become the stuff of legend (in fact, his autobiography, Born Again, was made into a movie): powerful Washington lawyer; connections; joined the Nixon Administration, where his official duties included communication with lobbyists and interest groups, and political strategy, and his unofficial duties included dirty tricks and monitoring “enemies.” He was involved in Watergate and the cover-up, but was convicted of complicity in a break-in and scheme to discredit an anti-war opponent. Colson served time in prison.

Having read C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity, he gave his life to Christ. He witnessed to other inmates in jail. Colson founded Prison Fellowship after his release, and ever after toiled for prisoners’ rights, visitation reform, assistance to families of prisoners, and chapel programs. He founded an institute to enable Christians to be informed and effectively work in today’s society. He became an ardent, and thoughtful, foe of post-modernism. Prison Fellowship, as an evangelical outreach, is active in 114 countries; my son-in-law’s father ministers weekly in Ireland as part of the team there.

Levon Helm, in another corner of the culture, worked in many fields of music as a singer, mandolinist, drummer, and composer (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). His dedication to roots music began in the 1960s and ‘70s. He also acted in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The Right Stuff.” Battling painful cancer of the vocal cords for more than a decade before his death this week, he continued to perform until a couple months ago. Sometimes without singing. Sometimes digging deep, from somewhere, finding the strength and the pipes to sing some lyrics. Amazing. As always.

More and more he came to concentrate on old-time country, gospel, mountain music, and rural blues. This son of a cotton farmer represented something I have long held about the value of tradition, race, and nationhood: no matter where you roam, or how much you explore, or what faraway places you might live in, the best journey is that whose end is right where you started.

Chuck Colson returned to his Savior. Levon Helm returned to his musical roots. What really united this unlikely pair, in my eyes, was that they each completely sold out to the things they loved and knew. Their passion knew no bounds. They each died in the saddle, so to speak – Chuck’s brain hemorrhage came while he was speaking to a church group; Levon performed at his house (“Midnight Rambles”) in Woodstock right to the end. How many of us have that passion… and live with that passion?

We cannot be too sad when people like this leave us. They lived worthwhile lives to the fullest, enduring much even amidst their joy. No less a person than William F Buckley, for instance, doubted and mocked Colson’s conversion at first. Helm felt betrayed by members of The Band and sometimes met resistance to his mixed bag of roots music. But in a sense, passionate fighters like these men did not just die – they LIVED. How they lived is important, but to the rest of us, how they died might be more important.

+ + +

A predictable number in Levon’s stage show was the great Carter Family gospel song “No Depression in Heaven.” Purposely, the lyrics were ambiguous about economic or emotional depression – because neither will be there, in God’s place. Here is a stage version from a couple years ago with Levon on the mandolin and the great Larry Campbell among backup, and Sheryl Crow on lead vocals. Great lyrics.

Click: No Depression in Heaven

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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