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WHAT REMAINS

shepherd            There is a line from the play “All the Way Home,” (James Agee’s A Death in the Family adapted for the stage - I don’t remember if the line is in the book), which I shall never forget.  A family is visiting relatives, especially a grandma severely debilitated by strokes. She has lost the ability to walk, talk, or feed herself. She is holding a little girl’s doll, and when the little girl gets the doll back the grandma cries out in protest. “All she knows is that something’s been taken from her,” her caretaker explains. Indeed.

            I probably remember that line so clearly because the first time I saw the play the grandmother was portrayed by Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton), who looked like MY grandma. My grandma also suffered a series of strokes and bit by bit her abilities were taken from her. Worse than losing the use of limbs, though, was the loss of identity. With every stroke layers of her  personality were sheared away until all that remained of the feisty, intelligent, accomplished woman she was, was a little girl whose father didn’t want her. The one memory that remained clear, and sharply focused was the moment she overheard her father saying to someone that he despised her. Was that the most deeply imprinted event of her life?

            The one story I often heard from my grandfather’s childhood was the night when, as a four year old, he was taken in the middle of the night to hug his mother goodbye. She was dying from childbirth. But – in his little diary of memories that he wrote for me, the seminal story he tells is of a time when he had to clean out the cistern on the farm. He was just a boy, and they didn’t have a ladder long enough so his father cut down a tree with plenty of branches to hold him, tied a rope around him, and sent him down.  He was terrified at first, but his father kept reminding him that he was holding on to the rope.  He writes:

            Once again Poppa showed me his wisdom. The lesson I learned that day helped me to remember something about God and the importance of holding on to Him. When Poppa gave me the rope it connected me and Poppa together – the one that I depended on and trusted to get me out of the cistern. We must remember to hold on to God, and not let go, and He will pull us home to heaven.

            I can’t imagine tying a rope around a boy and sending him to the bottom of a cistern – the thought horrifies me.  But three generations separate me from my great-grandfather. Nor can I imagine sending a boy out alone to shepherd and defend a flock of sheep when there are bears and lions about to threaten the flock. But that is exactly what Jesse did with his son David. When Samuel came to anoint one of Jesse’s sons king, David was the unlikeliest of the bunch because he was the baby – still “pink” and “beautiful” (I Samuel 16). And yet he had to be called in from the countryside where he was watching the flock alone. While there, alone with his sheep, the boy David did have to face a lion and a bear (I Samuel 17.35-36).  But the thing that remained with him, that which imprinted itself on him most deeply, was not fear, or abandonment, but the sense that he was not alone. What remained most deeply imprinted on David was the sure feeling that God is always present – that He cares, He provides, He directs, He protects. David writes:

            The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake. 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. Thou prepareth a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.  Psalm 23 KJV

            This was the memory most deeply imprinted on David – knowing, in the face of so many fears, that he was not alone. It can be that which leaves the deepest mark on us as well.

Commissioner Gordon, Turn on Your Searchlight

Batman            A new installment of Captain America’s adventures is due on the big screen soon, as the Marvel Comics juggernaut sails full speed ahead. I wonder if Stan Lee ever imagined his brand of graphic storytelling would come to dominate our entertainment media so thoroughly. Marvel Comics, and to a slightly lesser extent DC Comics are providing for yet another generation of readers and viewers a mythology no less powerful than that popularized by Hesiod and Homer.

            In fact, one might argue that the complex story arcs of Tony Starks and Bruce Wayne are superior to those of Zeus and Hermes because Iron Man and Batman are essentially moral figures, whereas,  Zeus and Hermes are amoral. If humanity needs saving, better to turn to the Avengers, or the Justice League than the Greek Pantheon. Members of the Greek Pantheon rape, murder, deceives, generally encourage debauchery, and tend to punish those who would help advance humanity.

            I would argue that the reason both Tony Starks and Bruce Wayne are moral (in recent cinematic outings as Iron Man and Batman,  both sacrificed themselves to carry a nuclear device away from New York City) is that their stories were written after the Cross.  Hesiod and Homer wrote (or sang) before it.

            After the Cross Event, after the life of Jesus, we can only think of a hero in terms of self-sacrifice.  Over and over again we tell ourselves about the hero who is willing to die that others might live – Gandalf, Harry Potter, Obi Wan Kenobi, Sidney Carton, Robert Jordan, et cetera, et cetera…. The story of Jesus is that imprinted on our collective consciousness.

            I believe the story of Jesus is so thoroughly imprinted on us because it addresses a basic need. We know we need a savior. Each of us wishes we had Commissioner Gordon’s Spotlight so we could call Batman at a moment’s notice. I believe this is more than pandering to a wish-fulfillment fantasy we have, which persists from childhood.  We know we are at risk.  We know we are in need.  We know that by ourselves we are not sufficient to face the forces of evil. These are facts, and they are unsatisfied by fantasies.

            Tony Starks, Bruce Wayne, and Peter Parker are fictional characters. Their stories are fantasies which provide a poor substitute for the Hero we truly seek. Jesus is real. He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13.5). He will be with us all the way, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28.20). He has been given all power (Matthew 28.18). He has already conquered evil (John16.33, Philippians 3.21). Therefore we do not fear (Psalm 27.1, Luke 12.32), because he makes us conquerors (Romans 8.37).

            Beyond confidence in the personal victory we have through Jesus, we must share the story the world is truly hungering for. There is no need to keep making up tales about the Hero willing to die to save an unworthy and often hostile humanity - because it has already happened – while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5.6). This is fact, not fantasy. 

IN PRAISE OF A JAR IN THE BACK YARD

MoneyJar            On my 10th birthday my dad took me, and my $20 to Cabell Federal Savings and Loan and we opened up my first passbook savings account. If I remember correctly, that $20 earned 6.2% interest. I remember how exciting it was to save money and to see that the money I put in earned more money by just sitting there. Michael Banks wanted to spend his tuppence feeding the birds, but if I was the boy in Mary Poppins, I would have tendered my tender to the bank to earn compound interest.

            I was reminded of the joy I used to get from compound interest when I was filing my 2013 tax return, and was reporting my earned interest income – which, although my primary savings account is much larger than it was in 1972, was not sufficient to purchase a Venti Chai Latte at the Starbucks across the street.

            As we will be in the market for a new car sometime this year, I will not complain about interest rates. But I do wonder about our consumption based economy which seems engineered to punish thrift. When I was changing my retirement account a few years back, I said to my financial planner, “I just want my money to be insured and to keep pace with inflation.” “You can’t do that,” he replied. Thus the only way to make money is to risk money. I’m not comfortable with that. What’s the difference between a broker and a bookie?......No, that’s not a joke, I really want to know.

            When my great-grandmother, Laura Grate, passed we found that she had stashed away thousands of dollars in her bedroom closet. “How quaint,” we all thought. She had raised her daughter during the great depression, and had no trust for banks. She had no more confidence in the FDIC than she did that men actually walked on the moon. She was only one of many of her generation that stashed away their savings in the lining of mattresses, in coffee-cans under the floor-boards, or mason jars buried in the back yard.

            I am reconsidering the foolishness of that. It might be wisdom after all.  If my money isn’t going to make any interest anyway, isn’t a mason jar in the back yard safer nowadays than a savings account? If your money is in a mason jar in the back yard it is safe from hackers and identity thieves – which is not true for the cash you have in the bank. Think about that for a moment.

            Of course, if we all buried our cash in the back yard, our back yards would not be safe. Thieves would be at them every unguarded moment. Assets, liquid or otherwise, can only be held at risk and with vigilance.  This is true whether our wealth is stored in a jar, in a vault, or in the cloud.

WHO ARE YOU WEARING?

Well, we have just come through the awards ceremony season. The Grammy's, the Emmys, the Oscars, the ASCAPs, the SAGs, the AMAs, the CMAs, the Golden Globes, the People's Choices and the Cleo's, have all been handed out. More important, our most pressing question has been answered: "Who are you wearing?"
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Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yes, Joan, this is Donatella Versace.

Well, Melissa, I have this on loan from Valentino.

Thank you, Jules, it is Dolce and Gabbana.

and Donna Karan,

and Loy and Ford,

and FUBU,

and not (thankfully) Bob Mackey,

and the stilettos are by Manolo,

and the bag is by Dior,

and the ring is by Bulgari,

and the watch is by Severin Wunderman.

"Who are you wearing?" "What a pointless, stupid, shallow question," I have always thought. It sounds as if a person happens to be draped around your shoulders. "What are you wearing?" is often a pertinent—especially if you have permitted a three-year-old to dress herself, or you have teenagers in the house. But "Who are you wearing" is one of those vapid west coast questions.

That was my smug reaction to this question, until, as always, the Lord blessed me with one of those moments when I realized I'm the shallow one.

"Who are you wearing?” This is the ultimate question. 

Do you not know that as many of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ? There is now neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor .free man, there is neither male nor female but you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3.27-28

Jesus is the garment worn by the saved so that when others see us they don't notice that we are rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, hip-hop or NASCAR- but only that we are His. The most noticeable thing about us is supposed to be our Jesus-ness.

When Saul agreed to allow David to face Goliath (I Samuel 17), he tried to dress the adolescent David up in his grown man's armor. It didn't work. David faced the giant just as he was—a shepherd boy, with his sling and shepherd's bag—and artillery prevailed over infantry. David was who he was. Saul's armor wasn't appropriate to his identity.

We belong to Christ - simply, and reverently. He alone is who we are to be wearing.

I REALLY DO LOVE DOGS (AND I LIKE CATS ALRIGHT).

bulldog           I really do love dogs (most dogs anyway), and I like cats alright. There is no reason to love a cat, because a cat doesn’t love you (there may be exceptions). The old saying that dogs have family and cats have staff is pretty accurate, I think. Not that this makes a dog a better pet. A dog loves you unconditionally, and really who wants the burden of that every day? But I do love dogs as a species. They have been a great blessing to humanity, and continue to be. Our ancestors could not have succeeded as hunter-gatherers, or as farmers without dogs. We are no less dependent on dogs today. Service dogs, rescue dogs, guide dogs, seizure dogs, police dogs, military dogs, watch dogs make society possible. I love dogs, and respect all they do for us. I need to establish this fact first of all, lest I lose you, dear reader, or gain your angry email. I doubt your emails will be as agitated as I get when I watch those commercials on television where someone describes themselves as a “pet parent.”

            The worst are the commercials for high-end dog foods. Concerned pet parents, these commercials assert, will make sure their pet-child eats the best. I want to say to that lady who insists on feeding Boomer free-range organic kibble: “Lady - that dog (any dog) will eat grease soaked coffee grounds out of the garbage can, and wag his tail while he is doing it” (2 Peter 2.22). Let me say unequivocally that a pet parent is a dog, a cat, a box-turtle, a kinkajou, a clown-fish…..but never a human. Humans give birth to humans, and parent humans. Animals give birth to and parent animals. Animals are not humans. Anthropomorphizing an animal is no favor to that animal. How is it a good thing to deny a creature’s true identity and nature?

            I love dogs. But the thing about a dog is that he (or she) is a dog, not a person. God made dogs for people, not people for dogs (Genesis1.28).

            Genesis makes clear that one of the oldest covenants we have is with the environment God gave us. He made it for us to live in, and expects us to act as stewards and caretakers (Genesis 2.15). Some would have us believe that all species are equal. This is not a biblical view. Others believe that cruelty, waste, and damage are not sinful. A person who is cruel to animals is a cruel person. A person who wastes resources is a wasteful person. A person who damages the world God gave us violates that ancient covenant to cultivate and keep the created world.

            But this world will end. People endure. Either in heaven or hell we endure. This is what matters. The love we have to give, the resources we have to invest, the patience we have to apply, the gifts we have to share, the wisdom we have to express – every good and perfect gift we have we have from God to pass along to each other (I Peter 4.10). It is easy to lavish these on our cute, cuddly pets and have none left for each other. But to do so is sin.

LOOSE ENDS

 

 

…He was buried, and he arose on the third day according to the Scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve. I Corinthians 15.4-5

The Lord really has risen, and has appeared to Simon! Luke 24.34

 Frayed          If you didn’t know before, let me tell you now that “Simon” (Matthew 10.4) and “Cephas” (John 1.42) are names that refer to Peter. “Peter” (Greek for “rock”) is the nickname Jesus gave to Simon (see Matthew 16.17-18). I never noticed this before filling in for Bink as we concluded the Sunday morning class on the Gospel of Luke, but Luke tells us, as does Paul, that after the women found the tomb empty, and before Jesus appeared to the apostles as a group, he appeared to Peter alone. Amazing.

            We know from Luke 24 and from John 20 that after the report of Mary Magdalene and the other women Peter ran to the tomb, and inspected it. John’s gospel goes into a bit of detail about how he walked in and saw the shroud just lying there, but the face cloth rolled up neatly and set aside by itself (John 20. 6-7). But no one gives us any details about this personal visitation Jesus makes with Peter.

            I really want to know about that meeting. Peter was the one living apostle who had betrayed Jesus. He adamantly betrayed Jesus in a very public way three times in the course of an evening. After betraying Jesus the third time, their eyes met (Luke 22.61-62) and he went out and wept bitterly.

            Thus, they have a lot (and I mean a lot) to talk about. So what was said at that first appearance? All the other appearances are so personal. They are intimate, tactile. Mary Magdalene, after hearing Jesus’ voice clings to him and says Rabboni (“my teacher,” or “my dear teacher”). When Jesus first appears to the apostles behind a locked door, he breathes on them. Jesus offers his wounds to Thomas and suggests that he probe them with his fingers (these accounts are in John 20). What did Jesus say to Peter? How did Peter respond? Did Jesus lay a hand on his shoulder as a friend? Did he place hand of blessing upon his head? Was Peter too ashamed to even raise his eyes?

            We will never know while we inhabit these four dimensions of life on earth. But we do know that unlike the meeting with Mary Magdalene, or Thomas, there was no resolution in the meeting. There was still unfinished business. There was at least one loose end.

            We know this because in John 21, in an account that is an epilogue of sorts – a final scene after the credits have rolled, Jesus and Peter do resolve things. The setting is the Sea of Galilee – home. Peter has gone fishing, and other apostles have accompanied him. After an unsuccessful night, a stranger on the shore tells them to make one more cast. They do, and haul in a miraculous catch. John realizes that the stranger is Jesus. “It is the Lord!” he says to Peter, who puts his tunic back on and “throws himself into the sea” in order to get to Jesus. It is here, at the place where they started, with a repeat of the miracle that led Peter to follow Jesus in the first place (Luke 5.1-11) that the reset button is pushed.

            “Do you love me?” Jesus asks three times. Three times Peter gets to say “I love you” back. I know he doesn’t use the same Greek word as Jesus here (they were speaking Aramaic anyway), but is there any doubt that this is an undoing of the deed? There were three denials Now there are three “I love you’s” followed by three calls to follow Jesus. No, there is no doubt that this is a moment of resolution. If you have any doubts read Acts 2 (or the rest of Acts, and I & II Peter).

            My point is that Jesus’ work of loving us, of shepherding us doesn’t stop with His crucifixion, His resurrection, or His ascension. The example of Peter (and Thomas, and Mary Magdalene) shows that the love Jesus has for us pursues every loose end. His love for us and His offer of another chance is persistent and undeniable.

THE TERMS OF OUR WARFARE

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments, and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.  II Corinthians 10.3-5 ESV

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6.10-12 ESV

           

 royanddale551           Last week our newly minted governor pulled tap shoes from his carpet bag and danced a little two-step around the issue of Virginia’s ban on gay marriage. As governor he is bound to uphold the law of the commonwealth. Politically, however, he would like to see the ban overturned. Somehow he argued both sides and made the question of same-sex marriage about jobs for Virginians. Balanchine would have been impressed with his footwork.

            Oh well, what else would one expect from a politician? Our concern as citizens of Heaven should be what response to our times would best represent the values of Jesus? We are His disciples, thus our actions should reflect His teachings. 

            Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount simultaneously rejects certain Western values (Matthew 6.7, 32; see also Mark 10.42-45), and forbids any nastiness on our part towards persons in opposition to our beliefs (Matthew 5.43-48).

            In fact, as Paul makes clear in the verses cited above, persons are never the enemy, ideas are. So also is Satan, the source of the false notions that distort human understanding and pervert human behavior. Humans, even ones with terribly wrong opinions (especially ones with terribly wrong opinions) are to be prayed for and loved.

            Paul not only preached this but he lived it. Remember the sinful behaviors the Corinthians were involved in before they became Christians (I Corinthians 6.9-11). Included in this list are men who receive sexual advances from other men and the men who make those advances (v. 9). The list ends with the phrase, “and such were some of you,” (v.11). Paul evangelized gay men. How did Paul reach these gay men with the Gospel? Perhaps he made jokes at their expense. Perhaps he said nasty things about them and their activities. Perhaps he just acted disgusted. Maybe he marched with a sign somewhere. Perhaps he raged on a Facebook page, or tweeted clever insults. Maybe he watched cable news until his blood-pressure popped the sphygmomanometer.

            I think he established caring relationships and shared the word of God. Paul tells us that is his modus operandi when beginning a new work (I Thessalonians 2.1-12). Paul reminds us that good, godly strategy demands that we do not allow ourselves “to be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good,” (Romans 12.21). I think Paul had little concern about the state of the Roman Empire, and complete concern about the Kingdom of God.

            I think we should follow this Biblical example.

            Everyone knows that the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is that the good guys care about collateral damage. The bad guys don’t care who they hurt so long as they win. The terms of our warfare demand that we be the good guys.

CANADIAN JOURNAL

New Liskeard is a wide open field for workers.  In the words of Jesus, “The harvest is ripe and the reapers are few.” Jesus also said “Go into all the world and teach the gospel.” I believe on the day of judgment we will have to give an answer why we did not try to teach others the Gospel of Christ. There are many areas within our reach where the truth has not yet been taught. Other groups sow and reap for their master – Satan.

           

            Thus concludes the journal my grandfather, John Browning, kept of the mission trip we took to New Liskeard, Ontario, during the summer of 1985. My grandfather was in his element, and in his glory that summer, for he enjoyed nothing better (not even golf) than knocking doors. He was good at it, too. Wholly without guile, gregarious, kindly, with a beaming smile – people would open the door and talk to him as long as he wanted to stay. Before we went to Canada, I always thought he was so good at door knocking because he did it in the small town he had lived in all his life. He was never separated from the person behind the door by more than two or three degrees of contact. But he was no less successful a thousand miles due north, closer to the Hudson Bay than to home.

  canadaflag          I was the leader of the trip. At 23, and as a newly minted “Associate Minister,” I was always looking for things to do to keep me from being pigeonholed a “youth minister.” When members of our congregation brought us the invitation to help a church planting in a little town 8 hours due north of Toronto I jumped at the chance to put a team together and plan a mission trip. Teresa and I; Kermit Stephens, one of our elders; my grandfather, the Dennisons (who brought us the invitation), Kevin Large, one of our young adults, and Matt Pittman from the youth group loaded up the church van and headed to the great, white North.

            I was the door-knocking partner of my grandpa for a few days of our trip. I had been his door knocking partner countless times before. I found out on this trip that his gift wasn’t limited to a couple of towns in Wane County, West Virginia. We had the door slammed in our faces only once – by a retired GM Executive who couldn’t get my granddad to give the new congregation a denominational affiliation. Otherwise the old charm worked as well in Ontario, as it did in Appalachia.

            We had a great trip (despite the fact that I got food poisoning on the last day and nearly died of dehydration on the way home). We knocked 1238 doors and had 24 positive responses. If my records are correct, over the next year there were 3 baptisms of contacts we made. 

My grandfather’s journal is the only real record we have of the day-to-day details of the trip. I reread it often, and can hear his voice in my ears, full of excitement at our evangelistic success. “This is a wonderful campaign. I will never forget it,” he wrote at the beginning of our last day. I am proud I was the one who planned the trip, and got him on a foreign field before he died. I would feel better, though, if I were one tenth the evangelist he was.

I used to believe he was so good because it was his gift. Peter and Paul both remind us that we have different gifts (Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, I Peter 4). But the call to evangelize is not limited to a gifted few – it is all encompassing (Matthew 28.18-20). The things I notice, time after time, when reading my grandfather’s mission trip journal are urgency, responsibility, and joy. He had the mindset of a spiritual first-responder – he was urgent about the lost. He believed the call to evangelize was personal – that he would give an account before God. He was so glad that God loved him, and was glad to share the good news about that love with others.

Maybe those three characteristics are the elements of the gift. If so we should all be gifted evangelists.

“WAS,” and “WAS WITH”

In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God. John 1.1

file000765589942            Those beautiful, poetic words which open the Gospel of John are the first words a student of New Testament Greek reads in the original language. In Greek this line is even more beautiful and poetic as it contains internal rhyme, alliteration, and meter. In terms of vocabulary and syntax they are the NT Greek equivalent of “See Spot run.” Theologically, however, this is perhaps the most profound line in the Bible.  “The Word” refers to Jesus, which becomes crystal clear by verse 14. That Jesus would be called “The Word” alone could occupy a lifetime of study, thought, and prayer. John starts us off on such a journey by explaining that the Word was God’s method, mode, and medium of creation. This we know from Genesis 1, a passage John intentionally evokes here. God spoke words and the universe emerged. John tells us that the power of creation was not in words, but “the Word.”

            But the rest of that first verse transcends even our ability to imagine. God is One (Deuteronomy 6.4). How can one be God, and be with God simultaneously? To be with someone means to be in their presence. But it also understands that one is not the person one is with. To be beside another demands that one we are beside is other than us. How can you be someone, and be with that same one? And what does that tell us about God?  We often use the word “trinity” to name what the Bible describes, but it is not a biblical word, and isn’t particularly helpful. Neither are Patrick’s example of the shamrock (three leaves make one clover), or Hinduism’s chanted oum (three letters make one sound).  Jesus is God, and Jesus is with God (at His right hand, to be specific – Hebrews 10.12 ).  We know that it is true. We don’t know how it is true.

            And that is as it must be if it is true.  If our God could be mastered by an individual, finite brain, He wouldn’t be much of a god, as J.B. Phillips pointed out years ago in his book Your God is too Small. There is but One God. Yet there is some dynamic at work which allows the Son to be at the right hand of the Father, and yet which insists that the two are only one person. This has been true from the beginning.  Add to this the fact that the Son is now fully human as well as divine (Hebrews 2.10-18). He is God, and He is us. We know that this is true. We do not know how it is true. This is how it must be if our God is God.

I am about to do things in your day you would not believe even if I explained them to you. Habakkuk 1.5

‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways,’ says the LORD.  ‘For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts higher than your thoughts.’ Isaiah 55.8-9

            On a fairly regular basis, back when I was a teen, we used to have Bible class teachers who used the overhead projector obsessively. Some had pretty cool visuals. Others had elaborate outlines domesticating biblical truth –penning it up in manageable portions. An outline is a wonderful tool to use when a vast amount of information needs to be organized. Some of these outline makers seemed to have more faith in the outline than in the word – as if this organizational tool could reduce every biblical truth to an easily mastered factoid. This is hubris. It is a virulent form of blasphemy to believe that God is small enough to be mastered by the human mind. It demonstrates a lack of faith in Faith to insist we know how as well as what.

            God has given us everything we need that pertains to life and godliness (II Peter 1.3). He has communicated everything we need to be saved and enjoy the abundant life. God has given us minds suited to understand and to respond to this information. He gives us the power to respond, and grace when we repent. He gives us constant, unconditional love. What more do we need for our journey?

THE STORY OF CRAZY HORSE

CrazyHorse         The other day a thirty year search ended.  After decades excavating used book shops and spelunking in thrift stores I found a copy of The Story of Crazy Horse by Enid Lamonte Meadowcroft, and illustrated by William Reusswig at Prospero’s in Old Town.  It was part of the Signature Books series by Grosset & Dunlap, and was the first book about which I did a real book report.  It was the first book I couldn’t put down – the first of a long line. It was assigned to me by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Jordan.  She was a first year teacher.  She was quiet and kind and all us boys were in love with her. She was big on reading to us, which she did at the end of every school day. She would read books that were a little below our grade level, but she would make us think about how they were written. She read Charlotte’s Web, and made us pay attention to alliterations like “garrulous geese,” and how phrases like, “the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep,” are music because they both have five beats.  She didn’t weep when she read of Charlotte’s death, but when she read the last two paragraphs of the book her voice broke and the tears rolled. “These last two paragraphs are perfect,” she said. And they are.

            So when she assigned our first book report I knew it had to be good.  I wanted to do Guadalcanal Diary, by Richard Tregaskis, or Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, by Captain Ted W. Lawson (which was really beyond my comprehension level at the time), but Mike Trimble and Chip Stowasser got to them first, so I grabbed the coolest book left – The Story of Crazy Horse, by Enid Lamonte Meadowcroft.  Honestly, if I had noticed that the book was by a girl I wouldn’t have checked it out – it wouldn’t have been cool (S .E. Hinton, the coolest author of juvenile fiction ever is a girl.)  All I knew then was that from the first line, “It was August – the month which the Indians call the moon when cherries turn black…” I was hooked.

            I don’t have the report anymore (I wish I did), but I remember I got an A, and words of approval from Mrs. Jordan – and I got an itch to know, to love, to understand a text. I come from a family of readers at least three generations back, and I was a reader when I picked up The Story of  Crazy Horse, but Mrs. Jordan had taught us to read more deeply than the narrative arc.  There is the story, yes, then there is how the story is told, and that is as important.  That was the moment, for me, when reading eclipsed television, or cinema as a medium of communication.

            Which is fortunate because God didn’t make a movie or a mini-series, he gave us a book.  More precisely stated - He gave us THE BOOK.  THE BOOK is the place we hear His voice, where we learn His truth, the place we commune with His Son, the place where he hear His promises, the place where we are “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3.17). Whenever I preach or teach I try to do for you what Mrs. Jordan did for us.

            Because reading THE BOOK must be an act of love.  It cannot be a chore.  If we think of it as a chore, it will not have its full, transformative work. God has made it a book we will love if we open our hearts to it. Jesus is there, and Jesus is everything. Which poet is better than David? Which warrior’s biography surpasses his? Which book contains more wisdom than Proverbs, or more theological depth than Job? Where are there better people to be met than the ones we meet in Bethlehem or Bethany? What other book is so specific about what was, what is, and what will be?

            If you open your heart to The Book you will not need me, or Mrs. Jordan, or a book about Crazy Horse, or a book about Guadalcanal. God, Himself, will draw you in.

FAREWELL TO THE PIRATE KING

PirateKing         A few years ago, when we had a Men’s Sojourner’s Prayer Group in addition to our women’s group, we men would begin our sessions with a period of singing. The six or eight of us would sit around a folding table and sing six or eight songs at the top of lungs into each other’s faces – it was heaven, or at least a taste of it. I have heard, over the years, some say that if we are to spend eternity singing, they expect to be bored. Not me. I like to sing. I like to sing bass. I like to sing loud. I like when we all sing together.

            Which is why it was a terrible blow when my Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist told me I was developing a polyp on the left side of thy third vocal cord, and that I had to rest my vocal cords for several months. This meant no shouting, no whispering, nothing too hot or too cold to drink and absolutely NO singing. I didn’t obey absolutely. I did lead a “call to worship” song every Sunday – softly singing right into the microphone. But I had to forego pre-school chapel, and have had to sit and listen to you all sing these past months without joining in.

            Let me say that you all sound wonderful. I’d rather sit in the midst of my church family and hear them sing the old hymns than listen to the Robert Shaw Chorale sing Barbour’s Adagio at Carnegie Hall any day of the week and twice on Sundays. I love to sit up front with all of you singing into the back of my head, and pick out particular voices. I can remember other voices from other congregations, many of them now gone. I wonder if one day, when we are home, I will be able to identify Neil Kent’s tenor, or my grandmother Bryson’s unmistakable alto somewhere in the heavenly chorus? 

            But - how hard it is not to sing with you. “Is anyone happy? Let him sing song of praise,” (James 5.13). God has provided us a release, a way to express our joy in Him, and that release is singing. David, in the psalms, demonstrates that singing is not just the best tool to express joy – but is suited to the full range of human emotions. There is no substitute which suffices.

            My voice is now back a bit, but it isn’t strong. My vocal cords feel like delicate filaments which a strong blast would surely break. I can sing again, but I can’t cut loose. “I doubt I’ll ever be able so sing again,” I said to my daughter Jill over the holidays. “You can,” she replied “You just don’t have to sing every song like you’re the Pirate King from ‘Pirates of Penzance.’” “Yes I do,” I replied.

            I’ve said a permanent farewell to the Pirate King – at least until this corruptible body is clothed in incorruption. I am blessed to be able to sing along with you again (albeit timidly), and I hope you will sing out more loudly to make up for the deficit (especially you basses). Most of all I hope that you will cherish the blessing we share when we sing together – whether it’s an old hymn or a new favorite, something by J. S. Bach or by A. E. Brumley. Singing together is a gift. We taste that gift now, but will enjoy it fully, eternally when we get home.

DARWIN’S SCOREKEEPING

 Kickball           Charles Darwin was married to his wife Emma for 43 years.  She was his first cousin, and the granddaughter of the famous potter Josiah Wedgewood.  The two had ten children.  Emma was a pious and observant Christian, and Darwin was carefully respectful of her faith.  For the duration of their marriage, the two were in the habit of playing backgammon every night.  Charles kept a running tabulation of their respective wins and losses.  When she died, he had won 2,795 games to her 2,490.*  I wonder if he mentioned the final tally at his Emma’s funeral?

            I’ve known people who were that competitive, you surely have too.  These kind of folks push a very dark button in me, I regret to say.  Years ago at a church camp in Ohio we had a counsellor, a grown man who insisted that staff got to play in the sports activities of the 7 to 9 year olds at camp that week.  I thought this was pathetic, and when I had the chance, during a kickball game I hit him in the feet with the ball as hard as I could during an attempted steal of home.  He would have wiped out the eight year old girl at home if she failed to get out of the way – which was about to happen since she was paralyzed with fear at this hulking man in his 40’s barreling at her.  I caused him to tumble end over end and sprain his ankle so severely he couldn’t ruin anyone’s game for the rest of the week.  It was delicious, and is still, even in memory (that is a sinful impulse, I know).  Winning is better than losing, but having fun is better than winning.  So long as you haven’t let your team down, you can lose and still have fun.  If you let your team down even winning isn’t fun.  But the worst is someone who, win or lose, ruins the game for everyone else involved, because he treats every badminton game or corn-hole match like he’s competing for a UFC title.

            That person is, thankfully, rarely met.  But I am sure more of us are guilty of another kind of wild competitiveness - an obsession with scorekeeping more intense than Charles Darwin’s backgammon tabulation, or the dads who know who’s ahead at t-ball.

            Love keeps no record of wrongs. I Corinthians 13.5

            Love doesn’t but we do.  Do any of us have a loving relationship with anyone over the age of 5 without keeping score?  We tabulate hurtful words, forgotten communications, broken promises, withheld affection, withheld attention, selfish choices, thoughtless remarks and every snub.  We know who is ahead, and who is behind, and we are certain we maintain the moral high ground.

            Love keeps no record of wrongs. I Corinthians 13.5

            What does Paul mean by that?  Does he mean that we should be like Charlie Brown and try to kick the football, even though we know that Lucy will pull it away just like she always does?  I don’t think so.  Remembering a pattern of behavior and making a prudent choice in response is just wisdom, isn’t it?  Isn’t there a difference between acting wisely and acting vengefully?  He doesn’t mean that we should just make ourselves vulnerable to someone like they’ve never hurt us before.  He can’t mean that can he?

            Maybe he does.  Jesus was wholly unguarded.  Maybe that is just how love is.  Maybe that is just how love demonstrates its superior strength.  Maybe love, unlike Charles Darwin, and t-ball dads, just refuses to keep score.

*“Darwin Debates Himself,” Christian History, issue 107, p.1

PHILLIP BATER’S BEER MONEY

  beer       After returning his commission to the Continental Congress at Annapolis, Maryland, George Washington hastened home and arrived at Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve, 1783.  He returned to the life he preferred and loved – the life of a farmer.  He was as successful at the head of a plantation as he was at the head of an army or a nation.  Washington was a genius of practicality, diversifying his crops, and his money-making endeavors successfully, and before anyone of his contemporaries did.  He expected the same kind of practicality and efficiency from his employees.  But, practical man that he was, he also understood that not everyone possessed his self-control, and self-possession.

           Washington had a gifted gardener at Mount Vernon named Phillip Bater whom he discharged not long after returning in 1783, because of Bater’s chronic drunkenness.*  A few weeks later when Bater humbly reapplied for the job Washington drew up a probationary agreement, which allowed for certain periods of excessive alcohol consumption.  Phillip Bater was not, at any time to “suffer himself to be disguised with liquor, except on the times hereafter mentioned…(he will be allowed) Four dollars at Christmas with which he may be drunk 4 days and 4 nights; 2 dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars at Whitsuntide to be drunk 2 days; a Dram in the morning, and a drink of Grog at dinner or at noon.”  This compromise evidently worked, for no other reference of his being fired for drunkenness is recorded.

            Part of me really admires Washington for managing Mr. Bater’s alcoholism this way.  He was allowed three binges a year (did you notice they are all scheduled for religious holidays?), and two doses of the hair of the dog that bit him every day in between.  But, of course, this was only managing an addiction, not conquering it.

            When it comes to the “sin which easily besets” I imagine we all have tried, do try to self-diagnose, self-medicate, self-accommodate, make probationary agreements with ourselves – which is a way of conceding to sin.

            God does not expect that we will be sinless (I John 1.5-2.2) but He does expect us to triumph over sin (Romans 6).  He expects this of us because He has redeemed us from sin (I Peter 1.18), and provides continual cleansing from sin (I John 1.7).  This process of cleansing – sanctification, is accomplished by God Himself (Hebrews 2.11 10.10, I Peter 1.2).  When Jesus tells us in Matthew 5.48, to be “perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect,” he is calling us to a life dominated by righteousness, not by sin.  It is a life God Himself accomplishes in us.

            Such a life cannot be accomplished if we make arrangements to accommodate sin.  A sin conceded to is a sin not repented of, and thus remains a sin unforgiven.  In James Hilton’s grand book, Lost Horizon, an idyllic community, Shangri-La, is discovered tucked away in the Himalayas.  They enjoy an idyllic life by observing moderation in all things – even truth telling, marital fidelity, and sobriety.  Shangri-La is the kind of place where Phillip Bater would be given his beer money.  Shrangri-La is a fiction.  So is the notion that accommodating sin is ever the right thing to do.

            God expects us to be more than conquerors.  “How shall we who are dead to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6.2).

*General Washington’s Christmas Farewell, by Stanley Weintraub, Free Press 2003. Pp.145-146

IF MAX WAS PREACHING THE SERMON

SnowyAirport          Last week Teresa and I were stuck, seemingly forever, at Midway Airport in Chicago. It seemed like a hundred thousand others were sharing our entropy and panic.  We all stood in lines for three and four hours to book flights that were immediately cancelled.  Some flights had pilots but no crew, crews but no pilot, crews and pilots but no aircraft. I thought, “I’ve read Dante and this would be a better 7th level of hell than the one he described.” So many flights to Dulles had been cancelled that we booked one to Raleigh, NC. “Just get me east of the Mississippi, South of the Mason/Dixon Line, and out of Chicago…” I begged.  We got out pretty quickly, compared to others – we only had four flights cancelled and got on the only flight out of Midway to Dulles for three days. Some folks are there still – like that guy Tom Hanks played in Terminal.

            Many guys in my line of work would get a really entertaining monologue out of the experience and inject it with just enough pathos and brief scripture references to justify it as a sermon.  I’ve always been leery of feigning the voice of Spaulding Gray or Garrison Keillor in the pulpit – but I think there was one preacher from the past who would have really mined this experience for some weighty nuggets of truth.

            Max Cleveland was the first preacher whose preaching I remember.  He was the preacher at the Ceredo (WV) Church of Christ when I was in elementary school.  He looked like Martin Van Buren (with shorter hair) and had a voice as big as Paul Harvey’s.  What I remember about him was how vivid he was. He did a sermon against smoking cigarettes one time and, holding a piece of chalk up he kept saying, “Why would you be a slave to something this small?” Once, using the same piece of chalk he said, “I’m going to draw a hypocrite.” Then he made one point on the chalk board and said “That’s just about the size of a hypocrite.”

            If Max were preaching that sermon, he would have pointed out how all us weary travelers had it better than most people in the world – we had heat, potable water, secure surroundings.  Think of the refugee camps around the world and those who are without clean water – think of the thousands in that very city who were cold, hungry, and afraid. Max would have preached that.

            Max would have told us to think about how we were all trying to get out of what we considered a hellish situation but most folks seem eager to run headlong into actual hell.  Max would have preached that, too.

            Finally, Max would have preached that unlike the flights out of Midway Airport – so uncertain, so easily cancelled, so dependent on the human factor –our salvation is sure. Unlike the travelers who have to keep checking the board to discover the status of their flight, we may know that we are saved.

            And he would have been right and Biblical on all counts.

No Good Deed....

imagesB1HJC11RIt was Christmas Eve and retired trooper Bob Welch was alone at home now as his kids had long since grown up and were gone from the house and his wife had passed away. The holiday season is good for bringing to mind old memories of past seasons and as he sat in his easy chair, he began reminiscing about some of those long past Christmas Eves.

He said that his wife usually did most of the holiday things for the family as he was usually working. One of those memories was the Christmas Eve when he was dispatched to the scene of a terrible accident wherein a woman was killed. And then he was tasked with having to make the "next of kin" notification. (Trust me, this is one part of the job you do not relish having to do)

He drove to the family’s address and knocked on the door. A little girl about 4 years old answered it and said, "I’m Sue McKay." He asked if her daddy was home and after a pause, she said "my daddy ran away." She wanted to know if he was Santa Claus because her mother had told her if she stayed in bed, Santa Claus would come and bring her a doll.

That night, he went against the rules and did not call Child Protective Services. Instead, he took her home to his wife who cleaned her up, put her into bed and then wrapped up a doll for her to open the next morning. She was later adopted by a loving family and they moved away from the area. He said that he had never forgotten that Christmas Eve and little Sue McKay.

He recalled working another Christmas Eve in a severe blizzard and he happened upon a family who’s car had slid off the icy highway into a ditch and was stuck. He said that it was by "the grace of God" that he happened to come down that road and find them that night, very cold and very scared. He took them to a motel where they were able to spend the night safely.

Then he remembered one other rainy Christmas Eve when he found a homeless man standing by the highway trying to catch a ride. It seemed pretty apparent that he’d never get a ride on this night so he picked the man up and took him to a diner down the road and left him where he could get dry and warm and gave him $5 to get some food.

He said that it’s strange when later you’re all alone and you get to thinking about those past occasions and about all that you’ve done with your life. You think about God, and your wife, and your family. About the job and the career you had and you ask yourself, "Was it worth it all? Did I do good? If I could live my life over, would I do it the same way? "

Then he heard a knock on his front door. It’s late, who could possibly be at his house? He answered the door and had a sudden fright as he saw a uniformed State Trooper standing there with a solemn appearance. His immediate thought was, "Oh no, who has died tonight?" It briefly crossed his mind that maybe this was some sort of "pay back" for some of the wrongs he’d done in his life.

Then he noticed the trooper was a girl and she smiled and held out her hand and at the same time he saw a tear run down her cheek. She said, "I’m sure you don’t remember me, but God bless you. I’m Trooper Sue McKay."

I have to admit that I got emotional when I heard that story as all of us who spent a career in law enforcement can relate to a lot of tragedies, especially while working on holidays. But, the reason I chose to use this story is to use it as sort of a parable. To lay it alongside our lives, so to speak.

The Poor Have the Gospel Preached to Them

thepoorThe common perception by people – both within and outside of the religious world – is that churches are charitable organizations designed to help the poor. Denominational churches spend much time, energy, and money helping the poor. Those who are in need (or claim to be in need) often visit churches seeking a handout.

We are certainly to be concerned for the poor (Galatians 2:10; Ephesians 4:28; James 2:15-17) and, as we have opportunity (Galatians 6:10), help those with legitimate needs (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 – “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either”). But the Lord’s church is not a charity. He did not design or ordain it to be one. Instead, He designed and ordained the church for another purpose that is far more important than mere benevolence.

When John sent some of his disciples to find evidence that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Matthew 11:2-3), one of the proofs that Jesus cited was that “the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). Jesus did not mention feeding the poor, clothing them, or giving them money. Instead, the proof offered to John’s disciples for Jesus’ identity was that the poor were taught the good news of salvation.
There is no record in the gospels of Jesus ever giving money to those who asked for it. Was this because Jesus lacked compassion? Of course not! Yes, there were times when Jesus fed the crowds that followed
Him (Matthew 14:14-21; 15:32-38) – not because they were poor, but because they were present. But His emphasis was always on teaching. Because of this, many who were seeking free food “withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore” (John 6:26, 60-66).

When Peter met the lame beggar at the temple gate, he did not give him a handout, even though we might agree that this man was certainly one who would have been worthy of assistance. Notice what Luke records: “When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he began asking to receive alms. But Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze on him and said, ‘Look at us!’ And he began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I do not possess silver or gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!’ And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up; and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened. With a leap he stood upright and began to walk; and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:3-8).

Peter did not give the lame beggar at the temple a handout. Instead, Peter gave him what he had – the power to heal him. We cannot perform miracles like this today. But why did miracles exist then? They were done in order to confirm the word spoken in the preaching of the gospel (Mark 16:20). So, after healing the lame man, Peter preached and many more than just this one man believed. Luke tells us that “the number of the men [who believed] came to be about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). Although it is not explicitly stated in the text, it is likely that the lame man was among the new believers since he was “with them” in the temple and “praising God” (Acts 3:8). Though this man had a legitimate financial need and could have used a handout from Peter and John, he received something that was far more valuable – the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ.

Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26:11). Though we may want to help, we will not always be able to help the poor with their material needs. But who else will we always have with us? Sinners. They will exist in far greater numbers, too. We need to direct the efforts of the church, not to helping the poor, but to teaching the lost and building up those who are already saved.*

As individuals, we cannot help everyone we find who is in need or give money to everyone who asks for it. But we can teach them of the blessings of righteousness and the reward for faithful service to Christ.

None of what I have written in this article is meant to minimize the importance of benevolence (as it is practiced according to the New Testament pattern), or to say that we should be unconcerned with the plight of the poor. Rather, it is meant to remind us of what is truly and eternally important – the state of the souls of men. To help with this, what we need is not anything that can be bought with money. We need “the gospel…the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). The greatest help we can give to the poor (and anyone else) is to preach the gospel to them.

The Lord does not expect us to give people everything they want. But He has equipped us to give them everything they need. While we can and should “do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10) through the work of benevolence, we must be ready to give the poor (and all men) what they truly need – the word of God “which is able to save [their] souls” (James 1:21).

PARDONS

 

turkey            Last week the President issued a pardon for the White House Turkey – a bird so overfed that its legs were barely able to hold its weight.  I know we were told it would be headed to Happy Acres Turkey Ranch, or some such place appropriate for pardoned turkeys (actually, they go to Mount Vernon.)  But the truth is these birds are usually dead within weeks of their pardons anyway.  These pardons are a holiday ritual, simply a piece of theater, meaningless.  But we accept the pardon of the White House turkey as part of the season, not unlike raising Punxsutawney Phil aloft every February 2.

            Some pardons are quite controversial.  President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, and President Bush’s (43) refusal to fully pardon Scooter Libby, created an uproar for each man as they left office.  Neither of these pardons was as controversial as the two that dominated the news in 1974.

            The first was issued in the spring, following Lt. William Calley’s conviction for 22 counts of premeditated murder.  Calley was the only member of Charley Company convicted for the atrocities that occurred at My Lai.  Although Calley was convicted by a jury of 6 officers, 5 of whom were Viet Nam combat veterans, the sentiment in the country ran high in support of Calley, and Nixon, harried by the Senate’s investigation of Watergate, was more than happy to oblige public sentiment and grant the pardon.  I remember my dad, himself a veteran, was fully supportive of the pardon.  I vividly remember (to this day) the 60 Minutes report on what happened in that village, and I wasn’t sure at all Nixon had done the right thing.

            Later that year (On September 8) Nixon himself received a controversial pardon.  Gerald R. Ford felt the nation had to move on from Watergate, and so pardoned Nixon without him ever having admitted he was guilty of anything.  I thought Ford was right about moving on, I was worn out by Watergate.  My dad, however, was so angry that Ford pardoned Nixon without any admission of guilt that he switched parties, and after voting republican for two decades, he registered as a democrat.

            In 1974 the pardon that was most on my mind was one extended in 1971 – to me, when I was baptized.  By 1974 I had graduated to more serious temptations, and sins, and worried I was seriously in danger of exhausting God’s well of forgiveness.  When you’re just beginning your teen years you can’t imagine that God will put up with your failures much longer.  Sometimes you feel that way when your teen years are decades in the past.  I know I’m not the only one who feels this way sometimes.  I’ve talked to too many of you, known that many of you have even felt the need to be re-baptized.  This need is not generated by doubt about the sincerity of your initial response, but because of the sins subsequently committed.

            God’s pardon is not meaningless, neither is it controversial – at least not to Him – and we don’t get re-baptized as a sort of booster shot.  We don’t deserve this pardon, but we have a right to it – the blood of Jesus makes it so (I Peter 1.18-21).  We must trust God’s grace, the power of the blood to cleanse, the work of the Spirit to sanctify, the promises made, the infinite capacity of God to forgive.  The pardons that Calley and Nixon received in 1974 absolved them of guilt before the law – but not in the eyes of the nation, or in their own eyes (both men were permanently broken in the wake of their pardons).  The pardon God gives does provide eternal absolution.  Will we have faith enough in the blood to repent, and to change?

SUPERSIZE ME, MRS. LONELYHEART

Supersize-250

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food…solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.   Hebrews 5.12-14

            Back in 2004 Morgan Spurlock released a documentary film about America’s unhealthy eating habits called “Supersize Me.”  The film followed Spurlock from February 1 to March 2, 2003 as he ate nothing but fast-food from McDonald’s.  He made the commitment to eat everything on the McDonald’s menu at least once, and to say “yes” every time he was asked if he wanted to supersize his meal – which happened 9 times during his experiment.  He also decided to forgo any physical exercise beyond walking the 5000 steps an average American takes every day.  The results were extreme, and a bit frightening.  In a month he gained 24 pounds (an added 13% of body weight), his cholesterol level skyrocketed to 230, and he developed kidney and liver problems.  

            Browsing catalogues of popular Christian books and merchandise, one gets the feeling that one is looking in a candy store window.  So much looks good, but upon inspection seems about as substantial as a box of Peeps.  Junk-food pleases but does not satisfy and sustain. Reading someone else’s reflections, experiences and pop-psych insights on general Christian themes is not a substitute for Bible study.  Christians need solid food, as the writer of Hebrews writes so vividly reminds us in the passage above.

            As the preacher, and the director of adult education for this congregation, I have tried to make sure we get lots of nourishment.  Although a variety of classes are offered, the centerpiece of the educational plan here is the text – New Testament classes on Sunday, and Old Testament classes on Wednesday.  I have also tried to make the word the beginning, middle, and end of every lesson preached.  I haven’t been a chef trained at the Cordon Bleu (or even the CIA), but hopefully, I’ve served up sustenance these last 20 years.

            But being well-fed is not enough.  In Damon Runyan’s short story “Lonelyheart,” a rotund horse-player, Nicely-Nicely, has time while recuperating from a near fatal bout of pneumonia to seek a wife in the personal columns of the old magazines lying around in the hospital.  He contacts a Mrs. Crumb who is a stout and handsome farmer’s widow a few years older than he is.  They are married and he moves to her farm in New Jersey where she commences to stuff him like a Peking Duck.  He is quite content with regular hearty meals until he finds out that she is fattening him up so that he will be unable to resist or escape when she pushes him down the well and collects on the $50,000 insurance policy she has taken out on him.  The story has a satisfying twist ending in which Nicely-Nicely escapes, but the lesson is learned.  Eating well, by itself, is detrimental to one’s health - which is why the passage above also emphasizes exercise – practice and training.

            I believe Satan can come to us in the guise of Mrs. Lonelyheart – encouraging us to eat up, but nefariously helping us to forget to exercise.  What does he care if we know our Bibles if we never exercise that knowledge?  Remember the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day?  They knew the word.  They knew the answer to the question, “What is the greatest command?” (Luke 10.27-28.)  But they didn’t translate that knowledge into obedience - certainly not into acts of service (Matthew 23.4.)  They weren’t eating junk-food, but were spiritually flabby nonetheless.

            Are we?  Service and obedience builds muscle - as the writer of Hebrews makes clear in the passage above.  Without such exercise we will be unable to truly discern good from evil – despite the quality and quantity of our diet.

 

 

 

HANSEN’S TOMB

30 pieces of silver          In Matthew 27.3-10, we are told that the money Judas hurled at the chief priest’s feet was used to purchase a field where strangers could be buried.  Before its purchase the corpses of strangers, and those with no relative to provide burial, were cast into the ravine of Hinnom, the city sewer. The field, Hakeldama, has been recently excavated, and a curious tomb was found there. It was a tomb not unlike the garden tomb Jesus was laid in. It contained several sepulchral niches – as if it was the tomb of a family, and a well- off one.  The central niche was plastered, and contained the shrouded male corpse of what was likely a priest. Archaeologists wondered why someone so important would be buried in Hakeldama. Usable DNA was recovered and tested. Then they had their answer. The male corpse so carefully and elegantly laid to rest was a sufferer of Hansen’s Disease.  He was a leper.*

            More laws are devoted to what is clean and unclean than to any other topic in the Torah. Those laws were supplemented with a complex web of rules by the rabbis. There were good reasons for all this.  Although Hansen’s Disease is difficult to pass from person to person, the wider range of dermatological ailments were (and are) easily passed by touch. Cleanliness and isolation were the two best responses to communicable disease in the centuries before antibiotics. The better reason of course is that God commanded such cleanliness and isolation in His law. Obedience to God is always in our best interest, even if we are unable to perceive at the time why He has commanded this or that.

            Jesus disregarded all those laws about not touching lepers or the unclean. He continued to touch them even though it is clear from scripture that he could heal from a distance, and did (Matthew 7.1-10). And He stretched out His hand and touched him, saying ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’ And immediately the leprosy left him (Luke 12.13; also Matthew 8.1-4, and Mark 1.40-45).  Jesus touched lepers, bleeding women, prostitutes, and other unclean persons for three perfectly good reasons. First, anyone with the power over leprosy need not fear it. Second, He cared.  Finally, God had empowered him to perform miracles, had given him a ministry of healing (Luke 4.18).  In disregarding the Mosaic Law on this subject, He was being obedient to God.

            Because of Jesus, no one, not even a leper must remain outside the camp.

            A further, blessed irony of all this is that the only reason the leprous priest was able to be buried in a plastered tomb with his family at all is because the blood money paid for Jesus’ betrayal provided a burial plot. Otherwise his corpse would have been thrown into the ravine of Hinnom – gehenna – the word translated “hell” in the New Testament.

            The stinking, flaming sewer in the ravine of Hinnom, just outside the city of Jerusalem, was the perfect metaphor for Hell. The death of Jesus provided a place where those rejected and alone could be buried with dignity, and escape the earthly gehenna. His death provides a way for us all to escape the eternal one. God never intended us to be there in the first place (Matthew 25.41, II Peter 3.9). He so wants us to be saved that He made blood-payment for us with the life of His Son (John 3:16). None of need be thrown into the ravine of Hinnom, nor buried outside the city in Hakeldama. We belong inside God’s city – alive, well, and inhabiting the place made ready for us (John 14.1-3).

*From The Serpent’s Promise, by Steve Jones, Little, Brown 2013  pp 275-276.

RUTH, ROTH AND REAL RIGHTEOUSNESS

 

            The 1921 issue of Who’s Who in America failed to mention Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth was already the most famous athlete in America, and perhaps the most famous American altogether. Yet, he was not to be found in the pages of the volume which was supposed to include anybody who was anybody.  His failure to make the grade in 1921 was particularly glaring because in 1920 he swatted 59 home runs, a record he would keep until he hit 60 in the 1927 season.  The closest you could get to George Herman Ruth, Jr. in Who’s Who, alphabetically, was Filibert Roth.  Filibert Roth, Ph.D., born 1859, was a botanist, forestry expert, and professor of forestry at the University of Montana. He was the author of three books: Forrest Conditions in Wisconsin, The Uses of Wood, and Timber Physics.

            In a 1922 piece in the New Yorker, Heywood Brown makes the argument that Babe Ruth’s demonstration of the uses of wood was equally as important as Dr. Roth’s textbook on it.  He wrote: “There have been occasions, and will be in the future, when Ruth’s bat will be the only thing which stands between us and the loss of the AL Pennant.  In times like these who cares about Forrest Conditions in Wisconsin?”*

            It is the old argument between the theorist and the practitioner, between the ivory tower and the ploughed field.  In matters of righteousness, Jesus clearly comes down on the side of the practitioner.

Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven……Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.....and everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand (Matthew 7.21, 24, 26 ESV).

In Jesus description of final judgment in Matthew 25.31-46, the difference between the sheep and the goats will be the application of righteousness, not just right thinking about it.

            Even when Jesus describes us as “a city on a hill” it is not to describe us as a beacon from a remote lighthouse. He uses the image to describe the brightness of our deeds (Matthew 5.13-16).  Jesus’ brother James demonstrates the absurdity of thinking we can have faith in the abstract without expressing it in deeds of righteousness.

Be doers of the word and not hears only, yourselves…..What good is it, my brothers, is someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works James 1.22; 2.14-18 ESV).

            Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and Christians gotta serve – it is what we are made for (Ephesians 2.10).  Understanding the many uses of wood, and writing about that understanding cannot substitute for applying the sweet spot of a Louisville Slugger to a baseball crossing the plate thigh-high at 93 miles an hour. Understanding righteousness, talking about righteousness, writing about righteousness are not substitutes for practicing righteousness.

            And so let us do something – every day, every waking hour, that makes a difference to somebody somewhere. The Lamb’s Book of Life, is not the Who’s Who. The spiritual Ruths, not the spiritual Roths make that list.

*The Lost Algonquin Round Table, compiled and edited by Nat Benchley and Kevin C. Kirkpatrick, Universe Books, 2009.

 

 

MILESTONES

            We all have milestones that we experience throughout our lives that vary in importance; each placing an important marker in our past that affected us in one way or another.  Such milestones include everything from riding your first two wheeled bike to marriage.  They included academic achievements, athletic recognition, family reunions, and even funerals. Most if not all of these events are easily recognizable as milestones and they are set in the hearts and minds of those who experienced both toil and joy.  I thought that I had them all pretty much categorized until I experienced an event that marked a new and uncharted milestone in my life.  The event was attending a concert with a band I hadn't seen in over 35 years. 

            Even though I was aware of the fact that I hadn’t seen this band in years, I somehow convinced myself that I would see the image of the same people at the same age.  This I learned was not the case.  They looked older, moved slower, sounded different and the crowd responded more like a group in their 50's rather than their 20s (because they were).  The excitement of the event was more of a nostalgic reaction than anything else; satisfied with both the experience and the memory. Yet I couldn't help walking away with a bit of sadness in my heart because the event just reminded me of the passing of time.  Sad I think because not only are these musical giants of my day getting older and soon will play no more, but I inevitably figure out the obvious fact that I am aging along with them.  I didn't go to this concert expecting to feel that way, but for whatever reason that is what I left with. As we get older, the milestones of our life can at times remind us more of how long we've been around rather than remembering the celebration of a first time experience. Things just aren't the same with the passage of time.
            Hebrews 13:8 tells us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”.  How ironic it is that we at times focus on things that are changing, aging, and dwindling into the shadows of history, when the Christ that suffered for us, died for us, and saved us, is waiting for us in form and in spirit no different than when he was taken up from the earth to sit at the right hand of our Father in heaven.  While we await His return, Jesus gives us what no other event or person can give us - the promise that He will make all things new!  (Rev 21:5).  Not a musical band, or a high school reunion, but a new heaven and a new earth; a world of indescribable beauty, living within the fellowship of the Saints, and in the presence and service of God our Father. 

            Life as we know it can along with periods of joy and happiness, have its sad or depressing moments as well;  moments that cause us to lower our head and see only the ground beneath us instead of looking up at the hope that awaits us. We all have milestones that we cherish in our lives - things, events, and people.  When each of these age and get lost in our memories with the passing of time, we should think less of things and times that are lost, and be encouraged and reminded of the things that await us; unchanged, uncharted, but fully expected. We can achieve that through faith in our Lord's promises, and through the fellowship of the Saints. Until that day comes, let us all be "mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.” (Romans 1:12)

                                                                                                                                                             

ATOMIC BLASTED SEEDS

 

nagasakibomb            In their 1960 catalogue, the Ransom Seed Company of Arcadia, California offered for sale packets of “Atomic Blasted Seeds.”  These seeds were advertised as being of interest to both “home gardeners,” and “schoolchildren.”  These irradiated seeds were described as “perfectly harmless,” and were being offered to the public as curiosities, and as prime subjects for science fair projects. “Save seeds from any funny-looking plants or cripples; from these one can expect greater changes,” the catalogue recommends. It also makes two other recommendations: that seeds be entrusted to adults and to High School aged students only, and that customers refrain from putting seeds “in their mouths.” * I surmise that High School students, even in 1960, were more likely to place Atomic Blasted Seeds (or the plants grown from them) in Zig-Zag rolling papers than in their mouths. This whole notion of planting irradiated seeds to see what “funny-looking plants or cripples” pop out of the ground seems pretty bizarre. One might get lucky and grow a dollar-bill vine, I guess, or maybe one would grow triffids.

            The attraction of Atomic Blasted Seeds is that the seeds are variable – like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates (in the movie, not the book), you never know what you’re going to get. In Jesus’ well-known parable about the sower, the seed is definitely not variable. The seed is the word of God (Luke 8.11), and if given any chance at all, will grow in predictable abundance.

            The variable in this parable is the soil. Jesus mentions four soils: way-side, rocky, thorny and good. Jesus defines wayside soil as hard-heartedness, rocky soil as shallowness, thorny soil as distractedness, and good soil as spiritually fertile. I’ve thought that perhaps, if He were preaching to us today, he might add a fifth soil.

            “And some seed fell upon a garden bed, but because it was covered with mulch most could not take root. Those that did spring up were choked out by the petunias, pansies and impatiens growing in health and abundance there,” I imagine Jesus saying.  When Jesus was preaching, the kingdom had yet to arrive.  Local congregations had not been established. No one had ever painted a church logo on the side of an Econoline van.  Not one single flannel board lesson had been presented to preschoolers. When Paul described the members of the congregation at Corinth, he listed prostitutes, thieves, alcoholics, and adulterers.  Would this collection of sinners find a place to grow in the flower-bed of one of our local congregations?

            In the great commission Jesus describes making disciples as a two-step process: baptizing, and teaching. We understand the first part fully. But that second part – teaching the baptized how to be obedient - assumes that the newly baptized do not enter the family fully formed. They have baggage, bad-habits, and rough edges that will take time to love away. Honestly, do we really want to make space in our garden bed for such seeds? We raise our children here. We want things to be pretty and nice for them (I certainly do). Would we really make reforming junkies, prostitutes, and gang-bangers feel like this is their church home? If we won’t, would they have a chance to grow?

            Despite what we might think there are no “funny looking seeds or cripples”. There isn’t one garden for “Atomic Blasted Seeds,” and one for perfectly perfect seeds. The seed is the same seed. Only soils are different. We are all sinners. We are all saved by grace or not at all.  We are all growing towards Jesus. If we are not the kind of soil in which any seed can grow, are we not, by definition, bad soil

*Onward and Upward in the Garden, Katherine S. White, pp. 98-99

FEAR GOD, HONOR THE KING

 

Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. I Peter 2.17

            In 1961 researcher Stanley Milgram, fascinated by the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and perplexed by the complicity of the German people in the Holocaust, devised an experiment he conducted at Yale University which would test how obedient average people would be to an authority figure who is clearly ordering them to hurt another human being.  In the experiment, two paid participants would receive a designation as either "teacher" or "learner."  The learner was connected to electrodes, and told to memorize word pairs.  The teacher, who could hear, but not see the learner was to test the learner on the pairs and administer an increasingly powerful jolt of electric shock for every wrong answer.  What the "teachers" didn't know was that the "learners" were actors who intentionally got questions wrong, cried out in pain, complained of heart trouble, mimicked heart attacks, and even death.  When "teachers" protested they were told they had no option, they had been paid (in the original experiment participants were paid $4.50), and must see the experiment through to the end.  In a survey of psychologists done before the experiment, the prediction was that 3 to 5% of participants would continue to obey authority, to the point of giving a fatal dose of electric shock to another human being.  The outcome was that 65% of participants, sometimes in tears, would obey authority and deliver a fatal dose of electricity.  The experiment has been repeated many times since 1961, across continents, cultures, languages, and including all ages and both genders of adults, and the results have been consistent.  Roughly two-thirds of us will comply with authority even if it means someone we know to be innocent will die.

            Milgram, in a paper summarizing his experiment* writes: "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.  Moreover, even when the effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

            That phrase "relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority" made me think of the tens of thousands of Christians who did just that in the last decades of the first century A.D., and the hundreds of thousands who resisted authority for two centuries more until the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) made it legal to be a Christian.

            I want to assert that defiance (not disrespect) is sometimes a virtue.  Moses, David, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Peter, Paul, and Jesus teach us that it is sometimes (perhaps often) necessary to look authority in the eye and say "I will not comply."

Remembering the men I mentioned above, we see that none of them acted selfishly, disrespectfully, or destructively.  We notice that they defied authority for reasons of faith and faith alone.  Their personal acts of defiance were not for human reasons, no matter how admirable.  But they all stood their ground, and refused to obey, refused to back down.

            Let us not forget that a man who backs down is in no position to turn the other cheek, only the man who stands his ground can do that (Matthew 5.39). Let us not equate defiance with disrespect — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego said to Nebuchadnezzar when they refused to bow to the golden image he erected, "we don't need to give you an answer about this matter, O King," (Daniel 3.16) — their loyalty and good service were never in question — but they followed with "We are not going to serve your gods," (v.18).

            The "resources" one needs to make such a stand come from God.  It was devotion to God that incited David to stand up to Goliath.  The verse we cited at the beginning of this piece makes clear that our relationships with God, and with the King are qualitatively different.  We respect authority, we "honor" the King, but we do not fear him.  We fear God, and God alone.  We obey God and God alone.  If we obey the king it is because God tells us to (Romans 13.1-7), and only if his laws do not violate God's laws.  When they do, we defy them.

* Stanley Milgram, "The Perils of Obedience," in Harpers, May 1974.

VOTES, TWEETS, AND PRAYERS

 

            A few weeks ago when we were desperate for any news from the Naval Yard, and information was scant and confused, the news media had to keep broadcasting. What they could have done was to keep repeating the information they did have, as well as sharing the information that was readily available – the number of people who would be at the Naval Yard, the layout of buildings, the kinds of response teams arriving, etc…..  What they used to do was speculate, extrapolate, and disseminate false and conflicting information (remember all the false alarms they raised on September 11, 2001?). What they did was share our tweets.  Honestly I’d rather they make something up. The last thing I want to know when poised on the edge of my seat during such a crisis is what a dog-groomer from Bethesda is thinking about it all. I want to hear from the Chief of Police, some security expert, an eyewitness, a reporter in the field, from the eye-in-the-sky chopper. Cheyenne from Olney may be a lovely woman with informed opinions, but, as harsh as this may sound,  I have no interest whatsoever in what she is feeling at the moment.

            Fran Lebowitz, in her recent film Public Speaking, remarked to Martin Scorcese that there is too much democracy in the culture and not enough democracy in government. She went on to explain that gerrymandering and special interests have made our votes meaningless (I would add that the complete lack of decent candidates adds exacerbates this) – but that social media makes everyone think that they are as expert as anyone else on any given subject – or at least that their opinion on subjects as wide-ranging as childhood immunizations, the Arab Spring, and the dress Pink wore to the Grammys should be shared with the world. I firmly agree. Nothing, NOTHING, (not even the phrase, “next up, the latest from One Direction”) gets me to switch channels quicker that the announcer saying “when we come back – your texts and tweets.”

You discern my thoughts from afar….Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.  Psalm 139.2,4

            I saw a great cartoon the other day – two guys in futuristic looking police uniforms were walking together, and one says to the other, “When I signed up for the Thought Police, I didn’t know it would be such a boring job.” When I read that I thought of the verse above, of all the thoughts and feelings God knows and processes at any given moment. How many of those thoughts are ugly, offensive, and hurtful?  How many are dull, dull, dreadfully dull? And yet he knows them all - intends to know them all - cares about knowing them all.

            Pray without ceasing, God instructs (I Thessalonians 5.17).  Having access to our thoughts and feelings is not enough for Him.  He wants us to share them directly – to constantly talk to Him. Amazing!

            God knows what Cheyenne from Olney was feeling about the shootings at the Naval Yard. More than that, it matters to Him.

STILL NO ANSWERS

 

Temptation            There were several years when I thought I had it.  Job – that altogether unique book in human history – the one that is supposed to answer the question: “Why do the righteous suffer?” – was not about that at all. Why hadn’t anyone seen it before? Anyone who reads the first chapter of Job knows why Job suffers – he suffers because of a question that stands between God and Satan: Does Job serve God because he’s paid to; or because He really revere’s God as God? Of course Job is never told this is why he suffers – he can’t be, or the answer to the question will never be ascertained. But we, the readers, are in on the contest. We know what Job does not, what Job never will know.

            And so the question of Job is not “why do the righteous suffer?” The question of Job is “will anyone serve God without being paid to?” This adds a great amount of tension to the book for the reader, because we know that Job’s conversation with his friends misses the mark entirely. As we read along we hear Job getting awfully close to rejecting God – that tension is even more acute because if Job rejects God, then Satan is right and God is wrong and what are the implications of that?

            Job does not reject God. God appears to Job and gives him an answer, but no explanation. “I am God and you are not!” is all the answer God gives. It is all the answer Job needs. Job repents, and affirms his faith in God. God responds by giving Job more than he ever had before, even twice as many children than the ones killed  – and they all lived happily ever after, the end. God is right, Satan is wrong. All is as it should be. Of course new children never replace lost ones – there is a flaw in the mathematics of this happy ending – but I tried not to think about that too much.

            Yes, there were several years when I thought I had it – had comprehended, had domesticated this perplexing, frustrating book. But then this this one line jumped out and grabbed me by the throat, and it is a line God Himself speaks.

And God said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? For there is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And still he holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him, to ruin him without cause.”  Job 2.3

            “You incited Me against him”??!! How can God say that? God is the one who brings Job to Satan’s attention (Job 1.8). Job is a topic of discussion because God intends him to be.  It is Satan’s idea to test Job with hardship, but God agrees. And isn’t it God’s intention all along that Job should be thus tested? God is God, no one manipulates Him.

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.  James 1.13

            God cannot be tempted. How then can God blame Satan for inciting Him to do anything? How can God place the blame for Job’s suffering on anyone but Himself?

            I don’t know. I doubt I will ever know.  I have no answer, no defense to make on God’s behalf. I am no nearer understanding God’s treatment of Job than Job is.  The only answer I have is the answer Job is given. Yahweh is God. That is all. I either accept or reject that.

            And I do accept it - humbly, reverently, and without pat answers.

The 13th Round

sugar-ray-robinson-vs-jake-lamotta-vi-1951-02-14            ESPN Classic Boxing On Demand is currently running a match my dad told me about for years. It is the 13 round “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” the sixth bout between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta.  My dad was a big Sugar Ray fan. He had seen him box an exhibition bout in Trinidad the year I was born.  He (a middleweight) boxed the heavyweight champion of Trinidad and Tobago. The 52 year old Robinson boxed most of the match with his right hand held behind his back and never got his hair mussed.  Many still consider Sugar Ray Robinson, pound for pound, the greatest boxer who ever lived.

            He fought Jake LaMotta 6 times from 1940 to 1951. Their first five fights were ended by decision. Their last fight ended when Robinson TKO’d LaMotta in the 13th round. Robinson won their initial fight by decision, despite being knocked down by LaMotta in the 1st. LaMotta won the second, by decision, knocking Robinson out of the ring.  It was Sugar Ray’s first defeat in the ring – ever. Robinson won the rematch three weeks later, despite being knocked down for a 9 count.  They fought twice more before LaMotta, who was always 16 pounds heavier, moved up to middleweight, with Robinson winning both by unanimous decision.

            When they met in Chicago, on Valentine’s Day, 1951 Sugar Ray Robinson was the welterweight champion of the world, and LaMotta the middleweight champion.  As I watched the fight yesterday, 62 years later, I could see clearly why it loomed so large in my dad’s memory. It was as good as (or better than) Ali-Frazier III.  It was the classic battle between the boxer and the puncher.  Robinson was slightly ahead on points at the beginning of the 11th round when he let loose a vicious barrage of lightning fast left jabs, right hooks, and uppercuts. For nearly three rounds he pummeled LaMotta’s face until the middleweight champion was lying helpless against the ropes unable to lift his arms in defense.  But he didn’t go down. Near the end of the 13th round the referee called the fight. 

            In Martin Scorcese’s biopic of Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull, LaMotta, dazed and barely conscious calls after Robinson – “You didn’t knock me down Ray! You didn’t knock me down.”  LaMotta lost 5 of 6 fights to Robinson, the last by TKO, but Robinson never knocked him down. He held on to that.

            There is something noble, even inspiring about standing even in defeat – in refusing to be knocked down.  Robert Falcon Scott cuts a much more dashing, romantic, and admirable figure than Roald Amundsen. But Scott and his party died. Jake LaMotta was never the same after the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” 

            We live in a world hostile to our faith. It has always been so, and will continue to be.  In such a world it is easy to develop a bunker mentality, to hunker down, to feel defensive, to lie against the ropes and brace ourselves for a beating.  When you feel this way you cede victory to your opponent.

            But we are not called to this sort of resignation. We overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us (Romans 8.37).  The gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16.19). Our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (I John5.4).   All this is because we are born of God (same verse). God in Christ has already crushed all enemies (Hebrews 10.11-13).

            Jesus did not die on the cross, raise the third day, and then ascend into heaven so we could lose with dignity. We are, through Him, victors. Let us never cede defeat to the Devil.  Let us never forget that Grace trumps him every time.  He has no answer for it. He is a loser. Grace is always greater than sin (Romans 5.17-21). Ours is not to cling to the ropes and hope not to buckle at the knees. Ours is to fight and win.  If our battle against Satan is compared to a fight for the middleweight championship of the world, we are Sugar Ray Robinson.  We win. No matter how many times we get knocked down, grace makes it so.

WHAT THE RIGHT HAND IS DOING

 

HandGame-350            Jesus says that when alms are given they should be given privately, that we should not call attention to an act of kindness, that the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing (Matthew 6.1ff). We can understand the wisdom of this. The image he uses of the uninformed left hand communicates, I believe, something more than secrecy. I believe it communicates a letting go of the information within ourselves – that WE do not dwell long on the act within ourselves. This would certainly prevent internal pride as well as external pomp. Also, such privacy respects the dignity of the one being helped.

This is important. We decided long ago that our food pantry would be open whenever anyone was here to serve. Some congregations only open their food pantries at a few given times during the week. They involve lots of volunteers from the congregation, and everyone feels great as lines of hungry people are given food. There are advantages to doing things this way.  It involves more members in service.  It allows people to see the good that is being done by the congregation.  It makes everyone serving feel good about the good being done. There are advantages to doing things this way – all of them about us, not about the hungry.  I always felt that it was better to help people when they need it – that it was not necessary to force them into a breadline outside church on a Wednesday evening. I always felt that if we allow folks come when they have a need, without being put on display, we respect their privacy and dignity. But maybe I’m being old-fashioned.  Most acts of generosity nowadays are accompanied not only with trumpets, but with confetti, cameramen, and checks the size of ping pong tables.

The reason for privacy Jesus emphasizes in Matthew 6.1ff is that the giving of alms is a loving act between us and God – it is, by its nature, a private act. Any time a private expression of love is put on public display it is soiled. Something done for show becomes a show and nothing else.

            And yet Jesus, in the very same sermon, says “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven,” (Matthew 5.16).  These two notions may be harmonized when we think of the different intention and the different context of each passage. My intention in this piece, however, is not to harmonize the two passages from the Sermon on the Mount, but to assert that sometimes it is important that we know what the right hand is doing.

            I want you to know, if you are a member of our family here, at the Manassas Church of Christ, that the right hand is very active. As generous as you are we have a hard time keeping our pantry stocked, we are helping so many families. Your Benevolence deacon is perhaps the hardest working man in our family. Much of the help he administers stays here within the family.

            I am telling you these things so that you will know your free-will offerings are being used to help, in the name of, and for the glory of God. I am telling you these things so that you will know to come to the family when you need help – do not be ashamed to ask, you will not be the first to ever have such a need, nor the last. Our right hand is strong, and active, and ready to help. I just thought you ought to know.  

SEARGEANT STUBBY AND THE 5 TALENT MAN

Sergeant Stubby            In 1917, while the 102nd Infantry’s 26th Yankee Division was training at Yale University, they adopted a mutt they named Stubby, and whom they trained to salute by lifting his right front paw to his brow.  When they shipped out for France they smuggled him along.  Stubby was discovered by their commanding officer on the boat over, but before he could be disposed of he saluted.  Impressed, their CO named Stubby the unit’s official mascot, and made him a private.*

            Stubby was a great asset to the unit.  He became sensitive to chemical agents, and would run through the trenches barking his warning, giving his comrades ample time to don their gas masks.  He regularly crawled with medics into no-man’s land to help pull wounded soldiers off the field.  Once a German spy infiltrated the Allied trenches, but Stubby identified him immediately and kept him pinned until he could be apprehended.  By War’s end Stubby had served in 17 battles in 18 months, was promoted to Sergeant, and received two purple hearts.  After the War he met President Wilson, and became the official mascot of Georgetown University.

            We humans love these kinds of stories about our best friends.  And there seems to be an endless supply.  Dogs seem to be uniquely engineered to help humans.  We may not need them to hunt and herd much anymore but where would we be without rescue dogs, seizure dogs, drug dogs, therapy dogs, etc, etc….?  A recent episode of the PBS series NOVA, titled “Dogs Decoded” demonstrated that dogs have a unique ability to understand human communication.  Young puppies will follow your finger as you point at something, or even the direction of your eyes.  They do this naturally, and other animals can’t even be trained to do it.  A dog is never happier than when working with its master at something.  This is how God made them – to serve us in ways we are only beginning to imagine.

            God made us to serve each other (see Ephesians 4.7-16; Romans 12.3-8, I Peter 4.10).  True happiness is found in serving our Master by serving each other.  When we keep the resources with which God has so richly blessed us we cheat each other, we cheat God, and we will be judged.  This is clearly the theme of the Parable of the Rich Farmer, whose only idea about what to do with his windfall harvest is to hoard and enjoy (Luke 12.16-21).  It is also the theme of the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14-30). 

            That second parable makes a further point. When we use the blessings of God, as He intends, we don’t lose anything - we gain. “For to everyone who has more will be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away” (Matthew 25.29).

            This verse, in which the 5 talent man gets a sixth, is easily misunderstood out of context.  Billie Holliday wrote a haunting, poignant song, “God Bless the Child,” based upon it – and she got the meaning all wrong.  She understood it to mean “If you got money you got lots of friends…”  The moral to the parable really means something akin to the motto of the Stepping Stones: “All I have is what I give away; what I keep I lose forever.”  The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it this way: Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days (Ecclesiastes 11.1) .Jesus says: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but who loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it.”

            We only experience true abundance when we cooperate with God’s design of things and share the blessings He abundantly provides.  To refuse to share is to cut ourselves off from who we really are – it is to lose our identity and our resources.

            Just as dogs were designed to serve us, we are designed to serve each other.  Selfishness in a human is as unbecoming as a dog that meows.

* “Mental Floss,” July/August 2013, p.14

MARS ON EARTH

0 0 ae6c0af15c894f715d5b5e52bed6f948 1 jpg CROP article920-large            Devon Island, Canada, is the only known polar island with a large crater.  This makes it ideal for training astronauts who will explore Mars in the future.  It is as close as we get to Mars on Earth.  NASA has already used the surface of Devon Island to test the rovers it sends to Mars.  NASA is good at finding ways to simulate on Earth the conditions astronauts will encounter in space. Astronauts simulate space-walks in under-water exercises, and experience weightlessness in jet airplanes that make steep dives and create a zero gravity environment for a few seconds at a time. 

            Congregational worship is like that – only more so.  It is as close as we get to Heaven on Earth.  What we know of heaven from passages like Isaiah 6, or Revelation 5 is that the presence of God is a place of worship.  The host of heaven – the living beings, the 24 elders, and the angels sing God’s praise.  Revelation 5 tells us that all creation joins in the song together.  Whenever we praise God we join a song that is already being sung.  When we sing together we experience something of heaven’s eternal corporate worship.  This is no simulation, but a momentary connection with what is happening in heaven – which is where we are headed, but not where we are.

…Which is why we should hold these moments sacred.  To sing with “the spirit and the understanding” (I Corinthians 14.15), I believe, is to fully respect the worship moment - to invest all we are, mind and soul, into it.  The Corinthians were turning the worship service into a rowdy church pot-luck with an open bar (see I Corinthians 11).  They were not respecting the moment of praise, nor the moment of communion around God’s table.  And thus they received Paul’s rebuke and warning.  There was clearly a mean-spiritedness to their excesses (1 Cor 11.17-21; hence the need for chapter 13).  But are mean-spirited excesses the only excesses that disrespect the moment of worship?

LEAVE THE MEMORIES BE (the good ones, anyway)

I have found David, the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all my will.  Acts 13.22

the-colours-of-the-soul l            When a powerful man forces his attentions on the wife of a dear friend, then has that friend killed when the wife becomes pregnant, anything else that man has done, or will do becomes colored by these actions.  It is our nature to color the past and the future this way. Any kindness Adolph Hitler showed to his mother Klara, or his dog Blondie seems perverse, no matter how pure the impulse at the time.

            What if the past of such a man intersects your past? What if Hitler was in your wedding photos, or Joseph Stalin attended your thirteenth birthday party? Would you lose those memories wholesale? Would you destroy the photographs, or perhaps wince every time you looked at them despite the happiness of each moment when you were experiencing it?

            When a man, or woman, betrays the trust of those close to them – through abuse, violence, infidelity, addiction, desertion…..there is an enormous field of wreckage that remains, even after repentance is made and grace received. Grace clears the sin away, not the wreckage.  Some of the wreckage may never be cleared. 

            Years ago I spoke with a woman (now gone) about her husband (also gone) whom she discovered  - years after the children were grown – had sexually abused their adopted daughter. She destroyed all her photo albums – all the pictures of her children growing up. He had taken them from her. She felt her entire past from her wedding onward had been taken from her. As a very young man I wondered, “Is she right? Can one man’s sin take away so much? Does it have to be this way?”

            The man mentioned above, who forced his attentions upon the wife of a dear friend, and then had that friend killed when the wife became pregnant is, of course, David.  When confronted with his sin he repented and was forgiven, but the debris field his sin created would last the rest of his life (II Samuel 12.13-14).  We know all this because God tells us in detail.  And in the New Testament Jesus quotes David  more than any other Old Testament writer – quotes him from the cross (Matthew 27.46). When Peter preaches at Pentecost he quotes David twice, calls him a “patriarch,” a “prophet,” whose throne is eternal (Acts 2.24-35).  When Paul preaches his first recorded sermon he reminds us that David is the man after God’s own heart (see quote above). The Bible doesn’t jettison David’s legacy because of his sin.

Talking with our Thumbs

 ID-10058030           Study after study has shown that if you talk to a child and listen to her – a lot – she will do much better in every way we can test intelligence, than if she is ignored.  The key to growth is interaction. A study, first published in the journal Pediatrics (2009), and recently cited in a Deborah Fallows article in The Atlantic,* shows that talking to a child and listening to their response even before they start using understandable language makes an enormous difference in the level of achievement that child will attain.  The cause for concern among researchers, child psychologists, educators, and others who care about our children is that we are quickly switching from our tongues to our thumbs as our primary communication organs.  We don’t talk anymore, we text, and this is having a measurable effect on our children.

            I don’t text. Although I receive and read text messages from others, I don’t know how to text myself. I fully understand the advantages of texting, however.  It is wonderful the way folks can stay connected, even when separated by thousands of miles and vast oceans. My nephew Nathan got a text from Will Jarrell at our house last April. Will was texting from Western China. But he could have been texting from across the room.

            Texting from across the room seems a pointless exercise to me, and yet one most teens, and many adults practice regularly. It seems the most natural thing in the world to some folks to communicate with someone in your immediate presence by not looking at them, not listening to them, not speaking to them, but by staring at a tiny, hand-held device while we peck at it with our thumbs.

GAINING GROUND

wc-curtain            Perhaps the only thing William Claude Dukenfield and I have in common is that we both think he is uproariously funny.  Mr. Dukenfield (better known by his stage name, W.C. Fields) was born in the 19th Century; I was born in the 20th.  He was raised in a large city – Philadelphia, I was raised outside a small town.  He was an alcoholic, I took some Nyquil once.  He loathed children (especially his own), I am silly for them (especially mine.)  He could juggle 30 cigar boxes, I can juggle 2 oranges if they are not too large.  He was a star of stage and screen, I get to do songs at VBS once a year.  But I felt an affectionate kinship with him last week.

            There is a great line from one of his films where a child, entering the bank where Fields is a security guard, says “Look Momma at that man’s big, red nose!”  “Don’t be rude,” the mother replies, “wouldn’t you like to have a nose just like that……..full of nickels?”

            Last week at camp, a girl said something nice about me to her mother, and described me as “that older man.”  “He’s not that old,” her mother replied, “I’ll bet he’s only a few years older than your grandpa.”  The insult added to the injury was that the girl was 13.  Maybe, Mr. Fields, you were right about children after all.

How Kenny G is Sort of Like the Devil

clarinet            So I added an iheartradio ap to my Kindle, and so far it has been great. It was free, it didn’t take up any of the memory I use for books and videos, and it allowed me to design my own radio stations. I have a Frank Sinatra/Antonio Carlos Jobim station, a Beatles station, a Louis Armstrong/Dukes of Dixieland station, a Howlin’ Wolf/Robert Johnson station,  and a Carter Family/Jimmy Rodgers station (I also have a Black Keys station, but more about that later). I choose a station, and the Kindle plays songs in that genre, and of that era – mostly. The problem is – and it requires constant vigilance – no matter what station I’m listening to iheartradio keeps trying to slip in Kenny G.  The thing is, if you don’t “dislike” Kenny G immediately he keeps playing that same song he plays every third entry. Then they slip in Olivia Newton John (in what universe would Olivia Newton John follow Big Momma Thornton?), Barry Manilow, and (brace yourselves)…..Barbara Streisand. If I don’t pay close attention, my Carter Family station will play a steady stream of “Barbara on Broadway,” and “I Write the Songs.” Why does this happen?

            I had a theory.  I thought: “The kid who wrote the programming for this ap is probably still living on Red Bull and EasyMac in his mother’s basement. He probably thinks: ‘Old guys like Frank Sinatra, and old guys like Kenny G, so what’s the difference?’” To test this theory I established a Black Keys radio station. I’m and old guy and I like the Black Keys, but the kid swilling Red Bull in his mother’s basement wouldn’t know that. Kenny G never, NEVER shows up on my Black Keys station. Theory proved, I believe.

            The good thing is that if I “like” the songs that actually belong on the stations, it refines the category and keeps the Kenny G away for longer and longer periods. But I can’t neglect the station – I have to keep endorsing the appropriate songs to keep the wrong ones away.

              Which reminds me that the Devil is a lot like Kenny G. In the first place, he keeps popping up. He is a canny and relentless predator, like a Lion (I Peter 5.8).  And so we must be constantly vigilant and alert. If we are not quick to “dislike” him he will come to stay. We have to be quick to reject evil every time it raises its head (I Thessalonians 5.22).  We also have to assert goodness.  If we resist the Devil he will flee from us (James 4.7). Failure to actively resist evil, and to assert goodness will mean failure. Inactivity and entropy are to him an unlocked door and a welcome mat.

            Psalm 1 begins with a description of a guy who refuses to yield to evil. He will not “walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (v.1). Walk, stand, and sit. It is a pretty vivid image of how one might plant one’s self firmly in the wrong.  It is a matter of slowing down and stopping.  The righteous person is planted too – but like a tree by the river. This tree grows and bears fruit.  Again – goodness must be active.

            Perhaps the great lesson is that neglect is a yielding, a surrender. For the Devil to have a control we never intended all we have to do is nothing. That’s how nearly every station on iheartradio becomes a Kenny G station, and that’s how most of us yield control to the Devil.

THE COMFORT OF REUNION

           We said goodbye to our dear sister Ethel Kent recently.  She was 94, and we were blessed to have had her with us so long.  The afternoon before the night she died she called me from Ohio to tell me she was alright, that I should not worry about her.  I said to her, “Ethel, if you’re not alright I don’t know who is.”  She and her husband Neil, who passed just two years ago, were very, very dear friends.  Standing in the sporadic and intense rain on Monday, I remembered Neil, and so many other dear friends now gone: Jo Marshall, George and Esther Luz, Everett Danley, Thelma Perry, Jack Kline, Charles and Gloria Crane, Virginia Orrison, Dorothy Harmon, Kermit Stephens, Iva Callicoat, Edna Sowards, Maggie Burcham.  I thought of my father, my father-in-law, my grandfather.  My father-in-law and I were eating lunch once after making a few visits.  I said, “All my best friends are old – I guess one day I’m going to be a really lonely guy.”  John thought a minute, then said “Yep.”

            The subject of that Sunday’s sermon was the question the Sadducees brought Jesus, about how we will know each other in the resurrection (Matthew 22.23-33).  I present the elders a sermon plan for the coming year in September, and so it was sheer coincidence that their question was the topic on Sunday.  The Sadducees framed their question by telling a fantastic, slightly vulgar, intentionally silly story.  But, as I said Sunday, it is the question I am most often asked – Will we know each other in heaven, and how will we know each other?  I believe that we will know each other in heaven.  There will be no need for name tags.  I will “know even as I am known” (I Corinthians 13.12).  Jesus makes clear however that the terms of our earthly relationships do not apply in heaven.  How can it be otherwise?  In God’s very presence, before His throne, what else matters but praising Him?  But before we feel down hearted about this change let us remember the following:

Love Abides. The love we feel for each other here will last. Love is the greatest of the three eternal things (I Corinthians 13.13).

Nothing Will Mitigate Our Bliss. Revelation 21.8 makes it clear that there is no sadness, no pain, no crying in heaven. God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Reunion IS the Comfort we are Offered. In I Thessalonians 4.13-18 Paul promises not only resurrection, but reunion. This reunion is permanent, and it is the comfort we share with each other. 

            There is nothing cold, or impersonal about heaven.  We will know each other, love each other, and be blessed by eternal reunion.  We will be occupied with praise, overwhelmed by the presence of God.  There is no disappointment in that.

DON’T BE ASHAMED OF ME

            The bond between Paul and Timothy is one of the strongest in the Bible.  It is a father/son relationship, which Paul emphasizes every time (and there are many) in I and II Timothy he calls Timothy “my son,” or “My beloved son.”  Paul has known Timothy since he was a boy, and he has been one of Paul’s most trusted co-workers.  Paul sends Timothy back to Macedonia after being expelled there.  Paul sends him to Ephesus when that congregation is in trouble.  Paul calls Timothy to his side when he finds himself incarcerated in Rome.  Paul says of Timothy:

I have no one like him, who will be generally concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he served with me in the gospel.  Philippians 2.20-22

            And so it is a little disconcerting to read Paul saying to Timothy, “Don’t be ashamed of me.”  And yet, that is what he does say at the beginning of II Timothy.

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I constantly remember you in prayers night and day.  As I remember your tears I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.  I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.  For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.  Therefore, do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.  II Timothy 1.3-8

            One can tell throughout II Timothy that Paul is worried about Timothy.  He is worried about him backing down, letting Christians who are older, or more assertive bully him.  He is worried, as he expresses above, that timid Timothy might be ashamed of him now that he is in prison.  Even worse, he is afraid that Timothy might become ashamed of the gospel, and back down when confronted with persecution.  This might be hard for us to believe after all the travel and trouble he endured at Paul’s side in the book of Acts, but remember – Peter denied Jesus three times – in Jesus’ own presence.

            Paul is urgent about his concern because he ends the letter with a request that Timothy come to Rome and tend to him while he is prison.  He has it really rough in prison.  Read chapter 4 and your will find out that Paul is cold, harassed, and alone.  He has already had to face wild beasts.  Asking Timothy to join him in Rome might well be a request to join him prison.

            In fact it may have been just that, because we have this snippet of news at the end of the book of Hebrews: You should know that our brother Timothy has been released from prison, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon. (Hebrews13.23)

            Since we don’t know who wrote Hebrews we are not sure when or where this period of incarceration took place.  But we know that he was incarcerated.  We know that he was not ashamed – of Paul or the Gospel.

            Would he have backed down without the benefit of Paul’s encouragement?  Could Paul have been an effective encourager apart from the deep relationship they shared?  One can only imagine what Timothy felt when he read those words, “don’t be ashamed of me.”  They must have cut to the quick.  They clearly fanned the flame.

            The book of Hebrews tells us we have the responsibility to “stir up one another to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10.24)  How will we be able to comfort, encourage, and challenge one another if we have no relationship with each other?  The phrase “don’t be ashamed of me,” meant something because those two cared so deeply for each other.  We must listen and learn.  We must learn and act.  We survive together, or likely we will not survive at all.  How will we survive if we aren’t even an “us?”  Love is the foundation upon which everything else is built.  Without that deep connection, anything we build will fall.  

WE BEGIN WITH A TOUCH

            Our story, as God’s own people begins, then begins-again with a touch.  In the beginning, when God created heaven and earth He spoke everything into existence.  He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  He said “let the expanse be filled with stars and planets” and they were.  So also were the land, sea and sky populated with life.  Everything God made, from constellations, to cheetahs, to cucumbers he spoke into existence.  Everything, that is, except us.

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. (Genesis 2.7)

            Our story begins with a touch.  God did not speak us into existence.  He formed us from preexisting matter.  He formed us.  We were fashioned, crafted – like a shaker chair, or a Michelangelo sculpture.  In Michelangelo’s famous panel, “The Creation”, from the Sistine Chapel, tension is created by the millimeter of distance between forefingers of Adam and God.  There is nothing Biblical in this depiction except the fact that our creation is tactile, intimate.  God “fashions” us.  He breathes His own breath into us.

            We (humans) begin with God’s touch. So also do we begin-again. One day there will be a New Heaven and New Earth. We who belong to God will be there at the dawn of this new and endless day. God will not need to fashion bodies for us, because at the trumpet’s sound we will receive our eternal bodies (I Corinthians 15.51-53). But we will still need His touch.

And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall no longer be death; there shall no longer be mourning, or crying or pain, for the first things have passed away. Revelation 21.4

            The Bible begins and ends with God’s touch.  We begin and begin-again with God’s touch.  The verse cited above is immediately followed by God saying: “Look! I am making all things new!”  Just as our existence on earth begins with the touch of God, so also our eternal existence begins with His thumb upon our cheek, with His touch. 

            One might argue that God is a spirit, Jesus says so himself (John 4.24), and therefore all this talk about His touch has to be metaphorical.  To think He has hands is a sentimental bit of anthropomorphizing.  I would like to point out that Jesus is God and He has a body (Revelation 1.12-17).  I would also point out that if God intends that we should experience His touch, that is how we will experience Him.

            The prophets, Old Testament and New, describe a variety of intelligent, created life – angels, archangels, elders, living-beings – and we, in creation’s order, are lower than they (Psalm 8.4)…..but we, we humans, at the bottom of the complexity chart, are the object of God’s special attention.  We are loved.  We are offered birth into His family.  We receive His touch.  It is how we began.  It will be how we begin-again.

            It is a humbling thought.

TOO LARGE A SEA

One hundred seventy-five years ago the USS Vincennes left Norfolk, Virginia on a voyage of discovery. She covered 87,000 miles of ocean. Her Commander, Charles Wilkes and his crew, using 28 precision chronometers, charted 280 Pacific islands and confirmed the existence of Antarctica. The crew of the Vincennes was gone 4 years. A similar voyage today would take a manned craft to Mars and back. Yet such a voyage was taken by intrepid Americans. Less than four decades earlier Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their Corps of Discovery left St. Louis on an equally daring journey. I am old enough to remember holding my breath as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap onto a lunar surface we knew little about. At 7 years old, I was worried that he’d sink right down. I don’t think I’ll ever see anything as thrilling as those grainy shots of Neil and Buzz bouncing around in their space suits, with Walter Cronkite explaining everything. When one remembers that the laptop upon which I am typing has more computing power than that available to Mission Control in 1969, one gets an ever greater appreciation of their achievement, and the sheer bravery every man and  woman involved demonstrated to accomplish the first Moon landing.

            These thoughts lead one to consider the Vikings who left Europe, sailed uncharted seas, and populated Iceland, for a time Greenland, and even, for a time, North America. And then there are those Pacific mariners who, in prehistoric time paddled primitive dugouts or rafts to Australia, New Zeeland, and a thousand small islands without benefit of GPS, compass, or sextant.

            I don’t know of any modern examples that compare. We aren’t shipping out to parts unknown anymore. No one is planning to build the Starship Enterprise. Watching the reruns of the original Star Trek television series the notion that we’d send a crew out on an open-ended mission “To boldly go where no man has gone before” seems even more dated than those clunky sliding doors, or Lieutenant Ohura’s bouffant.

            Our voyages of discovery are taken by computers, telescopes, microscopes, super-colliders, and unmanned crafts -which is another way of saying that they are taken by proxy.

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father…..that He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3.14-19 ESV

THE LOVE OF POLLY EPPES AND THE LOVE OF GOD

 

            On April 17, 1804, Mary Jefferson Eppes, daughter of President Thomas Jefferson died. Polly (as she was known since childhood) never recovered from the birth of her third child. She was only 26 years old.  When she was 9 years old she sailed across the Atlantic in order to join her father in Paris, where he was serving as ambassador. Because of disrupted travel plans she ended up in the home of John and Abigail Adams on Grosvenor Square in London. As Polly’s mother had died four years earlier, the bookish little girl formed an immediate attachment with Mrs. Adams that would last the rest of her life. Abigail even pleaded with Jefferson to let her stay longer, to entrust the little girl’s journey to her. But Jefferson could not bear to be parted from Polly any longer than necessary, and arranged for the quickest transport possible. Upon their parting, Abigail wrote to Jefferson: “I never felt so attached to a child in my life on such short acquaintance. Tis rare to find one possessed of so strong and lively a sensibility.”*

            By April 1804, President Jefferson had just been inaugurated for a second term as president.  He had also been estranged from the Adams’ for years. The reasons are well-known, historically.  Some of them concern real political differences. Some concern matters of betrayal and propriety. None of that mattered when, in May 1804, word came to Quincy that Polly Eppes had died.  After an epistolary silence of 16 years, Abigail wrote words of comfort to her once-friend. The powerful feelings of my heart burst through the restraint and called upon me to shed a tear of sorrow over the remains of your beloved and deserving daughter, she began. She went on to recall their attachment, and to remember their parting in London, when she clung around my neck and wet my bosom with tears.  She mentioned that she also has tasted the bitter cup, and so she wished for him comfort and consolation from belief in the Being: (the) perfections and attributes of God.

            Jefferson could not have been more appreciative to receive such a letter, and wrote a gracious letter back, assuming all was reconciled. Abigail’s return letter made it clear that all was not reconciled. In fact it was not until 1812 that Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson were reconciled, and Mrs. Adams and Mr. Jefferson never really were. Perhaps the lack of any word of comfort from Mr. Jefferson when Abigail tasted her “bitter cup” (her son Charles died in 1800, at age 30) was a factor. Perhaps Mrs. Adams was just unyielding.  But their mutual love for Maria Jefferson Eppes, and their mutual sorrow at her loss were not enough to establish mutuality between them ever again.

            “If two things are equal to the same thing they are equal to each other” Euclid tells us in his “Common Notions.” Unfortunately it is not true that “If two people love the same person they love each other.” Ask any family court judge and they will confirm that notion invalid. Sometimes it seems the opposite is true. Perhaps no other characteristic of humanity reveals our flawed, sinful state more clearly that this inability of love to conquer all obstacles, to unite.

            There is a way to make the notion about loving the same person, and loving each other true, though.  If one replaces “same person” with “God” the notion is true. “If two people love God, they love each other.  If they do not love each other, they do not love God.” This notion cannot be proven mathematically, but it can be proven Biblically.

If someone says “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. I John 4.20

            Sincere love of God – not love of tradition, or opinion, or even doctrine – is the love that unites. Other loves, no matter how noble, or fine, or deeply felt, cannot accomplish the same unity. Only love of God unites.

TWO ITEMS ABOUT CHIMPS

            Following are two items about chimps.  The first illustrates how we are not like chimps.  The second illustrates how we are not like God.  Both are offered in the belief that we need to have a clear view of our place in God’s scheme.

 

            1:  In December 2003 the complete genome for chimpanzees was read. * Chimps were found to be so closely related to humans, genetically, that many taxonomists thought they should be classified in the genus Homo, along with humans.  Others argued, with linguist Noam Chomsky, that human language is a result of genetics, and is such a distinguishing characteristic that humans must be thought of as unique.  We shall leave this discussion of how to classify chimps to the disciples of Linnaeus, while asserting that humans are most definitely not like chimps (except, perhaps, for pre-school boys), and language is a perfect example of our differences.  Researchers have been able to teach chimps and gorillas some basic sign language.  They rejoice when one asks for a red ball, and another says she is hungry.  But a chimp cannot sign a sentence with a semi-colon in it.  Only humans can do that.  A chimp cannot compare abstract concepts, contrast the past with the present, or project hopes into the distant future.  A chimp cannot sign a story with the wit of Odysseus, or Anansi, or even a Bazooka-Joe Bubble Gum wrapper.

            And we know why.  We humans have the sophisticated self-awareness to communicate with such nuance and complexity because we have souls.  Genesis 1-2 tells us clearly that we are unique in all creation.  Whereas God spoke everything from groundhogs to galaxies into existence – He formed us personally, from preexisting matter.  He also breathed his own breath into us – invested us with something of himself, something that make us “living souls,” something independent of matter, something that “returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12.7) when the material part of us ceases to live.  We have that in us from God himself that makes us significant in a way that chimps and gorillas, planets and stars are not.

            2:  In 1957 the United States Air Force “acquired” 65 juvenile chimpanzees for testing in the space program.  By “acquired” we mean that their mothers were slaughtered in Africa, so that they could be harvested as orphaned babies.  Here in the states they were spun in a giant centrifuge to the point of unconsciousness to gauge the effect of G force on potential astronauts, and to find which of the chimps were best suited for space travel.  Two were chosen: Ham and Enos.  Ham was the first chimp rocketed into space on January 31, 1961.  Enos was launched into space on November 29 that same year.  Enos had been trained to do a number of tasks.  Because of a malfunction in his capsule, every time he performed a task properly he received a violent electrical shock.  Realizing he would perform his tasks despite being shocked for them, he was ordered to perform them all, and barely survived his orbit of the earth.  After making space travel safe for Alan Shepherd and John Glenn, Ham and Enos were transferred to “Hazardous Environments” research where they tested seatbelt safety, and were slammed into walls going 30, 50, and 100 miles per hour.  By the early 1970s the Air Force closed down its chimpanzee program.  Ham and Enos were donated to Biomedical research laboratories where they were both killed by the testing. 

            That is the way we treat chimps.

            It is not the way God treats us. 

We have established that we are not like chimps – that there is a vast qualitative difference between us and them.  So also is there a vast, qualitative difference between us and God – in substantial ways that difference is much more vast.  And yet God loved us so much that He sent His only son to die for us (John 3.16).  God has given us every good and perfect thing that we have (James 1.17).

            It is a delicate balance, almost too precarious a knife point upon which to maintain ourselves – that point that is just the right distance between our humility before God and our confidence because of His love for us.  It is so easy to slide on the one side into arrogance, and on the other side into despair.  I hope these two items about chimps (and these several Bible verses) will help us balance a little better.

*Chimp information taken from The American Scholar, Summer 2005, pp.28-34

DUCK SEASON

            Last year, for my fiftieth birthday, you gave me a Kindle Fire.  I have made it my constant companion.  A book is a better text delivery system, but you can’t carry 800 books in one hand (or even two).  When I carry my Kindle I carry 800+ texts, most of them downloaded for free.  Amazing.  I also carry a video library with me.  If I want to watch Barney Fife buy his first car, Steve McGarrett nab a rogue cop, or John Wayne fight the Mescaleros I can watch that on my Kindle too.  If I had had this in High School I would never have graduated. 

            I have four Bugs Bunny cartoons on my Kindle.  Bugs is one of the formative influences of my life, and you really can’t find him on television anywhere anymore.  I have wondered why, these past few years, he has disappeared.  But after watching the Wascally Wabbit wecently (excuse me – “recently”), having not seen him for a few years, I understand.  Two of the cartoons I have are the Duck Season/Rabbit Season cartoons.  The premise of both is that it is actually Duck Season, but Daffy Duck has gone out of his way to convince Elmer Fudd that it is Rabbit Season.  Both cartoons turn on Bugs besting both Daffy and Elmer by winning a war of words.  In the first he keeps getting Daffy to say: “Shoot the Duck! Shoot the Duck!”  In the second Daffy is goaded into saying “Shoot me now!  Shoot me now!”  In both cartoons Daffy is shot in the face repeatedly at point blank range with a double-barreled shotgun.  Hilarious.

            Or at least it was forty years ago - and so it is to me still.  But it makes me nervous too.  Watching someone be shot in the face with a shotgun is probably not the best entertainment to provide a child.  Of course, those cartoons were originally intended for adults, but I consumed them after school and on Saturday mornings during children’s programming hours.  I would also like to add that I have never shot anyone in the face with a shotgun – not even a duck.  But those cartoons don’t quite seem appropriate anymore, after Columbine and Newtown.  Even the phrase “wascally wabbit” pokes fun at Elmer Fudd’s speech impediment.  That isn’t cool anymore either.  It should never have been cool.

            Then again, kids today play first person, shoot-to-kill videogames that are frighteningly realistic.  I remember seeing a kid play Mortal Kombat years ago, and being shocked when their combatant ripped the spinal cord out of an opponent.  I thought at the time, “What kind of psychopaths will this game turn out?”  Now Mortal Kombat seems as quaint as Bugs Bunny.

            Pondering these notions I thought about going on to talk about the changing values of our culture, or the comparative merits of Johnny Quest and Call of Duty, or perhaps take a moment to bemoan the coarsening of our entertainment.  But I think a more important point would be to assert that it matters to God what we allow into our heads through our eyes and ears.

Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4.8

            It only makes sense that what I store in my brain stays there, and that once there it has its effect.  So much bombards our senses that we are often without a choice.  We see and hear things we would rather not have seen and heard.  Often, however, we do have a choice.  God expects that we will exercise that choice for good – that we exercise discretion and discernment when we download something into our consciousness.  We are responsible for managing brain-intake, and cultivating goodness.  This must be done deliberately, or it will not be done at all – which the verse above asserts.

            Perhaps the most important thing Paul says in the passage above is: “Think.”  Unfortunately, we often pay as much attention to what goes in through the ears and eyes, as Elmer Fudd pays to whether it’s Rabbit Season or Duck Season.

DREAMS, VISIONS, AND PRAYERS

            So my mother calls me the other day to tell me about a recurring dream she’s been having.  My oldest daughter is expecting, and my mother keeps dreaming she is going to have a boy.  If a boy is delivered my mother will take credit for it – completely forgetting the Y chromosome donated by that tall skinny kid who used to be in the youth group.  This latest dream is quite vivid.  “I am sitting down,” she says, “and he comes into the room to bring me two books.  The books are old – Zane Grey books I think.  He is 8 years old.  He has lots of curly hair, and he looks like you – only more masculine.”  That’s what she says - he looks like me, only more masculine.  Thanks mom.  “Could you have said that a little more delicately,” I ask, “Like maybe saying: ‘He looks like you, only less feminine’?”  That was a good one - he looks like you only more masculine.  How do you go on from that?  “I gotta go mom,” I say, “I’ve got a mani-pedi scheduled, then me and the guys are going to enjoy some tapas, and watch Say Yes to the Dress.”

            “He looks like you, only more masculine.”  Heavens.  Hearing that is like being 12 again, and shopping for back-to-school-clothes with your mom, you’re trying on pants and she keeps checking to see if the inseam is just right.  Then again – if God blesses us with a grandson, isn’t that exactly what I’d want him to be – taller, smarter, stronger, better, kinder, as well as mas macho than I am?  If we then could get him to be a little more outspoken than his other granddad we’d have one great kid.  (In case you don’t know Chuck – that’s a joke.)

            Jews in the 1st century knew all about the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.  Outside the Sadducee party, it seems that messianic prophecies were all anyone wrote, spoke, or thought about.  When Jesus fulfilled those prophesies in ways they could never have imagined, they crucified Him.  One of the first tasks the risen Lord undertakes is to explain (again) how those prophecies describe his ministry and sacrifice (Luke 24.27, 45).  The disciples spent the rest of the 1st century explaining to the world that yes, this is indeed what the prophecies meant, what they must mean.  The first gospel sermon begins with just this exercise.  Peter quotes Joel, and says that the promise of dream and visions there is describing that very day.

            We read our Bibles, observe how obtuse the disciples are, and feel a sense of superiority.  But I doubt we have earned the right to feel thus.  We know that God keeps His promises in ways we cannot imagine – and yet yield to discouragement when things don’t turn out the way WE plan them.  When we ask God for a blessing, do we really want that blessing the way God intends to give it?  Take the promise of wisdom, for instance.  James 1.5 says that if we just ask for wisdom God will give us a liberal portion.  But James 1.5 never promises that God will somehow miraculously stimulate our brain-stem, thereby increasing the number of wisdom capacitors in our brain.  Maybe that liberal portion of wisdom will come wrapped up in disappointment, or in a box of failure.  When disappointment or failure come – do we blame God?  If we do, aren’t we blaming Him for answering our prayers?

            God “goes forth for the salvation of his people” (Habakkuk 3.13).  This is eternally true.  We are not always sufficiently attentive to notice Him doing it, but He works for our salvation nonetheless.  How often do we fail to notice it, or perhaps even resent him for doing the thing we want anyway?

Parson Weems Fable

OF MONEY CHANGERS AND CHURCH ORGANISTS

            There are no painters more closely associated with Americana than Norman Rockwell and Grant Wood.  Rockwell’s covers for Look and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as his illustrations are the images in our collective memory.  When we remember Rosie the Riveter, and Ruby Bridges we remember his paintings of them.  Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is, undoubtedly, the most recognizable image in American art.  Both men also share the experience of being tossed on the heap of the irrelevant and maudlin, only to be reconsidered by later generations for the darkness in their work that had somehow been missed.

            Wood is a satirist, and Rockwell a journalist, but both men had serious critiques to make about American society.  In Wood’s hilarious and unsettling “Parson Weems Fable,” he portrays the popular and completely fabricated story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.  It is blunt-force irony that a story about truth-telling is a lie, and so he paints the story as happening on a stage behind a theatrical curtain.  In the painting, little George has the body of a 6 year old, but the face of the Gilbert Stuart painting on the one dollar bill. In the background slaves are picking cherries – exposing an even larger lie than Parson Weems’ fib about George’s little hatchet.

In Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom from Fear,” part of “The Four Freedoms” series inspired by a Franklin Delano Roosevelt speech, Rockwell paints a couple putting their children to bed.  They are a boy and girl, maybe 5 and 7 years old.  Mom is tucking in the blanket, and dad is quietly looking down at the kids.  The series, painted in 1943, was a vivid reminder of the blessings of being a free people, of why we were fighting.  The thing is - the painting is filled with fear.  To be a parent is to be afraid for your children, and those fears are clearly on the dad’s face.  No wonder – in his hand is a newspaper whose headlines read: “Bombings Kill…./Horror Hits….”  On the ground a grey-striped pajama top reminds one of the uniforms Jews wore in the death camps.  Even a doll lies on the floor like a corpse.  There is no freedom from fear.

            Both paintings juxtapose the way things ought to be with the way they are as a protest to their incongruity.  That’s fine.  We should always take a hard look at the way things are, and strive to make things the way they ought to be.  We should never be satisfied with coming up short.

            The problem is that we often blame God for this incongruity.  The fault is ours.  God didn’t invent lying, slavery, or genocide.  We did.  God makes things the way they are supposed to be.  We sin and make them the way they are.  When I was a young man preparing myself for ministry I knew I would have to defend the faith (the doctrines of the New Testament), and faith (the existence of God), but I had no inkling that more often than either of these defenses, I would be challenged about the goodness of God.

            My only assertion in this little piece is that God is good, and that the way things always fall short of how they ought to be is about us, not about Him.  God makes things the way they are supposed to be.  We make them the way they are.

Oh taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him.   Psalm 34.8 ESV

OF MONEY CHANGERS AND CHURCH ORGANISTS

And Jesus entered the Temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.  He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers. Matthew 21.12-13 ESV

            There are no instructions about moneychangers and livestock salesman in the Temple – not in the Law of Moses. The Old Testament is silent on the subject.  The reason for this silence is that when Moses’ law was delivered by God, it was delivered to an emancipated people who were about to build a nation together.  That nation would be built in villages, by farmers. People would provide most of their own needs through what they raised in the pasture, the vineyard, the orchard, and the field. Their society didn’t offer specialized careers beyond priests, kings, and soldiers. Jews lived in Palestine.  There were no synagogues in the major cities of the Mediterranean.  There were no Jewish women making a good living selling luxury items to retired Romans in Philippi. There was no Philippi.  Every family that came to Passover could bring their own animal, or had their own Judean coins. 

 

            In Jesus’ day Jews coming to the Passover could have come from as far away as the Indus Valley, or the Iberian Peninsula. Few, if any, could have transported animals for sacrifice, even if they had them. Would a tent-maker from Tarsus have kept sheep? Probably not. Nor would that tent-maker have had in his pockets the Judean coins needed to purchase an animal for sacrifice when he arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover. And so the presence of animals for purchase, and of moneychangers to provide the correct currency was necessary for many of Passover’s attendees. They provided needed services – for a fee. It is easy to understand why Jesus would be offended at the temple being turned into a marketplace. Especially as the accusation He makes above indicates that folks were being cheated by the salesmen and money-changers.  But I think it is also a matter of the times. The fullness of time had come (Galatians 4.4). The days of the Mosaic Law are over. Jesus has fulfilled all that the Law promised, and initiates something new – the Kingdom of God.

CHOOSE YOUR ANGLE

            One of the most famous photographic  images from American professional sports is the shot of Babe Ruth standing bat in hand at home plate, ball-cap respectfully held at his side, his head slightly bowed, and his number 3 fully visible at the center of the shot.  It was June 13, 1928; the twenty-fifth anniversary of Yankee Stadium, the house he built, and they were retiring his number.  He would die soon, and had to be helped to even walk to the dugout.  He couldn’t tie his shoes by himself.  Photographers from around the world were there that day, and took a lot of photographs, but the one we remember was taken by Nat Fein of the New York Herald Tribune. * He wasn’t, a sports photographer; he usually took snaps for special interest features – man bites dog stuff – but the photographer scheduled for the event  took ill, and at the last minute he was sent.

            Back in those days the press had a respect for our heroes, and refused to print shots of the Babe struggling to get out of a car, or having his shoes tied for him.  When the special moment came, the Babe grabbed a bat belonging to the Cleveland Indian’s Bob Feller to use as a cane, and walked by himself to home plate.  The capacity crowd rose and roared, and the flashbulbs twinkled, catching the broad face of the great man.  Fein, however, knew that the important thing to get into the shot was the #3, which was only on the back of his jersey.  He took a low angle, which included the crowds, the row of Yankees standing on the 1st base line, and which made the Babe, though bowed a bit, look like a giant.  It is a perfect shot, aesthetically, narratively, and functionally.

SHOCKING

            This story is really disturbing (I mean it!).

            John Scott Harrison was a successful farmer, businessman, and a member of Congress (1853-1857).  While serving in Congress as a Whig, he opposed the extension of slavery into the West.  His real distinction, however, is that he is the only man to be both son and father to a president.  Scott’s father was Old Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison.  Scott’s son was President Benjamin Harrison.  But that’s not the disturbing part.

            When Scott Harrison died in 1878, he was given a tasteful and refined funeral service, and buried in Cincinnati, Ohio.  That very night grave robbers took his corpse and sold it to the Ohio Medical College, in Cincinnati for dissection.  One of his sons had business at the school, and, passing by a classroom, looked in and saw his father’s corpse dangling by a rope, being prepared by the medical students.  Of course, Scott Harrison was identified and reburied, but his family never recovered from the shock.*

            The fate of Scott Harrison’s body reminds me of the fate of the Rich man’s soul in Luke 16.  As a rich man, with a family, he would have received a lavish burial with paid mourners, and glowing eulogies.  But while his family thinks of him as secure and well placed in a dignified tomb, he lifts up his eyes and finds himself in hell.  Shocked, desperate, worried about those he left behind, no relief or comfort is given to him – only torment and more torment today, tomorrow and forever.

            The poor man he ignored day after day at his gate, by contrast, lifts his eyes to find his suffering ended and eternal comfort given to him.  The reversal of their fortunes is so complete that in Death it is the poor man whose name we know – Lazarus – while the rich man is an anonymous soul in hell.  We are not told of Lazarus’ happy surprise at finding himself suddenly in such absolute bliss, but we do not doubt such feelings overwhelmed him.

            Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that, regardless of our sentence, we will all be surprised on judgment day.  When the lost are condemned for not feeding, clothing, visiting, etc…Jesus, they will ask in desperate shock at their condemnation, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, naked, sick…?!”  When the saved are welcomed into bliss for taking care of Jesus, they will ask the same question, with the same intense surprise.

MRS. BIXBY’S TRASH BIN

Executive Mansion

Washington, Nov 21, 1864

 

To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.,

 

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I can not refrain from tendering the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

 

            The Bixby Letter, reproduced above, is to epistolary art what Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is to oratory – the perfect jewel – crisp, precise, respectful, warm, brief, balanced, plain, perfect.  Although there has been speculation in the past that the letter was composed not by Lincoln but by his secretary, John Hay, an article in American Heritage (America’s Most Famous Letter, by Jason Emerson, March 2006, pp. 41- 49) seems to settle the issue in Lincoln’s favor.  I find it amazing that such a letter (and such an address) would be composed by one man.  Perhaps more than 40 people worked on our president’s last State of the Union Address, and not one paragraph of it even got close to Lincoln’s ability to combine poetry, clarity, and conviction in plain, precise, English prose.

THE COVER OF THE ROLLING STONE

            Back in 1973 the band Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show had a top ten hit with the Shel Silverstein song “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone.”  It was about how the group was increasingly successful, but they couldn’t seem to achieve that one symbol of success – getting a picture on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.  Of course subsequent to the song cracking the top ten, the band did get their picture on the cover – but not their photo, they were drawn by a graphic artist.  When I was an undergraduate at OVC, they sent out a newsletter called “Take Thought”, which we called “The Stepping Stone” because most of the articles seemed to feature that ladies organization.  When any of us made the cover (I made the cover in April, 1982) we had this song we would sing: “On the Cover of the Stepping Stone.”  I don’t remember the words, but we rather enjoyed singing it back in the day.

            I felt something of that thrill a few weeks ago when I read about myself in John T. Smithson’s “Smithsonian Sayings.”  John T was preacher here back in the 70’s and began writing his “Sayings” here.  He continued writing them at Starkville, Mississippi, and still publishes them now he is at the St. Elmo Church of Christ in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “Smithsonian Sayings” are brief, pithy, humorous, insightful – I’ve been an avid reader for nearly 30 years – and so when I read about “the always-desperate-for-a-bulletin-article-idea preacher” of the Manassas Church of Christ (Deb also made the piece as the “ever-alert, sometimes-witty, always-delightful secretary”), it was like being singled out for mention by the President in the State of the Union Address.  My old friend Fred Callicoat (now gone) was told “happy birthday” on the air by Paul Harvey once.  We were playing dominoes and listening to the radio at the time, and were both ecstatic.  But this was even better.

            It was certainly better than reading my name in Dante’s Paradiso as someone condemned to hell.  I wrote about that years ago in a bulletin article entitled “Is My Name Written There?”  It turned out Dante was writing about the Greek mathematician, “Bruson”, and that often when Greek is turned into English a “u” becomes a “y” – thus “Bryson” in the Modern Library edition.

PIERCING PRAYER

            I have just finished rereading Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”  I picked it up again because Shakespeare was 50 when he wrote it – his last play – and I only have only two more months to be 50 myself.  I love this play because it is about a father and a daughter.  I love it because it is about a duke deposed for his books “were dukedom enough.”  It is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays because it is about forgiveness.  Really, it is about undeserved forgiveness, and so I guess it would be more accurate to say “The Tempest” is about grace.

            “The Tempest” has always reminded me of the book of Ecclesiastes in that it proves even without reward, doing things God’s way is best.  In Ecclesiastes the question is asked, “What is profitable for a man to do under the sun?” (1.3).  The sphere of exploration is confined to human experience “under the sun.”  Of course we know the conclusion of the whole matter – “Fear God and keep his commandments – this applies to everyone.”  Only then are we reminded that in the end there will be punishment and reward (12.13-14).

            In “The Tempest” Prospero, Duke of Milan is deposed by his brother Antonio in a coup not unlike the one Absalom engineers against David in II Samuel.  Prospero and his daughter Miranda are set adrift in a leaky boat, and survive only because a kindly courtier, Gonzalo, gives supplies to them.  They reach an island and Prospero subdues those living on it.  Years later His brother and his brother’s allies end up on the same island, shipwrecked, and in Prospero’s hands.  No one has changed.  Antonio is unrepentant – so much so that he plots further betrayals.  But in the end Prospero forgives everyone anyway, even though they don’t deserve it.  He forgives them not based upon any Godly reasons, but for a variety of very human ones.  He cannot secure his daughter’s future and, at the same time, devote himself to revenge.  He cannot maintain the energy it takes to even every score.  In the end he understands that revenge is ultimately self-destructive, and not worth the effort.

MAKING CHANGE

 

CashRegister-350            When the girl behind the register rang me up the total came to $16.13.  I thought I had a dime and three pennies, but I had four pennies.  I didn’t want any more pennies, so I gave her $22.03.  She looked confused. I expected that. Kids today (now that I’m 50 I find I start lots of sentences with those two words) don’t seem to know how to make change.  Back in my day (I start quite a few with those four, too), teenaged girls who didn’t know Julian Bonds from Gary U.S. Bonds, or a numerator from a denominator would hang the tray on your windshield, take your cash and say things like: “You got another nickel – that way you get three quarters back.”  Nowadays kids headed to prestigious universities, kids with 4.8 averages because of their loaded courses look at you like  lobotomized Labrador Retrievers when you explain how adding three pennies makes it come out right.  Usually though they will acquiesce. I’ll say “Just trust me,” and they say “Okay.”  Then they usually say “Wow!”, or sometimes “Dude!”  One guy at Barnes&Noble said, “Dude, that’s great!  I always need quarters.  Show me again.”  I did, and said, “Yep.  Math facts.  I try to use one every day.”

            But this girl wouldn’t acquiesce.  She refused to take $22.03 for a $16.13 bill.  She would only take $22.  “It’s too much,” she insisted.  I explained that I didn’t want any more pennies, and that this way it was less change.  “It’s not less change – your way you get 90 cents back and my way you get 87 cents back.”  “Yes,” I insisted, “It is more money, but less change.  87 cents is six coins, 90 cents is five coins, and besides, I don’t want any more pennies.”  “More money is more money,” she said emphatically and rang me up for $22 paid, giving me a five dollar bill, 87 cents in change,  and my three pennies back -  which, of course is $5.90.  I could have had my denouement by asking her to change five pennies for a nickel, but my wife was waiting to eat and would not have found my story amusing, so I pocketed the change and took my tray to the table.

A GUIDE IS ALWAYS DESIRABLE

            Yoshida Kenko was a courtier in 14th century Japan, who retired from the palace, became a Buddhist monk and started writing his observations about life.  They are brief – some take a page or two, some are only a few sentences long – but they are pithy.  His collection, Essays in Idleness,* has been a favorite of mine for years.  He says as much in 100 pages as Montaigne says in 1000, and more than the entire self-help section at Barnes&Noble says at all.  Some of what he writes is unintelligible to those not familiar with court manners in 14th century Japan (that would include me), but most of his little essays are, to borrow a phrase from Hopkins, “counter, original, and spare.”

            In #52 he tells the story of an old priest who had longed, his entire life, to make a pilgrimage to a certain shrine.  Finally, in old age, he sets out on foot to visit the shrine.  He arrives at the site and worships at two buildings at the foot of a hill.  What he doesn’t know is that the main shrine is at the top of the hill.  He goes home thinking that the holy site was “more sublime than he had heard.”  But he wonders why everyone there kept going up the hill.  Kenko’s moral is: “A guide is desirable, even in small matters.”

            That is not the moral I take from this humorous story.  Maybe the moral should be – “Do your homework before setting out on a pilgrimage of a lifetime.”  Maybe it should be “People really are dense.”  Maybe it should be, “Don’t leave home until you know where you are going.”  But the part about the guide would never have occurred to me.  I grew up being told to think for myself, to “work out my own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2.12 – which is taking this verse out of context, mind you), to be responsible for my own course.  “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley, you’ve got to walk it by yourself,” the old song goes.

            I always admired the self-taught, self-made man: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison.  Perhaps it’s just the individualism that seems to be indelibly printed upon the American fabric having its effect (all the men I mentioned above are Americans), but the notion that you have to carve out your own path through the forest seems obvious to me.  If the priest in the story above had done a little research, asked a few questions, shown a little curiosity he would have known what was at the top of the hill, and he could have climbed it alone.

            Yet a disciple is, by definition, one who follows.  When Jesus called someone didn’t he say “follow me”?  Didn’t Jesus also promise to be with us “all the way, even to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28.20).  Has he intended for any of us to be an autodidact, a knight errant, a lone wolf?  Was it Jesus’ notion that he would provide us with redemption, then push us out of the nest to fly solo?  Do any of us really believe we are up for a solitary journey home?

            So I guess Yoshida Kenko was right.  Even in small things, a guide is desirable – actually, He is necessary. 

* Essays in Idleness, by Yoshida Kenko. Cosimo Classics, 2009.

SO OBLIVIOUS

            Last Wednesday evening I watched a little boy play in the snow. We hadn’t had much of a snow- two inches maybe, but then he wasn’t much of a boy – three years old, perhaps – not a day over four. It was early evening, and I was sitting in the car while my wife was shipping something at FedEx. It was dark. His mother (aunt?) was moving things from one car to another. She was completely oblivious to him as he ran up and down the traffic island, kicking up puffs of snow. This would have all been idyllic had it taken place in a spacious yard on a quiet residential street. It was, however, taking place in a busy and slippery parking lot.

            He was about 50 yards away from where I was sitting. For the duration of three songs (“Subdivisions” by Rush, “Tupelo Honey” by Van Morrison, and “Train in Vain” by The Clash), he kept running up and down the traffic island, each time going farther away from his oblivious female caretaker. It put me absolutely on edge. I get uptight when I see people not taking care of their little ones. When I’m in an airport, or a shopping mall and I see some little three year old trying to keep up with an adult who is paying them no mind, I have the urge to shake that adult until their teeth are loose. I have never yielded to that urge – yet.

            He started hopping on and off the curb – while people in Hummers flew by, talking on their cell phones. I was getting out of our car to intercede when a Ford F350 very slowly pulled up within a few feet of the boy and stopped. The headlights of the truck were shining right in his face.  Then the driver of that truck blared his horn. The little boy jumped like he had been spring-loaded and ran back to the car his relative was piling things into. He jumped into the front seat like he was taking cover from the strafing of WWII Mustang. The big Ford drove slowly off, and I thanked the Lord for that driver and his truck’s horn. The little boy never emerged again. His mother (?) hadn’t taken notice of any of it.

            Her obliviousness, as she put him in his car-seat and drove off was infuriating. How could she be so nonchalant about the danger her was in? How could she just go about her business like there was nothing to be concerned about?

            And then the next day, as I was heading to the mail box, saying hello to this neighbor, and asking about the health of another one – nonchalantly exchanging niceties with people I know are likely lost, and heading indoors to watch “Jeopardy,” I realized I was just as oblivious.

            In Isaiah 43.5-7 God looks forward to a day when he can call all his children home. Jesus, in Matthew 7.13-14 admits that most of us will not find our way home. In Matthew 28.18-20, He makes us responsible for calling home those lost ones. When we don’t call – aren’t even aware of the need to call – isn’t God just as frustrated at our obliviousness? Isn’t He looking at us, each day, as we move piles of possessions around, and tend to the tedious details of the moment while we are surrounded by others living at risk. He sees our obliviousness. No one bothers help, to rescue, or even to scare the lost to safety.  What will we say to Him one day about our obliviousness? What will He say?

HARDCOVER BIBLE – SLIGHTLY IMPERFECT

 

            The other day Deb brought in an online advertisement from Christian Book Distributors offering ESV Bibles in Hardcover, and Imitation Leather for 52% off the listed price because they were “Slightly Imperfect.” She was quick to see the irony in this, and I was quick to dibs the advertisement so that I could use it in this essay.  There are so many good speakers and writers here (her husband for instance) that one has to snatch a great idea as soon as one sees it.

            Just what does “slightly imperfect” mean anyway. Were a few pages missing from the end of Revelation? Perhaps a typesetting error turned every John to Joan. Maybe the word “not” was left out of the Ten Commandments (it has happened before), and so the LORD commands, “Thou shalt bear false witness.” 

THE NAME ON THE DOOR

 

Scrooge never painted out Marley’s name.  There it stood years afterward, above the warehouse door: “Scrooge and Marley.”  From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

Have the “Spade & Archer” taken off the door and “Samuel Spade” put on.  From The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

            Ebenezer Scrooge has never taken Jacob Marley’s name off the door of their counting house.  7 years after his death there it remains.  Why?  Is it because he is too miserly to pay to have the sign redone?  Or is there perhaps a deeper reason – could it be that the only long-term friendship he had was with Jacob Marley, and he can’t bring himself to remove that name?

            Sam Spade has his partner’s name removed from the door the day after Miles Archer is murdered.  Why?  Could it be his contempt for the amoral, dull-witted Archer?  Then again, he works relentlessly to solve Miles’ murder.  But perhaps that is only him being true to his code – as he says “It doesn’t matter what you think of him, he’s your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

            Last night at Monday Night for the Master a box of metal letters was brought to me.  These letters spelled out “Church of Christ” on the sign at our old building.  But last night they were just jumbled letters in a box.  It made me nostalgic, and more than a little sad.  It also got me thinking about the name on our door.  Why is it there?  Do we use it to proclaim Christ’s ownership?  Or is it a title, like any denominational name?

STANZA MAY BE OMITTED

 

The asterisk (*) before a verse marks the stanza that may be omitted, if necessary, without materially affecting the continuity of thought.

                    -Forward to the 54th edition of Great Songs of the Church

 

          510lQ1TpG9L. SL500 AA300 1  Each year I pick an old hymnbook off the shelf and sing through the songs (not all at once, mind you, but over the course of the year).  This year I pulled down an old, 1974 edition of Great Songs of the Church.  I like to remember the old songs, and they will only be remembered if sung.  Hymn #4 in this hymnbook is “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,” and as I was singing this hymn I noticed an asterisk by verse 2.  At the bottom of the page there was an asterisk attached to the words “See Note in Foreword,” so I did.  The note from the foreword is the one mentioned above.  This is a six verse hymn in the 54th Great Songs hymnbook, which some song-leaders might think too long.  And so instead of just leading verses 1, 2, and 5 the editors have chosen which verse may be deleted without “materially” interrupting the continuity of thought.  That word “materially” sounds lawyerly and makes me immediately suspicious.

FOUR RESTLESS NIGHTS

jesus-prayer-09            All of us at some point in our lives have to endure some event or type of hardship (whether real or perceived) that we know is coming and we dread them.  These can be in many forms but some common ones are things such as medical operations, cancer treatments, loss of employment, family relocations, divorce, and even death of a loved one that is anticipated.  Events in our lives cause stress and they vary by age and life circumstances.  For me, the most stressful events of my life occurred as a result of family separations due to Naval Submarine deployments.  

            The worst four nights of my life thus far have been the nights prior to each of my four deployments.  You know that if you go to sleep, you will wake up to the day you have to leave your wife and family behind…….so you don’t want to go to sleep at all.  You want to spend every moment talking to your children or wife as if this will somehow slow down the inevitable.  The anxiety of the moment builds and you can’t do anything to stop it.  You are scared of the unknown.  It’s in those moments that you think about things you ordinarily never consider like the “what if” scenarios such as will your children be taken care of if something happens to your wife while you are gone or does my wife know how to take care of everything if something happens to you.  Thousands of thoughts race through your mind trying to make sense of it all, and you try to think about all the things you were supposed to do to get ready for it.  The night is truly restless and it is hard to even tell when you actually fall asleep if you even do.   It was the longest and shortest night of my life all at the same time if that makes any sense.   Yet when the night was over and dawn arrived, I was committed and I executed my duty to serve.

WHAT REMAINS

shepherd            There is a line from the play “All the Way Home,” (James Agee’s A Death in the Family adapted for the stage - I don’t remember if the line is in the book), which I shall never forget.  A family is visiting relatives, especially a grandma severely debilitated by strokes. She has lost the ability to walk, talk, or feed herself. She is holding a little girl’s doll, and when the little girl gets the doll back the grandma cries out in protest. “All she knows is that something’s been taken from her,” her caretaker explains. Indeed.

            I probably remember that line so clearly because the first time I saw the play the grandmother was portrayed by Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton), who looked like MY grandma. My grandma also suffered a series of strokes and bit by bit her abilities were taken from her. Worse than losing the use of limbs, though, was the loss of identity. With every stroke layers of her  personality were sheared away until all that remained of the feisty, intelligent, accomplished woman she was, was a little girl whose father didn’t want her. The one memory that remained clear, and sharply focused was the moment she overheard her father saying to someone that he despised her. Was that the most deeply imprinted event of her life?

            The one story I often heard from my grandfather’s childhood was the night when, as a four year old, he was taken in the middle of the night to hug his mother goodbye. She was dying from childbirth. But – in his little diary of memories that he wrote for me, the seminal story he tells is of a time when he had to clean out the cistern on the farm. He was just a boy, and they didn’t have a ladder long enough so his father cut down a tree with plenty of branches to hold him, tied a rope around him, and sent him down.  He was terrified at first, but his father kept reminding him that he was holding on to the rope.  He writes:

            Once again Poppa showed me his wisdom. The lesson I learned that day helped me to remember something about God and the importance of holding on to Him. When Poppa gave me the rope it connected me and Poppa together – the one that I depended on and trusted to get me out of the cistern. We must remember to hold on to God, and not let go, and He will pull us home to heaven.

            I can’t imagine tying a rope around a boy and sending him to the bottom of a cistern – the thought horrifies me.  But three generations separate me from my great-grandfather. Nor can I imagine sending a boy out alone to shepherd and defend a flock of sheep when there are bears and lions about to threaten the flock. But that is exactly what Jesse did with his son David. When Samuel came to anoint one of Jesse’s sons king, David was the unlikeliest of the bunch because he was the baby – still “pink” and “beautiful” (I Samuel 16). And yet he had to be called in from the countryside where he was watching the flock alone. While there, alone with his sheep, the boy David did have to face a lion and a bear (I Samuel 17.35-36).  But the thing that remained with him, that which imprinted itself on him most deeply, was not fear, or abandonment, but the sense that he was not alone. What remained most deeply imprinted on David was the sure feeling that God is always present – that He cares, He provides, He directs, He protects. David writes:

            The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake. 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. Thou prepareth a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.  Psalm 23 KJV

            This was the memory most deeply imprinted on David – knowing, in the face of so many fears, that he was not alone. It can be that which leaves the deepest mark on us as well.

Commissioner Gordon, Turn on Your Searchlight

Batman            A new installment of Captain America’s adventures is due on the big screen soon, as the Marvel Comics juggernaut sails full speed ahead. I wonder if Stan Lee ever imagined his brand of graphic storytelling would come to dominate our entertainment media so thoroughly. Marvel Comics, and to a slightly lesser extent DC Comics are providing for yet another generation of readers and viewers a mythology no less powerful than that popularized by Hesiod and Homer.

            In fact, one might argue that the complex story arcs of Tony Starks and Bruce Wayne are superior to those of Zeus and Hermes because Iron Man and Batman are essentially moral figures, whereas,  Zeus and Hermes are amoral. If humanity needs saving, better to turn to the Avengers, or the Justice League than the Greek Pantheon. Members of the Greek Pantheon rape, murder, deceives, generally encourage debauchery, and tend to punish those who would help advance humanity.

            I would argue that the reason both Tony Starks and Bruce Wayne are moral (in recent cinematic outings as Iron Man and Batman,  both sacrificed themselves to carry a nuclear device away from New York City) is that their stories were written after the Cross.  Hesiod and Homer wrote (or sang) before it.

            After the Cross Event, after the life of Jesus, we can only think of a hero in terms of self-sacrifice.  Over and over again we tell ourselves about the hero who is willing to die that others might live – Gandalf, Harry Potter, Obi Wan Kenobi, Sidney Carton, Robert Jordan, et cetera, et cetera…. The story of Jesus is that imprinted on our collective consciousness.

            I believe the story of Jesus is so thoroughly imprinted on us because it addresses a basic need. We know we need a savior. Each of us wishes we had Commissioner Gordon’s Spotlight so we could call Batman at a moment’s notice. I believe this is more than pandering to a wish-fulfillment fantasy we have, which persists from childhood.  We know we are at risk.  We know we are in need.  We know that by ourselves we are not sufficient to face the forces of evil. These are facts, and they are unsatisfied by fantasies.

            Tony Starks, Bruce Wayne, and Peter Parker are fictional characters. Their stories are fantasies which provide a poor substitute for the Hero we truly seek. Jesus is real. He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13.5). He will be with us all the way, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28.20). He has been given all power (Matthew 28.18). He has already conquered evil (John16.33, Philippians 3.21). Therefore we do not fear (Psalm 27.1, Luke 12.32), because he makes us conquerors (Romans 8.37).

            Beyond confidence in the personal victory we have through Jesus, we must share the story the world is truly hungering for. There is no need to keep making up tales about the Hero willing to die to save an unworthy and often hostile humanity - because it has already happened – while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5.6). This is fact, not fantasy. 

Read the story of the Olive Branch

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