Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story, “A Christmas Memory,” is a favorite because of the portrait he paints of his great aunt Sook who raised him. I had a great aunt Sook, who, thankfully, did not raise me. His aunt Sook was kindly, wise, and caring towards everyone. My aunt Sook lived up in the hills in a tar paper shack with a one-eyed Pekingese dog, whose name was “Dog.” She kept Dog tethered to a chenille davenport with eight feet of tow chain. The tethering was superfluous because a Pekingese dog attached to eight feet of tow chain isn’t going anywhere.
Capote’s aunt Sook is a favorite because she reminds me of so many older folks among whom I was raised. She says things like “yonderways,” and “blaze like a Baptist window,” and she is very concerned about “not taking His name in vain.” The folks who raised me were concerned about that too. Not only could one never use the names of the Deity in a frivolous manner, but words like “gosh,” and “I swear” were forbidden as well (my grandma would go as far as to say “I Swan” …whatever that means).
This was because the folks who raised me took seriously the third commandment, “You shall not take the Name of Yahweh your God in vain” (Exodus 20.7). It was a matter of great respect for them, and although the commandment is not repeated in the New Testament, they believed the passages concerning blasphemy (Colossians 3.8, I Timothy 1.13, I Timothy 6.1 among others) communicate that God’s name must be respected still – so also God’s image.
The grown-ups who taught my Sunday school classes were also clear on that subject. Images of God and Jesus should be illustrative if used at all. The second command makes clear that idols of any sort are forbidden (Exodus 20.4-5). The King James Version uses the phrase “graven image” instead of “idol” which I prefer since the Hebrew word pesel, used in the text, means something fashioned by hand. Those Christian adults who raised me believed that law remains in force as well, violating the same New Testament passages mentioned above.
The first Christians held similar beliefs. For at least the first three centuries of Church history Christians would not paint, carve, or chisel an image of God or Jesus. Nowadays we seem to lack the same respect – or any respect. Not only do we freely use images of Jesus in illustrations and as advertising, we use disrespectful images. I cringe every year when the flyers for VBS material begin to arrive. Accompanying their Madison Avenue titles (“Hiking with Jesus up Sonshine Mountain,” “Surfin’ with Jesus on Sonshine Beach”) is the artwork portraying Jesus surfing, or rock-climbing – and for some reason Jesus always looks like the eighth dwarf.
But I have a different use of His image in mind as I write these lines. It seems folks are sharing a series of images of Jesus hovering around our president like a Divine bodyguard, eager to give His imprimatur to anything the president decides to do next. I have seen a few of these and I find them more than offensive. I find them blasphemous. I am not on Facebook, and so in my chosen and blissful ignorance I don’t know if any of you have shared such images, but if you have, and are – stop it. Stop It.
This last divisive election has left open wounds in our country, our culture and our congregations. Thoughtful, prayerful, reasonable people could easily find either (or both) of the major party candidates objectionable. To endorse either with the graven image of Jesus is disrespectful to those of differing opinions, and disrespectful of Jesus Himself. My strongly held opinion is that such artwork violates the Second and Third commandments, and is blasphemy.
Maybe we differ on this point, but I think we all must agree that trading such images, and engaging in the angry political exchanges they prompt, violates this simply stated command:
Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. (Romans 15.2)
When David was arguing for the right to face Goliath, he mentioned that he had already killed a lion and a bear (I Samuel 17.34-37). He went into great detail about how he snatched a lamb from the very mouth of the beast, and, grabbing the predator by the hair, struck and killed it. He attributes this remarkable behavior to the presence and power of God, not to any bravery or skill on his part. Facing the lion and the bear were necessities for David. As shepherd, it was his responsibility to protect his flock.
II Samuel 23.20 tells us that one of David’s mighty men was famous for killing a lion as well. After David’s death, II Samuel lists his “mighty men.” Benaiah’s greatest achievement is “climbing into a pit to face a lion on a snowy day.” What an intriguing picture that paints. How did the lion come to be in the pit? If the lion was safely confined in a pit why was Benaiah compelled to climb down and face it? Where was he, that this battle took place on a snowy day?
Perhaps the most hilarious chapter in Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the episode where his hero faces a ferocious and hungry lion. The chapter (Book 2, chapter 17) begins with his squire, Sancho Panza buying curds, and putting them in his master’s helmet (which is, after all, just a barber’s bowl). When Don Quixote seizes the helmet quickly to prepare for battle he smashes the bowl of cottage cheese on his own head. Don Quixote then stops a caravan bringing two African lions (a male and a female) to the King of Spain. They are due to eat soon and are hungry. Don Quixote insists that the male lion be released, and he bravely stands to face it. When the lion is released he stretches, yawns, washes his face like a house-cat, turns his rump towards his adversary, and lays down for a nap.
We think of lions as sitting atop the food chain. They are the “king of beasts” in our imagination. Lions are big cats, and even medium sized cats are frightening. Would any of us think of cuddling up to a cat as large as Golden Retriever, or a Saint Bernard? We may laugh at Don Quixote, but we do not doubt his bravery.
Cervantes’ Knight-errant is fictional. David and Benaiah were flesh, blood and bone men. We read of their encounters with awe. We wonder at the rare bravery such men possess. We must use our imagination to ponder persons of such bravery because few of us possess it. Thus David and Benaiah become mythical figures....like Paul Bunyan or Hercules. We cease to think of them as persons of common abilities and challenges.
This raises two large concerns. The first is that we treat the Bible like Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Wonder Book – a collection of fantastic myths. The second is that we forget we face the lion every day.
Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. I Peter 5.8-9.
Nothing could be more common than facing a lion, on snowy days and sunny ones. Nothing is more universal than the need to battle a lion. Facing a lion is as quotidian a task as brushing your teeth, or bringing in the mail. And yet it is no less fraught with danger than we imagine facing a lion might be. Our spiritual lives are at risk. We will not survive if we are not even aware of being stalked. But if we stand and fight, this lion will flee (James 4.7).
As David understood, God makes us equal to the task if we will take our stand. That power is commonly available. But we must be aware. We must make a stand.
I was extremely eager to read the featured article in the December 2016 National Geographic. The title was “The Healing Power of Faith.” I’ve been reading National Geographic as long as I have been reading. It always seems to contain information that is new and endlessly fascinating. Countless articles have reported that a life of faith is good for one’s health and well-being. Concentrated prayer helps organize our brain circuitry, clean living keeps us from being exposed to the harmful effects of stimulants and sexually transmitted diseases, meaningful relationships raise the levels of oxytocin and endorphins in the blood stream. I have even read reports that people who are prayed for get better faster than people who aren’t. This is true whether the subject knows she is being prayed for or not.
So I was anxious to read what new scientific breakthroughs affirmed the benefits of faith. The subtitle, “You are what you believe” seemed to confirm my expectations. I was wrong. What followed were several pages of text and photographs describing the effectiveness of a surprising range of unlikely behaviors which prove effective in treating everything from Parkinson’s to broken bones, so long as the participant believes these behaviors will be effective. The upshot of it all, after 25 pages, is that placebos work.
I realized that 33 years ago at Fort Hill Christian Youth Camp near Cincinnati, Ohio. There were 12 boys, aged 7 to 9 in my cabin, many of them first time campers. Some were severely homesick. One boy in particular was about to go home. I was referred to the camp nurse. She was a retired RN who looked suspiciously like Nurse Ratched. “So you got a case of homesickness,” she asked me eying the little boy like she might rap his knuckles with a ruler. “Yes,” I answered, “it’s pretty bad.” “Bring him around before bedtime and I’ll give him a homesick pill. Don’t bring him before bedtime…the pills make you really drowsy.”
And so at bedtime we walked the 50 yards or so from the cabin to the nurse’s station. She listened to his heart, and shined a light in his eyes. Then she brought out a prescription bottle filled with Tic-Tacs. She carefully placed a Tic-Tac under his tongue and told him to hold it there. She timed out ten seconds on her watch. “Has it started to tingle?” she asked. He shook his head yes. “Good,” she said, “That means it is working. You can take him back, but don’t let him fall down he may be asleep before you get him back to the cabin.”
He was. And he had no problem with homesickness the rest of the week. For the other boys, just knowing they had access to effective medication if they needed it made everything better.
The National Geographic piece was not about faith, not in a Biblical sense. It was about the power of our emotional selves over our physical and mental selves. David Brooks in his book The Social Animal (Random House 2011) concludes that “Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it. Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations…the key to a well-lived life is to have trained the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls,” (pp.21-22).
Of course, we know this from scripture. Paul instructs us to dwell on the things that are “honorable, right, pure, lovely, respectable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (I Thessalonians 4.8). He instructs us to always rejoice (I Thessalonians 4.8, also Psalm 118.24). In the Beatitudes Jesus seeks to completely retrain our hearts to value things like peace, mercy, gentleness, mournfulness, even persecution (Matthew 5.3-12). Each passage understands that we must train our emotions to value what is right and good.
When we do, our reason has muscle – moral muscle – the strength we need in a sinful world. Since God provides everything we need for life and godliness (II Peter 1.3) weakness will never be an excuse. As this New Year begins, let us establish good habits for emotional training to build moral muscle.
Sometimes the smallest phrase, the lightest stroke of the brush, the briefest glimpse can change the entire meaning of an experience. The comedian Dimitri Martin says the six letters in the little phrase “sort of” can have this effect: “I love you…sort of,” or “It’s a boy!...sort of.” The ending of M. Night Shamalan’s movie The Sixth Sense forces you to reinterpret the entire film. The last line of Harry Bates science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still has the same effect.
Diego Velazquez does something similar in his painting “A Lady with a Fan.” Painted between 1633 and 1635 is shows a beautiful, mature woman dressed mostly in black. She is either a Duenna, or in mourning. Her dress is accented with delicate white lacework, and a single ribbon, tied in a bow. Just below the ribbon there is a daub of red paint, about the size of a thumb print. It changes the whole painting. The woman’s face takes on a reddish glow of health. It is a visual effect achieved by the daub of red paint. The daub does not represent anything. Its sole purpose is to give the rest of the painting a red glow.
I have always tried to highlight the last phrase of Matthew 6. We tend to read right past it, but if we listen to it, it has the same effect on the Sermon on the Mount as that little red daub on Velazquez’s painting – it changes the tone and color of the entire composition.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6.34
Jesus has just spent several verses telling us not to worry, that God will take care of us. He takes care of the grass of the field, and the birds of the air, and He loves us infinitely more. Just when we think we are being cuddled and coddled and promised sunshine and rainbows we get the line, “each day has enough trouble of its own.”
The Sermon on the Mount is a mountain itself. It looms on the horizon of a Christian life the way Mount Fuji dominates the Tokyo skyline. Its claims upon the Christian are absolute. The life it challenges us to lead will demand every ounce of our energy, every fiber of our will. It is tempting to think of it as a hurdle too high for the average person to clear. Matthew 6.34 fastens the Sermon to the earth, to real life. A man who says, “Each day has enough trouble of its own,” is a man who looks at life with clear eyes. Such a man takes a realistic view of the world and the humans in it.
And so, when such a man, with feet planted firmly on Terra, says things like “love your enemies,” “do not judge lest you be judged,” and “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” we know it is possible.
Matthew 6.34 may be the most important verse in the entire sermon because it ties the sermon to earth. It communicates that the life Jesus describes is intended to be lived – by all of us, not just the best of us.
The sermon, of course, tells us how this is possible. First, God provides. The Beatitudes tell us all the ways God rewards, comforts and strengthens us. Second, we are not tethered to the earth. The Beatitudes tell us we are God’s Children, we are of the kingdom of heaven, our treasure is in heaven, and we are connected to the past and the future.
Thus we are equipped to live such a life in such a world.
Of course the daub of red that colors this sermon, and this life is the blood of Christ. There are no direct references to the crucifixion in the Sermon on the Mount, but we know that moment is waiting for Jesus, as does Jesus. His sacrifice makes everything in the sermon possible. If we always, always keep that sacrifice in mind it will change everything else.
This Thanksgiving was the first in 34 years that Teresa and I were on our own. Our kids were with other family. My mom was at her home, recovering from knee replacement and not up to the travel. My mother-in-law was in Tulsa with her son, Bill and his family. It was a little strange. We were blessed to have each other - quite a few spent their first thanksgiving alone without their spouses this year. And of course we did spend Thanksgiving with our extended family – 80 or more of you – our brothers and sisters in Christ. It was a wonderful day in which we publicly and joyfully indulged in the sin of gluttony. We also received into our family a new brother in Christ as Jonathan Gau was baptized that day. It was an altogether happy and heartwarming Thanksgiving. Sometimes life is like a Hallmark channel movie.
It is the time of year when the Hallmark channel, the Lifetime network, and other cable outlets run Christmas movies 24/7. Each year these channels roll out a new box of comfits – new movies to unwrap, although “new” is probably a generous term to use. There are only 5 movies they make over and over again: “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Ground Hog’s Day,” and “Made for Each Other” (a 1939 MGM tearjerker starring Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard which has spawned a hundred remakes).
I notice that three of the movies I mentioned star Jimmy Stewart. I also notice that two of them involve the suspension of time in some way. The protagonists in these movies find resolution, comfort, and strength by going backward, or forward in time. Glimpsing the right moment from the past or the future provides the answers, or the insight needed. If only we had the same ability they do in those Hallmark movies.
All this has set me to thinking about the apostles, and how they must have felt when Jesus told them, “I am going away,” (John 14.1ff) – how they, like children asked “where,” and “how.” When Jesus asked them earlier if they were going away, Peter responded: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe absolutely, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God (John 6.68-69). They have nowhere else to go but to Jesus, and now He says He is going away. How alone they must have felt – but only briefly. They will find that He keeps His promise to be with them “all the way even to the end of the Age” (Matthew 28.20).
We find the same. The miracle of the Bible is that Jesus is always there. We are never alone, never without Him. He is alive in the four Gospels. Any time we open the Bible we can spend time with Him. We are not bound by the limits of time when we go to the Word. We can be with him as an infant, as a grown man just being baptized, on the cross, or we can watch Him ascend to heaven. We can move backward and forward in time to visit any moment from His life which feeds us, instructs us, strengthens us, challenges us. Those Hallmark movies are fancy and fiction. The Gospels are fact.
The fantasies these Hallmark movies peddle often strike a chord, speak to a longing. But they are diversions, entertainments. The moments we spend with Jesus are meaningful, fulfilling, empowering.
This will be the last Manassas Signal of the year. We will continue to update our announcements online, but will not resume publication of this newsletter until the New Year. As I offer you this last meditation of 2016, I want to encourage us all to spend more time with Jesus. This is all. It is that simple. Let us all resolve to spend more time with Him.
On behalf of the office staff of the Manassas Church of Christ we thank you for another year of service together, and wish you all a blessed holiday season. May God be with us all.