Monday, December 26, 2011

The Herodians are Alive and Well

Herod the Great must have been shaking in his boots. He had fallen into disfavor with his longstanding friend Caesar Augustus, placing Herod’s powerbase on tenuous soil. This only fueled the paranoia that possessed Herod to the degree he had two of his sons assassinated for fear of a coup. Now three wealthy and influential Magi have arrived with their entourages from the East talking about some King who had recently been born, whom they wanted to honor. No doubt, Herod was wiping the sweat from his brow as he listened to these three calm, sincere, and determined men adulating a new usurper to Herod’s throne.

We know the rest of the story. Herod consulted the Scribes to teach him the prophecies concerning the Messiah, and then feigned his own interest in this King in the hopes of dispatching him quickly. But of course God had different ideas and warned the Magi of Herod’s schemes and sent them home by another route. Undaunted, Herod executed a reign of terror on Bethlehem, ordering the death of all male children aged two years or less. In a great piece of irony so typical of God, God protected His infant son by sending Him to Egypt until after Herod’s death.

Such was Herod’s response to the advent of the Christ. And, I fear, is the response of most of us.

To the secularists, as with Herod and his loyal Jewish subjects, the Herodians, who patronized the reigning government for their own gain, the advent of Christ threatens their position of power. By power is meant everything between and including political influence and security to self-determinism. We recognize it in the position of atheism today, where god is ostensibly Reason, yet in actuality is blatant self-authority. We see it in our politicians who instead of working for the good of the people who placed them in office, continue to manipulate the shells so as to always possess the pea. All of which is classic Herodianism, of course; Herodians in their many incarnations always turn their ships to the prevailing winds in order to keep sailing to their own secret destination, where they hope to land on high ground and reap the obeisance and fear of a compliant and desperate world.

To the religious, such as the Pharisees, the Calvinists, the Arminians, the Papists, the Evangelicals, the Baptists, the Wesleyans, the Lutherans, the Independents, the Pentecostals, the Presbyterians, and all others who have aligned themselves with personalities and doctrines as the basis of their faith, the advent of the Christ threatens their righteousness. For many of these pious people, their systems have become god; their carefully and meticulously laid out constructs of god defines their reason and practice of being, and the basis of excluding others. For the rest not so pious, religion is nothing more than a social status and the basis by which to be judged good—that is, acceptable--in the end.

Wait a minute. Surely the religious are threatened by the advent of Christ for different reasons than the secularists. But no, it’s all about power, isn’t it?—intellectual, or social, or both. At the end of the day, we are all only interested in power. We all end up surrounding ourselves with our intellect, our wealth, and our society, in order to insulate ourselves from our own frailty—the reality of our own powerlessness in the face of our conceit in being all-powerful. This was the reason the rich man walked downcast away from Christ after Jesus told the man that to receive eternal life, he only needed to sell all of his possessions and follow Christ.

That rich man, the secularists, and the religious, they are all Herodians of the highest rank.

Those three Magi of the Christmas story had seen it correctly, though. At least for that moment, they willingly placed their wisdom, their earthly authority, their wealth, their reputation, their social status, and all they held dear in themselves and what others held dear in them, at the feet of the King Jesus—despite the fact He was yet a child.

The gifts they offered Jesus suggested Jesus would have their total allegiance: Gold, Christ the sovereign King; Frankincense, Christ the divine high priest; and Myrrh, Christ the atoning sacrifice for Mankind. With that testimony, nothing remained for them but to knell before Jesus.

We all need to be like-minded. We need to humble ourselves before the King Jesus by trusting Him completely by loving Him with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength by obeying Him with unqualified abandon. We need to leap fearlessly in to the open arms of the terrible, loving, holy, infinite, and changeless God. This is what Christ demands and what He created us for--to be a kingdom of people who willingly forfeit their own agendas and even their own perceptions of God to the reality He carries them.

Most people are threatened by this awful demand of Christ—yes, even many who profess His name. Indeed, the Herodians are alive and well.

Monday, December 19, 2011

There Can be no Steppe Wolves in the Church

Our pastor’s sermon this week concerned the importance of body life: there can be no permanent steppe wolves in Christianity. I would perhaps state it more precisely that to be a Christian by definition means to be a kingdom dweller—a member of the covenant family of God. And the kingdom of God is a unified community of unique individuals bearing the image of God, without losing the distinction of each individual. Therefore, not only do we need each other to successfully live under the kingship of Christ—my pastor’s thesis—it’s ridiculous to conceive Christianity any other way.

The problem is we do tend to see Christianity as something less than a kingdom. My pastor confessed of how it breaks his heart to learn of people who have left our church because they could never fit in. Sometimes this is the fault of the person in question because of his unrealistic expectations. But to my pastor’s point, the lion-share of those disconnections is more likely due to a form of elitism that has built up within the congregation. Many people cannot fit in because they remain marginalized. This contradicts the very foundation of Christianity, for it is contrary to God’s purpose in creation; God created us to be a kingdom in which He dwells with us. And this holy kingdom is necessarily united in love.

In my book I spoke at length on what this love must look like. I pointed out, as did C.S. Lewis before me, we can easily supplant this essential and complete love with one of its subsidiary loves, and come to believe that what we end up practicing is the love God expresses. What my pastor grieves can be traced to this kind of misappropriation of love.

A very real and spiritual natural love is friendship, what we share with one or more persons in purpose. This love begins not just in common tasks but common visions and perceptions of the meanings behind those tasks. A deep and close camaraderie results in this love of friendship. It’s a beautiful thing until it turns bad by becoming exclusionary.

This is what can easily happen. We align ourselves with our friends because they see things the way we do, they support us when we need support, they stand with us when we’ve been wronged, and rejoice with us when we are right. They are like mobile fortresses. So when we join them in church or other places, we often give only half-hearted consideration of others who might approach our circle from the outside, instead of stopping and giving them our full attention.

Full attention to others means a lot of things; let me offer three that come to mind.

First, incorporating the person into the conversation, and allowing it to evolve in any direction, even if not specifically of one’s high-interest areas—those defining your intimate friendships—or the original topic. Take advantage of the situation to learn more about the person by truly caring about them and what they have to say. Do this by listening to their perspectives with an open heart and mind. Seek out to know and understand their interests, and then genuinely celebrate them. Perhaps the person will never be a bosom buddy, but they are and always will be your brother or sister in Christ. And that is the only circle that matters.

Second, don’t pick and choose whom you will associate, even if only casually on Sunday mornings, in terms of what you think you might gain through the association. Such prejudice is frankly an abomination to God. Poor or rich, educated or not, healthy or sickly, each of us are kingdom members, which means we were each created for a given purpose and meaning in the kingdom, and therefore vital and equally valued and loved.

Finally, forgive each other. Forgive out of the supreme humility of knowing God has forgiven you. Be merciful to each other with the sacrifice of mercy that necessarily forgets, retains no hidden debts or agendas, and seeks not its own justice.

Remember, if we are true Christ followers, we are dwellers in the kingdom of God that stands today, not some far off heavenly place where all our troubles and responsibilities will be behind us, and where we will play harps and eat grapes. The kingdom has come, and Christ is our king if we call ourselves Christians. It is and shall forever be a place of peace and contentment because God dwells with us and we are completely who He has named us to be, even if for a time the kingdom co-exists with a very fallen and dark world. Rightly so: this is why Christ came in the middle of history, that His kingdom might be a beacon of light shining in the darkness leading the way of as many who are willing to follow it back in to fellowship with their Creator.

Therefore if God’s purpose has always been an expanding holy community of beings bearing His image bound together with Him in love, then clearly there can be no steppe wolves, nor, for that matter, wolf packs in His kingdom. God’s love is giving and receiving, and receiving to give again. And God’s love does not want to be contained.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Call (A Parable)

Clayton Bloom sired three sons. Even before they had hardly grown, each of them turned away from their father, obsessed by a need to outdo his brothers. When they could, the brothers demanded their inheritances and left their father—each certain that with his talent and resources he would excel over his brothers.

Time passed and the three brothers failed in their quests. Each found himself separated from the others and severely destitute.

At the right time, the father went in search of his wayward boys to bring them home. He found his oldest in a stupor and lying in a ditch.

The father appealed to the man, “Come home my son, and I will give you rest. You will have your original job at twice the salary. And someday you, along with your brothers, will be given control over my estate.”

His son looked up through eyes half closed by contempt for his father and replied, “I don’t want your pity, Old Man. And I certainly don’t want your charity. I can care for myself. Go away and leave me alone!”

Reluctantly, the father left his oldest son in search of his brothers. Eventually he found his middle son, and appealed to him in the same manner he had with the man’s older brother.

The middle son didn’t answer his father right away, but thought, if I take the money, I can get myself cleaned up and go back to those guys who stuck me and make them sorry for underestimating me. The bums will soon be bowing to me, and I’ll be on top, again. “Sure, Pops,” the middle son said. “I’ll go back to work for you. Thanks, thanks a lot!”

After the father had sent his middle son home with instructions for the servants to care for him after he arrived, the father sought out his youngest boy. He found the young man worse off than his brothers. The father knelt beside his youngest son, and appealed to him as he did his two brothers. The man looked up at his father with weak eyes that welled with tears.

“Why should you be so kind to me after I brought you so much disgrace? I have despaired so long, Father. If you only knew how tired I am of it all. I hate my life. I have tried to console myself by remembering my home and you and my life there, but I couldn’t. I tried and tried but the memory was gone, so I convinced myself that it never really happened. I thought it was nothing but a dream. I went on even though deep down I knew it was pointless and ended here hoping to die. I didn't have the guts to kill myself. Now here you are. It wasn’t a dream after all. I want to go home. I’ll do anything to go back there. I’ll listen to you. I’ll do anything you say. Teach me, Father, so I can please you. I want to please you, but I've forgotten how. I should never have left home. How could I have been so stupid?”

The young man wept. The father reached out and pulled his son up out of the murky water and embraced him. He could feel his son’s bones beneath his dank, soiled, and tattered clothing. The son staggered and nearly collapsed out of his father’s arms. The father realizing how near death his boy was lifted the frail body over his shoulders and carried his son home.

A year passed, and the younger brother found the middle brother packing a suitcase.

"What are you doing?” the younger brother asked.

“I’m out of here, man,” the middle brother replied.

“But why? We have everything we could ever want right here. No one out there will ever love you and care for you as our Father does. You of all people should know that.”

The middle brother attending to his task answered, “This is too much like work. No thank you. You can have it.”

“What are you talking about?” the younger brother pleaded. “Father has given us servants to do all the real labor so we can complete our studies. Once that is done, father has promised to put us in charge of the whole estate—the house, the land, the livestock--everything!”

“That’s fine for you,” the middle brother said as he snapped the suitcase closed.“I got some old scores to settle.” He waved a thick wad of bills before the younger brother’s face, and then plopped it on top of others neatly stacked in a black attaché. “Besides,” the middle brother continued, “I know just how to parlay this money into some big bucks. Soon you will be working for me, little brother. And I’ll make it happen without all the sweat. I have all I need.”

The middle brother picked up his things and made for the door and stopped. Turning to face his younger brother he said, “Still, I can always use dedicated workers like you. Yes, you’ll be hearing from me, squirt.”

The younger brother watched his brother walk out of sight; he never looked back.


Jesus once said, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14 [NET])

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why did Javert kill himself?

My wife and I and many of our friends at different times recently attended performances of Les Misérables at the local performing arts center. With only one exception, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. My wife and I were in tears at the end. The play portrayed beautifully the Christian redemption story Hugo had so lovingly woven in his novel. Certainly, the protagonist, Jean Valjean, typifies the essential Christ-like character of a kingdom dweller. One friend concurred with me but noted, correctly, that the play took some poetic license by having the revolutionaries end up in heaven. True, just because one dies fighting for a cause—even a good one—doesn’t make one kingdom material. Yet a deeper truth resonates within the Les Mis tale that we don’t want to miss. And the truth can be found by asking the question: Why did the antagonist, Javert, kill himself in the end?

Javert was a policeman of the highest order. As with all legalists, Javert saw himself as the great righter of all wrongs in the world. He had intended to weed it out one miscreant at a time until nothing was left but a pure world. He did this by holding everyone to impeccable standards; and, critical to understanding Javert, he held himself to those same standards; Javert was a quintessential legalist.

Javert operated on the eye-for-an-eye code of ethics; consequently, he dogged Valjean tirelessly throughout Jean’s life because, according to the strict code of the Law, Jean had never paid fully for his sins, despite the fact that Jean had clearly repented of them innumerable times in most objective ways. Such penitence swayed Javert little because in his mind a person was either good or bad, and the distinction was made largely on the basis of appearances. For this reason, Javert accepted the bourgeois man’s story after the prostitute, Fantine, had scratched the man’s face, because she was a sinner, and the man a respectable citizen, even though in reality the man had all but raped Fantine and provoked her to defend herself.

Doesn't a policeman represent law and order, and above all else, justice? I’ve always been taught this. So what was Javert’s problem? As with all legalists, Javert failed to realize that the holiness he sought cannot be established without love. The great and ironic fallacy is holiness can be attained and maintained by simply imposing rules and regulations on people.

Only by love first reaching out to the sinner can the latter ever hope to see the unholy state they are in. The priest proved this by his treatment of Valjean at the beginning of the story; Valjean demonstrated this truth by his treatment of Fantine, as did Jesus countless times during His ministry on earth—the woman at the well being a case in point (John 4). The reason justice requires first the expression of love (mercy) is because pure love rendered leads the receiver into the presence of God, the only source of the knowledge of holiness and the grace to live it. The line near the end of Les Mis, “when we love another we see the face of God,” is absolutely true.

Saint Paul substantiates the aforementioned principle of love in Romans 2:1-4:

Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things. And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?

Javert and all legalists believe themselves to be holy because they promote the law by passing judgments on others. But Paul rightly says this is absurd because no one is guiltless—as Javert would soon discover about himself (I’ll get back to this in a moment). No, only by the extension of pure mercy, which of course God has done perfectly by sending His son, Jesus the Christ, leads to repentance.

Mercy by definition does not condemn or punish but restores. True justice is not retribution but a course adjustment from the wrong order of things to the right order of things, which is holiness. The legalist misses this fact because he has divested holiness of love that is actually inextricably tied with holiness, and fails to see that God is about restoration, which is love and holiness working as mercy and justice, and not retribution. Certainly, final restoration will necessitate God destroying all things—everything remaining under His wrath--that hinder perfect holiness in love. But that is only for God to do because only He is perfectly holy and perfectly love.

Love maintains and establishes holiness because love originates in all eternity in the triune God who created everything. But love must be pure because God is holy; true love cannot be separate from holiness; otherwise, love reduces to attempting to relate with each other or God on the basis of whatever feels right, with the result of destructive relationships, where there is neither love nor holiness.

Therefore, the tension of love and holiness must be rigorously maintained or both will be lost. But in restoration, such as when the priest restored Valjean by forgiving him and elevating his status or when Valjean lifted Fantine out of prostitution, love must come first—always in complete conformity with holiness--because love is what both defines and maintains holiness. Love opens eyes blinded by the despair of death, and love cools the fires of hell, so the sinner might then properly assess his plight and clearly understand his own sole accountability.

Not everyone, of course, will respond to love (mercy) extended to them and seek its power to live in holiness (justice). Some, such as the other prostitutes who taunted Fantine, have consciences seared by self-hate; others, such as the innkeeper and his wife who had cruelly exploited Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, are too consumed by greed; and others, such as Javert, have been frozen by their own self-righteousness.

Valjean, who certainly had a right to hate and not forgive Javert, extended mercy to Javert by letting him go when he could have taken revenge for a lifetime of torment by killing him. Yet this extension of the hand of love failed to move Javert. This time mercy did not bring about justice, which in this case would have been a shift from the wrong order of Javert’s loveless legalism to the right order of love in holiness. Love did not soften Javert’s heart to love in return—not even himself. And love to be love must be translational: freely flowing unconditionally between the lovers.

What in Javert prevented love from penetrating his heart? Why did Javert kill himself, instead? For Javert and all legalists, purity and righteousness means perfectly conforming to the law. When he learned by Valjean's example that perfect conformity to the law is actually love, he realized he had failed his whole life to live the very standard he always espoused; mercy, in Javert’s legalistic mind, actually became a judgment against him. Javert always understood love as a transaction because that is the way legalism works: every action must get its rightful due; thus, by that standard, Javert saw himself condemned, so he saved God the trouble and killed himself. You must remember, Javert had always held himself to the same standard he expected from others.

In closing, no one can live in holiness without love held in equal force because without love holiness crumbles and vise versa. For this reason, the practitioner of loveless holiness will always destroy themselves in the end; either they will become bitter, merciless, and cruel, as did Javert, or they will abandon their so-called holiness altogether and do the very things they had always despised in others. None of these outcomes, of course, have any connection at all with holiness and love that define and maintain the kingdom of heaven, the dwellers of which Jean Valjean remains a sterling example: persons who seek to bring justice by first extending mercy.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Boy from U.N.C.L.E.

My favorite TV show growing up was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. For those of you too young to remember, U.N.C.L.E. stood for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. The program documented the thrilling adventures of U.N.C.L.E.’s two top agents, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. The weekly show was a must-see for me; my mother even let me forego violin practice to watch it.

The Cold War raged during the Sixties, and we all had to do our part. My friend John and I loved the action. Even though we were both toe-heads, John assumed the role of the suave and sophisticated dark-haired Solo, and I the persona of the quiet and introspective blond Kuryakin —a Russian, ironically enough, who had defected to the side of good and democracy.

John was probably the brighter bulb of the two of us—he would later become a physician—but that wasn’t the main reason he landed the more prestigious spy position at U.N.C.L.E.; he had all the official gear, including the pistol with silencer, the assault rifle, and the ID badge with the number eleven on it. I had to hand-draw my badge, and tape a safety pin on the back. Although, to be fair, Mother (Mother, second only to Mr. Waverly, headed Allocations-Sector One) issued to me the Man from U.N.C.L.E. cigarette lighter with the hidden radio transmitter, faux cigarettes, and cap gun. It was a great concept, but proved too fragile in the field—especially when duty required falling off retaining walls or leaping over fences. After a few make-shift patch jobs, I left the weapon on my dresser at home.

John possessed the state-of-the-art equipment, but I had superior cunning and stealth. We made a formidable team, admired by everyone back at headquarters and feared by our enemies on the streets. Mr. Waverly always assigned us the plum missions. John and I kept the neighborhood safe from the countless incursions of that global menace, THRUSH.

My only glaring deficiency was the look. Everyone knows that ninety percent of what makes any top-notch secret agent is appearance; if you look cool, you will be cool. My drab attire had definitely affected my ratings, especially with the female agents. They became increasingly dubious of my reputed prowess. I found myself taking more and more risks on each new mission in order to compensate for the negative effects of my dreary wardrobe. Clearly, a change was needed, so I asked Mother for a black turtleneck shirt.

It seemed a simple enough request. After all, I hadn’t asked for a Beretta, or an exploding pen, or a mini-submarine—as much as those things would have come in handy—just your basic black turtleneck. Yet for some unknown reason, Mother resisted. I would plead; Mother would push back. Could it be Mother worked for THRUSH? The idea of a double-agent that high up in the organization was too horrific to even contemplate. Perhaps she knew what the people in Apparels were whispering behind her back because Mother finally relented, and allocated to me a white turtleneck dickey and a brown v-necked sweater to go over it.

Now picture it: Kuryakin wearing vintage 1960’s two-tone tortoise shell glasses with the right lens thicker than the left--enlarging one eye that never quite aligned with the other (I have amblyopia)—seated on freckled cheeks—although the scar I received from attempting to shave at age four made up for the freckles— and outfitted with the top portion of a white turtleneck tucked under a brown sweater.

Mother thought it looked adorable—any mother would, of course. All I know is it ruined my career at U.N.C.L.E., at least as a field agent. I tried fitting the turtleneck piece with an undershirt to jerry-rig a white turtleneck shirt, but the dickey showed through the thin cotton fabric. Left with no recourse, Mr. Waverly transferred me to the Library-Sector Thirteen. Not long after that, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. went off the air.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Whoever is not against us is for us."

My youngest daughter is attending a Catholic high school. Xavier HS is an outstanding institution--spiritually, academically, and athletically. Our daughter is thriving there. Yet some people have blacklisted us for our decision--at least, passive-aggressively. They equate our sending Carly to Xavier on par with the Israelites building Ashtoreth poles. In my youth I probably would have felt the same way. But when I seriously began investigating God’s love in holiness, the outcome of which was my book, A Final Word on Love, I became increasingly suspicious of such biases.

Both a good friend and colleague of mine and my son have since joined the Catholic Church. After many discussions with them, I realize how little separates the two branches of the orthodox Christian church. Indeed, both camps stand squarely on the same essential dogmatic turf. As I have discovered while preparing to teach a history of doctrine course at church, the issue concerning the implementation of salvation and grace, the crux of the Reformation schism, was in many respects a misunderstanding. Pope Benedict has recently said the Augsburg Confession—the definitive Lutheran doctrinal statement--is completely consistent with Catholic teaching.

I admit that I am still not happy with the Catholic Church withholding communion from non-Catholic orthodox Christians. I know Pope Benedict remains adamant on this point. But I provided ample Scriptural grounds in my book to refute the Catholic position. Nevertheless, I would never force the point when attending a Mass, out of respect for their faith.

I’m also not totally comfortable with some of the Catholic traditions; but I can say the same for some protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions, as well. Besides, I have discovered in most cases my trouble is not with the founding principles of those problematic traditions but how people have extrapolated them in the course of the centuries. When given a chance, people tend to gravitate toward superstition because it gives them a modicum of control. I have spoken before in this blog of how difficult it is to walk in faith.

The Catholic Church is quite correct in teaching that God understands our need of visual/physical illustrations of His purposes and grace; such are the bases of the sacraments. But when we turn these types into idols, which I have said we are wont to do, we stray from faith. And we cannot do that because faith defines being a kingdom dweller with Christ.

You may ask: aren’t these sacraments something we do to earn our salvation? No doubt it can be interpreted that way. However, I think the whole question of merit and earning salvation has been a wrong one all along in the Western church. A true Christian is so because he/she willingly subjects him/her self to Christ as King—he/she loves Christ first and last by obeying Him.

Therefore, from one perspective, everything done in obedience to Christ could appear to be works we do to earn His favor. But that is wrong. The correct perspective is these acts of obedience—works—evidence that we dwell in Christ’s kingdom by faith. We don’t obey Christ to earn our place in His kingdom; rather, our obedience validates our membership in His kingdom because “the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God (Phil. 2:13 [NET]).” And none of this would be possible had it not been for Christ’s faithfulness—not anything we have done; on this we all agree, whether Roman, orthodox protestant, or Eastern Orthodox.

In every act of obedience we receive grace: grace to inspire our will, grace to act on that inspiration, and grace to become more like Christ. Consequently, technically speaking, all acts of obedience are, therefore, sacraments. Perhaps our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters are closer to the mark in this because they don’t limit the sacraments to seven, as does the Roman church.

Therefore, the sacraments need not be seen as works earning salvation. Instead, they are acts in keeping with our salvation. Certainly, the act of being baptized doesn’t save a person. But if a person refuses to be baptized (notice I said refuses and not prevented), then has that person truly entered into salvation? Has the person truly subjected him/her self to Christ? The question becomes: whom has that person subjected him/her self? Christ? Or is he/she clinging to his/her pride, or familial or sectarian regulations? Only God knows the person’s heart, but such stubbornness doesn't bode well for the person because Christ told us to repent and be baptized. If the person truly dwells in Christ’s kingdom, he/she will want to be baptized.

Let’s stop building walls between us and our brothers and sisters in the Roman and Eastern Orthodox arms of the Christ’s Church. Remember, we are all brothers and sisters solely because we have subjected ourselves completely to Christ and His will. And this subjection is evidenced by a continuous pattern of seeking to obey Christ, not simply a one-time statement of confessing Christ as Lord. And Christ commands us to love one another.

I will close by reminding us of an event during Christ’s ministry:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me. For whoever is not against us is for us. For I tell you the truth, whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear Christ’s name will never lose his reward (Mark 9:38-41 [NET]).

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Little Light Reading

One of my blog readers told me that I have been of a serious bent of mind lately. I took that as a gentle request to lighten it up. Others have asked after learning that I have been reading books like Irenaeus’ Against Heresies or John of Damascus’ Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, if I ever read lighter fare. When I answered, “Yes, I enjoyed Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame very much,” they rolled their eyes in disbelief. It seems they, too, in their non-confronting manner were encouraging me to get a life. Deep theology, philosophy, and science make for a dull boy, not to mention exhausted readers.

Okay, this week we all get a break. I’m going to relate a short and hopefully humorous story that I was reminded of recently when I had the chance to visit one of my old friends during my daughter’s wedding.

I worked in a camp in the mountains of Colorado during the first two summers of my college career. I would have worked a third summer except my father wasn’t a happy camper with me earning only twenty-five dollars a month—chump pay even in the seventies. Somehow my father had seen how the summer camp experience suited me, so he forgave my not securing a real job—like I said, for two summers, anyway.

Summer camp was where I first met my aforementioned friend whose name is Brad. We became fast friends, and before long were known far and wide as the BB brothers. We were also counseling partners.

The camp where we worked was divided in a girls’ side and a boys’ side. This meant that during joint-activity times, the boy counselors could meet with the girl counselors and kindle all those romances summer camps are famous for. I digress. Each side was comprised of five or six cabins with two counselors assigned to each cabin. The BB brothers had the Arapaho cabin. Our friend Bill and his partner had the Apache cabin next to us.

Every morning we would have to wake the kiddies, make sure they dressed and ordered their areas, and herd them off down the hill to the lodge for breakfast. The counselors had to stay behind and feel inside all the sleeping bags to see if there were any bed-wetters. Brad always stuck me with that job (see, Dad, I earned my lousy twenty-five a month). I don’t remember what Brad did during those daily inspections—probably groomed himself for Betty-Lou, who was from the Chippewa cabin; Brad and Betty-Lou had the first of the great summer romances that year.

On one of those typical mornings we noticed the Apache mob heading down the hill without Bill (he never stayed behind for any reason), so Brad and I went next door to find out why. Bill had decided to sleep in, and was still lying on his bunk when we arrived. On the nightstand by his bed was a brand new bar of Irish Spring deodorant soap.

Brad said, “Look, Bruce, Irish Spring!”

“Yes,” I replied, “guaranteed to leave you clean and fresh like the green of Ireland.”

Brad removed his jack-knife from his pocket, and opened the blade. Grabbing the bar of soap, he said in his best Irish brogue, “Notice the green and white stripes!”

Bill quickly intervened, “You cut into that and I’ll kill you.”

Non plus, Brad replied, “Manly yes, but Bill uses it too.”

That’s it--no morals, philosophical implications, or theological metaphors, just life in the raw from my rapidly receding past. See you next week.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mayella's Dilemma is Everybody's Dilemma

My daughter has to read To Kill a Mockingbird for English. Apparently, everyone has had to read that novel for English. I never did. We had to read The Godfather and other intellectually stimulating books of that kind when I was in High school. I may have seen the movie with Greg Peck, but I don’t remember the story; so I decided to read the book.

I can see why TKMB won the Pulitzer Prize; it is a beautiful piece of writing—penetrating in its understanding of the human condition, and tragic in its exposé of racism in 1930’s America. Yet even in that, TKMB is not heavy-handed, but attempts to gently guide both the interested characters and readers out of the darkness of prejudice; TKMB makes its case from a Christian worldview. The protagonist father and lawyer, Atticus Finch, is perhaps the best definition I’ve come across of what Jesus meant when He said, “Blessed are the meek.”

It would be only a few years after TKMB hit the bookstores that the Civil Rights Movement ushered in a new America. Interestingly, TKMB wasn’t cynical of such a future event, but presented itself with an undercurrent of optimism for love triumphing over hate. It perhaps could have been no other way because the story was told from a child’s perspective. It seems TKMB saw something good in people, and accurately foretold a new era of openness and equality in our great country. I worry, though, that the specter of racism still lurks just beneath the surface of American society. I hope I’m wrong.

But as important as it is to stamp out racism, that is not the topic of this posting. Nor do I believe TKMB was written solely as a polemic against racism; it is far too good a work to be that mono-dimensional. A recurring theme in TKMB, and one we should all take heed, is trying to walk in the shoes of another person before we jump to hasty conclusions and judgments of him/her. Another way to state this is we need to try to see everyone as God sees them. And this I intend to do with the character Mayella Ewell.

In case you are like I was up until a few days ago and have never read TKMB or it’s been too long, I will reprise the situation with Mayella for you. She was a poor illiterate white nineteen year old who was forced by her equally white and illiterate father to trump up rape charges against a poor but gentle African-American man named Tom Robinson. What really happened was Mayella, in the manner of the Pharaoh’s wife with Joseph, hungry for love and attention, made advances at Tom. Her father witnessed this, and in the confusion Tom ran away; Mayella’s father beat her, and then fabricated the rape to save face.

Tom ends up in court looking at an electric-chair with his name on it, defended by Atticus Finch. Mayella is on the witness stand, and Atticus is questioning her.

Here is a brief snippet of what transpires:

After the prosecuting attorney referred to Atticus as “big bad Mr. Finch,” Atticus opens his questioning.
“Miss Mayella,” he said, smiling, “I won’t try to scare you for awhile, not yet. Let’s just get acquainted. How old are you?”
“Said I was nineteen, said it to the judge yonder.” Mayella jerked her head resentfully at the bench.
“So you did, so you did, ma’am. You’ll have to bear with me, Miss Mayella. I’m getting along and can’t remember as well as I used to. I might ask you things you’ve already said before, but you’ll give an answer, won’t you? Good.”
“Won’t answer a word you say long as you keep on mockin’ me,” she said.
“Ma’am?” asked Atticus, startled.
“Long’s you keep on makin’ fun of me.”
Judge Taylor said, “Mr. Finch is not making fun of you. What’s the matter with you?”
Mayella looked from under lowered eyelids at Atticus, but said to the judge: “Long’s he keeps on callin’ me ma’am and saying Miss Mayella. I don’t hafta take his sass. I ain’t called upon to take it.”

Isn’t Harper Lee a brilliant writer; you get sucked in with even that little piece of her novel.

What we must see is that Atticus was not patronizing Mayella. He was doing his job, but his treatment of Mayella was genuine; Atticus treated everyone with respect and decency, in and out of the courtroom. Mayella knew his reputation, so she knew in her heart that he wasn’t stroking her. So why did she react the way she did? That’s the question I want to answer because it says something about all of us.

Mayella was a squashed person. Any self-respect or self-worth she may have had had long been beaten out of her by a vile, angry, ignorant, cruel man called her father. All she wanted was to be loved and desired and respected. Of course she did; we all want that because God created us to walk in love and holiness. For this reason she threw herself at poor Tom. Now Atticus was offering her genuine respect and worth, and she pushed it away; she never confesses the truth of what happened that hateful afternoon. If she had, she would have opened up for herself the love and respect she sought. People would have forgiven her, even Tom, I have no doubt. Her father would have probably come down hard on her, but I suspect the town folk would have rallied around her—certainly Atticus would have; she’d have been safe, and young enough to make something of herself. Yet despite all that promise calling out to her, Mayella didn't confess; she didn’t because she was afraid.

Here’s my point (long in coming, I know). Mayella feared a beating, but she feared being wrong even more. To admit she was wrong meant giving up her last vestige of control; she must be seen as right, or lose her precious self-sufficiency. Her dilemma was either to take hold of the hand of love extended to her and start down the road to being an authentic human being, or forfeit it all for her pride--to find the love she desperately wanted and needed by loving Tom, or turn it inward to harden into hate.

Mayella faced the same dilemma we all face. God extends His hand to each of us in love for us to become the authentic humans He created us to be forever with Him in love and holiness; all we need do is admit we have been wrong in our selfish-ambition and turn back to Him and love Him by obeying Him.

Will we turn back to a faithful and loving God and truly live, or will we cast our lot with Mayella and die with our alleged self-sufficiency?

Listen to what the Scriptures tell us:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness. “There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years. “Therefore, I became provoked at that generation and said, ‘Their hearts are always wandering and they have not known my ways.’ “As I swore in my anger, ‘They will never enter my rest!’”
Hebrews 3:7-11 (NET)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

God's Vision is the Real Deal

Vision provides the impetus for progress. As humans we revere our visionaries. Only recently one of the greatest visionaries in human history passed away. Many have mourned his passing, some even venerate him. We love visionaries. They see what we wish we could see, dream the impossible, and then somehow make it happen. And we reap the benefits.

I've been a great dreamer. As far back as I can remember I have set before myself visions to aspire to. When I took up the violin, I dreamed of becoming a great violinist. I polished my violin, admired it in its case, learned all I could about music, composers, and violin music. Today, I can hardly speak of being a violinist without couching it with a thousand caveats and apologies. Why didn’t I achieve my vision? I never wrote it down, but I easily could have in precise terms; so what went wrong? Simple, I didn’t practice enough. And what practice I did, I did wrong. Someone once said practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. They were right.

Juxtaposed to this glorious musical vision of mine has been an even grander vision to be a great scientist. I remember when I was in Junior high my next-door neighbor, who worked for the atomic energy commission, handed me a radioactive piece of uranium about the size of a large walnut (yes, you heard me; this was back in the days when one could build a nuclear reactor in his garage, and nobody cared). He then admonished me: “You know, Bruce, you play at being a scientist; you’re never going to amount to anything unless you work at it.”

A year passed by, and after not submitting a project to the local science fair, my teacher scolded me in front of the entire ninth grade science class: “Bruce, you’re nothing but a tape-recorder. You know a lot of facts, but you don’t know what to do with any of them!” Certainly he had no tact, and my already miserable life in Junior high became more unbearable after that.

But he was right, and so was my neighbor. I’ve maintained many grandiose visions in my lifetime, but failed to work hard enough to achieve any of them. That is why after fifty-five years I remain more of a consumer than a producer—a state I loathe. Sure I am trying to catch-up, but the nerves aren’t as good as they used to be, and it seems the old brain is running out of room; everything has been so hardwired over the years I have to work twice as hard as I would have had to in my youth just to reach the starting box. One cannot go home again.

Companies teach the importance of a vision. No doubt some of them actually believe this. My experience has been that visions are something the employees spend hours of company time drafting, and post around the facility to admire and inspire. But the executives pay little heed to these vision statements, despite the lengths they go to endorse them. The reason is the real short-term vision is always to make as much money as possible with the least cost; and the long-term vision is to continue making increasingly more money each year without incurring increasing costs. There is nothing wrong with these visions; they drive the economy, after all. It would be better if they were upfront about it so everybody could do their jobs with minimal rancor, frustration, and disillusionment.

We see then that there is vision few have the resources, talent, luck, and power to realize; it is a genuine vision that when executed is truly a wonder to behold. There is another kind of vision that is little more than day-dreaming; and there is third type of vision fabricated by the powerful to placate the masses.

Don’t misunderstand me, having a vision is essential if we are ever to progress; vision is a good thing. The trouble is within the framework of human society, visions can more often than not be elusive, corruptible, and devastating; how many people have died without realizing truly great visions because they had been cheated, or were unable to find that right place at the right time, or were too lazy? I grieve for them all because in every case failure arose out of weakness in humankind.

However, there is another vision, one that we can count on despite our corruption, one which is not duplicitous, nor unattainable, nor subject to chance. In fact, this vision was conceived in eternity before the creation of time and space. It is a vision wrought by love and guaranteed to happen because it is God’s vision.

As I have pondered my last several blogs I worried my readers might see me as insensitive somehow; no one has attained to the lofty goals I have enthusiastically espoused. I’m afraid my readers will walk away one by one, disgruntled by my idealism. I do understand.

But it hasn’t been idealism; I haven’t been trying to sell you a bill of goods; I have been trying to give you a vision, not one of my own making but God’s vision—at least as best we can understand it from what He has revealed to us. And this vision is not idealistic, because it is doable. We think it is only a fantasy because so few have even come close to embracing God’s vision for His creation. This is so not because the vision is untrustworthy, but because we have forgotten the vision and supplanted it with a series of our own visions, and in the process lost trust in God.

I haven’t harangued on being authentic human beings, the kingdom of heaven, true freedom and on and on because I want us to feel guilty, or miserable, or hopeless; quite the contrary, I want us to rediscover the true vision and hope we have in Christ so we can effectively walk in Christ today so both ourselves and those who witness our walk and like what they see can be a part of God's glory, for His glory, forever. Without knowing God’s true vision in creating us and the cosmos, it becomes too easy for us to lapse back into selfish-ambition, which if not repented of is fatal.

God’s vision is certain to happen; God has proven Himself faithful because Christ is alive. Let’s embrace that vision, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Saint Paul taught us. And we know we will succeed because of what Paul said immediately after this, “for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.”

God’s vision is not an ideal but a reality for all those who love Him by doing what He says. God will have His vision. And He has made it possible through the faithfulness of His son, Jesus the Christ, to be a part of that most certain vision. It behooves us, then, to let go of all the distractions and sin that blind us, and by the power of Christ remain fixed on the vision of God’s glory for His glory; for God’s vision for us is His glory and He is glorified through it. God’s vision is the real deal.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Faith, it ain't easy

The apostle, Thomas, has often been called doubting Thomas because he was the last of the eleven apostles to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. When Jesus confronted him, and Thomas felt the nail holes in Jesus' hands and placed his finger on the wound in Jesus' side, Thomas finally believed.

What Jesus then said, as with all things Jesus taught, was true: "Thomas, you believe because you see me; blessed are those who don't see me yet still believe."

Faith is a difficult proposition for us humans because we are sentient creatures. When Moses left the Israelites to go up the mountain and receive the Law from God, he was gone a long time. As the time passed and still no Moses, the people became impatient and agitated. We can only wonder if they weren't pacing back and forth in the desert thinking about the certainty of home and hearth back in Egypt on the one hand, and an unfulfilled promise of a paradise flowing with milk and honey on the other.

Finally, with no sign of Moses, the people caved in and cast an idol for themselves. The golden calf they constructed gave them something to see and touch, and, perhaps more importantly, a measure of control.

The Israelites were quite wrong in what they did. Every time I read that account I shake my head in disgust. God had proved Himself faithful time and time again in objective and observable ways. He had protected Israel through all the plagues, liberated them from their oppressors in Egypt, parted the Red Sea for them, routing the pursuing Egyptians in the process, and went before them day and night as a visible pillar of fire. God miraculously fed and watered them. Yet, with the first sign that their leader, Moses, wasn't coming back, the people panicked, and, forgetting everything they had witnessed, took matters into their own hands.

I mean, how stupid and fickle could they be? If I was given a tenth of what God had given them in terms of validating whom He is, I would never worry about another thing again.

How stupid and insensitive can I be? I'm a Christian. By that I'm supposed to mean my leader, Jesus the Christ, has temporarily disappeared to the mountain, where He is writing His laws on my heart, so that when He returns we can be one together in the eternal paradise flowing with milk and honey--the kingdom of heaven. And He has given me the Holy Spirit to teach me, strengthen me, and light my way during the long slog through the dark and treacherous desert. God has given me all He had given Israel and more; yet, at the first sign of trouble in my life, I panic, and more often than I care to admit, take matters in my own hands.

Faith is tough. It's hard to keep our eyes focused on God whom we cannot see, and hope in a promise so long in coming.

Dense stands of trees of doubt tower all around us, cutting off much of the light. Many of these have grown from saplings we planted, ourselves. For example, debt overwhelms us in our pursuit of the American dream to the point that we start to doubt God's faithfulness. Of course, everyone else has planted their trees, including those spiritual forces opposing the kingdom of heaven. Regardless, selfish-ambition provides the seeds, and conceit cultivates and nurtures the forest.

There is no paucity of persons urging us to turn back, claiming that nothing lies beyond the trees except more trees. And in the midst of a burgeoning darkness, we wonder if they might be right.

None of this should surprise us. Jesus taught us that the gate leading to Life is narrow, and few would go there. He also said the times will become so dire that even those who truly love Him will begin to doubt.

His words should bolster our resolve to remain patiently fixed on Him, clinging, despite the doubt screaming in our ears, to the certain hope we have in Him; we need His strength because His words also tell us that faith ain't easy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Be Still..."

Back in the day (you know you're getting old when you can refer to your college years as back in the day), my then agnostic brother and I had one of our frequent debates. He asked me that infamous question designed to silence the theist: "Can God build a rock so big that he cannot lift it?"

The answer is God can do anything that isn't impossible. Some will balk at this claiming that I have limited God. This is, of course, the objective of the above query; the agnostic wants to force the hapless theist into admitting that God has limitations, and therefore show there is no God.

But only God knows what is truly impossible because He created all things, including knowledge. From what He has revealed about Himself to us, one impossibility is God ever ceasing to be Himself; God will never contradict His own nature because God cannot not be God. We cannot add anything to this because who and what the boundless, incomprehensible God is forever remains beyond us; it is impossible for us to ascertain what an action might be that would constitute God contradicting Himself, except what He has told us: "God is neither tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone with evil."

Instead of despairing on account of the inscrutability of God, we should rejoice and heave a deep sigh of relief. Our biggest encumbrance as Western people is our need to explain everything. But God is infinitely greater than our intellect because He is truly God. We can be glad in this because we know the God we are confronting is really God and not some invention to placate our particular whims. The fact that God is unchangeable should comfort us because it means we can totally trust Him.

In order to put feet on the last point, I must remind us of a historical event critical to the restoration of Mankind and, ultimately, the cosmos. God freeing the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt was a pivotal moment in history because it, in objective terms, illustrated for us all 1) Mankind's plight that is its captivity in death, 2) that only God can save us from our plight, 3) that the means of liberating us would come through the nation of Israel, culminating in the crowning moment of history, the incarnation of God, Jesus the Christ, and 4) God's faithfulness to His promises. It requires the whole Bible to prove these points. I want us to see from them that we can trust God.

God chose Moses to be His instrument for leading Israel out of captivity. During the course of those events, Moses twice asked God for God's name. The first time, God answered simply, "I AM." This speaks to God's infinite, unchangeable, and inscrutable being that transcends existence. On the second occasion, God's answer regarded His character: "I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy, and compassion on whom I will show compassion."

The Hebrew word translated mercy is khanan. God will be gracious, particularly in forgiving sins. The Hebrew word rakham, translated compassion (above), means a deep, abiding love. The word's noun root means womb. God will cradle us like a baby in its mother's womb.

Therefore, don't wait to approach God until you have Him all figured out because that day will never arrive. Instead, simply admit you are lost because you have forsaken Him, and turn back to Him, confessing Jesus as King, and trust Him by doing what He says. And even though you cannot know all the whys, you can be confident that God will provide the grace to succeed and for the pardoning of your mistakes, and you will be forever safe--even should there be great affliction for a time.

Cherish in your heart these words from our God: "Be still and know that I am God."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Are you in the correct lane? Part 4

As I understand it, Simon and Garfunkel were sitting in a car, smoking pot, when listening to the first radio broadcast of their music. Apparently, the ecstasy of living an accomplishment few would know wasn’t sufficient enough that it had to be supplemented with drugs.

During a recent business trip, I watched a program where a person was attempting to scale the north-face of the Eiger without ropes. His reason for this, as is likely the same motivation for all similar stunts, is perhaps paraphrased as follows: “I feel most alive when I confront certain death head-on.”

A few weeks ago I watched one of my favorite films, Doctor Zhivago. As always one of many scenes covering the sordid antics of Victor Komarovsky caused me pause. Specifically, he had been having an affair with a widowed business woman, and then decided to move in on her beautiful daughter. Upon learning this, the widow attempted suicide by swallowing iodine. Komarovsky, fearing a scandal, called a professor from the medical school to discretely handle the case. Now, what I would like us to note from this all too real fictional situation is what the professor tells the young Zhivago after the two of them save the widow's life: “He [Komarovsky] knows life; he had a scare, tonight, though.”

Jesus tells us that he came to give us life, and life to the fullest. We immediately know from this that whatever we mean by life falls far short of what God intended for us. And because He loves us so much, He came to dwell with us in order to restore us to true life.

Perhaps you don't agree, and hold up the above-mentioned people in support of your position. I propose that none of those people, nor those they might represent, have experienced the abundant life Jesus promised us. True life involves achievements, to be sure; but such achievements require no augmentation. The life God wants for us is so rich, multifaceted, compelling, and unending,we need not trick it out to assure ourselves it's real or sustain interest in it. And the life that Christ has redeemed us thrives through the power of God's love working in a community, not selfish-ambition.

I submit that this true and abundant life that God created us for in the beginning, and in later times came to restore, can only be lived by authentic human beings—people who stay in the correct lane.

As we have learned, an authentic human knows his/her true identity, so he/she seeks to please God first by making his/her unique contributions to His kingdom. And this is fully gratifying and thoroughly satisfying to the person because his/her accomplishments resonate perfectly with whom he/she is; the person lives life to the fullest.

A good example of this is my wife. She works with children with autism. And even though there are numerous challenges, she is fulfilled by her work, and is, as she often says, in her element. She is one of those fortunate ones whose kingdom work is also their vocation. But the key to her success is she seeks to please God and therefore serve others instead of herself.

Most of us struggle with finding our identity because we look for it within ourselves; we do this most often on the basis of other people’s expectations, our own whims and romantic ideas, and, sometimes, desperation. I cannot possibly know for sure, but great talents such as Simon and Garfunkel may have found their element—many like them may not be that far from whom God created them to be--only never fully apprehended it because their focus has been on themselves rather than glorifying God. It’s an observation, not a judgment; I just know how much my own dissatisfaction in my own life—something I struggle with to this day--has been because too much of my self has gotten in the way.

Only by pursuing our creator fully and singularly can one hope to find one’s place in the kingdom, and know true fulfillment. And such fulfillment is perfectly satisfying because we are a part of something outside of ourselves.

The full life that Jesus promises is also not living to die. To attempt to intensify life, to experience a full life, by tempting death is totally self-serving. True courage is facing death for the preservation of life, not to see life as a cheap commodity that somehow gains value when we are willing to toss it away. Authentic humanity was created to live, not die. Besides, the authentic human is too caught up in the splendor of true life to ever question its reality.

Finally, the full life Christ promises is realized in a community—the kingdom of heaven. True life is first seeking to please God, and in so doing, celebrating and promoting others ahead of ourselves. This is axiomatic of the kingdom: to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then love others as God has loved you.

Komarovsky and the human race with him have sought to live by manipulating and exploiting others. His ilk supposes to find fulfillment by making and breaking alliances, moving in and out of marriages, cheating others in business deals, withholding their property when others are in need, playing one against the other, bearing false witness, betraying others, and on and on. Such are the lifestyles of the dead, not the truly alive authentic human. We know this is true because Komarovsky feared only for himself at the widow’s brush with death.

Jesus came to restore authentic humanity, to bring life, and life to the fullest. This means being who we were created to be, preserving and valuing life at all costs, and being kingdom dwellers--all through the power of God, for His glory. Therefore, we can only live life to the fullest by sharing in the Divine nature. And sharing in the Divine nature, we not only live life to the fullest, but live forever, because God is.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Are you in the correct lane? Part 3

Several years ago a race was run at the Special Olympics. As the runners made their way around the track, one of the competitors stumbled and fell. The other runners stopped and went back to the fallen runner, helped him up, and together they ran the remainder of the race and crossed the finish-line.

Those Olympians were truly special and certified champions; they all deserved gold medals; for they understood the kingdom of heaven probably better than anyone else has, including me. Indeed, they should be writing this blog instead of me.

We have been discussing authentic humanity, how it involves individuals with unique identities. But we must be careful not to overstate this. We humans have a penchant for swinging pendulums to the extremes. Authentic human beings are individuals with unique identities, but they are unified in a community—the kingdom of heaven—without annihilating those identities.

As we have shown, the kingdom of heaven diverges radically from the various systems promoting assimilation. However, the kingdom of heaven is also decidedly not a model for the rugged individualism fundamental to American political philosophy.

The American political paradigm is the best in the world, but it isn’t perfect. Thanks to philosophers such as John Locke who had more than incidentally influenced its inception, America has exaggerated the importance of the individual.

Unfortunately, these Lockean concepts have insinuated their way into the Christian church, such that we saw the rise of spot-conversions during the nineteenth century. Instead of focusing on becoming disciples, as Jesus commanded in His great commission, people (not all people responding to the Gospel message) have tended to view the transaction as just another box checked off their to-do list. This individualistic approach to Christianity has festered into an unhealthy self-interest all too prevalent in the American church today.

Of course, Jesus came to restore the individual. This is a great and glorious and unfathomable act of God in His Love for us. But the restoration of the individual is only a part of God’s intent to restore the kingdom of heaven and, ultimately, the cosmos—the Glory of God manifested through His Glory (yes, that’s right: God’s Glory—who He is in power and faithfulness—is manifested in His Glory that is the vast growing fabric that is the kingdom of heaven.)

What happens in a society based on rugged individualism is everyone attempts to promote and distinguish themselves above everyone else. Surprisingly, both a unity in purpose and the true distinctions of identities are lost. The best--and I use this superlative loosely--outcome will be a unity of kind because everyone becomes grasping, jealous, suspicious, greedy, resentful, and on and on. In short, everyone becomes competitive.

I’m the first to enjoy a good football game. I’m very competitive, myself, especially when it comes to the game of Scrabble; they don’t call me the crusher for nothing. Competition is certainly the driving force of capitalism, of which I have reaped benefits for myself and my family; I have been very fortunate. Even though competition drives our world, it is not what drives the kingdom of heaven.

God created us to be a kingdom with Him, where we work through, by, and for Him to, maintain and grow the universe He created. We accomplish this by knowing and acting in accord with our true identities through the grace that God provides. When we do this, competition ceases because we are content in who we are and each of us celebrates who the next person is, and together as a community we accomplish God purposes; we become a unity of purpose—a community—while preserving our unique identities.

We could all stand to learn this from those special Olympians. They all ran the race, and together they each did their part. And they all won the race—something was built, improved, healed and revealed that day--because they completed it together without compromising who they each were as individuals. They were authentic human beings. And they demonstrated for us in very simple clear terms the kingdom of God.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Are you in the correct lane? Part 2

One of my favorite recurring themes in the Star Trek franchise is, the Borg. I like it for the same reason I like Invasion of the Body Snatchers; if you’re in the mood for a thriller, neither ghosts, monsters, espionage, nor zombies will quite cut it; the definitive word on terror is, assimilation. Why? Because, assimilation is all about losing our identities.

As terrifying the prospect of losing one’s identity is, it’s interesting that numerous belief systems in the world hold assimilation as the ultimate objective.

The stoics saw us as being caught up in a single pattern of fate repeating itself over and over forever, where we start from fire and eventually reabsorb back into fire. The evolutionary materialists see us all disintegrating into the elements from whence we came, and re-assimilated into an infinite repository to be recast like so many dice. The sundry eastern religions seek an assimilation into the One.

The attraction of these various systems for us is they take us off the hook. They satisfy our innate hunger for a spiritual reality while putting very little demand on us. Indeed, the little demand imposed by these systems, such as meditation, only serves to temporarily sedate us who are an angry, frustrated, fearful, and insecure humanity. The great irony here is our acquiescence to fate allows us to remain in control--or so we would like to believe.

We have become this desperate race because we have all misplaced our authentic identities. We don’t know our real names. We misplaced them because we have insisted on defining our identities on our own. In the words of my teenage daughter: “Fail!” We cannot hope to be authentic humans unless we start from the self we were created to be. And only God knows what that is; only God can explain it to us; and only by walking intimately with the one true God will we ever fulfill our identities.

I must digress for a moment to note that our fascination with assimilation and death and such things stems from a central belief that they are natural and therefore inevitable. Hence, we say to ourselves: I’m going to be wearing this someday. I might as well try it on for size.

But death and assimilation are not natural outcomes. They are unnatural. God created us to live, and to live as unique individuals bearing a singular identity—a name belonging to no other.

What do I mean, then, by this all important thing called, identity? My friend Tim Brygger has spent years pondering this question, and this fall he will publish a book called, Becoming, to answer this difficult question. I recommend going to his web site,, for further details. For now, I will quote, from the introduction of Becoming, Tim’s definition of identity for us to consider:

Identity is an idea, but an individual idea. He is not humanity or mankind, but the distinct idea of each individual person. He is tricky to get a solid grasp of because every person’s identity is different.
Identity started out as the great idea of his Creator. When he was only that idea, he had a distinct form….

What defines him is his uniqueness; his specific attributes. These are his unique offerings from The Creator to all the rest of creation. His unique attributes have incredible value and purpose – not because of what they do, but because of the potential that they were created with! As He plays upon those uniquenesses with creativity and takes hold of the intrinsic, beautiful potential, he finds incredible satisfaction and joy in being himself and playing his part.

To further describe him would be to describe a person. His identity is what makes him who he is, everything he was equipped with at his inception: natural talent, created personality, his ‘bent’ to contribute in a distinct fashion… every characteristic that was original in him (that preceded the influence of “environment”)

Quite a beautiful and elegant synopsis, wouldn’t you agree?

We were created to be authentic humans. Only as authentic human beings will we achieve the purposes and meanings intended by God. God created us in His image, so we are necessarily relational individuals. To be relational individuals who achieve the purposes of God requires we each have an identity. Jesus has redeemed us to lead us back to our true identities. He tells us that if we believe in Him, acknowledge him as King, He is our Shepherd and we are His sheep who He calls each by name, and we respond because we know Him.

Therefore, God intended all along that we should be a community in which He dwells: a unity of unique individuals without losing the distinctions of the individuals--not an assimilation. This community is what Jesus called, the kingdom of heaven, and is both God’s intended purpose and the vehicle He chose in His Love and holiness to achieve His purposes. This community is God’s glory, and the topic of next week’s posting.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Are you in the correct lane?

Every day driving home from work I pass a sign that reads, “Are you in the correct lane?” The reason for this sign is the city had decided to spot its landscape with rotaries. In my opinion, it’s a good idea because it keeps traffic flowing with less fatal accidents. But Midwesterners are used to stop-and-go lights, and find the rotary a bit of an enigma--hence the sign. Apparently too many people have been entering the rotary in the wrong lane, and when they realize it, they attempt to change lanes within the rotary, and whether or not it will be less fatal than past intersection collisions, there will be an accident, eventually.

But this blog is not going to be a commentary on civil engineering. The sign in question got me thinking about something else far more important. I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking he’s going to talk about the Gospel: are you saved? Or are you following Jesus?—that sort of thing. No, the sign prompted me to ponder once again the outcome of the Gospel message; specifically, what does it mean to be authentic humanity?

The church fathers called the consummation of our salvation in Christ, deification. By this, they didn’t mean that we become God; rather, we share in the Divine nature. No created being can ever be God. But every human being, because he or she was created in God’s image, was created to share in His Divine nature. Why? The answer is because, for the same reason, all Mankind was created to be authentic humanity. And it is not possible to be an authentic human without sharing in the Divine nature. Therefore, what the church fathers meant by deification was becoming authentic humanity.

The church fathers were correct. We were created to be authentic humans. Thus, when I see that sign each day, I wonder if I'm am in the correct lane to becoming an authentic human being, or if I'm in the wrong lane leading farther and farther away from that destination. If the latter is the case, then despite what the statisticians might say, I'm in for a fatal accident.

Authentic humanity can be broken down into at least three important parts (of course it can because three is the number of completion). I propose that the three aspects of authentic humanity are identity, community, and eternal life.

During the course of the next several blogs I will attempt to flesh out these three attributes of authentic humanity. But first I want to leave you with a little homework assignment. This week I want you to consider this question: What is my name? Now don’t you dare come come back with John, Freddy, or Freda. I don’t mean your given name. I want you to ask yourself who you are as a unique individual; if you were to strip away all the pretence, noise, and the claims of others, what would you find remaining? Who are you really? And what name would you give that person?
Bon chance! See you next week.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Fergie's Freedom

Fergie’s pink eyes always yearn for home. Fergie is an exceptional guinea pig. Whenever she is removed from her cage and allowed to roam freely, she exhibits only guarded enthusiasm. Sure she’ll pad around awhile, depositing a turd here and a turd there. If she’s particularly anxious, she might even leave a trail of poops.
But inevitably Fergie’s thoughts turn back to home. For her, sojourning in the great expanses falls short of the hype. Before long, Fergie winds her way back to the outskirts of her cage, and gazes longingly at her little hut through the bars towering a foot above her head.
She’ll wait there for a time, thinking her caretaker will be bright enough to see that she’s done with her imposed romp and wants back in her cage. When she realizes her tender is not so informed, Fergie popcorns up and over the bars in a single bound and scurries blissfully back to her house, keeping her rump to all astonished onlookers.
Fergie knows that true freedom is not freedom from all boundaries. We would do well to learn this from Fergie.
We don’t understand freedom, otherwise Fergie’s behavior wouldn’t surprise us—her athletic prowess notwithstanding. We tend to live under the belief that we are free agents. Not so. In reality, we are wholly dependent on our Creator; we only live because He grants and sustains our life.
Unfortunately, we stubbornly strive against this fact, determined to make it on our own in the wide open and allegedly boundless spaces. Having cut ourselves off from God, we find our world a frightful place, where we quickly start grasping and possessing--jealous of what we don’t have, hating those who do; far from the promised freedom, we find ourselves prisoners of our own insecurity. Fergie shakes her head and looks to home; so should we.
Let’s go back to God and rest in the cradle of His holiness. Only there are we truly free.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What is the true arbitrator of morality? Part 3

Thirdly, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if we are the products of only matter/energy. The epistemological implications of evolution dogged Darwin: can we know we know anything?

The eighteenth century philosopher and patron saint of materialism, David Hume, explained that all we can know is what we receive as impulses impinging on our nervous system; truth is nothing more than a consistent outcome from a repetitive series of stimulus/responses. If we are only the outcome of matter/energy slow-cooked in a crucible of chance, then Hume would be perfectly correct. But how could concepts of right and wrong ever emerge from such a state? They couldn’t.

Hume’s ideas awoke Kant from his intellectual slumbers. Even though Kant disavowed any possibility of uniting the particulars with the universals—nature with grace—creature with Creator--he saw the necessity of the universal of a transcendent morality, and proceeded through his concepts of the maxim and the categorical imperative to prove the existence of God—albeit, despite his Lutheran upbringing, a deist god, not the Christian God. Kant took a leap of faith because practical reason demands that there is a transcendent morality, and in the process showed that there has to be a God.

The point is the evolutionary philosophy, which is founded on the eternal existence of matter/energy, cannot accommodate concepts like morality without contradicting itself. I am reminded of one such philosopher who went to great lengths to show that infanticide, war, rape, and such are all valid mechanisms of natural selection, and therefore not wrong. Okay, at that point he appeared to be living his worldview. But then he finished by saying that we all really should try to love one another. Sorry, dude, you cannot do that. Your worldview simply doesn’t have any explanation or justification for making such a leap. But you made it anyway because you knew that it is impossible to live your worldview in the real world. So you imported morality—Judeo-Christian concepts of love and justice, I might add—into your philosophy in order to make it livable. What it should tell you is your worldview is fatally flawed.

We can know because the Creator, God, is both infinite and personal. He created an ordered universe; therefore, it can be investigated. He interacts intimately with us whom He created for that purpose, so we can know and understand the cosmos He placed us and our purpose in it. Being personal, God’s right order of things naturally involves relationships. And these relationships are driven and maintained by Love. But Love cannot be divested from the right order of things, otherwise everyone would attempt to interrelate on the basis of what feels right, and the result would be chaos and destructive relationships.

Love is therefore inextricably tied to the right order. This inseparable and essential union demands and defines the transcendent morality. The only way we can apprehend this morality and so exist in and fulfill the purposes for which we were created is if we walk intimately with God; for God is the only source of the Love and order that defines true life; we depend solely on our Creator for our existence. When we turn our back to him by believing we can be our own moral agents, we die. Sadly, that is the state we are all in. And this state of death keeps us floundering in the particulars without any way to the universal we know must exist because we cannot really live without it.

But precisely because God is both merciful and just, he hasn’t left us in death. Instead, in a real moment in history, He took on flesh and dwelt among us and entered death, and then, because He died unjustly, by the power of God’s Love and in His justice, Christ was raised back to life: Christ lives! And because He lives, we can live with Him if we only acknowledge Him as King and live to please Him, which is to conform to the Love and order God demands and created us for—to seek God to be our one and only moral agent. And we trust that we will please Him because, through Christ’s faithfulness to God for the restoration of His creation, God will be faithful and dwell forever with us who believe Him, trust Him, and so obey Him, and because of God’s faithfulness we will succeed.

Jesus the Christ promises us: “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life.”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What is the true arbitrator of morality? Part 2

Secondly, if morality is instinct, then everyone would be moral, which is not the case, even in the liberal European countries Professor Coyne mentioned. I’ve visited and worked in several of them, and selfish-ambition reigns there as here.

If morality were a product of natural selection, then morality would be hardwired in all of us; it would be instinct, not something capricious. A female black widow will always eat the male. A nursing mother dog will always push away a weak pup. If given a chance, a male lion will always eat the cubs. When one is hungry, whether, beast or human, one will eat. Instinct will always win out unless prevented by illness, the environment, or overcome by a stronger member of one’s species. Instinct would be the handmaiden of natural selection, if natural selection were the governing force of the living world.

But people are not naturally moral. People will invariably pursue their own agendas over the agendas of others. As I intimated in Part 1, people will pick and choose their so-called altruistic acts based on their own agendas. Hence, what might appear to be altruistic really isn’t anything more than the pursuit of selfish-ambition.

We must also avoid narrowly defining morality in this conversation. Morality is much more than acts of kindness. Morality is founded on pure justice and mercy; consequently, morality will necessarily encompass every aspect of relationships, from the most unseen to the most conspicuous. We cannot hope to be truly moral unless our core thoughts and aspirations are completely selfless.

Don’t play the self-interest card here. The argument put forth by Prof. Coyne is that morality is a development of evolution to secure the race. The only way to ensure such complete security is if everyone considers the other person before themselves. In that way every person’s needs would be met and every person would be able to achieve their ultimate purpose in society. Selflessness insures societal strength, self-interest undermines it.

The human race is completely selfish from birth. Therefore, morality cannot be an instinct. Morality doesn’t come naturally for us. Quite the contrary, morality is something we spend time trying to circumvent with the least cost, not something we easily embrace and willingly pursue. This would not be true if morality were the product of a natural selection; we wouldn’t be able to resist it if it were. Indeed, we wouldn’t even think about it anymore than we do hunger; when a stimulus occurs, we react to the stimulus.

Morality in the human race is far removed from any kind of a stimulus/response expected with natural selection; therefore, morality is not the result of evolution.

Morality exists because a moral God created us. We are immoral because, in our conceit, we have turned our backs to our Creator in deference to our selfish-ambition.

God gave Humankind moral laws for at least three important reasons: 1) to give us a picture of the right order God intended, and, therefore, must have for the cosmos, 2) to demonstrate we have rejected that right order in deference to our selfish-ambition, and 3) to protect us from ourselves until He completes His plan for restoration.

If we turn back to God, we will begin to live moral lives—not perfectly, because God’s restoration is not yet completed; the world is not yet just. But by walking with God, today, God enables and motivates us to act justly with mercy and forgives us when we fail. And in the process we will see ourselves and others around us being restored. This is what Jesus the Christ has accomplished for us. All we must do is acknowledge Him as King and, for that reason, live to please Him. We can be confident that He will be faithful because He’s alive!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is the true arbitrator of morality? Part 1

One Professor Coyne of Chicago recently published an editorial in USAtoday in support of his book, “Why Evolution is True.” The thesis of his editorial is that our genes that have been carefully developed through the agency of natural selection and Human reason are the rightful and best arbitrators of morality. He rejects, as the good atheist he professes to be, the idea of a god being such an arbitrator, because God, being inherently good, could only commit moral acts; yet a quick reading of the Bible shows God sanctioning the deaths of thousands of people. No, he says; evolution has created the moral code in people for the strengthening of Human society. People are moral even as atheists. Prof. Coyne supports this by reminding us how moral people in the liberal and atheist European countries are. We don’t need religion; we only need our instincts to be guided by our intellect.

I wrote a letter to the Editor of USAtoday in rebuttal of Coyne’s thesis; it’s unlikely they will publish it. Consequently, I will use this blog over the next few weeks to challenge Prof. Coyne’s assertions.

First, any truly moral act is founded on pure justice and mercy. Only God acts purely morally because only He is perfectly just and merciful. We can only act morally, therefore, if we are walking with God.

Everything God does is moral, even if it doesn’t appear so to us. Even the slaughter of thousands of people as described in the Old Testament? Prof. Coyne would no doubt counter. We are in rebellion against our Creator. He would certainly be just in vaporizing everything and starting over. But throughout the OT God was establishing His plan for restoration, and this required the execution of justice to pave the way for the ultimate expression of mercy in justice to be revealed: the advent, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of the God-Man, Jesus the Christ. God knows what He is doing, we don’t.

This is a difficult teaching. But Jesus told us the basis of judgment is very simple: one either enters the light or one doesn’t. Those who resolutely ignore God’s call to turn back to Him and remain in the dark will enter into eternal reprobation. There is nothing complex in this. God empowers us in every way because of the faithfulness of Jesus the Christ to enable us to turn to Him. And then He empowers us to enter and remain in the Light by faith alone (believing Him, trusting Him, and doing what He expects on the basis of that belief and trust). Jesus said come to Me all who are weary and weighed down (isn’t this all of us?) and He will give them rest, and then learn from Him because His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

Why aren’t people coming by the droves into the light? The answer is pride. They like Prof. Coyne, and I wish him no ill will, want to be their own arbitrators of moral behavior, and they have adopted a system of thought that appeases their consciences so they can do that without regret. Prof. Coyne spoke in pride how he rescued a hapless postman who had dropped his parcels--certainly a nice act. Yet, contrary to what the noble professor might admit, he will assess the next occasion using his reason, which he stated is our best dictator of morality, and decide against it, despite the protestations of instinct to the contrary. The reasoning will be quite convincing, I’m sure, such as the professor is late to an important meeting; or, in the interim the professor learned that the postman is a theist, so the professor decides the extra work will be due penance for the postman’s stupidity.

God’s moral economy doesn’t work that way. If we walk in the light, which is how it must be with God because he is perfectly just and merciful and He doesn’t change, then we must always do the moral thing, regardless of whether it’s an inconvenience or not, or our opinion of the person(s)in question.

Therefore people chose to stay in the dark because God’s moral economy appears too expensive. The irony, as I have already intimated, is that it isn't; because of Jesus’ faithfulness, God impels, empowers, picks up, and forgives everyone remaining in the light. And, instead of eternal reprobation, all such light-dwellers will have eternal life. This is the restoration I spoke of that God has accomplished through Jesus the Christ.

God will restore the right order of all things, where everyone walks with God, and, therefore, the cosmos remains just (right order is maintained, hence the concept of justice vanishes because justice is really only a course adjustment back to the right order of things), and all relationships, starting between God and Humans and proceeding to all those between Humans, subsist perfectly in Love (the concept of mercy disappears because the right order of things has been restored, hence there is no injustice to be reckoned).

God is faithful to His promise of restoration, and, therefore, perfectly just and perfectly merciful. And we can be certain of this because Christ is alive!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My Wife's Hands

Everyone who knows me knows how much I adore my wife. I love everything about her. She brings no end of enjoyment to my life; she is a book in progress that I cannot put down.

Recently we were travelling together on a tour bus on our way to Florence (that's another story). I noticed her hand gently clutching her camera in her lap. What first struck me about this otherwise common occurrence was that she didn't hold it possessively in a kind of condescension, or in a cold indifference, as if it was expected that she should be toting a camera; no, she held the instrument as she would a blessing, a gift, and a privilege. She cradled her camera with a sense of thankfulness. There was no ostentation in her grip--the designer's imprint meant very little to her. She held her camera protectively, as she might hold a child's hand. She did this not so much because the camera was expensive and she wanted to keep it from harm--although, I suppose, in all honesty, that was part of it. More importantly, and what was clearly evident from her loving grasp, she was keeping safe the memories recorded there--those hard copies of slices of her life and the lives of those friends and family she so cherished, all carefully archived for posterity.

I love to hold my wife's hand. Through that lovely soft hand of hers she so often feeds me with a strength and solidarity that has no other origin, and she invariably effects this when I need it the most. She understands me so well as to know precisely when to take my hand. And I am always the better for it. I trust, too, that through that same hand she also receives from me the confidence and solace that sometimes elude her. I at least pray that that will be so.

Perhaps it is rather morbid to suggest, but if ever I would be fortunate enough to be next to her when my life is fading away, I should want to be holding her hand. I can think of no better way to die than to see the escorting angel smile and feel my wife's assurance--to pass from this life to life eternal in seamless love.

I enjoy watching my wife's hands--studying them--marveling at their beauty and form--reveling in their charm and industry. Her hands are purposeful in all they do, kind to all they touch, and gifted in all they accomplish. My wife's hands are the ready instruments of God's love.