Friday, December 31, 2004

Help Wanted

1 Corinthians 16:13 (New International Version)

13”Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong.”

Our men’s group at church has been discussing manhood for a little over a month now. A couple of nights ago the subject was “the wounds of a father.” The essence of the discussion was about the wounds fathers inflict, and imbedded in that discussion was the wounds our fathers have had inflicted on themselves as well.

I believe a lot of the wounding comes from expectations. Society, or men in society, seems to be bound by expectations of what a man should be. Almost every everyone disagrees with these conventions, but almost all men strive to live up to them. The conventions look something like this:

“He was a man’s man, an incredible football player. A hard-drinking, hard-living man every guy looked up to. He drove a truck, chewed tobacco, loved the outdoors. He used to eat glass. I’m serious. It was sort of a frat party trick he took on, the ultimate display of dangerous strength. He’d literally take a bite out of a glass, chew it slowly and swallow it. When he worked as a bouncer for a tough bar, it made a pretty impressive show to get the roughnecks in line.”

- John Eldridge, from Wild at Heart

It all goes a lot further, though, than the frat party tricks. Look at the “help wanted” section of any newspaper and you’ll see what society is looking for. The buzz-words say it all – “we’re looking for someone who’s "DRIVEN.” “We need a SELF-STARTER." “Are you an "AGGRESSIVE SELF-STARTER"? Then you’re the man for us!”
Well, you say, that’s just worldly hyperbole. Really? Are you aware that this same thinking has invaded the Church? There’s a church in Virginia, for example, that is looking to fill a position for “director of youth and student ministries.” What are they looking for? The person they want needs to be “a proven SELF-STARTER.”

I could provide more examples, but I believe I’ve made my point.

How many of you out there in the Blogosphere have felt the effects of men who have been hired because they were “aggressive?” Have you met one of those “driven” types in a board-room during your career? I’d be willing to bet you have and I’d also be willing to bet that it wasn’t a bit of fun. You’ve been around these guys. You know what they’re like and you know how they act. They basically bully their way to “success.”

We’re all having fun, aren’t we?

The other night I posited the idea that what the world (and the Church) is looking for is exactly the opposite of what it needs. Well, after I left our meeting the other night I gave the matter some more thought, and as I thought about it all I imagined how Jesus Himself would have approached a job interview in our day.

At first glance He would have seemed just right for the position. For the corporation looking for someone who could walk on water, Jesus would truly be able to say that He not only could, but had. The rest of us have to pretend and demonstrate that pretense in our resumes. For the outfit looking for someone with “god-like” qualities, Jesus again could say He did and mean it. The rest of us, once again, would have to pretend.

But that’s where this neat fit seems to end. If Jesus were asked if He was a self-starter in an interview I believe His response would be something like this:

John 8:28 (New International Version)

28”So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.”

For those looking for the aggressive guy, the guy who chews glass and swallows it, Jesus would be a great disappointment. He’d be the type of guy who would approach any workgroup he managed and give them advice like this:

Matthew 11:29 (New International Version)

29”Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

For the company looking for someone “driven to be successful” Jesus would be exactly the opposite of what they were looking for:

Philippians 2:8 (New International Version)

8"And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death–
even death on a cross!”

And worse yet, Jesus’ advice to the workplace would be totally out of step with the current “reality:”

Luke 14:11 (New International Version)

11”For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

It all sorta’ makes this fella’ wonder whether Jesus could even get a job in modern society. I can almost hear the hiring panel discussing Him right now. “I mean, He’s really a nice guy, but he doesn’t seem aggressive enough to me. I think he’d be a push-over.” I can even hear the response. “You’re right. He really is a nice guy, but the union would chew him up and spit him out.” In the end the hiring panel would all agree. “Let’s call Brutus, the guy who chews glass, in and offer him the job.”

When we occasionally get together with Nancy’s family, her two brothers John and James discuss work. John says “it’s really hard.” Jimmy, who’s retarded, almost always responds emphatically, “That’s why they call it W…..O…..R…..K, Johnny!” I believe they’re both right. It is W…..O…..R…..K. And it’s not fun. It could be a lot better, but given the current circumstances it won’t be any time soon. Those running the corporations and doing the hiring are looking for, expecting, and even demanding the “wrong stuff.”

My next post won’t be until 2005. I hope you can wait till then. I’m going to look at Jesus as a son. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Last Laugh

Psalm 2:1-6 (King James Version)

1”Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
2The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,
3Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
4He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the LORD shall have them in derision.
5Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.
6Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.”

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a speech by Natan Sharansky on C-Span. In the speech Mr. Sharansky spoke of how he overcame torture and imprisonment in the former Soviet Union. His methodology was absolutely fascinating.

What was his principle weapon against the vast soviet apparatus, you ask? It was humor. He spoke of how, while he was being tortured, he would tell jokes to his KGB interrogators. He went into detail about one of the sessions. The torture began and Sharansky told the following joke to his torturers:

“When the United States beat the U.S.S.R in their race to the moon, the politburo met. An alternative victory was needed in the light of what appeared to be a great defeat. In the course of the meeting a strategy was decided upon. The soviets would land a cosmonaut on the sun. When the announcement was made a gasp rang out to those present for the public pronouncement. One daring person decided to ask the question that was on almost everyone (except for the politburo’s) minds. “How can you even think of such a thing? Our brave cosmonaut will burn to ashes in the brilliant light of the sun.” The premier had apparently anticipated the question. In what can best be described as the height of groupthink he declared, “Do you think we on the politburo are idiots? We are all very aware of the problems that come with such an endeavor. We have solved the problem and now are certain that we can land a cosmonaut safely on the sun. It’s all very simple, really. Instead of landing him on the sun during the day, we intend to land him there at night!”

Now, most people living freely would have absolutely howled if an American president had made such a ridiculous statement. It was, I think, given the circumstances and the times, a very funny joke. Think of it. The Soviets had been defeated in the space race and now Sharansky was using humor to drive the defeat home. But, Sharansky noted, in the Soviet Union self-deprecation was impossible because the beaurocrats, leaders, and operatives took themselves all too seriously.

It was that type of humor that helped Sharansky maintain his sanity and his power to overcome the machinations of this oppressive state. His great power was in being able to tell a joke and know that the people he was telling it to really wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. I could see it happening as he spoke of the incidents, Sharansky telling jokes a la’ Jay Lenno or David Letterman to a group of interrogators and torturers who were having to stifle the natural human response to laugh because if they had they too would soon have been objects of the torture they were meting out to Sharansky. The insanity of Sharansky’s situation pointed out in glaring terms the insanity of the entire Soviet system. While there were other tell-tale signs of the imminent collapse of the Soviet Unions, this one, Sharansky believed, was the most telling of all. The system had to protect itself at all costs. There was no freedom to criticize or even laugh at itself in a self-deprecating way.

I believe Sharansky was right.

In the light of his speech on C-Span I decided to buy his latest book, The Case for Democracy – the Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. Early on in his writing he describes the freedom he had gained under the cruelest of circumstances in the Soviet Union. There was nothing that could be done to take that freedom from him. Even as he was being prodded and twisted and beaten he joked with his captors. He decided he was going to have the last laugh, and indeed he did.

Upon emigrating to Israel Sharansky assumed that the freedom he had found would be the true essence of democratic Israel and the rest of the democratic west. The stark terms of his life in the Soviet Union had given him a unique window to the world. As Sharansky saw it, things were really more black and white than people in the west cared to admit. Many of the people he met and interacted with in the “free world” saw much in terms of gray, with little or no moral clarity to be seen or expressed. He put it this way:

“Finally, in fighting with the Soviet regime, we dissidents came to appreciate the power of the solidarity of the free world. We believed that a state’s respect for the rights of its own citizens should be the criterion by which to measure that state’s intentions. In the readiness of democratic leaders to link their relations with other states to the extent those states respected human rights, we saw great potential for the development and expansion of freedom across the globe.”

“While I brought this perspective on freedom with me to my new life in Israel, I soon realized that there were few who shared it. For many years, I have been asking myself why so many of those who have lived a life of liberty do not appreciate the enormous power of freedom. With time, I have come to understand that my exposure to the black-and-white world of the Soviet Union provided me with a unique laboratory to discover the line between good and evil. In the free world, with its varying shades of gray, isolating black and white, finding moral clarity, becomes far more difficult.”

I think what Shransky discovered, to his own dismay, was that the “free west” was not immune to this groupthink. Author/teacher Mark Edmundson has looked at the current generation and has seen the same cool detachment to reality and group-think that was evident in Sharansky’s Soviet Union. The only thing that seems to be missing, as I see it, is the physical torture and deprivation. As a university professor, Edmundson observed his students and asked himself, “Why were they staring into the abyss, as Lionel Trilling once described his own students as having done, and commending it for being a singularly dark and fascinatingly contoured abyss, one sure to survive as an object of deifying contemplation for years to come?”

Edmundson, in his latest work “Why Read?,” then goes on to describe not only the students, but also the academic community:

“The classroom atmosphere they most treasured was relaxed, laid-back, cool. The teacher should never get exercised about anything, on pain of being written off as a buffoon. No should she (or he) create an atmosphere of vital contention, where students lots their composure, spoke out, became passionate, expressed their deeper thoughts and fears, or did anything that might cause embarrassment. Embarrassment was the worst thing could befall one; it should be avoided at all costs.”

Does that sound like groupthink to you? It sure does to me!

Unfortunately that groupthink has made great inroads in the Christian church. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about the evils all around us, while at the same time entering into this obscene frivolity as though we were dancing around a maypole.

I’ll give you an example. I could use others, but I’ve decided on this one because I believe it’s much in keeping with Sharansky’s way of coping with his life in the Soviet Union. The difference is, that while Sharansky used fiction to deliver his punch line, I’m going to use a current fact.

Have any of you heard of “ringers?” I’ll admit my own stupidity here. Until a few days ago I’d never heard of them. And, worse than that, I found out they are all the rage these days. Now I suppose I should have known that they were ring tones for cell phones. That part seemed fine to me as an explanation was offered. What came next was the real joke, though. Young people, including many Christian young people, are spending lots of money to just listen to these “ringers.” Think of it. A lot of our young people (and who know, some of our “oldest and wisest”) have been caught up in the craze. They’ve nothing better to do with their time than to listen to a phone that rings with something like “The William Tell Overture” or “You’re a Mean One, Mr.Grinch” or even one of Snoop Doggy Dog’s latest. I’ll say it again. They have nothing better to do with their time than to listen to a phone ringing.

It makes me really wonder. What type of foundations are we building? The Master Himself spoke to this issue of foundations, using a stark contrast, something so black and white that His intent could not be mistaken:

Matthew 7:24-28 (King James Version)

24”Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
25And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.
26And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
27And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
28And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine”

Now you might say I’m making more of all this than I should be. What can I say in my defense? I’ll just leave a few things with you and I’ll be done:

1. I’m a man out of step with my times.

2. I sense that we, as a Christian generation, are now reaping what we have sown. (see Galatians 6:7)

3. We may think otherwise, but if we continue on our current path we’ll find that God Himself will certainly have the last laugh. That is, unless we change our ways, the joke is going to be on us!

Monday, December 27, 2004

For the Contrast

2 Samuel 6:13-22 (New International Version)

13 "When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. 14 David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, 15 while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

16 As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD , she despised him in her heart.

17 They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings [
a] before the LORD . 18 After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty. 19 Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes

20 When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, "How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!"

21 David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD , who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD's people Israel-I will celebrate before the LORD . 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor."

Well, Christmas day has passed. Nancy and I spent part of the day in Kansas City with her mom and family and part of it with my sons and daughter and grandchildren at my daughter Beth’s place about seventy miles north of Kansas City. She and her husband have just finished building their new home there and it was an opportunity for us to get to see their new digs.

We had a really good time. We ate enough, not too much, which was a real departure from Christmases past. The only problem we had was that we got too many gifts. Everyone was quite thoughtful and generous. But it was all too much. On the way home to Emporia yesterday morning Nancy floated the idea, and I agreed, that we are going to let family know that the best gift they can give us in Christmases to come is a donation to a charity.

Nancy’s brother, James, really enjoyed his Christmas. For those of you who haven’t read many of my posts, James is retarded and lives at home with his mom. He’s really so easy to please. This year Nancy made up an 8x11 certificate acknowledging that this was his “best year ever.” It took about two minutes, assembling a piece of paper costing about two cents, and a piece of gold twine to tie the rolled up certificate in to make it ready for him. His face just lit up when he saw it. As Nancy’s relatives arrived James would get the certificate and show it off, then insist that each relative take a picture of him with the certificate. So now everyone has a photographic record of Jimmy’s year. He’s going to cherish that gift more than any of us would cherish a diamond ring or a Mercedes Benz if we had gotten one as a Christmas gift.

We didn’t follow the news at all for the day or so we were gone. When we got home we heard that there was a real tragedy in South Asia with thousands dead and the death toll climbing steadily. I saw some of the videotape of the disaster this morning. Everything about the day seemed to be so beautiful. But the blue sky and the wonderful fair weather clouds lulled so many into a false sense of security. By the time that people saw what was happening it was too late. It was surreal, deadly.

This morning I received by e-mail a report from our pastor who until a year or so ago served as a missionary in Malaysia:

Dear Friends,

Thank you for your prayers and concern. We ask you to please continue
in praying for the situation.

At 9AM local time on the day after Christmas here on Penang Island, we
were hit by the Indonesian Earthquake. The island of Sumatra
is Malaysia's neighbor and our apartment tower swayed for about one
minute. It appears that our building is ok. Nearly four hours later, I
just happened to look out the window and saw the high waves from the Tsunami approaching our coast. There was no warning for the fisherman, families on the
beach and residents along the coast who were caught by surprise. From our
19th floor, Cindy and I witnessed many fishing boats being destroyed and
Others sinking. Currently, 53 people have died in our area of Northwestern
Malaysia with many more missing. We are still waiting on updates from
local officials but over 1000 homes are destroyed and thousands have been left
homeless. The Malaysian government declared the situation as "a disaster never
seen before in Malaysia's history." To the north of us in Thailand, hundreds
have perished in the area of Phuket.

There are no reports of our church members or facilites in Malaysia
being affected at this time. Most of our churches are on the mainland in
this area with two here on the Island.

Please pray for the relief efforts underway here in Malaysia and also
Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and the Bay of Bengal.
Pray also for the Lord's protection in the region from any further

If you are able to send funds to help with emergency relief efforts
during this time, please mark it as "Relief fund" and send to:

Foursquare Missions
P.O. Box 26902
Los Angeles, CA

Here in the U.S. many travelers had problems. Between computer glitches, weather delays, and stacks of misrouted baggage it was chaos. I watched a bit of Fox News last night and saw the comments many stranded travelers were making. “This is an outrage.” “It’s totally unacceptable.” “Delta Airlines should be shut down permanently.” “They’ve ruined my Christmas.”

I had breakfast with Curtis McCauley this morning and mentioned the travel problems in passing. “It seems a bit funny to me, Doc,” I said. “I mean, does it really take this little to ruin someone’s Christmas?” He laughed along with me and said that “I suppose it depends on whose ox is being gored.”

He could be right, and maybe I’d be complaining as loudly as anyone else if I were in the middle of it. But in the light of what’s happening in South Asia right now a lost bag or a missed flight seems more than a bit trivial to me. I’m sure there are some who will read this post and think that I’m an insensitive brute. There’s not much that I can say in my defense. I really have a hard time having great sympathy for someone who can’t find their baggage when I compare it to what may in South Asia lost this weekend.

All of this brings me to what Nancy and I have been talking about since before Christmas. Our conversations have almost all been about contrasts.

Nancy mentioned on Thursday last that she thought the way we Christians can best reclaim the real Christmas is to give the ACLU whatever they think the holiday is or should be about and go about celebrating it the way it should be celebrated. “Let them take it away,” she reasoned. “I don’t know what they’ll have, but it won’t be Christmas. Think about it…..You can’t have Christmas without Christ.”

We talked about her idea for a while and determined that the ACLU can’t take Christmas away. How can they? Oh they can threaten us and rattle their legal sabers. But worse than that has happened to believers throughout history and their response has been much different than ours in our time. The earliest Christians were threatened by ecclesiastical authorities and ordered them not to talk about “this Nazarene.” The Christian response then was:

Acts 4:29-30 (King James Version)

29”And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word,
30By stretching forth thine hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done by the name of thy holy child Jesus.”

In another case it took intervention from a Pharisee named Gamaliel to keep them from being put to death for speaking about Jesus. The alternative punishment was a flogging and a command, once again, not to speak about Jesus:

Acts 5:40-41 (King James Version)

40”And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
41And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.”

It’s interesting, isn’t it? Contrast the response of the early Christian community with the response of much of the Christian community in this country today. The contrast is stark, isn’t it? No amount of temporal authority was going to keep them from proclaiming, “with all boldness, the name of the hold child Jesus.” Now it seems that once the ACLU sues or threatens a lawsuit the matter is settled. We’ll complain, but the threats seem to be enough to stop us from getting too carried away about the birth of Jesus. I wonder what causes us to shrink to feebly when they rattle their sabers. Maybe we’ve got too much to lose by celebrating Christmas properly.

I think Nancy may be right. Let them do what they want with Christmas. Then maybe we’ll be able to claim what is right about it. Think about it. What can do they do about it? Flog us? Put us in jail? Well it’s happened to Christians before. Why should we feel that these things can’t or shouldn’t happen to us?

Maybe it is time for America to see a contrast between what Christmas should be compared to what it has become. The contrast could give people a window through which to see what is real compared to what is really illusory.

Several years ago Nancy and I visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on a beautiful Sunday morning. We went assuming we’d see what tourists generally see there – a beautiful building, nothing more. As we entered we heard the sound of music coming from the front of the sanctuary. We drew closer and saw, in the middle of all the commercialism and tourism, about fifty or sixty worshippers singing praise to God. Their focus was altogether different than the throngs of tourists who had come. In fact they seemed oblivious to them. The thought struck me – I too was nothing more than a tourist when I should have been a worshipper. As I listened I felt my knees buckle and tears come down my face. The same thing happened to Nancy. We haven’t forgotten that Sunday. To us it was God’s way of saying that the real is always there. There may be commerce all around. Tourists may not be able to see it. But the “real” is always there. Nothing external can stop it! Only we can!

Where there are contrasts there are inevitably choices. The story of Moses’ interaction with Pharaoh is recorded in Holy Writ. God has demanded, through Moses and Aaron, that Egypt is to “let my people go.” In between the plagues visited upon Egypt there is an interesting bargaining session going on. Moses brings God’s word…..”Let my people go that they might worship me.” Pharaoh bargains with God as each plague is visited upon his nation. First he says, as I read and hear it, “Don’t go to far. Worship here in the land.” I think it was another way of saying, “Don’t get too carried away with this religion thing. Stay close to us.” God rejects this offer. Next Pharaoh offers the opportunity for the men to go as long as the women and children remain in Egypt. Doesn’t it sound familiar? It’s the siren’s song of culture. It was Pharaoh’s way of saying “This religion thing might mean something to you, but let us have your wives and children.” God rejects this offer and another plague ensues. Pharaoh again seems to relent. “You and your wives and kids can go, but your goods and possessions must stay here in Egypt.” God again rejects the offer. His message is clear. His people are to worship Him in their totality. Everything is to be a part of it, even their goods and possessions.

I sense that our culture and our society have, like Pharaoh, offered compromises. The difference between us and the children of Israel is that they rejected the compromise.

You may say, dear reader, that there are differences between what happened then and what is happening now. The cultures and histories are different. And we’re not in bondage as the children of Israel were. The differences, I contend, are of style and not substance. The children of Israel were in bondage, under the tyrant’s whip. We’re in bondage to the commercial interests of our culture. There’s not much difference in substance as far as I can see.

What’s the way out? I come back to what Nancy shared with me last week. We need to reject the offers of our culture for compromise and get back to what Christmas and our faith should be all about.

I opened this post with the story of David’s response to taking the ark of the covenant back to the “Holy City.” He was so elated in what was transpiring that he had to stop periodically to dance for joy. His wife saw the “spectacle” and told David that his display was unseemly. It was, in her words, “undignified.” I’ve always loved David’s answer. I’ll put it in my vernacular – “Sister, you ain’t seen nothin' yet!”

Contrasts…..contrasts…..I believe it’s time for us to tell the ACLU and our culture, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

What say ye?

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Christmas Greetings from the Heartland

I’ve been hesitating to get out in Emporia’s last minute madness ever since Nancy got back from her little foray about two hours ago. She “reported” that Wal-Mart is packed to the gunwales and things are a “mess” out there. But I have no choice. I’ve waited too long and now I’ve got to get out there and negotiate the 6th Avenue bottleneck and the mad crowds at Wal-Mart with about 20,000 other Emporians.

Before I do, though, I want to take a moment to wish you and yours the most lavish of Christmas blessings. Thank you for your support over the past few months. It has meant a great deal for me.

I won’t be posting now till after Christmas day. It’s time now to celebrate in earnest.

I’ll close out my holiday thoughts with a few excerpts from Oswald Chambers:

His Birth and Our New Birth

“Behold, a virgin shall bring forth a son and they shall call his name Emanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” (Isaiah 7:14)

His Birth in History. “Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Jesus Christ was born into this world, not from it. He did not evolve out of history; He came into history from the outside. Jesus Christ is not the best human being. He is a Being Who cannot be accounted for by the human race at all. He is not man becoming God, but God Incarnate, God coming into human flesh, coming into it from the outside. His life is the Highest and the Holiest entering in at the Lowliest door. Our Lord’s birth was an advent.

God manifest in the flesh - that is what is made profoundly possible for you and me by the Redemption.

And the angel answered and said unto her, the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore, also that holy thing which hall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

Just as our Lord came into human history from the outside, so He must come into us from the outside. Have we allowed our personal human lives to become a ‘Bethlehem’ for the Son of God?.....The conception of the new birth in the New Testament is of something that enters into us, not of something that springs out of us.”

Merry Christmas from the “heartland.” Enjoy your holidays. Celebrate them extravagantly! See you all next week.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

Christmas is now just a few days away. As I’ve said before it’s been a very quiet Christmas season for Nancy and me. We made another day-trip yesterday, spending a good part of the morning and some of the early afternoon in Atchison, Kansas. It’s a great little town, quiet, filled with old Victorian homes that are still well-kept. But what Atchison is most noted for is that it’s the birthplace of aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

While we took note of the Victorian homes, the Earhart memorabilia, and the quiet pace of Atchison, this day-trip was all about shopping at Nell Hill’s. Nancy had heard much about Nell’s, so this visit was in order.

We left three hours after we arrived, a shopping bag in tow.

It was well worth the drive. We’re going to recommend it to our friends. I think for Nancy and the girls it would be a great way to spend a day.

Nancy asked me on the way home if I’d enjoyed the day. I told her I had. She smiled as she looked over at me. “I think you enjoy watching me enjoying myself, don’t you?” I nodded back.

I wonder now if I’m communicating. As I look back at the few words I’ve written so far I’m tempted to fill in some of the sparse places I’ve left behind. I’m tempted, but I’ve decided not to give in to the temptation. I trust you, dear reader, to fill in those sparse places in the dialogue yourself.

This has been the most reflective Christmas I’ve ever had. It’s almost as though I’ve been in a dream-like state. As I dream there’s a broad brush that now fills the landscape of my heart and mind with pictures and dreams of things that have been, things that are, and things I hope for in the days to come.

For me those thoughts, hopes, and visions seem now to be best expressed in the traditional Christmas carol, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The words to the carol date back to antiphons from the 12th century, nearly a thousand years ago now. The music comes from a funeral processional. Together, the words and music express the prophetic hopes and dreams from those who’ve long since shed their mortal coils. They stand now as witnesses calling us to also reflect, hope and dream:

“Words: Com­bined from var­i­ous an­ti­phons by an un­known au­thor, pos­si­bly in the 12th Cen­tu­ry (Ve­ni, ve­ni Eman­u­el); trans­lat­ed from La­tin to Eng­lish by
bio("John M. Neale","n/e/neale_jm")
John M. Neale, Med­iae­val Hymns, 1851. Neale’s orig­in­al trans­l­a­tion be­gan, “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Em­man­u­el.”

“Music: “Veni Em­man­u­el,” from a 15th Cen­tu­ry pro­cess­ion­al of French Fran­cis­can nuns (the set­ting for the fu­ner­al hymn Libera me); ar­ranged by
bio("Thom­as Hel­more","h/e/l/helmore_t")
Thom­as Hel­more in the Hymn­al Not­ed, Part II (Lon­don: 1856)
MI­DI, score).”

“The lyrics echo a num­ber of pro­phet­ic themes. The ti­tle comes from the well known Isai­ah 7:14: “Be­hold, a vir­gin shall con­ceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Im­man­u­el.” Im­man­u­el is He­brew for “God with us.” The “Rod of Jesse” refers to Isai­ah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jes­se”; Jesse was the fa­ther of Da­vid, se­cond king of Is­ra­el. “Day-Spring” comes from Za­cha­ri­as, fa­ther of John the Bap­tist, in Luke 1:78: “The day­spring from on high has vis­it­ed us.” “Thou Key of Da­vid” is in Isai­ah 22:22: “The key of the house of Da­vid will I lay up­on his shoul­der,” which in turn re­fers to Isai­ah 9:6 “The gov­ern­ment shall be up­on His shoul­der.”

The words seem so archaic nowadays. That’s because, I believe, at a time when time itself does indeed seem to be money, they call on us to stop and reflect. And so, dear reader, I now reflect and ask you to reflect along with me.

The words of the first stanza speak to me of a longing that, while it has been fulfilled, will one day be consummated, completed:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

As I listen I see in my minds eye that like the prophets of old, like those who long for Jesus’ first appearing, I am, and we are, in a sense exiles in this world. The beauty of the words, and the historic reality of Jesus’ birth is that, while it did happen in this world, calls us to another. It’s world that’s inhabited by the poor in spirit, a place for the meek and mournful, a world where the realities are mercy and peace and righteousness.

It’s a world in which the order seems out of touch with this world. It’s not a world in which the race goes to the swift or the battle to the strong. It’s a world in which the victory goes to those who, as my generation’s poet laureate has said, “can divide the word of truth.”

I think next of my current reality. Why am I here? I’ve accumulated a great deal of knowledge in over sixty years. I’ve become wiser as time has passed. And yet I know that, day by day, there is more. As I think these thoughts the words of the ancient carol speak once more to me:

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Yes…..Yes…..Yes! It’s something I’ve known for many years now and I must learn it anew each day. I read the words of the carol and I contemplate those who centuries ago expressed in such a beautiful way what I now feel:

Q. 1. “What is the chief end of man? A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”
1.”Is man a reasonable creature? Yes: for there is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding, Job 32:8. Has he greater capacities than the brutes ? Yes: God teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven, Job 35:11”.
2. “Is man his own maker? No: it is God that hath made us, and not we ourselves, Psalm 100:3. Is he then his own master? No: there is a Lord over us, Psalm 12:4. Is he his own carver? No: should it be according to thy mind, Job 34:33. Is he his own end? No: for none of us lives to himself, or dies to himself, Romans 14:7.”
3.” Is it your business in the world to serve the flesh? No: for we are not debtors to the flesh, that we should live after the flesh, Rom. 8:12. Is it to pursue the world ? No: for we are not of the world, John 17:16.”
4. “Is your happiness bound up in the creature? No: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit, Eccl. 1:14. Will the riches of the world make you happy? No: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth, Luke 12:15. Will the praise and applause of men make you happy? No: for it is vain glory, Gal. 5:26. Will sport and pleasure make you happy? No: for the wise man said of laughter, It is mad, and of mirth, What doth it? Eccl. 2:2. Can the gain of the world make you happy? No, for what is a man profited, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Matthew 16:26.”
5.” Is God then your chief end? Yes, for of him, and through him, and to him are all things, Rom. 11:36. Were you made for him? Yes: this people have I formed for myself, Isa. 43:21. Were you redeemed for him? Yes: ye are not your own, for ye are bought with a price, 1 Cor. 6:19, 20.”
6.” Is it your chief business to glorify God? Yes: we must glorify God in our body and in our spirit, which are God's, I Cor. 6:20. Must this be ultimately designed in all our actions? Yes: do all to the glory of God, 1 Cor. 10:31. Is God glorified by our praises? Yes: he that offers praise, glorifies me, Ps. 50:23. And is he glorified by our works? Yes: herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit, John 15:8.”
7.” Is God your chief good? Yes: for happy is the people whose God is the Lord, Ps. 144:15. Does all good come from him? Yes: for with him is the fountain of life, Ps. 36:9. And is all good enjoyed in him? Yes: the Lord is the portion of my inheritance, and of my cup, Ps. 16:5”.
8.” Is it your chief happiness then to have God's favour? Yes: for in his favour is life, Ps. 30:5. Is that the most desirable good? Yes: for his loving kindness is better than life, Ps. 63:3. Do you desire it above any good? Yes: Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us, Ps. 4:6, 7. And should you give all diligence to make it sure? Yes: herein we labour, that whether present or absent, we may be accepted of the Lord, 2 Cor. 5:9.”
9. “Is communion with God in grace here the best pleasure? Yes: it is good for me to draw near to God, Ps. 73:28. Is the vision and fruition of God in glory hereafter the best portion ? Yes: for in his presence there is fulness of joy, Ps. 16:11. Will you therefore set your heart upon this chief good? Yes: Lord, whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee; when my flesh and my heart fail, God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever, Ps. 73:25, 26.”

There it is. That humble birth turned conventional wisdom on its head. It signaled that there was a new paradigm for power and wisdom Who had broken into this world. Our fore bearers understood this well. I wonder now if we in this generation do. We seem confounded these days. We grasp for temporal power and momentary gain, professing ourselves wise, while the reality Jesus introduced as is a radically different kind of wisdom, a kind that God, by sovereign choice, has chosen to “confound the things that are mighty.”

I reflect on these things and dream of a day when the watchwords will no longer be left or right, but, as Holy Writ says, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” I dream of a day when we who cherish Jesus’ birth will become like Moses, who unlike his fellows, knew God’s ways while they only knew His acts.

I sit now also reflecting in peace. Yet I know that much of this world is far from peaceful. Sons and daughters of my countrymen are fighting and dying in a foreign war. While our sons and daughters serve far from the homes and families they love, terror is not far away from the city of Jesus’ birth. The city that Jesus wept over before His crucifixion now seems to be a bargaining chip in a cruel diplomatic game without resolution. Closer to home a heinous crime has been committed. And even closer a truly good man close to us has been stricken.

There seems to be so little that makes sense, so much in this world that is filled with grief and pain. It’s at these times I often drive along the Flint Hills and cry out for the consummation of the ages to come. Like those of old I long for the day when the words of the ancient carol will be fulfilled:

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

I believe that day is coming. I’m more ready now than I’ve ever been. As I sit here contemplating my age I plead for it to come soon. “Oh Lord, straighten out the crooked places.” “Oh Lord, make things right, make them as they should be.”

As I reflect I’m one with a great brotherhood of those who’ve come before me. Their days were no less confusing than mine, and yet they sought wisdom and found it Personified. They saw as much, or even more, pain and sorrow than we in this age see, but they refused to succumb to it. They refused to let it overpower them. They held out great hope that the nations would one day be bound together, that the divisions would cease, and that Jesus would be our King of Peace.

And so I close with this. I can do no less. We can do no less. The glad tidings that rang out in the fields surrounding Bethlehem must also ring out in our age. A Savior is born! The hope of consummation that filled the hearts of those who came before us must also fill ours. He is coming again! Maranatha!

Christmas blessings to you, dear reader. May His wisdom and peace fill your heart this season.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Wise Men (Even Smart Men) Still Seek Him

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (King James Version)

18”For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
19For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
20Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
21For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
22For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
23But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
24But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
25Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men”

I’ve just started reading Michael Guillen’s “Can a Smart Person Believe in God.” His purpose in writing the book is two-fold. First, he is attempting to return civility to the “debate” over whether it is possible to be intelligent and believe in God at the same time. While it’s admirable, it’s begging the question. Of course a person can be intelligent and believe in God at the same time. The problem is the perception that many on the left, academia, and the “intellectual elite” hold concerning faith and intelligence. This brings us to his second purpose, which is to debunk and demythologize:

“This unseemly and unfounded prejudice voiced a lot these days, mainly from secular humanists who see themselves as smart, free-thinking realists and believers in God as dim-witted superstitious sheep.

The accusation is expressed in many different ways, but its underlying message is always the same: you can’t possibly be an enlightened, scientifically literate person alive in the twenty-first century and still believe in God, or in all the celestial trappings that go with Him. It’s as if, as we venture forth into the new millennium, there’s a gigantic Dante-esque sign overhead that reads: “Abandon Faith, All ye Who Enter.”

The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first person to orbit the earth, quipped while in space: “I don’t see any god up here.” Similarly, a machinist from Toledo, Ohio remarked: “No, I don’t believe in God – (after all) did the space travelers ever see heaven on their trips?”

God is now obsolete, declares the modern-day doubting Thomas, superceded by deities of a more earthly variety. The report of an MIT professor’s imperious reaction to a campus event being sponsored by a Christian group says as much: “We don’t care that these people are here,” he reportedly scoffed. “At MIT, science and technology are the gods we serve.”

I’ve seen lots of that thinking in my life. Sometimes it manifests itself in very amusing ways, like the time I got into a brief discussion with a young student at Ohio State University in the late seventies. I’ve told the tale before, but I believe it’s worth repeating to give some light to this discussion. I was sitting outside one of the campus buildings, between classes. As I waited a young man started to pass by, then stopped. He got right to his point. “Marx was right!” he declared. I looked around to see who he was talking to and realized that just he and I were there. The declaration surprised me. After giving a few seconds thought I asked him to repeat himself. “Beg your pardon?” His voice got more emphatic when he made his declaration the second time. “You know…..Marx was right!”
“Which one?” I asked…..”Chico…..Zeppo…..Groucho…..Harpo?”
His response told me that he was sure he was dealing with a person of inferior intellect. “Karl,” he replied, correcting my faulty thinking.
I got curious. “What was he right about?”
“Religion is the opiate of the masses.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know man; religion is the opiate of the masses.”
How could I respond? There was only one way, I felt. “You’d better be careful. You’re gonna’ bite your butt off if you keep chasing yourself in circles like that.”

I don’t think I got through to him. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that once a person believes they’re intellectually superior to others they box themselves in, never allowing for points of view that might conflict with their acquired “wisdom.”

There are even times when things get turned around. One of the great advantages I had when I started my college work was that I was serious about what I was doing. My formative years living within the welfare state, or, more appropriately, the belly of the beast, and eight years of military service, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, had prepared me. I was ready to do my very best.

I majored in communications, with a minor in linguistics. I worked fifty-eight hours a week in a packaging plant to support my family. And I maintained a 3.78 GPA, which was more than enough to qualify me for a full academic scholarship. All that is to say I took the task before me seriously. I was in college to learn, and to me that meant not only absorbing the material, but also to think critically.

At the beginning of my second year I became acquainted with some of the neo-Pentecostals on campus. They were an interesting group. They were young, vibrant, bright, and happy. I think this combination made them dangerous to many of the other students. Being young, vibrant, and bright was one thing. But also being happy was something most students there had a real problem with.

Well, I won’t go into the details of how I too became one of the “happy,” It’s just enough right now to say that I did.

I was the third rated student on campus, and now I was one of “them,” one of those wild eyed fanatics who had scuttled my intellect for something far inferior.

It was during this year that the college sponsored a series on the Charismatic movement. Day one included presentations by professors in psychology, sociology, and linguistics. Each professor, to his credit, believed that the Charismatic movement was not only viable, but valid. That was surprising, but what was even more surprising was the response of the rest of the community. “These people aren’t thinking critically…..” “They’re just relying on emotion…..they’ve left their brains out of this equation.”

On the last day of the series some of the “happy folks” got to share. And oh was it a real mess. The more they shared the worse it got. The general consensus was “These folks aren’t as bright as us, they’re weak and they need something like this.” As I listened I’d determined to just lie in the weeds. “No sense,” I felt, “in getting myself into the middle of this.” But as the “discussion” progressed my sense of justice prevailed on me. I went to one of the microphones. With fear and trepidation I made my declaration. “You all know me. My mantra’s been that life is all about death, taxes, and my 3.78 in the honors program. Well I’m here to tell you that there’s more to learning that all that.” Then I made my declaration. “I’m one of those “happy” folks you all think are so dumb.” Suddenly neither my 3.78 or my academic achievements meant anything. I remember a couple of students who had been in a linguistics class with me shouting, “Dillon, we always knew you were brain dead.” This analysis came from two students who had been caught cheating on a final exam. I earned my “A” the old fashioned way. They needed to cheat to get their “C’s.”

Well, as Forrest Gump, my fellow savant once said, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Michael Guillen isn’t going to make this debate go away. This type of thinking has always been with us. If it can happen to an apostle like Paul it can, and will, happen to us. The best we can do is to accept our foolishness and move on. Paul himself put it this way in contending “super apostles” who questioned his wisdom and intellect:

1 Corinthians 4:9-10 (King James Version)

9”For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men.
10We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised.”

Well, it’s Sunday morning. I think I’ll go and do something “foolish.” I’m going to get together with about 250 other fools and worship God.

And how about you, dear reader? What foolish thing are you going to do today?

Friday, December 17, 2004


I think I’ll just meander today. Christmas day is coming and there’s not a lot on my mind except what I should get Nancy for Christmas. Hopefully my ramblings will make some sense to you.

Nancy and I took a nice day-trip to Kansas City yesterday. We began by having lunch at Lidia’s. If you’re ever in Kansas City I highly recommend it to you. It started with the most incredible vegetable soup I’ve ever had. That was followed by an absolutely wonderful pasta dish, especially the ravioli filled with cheese and just a hint of lemon. As soon as I took the first bite my eyes rolled back in my head. “Oh, man,” I thought. This food is almost too good.” I haven’t had Italian food that good since we lived in New Jersey.

After that very delicious and leisurely lunch we spent about an hour in Westport doing the type of shopping Nancy loves most – antiques. It’s her environment. So, we went from shop to shop, Nancy picking up a bauble or two and me along for the ride. I’d occasionally see something that appeared to me interesting, but each time I asked for the price it would be something like five, six, seven, or in once case nine hundred and fifty smackeroos, which I’ll talk more about it a minute.

I always find these trips amusing. It seems like my eye catches the most expensive pieces offered. What’s that called? Champagne taste with a beer wallet, if I’m not mistaken. But then I think about it. Do these shop owners just see me coming? As soon as I enter the shop I wonder if the sellers and merchants don’t inwardly clap their hands together with glee and say to themselves, “Oh this is an uniformed buyer if I ever saw one. It’ll be list plus about fifty percent for him.”

Not knowing a thing about antiques is a real disadvantage. When a fella’, who I assumed was the shop owner, saw my interest in a small wood etching of what appeared to me to be a couple of German farmers commiserating about the weather or disobedient wives or some other topic that interests farmers, he asked if I’d like to know more about it. I told him that I did and he opened the case. “Looks quite old to me…..Maybe 18th century…..Oh yes…..It may even be older…..Looks like it has worm holes…..That says it’s old for sure.”
“How much?” I asked
“Only $950.”
“Is that all?” I feigned shock that something “so old” would cost so little.
The shop-owner responded to my skepticism. “I’d like to discount it a bit for you, but as old as it is I can’t really do this piece justice.”
I slowly retreated. “I’ll think about it.”
I spent the next few minutes observing Nancy just wandering around. She decided to buy a candle for about twelve bucks. As she was paying I told her about the wood etching. “It’s probably very old…..Maybe 18th century…..And it may even be older…..I think it has worm holes…..That says it’s really old, doesn’t it?.....I’ll buy it for you if you like.”
Well it’s a good thing there aren’t two “marks” in the family. Nancy’s response to my generous offer was, “Nah, that’s okay Slick, I’ve got this candle and that’ll be enough for today.” I’ve learned over time how to translate this little “Nancyisms.” It was her way of saying that the candle was about as old as the etching and it was a whole lot cheaper.

From Westport we made our way to the Plaza, Kansas City’s trendiest neighborhood. It’s about as close as Kansas City gets to looking like the Big Apple, where, in one form or another, it’s a demitasse followed by a demi-portion, followed by a very big bill. Something that might cost ten dollars here in Emporia will cost about thirty on the Plaza. But, as they say, you get what you pay for. Here in Emporia things are down home. It’s a fellow senior citizen at the door of Wal-Mart greeting the customers with the usual, “Welcome to Wal-Mart. Can I get you a shopping cart?” On the Plaza you’re greeted by “yuppies” who consider you a client rather than a customer. And, most important of all, they give you ambience. It all reminded me of an anniversary meal we had at some country club on Cape Cod a few years ago. It was one of those places where a guy is addressed as “the gentleman.” So it was “Would the gentleman care for an aperitif? Would the gentleman care for the wine list?” As I heard the words “Would the gentleman” I kept looking around, wondering “Who she’s talking to?” I found out when our new age “server” handed me the bill. I opened it delicately and nearly went into cardiac arrest…..three hundred and twenty big ones! That was about twenty bucks for the food for two and three hundred for the kind words.

Well that’s what the Plaza is like. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Twenty bucks per purchase can buy you a lot more these days than you might think – a tickled ego and a French lesson. A real bargain, wouldn’t you say?

Our afternoon ended with a few purchases. I bought a couple of books, “Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way” by Pope John Paul II. The other was “Can a Smart Person Believe in God” by Michael Guillen. Nancy got a silicon doo-dad that she’s now using to make cookies. Silicon apparently is quite heat resistant, which makes it quite nice to place the silicon doo-dad on the cookie sheet, drop cookie dough on it, and then throw it all in the oven. This saves her from having to scrape the cookies from the cookie sheet. Ah, will wonders never cease.

The drive home was quite pleasant, filled with memories of a wonderful thirty five dollar meal at Lidia’s, about forty dollars worth of trinkets, and about fifty dollars worth of books. Not a bad day at all. It was nearing sunset as we got on the highway south. The red glow of the sunset, painted against the bare branches of the few trees along the route home, seemed to beckon us home. We didn’t say a lot; we just basked in the ride and our quiet companionship. I spent most of my time thinking of the silhouette God was painting just outside my window. I wondered if it might even be possible for me, in these quiet moments, to open the window and peel back the layers so that I could see the Artist face to face. I came to my senses and realized that while I couldn’t peel those layers back I could find great comfort in the idea that one day those layers would be pulled back for me and I would see the Artist face to face.

This morning I began reading Pope John Paul’s book. While I’m not a Roman Catholic there’s much that I admire about this man. We Americans love to delude ourselves by believing that communism fell because we armed ourselves to the teeth and bankrupted them. Actually it was men like John Paul and the “insignificant” Christian communities of Eastern Europe, armed with faith, who were the real movers. John Paul’s words, heard and heeded by those hungry for the freedom to express their faith in Jesus Christ, spoke to me as well:

“When I spoke about this (Courage) on June 12, 1987, at Westerplatte in Gdansk to Polish young people, I spoke of that place as an eloquent symbol of fidelity in the face of dramatic challenge. There it was, in 1939, that a group of young Polish soldiers, fighting against decidedly superior and better equipped forces of the German invaders, faced grave danger as they bore a victorious witness to courage, perseverance, and fidelity. I referred to that episode, inviting the young people to reflect, above all, on the relation “between being more and having more,” (my emphasis added) and I warned them: “Having more must never be allowed to win. If it did, we would lose the most precious gift of all: out humanity, our conscience, our dignity.” In this vein, I encouraged them: You must make demands on yourselves, even if others don’t make demands on you.” And I went on to explain: “Each of you, young people, will experience a Westerplatte of your own: responsibilities that you must assume and fulfill, a just cause, for which you must fight, an obligation, from which there can be no withdrawal, no running away. A system of truths and values that must be “upheld” and “defended”: a Westerplatte in and around you. Yes, defend these things for yourselves and others.”

I reflect even now on John Paul’s powerful words. I think of the materialism that seems to be choking the life the Church in America. I think of the fact that it is rarely condemned, or questioned for that matter, these days. I think of what I wrote a few days about what I see and others see in evangelical Christian young people here in America. I wonder, no I actually fear, seeing that so many have opted for “having more” instead of “being more.” It seems to me that it’s the illusions that are shaping those who have opted for the opulence of the world. Can you imagine that? They’re being shaped by an illusion. Something that, by its own essence has no shape at all is shaping them. Eminem and Tommy Hilfiger have got them by their throats and they’re choking the life out of them.

Well, I’ve meandered. Over fifteen hundred words now. I’m told now that people’s attention spans can’t handle that. That is, “Give me something that catches my eye and it will get my attention…..and you’d better be quick about it…..I have money and I need more stuff, so I only have a minute or two before I get out there with the other clients…..I’ve got cold hard cash and I need a bit of ambience, not a sermon.

I’ll let you, dear reader, piece this together if you care to. It fits together. It takes a bit of work, but it does.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A Generation in the Balance

Ecclesiastes 12

1 “Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
"I find no pleasure in them"-

2 before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;

3 when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;

4 when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint”

This past Saturday I spent an hour bell-ringing for the Salvation Army. All in al it was a nice way to spend the morning. People, it seemed to me, were very generous, especially the ones you wouldn’t expect. Hispanics, who now comprise over thirty percent of Emporia’s population, were especially generous. But there was one group that seemed to want no part of the giving – young people, from their teens to their early thirties.

I thought it was just my odd way of looking at things, but today, after speaking with a few of the folks from the Lions Club, I found that I was pretty much on the mark.

Now I’m sure I’ll get comments from people telling me how noble our young people are today, and I’m sure there is some truth to that. But I’m going to engage in a few glittering generalities for a few minutes. I think that the generation we are raising now is in serious trouble. Why, you ask? Because, I say, that they seem to me to be utterly self-absorbed, which makes them very difficult to reach.

Now if you’re reading this post and you’re a Christian you’re probably thinking that it’s all those worldly parents who are raising worldly children that constitute the problem. If men like Chuck Colson are to be believed (and I believe they are) the problem is just acute within the institution of the Church and the institution of the Christian family. A few illustrative comments from Chuck Colson’s latest from Christianity Today will follow.

Using Christopher Reeve’s life and death as a starting point he asked a group of Christian young people what the moral problem was with Mr. Reeves’ position given to the United States senate on stem cell research. In case you’re not aware, Mr. Reeve advocated stem cell research because it would “serve the greatest good for the greatest number.” Christopher Reeve was a very nice man, a man who focused almost all of his energy in his latter years to being a visible representative of his cause, advocacy for stem-cell research to develop a cure for the spinal cord injury that was eventually to take his life. The problem with his position, as Colson wisely pointed out, was that it was self refuting. Reeves advocated research that would bring a cure to him, but the cost would be millions, possibly billions of dollars. And it would also mean crossing a moral threshold that until now we have not dared to cross. Why should, or would, a society spend money to keep him alive when there are millions of other individual causes and other diseases and conditions that touch many more lives than his. Couldn’t that money be used to help even more people by spending it on research to seek cures for other diseases? Yet, if Reeves had had his way and “what he (Reeves) advocated actually were our governing philosophy, he would not have been there to testify.” And what of the moral questions that his position raised? Reeves said we should ignore them and concentrate on his need.

But beyond Reeves, Mr. Colson had problems with the Christian young people he was addressing. He was appalled, noting that:

“I don’t know whether the students lacked analytical skills or were just confused, but when I explained the inherent contradiction, the lights went on. When I discussed the concept of absolute truth, and the fact that it is knowable, there was an occasional nod of understanding, but it was clear I was breaking new ground. These students, mind you, were products of Christian homes and schools.”

Charles Colson – cited in Christianity Today (December 2004)

At this point I need to move on. If you can’t see the self-refuting nature of Reeves’ argument, think it through. Then think it through again. And…..again. If you seriously consider it the truth will come to you.

But I have something else I believe is even more important that Reeves' argument. It’s the sad fact that many, many Christian young people are falling for it. Why? Colson points out in his piece that a recent George Barna poll showed “just nine percent (my research into Barna found that it was thirteen percent) of evangelical students believe in anything called absolute truth.” Whatever the difference is between the two numbers, the fact is that this is absolutely astounding news! Nine percent or thirteen percent, you choose your poison.

I’ve seen it happening, and I suspect you have too. This raises the question of how this all happened.

I’ll put it simply, bluntly. They learned it from us, their parents, their teachers, their mentors, their adult friends. “You can’t be serious,” you say. “I am,” I say.

The young people of this generation have observed, been taught, and mentored by a generation of adults who drifted from the truth and used “faith” as a tool to achieve whatever ends we felt were important. In a nutshell, faith was more about us and less about truth.

There may have been more paths into this state of affairs. I can think of two. The first came from the “left.” It all started innocently enough. There were causes like women’s roles in ministry. That evolved into developing a language of inclusiveness. That became, in turn, a signal to include abhorrent behaviors into the mix. That’s pretty much where things stand on the left right now.

We on the right had our own path. We got caught up in our cleverness. The “Book” warns us not be become “wise in our own conceits” but we didn’t listen. Too much of what happened in the eighties and nineties was about achieving our goals in life and using Jesus as a tool to get them.

We did it all with jazzed up music, seeker-friendly churches, anything we could use to attract the masses. Most often the words sounded right, but it was where the rubber met the road that we had our problems. Success was going to be our goal in life and Jesus was going to be the vehicle. Prosperity was just around the corner, a prayer or a confession away. We sang about it. We danced for joy about it. We declared it. I remember a jazzy little number I heard in the eighties; it said it all. It was titled, “He Works for me, His Work is Guaranteed.” It was, so we thought, all about Jesus. We might just as well have been saying, “Hey Jesus, when you finish the vacuuming I need you to go down to the bank and straighten out my account. I’m overdrawn. And then when you’re done with that I need you to fix my car. The injector’s stuck. When you’re done with that come on back and I’ll find something else for you to do.”

That was the Jesus young people saw us talking about in the last twenty years. You may gnash your teeth and wail, but in your heart of hearts you know I’m right.

And what happened to Kerygma and the truth that has been passed on to us for centuries? Oh we still talked about it…..occasionally. And what of Jesus’ lordship? Oh we still talked about it…..occasionally. And what of the categorical imperatives Jesus issued? Oh we still talked about them…..occasionally. But more often than not we proclaimed a Jesus who would fulfill the American dream for us. We treated the Lord of the universe as if he were a politician whose only job was to fulfill our desires.

So, the young people of today learned it from us. We’ve tried to deny it by saying that the young who are abandoning truth are un-teachable. I submit to you that they have been incurable learners all along. They’re just carrying out what they’ve learned to its logical extension. For eighty percent or more (Barna’s data) of the young people on the left faith has been stripped of any meaning. Everything is fine. Everything is right. Everything is good. For the eighty percent of the young people on the right faith has come to be nothing more than a vehicle to satisfy lusts and desires. It’s every bit as subjective as the truth lived by their counterparts on the left. The only difference is in the language employed. One talks about the “Ground of all being” and the other is almost constantly heard saying, “Praise the Lord.”

After his encounters with evangelical Christian young people Colson concludes by saying:

“We’ve no time to lose. All the evidence shows that we’re already losing our kids. With only 9 percent of born-again teens believing in absolute truth, can we rescue this generation? Can we afford not to try?"

He’s right on all scores. There is no time to lose. And we must find a way to reclaim this generation before it’s too late!

Monday, December 13, 2004

A Truly Good Man, a Truly Good Life

pain (p n)n.

An unpleasant sensation occurring in varying degrees of severity as a consequence of injury, disease, or emotional disorder.

Suffering or distress

There are times when the definition of a word doesn’t do justice to the true sense of what the word is attempting to describe. Pain is one of those words. An unpleasant sensation? Varying degrees of severity? There’s more to it than that, isn’t there. How can a single word even capture what one feels when pain sets in? We’ve all felt it. It jolts our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits. We can be on the highest of mountaintops when it attacks and it will, in a moment, plunge us into the deepest of valleys, struggling to escape it, praying for the pain to end and for an escape from the valley.

Why, at this time of the year, is pain on my mind. After all, isn’t it Christmas, the season of joy?
It is! And yet, even in the account of the birth of the Prince of Peace there are hints and foreshadowing of pain. There are the words of Simeon, the prophet who had sought the Messiah for his entire life. Once he saw Him he declared that he had seen God’s glory in the flesh and could now depart from his mortal coil. It was joy tinged with sadness, sadness that the One he had waited so long to see would have would one day have to endure the deepest of pain and descend in the deepest of pits. In that moment of great joy he spoke these words to His earthly parents:

“33And Joseph and his mother marveled at those things which were spoken of him.
34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;
35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be”

Jesus’ birth, which should have been welcomed by all, was seen by some of those in power as a threat. The voices of angels proclaiming His birth were to be followed by the sound of “Rachel weeping for her children because they were no more.” The world’s Savior had to flee evil men, living his early years in Egypt beyond their grasp.

Pain…..Pain…..Pain…..It seems that even at the highest of our highs in life it is always near. In an otherwise forgettable film, Rocky III, Sylvester Stallone, got the issue of pain right. Rocky is about to face a rival who is remorseless, cruel, vicious. As they meet in the center of the ring prior to the fight Rocky looks quizzically at his adversary, Clubber Lang. “What’s this all about?” he asks. Clubber grits his teeth and snarls…..”PAIN!” The words come out slowly, purposefully…..”PAIN!”

It’s one of the major components of our lives. We try to avoid it. We take medications to make it go away. The drug companies tell us that we just to take a pill or two because “We don’t have time for the pain.” Some even deny that it exists at all as if it were nothing but a figment of our imaginations. There are even preachers who say that we can confess it away. We do all this and more and yet it persists.

I think back now to a time in my life when I’d passed though a very painful time and hope was alive. Nancy and I were getting married. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life. We were meeting with a counselor one a week as part of our preparation. The sessions had gone quite well. I learned that Nancy loved me, loved God, and also loved her independence. And I also learned something I would have to work through if Nancy and I were to ever be successful. In a session about a month before we got married the counselor, a wonderful man named Phil Klever, started asking me questions. “So, Phil, you’ve served in Vietnam. Tell us something about it.” The question seemed out of place to me. I responded curtly. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Why not?”
“I just don’t.”
“Was it a painful experience?”
“How many times do I have to say I don’t want to talk about it?”
“Okay Phil. Now you’ve been divorced. Let’s talk about that.”
I felt two sensations well up within me – anger and fear. “I don’t want to talk about that either.”
“Why not?”
I felt my hands gripping the chair tightly, looking for something tangible upon which to secure my whole being. “Damn you. Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk about this. Why don’t you understand? I just want to talk about getting married.”
Nancy, who was sitting across from me, broke in. “Phil, you’ve got to know that I love you, but you’ve also got to know there are going to be times when I’m going to need you to fight through pain for me. Do you understand that? You’re going to need to fight for me. I need that in you. You can’t avoid it. If you avoid it now you’ll avoid it sometime when I need you most.”
I broke. “I don’t want to hurt anybody anymore….And I don’t want to be hurt. It all just hurts too much…..I just want it to go away.”

That, for me, was the crux of the issue. I had to come to an understanding that, even in the best of times, I couldn’t avoid dealing with pain. Nancy and I worked through those sessions and, by God’s grace, we’ve learned from our own experiences, and the experience of others, that pain, while it is inevitable, can be a very powerful redemptive force in our lives.

But, again, why, during this season, is it so close to my mind?

This past Sunday, our pastor emeritus, Jim Kegin, and his wife Judy, made a joint announcement to the church. Jim has just been diagnosed with Pick’s disease. It’s an especially cruel affliction. While it’s like Alzheimer’s, there are some elements of the disease that are distinctive:

“These basic differences between Alzheimer's disease and Pick's disease mean that the two tend to produce somewhat different symptoms. In contrast to Alzheimer's disease, in which early memory loss predominates, the first symptoms of Pick's disease are often personality change, and a decline in function at work and home. Personality change may take the form of apathy and indifference toward customary interests, or of disregard for social decorum and for the feelings of others. Poor social judgment, inappropriate sexual advances, or a coarse and jocular demeanor may be seen. Function declines because the patient simply does very little, or displays confusion and poor judgment. Patients may not be highly forgetful. Often times the patient performs well when directed to do something, but cannot undertake the very same thing independently. What is lost is the ability to initiate, organize, and follow through on even very simple plans and familiar activities.

As the illness advances, difficulties with language become common. Patients become unusually quiet, and when they do speak it may be slowly, in brief sentences. They may labor to make the sounds of words and their speech may sound distorted. Some become extremely apathetic -- they may sit for hours doing nothing at all unless prompted to do so by another, while others become extraordinarily restless, and may pace unceasingly. Some patients are hypersexual, and some, like a small child, may place anything they pick up in their mouths. Gluttonous eating occurs in some cases. Attention span is poor; patients seem to be distracted instantly by anything that they hear or see. Later in the disease, patients usually become mute. Restlessness gives way to profound apathy and the patient may not respond at all to the surrounding world. Eventually, they enter a terminal vegetative state.”

PAIN…..PAIN…..PAIN! As I listened it all seemed so cruel to me. Jim, who is one of the kindest men I have ever met, is now in a battle not only for his life, but for those things in life that he has so valued. “Why?” I sit here and wonder through tears asking as Nancy sits downstairs playing, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” I think of the Prince of Peace and good will toward men, I can almost hear the angels singing. I see and hear all the wonder of this marvelous season and yet cannot help but wonder…..”Why? Why the pain? Why such pain to such a good man and woman?”

I think back to Jim’s words yesterday. He spoke so eloquently to and through the pain. He spoke of his mentors – Polycarp, Augustine, Luther, Wesley, some of the men who have graced Christian history. He spoke about his conversations with them through what’s they’ve passed down through the ages. He spoke of his love of reading. He spoke of his love for his family. He spoke of his love for the Church. And he spoke of his love for Jesus. And, as it is just a part of his nature, he did it will great dignity. As he did a clasped Nancy’s hand and thought of my mentors. I too love the Church fathers and all they have passed on to us. I love Nancy and I love my family. I love the Church and I too love Jesus. I listened, wondering and hoping that when the time comes for me to face such pain in my life that I’ll handle it with the same type of grace Jim modeled.

He also spoke of the fight ahead. His words were soft, but powerful. He wasn’t going to just give up. He was going to proceed on all possible fronts. He and Judy (and all of us) will pray for complete restoration and healing. But if the miracle doesn’t come in one form, they are believing it will come in another. Judy also shared about the “God of the Valley.” She said that all of life’s experience to this point has led her to see that the “window of heaven has gotten bigger and brighter” as time has passed. That is, they are now closer to what they’ve have both lived for. It’s closer now than they thought, but even in this pain it is brighter, more easily seen.

And so the fight begins. Jim will be spending a good deal of time writing down his life’s experience. While they pray that healing will come, they will labor to ensure that all that has been so important to Jim in life will not be lost. He and Judy are also going to be working with the medical teams to further research into this disease. They will fight the good fight of faith. They will not give in!

It all seems so unfathomable to me. I wonder why it had to be Jim and Judy. Why not one of those cruel preachers who delights in dangling parishioners over the fires of hell for their own amusement? You’ve been around them, haven’t you? They swing their fists wildly and declare that “God loves you.” Their words are true, but their body language says that He is angry with you. They love to talk about judgment, but you’ll never hear them talk about mercy. “Why not one of them?” I ask. “It seems to me that it would be a just reward for their cutting words.”

But that’s not the reality. Jim Kegin, a kind, decent, Godly man has been stricken. I pray for a miracle, but the reality stares sullenly at me. He’s stricken. Judy, who shares her husband’s kindness, is now walking through the depths of this valley with him.

I think, arrogantly, that if I had my way this pain for them would all go away. I would, if I could, do it by the power of my confession. My faith would make it better. How much, I realize, I sound like one of those peddlers of positive confession. I wonder how I would have responded at the foot of the cross that Simeon saw even at the birth of Jesus. Would I, like they, be railing, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” Think of it. The One whose death was to bring life to those who would embrace Him at this point in his life was mocked by those inflicting the mortal wounds. I wonder where I would have been in His hour of need. Would I have embraced Him or would I have cursed Him?

So, it seems to me, that it’s all come full circle, a redemptive life, filled with mountains and valleys, and a redemptive death. This was they way of the cross for Jesus. And so it is now for Jim and Judy Kegin.

I spoke with Judy this morning, asking permission to share my thoughts about what has transpired in their lives. She was, as she always is, very gracious. In the course of our conversation she spoke about Jim’s desire to know that he had been a “good man,” that he had lived a good and honorable life. Of that I am confident. Jim is, in the truest sense of the words, a “good man.” And I think that will be one of the miracles that will come to him and to Judy in the days ahead. The words he loves to hear will be very near to them. “You’re a good man.”

Pain…..I sit here now wondering about its mystery. It’s the very thing we want least and yet it is the very thing that so often brings redemption in one form or another to us. It is something that is part of the human experience. And yet, as Judy so wonderfully said yesterday, as we pass through those times, the window of heaven gets bigger and brighter. There is a day coming, a day when God:

Revelation 21:4 (King James Version)

“Shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

That’s the hope that lies ahead.

Sunday, December 12, 2004


Jesus Prays for All Believers

20“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Have you ever notice how focused the “world” is on celebrity, which I believe has somehow become linked to what is termed or defined as personality:

per·son·al·i·ty (pûr s -n l -t )n. pl. per·son·al·i·ties

The quality or condition of being a person.

The totality of qualities and traits, as of character or behavior, that are peculiar to a specific person.

The pattern of collective character, behavioral, temperamental, emotional, and mental traits of a person: Though their personalities differed, they got along as friends.

Distinctive qualities of a person, especially those distinguishing personal characteristics that make one socially appealing: won the election more on personality than on capability.
See Synonyms at disposition.

A person as the embodiment of distinctive traits of mind and behavior.

A person of prominence or notoriety: television personalities.

After all, we believe, they’re famous, so they must have it “all together.” We assume that they exude personality, and hence we elevate them to places they have no business being:

It’s interesting. The “role models” being used today are actually the antithesis of what we should be emulating.

Oswald Chambers saw this exactly right, using one part of the extended passage in John 17. His December 12th snapshot and insights from “Devotions for Morning and Evening.” follow:


“that they may be one, even as we are one (John 17:22)

Personality is that peculiar, incalculable thing that is meant when we speak of ourselves as distinct from everyone else. Our personality is always too big for us to grasp. An island in the sea may be but the top of a great mountain. Personality is like an island, we know nothing about the great depths underneath, consequently we cannot estimate ourselves. We begin by thinking that we can, but we come to realize there is only one Being Who can understand us, and that is our Creator.

Personality is that characteristic of the spiritual man as individuality is the characteristic of the natural man. Our Lord can never be defined in terms of individuality and independence, but only in terms of personality. “I and My Father are one.” Personality merges, and you only reach your real identity when you are merged with another person. When love, or the Spirit of God strikes a man he is transformed, he no longer insists upon his separate individuality. Our Lord never spoke in terms of individuality, of a man’s “elbows” or his isolated position, but in terms of personality – “that they may be one, even as We are one.” If you give up your right to yourself to God, the real nature of your personality answers to God straight away. Jesus Christ emancipates the personality, and the individuality is transfigured; the transfiguring element is love, personal devotion to Jesus. Love is the outpouring of one’s personality in fellowship with another personality.”