Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Of Broken Eggs and Omelettes

Psalm 137:1-6 (New Living Translation)

Psalm 137

1 “Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem.[
2 We put away our lyres, hanging them on the branches of the willow trees.
3 For there our captors demanded a song of us. Our tormentors requested a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”
4 But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill upon the harp.
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don't make Jerusalem my highest joy.”

Isn’t it funny how some memories linger, waiting in the recesses of our minds and hearts, waiting for what seem appointed times to surface? I often wonder when they come if they’re just products of dated bitterness of events long since past, memories of trying times in my life. Or, I also wonder, “Are they gifts from God, given to bring an opportunity for healing?” They’re so wispy, so difficult to describe or express in words that I’m puzzled when they rise up. And, they come accompanied by a strange mix of inner music, part martial, part sweet lullaby. Perhaps there’s a middle ground, a place where God’s healing and the bitter memories collide. Perhaps there’s a cosmic battle going on here and I’m ground zero. I can’t say for sure and leave those issues as matters of faith, to be sorted out somewhere further down the road.

But I feel compelled to express what I’m feeling. It’s an imperative.

These are really good days for me. That’s part of this odd mix. For the past week or so I’ve sensed that I’m really blessed. I see that blessing in a myriad of ways. I see it in Nancy most of all, in her gentle way, in her unswerving commitment to God and to me. I see it in the little things, in the chorus of birds who have protected a wayward blue jay chick in our back yard for the past few days. I heard it in the aviary quartet singing a cappella as I worked on my masterpiece on the grille last night. Off to my right I could hear the purple martins twittering. To my left came the chipping of a wren, responding in his own inimitable way. Not to be outdone, the redbirds chirped and the mourning doves cooed, adding the perfect touch to this glad little song. As I listened I was reminded of an old tune sung by Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, a brief sample of which follows:

“All God’s creatures got a place in the choir
Some sing low and some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
Some just clap their hands our paws or anything they’ve got now.”

“Listen to the bass it’s the one at the bottom
Where the bullfrog croaks and hippopotamus
Moans and groans in the big tattoo
And the old cow just goes “moo”

“The dogs and the cats they take up the middle
Where the honey bee hums and the cricket fiddles
The donkey brays and pony neighs
And the old grey badger sighs”

“All God’s creatures got a place in the choir
Some sing low and some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
Some just clap their hands our paws or anything they’ve got now.”

Yes, I see God’s grace extended to me at every turn. I see it in the friends who visit, like the friends who came yesterday. I hear it in the conversations that wash gently through our house on these wonderful days. I can hear Nancy in the background, proclaiming most proudly, “Phil did this, isn’t he something, isn’t he wonderful?” as I try to focus on Doctor Mac’s animated discussion of politics, religion, the state of Emporia. I’m still amused by Gerald Clock’s tongue –in-cheek description of how he sneaks up on wild turkeys, which he revealed to us as we ate. “You’ve got to disguise the rifle and make them belief it’s a rake or some other garden implement,” he declared. I can still see the bemused look on his wife Ruth’s face as he revealed his secret. I can tell that she’s heard this story, and many like it. I ask and she tells me, “Oh yes, for thirty-eight years now.”

I’m grateful for all these little signposts of God’s goodness. They’re treasures for the keeping.

Yet, even with these blessings, there are still old memories that linger, and as I said earlier, spring up in the midst of these blessed times. This weekend, in the throes of the Memorial Day festivities, was such a time.

It all started when I reread Thomas Sowell’s “The Quest for Cosmic Justice.” There, on page one thirty-eight, was the trigger, in words:

“While many opponents of the Vietnam war on humanitarian grounds (myself included) were also horrified by the vast and traumatic exodus of the “boat people” fleeing the new regime in Vietnam, and still more so by the genocide carried out by the victorious Communist regime in Cambodia, those who opposed the war from the perspective of an ideological vision created no such uproar over the sufferings of the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos after the Communist victories in Indochina. As with so many other issues, the fate of the ostensible beneficiaries was never an over-riding consideration, if it was a consideration at all. Long before the Vietnam war, the fates of other ostensible beneficiaries had been repeatedly brushed aside with phrases about “the growing pains of a new society” or “You can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs.” It was the vision that mattered, not the flesh-and-blood human beings who were viewed as incidental casualties in the vision.”

As I read those words, the memories came. There was my arrival in Saigon. I remember the smell of death that lingered in the air as I stepped onto the tarmac at Tan son Nhut as vividly as I remember the sounds of the birds singing in my back yard last night. I remember the daily memorials, part of a tradition, of GI’s saluting as trucks filled with empty boots, reminders of the deadly cost of what later became a futile conflict. I remember the processions of metal caskets that often followed them. The coffins were going back home filled with the “remains,” while the empty boots headed to some warehouse somewhere back in the “world.” I remember!

I remember my first brush with the protest movement that was gathering steam back stateside. It was in a setting somewhat removed from the daily grind of the war, sitting at the U.S.O in Saigon, speaking with some Quakers who had come to protest. They said they’d come because they “cared.” To this day, with all due respect, those words ring hollow to me. I remember!

I remember the fall of Saigon in April of seventy-five. The memories of that day are very fresh to me today. I remember the genteel language of the media. When parsed it really meant that you really can’t “make omelettes with breaking eggs.” I remember!

The memories of broken eggs bring on fresh remembrances, memories that tell me even now who really cared and who didn’t. I remember induction day in 1961. At the end of the ceremony, in which I swore to defend my country against all enemies and to do my duty as an American soldier, a Salvation Army chaplain prayed for us and gave us pocket New Testaments. I never understood the value of that brief moment until years later. Who really cared back then? Well, there were no policy makers there wishing me well. There was no contingent of college students thanking me and the others who were leaving for our willingness to serve so that they could enjoy the luxury of an education. There was only a Salvation Army chaplain. Who really cared? I know the answer.

The memories go back even further now. I remember being, as the sociologists and the politically liberated left described me in my youth. “Look at this poor kid. His father’s a drunk and his mother’s a dolt. There’s no hope for him.” I think about it now and see that, from their ideological position, they were just describing another “broken egg.”

And so the memories come. The bitter mix with the sweet. They come and I wonder once more – “Is this just bitterness, old wounds, resurfacing for no reason or is this an opportunity to forgive.” “Or,” I wonder. “Is it something else?” I feel conflicted by it all, yet not abandoned. I feel anger, but I’m not overwhelmed by it. As the bitter mixes with the sweet I sense that God’s grace finds its way even to the “broken eggs” of this world. For that I am very, very grateful.

The thought now strikes me – should I just forget about all that’s passed? As I ponder that thought, the psalmist’s words come to me once more:

Psalm 137:5-6 (New Living Translation)

5 “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill upon the harp.
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don't make Jerusalem my highest joy.”

No, I cannot forget, nor should I. These bitter memories, along with the sweet, are part of me. They’ve shaped me. They’ve informed my politics, my religion, my life. I’m sure the advice will come. “Forget.” “Let go.” “Live and let live.”

Perhaps some day, but not today. Today, I’m left with the temporal reality. I am what I am; I am who I am. I am only left with the words of the poet to describe what I’m now feeling:

“I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name.
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.”

“I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night.
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light,
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.”

“I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like very grain of sand.”

In the end I see that I, “broken egg” that I am, am also like the sparrow that falls. I’m known and remembered, even treasured. The thought overwhelms me now and I offer a prayer for those other “broken eggs,” those failed social experiments conducted by the uncaring ideologues. In the rush of experimentation and “ideas,” they’ve been forgotten. But the psalmist’s words remind me that, like Jerusalem, I cannot forget Saigon or those broken in its aftermath.

I remember!
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Monday, May 30, 2005

We Owe Them More Than Music and Muffled Drums

Exodus 12:14 (New Living Translation)

14 “You must remember this day forever. Each year you will celebrate it as a special festival to the LORD.”

Holy Writ encourages us to remember. The word, in its various forms (remember, remembrance, etc.) is mentioned almost three hundred times in scripture. By way of comparison, the word forget in its various forms (forget, forgetting, etc) is mentioned less than a hundred.

It’s Memorial Day; a day Americans set aside not only to enjoy the blessings of liberty, but also to honor those who have fallen so that we might enjoy those blessings.

This wonderful tradition of remembrance goes back nearly a century and a half now:

“While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.”

This day of remembrance was codified by General John Logan when he issued “General Orders No. 11 on May 5, 1868” The preamble to that document follows. If you want to research further, use the link in the first sentence of this paragraph:

“The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

It’s been an American tradition since.

At a time when America’s sons and daughters are, in the great tradition of service passed down through the generations, serving freedom’s cause, I believe it’s important that we take the time to reflect upon their service and sacrifice.

To that end, I’m posting a poem written by Walt Whitman, honoring a father and son who had fallen in the Civil War. Whitman saw that we need to give those who have served not only the bugles and drums of mourning, but that we must also give them our love.

The best way we can do that, I believe, is to carry on the noble and necessary work they advanced even in falling:

Dirge for Two Veterans
Walt Whitman

"The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finish’d Sabbath,
On the pavement here and there beyond, it is looking,
Down on a new-made double grave.

Lo! the moon ascending,
Up from the east, the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house tops, ghastly, phantom moon,
Immense and silent moon.

I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-key’d bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they’re flooding,
As with voices and with tears.

I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring,
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.

For the son is brought with the father,
(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,
Two veterans son and father dropt together,
And the double grave awaits them.)

Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive,
And the daylight o’er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin’d,
(‘Tis some mother large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)

O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense, with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my solders twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.

The moon give you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love."

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Time to Consider - Sunday Morning Thoughts From Oswald Chambers

Matthew 6:20-29 (New Living Translation)

20 “Store your treasures in heaven, where they will never become moth-eaten or rusty and where they will be safe from thieves. 21Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be.
22"Your eye is a lamp for your body. A pure eye lets sunshine into your soul. 23But an evil eye shuts out the light and plunges you into darkness. If the light you think you have is really darkness, how deep that darkness will be!
24"No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
25"So I tell you, don't worry about everyday life--whether you have enough food, drink, and clothes. Doesn't life consist of more than food and clothing? 26Look at the birds. They don't need to plant or harvest or put food in barns because your heavenly Father feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than they are. 27Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? Of course not.
28"And why worry about your clothes? Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don't work or make their clothing, 29yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.”

Yesterday Nancy and I spent some time working outside. For me, it was merely labor. For her it was a labor of love. I was doing some concrete work on a section of buckled sidewalk with a friend. A few hours of doing that sort of thing makes a fella’ really appreciate retirement and leisure.

Nancy worked in the garden, watering a whitebud tree we’d planted on Monday. It was looking rather pitiful yesterday morning, with its large, heart-shaped leaves drooping. I’m looking at it outside my window this morning and it has the appearance of being very grateful for the care she gave it. I think it will make it. I’m also noticing that our coreopsis are now blooming. They’re absolutely grand. And, some of our lilies along the south side of the house are also in bloom.

Nancy’s also guarding a baby bluejay who had fallen out of its nest a few days ago. She’s making sure that Maizey, the calico cat who has adopted our front porch swing for a home, steers clear of this crisis. What this all means for Maizey is pampering. About every hour or so, either Nancy or I dutifully brings more food out to her, hoping that in doing so it will keep Maizey behaving the “better angels of her nature.” Since the fall, all the birds who frequent our back yard have been protecting the wayward child with incredible vigor, squawking at and dive bombing any perceived enemy. The cacophony of sound speaks to a very unlikely back-yard alliance, a mother blue jay, a wren, two or three redbirds. Even the starlings have taken up the little one’s cause. They, along with Nancy, are giving the chick every chance to make it. Given that, I think the little one will advance into adulthood.

Right now, there’s a wonderful stillness emanating from outside my window. The flowers are in bloom. The little one has made it to a fairly high branch in our ash tree. It appears that his tail feathers are much more developed than they were yesterday. Its mother, the wren, the redbirds, and the starlings are all very quiet. I take it as a good sign, that the fell good about the state of our back yard affairs. Pretty soon now and he’ll be able to navigate with a full rudder, then take wing, all thanks to Nancy and some feathered allies.

I see all of this and realize that it’s a wonderful time of the year, a time, for me at least, to reflect on the goodness of life

Holy Writ recommends that we take time to “consider,” to reflect upon the natural world and draw lessons for our lives. In doing so, we are told, we will see that much of what we “toil and spin” for is quite illusory, and cannot compare with the life lived in the gentle grasp of God’s grace.

Oswald Chambers, in his “Devotions for Morning and Evening,” put it this way:

“Consider the lilies. (Matthew 6:28)”

“When Jesus said “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” He was referring to the new life in us. If we make His words apply to the natural life only, we make Him appear foolish. If we are born of God and are obeying Him, the unconscious life is forming in us just where we are. God knows exactly the kind of garden to put His lilies in, and they grow and take form unconsciously. What is it that deforms natural beauty? Overmuch cultivation; and overmuch denominational teaching will deform beauty in the spiritual world.”

“The new life must go on and take form unconsciously. God is looking after it; He knows exactly the kind of nourishment as well as the kind of disintegration that is necessary. Be careful that you do not bury the new life, or put it into circumstances where it cannot grow. A lily can only grow in the surroundings that suit it, and in the same way God engineers the circumstances that are best fitted for the development of the life of His Son in us.”

I’m reflecting on these things, especially the beauty of the grace I’ve been given. I hope you are too. Have a great Sunday!

Friday, May 27, 2005

Universalism, or How an Unrepentant Hitler Could Make it into Heaven

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”

- C.S. Lewis – “The Great Divorce”

There was a rather startling op-ed piece in Wednesday night’s Gazette. Reverend Jim Darby, responding to an earlier letter to the Gazette about “basic tenets” of the Christian faith had this to say about the writer:

“He was especially concerned to point out that “The most basic tenet of the Christian faith is that there is only one way, one truth, and one life. (John 14:6)”

The passage Reverend Darby cited follows, along with John 14:7, for contextual purposes:

John 14:6-7 (New International Version)

6 “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know[
a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him”

Jesus’ answer was in response to a question from one of his disciples, Philip, who wanted to know where Jesus was going, which was heaven, and how he could even possibly know how he himself could get to the place where Jesus was going.

That’s the context. I believe it’s a statement of Jesus’ exclusivity and it’s clearly a basic tenet of the Christian faith.

Reverend Darby objected, noting that “God is love” ( I John 4:8b) is the most basic tenet of the faith.

I’ll cite that passage, along with verses one through seven, for contextual purposes:

1 John 4:1-8 (New International Version)

1 John 4

Test the Spirits

1 “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
4You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit[
a] of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”

It seems clear from this passage that love, too, is a basic tenet of the Christian faith. But, embedded in the text there is also a test of spirits, answering the question “How can I tell if someone is speaking on behalf of God?” Given that context, it affirms the exclusivity of Jesus (see verse 3).

Nevertheless, Reverend Darby closed his comments with this:

“For me (my emphasis added), Christ is the only way for my (my emphasis added) salvation. I cherish the Scriptures that speak of Christ in this way as sacred texts written by Christians, for Christians, in a hostile world. My life is given to the service of Christ. We share many things in common. Where we differ on this point is that I will not extrapolate my personal faith to a declaration that limits the sovereignty of God.”

Beyond the noble language employed, there are some critical, eternally relevant, questions that need to be asked, and answered.

After reading the op-ed, the first questions that came to mind were these – Does the Christian claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven exclude love for one’s neighbor? Does this claim amount to bigotry?

The answer to both is clearly, “No!”

I’ll cite my reasons from personal experience. I recall vividly while I was in Vietnam that most people seemed quite amused with the fact that I was destroying my life. And why not. I was quite amusing in those days, fun to listen to. As I look back on it now I see that most people I knew then cared little about what I was doing with my life and where I was going. One of the few who did care was a fella’ named Tim Harrington. He came to me once and just laid it right on the line. “Dillon,” he said. “You’re a real joke. You think all these people are laughin’ with you, but they’re not. They’re just laughing at you. You’re pathetic.” The words, of course, enraged me. But he didn’t stop there. “I’m one of the only people who really cares about you. Do you know that? You’re wasting your life. You’re a real jerk and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

It took me nearly a year, along with the help of Paul Vartenisian, another of the men who really cared, to see that what Tim Harrington was telling me was the truth. He and Paul played vital roles in my return to sanity. The others? They just laughed.

I ask you, who really loved me back then? Was it the people who didn’t want to “confront” me with the truth? Or was it Tim Harrington? The answer is obvious.

Now, to the question of the exclusivity of Jesus Vis a Vis bigotry. One of my closest work relationships was with a fellow engineer, a devout Muslim, while I was living in New Jersey. He was a new employee and it was my task/privilege to help mentor him. I recall many of the wonderful times we had together and I learned a great deal about him. As a devout Muslim, he acted out of a firm belief that his day to day work was an act of worship. Who would, or could not, admire that? I also greatly admired his ethics. And he, in the same manner, admired me. That relationship grew to the point where we often discussed matters of great import. As a Palestinian he often spoke of his dream of a day when there would be a Palestinian homeland. I told him that I shared that dream, and further dreamed of a Middle-East that would be a secure home to Israelis and Palestinians living in peace. Most important of all, I shared my faith with him. I loved this man enough to tell him the truth; love compelled me to do so. I could not, in good conscience, say that I loved him like a brother, and then not tell him what I believed to be true. He listened, but never came to a point of decision. Never once did he tell me that my belief that Jesus was the only way to heaven was bigotry. He rejected it, but not once did he ever accuse me of not caring about him.

There was a time when he left open the possibility that I, as a “person of the Book,” might one day make it to heaven. But he knew that he too had to be true to his faith, as I had to be to mine. After all, his “way” was every bit as exclusive as mine.

He once said that “One day this question will be answered.” I told him that that was only half true. Sure enough, one day we will all find out. But, just as surely, Jesus made the startling claim that He is the Way. He answered the question! And, he proved that He was correct in making that claim by His life, death, burial, and resurrection. That is normative Christian belief!

There’s a part of me that would like to believe that, in the end, we’ll all make it. But that’s wishful thinking, a Freudian illusion, as Norm Geisler once put it. Reverend Darby’s mistaken belief stems from the notion that “love will conquer all” and that all will be saved. It’s the notion that there are many paths, and each one is as viable as the next. I have one. You might have another. In the end we’ll all get to heaven by following our own paths. It’s the view, called universalism, that some have just as mistakenly held throughout Church history.

The view does not hold up in the face of truth. If we all get there in the end, it renders Jesus’ life, His sacrifice, and His resurrection utterly meaningless. If Reverend Darby is right, then normative Christianity, its core truth, is also utterly meaningless:

1 Corinthians 15:13-17 (New Living Translation)

13 “For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14And if Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless. 15And we apostles would all be lying about God, for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave, but that can't be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless, and you are still under condemnation for your sins.”

This all comes for me at a time when I’ve expressed my belief that there are times when we need to compromise for the sake of unity within the national community. But there are also times when there is absolutely no room for compromise. This is indeed the case when it comes to the core belief that Jesus is the only Way to heaven, that He is the only one who can redeem man from his sinful plight.

There are times when the temptation to dispose of the truth for the sake of unity is very powerful. After all, I, and millions of other Christians, live and work every day with people within our own communities who woo us with the universalist message. But it’s an empty message, a message that says that there is no price tag on reconciliation. It’s a faulty message that opens heaven to an unrepentant Hitler or Pol Pot. It’s a message that tickles the intellect and the ego, but it has no power to redeem. In the end it’s nothing more than an empty illusion. The people I know, the people I see every day, the people I love, deserve more than that. They deserve to know the Truth!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

There Oughta' Be a Provision for Time-Outs in the Game of Life

Isaiah 40:6-8 (King James Version)

6 “The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
7The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
8The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.”

Nancy and I spent a good part of yesterday in Kansas City. We were there partly for pleasure and partly for business.

At about one-thirty we met her cousin, Bill Berrier, and his wife Barb, for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory on the Plaza. The food was good, and the company was marvelous. Bill and Barb live near San Diego and had come to town for three reasons. Bill is going to be attending his 50th high school reunion this weekend, and this trip to renew high school friendships gave him and Barb a good reason to come in and visit with Bill’s dad, who everyone in the family, whether related by blood or not, calls Uncle Arthur. Arthur’s now a hundred and one and still going strong. Amazing! I told Bill and Barb that I think Arthur has a good chance at one day claiming the title “Oldest living American.” Nancy believes his key to success is that he absolutely never gets stressed out. I think she’s right. At almost every family gathering I’ve ever attended in the years Nancy and I have been married Arthur has been the one who quietly observed while the Catrons, Berriers, and the rest of the family discussed politics, religion, philosophy, liberalism versus conservatism, and other taboos while Arthur just sat and watched, amused, as the rest of us flailed our way through all these minefields over apple and gooseberry pies. Well, Arthur’s a hundred and one and going strong. There’s a lesson in that for the rest of us, I’m sure.

There was another reason for Bill and Barb’s visit. Bill and Nancy are caretakers, with Bill handling the primary duties, in Nancy’s aunt’s affairs and living arrangements. Myrtle, who will soon be eighty eight, had a stroke some time ago that was debilitating, and has since had a second one that further degraded her health. She is living at home, with the assistance of a managed care group. Right after lunch we took time to meet with the managed care group to go over Myrtle’s care, assess her health, and figure out how things need to proceed from this point.

There was a lot of good that came out of the meeting. Nancy was especially concerned over what would happen at some point in the future when/if Myrtle couldn’t or wouldn’t eat, that sort of thing. She wondered out loud whether a nursing home would be necessary. The group reassured her that Myrtle would be able to spend whatever time she has remaining at home. At some point, hospice care would almost certainly be necessary and we found out that it would be available to Myrtle. I believe this was a great comfort to Nancy, as well as the rest of us.

That said, I think this is a very trying time for Nancy. She had a very special bond with her aunt and having to see her life slip away, with her ability to communicate rapidly fading, is very painful. Myrtle was a mentor of sorts to Nancy. I’ve seen how special that relationship was. Nancy is a great lover of the arts and culture, and refined things like home decor. This she picked up from her aunt, who was a graduate of the art institute in Kansas City, and was also a fashion designer. She was polished, dignified, an exceedingly kind woman. Nancy’s always cherished their time together, which has become more infrequent over the years. I remember a very special visit they shared when we lived in New Jersey, the highlight of which was a night the two spent at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Nancy was just in seventh heaven as they left for the city and was beaming for days after the visit was over. But beyond those obviously special times, Nancy just loved being able to spend time with her aunt.

We left the meeting with the caretakers at about four; dropped Bill and Barb off at their rental car, and headed back south to Emporia. As soon as we got past the point at which interstate 35 goes from three lanes to two, I relaxed a bit, knowing that the traffic was going be a whole lot lighter from that point on. I think it was somewhere right around the southbound weigh station that it all hit me. It just didn’t seem fair at all, someone as refined as Myrtle now seemingly lost in a nether world, slowly losing her grip on reality. I’m not sure that I put it the right way, but I tried my best. “You know what, Coach? I think that life oughta’ be like NBA basketball games, especially the way they are at the end.” Nancy looked over at me quizzically, so I fumbled around some more, trying to explain how I felt. “I mean, it’s all those time outs. It all starts with about a minute left in the game. The losing team calls a time out and the clock stops. For the next three our four minutes they all get together and strategize, to find a way to overcome the deficit. Play then resumes for another eight or nine seconds and time is again called. There’s more strategizing and play once again resumes. At about the thirty second point it all happens again. And, it keeps on happening right till the end. I mean, Coach, the last nine seconds of a thriller lasts about two hours.”
“I see what you mean,” Nancy said, chuckling a bit.
I went on rambling. “I mean. I think life would be much fairer if we could all get to call a certain number of time outs at crunch time. I just think it would be a very fair approach, some time when things stand still and we could find ways to undo our mistakes or outsmart the opposition.”
Nancy didn’t say anything, but I think I know what she was thinking. Of the two of us, she’s the one who most often deals in the hypotheticals, the “what ifs.” My response is almost always the same when I hear them – “Hypothesis contrary to fact.” I’m quite certain that’s what Nancy was thinking as I was offering mine.

Something else struck me as we were moving south, and it was very, very close to home. There may come a time when reality slips away from one, or both of us. Now, I’m not a maudlin person, but I sense that I’m about midway through the third quarter now. The road ahead I never thought much about in quarters one and two is approaching and the game is going to end in another quarter or so. Knowing that, it just seemed to me that it would be really nice to have some time outs in the fourth quarter for myself.

Somewhere around Ottawa I began to see it all coming together in my mind’s eye. It was something like a Celtics game, with Johhny Most doing the play-by-play “high above courtside.” I remembered those old, glory days, when Johnny, with his high pitched, nasal voice would describe the action. “Cousy tricky dribbles to the right…..behind the back pass to Russell in the pivot…..over to Sharman at the top of the key…..a twenty footer…..swish!” Then, as we moved south of Ottawa, things changed. Johnny was still “high above courtside,” but he was describing the end of my game in life, with a minute left, complete with time outs for crunch time. “Dilly’s gotta’ call time here. That second quarter sprint he made has got him winded right now. He’s gotta’ call time.” Two time outs later it sounded like this. “Dillon to the top of the key…..around the pick…..left handed dribble…..lays it up and in.” Then, with that grand ending to a close, close game, he proclaimed for all to hear – “That Dillon really finishes well.”

I’m now home and it’s Wednesday afternoon. Reality has, of course, set in. My dream of a life with plenty of time outs is nothing more than a hypothesis contrary to fact. No one gets time outs in the game of life. Nancy’s aunt Myrtle doesn’t, nor do I. The clock doesn’t stop for any of us. We aren’t given an opportunity to strategize while time stands still.

There’s a real lesson in this fanciful dream. It’s all about today. It’s all about now. Holy Writ puts it this way:

Hebrews 3:12-15 (New Living Translation)

12 “Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters.[
a] Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. 13You must warn each other every day, as long as it is called “today,” (my emphasis added) so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. 14For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. 15But never forget the warning:

Today (my emphasis added) you must listen to his voice. Don't harden your hearts against him as Israel did when they rebelled.”

Some reading this post may be young and vibrant, living life in the first quarter. Some may be feeling very strong and independent, fresh off a second quarter spurt. But, I’m here to tell you that the fourth quarter is coming and there are no time outs that will be made available to you. It’s all about today, and you really need to think about that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Compromise is Not a Four Letter Word

Genesis 41:37-44 (New Living Translation)

37 “Joseph's suggestions were well received by Pharaoh and his advisers. 38As they discussed who should be appointed for the job, Pharaoh said, “Who could do it better than Joseph? For he is a man who is obviously filled with the spirit of God.” 39Turning to Joseph, Pharaoh said, “Since God has revealed the meaning of the dreams to you, you are the wisest man in the land! 40I hereby appoint you to direct this project. You will manage my household and organize all my people. Only I will have a rank higher than yours.”
41And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the entire land of Egypt.” 42Then Pharaoh placed his own signet ring on Joseph's finger as a symbol of his authority. He dressed him in beautiful clothing and placed the royal gold chain about his neck. 43Pharaoh also gave Joseph the chariot of his second-in-command, and wherever he went the command was shouted, “Kneel down!” So Joseph was put in charge of all Egypt. 44And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am the king, but no one will move a hand or a foot in the entire land of Egypt without your approval.”

Well, the deal has been struck. There will be no filibuster on three of George Bush’s judicial nominees. The people’s business will once again, after a nasty hiatus, be moved forward. How did fourteen senators find an avenue of compromise? Part IIA of the memorandum of understanding’s language they drafted relies heavily on trust and good will, a commodity in short supply these days in Washington. I believe it’s the most sensible, the most Godly way, to finally end this crisis:

A. Future Nominations Signatories will exercise their responsibilities (my emphasis added) under the Advice and Consent Clause of the United State Constitution in good faith (my emphasis added). Nominees should only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances, and each signatory must use his or her own discretion and judgement (my emphasis added) in determining whether such circumstances exist.”

The agreement has, of course, fueled pundits on the left and the right about the correctness of the deal. On the right, Neil Boortz had this to say:

“But let's talk more about the Republicans. They had total and complete victory in their hands, and they gave it up. Would the Democrats do that? Of course not! Democrats play for keeps. They know that when you have your opponent on the ropes, you don't feel sorry for them, worry about their "minority rights" and offer them something they're not entitled to. You put your foot on their throat and defeat them by the widest margin of victory possible. The Republicans gained seats in the Senate in the last election. They defeated the sitting Democratic leader over this very issue. They should have voted to change the rules on the first day of business back in January. Now that they have the votes, it should have been simple. Slam the door on the Democrats obstruction, just as voters elected them to do. Reverse the rolls here. How many of you really believe that the Democrats wouldn't have changed the Senate rules if it had been Republicans filibustering Democratic nominees?”

On the left, E.J. Dionne made this observation:

“The deal is not perfect. There are grounds to worry that the federal judiciary will be dominated at the end of the Bush years by a certain style of conservative -- Janice Rogers Brown is representative -- ready to roll back the New Deal jurisprudence of the last 70 years. Many who buy this legal approach preach that federal rules on wages and hours, environmental and business regulation, should be overturned by courts that would use 19th-century standards to void Washington's capacity to create rational standards for a complex 21st-century economy. Stopping such a judicial takeover would justify filibusters.”

I guess what I’m taking away from all of this is that the fire-eaters are about the only ones who are unhappy about this. And, I don’t for the life of me understand why. What is so bad about compromise in this case, anyway? And, why is it that so many conservative Christians fail to see the value of compromise?

In this case I’ve actually found myself aligned with the Washington Post:

“The deal is admittedly messy. Some nominees get votes, some still don't; the principle isn't terribly clear. It isn't specified what constitutes "extraordinary circumstances"; the members have to trust in one another's good faith. But the deal is far better than the alternative.”

There is ample Biblical warrant for finding avenues of compromise. Good will and trust must prevail for the sake of the entire American community, which includes believers and non-believers, Democrats and Republicans, liberals, conservatives, centrists, men and women, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists. I read Romans twelve and it seems so evident that I find it difficult to understand why so many of my “fellows” can’t see it:

Romans 12:16-18 (New Living Translation)

16 “Live in harmony with each other. Don't try to act important, but enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don't think you know it all!
17Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18Do your part to live in peace with everyone, as much as possible.”

There are two things that are driving this madness. First, for far too many conservatives, particularly Christians, and for as many liberals, again Christians, there is a heavy reliance on dogma and power rather than grace and unity. The result has been that politics, which should be an arena where all are represented, has become more and more polarized, with both sides seemingly determined to lock the other out. If the situation with the filibusters had been allowed to continue spinning out of control or if the “nuclear option” had been used there would be absolute chaos right now in the halls of congress. Some might think that this gridlock would be a good thing, but I don’t. At a time when we’re engaged in a war on terror, at a time when programs like social security need to be fixed, at a time when China is flexing its economic muscle against us, at a time when North Korea and Iran are on the brink of joining the nuclear family, it would be foolhardy to continue to act in such an adversarial manner. We are countrymen and we need each other. The name of the game here shouldn’t be about who can maintain power; it should be about who is willing to serve the interests of all Americans.

I’m afraid that political power has corrupted both the left and the right in this sordid political chapter. The left is now determined to either regain power or render the process meaningless with endless filibusters. The right seems every bit as determined to keep the power it has gained in the past ten years, willing to use the “nuclear option” to maintain their tight grip on the reins. We, the citizenry, are caught in the middle of this foolish game. Monday night’s compromise, at least temporarily, has restored some sanity to the process.

The second thing that is driving this is that Christian communities, both left and right, are relying far too heavily on the persuasive power of “superheroes” who have little or nothing to do with the household of faith. For many Christian conservatives, Rush Limbaugh and other pundits seem to have replaced Holy Writ and Jesus Himself as the center of faith, belief, and practice. And it’s no different on the left. There are the disciples of Molly Ivins or some other anointed “guru” there as well.

Sadly, even within the Christian community's pantheon of superheroes there are marked divisions. For every James Dobson on the right there’s a Jim Wallis on the left.

The compromise reached Monday will, for the time being, bring some civility back into the political process. To those on the left and right of the temporal equation this compromise probably seems like an empty gesture. This is due in large part to the fact that they have no inclination to trust anyone whose politics differs from theirs. I believe they’re dead wrong. I further believe that the fourteen who struck the deal saw the need for trust and good will to prevail. And, I honestly believe they’re the ones who are right. This society cannot make any progress without trust and good will.

As Christians, we should understand and embrace this principle. By so doing, we will not be abandoning our faith, nor will we be forsaking Biblical mandates for life and living. We’ll simply be living by the principle of living in harmony, which is sanctioned by Almighty God. It’s the same principle that strengthened Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon. If these men, our ancestors, could thrive, by God’s grace, in these hostile cultures, I believe we can in ours as well. In fact, I believe we must!

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Sweet Sorrow

2 Corinthians 13:11 (King James Version)

11 “Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.”

Dr. Mac said it best Sunday night as the rendering of some of the history of some close friends was beginning. Parting is, indeed, sweet sorrow.

Kent and Pat Austin, two of Victory Fellowship’s charter members are moving to Colorado within a month. They’ve lived in Emporia, and served the church faithfully for twenty years. At a time when many people have found the habit of flitting from church to church, shopping for the “best programs” or the “most entertaining” preaching, their tenure here was a remarkable example of faithfulness. They came to lead in the foundation of a Christian school here in Emporia and stayed on as the school, and the church, grew.

Their contribution has been remarkable, especially in terms of the number of children and young people their work of service touched.

There was a reception held to honor them for that service, and about fifty members, including Nancy and I, attended.

I didn’t get to know Kent and Pat as well as I would have liked to, so the reception provided me a great opportunity to do just that.

After the obligatory snacks and punch, we all settled in while some of the members who had more in-depth history with Kent and Pat told some humorous “stories” about them.

Now, I thought I’d had real barrel of laughs at the men’s retreat, but that was nothing compared to Sunday night’s affair. I laughed until my sides hurt.

I’m going to relay a bit of what I heard, partly to give you a glimpse of these wonderful folks, and partly to show that evangelical Christianity isn’t the dry, boring life its detractors have made it out to be.

First, I’m going to spend some time describing Kent and Pat. Just pretend that you’re listening to a forties radio show and come along with me. You’ll understand why I’m using the imagery of radio shortly.

Kent is a burly-chested man with what appears to be a perpetual tan. I’ve never asked him, but I’ve always been curious about how he could stay so tanned here in the Flint Hills. I understand how it could happen in the summer, but the tan seems to even stay for the winter. Now he doesn’t appear to be the type of guy who would sit in a tanning bed, but since I’ve never asked I can’t say. His face is round with an ever-present smile etched on it. His hair his thinning on the top, I believe at about the same pace as mine. Since he has a few years on me I feel comfortable in saying that I might have a strand or two more than him. But, it’s a close race.

Pat is a petite woman, and, like Kent, she has a smile etched wonderfully on her face. The most prominent thing I’ve noticed about her, though, is that her eyes are quite expressive. It’s almost as if she has listening eyes, if that makes sense. I think what I’m trying to say is that, in conversation, folks speaking to her have her undivided attention. She’s an apt listener. I can see that because her eyes don’t wander off. This ability to focus on others also shows in her remarkable ability to recall the minutest details of events and conversations. And then there’s her laugh. When something hits her funny bone, the laughter comes in short bursts, like it was shot out of a machine gun. It is simply one of the most infectious laughs I have ever heard.

Kent seems to be the more outgoing of the two, at least at first glance. But, after attending the reception I got to see things much more clearly. The best way I can describe the relationship is that Pat appears to me to be Gracie Allen and Kent appears to be George Burns. Now I’m not sure, but I think that Kent has believed that he’s had the best punch lines for years, but Pat has found those wonderful, delicate ways to upstage him at almost every turn.

There’s a Burns and Allen routine that I found that does much more than I could ever say to describe Kent and Pat. In the routine, George is playing the straight man and Gracie is getting all the zingers. George tries, and does get a good line or two in, but the show is really Gracie’s. The discussion is about the list of the greatest men of the twentieth century. It begins with Gracie asking a question:

GRACIE - Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill. How can they pick men like that to head the list?
GEORGE - I'm intrested to know, Gracie, who is your choice?
GRACIE - Need you ask, George? I'm thinking of a man whose glorious romantic voice has thrilled millions.
GEORGE - “The birds are sweetly singing and perfumed flowers are bringing in the wind”
GRACIE - No, a man whose charm and talent are world-famous.
GEORGE - Gracie, this is getting embarrassing.
GRACIE - Only one man should top this list--Charles Boyer.
GEORGE - Charles Boyer?
GRACIE - Uh-huh.
GEORGE - You put him ahead of Edison?
GEORGE - Edison invented the electric lights.
GRACIE - With Boyer, who needs them?
GEORGE - Gracie, there are some pretty great men on this list.
GRACIE - Not as great as Boyer. Well, look at these names. Arturo Toscanini, conductor. How do you like that? A man who punches transfers.
GEORGE - He happens to be a musical conductor.
GRACIE - All right, so he hums while he punches transfers. And here's another one, Einstein. Now what did he do?
GEORGE - Einstein?
GEORGE - What did he do?
GRACIE - Uh-huh.
GEORGE - He's the father of relativity.
GRACIE - Oh, what does she do?
GEORGE - Relativity Einstein?
GRACIE - Yeah.
GEORGE - She's at Warner Bros.
GEORGE - You know, Gracie, for a minute there, instead of Boyer, I thought that you thought that I belonged on that list of great men.
GRACIE - Oh. Oh, well, you see, George, you're my husband and I don't think of you as a man.
GEORGE - Well, thanks.
GRACIE - I mean, I don't think of you as a man who does anything.
GEORGE - Thanks again.
GRACIE - I mean, I don't think of you as a man that does anything romantic.
GEORGE - A triple thanks, and stop thinking about me.
GRACIE - Aw, now I've hurt your feelings, and I didn't mean to, George. You know, I'd rather be married to you than any man on this list: Churchill, Edison, Stalin, Hitler.
GEORGE - You have just earned me fourth “Thank you.”

That’s exactly how things work with Kent and Pat.

One after another, folks recounted some of the funny tales they remembered from their times with Kent and Pat. There’s one that will show you why I believe the resemblance to Burns and Allen is right on target. I’m not sure if I’ll get every detail correct, but it’ll be close enough. There was a time some years ago when Kent was having problems with his sinuses. It got bad enough to require professional attention. Upon seeing a doctor, he found out that he had a deviated septum that would require surgery. At some point in the process, at a church service, parishioners were asked if there was anything that the church should pray for. Pat, knowing that the surgery would be painful, requested prayer for Kent. I won’t be able to quote verbatim, but I think I can get the way Pat offered her request. “Please pray for my husband, he’s having surgery for a deviated scrotum!”

What a classic case of misplaced biology! I think only Gracie Allen or Pat Austin could have pulled it off.

I can only imagine the response of the congregation. If I had been there I’d have been working with the same competing interests everyone else was. One part of me would be aware of the need for “decorum” in the house of the Lord and the other part would be absolutely dying to howl.

How could one not laugh at a time like that? I think that in heaven that even the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost must have been doing a bit of knee slapping upon hearing this wonderful little malaprop. I can almost see it now in my mind’s eye as I think about it.

And so the evening went, one wonderful story after another. As I listened and laughed, I understood why these two wonderful folks will be missed. Their unswerving dedication to Christian service, coupled with their self-effacing ways, have endeared them to everyone.

In less than a month they’ll be on their way to Colorado. We wish them well.

There will, I’m sure, be a grand reunion with them one day, a time when we can reminisce, a time when Kent and Pat, like George and Gracie, will fill us in on all the details of the years from when they left Emporia till they, like we, made their way to Glory. While I’m sure, that in Heaven’s just way, they’ll each have their zingers, I am just as certain that Pat will find a way, gracefully, to upstage Kent. It just seems to me that that’s the way it should always be.

Godspeed, Kent and Pat. We will miss you!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Science, So Called

1 Timothy 6:20-21 (King James Version)

20 “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called:
21Which some professing have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with thee. Amen.”

I read an op-ed piece by Michael Kinsley this morning that just made my blood boil. It started with this little piece of invective:

“Mr. Bush, don't I matter more than tiny clumps of cells?”

“Imagine what it's like to open the newspaper (as I did Friday morning) and read that scientists in South Korea have made a huge breakthrough toward curing a disease that is slowly wrecking your life. But your own government is trying to prevent that cure.”

Then, in a fury, he outlined three issues that the president, his ethicists, and the majority of Americans have with the work just completed in South Korea. With each issue he advocated a position in response that, if adopted, would be a “Katie open the door – real wide” approach to science and technology. I’ll cite the issues and Kinsley’s response in full so that you can get some grasp of what he’s objecting to and what he’s advocating.

In point one he argued against the viability of embryonic stem cells:

“There are three issues: First, do the embryos used for stem cell research and therapy have rights? They are clumps of a few dozen cells, biologically more primitive than a mosquito. They have no consciousness, are not aware that they exist, and never have been. Nature itself creates and destroys millions of these every year. No one objects. No one mourns. In most cases no one even knows. If my life is worth no more than the survival of one of these clumps, then it is terribly unfair that I can plead my case on the Op-Ed page and they can't. But I have no trouble feeling that the government should value my life more than the lives of these clumps. God may disagree. But the government reports to me and to other adult Americans, not to God.”

Next, he posited that any arguments against his recommended approach are shallow and meaningless because they are “abstract and poetic, concerned (only) with the nature of humanity and “stuff”:

“Second, is human cloning such a horrific concept that it crosses a line into the territory of Frankenstein and “Brave New World”? Well, they said the same thing 27 years ago about in vitro fertilization, and that is now uncontroversial. It has brought joy to millions. And it is politically unassailable, even though the in vitro process produces and destroys far more “surplus” embryos than will ever be needed for stem cell therapy. The arguments against therapeutic cloning (cloning for medical purposes) tend to be abstract and poetic, concerned with the nature of humanity and stuff. But on the subject of stem cells, I am not in the mood for poetry.”

Then, in grand fashion, he pleaded passionately that the arguments against human cloning on the basis of “the slippery slope” are driven by “professional ethicists” looking only for “problems,” not solutions:

“Third, there's the slippery slope. If we're willing to destroy microscopic embryos for their stem cells, why will we stop before harvesting body parts from advanced fetuses, or breeding babies for their organs? Once we allow human cloning for embryos, how can we be sure no one will bring a cloned embryo to term and produce an actual cloned human being?” ”The answer is that we can't. But slippery-slope arguments could have stopped every technological advance since the wheel. Scientists look for solutions. Although there are no guarantees, when you put more scientists onto a problem, you increase your chance of solving it. By contrast, professional ethicists tend to look for problems. When you put more ethicists onto a problem, you can end up with more problems. Cad that I am, for example, it never occurred to me to worry that cloning embryos for stem cells “exploits women as egg donors not for their benefit.”

This all came for me at a time when I was pondering what that scientist, whose name still escapes me, had to say on Friday about the American public’s opposition to what many in the science “industry” want to do. We’re just uninformed, she told NPR.

I don’t think the scientist I heard on NPR is atypical. Nor do I think that Michael Kinsley’s views are out of step with the elites in the media. The two groups, ideologically, were made for each other. There’s very little difference between them other than the rhetoric used to either persuade or dismiss anyone who objects to their expert opinions. That use of language does stand out, though. One group, typified by the scientists, drapes its views in polite, cold, scientific language. The other, typified by Kinsley, employs a full frontal linguistic assault on its dissenters. Hence, those who object, particularly those who object on religious or moral grounds, are told that what we’re dealing with is nothing more than “clumps” and that the grisly work needs to proceed because “the American government reports to me and other adult Americans, not to God” or that this is not a time to be ‘abstract and poetic.”

The only real difference I see is tactical. Philosophically, much of mainstream science and the media elite are in lockstep.

Now, who would deny some of the great benefits science has brought us? We’d be foolish do so. So, to that end, I’m really a great admirer of science. But, I have to be honest and say that while science doesn’t bother me, the arrogant attitude far too many in the scientific community holds does.

And, I hold pretty much the same view of journalism and the media.

I don’t feel that I can trust them. Why? I just don’t believe there’s much of a moral foundation to them. In short, their gods are their bellies and their insatiable appetites for investigation and power, particularly power.

Here in Kansas some have dissented, willing to challenge one of the great apostles of science, Charles Darwin. These dissenters are viewed by much of he scientific community and the media pretty much right in line with Kinsley and the view many scientists hold about cloning. They, like Darwin, want to remove the major impediment to their ability to drive us all full throttle into the abyss. They are driven as much by their need to destroy religion and morality as they are to peer into their microscopes. Darwin’s words themselves are instructive in this regard:

“The same high mental faculties which first led man to believe in unseen spiritual agencies, then in fetishism, polytheism, and ultimately in monotheism, would invariably lead him, as long as his reasoning powers remained poorly developed, to various strange superstitions and customs.”

It sure seems to me that what they’re wanting to create is a new religion, one with them enthroned, expecting the rest of us to stand in awe or to bow down and worship them at the altar of cold, rational thought.

Well, I won’t. My trust level isn’t really high with these guys. They rank right up there with drug dealers and crooked politicians as far as I’m concerned. Songwriter Bob Dylan put it all much better than I ever could:

“Don't wanna betray nobody, don't wanna be betrayed,Don't wanna play with nobody, don't wanna be waylaid.Don't wanna miss nobody, don't wanna be missed,Don't put my faith in nobody, not even a scientist.”

To that end I’ll continue to be misguided, placing my faith in the God of heaven and earth or Darwin's "unseen spiritual agencies" rather than those who profess themselves wise and show themselves to be fools.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Hot Rod Shirt

1 Peter 5:5-6 (New Living Translation)

5 “You younger men, accept the authority of the elders. And all of you, serve each other in humility, for
"God sets himself against the proud, but he shows favor to the humble."[
6So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and in his good time he will honor you.”

Yesterday morning Nancy and I had breakfast at the Commercial Street Diner. It’s one of the most interesting places in this small city. Each time we go there’s a surprise of one kind or another. In past posts I’ve described seeing everything there from the ranchers, rednecks, and rowdies around these parts to the Lebo (pronounced leebow) Choralettes.

Well, yesterday was every bit as entertaining and instructive as any morning we’ve ever spent at this little cafĂ©. After spending a few minutes with some friends who were just getting ready to leave, Nancy and I sat and discussed the state of things around town. The big news is the permanent closing of one of Emporia’s largest grocery stores that was announced on Friday. Dillon’s (same name, no family relationship) is closing in about a week. It was quite a shock. As we were discussing that, another shock wave, much more benign, caught Nancy’s eye. There was a man about my age who was approaching the register to pay for his meal, and boy was he ever a sight. He was a bit round in the middle like most of us men at this age (fifties to sixties), short, moon-faced, with a dark mustache. If it weren’t for what he was wearing he would have seemed quite normal. But he was a walking advertisement for clothes not making the man. He was wearing black work shoes, black shorts, and a black golf cap, and in between all of this he was decked out in a black shirt with garish orange, yellow, and red flames emanating from the bottom of the shirt to about the top of his pot-belly. He reminded me of an old, souped-up hot rod.

We laughed for a bit and then Nancy made the following observation: “He couldn’t possibly be married.”

I knew what she meant. I’ve been guilty of wearing odd color combinations in my day and I’ve even worn corduroy in August a time or two. But I’ve never, ever dressed myself like this guy.

Nancy’s observation piqued my interest and I took a look at his wedding ring finger as he was turning away from the register to leave. I chuckled a bit and waved my left hand in front of her, rubbing my wedding ring. “Third finger, left hand, Coach. He’s as married as I am,” I proudly announced. “ Don’t know how he got out of the house, but there it is.”

It’s now Sunday morning and I’m thinking of a larger point here. Holy Writ tells us that we should clothe ourselves with humility. That’s an interesting way to put it – “clothe yourselves.”

I wonder how often I clothe myself with a hot rod shirt, spiritually speaking, instead of humility. I wonder how often in manner my “inner’ clothing says, “Look at me, look at me, I’m hot, souped-up,” rather than saying that I’m ready to humbly serve God. I wonder how often I leave home clothed with the inappropriate attire for the “season.”

I believe we Christians need to be clothed for the common, ordinary business of living life and serving others. Oswald Chambers, in his “Devotions for Morning and Evening,” put it this way:

The Sphere of Humiliation

“If Thu canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.” (
Mark 9:22)

“After every time of exaltation we are brought down with a sudden rush into things as they are where it is neither beautiful nor poetic nor thrilling. The height of the mountain top is measured by the drab drudgery of the valley; but it is in the valley we have to live for the glory of God. We see His glory on the mount, but we never live for His glory there. It is in the sphere of humiliation that we find our true worth to God, that is where our faithfulness is revealed. Most of us can do things if we are always at the heroic pitch because of the natural selfishness of our hearts, but God wants us at the drab commonplace pitch, where we live in the valley according to our personal relationship with Him.
Peter thought it would be a fine thing for them to remain on the mount, but Jesus Christ took the disciples down from the mount into the valley, the place where the meaning of the vision is explained.”

If you’re a Christian and you’re wearing, so to speak, that hot-rod shirt, it’s time to put it in the closet. There may be a time for it some day, but right now, at this time, it is out of season, and will be for some time. Put it back in the closet, then, where it belongs and clothe yourself with humility.

Have a great Sunday!

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Cap'n Luke

Proverbs 17:17 (New Living Translation)

17 “A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.”

I spent the better part of the day yesterday in Wichita. One of the disadvantages of small city life for me is that Emporia doesn’t have a Volvo dealership. That means that my periodic service, for one thing, is about a two hundred mile round trip.

It’s a disadvantage I can live with.

On the way down I made the mistake of turning on the radio as I cruised south on the turnpike. And even worse, I tuned into NPR. At about mile marker 117 there was a feature about the new effort that South Korean scientists had just announced in the area of stem cell research. According to what I read later these are:

“ The same scientists last year became the first to clone a human embryo, sparking international clamor.”

I’ll be writing more about that on Monday.

A few more minutes into the dialogue and NPR really got to the meat of the story. The interviewer with one of those typical NPR names like Lakshmi or Nina or Noah or Cephas, those names that tell you what side of the studio they’re sitting on, was getting expert input from an American scientist on the matter. The scientist, whose name now escapes me (perhaps Mandalit or some other trendy name), was answering this statement/question – “The president has said he will veto any legislation that would allow human cloning for stem cell research. In addition, the American public, in the latest surveys, seems to be decidedly against human cloning. Why is that so?” Well, talk about fluff questions. Wouldn’t the president love that type of question to answer at his news conferences? Our intrepid scientist replied to this NPR softball in a politely indignant manner, “The president and the public are terribly misinformed.”

I guess that settled it. The expert has spoken.

This all happened between mile marker 117 and 109, my favorite part of the Flint Hills. I realize it was my own fault for tuning in, but I have to say it spoiled the view. I would have stopped to vomit, but I didn’t want to ruin the scenery any more than NPR already had. But, as I said earlier, more about that on Monday.

I got home at about 1:30 or so in the afternoon and had lost any energy my day had started with. The remainder of the afternoon, and evening, was spent “vegetating,” like the beets and cucumbers and tomatoes sitting out in the garden. My great advantage on them was that, since it was in the nineties here yesterday, I could do mine in air conditioned comfort.

This morning Nancy and I went up to have breakfast at the Commercial Street Diner, Emporia’s “in” place for Saturday morning “haute cuisine.” As soon as we got there, as almost always happens in such trendy places, we met a few friends. Adorning the table closest to the cash register were Curtis McCauley (I call him “Doc”} and Lucas Stephens, who I have recently dubbed “Cap’n Luke.”

It was especially good to see Lucas. The road has been a bit bumpy for him in the past few months, but it appears now that things have taken a turn for the better. He’s starting a new job in Dodge City come the 19th of June. The position will bring him closer to his family and give him a really good professional opportunity.

We’re gonna’ miss him a lot, but I wouldn’t for a moment take this opportunity from him. You could see by the beam on his face this morning that Lucas is a very happy man right now.

I don’t know Lucas as well as I should, but in the time I’ve known him I’ve come to see him as one of the kindest, gentlest men I’ve ever met. I did get to know him a bit better at our recent church retreat since he roomed with me. That’s when I re-named him “Cap’n Luke.”

An explanation is now in order.

Lucas has a condition known as sleep apnea, a breathing disorder, and to deal with it he sleeps with a device on his face that ensures that he doesn’t stop breathing while he’s asleep. It looks like an airline pilot’s oxygen mask.

By the time he got to the retreat on Friday the story of Jim Kegin’s sleep-talk was becoming a legend. Before he went to sleep that night he offered an advance apology in case the sound of the device disturbed either Jim or me.

He really didn’t need to. Neither Jim nor I heard anything at all.

But, on Saturday morning when he woke up he asked me if he had said anything significant during the night. I couldn’t resist; it was too much like an NPR “softball.” “At about four-thirty I think I heard you say something like this,” I said, stifling my laughter. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached a safe cruising altitude and you are now free to move about the cabin.” My over the top humor didn’t phase Lucas a bit; he accepted it all in the gracious manner he does just about everything in his life. It was then I crowned him, to be known henceforth and forevermore, as “Cap’n Luke.”

I’ve since kidded with him that I’m going to buy him some goggles and a Snoopy vintage leather pilot’s helmet. I’m sure if I do he’ll take it all in stride.

One of the wonderful things about Christian friendship is that we can share humor, even at difficult times in our lives. Humor and the merry heart are part of the bond of Christian friendship. I tend to believe that Jesus Himself occasionally had a bit of fun at the disciple’s expense. There may have been a noogie or two. And, who knows, the Master may have even “cut the cheese” and then looked around at Peter and said something like, “Whew, big boy, was that you?”

There’s something that can be very cathartic about humor. Holy Writ recognizes this principle:

Proverbs 15:13-14 (New Living Translation)

13 “A glad heart makes a happy face; a broken heart crushes the spirit.
14A wise person is hungry for truth, while the fool feeds on trash.”

I think if I’d said the same sorts of things I said to Lucas and Jim to someone with an NPR attitude, the folks from the ACLU or the People for the American Way or some other left leaning peeping Tom organization would be descending on my house right now, lawsuits in tow, to make an example of me. Such is life in a good part of America outside the Kansas Flint Hills nowadays.

I’d like to think that my brethren on the left, the ones with the NPR attitude, could change, that they could start living a little, playing in the traffic with the rest of us for a while if you will, instead of spending their time attempting to mold every one else into their sour image. It really wouldn’t hurt them a bit to laugh a bit, even at themselves, instead of taking themselves so seriously that they’ve become self-righteous parodies. Our towns, our cities, our communities, and even the Kansas Flint Hills would be a whole lot better of if they did.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Tradition of Sedition

1 Chronicles 16:15-22 (New Living Translation)

15 “He always stands by his covenant[
a]-- the commitment he made to a thousand generations.
16 This is the covenant he made with Abraham and the oath he swore to Isaac.
17 He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to the people of Israel as a never-ending treaty:
18 "I will give you the land of Canaan as your special possession."
19 He said this when they were few in number, a tiny group of strangers in Canaan.
20 They wandered back and forth between nations, from one kingdom to another.
21 Yet he did not let anyone oppress them. He warned kings on their behalf:
22 “Do not touch these people I have chosen, and do not hurt my prophets.”

We’re reading Edwin Louis Cole’s “Real Man” in our Wednesday night group. There was a portion of what the author had to say in chapter nine, which we read through last night, that got my wheels turning:

“The other element of faithfulness is submission. Personal submission is willingly yielding, giving, or offering yourself to an authority. Conversely, sedition is revolting against authority to which one owes allegiance. Submission is God’s answer to sedition. Sedition in the Church today is ripping apart congregations, tearing down families, and crushing friendships. To remain faithful today, a man must beware of the subtlety of sedition.”

There’s a lot of truth in what Cole said. In both conduct and language there is a some rebellion afoot in society and the Church. Cole believes it stems from a failure on the part of many to submit to authority. I also think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Having said that, however, I think there’s even more to the problem than that. There’s a part of me that stops short of trying to purge the rebels from the flock, seeing even legitimate dissent as sedition. I think it stems partly from my journey, and partly from my read of Holy Writ.

First, I’d like to examine this from the point of view of personal experience. If you’ve read my blog for any period of time you know that I spent a good part of the seventies in a large Charismatic church in Kansas City. It was a church with an international reputation and in the time I was there I served faithfully. But, there came times when, on matters of conscience, I found myself at odds with the leadership of the church. I’ll briefly recount what happened now.

It was really a little thing. I’d gotten out of class early one day and stopped by the church. After a few minutes of conversation one of the leaders asked me if I would go and pick up some “goodies” from a bakery south of downtown. It was a personal favor. The stuff I was to get was for a party. It was not related to any official business of the church! I agreed. I was then told that I would need to get some money for them from the church secretary, who was going to take the funds (about three hundred dollars) from the church’s general fund. I felt uncomfortable about doing something like that and said so. The conversation then took an ominous turn. “What’s the big deal, Phil? It’s only three hundred dollars.”
“It’s not the amount. It’s the manner here. I just don’t think that anyone should take general operating funds and use them for personal things. That’s what salaries are for.”
My response didn’t sit well at all and I got this fired right back at me. “Look Phil, don’t moralize. This is not a big deal. Just go get the stuff and stop being a rebel.” I refused as politely as I could and was then told that I shouldn’t be touching “God’s anointed.” The reference was pointed, telling me that I was in rebellion to appointed leadership. I reminded him that, while almost anything in the Bible has individual dimensions to it; his reference was not meant to be appropriated by individuals at the expense of the welfare of the body. I cited this reference at the beginning of this post and I’ll let you be the judge.

We never resolved the matter.

Perhaps you’re thinking that this was such a small thing. Perhaps you’re right. But the big problems almost always begin with small ones. I’m sure it all started with something very small and grew into one of the biggest Church scandals in the last half of the twentieth century. Little things grew into big ones, as evidenced by this little snippet from Wikipedia:

“Between 1984 and 1987, the Bakkers received annual salaries of $200,000 each and Jim awarded himself over $4 million in bonuses. Their assets at that time included a $600,000 house in Palm Springs, four condominiums in California, and a Rolls Royce. In their success, the Bakkers took conspicuous consumption to an unusual level for a non-profit. PTL once spent $100,000 for a private jet to fly the Bakkers' clothing across the country. It also once spent $100 for cinnamon rolls because the Bakkers wanted the smell of them in their hotel room.”

A hundred bucks for the smell of cinnamon rolls was just a little thing, a perk if you will. So was the four million dollar bonus. The only real difference was the scale. The breach of ethics took place early on, with little things. It grew out of control.

How did Jim Bakker get away with things for so long? I think that, beyond the personal failings, there were a lot of other folks at PTL that knew early on that the little things, the “harmless” things and excesses, were going on and said nothing. “Touch not mine anointed,” was the watchword.

The piece that Cole didn’t mention in the chapter we covered last night (perhaps he will in a subsequent chapter) is the mutual nature of submission and accountability. It works in both directions. People, by and large, will submit to submissive leadership. They will gladly be held accountable to leaders who are themselves willing to be held accountable. I think it all boils down to that principle.

The breakdown in the equation comes when one party or the other develops an attitude that they are set apart, special, and that the rules of ethics and behavior don’t apply to them. It’s the “touch not mine anointed” syndrome and it breeds nothing but bad things – fear, mistrust, and ethical lapses.

One of the things I really admire about the leadership in our church here in Emporia is that the standard of ethics is high, due in large part to the fact that neither Jim Kegin, our pastor emeritus, nor Mike Stubbs, our pastor, are so above everyone else in the congregation that they lord power and privilege over others. The communications and the accountability flow in both directions at Victory Fellowship. It works here the way things should, people working together, in mutual submission, in God’s vineyard.

You know, I’ve met very few Christians in my lifetime who have outrageously rebellious natures, who are trying to incite discontent. I do, however, believe that there is a good healthy tradition of respectful dissent that is sometimes mistaken as rebellion or sedition. To use a catch phrase, Christianity has a “tradition of sedition” built into it.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to be flippant. I believe there’s an important principle to be learned here.

By that I mean that God’s expectation is for His people to be loyal, not only to leadership, but also to principles. One of the best examples I can think of is the prophet Nathan. Almost everyone reading this blog knows the story of David and Bathsheba. David, the king, had abused his position of privilege and power to satisfy his lust for a beautiful woman. Even worse than the adultery he committed was the callous disregard he had for the life of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. While he did not physically plunge a dagger into his heart, David coldly calculated the murder of one of his most loyal servants. Uriah died in battle, forsaken, and David reaped the spoils – he married Bathsheba (see II Samuel 11).

Fortunately, for David and for Israel, there was a prophet who was loyal to the principles of truth and justice. Nathan confronted David with the evil he had done. The words were stark, powerful:

2 Samuel 12:7-10 (New Living Translation)

7 “Then Nathan said to David, "You are that man! The LORD, the God of Israel, says, `I anointed you king of Israel and saved you from the power of Saul. 8I gave you his house and his wives and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And if that had not been enough, I would have given you much, much more. 9Why, then, have you despised the word of the LORD and done this horrible deed? For you have murdered Uriah and stolen his wife. 10From this time on, the sword will be a constant threat to your family, because you have despised me by taking Uriah's wife to be your own.”

It was also fortunate that Israel had a king like David. I think a lesser man might have accused the prophet of sedition or said, in cavalier fashion, “Touch not mine anointed.” But David, to his everlasting credit, accepted full responsibility for his despicable actions. “I have sinned against the Lord” he replied. There were no justifications. There were no questions about Nathan’s loyalty. There was no hush money offered. David just confessed. It’s one of the most amazing confessions of guilt in all of Holy Writ.

But there’s a lot more to the “tradition of sedition.” Jeremiah, another loyal prophet of Israel, swam against the tide of the opinion to his own detriment. . Ezekiel confronted the sins of an entire nation, not holding back a thing:

Ezekiel 22:25-29 (New Living Translation)

25 “Your princes[
a] plot conspiracies just as lions stalk their prey. They devour innocent people, seizing treasures and extorting wealth. They increase the number of widows in the land. 26Your priests have violated my laws and defiled my holy things. To them there is no difference between what is holy and what is not. And they do not teach my people the difference between what is ceremonially clean and unclean. They disregard my Sabbath days so that my holy name is greatly dishonored among them. 27Your leaders are like wolves, who tear apart their victims. They actually destroy people's lives for profit! 28And your prophets announce false visions and speak false messages. They say, `My message is from the Sovereign LORD,' when the LORD hasn't spoken a single word to them. They repair cracked walls with whitewash! 29Even common people oppress the poor, rob the needy, and deprive foreigners of justice.”

As you can see, Ezekiel didn’t spare anyone in all of Israel. Princes, prophets, leaders, and even the common people were declared, by the word of the Lord, to be guilty. But, in spite of the harsh rhetoric, Ezekiel was not a man with sedition in mind. His dream, his vision, was of restoration. This can be seen beautifully in his vision of the temple, the river of life flowing from it, and the city in which God’s people would live in harmony (Ezekiel 40 through 48).

In the New Testament there is John the Baptist, a loyal servant, who confronted a ruler and was imprisoned, and eventually executed, because of his stubborn refusal to bend the truth to suit the leader he had confronted.

Then there’s the early Church. They refused to waiver in the face of fierce opposition from the culture and its appointed leaders. Their response could, and might have, been interpreted as sedition, but our earliest forefathers believed that they had a debt of responsibility to the Message they had been given:

Acts 4:27-29 (New Living Translation)

27 “That is what has happened here in this city! For Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, your holy servant, whom you anointed. 28In fact, everything they did occurred according to your eternal will and plan. 29And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give your servants great boldness in their preaching.”

In the end, for me, I believe the matter of accountability and submission, is a two way street. Loyalty should cut two ways, as should accountability. When those elements are held in balance there is a flow of trust, mutual respect, and open communication.

I hope that I’m not going to be misunderstood by those who read this post. I’m a firm believer in loyalty and submission. I’ve lived it and I subscribe to it. But I also know that God has given us consciences, and in the grand tradition of scripture, He has given us the mandate to speak out in matters of conscience. Leaders have that responsibility. The laity does as well.