Monday, February 28, 2005

The Mountain, The Pit, Grace and Reconciliation

Luke 9:57-58 (New International Version)

The Cost of Following Jesus

“57As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Life for Nancy and me is quite good and has been for many years. To say that we’ve been blessed is a real understatement. We’ve been overwhelmed by God’s goodness to us over the years.

One of the dangers in this is complacency, thinking or believing that because things are good now they will always be good, that somehow by virtue of age and maturity we can coast, having done all we need to do to make life grand.

But we recognize that while there seems to be a hedge around us, life is full of change. Like Job, that hedge can be removed and great trials may follow.

One of the most subtle traps in life is the one that deludes us into thinking that the good things in life are rewards for good behavior and righteousness. All we need to do is the right stuff and we’ll reap the rewards of our good labor. After all, we reason, anything less would be unjust. Difficulties in life, the floods of pain and grief, are meant for the wayward, the sinner. Life’s rains are not meant to fall on the just.

Of course, time and experience teach us that such notions are presumptuous. The rain indeed does fall on the just and the unjust.

Holy Writ is full of examples to show us this is true. Abraham, for example, was a man of great faith. While he had his human weaknesses, it cannot be denied that he did his best to do what was right in life. He left a thriving culture, the Chaldeans, in obedience to God. I’ve always been amazed by his saga. In my mind I’ve visualized him as a man driving a U-Haul truck around the wilderness after having left the great seat of culture in his world. He left the known, the intellectually vibrant, the prosperous, for the unknown. All he really knew was that God had called him to look for a city “whose builder and maker was God.”

It’s very easy in the light of recorded history to see Abraham as a man of faith. But I don’t believe it seemed very easy to him as he lived his life out day by day, celebrating triumphs at one turn and then tribulations at the next. There is no series of incidents in his life more telling, in my mind, than those associated with his nephew Lot. They’re recorded in Genesis 13-14. The stories revolve around their travels together through the wilderness, from Negev to Bethel, to Ai. Somewhere along the way a dispute arose between Abraham’s herdsmen and Lot’s. In an act of real grace, Abraham, the senior partner, settled the dispute by telling Lot, the junior partner, that he could choose whatever portion of the land before them that he desired and Abraham would take what was left. He put it this way: “Let’s not have quarreling between you and me or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.”

That, to me, defines grace in a way so practical it cannot be mistaken. Abraham did what was right. Lot, seeing only dimly, chose to pitch “his tents near Sodom,” one of the ancient cities that was later destroyed because of its wickedness. His choice proved to be very short-sighted and he, his family, his herdsmen and all their possessions were seized by an unholy alliance of kings. It fell to Abraham to once more do what was right. He gathered a small army and rescued Lot. Even after this conquest he did what was right in the eyes of God. When given an opportunity to bargain with the king of Sodom to keep the spoils of war in exchange for the lives of the people he had rescued, Abraham refused, saying, “I have raised my hand to the Lord God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal.”

These were noble acts of the first order. Abraham had given Lot the first choice when the original dispute arose and when Lot’s choice proved to be disastrous Abraham rescued him, asking nothing in return for his acts of kindness and mercy.

But I believe that there was a time, even in the face of doing all that was right, that Abraham had doubts about the reward in doing so. It’s not recorded, but I believe that in reading between the lines you can see it, and you can see it without doing violence to the text. Chapter fifteen, coming on the heels of this great saga begins this way:

Genesis 15:1 (New International Version)

“1 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
"Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

I read this short statement and see a hint of the questions, un-recorded that Abraham must have had in the face of all that happened. I can almost hear him asking the questions: “Where’s the reward in doing what’s right anyway?” “Where’s my reward?” “Am I going to have to spend my whole life doing this sort of thing?”

In the face of those questions God’s statement (answer) is as timely today as it was thousands of years ago. “I’m your reward…..I’m your shield…..Don’t be afraid.”

I think of my life right now and marvel at how well things are going for me. The questions that I believe might have occurred to Abraham seem far removed from me right now. Yet, in a different circumstance not so long ago another series of questions came to mind for me.

They came to me at the lowest point in my life. I’d been a Christian for almost fifteen years when life seemed to crash in around me. I was in the middle of a divorce, the one thing that should never visit a Christian’s door. Like Job, I felt the deep sting of the circumstance I was in:

Job 3:23-26 (New International Version)

“23 Why is life given to a man
whose way is hidden,
whom God has hedged in?
24 For sighing comes to me instead of food;
my groans pour out like water.
25 What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
26 I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

I’ve often put it all this way when people have asked me about how it all felt. “I’ve been in a war and I’ve been through a divorce and if I had the choice in life to do either one or the other I would gladly get back on that plane to Saigon rather than go through the pain and alienation of those days when everything I believed in about life and myself was spiraling downward into a pit.”

Now it’s not as important for me to tell you how and why it happened. There’s nothing I can say to justify what happened. It was what it was and I’ll leave it at that. But I do believe it’s important for me to tell you how I felt during those dark days.

It’s funny how certain facts remain with you. I remember sitting in my apartment the night the divorce was finalized. It struck me just how far I’d fallen. A few short months before I was a valued member of a Christian community. Now, with case number DR 83-5335 duly signed and sealed, I was anathema, cut off as I had been told “from the land of the living.” I came home and cooked a hamburger for myself, my reward of sorts. Then, when my comeuppance meal was done I sat alone in the darkness for hours, reliving all the mistakes and sins that had brought me to this place. I would occasionally get up and turn the lights on to watch the roaches scurry back into the darkness. Then I, like they, would turn the lights off and return to the safety of the darkness. The irony of the metaphor didn’t escape me. I too was now running from the light.

While the darkness didn’t seem especially inviting to me, it did seem just. I’d been told by people who seemed to know that I’d gotten what was coming to me. As I sat I pondered my next move and the thoughts ended in a perverse crescendo. There in the darkness I realized how much like our earthly marriage our relationship with God is supposed to be. Just before I went to bed that night I said what I thought might be the last words I would ever utter to the Almighty. “Good night Lord,” I said. “I guess You’re next in this series of divorces.”

In the days that followed everything seemed to confirm my worst fears about myself. I began to get “prophetic” hate mail from former friends, Job’s comforters to a man. I was amazed by how much insight they had gained about me in such a short period of time. It was revelation unbound. The letters would begin with words like these: “The Lord showed me a long time ago what you were really like” or “I’ve always sensed that weren’t all you pretended to be.” I had no defense to offer. All I could do was agree with what I was being told about myself and continue my downward spiral.

I began to wonder whether there was even a bottom to the pit I’d fallen in. Where was it all going to end? I was to soon find out. I came home from work one night to find that the lock to my apartment door had been changed. I hadn’t paid the rent. I called the landlord and he, “graciously,” allowed me to get the few things I owned from the apartment before I left. I was a cold January night and I now had nowhere to go. I had only a bit more than two dollars to my name, not even enough for a night in a downtown flop house.

I drove to the Metro North Mall and walked around for three hours until the stores closed. Then I made my way to downtown Kansas City. At about ten-thirty I pulled into a parking lot near Union Station, turned off the engine and crawled into the back seat of the car. I tossed and turned for minutes that seemed to be hours. It had all come to this. I’d hit bottom; I had nothing left. I had made my fate and now I was going to have to live with it. The only thing left for me to do now was to say my final goodbye to God. “So, Lord, what heavenly case number is this one gonna’ be? DR something or other? I tried my best but I guess it wasn’t good enough…..I only got what was coming to me. This is my reward and it’s only fitting.” I wiped the tears from my eyes and turned over in the back seat, expecting no response. But a response came. There in the darkness I heard those words God had spoken to Abraham centuries before: “Don’t be afraid. I am your shield, your very great reward.” Then more came. “I love you, Philip, I’ll never leave you or forsake you. I’ll heal the wounds others who don’t know you like I do have inflicted on you.”

The end I’d expected never came. Instead, in that short moment in the cold and dark, a new beginning came. There was no divorce; there was only a turning point, reconciliation. There were no accusations, only promises of restoration.

That was close to a quarter of a century ago now. God has been true to His promise made to me on that cold December night.

Since that night I’ve seen that it was God’s grace that pulled me out of that pit and it is His grace that sustains me on the mountain I seem to be standing on right now. I’ve learned that I can never presume on that grace or assume that I am now enjoying the fruit of my own righteousness.

I’ve hesitated for some time in writing about those days. Being vulnerable often means that we have to share from our emptiness as well as from our abundance. But I hope, and somehow believe, that someone may be reading what I’ve written from what seems to be their bottomless pit. I pray that my experience from here on the mountain will be a message like that of the prophet of old, to you, dear reader:

Micah 7:8 (King James Version)

“8Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD shall be a light unto me.”

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sunday Morning Thoughts From Oswald Chambers

John 4:5-11 (New International Version)

“5So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
7When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8(His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[
10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?”

Oswald Chambers often hits home with me. He wrote with such great insight, seeing the frailty of human nature. But the beauty of his insight was that it never left us without hope. Today’s excerpt from “Devotions for Morning and Evening” is, for me, a wonderful example of this great ability to dig deep into human nature and then call the reader to dig deeper yet into the richness of Almighty God to heal, encourage, strengthen, challenge:

Impoverished Ministry of Jesus

“From whence then has Thou that living water?” (John 4:11)

“The well is deep” – and a great deal deeper than the Samaritan woman knew! Think of the depths of human nature, of human life, think of the depths of the “wells” in you. Have you been impoverishing the ministry of Jesus Christ so that He cannot do anything? Suppose there is a well of fathomless trouble in your heart, and Jesus comes and says – “
Let not your heart be troubled”; and you shrug your shoulders and say, “But, Lord, the well is deep; You cannot draw quietness and comfort out of it.” No, He will bring them down from above. Jesus does not bring anything up from the wells of human nature. We limit the Holy One of Israel by remembering what we have allowed Him to do in the past, and by saying, “Of course I cannot expect God to do this thing.” The thing that taxes almightiness is the very thing which we as disciples of Jesus ought to believe He will do. We impoverish His ministry the moment we forget He is Almighty; the impoverishment is in us, not in Him. We will come to Jesus as Comforter or as Sympathizer, but we will not come to Him as Almighty.”

“The reason some of us are such poor specimens of Christianity is because we have no Almighty Christ. We have Christian attributes and experiences, but there is no abandonment to Jesus Christ. When we get into difficult circumstances, we impoverish His ministry by saying - “Of course He cannot do anything,” and we struggle down to the deeps and try to get the water for ourselves. Beware of the satisfaction of sinking back and saying – “It can’t be done”; you know it can be done if you look to Jesus. The well of your incompleteness is deep, but make the effort and look away to Him.”
I hope, dear reader, that these thoughts edify you this Sunday morning.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Taking the Offensive

Romans 8:30-40 (New International Version)

“30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
31What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[
a] 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I got a very nice, very interesting comment from Scott Rochat at the Emporia Gazette after my last post titled “Courage:”

"My wife Heather has always been bothered by people who became Christians solely because of the promise of heaven -- to her, that misses the point. As you said, it's not about what we get, it's about what we give.

J.R.R. Tolkien had an interesting perspective on it. He was always fascinated by the Norse myth of Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods, where the good guys are overwhelmed and the monsters win. What interested him was that the good guys fought anyway, without any promise of victory. It didn't matter whether they would win. It mattered that they were fighting for what was right."

"Tolkien always wanted to see some of that desperate courage translated to Christianity. Reading your piece, I get some of the same feeling. We could all stand to spend a little less time counting the spoils and a little more time sharpening swords."

Tolkien translated those feelings marvelously in his great trilogy. All the noble characters, Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn, Pippin, Merry, Legolas, Gimli, and their comrades fought on in the desperate battle for Middle Earth against what seemed to be insurmountable odds. They knew what they had to do; they knew they had to summon up the courage to fight for what was right, and they did. Time after time as the saga unfolded their world teetered on the brink of destruction, but those great souls fought on, not knowing what the outcome would be. They fought on in faith, believing that good and virtue were worth preserving. They had something transcendent to fight for, something so precious they were willing to give everything they had on its behalf.

Scott has it right. And so was Eldridge in the chapter we covered the other night in our men’s group. I believe the Christian man needs to summon up that kind of courage in today’s world.

That all begs the question, doesn’t it? What are we fighting for? And if we are fighting for something, who or what are we fighting against?

In our discussions the other night this seemed to be the main area of focus. What I found interesting, and somewhat troubling, was that we seemed to know much more about what we were fighting against than what we are fighting for. Now it’s clear we have an enemy. It is the same enemy that the noble characters in Tolkien’s trilogy fought. It’s evil and its greatest practitioner is the devil. Eldridge, noting that evil assaults us on a very deep, personal level, put it this way:

“Who was behind that brutal assault on your own strength, those wounds you have taken? As William Gurnall said, “It is the image of God reflected in you that so enrages hell, it is that at which the demons hurl their mightiest weapons.”

Now I agree with what Eldridge said, but I think there was something he, and we, missed the other night. While there is no doubt that we have battles to fight and we need to summon up the courage to fight them on a daily basis, I’m concerned that in all the talk about spiritual warfare we are losing sight of what we are fighting for.

I’ll say it again lest anyone reading think I doubt the power of evil. Evil is real. As one of the characters in the Broadway play Sweeney Todd put it, “There are demons lurkin’ about.” Author Lance Morrow described the evil that seems so ever-present, so persistent even in our new age of enlightenment this way:

“Evil seeks its opportunities and settles in like a parasite where it finds conditions welcoming. It adopts the local language and customs; it infests the lifeforms and takes them over, in rather the way that insanity may enter the previously wholesome life and displace the person who lived there before. This was the model of demonic possession, dramatized in the Gospel stories of Christ’s miraculous power to heal, but now somewhat disreputable paradigm, demoted to horror movies – the narrative of “The Exorcist,” for example, wherein an innocent child is hideously colonized by evil.”

Morrow goes on to demonstrate how evil seems to creep its way through every conceivable crack in society’s defenses:

“Each age and place has its own style of evil. Evil exploits available resources – turns them to parody and destruction. Evil is a wit among the witty, an imbecile among morons, an industrial program among the industrious, and an apocalypse in the hands of religious fanatics who have abandoned the smaller human decencies for visions of righteous obliteration – an escape from time into the absolute.”

It seems to be the sad truth of this age as it has been for those that have preceded. Evil seems to be ever-present. Our newspapers are filled with it. Parents torture their children. Women kill other women so that they can rip out their fruit of their wombs. Terrorists decapitate the innocent in order to just shock the rest of humanity.

In our discussions the other night I sensed that some of the guys thought I didn’t believe in evil. I had to remind them that, as I said above, I see it in the newspapers and television every day. Evil is real, that’s for sure.

Knowing that, why is it that we men seem to be so paralyzed in the face of it? Why do we men in the Christian church seem powerless to do anything about it?

There are two roads that have led Christian men to this point. One road is paved with indifference; it’s a road that seems to conclude that evil isn’t real at all. But that’s not the road I want us to walk down or focus on. The other road, which to me seems much more insidious, is the road that is paved with a hyper-focus on the enemy.

Now what do I mean by that? In our discussions the other night I used an experience in New Jersey to illustrate. One of the subjects that was in vogue back in those days was “satanic ritual abuse.” I won’t take the time to describe it. If you really want to find out more you can use the link in the previous sentence as a starting point. Fort some reason the subject took hold in our church. A woman who claimed to be an “expert” on the subject began attending and things just took off. It didn’t take long until she became not only the expert on the subject, but our de-factor leader in the fight against “the enemy.” While no one appointed her to the role, no one really objected either. After all, who would want to find themselves at odds with an expert who had appeared on Sally Jesse Raphael’s show?

It all came to a head one afternoon when several of us who were deemed to be ‘spiritual” were summoned to the church for a “critical” meeting. When we all arrived we were greeted by the pastor and the “expert.” They got right down to business. The “expert” had noticed demons all around our church and had concluded that we needed to engage in spiritual warfare to rid our property of them. So, with her leading he way, we all made our way out to the grounds. As we walked the grounds I prayed silently, and as I did I noticed something unusual happening. Each time I felt close to God the “expert” would interrupt to show me something. “See, right there Phil? There’s one sitting right there on the stone entrance to Jockey Hollow.” I didn’t see a thing and went on. This process repeated itself and then escalated. As I walked around she began to sound warnings. “Watch out Phil, right near that birch tree. There’s one hiding behind it.” I stopped dead in my tracks as soon as she uttered the words. In looking back at it all now I see how ridiculous I must have appeared. What had a few minutes before been a beautiful grove of trees was now a dark, foreboding, dangerous place.

This went on for about fifteen minutes until my better senses took hold. I saw that what she was really trying to do was to get me to turn my focus away from God and toward the “enemy.” When the next warning came I responded angrily, “Look, if the devil and his demons have a problem with where I’m walking they’re going to have to deal with it, ‘cause that’s where I’m going.”

The point I was trying to make the other night was that, while I have no doubt in the validity of spiritual warfare and have absolutely no doubt in the reality of evil, I am not going to get swept up in a game that, first, gives our enemy far too much power, and second, diminishes the power, the quiet power, of the life God has given us in Christ to walk in “newness of life.”

God has called Christian men to war, but I believe we have fallen prey to the Hollywood stereotypes of what the war is all about. The spinning heads of The Exorcist, the vomiting, the hissing, the pyrotechnics, have set us on the defensive. Read the Gospels and you will see how it’s really supposed to work. In one amazing encounter a demon-possessed man who had been living in some tombs approached Jesus. The community was so terrified of this man that they had tried, without success to chain his hands and feet. Powerful stuff, eh? What’s even more powerful, though, was his response when Jesus got close to him. He fell on his knees as and the demon begged Jesus not to “torture” him. In response to Jesus’ question about his name he replied, “My name is legion, for we are many.” In other words, “Look out Jesus, there’s a thousand of us here. You’d better watch what you’re doing.” It all seems so eerily reminiscent of that afternoon in the New Jersey woods.

Thankfully, Jesus didn’t fall prey to the pyrotechnics. In fact the real points of the story are that our enemy is the one who needs to fear us and that when we engage in the battle with the right perspective God’s mercy shines through.

I believe the reason so many Christian men seem to be paralyzed with fear is that they’ve given their enemy far too much credit and turned this into a battle of who can either shout or stomp the loudest. It’s been turned all around into a Hollywood movie.

The reality for the Christian man is that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds.” This warfare is much quieter, much more circumspect than the easy path that is too often chosen. It calls on us, like Toklien’s heroes, to summon our courage and to “walk by faith, not by sight.” Armed with love, joy, peace, longsuffering, we are called to “fight the good fight of faith.”

That, I submit to you dear reader, is the path the Christian man must follow. It may not seem as alluring, it may not make our lives the stuff of Hollywood. But it’s the only path that will bring us success and the ultimate victory in this war.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Deuteronomy 31:6-7 (New International Version)

“6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you."
7 Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, "Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their forefathers to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance.”

In last night’s men’s group at church I was hoping we’d get to the meat of what John Eldridge has been leading up to for the first seven chapters of “Wild at Heart.” While I think we got close I don’t think we quite got there.

I believe he was right on target when he noted:

“Above all else, a warrior has a vision, he has transcendence to his life, a cause greater than self-preservation. The root of all our woes and our false self was this: We were seeking to save our life and we lost it. Christ calls a man beyond that, “but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). Again, this isn’t just about being willing to die for Christ; it’s much more daily than that.”

This is what I took away from what Eldridge said. Men must live for something, for principles higher than themselves, transcendent principles. To me, this is, or should be, the essence of a Christian man’s daily life. The operative word in this declaration is the preposition “for.” That’s the critical word. Sadly, though, all too often we Christian men are known more by what we stand against or what we want than what we stand for.

In our discussions I posited the following idea – Christian men must embrace Christ and the cross, but they must also understand that it is not an empty embrace. That is, there are principles of life that we must also embrace along with the gift of life we have been given at this crossroad in our lives.

I think I caused some confusion in saying what I said, and in the course of our discussion the subject got away from us. Given more time I think I would have made the observation that I see too much using of Jesus and the cross as tools or vehicles to get what we want out of life. I’ll repeat a story that was recounted to me long ago to illustrate. Evangelist Iverna Tompkins described a series of meetings she was speaking at somewhere in the southeastern United States. The meetings had gone well, or so it seemed. She’d focused on the benefits that Jesus would bring to anyone who would embrace Him. “He’ll heal your body, he’ll take care of your finances, he’ll fix your broken marriage.” I believe those are true statements. So did Iverna. But on a one day break from the meetings she had an “encounter.” Along with some friends she visited a historical site, some old slave markets in the city. She listened intently as a guide described the obscene language and transactions that once took place there. Human beings were sold into a life of bondage. Those who sold them would describe for prospective buyers the merits of a purchase. “Here’s Joe…..He’s strong. He’ll chop your wood…..He’ll pick your cotton…..Look at ‘im…..Look at these beautiful white teeth, the strong muscles…..Does anybody here want to buy Joe?” Iverna recounted how as she listened she was transported and saw herself holding Jesus by a chain and proclaiming, “Here’s Jesus…..He’s strong…..Look at ‘im…..He’ll heal your body, he’ll fix your broken marriage, he’ll take care of your finances…..Anybody here wanna’ buy Jesus of Nazareth?”

That, I submit, is the crisis Christian men are facing today. We need life that is meaningful and all too often we’re settling for a safe life, a self-centered life, a life, a compliant Savior to do our daily bidding. There is in this life an alarming lack of danger, adventure, and transcendent principle. When you unmask it all there’s nothing left but “me” at the center of it all.

This all flies in the face of everything Jesus taught and lived for. Jesus had stern words for those who followed Him only for what they could get from Him. In one case, after a great miracle, a group that had been recipients of His goodness found him after a search:

John 6:22-26 (New International Version)

“22The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.

Jesus the Bread of Life

25When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
26Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”

His message was clear, unmistakable – “You don’t want to follow me, you just want what I can give you, nothing more.”

And how about these startling words:

Luke 6:46-49 (New International Version)

The Wise and Foolish Builders

“46Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? 47I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. 48He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. 49But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

That’s a far different call than self-interest! It’s a call to dig deep and lay down our lives on a solid foundation, an altar of sacrifice. That’s what I believe is the necessary foundation to the transcendent Christian life. Our modern problem is that we’ve all too often staked our claim to life on shifting sand of “gimmee’ what I want first and then I’ll follow.

If you read the gospels enough you will see that Jesus used the categorical imperative to address those who would follow Him. His was the language of “follow Me!” and “go ye,” and “Do!” Again, this all too often flies in the face of modern schools of thought. In them, we are the passive participants, mouths open, receiving and not giving.

The crux of the modern problem is that while God is looking for active participants in His works of grace too many men are looking for a handout. God has laid out a path of adventure for those who would follow Him, but men in the modern church have all too often settled for the life of passive wimps who expect what amounts to nothing more than Christian welfare.

I think Eldridge was right. Men in the modern church need a real infusion of courage, the same kind of courage God called upon from Joshua as he was about to embark on the adventure of his life:

Joshua 1:6-9 (New International Version)

“Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. 7 Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

By this time I’ve said enough to get myself in real trouble. I’m glad I have. If what I’ve said has provoked you I believe I’ve done my job. From this point on, dear reader, the choice of which path you’ll take in life is yours.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Real George Bush Revealed, The Real Europe Unmasked

“The word integrity comes from the same Latin root as integer and historically been understood to carry much the same sense, the sense of wholeness: a person of integrity, like the whole number, is a whole person, a person somehow undivided. The word conveys not so much a single-mindedness as a completeness; not the frenzy of a fanatic who wants to remake all the world in a single mold but the serenity of a person who is confident in the knowledge that he or she is living rightly.”

Stephen L. Carter - Integrity

There have been some absolutely fascinating dispatches from Europe since President George Bush began his visit earlier this week. Upon reading them I was reminded of the story attributed to Mark Twain. Like any young man he’d come to a place where he was convinced that he was absolutely brilliant and that his father, the “old man,” was as dumb as a telephone pole. He held this opinion for a few years until life’s ups and down, twists, and so forth taught him a valuable lesson. There was an occasion where the two got together to discuss life after those years and Twain, in a fit of inspiration noted that “I was amazed at how smart “the old man” had become in such a short span of time.”

A collection of the dispatches follow to illustrate my point:

“BELGIUM: HET LAATSTE NIEUWS observed (6/15): "Prime
Minister Verhofstadt
now knows why George Walker Bush was elected president of the
States: because of his charm and enchanting personality... Bush's
trip is
a real 'operation charm.'"

“ENGLAND: The TIMES observed (6/14): "President Bush urged
America's NATO
allies to abandon their Cold War mindsets and jettison the 1972
Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty as he made a passionate case
yesterday for
building defenses against the threat of missile attack from rogue

“FRANCE: Jean Quatremer opined in left-of-center LIBERATION
"Yesterday, during his brief address at the NATO summit, the U.S.
president managed a tour de force as he showed the Allies'
toward Missile Defense to be outdated and obsolete...."

“FRANCE: Marc Paolini in centrist LA TRIBUNE (06/15): "George
W. Bush
continues to amaze Europe. Twenty-four hours after his
performance before
the Atlantic Alliance, the new American president accomplished
perfect performance in Goteborg.... He impressed the participants
his knowledge of the issues, his authority over his team, and his

“ITALY: Alberto Pasolini Zanelli in leading center-right IL GIORNALE
(6/14): "But for sure the U.S. president scored a considerable
upon his debut at a NATO summit and managed to do so much
quicker than
most observers on both sides of the Atlantic expected."

POLAND: Jan Skorzynski wrote in centrist Rzeczpospolita (6/15):
W. Bush began his tour of Europe in an impressive way.
Decisions on the
second round of NATO enlargement made at the Brussels summit,
which was
attended by the U.S. president, is very good news--and not only for
aspiring countries, but also for Poland...."

It’s absolutely amazing. Europe now seems to be smitten by a man who a few short months ago had been considered a fundamentalist fanatic or a barbarian.

What caused this dramatic about face? Was it, as some Europeans believe, his charm? Or was it his engaging personality? Was it his cleverness? I think it’s all that and more, and it’s the things beneath the surface that most Europeans seem to be missing.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s integrity, stupid!”

What Europe and many in the American press have misunderstood about George Bush is that he is a man of integrity in the manner described by Stephen Carter in my introduction. George Bush is a “whole man,” not a divided political hack whose integrity is only skin deep, changeable depending on the direction of the political winds.

Having now seen him in person, Europe is marveling. He seems to be far more clever than they have given him credit for. Oh, and is he ever charming. The only thing that seems to be missing themselves is Mark Twain’s confession. George W. Bush hasn’t had a radical transformation in the past four years. Europe is finally seeing him as he is and has been. What they are seeing on the surface is rooted in deeply and firmly held beliefs about his role on the world stage and what that means to America and the world.

It’s interesting that all of this is happening in Europe at the same time when a “friend” named Doug Wead released a series of secretly recorded audiotapes of conversations he had with the President in the late nineties. Now I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t consider someone who would tape private conversations and then release them to the press because “I just felt that the historical point I was making trumped a personal relationship.”

What’s interesting to note is that the private George Bush is the same George Bush we see in public. Few of us can say that. I’d have to admit that there are times when the private Phil Dillon is different than the public Phil Dillon. Knowing that I’m thankful I don’t have friends like Doug Wead. As an interesting aside, how would you like this man to be your pastor? Thankfully he’s now a former Assemblies of God minister. But can you imagine how much grist for the sermon mill his parishioners must have made.

But back to my original post, Europe and George W. Bush. I can’t say that Europe has seen the light, but I do think it’s fair to say that their eyes are now open. That’s progress. Europe, which had been “misunderestimating” this man is now seeing that, as he has always said in his political life, George Bush is a man “who says what he means and means what he says.” That, in turn, should now mean that Europe understands that America under the leadership of George Bush also “says what it means and means what it says.”

I believe this could be a very significant breakthrough. It could mean that Europe would now take a closer look at itself and shed its air of superiority, seeing that the continent has been covered by a cloak of insecurity and sham since the end of the cold war. Maybe Europe is now being unmasked, much like Mark Twain had to unmask his own attitudes about his father. I think that’s healthy for Europe and world security.

I read an interesting opinion piece by Janet Daley in today’s edition of London’s Daily Telegraph. I found the following words especially enlightening and instructive:

“I have written before on this page that European hatred of the United States has a great deal to do with jealousy of American self-belief. But there is an element of shame there, too. Because Europe knows that it has sold the pass. It has traded liberty for security: the safety of consensus, the reassuring unfreedom of bureaucratic control and an over-regulated economy.”

“American talk about spreading freedom is not just gauche; it is a reproach.
But it is too late now. Europe has had disillusionments too great to permit a return to that purist belief in the transforming power of democratic institutions. What was left standing in the ruins of the Bonapartist experiment was effectively demolished by the two world wars. The people - with nothing but the raw franchise - will never be allowed to run amok again. Europeans cannot be trusted to govern themselves. Their affairs will be administered by an EU oligarchy. And if they do not trust their own populations, European leaders are scarcely going to support handing out freedom to anarchic tribal societies that scarcely know what the right to vote is for. (Never mind that the only way to learn the value of democracy is to practise it.)”

So, Europe has seen George Bush and they seem to like what they’ve seen. But I also think they’ve now seen themselves as many of us on this side of the Atlantic have seen them for years. How did Bob Dylan put it? –

“Well, didn't I risk my neck for you,
Didn't I take chances?
Didn't I rise above it all for you,
The most unfortunate circumstances?
Well, I have had some rotten nights,
Didn't think that they would pass.
I'm just thankful and grateful
To be seeing the real you at last.”

I’d like to think that this visit and the dose of reality that came with it will not only mean a thaw in the relations between Europe and the United States, but that it will somewhere downstream in history mean that Europe will belly up to the bar and take more responsibility in the war on terror, building viable democracies in Iraq and the Middle East, and supporting the economic development of Eastern Europe.

I think that’s along way off. A thaw in relations is one thing; fundamental strategic change is another. But then, who knows. Europe “misunderestimated” George Bush. It would be wonderful to see at some future date that we’ve “misunderestimated” them as well.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Jersey Years - Part Two

1 Peter 2:1-17 (King James Version)

1 Peter 2

“1Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, all evil speakings,
2As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby:
3If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.
4To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious,
5Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
6Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded.
7Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner,
8And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.
9But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light;
10Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
11Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul;
12Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.
13Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;
14Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
15For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:
16As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.
17Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.”

After I posted part one of my recollections of our lives in New Jersey I got some very interesting commentary in response.

There was this from “Birdwoman:”

“When I lived in Jersey, I could never find my way. The roads all marked how to get to the turnpike, but things like Jughandles and circles. Yikes. I'll never understand driving East on a road marked 95N/295S. I once got to the intersection of new road, new road, and old new road. Just too much growth too fast, I guess.”

How right she was. I’ll never forget my first encounter with a “jughandle.” We were going to visit some friends and had been told to turn left from one road on to another. So, about a mile from where I was to turn I did what seemed to be the most sensible thing. I got into the left lane. Well, when I got to the road I found out too late that in order to turn left I had to be in the right lane. Does that seem as counter-intuitive to you as it did to me at the time? It took me two years to get used to it. But, interestingly enough it actually does make a lot of left turns safer. And I learned along with that to trust the signs. Somehow, only in New Jersey mind you can you be going both north and south and east at the same time.

Then there was this from “MoxieGirl:”

“New Jersey certainly is its own personality, and you gotta’ drive fast and know where you're going.”

Saying New Jersey has its own personality is putting it very delicately. In fact I don’t think there is a word to describe it. It’s a world in which, when folks ask you where you live, you respond by saying something like, “I’m exit 42 off Interstate 80” or “the Rockaways” or “Boohton (even though it’s spelled Boonton).” And I could really relate to the speed “thing.” It took a while to get used to driving seventy-five on the turnpike in bumper to bumper traffic. And it also took some time to realize that it was always a good idea to bring a book or two along with you when you traveled New Jersey’s interstates and turnpikes. When the traffic gets gridlocked there it’s much better to read something from John Grisham or some pulp fiction than it is to “rubberneck” and complain.

But the comment that really hit to the heart of our life in New Jersey was this one from “Jersey Joe:”

“Fine! Tell everyone about your quaint Mt. Tabor house with its narrow stairways. You, however, left out the most important structure on your property - that wonderfully spacious shed out back that I built so Nancy could store her gardening tools! I rather thought it to be the centerpiece of your abode.””Phil, my brother, you're right. I'm sure that your readers all have fond ( or maybe not so fond) memories of places they've lived in, BUT when you uncork that vintage bottle labeled "The Jersey Years" and pour out those deep recollections, boy, it suuuurrrrre tastes good. Any time we get to talk about those years, I'm reminded of the truly unique bond that developed between all those families. I know that it will never be replaced or duplicated in my lifetime. We are all friends for life and our family is grateful to the Lord that He allowed our lives to cross for those years in a small church with a leaky roof.”

I’m sure, dear reader, that you don’t need to read between the lines to see that “Jersey Joe” is someone Nancy and I know. His name is Joe Sereika, and he, his wife Rita, and their children, Adam, Amy, and Alex shared those memorable times with us.

There’s a lot I could tell, but for the sake of time and space I’ll mention two of the things that bound Joe, his family to Nancy and me with those chords that cannot be broken.

The first is the shed Joe mentioned in his e-mail. Joe’s primary occupation and professional background was in design engineering. When he would describe what he did it all sounded very interesting. He told me once that what it all boiled down to was making something like the design of a calculator or an adding machine so appealing that once you saw the design of the finished product you’d like to put frosting or barbeque sauce on it and eat it.

Unfortunately for Joe the economy hiccupped in the early part of the nineties and, like a lot of other New Jersians, he got laid off. And worse yet, this all happened at a time when he and his family had been put into a very precarious position. I won’t say anything else about it other than this – I’ve always loved the grace, love, and dignity in the response Joe and Rita made to this long term crisis. They never wavered in their faith, they never lost hope, they never abandoned their principles. I’ll leave anything further about this in their hands.

One of the great things about Joe is that he is not the type of man to sit around and feel sorry for himself. He did something about his situation. In addition to his skill as an engineer he also had (and still does, I’m sure) great skill as a carpenter, plumber, electrician. I admired this, especially since I have absolutely none in those areas. Well, my lack of skill and his expertise converged at a point of need for both of us. Nancy and I had bought a “fixer-upper.” It was, in New Jersey terms, a real “handy man’s special.” My problem, of course, was that I was the last person needed to fix the all the “special” problems this house had. Nancy, realizing this, got Joe involved, and as it all turned out, it was Divine intervention on every level. The wonder of it all was that it was all encompassing and symbiotic. By the time the project was finished Joe had done such a great job that we had to get a certificate of occupancy for it. It was a thing of beauty, more beautiful even than those calculators he had designed for years. It was so good that I often told guys that I knew that if they ever had occasion to be relegated to the couch for a day or two they could stay in the shed until things got patched up.

The great thing about the relationship was that Nancy and I never had to worry about the things that bedevil many people when they deal with contractors. There are very few times in life when professional and personal relationships work so well and one doesn’t get in the way of the other. Trust was the foundation and everything was built upon that trust.

Joe did this sort of thing to support his family for years. I even remember once telling him at church that a day would come when his work would dot the New Jersey landscape and folks would look at it much like they look at a piece of art in a museum. They might gaze on it as they were passing by and say admiringly, “That’s a Joe Sereika… what a beauty. Have you ever seen the likes, it’s like a gingerbread house…..Why I think I could put some frosting on it and eat it”

There were many lessons I learned from Joe during those times, but none was more important than maintaining integrity during those tough times. The Psalmist put it this way:

Psalm 25:21 (King James Version)

“21Let integrity and uprightness preserve me; for I wait on thee.”

Having seen it in his life and work, I know that Joe believed that. I know because he lived it out.

Next, there was Joe’s love of fishing. Now you’d think I would share that love, being from the hardy stock of Newfoundland. But the gene clearly missed me. I recall once, after Joe had invited me to go bass fishing with him, telling him that fishing wasn’t my thing. I think I put it this way. “Joe, I’ve heard that fishing is really nothing but a jerk on one end looking for a jerk on the other.” He just smiled and didn’t say a thing in response. But about a month or so after that he came by my house before dawn, woke me up from a perfectly good sleep and said, “Let’s go.”

We spent the morning moving slowly around a small northwest New Jersey. As I think about it now those four hours seemed like four minutes; the time went all went too fast. I’m still amazed by the skill Joe showed in this arena, too. It seemed to me that he had a sixth or seventh or eighth sense. He would peer through his polarized sunglasses and cast to just the right spot. It was almost as if the bass were sitting there with their mouths open saying, “Right here, Joe…..Come on, big boy, my mouth’s wide open…..Right here.” I don’t remember how many he caught, but it was a lot for sure. I think I caught two, and those were purely accidental.

I think back on it now and see the wonder in that day. It was, in a sense, a classroom, with the maestro doing his work effortlessly and the novice observing, learning. The lesson I took from that day has stayed with me. My life of faith should always be like that, it should be a joy, not a burden or something to be taken lightly. In the same way Joe taught me how to catch bass, God Himself is showing me that He wants me to learn how to catch men. All I need to do is get in the boat with him, put down the oars, and watch.

There’s so much more to tell and so little space or time. I guess in the days ahead I’ll have to write more about those wonderful days. There’s enough to fill the pages of a book. I’ll close with this for today. Joe said it beautifully: “Uncorking that vintage bottle sure tastes good.”

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Sunday Morning Thoughts From Oswald Chambers

Matthew 4:1-4 (King James Version)

Matthew 4

“1Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.
2And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.
3And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.
4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”

Oswald Chambers had a way with words. As I read his devotion for February 20th my mind drifted away to a time in my life when great things were happening, very naturally. It was during that time someone challenged me to become more “spiritual.” I was in the process of preparing to be part of a crusade team that was going to Taiwan. After a meeting in which I was asking for some financial support a woman approached me and told me that she had been to Taiwan “in the spirit.” When I confessed my lack of understanding about what she meant she said, “If God really wants you to you to go He’ll get you there the same way he got me there, you’ll go “by the spirit.” You won’t need to go by airplane; you’ll just “be there.” Her answer stopped me short at first. She apparently believed herself so spiritual that all the normal conventions of life, including travel, didn't apply to her. After thinking about what she said for a moment I replied, “The Almighty had the foresight to send me to school and learn basic mathematics, ma’am. Having learned that I calculated that I had $200 available for the trip and since the trip is going to cost $1000 I am convinced that I need $800 in order to be able to make the trip.”

I was able, despite my lack of “spirituality,” to raise the funds and make the trip.

I occasionally think about my conversation with that woman when I’m around people who are so “spiritually inclined that they are no earthly good.” This is the subject Chambers was addressing in today’s devotionals. In the morning portion he talked about dreaming. It’s great to dream, it really is. But there are times when we need to wake up and find a way to make some of the things we dream about come true. Chambers put it this way:

The Initiative Against Dreaming

“Arise, let us go hence.” (
John 14:31)

“Dreaming about a thing in order to do it properly is right; but dreaming about it when we should be doing it is wrong. After our Lord had said those wonderful things to His disciples, we might have expected that He would tell them to go away and meditate over them all; but our Lord never allowed “mooning.” When we are getting into contact with God in order to find out what He wants, dreaming is right; but when we are inclined to spend our time in dreaming over what we have been told what to do, it is a bad thing and God’s blessing is never on it. God’s initiative is always in the nature of stab against that kind of dreaming, the stab that bids us “neither sit nor stand but go.”

The evening devotional is just as pointed:

“It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

“Our natural reactions are not wrong, although they may be used to express the wrong disposition. God never contradicted our natural reactions; He wants them to be made spiritual. When we are saved God does not alter the construction of our bodily life, but He does expect us to manifest in our bodily life the alteration He has made. We express ourselves naturally though our bodies, and we express the supernatural life of God in the same way, but it can only be done by the sacrifice of the natural. How many of us are spiritual in eating and drinking and sleeping? Those acts were spiritual in our Lord, His relationship with the Father was such that all His natural life was obedient to Him, and when He saw His Father’s will was for Him not to obey the natural reaction, He instantly obeyed His Father.”

“If our Lord had been fanatical He would have said – ‘I have been so long without food, I will never eat again.’ That would have been to obey a principle instead of God. When God is educating us along the line of turning the natural into the spiritual, we are apt to become fanatical. Because by God’s grace things have been done which are miraculous, we become devoted to the miracle and forget God, then when difficulties come we say that it is the antagonism of the devil. The fact is we are grossly ignorant of the way God has made us. All that we need is a little of what we understand by pluck in the natural world put into the spiritual. Don’t let your body get on top and say there is nothing after all in what God said. Stand up to the difficulty, and all that you ever believed about the transforming grace of God will be proved in your bodily life.”

Translated simply it all boils down to this. God has called you to make a trip. You do the math and see that you have a need and request help. You don’t pray to be “translated.” You do it all very naturally, like the rest of the human race. That’s natural spirituality!

I pray, dear reader, that these words will edify you this Sunday morning.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Ignorance Can Be Bliss

Jeremiah 1:1-7 (King James Version)

Jeremiah 1

“1The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin:
2To whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.
3It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month.
4Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
5Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
6Then said I, Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.
7But the LORD said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.”

I once heard the story of a student who was required to make a class presentation on the subjects of ignorance and apathy. When the day came for him to reveal his findings he had only one sentence that summed up all of his research – “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

On first blush the student’s words don’t seem to be for someone seeking wisdom or enlightenment. But I think we bloggers need to explore his novel idea a bit closer.

I’ve been blogging since July of last year and have, in the past few months, seen some dramatic changes. Most noteworthy of these is the power that bloggers have gained. You can see that in the reaction the mainstream media has to the new competition in the world of news and opinion. A few days ago I read a piece by Peggy Noonan about this new phenomenon. In the introduction she hit nail right on the head:

“"Salivating morons." "Scalp hunters." "Moon howlers." "Trophy hunters." "Sons of Sen. McCarthy." "Rabid." "Blogswarm." "These pseudo-journalist lynch mob people."

This is excellent invective. It must come from bloggers. But wait, it was the mainstream media and their maidservants in the elite journalism reviews, and they were talking about bloggers!”

It’s a case of name calling being the sincerest form of flattery. Bloggers are hitting the mark. It was the keen eye of a blogger who took down CBS and Dan Rather. A blogger caught Eason Jordan in the act. Ah, how the mighty have fallen. It seems that a new age in information is dawning and bloggers are perfectly positioned to be a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Ms. Noonan goes on to outline several reasons for the rise of bloggers. The one that seems most cogent to me is this:

“Bloggers, unlike reporters at elite newspapers and magazines, are independent operators. They are not, and do not have to be, governed by mainstream thinking. Nor do they have to accept the directives of an editor pushing an ideology or a publisher protecting his friends. Bloggers have the freedom to decide on their own when a story stops being a story. They get to decide when the search for facts is over. They also decide on their own when the search for facts begins. It was a blogger at the World Economic Forum, as we all know, who first reported the Eason Jordan story. It was bloggers, as we all know, who pursued it. Matt Drudge runs a news site and is not a blogger, but what was true of him at his beginning (the Monica Lewinsky story, he decided, is a story) is true of bloggers: It's a story if they say it is. This is a public service.”

We’re an independent lot and that is one of our great strengths. While I’m not what would be considered a political blog or a powerful one for that matter, I enjoy the freedom I have to write what I want to write about. I enjoy being able to pit myself against the high and mighty. And I think it would be fair to say that I enjoy tweaking the noses of the high and mighty as much as anyone in the blogosphere.

Well, multiply me sitting in my upstairs library, tapping on the keyboard of my PC by millions and you have a revolution. And while I don’t feel particularly powerful sitting by myself, I do sense the power we bloggers have as an aggregate group.

In his recent book, “America’s Right Turn,” Dick Viguerie cites historian/economist Gary North to describe this new landscape:

“Every political establishment rests on a specific world view of the way the world works – or at least should work. To maintain their power, men must control the public’s access to ideas. Those ideas that run counter to an establishment’s paradigm are a threat to the system…”

“Part of every establishment’s means of control, North goes on to argue, “has been the printing press” – controlling the flow of information. Enter the Internet: “For the first time in the history of man, there are no longer gatekeepers who can control the flow of information to the public. No longer can the Powers That Be control ideas by controlling printing presses, paper and ink.”

Think of it. Millions of us on a daily basis are challenging the Powers That Be described by North. These powers may argue that we’re pajama clad morons, but that misses the real point. I can get up in the morning, walk down the hall, sit down, un-shaven, at my PC for about an hour, write a diatribe or a devotional, post it, and in a matter of seconds what I’ve written can be read by hundreds, thousands, or even millions. In a matter of seconds my thoughts and ideas are available for anyone in the world to read, challenge, or support. And I can do all of this before I make Nancy’s morning coffee. Again, multiply this millions of times over and you can readily see why the mainstream media is fighting us for all they’re worth.

It’s all pretty heady stuff, this blogging. It feels good to be a part of a group that is flexing its collective muscle and giving the big boys “what for.”

But I think we bloggers need to take a bit of time out from our “march to the sea” so that we can put some brakes on the bus. If we’re not careful we have the potential of becoming the very thing we so dislike about the mainstream media we’re competing with. We can, as power brokers, become just as arrogant as they are. In the same way they have abused their power and privilege, so can we. It’s not far at all to move from being giddy with power to being drunk with it.

How? First, by becoming more and more centralized as a medium. I’ve seen over the past month or so calls for bloggers to band together into consortiums. Now I don’t believe for a minute those who advocate these “collections” have bad intentions. But one of the real strengths of this wonderful new medium is that it is, for now at least, de-centralized. The move toward centralization could, and I’m afraid would, sap the medium of its real power, the power of the individual. As the blog consortiums grew, so would the inevitable war of the blogs. After all, isn’t bigger better? It’s the American way. And worse yet, along with collectivization would come collectivization of thought. Centralization, whether formal or informal, would mean that someone, or some entity, would slowly, but surely, gain power over what information is to be disseminated. And who will that be? Just see who is “big” in the world of blogging now and you’ll see who will be the controllers of the future.

Also, along with the increase in power would come a decrease in the innocence of the blog. Right now, thankfully, we’re not high and mighty. In fact very few of us have any experience in the seats of the scornful. We’re just “common” folks who have something to say. But I fear that along with the power/bigness would come the attitude that all too often comes with it. It’s the attitude that reeks of “I’m the expert, I’m the all wise, the disseminator of facts and opinions, I’ll decide what’s good and what isn’t.”

In other words, we would lose the real core of power, our innocence and inexperience.

Author Mark Edmundson had something very provocative to say in his recent book, “Why Read.” He was looking at education when he wrote, but I believe his words have a broader application. This is what he had to say in a section titled “For Ignorance:”

“What that young man lacks is inexperience”: so said the maestro of the young prodigy. Part of what I hope to do by asking students to brood publicly about God and ultimate commitments is to let them recapture their inexperience. They need a chance to own what may be the most precious knowledge one can have at the start of an education, knowledge of one’s own ignorance.”

“Plato and Aristotle both say that philosophy begins in wonder. But
Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps close to the point, thought that people came to philosophy, to serious thinking in their lives, out of confusion.”

I believe that the “inexperience” Edmundson spoke of is, or should be, the foundation of the blogger’s power. We’ve gained notoriety and power not because we are powerful as it all too often perceived, but because we really aren’t. We’re not all wise and all knowing; we’re just ordinary people expressing what’s on our hearts and minds. We’re millions of decentralized “ones,” not a corporate conglomerate with a headquarters in some New York City high rise. We don’t have board-rooms like CBS or CNN. We don’t have some central “Father Blog” figure who leads while we blindly follow. And I, for one, say we need to keep things that way.

I began this post with a portion of a dialogue between the Almighty and the prophet Jeremiah. The great sage, seeing that the task he was called to was too big for him alone, pleaded, “Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.” He was Edmundson’s kind of man, a man who really understood who he was. I believe God saw that and commissioned him because of, not in spite of, his declaration. He was apparently God’s kind of man too.

I believe that in this new information age we bloggers need this perspective. In fact, if we see ourselves as the movers and shakers and blindly proclaim ourselves the rulers of this new age we will almost certainly fail in our mission. And that mission, more than anything else, is to simply express rather than rule, to serve rather than be served.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Liberty, Not License

1 Peter 2:13-16 (Contemporary English Version)

“13The Lord wants you to obey all human authorities, especially the Emperor, who rules over everyone. 14You must also obey governors, because they are sent by the Emperor to punish criminals and to praise good citizens. 15God wants you to silence stupid and ignorant people by doing right. 16You are free, but still you are God's servants, and you must not use your freedom as an excuse for doing wrong.”

Galatians 5:13 (Contemporary English Version)

“13My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don't use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love.”

Until yesterday Ward Churchill got little or no play in our local instrument of enlightenment. That was all broken with an op-ed piece by Scott Rochat titled “Fighting Words.”

I’m sure most of you have seen Churchill’s obscene words, at least the most offensive of them. To be honest with you I hadn’t until this morning when I read the entire transcript of the remarks this “tenured academician” made four years ago. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? His words were, as Scott noted in his piece, detestable. They are still as offensive, obscene, and depraved today as they were four years ago.

I think on that point there is almost universal agreement. It’s when the question of what we should all do about Mssr. Churchill comes up that the paths diverge. Scott, for example, advocates a delicate approach to the subject:

“Now, I wouldn’t be upset if he were fired for the right reasons. Some professors have accused Churchill of forging evidence of his work. One columnist, Paul Campos, has said that Churchill lacked the usual credentials for his post and may have lied about his Indian ancestry to get hired. Any of these, if true, would give more than enough grounds for dismissal without endangering academic freedom in the process.”

Now I’m sure Scott will disagree with me, but I think that approach smacks of grasping at straws, looking for loopholes, or finding a back door when the front door is actually wide open. I think something more direct, like a full frontal assault is in order.

I find it puzzling and frustrating that academicians and journalists have such a problem distinguishing between liberty and license. I’m a conservative and a firm advocate of freedom of speech and conscience. The boys down at the Gazette know this is true because I’ve offered more than once to be the first one down to their offices to defend them if the storm-troopers ever descend on their hallowed ground. But there’s a difference between being an advocate of freedom and giving in to licentiousness and obscenity. It’s one thing to support liberty and another to expect the public to pay for obscenity. That’s what this argument is, or should be, all about.

When I was doing my undergraduate work in Chicago I headed up a project which was exploring the workings of the American Nazi Party. My part was to do an interview with a high party official. The interview was duly arranged and about half-way through the semester I sat down and did it. Like Churchill, their director, a man named Frank Collin, spewed nothing but hate. He and the party hated Jews, Blacks, gays, liberals, working women, and anything or anyone else who either walked or crawled and did not appear to be Aryan. Realizing that I fit neatly into one of the categories he detested I asked what he would do with someone like me if he and his party ever gained political control of this country. “It’s really simple,” he said proudly. “We’d hang you and everyone else like you.” The sardonic smile etched on his face told me that he meant what he said. I responded, also smiling. “If it comes to that, Mr. Collin, I’ll gladly walk those last thirteen steps. I’d much rather that than having to live in a world of your creation.” But our conversation didn’t end there. As I was getting ready to leave I asked if I could take some of their hate filled literature with me to give to others in my class, believing that it would be important for people to see just what these evil bastards were made of. “Well,” Collin said, “I’ll sell you some.” I declined his offer, telling him that I didn’t want to “feed the mouth that was biting me.”

I believe that’s the same principle that needs to apply in the case of Mssr. Churchill. I’d like to think I’m as enlightened as the next man, but I don’t think the public should have to pay for the mouth that’s biting all of us.

I think I know what needs to be done with someone whose speech is so obscene that it twists the truth around and as Holy Writ says, calls “evil good and good evil.” When someone says something as offensive as Churchill did I, and I believe most Americans of good will, know what needs to be done. When someone says something as obscene as this the response needs to be direct and to the point:

"In sum one can discern a certain optimism – it might even be call humanitarianism – imbedded in the thinking of those who presided over the very limited actions conducted on September 11.Their logic seems to have devolved upon the notion that the American people have condoned what has been/is being done in their name – indeed, are to a significant extent actively complicit in it – mainly because they have no idea what it feels like to be on the receiving end.Now they do.That was the "medicinal" aspect of the attacks.To all appearances, the idea is now to give the tonic a little time to take effect, jolting Americans into the realization that the sort of pain they're now experiencing first-hand is no different from – or the least bit more excruciating than – that which they've been so cavalier in causing others, and thus to respond appropriately.”

To that end I offer the boys at the Gazette a proposition they’ve declined before. In the days after the September 11th attacks I offered to solve the problem of Osama by inviting him to the Flint Hills so that I could exact justice on him. The offer remains, but has not been tendered. I can only assume that they can't find the cave the maggot is crawling around in.

Well, Mr. Rochat, what do you say? Ward Churchill’s not far away. It wouldn’t put a crimp on the Gazette’s budget to find him. Boulder’s just a short ride east on the freeway from us. Send him my invitation on behalf of the people of Emporia and the wider American community. I’ll meet him out on the Flint Hills. Jus give me a few days to work on my “lip-buttoner” punch and I’ll be ready.

My approach may not be pretty and it may not be subtle, but I assure you that it will work. It’ll be honest and direct, no back doors or skulking around. And when I’m done with him I’ll dispatch what’s left back to Boulder to pursue his academic freedom.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Jersey Years - Part One

John 15:13-15 (New Living Translation)

“13And here is how to measure it--the greatest love is shown when people lay down their lives for their friends. 14You are my friends if you obey me. 15I no longer call you servants, because a master doesn't confide in his servants. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.”

New Jersey has the undeserved reputation of being a “vast industrial wasteland.” After having lived there for nine years Nancy and I found that it was anything like the stereotypes about the “Garden State” that have lingered for years. I think there are two types of people who foster this notion. First, there are the transients, the people who get to see New Jersey from Newark International Airport, Newark, Fort Lee, the George Washington Bridge, or the Lincoln Tunnel. Then there are the folks who live in New Jersey. I think they foster the image because they realize that they really have a good thing going and don’t want more people coming in to spoil it all.

I now pen the following words with some trepidation. New Jersey does have a population density problem and there is a lot of concrete, but I have to say it and beg forgiveness from the great State of New Jersey. New Jersey is a great place to live. Yes, it’s crowded, but it also has a beautiful shore, fantastic bird sanctuaries, and the best sweet corn or tomatoes you’ll ever taste. The culture and night life are fine, and if you have a real need for “high” culture New York City is just a five or six dollar toll away.

But more than anything, Nancy and I found that the people of New Jersey are really very nice, much nicer than the reputation they’ve been given. While they’re very direct in their communication, they’re also very warm. And I know that they say “Joisy” and “boid” instead of Jersey and bird. I realize that they ask those confusing questions like “What exit are you?” And I know they love the New York Yankees, the Knicks, the Jets, and the Giants. But that’s all forgivable. I’ll say it again. New Jersey is a great place to live and the folks there are absolutely wonderful.

One of the great lessons we learned in our time there is that it takes a while to warm up to folks, but once you do you have a friend for life.

We got a call from one of those friends this past Saturday night. Even though we left New Jersey eight years ago Wally still occupies a big place in our hearts. We met him when we started attending a small church just outside a wonderful national historical site called Jockey Hollow, which was just down the road from Fort Nonsense. I digressed for a moment to give you, linguistically, some flavor of the Jersey approach to things. How many people reading this post can say that they ever went to a church in Jockey Hollow or ever attended one just down the road from Fort Nonsense? There’s something special about being able to say that.

But beyond the ring of the words, the little church we attended was very, very close to our hearts. In the next few paragraphs I’m going to flit back and forth over the years, reminiscing and treasuring our time there.

The first recollection comes from near the end of our time there. We were living in an eight hundred square foot, four bedroom house in Mount Tabor, a small little community on Route 53 between Denville and Morris Plains. Visualize, if you will, a house with a kitchen, living room, dining room, and four bedrooms all contained neatly in an eight hundred square foot package. To say that the arrangement was cozy is an understatement of grandest sort. At some points, the upstairs hall for example, it was impossible for two people to walk side by side. The largest bedroom (our master suite) was 8x10. And the smallest bedroom was 6x7.

At one point in our lives there we had two foreign exchange students from France living with us. It was during this time that a great need arose in Wally’s life. He needed a place to stay. Now I suppose he could have stayed at a YMCA or a boarding house, but what Wally needed was friends to befriend him. He was going through a really deep valley and living at the YMCA was not going to help him climb his way up out of that valley.

This meant that we had three adults, two teenagers, and two cats living in a sardine can of sorts. You’d think that it we be a difficult proposition, but it wasn’t. In fact, some of the warmest memories we have are of nights sitting around in the living room discussing our Christian faith with the young exchange students, Pierre and Olivier. They were very inquisitive, wanting to see faith that really meant something in the lives of people. They had come readily acknowledging that there was far too little Christian influence in their home country. Those conversations we had, I now see, were very special to them.

As I said earlier, Wally was going through a very difficult period in his life. He’d been married and his wife had left him under the very worst type of circumstance. But he refused to allow the situation to overcome him. I’ll always remember how he exuded grace during those days, far more grace than I ever would have under the same conditions. I recall a conversation late one night when I tried to get him to see things realistically. It seemed to me that he was being used unjustly by the guilty parties in the equation. I felt I knew him well enough to be very direct and so I was. I put it this way – “Wally stop being used. You weren’t the one who was wrong here. Stop being a sap.” I somehow felt that he needed a real dose of reality to shake him up. His answer showed me how wrong I was. “Phil,” he said. “God’s grace has gotten me this far in life and I have to share out of the abundance of that grace that I’ve been given. Even if I wanted to lash out I couldn’t…..I’ve just come to see that grace and love are the only things that will get me out of this. They’re the only real defense I have.”

I’ve never forgotten those words or how beautifully Wally lived them out. I never will.

I’ll always remember the great lesson I learned from him – that grace will, if we allow it to, transcend any reality we find ourselves in.

I also remember the good times; times spent camping with friends along the Delaware Water Gap, sharing our faith with other campers. I have very vivid recollections of beautiful starlit nights when Wally would bring out his telescope and unveil the heavens to us. We would all sit transfixed in the dark as he shone his flashlight into the night sky and describe the heavens. I was amazed at how far a small shaft of light from a flashlight could reach into the heavens. It seemed to me that the beam extended light years into the sky. But even more amazing were Wally’s descriptions of what we were seeing. “Do you see these two stars right here. They’re named Bruised and Broken.” Then he’d move the shaft of light to another object. “This one’s Apollo, the brightest star in the constellation Gemini. Apollo is called the Ruler.” And so it would go until well past midnight. The lesson I’ve always carried from those wonderful nights was that the “heavens do truly declare the glory of God.”

I remember another friend we heard from a couple of weeks ago. At a time that would have swallowed up another man and his family he stood like a rock. Even when he was wronged and circumstances seemed to conspire against him he wouldn’t waver. He walked with God right through it. And the amazing thing about the journey was that it took years, not hours or days or months to make.

I remember a business meeting when we realized that we had too much money in our church’s bank account. I’ve never been in a business meeting quite like it. As soon as everyone realized how much we had we knew we had to give it away. It started small. “Let’s send $500 to Paula in Mali.” Then it kept moving to a crescendo. “Let’s send $1000 to Ali Gonzales in the Philippines.” “Let’s send another thousand to Paul Pelei in India.” Each successive recommendation was met with applause and victorious laughter. When we were done the money was all dispersed. We had given everything we had. I can speak for everyone was there and say that it was the most fulfilled I’ve ever felt after a business meeting. There were no arguments about the money being better spent on other things. There was no talk of where the money to meet our monthly obligations was going to come from. We knew we were in the center of God’s will in doing what we had done and were overjoyed to be there.

I remember time spent praying over a friend’s dry well and singing the old chorus, “Spring Up Oh Well” and seeing that prayer answered.

I remember seeing Wally preach one Sunday morning wearing a World War II vintage helmet. His point, of course, was that we needed to contend vigorously for our faith. His problem was that if anyone looked less like General George Patton in a steel pot it was Wally. It was a good thing we all knew him and got the point.

I remember the laughter and I remember the tears. I remember the times of exulting and I remember the valleys. Our life there was full and it was Christian.

There’s so much more to tell and I think in the days ahead I’ll write more about those times. For now it’s enough to say that our Jersey years were among the most wonderful and fulfilling of our lives. We now see that our time there was spent being part of something special, very real, very Christian. In the years since we’ve left New Jersey I’ve also seen that those years were also a foreshadowing of the Celestial City we will one day fully claim as full citizens:

Psalm 122:1-8 (King James Version)

Psalm 122

“1I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.
2Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.
3Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:
4Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD.
5For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.
6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.
7Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.
8For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.”

There will be more to follow in the days ahead. Stay tuned.