Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Reflections on the Death of a Saint

Today, I had the honor of officiating in the funeral of a precious church member.  She was 93 years of age and a remarkable woman.  One of our church's surviving charter members.  Her faith in God to endure the trials of an aging body was admirable.  Her sweet and gentle spirit was contagious.  Her reticence to be tied to the past but to live in the present was a joy.  I was glad today that she was a Christian.  "Sinner" is not a word that comes to mind when I think about her, but it is (was) a part of her reality.  And somewhere along her journey (around 12 if I remember the story rightly) she acknowledged that and owned that label--"sinner".

The Bible is clear about that.  Every single human being has committed treason against God.  We have rebelled; launched a coup; transgressed, usurped and dishonored a loving, gracious God.

"For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God"   Romans 3:23
"There is none righteous, no not one" Romans 3:10
"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way"  Isaiah 53:6

Perhaps you resist admitting just how bad you are.  I'm glad my friend didn't.  And the good news is that people who admit this do something else.  They reach out of Jesus.

"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."  1 John 1:9

"For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord, shall be saved."  Romans 10:13

This saint did all of this and more.  And I'm so very glad.  I'm glad I got to talk about that--what we Christians call "her salvation experience"; and that this very sad day for so many was laced with a little joy that she is now "safe in the arms of Jesus."

A pastor gets many privileges.  For me, I count it a privilege to stand near the casket as family and friends file by for their last farewell.  I know some people have the "closed casket" but I'm partial to that last farewell.  I know some pastors hate that moment.  I do refuse to stand right at the head of the casket, which is where ministerial protocol suggests.  For me, that's too invasive.  I want to be close enough to be a help yet far enough to give someone their privacy.  I forgot how tearful and sorrowful those moments can be.  I heard tears and sobs and sadness today that reminded me of the sting of death.  Adam and Eve messed it up for us.  There was suppose to be separation and the curse and death.  But sin has a penalty... "for the day that you eat of it, you shall die."

But again, at the graveside, I was able to remind everyone that Jesus has the final victory over sin and death.  A precious saint is in glory with her Savior.  What a joy!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Just a thought...

A helpful and needed conversation with an old friend tonight stirred so many priceless memories.  I'm still in a quagmire of melancholy from being reminded of his distance from my life and the vacuum from that, so I'm only half sure of how this blog post will develop.  My path took me from his proximity and those shared experiences that bonded us.  And the convenience of closeness stopped.  And the burdens came and time did its number on our relationship.   Most of you know what I'm talking about.  So many good friends that you grow distant from along the journey of life but they will forever hold a special and irreplaceable position in your heart.  But talking tonight was like we haven't missed a beat.  We were both fixing dinner for our kids and not using frozen food or microwave ovens.  He is caring, intelligent, witty, giving, listening, attentive, provocative and loyal.  He introduced me a long time ago to G.K. Chesterton. 

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Isn't that an incredible thought?  Of God's tireless energy and monotony and care and attentive faithfulness?  Chesterton is one of the few who would think to call the Eternal God "younger than we".  I'm so glad I began the day with Psalm 90 "from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God" and ended with this thought that "our Father is younger than we."  And, I get to end the day thankful for God's good, tangible gift of an incredible friend.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Captions Anyone?

Ok.  What would your caption for this picture be? 

On the heels of yesterday's capitulation by Boehner-led House Republicans on the Homeland Security bill without any conditions, which will fund the President's illegal amnesty program for illegal immigrants, mine is:
"Can you believe they think I'm a Republican?"

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Benjamin Franklin and Christian Faith

I recently came across a letter from one of our nation’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin.  It was written to the President of Yale College, Ezra Stiles.  Stiles was quite a fan of Franklin, especially as a scientist, and Franklin had given the college some scientific equipment and a few antiquities.   I’m not enough of a Franklin expert to know if it was his last letter, but it would certainly be among the last.  Dated March 9, 1790, Franklin would be dead within six weeks.

In fact, Franklin seems all too aware to his approaching finitude, cautioning Stiles, who wanted to honor Franklin at Yale with a portrait:

You have an excellent Artist lately arrived. If he will undertake to make one for you, I shall chearfully pay the Expence: But he must not long delay setting about it, or I may slip thro' his Fingers, for I am now in my 85th Year's and very infirm.

In the letter Franklin makes two statements I wish to comment upon.  The first:

“You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it.

I had to wonder whether Franklin was accurate in his memory or whether previous inquires went forgotten.  Franklin is now 85 years of age.  Is this really the first time he has been questioned about his religion?  What a tragic reproach upon Christians.  I realize Christians of the colonial era, were not, for the most part, highly evangelistic and much too intellectual.  I know there were  exceptions like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards.  Still, no one had taken Franklin to task about what we believe is the most important part of man—his eternal soul?

And Ezra Stiles?  He was a Congregational minister and a New Englander (Connecticut and Rhode Island) who may never have meet the Pennsylvanian Franklin in person.  Yet, they clearly had many correspondences.  At least Stiles finally got around to asking the key question. 

So maybe we modern evangelicals can walk away with two lessons here.   First, make sure our values match our priorities.  If we really value the souls of mankind, let’s have that conversation before we talk about contemporary events.  Sports, weather, hobbies, and families all make for enriching  and non-threatening conversations, but we shouldn’t be treating faith as an after-thought.  Second, it’s never too late to have that conversation with people in our lives.  I know ‘religion’ makes people uncomfortable and I like putting people at ease, so it’s easy to avoid it.  But I, and millions of other evangelicals, need to get over it.  Have that conversation with the people in your life.  Today.

The second statement Franklin made in his letter was about Jesus:

 As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

Again, where were Franklin’s spiritual friends, elevating the need for him to “busy” himself with thoughts of Jesus?  Why did they let him get away with so casually dismissing the need to contemplate Jesus.  Franklin had previously stated he believed in God.  But his belief in God promoted only a moralism…a doing good to others.  He never saw himself as one who was a sinner…a rebel against the holiness of God in desperate need of the saving work of Jesus.  In Franklin’s view, Jesus was a good teacher and he didn’t need to take the time to figure out if that was all Jesus was.

Benjamin Franklin.  Patriot.  Founder. Witty and brilliant; wise and helpful;  inquisitive and experimental.  He left the world a better place.  But he never properly answered life’s singularly most important question—Who is Jesus?

Have you?


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

God in Pursuit of Us

Luke 15 is probably my favorite parabolic passage.  I’ll be honest.  I’m a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to appreciating the parables of Jesus.  You know, those “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”.  I’ve always been drawn to the doctrine of the epistles or the compassion of Jesus and His redemptive acts in the Gospels.  I love the prophets of the OT.  But those stories of Jesus?  It’s taken me awhile to really appreciate them.  But I have long been drawn to this passage.  Who could not be?  Three parables in one really.  Three stories teaching the same theme.  And the thunderous message that comes from them is that God is relentless in searching for what is lost.

Jesus’s first story is that of a shepherd.  He has 100 sheep and discovers that one is lost.  He leaves the 99 and searches for the lost one.  The second story is of a woman who has 10 silver pieces and discovers one is lost.  She searches every corner of her house until it is found.  The last story is of a Father who has two sons.  One rebels, leaves and spoils his life.  The Father waits and hopes for his son to return. 
That last story is the more famous of the three, and the one that seems to throw a monkey wrench into everything.  In the previous two, the shepherd and the woman are both active in finding what is lost.  But here, the father seems a bit passive.  I said he “seems” passive.  But it only seems so to 21st century readers…people immersed in Amber Alerts, FBI Missing Persons Bureau, bounty hunters, credit card searches, cell phone pings, GPS, Facebook and social media.  But even then, if we’ll just pause a moment, we would realize a parent cannot force a rebellious child back home.  There is wisdom in waiting until the rebel is ready to receive reconciliation.  But that notwithstanding, in reading the passage in its 1st century context, you will notice the father was anything BUT passive. 

But when he [the prodigal son] was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him [Luke 15:20 KJV].
This is truly the story of the Bible.  Our God is pursuing us.  His love is relentless.  It is hesed—to use the Hebrew word.  Faithful, steadfast, enduring love.  The love God spoke of in Isaiah 54:10,  “Though the mountains move and the hills shake, My love will not be removed from you and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,” says your compassionate LORD (HCSB). 

Bible scholar John Oswalt remarks on such a loving, pursuing God.

The word hesed…[is] the descriptor par excellence of God in the Old Testament. The word speaks of a completely undeserved kindness and generosity done by a person who is in a position of power. This was the Israelites’ experience of God. He revealed himself to them when they were not looking for him, and he kept his covenant with them long after their persistent breaking of it had destroyed any reason for his continued keeping of it. …Unlike humans, this deity was not fickle, undependable, self-serving, and grasping. Instead he was faithful, true, upright, and generous—always.                                                                           
The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 71.
The Scottish bard, Thomas Carlyle is supposed to have said “God sit in Heaven and does nothing.”  But he doesn’t reflect most of humanity’s assessment.  Christians and non-believers alike have a sense of God’s tenacious love…and His unrelenting pursuit of us as objects of His love.  It is central to Christian doctrine:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus]; that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  Long before we ever even thought about asking God for help with our alienated relationship, the Father launched a plan of love to send His Son.  So there we were.  Drowning in a quagmire of sin, when Jesus left His throne, laid aside His glory and searched for us—dead to God and all things holy—until He found us.

And this pursuing love is central to human experience.  For every bitter, jaded poet there are dozens of others who sense the presence of God in their lives and realites.  Robert Frost, the true bard of Scotland, would urge:

      Tend flowers that God has given
       And keep the pathway open
      That leads you on to heaven.”

But it is probably Francis Thompson’s late 19th century poem, The Hound of Heaven, that is remembered for capturing the thought of God’s relentless search of wayward people.
       From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
       But with unhurrying chase,
      And unperturbed pace,
      Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
      They beat—and a Voice beat
      More instant than the Feet—
      “All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

God pursues us.  He loves you.  Will you not stop your running and let His love capture you?



Thursday, January 29, 2015

New England Patriots, Cheating and Deflate Gate

Okay.  I can’t help myself anymore.  I’m going to weigh in with my emotionally charged opinion about the New England “deflate gate” controversy.  I might as well own up to my bias that this year’s Superbowl features two of the worst teams in the NFL.  And before all of you football aficionados go ballistic, allow me to qualify “worst.”  Worst, as in morally worst.  So you need not write in about the Seahawks incredible defense, or Tom Brady’s status as an all-time great quarterback.  I simply believe you are hard pressed to find two other teams with as many moral deficiencies as the Seahawks and Patriots (perhaps the New Orlean's Saints could rival them).

Bill Belichick has the dishonor of being the only coach in NFL history to have a half million dollar fine leveled against him for cheating (the famous “spygate” episode of 2007).  He is an admitted cheater.  Today, he goes back and forth between admission and denial, sometimes owning it, sometimes spinning it.  But that is beside the point.  The NFL is conducting yet another investigation against the New England Patriots.  They were found in this years AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts to have footballs two pounds per square inch UNDER the required rules.  The NFL minimum is 12.5.  The Pats had their balls at 10.5 (they no official report has yet been issued).

Here are my problems with the Patriot’s cover up.

First, Bill Beli-cheat’s first interview on Thursday, January 22.  The one where he said he learned more about football air pressure in the past 3 days than in 40 years.  The one where he said he knew nothing.  Hmmm.   This from the same coach who is notoriously micro-managerial on every aspect of his team.  The one who looks at every angle for an edge.  The coach who supposedly only “misinterpreted” rules regarding video-taping of opponents defensive coordinator’s signals, but who has no earthly idea about football air pressure.  In Belichick’s world, someone brought up the idea of secretly videotaping the opposition to help the Patriots win, but no one ever, EVER, in his 40 years of coaching, ever suggested deflating balls to make them easier to catch and hold.  Yes, folks, the Patriots talked about this elaborate scheme to spy on their opponents and even read the rules to see what was legal and what was not.  Yet, they never, ever talked about what they might be able to do to make their footballs more manageable.

Second, Tom Brady’s follow up interview later that day.  The Patriot’s were in full damage control, trying to deflect attention from yet another violation of NFL rules.  Brady told us that he picks out the balls and that they matter to him.  This is presumably why he and others lobbied the NFL for the rule change back in 2007 to allow each team to pick their own balls.  When I pick those footballs out, at that point to me they're perfect” Brady said.  But this great, legendary QB supposedly didn’t realize two years later, his chosen balls were no longer perfect.  If we are to believe Brady, he can’t tell the difference between a properly inflated ball and one that is 1-2 pounds lighter.  So much for his method of picking the “perfect” balls.  The guy can’t remember what feels ‘perfect’ to him from one hour to the next.

Third, professor Belicheat’s scientific opinings.  His final interview, to put the matter to rest, was just too much.  He offered the explanation that the Patriot’s properly inflated the balls, but when they were taken out into the cold weather, they deflated on their own.  Never mind that the Indianapolis Colt’s properly inflated balls remained properly inflated in the same climate.  Who needs facts when we have the NFL convicted cheating coach now turned scientist telling us the climate did it?  Oh yeah.  And just in case the weather didn’t do it, maybe them “roughing” up Tom Brady’s “leave them like they are” perfect balls caused some air to leak? 

Too many miss the point of cheating.  I listened to way too many of the sporting world’s talking heads tell us it didn’t affect the outcome of the game.  Granted, the way that particular game was played, the Colts would likely have lost if Tom Brady were throwing anvils or beach balls.  But the cheating Patriots have profoundly affected both the game and their legacy.  When the sun sets on their contemporary dominance of the AFC and we look backwards, we will never know just how good, or how bad the New England Patriots were.  If the Patriots earn their fourth Superbowl victory this coming Sunday with Bill Belichick as head coach and Tom Brady as Quarterback, many will say they are the greatest team, greatest head coach and greatest QB ever.  But one solid, stubborn fact will overshadow those accolades...cheaters are never great.







Tuesday, January 27, 2015

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Seven decades ago today, Soviet forces were rolling through Poland, uncovering some of the worst inhumanities of the Third Reich and some of the greatest abuses of the Jewish people.  On January 27, 1945, they came into Auschwitz…a name that has become synonymous with evil and human suffering…where they liberated nearly 7,000 prisoners still in the camp.  Nazis had forced some 60,000 to march west just days earlier and the world would come to learn that at least 1.1 million people were killed there.

We should remember the Holocaust for its history.  Now seventy years distant, time has worked some of its effect.  The movies, the pictures and the stories have perhaps calloused us a bit to the great horror of this epochal nightmare.  We must work to make sure this history still haunts us and moves us to the resolve of “never again.”  Stories like those of today’s Washington Post are very helpful at achieving this goal.
The IHRA is also committed to this.  In reaffirming the Stockholm Declaration today, they declared:

The unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning for us. We are committed to remembering and honouring its victims, to upholding the terrible truth of the Holocaust, to standing up against those who distort or deny it and to combatting anti-semitism, racism and prejudice…

We should remember the Holocaust for its anti-Semitism.  Adolf Hitler’s maniacal obsession in obliterating the Jewish race is instructive.  In the final days of Germany’s war effort, troop trains gave way to the trains carrying Jews to the gas chambers.  The nation of Iran, the Palestinian state and a multitude of terrorist organizations are committed to the deaths of Jewish persons and the destruction of the nation of Israel.  Stephen Spielberg, in his remarks today at the Auschwitz memorial said:

“If you are a Jew today, in fact if you are any person who believes in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, you know that like many other groups we’re once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance.”

We should remember the Holocaust for its spirit.   The spirit behind the Holocaust was hatred and violence.  And this spirit lives on and is too seldom checked.   Dr. Josef Mengele was the doctor who performed some of the worst experiments imaginable on human subjects at Auschwitz, most notably on identical twins.  Mengele was able to escape to South America where he lived in Argentina for its “no extradition” policy.  Mengele became an abortionist in Buenos Aires, transporting his violence towards Jews outside the womb to babies within the womb.  In America, 57,000,000 babies have been aborted since its legalization.  Our nation’s abortion chambers have turned out systematic death with such ruthless effectiveness that many of Hitler’s “Final Solution” Nazi planners would find impressive.

When several hundreds of people rioted in Ferguson, Missouri to protest the Grand Jury exoneration of Officer Darren Wilson, the national news media ran non-stop coverage.  When nearly a quarter of a million people marched peacefully in Washington DC at this past year’s March for Life, the national news media was silent. 

Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group, have killed nearly 2,000 Christians and burned numerous churches in Nigeria with little resistance from the world.  And again.  We know more about the New England Patriots deflating their balls than the suffering of those Nigerian Christians. 

We definitely need to remember the Holocaust.  Let us remember the victims of one of the world's worst eras, and let us not forget that such evil continues.