Archives For Grace

Bill Cosby Redux

November 24, 2014 — 12 Comments

Bill & CamilleIn light of recent revelations, my daughter urged me to delete my recent post about Bill Cosby.

As the extensive evidence of a sordid past have been coming to light, albeit accusations rather than substantiated facts, the propriety of that original post falls into question.

For the time being, I am disposed to leaving it up. For several reasons. I could say one is the notion of “innocent until proven guilty,” but that’s not true. Despite statutes of limitations, the accumulating evidence, quite sadly, appears indisputable.

On the subject of innocence, I admit to confused sentiments. As a Christian, who accepts the historic doctrine of “original sin,” I confess at every worship service that I too am a hopeless sinner, in dire need of God’s grace and mercy. What’s more, as a Christian who believes we cannot earn forgiveness, I point not to my own ragged good works, but rely wholly on the grace—the undeserved love—of God.

C.S. Lewis recognized that mercy is the only solution for our guilt. In “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” he wrote these words:

The essential act of mercy was to pardon; and pardon in its very essence involves the recognition of guilt and ill-desert in the recipient. If crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment, it cannot be pardoned.

I am quite conscious of my own deep need for pardon. Thus, I am ever wary of condemning those whose heart I cannot know.

The second reason for my reticence in removing this post, is that much of it remains true. The Bill Cosby who offered our family genuine laughter and wholesome entertainment, was apparently not identical with the real man.

But then I pause to wonder how many celebrities are truly consistent with their public persona? And, in light of the fact that we all have our failures and sometimes grievous sins, why should we expect them to be transparent and vulnerable to greater emotional violence than they all already receive?

My comments below were written with the understanding I possessed two short months ago. They were heartfelt at that time, and they illustrate in a clear way how perception is not always reality. Perhaps they can serve as a sort of a caution to others who are prone to investing too much trust in people they do not genuinely know.

Another reason I am inclined to leave the post up for the time being, is that there may be a value in preserving the quality of the artist’s work, even when we have been disappointed by the artist himself.

As an example of this, during a sketch on the last episode of Saturday Night Live, Michael Che criticized the actor’s vile behavior, but ended his scripted “newscast” with a thought that I believe represents the view of many.

“I don’t know how to feel about [networks cancelling The Cosby Show] because I don’t know Bill Cosby, but Cliff Huxtable practically raised me. I love that dude, and the only thing he ever tried to sneak while people were asleep is a hoagie. So while I may never forgive Bill Cosby, hopefully someday I can forgive Dr. Huxtable.”

It’s that Bill Cosby, the idealized, honorable, ever-witty, and doting father, that I remind my wife of. And I remain flattered by that.

Meanwhile, I pray for Bill and Camille Cosby. I pray for the victims of his offenses. I pray for the victims of some of those very women who, in likely turn, have wounded others because of their own emotional and spiritual injuries.

Sin is powerful. It’s effects cascade from life to life. But sin and evil do not have the final word. That is left to the Word incarnate, who has redeemed this fallen world. The Lord who heals our wounds and offers the glorious promise that one day . . .

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21.4).

A Caveat about Caveats

September 4, 2014 — 4 Comments

cave canemA caveat, most readers will know, is a warning. One of my favorite usages comes from ancient Rome, where many villa owners procured guard dogs to protect their property. Cave Canem–beware of the dog–became a common motif for entryway mosaics.

One of the most familiar caveats is caveat emptor—buyer beware. Not only is this warning well known, it is absolutely true. Without an express warranty, you may have little hope recouping your loss when something you purchase fails.

Caveats, however, need not infer that the subjects they refer to are dangerous.

For example, the guard dog may well be an affectionate “member of the family,” who warms up quickly, even to strangers who have been invited into the home. Likewise, the new car I’m contemplating purchasing may be ideal for me. Fairly priced, economical to drive, and not so dated in appearance that it shouts, “yes, I’m a grandpa.”

Caveats don’t mean “stay away.” They merely advise us all to think before we act. (And, as universal rules go, this is a very good one.) Caveats, and good parenting, remind us to read the “fine print” before signing anything.

I want to encourage all readers of Mere Inkling to use their God-given intelligence to evaluate what you read on these pages. In the same way, I hope you will all apply your God-instilled conscience to measure my words.

In light of this sincere desire, I encourage you to read the gentle caveats offered below.

General Caveats for Readers

What should readers of Mere Inkling keep in mind as they peruse these posts? First of all, there are a number of general considerations—applicable to everything each of us reads and hears.

1.  Understand the perspective of the writer. What are the assumptions and worldview of the person who wrote the piece? It can be hazardous to simply assume that a writer shares your own values—or even definitions. Many people would be shocked at the diversity of definitions for a word like “church” that roam the internet.

2.  Ensure we read what we think we did. By this I mean that we should reread sections that we find confusing or offensive. It may be we have misread what the author intended. (This is especially true when a writer seeks to play with the English language, and uses phrasing unfamiliar to our ear.) In cases where we have normally enjoyed the writing, but now find ourselves bothered by something, it is always good to ask the writer to clarify what they meant. More often than not, I’ve found this opportunity to elaborate dispels the problem.

3.  Reject the myth that anything you read is absolutely objective. Objectivity, except for mathematics, is essentially impossible. Our education, values, experiences and mood all affect the words we write. The best we can hope for in what we read—something Mere Inkling strives for—is personal honesty and fairness.

Mere Inkling Caveats

1.  Mere Inkling’s author is a fallen human being. By definition, that means that I am imperfect. Not all-knowing, nor always gracious. Imperfect though I am, I try my best to speak here in a forthright, considerate, modestly entertaining and, most importantly, a truthful way. When I fall short of that, feel free to write to me about it.

2.  I am a Christian. I certainly don’t apologize for this. Nor do I apologize for the wish of all disciples of Jesus that everyone might know the joy, forgiveness and peace that comes from abiding in the Vine (a metaphor for Jesus, as described in John 15).

3.  Your host at Mere Inkling is an evangelical Christian. This is a hazy adjective, often used in mutually contradictory ways. I apply it here to myself in the context of holding fast to the basic Christian truths, including the aforementioned desire of God that all people might come to him through his only begotten Son.

4.  I am a catholic Christian. Not a Roman Catholic (with a capital C), but catholic in the word’s creedal sense—a member of the one universal Church. As a catholic Christian, I subscribe to the ecumenical creeds, agreed upon as the fundamental doctrines of the faith during its earliest years. These include the Triune nature of God, the Incarnation miracle, and the atonement. Like my mentor, C.S. Lewis, here at Mere Inkling we focus on “Mere Christianity,” the common core of the faith. I consistently attempt to qualify my words on subjects where there is not a clear consensus.

Each of us has his individual emphasis: each holds, in addition to the Faith, many opinions which seem to him to be consistent with it and true and important. And so perhaps they are. But as apologists it is not our business to defend them. We are defending Christianity; not “my religion.” When we mention our personal opinions we must always make quite clear the difference between them and the Faith itself. (C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics”).

5.  I am a Lutheran Christian. Again, I do not apologize. Lutherans understand we are only a small part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic faith.” Each denomination (indeed, each individual) possesses a distinctive interpretation of the Christian faith. We are free, of course, to associate with that community we believe follows God’s leading most faithfully. (It is a given that no community is without flaw, since no human being is.) I have written more on this aspect of my identity in the next point, and on the “Mercy” tab you will find at the top of the page.

6.  I am an evangelical Lutheran Christian. This is not a formal category, but means that I subscribe to historic Lutheranism as it has been taught and held since the Reformation, rather than some of the current expressions of “religion” that may be labeled Lutheran. In essence, this can be summarized in the “solas” of Lutheran doctrine.

Sola Scripture – Scripture Alone meaning that the Bible, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, are the ultimate authority for determining true faith.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone meaning salvation is an unearned gift of God, given not because we have earned it.

Sola Fides – Faith Alone meaning that God’s grace is apprehended not through wisdom, good works, or any means other than a simple trust in the promise. Ironically, this faith itself is also a gift of God.

7.  I am a pastor. While pastors with seminary educations do study Greek, Hebrew, Theology and assorted other subjects, we are not the same as what most people mean by the word “theologians.” Pastoral Theology is distinct from Systematic Theology. The former focuses on practical ministry to individuals, while the latter is most concerned with abstract matters. While I also possess a second graduate degree, my Master of Theology degree (much different than an M.A. in theology) was earned in the study of Early Church History. My concern remained the work of God among everyday human beings, rather than scholastic philosophy.

8.  While I never intentionally write anything with the goal of offending any reader, I recognize it is impossible to avoid all offense. (Even the least controversial prose is capable of offending.)

Allow me to illustrate how simple truths can elicit dramatically different responses, with two simple declarations.

God loves all people. This is true, and inoffensive. Most people today, and all orthodox (biblical) Christians would agree with the statement.

Not all people will go to heaven. This too is true. However, it provokes great outcries from many quarters, including some religious organizations that arise out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus himself offered “hard sayings” that elicited grumbling. John’s Gospel records a powerful account of this, occurring immediately after the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? . . . The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” . . . “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.

C.S. Lewis referred to the alienating nature of some truths when he wrote the essay, “Cross-Examination.”

I believe that there are many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did not say “Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right.” The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world.

9.  I am an American. Again, no apologies. I applaud much of what this nation has valued and shared during its history. I regret many of the mistakes the United States has made, and continues to make. I recognize how fortunate I have been to live in a nation with access to educational and medical resources not available to all. I genuinely appreciate other cultures and have been privileged to live in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The right I treasure most—and one I pray will be extended to all people—is freedom of religion.

10.  I welcome offline correspondence. I recognize many people are reluctant to post a comment on a blog, which is visible to the public. I also realize that some readers would appreciate privately offering a comment or posing a question. I welcome this, and encourage you to use the form below to write to me. I will respond from my personal email account and we can discuss sensitive matters in greater depth. I must say in advance, however, that I do not have the leisure time to aid with any research. Similarly, while I am happy to offer general pastoral advice, only a fool or con artist would presume to conduct serious counseling or therapy via email. (You need a local pastor or counselor for that.) That said, I do enjoy spirited and honest discourse, so d feel free to contact me.

_____

The picture at the top of the page comes from the entryway to the “House of the Tragic Poet” in Pompeii.

memorial cakeToday’s news carried a truly bizarre story. Yesterday, Venezuela’s dictator died after a lengthy illness. Today we learned that his body is due to be preserved for future generations to venerate. Like his forebear Lenin, he’ll be on call in a glass casket in case someone needs to gaze at him to have their socialist energies reinvigorated.

And that was only half of the surprising news report about Chavez’s demise.

The head of the presidential guard, a general close to the leader, related his final words. He was at his bedside and reported that he was too weak to verbalize the words, but clearly mouthed the plea “I don’t want to die; please don’t let me die.”

It’s shocking that General Ornella would divulge this fact about Chavez, particularly during the actual process of his divinization. The general attributes Chavez’s reluctance to receive his “eternal reward” to his love of country and desire to remain here to lead his nation for ever.

I, on the other hand, would attribute his reluctance to die to other sentiments.

The article that related the morbid plans for the display of Chavez’s body cited the familiar example of Lenin, which I mentioned above. It also noted two other former rulers whose bodies have also been preserved for an adoring posterity: Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. Preparing this post I found that Kim Il-sun and his son Kim Jong-Il share a mausoleum. Likewise, Lenin’s successor Stalin would still be on display, had it not been for eventually falling out of political favor.

Now, there’s something obvious that all of these men have in common. They were leaders of oppressive communist regimes—which oppressed their own citizens because of their atheistic worldview.

Having rejected God and knowing no hope of resurrection or eternal life, they feebly grasped for immortality the only way they knew. They sought to leave a monumental mark on history, in order to be long remembered. And, considering a monument and a statue insufficient mnemonic devices . . . well, enough about that.

A Far Better Way

We who know the Creator of all life have much to be grateful for. Not least of which, his gracious gift of eternal life. Christians believe we will trade in this weak and worn body for a new one. So, while we treat the bodies of those who have died with dignity, we feel absolutely no impulse to venerate them. On the contrary, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

C.S. Lewis wrote something in Mere Christianity which relates directly to this sharp contrast in worldviews.

Immortality makes this other difference between totalitarianism and democracy. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.

That, dear friends, is quite a paradigm shift. To regard each human life as more precious than any abstract government or institution created by humanity’s hand. Having that perspective is akin to seeing with God’s own eyes.

I hope the people of Venezuela soon recognize the futility of the shrine that is being built. Infinitely better to seek “immortality” (eternal life) in the one place where it may truly be found.

On Death’s Specter

May 14, 2012 — 8 Comments

Death is an unpleasant subject. And the knowledge that each of us is destined to face our own, has the potential to overshadow the countless joys this life offers.

Virtually everyone reading this has lost a loved one to death . . . and some reading this may have been informed by doctors that their own days may be limited. If you find yourself counting down in years, months, or weeks, may God strengthen you and pour upon you an overflowing portion of his divine peace. The Scriptures refer to God’s peace in circumstances of great personal trial as a “peace which passes understanding.” And that is precisely what I pray he provides for you.

Those of us who are Christians find ourselves in a bit of a tension. We believe in Jesus’ resurrection, and his promise to raise us to new life as well. So, in that sense death is a defeated “enemy.” It no longer has the final word. In fact, passing through the portal of death actually allows us to enter into the presence of the Lord! Nevertheless, we dread the prospect of dying. Too seldom do people pass peacefully in their sleep.

C.S. Lewis experienced an illness which brought him near to death. Yet he recovered . . . with mixed feelings. Five weeks before his death he wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves:

Tho’ I am by no means unhappy I can’t help feeling it was rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best.

The reason we should no longer fear death is because it has no power over those whose sins have been borne by the Messiah. Those who have not experienced this grace may rightfully fear the day of accounting that awaits humanity. Jesus invites all people—even the most sinful and vile people we can imagine—to yield to him and trade their inheritance of death for his righteousness and the gift of eternal life.

That means there is nothing that you have done that is so evil God cannot forgive it. Simply ask him to.

One way this experience of salvation is described in the Bible is as a resurrection. Jesus said to one of his disciples, “I am the resurrection and the life ‘Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’” (John 11:25). Jesus is distinguishing between the two deaths. Physical, where this finite body fails . . . and spiritual death, where those who have ignored God’s mercy spend eternity separated from it.

Another aspect of this transformation is found in the fact that through conversion we die to the power of sin over us, and participate (even in this physical life) in Christ’s resurrected life. (Baptism is a “sign” of this, as the immersion is “burial” and rising from the waters is rebirth.) As Paul of Tarsus assures believers: “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8).

C.S. Lewis bluntly put it this way: “Die before you die. There is no chance after that.” (Till We Have Faces).

Which brings us to the peculiar image above. It comes from some classical text and whenever I’ve encountered it over the years, I’ve always considered it rather odd that the illustrator decided to portray this skeleton in the posture of prayer. It’s actually a bit disconcerting, since death and decay have nothing to do with our Lord who is the way, the truth and the life.

If we haven’t said our prayers in this mortal life, as Lewis reminds us, we will lack the voice and opportunity to do so in the next.

Besides, knowing Christ is not something with benefits only in the next life. Walking through life in his light makes our days here all the more pleasant and joyful. As I look back on my own life I recognize numerous ways in which his hand directed my path. Had I lived for my own selfish appetites the person I would be today would little resemble the Christian me. Thank God that he delivered me from becoming that man.