Archives For Jesus

Professor Bob Dylan

February 24, 2015 — 13 Comments

dylanCan you imagine having singer Bob Dylan as your high school history teacher?

According to a recent interview,* it could have happened.

Still actively touring in his seventies and considered an American musical icon. I was stunned to hear what he said about another path his life may have taken. The interviewer posted the remark this way:

Bob Dylan: His True Calling

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

I didn’t realize he and I had so much in common! When I did my undergrad studies in history, I took every Roman history course the University of Washington offered. As for theology . . . well, having become a pastor, my interest in the study of God’s revelation of himself to the world is a given.

Can you imagine Dylan lecturing on apotheosis in the early empire? [Apotheosis is the elevation of a person to godhood, and was a formal event after the death of some emperors. The emperors themselves knew it was a farce, of course. Seneca wrote that emperor Vespasian, on his deathbed, actually said, “Alas, I think I’m becoming a God.”]

Bob Dylan’s interest in spiritual matters is genuine. He has high praise in the interview for Billy Graham. “This guy was rock ‘n’ roll personified. He filled football stadiums before Mick Jagger did.”

In 1979, Dylan released the first of three “Christian” albums, “Slow Train Coming.” It has a number of great pieces, and I listen to the album at least once a month. One song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” won him the Grammy that year for “Best Male Vocalist.” It’s lyrics are sobering, and everyone should hear it at least once.

And, Speaking of C.S. Lewis

Well, we weren’t actually. But, here at Mere Inkling we usually do.

These two men bear some obvious parallels. They are masters of words. Poets extraordinaire. Lewis and Dylan both possess enviable creative imaginations. Each has accumulated a vast legacy in their work, which will continue to inspire for many generations to come.

I also learned this on the internet—they share the same Myers-Briggs personality type. At least, this site claims they are both INFPs. (I’m an ENTJ myself, a common personality aggregate for pastors.)

And, they had at least one more thing in common. They knew that in this life, there is no such thing as spiritual neutrality. When we ultimately stand before the throne of our Creator, it will not suffice to say, “Well, I didn’t do anything truly evil.”

In a moment we will listen to Dylan’s ballad about the choice before us. First, though, consider how Lewis uses the imagery of the war engulfing the world in the 1940s to describe this truth.

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side.

God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world.

When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.

It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it. (Mere Christianity).

Now, as promised, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

_____

*You can read the entire interview in the current issue of AARP The Magazine, available here.

Similes & Metaphors

December 16, 2014 — 11 Comments

agdeiSimiles are wonderful literary tools. Being able to compare two dissimilar things in a way that brings out subtle nuances and insights is quite enjoyable.

Here are a couple of examples off the top of my head. (I don’t pretend others haven’t written these things, but I didn’t plagiarize them.).

A politician is like a weathervane.

Arguing theology is like having indigestion.

Disliking Narnia is like hating a feast.

Metaphors, of course, are far more powerful than similes. When we consider a metaphor we are pondering how two different things actually share some fundamental quality.

Comprehending metaphors requires the ability to think abstractly. A child—confined to a world of concrete concepts—cannot begin to think of their nation as a “motherland” or “fatherland,” as the case may be. Yet, those are powerful nurturing and bonding words that countless patriots have embraced throughout the centuries.

A simile might say “our country is like a family.” A metaphor suggests far more. In this case, it might convey that one’s allegiance to their nation should exceed their loyalty to their biological kin.

Nowhere is the magnificence of metaphors more manifest than in the way we talk about God. One of the most famous biblical passages is a straight forward example. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Jesus the Christ said of himself, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He also called himself the “Light of the world. Whoever follows me,” he added, “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

It is a sad thing when a symbol loses its meaning. There is a prime example of that phenomenon in Oxford. And you can see it in the sign that hangs above a pub frequented by the Inklings.

No, not the Eagle and Child, which they affectionately referred to as the Bird and Baby.

After renovations to the Eagle and Child eliminated their privacy, the writers transitioned across the street to the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs trace their history back to the seventeenth century, and the latter is actually owned by St. John’s College. (It’s profits fund student scholarships.) In a 1963 letter, Lewis colorfully described the move thusly:

Mon 11 March it is. But note that our causeries de lundi are now permanently transferred to the Lamb & Flag. We were sorry to break with tradition, but the B & B had become too intolerably cold, dark, noisy, and child-pestered.

Sadly, when many people look at the Lamb on the pub’s sign, they fail to recognize it’s significance. The lamb carrying a cross-emblazoned banner is nothing other than the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.

What, some may wonder, is the Lamb of God? The better question is “who” is the lamb. The symbol represents Jesus Christ himself. It hearkens to the declaration of John the Baptizer as Jesus approached the Jordan: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

To understand what it means to say “Jesus is the Lamb,” requires two things. First, a recognition that it is more than a simile; it is not simply that he possesses some of the attributes we would naturally associate with a lamb, such as gentleness. The second requisite is that we understand something about the Jewish sacrificial system.

For, Jesus being the Lamb of God means nothing less than that he is the true, complete, ultimate and final sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

And that is a wonder definitely worth pondering during this Christmas season.

The World’s End

October 20, 2014 — 9 Comments

christ arisenMany years ago, while attending seminary, I was invited to preach at a Pentecostal congregation in my home town. One of the conversations I had that day taught me more about the importance of sound biblical preaching than every homiletics course I ever took (combined).

Lutherans, I must admit, are not big advocates of “end times” concerns. The reasons for this are far too complicated to address in a brief column now. Ironically, however, although we confess our confidence that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead” every week, we seldom talk about the details of that arrival.

At the aforementioned service, I did preach on the second coming of the Messiah. And, to distill it down to a single message, I suggested that the Scriptures teach us to live in a sort of tension. We should live with a conscious awareness and urgency that the parousia could happen at any moment . . . and, prepare for the future as though the return of Christ (and subsequent new creation) will not take place for another thousand years.

Shortly after the service ended, a woman approached me and shared how she “wished she could have heard that sermon thirty years earlier.” She related how different her life would have been.

She said in her youth she had longed to attend college, but she never did . . . because she knew Jesus would return before she graduated.

When she and her husband bought a home, she wished the property had some fruit trees, but she never planted any . . . because she knew Jesus would return before they bore fruit.

Saddest of all, she told me that when her children were born, she never raised them to become mature adults . . . because she knew Jesus would return before they grew into the men and women they became.

Nearly forty years later I am more convinced than ever that living with the “tension” I described is the proper course of disciples of Jesus.

So, how does this work out in reality?

While a few of us know people who become so preoccupied with the end of the world that their lives go askew, it’s the other error to which most of us are prone. We tend to think that the return of Christ bears little or no connection to the age in which we live.

We are so preoccupied with our present responsibilities and dreams that we invest precious little time in contemplating how these things will matter in the scope of eternity.

I highly recommend to you a recent article on this subject that will remedy this dilemma. Andrée Seu Peterson, a gifted writer I have commended before at Mere Inkling, reminds us all of the fact that Jesus’ second coming may be just around the corner. Andrée writes:

Who would have thought that after centuries of modernity, beheading would once again be a means of persecuting the people of God? Does it not send a chill up our spine to read all about it in Revelation 20:4 even as we hear about it on CNN? “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus.”

C.S. Lewis famously described two errors people fall into when considering the occult. Either we get caught up in unhealthy expressions of the supernatural, or we dismiss the reality of demons and their destructive agenda altogether.

I believe humanity’s impulsive nature makes us vulnerable to the same extremes when it comes to the final days of the world we call home.

I strongly encourage you to read Peterson’s article here, as a timely reminder that you were created for far more wonderful and amazing things than we can ever know in this life. Even the best this world offers is but a hint and a foretaste of what awaits those who trust in God.

A Symbol of Death & Life

October 6, 2014 — 6 Comments

nن – Arabic letter nun (n)

You may never have seen this symbol or, if you did, its foreign context may not have impressed it on your mind.

This Arabic letter is now being used to mark people for persecution and death. Yet, at the very same moment, this same symbol is also being transformed into an emblem that stands for courage and life.

The Islamic State has martyred or enslaved many Christians. Survivors have had all of their property stolen from them and been marked for death if they do not reject Christ and embrace the Muslim religion.

They have gone throughout the neighborhoods of their new conquests and placed this mark, the nun, on homes to mark them for evacuation or death. The “N” stands for “Nazarene,” referring to Jesus’ home town.

With the passage of time, we will likely see once again the truth proclaimed by Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. In the meantime, everyone of good will (Christian, Jew, Muslim, Agnostic alike) should rally to the support of the suffering.

We do not yet know the magnitude of the atrocities committed by ISIS/ISIL. Like Nazi concentration camps, the complete story will not be revealed until the sites of the horror are liberated from their vile control. And, like the Mogen David (Star of David) which marked its bearers as Jews, the nun marks its bearers as Christians and targets of militant Islam.

C.S. Lewis recognized the horror of Nazism early on. In 1933 he wrote about the cruelty, and stupidity of Hitler’s attack on Judaism.

Did you see that [Hitler] said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.” Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty.

One can only imagine what Lewis would write about the leaders of Islamofascism today.

There are a number of organizations that support Christians currently experiencing violent persecution. None, however, approaches this work from the same perspective of Voice of the Martyrs. I wholeheartedly commend their labors to you.

They are currently offering shirts emblazoned with the letter nun. They are even more important as a witnessing tool, than as a fundraiser. Please read more about them here and share the link with your friends. Also, please take a few minutes to explore their website once you are there.

To boldly state “I am N” is to identify with the oppressed. It is to show the world you understand that each disciple of Jesus must be prepared to take up his or her own cross. Dying for one’s faith in Jesus is not a myth; it is a daily reality.

The ن symbol, intended as a mark of derision, humiliation and rejection, has assumed a new meaning. It has become a mark of hope, courage, and deliverance.

What the persecutors in Iraq and Syria intended to be a label of death has been transformed by the Holy Spirit and the faithfulness of Christians into a symbol of life.

Death by Crocodile

September 26, 2014 — 8 Comments

200350761-001Suicide is always a tragedy. Many families have been touched by its pain.

The moral implications of this are vast, of course, and not the topic of this column. Today I am more intrigued by the modes that people select as they act on their suicidal impulses (or long-deliberated decisions).

As a pastor and military chaplain, I have worked with families in the aftermath of suicide. As a volunteer law enforcement chaplain, I have responded to the actual event.

Life is precious. It should never be squandered. Contrary to the notions of reincarnationists, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). That judgment need not be feared, for those sheltered in the mercy of God. Still, I doubt the Lord desires to see us ushered into his presence for that judgment by our own hand.

Even the darkest of lives can be rescued and recreated with new hope. That’s the testimony of many people, like Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic at only seventeen.

There are diverse ways people choose to end their days on earth.

Some European countries have made the passing a gentle, numbing for the most part, painless transition. In their euthanasia clinics, powerful drugs can be used to simply suppress one’s breathing until they “fall asleep” permanently.

Others make drug concoctions of their own, and some die in agony because of miscalculation, or are “rescued” to live debilitated by their failed attempt.

Some, for twisted macho reasons perhaps, decide to go out with a literal bang. Here too the attempt can fail and leave the individual in a horrific condition. And, even when it is “successful,” it leaves a sickening aftermath.

Perhaps the worst of all are those who desire to leave a “mark” on this “cruel world” as they depart. They may lash out at people they know—or even strangers—seeking to leave a lasting scar as a memory. Most of these people are likely insane. Not so the fanatic “suicide bombers.” Those disciples of evil comprehend what they are doing. The magnitude of their vile acts do not escape them.

Not the Why, but the How

As I said above, I’m not thinking today about the reasons a person would end their life. I am wondering about the means they choose to do so.

I was shocked by the recent suicide by a sixty-five year old Thai woman who calmly removed her shoes and then leapt into a ten-foot-deep pond which is home to more than a thousand crocodiles. A dozen were on her immediately.

I cannot stand to watch nature shows that portray crocodiles viciously dragging antelopes or zebras to their grim deaths. Just thinking of this woman’s final moments leaves me in emotional disbelief.

C.S. Lewis hinted at humanity’s archetypal antipathy to crocodiles. In a 1949 letter he wrote:

I don’t think the idea that evil is an illusion helps. Because surely it is a (real) evil that the illusion of evil should exist. When I am pursued in a nightmare by a crocodile the pursuit and the crocodile are illusions: but it is a real nightmare, and that seems a real evil.

Just as shocking as this poor woman’s death itself, is the fact that a decade ago another woman committed suicide at the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo in the same way.

The only reason I can conceive of for a person choosing such a terrible manner of death, is that they believed they deserved to suffer. Aside from that, only insanity can provide an answer.

For those who believe their guilt for real or imagined sins demands such a path, I have a life-saving alternative. There is One who can forgive those crimes and failings, and offer us a new beginning.

In the same passage from Hebrews cited above, we read the following good news.

[Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Share this hope with your friends and family—especially with those you know who may be contemplating the untimely end of their lives.

_____

I have written on the subject of suicide in the past. If you are interested in considering the subject from a different perspective, please read “The Anguish of Suicide.”

Loving Prostitutes

September 12, 2014 — 20 Comments

comfort womenI love prostitutes.

It’s true.

Although I have never in my life “physically” loved one, I possess great compassion for them.

Sharing physical intimacy with a prostitute would have nothing to do with “love,” anyway.

My empathy for prostitutes grew significantly during the year I spent stationed with the United States Air Force in South Korea during the 1980s.

My love for them has just been reignited by an article I read about the plight of aged Korean prostitutes who are being evicted from their hovels so that developers can profit. These women, ostracized by their own society and discarded by their pimps and the soldiers, sailors and airmen who abused them, have nowhere to go.

Americans have a perverse understanding of prostitution. Calling it a “victimless crime” is incomprehensible. For every one American call girl living in comfort and able to choose her “clients,” there are probably five thousand who are beaten daily, and driven to an early (often welcome) death.

No woman, at least none with a healthy mind, wants to sell their body and forfeit their future.

The gifted author and professor, C.S. Lewis, recognized this fact.

Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger (The Problem of Pain).

I love prostitutes because God has granted me the vision to see them as he does. Jesus spoke with true love (agape love) to one unloved and physically used woman he met at a well. You can read the story here.

She had been passed from one man to another and no longer had any options. Her current partner had not even bothered to marry her. She was not unlike the poor prostitutes of South Korea.

Jesus looked into this woman’s scarred soul and offered her forgiveness, healing and peace.

South Korea is prosperous today. It was not always so. During the Second World War, and the Japanese occupation, thousands of woman were enslaved as “comfort women.” The Korean government provides these victims with special compensation. Not so the post-war “comfort women” who serviced the country’s allies.

They did not have a choice either. Which is one reason C.S. Lewis writes, “a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.” (Mere Christianity).

And now they languish. Others, working in bars and “clubs” near bases today, are in their “prime.” It won’t last. This will be their destiny as well.

Because I love prostitutes, I pray that they might be liberated from their bondage. And, I also pray, that if they remain trapped in their current plight, that their souls might be free . . . that they might encounter the Messiah who can offer them “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

The article I read, and linked to above, ends with a potent yet tragic image.

Jang Young-mi, 67, who was orphaned as a girl and worked in a military camptown for nearly two decades, lives with three mangy dogs. A bite from one of them left the long white scar on her hand, but she refuses to abandon the offending animal.

Dogs too, are often outcasts in many societies. The irony is not lost that in Korea a dog is as likely to be devoured, as it is to be embraced and protected.

_____

The WWII image of so-called “comfort women” is of Indonesian women. It is estimated that the Imperial Japanese Army enslaved a quarter of a million women in Asia to serve in this cruel and vile manner. Due to the large number of victims, many still live today, still hoping for an official apology for their suffering.

A Caveat about Caveats

September 4, 2014 — 5 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.

Any Name But That

August 18, 2014 — 7 Comments

jesus nameThis week I read one of the clearest descriptions of the gospel I have ever heard. It appeared in an article written by the most (how do I put this mildly?) daunting professor I have encountered in my Doctor of Ministry studies. “Intimidating” would also work . . .

But his brilliance and rapid fire delivery of thought-provoking concepts is not the reason for me mentioning him here. It is his ability to cut through the confusion, and express simply the essence of the good news, the Christian hope, the gospel.

I’m not pandering to him, mind you, because my grade for his systematics course was filed long ago. It is simply that Joel Biermann said extremely succinctly, something that I have always attempted to emphasize in my own ministry.

The Gospel is the good news, but it is not just any good news. The Gospel is a word of liberation and encouragement, but it is not just any word of liberation and encouragement. The Gospel is a wonderful event and a joyful experience, but it is not just any wonderful event and joyful experience.

In other words, when it comes to defining the Gospel, it is vitally important that we move past vague ideas or general notions and grab hold of the central thing. The central thing is Jesus.

This is a truth too many fail to understand. Sadly, this is true for some “inside” the Church as well as outside of its doors.

Goodness is good. Generosity is wonderful. Encouragement is precious. Courage is noble. Love is (almost) divine.

Yet none of these are the Gospel. The Gospel is Jesus. In him the world discovers every good thing from the hand of God the Father, our Creator.

Jesus is indispensable. Without his holy name, the “faith” would simply be a praiseworthy “religion.” Without Jesus, it could instruct how to live, but it could not redeem.

It is precisely this point—the name of Jesus—that makes the Gospel objectionable to some. “Care for the sick,” some say, “just don’t mention that name.” On other lips we hear “The Church does lots of things that benefit the community, but please don’t mention that name that offends people.”

They arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life. . . .”

And someone came and told [the High Priest], “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people. . . .”

And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter five).

C.S. Lewis knew quite well that Christianity is all about Jesus. Without him, the person Jesus the Christ, whatever passes for the “Church” would merely be a noisy gong. Lots of “religious” talk would remain . . . but the Gospel would be absent.

“What are we to make of Christ?” There is no question of what we can make of Him, it is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story. The things He says are very different from what any other teacher has said. Others say, “This is the truth about the Universe. This is the way you ought to go,” but He says, “I am the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.” He says, “No man can reach absolute reality, except through Me. Try to retain your own life and you will be inevitably ruined. Give yourself away and you will be saved. . . .”

“Come to Me everyone who is carrying a heavy load, I will set that right. Your sins, all of them, are wiped out, I can do that. I am Re-birth, I am Life.” (1950 essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”).

In the same way as the apostles, C.S. Lewis, my seminary professor, and all of those who have entrusted themselves to the grace of God in Christ, know the name of Jesus is not optional. In fact, it is all about the name.

For it is Jesus, and him alone, who is the alpha, omega and the whole of the Gospel.

Who Should We Trust?

March 24, 2014 — 14 Comments

staffordshire cross“You can trust me, I’m a pastor.” When I was ordained thirty-three years ago, that might have been sufficient to persuade many people to give me the benefit of the doubt. Not so today.

The latest Gallup poll records the continuing decline of our trust in “clergy.” Relentless negative press (much of it recording genuinely criminal and repellent behaviors) has taken its toll. Today only 47% of Americans trust ministers (of all faiths).

The good news, if you can consider it that, is that clergy still rank as the seventh most trusted group (out of twenty-two vocations considered).

But it remains quite pitiful. And quite understandable. Even being a pastor, there are many people considered clergy who I would not trust. First of all, anyone who purchased their “ordination” over the internet, and has the audacity to pretend to be a minister. I see a credibility gap there. (I would not include those who buy one of the fake diplomas as a “joke” to be untrustworthy . . . only those who pass themselves off as a “real minister.”)

I could go on, but my purpose here is not to trash clergy, since more than enough people already devote themselves to that purpose.

I am curious just who, in our increasingly uncertain and selfish world, we should trust.

I personally am in a rather envious position. I don’t have to rely on hoping people will trust me because I’m a pastor. I am also a sworn officer of the law. Albeit, I merely serve as a volunteer chaplain with my local county Sheriff’s Office, but we honestly do swear an oath to uphold the law, and we proudly wear regular uniforms, complete with our own chaplain badges (stars).

The thing about being in law enforcement is that I can benefit from the fact that it is the sixth most respected institution. So that carries me across the halfway mark all the way to the 54% trustworthiness milestone. I guess that’s fair, since I too place a higher trust in the integrity and professionalism of the average deputy or officer than I do in the average minister.

But, as I already said, I’m in a rather unique position, in that I also qualify for an even more respected category, that of a military officer. The 69% level of trust for military officers ties that of doctors and is only 1% below grade school teachers and pharmacists. So, I guess that if I want to instill confidence in my integrity, I’d best tell people that I’m a (retired) Air Force officer, and not that I am a member of the First Estate.

Trust is important. It’s a key commodity in any relationship, and absolutely essential for intimate relationships such as those shared within a family. Trust takes a great deal of time to build, and it can be shattered in just a moment. Its fragility is the primary reason why it must be treasured and guarded.

Trusted are those who never give others a cause to doubt them. My wife and I made a promise to our children that we would never lie to them. Never. We explained there would be times when we could not tell them something, or where we could only reveal a portion of the facts about a matter . . . but we promised them that whatever we did tell them would be the absolute truth insofar as we were aware.

Because of our honesty with them, our children (all adults now, of course), have been amazingly honest with us the whole of their lives. They trust us. We trust them. And none of us take that amazing gift for granted.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien. Although the two would become lifelong friends, there were obstacles that needed to be overcome. One, described by Lewis, was that Tolkien belonged to not one, but two, categories of people who Lewis had been taught to regard as suspect. He was an atheist at the time, but it wasn’t simply Tolkien’s deep faith in Christ that gave him pause.

When I began teaching for the English Faculty, I made two other friends, both Christians (these queer people seemed now to pop up on every side) who were later to give me much help in getting over the last stile. They were H.V.V. Dyson (then of Reading) and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Friendship with the latter marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.

I’m not sure where philologists ranked on Gallup’s recent poll, but I am quite sure they did not include questions about different denominations or faith groups. Before ending these thoughts I suppose I should share with you the most trusted group in the survey—nurses. Eighty-two percent of Americans trust nurses. And I too would agree with that.

The matter of who we can safely trust is of great importance. In fact, it could be argued that it is the most important question in our lives.

Ultimately, even when we assure one another we will only speak the truth . . . even then we disappoint one another. Being human, we are finite, imperfect. We cannot always be there, even for those we love. Sometimes we fail to live up to our own standards and our promises dispel like a vapor in the wind.

Johnny Cash recorded a powerful song before he died. He had lived a rough and tumble life, and had found peace in a relationship with Christ. That peace, however, did not cure all of the ills or heal all of the scars he had experienced, and his profound familiarity with this world inspired the gritty lyrics of “Hurt.”

I wear this crown of thorns

Upon my liar’s chair

Full of broken thoughts

I cannot repair

Beneath the stains of time

The feelings disappear

You are someone else

I am still right here

What have I become

My sweetest friend

Everyone I know goes away

In the end

And you could have it all

My empire of dirt

I will let you down

I will make you hurt

In a moment, I’ll share a link to his performance of this moving song. But first, the answer to the question with which we began.

Who, exactly, should we trust? Johnny Cash learned the answer to that question, and so did C.S. Lewis. I trust the same Person that they did—someone who will never disappoint. Someone who cannot lie, since he himself is the Truth. As Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David . . . I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him . . .

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

_____

If you wish to watch the video of Johnny Cash’s musical epitaph, you can see it here.

The pectoral cross show above is part of the Staffordshire Hoard, which is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon metalwork ever found. It dates from the 7th or 8th century.

Writing Life Scripts

September 13, 2013 — 9 Comments

ben hurI was shaped by the heroic religious films of the 1950s and 60s. The powerful messages of epic movies like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and The Robe planted within my young Christian heart an awareness of nobility and radical self-sacrifice.

About twenty years ago, I spent a year doing graduate work in education. One of my Educational Psychology classes was taught by a professor who was a devotee of Transactional Analysis. I don’t recall too much about TA, aside from one of its principles that resonated with me.

It’s a concept called Life Scripts. Without going into great detail, it is an often subconscious notion of how we “think” our lives will or should play out. It’s adjusted throughout our lives, but the basic theme is established when we are quite young.*

A recent article says “script is broadly understood as a series of decisions, formed as coping strategies in childhood, which continue to shape the life course outside of awareness.”**

It was only as an adult that I realized just how significant an impression these virtuous stories made on me. I recalled the countless times I lay in bed at night rehearsing the story of The Robe. I was the unbelieving Roman soldier, converted by the gentle witness of the wrongfully persecuted Christians.*** Ultimately, I took my stand with them, defending them and voluntarily laying down my life for Christ.

That same plot line still echoes through my mind and soul.

I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to such positive influences while my self identity was being shaped. And I pray for children today whose parents allow them to be exposed (at terribly vulnerable ages!) to violent, fearful and morally ambiguous influences.

Those precious minds and hearts are scarred by the vulgarity and immorality that are endemic in modern cinema, television and music. May God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis lived during the era when the virtuous dramas such as those named above were at the peak of their influence.

In a diary entry from the mid-1920s, he mentions Quo Vadis in passing. He is describing his weekend schedule.

Saturday 22 April: Got up about 6.30 and did the same jobs as yesterday. Was settled to work by 9.5 o’clock and put in an excellent morning . . . Sheila Gonner—jolly child—came to tea. Dorothy is to come back tomorrow: so we shall no longer be servantless. At her request I lent her my crib to Tacitus’ History for her sister Rose— I wonder what makes her imagine that she would like it? Possibly early Christian novels of the Quo Vadis type. Worked again after tea, and from supper till ten o’clock, finishing Herodotus. The last few pages of the IXth Book I now read for the first time, having got tired of it on my first reading . . .

I find this diary passage intriguing, in the way that Lewis posits a reader’s potential interest in classical literature as arising from their exposure to ancient Rome via contemporary novels. That’s precisely where my own lifelong fascination with the Roman empire was born.

If you’ve never seen these three movies, I commend them to you. I would also encourage you to consider reading one or all of the novels. They are available for free download in various digital formats.

Quo Vadis

Ben Hur

The Robe

_____

* I’m a pastor and historian, not a psychologist, so I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications. Because of that, I don’t endorse TA as a fully valid theory. What’s more, in our fallen world it’s obvious that many early “life scripts” can be based on wounds inflicted on neglected or abused children. In such cases, particularly where the scripts are destructive, we are not “destined” to live out a tragedy. By the grace of God, even the saddest of stories can be redeemed and “rewritten” into tales of hope and wonder.

** From “Script or Scripture?” by Jo Stuthridge in Life Scripts edited by Richard Erskine (Karnac Books, 2010).

*** It didn’t hurt that the main Christian disciple in the film was the lovely and chaste Diana, played by the British actress Jean Simmons. But that’s another story, and it’s important to note that these life scripts are pre-pubescent creations, so they are motivated by much deeper impulses than hormones. As the previously footnoted quotation referred to them, they are fundamentally “coping strategies” for survival in the calm (or frequently turbulent) world in which children find themselves.