Friday, November 29, 2013

Walking Among the Giants

I’ve been re-reading Altogether Lovely, a book of sermons by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards, who lived in Colonial America, was perhaps the greatest theological mind since Augustine. But beyond a brilliant intellect, he had a warm heart toward Christ. R.C. Sproul, who compiled the book, said “Edwards’ pursuit of the knowledge of God was never an end in itself. It always served a higher purpose: to move the soul to adoration and the heart to obedient faith.”

Jonathan Edwards’ sermons are a challenge; they are long and thought-provoking. They wouldn’t find a place in most pulpits today, where humor, bullet points, video clips, and “four steps to success” are the order of the day.

The message I’m reading now is called “The Excellency of Christ.” Here’s a quote: His wonderful and miraculous works plainly showed Him to be the God of nature in that it appeared by them that He had all nature in His hands, and could lay an arrest upon it, and stop and change its course as He pleased. In healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, unstopping the ears of the deaf, and healing the lame, He showed that He was the God who framed the eye, created the ear, and was the author of the frame of man’s body. By the dead’s rising at His command, it appeared that He was the author and fountain of life, and that He was God the Lord, to whom belong the issues from death. By His walking on the sea in a storm, when the waves were raised, He showed Himself to be that God spoken of in Job 9:8 that treadeth “on the waves of the sea.” By his stilling the storm and calming the rage of the sea by His powerful command, saying, “Peace, be still,” He showed that He has the command of the universe, and that He is that God who brings things to pass by the word of His power; who speaks and it is done; who commands and it stands fast (pp. 32-33).

I remember the first time my family and I camped in the redwoods. We parked at the ranger station, paid for a campsite, and then wandered through a little museum. We saw a diorama of tiny plastic redwood trees and watched a slide show about the history of the park. It was interesting.

But the real wonder came when we left the museum and set up camp in a grove of old growth redwoods. And then we started hiking trails that wound through 200-foot giants, sunlight streaming through a forest sprouting huckleberry bushes, azaleas, manzanita, and madrone, a primordial woodland carpeted with redwood sorrel, ferns and wild orchids.

How sad if we had thought the redwood forest was all about the museum, with its miniature forest, cheesy slideshow, and stuffed bobcat.

Edwards gets me out of the museum and causes me to look up, into the trees. I wonder how many Christians know only the Jesus of the museum. Because just beyond the parking lot is another world full of breathtaking beauty. But you may have to hike.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


I think of heaven quite often. I know more and more people who are already there, people I am looking forward to seeing again. And of course I long for the day when those I loved then and love now may meet.

Nobody on this side of glory knows exactly what heaven will be like. Believers in Christ will be immediately in the presence of the Lord when they die (2 Corinthians 5:8), which is the most important thing to know. But then in God’s timing there will be resurrection, the reuniting of soul and body. And creation itself will be re-created; this fallen, broken old planet will be the New Earth (Revelation 21:1). 

I wonder if that doesn’t mean that places we once loved will be remade, more than restored, new but still familiar. I was thinking about all that, and about my dad, when I wrote the following.

            I’m standing in the pasture west of the farmhouse and I can smell apple blossoms.
I remember this as a small field, planted in alfalfa. Now it seems huge, as big as a football field. The alfalfa is growing, knee high, with large purple clusters. I can see and hear a chorus of bees sampling the blossoms.
The orchard just beyond the field is bigger too, the trees taller and fuller than my memory, more like oaks than apple trees. They are covered in enormous pink and white blossoms. I remember old black and white photos of this orchard from my childhood. The trees looked like they were blanketed with snow.
            And then I see him, striding toward me through the trees and into the pasture. I hurry to meet him.
            He’s dressed in Levis and a denim shirt with open collar and sleeves rolled up. He walks quickly like he’s been expecting me, old laced work boots clogging through foot-high alfalfa. He looks pleasantly winded, like a man just taking a break from hard, but enjoyable, work. He’s not wearing a hat—he always liked the sun on his face.
            He looks about the same age as in that old picture I got from my mother—early 40’s, I guess. Shoulders square and broad, big hands curled from a lifetime of work.
            I wonder how old I look to him. A lot older than fourteen, the last time we were together.
            His blue eyes twinkle as he walks toward me. He has that big smile—the signature gap between his front teeth. I’d know him anywhere.
            I’ve dreamt of wrapping him in an embrace, of feeling his strong arms around me once more, the scratchiness of his whiskers against my neck.
            I kiss him on his lean, sun-browned cheek. Not like the last time, lifetimes ago, when I was trying to grow up and be a man, when I thought men used handshakes to seal their affection instead of little-boy hugs and kisses.
            Now I don’t worry about such things.
            I hear his voice again. “Hi, Boy.”
My memory flickers like a camera shutter, old snapshots of pleasant days, the ranch as it used to be, walking with him from the milk barn to the house, and this very orchard. No one ever called me “boy” like that, and it feels good now, though I haven’t been a boy for a very long time.
            That’s how I envision it, anyway. My imagination falters a little on the details.
I don’t know what we’d talk about. Maybe we’ll both have questions. I’m not sure what he’d already know about me and my life in all the years since we’ve been together. I want to tell him—I’ve always wanted to.
            I’ll promise to introduce him to Dionne. He’d want to know about her, I’m sure. And of course, the boys. My boys. Men--now, old men, too, I guess.

            And maybe after we have hugged and cried a little and laughed and talked, they will come walking through the trees, the light of Christ at their backs and in their eyes.
            One is brown and lean and bright, coiled with energy and fun. Dark eyes ready to laugh. The other is blond and muscular, intense and interested. Careful and controlled and calm beside his older brother.
            “Dad, here’s Andy. And Zach. Boys, this is my dad.”

Monday, November 18, 2013

Politics, Broken Promises, and Trust

“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.”

Well, as everybody knows, the President broke his promise – millions of times. As the number of individual policy cancellations escalates, so does the outrage. The President was re-elected  based on a trust factor that is slipping away.
The word of God warns about this: 

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God. Psalm 146:3-5

My day planner has a pithy quote on each planning page. A couple days ago it was a Spanish writer, Baltasar Gracian y Morales, from the 17th century, who said, The sole advantage of power is that you can do more good. I had never heard of Senor Morales before, but he could have been an apologist for the Affordable Care Act. I wrote in my planner under this absurd statement, But you won’t want to, dummy.  

People on the political left trust that a big, centralized government will help more people, and do more good. As attractive as this idea apparently is, in the real world it has been disproven over and over, throughout history.

Give a few people power over the lives of others, and the “good” they do ends up being defined by their own selfish interests.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Red or Black, You Better Stop

I’d like to think I was just distracted. My wife and I were driving home, and the route we take goes over the freeway. On and off ramps guarantee that the street is usually packed with cars.

I stopped at the light, as cars streamed through the intersection. I continued an anecdote I was sharing with my wife. At this point my brain apparently clicked over into an alternate universe, and I concluded that I was not at a traffic light, but a stop sign. Which, as everyone knows, means you come to a complete stop, look both ways and proceed through the intersection.

So that’s what I started to do. Despite the fact that approximately fourteen thousand cars were still zooming through the space our Corolla was about to occupy.

My wife, watching in disbelief as I began moving confidently forward, started screaming, “It’s black! IT’S BLACK!” while gesturing wildly at the red light.

This shocked me back into the Land of Trafficular Reality, and I slammed on the brakes. “Black!? Where black?” I yelled incoherently.

So we sat silently, waiting for the light to change, watching cars whizz by, with our vehicle sticking out about two feet into the intersection. After a moment I said quietly, “Black?” while squinting up at the red light above us. We both began to laugh, all the way from when the light changed, until we pulled up to our house.

I even thought of some morals to the story...
  • We are all capable of dumb mistakes. Sometimes a simple dumb mistake could end in disaster. We need people around us to help stop us before it does.
  • Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so it doesn’t matter whether you call it red or black. When the light says stop, you better stop.
  • Laughing at ourselves is a sign of humility. It also makes life a lot more fun.
  • In the end it is only the grace and sacrifice of our Savior that keeps us from an eternally fatal crash.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Atheist Churches?

I just read an article about “Atheist Mega-Churches,” which claims that humanist gatherings that look like church but disavow any belief in God are popping up throughout the U.S., Australia and Great Britain. I did a Google search and found seven or eight article links.

These “unbeliever assemblies” are the brainchild of a British couple, Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans. Their goal, apparently, is to offer the best of church without the God part.

Here's a quote from Mr. Jones as he reflects on his experience at Christian churches: "There was so much about it that I loved, but it's a shame because at the heart of it, it's something I don't believe in. If you think about church, there's very little that's bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people — and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?"

So the “atheist assembly” is basically the good parts of church: “singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping others people.” Just don’t bother with the Jesus stuff.

You know what? That sounds a lot like what some Christian leaders believe we should do to make church better, more “seeker sensitive.” You’ve got to get on the wavelength of unchurched people. Give them an experience they’ll really like. Present awesome music that doesn’t sound religious, help them connect with other people like themselves, and when it comes time for the sermon, make it a funny, interesting talk about self-improvement and helping other people.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Contentment and Christ

If you were making a television commercial about contentment, you’d probably show a guy lying in a hammock, sipping a cool drink and looking at a sunset over the ocean. Or maybe you’d picture a happy couple holding hands before a roaring fireplace, with big snowflakes falling outside. You probably wouldn’t have a man sitting in prison, deserted by friends, and facing execution.

But if the Bible offered an advertisement for contentment, I’m convinced it would be exactly that scene: the Apostle Paul, chained to a Roman soldier, awaiting a death sentence.

Paul wrote to reassure the church at Philippi that whether he was released or executed, he was full of  joy and peace. He had learned to be content. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need (Philippians 4:11-12).

We have a lot more to learn about contentment from Paul than we do from someone relaxing in a tropical resort. Paul demonstrates that contentment doesn’t come from circumstances, possessions, or even from other people.The heart of his lesson about contentment comes in the next verse: I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Contentment and God's Timing

Imagine you’re on death row, awaiting execution for a crime you didn’t commit. You have no family, your friends seem to have deserted you, and the impact of your life seems questionable. Would you be content?

This was the Apostle Paul’s situation. Chained to a Roman soldier, he was a despised enemy of the state. The next event on his timeline, as far as he knew, was execution. His life’s work has been preaching the gospel and starting churches, but it all seems to be crumbling around him. F.B. Meyer described him: “Deprived of every comfort and cast as a lonely man on the shores of the great strange metropolis with every movement of his hand clanking a fetter and nothing before him but the lion’s mouth or the sword.”

But he said he was content. One of his church plants, the church at Philippi, discovered he was in Rome in prison, and sent an emissary (Epaphroditus) along with a financial gift. So Paul said, I rejoiced greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity" (Philippians 4:10).

At length you have revived your concern. It had been over ten years since Paul started the church in Philippi, and they had apparently lost touch with him. He had moved on from Philippi to Thessalonica, and the Philippian congregation had helped him there. But after that, nothing. Ten long years. And now he’s in prison, and they’ve contacted him again.

How would you respond to them? Would you be tempted to say, “Finally! I thought you guys forgot about me. It’s only been ten years since you helped me. I’m probably going to die, but thanks for finally noticing!”?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Learning to Be Content

I have a friend who has served as a missionary in Africa for nearly 40 years. He and his wife have lived through civil war, family crises, and fluctuating financial support. A few years ago he remarked that if his ministry ended right then, he was content. I thought that was an amazing statement.

Are you content with your life? For me contentment has been elusive. I’m at an age when the road ahead is a lot shorter than the road behind. I see the wrong turns I’ve made, the missed opportunities, time I’ve wasted, with great clarity. Yet contentment doesn’t seem to come from relishing accomplishments or achieving goals. I think contentment is more about a certain inner peace, an attitude about life.

The greatest example of contentment I know is another missionary, the Apostle Paul. When he wrote to the Philippian church, he talked about being content.

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:10-13

When he penned these words, he was chained to a Roman soldier and facing likely execution. Yet he was content.

I’m heartened by his comment that he learned to be content. That should be a priority lesson for all of us. So what is there to learn? What is contentment, anyway?