Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Matter of the Heart

“I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.” - Taylor Caldwell

STABAT Mater speciosa
iuxta faenum gaudiosa,
dum iacebat parvulus.
BY, the crib wherein reposing,
with His eyes in slumber closing,
lay serene her Infant-boy,
Cuius animam gaudentem
laetabundam et ferventem
pertransivit iubilus.
Stood the beauteous Mother feeling
bliss that could not bear concealing,
so her face o'erflowed with joy.
O quam laeta et beata
fuit illa immaculata,
mater Unigeniti!
Oh, the rapture naught could smother
of that most Immaculate Mother
of the sole-begotten One;
Quae gaudebat et ridebat,
exultabat, cum videbat
nati partum inclyti.
When with laughing heart exulting,
she beheld her hopes resulting
In the great birth of her Son.
Quisquam est, qui non gauderet,
Christi matrem si videret
in tanto solatio?
Who would not with gratulation
see the happy consolation
of Christ's Mother undefiled?
Quis non posset collaetari,
Christi Matrem contemplari
ludentem cum Filio?
Who would not be glad surveying
Christ's dear Mother bending, praying,
playing with her heavenly Child
Pro peccatis suae gentis
Christum vidit cum iumentis
et algori subditum.
For a sinful world's salvation,
Christ her Son's humiliation
She beheld and brooded o'er;
Vidit suum dulcem Natum
vagientem, adoratum,
vili deversorio.
Saw Him weak, a child, a stranger,
yet before Him in the manger
kings lie prostrate and adore.
Nato, Christo in praesepe
caeli cives canunt laete
cum immenso gaudio.
O'er that lowly manger winging,
joyful hosts from heaven were singing
canticles of holy praise;
Stabat, senex cum puella
non cum verbo nec loquela
stupescentes cordibus.
While the old man and the maiden,
speaking naught, with hearts o'erladen,
pondered on God's wondrous ways.
Eia, Mater, fons amoris
me sentire vim ardoris
fac, ut tecum sentiam.
Fount of love, forever flowing,
with a burning ardor glowing,
make me, Mother, feel like thee;
Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
in amatum Christum Deum
ut sibi complaceam.
Let my heart, with graces gifted
all on fire, to Christ be lifted,
and by Him accepted be.
Sancta Mater, istud agas,
prone introducas plagas
cordi fixas valide.
Holy Mother, deign to bless me,
with His sacred Wounds impress me,
let them in my heart abide;
Tui Nati caelo lapsi,
iam dignati faeno nasci,
poenas mecum divide.
Since He came, thy Son, the Holy,
to a birth-place, ah, so lowly,
all His pains with me divide.
Fac me vere congaudere,
Iesulino cohaerere,
donec ego vixero.
Make me with true joy delighted,
to Child-Jesus be united
while my days of life endure;
In me sistat ardor tui,
puerino fac me frui
dum sum in exilio.
While an exile here sojourning,
make my heart like thine be burning
with a love divine and pure.

* *
Fac, ut pulchrum infantem portem,
qui nascendo vicit mortem,
volens vitam tradere.
Let me bear Him in my bosom,
Lord of life, and never lose Him,
since His birth doth death subdue.
Fac me tecum satiari,
Nato me inebriari,
stantem in tripudio.
Let me show forth how immense is
the effect on all my senses
of an union so divine.

All who in the crib revere Him,
like the shepherds watching near Him,
will attend Him through the night,
* *
Fac, me Nato custodiri,
verbo Dei praemuniri
conservari gratia.
Make me by His birth be guarded,
by God's holy word be warded,
by His grace till all is done;
Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animae donetur
tui nati gloria. Amen.
When my body lies obstructed,
make my soul to be conducted,
to the vision of thy Son. Amen.
*Removed by 4theluv for doctrinal reasons.

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. Luke 2:30-32

Christmas was both the fulfillment of God's promise to send a Savior, and the beginning of the fulfillment of His promise to save us through the death of His Son on the cross.

Merry Christmas to all.

4theluv and family.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

iTuning My Heart

And it's whispered that soon if we all call a tune, then the Piper will lead us to reason. And a new day will dawn for those who stand long, and the forests will echo with laughter. - Robert Plant, Stairway to Heaven

Like most everyone else in the known and civilized world, I have iTunes on my computer and an iPod which carries my music on the road. My iTunes contains 1,246 songs, totaling some 5.2 gigabytes of data. If I set my iTunes to simply play it would take, according to iTunes, 36.9 days to play everything on my iTunes one time.

Burt has always said that you can tell where your heart is by looking at your checkbook. I wonder if the same applies to iTunes? So I decided to look and see what my top played/rated songs are, and what it might reveal about me. Below is my top played songs in order of most played.
  1. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere (Bob Dylan)
  2. Every Grain of Sand (Bob Dylan)
  3. When We're Through (Act of Congress)
  4. Red River Shore (Bob Dylan)
  5. Love Comes for Free (Act of Congress)
  6. The Well (Act of Congress)
  7. I Disagree (Act of Congress)
  8. Wedding Dress (Derek Webb)
  9. The Pilgrim: Chapter 33 (Kris Kristopherson)
  10. Paint It Black (Rolling Stones)
  11. The Battle of Evermore (Led Zepplin)
  12. Stairway to Heaven (Led Zepplin)
  13. Motorcycle Drive By (Third Eye Blind)
  14. Brain Damage (Pink Floyd)
  15. Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
  16. Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
  17. Whiskey Lullaby (Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss)
  18. This Too Shall Be Made Right (Derek Webb)
  19. We Shall Be Free (Garth Brooks)
  20. Misery & Gin (Merle Haggard)
Pragmatically, I don't know what my musical tastes say about me. Perhaps it simply reflects my moods at certain times, or a particular style I favor over others, or even a sense of personal musical snobbery. Or perhaps it speaks of something that I want to express myself but lack the talent to express it in such ways.

In looking at the list, I know there is very little "Contemporary Christian Music" (as in none) which I care to listen to on any kind of basis, which some would say is attributable to my poor spiritual condition. (While I am sure my musical tastes is on that list of my spiritual deficiencies, it probably does not rank in the top 5.) I am just not content to listen to the flood of mediocrity and doctrinal error which supposedly passes these days for "Christian" music.

I tend to lean toward music that makes me think, or in some way expresses the fallen human condition. (Though I must admit "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is just a fun song.) But most of my musical tastes lean toward the contemplative and the descriptive. Take, for instance, Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" - written toward the end of his fundamentalist faith conversion. How much truth is there to the lyrics which express, for every believer, periods of doubt and isolation. Says Dylan, "I hear the ancient footsteps, like the motion of the sea. Sometimes I turn there's someone there, other times its only me."

Or consider the Stones "Paint It Black." "I look inside myself and see my heart is black /I see my red door and it has been painted black /Maybe then Ill fade away and not have to face the facts/ Its not easy facin up when your whole world is black." Now Jagger is singing about lost love, and how his world is torn apart, but you can hear the the tale of a lost soul in that song.

As I observed these things about myself, I had to wonder what songs will appear on my iTunes once God has completed His work in me, and Christ reigns supreme. In a very real sense, the gratitude I have in the completed work of Christ frees my heart to sing the songs of salvation. The Apostle John gives us a bit of a hint:

"And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth." Rev. 14: 2-3

The day is coming that our hearts will be iTuned to the redemption songs of Christ's completed work. What a song we have to sing to Christ. The black hearts, the bottom of the glass, and the doubts will all disappear. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

I don't really know what my iTunes says about me. Perhaps it says I am a deep thinker deeply in tune with the power of Christ and the truths of the world.

Or perhaps, it just says, I'm weird.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Gamble

"Now evr'y gambler knows / that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
cause evr'y hand's a winner / and evr'y hands a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep." - Don Schlitz "The Gambler"

One of the interesting parts of my job is the number of people I come into contact with on a regular basis. I have mentioned it before, but I often come into contact with the "Great Unwashed" - a vast collection of those people in our society who have minor problems that need resolution. When you have been doing this as long as I have, you get to know the both the people, that is, the regulars, and the type, that is the regular types of people that come in.

There's the soccer mom, who rarely has problems and is clearly embarrassed by her presence. There's the business man, whose visit is a waste of his valuable time and hates being near the other unwashed - people who are clearly beneath him. There's the high school and college student, kids (yes, kids) whose life experiences lack an appreciation of the repercussions of their actions - both short term and long term. There's the unprivileged, those for whom violence, arguments, fights, drinking and drugs are an every day way of life - and have been their entire lives - and their problems are not their fault but others. And there's the privileged, those whose money and wealth can't buy them happiness, but can certainly stave off their own loneliness - if only temporarily.

Of late, two particular people stand out. I will call them Audrey and Michael (not their real names).

Audrey's story is really not unique. Audrey is a middle aged woman with teenage children. A single mother, Audrey traded on her looks long past the time she should, but still believes her gregarious nature and the wiles can make others overlook a multitude of problems. About 8 months ago, Audrey joined the ranks of the few and the proud i.e., the crowd that I work with a few times a month. Audrey's problem was alcohol. Nothing in her record would indicate that she has an ongoing problem with alcohol, and so a standard course of treatment was prescribed. Six or seven months of working with her, monitoring her and making sure she was following the prescribed plan was all that she needed. And so for six months she did everything according to plan. She was a shining example of complete rehabilitation and the success of the therapy.

And so her final visit was scheduled and it was anticipated that it would be routine. When she called to say that she would be a little late because she was caught in traffic, no one really thought much of it. Her traffic delay was a little longer than she anticipated. She finally made it a little after lunch time but because her appointment was in the morning she stood in front of me demanding to complete her appointment before the afternoon crowd.

Big mistake, as my patience tends to have some limits.

While she was standing there demanding of me, I noticed she wobbled just a bit. Now I've been doing this long enough to know what that means, and you have probably already guessed it - she was drunk.

I don't just mean drunk, I mean tanked. Wasted. Knee-walking. Hammered. Way over the top.

Based on her test given at the time, this woman, who drove herself to the appointment, was two and one half times the legal limit. (For the math challenged like me, that is .20, the legal limit being .o8). This woman had put countless people in danger to come to her appointment, late, to convince us that her alcohol therapy had worked. And that tends to make me angry.

She gambled that we wouldn't discover the extent of her problem. She lost.

Because of our own liability, our protocol said we could not allow her to leave. (Imagine how little faith we have in people to come to their appointments sober that we have an established protocol for a someone who doesn't. Let that sink in.) So we had to sit her down until such time as she was sober enough to leave, but we would not allow her to drive under any circumstances. So we reset her final appointment for two weeks later, and sent her to sober up.

Then this middle aged mother of teenagers had to do something unthinkable - once she had sobered up enough to leave, she had to call her 16 year old son to come and pick her up. How humiliating that must have been for her. How life-changing that event must have been not only for her, but for her child as well. I cannot even begin to imagine the emotions of that moment fo her but more importantly for him.

This woman had no hint of problems. Not one. No inkling of a problem. Nothing in her history to even suggest it. So when she showed up two weeks later for her final visit I knew we would have to discuss the events of the last one.

Unfortunately, that was not possible, for on her next "final visit", just last week, she showed up smelling of alcohol. This time, though, her test only showed .09, but still over the legal limit. And yes, she drove herself again. Once again, we had to invoke our protocol. And once again, she had to call her son to come get her.

Running through my mind were the words of Proverbs 26:11 - "Like a dog to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly." Working in this environment one can certainly see the truth of the total depravity of man. And it would be very easy, and at times is very easy for me, to fall into the despair. Our lives are set and we can only change ourselves so much, and no more.

Then there is the story of Michael.

I wish I could say that Michael's story is better, and in some ways I guess it is. Michael is 20 years old, lives in an adjoining state, about a three hour drive, works at a Burger King, and is the type of kid that has probably been picked on regularly since middle school, and bullied all through his life. A bit socially awkward, perhaps caused by a slight stutter, but still always made his appointments pleasant and was nice to talk to. Michael and I talked for about 10 minutes about his problem, and he seemed like he was happy to talk with someone about the problem. No sense of anger, or lack of personal responsibility, Michael approached his appointment and our discussion with a sense of relief and joy.

Like Audrey, Michael's problem was also alcohol, though no where near the extent of Audrey's problem. Just simply being 20 years old and drinking alcohol is a problem. And of course, my goal is to see that his problem never gets to the extent of Audrey's. And again, we have our protocols, and our treatments, and Michael's treatment was fairly simple and could be accomplished long distance in the state where he currently lives, with treatment compliance being monitored and concluded without the need for him to return.

As a part of our protocol, we set Michael for a final visit really just to check to make sure we had received everything, but not expecting Michael to show up. But at the appointed time, Michael showed up for his appointment without any evidence of compliance with the treatment plan. Again, we talked for about 10 minutes. He explained that his work and schedule had precluded him from completing his program in the alotted time, and promised that if given another chance he would get it done and send us everything.

Hoping against hope, we set his final appointment again with enough time for him to complete it, and with the hope that he would not have to make the journey again. But, as you guessed, the appointed day arrived and there was Michael, sitting patiently in the crowd, having made the 3 hour trek just to make his appointment. And again, you guessed it, he had done nothing. Again we talked for about 10 minutes about the issues, but coming up with an alternate plan for completing his program, as it was clear that he could not do it from where he was living. He looked a little sad as he left, though. And then it hit me.

As he walked away I realized something about him that he had in common with Audrey, and perhaps most of the other people I see in that place - he was lonely. I always try to treat people decently, even when they screw up completely. And one place he felt safe and respected and treated with some modicum of dignity was at those appointments. Audrey sought solace from her loneliness in a bottle, having found no comfort in her relationships, even with her own children. Many of the people I see in that place truly live what I, in my exalted view of myself, think of as sad lives, seeking solace from sources and places from which they can never find true relationship and peace. Lulled to sleep by things that provide only a temporary feelings of being alive, only to be realize the isolation it actually brings.

We are taught, at least in modern philosophy, that our lives are dealt to us and certain things we cannot change. Our lives are what we make of them. "Every hand's a winner, and every hand's a loser" and you have to know what parts of our lives to throw away and what to keep. But ultimately all we can hope for is to die with little or no pain in our sleep, as if we had never lived. And Audrey's story, repeated far too often, convince me that there is some truth to that. We just need someone to show us the way.

St. Augustine, in his Confessions, made an interesting observation, often repeated: "You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You." I see, on a constant basis, restless people - lonely people. People who long for something they know not what and asleep to the truths of the gospel. People, whose only hope is to die in their sleep, numbed to the pain that the loneliness of isolation from Christ brings.

Now I am not naive enough to think that the pat answer of "they need Jesus" is in any way sufficient. Rather, I know that even though I am just like them, I have a hope that there is something better than the hand I have been dealt. And a hope that I pray is displayed in the graciousness and respect of others, and a confidence of contentment with myself.

Peter said, "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect..." I Peter 3:15.

The verse is often used as a pretext for "apologetics", i.e, arguing people into the Kingdom of God. But a true understanding of the depravity of man, the loneliness of man, the restlessness of depravity, helps us understand that we can not argue anyone into the Kingdom of God. Rather, I think verse teaches us to live life in such a way, that hope, the very power of Christ to bring life, is evident from who we are, our very being. And it anticipates that when people see that hope in us, they will ask the reason why we have such hope.

And it is that verse, that understanding that through Christ loneliness is vanquished, that keeps me going back. I see people who have been rejected in so many places, and so many ways. But I know there is hope, even for them. The hope that if Christ can change me, make me a person who in some way shows that there is hope, and a reason to be alive, to make others feel accepted even when they disappoint, that just maybe I can give them a glimpse of this Christ I know.

Springing up within us is the Hope of the World - hope for the soccer moms, the businessmen, the kids who can't see the future, the unprivileged and the privileged, the Audreys and the Michaels. I have come to realize that God has given to each of us a ministry, a place of service, if for no other reason than to proclaim His hope.

At least, that's the real gamble, the risk I am called to take. That God has put me in this position to display His grace in Christ and that my "ministry" is perhaps exactly the ministry God calls us all to- to show His hope to the world in which we live in.

And that these people, the "unwashed" need the hope of Christ as much as any other person in my part of the world.

And that each of us travel different paths in a world filled with people whose only hope is that they die in their sleep. Indeed. How sad.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Riding The Bus

“Falseness often lurks beneath fair hair.” - Danish Proverb

Almost 53 years ago, on December 1, 1955, a young woman's bus ride began that would land the first black man on the steps of the White House on Pennsylvania Ave, not as a servant, but as President of the United States. Though not the first person, Rosa Parks refused the command of a Montgomery bus driver to give up her seat for a white person, and thus was born the civil rights movement in this country.

Black churches around the country soon galvanized and began to launch staging points for protests, and rallies, and voter turn out, generating both support, but more likely hatred, from the white community. None of us should forget the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the water hoses and police dogs, Bull Conner and the beating of the Freedom Riders right here in our fair city.

Nonetheless, the black church now had a mission: To point out and rectify the social, economic, and legal injustice that plagued the country from its founding: slavery and inequality was wrong for all but blacks. Black pastors decried the unjust system from their pulpits, organized marches, and thought through strategies on ways to change the system, sometimes through legal means, and other times through violence.

These pastors adopted many of the thoughts, theology, and actions of Liberation Theology, a movement originating in the Roman Catholic Church in South America in the 60's and 70's. This movement, a hybrid of Christian Theology and Marxism, held to the tenet that Jesus came to "free the prisoners and release the oppressed." It is the job of the people, and the church, they say, to force its government to recognize and deliver rights to the oppressed, and bring about the equality that Jesus came to give. From MLK's nonviolent marches to the Black Panthers and Weather Underground's violent protests and acts, change was going to be forced on the American people. The revolution was here.

Thus was born the liberal social movement, or revolution, in our country.

This Christian "revolution" would shortly transform the American political landscape, giving us the Rainbow/Push Coalition, the NAACP, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al. Sharpton and most recently Rev. Jeremiah Wright and host of other less well known preachers. Race and equality would be subsumed in the larger context of ever broadening "rights" together with correspondingly decreased personal responsibility. The movement ultimately left even its loose theological roots to become nothing more than community organizing for every cause that could bring them to power.

But never fear, for while all this was going on, real Christian Americans, a/k/a white, middle class Christian Americans, moved by the spirit, organized and would not be outdone politically. Strangely silent during the equal rights marches of the 50s and 60s, they were content to maintain the most segregated hour in America, 11:00 AM on Sunday morning. But this liberal social agenda was more than they could bear.

In the late 70s and early 80s, such stalwart and fundamentally godly men like the late Rev Jerry Falwell, TV evangelist Pat Robertson, and men like W.A. Criswell, Adrien Rogers, and others within the Southern Baptist Convention formulated the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. The marches of the 50s and 60s, and the riot at the '68 Democratic Convention weren't enough to dislodge them from their complacency, but the loss of political power and the rise of threats to the conservative white church made them realize they had to be organized as well.

And so it would be theirs to let America know, through the ballot box, what Christians are against.

Credited with Ronald Reagan's big victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, the sheer numbers of God's people on the right made a formidable political ally, and opponent, for some twenty five years, culminating with the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. The work of God through the evangelical right (as opposed to the evangelical left, which is primarily black churches) is to paint the opposing party (ie Democratic) candidate, position, initiative or plan as un-Christian, Marxist, and or satanic. The woes of America, they would proclaim, exist because of godless morality, none more godless than the current political opponent (ie Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Kerry, and Obama). Christians had to stand up and tell godlessness to go away, or this sacred country would fall.

They stirred white Christians with the promise that "if my people will humble themselves and pray, then God will hear from heaven and heal their land." Obviously, the United States of America is God's gift to the world, and as Christians it is the Church's job to protect God's gifts. Wrap God in the American flag, and the true American candidate in God, and you have a winning formula. Who would dare vote against God?

Politically savvy, this "Moral Majority" would energize their own base to go vote with a host of initiatives that Christians are against. Christians gave little thought to why ballot initiatives such as gay marriage amendments and readily accessible abortions initiatives appeared on the ballot in swing states at the same time as a presidential election. All they know is they needed to be there to make sure they voted God's way. Oh, and while there, they should also pull the lever for God's man to be in office.

Apparently, God needed a little help to get His man elected, because the power of the heathen left is too much for God to handle by His lonesome.

And in the midst of all this, Satan laughed. The fog of god-talk on both sides left the church in the lurch. So caught up in the politics of the moment the two groups forgot that they each proclaim a common tie: an abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Their political agendas of social liberalism and conservative Christianity had overwhelmed their doctrine.

The right called into question the faith of the left by asking, "how can any Christian be for equality and social justice for people like that?" and the left responds, appropriately, "how could any Christian be against equality and social justice for anyone, regardless of who they are and what they have done?"

The right wanted to turn the church into the country, and the left wanted to turn the country into the church.

But if Christ died to give the world the United States of America, then for over 1700 years, He failed. But perhaps democracy was not what he had in mind after all, but rather a church rooted in Him and built up. Perhaps it was the church He died for that was to be the the place the world should look when oppression and injustice become too much to bear?

Paul said in Colossians 3:11-17, in speak of our duty as Christians:

Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The church has flourished in times of governmental adversity, and decayed in times of governmental consent. One need only look at the church during the reign of the wrathful Roman emperors and in modern day China and compare it to the Church during the inquisition, the reformation, and World War II. We have reached the day where being a good American and a good Christian are synonymous.

The church, whether on the right or the left, should remember that a resort to politics to bring about the Kingdom of God is a damning statement that the church has failed. It is a damnable statement to say that there is no hope in Christ, only in governments led by failed and corrupt people.

In the violence of the world, the hurricanes of injustice and inequality will ebb and flow. But among God's people, the church, there is to be haven and safety, acceptance and peace. Not to change the world, but rather because of changed hearts that provide shelter.

While the government is important to all of our lives, it is the church, not the United States of America, where one should look to find equality, hope, love, support and wisdom. Our hope is in Christ, and not the constitution.

Regardless of the government, the church should be the one place where something is done because it is the right thing to do.

On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, we have the government-created right to elect a leader of this country, and one which we as God's people should exercise. No matter who it is you vote for, that choice will be a selfish one in which you will decide who will make you most comfortable with the future unknowns.

But in the end, Christ's kingdom is not on the line, and we wield no power over God's sovereign plan for His people. A vote for Obama is not a vote against God, nor is a vote for McCain a vote for God. Our witness to the truths of Christ is not found in our political record, but how we love one another.

Its His bus, and like Rosa Parks, we are just along for the ride.

Perhaps Rosa would have done more for our country by sitting on the front pew of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery.

But then again, perhaps it is easier to find justice and equality in courts and governments than in the church.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

What It Doesn't Take

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves. -Brendan Behan

As a long time Christian, I have sat through many a "concert" designed to build the self esteem of someone in the church. It is important for us to encourage and support our young people at church. ("Young people" is a much broader term now than it used to be.) However, most such concerts and performances leave you thanking God, either that it is over, or that Tylenol can be bought in bulk at Sam's. But you do it because it is the right thing to do.

With that in mind, and after much ado, I purchased the new CD on iTunes from Act of Congress entitled Declaration. Of course, being the great church member that I am, I did so as a sign of support for one of our own, Adam Wright. I've heard Adam sing at church with Stokes and Connie, and seen him lead us in worship while Stoke has been gone. All-in-all, he's got a good voice and a great attitude. So, I thought, what's ten bucks to show the guy some love?

All I can say is, wow, was I wrong. Ten bucks doesn't begin to reward the talent shown by these musicians and vocalists.

As a church, we are blessed with so much musical talent, which starts with Stokes and Connie. And I knew Adam was good, but before this album, I never fully realized the depth of his talent. As a church, we are fortunate to have him with us.

Now, admittedly, I have an affinity for the more philosophical music of Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, John Lennon, Bono and (more recently) Derek Webb, and the pop music of groups like the Eagles, Rolling Stones, and the song writing of artists like Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young and Sam Cooke. But if this first album is any indication, that list appears to have grown by one: Adam Wright.

While not perfect, the freshman CD from Act of Congress is better, deeper, and more aesthetically pleasing than 98% of the drivel that passes for music from many more accomplished and acclaimed bands and song writers.

The band as a whole performs the harmonies and melodies on the album with a tightness that showcase their vocal and instrumental talents. The band, an ostensibly acoustical blue grass / rock sound, is at its best when it sticks to its distinctive sound and stays away from the over produced sounds of "Not Crazy" and "In the Middle (Remix)". These songs are catchy, and likable, but the style and sound is overdone by every upstart band that wants to sound "big time." The rest of the album proves AOC can sound "big time" without changing their musical sound so dramatically. These folks are truly talented.

But what really sets this album apart is the song writing talent of Adam Wright. Adam's lyrical and musical writing reveal a musical maturity and Christian doctrinal understanding well beyond his young years. Adam brings a distinctly Christian message without being preachy, and without targeting the WDJC "God squad" audience base.

This is a young man going places. Like the true artist he is, Adam has the ability to paint deep doctrinal truths in pithy lyrics.

Starting with "In the Middle", Adam sets the stage for much of the rest of the album. In it, Adam conveys the idea that when we take an honest look at our own hearts, we really are unlovable .. at least in our own minds. And letting someone in, even Christ, leaves us vulnerable. "What kind of person do you see / when peeking into this heart that is brutally / Beaten down with failures, taunts and insecurities / I'm cynical it seems these days. .. Hearts of stone will never get it / Love will find us if we let it .."

It is the human condition to search for ultimate meaning while pursuing the mundane things of life, or, as Adam says, "I just want peace of mind / and coffee with my cream." (A line, I am sure, that will make Starbucks happy and is somewhat reminiscent of the way Mrs. 4theluv drinks her morning java.)

In "Love Comes for Free," Adam throws you back to the simple sounds of 60s folk music while retaining a distinctly Christian and gospel oriented message. Without a doubt, everyone knows both the "Used car salesman who works around the clock / Selling lies and cashing checks of the people on the block" and the "Wealthy preacher who knows just what to say / and if you give him cash and coin he'll help you find your way". Their "crooked grins" and "hearts of stone" belie their selfish motives. Adam juxtaposes this greed with the selflessness of the man named Jesus "who loved until he died / And after doing nothing wrong took a bullet for his bride."

Ultimately, Adam accurately points out that love is not the response to what others can give you, rather, selfless giving is the response to those you love.

By far, though, the showpiece of Adam's clearly God-given talent is his song "The Well." It is the song of Christ, lovingly calling us to himself. However, it does not typecast Christ in the role of sickeningly sweet but ultimately impotent beggar just hoping we will come to him to solve our problems and make life rosy, but rather as a Parent/Savior to walk with us through the terrors of this world, warning us of its dangers but loving us in our sin. Sung as a ballad, the song tells the story of the fall in the garden, and Christ's redemptive call to his people.

Its richness is evidenced throughout. Consider these words: "I've loved you as long as I've known you / and I've known you as only my own / But you traded my love for watered down wine / And a burden to sleep with alone." Those phrases are so tightly packed with truths that when you contemplate exactly what is being said, you understand the self-imposed isolation of your own sin -- and you can't help but cringe at the truthfulness and isolation it causes.

But Adam doesn't let you off the hook, as he proves he has mastered the one-two punch. He follows those lines, in haunting a cappella, with, "Do not be afraid, your fragile and trembling hand is no burden to hold / For your sins as red as a sea of scarlet, I'll wash 'em whiter than snow." The mental image of holding the hand of my own children as they were scared, crying, and alone, for me was no burden, and for them, a lifeline of safety and comfort. How Adam, a young married man with no children of his own yet, can capture such imagery is beyond me.

From there, Adam moves right into "The Nature of Things." At first blush, the song is about seeking forgiveness for harsh words to his wife, but Adam adeptly understands and conveys that our broken relationships are due to our fallen nature, and they can't be fixed by firm resolve to do better. "Pride has scarred these lips ever since they touched that damned fruit on the tree / and blinded me / Wrong is how my life began / and right is something I have never been".

But once again, Adam does not simply spell out the problem, but leads the listener to the solution, a cry to Christ: "You're telling me that this is normal now / You're silencing fear with your voice in my ear / How can dead men live again? Save me I am yours."

AOC finishes the album with "I Disagree." Though not explicitly Christian, it is a tribute to the value of relationships that are built solely on love. Harkening back to the isolation themes of "In the Middle" and "The Well," Adam writes of longing to let someone in, and the comfort that comes with that action. "Love is something I believe in / 'Cause it makes lonely disappear" is a great statement of what true love does for us.

Now all the accolades on Adam Wright might lead one to believe that the writing of Chris Griffin on the album is somehow deficient. This would not be the case. "Not Crazy" and "When We're Through" are in the pop mindset, and their genre a bit out of step with the rest of the album, but the songs are memorable, well written, well sung, entertaining and fun to sing. Further, "When We're Through" accentuates the bands harmonies and musical abilities, and from a purely audience delight standard, has the "pop" that makes it one of the best songs on the album.

All is not serious on the album. AOC does prove their lighter side with "Five Minutes of Fame", a light hearted look at the popular phenomenon of "American Idol" type shows.

Self-indulgent? Yes.

Fun to listen to? Absolutely.

As I said, these people are talented. The only thing that would have made this album any better would have been to end it with AOC covering Dylan's "I Believe in You" or "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." They would rock those songs.

Paul said, "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us." Rom. 12:4-6.

In many ways, AOC has pulled off the improbable: blending good music with a good message as freshman band mates. They are nearly everything I am not: talented, smart, and gifted. They are a part of the body I wish I was. And, in the end, AOC took my feeble nod of support and countered it with great music, with a great message.

Take my recommendation (for what its worth): this album is worth owning, and even more than that, worth listening to on a regular basis. It is in now on one of my regular playlists.

Its an easy album to like. And $9.99 on iTunes is all it takes to own such a great album.

But what it doesn't take to like this album is an Act of Congress. And for that, you can thank Adam.


P.S. - Adam, the "good, bad and gross things" is just a little too pithy.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

One Day at a Time

You run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it's sinking / Racing around to come up behind you again - Roger Waters

There is something about summer that annually reminds me of one of the finest books written in the last century - The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. Each summer I try to read the book as a part of vacation time, and each time I read it, I find myself in its pages.

Though many interpretors of the book have tried to turn it into an allegory for Hemingway's own wrestling with the Catholic faith, I must agree with Hemingway's own words that the book stands on its own without having to read more into it than really exists.

The story revolves around an old fisherman in a Cuban village named Santiago, and a young boy who takes to his dreams and hopes named Manolin. There is nothing spectacular about Santiago. He lived his life chasing the sun. He wakes in the morning. Sleeps at night. Fishes by the day. Only to start it all again.

The book is set at a particularly hard time for the old man, when his routine is interrupted. For 84 days, he has gone through the drudgery of his daily ritual (sleep, wake, fish, sleep) with no results - no fish. And no fish means certain death. The villagers call him unlucky, and young Manolin is forbidden from working any longer with him. The old man tells Manolin that his luck is going to change as he plans to take his small fishing boat further out into the Gulf Stream than ever before and bring back fish.

True to form, the old man, traveling far out in the Gulf Stream, hooks a huge marlin. The ensuing battle between old man and fish goes on for two days, with the third day the old man finally able to spear the marlin. Exhausted from the fight, the old man is both happy and sad in that he finally landed the catch of his life, but the respect the old man has for the fish is like that of a brother.

Finally, though, the old man can return to his village, his bad luck gone, with the largest marlin ever caught. He can almost hear the accolades of the crowds as he heads toward home. His only problem: the fish is too big to fit in his boat, so he straps it to the side and makes for land. Anyone who knows anything about Hemingway knows that happy endings are not the stuff of which he is made. The fish blood trail created by the marlin attracts the sharks, and though the old man battles the sharks, they eventually strip the marlin's carcass to nothing but bones before he can return home.

The old man is, in many ways, allegorical. He happens to be old and poor, but his dissatisfaction with his life is true of people from all walks of life, rich and poor, young and old. Because hs toil has yielded him nothing, he accepts the judgment of his village that he is a failure, and that acceptance forces him to launch into unchartered waters to change his position.

I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. Ecc 3:12-14

In many ways, I am the old man, seeking not just the fish of the day, but the big one that will set me apart. I often feel as if I am spinning my wheels - just chasing the sun. Never satisfied with the daily toil, always looking for that which will improve the position that I am in. And while seeking to do my best is not in and of itself wrong, I often confuse the satisfaction with my work that God has given me with satisfaction with the results of my work, the fruit of my labors. In the security of my occupation, I often forget the providence of God in my daily life.

May Christ grant me the privilege of resting in the satisfaction of my toil, to be happy and do good while I live, and to take each day as a new gift from Him to complete that day's task.

And when He calls me to, may I launch the boat a bit further out.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Forever Young

"Take care of all your memories, for you cannot relive them." - Bob Dylan

It is funny how age sneaks up on you.

In many ways, 1980 seems like ancient history. And to many of the "kids" in our church, it is. We have deacons who were not even born then, and elders who were still learning how to zip and tie shoes. The year 2000 might as well have been a millenia away, and no one (including, apparently, Bill Gates) worried about Y2K bugs. In the immediate past of that time lay the musical tragedy of disco, and the future held the equally disturbing "hair bands." (Save the comments - you will not convince me that the hair bands were good music.)

For a kid growing up in the farmlands of middle America, the journey to the present now seems completely unlikely. The small (and I do mean small) bedroom community of my youth now seems impossibly distant to me. A kid of 15, in my future lay marriage, children and a host of challenges that, though now in my past, would have seemed insurmountable to me at the time.

Though the memories are hazy, I can recall the days of sitting around at my friend Van's house, listening to Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, and the Stones. Occasionally, Marc would come over with his Van Halen albums (yes , they were all LP's, vinyl, you know, those large usually black things you had to put on a turntable connected to your HiFi.) and we would humor him and listen to them. There were no bills to pay, mortgages to feed, kids to shuttle.

It is amazing how quickly time passes. Those days you thought would never end are all suddenly gone. And then one day you wake up and life is real. You have places to be, and you are no longer responsible just for you, but for spouses, children, parents, co-workers, and employees. The complexities of the now replace the simplicities of youth.

It would be easy to glorify the life of my youth. I had a good youth, but it was not always simply good times with friends, with no pain or reality to interfere. Even now I can look and see some of the scars that life has given through those years, both physical and mental. I can look at my hand and see a scar I got fighting with Philip Bellew over some girl we both liked. (We were friends again a few days later.) I can see Eddie Carter and Ingrid Collin's faces, classmates and occasional friends who passed away in car accidents during high school. I can see John's face, a much closer friend whose death still fills me with regret and a real sense of personal guilt.

By and large, though, my youth was relatively trouble free and carefree. God has given us the blessing of time, which seems to force us to remember the best, and forget the rest. (Or perhaps it forces us to remember it as better than it was?) And that is why, mentally, it is such a pleasant time to go back and remember, even though those memories have faded.

It is funny, though, how some things can bring those memories flooding back vividly. A few weeks ago, listening to Stokes, Connie and Adam sing a song written by Adam, was one of those moments. Music, for some reason, seems to transport us at times to other places and to other memories. And Adam, Connie and Stoke's singing took me back to those simpler days of my youth. Suddenly, I was vividly the age of 14, sitting in Van's house with the guys and listening to the new Bob Dylan album that Van had bought. And what a great album it was - Dylan's "Slow Train Coming."

I have written about it before, but it is worth me saying again: Bob Dylan, absolutely the most brilliant musical and literary talent in modern history and all around coolest rocker ever, was writing, playing, and singing gospel music. For a kid who liked music for the words and sounds, Dylan's gospel drip would later turn to a river. (Van hated the album, and gave it to me.)

Searching YouTube the other day, I once again had one of those moments. I was transported back to those days. Take a listen to Dylan's "In the Garden" from his "Saved!" album of 1981.

If you watched it closely, you would have noticed that Dylan's back up band for that tour was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Pretty amazing. The contrast of a dystopian hard rocker Dylan singing about the crucifixion of Christ, backed up by Tom Petty, is to me poetic, and humbling. And what great memories they make.

Paul said it this way: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Phil. 4:8.

Those moments in my youth, and in my present, are pure moments. And those moments will continue. We will continually build a lifetime of memories. And it is nice to walk those paths every once in a while and recall them, but I would not trade the responsibilities and relationships God has given me now for those days. And I know years from now, I will turn my hearing aid up and listen to some whippersnappers sing or preach, and a smile will come across my face as I rememer Stokes, Connie and Adam's song, and the perfectness of that moment in worship.

As a church, we have much to be thankful for, and many memories are being made in our midst. Memories that will be eternal.

Take care of your memories, because you cannot relive them. Thanks for tolerating me while I share mine.


P.S. - Burt - it is time for you to use your Wonder Elder powers and force Stokes, Connie and Adam, at gunpoint if necessary, to record that song and post it in .mp3 on the church website.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My Friends All Wear Bunny Suits

"Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm. " - Friedrich Nietzsche

I am one of the world's worst at giving gifts. I forget birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, special occasions even for those closest to me. Without a calendar keeping up with it,
(and the pesky people around me who insist on reminding me I am another year older) I would forget my own birthday.

"A Christmas Story" is one of my favorite Christmas classic movies, and regular around my house between Thanksgiving and New Years. From the flag pole "triple dog dare", to the back alley bully with yellow eyes and the father whose artistic medium is swear words and "fa ra ra ra ra" are classic. The movie is filled with so many classic scenes of childhood trauma that each of us can identify with on some level, yet still find comfort in the knowledge that a now grown-up Ralphie is the narrator, and turned out quite normal. (No mention is made of the need for huge doses of therapy). For those who know (and like) the movie, even mentioning it brings a smile to your face.

One scene stands out as a universal experience to me: Ralphie's aunt sends 10 year old Ralphie a pink bunny suit for Christmas because she thinks he is a 4 year old girl. It is clear both Ralphie and his dad are both perplexed and disturbed with the gift. How should you respond to such a gift? Well, mom, of course, has the answer: the same way you respond to any gift. Ralphie owes it to his aunt to put on the suit out of gratitude for the gift. The sight of a 10 year old boy looking totally embarrassed in a pink bunny suit is classic.

The scene is classic because it touches on an aspect of society that hits us all. All of us have been given gifts at Christmas, or birthdays, or other special occasions that are as useless as pink bunny suit. Sometimes they are from the crazy aunt or neighbor, sometimes our parents or kids, and, worse case, from our in-laws. But polite society demands a gracious acceptance of the gift and a faux display of appreciation. But if the gift is especially nice, something highly useful or thoughtful or expensive, we immediately begin to finds ways to repay the gift, feeling indebted to the gifter as and feeling guilty that our own gift to them does not measure up to what they have given us.

I often have lunches with friends in my profession. It is quite common that, when out at some lunch, one of us will pick up the tab for us both. Mentally, we keep tabs: he bought this time, I'll buy next time. But this is not true gift giving, it is gift trading. Gift giving is a virtue, no doubt, but it is not truly a gift when it becomes the currency of friendship, to be swapped and traded on a like kind basis.

As a Christian, I am often called upon to be motivated in my Christian life out of gratitude for the gift of what Christ has done for me. In a very real sense, I feel guilt that my sin required Christ to die for me so that I could know and live with God. I cannot understand the truth of God's gift to me without the sense of indebtedness to Him for it. But I constantly have to ask myself the question, "Is either guilt or gratitude a basis for living the Christian life?" Should we really live the Christian life from an "attitude of gratitude at the magnitude" of what Christ did for us? (Lest there were any doubts, now you know for sure I am a former Baptist with phrases like that.)

The story of the exile from Egypt gives me pause in reviewing my motivation. It is clearly written with the intent to evoke the drama of the situation. The tribe of Israel, once free, now lives as slaves in Egypt. And God gives them the great gift of liberation.

God raises up a leader from the very household of Pharaoh, to lead the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, and water from a rock. The foes of bondage, attack, hunger and thirst had been met with the calm hand and displayed power of God. The spies go out into Canaan and find that there are giants living in the land, with swords and armies, and its Moses plan to attack. The people rebel, saying things like "it would have been better to die in Egypt or the desert than to die at the hands of these swords." God has clearly had enough of these people. But he does not indict them for their lack of gratitude or their refusal to repay His deliverance of them from their bondage with their very lives if necessary. Instead, it is their lack of faith, their lack of trust.

The LORD said to Moses, "How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? Num. 14:11.

Suddenly the motivation, the umph, in the Christian life for me begins to make sense: the response to the gift of God in Christ is not indebtedness, it is trust and assurance that if even sin could not separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, then neither can any battle I might face, including death. God does the deliverance of his people so that they may trust He will do the same deliverance in the future. He does them not to be repaid, a debt we couldn't repay anyway, but to call us to trust in His care for us despite the circumstances.

Please, don't get me wrong, gratitude is an appropriate response to any undeserved gift. But I am learning that a gift is not really a gift if something is expected in return, be it a thank you, a return gift, a free lunch, or a life of dedication. Such quid pro quo robs both the giver and the gift of its true grace. Perhaps Nietzsche is correct when he says that a great indebtedness makes us vengeful, makes us feel enslaved to our creditor. And though we often sing that message in song, and hear it preached, that is clearly not the message of the Gospel.

Perhaps gifts should be given just to let us know we are friends and the giver will be there with us until the end. Perhaps the gift is evidence of the relationship we have, and its value is in the relationship it represents. And when given freely, it conveys the message that the future is will hold the same relationship.

Thanks for the maroon on green sweater, mom. I'm sure it goes with something I own. Even more, thanks for telling me you will be there with me through the years.

Where did I put that bunny suit?


Thursday, May 1, 2008

God on the Mountain

It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes... we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions - especially selfish ones. - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Some days I don't feel like a Christian.

Reading this week's Newsbits concerning upcoming youth functions brought me back to the joyous days (ancient days, according to my kids) when youth retreats were annual events. The trips always included a long bus ride somewhere where us teens, completely hip with our cassette players and headphones (usually playing "contraband" music) would act completely bored, but were secretly excited about the independence a week away from our parents would afford. There was the usual awkward teen interplay between the sexes, closely monitored of course, the camp atmosphere, usually decent food (we all ate more on retreat than we ever did at home), and some sort of day outings to places like putt putt golf, a water theme park, or some similar out of the ordinary experience for most teens.

The retreats were always centered around bible studies and songs, and talks that built a sense of community and fellowship among the participants and evoked the strong emotions of knowing God. These events were intended to bring about more mature thinking about who we are and knowing God's love for us in Christ. They were designed for us to experience God, to know and feel His presence, and His will for our lives. Events like candle-light services, nailing our sins to a cross while singing choruses of "Jesus Paid It All, All to Him I Owe" which, in retrospect seem trivial, but in that moment, at that time, made the presence of God very real and concentrated every emotion we had on dedication to Him.

The retreats would always end with a "Youth Night" at the church, a Sunday night service where we "youth" would lead the church and show forth the community and fellowship and dedication that we had built during the week away. The service would range from anecdotes of the funny experiences of the week, to testimonies of the changes we intended to make with our lives. It would end with a call to the church to be as dedicated to the cause of Christ that we now had.

Even in those days, I recall thinking that the "experience" of the retreat was just that, an experience with God. Emotional, fulfilling, and desired. And absolutely unavailable to anyone who was not a part of it. You simply had to be there. They were, as Oswald Chambers calls them, "exceptional moments." The only thing the church would see was the immediate impact on us, and they could pray for the long term impact on us all.

The response to those exceptional moments was both positive and negative. Positive in the sense that we built community, understood the God of love presented in Christ, and sought meaningful change in our decisions and directions. But negative in that the immediacy of God's presence on those trips led us to believe we were more in tune with God than others, and also led us to believe that the Christian life should be one long "exceptional moment" and euphoric experience.

For many years, my Christian life was spent feeling unfulfilled because I did not feel the immediacy of God's presence and did not live in a constant "retreat high". I had to pay bills, work with people, deal with traffic, including some guy who cuts me off in the middle of my prayer time on the interstate. (A good place to pray, I might add.) Life impeded on my mountain top. And it took me years to reconcile within myself that it was ok to be normal, and real, and to live my Christian life in the ordinary surroundings of modern society.

Paul deals with much of the same issues when he talks about his longing for heaven.

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2. Cor. 5:1-8).

Paul expresses all of our desires to experience the immediacy of God's presence.In such powerful language, Paul declares that while on this earth "we groan and are burdened". But tucked away in Paul's passage concerning longing to be with God, is a little phrase: We live by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor. 5:7). What Paul is conveying to me is that our present existence and experience are not indicators of God's presence, or lack thereof. We cannot look at what we have, the trials we experience, or the way we feel to determine whether God is present in our lives. We must simply live by faith that He is there.

What I learned from those years of longing for the immediacy and presence of God, the "retreat highs", is that I was not looking for God's presence, I was looking for the "feeling" of God's presence. It was only in those "feelings" that I could feel secure in Him. But the truth is, it was nothing more than my selfish desire to demand Christ reveal Himself intimately to me. Emotional confirmation that He "is", and I am His. It was me demanding of Christ that He conform to the way I want to experience Him. How selfish we are when God's unconditional love for us is arbitrated by our feelings.

Each of these are distractions from the truth that Christ is there, even when I'm cut off in traffic and I don't feel like a Christian. I've learned there is nothing wrong with those moments, when Christ reveals His presence in a unique and fresh way, but there is something in demanding He prove himself repeatedly by inspiration to me in the ways I demand. That is not walking by faith, it is living completely by sight.

Some days I don't feel like a Christian. But that doesn't change the truth that I am. I am learning to appreciate the retreat highs, but find my security solely in the truths of Christ.

Solo fides.


Monday, April 28, 2008

April Showers / May Flowers

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life." - Socrates

For some reason, April has proven to be a downpour of events demanding attention, detail, most importantly, time. Work commitments, family commitments, sports commitments, governmental (read "tax") commitments, financial commitments, etc. Those who know me know the fiendish schedule I have kept (poorly, I might add) since mid March that has now wound its way through April. Such a schedule has a major impact on all of your relationships and time commitments. And April saw me taking a vacation from my blog, as well, to focus on other things equally important to me.

This morning, as I was reading Brian Cosby's blog on the Sabbath rest, I came to realize that rest is something we disparately need, and for me in particular something I really, really, really desire. It alleviated my personal guilt for not getting everything done, and heightened my longing for the rest which only God can give.

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. Ecc. 3:9-14

May, then, shall be a time to share a drink with my friends, a laugh with my wife, a catch with my kids, encouragement with my family, support to my pastor, and love and contentment for the life which God has blessed me with.

With the downpour of spurious activity in April it is my prayer that May will see the flowers of rest.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Failing Up

“Marriage is three parts love and seven parts forgiveness of sins.” - Lao Tzu

Wednesdays are garbage days around the Luv house. That is a special day in our lives, as it is the day that Mrs. 4theluv and I get to review the evidence of our passive aggressive natures. You see, to ask Mrs. 4theluv, it is a constant and continual failing of mine that I don't take the garbage out of the house near as much as needed, nor near as much as Mrs. 4theluv desires.

Now understand, the right time to take the garbage out is the source of debate in many households, not just ours. I am sure many husbands face similar failures in their own lives. But that is only the beginning. See, I am a morally conscious individual. I believe that taking out the trash is not just the man's job, that just about anyone is capable of doing it. The skill set required to take out the garbage is fairly limited, and definitely not gender specific. And, being the politically correct and socially conscious individual that I am, I graciously allow Mrs. 4theluv ample opportunity to prove the equality of the sexes by taking out the trash. Its technically not rocket science. If you see it needs to be taken out, you pull the strings on the bag, and walk it the 40 or so feet to the big garbage can outside.

But Mrs. 4theluv takes an opposite position, at least when it comes to regularly taking out the trash. Now she will take it out on the days that she cleans the refrigerator, particularly if broccoli or some similar odoriferous content needs disposing. Then she will bag it, but set it just outside the door in the garage so that as I pass by it in the morning on my way to work I will carry it the other 30 feet and put in the can which is outside.

Normally, though, she just ignores the need to take out the trash (a trait which I allow to take place)and instead just keeps throwing things away in the garbage by balancing various rubbish on top of other rubbish, creating an almost Dada"esque" creation worthy of Kurt Schwitters. The balancing act is always very delicate, intentionally so, I think. She knows eventually I will take out the trash, and that trash sculpture will crumble like a house of cards.

So, come Wednesday morning, as I am trying to get out the door for work, I will always remember the trash has to go out. I will turn to our leaning tower of refuse that is our main garbage area and try to bag it. Of course, looking around, Mrs. 4theluv is nowhere to be found, but as things scatter on the floor I am certain a smirk crosses her face, as she has once again shown her superiority in this game of oneupmanship (oneupwomanship? oneuppersonship?).

So I get the garbage out, saying a few words I probably shouldn't, and spend the rest of the day feeling like the loser that I am. And, like Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown, Mrs. 4theluv gets to enjoy the rest of the day knowing she got me one more time. I wish I would at least get a "thank you" but I am sure that would spoil the fun.

As I reflected on the battle this morning, I began to sense the frustration that Christ must feel with me, with the sin that so easily entangles me, and my refusal AND inability to take it out. And I began to sense that Christ does what he does with me, not for the "thank you", and not out of a sense of waiting to see if I will do it myself, but rather because he loves me, and gave himself for me.

Paul reminded us well. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. [ ... ]Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, (Eph. 5:1-2; 25-26)

I can't get out of mind today how it is that Christ puts up with and carries out my garbage that I pile up for Him. He taught us so many lessons about true love. Forgiveness is an act of love. Service is an act of love. He does it simply because He loves me, and for no other reason. And it is that same love that he calls me to love my wife.

Like many men in our church, I married waaay up. And in that relationship, like every other relationship I am in, like parent, son, sibling, friend, co-worker, I fail consistently. But with relationships built on love, forgiveness is a routine part. And for that, I am the luckiest man alive.

I have received that forgiveness from so many in my life, perhaps I should return that same love. Perhaps I can learn something from the battle of the garbage.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Twilight Sunrise

"In the bonds of Death He lay Who for our offence was slain; But the Lord is risen to-day, Christ hath brought us life again, Wherefore let us all rejoice, Singing loud, with cheerful voice, Hallelujah!" - Martin Luther

As a fifth grader my class took a trip to Mammoth caves in Kentucky. At one point in the tour, the tour guide had us all in one particular part of the cave and turned out the lights to show us what true darkness really looked like. If you have ever been in a similar situation, you know that real darkness, the true absence of light, is pretty scary, and the hope and knowledge that the lights will come back on takes the edge off of the fear, the darkness just an experiment. But in those moments of darkness is the helplessness and fear of a life dependent on someone else for the light of safety and rescue.

Darkness is one of those things which is experienced in isolation. But real darkness is not relegated to the caverns of Kentucky. Light and life seem to go hand in hand in the metaphysic of human existence and experience.

The poet Dylan Thomas wrote his famous poem about the death of his father, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight, with those same allusions of light vs. death:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It is no doubt that the death of those close to us leaves a black hole of darkness from which it is difficult to rise. It is little wonder that at the moment Jesus died there was complete darkness for 3 hours. That darkness must have given temporary pause to the priests, scribes, and Romans who had sentenced Jesus to death, making them question what they had done. But then came the ninth hour, and the lights came on, and all seemed basically right with the world. The sun would rise tomorrow, just like it had every other day.

But not so with the disciples. The black hole created by the death of Christ was huge, and lingered way beyond the temporary darkness witnessed by all. While others went about their passover feasts and festivities, mocking this man that had thought he was the Son of God. Like the rest, the death of Christ had caused those who had believed in Christ to wonder why they had followed such an obviously deluded man. They hunkered down in fear, expecting any moment that those who had killed Jesus were coming for them. In those days, death was their constant companion, and their fear of reprisal for following Jesus was real.

The black hole was particularly tough for the remaining eleven. These disciples were personally as crushed as the dreams of their glory of being the advisors to the new king of Israel. You will recall earlier the Bar Zebedee boys had asked to be on Christ's right and left side when he came into his kingdom. Yet on the day He died, to his right and left were two criminals receiving the penalty of their government for their crimes. Nowhere to be found were the Zebedee boys, having saved their own necks and left Jesus to die.

Little did these disciples know in those two dark days that death would stalk them the rest of their lives, but the fear of it would be a thing of the past. They would meet the resurrected Christ, and know that death is not the end, but only the beginning. So shattering was their meeting with the resurrected Lord, that they went forth, hoping to die for his name. No longer would they hide in fear, for there was nothing the priests, the scribes, the Romans could do to them to hurt them.

Only through the resurrection, the sure knowledge that death has no power to kill, is there true freedom to live. And only when you know the resurrected Christ, can you face the darkness with certainty.

"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Cor 15:55-57).

Death is no longer the journey into the night. And Easter is the reminder to us that death is as momentary and essential as birth, but is no longer something to be feared. For Christ Himself is our life. The dark caves of Kentucky reveal nothing of the truth of Christ, but the inability to find Him on our own. Thanks be to God, He has gone there before us.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

The View from Below

"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." - John the Baptist

STABAT Mater dolorosa
iuxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.
AT the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.
Cuius animam gementem,
contristatam et dolentem
pertransivit gladius.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta,
mater Unigeniti!
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Quae maerebat et dolebat,
pia Mater, dum videbat
nati poenas inclyti.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Quis est homo qui non fleret,
matrem Christi si videret
in tanto supplicio?
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ's dear Mother to behold?
Quis non posset contristari
Christi Matrem contemplari
dolentem cum Filio?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother's pain untold?
Pro peccatis suae gentis
vidit Iesum in tormentis,
et flagellis subditum.
Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled,
she beheld her tender Child
All with scourges rent:
Vidit suum dulcem Natum
moriendo desolatum,
dum emisit spiritum.
For the sins of His own nation,
saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.
Eia, Mater, fons amoris
me sentire vim doloris
fac, ut tecum lugeam.
O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:
Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
in amando Christum Deum
ut sibi complaceam.
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.
Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide.
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:
Tui Nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
poenas mecum divide.
Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.
Fac me tecum pie flere,
crucifixo condolere,
donec ego vixero.
Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:
Iuxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.
By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.
Virgo virginum praeclara,
mihi iam non sis amara,
fac me tecum plangere.
Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;
Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem,
et plagas recolere.
Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.
Fac me plagis vulnerari,
fac me Cruce inebriari,
et cruore Filii.
Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;

Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriae.
Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
by Thy Mother my defense,
by Thy Cross my victory;
Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animae donetur
paradisi gloria. Amen.
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in paradise with Thee. Amen.

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)

Would it be that we not forget, the sin that cost us God, nor the God who bought us back, nor the price - His Son, our Lord. Amen.


* Stanzas removed by 4theluv for doctrinal reasons.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Springs Without Water

“It never troubles the wolf how many the sheep may be” - Virgil

Teeth, capped white with porcelain, contrasted the tanned skin, tightened face and coiffured hair of the Anointed as he set about the task of completing the sacred mission of the day. Firmly facing the red eyed cyclops the anointed showed no fear, confident in his ability to soothe that beast and bring it under submission. Behind the red hot eye lay the prize set before him: the blessing that only the anointed can know, that only the anointed can enjoy. He commands some more anointing.

Surrounded by tens of hundreds of witnesses, the freshly pressed and tailored Italian wool suit shines under the glistening lights but belies the hunger that rages in his belly. He speaks. And with his speech come the thunderous sounds and rapturous howls of the anointed, deftly using sacred secrets to whet the appetite of the cyclops, to lull it to a sense of safety and security, knowing that by his power they can ride this monster to the buried treasure.

He speaks to the cyclops. "I know the secret things," he says, baring his teeth in the sly grin that can easily be mistaken for sincerity. "I have the secret things to make you handsome, make you rich, and make you wise. He bled, in seven places, so that you know no suffering, and have all your hearts desires. The Jews had it right - buy this, and I can show you the secret laws that control God. Listen to me and learn to control God. Buy this cloth, and wear it over your head when you pray, the evils spirits will have no authority over you. You can be like God."

Across town, the same wool covers the different anointed seeking to tame the red one-eyed beast. His wool covering is darker, and less tailored, and the softness and soothing of his voice lulls the beast to give its treasure. But the same sly grin of sincerity persists. "God has set these rules," he leers. "You're better than you think you are. You must set your mind to new heights. It matters not if you are Jew or Gentile, Christian or Muslim. Your belief will bring your best life." God set this world in motion, and gave these secrets.

Half a world away, the leader of the pack speaks. His wool covering, reminiscent of Dr. No and Kamal Kahn, radiates in the spot light with the power of his magnetism. His voice powerful, and old worldly. He speaks to the monster, and shows forth his power. He bears his perfect teeth, and snarls "Slain in the Spirit." And the red eyed cyclops bleeds forth its wealth.

Their names are irrelevant. They could easily be called Valentinian, Marcion, Jefferson, Larry, Joel, Rod or Benny. The wool suits they wear barely hide the wolf within. They prey on the wallets of the weak by appealing to the fleshly needs and desires - greed and despartion are their weapons, and their vices. They tell stories of great healings and miracles to cover the carcases of so many lambs, being sure to keep the facts vague, and untraceable. They trade in secrets, "truths" they call them, for a price. But all they deliver is disillusionment and broken lives. They appear sometimes in packs, with the knowing glance that one will help the other bring down their prey, and not expose the truth.

These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. (2 Pet. 2:17-19).

Like bartenders with short shots and short change, these charlatans are a monument not to the overarching schemes of Satan, but rather to the unmitigated depravity of man. Their excesses and abuses, Mercedes and BMW's, Mansions and jets are testaments to their greed, and their followers' desperation. And all of our desires to be like gods.

But the wolves don't worry how many sheep there may be. All they know is there are plenty to go around. It does not take a prophet to see that they whore the gospel, and pimp the revelation of God, while using the language of love. And the day that you eat thereof, you shall die.

Today, in that town, someone will point out that these men (and women) have nothing to sell, and nothing from God. To repeat their refrain of greed, "Might as well be me."