Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Sound of Silence

“Quietude, which some men cannot abide because it reveals their inward poverty, is as a palace of cedar to the wise, for along its hallowed courts the King in his beauty deigns to walk.” - Charles H. Spurgeon

One of Mrs. 4thluv's favorite places to visit is New York City. The Big Apple. Broadway and Times Square. The Empire State Building. People. The hustle and bustle of millions of people going about their daily tasks in close proximity to one another is exhilarating to her.

I don't really like New York City. I have been there for both business and leisure. The people are kind enough. Even going to a Braves game at Shea stadium wearing a Braves jersey didn't upset them too much. New Yorker's probably get a bad rap for their manners.

Now to be fair, I have only been to Manhattan and Queens, two of the nicer boroughs of the city. (I was warned to stay out of the Bronx when I wanted to go visit Yankee Stadium). But I still don't like New York City. To me the city smells of Bourbon Street on a hot summer day. The traffic is like 285 in Atlanta at 3:00PM. The buildings so large that often you can't see the sky. And when you do, it is gray and smoggy.

Those things aside, it is the noise that really gets to me. Cars honking, workers shouting, subway trains going by, jack hammers rattling, cranes lifting, ferry whistles, sirens blaring, planes flying over. (Some find these sounds "thrilling" - you can have them.) To tune out the noise you would have to tune out life. The noise goes on 24/7. New York is not my kind of town.

But you don't need to travel to New York City to be filled with noise. New York City comes to us. Today's society is filled with way too many noises. TV's have to be left on, music playing, cell phones ringing. The noise gives to us a "sense" of being connected to others, so we do not feel alone.

One thing you don't hear a lot of is quiet. This society finds "quiet" disturbing. Perhaps it is because of the the fear of being alone with ourselves.

I can recall growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s that quiet was easier to come by. In those days, there were no 24 hour news channels, in fact, until I was in high school, there were no 24 hour television stations. Daytime afternoon TV was all local programing, usually kid's shows poorly produced. Prime time shows were limited to 3, whatever was on ABC, NBC or CBS.

Until I was 11, our family had only one TV in the house, and it was in the living room. As a result, TV shows were decided by popularity (i.e., what the parents wanted to watch), and the loser (ie., those who didn't like that show and me). Being the youngest of three children, I either had to learn to like what someone else liked to watch, or I would have to go find something else to do, like read. And I read a lot.

I spent hours as a kid reading things that boys normally read - the Hardy Boys series, Boy's Life, Mad Magazine (what a great magazine), Sport's Illustrated, and the Sunday funny papers. And it was easy. I could go into my room, open the window and listen to the quiet sounds of the night, and read. I solved the all the mysteries with Frank and Joe, wished I was Fran Tarkington, Bob Griese, Ken Stabler or Wilt Chamberlain (glad the last one never came true), laughed time and again at Spy vs. Spy and Alfred E. Newman, and couldn't wait until Sunday to see what Beetle Bailey, Snuffy Smith, and Marmaduke were going to get into. (I know, you are not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. My apologies to Mrs. Lykins.)

I don't read those types of books and magazines much anymore. (Though Sports Illustrated is till a part of our yearly subscriptions.) But I still like that quiet, the solitude those memories bring back. That "not-having-to-be-around-people-and-deal-with-more-problems" space. I'm not a real emotional type person, anyway, and for me quiet time reading or studying is relaxing and introspective. (Some, like Mrs. 4theluv, prefer the term "moody" which is probably as good a term as any to describe me). But I do like my quiet - my alone time.

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (I. Thes. 4:11-12)

I used a quote by Henry David Thoreau a few weeks ago as a comment on Scott H.'s blog. “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.” That quote made me think of Scott and his fishing trips, and his reflections on situations he has been involved with in the church. But it is also true of us all - we need time to reflect on our relationships, particularly with Christ. It is not the fish, the books, the magazines that we need, it is the time to touch base with ourselves and our God.

Sometimes, after we have tended to our business, worked with our hands, and won the respect of others, we need some time to reflect on ourselves. To think. In quiet. And reflect. To learn to be ok with ourselves, and to like the person that Christ is teaching us to be.

I think that is why I won't fair well in New York City. I can't get alone, away, and I can't catch my breath.

In the quiet, away from everyone else, I know its ok to be ordinary. It is away from the TV, the cell phones, the cars, the sirens, the music, that I find myself. And it is there that I understand my relationship with Him. Quietude, as Spurgeon calls it, reveals our inner poverty - but also allows the King to walk its hallowed corridors.

And, to quote Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Poll to the Right

Each week I try to write and publish two posts in differing literary styles. While this blog is mainly intended as an outlet for me and as an expression of my personal journey of faith in Christ, it is a joy to know that others take heart in my journey and walk with me, as we are not called to walk alone.

While I always write about things important to me, I have chosen four posts from the month of January which have meant something special to me. I would love to know if they have meant something to you.

To review:
1) Faces - The stories of people in my life whose memories I honor and cherish.

2) Singing With the Midnight Choir - My reflections on the song "Midnight Choir" by Larry Gatlin.

3) Potsherds and Goats - The story of my grandfather.

4) The Sweet Smell of Righteousness - The story of a man whose smell taught lessons.

Feel free to leave comments below.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lines of Silver

“Much that we call evil is really good in disguises; and we should not quarrel rashly with adversities not yet understood, nor overlook the mercies often bound up in them." - Horace Mann

It was Sunday morning. The clouds in the sky gathered with the coming violence predicted by so many meteorologists. The local guru dus wetters was in suspenders, showing the oncoming and impending doom one viewing area to the south, that, within a scant few hours, would crash its way through the Birmingham, Alabama area. The skies themselves acted as if they would spill their contents at any moment, pregnant with the rain so disparately needed in the area.

Inside the 10:45am worship service was beginning on time, in spite of, or perhaps in defiance of the dire predictions and prognostications of the weather. The weather, together with the fact of it being President's Day weekend, gave all the signs that the only people in attendance would be the "hell or high water" gang. Those, who like the prophetess Anna, are in the sanctuary day and night. The dependable faces who sit in the same places week after week. But given the weather and the holiday, even some of the high water gang would be missing, and no one would blame them.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about worship time that day. No children's presentations, no ordinations, no combined worship service, no special concerts or guest speakers. No drama presentations, or fancy dancing. Nothing to bring in doting grandparents, proud families, or hoodwinked worshipers. Except for the pending violence outside, it was just an average Sunday at Community Presbyterian Church. And despite the bad weather, and threat of it being even worse, the Sanctuary was full. And it was pretty full. Even regular attenders of the late service would have a hard time sorting the regulars from the visitors. And this day the deacons had to put out extra sets of chairs.

It was a scant short 6 weeks ago that the elders made the disturbing announcement to the congregation that one of our own had abused the trust placed in her and taken sums of money from the church's accounts. A hurt and stunned congregation watched as the elders gathered around the sinner, and prayed - offering the forgiveness that Christ has given them, and extending the love of the gospel to all in attendance. Publicly airing the ragged clothes of sin not for the benefit of those who were hurt, though they had the right to know, but for the benefit of the sinner whose sin had affected the relationships with the whole church. And to publicly say, so the world can hear, and see, that more grace abounds greater than any sin.

To say that the event was earth shaking is quite an overstatement. For a church that preaches both the total inability of man to please God, and the unconditional love of God in Christ toward His people, it should be no surprise that when real sin happens in their midst that those who believe the Gospel will respond with the same grace that God has given them in Christ.

But deep in the heart of hearts, and if you are true to the suspicions and doubts of your heart, you *are surprised* when the Gospel claimed to be believed is actually lived out in your midst toward people whose sin is real, and whose relationships are tattered.

Perhaps you are even surprised by your own reaction to it.

When sinners publicly can find acceptance, love and hope, it is antithetical to everything known to fallen humans - to love those who hurt you, to love them even through the hurt and despite the sin. You expect disillusionment. You expect disappointment. You expect shouts of hypocrisy. You expect anger. You expect striking back and striking out. Real sin demands real punishment. And, even if not from you, you expect a rejection of the sinner. That is the lesson the world beats into all of us - you deserve what you get, and get what you deserve.

But this Sunday morning, six weeks later, with so much against it, saw the worship service full. Far from the disillusionment so many churches have experienced in similar situations, this church has seen no falling away, and indeed have seen more people come to the congregation looking for and knowing that they too can find the love of Christ.

That day six weeks ago taught this church something about itself. That hope abounds there, even while the storm outside rages. That love abounds there, even in a world of selfish self-promotion at the expense of other. That where one sins so personally against so many can find hope, love and forgiveness, so can those whose sin maybe impacted fewer people and less deeply, or more people and more deeply.

To paraphrase the church's pastor, like moths to flame, the Gospel preached and lived out draws His people to it. Christ draws his people.

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. (Col. 3:12-14)

The raging storms gathering outside are not the lightning and thunder and winds of a Spring time weather shift. They are not the floods of torrential rains. That day was but a microcosm of the truth we find in Christ. The real storm from which we seek shelter is the rejection and hopelessness of this world, and a sense that everywhere else we turn we will get what we deserve. The storm of unrealistic expectation, that, for those in the church, sin is no more.

And the real shelter is that found in Christ, demonstrated through His people, where we can be accepted and loved despite our sin, and despite our damnable good works. If not in His church, where can any find His shelter?

In those clouds, we find the lines of silver. We find safety in Him.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Free At Last, Part Deaux

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” - Anne Lamott

Stoke's presentation at Community Presbyterian Church's 10:45 worship hour this morning of Derek Webb's, "I want a New Law", led me to reflect even further on the grace that we share in Christ, and more firmly resolve to proclaim the freedom and grace we truly have in Christ.

It is always reassuring to know there are others whose walk is similar to mine, but who are more eloquent at expressing it. I can't say it better, so here it is:

I Want a New Law
Words and music by Derek Webb

Don't teach me about politics and government
Just tell me who to vote for
Don't teach me about truth and beauty
Just label my music
Don't teach me how to live like a free man
Just give me a new law

I don't wanna know
If the answers aren't easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me
I want a new law
I want a new law
Gimme that new law

Don't teach me about moderation and liberty
I prefer a shot of grape juice
Don't teach me about loving my enemies
Don't teach me how to listen to the Spirit
Just give me a new law

What's the use in trading a law you can never keep
For one you can
That cannot get you anything?

do not be afraid
do not be afraid
do not be afraid

How easy it is for us, for me even, to want a list of things "to do" to prove my worth to God and his kingdom. To be told what to do, where to go, how to stand and what to say such that I will become pleasing to God. To be told, "if you do these things, you will look like Christ." But that is not the Gospel of the New Testament (or the Old). The Gospel is a change that comes from God, through Christ, by His Holy Spirit in us. Living by grace, in freedom, is so much harder and demands so much more from me.

For he (Christ) himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph. 2:14-18).

The song was a powerful ending to Burt's powerful sermon on our call as missionaries. Our worth is found in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8). Thank you, Derek Webb for reminding me once again. Thank you Stokes. More importantly, thank you Jesus. May I never again seek the easy things, the laws, the rules, the words, but instead, seek the things of Christ.

I had numerous observations during our morning worship service, some of which I will share later. But this focus on grace was indeed powerful for me, and one of the observations I could not keep quiet.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thank you, Sir. May I have another?

“If you look closely at a tree you'll notice it's knots and dead branches, just like our bodies. What we learn is that beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully.” - Matthew Fox

Seventh grade is never easy for any kid, but in my junior high it was especially hard for the guys. The seventh grade P.E. coach was a man named Coach Williams. (I don't know for sure, but I think his first name was "Mister"). Coach Williams was an NCAA collegiate sprinter turned marathon runner turned marine drill sergeant turned junior high gym coach and track and field coach. (O.K., I made up the "drill sergeant" part - but he would have been a good one.) Coach Williams knew two things about athletics - running until it hurt, and running through the hurt. Want to play dodgeball? What are you? A girl? Want to play kick ball? Go change your panties. There was no such thing as basketball, baseball, football or soccer, apparently none of which were invented until I was in eighth grade. Nope, Coach Williams knew running. And pain. And fear. And pain.

For a solid year, Boys P.E. consisted for us of dressing out in sprinter speed - you had three minutes from the time the bell rang to be lined up at the rally point. (God help you if you forgot your gym clothes - you would run in your tighty whities) This would be followed by exactly 8 minutes of stretching. This was the most peace you would have the entire fifty five minutes.

The next fifteen minutes would be followed by "two-twos" - two sets of two each sprints of 25 yards, 40 yards and 100 yards. The class was divided into 3 groups, as Coach Williams called them, the "slow", the "slower" and the "slowest" (sometimes referred to as "women", "ladies" and "girls"). The slow group would sprint 25 yards, followed 3 seconds later by the slower group, who was followed three seconds later by the slowest group. They would then turn around and sprint back in the same order. This would be followed by the 40 yard sprint, and finally the 100 yard sprint, each in the same grueling fashion. THEN would come the first "two" part - we did the entire circuit again. All of this in the space of fifteen minutes.

The next fifteen minutes was distance running. I say fifteen minutes, because that is what Coach Williams expected you to do. You had fifteen minutes to run two miles. That averages 7.5 minutes a mile. For two miles. Fifteen minutes. Now, this was not timed. Coach Williams didn't really care how long it took you to run two miles. You were going to run two miles. But considering there was only 25 minutes left in the class, and you still had to cool down, get to the locker room, clean up, change clothes, get your books, and get to your next class, fifteen minutes was what was allotted. (I am sure that the teachers who had us after him disliked him as much as we did - but they were too scared to say anything as well. At least if they were smart they didn't say anything.)

As clear as anything else in my life, I can still hear Coach Williams yelling at us, "No pain, no gain!" He taught us "ladies" his philosophy of life. You work hard. The harder you work, the better you are. The more you get. If you want something, you work hard for it. You dedicate yourself to it. You achieve it by your talents and sweat. If you are not willing to push yourself, you don't deserve anything. Run until it hurts. Then run through the hurt. Get what the runners call their "second wind". And run some more. You gotta work hard to be a man. No softies allowed.

But life has taught me that Coach Williams was wrong. Good things don't always come to those who work hard for them. The early bird does not always get the worm. And we don't always get what we deserve. One need only look around at the poverty of the world, at the poverty in America, at the poverty in Alabama to see that is not the case. The truth is that life is filled with disappointments and gratuitous offerings to the just and the unjust, the hard working and the lazy. Good hard work and talent does not insure success for anyone, including the Christian.

But in those disappointments and unexpected outcomes are some of Christ's greatest lessons.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Heb. 12:7-11

Coach Williams preached the worldly gospel of self-discipline, which only sometimes results in obtaining what on the surface appear to things of great value. We can train ourselves to be great. We can beat ourselves to work hard and gain whatever we want. We can gain the whole world, and in the process we can lose our soul. (Matt. 16:26). Like all deceptions, it is only half-true.

Now, make no mistake, hard work is necessary. A man who will not work, shall not eat. (2 Thess. 3:10). But what glory is there in knowing you have provided for yourself? What faith is shown when you have kneaded your daily bread? What blessing can exist, when what you have is the product of your own hands? But the blessing of God-discipline, that is discipline from God known through those lessons of hardship and disappointment, produces something that is not measured by bank accounts, 401(k)s, cars, and trophies. It is measured in peace and righteousness.

Like a master sculptor, Christ chips away those things about us that don't look like Him. It is only in our failures, our disappointments, our down right discipline from God that we find true meaning. That process is painful. It is hard. It is long. And it is worth it.

Our lives can show forth our glory, or it can show forth His glory. And when life is about showing off our abilities, our talents, our hard work, it ceases to point to Him. Perhaps that is why Christ strips away so much of us - because He loves us too much to let us glorify ourselves. We really are not that great when you boil it all down.

I can only pray that my age shows His face.


Friday, February 8, 2008

Free at Last, Free at Last

"There's no problem so awful that you can't add some guilt to it and make it even worse." - Calvin (and Hobbes).

Hi, my name is 4theLuv, and I am a recovering Baptist.

Like many in our church, I come from the largest Protestant denomination in the South. It is through that tradition that the Gospel of Christ was first presented to me, and in which I began to understand who I am in Christ. It was that tradition that I learned to trust the Scriptures, read the Scriptures, and follow the Scriptures. If you have read anything in the many posts, it is that I cherish the journey of my life that Christ has put me on.

Coming out of that background, I maintain many dear and good friends who are still within that tradition. Pastors, deacons, evangelists, lay persons, coworkers, the list goes on an on. They are, for sure, strong Christian friends - trusted friends. Friends who, to this day, I could call and talk to about most anything, and whose spiritual insights are always welcome. Many of my Baptist friends even read these posts.

Now I mean no slight to my Baptist brethren, and those who know me know my heart in that regard. I would never seek to intentionally hurt nor attack my friends. I could easily be speaking of a number of Protestant denominations, including some in the PCA. But Baptist is the background I come out of, and the one I am most familiar with.

For me, guilt and fear seemed to be the main motivating factors for living the Christian life while I was a Baptist. The constant message was that the Christian life should be lived because Christ died for you (guilt) and you owe it to Him, or because we would have to give an account for our actions (fear). There was a list of sins (real and contrived) that Christians don't do if they are really committed to Christ - (drinking and smoking come to mind immediately), and a list of things you must do - Sunday night and Wednesday night worship, visitation, Sunday School. The measure of my Christian life was summed up in lists of things I did and did not do. Far from helping me grow in my relationship with Him, it actually hindered my growth in Christ. I was never sure if I was good enough, or faithful enough, or spiritual enough to prevent backsliding. Legalism, quite simply, left me empty.

Legalism is a means of instilling guilt and fear. And guilt and fear are, at best, short term motivators. They make us want to be something, do something, want to change ourselves into the image of Christ. But once the guilt is gone and the fear is soothed, there is a void of the enthusiasm we once knew.

Further, it took me a long time to realize that legalism leads us to put on false facades. Fake fronts, put on for our Christian brethren so that, because we can't convince ourselves of our worth before God, we can at least convince others we are worthy. Yet at the end of the day, there is an emptiness to it. It is a hollow feeling stemming from an uncertainty that I have done enough to make God happy.

It took me a while to learn that there is nothing wrong with these legalistic "to dos", but there is nothing right with them either. For each thing on the list is completely possible to do without knowing Christ at all. And if they can be done without knowing Christ, then they are meaningless in bringing about a relationship with Christ. The concept of Grace was not a part of my spiritual life.

C. H. Spurgeon, a great 19th century Baptist preacher from London, when attacked on his enjoyment of cigars responded, "There is growing up in society a Pharisaic system which adds to the commands of God the precepts of men; to that system I will not yield for an hour. The preservation of my liberty may bring upon me the upbraiding of many good men, and the sneers of the self-righteous; but I shall endure both with serenity so long as I feel clear in my conscience before God. "

It has taken me years to unlearn some of the legalism. Most importantly, it has taken me years to realize that God's love for me in Christ is unconditional - it has no strings attached. It is not because I am so good that He respects me. I'm not. It is not because I have rooted out all the real (and imagined) sin from my life. I haven't. It is not because I work so hard on my relationship with Him. I don't. It is simply that He loves me, and sent His Son to die for me. There is nothing to add to that. There is nothing *I* can add to that.

It took me a while to learn the truth that the God who saved me back when, did so fully knowing every sin I would commit in my life - and He did it anyway. Nothing I can do will take him by surprise. I had to learn the truth that we are simultaneously far more sinful than we ever dared imagine, yet far more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope for. And therein was the freedom.

Paul said, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery... You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope." (Gal. 5:1, 4-5)

But that is not the end of the story, and if I ended it here, I would do a great disservice. Christ did not come to give us life *and* the ability to have a beer without guilt. That trivializes the Gospel and the sacrifice of Christ to the point of meaninglessness. Rather, God taught me that freedom, even freedom in Christ, comes with a duty to exercise it responsibly.

That point was driven home to me recently in what I considered a surprising way.

I was having a conversation with a dear Christian friend. We were discussing grace, and freedom in Christ. In the course of the conversation the topic of alcohol use came up, and this dear Christian friend commented that she would not tolerate alcohol to enter her home. I thought it odd that a person who conveys such a deep understanding of the grace of Christ, and the freedom in Christ, to be so set against alcohol. So I asked her about it. She explained that, many years ago, alcohol had nearly destroyed her marriage. I know her husband, and he is a man I deeply respect as well, whose own graciousness and spiritual maturity is immediately evidenced by those who know him. But alcohol was, for him, an area where he battled in his own life an abuse of it. It was not that alcohol was wrong, in itself. It was that alcohol in her home was wrong because of his temptations and struggles.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall. (1 Cor. 8:9-13)

I have long wondered what Paul was talking about when he called us to restraint in the exercise of our freedom. And I think the answer to that is at least partially in our relationships. We are called to be in relationship with each other, as brothers, as friends, as fellow believers. The limits of our freedom in Christ are spelled out by our relationships with each other. And in those relationships we are charged with knowing each other's weakness.

It is not our duty to keep from drinking alcohol. That is legalism. It is our duty not to tempt our brothers with anything, alcohol included, that we know is a weakness and struggle for them. I have a duty as a Christian brother not to put before him, or any other person I know struggles with some thing, any thing that he has proven will enslave him. But it also means I need to be in such relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ that I know their weaknesses, and thus my responsibility to them.

Lord, help me to exercise my freedom in light of the relationships You have given me. May my freedom in Christ never lead me, or another, to sin against You.

My name is 4theluv, and I am recovering Baptist.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

'Tis the Season

"If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Relegated to the parking lot of the Pinnacle in Tutwiler is the Lifeway Christian Bookstore. For those not familiar with Lifeway, they are the new name for the old Baptist Book Store that used to be downtown on University. Primarily a single purpose store, Lifeway's book collection is limited to current Christian pop trend books, usually priced higher than their not-so-cloistered competitors, and a smattering of classic Christian treatises and devotionals. The diversity of thought sold there is usually little more than nuanced Christian themes, many of questionable theological integrity, mass marketed to the Christian culture. Rarely (ie., never) do I find anything, or anyone, in that store that will challenge the truths of the Gospel. In short, really just overpriced Christian choir books. As a result, I rarely shop there. I am not much of one for making a buck off of being the "Christian" place to shop and my personality is such that I find the premise distasteful.

However, I recently visited the other storied chapel of collected human wisdom at the Pinnacle known as Books-A-Million. Contained within those four walls is the literature of the great, and the not-so-great. The moment you walk in, you know you are no longer in the safe confines of a monastery, but are challenged with the competing ideas of modern America in a post-modern world. You are greeted with biographies of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Potter. Its books range the gambit from the atheistic philosophy of Bertrand Russell to the deistic drivel of Joel Osteen. Often within arms reach of each other (and even closer philosophically).

I don't often enough have the time to go and browse there. I am usually there solely to purchase a book I either haven't read, or haven't read in quite some time and want to read again. On this particular visit I was there to buy a copy of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, which was finally out in paperback. (I admit it, I'm cheap - not wanting to pay for a hardbound copy of the book.) Dawkins is a biologist by training, and well respected as a scientist. The heir apparent to Carl Sagan, Dawkins is an avowed evangelical atheist, preaching his message of atheism as a way of life with all the enthusiasm of a Benny Hinn camp meeting. To summarize Dawkins' mission, his call is to announce liberation from religious repression and call all closet and practical atheists out of hiding and into the light. He is for atheists what Gloria Steinem was to the National Organization for Women - a crusader. This is a book I want to read.

I locate the book in the "Sciences" section of the store (a nonfiction area) and immediately begin perusing it and realize this is going to be a fun read. I make this selection and another (Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 - a book I have never read) and head to the check out to purchase the books. Behind the counter is a young, mid to late 20s guy with tattooed arms and a biker build. This tattooed biker guy (as I call him) engages me in conversation about my choice of books, calling both "great works of fiction". He recommends to me, in his conversational tone, that he found C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity to be really good and I realize this guy is trying to witness to me. He has presumed, by my book choices, that I am an atheist buying my choir books. I have run into a fellow believer seeking to witness to me by offering an alternative to my purchase. (Never mind that I presumed by his looks he was not a believer.)

My initial reaction was to be offended - why would buying a learned treatise by an atheist call into question my Christian conviction and belief? I immediately realized that his Christianity was subsumed for the moment with Christian choir books, and that Christians need only fill their mind with more and more of those thoughts and must fight to keep out any questions, and doubts, and and fears. In short, a Christianity whose faith should not be questioned or tested, or as Dawkins calls it, a belief in belief. My knee-jerk reaction was to test him and his faith, to see if what he believed could really stand up to the heavy assault of people like Dawkins and survive, both intellectually and spiritually.

But then I remembered the very reason I was buying Dawkins' book:

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, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Pet. 3:15-16).

Sometimes, being prepared to give an answer means not just being prepared to answer those who attack our faith, but also to realize that those who need the choir books need hope as well. Those whose faith is not yet ready to be tested by anything other than choir books, need that nourishment for maturity. I could have, probably fairly easily, tested the biker guy's faith and made him look foolish and me look smart - but I would have damaged a brother, and done nothing productive for the cause of Christ. So I did the nice thing, the right thing - I recommended to him C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man as a good philosophical treatise from Lewis, and particularly his essay in there entitled Men without Chests. Not easy reading, for sure, but necessary reading. It is my hope that biker guy will long for the sea, will look forward to the day that his faith can be tested without breaking.

Is Lewis the answer to Dawkins? I doubt it. As Thomas Aquinas so aptly put it, "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." But in that place, at that time, during that season, Lewis was the answer to biker guy.


Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Day the Old Man Died

"Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn't commit." - Eli Khamarov

The church was full as worship began. A simple glance at the congregation showed all the usual types of people were present. The wealthy and the poor, the sincere and the casual. There was even the crazy old guy who claimed visions from God, and the poor widow woman whose presence at the church was noticed only if she was not there. Poor people are so needy.

The church itself, though big and full of people, had long since kept on keeping on. Once vibrantly focused on God, the worship through the years had moved to catering to displays of individual expressions of righteousness and political agendas. The church was the center of religious and political life in the city, and to it the population looked to find the answers to decay and depravity that rampant in society. The church was aware of and used its influence and power to promote its political ideas. And politicians curried the favor of the church, and they could play the congregation like a piano, with rousings speeches about God and t heir own personal walk with God. The solution, the church thought, to the evident moral decay was for the church to use its political influence to radically alter their society. The politicians just knew that the church was but one key to the city, and needed its people to find their power.

The church had lost its focus of committment to God, and learned that it was a powerful force for creating the world it thought God wanted. Message over substance. Action over committment.

It was used to strangers in its presence, and normally paid little attention. The dregs of society came in,, whether for hand outs, or from a sense of duty, their presence was barely acknowledged. Certainly, few noticed the young unmarried couple with a new born baby, and those that did quickly dismissed them as they had so many others. The people who needed to be known in the church were already known, and this young couple, obviously poor, were not likely candidates to promote the agendas of the church or useful in advancing its mission. They had nothing to offer, and were only in need.

This worship time, though was to be disturbed. A commotion started in hushed tone - the crazy old man had collapsed in the church, and people were rushing to give medical attention. It seems while no one was looking, he had greeted the poor young couple, even holding their newborn when he collapsed. In the midst of the commotion the baby was separated from his parents, and found himself safe in the arms of old widow until he could be reunited with his parents.

In their midst, amongst all the diginitaries and politicians with all their schemes and plans for making society after their own image, was the hope of the world. What they could only talk about, God delivered into their midst in the child of a poor, unmarried couple.

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord"), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons." Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. 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."

The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:22-36)

And the church moved on, and with all its influence and power, 30 years later crucified our Lord. How quickly we forget.

Lord, help us all to see that the answers to this world's issues are not found in better government, but in that One Child, Your Son, who You gave for the redemption not only Jerusalem, but for all of Your people. Your Son, who we miss because we look not for You, but instead for that which we think You want.

Happy Candlemas.


Friday, February 1, 2008

If I were God

"If you wish to know what a man is, place him in authority." - Yugoslavian Proverb

In this day of presidential elections, I thought of my campaign promises if I were running for the job of God:

My list of priorities if I were God:

1. SPAM email would be no more. Those who send SPAM email would immediately be sent to hell, with their only hope of salvation being finding the one email with the answer to their predicament - scattered amongst all the SPAM email that has been sent since AL Gore invented the internet.

2. Parking spaces would be big enough that cars don't get dinged.

3. Third world poverty would be erased.

4. It would never rain on your birthday.

5. There would be no wars except those against the ungodly people who reject me.

6. No child would ever be separated from loving parents.

7. No parent would ever have to bury their child.

Of course, if I were God -

1. Possessions would be more important than people.

2. There would be none in need for my people to offer a cup of water in my name.

3. The world would live in a desert.

4. I would be at war with every person.

5. I would never have to experience the pain of letting my child go into a harsh and demanding world.

6. I would never have sacrifice my child for the salvation of others.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:1-7)

Don't vote for me. I really don't know what I'm doing.


(Oh, God, the SPAM thing is a good idea.)