Sunday, April 12, 2015

Defeat to Victory

In our world people celebrate the birth of Christ as the big holiday of the year, but if you were to eliminate the his birth from the Bible, you would lose a mere two chapters from Matthew and two chapters from Luke, while the central Gospel message would remain completely intact.


Take away the death and resurrection of Christ, on the other hand, and you decimate the gospels and turn Paul and Acts into indecipherable babble. The miracle of a man once dead who is now alive is a strange idea on its own, but to a dedicated band of small believers who actually saw the risen Christ, it meant everything in the world even to the point of willing martyrdom. While it's true that this grand pivot of history gives us the hope of eternal life, it goes well beyond that.

The Meaning of the Cross to the Romans

Theologian N.T. Wright in his book Surprised by Hope points out that the Roman occupiers of the day used the cross as a means of asserting its authority over its subjects' lives. In the end any civil authority's ultimate means of control is the control over who lives and who dies. When the Romans crucified someone, it was their way of telling their subject peoples, "We're in control here, and you're not. Nobody - no would-be Messiah, no supposed King of the Jews - will be allowed to usurp our authority, and if they attempt to do so, we will kill them in the most gruesome manner possible." By placing the placard "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" on the cross of Christ, the Romans were reminding the people that Rome was their ultimate master and lord, and that they should rely on no other. When the rabble, egged on by the Sadducees, shouted, "We have no king but Caesar," they were rejecting God and accepting the authority of a tyrant.

Not only did Jesus through his death and resurrection save us from sin and give us the hope for eternal life, he also demonstrated that nobody - no powerful empire, no self-proclaimed god - is greater than the true God who had not only overcome the world, but was coming to take it back.

So in an amazing plot twist, a symbol of despotic control and despair over the lives of many has come to be a symbol of freedom and hope. It reminds us that no matter how evil and hopeless the world may sometimes look, God has some surprises waiting that will make things right. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Policy of Fools Who Claim to Be Wise?

A screwed up place, the Middle East is, where Muslims are killing Muslims, the White House is supporting Saudis who are attacking Iranian proxies, but are supporting the Iranian proxies against Sunni terrorists in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is doing all it can to delegitimize its strongest and most loyal ally in the region, Israel, while giving away the store to the terrorist state of Iran whose habitual chant is "Death to America".

This is all a reminder of what we read in Paul's letter to the Romans. The followers of Christ in the capital of a godless empire could see daily the Byzantine antics of despots in action, and they no doubt knew what Paul was describing when he wrote about "godlessness", "unrighteousness", and "those who suppress the truth" (Romans 1:18).

They knew what he meant when he called their thinking "nonsense" and their senseless minds "darkened", and how, "claiming to be wise, they became fools."

They knew what Paul meant when he said that God had delivered them to their own lusts, degrading themselves and even applauding those who practice such things.

Maybe, as some have posited, the strategy of supporting both sides in the Middle East while marginalizing Israel is a clever way of keeping terrorists occupied in killing each other off. Others say there is no strategy at all, and whatever the U.S. is doing there is based on the expediency of the moment.

Indeed there is an instance recorded in I Chronicles 30 where, in the days of King Jehoshaphat, the people of Judah were besieged by a coalition of enemies, but in the end the enemies turned their swords on each other. Some do see a parallel here.

But there is another parallel event that happened not too many years ago. When Neville Chamberlain returned to London waving a piece of paper with Herr Hitler's autograph on it and proclaiming "peace in out time", his vision of peace was not how we might envision peace. Chamberlain had ulterior motives. Knowing that Hitler, like the Tories in Britain, despised Stalin's Bolsheviks, he was attempting to push Hitler closer geographically to Russia in the hope that they would declare war on each other and kill each other off. Imagine his consternation when Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin that contain secret protocols dividing eastern Europe between them and then, with his eastern flank secure, attacked westward.

Whether U.S. foreign policy is a reflection of incompetence or subterfuge -- or both -- it seems to be an instance of fools professing to be wise, with their foolishness either a product or a cause of reprobate minds.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Handed Over to the Tormentors?

In Matthew 18 Jesus teaches a lesson about forgiveness with an interesting twist. This is a tale forgiveness that is not paid forward, and ends with the rich man, who represents God, condemning the unforgiving soul to be handed over to tormentors.

This strikes us as a bit harsh for a loving God, but Jesus was actually teaching a fact of psychological health validated by modern psychology. To illustrate this point I want to relate the story of Louie Zamperini, made famous through Lauren Hillenbrand’s biography Unbroken and lately in a movie of the same title directed by Angelina Jolie.

Zamperini was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team and achieved some worldwide notoriety due to his performance. A few years later, after Pearl Harbor, he was a bombardier in the Army Air Force in the Pacific Theater. His plane went down while on a search mission, and he spent the next 47 days in a raft in shark-infested waters, drifting westward with the current toward Japanese occupied territory.

On the 47th day he was picked up at sea by a Japanese ship and was transferred to a POW camp where he faced beatings and indignations the likes of which are too grotesque to explain here. 

Of particular interest to us is a camp commander whom the POWs nicknamed “The Bird”.  At the end of the war The Bird’s name was on the 40 most-wanted list for war crimes in the Pacific Theater. His mission was to break as many of the POWs as he could, stealing from them as much of their dignity and humanity as possible. His word was law without appeal, and he had the power of life and death over every inmate. He was especially bent upon destroying the former Olympic runner Louie Zamperini.

In Zamperini’s dreams he fantasized lashing out at the Bird, including beating him and strangling him to death.  These feeling of outrage and hate stayed in Zamperini’s head for years after his liberation and return to Southern California. The Bird was a constant fixture in his dreams and nightmares.  Long after the war the lingering effects of psychological abuse allowed the Bird to torment Louie’s psyche across the years and the 5,500 miles that separated them.

One night Louie was wrestling with this phantom Bird in his head. In his nightmare Louie overcomes the Bird and he is strangling the Bird to death, and as he squeezes his hands around his enemy’s neck, he awakens from his dream to find that he is strangling his wife.

You see how unforgiveness can torment your soul.

It’s in the midst of this turmoil that Billy Graham has his first major crusade, and it happens to be in Los Angeles, where Louie and his wife live. She convinces him to go.

After just a few nights Louie has a religious experience, goes home, dumps all his booze down the drain and destroys all his cigarettes. But there is something else he knows he must do.

He goes to Japan.

The former prison guards at this time are for the most part still in custody, and Louie especially wants to see the Bird.

It is here where we see the promise of the Proverb fulfilled. Proverbs 25:21.  If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

Louie greeted the former guards, his former enemies, now inmates themselves, as friends. He forgave them. But there was one who refused to meet with him. It was The Bird. The Bird would not accept his forgiveness nor even admit that he had done anything wrong.  But Louie, instead of brooding over it, felt sorrow and sadness over a lost soul. He had let his hate and anger go.

Thus the Bird lost his grip on Louie’s psyche and his life. The nightmares went away forever.

When Jesus said that an unforgiving spirit allows you to be handed over to the tormentors, he wasn’t talking about a band of demons with flamethrowers. He was talking about the torment of mind that grips us when we gunnysack our hate and anger and feed on it. If we allow The Birds in our lives to get into our heads and stay there, they will continue to torment us just as Jesus said they would until we let go. When Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, it might just happen that it will bring about a change in their lives. But if not, it will surely bring about a change in yours.

One night Louie was wrestling with this phantom Bird in his head. In his nightmare Louie overcomes the Bird and he is strangling the Bird to death, and as he squeezes his hands around his enemy’s neck, he awakens from his dream to find that he is strangling his wife.

You see how unforgiveness can torment your soul.

It’s in the midst of this turmoil that Billy Graham has his first major crusade, and it happens to be in Los Angeles, where Louie and his wife live. She convinces him to go.

After just a few nights Louie has a religious experience, goes home, dumps all his booze down the drain and destroys all his cigarettes. But there is something else he knows he must do.

He goes to Japan.

The former prison guards at this time are for the most part still in custody, and Louie especially wants to see the Bird.

It is here where we see the promise of the Proverb fulfilled. Proverbs 25:21.  If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

Louie greeted the former guards, his former enemies, now inmates themselves, as friends. He forgave them. But there was one who refused to meet with him. It was The Bird. The Bird would not accept his forgiveness nor even admit that he had done anything wrong.  But Louie, instead of brooding over it, felt sorrow and sadness over a lost soul. He had let his hate and anger go.

Thus the Bird lost his grip on Louie’s psyche and his life. The nightmares went away forever.

When Jesus said that an unforgiving spirit allows you to be handed over to the tormentors, he wasn’t talking about a band of demons with flamethrowers. He was talking about the torment of mind that grips us when we gunnysack our hate and anger and feed on it. If we allow The Birds in our lives to get into our heads and stay there, they will continue to torment us just as Jesus said they would until we let go. When Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, it might just happen that it will bring about a change in their lives. But if not, it will surely bring about a change in yours.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Last Man Standing: A Meditation

A long life might be considered a blessing, but then I look at my Dad. He’s almost 92 years old, and in a way he’s the last man standing.  He’s the only one left from his World War II unit. None of his old buddies are still alive.

I thought about this when I contemplated how many of my friends who, just over the last few years, have either passed or have suffered from chronic ailments of one sort or another. Solomon was on to something when he wrote, “Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man.  The living will take it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). While we might not like to think about such things, wisdom that comes from the experience of life will shake us from the frivolity of our youth.

As one who has longevity genes in my DNA, I have been forced to think about what it might be like to be the last man standing. Would it be a lonely time or a fulfilling time? Will it be a blessing to others or a burden? During the years that intervene between now and then, what should I do to make those years most profitable? Some ideas:

1. Walk alongside your contemporaries through good times and bad. Comfort them, listen to them, party with them, rejoice with them. Learn to be strong as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death with them.

2.  Develop friendships – real friendships – with those from the generations behind you. Be the type of person they want to be around. Keep your sense of humor, a childlike sense of wonder. If you become the last man standing, they will never let you be lonely.
3. Mentor those who are in the generations behind you. To do this you must first develop friendships. (See number 2). When they realize you are past the point in life where you are trying to claw your way to the top, they will begin to avail themselves of the opportunity to learn from the voice of experience.

4. Give back to the country and the community that made your success possible. When it comes time to retire, don’t. Leave your paid position if you wish, but stay involved in the affairs of life. Place yourself in the public square, whether through volunteer work, or local politics, or even random acts of kindness.

I have saved for last what really should be close to first. You might have dedicated yourself to a life of giving regarding your friends. Before you do so, rededicate yourself to your family.


And then there is what should be first. With this everything you do will have deeper meaning and deeper impact.  While Ronald Reagan convalesced from the gunshot wound suffered just weeks after his inauguration, a clergyman offered that “the hand of God was upon you.” Reagan responded, “I know. I have decided what time I have left is for Him.” Go back and read the list again with Mr. Reagan’s thought in mind. Doesn’t it give them all more meaning. especially if you are the last man standing?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

In All Things Be Thankful

Considering all the negatively in the world, thankfulness can be hard to come by.  I am intrigued by Paul’s admonishment to “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:8 NIV).

Did he really mean “in all circumstances”, regardless of the pain, or the suffering, or the injustice brought upon us? Admittedly, this is a hard proposition to defend, but Paul did make similar statements elsewhere, even when he was in prison (Ephesians 5:20, Colossians 3:15-17, Philippians 4:6).

Personally, I can think of many circumstances when thankfulness was the farthest thing from my mind. Yet it is in such times that we need thankfulness the most.

In his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes a typical day in a Soviet Gulag. Understand that Mr. Solzhenitsyn spent many years of his life in such camps. In his novel he follows the character Shukov and the many frustrations this man faced. The book ends with Shukhov hitting his bunk. Here is what he is said to be thinking as he drifts into sleep:

“Shukov went to sleep, and he was very happy. He’d had a lot of luck today. They hadn’t put him in the cooler. The gang hadn’t been chased out of the Socialist Community Development. He’d finagled an extra bowl of mush at noon. The boss had gotten them good rates for their work. He’s felt good making that wall. They hadn’t found that piece of steel in the frisk. Caesar had paid him off in the evening. He’d bought some tobacco. And he’d gotten over that sickness. Nothing had spoiled the day, and it had almost been happy.”


I suggest forming a habit. Start a thankfulness list. Every day, before you start your day, find one thing to be thankful for. Write it in a journal. Every evening, look back on the day and remember something good that happened. Write that in your journal too. You’ll be surprised how your burdens will seem easier and how envy fades away. You might not be able to change the way the world is or how the world is treating you, but this little exercise can change your attitude even when you suffer from circumstances you can't control.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Misunderstood American

Americans have a penchant for not appreciating their heroes and giants until they are no longer on the scene. 

One famous American, while afforded a degree of respect these days, is still overlooked by many who have yet to understand the full depth of his intellect and world view.  Sadly, where he stood on the social issue closest to his heart is either misunderstood or bent by his presumed heirs.  I am going to quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s own words.  
“Some things are right and some things are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. Some things in this universe are absolute. The God of the universe has made it so. And so long as we adopt this relative attitude toward right and wrong, we're revolting against the very laws of God himself." 
“All I'm trying to say to you is that our world hinges on moral foundations. God has made it so. God has made the universe to be based on a moral law.  So long as man disobeys it he is revolting against God. That's what we need in the world today: people who will stand for right and goodness. It's not enough to know the intricacies of zoology and biology, but we must know the intricacies of law.” 
“We just became so involved in things that we forgot about God.  And that is the danger confronting us, my friends: that in a nation as ours where we stress mass production, and that's mighty important, where we have so many conveniences and luxuries and all of that, there is the danger that we will unconsciously forget about God. I'm not saying that these things aren't important; we need them, we need cars, we need money; all of that's important to live. But whenever they become substitutes for God, they become injurious.” 
“And I tell you this morning, my friends, the reason we have to solve this problem here in America: Because God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world.  Never before in the history of the world have so many racial groups and so many national backgrounds assembled together in one nation. And somehow if we can’t solve the problem in America the world can’t solve the problem, because America is the world in miniature and the world is America writ large. And God set us out with all of the opportunities.  He set us between two great oceans; made it possible for us to live with some of the great natural resources of the world. And there he gave us through the minds of our forefathers a great creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ 
“America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about ‘improved means to an unimproved end.’ How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.” 
“I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. … That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. They live by some such principle as this: ‘everybody is doing it, so it must be all right.’ For so many of you Morality is merely group consensus. In your modern sociological lingo, the mores are accepted as the right ways. You have unconsciously come to believe that right is discovered by taking a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. How many are giving their ultimate allegiance to this way?” 
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ This is a dream. It’s a great dream. … [T]hat dream goes on to say another thing that ultimately distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system in the world. It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state. In order to discover where they came from, it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity. They are God-given, gifts from His hands. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us, and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day, that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.”

I would think that many Americans would be surprised to learn that the above words were spoken from the pulpit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   We can’t know what he would think of those who expropriate his name while ignoring his message, but it is curious indeed that today his stand on natural law would disqualify him from serving on the federal bench. It should also be a reminder not to believe the propaganda we are often fed about history and public figures. 

For more words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Stanford University’s research project at www.stanford.edu/group/King.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Much of the world was shocked over the mass murders of ten employees of Charlie Hebdo and of two Paris police officers who came to their defense.  Shock is understandable, as is the anger and defiance that has followed in its wake. None of this is misplaced, but such attacks should not surprise anyone given the current state of the world. Multiply the loss of twelve lives by a hundred, maybe even a thousand or ten thousand, and you will get a true perspective of the genocide taking place today in the name of ideology and false religion.

Egregious persecution against those whose perspectives and convictions differ from that of the “true believers” are shaking not just Paris and other cultural hubs, but also remote areas of the planet with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Often these persecutions are against Christians, such as the tribulation among believers in North Korea who fail to worship the country’s “Dear Leader”, or those in Nigeria who follow a different religion than that of Boko Haram, or victims of the Islamic State. For whatever reason such atrocities have not grabbed the media limelight in the same way that Charlie Hebdo has.

Maybe the issue here is the courageous defiance the publication exhibited in its defense of free speech even in the face of death threats. As Hebdo’s Stephane Charbonniere once said, “I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees." Regardless of one’s ideology, whether political or religious, we afford a certain respect to those who are willing to stand on principle. We respect them because they do stand in defiance of threats. As the quote says, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

If this willingness to stand with those whom we disagree is because of our common belief in liberty, then we will all have made some welcome progress toward the restoration of civility in our culture. But that of itself won’t end the war some are waging against the politically incorrect.

Think for a second of the uncountable multitudes who this day are being harassed and murdered in grizzly fashion for daring to hold their Christian faith. Think of those who are risking their lives daily for daring to have a Bible or even a portion of the Bible in their possession. Think about the Christian Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram and sold as sex slaves to appease a warped ideology. If you live in a free land, be thankful that your life is not in danger if you call Jesus your Lord and Savior.

Yet with all of that, there are those in this country who are slowly and systematically attempting to limit and silence the voices of the faithful, especially if those voices challenge the prevailing political correctness. Surely such pressure pales against the threat of beheadings with a dull knife, but the desire to stifle dialogue and freedom is of the same spirit.

Consider Vanderbilt University derecognizing a Christian student group because the group insists that its officers must be Christian.

Consider the judge in Idaho who effectively shut down  a wedding chapel because the Christian ministers who operated it would only perform weddings between a man and a woman.

Consider the federal government attempting to force Christian business owners to pay for abortion coverage for their employees, in a clear violation of conscience.

Consider the Florida schoolteacher who publicly embarrassed a twelve-year old for reading a Bible during free reading time.

While none of these rise to the level of beheadings and bullets to the back of the head, they do seem to indicate a growing climate of intolerance. They will tell you it’s okay to believe whatever you want and follow any liturgical formula you choose, but they insist that it stay within a church building. Believe what you will, but don’t try to live your faith while in the public square.  Will we in the face of public pressure be crushed into silence, embarrassment, and apathy?

Strike a blow for liberty. Exercise your Constitutional and natural rights even in the face of pressure to voluntarily relinquish them. Stand beside those with whom you disagree and defend their right to be wrong. Stand on your feet with Charlie Hebdo so you won’t have to live on your knees.