JUXTAPOSITION

JUXTAPOSITION

Juxtaposition is the placing of two things side by side, especially for comparison or contrast. A sports car and a dump truck placed side by side are in juxtaposition. A Great Dane and kitten side by side are in juxtaposition. Advertisers use such images because they cause us to stop and take notice. But real-life juxtapositions are even more powerful. A Richmond Times article on former President Jimmy Carter showed the late Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin, former leaders of Egypt and Israel respectively, standing together in a peace accord brokered by Carter. It was and remains an unusual thing to witness. The juxtaposition of opposites has great power to reveal the essence of those opposites. It helps us see things we didn’t see before.

January 22nd always holds an unusual juxtaposition for me. Two things occurred on that day that, when seen side by side, clarify the meaning and purpose of my life. January 22nd is my mother’s birthday. (I’m not sure she’d want you to know the year, so I’ll leave you guessing). January 22nd is also the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in this country. Because of Mom’s birthday, I have a birthday. Because of Roe v. Wade, over 40 million children never did. World Magazine reports an estimated 862,320 American lives were lost to abortion in 2017 alone. I urge you to read their report in this month’s issue.

Think of it. With one stroke of a legal pen America lost many times more than all the people she lost in all her wars put together. Most of those wars were fought against oppression of one kind or another. They were fought to preserve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not only for our-selves, but also for other nations. I wonder sometimes, what would the men and women who fought to free us from English tyranny, Nazi oppression and Communist domination think of what we’ve done with our freedom?  What does God think?

The Lord Jesus liked juxtapositions. He said, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt. 17:20)

We need to remember that when we think of abortion. The size of the problem compared to our ability to fix it is downright laughable. But my Mom’s birthday and your Mom’s birthday have given us the opportunity to do some mustard seed living. Here are some practical things you can do. Support your local Crisis Pregnancy Center. We’ll be hearing from a representative of the Selah Center in Clarkesville in our worship service this week. They help young women make it through to a life-giving conclusion to their crisis. Write your Congressmen and Senators and tell them if you support restrictions on abortion. Become a Mentor/Role Model for an “at risk child.” These kids are more at risk for having abortions and other life-threatening choices. Encourage and vote for the streamlining of adoption laws. Vote for pro-life candidates in this year’s elections. Finally, pray, that all children will have the joy of celebrating their own birthdays, and their Mom’s.

A MESSAGE FOR WOUNDED MEN

A MESSAGE FOR WOUNDED MEN

Millions of men go through life with a jagged tear in their souls. They don’t know how it got there, and they don’t know how to fix it. All they know is that they are hurting, they are angry, and they are confused. If you are one of these men or if you know one, read on.

Jepthah[1] was a mighty warrior and a wounded man. His father was Gilead, and his mother was a prostitute. He was a loser times two, the fatherless son of a despised woman, and the sole reject from a band of brothers. Imagine opening the family scrapbook to find that you aren’t there. No one took Jepthah’s picture. No one recorded his wins on the field. No one kept his report cards in a special file. He learned early that his place was on the edge, edge of the camp, edge of the table, the edge of life. A man like that has no roots, no sense of who he is and why he is here.

One day his father died, and Jepthah’s last shred of protection died with him. His brothers cornered him in the camp: “Get out! You have no place here! You have no claim on Dad’s land or money. Get out, or we’ll kill you.”

Men, you don’t have to be illegitimate to feel like a Jepthah. You can grow up in a large family or as an only child and still never know the affirmation of a father or the acceptance of brothers. You can be surrounded by peers in a room full of people and totally alone, always on edge. You might grow up in a home with two parents and never connect with a father because he doesn’t know how to connect with you, or he’s too busy doing his own thing to figure out how important it is.

Men like Jepthah grow up desperate. Desperate for the love they cannot get, desperate for affirmation they’ve never received, and desperate for belonging they’ve never known. It has various effects. But two patterns stand out.

Sometimes, they become passive. Like a two-way radio never used to transmit, these men are stuck in emotional receiver mode. The passive man cannot give of himself from a position of strength. He finds it difficult to take charge and give direction to his life or anyone else’s. He may be extremely intelligent or incredibly talented, but he cannot harness it. He cannot channel it into anything positive.

Often, he becomes aggressive. He’s the hard man, the strong man, the bull-headed man with whom no one can negotiate. People either love him or hate him, but there is no middle ground. He’s always right because he learned as a child that he had to be right to survive. He won’t depend on anybody or take anyone else’s advice. He’s tough, determined, and opinionated and usually gets his way.

He may be married but doesn’t know how to enjoy marriage or make it enjoyable. He may have children that adore him, and he may love them, but he doesn’t know how to receive their love or return it. Such men are often warriors, but combat is all they know how to do.

Jepthah was like that. It made him a successful warrior, but it cost him his daughter in the end.

If you can identify with Jepthah, I have good news. Jesus came to give us the water of life that would heal our wounds and quench our thirst for love. He came to reconcile us to our Father in heaven and give us the ministry of reconciliation with others.[2]

If you want to know his love and healing, begin by praying this prayer: “Lord, let me see myself as you see me. Help me know how much you love me and understand my place in your family. Please heal the wound my father left in my soul. And help me learn new ways of relating to my wife, my children, and my friends.” It may take months. It may take years, as it did in my life, but I promise you that is a prayer God will answer.

[1] Read his story in Judges chapters 10-12.

[2] John 7:37-38; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19;

THEOLOGY OF ARMED DEFENSE The West Freeway Church Shooting

THEOLOGY OF ARMED DEFENSE The West Freeway Church Shooting

Most people live with one of two worldviews: one that matches reality or one that ignores it. We’re watching those two worldviews play out in daily debates about all kinds of things, including abortion, marriage, transgenderism, parenting, and in Virginia, the Second Amendment.  Watching the last press conference held by law enforcement the night of the West Freeway Church of Christ shooting was a refreshing dose of reality in our ongoing debate about gun ownership in America.

The Lieutenant Governor, the FBI Special Agent in Charge, the state Director of Public Safety, the town Police Chief, all concluded the same things:

  1. Violence can happen anywhere, at any time, usually when you least expect it.
  2. Law-enforcement cannot always arrive in time to prevent crime or death.
  3. Be prepared ahead of time.

Jack Wilson, the man who took down the shooter, was more succinct: “The events at West Freeway Church of Christ put me in a position that I would hope no one would have to be in, but evil exists, and I had to take out an active shooter in church.”

Mr. Wilson’s comment is completely in keeping with the Biblical worldview of violent evil and how to deal with it. But some of us still wonder if there might have been some other way. Here then, is a brief biblical theology of armed self-defense.

Violent evil will be with us until Christ returns.

From our point of view, violence is random. We never know when it is coming our way. Therefore, we must be prepared to meet it. The State is biblically responsible for protecting us from violence.[1] Texas did that when it passed laws enabling armed church security that took into account the fact that, even with improved response times, law enforcement can’t always get there.

Evil must be resisted, sometimes by force.

Many assume that Jesus’ only response to evil was passive acceptance. That is inaccurate, as well as inadequate. Jesus actively resisted all kinds of evil. He illustrated some of his teachings by referring to a “strong man, fully armed, guarding his own house,” and with a “King, preparing for battle,” without implying that there was anything wrong with the use of force in those moments. When asked by soldiers how to practice righteousness, he did not tell them to lay down their arms and resign their commissions. When preparing his men for his departure, he urged them to provide themselves with swords (Luke 22:36). He taught us not to take personal vengeance for a wrong committed against us. But by no means did he advocate acquiescence to violent, criminal, aggression. Turning the other cheek to a slap means absorbing a deeply personal insult without retaliation. It does not mean submitting to violent crime without a fight.

Every passive defense system can be compromised.

In WWII, France staked its security on the Maginot Line, a huge, expensive series of fortifications along its borders with Germany and Italy and fell to the superior mobility of the Wehrmacht in short order. The standard operating procedure with airline hijackers before 9/11 was negotiation, a passive defense. Now, many pilots fly armed, and negotiation isn’t part of the defense plan. Newtown school had a good system of passive defense that was diligently applied. But it was completely inadequate to the task.

Many people in our country believe that the best way to prevent more mass shootings is to disarm the public, to take guns away from all law-abiding citizens. That view ignores reality, embracing passive defense as the only defense. Criminals and the criminally insane will find weapons. The best defense against violent evil is an equally violent offense. Therefore, the best defense against the next mass shooter is a properly trained person equipped with adequate firepower to meet the threat.

[1] See Romans 13.

BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

In Ready or Not: The Return of Christmas, Maureen Jais-Mick wrote: “Society never actually wanted the Incarnation. Emmanuel, God-with-Us, does not sell computer games or cologne. Society wanted the cute stuff–rustic stable, adoring shepherds, fluffy sheep, cows, donkey, holy family, infant Jesus, gift-bearing kings, stars, angels, St. Nicholas, reindeer, fir trees, holly, and presents. The pagan stuff they will retain–even if they do dye the trees powder blue and decorate them with miniature hanging appliances and Disney ornaments…The marketplace will also retain some of the traditional hymnody, but in arrangements that remove them from the realm of traditional worship. Ancient chants are popular, too. They sound religious and profound and–best of all–nobody understands Latin, so no shoppers are offended.”[1]

I was reflecting on these things as I meditated on Mary’s song, recorded for us in Luke 1:46-55. I wondered, what would it be like if a young woman stood at the rail above Santa’s house at the mall and began singing, in a pure, clear voice, this song? What if the whole sound system went quiet right after Jingle Bell Rock and one voice stood out above all the rest with this little hymn?

I think stunned silence would follow. A few would lock on and quietly enjoy her song. But most would look away uncomfortably, shuffle their feet, or go on shopping because the singer would be doing something foreign to us. She wouldn’t be performing or entertaining. She would be worshiping. And true worship at Christmas is about as foreign to us as Elmer Fudd at Easter.

Christmas is thing centered. Worship is God-centered. Things leave hearts empty. God fills hearts with peace, and joy, and confidence. Worship is the thing we’re missing at Christmas. The lack of worship – personal worship – is what is leaving us so empty.   

Mary’s heart was full of God. Her song made eight references to the activity of God in her life and the life of Israel. God filled her mind, her heart, and her mouth.  That is worship. And that kind of worship does not come about by accident. Worship that enters the presence of God is worship that comes from a life consumed with his greatness.

Getting there requires a disciplined focus on God. But that kind of focus is difficult for 21st century Americans. We have too many distractions. Too many screens, songs, and sugary treats. Not enough silence, serious reflection, and self-denial. Those things may sound like Christmas downers, but they characterized Mary’s life and made her song possible. It is not unlike landing an airplane or sinking a difficult putt. Stay focused, and it’s a thing of beauty. Get distracted, and it gets ugly.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Jingle Bell Rock as well as anyone. But worship that arrives in the presence of God is the result of a mind that has made a habit of focusing on God – his goodness, his holiness, his power, his mercy, and deeds – to the exclusion of everything else. When you learn to sing Mary’s song, nothing else will quite measure up.

[1]    — (Cresset, Dec. 1995 ).  Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 14.

 

PRONE TO PONDER

PRONE TO PONDER

I am prone to ponder more than most men. Most of my sex—gender is sophistry I prefer not to use—are action-oriented, more likely to take up a task than contemplate its meaning. I’m just bent a little different. It’s probably a good thing, as pondering is a professional necessity for preachers. And it’s one thing I have in common with the mother of Jesus, who “gathered up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”[1]

The word translated “ponder” means meditate. The literal translation is to converse or confer with someone. So, Mary had a conversation with herself about the things that happened to her.

One of the best ways to prepare for Christmas is to do what Mary did, to ponder the imponderables. Let’s do that with her.

First, there was the angelic visit. Abraham received angelic visitors, Jacob wrestled with one, Moses heard the angel speak, Joshua saw an angel, Gideon too and David, and Elijah and Isaiah and Daniel.  Samson’s mother, the wife of Manoah, saw and spoke with an angel. All these people of great fame and impact in Israel had seen an angel and heard one speak. Now, Mary, too, had seen and heard one of the flaming messengers. And his word to her had come true. It wasn’t a dream.

She pondered this. And it was good.

Then there was the angelic description of her son: “You are to give him the name Jesus.” Names mean little to us, just labels we use to identify each other. Names meant much more in ancient times. They designated the character and calling of a person. They were as much prayers and prophecies as they were labels. For you to call your son, Jesus was to make his name a form of praise and testimony. For an angel to give your son the name, Jesus was to make a prophecy about his life.

Calling someone a son of God wasn’t completely unheard of in those days. Caesar was considered divine. Pharaoh was called divine. Antiochus, who conquered Israel between the testaments, adopted the name Epiphanes—”the god who reveals himself.” But the angel called Jesus, the “son of the Most High,” who is lifted far above all gods and men. He is also the heir to David’s throne, the eternal King, Messiah. He comes to be a nursing infant in a peasant girl’s arms.

Mary pondered long, meditating on the meaning of all these things. And they were good.

Where would you least like to spend Christmas? I would not want to spend it in Syria or Sudan or Venezuela or several other war-torn and poverty-stricken places right now.  But multiply the distance between here and there by 1,000 or 1,000,000, and you will not come close to the distance Jesus traveled and the deprivation he endured to become Emmanuel. Meditate on that, and you will find it good.

Finally, the supernatural conception: Every mother knows her baby is special. We often call the whole process of birth a miracle. It is wondrous and beautiful, but it isn’t miraculous. It’s part of our nature, the system God created. In Jesus, God bypassed the system. Mary knew her baby was more than special. Her baby truly was a miracle.

C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully on the incarnation. Read and ponder. “Jesus was conceived when God took off the glove of nature and touched Mary with his naked finger. Thus, Jesus did not evolve up and out of history.”

“In the Christian story, God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He had created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift; he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through the increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay, and then back up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting until suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover.”[2]

That dripping, precious thing is you, and I. Christmas is when we celebrate his coming down to us. Ponder all of that, and you will find it good.

[1] Luke 2:19

[2] The Joyful Christian, Readings from C. S. Lewis pgs. 54-55.

FRAILTY & HOPE

FRAILTY & HOPE

Samuel and Nathan showed up right after supper and deftly lifted the air conditioner out of its window in the breakfast room and carried it, like so much luggage, out to the porch where we store it for the winter. Then they followed me two flights to the attic and did the same with our boxed Christmas tree, dropping it off in the living room for us to set up later. Nothing to it for those young men. It took about ten minutes.

Something similar happened a few weeks ago when two other young men mowed my lawn and spread a thirty-pound bag of lime, nothing to it for those guys, but a watershed for me. For the first time in my life, I had to ask younger men to help me with simple household tasks. The reason—as most of you know because I’m such a whiner—is that two months ago, something called a sequestered disc fragment cozied up next to a significant nerve near my spine and put me out of action. And all I was doing was loading the dishwasher!

Frailty, thy name is back pain.

Of course, my discomfort is nothing compared to some of my friends and family with permanently damaged extremities, spinal stenosis, and even paralysis. My injury is not unusual for a guy approaching sixty who’s spent too much time in an office chair and not enough in the gym. I just grumble more.

On the positive side, it has made me much more conscious of human frailty, how much we take our strength for granted, and how fast we can lose it. Nothing will remind you of your temporary status on this earth like a body that no longer works right. It is humbling and frustrating.

The only thing frailer and more helpless than an almost senior citizen with an aggravated sciatic is a newborn baby. He cannot lift, bend over, walk, or even stand on his own; his muscles and neurological system not yet having learned to do those things. And that’s just one of the things that makes Advent so stunning. The Lord—the maker of heaven and earth, who spoke the stars into space and formed the spine that made the man an upright, walking creature—stooped down to become the thing that he created. To begin, as all humans do, the frailest of babies at his mother’s breast and end with his body broken. So helpless, he had to have another man carry his cross.

All this so that we may, wonder of wonders and hope beyond hope, exchange our broken bodies for ones that will never grow old.

If you find yourself facing frailty of any kind this Christmas, remember the baby in the manger who became the man on the cross and conquered death for us all. Put your hope in him and never let weaknesses steal your joy or rob you of your purpose. Even with an injury, you still have a life to live and contributions to make.

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter, October 3, 1930 – November 14, 2019

“I’m a good ole boy and my Momma loves me, but she can’t understand why they keep showin’ my hands and not my face on TV.”

Waylon Jennings was so well known on the Country Music scene that by the time he played Good Ole Boy for the 1979 redneck sitcom, The Dukes of Hazard, everyone who heard the verse knew who was singing it. Waylon’s face never appeared, only his jeans, cowboy shirt and leather vest framing his fingers picking his signature white and black Fender Telecaster. It was an inside joke. But we understood. Waylon was already famous as an “outlaw” country singer. We didn’t need to see his face. We could recognize the sound of his guitar and that coal mine deep baritone anywhere.

About the same time that Waylon and the Duke Brothers were hitting their stride the hands of another musician of a totally different stripe began appearing regularly on television. In Touch, the television ministry of Dr. Charles Stanley began airing nationwide in the early eighties. In those days part of the signature opening sequence for the program was a shot of a pair of skilled hands caressing the ivory white keys of a black grand piano. The viewer never saw the musician’s face and very few people ever knew her name but those of us who were members of First Baptist Church of Atlanta back then didn’t need to. We recognized the hands and knew the signature sound of one of the most talented and dedicated servants to ever play a hymn. We used to sing her that verse of Waylon’s song during rehearsals just to kid her.

Her name is Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter. For twenty-two years she caressed the keys for countless rehearsals, worship services, weddings, funerals, church theatrical productions and traveling choirs as part of the ministry of First Baptist Church of Atlanta. That’s when I met her and more importantly, met her daughter who became my wife. But that doesn’t even make up half of her time in service to the King at the keyboard.

Bee began playing for the church when she was ten years old. She went on to major in organ music at Ohio State University. The week after my wife was born, she was back at the keys with the baby in nursery. She was pianist every summer for about 40 years at Camp Barakel in northern Michigan. And, as of 2016, when she played for her last church in Kennesaw, GA, she had been at her post in some church or ministry, almost every Sunday and many nights in between, for seventy-five years.

The Apostle Paul wrote the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”[1]

Watching her practice, even well up into her 70’s when she probably could have winged and gotten by, one knew that Bee took that to heart. She said she always heard the words in her head when she played, worshiping with the congregation as she gave them the tune and followed without fail the conductor’s tempo. Those of us she accompanied loved to sing when she played because she always made us look good.

So, if you ever get discouraged and wonder if anyone will ever appreciate your work for the Kingdom of God, take a little lesson from my mother-in-law Bee who went home to be with the Lord last week. Very few people on earth will ever know her name. And no one will see her face on TV. But she is enjoying her inheritance in the presence of her King.

[1] Col. 3:23-24