RECOMMENDING THE SEA

RECOMMENDING THE SEA

Turmoil. Grief. Anxiety. Are you acquainted with any of these? Of course, you are, especially during this pandemic. How do you soothe them? Where do you find solace? Allow me to recommend the sea.

Few things soothe my soul like the sea. Visiting the shore is an opportunity to engage with God through the majesty of his creation on a level that is difficult to achieve in a neighborhood crowded with houses. The sea’s voice is unmatched by any other except possibly the sky – but that is an article for another day.

Standing on the shore, facing out to sea feet planted inches from the breaking waves with the world of men behind and nothing but sun, sky, and water before, the disrupted parts of your soul begin to settle.

I think I know why. See if you agree.

The sea is expansive. It speaks of the omnipresence of God, massive, immense, all-encompassing, filling the field of view until it disappears over the horizon. The largest ships look like tiny toys across the distant waves.

The sea tells us nothing is too big for God. Nothing happens that is outside of his perception. Nothing happens in our life that is beyond his field of view.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast. [1]

The sea is constant, ever-moving yet never moved. It speaks of the unchanging God. The shore is never silent. Even on dead calm days, the quiet lapping of water on sand or rock is present. It is unchallengeable, indisputable, unchanging. On stormy days it reminds us of our storm-tossed lives. But even then, it does not change. The waves gather and curl and crash into each other and finally spill themselves onto the sand to instantly disappear, their fury spent, their conflict gone. So too our lives but the sea, the life upon which all others depend, lives on.

God is constant. God does not change. Our lives toss about, curling and crashing into one another, spending our energies in furious conflict. And then they are gone, the fury spent, the battle finished. But God remains.

The sea is mighty, often challenged, but never conquered. You can feel it, standing there at the top of the tide. Your visceral senses tell you, “this thing can go where it wants and take you along with it.” When sun and sea, pressure, and temperature meet in perfect hurricane pitch, nothing can stand in its way. Only God is more powerful. He marks the boundaries of the sea. It travels not one inch further than his will. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. (Ps 33:7 NIV)

The sea is majestic. It speaks of the omnipotent God. Nothing he has called us to do is beyond his power to help. Without his permission, nothing can reach past the boundaries he places around our lives.

The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea– the LORD on high is mighty. (Ps. 93:3-4 NIV)

Turmoil, grief, anxiety, make a longer list if you want. I recommend the sea. Nothing is too big for God. Nothing changes God. Nothing is too powerful for God.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 139:7–10). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

MAKE EVERY EFFORT

MAKE EVERY EFFORT

 

This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.

For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence, which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.

We can repay the debt which we owe to our God, to our dead and to our children only by work—by ceaseless devotion to the responsibilities which lie ahead of us. If I could give you a single watchword for the coming months, that word is—work, work, and more work.

Those words, spoken by President Harry S. Truman, 75 years ago this week, opened his speech marking VE Day. If that last line sounds gloomy, remember, the whole world needed rebuilding, and the Japanese had not yet surrendered. The task was huge, but America met the challenge.

Just as Americans met the challenge back then, we need to meet the challenge of resuming normal life now. We have work to do. The virus is not yet wholly defeated, and much requires rebuilding. It also means that no matter what we think about the coronavirus and our various responses, we must preserve our unity.

I’ve been thinking hard about this, as we consider exactly how and when to re-open our church building and resume regular worship. Ephesians 4:1-3 primarily occupied my mind.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.[1]

“Make every effort,” sounds like Harry Truman’s exhortation, does it not?  Here’s a breakdown of what it will take to meet the challenge of maintaining our unity as we resume communal worship.

First, practice humility, the art of seeing ourselves as we are, not as higher or more important than others, but not as everyone’s doormat either. It just means, “Wake up and smell the coffee: the world doesn’t revolve around you.”

Second, practice gentleness. Meekness is the old word. An often-misunderstood concept, meekness is not “weakness,” not “milk-toast-ness.” It is not a lack of confidence or living in constant fear of hurting someone’s feelings. It is strength under control. It is the picture of a powerful horse responding to the merest nudge of his master’s knee.

I was born into a home with a big yellow tomcat named Amenhotep, “Teppy” for short. My parents bought the cat for my older brother, who was born six feet tall and 200 pounds so that he could learn how to be gentle with me.

Some of us are stronger than others. Be gentle with each other.

Third, practice patience.

A young father in a supermarket was pushing a shopping cart with his little son, who was strapped in the front. The little boy was fussing, irritable, and crying. The other shoppers gave the pair a wide berth because the child would pull cans off the shelf and throw them out of the cart. The father seemed to be very calm; as he continued down each aisle, he murmured gently: “Easy now, Donald. Keep calm, Donald. Steady, boy. It’s all right, Donald.”

A mother who was passing by was much impressed by this young father’s solicitous attitude. She said, “You certainly know how to talk to an upset child—quietly and gently.”

And then bending down to the little boy, she said, “What seems to be the trouble, Donald?”

“Oh no,” said the father. “He’s Henry. I’m Donald.”[2]

Patience is the ability to endure, putting up with things that make life a little complicated and just carrying on. Be patient with each other.

Fourth, forbearance. Patience emphasizes bearing up under a load; forbearance is about self-restraint, holding back from comments or actions which may be justifiable but ultimately undermine unity.

Everyone knows Winston Churchill, but not everyone remembers Lady Astor, the first female member of Parliament, who was also anti-Semitic and part of the appeasement crowd who opposed Churchill. The two were known for verbal jousting.

Astor is reported to have said, “If you were my husband, I would poison your tea,” to which Winston replied: “Madam if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

That might be fun, but it isn’t the way to maintain unity.

Forbearance practices courtesy, “the oil that lubricates the fine machinery of civilization.” It recognizes that each of us is a fragile, imperfect creature. Forbearance fuels unity.

“There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,”[3] wrote the apostle. Therefore, make every effort to keep that unity in the Spirit through the bond of peace.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Eph 4:1–3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] John Huffman, “The Fruit of the Spirit Is Patience,” PreachingToday.com

[3] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Eph 4:4–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

WHO DO YOU TRUST?

WHO DO YOU TRUST?

Years ago, preachers learned to do their work with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. If we are not connecting the sacred text to what is happening in the world, we aren’t doing our jobs. Now the internet, smartphones, and tablets substitute for physical newspapers, but the task is still the same. We need a steady stream of reliable reporting, relevant stories, and biblical worldview analysis of events to speak with any relevance.

But, as John Stonestreet recently wrote, “Information comes at us in waves, with conjecture in the place of facts and assertions in the place of arguments.” Who can we trust?

Last week’s blog, READING THE TIMES, explains how to sort the wheat from the chaff in our media. Today, I thought it would be helpful to recommend a few of the sources I count on each week to inform my sermons and this blog.

THE WORLD AND EVERYTHING IN IT is the daily news podcast from World News Group whose mission is biblically objective reporting. Often referred to as NPR from a Christian Worldview: Each weekday morning, enjoy daily radio news, interviews, commentary, and original features reported from the field. Today’s Washington Wednesday interview, Beijing Unmasked, with foreign policy analyst Will Inboden is a great example. Nine minutes with no commercial interruptions. You won’t get that in-depth on any evening news broadcast. Inboden served in the State Department and the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush. He’s now executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin.

I’m a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and have confidence in the integrity of their reporting. Find their main website at https://world.wng.org/ .

Breakpoint, the five-minute daily podcast from John Stonestreet and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, is not a news service because it does not provide original reporting. But it does offer daily biblical worldview analysis on all kinds of things in our world. Producing the consistent quality of analysis and biblical commentary they provide is not easy, but they do it daily. Their April 17 article, The Viral Pandemic of Distrust and Misinformation, is a great example. I highly recommend it.

Christianity Today, the magazine and media organization founded by Billy Graham, is also a reliable resource for reporting on things of concern to believers around the world. It sometimes lacks the stringent objectivity that Editor In Chief Marvin Olasky imposes on World. Still, they have a broader scope than World publish authors from a larger cross-section of the Church than World.

Other news and analysis sources I follow online include NPR, National Review, Foxnews.com, The Wall Street Journal, CBSNews.com, WDBJ7.com, and news.google.com, which aggregates news from several sources. These require much more scrutiny for fact-checking and editorial point of view but can be useful in gathering multiple perspectives.

“He who answers before listening, that is his folly and shame…The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out.” Proverbs 18:13 & 15.

READING THE TIMES: Separating Fact from Ideological Cheerleading

READING THE TIMES: Separating Fact from Ideological Cheerleading

If you enjoy Fixer-Upper as we do, you know that there is a formula for the popular TV show. A family-friendly couple is looking for an all-American home in Waco, Texas. They view three houses Chip & Jo have selected for them. Joanna wants to open the floor plan and remodel the kitchen, add crown molding, and of course, shiplap. Chip cuts up for Joanna’s entertainment. Demo Day! Half-way there and, oh no, there’s a problem! Last day and Joanna has to work late. Chip drops by with the kids. The big reveal!

It is enjoyable if you like that sort of thing, but it is not real. It’s scripted. It follows a specific narrative arc or storyline every time. Viewers know what is going to happen; we just enjoy watching it unfold. Entertainment is the mission.

Entertainment is not, or should not be, the mission of a news organization. Still less propaganda: information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.[1] Reliable reporting follows the facts wherever they lead. Propaganda follows a predetermined narrative.

Discerning the difference between infotainment (entertainment masquerading as news), propaganda, and reliable reporting is a critical skill for every citizen, but especially Christians. God is the God of truth. His children are responsible for discerning it as well as spreading it, for making decisions based on it in the marketplace, on social media, and especially in the voting booth.

Here’s a brief how-to.

Watch for predictable storylines. All reporters begin with a theme, a unifying idea that guides their questions and structures their stories. But when facts fail to support it, the theme must change. Truth-telling reporters will do that. But dishonest reporters force the facts to fit the theme, magnifying those that do and minimizing or else ignoring those that do not.

Example: When every weather story somehow supports man-made Climate Change theory, you may be seeing propaganda. When every review of a press conference makes your favorite politician out to be a genius, you may be hearing propaganda. When every story you see about unwanted pregnancy centers on women’s health, ignoring the rights of the child, you are watching a narrative as predictable as Fixer Upper, but with reliably deadly consequences.

Watch for generalities, the glossing over of inconvenient facts. Reliable reporting uses concrete detail, specific examples, and defining quotations from qualified experts willing to go on the record. When you read, “some experts say,” or “studies show,” you are reading generalities. If the topic interests you, dig deeper before you share it online.

Watch for something for sale. Most magazine reporting, especially in special interest mags and online sites, is just long-form advertising. Much Christian magazine reporting does the same thing, except that instead of selling a product, it is selling a ministry. Ministry Watch Magazine and World Magazine are exceptions. Search their archives on a ministry before you buy-in.

Watch for alternate worldviews. Journalists striving for objectivity should cite several different sources to support a theme. But if those experts share the same worldview, they are only “balancing subjectivities.”[2] Reliable reporting seeks out several perspectives.

Watch for commentary masquerading as journalism. Conservative commentator Cal Thomas got it right in his January 24, 2019 analysis of media coverage of women newly elected to Congress:

“Especially in the Trump era, media have displayed increasingly naked ideological cheerleading. Any fair examination of major newspapers—from the front page, to the editorial and op-ed pages—proves the point.

If there’s any hope of getting out of the political mess we’re in, journalism must return to a focus on facts, not fanfare.”

And Christians must learn how to discern the difference.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Dictionary.com

[2] Marvin Olasky’s term.

 

 

RISEN: A Day Without Death

RISEN: A Day Without Death

At the end of Act I in the 2016 film, Risen, a cynical Pilate probes his Tribune, Clavius, “Your ambition is noticed. Where do you hope it will lead?”

“Rome. Position. Power,” says Clavius.

“Which brings?”

“Wealth, a good family, someday a place in the country.”

“Where you will find?”

“An end to travail. A day without death.”

But death reigns in Risen, as an ever-present element in the Roman Tribune’s life. He is either delivering it, mourning it, trying to prove it, or outrun it as the film unfolds. I think that’s what makes it my new favorite Easter movie. It does not shrink from the stark reality of death and the impossibility of escaping it.

Risen follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics, it is a good story well told.

Joseph Fiennes (Luther 2003, On Wings of Eagles 2016) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, the Roman Tribune charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) with insuring that Jesus stays dead, the Sanhedrin remains mollified, the mob remains pacified. And Caesar stays in the dark about all of it. The cinematography is excellent. The plot is believable, the film is well-paced, and even though special effects got the shallow end of the budget pool, the script and the acting more than made up for it. Pilate’s cynicism is palpable, but not overdone, as he and Clavius play a high-stakes game of political chess with the equally cynical High Priest. We come away reminded of how quickly truth goes by the boards as the players manipulate the message in a never-ending battle to shape public opinion.

Risen does have several historical flaws and anachronisms. Except for the High Priest once a year during the Yom Kippur ceremony in the temple, Jews would never speak the name, Yahweh. Mary Magdalene appears as a redeemed prostitute, another commonly made historical error. And those concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just before the ascension. But these are minor problems, offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar.

Far more important, however, and ultimately more moving than any of these things is Fiennes’ Clavius. He is utterly convincing as a man’s man intimately acquainted with the brutal parts of life on a fallen planet. The moment he catches the disciples in the upper room is worth the price of the film. It’s the most compelling portrayal of a cynical man’s encounter with the risen Christ I’ve ever seen. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”

Rx For Anxiety

Rx For Anxiety

ANXIETY, I am not immune to it. I doubt you are either, especially now in coronavirus times. Yet something Jesus said just before his crucifixion reminds me that we have a choice about our anxieties.

The Apostle John described the scene for us in chapters thirteen and fourteen of his gospel. Jesus, already in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, was in the upper room with his closest followers, his twelve, hand-picked men. There was a price on his head. He washed their feet, shared the bread and the cup, and, most notably, predicts his betrayal. All were aghast. All were frightened. They were well aware of the threat they were under, the risks they were running by being in Jerusalem. Their anxiety was intense.

Into this fractious moment, Jesus spoke some of his most familiar words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). Then he repeated them near the end of his talk, just before they left the upper room, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27).

The first three words of each line tell us something about ourselves that can be hard to believe: We have a choice about our anxieties. Jesus’ two “Do not let(s)…” make an emphatic statement about our ability to choose fear or faith.

The physiological fact is that we can worry ourselves sick.

Psychiatrists have reliable evidence that the more we worry, the more we fixate on some fearful thing over which we have no control, the more likely we are to push our brain chemistry out of balance. Once the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, nor-epinephrine and, others get off-kilter, it can be tough to return them to an even keel. In some cases, medications are necessary to help restore the balance. But for most of us, medicine is a temporary fix. If we don’t address the underlying habit of fear in the first place, the imbalance is likely to reoccur.

Jesus has a prescription for preventing such brain disorders. “Do not let” it happen. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust God (instead). Trust me (instead).” Do not choose to worry, and it cannot enslave your mind. Choose to trust God, and he will set it free.

Easier said than done? Yes, certainly. But it is possible. Let me offer a couple of practical steps to help. Call it Rx for Anxiety.

First, it may be necessary to confess that we’ve allowed the source of our worry (can you say coronavirus?) to become more powerful than God, more important to our wellbeing than Christ. That’s idolatry. Only confession and repentance can defeat it. “Father, thing A or thing B is occupying front and center in my life. That’s your place. I now repent of that and confess that you are God and nothing else. I confess that I am not in control.”

Second, remembering that physical expressions of worship often help us deal with difficult emotions, take a step of faith. Take that thing over which you have no control (which includes most of life, does it not?), write it down on a piece of paper, and in the act of worship offer it up to God. Then set it on fire.

Some things are more challenging to offer up like this than others. Some may require a daily offering for a while. But make it a habit with all of your worries, and peace will become your companion.

We have a choice about what to do with our anxieties. As you think about all that Christ accomplished for us during his Passion this week, choose trust.

THIS IS OUR TIME

THIS IS OUR TIME

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, hobbit hero Frodo Baggins carries a ring of great power and evil, a ring that he and he alone can destroy in the fires of Mount Doom. Depressed by the burden he carries and the evil times, he confides to his wizard friend, Gandalf:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

Tolkien was a veteran of WWI that killed 20 million and wounded 21 million, as well as the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that killed 50 million worldwide, as well as the Great Depression, and the polio epidemic that paralyzed tens of thousands. He knew a thing or two about bad times and wove what he knew about how to endure them into his stories.

The Lord of the Rings is full of perseverance and faith against all the odds.

In August of 1940, 25-30 divisions of crack Wehrmacht infantry (over 300,000 soldiers) stood poised along the coast of France. They were waiting for Reich Marshal Herman Goering’s vaunted Luftwaffe to wipe the Royal Air Force from the sky and open the English Channel for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain, to launch. The Germans had a three-to-one advantage in warplanes when the Battle of Britain began that July and had subdued all Western Europe in less than a year. Everyone expected them to win. Everyone that is, except Winston Churchill and the millions of British who believed him when he said, “We shall never surrender!” Londoner’s sheltered in basements, bunkers, and the subway, as the Blitz rained bombs on their city. Nazi planes indiscriminately wrecked churches, hospitals, and businesses destroyed 60% of London’s homes, wounded 87,000, and killed 32,000 people. Victims overwhelmed the hospitals, and no one knew who would “get it” next.

But by the end of October, Hitler was withdrawing his invasion force from the French coast, and canceling Operation Sea Lion.

The story of Great Britain’s ultimate victory overflows with perseverance and faith.

I take great courage from these stories of our collective past because the ultimate source of their strength was the same hope we share in a good God. He loves us no less than our ancestors and, if we ask him, will give us the strength and bravery to “keep calm and carry on,” as Londoners’ did during the Blitz, and as all God’s people are called to do in a crisis.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4.

Every generation faces tests. The Corona virus is our time to meet the fury of a fallen planet with faith and perseverance.

So, look out for your loved ones. Ignore the fear mongers. Follow the instructions of our healthcare professionals. Trust God. “Keep calm and carry on.”  And if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a great time to watch The Lord of the Rings