Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Shoe that Went Fast – In My Mind

There we are running from the back of the house up the hill in our backyard; when we reach the top we look down; not at the bottom of the hill but at our shoes, our PF Flyers. Did we or didn’t we? Did we go faster or not?

How old was I? Six? Seven? Eight? However old I was my brother Bill was two years younger, I know that much. I guess he’s always been two-years younger and I guess he’ll always be two-years younger…unless one of two things happen which we won’t dwell on right now.

Did we or didn’t we? The advertisements said we’d go faster. Well, after all, we were running up hill. Let’s run down hill and see how they work. Down we went.

Same question – did we run faster than before running in PF Flyers? Suppose we didn’t? Then we’d been had; then we’d talked our parents into getting us something that didn’t work as advertised – should we tell them? Should we share our doubts with them? Should we even talk about it to each other? Maybe Bill ran faster and I didn’t? Maybe I didn’t know how to properly use them?

Vickie got a solicitation last week that looked like it came from the US Government, it’s the kind of thing you get when you get to be a certain age. If you’re young, or old, or poor, or are in financial straits the advertising people think it’s like shooting ducks whose feet have been frozen in a pond – the young and the old and the poor and those struggling financially don’t have a chance…unless they read the small print…but of course a lot of those folk can’t read the small print…like I said…ducks whose feet are frozen – bang! Bang! Bang!

This isn’t to say that the general adult population isn’t taken for a ride every time they watch an automobile commercial; it isn’t to say that general population doesn’t swallow every weight loss gimmick and wonder food and pill on the market – the difference is that you’ve got to spend a bit more on production costs with the general population – appeal to the ego, make it sexy, make ‘em want to be like the rich and the beautiful.

As I write this I have images of Wonder Bread from my childhood, the slogan went something like helps build strong bodies twelve ways; I’m not going to dignify the slogan by looking it up to check and see what it actually was. The point is that decades later the darn slogan is in my head – I guess they got a good return on investment, though I haven’t purchased Wonder Bread for years.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I wrote it down but I didn’t need to. As I looked at it on a Post-It Note I knew I need not have written it. I still took the note, putting it on the outside of my laptop computer; but I knew I didn’t need it. There are some numbers and letters I write down in case I forget them, I try to put them in places not obvious to others, but yet in places that I will remember in case I need them – of course sometimes when I need them I can’t find them even though I put them in a place that I would remember. Computer and security passwords are the classic ones in that category, and the systems that require you to change your password every so often are a challenge to me; but I knew I’d remember 518.

I’ve taken to using Greek when writing down passwords, if someone finds them and translates them more power to them, but it’s better than anything I’ve thought of so far; and let’s face it, the memory isn’t what it used to be. But 518, well 518 hit me when I heard it and I knew I need not have written it down.

Many of us will have our own 518 and most of us have no idea when we’ll have it; this is yet another example of why I’m glad I don’t have God’s foreknowledge. It’s hard enough to handle foreknowledge as a pet owner. I make an appointment for a dog to have surgery in two weeks and for two weeks I know about the surgery and the dog doesn’t. On the evening before the surgery the dog wonders why it didn’t get its evening treat, green beans in Lily and Lina’s case. On the morning of the surgery the dog wonders why it isn’t getting fed, have Mom and Dad forgotten? Is there no more puppy food in the house? What happened? When the dog and Dad and Mom get in the car the dog thinks it’s going for an outing (near as I can discern dog thoughts anyway). Even when we get to the vet’s the dog still doesn’t know that this isn’t the usual checkup. Nope – I can hardly handle what little bit of foreknowledge comes with being a pet owner – I’m right thankful I don’t have no more foreknowledge than what I have with my pets. It’s best that I don’t know about my own 518 or yours.

It strikes me that while most of us will have a 518, and that while all of us will have a place similar to 518 – whether outdoors or indoors – that we don’t think about it much; in fact most of us are on a quest of perpetual denial that there will ever be a 518 in our lives…or in the lives of those we love.

When I walked into 518 she was there, there with her husband and one of her daughters; two teenage granddaughters were stroking her arm. She was, as they say, “out of it”. She was my age, an age that looks younger all the time, an age that I actually enjoy. She was, however, heading for the exit door quicker than I am – though again you never know, and again I’m thankful I don’t have foreknowledge. She went through that door the following evening.

When I awoke the morning after her death one of my first thoughts was that this day will be my friend’s first day without his wife. He has never had a day like this and he’ll never have another day like this – this is the first day without his beloved. As a pastor I’m sure he’s had these same thoughts when walking with parishioners through times of separation, but now he’s the one waking up without a spouse, I hurt for him that morning and I hurt for him as I write this. Life is fragile and tomorrow it might be me or it might be Vickie; every day is precious…you just never know when on a certain date you’ll have your own 518.

That evening was not the last time my friend will see his wife for their marriage was rooted in Jesus Christ, their marriage drew its life from Jesus, and Jesus tells us that if we are in relationship with Him that we’ll never taste death. This isn’t hopeful thinking or denial or pie-in-the-sky smoke and mirrors. The longer I live the clearer I see that the eternal is real, that there is good and evil, love and wickedness; and that the things that really matter ought to be the things that matter – everything else is grownups playing with toys – whether those toys are boats or houses or corporate or political positions; just as children play as if they are adults, adults play as if they are God. Uncle Sam’s dollars are the same as Milton Bradley’s Monopoly money, it all goes back in the box when the game is over – what doesn’t go back in the box is the way we’ve lived our lives.

518; I really didn’t need to write it down.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Atonement and Mark Twain

I’ve been reading Philip McFarland’s, Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century. Apart from some contemporary and unnecessary political and social commentary by the author (did he write the book for this reason?) and some redundancy - McFarland repeats things in chapters previously covered in earlier chapters (do we all have short-tem memory loss?) I’ve enjoyed the book. For one thing, I’ve gained some insight into why Clemens was so cynical toward Christianity, something I may explore in a future post, but what I’ve been pondering for the past few days is Clemens’s life-long struggle with guilt over real and imagined sins. From feeling responsible for the death of a younger brother in a Mississippi riverboat explosion (which was not his fault), to regrets over his selfishness (real and imagined?) toward his wife and daughters, Clemens in some respects lived a tortured life – especially so in the last few years of his live after losing his eldest daughter and his wife, and then later losing yet another daughter just when his relationship with her was blossoming. Self reproach and guilt were his responses to losing the first daughter and then his wife, a deadening of conscience via naturalistic rationalization was his remedy when the second daughter died.

As I pondered Clemens’s guilt the words of David in Psalm 32 came to mind: How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity and in whose spirit there is no deceit!...I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, I will confess my transgressions to the LORD; and You forgave the guilt of my sin.”

What do we do with guilt? We can deny it. We can deaden it. We can justify our actions. We can medicate it through any number of actions that serve to divert our attention or alter our consciousness. Or we can acknowledge our sin to God and seek His forgiveness. Anything less than acknowledgement of our sin to God and seeking His forgiveness is to live the delusion that we are the arbiters and judges of our own lives, that we actually have control over our destiny. It is my assessment of my own life, as well as my observations of the state of humanity, which confirms the futility of living with an acknowledgment that many actions of my own life have been wrong, many words hurtful, and many opportunities for doing good left undone – and living with the guilt and remorse that properly attends this acknowledgement. Such a life is futile and can only lead to despair, or to denial, or to behavior that deadens and medicates the guilt. David, in Psalm 32, writes of the only healing and assurance and relief to be found in the vortex of guilt, remorse, and despair – the forgiveness of God found in Jesus Christ. As John writes in his first letter: If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Men and women need not live with guilt for Jesus Christ loves us all so much that He came to give His life for us so that we can receive God’s forgiveness and live in peace with God, with ourselves, and with each other. I’m reminded of Paul’s words: Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…

It is also a delusion to think that if our good works outweigh our bad works that somehow the good works cover the bad works, the bad actions – this is impossible – for we are talking about sin, about transgressions of the Law of God, the moral and ethical law which He placed in the universe. Murder is murder before the court and is judged as murder without regard to whether the defendant has kept all the other laws of the land throughout his life; a theft is a theft and whether I have given many other things away to others in my life does not lessen the act and fact of my theft. The murder stands alone, the theft stands alone, the adultery stands alone, the hoarding of money and goods and talents that would benefit others stands alone. When I stare the action, the undone deed that could have helped others, the thought, the motive, in the eye and do not deny what I see; when I examine my heart, my inner person under the spotlight of truth and do not deny what it reveals – then I know in my heart of hearts that no amount of good deeds can make atonement or wash away my sin – it simply can’t be done – what I’ve done I’ve done and there it is – whether others see it or not, whether others know of it or not it is there, written in the volume of my life. I am a fool to think otherwise.

Thank God for Jesus Christ who loves us and died for us and rose for us and comes again to us in His mercy and grace and forgiveness. How frail we are on our strongest days and how absurd to think that we are anything other than what we are – a race of people who are destined to die no matter what our technology may be; but thank God that those who are destined to die can also be destined to live in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ – that is hope and that is assurance when we surrender the delusion that we are masters of our destiny and trust ourselves to Jesus.

Clemens need not have lived in guilt over his narcissism, and he need not have sought relief from guilt and sorrow through the humanistic rationalization that we are the products of time plus matter plus chance and that the world, at its heart, is materialistic and deterministic. Jesus was there for Mark Twain all of the time, but now Mark Twain has no more time.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Toll Plazas

Have you ever approached a toll plaza with long lines of cars at some toll booths when there are other booths that are open but either have no cars or only a car or two in their lanes? I see this often – it used to surprise me, it doesn’t anymore. It is an example of the way we live – we follow the line of cars and assume the other options aren’t good options.

The toll booth of life that most people line up at isn’t one that leads to life – yet people keep pulling in line.

I was talking to a coworker about a pretty nasty and pornographic book that is popular these days, she has a copy and is going to read it – others I know are reading it. I asked her, “Why read something that you’ve told me is nasty? Why do people do that?”

She responded, “That’s a good question.”

I don’t know if she’ll pull out of the line at the toll plaza that she’s in, but maybe she’ll think about it and direct her car elsewhere.

I ponder the hate-filled rhetoric displayed by professing Christians toward those with whom they disagree – and I wonder why they are in line at that toll booth. That is not the toll booth of Jesus Christ, that is not a way that He goes. I think about the energy that is consumed while driving through the toll booth of vitriol and disrespect – why? It is because there is a long line at that toll booth and we go with the momentum. The speed at which people arrive at the toll plaza is such that the natural inclination is to go with the flow – no matter where the flow leads.

We cannot love and hate at the same time, we cannot be reverent to God and irreverent to others at the same time. We only have so much energy to expend each day, only so many thoughts, only so many words, only so many actions – we deceive ourselves if we think we can engage in hate and vitriol with impunity, without it soiling our minds and hearts, without it soiling our souls. This is not rocket science, this is just common sense – it is also Biblical.

If I have a glass of pure spring water and I put dirt into it I then have impure water. If I have a glass of impure water and put pure spring water into it I still have impure water.

The difference between a natural toll plaza and the toll plaza of life is that in a natural toll plaza no matter which toll booth you choose you’ll come out at the same place; in the toll plaza of life that is not the case – the choices we make determine our destinies – not all toll booths lead to the same place.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Do You Go Outside the Zone?

Tomas Lopez, who up until a few days ago was a lifeguard in Florida, was fired because he went outside his company defined “zone” to save a man’s life. News reports indicate that he wasn’t the first employee this firm has fired for violating this policy and that Lopez knew he risked being fired when he responded to a plea to help the swimmer in distress. Also according to news reports, when other lifeguards heard over their radios what Tomas was doing they knew that he’d be fired for the action.

While his firing is amazing, and while we may think that what he did is common sense and compassionate and responsible and selfless – how many times do we go outside prescribed zones to share the life of Jesus Christ with others? How many times do we rationalize away opportunities to share the Good News of Jesus?

If we say, “Well, I don’t really encounter life and death situations,” then what does that indicate about whether we truly believe that knowing Jesus Christ is of eternal importance?

God has made us all lifeguards.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The DNA of Independence Day


“Well Clive, here we are, another July 4th. How are you going to celebrate?”

“It’s so hot Clyde, I don’t think we’re doing much, probably staying at home after the parade. July 4th isn’t as simple as it used to be for me.”

“What do you mean it isn’t as simple? It still falls between the 3rd and 5th of July, they haven’t changed the date the way they have Memorial Day.”

“I mean that there is a tension in Independence Day for me. When I was growing up it was simple, we were an oppressed people and we fought for our freedom. When I was a young man it was still simple, the British weren’t treating us right, were taxing us without our consent, and when we protested they garrisoned Boston with soldiers and one thing led to another and “bang!” we had Lexington and Concord.

“But then a few years ago I got to thinking about our DNA, about the legacy of being a people who founded a nation by rebelling against a duly constituted government – and I was especially thinking about this from a Biblical point-of-view. Even when it comes to what is called “Just War Theory” I don’t recall taxation being ranked as a reason for war, not to mention rebellion.”

“Does this mean you aren’t going to the parade Clive?”

“No Clyde, it doesn’t mean that. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love this nation. It doesn’t mean that I’m not patriotic; I guess it does mean that I’m learning to read history through the lens of Romans 3:23: we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, all individuals have sinned and all peoples have sinned and all nations have sinned – and to white wash the history of my country is akin to white washing my own life, it is akin to pretending that I’ve never sinned – that is denial of the worst kind.”

“Can’t we just watch James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy and call it a day with the philosophy?”

“Now there’s a good point Clyde, why even the way the personal life of George M. Cohan is portrayed in the movie is far from the truth – but as long as it makes us feel good who cares? And I think the way we treat history can be like that, as long as it makes us feel good, or achieves some contemporary political end, who cares if it is the whole story?

“We are known for our individualism, but is that good? And is that the truth? As a professing follower of Jesus Christ I’m taught that while I have a personal relationship with God that I am to live out that personal relationship in community – I am not to live for myself but for God and others. And the individualism may have some myth to it in the sense that the average American doesn’t have as much control as he thinks he has in many respects, but that is a less important thing to me – the myth is what is important because it is part of our national consciousness, our DNA, and it informs the way many of us think about life –why even how Christians think about Christ and their own lives – they usually see themselves as in control rather than viewing themselves as slaves of Christ.”

“Clive, I haven’t even had my coffee yet and you’re throwing all this at me.”

“Sorry. But think about it; is taxation worth a war? Is taxation worth rebelling against duly constituted authority? Plus, it wasn’t as if the population thought revolution was the thing to do, it wasn’t even that 50 percent of the population agreed with the rebellion. Perhaps this was just one more civil war in the history of England, but this time it was fought away from the British Isles and its result was a new nation? And it wasn’t only the British government that was engaged in coercion prior to Lexington and Concord, the Sons of Liberty throughout the Colonies made life rough for agents of the Crown and those who expressed loyalty to England.”

“Are you sure you’re coming to the parade?”

“Yes I’m coming. Don’t get me wrong – I get teary when I think of the farmers gathering at Lexington and Concord, or the Continentals at Valley Forge, or think of Trenton in a cold December; and I can get sick when I think of the atrocities that Tarleton perpetrated on colonists. That’s one of the tensions of history – there is the personal thread of the story as well as the political thread, the philosophical thread, and the religious thread; and goodness knows there are more threads. But what I celebrate I must also ponder and critically consider – especially as a follower of Jesus Christ for my primary citizenship is in heaven.”

“Look Clive, I’ve got to get some coffee. Can we pick this back up at Panera?”

“Sure Clyde.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012



"You know, I've been thinking that while I don't know what civilization is supposed to be that I'm pretty sure that we're not as civilized as folks were a hundred or so years ago. In fact, I'd say we, meaning us folk in North America, aren't as civilized as people were two thousand years ago."

"What do you mean by that Clovis? Look at all the advances we've made in medicine and science and technology, look at electricity and the internet."

"Now that's just what I mean Cletus, the electricity and internet part especially. One of the headlines I read when the storm hit was, "Everything good is gone". The fella that said that was referring to Twitter and Netflix both being down. That's a sad state of affairs when Netflix and Twitter constitute everything good."

"Now that you say that Clovis I'm reminded of the family of a coworker of mine. Last fall when Hurricane Irene knocked out power to his neighborhood the kids had to play outside for a few days. He said it was pretty neat seeing teenagers and younger children outside, riding bikes and playing ball. Then one day the electricity came back on and one of the kids ran outside and yelled, "The power is back on!" With that the kids all ran into their respective homes to charge their smart phones and turn their computers on."

"Just consider this Cletus, last Monday a storm knocked out power to some folks in the Richmond area; then this past Friday another storm knocked out power to millions of people in a number of states, and then Saturday some more people got hit with another storm - more power knocked out. While there are some folks who try to do the best they can when the power is out, others get right mean, I mean MEAN, downright ugly - and the longer the power is out the meaner they get...and the meanness seems to infect others and spread like a fever; people get delirious with meanness.

"Now what would happen if the electricity stayed out three weeks, four weeks, five weeks? I'll tell you what would happen, we'd have anarchy fueled by meanness. And so I ask you Cletus, would people in 1850 have gone over the edge if electricity had gone out? Would people two thousand years ago have gone mean and crazy if the refrigerator stopped working because there wasn't electricity?"

"Clovis, you know good and well there weren't no electrical power back in them days."

"Yes sir, I know that; but I also know that people wouldn't have gone crazy and mean over a few severe storms. If those people could act somewhat civilized, realizing that I'm not entirely sure what the word civilized means, without electricity, why can't we act halfway decent without electricity?

"Cletus, the more I ponder it the more I'm convinced that the only thing that separates us from a rabid coon or fox is a functioning power line...and I'm just not sure that's what I'd call civilization."

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Fragrance of Heaven

A few weeks ago as we were walking through garden fragrances Vickie said, "This is what heaven will smell like." I was reminded of my wife's words today (July 1) when I read the following from Elizabeth Browning, the context is that Adam and Eve have been cast out of Eden, these words are from the Flower Spirits:

We linger, we linger,
The last of the the throng,
Like the tones of a singer
Who loves his own song.
We are spirit-aromas
Of blossom and bloom.
We call your thoughts home, - as
Ye breathe our perfume...

Heaven reveals itself in many ways; in our sense of Paradise Lost, in moments of beauty, in elusive joy, in a sense of longing for something more than the transitory...and in the fragrances of flowers.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Twins

The deer twins are still with us - amazing. It is has been a treat watching them survive as orphans. As the summer progresses and hunting season looms I can't help but wish that they would fear people, for their absence of fear may lead to their deaths if hunters come. I realize deer are animals and I don't mistake them for humans, but there is tension between that recognition and the care and stewardship of creation. Our present circumstances are imperfect and a time will come when: "They will neither hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea," Isaiah 11:9. (This is a passage where we read that the "wolf will dwell with the lamb"). The knowledge of the LORD teaches us peace and reconciliation, as James says, "The wisdom from above is first peaceable."

I'm also reminded of the enigmatic Romans 8:19, "For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God...that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God." I think that in some mysterious sense creation can have a better appreciation of the chaos and corruption of life, and of the hope of redemption, than the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. 

God must have delighted in the creation of animals; and how many kinds He made! 

This past week in our bird-feeding area I saw: Mr. Woodpecker at the suet feeding Mrs. Woodpecker; a hawk so thirsty that it alighted on the birdbath and stayed there some minutes, drinking its fill, looking for danger, and passing on an opportunity to pursue other birds; the black cat perched atop the squirrel feeder in the early morning, no doubt thinking no one would see him. Then there are the twins. Within a small piece of land Vickie and I witness the beauty of creation on a daily basis - the trees and flowers and shrubs and birds and chipmunks and squirrels and puppies and even the predatory black cat who hasn't learned to live peacefully. 

And I wonder what will be left for our grandchildren and, the Lord willing, our great grandchildren. When I read of the near extinction of so many animals it is as if we are on a butchering frenzy - not driven by the need for food as much as driven by money. But should this surprise us? Our sport is blood and violence, whether it is physical or rhetorical or violently emotionally and psychologically manipulative; sports talk shows are vitriolic, political talk shows are vitriolic, video games that kids play are vitriolic, sex is portrayed violently, much so-called preaching is vitriolic. Since we engage in forcing each other to do what we want it is little wonder we subject creation to our orgy of destruction.

We have become a nation and world of mobs; political mobs, religious mobs, sports mobs, corporate mobs, sexual mobs, entertainment mobs, economic mobs. We evaluate and judge each other based on which mobs we belong to; we have the conservative mob, the liberal mob, the Tea Party mob, the Christian Right mob, the Christian Left mob, the socialist mob, the capitalist mob...the list goes on and on. Children are taught which mobs are good and which mobs are bad; can any mob be good? Isn't this one of the things Paul and James address? (Paul in 1 Corinthians, James in his one NT letter). And mobs, all mobs, beget violence of one sort or another.

It is too bad the deer twins don't fear mankind; and it is far sadder that we don't fear ourselves.