After 12/7/2011, this blog will no longer be updated, although content will remain. Please visit my new blog at Hidden Latitudes.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Christians are the best--and worse--argument for faith

The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness.  But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians--when they are sombre and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.  But, though it is just to condemn some Christians for these things, perhaps, after all, it is not just, though every easy, to condemn Christianity itself for them.  Indeed, there are impressive indications that the positive quality of joy is in Christianity--and possibly nowhere else. If that were certain, it would be proof of a very high order.
Sheldon VanAuken, professor, poet and writer, in Encounter with Light.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Elie Wiesel on Jerusalem

   For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture — and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem. To many theologians, is IS Jewish history, to many poets, a source of inspiration. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem. Its sadness and joy are part of our collective memory.
   Today , for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.
   What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps which allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atomosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?
Elie Wiesel, quoted by Jennifer Rubin at Commentary.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Buechner on grace

After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody's much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.
   Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There is no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
   A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
   A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do.
   The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you.. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you.
   There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace is yours only if you reach out and take it.
   Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
Frederick Buechner, from Wishful Thinking, a Seeker's ABC.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Merton on Mercy and Worthiness

   In the true Christian vision of God's love, the idea of worthiness loses its significance. Revelation of the mercy of God makes the whole problem of worthiness something almost laughable; the discovery that worthiness is of no special consequence (since no one could ever, by himself, be strictly worthy to be loved with such a love) is a true liberation of the spirit. And until this discovery is made, until this liberation has been brought about by the divine mercy, man is imprisoned in hate.

   Humanistic love will not serve. As long as we believe that we hate no one, that we are merciful, that we are kind by our very nature, we deceive ourselves; our hatred is merely smoldering under the gray ashes of complacent optimism. We are apparently at peace with everyone because we think we are worthy. That is to say we have lost the capacity to face the question of unworthiness at all. But when we are delivered by the mercy of God the question no longer has a meaning.
   Hatred tries to cure disunion by annihilating those who are not united with us. It seeks peace by the elimination of everybody else but ourselves.
  But love, by its acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds.
Thomas Merton, in A Thomas Merton Reader

Monday, April 05, 2010

An amazing choir

A choral work performed by over 200 singers, each sitting at their own computer.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The real point of Easter

   The logic, for want of a better term, of Christ dying for our sins is lost on most unbelievers for several reasons. One, they do not see themselves as sinful enough to warrant a sacrifice on their behalf. Two, they cannot fathom why Jesus dying counts, or what it counts for. And they refuse to use the word sacrifice accurately.

In Romans 5, Paul tells us this: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—“ (v. 12). Paul is making a fundamental statement: everyone is a sinner. It wasn’t a new idea; King David said in Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” This concept of Original Sin (the belief that Adam’s original sin has been passed down to all his offspring, i.e., you and me) has a strong Biblical basis, as well as a practically observable one. G. K. Chesterton once remarked: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” You may have trouble with it emotionally, and even cognitively, but if you have lived past the age of two, when you first told your parents “No!” then you have your own sin, and the point is moot.

This pervasiveness and egalitarianism of sin not only escapes modern man; it sometimes even escapes modern Christianity. Think of it this way: Next time someone asks you what your church is like, tell them it is a wonderful community made up of murderers, adulterers and thieves. Strong words but true. Most likely, the differences between me and Ted Haggard, the recent president of the National Association of Evangelicals who had to step down because of sexual impropriety, are more ones of action than attitude. As C. S. Lewis discovered, “For the first time I examined myself with a serious practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.” He perfectly describes what faces those earnestly seeking forgiveness and restoration:

“When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor…. Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in…dismay.”

This is our dilemma. Sin has destroyed our relationships with one another, our relationship with the natural world, our relationship with ourselves and, most importantly, our relationship with God. I find it curious that most, if not all, of the humanitarian programs and activist groups around the world, from Greenpeace to the Red Cross and even the PTA, are all seeking to heal these fractures. Yet all but a few ignore the root cause. And the thing to remember is it isn’t whether we feel guilty or not: we are guilty. Is there a remedy, a relief from this hopelessness and helplessness?

A few verses later in Romans 5, Paul gives us the answer:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. (vs. 18-21).

Most of us know and believe this: that Jesus died on the cross, taking our sin guiltiness with Him, and healed the separation between God and man. And hopefully, that healing leads to other healings—within us between our spirits and our bodies and minds; between husbands and wives, parents and children, one nation and another; even between man and the environment.

But here is where I think many believers stumble: they think somehow that, having accepted Christ’s atoning sacrifice for their sin, they are better than those who have not. This is a deadly notion—deadly not only to those you are trying to reach who have not yet come to faith, but deadly to your own humility and usefulness. In his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul, obviously a devoted, informed and thoroughly saved Christian, said, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” (1:15)

Notice the tense: “I am.”

Charles Spurgeon suggests that you can never experience the fullness of forgiveness until you realize the fullness of your sinfulness: “There never was a man yet who was in a state of grace who did not know himself, in himself, to be in a state of ruin, a state of depravity and condemnation.” Again, C. S. Lewis strikes just the right tone when, in writing to Sheldon Vanauken, he said, “Think of me as a fellow patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some advice." We are not better than anyone else. We are still as helpless and sinful as ever; we are simply forgiven, and expect God to better us. We cannot do it ourselves. Without Christ, we can do nothing.

I love the terms “lost” and “saved.” We’ve twisted them a bit, made them religious words, but in their primary uses, they illustrate so well what grace truly is.

Picture this: You take a small sailboat out into the Gulf of Mexico. What started out as a lovely morning turns nasty. There is a terrible squall, and the boat is torn in half. You survive the storm, but are left adrift, clinging to a decreasingly buoyant piece of flotsam. You have no idea which way is shore, and no way to summon help.

Just as you are about to surrender to the darkening sky and cold water, a deep-sea fishing boat comes by and hauls you to safety. Soon you are on dry land.

You are incredibly grateful to your rescuers. You are exhilarated. You were facing sure death, and someone snatched you to safety.

A year later you hear of another weekend sailor who has become lost in the Gulf. The circumstances are eerily similar. But now that you are on solid ground, what do you think: That you are a better sailor? That you always knew which way the shore waited?

If you’re wise, you’ll realize the only difference between you and the lost mariner (and you and a lost soul) is that you know where you are. It is place you could not find on your own, and could not reach on your own. And you still can’t. The only thing for sure is that you will not ever again risk death at sea. But if you have a heart at all, you’ll aid in the search for all those who are still lost at sea.

It is no small thing to have your sins forgiven. What love it is to be spared an eternity of suffering and separation (and no doubt much in our earthly lifetimes as well). And you can be freed from that constant wondering of whether you are “good enough” to please God. But don’t think you can take credit for it. And don’t think it makes you better than anyone else. If you do, even a little bit, you don’t understand grace. All of what is good and true for us is true and good only because Jesus died in our place, to pay the price we owed. Those who haven’t figured this out are not stupid but, as you once were, merely ignorant. They do not know what they do not know.

In 1981, Harold Kushner, a Reformed Jewish rabbi, published a very popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The premise was that that God has arranged the universe in such a way that even He cannot solve all of its dilemmas, but that He also, due to his caring nature, suffers along with his creatures.

While I’m sure the book brought comfort to many, it seems to me that it must be a sentimental comfort, not a real one. More important than God suffering along with His creatures is the truth that he suffered for His creatures. That’s the point of Easter.

Why do bad things happen to good people? With apologies to Rabbi Kushner, it is both to our sorrow and our gladness that, in fact, they don’t.

Well, once.

—W. S.

Lenten Reading, Saturday, April 3

Lent Reading: Alive in Christ. Ephesians 2:1-10

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,
 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.
 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Blood Flows

Here is a video I created for our Good Friday service at Roswell Community Church. It is based on a poem I wrote several years ago. The music is "Prelude" from John Michael Talbot's The Lord's Supper.

Lenten Reading, Friday, April 2

Lent Reading: The death of Jesus. John 19:16-42

So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified.
 They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.
 There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between.
 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, "JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS."
 Therefore many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin and in Greek.
 So the chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews'; but that He said, 'I am King of the Jews.'"
 Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."
 Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece.
 So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, to decide whose it shall be"; this was to fulfill the Scripture: "THEY DIVIDED MY OUTER GARMENTS AMONG THEM, AND FOR MY CLOTHING THEY CAST LOTS."
 Therefore the soldiers did these things. But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
 When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold, your son!"
 Then He said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.
 After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, "I am thirsty."
 A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth.
 Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
 So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him;
 but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs.
 But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.
 And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.
 For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, "NOT A BONE OF HIM SHALL BE BROKEN."
 And again another Scripture says, "THEY SHALL LOOK ON HIM WHOM THEY PIERCED."
 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body.
 Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight.
 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
 Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.
 Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Lenten Reading, Thursday, April 1

Lent Reading: Great Love of God. Psalm 57:7-11

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast;
         I will sing, yes, I will sing praises!
    Awake, my glory!
         Awake, harp and lyre!
         I will awaken the dawn.
    I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples;
         I will sing praises to You among the nations.
    For Your lovingkindness is great to the heavens
         And Your truth to the clouds.
    Be exalted above the heavens, O God;
         Let Your glory be above all the earth.