Category Archives: Religion

“You’ll have to sleep somewhere else”

Important News Update: I have now finished off my Thanksgiving leftovers.

Further developments will be reported as they occur.

Today was road trip day. Marty, a guy from the maintenance crew at work, and I drove a couple hours to a town in western Minnesota, to pick up thirty cartons of books donated to our archive.

The donor is the same guy I wrote about a while back, the one who perpetrated the classic “shrinking turkey in the microwave” Thanksgiving prank.

His name is Marvin, and he is the son of a pastor of the old Lutheran Free Church, predecessor to my own church body.

He showed me a story he’d written, called “My Father’s Best Sermon.”

I think it’s one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.

I’m going to pass it on to our denominational magazine, but I’ll give you a condensed version.

When Marvin was a young teenager (around the 1930s or early ‘40s, I imagine), he asked his father if he could go with the other kids to some entertainment event (he didn’t say what kind). His father said it wouldn’t be appropriate and told him no. Marvin said he was going anyway, and headed out.

“If you go out without my approval,” his father told him as he reached the door, “this house will be locked when you get home, and you’ll have to sleep somewhere else.”

Marvin refused to back down. He left. He enjoyed the event.

That, he said, was the short part of the night.

When he got home he found the house dark, the doors locked. Even that window in the basement that the kids could sometimes work loose was locked tight.

Marvin stood in the dark, thinking about his options. It wasn’t winter, but it was fall and the night was getting cold.

He remembered a sort of loft in the chicken coop which his brother and he had appropriated as a “secret place.” It had a sort of a mattress and a ratty quilt.

He went into the chicken coop and climbed up. The “mattress” was there, but the quilt was gone.

Lacking other options, he lay down on the mattress and curled up in a fetal position. The cold wind blew in through the cracks. The coop stank of chicken droppings. There was no way to sleep. He lay there in the darkness hugging himself, shivering. The hours passed slowly. He wondered if he could make it through the night.

Then, at last, he heard a door open. He heard a creaking sound as someone climbed the board ladder to the loft. Someone put a pillow under his head, lay down and held him close, and pulled a quilt over both of them.

In the darkness, he heard his father say, “Marvin, when I said that if you disobeyed me you’d have to find another place to sleep tonight, I didn’t say that I would sleep inside.”

And so that pastor taught his son the true meaning of the Incarnation.

Wish I’d had a dad like that.

Wait. I do.

Aruging Against the False or the Evil

Is it worse to be accused of believing something false or to be accused of believing something evil? Christianity isn’t true? That’s so last-century. G.E. Veith writes, “It is one thing to oppose religion, but now we have arrived at the marks of dangerous religious bigotry: spreading sensationalistic lies, instigating fear in the public, and promoting paranoid conspiracy theories.”

This reminds me of a radio report I heard several weeks ago on a Christian outreach to a homosexual community. One young man said he felt uncomfortable with the group of Christians, because he sensed negativity from them. He had read the Bible, he said, and there’s no negativity in it.

John Wilson on Evangelicals in Literature and Life

Glenn Lucke points out the NY Times article written by John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, on evangelicals. In fiction, Wilson says the evangelical is a dope. He continues, “A reader who moves from the fiction shelf to the stacks of reportage and commentary may experience cognitive dissonance. The evangelical buffoons who populate so many novels these days seem hardly capable of organizing a local witch-burning, yet their nonfictional counterparts are said to be on the verge of turning these United States into a theocracy.”

Letters for Prayer Washed Up in Atlantic City

Here’s a bit of news which could get you thinking. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, a man and his son retreived a bag from the water, filled with written prayers to the Lord. The AP reports:

Many of the letters were addressed to the Rev. Grady Cooper, though many more simply said “Altar.” According to the text of several of them, they were intended to be placed on a church’s altar and prayed over by the minister, the congregation or both.

A card in the bag identified Rev. Cooper as an associate pastor at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Jersey City. The AP learned that he died two years ago, but was unable to learn anything more from the church or locate his family.

The letters represent the hard and silly things we pray for, those of us who know little about the God we claim to worship and those of us who know him intimately. It’s interesting news, but it feels voyeuristic to read the concerns of unknown people in an AP story.

We Love the Lord. You Don’t.

I’ve been wanting to write one or two posts on political language or some of the talk I’ve read about current issues, but I’m a slow blogger as you can tell. This one will be quick, and then I’ll take my wife back to the midwife. (She feels good, btw, and her body is healing.)

On political talk in Tennessee, Harold Ford, Jr. (D) is campaigning against Bob Corker (R) for the U.S. Senate. Apparently, the Corker people were at a rally for Ford in Paris, Tennessee, where Congressman Ford said:

“My friend Lincoln Davis who chairs our campaign says there are, there’s one big difference between us and misfortunate Republicans when it comes to our faith: he said that Republicans fear the Lord; he said Democrats fear AND love the Lord (applause)…”

I suppose that’s public knowledge which could go without comment, but I want to note that I often pray for our leaders and candidates to fear the Lord no matter which party they are in.

No One is Morally Ignorant

From my notes on Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy:

The attack on objectivity of values is not an attack on general objectivity of values, but a rouse for the supremacy of certain values over others. Because you can get a long way in winning your argument if you don’t have to argue for it at all.

Our problem is not the disconnect between the heart and intellect. The problem is what composes our intellect. Nothing is considered moral knowledge today; consequently, no one is morally ignorant.

Meditation on the News from a Pennsylvania Schoolhouse

With the ugly news coming from a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, schoolhouse, people tend to throw out reserved phrases to describe their view of God’s role in the killing of several little girls and a milkman.

1. The sanctimonious person who believes he knows the mind of God, especially in judgment cases, will say God has reserved a special place in hell for milkman turned gunman who apparently wanted to do something sexual to the school girls before or after shooting them. This person probably speaks with the same motivation John and James spoke when they asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans who refused them hospitality (Luke 9). What the sanctimonious fail to see is the Lord’s incomprehensible mercy. He forgives evil men on his own terms, which has nothing to do the acts of the men forgiven. In God’s bizarre mercy on mankind, he has saved many evil men from eternal judgment and reserved that special place in hell for relatively decent people because no one can recommend himself to the Lord. The Lord gives his mercy to whomever he wishes.

I admit there is comfort in knowing an murderer will be judged perfectly according to his deeds, but the sanctimonious person sees only his own justice, not his own position under God. If the romantic rouge of Shelly’s poetry right, believing he has sinned too much to receive any eternal mercy, then we are all in trouble. God’s mercy must extend even to horrible criminals like the milkman. And the sanctimonious among us forget just how close to the milkman they are. They give themselves a pass.

2. The sentimental person will say that God wanted those little girls in heaven with him. They were such sweet flowers he had to have them close to him. Somehow that twisted idea is meant to fill the grieving with warmth. If God really thinks this way, he should create his own flowers and give the daughters of Eve long lives of faith and hope.

But the Lord does number our days, and he gives us all only a few of them to trust him before bringing us home or resigning us to exist in isolation forever. Life is a vapor during which he gives all joy and all heartache for drawing us to himself, the source of indescribable peace and genuine strength.

3. That may not comfort the one who readily, understandably, will ask where God was during the murder Monday morning. How could he allow this to happen? I know that some Christians will suggest God isn’t behind this because he does not do evil things. The devil does things like this, so it’s his fault, not God’s. That’s a sorry answer, in my opinion. If God didn’t do it, he could have stopped it, and we return to the original question. Where was the God Almighty, capable of saving the murderer from himself before he executed innocent children?

Right in the middle of it.

In G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, an anarchist charges God with judgmental isolationism, sitting on his ivory pillar to condemn the world by his whim and avoid getting his hands dirty. The anarchist says God knows nothing of the daily pain of life or the suffering of his creation. God replies by quoting Jesus. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”

Unlike any other god of the world’s religions, the Lord has suffered greatly on our behalf. He entered the world we broke, the one we ruined through our selfishness, and suffered at our hands in order to give us eternal mercy and lasting peace. When the innocent suffer, the Lord suffers with them.

4. Why would God suffer like a weakling instead of stopping the murderer? Why did the milkman see a vision and repent or drop dead on his way to the school? Who cares if he suffered with the children; he should have saved them from it? Why didn’t he?

For the person who feels desperate pain asking these questions, don’t worry that God will be offended. He can handle any question you have. He will not reject you for asking hard questions or speaking from your pain. The problem for us, speaking in human terms, is that God rarely answers these questions specifically. I’m sorry. It seems the Lord responds to these situations almost always by urging you to seek him for comfort and strength.

But since we are removed from the intimate pain in Lancaster County, we can talk about these questions a bit more openly. Why didn’t the Lord do something? There’s an ocean full of evil in the world. At what point do you want the Lord to step in and stop it? Just before it gets too ugly for your taste?

When we ask where God is when horrible things happen, we fail to see that the horrible things occur within a large context. It’s easy for you and me to talk about evil in the world at large and charge God with the task of doing something about it, but if he answered us by meddling with the seeds of evil in our lives, we would complain, wouldn’t we? This milkman didn’t wake up in the bed of evil and act on new impulses. He acted on the wickedness he nurtured within his heart for years. When do you think the Lord should have stepped in and arrested him?

The person who prefers to trust himself rather than the Lord has difficulty understanding that the Lord stepped in to arrest death and evil and bring eternal life when he was born in Bethlehem as an infant. He lived in his creation, taught, suffered greatly, died, and rose from the grave in order to save milkmen, congressmen, and angry students from the evil within them. That’s when mankind was offered peace and good will, but we reject it because we’re more comfortable living with ourselves than with our creator. Why he doesn’t force it on us for our own good I have no idea.

What humble looks like

“Where then is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Romans 3:27-28, NIV)

I was thinking about this passage the other day. It’s one of those stretches of the epistles where the Apostle Paul, frankly, has always lost me. I try to follow the argument but just can’t find the thread.

But I think I’ve got it now. What Paul is talking about here is Christian humility.

As C. S. Lewis has explained somewhere, our stereotypical image of humility is deeply warped. We think of a humble person as someone shabby and dusty and hunched over, wringing his hands and apologizing all over the place. But in fact, when we are lucky enough to meet one of the few really humble people who actually live around us, our only response is likely to be, “What a happy person! What a pleasant person to be with!”

The reason for that is what Paul, I think, is explaining in this passage. A mature Christian is humble, not because he’s bowed down under the weight of guilt and shame (the principle of observing the law), but because his attention is directed away from himself toward God (the principle of faith). He’s not thinking about his inferiority. He’s not thinking about himself at all. He’s looking upward, and his face reflects the sunshine of Heaven.

I understand this intellectually, of course. Applying it to my life is another matter altogether.

Asking the Devil for the Lowdown

[first blogged on Halloween 2003] In honor of the upcoming season, let me write a bit about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” Many of us were forced to read it in high school, but maybe you didn’t. Reject that foul Stephen King novel! Banish that evil Anne Rice tome! Tolle lege* this short tale of a young man’s dreadful walk with the devil.

I think the reason “Young Goodman Brown” sticks in my mind as a great tale, other than my fascination with early America and affection for Hawthorne, is its clear description of how to set yourself up for believing a lie. Brown does three things in the first couple pages to seal his doom. He leaves his home at sunset to meet the devil in the forest. Apparently, he is searching for the truth. He wants to hear what the devil has to say for himself. And like an idiot, he starts his trip just before dusk. Darkness conceals many things, so if he really wanted to the truth, he would look for it in daylight when things can be seen for what they are. But at dusk, he walks deep into the forest–putting himself in a place where shadows conceal. How much can you see when you’re in a dense forest at night? Still, Brown thinks he can meet the father of lies in a place like this and reason with him. That’s his biggest mistake, and possibly the one which makes his doom inevitable. He thinks he can talk to the devil and parse his words for bits of truth. Of course, Old Scratch reels him in easily.

When Brown first objects to walking deeper into the trees, Old Scratch encourages him to present his arguments while they walk because he can always turn back. Too far, Brown says while walking. He must not be seen walking with the devil. Naturally, replies the devil, that’s why my dealings with your father and grandfather were kept secret. What! Can it be true? exclaims young Brown. Of course not, you idiot! You’re talking with the devil! He doesn’t tell the truth except to make a lie more plausible, because a slight miscalculation is an easier lie to shallow than a total fabrication. Brown doesn’t get it, unfortunately, so into the darkness he goes.

What about us? Do these steps apply to our quest for truth, even if we don’t have the devil penciled in for 10 p.m. Friday? Yes, they do.

1. Darkness conceals truth. Light describes wisdom and knowledge. Read the first few chapters of Proverbs for descriptions of wisdom and her methods. In order to shed light on the deep questions you’re asking, give yourself time and quiet reflection. Noise and busyness can act as clouds over the sun. Try to avoid them, but don’t think getting alone with your thoughts will draw all truth to you. You can come up with only so many answers when you’re the one confused.

2. Trees obstruct the light and hide the real world. In the forest, Brown found that the night only got darker. The same can happen to us in a forest of opinions. We can find wisdom in many counselors, but not all opinions are worth hearing. C.S. Lewis encouraged readers to postpone reading another contemporary book until they had read an old one, meaning a book written before last century. If we consume many modern books, we can become conditioned by a limited perspective particular to our day. By reading old books, we are better equipped to see beyond a limited modern perspective.

3. The devil does not have a worthy point of view. It’s common to try to hear both sides of an issue in order to form an unbiased opinion; but I’d like to suggest that some perspectives, some sides of particular issues, are completely wrong. Not everyone’s perspective is worth hearing. Some are logically inconsistent. Some are merely argumentative, taking up a position solely to conflict with another position. The better ones are internally sound, though they may be based on lies or ignorance. Some are completely right. It’s no shame to be partisan when your side is right.

I hope haven’t bored you back to your Doctorow novel. Have a good weekend, and try to avoid the cheap candy. Life is too short to eat waxy chocolate and those nasty orange rounds.

* “Take up and read”

Legal, moral and low-fat

It’s got to indicate a pretty disgusting level of self-complacency to go to one’s own writings for inspiration.

So naturally that’s what I’ll be doing tonight.

I wrote something here yesterday, and having writ, moved on. But as I thought about it, it seemed to me it was worth examining in its own right.

What I wrote was: Joylessness is an easy sin to ignore. It isn’t any fun, so how can it be bad?

Have you noticed how we (and I think I speak for most of us here) tend to equate pleasure with sin? And virtue with suffering and deprivation?

In a way I can understand how secular people would think this way. The concept is deep in our culture, probably a leftover from Victorianism (I could say Puritanism, but the Puritans really had a lot more fun than modern people give them credit for. So did the Victorians, for that matter).

But our culture is full of jokes about sin and virtue. “Everything fun is either illegal, immoral or fattening.” “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris” (Oscar Wilde). Alfred Doolittle’s fulminations against “middle class morality” in Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (that’s “My Fair Lady” for you musical comedy fans).

But Christians often think this way too, and we ought to know better. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10, NIV). “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11). “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

In theory the Bible ought to count for more with Christians than quips from Wilde or Shaw.

But I know how it is. I suspect I know better than most, being famous for my depression and general sourness of disposition. Doing right seems to be so much work, and sin offers such welcome, immediate satisfaction.

(At this point in the essay I originally wrote a long disquisition on short-term vs. long-term gratification. I now realize that that wasn’t really what I wanted to write about. So I’ll try it over.)

Our cultural Puritanism (not to be confused with real Puritanism, for reasons explained above) tends to take it for granted that all pleasure is sin.

This is a snare of Satan.

One of the book passages that changed my life was the following from C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape (who, in case you don’t know, is a devil advising another devil in methods of temptation) writes in Chapter XXII:

[God is] a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it: at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore”. Ugh! …He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to use. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.

Pleasures are very often sinful. But they’re not always sinful. It seems to me one bad effect of Christian revivals is that as the original fervor fades, people try to keep it going artificially through the imposition of more and more rules. “If we just get people to stop doing this or that, their hearts will turn again to the Lord.” So certain people are forever looking for new things to declare sinful and forbid to others. There’s one Christian leader in particular (and no, I won’t tell you who he is. Some of you will guess) who (it seems to me) has built his entire career on searching the Scriptures for new things he can declare sinful, new laws he can lay on the backs of his fellow believers.

I say it’s wrong. I say we need more innocent pleasure, and if Pharisees insist on condemning people who do things not forbidden by the Word, then somebody ought to punch them in the nose.

Try it yourself.

You might find it pleasurable.

True or false: pick one

Romans 3:1-8 is a passage that’s always puzzled me. It’s not that I disagree with what’s said there, but Paul seems to be addressing First Century arguments that nobody would make today, and that confuses the contemporary reader.

But reading it today, it occurred to me that Paul is addressing the modern mind in one sense:

But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is deserved. (vv. 5-8, NIV)

There are doubtless many deep truths in this passage that I’ve missed so far. That’s a given. But one point that struck me as I studied it today was that Paul is drawing a line here. He’s saying, “There is a difference between right and wrong. It’s not just a matter of point of view. It’s not variability in cultural values. God approves of some things and condemns others. He’s not broad-minded in the sense that’s fashionable today.

There’s a tendency to think of “spiritual” as being the same thing as “fuzzy.” In the spiritual realm, we imagine, all differences are smoothed out. All disagreements are discovered to be meaningless. Right and wrong are seen as equally valid manifestations of the Eternal. Yahweh and Baal are really the same Being, as is Asherah.

Paul says “Hooey.” God is just, and He has told us what He means by justice. Don’t imagine it’ll all even out in the end. Get with His program or suffer the consequences.

We’re all on notice.

You Know You Are Not Reformed If . . .

  • you think the Apostles Creed is the guy who fought Rocky in Rocky I.
  • you think the Canons of Dort are like the Guns of Navarrone.
  • you think the psalter goes with the pepper shaker.
  • you think unconditional election is a practice of communist dictatorships.

And so on. Riddleblog has “You Know You Are Not Reformed If . . .

Yeah, I didn’t think it was that funny either, but I hope someone gets a laugh out of it. (by way of the Jollyblogger)

In Fact, My Son Is Named Satan

“Satan in the New Testament should be regarded as holding the equivalent of such positions as Prime Minister, or Attorney-General, or Head of MI5, or Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and as no more evil than many zealous holders of these positions here on Earth,” says a Californian who wants to rehabilitate the devil’s public face. He’s written a book about that star who fell from heaven. The Times of London headline for the story: “Forget Judas, let’s have sympathy for the Devil.

I should ignore this kind of foolishness, but it’s just so . . . foolish.

The black man’s burden

There was a Polynesian dance class going on in the park by Lake Crystal today as I took my constitutional. Sorry. Erase the picture that sentence generated in your mind. It wasn’t like my (and probably your) stereotyped fantasy of Polynesian dance. In fact, I’m not entirely sure it was Polynesian dance. I drew that conclusion because the teachers looked Polynesian to me, and the motions the students made looked more like something from the South Seas than anything else I could think of.

No, there were no nubile girls in grass skirts there, wiggling their firm, fetching brown hips. This was two lines of mostly middle-aged white people, doing a step-step-while-making-a-sort-of-rowing-motion-with-the-hands. I immediately judged them all former hippies, striving for some kind of multicultural salvation.

I felt particularly bad for the guys in the group, who were no doubt married to (or living with) women in the group who’d dragged them along. I’d be willing to wager that, if you got enough beers in them to get them to tell the truth (like Mel Gibson), they’d admit that if they had to make fools of themselves in public, they’d rather do live steel with the Vikings and me. Only their Significant Others wouldn’t let them, and the folks down at the Whole Foods store would never understand.

There. You know what one of my prejudices is.

Which brings me to this article, by way of Mirabilis:

With church-going on the wane in Europe, Africa’s vibrant Protestant churches are sending scores of men like Mukholi to the West to win souls and revitalize shrinking congregations — an ironic twist on the 19th century drive by Western missionaries to convert Africans.

I’ve been waiting for this for years. I have doubts whether Europe is salvageable anymore at this point, but it seems to me that if it is to be saved, this will be an important element.

It all depends on racism. Racism isn’t dead. Not here in America, and not in Europe. It’s just turned itself inside out. Instead of the nasty white people of the last century, who thought themselves Nature’s Pinnacle, looking down on the vile dark races, today’s white racist despises his own race and idealizes those blessed richly with melatonin. It’s been noted by other writers before me that whenever an author or scriptwriter wants a character to deliver a Message from God nowadays, he generally puts that message in the mouth of someone black. Preferably someone old and black.

This makes a lot of sense. It’s a rare old black person who hasn’t seen a lot of hate and injustice, and just surviving a long time under those conditions implies that they must have learned something.

But our respect for black people in the West goes far beyond this. It amounts to pure veneration. Idealization. That’s why the U.N. will never do anything about genocide in Africa, as long as it’s blacks killing blacks. To take action would be to admit that black people aren’t morally superior, and that would be a death-blow to their faith.

It is a little cynical, I suppose, to exploit this white racism for evangelistic purposes, but I’m basically a pragmatist. Whatever works, I’ll pretty much support.

The second reason I like this strategy is for its genuine educational value. African Christians know a whole lot about Islam and paganism, and they know it first-hand, not from New Age books and television documentaries.

I met an African man who went to our seminary a while back. I didn’t know him well, but he had an interesting story. He’d been an Olympic athlete for his country of origin. After converting to Christianity, he’d attended a mainline Lutheran seminary in the U.S. He left it angrily when a Comparative Religions professor assigned his class to attend a mosque.

“I do not need to attend a mosque to learn about Islam,” the man said. “I know about Islam.” He finished his seminary training with us.

The same sort of thing goes for paganism. People who’ve actually been pagans know it’s not about pretty naked women dancing under the stars. It’s about superstition and the constant fear of breaking taboos. It’s about sticky blood and sacrifice and ugliness.

So God bless the African missionaries. May He speed their feet and open the listener’s ears to their message.