The Christian Community in Society

“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever” opined the famous French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. American society today seems to have taken him at his word. We are told to dream big, take chances, and make our mark on the world. To be remembered in posterity, “write something worth reading or do something worth writing about” wrote Benjamin Franklin. We are even told to misbehave, “Well behaved women seldom make history (Laurel Thatcher Urich).” It is as if 100,000 of us were standing in a stadium screaming to be heard, and spending our lives trying to be distinctive enough to feel important.

Sometimes the Christian community looks little different. In his book You Are Special, Max Lucado writes of a village of little wooden people called wemmicks who spend their days putting stars or dots on each other, stars for doing something that they like and dots for doing something that they don’t. The best had special awards (a sequel, Best of All) and perhaps even monuments to be widely known and remembered. These fictional children’s stories describe an all too common trap into which even followers of Jesus fall.

In the time of Paul, the Christian community was a small part of a large and powerful pagan Roman society. Some Christians were prominent, but to be a Christian sometimes meant to be persecuted – a big downside to seeking the limelight. Paul himself did not seek personal glory. The miraculous powers that he sometimes wielded were not his own, and he could not even use them to heal himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). He traveled from community to community preaching Christ resurrected in the synagogues and later in the churches. He taught in prominent places such as the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34) in Athens, but anyone with something to say could enter the discussion. Paul never wrote about how he wished to be remembered, and it is not clear that he expected to find his name in history.

Paul did, however, have an expectation for how Christians would live in society as individuals and as a group.

  1. Christians would live a quiet life, mind their own business, and work with their own hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
  2. The believing community would require work from their members, and those who were able to work but refused to do so would not be supported by the community (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
  3. Males and females would treat each other well, as would people of different ages (1 Timothy 5:1-3).
  4. Families would consist of multiple generations caring for each other in every way they could (1 Timothy 5:8).
  5. Younger men and women would marry, have children, and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4).
  6. Everyone would contribute what efforts they could to the group. Even older and infirm widows would serve the community (1 Timothy 5:10). There was no period of life in which a person did not work.
  7. Families would take care of their aged and infirm members first, only receiving help from the community when needed (1 Timothy 5:16).
  8. The community of Christians would honor their Christian leaders. This includes paying them a fair wage (1 Corinthians 9:9-14).      
  9. Believers would pray for their leaders and government, and that they live quiet and peaceful lives in the greater society (1 Timothy 2:1-3). We are not to speak evil of others (Titus 3:1-2).
  10. Men and women would have different roles in the church (1 Timothy 2:8-15). Different age groups would also have differing, but equally important, roles and tasks (Titus 2:1-7).
  11. Christian leaders and their wives would be subject to high standards of conduct and appearance (1 Timothy 3:1-13).
  12. Every follower of Jesus would be godly, contented, and not greedy (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
  13. As individuals and as a community, Christians would constantly live in such a way as to avoid just accusation from those outside the community (Titus 2:8). The Apostle Peter agrees with Paul in that we glory God in our lives so that outsiders may be saved (1 Peter 2:12-15).

Paul says far more about the Christian community, and about the structure and government of the local church, in his letters. He says little about how people outside the church should behave or should live in their communities. The Apostle’s instructions to Christian men and women in different contexts (families and churches) do not necessarily apply to those outside the family of believers. Also, Paul says nothing about the structure of government outside the church. Paul was not a political activist.

Much of Paul’s vision for the early church is anathema to non-believers, and even some believers, today. Some of it, such people argue, was specific to that place and does not apply in the 21st century. These arguments are beyond the scope of this article. They are also beside the point.

Conclusion

Napoleon believed that glory was fleeting, but obscurity was forever. He lived his life, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying nations to gain earthly, mortal glory. The Emperor of France spent his years doing what logically followed his beliefs. If we believe as Napoleon as a society and as a church, we will live like Napoleon.

Paul knew that while mortal glory is fleeting, immortal glory lasts forever. He lived his life not to be in some history book, but to be raised from death with Christ (Philippians 3:8-10). Paul killed no one and destroyed nothing. After coming to know Christ, he gave each moment of his earthly sojourn so that everyone might know Him.  If we believe like Paul as a society, and especially as a church, we will live like Paul.

Rethinking Parties

Americans in 2019 seem to “just want to have fun.” Americans in 1819 wanted fun too, but perhaps had a different idea of how to get there.

My family and I do not watch television. A couple of times per week, however, we break out the old DVDs and watch an episode of Hogan’s Heroes, F Troop, Andy Griffith, or some other old and silly sitcom. My mother bought us two seasons of The Beverly Hillbillies last Christmas and they are a special favorite with the kids. Watching the old shows, and the old advertisements, reveals many of the ways that we have changed as a nation, a culture, and a people.

In the episode entitled The Garden Party, Jed and Granny discover that their next-door neighbor, Margaret Drysdale, is hosting a garden party for her high society friends. “What’s a garden party?” Granny asks Jed. He replies that at a barn raising, neighbors get together and build a barn for the host. At a quilting bee, ladies get together and make a quilt. So a garden party must be to build a garden. Pleased with his reasoning, Jed tells his nephew Jethro to get the tools.

Last Friday night, Nancy and I had a family from church over for dinner. On Saturday my family and I attended a birthday party for the two-year-old son of a neighbor. Dozens of families and friends attended. Yesterday Nancy, David, Stephen, Sarah, and I spent the afternoon at Grandview attending the annual picnic for the Volunteer Fire Department in Beaver, WV. There were about 30 firefighters, family members, and friends present.

Why do we go to parties?

The first reason people go to parties is to have fun. Eating, drinking, and talking with close friends is one of the great joys of life. Birthday parties typically feature cake, ice cream, games, party favors, and possibly even a venue like a museum, garden, beach, pool, or amusement park. Wedding receptions often include these but add a meal and substitute dancing for games. Parties for holidays like Christmas, Halloween, and Independence Day have their own special flair, with trees and gifts, costumes, or fireworks.

A second reason for parties is to build relationships. Though we barely knew the other guests at the birthday party, we went specifically to get to know our neighbors. I had gone on calls and done training with most of the other firefighters at the picnic, but Nancy and the kids were strangers to these people. I went to deepen relationships, and they went to start them. They also went for me – to strengthen our family ties. Our Friday night dinner party was the only party last weekend in which everyone knew and enjoyed everyone else.

A third reason to attend parties is to accomplish something worthwhile. The barn raisings and quilting bees of yesteryear built community, but they also built barns and crafted quilts. In the days and regions before professional builders, modular homes, quilting companies, and the internet, neighbors had to help each other. If they did not, villages and individuals would die; member by member and family by family. I have been to a few such parties, which usually involved moving friends or family from one place to another. When we moved in Alexandria VA in 2013, more than twenty-five people from church showed up to help. Likewise, I have gone to pack and unpack boxes, load and unload boxes, take down and install furniture and appliances, and load and unload storage crates and conexes (steel storage and transportation containers). Work parties can also be a venue where real work gets done.

A fourth reason for parties is to promote yourself. The host of a fabulous party can impress people with their elegance or extravagance. Invitees at such parties can boast that they were invited, can try to impress the people who are there, can name drop, and can network for new opportunities or promotions. Socialite and courtesan Pamela Harriman threw parties in Washington DC that could launch a political career… or end one.   

A fifth reason to host and attend parties is to fulfill expectations. How many of us have gone to a work party that we dreaded, stayed a respectable amount of time, and slipped out hoping that no one would notice? How many people have attended parties that they dread to meet the expectations of others? Captain Georg Von Trapp certainly felt that way when he said in the Sound of Music “More at home here than in Vienna in all your glittering salons. . . gossiping gaily with bores I detest, soaking myself in champagne. . .stumbling about to waltzes by Strauss I can’t even remember?”

A sixth reason to host and attend parties is to glorify God. Christians are told that “whatever you do, do heartily, as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23).” Parties are no exception. The Bible has one story of Jesus attending a party; the wedding at Cana. We can assume that Jesus enjoyed Himself; it was a festive occasion and He was human, after all. Knowing Jesus’ character, He certainly went to build relationships.  Christ knew that He would accomplish something useful – changing water into wine for the glory of the Father. He probably went to fulfill His mother Mary’s expectations. The only thing that Jesus didn’t do was promote Himself. He promoted the Father instead.

Conclusion

The parties that I remember best are those that combine fun, relationships, accomplishments, and the glory of God. The purpose of these “best parties” was to do work worth doing. The fun, relationships, and glory of God followed. Perhaps Jed Clampett was right – Mrs. Drysdale’s garden party should have been to build her a garden. Perhaps for my next party, we’ll work on my yard. I wonder if anyone would come.  

Communion on the Moon

The first food and drink ever consumed on the moon was bread and wine in a Christian communion

No matter the opposition, the testimony of the Lord will not be denied. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins on Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969. He was the second human to walk on the surface of the moon. The following recounts the personal communion he took on the moon:

Forty-nine years ago (July 20, 1969), two human beings changed history by walking on the surface of the moon.

But what happened before Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong exited the Lunar Module is perhaps even more amazing, if only because so few people know about it. I’m talking about the fact that Buzz Aldrin took communion on the surface of the moon. Some months after his return, he wrote about it in Guideposts magazine.

The background to the story is that Aldrin was an elder at his Presbyterian Church in Texas during this period in his life; and, knowing that he would soon be doing something unprecedented in human history, he felt that he should mark the occasion somehow. He asked his minister to help him and so the minister consecrated a communion wafer and a small vial of communion wine. Buzz Aldrin took them with him out of the Earth’s orbit and onto the surface of the moon. He and Armstrong had only been on the lunar surface for a few minutes when Aldrin made the following public statement:

“This is the LM (Lunar Module) pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” He then ended radio communication, and there, on the silent surface of the moon, 250,000 miles from home, he read a verse from the Gospel of John, and he took communion.

Here is his account of what happened:

“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the scripture: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit … Apart from me you can do nothing.’

“I had intended to read my communion passage back to Earth, but at the last minute they had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew’s reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly.”

“I ate the tiny toast and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon and the very first food eaten there were the communion elements.”[1]

“And, of course, it’s interesting to think that some of the first words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, who made the Earth and the moon – and who, in the immortal words of Dante, is Himself the “Love that moves the Sun and other stars.”

Such a message would be unwelcome in many places in America and the West today, not to mention Asia and the Muslim world. This is not new – the message of God has always met fierce, even desperate resistance. The people of God have always suffered. Nonetheless, “if the people keep silent, the stones will cry out (Luke 19:37-40).” As it says it Psalms 2 (KJV),

2 Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying,

3 Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.

4 He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.

5 Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.

6 Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.

7 I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.

8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.

9 Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

10 Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.

11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.


[1] https://www.guideposts.org/better-living/life-advice/finding-life-purpose/guideposts-classics-buzz-aldrin-on-communion-in-space, accessed 3 May 2019

Never Enough

Why is nothing in this life ever enough?

James Bond tells us that the world is not enough. Billionaire John D. Rockefeller is reputed to have said “Just a little bit more” when asked how much money was enough. While King of England, Henry VIII created a new church, the Anglicans, and made himself the supreme religious leader. Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire chronicles an endless line of men and women from Europe, Africa, and Asia who stopped at nothing to grab the Imperial purple.

The past is no different from the present. Bashar al Assad in Syria has butchered thousands of his own people to retain the reins of power. Chief executives from Beijing to Ankara deceive and destroy in the name of virtue but ultimately to exalt themselves. The world of work can resemble gladiators in the Forum, with managers and employees at every level whispering, gossiping, flattering, threatening, shaming, and accusing subordinates, peers, and superiors to try to look good and get ahead.

This is not to say that all people and organizations are equally prone to such behavior. Some Roman emperors were crowned against their will and ruled with as much virtue as they could muster.  Some politicians energetically pursue the public good. Some billionaires, including John D. Rockefeller, are generous philanthropists. Some work teams and companies are honestly united around a common mission, truly get along, and generally treat each other well. Some leaders are genuinely inspirational and self-sacrificing, placing the needs of others before themselves.

Why does this conflict rage within us? As usual, the Bible has the answer. Proverbs 27:20 tells us that “Hell and destruction are never full, so the eyes of man are never satisfied.” Even the best of us, in our best moments, can think of something that we want. The innocent thoughts “I would like a little more…money, fame, power, good looks, or time off” or “I wish my spouse…” or “I wish my kids…” or “I wish…” can quickly turn into “I am dissatisfied.”

Dissatisfaction itself is not necessarily wrong. We should be dissatisfied with injustice and cruelty and do what we can to correct them. To oppose real evils done to others is the mandate of a follower of Christ.

But dissatisfaction is like a weed that soon grows out of control. Our dissatisfaction with morally wrongs quickly becomes dissatisfaction with things that we simply don’t like. Our indignation with genuine injustice rapidly morphs into anger at “people not giving us our due.” We spend time resenting our bosses for “unfair pay” or “lack of a promotion” and our coworkers for “trying to look good in front of the boss” and “making me look bad.” No matter what good things we receive – pay, promotions, people, and opportunities – they are overshadowed by our resentment at what we didn’t.

The root problem is that God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but we think in terms of time. Since He is God, our Creator, our Sustainer, and the source of all that is good in the universe, we cannot be joyful outside Him. Innately prideful and unwilling to follow His moral laws, we want to be joyful in ourselves. God is eternal, but our focus is temporal. He is infinite, but our desires are finite. He wants to give us life forever and joy unbounded, but we want a bigger house, a shinier car, and a more important job. God offers the chance to praise Him, but we want to praise ourselves. He has set us a little lower than Himself, but we crave being higher than the guy or gal next door.

No matter what we get, it is never enough. Man tries to fill his soul, the part that craves the infinite, with the finite. We try to build bridges across the chasm separating us from God with money, power, fame, human relationships, and achievements. It never works, because only the infinite can fill the infinite, and only the eternal can fill the eternal.

As We Think

Directing our emotions, our thoughts, our words, and our actions…to be who we were created to be.

The Economist is no fan of Donald Trump. The October 27 to November 2, 2018 issue featured a column by the editor Lexington describing the foreign policy failures and successes of the President. It was accompanied by the picture noted here, which shows Trump as an archer rejoicing over a single bulls-eye while quivers of arrows are far off the mark. He seems to be ignoring his many failures and raising his arms in triumph over one, perhaps random, success. Maybe Lexington sees Trump as an incompetent egomaniac who sometimes gets lucky. Certainly, other people do. While catchy, this illustration is a snowflake in an avalanche of political cartoons criticizing the US leader.

In my primary care medical practice, I encounter dozens of patients every week who, if they were featured in the same picture, would be sad. The context wouldn’t be foreign policy, but might be success at work, a loving family, new hobbies, losing weight, quitting smoking, or any of a hundred other things.  Rather than looking out of the illustration at the reader with upraised arms and a self-satisfied smile, their eyes would be downcast. Their brows would be furrowed and the corners of their mouths drooping. Instead of more than 30 arrows there may only be 10, or 5, or 1, because the person would have given up. He or she might tell a bystander “this is a stupid sport anyway. I have better things to do.” Just below their level of consciousness, they might get a queasy feeling – “why show my failures to the public, and to myself? How much better would it be to stay home alone with my screens, my games, and my programs? That way I cannot fail.”

There is danger in an excessive focus on our successes, but likewise danger in an excessive focus on our failings. The best focus is outside ourselves – at the problem to be solved or the grace to be enjoyed.

A focus on failures is not only a problem for patients, but for all of us. How do we regard each moment of our lives? Do we ruminate on our regrets? Do we marinate in our missteps? Do we refuse to forgive those who hurt us? Do we choose to take offense at the clumsy words and actions of others? Do we reject others for what they are, and reject ourselves for what we are? Do we put ourselves and others in the worst possible light? Do we cut others out of our lives when they don’t consistently meet our expectations and fulfill our wishes? Do we withdraw into a cave of confusion, sit down in den of darkness, and finally lie in a coffin of loneliness?

Conversely, do we bounce back after our blunders? Do we stand up after we fall? When faced with a seemingly impossible task, do we act as the inventors did in The Roses of Success, from Ian Fleming’s children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you’ll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Oh yes!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
(spoken) Yes I know but he wants it to float. It will!
For every big mistake you make be grateful!
Here, here!
That mistake you’ll never make again!
No sir!
Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
Generates the steam for two more tries!
(Oh) There’s magic in the wake of a fiasco!
Correct!
It gives you that chance to second guess!
Oh yes!
Then up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
Disaster didn’t stymie Louis Pasteur!
No sir!
Edison took years to see the light!
Right!
Alexander Graham knew failure well; he took a lot of knocks to ring that
bell!
So when it gets distressing it’s a blessing!
Onward and upward you must press!
Yes, Yes!
Till up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success.
Grow the ro… (continue)

To succeed after failure, we must control our emotions. Years ago a young woman told me of a time when she felt awkward. I replied, “Awkwardness is a choice. If you chose to not feel awkward, you will not feel it.” She paused, a look of realization crept over her face, and she smiled.

Offense, discouragement, and every other emotion is also a choice. We cannot control the initial flush of feeling that we get from any situation, but we can control what we do with that flush of feelings. Emotions roll over us like a wave for the first few seconds, but then we must decide whether and how to redirect the waters.  We can nurture resentment over an injury or to forgive it. We can see any circumstance as a defeat or a victory. We can dwell in the prison of our fears or dance in the pastures of our joys. We can consider that both compliments and criticisms say more about the giver than the receiver.

The Bible tells us again and again to control our thoughts and our emotions and channel them toward success. We are to “Fear not!” (Isaiah 41:10) and “Not let our hearts be troubled (John 14:1).” Day by day success is performing the tasks which He has given to us with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10, Colossians 3:23). Ultimately, success for the Christian is loving, glorifying, and enjoying God.

The Economist probably did not mean to make Donald Trump look good in this illustration. I do not know Trump’s thoughts or his character. However, insofar as the Trump in the picture is rejoicing despite many, many failures, the British newsmagazine may be revealing a secret of his success.  

Normal Times in Life?

An examination of the dangers of trying to identify the “normal”, which often means “the best”, time in life

Imagine a conversation between a middle-aged husband and wife:

“Our family hasn’t been normal since our oldest daughter left for college in the fall of 2012.”

“No, things stopped being normal when our son developed epilepsy in November 2011.”

“That’s not right. What about when my father died in June 2009?”

“Or when mine died in August 2008?”

“I guess you’re right…things haven’t been normal for nearly 11 years.”

“But they certainly weren’t normal before our youngest child was born in September 2006.”

“Yes, except we thought that they were normal because we didn’t know that she was coming, and then we didn’t know how life would be with her.”

“But things weren’t really normal when I worked in DC and we lived in that rental house.”

“Nothing about DC is normal.”

“Perhaps the only normal time in our lives was from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2008, about six months.”

Too strange to be true? No. Nearly everyone has some variation of this conversation, some when they are young and almost all as they grow old. In our reminiscent moments, we evaluate the times, people, and events in our lives. We pine to relive some days past and thrill that others are behind us. Calling a time “normal” really ends up meaning that it was “the best”. If the past is the best, nothing that follows can be as good.

Orson Welles captured this part of human nature in his classic Citizen Kane. The movie opens with the death of its subject, billionaire media mogul Charles Foster Kane. His last word is “Rosebud”. The story recounts Kane’s life through the efforts of reporter Jerry Thompson to discover the meaning of “Rosebud.” Thompson fails, but in the last scene a faceless worker holds up a sled that Kane used as a boy of eight, before tossing the sled into the fire. The name on the sled is “Rosebud”. The message seems to be that after a life of glamorous women, undreamed wealth, glaring fame, and exceptional accomplishment, Kane’s fondest time of life was as a child, riding on “Rosebud”. Perhaps that was his “normal” time.

The first problem with setting a “normal” time in our lives is that it is idealized. In the 1940 Christmas film Beyond Tomorrow, three elderly engineers are killed when their plane crashes into a mountain in a snow storm. One of the men, a former British major with service in India whose son was killed in World War I, was allowed to go to his version of heaven, which looked a lot like his happiest times in life, serving King Edward in antebellum India with his wife and son. The past is never the same as we remember it. Usually, the pain recedes and the glory grows. Only rarely do our sufferings look larger through the lens of time.

The second problem with setting a “normal” time in our lives is that it is impossible. In the 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Dean Charles Stanforth tells Indy “We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” On a geriatrics rotation during my family medicine residency, a geriatrician told me that old age is a series of losses – strength, capabilities, job, friends, spouse, etc. – and then you die. But these melancholy thoughts are only partly true. Good things – grandchildren, relationships, adventures, new tasks, and wonderful experiences – also come to the old.

The couple in the dialogue above could have gone back much farther. How could our family have been normal after our grandmothers had died in the early 2000s, or our grandfathers in the 1980s? Were our greatest moments in our newly wed years, traveling around Europe as a pair? Other people could identify job gain or loss, and marriage or divorce, as their best or worst times.  

Mitch Waldman, a friend at church, served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy under George W. Bush. I asked him if that was his best job. He cautioned, “I always tell the young people who work for me not to think in terms of ‘best job’ or ‘best time’. Each is different, and ‘best’ in its own way and at its time. To think otherwise is to be always dissatisfied and striving for something else.”

The Bible tells Christians that the best is still to come. This life lasts but a moment, and then those who know and love Jesus Christ will taste eternal glory. Nothing in this life is “the best”, and nothing in this life is even “normal”. Whether in days or decades, I will step off the stage of life; I will cross the Dark River. Only then will I find “normal”, and even “the best”. Long lost family members and friends will be there, as will brothers and sisters in the Lord that I don’t know, or perhaps don’t even like, now. And our bonds of love and unity will be greater than I can possibly imagine.

Lastly, He will be there – Jesus, lover of my soul. Then and only then, life will be normal, and will be best. �

Bible Lessons

This post is to provide a place for students to find lessons we have had in Sunday School/Bible Fellowship, Worship, or other studies.

Deep Roots

On Thursday, November 15, a ferocious ice storm hit southern West Virginia, downing trees, knocking out power, and causing major property damage across several counties. Our family lost power for over 30 hours, and six large trees came down in our yard. The children were cross, sitting in a cold, dark house and unable to get on the internet. More importantly, they were unsettled. To them, electrical power is a fundamental fact of life. It is always there – you flip a switch and…shazam! When you need power, it is suddenly there. They could not imagine living like my grandmother, raised in rural southern Arkansas, whose only power was fire in candles, oil lamps, and stoves… or sunlight.

Our children are no longer little, and the greatest trauma that they experienced from the ice storm was the discomfort from hours of cutting, chopping, dragging, and otherwise cleaning up the mess. They have experienced far greater trauma in the past, including the deaths of family members, cancer diagnoses, financial stressors, and parental unemployment. Previous generations had it worse – my grandparents’ house burned to the ground after only six months of marriage. They lost everything. My great-grandfather died in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, leaving behind a wife and eight children.
Unwanted and unexpected events, including tragedies, are part of life. We try to prevent them, constructing stronger buildings, improving health care, designing safer cars, and the like. These efforts are partly successful. But still tragedies come. Sometimes disasters occur due to forces beyond our control, but other times they come directly from our own actions – drunk driving, domestic violence, or a drug overdose.

The Modern Response

A culture that rejects the possibility of a loving, just, and all-powerful God struggles with the presence of suffering in the world. If there is no afterlife, there can be no hope of justice in the hereafter. Therefore justice can only occur in the here and now. If there is no existence beyond the grave, what transcendent meaning can suffering have?

It should be no surprise that many people in the current day reject anything that might cause them suffering, and do all they can to eliminate it entirely from life. Suffering of any type (mental, physical, emotional, social, etc.) is unacceptable, and woe be to those through whom it comes, whether they intended it or not. To allay someone else’ suffering is good, but only if you can do it with no harm, and minimum sacrifice, to yourself.

Forests of academic papers decry the wounds of the world and the permanent disability which they cause. Young adults refuse to have children because kids are too expensive, too much trouble, and would interfere with their personal freedom and fun. They are happy to thank others who suffer and sacrifice, but would not dream of doing it themselves.

The Christian Response

In the past, parents believed, and taught their children, that hardship built character – making each individual and family stronger than they were before. Speaking often from a Christian worldview, they might have quoted Romans 5:3-5:

“Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.”

In this passage, the Apostle Paul was talking about both tragedies caused by nature and those caused by others, such as persecution. Many other places in the Scripture teach that hardship, and the struggle to overcome it, is to be handled with faith, love, hope, and joy. Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and all of the other faithful servants of God went through intense pain. Job faced disaster, Isaiah was executed, and God told Ananias how greatly Paul would suffer for His name’s sake. The righteous man thrives because he is firmly planted by streams of water (Psalms 1:3), and this planting comes upon by a faithful study of God’s word, an intimate personal relationship with God Himself, and a good dose of suffering.

Conclusion

Alleviating suffering is noble, and is a major part of my work as a physician and minister. However, intentionally sacrificing one’s own time, talents, health, and even life to suffer for others and to give glory to God is far nobler. Just as the trees that had shallow roots toppled and died during the ice storm, so people living for pleasure and appearances topple and die. Just as the trees that had deep roots survived and even thrived during the ice storm, so people living for the glory and enjoyment of God, as manifested by their service, sacrifice, and suffering, survive and thrive through the storms of life. The greatest man, Jesus Christ, made the greatest sacrifice, suffered the most, and had the deepest roots. My prayer is that we all sacrifice a little more, suffer in proportion to our service to the Lord, and grow deep roots.

Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.” I am old enough to remember a time when parents taught this pithy little rhyme to their children, and society at large believed it. We live in a new day, in which many Americans consider emotional injury as deadly, and more enduring, than physical injury. News accounts of emotional abuse, cyber bullying, and their mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide, pull at our heart strings. Girls, the lonely, and the young are at greater risk. Colleges, including those which my children attend, have safe spaces, trigger warnings, and strict rules against insensitivity and inflicting emotional trauma.  

When I was bullied as a second grader at Mulberry Elementary, Mitch routinely followed me across a large grassy field to the back gate in the chain link fence. He called me bad names, of course, but what I remember was being pushed back over a kneeling co-conspirator who had slipped in behind me. My awkward, backward fall was followed by a pummel of fists, and riotous laughter. My assailants ran away, and I was left to walk home, let myself in, and spend a few hours alone thinking about what happened, and how to prevent the same fate tomorrow. Mulberry’s administration couldn’t stop it, so I learned to avoid him, and to defend myself. Eventually my parents transferred me to a private Christian school.

Bullying today can be the same, but it can also be very different. In my youth, no one had cell phones, and Mitch’s only opportunity to cause me pain was during and immediately after school. He lived only two streets away, and knew where I lived, but never followed me home. Kids today, never more than an arm’s length from their cell phones, find it hard to escape the verbal and written, if not physical, jabs of their tormentors. Ganging up on someone, at least in social media, seems easier. Further, while spoken insults fade as soon as they are spoken, because that is the transient nature of orality, hateful words on social media can be read and reread until they become nearly unforgettable.  

But this discussion in US society is about more than bullying – it is about physical and emotional injury in any context. Physical injury comes from any physical agent, such as weapons, fists, or fire, and can be intentional or unintentional. Emotional injury comes from almost anything, such as words, photographs, or facial expressions, and can be intentional or unintentional. Though anyone can cause pain, those most able to hurt us, physically or emotionally, are those closest to us – our families, friends, schoolmates, and coworkers.

The phrase “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me” has fallen on hard times in the 21st century. No reasonable person, past or present, seriously debates that physical agents like sticks and stones can cause injury. Why then is this phrase, so widely believed and taught two generations ago, so reviled today? Did psychologists in 2018 discover something that no one knew in 1958? Of course not. The Bible describes the power of the tongue to destroy, likening it to a roaring fire (James 3:5-8). Religions and philosophers throughout time have understood the power of words to build and to break down.

The difference between 2018 and 1958 might be how we as a society perceive our ability to defend ourselves. Mitch pushed me down and hit me with fists, but I learned how and when to run away, how and when to kick the hidden assailant behind me, and how and when to hit Mitch back. Just like no reasonable person, past or present, seriously debates that sticks and stones can cause injury, no reasonable person argues that it is impossible to defend against them. Sticks and stones may indeed break my bones, but such an outcome is not inevitable. I can block blows, dodge rocks, run away, and otherwise defend myself.

Is emotional injury different? Can ridicule, shaming, and lies slip past our strongest emotional fortresses? Are we helpless against the barbs of others? Conventional wisdom, as evidenced by “microaggressions”, “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”, seems to indicate that there is no defense against emotional injury. Anecdotes about depression and suicide reinforce our belief in our impotence. Some opinions imply that not only is there no defense against emotional injury, there is also no recovery.

Did our fathers and mothers not understand this? No, because thinkers have pondered how to handle personal offense and emotional injury for millennia. The Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” Restated, we have the power to take offense, or not to take offense, at whatever our critics say and do. Elsewhere he wrote “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” His powerful implication was that each of us has the power to accept or reject what others say about us. When we are ridiculed, shamed, or lied to or about, our initial flash of emotion may be sad or angry. But we have control over what we do then – how we process what was said. Once we choose what we believe and what we do, our emotions follow.

A coworker and I were leaving work one evening and a car passed. The passenger made a hand signal which I only barely caught out of the corner of my eye. My coworker said, “did he flip me off?” I replied, “No, I think that he was just waving.” Whether I was right or wrong didn’t matter – by assuming the best we rejected a potential injury to ourselves, and (probably) unnecessary feelings of anger towards the car passenger.

I teach my children that the statements of others say more about the others than about the children. When a professor complements my son’s work, the professor’s attentiveness, expertise, and good nature are more on display than are my son’s labors. When a schoolmate insults my daughter’s dress, the remark reveals far more about the venom in the heart of the schoolmate than my daughter’s choice in clothing. Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45),” and He was right. Though we can benefit from the opinions of others, we must take them with caution, carefully glean what is useful, and discard the rest.  

Therefore, just as people can defend themselves against physical injury, they can defend themselves against emotional injury. The verbal assailant has the power to attack but the intended victim has the power to defend. Does this mean that we can protect ourselves from all emotional injury? No, because some jibes, especially from those we love and respect, get through. No defense against emotional injury is perfect, just as no defense against physical injury is perfect. Are we blaming the victim for the pain imposed by someone else? No, we are all responsible for what we do, and will pay the price for our sins.  

The Bible tells us to fear God rather than man (Proverbs 29:25, Matt 10:28) – to value His opinion more than the opinions of other people (John 12:43). God loves us; each person is precious in His sight. Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for us (John 3:16). Our identity in Him is secure, regardless of what anyone, or any group, on the planet says about us. Christians are ultimately not judged by others, and we do not even judge ourselves. Rather, the Lord judges us (1 Corinthians 4:3-4), and we stand or fall before Him. We are valuable and beautiful because God made us so. Perhaps we should write a new phrase.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but if I cling to my identity in Christ, words will rarely hurt me.”

Can You Feel It? Sensing the Spiritual in Life

How to sense the spiritual aspects of life

Recently a team of inspectors visited our hospital. After the meeting, two team members, one older white woman and one middle aged African American woman, came into my office. They admired my models of the War of 1812 frigate USS Constitution and the 1990s US Space Shuttle Endeavor. We talked for a moment, but as they turned to leave, the older woman glimpsed a replica of the ancient Celtic worship and burial site Stonehenge on my table.

“Have you been there?” she inquired, with more than a little excitement in her voice.

“Yes, with my wife and our infant daughter in 1994. How about you?”

“Never, but I would love to go” she replied, both excited and plaintive. She took a deep breath, paused, and looked directly at me. Her face was earnest and anxious, like a novitiate approaching an Archbishop with a question of vital importance.

“Can you feel it? Can you feel the spirituality in that place?”

“Yes,” I replied, instantly knowing what she meant. “You can sense the spirituality at Stonehenge. But there are four things that you have to do in order to feel it.”

Her face lit up, waiting for what would come next.

***

In her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us, psychology professor and author Jean M. Twenge writes that Americans are becoming dramatically less religious, but also less spiritual, than ever before. This trend is characteristic of the latest generation, iGen, those born from 1995 to 2012, but is growing in Boomers, Xers, and Millennials as well. Other authors and cultural commentators in the West have noted a dwindling sense of the numinous, the Divine presence, in our increasingly individualistic, hedonistic, and materialistic culture. As the Spirit and Glory of God departed the Temple (Ezekiel 10:18-19), so the Spirit and Glory of God seems to be departing American, and Western, culture. Or perhaps the problem is that we cannot see it.

Whether you believe that such generational characterizations are valuable or worthless, all true followers of Christ have endured times when we could not sense the spiritual. During those times, we feel like our lives are nothing more than a day to day fight for food, for fun, for friends, for family, and for fulfillment. God, if He even exists, seems far away. During such dry spells, Bible reading becomes a chore, and prayers don’t seem to get above our heads. Fellowship with other believers is discouraging, especially if they seem to be living a fulfilled and powerful Christian life. Worst of all, we feel very alone.

I have been endured many such spiritual deserts, and anticipate many more in the years ahead. This is typical of the Christian life. God told Ananias in Damascus “I will show him (Saul) how much he must suffer for my name (Acts 9:16).” Like the King did to Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and the Shepherd did to Much Afraid in Hinds Feet on High Places, the Lord will send me through times, places, and situations that are painful, discouraging, and much longer than I think that they need to be.

But bad times are not the only times when we can’t sense the spiritual. Moments of success, satisfaction, and surplus also blind our eyes to the work, and even the presence, of God in the world. Agur in Proverbs 30:8-9 recognized that any state of life, wealth or poverty, can cause us to blind our eyes to our Creator.

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;

give me neither poverty nor riches,

but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you

and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’

Or I may become poor and steal,

and so dishonor the name of my God.

Whether in easy times or hard, it can be difficult to sense the spiritual. But God commands His people to be active, not passive, in all areas of life. We cannot merely wait and hope that we can feel Him, but must dwell on His Word (Joshua 1:8-9), trust, and obey. When His people pursue Him, God gives us ways to feel Him even in the hardest times. Paul writes “No temptation (or trial) has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).”  Inability to sense the spiritual, or sensing it wrongly, is part of every trial. In this article I will address the question “How can we sense the spiritual – how can we enjoy the ethereal – how can we have courage instead of cowering – in our lives?”

  1. We must believe that the spiritual realm exists.

As physical beings, we spend all day, every day, in the world of matter (atoms, molecules) and energy (light, motion). Few deny that a physical world exists, and even those esoteric philosophers who claim to deny the physical world must check these “beliefs” at the door when they leave their classrooms and writing closets to face real life.  No matter his wealth, fame, or education, a man who rejected the physical necessity of food and therefore didn’t eat would either change his ways or depart this world in short order.

Unlike the physical world, the spiritual world does not force itself into our consciousness. Many people in the ancient and modern worlds alike have denied the existence of a realm outside of matter. Jains and many Buddhists reject the possibility of non-material existence. These people don’t starve, don’t freeze, and don’t fail to reproduce. They live normal and often moral lives well aligned with their communities. People who deny the spiritual realm often don’t see the need to consider spirituality, and so they don’t. Such folks are the ultimate materialists, believing only in the universe of matter (material). Most are apathetic, while some are hostile, to spiritual things. Many people who claim to follow a religion live their lives as functional materialists.

The spiritual world does not force us, but instead intrigues us, comforts us, and frightens us. Belief in spiritual forces – of angels, demons, nature spirits, and others, depending upon the religion – peaks the curiosity of people bored, and disenchanted, with mechanistic modern life. The idea that these forces are more powerful than humans and work for our benefit reassures us in hard times. Belief that we ourselves are spiritual beings grants us a personhood unavailable if we are only piles of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and trace elements. Ultimately, love, truth, and beauty are meaningless if they are nothing more than electrochemical reactions, and life after death is impossible if we are no more than failing matter. We die, are eaten by bacteria, are recycled by natural processes, and our physical elements end up as part of a tree, animal, or someone else’ body. This process continues thousands of times until the universe winds down and dies. Nothing remains. To deny the spiritual world is to deny anything eternal, and ultimately, anything meaningful, in life.

People who refuse to believe in a spiritual realm, a “universe beyond matter”, will never sense the spiritual. They reject the possibility, closing their eyes to spirituality. In so doing, they close their eyes to the “lovely intangibles” that make present life worth living and everlasting life possible. No wonder the vast majority of people throughout time have believed in a spiritual world as well as a material one.

  1. We must take time, clear our minds, be where we are, and focus.

A tour bus pulled up outside Mycenae in Greece and about 50 travelers disembarked. Chatting wildly, with smart phones in hand, they walked around the ruins of the ancient village, snapping selfies and texting friends. A Greek tour guide fed them a few morsels of history, but few listened. They climbed over 3000-year-old ruins, danced to American pop music, texted, and discussed boyfriends and singers. Within 20 minutes, they loaded back on to the bus and rode off to do the same at a different site.

Though they seemed to be having a good time, such a way of experiencing Mycenae will not likely lead to knowledge about ancient Greece. At a site such as Stonehenge, such an experience will not likely bring spiritual enlightenment. Constant physical stimulation, whether from music, pictures, words, or something else, prevents us from hearing the voice of our own thoughts. An unrelenting stream of stimuli from our phones consumes our attention and prevents us from thinking about past or future. We cannot fully experience where we are. When my daughter Rachel was in middle school, a friend had her smart phone taken away for a week. The friend confided that she was desperate to get her phone back because scary thoughts crept into her mind through all of the quiet.

Fully being in the moment is tough in every age, but smart phones and other new media make it worse. Past and future pains and pleasures, or the anticipation thereof, robs us of our moments – the stuff the life is actually made of. If we do not force ourselves to take time, clear our minds, be where we are, and focus, we will never sense the spiritual.

  1. We must know something about the place we are at.

A wide variety of peoples used Stonehenge over thousands of years as a burial place, a crematorium, and as a site for religious rituals, which probably included ancestor worship and astronomical observations. Archaeologists excavating Stonehenge have found the bones of a teenager from the Mediterranean, a metal worker from Southern Germany, and a man from Brittany in France. Roman coins and other artifacts abound. Historians know little of the specifics of what happened at Stonehenge, but much about life during its heyday; in the millennia before Christ. People lived in wooden shelters, and fed themselves by hunting, gathering, fishing, and farming. There was little leisure time, and no one was literate. Violence was commonplace, and life was short for the Celts, Saxons, and others.

Knowing about the lives of the people at Stonehenge helps us imagine who they were, what they thought, and what they did. We can imagine how they dealt with discouragement, disease, destitution, disability, and death – issues common to all humanity, including us. Imbibing part of their sense of the spiritual can heighten our sense.

For the informed Stonehenge is a place of wonder while for the uninformed, it is a pile of rocks.

  1. We must go to spiritual places.

In one sense, God made all of the universe, so no single place is more sacred, more holy, or more spiritual than any other. In another sense, man throughout history has considered some locations more spiritual than others. Events, people, and sensory experiences make the difference in how spiritual we consider a place to be. While God made Los Angeles through the hands of men just as He did Jerusalem, no one considers the former to be as sacred as the latter. Places also become spiritual through the roles they play in individual lives. Cemeteries are the classic example.

Throughout the world, most people die at home. Even in America, until the past century, most people died at home. Death was a common part of life, and virtually everyone had seen a friend or family member pass. The living visited the graves, and celebrated the lives, of those who had gone before them. Pastor Don Davidson of the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, noted that funeral services and cemeteries are places where he can best encounter Christ. He and his wife Audrey visit the grave of Baptist Missionary Lottie Moon (1840-1912) every Christmas season.

The natural world feels intensely spiritual. All but the most obtuse of us revel in the glory of the sunrise, and the intricacy of a flower. Who cannot feel tiny and even insignificant when looking at a storm on the ocean, or the immensity of the night sky?  How can we not wonder at the flight of a bird, or the strength of a lion?

To go to Jerusalem, Stonehenge, Lourdes, Mecca, Borobudur, Amritsar, or thousands of other sites throughout the world, is to participate in the great events that happened there and join with the millions who encounter the spiritual there. Office buildings, malls, schools, and stadiums are important places in our modern lives. Manmade structures are man sized, ultimately tailored for us. We spend most of our time in such places, and indoors. In so doing, we shield ourselves from the numinosity of nature, and the spirituality of sacred sites. No wonder we can’t “feel it.”

A Christian Perspective

To know the Bible is to know the spiritual realm, good and bad. Every religion, and many non-religious philosophies, touch the spiritual.  Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, animists, and pagans have real, and often intense spiritual experiences. Mormons claim that you will know Mormonism is true when you “feel a burning in your bosom.” The important question is not whether a religion generates a spiritual experience – they all do. The real question is whether or not that experience leads one closer to a saving knowledge of Christ, and then growth in His likeness. King Saul had a genuine spiritual experience at Endor (1 Samuel 28), as a later Saul did on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), but only one of those experiences ended in salvation.

Christians need to experience, not flee, experiences in which they can sense the spiritual. Paul did not reason his way to faith – he found Christ through an experience. However, we must test the spirits and ensure that the experiences that we crave lead us to, not away from, our God. The same is true for the non-believers in our lives. Followers of Jesus can help those around us to have genuine experiences in Him.

Conclusion

I do not know if the woman who asked the question was a Christian. Her question, and my answer described in the majority of this article, regarded spirituality, not Christianity. Followers of Jesus should seek to sense the spiritual in accordance with the Biblical testimony. Spiritual experiences are vital to life, but only those that ultimately promote eternal life. Sensing the spiritual is an important skill, but like all other skills, can be used for good or for ill. Eternal life hangs in the balance.