The Nazarene Thing and Melted Butter

I didn’t know my grandfather well. As the youngest of my three brothers, I got to know grandpa mostly while a college student at NNC. He and Grandma Jewel live on Ivy street—a short walk from the campus. Even so, I didn’t hang out much at their house except when my parents came to visit. I could have learned much.

My Nazarene roots go deep. Grandpa’s Mallalieu’s Dad was William Columbus Wilson who had started some Nazarene churches in California, worked with Phineas Bresee, and briefly was the fifth general superintendent in the newly formed denomination. Grandpa had pastored and worked as a dean, registrar, and speech teacher at Nazarene colleges. My own father was a third generation ordained Nazarene pastor.

I only listened to or understood a few of Grandpa’s stories. Grandpa Mallalieu had seen the good, bad, ugly of the church over the years. He had no illusions and many stories about battles with legalists within the denomination. Although growing up in a new denomination that preached heart holiness, grandpa had many stories about the ugly behavior of some leaders.

There is one story, however, that has always stuck with me even though the details are fuzzy. Grandpa had a wonderfully wrinkled face—not the small wrinkles of a prune but something more like a plowed field. And when he told this story, his wrinkles came to life. The story was about an evangelist coming to his church to preach two weeks of revival services. The first week attendance was low and the people wooden. On Saturday, my grandfather and the evangelist were discouraged. Together they walked out to the center of a vacant lot near the church. One of them picked up a stick and made circle in the dirt. They told God they would not leave the circle until God gave them a fresh outpouring of His Spirit.

Together they prayed in this vacant lot—taking turns crying out to God for more of His presence and power in their lives. Suddenly, Grandpa said, the heavens opened and God poured out His Holy Spirit on them like melted butter. I remember Grandpa’s glistening eyes, the catch in his voice, and the tears in the creases around his eyes as he spoke. The second week of revival services, the Holy Spirit moved powerfully—with many seeking salvation or rededicating their lives.

Perhaps this story resonates with me because of my own experience in high school. It was the height of the Jesus movement and the local Methodist pastor had brought a Christian rock band that played at the high school and at the local church. The pastor had opened her home to the kids after the concert. God’s spirit was moving and kids were getting saved. One of the members of the band, The Brethren, asked me if I would like to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I had been saved as a kid in a Nazarene Church in Walla Walla, and I had made many trips to the altar to get that second blessing, sometimes called sanctification, but I was always open to more of God. The young guy with shaggy hair put a hand on me and prayed. Immediately, a warm electric cloud settled upon me. Electricity seemed to dance on my face. The band member said, “You can speak in tongues if you like.” I did, but it was the burst of joy coming out of me that I remember most. I could not stop smiling.

Although serving in the Nazarene church here in Myrtle Point for the last 30 years, Teckla and I have not been members of the denomination since the 80’s. We both, however, deeply value that the Church of the Nazarene has called people to live holy lives and has nourished a hunger for God that makes us cry out for more of His Spirit. As an outsider that loves the denomination, I hope Nazarenes never forsake or crowd out their defining emphasis on seeking and a deeper cleansing and a closer walk with God. I hope their is always room for melted butter.

My life has punctuated with four or five “melted butter” and “electric cloud” moments full of holy joy. To be honest this is not just a Nazarene, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, or charismatic thing. It is a longing for something more than an intellectual consent to a collection of theological propositions.

It is a God thing—a hunger for God himself upon us, in us, moving and working through us.

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Humble Pie

I have scratched humility off the list of virtues I need. Growing old is humbling enough. I, of course, have many other areas that need attention. But aging is doing a fine job of keeping me humble.

Earlier this school year, I couldn’t find my briefcase. I was quite certain that I had left it at school in my office. After looking for it everywhere, I remembered that the last time I used it, I had moved it from a chair and put it on the trash can next to my desk. I am certain the new janitor assumed it was part of the trash and disposed of it.

My briefcase, like me, was a wreck. The stitching had unraveled, and latches were loose.  I had backed over it once in the driveway. I never asked the janitor about it because I had, after all, put it on the trash can, and it did look ready for the dump. I just took it as a sign that my decision to retire this spring was right.

The surgery to remove my prostate was also humbling. The whole industry built around prostate problems moves patients through the process quickly and without much concern for their dignity. The catheter was uncomfortable and embarrassing. I have been teaching in sweatpants. I taught one class with urine bag strapped to my leg, and I have traded my briefcase for a diaper bag until everything heals. I am too often like a pitcher adjusting his “cup” before a pitch—but without a fast ball. None of this is terrible compared to what many go through regularly. But it is all humbling. Post-surgery, a good bowel movement and good day are the same thing.  

American culture and its obsession with youth has also humbled me. I can barely keep up with technological innovations even though I teach online courses. In my attempts to connect literature to popular culture, I quickly realize all my references to The Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel are useless. My mention of Cardi B. only brings embarrassed giggles from my students.  

In academia, fads sweep through so quickly that a teacher is out of date a few years out of graduate school. After a three decades, one feels like a dinosaur. If one does learn the current passwords of academic respectability, it is nearly impossible, at my age, to use them without irony. Pride in my wealth of experience and wisdom is no temptation. The longer I live, the less I know and the less certain I am about what I know.  

Yesterday as we were driving down the hill to the Presbyterian church, my grandson, Ari, declared, “Pa is famous!” My name was on the reader board as the guest speaker. This was both funny and humbling. It is wonderful that the pinnacle of my fame is a reader board in front of little church in Myrtle Point.

Pride has always been regarded, rightly, as one of the deadliest sins. So I suppose, I should be careful not to be proud of my humility—if that is even possible. Nevertheless, not having to work on humility will give me time to work on the discipline of joy—lest I become an old man humbly mumbling and grumbling into his beard.

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The Grammar of Faith

I am an English teacher, so I notice grammar even when reading the Scripture. I have found the  grammar of the Psalms especially encouraging when facing difficult times. A number of psalms possess a grammatical structure that expresses the essence of faith in the midst trials.  

The grammar of Psalms 13 swings on “but”, the coordinating conjunction in verse five:

            (1) How long, O Lord? Wilt Thou forget me forever?
                   How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me?

             (2) How long shall I counsel in my soul,
                   Having sorrow in my heart all the day?
                   How long will my enemy be exalted over me?

            (3) Consider and answer me, O Lord, my God;
                  Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

            (4) Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,”

                  Lest my adversaries rejoice when I am shaken

            (5) But I have trusted in Thy lovingkindness;
                   My heart shall rejoice in Thy salvation.

             (6) I will sing to the Lord,
                   Because He has dealt bountifully with me.

The “but” connects his trust in the God’s kindness to all the complaints, fears, and doubts in the preceding verses. The difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions is that coordinating conjunctions present what comes before and after them as equally important. One truth is not subordinate to the other.  It is also true that they seldom make any explanatory claims like subordinate conjunctions such as “because” or “since”.

When I was younger, I rushed through the first part of Psalm 13 to get to verse five. The “how longs” sounded whiny. During my sojourn with charismatic triumphalism, I wondered if the psalmist was wrong to recognize the strength of his enemies. His claim to be near death seemed melodramatic. I was glad when David snapped out of it and celebrated God’s goodness and bounty.  

I now believe the first four verses are as important as the last two. Here, and in other psalms, we encounter honesty about the psalmist’s experience and reality. David tells us the truth about what is in his life and his heart. Such honesty is often not celebrated in Christian communities. Many declarations before the conjunction would receive a rebuke or correction. The “how longs”, for instance, might be met with an exhortation to trust in God’s sovereign timing. Complaints about enemies would be met with exhortations to love and pray for them.

But we should not diminish the power of Christian realism. When we dress up our trials in the trite rags of Christian cliches, we fail to let our light shine in the darkness. Honesty about ourselves, our failures, doubts, and fears gives power to our faith when we declare, “But as for me, I trust in Thee, O Lord” (Psalm 31:14). The world is looking to the church for spiritual reality and authenticity—but often not finding it. Faith declared the midst of the darkness and the pain of our brokenness makes the Word flesh, dwelling among us in our day to day lives.

As mentioned already, these coordinating conjunctions (and, yet, but), don’t explain much. The first four verses are not offered as a reason for trusting. The next two verses don’t explain God’s delay or absence. David simply says, “This is true, but this also is true.” This where many of us live. For instance, I am having surgery for cancer, but I believe God heals the sick. I am putting my body in the hands of a surgeon, and my surgeon in the hands of God.

Realism, however, that never gets to the “but”, isn’t realism.  God has entered history and entered our lives.We must be honest about the faithfulness of God, the fact of resurrection, our hope of glory.The “but” or “but for me” expresses our choice to believe. It is where we take a stand and stake our tent. Our experience, or lack of it, is not the final authority or last word.

This conjunction, “but”, is the hinge upon which all our faith swings. Jesus died but rose again. With man there is little hope, but with God all things are possible. Evil seems to reign, but Jesus is coming again. In this world we face many tribulations, but we should be of good cheer because Jesus has overcome the world.

The hinge can get rusty, stubborn, and squeaky. Singing Christmas carols at the Presbyterian church last night gave my hinge a needed shot of oil. I found my heart swinging open to God’s love. Israel had waited long, but her king was born in Bethlehem. “How long, O Lord,” was answered on Christmas with “Now!”

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Why Pray? (Part Two)

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication

 with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension,

 shall guard your hearts and your mind. Philippians 4:6

In part one, I addressed a couple theological ideas that challenge the wisdom or usefulness of petitionary prayer. First, if God has already determined everything that will happen, why pray? If God in His meticulous providence is in control of all things, whatever happens is His will. Thus, petitionary prayer is pointless. Second, if God is love and is already doing every loving thing for every person, why should we think that our prayers will move God to be more loving than He already is? Third, some assert that simple communion with God is a higher form of prayer than prayer that asks Him to do something. Seeking just the Giver, and not His gifts is more noble. Last, we are uncomfortable with the idea that some things, things God wants to do, might not happen if God’s people do not pray.

As persuasive as all these arguments may be, they all argue with Scripture and contradict the teachings of Jesus. The Lord’s prayer, after all, is 90% petitionary prayer. Whatever theological difficulties arise when we believe God hears and answers prayer, we must live with them and agree with Scripture that God responds to the prayers of people. Because God desires relationship with us, He calls us to pray. His kingdom advances on the prayers of His children.

Although we must put God and those for whom we pray first in prayer, it is true that prayer doesn’t just change “things”, it also changes us. Paul, in Philippians, presents prayer as the answer to anxiety. He challenges us to be anxious for nothing. In this Paul echoes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where He says, “For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body as to what you shall put on.” Jesus concludes this exhortation by urging His disciples to seek first the kingdom of God, and trust God to take care of all their physical needs.

We should notice that Paul begins his exhortation to pray with “in everything”. I think this is perhaps the first key to prayer giving us peace. We can easily conclude some things too small to deserve God’s attention or we can wrongly divide our lives in secular and sacred realms. It can be tempting to leave God out business decisions. I have known Christian professors who separated their faith in God from their academic life. Bringing all areas of our life under the rule of God, brings the peace of God.

I think a second key to prayer producing peace in us is the phrase “with thanksgiving.” Some Christians have said this means we ought to be thanking God that He has answered our prayers. I see how this can be an expression of faith if done in response to some inner assurance from God about our request. But I think we should always be thanking God for all that He has already done and already given. As memories of God’s goodness flow into our prayers for current concerns, our soul begins to trust and rest in His faithfulness.

We also thank God that He hears our prayers and that He is with us. Honestly, God’s Word doesn’t promise us much this side of heaven. We have no promises that God will spare us from tragedy, sickness, accident, or injury. We are not promised that those we love will never suffer or die. But we are promised that God will never leave us or forsake us. We most easily enter the peace of His presence brings by wrapping our prayers in thanksgiving.

There are concerns and worries that God invites us into instead of out of. These are the concerns we have for those we love. Paul was afraid, for instance, that the church of Galatia was going to exchange salvation by grace for a salvation of works. In II Corinthians after listing many hardships he had endured, Paul adds, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the church.” In Romans Paul says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart” because of love for the Jews, his kinsmen according to the flesh. This is the guy who right before this passage on prayer exhorts us to “rejoice always.” God has called us out of anxiety for ourselves into a loving concern for others. As we pray for those we love, we are given no promise that we will avoid heartbreak. We are given the peace of knowing God is with us and His heart is broken too. We are freed from anxiety about ourselves so we can enter the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. In that fellowship, we find a measure of peace even as carry God’s concerns in our hearts.

Another benefit of surrounding our requests with thanksgiving is that it makes us see. Gratitude opens our eyes to all that is around us. We may see, and love, those whom we have taken for granted. We can find each sunrise and sunset something to celebrate—maybe each breath. When we see and give thanks to all that is around us, we are more alive. We avoid the narrowing of vision caused by anxiety. Teckla and I once got lost along a beautiful creek in Ozark National Forest. But I only know its beauty from memory. At the time, the anxiety of being lost blinded us to the beauty of the creek, the limestone cliffs, and the canopy of hickories and oaks. A peaceful heart beholds the beauty of the moment.

Paul promises in verse seven that the peace of God will guard our hearts and our minds. We should notice that Paul uses the word guard—the Greek word Phroureo—which refers to a sentinel or posted guard. God’s peace is something more than a good mood, something more than the absence of worry. It is the active presence of God protecting us from fear and anxiety. The need for such a guard argues that our hearts and minds have an enemy which seeks to harm us. God’s peace is vigilant.

Because I tend to be overly analytical, I have often taken comfort that Paul says the peace of God passes all understanding. I can come up with a hundred and one realistic reasons I should worry. I can point out theological reasons why we should not expect God to carry the burdens we seek to place upon him. Sometimes I, perhaps all of us, just need to quiet our souls and listen to God.

Once our heart is settled into the peace of God, we discover that in the quiet God speaks to us. When all our anxious prayers are presented to God and the noise of worry stops, we often have ears to hear His voice. We may hear how God is calling us to become a part of His answer to our prayer. We may, like Isaiah, hear God ask, “Whom shall I send?” We may come out of our time of prayer energized and directed by God. Like Isaiah, we may say, “Here I am. Send me!”

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High Noon Atheist

My spiritual crisis is usually a “bright day of the soul” rather than the “dark night of the soul” described so well by St. John of the Cross. It comes at noon in the dry days of August or early September. We have had a hot and dry end to the summer in Myrtle Point. We have had days without a cloud in the pale blue sky. At noon even the crows and jays are quiet. The grasshoppers are still too until my steps in the dry grass open their wings.

In this dry silence, I wonder if this is all there is: light, hard surfaces, matter. What if the hard material world explained by physics is all there is? What if there is no spirit in me—just tissue. And no spirit in or beyond the world—just matter and energy forever. The thought invites relief. I could cease striving and know there is no God. Yes, it makes all meaningless. But it would bring a rest from trying to make sense of God, suffering, and Scripture.

In these moments, the silence of an August noon can feel like the silence of the cosmos. I look over the edge of a bright and sunny abyss. My spiritual vertigo fades as the sun sets and the day cools. Shadows begin to reclaim the land as the sun angles green through the forests. The green radiance of the filtered sun sings in the trees.

Autumn brings the shadows sooner and the alders, maples, and poison oak streak the evergreens with red and yellow. The cooler, damper mornings bring the smell of fallen leaves and musky blend of smoke and decay. Mortality and change are everywhere. Eternity is closer, no matter what the reports from the doctor say.

I sometimes think that as I hang my chin over the edge and stare into the abyss, there is someone beside me. Perhaps God, looking with me. He says, “It is a long way down!” I say, “Yep. Let’s go home.” And we rise.

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Why Pray?

Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. James 5:16

This may seem like an odd question to ask, especially from a pulpit, and perhaps one with a terribly obvious answer.  Nonetheless, I think it is a question with which every believer wrestles. We struggle with this question even though answer is obvious: the Bible tells us to pray. However, without a clear understanding of why we ought to pray, our prayers are feeble, perfunctory, and sparse—a rotten mustard seed.

Of course, not all prayer is asking God for something. Prayer includes praise and thanksgiving, but biblically understood prayer almost always includes petitioning God for something—asking for His kingdom to come, asking for our daily bread, asking for forgiveness. So, when we ask, “Why pray?” we are seeking to understand why we ought to be asking God for things. At the risk, of raising questions some have never considered, let me present some reasons for not praying.

First, if the sovereignty of God is understood as Him ordering all events according to His will, it is hard to understand how praying is going change anything God does. If God has from the beginning of time determined everything that happens, then our prayers are not going to change anything. Some have said that “Prayer does not change God, it changes us.” Indeed, we can be changed by prayer. Of course, to be consistent with this idea of sovereignty, we would have to admit that our prayers can’t really change us unless God in His sovereignty has already decided to change us. This therapeutic view of prayer changing us is popular because it avoids the uncomfortable idea that God’s will may not be accomplished because His people have not prayed.

To be fair, even though Augustine and Calvin uphold God’s absolute control over all events, both say prayer remains important because God has sovereignly decided to do some things in response to our prayers. But this raises the question of whether we freely choose to pray or if we simply wait for God to cause us to pray. Calvin and Augustine, to be consistent, must regard a decision not to pray as the result of God’s sovereign will and providence. Nonetheless, I think few believers can grasp or explain how meaningful prayer and God’s absolute control are compatible.

A second reason for not praying is the assertion that God is love and is always acting in love toward everyone to the fullest measure. Some see the idea that God will do more for someone because of our prayers as denying God’s loving character. Is God going to heal someone just because we prayed? Doesn’t God already love them enough to heal them? Do we really need to persuade God to love others more? God is, after all, love. It seems reasonable to trust God to do what is best for those we love without us nagging Him with our prayers and intercession.

Third, isn’t simple communion with God, without us asking Him for things, a higher form of prayer? Isn’t it more spiritual, some say, to seek the Giver instead of the gifts? Combined with a fatalistic resignation to God’s sovereign will, this approach to prayer can appear spiritually superior to petitionary prayer. This higher form of prayer stops at “Our Father, hallowed be Thy name.” It skips, “Give us our daily bread.” It seems like a less selfish and more spiritual way of praying.

So why pray? The answer really is, “Because the Bible says so”. But to pray with purpose, energy, and faith we must believe all the other things the Bible says about prayer even if it challenges our theology.

First, we must believe God acts in response to our prayers. We can admit He may not act when we want or how we want, but we must believe God acts. This is certainly the point James makes in chapter five when he urges the elders to pray for the sick. His claim that the “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” is followed up by the example of God answering Elijah’s prayer for rain. Psalm after psalm celebrates a God who hears the cries of His people and responds with salvation, deliverance, protection, and redemption. We should believe that prayer, especially the prayers of the weak and oppressed, change history.

If we argue that asking God to do things is unspiritual or less spiritual, we are arguing with Jesus. In Luke 18 Jesus exhorts us to pray without losing heart by telling the story of widow who persistently demanded justice from an unjust judge. Luke presents the purpose of the parable as being “to show that all times they ought to pray and not lose heart.” No matter how much it may trouble our theology, the parable clearly teaches that some things happen and don’t happen because of our persistence in prayer.

If this parable is not clear enough, in John 14 we find Jesus telling His disciples, “And whatsoever you may ask in my name, that will I do that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” Again, in Chapter 15, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.” And again. in the next chapter, “Until now you have asked nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.” No one can be a “red-letter Christian” and deny that Jesus urges us to ask.

We should pray because we belong to a king and a kingdom that is invading the kingdom of darkness. Think about it, if God is in absolute control of all things in the world, why would Jesus teach us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” The Lord’s prayer only makes sense if there are things on earth that are not His will and places where His kingdom has not yet come.

Saying, “Thy will be done” is not passive resignation to God’s will. It is not saying “Whatever” to God. It is flying a banner welcoming King Jesus. It is blowing a trumpet announcing a new king! Is throwing open the gates of hearts, families, and lives to the rule of God! If Adam and Eve’s faith in the words of the serpent could bring about the fall of humankind, the corruption of creation, and death, what will our prayers bring when we place our faith in God’s Word and son Jesus? After Paul’s detailed description of spiritual warfare and putting on the armor of God, he concludes with an exhortation to pray:

With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and prayer for the saints. Ephesians 6:18

Even though there is no doubt that God has called us to pray, and to pray with the expectation that God acts in response to our prayers, we still haven’t answered the question as to why God has called us to pray or why He advances His kingdom through the prayers of His people. Jesus, after all, in the Sermon on Mount declares that our Father in heaven already knows what we need before we ask him. So why ask?

The answer to this question is not found in any one verse, but rather in the whole sweep of Biblical revelation. God desires relationship with his creation. He long for us to rule with Him, not just under him. It is not control that is at heart of God’s glory! It is love and relationship. The result of this is that God has ordained to work through His people. In I Corinthians 3:9, Paul speaks of being a fellow worker with God. In I Thessalonians 3:2 Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother and God’s co-worker in the gospel of Christ.

We are part of God’s project, and his project is centered on relationship. It is not that God needs us; it is that He wants us. He has called His people, the church, to become a bride for His Son. The whole of history marches to a Wedding. So, relationship with God is central to all God’s purposes. Prayer matters because it keeps us in relationship.

My last reason for praying is more personal, even though Biblical. I am greatly encouraged by the story of the Roman centurion Cornelius who becomes the first Gentile in Acts to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10 we are told that he gave alms to the people and “prayed continually. One day an angel appears to him and tells him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” He is instructed to send for Peter who comes and preaches about Jesus. In the middle of his sermon the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and his whole household.

Because of this story, I pray to build-up memorials of prayer before God. I have built them for my children, for churches, and for cities, especially Myrtle Point. I do not know how this works, but I believe at the right time my prayers combined with your prayers will release the power of God to make the hearts of people in our town tender toward God.

I also believe my prayers raise up a shield of protection over my children and friends.   When the accuser of the brethren demands his rights to those who have strayed into his territory, I believe my prayers give God just reason to show mercy and pour out grace. I have no wealth or land to give my children and grandchildren. But I can give my heart. I can pray.  

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My Functional Atheism

I fear that regarding my health decisions, I am a functional atheist. By that I mean I make decisions no differently than a wise atheist would. For instance, I was told after a blood test for my PSA levels that 40% of those with this score test positive for prostate cancer. The urologist recommended, therefore, that I have a biopsy. For a moment I wondered if I could skip the biopsy and trust God that I was in the 60% of men for whom the test did not mean cancer. Could I ask God for that? Could I trust Him to give that?

I decided to leave God out of the decision and just have the biopsy. The biopsy revealed I had prostate cancer. It is, of course, possible that trusting God may have been the right decision even though I have cancer. Some prostate cancer is slow growing; many men die of other things before the prostate cancer has a chance to kill them.

I have no suspicion that God gave me cancer because of my unbelief. But it is possible, according to the gospels, that I have received from God what my level of faith has allowed me to receive. Jesus told two blind men, “According to your faith, be it unto you” and then healed them. I don’t want things according to my faith because, if I am honest, I don’t have much regarding healing.

I think in all the decisions Teckla and I made regarding her breast cancer, we were functional atheists. We looked at different procedures and the statistics on survival and re-occurrence rates. Teckla tried chemotherapy because it reduced the re-occurrence of cancer by 8-10% compared with doing just surgery and radiation. Perhaps we should have trusted God for that extra 8—10%. Teckla ended up reacting badly to that first (and only) dose of chemotherapy, and it may have caused some of the brain fog she is now experiencing.

I do surround my health decisions with things an atheist wouldn’t. I have prayed for and thanked God for good doctors. I have thanked God for surgeries that have gone well and thanked Him for all the people that have helped us with long drives to get radiation for Teckla. I have prayed daily for Him to shelter us. But none of this has affected my decisions regarding treatment.

I am comfortable with my functional atheism regarding health decisions, but I am not certain I should be. I am always willing for Scripture to explode my comfort. I do not feel condemned. I feel loved by God and have some peace that He will faithfully bring us safely through the cancer we have faced. But I still question whether I have simply sunk to the level of unbelief that permeates our culture—both Christian and secular. 

I have an excuse. I think I might be ready for an adventure in faith if God appeared to me in a dream, spoke to me through a prophet, sent an angel to visit me, or gave some kind of supernatural indication that it was His will to heal me and that I need not seek treatment. Even a deep assurance in my heart might be enough. I have had none of these. If you say the revelation of Jesus in Scripture should be enough, you are right. My excuse is lame.

I say all this as a believer who has and does pray for the sick. I have seen a few healings—genuine and instantaneous. Some were even people I prayed for. We are told in the gospels that Jesus healed all who came to him. Jesus commissioned his disciples to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. He made healing central to his ministry. And few Christians have had, like Paul, such wondrous revelations in the heavens that they need a thorn in the flesh to keep them humble. If Jesus is the perfect revelation of the Father, then Jesus reveals a God who wants to heal lots of people.  I pray for the sick because Jesus did, and I want to do what He did.

I cannot reconcile these convictions with my functional atheism regarding my own healing. The answer may be that we live in a culture that is drowning in unbelief regarding healing. This has only been made worse by healers full of fakery and exaggeration. It could be that there are times and seasons when God moves miraculously and when He doesn’t. I don’t have answers.

I know I can’t grunt, groan, and strain to produce more faith than I now have. The most I can do is draw close to God, trust in His goodness, celebrate His love, and listen carefully for His Word to call me and draw me out of unbelief.

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On Having Cancer

This week a doctor told me I have prostate cancer. I will be having some scans to see whether there is cancer anywhere else. The doctor says it is most likely that the cancer is localized in the prostate, so it should be treatable, and the prognosis should be good. But with God all things are possible.

I was on campus in meetings when I got the news. I wasn’t sure how to process it. The news made some of the meetings seem trivial. Suddenly, I was miles away as I looked around the room and watched people talk. Later, thoughts of slowing dying of cancer, made the meetings precious gifts.

I had a strong impulse to say whatever I thought—something always dangerous in faculty training sessions. I was ready to slaughter sacred cows and serve them up with a sarcasm sauce. I held my tongue but was amused that I thought cancer gave me a license to speak my mind. I haven’t decided if having cancer is making me more reckless or more courageous.

I also felt that cancer should license my grumpiness. Finally, I have what most would consider a good reason to be crotchety. If anyone challenged me, I would pull out my cancer card and tell them to back off. This too is silly.

Telling myself that many men face and survive prostate cancer was of no help. My father died of it when he was only a few years older than I am. Nor was it helpful when I reminded myself how many people face and endure much worse sickness and suffering. That so many have it much worse is no comfort and never has been. It is, however, a useful truth if you want to club self-pity to death.

Some of my response is frustrated exhaustion. After all Teckla has gone through with breast cancer, and all of Peter’s struggles with diabetes, and all our financial difficulties, having cancer knocks the wind out of me. Perhaps God and I have quite different ideas about what I can handle. I would like to lodge a formal complaint about my loss and trouble exceeding the agreed upon limits, but there is the cross. Not only does the cross of Christ silence me, it crumbles my pride and humbles me into tears of gratitude.

I immediately discovered that I have an aversion to some of the language we use with cancer. We urge people to fight cancer as though it is something we can punch or duel. We say of those who die of cancer that they fought to the end. My main battle, whether short or long, will be with myself. A fight to glorify God in life or death, in health or suffering. A fight to make certain my suffering only gives me a license to serve more selflessly and love more deeply.

I also have an aversion to letting cancer alter my social or personal identity. Some people become very invested in support groups, fund-raisers, walks for life, and wearing some color to raise awareness or money. I have nothing but admiration for anti-cancer activists and fundraising. I don’t think, however, NFL and NBA players wear any color for people with prostate cancer like they do with breast cancer. One can get blue ribbon “awareness pins” for prostate cancer, perhaps representing the color of useless testicles.

It would be great if Teckla or I could testify to how God has used our cancer to deepen our walk with him and draw us into a more intimate relationship with him. I can’t tell that this has or is happening. I am not sure I agree with C. S. Lewis who famously said God whispers in our pleasures but “shouts in our pain.” Job never testified to hearing God in his pain. I think more often pain, loss, and fear create so much static and personal longing that is hard to hear God. We feel further rather than nearer.

I certainly believe that endurance, even in darkness and silence, is rewarded; I just don’t think the rewards are the ones that sell books and fill pews. Nor do I buy the claim that God had to allow the cancer because there was no other way He could accomplish His purposes in my life. I will always celebrate God’s love and creativity in using any evil thing to achieve His good and holy will in my life. But to say God needed to use cancer puts limits on the wisdom and resourcefulness of God. To claim that our suffering is necessary to our growth would forecast an eternity without growth. And since so much suffering is the result of sin, welding suffering to growth makes God dependent on sin.

Having tasks to do and people to love has helped most. I am grateful that Ari, my grandson, is living with us. He is a constant reminder to hear the whisper of God’s voice in small graces and pleasures like a water fight on a sizzling day. I am grateful for a new school year and the useful distraction it offers. It is a privilege to say something true to a new batch of students.

I am also grateful for Christian friends and family that have prayed for us and often helped in tangible ways. Yes, I am aware of how entangled and divided politics has left the church in America. Few have better skills and more practice critiquing the church than I. But for us, the church has been the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus.

I have been sustained by Scripture. Each day for several years now, I have written a key verse on three 3×5 cards. At first, I wrote the verse for Teckla and me. But then Ari asked several times for his card. The simple act of printing the verses three times plants the truth of the verse in my heart. I carry the verse throughout the day, sometimes losing it before the day is over.  I find the cards all over the house, in my office on campus, in books I have marked, and under the seat of the car. Some go through the wash and reappear as a pellet in my jean pocket. Many are bundled with rubber bands and stacked on the shelf—little towers of strength against the enemy

God’s Word has filled my heart with faith that God is a shield, fortress, rock, tower, bulwark, haven, deliverer whose lovingkindness and faithfulness are everlasting. I am uncertain what that means for my affliction—but I am certain God has hold of me and will keep me. He will shelter me in the shadow of His wings until destruction passes by.

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Rage Against the Lie

The other day I was surprised by rage. I was driving a homeless young man to a house. I, and others, had been helping him with blankets, food, drink, and trips to his parole officer. As we headed out of town, he shared how his parents had never been involved much in his life. He had lived with a grandmother and couch surfed a lot.

Suddenly, he ducked down and said, “Shit! I hope he didn’t see me. That’s my younger brother. He’s more messed up with drugs than I am.”

I asked him, “Does that mean I shouldn’t pick him up on the way back?”

“No. Don’t help him. He will steal anything he can get his hands on.”

The brokenness of his family seemed endless. It turned out that the house I dropped my passenger off at belonged to his girlfriend’s brother who had been arrested and would be in jail and eventually prison for several years. The house had no electricity or water, but it was better than the ground he had been sleeping on.

As I pulled away and headed back into town, I began to fume and rant. I felt genuine rage. Not rage at the young man who had politely thanked me for the ride and all the other help. Rage at the big lie that so many have followed into misery, dysfunction, and despair. The destructive power of the lie was unrelenting and pervasive.

The lie has many tentacles, but its essence is that the laws and ways of God must be forsaken for people to be truly happy. It is a lie against the character of God—that somehow God is out to ruin our fun and withhold all the good stuff the world can offer.

The lie is as old as the serpent in the garden, but it was loosed into American culture in a powerful way during the Sixties with its celebration of sex, drugs, rebellion, and rock and roll. But even earlier than this, we see the lie expressed in novels, plays, and poetry that portrayed marriage as oppressive and traditional morality as boring. Bourgeois values were the target throughout the 19th and 20th century. Ticky-tacky houses with white fences were mocked as the American suburban nightmare.

Well, many have escaped that nightmare. The house where I left my homeless friend had a burned-out car in the yard and no utilities. Others who have escaped the nightmare of suburban America sleep in the woods and beg on the corners. Some struggle with mental illness, others with years of life-destroying addiction. Many have families that are blown apart or were never together.

More than in most places, the Sixties never died in Oregon. Many of the counter-cultural values of the Sixties and Seventies have become institutionalized. This has made striking the pose as rebel tricky. No matter how dominant radical values become or how many positions of authority are held by these champions of individualism, radicals of the Sixties and Seventies still want to strike the pose of the lone rebel fighting against the establishment. But it is hard to deny that at most colleges, they have been the establishment for decades. The lie about transgressive morality setting us free has been institutionalized.

There are, of course, some genuine rebels.  I have had a few of these rebels in my classes. They reject recreational sex, marry before having their kids, and don’t abuse drugs. I had one rebel student who reported her parents to the local drug task force because they kept trying to sell drugs to her high school friends. Some rebels have the audacity to go to church and wear pajamas to bed instead of Walmart.

The rejection of common place goods is one of the most virulent expressions of the big lie. But in my work with broken families and those with drug addictions, the simple traditions of families shine like the golden walls of a lost city. My passenger shared how excited he was because this would be the first birthday in seven years that he wasn’t in jail. I wished I had a cake and candles to celebrate his 27th birthday. After we adopted our kids, they declared anything we did twice “a family tradition.”

Another tentacle of the lie is the idolatry of personal autonomy—the supremacy of personal rights and desires. I once taught a college literature class at Powers High School, a small school nestled into the northern edge of the Siskiyou Mountains. We were reading Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House and discussing why the heroine left her husband and family “to find herself.” Few works of literature had done more to popularize the idea of marriage as oppressive. I then asked, “Has making the pursuit of personal identity and happiness the highest good been good or bad for our culture?” We talked about how men in mid-life crises also left families and wives to go find themselves and pursue their dream—often a sports car and younger woman.  

I noticed one girl in the back of the room gently sobbing. As the students filed out of the room at the end of class, I gently asked her if she was okay. She wiped away a few tears and said, “When my mother left my father and me, she said the same thing that Nora said in Ibsen’s play. She said she needed to find herself.” She looked at me and with a breaking voice, and asked, “Why couldn’t she find herself and still be my mother?” I said something lame about how relevant the play was to our lives.  But her question was a good one and pointed out the unacknowledged consequences of the big lie.

We may have left behind the corny sayings of the Sixties about following one’s bliss or doing whatever floats your boat, but self-realization and self-expression reign supreme in our culture. This is part of the big lie—that if we live expressive and transgressive lives, if we eat the forbidden fruit, we can become gods. Or to use more contemporary language, we can realize our inner god principle and determine right and wrong for ourselves. We have been doing this for a while here in Oregon.

The serpent’s lie in the garden was not just a lie against God’s goodness and a lie about the glories of eating of the forbidden tree.  It is also a lie about the goodness of all the other trees God had given. For us the other trees are the many good things of a moral and well-ordered life: a happy marriage, a mother and father raising their children, the satisfaction of hard work, backyard barbecues, grandchildren slipping their hands into yours, and the distant roar of a high school football game on a Friday night.

I have lived long enough in one place to see the generational impacts of the big lie—lives ruined, kids in foster care, single moms holding down a job while working on a degree. Three generations of addiction or incarceration are common. The more compassionate I have become, the deeper my rage against the Lie. What is so intolerable is that so few draw a line between the lie and the misery. The lie skips happily away from the devastation it leaves behind.

I had a wise pastor from the backwaters of Arkansas who would often ask people who rejected God, “How is that working for you?” A few would say “fine”, but most would think awhile and then admit that it wasn’t working too well. As a culture, we aren’t too honest about this. Often, we double-down, and insist that the sexual revolution hasn’t worked because we are still too repressed. The god of personal autonomy hasn’t delivered because there are still a few things that limit us—biology, genetics, age, and gravity.

This is not a call to culture wars. It is a call to reject the lie that true life comes from the forbidden tree. It is an invitation to feast joyously from all the other trees in the garden. It is a call to enjoy a walk with God in the cool of the day. It is call to rage against the lie by living the truth. It is a call to hospitality and compassion toward all those wounded and bewildered by the lie.

Some years back Teckla and I threw a birthday party for a long-time meth addict in Myrtle Point. It was his first party in many years and joy lit up his weathered face. The simple goodness of the party and his laughter was bracing and clean. It gave our friend a taste of what living in the truth might be like. The cake did not end his addiction, but our love pointed to Jesus—the only one strong enough to destroy the Lie. 

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Loving Until the End

Recently the words from the John 13:1 “He loved them until the end” pierced my heart. They are part of John’s prelude to Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. It is His last Passover with them and the end of His ministry. John presents Him washing the feet of the disciples as an example of Jesus loving his disciples to the very end, even Judas who is mentioned in the next verse.

This phrase “until the end” struck me so powerfully because recently I have had opportunities to love my mother and brother until their end. Multiple times I laid hands on both and prayed for their healing. Neither got better, but Mom always said she felt better. Several times in the last couple years, my son Peter has come close to dying from diabetic ketoacidosis. I have stood in a couple ICU’s and asked doctors not to let my son die. We have had practice loving until the end, or possible end, of others.

The health issues Teckla and I face have made us ask what it means for us to love until our end.  We are both retirement age, a time when society tells us that we have right to focus more on our comfort and interests. After all, we have earned some “me time” after raising four boys and working hard for decades. Our lives are so blended by years and love that Teckla and I long for us time—time we are not finding for numerous and inescapable reasons. So how do we love others to the end, when we yearn to be loving each other to the end?

If anyone deserved some “me time,” it was Jesus before His crucifixion. But instead, His focus was on His disciples. He washes their feet then provides, in chapters 14 through 17, encouragement and instruction concerning his departure. In love and words, He pours himself out to his disciples before being betrayed, abandoned, beaten, mocked, and then nailed to a cross.

We might be tempted to dismiss this example of Jesus by arguing, “That was Jesus. Of course, He could love others to the end. He is Jesus. I’m not.” However, Jesus does not let us wriggle off the hook. After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, “For I gave you an example that you should do as I did to you” (13:15). Later Jesus announces a new commandment: “that you love one another, even as I loved you” (13:34). We are commanded to love others the way Jesus has loved us, and that means loving until the end.

As already pointed out, that means loving until their end and our end. The context here includes both. It is the end of Christ’s ministry in the world, but it is also the end for Judas. John is pointing out that Jesus washed the feet of all the disciples, including Judas who betrays Him and Peter who denies Him. Jesus loves Judas to the end.

Close attention to the gospels reveals that it could not have been easy for Jesus to love the disciples until the end. The disciples tried the patience of Jesus by arguing who is the greatest among them, by shooing away children, by lacking faith again and again. After the disciples are unable to cast out a particularly stubborn demon, Jesus says:

O unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put with you? Bring him here to me. (Matthew 17:17)

The disciples failed to stay awake with Jesus as He prayed in the garden before being arrested by the Romans. Yet Jesus, knowing that Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray them, and that the others would abandon him, still loved them until the end. Jesus loved with his last drop of blood.

We face, however, several cultural obstacles to loving until the end. We live in a culture and nation that is obsessed with rights. This can be a good thing if we are busy protecting the rights of others. However, we focus mostly on our rights and are quick to go to court to get what we think we deserve.  Our culture encourages us to decide when we have given enough, put up with enough, and loved enough. We are encouraged to set boundaries and establish limits.

Sometimes good folks, people who unceasingly who serve others, rebel against the injustice of life. Carlo Carretto, a Catholic writer who was a member of fraternity called the Little Brothers of Jesus, talks about the “revolt of the good” in his book Letters from the Desert. He describes how in most families and in church communities the work and the burdens are distributed unfairly. Such unfairness is often long endured without much gratitude or recognition by others. It creates a festering resentment that explodes into a refusal to keep loving, giving, and sacrificing for others–until the person cries, “Basta!” But loving until we have had enough, waited enough, or given enough is not loving until the end.

Another obstacle is the idea, central to the gospel of Facebook, that we need to cut ourselves off from toxic people. Jesus never compromised his message or the truth to please toxic people—whether they be his enemies or his friends. Plenty of His followers deserted him, and Jesus offended His enemies until they sought to kill him. However, we don’t see Jesus setting limits on His love.  Certainly, Judas, who John tells us stole from the disciple’s money box, would qualify as a toxic person. Yet, Jesus washed his feet. We are told by Paul that God demonstrated His love for us “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” and “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 12: 8, 10). Jesus loved and died for us when we were still toxic.

John explains why Jesus could love until the end. Jesus knew who He was:

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into His hand and that he had come from God, and was going back to God, rose from the supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself about. (v.3)

Jesus was perfectly secure in his identity and has nothing to prove. He had no need for the approval or applause of others. He had no concern for his rights.

It is hard to wash the feet of others if we are unsure of our identity as beloved children of the King—as princes and princesses in God’s kingdom. If we are busy scurrying around to get our fair share of recognition, we are never free to serve others. We may grab the basin and towel, but we can’t stop hoping that everyone notices how humble we are. Focus on when we have done enough, loved enough, or given enough (at least more than others) makes it impossible to follow the example of Jesus.

If, however, the Holy Spirit bears witness to our adoption by God and our inheritance in Christ, we can pour water in the basin and wash the feet of others. We can pour ourselves out until nothing is left. God’s Spirit gives us the power to forget about ourselves and love others until the end.

Love never fails. It never fails to be the right choice. It never fails to please God. And loving until the end never fails draw us close to Jesus and the fellowship of His suffering. The more we are like Jesus, the more we are with Him.

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