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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Will You Not Come Down?

These are Gandalf’s words to Saruman in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. Saruman, once Saruman the White, had allowed a lust for power and greatness to corrupt him. But in this scene he stands in the window of his tower surrounded by the ruins of his kingdom. Gandalf invites him to forsake evil and arrogance—to join in the protection of many good things in Middle Earth.

Yet it is Saruman’s invitation to Gandalf that first caught my attention. With a gentle and persuasive voice Saruman invites him to forsake his rag-tag friends and join him:

Are we not both members of a high and ancient order, most excellent in Middle-  earth? Are we not both members of a high and ancient order, most excellent in Middle-earth? Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions!  . . . Will you not come up?

I have felt, and in my heart, heard this invitation many times during my forty years in academia.  I am not saying any corrupt colleague has asked me join some evil conspiracy. But I have heard the invitation to forsake my rag-tag Christian community and join those who look at Christians with amusement, condescension, and today, rage. Hobnobbing with those who have read the books I have read, have a passion for ideas, and have a grasp of history is fun and wrapped in the fragrance of superiority.

Let’s be honest, Christians may have hobbit’s virtues, but they can also have their vices: provincialism, suspicion of outsiders, isolationism, pettiness. I have been tempted to climb into academia’s towers of sophistication to escape them. One of my older and more astute students expressed great surprise at the discovery I was a believer because, “You seem intelligent.” Yes, yes I am, and I belong in the Council of Wizards. But the voice of Saruman no longer has any power over me. Over the years I have heard it too often and know the emptiness and misery behind it. Like Gandalf I have become merrier as I have aged. After Saruman words had woven a tempting tapestry of greatness, Gandalf simply laughs and, “The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.”

After laughing Gandalf asks Saruman, “Will you not come down?” I certainly haven’t become Gandalf the White, but this invitation to Saruman has filled my heart. I know many who could do great good if they were humble enough to come down from towers of intellectual arrogance. Those rich in knowledge, like those rich in goods, find it hard to enter the kingdom of God as a little child or a short hobbit.

Sadly, Saruman refuses Gandalf’s offer of redemption. But it was important to invite him to come down. It is important to show mercy to the Gollums—the down and out and ugly. But it is equally important to extend mercy to the “up and out” whose souls are misshapen by pride and deception. We must invite them to join the meek who inherit middle-earth.

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Hi, Sweetie

For several years I have been called “Honey” and “Sweetie” by the ladies pumping gas at the local service station. I guess I should be offended, but this is how they address every customer—men and women, old and young. It has nothing to do with my good looks. There is no hint of harassment.

I like it. The ladies often look tired but are cheerful anyway. There is a goodness and perhaps quiet heroism in their good cheer. The years, many hard I suspect, have creased their faces, and their ages are hard to guess. They are like those hardworking waitresses across America who ask, “What can I get you, honey?” and with those words make a diner feel like home.

These ladies at the pumps deserve a medal for calling humanity “honey.” There is nothing sweet about most of us, especially when gas is over five dollars a gallon. I lack the gentle affection for humanity that they express all day long. In this area, they are my teachers.

But I am learning. I am too tired and life is too hard for me to judge anyone, young or old. Yesterday, I talked to Joe, my mechanic, who explained that in the last couple years his son and his sister died, and more recently his wife died. He had just undergone treatments for a tumor behind his eye. He then said, “But God has given me a good life.” I could almost hear Jesus saying, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Without much theology or church, Joe had faith. I didn’t call Joe “Sweetie”, but it was a sweet moment.

As the afflictions of growing old batter me, and the deaths of friends and family encircle me, I feel the affection for others that survivors feel toward each other. We see this bond among those collapsing at the end of a marathon or those piling out of a lifeboat that just made it to shore.

About once a week, I take two meals to a childhood friend down the street. We eat together.  We survived Myrtle Point High School and Myrtle Crest Junior High together. He gets around with a walker these days, even though he is my age. I am not sure why, perhaps it was a boy thing, but in junior high we called each other the most insulting names we could think of: butt-breath, maggot-head, and worst of all, the name of a science teacher we disliked. My farewell to him is likely to be, “Well, good-bye butt-breath, I will be praying for you.” This was our old-fart way of saying, “Bye sweetie!”   

I heard someone complain about the ladies at the pump: “Why are they calling me honey or  sweetie? They don’t know me! I am not their honey!” This is a reasonable response, I suppose. And it would be, perhaps, more justified if it were men calling women “honey.” However, I think it misreads these ladies. I prefer to celebrate this affection for people—this affirmation that there is something sweet in being made in the image of God.

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On Phobes and Phobias

I will not be calling anyone a Christophobe because they rail against Christians. In fact, I make no use of any of the “phobes”: homophobe, transphobe, Islamaphobe. Here is why.

First, a phobia is an unreasonable fear of something. Yet, these phobias are applied to anyone who fails to completely support the positions of these different groups. Too often anyone who opposes anything argued for by gay activists is called homophobic. The term is often used without any connection to fear or without bothering to show that a fear is unreasonable.

Second, I can’t read minds. If someone is spewing hate toward Christians, I can’t look into their mind and know if they are motivated by fear, hate, or a terrible experience with people who claim to be Christians. When we accuse someone of having a phobia without really knowing them, we make the arrogant claim that we can read their mind and know their motives. And even if they are motivated by fear, given their understanding (or misunderstanding) of history and their own encounters with mean Christians, their fear may be reasonable.

This leads to my last reason: almost all religions and groups have expressions that should be feared. If the phobic language were used to discuss which fears are reasonable and unreasonable, it might be useful. But it is not. We can look at times when state sanctioned Christianity resulted in a terrible loss of personal liberty, terrible cruelty, and the loss of life. We can also look at places today where Islam is used to justify honor killings, discriminate against women, and the persecute other religions. One does not need to be a Islamaphobe to regret the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. The track record of Islamic countries supporting women’s rights, democracy, freedom of religion, and a free press is not encouraging.

In the end, the use of phobic language is nothing more than name-calling. It is name-calling that ends discussion and shuts-down debate. Calling someone a phobe cancels them and invites others to silence them. It makes impossible sincere (and needed) debate about what fears are reasonable and unreasonable and why. Christians should call no one a “Christophobe”, but instead love them, listen to their concerns, and patiently answer with facts, logic, and compassion.  

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