Going God-blind

For many years I have asked my composition students to write an essay explaining the concept “All men are created equal” within the context of the American experience. I include the original quotation from the “Declaration of Independence” and similar quotations from Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

I urge them to explain in what sense we are truly equal since we certainly aren’t equal in ability, talent, intelligence, athleticism, or beauty. Most evade this question and say we are equal in rights but when pressed admit the concept is claiming a kind of equality that stands as the reason why we ought to have equal rights. It is an inherent equality we possess before, and whether, it is acknowledged by the government.

Some are baffled and conclude that although we aren’t equal, the idea that we are is useful for social order and harmony.  In other words, they believe the claim that we are created equal is a useful fiction. It is useful because being created equal is the best argument for equal rights.

I often urge them to look for clues in the rest King’s speech, the Declaration of Independence, and “The Gettysburg Address.” However, most of my students still draw a blank and instead of explaining the concept, give me a Wikipedia summary of the expansion of equal rights to women and people of color.

Despite King’s speech asking that we “speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,’” most my students make no reference to God as the source of our equality. Even though the “Declaration of Independence” speaks of people being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and begins with an appeal to “Nature’s God”, most students make no reference to God as a source of equality. I try to give some gentle guidance by asking them to explain the significance of the word “created”, but it doesn’t help much.  

In frustration some will demand I explain what “created equal” means. I suggest it may mean that we possess equal worth in the eyes of our Creator and therefore ought to be treated equally. That is why King declares us to be “all God’s children”. We are all created in the image of God, so we have equal value in His eyes. I then use the analogy of good parents valuing all the kids equally even though some may have handicaps.

Most of my students thinks this explanation makes sense and works well, but I am amazed that it occurs to so few—it is as though they have gone God-blind. They read right past the mention of God in their primary texts. I am not certain if this because of how American history is or isn’t taught in high schools or if it is because they think talking about God is simply off-limits in public education. Oddly, my religious and secular students are equally blind to God as the foundation of equality, so this is not a rant against godless Generation Z.  

It is disconcerting that I can so easily persuade my students that it is ludicrous to think we are created equal. They are, to their credit, uneasy about us having rights that match our level of ability and intelligence. However, they are unable to give much more than a pragmatic argument for equal rights for everyone. Also to their credit, they quickly conclude that biochemistry and evolution offer no persuasive arguments for equality.  

Whether one is on the left or right politically, students’ inability to explain what it means to be “created equal” should be alarming.  Going God-blind may open the door for demagogues from both the right and the left. If we are not “all God’s children”, history teaches that it is easy for us to act like the devil’s.

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School Goes to Heaven

One of the delights of these last two years has been picking Ari up after school. All the early grades, pre-K through first grade gather at the little gym in Myrtle Crest. Waiting parents gather outside the doors in a fanned-out crowd. The kids fly out one or two at a time.

Such joy! Kids crash into the arms of dads, bury their smiling faces in their mom’s laps. Unembarrassed, they will let out a loud, “Daddy!” or “Mommy”. The irrepressible Ari still yells, “Pa!” when he sees me.

Parents here in Myrtle Point are a motley crew waiting at the door. Some of the dads have come straight from work and smell like wood and chainsaws. No doubt many families have some dysfunction, some addiction. But never mind, the kids are out and in the arms of those who love them.

I know this joy in seeing Mom and Dad will fade. In later grades, it may be replaced with nods or grunts as teens glance up from their phones, but there is something instructive in how natural and free love comes to these little rockets flying out of the gym. Why should our pride or fear of what others think keep us from loving freely and loudly? We are made to love and be loved. Not much else matters.

Love is probably the main lesson in this school called life. The scene at the school has made me wonder if this is like heaven. I wonder if Mom and Dad are waiting at the door and a perfect Father is waiting to catch us and hold us. I can hardly wait until school is out.

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A Sneaker Wave of Joy

A couple weeks ago my brother, Larry, was knocked down by a sneaker wave. The beach by the Bandon lighthouse was wrapped in a golden/gray haze as the sun moved in and out of the clouds. Larry had wandered past the piles of driftwood onto the sand. The curling waves were far off, but the storms had scoured and flattened the beach, so the waves rolled way up the beach. 

Larry, who is six years older than I, tends to wander off. This is just Larry, not senility. From up the beach, I watched Larry as he stood looking at his phone, taking a picture of the surf. Over the white noise of the ocean, he could not hear me yell as a small wave, maybe only six inches deep, raced quickly and silently toward him. To my relief, Larry finally started moving backward from the wave. Suddenly, however, I couldn’t see his white hair over the driftwood.

Turned out, he had tripped over a rock behind him. He was soaked but fine. His phone, which had floated about twenty feet toward the ocean, was ruined but had video of the sky and him walking up to it on the beach. Even small waves can lift, spin, and fling huge logs around, so Larry was fortunate the wave was spent by the time it reached the driftwood behind him.

Sneaker waves are most common in the winter but can come at any time. They are not tsunamis, and the causes are not fully understood. They may be the random result of small waves combining with other small waves. I have hiked beaches most of my life and have learned to note where wet sand ends and the dry begins. But a sneaker wave can gobble up the dry sand clear into the dunes and driftwood. They are like any other wave, but they keep coming—silently out of the blue.

Last week I was hit by a sneaker wave of joy. It came out of nowhere. On Wednesday night Teckla and I had gone to a “Blue Christmas” service at our church. It was sweet and refreshing. It gave Teckla and I time to grieve, to meditate on Scripture, and to light a candle for the losses in our lives. On Thursday, Teckla and I tackled the big job of dismantling the old piano upstairs. It was heavy and needed to be hauled off piece by piece. It was noisily satisfying—especially pushing a big piece out the front door and down the cement stairs. The chords and discord were delightful.

But neither of these events, though pleasant, were the source of the quiet joy that flooded my soul on Thursday. The joy did not come in a moment of escape, distraction, or fantasy. Our struggles with are unavoidable. Yesterday, Ari asked to visit “Daddy’s stone”, so we took him to where Peter, Stanley, and Mom and Dad are buried. In short, the causes of our grief surround us. Yet, a sneaker wave of joy washed over my heart.

I would like to credit my vibrant prayer life for this joy—but my prayers are desperate and weak. I did not “pray through” to joy. In fact, my prayer on Thursday was, “God, whether you like it or not, I am yours. I am not going anywhere.” Not exactly mountain-moving prayer. And this inspiring prayer of consecration was more the result of joy—not the cause of it.

Nor did my joy flow from surprisingly good circumstances. On Thursday I came home from the men’s Bible study only to discover rain had poured under the door of the back porch and the roof was leaking into the bathroom. Teckla threw towels on the back porch, and I climbed out on the roof with wet-patch.

It seems I will be unable to monetize my joy, or even get a good sermon. I will not be writing “Five Steps to Find Joy in Trauma.” The joy did, however, over-flow some when I got gas on Friday. Out of the blue, I asked Rodney at the gas station if I could pray for Jesus to heal his back pain. I am seldom so bold. I don’t know yet if Jesus did. Nonetheless, my speaking seminars on joy will have to wait.

Even worse, I do not know how to repeat the experience—taste once again the bracing tang and sweetness of the joy. What can’t be repeated can’t be repackaged or tucked away for a rainy day. There is no app for joy.

I am content with my sneaker wave of joy. It smelled and tasted like eternity. This joy, though quiet and small, was remarkably powerful—untouched by anything on earth yet touching all things.

Sneaker waves come to those who walk along the edge of land and sea. All I can do is be grateful and walk on the edge of my faith. Until swept away.

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Flint

Tremble, earth before the Lord

Before the God of Jacob, Who turned the rock into a pool of water,

The flint into a fountain of water. Psalm 114:17—18

Does it ever seem that God delivered you out of the frying pan and into the fire? The Israelites often felt this way in their exodus from Egypt. After camping at Elim, a place with 12 springs and seventy date palms, the Israelites were led into the wilderness without much food. There they grumbled, “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt when we sat by the pots of meal, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly of hunger.” They thought, “At least we would have died fat and happy.”

Despite their whiny attitude and lack of faith, God sent them manna. Soon, however, they are in the wilderness again—this time without water. They again grumbled against Moses, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” God instructs Moses to strike the flint with his staff. Water springs forth and all the people and their animals drink.

In the past, I have always felt outrage at the Israelite’s failure to trust God. After the miracles in Egypt, the parting of the sea, and the manna, how could they not trust God? Not only did they not trust God’s deliverance, but they doubted His good intentions. They did not trust His love. How dare they grumble and doubt His goodness!

I am, I have discovered, an Israelite. I have survived (thus far) prostate cancer. Teckla has survived breast cancer and the removal of her gall bladder. Together we are (thus far) surviving the death of Peter, our oldest son.  God has brought us through much, Teckla is now experiencing progressive dementia. Has God saved Teckla from cancer just so she could go through the long death of dementia? Has God given us grace to endure the agony of losing a child, just so we can wander in the bewilderment of dementia?

I don’t know. However, the story of God bringing water from the flint became central to how Israel understood God. In Psalm 114:18 the God of Jacob is identified as the one “who turned the rock to a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of water.”

I know this: God can bring life from hard things. Cancer was hard, dementia harder. But I serve a God who can bring life and blessing from the hardest things. Nothing in my life has been as hard as facing Teckla’s dementia. It is flint, and it is hard to believe more than my tears will flow from it. I want to tremble not before her dementia but before the Lord, the God of Jacob.

Unlike the Israelites, I am convinced of God’s kind intentions and limitless love. For those who have put their faith in Jesus, God will crack open death itself—the hardest rock we face—and bring forth resurrection, joy, and life. I trust in a God who can bring life from flint, whether that be healing, enduring, or death. God will make the flint a fountain.

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An Untrue Romance

A true confession: I am guilty of romanticizing the early church—a lot, not a little. Long ago, during the Jesus Movement, I fell in love with the first five chapters of Acts. (My favorite band was even The 2nd Chapter of Acts). I loved the promise of Pentecost and power one high—the miracles, and the extraordinary love for one another.

When I read of Pentecost and the weeks following, I thought, “Wow, they have both holiness and power!” The “both” caught my attention because I was a 4th generation member of The Church of the Nazarene. Their distinctive doctrine focused on the power of the Spirit to entirely sanctify us and remove our bent toward sin. When I looked at the love and unity of the early church in Acts 2, I saw holiness.

Partly because of the Jesus Movement, I noticed that there wasn’t just purity of heart in Acts 2, there was power. In fact, when talking about Pentecost, Jesus told His disciples “you shall receive power when Holy Spirit is come upon you”. Power! In the Nazarene tradition that power was understood as sanctifying power—the strength to live holy lives. But it was hard to ignore that in Acts, the power to heal was an important engine for church growth.

Most importantly, I made a fundamental shift in my hermeneutical approach to Acts. I had always approached Acts as merely a history of the early church. But what if, I asked, Acts was not just an account of what was, but a picture of what ought to be. What if Acts is normative and not just descriptive? As a thought experiment, I removed from Acts everything that was an expression or a result of the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Almost nothing was left.

I quickly made the power and purity of the New Testament Church the goal of my heart, and even my life. The power emphasized by the Pentecostals and charismatics would, I thought, be joined to the holiness message of the Nazarenes. We could reject the false choice between the fruit of the Spirit or the gifts of the Spirit. We would seek to express both the character and the ministry of Jesus. With another former Nazarene, I helped start a small gathering of the church dedicated to being as “New Testament” as possible.

It turned out to be harder than I thought it would be. Much prayer did not turn into much power. Purity of heart was more elusive than one prayer of consecration. Dying daily to self, it turned out, was daily. And then there were, over the years, some scandals, some divorces, and some fakery among the groups with which I fellowshipped.

So, I have returned to Acts with different eyes—perhaps eyes both weary and wary. I have read chapter six where the Hellenistic Jews and the traditional Jews were complaining of discrimination in the care of widows. Wait! Are these the same folks who in chapter two had all things in common? Who in chapter four “were of one heart and soul”? I had seldom thought much about this eruption of division. I had usually skipped to the next part of chapter six that tells of the deacon, Stephen, who performed “great signs and wonders among the people.”  Stephen’s story, and Phillip’s in chapter eight were proof that the power of the Spirit was not just for apostles or some “apostolic age.”

Even more disconcerting was the strife between Jewish and Gentile believers. Both, I assume, were baptized in the Holy Spirit, so why didn’t that instantly bring unity and revelation of God’s will? Why did Paul have to warn the churches against the Judaizers in so many of his letters? Paul romanticized nothing.  In a farewell address to a gathering of elders, Paul urges them to be on guard:

I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among, not sparing the     flock, and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:29—30

Today such talk would make Paul of little demand as a speaker at pastor conferences.

And there are also the little endnotes in Paul’s letters where he mentions those causing problems for the church. And all of II Corinthians where Paul is forced argue for his apostleship. And even the split between Paul and Barnabas over whether to take Mark with them.

Many years ago when my father was pastoring a Nazarene church, his patience was sorely tried by some mean and petty board members who, none-the-less, claimed to be saved and sanctified. He called his father, who also had been a pastor and asked, “Dad, what does sanctification do for a person?” My grandfather, who had seen Nazarenes from the earliest days of the denomination, simply said, “It helps.” In my youth I would have protested, “It should do a lot more than that!” Now, I think, “We need all the help we can get.”

One of my favorite stories from Acts was the story of Peter being delivered from prison by an angel. This is a great text for sermons on the power of God to set us free. We are also told the church was earnestly praying for Peter’s deliverance, so it is also a good text for sermons on the power of prayer. What I usually skipped was what came a couple verses before in Acts 12:1—2:

            It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church
             intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with
             the sword.

For obvious reasons, this verse doesn’t inspire many sermons, which is okay. It is healthy to hope for angelic visitations and earthquakes like the one that set Paul and Silas free in Acts. However, we must include the murder of James in our story of the early church. I am sure the church prayed for the deliverance of James just like they did for Peter. This verse, I am afraid, is also a lesson about prayer.

 I am still committed to seeking the purity and power of the New Testament church, but I am more open to structures that try to mitigate the problems the church has always faced. However, if the cure for problems in the church is denominational structures, we must make certain the cure is not worse than the disease. The structures must be a means to an end—not an end in themselves. And certainly, we have seen among both Catholics and Protestants that church structures can hide and even enable predatory leaders. Sadly, denominations that grow out a move of God, years later oppose God’s next visitation.

And yes, I still believe that holiness is the answer to many church disruptions, feuds, and troubles. Leaders living a crucified life would end many of the problems that plague the church. Hower, a careful reading of Acts and Paul’s epistles reveals there will always be scandals, disappointments, false teachers, and exploitive leaders. So I am not singing, “Give me that old-time religion”.

My personal answer comes from John 21:20—22. Jesus, appearing after his resurrection, had just told Peter, “Follow me.” Peter looks around and sees John and asks Jesus, “Lord, what about him.” Jesus replies, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Like Peter, I have often asked God about this leader or that leader, or even why God healed one person and let another die.

Jesus’ answer is always the same, “Follow me.” It would be nice to do this alone in a cabin near an Oregon beach. But every time I start following Jesus, I end up back with His people. I always run into His command that we love one another as He has loved us. He loved us when we were still sinners, when we had failed and betrayed him. He washed the feet of all his disciples, even Judas.

I choose to follow Jesus through all the troubles of the church. I accept that God’s field is sown by His good seed and that the tares were sown by His enemy. I leave the tares to God. I am not going to abandon God because of what His enemy has done.

Many fail. Much fails. But loving God and His people never fails to be the right choice, even when our hearts are broken. If the church is reduced to ruins, you will find my tent pitched in the rubble.

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Mark Preaches

I am an English teacher, so this last year I have been surprised by my many opportunities to preach. I have been preaching once a month at the little Presbyterian church for about a year and half. In the last few months, I have filled in once at the Nazarene Church in Coquille and once here in Myrtle Point.

I blame God for this. I would like to think that my preaching skills, keen exegetical insights, and pastoral wisdom were so needed that God flung the door open for all this preaching. But I am not that stupid. I know God gave me the opportunity to preach out of the depths of His mercy. He knows I need it.

It is, perhaps, a severe mercy. I have been preaching during the darkest and most trying year of my life. I preached the week Peter died. I preached at his funeral. I continue to preach despite feeling like an impostor and some days like a toxic waste dump.

Much of the grace flows while preparing my sermons. Although many preachers recycle sermons, I preach a new sermon every time. This is not a boast, just a preference and a result of having the luxury of preaching once a month. Each time I must bend my heart toward God, spend time in the Bible, and wait until something surfaces that is preachable.

And once the sermon topic appears, I live with the Scripture for at least a week, sometimes two. I first ask what it means for my life to conform to God’s Word and God’s Spirit in this area. For instance, my last sermon was on draining the swamps that fuel outbursts of anger in our lives. How can I preach about anger without looking at my own anger at the unfairness of life? How often has my sense that life is unfair become an accusation that God is unfair? Preaching God’s grace in overcoming anger was God’s tender mercy toward me and my own struggle with anger.

In the very act of speaking God’s Word, the power of His truth is released into my life. For most of my life, I have not preached, but I have often taught a Sunday School class or led a Bible study. Even speaking God’s Word in a conversation is empowering. I am not saying this release of power is automatic, I am sure two-faced hypocrites can preach and be untouched by power of God’s Word. But for those whose hearts are turned toward God, whether in devotion or desperation, speaking God’s Word releases grace and power.

For me, preaching has been life-support—a feeding tube of sorts—because I can’t swallow much else. Preaching has revealed God’s loving heart toward me—His lovingkindness everlasting.

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Collateral Damage

There are not enough analogies to describe the death of a son, but in some ways, it is like a bomb. The grief is a crater out which one climbs, if able and lives, if not.  But within the blast radius, there are other casualties and more damage. Some things are left structurally unsound—even unsafe. Many guides to grief cover the familiar stages of grief, but most are less helpful with collateral damage. I am sure my current assessment of the damage is preliminary, but here are few things shattered by Peter’s death.

Hope this side of the grave. I hold tightly, even more tightly, my hope in Christ, resurrection, and eternal life. My hopes, however, for the time between now and the grave are grim. I am ready to be surprised by joy, but it would be a surprise. This is not a complaint; many suffer more and worse than I will. I have been and still am blessed in many ways, but I have no hope that the path between here and the grave will be anything but miserable.

This doesn’t mean that Teckla and I will be unable to enjoy small delights and moments of joy and laughter. The other day Teckla was trying to share her diagnosis with people at the church, but she couldn’t remember the right word. We laughed, and then I whispered “dementia” in her ear. The crater is that we no longer hope for the day when Peter will become the man of God he was meant to be. The collateral damage is that it is hard to pray for deliverance from anything else like Teckla’s dementia. And, of course, Teckla’s dementia has many implications for our immediate future.

I have not decided if my grim outlook is bad or good—or just an expression of my tempermant. I quit teaching sooner than I expected, and we will be selling the house and giving our dog away. We have hauled much to the dump and given away much. Everything feels like loss. Even memory.

But this is still true. I have never been able to out-give God. Again and again, I have made sacrifices—jobs and homes—only to discover God giving me far more than I sacrificed. I suppose the difference now is that I am at an age where I am uncertain if the “far more” is now or in eternity. I may be surprised.

Faith for intercessory prayer. My zeal for praying for people has been blasted. Teckla and I prayed for Peter so long, so often, without seeing any result. Some would say this is because of Peter’s freewill and others will say it is because of God’s sovereignty. Whatever the case, I have no heart for petitionary prayer. Sometimes I just feel that people will do what people will do. Other times, I feel that God will do what God will do. Either way, why pray?

Of course, the simple answer is because, over and over, God says to ask. I don’t have a problem with prayers of praise and adoration. I worship whole-heartedly, though often with tears. But asking God is hard because asking seemed to do so little for Peter. After a person dies, the exhortation, “Hold on! Believe in God! The answer is on the way!” seems hollow and unintentionally cruel.

My answer has been duty, perseverance, and endurance—not concepts popular on the teacher/preacher circuit. I wish I prayed with greater expectation—with real faith and greater energy. But I pray because I ought. Because God is good. Because He commands me to pray.

It may be that the damage done here will be repaired with some answered prayers. Or it may be that perseverance in praying even when hope is wounded is just what God wants. I don’t know.

A personal relationship with God. This sounds worse, I think, than it is. I still have a relationship with God and my commitment to God is body, soul, and spirit. I would like to say that through these last four difficult years, God’s abiding presence has encouraged and strengthened us. The truth is that I could not sense God’s presence or hear him saying anything about the things that were breaking our hearts. It is certainly okay for God to be silent and invisible, after all we walk by faith, not sight, but it is not what one would expect of a personal relationship. A friend who is invisible and silent when you are going through the worst time of your life is not a very helpful friend.

I am sure God was and is there. It is not simply that He did not answer questions about Peter. He said nothing about him. There was no conversation despite the testimony of many fellow believers about all the conversations they have with God.

It also is true that my faith that God will never leave me or forsake me can be a comfort. But unless His presence is made know in some way, it is simply my faith that is comforting me—not God himself. Experientially, God’s absence and invisible presence are not much different. I have felt, and still feel, alone. By faith, I believe I am not. Again, it is right to walk by faith, not feeling—but this does not make for a personal relationship.

So, I don’t know if my relationship with God is damaged. Or if the real damage is to the language I, and many others, use to talk about that relationship. As much as I love, and have even taught on, the concept of friendship with God, I am not experiencing it. Nonetheless, I have the warmest regards for God.

The explanation for this lack of personal relationship could simply be, “It’s you, Wilson!” Some would say, “God is talking to you all the time. You simply aren’t listening. Humble thyself and hear the word of the Lord!”  Others would point out that God speaks through the Bible, and you just need to get into the Word. All this may be true. But I have taken time to listen, and I have stayed in God’s Word and yet that personal, conversational relationship with God is missing.

Hearing God. Because we had, we thought, so many promises from God concerning Peter, it is easy for us to wonder if we heard God rightly or were victims of our love and wishful thinking. Before he was born, Peter’s birth grandmother told us she believed Peter would be adopted by someone in Kansas City and would become a mighty man of God. When he was one, I wrote a prayer for him and pushed into a crack in the temple wall in Jerusalem. I felt strongly that God had a purpose for him in Israel and with the Jewish people.

A few days after Peter was born, I held him in my arms. As he opened his blue eyes for the first time, the first words I spoke were, “Feed, my sheep.” From that moment in the county hospital in San Bernadino, I believed that in one way or another God would use Peter to shepherd the lost and scattered flock of God. But after all his struggles with addiction and all the vices that came with it, and then his death, it is hard to believe we heard God rightly. I now hesitate to claim any promises except those given to all believers everywhere.

Yes, it is possible, maybe even probable, that all the promises concerning Peter were only invitations that Peter was free to refuse or accept. After all, God promised to make Israel a light unto the nations, but often they rebelled or refused. So maybe my prophecies and promises weren’t simply fantasies spun out of our hopes and love for Peter. I am, nonetheless, damaged here. Only rightly hearing God concerning something can repair my faith in my ability to hear God.

Faith in the power of God. I certainly, in the abstract, have faith in God’s power, but with Peter and many others, it seems darkness is winning. I see more drifting away from God than coming to God. I see families broken, saved addicts returning to addiction, and large numbers of young people sprinting from God. The church appears to be in full retreat. I have prayed for a visitation of God in most of the places I have lived, but not much has happened.

Peter’s death feels like such a resounding defeat. I would like to see the victory of people surrendering their lives to Christ, chains of addiction broken, the lost and wandering finding their true home in the arms of their loving Father. Right now, I feel like I am cringing before the enemy, afraid for whoever else might be snatched away.

The damage done here is serious and needs repair. My only answer is to hold fast and keep advancing by speaking God’s love and His power to deliver from sin, Satan, and death. But I am weary. My voice unconvincing.

This is my preliminary assessment of the collateral damage—I suspect there is more. It is also possible that the damage is less than I think. I am probably still seeing the ruins from the bottom of the crater.

I should add, however, in every way the church, the body of Christ, has been the hands and feet of Jesus ministering to us. Through them, God has been a present help in our time of need. So, even though much has been torn down, my belief in the importance of community as a means of grace has grown stronger.

I wonder if much that we hope to experience individually as believers, God means for us to experience only in community. I am certain that is where God will rebuild what can, or ought to, be restored.  

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Cancer, Tolerance, and Love

Teckla and I both battled cancer recently—a battle that resulted in the surgical removal of the cancer. In both of our cases, a lot of work was done to determine whether and where we had cancer. Teckla became something of pin cushion as she had multiple biopsies on both breasts. One of the first tests showed no cancer in one breast, but she had a doctor who was suspicious of some dense tissue. Eventually, we discovered cancer in both breasts. She had a partial mastectomy on both sides. It went well.

Like most people I hate the C-word. I would certainly have felt better if no one had told me I had prostate cancer. My doctor seemed to think the truth was more important than my feelings. I was not greatly comforted by the compassionate and loving bedside manner of any of our doctors. But I was comforted by their competence and knowledge, and even more by their willingness to tell me the truth—even when the truth was “I don’t know.”

I could have insisted that the doctors be more tolerant of my rambunctious cells, intent on doing their own thing. Cancer is such a judgmental word. Wouldn’t it be more loving and accepting—more tolerant, to call them cells that march to the beat of a different drummer? They are cells simply expressing their inner essence and exercising personal autonomy. Why must we demand conformity? Why this hatred of diversity?

And of course, being told I had cancer made me feel sad and unsafe. Truly loving doctors would have kept this truth to themselves. After all, we all have our own truths, so why must I be oppressed by their “truth”. My feelings, no matter what the facts may be, are what matter most. God is love; therefore, love is God. All I really needed from my doctors were some good vibes, but instead they told me the truth.

I am glad they did. I am thankful for their intolerance. I am thankful for new technologies that allow better biopsies and more accurate judgments about how aggressive a kind of cancer is. I benefited from a new prostate-cancer-specific contrast used in my scans. A post-surgical biopsy showed that the surgery had clean margins—meaning it is likely that they got all the cancer. They were so intent on getting the cancer out that they cut out good tissue too. Our surgeon was careful not to be inclusive.

As believers we are called to speak the truth in love—not as self-righteous prigs—but as humble and forgiven sinners. Foremost, we are to speak the truth of Jesus, who forgives our sins. But there is no glorious message of forgiveness unless we tell truth about sin which like cancer eats away at our soul. The grace that cleanses us flows freely when we admit we are unclean. God is love, but we can’t turn that upside down and make a god of every disordered passion. Love is not God. And genuine love is only experienced in surrender and obedience to the commands of Jesus, who said if you love me, you will obey my commandments.

I should add that we did have a bad experience with the first doctor we spoke to about Teckla’s cancer. He was abrupt, irritated that we had questions, and came across as arrogant. We sought out another surgeon, and we found one who took a full hour to answer all our questions. He gave us more information about the staging of the cancer and the benefits and drawbacks of different surgical options. He didn’t talk less about her cancer; he talked more.

Truth need not be sacrificed to love. Lying to us about our cancer would not have been loving us. Lying to people about their sin is not loving them. At its best it is sacrificing long-term health for short-term comfort. At its worst, love that refuses to speak the truth is self-love—caring most about people’s approval and about posturing as compassionate.

We see truth and love perfectly one in Jesus. When the woman caught in adultery is brought before Him, He writes in the dust and then stands and says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first throw a stone at her.” One by one, they all leave. Jesus asks her with great tenderness, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She says, “No one, sir.”  Jesus then says, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now, and sin no more.” And had he been one of my doctors, he might have said, “I will see you at your six-month check-up.”

I think one of the main complaints against Christians using the S-word like Jesus did is that we are so often like the elder brother is the parable of the prodigal son. We are quick to identify prodigal son’s sins of the flesh, yet blind to our sins of the spirit—pride, resentment, bitterness. Jesus did not rebuke the Pharisees for tithing their mint, dill, and cumin. He rebuked them for not also doing justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They were bad oncologists, picking at a cancerous mole and ignoring the huge tumors in plain sight.

It is only as we abide in Christ that believers can walk faithfully in love and truth. We need his life flowing through us to keep us from pinballing from truth to love. As we abide in Him, He will live in us.

Only his Spirit can empower us to speak the truth in love, and love in truth.   

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Russian Coffee, Opal, and Sticks

I think most boys are pagans. I was, despite being a preacher’s kid. Although our family went to church twice on Sunday and to Wednesday “prayer meeting”, I could barely wait to get out of Sunday clothes and into my jeans and tee shirt—my pagan vestments.

I, of course, was not making sacrifices to Zeus. The only altar I had been to was the one in the old sanctuary at Walla Walla First Church of the Nazarene. I do not remember much about the evening service when I decided to follow Jesus and “let Him into my heart”. I remember not wanting to go to hell—but not in any frightened way. I was more afraid, I think, of the evangelist’s enormous eyebrows which rose and fell like judgment day. I was nine and not particularly introspective, but it was obvious to me, and probably everyone, that I needed a Savior. I am glad I knelt at that altar and have been kneeling ever since.  

But in many ways, I remained a pagan.  My worship was climbing sycamore trees, catching snakes with Kirby at the Walla Walla River, building forts, and playing war until dark. I have not been good at much, but I was good at being a boy. I was a happy heathen who loved all things natural and wild. Lacing up my sneakers on the first day of summer was my pagan festival.

There were a few of what I call “golden moments” of pagan bliss. Once after a long summer day playing with Kirby at an abandoned mill site with a pond and irrigation ditches, I sat alone on plank over a ditch. Kirby had headed home. My bare feet swung slowly in the water; overhead hung the sweet and heavy blossoms of a black locust tree. The fragrance, the cool water, and the golden light of a setting sun quietly overwhelmed me. I decided to never forget the moment. I have no religious or secular language to explain the experience. I need none.  

I was blessed to be the youngest of three boys, and thus benefited from my parents’ benign neglect. They let me wander the streets, creeks, hills, and river around Milton-Freewater. It helped that my best friend, Kirby, was at home in nature. We spent hours catching crawdads in irrigation ditches. At the river we looked under logs for shiny black salamanders with yellow spots. I had a free-range boyhood.

I did not bother to see any spiritual or moral lessons in nature. If, as Wordsworth argued, nature is God’s book, I wasn’t reading yet. I was pagan in the sense of loving nature for itself. I loved the sunlight filtering through the sycamore trees more than the light pouring through stained glass. I loved the green, glassy smoothness of the opal Kirby and I dug out of the hillside that overlooked the town. It, of course, wasn’t really opal—but that was what we called it. My joy was noble hedonism. I loved summers– sun on my skin and the ratcheting call of a kingfisher shooting low over the river.

As a boy, I did not connect my love of nature with a creator who after making all things, saw that it was good, “very good”. But I certainly agreed that all things were good. For a while, I had a mayonnaise jar with a pet black-widow. I regretted punching air holes in the jar after I saw the empty egg case and tiny baby spiders spilling out the top. Like the Coleridge’s ancient mariner, I blessed all things, even the “slimy things [that] did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea.”

Recently I have run across remnants of my paganism. Teckla and I have been slowly sorting through everything as we get ready to move back to the Midwest where my sons and other grandchildren live. The necessary sorting, and the discarding, is tedious and sometimes painful. Especially puzzling are the items best described as talismans: things potent, precious, and useless.

I have, for instance, a can of Russian coffee that I found as a teenager while hiking the beach south of Bandon. There is magic and mystery in the can’s Cyrillic letters. The coffee was still dry inside, so I think it must have fallen off Russian fishing boat off the coast of Oregon. I happily imagined Russian fishermen laughing and drinking coffee. It also reminds of happy hours wasted beach combing.

I still have a couple pieces of the green “opal” Kirby and I dug up. He too, I recently discovered, has kept a piece. The stones are still potent sixty years later. I even have the green canvas “army bag” in which we hauled away our treasure.  I will take both to Kansas City.

I have a small wooden folding stool. It is the last of a set of camping stools my parents had. It summons for me the magic of sitting with my family around a campfire at Cape Perpetua, listening to the creek that tumbled over the rocks in the darkness. The stool is branded with the burns of roasting forks we used to poke the fire.  

I also have hiking sticks. I have one from Kansas City made of hawthorn cut near the Blue River, the first place I hiked with Peter. I have one made of Sitka spruce from the tree near Cape Perpetua where three generations of Wilsons have camped. Two of my sticks are from Euphoria Ridge—one Oregon crab apple and the other madrone. And then there are the sticks I cut for my boys when we camped—with the date and their initials carved into each. No one needs this many walking sticks and none have the powers of Gandalf’s staff.

These talismans are perhaps remnants of my paganism, but they are more.  Each testifies to a life blessed by God—a life full of evenings by a campfire, summers in Milton-Freewater, hours wandering Oregon beaches, and long hikes through coastal woods and meadows. It is all good because God is good.

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The Cosmic Groan

I know. Cosmic Groan would be a great name for a Seattle grunge-band. I used it, however, as the title of a sermon I preached at Camp Myrtlewood. Tall Douglas firs, and myrtle trees towered over the small outdoor chapel. My cement pulpit was mossy. From a perfectly blue sky, sunlight slid gently between the needles and leaves of the trees. There was no better setting for a sermon on how creation sings God’s glory.

Instead, I talked about the futility of creation and the cosmic groan of creation eagerly waiting “for the revealing of the sons of God”.  Paul certainly believed creation sings of God’s “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). In Romans 8, however, Paul speaks of creation being in slavery to corruption. With the fall of man, all creation fell. And according to Paul, all creation groans until the day when Christ returns, and we are redeemed body and soul.

The idea that nature isn’t perfect is unpopular. It is contrary to the gospel of Animal Planet and Disney. However, on this topic popular thinking is often entangled in several self-contradictions. The first is the assertion that even though humans are part of nature, they should stop doing what comes naturally. While rejecting “speciesism” that would value the human species more than other species, many insist humans become caretakers of creation—a responsibility we put on no other species.

Another contradiction is seen in the animal rights movement. Many argue for a cruelty-free ethic for humans while acknowledging predation and the food chain is perfectly natural and indispensable in nature. Veganism is sometimes embraced because of these ethical concerns. Yet, avoiding cruelty is not a concern found anywhere in nature where many animals are slowly eaten alive. How does one stand for animal rights on the veldt? Yet, our very discomfort with predation and cruelty might testify that Paul is right about creation being subjected to futility and in slavery to corruption.

Our longing for a different kind of nature supports the idea that creation is fallen. We often seek, in vain, to be perfectly at home in nature. As a boy, I loved the picture of Tarzan, Jane, and Boy in the old black and white movies with Johnny Weissmuller. Talking to the animals, swimming in the leech-free water, picking fruit from the nearest tree all seemed like paradise. Best of all? No school!    

Throughout literature, even much modern nature writing, there is a longing for Eden. Instead, we get intestinal parasites, mosquitoes, and a multitude of biting and stinging creatures. Here in Oregon my efforts to be one with nature have often ended with huge patches of running sores where my bare arms and legs brushed poison oak. In the Midwest chiggers and ticks were a pestilence after hiking through glorious patches of prairie.

The arguments for the corruption of creation are endless, but Paul’s point is that when we groan, all creation groan with us. We do not groan alone. We groan together because so much of our life is still bound to a body that rots and rusts. In the first section of Romans 8, Paul argues gloriously for the life of the Spirit—the Spirit of God that indwells us and testifies that we are adopted. Paul declares we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Then Paul brings us back to earth by acknowledging that we are heirs if we also suffer with Christ. He says we groan for the redemption of our bodies because thus far we have only the first fruits of the Holy Spirit. This treasure and small measure of Holy Spirit dwells in earthen vessels easily broken.

The older I get the more I groan. My groaning from a sore back and knees is punctuated with snaps and pops of arthritic joints. (In the woods, I can’t sneak up on anything.) But I also groan because of grief and loss: the potential wasted, the dreams strangled in their crib. And then there is the philosophical groan over the emptiness of human ambition and the pointlessness of so much—the groan of Ecclesiastes—vanity, vanity, all is vanity.  

The glory and goodness of the gospel is that even though our groans erupt from weakness they can rise to God in power. Paul declares that “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Scholars debate whether this is the Spirit praying through us or praying for us, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit translates our groans into prayers that align with the will of God (v. 27). It gives wings to prayers and pain too deep for words,

The Holy Spirit keeps our groaning from becoming grumbling. The godward groan is not just for the mess that is, but a bone-deep cry for all to be made right. We groan because we and the world were created for something more beautiful—something eternal and incorruptible. We groan for our true home and family.

It may be too much to argue that we, creation, and the Holy Spirit groan in three-part harmony, but we know God hears us. Therefore, we hope for the day when our groan is answered by a trumpet, the hills clap their hands, and all creation rejoices to hear again the voice of the Creator blessing all the earth.

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