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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Garage Sales and the Kingdom of Heaven

We just had the all-city garage sale here in Myrtle Point. Teckla and I sold some furniture that belonged to my brother, Stanley, who died last year. I even sold a desk and chest of drawers that Dad bought long ago and repainted bright red and yellow. They had been mine as a child, and then given to Stanley. The empty drawers are full of memories. Garage sales and estate sales are poignant reminders that our lives are not our stuff and that our real treasure needs to be heaven. We need to think more of heaven.

Often, however, the accusation has been leveled against Christians that they think too much about heaven—pie in the sky by and by.  Famously, Johnny Cash sang of people who are so “heavenly minded they are of no earthly good.” However, I would argue that most Christians have the opposite problem. Many believers have only the vaguest idea of what treasure in heaven might be. They seldom think about it and are seldom moved by it. And yet Jesus talks a lot about treasure in heaven and heavenly reward. Paul also makes clear that he earnestly desires to secure his heavenly reward by living faithfully.  

We sometimes think of the Sermon on the Mount as practical instruction for living out our faith, but it is here that Jesus speaks the most about heavenly reward. In the beginning of the sermon he declares (5:3) that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. A few verses later he says that those who are persecuted and falsely accused should “rejoice and be glad” because their “reward in heaven is great”. I, like many Christians I suspect, find great reward in heaven such a foggy idea that it would have little power to help me rejoice in persecution. Nonetheless, there are solid biblical reasons why caring about heavenly reward and treasure will actually make a believer of more, not less, earthly good.

First, it should make us hypocrisy-proof. Hypocrisy has two roots: pride and fear. Either of these can make us care more about how we appear to others than to God. Both can make us live for the applause of men instead of the applause of heaven, treasure now instead of later. Jesus addressed this:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise, you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 6:1

Jesus goes on to warn that those who do good only to be noticed by others have their reward “in full” and are getting no reward from God.  In fact, much of chapter six is about the power and reward of living the hidden life that does not seek the spot-light and is not motivated by what others think—either for good or ill. We need not fake anything because we live in the eyes of God who sees us as we are. We need not fear anything because our reward, God’s approval, can never be taken away. There would be fewer hypocrites in the church if more of us cared most about God’s opinion of us.

Second, a focus on heavenly reward should make believers the moral compass for their communities and nation.  The currents of peer pressure and cultural corruption can easily float believers into moral compromise. However, caring most about the approval of God can empower us to swim against the current and stay faithful to the commandment to love God and our neighbor as yourself. God’s people should be those that can’t be bought and can’t be bribed because the only treasure we care about is that which comes from the hand of God.

A book entitled “Lest the Innocent Blood Be Shed” by Philip Hallie tells of a Protestant church in the village of Le Chambon that went to extraordinary and courageous lengths to protect Jews during the Nazi occupation of France. Members of the youth group served as scouts to warn the village that the Nazis were winding their way up to their mountain village. Farmers opened their land and high mountain pastures as hiding places for the Jews so that the Nazi buses ended up going back down the mountain pass without any Jews.

It is when we become earthly minded and full of earthly wisdom, which James calls demonic, that we get caught up in the world’s corrupted morality, racism, and prejudice. God’s Word and desire to be found faithful on judgment day can anchor us.

Third, having our treasure secure in heaven should make us fearless and generous. Our treasure is untouchable by all the forces of evil and all the circumstances of our life. Everything stolen from us in this life results in riches in the next. All suffering and misery for the sake of Christ is a direct deposit of heavenly riches in our account.

This is why Jesus says if someone asks for your shirt, give them your cloak also. We are free to be wildly generous now because we know the wealth that really matters is kept safe in heaven. We can seek first the kingdom of God and trust God for everything else. This will make us of more earthly good than those who keep a tight and fearful grip on their earthly treasure.

Fourth, a focus on heavenly reward should set our hearts free from bitterness. In this life dreams are sometimes shattered. Our hopes for our children and grandchildren can dissolve into trouble or plunge into tragedy. We sometimes smash into our own limitations and discover that the platitudes spoken in graduation speeches aren’t true.

We also face the terrible unfairness of life and the ingratitude of people. But if our heart is truly set on God’s approval and His reward, we can weather being overlooked, misunderstood, and ripped off. We are filled with thanksgiving for all God has given instead of bitterness over all that has been taken.   

Think about this: Of how much practical good would it be to have a church full of people who are unoffendable, free of bitterness, and immune to resentment? People who do not need to get their way or get recognition because all their treasure is in heaven, not here?

There are some who will object that being motivated by a desire for heavenly reward is less spiritual than just serving God out of love. Some say, “I will happy just to make it.” Or the more spiritual will say, “Jesus is enough of a reward.” But these misconceptions are based on two errors.

First, we need to understand that treasure in heaven and heavenly reward are relational. This point is made in the parables of Jesus. Our reward is to be found a faithful servant who Jesus can trust to reign with Him in the next age. Therefore, serving God out of love and seeking heavenly reward are not at odds with each other. Loving God should always mean us being faithful. We treasure the approval and trust of those we love most.

Second, in the parables of Jesus and the teaching of the New Testament, heaven is not some static state or perpetual worship service. If it were, why would heavenly reward matter? But again and again Jesus talks about the faithful reigning with Him in the age to come. We aren’t given many details about what “reigning” includes, but it is certainly something more than sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp. In a sense, this life is like try-outs for the next age. We can say, as some do, that we would be happy to just make the team and warm the bench. A true love of God, however, should make us want to someone Jesus can trust to play the game—to reign with Him.

At garage sales we often see the stuff people have spent a lifetime gathering sold for almost nothing. We see that no one, no matter how poor or rich, can really take it with them. Our true riches must be in heaven. The more we care about heavenly reward, the more earthly good we will be today.

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The Monarch

Yesterday I saw a monarch butterfly in the garden. It nearly brought me to tears. Bright orange and black, it danced over the milkweed (asclepias speciosa) then landed and nectared from the pink and white flowers. It flew up and danced in the late afternoon sun and landed again for a longer time. I am hoping this meant it was female and was laying eggs on the milkweed. I am hoping for caterpillars in September. And then an emerald and gold chrysalis.

Monarch butterflies are rare in Myrtle Point. I saw one flying over Maple Street about seven years ago. About five years ago I planted some milkweed seeds I had gotten in the mail. They stayed small and struggled to make it in the shady front part of the house, so I re-planted them in one of my growing beds in full sun. In the last four years the milkweed thrived, sending rhizomes in all directions, threatening to take over the whole growing bed. The four replanted milkweeds are now twenty.

Even though the milkweed is native to Oregon, it, like the monarch that depends on it, is rare in Coos County. As I watched the milkweed take over the growing bed, I wondered if I was an idiot to plant it. After all, I had seen no monarch visiting them and found no caterpillars munching on them. Nothing in five years.

I was hoping to do my small part to help the western population of monarchs by planting the milkweed—the host plant for the caterpillars. The population has been declining for years due to pesticides and loss of habitat. The western population often winters in eucalyptus trees in southern California. The much larger eastern population migrates all ways to Mexico where it winters in the pine forest. The fly way of the western population is further inland from Myrtle Point, in the Willamette Valley and eastern Oregon. I planted milkweed on the edge of the monarch’s range.

Planting and tending the milkweed, therefore, has always felt like prayer. It was sowing without the certainty of reaping. It was laying out a welcome mat for a monarch that might never come.

Seeing one yesterday, felt like hope vindicated. The wings of the monarch were full of glory. It had been a long wait, but the king (or queen) returned.

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The Third Prodigal

Most of us know the first prodigal in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15). We know this so guy well because he all of us, all of humankind, every son and daughter that has fled God and wallowed in sin. Adam and Eve were the first prodigals who wasted all God had given them.

In some ways, the parable of the prodigal son is a tale of two parties. Although we commonly refer to any wandering soul as a prodigal, the word prodigal actually means recklessly or extravagantly wasteful. The younger son recklessly wastes his inheritance on harlots and what today we call “partying”. Those parties left him longing to eat pig food. Later he comes home to a different kind of party—one thrown by his father to celebrate his return.

The second prodigal is the father who lavishes love and resources on the son. It is likely that the father knew what the younger son would do with his inheritance but gave it anyway. Since we are told the father saw his son from afar, it is also likely that the father wasted time looking for his son and longing for his return. There were probably sleepless nights praying and worrying about his son.

The father wasted his dignity. I am an old man with bad knees. I look silly and, I suspect, a little pathetic when I run, especially if I have on sandals. I am sure the older son thought his father looked ridiculous running down the road to his brat of a brother.

The father wasted a great opportunity to fold his arms and give a lecture; instead, the father enfolded his son in his arms. The father started down the road before he had any proof of his son’s repentance and change of heart. What if the son quickly went back to his old ways? Don’t we need some tough love here? Shouldn’t the younger son have to prove he has changed? Isn’t the father taking a stupid risk here? There are consequences! But love sweeps aside lectures.  

And, of course, the father is also prodigal in giving the son his best robe, his ring, sandals, and then a feast. He is a little over-the-top in his celebration and joy. There is music and dancing. Everyone is invited to come celebrate the return of the son who wasted his inheritance.

The third prodigal, the older son, is one we might overlook. He refuses to join the celebration and accuses the father of never doing for him what his father is doing for his rebellious brother. The older son points out that he has never left and that he has obeyed all the father’s commands.

The father answers that everything he has belongs to his oldest son. The father makes clear that his oldest son should not think loving the returning son diminishes his love for his oldest son. It is also clear that the oldest son could have at any point enjoyed himself just as his brother at feast was.  

The older son is prodigal because he had wasted the opportunity to know his father and his father’s heart. Although a child of the Sixties, I never went through a time of rebellion toward my parents, but  like most teenagers, I was quick to view them as irrelevant. In high school I soon spent more time with friends and a girlfriend. I had little or no interest in doing things with Dad. And like many teens, I gave one-word answers to my parents’ questions.

Then I was off to college, and then off to graduate school, and then married and off to a job in Kansas. Of course, Teckla and I visited, and they made some trips to Kansas. After thirteen years in the Midwest, we got word that Dad was dying of cancer. I quit my job and we moved back to Myrtle Point as quickly as possible to help with Dad. But Dad went more quickly than predicted. Teckla and I pulled into the driveway just as Mom and my brother, Stanley, came home from the hospital where Dad had died. Since that day in 1993 I have wished that I had not wasted my teen years avoiding Mom and Dad. In a sense, I left home my sophomore year of high school.

I wish I had taken more time to feel and know the heart of my father—who had the heart of a shepherd. My father was also an English teacher, so I wish I hadn’t wasted the opportunity to talk to him about faith, reason, and culture. He was a man of prayer; I wish he and I had prayed together. There is so much I could have learned from him. Even though I wasn’t a rebellious son, I failed to know and enjoy my father and my inheritance as fully as I might have. I identify with how the older son wasted his opportunity.

Despite all the attention given the younger son, this parable is mostly about the older son. At the beginning of the Luke 15 we are told the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling that Jesus was spending time with sinners and tax-collectors. Jesus responds with a series of parables about how God rejoices over every sinner that repents and returns to God. Like the older son, the scribes and Pharisees wasted the opportunity to join the party and share in their heavenly Father’s joy.

The oldest son, like the scribes and Pharisees, also missed the reason for the blessings and inheritance they had received. As Jesus pointed out, the Scriptures the Pharisees loved so much all pointed to Jesus and his ministry as the Messiah. Most Pharisees missed the whole purpose of all the promises given to Israel. They were blessed to become a blessing to the sinner and outcast, and eventually the Gentiles. Clearly the father and son had been blessed with some wealth and abundance, but only the father understood that the purpose of the blessing was to bless others, especially a wayward son.

The elder son missed the opportunity to run with his father down the road. Had he shared his father’s longing for the return of his brother, he could have shared in the joy and joined party celebrating his return. It is possible that the elder brother thought his father had been wronged by his brother who had caused his father so much grief. He may have justified his anger toward his younger brother as a defense of his father, but all his complaint is about himself.  

The eldest son, although never leaving home, was just as far from the father as the younger son who had gone to a distant land. He wasted the opportunity to fully enjoy the goodness and the purpose of his inheritance. He really didn’t know his father or understand his father’s heart.

It is interesting that the elder son argues that he had kept all the Father’s commands. It is easy for church folks, especially those have gone to church for years, to become like the elder brother who thinks everything should be about them. We can get so caught up in our programs, our buildings, and our righteousness that we forget about the extravagant and prodigal love our Father has for the lost. We can know about our heavenly father but fail to understand His heart.

Let’s look ridiculous and run with our Father. Let’s join the party. Let’s dance, even if we have bad knees. Let’s love our brothers.

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