“There Are No Ordinary People”

refugee tent city [Klaus Reisinger]These are demanding times for Christians who are committed to loving neighbor as they love themselves. It is becoming increasingly easy to slip into less exacting paths. I am glad that our pastor has been addressing this theme in various ways in a number of sermons in recent months. C. S. Lewis, a highly regarded Christian thinker and writer, also took it on. In a sermon titled “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis offered a stunning insight about loving neighbor, which he delivered during a period of world history when division, conflict, and war offered a steady diet of hate for the soul.

A similar diet is being dished out to our generation – and you know that what you eat you are. Having eaten enough to hate our enemy, we are now being fattened to ignore another of Jesus’ commands: love of neighbor. Why bother loving our neighbor and loving our enemy? Indeed, if we are not being loved I return, why bother? Lewis grappled with this during World War Two. Here, in that inimitable way he had, are his concluding remarks in “The Weight of Glory”:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

“All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image of Tent City by Klaus Reisinger via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

“The Snow Forgives Us”

snow in backyardSeveral inches of snow blanketed the ground and it was still falling as I drove to the Wednesday evening fellowship. The forecast called for 8-10 inches by midnight, and I believed it. But suburban Detroit is virtually bereft of hills and S-turns, and the large fleet of salt trucks with their huge plows had cleared the main roads. So no one who grew up in Detroit, as I had, fretted about driving here in this weather. You learned to drive cautiously and pay attention. If you did, most likely you would get there, and back again, on the flat terrain. And you remembered the enormous salt mine under the sprawling city.

I expected the usual crowd at Jeannie’s spacious house, and wasn’t disappointed. She lived there with her very cute, precocious 4-year old daughter, Heather. Fifty to sixty people could worship and fellowship comfortably in the large basement. I parked my rusty old Chevy 4-door a block away and crunched along through deep snow that was everywhere sparkling at me from the ground.

Sometime during the worship or preaching – I don’t remember why – I left the basement and went back upstairs. Nobody was there. But as I crossed the dimly lit living room, I saw Heather standing in rapt silence by the large sliding glass doors that looked out into the backyard. I slid quietly alongside her to have a look.

What a sight met my eyes! Twelve hours earlier while driving downtown to work, I had seen the world much differently. Instead, roads soiled by the traffic of cars that dripped oil. Fast food debris discarded along curbs. Lawns yellowed in dormancy awaiting their green spring. Sidewalks cracked through neglect. Cigarette buts stubbed out and flicked aside. It was the world sans snow.

But, now! Standing silently alongside Heather, snow covered all the ugly – the human detritus – indeed, all earth itself – lay covered. And it was still coming down.

Millions of big snowflakes fell gently and quickly past the bright outdoor lights that lit up the backyard. They glittered and twinkled like I imagine the wings of angels will sparkle with colors when I see them.

I too now gazed rapt. This was another world. Not just covered but adorned.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I whispered.

“The snow forgives us,” she said.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by David Pinkney via Creative Commons.

The Kindness of Strangers in a World of Pain

Twin Towers laser memorialIt began this way, 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, flying from London to Atlanta:

“The Boeing 777 droned on. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta. Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.’ The dreaded words. Worst nightmares sprung from the fuselage, the overhead compartment, the unconscious –  wherever you had stowed them before boarding. A kind of holy moment spread through cabin. No one spoke. No one dared. It seemed much longer than the millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: ‘There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed….’”

With all the reporting of criminal behavior, hate, violence, and terrorist acts that get dished out to us by the media everyday, I thought it would be good to take a break today, on September 11, and reflect on what is possible when we rely on the better angels of our nature to rule our actions. I was blessed to experience this in a hugely moving and inspiring way fifteen years ago over a five-day period that began the morning of another September 11. An essay I wrote about it was later published in magazines in the US and the UK for the one year anniversary of 9/11.

The above quote is from the beginning of that essay, which soon moves from the shocking and frightful to what is redemptively possible from the milk of human kindness in the face of great evil. For five days, I and hundreds of other “strandeds” were cared for by strangers where “selfish interest and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, cooperation among the different, unity in our diversity. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we carried within, amid our wood, hay, and stubble. Heaven broke in and walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities. Human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.”

If pain and murder is just a click away, why not grace and healing? Just click here to read the full essay.

Image courtesy Creative Commons.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

“I Have a Vision,” John Peck

John Peck at his deskSomeone has said that a sunset on earth is a sunrise in heaven. Last week the Rev. John Peck passed away peacefully in his sleep, three days into his 93rd year. A godly, noble man who overflowed with wisdom. A true mensch. A dear friend. I knew John closely for thirty-three years and we collaborated on a number of projects. Since receiving news of his death I have been thinking: how strange it will be not to have this unique outlier in the world with us.

John, who has been called “The Least Known Best Theologian in the World,”* had an exceptional passion for the church. It would be hard to top his lovely and concise picture of a healthy church. It has been printed and framed and hangs on the wall of pastors’ offices. Part of John’s enduring legacy is being experienced today in churches who have taken his vision to heart and found ways to live it. Here is it is in his own words.

I Have a Vision

Of a church whose worship seeks out all the resources of its members and utilizes all their skills.

Where the hymns are sung with zest, perception, and expression, and accompanied by every instrument anyone can play, including hands, and feet, and smiles. And where the unfamiliar music of another generation is learned until it is loved.

A church with liturgies that are never mechanical, and spontaneity that is never trivial.

Where the least of its meetings are conducted like royal appointments, and its greatest days are marked with solemn hilarity.

Where organisational efficiency is always at the service of caring love.

Where even poor efforts are done with painstaking diligence, and commended with tolerant hope.

Where brilliance of mind or skill only serves to light up Jesus Christ and His Gospel; where no one can hog the limelight, no one gets too much attention, and no one gets left out.

Of a church were outsiders get as much welcome as old friends; were no one stands alone unless they need to; where the awkward ones are accepted, and the pleasant ones are disturbed by hard realities.

Where the first to hear a complaint is the offender, and the last to air it is the sufferer.

Where people’s interests are worldwide, without being worldly, and personal without being petty.

I have a vision of a church which shares an invincible passion for learning and giving, whose life is energised by a glad acceptance of the Cross as a way of life.

Whose self-critical humor puts people at ease, and whose self-denials disturb and brace them.

Whose sympathy is so warm and imaginative that no one has the nerve to indulge in self-pity; and whose ideals are so high that slightly soiled notions are shamed into silence.

Whose convictions are firm without being rigid; whose tolerance extends even to the intolerant; whose life is an admonition, whose love learns even from its opponents, and whose faith is infectious.

I have a vision of a church that is like that because from time to time it hears its Redeemer’s voice speak with such authority that nothing will do but obedience, nothing matters but God’s love, and others coming in can only wonder, and wish, and ask. . .

John R. Peck, B.S., A.L.B.C.
March, 1979
Earl Soham, Suffolk, England

*The art historian Karen L. Mulder’s apt description of John Peck.

Image of John Peck laughing courtesy of Karen L. Mulder.

A website has been created to continue the legacy of John Peck’s exceptional teaching ministry to a new generation. Here’s that site.

For more about John Peck, see:

A major interview with John in 1998

Martin Wroe’s tribute

Baptist Times (UK) tribute

The extensive obituary.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

“Politics”: Noah Webster v. Ambrose Bierce

Webster's DictionaryIn a song by Sting, one of the world’s more intelligent singer-songwriters, he admits that he’s lost his lost faith in politicians because “they all seem like game show hosts to me.” It aptly expressed a sentiment held by many people twenty years ago, when “If Ever I Lose My Faith in You” was first popular. Here in the States today, presidential game-show politics has devolved into reality TV, with all of its scripted drama and adversity. Responsible citizens can only cry or laugh. Having cried, I suppose that’s why I posted Daffy Duck’s run for the presidency recently. The short cartoon made me laugh when I discovered it, quite by accident, on youtube.

Still, crying is what’s needed today. By a stroke of good fortune, I own of a massive tome, the 1919 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (with Reference History), which I rely on to tell me what people were thinking 100 years ago, or longer. I haul the heavy volume from the shelf and open it on the floor of my office more often that you might think. Inspired the other day by a comment by Mark Roques on the Daffy Duck post, I wondered what Webster had to say back in the day about politics.

I found this definition: “politics”: (1) “The science and art of government; the science dealing with the organization and regulation of a state, in both its internal and external affairs…. (2) The theory or practice of managing or directing the affairs of public policy or of political parties; Hence political affairs, principles, convictions, opinions, sympathies….”

Sounds like a pretty important area of life, politics, when put that way. As a Christian who believes that government is ordained by God and that we have obediences to fulfill to God in the realm of government, I thought that Webster’s definitions were pretty noble words to describe how political stewardship of government ought to be understood by citizens and conducted by our elected officials.

To get an opposing view, I turned to a near-contemporary of Webster’s, the influential satirist Ambrose Bierce, who was born in 1842, the year before Wesbster died. I wasn’t surprised to find in his witty Devil’s Dictionary, 1906, a (sadly) more accurate definition of today’s politics: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

It’s tragic that Bierce’s definition prevails over Webster’s today in America, although high marks to Webster who, in more polite terms, concluded his second definition (above) with these words: “… artful or dishonest management to secure the success of political candidates or parties.”

Ponder Webster’s two definitions. Then think about where we are today and have a good cry. It’s a place to start.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

The Unforgivable World

Cross on vestThe politically correct (PC) world is organized around the principle that anything and everything is acceptable and everyone must accept that. In short, the PC world seeks to create a world in which there are no offenses (what the Bible calls sins). A huge bureaucratic hierarchy promotes and supports this goal across the spectrum of law-making – socially, economically, educationally, and politically. It is not possible, however, to create a world of no offenses through law.

The effort to try to purge human hearts from offending others through law cannot eliminate their alienating tendencies. The effort will in fact exacerbate those destructive tendencies, which are already implicated in the rising sectarian, adversarial, and conflicted relationships that exist between groups in our time. That a peaceful world could be created by that means is a project doomed to failure.

Offenses, when they arise, must be forgiven: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).

Forgiveness is redemptive. When that grace is at work in human hearts, as it is in the gospel, real remedies can be sought across the spectrum of life. I don’t doubt that any number of movers and shakers in the PC world hope that their contributions are accomplishing that. But since “it is through the law that we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20), the PC world’s law-making machine in effect makes human beings greater sinners than they already are: “I would not have known what sin is except through the law” (Romans 7:7).

To say it another way, PC philosophy is organized around the delusion of individual and collective self-salvation. It is seeking to create a world that has no need of the gospel, a world, in other words, that is unforgivable, for it would be a world of the unforgiving.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Natashi Jay, permission via flicker Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. And, hey, tell some friends! Thank you.

The Star of Bethlehem and the Message of the Magi

star in blue skyAs the Nativity story gets retold year after year and acted out in manger scenes across the world, the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi who saw it have fascinated adults and children alike for 2,000 years.

Astronomers since the time of Copernicus have offered different theories about the Star. It was, they say, a nova, a comet, a meteor, or a supernova. It was a completely new star or a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. The new book Colin Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet, argues that the Star was a great comet.

The physical sciences, however, including astronomy, are notoriously incapable of explaining things that are not seen. And when it comes to the Star of Bethlehem, there is more going on than meets even the eye of the telescope. The Magi knew this.

Take a careful look at the Nativity story, in chapter two of Matthew’s Gospel. Apparently, the Star had a mind of its own. It “appeared” and “went ahead of” the Magi “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere; it “stopped over the place where the child was.” These facts suggest that, whatever it was, it was something other than a phenomenon governed exclusively by physical laws. To the Magi, the Star of Bethlehem must have seemed as supernatural an event as the angelic visitation announcing Jesus’ birth was to the country shepherds.

This clears up another common misunderstanding. Many people, especially astrologers, believe that the Magi were following the stars. But the Magi were not following the stars. They were following the Bible. To know where to go first, Jerusalem, the Magi relied on a prophecy found in the book of Numbers. Given hundreds of years before Christ’s birth, it predicts the advent of “a star,” which in ancient Israel was interpreted as a messianic prophecy about the divine Ruler to come.

After arriving in Jerusalem, the heart of ancient Israel’s religious life, the Magi again follow the Bible. The rabbis read from the prophet Micah to show the Magi that this Ruler Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Taking their cues again from Scripture, not from astrology, the Magi head south to Bethlehem.

After their long, arduous journey from the East, these guys must have breathed a sigh of relief to find out that they had only six more miles to go! But on the road south, they suddenly face a problem. They have the name of the city but not the address. It’s unlikely that Mary and Joseph would still have been camped out at the manger when the Magi finally arrived, months after Jesus’ birth.

But God knows Jesus’ address. Star of wonder. It “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” The Magi are overjoyed. They worship the Savior, leave their expensive gifts with the family, and, being warned by God in a dream, they do not travel home by the way they came, through Jerusalem. They return by “another way.” Their lives had been changed.

Thirty years later, Jesus is walking the roads of Judea and Galilee, healing the sick and preaching the gospel, and still most people don’t know what the Magi knew about the Jesus’ identity. If asked, most give wrong answers. So one day Jesus asks his closest followers, Guys, who do you say that I am? When Peter replies that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus explains that “flesh and blood” has not revealed that to him, “but my Father in heaven” has revealed it. And “blessed are you” because of that, Peter.

Jesus the Messiah, the Savior, has been born. That was the message of Magi to the world 2,000 years ago. It is the message of the Star of Bethlehem to us today. Flesh and blood cannot reveal it, neither can astronomy or astrology. It takes divine revelation. And once it’s yours, dear reader, blessed are you. It will change the course of your life. You will go home by another way.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

(Charles Strohmer is the author of several books, including of America’s Fascination with Astrology: Is It Healthy? This article first appeared in The Mountain Press, December 20, 2015.)

See also The Snow Forgives Us: A True Story.

Image by Riccardo Francesconi, permission via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” Whenever I publish a new post, you will then receive a very short email notice. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell some friends! Thank you.

 

Junkyard Evolution and the Logic of Violence

explosion of paintPeople are not stupid. In their own ways and in their own words, they want to know what philosophers and theologians call the ultimate meaning or significance of life, and of their own lives especially. What is the basic meaning of life? What is the sense of it all? “What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?”

Something deep inside of us says that our ultimate meaning and significance is found in God. Problem is, belief in God has been made passé and embarrassing through education and science. Especially science, with its Big Bang theory of beginnings – the universe began with an initial terrific explosion billions of years ago.

As I say, people are not stupid. Having pledged allegiance to the Explosion for decades, they have a sneaking suspicion that their reliance on the theory for ultimate meaning has left them feeling pretty insignificant. Many such people, however, have nevertheless created fairly meaningful and significant lives for themselves anyway, as moral and upright human beings, and thank God for that. But the “Aha!” moment of meaning and significance eludes them still.

Yet it seems to me that in our day an increasing number of people are saying, well, the hell with it then, if my life is meaningless, I might as well go out the way I came in, with a bang, and take as many persons with me as I can. I’m now calling this the logic of violence, and I have begun to wonder if it is increasing in the land as Explosion Theory gets further imprinted onto our communal DNA.

You tell me. Here’s an idea I’m toying with. Physicists and other scientists today work with the belief that the distribution of matter-energy throughout the universe can be accounted for by rigid laws of mechanical causes and effects (sans any reliance on a personal creator God). Swell, okay. There certainly are such laws, and without science’s guiding hand applying them we would not enjoy the comforts and conveniences of modern life (of course, we would not cringe before the threat of nukes and other WMD either).

junkyard

The thing is, if the Big Bang is accepted in the place of a personal creator God as originator of the universe, the only way in which the laws of causes and effects could ultimately be explained is in terms of explosions: as laws the results of which are entirely random. In other words, the physical laws are what they are because, well, that’s how the explosion happened. The incredibility of this has been described as being like a tornado hurtling through a junkyard and leaving behind in its wake a fully assembled 747 ready to fly.

This power of a theory to shape and change a society’s perception of life is also clear when we  consider a parallel ultimate understanding: the evolutionary account that life began as basic molecular formations developed as the result of uncountable millions of transformations in a primordial cosmic soup. The odds against such an event, including subsequent events producing human beings, have been reckoned as one in a number greater than all the calculated atoms in the universe. All that can ultimately be said about it is that it happened, that human beings are the result of an incredible jackpot in a cosmic slot machine. Never mind. Viola! Now put the pilots and crew in the 747! And take off.

Because neither the Big Bang nor the Cosmic Soup can be proved in the way science demands, both theories of origins must be taken on faith. Over time, when ultimate faith beliefs in these theories are combined with similar notions in other areas of life, especially moral law, any ultimate significance to your life or my life slowly but inevitably fades to black. Life becomes meaning-less. No ultimate reason any longer exists for human beings to direct their lives in one way rather than another, or another, or another, no matter how morally irresponsible that way is. If family or society does not work for us, then something new can only be created by a mindless risk, a schoolyard massacre, a bloody revolution, another explosion, and then another, and then another.

A Christian vision of life opposes that. It does not deny the validity of physical laws or a scientific explanation. It denies that the laws or the scientific explanations – even all of them put together – can ever provide ultimate meaning or significance to one’s life. It maintains that to do so would be what the Bible calls idolatry.

Whatever formulae may be found to express our perception of how things are what they are, a Christian vision insists that behind that is a personal God with a will and a purpose. That Someone is our significance – Someone by whose wisdom, the Bible explains, the world was founded – Someone who relates to the creation and to us knowably on a personal level through Jesus Christ the Lord. That Someone created us and is the Source of the physical and moral laws that make us who we are. There is nothing random about it, any more than there is about how your house was built or about the laws that the courts enforce.

In the wisdom of the West, the natural sciences have gained such a high status in our communal thinking that the simple fact of its limits easily gets forgotten, and the result is serious. When there is no personal creator God at home in the universe who can be prayed to for forgiveness, mercy, and help in our time of need, life becomes meaningless in the long run, the logic of violence spreads, and we are without hope, in this world and in the next.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images: Explosion of Paint, by markcharwickart; and Junkyard, by construct. Permissions via Creative Commons.

This article was inspired by an idea in chapter 23 of Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” Whenever I publish a new post, you will then receive a very short email notice. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell some friends! Thank you.