I posted this last year. But every year it moves me again. Merry Christmas. Of note, the author was a Catholic martyr, killed in 1595. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174450
Robert Southwell, SJ
I posted this last year. But every year it moves me again. Merry Christmas. Of note, the author was a Catholic martyr, killed in 1595. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174450
Robert Southwell, SJ
My column in today’s Greenville News. You don’t have to be a believer to see that, for all its flaws, the church has had, and continues to have, great benefit for those who attend. And to the extent that it unites rather than divides, benefits for society at large.
By way of full disclosure, I’m a preacher’s kid. So, when I write about all of the benefits that accrue from church attendance, I’m speaking from both experience and from a slight bias. But before anyone gets angry and accuses me of all the standard Christian ‘crimes against humanity’ (shoving religion down your throat, intolerance, wanting a theocracy, hating people who are different, being ‘judgmental,’ being a right wing extremist, etc.), let me say that I’m going to talk about the benefits of church without getting into theology at all. That’s right. I’ll try not to even invoke the names of the particular deity that I worship. (I’ll save that for Easter Sunday.)
When I grew up, given that my father was a pastor, church was just what we did. Sunday morning church attendance wasn’t a negotiable (although other services were as I grew older). We got up, mom made breakfast, dad matched ties, polished his shoes and went over his sermon. Then we piled into the car and went to whichever church he was leading at the time. (We were semi-migratory United Methodists.)
In church, we children were herded into Sunday School classes where we were taught and mentored by kind men and women who knew us and our families. From them we learned the stories of our faith, many of which are idiomatic to Western culture at large. And we made dear friends. Some of them are still my friends decades later.
After Sunday School we went to the main church service. There we learned the value of decorum, respect and reverence. We witnessed and participated in the ancient traditions that our fellow believers have followed for two thousand years, and which help anchor believers in difficult times.
In the summer we had Vacation Bible School, that classic church activity held (now as then) in what was surely the hottest, muggiest time of the year, during which we did crafts, heard stories, sang songs, played dodge-ball in the basement and drank our total individual fluid volume in grape Kool-Aid,. We were nourished by sugar cookies and potato chips.
We later dated people we went to church with, although it turns out you aren’t allowed to make out with your girlfriend during church services. (A friend of mine discovered this in a fairly unpleasant manner). We went to camp and on other summer adventures with our friends. And we became adults together, moving slowly out of youth groups into adult classes and adult behavior.
We also learned music. Although these are days of microphones, amplifiers and Power-Point in church (nothing wrong with that), we not only sang in youth choirs and later with adults, we learned to read music and follow along. We appreciated melody and harmony. We read the beautiful lyrics written by great church composers, poetry filled with depth, wonder and hope. Those works are etched deeply in my memory. Many of those beautiful songs are lost to recent generations. It’s a pity. Even Christopher Hitchens, noted and brilliant atheist, suggested the value of reading the King James Bible. I feel the same way about great hymns.
In church, from childhood on, we saw sad, hurt people come to the altar to confess or lay out their troubles. There, friends and family surrounded them in love, in shared tears, touched them with compassion and prayed by their sides. It’s hard to witness that sort of fellowship and not learn to feel sorrow for the struggles of others.
We watched baptisms and took communion (and snuck extra communion wafers), even when we were still learning to fully understand their meaning. These became bits of our identities.
As time passed we enjoyed the delight of weddings. We also went to funerals. We learned with clarity that a group of people who spend so much time knowing and loving one another have to pass through both joy and the sorrow with them. And that death can be celebrated as surely as grieved.
I understand that many people take issue with Christianity. But church gave me great gifts: a community of fellow believers, meeting in love and sharing values and stories that were both culture foundations and individually inspiring. I continue to enjoy that every week.
And in these times of dissension, alienation and isolation, when the only thing we have in common seems to be division, I think we could use a little more church.
My column in yesterday’s Greenville News. While primary responsibility for teaching our children rests with us as parents, the church often drops the ball in its mission to the young.
I have a problem with the church. It’s not the music, or the ‘mega-church’ concept. It’s not the donuts or the coffee or any other petty issue. The problem I have with the church is that I fear we are doing a poor job of preparing our kids for life.
What troubles me is the way we dumb things down for Christian young people. Maybe we don’t want to frighten them, maybe we don’t want to confuse them or cast any doubt into the faith we’re trying to mold. But frankly, we are failing them. Because it’s a world of hard times and hard questions, and unless we teach kids how to answer them, they’ll have grave difficulties believing all of the stuff we tried to teach.
One of my kids used to come home from Sunday School and we’d ask, ‘what did your teacher talk about?’ He’d shake his little head and sigh. ‘Moses…again.’ Like all of my kids he wanted more than stock stories designed to get through a study guide every year. In fact, our family has often used the term ‘Sunday School answer,’ when having discussions. For example: ‘why is it wrong to steal?’ Answer: ‘Jesus.’ We all laugh at that, but we all know that Sunday School answers don’t always cut it.
The problem we Christians tend to have is that we have a kind of global ‘Sunday School’ answer for the world, which usually comes down to ‘it’s in the Bible.’ Which is great for established believers to say to one another. But at a certain point in time, thinking Christian kids will start to ask about that book we hold as sacred and about that God we worship. And they’ll wonder whether to believe or consign their faith to myth.
Now, if Christian kids ask that, what will non-Christian folks ask them, or say about it? If they don’t recognize the book, or the faith, or the rules, then all of our ‘but it say so,’ and ‘Jesus loves you,’ may fall on deaf ears. So, when our kids go off to work, college or the armed forces, it won’t take long until someone easily shatters their beliefs; not even intentionally, but simply by asking hard, honest questions.
Kids in many churches today are very kind and good. They go on mission trips and they work in the food-bank. They teach the younger kids in children’s ministries, etc. But all too often they aren’t being asked the hard questions in church, or being taught how to deal with them. And I don’t mean that they aren’t being taught how to ‘make the sale.’ I mean they aren’t sure how to face the issues themselves.
What questions do we need to help them answer? Here are some: ‘Why am I here? Do I have a purpose? What is my purpose? Is there such a thing as truth? Why can’t all of our truths be equally true? Did Jesus exist? Does God exist? What do we need Him for? Is there evil? What is sin? Is the Bible reliable? Aren’t all religions the same? How can we be scientific and true to our beliefs? Is Christianity cruel and mean and oppressive? What if I screw up? Why is there pain, suffering and loss? If there is, what does it say about God? Can I have hope in trouble? What happens when we die?’ (Incidentally, many of the same questions are asked by every kid, whether their families are Christian or atheist.)
That’s only a short list. But if we love our kids then we’ll sit down with them and address those life-shaping uncertainties. We’ll do it using the Bible, and by taking from philosophy and history, art and music, biology and physics and every other area of human endeavor, so that they will go into life equipped with solid answers, not fragile platitudes that blow over at the first wind of disagreement.
They’ll ask other questions; sometimes questions we hadn’t imagined. And may of them will have serious doubts. They may walk away from their faith. But they deserve our patience, love and prayers. Because a faith shaken by honest skepticism will be better in the end.
Church leaders and parents, let’s prepare our young people. They need depth to face the world and transform it. They need truth to help them endure life’s struggles. They need to know they are loved and that their lives have meaning.
But Sunday School snippets aren’t enough anymore.
When we try to redefine Jesus for our own political or cultural needs, he defies us every time. This is my column on the topic in today’s Greenville News.
A good friend of mine from high school is fond of saying ‘more Jesus, less Leviticus.’ He believes that those of us who are Christians too easily apply legalism and too seldom apply mercy. I believe he has a point.
In fact, I believe that we would all do well to remember what Jesus did and said. He is, in my opinion, the best medicine for this diseased old world. But like so much medicine, his words can be bitter, even if they work wonders.
First and foremost, he loved. When I read the Gospels I am stricken and overwhelmed with that love. In fact, he loved so much that he did that thing we find so difficult. He spoke the truth. He gently spoke to the Samaritan woman and reminded her that she was living with a man who was not her husband (indicating He hoped for a better life for her). After healing a man, he later said to him, ‘stop sinning, or something worse may happen to you.’ He told the wise and influential religious teacher Nicodemus that a man has to be born again to see the Kingdom of God.
He did things that would not get him invited to parties in the 21st century. He called himself God’s son and said that only by believing in Him could men and women be saved. He performed miraculous healings and raised the dead. He fed the five thousand by blessing five loaves and two fish. He came to His disciples at night, on a lake, walking on the water. He told people they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life. He not only believed in demons, but spoke to them and cast them out of those possessed. That sort of thing will get you a psychiatric evaluation these days!
And talk about offensive! He called a group of religious leaders and legal experts ‘open graves’ and said they were wicked and greedy. One of them said ‘when you say these things, you insult us.’ And He went right on insulting. He didn’t stage a sit-in or Twitter campaign about people selling in the temple. He did what moderns find inconceivable. He attacked the merchants with a whip for disrespecting the holiness of the place.
He called for social justice for the poor, the widow and the orphan but also said that we should fear God, who ‘has the power to throw you into hell.’ He said that birds and flowers are valuable, told us not to worry, then warned us to be ready for His return. This Jesus who told us about the heavenly reward of poor Lazarus also reminded us about the eternal torment of the rich man in hell. This Jesus who loved and blessed children said we should be like them or we can never enter the Kingdom of God.
The Jesus that society invokes for tolerance said we are unclean because of ‘evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.’ And He spoke so forcefully against lust that he said for a man to look lustfully on a woman is the same as committing adultery with her.
This same moral teacher who told us to love and not to judge (a tough command for us conservatives!) made himself the great judge, and said that those who had seen Him had seen His Father, thereby calling himself God. And in the greatest shocker of all, He let himself be crucified, then resurrected. Not as a parlor trick, not as a defeat, but as a blood sacrifice to atone for the evil of the world.
To injustice and greed, Jesus says be fair and give to those in distress. And to immorality, Jesus says be holy, because sin is a real thing and our souls matter. In a world of beauty and wonder, Jesus says enjoy life, and food and drink and nature! And He says it will all go away one day and we’ll be judged, and live in heaven or hell forever.
I agree with my friend. We need more Jesus; at least, I know I do. Fortunately, I believe He is still here, ready to shake us, berate us, heal us, shatter our idols and love us into eternity.
The thing about Jesus, then and now, is that He’s seldom exactly what we think, and He defies all our attempts to manipulate Him.
But He’s always what we need.
So every year, at Halloween, the world embraces darkness. In the West, we laugh about it and adore the most horrific costumes and the most murderous, blood-soaked movies in the growing pornography of death, as my wife describes it.
And while my kids have done their share of Trick or Treating, and I’m not a hard-nosed, Southern Baptist, anti-Halloween guy, I am puzzled by the way we seem to assume that the power of evil is so great. Even as we, as a culture, desire safety and peace, love and acceptance, hope and long life, we bow at the altar of terrible things in our films, shows and culture…and celebration.
So I’ve been playing with this idea and put it into a kind of free-verse poem. Excuse me, as I’m not trained as a poet.
The Halloween Battle
Though no one could see them,
the forest burst with dark spirits;
the Banshee wailed and the dogs howled
as even owls hid their great, glowing eyes beneath
soft wings in windswept, leaf-bare trees.
They streamed to the vast house,
full of holes for spirits and creatures,
night-loving, dark-seeking things that adored
creaking porches and swaying, finger-like trees,
reaching, reaching for children on the walk.
Children there were, bright-eyed, grasped
tightly by light-wielding mothers and fathers,
alert, even in these late ages, for things their sires
spoke of only in hushed tales around bright fires;
knowing that evil things love their single night of praise.
Unseen by dim-witted moderns, only felt at the nape of the neck,
or in goose-bumped, hair-raised flesh;
dark, unspeakable shapes wove along the walks
looked in windows, hovered over roof-tops, climbed lattices,
pointing down at the innocent parade below.
In dark caverns candles were lit, spells read,
And from empty wells, crumbled graves, things emerged;
All about the silent scream of the unleashed
heard only by highest saints and deepest sinners,
as the educated skipped along in blind collusion.
The mass of dark things, hungry, constrained, probed
the wall between realms, stretched and scratched,
salivating for the fear it could unleash once more
on men and women who knew (they thought)
everything there was to know.
But just before, just before, Emmy Pitts, age four,
saw Mia Perkins, (fresh from invoking darkness ’round a pentagram);
Saw that she knelt over Pepper her black cat,
struck by a car full-of costumed creatures with candy,
and she saw Claudette weep hot tears into the black fur.
At the height of the creeping, sneaking, howling, growling,
wind-snuffed candle, soul-stealing, moon-dimmed night,
Emmy asked, ‘can I pray for your kitty cat? I’m so sorry!’
Wrapped fair, innocent limbs around dark-hearted mourner
on the cool, candy-littered asphalt of Halloween night.
Heavenly host burst forth from the throne room of the King;
from horizon to horizon stars flared up and the moon
burned clouds away; the breeze blew warm. Caverns were sealed,
cages locked, passages shut and hearts lightened. The things of the dark fled
in terror, and in envy of the light as from the beginning.
No human saw but Emmy and Mia; saw that
the battle ended in an instant. Mia set free
as dark things fled and Pepper breathed once more.
Emmy, duly dressed as angel, skipped away nonplussed.
Mia stroked Pepper and pondered these things in her heart.
This was originally given to a group of Christian physicians and their spouses. But ultimately, I think it is relevant to everyone, physician or not.
If God had an ER, I’d be a regular!
They come from every walk of life, every age, race, nationality, financial status, sexuality and gender. All hours of the day, and of the night, they trickle or pour through the doors of the ER.
I have been doing it for 21 years. And I am, by now, seldom surprised. I am not stunned by intimate complaints, I am not shocked by bloody injuries, I am not amazed by ridiculous questions that suggest a complete lack of knowledge of their own bodies.
I am, however, petty. I am sinful and sometimes angry. I am snarky and sarcastic. ‘What did you think would happen?’ I ask. Or this one, at 3 am, who came by EMS for a wart: ‘So tell me, what’s YOUR emergency?’
I am tired; that’s the reason for some of it. And I am unable to change much. The fixed realities of modern medicine are largely unyielding to me, a small fish in a small pond.
But sometimes, I am prideful. ‘I would never do that!’
Sometimes I am greedy. ‘I’ll never make a dime for this.’
Sometimes I am uncaring. ‘She’s going to die; why can’t they accept that?’
And other times I am insensitive. ‘It’s just a fever, I don’t know why that mom is so worried!’
They are so needy! Oh my goodness, their need exhausts me. This is my confession, that I am overwhelmed.
This one needs pain medication and that one needs a work excuse.
He needs discharge papers and she needs a cup of ice.
She needs a referral but can’t afford it. He won’t take his medicine even though he can.
She thinks she might be pregnant but won’t get a test. He wants help for his drinking. But he’s drunk right now, so that doesn’t count.
They were in a minor car wreck and their lawyer said ‘go get checked.’
They were at work when someone vomited, now everyone is vomiting and thinks they have been poisoned.
This one was exposed to an STD. That one wants a Viagra refill.
He thinks his 15 years of back pain needs a specialist now. She thinks she saw a spider on her leg and thinks it might be fatal; she saw it on Discovery channel.
After a night like this recently, I came away with an insight.
‘Lord,’ I said, ‘you must love us a lot because we all act like my patients.’
So let’s pretend, for a little bit, that we are the patients. We are the annoyed, annoying, needy, sick, dying, worried patients.
Question 1: What’s the most ridiculous or annoying thing that anyone has ever brought to you as a physician? What complaints or issues simply make your hair stand on end; make you want to run out and get a welding certificate? What seemed so silly, so obviously unnecessary, that you almost said something you’d regret? (Shop vac and spider)
Now this Question: What’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever brought to the Father?
Pause to consider it.
Was it ridiculous to you?
Was it ridiculous….to Him?
Do you think for a second that he laughed, or turned you away?
The children were brought to him so He might put His hands on them and pray. But the disciples rebuked them. Then Jesus said, ‘Leave the children alone, and don’t try to keep hem from coming to me, because the kingdom of heaven is made up of people like this.’ After putting his hands on them, he went on from there. Matthew 19: 13-15
He knows your need. And he does not mind your asking. Even if it’s the ridiculous question of a child; or an adult. In fact, you are expected to ask, to come with your need.
‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with out weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time.’ Hebrews 4: 15-16.
Question 2: Has anyone asked you for something, as a patient, that you just didn’t have the energy or will to do? Have they had a complaint you didn’t want to pursue? Have they had a need for a prescription, form, anything that you just didn’t or wouldn’t do? I confess that sometimes I don’t want to write the work excuse. Or check that extra test they ask for; just because I feel I’m being pressured. (I’m not always nice…but then again, none of us are.)
What need have you brought to the Father? Think about it for a minute.
Did he turn you away? Oh, he may not have met it the way you wanted. But did he turn you away?
Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the son. If you ask ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. John 14: 13-14
Do people come to you, as a physician, with questions for which the answer seems absolutely, obviously, painfully simple? Do you wonder why they don’t know the answer? Do you want to ask, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s just…a…fever!’ Does it ever seem like your job is simply reassurance? Do you forget, sometimes, that they didn’t go to medical school?
Do you ever come to the Father with questions that you should already know the answer to? With fears and doubts about His love for you? With uncertainty about your already certain destiny? With doubts that He knows what He’s doing? The same way people ask you, ‘are you sure I’m going to be alright?’ Or ‘how many times have you done this?’ Or, to me, ‘Are you going to have a practice someday?’ Or ‘I couldn’t get into the real doctor, so I came here.’
Pause for a bit to consider the questions you’ve brought to ‘God’s ER’ that you ought to know the answer to, as a believer.
Do you believe, for an instant, that he minds calming your fears; for the hundredth time? Jesus says:
I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5: 13
and Paul says this
Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philipians 4: 6-7
He does not condemn the worrier, but reassures the worrier. So much of the scripture is a reassurance in the midst of a worrisome, terrifying, fearful life. Just the way we find ourselves reassuring patients that things are alright. They don’t always know it and they need for us to tell them.
The Father tells us over and over. And like our patients, we keep coming back with the same fears.
It’s OK, he doesn’t ever say, ‘don’t ask me again.’
Question 4: Do people come to you with questions you have NO idea how to answer? With complaints that seem to be genuine concerns to them, but do not fit any recognizable pattern? ‘The pain goes from my left eye to my right knee, every night at 8 pm, and makes me have dizziness and itching for 30 minutes. What is it?’ Or do they say to you, in your exhaustion and at your wits’ end, ‘I’ve been to Mayo clinic and Cleveland Clinic and I’m here because I can’t stand this pain anymore. Can you help me?’
Snarky, sarcastic me, says: ‘I’m not smart enough to solve your problem this morning at 3 am.’
Consider this: Do you bring situations to God that simply haven’t been solved? Questions that haven’t been answered? Do you bring to him desperate conditions or hopeless scenarios? Do you doubt HIS professionalism? Do you wonder if he has an answer or a solution to your pain?
Pause to consider.
I’d say that there is always an answer. Sometimes, however, it’s not an easy answer. You may have to keep asking and looking and trying.
Suppose one of you has a friend and goes to him a midnight and says to him ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread because a friend of mine on a journey has come o me and I don’t have anything to offer him.’ Then he will answer from inside and say ‘don’t bother me!’ The door is already locked and my children and I have gone to bed. I can’t get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he won’t get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his friend’s persistence, he will get up and give him as much as he needs. So I say to you, keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Luke 11: 5-10
The search, the asking, the seeking itself is working some change in your heart and soul. It is chipping away rough edges. It is heating the iron of your eternal self and shaping it into the perfect being that lies in your future as you become more and more like Him.
Question 5: Do people ever come to you simply because they have nowhere else to go? With questions that make no sense, with stories that are so wildly confabulated that there must be another problem? With bruises they won’t explain? Or with tearful eyes and clutched chest and you say, ‘have you been under any stress?’ And they suddenly sob? Do you ever think, ‘I really don’t have time for this today!’
Do you, yourself, come to the Father with nothing but your own brokenness? With no way to even ask the deep questions? With no knowledge of the answer you want? With a crushing sense that everything is spinning out of control?
Pause to consider a time when you did this.
Do you think that God was wearied by your desperation? Do you think that he puzzled over what you were saying? Do you think he was unmoved by your sorrow?
In the same way the Spirit also joints to help in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings. And He who searches the hearts knows the Spirit’s mind-set, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. Romans 8: 26-27
And this, which always makes me think of the masses, the desperation, the confusion I see and you see; and that He sees, in you and me.
So as He stepped ashore, He saw a huge crowd and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he began to teach them many things. Mark 6:34
The thing is, we are all the same as the patients who vex us. We are all the crazy lady in the ER hallway, the needy person in the room with the call-light, the drunk angry at the world and straining against handcuffs, the one quietly mourning, the one anxious for no good reason, the suicidal, the hurting, the dying.
We’re all those patients. And that’s OK with Jesus. He never leaves the ER anyway, but just waits for us to come to him. And thus he says:
Come unto me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am gentle, and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11: 28-30
Rest, and remember to show compassion. For you have received it. And remember that you are loved and adopted by the God of the universe.
And he’s even in charge of the ER.
These days, the word sin is considered kind of ‘sinful.’ The secular world finds it entirely offensive, since they consider every human behavior to be natural and therefore appropriate. The religious world, ever more sensitive to offending anyone these days, often veers away from discussions of this fundamental part of Judeo-Christian theology. (No wonder. Any mention of sin gets believers smacked down as hateful and judgmental.)
We are often asked, ‘why is it wrong to do x y or z?’ For example, why should adultery be a sin, when it is committed between consenting adults? Why should fornication (a word so underused as to be almost an etymologic antiquity) be considered wrong when it is between two consenting…well, sometimes adults, sometimes adolescents)?
Let’s pause to recognize that when we say there is ‘no such thing as sin,’ our culture usually means ‘no such thing as sexual sin.’ We tend to agree that theft and murder are wrong. We accept lying if it is expedient. We absolutely deny that any inappropriate thought or motive can be considered sin. All of those are consigned to mental illness or to neurobiological dysfunctions.
So why is a thing wrong? Well, in the case of adultery, it is obvious that even if the adults consent, others will be wounded. Try as you might, your spouse’s attorney won’t be interested in the ‘consenting adults’ argument, and your spouse will not buy the ‘nobody gets hurt,’ argument. Furthermore, your children will simply be wounded. One can dismiss that as one is able, but the research abounds on the effects of divorce on children…and it’s not pretty.
But all that aside, why should any sexual sin be ‘wrong?’ This is at the heart of many objections to Christianity. That is, it places prohibitions on certain behaviors. Behaviors that others very much want to enjoy.
Of course, we have learned over time that there are costs. Diseases such as HIV or HPV (and associated cancers at times) are prevalent. Herpes is epidemic. Chlamydia leads to pain and infertility. Multiple ‘hook ups’ leave people feeling disconnected, dehumanized and depressed. The list goes on. So, before the era of modern microbiology, infectious disease research and psychology, someone (a very, very long time ago) recommended that humans not behave in certain ways.
And yet, there may be more. I recently had the thought that the human soul must at least as complex, if not more so, than the human body. After all, from a Christian viewpoint, the body is temporal, but the soul eternal. It should make sense, therefore, that we must attend to issues concerning our souls and avoid sins (actions, thoughts, attitudes) that cause the soul ill health. In much the same way as we attend to our physicality.
Sometimes, I suspect, we are told not to do a thing because frankly, we aren’t prepared to understand the full reasons why we shouldn’t.
Example: If my daughter, when she was two, was about to touch a hot burner on the stove, I would have stopped her. When I did, she might have asked ‘why not.’ I could have then launched into a physician’s discussion of skin layers, thermal injury, delayed healing, loss of function, proloned therapy, pain, infection, recovery and all the rest. But I would have said, at that point, ‘it will hurt you!’ She would have been satisfied then, though now she might want more depth.
I believe that many of God’s prohibitions are like that. Why not? Because it will hurt. Because it will kill. One day, when our hearts and souls, and minds, are ready, we’ll understand. Until then, we have to trust that the rules set down for us have validity, for now and eternity.
If we don’t, we will simply find ourselves burned; over and over. And wondering why we didn’t listen in the first place.
This is my column in today’s Greenville News.
I hope you enjoy it.
This has been a terrible summer in many ways. A time of loss from
fires in Colorado. Continued sporadic deaths of US combat troops have
broken hearts at home. The shooter in Aurora, Colorado left us
stunned, wondering about both mental health and evil. And even in my
quiet Oconee County, the death angel has hovered, leaving us with
drownings, shootings, car accidents and every assorted misery.
Loss and suffering are ubiquitous. I spend a lot of time talking to
my kids about how to make sense of things; and it isn’t easy. I don’t
always have good answers. Unfortunately, life will illustrate to
them that trouble is a fraternity (or sorority if you like) whose
membership qualifications are wide-open; everyone ‘rushes’ it
Of course, the good thing about trouble is that it often makes us
mere humans rise to greater heights. In the face of suffering, we
rail against it. From every political and cultural stripe, we are
wounded by the wounds of others. Our techniques and ideas may differ,
but we want to stop tragic calls in the night, painful diagnoses,
crimes, funerals, wars and all the rest.
Enter science. With science, we have a weapon to level against our
difficulties. With science we can at least delay our inevitable
deaths. We can ease the pain of disease. We can give function to the
paralyzed; hope to the dying and their families. With science we can
sometimes predict natural disasters and man-made acts of terror, and
either stop or mitigate them. With science we can have more food,
better food, cleaner water and safer homes.
With our capacity for reason and science, we can stare into the face
of so much pain and say ‘I reject inevitability!’
However, one thing that science hasn’t yet done is find a way to ease
the heartbreak of, or give meaning to, the loss that plagues us.
Science is behind the curve, as it were. One day it may break
through. Science might reanimate the dead after much longer periods
of time. Already there are discussions of ‘uploading consciousness,’
that is, taking our ‘selves’ and saving them to computers so that we
live on after physical death. Perhaps science will allow us to travel
through dimensions, or time, to places where we are happiest. Or will
simply learn to erase the pain from our memories; an idea that is not
entirely agreeable to me, since our painful memories are still
All of this is guess-work. Suffering is not. It persists and
descends all too frequently. This is one very important role of our
religious faith. Although religion sometimes meets with anger and
opposition over social issues, in drama real or contrived, it is (like
science) a way of seeking truth and giving meaning to phenomena.
Faith gives us a framework in which to view loss, and a canvas on
which to place our hope. Faith eases our thumping hearts and soothes
our frantic minds. It helps us to be kind in trial, to be hopeful and
patient in loss, to be forgiven and forgiving and to be loving in the
midst of anger. It gives many of us a reason an answer to life’s
While science moves us forward, faith has a critical role, if only
for believers. It gives those of us with faith even more impetus to
strive. It encourages us to make this life brighter, and more
wondrous, for ourselves and others; even as we hope for the next.
In a very real way, science and faith are exactly hand-in-hand.
Faith gives us a vision of better things. Faith talks about endless
life; science prolongs life. Faith teaches us to comfort the sick and
dying; faith gives us tools to do so. Faith tells us to feed the
hungry; science allows it to be done more effectively. Faith tells us
that things are not always what they appear; science sometimes lifts
the curtain to see things as they are, even as it always postulates
(just like faith) about what may yet be possible.
There is no need for any combat between either side. South Carolina
illustrates this perfectly, as our citizens populate high tech
industries, cutting edge universities, and practice faiths of every
sort. Theist, agnostic or atheist, we all have similar dreams and
visions. And we ought all to work together to make a better future
for our children. And to give them the means to both understand, and
transform, the world and their own lives.
FYI: Here’s a link to a website detailing famous scientists who were theists.
This is my column in the current edition of the Baptist Courier, the newspaper of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
My regular column is titled Cross and Caduceus
Do you want a mission field, ripe for the harvest? Look no further than your local emergency room. Of course, it lacks the flair of an overseas trip. But trust me when I say, many of the people there speak a very different language, and live in a very different culture from your own.
I know, you can’t really go in and preach, per se. But there are needs that churches can meet. The thing is, roughly 40% of emergency room visits are actually psycho-social in origin. That is, it isn’t the fall, it’s the abuse. It isn’t the cut, it’s the depression. It isn’t the chest pain, it’s the anxiety. It isn’t the headache, it’s the grief.
Now when I say psycho-social, you should immediately hear, in your Baptist hearts and minds, the word ‘spiritual.’ The world is in the grip of spiritual assaults unimaginable, and many of them wind their way, eventually, to the emergency room.
Why is this? Well, the reasons are many. But for my money, the main reason is the progressive medicalization of everything in America, as we abandon the idea that our souls are real, or that God is real, or that redemption is necessary. Then, we replace it with social programs, psychological research, medications and a little bit of therapy (for the few who can afford it). All based on the idea that material beings must solve problems materially.
Our theology, our Gospel, tells us that ultimately, all of the suffering of humanity is based in sin, in our fall. And that much of the specific misery of this life has to do with sins. With marriages broken by infidelity, with infections caused by promiscuity, with death caused by loneliness and addiction, with depression caused by abandonment, with violence caused by hatred.
So it should be obvious that a huge number of folks who really need us are likely swirling around the ER, day and night. They need counseling; state funded counselors and psychiatrists are rare; private ones expensive. Why not offer them a listening ear and the healing balm of scripture, the gift of fellowship? They need food. Why not arrange for social workers to send some of them to your food bank? They’re young and uneducated, why not let the church serve as a means to direct them to classes, to jobs? Their children are poor; why not let the church make birthdays and Christmas more delightful?
My father is a retired pastor. When he was serving a church, the pastors in his area would share call duties at the local trauma center. A call-room was available, and when patients or families needed help, the pastor was an invaluable resource for an already taxed social worker, a physician or nurse struggling to help someone whose needs were far beyond the medical or surgical.
Every church, every pastor with the time and resources should be looking for an ER, a clinic, a place where the sick, the dying, the broken congregate. From those congregated folks, a congregation exists. A group in dire need of the soul-saving gift of the Gospel, the life changing love of a church, the peace-giving words of a wise pastor in times of loss or fear, in an era of epidemc depression and anxiety.
It strikes me as fascinating, that churches so often want to go overseas to do their good, when in fact they have so much work lying around, undone, and no further than a large hospital, a trauma center, a community emergency room. While I applaud overseas missions, I see so much suffering, so much poverty, addiciton, loss, anxiety, grief, loneliness and sorrow that I can’t help looking up from the bedside now and then, wondering if the ER isn’t a perfect place for the church to reach out.
So I implore you, mission organizations, ladies groups, pastoral associations, seminaries and all the rest. Reach out to the place where misery is distilled to 200 proof. Reach the patients. And while you’re at it, try to reach the doctors, nurses and paramedics if you can. Thanks to the intensity of their work, and their own fallen souls, hey’re hurting as much as the folks they treat. Sometimes, after years of difficult, heart-wrenching attempts to save lives and help situations, they’re hurting even more than the patients.
Call it Emergistan if you want, but the mission field of the ER is white for the harvest.
This is my Easter Sunday Greenville News column. (I haven’t had time to post it until now!)
He is Risen! Words have such power; power to heal, power to destroy. Power to give hope or dash it on the rocks. When asked what the worst thing I have ever seen in my medical career, I usually explain that telling someone bad news is the worst. Words are more terrible than any wound I have ever seen.
He is Risen! Those are words I can work with. When Jesus walked the earth, He brought light into this dark world. Certainly, He gave words of wisdom, words of love, instructions for compassion and kindness to the poor and broken. But He gave hope for more than that. He gave hope that in Him and through Him, all would be well. That the lost could be redeemed. That God sent His son as ambassador to the hurting, to reclaim them.
And yet, there came that day that He predicted. And on that day, all the hope was beaten and bloodied and hauled upon the worst instrument of torture the ingenious Romans, our cultural ancestors, could devise. The cross. The very word, crux, means torture, torment, misery even as it means the device upon which it was inflicted. There is where the hope went. Hope bled, was pierced and died.
I imagine the words going forth, down Golgotha, across the beautiful city of Jerusalem (may God give her peace). ‘He’s dead. They killed Him.’ Or to some, ‘He’s dead, we killed Him,’ which would be a more accurate statement for all believers to make, given that His purpose was more than kind aphorisms and gentle miracles. Given that his purpose was to die for us, rise, and leave behind the death and sin He took with Him, in the greatest smuggling operation in history
The bad news traveled through the heart of His mother, across mystified Roman soldiers, to every disciple, into every hidden closet. It traveled to the ones He had given sight, the ones He had helped to walk. To the girl He raised, to the ones who saw Lazarus step from the tomb in Bethany and to the very ones who drank His delicious wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. He is dead. He is no more. Hope is dead. Hope is no more. All the beauty and wonder He brought to us is a memory, along with so many bright things. All that remains is painful life, and death, and the few simple joys. Oh yes, and Rome, and laws we cannot keep.
How long those days must have been. They took hope down from the crux, they buried Him in a stone tomb. The one who brought hope and healing was wrapped, and lain on stone, behind stone, guarded by soldiers. As if hope were not lost enough, it was placed under arms, and hidden in the earth. Tears streamed down faces, hearts squeezed, stomach churned. Food had no taste. Tables were silent..
How wonderful then, the words ‘He is Risen.’ The words themselves were lightning in the night, sunrise, too good to be true. How unbelievable it must have been! How unprecedented that neither Rome, nor religious authorities, nor even death could hold Him down. And that if they could not hold him, then maybe He spoke the truth. That death need not be feared. That sin could be forgiven. That life could have meaning beyond hard work, beyond food and brief pleasures! He is Risen!
It’s why we love Easter. It’s why we love Jesus. Of course, even the most cynical will pause with respect at Jesus’ teachings on love, on the poor, on kindness. But the rest of us, who believe He is Risen, love Him because He spoke the truth. Because He came back in the most witnessed and recorded event of antiquity. Like a parent who keeps a promise: ‘I’ll be back in a few hours…everything will be fine.’ All of us children can live in hope again because He is Risen.
Death still stalks the earth. I see too much of it. Sin and evil still lurk, around corners and in hearts. We all know that. But they are transitory, disabled. They are powerless before the greatest words in all of history, the greatest light in all our darkness.
Having given all too much bad news in my life, with my eyes downcast, to people expecting the worst, I here and now give the best news ever given:
He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!