The World’s End

October 20, 2014 — 9 Comments

christ arisenMany years ago, while attending seminary, I was invited to preach at a Pentecostal congregation in my home town. One of the conversations I had that day taught me more about the importance of sound biblical preaching than every homiletics course I ever took (combined).

Lutherans, I must admit, are not big advocates of “end times” concerns. The reasons for this are far too complicated to address in a brief column now. Ironically, however, although we confess our confidence that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead” every week, we seldom talk about the details of that arrival.

At the aforementioned service, I did preach on the second coming of the Messiah. And, to distill it down to a single message, I suggested that the Scriptures teach us to live in a sort of tension. We should live with a conscious awareness and urgency that the parousia could happen at any moment . . . and, prepare for the future as though the return of Christ (and subsequent new creation) will not take place for another thousand years.

Shortly after the service ended, a woman approached me and shared how she “wished she could have heard that sermon thirty years earlier.” She related how different her life would have been.

She said in her youth she had longed to attend college, but she never did . . . because she knew Jesus would return before she graduated.

When she and her husband bought a home, she wished the property had some fruit trees, but she never planted any . . . because she knew Jesus would return before they bore fruit.

Saddest of all, she told me that when her children were born, she never raised them to become mature adults . . . because she knew Jesus would return before they grew into the men and women they became.

Nearly forty years later I am more convinced than ever that living with the “tension” I described is the proper course of disciples of Jesus.

So, how does this work out in reality?

While a few of us know people who become so preoccupied with the end of the world that their lives go askew, it’s the other error to which most of us are prone. We tend to think that the return of Christ bears little or no connection to the age in which we live.

We are so preoccupied with our present responsibilities and dreams that we invest precious little time in contemplating how these things will matter in the scope of eternity.

I highly recommend to you a recent article on this subject that will remedy this dilemma. Andrée Seu Peterson, a gifted writer I have commended before at Mere Inkling, reminds us all of the fact that Jesus’ second coming may be just around the corner. Andrée writes:

Who would have thought that after centuries of modernity, beheading would once again be a means of persecuting the people of God? Does it not send a chill up our spine to read all about it in Revelation 20:4 even as we hear about it on CNN? “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus.”

C.S. Lewis famously described two errors people fall into when considering the occult. Either we get caught up in unhealthy expressions of the supernatural, or we dismiss the reality of demons and their destructive agenda altogether.

I believe humanity’s impulsive nature makes us vulnerable to the same extremes when it comes to the final days of the world we call home.

I strongly encourage you to read Peterson’s article here, as a timely reminder that you were created for far more wonderful and amazing things than we can ever know in this life. Even the best this world offers is but a hint and a foretaste of what awaits those who trust in God.

Misplaced Trust

October 16, 2014 — 8 Comments

trustingWhy do some nurses kill? Most people attracted to the nursing profession possess deep reservoirs of compassion for others. And yet, every once in a while we read about a nurse intentionally taking the life of a patient.

Today’s case comes from Italy, where a forty-two year old nurse is under investigation for thirty-eight possible cases of murder. And we are not talking about the ending of a life that some would term euthanasia.

Poggiali did not overdose them to end their suffering. She did it simply because they irritated her. She, or their relatives, bothered her.

One troubling aspect of the case could only happen today. Authorities have actually found a photograph on her phone where she is standing beside a deceased patient giving a “thumbs up” sign. (The article didn’t indicate whether this was a sickening “selfie,” or if there is another person at the hospital with a similarly demented sense of humor.

When people we implicitly trust violate our faith in them, it is jarring. We struggle to comprehend things when . . .

Medical professionals intentionally cause injury . . .

Clergy behave immorally, particularly when they attempt to justify it from the pulpit . . .

Police victimize rather than protect . . .

Teachers care more about themselves than their students . . .

Soldiers display cowardice rather than courage . . .

There is some good news here. It is precisely because these breaches of our expectations are the rare exception, that we are shocked by them. For the most part, people entrusted by the public with authority or power honor that trust.

(Let’s exclude, for our discussion here, the case of politicians, where that supposition would be hotly debated. As Lewis in his essay “Equality” wrote, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.”)

Our trust in people who occupy special positions goes so far as to be illogical. For example, we tend to think of actors or actresses as possessing the traits of various characters they have portrayed.

We laugh at the joke, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Yet, we’re still tempted to ask the person how we can best deal with our persistent cough or chronic rash.

We think of television cops as believing in law and order, but if we seriously considered the matter, we would recognize just how foolish that is. They are no more, or less, likely than anyone else in Hollywood to be law abiding.

An ongoing scandal reveals just how disorienting it can be to have our illusions shattered. It is the case of Stephen Collins. In the popular Seventh Heaven series, he played the ideal father. A pastor, no less. We mourn for the lives he has injured, and we subconsciously grieve our own disillusionment.

The solution to the problem is not in ceasing to trust others. Life from that perch would result in paranoia and alienation.

No, I think that it still makes sense to trust—within limits. I am willing to extend my trust to someone in a respected profession who I have just met. That is based on the profession’s self-policing of standards.* Most require minimal education and competence standards, and have mechanisms for decertifying those who violate professional ethics.

Still, when time allows, the best advice is probably to “trust and verify.” The time I take to verify whether the person’s credentials or claims are true corresponds to the importance of what I’m entrusting to them. I would leave my car with a mechanic far sooner than I would entrust my child to a babysitter.

Returning to the case with which we began, we assume that a hospital is one of the safest places to be. And, even in light of the latest tragedy, this remains true.

For every one nurse tempted to end a complainer’s life early, there are a hundred thousand** who are striving to prolong the lives of their charges.

Trusting should not only be viewed as something we extend to others. Each of us would do well to ponder for a few moments just how trustworthy we are. This is especially true for those of us in privileged or respected professions. However, it is no exaggeration to say that the measure of any woman or man is determined by the degree to which they have earned the trust of others.

Lewis writes about the nature of trust, as it relates to friendship. It doesn’t relate to trust imbued in societal roles, but rather in the trust that exists where a relationship is already present. Still, he expertly describes the interplay between mind and heart, when it comes to trust. And this explains, in part, why the betrayal of our trust causes us so much anguish, in mind and soul.

To love involves trusting the beloved beyond the evidence, even against much evidence. No man is our friend who believes in our good intentions only when they are proved. No man is our friend who will not be very slow to accept evidence against them. Such confidence, between one man and another, is in fact almost universally praised as a moral beauty, not blamed as a logical error. And the suspicious man is blamed for a meanness of character, not admired for the excellence of his logic. (“On Obstinacy in Belief”).

_____

* The fact that some “professions” don’t have any mandatory requirements or standards, means that I remain wary when I meet people sporting those titles. For example, in America it’s possible to “ordain” oneself (or buy a meaningless diploma or certificate online). Thus, when someone tells me they are a minister, I am eager to learn more (about their education, congregation, accountability, etc.). There are far too many hucksters out there to take a person’s word for it that they are a genuine minister of God.

** Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but I’d like to continue believing that the ratio is something wonderful like that, 1:100,000. Then again, if I think of it literally, in terms of how many are “tempted” to expedite the passing of an inconsiderate and ungrateful patient, I imagine the numbers might be rather less encouraging.

Convoluted Language

October 13, 2014 — 8 Comments

govwritingAre you a skilled reader? Do you pride yourself on possessing a knack for making sense of challenging prose?

Even if you consider yourself a proficient interpreter of text, there is one genre of literature that may still cause you to tremble. Government documents.

Even the most experienced lexical navigators find it challenging to traverse governmental communications. This despite the fact that in 2010 the United States actually passed the Plain Writing Act.

And I’m not even referring to legislation—where seeking sanity and clarity is virtually hopeless. And, it doesn’t matter how simple the source message is. Government scribes are capable of making a document about how to obtain a building permit read like a manual for constructing an orbital weapons platform.

I am not sure whether or not the United States is typical of other nations when it comes to this literary tradition. However, I suspect every nation, aside perhaps from those with populations under 10,000, is plagued by convoluted governmental documents. (There are thirteen such, potentially exempt, communities.*)

A prime example of institutional gobbledygook comes from this question, posed to the Chicago Manual of Style:

Q. Can you please help settle a disagreement? In the following sentence, should “instead of” be replaced with “rather than”? Overpayments occurred because facility purchased care staff processed payments using the local VA Fee schedule instead of the technical component of RBRVS.

A. Let me get this straight: in that nearly unreadable sentence (“because facility purchased care staff processed payments”?), the disagreement centers on whether to use “instead of” or “rather than”?  (Oh, wait—I see from your e-mail address that this is a government office.) Replace the phrase if you are certain that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning, and (2) the current wording does not express the meaning intended. If you cannot reach agreement on these points, you might have to fund a study.

C.S. Lewis offered much sage advice about writing. Sadly, nearly every principle he proposed is utterly alien to governmental documents. His 1956 advice (to a child) should be the required background and screen saver for all government computers:

“Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for civil servants who write official documents. After all, I edited Air Force Recurring Periodical 52-1 for three years. But I sometimes wonder whether there might be an eccentric psychological disorder that afflicts many government-funded writers . . .

So, it appears, I have made an unintentional confession. The regular readers of Mere Inkling may now know the source of some of the peculiar aspects of these columns.

I have asked my children to have me institutionalized if I ever use the phrase “care staff processed payments.” Short of that, however, these brief conversations are likely to continue for many years to come.

_____

* The following nations and “dependent territories” boast populations under ten thousand, in ascending order:

Pitcairn Islands

Cocos Islands

Vatican City

Tokelau

Niue

Christmas Island

Norfolk Island

Svalbard and Jan Mayen

Falkland Islands

Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha

Montserrat

Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Saint Barthelemy

Nauru barely misses the list due to an excess of eighty-four citizens, according to their 2011 census.

A Symbol of Death & Life

October 6, 2014 — 6 Comments

nن – Arabic letter nun (n)

You may never have seen this symbol or, if you did, its foreign context may not have impressed it on your mind.

This Arabic letter is now being used to mark people for persecution and death. Yet, at the very same moment, this same symbol is also being transformed into an emblem that stands for courage and life.

The Islamic State has martyred or enslaved many Christians. Survivors have had all of their property stolen from them and been marked for death if they do not reject Christ and embrace the Muslim religion.

They have gone throughout the neighborhoods of their new conquests and placed this mark, the nun, on homes to mark them for evacuation or death. The “N” stands for “Nazarene,” referring to Jesus’ home town.

With the passage of time, we will likely see once again the truth proclaimed by Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. In the meantime, everyone of good will (Christian, Jew, Muslim, Agnostic alike) should rally to the support of the suffering.

We do not yet know the magnitude of the atrocities committed by ISIS/ISIL. Like Nazi concentration camps, the complete story will not be revealed until the sites of the horror are liberated from their vile control. And, like the Mogen David (Star of David) which marked its bearers as Jews, the nun marks its bearers as Christians and targets of militant Islam.

C.S. Lewis recognized the horror of Nazism early on. In 1933 he wrote about the cruelty, and stupidity of Hitler’s attack on Judaism.

Did you see that [Hitler] said “The Jews have made no contribution to human culture and in crushing them I am doing the will of the Lord.” Now as the whole idea of the “Will of the Lord” is precisely what the world owes to the Jews, the blaspheming tyrant has just fixed his absurdity for all to see in a single sentence, and shown that he is as contemptible for his stupidity as he is detestable for his cruelty.

One can only imagine what Lewis would write about the leaders of Islamofascism today.

There are a number of organizations that support Christians currently experiencing violent persecution. None, however, approaches this work from the same perspective of Voice of the Martyrs. I wholeheartedly commend their labors to you.

They are currently offering shirts emblazoned with the letter nun. They are even more important as a witnessing tool, than as a fundraiser. Please read more about them here and share the link with your friends. Also, please take a few minutes to explore their website once you are there.

To boldly state “I am N” is to identify with the oppressed. It is to show the world you understand that each disciple of Jesus must be prepared to take up his or her own cross. Dying for one’s faith in Jesus is not a myth; it is a daily reality.

The ن symbol, intended as a mark of derision, humiliation and rejection, has assumed a new meaning. It has become a mark of hope, courage, and deliverance.

What the persecutors in Iraq and Syria intended to be a label of death has been transformed by the Holy Spirit and the faithfulness of Christians into a symbol of life.

Distant Fathers

September 30, 2014 — 7 Comments

miceChildren don’t get to choose their parents. They aren’t able to select loving parents in contrast to abusers. They can’t  express any preference about being in a home with a mom and a dad committed to them, and to one another.

But the home into which children are born matters a great deal in the direction and shape of their entire life.

It doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge that some settings are healthier than others. The ideal context (which very few of us are blessed to experience) is a home where mom and dad keep their vows to one another, and devote themselves to placing their children in the forefront of their concerns.

Those of us who are people of faith recognize a third pillar to this structure. There is spousal love, parental love, and love of God. When you have all three, you are fortunate indeed.

Sadly, for many, one or both parents are absent. They may be physically present (as my own alcoholic father was) but they are disengaged . . . unconnected . . . absent. I believe that when they are physically present but not really there, they often teach their children worse lessons than they would have learned if they were literally gone. But that’s a conversation for another day.

A study some months ago reveals that the absence of fathers during childhood can actually affect the brain of the child. Yes, you read that right—it can physically affect their brains.

In the study Dr. Gobbi and her colleagues compared social activity and brain anatomy between the two groups . . . the first, raised with both parents, and the second,  that had been raised only by their mothers. The results showed that mice raised without a father demonstrated abnormal social interactions.

This group of subjects also showed more aggressive patterns of behavior in comparison with their counterparts raised with both parents. In addition, these effects were stronger for female offspring. Interestingly females raised without fathers also had a greater sensitivity to the stimulant drug–amphetamine.*

Before continuing, it’s important to note that these experiments were conducted on animals . . . mice, to be precise. While we don’t normally think of mice as paternalistic creatures, neuroscientists assure us that these results are significant.

“Although we used mice, the findings are extremely relevant to humans,” claims Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, a researcher of the Mental Illness and Addiction Axis at the RI-MUHC, senior author and an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. “We used California mice which, like in some human populations, are monogamous and raise their offspring together.”

California mice? Monogamous? Who would have thought!

Whether you place much stock in this scientific research or not, most honest individuals acknowledge the significance our father and mother share in our early formation.

C.S. Lewis’ loss of his mother and the great distance between himself and his father greatly impacted the development of his personality. Lewis goes so far as to make this confession in Surprised by Joy: “With the cruelty of youth I allowed myself to be irritated by traits in my father which, in other elderly men, I have since regarded as lovable foibles.”

Elsewhere, Lewis writes longingly of the intimate relationship he longed to have had with his own father. Describing the source of author George MacDonald’s guiding inspiration in life, he writes:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central. (George MacDonald: An Anthology).

I did not have that sort of relationship with my own father. I strove to give it as a gift to my children though. And today, while I continue to be their dad, I am acutely aware of the kind of grandfather I am.

Whether it truly affects those developing minds or not, I am committed to caring for each of them as well as is humanly possible.

_____

* You can read the quoted article in The Neuropsychotherapist here. The abstract for the original research is available here.

 

 

Death by Crocodile

September 26, 2014 — 8 Comments

200350761-001Suicide is always a tragedy. Many families have been touched by its pain.

The moral implications of this are vast, of course, and not the topic of this column. Today I am more intrigued by the modes that people select as they act on their suicidal impulses (or long-deliberated decisions).

As a pastor and military chaplain, I have worked with families in the aftermath of suicide. As a volunteer law enforcement chaplain, I have responded to the actual event.

Life is precious. It should never be squandered. Contrary to the notions of reincarnationists, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). That judgment need not be feared, for those sheltered in the mercy of God. Still, I doubt the Lord desires to see us ushered into his presence for that judgment by our own hand.

Even the darkest of lives can be rescued and recreated with new hope. That’s the testimony of many people, like Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic at only seventeen.

There are diverse ways people choose to end their days on earth.

Some European countries have made the passing a gentle, numbing for the most part, painless transition. In their euthanasia clinics, powerful drugs can be used to simply suppress one’s breathing until they “fall asleep” permanently.

Others make drug concoctions of their own, and some die in agony because of miscalculation, or are “rescued” to live debilitated by their failed attempt.

Some, for twisted macho reasons perhaps, decide to go out with a literal bang. Here too the attempt can fail and leave the individual in a horrific condition. And, even when it is “successful,” it leaves a sickening aftermath.

Perhaps the worst of all are those who desire to leave a “mark” on this “cruel world” as they depart. They may lash out at people they know—or even strangers—seeking to leave a lasting scar as a memory. Most of these people are likely insane. Not so the fanatic “suicide bombers.” Those disciples of evil comprehend what they are doing. The magnitude of their vile acts do not escape them.

Not the Why, but the How

As I said above, I’m not thinking today about the reasons a person would end their life. I am wondering about the means they choose to do so.

I was shocked by the recent suicide by a sixty-five year old Thai woman who calmly removed her shoes and then leapt into a ten-foot-deep pond which is home to more than a thousand crocodiles. A dozen were on her immediately.

I cannot stand to watch nature shows that portray crocodiles viciously dragging antelopes or zebras to their grim deaths. Just thinking of this woman’s final moments leaves me in emotional disbelief.

C.S. Lewis hinted at humanity’s archetypal antipathy to crocodiles. In a 1949 letter he wrote:

I don’t think the idea that evil is an illusion helps. Because surely it is a (real) evil that the illusion of evil should exist. When I am pursued in a nightmare by a crocodile the pursuit and the crocodile are illusions: but it is a real nightmare, and that seems a real evil.

Just as shocking as this poor woman’s death itself, is the fact that a decade ago another woman committed suicide at the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo in the same way.

The only reason I can conceive of for a person choosing such a terrible manner of death, is that they believed they deserved to suffer. Aside from that, only insanity can provide an answer.

For those who believe their guilt for real or imagined sins demands such a path, I have a life-saving alternative. There is One who can forgive those crimes and failings, and offer us a new beginning.

In the same passage from Hebrews cited above, we read the following good news.

[Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Share this hope with your friends and family—especially with those you know who may be contemplating the untimely end of their lives.

_____

I have written on the subject of suicide in the past. If you are interested in considering the subject from a different perspective, please read “The Anguish of Suicide.”

Bill Cosby & Me

September 22, 2014 — 6 Comments

cosbyOne of the finest compliments my wife ever paid me was saying, “You remind me of Bill Cosby.”

She tells me that’s one of the reasons she married me thirty-eight years ago. And she also says it’s still true today.

I owe a lot to Bill Cosby. He has modeled (for several generations now), how humor highlights the most precious aspects of our human lives. He also showed us how a real man works hard to accomplish his goals, and keeps the promises he makes.

And now, approaching the winter of his life, Cosby continues to inspire.

My wife and I have always wanted to see him perform. This summer that dream came true.

He offered the audience two full hours of good natured (healthy) laughter with an ample dose of self-introspection as well.

Cosby began his performance (at one of our Washington State fairgrounds) by commenting on our lovely weather. He noted that every other time he had spoken outdoors that it had poured. He suggested that there was something demented about Washingtonians wanting to watch entertainers on stage being drenched while they are handling microphone and other electrical devices.

I refer to Cosby’s presentation as a “performance,” but it was far more than that. It is no exaggeration to say that it was like being invited to an intimate family gathering. One where everyone has gathered around—and the audience was filled with people of all ages—to hear their witty patriarch weave delightful stories about their shared past and mysteries of life.

Bill Cosby embodies the truth spoken by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters: “Humour is . . . the all-consoling and . . . the all-excusing, grace of life.” Cosby is, in a sense, an ambassador of humor. Or, even, a physician of humor, whose words carry the power to heal.

In mere minutes he made us all, albeit temporarily, his family. (Another reason for me to be proud my wife likens me to this gifted story-teller.)

I’ve always liked Cosby. I was introduced to him on a vinyl album my family had. We probably owned several, over the years, but this one was his debut album, recorded live in 1963.

As a young Christian, I was particularly captivated by his three sketches about Noah. (If you’ve never heard the routine, check out my note at the bottom of this column.) Only today, in the fall season of my own life, does it dawn on me just how profound an effect his comedy had on me.

I believe that was the first time I became aware that matters of faith could be funny. Not diminished by ridicule, but uplifted by laughter. It was okay to enjoy discussing serious matters, by highlighting some of their humorous aspects.

In a world where so many of faith’s spokespersons were dour and humorless, seeds of mirth were planted in my life. Thank you, Bill.

Those seeds have born fruit. They have never undermined my recognition of the authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. But, at the same time, they have opened my eyes to the warmth and wonder of the Creator who spoke the cosmos into existence.

Cosby engaged us with an exploration of humanity’s creation, and moved on into a delightful conversation about the differences between men and women. He spoke about his beloved Camille and his children in ways the entire audience connected to. His deep affection for his family resonates even as he uses them as a comedic foil (actually, the majority of his humor is self-deprecating).

Here’s a simple truth. A winsome witness to the faith, who can laugh with one of America’s finest humorists about their beliefs, will win far more “converts” than someone who does not know the joy that comes from being God’s child.

For those unfamiliar with Bill Cosby, allow me to offer a note about only a few of his many accomplishments.

He served for four years as a hospital corpsman in the United States Navy.

He attended Temple University on a track scholarship, where he also played fullback on the football team.

He has an earned doctorate (not the “honorary” type that adorns many public figures). Doctor Cosby earned his Doctor of Education degree in 1976 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

On the amazing espionage series, I Spy, Cosby became the first African-American to co-star in a dramatic series. (I remember being riveted to the show, identifying more with Cosby’s thoughtful portrayal than with the shallower, flashier persona of Robert Culp.) Apparently, many recognized Cosby’s acting prowess—he won three consecutive Emmy Awards during the show’s run.

Cosby’s acting prowess was proven repeatedly through television accomplishments, most notably The Cosby Show, which overwhelmed its competition.

He is a gifted musician and has recorded a dozen music albums.

He is also a skilled writer, and has written a dozen books.

He is a genuine family man, whose devotion to his wife, children and grandchildren is unquestioned. He also has gracefully born the pain of losing his only son quite tragically.

He has courageously confronted some of the serious issues facing the poor in the world’s most prosperous nation. He has put his talents and treasures where his words are, seeking to reinforce the value of education in communities where far too many condemn themselves to poverty by dropping out of school.

Bill Cosby is an amazing man. He is a person to be respected, and heeded.

I can think of no better compliment from the woman I love than hearing that I remind her of him.

_____

In the picture above, Cosby is wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him in 2002.

If you’ve never heard Cosby’s account of God’s conversation with Noah, your life is incomplete. Fortunately, you can remedy that sad situation by viewing a brief version of it here.

If you’re interested in a brief survey of Cosby’s impact, this clip provides an excellent introduction.