Blasphemy or Doxology

Blasphemy has been in the news of late. It’s a harsh word we tend to avoid in everyday use. A more accessible synonym is “slander,” defined as false and malicious speech against someone. So if blasphemy is false words against God, its antonym could be doxology, true words to God.

Ireland voted in late 2018 to remove blasphemy as a constitutional offence. It became an issue when actor Stephen Fry opined on TV about a god who is mean, stupid, and maniac. The Irish police investigated, and could have levied a fine of 25,000 euros. They dropped the case because not enough people were outraged. I wouldn’t have been either, since I don’t know the god Mr. Fry described. If he was addressing his Creator, I’d suggest that’s between the two of them.

Apparently Pakistan has defended its blasphemy law by pointing to Ireland’s constitution. It’s an issue that has roiled that country, especially concerning the case of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi. Pakistan imprisoned her for blasphemy from 2009 until 2018, when three high court judges acquitted her. Now she and her family are in hiding as vigilante radicals search house to house. She awaits asylum, but not even the country founded on religious freedom has stepped forward. (That’s US.)

A hero of the Christian faith was once a blasphemer, by his own admission. Paul wrote, “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Perhaps Mr. Fry was similarly afflicted. Paul doesn’t dwell on his reckless unbelief. Instead, he speaks of the grace, love, and mercy of God toward the “foremost of sinners” (himself), and his own faith and gratitude to Christ Jesus our Lord. In fact, as Paul writes about the patience of Christ towards him, he becomes enraptured. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen!” (1 Tim. 1:12-17)

Did you see what happened there? He abandoned blasphemy and embraced doxology. Wow, do we need more of that in our culture today! You can detect the cultural blasphemies that contradict the truth of God in these: “Male and female He created them.” “A man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife.” “You formed my inward parts; you wove me in my mother’s womb.”

How do you sail your ship against these cultural headwinds? Well, first, know what you believe. If you’re not sure, consider the evidence in nature of a Creator God. Next, trust who God has revealed Himself to be, and believe what He says about you in the Bible. Finally, say true words to and about God, from whom all blessings flow to all creatures here below. And pray for mercy.

“Re” Words

Taking stock of your life is so human. The changing of the calendar is a natural time to do it, especially when you have holiday time off to ponder how your relatives have changed since you last saw them. Or, as in the case of some of us, how our families have one less member.

Wanting things to be better, to be renewed, is a common longing. Every decent longing has a sublime object, even if we do not realize it. This one is no different. We yearn for renewal because God does. In “Restoring All Things,” Warren Smith writes, “The Bible is not a book about how to have a better life or how to handle life’s problems. It is a book that explains the universe and how God is in the process of redeeming and restoring it to its original good, true, and beautiful state.”

The Christian faith understands the world as it is, one that includes evil and brokenness. That falls on each of us human beings, so God offers us a fresh start, a re-birth. That is the way Jesus reached out to Nicodemus, who countered, “How can these things be?” Jesus proceeded to explain His identity as the Son, His atoning sacrifice, and His offer of eternal life. By faith you are reborn (John 3).

As you reflect, you may realize you need to change course. The word for that is repentance, but in the Bible it means far more than “turning over a new leaf.” It means you have turned away from what you were, and embraced your new identity in Christ. It means you “walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

Once I was speaking to dear souls recovering from substance abuse. One said, “Sometimes I wish I could take my brain out, wash it, and put it back in.” What a revealing statement about the junk habits and memories you can accumulate, to your detriment! The Bible says you can be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This happens when you present your body to God as a living and holy sacrifice, no longer conformed to the world (Rom. 12:1-2).

As you review your life, remember that as God has reconciled you, you are now a reconciler. This is how you participate in the work of God in this world. Redemption is within the grasp of your inquiring friends, as God is willing to reconcile them too, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

All of these “re” words reveal a story about a loving God and people He created, you in particular. So, yes, take stock of your life now in the first few days of 2019, and believe God’s grand narrative that includes you finding your good, true, and beautiful state of being.

Hope

I don’t like goodbyes. Well I’m not sorry to see some things go, but you know what I mean. Looking back on 2018, we said goodbye to some notable people. Sometimes when people pass it feels like a season coming to a close.

Let’s remember some who died in 2018. Barbara Bush died in April, followed by her husband George H.W. Bush in November. They were married 73 years, the longest married couple in presidential history. He was the last WWII hero to serve as President.

Roy Clark, the country music star, died at age 85. One of his hits was a lament about wasted youth. “So many songs in me that won’t be sung. The time has come for me to pay for yesterday, when I was young.” If you don’t like modern country music or if you share his lament, you felt it when Clark left the stage.

Billy Graham lived to be 99. He emerged as an evangelist in 1949, and in his lifetime would share the good news of Jesus Christ to more people than anyone in history. He began with trains and tents and ended with electronic media and satellite communications. May God in his Providence raise up another, but we know there will be only one Billy Graham.

There are others whose passing marks the end of an era: Aretha Franklin (singer), Stephen Hawking (scientist), Willie McCovey (athlete), Tom Wolfe (author). But none of these affect you as much as your own personal losses this year. It marks the passing of time when you lose someone who lived a long life. It’s a tragedy when someone dies too young.

The Bible says that believers do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thes. 4:13). By faith in Jesus Christ, and because of his Resurrection from the dead, we have the hope of eternity. The passing of a legend or loss of a loved one, the end of an era or the changing of a season only remind us of that hope.

Hope to the Christian carries no uncertainty. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The Spanish verb “esperar” helps us here. It means to hope, wait, or expect. We have considered the evidence, and are simply waiting, expecting for our hope to be realized.

Christ Jesus is your hope that there’s more to life that what you see. He is your hope for this life, not just the next. A great mystery is revealed, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). This hope is for today. It is for the New Year. It is the grace to face whatever uncertainties, challenges, or goodbyes 2019 may bring. This hope you have is the anchor of your soul. You cannot live without hope.

Christmas Mystery

Something happened in Bethlehem that solved an ancient mystery. The grand reveal began with an inglorious manger. The mystery matters because it was for you.

Adam and Eve first heard of a mysterious person to come. From a 15th C. BC document, we learn that the seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head, but the serpent would only bruise his heel. So, this person has power to crush evil, but not without pain. (Gen. 3:15)

In the 8th C. BC, Assyria tormented the people. During that time a prophet wrote that despite the gloom and anguish, they would be delivered. “A virgin will be with child and bear a son.” How could such a child come to be, and how would he effect their deliverance? The answer: “His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 7:14, 9:6). It sounded encouraging, even if they didn’t know how a virgin-born child, the woman’s seed, could be eternal God.

Just as they sensed that their deliverance would be a display of God’s power, the clues take a turn. The same prophet said this exalted servant would suffer at the hand of men and God. “He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows. The Lord was pleased to crush Him” (Isa. 53). So, is this Deliverer a child, a man, or God himself? Does He conquer, or does He die? The mystery deepens.

Other prophets of that era proclaim his origins. Bethlehem is His birthplace, but “His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” Another prophet said He would be from Egypt. (Mic. 5:2, Hos. 11:1). So is the ruler-son from nowhere (eternity), Bethlehem, or Egypt?

Daniel saw the mysterious person’s identity in a dream 200 years later. “One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days. To Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom.” Two godlike Persons together. One appears human. Daniel also explained the timeline: Jerusalem is rebuilt; Messiah comes. But “the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing,” then the temple is destroyed (Dan. 7:14, 9:26). Historians say this happened in 70 AD, so the Messiah must have come by then.

God provided these clues to various people over the span of centuries. Then, “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). Jesus, eternal Son of Man, stepped into history via Bethlehem and Egypt as the revelation of the mystery. He is God’s gift to you. As the angel explained, “I bring you good news of great joy which be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Mystery solved.

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens created Ebenezer Scrooge in his “ghostly little book” published in 1843. It was the first of his five holiday tales.

Because of his childhood, Dickens carried a burden for the less fortunate. This theme emerges in much of his work, including A Christmas Carol. He only lightly alludes to the Nativity story when Nephew Fred says, “I have always thought of Christmas time – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving charitable, pleasant time.” Even though he doesn’t recite the gospel, the story certainly follows Christian themes.

For all his “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge knew love. His little sister Fan’s hugs and kisses when she fetched him from boarding school, and Nephew Fred’s resolute “Merry Christmas!” wish to his uncle are evidence enough. His first boss Fezziwig had a love of life Scrooge found contagious. It was love that rescued him from the icy cold that gripped his heart. The Christian counterpart is that “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4-5).

Scrooge was “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” per his creator. And we are per ours. “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isa. 53:6). Yet Scrooge was not without hope. His deceased partner Marley came back to warn him, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business!” Upon seeing his name on the tombstone, Scrooge exclaims, “Hear me! I am not the man I was. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!” As it was with Scrooge, our hope was realized on Christmas morning. “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Scrooge repents of what he had done and of who he was. His joie de vivre was that of Zacchaeus, immediate and tangible. Scrooge generously tipped for the prized goose he sent to poor Bob Cratchit. He made a generous contribution to the men he had insulted as they collected for the poor. He went to church. He restored his relationship with nephew Fred and wife. He gave Cratchit a raise. “And to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.” Indeed the Bible says, “Faith, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas. 2:17).

Keeping Christmas means love, hope, repentance, restoration, new life, all wonderful themes made possible by the coming of Christ in the little town of Bethlehem. May it be truly said of all of us that we keep Christmas well, “and so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

God With Us

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” would be an ironic, painful reminder to the families of servicemen Ross, Emond, and Elchin.  On November 27, a roadside bomb in Afghanistan ended their lives.  On behalf of a grateful nation, Vice President Mike Pence offered a ministry of presence to the relatives as the remains returned to Dover Air Force Base.

Pain and suffering are ever present, even during holidays.  Depression and suicide are on the rise as are drug overdoses, per a CDC report this year.  Loneliness is a major cause.  If ever there was a time for ministry of presence…

“The virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (Mat. 1:24).  Jesus entered our suffering world as “God with us.”  Dorothy Sayers wrote, “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine.  He has kept His own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself.”

Alister McGrath adds, “The God who created the world knows and shares in its suffering.  God has already entered into the value of suffering that we call ‘history,’ and borne its costly and baleful weight.  God stepped into a fallen world and suffered its pain.”  God is not detached from your suffering.  He has been there, and He loves you.

“God causes all things to work together for good” (Rom. 8:28) even when you don’t understand it.  Tim Keller wrote, “With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life.  Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them?”  It is possible, since God is with you.

The poet Longfellow suffered the tragic loss of his wife.  Two years later his son was severely wounded in the Civil War.  The bells on Christmas day triggered his emotions.  “In despair I bowed my head; there is no peace on earth, I said.   For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men!  Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.  God is not dead nor doth He sleep.”

Jesus promises that His Spirit “abides with you and will be in you.  I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:17-18).  He remains with you until that day when “there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4).  So Christmas is the right time to celebrate God’s promises even in the midst of your pain.  His is the ministry of presence, then, now, and forever.  He is God with us.

Jim Downing

One of our oldest Pearl Harbor veterans passed away this year. Jim Downing died in February at age 104. After surviving “a date which will live in infamy,” he completed his Navy career, met multiple Presidents, and became the oldest male author on record with his 2016 biography, “The Other Side of Infamy.”

His story begins in a small town in Missouri. He came of age during the Great Depression, and left to join the Navy. While living in southern California, he met Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators ministry. Trotman had led five of Downing’s shipmates to Christ, and through their influence he became a believer also.

In 1941, Downing was stationed at Pearl Harbor. He was the ministry leader aboard the USS West Virginia, and hundreds of his shipmates had become followers of Jesus. In December, he had been married to Morena for five months when their world changed. The attack on Pearl Harbor forced her to evacuate for the mainland on Christmas Day. They were apart for 18 months.

During the attack, Downing rushed to his ship which rested on the bottom of the shallow harbor. He slid down one of the USS Tennessee’s guns to reach his ship’s deck. He directed a fire hose toward ammunition lockers. “I slowly moved toward the stern to water down more areas. Several bodies lay on the deck around me. No one else would be able to tell the parents of these men what had happened to their sons. I decided it was my responsibility to learn their names so I could report what I knew to their mothers and fathers.”

The USS Neosho, a fuel tanker, was nearby. During the second wave of the Japanese attack, the planes swarmed the Neosho. “One of those bullets is going to hit pretty soon, I thought. God, I’ll be with you in a minute. Another minute passed. Suddenly my fear melted away, replaced by the most overwhelming sense of peace I’d ever felt. For the next half hour I expected to die in the next minute. I was sure I would be ushered into God’s presence – and that was fine with me. Peace.”

But he had more to do. In1956, after 24 years in the Navy, the Navigators asked Downing to take a leadership role after the tragic death of Trotman. He and Morena served the Navigators until and beyond his retirement in 1983. The last few years of his life, he emphasized relationships with God, family, and friends. “I’m satisfied as long as I can have those three things,” he said.

Retired Navy Lt. Downing lived life well, faithful to this truth: “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

Longing Angels

America’s latest outrage is the messy mid-term election.  Both sides hurl charges of fraud. Nobody is proud of the process.  Os Guinness, a social and cultural critic, might say this is but more evidence of “a heaving sea of problems” that has weakened America.

In his recent book, Last Call for Liberty, he pulls no punches.  He sees our problems as “hollowed-out beliefs and weakened ethics; declining trust in institutions and leaders; self-enriching elites; cancerous racism; pay-for-play politics; politicized criminal justice; crony capitalism; blinkered higher education; collapsed civic education; biased mainstream press; politicized corporations; crippling national debt; a surveillance state; porous borders; failing inner cities; fractious culture warring; talk of secession; social stress, anxiety, and loneliness.”  America is way more pluribus than unum.  We are fractured, and that’s dangerous for a country founded on a united definition of freedom.

A wise, old fisherman once wrote to another distressed people that various trials can test and prove your faith.  In the light of eternity, the things of earth grow strangely dim.  Today we endure botched elections and a fractured citizenry, but tomorrow we will be delivered from all this, “obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:9).

The contrast between the troubles of today and the promise of eternity can fill you with hope and joy, especially when you consider the extent to which God communicated these things to us.  “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow…things into which angels long to look” (1 Pet. 1:10-12).

One of those prophets was Isaiah.  Over 2700 years ago while his nation suffered its own fractures and threats, he wrote, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light…for a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us…and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9).

If I was an angel, I would want to see this too!  A great drama unfolds on the earth, with mankind as both the antagonist and victim.  A Rescuer appears, not armed for battle, but as a babe in his mother’s arms.  He grew up not to conquer the world, but to love and die for it.  He didn’t stay dead, but lived again, offering escape and eternity to all who believe.  What a marvelous mystery of Divine authorship!

By faith you can experience something no other creature can: redemption, which means reclaimed by your Creator.  To be distressed by sin is to be human; to be redeemed is to be touched by God.  It leaves you rejoicing and the angels longing.

Surprise of Gratitude

Please allow a personal anecdote from my new pastime, beekeeping. These critters and their colonies are so intricate, with much to teach us about the Creator.

It is possible to split a colony such that the new one produces its own queen. Every healthy colony has an effective queen. So I started the process, and waited a period of time to see if it worked. I didn’t see positive evidence, so I bought and installed a queen. I took a painful sting in the face for my effort. Alas, that queen did not survive.

I pondered my next move for a few days and considered introducing another queen. I decided to inspect the colony one more time. I immediately noticed new larvae. Then I saw the queen as healthy as you please! The colony had done its job after all, despite my interference. The memory of my pain dissipated, and I was so surprised that I looked to the sky and laughed with God!

I wondered, if I could be so delighted over an insect, what other surprises of gratitude might I be missing? We are grateful for the big things like family additions, material blessings, and physical healing. But even so, it is human to overlook reasons to be thankful. People who know God can still refuse to honor Him or give thanks (Rom. 1:21). Jesus healed ten lepers but it was only the thankful one that received additional blessing (Luke 17).

The Bible says, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes. 5:18). This is your challenge to look beyond the obvious reasons for thankfulness, and seek the surprises, the hidden blessings of thankfulness. You can be thankful for small things, not just the big ones. You appreciate the colors of autumn across the mountains, but what about the red dogwood and yellow maple leaves in your hand?

You are thankful for things that happened, but what about the things that might have been that were not? You are thankful for good and happy things, but doesn’t “in everything” forge a way forward in the face of evil, suffering, and sadness? “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3). If you find no other reason for thankfulness when life is hard, at least be thankful that this is not all there is, that sickness, tragedies, and politics do not have the final word.

When you are thankful to God, you become teachable to Him. You acknowledge His sovereignty over all of life, and admit that you are not in control. Look for reasons to give thanks in everything. You might be surprised how blessings abound. “Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving” (Psa. 95:1-5).

You Matter

One way America recognizes its heroes is with the Congressional Medal of Honor. The award includes a citation which describes in detail what happened, including when and where. Last month, the President awarded the Honor to John Canley for his actions as a marine in Vietnam, 1968. Gunnery Sergeant Canley matters, and his name is etched into history.

History also documents a rather eclectic group of people who shared a common goal, to build a wall. It calls out scores of names, describing their actions and where they built. The account includes curious details. It notes the builders’ usual professions (priest, goldsmith, perfumer, government official). One man’s daughters helped with his section. Some worked beside their own houses. They undertook the work at personal risk, threatened with the accusation of sedition. (Neh. 3)

Why would the Bible record such detailed history? We know it outlines a grand narrative of God’s dealing with humanity, but it does so with stories of real people. In this story of the wall around Jerusalem, we witness what matters to God. People’s names, professions, and work locations are important. Where they lived mattered. The role of women mattered. God clearly cares about people, places, homes, and jobs because the details fill the Book.

The temptation is to think that in the grand scheme, you don’t matter much. You didn’t win a medal or make history. But let me assure you, dear reader, you haven’t escaped God’s attention, fortunately. Sure, there is an unnerving aspect of an all knowing God, especially if you are hiding something. Jesus said, “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matt. 10:26). Jesus knows your past, too. When Nathanael asked how Jesus knew so much about him, He answered, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1:48).

But there is a more profound level of knowing, beyond concealed things and fig trees. We see this when Jesus warned He would tell certain posers, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23). Love makes the difference with this kind of knowing. “If anyone loves God, he is known by Him” (1 Cor. 8:3). Loving God begins with accepting the truth about Jesus Christ, who loved you first despite your (ahem) details.

So be glad that God knows you. The Bible says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8). When you sacrifice and serve, “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6:4). To you, He has revealed Himself as Immanuel, or “God with us.” You may never receive a medal of honor or write your name in history, but if the God of the universe loves you, knows you, and is with you, then you matter.