Peace Cross

Wow, I wish I could have been in the Supreme Court on Feb. 27, 2019! Justice Elena Kagan declared the good news in plain language.

On that auspicious day, the Court heard oral arguments about the WWI Memorial in Bladensburg, MD. The American Legion erected the memorial on private land in 1925 to honor their 49 war heroes. In 1961, the land became state road right-of-way, so public dollars were used to maintain the Memorial.

In 2014, the American Humanist Association took offense. The Memorial, you see, is the quite conspicuous 40 foot tall concrete and granite “Peace Cross.” They sued, referencing the First Amendment establishment clause and its modern interpretations. Hence the recent deliberations.

I pity the legal minds untangling the confusing snarl of prior rulings. In 2005, a Ten Commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse was disallowed, but allowed on the Texas capitol grounds. In 2010, then Solicitor General Kagan argued convincingly that the WWI memorial cross on public land in the Mojave Desert could stand. That cross was so “toxic” that officials covered it with plywood while awaiting adjudication.

One attorney argued that the history and secular purpose of the Peace Cross have stripped away its religious meaning, as though that’s not offensive. Justice Kagan countered, “To many Christians, secularizing the cross is blasphemy.” Then she uttered these powerful words: “It is the foremost symbol of Christianity, isn’t it? It invokes the central theological claim of Christianity that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross for humanity’s sins, and he rose from the dead. This is why Christians use crosses as a way to memorialize the dead because it connects to that central theological belief. Isn’t that correct?” Yes ma’am. I hope you believe it!

Justice Ginsburg tried to frame the dilemma. “From its founding, this was an overwhelmingly Christian country. But now, we’re told that 30% of the US population does not adhere to a Christian faith.” That’s the national context that invites dissent.

The cross is offensive because it contradicts today’s zeitgeist. Cultural doctrines are sacrosanct. You may pick any spiritual path since they all lead nowhere, really. Any truth or feeling you choose is a valid worldview. Follow your heart and trust yourself to find fulfillment. “No” to all that, the cross says. It says you are lost without a Savior, and beckons your trust in Jesus as the only way to the Father, true fulfillment, and eternity. When Jesus says, “I am the Truth,” He excludes other claims. Quite a stumbling block (Gal. 5:11).

Even if this cross doesn’t stand, one will. God’s purpose through Christ Jesus was “to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20). That peace cross is beyond the reach of the courts.

Meet Your Maker

Gunter Bechly’s views evolved, as they say. And it cost him. If you like science and a true story with conflict and drama, do a web search on this distinguished professor.

In 1999, Bechly received a Ph.D. in paleontology and became curator of insect fossils at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany. The museum asked him to direct the Darwin Day exhibit, so he decided on a design to refute Intelligent Design theory. Being a thorough researcher, he read ID proponent Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box.  Bechly began to discover scientific answers to his quest for a coherent world view. Bechly “came out” as a Darwin skeptic in 2015, and promptly lost his job as curator. To add insult, Wikipedia erased him (temporarily) as no longer notable.

Bechly read Behe’s evidence that a series of slight, successive mutations, key to Darwin’s theory, cannot produce a living cell. Behe describes the “irreducible complexity” of cellular nanotechnology, i.e. tiny machines that Darwin could not see inside a cell. One example is the flagellar motor with a rotor, stator, drive shaft, bearings, and propeller. It changes direction using a signal transduction circuit that detects sugar gradient as a guide to a food source. The various parts of this nano-machine are junk without complete assembly. Even if it could happen over eons, what is the source of the factory that built a self-building motor?

Bechly observes, “Of the 99% of (Darwinian) biologists, 98% don’t work on the underpinnings of the theory, they simply accept it as true. The few theoretical biologists who work on the underpinnings of the theory have mostly become critical of the neo-Darwinian process.” At a recent Royal Society conference in London, the opening talk focused on the inability of evolutionary theory to explain evidence. Over 1000 scientists have now signed “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.” No consensus exists.

If there is a Creator, He wanted us to exist. It is plausible, then, that He would reveal Himself. And indeed, “Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (Rom. 1:20). Science led Dr. Bechly to believe in God.

It is a logical fallacy to doubt Darwin because many scientists have. Nor should you believe in the God of the Bible because in the span of human history millions have. But if you investigate and find the evidence convincing, you may well join with the Psalmist: “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture” (Psa. 95:6-7). Meet your Maker: “There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor. 8:6).

Road Less Traveled

Robert Frost enjoyed strolls with fellow poet Edward Thomas. He reflected on a walk in a wood with two different but equal paths. “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” It’s a thoughtful verse about travelers and choices, probably intended as a light-hearted poke at Thomas.

Jesus also walked with friends and had a sense of humor. But His two roads are quite serious and not equal. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mat. 7:13-14). One road is attractive. The other is less traveled, more difficult, but rewarding. To be plain, Jesus is the gate and living by faith is the way. Before you believe Him, “Consider the cost,” He said (Luke 14:28).

People have counted the cost of the narrow way. History says Moses confronted Pharaoh, David fought Goliath, and Daniel faced lions. Hall of Faith truth-holders took the narrow road and the world was not worthy of them (Heb. 11). The church in China withstood the communist onslaught of Mao and will survive Xi’s new crackdowns. The church in Syria, Iraq, and Iran has endured bloody cleansing by radicals.

The church in the West faces a more subtle threat, to take the less costly broad way and align with popular culture. Or we can truthfully answer vital questions. Is Jesus is the only way? Is all human life valued? Did God create us in His image? Does God determine our identity, and define morality and holiness? We can be either an echo chamber for, or sanctuary from today’s noise.

In Impossible People, Os Guinness lists three cultural trends worth challenging: Judeo-Christian beliefs and values are repudiated as a barrier to, rather than the key to human flourishing. Freedom is libertine behavior that should be blessed and flaunted, rather than a gift that allows us to resemble our Creator. Alternative philosophies seek to redefine ideals such as dignity, justice, unity, and equality, cutting off their Christian root. These are the clanking machines grading the broad road that would lead travelers to a self-destructive place.

Even if our culture and religious institutions join hands and walk the broad road, you can make “all the difference.” Guinness writes, “Our privilege is to host the absolute presence of God and to live the way of Jesus so that our difficult and lonely task as his followers is to be faithful, and so to be different.” Take the narrow way, the road less traveled.

Jesus Loves Me

Theologian Karl Barth was a rebel. In the early 20th C., he rejected the popular new idea that the historical Jesus does not matter to Christians. Just prior to WWII, his rebellion took a dangerous turn. As a leader of Germany’s confessing church, he wrote a declaration that the church’s allegiance to Jesus meant it had to reject the Fuhrer’s version of church. He personally mailed the document to Hitler. He was a prolific writer and produced some of the last century’s most influential works of theology. Yet when asked to describe his most profound thought, he paused and replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

The phrase that focused the thought of Barth originated with Anna Warner. Miss Warner’s family lived on Constitution Island just across from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. She wrote novels and poems, and led Bible studies for the cadets. One of her novels, Say and Seal, published during the Civil War, included a poem to comfort a sick child. Barth quoted the first line, and you know the rest. “Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.” William Bradbury composed the tune and added the refrain.

The Bible does speak much of God’s love. Such as, “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11). God’s manifest love means you live and love others.

Stuart Townend is a modern hymn writer. One day he began to reflect on a new tune, and pondered words to fit it. He was attracted to the idea of telling the story of Christ and the cross from the perspective of what it cost the Father. So he did. “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that He should give His only son to make a wretch His treasure. How great the pain of searing loss – the Father turns His face away, as wounds which mar the Chosen One bring many sons to glory.”

Townend, Bradbury, Warner, and Barth all speak with one voice. The Christian faith is about the love of God. His love is evident in the life He chose to invest in you, and in the world He created to sustain you. His love is so intense that He prepared a place for you to spend eternity with Him, and you know the Way (John 14:4). Yes, Jesus loves me. Simple, and sublime.

Courage

Nelson Mandela said, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.” I like a mathematical comparison: The demand for courage is directly proportional to the potential for danger. In either case, everyday dangers of various degrees and their resulting fears means each of us needs courage. To that end, I offer you three thoughts.

1. Courage must be renewed each day. You may have conquered fear yesterday, but it was back again today. Peter thought Jesus was a ghost walking on the sea, yet he ignored fear and stepped out of the boat. Moments later he sank. At Jesus’ trial, Peter denied Jesus for fear of the authorities. A few months later Peter bravely accused people of killing their Messiah. When arrested, he declared, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). Years later Paul called Peter out for capitulating to critics of his non-religious diet (Gal. 2). Point being, yesterday’s courage is not enough for today.

2. Courage magnifies other values. C.S. Lewis said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, at the point of highest virtue. A chastity or honesty or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions.” So, for example, when you are determined to be truthful even when it costs you, courage magnifies your honesty. It takes courage to forgive when you feel defensive. It takes courage to be patient with a friend who posts outrage on social media. It takes courage to be kind when you are disrespected, to be self-controlled when you want to let loose.

3. It takes courage to embrace Truth that others reject. As a child, David Nasser escaped with his family from Iran’s revolution. Just after graduating from high school in Texas, Nasser read about Jesus calling Peter to walk on water. He sensed Jesus calling him. He believed, and received baptism knowing it would be an affront to his father. But eventually his family also believed, including his father. Nasser is now on staff at Liberty University. “I am the Truth,” Jesus said (John 14:6). Today, as then, that claim is culturally offensive.

You need courage to renew your hold on virtue each day, not only in ultimate things, but in everyday life. It takes courage to face a health or financial crisis with faith, or to admit fault and make it right with humility. It takes courage to trust again when you know betrayal, or to speak and live truth when the culture knows only feelings.

You have access to courage that is beyond your own capacity. Hear the words of God: “Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9). Amen.

What Matters Most

If the events of the last week or two are any indication, the Super Bowl is all that matters to some fans and players.  Clint Gresham played six seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, appearing in two Super Bowls.  Winning one and losing one taught him something.

In 2014, the Seahawks dominated the Denver Broncos in a final score of 43-8.  Gresham puts the win in perspective in a video posted on www.iamsecond.com.  He says, “I can’t tell you how many times I heard my teammates say, ‘I keep waiting for it to sink in that we won the Super Bowl.’ I said it, too.”  After a few months, he began to understand that they really meant, “I keep waiting for this thing to make me happy the way I thought it would and it hasn’t, and now I’m actually kind of scared about that, because I have made this my life pursuit and I got it, and I’m still wanting more.”

The Seahawks returned to the Super Bowl the next year, another opportunity to answer those deeply personal questions.  The loss to the New England Patriots was painful, but clarifying.  Trials tutor life’s lessons more profoundly than success.  Gresham says, “It’s only in your pain that you can grow. For me, it was my faith in God that helped me find peace. Faith helped me to bring gratitude into every moment. When I can be grateful no matter what happens, dealing with anxiety and hardships doesn’t have such weight to it. My Super Bowl experiences taught me that the most important thing in my life is to build a strong foundation on the things that truly matter.”

In church history, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was trained by John the Apostle.  He refused to worship the Roman emperor.  Eusebius records the proceedings of the trial in 155 AD.  In response to the proconsul’s demand that Polycarp deny Christ, he responded, “For 86 years I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong.  How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”  He prayed, “O Father, I bless thee for counting me worthy of this day and hour, that in the number of the martyrs I may partake of Christ’s cup.”  They executed him.

Though separated by millennia, Gresham and Polycarp are together with Paul.  “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:7-8).  The trials of life expose what matters most to you.  Except maybe the question is really, Who matters most?

Re-ordered Life

Growing up in the South in the 70’s, it was hard not to notice the catchy tune, “Sweet Home Alabama.” I just turned the radio on, without knowing what the lyrics meant.

Some of those lyrics included, Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, and they’ve been known to pick a song or two.  This reference to a town in northwest Alabama is about a recording studio and its house band. And that story is really about Rick Hall.

Hall’s success began in the late 1950’s when George Jones recorded one of his songs. Hall went on to establish the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals, which was instrumental in the success of many artists. Hall’s studio recorded the work of Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman, the Osmonds, Mac Davis, the Gatlin Brothers, and Tim McGraw to name a few.

Hall tells his story in The Man from Muscle Shoals.  He was born into a poor Mississippi sharecropper family, abandoned by his mother when he was age 4, and began playing in bars as a teenager. In 1957, his hard life became unbearable when both his young wife and his father died within weeks of each other. Depression and heavy drinking set in, and continued despite his later success.

A few years ago, his second wife Linda said, “Rick had every kind of award. But it was not enough. He still needed the peace that only God could give. So I just prayed.” At age 82, Rick Hall received Christ and was baptized. “God was working in my life while I was running from Him. I have total peace of mind now. My relationship with God is more important to me now than having a #1 record. Now I want to introduce other people to that.” He died in 2018 at age 85.

The gospel will re-order your life. Another example is, “I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it…being extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.” Then comes Paul’s Damascus Road experience, when he encounters Jesus personally. He writes, “God was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles,” a change quite remarkable given that the man was, in today’s parlance, a religious bigot at best and a terrorist at worst (Gal. 1:13-16).

Here’s the point. Neither your past life nor your age can keep you from the love and invitation of God. “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). It’s humbling, for sure, to admit you were wrong, but when it comes to eternity you have everything to gain. Once that is settled, by faith you enjoy the contentment and purpose that comes with your re-ordered life.

Live by the Spirit

When I saw the name Ellen Fowler (d.1929), I wondered if we’re kin. She was an English novelist, combining romance and religion. I decided to take up her Fuel of Fire (1902) just from curiosity.

Her character Rufus Webb is a man who had served as a missionary to China, but suffered great loss. He believed God expected great effort and sacrifice from His pitiful creatures. In one scene, a young lady brought him roses and good cheer, but he dashed them to the floor saying, “For His sake I have put away from me all pleasant things and have abjured the world with its many delights; in the hope that when He sees my anguish and humiliation He may turn again to me and forgive me my sin.”

It is a tragedy to be misjudged, especially if God is on the docket. Much in the Pauline epistles addresses counter-intuitive concepts about how God intends for us to live as Christians. We struggle with what it means to be free, but righteous.

In 25 years of pastoral experience, I have known many Rufus Webb’s who believe Christianity requires a mostly joyless life of toil and servitude trying to meet an impossible standard. The ancient Galatians made that mistake after they received Christ. They abandoned their freedom in Christ for food rules, calendar observances, and circumcision, which only increased their self-righteousness.

It is a mistake for anything to belie the sufficiency of Christ for your righteousness, and the centrality of the Holy Spirit for your freedom. Paul writes, “If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly,” and, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 2:21, 3:3). He contemplates two possibilities: either live by your own ideas, motives, and strength (“the flesh”), or by God’s work of grace (“the Spirit”).

To say that God’s grace through faith makes you righteous is NOT to say that it doesn’t matter what you do. Paul expected that charge. “May it never be! Shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2). The love of Christ and the presence of the Spirit set you free to live righteously as a new creation. The community of believers stimulates that new way in you.

As Rufus Webb lay dying, he spoke with the Vicar, “I have served Him and feared Him with all my heart.”

“That may be: but you have neither loved Him nor trusted Him, and by your unbelief you have crucified Him afresh.”

“I wonder if you are right, and if I have misjudged Him all these years.”

“I am sure of it.”

God wants you free to bear the fruit of love, joy, and peace. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Faith v. Science

John Lennox is a math professor (emeritus) at Oxford. If you were to hear him speak, you’d agree that he is affable, unassuming, and disarming. And smart. He holds seven academic degrees, including three doctorates.

In his latest book, Can Science Explain Everything? he tells a story from early in his career. The Soviet Union’s university in Novosibirsk invited him to lecture. The faculty welcomed him, but were perplexed by his belief in God. So they filled an auditorium to hear him explain.

He told them that the great pioneers of modern science were men of faith. Galileo, Pascal, Newton, and others had foundational impact on the modern sciences of mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. Their faith was not an incidental detail. Their biblical worldview made modern science possible. Lennox quoted historian Edwin Judge: “The modern world is the product of a revolution in scientific method…Both experiment in science and the citing of sources as evidence in history, arise from the worldview of Jerusalem, not Athens, from Jews and Christians.” His audience realized that scientific atheism had denied them these significant details.

As science discovers more of the intricate details of nature, only a relentless ideological commitment can stifle the obvious evidence of a Designer. Yet the modern zeitgeist would still drive a scientific wedge between people and our Creator. That’s not new. In the oldest book in the Bible, God poses questions to such revisionists. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk?” (Job 38:4-6).

Jesus was there, and He will forever know more science than we do. “By Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible… all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).

Many notable scientists reject the ideology of scientific atheism. In the 20th C., over 70% of Nobel Prize Laureates in chemistry and physics were Christians. So don’t be fooled by the false dilemma of faith v. science. The work of ancient and modern scientists is compatible with faith, and it strengthens ours as we discover more about the mind of God.

Even as we cheer on scientists with a Biblical worldview, we know science is limited. “Can science explain everything?” No. It may answer what is, but it cannot explain why you are here and what the transcendent meaning of life really is. But your Creator can. Perhaps heaven is a place of intrigue and discovery where we can eternally learn what temporal science cannot teach.

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.