The Pastor’s Pastor

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “There is properly no history; only biography.” I won’t pretend to understand the mind of that transcendentalist, but I agree if he means the present is informed by the past, and the past cannot be understood apart from people.

Today’s biography is that of Warren Wiersbe, who died on May 2, 2019 at age 89. He was a dedicated pastor, radio personality, and prolific author. Noted for his dedication to training ministers, some knew him as “The Pastor’s Pastor.” His grandson Dan Jacobson called him a bridge builder, connecting the Bible to today’s world.

Wiersbe once said, “The writing that men do lives after them.” Some of the more popular writing that outlived the man is his “Be” series, commentaries on the Bible. Some titles are, “Be Loyal” (Matthew), “Be Diligent” (Mark), “Be Compassionate” and “Be Courageous” (Luke), “Be Alive” and “Be Transformed” (John). These are now collected into a set, called “The Bible Exposition Commentary.” He published over 150 books.

You may have heard Moody Radio’s “Songs in the Night” program, featuring uplifting music and meaningful messages. It has earlier roots than 1944, but that’s when a young Youth for Christ preacher named Billy Graham became narrator. Wiersbe occupied that chair in the 1970’s before becoming the radio pastor on “Back to the Bible.”

Wiersbe had a far more significant connection to Graham. In response to Graham’s preaching at a Youth for Christ rally, Wiersbe placed his faith in Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life. He soon began attending seminary, and entered his first pastorate in 1951. He found that what he enjoyed the most, expounding Scripture, became his most effective ministry, a point worth noting. That does not mean it was without challenge. He wrote to his successor at Moody Church in Chicago, Erwin Lutzer, “It’s not an easy road, but if the Lord has called us and put us where we are, He will see to it that we will know His will and accomplish it no matter how impossible it might seem.”

Warren Wiersbe has finished his travels, leaving the land of the dying for the land of the living. He can say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

In that same essay, Emerson writes, “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,–must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know.” Might I dare to differ? We need not live another’s life to know and rely on that life’s lesson. That is the premise of another Wiersbe book, “50 People Every Christian Should Know.” Add The Pastor’s Pastor to make it 51.

Knowing Liberty

Have you heard the term “jeremiad”? It’s an eponymous reference to the prophet Jeremiah, describing a complaint against the state of things and a prediction of imminent downfall.

We recently heard, “The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it? This is our world war two!” And, “This was an attempted overthrow of the United States government.” A pundit summarized, “The questions raised by the present state of our politics, which might fairly be described as an American civil war without arms, are these: How does a nation so divided stand united in the world? How long does it remain a great nation?” Mini-jeremiads, all.

In “Last Call for Liberty,” Os Guinness observes, “Political debate has degenerated into degrading and barbaric incivility, and wild talk of spying, leaking, impeachment, governability, the 25th Amendment, and even assassination and secession is in the air. American leaders are at each other’s throats.” Why the angst? He posits that behind America’s pitched battle is a fundamental difference over what liberty means and how we keep it.

The Founders recognized that the American experiment in liberty and self-government can only work if the citizens internalize a common moral code. They saw Christianity as the accessible means to that end. Even though they failed to address African slavery, Native American rights, and women’s suffrage, they created a “promissory note” per Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, as now, liberty is elusive but worth pursuing.

The paradox is that freedom is its own enemy. Guinness writes, “Freedom fails when it runs to excess and breeds permissiveness and license.” It also fails “when free societies become so caught up in the glory of freedom that they justify anything done in its name.” He concludes, “Faith and the fear of God have been vital for freedom, for without accountability freedom corrupts itself and degenerates into mere power.” When that happens, man becomes god and what a merciless god he is. Should unaccountable people intoxicated with power hold the keys?

Here is Jeremiah’s “jeremiad” for his nation: “They have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers. Therefore thus says the Lord, Behold I am bringing disaster on them” (Jer. 11:10-11). Not long after, Babylon sacked Jerusalem and ended their way of life.

A more perfect state of America’s union begins not with politics, but with the answer to Guinness’ defining question. “Does humanity have a better future under God or as god?” The conspicuous hand of Providence may yet provide that answer. “I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord” (Jer. 24:7). Let’s pray that America be so liberated.

Interesting

The debonair Jonathan Goldsmith appeared in Dos Equis beer ads from 2006 – 2016. The actor portrayed quite unusual accomplishments, then ended the video in the presence of beautiful young women. “Stay thirsty, my friends,” was his sign-off. He was “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

Clever ad campaign. The way Goldsmith won the part was itself interesting. For the audition the screeners gave the ending line, “…and that’s how I arm wrestled Fidel Castro!” They judged the actors on their ability to ad lib an entertaining story. So Goldsmith must have been interesting to win the role. But in reality, most interesting? No.

Someone else won that superlative, the One we just celebrated as walking around alive only a few days after He was executed until dead. How do we peel off the barnacles of history and religion to see this news the way a serious journalist would? First we have to know He really existed, with His life recorded as spanning time between Herod and Pontius Pilate during the Roman Empire. He lived and traveled among places like Bethlehem, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Capernaum, places that still exist.

Next we have to consider what He did. He unpacked mysteries about God and life often in a story, while touching hearts and healing bodies. He was such a winsome man, it’s hard to believe anyone would think otherwise. But He had no use for pious, self-righteous, religious elites who burdened people with irrelevant rules. The result was the same as if you cut donuts on the courthouse lawn in your ragged F-150 last Friday night while holding a Dos Equis. The authorities came after Him.

They bribed a friend to frame Him, conducted a show trial, and executed this “nuisance.” But that was His intent all along. It stops you dead in your tracks that in God’s justice, it was you who deserved what Jesus received. For you to live eternally, eternal God became man. Dorothy Sayers wrote, “We may call that doctrine exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all. That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find Him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed.”

So astonishing in fact, that “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). This most interesting Man is coming back and you’ll get to meet Him!

Finish Well

If you’re like me, more of life is in the past than the future. Fortunately it takes longer to arrive at that halfway mark than it did 100 years ago when the average life span was around 50. Today, if you retire at 65, you could have 20 to 30 years ahead of you. The way you approach aging does not have to be a long slow decline, even if your body says otherwise.

Bob Buford’s book Halftime explores the possibilities of a longer life. He inherited a business, which he eventually sold for enough to fund his retirement. But he didn’t know what to do next. He sought the advice of business guru Peter Drucker who surmised, “You’re in halftime, Bob.” You spend the first half of your life trying to survive and succeed. With today’s U.S. average life expectancy of 79 years, you can spend your latter years moving from success to significance. “Halftime” is when you decide the most rewarding way to do that.

Eugene Peterson’s book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction is about persistence in learning to walk with, and toward God. Lamenting that our society has become so enamored with instant gratification, he reflects on Psalms once sung by pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. He sees the Christian life as such a journey. Worship, service, and community add significance to life even as we sense our destination drawing nigh. Longevity is your opportunity to model a persistent, growing faith.

The poet Wadsworth penned verses he called “A Psalm of Life.” His life was marked with suffering and tragedy, but that only clarified to him what really matters. Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul. His exhortation becomes more poignant as we age. Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time; Footprints, that perhaps another, sailing o’er life’s solemn main, a forlorn and shipwrecked brother, seeing, shall take heart again.

How can you be significant, live a long obedience in the same direction, and make your life sublime? Jesus simplified and summarized God’s desire for you. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:35-40). However you answer the question, let it include faith, humility, service, and joy.

Here is another encouragement as you contemplate the frailties of aging. God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Your response? “I will boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). May God be with you in this season of your life.

Journey Toward

I recently met a couple who hiked the Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James). From the popular starting point, it is a 600 mile trek across France and Spain. Pilgrims (hikers) make their way toward the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The 2010 movie, “The Way” portrays a father (Martin Sheen) who completes the pilgrimage on behalf of his deceased son. It shows the route between European villages traversing pastoral scenes and scanning majestic vistas.

In the last 20 years, the number of hikers grew from 30,000 to 330,000. Reasons number as many as the hikers, but seeking respite from our distracting world must be a common motivation. Writer James Jeffrey admitted, “I’ve been continually perplexed by, and mulled endlessly over, just why the experience was so fulfilling, shocking even, in a dazzling, uplifting way.” He hints at a spiritual answer. “We are designed as humans to look to a horizon and move towards it. But we are forgetting this truth, and it’s destroying us.”

The Appalachian Trail is near our town, and I hear stories of hikers from friends who enjoy helping them on their way. Thru-hikers face a 2200 mile trip and only 1 of 4 attempts are successful. Many AT hikers are on their own spiritual quest, and even if they are not sure what they’ll find, they journey towards it anyway.

This journeying toward a goal or purpose is a key to understanding Jesus. After spending time in Galilee, “He set his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). The trek from Galilee to Jerusalem is about 100 miles, but the distance was not His challenge. He knew too well what would transpire there. He said, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day” (Matt. 17:22-23). He only confirmed what had already been written, that God requires and provides an atoning sacrifice to reconcile us to our Creator.

You might think that Jesus’ journey ended at the cross, but his empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances say otherwise. Neither did His journey end later when he ascended from Bethany, destination heaven. In fact He still journeys toward his goal as He said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

The question is, what are you journeying toward? You may never hike the Way or the AT, but your yearnings move you toward some horizon. It’s worth noting that every human is created in the image of God, with yearnings that can only be fulfilled in Him. Jesus beckons, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Journey toward Him, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He Is Risen!

Starstruck Mystery

Our town has the advantage over the big cities. We can see the stars. The ones in the sky, not on the red carpet. The human fascination with the night sky says something about us.

Scientists say the observable universe is 93 billion light years in diameter. In that space are billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. Yet when you tilt your head heavenward at night, you might see 5000 stars from horizon to horizon. What you see hints at the unseen. It captures the imagination, and makes you feel small. Alister McGrath (“Glimpsing the Face of God”) writes, “Maybe the stars point to something mysterious, something unfathomable, which somehow lies beyond them. Something seems to lie beyond the whispering orbs of the night. But what? And how is it to be known?”

Since the times of Adam, Abraham, and Moses, God has been revealing himself through creation while promising a personal appearance. Yet what human could fathom how the transcendent One, vaster than the visible stars in the sky and the invisible galaxies beyond, could actually care about this speck of dust and the people who live on it? The ancient text says, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite” (Psa. 147:3-5).

Someone steps into history. Could he be the Son of Man who was with the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7? Was this the child born to be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God in Isaiah 9? Would he initiate the new covenant in Jeremiah 31? Would he bring good news to the afflicted, bind up the brokenhearted, and free the prisoners per Isaiah 61? One day in Jerusalem a gathering crowd thought so. “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest,” they cried out. The skeptical religious leaders demanded an end to it. Jesus said, “If these become silent, the stones will cry out!” It was a pregnant moment. Something was happening far beyond what was visible to the eye, a man riding on a colt over coats and palm branches laid before him. They were worshipping him and he did not object (Luke 19, Matt. 21).

We are fascinated with the night sky because we sense there is more to reality than we see or comprehend. We are attracted to the beauty of light amidst deep darkness. Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12). Follow that Light and you will know the mystery beyond the stars.

Intellectual

Dr. Rosalind Picard tells her story in a recent edition of “Christianity Today” magazine. She is founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at MIT. Her writing is usually published in scientific journals, on topics such as artificial intelligence, neurology, and learning. I recently wrote about Dr. Gunter Bechly to refute the trope that Christianity is anti-science. Dr. Picard’s story disabuses the notion that Christianity is anti-intellectual.

Dr. Picard was a standout high school student who bought the idea that smart people need no religion. She babysat for a doctor and his wife, and they challenged her to read Proverbs in the Bible. She writes, “I expected to find phony miracles, made-up creatures and assorted gobbledygook. To my surprise, Proverbs was full of wisdom. I had to pause while reading and think.” Inspired, she read the whole Bible. “While I never heard actual voices or anything to justify summoning a neurologist, I felt this strange sense of being spoken to. It was disturbing yet oddly attractive. I began wondering whether there really might be a God.”

The Bible thoughtfully engages humanity’s struggle to comprehend our existence. Hundreds of years before Christ, Greek philosophers formed the idea of Logos. They observed that something of a universal Mind, a central organizing principle, seemed to mimic human reasoning and permeate all reality. The New Testament was written in Greek, which connected it to that quest for wisdom. Os Guinness writes that despite Christianity’s differences with the cultures of the day, there was an “overlap in their common love of language and the supreme place they all give to reason, to words, and to the art of communication. The opening words of the gospel of John are therefore titanic in their significance.” Those words are, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God” (John 1:1). That language engaged intellectuals among its original Greek readers.

Robert Morey flips the script on who is anti-intellectual. He challenges honest thinkers to explain how these could happen: everything from nothing; order from chaos; harmony from discord; life from nonlife; reason from irrationality, personality from non-personality; and morality from amorality. The greater question is not how but why we are here in the first place, an honest cry of the human heart. Intellectuals ask hard questions, unafraid of the answers.

When Dr. Picard prayed, “Jesus Christ, I ask you to be Lord of my life,” her world changed from flat black-and-white to 3D, full color. She admits, “I once thought I was too smart to believe in God. Now I know I was an arrogant fool who snubbed the greatest Mind in the cosmos – the Author of all science, mathematics, art, and everything. Today I walk humbly, with joy, alongside the most amazing Companion anyone could ask for, filled with desire to keep learning.”  That’s an intellectual.

Profitable for Teaching

In a rare vote of unity, the Georgia Senate unanimously approved SB 83 about public high schools teaching elective Bible courses. It is a revision of a 2006 law, and clarifies that the courses can include the actual text of the Bible. This is broader than just the “history and literature” of the biblical era, the previous language in the law.

The Supreme Court has already ruled on this. In Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), Justice Tom Clark wrote the majority opinion. The ruling disallowed the mandatory reading of Bible verses at the opening of each school day, even though any child could be excused by a parent. He qualifies the restriction writing, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

The Georgia law stands on that secular ground, stating that the purpose of the elective is to “teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

The Bible is actually a library of 66 books, letters, and essays written by 44 authors over 1500 years. It is the most studied and authenticated book in history. Its authors told the story as they received and experienced it, an overarching story about the revelation of God, and human origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. So, it insists on its transcendent purpose even if treated as secular literature.

Theologian George Ladd explains, “The uniqueness and the scandal of the Christian religion rest in the mediation of revelation through historical events. History is recorded because it embodies the acts of God. The revelation of God in the redemptive history of Israel finds its full meaning in the historical event of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Lord of history, Who stands above history, acts within history for the redemption of historical creatures.”

The Bible records this redemptive history. It helps us make sense of the past, present, and future. It explains why the world is so broken, and why we can hope that it will not always be so. Its worldview corresponds to the world we encounter. The God who inspired it could easily preserve it for us today. So we can agree with Paul, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

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).