Lasting Beauty

Julie Andrews famously sang about “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.” Her favorite things included “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.”

The lyrics work because we never tire of beauty. C.S. Lewis wrote, “We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to become part of it” (“The Weight of Glory”). God has created us with a yearning for more of the beauty we see, but that desire will not be satisfied this side of eternal glory.

About glory the Bible says, “We do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the (temporal) things which are seen, but the (eternal) things which are not seen” (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Whatever weighty glory awaits, it is beyond our earthly experience, we won’t know it until we see it, and it is beautiful beyond imagination. Is that not the beauty we truly desire?

In a fable, Lewis describes a woman thrown into a dungeon where she bears and raises a son. A grating above is the only glimpse of the outside world. With pad and pencil, she sketches fields, rivers, and mountains to explain that the world is far more glorious than their dungeon. One day, she realizes that he doesn’t get it. “You didn’t think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?” “What?” says the boy. “No pencil marks there?” He could not imagine the color, contours, and movement of nature that would make the black, static lines disappear. Likewise, we cannot imagine the “things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard…that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).

You are hard-wired with an appreciation for beauty. Not only is that evidence for the existence of God (for what evolutionary purpose are you enraptured by brilliant sunset hues of orange and pink?) but also it hints at what is to come. When you experience beauty, remember the promise of an eternal weight of glory.

The Sound of Music is not about escaping dog bites and bee stings, but the Nazi occupation of Austria and the accompanying evils of the world. Earthly beauty is only a momentary escape from those evils, but it is a major hint at the eternal beauty that awaits God-lovers. Let beauty give you hope and keep you from losing heart, as you await the things not seen. May the hills be alive with that sound of music!

Extremists

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an Atlanta pastor who spent time in an Alabama jail. When his fellow clergymen described his cause “extreme” and called for an end to it, he responded with his now-famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

King wrote, “You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. As I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal.’ So, the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

I can think of a few other extreme things Jesus said to whoever might be listening. “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 20:26). “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27). “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Luke 18:17). “Whoever believes in (God’s only Son) shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Is it extreme to believe the virgin birth of Jesus actually happened? Philosopher Vince Vitale recently spoke about this. He mentioned Stephen Hawking’s atheistic explanation for our universe: “. . . the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” Vitale wonders, “Is that any less miraculous of a birth than the account from Luke Chapter 1? We live in a miraculous world. Regardless of whether you are a theist, an atheist, or an agnostic, there’s no getting around that fact. It’s not a matter of whether we believe in a virgin birth, it’s just a matter of which virgin birth we choose to accept.”

King and Vitale make the same point. We are all extremists of one stripe or another. The culture prefers the extremes of progressive secularism and naturalistic scientism, and concludes that faith is irrelevant. So, to believe and act on the Bible’s audacious truth claims is to earn the label “extremist.” But if that’s what it takes to know and follow Jesus, I accept. What kind of extremist are you?

Renewed

It’s resolution time again, isn’t it? Or not. I suppose any time is a good time for improving, restarting, or renewing something. My suggestion is that if you are planning a resolution, surround it with lifestyle changes that will make it easier to become a habit.

Perhaps the resolution urge comes from God making us in His image, and He is about restoring, reconciling, and renewing. When He created the earth it was dark, formless, and void. But He renewed it with light and life, and saw that His creation was good.

But we still need renewal because things didn’t stay good. While love and beauty abound so does evil, reminding us that this is a fallen world. Actually, that’s on us. We collectively ruined things when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Any brokenness you observe or experience has its root in that.

But thankfully, things do not have to stay ruined. God the Son stepped into the world to wipe away the root cause of sin and brokenness. That means rebirth is possible. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). It means renewal is possible. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

God’s renewal of creation will continue. John the Apostle saw a vision of a new heaven and a new earth in the future. He heard Jesus saying, “Behold I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Knowing that brokenness and ruin are impermanent encourages you to endure the twisting and turning of the world. As a believer, you are an ambassador for Christ and part of His visible work in this world as He renews it one life at a time. Be about your Father’s business, as Jesus was.

Smith and Stonestreet in their book Restoring All Things list four questions that can help you resolve how to participate in God’s renewing work in the world. (1) What is something good that you can promote or protect? (2) What is missing that you can provide? (3) What is evil that you can stop? (4) What is broken that you can restore? These questions are good for churches, volunteer organizations, and businesses as well.

Your response may be something you do alone, or with others. You might need the courage to do something counter-cultural, or the discipline to do something time-consuming. As you participate in God’s work of renewal, your family and community will benefit. Even more, it fulfills the purposes for which God renewed you.

Passing of Time

The older you are, the more your memories invade your thoughts during the holidays.  You recall family and pleasant moments.  The finality of the passing of time brings a sigh.  How fleeting is this life!

Seasonal songs set the context for reflections about time.  That glorious song of old came upon the midnight clear, yet here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore.  Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?  Not if all is calm, all is bright when you think of them.  You see what I mean.

God created you to think about time, and the ability to remember is meant to be a gift. It is indeed a gift when you learn from the past, and when you retreat to pleasant moments that make the present sweeter.  You should find it no surprise that God has spoken into that space where we think about time.  One concise collection of such inspiration is Psalm 90.  Let me share these with you.

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations, before the mountains were born” (v.1,2).  God has always offered a place of rest and refuge.  You work and wander in this life, but Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Mat. 11:28).  When guilt about the past or worry about the future exhaust you, you can find rest.

“You turn man back into dust.  For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by” (v.3,4).  Your time in the flesh is limited like grass when “toward evening it fades and withers away” (v.6).  This recalls one of life’s ultimate questions, “Why am I here?”  The most satisfying answer you will ever find is rooted in this: “Keep seeking the things above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1).

“Soon (life) is gone and we fly away.  So teach us to number our days that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (v.10,12).  The farmer counts the days from planting until his crop presents its harvest and the chaff blows away.  Jesus likened your life to a seed.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Paul elaborated, “I no longer live but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  Your life yields a wise harvest when Christ lives in you.

Your life might be measured in years, but you live it one day at a time.  This year, may each of your days be full of rest, purpose, and harvest.  I cannot think of a better way for you to pass the time.

The Wait

When I was a child, it was so hard to wait for the grand reveal of gifts on Christmas morning! Those happy times blended with our family’s celebration of the birth of the Savior.  When we started singing Christmas carols in church services, I knew the gifts would soon follow.

During Hezekiah’s rule, the people had little to anticipate. The brutal Assyrians oppressed them because they had turned away from God.  But a gift of hope arrived, the miraculous defeat of the dreaded enemy.  Then God told them, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness’…Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together” (Isa. 40:3,5).  Chasing King Sennacherib away was one thing; but wait, there’s more!

John the Baptist was that voice calling. Like Hezekiah, he understood the need to repent and turn to the Lord.  John’s message signaled the wait was over for “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  The long-awaited One had made a humble entrance in the little town of Bethlehem.  He was announced by the angels, sought by shepherds, and worshiped by the Magi.  He was the glory of the Lord revealed.  God with us, Immanuel, had come to minister to the people!

In the carol, “O Holy Night,” you can hear the yearning and waiting, then the realization and response. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.  A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!  Fall on your knees!  Oh, hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born.”  The destiny of that Child in the manger was Calvary’s cross, to deliver you from sin and error by His sacrificial death.  Those who receive that gift by faith worship Him as God the Son.

But wait, there’s more! Jesus promised that one day people will “see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).  In the final chapter of the Bible, He repeats three times, “I am coming quickly.”  Though we wonder what “quickly” means, His second Advent is as certain and physical as the first.

My childhood understanding of the true meaning of Christmas became my faith that Christ’s coming was for my sake. The story is believable as a historical event, full of personal and spiritual meaning.  If God can deliver His people and send the promised Messiah once, then He can deliver you from sin and Jesus will surely come again.  Oh, glorious day!  The promise is fulfilled yet the wait continues.  Reflect on that hope, and have a Merry Christmas!

Marginalized No More

She was a prostitute and conveniently offered lodging at her house. Two young men found their way to her place, but they weren’t looking for paid favors. They had a job to do. They were spies and staying there would be a convenient cover.

Her name was Rahab. She confided to the men that she knew who they were. She knew God had brought their people out of Egypt and had given them the land. In return for information and secrecy, she asked that she and her family be spared. This woman helped make history and became part of God’s providential plan for all mankind. Dr. Amy Orr-Ewing explains, “It is powerful and prophetic that Rahab ends up in the genealogy of Jesus; her son Boaz goes on to marry Ruth. This shows us something profound about the nature of God’s love: He works through kings yet also through those at the very margins of society.”

The Bible revisits that theme over and again. Once, there were men working the midnight shift out in a field. Their job was to watch for predators and thieves who might take the livestock in their care. But this was no ordinary night. First one, then a multitude of angels appeared to them with the message that the Savior, Christ the Lord, had been born. After the shepherds found Mary, Joseph, and the Child, “they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds” (Luke 2:17-18). This news was not given to wealthy businessmen or influential leaders, but to humble and courageous men. They acted on it and told it.

Not many of us can lay claim to prestige or influence. You may not be that person who, when entering a room, all faces turn to you and smile waiting to hear what you have to say. You may be like the unnamed shepherds. You work hard to survive and save what you can. You may be like Rahab, who started off on the wrong road in life. Maybe you endure the lonely consequences of past choices. But you are never alone or unnoticed if one Person knows you. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know me…and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:14).

In Christ, you are marginalized no more. He knows, loves, and values you regardless of your past, or your present status. When by faith you exchange your life for His, you become part of God’s providential plan. You have your own news to tell of forgiveness and reconciliation. The Christmas story began in the heart of the Father in eternity past, but the peace on earth and good will announced by the angels is for you today!

Place in Time

When is the next election for U.S. President? When is the baby due?  When did the U.S. declare its independence?  The assumption behind these questions is that important events are marked by their place in time.

We humans are wired to understand things by their place in time. Demographers use a person’s birth year to explain common characteristics, hence the labels Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial.  Disney recently began using this disclaimer to warn that some of its content is marked by its place in time: “This program is presented as originally created.  It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”  If you don’t know what a beehive hairdo is or if you can’t figure out your smart phone, then style or technology hints that you may be of a different time.

The fact is, we are creatures limited by time, at least in this life. That is surely why God chose to reveal Himself within the confines of time, even though He exists outside of time.  In this way we could truly know Him.  Otherwise, humanity’s thoughts about religion, philosophies of life and death, and attempts to make sense of the world are speculations at best.  But when God intervenes in history, well that has gravitas.

Christians are not the only ones who explain the world though encounters with an incarnate god. But there’s a big difference.  Dorothy Sayers mentions the Egyptian god Osiris and the Greek god Zeus, then writes, “But in most theologies, the god is supposed to have suffered and died in some remote and mythical period of pre-history.  The Christian story on the other hand, starts off briskly with a place and date: ‘When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King’ (Mat. 2:1).  St. Luke, still more practically and prosaically, pins the thing down by a reference to a piece of government finance.  God, he says, was made man in the year when Caesar Augustus was taking a census in connexion with a scheme of taxation.  Similarly, we might date an event by saying that it took place in the year that Great Britain went off the gold standard.”

We celebrate Christmas because God chose that place in time to take on human flesh. He then spoke to us in a way we can comprehend.  “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb. 1:1-2).  What He has spoken to you is, “He who believes in Me will live even if he dies” (John 11:25).  The gift of Christmas is that by faith, you are no longer limited to a place in time.

 

A Simple Thing

Someone invited Phillip Johnson’s daughter to attend Vacation Bible School at a local church. Though an agnostic at the time, he became interested in what she learned.

He was raised in a Christian home but had never considered the evidence for faith. He graduated at the top of his class at Harvard and clerked for U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren. He was a professor at UC Berkeley law school when, prompted by his daughter, he investigated and found the gospel credible. He believed.

Some year later he became bored with his career. But he reacted with interest after seeing Richard Dawkins’ comments about evolution. Johnson said, “The rules of argument seemed to be structured to make it impossible to question whether what we are told about evolution is really true. The very persons who insist on keeping science and religion separate are eager to use their science as a basis of pronouncements about religion.” One of Dawkins’ pronouncements was, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, insane, or wicked.” Johnson described that sentiment as the “zeal of Darwinists to evangelize the world by insisting that even non-scientists accept the truth of their theory as a matter of moral obligation.” Johnson perceived that the basic problem with the argument for Darwinism was that it relied on the assumption of blind and purposeless origins of the universe, rather than on scientific evidence.

So he set out to spotlight the problems with that logic in his seminal book, Darwin on Trial (1991). Critics harshly panned the book, but it helped launch the intelligent design movement in academics. Casey Luskin explains, “The idea of intelligent design became a magnet for scholars from a variety of fields: biology, chemistry, physics, philosophy, theology, law. All of whom saw Darwinism’s fatal reliance on naturalistic thinking.” Notable proponents of intelligent design include Luskin (geology, law), Michael Behe (biochemistry), William Dembski (mathematics), Ann Gauger (zoology), and Stephen Meyer (geophysics, philosophy).

John Lennox, mathematics professor at Oxford, summarizes their cause. “The more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.” Whatever we come to know about our universe, some humbling questions from the Creator will always remain. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who has given understanding to the mind?” (Job 38:4, 36).

Phillip Johnson passed away in November 2019. His legacy is not just his own work, but that he helped spark a movement to answer questions about the origins of our complex universe. And to think, it happened because someone invited a little girl to VBS. What a simple thing.

Christmas Plot

The Hallmark Channel’s 10th Countdown to Christmas has begun. Actually, they began their series of Christmas movies before Halloween while you weren’t looking.

Maybe you still aren’t looking, because you’ve already seen that movie. Aren’t all those Hallmark movies really the same? The title is a pun, like “Write before Christmas.” A career woman in the big city is a workaholic, a distraction from her sad and unfulfilled life. She has to go home around the holidays. Her family’s land or business are in jeopardy. The picturesque little town is decorated like a greeting card, naturally. A cute animal appears. A handsome widower is raising his daughter as a single parent. The child introduces the two and they all have a snowy adventure. They argue. She bakes something. They kiss. Santa winks. She decides to stay and help the family. Bring down the lights, the show’s over.

What is so appealing about that formula? Conflicts are resolved. Relationships are mended. Sad people find joy. A child’s needs are met. People display honesty and love because relationships matter. Those are real desires, met not by watching a movie but by living life God’s way. The Bible uses the words “one another” over 50 times, exhorting us to forgive, accept, admonish, and serve. It says we bear burdens and bear with one another. Jesus wraps these into one, “love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 15:12), meaning selflessly and sacrificially. For today’s culture, it’s worth noting that real love is not easily offended (1 Cor. 13:5).

Those “one another” things are more noticeable around Christmas. Max Lucado writes, “The magical dust of Christmas glittered on the cheeks of humanity ever so briefly, reminding us of what is worth having and what we were intended to be. We forgot our compulsion with winning, wooing, and warring. We stepped off our race tracks and roller coasters and looked outward toward the star of Bethlehem. For a few precious hours our heavenly yearnings intermesh and we become a chorus, banking that Bethlehem’s mystery is a reality.” And we sing, “O come let us adore Him” to the One who inspires angels and humans to rejoice.

Life deals both regrets and longings, hurts and hopes, failures and dreams. You yearn for your story to include conflict resolved, wounds forgiven, and sadness displaced by childlike joy. That, actually, is not a fantasy. The Advent, the first coming of God the Son is a celebration of that very plot. Those yearnings all point to the same thing: peace on earth, peace with God, peace for eternity. The appearance, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus is the divine plot, “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet.1:20) to bring such a peace. Those events that inspire faith, hope, and love in us are the original and real Christmas plot.

Hope and Truth

Kanye West just released his much-anticipated album, “Jesus is King.” His conversion to Christianity has been met with both enthusiasm and skepticism.  As a cultural influencer, is he a shrewd businessman or a transparent truth-seeker?  Time will tell, as for all of us who “run with endurance the race set before us” (Heb. 12:1).

In the midst of cultural confusion, West is on a mission to bring hope to his fans. On the track, “God Is,” he says, “Every man, every woman there is freedom from addiction.”  Lyrics in “On God” include, “His light shine the brightest in the dark.  Single mothers know they got my heart.  And all my brothers locked up on the yard you can still be anything you wanna be.”  Hope without truth is a false hope.  West is speaking to a pop culture that finds hope elusive because it no longer believes in truth.  I admire his determination to use his platform to change that.

Abdu Murray describes the cultural confusion this way: “We’ve so obsessed over the freedom to do what we want that we’ve neglected the freedom to do what we should. To wrap our minds around what it means to be human, we’ve focused narrowly on brain chemistry, thereby reducing ourselves to freedomless chemical machines.  This in turn leads us to contradictorily conclude that with regard to sexual and gender identity we’re ‘born that way’ but should be allowed to explore as many sexual or gender expressions as we want.   We give lip service to respecting all religions only to turn against a particular religion if it doesn’t line up with our irreligious autonomy.”  That is hopeless.

Atheist philosopher and former Italian Senator Marcello Pera opposes these cultural confusions of post-modernism and relativism. It’s counterintuitive that he as an atheist would conclude that the antidote is Christianity.  He writes, “If we live as Christians, we will be wiser and more aware of the dangers we face.  We will not separate morality from truth.  We will not confuse moral autonomy with any free choice.  We will not treat individuals, whether the unborn or the dying, as things. We will not allow all desires to be transformed into rights.  We will not confine reason within the boundaries of science.”

Who knew that an Italian atheist philosopher and an American rapper would agree that Christian truth is good for people today? It is the means to the much sought-after hope.  West’s “Selah” lyrics say, “They say the week start on Monday but the strong start on Sunday.  Won’t be in bondage to any man. John 8:33. We the descendants of Abraham. Ye should be made free. John 8:36. To whom the Son set free is free indeed. He saved a wretch like me.”  If you believe that, you have found hope and Truth.