I was extremely eager to read the featured article in the December 2016 National Geographic. The title was “The Healing Power of Faith.” I’ve been reading National Geographic as long as I have been reading. It always seems to contain information that is new and endlessly fascinating. Countless articles have reported that a life of faith is good for one’s health and well-being. Concentrated prayer helps organize our brain circuitry, clean living keeps us from being exposed to the harmful effects of stimulants and sexually transmitted diseases, meaningful relationships raise the levels of oxytocin and endorphins in the blood stream. I have even read reports that people who are prayed for get better faster than people who aren’t. This is true whether the subject knows she is being prayed for or not.
So I was anxious to read what new scientific breakthroughs affirmed the benefits of faith. The subtitle, “You are what you believe” seemed to confirm my expectations. I was wrong. What followed were several pages of text and photographs describing the effectiveness of a surprising range of unlikely behaviors which prove effective in treating everything from Parkinson’s to broken bones, so long as the participant believes these behaviors will be effective. The upshot of it all, after 25 pages, is that placebos work.
I realized that 33 years ago at Fort Hill Christian Youth Camp near Cincinnati, Ohio. There were 12 boys, aged 7 to 9 in my cabin, many of them first time campers. Some were severely homesick. One boy in particular was about to go home. I was referred to the camp nurse. She was a retired RN who looked suspiciously like Nurse Ratched. “So you got a case of homesickness,” she asked me eying the little boy like she might rap his knuckles with a ruler. “Yes,” I answered, “it’s pretty bad.” “Bring him around before bedtime and I’ll give him a homesick pill. Don’t bring him before bedtime…the pills make you really drowsy.”
And so at bedtime we walked the 50 yards or so from the cabin to the nurse’s station. She listened to his heart, and shined a light in his eyes. Then she brought out a prescription bottle filled with Tic-Tacs. She carefully placed a Tic-Tac under his tongue and told him to hold it there. She timed out ten seconds on her watch. “Has it started to tingle?” she asked. He shook his head yes. “Good,” she said, “That means it is working. You can take him back, but don’t let him fall down he may be asleep before you get him back to the cabin.”
He was. And he had no problem with homesickness the rest of the week. For the other boys, just knowing they had access to effective medication if they needed it made everything better.
The National Geographic piece was not about faith, not in a Biblical sense. It was about the power of our emotional selves over our physical and mental selves. David Brooks in his book The Social Animal (Random House 2011) concludes that “Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it. Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations…the key to a well-lived life is to have trained the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls,” (pp.21-22).
Of course, we know this from scripture. Paul instructs us to dwell on the things that are “honorable, right, pure, lovely, respectable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (I Thessalonians 4.8). He instructs us to always rejoice (I Thessalonians 4.8, also Psalm 118.24). In the Beatitudes Jesus seeks to completely retrain our hearts to value things like peace, mercy, gentleness, mournfulness, even persecution (Matthew 5.3-12). Each passage understands that we must train our emotions to value what is right and good.
When we do, our reason has muscle – moral muscle – the strength we need in a sinful world. Since God provides everything we need for life and godliness (II Peter 1.3) weakness will never be an excuse. As this New Year begins, let us establish good habits for emotional training to build moral muscle.
This Thanksgiving was the first in 34 years that Teresa and I were on our own. Our kids were with other family. My mom was at her home, recovering from knee replacement and not up to the travel. My mother-in-law was in Tulsa with her son, Bill and his family. It was a little strange. We were blessed to have each other - quite a few spent their first thanksgiving alone without their spouses this year. And of course we did spend Thanksgiving with our extended family – 80 or more of you – our brothers and sisters in Christ. It was a wonderful day in which we publicly and joyfully indulged in the sin of gluttony. We also received into our family a new brother in Christ as Jonathan Gau was baptized that day. It was an altogether happy and heartwarming Thanksgiving. Sometimes life is like a Hallmark channel movie.
It is the time of year when the Hallmark channel, the Lifetime network, and other cable outlets run Christmas movies 24/7. Each year these channels roll out a new box of comfits – new movies to unwrap, although “new” is probably a generous term to use. There are only 5 movies they make over and over again: “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Ground Hog’s Day,” and “Made for Each Other” (a 1939 MGM tearjerker starring Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard which has spawned a hundred remakes).
I notice that three of the movies I mentioned star Jimmy Stewart. I also notice that two of them involve the suspension of time in some way. The protagonists in these movies find resolution, comfort, and strength by going backward, or forward in time. Glimpsing the right moment from the past or the future provides the answers, or the insight needed. If only we had the same ability they do in those Hallmark movies.
All this has set me to thinking about the apostles, and how they must have felt when Jesus told them, “I am going away,” (John 14.1ff) – how they, like children asked “where,” and “how.” When Jesus asked them earlier if they were going away, Peter responded: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe absolutely, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God (John 6.68-69). They have nowhere else to go but to Jesus, and now He says He is going away. How alone they must have felt – but only briefly. They will find that He keeps His promise to be with them “all the way even to the end of the Age” (Matthew 28.20).
We find the same. The miracle of the Bible is that Jesus is always there. We are never alone, never without Him. He is alive in the four Gospels. Any time we open the Bible we can spend time with Him. We are not bound by the limits of time when we go to the Word. We can be with him as an infant, as a grown man just being baptized, on the cross, or we can watch Him ascend to heaven. We can move backward and forward in time to visit any moment from His life which feeds us, instructs us, strengthens us, challenges us. Those Hallmark movies are fancy and fiction. The Gospels are fact.
The fantasies these Hallmark movies peddle often strike a chord, speak to a longing. But they are diversions, entertainments. The moments we spend with Jesus are meaningful, fulfilling, empowering.
This will be the last Manassas Signal of the year. We will continue to update our announcements online, but will not resume publication of this newsletter until the New Year. As I offer you this last meditation of 2016, I want to encourage us all to spend more time with Jesus. This is all. It is that simple. Let us all resolve to spend more time with Him.
On behalf of the office staff of the Manassas Church of Christ we thank you for another year of service together, and wish you all a blessed holiday season. May God be with us all.
I have no digital footprint, and I intend to keep it that way. When I was pressured early on to get on Spacebook, or Myface (just kidding) my visceral protest was “the brethren are up in my business enough as it is.” My decision, upon reflection, was reinforced by my realization that people misinterpret, misunderstand, and take offense with alarming regularity. Since my organic disposition is sarcasm, I felt it unwise to give my inner musings a public voice. Recently, however, my reason has changed. People on social media have so eschewed any filter for what they say, or the pictures they post that I prefer not to see what the brethren put on display. I don’t want to know what harsh comment someone made in the name of the culture wars, what was in that red solo cup someone was holding, where they were after hours, or who they were with. I prefer the bliss of my ignorance, and thinking of you all in your church clothes.
I have experienced a similar change of mind about preaching Galatians 5.1-12. I know the whole counsel of God must be preached – but it is also true that some passages are not suitable for thorough discussion when children are present. The rape and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, or the attempted gang rape of the angels in Genesis 19 are two examples. The dual incest between Lot and his daughters that ends Genesis 19 is another. I have had the same feeling about Galatians 5.1-12 because its topic is circumcision, it mentions foreskins, and it ends with Paul wishing his opponents would castrate themselves.
Paul is agitated in the whole book of Galatians. Many Jewish-Christians are preaching that Jesus is not sufficient – that one must keep the laws of Moses as well as follow Christ. They have influenced Peter, James – even Barnabas (Galatians 2.11-21). Paul’s agitation reaches full pitch in Galatians 5.1-12. His sentences are shorter, his phrasing emphatic, his vocabulary extreme. He ends the passage in verse 12 by saying, “I would that those who are troubling you would castrate themselves” – not the kind of self-expression we want to encourage in small children.
But nowadays our children have heard much worse on the political commercials that ran all day during the recent election. Beyond that, we seem to be at ease with hateful, vulgar speech. Not that we Christians engage in such (although if you do on your Facebook page, or twitter account I’ll never know…..until some calls me to snitch on you), but we seem to accept such from our public figures as a matter of course. I just don’t think the language of Galatians 5.1-12 will seem so shocking anymore. So, I have gone ahead and decided to preach on the passage next week.
The passage is important. Our Sunday sermon series this year is “Faith, Hope, and Love”, and this passage is likely the earliest use of the three together. Galatians 5.1-12 is about Faith versus Works, and Love versus Law. I am anxious to explore it with you, but I must admit I am ambivalent about the new-found freedom I feel to share this passage on a Sunday morning.
When we Christians become accustomed to coarseness - when we support it with our silence, or our vocal approval – we communicate to our children that such coarseness is acceptable. This, more than anything else that has transpired during the political season, makes me worried and sad.
Jesus clearly equates hate-speech with violence (Matthew 5.21-26). Paul constantly insists that our speech edify (Colossians 3.17, 4.6; Ephesians 4.29 – whatever else his speech in Galatians does, it edifies), and Peter tells us that even when we are interrogated by the authorities we need to answer with gentleness and reverence (I Peter 3.15). The New Testament establishes a standard we need to keep – and to apply.
I confessed a few weeks ago that during a contentious election season I do some necessary therapy reading. I turn first to the election of 1952. I have a book of campaign speeches by Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate that year, and from the Republicans I have Eisenhower’s Mandate for Change in which he writes about the election that took him to the White house. The thoughtfulness, civility, and the perfect agreement on values one finds in these two books are comforting. It is good to remember that there was a time when our political discourse was productive – even elevating. If I need a bit more of a boost I read the letters exchanged between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson concerning the elections of 1800 and 1804 which were contentious in the extreme. Partisans (mostly James Callender) accused John Adams of being insane, hen-pecked, and a hermaphrodite. Later some (mostly James Callender) accused Jefferson of fathering children by his slave, Sally Hemmings. We have always had elections which were, in President Obama’s words, “silly season.”
I turn to Will Rogers as well. His book How We Elect Our Presidents contains his punditry on the elections of 1924, 1928, and 1932. Much of the humor is dated, but his political analysis is as relevant today as it was a century ago. I am especially fond of a quote from a piece he wrote shortly before the Coolidge inaugural in 1925. Rogers writes:
“No Element, no Party, not even Congress or the Senate can hurt this country now….Even when our next war comes we will, through our short-sightedness, not be prepared. But that won’t be anything fatal. The real energy and mind of the Normal Majority will step in and handle it and fight it through to a successful conclusion…(the Country) is founded on right and even if everybody in Public Life tried to ruin it they couldn’t. This Country is not where it is today because of any one man. It is here on account of the big Normal Majority.” (p.46)
There is much wisdom in that, and thus much comfort. His prescience about the coming war is astonishing. But there are also some glaring omissions. One is that the country is not founded on majority rule – normal or otherwise. Rousseau argued in The Social Contract (1762), that true power in a just government must lie in the “general will” of the people – their shared values. These values must be codified and respected. Only when we have something beyond ourselves as final authority, like a constitution, will “the people” be treated justly. Our founders believed this too, and thus adopted a representative form of government, with separation of powers, and a binding constitution. The big Normal Majority is not intended to be the ultimate authority in our country.
A second problem is that faith in the big Normal Majority is only as reliable as the humans who comprise it. If the big Normal Majority was so trustworthy, we wouldn’t have had to fight a Civil War, nor needed the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Also, it often happens that we can’t even identify a big Normal Majority when we need it most – as when we need to deal with issues like abortion, immigration, or who should be President.
“It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps,” God reminds us in Jeremiah 10.23. While we are thankful to live in a representative democracy, and thankful to ever soldier, sailor, marine, airman, and first responder who make our democracy possible, we understand that no majority decides what is right. God does. And so our great need is to listen to Him. Any majority, even a “normal,” well-intentioned one - which shouts in an echo chamber babbles to itself alone, and establishes nothing.
And so the best course of action for us to take is to be still, and listen to God as He speaks to us in His word. This is true therapy reading.
Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, and because I consider your precepts right, I reject every wrong path. Psalm 119.127-128
The question that has stirred the hearts of man since the dawn of time begs, why am I here? It's a natural, innate, and necessary question to ask. Mark Twain is known to have said, "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why." While Twain held no semblance of faith as far as Christianity is concerned, he did seem to capture the essence of what we as Christians need to ask themselves. To the Christian, “finding out why” we are here is critical because finding out why suggests the reason for our existence. So what is the reason? The reason, in short, is to discover the talents given to us by God, and use them in the service of His kingdom.
Jack Swigert was the command module pilot on the failed Apollo 13 mission. If you remember from the movie of the same name, or from reading the account, Jack was not scheduled to be one of the crew members of that flight. As a precaution to a supposed impending illness, Swigert takes the place of Ken Mattingly. We don't know for sure how the mission might have turned out one way or the other had Mattingly been aboard, but that isn’t what Swigert reflected on. He didn't reflect on the "what ifs" of the situation, he simply acted on the requirement of his talents, and his calling. Jack went on to pursue politics in his home state, cut short by a losing battle with cancer. But before he died he said, "I believe God measures your life. He puts you on earth, gives you certain talents and opportunities, and, I think, you're going to be called to account for those opportunities." He’s right of course but not just because he says so. In fact, it should bring to mind a parable given by Jesus.
In Matt 25:14-30 we find the parable of the hidden talents. Lest anyone miss the point of the parable, it is not a lesson on finances. It is about the responsibility, and our accountability of the God given talents we have to serve in His kingdom. God put no limits on the growth of His kingdom. Jesus said the fields were ripe and that the only thing lacking was the harvesters. That means the only restrictions that exist are the ones we put on the kingdom by not using our talents; by burying them in the ground. We all should reflect on the two responses given in that parable: "Well done good and faithful servant," vs "You wicked and slothful servant." We have talents, we have a purpose, and it is the calling of Christ Jesus to put those talents to work.
Not all of us have the same talents. Were I to be called upon for my carpentry skills for example, we would all quickly revert to the tents of the first century. I’ll leave that calling for Chuck Leasure. It is rather the combined effort of all Christians, which is why all of us serving together is so important. We should remember that service is not participating in worship or attending bible study only, but also serve as reminders and motivators to “spur one another on toward love and good works” Heb 10:24. A sign in the parking lot of a church building in Florida, viewable only as you leave the parking lot reads, "You are now entering the mission field." I've always liked that. It's a reminder that leaving building marks the beginning of our service.
One of the most important reasons we have Care Groups is to seek out and encourage the use of our God given talents in His service whether individually or as a group. It is not a responsibility given only to a few - it is everyone's responsibility to find out what their talents are and how best to use them. Make the effort in 2017 to join a Care Group, to participate. Participate for the fellowship, certainly for the food, but mostly – to serve. Read the parable of the talents, remember the talents to which you've been entrusted, invest them, bring back to the Lord more than you were given!