The 1860 presidential race between Lincoln, Douglass, and Breckenridge was one of the most bitter in U.S. history. The tall, lanky Lincoln, and the short, doughty Douglas had been rivals since they both sat in the parlor of Mary Todd, vying for her hand - round 1 to Lincoln. Then they fought bitterly over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) which Douglas sponsored. It set aside the Missouri Compromise, and made it possible for slavery to spread west. Lincoln’s best early speech is his address given in opposition to this act. It is uncharacteristically seasoned with anger and sarcasm. The act became law – round 2 to Douglas. The men famously opposed each other for the seat of junior senator from Illinois in 1856. Douglas won the election, when the majority democrats voted early and often, but because of their highly publicized debates Lincoln became a national figure – round three was a draw.
During the presidential race of 1860 Lincoln didn’t campaign in the Deep South. He wasn’t even on the ballot there. The democrats were split between Douglass and Breckenridge. Douglas was the biggest racist of the two, and the more virulent advocate of slavery – but he was pro-union. Brackenridge was a garden-variety racist, but he was pro-secession. When Douglas campaigned in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina he was so reviled that he often could not leave his train. He was cursed, spat upon, and pelted with rotten vegetables wherever he went. Breckenridge split the ticket, Lincoln won the election, and South Carolina seceded before the inauguration – round 4 goes to war.
As Lincoln rose to give his first inaugural address (a masterpiece), he removed his iconic stove-pipe hat, holding it with one hand while fumbling his notes with his other. Stephen Douglas, who was sitting just an arm’s length away, offered to hold his hat. Lincoln gratefully handed it to him, and began his plea that we listen to our “better angels.”
In my mind, I have kept Stephen Douglas in that subset of history’s villains which includes Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and the Jenner/Kardashian clan. But this unexpected gesture of kindness makes me reconsider. Why was he so quick to show this kindness? I don’t know. Maybe he had a new perspective on the whole issue of slavery and union after his campaign experience. Maybe one can be polite and a racist at the same time. Maybe the gesture was a reflex, and has no meaning at all – but it gives me pause.
Random acts of kindness do that. They make us notice, re-compute, reconsider, appreciate. Why else would Jesus remind us of the value of a single cup of water given in His name? This comment about the cup of water, found in Matthew 10.40-42 provides the two key moments from Lew Wallace’s grand novel, Ben Hur. Wallace, incidentally, was a Union General in the Civil War. The key moment early in his book is the offering of a cup of water to Judah Ben Hur by Jesus. In the climax of the book, he returns the kindness as Jesus struggles towards Golgotha. The scenes are powerful, in the book, the 1925 silent film, and the 1959 Oscar-winning blockbuster. The scenes are powerful because the truth is powerful. A single cup of water can make things better.
Jesus reminds us that in the end we will be judged based upon our record of kindness (Matthew 25.31-46). Tending to the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the distressed, the sick will be the difference which separates sheep from goats. Most of us will never be president of anything. Few of us will achieve anything historic. All of us can be kind – moment to moment, one person at a time – and Jesus says this makes all the difference.
And He himself will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; prepare for us there. Mark 14.15 (See also Luke 22.12)
It is a fact established by the dual witnesses of Mark and Luke that Jesus observed the Passover in an upstairs room. He instituted the Communion supper we share every Lord’s Day in that upstairs room. Paul makes it clear in I Corinthians 11.14-34 that Jesus established the pattern we follow when we observe weekly Communion service. Paul and later Luke record that Jesus intends we follow this pattern (I Corinthian 11.25, Luke 22.20). We observe the Communion service every Lord’s Day because we know that was the practice of the early Church (Acts 20.7-12). That Communion service described in Acts 20 took place upstairs as well – on the third floor (v.9).
We are careful to reenact every aspect of the Lord’s Supper as described in scripture. We share unleavened bread and the juice of the grape. We remember the words Jesus spoke. We observe it every Lord’s Day. We emphasize that the Lord’s Supper is “separate and apart” from the offering. We insist (as we should – what moment of our week is more sacred?) that we get everything right. Why then have we shown no concern for observing communion upstairs? Jesus instituted the Supper upstairs. The one Communion service we have described in the book of Acts takes place upstairs. Shouldn’t we do the same?
If so, I have some questions:
Would a main floor above a basement suffice?
Do we need to do this on a third floor? (see Acts 20.9)
What about those who worship on a main floor not above a basement? Are they worshipping in error?
What about my grandmother Bryson? She attended a church without a second floor or a basement. Will she be saved? What about all the thousands of saints in the same situation – are they lost?
You may protest that the Bible never (NEVER!) makes an issue of upstairs or downstairs concerning the Communion service - that to do so is to go farther than responsible study allows. If that is your answer, my response is a resounding “Amen!” I could not agree more.
Let us listen to our collective wisdom on this point and continue to apply it to ourselves. Let us see how easy it is to take a verse or two and erect an edifice of orthodoxy neither built nor sanctioned by God, but that comes from our own faulty reasoning, preferences, and personal prejudices.
Let us rigorously apply the standard of the word (II Timothy 3.16-17). Let us speak where the Bible speaks, be silent where the Bible is silent, and give issues exactly the amount of attention and emphasis the Bible gives them – no more and no less.
If this is not our standard, any number of oppressive and unbiblical rules will be accepted as normative – as the very fulcrum of the faith. Such a faith will not be Biblical faith, but a faith we have concocted ourselves from bits and oddities we have chosen as we (to borrow a phrase from Jesus “neglect the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23.23).
Religious education is shallow in Tunisia, so there’s little theological substance to keep a young person from going to extremes. George Packer in the New Yorker*
George Packer’s recent major piece in the New Yorker details the religious and political turmoil in Tunisia. Tunisia should have been the one great success of the Arab Spring, according to Packer. It had many advantages other Arab states lacked: no deep ethnic or sectarian divisions, no oil wealth to draw unwanted foreign attention, a tradition of moderate Islam, widespread literacy, and a small apolitical army. But Tunisia is a mess. One of the main reasons for this mess, he argues, is the lack of responsible teaching about the Qur’an. He details how “a religious vacuum during the Bourgiba and Ben Ali regimes” combined with widespread access to radical sermons on satellite television to create a large, radicalized population among Tunisia’s youth.
Packer makes a compelling argument. But I found all this yearning for responsible teaching of a holy book interesting. I wonder if this author, or his publication, would apply the same standard to other cultures – perhaps our own. Would he draw a line between extremism in America and a lack of responsible Biblical training? I doubt it. We all know how the mainline media views evangelical Christianity. But another expose of the media would be cliché. We have more important things to think about.
Last Sunday night Keith Clark, one of our teens, preached an important sermon I hope we listened to. He used radical Islam as a negative example, and asked us to consider how we compare. I have also wondered the same. When I think about the hate and the fear men embed in religion I am too frequently reminded of some church-going men I was raised around. The rigid, unforgiving, woman-fearing, patriarchal, aggressive stance radical Islamists take seems awfully familiar. I am not saying those church-going men would easily resort to violence, only that their prejudices were easily as virulent as those of the radical Islamists wreaking havoc around the world. So Keith’s topic resonated with me immediately.
Keith focused on the way one uses scripture. Radical Islamists, he argued, make no distinction between literal and symbolic language, and thus take extreme positions. We must be careful not to do the same, or we will treat the actual Word of God similarly, with similar results. He is right. That very morning I spoke from Mark 11 - the passage where Jesus says:
Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and cast into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart it will happen, it will be granted him. Mark 11.23
Of course we know Jesus is speaking symbolically. If you disagree and believe everything in the Bible is to be taken literally you are welcome to prove me wrong and make the Mount of Olives do a cannonball in the Dead Sea.
The lesson Jesus applies in Mark 11.24-25 is that we should trust the prayer of faith and believe we have the power to accomplish things that seem impossible – like forgiving each other. Reading the whole passage in context, and listening prayerfully will save anyone the price of an airline ticket to Jerusalem. More important than that – such careful attention to context, and such prayerful devotion to the Word will allow us to live by it. Otherwise we will become some version of what radical Islamists are – grotesques.
*George Packer, "Exporting Jihad," from The New Yorker, March 28,2016, pp.38-51.
If you watch television broadcasts of a few worship services, you are liable to see a lot of hand clapping. In fact, clapping in religious services is so common nowadays that those who visit services of the churches of Christ may be surprised that there is no clapping. Every member of the Lord’s church, as well as everyone non-member who is interested in learning more about the body of Christ, deserves a biblical answer about why we don’t clap.
There are two reasons why someone might clap: (1) To clap “along” with music, i.e., to add percussion to the rhythm of songs; (2) To applaud. Consider why we do not use clapping for either of these purposes:
Why we do not add percussion to music in worship: The general principle in effect here is that man is obligated to give God what He wants in worship. Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Consequently, God always has viewed man as guilty if man offered to God something that God did not authorize (e.g., Leviticus 10:1-2; cf. Matthew 15:9). The specific application of this principle to the issue of clapping is this: God has been specific about what kind of music He wants us to use in New Testament worship—He wants vocal music. This excludes percussion by clapping or playing drums. Here are the New Testament passages with God’s authorization for vocal music:
Why we do not applaud in worship: Applause is one way in which humans show approval to other humans. But mere humans must not be the objects of worship at all (Acts 10:25-26; Revelation 22:8-9), and so we do not applaud humans in worship. It is logically possible that man could applaud God, and yet God never asked man to applaud Him. (It makes sense that God would not ask us to show appreciation to Him in the same way in which we would show appreciation to a baseball player or a musician.) So, there is no legitimate object of applause in worship.
God did not accept unauthorized worship from Cain (Genesis 4). He did not accept unauthorized worship from Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2). He will not accept it from us. We always will be careful to worship the living God according to His prescriptions in the New Testament.
This time of year I am readily reminded of Houseman’s poem about the cherry, “loveliest of trees.” He describes a cherry tree in peak bloom as “hung with snow,” and laments that of his “three score years and ten twenty will not come again.” Anyone who has visited the Tidal Basin of our nation’s capital when our Japanese cherries are at peak bloom agrees with his sentiment. The trees do seem burdened down with plump snowflakes, and fifty years seems little time to enjoy them.
I did not make it to the Tidal Basin this year, but have fully enjoyed my personal cherry tree. It stands outside my office window. The elders planted it for me in memory of my father, who passed in 2003. He was not given his allotted three score and ten, nor was his father before him. The tree planted in his memory was in danger of an early death as well when it contracted a bacterial infection a few years ago. David Bobbitt, a degreed horticulturist, told me he could save the tree if I trusted him. He cut the tree back so far that nearly half the trunk was gone, and only one branch with one leaf remained. I brought a red Christmas ball from home and hung it on that branch, since it reminded me of the tree Charlie Brown bought at the Christmas tree lot. David was right. He did save the tree. It is magnificent, and has been for several springs. The gnarled trunk enhances the beauty of the blossoms as it stands handsomely outside my window.
Today, as I write these few lines, I can look through the faintly pink snowflakes and see a regally posed cardinal. He moves very little. He seems to be regarding me as carefully as I regard him, but I know he isn’t looking at me at all. He is seeing his own reflection in the glass. Last year the mockingbird that lives on our property caught his reflection in the same window and did a war dance against himself for hours. Sir Cardinal is calmly standing his ground (or holding his tree), and poses for almost an hour before changing branches with great pomp, and striking another, equally regal pose.
While all this is going on a squirrel starts up the tree then decides it is too much work. This squirrel had pilfered my birdseed all winter and is fat enough to be on one of those TV weight loss shows. I have named him Orson Welles. Bumble bees of commensurate size float slowly like swollen dirigibles, lazily lapping nectar from the pink-blush blossoms.
My mind moves from Houseman to Hopkins and his poem, Pied Beauty. It is a psalm of praise to God for the beauty of nature. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” it begins, and goes on to mention the “rose moles” of trout, “finches’ wings,” and the “gear, tackle and trim” of tradesmen. He praises all things “counter, original, spare, and strange,” and ends his poem “praise Him.” I have taken “counter,” “original,” and “spare” as the keys to a good sermon (I try to leave out “strange”).
King David tells us that the created universe declares the glory of God (Psalms 8 and 19), and James tells us that everything good and perfect is a gift from the Father above (James 1.17). My cherry tree, with its blush blossoms, its regal redbird, its bobbing bumblebees, its background of blue sky, its grounding in green grass declares the same. Elliot calls April “the cruelest month.” Looking out my window I reject this. I cannot help but agree with Houseman, Hopkins, David and James.
And so to their quartet I add my bass and sing, “Praise God.”