Happy New Year? Real Christians Are the Key

Everyone always says “Happy New Year!” Is that what we really expect, or do we look ahead with more anxiety than anticipation? Is there much to be happy about in our world?

JeremiahIn this blog, I’ve tried hard to stay upbeat even while pointing out the follies, misfortunes, and outright sins in our society. I’ve never desired to be a Jeremiah. Maybe that’s because I don’t like suffering. No one wanted to hear his words; at one point, he was thrown in a well to die. I’m not fond of wells and other pits. Not everyone gets rescued as he did.

It’s a delicate balance to maintain, pointing out the problems while remaining upbeat. There are too many who spend all their time denouncing everything. They become boring after a while. Yet there is a lot to denounce. How can we do so in the right spirit?

When I look at the world and attempt to make sense of what’s happening, I look first to the church. How is its spiritual health? What impact is it having on day-to-day life? Is it being faithful to the Message delivered to the saints?

It’s always important to keep in mind that there are two “churches” out there: one that is visible and outward, and the other that is within the visible and outward manifestation. The true church is comprised of genuine believers who may worship in many types of outward church buildings and/or denominations.

Do I have to say this? I will anyway. The true church is only a minority within the number of those who show up for a worship service on any given Sunday. The old cliché never goes out of date: going to church doesn’t make anyone a Christian any more than entering a garage makes one a car.

What the world calls “the church” is slipping away from its Biblical moorings. It has watered down Biblical authority and allowed the tenor of the times to dictate what it believes to be true. Some have even gone the entire way and have claimed that truth itself is elusive, rather relative, and unattainable.

We can never look to that external church for real leadership; we must look instead to those who labor within it who have remained faithful to the Gospel—individual salvation only through Christ and societal reform only via the salvation message.

On balance, we have both good and bad occurring simultaneously within what is normally seen as Christendom. That’s to be expected. Jesus made it clear there would be tares [weeds] growing alongside the wheat. He also said it would remain that way throughout time, until God the Father decides that our time is up.

In former decades, America saw itself as a Christian nation, at least in the sense that we honored Christian faith publicly. Those days are nearly gone. Yet, although that may cause us grief, there is an up side to it. The lines are more clearly drawn now; we cannot just rely on a civic religion that gives lip service to Christianity. We are now forced to make a choice—what do we really believe?

Atheists have lately become more emboldened. They are using the courts and putting pressure on the society to toss religious beliefs aside. The society has accepted behaviors that we never thought would become normalized.

What will the genuine church do in response to these challenges in 2015? Will that church stand tall and strong? Will it hold to Biblical truth in spite of the pressures to conform to new societal standards? Will it speak the truth in love and accept whatever persecution may come from that stance?

Salt & LightI keep coming back to this point regularly in my blog: Jesus called us to be salt and light. Salt preserves. There is much in our society that has been based on Biblical truth; it needs to be preserved. We have a responsibility to try to maintain our Biblical roots. Light shows others the way, the proper path to follow. They need this light because they are walking in darkness. If we don’t shine the light, they will remain in their sins.

Love God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves. Those are the two greatest commandments. But we don’t love either God or our neighbors if we don’t tell the truth about sin, judgment, and how to restore a right relationship with the One who gave us life in the first place.

Will it be a happy new year? Or at least happier? The church of devoted followers of Jesus Christ is the key; we are His hands, feet, and mouth. Will we be faithful this year?

Righteous Judgment

So much of our culture and politics today is devoted to accentuating the differences among us. We concentrate on the outward—race, gender, etc.–and minimize the internal.

We are a hypersensitive people who perceive slights and disrespect in innocent comments and actions. Speaking truth about individuals is dangerous if those individuals are part of a group that continues to harbor resentments and grievances, both genuine and not so genuine.

Sometimes those who dare to speak truth are accused of being racist, sexist, or any other “ist” a group may want to incorporate into the language of modern political correctness.

Yet those who immediately respond with accusations of evil intent toward those attempting to speak truth can be blind to the real intent of those who critique what they see going on in our society.

Some of us are focused on the individual, the one who is going to stand before God someday—not as part of a group of some type—and have to answer for his/her own individual beliefs and actions.

God does not see us primarily as part of a “group,” but as individuals for whom Christ died. As the apostle Paul stated in the book of Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that God created only one race: it’s called “human.” Within that one race, there are different branches, evidencing God’s love of variety in His creation.

When one branch wrongs another (e.g., slavery, segregation, etc.), the wronged branch doesn’t help by perpetrating other wrongs (hatred based on resentment and bitterness, destruction of private property that hurts the innocent, disregard for the rule of law, which was established to protect the rights of all).

Wrong is wrong, sin is sin, whether it emanates from the heart of a white person or a black person (or any shade in between), male or female, or any other distinction that exists within the human race.

In the book of I Samuel in the Old Testament, we are given God’s perspective: “For God sees not as man sees. For man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Righteous JudgmentChristians, in particular, need to put aside the attitude of the world and discard judgments seen through the lens of political correctness. Christians need to judge appropriately, not based on resentment, stereotypes, or preconceived notions.

Neither are we to allow emotional reactions to dictate our responses. We should be fact-gatherers first, and only after we have the facts should we speak.

We are to be lights in this dark world, showing the path to righteous judgment and providing evidence of righteousness in our own lives.

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

Smoke on the MountainLast Sunday, I introduced you to the book Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments by Joy Davidman, who later became Joy Davidman Lewis, wife of the renowned Christian apologist.

I commented that one of the things I most appreciated about this book was her unique wording, the way she stated things to capture one’s attention. I have another few morsels from that book today that I would like to share.

In commenting on the fear that dominates our society (remember, this was written in 1953–how much more fear might we have today?), the author takes aim at the so-called leaders in society:

But the articulate, the leaders of opinion, the policy makers, all those who set the tone of our society, seem for the most part to be frightened men. And how do frightened men deal with life?

They don’t; they run away from it. The simplest among us flee openly, rushing from woman to woman, from drink to drink, from one empty amusement to another, wondering why they get so little contentment out of the eighty-miles-an-hour joy ride from unloved Here to unrewarding There.

We ignore Jesus’ admonition, Davidman insists, when He said not to worry about the future:

The words of Jesus are timeless. What worked for other frightened men will work for us. But our society refuses to listen; this injunction about tomorrow is precisely the one we will not accept.

JoyThere is a Biblical answer to fear, she reminds us. We find it in the Scripture that tells us perfect love casts out fear, and that perfect love can be found in Him:

We do not need a world in which there is nothing to be afraid of–in which obeying the law would be easy. Nor can we have such a world, for all our strivings; no matter how pleasant and safe we make the journey, the end of it is death. What we do need is to remember that we have been redeemed from death and the fear of death, and at rather a high price too.

The Ten Commandments may tell us what not to do, but the flip side is the guidance on what exactly we ought to do:

“Thou shalt not” is the beginning of wisdom. But the end of wisdom, the new law, is “Thou shalt.” To be Christian is to be old? Not a bit of it. To be Christian is to be reborn, and free, and unafraid, and immortally young.

Life in Christ is uplifting, not dreary. It is full of promise, not dread. It is the beginning of real living.

Lewis: Surprised by Joy [Davidman]

Out of My BoneI’ve been reading the letters of Joy Davidman, who, before her untimely death from cancer at the age of 45, was, for the last few years of her life, the wife of C. S. Lewis.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Shadowlands, you’ve seen an attempt by Hollywood to portray the relationship between the two, but it falls far short of reality. There are historical inaccuracies—even for the sake of artistic license, one must not stray too far—and C. S. Lewis himself is hardly recognizable; false perceptions abound, particularly of his presumed Oxford ivory-tower existence and his shaken faith at the end when Joy dies. Joy’s strength of character comes through in the film, but very little of her own vibrant Christianity.

Born into a Jewish household in New York City, with an atheist father and mother, Joy followed in their train, declaring at a young age that she was an atheist also. Her materialism led her into the Communist party, where she served as an editor and book and film critic on the New Masses, the party’s weekly magazine. She was an accomplished writer who had won a prize for a collection of her poems, and had some success also as a novelist. But it was all in service to the Communist party.

She became critical of the party over time. Her mind couldn’t rest in the platitudes, so she finally read Marx and Lenin seriously. She was appalled by the illogical nature of their arguments and the massive misinformation upon which they based them. Even prior to her disillusionment, she had begun reading outside the approved party list of books; C. S. Lewis was one of the authors she chanced upon.

In a letter to Chad Walsh, an English professor who had written the first book about C. S. Lewis, she explained how he impacted her:

We more than share your feeling for Lewis; with us it was not the last step but the first that came from reading his books, for we were raised atheists and took the truth of atheism for granted, and like most Marxists were so busy acting that we never stopped to think. If I hadn’t picked up The Great Divorce one day—brr, I suppose I’d still be running madly around with leaflets, showing as much intelligent purpose as a headless chicken.

Joy Davidman 1Joy began writing letters to Lewis, and he liked them, drawn to her intellect and wit. In another letter to Walsh, she details how they had been arguing certain points in those letters, and how he had answered her. It’s an insight into her mental capacity and willingness to be corrected:

Just got a letter from Lewis in the mail. I think I told you I’d raised an argument or two on some points? Lord, he knocked my props out from under me unerringly; one shot to a pigeon. I haven’t a scrap of my case left. And, what’s more, I’ve seldom enjoyed anything more. Being disposed of so neatly by a master of debate, all fair and square—it seems to be one of the great pleasures of life, though I’d never have suspected it in my arrogant youth. I suppose it’s unfair tricks of argument that leave wounds. But after the sort of thing that Lewis does, what I feel is a craftsman’s joy at the sight of a superior performance.

Her own faith grew exponentially through her contact with Lewis, and she saw increasingly that one had to accept Jesus Christ on His terms, not create Him in one’s own image. As she related to another correspondent,

In many of them [the correspondent’s poems] you are explaining and sympathizing with Jesus, rather than accepting him—you are, indeed, not following Jesus but trying to get him to follow you; using him as an agency of your own special revolutionary theory.

I did this myself in the early days of my conversion; explained away what I didn’t like in the Gospel, valued Jesus not as the gateway to my own salvation, but as a means which I could use to support my own ideas—until it dawned on me that unless Jesus was God he was nothing, just another man with a handful of random ideas, and that all I valued such a man for was the accidental support his ideas gave my own position.

You see, I was still being my own God!

Although I’ve known and read about Joy Davidman Lewis for many years, this is the first time I’ve delved into her thought. Before, she was primarily just C. S. Lewis’s wife for a few short years, and that was why she was interesting to me. Now, I have a different perspective. She is interesting in her own right, and she has much to offer us through her writings. There is a reason why a confirmed bachelor like C. S. Lewis would abandon that lifestyle in his later years; he found a mind and heart that resonated with his.

Sabbatical Update: Wheaton College

I’ve written previously in this blog about the blessing I’ve received for the coming academic year: a sabbatical to do research and writing. I also promised to provide updates. For the past week, I’ve been at Wheaton College in Illinois, delving into the papers of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and also materials relating to C. S. Lewis. I’ll talk about Lewis in tomorrow’s post; today, I’ll focus on Graham.

As a reminder, one of my projects during this sabbatical is to examine the relationship of presidents with their spiritual advisers. An obvious starting place for that is the life and ministry of Billy Graham, who has known each president from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Wheaton is the repository for the records of the BGEA. Those records are housed in a magnificent building called the Billy Graham Center.

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I want to offer my sincere thanks for all the help I received while burrowing through the mass of material for more than three days. The staff members are excellent. Their spirit of service is greatly appreciated.

The Center has a very interesting museum depicting the history of evangelism and how America fits into the overall picture of the spreading of the Gospel. It also has some valuable artifacts, such as a copy of the first Bible printed in America during the American Revolution:

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I was also gratified to see a prominent display on the significant contribution of Charles Finney to evangelism in the nineteenth century:

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Naturally, the last half of the museum concentrated on the ministry of Billy Graham, but the spirit of it was excellent, as the focal point was not really Graham himself, but the message he preached and the lives that were changed. The Gospel message was central, as can be shown by this beautiful crystal display of the crucifixion with the poignant Scriptural message underneath:

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My attempt to capture the solemnity and grandeur of the room with the crystal display doesn’t do it justice. There is a sense of awe as you enter that room. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross goes directly to the heart. If you are ever in Wheaton, you must visit this museum and come away inspired by what the Lord has accomplished through so many who have been faithful to His calling.

Lewis: How to View the Second Coming

For the second Saturday in a row, I want to share some of C. S. Lewis’s thoughts about the Second Coming of Christ. Last week, his comments made it clear that this is a central doctrine of the faith. Yet he also wants us to be wary of trying to pin a date on it. In his essay “The World’s Last Night,” he offers this caution:

C. S. Lewis 5We must never speak to simple, excitable people about “the Day” without emphasizing again and again the utter impossibility of prediction. We must try to show them that that impossibility is an essential part of the doctrine. If you do not believe our Lord’s words, why do you believe in his return at all? And if you don believe them must you not put away from you, utterly and forever, any hope of dating that return?

His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions. 1) That he will certainly return. 2) That we cannot possibly find out when. 3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him.

That final point leads Lewis to one more piece of good advice:

What is important is not that we should always fear (or hope) about the End but that we should always remember, always take it into account.

An analogy may help here. A man of seventy need not be always feeling (much less talking) about his approaching death: but a wise man of seventy should always take it into account. He would be foolish to embark on schemes which presuppose twenty more years of life: he would be criminally foolish not to make—indeed, not to have made long since—his will.

Now, what death is to each man, the Second Coming is to the whole human race.

Always take into account that Jesus is returning, yet never lose focus on the things He has given us to do while we wait for that Day.

C. S. Lewis on the Second Coming of Christ

As a college student back in the 1970s, and caught up in the Jesus Movement of the era, I anticipated the Second Coming to be very near, probably sometime in the 1970s, of course. Even though I was spiritually immature at the time, that doesn’t mean the Second Coming is some kind of fantasy. As C. S. Lewis explains, it is essential to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. In an essay entitled “The World’s Last Night,” he had this to say about the doctrine:

Second Coming 2It seems to me impossible to retain in any recognisable form our belief in the Divinity of Christ and the truth of the Christian revelation while abandoning, or even persistently neglecting, the promised, and threatened, Return. “He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead,” says the Apostles’ Creed.

“This same Jesus,” said the angels in Acts, “shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” “Hereafter,” said our Lord himself (by those words inviting crucifixion), “shall ye see the Son of Man . . . coming in the clouds of heaven.” If this is not an integral part of the faith once given to the saints, I do not know what is.

Later in the same essay, Lewis juxtaposed the doctrine of the Second Coming with modernist thought:

The doctrine of the Second Coming is deeply uncongenial to the whole evolutionary or developmental character of modern thought. We have been taught to think of the world as something that grows slowly towards perfection, something that “progresses” or “evolves.”

Christian Apocalyptic offers us no such hope. It does not even foretell (which would be more tolerable to our habits of thought) a gradual decay. It foretells a sudden, violent end imposed from without; an extinguisher popped onto the candle, a brick flung at the gramophone, a curtain rung down on the play—“Halt!”

The curtain will come down someday. I no longer try to guess when that will be, but if the time was short in Jesus’ day, how much shorter is it now?