Archive for the ‘ The Christian Spirit ’ Category

A Holy Week Meditation

We’re about to enter into what the Christian church throughout the centuries has called Holy Week. Now, of course, if we really understand the faith, we realize every week is Holy Week, every day Holy Day, and every minute Holy Minute.

Yet we use this designation for the upcoming week because it makes us pay attention to the events approximately two thousand years ago that have made possible the Great Restoration, the Great Redemption of our souls.

As wonderful and inspirational as the Nativity is, this week announces the essence of Christian faith: the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God that we might become children of God ourselves.

This week is awash in the supernatural, culminating in the Resurrection, without which we would have no hope.

We believe in the God who is above nature—super-natural—and in the miracle of the New Birth.

As C. S. Lewis reminds us in his essay “Christian Apologetics,”

Do not attempt to water Christianity down. There must be no pretence that you can have it with the Supernatural left out. So far as I can see Christianity is precisely the one religion from which the miraculous cannot be separated. You must frankly argue for supernaturalism from the very outset.

So many over the years have stripped the faith of its faith. Follow the moral guidelines, we are told, but reject those silly stories about miracles; some early Christians surely added those in later to augment/falsify the story of Jesus.

We even have a group of scholars—I use the term loosely—called the Jesus Seminar who periodically meet and decide whether certain passages of Scripture are genuine or if they are spurious. Then they make their grand public proclamation about which parts they now consider phony.

Well, that which is phony is found within themselves, not in God’s Revelation.

“The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle,” Lewis writes in another essay with that exact name: “The Grand Miracle.” He continues,

The Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.

It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.

The reality of God becoming man—growing up in a human family, working at a human occupation, walking the dusty roads with humans, suffering for them, dying for them—is the story of the entire reason of Creation.

Then there was Resurrection on the third day.

One of Lewis’s most-often quoted lines—indeed the one emblazoned on his commemorative stone in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey—is a fitting conclusion to this Holy Week meditation:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Psalm 19: Thoughts for This Day

Psalm 19 spoke to me this morning, so I thought I’d share a selection of verses from it for meditation:

The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.

The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.

The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.

The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.

May the words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Thank you this day, Lord, for how Your creation speaks of You. Thank you for Your law that shows us Your ways. Thank you for being my Rock and my Redeemer. Where would I be without You? Where would any of us be?

Amen.

The Horror of the Same Old Thing

Every Wednesday evening since early January, I’ve had the joy of teaching a class on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. A local Episcopal church invited me to do so, and I accepted the offer with relish. A group of eager learners comprises this class (approximately fifty each week), which has made it one of the highlights of this new year for me.

I’d read Screwtape a number of times over the years. Lewis himself famously commented that a really good book should never be read only once. Yet I’ve never had to dissect Screwtape in this manner before. If I’m going to explain anything to a class, I need to go beyond an outline and provide depth of understanding.

Along with a deeper understanding of a book such as this one comes the conviction of the Holy Spirit, as He shows me areas in my life that need to be solidified in righteousness.

One caution for all Christians occurs in Letter 25, which I will be teaching about in a couple of weeks. It deals with the concepts of “Christianity And . . .” and “The Same Old Thing.”

Screwtape—the senior devil—instructs junior tempter Wormwood to lead his “patient” away from mere Christianity (where he will flourish) into something else:

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.

If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

How often do we take our natural interest in something else, link it with our Christian faith, and then allow that other thing to become more important than the faith itself?

In American history, one example I can use is the very worthy cause, prior to the Civil War, of abolishing slavery. The cause was good. Many prosecuted it in the name of Christian faith, as they should have. Yet I am aware of some abolitionists for which the cause of abolition became primary and the faith merely a vehicle for attaining it.

Anytime we subordinate the faith to the cause it inspired, we miss the mark.

Lewis, through Screwtape, is asserting that we are drawn to this error through our desire to spice up, shall we say, the basic Christian faith, as if it is not enough inherently. Hell loves this attitude, as Screwtape explains:

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.

Man’s quest for novelty, which is not a bad thing, can become a very bad thing indeed when novelty takes on an exalted status: it must be “new” and “fresh” or it will be boring. And boredom must be a sin, right?

Change is not synonymous with progress. It depends what that change actually is.

Screwtape again:

Once they [the humans] knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective “unchanged” we have substituted the emotional adjective “stagnant.”

There are some things that never should change—eternal right and wrong, for instance—and Someone who never will. Change is not always good. Yet if those who seek change that isn’t for the better can win the semantic war—“let’s call it stagnant instead”—the perceptions of an entire society can be altered.

I’ll leave it for you to make application to the culture in which we live today.

Where Are the Nathans?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the prophet Nathan. If that name escapes you, it’s understandable. He’s not prominent like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, who wrote down their prophetic messages. He’s not well known like Elijah, who, although he wrote nothing, did some rather remarkable things through the power of God.

But Nathan is important.

He comes to prominence in 2 Samuel, chapter 12. King David, the anointed one of the Lord, committed adultery and then had the woman’s husband put at the front of a battle to ensure he was killed. He got his wish and the man’s widow.

After all, he was the Lord’s anointed. He could do whatever he wanted.

Nathan comes to speak to David one day and tells him a story about a rich man who takes a poor man’s pet lamb and butchers it for a meal. David is incensed by the story. That evil man, says David, must make compensation four times the lamb’s worth.

Then Nathan points a finger directly at David: “You are the man!”

Immediately, because David normally has a heart for God, he recognizes the enormity of his sin and repents deeply over what he did. Yet there are consequences: the child born of the adulterous relationship dies and one of David’s own sons tries to take the kingdom away from him. Many more die in the process.

Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.”

It was just and right for Nathan to confront David, even though he was God’s anointed. It was more than just and right; it was essential for the spiritual health of the nation.

How should this apply today?

No leader—political, spiritual, or otherwise—should be spared direct confrontation. The goal of such confrontation is to lead to a recognition of sin, a heartfelt repentance, and a restored relationship with God.

That’s always the goal.

It’s not “hate” to point out sins in a leader. Even if that leader is nowhere near being a Christian, there are still standards—God’s standards—to which everyone will have to answer. Christians are tasked with doing whatever they can, with God’s guidance, to bring a nation more in line with what God expects of a people.

In January 2017, when Donald Trump took the oath of office as president, I publicly, in this blog, stated that I would support him in any way I could. Despite  my firm conviction that a man of his character should have been rejected from the start when he entered the primaries, I would try to be fair and balanced toward him.

I believe I have been faithful to that commitment. If you were to check back in my blog posts, you would find a number of times I’ve agreed with his policies. Yet, I didn’t neglect to note when his character undermined not only those very policies but the integrity of the government.

Every time I dared to mention anything negative, a chorus of people arose to tell me I was judgmental.

At the beginning of this present year, I determined to minimize my political commentary because I was drawn more to other matters that I found more edifying.

Again, if you search my blog posts for 2018, I believe you will have to admit that Trump has shown up irregularly, and that I’ve been far more focused on positive messages on C. S. Lewis and moments from history from which we can learn important principles.

But whenever I venture to critique the president’s actions (or those of his supporters), the chorus returns.

It’s difficult to say anything anymore that even hints at criticism of Trump’s rhetoric or actions without an immediate and emotional reaction.

What has disturbed me most is that those who should understand sin, repentance, faith, and holiness better than others have decided to look the other way when it comes to the president.

Where are the Nathans?

Trump has an evangelical advisory group. Maybe they are doing a good job. Only God knows. But what I read and hear from people like Rev. Robert Jeffress is backtracking from Biblical morality in Trump’s case. He’s our man, so we’re not going to say anything negative. He’s God anointed; don’t touch him.

I toyed with the idea last night as I went to bed that I might just shut down my blog, remove myself from Facebook, walk away from Twitter, and generally get myself out of the line of fire. I’m tired of this.

It’s easy to make bad decisions based on emotion. In the light of this morning, I’ve decided that’s not the solution.

What I will do, though, is scale back even more from making political commentary—at least about Trump. No one who is devoted to him is going to listen to what I have to say. Minds are made up. Every excuse imaginable for why he shouldn’t be criticized is dredged up.

So what’s the point anymore?

That doesn’t mean I won’t write about government and the principles I believe God wants us to follow. And it’s not an absolute moratorium on Trump. To pledge that I will never mention him again would be foolish; I would undoubtedly break that pledge.

But I will never back away from the Biblical truth that righteousness exalts a nation and sin is a disgrace to any people.

And I will continue to pray that other Christians will take that seriously, considering the dangerous and increasingly anti-Christian times in which we live.

I will also continue to pray that more Nathans—those who are called by God to point out sin for the purpose of ultimate redemption—will come to the forefront.

Graham & His Presidents

Historians have a unique experience when they do research into individuals. Even though I have never met most of the people I’ve researched, I come away with the sensation that I know them anyway.

My master’s thesis was on Yale president (and clergyman) Timothy Dwight and American geographer (and clergyman) Jedidiah Morse, the latter being the father of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame.

My doctoral dissertation was on Noah Webster, the premier educator of early America and the compiler of America’s first dictionary, which bears his name.

Reading everything I can get my hands on that relates to Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and C. S. Lewis has been an ongoing joy.

I can testify the same about Billy Graham, since I’ve not only researched at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center, but also have looked into his correspondence and relationships with all the post-WWII presidents.

Graham built a reputation as a friend and counselor for many of these presidents, although his first attempt was a little rocky. He received an invitation to speak with Harry Truman in the Oval Office. He prayed with Truman at the end of the meeting. When he and his associates emerged from the White House, reporters wanted him to reenact that prayer. He obliged.

Although Graham was undoubtedly sincere in his action, Truman was incensed that something private would be made into a public spectacle. Graham, young and inexperienced in dealing with the media, learned a valuable lesson that day.

The young evangelist made a connection with a much older man, Dwight Eisenhower, when Truman left office. In one way, it’s rather amazing that Eisenhower, the general who successfully conducted the D-Day invasion, would find a spiritual guide in such a young man. Yet he asked Graham for suggestions of Biblical passages to use in his first inaugural.

As Eisenhower lay in bed at Walter Reed hospital, knowing he was going to die soon, he asked Graham to come see him and tell him one more time how to make sure he was ready to meet the Lord. If not for Graham, Eisenhower might never have made his peace with God.

Graham didn’t know Kennedy that well, but at the latter’s urging, they met after the election and before the inauguration, because Kennedy, as the nation’s first Catholic president, sought to show that the leading evangelical Protestant voice was not opposed to his presidency.

It’s noteworthy that at a time when many Protestants were concerned about having a Catholic for president that Graham accepted the invitation and was willing to stand publicly with Kennedy. He wanted to help heal that division between Christian denominations.

What may not be as well known is that Graham, in November of 1963, had a strong urge to call Kennedy and tell him the Lord had impressed upon him that the upcoming trip to Dallas might be dangerous. He never reached Kennedy; others in the administration put him off. We all know what happened next.

Lyndon Johnson was a profane man with whom one might think Graham would want nothing to do, but that was not the case. The two developed a close friendship, and Graham even got involved to some extent in some of LBJ’s initiatives on racial reconciliation and other policy issues.

Interestingly, LBJ tried to convince Graham to run for president. He demurred, knowing that God had given him a different calling. In my opinion, after reading through quite a bit of material on their relationship, I see LBJ wanting Graham to be close to him because he suffered a deep insecurity about his own spiritual state—an insecurity that he definitely should have had, given his low standard of morality. Perhaps he perceived Graham to be his “security blanket,” spiritually speaking.

In the public mind, Graham is most often associated with Nixon. It’s true that they were very close. It was during Nixon’s presidency that Sunday morning services were arranged at the White House, and Graham spoke at many of them. Although he never officially endorsed any president, there was little doubt that he supported Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

Then came Watergate. When the tapes revealed language from Nixon that Graham had never heard him use in his presence, he was deeply disturbed. On Nixon’s part, because he didn’t want the controversy swirling around him to impugn Graham’s ministry, he conscientiously avoided meeting with Graham once the Watergate investigation went into high gear.

What’s most touching, to me, is that nothing Nixon did pushed Graham away from him. Even in the disgrace of resignation from the presidency, Graham remained his friend and spiritual advisor. He was not seeking power with the high and mighty; he simply wanted to share God’s love with them. He was the friend of presidents even when they were no longer in office and had nothing to offer.

His close brush with a possible taint on his ministry led Graham to rethink his associations with presidents. It’s not that he sought to distance himself spiritually, but he never again wanted to be so public in his relationships with them that the ministry would be discredited.

So when Ford took over from Nixon, while he did speak with the new president on occasions, he deliberately took a step back from a too-public connection.

The same is true of his relationship with Carter. Prior to his presidency, Carter had even shared the stage with Graham in Georgia at one of his crusades.

Yet, the relationship was never very close. Carter considered himself his own spiritual advisor, some would say. He didn’t reach out much to Graham during his tenure in office.

Ronald Reagan and Graham had been friends for a couple of decades before Reagan won the presidency, so the link between them already was firmly established. According to some sources, Reagan was the president Graham was closest to, but, in the wake of Watergate, Graham was intent on keeping their communication as private as possible.

That’s kind of a frustration for a historian like me. Whereas I found a lot of correspondence between Graham and LBJ and Nixon, the Reagan Library yielded far less.

Reagan’s esteem for Graham was shown in his decision to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When I interviewed Reagan’s pastor, Donn Moomaw, back in 2014, he lent me this photo that I downloaded into my own files. I’ll always appreciate his willingness to do that.

George Bush the elder also had a long-standing friendship with Graham, to the point that he invited him to the Bush compound in Maine annually. He wanted his family to hear from Graham on spiritual matters. His initial idea was to ask Graham to speak to them—like a sermon—but Graham instead just opened it up each year to questions, which was a much more personable approach.

It was on one of those occasions that a walk along the beach with George Bush the younger led to his commitment to follow the Lord.

Have I omitted anyone? Oh, yes, there was another one.

This is further evidence that Graham was willing to be a friend to anyone occupying the highest office in the land.

I hope this travelogue through the history of Billy Graham’s relationships and connections with presidents has been worthwhile for those of you who made it through this entire blog.

I thank God for using this man in our nation’s history. May many more rise up and be His spokesmen for truth.

Some Day, God Willing, We Shall Get In

Your eyes will see the King in His beauty; They will behold a far-distant land. Isaiah 33:17

All true beauty resides in God and in the works of His hands. There is a longing in those who have submitted their lives to Him to see the fulfillment of true beauty someday.

C. S. Lewis expressed it in his own unique way in “The Weight of Glory,” one of the greatest of all his essays, originally a sermon delivered during WWII from the pulpit of Oxford’s Church of the Virgin Mary.

He notes that God has already given us glimpses of what one day we will see when we no longer look through the veil of this world.

God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want?

Ah, but we want so much more—something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it.

The external sense of sight is only the beginning for “seeing” the depth of God’s beauty. There is a longing that goes to the essence of what beauty is:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. 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 bathe in it, to become part of it.

We attempt to put it into words. The poets try via what Lewis calls “such lovely falsehoods.” What does he mean?

They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t.

They tell us the “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet.

That little sentence—Or not yet—performs the transition in Lewis’s sermon.

For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.

“The Weight of Glory” has so many poignant passages, but the next one Lewis offers can send a splendid thrill up one’s spine if we read it correctly and enter into what he is saying. It should be read slowly, taking into ourselves each word and phrase:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.

But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

And what a glorious Day that will be.

Billy Graham’s Coronation Day

Billy Graham was ready to go. He had been ready for many years. Even though his passing was not a shock—after all, he was 99—just the fact of his death makes the world stop for a moment and consider a man who was faithful to His Savior and who made an enormous impact for Him.

I remember watching Graham crusades on television when I was a teenager. I read a number of his books at that relatively young age. I guess I wasn’t your typical teen.

As time went on, the Lord directed me to many other Christian writers, speakers, and spiritual guides, but I will always be grateful that Graham was the one who first got my attention.

In my book on C. S. Lewis, I mention the one time these two men met. Lewis had this to say afterwards:

I had the pleasure of meeting Billy Graham once. We had dinner together during his visit to Cambridge University in 1955. I thought he was a very modest and a very sensible man, and I liked him very much indeed.

The Oxford/Cambridge intellectual having a meeting of the minds and hearts over dinner with a Baptist revivalist. Why did that work? Both believed genuinely in what Lewis called “mere Christianity.” They shared the same Savior and recognized that in each other.

Four years ago, during my sabbatical, I not only researched and wrote a book on Lewis but I began work with a colleague on another book that aims to analyze spiritual advisors to presidents post-WWII. Graham naturally figures prominently, as he was the only Christian leader/pastor who knew each president personally, starting with Eisenhower.

It was a joyful experience going to the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College to research him. Then I did the same at six presidential libraries. Graham’s commitment to offering spiritual counsel to any president who asked, regardless of the label of Republican or Democrat, is a lesson to all of us today.

Our book is still in the works, with a great hope that it may be picked up by a publisher who sees its value. Yesterday, we were interviewed about Graham and the proposed book by a local television news outlet. We were glad for the opportunity to showcase what Graham has meant to so many.

While it may be a cliché among Christians, it is nonetheless true that yesterday was Billy Graham’s Coronation Day. He is now in the presence of the Lord he served for most of those 99 years. May his life inspire the rest of us to be just as faithful.