A Fire in an Old Parsonage: Who Saved John’s Life?

In 1709, at age six, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, came precariously close to losing his life in a raging parsonage fire.

That parsonage, Epworth rectory, was an old house. It appears that it was at least 200 years old when the Wesley family first occupied it near the beginning of the 1700s.

It was a three-story house constructed of ancient timbers, lath, and plaster, with a thatched roof. It was dusty and dry and in 1702 (the year before John Wesley’s birth) that same parsonage had been damaged by a mysterious fire, but had been saved and repaired.

Then came the raging fire of August 24, 1709. It could well have wiped out the whole family. It began near midnight. Susanna was ill and she and Samuel were sleeping in separate rooms. She had two boys with her. Samuel, hearing the cry of “fire” in the streets, ran to Susanna’s room but the door was locked and he could not break in.

Fortunately all the commotion awakened her and she and the two boys hurriedly walked through the flames on the front stairs. Only her hands and face were scorched. Samuel then raced to the nursery where the younger children were in the care of a maid and hurried all of them out through the back part of the house. But once he was outside he realized that Jackie (son John) was missing.

Just then John’s face appeared at the upstairs window of the room where he had been sleeping. He had been awakened by the fire that was already playing along the ceiling of his room. There was no time for the crowd to get a ladder. Samuel, sure his son would die, knelt and commended him to God.

But a strong man in the crowd stood against the wall beneath the window and another man was hoisted onto his shoulders, bringing him close enough to the height of the upstairs window to reach John.

The appearance of the man frightened John and he disappeared from the window to try the door of his room. It was already in flames. He returned to the window and fell into the arms of the man. At that very moment, the roof collapsed and the burning thatch dropped into his room. John was saved — but just in time.

The cause of the fire was never established. Someone blamed it on Samuel’s carelessness. There were also hints of arson. Ruffians in the town of Epworth had often threatened the rector and his family. Samuel’s cows had been stabbed, his dog lost a leg, and the children, while at play in the yard, had been menaced by men who came by.

John’s amazing rescue registered deeply with the parents. All the children had been saved, but Susanna was particularly grateful for the mercy shown to John.      Two years later, May 17, 1711, she wrote a prayer, saying she intended “to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child that thou hast so mercifully provided for, than ever I have been, that I may do my endeavours to instill into his mind the disciplines of thy true religion and virtue.”

In his adulthood, John Wesley himself saw his great deliverance as an expression of God’s providence — his governance of the affairs of all mankind — and was convinced that he had been spared for a special reason. This event had a profound effect on his ministry.

In 1737, at age 34, he began to ascribe to the event the biblical expression “a brand plucked from the burning” (Zechariah 3:2). A modern version (NIV) says: “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” Wesley came to believe he was saved from a fiery death by the Divine Hand so he could carry out a special ministry at God’s behest.

We all have had such providences. For some, they are obvious — a reprieve from cancer or financial ruin — for others, they are not as dramatic but equally real.  After all, our very lives and the breath we breathe day after day are the result of God’s provide-ence. And therefore should we not, as did John Wesley, reflect on them as evidence of God’s immeasurable mercies toward us to serve His purpose?

In the light of God’s daily mercies, dare we take lightly His call to salvation in Christ Jesus, and then to lives of committed service?

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Repost: Should Christians Make Sunday a Holy Day?

Our culture as a whole has clearly embraced secularism and the absolute autonomy of the individual as the credo for living. In keeping with this change, over the past several decades former societal practices that put God collectively above the individual, such as Sunday store closings for family, worship, and rest, have vanished.

Many Christians appear to have followed this change. Rather than making Sunday a true Lord’s Day for worship and rest, Sunday might include any-day tasks such as laundry, shopping for groceries, washing the car, mowing the lawn, cleaning house, or spending hours in hard study.

The question to a believer such as I is whether we give up something precious when Sunday becomes like any other day of the week.

The Sabbath originally referred to Saturday, but for the largest part of Christendom it has become Sunday. That’s because Sunday is the day of Christ’s resurrection and is therefore “the Lord’s Day.”

Consider as well that on the Sunday of his resurrection, Jesus also appeared to his followers that morning (John 20:1-19), afternoon (Luke 24:13-32), and evening (36-49). These meetings set the stage for the weekly celebration on Sunday of our Lord’s resurrection and the promise of our salvation and eternal life with Him!

For further support of Sunday observance, note Luke’s documentation that a generation after Christ’s resurrection, when he and Paul were in Troas (now Western Turkey), “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). And as well, Paul instructs the Corinthians to set aside their special offerings “on the first day of the week” (1 Corinthians 16: 1-2).

The Sabbath principle really begins with the account of creation. The Book of Genesis tells us that after six days of creation, “on the seventh day God rested [ceased] from all the work of creation that he had done” (Genesis 2:2-3). This “rest” is sometimes referred to as a Sabbath rite, a standard to be observed by God’s creatures.

Then, in Exodus, the second book of the Bible, we learn that during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, God gave the miraculous gift of manna as daily food (16:12). Each morning the Israelites were to go out and collect enough for the family for only that day. But, on the morning of the sixth day, they were to gather enough for two days so they would not need to gather on the Sabbath (16:29).

Again, this arrangement reflected God’s merciful call for them to desist one day out of seven from their weekly labors in order to rest in his mercy and celebrate his care.

Then, later came the giving of the Ten Commandments. The fourth (20:8) said, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy” (setting it apart, sanctifying it).

The first three commandments all start with the phrase “You shall not…” Commandment four begins with “You shall” — it is a positive command to remember and observe the special day.

Many centuries later, the Israelites were well settled in the Holy Land and had become prosperous. As so often happens when people feel wealthy and secure, their sense of self-sufficiency had led them to neglect God’s laws. Prophets like Isaiah prophesied against their disobedience, pinpointing as one major piece of evidence their disregard of the Sabbath. To speak to their offense Isaiah prophesies:

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 58:13-14)

Do New Testament teachings agree with these examples from the Old Testament? In the four Gospels there are at least 58 references to the Sabbath. However, the problem with Sabbath observance then was that several generations of rabbis had embellished the basic Sabbath laws with all sorts of picky regulations, making the special day burdensome rather than renewing. In response, the Gospels do not cancel the Sabbath principle. Instead, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man.” He humanized it as the Father intended for creaturely renewal — a day to throw off the labors of the week, worship God among his people, and launch the new work week refreshed in body and soul.

Wise and devout Christians to the present see the wisdom of making Sunday a special day of worship and a day of rest from the ordinary labors of the week. They find joy in meeting with a company of Christians for the worship of the resurrected Christ, to renew faith and clear their perspective on life through the living Christ. In this way, we acknowledge God’s merciful provision. As well, we bless ourselves and our families by turning our thoughts heavenward and consciously resting in God’s faithfulness.

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What to Do When Falsely Judged

While still a young shepherd from Bethlehem, David came to the attention of Saul, King of Israel, when he offered, in the name of God, to fight Goliath, the Philistine warrior-giant. He proved both his faith in God and his unusual skill with his sling when the first stone he released brought the giant crashing to the ground, killing him (1 Samuel 17:48-53).

Israel’s soldiers were ecstatic. The Philistine army panicked and fled. Even the dwellings of the Philistine soldiers were plundered.

David came later into King Saul’s service at the palace. There, he saw that Saul was given to dark moods and murderous impulses. Twice the king tried to pin David to the wall with his spear.

As a loyal servant of the king, David could not understand. Why would the king want him dead? In it all he became a fast friend with the king’s son, Jonathan. David told Jonathan: “… there is only a step between me and death” (20:3). Jonathan attempted to protect David from his father’s rages.

David fled the palace to live as a fugitive throughout the land. A natural leader, he gathered a defensive band of followers, up to 600 in number. They hid in wilderness areas from Saul’s armed forces.

It is easy to imagine that such constant flight prompted an intense debate between David and some of his followers. That debate may well be reflected in the three parts of Psalm 11. In the first section, David declares his intention to be courageous in the face of undeserved hatred. In the second section he summarizes what some of his more timid followers were apparently advising. And in the third, he gives reasons for being steady under false charges and perils.

David declares: “In the Lord I take refuge” (Psalm 11:1a). Coming before all other declarations this is David’s bottom-line understanding of how he must gain strength to survive his predicament.

The reader can speculate that the timid and hopeless in his band may have said something like: “For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (11:2-3). That’s how they saw the situation.

He chides such fearful followers with a metaphor: “How then can you say to me: Flee like a bird to your mountain?” (11:1b) Living in the outdoors as he and his men were doing, David had seen little birds fleeing a bird of prey. Such a little bird might eventually flee to the mountains where there is the protection of solitude.

We may rise to the challenge of lesser threats, but when life’s foundations seem about to crumble we become vulnerable to the temptation to fly to a safe hiding place in the mountains.

With every reason to descend into helplessness, David declares: “In the Lord I take refuge.” And in answer to a feeling of victimization he elaborates: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne” (4a). The worship center of the Holy City is intact; heaven is not under attack.

Psalm 11 also tells us that the Lord observes everyone on earth (4b); his eyes examine not only the righteous, whom he allows in this life to be tested; the Lord also sees (and despises) those who love violence. That God sees, and knows, and will judge righteously, encourages us, too.

David’s final reason to be courageous tops them all: “For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face” (7). The hidden jealousy of a close associate can create a storm in one’s life, but a steady faith in God will bring a believer safely through the storm.

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What to Do to Seek God’s Blessing

Blessings from God are noted frequently throughout the scriptures. This word, blessed, occurs as many as 51 times in the Psalms alone. And as the first word of the whole Psalter it appears to stand as a sentinel over all 150 of them.

Human life is saturated with daily blessings — adequate sunshine to sustain life, shelter from stormy weather, nourishment for the body, and so much more. But in Psalm 1 special favor is promised to those who meet certain conditions.

This psalm begins in verse 1 with a blunt exhortation to avoid ungodly companions. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.”

This does not mean we must strictly isolate ourselves. But it holds that if we intend to live out the blessing promised we should avoid walking in the paths of wicked companions — persons lacking reverence for God and the morally casual.

Nor are we to stand around those doing evil, or make common cause (sitting with) persons who mock known standards of godliness. Sinners know what is good or righteous, but they act contrary to this knowledge, offending God’s righteousness.

The psalmist says don’t walk, stand, or sit with them — not so much in the physical sense as in the participatory sense — or you may find yourself sharing their ways.

This is a good psalm for young people to ponder as they choose companions from school, work, and leisure.

There is a progression in the commands: Dont walk! Dont stand! Dont sit!

Each instruction seems to emphasize and become more urgent in warning the reader to avoid the wayward life. 

The psalmist recommends not only what to avoid, but also what to pursue; verse 2 says, “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”

He who would be blessed must at the same time make heart commitments that are carefully centered on God’s Law. At the time of writing the Psalmist may have been referring to the first five books of the Bible, a rich resource for the understanding of the mind of God and his way of dealing with his chosen people.

The pondering of God’s Word “day and night” is an exercise of the soul that God promises to bless. The pondering of the complete Bible we have today would be even better.

What will be the results of all this? The psalmist reaches for a simile and offers that the faithful seeker after God’s blessing will be “like a tree planted by the water” (verse 3). Even during parched times this blessing seeker might expect abundance of fruit. As well, as the tree’s leaves will not wither so whatever projects he attempts will succeed.

But what about the person who ignores God in his life plan, who chooses the paths marked by wickedness? Blessedness is of no concern to him. In fact, while appearing to have the world in his wallet, he may be hard or indifferent to righteousness. To all appearances, he has it made. One could almost be envious.

But the way of the wicked is not to be envied when long-term consequences are taken into account. Verse 4 says, “They are like chaff that the wind blows away.” When the winds of adversity blow he will respond like the worthless, inedible paper-like husk of grain that flies into the air in all directions at the harvest.

Psalm 1 ends with a summary of the two destinies: “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous; but the way of the wicked leads to destruction” (verse 6).

Some may argue that there are many paths in life. Ultimately there are only two, the psalmist contends. And only one of the two promises rich blessings and escape from destruction.

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Repost: Reviewing Life’s Difficult Decisions from a Distance

Kay and I were 35 and serving a growing church in Western Canada back in the 1950s. After five years of rich ministry there we received an unsolicited phone call from a conference superintendent inviting us to come and serve a congregation in the mid-western United States. The church was a broad and challenging field of service and included large numbers of college students. He said that he and his committee were sure we were a match.

The invitation created conflict. We loved the people where we were and they loved us. The growth of the church was strong and exciting. We also loved the city and our children were settled in a good school. Why, then, might we accept? Because the challenge of this invitation also had its strong pull. I had even told a favorite professor while in seminary that I was interested in being a college pastor someday. Here, it seemed, was the opportunity.

Day after day I wrestled with the invitation. Kathleen did the same. We talked over the pros and cons. We committed the issue repeatedly to prayer. In the end, Kathleen entrusted the decision largely to me with one stipulation: our profoundly disabled son, John David, would not have to be moved. He was happily situated and well cared for in a nearby institution.

The dilemma we struggled with was not about furthering my career. I was ordained for a lifetime of ministry and we were trying to live out a calling — a vocation — not merely a career. The decision had to be in harmony with a divinely-approved plan. In our denomination a conference Ministerial Appointments Committee assigns ordained personnel to their place of service, while moving from one conference to another is more of a personal decision.

One morning I went from my study into the sanctuary of the church and knelt by a green pulpit chair. I had to decide. In that moment of anguish, with resolute finality, I believed I knew the answer. We would go. I told Kathleen. I phoned to inform the conference superintendent.

We weren’t prepared for what followed. When we told our congregation and leaders of our conference we became acutely aware of the strength of the bond between us. There was grieving to the point of tears on both sides. We felt forlorn and bereft, as did our congregation. I now question from a position of greater maturity: Could we have broken the news better? More gradually?

In my distress, I phoned the superintendent who had invited us. I told him I had given his committee my word and would not break it but asked if he would release me from my commitment. He would not, he said, because his Appointments Committee was counting on my coming. That closed the door with a thud.

My turmoil was so overwhelming that I walked the streets of our city seeking relief from a kind of deep suffering. Kay and I both lived with this anguish for several weeks.

Then, with the furniture we had put up for sale beginning to disappear, the reality of our move became tangible. Finally, on the day of our departure, two members of our congregation took us and our three children, Carolyn, 12, Donald, 9, and Robert, 7, to the train for our trip across Canada. We would stop a few days with family in Ontario and then enter the United States at Detroit to buy a used car there and start the 400-mile trek to our new field of service 250 miles south of Chicago.

We grieved painfully for at least a year: first for the loss of our beloved and lively congregation, then for the loss of an urban environment we had come to love and the beautiful landscape of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia ringed by mountains.

And it took us that same year to become comfortable with a less active college church congregation in a very different community. But we see all of this now as the inevitable stress of making a major change. And, painful though it was, we also see it as God’s will for us at that time.

That move began a thirteen-year ministry at a college center with many heart-to-heart interactions, many lifelong friendships, countless treasured memories, and numerous ministry connections and responsibilities locally, across the continent, and beyond. We still hear from people speaking of the help they received in their Christian journey during those years, or at this or that crucial time of decision. Some were students back then and now are grandparents living in retirement.

Knowing God’s will is a mysterious undertaking. As we pore prayerfully over the issues and dilemmas of life, we do not always arrive immediately at a sense of certainty that introduces calm and security. Sometimes, in fact, we only see clearly, weeks, months, or even years later, that we have made the right decision.

And it is some comfort to know that even when we must proceed without a clear answer to our prayers for guidance, or when in our humanity we choose less than the best path, our Lord can confirm our decision or redeem our blunders or missteps. His Spirit is available for every need, and his Providence is a great consolation to those who sincerely attempt to live in obedience to him by faith.

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Scriptural Clarity for a Soft-Minded Age

As the telephone repairman connected new wires to the black box in our basement, he asked about my work. I told him I was a minister.

He pondered this briefly, then asked the location of my parish. I had most recently been a church overseer of many churches for a Protestant denomination, I told him. I hadn’t had responsibility for a particular congregation during that time.

He offered that he was Catholic. I asked gently if he was active in his church. Immediately I detected inner conflict in his responses.

The Catholic Church is just out of date these days, he complained. It’s back in the dark ages. The contraception matter was one issue. Women should have a right to choose. He thought that abortion should be avoided, but what about a list of extenuating circumstances? All of this tumbled out of him in obvious frustration.

He was also angry because the priest of his parish had refused to confirm his 12-year-old son. The reason the priest gave was that he didn’t ever see the boy’s parents in church.

But, I inquired, you still want to be a Catholic?

Yes, he answered without hesitation.

That was the reason for his conflict. He wanted to be a Catholic — but felt he should be able to participate on his terms.

He was reflecting what some call the modern mind. For people with that mindset, God may exist but his fundamental nature and requirements should be of each individual’s design. And he could be kept mostly out of sight except for emergencies. Thus it was acceptable for standards of morality to become fluid and vague.

When such persons encounter firm moral demands of an institution such as the Catholic Church, they tend to be both angry and conflicted. For this repairman, it seemed to me, there were no external standards of morality. It seemed he wanted to determine personally and with finality what was right. He could therefore remain marginally connected to his church while being angry at it because it wasn’t more modern.

My anecdote is but one example of this phenomenon. Consider another: the case of a daughter of prominent members of an Evangelical church who cohabited openly with a man for nine years and then decided she should have a big church wedding.

She approached her parents’ pastor. She wanted a full-scale event in the church sanctuary with all the usual embellishments, and a guest list of 200. The pastor put forward an alternative way to help this couple out. She refused his offer of a private wedding.

She could not understand why her request would create moral tension for pastor and church board. She thought she had a right to this celebration. It was to be a “rite of passage.”

But as the church saw it, she and her mate had made that passage on their own in a very public way nine years earlier. There was no “new beginning” to be celebrated. Moreover, the words of the wedding ritual would ring false to the listening congregation. For them it would be an issue of truth and honesty in the presence of God.

I rush to add that in this kind of circumstance, today’s Evangelical church is mandated by Scripture to love as Jesus did, sometimes with compassion, sometimes with firmness. But the church is called to love truthfully.

The Apostle John writes to his “true friend Gaius” thus: “It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in it” (3 John 3).

The truth John had in mind was the truth of the gospel of Christ as elaborated in the Christian scriptures. Should not established doctrines and truthful procedures grow out of revealed truth in timeless and trustworthy Scripture, making today’s churches clear-minded in this age of moral softness?

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Paul’s Call to a More Wholesome Thought Life

Late in his life the Apostle Paul was a prisoner in Rome. While there he was allowed to engage his own dwelling but was chained to a guard by a short chain (Philippians 1:7, 13,14).

Remarkably, he did not let this break his connection with churches he had planted. One of them was the church at Philippi in Macedonia. His ancient letter to the Philippians still blesses the church universal to this day when it is read and studied.

Consider a short portion of the letter in which the apostle exhorts Christians to “Christianize” their minds further (Philippians 4:8-9).

He writes, in verse 8: “… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about those things.” We can call this an exercise for enriching the Christian mind.

Whatever is true. Christians believe that God is the essence of truth. He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He is the source of all that exists, the Creator and Sustainer of all things: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To this conviction the Psalmist writes: “Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89). On these truths about God and his word, Christians are to lodge their thought lives.

Think of the witness Christians can have in a world saturated with untruths: scams, frauds, hoaxes, shady schemes, and intentional deceptions. When we become Christians we are still in that world, but, with the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, we are challenged to stand against these things and to cultivate new thought patterns to exalt and glorify God.

Whatever Is noble. We can speculate that the apostle, upon noticing the vulgar language and behavior all around him, called Christians to raise even their hidden thoughts to an elevated and righteous level. I think here in particular of the crucial importance of avoiding the scourge of pornography that defiles, cheapens, even twists the mind. Without question, the Christian faith raises our thoughts to a much more elevated standard.

Whatever is right. William Barclay writes: “It is a law of life that, if a person thinks of something often enough and long enough, they will come to a stage when they cannot stop thinking about it. Their thoughts will become quite literally in a groove out of which they cannot jerk themselves.” (Since “right” is related to “righteousness,” we can see what Paul’s assignment here is.)

Whatever is pure. The Scriptures repeatedly set purity of heart as a primary goal for all believers: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Purity is the cry of the penitent. As King David prayed after sinning grievously: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10). And as Paul says: “Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). God plants in his children’s minds our heart’s longing to be pure and we must respond in agreement.

Whatever is lovely. Elsewhere in his Galatian letter the apostle gathers a list that demonstrates what he considers lovely — he calls this list the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). They are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When these qualities rule in the heart they beautify the outer life.

Whatever is admirable. Could this mean “that which calls forth love,” as one scholar suggests? Have we not all had contact with believers whose smiles and greetings are under nearly all circumstances warm and attractive, rooted in the heart, such that we cannot help but admire them?

At this point the apostle changes the structure of his sentence to add “excellence” and “praiseworthiness” to his list — two final descriptive words that make his catalogue complete. He does not suggest that the eight traits will blossom fully and automatically or overnight.

But they will advance when we meet two conditions. First, when we open our hearts to a fuller ownership of the Holy Spirit in all things. And second, when we organize our lives around the Scriptures daily and in company with other believers.

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Are We Walking in the Light?

By my reckoning I have been in total darkness only once in my lifetime — coal-black, impenetrable darkness!

Kathleen and I and our three young children were returning from a camping vacation in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri to our home in Central Illinois. As we sped toward the Mississippi River, signs began to announce that we were approaching the famous Meramec Caverns that draw many thousands of visitors each year.

“Why not have one more thrill before we get home,” we suggested to the children. There were cheers all around. We were soon parked and quickly entered the anteroom of a large cave. Our group of tourists was ready for the march inward.

We followed a string of lights high above our heads deeper into the cave. It was an unfamiliar, weird, and wonderful world of several giant “rooms.” The path sloped slightly downward and as we moved along, our guide pointed out the wonders of stalactites and stalagmites (and more) before us.

At the deepest point in the tour we were taken into the final room carved out of the earthen depths, with twenty chairs arranged in two rows. Our guide told us that he would turn off the light for a few seconds, preparing us to feel utterly isolated and almost disoriented by the absolute lack of light.

Kay and I sat shoulder to shoulder. When the one ceiling light was switched off I could still feel her shoulder against mine. But turning toward her I could not see the outline of her head or any features of her face. The darkness was abject. I felt surrounded by a curtain of thick inky blackness.

Most people would think they’ve experienced total darkness, but a few “photons” here and there are almost always available. Even closed eyelids are rarely able to screen out every vestige of light. And of course, in the modern world, anywhere inhabited by humans will have a bit of illumination from the lights on porches, shining from windows, or the headlamps of cars.

Experiences of extreme darkness are much better known in the world of the Bible, before the availability of artificial light. And, notably, the Scriptures begin with knowledge of a primordial utter darkness that had to be dispelled as the first step toward Creation:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:2-3).

Later, the Bible treats darkness also as a symbol, using the absence of light to represent evil or mystery or wickedness. It is opposite to the goodness of light.

Old Testament Job, in spite of his perplexity at his profound suffering, says: “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face” (Job 23:17).

Jeremiah warns the stubborn people of Israel that they must repent of their unfaithfulness to avoid being visited by darkness: “Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings the darkness …” (Jeremiah 13:16a).

The Apostle Paul uses darkness as an analogy for a willful lack of knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 4:3-6).

And perhaps most famously, the Apostle John in the New Testament makes great use of this analogy to teach and caution the young church. He writes:

This is the message we have heard from him and declared to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7).

When we have inner darkness our every step is cast in gloom. The darkness diminishes our hope. The darkness of which the Apostle John speaks is often of our own doing and our shame. But it does not need to be so. The Gospel light is available to all.

The Apostle Paul writes of the Lord Jesus: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13).

Jesus is still the light of the world offered to all who will believe.

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We Need Courageous Leadership

Two nights ago Kathleen and I had an extended conversation about what constitutes strong moral leadership. What will it take to produce it in greater measure at all levels of a troubled society?

It’s a big topic for two 94-year-olds retired from public life and with no platform from which to speak. But we had just watched American news coverage of protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman.

We had seen the walls of large buildings torched in some of America’s major cities. Streets were crowded with people, mostly young, who were demonstrating in an orderly way. But the fires were being set by another group whose obvious intention was to destroy everything of value.

Our conversation touched on the inner human commitments that tend to make for strong character when taught and promoted. It was not about styles of leadership. There are plenty of courses, seminars, and videos attempting to address them.

It was rather about core qualities: wisdom, righteousness, and commitment to justice.

We knew that authentic righteousness requires that our thoughts and actions align with God’s moral law (Exodus 20:1-17). Justice seems to us to be the result of a human conscience aligned with God’s law written on our hearts, enacted into rule by law. And if we disobey such a conscience, and righteous rule by law, we damage character and deny justice.

Justice requires that both sides in a dispute be treated equally. To be just in a court of law is a most demanding challenge, and some say justice is always an approximation. Yet in everyday life fairness can be discerned as a reachable standard.

Leaders who operate from power, emotion, personal animus, empathy alone, prejudice, or taste will quickly be seen to be unjust or weak, inflaming observers. And, of course, leadership based on subjective/relativistic notions of morality will come to be seen as puny and capricious.

In the course of our conversation about leadership Kathleen reminded me of a Sunday-school song written a century and a half ago by an Episcopalian clergyman named Philips Brooks. It was about the prophet Daniel, the young Jewish lad who had been taken as a captive from Israel to Babylon to be trained as a civil servant. There, he was twice at imminent risk of unjust execution (the second time cast into the lion’s den because he would not worship an image of the king of Babylon).

Here are the words of a refrain we sang 85 or so years ago:

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.

The morning after Kathleen’s and my earnest discussion about higher leadership I went to the little “den” of our apartment and read with delight the early part of the Book of Daniel. I read how with utmost courtesy he stood like a rock on issues of importance, to his own peril. And how the Lord was powerfully with him.

And I like to think that today, too, we can say with Daniel (2:20-22):

Praise be to the name of God forever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.

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Photo credit: astrangelyisolatedplace (via flickr.com)

Giving Prayer Its Proper Place

A loaded ferry was crossing a large body of water when a storm blew up. Rain pelted the upper deck; angry waves swept across the lower deck. Frightened passengers hunkered down in the cabin, fearing for their lives.

One woman asked the captain, “Whatever can we do?”

The captain answered, “We must pray.”

“Good heavens,” the woman replied, “has it come to that?”

There may be a touch of humor in the woman’s response, but to hint that prayer is only for life’s most perilous moments is to cheapen and gravely narrow it.

The Apostle Paul showed by implication how precious prayer should be at all times when he said, “In (God) we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

For Christians, where does prayer fit into the whole scheme of things? When the storms of life break upon us, is prayer our first thought or our last resort?

We look to the life of our Lord Jesus for an answer.

Jesus, recall, was God in human form. We know he limited himself in this way in order to fully experience our humanness. He was as much man as he was God, and as much God as he was man, one ancient creed declares.

At various times, the crowds favored him (John 12:12-19), and at other times they hated him with a vengeance (Luke 23:23). In all this, where did Jesus place the practice of communing with the Father in prayer?

First, we learn from the Gospel accounts that Jesus prayed in a multitude of circumstances, showing us that the Father is approachable at all times.

For example, Jesus prayed in moments of great joy: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children …’ “ (Luke 10:21). We follow his example when we have learned to turn our joys into prayers.

Jesus also turned to prayer during vexing days of ministry. One example is his private prayer on a mountainside long into the evening to renew his strength after he had performed a night-time miracle on the Lake of Galilee.

In the gospel of Matthew, 14:23-24, we are told: “After he had dismissed (the crowd) he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” We are also told that shortly before dawn, Jesus came down, and  walked across the surface of the lake to his disciples’ boat. For some time between the two events he was in prayer (Matthew 14:23-33).

Earlier, Jesus prayed before selecting from among his large group of followers the twelve he would assign as apostles. The process began on the mountainside (really, a large hill). As we learn in Luke 6:13, “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” These were to be his inner circle of leaders, selected and set apart only after hours of prayer.

And of course he prayed on the brutal cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And later, “Into my hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

For Jesus, prayer was not the last element of facing the joys and stresses of life; it was the first. The range of his prayers was sweeping and for all circumstances. And throughout all our days, whether we are joyful, distressed, or suffering, we must never let ourselves forget that.

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Photo credit: Ben Salter (via flickr.com)