Are We in an “Epidemic of Untruthfulness”?

In a commencement address at Rice University in Texas on May 8, 2018, the former NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg, told a graduating class that his nation is experiencing an “epidemic of untruthfulness.” He characterized what is happening in Washington and the countless evasions as “an endless barrage of lies.”

He reminded the graduates that they signed an honesty code when they enrolled in Rice University and had affirmed that code many times since. His concern was that they take the code with them into the workaday world.

He was concerned with good reason. When the moral standards of society sag, truthfulness sags too. It was in such a perilous time that the prophet Isaiah said to Judah, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness (Isaiah 5:20). His warning was that the nation’s moral compass was damaged.

Honesty is not required just randomly here and there, from time to time. Whatever our function in society, whether we are parents, administrators, salesmen, teachers, or ministers, the call for honesty confronts us daily. Honesty is a critical requirement woven into the warp and woof of human existence.

If a secular voice like Mayor Bloomberg’s acknowledges the low state of honesty in society and calls for an upgrade should the issue not be of special concern to Christians?

After all, we are followers of Jesus who is the embodiment of truth. Again and again he introduced his sayings with the declaration, “I tell you the truth.” He both was, and he spoke truth. Furthermore, our Scriptures call us incessantly to the practice of truth. Paul exhorts, You must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to (your) neighbor (Ephesians 4:25).

Truth is not always spoken in the same tone. It is sometimes spoken gently, as in the reporting of a death; sometimes firmly when checking a lad’s homework; and sometimes painfully when speaking of a child’s waywardness. But truth must be spoken. Untruthfulness breaks God’s law and eventually exacts its toll.

Moreover, the concept of truthfulness does not exist in isolation. A host of related words bring home to us both the force and the reach of this word — words like integrity, virtue, reliability, righteousness, uprightness.

Even if we are not dispensers of what Mayor Bloomberg called “an endless barrage of lies” there are many ways we might fall short of truthfulness — by remaining silent when we should speak up, by spinning half truths, by exaggerating for effect, by omission of nuance. We speak glibly of white lies and polite lies and evasive lies but in using them we play with fire.

Who of us will ponder deeply our truthfulness and the above companion words and with unblinking confidence say, “In every situation, that’s me”? Only when we commit ourselves seriously to truthfulness do we learn how difficult it is always to tell the truth. Even when we tell the truth we do so by the grace of God.

Mayor Bloomberg made a sorely needed point: we are living in times when honesty is not cherished and dishonesty is easily excused. The Scriptures alert us to this even among believers when they say, Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight. (Proverbs 12:22)

I offer this further comment to the mayor’s excellent address: one can be committed to truthfulness without being Christian, but one cannot be Christian without cherishing truthfulness. The psalmist prayed, Lead me in your truth and teach me. (Psalm 25:5)


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Photo credit: Bloomberg Philanthropies, Public Domain (via flickr.com)

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What to Do When We Feel Under Assault

In Psalm 42 a psalmist describes what it feels like to be robbed of the sense that God loves him.

This psalmist is running for his life. He captures in a word picture what that feels like: Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole soul craves you, God” (Psalm 42:1 Common English Bible).

A deer, after a long run to escape a mortal threat, and with flanks heaving, must above all find water. Only a person fleeing from peril and hiding in the wilds of nature, would come up with this analogy for his plight.

We can guess that King David wrote the psalm when his own son, Absalom, was driving him out of his palace in Jerusalem with murderous intent. Or was it from much earlier in David’s life when he was running from King Saul?

Whichever it was, it addresses the question: how do we talk to ourselves when life visits upon us such a swarm of perils? What if we felt deprived of the sense of God’s presence, isolated from our worshipping community, and wordlessly taunted by wrongdoers who might exult to know of our distress?

If a similar plight should burst upon us, this psalmist can help us regain perspective. The psalmist’s first strategy is to call up memory as an aid: These things I remember as I pour out my soul (verse 4)

That is, he reminds himself: I recall that in better days I went to the tabernacle where there were throngs of God’s people. I led the procession. I participated in the shouts of joy and thanksgiving. What memories! (Psalm 42:4).

The memories give his faith a momentary boost and he says to himself: Don’t be downcast; hope in God. He is my Savior and my God. In his time, again I will worship at the tabernacle as I long to do (Verse 5).

When he says I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, from the heights of Hermon — from Mount Mizar (verse 6), we can imagine that he may be at the northern part of Israel, with Mount Herman nearby.  Even though so far from his worshipping community, he acknowledges that the omnipresent God is even there. How steadying to his faith!

But it does not remove the turbulence he feels. He still feels its buffeting effects, remarking that, just as they break at the base of thundering waterfalls, waves and breakers have swept over me (verse 7b)

Yet his faith again bursts forth momentarily and he sings: By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life (verse 8). In those special times when faith is a struggle of the soul, for us too there can be a surging back and forth between hope and dejection.

Just as he feels the back-and-forth of his feelings, so to the end of this psalm his question persists: I say to God my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’ (Verse 9). And yet again he addresses himself, Why are you downcast , O my soul? (verse 11).

But this backwards-and-forwards can’t go on forever in believers. So he brings his psalm to a close by exhorting himself to trust even though at the moment he can’t understand God’s ways: Put your hope in God, he prompts, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

In the life of authentic faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whatever the situation today, and whatever surprises may come tomorrow, we have David’s example. For us as well, authentic faith prompts us to say — whatever our feelings of the moment — “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him (Verse 11).


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Photo credit: Jereme Rauckman (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Reflections on God’s Marvelous City

Photo credit: blogmulo (via flickr.com)The following is a refreshed version of a piece I published in October 2009.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2 RSV).

The holy city referred to here is neither gleaming office towers nor decayed inner city. It doesn’t belong to the ancient world buried beneath sand dunes or to the modern world often clouded by the haze of pollution.

It isn’t marked by human genius nor scarred by human depravity. Its splendor owes nothing to man; it is The City of God.

Humans, wherever they have gone, have organized into communities. Their building and organizational skills have come to a peak in the building of modern cities.

Ancient Petra and Babylon, and modern San Francisco, Toronto, London, Atlanta — these highly developed communities proclaim across history the genius of their creators.

Yet ancient cities have fallen one-by-one, sacked by enemies, corrupted by inhabitants, or emptied by the vagaries of history. It is possible the same will happen to modern cities.

The Bible has a complex or complicated attitude toward cities. Jesus loved Jerusalem and also wept over it in great tenderness, then pronounced destruction upon it.

It was his city, the place of the patriarchs and prophets, and it had known great moments. But it was known as well for its stoning of the prophets.

Then this city that God had uniquely honoured, Jerusalem, had demonstrated the peak of human pride in rejecting his Son.

While the Bible begins its story of man in a garden, it ends in a city, “the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

The vision of this special holy city, given to John on the Isle of Patmos, is rapturous, and the Book of Revelation speaks of its splendor.

This last book of the Bible communicates in what some have called cartoon language. For example, in our times a cartoonist, to represent tensions between Russia and China, might simply sketch out a picture of a bear being threatened by a red dragon.

The Book of Revelation is filled with verbal pictures – four-headed beasts, angels with vials, and cities like the New Jerusalem.

The message we are intended to get is that in his time, God will provide the perfect community for those who belong to him. Paul calls it “the Jerusalem which is above” (Gal. 4:26), and “our commonwealth . . . in heaven” (Php. 3:20) RSV).

It is the city toward which Abraham was ultimately heading, “the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10 NEB). It represents the eternal dwelling place of God and His people.

Today, many cities of man are under a cloud, if not a cloud heavy with sulphur dioxide as in some cases, then a threatening cloud from a dirty bomb or even the death of throngs by a murderous truck driver.

To many “lost” people it’s a place of physical decay and human despair, or even a kind of hell without flames. Yet, many leaders keep a proud silence about God and grope only on the horizontal plane for solutions to their troubles.

Even so, Christ wept over a city ruled by such attitudes, and he healed people in its dirty streets. Will he do less for God’s people?  And they, in turn for others?

Everywhere there are needs that compassionate Christians can meet, despair they can work to relieve, boredom they can help to replace with meaning. In many decaying cities, small corps of Christians help relieve such problems.

But, here’s the paradox. Christians serve best with compassion in the city of man when we are convinced at every level of our beings that our true destination is the New Jerusalem, the eternal city of God.


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Reflections on the Funeral for Barbara Bush

The funeral for Barbara Bush was held on April 21st of this year in Houston, Texas. Wife for 73 years to George H. W. Bush, a former president of The United States, Mrs. Bush died at 92 years of age.

Days later I located the funeral service on the Internet and watched it throughout in my study here in Canada. Fifteen hundred by-invitation-only worshipers packed the sanctuary of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.

Only a day or so before her death Mrs. Bush had decided there were to be no more ambulance rides to the hospital. She was 92 and said, I’m not afraid of death, adding, I know there’s a great God who will care for me.

The sanctuary of St. Martins appeared simple and beautiful; the tones of the pipe organ were mellow; the choir richly resonant; and the ordained personnel wore white clerical robes.

The Episcopalian liturgy was more fully prescribed than I am used to but that is partly a matter of training and taste.

I was interested in the content of the service — what was said and sung — because in the last fifty years funerals have changed fundamentally on this continent. Thomas G. Long writes about this change in his highly researched book: Accompany Them With Singing —The Christian Funeral. 

These days, the words “funeral service” are less often used than in the past. Now, the event is  more commonly called, “A Celebration of Life.”

Observing a death with a “celebration of life” may mean some or all of the following: that the body of the deceased is not present, having been interred or cremated a day or so before; the time between death and the celebratory service may be more extended than usual; and tributes to the deceased may be the main feature of the service. These gatherings are intended to be positive events, often punctuated by moments of laughter as memories are reviewed.

In a service for the “celebration of life” the Christian content may not be lacking. There may be singing and Scripture readings and even a brief homily but these are subordinated to the many and various tributes. The reason put forward for this change is that it is better to rejoice over the life of the departed than to grieve over the departed’s death.

As I watched and vicariously participated in the St. Martin’s service I was moved by the dominant place the Bible was given. The passages as read actually bound the service together and grounded the whole event in the Sacred Scriptures.

As the casket was brought slowly down the aisle, the Pastor read from a medley of Bible passages:

He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live we live to the Lord, and if we die we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die we belong to the Lord. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.

Later in the service a layperson read the passage from Ecclesiastes beginning, There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die… Another read a portion of 2 Corinthians 5.

At a later point in this traditional funeral service, a group of young women, whom I took to be Barbara Bush’s daughters and/or granddaughters, gathered around a microphone and read in succession from Proverbs 31, which describes “a wife of noble character.

Interspersed among these several readings, a soloist sang the Gospel song, I Come To The Garden Alone, and the choir filled the sanctuary with the jubilant measures of The Holy City.

There were tributes, one from President Bush’s historian, John Beacham, one by a special friend of Mrs. Bush, Susan Garrett Baker, and one by her son, Jed. The remarks in each case were carefully prepared.

The pastor told of Barbara Bush’s request back in 2015 to be confirmed: that is, to formally affirm her Christian faith during a rite of the church and be made a church member. She said, “I’m a Christian and I want to be confirmed.” Her son Jed, speaking on behalf of the family, told of her recent comment: “I believe in Jesus and he is my Savior; I know I’ll be in a beautiful place.”

Near the end of this funeral service, the congregation was called upon to recite together The Apostles’ Creed — a corporate statement of orthodox Christian truth

It was not just Scripture and Creed that made the Gospel dominant in this service. At the outset the congregation sang, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the God of Creation, and toward the end, at Barbara’s prior request, the congregation sang, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, God of Glory, God of Love — both lyrical confessions of faith worshiping the Majesty of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In the book previously mentioned, Accompany Them With Singing — The Christian Funeral, Thomas G. Long writes that a good funeral draws private grief and personal loss so fully into the Gospel that mourning becomes not only consoled but transformed.

In essence, a good funeral combines acknowledgement of a great loss, the good news of the Gospel, and for believers, the celebration of a life in Christ, all in proper proportion.

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Photo credit: U.S. National Archives (Image in Public Domain, via flickr.com)

Two Weddings Compared: That of a Queen’s Grandson and That of the Son of a King

On May 19, 2018, Prince Harry, grandson of Queen Elizabeth, will exchange wedding vows with Meghan Markle, an American actress whose most recent home has been in Toronto, Canada.

Their vows will be exchanged in a chapel within Windsor Castle, west of London. It promises to be a simple wedding as royal events go, but grand if not sumptuous in any commoner’s eyes.

For weeks now pundits have speculated: who will be invited and who passed over? Will the father of the bride be there? How about former President and Mrs. Obama, longtime friends of the prince? Or for that matter, should President Trump be invited? Speculation shifts from day-to-day.

The news of this upcoming event makes me think of one of Jesus’ parables.

In it, a king was planning a lavish wedding banquet for his son and his bride. It would be his kingdom’s star event of the season. According to custom, invitations were sent long before the date was set.

When the actual day of the event arrived guests received urgent notice that they were to come quickly; everything was ready.

The first guests receiving the summons ignored the invitation. The second group shrugged and turned back to their preoccupations — one had an interest in planting a field, another in managing a business.

A third group on receiving the call ruthlessly beat up the messengers and even killed some of them.

The king was infuriated at their refusals. Such an indignity to his beloved son! He sent out an army to burn their cities and kill the murderers.

Then, determined that the banquet would not fail and that his son would be duly honored, the king sent servants in all directions to invite anyone they found available — even persons lounging at street corners.

The call was urgent and the strategy worked. The banquet hall was full (Matthew 22:8-10).

Then Jesus’ story takes a strange turn. The feast was underway. The king, moving among the guests, found one man in slovenly attire even though wedding clothes had been provided when the guests entered.

The king asked the man how he got in. The man had no answer. The king had him bound and thrown out of the brightly lit hall into the blinding darkness.

The first invited guests were absent because of their disrespect for the king and his son and their preoccupations. The guest who had come, though inappropriately dressed, was thrown out because of his contempt for the occasion.

Some who listened to Jesus’ story recognized themselves in it. They rejected Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, or they grudgingly accepted it but would consider entering only on their terms.

Jesus’ story ends with the words: For many are invited, but few are chosen.

That is, many are called to faith in Jesus as Lord and King with promise of a place in the kingdom to be celebrated like a great, joyful banquet. But earthly attractions hold sway. Others will be passed over because of their foolish insistence on their own terms.

A few weeks from now, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be stars of a sumptuous wedding banquet in their honor. ­­Then the public interest will fade and other world events will gather attention.

Jesus’ parable, on the other hand, will stand for all of history to remind us that, although many are called to have a place in God’s eternal kingdom, the number of those who respond on kingdom terms will be few.

The chosen will be those who are seriously responsive to the Father’s call to kingdom citizenship as provided by the earthly life, ministry, and death of His dear Son, the Lord Jesus.

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Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass (via flickr.com)

Why Does Historic Methodism Teach the Doctrine of Prevenient Grace?

The Bible quickly introduces us to the story of Adam and Eve — created by God, placed in a perfect setting, and given a task to perform. They were forbidden only one thing; they were not to eat the fruit of a particular tree; but many others were accessible in the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 1,2)

They violated the one prohibition, and in doing so they placed themselves in rebellion against the Ruler of the universe, the God to whom they owed their existence and their ideal surroundings.

Where should the story go from there?

We can imagine two possibilities. First: In response to such disobedience the Lord God might have struck with fire all he had created, wiping it out. The second possibility: The Lord God might have turned his back on the couple, leaving them forever estranged from Him.

But possibility three is what actually happened: The Lord God came walking in the garden searching. He confronted the pair with their offense and then clothed them with animal skins. Thus begins a wondrous story of salvation.

In essence, God initiates by making himself known to sinful mankind and seeking them out.  This is called prevenient grace.

A Seventeenth Century Dutch scholar named Arminius was foremost among those who brought the term forward, and later Eighteenth Century Oxford scholar, John Wesley, and his followers embraced this understanding during a great outpouring of God’s saving mercy on the British Isles.

John Wesley wrote: “It is God who takes the initiative first to provide for our salvation in Jesus Christ and then to enable us to respond through prevenient grace.” The Apostle John writes that Jesus was “the true light that gives light to everyone” and that “We love (God) because he first loved us” (John 1:9 and 1 John 4:19).

“Prevenient” comes from a Latin word that means preceding in time or order; coming before, or anticipating. In Christian thought it is used to speak of the manifestations of God’s grace that precede repentance and spiritual awakening. Wesley presented it as “all the ‘drawings’ of ‘the Father’, the desires after God which, if we yield to them, increase more and more.”

Thus, prevenient grace is the grace that initiates our salvation. It is the grace that prompts a little child’s first sense that there is a God above, and gives that child its earliest awakening to moral responsibility.

That is, God initiates the search for sinners whom Jesus died to save and He offers them hope. As one doctrinal statement has it, “This [prevenient] grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our first transient understanding of having sinned against God.”

Luke tells us about Zacchaeus, a man rich but of apparently shady character, motivated by greed as a tax collector. He attempted, out of curiosity, to see Jesus close-up and to do so he climbed into the branches of a Sycamore tree. But Jesus saw him and called him to come down.

Jesus then went to his home as a guest and the crowds responded by muttering that Jesus had gone to be a guest in the home of a sinner. But Luke reported the move more positively.

After being with Jesus for some time that day Zacchaeus, in a great burst of generosity, pledged half of his wealth to the poor and also stated his intention to return fourfold to any he had cheated.

Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus at the end of that day were as follows: Today salvation has come to this house…. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.

We cannot come to God on our own initiative because as simmers we are dead in trespasses and sins. It is by prevenient grace that we are first awakened and called.

As the Apostle Paul writes: but because of his great love for us God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions —  it is by grace you have been saved: (Ephesians 2:4,5).

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved.

How precious did that grace appear,

The hour I first believed.

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Photo credit: Kasia (via flickr.com)

Are We Paying Enough Attention to Children in the Church?

When my mother saw I was serious about answering a call to the ministry, she gave me only one word of advice. She said, “Don, be sure to pay attention to the children.”

I’m sure she meant: speak to them; inquire of their well-being; make a place for them in the life of the congregation; be sure they are instructed in the basics of the faith — all of which would seem excellent counsel.

My mother’s words were consistent with our Lord’s response when Jesus’ disciples thought him too busy to be bothered with children who were brought to him.

Jesus rebuked his followers, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). He then gathered the little ones around him and blessed them.

My Mother’s advice was given in the mid-forties of the Twentieth Century and we are now nearly through the second decade of the Twenty-first Century. Things have changed in fundamental ways in 70 years!

In the intervening years many subcultures on our continent have rapidly secularized. That is, they no longer have  reverence for an Unseen Presence who rules over all.   Persons who accept this cultural shift seem to be grounding all reality in the present visible world only.

Still, I would say that my Mother’s few words two generations ago and our Lord’s attitude toward children remain the pattern for us today.

And based upon my years in ministry, I offer two of many possible concrete suggestions about the children among us in these secular times.

First, a congregation should take a hard look periodically at whether the Bible is being presented to children from their early years onward. Is it foundational to all family activities and church ministries?

That is, is the Bible being read daily in Christian homes, connecting church and home in religious practice? Are children learning the Bible’s timeless stories and their lessons — like the story of David and Goliath, Ruth and Naomi, and especially the stories of Jesus, and his words and miracles?

Against the apparent increase of “sophisticated” and widespread antagonism to the Christian faith, the Bible is the first line of defense as well as our guidebook, and our children need to be more rooted than ever in the Sacred Scriptures.

My second suggestion deals with the increasingly aggressive secularization of sex education in public schools, countering, even scorning, Christian teaching.

Affirmation of sexual practices contrary to both nature and Christian moral teaching is being taught more aggressively and explicitly in public schools.  For example, it’s reported that in some places sexual practices that are neither normal nor healthy are being presented with approval and even encouraged in the teaching of young children.

At the time of writing concerned parents in Canada, the United States and Australia are being called upon to treat April 23 as a “day out.” On that day children are to be kept home from their schools in protest.

Do our Lord’s words pertain in this? Bringing the little ones to Jesus must also include protecting them insofar as possible from instruction that would counter our Lord’s teaching and the authority of Holy Scripture.

It is now many years since I served as a pastor over a congregation. In reflection I’m sure my mother’s advice affected my thinking to the benefit of my congregations and their children.

If I were returned to the assignment of pastoring a church, I would be even more committed to heed my Mother’s advice to pay attention to the children and their need for both teaching and protection.

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Photo credit: Philippe Put (via flickr.com)