Archive for the ‘Christ’ Category

Easter and the hope of resurrection

First published March 26, 2016

When my grandmother was old and widowed, I would visit her almost every weekend. She had a sharp mind and a wry sense of humor. I enjoyed her company.

I don’t think she knew the word “goodbye.” When I’d get up to leave, she would tell me that she would see me again.

The last time I talked with her was when she was dying. She had been on a respirator when I visited her at the hospital, but she was brought out of her drug-induced slumber so she could say her goodbyes.

Only she didn’t say goodbyes.

She was in good spirits and ready to move on. There wasn’t a hint of fear in her voice, only peace. And when the conversation ended, she said she would see me again.

For Christians, death isn’t the end, it’s only a transition, and it is not the last one.

I believe heaven is a way station for the righteous until the resurrection.

Many Christians, including most members of my family, disagree. They point to Scripture that says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Yet in that same passage, 2nd Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that we will not remain disembodied spirits; rather, we will have new bodies that do not grow old or tired or waste away.

This is what St. Paul writes: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and … then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”

Easter is when we celebrate the Savior’s victory over evil, sin (ours) and death. If we see Jesus’ crucifixion only as an example of sacrificial love, we’re missing the point. The Messiah’s resurrection after his atoning death on the cross is the fulcrum of history, the moment in time when everything is changed, the decisive battle in the spiritual warfare that rages still, but will end in triumph when the King returns and sets everything to rights. Until then, we are living in the new age that has already begun.

Some scoff at the notion that Jesus rose from the dead, but as a historical event, it is better documented than others of antiquity that we take for granted.

It is believed St. Paul’s Epistles were written just 10 to 15 years after Jesus’ death, when many who witnessed the risen Christ walking and talking were still alive and could tell about it.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that after Jesus was raised, as the Scriptures had foretold, he appeared to Peter, then to the other disciples, and after that, to more than 500 Christians, “most of whom are still living, though some have died.”

As Jesus was raised so will his followers be raised, and the earth will be cleansed, restored, renewed.

In Revelation 21, Jesus — as he is revealed in St. John’s vision —  says, “Behold, I am making all things new!”

The idea of a disembodied existence comes from the ancient Greeks, not the Jews, whose saga is the foundation of the Christian story, the “true myth,” as C.S. Lewis called it. When we recite in the creeds, “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” we are not only referring to the soul.

My understanding of the traditional belief in bodily transformation and restoration of the world is something I owe in part to N.T. Wright, a Church of England bishop and probably the world’s leading New Testament scholar. In his book, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church,” he explains, based on the Bible and church tradition, that there is a heaven, but it is not our final home.

When the Bible says that in the Father’s house are many dwellings, the Greek world used for dwellings is monai, which means a resting place on the way to someplace else. And in the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus tells the brigand on the cross that “today you will be with me in paradise.” Yet in those same verses, the condemned man asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This implies that the kingdom to come is in the future, in the renewed heaven and earth.

That thought should give comfort to all who have surrendered themselves to the Father through his Son, who gave his life to save us and redeem Creation.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic whose fiction parallels the true story of the universal struggle between good and evil and the restoration of the world. In his epic novel, “The Lord of the Rings,” Sam Gamgee, the hobbit, sees Gandalf returned from the dead, strong, radiant and transformed.

Sam can’t believe his eyes, and asks Gandalf: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Christianity’s answer to that question is yes, it will, in the fullness of time.

That is the hope of the resurrection and the reason we celebrate Easter.

Modern martyr Jonathan Myrick Daniels

In the film “Selma,” released early this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights marches in Alabama, one of the most disturbing scenes is the brutal murder of young Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Baptist deacon.

The scene is shown as an event that precipitated those marches.

Jackson, however, wasn’t the only clergyman who was killed in the events surrounding those marches in support of passage of the Voting Rights Act. Another young Christian martyr, who is honored with a memorial here in Nelson County, was Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a Harvard-educated white Episcopalian who was gunned down 50 years ago this week.

In 2012, I mentioned Daniels’ memorial in an illustrated column I wrote for The Kentucky Standard’s People & Places page about an autumn day hike at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

In a forest glade on the grounds of the Trappist monastery near New Haven is the beautiful, life-sized reproduction of “The Garden of Gethsemani” by renowned American sculptor Walker Hancock. It shows a kneeling Jesus agonizing over his impending crucifixion while nearby his disciples Peter, John and James, lie asleep, unaware of his fear and suffering.

The story of the artwork is included on a plaque near the sleeping disciples. It attributes the sculptures to Hancock, mentions that they were donated by William Coolidge of Boston, Mass., and says only that they were dedicated to the memory of Daniels. According to the plaque, he was killed in Alabama on Aug. 20, 1965. (Several online sources give the date of his death as Aug. 14, but the date on his gravestone is the same as that on the plaque.)

The plaque also contains these words as a reminder that the one holy Catholic and Apostolic church includes all followers of Jesus, not only those of any particular denomination: “May we always remember that the church exists to lead men to Christ in various ways, but it is always the same Christ.”

The story of Daniels’ killing is told in more detail in a book I read this summer by Gene Robinson, a retired Episcopal bishop from Kentucky.

According to Robinson’s account, Daniels was born in 1939 in Keene, N.H., and while studying at Harvard, experienced a conviction to become a priest. He was to have been ordained in 1966. But in 1965, he heeded a call by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for students and others to come to the South and join in the march to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital.

After the Selma marches, Daniels chose to spend the summer in Alabama and advocate on behalf of disenfranchised African-Americans.

On Aug. 13, according to Robinson, he and other protesters in Fort Deposit, Ala., were arrested and jailed in nearby Hayneville.

After their release, Daniels, a priest and two black youths went to a grocery store to buy Cokes. Tom Coleman, a highway worker and special deputy, was angry with the demonstrators and came toward them with a shotgun leveled at 17-year-old Ruby Sales.

Daniels pushed the girl to the ground and took the full blast of the gun himself. He died instantly.

The priest was shot in the back but escaped with the two youths.

In 1991, the Episcopal Church honored Daniels with a special day of remembrance in its Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, on Aug. 14.

Following is the collect for the day:

O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: we give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The real St. Patrick — a slave for Christ

Published March 14, 2014

Near the entrance of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin a simple plaque marks the location of the well, where, legend has it, Patrick baptized converts to the Christian faith in A.D. 450.

I visited that Church of Ireland cathedral while in Dublin in 2010, and it brought back memories of worshipping, 10 years earlier, at another Anglican cathedral, in Belfast, where there was a big, beautiful mosaic of Patrick — or Padraig in Irish. The saint is said to have first landed on Erin’s green shores at Downpatrick (thus the name), in Northern Ireland, and in that town, both the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals are named for him.

We have all heard the myths of Patrick — how he drove the snakes from Ireland (there were never any there), and used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity. There are fantastical tales of his use of magic, such as the time when he changed his shape, and that of his companions, into deer to elude capture by fierce pagan warriors.

When I was in Ireland five years ago, I walked the Hill of Tara, where ancient Druids offered human sacrifices to their false gods. It was on the nearby Hill of Slane that Patrick, in defiance of the high king of Tara, lit the paschal fire of Easter that signaled to the king and his druids that the light of Christ had come to Ireland and would never be extinguished.

This tale, whether or not it is factual, comes closer to illustrating the truth about who Patrick was — not a wizard, but a bishop and evangelist.

As the 15-year-old son of an aristocratic Celtic Briton who was both a Roman official and a Catholic deacon, Patrick had been captured, probably near the River Severn, by pagan Irish raiders and taken across the sea to be a slave. He believed this was his punishment for a sin he committed, but in his writings he doesn’t say what the sin was. While he was a slave, his faith in God grew, and while tending his sheep herds, he prayed sometimes as many as 100 times a day, from morning until night, according to the written record he left behind.

Patrick escaped from Ireland, but had a dream, which led him to believe he was being called back to the Babylon of his captivity to spread the gospel. After being educated to become a priest and bishop, he did eventually go back and served the church as a missionary for the rest of his days. His writings consist of his “Confession,” similar to St. Augustine’s, and a letter to a British chieftain Coroticus, excommunicating him and his soldiers for slaughtering Christian converts in Hibernia (Ireland) on the day of their baptism.

I was preparing for a short mission trip of my own to Northern Ireland with Habitat for Humanity in 2000 when I read “The Spirituality of St. Patrick” by Lesley Whiteside, a thin paperback published in Dublin by Morehouse Publishing in 1996. It is an explication of Patrick’s writings. Here is an excerpt from his best-known work. It gives us a better understanding of the real Patrick and why he matters.

St. Patrick’s confession

The Spirit elsewhere is a witness that even uncultivated ways have been created by the Most High — I am, then, first and foremost unlearned, an unlettered exile who cannot plan for the future. But this much I know for sure. Before I had to suffer, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall. I must, therefore, speak publicly in order to thank the Lord for such wonderful gifts.

Who was it who called me, fool that I am, from among those who are considered wise, expert in law, powerful in speech and general affairs? He passed over these for me, a mere outcast. He inspired me with fear, reverence and patience, to be the one who would if possible serve the people faithfully to whom the love of Christ brought me. The love of Christ indeed gave me to them to serve them humbly and sincerely for my entire lifetime if I am found worthy.

No peace on earth for Iraq’s Christians

Published Dec.13, 2014

The true story of Christmas isn’t about a newborn in a menagerie manger being heralded by cherubs in the sky. It is about a family of refugees fleeing the wrath of a tyrant who puts every infant boy in Bethlehem to the sword to prevent another king from usurping his throne.

Herod was appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. to subjugate his people to Caesar’s rule. The Gospel of Matthew tells of the Slaughter of the Innocents in this way: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’”

Twenty-one centuries later, there is another slaughter of the innocents in the Middle East.

Canon Andrew White, the Anglican “vicar of Baghdad” I introduced you to on Easter, tells an interviewer about the gruesome murder of children by the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. In the video, published Nov. 28, White said that days before, ISIS fighters ordered four children, all under the age of 15, to say the words to become followers of Muhammad. The little ones refused.

“No, we love Yeshua,” they said. “We have always followed Yeshua.”

So the brutes chopped their heads off.

White wept for them.

“They are my children,” he said.

The Sunday Times of London reported that Andrew, 5, the son of a founding member of White’s St. George’s Church in Baghdad, was named for the English vicar who has devoted his life to the pastoral care of Christians in war-torn Iraq. When attacking the city of Qaraqosh this past summer, ISIS killers cut the boy in half.

Throughout Syria and northern Iraq, ISIS, which thinks of itself as the successor of the medieval Islamic caliphate, is beheading children in front of their parents. They are crucifying Christians on wooden crosses, as the Romans did. Neighbors of the “Nazarenes” are painting the Arabic letter “N” on the homes of Christians who are targeted for extermination.

White, who spoke at my parish, Apostles Anglican Church in Lexington, during Lent, says 25 years ago, there were a million and a half Christians in Iraq. Now there are fewer than 300,000.

The ancient city of Nineveh, where Jonah preached and Doubting Thomas shared the Gospel, is Mosul, until recently the center of Christianity in Iraq. But the believers have nearly all fled or been butchered.

White has lost more than 1,000 members of his flock to violence. His staff members have been murdered. White has been kidnapped, beaten, imprisoned and threatened with death. He is now in Israel because Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby ordered him there to save his life and the lives of those around him.

White is a peacemaker, but he is no pacifist. He has negotiated the release of hostages, worked with the U.S. and U.K. militaries and heads the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. But there is no possibility of reconciliation with ISIS, he says. They only want terror, torture and death.

As in the time of Herod, Christians are being persecuted to the point of being eliminated from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and other countries where Christianity was born and has thrived for two millennia.

The question Christians in the West should ask ourselves is what will we do about it?

Evangelicals and ‘the least of these’

Saturday, July 26, 2014

John Smith is no ordinary preacher. When I met him in the 1990s, the longhaired Australian Methodist was an Asbury Seminary student who had earned recognition as a witness to outlaw motorcycle gangs and anam cara (spiritual mentor) to the Irish rock band U2.

The Rev. John "Bullfrog" Smith

I met John through the men’s group at Nicholasville United Methodist Church and read his memoir, “On the Side of the Angels.” (If you think you’re tough, try telling Hell’s Angels about Jesus and living to write about it.)

When I asked John to say a few words at a Christian rock concert for Habitat for Humanity, he quoted the prophet Amos to the young crowd: “I hate, I despise your festivals. … Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your (electric guitars). But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

John once told me something I’ll always remember. Jesus said his followers should be “in the world but not of it, but the problem with the church today, is that it is of the world but not in it,” he said.

He meant churches try to attract newcomers by being politically correct and culturally relevant, yet neglect timeless truths and become isolated behind their walls. They forget their first purpose isn’t to sing praises, but to get outside their sanctuary and their comfort zone and, in Jesus’ words, “make disciples” and care for “the least of these.”

I’ve been thinking about that in relation to events at home and abroad.

Last week, Bardstown Christian Fellowship celebrated its 10th anniversary. BCF is actually two churches, Redeemer Fellowship and Grace Fellowship, started by Matthew Spandler-Davison, a pastor from Scotland by way of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Although small, its influence is great. BCF’s members take seriously that stuff about making disciples and reaching the least, the last and the lost. They’ve planted churches in the U.S. and the U.K., sent missionaries to the most dangerous places on the planet and worked to help those in trouble at home.

In a combined service July 20, members shared testimony about ways BCF is making a difference. Marci Haydon and Sheri McGuffin talked about visits to Nicaragua and Scotland, and said mission isn’t something a few are “called” to do, but something all are “commanded” to do.

Barry McGuffin of Bethany Haven and the New Life Center, discussed what the church is doing to help the homeless, young mothers and their babies.

“I was a stranger and you took me in … and you gave me clothing.”

Matthew’s mum, Susan Davison, talked about Teachable Moments, which provides nourishment (material and spiritual) for Bardstown’s schoolchildren.

“I was hungry and you gave me food.”

Robbin Sizemore thanked the church for loving her husband and their family “unconditionally and intentionally” through their ordeal.

“I was in prison and you visited me.”

That’s the way the church is supposed to be.

Which brings me to another subject.

Along the Texas border, thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been brought into this country by human traffickers. They have been met with contempt by Americans, including Christians.

Some Christian groups, however, are taking the right approach, treating the children as refugees and urging President Obama and Congress to support reauthorization of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

“Let the little children come … and do not hinder them.”

The face Christianity presents to the world should be the face of compassion, not one contorted in hate.

In the words of a hymn we sang in that Methodist church in Nicholasville, they should “know we are Christians by our love.”

By our love.

The hope and promise of resurrection

Saturday, April 19, 2014

It’s been said there are no atheists in foxholes, but that isn’t true.

C.S. Lewis didn’t believe in God until long after he fought in the First World War, and it was longer still before he accepted what he called the “true myth” of Christianity.

In his youth, Lewis lived “in a whirl of contradictions.”

“I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing,” he wrote.

War reinforces some people’s belief and shatters the belief of others.

My friend Mary grew up singing the old hymns, which she loves. When her brother went to fight the Third Reich, she prayed God would protect him, but he was killed. Mary lost her faith and hasn’t found it in nearly 70 years.

Contrast Mary’s experience with that of Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” who spoke at my church a few weeks ago. More than 1,000 of his parishioners have been killed. In 2004, 11 of his staff were murdered or disappeared. He himself has been beaten, held hostage and threatened with death.

If that weren’t enough, Father Andrew suffers from a debilitating illness. Yet he believes “it is only the glory of God that truly sustains.” It is what gives him the ability to rescue captives, work for peace and proclaim Christ’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.

The “argument against God from evil” is one of the biggest obstacles to faith: If God is benevolent and sovereign, he would not allow evil to exist. But evil exists; therefore God does not exist.

What’s harder for me to believe is that God exists and is almighty, yet allows evil for his own purposes. I prefer to believe evil exists because there’s a struggle between the powers of darkness and light; and in the fullness of time, Christ will reign over a world where evil and suffering are vanquished.

Recently, I read something by Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei in Portland, Ore., that brings together these seemingly contradictory ideas of God’s sovereignty and cosmic warfare. He explains it using a story by J.R.R. Tolkien, the friend who led C.S. Lewis to faith.

What if, McKinley asks, God is like the conductor of a beautiful symphony who takes the bad notes and blends them into his work in a way that magnifies it?

In Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion,” Iluvatar reflects God, and Melkor, Satan. As Iluvatar created his music, “it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the throne of Iluvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”

Melkor’s discord spread. But Iluvator rose and the Ainur (Melkor’s tribe) “perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty.”

The best fiction is true.

St. Paul tells us “all things work together for good” for those who love God and have been “called according to his purpose.”

When the kingdom comes, there will be no suffering or sorrow, and evil will be defeated.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” St. Paul wrote, and we will be raised, not in spirit only, but also in body, perfected in strength and beauty.

Creation will be redeemed. And the returning King will say, “Behold, I am making all things new!”

That is the hope of resurrection.

That is why we celebrate Easter.

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