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Monday, October 25, 2021

Halloween 2021

 Next Sunday miniature ghosts, goblins and superheroes will emerge at dusk to comb the streets in search of candy. Even Fauci has encouraged kids to “go out there and enjoy” Halloween.   It is a long tradition in America, one I grew up with as a child and one I enjoyed as a parent. It is, perhaps, one of the few traditions we still celebrate outside with our neighbors. Manicured lawns are transformed into a mystical world of floating cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns and tombstones.

 Watchful parents huddle at the curb and visit while their little ghouls cheerfully threaten their neighbors with tricks for treats. Expectant children hold open hopeful bags and peer into their dark recesses trying to determine what luck they might have had at the door. 

 I always enjoyed taking our kids trick-or-treating. We had fun dressing them up and entering their fantasy world.  I liked watching them celebrate their growing assortment of candy gathered from well-wishing neighbors (until a costumed spook jumped from the bushes and convinced our five-year-old he had enough candy for one night). 

 I still look forward to answering our doorbell on Halloween.  I enjoy trying to guess who is hiding behind the princess mask, what little boy is growling in the Ninja Turtle costume.  I like it when ET and Yoda drop by for a visit with their pet ghost-dog. They are polite ghosts, witches and extra-terrestrials. They almost always say, “Thank you.” 

 Halloween, of course, has its dark side. The nightly news reports of abducted children and maps dotted with sexual predators have erased the na├»ve world of Halloween past.  We are aware that we live in a dangerous world where evil is real and present.   

 Many churches are more than a little uncomfortable with Halloween.  On the one hand, it is enjoyable to celebrate community with imagination, fantasy and neighborly generosity.   On the other hand, there are demonic and destructive forces at work in the world that kill and destroy.  It is one thing to celebrate fall and indulge in imagination.  It is another to celebrate the occult, witchcraft, the devil and demons.

 Many people struggle with addictions and impulses they seem unable to control.  They find themselves on a collision course with destruction.  Our world needs the deliverance from evil.

 Jesus once met a man filled with destructive demons.  He lived among the tombs of the dead, often cutting himself with sharp stones.  Local citizens tried to control him by putting him in chains, but he broke the chains and escaped back to his home among the graves.  When Jesus ordered the demons that were destroying the man to leave him the demons entered a nearby herd of swine that immediately rushed into the sea and were drowned.  The man was healed.  When his neighbors found him, he was in his right mind, sitting with Jesus, no longer a threat to himself or to them. But it scared them. They asked Jesus to leave their country and not to come back.  (Mark 5:1-20). Forces that we cannot understand or control always scare us.

 This Halloween we can celebrate an occasion to enjoy our children and their imagination. We can celebrate the turning leaves, dry corn, pumpkins and harvest.  And we can be reminded that in our struggles with the unseen forces of  good and evil, both in our hearts and in the world, we have a Deliverer.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Costly Grace

 I first heard Billy Graham preach in 1970 at Cowboys Stadium in Irving, Texas. The legendary teams of Tom Landry had yet to play in the stadium which was in its last stages of construction.  I sat in rapt silence with more than 50,000 others as Dr. Graham preached.  At the close of the service, thousands flooded the aisles in response to his invitation to trust Christ.  I later witnessed the same in Houston and Minneapolis. For more than 50 years he preached with the same results in more than 185 countries and territories.

 Throughout his ministry he avoided the excess of other evangelists, placing himself on a limited salary and avoiding scandal. I watched him join hands with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in support of racial integration refusing to preach to segregated crowds.

 Every president since Harry Truman sought him for counsel and prayer, both Democrat and Republican.  Some tried to use their friendship for political advantage, others credited him with strengthening their faith.  Dr. Graham died in 2018 at the age of 99.  He was the fourth private Citizen in U.S. history to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C.   

 More than thirty years ago, when he was still in his 60’s, Dr. Graham reflected on his evangelistic ministry and asked some sobering questions.  “I look back on my many years as an evangelist, and I wonder, have I made the Christian faith look too easy? … Of course, our salvation is a result of what Christ has done for us in His life and death and resurrection, not what we can do for ourselves.  Of course, we can trust Him to complete in us what He has begun.  But in my eagerness to give away God’s great gift, have I been honest about the price He paid in His war with evil?  And have I adequately explained the price we must pay in our own war against evil at work in and around our lives?”

 A few years ago my wife and I spent the summer in Nuremburg, Germany working with a new church. While there I read Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and visited his home in Berlin.  Before he was martyred by Adolph Hitler, Bonhoeffer raised similar questions in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.

 Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.  We are fighting today for costly grace.  … Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son: ‘ye were bought with a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”  Speaking of his generation, Bonhoeffer wrote, “We poured forth unending streams of grace.  But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.”

 Billy Graham’s probing reflection on his ministry and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prophetic book written during Hitler’s rise to power raise questions about our own faith.  Have we responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow Him?  Are we His disciples?  Are we seeking to keep His commandments in all our relationships at home, at school, at church and at work? Are we embracing cheap grace that costs nothing or are we embracing costly grace that cost God His own Son?

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Blind Spots

 All of us have have blind spots. Our brain fills in the picture so we don’t realize it. But the blind spots in our field of vision are very real. In medical terms, “it is the place in the visual field that corresponds to the lack of light-detecting photoreceptor cells on the optic disc of the retina where the optic nerve passes through the optic disc.”

 Here is a simple way to “see” your blind spot.  Put your thumbs together, the tips touching, with your index fingers pointed upward. This will separate your index fingers by approximately six inches. Extend your arms with your hands directly in front of you. Close your left eye. Focus with your right eye on your left finger and move your hands closer or further away.  The right finger will disappear in your blind spot. You can do the same for your left eye. If this doesn’t work, go to google or you tube and you will find plenty of help to find your blind spot.

 Several years ago I was diagnosed with glaucoma in my left eye, something very similar to the blind spot, but bigger. About ¼ of the vision in my left eye is missing, and I didn’t know it.  With both eyes open, my right eye compensates for it.  With just my left eye open, my brain tries to fill in the gaps. But when I move my finger into the blind spot, it disappears.

 We also have a blind spot when we are driving.  It is the place just behind us on the left side, just off the left rear bumper. We can check our rear view mirror and our side view mirror, and it appears no one is around us, but when we try to change lanes horns blare and people swerve. We can easily miss our blind spot.

 Jesus spoke about our spiritual blind spot.  We think that we can see all things clearly.  We believe that we have a full field of vision, but the truth is that we are unable to see some of the most important elements of life and reality. We are blinded by our prejudice and presumptions. We assume we have no prejudice.  Other people may be prejudiced, but not us.  We assume we see all things objectively.  But do we?  

 Jesus said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5).

 Jesus often told simple stories so that we might see our spiritual blind spot and understand the important lessons of life.  Jesus said, “This is why I speak in parables: though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”  (Matthew 13:13).

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Where Are the Birds?

 I have often risen before dawn to sit outside under the stars listening  as the birds announce the coming day.   It starts with a tweet or a chirp and then, as a crimson glow streaks the gray sky, their songs rise to a chorus as the sun breaks above the horizon.  But lately, there have been no songs.  The pre-dawn darkness is shrouded in an eery silence.  The first shadows stretch across the  landscape where there is no movement. The birds are absent. Where have they gone?

 Probably it is a matter of seasonal migration.  But this is the first year I remember watching the sun rise without a single bird to signal the day.  There are no Sparrows, no Juncos, no Finches, no Blackbirds, no Geese.  Where are they?  According to a study out of Cornell University, birds are, in fact, disappearing.  Since 1970 the bird population in North America has plummeted by 29%, from 10 billion to 7.1 billion.  Almost 3 billion birds are gone.  Scientists point toward climate change and the destruction of natural habitats as the primary reasons for the decline.  Imagine a world without birds to greet the sunrise, geese to fill the skies, trees without songs. Imagine the natural world replaced with concrete, steel, plastic and virtual reality.

 Years ago, I visited the abandoned coal mines near Birmingham, England, an area known as the “Black Country” due to its early industrial pollution.  We toured the caverns where men labored to extract the coal.  As we descended the guide pointed out the cage where they placed a canary to detect the build-up of dangerous gases.  As long as the air was good, the canary sang. But when the canary stopped singing, and eventually dropped dead, the miners knew it was imperative they evacuate the shafts.  Perhaps the birds are sending us a warning.  Perhaps like the canary in the coal mine, the silence of their song signals the imperative that we take climate change seriously. 

 Birds play an important role in the Bible’s redemption story.  When Noah emerged from the catastrophic flood he sent out a dove that returned with an olive leaf, the first sign the waters were receding, (Genesis 8).  When Elijah hid from Ahab by the brook Cherith, God sent ravens to feed him bread and flesh in the morning and evening, (1 Kings 17).  When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the bodily form of a dove, (Luke 3:22).  Jesus urged us to consider the birds as an example of God’s provision and care.

 Our planet is a marvelous, mysterious and miraculous place.  There is nothing else like it in the known universe. We share our space with the myriad of other living species.  At the dawn of creation God gave his first commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth,” (Genesis 1:28).