Monthly Archives: August 2017

Can You See Her?

Jake Brigance had an uphill fight on his hands.

This wouldn’t be easy. Not in Canton, Mississippi. The heart of the segregated South.

His client, Carl Lee Hailey, had asked Brigance, a white man, to defend him. Hailey was black.

The jury was all white.

Brigance was an untried attorney with little confidence he could persuade anyone of anything.

Despite the grim odds, Carl Lee believed in Brigance. And placed his life in the young lawyer’s inexperienced hands.

Weeks earlier, Hailey’s ten-year old daughter, Tonya, had been abducted, brutally raped and beaten by two white supremacists. They had tried to hang the girl but when the tree limb broke, they dumped her bruised and broken body off a bridge into a riverbed.

Somehow, Tonya survives.

Brigance tells the grieving Hailey there’s a good possibility the rapists could walk free.

In blind rage and revenge, the father opens fire in the county courthouse and kills the accused.

He is arrested and charged with murder. The DA seeks the death penalty.

The remainder of the story is about the trial and the racially charged atmosphere in which it is held.

Every movie tells a story. Some are told well and make a powerful point. Others are told poorly and the audience wonders what the point was.

The 1996 film, A Time to Kill, with an all-star cast, is not only an outstanding courtroom drama but a soul-searching account of bigotry and the difficulty of overcoming it.

The movie came to mind during the recent Charlottesville violence. As we have so often before in our turbulent times, we witnessed again man’s inhumanity to man – and the unreasoning hate that fuels it.

Charlottesville exposed the human heart in its innate vulnerability and deceit. The images we saw on television reminded us of the fallen nature of humankind, the precarious treachery of our passions and the frailty of our social compact.

The heart of the race problem in this country is a problem of the heart.

The seeds of hate planted in the heart germinate through experience and circumstance. They grow, and in the right condition at the right time, they burst forth to rear their ugly head in violence and chaos. As one writer observed:

“Violence begins in our hearts before it ever hits the street.”

Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wisely warned us:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

In his closing argument to the white jury in Canton Mississippi, seeking leniency for a distraught African-American father avenging the horrible assault upon his young daughter, Jake Brigance fell back upon a simple appeal to truth.

He asked the jury not “to just talk about the truth, but to actually seek it, to find it, to live it.”

Then the young attorney asked the men and women sitting in judgment:

“What is it in us that seeks the truth? Is it our minds or is it our hearts?”

Brigance told the jury that “until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be evenhanded.” Until that day, he said, “we have a duty under God to seek the truth, not with our eyes and not with our minds where fear and hate turn commonality into prejudice, but with our hearts – where we don’t know better.”

Brigance then asked the jurors to close their eyes.

He told them the story “about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. I want you to picture this little girl.”

He recounts in graphic detail her violent assault by the two rapists. How, “in a fog of drunken breath and sweat” they violate her.

“And when they’re done, after they killed her tiny womb, murdered any chance for her to bear children, to have life beyond her own, they decide to use her for target practice. So they start throwing full beer cans at her. They throw ’em so hard that it tears the flesh all the way to her bones – and they urinate on her.”

Brigance describes the attempted hanging:

“They have a rope; they tie a noose. Imagine the noose pulling tight around her neck and a sudden blinding jerk. She’s pulled into the air and her feet and legs go kicking and they don’t find the ground. The hanging branch isn’t strong enough.

It snaps and she falls back to the earth. So they pick her up, throw her in the back of the truck, and drive out to Foggy Creek Bridge and pitch her over the edge. And she drops some 30 feet down to the creek bottom below.

Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body, soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood – left to die.”

Brigance raises his voice:

“Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl.”

Then he pauses and lowers his voice.

“Now imagine she’s white.”

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” – Ezekiel 36:26 (NIV).

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Stay On It

When Alice came to a fork in the road during her Adventures in Wonderland, she asked the Cheshire cat which way she should go.

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” the cat grinned.

“I don’t much care where,” Alice responded.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the cat.

Alice adds: “… so long as I get somewhere.”

The Cheshire cat grins again: “Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

The Cheshire cat reminds us that destination determines direction.

If where we finally “want to get to” is quite flexible – if our destination doesn’t truly matter – then any road will get us there. Alice doesn’t want to stand still; she wants to go “somewhere”, she’s just not sure exactly where. The Cheshire cat reassures her that if she just keeps walking she will indeed get “somewhere.”

When it comes to religious faith, there are millions of Americans – in fact a record number – just like Alice – and plenty of grinning Cheshire cats to urge them forward on their path to “somewhere”.

Just when Protestants were losing their majority status in this country for the first time, dipping to a record low of 48%, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life discovered that nearly 20% of those it surveyed chose no religious affiliation. As Protestants, who historically dominated a Judeo-Christian America, sunk to a new demographic low, the “Nones”, as they are called, rose to a new high. Forty-six million place themselves in this category. They like the ambiguity, freedom, and tolerance of an open- ended religion.

What do these “Nones” believe? Nothing in particular and nothing too strongly, it turns out.

Most of them affirm God and prayer “somewhat” and in some form. As one None put it, she “embraces the sacred in all religions”. Here is a smorgasbord spirituality that fits the tenor of our times and the disposition of our culture. You may know a None. He or she is your neighbor, your co-worker, perhaps a member of your family.

When it comes to matters of faith, these folks “don’t much care.”

Greg Smith, senior researcher for the Pew Forum, told USA TODAY reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman:

“The rise of the Nones is a milestone in a long-term trend. People’s religious beliefs …play an important role in shaping their worldviews, their outlook in life and certainly in politics and elections.”

This is The Theological Crisis. It is a crisis of belief.

At the conclusion of his parable about a persistent widow and a relenting judge, Jesus promises an ultimate and compassionate justice for his chosen people. Then he poses a rhetorical question regarding the close of history:

“But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?” (Luke 18:8, NLT). The King James Version is more direct: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?”

It’s an important question.

The Pew Forum may have recently discovered the Nones. Jesus always knew they were coming. And Jesus knew that remaining faithful to the truth – his truth – would be a decisive and courageous test for his followers in this new secular age of disbelief.

Sound doctrine and theology; right thinking and unconquerable faith have always guided the Church – through even the darkest periods of widespread skepticism and apostasy. These must firmly anchor us – and guide us – today.

It’s true, of course, that it’s always easier to blend in than it is to stand out. There is a price for courage and conviction. That price has, at times, been high but Christians have always been willing to pay it – even with their own blood if necessary.

Let us examine our faith.

Let’s reflect on it, study it and measure it in our own hearts and minds. Let’s know what we believe and why. Let’s make sure we attend churches where God’s Word is preached and taught without compromise or apology.

We must be always ready to “give an answer” ( I Peter 3:15).

Then let us go out into the world.

A world where so many do not know God, or worship him or even give him thanks; a world that, professing to be wise, thinks up “foolish ideas of what God is like”; a world where minds have become “dark and confused” (Romans 1:21, NLT). Let us go into this world and there, by God’s grace and strength, live out daily the faith we profess.

Theology is not some dusty and antiquated system of irrelevant and idle speculations. It is the very heartbeat and sinew of Christianity. Our faith must be the most important thing about us. We must know it, embrace it, defend it, contend for it, love it and live it.

Only right understanding can result in right living.

Keeping faith in an age of doubt is never easy – but it is a thrilling adventure.

The path we choose to travel has always been narrow and hard to find but the journey’s always been worth it. This may be the “road less traveled” but it makes “all the difference”.

It is a road that doesn’t just lead to “somewhere” – it leads us to eternal life and God’s heavenly kingdom.

It leads us to our destiny as his children.

It’s the right road. Let’s stay on it.

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Strange Isn’t It?

The tree is dead.

It was a pine tree that grew more than twelve feet before it succumbed.

It was planted in Los Angeles to honor the late Beatle George Harrison.

What killed the tree?

Beetles.

A bark beetle infestation, actually.

That’s ironic.

Irony. Life is filled with it. The dictionary defines irony as “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result”. Irony is the most surprising outcome. It’s the unlikeliest choice or circumstance and the least expected result.

The Bible is saturated with irony.

It’s almost as if this is God’s modus operandi. He delights in it. The Creator revels in the surprise ending. If not for its amazing, come-from-behind irony, the Bible might be a rather dull book.

God chooses the tiniest, most inconspicuous nation to be his own and preserves it for centuries through suffering and exile, bringing it back to its ancient homeland where today it triumphs against all odds.

Through deeply flawed yet courageous men – and some noble and brave women – God delivers and leads his people. Who on earth would have chosen the likes of Abraham, Jacob, Moses or Gideon?

How colorless the biblical account would be without them.

How did a young Jewish boy named Joseph, sold into slavery by jealous brothers, rise to become the prince of Egypt who rescued that land from starvation? Who would have picked a lad tending sheep to be the mightiest king Israel ever had? And how could this ruler later lie and commit adultery and murder and still be a man after God’s own heart?

How ironic. How strange.

A mighty general is told to wash in the dirty Jordan River to find his cure for leprosy.

Five smooth stones and a slingshot slay a heavily-armored giant. Actually it only took one – and a brave young man who had come in from the fields with a lunch for his fear-struck older siblings. Now we see why none of them got the royal nod.

In human form God visits the world he made. He comes through a young virgin and her poor carpenter husband and is born in a stable in a little town called Bethlehem.

The Ruler of the universe is surrounded by animal dung. The hotels were all filled up. There was no room anywhere else.

Ordinary working stiffs – unknown and uneducated fishermen – become the disciples of Jesus and the first leaders of his church.

Five loaves of bread and two fish – a boy’s lunch – feed more than five thousand.

The fiercest persecutor of the church – a proud and stubborn Hebrew intent on strangling Christianity in its crib – becomes its most gifted and eloquent defender and spreads its message throughout much of the known world. He plants vibrant churches, writes nearly one third of the New Testament and becomes Christendom’s greatest theologian. He dies a martyr to the cause he once despised.

How ironic. How strange.

Over and over again God performs not only the miraculous – he does the improbable, the incredible, the shocking.

If humans did it, they’d be called foolish. But God has done it – and does it still – in the Bible, in the history of nations and in the history of the world.

He does it in our own lives. You know he does – you’ve seen him at work.

God is ironic for a reason.

Paul tells the Corinthians to remember that “few of you were wise in the world’s eyes, or powerful or wealthy when God called you” (I Corinthians 1: 26, NLT).

God makes unlikely choices.

“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.” (I Corinthians 1: 27-28, KJV, emphasis added).

Don’t you just love that? The God of the eleventh inning – and the eleventh hour.

Foolish, weak, base and despised things – “things counted as nothing at all” (NLT).

These are so often the instruments – the ways and the means – God chooses and uses.

Why? To what end; to what purpose?

“That no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Corinthians 1:29, KJV).

He does it to keep us humble. With his irony God punctures the smugness of man.

God’s irony is wrapped up in his sovereignty, reflects his majesty and displays his grace and glory.

If it were any other way, we’d be tempted to take the credit instead of praising him for his miracle.

William Cowper said it well in 1773:

“God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm”.

Paul – who must have marveled at his own improbable spiritual journey – exults in joyful wonder at the inscrutability of God:

“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33, KJV).

Yes, God often chooses “nothings” and uses them “to bring to nothing what the world considers important” (NLT).

Strange, isn’t it?

And so very comforting.

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LOL

There once was a little girl sent to stay with her great aunt in the country for the summer.

While the home was beautiful and pristine, the great aunt was a staunch Presbyterian of an unusually staid and humorless variety.

The aunt never laughed. Nor did she smile – at any time or anything. She did go to church – religiously. Her niece went with her. They sat in dignity on a long wooden pew and listened to long wooden sermons preached by the dull and joyless black-robed minister.

The little girl grew bored and despondent with all the strict rules of her aunt’s immaculate house.

One day, out for a walk and some fresh air to escape the indoor stuffiness, the girl came across a pasture. Standing with its head hanging over the old wooden fence, a mule stared forlornly at the girl.

She went up to him, gently patted his nose and looked into his sad eyes.

“Don’t feel so bad Mr. Mule,” she said softly. “My aunt’s got religion too”.

Author, critic and biting atheist H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”.

Christianity has been perceived as a joyless enterprise by non-believers for centuries. The biggest part of this is due to conscientious Christian crusaders intent on ridding the world of all that the world finds pleasurable – and faithful activists find morally repugnant.

To paraphrase the apostle Peter, Christians are usually better prepared to give an answer for the despair that is within them than the hope.

Christian activism – and it’s had a profound and busy role in shaping American culture throughout history – is too often defined by what we are against than what we are for.

Hating the sin – that’s the easy part. Loving the sinner? Ah, there’s the rub!

There’s plenty to criticize and condemn in a world headed for hell. We find ourselves living as aliens in a foreign land that used to be our home.

That’s how it feels sometimes.

It’s harder to find the joy that creates a bit of heaven for the weary fellow-traveler. The great irony is that joy ought to be a high note in every Christian’s experience. We ought to find something to laugh about. Our joy ought to be a blessing to share with others.

Find a Christian who never laughs and never smiles and you’ve discovered a walking contradiction.

Humor is one of God’s exquisite gifts.

Leaders have found it of value and comfort.

Abraham Lincoln sat in a solemn cabinet meeting reading stories from a book. He’d read one out loud and then he’d laugh. None of his cabinet officers joined him. They knew of his reputation for telling funny stories; to many it was an undignified annoyance.

How could the president laugh amidst a nation drenched in the blood of a horrendous civil war?

Finally Lincoln paused and looked at the serious faces seated in dignity around the great oak table. His eyes glistened.

“Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die. You need this medicine as much as I do”.

Ronald Reagan is beloved by many not only for his courage and convictions but also for his great sense of humor and perfectly-timed stories.

Humor is a powerful tool – and an even more powerful antidote.

The Bible tells us that a happy, joy-filled heart is good medicine. A broken spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17:22).

Jesus must have laughed often. We know he loved to tell stories. What else would explain how the publicans and sinners gravitated to him like a magnate. Jesus was criticized by the stuffy Pharisees for partying with the lower-class.

Children loved Jesus too and followed him everywhere. It wasn’t because he was a joyless, austere stick – in – the – mud. It’s because he was fun to be around.

Jesus understood joy.

On the night of his betrayal, he told his disciples:

“Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:22, NLT).

There, on the eve of their greatest failure and most devastating sorrow, their Friend was reassuring them of their coming joy.

Christians, of all people, should have the most joy and happiness in their hearts, and in their lives. Nothing in this world can give us true and lasting joy – and nothing in this world can ever rob us of it.

Not really.

We don’t have joy because we are without problems – heartaches or perplexities or loss. We face those along with everyone else. We are not immune to suffering or exempt from it.

We rejoice because we know that suffering and sadness do not have the final word.

We may weep for a night, perhaps for a season, but the promise of God is unfailing: “Joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5,KJV).

Let’s thank God for Joy. It’s a fruit of the Spirit, right up there with Love and Faith and Peace.

“Don’t cry because it’s over,” said that wise sage, Dr. Seuss, “smile because it happened.”

Peter asked God to fill us “with an inexpressible and glorious joy” because, in the end, faith would save our souls (I Peter 1:8-9).

That’s something to be happy about.

“The most wasted of all days is the one without laughter.”

So go ahead.

LOL.

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