Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dealing with Dangerous Weapons – Guns, Cell Phones…What Else?

Our Advent Wreath and Candles
During this holiday season, I have been impressed by a series of “Christmas contrasts.”  First, Christmas lights have seemed brighter when they are surrounded by the deepest darkness.   Second, Christmas Joy and Hope have been more assuring to me in the midst of our nation’s troubling economic and political climate.  And third, Christmas songs of peace and the promises of Christ’s return have fortified me when I was made aware of several tragic events in the news and then faced some disappointing happenings like we all face in the holiday season.

But sharp contrasts have been part and parcel of Christmas since the joy of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds at Jesus’ birth was punctuated by the murderous threat of King Herod.  I am reminded of the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the third stanza of the old hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:”

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Why is it that even in the season of peace on Earth we find so many intrusions by events that remind us that hate is strong and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men?  Perhaps those who favor gun control are right.  When we control or even eliminate guns perhaps that will eliminate murder.  But, let’s see—then we’d also have to eliminate other potentially dangerous tools like clubs, knives, and even matches.  Then what about drugs and poisons, and why not eliminate the big soft drinks and foods with trans-fats.  Finally, we almost forgot the most dangerous weapon of all.  This weapon, our tongue, is according to the apostle James one that is humanly impossible to control (James 3: 5).  Short of surgical removal, how can this dangerous member be controlled?

James 4: 1 provides an answer:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?
Is not the source your
desire for pleasures
that wage war in your members?

Spiritual warfare within us erupts in the form of fighting and quarreling (v. 2) and by an uncontrolled tongue (James 3: 1-12).  All of these expressions in one combination or another have been part of human strife since Adam uttered blame toward Eve for his sin in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3: 12), and Adam’s son Cain killed his brother Abel.  

The weapons for killing have advanced over the years from clubs to semi-automatics and aerial drones.  What we have stated elsewhere in Oikonomia (“No Gun Control without Self Control” should be obvious.  We must address the deeper cause of violence, the human heart.  Jesus set a higher standard than the Old Testament law, “Thou shall not murder.”   He pointed us to the same “war within our members” that we have just read from the pen of His half-brother James.  Jesus said (emphasis mine):

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother
shall be guilty before the court;
and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,'
shall be guilty before the supreme court
… -- Matthew 5: 22

Notice that Jesus is pointing out the “early warnings” in a progression beginning with anger and hateful speech that could lead to fighting and even murder;.  These warnings from the Lord Jesus are even more important in our present culture.  Just as the weapons for killing become more advanced and plentiful, so also the vehicles to spread hateful words have advanced from simply word-of-mouth to the printed page to telecommunications and the internet .  Whereas, it once required weeks or months to spread damaging speech from continent to continent, it can now occur within seconds!   

Justine Sacco, while traveling by airplane from London to South Africa, launched a few careless words on Twitter about the AIDS crisis in Africa.   While her plane was still flying toward Cape Town, her words were being retweeted thousands of times and was picked up by media outlets around the world!  The fiery exchanges that resulted from the tiny spark from Sacco’s phone has led to her firing as a communications director, in spite of her apology.   
Just before Christmas,

If James’ warning in the first century about the tongue is to be taken seriously, how much more in the internet age should we heed the starkness of its warning that

the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity;
the tongue is set among our members
as that which defiles the entire body,
and sets on fire the course of our life,
and is set on fire by hell.
– James 3: 6

But, knowing and accepting the warnings of Scripture is only the beginning.  We must recognize and confess our own sinful nature as also described in Scripture; then, surrender to the lordship of Christ and profess faith in His atoning death for us.  In marvelous return, God will fill us with His Holy Spirit Who will then help us to gain victory over the “deeds of the flesh” which are listed in Galatians  5: 19-21 including “…impurity [and] outbursts of anger….”  In place of these evil deeds, the Spirit produces fruit of righteousness including “…love, joy, peace, patience…self control…” (Galatians 5: 22-23).

If the above teaching of Scripture sounds simple, it is not.  God knows as does the disciplined Christian that the pursuit of self-control and control of the tongue is a continual progression of climbing and falling, and sinning and confessing (I John 1: 9).  In regard to this difficulty, James adds the following:

For we all stumble in many ways.
If anyone does not stumble in what he says,
he is a perfect man,
able to bridle the whole body as well.
– James 3: 2

James issues another stark warning (James 3: 1) out of his recognition that Christian maturity requires time and patience to develop:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren,
knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment

Because the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity…and is set on fire by hell the Spirit emphasizes through James that the pulpit, platform, and microphone are not to be given to those who cannot control their tongue; nor should undisciplined believers undertake such responsibility.   God is not honored by leaders in church or school who do not demonstrate self-control and the other fruit of the Spirit.  The body of Christ in a church setting or in an educational institution is taught and edified when the preacher or teacher is a godly “professor” of his or her faith.   A “professor” is one whose behavior matches his or her words; one who professes by both lips and life.

God’s plan is that the body of Christ on Earth will be the shining example, or what the Puritans called “a shining city on a hill” for the world to see and be drawn to Christ themselves.  But, as we’ve noted above, the victory is only assured by a daily disciplined effort in which we submit to God’s authority, confess or sins, and pursue His peace and joy.  If we offend another person or persons, God makes a provision that we should take seriously:

Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar,
and there remember that your brother has something against you,
leave your offering there before the altar and go;
first be reconciled to your brother,
and then come and present your offering
.  – Matthew 5: 22-23

This formula for reconciliation applies to both the offended and the one offending.  However, this formula is also a test of our humility.  The proud person refuses to “leave the altar” or his or her religious activity, but waits for another person to come to them.  However, many of us can testify that obeying this biblical teaching will surely end days or even years of grief and separation from God and from our neighbor.  Forgiveness and reconciliation brings the peace and joy God intends for us.

Peace on Earth at Christmas or at any time of the year will not come by surrendering our guns or knives. Nor can we blame our tongues, cell phones, or social media, each of which can be useful tools to build up one another.  Rather, we must address the source of our quarrels and strife – a prideful heart that ought to submit to the authority and work of God’s Spirit.  May God help us to be peacemakers and builders as we surrender our hearts to Him so that

out of the good treasure of our heart
we can bring forth what is good…
our mouth speaks from that which fills our hearts.
 – Luke 6: 45

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Remembering the “Yearning to Breathe Free”

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”   -- William Bradford

Bowing to worship and give thanks to their Creator was a fitting beginning for the Pilgrim Fathers when they arrived on the shores of North America on November 11, 1607.  These Puritans, so named for their separatist life, had suffered much from religious intolerance in Europe.  Now, they hoped that their perilous 65-day voyage across the Atlantic to North America would satisfy their “yearning to breathe free” to worship and serve the God to Whom they had entrusted their lives.

"The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor" - W.F. Halsall
Throughout world history, many various people groups have embarked on perilous trips much like the Puritans, some across rugged mountains and others across arid deserts or stormy seas in hopes of finding freedom and opportunity in a new land.  The descendents of Abraham migrated to Egypt to escape drought and famine (Genesis 47).  Two centuries later, numbering approximately 2 million, Abraham’s descendents were miraculously led by God and His humble servant, Moses, through the Red Sea and arid desert to escape slavery of Egypt and to establish a new nation under God.

Today, one can read news reports of the migration of refugees on many continents. For example, in Asia as a result of the war in Syria, an estimated 100,000 have died and more than 2,000,000 Christians and Muslims have fled.  Many Syrian refugees have migrated into the same region through which Abraham once migrated on his way from present day Iraq to modern day Israel. 

This Thanksgiving, I am reflecting on the manner in which God led our Pilgrim Fathers to come to America and establish civil laws that would eventually grow into our Constitution.  My reflection on American history has ushered in a time to reevaluate the freedoms I often take so lightly and which are being eroded by decisions made daily in Washington, DC.  Contemplating people groups now living under tyranny, and considering the prospect of an America in which our Constitution is being ignored or displaced makes me all the more thankful for a God Who will not be thwarted in His purposes by any human actions.  But I am also thankful for those among our leaders who stand up to honor God by humble and unselfish service to our country in both military and civilian roles. 

And so, on this Thanksgiving perhaps you would join me in thanking God for His many provisions if you live in America or another nation in which the basic freedoms are granted.   We can pray also for wisdom for world leaders, both in our country and abroad.   The decisions that they have made and are making will determine the trajectory of the future of our lives, and whether we will continue to have at least some of the freedoms for which Americans have fought and died in the past 250 years.

Source:  WORLD Magazine, Nov. 16, 2013
Perhaps you would also agree to join me in learning more about the Syrian refugees, or another group of displaced people, to pray for them, and to learn of ways to help those who are directly involved in providing assistance.   WORLD Magazine reports that numerous NGO’s, including World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse, are ministering to the needs of refugees not only in practical material ways but also in order to meet the deeper yearning for freedom within their souls.

This Thanksgiving, being thankful to God for our country and asking Him to direct us in ways that provide appropriate assistance to people groups in deep need can cause us to be renewed and refocused toward things that really matter.   We can be directed from our own selfish tendencies and the tendency to relax in our comfort zones, and instead to reflect on the great cost of freedom that was paid by our forefathers, many of whom yearned to breathe free to worship the One Who had purchased true freedom for them on Calvary’s cross. 

Estimated Number of Syrian Refugees
 (UN High Commission for Refugees)

As I reflect on past generations who have made great sacrifices because they yearned for both spiritual and political freedom, I wonder if our yearning today has turned from God Who alone can meet our greatest needs to the federal government which offers to satisfy our needs.  But, as we remember the assassination of President Kennedy this month, we ought to remember one of his famous challenges:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”  Every invitation from government to take over responsibilities formerly handled by individuals, families, and communities is an invitation that comes at the price of a loss of freedom. 

A case in point is the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which promised health insurance coverage for all Americans, but at the cost of a loss of individual control over patient-doctor relationships and choice of a policy that best fits one’s needs.  Furthermore, the ACA will legalize the collection of extensive personal information to be stored in huge government databases.   Perhaps most unsettling is the numbing effect that expanding government services can have on the people of a nation, particularly if the services are not intended to provide temporary help coupled with a help toward gainful employment and financial independence. 

The toxic effects of prolonged welfare and other government programs on individual freedom and personal initiative can be inferred in the case of Greece which is experiencing dramatic increases in HIV transmission and infections associated with increases in prostitution and intravenous drug use.  The report, based on a World Health Organization study in 2011 includes mention of a number of deliberate self-infections with HIV “to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes."  It is worth reflecting on regretful ways in which people seek to meet the yearning within to “breath” what only Heaven can supply.

In conclusion, the “yearning to breathe free” of our Puritan Fathers which eventually brought “a new birth of freedom” in the founding of our great nation is a cause for much reflection on this Thanksgiving Day, 2013.  May our reflections lead us to offer thanks and praise to God for His provision of political and spiritual freedom in Christ, and to renew our commitment to be a testimony in words and in actions on behalf of these freedoms.  Our testimony is especially important in today’s world in which America’s freedoms are being threatened.  Her beacon of liberty which had once shone brightly, even if imperfectly, is growing dimmer toward the multitudes across the world who look to her for hope.  The call of God recorded in II Chronicles 7: 14 outlines our only true path to breathing free:

And My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

As a historical example of how Americans once applied the spirit of this call to humility and confession, I close with an excerpt from President George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Proclamation” presented on October 3, 1789:

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-- and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks…

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Marvelous Stewardship of a Roman Centurion

One need only to consult the daily news for evidence of the erosion of moral standards and values in America.  Consequently, there is no longer a moral consensus of what were once considered fundamental rights of each American citizen-- the right to freedom of speech, to bear arms, to have private property, and to hold religious convictions in the workplace.  Even within Christianity there seems to be less devotion to the institutions of biblical marriage, the home, and the local church.

Photo of the Sign from President Truman's Desk (with slight modification)
May I suggest that the crumbling foundation of moral standards and values can be traced to the failure of individual accountability and responsibility within the moral and civic structures ordained by God—namely, the family, the local church, and the government at the various levels?  Increasingly, our leaders are sacrificing their moral virtues for acceptance within a “fraternity of mediocrity” where each individual blends in and becomes entangled with the collective view of what is politically correct.  

Once a person belongs to the collective, “safety in numbers” becomes evident.  The old adage that “one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel” certainly applies here.  Any emerging rot of corruption can grow and fester within a corporation, church, or government agency while individuals responsible are hidden or insulated from accountability and justice.   Instead of reporting and bringing to justice the individuals suspected of such crimes as extortion, taking bribes, sexual abuse, or failure to enforce laws, members of the collective make excuses or shift the blame.  As a result, the reputation of businesses, churches, and educational institutions decline.  Many are placing their hopes in our ever-growing federal government to administer rights and entitlements while ignoring God and the importance of the fundamental rights and responsibilities that He has clearly revealed in Scripture.

The progression I have described is explained by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1: 21-22 when he declares that ...even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools….  This loss of a thankful and reverent spirit toward God and His Word were the root cause of the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).  When our thankfulness and reverence toward God are diminished, individual integrity and responsibility needed for strong leadership are undermined.   Consequently, families, communities, and nations deteriorate as the crumbling of civilizations throughout biblical and modern history testifies. 

However, in the midst of each sad chapter of history, God’s unique blend of mercy and justice has also been at work.  Over and over, God’s grace pierces the darkness through one or a few men and women with humble hearts who show reverence for Him.  These heroes realize they are stewards of the grace of God and of the opportunities God affords to them (1 Corinthians 4: 2).  Many have been the spark that ignited spiritual revival and cultural renewal.  Several biblical characters who come to mind are Noah, Abraham, and Joseph; and in the New Testament, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary of Magdalene (Luke 8: 2).

Recently, I’ve been interested in a character described in Luke 7: 1-10 who embodies the qualities that Christ desires among leaders, and all of us who strive to be responsible stewards of the opportunities God affords us.   We are not given his name; only that he was a centurion in the Roman army stationed in the town of Capernaum (Luke 7: 2).  Centurions were the backbone of the Roman army, and this particular centurion was apparently in charge of an outpost under the authority of King Herod Antipas.  [This Herod is the same king who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist and participated in the trial of Jesus.] 

A Roman Centurion
Although Roman soldiers had to possess outstanding character to achieve the rank of centurion, Luke reveals another outstanding trait of this centurion.  Centurions often discharged their duties with little regard for personal needs of their subordinates or subjects.  However, Luke tells us (7:2) that this centurion was deeply concerned for one of his servants who, according to Matthew’s account, was paralyzed and in great pain (Matthew 8:6).  The centurion’s genuine affection prompted him to seek immediate help for the servant in a way that reveals yet another unusual character trait.

According to Luke, the Jewish leaders in Capernaum held the centurion in very high regard.  Meanwhile, the centurion had become aware of the miraculous healing power of an unusual Jew named Jesus.  So, he decided to make his request for Jesus’ healing power by sending a polite request to Him through his Jewish friends.  These friends gladly conveyed the centurion’s request to Jesus along with a statement of  their deep respect for the him by saying, He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue (Luke 7: 4-5). 

The manner in which the centurion conveyed his request to Jesus to heal his servant was even more unusual for a Roman.  As a result, Jesus marveled at him, saying …not even in Israel have I found such great faith (Luke 7: 9).  What caused Jesus to marvel at the faith of this Gentile?  I believe the answer paints the portrait of one who exemplifies responsible stewardship of the opportunities God affords.

First, Jesus marveled at the origin of the request for healing of the servant.  It did not originate from a Jewish countryman, but rather, from a Roman soldier—a Gentile.  This centurion was not a member of the chosen nation Israel to whom, as Paul would later write, was given... the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises… (Romans 9: 4).  Yet somehow, this non-Jew believed Jesus could bring relief to his servant from paralysis and pain.

Second, Jesus marveled at the messengers chosen by the centurion to carry his request.  It came to Him by way of Jewish elders who were somehow willing to serve as intermediaries between two unusual parties-- a Gentile centurion and a radical, Jewish troublemaker.  Only God could orchestrate such a scene in which representatives of His “chosen people” would carry a message of faith no less from a “pagan Roman” outside the Jewish nation to a heretical Jewish rabbi whose legitimacy and power they questioned!  

Third, Jesus must have marveled at the sense of urgency, devotion, and compassion on the part of the Jewish messengers toward this Gentile officer (emphasis mine):

And when they had come to Jesus, they earnestly entreated Him, saying, "He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue (Luke 7: 4-5).

Jesus discerned from the earnest plea of the Jews that the centurion had won their affection by the manner in which he had been discharging his duties in Capernaum.  The centurion’s Roman superiors had entrusted him with the authority, military might, and material resources to control the lives of the Jewish population in his charge; and, to make their lives miserable if they did not submit.  However, this centurion had invested his authority and the resources of Rome with an apparent gentleness, kindness, and helpfulness that had won the hearts of his Jewish subjects.   The centurion is a portrait of responsible and benevolent stewardship of the resources and authority vested in him. 

If Jesus had begun to marvel because of the origin of the centurion’s request, the messengers who carried it, and the urgency with which they delivered the message, Jesus must also have marveled because of the content of a second message from the centurion, one conveyed to Him by friends of the centurion while He was on the road to the centurion’s home.   Knowing that Jesus was coming, the centurion expressed his misgivings about Jesus coming inside his home:

Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed.   For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes; and to another, 'Come!' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it (Luke 7: 6b-8).

From in this second message, Jesus could sense that the centurion was a man of humility, of great faith, and of understanding (wisdom) in regard to the larger order of God’s kingdom.

Jesus must have deeply cherished the centurion’s humility, conveyed in the words …I am not worthy… (Luke 7: 6b).  Both Peter and James teach us that God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5: 5; James 4: 6).  A humble heart provides the “good soil” for our soul and spirit that the Word of God can grow within (Luke 8: 8) so that we can …receive the word implanted, which is able to save [our] souls (James 1: 21).  In light of this, I believe that the humility demonstrated by our centurion is a fundamental virtue of a godly steward.

Jesus was amazed not only by the centurion’s humility, but also to a fruit of that humility; namely, his great faith.  The centurion not only believed that Jesus could restore his paralyzed servant but that Jesus could do so from any distance.  Such amazing faith!  And Jesus was joyfully amazed.  I would have loved to see the expression on Jesus’ face when He declared, …not even in Israel have I found such great faith (Luke 7: 9).

Finally, we see in the centurion’s message to Jesus an understanding of the larger order of things—things that are both visible and invisible.  This centurion understood that he was but one “cog” in a much larger authority structure within the mighty Roman Empire.  Specifically, he understood that the quality of his role as a steward depended upon his obedience to his superiors and to his ability to exercise rightful authority over his subordinates—i.e. he understood his place in the “chain of command.”  Stewardship of authority demands both willing acceptance of our orders and provision of accountability toward those who serve under our charge.  Instead of pointing fingers to deflect responsibility, those who do not exercise responsible stewardship must be held accountable.

Not only did the centurion understand the “visible order of things” but he also seemed to integrate this visible, earthly order with a faith in the “supernatural order of things.”  We can see this faith in his analogy between his own power within the authority structure of the Roman system and Jesus’ power within the larger, invisible, spiritual realm.  Perhaps Jesus sensed that the centurion’s heart was receptive to the essence of a message once given by the prophet Isaiah (6: 1a-2) concerning the two realms over which His Father rules (emphasis mine):

Thus says the LORD, ‘Heaven is My throne,
and the earth is My footstool…
For My hand made all these things,
Thus all these things came into being,’ declares the LORD.
‘But to this one I will look,
To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.’

We will not know this side of heaven whether the centurion was saved through faith in the atoning work of Christ.  However, Luke’s account as we have seen reveals the centurion’s progression of faith, a faith first nurtured by his gracious stewardship of authority over God’s chosen people.  This responsible stewardship allowed mutual respect between the Roman and the Jews, and paved the way for God to bring the Jewish elders to the feet of Jesus with the request to heal a paralyzed servant.  Finally, God’s grace enabled the centurion to believe in the unseen supernatural order of God’s kingdom based on the analogy of his authority within the Roman government.

The centurion’s humility and faith which amazed Jesus presents a portrait of good stewardship for us today just as it provided a remarkable testimony to the unbelieving Jews of his time.  For God had placed the centurion in center stage of a drama in which his faith enlisted the Jewish elders into the role of carrying a message of humble saving faith to the only One Who could bring ultimate healing.   Jesus had the power not only to relieve the physical paralysis and pain of the centurion’s servant.  Jesus could also overcome the spiritual paralysis and pain of God’s chosen people represented by the centurion’s Jewish messengers—and, ultimately, for anyone who would believe among the Gentiles!  Indeed, Scripture later records the role of another faithful centurion whose name is recorded in Acts 10.  God used this centurion whose name was Cornelius to reveal His plan to bring the Gospel of His saving grace to the Gentiles.  I wonder if the beloved centurion of Luke 7 and Cornelius were acquainted.

In my own small way, I too am amazed at the life of the Roman centurion.  Even though he lived in the midst of a pagan, Roman culture, he exercised faithful stewardship of his responsibilities and resources.  Therefore, he cancels my excuse not to strive to be a faithful steward of my responsibilities and opportunities as salt and light in our current needy culture.  Even though our earthly institutions and authority structures are crumbling, all of us are accountable as stewards of the Good News of the coming kingdom of Christ.  May we pray in the manner Jesus taught us and then serve well under His command:

[May] Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done,
[Let it be] on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6: 10).

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Redeeming Halloween for a Higher Purpose

Recently, Inglewood Elementary School in Lansdale, a suburb of Philadelphia, PA decided to cancel a parade and other annual Halloween celebrations.   In a letter to parents, the school administration explained that celebrating Halloween promotes religious beliefs and therefore violates school policy. 

I am saddened at the prohibition of prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and other aspects of religious expression in the public classrooms of America.   However, the recognition of Halloween activities as being “religious” in nature is at least consistent with prohibition of Christmas and Easter celebrations in schools.  

New Yorkers celebrate Halloween in Greenwich Village.  
(Photo:  Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty Images)
Halloween is indeed a holiday [“holy day” or “day set aside for religious observance”] with significant religious elements.  Like any other holiday, Halloween can be celebrated in a variety of ways, and it is not the purpose of this article to condemn the holiday in all of its manifestations. However, there are thematic elements in Halloween that are troublesome.  In his article, Christianity and the Dark Side—What About Halloween? Albert Mohler cites Harold L. Myra of Christianity Today who explains the pagan religious origin of Halloween:

More than a thousand years ago Christians confronted pagan rites appeasing the lord of death and evil spirits.  Halloween’s unsavory beginnings preceded Christ’s birth when the druids, in what is now Britain and France, observed the end of summer with sacrifices to the gods. It was the beginning of the Celtic year and they believed Samhain, the lord of death, sent evil spirits abroad to attack humans, who could escape only by assuming disguises and looking like evil spirits themselves.

Halloween not only focuses our attention on the “dark side” of the spirit world, but it also presents a materialistic philosophy dressed in the alluring appeal to all ages through candy, alcohol, exotic costumes, wild parties, and the like.  According to Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY October 24, 2012, Halloween is second only to Christmas in consumer spending for decorations, and the increased spending is due in large part to the take-over of the holiday by adults.  Horovitz explains:

A decade ago, fewer than three in 10 costumes purchased for Halloween at were for adults. Now [2012], it's more than six in 10. It should be no surprise that consumers will spend an average of $123 this Halloween, more than twice the average $53 that they spent on it a year ago, reports American Express Saving & Spending Tracker.

Dr. Mohler assesses how Christians respond to the excesses of Halloween as follows:

The issue of Halloween presses itself annually upon the Christian conscience. Acutely aware of dangers new and old, many Christian parents choose to withdraw their children from the holiday altogether. Others choose to follow a strategic battle plan for engagement with the holiday. Still others have gone further, seeking to convert Halloween into an evangelistic opportunity. Is Halloween really that significant?

Della Rose picks out her pumpkin at Trabbic Farm
How should we then live in the October season of witches, goblins, corn mazes, and candy?  After all, many of us have good memories as kids and as parents of making our own “trick-or-treat” costumes, our own candy, our hot cider, and our own brand of fun during the chilly October nights.  I for one believe Halloween can be celebrated in ways that are wholesome (Hum! When have I last heard that word?); and, that create the blend of good fun, activities, and treats we all enjoy.  Allow me to share our story.

For several years, it has been our family tradition to take our grandchildren, Caleb, Kiara, and Della to the Trabbic Pumpkin Farm.  The experience is enjoyable, educational, and inspiring.  It is enjoyable, because there are lots of things for children (and adults) to do--petting animals, climbing on straw, corn maze, and refreshing cider and donuts, etc.  It is educational to learn fun facts about pumpkins, honeybees, chickens, and other farm topics.  And it is inspiring to hear Mr. Trabbic share how the labor of him, Mrs. Trabbic, and their sons is only part of what makes a good harvest possible.  It is God Who must provide the rain and weather conditions necessary for their crops including pumpkins.  They politely point out that God is not only Creator and Sustainer of Earth.  He is also the Author and Protector of human life including the unborn, and humans are stewards of both the land and life in all its forms. 
Creating a memory of fun at the Trabbic Farm

In spite of “comments” by readers of an excellent food blog, the Luna Pier Cook, regarding the Trabbic Farm warning of a possible “offensive religious message,” our annual visits to the Trabbic Farm are anything but offensive.  Indeed, such warnings seem much more appropriate for those who plan to attend Halloween events, which often promote a very dark and even demonic religious agenda.

Thank you, Trabbic family for inviting us to direct our thoughts toward "Whatsoever is true, honorable, right, and pure...lovely, of good repute...excellent and...worthy of praise...(Philippians 4: 8)"  Thank you for pointing our attention heavenward to our gracious Creator and Sustainer from Whose hand comes “every good and perfect gift” (James 1: 17) including the sun, rain, and weather conditions necessary for the food we eat.  Thank you, Trabbic family, for your hard work on the land God has entrusted to you, and for your positive testimony to visiting adults and children even in years when your crops do not turn out so well.  May your tribe increase.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Earth Stewardship and Human Aging

My transition from full time employment to what I am calling a redirection has allowed me some time to consider how God might use me in this new chapter of life.  I have already blogged on this subject, in 2011 and 2012.  Just search Oikononia using the keyword, redirection.

In the past two years, health matters in our family have been front and center.  Abby and I have made frequent visits to the Golden Age Retreat in Carrollton, OH where Marietta Moser, Abby’s mother (and thankfully, mine by marriage) is a resident.  During our visits with “Mom,” we have met other residents who have entered this dependent stage of their lives.  Most have severe limitations in mobility, continence, mental alertness, and communication.  Yet, each of them can express traits of their personality that shine through their worn, wrinkled faces and stooped postures, reflecting who they were in their younger days. 

Until her debilitating stroke in 2011, “Mom” had resided in a small home in Kilgore, Ohio where she and her husband, Don, had lived since the late 1940’s.  During those years, she was committed to the task of raising seven daughters and pointing them to faith in God through her words and actions.  “Mom” always lovingly served family and friends who came into her home.   She also provided a godly example to her husband for 33 years of their marriage, and he finally found peace with God through faith in Christ during the final months of his life.  Since “Dad’s” death in 1980, “Mom” has lived another 33 years as a widow.  Now, confined to wheelchair and short ventures with a walker, her heart still pours forth kindness and generosity toward fellow residents, and to her family and friends who visit.  Though sadness and loneliness must creep over her at times like darkening shadows, her face brightens upon our arrival, and her smile is still beautiful when we speak of fond memories of days gone by.

Our fast-paced, “get it now” culture tends to devalue older adults who speak with difficulty, move slowly, and spill their food and drink.  Yet, I’m learning that it can be a blessing to become acquainted with the elder folks at Golden Age.  Taking time to greet them with at least a smile, and where possible with words, often brings a smile and greeting in return.  Wrinkles, blemishes, and soiled bibs sometimes create a dreary atmosphere, but brightened faces shine forth amid any apparent dreariness like the faces in Rembrandt’s paintings.  Instead of wondering about who they once were, I’m inspired by who they are.

Having reflected on the joy that still radiates from Marietta Moser and others who reside at Golden Age, I wonder “how then, I should be living” so as not to have a dismal, joyless existence if I should be allowed to enter into this period of dependency in life.  Such pondering brings me to yet another facet of that important concept of stewardship.  Biblical stewardship reminds us that God is Owner and Master, and we are His servant stewards to whom He has entrusted all that we have.  If this is true, then the Apostle Paul’s questions apply to any stage of our lives:
For who regards you as superior?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it,
why do you boast as if you had not received it?
– 2 Corinthians 4: 8

Stewardship means that we view our responsibility as managers of time, talents, and treasures at every stage of our lives.  As children our parents taught us elementary lessons of stewardship when they encouraged us to share “our toys” with other children or return toys to the toy box or shelf when we were finished.   It follows that stewardship that is nurtured and applied by God’s grace and truth can keep us on a trajectory that is appropriate for every stage of life.  After all, the lessons of the playroom or pre-school also apply to the workplace and profession of adulthood.  All that differs is the kind of “toys” we choose to accumulate, how many “toys”, and how we choose to share them.

A stewardship mindset applied to human health itself explains how older adults can still have joy when they become dependent on others for nearly everything.  While there are genetic factors and events beyond our control as we age, with God’s help it is within our stewardship responsibility to thank Him each day for our health and for the food, shelter, and support system upon which we are very dependent.  Again, the Apostle Paul, writing to young Timothy, gives helpful instruction to us (1 Timothy 6: 7-11):

But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.
But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.  But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.

Happiness is not about accumulating wealth any more than spirituality is about living a monastic existence.  Abraham and Job show us how men of great wealth can also walk closely to God and be a blessing to man.  But Jesus taught us that …from everyone who has been given much, much will be required…(Luke 12: 48).  The one who holds his or her “toys” and other possessions loosely and generosity during their “active years” will more likely be inclined to release  them peaceably and even thoughtfully when it’s time to enter a state of dependent living.

Chuck Dolph, senior professor of psychology at Cedarville University, supports the notion that aging need not be the dreaded part of life.   Rather, for the Christian, aging is a valuable season with meaning and purpose along life’s path to a glorious eternity with God.  In his article, “Thank God for Aging” (Torch magazine, Spring-Summer, 2007), Chuck beautifully expresses how aging can help us apply the truth of Psalm 90 which reminds us of the finiteness of our lives on Earth; and therefore, the need to number our days, That we may present to You [God] a heart of wisdom (v. 12).  He writes:

We must not forget that there is always meaning and purpose, even in aging and illness.  Aging strips us.  If we live long enough, we will lose our beauty, our strength, our wealth, our independence, the control of our bodily functions, our pride, and perhaps our very self.  These are our idols, all the things that we trust in life to make us attractive, valuable, and self-sufficient.

If our aging is successful, we will end our lives striped of everything but God, totally naked and helpless, utterly dependent on Him and the love of others.  Everything that we trusted in life for our worth will have been stripped away.  

Dr. Dolph concludes, What a blessing to finally find our right relationship to God!  Thank God for aging. 

For the Christian steward, the reality of aging can be a North Star of sorts to which he or she can chart a trajectory during the “younger years.”   This trajectory is based on an awareness that all we have belongs to God, and part of our stewardship can be a Spirit-led, creative adventure of discovering how to use our time, talents, and treasures in accordance with each stage of life.  

Returning to the Golden Age Retreat, in Carrollton, OH, I am reminded of one of the residents whose name is “George” (not his real name).  George ambles slowly with the help of a walker on wheels.  He speaks slowly and explains that his hands are affected by arthritis.  But his smile brightens when I ask him to play some tunes with his harmonica.    See YouTube Video.

As I conclude this article, I thank God for both Marietta Moser and my friend, George.  Both of them are teaching me how to set a trajectory on my path toward eternity; one that holds loosely and manages wisely what God has entrusted to me.  Folks like Marietta and George have little left to manage, but what they do have brings praise to their Creator.  The sweet musical notes from George’s harmonica bless all who hear them there on the porch of Golden Age Retreat before they float out across the quiet countryside and off into the heavens above.