Thoughts on a 50th Reunion, and The Reunion

Def. “Re-yoon-yan.  Noun. A meeting of persons of previous connection; a gathering of relatives, friends, or former associates.”  We think of family gatherings with shared hugs, shared traditions, shared meals, and shared (and constantly repeated) stories.  But school reunions are different, and the expectations have much wider guardrails. 

Recently I attended my 50th (“Golden”) high school reunion.  It’s interesting—when I was younger, the Golden attendees were old geezers, but this was a gathering of twenty-one vibrant, youthful men in their late 60’s.  (Okay, you can raise one eyebrow, but not both).  It is true, however, that we all now have different hair and hairlines (all are grey or white, some use a handkerchief instead of a comb; and there was one obvious dye job). 

Here are some random thoughts about the weekend.

First, I’ll do some bragging on a few of my classmates: there are businessmen of every stripe; some are CEO’s, CFO’s, and CMO’s (of places like Talbot’s, Chattem, national chains).  One is the founder of the Hard Rock Café and the House of Blues (he also married Ringo Starr’s ex-wife).  One is a retired Navy Captain.  One is the retiring Vice-President and part owner of The New York Times, and is also the publisher of McCall’s, Tennis, Family Circle and other magazines.  One invented Google Earth (yes, you read that right).  Not to mention doctors, lawyers, accountants—the list of accomplishments is actually long enough to be boring.

When we were students fifty years ago, both high academic and athletic performance were expected.  Some classmates did college or graduate work at Ivy League universities.  Our class valedictorian gave his valedictory address in Latin, a tradition that I hope is no longer observed; I’m sure that what he said then still rings true today, but no one knew what he said!  (By the way, I’ve always wished I had taken Latin.) 

I said “men” earlier because we had no female students; my high school was, at that time, an all-boys military school.  Two things that were revered were the Honor Code, and Excellence.  And every Wednesday, after military inspection, we had chapel—which was different from what you might expect.  From its beginnings (in contrast to the surrounding conservative religious culture), the school’s founder was very clear that religious instruction was to be pluralistic regarding any and all beliefs or creeds.  All forms of diverse “Christian” belief were accepted, right from the start—which over time morphed into the norm that all forms of any religious belief (or non-belief) are accepted (and its corollary: any exclusivism is frowned upon as both unenlightened and, well, rude). 

It’s ironic to me that a biblical world view is the only belief system that actually anchors those two core values of Honor and Excellence (as well as truth, kindness, and other virtues and values).  I believe that the school’s values are anchored more in a social contract (horizontal) than in any coherent theistic world view (vertical).   

To continue my story, Betsy and I had great fun at every event we attended.  But there were also serious moments: thirteen of my classmates are dead (out of eighty or so—whenever I find my elusive yearbook I’ll get the right number).  About ten years ago I conducted the funeral of one of them, who had remained a life-long friend, and who was a solid believer in Jesus Christ.  I now have contact information for many classmates, and learned that several of them live in or near Chattanooga.  I look forward to seeing them again.  Some are also now my brothers in Christ, which was a deeply gratifying discovery.  

I know it’s a very short—and obvious—jump to “The Reunion” of all believers in heaven, when our Lord returns or we die.  But “The Reunion” is a major theme in Scripture.  On that day, the invitation list is limited to those who have placed faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died in our place for our sins (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8-9).  No one will be comparing resumes; earthly status will be dismissed as irrelevant and inappropriate (Philippians 3:7-8, “whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ”).

On that day, there will be joy in reconnections without comparisons.  It will truly be “Homecoming” in every possible joyful, loving, comforting sense of that word.

However, there will also be evaluation of our earthly lives at that reunion—the giving of rewards—based on the principle of “faithfulness.”  The Judgment Seat of Christ evaluates our faithfulness in living—not for ourselves, but living for our Lord and for others (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-4:5, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10).  So my challenge to myself is not, “Am I successful according to the world’s standards?” but rather, “Am I faithful in God’s eyes?”

The old couplet is true: “one short life will soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” 

(I wish I knew how to say that in Latin.)

P.S.  One more thing: not a day goes by that I don’t think of my sweet sister Irene who died of a very fast, very unexpected cancer one year ago today (on October 29, 2016—see below, “Reflections on an Unexpected Loss”).  Her reunion with Mom and Dad, and most of all with her Savior, was, I am certain, one amazing reunion!

A Christmas Meditation

I have been pastoring for 31 years now, and have probably written 80-90 Christmas sermons.  Sometimes it's hard not to repeat things, although Scripture makes it clear that "reminders" are to be the norm for the Christian (just do a concordance search for the words "remind" and "reminder").  Last year I did a series on "Christmas in Isaiah" (a study that I greatly enjoyed).  This year my thoughts return to the Christmas story in Luke--specifically the announcement to Mary and her stunning response recorded in Luke 1:38, "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word."  

This Sunday (Dec 4) we're going to reflect on the backstory that accompanies this declaration.  Mary had her life planned out in the way we all nurture future expectations.  I would speculate that her plans included these points:

1. I will marry Joseph the Carpenter.

2. I will have several children.

3. I will build friendships with other women in Nazareth.

4. I will enjoy a reasonably long life, hopefully with Joseph, our children, and our grandchildren--whose lives will be relatively free from trouble (I have to add this, because every parent desires it).

5. I will be respected in the community where I build my life (If we fantasize a bit, she might have thought, "I love weddings.  One day maybe I'll plan weddings and involve my children on the beverage side!").

Whatever she might have included on her list, Mary would certainly have expectations and hopes for her life.  And then, the angel showed up.  And God the Spirit implanted the divine Seed within her.  Her statement of submission ("be it done to me") is one of the most potentially costly statements of commitment to God's will contained in the Bible.  How would this commitment derail all her plans--at least as far as she knew?

1. Marriage to Joseph?  No; he would refuse her now.

2. Future children?  No.  Marriage would be out of the question.  No one else would have her. 

3. Friendships with other women?  No; she would be a moral outcast.

4. Future happy family life?  No; she was yielding those dreams.

5. Future respect?  No.  In fact, after the baby was born, she might be stoned as an adulteress.

Sometimes you face a decision that becomes a watershed moment, in which your decision so defines your life that nothing after that moment will ever be the same. You may not be young like Mary, you may be old.  You may be either male or female.  You may be married or single.  It doesn’t matter.  God steps in and touches our lives in ways we never expect.  He takes our "list" and then erases some things, and maybe adds other things.  Have you ever had a defining moment that set the course for everything that followed after?

What’s on your list?  I know you have one--whether it's articulated or not, we all have certain expectations for the future.  So how will you react when God messes with your personal agenda and changes your list?  We don't know what He will bring into our lives...

o  It may be an amazing opportunity. 

o  It may be the ravages of a disease. 

o  It may be financial hardship. 

o  It may be a financial windfall. 

o  It may be problems in your marriage that you didn’t expect to show up. 

o  It may be a child that rises to national prominence in a wonderful way you didn’t expect (like Mary's son, Jesus)

o  It may be a child that rises to national prominence in an awful way, with tragic consequences, that you would never wish on your child (again, like Mary's son, Jesus)

God had a bigger plan, an eternal plan, for Mary's personal agenda: her son, God's Son, came to redeem all who place their faith in Him.  Including Mary.

When you come to your own defining moment, how will you respond?  Really, for a believer, it comes down to one response: “Lord, I’m yours. Use me.”  In Mary’s terminology, Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word."  

 

 

Reflections on an unexpected loss

The year 2016 has been a year of unexpected surprises.  Within the last three months, Great Britain unexpectedly voted to leave the European Union.  The Chicago Cubs unexpectedly won the world series, for the first time since 1908.  Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidential election, contrary to all polling data and punditry.   But in our home, these global events are overshadowed by an unexpected loss.

As my church family knows, my sweet sister Irene was diagnosed with acute leukemia and entered Jesus' arms five weeks later (on Oct. 29).  The journey was stunningly fast.  Betsy and I keep reflecting on the strangeness of it all.  I'll look at something I did six weeks prior (like, for example, the blog entries below), and the thought will hit me, "At that moment I was totally ignorant of the tragedy that was about to devastate us in a few days.  Little did I know."  Irene was my only sibling, and we were very close.  It's hard.  And I am fully aware that many in our church family have experienced deep, unspeakable loss.

What have I learned about God?  Nothing new.  It would be nice to say something exalted and "pastoral" that would uplift us all in profound ways.  You see, we believe in the sovereignty of our omnipotent God, who could have changed what happened, but chose not to.  Frankly I'm puzzled with God's timing, and disappointed with His choices (if I can say that).  But I feel like Peter when Jesus asked if he too was going to leave him--"Lord, where else is there to go?  You are the One with words of eternal life."  I agree; and even though our hearts are broken, we have God's peace.  Irene was the strong one of the family through all of this, concerned that she glorify Jesus, whether by life or by death.  She did both.

Have you ever wondered about Job?  It's striking that at the beginning of that book, he was characterized as the most godly man on the planet, and yet by the end of the book he is repenting of his sin before God.  Most of us would look at this man's suffering and wonder, "Of what did Job repent?"  Job repeatedly asked God the question, "Why?  why?  WHY?  WHY!" until that question became a demand.  The problem was not that Job asked the question.  The OT Prophets frequently questioned God about His eternal plans.  The problem was that by the end of the book, Job's attitude had changed.  He didn't just ask; he demanded the answer.  He felt God owed him.  

Faith is hard.  Sometimes it's harder than at other times.  And my mind works this way: I think that if I didn't have to exercise quite so much faith--if God would just show me the reason behind his plan--then I could get on board as a cheerleader instead of holding on by fingers of faith, trusting that God knows what he's doing.  (Since we are near Christmas and references to Mary are prominent, I would be surprised if Mary, at the foot of the Cross, were not thinking, "Lord, all of these years lead to this?  You're putting him through THIS?  Father, what possible good could come from this?")  There are times when we all call out, "Lord, why?"  

As far as the book of Job is concerned, he never was told the answer to the question, "Why?" But he did have deeper insights into "Who" and his heart was changed.  ("I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You..." Job 42:5).  God is in control.  He doesn't make mistakes.  If I don't know WHY, but know WHO, that is enough.  And the more I know WHO, the less I need to know WHY.  

A Decade of Marriage

The following is my daughter Rebecca's Facebook post from October 21, 2016 (three days ago) on the occasion of her 10th wedding anniversary.  For me as a dad, it's exactly what I would dream for my children.  The perspective she describes blends a clear understanding of reality (not fantasy), contentment (by choice), and finding joy in the sovereign purposes of God.  I reproduce it here in full, with her permission:

"Ten years ago today, my new husband and I stood overlooking the Tennessee River as the leaves changed from green to red, orange, and yellow. Back then, we thought that today, our tenth anniversary, we would leave our own home behind, drop off our three-or-four wonderfully behaved children with family (who of course would live nearby) and trot off to Paris or Istanbul or Florence for a week or two. Back then, we did not imagine waking up on this day in separate rooms because our infant has been yelling every hour or less throughout the night, and there's no sense in two of us getting no sleep. Back then, we would not have known that losing a beloved grandparent would still bring tears to our eyes from the missing. Back then, we would not have known that today we would be awaiting the news of a new loss as the aunt who treated me like a daughter is being slowly ushered into Glory. Back then, we had no idea that home would be a small town in one of the most expensive regions in the world, far away from my Southern homeland, the dream of home ownership dwindling with every tax return.

"Back then, we also could not have known that we would have chosen the path of adventure, of calculated risks. That we would be business owners, determined to bring our dreams into reality and seizing opportunity. We could not have known the depths of love we would still have for each other, ever expanding with the addition of our two children. Back then, we could not have known that our gifts would be so perfectly aligned as to make us the best of teammates in this journey. Back then, we could not have known how heartache and disappointment would result in leaning into each other, trusting God's sovereignty together, constantly re-imagining our present and our future as life ebbs and flows. That our friendship and partnership and romance would sharpen one another slowly over the years to create the best versions of ourselves.

"When the Lord in His incredible graciousness gave you to me, He gave me the man who would help me to become a strong, brave woman, encouraged by your love. I love you through all the decisions and indecisions of our life, through the time-outs and sleepless nights and tantrums. I'll take it over a trip to Paris, because this is the life we were given. This is our story and I would not have written it any other way."

The Count of Monte Cristo

I’ve just finished the classic adventure book by Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo.  No, I didn’t read it in the original French, and I didn’t read it in all its volumes—it was an abridged version (not the full 1400 pages).  In fact, full disclosure, I didn’t actually read it.  I listened to the audio-book read by a British actor named David Case.  It was excellent.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “Dumas was... a summit of art. Nobody ever could, or did, or will improve upon Dumas's romances and plays.”  Sounds right.

              I was impressed by the intricacies of plot, and also by the ability of the author (and the translator) to capture emotions and nuances with just the right turn of phrase.  It was a verbal feast—although I must admit that since my taste for entertaining books runs more to Louis L’Amour, my threshold for literary excellence is pretty low.  

              But The Count of Monte Cristo is also a morality tale of innocence, guilt, justice, and the inescapable judgment of God.  The main character, Edmond Dantes, was unjustly accused and placed without trial in a prison that is situated on a remote island.  For the next 14 years he plots his revenge on the four people who caused his ruin.  Each one of the four villains had an agenda that was entirely self-serving and deserves God's judgment--a constant theme throughout the book.

Edmond does indeed escape the inescapable prison (at age 33, ‘baptized’ in the ocean, risen to a new identity—who knew?), carrying with him the key to a vast fortune supplied by a fellow prisoner—a priest who became a second father, teacher, and mentor to Dantes.  The last half of the story contains the unfolding of justice, of providence, and occasionally of grace.  Each of the four subplots of revenge and justice is book-length and very elaborate in its own details.  Near the end of the story, when Edmond realizes the limitations of his own abilities to exert justice, he becomes more humble and more human again. 

              There is a cultural postscript to Dumas’ tale.  In 2002 a movie version of the story was produced, starring Jim Caviezel as the Count/Edmond.  It was well done, but other than the basic story outline, there was no resemblance to Dumas’ story.  There were major plot differences (in the movie, Edmond is reunited with his life-long love Mercedes; in the book that doesn’t happen). 

Probably the most glaring difference was that in the book Albert, the son of his former fiancée Mercedes, was indeed the son of his enemy, Mercedes’ husband; but in the movie, the screenwriter changed the tale so that Edmond and Mercedes had slept together before he was dragged off to prison, and Albert (played by Superman, Henry Cavill) was actually Edmond’s son.  In an interview, the screenwriter wondered how Dumas could miss such an obviously desirable twist to the plot.  But the answer is that Dumas inhabited a different moral universe than Hollywood screenwriters, and his hero would not have had sexual relations with Mercedes until they were properly married. 

              Actually, both the book and the movie are good.  Here is one of the last statements in the book, delivered by the Count/Edmond: “…never forget that until the day that God deigns to reveal himself to man, the sum of all human wisdom will be contained in these two words, wait and hope.”  It’s been interesting to be teaching through the principles of God’s justice (four sermons from Romans 2:1-16) to follow Dumas’ story of human justice.  At the end, the Count/Edmond sees the clear hand of God in His providence, in His judgment, and in His mercy.  Good story.  But between the book and the movie, go for the book.

On Photosynthesis and just plain Synthesis

This past Sunday (July 17, 2016) I taught from Romans 1:18-23 for the third time, and said that God calls two witnesses to confirm that there are things that we can't not know--such as Who God is.  Those two witnesses are Creation (whether viewed through the telescope or through the microscope) and Conscience (our embedded sense of right & wrong, that it should be universalized, and that justice "should" ultimately triumph).  Yet human beings, created in God's image, suppress the truth of who God is.  ln response, "God gave them over" (repeated 3 times) by removing restraints.  God's intention is that by wallowing in the consequences of our choices, we will eventually "come to our senses" (like the prodigal son) and turn to Him.  

In speaking about the wonders of creation viewed through the microscope, I mentioned the illustration of photosynthesis, and told you that I'd post more information on this blog.  This is an excerpt from an email last month written by my former colleague, Kurt Wise, who has his Ph.D. from Harvard in evolutionary theory (paleontology, the fossil record):

“We do not know exactly how many steps there are in photosynthesis, but it is estimated at about 500.  When I started grad school (1981) a fellow graduate student who was working on his Ph.D. on one of those 500 steps said that only about 50 steps (10%) had been worked out at that time and he was hoping to master another one of those steps for his doctorate.  He also said there were about 60 scientists around the world who devote their entire careers to studying photosynthesis.  I don't know how many steps they have figured out [by now], but I would guess another 10%.  In any case that information very much impressed me with the extreme complexity of photosynthesis….   It's so complex that we aren't even sure how many steps there are and still understand a small percentage of the steps.  There is no conceivable way that such a process could come to be by natural process: 1) nothing that complex occurs spontaneously; 2) there is a huge irreducible complexity (too many steps have to be in place for it to be built in a step-by-step process like evolution); 3) if its complexity is not even understood by humans, it is likely it requires an intelligent designer many times more capable than humans; 4) the efficiency of photosynthesis exceeds the efficiency of human designs (including attempts to emulate photosynthesis); and 5) the entire process of photosynthesis occurs in chloroplasts which [are] about 1 micron in size (1 one millionth of a meter!)—a microsizing phenomenon unmatched by modern human technology.” 

I appreciate Kurt's thorough answer to my question.  The truth is, sometimes the more information we gather, the more evidence we have supporting the idea of an intelligent Creator--not the opposite.  And although this fits well with Romans 1, it does not "confirm" Romans 1--because God's Word stands true regardless of current scientific confirmations.

On a different topic, I also addressed briefly the objection that many raise about the fate of those who have not heard the Gospel. There are four "bottom line" issues for me on this question, that I'll summarize here:

First, God has not explicitly informed us about the destiny of the "untold."   So, apparently we are not on God’s “need-to-know” short list (actually we are the “untold” about this particular issue).  If you don’t know the answer to this (or any other) question, then “I don’t know” is a pretty good answer.  Which leads me directly to my next point...

Second, as an objection to Christianity, “not knowing” the answer does not falsify the biblical worldview (because this question is not deeply embedded in the core of our faith).   It would be a valid objection if somehow God were required to satisfy our curiosity about all subjects, including those that do not apply to us.  But this objection does not rise to that level.  In one sense, this question is like asking “what’s God’s favorite time of day?” in that our uncertainty of the final answer does not subvert Christianity—it’s not an objection to either the truth or the coherence of our faith.  And we always need to keep in mind that a biblical world view commits us to a view of reality that is larger (infinite) than our (finite) ability to explain everything that it contains.

Third, 2 Peter 3:9 reminds us of God's intention: He "does not want any to perish, but for all to come to repentance."  Add to that the truth that "the judge of all the world will do what is just" (Genesis 18:25).  Either we trust Him in this or we do not.

Finally, the answer to the question, “What about those who have never heard?” will never apply to the person who asks the question—because they have heard.  Sometimes people raise questions because they are genuinely concerned about an objection, but sometimes people raise questions as smokescreens, for the purpose of avoiding the Gospel. There’s a difference between genuine intellectual objections and intellectual excuses!

P.S. This topic has long been an interest of mine for reasons of apologetics--defending the faith.  For those who are interested in more information, years ago I wrote a few articles and chapters about religious pluralism in various journals and books, and I'm attaching the address to one of those articles below, published in a British journal. Hopefully the article is not too tedious--you should see it's brothers!  (If interested, copy this URL address and put it in your browser; that should get you there.  biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/1992-3_229.pdf )

My First Blog

This is my first blog.  Louis and BJ were probably afraid they would have to explain to me what a “blog” is.  Au contraire!  According to one of the online dictionaries, a blog is “a website containing a writer’s or group of writers’ own experiences, observations, opinions, etc., and often having images and links to other websites.”  Up to this point, I have been rather impressed with myself for learning to use “google” as a verb.  But now I get to share my own experiences, observations, and opinions on a regular basis?  Maybe share some really bad puns?  And have a venue where I can talk about my grandchildren?  Okay.  Fasten your seat belts.

I’m currently reading about the life of King Saul in the book of 1 Samuel.  You know the background: the main enemies of Israel at the time were the Philistines.  The Israelites were tired of the ongoing struggle their enemies posed.  So instead of turning to their Lord, they demanded that Samuel give them a king like all the other pagan nations had.  (Ironic, isn’t it, that God called them to be different from other nations; their demand was to be like the other nations.)  After Samuel anointed Saul as their king, the people became fearful that God would abandon them.  Samuel gave them this assurance:

“Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart.  You must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which cannot profit or deliver, because they are futile.  For the LORD will not abandon His people on account of His great name, because the LORD has been pleased to make you a people for Himself.  Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; but I will instruct you in the good and right way.  Only fear the LORD and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you.  But if you still do wickedly, both you and your king will be swept away.”   (1 Samuel 12:20-25)

The passage itself is rich with truth, but notice several points to ponder in light of redemption in Jesus Christ:

1. Even though we have sin in our lives, God does not reject us—instead He exhorts us to begin again and “not turn aside”.  We take up our cross (how often?) daily and follow Jesus.  And every day is a new day.

2. The enticements that draw us away from the Lord are “futile”—even after we receive what we thought we wanted, they turn out to be empty, hollow, and unsatisfying.  Only the Lord satisfies.

3. The reason God will not abandon Israel is not because of them, but because of Him.  His Word and His name are at stake.  And there is also great comfort here for believers in Jesus Christ, because He will never leave us, nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5); there is “no condemnation” for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

4. Leaders have the responsibility to teach (hey, that’s what we do at SMBC!), but especially to pray for the body.  And if I do not pray for the flock, I am sinning against God.  Sobering stuff. 

5. Finally, when you and I are in the battle, remember “what great things [God] has done for you.”  Over and over again the refrain in Scripture is to remember, remember, remember.  Do you ever become so caught up in the present problems that you forget God’s faithfulness in the past?  He wants us to remember how He rescued us from those difficult times, and on the basis of His past faithfulness, to trust him for present and future trials.

If you do these things, your problems will dissolve away, right?  Wrong.  The Philistines remained as an ongoing challenge.  But God was with them, as He is with us.  The victory is not ours; it belongs to Him.