The Mindful Disciple

I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.

All Loves Excelling

Well, it’s Valentine’s Day, which for some reason has come to be associated with candy, cards, and flowers. Those wares, with pink/red/white bunting to spare, have been up in some retail outlets since the Christmas gear was packed away.

Commercialism aside, today’s a good day to ask, what is love? Depending on your translation the word appears between 300-550 times in the Bible. In just over a quarter of a second a Google search for “love” (without quotes) returns over 3.5 billion pages. Clearly, humans are interested in the idea, however differently we may define it. Depending on who’s talking, it can refer to ‘friendship,’ ‘sex,’ ‘bonding,’ and a host of other things. The day named after the Christian martyr Valentine has in particular come to be associated with affection and romance, although one would be wise to suspect few know why that connection exists or even who he was to begin with.


There are a lot of lonely people out there who miss out on Valentine’s Day. Some are widowed, others divorced or not in a mutually caring respectful relationship. Whatever the reason, we who follow the same way as did Valentine can reach out to them in Christian kindness and charity (a word which now refers merely to almsgiving but used to mean divine love, love that gives with no need or expectation of receiving in return). The late Leo Buscaglia once said, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest complement, or that smallest act of caring – all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Wouldn’t you like to turn someone’s life around? Just as the Apostle Paul referred to Philemon’s love as his source of joy and encouragement, you and I can do likewise for those who need it most.

Oh, I’m all in favor of romance, don’t get me wrong. But I fear if we equate love with romance we wind up with something more vapid and shallow than God intended. Many of us have memorized what is said about love in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, but look how else the concept is defined in Scripture:

Love is better than wine – Song of Songs 1.2

Love is as strong as death – Song of Songs 8.6

Love is the fulfillment of the Torah – Romans 13.10

In other words, God’s kind of love is intoxicating, unstoppable, and the culmination of what he wants to bring about in civil society. As much as you might like chocolate and hot dates, you have to admit that’s a lot better. As Wesley put it,

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve thee as thy hosts above,
Pray and praise thee without ceasing,
Glory in thy perfect love.

Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
‘Till in heaven we take our place,
‘Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Image credit: mosaic of Valentine by, flickr creative commons


Fits and Starts

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice.

Just a few short months ago, 46% of Americans believed interracial relations in this country have deteriorated over the last few years. As of this Advent season, that figure has climbed by between seven and eleven percentage points, depending on whose survey you believe. The recent killings by the police of these three blacks (among others) may have had something to do with that uptick. That police are more willing to use – and are quicker to use – deadly force is well documented, and is something that merits a long, hard, dispassionate look. But at any rate, when it comes to racism the majority of us believe things now are the worst they’ve been in decades.

This is certainly not a one-way street. Nearly 150 years after its founding the Ku Klux Klan still exists. There are white supremacists in 21st century America – but there are also black supremacists. There are hate crimes and racially motivated evils perpetrated by all sides.

It is easy, at this point, to feel the despair of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who on December 25, 1863, wrote:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

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, goodwill to men!”

Poor interracial relations in this country are sometimes said to have their roots in slavery. Bad as that episode in American history is – and it was very bad – this is a meager excuse. For one thing, slavery has a long and diverse history. Africans captured and sold their fellow Africans to each other long before they had contact with people from other continents. Then they started selling each other to Arab slave traders, and only later to Europeans. For that matter, people groups all over the world have engaged in the practice of enslaving others at some point in their past. Other countries have wrestled with this and have done so better than we.

For another thing – and quite pertinent to this discussion – whites were slaves in this country well before blacks. As Ulrich Phillips writes in Life and Labor in the Old South,

Negro slavery was efficiently established in colonial America because Black slaves were governed, organized and controlled by the structures and organization that were first used to enslave and control Whites. Black slaves were late comers fitted into a system already developed.

The ruthless oppression of the Irish by the British government was the primary source of the white slave trade. Thanks to the proclamation of James II, grandson to the monarch behind the Authorized Version of the Bible (the beloved “KJV”), they were sent by the thousands first to Australia and the Caribbean, and rather quickly found themselves in the American colonies. Even well after the Revolutionary War white, Bible-literate Christians had few qualms about enslaving other whites, and everything you’ve ever read about the mistreatment of blacks on these shores – rape, brutal work, killing them freely and at will – was true of these poor souls, too. Racism had nothing to do with it; it was purely a matter of avarice. Black slaves could be as much as ten times as expensive as European ones (mostly due to transport costs) so buying whites was much more cost effective. When, over time, white Americans felt greater unease about owning whites, white slaves were bred with black ones so that their issue would “look” like slaves.

This is why I have little patience with my fellow Americans who decry the Three-Fifths Compromise and laws against miscegenation. Those things were not designed to perpetuate the oppression and ownership of one’s fellow man but to end it. Banning human chattel outright was politically and practically impossible, so these were efforts to undermine slavery with the hopes that over time it would be eliminated.

Slavery was undone in a subversive manner. Believe it or not, that was God’s plan. Far too many, ignorant of what Scripture actually says, think the Bible endorses slavery. It emphatically does not; controlling a thing is not the same as sanctioning it. Why didn’t the Lord simply outlaw it, you ask? Why should he have? He outlawed adultery, didn’t he? Did that do any good? Legislation may regulate behavior to a limited degree, but has zero power to change people’s desire to sin.

No, knowing human nature better than we humans do, God worked to destroy slavery from within. Under the Mosaic Law, it was permitted among his covenant people, but in a highly regulated and humane way (humane for the Bronze Age, anyway). The death blow for the practice came under the Christian covenant. Slaves were to obtain their freedom if at all possible (1 Cor 7.22), and until then serve their owners as if serving God himself (Col 3.22); for their part masters were not to mistreat slaves (Eph 6.8) but consider them as if they were their own siblings (Phm 1.15f). Where those ideals are believed and practiced, slavery collapses of its own accord. As the carol “O Holy Night” correctly puts it,

Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Within a few years of the Bible’s closing pages slaves were pastors of churches, teaching theology and administering the Eucharist to their masters. As a divine ordinance slave owners were washing the feet of slaves. They worshiped side by side, prayed for one another, loved and sacrificed for each other, and in so doing destroyed the institution that separated them. According to historian Rodney Stark, slavery was completely eradicated from Christian Europe by the 11th century, except for a small region of southern Italy where there were entrenched links with Arabic northern Africa.

It was the Enlightenment that brought slavery back, not Christianity. And sadly yes, a great number of European and American Christians wholeheartedly took to Enlightenment ideals, becoming very much supportive of the slave trade; many of them pointed to the Bible to support the practice. But they did so only by taking certain passages out of context and completely ignoring the above and other passages which had caused the Church to abandon the practice centuries earlier. It fell to Christian abolitionists to re-fight that battle.

Christ broke down the diving walls that separate man from man. In him there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, educated or uneducated, slave or free (Col 3.11). He has been at work for a very long time to call us out from our worldly loyalties and affinities to be bound to him; he is forming a new tribe based, not on borders, ethnicity, skin color, language, or place of origin, but on him and him alone. The Apostle Peter, taking the words of Moses, says that those who follow Christ have become a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who belong to God (1Pe 2.9): a new, supernatural nationality. This formation was neither smooth nor complete; it is an ongoing process moving forward in spurts, in fits and starts, lurching and stalling as his people sometimes work with him and sometimes work against his will.

The hatred, division, and dominion of man over man will never end by law. It is only undone by love: first receiving the love of God, and then extending it to others. That is what Christmas is all about. Longfellow understood this; like the psalmist, he poured out his lament but ended with a confident faith that what God has promised he will accomplish:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Broken Chains the Immigrants Battery Park NYC by kempstemycImage credit: detail of “The Immigrants” in Battery Park, NYC by sculptor Luis Sanguino; photo by kempstemyc (Flikr Creative Commons, 2009) 



Fall is in full swing, the elections behind us, the holidays ahead and oh, there’s much to see – including a bumper crop of Hollywood films announced. James Cameron, the man who holds himself to be an authority on oceanography and global warming due to the fact that he made a movie about the Titanic, has begun filming the sequel to his 2009 blockbuster Avatar. You know, the one you’ve seen repeatedly – I mean, literally repeatedly. Cameron’s Avatar, Costner’s Dances with Wolves, and Disney’s Pocahontas are the same film, albeit with different technologies and different character names. Here’s the plot: by intriguing happenstance a young, zealous military man of ethnic European background infiltrates a barbaric tribe and after a bit of flailing about eventually proves his worth and falls in love with the beautiful and valiant princess-facsimile, learns that her people are not barbarians at all but rather noble, dignified, living in harmony with nature; that, in fact, the true barbarians are his own people: rapacious, violent, and untrustworthy – so he betrays his heritage, throws in his lot with the natives, fights and saves the day, or at least sort of. The End. See? Same film.

I don’t exactly blame Cameron for ripping off someone else’s creative work; it’s hard not to, given our propensity to steal, and anyway, even though we are story-telling creatures our story-telling capabilities are rather limited. Sorry to be the Toto to everyone’s Dorothy, but sometimes you have to pull back the curtain to reveal that the clash, bang, and drama is nothing more than the mundane, monotonous, and mendacious. Which brings us right back to politics.

Tuesday’s elections have been already over analyzed but one thing you’ve not likely heard from any commentators is how little difference will be made. “Everything has Changed!” trumpeted one headline but no, I tell you, nothing has changed.

Think about the last time there was an overwhelming shift of power in this country, or when a single party dominated two or even all three branches of government. Were there grand sweeping changes? Were the deepest dreams and aspirations of the victorious electorate enacted into law and policy – or did things fundamentally continue along the same trajectory? Look at the number of times the overwhelming desire of the population has been and is even now being ignored. Just like Cameron’s sci-fi spectacle, it’s the same story as the last revolution, the previous shellacking, the most recent tidal wave. Clash, bang, drama, a few billion spent here and there, the winners go to Washington, the losers write bestsellers and earn millions on the speakers’ circuit, and both of them want us to go back to mindless entertainment while nothing of significance changes.

If your own gut and a bit of common sense doesn’t confirm that, make sure to get a copy of the next issue of Perspectives on Politics, which reports the depressing news that poly-sci research has proven the American political system is controlled by giant corporations and the wealthy elite; your vote and my vote have little or no influence at all. The upper echelons of society are quite immune to the will of the people, and while this was never a democracy to begin with (the USA was established as a democratic republic, which is not the same thing as a democracy) it should be by now obvious that our leaders are increasingly indifferent to what We, the People, want. And why would they care? They have power; they don’t need us.

Depressing news, that is, if you were looking for a political solution to a spiritual problem. Government isn’t wrong, per se; the bible tells us human governance is ordained by God, a part and parcel of the commission given man as the divine viceroy. We as a species were given authority over the earth to bring about order, harmony and mutual flourishing – the kingdom of God, so to speak – but Scripture also points out that we are a fallen race, meaning our efforts to do so will be haphazard at best. Our fallenness is something government did not cause and cannot cure; it can, at best, only slow the process of decay.

We long for an ideal world because, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we were made for an ideal world. Left, Right, and Center, we think we know how to bring about that ideal world yet we can’t. We cannot fix ourselves, and we are, as a culture, drifting away from the only one who can.

The West is falling. It was built upon concepts drawn from the Christian faith – things like noblesse oblige, the worth of the individual soul (and therefore a greater weight on individualism over collectivism), hard work, delayed gratification, personal modesty, the supremacy of truth in both the public square and the private arena (and as a direct consequence, honesty became a civic as well as personal virtue), reason and logic and, yes, science – why, even Capitalism is a biblical gift, according to Rodney Stark. Obviously (and at times notoriously) plenty of Westerners have disdained these things or applied them with great inequality, and I am not saying these things are not to be found outside of the West, but it cannot be denied that these were the foundations of the Western world, and insofar as they are being systematically denigrated, rejected, subverted and removed from Western society then Western society as it currently exists will eventually cease be, and something else will replace it.

Any guesses as to what that might be?

If you answered paganism, you win.

That is not a net positive. Lest anyone think that paganism will be all bacchanalias and frolic, they should read a bit about what pagan societies were like – or for a contemporary illustration, look to the Levant. What you see happening there right now is but a foretaste of what’s to come. Whatever form of paganism fills the void left behind, there will be more and more beheadings and torture, burnings of books (and witches), rampant fear, chattel slavery – in many ways, to use the words of Thomas Hobbes, an inexorable return to the way life has been throughout most of human history: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Sixteen centuries ago Augustine said it best: you are simultaneously a citizen of two realms, the earthly and the heavenly. Do what’s right for each, but never confuse the two. Obey earthly authorities insofar as doing so would not cause you to disobey God. Seek the good of your society; vote, pay taxes, serve jury duty, that sort of thing. Christianity will survive, and thrive, just fine without the West. The West will do neither without Christianity.

I hope I have disabused you of the notion that our best efforts, our activism, our rage, our anything can save our culture. Christ alone can. If we will not have him, things here will only get worse. But if we, collectively, will not have him, each of us individually can. Pray he will work in you and through you, cooperate with him, be the kind of man or woman who demonstrates him to whomever is in your sphere of influence. This world is out of sync with its Maker and will remain so until the end; you and I, however, can set up pockets of resistance against it. Read, think, ask questions, learn, act, and most of all, remember.

Of course, this will make you dangerous, but that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it?

ResistanceImage credit: “Resistance;” sculpture by Corinne Franzén-Heslenfeld, Utrecht, The Netherlands; photograph by Arend Jan Wonink, flikr creative commons, 2009


from Tractatus Politicus (1st published 1676) by Baruch Spinoza:

I have strived not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.


Amity and Enmity

“Friendship,” according to boxing great Muhammad Ali, “is not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything at all.”

Hopefully you have good, solid friends, those upon whom you know you can always depend to cheer you up, help you out, and keep you going when times get tough – the kind of people who, in the words of Walter Winchell, walk in when the rest of the world walks out. There’s got to be at least one friend in your life who will always be honest with you, always be trustworthy, always have your best interest at heart.

Believe it or not, God can be that kind of friend.


In certain circles this is a rather popular concept, at least recently; you don’t have to be in too many contemporary worship sets or listen long to Christian radio without soon hearing someone announce “I am a friend of God” or affirm “the One who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine” or the (possibly sarcastic) boast, “I am the friendliest of friends of God.”

It is a staggering concept, if you think about it, that the Supreme Being – the Mind behind the universe, the only enduring, eternal, infinite One – is willing and able to be your friend. There is a catch, however.

Three separate times the Patriarch Abraham is referred to as “God’s friend.” But was that title lightly bestowed? It would seem clear that this friendship came about because Abraham “believed God” (c.f. Gen 15.6 along w/ Rom 4.3), which must be understood to be not mere doctrinal assent on Abraham’s part but subsequent obedience. It is noteworthy that in the Hebrew Bible the word translated as “faith,” “trust,” or “belief” can equally be rendered “faithful” or “faithfulness” – in other words, right belief will perforce lead to right action. The two are inseparable. In our classical Western mindset, we have divorced the two, to our detriment. Paraphrasing Caneday, there is no belief apart from good works, nor are there good works apart from belief.

If a friendly relationship with the Creator is possible, is it not vital to know how Christ defined it? He surely did, in a succinct sentence:

“Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

So it’s pretty clear friendship with God is contingent upon obedience towards God. We don’t have the right to demand submission from fellow humans as a test of friendship, but God does.

Some time back, at the church where I served as pastor at the time, a young woman came to me for counseling. She’d had a series of relationships with men, some of whom she’d married, some she hadn’t; with some she’d borne children. All of the relationships had been rocky and none had ended well. She wanted to know why her life was so messed up, and how it could change. I told her there were undoubtedly a number of influences and events which factored into her life choices, but it could all be boiled down to one simple answer: Jesus wasn’t very high on her priority list.

You see, she claimed to be a Christian, and I never doubted her profession of faith … just its importance to her. I’m not saying she didn’t love the Lord. I said she loved a lot of things more than she loved him, and until that changed – until he took the preeminent place in her thinking – she would continue in the pattern she’d been living.

None of this was said with any air of superiority or condemnation. I know what it’s like to screw up. She knew I spoke from compassion as well as deep conviction. She agreed with my analysis. I’d hoped she’d repent, but instead she quit coming to church. People got mad at me.

Doesn’t God love her, no matter what, you ask? Absolutely. But God might not like her very much – or you or I, for that matter. Love isn’t earned, but likability is.

Do you profess faith? That’s nice, but keep in mind: Faith without faithfulness is apostasy.

There’s a lovely Arab proverb that fits here: “A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

That is the kind of relationship God offers.

Conversely, there’s this:

Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

This present age is infected with sin, intractably rebellious against its Maker. You cannot be allied with both it and God at the same time. There is no third way; you must choose one side or the other.

Friends or enemies? Which will it be?


Mothers and Daughters

Today is Mother’s Day (or Mothers’ Day or Mothers Day or Mothering Sunday, take your pick) in most of the over five dozen countries where this holiday is observed. Hopefully it is a pleasant, even meaningful occasion for you. Keep in mind it is not so for all. Many of us have lost our mothers – this may be the first Mother’s Day without her – and there are a great many women who’ve lost their children, or wished to have children but never could. This is a painful reminder of loss for some – maybe you, too.

It is particularly painful to the mothers in Nigeria, where in the last few weeks hundreds of their daughters have been stolen from them by members of the Islamist group Boko Haram. A small handful has escaped; God grant more will join those who’ve gotten free.

Mentioning God may cause you to ask why he doesn’t prevent this from happening. Some atheists – Dawkins and Harris, to mention a few celebrity non-believers – assert that the absence divine intervention in situations like this is proof God does not exist. I suggest otherwise.

The sad reality is the Sovereign of the universe delegated authority over this planet to us, and we are notoriously flawed. You are. So am I. Sure, there are things you and I personally won’t do, but as a species we are self-centered, corrupt, and quick to devolve into barbarism. The example of Boko Haram serves as a reminder that for most of its history the human animal has practiced rape as a legitimate form of warfare.

So why doesn’t the Lord of creation intervene when evil occurs? I say he has been and is still intervening – but in ways that do not countermand mankind’s divine rights. God, you see, rarely invokes overt raw power; he is much more likely to orchestrate change by persuasion, not coercion. It would seem he prefers to work from within.

That is very likely what is happening in Nigeria and surrounding countries. And we are a part of it.

The media persists in saying these young women were kidnapped. They were not. They were abducted.

What is the difference, you ask? No ransom for their return is being demanded. Boko Haram has no intention of returning them. They will be sex slaves or wives – and, under Boko Haram’s dominion, there is little difference between the two.

And I suspect this was God’s plan all along. Why? Because this pattern has been seen before in history.

Consider: for almost four centuries, Vikings were the terror of Europe. They were efficient, ruthless killers who pillaged and destroyed in waves of raids that were not confined to coastal areas of central and southern Europe; they would set up base camps by the sea and make forays deep inland for months at a time. Few could withstand them. Historians tell us that by the eleventh century the Viking militant culture was dead, primarily due to economic and religious factors – the latter, specifically, meaning that the Church by that time was deeply integrated into Norse society. How did that happen? It was by the influence of generations of Christian girls and women whom the Vikings carried off as sex slaves and wives. Cut off forever from their families, isolated from almost everything familiar, they clung to their faith – and that faith enabled them to transform their homes, neighborhoods, and an entire civilization.

As it turns out, this is precisely what Scripture said might happen.

It is long, slow process of transformation, and incredibly sad and painful. The cost is great, but the cost of not effecting change would have been far greater.

God did not spare his only begotten Son. What makes you think he will spare his daughters?

Don’t for a moment blame God if in his permissive will he has allowed these Nigerian young women, and hundreds more besides, to suffer a cruel fate in order to transform the hearts and minds of fanatical, totalitarian killers. If he was wrong to do so, how much more are we – we who have done exactly the same thing, prompted by baser, political, motives rather than spiritual ones.

It was not God who sent millions of US taxpayer dollars to build schools in sub-Saharan Africa and encourage girls to get an education. It is not God who is now tweeting hashtags and holding rallies and doubling down on the call for the sisters and cousins and daughters of the victims to likewise put themselves in harm’s way. It is we who have done this. We, from the safety of our shores and the comfort of our coffee shops, have knowingly put these young women in danger, because we wanted to use them as tools in a subversive campaign against so-called radical Islam. We made them targets; we invited military intervention against them from a group that correctly our actions as a threat to their ideology. We are partly to blame for their suffering.

We cannot hope God will come along and clean up our foreign policy failures. That is not his responsibility. Our agendas are not his agendas; our ways are not his ways. What we can hope for is that he will take our messes and make from them something far better than we could possibly have imagined.

Please pray for these young women. Pray for comfort and peace for them, and for their families. Pray they would be bold and courageous, that their wills would not break under pressure. Pray that the life and power of God within them will be evident to their captors. Pray for their captors to repent of their evil ways. Pray for justice, but no less than you pray for mercy – for them, as well as for yourself.



from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

“Begin each morning by saying to thyself, ‘Today I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.’ All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good (that it is beautiful), and of the bad (that it is ugly), and the nature of him who does wrong (that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity); I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another, then, is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away from one another.”

A Stoic philosopher at heart, Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from A.D. 161-180, was highly regarded by 1st century Christians, though he evidently had little love for them. It is odd, then, that so much of what he wrote has direct parallels to the Bible, almost as if some of his ideas were drawn directly from Scripture. Something to meditate on today.