Samson-Making Israel Great Again

The Blinding of Samson-Rembrandt

Reading through the Old Testament book of Judges lately and I’m struck by how God raised up Samson to make Israel great again. The Angel of the Lord visited his barren parents and promised them a son who would “begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” As auspicious a beginning as John the Baptist.

God’s Spirit “rushed” upon Samson and enabled him to kill Philistines who had been oppressing Israel for forty years. When he called out to God for strength, even for water, God provided. He empowered Samson to slaughter 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, then cracked open a rock to replenish him with water.  Samson judged Israel 20 years and is included in the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith.”

And yet, Judges 13-16 portrays him as a strongman who was a narcissistic liar, a womanizer, an arrogant and boastful loudmouth, cunning and shrewd, thin-skinned and bent on mayhem and revenge.

A Brief Summary of the Colorado Baker Case in the Supremes’ Own Words

This case is so important for freedoms of religion and speech still to be determined, including your own freedoms, that it’s worth reading this short summary of what the Justices actually said in their own history-making words. 

The Colorado baker who fought for his freedoms of religion and speech

Last week a happy Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, celebrated his religious liberty at the Supreme Court. Maybe you read headlines like, “Court rules in favor of baker who refused to make wedding cake for gay couple.” As you read these excerpts of their opinions below you will grasp so much more of the issues, context, and future challenges to our freedoms than just reading headlines and short quotes. (My words appear in italics.) Here’s a powerful example from Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinion:

“Phillips told the couple, ‘I’ll make your birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same sex weddings.’  It is hard to see how this statement stigmatizes gays and lesbians more than blocking them from marching in a city parade, dismissing them from the Boy Scouts, or subjecting them to signs that say “God Hates Fags”—all of which this Court has deemed protected by the First Amendment.

“Moreover, it is also hard to see how Phillips’ statement is worse than the racist, demeaning, and even threatening speech toward blacks that this Court has tolerated in previous decisions. Concerns about “dignity” and “stigma” did not carry the day when this Court affirmed the right of white supremacists to burn a 25-foot cross; conduct a rally on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday; or circulate a film featuring hooded Klan members who were brandishing weapons and threatening to ‘Bury the niggers….’…The First Amendment gives individuals the right to disagree about the correctness of Obergefell and the morality of same-sex marriage.”

Two Hidden Truths that Deepened the Joy and Meaning of the Royal Wedding

On May 19th Great Britain’s Prince Harry married American Meghan Markle. As soon as it ended, the TV commentators swooned : “The whole room was filled with happiness.” “It’s enough to make me believe in love again.” It was a joyful occasion. The prince was dashing. The bride radiant in her tiara. But there was also a beautiful subtext woven into the ancient ceremony that may have contributed to inspiring people to want to get married…stay married…even believe in love again.

In today’s cynical hook-up culture, it lifts our spirits to see a bride and groom promise to love and cherish one another till death. While almost three billion people around the world delighted in the beauty of Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan’s marriage ceremony, I wonder how many of the guests and viewers really grasped the deep truths woven into the familiar words.

My Written-in-Real-Time Blog of Billy Graham’s Funeral

A speaker by speaker, song by song, verse by verse summary, with brief commentary, of Billy Graham’s funeral in Charlotte, NC on March 1, 2018.

To me, it felt a little bit like the days after 9-11. The enchantment of this world was momentarily broken, and the curtain pulled back on the ultimate reality of what is good, true and beautiful. Thank you, Billy Graham, for pointing the way home in life and death.

Setting—Tent for 2,300 people positioned for the view to perfectly frame the Billy Graham library/museum, an enlarged dairy barn-styled building with a silo beside it. And to the left, the relocated dairy farm-style home in which he grew up. Barely pinkening redbud trees line a split rail fence.

It could be the cameras, but it looks like everyone is in navy. (the new black?) President Trump. Melania. The Pences. Ben Carson, N. Carolina governor. Nikki Haley. Sen. Ted Cruz. Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Max Lucado. Beth Moore. Jewish yarmulkes. Orthodox Patriarch in black headgear. A missionary to bedouin tribes  and other missionaries, unknown to us, but some of the “great ones” in God’s kingdom.

Linda McCrary-Fisher sings “Until Then” to open the funeral and David Bruce, Graham’s executive assistant, welcomes guests.

Donald Wilton-Pastor of First Baptist Spartanburg gives Scripture reading and invocation. He reads from Ephesians 2, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Graham joined his church in 2008 and Wilton has visited him weekly in recent times. He travelled w/ the family to Washington and will conduct the graveside service.

Hymn-“All Hail The Power of Jesus Name.” Billy’s family singing lustily without programs. Pres Trump and Pences using programs. And I’m singing along too.

#metoo: Sorting through our closeted feelings, the backlash, and the tension between justice and mercy

Yes, #metoo. Thankfully not the seriously damaging kind. Even so, I remember how in years past I felt all the feelings that have been swirling around since the reveal of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predations launched the movement in October…Surprise. Disgust. Did that really happen? Did he really say that? Put his hand there? Why didn’t I say something?

On the Mexico City Metro I did. I turned and glared and called the groper out (quite loudly!): “Que poca educacion tienes!” How little education you have!

But in my 20’s when it came to my boss’s boss, an elected official, sad to say, I simply tolerated the continuous flirtations and jousted back. He was three times my age and a very powerful man in Texas. I played the game and I’m sorry I did. Also sorry I didn’t graciously tell one of my best friend’s husband that his p—- joke wasn’t worthy of him. 

World-weary? “All Things New” torches our hope

The ultimate fix for culture wars and chaos, pain and loss

You probably saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets in protest for Right to Life and women’s empowerment last weekend. On Capitol Hill the Democrats in their trench shouted, ‘Protect Immigrants!” while Republicans in theirs shouted, “Protect citizens! Protect the military!”

And we watch. War-weary, just wanting these people to do their jobs and run the government. The shutdown shut down, but the “cultural war for the soul of America” as Pat Buchanan first described it, continues—this daily battle over “who we are and what we stand for as Americans.”

Did you hear any of the speeches from the Senate floor? It was as if Democrat Schumer and Republican McConnell each described the shutdown from totally different planets. As my gut tensed I wondered, “How will this war ever end?” It used to be that the war was fought during election season and now it’s fought every day.

Suddenly, unbidden, words and images flooded in…

Luther was anti-semitic. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. Three reasons we should still honor them.

Jack with Jefferson at Monticello

Last week, the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I honored Martin Luther in this post and two messages. One person responded, “How can we celebrate a man who was an anti-Semite?” Not just a little anti-Semitic. Which of the following sentences do you think are Luther’s and which do you think are Hitler’s?

“…eject them forever from this country…mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, away with them!”

“…set fire to their synagogues or schools,” and let “all their prayer books and Talmudic writings be taken from them…Let their rabbis be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”

Let “their houses also be razed and destroyed…[and let] safe-­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews…let them stay at home.”

Let “usury be prohibited to them, and all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…they have no other means of earning a livelihood than usury, and by it they have stolen and robbed from us all they possess.”

“…we let them get rich on our sweat and blood, while we remain poor and they suck the marrow from our bones.”

The rest of Luther’s story, Gods Providence and our great legacy of gifts

It so happened that Luther, an intellectual genius, was also a great Biblical scholar and a writer with tremendous command of the German language. His audience found his powerful Biblical insights and courage to call out the Church almost irresistible.

@ Ransom Center for the Humanities, Univ of Texas at Austin, one of five in the US

In God’s providence Luther posted his 95 Theses not long after the invention of the printing press. In 1450 Gutenberg had published the first printed Bible (in Latin, of course)

Sixty-seven years later, on Oct 31, 1517, Luther hand wrote his 95 theses IN LATIN-a summons to fellow professors at Wittenberg University to a theological debate. His students had them translated into German and printed.

Back in the early days of the printing press, there were no copyrights and no authors’ permissions required. Printers printed whatever they thought would sell. And without his knowledge, sales of Luther’s 95 Theses took off. Within two weeks all the surrounding towns were discussing it.

Start November by Giving Thanks for the Reformation at 500 Years

What does the first post to go viral mean to us and what do we take for granted?

Suppose you wanted to know God and follow him. How might you get to know him? Where would you begin? Maybe you’d like to read what he said…500 years ago your only option would have been a Latin Bible.

Maybe you’d like to go to church…500 years ago your only option would have been a Latin mass.

You could pray…but suppose you felt unworthy. You wanted to come before God but felt you needed to begin by confessing your sin to him. You would need to confess to a priest. Rather than merely listening to your confession, by the 1500’s confessors had been taught to quiz church members–asking them the details of their sin, especially sexual sin with others. Or alone.

Finding Meaning When We Can’t Find a Motive

An LA Times headline blares “What drove Las Vegas shooter to kill? We don't know, and it drives us crazy”

Lennon’s memorial marker in Strawberry Fields, Central Park NY

I watched the most riveting story on CNN of a woman who held the hand of two Las Vegas shooting victims as they died. She wanted to honor the moment of their death with a caring, loving presence, staying with one body for hours until his girlfriend could come and be with him. Meanwhile she was constantly in contact with his girlfriend and his mother, telling them every detail of his passing, listening to their tearful remembrances and stories of his life. She wanted to make his death more meaningful.

At the end of her story the camera slowly faded away with a soft piano musical pad underneath. The first few bars sounded exactly like John Lennon’s signature song, “Imagine.” And I sat transfixed by the idea of that song being played over that story. After a couple of bars the music modulated into other chords, another tune. But I was deeply struck by the lingering idea of the juxtaposition of Lennon’s lyric with the carnage in Vegas: “Imagine there’s no heaven…above us only sky….”

I didn’t realize it, but there is actually a growing tradition to sing or play “Imagine” in the wake of tragedy. The morning after the ISIS-inspired shootings at the Bataclan in Paris a pianist hauled a grand piano in front of the concert venue and played “Imagine” as a plea to end this religious inspired slaughter. The video went viral. How do Lennon’s lyrics and life speak to our motives for devaluing others?

More important than Taking a Knee or Standing…

There comes a point where a certain American citizen cannot honor or celebrate what this nation has done. To do so would violate a conscience that simply cannot value what this nation values. Should that citizen be compelled to show honor or celebrate on pain of losing a job? Or paying fines?

Suppose we are not talking about NFL football players taking a knee, but citizens who could not in good conscience honor or celebrate a gay wedding. They could not use their artistic expression to create flower arrangements or make cakes or calligraphy invitations. Should they be fined so much that they lose their business? That has happened to several Christians, and many believers have united in support behind them. Our tradition tends to honor freedom of conscience.

Do we really want to obligate these athletes to act contrary to conscience?

Do you think of yourself as a patriot? A nationalist? What is the difference?

Is there any tension between being a nationalist or a patriot and seeking God’s kingdom?

As seen in Europe this summer

After his Tuesday speech at the UN, President Trump was again hit hard and often for being a nationalist. Why are so many so critical? Is it the same as love of country? As believing that America, among the nations of the world, is exceptional? Even superior? Is that so bad?

What is patriotism?

Webster’s defines “patriot” as “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.” We sing that America is beautiful for “patriot dreams” which evokes the ideals of our founders woven into our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. They dreamed of a nation where all of us who have been created with equal value and worth in God’s image will receive equal justice under the law. Where we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Where our elected representatives will govern with the consent of “we the people.”

Things are feeling a little um…apocalyptic lately

Is this God's judgment?

Like an opening fanfare we experienced a total eclipse of the sun. As a native Houstonian living in Columbia, South Carolina, now we are writing checks and sending Facebook touches to Harvey-flooded friends back home and lashing down our deck furniture in anticipation of Irma. What are the odds that two of the worst hurricanes in American history would hit back to back? And then there’s Jose coming right behind…

Friends who were headed to Montana this weekend will have to navigate the smoke from fires that have burned over 1,000,000 acres this summer. The schools in Olympia, Washington, where my cousins live, have cancelled sporting events this week because of the smoke from nearby fires. Yesterday the largest solar flare in a decade disrupted communications. And five minutes ago, as I’m posting this, CNN interrupted their coverage of Irma to report on an 8.1 earthquake off the west of Mexico.

Meanwhile, over in North Korea, seismologists suspected an earthquake last weekend which turned out to be a guy barely out of his 20’s exploding a hydrogen bomb.

As pastor friend Jay Sanders writes, “If you read the Bible, you know what all of this means.

“It means that theological con-men will be coming out from under every rock to tell us that Jesus will be coming back on September 23, 2017.”

Eclipse Photojournal: Our trip through totality

(with a little help from my friends)

Ours is truly a privileged planet. That’s what I was thinking Monday as the moon slid over the sun here in Columbia, South Carolina. Could it just be a co-incidence that…

…the moon perfectly, PERFECTLY blocks the sun’s fiery ball?

…the moon and sun are both perfect circles? (Some moons are shaped more like a potato)

…the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, but that is perfectly offset by the fact it is 400x’s closer to Earth?

“For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the LORD, and there is no other,” (Isaiah 45:18).

I was thinking, He formed it so that we would have a front row seat to see his glory on display like this.

Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist we interviewed for our radio program and co-author of the book Privileged Planet, said he studied all 65 moons in our solar system.

A Christian Response to the Battle over Confederate Symbols

Confederate monument in front of the South Carolina capitol (taken by Lael Arrington)

Last week, as two factions violently clashed over whether to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee in the city of Charlottesville, VA, the movie Selma was playing on TV. I flipped the channel between live coverage of young white men attacking those who wanted to bring the statue down and actual newsreel footage inserted in the movie of young white men waving the Confederate battle flag to mock and harass the Selma marchers.

You couldn’t miss the contrast in the two scenes. In the movie, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King was invoking the love of Christ and his non-violent example as he led many young blacks to march and stand quietly with their hands clasped behind them. By contrast, the faces of the young white men waving their stars and bars were screwed up in hate. In Charlottesville you could see the anger exploding on both sides.

What a difference strong, Christ-following leadership made.

Here in South Carolina we have seen that difference defuse the battle over Confederate symbols more than once. Two Christian governors have stood up to tradition and strong emotions at great political risk. Their words speak compellingly to this moment.

Dunkirk: The movie…and our calling

Yesterday evening we went to see Chris Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, where the British and French armies were forced to pull back to the beaches in the face of Hitler’s army.  The movie powerfully shows the terror of 338,ooo men pinned down on the beach waiting and trying to evacuate to England across the channel. Overhead the Luftwaffe bombed the hospital ships and destroyers loaded with men and strafed those still on the beach or in the water.

But the movie leaves out much of the larger story. Right when they had the Allies in their tank sites, the German army halted their advance for three days.  They believed the Allies were doomed and they took the liberty to consolidate their position. A British officer cabled home a curious message that signified nothing to the Germans, but dire distress to the British populace who were familiar with the King James Version of the Bible: “But if not…”

The message quoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as they faced the furnace of the Babylonian king (Daniel 3:17-18: “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, let it be known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

The troops faced a fiery ordeal. They needed a miracle.

Trump’s Extraordinary Poland Speech (edited for you)

"...let us all fight...for family, for freedom, for country, and for God."

Do you think this is “racist” and “white nationalist”? Do you think it’s Biblical to be this proud of Western history and values? Speaking in Warsaw last week, Trump vilified Soviet Russia and celebrated the sacrifices of the Polish people’s fight for freedom. He also celebrated the culture and achievements of Western Civilization, especially the way we value freedom, God and family. For all that he has been widely criticized.  I’ve edited this very important speech for quicker reading and encourage you to read it for yourself…What do you think?

“…This is a nation more than one thousand years old.  Your borders were erased for more than a century and only restored just one century ago.

In 1920, in the Miracle of Vistula, Poland stopped the Soviet army bent on European conquest.  Then, 19 years later in 1939, you were invaded yet again, this time by Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east.

Under a double occupation the Polish people endured evils beyond description: the Katyn forest massacre, the occupations, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the destruction of this beautiful capital city, and the deaths of nearly one in five Polish people.  A vibrant Jewish population — the largest in Europe — was reduced to almost nothing after the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Poland’s Jewish citizens, along with countless others, during that brutal occupation.

In the summer of 1944, the Nazi and Soviet armies were preparing for a terrible and bloody battle right here in Warsaw….

Remembering Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

On this July 4th celebration, I invite you to join me in savoring these images of America’s Freedoms. Struggling to get his head around how to illustrate President Roosevelt’s call to commemorate such big ideas, Rockwell finally decided to depict them as he and his neighbors actually experienced them in his home town. Here’s the backstory:

“In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to unite the American people to a common cause. Though Pearl Harbor was still a year away, the war was already raging in Europe and Asia. England was on the verge of collapse. Pres. Roosevelt, faced with an isolationist-leaning America and the looming prospect of a second world war, set forth a vision that would inspire citizens to brave the sacrifices and perils he foresaw in the war against fascism. His vision consisted of four universal human rights:

freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. He saw these values as America’s heritage, now threatened and needing to be defended.

Do things happen for a reason, or by chance?

Views from Christian, modern and postmodern worldviews

In The Year of Living Biblically A.J. Jacobs, general editor of Esquire magazine, writes, “Julie [his wife] always told me that things happen for a reason. To which I would reply, Sure, things happen for a reason. Certain chemical reactions take place in people’s brains, and they cause those people to move their mouths and arms. That’s the reason. But, I thought, there’s no greater purpose.”

We all long to know where our lives in particular and history in general are going. Does everything happen by chance? Or is God directing the course of human events with purpose? Are our lives part of a larger story (a meta-narrative) that’s going somewhere?

Ark, flood…how could a loving God…?

In last week’s post I reported on our trip to the Ark Encounter in northern Kentucky, a Biblically scaled ark with many thoughtful exhibits. Invoking artistic license, the creators have assigned names and back stories to everyone on the ark. In one exhibit Japheth’s wife (whom they’ve named Rayneh) is troubled by the massive loss of life outside their boat. She ponders these questions as she goes about her daily chores.