The Oregon Shootings and the Moment of Truth

It has come out in the wake of the mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College that the murderer specifically targeted Christians in his rampage. According to several different eyewitnesses, he began lining people up and asking them what their religion was. Avowed Christians were shot in the head, while non-Christians or people who didn’t answer were shot in the legs. (Of course, had he done the same thing for Muslims or homosexuals, there would be a national outrage even as we speak, while as it is, the media is collectively ignoring or shrugging off this small detail.)

On Facebook, I saw a woman who had an interesting response when one of her friends expressed admiration for the martyrs who answered “Yes” and wished for herself that she would be able to give the same answer. This woman said that although she was a Christian, she would have refused to answer because an arbitrary test by a gun-wielding lunatic is meaningless, and God knows what’s in her heart. She argued that it was far more important for her to stay alive for the sake of her children, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome.

It’s an interesting question: Is there only one right answer in this sort of situation, or did those martyrs die for nothing? If a test set by a madman would be meaningless for her, was it meaningless for them also? Her implication seemed to be that any one of those people could have refused to answer with a clear conscience.

To be fair, the situation isn’t strictly analogous to the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, when the only options were pour out a libation or become kindling for Nero’s garden party. It seems as though this murderer was letting people off the hook if they wouldn’t answer definitely, which is technically not an act of idolatry. That’s where this woman saw her loophole—not proclaiming Christ before men, but not exactly denying him either. Her conscience is satisfied, the gunman passes her over, and her children still have their mother alive. Surely this would be the best choice, the wise choice?

Maybe… but maybe not.

I sense a defensiveness in this woman’s response, and in the fact that she gave it unsolicited. I think she feels, as all of us do, an unspoken challenge in the deaths of these Christians in Oregon, and it makes her uncomfortable. So she begins to rationalize. “I’m a wife and mother. It’s only an arbitrary test. God would know what’s in my heart anyway.” And so forth. I wonder if she would have tried to talk Saint Felicity out of going to the lions, because she had a newborn child. I wonder if she would even have told her “God knows you don’t really mean it when you pour out that libation, so just give them what they want and go back to breast-feeding your baby.”

I’m not saying I would condemn this woman for making her choice. But I wonder. I wonder if this is not a failure to recognize a moment of truth. When the hypothetical becomes reality, when the far-fetched scenario is no longer far-fetched, but a physical gun to your head and a question asked with everything at stake, what should our answer be? I wonder.

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

— T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

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Passion Week Playlist #1: Songs Of a Groaning Creation

Whiskey and gun

What do a damaged Vietnam veteran, a heartbroken father, and a motherless child all have in common? All of their stories have been told in song form, and all of them are true. And there are thousands more just like them.

Most people listen to music because it makes them feel good, and I am certainly no exception. We are naturally drawn to music with lyrics that will uplift and encourage us. That’s why we all come back to the grand old hymns and gospel songs about heaven. (What a day that will be! Oh what shouting on that hallelujah morning!)

But sometimes, I need to hear what a groaning creation sounds like. Because it’s the reason Jesus had to die.

How do you respond to a lyric like this, written for the death of a child?

It’s all too easy to take so much for granted

But it’s oh, so hard to find the words to say

Like a castle in the sand the water takes away

Now how can life ever be the same?

Cause my heart is broken in pieces

Since I lost you.

Or this, for the death of a mother?

Some trains, they leave in the morning.

Some leave in the afternoon.

Some trains, they leave here right on time.

Some, they just leave too soon.

One thing is certain—cliches and platitudes will never do.

Continue reading “Passion Week Playlist #1: Songs Of a Groaning Creation”

Jesus, John, and The Last Supper

In honor of Passion Week, I’m preparing a few special playlists that will gather together some of my favorite songs ever written in any genre. So whether you like great songwriting or whether you’ve just been wondering, “That YankeeGospelGirl, man, what a grump she is! Isn’t there anything she likes?” then you won’t want to miss any of it.

Meanwhile, to kick off the week, I thought I would share an interesting biblical tidbit that sheds light on a key moment in the Last Supper. I discovered it while doing a little research after I’d reviewed the Old Paths Quartet’s latest album. I criticized their song “Stay” for being both poorly written and overly sentimental. While corresponding with someone who sent a nice comment on the review, I was inspired to look up the context for John’s record that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (assumed to be John himself) was “leaning on Jesus’ breast.” In the song, the writer turns this into some kind of infantile desire to “listen to Jesus’ heartbeat.” To say that I was skeptical of this interpretation would be an understatement. However, I’d always been curious about that phrase. What exactly did it mean? At the suggestion of my correspondent, I’m sharing this quotation from the helpful commentary I found after a few seconds of googling:

The “disciple whom Jesus loved” appears at the Last Supper. A literal translation of the Greek states that he was leaning on Jesus’ breast (Jn 13:23). Some twentieth century people have looked askance at this. In those days, however, it was customary for guests to recline side by side in such a way that the head of one guest was parallel to the chest of the person next to him. If one wished to speak privately to that person, one would move close enough so that one’s head was nearly or actually resting on the neighbor’s chest. This is what happened at the Last Supper, when John was reclining between Jesus and Peter, who was in turn between Judas and John. Jesus had just announced that one of his apostles would betray him. Peter, who was apparently on John‘s left, with his head on John‘s chest, bade him ask Jesus to identify the traitor. John then leaned back so his head was against Jesus’ chest as he asked Him to privately disclose who it was who would betray Him. Jesus took a piece of bread and told John that the man to whom he gave the morsel was the man to watch. He then gave it to Judas, who was on the other side of [John] and thus unable to follow Jesus’ conversation with John. — Bernard Ruffin, The Twelve: The Lives of the Apostles After Calvary, pp. 90-91

Now this author is speculating a bit when he suggests exactly how Peter and Judas were seated. But the point is that, with apologies to anyone who was really touched by that song, this whole idea of John cuddling up to Jesus just because is complete nonsense. In fact, once you understand what’s actually going on, it adds a wonderful dramatic tension to the reveal of Jesus’ betrayer.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Jesus’ life and ministry took place at a particular time and place, historically. We need to be aware that the cultural framework we bring to a given story could be wrong, maybe even seriously wrong. Of course it’s hard to let go of a favorite interpretation once you’ve latched onto it. But wouldn’t you rather understand the Bible the way it was really written, the way it really happened? I know I would.

Rethinking the Phrase “R. I. P.”

“Live long, and prosper.”

Leonard Nimoy (of Star Trek fame) passed away this past weekend. So naturally, the entire country is off and running on yet another one of those emotional orgies that we have to endure when yet another celebrity we didn’t really know happens to die.

Yes, I know, it sounds kind of mean. But honestly, much as I love classic Star Trek and the character of Spock, I still don’t get it. And when I read up a little on the crazy and sometimes downright sacrilegious stuff Nimoy was into, I really don’t get it, especially coming from Christians. (Some of you may recall that I had a similar reaction when Robin Williams committed suicide, but at least there the suicide element gave it some emotional weight, eventually inspiring my own reflective tribute.)

In particular, I notice that many people are reflexively saying “R. I. P. Leonard Nimoy,” or “R. I. P. Mr. Spock.” Now, I will confess that I have not always been scrupulous in avoiding this particular phrase for dead people whose salvation was questionable. But I think there’s a good case to be made for eliminating it from the Christian’s vocabulary in this context.

Continue reading “Rethinking the Phrase “R. I. P.””

Book Review: The Stories We Tell, by Mike Cosper

If you’ve been reading my writing for any length of time, you know that I love good art and good storytelling through art, whether it’s a song, a movie or a novel. My “Marriage in the Movies” series is one example of my attempts to analyze story through a gospel lens. So when I saw everybody and his uncle recommending Pastor Mike Cosper’s book on storytelling in movies and TV, from Tim Keller to Russell Moore to Ed Stetzer to Matt Chandler… I figured, “What the heck, I’ll buy it on Kindle, write a review, and hope there’s a way to return ebooks if it turns out to be shallow and underwhelming.”

Luckily for me, there is a way, because yeah… it’s pretty shallow and underwhelming. But, I’m glad I took the time to read it and review it, because I like the idea of this book. Cosper explains, “I’ve intentionally tried to view the stories in this book in the light of the gospel, treating their characters, plots, and images as signposts for a truth that the writers, directors, and actors might not even be aware of, but that we all, nonetheless, long for.”

In general, I agree. We do need more Christians engaging with film art in a well-rounded, biblical way. We need Christians who can walk that fine line between “Wait, did he just say the d-word?” on the one hand and “All things are lawful for me, wheeeee!” on the other, sifting wheat from chaff and finding value even when the art isn’t coming from a Christian perspective. For parts of this book, I think Cosper does a relatively decent job of that. But for many reasons, it’s ultimately a poor execution of a good idea. Still, I think it’s important to examine why the execution fails and hopefully suggest a more excellent way to engage the stories our culture tells.

Continue reading “Book Review: The Stories We Tell, by Mike Cosper”

“Yesterday, things were different…”

[Note: I published this post before reading of Andrae Crouch’s death, but now that I’ve read that he literally died yesterday, it seems especially timely.]

Last night, my mother and I sat down to watch the old Cathedrals Reunion concert (which Stowtown Records has now made available on DVD). We thoroughly enjoyed seeing all the old tenors and baritones lined up and getting their moments to shine under the proud gaze of Glen Payne and George Younce, the grand old men of southern gospel.

As they sang George’s song “Yesterday,” we reflected on the bittersweet truth in these lyrics: “Time will leave its mark, they say, upon us one and all.” We considered how many people present in the video have gone on to glory in the roughly 21 years since then. George and Glen themselves, and Roger Bennett, and even, tragically, one of George’s daughters. We thought about how Mark Trammell’s hair has now gone completely white. We thought about how even youthful Ernie and Scott are slowly beginning to show the effects of middle age.

There’s a reason why God impressed upon his people Israel the importance of memory. Memory. Create this stone marker, so that you will remember. Establish this feast, in memory. And Jesus continues this theme in the establishment of the Last Supper. “Do this, in remembrance of me.”

We must not forget. We cannot forget where we came from. The reason Ernie, Scott, Mark and the others were able to succeed with their own groups is that they never forgot. Of course they moved forward with new songs, new singers and new ideas. But the lessons and the legacy of the grand old men were ever fresh in their minds.

I sometimes get frustrated with people of my generation, even Christian young people, because I’m struck with an overwhelming sense of shallowness. In large part, this shallowness is a function of the fact that young people today seem to live perpetually in “the now.” They’re perpetually hunched over an iPhone, texting someone or watching something. If you suggest reading a book or even mention the name of a movie that’s more than twenty years old, you’ll probably get a glazed look. That’s if you can get their attention in the first place. Good luck with that.

The only way we’ll be able to preserve anything worth preserving is if we instill in our young people a sense of lasting things. A sense of great things and weighty things. A sense of things that should be remembered and passed down to their children, and their children’s children.

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away… So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Psalm 90:10, 12

Christmas: To Know it For the First Time

One of my favorite Christmas movies is It’s a Wonderful Life. Technically, you could say the entire thing takes place on Christmas Eve, since George Bailey’s life story is told entirely through flashbacks as Clarence gets debriefed before touching down for his rescue mission that fateful night. Once George has his moment of grace and time returns to normal, he comes home to celebrate Christmas with family and friends as his oldest pounds out the tune of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” All the people who love him are gathered around, giving all that they can for this man who has helped so many.

When I was first teaching myself to make music videos a few years ago, I was inspired with the perfect song choice to match this movie. It’s a song called “World Traveler,” by Andrew Peterson. The character it describes sounds a lot like George Bailey. He grows up with dreams of seeing the world, but he winds up falling in love instead. In the process, he discovers the beauties and mysteries outside his own front door:

Take a left at the end of my street, just a few doors down

Up the hill and into the trees, there’s a hole in the ground

Where we traveled the caverns so deep

Wandered the wonders so wild

It was right beneath our feet

All this time, all this time…

Although Andrew was partly inspired by some actual caves that were discovered near his house, the song obviously has a double meaning. Even if we never go anywhere or see anything spectacular by the world’s terms, the adventure of finding love and raising a family can be just as epic. A man can lose himself walking the infinite hills of his wife’s soul. His children are images of God lying right beneath his roof. And the fellowship of dear friends is more precious than gold.

This Christmas morning, I’ll simply share my creation with you and hope that it moves you as much as it moved me while I made it. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

Merry Christmas to all!

On Music, Grace and Something Higher

The Soloist image

The older I get, the more tangibly aware I become of God’s presence through beauty. Among the world’s beautiful things, music is perhaps the most powerful and the most difficult to resist for even the most hardened un-believer. It releases a wellspring of longing in the soul that can’t be contained or denied.

One of my favorite movie quotes comes from the film The Soloist, based on the true story of a homeless musical savant named Nathaniel Ayers. An LA Times reporter named Steve Lopez discovered and befriended him, and the popular newspaper columns he wrote about their experiences together were eventually published in book form. Although Ayers never fully overcame the mental problems he struggled with, their friendship changed both men forever. The film takes some liberties with Lopez’s character, but the core story remains utterly compelling. In this scene, Steve and Nathaniel receive private access to an orchestral rehearsal at Disney Hall. As they sit and listen together, Nathaniel closes his eyes, enraptured, seeing the music in his mind as only he can. When Lopez tries to describe the experience later that night in a karaoke bar, he’s lost for words. He shouts over the din, “If you had seen him, if you could have felt him… I’m watching him, he’s watching the music, and while they’re playing, I say ‘My God, there is something higher out there! There is something higher!'”

He’s far from the only one to be so surprised by joy. Just ask Billy Joel to tell you about his encounter with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

Continue reading “On Music, Grace and Something Higher”

Hudson Taylor on Weeping For the Lost

Some time ago I ran across a re-telling of this story from Hudson Taylor on the interwebs. While searching for something simple but substantial to post here, I tracked down the original in Taylor’s own words thanks to archive.org. It’s a very compelling story about one particular man to whom he ministered physically and spiritually during his service in China.

Apparently, this fellow was a bit of a hard case. He had gangrene in his foot, and while he lived with a Christian family, he was violently hostile to any suggestion of Christianity. An attempt to bring a vicar to meet him ended with the man spitting on the vicar and yelling him out of the house. Eventually, his case was transferred to Hudson. For the first few days, Hudson reports that he concentrated solely on dressing the man’s foot properly. It was only after he had made progress and earned some gratitude from the man that he ventured to speak about Jesus. While the man didn’t react as violently as before, no doubt controlling himself because he still felt he owed something to Taylor, he wouldn’t budge either. All of Taylor’s attempts to share the gospel were met with sullen silence, as the man would literally turning his back on him at the end of each dressing session.

Thankfully, that was not the end of the story, and Taylor realized his words were indeed having an effect when he decided one day to give up, turning to go after wordlessly dressing the man’s wound. When he looked back before walking out the door, he saw the man staring at him in utter astonishment that he had broken the pattern. “He was never afterwards unwilling to be spoken to or prayed with, and within a few days he definitely accepted Christ as his Savior.” Though once convinced he would soon die, the man lived on for quite some time. In reflecting on the case, Hudson offers this meditation:

I have often thought since in connection with this case and the work of God generally of the words, ‘He that goes forth weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. Perhaps if we had more of that intense distress for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire.  Sometimes it may be that while we are complaining of the hardness of the hearts of those we are seeking to benefit, the hardness of our own hearts and our own feeble apprehension of the solemn reality of eternal things may be the true cause of our lack of success.

(Read the entire story in Taylor’s words from the 1911 biography In Early Years: The Growth of a Soul) here.

If I may add a closing thought, this story reminds me how much I detest it when atheists express discomfort or outright contempt for Christian doctor missionaries who preach the gospel in addition to offering medical care. They blather on about the insidiousness of preaching to “a captive audience.” Those Christian doctors, how dare they try to manipulate poor sick people at their most vulnerable!

It seems apparent that those who would voice such a sentiment are the truly poor and the truly sick. But, I’m sure that Hudson Taylor would have wept for them as well.

C. S. Lewis On Praising God

It’s always a delight to run across a bit of C. S. Lewis that I’ve never read before. The other day, I picked up a copy of a magazine on the snack table at church which excerpted Lewis on God’s worthiness of our praise. The selection is taken from A Reflection On the Psalms. As usual, Lewis expresses so well so many things I would like to say, but couldn’t say as well as he could. He begins by confessing that as a new Christian, he wrestled with this idea that God demands our constant worship. This rubbed him the wrong way, as if God were the divine equivalent of Brian Regan’s “me monster.”  It’s  still a rhetorical tactic that atheists and free-thinkers try to bamboozle Christians with today. But as Lewis grew in the faith, he developed a better understanding of what, precisely, it means for us to praise God, and what precisely we are lacking when we do not.

To describe this in simple human terms, Lewis pinpoints the universal delight we take in praising things we enjoy—be it our favorite pastimes, our favorite art, or our beloved family and friends. This rings very true for me, especially the part about how we feel our praise is incomplete unless we can find someone to share it with, some audience who can appreciate the thing we love as much as we do. Lewis then takes this instinctive human desire and brings it back to the One who is ultimately worthy of our eternal praise: Continue reading “C. S. Lewis On Praising God”