Sacred Trust

“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.In your book were writtenall the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” Psalms 139:13-16 | NRSV

Today’s date holds a peculiar slice of American history that speaks volumes if one is willing to read between the lines. In fact, it resembles the Old Testament’s description of changes—good and bad—brought about by the hand and decree of Israel’s and Judah’s successive monarchs. U.S. President Ronald Reagan issued a presidential proclamation on January 13, 1984, designating Sunday, January 22, 1984 as National Sanctity of Human Life Day, noting that it was the 11th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court issued a ruling that guaranteed women access to abortion. George H. W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan as president, continued the annual proclamation throughout his presidency; however, Bill Clinton, did away with the annual observance during his eight years in office, President George W. Bush, Clinton’s successor, resumed the annual proclamation and did so throughout his presidency. Barack Obama refused to issue a National Sanctity of Human Life proclamation during the two terms of his presidency, but in the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump issued a proclamation declaring January 22, 2018 to be National Sanctity of Human Life Day. In contrast to the up and down trend of U.S. Presidents, the Proper Calendar of the Catholic Church in the United States declares the 22nd of January (or the 23rd if the 22nd is a Sunday) is to be observed as the “Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children”. For those who struggle to find their own voice in the debate, I offer the following firsthand perspective on this sacred trust:

It is easy to be dogmatic until the dog barks at you. Sunday morning began much the same as any other: two cups of coffee, a blueberry bagel slathered with lite cream cheese (to appease my diet-conscious wife), numerous read-throughs of the morning’s soon-to-be-delivered sermon, and intermittent prayer. Like clockwork, we traveled down Rock Creek Road to a little white-frame church where nothing memorable happened during the worship service that followed, including my preaching. We returned home as we do most Sundays after church; I changed into jeans and an old college sweatshirt and set about to do nothing in particular—one of the reasons I love Sunday afternoons. During the interlude leading up to lunch, I received a text message from my high school senior daughter. Text messages are common occurrences these days and notoriously void of emotion, but this one conjured up plenty on my part: “Dad, I need to talk to you. Please call when you can.” Without knowing what she meant, I did what she asked and placed the call. She answered, and I asked what was on her mind. She said, “Dad, I don’t want to tell you. Can’t you just guess and I’ll let you know when you get it right?” All I could think to say was what I honestly believe: “No matter what you have to tell me, nothing will change the fact that you’re my daughter and I will always love you.” Interminable silence followed, broken finally by what I somehow already knew: “I’m pregnant.” Two simple words, yet profound enough to change the world. I appreciate anyone’s honest struggle with what to do with those two words, but must confess a vested interest in every human outcome of the debate. Born to an unwed mother in 1960, I would have had a damning designation on my birth certificate were it not for the tireless efforts of Edna Gladney on behalf of children like me some twenty years previous. As bad as it would have been to have a prejudiced label on my birth certificate, the good news is that I have a birth certificate. The even better news is that my birth mother had the courage to enter Sellers Baptist Home in New Orleans and gift me to Henry and Lois, a couple with hearts large enough to allow a child to flourish in the arms of great nourishing love. I would never denigrate that poor young woman’s angst over yielding her child, and, in fact, attempt consciously to live in such a way as to validate the outcome of her decision. Two things get lost in the debate over choice versus life: the enduring turmoil of the mother-in-waiting, and the enduring destiny of the child-in-waiting. For those who uphold the individual’s choice as superior to the unborn child, you will, no doubt, abhor my opposition to your position. For those who vilify the individual in support of a moral dilemma, you must excuse my sensitivity to the turmoil of the woman. I have been and continue to be profoundly altered by the courage of my daughter who followed the first two words with four others: “I’m having this baby.” The bottom line is this: I write not on this critical issue as physician, scientist, theologian—liberal or conservative; I speak as a survivor, and write as a father (From Ordinary Glory: Finding Grace in the Commonplace by Dane Fowlkes).

“O GOD our Creator, we give thanks to thee, who alone hast the power to impart the breath of life as thou dost form each of us in our mother’s womb: grant, we pray; that we, whom thou hast made stewards of creation, may remain faithful to this sacred trust and constant in safeguarding the dignity of every human life; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.” (Divine Worship: The Missal)

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Getting Nobler While Growing Older

A normal approach to devotional reading and Scripture meditation is to open the Bible and, perhaps, a favorite devotional aid as well, read the day’s selection, all the while praying for God to illuminate His Word or speak through someone else’s thoughts about it. Generally, God says pretty much what I expect Him to say, likely because it is what I want to find. As long as He says and does what I prefer, life proceeds routinely. It is precisely when the Almighty speaks and acts contrary to my prescribed norm that the trouble begins. Occasionally, the Father surprises, disturbs, unsettles by going off script. I had just such an experience yesterday morning.

I read the daily from Oswald Chambers’ “My Utmost for His Highest” as I do most mornings. I confess I have succumbed to technological advance and take advantage these days of reading Chambers from an iPhone app. Each day I devour Chambers’ thoughts on living abandoned to Christ while sipping coffee and fighting the mental inclination to wander into work and a myriad other distractions. The day’s devotional message concludes with the offer to swipe the screen in order to see “Today’s Wisdom.” I should preface what I am about to share by admitting that I find myself expressing these days, with more than a hint of pride in the admission, that the older I get, the more blunt and less tolerant I become. It is as if I wear impatience as a distorted badge of honor. Now you will understand my reaction when I read:

“Am I getting nobler, better, more helpful, more humble, as I get older? Am I exhibiting the life that men take knowledge of as having been with Jesus, or am I getting more self-assertive, more deliberately determined to have my own way? It is a great thing to tell yourself the truth.” (From “The Place of Help”)

I sat stunned, wounded, bleeding internally. How had I embraced my own spiritual demise by camouflaging it with shadows of ignorance? Stripped bare of pretense, all that was left to me was contrition and confession. I pleaded right then and there for divine CPR. With no ulterior motive, I petitioned the Father to eradicate self-assertion, eliminate accumulation of regret, and jettison my inclination to hoard sharp edges. This journey of the Cross will never be an easy one, but the burden is made lighter remembering that aging is no excuse for hardness.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 | NRSV

Ten Mission Goals for 2019

I appreciate Chuck Lawless of Southeastern Seminary for offering ten resolutions for Missions for the new year—resolutions intended to challenge us to think more externally and globally this year.

“The new year is not only an opportunity for a new start. It’s another opportunity of grace to be part of reaching the nations.” (Chuck Lawless)

I have taken liberty to slightly reconfigure these and express them as tangible goals to reach this year. Here are my adapted ten mission goals for 2019:

1. In my Scripture reading & meditation, I will look/listen for evidence of God’s heart for the nations.

2. I will pray for missionaries by name at least one day per week.

3. I will pray weekly for a specific unreached people group.

4. I will watch for and seize every opportunity to share the Gospel.

5. I will intentionally get to know my sphere of influence and prayerfully seek to represent Christ to each individual within that circle.

6. I will personally engage in a mission effort this year.

7. I will listen to and read the news through a Great Commission lens.

8. I will visit ethnic restaurants in my area to get to know internationals.

9. I will regularly pray that my influence will lead my friends and family to have a greater passion for the Great Commission.

10. I will sincerely pray, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.”

As Lawless suggests, don’t fret over attempting to reach all of these goals, but begin somewhere. Attempting to maintain one mission goal is important, especially if you have never done so in the past. You will find as you do, the Lord of the nations will lay them on your own heart. Quite suddenly you will find yourself moved by the same concerns that move the heart of God. Petition the Lord for what Bob Pierce prayed many years ago: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.”

Come Clean

“Come clean” is a curious expression. Its meaning aligns more with airing dirty laundry than handing out clean linen. Another vantage point heralds disclosing secrets, exposing hidden sin and harbored ill will, all with the intent of resolving regret and moving forward with a fresh start. Such mindset generally assumes the form of hopeful resolve aimed at an altered and more desirable condition. I am unopposed to harbingers of a New Year’s wake up call, but there is an insurmountable hurdle on my way to a better me. Here is the sad truth — there is nothing worth salvaging from the old me. Duct tape does nothing to alter states; it merely temporarily allows a blemish to function to a lesser degree. Remembering failed efforts at self-help nauseates me. What I want most is my past to be utterly unrecognizable. The man I long to be is not a remodeled version of a previous edition; in fact, it doesn’t resemble me at all, but acts and sounds conspicuously like Jesus Christ.

The Cross is not a metaphor; it is an actual altar of hideous execution. The Cross defines life by demanding death. It has absolutely nothing to do with improvement, and everything to do with transformation.

“Our Lord never patches up our natural virtues, He remakes the whole man on the inside” (Oswald Chambers).

Instead of New Year’s resolutions, grant me a grave to mark both end and beginning. Eradicate independent striving and replace it with struggle of a newborn entering the world entirely dependent on his mother.

I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,

And it told Thy love to me;

But I long to rise in the arms of faith

And be closer drawn to Thee.

Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord,

To the cross where Thou hast died;

Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord,

To Thy precious, bleeding side.

Consecrate me now to Thy service, Lord,

By the pow’r of grace divine;

Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope,

And my will be lost in Thine.

Oh, the pure delight of a single hour

That before Thy throne I spend,

When I kneel in prayer, and with Thee, my God

I commune as friend with friend!

There are depths of love that I cannot know

Till I cross the narrow sea;

There are heights of joy that I may not reach

Till I rest in peace with Thee.

(Fanny Crosby, 1875)

A Christmas Miracle

“So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us.” (2 Co 4:16-18 The Message)

I have a confession to make—I enjoy watching Hallmark Christmas movies. No one need convince me that the cheese is thick in these holiday flicks; they are nothing, if not predictable. My wife and I know each plot by heart. Hallmark seldom deviates from an expected sequence: lovely young lady seeks a promotion she thinks she wants in a large city (usually New York or Chicago), but receives word that she must return to her childhood in Smalltown, USA for Christmas. She hasn’t been home for quite some time. The reasons vary for her return, but upon arriving she is reacquainted with an old flame, or she meets a new one. Either way, they fall gradually for one another, but something from her or his past prevents her/him from fully committing to the relationship. As the two help to decorate for a Christmas festival or an old family Victorian that is up for sale, they find themselves in close quarters and angle towards a kiss, only to be interrupted by someone who breaks the spell. All looks as if this is a romance meant-to-be when one of them overhears something they take out of context, forcing the relationship into a downward spiral that the other does not understand. Then, in the crescendo of conflict, a Christmas miracle happens to resolve a crisis of monumental proportion, leading to disclosure of the relational misunderstanding, and the mistaken party madly rushes to find their true love before she/he trips the light fantastic back to the promotion awaiting them in the city. The movie ends with an embrace and kiss that suggests they will live together happily-ever-after; harmless heartwarming entertainment that doesn’t require full concentration.

What in the world may we glean from such surface-level holiday tripe? We are all either running away from something or running toward someone; some of us are doing both at the selfsame time. Christmas provides context to consider which of these two scenarios best describe us. Am I avoiding an undeniable truth that must be addressed, or refusing to concede closure to a festering relational wound that poisons every other relationship into a toxic web? A Christmas miracle of transformation awaits individuals who acknowledge Christ wrapped himself in humanity for them; He invaded history so we might know hope of an unearthly brand. No matter what I have done or left undone, a Christmas miracle of forgiveness is available to anyone who refuses regret and greedily latches on to grace.

Mental Wellness

“The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” ~John Milton

Procrastinating as long as possible, I reluctantly endured the annual wellness exam required by my employer for a lower insurance premium. As I expected, my weight was slightly elevated as was my blood pressure, but to my surprise I escaped pretty much unscathed, especially since I successfully evaded the less than desirable manual prostate exam by choosing instead a related blood test. In the end, the physician declared me healthy, if not slightly out-of-shape. I understand and appreciate the requirement to physically check-in at least once-a-year, and came away with heightened motivation to lose weight, exercise more, and generally improve the state of this body I’m strapped with for the duration. As a wise sage once said, old age is not for sissies.

While regular attention should be given to our physical well-being, much of life is lived in the mind. Yes, there is the doing of things, daily routine carried forth often with barely an awareness of the individual acts that collectively form the day. Much like when asked “How was your day?” We aren’t really wanting a recitation of moments and feelings, simply a label, more often than not, a benign “good.” Life largely consists of the considering, weighing, planning, deciding, reflecting, grieving, rejoicing that is imperceptible to even the closest to us. This quiet living occurs in our hidden place, the spot no one sees but only learns of second-hand. For that reason, this sacred space deserves and demands our highest cultivation. I have no problem with those who warn against “garbage in, garbage out.” But my greater concern is that we return to feeding our minds with strong nourishment and sanctified inspiration. Memorization is one such food of substance all but ignored by the vast majority. Quiet contemplation, sacred listening, expansive reading—these too foster a better living in the mind. Lest someone label these sentiments as New Age hooey-gooey, hear well and heed the sage advice of the Apostle: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”(Philippians 4:8 KJV)

The Passing of Public Integrity

“The other party took words to put together their platform, but left out three simple letters: G-O-D.” ~ George H. W. Bush

George Herbert Walker Bush grew up in the home of devout Episcopalian parents. According to an article in The Morning Call, his father Prescott, a Republican senator from Connecticut, and his mother Dorothy led family worship every morning, using readings from the Episcopal “Book of Common Prayer” and “A Diary of Private Prayer” by Scottish Presbyterian theologian John Baillie. They modeled for their children how the Bible applied to daily life, and George adopted their faith as his own. While flying a combat mission for the Navy in September 1944, Bush’s plane was severely damaged on a bombing mission, forcing him to parachute into the Pacific Ocean south of Japan. Hunted by the Japanese, he was rescued when a U.S. submarine picked him up. Bush thanked God for saving his life and asked, “Why had I been spared and what did God have for me?” Some years later, George and Barbara’s three-year-old daughter Robin’s battle with and eventual death from leukemia both tested and deepened Bush’s faith. “Our faith,” Bush testified, “truly sustained us.”

President Bush affirmed that Jesus was God’s divine Son and frequently referred to Christ as “our Savior.” Bush seasoned his speeches with biblical quotations and stories to make his point. He began his 1989 inaugural address by praying, “Heavenly Father, we … thank You for Your love.” Strengthen us “to do Your work.” Make us “willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: ‘Use power to help people.'” Bush’s Cabinet meetings always began with prayer. The Bushes prayed together every night before going to sleep.

I mourn the passing of public integrity and character. When moral strength is no longer expected or demanded, the foundation of civilization dissipates into a faint remembrance—the stuff of museums. The moment decency and justice atrophy and principle fades into nostalgia, society is doomed. While liberals herald the end of moral absolutes, conservatives fiddle with second-rate concerns. There is but one moral compass, a single litmus test of right and wrong. That immovable and irreducible crucible is God Himself as revealed in the Holy Bible. Let women and men debate Scripture but never relinquish hold on its Author as ground of all being. Our constitutional forefathers had in mind such a mooring, and though it is no longer in vogue, our future depends on returning to our past.

“We asked for God’s help; and now, in this shining outcome, in this magnificent triumph of good over evil, we should thank God.”

~ George H. W. Bush