Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

“And He has made from one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26).

My childhood home was loving and happy, but my parents were often away. On those occasions the center of warmth in our home was the kitchen and a tiny, joyous African-American named Annie who was our maid.

I spent many hours with Annie, sitting at our kitchen table reading books or playing with toys and listening to her sing and hum Negro spirituals and other hymns. She was a little well from which sprang a continual flow of cheerfulness and song.

Annie was one of those humble, obedient souls that learn wisdom much sooner and far better than most of us, for it’s a universal law that we can only understand truth by obeying it. Truth eludes the clever and evasive, but the simple, the honest, the good–hearted know more and better things than the rest of us. As George MacDonald put it, “Good people know good things.”

Annie called me “Bubba,” her word for “brother,” a noteworthy name, as I think about it.

I remember rushing into the kitchen one morning and, in childish exuberance, showing Annie a slingshot my father had given me and proudly announcing that it was a “n*****r-shooter.” “Oh, no, Bubba,” she said, and then proceeded to pour out her heart in a gentle lecture on the harm and hurt in that slur, accompanied by a terrible sadness in her eyes.

I never used that word again.

I learned that day that unfathomable sorrow lies beneath the rage and retaliation of those who are victims of our prejudice, for the source of all anger is frustration and the greatest frustration is to be dishonored and debased. Every human being is created in the image of God—more like God than any other creature—a holy icon, if you will, worthy of high honor, indeed admiration and awe. To demean that image and deface it is to wound another human being at the deepest level.

The root of prejudice is pride, of course, and our predisposition toward self-absorption and a false superiority that we must prove to others and to ourselves by petty bigotry. (We must degrade others to upgrade ourselves.) But love sees the value of all human beings and cares more for others than it cares for itself. Jesus himself showed us the way (Philippians 2:1-4).

There is but one race: the human race. We are brothers of the same family, made to be treasured and cherished by one another. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight.

Are all equally precious to me?


[1] C. S. Lewis writes, ”What you see and what you hear depends a good deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.“ Put another way, we don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.

Monday, September 27, 2010

You Never Know...

And (Jesus) said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself...’” (Mark 4:26-28a).

During my seminary years, I directed a summer day camp for the YMCA. Most of the boys and girls in the camp were from families well below the poverty line and were underprivileged in many ways.
They came from the so-called “Trinity Bottoms” and lived in shacks down by the river.

Each morning I began the day with a brief story in which I tried to incorporate some element of the gospel. One of stories I told was about a moose that wanted to be a horse. The moose had seen a herd of wild horses, thought them elegant creatures and wanted to be like them. So, he taught himself to walk like a horse, talk like a horse, eat like a horse, etc. However, he was never accepted as a horse because he was...well, he was a moose.

How can a moose become a horse? By being born a horse, of course. And then I explained how we can all be born again.

It was an odd story and I probably wouldn’t use it these days, understanding as I do now, that children find it difficult to understand metaphors; they’re literalists, pure and simple. I know of no child who was drawn to Jesus through the story, but, you never know.

One summer I had a staff counselor (Let’s call him Henry) who was not a Christian, in fact was very hostile to the faith and who opposed my efforts to bring the good news to these children. I could do nothing but love him and pray for him, but he left at the end of the summer to go back to college, unfriendly to me and hardened in unbelief, or so I thought. That was more than fifty years ago.

A couple of years ago I received a letter from Henry. I saw his name on the return address and remembering our conflict marveled that he would write. I tore open the envelope and read the first sentence: "I write to tell you that I have been born again. I am now, at last, a horse."

Augustine, in one of his sermons to pastors wrote,"For what man can judge rightly concerning another? Our whole daily life is filled with rash judgments. He of whom we had despaired is converted suddenly and becomes very good" (Augustine Sermon 46:24-25, 27).

There is life in the seed. Sow, and in time the seed will sprout and grow, “for the earth yields crops by itself...”

You never know.


Monday, September 20, 2010

I'll Take Him

“Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (Psalm 27:10).

Many years ago, when I was a student at the University of California at Berkley, I developed a friendship with a fellow-student in a similar field. We often met at White Plaza to eat lunch and encourage one another. Both of us faced stiff challenges to our faith in our academic programs

Tragedy had fallen into my friend’s life like bricks falling out of a dump truck—one after another. The culmination of sorrows was the loss of his child and the departure of his wife who could not deal with the pain.

One day, as my friend and I were walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkley, we found ourselves behind a disheveled hippy–mother with a grubby little boy in hand. She was angry at the child and was walking much too fast, towing him at a pace his little legs couldn’t maintain.

Presently we reached a busy intersection where the child abruptly stopped and his hand slipped out of his mother’s grasp. She turned on him, spat out a curse, and trudged on without him. The little boy sat down on the curb and burst into tears. Without a moment’s hesitation, my friend sat down in the grime and rubbish of the gutter and gathered the little urchin into his arms.

The woman turned and looking at the child and began to curse my friend. I’ll never forget the exchange: Roy sighed and looked up. “Lady,” he said softly, “If you don’t want him, I’ll take him.”

So it is with our Father in heaven, who loves us just this tenderly. Though mother and father have forsaken us, He will gather us into his arms.[1]


[1] Psalm 27:10. The Hebrew verb, a’saf, translated variously, essentially means, “to gather (someone) in.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Deserts of the Heart

In the Deserts of the heart,
Let the healing start…

—W.H. Auden

It was an odd providence that sent Philip into the desert. He was a distinguished leader in the church in Jerusalem; his presence was required there. He was engaged in the mission in which “crowds with one accord listened eagerly.” Vast crowds gathered to hear his preaching.

Yet Philip was torn from busy, fruitful activity and thrust into lonely isolation: A messenger said to Philip, “Get to the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Luke adds laconically, “This is a desert” (Acts 8:26).

God may send us into the desert for awhile: The seclusion of a lingering illness, the loneliness of a new location, the desolation of suspicion and distrust, the tedium of a secular job—all are deserts in which God may work in us to get a greater work done—in us and in others.

John Bunyan’s confinement produced The Pilgrim's Progress. William Cowper’s mental illness shaped his luminous poetry and hymns. David Brainerd’s physical weakness formed his diary, a work that has mobilized more men and women for the cause of world missions than any other. There is service to be rendered in isolation and solitude, if we will but wait.

Are you in a desert? Don’t fret. Wait on God. Sit at Jesus’ feet; give yourself to him in worship, praise and adoration. Silently pray for those you encounter along the way; love them and shower them with mercy and kindness. Quietly manifest Christ’s likeness in contented anonymity. Perhaps in passing you’ll speak grace to someone like Philip’s pilgrim who will put his trust in the Savior and lead a nation to faith.[1]

There’s irony in all that God does. We deem our deserts waste places, but they’re not wasted unless we waste them in anxiety and bitterness. When we rest in God’s will for us and see it as the very best thing, he will cause the desert to bloom.

Everything we desire is in the desert, if we will but wait. “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:25,26).


[1]  “While every day the saving message spread farther afield, some providence brought from Ethiopia…one of the queen’s principle officers and the first–fruits of the faithful throughout the world. He is believed to have been the first to go back to his native land and preach the gospel of the knowledge of the God of the universe and the life–giving sojourn of our Savior among men. Through him came the fulfillment of the prophecy: ‘Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand to God’” (Eusebius, History of the Church. 2.2.13–14, AD 266-340).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Hidden Life

Some years ago, I came across a poem by George MacDonald entitled, “The Hidden Life.” It had to do with an intellectually gifted young Scot who turned his back on a prestigious academic career to return to his aging father and to the family farm, there to engage in “ordinary deeds” and “simple forms of human helpfulness.” What a waste,” his friends lamented. 

So we too may serve in some unnoticed place, doing nothing more than ordinary deeds. Others say, “What a waste,” but God wastes nothing. Every act of love, no matter how modest, rendered to him, is noted and has eternal consequences. Every place, no matter how small, is holy ground. If we are faithful in the small duties of our lives, we will have grace for greater things, should they come our way. In the meantime, “We must confine ourselves to the present moment without taking thought for the one past or the one to come,” Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote. “Love is the duty of the present moment.”

But, we ask, what of the world? We read the weary tales of war and violence, poverty, and the wretchedness of little children, sad with hunger, neglect, and cruelty. What can we do to bring salvation to the world?

The best we can for the whole world is the best we can do for our world. Our influence on our small part of the whole will go where God determines it will go, and with his help may go out to the world like ripples on a pond in ever–widening circles to the ends of the earth.

Influence is is a simple matter—often an unconscious matter—of human helpfulness: being there, listening, understanding the need, loving and praying. There is no greater service and no greater influence than that of a gentle, caring, unselfish neighbor.

Evelyn Underhill writes, “Among the things which we should regard as spiritual in this sense are...friendly visits, kind actions and small courtesies… We must see that our small action is part of the total action of God.” (From The  Spiritual Life). Every action, then, done in love, is part of  God’s larger work to show his love to the world.

So, for those of us who wonder where to begin, we can begin where we are: by caring for those nearest to us and giving human help where it’s needed, whether our lives are filled with mundane duties, or matters of international concern. “Who is my neighbor,” the rich man asked Jesus, to which our Lord responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, and its unexpected answer: The very next person I meet.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Putting Us Right

“An’ noo, for a’ oor wrang-duins an’ ill-min’ins (misjudgments), for a’ oor sins and trespasses o’ mony sorts, dinna forget them, O God, till thou pits them a’ richt.”

—The Prayer of an Old Scot in George MacDonald’s David Elginbrod

Benjamin Franklin aspired to become a good man, and accordingly drew up a list of thirteen virtues he deemed “necessary and desirable,” including with each a short explanation.

1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. 2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. 3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. 4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve. 5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing. 6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. 7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly. 8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty. 9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve. 10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleaness in body, clothes, or habitation. 11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable. 12. Chastity. Rarely use venery (sexual indulgence) but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation. 13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin’s intention was to make a habit of these virtues and thus he determined to fix on one character trait at a time, and, when he had mastered it, proceed to the next until he had mastered all of them.

“I made a little book,” he wrote, “in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

In the end, Franklin gave up: “I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined,” he wrote in his diary. So it is: “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”[1]

“In vain you make yourself beautiful…” Israel’s prophet concludes.[2] We cannot adorn ourselves. All we can do is come to God with our lofty ideals (along with our “wrang-duins an’ ill-min’ins”) and ask him to make us braver, stronger, purer, less selfish, and more loving. God himself is our cure. All progress toward the perfection of holiness—however gradual—is based on that premise.

Paul, who loved a good synthesis, put it this way: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[3] “For,” [“because”] he wrote, not “although” or “and.” It is God who does the work in us. He does the work and we enjoy the freedom to will and to do those things that please him.

When British author F. B. Meyer was a very young man he attended a meeting in the house of emancipationist, William Wilberforce. Those gathered were discussing their struggles against impatience and other forms of selfishness. An elderly gentleman listened for awhile and then related this incident: “I was speaking to a number of children last Sunday afternoon; and finding that the flowers and birds outside were attracting them, and they wanted to get away, and that I was fast losing my patience, I turned to Christ and said: 'Lord, my patience is giving out; grant me yours, and, for that moment he gave me patience. I could stand the noise and confusion.’”

Meeting Dr. Meyer the next morning, Mr. Wilberforce said: "What did you think of that?” Dr. Meyer replied: "It has changed my life. From now on, instead of refusing, resisting, struggling against temptation, I shall ask, in the moment of impatience, for Christ’s tranquility, in the moment of impurity, for his purity, in the moment of anxiety, for his direction and wisdom.”

So, setting ourselves right is not self-condemnation and firm resolution, but rather it is becoming aware of our failed and flawed condition and putting ourselves in God’s hands for his healing—in that moment or in due time. Put another way, “Ask what you will, and it will be done for you.”[4]


[1] C. S. Lewis
[2] Jeremiah 4:30
[3] Philippians 2:12,13
[4] John 15:7. The significance of this promise lies in its context: bearing the fruit of Christ-like character.

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