The Gates Are Open

September 2015

My Bridge Too Far

My children are now old enough that I can tell this story. I never wanted to tell about it while they were teenagers or younger because I would have felt guilty if they copied me. But I shouldn’t have worried. I raised them all to live their own lives their own way, and for the most part, they have all done that.

I had a curious, dangerous relationship when I was a teenager. This relationship was not with a person, but with a railway bridge. This bridge in question spanned the North Thompson River in Kamloops, British Columbia. The Canadian National Railway used this bridge to send its trains out of the Kamloops station west toward the Port of Vancouver, some 200 miles away. The bridge itself was approximately 700 yards long and about two dozen trains a day went each way across it.

I lived four blocks from the bridge itself. It was on my way to Junior High School and I passed under it every day. It sat beside the park where my friends and I played football. At one time, it had been a drawbridge, folding upwards to allow steamboats to forage up the river to settlements further north, at a time when there were no roads to the logging communities of Barriere, Blue River and Clearwater. By the time our sub-division was built beside the tracks, the bridge’s movable span had long since been retired. But even though they were never used, the cables and the towers of the movable part of the bridge were still there. There was even a wrought-iron ladder that ran the entire length of the towers up to platforms on the very top near the wheels that pulled the cabling. It was perhaps 80 feet to the top. More about that in a moment.

Here is a picture of that bridge, just for your mental scrapbook as you read the rest of the story:

CNR bridge

CN workers could walk across the bridge fairly easily. And because it took quite a while back then for people who lived in North Kamloops to go the long way around to get to the station, many people who worked for the railroad would park their cars on one side and walk across. Several engineers lived in our neighborhood just so they could walk to work.

As they walked across the bridge, they had to look ahead of them and behind them for approaching trains. When they built the bridge, they kept in mind that workers would be walking across it. So every 50 yards or so, they built little platforms, sticking out over the river where someone could stand while the train went by. I imagine most of the people who went across regularly had to use these.

Under the bridge, there were handrails that ran the entire length of the bridge on both sides of the inner panels. I have no idea why they were there except as handholds for anyone repairing things under the bridge. The handrails were half-inch rolled steel bars set out about five inches from the edge of the inner walls of the bridge. They hung about four feet above the bottom of the panel. Along the bottom of the panel was a one foot wide lip that someone could push themselves along. It was about a 40 foot drop down to the river…a river which claimed about 6-10 lives each year because of its unpredictable current.

I had three friends in those days , and we closely resembled the four boys in the movie “Stand By Me” (based on Stephen King’s short story, “The Body”). We talked trash about each other, smoked cigarettes together, sipped occasionally on whatever alcohol one of us could swipe from their parents, and devised numerous ways to flaunt the conventions of the Law and Parental units.  Dave, Phil, Ray and I cruised the neighborhood looking for action and adventure. We weren’t bad kids in any legal or moral sense, but we wanted to test our mettle in a strange and challenging world.

Invariably, when we got tired of the old standby stunts, we were drawn to the colossus that was the CNR bridge. It was a magnet for young boys, a place where you could stake your claim on courage, look your fear in the eye and master it, impress other boys (and occasionally a girl or two) with your felonious abilities.  The two goals for things you did on the bridge were simple to remember. We all knew them:

  1. Do something more dangerous than the last time you were there.
  2. Do something more dangerous than the last person.

 

Our stunts started benignly, hardly denting our courage. it began with all of us walking across the bridge to the other side. If you want to get a feel for how exciting it can be the first time you try it, this scene from Stand By Me is pretty accurate in depicting how you walk across when you can see river between the ties.

As opposed to this clip, we could pull into one of the platforms if a train came across. In the four years we went across that bridge, a train only came twice that I remember, and both times we made it to a platform with lots of room to spare.

After several months of simply walking across this bridge, we discovered the railing underneath. This, of course, took a lot more guts to try. We took this feat in stages. As you can see from the picture of the bridge, it had concrete supports set in the river every hundred yards or so. The goal was to shimmy out to the first support column and back. We would grab the rail with our hands, and our feet shuffled on the bottom lip. For the entire 100 yards, our back was exposed to empty space culminating in the river. No one ever dropped into the river from the railing, but every time we did it I was sure one of us would.

After several trips out, it was getting fairly easy to make it to the first piling. So, Dave and I decided to try for the second one, which would put us about halfway across the river. For some reason, the railing on that part of the bridge had warped in places, which simply added to the danger and excitement. It is no problem for me to remember the adrenaline rush, even 44 years later. Eventually Dave, Phil and I were able to get to the third pillar, while Ray contented himself with the first one. No one ever ventured to the fourth pillar in my memory. There they be monsters.

The next level of courage was attained by climbing the nearest of the towers. At the base of the first one there was a large platform where all of us could stand without crowding the others. From there, the ladder ran up the length of the tower. If you look at the bridge now, you won’t see the ladder. I suspect we, or other kids, had something to do with it being removed. This ladder was welded pieces of rolled steel and painted black. In the summer, it was so hot it would take the skin off your hands and feet. (We did the climb barefoot which gave us better traction).

As with the railing under the bridge, the test was to see how high you could climb each time. If you look again at the picture, you can see cross-members every 25 feet. They were large enough that we could climb onto them and wait for the guy following you. By the end of our 9th grade summer, all of us had climbed to the top at least once, except Ray. He refused to do it.

One particular time, we were bugging Ray about his lack of courage as we defined it. We needled him incessantly that week and let it be known he was on thin ice in terms of membership in our informal club. Being a young man of great pride, this insult to his manhood was hard for him to take. So, late one Saturday afternoon in September, he announced to all of us he was going to the top of the bridge. We told him that he had to lead the way this time and all of us would climb behind him. Phil had taken a bottle of gin from his dad’s liquor cabinet and we were going to toast the river from the top. I think about it now and the entirety of this idea seems moronic. But that defined us in those days, so we were being consistent.

For the first 50 feet, Ray didn’t flinch at all about continuing on up the ladder. He had already accomplished the first two sections several times that summer. But he had never pushed himself past that point. This time, with our stalwart encouragement, he made it past his own personal barrier and kept climbing. I was next in line behind him, and it was clear he was slowing down. I egged him on because the last thing I wanted was to be stuck on the ladder behind him. I had that queasy feeling that this had been a bad idea.

Ten feet from the top, Ray stopped. He kept looking down–always a poor idea on that ladder–and I could hear him whimpering. It wasn’t outright crying, but it was nearing panic levels. I tried to soothe him and encourage him, but as he gripped the rung he was on tighter, I realized it wasn’t working. Dave figured this out about the same time I did. Instead of soothing him, Dave took a different tack. He started to drop F-bombs and threatened Ray with everything from torture to public humilation. That worked. Ray scampered the final ten feet to the platform at the top. What normally took the rest of us ten minutes to accomplish had taken a full half hour. We were all drenched in sweat, even though it wasn’t that hot out.

None of us felt like drinking by that point, so we all took a perfunctory sip and started to talk about going down. Ray was all for that idea. In fact, before any of us could work up the courage to head back down, he started. This time, Phil followed him, then Dave and me. Because I was the last to go, I took one last look west. To this day, I wish I had looked east.

When we had climbed a third of the way down, the westbound CN train entered the bridge. We had not heard it or seen it at all, because we were coming down the ladder with the station at our backs. During that whole summer when we climbed the tower,  a train had only come over the bridge once. Dave had been at the top that time and he simply waited until the train went past. He told us at the time that at the very top you could hardly feel the vibrations.

As we hung onto the railing  a third of the way down the ladder we realized Dave had lied to us about the vibrations. The ladder shook us senseless. I wrapped both elbows through the rungs and one leg as well. Even so, It was like a jackhammer was trying to pry me loose with vibrations. To add insult, we realized it was a Saskatchewan grain train heading west to the port. These trains were always longer than normal trains, and they had engines in the middle of the train to carry the extra weight. This was going to be a long wait on the tower.

After an eternity, the train finally went by and we could climb the rest of the way down. At least that was the theory. But Ray would not move. He was immobilized by fear. And because he was the lowest of the climbers, none of us could get by him. The wind took that moment to start gusting at us, and this just added to our panic. We all threatened Ray with bodily harm if he didn’t move. After a long while as our voices got hoarse from yelling, he moved to the cross-member below him. Phil scrambled by him and made it to the bottom rapidly. Dave did the same right after. As I went by Ray, I could see he wasn’t going to make it the rest of the way down. I asked him what he wanted to do and he began to cry softly.

It broke my heart in a way nothing else ever had. He was so helpless in that moment. I didn’t know what to say to him or how to help. I told him that I would stay with him as long as he needed me to. I don’t know why or how I said this. I had become a Christian a few months before, and I think that maybe God helped me by filling me with his love and compassion for my friend.

After ten minutes, I asked Ray if he felt any better. He didn’t. At that moment an idea came to me. It was so silly and so outrageous, but I had to give it a shot.

“Buddy, are you afraid of the river?”

“No” was all he said. And I believed him. Both he and I had taken lifeguard training that summer and we had done long-distance swimming several times a week. He wasn’t afraid of the water.

“Then let’s jump in Ray. I’ll jump with you.” Before either of us could give it another thought, he grabbed my hands and we leaped. I think we missed the platform by inches, and we certainly didn’t miss the concrete pillar by much either. But we hit the water and began floating downstream rapidly. Swimming across the current was harder than I had imagined. I lost my way and actually started swimming for the wrong shore but soon corrected myself as I looked back at the bridge. Ray reached shore 30 seconds before I did and he helped pull me out.

Dave and Phil had scrambled down the embankment and helped to pull us out. There was a look of terror and then relief on both their faces. Neither of them was a particularly compassionate person, but that moment they seemed to feel what we were feeling. I was startled when I saw their concern. That underscored for me the critical nature of what had just happened.

Aristotle said that in order for any of us to feel compassion, we must see someone else’s suffering in three ways:

  1. We must believe their suffering is serious and not trivial
  2. We must perceive the person does not deserve their suffering
  3. We must perceive that it is possible some day that we could suffer the same way.

 

This is what Phil and Dave were feeling. They knew we could have drowned. To this day, the memory of that plunge off the bridge gives me the cold sweats. Dave and Phil also knew I had little choice but to propose jumping off. There wasn’t any chance Ray would be climbing down that ladder for any amount of coaxing. And I am sure that they at some time had imagined they might drop into the river below. They felt compassion.

There has been a doctrinal battle over the centuries regarding this issue of God’s compassion. Does God care when we suffer? How can God feel compassion if He doesn’t meet the above criteria? Aren’t all things trivial compared to what God knows? More than anyone, doesn’t God know what we deserve? And how could God possibly perceive that He would go through the suffering we go through?

I contend that the answer to these questions, as with many other doctrinal questions, ends with Jesus Christ the man-God. Jesus is God Incarnate. God became a human being. God could have become a superhero human being, with powers, authority, abilities and strength. But he gave up all of that to be born a human (See Philippians 2:5-11). He had no power or authority of his own. He borrowed his miracle-working power from God’s Spirit. He was completely a human. And when he suffered, he experienced all of our pain the same way we do.

I doubt he jumped off any bridges into the river. But he jumped into a deadly scene where he was tortured within an inch of his life, beaten, dragged and crucified. He gets it.

Does Jesus care? You know He does. And because God the Father laid all the sins of the world on him as he hung on the cross, Jesus also knows what sin, foolishness,, selfishness and cowardice feels like. He experienced all of that. And the Bible tells us he took his resurrected body into heaven with Him. He is a human in heaven as well as God almighty. He represents us to the Father. He explains our suffering to the Father.

In that moment, emerging from the river, I realized how foolish all of our grandstanding had been. None of us had much to do with the Bridge after that day. We moved on to other endeavors: Girls, school, sports and careers. Dave sells cars like his dad. Ray has been a concert pianist and court reporter. Phil entered the military and rose to a high rank. I have talked with two of them in the past few years and we all have different takeaways of our Bridge years.

For me, I came to three realizations.

First, I had to redefine courage for myself. Up to that point in my life, I saw courage as pushing myself past the limits I thought I had. But as I got older, I realized courage has more to do with sticking with convictions, staying with beliefs and choices, not being moved by the opinions of others.

Second, I saw that compassion is much better than coaxing and coercing. What convinced Ray to jump was not my wise and intelligent argument. It was the offer to go with him off the edge.

Third, I know that Jesus understands those moments where fear grips me so deeply I can’t move forward or head back. He really does care.

In the current part of my life, this means more than anyone reading this can ever know.

(Note: Ray is not his real name. I don’t have his permission to share this. The others have allowed me to tell their stories, so their names are real).

 

 

My Last Violent Lunch

I am a pacifist. Readers of this blog and those who know me personally can attest I do not believe in violence as a solution to any problem.

Unfortunately, many people misconstrue pacifism. They believe it refers to people who are too timid to confront others, who would never hurt anyone by nature. This may be true of some, but it is not true of me. My younger brother and sister can tell you I have been known to throw a few punches–mostly at them. Though I was not the most pugnacious character in school, I was hauled down to the principal’s office a couple of times for schoolyard fights.

And I am not against standing up for something I believe in or defending someone in peril. I simply choose not to resort to physical violence to achieve this. I believe the New Testament does not allow for it for any reason. More about that in other articles.

But the last time I considered violence, it was at lunch in a rural diner in the middle of nowhere. I am not proud of this, but it illustrates a point I want to make about racism.

Many of the years I was a pastor I lived and served churches in serene, rural areas. The serenity came from the beauty of nature around me, not the people. No people anywhere are more at peace than anywhere else. But when you live in a place with less people and more nature, it is easy to be lulled into a belief that country living equals peaceful living. This is simply  not the case.

In rural areas, I found out that child sexual abuse is higher than urban areas. I discovered that family violence is just as pronounced, the violent crime rate per capita is higher, methamphetamine and marijuana use is much more prominent and suicide rates are at least equal to the largest city.

But it’s quiet and serene. There aren’t many people around and no one talks to “outsiders”. I lived in one rural community for seven years. I was never fully accepted into their culture.  Every time someone gave me directions to their house they invariably included landmarks that no longer existed. As in “go down the dirt road until you get to the field where Joe Smith’s barn used to be. Turn right there and go half a mile until you see the hole in the ground that I dug to remove that old Redwood. Turn there.” I was sure it was a perpetual initiation rite. But after seven years of this, I also began giving people the same directions; only I was still considered an Outsider.

Yes, this is the biggest sin of the rural mindset: Xenophobia. It sounds like this: “You’re not from around here, are you.” I could call it racism, but it often doesn’t apply to people of different races. In the rural north and west of the United States, there aren’t that many races and certainly not that many nationalities.

So though the problem could be racism if enough other races were around, it is simply Xenophobia. You don’t remember that word? It means “the fear of those other people.” Your mind can fill in the blank about who those “other people” are.

To someone in the rural hinterlands, “others” can be Californians, Texans, city-people, rich people (especially if they buy the farm next to yours to use as a hobby ranch), tourists (a tourist is anyone not born here). An “other” can be anyone from another state. If  your accent is different, if you dress like someone from New York or LA, if you drive anything other than a truck or an SUV, if you don’t know where to go to pick huckleberries–you’re an outsider.

Back to my violent lunch. I had been pastoring only a few months in this rural community. I took a week off to go to a friend’s wedding and asked a touring musical preacher to come and sing and speak. I had never met the man, but he came highly recommended by another church whose opinion I respected. When I returned from the wedding, several people in the church said he had done a good job both singing and preaching. One person asked me if I was going to invite him back some time.

A week after I got back, one of the church members asked me to have lunch with him. I knew he and his wife drove 40 miles to come to church, so I asked him if I could come out there instead of him driving into town. He told me about a diner by the side of the road ten miles from his property. He gave me good directions and a half hour later I walked into the most quaint little side of the road place I had ever seen. Most people reading this can probably guess 90% of the menu items. I’m sure I ordered chicken-fried steak or its equivalent.

“Pastor Mike, I hope you don’t mind that my wife joins us. This is an important talk we need to have.”

“No problem Bill. It is long past time I got to know the two of you.”  We bantered back and forth until the food came. The waitress put Bill’s food in front of him and he picked up his knife and fork. And then, as if reconsidering his decision, he put them down again.

“I can’t eat until I get something off my chest” he started. “Had you ever met that preacher you invited to come to the church last Sunday?”

“No, Bill, I had never met the man before.”

Bill’s face changed from his sour expression to a more peaceful look. “That’s what I thought. Boy, I feel relieved. I was sure you hadn’t made that kind of mistake.”

Hmmmmmm. My first thought was “what kind of mistake?” But I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask. So I just ate my mashed potatoes and figured he would elucidate if I gave him enough time. He did.

“Yep. I knew you had a good head on your shoulders. I knew  you wouldn’t deliberately invite a Darkie in to preach. You probably couldn’t tell from his name…it sounded so normal.”

Yes, he used the word “Darkie”.  This man was relieved because I didn’t know I had invited a Black preacher to come to the church! I felt sick to my stomach. I felt all the blood rush to my head. I put down my eating utensils and pulled out my wallet. I took out $30 and threw it on the table.

“There Bill. That should cover lunch. And let me tell you one more thing. Don’t you ever drive the 40 miles into town and darken the door of our church. If you come within ten feet of it, i will come out there myself and escort you off the property as I kick you in the ass. You sick racist!” i stood there in a apoplectic rage. I tightened my fists into balls and almost prayed he would take the first swing.

Until that lunch, I had no idea the preacher/singer I had invited to speak for me was African-American. It wouldn’t have made any difference to me if I had known. But seeing the absolute hatred on Bill’s face was the most evil I had witnessed in years. And I used to work with men in the prison system.

Bill stood up and faced me, but he couldn’t look me in the eye. Several times he tried to say something and words escaped him. He finally sat down and threw his napkin onto his plate. His wife started to cry.

I walked out of that diner ready at any moment to turn around and start swinging at Bill. But Bill never followed me. I never did see Bill again, but I heard he phoned everyone in the church he knew and told the world that I loved “those people”. Fortunately, when the people of the church found out about Bill’s racism, they were of the same opinion as I. That’s how I knew I had found a good church.

You hear stories of groups of people who gather in churches and call themselves Christians but then spew out racist viewpoints under the guise of “protecting our children” or “keeping the gene pool pure” or some such nonsense. But there is no possible way to be a Christ-follower and believe that any other racial group or nationality is superior or inferior to others.

I even hear another wave of this garbage is sweeping Evangelicals again. it makes me sick to consider that any follower of Jesus would be so mixed up in their mind as to believe that Jesus would treat any race differently or see them differently. It makes me so angry I want to hit someone.

And no, the irony of that statement is not lost on me.

The Blind Man’s Elephant: Over-examination of Kim Davis

elephant-parableAn old Indian proverb tells the story of six blind men examining an elephant. One touches the elephant’s ear and tells the others this animal is “like a fan”. Another man touches the trunk and concludes, “no, it is just like a snake.” A third blind man examines the tusk and tells them the elephant feels like a spear. The man who touches its leg concludes it is like a tree, the man who grasps the tail says a rope and the one who feels the belly concludes the elephant is like a wall.

This story has long illustrated the difficulty of relating the Truth you understand to others. All of us have limited perspectives and all of us communicate those perspectives from our own limited experience. All of these men are right in what they observe, and all are wrong when they say their conclusion is the entirety of what an elephant is.

This is the difficulty of many things modern society argues about. It might be a Muslim boy bringing a homemade clock to school, a police officer shooting a teen at a suburban party, a military hostage who might have deserted, a President’s birth certificate or Donald Trump’s hair. Everyone has a perspective on all these things and depending on which angle you are viewing these issues from, the results will differ greatly.

I’m not telling you anything new. But allow me to show how important it is to reserve judgment until you  have taken time to examine all the facts and opinions.

In this case, I want to use the Blind Men’s Elephant story to re-examine an already well-hashed-over issue: That of Kim Davis the county clerk from Kentucky. Here is essentially what happened. The Supreme Court declared that gay marriage is legal. Kim Davis is an elected official whose signature needs to be on all marriage certificates. She refuses to sign the certificate for same-sex couples in her office. The courts order her to fulfill her duty as the County Clerk. She refuses to sign them, citing only her Christian belief in marriage as between a man and a woman as the grounds for her refusal. As a result, she is thrown in jail..

Several days later, she was released from jail and told to do her job or allow her co-workers to do her job.  She agreed to allow her deputies to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples as long as her name is not on any of them. For the moment, this ends the most dramatic part of the story, though I’m sure comedians and political pundits will continue to make hay with this issue.

I am bringing it up for a completely different reason than most people. In order to get to my point, let me look at some of the Blind Men viewpoints that have been expressed about Kim Davis.

First, Kim Davis’ viewpoint. Here it is in her words, given through her attorney last week:

In addition to my desire to serve the people of Rowan County, I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me. Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God.

I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word.  It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

She claims that this is a Heaven and Hell issue for her. (She never clarifies this, not noting whether she means the couples she would be marrying are going to hell or that she would go to hell if she issued the licenses). In her mind the issue is simple: If she issues the license, she is violating a “central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage“.

There are some who agree with her viewpoint on marriage who point out that she could have just resigned her post and it would have accomplished the same thing. She claimed that would have been a slap in the face of those who elected her. Please note: She could not be fired since she was elected, not hired.

This is Kim Davis and her perspective. Obviously, the same-sex couples wanting to receive a marriage license from her see her differently. They see her as a religious bigot who tries to prevent them from doing what they are legally allowed to do. Their position is just as clear as Kim Davis’ position in the matter. Few people can misunderstand either Kim Davis or the couples wanting to have their marriage recognized, regardless of which of these you agree with.

Enter, everyone else! The rest of us observe all of this and have our own slant on it.

First, there are the preachers, teachers and religious leaders of various denominations. To them, Kim Davis becomes a symbol. For the preachers who believe gay marriage is a violation of the Bible, Kim Davis is their spokesperson. She is a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Or, at the very least, she is a sacrificial lamb being hoisted upon a misguided Supreme Court decision.

There are other preachers and teachers who are in favor of gay marriage who see Kim Davis as a caricature of Bible-belt conservatism, of Kentucky Bible-thumping. They are saying that Kim Davis and others like her are a dying breed and that their brand of Christianity is now completely marginalized and should be abandoned.

In this circus of opinions, you will always have the clowns. These are the ones who mock what they disagree with and treat every social issue as an opportunity to rip others apart. Primary among these are the late-night talk show hosts and their ilk. Every host took a shot at Kim Davis and every one of them used her as their whipping girl in one fashion or another. The Social Media jury also weighed in, creating several different memes. One of the most popular was the “Still Did Their Job” meme.

Here are two examples of this buffoonery:

job2

job1

Then, the politicians got involved. Senators, a Governor, several Republican presidential hopefuls all traveled to the jail where Kim Davis was being held to show their support and encouragement. When she was released from jail, many of these politicians stood there and held up her hands, applauded her and told the world how proud they were to be associated with her. Not surprisingly, now that her issue has died down, they don’t book any more flights to Kentucky. She may never hear from any of them again.

Civil Rights and Gay Rights groups continue to pummel Davis. Conservative Christian groups are inviting Kim Davis to come and speak at rallies, conferences and churches. We all can see that no matter what Kim Davis is doing right or wrong personally, all of these groups are using her to further their own agenda. That is not surprising or news but it does bring up an issue for all of us who read, listen to or watch the news.

The wrong thing to do is to jump on the bandwagon for or against anyone too early. The wrong thing to do is probably to jump on any bandwagon. And with the Internet, that is getting harder to resist doing every day.

During the week of 9-11, I was taking a class in Creative Writing from a local community college. Two days after the twin towers were demolished, we sat stunned in the classroom trying to make sense of it all. Our professor, a noted poet laureate and wise woman had a caution for us that morning. She warned us not to write about the event itself for a long time. “This is the kind of thing that will prompt you to fiery diatribes or cries of indignation. Try to resist writing down any of those thoughts for now” she offered.

Instead, she urged us to write down what each of us was feeling inside. If we were wrapped up in anger, grief, pain, confusion, racism, revenge, sadness, etc., those were the things she counseled us to focus on. Not to put too fine a spiritual point on what she said, this is similar to what Jesus said to his closest friends on the night he was betrayed. He told them to watch and pray so each one of them would be able to stand firm in the disaster that was coming. He didn’t wax eloquent on the injustice of the moment. He didn’t give them reasons to be indignant, reasons to be sad, reasons to be hopeful. He instructed them to deal with their own stuff.

I did write about how I felt during that season. I had the additional pain of my brother-in-law’s death, which happened two days after 9-11. All of that grief and pain ate up my mind during those days. Writing helped me to put it all in perspective. I waited two years before writing my feelings about what happened when New York, Washington, D. C. and Pennsylvania were attacked on 9-11. Those two years opened my eyes to so many things, most of which I never would have seen in the first week after the attack.

Let’s bring this around to Kim Davis. Every person who takes a position on what she is doing has a part of the equation correct. Kim Davis is trying to live out her faith. She is not living up to the Law. She could have resigned. She is not doing her job. She has a right to protest a law she does not agree with. Davis is allowing her subordinates to issue marriage licenses.

But those are always going to be the surface issues here. There are much deeper ones involved and they are not obvious. Let me give you an example. In her lawyer’s statement to the press, she says this:

Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God.

Kim Davis has been married four times and divorced three times. There are many bible-believing Christians that would say every time she divorces and remarries, she commits adultery. Many of the same preachers that say homosexuality is sin also say divorce is sin. So, when Kim Davis went to church four years ago and surrendered her life to Christ, it was because of the message of grace and forgiveness that led her to God.

Does that same grace and forgiveness extend to her job and the people she believes are sinning? I can’t say, and I can’t say what that would look like. There are some who would say that it is hypocritical of her to take a stand against gay marriage but not against serial divorces. If she acknowledges that her sins can be forgiven, does she also acknowledge that the sins of the same-sex couples can be forgiven?

I am not proposing what is right or wrong in this situation. What I am encouraging my readers to do is to always take every news story and ponder it before jumping to conclusions. There are hundreds of issues we may be attracted to and count ourselves part of. Most of the time, we take the position that fits with our worldview at that moment. Or, we adopt the position of the news outlet we most often view. Or, we form an opinion based on the position we already hold.

Instead, perhaps we should reserve opinions on the actions and inactions of others until we have thought about and meditated on the entire issue. This is wisdom. It also helps keep us from dying on every mountain and championing causes that will be here today and gone tomorrow.

What Will the Judgment of God Look Like

In this teaching series, I started out by asking the question “Will God Judge America for Abortion and Gay Marriage?” As I have tried to show, this is a complex question with many parts–which is why I have done a many part teaching on this.

Let’s review what I have already said:

Part 1This issue of Judgment is complex and not as easy as some would like

Part 2 – The Principle of Delayed Consequences

Part 3 – Why is Judgment Delayed (the concept of God’s patience and grace)

Part 4 – Quick Judgment teaches that God can judge quickly if it suits His purpose

Part 5 – It is often difficult to interpret circumstances in light of God’s judgment. This is because you can interpret events many different ways and still sound credible.

Some readers have observed I have not spent a lot of time in the Old Testament in this study on Judgment. I have mentioned various incidents from the Old Covenant writings, but it is correct that a full theology of Judgment should be based on the New Covenant and the writings associated with it. There is a solid reason for this.

In John 5:22-23 we read,

22 Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.

This must have been a brutal thing for Jewish leaders to hear. Of all the things Jesus says to the religious stalwarts of his day, this was among the hardest. Essentially, this says that the Son (Jesus) is not only the Messiah, but also will be the Judge over all creation. And, his teaching emphasizes that the Father (i.e. 1st member of the God/Trinity) will not be the Judge. The entire understanding of how God’s Judgment would work was all based upon their understanding of Jahweh the one who brings Justice and fire.

But Jesus changed the entire equation in this fifth chapter of John. He begins by calling God his Father, hinting at a deep, intimate relationship that no Jews would ever claim. Then, he continues deeper into heretical territory by stating that this “Father” of his shows him everything he does. This means that Jesus is an active partner and collaborator on all the works of God the Father. It is a miracle they didn’t take up stones to kill him that moment.

But the crowning glory of this teaching is Jesus’ insistence that he now is the Judge, the Arbitrar of all men’s deeds. It is upon this teaching of John’s Gospel we start to piece together the various elements of the Judgment of God.

First, notice that John 5:23 gives us the purpose of Judgment. “That all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” Most people reading this verse will probably be confused. How does the concept of “honor” relate to Judgment? And since Jesus has died, come back to life through the Resurrection, ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of God the Father, how can any judgment in this world bring honor to Jesus?

The simple answer is this: It can’t. This is because the kind of judgment Jesus is referring to here will not take place on this earth. This is not the judgment of man against man. This is not the judgment of circumstances. It is not even the quick judgment to deal with egregious error and potential disaster. The Judgment of Jesus is of a different nature.

We come back to something mentioned in an earlier article. The word for judgment refers to the entire process and not just the end result. It refers to the gathering and pronouncing of all the evidence. It refers to the declaration of the Judge concerning his decision and deliberation. It refers to the carrying out of that Judgment. It refers to every part of this process. And since we read here in John 5 that all judgment is now given to Jesus and that this will all be done so all creation can honor the Son, it must be done by Jesus publicly and decisively. Does the Bible have anything to say about Jesus’ public and visible judgment time?

The Book of Revelation is about many things. One of my theology professors , Dr. James Cheung, used to say that Chinese Christians who had endured decades of intense persecution for their faith, read the book of Revelation differently than Westerners. He said, to the Chinese Christian the phrase “To him who overcomes…” is the key to the book. This is about enduring to the end, not about trying to determine when the end will come. But he also told us that Christians who go through persecution throughout history have been comforted by one other theme in the book:  That Jesus Himself will judge every person for their deeds, and there will be no evil deeds that go unpunished.

Look at several things Revelation tells us about Judgment:

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:10)

This is what Dr. Cheung was referring to. It is easier to endure hardship and torture when you know there will be justice meted out by Jesus Himself.

Revelation 11:18 says this about Judgment:

      18 The nations were angry,
and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

This verse explains quite clearly that there is a time for judging the dead and for rewarding God’s servants. By implication, this is a Judgment and a Reward that has been delayed and put off for the proper time. This teaches us that Judgment is not a continuous thing.

Revelation 14:7 carries that thought further:

7 He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

In this verse, we are told about the “hour” of judgment. This word is used to refer to a point in time rather than an ongoing event. Judgment is seen as an “hour” not as a lifetime.

The Book of Revelation also explains what will happen in this “hour of judgment”.

11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” p He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (Revelation 19:11-16)

This is the final battle on earth between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. At the end of that battle, Jesus (King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Word of God etc.) will triumph over all the armies in the land and set up the Millennium. Though this is certainly the Judge bringing his rule and reign upon the nations, there are several elements missing from the concept of Judgment. Where is the deliberation of wrongdoing? Where is the evidence?

Could it be that this is not even the Hour of Judgment? No, this battle is but a precursor to that day.

In Revelation 20:11-15 we read,

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

This portion of the Bible fits all the descriptions for Judgment. Everyone will stand before this throne. Books will be opened. Because all are judged by what is written in the books, we can safely assume this is evidence of wrong and right behavior. Then we are told every person will be judged according to what they have done.

This is called “The Great White Throne Judgment”. This is Jesus’ judgment day. Why do we refer to it that way? Because there are two books opened on that day. The first book is the aforementioned recording of every good and evil deed. Just as this forms the basis of evidence in a court of law, so too in Jesus’ court, we will each hear of the things we have done. Even for the best of it, this moment will be hard to bear.

The good news is there is a second book. This book is called the Book of Life. Anyone who has asked God to forgive their sins in the name of Jesus (or a facsimile thereof) has their name in this book. This book guarantees that someone else–Jesus Christ the Righteous One–will have been punished for those sins. It is called by some, “the great exchange”. Jesus gives us his righteous deeds and takes upon himself the punishment for our evil deeds.

This is the Day of Judgment. This is when God, through Jesus, will judge the earth. Until that day, God records all the good and evil deeds of every man.

In the final article in this series, we will answer the questions that we asked in the first one. Will God judge America for those sins we as a nation have committed?

 

 

 

 

 

A Pagan Witch and Christian Prophecy

Here is a link that is probably going to disturb many readers. Don’t worry, there is nothing here of a salacious or immoral nature. The real problem is what this article implies and what it may mean for followers of Christ in the years to come.

The article is written by Annika Mongan, who describes herself as a born-again witch. She admits to growing up in an evangelical, charismatic church background. She attended a Christian college and while there became doubtful about her faith. Without re-telling all her story, she discovered nature-based paganism and witchcraft. She is one of only a handful of pagans who have an evangelical background. I’m not going to speculate on why she left or what contributes to anyone making the switch she did, but I accept it is her choice and she is being honest and forthcoming about her own struggles in the process.

This is her background and it flavors the article. In this story, she tells about going to Bethel Church in Redding, California. She writes several articles about her experiences there, but this particular one focuses on two women having prophetic words for her. Here is how she describes the event:

After a while two women approached us and asked if they could prophesy over us…. Then they moved over to me and asked to lay hands on me. Just a few years ago I would have replied with a categorical “no” (I have a Christian friend who still, all these years later, holds a grudge against me for refusing prayer from her). This time, however, I took a big gulp of the stale air, and nodded consent.

One of the women prays prophetically over Annika. In the article, Annika analyzes each of four prophetic messages this first woman prays over her. She concludes that three of the messages are profoundly accurate. She even relates this observation about these prophetic words:

I had come with no expectations, except to remember, to maybe integrate some parts of my past, or to distance myself even further from Christianity. Maybe I came for all of those reasons, but I didn’t expect to receive any spiritual gifts. Certainly not a three-out-of-four accurate and deeply meaningful prophecy. –

Annika receives accurate and helpful messages through this woman. Later, another woman steps up and gives her a painting she drew during the worship part of the service. It is a beautiful message that confirms one aspect of the prophetic word the other person gave Annika.

So where is the problem? These messages the women gave to her were plainly affirming her position and place in the world of witchcraft. Annika interprets them according to their most obvious meaning: That God is approving of her choice to live as a Pagan. Here is one of the prophecies:

Yes, I feel Jesus saying that you have been a part of many communities. So many! Different churches and ministries. But none of them really felt like home, did they? You never felt like you fit in or that you belonged. God wants to tell you that this has changed. I see a community that you are in now and it is different. It is really different from any of the churches you have known. It’s like… It’s not at all like the ministries… I don’t know how to say this. I just know that it is really different but in some ways it isn’t. Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t know how to put this into words. It is confusing. Does this make any sense to you?

This prophetic word says that the community she is now part of is the place she fits in and belongs. The other prophetic words affirmed her musical gift and her place in the current ministry. The prophetic woman told her that she should utilize her spiritual gifts to serve her new community.

Of course, the prophetic person didn’t know she was a pagan witch. Should she have? It is not always obvious and she probably wasn’t wearing any symbols of that belief system. And the gift of Discerning of Spirits is not a common gift and it is obvious this prophetic woman didn’t have that gift. But that still brings us back to the difficulty of the “accurate” prophecy.

Theologically, the easy way out is to follow the reasoning of John McArthur and others who claim that all modern attempts at prophecy are a work of demons. In his book “Strange Fire”, McArthur claims that all supernatural gifts ceased when the Bible was completed. Any supposed miracles of action or speech are demonic misrepresentations and should be shunned and avoided. He would conclude a demon inspired this woman to speak what she did.

I don’t have the time or inclination in this article to refute that silly notion. I believe the Bible is quite clear–as is Church History, both ancient and contemporary–that God still works miraculously through his people today. If that is true, how did this prophetic person get this so wrong?

There are three possibilities and I think all of them have a ring of truth. Let me just touch on the two most common reasons and then the one I think applies the most here.

The prophetic person might just pray this over everyone. This has been one of the criticisms of the so-called Prophetic Movement: That certain people have the same half dozen prophesies that they mix and match for the occasion. These prophetic words are generic enough that they can be interpreted any number of ways to fit the situation for the person receiving them. In this sense, they are like horoscopes.

Second, the recounting of the witch in the article might not be accurate. As in, she may have heard what she wanted to hear. We all do that when receiving any kind of news. We pick out the parts we like and the parts that apply to us and we turn a deaf ear to the parts that we don’t like. There may have been some of this happening.

But, I think there is another factor here. Assuming that the woman was praying something specific over Annika–and not generalized horoscope stuff–and assuming that Annika remembered it correctly, the problem may be with where the prophetic person was picking up the message.

Steve Thompson, in his book “You May All Prophesy” cautions about one sort of error regarding prophetic hearing:

“It is always possible to ‘read’ what the person wants you to pray instead of receiving a message from the Holy Spirit. We might pray for someone who wants a husband badly, and if we have a sensitive soul, we may hear the thought ‘pray for a husband’. This comes not from God in those moments but from the recipient’s wishful thinking.”

I have seen this in groups I have ministered with. The most sensitive of prophetic people do not always discern the difference between what the Spirit is showing them and what the person receiving prayer wants.

I believe this is what happened in the Bethel encounter. This is not to say this happens all the time at Bethel or that the other options are not also possible. But I think any of us who are prophetic need to look at this soberly and learn from it. Learning to hear God and speak that over other people means we must wade through our own thoughts, temptations from malevolent spirits and even the heart-wishes of another person.

This is why there were “schools of the Prophets” in the Bible. This is not an easy gift to use and we need to be mentored in it. I post this article as a caution to all of us who are occasionally prophetic. Do it right and if you don’t know how to do it right, get some training.

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