In the Eye of the Storm

As I write this article, it is early on a Thursday afternoon when I would normally be engaged with 8th grade students (at The Geneva School) in conversation about the Gospel of Mark (I know this because my phone keeps reminding me I should be in Room 110 right now). But on this day, I am quite literally enjoying “the calm before the storm” – sitting on my front porch with a nice breeze awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Matthew. The early bands should arrive in a couple of hours – I see them on my Doppler radar app on my phone. The predictions are dire. We expect damage, loss of power and who knows what else? Wait . . . God knows! And that is a comforting thought. But allow me a few rambling (and perhaps disconnected thoughts) as the eye of the storm barrels up our Florida coastline.

First, I put the word “storms” into a word search in my ESV Bible app earlier today – only one verse came up, but it was spot on!

“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by” (Psalm 57:1).

David wrote this while under duress, hiding in a cave as Saul sought to destroy him. So we see that while, at this moment, our community faces a literal “storm of destruction,” this is also a strong and apt metaphor for life. All of us face “storms of life” at various times. Some we see brewing from afar. We can try to prepare for these – at least to some degree, but we know they are coming and sometimes, preparation notwithstanding, they bring damage and destruction; sometimes, they just scare the bejabbers out of us and roll on by.

Other storms can catch us by surprise – flash floods in life so to speak. We don’t see them coming and they knock us sideways and take our feet out from under us. Still other storms in life seem to settle over us and pound away day after day, month after month; they never seem to let up. So we take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings and we cry out “Kyrie eleison!” And we trust God.

 Second, with that in mind, it is good to be reminded that God is sovereign and we are not. Though our modern world whispers the lie that we are in control, the power of a Hurricane Matthew reminds us that there are many things beyond our control. We simply have to bow before such storms, hunker down, and hold on. Circumstances are often (in fact, usually) beyond our control – but our response to circumstance is something for which we are responsible. When “storms” blow, we can fold up, give in and/or give up; we can act foolishly, or blame others. Or we can do our best, stand by faith, band together with brothers and sisters in the faith, and carry on, trusting God that He knows the outcome. Mark Heard, a singer/song writer (who studied for a time under Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri) wrote, “In the eye of the storm” which included this chorus: “In this world, Thunder throbs in the darkness, Out in the eye of the storm, The friends of God suffer no permanent harm” (see lyrics below). Mr. Heard experienced this. At age 41 he suffered a heart attack and died six weeks later. But his theological reflection was right. No matter what storms assail us, as God’s children, we never, ever suffer “permanent” harm. And that too is a comforting thought.

 Third, and finally, I am reminded today of William Cowper, his life and one hymn in particular: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (see lyrics below). Cowper waged a life-long battle with depression and mental illness, but trusted deeply in the God of his salvation. Yes indeed, storms may come – and they are not the work of chaos and blind fate. They are instruments of God for the sanctifying and strengthening of His saints. Remember and reflect on this thought that the clouds we dread, that seem full of danger and destruction, ultimately break with blessing and mercy on those who fall upon Christ as their only hope in life and in death. And that too, of course, is a most comforting thought, even (and especially) in the “calm before the storm.”


“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (William Cowper, 1773)

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill He treasures up His bright designs And works His sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.


“In the Eye of the Storm” (Mark Heard, 1983)

When it’s dark outside you’ve got to carry a light Or you’ll stumble and fall like tumbling dice It takes a steady step, it takes God-given sight Just to tell what is the truth, what is wrong, what is right

Chorus: In this world, thunder throbs in the darkness Out in the eye of the storm The friends of God suffer no permanent harm

When the night sky glows with the red fires of war And the threat of annihilation pounds at your door You don’t have to pretend that you got nerves of steel To believe that the love of the Lord is actual and real (chorus)

When the daybreak comes with a trumpet blast And the true fruit of faith is tasted at long-last When the darkness dies and death is undone And teardrops are dried in the noonday sun (chorus).

Trust in God as Your Only Refuge

[adapted from a sermon for St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Sunday, June 19, 2016]

I had a great opening illustration for this sermon all set last week, about a missionary who died of starvation after a shipwreck in 1851. I had some stellar exegesis on Psalm 31 all prepared, . . . Then death came to our town – on June 10th a sweet young sister in Christ, Christina Grimmie, was gunned down at the Plaza Theater a few miles from here. Then 48 hours later more death came to many more people last Sunday morning at Pulse . . . and everything changed . . . Then still later a young boy is killed by an alligator at a Disney resort.

But as I meditated on Psalm 31, reading it each day, I thought “The Scriptures are true – the grass does wither, flowers do fade, people die and awful things happen; but the Word of our God stands forever . . . it remains unchanged, true, and a balm for us in times of pain, confusion, loss, and desperation. Psalm 31 still speaks to our cultural moment.

Before we dig in a bit it’s worth noting that in Psalm 31 David gives words to the emotions we all have felt at one time or another. He articulates the stresses we feel. In fact, so genuine is David’s expression, that numerous other biblical writers found these words appropriate for them in their own time. First, Jeremiah borrowed a phrase from v. 13 “terror on every side” six times in his writing (along with other allusions to this psalm) to describe his own experience. Second, Jonah, in his prayer of repentance from the belly of the great fish quoted words from v. 6 (“those who pay regard to worthless idols”). Third, the writer of Psalm 71 (perhaps David himself?) uses most of the first three verses nearly verbatim to open that psalm. Finally of course, the words of v. 5 are some of the final words Jesus uttered from the cross: “In to your hands I commit my spirit.”

So let’s look together at what this psalm may say also to us in our day and in our situation.

A Prayer for Help: vv. 1-5

The opening prayer in vv. 1-5 revolves around God being the “Rock of refuge.” David often calls God a rock or a refuge, but here, David combines the two. This word refuge is the word from which the name Masada is derived. If you are familiar with the geography of the near east, Masada is a strong, secure, high, safe place of hiding.

Some might say there seems to be an illogical leap from v. 2 to vv. 3-4. In v. 2 David asks God, “Be a rock of refuge for me.” Then in v. 3-4 he says, “For you are my rock and refuge.” How can God be his refuge when he has just asked God to be this for him? This teaches us to ask God to show Himself to us as He is, so that we may experience in reality what we grasp by faith. We know by faith that God is many things because the Scriptures tell us so. But proving these things true through our personal experience can a very different thing.

Do you believe God is all powerful, omnipotent? Of course you do! Then the psalmist’s example says we should pray that God will prove His strength to us in our weakness. Do you believe God is wise, omniscient? Then ask Him to display His wisdom by ordering your life and giving you needed insight.

Such should be the prayer of believers: “God you are . . . : so now be . . . in my life!” And ohhh, don’t we need God to be such a safe refuge for us in our times? This week has shown us beyond doubt that we might not be safe anywhere.

And more difficult, what about those who have died? Was God a refuge for Christina Grimmie? Listen carefully: . . . for those who trust Him, God is a refuge even in death.

Through the ages, since our Lord used the words in v. 5 “into your hands I commit my spirit,” many believers have used these words to ask God to receive their souls in death, to bear them safely into His glorious presence. It is said these were the final words or St. Bernard, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, Melanchthon, and many others. Luther said, “Blessed are they who die not only for the Lord as martyrs; not only in the Lord as all believers, but likewise with the Lord, breathing forth their lives with these words” from Ps. 31.

So there is a prayer for help, followed by a confession of trust in vv. 6-8.

A Confession of Trust (vv. 6-8)

In the Old Testament and in life there is a deep connection between the concepts of refuge and trust. One in whom we take refuge must also be one in whom we can place our trust.

In Scripture we see many examples of false objects of security: fortified cities and walls, strongholds and fortresses, horses and chariots, wealth and power. None of these is sufficient to give ultimate security, much less to save. Of course the things we trust in today are more refined than horses or fortresses. We trust in our cars and savings accounts, our IRAs and securities. But these also can supply only passing peace.

When we cannot trust things, we turn to trust people. But of course Scripture shows abundantly that our trust cannot be in man either. As soon as we trust in someone, that person shows their “clay feet” – imperfections and shortcomings that cause our trust to disappear in disillusionment. Finally, perhaps, we trust ourselves. But Prov. 28:16 reminds us, “he who trusts in himself is a fool.”

In times of need, the only security, the only refuge is the Lord God. Yet how human of us to fall on Him most fully, most completely, only when all other things fail – how much better to say when things are good, “In you, O Lord, do I trust”? But when things are good, we easily drift back into depending upon self.

Why can we trust in the Lord? Because in v. 7 His חסד [hesed], His covenant faithfulness, lovingkindness, mercy, unfailing love. Because God is one defined by His חסד, He sees our afflictions, He knows the anguish of our souls. He has not handed us over, but instead has set our feet on a solid place. This is the reason we can trust in the Lord, Yahweh. He is not a refuge that will collapse or crumble, that will betray or leave us hanging with unfulfilled longs. He is trustworthy.

But what does it mean to trust? The church has often said there are three levels of biblical faith: knowledge, belief, and trust (Notitia, Assensus, Fiducia). Since we do not have a blind faith, we begin with information, data (notitia). Our faith is based on things seen, heard, and experienced. But information does not save. We have to believe that the information is true (assensus – we must assent to its truth). But this also does not save – James reminds us even the demons believe the truth! Finally, the biblical saving level of faith requires trust, surrender. Like knowing about aerodynamics of flying, believing that the plane can get you to Pittsburgh, but then actually surrendering by entering the plane. Fiducia means staking your life on something.

Do you trust God? I fear many in our land know about Him, even believe that what they know is true. But do you trust Him? Have you surrendered all you are to Him? He is the only rock of Refuge.

A Lament of Distress (vv. 9-13)

David’s language in these verses is deeply emotional, describing his precarious situation. David begins with his personal stress and works on to its cause. We see the causes in v. 13: he is surrounded; in vv. 11-12 he is receiving scorn of those who oppose him, and finally, in vv. 9-10 we read of his personal grief and its physical effects: his bones are weak, his eyes fail, the affliction weighs heavy on him, body and soul. Then it gets worse because there is rejection from people, a sense of worthlessness like a broken vessel, with people scheming and plotting, accusing and rejecting.

We have been experiencing a time of corporate, community grief these days in Orlando. But sadly, and I say this with utmost humility, perhaps like me you have seen a growing animus – I have been seeing it all over the media – toward historic Christian belief in the wake of Pulse. Some people have been quick to point fingers. “It’s all your fault, you Christian people, you intolerant people.” And I fear that this will only increase with time. We have seen a massive, tectonic cultural shift in the past few years with respect to sexual expression and the acceptance (even legislation) of new “norms.” To be a follower of Jesus today, to hold to and humbly support and proclaim that which has been handed down to us and that which is so clearly spoken in Scripture – is to be regarded with disdain and anger by those who believe differently.

I have been glad to see the church in our city respond with compassion and mutual mourning with those who believe radically different things about life and truth. But friends, if you believe to be true what the Scriptures say, you will find yourself open to the kind of rejection and vilification that David experienced and speaks of here. You may become a reproach to your neighbors and an object of dread to your acquaintances and even to family. But this is not something new, beloved. The early church was castigated as cannibals, the Romans believed, since Jesus’ followers rescued abandoned children, that they were using these in their so called “blood feasts” – how drastically acts of love and mercy can be misconstrued by those who are lost. It may not be much different for you and me today if we hold to the biblical models of life, love, and family.

In fact, The New York Times printed an editorial opinion piece this week saying that Christians want homosexuals executed! Really! See here:


Luther said, “Peace if possible, truth at all cost.” Paul (in Rom 12:16-18) said, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Note, it will not always be possible, but we do all we can to live humbly and to live in harmony. But truth is a costly thing – and may bring you to be shamed by others, to become even a reproach and an object of dread to people you hold dear. This is not your fault. This is the distorting deception of sin in our broken world.

To disagree with someone because you love the truth is not to hate the person with whom you disagree – no matter how many time they may allege that this is so. And truth is not a cultural construct (as much as our culture may say so). I have often said that even if 99% of Frenchmen said 2+2=4.5 “because we like it that way” such an assertion does not change the truth. God is true – He does not lie, or change His mind like humans; in Him there is no shifting shadow of uncertainty. As you humbly and faithfully hold to the biblical teaching on creation order, man and woman, you will increasingly be an object of scorn in our land. But this is why the object of our trust is so crucial. Look at the next stanza.

A Second Expression of Trust (vv. 14-18)

This psalm, like others, like our lives in fact, rises to crests of satisfaction and joy, and falls into troughs of weakness, despair. Verses 9-13 are just such a trough. And the verses that follow in 14-18 come back toward a crest. May it not be said of us what was said of Israel in Isaiah 30:15

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,

“In repentance and rest is your salvation;

in quietness and in trust is your strength.”

But you would have none of it”


Rather may we be like those referred to in Isaiah 50:10

“Who among you fears the Lord,

and obeys the voice of his servant?

Let him who walks in darkness and has no light,

trust in the name of the Lord, and rely on his God.”

As we live in strange, sad, challenging, confusing, and even dark times, let us say with David in Psalm 31:14-15 that “we trust in you O Lord; You are our God, our times are in Your hands.” He is the only worthy object of trust. And what many of us experience today – whether financial hardship, faltering self-confidence in your abilities, personal and relational struggles, anxiety about the future, distressing loss as so many have experienced recently – these experiences are coming from the hand of a loving Father who is causing you to lose faith in yourself, in your stuff, and perhaps even in your friends – in order that you might lean wholly and solely on Him.

This week I heard a worship song “Edges” by the group This Hope. The title comes from Job 26 where Job says in verse 14 “Indeed these are but the mere edges [or outskirts] of His ways, and how small a whisper we hear of Him! But the thunder of His power who can understand?” Even when we acknowledge the sovereignty of God over heaven and earth, life and death, we often question the equity or fairness of His actions. Job questioned God’s actions, but says, “Who are we to question when all we see are the fringe or outskirts of His ways?” Corrie ten Boom described this equally well saying that God is weaving a beautiful tapestry; but we, in these shadow lands, can only see the lower side – and there are knots, hanging threads, things that seem a mess and disconnected. But when we get to the other side . . . oh my, then we will see the design in all its glorious beauty.

This is not to say – don’t miss hear me on this – this is not to say that what has happened this past week is not plainly wickedness and evil. Nor are we saying anyone “deserved” what happened. Indeed, friends, we all know that in our sinful state we all – each and every one of us sinful people – deserve far worse. But we are saying God is not surprised. God is sovereign, but humans are responsible . . . and we see only in part Paul says; and Job goes further and says, no, we only see the mere outskirts, fringes of His infinite and majestic purposes.

Is this hard teaching? Certainly. But far more frightening is the prospect that God is not sovereign and we are left to fend for ourselves in this chaos.

A Prayer of Praise (vv. 19-20)

Here is another crest in the psalm. We began with a prayer for help, followed by an expression of trust, a deep lament, and another expression of trust. Then David moves on to praise God – and for what? For God’s great goodness and for His sheltering presence. And note that the goodness is shown in the sight of men. In the sight of antagonists and enemies. But even if His goodness is reserved just for you to see, still it is great goodness! And His sheltering grace keeps us no matter what the outward circumstances may be. May we, in the face of such unspeakable evil and tragedy as we have seen this week, weep and mourn with those who weep . . . but not as those who have no hope.

A Concluding Application (vv. 21-24)

Listen to the imperative verbs in this brief application section: Love the Lord. Be strong. Take heart. How can we be strong and take heart? Because the Lord preserves. And who can do this? Only those who hope in the Lord.

Love the Lord, be strong, take heart, you who put your trust in the Lord. Bow to Him, or receive from Him the fill payment of what we deserve. May we be of those who take refuge in One in whom we can trust. His refuge is unshakable, He alone is worthy of our trust and our worship.

Last week Kyle Stewart asked people at St. Paul’s to recognize that we are on a journey – hard and long. Search your soul, he challenged us – are you ready for the trial when they come? Think about the Grimmie family, the Graves family and the families of 49 others killed and 50-some scarred for life. About 85 years ago Frank Hougton wrote a hymn “Facing a Task Unfinished” – “We go to all the world with kingdom hope unfurled; no other name has power to save than Jesus Christ the Lord” – He alone is the rock of refuge upon which we must place our trust in life and in death.

This truth came home to us in new ways this past week as lost souls pass into night in great numbers in our midst. We can go, though danger is undiminished, with courage knowing we are held in a refuge that does not fail. Young Christina Grimmie was killed two days prior to the awful events at Pulse – one news story conjecturing that she was killed by a deranged man who attacked her precisely because she was a vocal follower of the Lord Jesus. Two days prior to her death, she posted a picture on her facebook page that said, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” Hope drives out fear. But not just any hope; not the type of hope that says “I hope my favorite team wins.” But the type of hope that anchors the soul; biblical hope, like an anchor, firmly grounded in the promises of God. Only biblical hope can drive out fear

Finally, I was reminded by my colleague, Sarah Madsen, this week of a line from Tolkien that fits us as we close. After the death of Gandalf, when the company is in despair, they heard this encouragement: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” I pray as we move forward in our city, in our church, and in our families, we can say with David, “I trust in you Yahweh; my times – however long or short by our reckoning they may be – our times are in your hands.” May God give us grace so to live, knowing that He who holds time also holds those who trust in Him.

Closing prayer:

O Lord, Whose power is infinite and wisdom infallible, order things that they may neither hinder, nor discourage us, nor prove obstacles to the progress of your cause in our day. Stand between us and all strife, that no evil befall, and no sin corrupts. Let us dwell in your most secret place under your shadow, where we are protected from arrows that fly by day, from pestilence that walks in darkness, from the strife of tongues, the malice of ill-will, the hurt of unkind talk, the snares of company, the perils of youth, the temptations of middle life, the mourning of old age, and from the fear of death. We are entirely dependent upon You for support, counsel, and consolation. Uphold us by your free Spirit, and may we not think it enough to be preserved from falling, but may we always go forward, always abounding in the work You give us to do. Strengthen us by your Spirit in our inner selves for every purpose of our Christian life. All our jewels we give to the shadow of the safety that is in you—our bodies, souls, talents, characters, successes, our spouse, children, friends, work, our present, our future, our end. Take them, they are Yours, and we are Yours, now and forever.           Amen.

God’s Sovereignty and Human Freedom (part 1)

This article was published in the February issue of “The Courier” at The Geneva School (online here:

In the course of my teaching seventh and eighth grade students, I ask them to memorize four primary themes for the Old Testament and four more for the New. One major theme in the Old Testament is “God is sovereign; humans are responsible.” As you can imagine, this theme (and a corresponding New Testament theme: “The required human response: Repent and Believe”) needs a lot of “unpacking” through my two courses of Biblical History of the Ancient Near East (in seventh grade) and New Testament Survey (in one semester of eighth grade). Allow me to unpack these ideas just a bit in this article and in a following article later this spring. Some of this material is drawn and adapted from two chapters of a resource that Bob Ingram and I produced in 2009 entitled “The Biblical Motifs Project.”

The Lord God Almighty is the First Cause and the Final Cause, thus he is called the “Alpha and Omega,” the first and the last. In this same regard, Jesus is called the “Author and Finisher” or the “Founder and Perfecter” of our faith (Heb. 12:2).

The Scriptures are replete with one affirmation after another, from the mouth of God, from the prophets, from Jesus, and from the apostles, that God holds all things, determines all things, controls and providentially moves all things. But at the same time, of course, God allows us tremendous freedom and responsibility in our lives. I remind students that they choose each day (admittedly from a limited range) what color polo shirt they will wear to school. In my class they decide where they will sit when they enter the room (unless they arrive late at which point their choices are necessarily more limited). But it is clear that within the realm of God’s sovereign rule, we also bear responsibility each day for a multitude of choices, small and large, consequential and inconsequential, that we make.

God’s divine sovereignty in the spiritual realm can seem to come into tension with human responsibility. We can see both sides of this tension in Deuteronomy. First, God requires of man that we fear, love, and serve him with our whole heart, and further that we circumcise (that is, cleanse) our hearts (see Deut. 10:12–16). These commands are impossible for us to fulfill. We are unable, due to our sinful and fallen nature, to accomplish what the law requires. But toward the end of Deuteronomy, that which God requires of us, he graciously provides for us saying, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6). So we see that God intervenes on behalf of his chosen children to change hearts that are predisposed by sin to rebel into hearts now disposed to respond with gratitude to his grace and his call. And as an added benefit of this, he gives us life! When we read this with “New Testament eyes” we are reminded of Jesus’ words, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they [God’s “sheep”] may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

I try to communicate this to students by asking them to think about what part they played in their own physical birth. With just a minimum amount of reflection, they admit that they were the passive party in this great event. They did not choose to be conceived, to grow, or to leave their mother’s womb. In fact, they were not even “conscious” of these events as they were happening to them. But they each receive life all the same. In this way, our physical life is a metaphor for our spiritual life. Just as God creates physical life (admittedly through natural and profoundly mysterious means), so God creates new spiritual life.

When Jesus spoke about spiritual rebirth to Nicodemus in John 3, that wise teacher did not see the spiritual lesson—he could only ask how he could enter again his mother’s womb to be born again. As so often happened in John’s Gospel, Jesus spoke about spiritual realities, but people saw physical realities and did not understand. Jesus told him that the Spirit of God moves like the mysterious wind, bringing life where and when he intends to. This is still true with us.

In conclusion, the Scriptures teach that God is sovereign over every aspect of our being: body and soul, will and emotions, personal relationships in our daily lives as well as the movements of international governments and rulers. He rules over every kingdom and every culture. In Jesus Christ he is head over the church, with all things eventually working to the praise of his own glory. This is, not surprisingly, summarized well by John Calvin (Institutes, I.16.1–2):

  • It were cold and lifeless to represent God as a momentary Creator, who completed his work once for all, and then left it. Here, especially, we must dissent from the profane, and maintain that the presence of the divine power is conspicuous, not less in the perpetual condition of the world than in its first creation …
  • That this distinction may be the more manifest, we must consider that the Providence of God, as taught in Scripture, is opposed to fortune and fortuitous causes. By an erroneous opinion prevailing in all ages, an opinion almost universally prevailing in our own day—viz. that all things happen fortuitously, the true doctrine of Providence has not only been obscured, but almost buried.


If one falls among robbers, or ravenous beasts; if a sudden gust of wind at sea causes shipwreck; if one is struck down by the fall of a house or a tree; if another, when wandering through desert paths, meets with deliverance; or, after being tossed by the waves, arrives in port, and makes some wondrous hair-breadth escape from death—all these occurrences, prosperous as well as adverse, carnal sense will attribute to fortune. But those who have learned from the mouth of Christ that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Matthew 10:30), will look farther for the cause, and hold that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.

In my next article, we will consider more carefully where our personal and corporate responsibilities lie. But it is always good to remember what Paul said as he addressed the Areopagus in Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Thanks be to God!

Random Thoughts on “Inside Out”

Perhaps you saw the animated film “Inside Out” when it was in theaters last summer. I missed it but finally watched it over the Christmas break with some of my family. What a creative film about “emerging adults” and the emotional turbulence that seems to characterize the inevitable transition from the innocence of youth to the challenging years of middle and high school. I think every parent of a junior high student ought to see this film – perhaps with your student! And I might extend that suggestion to every parent of students – almost whatever age: for parents of Grammar students, in order to look ahead and prepare; and for parents of high students, to look back and smile. Allow me to offer a few rambling comments and thoughts.Inside Out

First, the premise of “Inside Out” is that the five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust live and work together in an emotional control room in the mind of “Riley” a young girls of 11-12. [in the picture above the are (left to right): Fear, Sadness, Joy, Disgust, and Anger] Would that things were so simple! While a most entertaining piece of work, there is always a danger if we see a movie as “the way things work.” Perhaps it goes without saying that though the movie is profoundly creative, humans are far more complex and far less mechanistic than portrayed in this film. It works for this movie, of course; but since we are fearfully and wonderfully made, the reality is far more unfathomable. That said, there are numerous positive take-aways from the film (which was produced by the same writer/producer of “Up” and “Monsters, Inc.”).

Second, the story follows the “inside” world of Riley’s emotions as they interact with and respond to her “outside” world of family, friends, sports, school, etc. After doing a little reading, I learned that the “outside” portion of the story comprises less than 20% of the film with well over 80% of the action taking place inside Riley’s mind. “Joy” is the leading emotion, personified by an irrepressibly positive pixie (“A good day leads to a good week, leads to a good month, leads to a good year, leads to a good life!” she says). But “Sadness” and her cohorts, “Anger,” “Fear,” and “Disgust” chime in accordingly to keep things lively. Joy’s goal is to be sure that each day brings memories (in the form of colored spheres) that sparkle and shine. At the end of the day, the memories are downloaded into the long term storage. But especially important “core memories” leave an indelible mark on Riley and these special spheres stay in the “control room.”

Third, the idea of “core memories” is provocative. In fact, while watching the film, I was pushed into thinking about (perhaps dredging up!) a few core memories of my own. Each of our lives has numerous “water shed” moments that, to a lesser or greater degree, shape us into who we are, chart our course in life for better or worse. One Geneva colleague insightfully noted, “The fact that certain core memories/experiences really do shape who we are and become [should be] an admonition to educators and parents to be careful about how we interact with the students/children … But [we must also remember], God can work in us to change us. Through sanctification we can become what God has called us to be – regardless of our core memories.”

Fourth, at one point, Riley re-encounters her early childhood “imaginary friend” named Bing Bong. In a painful moment during the story, this “friend” sacrifices himself (falling into the “memory dump”) in order to help her move ahead in her development and growth. This made me think of 1 Corinthians 13 when Paul speaks of letting go of “childish things.” Such an act is painful, but necessary for growth.

Fifth, this thought leads to a critical factor (and the turning point in the movie): the   realization that life will not always be made up of “happy” memories. In fact, the film demonstrates the value sadness can bring when mixed with joy. At a critical moment in Riley’s journey, when all seems lost, Joy realizes this and says, “Sadness, it’s up to you. Riley needs you!”

I have often told students that though we all wish for comfort, peace, and happiness in life, the most precious and formative lessons we learned come through difficulty, often mixed with sadness and loss. And this film does a great job demonstrating this. And as this was playing out in the film, Tolkien came to mind (of course!)

Finally, Tolkien has much to teach us about the close relationship between joy and sadness. In his letters and in an important essay “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien weaves a beautiful tapestry, convincingly showing that joy and sorrow produce something far more beautiful than either can alone. This difficult and mysterious concept comes through in the film as Riley eventually realizes that one of her core memories of joy was actually immediately preceded by (and indeed set in motion by) one of her greatest moments of grief and loss. Tolkien once wrote: “Christian joy . . . produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love” (Letters, 89). This is a great example of what Tolkien calls “eucatastrophe” – a word he coined to describe the instance when something terrible actually turns out to lead to something immeasurably good. With respect to story, Tolkien said eucatastrophe is the “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance . . . .”

In Riley’s case, in a crucial moment of maturity, she realizes that this core memory is actually a mixture of the bright yellow of joy and the blue of sadness which is more rich and deeply satisfying than she could ever have imagined as a young child when she tried to forget the sadness and loss.

Do you see the gospel here? As we mature as humans made in God’s image, we confront our brokenness and sinful inability to be “good” on our own. When this happens, we begin more deeply to appreciate (and hopefully to appropriate) the richness offered us in the grace of redemption we find in the Good News. Tolkien calls the death and resurrection of Christ the greatest eucatastrophe which occurs in the truest story. As we see and understand that death issues forth in life and loss can bring understanding and joy, we begin to be able to see that memories of even “bad” things can become, by God’s grace “good” things (and that sometimes the bad and the good are the very same incident!). In this way we can affirm Romans 8 when Paul writes, “And we know that for those who love God all things [and that all is an all-inclusive all] work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

At the movie’s end, Joy and Sadness walk hand-in-hand. And so it is in our lives.

Homily for Ash Wednesday

The Geneva School Chapel, February 10, 2016

Today is Ash Wednesday on some church calendars. It begins a 40 day period of time (minus the Sundays) called Lent leading to Easter. As you can see from the inside cover of your bulletin, the word Lent is from a Middle and Old English word that simply means “spring” – though I have also heard it is from the Latin word for “40.” But this 40 day period is associated again, in some church traditions, with the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness with a focus on self-denial and fasting. Not all Protestant churches observe this – it is one of many traditions observed by some, originating rather early to help people understand Scripture, though it is not mentioned in Scripture per se. As someone who comes from a tradition where this day and season is not observed, I feel a bit like a porcupine in a balloon factory – proceeding with care lest I move a bit too far in one direction or the other with disastrous results. So I would begin by remembering Paul’s good teaching in Romans 14:

“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”

But let’s think about this, focusing together for a few minutes on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. This followed immediately after He was baptized by John in the Jordan – and that event, Jesus’ baptism, is traditionally considered the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. So let me begin with a question.

Second graders, let me ask you to remember back to when you were just little kids way back in K-4. Back then I imagine that if someone asked you, “What did Jesus come to do for you?” you might have answered, “Jesus died on the cross for my sins . . . I’m 4 ½!” And that would be a good answer as far as it goes.

But let’s be very clear: was it enough that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and rose from the dead? Shake your heads “no”! Our sins certainly needed to be atoned for with a perfect sacrifice. But too many people forget what Jesus did for us before He died for us. He had to live for us as well. Someone had to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law. And Jesus did this with His life. And we see this beginning to happen right here in these 40 days in the wilderness. Follow me on this, o.k.?

Luke 3 recounts the story of Jesus’ baptism, then the chapter ends with a long genealogy of Jesus going all the way back to Adam – that’s important – tuck that away. Then in Luke 4 we read,

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.” When we hear about someone being led by the Spirit in the wilderness for 40 days, who else was led by God in the wilderness . . .? Yes, the people Israel . . . for 40 years! Why? Because they did not trust God to lead them into the Promised Land. So they were led by a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night (sounds like the Spirit!) for 40 years until all those adult who did not trust God had died. The people of Israel failed to trust, and someone had to do that for them; someone has to do for us, too. So Jesus lived in a way we could not, trusting God faithfully in perfect obedience.

The Scripture in Luke 4 continues, “And he [Jesus] ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. [Well, I guess so, right?] The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” What did Israel eat in the wilderness? What did God provide for them those 40 years? Yes, Manna, bread from heaven, yet they complained and failed to be grateful and to trust God.

But Luke 4 continues, “And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”

And Satan took Jesus to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’    and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”

Hmm, . . . 40 days in the wilderness being faithful to God reminds us of Israel’s 40 years of failure in the wilderness. Jesus does in the wilderness what Israel could not do. But even more, when the devil comes to tempt Jesus with food, and power, and life, what does that make us think of? We remember that Satan tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were surrounded by everything they could ever want or need in the Garden, including fellowship with God; yet Adam and Eve fell to the temptation of Satan. They wanted different food, power, and life than God had already so graciously provided for them. Adam and Eve failed to trust God, but Jesus did not fail when faced with an even greater temptation.

Jesus did in temptation what Adam could not do. Jesus is so much greater in all the deprivation and hardship of the wilderness than Adam was in the comfort and beauty of the Garden. Adam had all he needed, yet failed to trust God and sinned. Jesus, in great deprivation and hardship, stood up to Satan’s temptation and lived faithfully, defeating the same serpent that had defeated Adam

Irenaeus, an early Father in the church, famously said that Jesus succeeded where Israel and Adam failed. Jesus succeeds where we fail too. Irenaeus proposed that in this situation Jesus was not so much giving us a model to imitate. Rather this was an important action where Jesus lives for us in a way we could not live. Jesus offers what Irenaeus called “recapitulation.”

That’s a big word, but what is in that word, students? The “capital,” the head. Jesus put the head back on — He recaps the failure of humanity in the way He lives in obedience to God as we are unable to do. So we enter Lent looking to Jesus as one who lives a life of perfect obedience that we cannot live. Then in Holy Week Jesus dies a death we cannot die as the perfect sacrifice. He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might become, by His grace, not by our effort, the righteousness of God.

The first Adam had faced the temptations of Satan in a bountiful garden and failed. The second Adam – Jesus – faced the temptations of Satan in a desolate wilderness and He succeeds. He succeeds where Adam failed because He trusts the Word of God. Satan twisted God’s Word in his tempting of Adam and Eve and caused them to doubt. He twisted God’s Word in his tempting of Jesus, but Jesus does not falter.

The significance of this is that Jesus, like Adam, acted as a representative of humanity. In Romans 5 Paul teaches us that the failure of Adam brought sin and death on the human race. In order to be our Savior, it was necessary for Jesus to live a life of complete obedience to God. His sinlessness was absolutely necessary for our salvation. In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted like Adam, but did not sin.

One of the main New Testament Scriptures upon which this view of recapitulation is based is Eph. 1:10 which says: “[God’s purpose is, in] the fullness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth.” The Greek word for “sum up” was rendered “to recapitulate” in Latin.

In this recapitulation view of the atonement, Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because in his union with humanity, by perfect obedience, He is able to offer humankind eternal life when we trust in His obedience rather than in our own.

Irenaeus said, “[Christ] was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering … He commenced afresh, that is in Latin “in seipso recapitulavit,” He summed up [He recapitulated] in Himself the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that everything we had lost in Adam—namely, to be in the image and likeness of God—that we might recover in Christ Jesus.

He has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, in His life of obedience, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam. …the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man [born] of woman who conquered him.

For Irenaeus, the ultimate goal of Christ’s work of becoming a human being is to bring us back to God by faith in Him. He said, Jesus “became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”

So, back to Lent. I read an article this week in Time magazine about something Pope Francis said this year about Lent. He said, if we’re going to fast from anything this Lent, Pope Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others.

Rather than fasting from some food or some activity that affects you only, perhaps this Lenten season Francis said we might consider feasting on love. I kind of like that. How can we feast on love? Perhaps you fast from criticizing your classmate; fast from laughing at the mistakes of others; fast from assuming the worst about someone’s intentions. Feast instead on kindness, feast forgiveness, feast on love by out doing each other in showing respect to each other and finding ways to serve each other.  Fast from selfishness and feast instead on finding ways to give to others, cultivating selflessness instead.

True confession for a moment: I am a weak and sinful man – weaker than I care to admit – Jesus is my strength. My righteous acts, my attempts at “being good,” amount to so many stinking, filthy rags. Isaiah 64 describes me and I think it describes us all when it says, “We have all become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment [like filthy rags]. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” But Jesus’ righteousness is refulgent in glory and perfect – so by His grace, as we contemplate the goodness of Christ for us, let us glory in His righteousness by which we are saved and with which we are clothed. He alone is good

C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.” Does God desire that we do good things? Of course, it pleases God when we begin to look more like Jesus. But let us remember that only the goodness of Jesus can save us. Let us feast on the goodness of God in Christ, who was good for us so that we can, by His grace, be remade increasingly into His image as we trust in Him.


The Long View

[recently published in The Geneva School’s Courier newsletter]

My Grandmother was born in the late 19th century (1898). She died on her 70th birthday (living exactly that biblical “three score and ten”). Though I was only 12 years old at her death, I have a sense that she handed down to me in my younger years some of what I now hand down to your students. And this is how it has gone for thousands of years now. One generation passes on to another the valuable lessons of life, and in her case faith and Christian hope.

So think about this with me. Geneva students have just two degrees of separation (from my grandmother to me and from me to Geneva students) from someone who grew up without automobiles, indoor plumbing or electric light bulbs. She saw the very beginnings of recorded sound and the mass usage of electricity. For much of her life, she heard news on the radio and saw news reels of the World War II in the movie theater. But Geneva students have never known life without the internet, mp3 technology, and concepts like “global warming” – things foreign to me in my youth and which my grandmother never heard of or could possibly have imagined at her death in the late 1960s. I sometimes have to explain to students things like LPs and manual transmissions!

In the same way, I cannot imagine the changes that my present students will see by the time they are my age. Our culture is adept at predicting the future – though we did not get hoover boards by October 2015 as “Back to the Future” predicted in 1985, and I must admit, by the way, that I am somewhat disappointed by that! But we cannot imagine the changes that will happen over the next 50 years, nor can we predict the cultural challenges young people will face in their later lives.

I teach students the following: “Culture is the integrated system of learned patterns of behaviors, ideas, and products that characterize a society.” Whatever culture one might observe, one sees complex layers of thinking and acting that result in ideas that issue forth in behaviors which create certain products, and these together become characteristic of any particular society. Students quickly see that certain products in our culture (e.g., fast food, media, and football) characterize the American experience. But these are the result of profoundly influential ideas which form our behaviors. When we think more deeply about such things, students eventually (hopefully) see that ideas about life and afterlife are also profoundly influential in the way they live their lives.

But as much as things change, some things remain the same. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)! Truth is truth – and it does not and will not change (despite our current cultural moment contending in many sectors that truth is subjective and created by communities). While the body of knowledge grows exponentially, some things will always be true despite any and all attempts to “restructure truth” to fit new cultural paradigms. Maimonides (1335-1204) said, “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.”

And this is what excites me about teaching at Geneva. At some point every year, I tell 7th grade “emerging adults” that I hope someday some of them will be teachers as well. And if/when they are and they reach my age, they will be teaching young students in their classrooms. Their students will be, eventually and by God’s grace, the leaders of the 22nd century! Do the math – it works out! This is “the long view” that I hold onto as I teach. My hope is that the truths we teach at Geneva will be passed on by our students to students fifty years from now who will grow up to lead our country (and the world!) in the 22nd century. That’s what gives me energy to do what I do most days of the week.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Students in 7th grade recently discussed Psalm 27 where we saw one verse that says,

“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,

to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”

Many people adopt this as a “life verse.” They want their life to be characterized by seeking after God, gazing on his beauty, inquiring about his truth. In a way, this verse capsulizes our new idea that at Geneva we are about the big goal of “inspiring students to love beauty [“gazing on the beauty of the Lord”), think deeply [“to inquire in his temple”], and to pursue Christ’s calling on their lives” [“that will I seek after”]. A thousand years before Christ came, this was David’s desire. Now, two thousand years later, it is ours at Geneva.

Likewise, 8th grade students each semester contemplate Paul’s desire seen in Philippians 3:10, “that I may know him [Jesus Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Almost two thousand years after Paul articulated this life-long striving, this should also be our goal as well. And we remember, with Paul, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

May God give us the grace to hold this “long view” in mind each day at The Geneva School.

All Saints Day and “Stars” of the World

Yesterday saw the confluence of All Saints Day with the “International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Church” – an interesting joining of two things that naturally should go together. After all some of Jesus’ final words to His followers were: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul concurred telling Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

So we remember that the normative experience of the saints (that is the “holy ones” of God, those whom He has set apart for Himself . . . His children, every Christian, even us!) is to suffer for His name sake. But we also admit that suffering persecution is not our experience in the West. At least not to the degree of those mentioned in the book of Hebrews who “joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property, since [they] knew that [they] had a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb. 10:34). They were encouraged to remember those who had suffered so much in so many ways (Heb. 11:32-40) and so to run the race (Heb. 12:1-ff). We are in that company, charged to run the race. We are “of the saints” if we trust in Christ by faith alone.  But such a life of faith is usually one of obscurity, lived in small places where God does big things through small people.

How different this is to the “stars” of our modern world! A greater contrast could not have been made than by reading two book reviews in Saturday’s WSJ Review section. The first considered the life of Peggy Guggenheim (here: Hers was a life of opulent wealth. Her father died on the Titanic, and her uncle was patron of the same-named museum in NYC. Her life was spent collecting art, establishing art galleries, taking lovers, patronizing sinful and licentious living. On the next page was a review of another book about Frank Sinatra (here: Again, a life of world-wide renown, opulent wealth, untold influence (and again, legendary numbers of lovers). But in the end, both lives were a sad commentary on the modern attempt to throw off restraint and live “your way” (how profoundly sad are the words to that song recorded by Sinatra toward the end of his career – see “My Way” below, and especially the hard, tragically erroneous words in the final stanza). The world glamorizes the popular, the rich and flamboyant. They get attention, pleasure, power, desires, control. And they are indeed remembered. But it is in the end a sad and tragic remembrance. Almost to a person, their lives were colossal train wrecks of sadness, loneliness, ending in nothingness.

Saints, on the other hand, live in obscurity, oft-persecuted, but dying in faith living forever in the community of saints in fellowship with God. So I was encouraged yesterday in worship to recite the following from Heidelberg Confession: Question 52. What comfort is it to you that “Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead”?  Answer: “In all my sorrow and persecution, I lift up my head and eagerly await as judge from heaven the very same person who before has submitted Himself for my sake, to the judgment of God, and has removed all the curse from me. He will to come as judge from heaven to cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but He will take me and all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.”

Then in closing, we sang:

“Faith of our fathers, living still, In spite of dungeon, fire and sword; O how our hearts beat high with joy, Whenever we hear that glorious Word! Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.”

So what is the way of the saint? This morning at The Geneva School, the faculty heard this reading from C.S. Lewis – seemed to sum it up well:

“Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters. Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom, Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in” (Mere Christianity).


“My Way” (a ballad to late 60s hedonism and existentialism)

And now, the end is near, And so I face the final curtain. My friend, I’ll say it clear, I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain:

I’ve lived a life that’s full, I’ve traveled each and every highway; But more, much more than this I did it my way.

Regrets, I’ve had a few; But then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do, And saw it through without exemption.

I planned each charted course, Each careful step along the byway; And more, much more than this I did it my way.

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew, When I bit off more than I could chew. But through it all, when there was doubt I ate it up and spit it out. I faced it all and I stood tall And did it my way.

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried; I’ve had my fill my share of losing. And now, as tears subside I find it all so amusing. To think I did all that And may I say – not in a shy way – Oh no, oh no, not me I did it my way.

For what is a man, what has he got If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels, And not the words of one who kneels; The record shows I took the blows And did it my way.

Yes, it was my way.


How glad I am to be in company with the saints who say, “There is One who said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one come to the Father but through me.”

A History of Humankind

[For those of you who do not get The Geneva Courier, here is the piece I wrote for the most recent issue. The published, edited version is here (on pp. 24-25):

A History of Humankind

I hope your summer was a good one which included rest and achieving some goals. I usually try to do at least two things: get some rest and accomplish some “recreational” reading. So in addition to relaxing while on the shore of Lake Erie with family, I dug into some reading. First I read McCullough’s new biographical installment, The Wright Brothers (Simon & Schuster, 2015; highly recommended). Then I followed the crowds and read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (Harper. 2015; which validates Naomi Wise’s dictum advising against ever publishing a first draft! Stick with the old Atticus!). I also dipped into Turley’s Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness & Beauty; but what really got my attention up on Lake Erie was beginning to read Yuval Harari’s best seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015).Mike.07.15.Lake Erie

Harari is an Israeli historian (Ph.D. from Oxford) whose book has been translated into 26 languages – that got my attention. Further, as an atheistic scholar (who, according to the bio, lives with his husband near Jerusalem and teaches at Hebrew University), his writing gives a window into the worldview of so many who believe and live by a story completely separate from the story we tell at Geneva. Though I have yet to finish the book, I find it incredibly intriguing and helpful in understanding our cultural moment.

At Geneva, we believe (consistent with historic Christian tradition) that God created the world with purpose and intention. His creation is a beautiful construction revealing God’s nature of order and beauty. We also believe that humankind is the pinnacle of his creation. We are made in God’s image (imago Dei) and as his image-bearers, he has given us a “creation mandate” to be fruitful and multiply, and have dominion as stewards over his creation. Further, we believe that humanity’s fall into sin has marred creation such that the whole creation (not just humans) longs for redemption, restoration, and reconciliation with our creator.

The other story is quite different, of course, and Harari articulates it well. When God is not real, there is no “creation.” Everything we know and see and experience is the random result of meaningless forces with no ultimate meaning other than what any particular culture may seek to impose upon our world. Humans are not special, nor actually essentially different than the rest of the animal world. Thus Harari asks how this particular slice of evolution, the species homo sapiens, has somehow risen to dominate the world as we know it (at least for now).

Harari contends that our species rose through the ability to created “imagined realities” such as money, religion, and even corporations – none of which are “real” in his mind – in order to give us a false sense of . . . well, order. “Culture,” he says, “tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition natural” (p. 147). He goes on to say that “our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology but from Christian theology” and as such do not apply to those who reject the Christian story. He freely admits that evolution has no purpose and that so much of human “history” is the story of one culture oppressing another for the sake of power and wealth (both imaginary illusions).Harari.07.15

Harari is one of an ever growing number of “scholars” who “see culture as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host” (p. 242). Wow! That’s a dismal view of things. So what does a secular evolutionary atheist hope for? I have already looked ahead toward the end of the book since the picture being painted is so hopeless. To my surprise, his hope (also articulated in a published interview) is that death will eventually be “optional.” Really! This is where human evolution is headed – victory over death and endless life . . . for an elite class who use the rest of human kind to serve and support them.

This made me think of Tolkien (naturally) in whose Middle Earth cosmology members of the Elvish race cannot simply die (though an Elf may be killed). And the Elves, interestingly enough, consider death to be a gift given by the creator to the race of men. Elves find endless life a dreary burden to bear from which there is no release and little joy (even if there is great beauty and achievement).

While we can stand in wonder at the great advancements of modern culture, mankind is still held in bondage to something relatively close to that biblical idea of three score and ten years in this life. Yet we believe that there is much more to life and the world than that which we can see and quantify. I am sure Harari is one of those who pities us as people of the Book who believe in the resurrection of the dead and the prospect of everlasting life. But such belief also gives meaning and purpose to our waking and sleeping moments. Life matters because God has decreed it so.

I am grateful that a summer of rest is a good thing and that God uses such times to energize us for our vocation at Geneva: educating the next generation and continuing the profoundly important task of inspiring students to love beauty in God’s world, think deeply about the significance of life, and to pursue Christ’s calling as we live on this earth.


[NB: I wrote this piece for the May issue of The Geneva Courier . . . before our sweet Jessica sustained another badly broken arm last week. How ironic. But God is good, all the time.]

In my Biblical History class [for 7th grade students] we recently undertook an admittedly brief survey of the book of Job, one of the oldest and most complex books in the Old Testament. You know the basic story. Job, a wealthy, righteous man who feared God lost almost everything of any value to him: his possessions, his children, and his health. All that he had left was a wife, who advised him (foolishly) to curse God and die.

What follows is a long discourse between Job and his friends – 35 chapters worth of deep conversation about the nature of suffering and the justice of God. After Job’s final soliloquy, God speaks (Job 38-41). And virtually all He does is ask Job one question after another – more than 60 questions by my count! And all the questions are rhetorical reminding Job of three things: 1.) God is great; 2.) Job is not; and 3.) Do not get numbers one and two confused!

We can learn an awful lot about God from the questions He asks Job. We are reminded with Job that God has created and ordered everything that exists: earth, sea, sky, stars, all of creation. He tells us through questions that He has designed and ordered everything, from the place where waves stop on the shore to constellations in the heavens. Then God moves more specifically into the animal world, speaking (again through questions) about everything from lions and donkeys to birds on the wing. After two chapters of this Job says, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”

Job essentially says, “I am small and need to shut my mouth.” But God is not finished yet.

In the next two chapters God challenges Job for assuming that he, a human might presume to know all that God is doing. He continues to teach Job his smallness by speaking at length about “behemoth” and “leviathan.” Much ink has been spilled as to whether God is speaking here about a hippopotamus, a crocodile, or a whale. Regardless, the point is clear. When we take a minute to look at creation in all its vast array, we must admit that we are small and weak, fragile and frail. But God is almighty beyond our understanding. Every year when I travel to California for meetings at Joni and Friends (as I did recently), on the way back to the airport in L.A. I take a canyon road up over the Santa Monica Mountains and pull off at a spot where, from several thousand feet up, I can look out over the Pacific Ocean. It’s good to remind ourselves regularly that we are very small people in a very large world ordered and sustained by a majestic and powerful God.

Job’s final words are of deep repentance: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. . . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-6).

In the epilogue, we see that God restored Job’s fortune doubly, and gave him more children, and Job died full at an old age. But one thing was never revealed to Job: “Why?

Therein lays the rub. All too often, like Job, we are not given a glimpse “behind the curtain” (as we the reader were able to get in Job), to see what God’s purpose is in our suffering in this life. Will we know at some point? Certainly, the Scriptures affirm that at the consummation of all things we will see God’s purposes clearly and know that His plan for us was good and even, in mysterious ways, glorifying to God Almighty. But in the meantime, we wrestle with the “Why?” just as Job surely did.

Many of our 7th grade students have suffered much in their brief 12-13 years of life. And many of you in our parent community have suffered much more! Often without knowing the answer to “why?”

Some people are blessed to see the reasons for their suffering. My friend, Joni Eareckson Tada is one of those. Paralyzed from the shoulders down at 17, she sees now at 65 what God was doing. Her suffering has become a blessing to untold thousands (even millions I dare say); to many people her story has been a vehicle for their salvation in Christ. But we cannot forget that on the way to that blessed knowledge were years of despair, night after night of loneliness and deep sadness at what life would be like: never riding a horse again or being able to wipe her own nose or myriad other simple things we take for granted.
Mike and Joni.05.15
[A pic with Joni at the Joni and Friends Board meeting earlier this month]

In her book The God I love: A lifetime of Walking with Jesus, she closes the book talking about the time she was at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, a place where a paralyzed man was healed by Jesus, but she remained paralyzed in her wheelchair. And there she said to God, “I know I wouldn’t know you . . . I wouldn’t love you and trust you . . . were it not for this chair.” Then she finished by writing this: “The answer to all our fears, Man of Sorrows and Lord of Joy, always permitting what he hates, to accomplish something he loves. And he brought me here [to the pool in Jerusalem] so that I could declare to anyone within earshot of the whole universe, to anyone who might care, that yes—There are more important things in life than walking.”

Good words and true.

I say to students every year that one of the most quoted but least believed verses in the Bible is Romans 8:28, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Do you see what it says? All things? All things that happen to us are not good! Some circumstances are just down right evil, wicked, and unspeakably tragic. But in God’s almighty power and wisdom, he is able – for those who love him and are called by him – to use all things for our good and for his glory.

Our lives are part of a great tapestry that God is weaving (and at Geneva, He is graciously weaving our many lives together in the most surprising ways!). We see the underside of the tapestry, where there are knots, hanging threads, things that don’t seem to be beautiful or make sense. But God sees the upper side of the tapestry, something beautiful beyond what we can imagine. As we trust him, even the dark threads will be used to create beauty, reason, purpose, and glory, all in his time and in his way.

As we end another year [at The Geneva School], here in our small corner of the earth in Winter Park, I am convinced beyond doubt that God is up to something surprisingly beautiful and magnificent, despite us. He is weaving our stories into his grand story. And at the end of the day, that is a happy thought.


Homily for The Geneva School

“Bless are you when men persecute you”

April 1, 2015

Mr. Clark has been reminding us recently that in the Beatitudes Jesus lays out a way of being in the world that characterizes Jesus’ disciples. He has further said that Jesus isn’t giving us a list of things we can do to get him to do nice things for us; he is calling together a new people—a renewed humanity—to follow Him into the world, because He wants to extend His gracious rule of the world through people who look and act like what He says in the Beatitudes (and indeed what He says throughout the whole Sermon on the Mount).

Today I discuss the longest and the last of the Beatitudes – both ideas (longest/last) should get our attention. And of course, it’s probably the most objectionable principle as well. Anyone want to be first in line to sign up for persecution? I think not. None of us wishes for such things.

But if we go with what Mr. Clark has said, persecution is a way of being for followers of Jesus. It is the normative experience of Christians throughout the ages and the overwhelming experience of Christians in recent decades around the whole world. Think about the hundreds, probably thousands, of Christians in the Middle East killed recently for their faith. The words of Jesus come true for them. In John 16:1-4 Jesus says, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” When Egyptian Christians were killed recently, the last words on their lips was the name of Jesus because they remembered and trusted.

In the scope of Christian history, we live in a rare, small bubble of relative peace, prosperity, and safety. Don’t get used to it. If you hold fast to the faith once and for all delivered through the ages, if you hold fast to the Gospel that says all people are profoundly sinful and need a savior, you will be persecuted.

In fact, twice in the last couple of weeks I have been accused of not being a Christian because I having gently and lovingly sought to tell people things they did not want to hear. I’ve been called a judgment hypocritical Pharisee and a non-Christian (along with a few expletive deleted words). In the not so distant past, I engaged some younger adult 20-somethings on Facebook regarding our society’s current changing beliefs about sexual expression, same-sex marriage, etc. I graciously sought to represent historic Christian beliefs and practices, unquestioned by all Christians everywhere until a very few years ago by some people here in our country. In short order, I was called a bigoted, close-minded, mean, nasty old man whose ideas would die with me, someone of whom the younger generation would be embarrassed a few decades from now. One said he hoped I would die sooner than later and that my ideas would die with me. Wow!

So let’s look at what Jesus and the New Testament have to say about this. First, if we are living as Christ lived, persecution is inevitable. It’s not “blessed are you if” but “when.” Philippians 1 says that to us is given not only to believe in Christ but to suffer for his name sake. Later in Phil. 3 Paul list four concepts that should be aspirations for every believer: “That I may know Christ, and the power of His resurrection; that I might share in His suffering, becoming like Him in His death.” And then 1 Peter 4 says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.”

So this brings us to a second point: why we should suffer persecution: for righteousness sake. The beatitude does not merely say you are blessed when you are persecuted, but when you are persecuted because you live like Jesus lived. When Jesus came into the world, He shone light into people’s darkness. But John’s gospel reminds us that people love darkness and get pretty ticked off when a light exposes their deeds of darkness. So it is with the followers of Jesus. In John 15 Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

Two things we draw from this. First is that if the world loves you, you are probably not living or speaking like Jesus. There is a guy, Rob Bell, former pastor of a mega-church in Michigan, who recently came out in favor of same-sex marriage and is now Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual counselor – the world and media love him for his tolerance his willingness to embrace new realities and his “forward thinking.” He said “if the church keeps resisting same-sex marriage it will continue to be even more irrelevant.” Well, let me gently say that Mr. Bell has missed something pretty important – Jesus never intended to be “relevant” and cool and hip to the times – He intended to be revolutionary. To save people from their sin.

The second thing we see from Jesus words is that we should not rejoice if we are persecuted for being jerks. He said, “Blessed are you when men persecute you and revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you FALSELY on my account. For example, the Westboro Baptist church – no glory in being persecuted for being angry jerks who are unkind . . . even if you are right on a social issue (which too often they are not!). ]

So first, we learn that persecution is inevitable, second that it is blessed when related to our righteous living in Jesus’ name. But third, what should our response be? Two responses: first, Rejoice and be glad. look at the Apostles in Acts 5:41-42. “and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

Second response to persecution, pray! In Romans 12 Paul tells us, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” The if possible is key. Sometimes truth requires that you say things, in love, that people will simply hate. But Jesus calls us to “turn the other cheek” when someone strikes us, and to pray for the very ones who persecute you.

Finally, there are blessings that come to us in persecution when we live like Jesus (when we display humility, meekness, mercy, and a hunger for righteousness).

First, persecution for righteousness sake shows that we have Identification with Christ. We already mentioned Phil 3:10. When the apostles were persecuted and rejoiced, and prayed for their oppressors, they were identifying with Christ. They were being like Him. So should we when we receive persecution.

And second, persecution for righteousness sake gives us further purification into Jesus’ image. In 1 Peter 1:6-8 the apostle says, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Then in 1 Peter 5:10-11he concludes by saying, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

The promise there is that just like difficulties make us stronger, persecution is like a sub-set, a particular kind of intense difficulty. And Peter tells us God will restore us, confirm our faith through such things, strengthen us in such things, and establish us – that is, make us steady, and immovable.

None of us wishes for such things. Makes me think of Gandalf speaking to Frodo at Bag End at the beginning of LOTR. When Frodo says he wishes the events swirling around the ring had not happened to him Gandalf replies, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Ladies and gentlemen, if we live like Jesus, we will see persecution. None of us wishes for such things, but we must decide, when it does happen what we will do, how we will respond, to the times that are given to us. May God give us grace to identify with Christ, rejoice in God, and pray for those who persecute us.