Thursday, January 26, 2023

An explanation of classified documents

During my military career as an Army artillery officer, I used and handled some of the highest-classified, most restricted-access documents and materials in the defense department, including on staff of Headquarters, XVIII Airborne Corps, and the Pentagon. I had for many years a TS/SCI clearance and I originated documents that were classified up to Top Secret. I also served as a nuclear target analyst and handled and decrypted Nuclear Control Orders.  So, I would like to offer clarification on what the classifications are and what they mean.

You may from time to time hear someone says that something is classified "above Top Secret" or words to that effect. No. The three classifications of Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret are nothing at all but labels to determine how securely the material must be locked up, whether physically or electronically. Basically, think of it this way: Confidential documents must be locked up (when not in use) in a safe that would take at least, say, 10 minutes to break into, Secret 20 minutes, and Top Secret 30 minutes.

That is all those classifications mean in themselves. There is no such thing as "above Top Secret" because what would be the point? TS is already the most secure that is reasonably attainable. That said, it is obvious that the more sensitive the document or material being classified, the more protection against unauthorized access it gets, hence the higher its classification.

TS materials often (even usually) have codewords attached to them that are used to control who has access to them. I had a TS clearance, but that did not mean that I could access anything classified TS. If I had no part in Operation Dismal Swamp, for example, I was denied access to classified materials relating to it, TS clearance or not. That practice is probably what people mean when they say, "above Top Secret." But actually, all classified materials are restricted to people who have a need to know.

Furthermore, one excuse made for Donald Trump's possession of classified documents is that as president he could declassify any document he wanted to. That is incorrect. By federal law, there is an entire category of classified material that cannot be declassified unilaterally by any one person. There is a process that must be followed, with multi-department and multi-agency inclusion. These secrets include those that are not originated by the Department of Defense, and that is why the president’s Constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces does not give him unilateral authority on that category of national secrets.

As for a president's authority to declassify anything else, that is true. But there is still a process that must be followed. Just taking them somewhere does not do it. Even for a president, there are steps that must be followed and proper procedures that must be done. Records of the declassification must be made. The president cannot declassify simply by thinking about it. Nor does merely carrying classified documents in his or an aide’s briefcase do it. "It is in my possession and therefore is unclassified it I want it to be" does not declassify anything. Again: even for a president, there are steps that must be followed and records of the action that must be made.

Vice presidents, of course, have exactly zero authority in any of these matters.

Update - What is a SCIF?

SCIF stands for "Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility." SCIF is not a security classification. It is a construction standard for physical and electronic security for especially sensitive Top Secret materials according to standards set by the Director of National Intelligence.
I did some work in SCIFs, including one occasion overseas that was only a situation discussion that my commander wanted to make sure that could not be accessed (well, heard) by our host-nation intelligence agencies. In the Pentagon, where I did one assignment, SCIFs are staffed 24/7.
SCIFs are windowless and are routinely, though irregularly (on purpose) swept for electronic intrusion and any indications of unauthorized entry. Materials inside are classified Secret or Top Secret and annotated SCI; see photo. (I never saw a Confidential/SCI cover.) Persons authorized entry into a SCIF are noted as having TS/SCI clearance.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

White washing Martin Luther King, Jr.

 Artist Jonathan Harris and his painting titled “Critical Race Theory:”

It is almost impossible to find anyone working for racial justice today who cites and uses MLK's life and work as sources and examples. Even on the federal holiday in his honor, the media offer only the briefest nod to his legacy.

Jonathan Harris is right: CRT is the field of white elites who practically have a seizure reading or watching Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. CRT is in fact another white supremacist movement by which white elites demand that blacks and other minorities (but especially blacks) continue to know their place and do what they are told.

At Vanderbilt Divinity School a required course for my M.Div. was Black Religious Leadership. Each of us was assigned to study the life and teachings of prominent black religious leaders. I was assigned Malcolm X. We each had to explain our work and then defend our work and the person's work. (There was no written work to turn in; it was literally an oral exam. My written assignment was on Nat Turner.)

By the time I had completed about half of my sources for Malcolm X, I was thinking, "What exactly makes this guy a radical?" Because frankly, he seemed pretty reasonable to me. And he nailed it, also:

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Is salvation by Jesus only?

 John 14:1-10:            

   14“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 

   5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 

   6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 

   8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

What is salvation? What does it mean to be saved? What are we saved from, what are we saved to and what are we saved for? 

Salvation can bring forth deep-seated emotions because people correctly see it as a subject where it is pretty important to be right. I will try to be faithful to the scriptural witness and my own convictions without being dogmatic. Let us remember that our knowledge about God is limited, so we must approach questions about salvation and eternity with deep humility. Not only is God’s grace greater than we imagine, it is greater than we can imagine. 

It would be helpful if we could all start from a common understanding of terms. First is the word “salvation” itself. Countless Christians define it simply as “going to heaven” after they die and are often those Christians surprised to learn that many other Christians offer sound arguments that the Bible does not teach that, nor does the Bible teach that salvation is only something attained in the afterlife only. So with such different understandings among the already converted about something so basic, we should be careful not to sow confusion in the minds of people we are trying to lead to Christ. 

For today let us stipulate that salvation means two minimal things:

1. Salvation is to live this life transformed by personal conviction that, as Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them” and that as proof of his promises, God raised Christ from the dead. This confession frees us from the shackles of sin and death and enables us to live lives worthwhile for now and eternity. 

2. Salvation begins, therefore, in this life and is fully accomplished by God in eternity with him. Salvation thus means that the death of our bodies is not the destruction of our persons, for God will restore us from death to eternal life. 

The New Testament declaration is that salvation is not automatic for human beings. We are born in need of rescue from what the apostle Paul called, “this body of death.” Jesus said in John 3:16-18 that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son and that whoever believes in him shall enjoy eternal life, but that those who do not believe are condemned in the first place. That is to say, we do not start off on neutral ground. We start off hell bound and are delivered from that fate by the grace and power of God. 

This is a hard teaching and frankly there are a large number of church people who in their hearts do not really accept it. So we should not be dismayed that people in general resist it. But hell seemed pretty real to Jesus, so we had best take it seriously. This life matters and what we choose and do here echo in eternity. 

That being so, the question the rich young man asked Jesus is of paramount importance: “What must I do to be saved?” The fellow scoffed at Jesus’ first response, scorned the second response, and didn’t even hang around for the third, which was, “With mortals it is impossible but with God all things are possible.” 

“What must we do to be saved?” The answer is repetitive in the New Testament. The briefest summary was given by Paul in Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” 

Here is one issue that strikes to the core of people’s level of acceptance, or lack of it, with the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is that one single fact – whether we confess with our mouths that “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead – seems a mighty slender thread for our eternal destiny to hang on, and that for a supremely loving, supremely good, and supremely powerful God to make it so seems overtly unjust or even petty. 

One thing about us Americans: We have a pretty high opinion of ourselves. In our hearts we think we're acceptable to God just as we are. John the Baptist asked people whether they desired "to flee the wrath to come," but today to speak of the "wrath of God" is to mark oneself as a hopelessly hard-hearted, embittered believer in someone other than a loving God who loves and accepts us just the way we are. Evangelist Tony Campolo told of an airline flight he made sitting next to a twenties-something woman who told him she had never confessed Christ, didn't go to church, but was sure she was heaven bound anyway because she tried to be a nice person. And she probably was a nice person, so how can God possibly refuse her entry into the eternal kingdom? 

 Furthermore, there are still billions of people in the world today who do not confess Christ, and they can't all be rotters upon whom any of us would pronounce damnation. Is God less charitable than we are? Is there no divine mercy for them, at least for those who have never heard the Gospel? 

This is a real obstacle to evangelism, and I think we need to be able to address it. So even if someone accepts that he or she needs salvation how do we address the question: Is salvation through Jesus only? 

Here is how I have thought through the question. 

The woman on the airliner really was a nice person – by her own standards. I am a much better person than she because I am a fantastic person, a fabulous person – well, by my standards. But why should she or I (or anyone) think that our individual standards carry any weight to enter eternity? Eternity belongs to God alone and so only God can admit us into eternity. Eternity is God’s house. Who gets in and who doesn’t is his call, not ours. He alone is God; we are not. God sets the rules he chooses, not the ones we want.

God alone can save. “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other,” God said through Isaiah (45:22). So if God alone can save, then God alone chooses by what means. 

If God wanted people to earn their way into eternal life, then surely it would be possible, yes? Yet the Christian understanding is that salvation is simply impossible to earn because the standard is simply impossible to achieve. “Be perfect,” said Jesus, “just as God is perfect.” That’s the standard and we can’t meet it. Period. So where does that put us? It puts us totally reliant on God’s unmerited favor, which is to say, God’s grace: “With mortals it is impossible but with God all things are possible.” 

Christians understand God to exist as the Trinity, three persons in distinct, though perfect, unity with one another: God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  “I and my Father are one,” Jesus said in John 10:30. Christians have understood since the beginning of the church that yes, God and God alone saves, but that he does so in the person and work of the Son. And so the apostle Peter says in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mortals by which we must be saved.” And of course, we have Jesus’ words of today’s passage, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

“Is there salvation apart from Christ?” No. God’s eternal saving work is done through God’s incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth and his exaltation as the risen Christ. Catholics and Protestants alike have always understood that God could have chosen to save humanity by pardoning our sins in any way he wanted to, but through Christ is the way we know God does do it. 

We know that God is sovereign and can, if God chooses, save anyone he wishes for any reason he wishes in any way he wishes. And maybe God does that every day. Yet we have no revelation from God that he does so. We do have certain revelation that God does save through Christ. So why do we keep looking for God’s Plan B? We already know God’s Plan A. Plan A died on the cross.

Here’s the problem with thinking that surely there is a Plan B that doesn’t involve faith in Christ and all it entails. Blaise Pascal was one of the most important mathematicians of the modern era and a devout Christian. In the 17th century he wrote, “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true.” So how to convince them that Christian faith is not only reasonable but the smart way to bet? Being a mathematician, he looked at the question as one of calculating the odds. 

Life, says Pascal, is a coin toss in which all bets are called in at death. One bet is atheism and the other is Christian faith. At death the coin falls over - heads is God and tails is atheism. Reason alone, says Pascal, cannot decide which is true. So which way to bet is smarter? That is what Pascal is getting at, the smart move.

Agnosticism, he wrote, is actually impossible. An agnostic simply thinks he declines to bet. But you can't decline to bet because you can't decline to die. When the coin falls over agnosticism is indistinguishable from atheism. So everyone is wagering whether they like it or not, whether they even realize it or not. We may either accept the promise of Christ or reject it. Therefore, says Pascal, “If you win, you win everything: if you lose, you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then: wager that [God] does exist.”

I live my life (imperfectly) according to my deep conviction that "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." What if I am wrong? What if all of Christian faith is nothing but wind, that at my death the coin will fall to tails? If so, I won't even know it because there is no heaven, no hell, no nothing after life.

In what way will I have been deprived? How might I have lived my life better? How might I have better found meaning, purpose, mission and worth? Put simply, in what way would I be worse off believing than I would have been not believing? And how can any of that compare with the incomparable payoff if the coin had fallen heads, even if I could not know for sure in advance?

That’s good enough for me. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” It may be Jesus only, but only Jesus is more than enough.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Christmas Eve 2022

Luke 2.8-20

8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.

9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and
they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to people whom he favors.”

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks on the eve of the Nativity. When the angel appeared, the shepherds got pretty shook up, terrified, actually, when the glory of the Lord shone around them. 

Nowadays we don’t associate terror with the appearance of God. Terror is something in horror movies. Or terror might be brought about by disaster and impending doom. But God – terror? How can that be?

Maybe the shepherds were terrified at God’s glory not because God is terrible, but because God was about to change things. When they were surrounded by God’s glory and saw the angel, the shepherds knew they were going to be thrown out of their comfort box and yanked into a new thing. They didn’t know what it was, not yet. But they did know that God was doing something big, and it terrified them. 

We usually get all warm and fuzzy about the stories of Jesus’ birth, making them into a big, “Aaahh” moment. But consider for a moment that Jesus’ birth was also an occasion for terror. When the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds, it revealed them more clearly than the brightest spotlight. There they were for God to see, just as they really were. And it terrified them because they knew that before God all secrets are revealed, and nothing is hidden.

A healthy sense of fear and trembling would be a good thing for us as we consider the nativity. For while it is true that Jesus came into the world to save the world, it’s also true that now we have no excuse before God. When God has put on flesh and walked and lived and slept and spoken and died and lived again, right among us – then we cannot claim we didn’t know God or weren’t aware of what God wanted. If we stopped and thought really hard about Jesus Christ lying in the manger, it would scare us half to death. We would be terrified.

But not for long! Jesus came in love, not in threat. So it’s good to hear the first words of the angel announcing Jesus’ birth: “Do not be afraid.” God is not remote, God is here. That really is good news of great joy.

When the heavenly chorus had gone, the shepherds looked at one another in astonishment and said, “Let’s go!” And off they went to Bethlehem to see the thing which had happened, which the Lord had told them about.

It is the last moment their lives will be the same as before. The door of history is swinging wide, and the shepherds are the hinge. 

They found Mary and Joseph and the baby, lying in the manger, just as the angels had said. We have no idea what transpired during their visit. The story leaps directly to the moment afterward. The shepherds left the manger and went around town, telling everyone what they had heard and seen. 

It reminds me of a young girl whose parents took her out west. One of their stops was the Meteor Crater in Arizona. The girl stood open-mouthed before the great crater, a mile across, a thousand feet deep. Then she exclaimed, “Something must have happened here!”

That’s how it was with the first evangelists, those shepherds who ran around town. They had seen something amazing and enormous in its implications: the wonder of their savior born. So they ran through the dark streets, shouting, “Something happened here!” 

Everyone who heard the news was amazed. Maybe they were amazed that a bunch of shepherds would be running around town shouting about God rather than out in the fields with their sheep. Maybe they were amazed that an angelic singing group had given a private performance that night. They could have been amazed that a little baby could be a savior for the people.

I think they were amazed at the fervor of the shepherds in proclaiming the good news. Something shook the shepherds out of their ordinary religious complacency. It lit a fuse under them to become evangelistic fireballs. What dull lives shepherds led, yet here they were, all excited about a new thing God had done and what it signified.

The story is told of a fifth-grade child who was terribly burned in an accident. The doctors said the boy would be hospitalized for many weeks. After the boy was taken out of the critical-care unit, one of the fifth grade teachers packed up his school books and homework assignments and visited him in the hospital. Two days later the burn ward’s chief nurse called her. “What did you say to Christopher?” the nurse demanded. The teacher started to apologize but the nurse interrupted. “You don’t understand,” she said. “We have been very worried about Chris’ will to live. He was in such despair that we thought he had given up. But now his whole attitude has changed. His spirits are high, he’s taking the treatments and doing much better. I asked him what was different. He said, ‘They wouldn’t send books and homework to a dying boy, would they?’”

When the angels serenaded the shepherds, and when the shepherds saw the infant savior, they suddenly realized that God wouldn’t do this wonderful thing for a people he had written off. The human race is not terminal. God would not send God’s own son to heal humanity if humanity was incurable. So the townspeople were amazed at the transformation of the shepherds and the new life in them. “Let’s go!” exclaimed the shepherds, and off they went to tell everyone of the new hope and salvation found in the manger.

The shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. The shepherds went back to work different people because of what they had seen and heard.

It’s easy to overlook that Luke ends the shepherds’ story with the reminder that they saw and heard things which were as they had been told. When our Christmas season is over and we have returned to our usual routines, we need to remember that the gospel we have and the salvation we are given is just that which we have been told. The grace of God isn’t mysterious and incomprehensible—it is just as we have been told in God’s Word. A savior was born in Bethlehem almost two thousand years ago, just as we have been told. 

Like the shepherds, we will soon live in a world when the memory of Christmas is overcome by other events. The shepherds’ sheep still got sick or attacked by wolves. Our cars will still break down and we’ll still have bills to pay. On the outside, everything seems the same. But something big has happened, and now our lives are different. God is with us and the future looks good!

The glory of the Lord has shone around us, and through our doubts and fears there is a voice: “Fear not, for behold, there are glad tidings of great joy. Unto you is born a savior!”

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Second Sunday of Advent - Shall we look for another?

John the Baptist was Jesus' cousin and a prophet who pointed the way to the Messiah. He baptized Jesus and told two of his own disciples to leave him and follow Jesus instead. John spoke loudly and often against the corruption of the ruling classes of Judea, especially King Herod Antipas. John denounced Herod vigorously when Herod married a woman who had divorced his brother. So, Herod had John arrested and thrown into the dungeon of his fortress. 

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 11, records,    

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

John must have known he would not leave Herod’s fortress alive. With that fate before him, John began to doubt whether Jesus really was the one whom he had prophesied. John had expected the Messiah come in awesome power, but he also expected to live to see it. So John sent a couple of his own followers to ask Jesus whether he really was the one whom John expected. Was Jesus really the Messiah? 

John the Baptist had prophesied the Messiah, saying he was near at hand. He described the Messiah in fearful terms. The Messiah, said John, would have a winnowing fork in his hands and would burn the wicked with fire. It's not clear from the Gospel whether John thought he was talking specifically about Jesus at the time, but by the time Jesus came to John to be baptized, John had concluded that Jesus was the one. 

But Jesus didn't do what John thought the Messiah should do. Like almost everyone else in Judea, John thought that the Messiah would be a political activist who would restore the throne of the Jewish kingdom to its rightful occupant, a descendant of David, and who would finally lead the land to be free of its Roman occupiers. Jesus didn’t do that, did not even try to do that. And so John came to wonder whether Jesus was the Messiah after all.

For a moment we shall leave the story suspended there, suspended just as John’s certainty was suspended, awaiting resolution, awaiting an answer from Jesus. Was Jesus the one who was to come, or was the Savior someone else? That’s not only John’s question. It is also ours, too, and in this postmodern, post-Christian world it is more urgent than ever.

I confess some sympathy for John. I have had more than a few occasions in my life when I not so much believed as merely hoped that Jesus of Nazareth was God Incarnate. And from simply hoping Jesus is Lord to suspecting he is not, is a short trip. Like you, perhaps, I am sometimes filled with religious tendencies rather than Christian convictions

"In the semantics of the church," wrote Methodist Bishop Joe Pennel, "doubt has been a negative word. It is rarely used in a favorable way. Faith, not doubt, is the great word of the church."

Bishop Pennel continued, 

Beneath the skins of many of you there is planted the seed of honest doubt. Perhaps you do not share these feelings with anyone; but your doubts are there, and they are real. Your worship does not express your doubts, uncertainties, and skepticism. In facing this situation, all of us at times cry out with the man in the Gospel, "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief."

Doubts can come quite reasonably. After all, if Jesus came to redeem the world, why does the world still seem so far from redemption? If Jesus was victorious over sin, why are we still so filled with sin? If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, why does the path ahead seem unclear, why does the world still thrive on lies and deceptions, and why do daily headlines report events that would have made even the ancients quake in horror? 

Like John the Baptist, we can easily, and not unreasonably, experience a dark night of the soul when our hopes, dreams, or expectations of God's work in the world or our lives are unmet.

There is a scene in the movie Field of Dreams in which Kevin Costner, playing Ray Kinsella, speaks to an elderly, former pro baseball player nicknamed Archie Graham, played by Burt Lancaster. Graham's only playing time had been fifty years earlier. With his team leading, Graham was sent to left field in the top of the ninth inning of the last game of the season. The other team hit three outs to the infield and the season was over. The next day Graham was sent to the minors. He left baseball and became a doctor, spending the rest of his life in medical practice in his hometown of Chisholm, Minnesota. 

Perhaps one reason John doubted Jesus was that it had seemed to him the promise of the Messiah's advent had been this close. And then, perhaps, the promise seemed to brush past him like a stranger in a crowd. But John was not quite willing to let go of his hope that Jesus was the promised one, so he sent messengers to ask Jesus point blank whether he was the one. 

4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 

John must have wanted a direct answer to a direct question: Are you the Messiah, Jesus? Yes or no! But Jesus didn't comply, even for one he esteemed so highly as John. Instead, he simply answered, here is what I am doing. Now make up your own mind.

Isaiah had prophesied of the Messiah, "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy." All the signs Jesus mentioned had long been understood by the Jews as signs of the Messiah. Jesus' answer must have made John confront his own expectations of the Messiah and perhaps realize that there was more to the way God would work for the world's salvation than the narrow way John had expected. 

The Gospels do not record whether John came fully to believe in Jesus again. But Jesus believed in John and defended John's work to the crowds nearby. Jesus affirmed that John had prophesied the Messiah even if he wasn’t sure it was Jesus. Like John, though, the people would have to make up their minds about Jesus. John was executed at Herod's command not long afterward, which caused Jesus much distress. 

Challenges to faith sometimes arise from unmet expectations or shattered circumstances. The pressures of events and the ways of the world bear down on us and others and can force honest minds to ask, "Is there really a God who knows and cares? Is this God active in the life of the world? In my own life? Is Jesus the definitive revelation of that God, or should I look elsewhere for answers to ultimate questions?"

Before we let our doubts become unbelief, we would do well to remember that one lesson from John's story is that the advent of the Messiah among us was not to fulfill our expectations. Jesus carried out the will of God in ways we can grasp only incompletely. 

Nonetheless, Jesus is indeed the Messiah. As the promised one, he transforms our expectations as he fulfills them. To say that Jesus is the Messiah not only says something about Jesus, it transforms the meaning of Messiah as well. Faith does not grow from testing Jesus against our criteria to see if he measures up. It grows from testing ourselves against the Messiah so that by his grace we may become more fully the body of Christ in the world.

"Life," goes an old saying, "is what happens while you're making other plans and dreaming other dreams." Most of could recount a litany of broken dreams, of plans never carried out, expectations never met, and goals not reached. Some of us came this close to attaining them and then watched them brush past us like strangers in a crowd. Maybe we thought there would be other days, not knowing there would be no other days. A tragedy? I don't know. 

But what if you had never become a disciple of Jesus Christ? That would have been a tragedy.

But we are disciples, and the world asks us what John asked Jesus, “Are you, the church, that which God promised was to come, or should we expect something else?” 

We are called as a church to point a greater reality, to provide a way to the ultimate meaning of things. The pressure of events and the ways of the world bear down on us all and sometimes force honest minds to ask, “Is there really a God who knows and cares? Is this God active in the life of the world? In my own life? Is Christ the definitive revelation of that God, and can I find Christ in this church?” 

It is by us, the Church, that the work of Christ is done. It is for us to give the spiritually blinded their sight, the morally crippled their wholeness, the sick of soul their wellness. It is by us that those deaf to God shall praise him and those dead to life shall be reborn. Let us bring to the poverty of life the Good News that shall be to all people: unto us and all the world was born in the city of David a savior which is Christ the Lord!

For to ask whether Jesus is the one in whom God is definitively revealed and in whom God acted for the world’s salvation is to ask what human existence is all about. The Gospel message included a cross for Jesus and an executioner's sword for John. But we who affirm that God is present with his people in the person and work of Jesus called the Messiah, know that neither we nor the world need look for another.

Let us pray:

Gracious and redeeming God, we confess our moments of doubt, yet in our confessing know that you accept them as part of the walk of faith. For it is not doubt you judge but dismissal. We pray therefore that we will bear the name of our Lord in service to your kingdom, even though we often perceive your purposes dimly. Fill us anew, O God, with the conviction that in you alone is the salvation of the world. Shape us anew, O Christ, into your body in this time and place that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by the blood you shed for our redemption. Lead us strongly, O Holy Spirit, to paths of righteousness for your sake, that through us our community may be assured that in Christ is found salvation, and that we, your Church, live and witness so truly so that there is no need to look for another. In the name of that Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we let our cry come unto you. Amen.

A Salute to Saint Barbara

Saint Barbara
The Order of Saint Barbara is an international brotherhood of serving and former artillerymen who are members therein. I am gratified to have been inducted into the Order by Maj. Gen. Richard Graves, then commanding general, 3d Armored Division, in 1984.

Barbara, a Christian woman in a pagan family, was martyred in the third century after extensive torture to compel her to renounce her faith. Finally, her own father beheaded her. However, he was struck by lightning on the way home and his body was consumed by flame. This happened on Dec. 4, which is why her festival day is today.

These circumstances caused her to become the patron saint of anyone who works with fire or fire-producing implements, such as miners, firefighters and anyone who works with explosives. Hence, she is the patron saint of artillerymen around the world.

A salute to all members of the Order!

You know, this kind of salute: 

As related by fellow artilleryman Ron Grantham:

According to legend, our patron saint was the beautiful daughter of Dioscorus, a nobleman of the Roman Empire, believed to have lived in Nicomedia in Asia Minor in the third or fourth century, A.O. Because of her singular beauty and fearful that she be demanded in marriage and taken away from him, and also to limit Barbara's exposure to Christianity and encourage her development as a zealous pagan, her father kept her shut up in a tower. But even such incarceration could not keep the young woman from becoming a Christian. From her window, she looked out upon the surrounding countryside and marveled at the living things. She concluded they all must be part of a master plan and the idols of wood and stone her parents worshipped had to be condemned as false. She received instruction in Christianity and was baptized.

Shortly before embarking on a journey, he commissioned a sumptuous bathhouse to be built for her, approving the design before he left. The bathhouse was to be lighted by only two windows. In token of her faith, while her father was away, she had another window pierced in the tower, making three, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. On his return, Dioscorus asked why she had made this change, and Barbara acknowledged her conversion. Despite his threats, she refused to renounce Christianity. 

Dioscorus flew into a rage and dragged her before the local prefect who ordered her death. The evil Dioscorus tortured his daughter, then took her to a high mountain, where he beheaded her. Afterward, as he descended the mountain, he was caught in a sudden violent storm, struck down and consumed by lightning. Only his scorched sword remained as a reminder of God's vengeance.

As a logical consequence, Barbara came to be regarded as the sainted patroness of those in danger from thunderstorms, fire, explosions that is to say, sudden death. Given the questionable reliability of early cannon misfires, muzzle bursts and exploding weapons were not uncommon -it is easy to see why our predecessors sought the protection of Saint Barbara. She has protected us well ever since.

Saint Barbara was venerated as early as the seventh century. She has been popular in the East and West since that time. Legendary acts of her martyrdom were inserted in the collection of Symeon Metaphrastes and by the authors, Ado and Usuard, of the enlarged martyrologies composed during the ninth century in Western Europe.

G.K. Chesterton celebrates her in the poem, The Ballad of Saint Barbara. Patroness of artillerymen, Saint Barbara was venerated as one of the fourteen Holy Helpers. An occurrence of the year 1448 did much to further the spread of the veneration of the saint. A man named Henry Kock was nearly burned to death in a fire at Gorkum. He called upon Saint Barbara who aided him to escape from the burning house and kept him alive until he could receive the last sacraments.

Saint Barbara is usually represented standing by a tower with three windows, carrying a palm of a martyr in her hand. She is often viewed standing by cannon or holding a chalice and sacramental wafer.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Advent 1 - We Are Adjudged and Sentenced

Happy New Year! 

It is the first Sunday of Advent. As I am sure many of you know, today is the first day of the annual liturgical calendar. Advent is thus the first season of the church calendar, and it begins four Sundays before Christmas Day. 

The church calendar is out of sync with our ordinary calendar not only because its New Year begins, usually, in November, but because the church’s seasons begin on the days they celebrate, not end then. We Americans just celebrated Thanksgiving but now, as far as we’re concerned, Thanksgiving is over and done with, now we are putting up Christmas decorations and already celebrating that day. And on December 26 Christmas will be over and we will focus on the secular New Year’s Eve and Day. 

But the church calendar does not work like that. Advent is not about Christmas per se. That's what the season of Christmas is for that begins Christmas day. Advent does lead us to the birth of Jesus in his Nativity in Bethlehem, but Advent's message is not mainly about Jesus' birth – what happened – but his incarnation – why his birth happened and what it portends. In Advent we reflect upon God decisively breaking into human affairs, including in Bethlehem two millennia ago and a time yet to come when Christ will return in judgment. 

When will that day come? In Matthew 24 Jesus is speaking with his disciples about the day of the Lord when the Son of Man will come in judgment. Here is what he says:

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24.36-44)

Jesus tells us that his coming as the judge of the world will be in a time of business as usual. In the days of Noah people continued with life as life always had been, eating and drinking and getting married, even though they could see Noah building a big ship about half the size of the Titanic. When the flood came, they got swept away by surprise.

That’s how it will be when the Son of Man comes in judgment, Jesus says. Folks will be caught by surprise in the middle of ordinary life. So, says, Jesus, keep awake. If you knew that a burglar was going to break into your house tonight, you would stay awake. You’d probably have the police parked outside, too. How much more alert we should be all the time in anticipation of the coming of Christ! 

Matthew’s passage is not intended to impel us to try to figure out when Jesus is coming, in fact just the opposite. According to Matthew, we cannot know when Jesus is coming. Jesus will come at an unexpected time. So, followers of Christ are to spend their time announcing the Good News and being the body of Christ in this world, not wrapped up in apocalyptic speculation. Christ will know his own when he returns. 

We believe judgment is to be feared, do we not? We know what a judge is: someone in black robes sitting high in a courtroom meting out justice and throwing people in jail. Judgment is usually an image of fear for us, and many people think of the coming day of the Lord with images of wars and rumors of war, earthquakes and natural disasters preceding the Last Judgment.  

Before we suppose that global catastrophes must precede the return of Christ in judgment, we might want to reflect on the word that Isaiah saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall impose terms on many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD! (Isaiah 2:3-5)

Make no mistake, this God Isaiah is talking about is a God of judgment. Isaiah is speaking of the Kingdom of God as the highest mountain. God will judge among all the nations. 

This judgment Isaiah describes liberates all humankind from strife and war and brings peace. This is a judgment of hope! God’s salvation righteousness puts an end to oppression and injustice and violence. God’s judgment rings down the curtain on the way human beings are divided against each other. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, black and white – all shall come and say, “Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that we may walk in his paths.” 

Especially heartening is that the nations disarm themselves. We finally will stop killing each other over resources or politics or ideology – or religion. 

If Isaiah's vision has such words of hope, it also has an undertone of discouragement. Do we have to wait until God decides personally to take over this world's management to achieve peace? Are we condemned until then to face one war after another, one Nine-Eleven after another, one Coventry after another, one Hiroshima after another? If by Isaiah's lights history is supposed to be moving toward the divine kingdom, why do we see so little evidence of it? The prior century and this one, too, have been drenched in the blood of more uncountable millions than any century ever; just in what way exactly is history progressing toward a divine fulfillment? 

So, we can sympathize with those who long for Christ to return on the clouds of heaven and simply take over the world. If Christ shall come again to establish the reign of God forever, a mere glance at news reports makes us think that tomorrow morning would be fine! 

After all, God’s justice is saving righteousness. God’s judgment is liberation. Isaiah sees history flowing to the high mountain of God, where all are taught the ways of God and all walk in God’s path. 

So why delay, Lord? O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – and this afternoon would be great! But that is not what Isaiah is getting at. He says that the certain coming of the day of the Lord means that we should walk in the light of the Lord now. The judgment of God determines how we should live now. God’s judgment is not only a future event. We are already judged, and thus we should live in faith together, worship in love together, study the Word of God together, be in ministry to each other and the world together. 

We have been adjudged, and we have been sentenced – not to punishment, but to love. We are adjudged as ones beloved of God, and we are sentenced to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and with all our mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

By now many of you may be wondering what these passages have to do with Christmas. It’s Advent, after all, which is supposed to be about the infant Jesus and the manger. But here’s the preacher talking about the second coming and the end of the world. 

The Scriptures designated for the first Sunday of Advent always look forward to the return of Christ. The Advent season ends with celebrating Christ’s incarnation but is always begun with passages to remind us that the reign of God over human affairs is ultimate and for all time. Advent thus does not celebrate only Christmas, Christ’s first coming among us. It also looks ahead to the completion of God’s redemptive acts in the coming again of Christ in judgment. Advent’s theme really is not, “Get ready for Christmas.” It instead asks, “Are we ready for Christ?” Yet the coming of Jesus in the manger and Christ’s coming again in judgment are not so very different. Business as usual describes not only the world when Christ will come again, but also the world when Jesus was born. After all, Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem in the first place because their taxes had been raised. There sure isn’t anything unusual about that!

The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was an act of God’s judgment on the world. No savior would have been born if the world did not need saving. When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the judgment of God on each of us. To visit the manger is both to be indicted and invited - indicted under God’s judgment and invited by God to be reconciled through his Son. 

Like Joseph and Mary two thousand years ago, we live in a time of business as usual. But we cannot just do business as usual. We are to live in the light of the Lord, staying spiritually awake. Just as the people of Judea did not know when their savior would be born, we do not know when Christ will come again in glory. 

The comings of Jesus Christ into the world, past, present, and future, should give us a new vision for reality, a new way of seeing what God intends for humanity. This Advent season is a time to be awake and watch for the owner of this house we live in called planet earth. Let Christ take us in judgment, for Christ’s judgment is liberation and freedom. Whether judged by the first Advent or the promise of Christ to come again, we live in the light of Christ. Our Lord breaks into our ordinary lives with extraordinary power when we don’t expect it. Advent is above all else the unexpected season. 

Come, Lord Jesus, come! O come, O come, Emmanuel!

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Christians and the State

Tuesday is, of course, election day. As citizens of the world’s largest representative democracy, each of us has the right to speak our minds about our nation’s national issues to those whom we have elected to make the decision. Moreover, in such serious matters as those before us now, I would say we are obligated to do so.

However, who to vote for is not my topic this morning. I am using the issue as a chance to explore what the Bible teaches Christians about living under secular law in relationship to government. For that is how you and I live each day in either times of turmoil or peace. 

In the apostles’ time about three hundred years afterward, how Christians should live under a government that was in no way Christian and was often actually lethal to Christians was a subject of great importance. It is still today a problem for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. But perhaps the fundamental problem Paul and the other apostles faced is not so different from ours if we think of the world as a larger community: On one hand, how do we live peaceably and godly in a world in which violence is seen by some as an answer to any question, and on the other, how do we live the fullness of Christ’s commandments under laws at home that are arguably sometimes repressive of doing so? 

Here is what I mean. A few years ago in Raleigh, NC, a church ministry called Love Wins was threatened with arrest. Reverend Hugh Howell explained: 

On the morning of Saturday, August 24, Love Wins Ministries, where I am pastor and director, showed up at Moore Square in Raleigh, North Carolina at 9:00 a.m., just like we have done virtually every Saturday and Sunday for the last six years. We provide, without cost or obligation, hot coffee and a breakfast sandwich to anyone who wants one. We keep this promise to our community in cooperation with five different, large suburban churches that help us with manpower and funding.

On that morning three officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested. …

When I asked the officer why, he said that he was not going to debate me. "I am just telling you what is. Now you pass out that food, you will go to jail."

What will we do? Simple: we will feed people. I am, after all (however imperfectly), a follower of Jesus, who said himself that when we ignore hungry people, we ignore him.

That situation practically defines the tension Paul addressed in Romans 13:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 

We may as well admit that Paul’s verses are difficult to swallow without reservations. Within the last century, "a century of unspeakable horror," says New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, “these verses have been [effectively] struck out of the canon, vilified, and blamed for untold miseries.” History poses no challenge to finding governments or government policies that ranged from unjust to evil to downright demonic, whether at home or abroad. 

Paul was not na├»ve. He knew well the evil that governments do – a main example being crucifying Jesus and persecuting his followers. It seems likely to me that Paul, a well-trained Pharisee, was thinking an old Jewish precept that God requires order in the world, not chaos. Hence, the principle of human governance is a divine principle. He is endorsing the necessity of government in general, but not any government in particular. 

Justice was a high virtue of Jewish thought. The prophets emphasized that one of the cardinal responsibilities of rulers was to preserve justice, the right ordering of the relationship between the state apparatus and the people.

If the rulers were responsible for maintaining justice, then the people had to obey the rules for justice to be served. One of Paul’s themes in Romans 12 and 13, says Wright, is that “justice is served not by private vengeance but by individuals trusting the authorities to keep wickedness in check. Knowledge that the authorities are there to look after such matters is a strong incentive to forswear freelance attempts at ‘justice'.”

Paul knew, of course, that no human system of justice is perfect; the best we can do is roughly correspond our affairs to divine justice. Yet Paul advises the Christians in Rome not to take justice into their own hands. Their identity as the only Christians in town did not give them permission for anarchy. Instead, their responsibility is to work for the Kingdom of God in proclaiming the Gospel until, Paul implicitly hopes, all rulers ultimately pledge their first allegiance to God rather than the state. The Roman Christians must not therefore try to establish themselves as a “para-state” organization but remain under Roman authority even while they work to bring forth the Kingdom of God. 

The Christians in Rome were a small minority. Paul did not think that they should become agents of chaos, attempting to live as if they had no relation to the political world at large. Paul did not desire them to replace the Roman government with a religious cult. The ultimate overthrow of unjust power comes by other means – which is to say, regime change of the ungodly is done by converting them, a theme Paul expounded back in Romans Five.

If we accept that we Christians are under at least a divine principle of obedience to civil authority, what are our obligations to obey specific laws in 21st-century America?  

Let’s look at this issue in a way that almost all of us face every day: driving a car. The government sets speed limits. The majority of Tennessee’s Christians think that the speed limits on our interstates are too low. My proof is daily at 7 a.m. on I-65 to Nashville. It cannot be only the unconverted heathen going 85 or more. Does the fact that “everybody is doing it” make it okay? 

Paul had no experience with a democratic form of government. Americans do not claim that God established our government; our Constitution states that “We the people of the United States . . . ordain and establish” the government. Our nation’s founders believed that the first imperative of government in the first place is to safeguard personal liberty. Liberty requires some degree of order to flourish, yet not too much order, lest it be crushed.

Liberty is not found in chaotic societies. Some places on the globe today fit that description; political analysts call them “failed states,” and life there is truly awful. Neither is freedom found in hyper-ordered societies of control, such as North Korea. 

Liberty is found at neither extreme, but between them. Community and justice require some rules for the common good, but as few rules as necessary, not as many as possible. 

One may argue that our driving environment is too chaotic and is not ordered enough. In Germany, where very high speeds are legal, the drivers are extremely self-disciplined compared to us and much more law abiding in their driving. 

So we might ask whether breaking the speed limit is unacceptably chaotic. That question I leave to each person’s conscience. But the relationship of obeying the speed limit to order or chaos is not the only consideration. Christians are enjoined by Christ to love one another. In fact, just after our passage, Paul says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. … those who love one another fulfill the law… . Love does no wrong to the neighbor; therefore, the fulfillment of the law is love.” 

Love by definition is directed toward the well-being of others. If breaking the law is justified, it can only be justified in Christian faith for the higher principle of love, and not from selfish interest. 

When my son Thomas was five years old, he suffered an accident in our back yard that gave him a deep cut barely above one eye. He was bleeding profusely. My wife wrapped a towel around the wound and we jumped into the car. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. could not have beat me to the emergency room. Love for my son certainly far outweighed Paul’s injunction to submit to the government during that drive. 

So there’s my answer: if civil disobedience is ever justified for Christian people, it is justified only for reasons of love and justice, not selfishness. “I like to drive fast” or “I’m late for a meeting” are selfish reasons, not loving ones, not just ones. In the meantime, let those who believe the speed limits are too low campaign within the political system to change them. That’s how America works. 

 In fact, Paul’s passage strongly implies that political activity by Christian persons is affirmed and validated. Paul never indicated that Christian faith and political activity by Christians were antithetical to one another. Christians can be involved in the political life of society by voting, campaigning, or holding office without ceasing to be Christians, and may see all such things as part of their Christian service.

Reverend Howell in Raleigh ended his article by listing the email addresses and phone numbers of the Mayor and of the City Council members, then continued,

We encourage you to continue to call and voice your concern. We spoke with the Mayor yesterday, and while she did say that no one will be arrested for feeding hungry people in the park, it's important to continue to make your voice heard. The status quo is not acceptable.

No matter how temporal authority rules, it is God who over-rules. All governments and their ministers, everyone who wields political power, whether Christian or not, are under God’s judgment whether they realize it or not. They are to rule justly and fairly so that freedom of the people may flourish, constraining the conduct of the people only enough to keep chaos at bay. The people are obliged to obey civil laws unless doing so plainly would violate our high duties of divine love in service to God’s kingdom. 

I’ll give Rev. Howell the last word: “Keep in mind that … Anger does not cast out fear -- only love can do that.”

An explanation of classified documents

During my military career as an Army artillery officer, I used and handled some of the highest-classified, most restricted-access documents ...