Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Righteous Shall Live By Faith

First Message in the Series
Romans – The Road to Righteousness

Sunday, September 4, 2016
Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church
Glen A. Land, Senior Pastor

Guilt, fear, and shame—the sources of a debilitating state of mind that robs our days of joy and our nights of peace.

Guilt, fear, and shame—feelings that haunt the lives of people everywhere, regardless of race, nationality, language, culture, educational level, or economic status.

Guilt, fear, and shame— emotions that have bedeviled us from that day when we each first grasped the meaning of “bad.”

Guilt, fear, and shame—since the first Sumerian scribe more than 5,000 years ago pressed a sharpened stick into soft clay tablets to fashion the earliest written words, human history has been the dreary record of the ruinous consequences of this terrible triad of despair.

But guilt, fear, and shame are far older than Sumer—far older than any written history. Their story actually begins in a garden of delights—the Garden of Eden. You know the story…

Genesis 3:4-11
4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

8And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

So what exactly were the consequences of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? What did Adam and Eve actually learn from their misadventure?

  • Because they broke God’s command, they learned about guilt. It was guilt that caused Adam to blame Eve and Eve to blame the serpent.
  • Because they broke God’s trust, they learned about fear. When God drew near, instead of greeting Him with gladness, they hid in the bushes.
  • Because they broke God’s relationship with them, they learned about shame. Their response? A pathetic attempt to cover their nakedness with fig leaves.

Guilt, fear, and shame—the three-fold emotions of sin. This was the immediate consequence of their disobedience.

  • Guilt: that sense of having done something wrong. You see that flashing blue light in your rearview mirror and it hits you. I was speeding. I broke the law.
  • Fear: the distress felt when faced with the consequences of your actions. The IRS is auditing your taxes. You suddenly realize that when they uncover the deduction you claimed for that “business trip” to Vegas, you’re going to be facing a big fine.
  • Shame: the embarrassment or sense of unworthiness that we feel in the presence of someone better than us. That feeling you had when a parent or spouse caught you looking at an inappropriate website—a feeling sometimes expressed by the phrase, “I wanted to crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after me.”

If guilt, fear, and shame are the immediate consequences of our sin, then the long-term consequence is death—the physical death of our bodies and the eternity in hell separated from God that Revelation 20:14 calls the Second Death.

But there is also an intermediate consequence of our sin. Between the sinner’s sense of grief caused by guilt, fear, and shame; and the threat of death that hangs like a shroud over our futures; there is a lifetime spent in exile. Adam and Eve lived out their days as exiles, cast out of Eden with the way back blocked by a cherubim wielding a flaming sword, while forever haunted by the memory of what they’d lost.

Exile… the Bible is filled with stories of people living in exile, cut off from home, cut off from where they belong. Exile is an integral part of Judeo-Christian theology. Adam, Moses, Hagar, Jacob, Daniel, Isaiah, Jonah—all lived as exiles. Paul spent much of his life as a displaced person. The last book of the Bible, The Revelation, was penned by the Apostle John in exile on the island of Patmos. All of these men and women and more lived—and sometimes died—cut off from family, from friends, from home.

It is the plaintive cry of the exile that we hear in the words of Psalm 137:

1By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
2On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
3For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How shall we sing the Lord's song
    in a foreign land?

The theme of exile runs through Scripture because sin makes exiles of us all. Our heart’s home is with God. But because of our sin, we are cut off. The way back is barred. There is no going home again.

It was exile in this sense that David feared in Psalm 51, his powerful prayer of repentance after his sin with Bathsheba:

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
11Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Cast me not away from your presence… don’t make an exile of me again.

One of the worst punishments that a prisoner can face is solitary confinement—deeper exile for one already in exile. To be cut off, to be banished, to be shunned… To be forced into exile is to become a pariah to those whose love and respect we crave. Just ask Ryan Lochte. Sin has made him an exile within the international swimming fraternity, just as sin has made us all exiles from the presence of God.

Ever since The Fall, we’ve sought relief from guilt, fear, and shame.

We all experience each of the three emotions of sin, but some cultures tend to emphasize one more than the others.

  • Western cultures tend to focus on guilt. Catholic parochial school guilt has even become a mainstay of stand-up comedians.
  • The tribal cultures in the jungles of Africa and South America are fear based.
  • Muslim and oriental cultures are shame focused societies where appearances—hiding one’s guilt and saving face—are more important than one’s actions.

But in every culture underlying all of these anxieties is the ever-present fear of death and punishment.

To rid ourselves of guilt, fear, and shame, we sometimes resort to bizarre, even silly remedies. One website I checked out offered some “Emotional Healing Exercises.” A couple of their “exercises” such as, “Write a Letter to someone who hurt you, Read It Aloud, Then Burn It” or “Beat Up a Pillow with a Tennis Racket” are pretty standard stuff in the emotional health self-help world. But some were pretty weird, such as:

The Staircase to Your Inner Sanctuary Exercise
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Now imagine that you’re at the top of a tiny staircase that begins… right behind your eyes. This staircase spirals downwards to the centre of your being. Visualize yourself as a little doll, at the top the staircase. Let yourself wander down the stairs to the core of your being, a place of great serenity. Let your dolly freely wander about the place. What do you see? What do you feel? Embrace your emotions. Don’t hold back. Let it flow. Whatever happens happens. Be the little doll within your sanctuary for as long as you like. Whatever happens will be beneficial.

The Pink Bubble of Light Exercise
This one has you visualizing yourself totally surrounded by glistening white light that comes down from the universe, filled with sparkling little silver stars. The light and the stars surround your entire body, swirling gently around you. Then you breathe in the white light. The white light will help you. (Exactly how this helps was not made clear.)

And if the exercises alone don’t hack it for you, the website will be happy to sell you some wonderful flower essences…

As ridiculous and useless as these so-called “exercises” are, at least they recognize our feelings of guilt, fear, and shame as real issues that need to be squarely faced and addressed. In the last half of Romans Chapter 1 Paul describes another approach, one that denies the factual basis of these emotions. And here there is nothing in the least bit humorous:

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Look at this passage in its entirety, and you’ll see that it’s the depiction of a culture—a whole value system if you will—that stands under God’s judgment. For the Bible tells us that it is not merely individuals whom God will judge. He is also the judge of nations and of cultures. And the culture Paul describes is one embraced by people…
  • Who refuse to acknowledge God’s truth.
  • Who actively suppress that truth.
  • Who are futile in their thinking.
  • People who are fools.
  • Who worship the creation—not the Creator.
  • Who are filled with lust and perversion.
  • And people who actively affirm and celebrate rebellion against God and all he represents.

Paul spent his entire ministry working to undermine the power and influence of this world view. This culture has a name. The name is paganism. As characterized by the early church, paganism is a worldview in which hedonism reigns supreme. It is the “religion” if we can even properly call it a religion, of people who are sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, and who have rejected the Christian basis for morality. In describing paganism Paul speaks of the thought process of a people who have lost touch with ultimate reality. They have ceased to be truly rational beings. Their thoughts have become complete nonsense—that’s how the Good News translation renders “futile in their thinking.” It suffers from a fatal flaw, the basic disconnect from reality that stems from their failure to recognize and glorify the true God. What God did in confusing the speech of the arrogant and proud builders of the Tower of Babel, he has allowed to happen to the very thought process of the pagans. This was the dominant culture of the Roman Empire—the culture that many of the Christians in Rome were a part of before they came to Christ—the culture that they were saved out of.

What, you may ask, has 1st Century paganism to do with a 21st Century world? In a word, everything. Paganism is having a great revival—a Satanic aping of spiritual awakening if you would. It comes in many forms. It’s adherents run the gamut from atheistic secular humanists like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney to an increasingly creepy 90-year-old Hugh Heffner lounging about the Playboy mansion in those signature silk pajamas of his to gay anarchists running amok in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to some Wiccan priestess chanting to the rising sun at Stonehenge on the dawn of the summer solstice.

What all these people have in common is their denial of the moral basis for guilt, fear, and shame. Shaking their fists at their empty heaven, they declare themselves free from the constraints of conventional morality. Those in the vanguard of this philosophy—the really radical true believers—have not merely stretched the boundaries of moral propriety, they have blown them away. And they revile any who do not endorse and support their moral lawlessness. Who among us has not heard the latest outrage in the news without shaking our heads and muttering, “These people just aren’t thinking straight!” In truth, that is precisely their problem. Their thoughts, especially about God and his commands about right and wrong, are complete nonsense. And like arguing with a drunk, you cannot reason with them. They suffer from Babel of the Brain.

And what is heaven’s answer to this mockery of all that’s holy? “…God gave them up… God gave them up… God gave them up…”  Three times that bleak phrase is repeated like the slow echoing cadence of a sounding gong. It is the pronouncement of doom. Paul’s scathing account of the moral emptiness of paganism’s followers reveals its disastrous end; an end where God gives them up to the impurity of their lusts. He gives them up to their dishonorable passions. He gives them up to follow the sinful impulses of their debased minds. The apostle is absolutely unrelenting in his condemnation of a world view that is utterly opposed to Christ’s teachings

Pity the foolish pagans! Paul’s account reaches its nadir in verse 32, “Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Willful rejection of divine revelation hardens the heart to the point where the rebel takes delight in the sinfulness of others. At this point wickedness has sunk to its lowest level.

But lest we too quickly thank heaven that we are not pagans, we need to ponder the fuller meaning of this text. For while Paul is certainly describing the plight of the pagan, when we look at the broader context of his epistle these words describe the state of all us apart from the saving blood of Jesus Christ. This is the inner reality of the human race—a reality that traces all the way back to Eden. These verses are a revelation of the gospel’s judgment on us all. They lay bare the rotten heart of the human race. And they warn that our sin has invited the wrath of God upon us.

Some cringe and back away from talk about God’s Wrath as if it were some holdover from a less enlightened age. They equate it with irrational passion. Yet we recognize that even for humans not all anger is irrational rage. Righteous indignation against moral evil is not only possible; it is a necessary component of goodness. To not be outraged by, say, the premeditated murder of a child, would indicate an alarming lack of love.

Certainly for fallen humanity we can seldom if ever separate sinful passion from righteous wrath. But that is not a problem for God. His wrath is as holy as his love. And it is just as much an essential aspect of his divine character. They are two sides of the same coin in the same way that his mercy and his justice are both divine attributes.

And so we come, finally, to the heart of this message and the theme of Romans, Romans 1:16-17:

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The preaching of Christ crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again reveals to us both God’s loving mercy to the sinner and his righteous wrath toward sin. Don’t you see? It is the gospel that reveals both. In the gospel divine mercy and divine judgment are inseparable. God offers us forgiveness but he never offers to condone our sin. He doesn’t smile and wink at our misdeeds like an overindulgent grandparent. Through Christ God welcomes us into his family as our Father—but never as our grandpa.

What does Paul say? “For in it [“it” being the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…” And the gospel is more than just the wonderful news that if we will confess our sinfulness, repent of our sin, believe in the Jesus Christ as our Savior and commit our lives to him as Lord he will save us. It is also the terrible wonderful incredible story of what he did to make this possible. And it is also the story of why he did it, a story that began back in the garden. It is ALL the gospel we must accept—or reject. We cannot cherry pick the nice parts.

It has often been observed that gospel literally means good news. And so it does. And so it is. But the road to the good news must pass through some very bad news: That guilt, fear, and shame you feel? You deserve it. You are guilty. You have reason to be afraid. And you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Until you face that awful truth not even God can help you. You’ve got to ‘fess up. You’ve got to come clean with yourself and with your God. Every AA member introduces himself or herself with the phrase, “I’m an alcoholic.” Well my name is Glen, and I’m a sinner.” We’d do well as Christians if we were to routinely greet one another in this manner. We call it confession and it’s the first step toward salvation. God already knows we’re sinners. We’re just agreeing with him.

So you know you’re a sinner. That guilt, fear, and shame you carry around is baggage you’ve earned—like those heavy chains dragged about by Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. What are you going to do about it? The Bible teaches us that the next step is an act of will—you determine in your heart and mind to live differently, to turn around and go the other way. We call this repentance. I know. You’re already shaking your heads. You’ve been down that road before and it was a dead end. You’ve tried to change before and you’ve failed every time. And you’re right. All the heartfelt resolutions, all the good intentions, all the tearful pleading will get you nowhere because sin has you in a death grip. You’re not man enough, you’re not woman enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not good enough to crawl out of the hole you’re in.

This is where the good news part of the gospel comes into play. Help is available. “…the gospel . . . . is the power of God for salvation…” The gospel—not the message we preach but the historical reality behind it—that act of divine redemption that began with a message from an angel to a maiden in Galilee and ended with a brutal execution on a cross, a glorious resurrection, an ascension into heaven, and a future return in glory and power—from this comes the power you need to change your life forever.

You’re guilty. You broke God’s command. On the cross Jesus took your guilt upon himself. He took it all.

You’re afraid. You’ve been running from God all your life. The thought of dying terrifies you. When Jesus was nailed to that cross he took your punishment upon himself. Hundreds of years before his birth in Bethlehem the prophet Isaiah foresaw the sacrifice that Christ would one day make for you and me:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.”

You’re ashamed. The things you’ve done haunt your dreams. You’ve made such a mess of things. You can’t forgive yourself. There are people you can’t look in the eye, much less God. How could God forgive you?  For the answer we have to jump ahead to Romans 5:8-11:

8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The glorious message of Romans 1:17 is simply this. In the gospel, seen in all its fullness, a righteous status which is God’s grace gift to the human race is revealed and freely offered. God’s saving grace means that…

  • Christ has redeemed us. God’s justice is answered. Our debt is paid. Our guilt removed.
  • Christ shed his blood on the cross for our sin. God’s wrath was satisfied. We obtain his mercy which frees us from the fear of punishment.
  • Christ reconciled us with God and brings us into a right relationship with him. He intercedes with the Father on our behalf. God’s honor is preserved and our shame, removed.

All of this is received—and can only be received—by faith. This kind of faith, this saving faith, is best described as believing obedience. It is confidence that what Christ has done for us is sufficient to remove forever our guilt, our fear, and our shame. It is the obedience born of faith that the way of salvation opened to us in Christ is all we need. It is the faith needed to turn from sin and follow the savior. We are saved by grace. But faith opens the door.

Saved—by grace, through faith: No more guilt. No more fear. No more shame. And as the children of God we are no longer exiles. We have come home at last.

No more guilt, no more fear, no more shame—just grace. @RomansTheRoadToRighteousness

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando and Social Media

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” And to think that Charles Dickens published those famous words 145 years before the founding of Facebook.

Social media is at its best—and its worst—in the aftermath of some horrific event such as the Orlando shootings. At its best, it provides a way for loosely connected individuals to openly express grief and sympathy in a fast and convenient way. At its worst, it is a vehicle for spreading misinformation (if not outright lies) with no accountability, as well as being an easily accessible public forum for propagating hate, bigotry, and ignorance with impunity. It reinforces stereotypes and preconceived ideas and tends to generate far more heat than light when hard facts are not readily available.

A part of the problem is the speed with which fragmentary information about a fast-breaking news story is shared in a 24-hour news cycle. The pressure is to get the story out first. Speed is too often viewed as more important than accuracy. How many times have we seen the first details reported about a breaking story later retracted? This is how the pros operate; people with at least a theoretical commitment to a professional code of conduct that supposedly obligates them to check out a story before reporting it. What few constraints reporters live with are completely absent on Facebook and Twitter where people can and do say anything they please.

A second issue is the ease with which we can wrap ourselves in a comfortable and protective information “bubble” that guards us from contact with any ideas that conflict with our own views, opinions, values, prejudices, etc. Make sure you only go to news sites that correspond with your political, social, and religious views. “Defriend” people who post ideas you dislike. Always repost stories, however absurd they may be, if they support your way of thinking, but never check to see if the story is accurate. You don’t want facts that you dislike cluttering up your thinking.

And then there is the relative anonymity of internet communications. Heated words typed by the glow of a computer screen by somebody in their bathrobe at 1:00 AM seldom correspond with what that person would tell another face-to-face in broad daylight. The effect of this anonymity is like that of alcohol—it loosens inhibitions. And as many a deflowered virgin has regretfully learned after a night of drinking, some inhibitions are good.

As the details of this horrific massacre unfold, the story becomes more, not less, complex. That is to be expected. Life is complex. People are incredibly complex. The mind of a mass murderer is always a tangled labyrinth. It now appears that Omar Mateen’s motivation was likely a lethal combination of perverted and distorted religious belief and his own disordered sexuality. The extent to which he was aided in his crime by others will hopefully become clear in the weeks to come. At this early date, less than four full days after the attack, it seems that at least his wife may prove to be an accessory before the fact. Beyond that we are merely speculating.

As Christians we are by definition witnesses of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The love and mercies of God should be demonstrated in us and through us. Truth and truth telling should be revered by us above all people. May your social media presence be consistent with that high calling.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Grownup in the Room

It’s been one very weird election cycle, and it’s still eight long months until Election Day. On the left side of the aisle what seemed destined to be an easy stroll to a Democratic convention coronation for Hillary Clinton has turned out to be a hotly contested campaign, with opposition coming from a most unlikely corner—self-described democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders.

In a normal year that unanticipated turn of events would easily be the recurring lead story on the op-ed pages of the big city dailies. But this is anything but a normal year. For on the other side of the aisle we have witnessed a snarling, growling, vicious dog fight for the Republican nomination unlike anything seen in living memory. There have been the usual dirty little tricks that are all too typical—the kind of stuff we’ve sadly grown to expect in our beleaguered democracy. There have been the misleading claims and quotes taken out of context. We have seen the personal attacks and the all too familiar negative ads. And then there were the debates…

I remember studying the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates back in school. Abraham Lincoln was challenging incumbent Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas for his seat in the U.S. Senate. In a series of seven debates conducted across the state over a period of two months, each candidate made lengthy presentations regarding his positions on a variety of important issues, with the question of slavery topping the list. Then they took turns carefully rebutting their opponent’s arguments. These arguments were often finely nuanced. The tone was respectful and gentlemanly. That was 1858.

Over a century and a half later, the presidential debates we have been watching this election year have had little in common with the lofty contest of ideas waged across the Illinois prairie long ago. This is the age of the soundbite—the snappy comeback, the clever putdown. The quality of ideas and general tone of presidential debates has been deteriorating for years. But we have hit some shocking new lows this time around, where some of the candidates’ rebuttals have stooped to the level of, “…and you’re ugly, too!” It has been presidential politics as reality TV. Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich seem like little more than the surviving cast members of Amazing Race or Survivors as the season finale draws near.

In a perverse sort of way it HAS been entertaining. But it is the kind of entertainment that Christians should be embarrassed by—like admitting you enjoy the humor of a particularly vulgar comedian. And vulgar seems to be a particularly apt descriptor for the 2016 presidential election season.

It is not my job as a pastor to advise you on whom you should support for elective office. The issues by and large do not offer clearly defined “Christian” positions. But when it comes to helping define Christian conduct and behavior, well, that IS a part of my job. So when the mud (and various other substances) is flung about the room, it is important that we, who are Christ followers, set an example of godliness, even when all about us are behaving in a distinctly ungodly way. We have to be the grownups in the room, even if those who would like our votes act like unruly children.

Thankfully, the state of the candidates’ souls is not my responsibility. I am not their pastor. My approval or disapproval of how they manage their respective campaigns in my personal business. Your opinions may differ. But crass, boorish behavior has a way of encouraging crass, boorish behavior in others. And as Christians we must answer to a higher standard. So put on your big boy pants and model maturity. Who knows? Maybe we can start a trend!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The God in the Breaker Box

The evening of January 9, 2016 started out as just another quiet and relaxing Saturday night for Joyce and me at our home in Lynchburg, Virginia. After a holiday season marked by a house filled with kids and grandkids, it was good to enjoy some down time. Our guests were long gone. The decorations were all boxed up for another 11 months. Most of the Christmas goodies had been consumed and the inevitable resulting diets loomed large in the near future. But not that night. The diets could wait a few more days. It was a chilly, wet, rainy night. A night for comfort and comfort food. I built a cozy fire in the fireplace and we relaxed in our preferred way: enjoying some DVDs of old BBC dramas: Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot were the night’s double feature.

Everything was, if not exactly idyllic, at least very homey and comfortable until around 9:00 PM. It was then that I went upstairs to the spare bedroom opposite our master bedroom on the far end of the house where I had my laptop plugged in. I wanted to check email. When I got up there I found that the power was out in both spare bedrooms and in the hall bathroom. That’s strange, I thought. The electrical draw on the circuit that the three rooms shared was negligible: one bedside alarm clock, my computer, and a desk lamp with a rather low wattage bulb. This was getting annoying. It was the third time in two weeks that a breaker had inexplicably tripped—three different breakers, in fact. Additionally, we had had a rash of light bulbs burn out all over the house.

I tried to reset the breaker only to be surprised when it would not reset. Stranger still. I unplugged the few things plugged in and made sure all the light switches were turned off. I checked to make sure none of the outlets or switches were hot. I didn’t smell anything burning. Well, sometimes breakers do go bad. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. I speculated that perhaps the breaker was hot. Maybe if I waited an hour it would cool off and reset. I went back to enjoying the crackling fire and our British murder mystery du jour.

One hour later I again tried to reset the breaker. No dice. At this moment I made my best decision of the still young new year and maybe one of my best decisions ever. Instead of just shrugging my shoulders and resolving to call an electrician Monday morning, I went back upstairs and checked around one more time.

When I entered that spare bedroom three things had changed.

First, I smelled something odd. It was the very faint smell of something burning. I thought at first it might just be the smell of the fireplace. With rain falling, the draft of the flue can do funny things, but you wouldn’t normally smell it upstairs even then. Besides, the odor wasn’t quite right. It was a little too acrid. It smelled, I realized upon later reflection, like an overheated electrical wire.

Second, I heard something odd. Again, my first instinct was to dismiss it. It was just the sound of the rain outside. A soft popping sound—rain hitting a window. But a quick check of the weather revealed that the rain outside was not coming down very hard and there was no wind. Walking back into the room what should have been obvious immediately suddenly hit me like a cold slap in the face. The sound wasn’t coming from the window. It was coming from the ceiling and the wall. And on the other side of that wall was the chimney flue.

Third, I felt something odd. No, odd isn’t the right word. What I felt was alarming. I put my hand on the wall where the sound was coming from. It was warm.

I walked to the head of the stairs and calmly told Joyce that I was pretty sure that the house was on fire and that I was calling 911. I made the call. I told Joyce to get in the van. I grabbed my laptop, i-Pad, cell phone, chargers, wallet, and car keys. Joyce got her i-Pad, cell phone, purse, and the cat. She waited in the van with the cat while I stood under the front porch light and waited for the Boonsboro Squad of the Bedford County Fire and Rescue to arrive.

For a few minutes there was no sound but that of the rain gently falling and the low hum of the engine of our Dodge Caravan around the corner of the house. It was almost 10:00 PM. Saturday nights are quiet in our community. Our neighborhood has no street lights and our house is a couple hundred feet off the road, so it was dark except for the lights of our neighbors in the distance. Then I heard it. A faint siren soon echoed by others. As the clamor grew louder I could begin to see in the distance red lights reflecting off of my neighbors’ houses. Then I saw the lights themselves. Fire trucks. Rescue vehicles. Red cars and pickups sporting lights to match and bearing the logo of the fire department on their doors. It seemed like every vehicle owned by the Bedford County fire department was coming to our rescue.

One of the firefighters approached me. “Is everyone out of the house? Are there any pets inside?” Negative on both counts. “Are there any gas lines in the house?” Again, no. I then recounted the events that led to the call. I explained the layout of the house. I made sure all the doors were unlocked. Then I got out of the way and let the men (and at least one woman I saw) do their jobs.

Freed of anything else to do I took the time to make a couple phone calls. I needed my church family informed. I needed them praying. I called the chair of our diaconate, who in turn contacted the rest of the deacons. And I called one other church member who I knew would willingly do anything he could to help. Plus he’s resourceful, one of those rare people who seems to know everybody. In his book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell terms such people “mavens”. And a maven can prove invaluable in a crisis. I told my friends that our house was on fire, we were safe, the fire department had responded, and to please pray for us. No, there was nothing else they could do just then. No, we couldn’t leave. Both of our vehicles by now were pinned in by fire trucks. Yes, we would keep them informed.

Now came what for me was the hardest part of the evening. I had worked the problem as best I could. That’s what I do. My instinctive response to any problem or crisis is to try to fix it. Solve the problem. Resolve the crisis. Now I had run out of useful things to do. Joyce was on her phone, talking to her twin sister—trying to drain off her own stress by sharing it. I attempted to do likewise by calling an old friend. No answer. I tried sitting in the van and found that quite impossible. I got out and stood in the cold rain in my shirtsleeves like a fool. But I guess the adrenalin kept me warm because I never felt chilled. But I was getting wet, so I finally put on my jacket and got out an umbrella. Umbrella in hand, I watched the efforts of others to save our house from ruin.

I never let myself believe that the fire would get completely out of hand. But I remember the precise point where doubt about the outcome briefly got a toehold in my mind. I looked up at the attic vent on the far side of the house from where the fire was burning and saw smoke billowing out of it. I never said a word to Joyce, but for a few minutes I wondered if my 911 call came too late. Thankfully, a short time later it became clear that the fire was under control. The house would not burn down.

It was well after midnight before I reentered our house in the company of a firefighter and the Bedford County Fire Marshal. Water was still dripping from the ceiling. Steam was still rising from charred framing members that now lay on the bedroom floor. And bits of insulation that should have been up in the attic were now all over the place. It was even on the front porch steps. Of course, the power was off. One of the very first things that the firefighters did was pull the meter to kill all power to the house. We proceeded by flashlight. The harsh contrasts created by the light beams just served to accentuate the starkness of the mess before us.

The damage to the house was most evident from the spare bedroom side. Where earlier I had placed my hand and felt disturbing warmth, there was now…nothing. That wall was gone, ripped away by fire fighters intent on getting at the fire. Above that nothingness was more nothingness. A big hole opened up into the attic. Charred framing members leaned at crazy angles. One of the roof trusses was burned through, a second was compromised. But thankfully the underside of the roof showed no sign of damage whatsoever.

It was on the master bedroom side that the damage to personal property was vividly revealed. The first thing I saw as I walked through the doorway was a big mound of clothing carelessly dumped on the bed. Flannel shirts, blue jeans, khakis, my suits, Joyce’s dresses and T-shirts… everything lumped together every which way in a random heap of fabric. Another pile was on the floor on the far side of the bed. To get at the fire the firefighters had to rip out the back wall of the master bedroom closet. The clothes blocked their access. I’m grateful that in those first precious minutes after they arrived on the scene the firefighters took a few seconds to get our clothing out of the way. We don’t yet know all the damages, but most of our garments seem to have been spared from ruin. Our shoes were not so lucky. Nearly every pair was buried in a mound of wet charcoal and slimy, broken, plaster board.

The cause of the fire was not immediately evident but from the beginning an electrical fire was suspected. It wasn’t until a few days later, when the fire marshal was joined by a building inspector and a professional fire investigator hired by the insurance company, that the final determination was made. The fire started in the chase that was built around the fireplace flue and was the direct result of at least two building code violations that dated back to the original construction of the house some 15 years ago.

To begin with, the clearance between the flue and the framing was only 3 scant inches, so there was little margin for error. And errors there were. The most egregious was the running of an electrical line inside the chase, an outrageous and dangerous code violation. In addition, insulation in the attic was placed in direct contact with the flue instead of set back away for it as required. It was also piled on top of the metal firestop plate that separated the main level from the attic.

As the fire investigator reconstructed the event, because of the insulation lying against the flue and on top of the metal firestop plate that separated the inside of the chase from the attic, the inside of the chase on the main level had no way for heat to properly dissipate. A second firestop plate separating the chase at the basement level from the chase at grade level further minimized the amount of air subject to excessive heating, concentrating a potential ignition source. The inside of the chase on the main level effectively became a superheated fire box. Of course, hot air is not an efficient way to ignite a 2x4, even one that is bone dry and extremely hot. This is where the wire comes in. Over time, repeated heating and cooling degraded the insulation on the Romex until it was completely eroded away. Now we have an explanation for the series of burned out light bulbs and blown breakers over the last couple weeks. It was that wire, briefly and repeatedly shorting out. On that fateful Saturday night I built a hot fire in the fireplace and continued to fuel it throughout the evening. The air inside the chase became superheated. Add a spark from the wire. Ignition. The investigator estimated that the fire had been quietly burning for at least 90 minutes before I called 911. He further estimated that in probably no more than another 20 minutes the fire would have been through the roof. It was a very near thing. Once a fire gets going in an attic you quickly reach the point where the house cannot be saved.

As I write this, ten days after the event, it is now evident that we were most fortunate. We lost very little personal property and nothing that cannot be replaced. Our house suffered extensive damage but it can be repaired. We will be in temporary quarters for a couple months. But inconvenience does not equal loss. I have been told that we were lucky.

I suppose “what if” questions are inevitable after such a disaster…

What if I had not made that second check on the spare bedroom and we had gone to bed not knowing that the house was on fire? Because the fire was contained in the walls and the attic, our smoke alarms never did go off. By the time they did, would we have been able to escape?

What if two weeks earlier when our children and grandchildren were all with us, we had seen a cold wave instead of enjoying record warmth? Normally during the Christmas holidays I would have had a fire in the fireplace almost continually. As it was I only built a fire one evening. It was just too warm. But if it had been cold… It doesn’t bear contemplation. For then that wire would have sparked far sooner. In that crowded house (three people slept on air mattresses that week), had the fire started in the middle of the night it’s conceivable that all of us could have died. My wife and I and every one of our descendants… gone. Or even worse, what if I had survived but lost them all? Dear God in heaven…

What if the fire started but that breaker never failed? More than one man has walked off a battlefield with the knowledge that a bullet had harmlessly grazed his helmet. The difference between life and death is sometimes a matter of inches; sometimes just millimeters. Had that misplaced wire been in ever so slightly a different spot it could have sparked without shorting out. Then the breaker would not have been tripped. And we would have gone to bed ignorant of the fact that our house was on fire. And it could very easily have been the last time we ever went to bed.

What some call luck I believe was divine providence. I have encountered God in church. I have seen Him on mountain tops. I have heard His voice in music. He has whispered words of comfort to me in the darkness of the night. But on the night of January 9, God spoke to me from a dusty breaker box in the corner of my basement. He said, “Get out.” 

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Communication Cycle

Secure communications during wartime are critical. You never want your enemy to know your plans. The element of surprise can offer enormous advantages. So it has long been routine to encode military communications in order to deprive the enemy of critical knowledge. It follows that code-breaking is a big part of military intelligence. Just as you want your codes to be secure, you want to be able to read an enemy’s coded messages. During WWII the British were second to none in the art of code breaking. Bletchley Park was the home of Britain's codebreakers. The “boffins” at Bletchley regularly penetrated German codes, thereby shortening the war by years.

What is less obvious is that ALL of our communication is coded. Language is a form of code: an agreed upon way of communicating ideas via symbols from one brain to another. If you doubt this, just try reading Sanskrit. You’ll instantly realize that you don’t know the code. And what is true of verbal communication is just as true of nonverbal forms. In one culture failure to make eye contact is viewed with suspicion. We think the person is lying. In another culture to look another in the eyes is a sign of hostility and aggression. And that OK sign that Americans use? In Brazil that’s the equivalent of the raised middle finger so popular with some Beltway drivers.

Communication is difficult and imperfect, even assuming that all parties are honestly trying to communicate—something that’s not always the case. When you examine what’s involved in this surprisingly complex process, you will wonder how we ever accurately get our ideas across to another.

The woman on the left has an idea that she is trying to communicate to the man on the right. The process begins in the privacy of her brain where her feelings, intentions, attitudes, and thoughts give form and shape to an idea that she then encodes into language.

At this point her private thoughts become public behavior, a combination of verbal and nonverbal communication. It’s important to realize that in face-to-face communication as much as 93% of the communication is nonverbal. This reminds us of why, when dealing with an emotionally charged issue, a phone call—or worse, an email—is such a poor way to communicate. When there is a lot at stake in getting your message across accurately, there is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue.

Back to our diagram, the man must now decode—interpret—what he has just seen and heard. This happens in the privacy of his brain. And it all runs through a filter, the existence of which he is probably not even aware. It is a filter made up of his feelings, inferences, attitudes, and thoughts. And there is no reason to assume—in fact there is every reason NOT to assume—that her feelings, intentions, attitudes, and thoughts are the same or even comparable with the feelings, inferences, attitudes, and thoughts of the man. Our language, both verbal and nonverbal, picks up all kinds of subtle and highly personalized connotations during our lives, much of which we are not even conscious.

C.S. Lewis touched on this in The Screwtape Letters, in which the senior demon, Screwtape is instructing his junior tempter, Wormwood, in the fine art of ensnaring a human soul: “When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother's eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy—if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her . . . . In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face.”

So how do we reduce the likelihood of a breakdown in communication? There are many techniques that can come into play. Here are a couple basic ones:

1.      Paraphrase – Restate in your own words (not parroting) the content (words) of the other person’s verbal communication. You say something like, “Let me see if I understand what you just said…” Then you paraphrase. You then ask the other person to confirm that you got it right. It may take several cycles before both parties agree that accurate communication has taken place.

2.      Perception Check – A perception check is a guess at the emotional inner state of another person. It is guessing about another’s feelings based on what you have inferred from their body language, tone of voice, and choice of vocabulary. You are not TELLING the other person what they are feeling. That can be highly insulting. You are asking, in very tentative language, if you are correctly interpreting their feelings. A perception check would be something like this: “I am wondering if you might be upset about that. Am I right?” Done in a careful and sensitive way, a perception check is a very caring and loving think to do. It communicates that you are really listening and that it is important to you that you truly understand what the other person is trying to say.

Where paraphrasing focuses on the verbal component of communication, the perception check deals primarily with the 93% that is nonverbal. You need both. This closes the communication cycle, thus assuring the speaker that she is being heard and understood.

We live in a world where communication, particularly online communication, is devolving. Increasingly we seem to be expressing ourselves with little more than grunts, gestures, and the occasional blow to the head. As Christians, let’s take the lead in caring for others by actively listening; hearing what they are trying to say.

I am indebted to the work of Dr. John S. Savage, founder of L.E.A.D. Consultants, for much of this essay.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Walker

I’ve seen her in all kinds of weather: hot, muggy August afternoons, frigid January evenings, crisp autumn days, gentle spring mornings. In the face of blazing midsummer sunshine, drizzling rain, or spitting snow, she’s out there trudging up and down Boonsboro Road and Rivermont Avenue, logging her miles on Lynchburg’s north side. She covers a lot of ground in her walks. I’ve spotted her from as far west as the Boonsboro Kroger and as far east as Riverside Park—a good three miles apart.

Whatever the conditions or the time of day, her demeanor is never changing, a steady determined pace paired to a face set in stoic concentration. She neither smiles nor grimaces. She doesn’t look about. She just focuses on the task at hand—her walking. I’ve never seen her pause or break stride. Her legs move with the steady rhythm of a metronome. Hers is no casual stroll. She walks with purpose and intent.

I know neither her name nor her story. I’m lousy at guessing ages but she has clearly seen a lot of winters. Her hair is slate gray, her face, wrinkled and weathered. Year round she boasts a healthy tan from her many hours in the open air. Her eyes are bright and clear.

But whatever her story is, there is a tale of pain hidden inside it. Because like a torpedoed ship that’s taking water, she lists to the port. Her head and shoulder have a pronounced leftward tilt. Is she a recovering stroke victim? Was she involved in some terrible accident? Does she suffer from a birth defect that left her body forever twisted? I don’t know.

Many are the times that I have thought of stopping my car in a quest for answers to my questions. I’d like to hear her story. But I’ve always deferred. When I spot her she seems invariably to be going opposite my direction. By the time I pulled over, parked the car, and crossed the street, she would be hundreds of feet behind me and drawing away at a steady rate. Besides, it’s really none of my business and she might just remind me of that fact. And who knows what pain might accompany telling such a tale? Some experiences in life are best left undisturbed, buried in the past.

Still, we all go about telling our stories, whether intentionally or unwittingly. And that includes this nameless walker. By her actions, her body language, the constancy of her walking, she has told me that she is not a woman to be imprisoned by the pains of the past. She is not just a defenseless victim of circumstances. She is disciplined. By her steady stride she has taken control. She is claiming responsibility for her own future health and vitality. She is silently proclaiming to the world that she will not be kept down by circumstances.

I have also noticed that the time of day when she walks varies. That suggests to me that she is living for more than her own health—that her life is filled with other things—things that demand her time and around which she has to plan in order to log her miles each day. And that suggest to me that this is a well-rounded soul. It’s amazing what we can learn from the example of just a solitary woman taking a walk.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


While I led a Bible study last night at church, nine fellow Christians were being martyred in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. My brothers and sisters in Christ there were shot down in cold blood by a 21-year-old man who had just spent the previous hour seated among them as they prayed. Almost instantly the word “senseless” was used to describe this mass murder as police and city officials were asked to comment on the killings.

Certainly from the perspective of any reasonable, rational, normal person, “senseless” seems a perfectly appropriate word to apply to an act of violence perpetrated against innocent people who apparently had no previous connection with their killer. Because for most people, for people like you and me, we cannot make sense of something like this. It MAKES NO SENSE to us.

But we mustn't be too quick to label as senseless an act that may well have made perfect sense to Dylann Roof, now in police custody after a massive manhunt. Because the word “senseless” has different shades of meaning. One meaning certainly applies to what happened in Charleston last night. The other? Maybe not.

Most people would agree that these killings were senseless in the sense of being a stupid or foolish act. Whatever sick, dark, well of hate this deeply troubled young man drew from as his motivation for this vile act, he has accomplished nothing that will work to his or anyone else’s advantage. In addition to ending the lives of nine strangers and wrecking the lives of who knows how many others, he has effectively destroyed his own life as well. If that’s not senseless in the sense of being stupid, then I don’t know what stupid is.

But senseless has another meaning. It can refer to actions that lack mental perception or comprehension. We thus might refer to the acts of an idiot or a madman as senseless. And it may prove that as the backstory of this awful deed unfolds we will learn that Dylann Roof is simply deranged and will find his place in history among the annals of the criminally insane.

But there’s another possibility. There is such a thing as evil on this earth; evil that brings with it its own worldview. From within the framework of a sin-sick soul, seen through the worldview—the lens if you would—of evil, this deed may well have made perfect sense. Actions that most people would view as random and irrational may have seemed perfectly logical and coherent to this angry young man. Such evil is the rotten fruit of a series of bad choices. And while there may be all kinds of mitigating circumstances, they remain choices—acts of deliberate and conscious will—for which the killer is morally culpable and responsible. Only time will tell if the murders in Charleston were senseless in this second meaning of the term, the act of a madman, or if they are simply and horribly an act of unspeakable evil.

I hope and pray that Dylann Roof is insane, that he is barking at the moon mad, and that he will be safely locked away for the rest of his life. Because if he is not, then the only alternative is that this young man is the living personification of evil who has taken a giant step toward eternal damnation. For if the first alternative is likened to a rabid dog, dangerous but random in his attacks, then the other is a dangerous and calculating predator—a hungry tiger on the hunt, out to make a kill.