Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Anniversary of Your Death

This Memorial Day weekend is a time when many of us stop to reflect on those who sacrificed their lives in service of our country and in support of freedom. My two grandfathers fought in WWII. My father served in Vietnam. Most recently, my brother served in Iraq.

Like many other Americans, my family has a rich military heritage full of real-life war stories not found in history books. Some stories are of comrades who were severely wounded or who died in battle, yet whose names hold no significance to most Americans.

Consider this history lesson on God’s sovereignty from a fascinating collection entitled Under God: On July 9, 1755, the French and Indian War was raging in a fight over American soil. As the battle progressed, the American Indians picked off one red-coated British officer after another until only one lieutenant colonel remained mounted high on horseback. Although Indian sharpshooters fired thirteen rounds of ammunition at him and shot two horses out from beneath him, this officer remained uninjured. That evening, he found four holes where bullets had pierced his coat yet had miraculously disappeared before piercing his body.

Several days after the battle in a letter to his brother, the officer wrote, “But by the all-powerful dispensations of Providence I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me!”

 This officer went on to become our first president, George Washington (Mac and Tait, 2004).

Even though war, danger, and death are synonymous in many minds as we remember the fallen heroes of our country, no one is promised another moment beyond this one.

It is something we must accept by faith even if we can't wrap our finite minds around the concept.  Still, Scripture is clear that life and death are ordained by God. Our days were already numbered before we were born, and no man, no bullet, no bomb, no “accident” can shorten the days God has allotted each of us.

The psalmist David penned, “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb….Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them” (Psalm 139:13,16).

 In other words, as the poet W.S. Merwin once penned, every year, we pass the anniversary of our death without even realizing it. God intends to comfort us with the knowledge that a person’s death is not a random accident but that He carefully orchestrates it. We may not know the day or hour, but God already does. Your conception, your birth, your death are all on God’s calendar.

So many people are precious to us—parents, spouses, children, extended family, friends—all of whom we would likely choose to keep close by our side until we personally crossed over into eternity. Because we love them so much, each one of us could choose daily to live in fear of their death.

Recently, a woman recounted to my mother that her son was finally back from his one-year tour in Iraq, calling it the “worst year of her life.” My mom said she couldn’t relate. While she was concerned about and prayed for my brother’s safety in Iraq, she lived life without the daily, incapacitating worry. She trusted in Jesus’ words: “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27).

Many of us still have family and friends who are serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries around the globe. This week, I ask you to continue to pray for them. Write to tell them of your love and support. Send a care package. But leave the worrying to God.

As Christians, we must rest in God’s sovereignty, in his ultimate control over everything, including life and death. The safest place for us to be is in the center of God’s will…even if that means being, like George Washington, in the center of a battlefield.

Image: Lithograph of "George Washington's Prayer at Valley Forge." It has been reported that during the darkest days at Valley Forge, George Washington could be found kneeling in earnest prayer for the near hopeless condition of the beleaguered Continental Army. This lithograph captures such a moment.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

What to Do With Peter Pan Christians in Your Church

If you were to ask me who I am, I would respond easily that I am Jennifer Roseanne Bush Dorhauer; wife of Douglas Dorhauer; daughter of John and Karen Bush; mother of Wyatt, Amelia, and Emerson; servant of Jesus Christ; online English Composition professor....and the list goes on...

In my mind, I am an I before I am a we.

The times I feel the most inconsolable are when I find myself losing the I of my identity in the daily grind of we as a wife and mother. I fear losing my individual identity within the collective identity of family.  Some weeks, months, and years, I've found myself shelving the I because the we is all consuming.

But constantly trying to see myself as not part of a collective identity is faulty as well.  I am not a lone individual.  Never have been.  To act or think in that manner is only a deluded fantasy.  Blindly focusing solely on myself as an individual is like standing in narcissistic quicksand.

When it comes to the church fellowship of other Christian believers, I have become more comfortable being a we, seeing myself as part of a whole that embraces my individual identity in the larger collective.  Still, there are times when I fail to see how my presence or absence in worship affects anyone but me.  In that instance, I forget about my collective identity and focus just on myself.

This is a key difference I note between Judaism and the modern-day church in America.  Whereas Judaism has a distinct sense of collective identity, Christianity does not. Scripture clearly identifies the New Testament church as the "body of Christ" (1 Cor. 12).  Still, American Christians as a whole lean towards individualism versus a collective identity.  Their actions demonstrate this belief regularly, even if their words say otherwise.

Two weeks ago in this space, we looked at the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah).  During this Feast and the following Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Jewish people sing a prayer of repentance entitled the Avinu Malkeinu, or "Our Father, Our King."  The last few lines are loosely translated as:

"Our Father, our Father, our King.
No good deeds do we bring.
Hear us and answer, be gracious to us, Lord, we pray.
And make for us
Grace and righteousness.
And make please for us loving kindness
and your salvation bring, and your salvation bring."1

Note the pronouns repeatedly used in this prayer--Our, we, and us.

The Feasts of Israel, in themselves, are collective celebrations of God's chosen people.  They are "we" activities wherein every Jew is to come together as one.  This song, though, goes further, explaining that Rosh Hashanah (and by extension, the other feasts as well) is not just a shared collective activity but a shared collective, sin and repentance, too.

The pronouns denote an acknowledgment that your sin affects me as much as your righteousness affects me.  Although I am individually accountable for my own soul, here on earth, I am bound to you in good and in bad.  As such, this sung prayer expresses that God's people must pray for the collective community of God.   

Consider two other examples of prayer in Scripture that also emphasize this viewing oneself as part of a collective whole in God versus as a Lone Ranger type individual.

When Daniel prayed, he used the pronoun our, expressing his sense of collective identity: "we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land" (Dan. 9:5-6).

Daniel understood firsthand how connected he was to Israel as a community, in a collective identity, and to that nation's sin as a whole.  He prayed not from an ivory tower reserved for the most holy and dedicated to God but from the center of exile in Babylon.  He knew what it was to be bound together a community in good and in bad.  And so, when he prayed, he prayed for the community of Israel, the children of God as a whole.

Even Jesus taught His disciples to pray with a collective identity in mind.  The Lord's prayer reads, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is  in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (Matt. 6:9-13).

 Too many times, I look at fellow Christians and fail to perceive how their spiritual state affects my own.  I would rather see myself as a island unaffected by the rest of the Christian community.  It's easier to live within the myth that says if my soul is right with God, nothing else matters.

Yet, if God's people are going to have an impact on this world, we must consider ourselves, truly, as a living entity, one that doesn't function effectively if even a single nerve is malfunctioning.  As Paul says, "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Cor. 12:26).

To that end, we must pray for the "we" and the "our," recognizing that the weakest link in Christ's body affects us as much as the strongest cord.  If someone is weak in the Lord, a Christian still living on milk with a Peter Pan "I'll Never Grow Up" mentality, we must not turn up our nose or roll our eyes at his immaturity, no matter how long he's spent in the spiritual nursery.  Instead, we must strive to strengthen that individual, to strengthen that part of our community in the Lord.

The church seeing itself as a community of believers bound together in a collective identity is of vital importance for unity and effectiveness in a lost and dying world. 

Other Articles in this Jewish Feasts Series:
A One Hundred Trumpet Blast Wake-Up Call
Positioning Passover Pronouns
Preparation Day: 'Go to Church' or Worship
Reorienting Our Lives: 50 Days From the Cross
Understanding the Jewish-ness of Jesus
The Truth About Passover

1.  Leman, Derek. Feast: Finding  Your Place at the Table of Tradition.  Nashville: Lifeway P, 2008: p. 64-65.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Habits of the Heart: A Look at 1830s America

Alexis de Tocqueville left France for America in 1831.  His quest?  To determine why democracy had succeeded in the United States so he might apply those secrets back in his homeland.  What he found was quite enlightening.

In 1835, Tocqueville published Democracy in America, which identified America's success as being grounded in Christianity.  He understood that many were not Christians in early American culture, but the Christians who were genuine made a huge impact of the rest of society.  The difference between then and now is how those Christians lived compared to modern-day Christians.

Chris Brauns in his latest Bound Together summarizes Tocqueville's discovery:

"'Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state's all-pervasive presence in his native France.'  Tocqueville believed it was Christian values and virtues, what he called 'habits of the heart,' rather than the involvement of government that made for responsible citizens.  This, he suggested, was the bedrock of the American experiment.  
      Tocqueville was not naive about the spirituality of America.  He understood that not every citizen was a professing Christian. He was aware of the fact that even among those who professed faith in Christ there was still great hypocrisy.  Even so, he noted, 'Revolutionaries in America are obliged to profess a certain public respect for Christian morality and equity, so that it is not easy for them to violate the laws when those laws stand in the way of their own designs.  And even if they could overcome their own scruples, they would still be held in check by the scruples of their supporters.'
      Tocqueville was especially impressed by the effectiveness of American homes in passing along Christian 'habits of the heart,' and the strength of American homes began with a high regard for marriage: 'Of all the countries in the world, America is surely the one in which the marriage bond is most respected, and in which people subscribe to the loftiest and most just ideal of conjugal happiness.'
      Tocqueville believed that mothers, in particular, deserved high praise for teaching Christian values to their children...Tocqueville wrote, 'If someone were to ask me what I think is primarily responsible for the singular prosperity and growing power of [Americans], I would answer that it is the superiority of their women.'
      Christian 'habits of the heart,' instilled by godly parents living together in committed marriages, had given rise to a citizenry with a strong sense of civic responsibility and solidarity with one another." (p. 166).

The Christians from two centuries ago were salt and light in their nation.  They didn't withdraw completely from the world or throw up their hands in bitter, what-can-I-do-anyway defeat.  They didn't strive to be politically correct at all costs so as not to offend someone, to turn a blind eye or gently re-label sin a "choice."

The effects of early American Christianity were similar to a circle of dominoes, one causing another and then another to fall, although in this time period, they fell in a positive way.

Consider the links mentioned in the above quotation.  Early American government was small and not intrusive because Christian morality was high (so high that even non-Christians stayed in line).  Christian morality was high because marriages were of utmost importance, making the home stable.  Because marriages were of utmost importance, parents were able not just to teach Christian values in the home but to live out those Christian values in front of their children.  Christian values, then, became ingrained in the children, thereby making Christian morality high in the overall country.  See the loop?

America at its greatest begins with mothers and fathers.  It begins in the home.  It begins with Christians teaching and living out Biblical morality in front of their children.  It begins with Christians refusing to lock themselves inside their churches and homes and, instead, getting out into the world to let their light shine before men.

I'm not pointing a finger.  I'm speaking to myself, too.  There's nothing I'd rather do than stay on my farm, spend time with my family, or worship at church with my spiritual family.  Those are safe places that encourage me in my Christian walk.  But it's not just about me.  It is about a nation, a world full of lost people making wrong, sinful choices...and many of them have no idea they're doing anything wrong.

With Mother's Day just yesterday, I can't help but take Tocqueville's analysis of America and say, if we want our country back, the buck stops with the Christian mother and father.  We Christian parents must (1) save our families at all costs.  Divorces because of 'irreconcilable differences' or 'we just fell out of love' must stop with us.  And (2) we parents must teach and live out Christian values to and before our children.

Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, we are literally one generation away from godliness or godlessness.

(I know this is a bit different from my usual post, but the last chapter in Brauns' book has really convicted me, staying forefront in my mind an entire week.  It has made me reevaluate my role as a Christian mother.)

Image: The County Election, 1852 George Caleb Bingham; Source Saint Louis Art Museum

Monday, May 6, 2013

A One Hundred Trumpet Blast Wake-Up Call

When I think of a trumpet blowing, I envision an old episode of MASH when Major Frank Burns and Major Margaret Houlihan run the Army campy.  Under their rigid command, poor Radar is required to jolt awake the camp each morning with a frightful ramble of missed notes played on his near tuneless bugle.  What a wake up call.

The trumpet blast, though, served a purpose--it is a warning, a signal that change is coming, a reminder to be on alert.

For the Biblical Feast of Trumpets (otherwise known as Rosh Hashanah), the trumpet is used in a similar way.

Scripture says, On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord” (Lev. 23:24-25).

This is the first of the "fall" feasts, and, in Jewish tradition, would begin with the blowing of the shofar, a trumpet of sorts carved out of the horn of a ram (or antelope).  On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar would be blown 100 times in a series, each series including "one long blast, three medium wails, and nine short bursts."

That's a lot of horn blowing.  The point, though, is to make sure everyone hears the sounding trumpet, for all to be warned and reminded of what is to come.  And, in the Jewish calendar, "what's to come" is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement ten days later, a day on which Israel's sins are judged for another whole year.  (Lev. 23:27-32). 

Imagine having ten days to prepare your soul for an annual meeting with the Lord.  You would likely spend those ten days doing everything in your power to make your soul clean, performing acts of kindness, and being on your best behavior.  As you might expect, those ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the blowing of the trumpets) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are filled with much reflection, prayer, repentance, making right any wrongs, and repairing broken relationships.

The Talmud (a Jewish book of history, legend, & tradition) recounts that on Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened--one for the "utterly wicked," another for the "absolutely righteous," and a third for the "tweeners" who, as their name suggests, aren't completely evil or completely righteous.  For ten days, that last group's book is left open so they can get their accounts right with God and their names transferred into the Book of Life.1

However, those of us who are believers in Christ know that this tradition of doing good works to move one's name to the Book of Life is not the truth God intended when He established this Feast.  As Paul stated, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:8-10).  In essence, Christians are definitely called upon to do works out of their love for Christ, but not because those works will earn them a ticket into heaven.  Only faith in Christ alone can transfer one from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God's beloved Son (Col. 1:13).

What God did intend for His children to see in this Feast was how hopeless they were to save themselves, how they could never do enough to save themselves.  

 Likewise, the Feast was also to serve as a reminder that we must be ready because we know not when the day of salvation and judgment is.

Before that Great Day of Atonement when all mankind stands before the great white throne of judgment, there will be a trumpet blast telling us of Jesus' return to earth.  Scripture says,  in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed." (1 Cor. 15:52).

Additionally, in the end, there will be a great judgment with books.  John says, "And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books" (Rev. 20:12).  Even Daniel saw "ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened" (Dan. 7:10).

The difference between when Christ returns as Judge and King and the others Days of Atonement throughout the rest of history?  This time, we won't be given ten days to make our hearts right with Him.  This time, if our souls aren't ready, it will be too late and no amount of good deeds will make any difference.  One's present level of faith in Christ at the time of the trumpet blast is what will be judged.

As such, the Feast of Trumpets should remind us of our need to live in a constant state of readiness to meet our Lord.  That morning wake up call is coming.  Unlike when Radar played on his bugle, this time, the piercing blast will be perfectly in tune and will literally be the shot heard round the world.

For some, it will be a sound of much anticipated joy.  For others, it will be a sound of damnation.

Rabbi Derek Leman puts it so beautifully: "Rosh Hashanah is a reminder that we all have a limited time on earth.  Just like the 10 days between the blowing of the trumpets and Yom Kippur, we are all living in the meantime.  The only question is how we will spend it."2

(Click on the YouTube video above to hear just one "series" of blasts on a traditional shofar.)

Other Articles in this Jewish Feasts Series:
Positioning Passover Pronouns
Preparation Day: 'Go to Church' or Worship
Reorienting Our Lives: 50 Days From the Cross
Understanding the Jewish-ness of Jesus
The Truth About Passover

1.  Nadler, Sam. Feasts of the Bible. "Feast of Trumpets."  Video. Torrance: Rose P, 2011.
2.  Leman, Derek. Feast: Finding Your Place at the Table of Tradition.  Nashville: Lifeway, 2008: p. 62