Seasoned Speech

Addressing President Trump’s history of crude comments about women, former Vice President Joe Biden recently stated that he would have “beat the hell out of” the President had he and Mr. Trump attended high school together. Mr. Trump has fired back that Biden “would go down fast and hard, crying all the way” were the two to scuffle.

This is statesmanship in America in 2018.

Proverbs 15:1-2 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” Each of us has spoken both wisdom and folly. Rashness overtakes every kind mouth sometimes, while even the worst of us occasionally stumbles upon a soft answer. I regularly pray that my words would more often represent wisdom and less often represent the fool who lives just below the surface.

I am reminded that Jesus said in Matthew 12:34-35: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”

If it is true that my words reflect my heart, then my heart has a long way to go, and I rest in the knowledge that Jesus is in the business of transforming hearts. Even as the Prophet Ezekiel foretold, Jesus has removed “the heart of stone” and has given “a heart of flesh.” Moreover, Christ has promised that “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven” to those who seek Him in faith. Forgiveness is a good thing.

But I also am increasingly aware that if I desire for American political and social rhetoric to improve, I ought to begin with myself. If society collectively cringes when septuagenarian politicians sling around the empty bravado of locker room bullies, how much more so when Christians speak this way?

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.”

Religious Freedom (from consequences)

Christians in America fear the loss of religious freedom.

But to be more precise, we fear the loss of easy faith. Right now we follow Jesus without fear of suffering unpleasant consequences.

Let me explain.

Do Christians in North Korea have freedom to practice their faith? Yes. A Christian can walk into the street and begin preaching the Gospel. He is free to do so. He is not, however, free from the terrible consequences that would follow.

No government can take away freedom of religion. It can only impose consequences. The question every believer must ask is, “Will I bear the consequences for Jesus who first bore them for me?”

Now, I’m not suggesting that every Christian in North Korea rush into the street proclaiming Christ. To do so would be to engage in a form of suicide by preaching. Wisdom dictates that believers in such circumstances preach the faith quietly, in private homes with curtains drawn, carefully teaching the next generation. May God one day grant believers in North Korea the ability to proclaim Christ from the rooftops without fearing the consequences of an anti-Christian regime!

Not unlike our persecuted brothers elsewhere, American Christians enjoy the freedom to follow Jesus. Unlike our persecuted brothers, our only hindrance to proclaiming Christ is our willingness to bear the relatively mild consequences of social disapproval.

We have the freedom. We also have—for the time being—freedom from significant consequences.

Only our fear of losing the latter can prevent us from using the former.

A Poor Trade

Psalm 146:3-5 cautions:

Put not your trust in princes,                                                                                                              in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.                                                                    When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;                                                                          on that very day his plans perish.                                                                                              Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,                                                                                  whose hope is in the Lord his God.

After reading yet another article in which an evangelical celebrity urged Christians to secure the Kingdom of God on earth by voting Republican—no, he didn’t say it that bluntly—I think we need to amend Psalm 146, producing the American Evangelical Republican Version of the Bible. It goes like this:

Put not your trust in Democratic princes,                                                                                       in a socially liberal son of man, in whom there is no economic salvation.               When his presidency ends, he returns to Chicago;                                                                       on that very day his policies perish, but his judicial appointments endure.                Blessed is he whose help is the God of Republicans,                                                                        whose hope is in the Lord his God’s preferred political candidates.

Is this really the hope of the Bible? Is this what the Church is called to offer to the world? Political promises and fear-based pleas to vote for particular candidates? The advance of the Church on earth through legislation?

What a poor trade.

Jesus is building His Church. Our power lies in the faithful use of the Word, Sacraments, and prayer, not in the voting booth.

In Defense of Work

Work is good.

It is often toilsome, sometimes frustrating, and rarely without hiccups, but it is also good.

God created mankind to work. He gave Adam a garden to tend, and a Creation over which to exercise dominion. You know the rest of the story.

Adam sinned and God promised that Adam’s labor would become difficult. The earth produced thorns and thistles, and only by the sweat of his brow did Adam eat its fruits.

But work is still good.

When God gave His people the Ten Commandments, He said, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work.” Often we skip those words, rushing directly for the prohibition that follows. But God commanded His people to work six days each week.

Why? Work is good.

Americans—Christians included—have grown accustomed to working five days a week. We also expect to retire sometime in our 60s in order to spend the rest of our lives doing nothing useful whatsoever.

“Six days you shall labor.” That command comes with no expiration date.

If you’re a Christian, work. Have a reason to get out of bed. It need not be full time employment. You can still “retire.” But work. Part-time. Volunteer. Make sure someone counts on you to be there. Do something.

When a person stops working some part of him withers, for men were created to work. Idleness lessens our humanity.

When we work, we image our God who worked. Our labor glorifies Him. Yet many people work only in order to retire. Their labor represents little more than a means to escape from work. But the Christian must labor as a means to glorify the Lord.

Paul commands in Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

All legitimate work is therefore dignified work. It is Christ-honoring work. It is spiritual work. It contributes to the Kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Work is good, so seek to glorify the Lord in your work.

And then enter your rest.

A Well-Dressed Orangutan

In Disney’s Jungle Book, King Louie the orangutan sings to the boy Mowgli: “I’ve reached the top and had to stop, and that’s what botherin’ me. I wanna be a man, mancub, and stroll right into town and be just like the other men. I’m tired of monkeyin’ around! Oh, oobee doo! I wanna be like you! I wanna walk like you, talk like you, too. You’ll see it’s true. Someone like me can learn to be like someone like you.”

It’s a great song because it is a fanciful song. An orangutan strolling through town dressed in slacks and a blazer is still an orangutan. King Louie is no more human for having donned Ralph Lauren.

That says something.

Because evidently, Neanderthals painted.

So says the latest research conducted on Spanish cave drawings. As scientists continue to debate whether to categorize Neanderthals as a separate species from modern man or simply as a variant population of humans, at least they can agree that they painted.

Maybe they were wearing animal skins rather than Ralph Lauren, but they did more than stroll through town—they created art.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was a British essayist, poet, and lay theologian who had a way of seeing things simply. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton suggests that cave drawings reveal skill: “They were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist.”

Chesterton imagined a young boy looking at such art, and argued that no child would expect to see his house cat “scratch on the wall a vindictive caricature of the dog,” for animals do not create art. I realize that people sell paintings made by elephants and dolphins and orangutans—which says more about human taste in paintings than orangutan prowess in creating them—but even here Chesterton simplifies: “It sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey,” while “it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man.”

Neither I nor Chesterton wish to denigrate those who celebrate King Louie’s paintings, but Chesterton appeals to common sense when he writes: “Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race-horse a Post-Impressionist.”

Instead, Chesterton recognizes: “Every sane sort of history must begin with man as man,” for “this creature was truly different than all other creatures.” This creature created art.

And only man makes art.

Or designs slacks and blazers. Sorry, King Louie.

Band-Aids and Bleeding Arteries

Arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart, under pressure, to every cell in the body. Veins carry oxygen-depleted blood from every cell back to the lungs to receive oxygen and then to the heart to repeat the journey.

Most people have never seen arterial bleeding. Venous bleeding looks like a dark red version of leaking, dripping, or even running water. On the other hand, arterial bleeding sprays scarlet jets of blood, spurting in time with the beat of the heart. It’s hard to die from venous bleeding. But you can die very quickly from an arterial wound.

When a person proposes an inadequate solution, you may have heard it said that his proposal is akin to “slapping a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery.” Band-Aids don’t work on arteries. A doctor may put a Band-Aid on a scraped knee. But he must stitch together the ends of a severed artery.

Liberal Protestantism in the United States lies in its death throes. Covered from head to toe with Band-Aids, its arteries lay flayed open. These self-inflicted cuts represent mortal wounds.

Repudiation of biblical history slices an artery. Denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus severs another. Disdain for biblical morality cuts more. As life bleeds away and attendance plummets, the leaders of such communions—blind in their unbelief—grope for more Band-Aids.

The Bible is the Word of God, the sure and only authority for the faith and practice of the Church. When a given church or denomination maintains and promotes that truth, it will still sin. It will err. It will falter. It will inflict wounds. But its wounds will be venous cuts, and it will go back to the Word of God to select the biblical Band-Aid. It will heal and thrive.

But when a people turn from God’s Word, reject its authority, or begin to “interpret” the Bible to fit the cultural whims of the day, then the bleeding changes. Scarlet jets spray. Death is near.

No liberal denomination started in unbelief. They all began as faithful, Bible-believing churches. Be warned.

Historically, the first people in any denomination to lose confidence in the Bible are the ministers. Solid, Bible-believing, orthodox lay people form the heart of every sound church and denomination.

If that describes you, then demand of your pastor, your leadership, and your denomination that they stand on the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God, that they refuse to tamper with it, but instead interpret and proclaim it in Christ-centered fidelity. Make your minister prove his teaching from the Word of God.

Even a faithful minister’s teaching occasionally errs. But the cuts will be shallow.

If your church or its leadership begins severing arteries, leave. Find a Bible-believing communion of Christians in which to work and worship.

Because no number of Band-Aids will stop the bleeding.

Angels and Ambiguity

My faith was younger than my boots and the leather in my boots still squeaked. But my friend Joel knew Christ from childhood. As we snaked up a Colorado canyon in Joel’s Chevy, Rich Mullins blared from the speakers: “Jacob, he loved Rachel and Rachel, she loved him, and Leah was just there for dramatic effect.” Joel blurted out, “That’s terrible theology.”

It had never dawned on me to evaluate Mullins’ words, especially when I was thinking about fly-fishing, but Joel planted a seed. I began to listen with discernment, not only to Christian radio but also to the songs I sang in church.

No lack of critics chasten contemporary praise music. Often repetitious, shallow, and of sophomoric quality, the proverbial “Jesus is my boyfriend” genre provides ready-made fodder for denunciation. Traditionalists tout the theological richness of hymnody while others praise the devotional warmth of contemporary songs. The so-called worship wars remain, but most evangelicals reside in a demilitarized zone of tolerance. Some embrace the lyrical equivalent of Gerber baby food while others glory in steak and potatoes. Just don’t foist your preference on my church and we can still be friends.

Few critics have tackled a more foundational truth: Hymnody is not poetry and poetry is not hymnody.

Poetry invites personal interpretation. A poet suggests rather than declares, encouraging readers to participate in forming meaning. Poets weave ambiguity into their work, causing readers to strive for understanding. Poet and academic Joseph DeRoche suggests that a poem unfolds “without directly telling the reader what conclusions to draw.” Rather, “The poet selects images and places them together, and . . . the poem, like a small explosion, really occurs in the reader’s brain.”

Hymnody, on the other hand, must articulate truth rather than encourage mental detonations. In Colossians 3:16, Paul commands the church: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” In other words, singing in worship represents an extension of the teaching ministry of the church. A skillful hymn writer therefore crafts an orthodox message rather than inviting personal interpretation.

All worship songs reside on a spectrum. At one end stand theological songs—proclaiming truth, doctrine, and duty. At the other end stand devotional songs—capturing Christian experience, trials, and joys. Most songs boast both elements. But if rhyme after rhyme suggest biblical themes while establishing no clear meaning, the writer has blundered. The church should no more sing ambiguous lyrics than pastors should preach ambiguous sermons.

New songs often fail this ambiguity test, but so do old hymns. In “Blessed Assurance” Fanny Crosby penned, “Angels descending bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” Tell me, “What is an echo of mercy?” I’ve asked many Christians that question, and no two ever offered the same answer. The ambiguity of Crosby’s lyrics forces each worshipper to ascribe his or her own meaning.

But congregational worship requires unity. Believers pray, confess, and listen to the Word together. When a congregation sings of angels bringing “echoes of mercy,” one man may recall the angel who promised Jesus to Mary, foretelling God’s mercy to a sinful world. Another might conjure images of the angel of the Lord decimating Sennacherib’s army, granting last-minute mercy to Jerusalem. The woman one pew over might envision the angel who touched Isaiah’s lips with a live coal, granting mercy to the guilty prophet.

Scripture describes many angels and many acts of mercy. But no echoes.

Such lyrics do not teach. They invite private interpretation, for they establish no clear meaning.

Does your church sing words that extend its teaching ministry? Whether old or new are your worship songs clear and orthodox? Or does the sanctuary resound with muted mental explosions?

Rich Mullins may have been wrong but at least I knew what he meant.