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Friday, December 6, 2013

The Christmas Spirit (a short story in the Dickens tradition, by Dave Swavely)

Show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.   Hebrews 13:2
       Since we had been left alone, each winter seemed colder and longer than the one before.  The Carolina mountains were not the easiest place for a mother to raise two children by herself, but it was the home we had made.  Of course I had thought about moving away from the weather after Joe deserted us, but this was the only life I had known, and I was fearful of trying to make my way in another.

             So I did the best I could.  And God knows I did the best I could trying to hide my hurt, and the anger that seethed inside of me toward my husband.  But even after five years, it was still very alive, and Harrison had eventually picked it up from me.  His twelve-year-old mind did not understand much more than the simple fact that daddy had left, but his feelings seemed every bit as strong as mine.  I caught him cursing his father when he had to brave the snow to get wood for the stove, or when he was cleaning the remains of a fire and preparing a new one. 

             Sometimes, when it came time for this chore, he would just sit in a chair or on the floor, silently refusing to do it.  Out of sympathy for his state of mind, I would do it for him, wishing that he would be able to forgive Joe and move on.  But as I stumbled through the biting cold on my way to and from the woodpile, I would find myself cursing too.  So in that way, and in many others, we had to live with a man who was not living here anymore.

             And then, on one cold night during the holiday season, on the same date that he had left, Joe came back.  Not the same Joe that had left us, however, but someone—or something—different.

             Harrison and I were at the table, making paper ornaments for the Christmas tree, when we heard what sounded like a knock on the door.  We weren’t sure because of the crackle of the fire, and the wind whipping outside, so we sat still and listened for another.  When it came, I headed for the window to see who it was, while Harrison asked if he should get the gun.  I squinted my eyes at him and told him no, then peeked out the window. 

       In front of the door was a large shape that I didn’t recognize, but something inside told me it was okay.  For some reason I felt a strange peace about opening the door.  So I did, and was greeted by a huge man in a long, fur-collared coat.  He was pressing the ends of his long curly hair against the top of his ears in an attempt to protect them from the bitter wind, but was smiling nonetheless.

       “Good evening, ma’am,” he bellowed in a deep voice.  “I know that we are strangers to you, and perhaps my companion here is a stranger of the worst sort, but we would be very grateful if you let us in.”  This speech seemed to have been prepared, and he went on.  “You know the Good Book says to show hospitality to strangers, because you might be entertaining angels unawares.” 

       He winked at me, very obviously.

       “Your companion?” I asked, glancing back at Harrison to make sure he hadn’t gone for the gun.

       “Yes,” said the big man, gesturing to his left and behind.  But then he spun around when he noticed no one was there.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” he added with a nervous laugh.  “You can understand why he would be hesitant.  Wait a moment.”

       He trotted back toward a pickup truck that was parked a hundred feet from the house, but was hard to see in the darkness.  Then he redirected himself toward the woodpile when he caught sight of another man, who was coming from there with his arms full of kindling.  I couldn’t recognize the smaller form in the dark, but again something inside told me that it was safe to let these two in.  So I retreated back to the table, sat down in a chair, and brought Harrison near me, wrapping my arms around him.

       Momentarily the big man appeared in the doorway, furiously wiping his shoes on the rug and shaking the snowflakes out of his mop of hair.

            “Thank you,” he said merrily.  “I hope you’ll have an open mind.”

            Then he moved further into the house, and I gasped as his companion stepped into view.  It was Joe, but it wasn’t Joe.  The man looked like my husband, but he was cleaner, healthier.  Sort of like a better-bred brother, although Joe had never had one.  I watched as he wiped his feet off carefully (something Joe would never have done), and then quietly carried the wood over to the stove, where he proceeded to improve the fire.

            “Words may be difficult for him,” the big man said, taking a seat near us without being offered one.  I began to be worried that the wooden chair might collapse under his great bulk.

            Staring at the man working on the fire, Harrison suddenly squirmed out of my arms and ran into his bedroom.

            “Excuse me,” I said, and moved after my son.

            “Tell him that I’m a minister,” the round man said.  “Maybe that will help him feel better.”

            “Oh,” I said, and nodded.

            I went into the bedroom, and closed the door behind me.
            “Is that dad?” Harrison asked immediately.

            “I think something strange may be happening,” I answered.  “You know how you learned about angels in Sunday School?”  He nodded.  “Well, that man—he’s a minister, by the way—he said something about entertaining angels when he was at the door.  Maybe this is a test for us, or a way for us to put this all behind us…”

            “You think dad is an angel?” the boy asked, then added quickly:  “Is he dead?”

            “I don’t know what has happened to your father, but that man seems different than your father.  I lived with him for years, I should know.  So I think maybe it’s an angel, made to look like Daddy.”

            “Can they do that?”

            “Well, we know angels can take on human form, so I guess they could take on the form of a particular human.”

            “Weird,” the twelve-year-old said, rolling his eyes.

            “Maybe this is God’s way of helping us to forgive him,” I offered.  “So we can move on with our lives.”

            “Okay,” he said, his mouth still hanging open.  “Who’s the fat guy?”

            “I don’t know, maybe he is some kind of special pastor, who works with angels.”

            “Okay,” said the boy again.

            “So let’s go out there.  Whatever it is, we’ll face it together.”

            “Should we wake up JoJo?” Harrison asked.

            “No, she wouldn’t understand.”

            “Mom, I don’t think I understand.”

            “Let’s just let her sleep.”


            We returned to the main room and the same position we were in before.  The man who looked like Joe was now seated next to the fat man, but his head was in his hands and it looked like he was crying.  It amazed me that an angel could be so human, but it convinced me more than ever that this was not Joe.  I couldn’t remember ever seeing my husband cry.

            “Well, this is a special night,” the big man said, glancing around at the tree and other Christmas decorations.

            “Why is that?” I said cautiously.

            “Well, this is the night that the spirits of a Christmas past will be exorcised.  At least we hope so.” 

            So that's the idea, I thought to myself.  We need to forgive this creature masquerading as my husband, so we can put it all behind us.

            “What should I say to it?” I asked.  “I mean, to him.”

            The merry man looked at me askew, but said, “Well, he has to say something to you first.”  He then bopped the distraught man on the shoulder with his hand.

            “Joe” looked up, wiping tears from his eyes, and asked us for forgiveness.  Something else my husband had never done.  Despite myself, I started getting choked up.  I knew this wasn’t Joe, but it looked so much like him, and I had so often dreamed of hearing those words…

            “So now we say, ‘I forgive you?” I asked the curly-haired man, who looked at me funny again.

            “No, now you forgive him from your heart.  And you should also say it to him.”

            “Oh, so you’re saying that we actually need to forgive Joe, and not just act it out with…him,” I said, gesturing to the angel.  Now the man adjusted his colossal body in the seat, looking as irritated as such a jolly person could be.

            “Of course you need to forgive Joe—“ he started to say, but was interrupted by the other man.

            “Lauren, Harry, I know that this is hard—“ he said, but then he was interrupted too.

            “I don’t like being called Harry anymore,” the boy said.  “My father called me that.”

            At this the smaller visitor returned his head to his hands, and started sobbing again.

            “Well, this is going well,” the fat man said.  “Where is your little one?  Perhaps she can break the ice, or bridge the gap, or make the peace, or… whatever!  Where is she?”

            “Josephine is sleeping in her room,” I said.  “I don’t think she needs to be a part of this.”

            “Of course she does,” said the big man.  “She just might be your only hope, because she hasn’t been tainted by the hate and bitterness in this house.  In fact, I imagine this is the reason why God made her like He did.”

            “She was also the reason that Joe left,” I spat, resenting his reference to how my daughter was made. 

            “Right,” he said, pointing at me and smiling in a way that disarmed my aggression.  “And Joe is very sorry for all that.  Aren’t you, Joe?” 

            The other man nodded his head, which was still buried in his hands.

            I was now more confused than before, but before I could ask any more questions, we all noticed JoJo standing in the doorway to her bedroom, rubbing her eyes.  She was a beautiful blond-haired Downs Syndrome child, ten years old going on three.  Her father had left us when she was five, largely because his selfish heart couldn’t stand the thought of taking care of her for the rest of his life.

            JoJo stumbled across the room toward her Mama, but when her eyes cleared she caught sight of the smaller visitor, and stopped in her tracks.  Then she yelled “Dadda!”and ran straight into his arms.     

            I stood to my feet, saying “That’s not your Dadda, Jo.”

            The fat man stood also.  “What do you mean that’s not her Dadda?”

            “It’s my Dadda!” the little girl yelped, hugging the crying man.

            “Is that her Dadda?” I asked the big man.

            “Of course it’s her Dadda,” he said with a condescending frown.  “Who did you think it was?”

            “I thought he was…an angel,” I said.

            “An ang—“ the man started, then pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows, and started laughing.  He sat back down on the chair, and the whole thing shook violently as he continued to be amused, well beyond propriety.  Finally he calmed down, and said, “He’s no angel, sweetheart.  But he is a new man.”

            “I reached the end of myself, Lauren,” Joe said, recovered from his despondency by the embraces of his little girl, who knew no bitterness toward him, nor unforgiveness.  “I ended up in a homeless shelter, with no one in the world and nowhere to go.  This is the short version, of course, but I found the Lord there.”

            “Actually, the Lord found him,” the other man corrected my husband, nodding and knitting his brow like it was a very important point.

            “I knew I had to come back, to make things right,” Joe continued.  “But I felt so bad, I didn’t think I could face you.”  He snuggled with JoJo again, to refresh his courage.  “That’s when I met the minister here.  He was there at the shelter one day, and we talked about my situation.  He encouraged me to come back, and even told me he would drive me up here in his truck.  I don’t know if I could have done it without him.”

            “Well, I just wanted to help him make it here to ask for forgiveness,” the big man said to me, and to Harrison.  “But I also wanted to be here to help you to forgive him.”  He stared intently at us, as though waiting for an answer.

            “I do,” I said finally.  “We do.”  I looked at my son, who nodded soberly, realizing as I did that we should have done this long before.

            “Well, it won’t be easy to keep that promise,” the curly-haired stranger said. “But you can do it.”  Then he rose and moved toward the door, and before Joe and I could even talk about what was happening, we were seeing him off.  He refused our offers to stay, saying that he had other people to see before the holidays were over.

            He even left his truck for us to keep, insisting that he would not need it.  He walked off up the road into the darkness, holding his hair against his ears, but smiling despite the cold.

Are not all angels ministering spirits, sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?  Hebrews 1:14

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween is...Reformation Day?!

Many people don't know when Halloween started, or how it developed (I'm not sure myself).  But even fewer know that one of the most momentous events in history happened on October 31.

On that day in 1517 A.D., a German monk named Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses," or propositions, to a church door in Wittenburg.  This event kicked off the religious, cultural, and political movement called the Reformation, which some historians say impacted the course of the world more than any other event since the life and death of Jesus Christ himself.

The Reformation wasn’t really about breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, though that did end up happening in many places as a result.  The original “Reformers” didn’t want to destroy the Catholic Church, they wanted to reform it.  But what the Reformation was about, more than anything, was a re-discovery of the Bible's teaching about "salvation by faith alone,” and that is something that should be of interest to everyone, regardless of religious background or affiliation.

You see, the Bible says (over and over again) that we all need to be "saved."  This is because "all of us have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and "the payment for sin is death" (Romans 6:23).  Most of the people who lived at the time of the Reformation believed that God was real, and that one day He would judge the world.  (This was before we became so impressed with ourselves, that we now think we can explain everything without referencing God.) 

Because they knew that they would have to stand before God one day, the people of the Middle Ages were looking for a way to be sure that God would accept them, rather than condemning them in His righteous anger against evil.  And the conventional wisdom of the day was that they had to become righteous by performing religious works, which they hoped would be good enough for a perfect Deity.  They thought He would forgive their sins if they did enough "church stuff."

What Martin Luther, and the other Reformers discovered, was that the Bible says "no one can be saved by works" (Galatians 2:16), because none of us can be perfect, and none of us can wipe away the sins we have committed, no matter how hard we might try.  So the only way to be saved is to trust in Jesus Christ, who did live a perfect life, then died on the cross to pay the penalty we owe and rose from the dead as our representative.  He lived for us and died instead of us, so that God could freely forgive us, but still exercise His perfect justice. 

When we place our trust in Jesus as our Savior, and in gratitude commit ourselves to serve Him as our Lord, God declares us to be forgiven and perfect in His sight, because of what Christ did.  He treats us with nothing but love, as if we had never done anything wrong!  And even the bad things that happen to us will work together for our good in the end (Romans 8:28).  This is the good news, or "the gospel," which is the message of the whole Bible, and one that everyone needs to hear (whether we want to or not!).

If you are interested in learning more about this, or anything related to spiritual issues, I encourage you to contact or visit a church that believes the Bible and teaches the truths that were rediscovered in the Reformation.  I'm sure they'd love to meet you and help you in any way they can...I know our church would, if you're anywhere near Malvern, PA.
Happy Halloween!  And Happy Reformation Day!!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why the Apostles' Creed?

Several people have asked recently about the Apostles’ Creed—why we say it in our church every month on communion Sunday, and why we say it in a form that includes language that may be unusual for us and/or difficult to understand.  So I'd like to talk a little about the reasons we have been doing this, which hopefully will also shed some light on a broader vision for the purposes and practice of public worship among Christians.

First, to lay some foundation, let me reproduce here a section from our church's Vision/Prayer Project, put together by myself and our other leaders a few years ago:  "Pray that our Sunday worship would represent God accurately and reflect His Divine attributes in a balanced way, so that the members of the body and anyone who joins us would see Him in all His glory.  Pray that our worship would communicate both His transcendence and His immanence, the fact that He is both a God of the ages and a God of today, and the balance of formal order and informal spontaneity that is revealed in His creation.  (This is why elements of our worship are both “traditional” and “contemporary”—why we sing both old and new songs, for example, and offer some prayers that are scripted and some that are spontaneous.)"

Part of our vision for corporate worship is, and has always been, that some elements would intentionally communicate our connection with the past ages of church history, and that some of them would also be a bit difficult, and even uncomfortable for us, because they are designed to take us out of our comfort zone and remind us of attributes of God that we may not be familiar with.  So I actually hope and expect that some elements of our worship will “stretch” many of us and take us “out of our comfort zone” to one degree or another, as I’m sure the Apostles’ Creed does for some.  Of course, saying the Creed may be no problem for some, while other elements of the worship might be uncomfortable for them (like modern songs).  And that’s okay—in fact, it can be good—because we all tend to have a set of conceptions about God and the church that should be “stretched” as a part of the sanctification (Christian growth) that we all need, and we want to experience God in all His varied attributes and works, as the quote above says.

So why is the Apostles’ Creed itself worth saying, even with the exact words we have been using?  How does it help us to represent the truths that God is a God of the ages and that we are connected to the historical church that Jesus has been building since Pentecost (Matt. 16:18)?  Here are a few reasons that I think it is helpful for achieving those goals...

First, the Apostles’ Creed is probably the most used recitation, other than the Lord’s Prayer, in the history of the church.  It has been used by almost all denominations around the world since the fourth century, and probably before, and therefore is immediately recognizable as a part of Christian tradition.  We don’t do many things in our service, which contains mostly contemporary elements, to make that connection with the past, so doing this one thing once a month assures that we will make that connection regularly.  Second, it is one of the few things that we do that will be recognizable to people coming from a background in many historical church traditions, that will communicate to them that we are not some cult or innovative offshoot of historical Christianity, but a part of the same tree.  We don’t have to worry about being “overly traditional” or “worshipping the past,” because we have so many contemporary elements in our worship, but we do face the danger of not sufficiently connecting with the past.  Saying this recognized historic confession once a month helps us to do that on a regular basis.

I also think it’s good that the Apostles’ Creed, in the form we say it, has been a traditional part of worship in the Roman Catholic church.  We are not hesitant to criticize that church’s significant errors and identify ourselves as separate from it, but we also want to recognize that the medieval Roman Catholic church was part of the "family tree" that we are descended from, and that there were good things about it that we can celebrate rather than criticize.  So those who visit or attend with us who have a Roman Catholic background will recognize the Creed and its specific wording, and will see that we are not rejecting everything about that historic church.  And finally, the fact that some of the traditional wording is often misunderstood (like “descended into hell” and “holy catholic church”) should not keep us from using it…it’s important that we retain those words and explain them the right way.  We shouldn’t let terms like that be monopolized by those who teach error, but keep them and rescue them from distorted understandings.  An example would be that we don’t stop using the term “justification” simply because it has been used in the wrong way so many times…we keep using it in an accurate way to “win it back” from the false teachers.

Friday, May 31, 2013

I love this DVD!

Some Dickens novels I read first, then check out the movies, but some I watch first so I can have a picture in my mind of the characters and places, and then enjoy the nuances and details of Dickens' depiction. This one I've watched several times without reading the novel yet, and it's one of my favorites ever. Tom Wilkinson narrates Dickens' semi-autobiographical tale (an "exaggerated" and "edited" version of his life, we could call it), Daniel Ratcliffe plays the young David, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Macawber, Maggie Smith as Betsy Trotwood...what's not to like? And the rest of the characters and settings are just right too.

As a Christian, the icing on the cake for me is Dickens' propensity for illustrating God's sovereign providence, even over evil acts and persons, which causes "all things to work together for good." Some critics have said too many coincidences come together in Dickens to be believable, but I believe like he did that it happens all the time, though we may not see it from our limited vantage point. The fictional narrator is able to see it, however, so we can too as we watch the events unfold through his eyes.

An example is the terrific scene where Miss Trotwood tells off Mr. Murdstone and his sister, saving David from a fate worse than death. She can "peg" the abusive husband because she endured one herself in the past, and she has the passion and resolve to stand up to him for the same reason. The hand of providence used her past misfortune to insure a bright future for David, and provide a greater measure of redemption and meaning for her own life as well.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Proving Our Point -- Discussion Between a Believer and Some (Un?)believers

The other day an agnostic/atheist friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook that said, "No evidence exists to support any claim that the Jews were ever enslaved by the Egyptians, not one single piece of evidence!  Just another lie in the Bible!" Then this discussion ensued, which I thought you might find interesting:

Me:  First, I'm not even sure that's true...I'd have to check on it. But even if it is, remember skeptics said that for years about the Hittites, the Edomites, written documents at the time of Moses, etc.--all which have been proven by modern archaelogy, which by the way has never disproven any claim of Scripture.

Brenda:  It is interesting that there is no evidence of over a million (conservative estimate) people wandering around the Sinai for 40 years at the time of Moses.  You would think that some evidence would be found, especially since they know where to look. I removed my christian blinders towards evidence when I left the religion.  I was always inclined toward science and investigation, and coming out as atheist was just an acknowledgement of reality for me.  I truly tried to see the magic and miracles, but there is no evidence.

Me:  I'd say you simply put your faith in something else, dear friend.  We all rely on something or someone for our conclusions about what is true and not true. But I still love you just as much, and always will.  If you ever open up to it again, consider the idea that the Bible itself teaches that obviously supernatural "sign" miracles would only happen at certain times in history, and we should not expect them to be happening now in the same way they did at times in the past.

Chuck:  Dave, I just have to ask why you think miracles happened then but not now. That is not logical.

Me:  Hi Chuck... Here's a brief answer for you: Even in the times while the Bible was being written, they did not happen continually, but only during certain periods of time when God was revealing his Word (Moses, prophets, Jesus and apostles). Hebrews 2:3-4 and 2 Cor. 12:12 say that supernatural signs (meaning obvious miracles beyond what God normally does) were given for the purpose of validating those who were speaking and writing God's special revelation, which is contained in the Bible. Now that the Bible is complete, that purpose is no longer necessary so we shouldn't expect such signs and wonders. I believe this is what Paul was saying in 1 Cor. 13 when he says prophecies and tongues will cease...I know that's disputed by many Christians, but I think a very good case can be made for it. If you want to read more about the basis for this understanding see Victor Budgeon's book Charismatics and the Word of God or my book Decisions, Decisions--How and How Not to Make Them. Thanks for asking!

Chuck:  Dave, the bible is a select set of parables put together by one man for distribution and control of the people. many other "books" were written but not included in the bible you are refering too. Christians don't seem to get they are entitled to their own beliefs up to the point where you start using them to judge others, there by assuming others beliefs should be the same as yours when they often are not. I appreciate your attempt to educate me and give me guidance but it is not necessary. I grew up being fed the meal that is the bible and at this point, I see it as having been turned and twisted into a book of hate by people who claim to be informed. The fact of the matter is at the time all these "miracles" and stories were written the minds of the people themselves were much simpler and more easily guided into beliefs. It makes you feel safe and warm when you can say no matter what I do, I only have to be forgiven for my wrongs, by a non-corporeal entity that can neither approve nor disapprove my actions, but since I believe I am forgiven I must be. Regardless of the harm caused in the wake of your actions. NO LOGIC AT ALL.

Me:  It's interesting that you mention what we call "the gospel," Chuck. The apostles said that would be a major dividing line between people...the idea of being justified by faith alone, or a "legal fiction" as the Roman Catholic Council of Trent called what the Reformers were rediscovering from the New Testament. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, "The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." You're right...I definitely do want to believe that Christ paid the penalty for all my sins on the cross, but that doesn't necessarily make that "divine logic" wrong. I know this might be offensive to you (Paul said that some would be offended too), but I'm not offended by you saying I have "no logic at all." I appreciate the opportunity for frank, direct, and respectful dialogue, and will pray that if there is a God, he will bless you with his grace.

Chuck:  Thank you for proving my point Dave.

I thought of saying, "And thank you for proving Paul's." But I just said "You're welcome."

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lord, Have Mercy on This Town (Song for Sonoma)

(I wrote this song/poem in 2001, when I was a church planting pastor in the "wild west" of the northern California wine country. The tune is a cross between "The House of the Rising Sun" and "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone":)

Lord, have mercy on this town
It’s so lost, can it be found?
Though I know I’m just one man
Won’t You use me if you can
Lord, have mercy on this town

Lord, have mercy on this town
Can You loose what has it bound?
Though I know I’m filled with flaws
I’m the long arm of Your law
Lord, have mercy on this town

I watch the vultures circle high above the valley floor
The life below that bids them stay one day will be no more
Descending with a lust for blood, by justice not delayed
They’ll feast upon the dead…
‘Til the penalty is paid

Lord, have mercy on this town
Break apart its fallow ground
Though I know I’m just a fool
Won’t You use me as Your tool
Lord, have mercy on this town

Stung by the summer heat I saw of a vision of this land
Saloon and bank and farm and stagecoach covered by the sand
But then the ground was moving and the dust was swirling high
The bones became a man…
And that man became alive!

He said, “Unless you die, you can never live.
“And before you can take...
you must learn to give.”

Lord, have mercy on this town
Spread Your gracious love around
Though I’m not sure where to go
Won’t You use my hands to sow
Lord, have mercy on this town

Lord, have mercy on this town
(I watch the vultures circle high above the valley floor)
Will its wounds yet be unwound?
(The life below that bids them stay one day will be no more)
Lord, it looks like harvest time
Grow some fruit among these vines
Lord, have mercy on this town
(Stung by the summer heat I saw a vision of this land)
Judgment day it’s going down
(Saloon and bank and farm and stagecoach covered by the sand)
When I stand before Your throne
I don’t want to stand alone
Lord, have mercy on this town
(I watch the vultures circle high above the valley floor…)

Yes, when I stand before Your throne
I don’t want to stand alone
Lord, have mercy on this town