...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Thu, 30 Oct 2014 07:57:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer no The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer) 2006-2009 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Screwtape on the Existence of Demons Thu, 30 Oct 2014 04:01:29 +0000 cslewiswritingatdesk

Whenever we consider the subject of demonology, it is hard to ignore the contributions of C.S. Lewis. In the modern era, few have stimulated the imagination with regard to the spiritual realm as much as the author of The Screwtape Letters. The book, dedicated to his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien, begins with two quotes:

The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn. (Luther)

The devill . . . the prowde spirite . . . cannot endure to be mocked. (Thomas More)

This Lewis proceeds to do in masterful literary fashion. Through witty epistles, he captures the cleverness and wiles of Satan’s agents as well as their ultimate shortsightedness and folly. This series of letters and memos comes from a senior demon (Screwtape) to a younger protege, his nephew Wormwood — a “Junior Tempter” — regarding Wormwood’s assignment to damn the soul of a human being known only as “the Patient.”

A portion of one of the letters pertinent to our discussions this week deals with modern humanity’s view of the existence of spirits and the Devil. Here is Screwtape’s counsel about how to best exploit that.

My Dear Wormwood,

I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The “Life Force”, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work – the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” – then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.

Chapter VII

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Luther: Living in a “Halloween” World Wed, 29 Oct 2014 04:30:54 +0000 Werwolf (detail), Cranach

Werwolf (detail), Cranach


And though this world with devils fill’d
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath will’d
His truth to triumph through us.

• Martin Luther, trans. Frederick Hedge

Brother Martin lived in God’s presence, but they were generally three, for the Devil was seldom absent.

G.W. Foote

• • •

The world in which Martin Luther lived and led a Reformation was a magical one in which spirits filled the common imagination. The woodcut above by Lucas Cranach (1512), who later did many illustrations on behalf of Reformation causes, pictures a folkloric world of dark woods and the threatening presence of mythic creatures like the werewolf, here seen devouring a peasant woman’s family. Halloween was not a dress-up holiday to them, but an ever-present imaginative reality.

In Heiko A. Oberman’s remarkable study of the Reformer, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, the author contends that we cannot understand the good monk without accepting that he was a man “raised with the devil.” Oberman argues that it was not only his mother, whom Luther’s enemies described as a backwards peasant woman who introduced young Martin to a world full of demons. Indeed, the rumor they spread included the tale that the boy was conceived in a bathhouse through intercourse between his mother and the Devil himself! But belief in spirits and witchcraft and the devil were not simply the superstitions of ignorant peasants. Oberman says even the most erudite humanists of the time maintained such beliefs.

Today, I share with you a quote from Heiko A. Oberman, setting forth Luther’s mindset.

Luther’s world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over church and world. No one can evade involvement in this struggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge — neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness offer him a chance for escape. The Devil is the omnipresent threat, and exactly for this reason the faithful need the proper weapons for survival.

There is no way to grasp Luther’s milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan’s power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ — and Luther’s faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of his time.

Attempts are made to offer excuses for Luther by pointing out that he never doubted the omnipotence of God and thus determined only narrow limits for the Devil’s activities. Luther himself would have been outraged at this view: the omnipotent God is indeed real, but as such hidden from us. Faith reaches not for God hidden but for God revealed, who, incarnate in Christ, laid himself open to the Devil’s fury. At Christmas God divested himself of his omnipotence — the sign given the shepherds was a child “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12) . To Luther Christmas was the central feast: “God for us.” But that directly implies “the Devil against us.” This new belief in the Devil is such an integral part of the Reformation discovery that if the reality of the powers inimical to God is not grasped, the incarnation of Christ, as well as the justification and temptation of the sinner, are reduced to ideas of the mind rather than experiences of faith. That is what Luther’s battle against the Devil meant to convey. Centuries separate Luther from a modern world which has renounced and long since exorcised the Devil, thus finding it hard to see the difference between this kind of religion and medieval witchcraft. But Luther distinguished sharply between faith and superstition. He understood the hellish fears of his time, then discovered in the Scriptures the true thrust and threat of Satan and experienced himself the Devil’s trials and temptations. Consequently he, unlike any theologian before or after him, was able to disperse the fog of witches’ sabbath and sorcery and show the adversary for what he really was: violent toward God, man and the world. To make light of the Devil is to distort faith. “The only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian.”’

macbr131The following chronicle of his own encounter with the Devil as a poltergeist has a clearly medieval ring:

It is not a unique, unheard-of thing for the Devil to thump about and haunt houses. In our monastery in Wittenberg I heard him distinctly. For when I began to lecture on the Book of Psalms and I was sitting in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage chamber [the area behind the stove] as if dragging a bushel away. Finally, as it did not want to stop, I collected my books and went to bed. I still regret to this hour that I did not sit him out, to discover what else the Devil wanted to do. I also heard him once over my chamber in the monastery.

The final passage, with its pointed formulation and its underlying expression of contempt for the Devil, was amazing at the time and is overlooked today: “But when I realized that it was Satan, I rolled over and went back to sleep again.” It is not as a poltergeist that the Devil discloses his true nature, but as the adversary who thwarts the Word of God; only then is he really to be feared. He seeks to capture the conscience, can quote the Scriptures without fault, and is more pious than God — that is satanical.

When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins — not fabricated and invented ones — for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny [in my response to the Devil], but want to acknowledge and confess.

Luther’s purpose is not to spread fear but to strengthen the resistance of the faithful. Like Christ, the Devil is omnipresent. He acts and reacts, is drawn and challenged by anything that smacks of Christ and true faith. Here is found a radical deviation from the medieval concept of the Devil, according to which the evil one is drawn by the smell of sin, the sin of worldly concern. In Luther’s view, it is not a life dedicated to secular tasks and worldly business that attracts and is targeted by the Devil. On the contrary, where Christ is present, the adversary is never far away: “When the Devil harasses us, then we know ourselves to be in good shape!”. . .

(p. 104f)


What can we learn from Luther and his thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and actions regarding the Devil and the spirit world? Are these to be viewed merely as remnants of a bygone age of medieval superstition? Or does he have things to say which can inform and assist us in our lives today?

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Another Look: Writers Roundtable on Halloween Tue, 28 Oct 2014 04:45:13 +0000 halloween-18-e1411574206439

Note from CM: In 2010, Jeff Dunn solicited responses from our IM writers on the subject of Halloween. We had a great discussion, and I thought it worthy of repeating this week.

• • •


Ok, so that didn’t scare you. Maybe this will. I have five of the six iMonk writers sitting around a table right now, and they all look very scary. And Adam hasn’t even put on his mask yet.

We wanted to have some fun with this roundtable, but also touch on some serious issues. If you are new round these parts, or have forgotten who is who, allow me to introduce to you the greatest group of blog writers on the entire internet. Starting on my right, there is our editorial director, Chaplain Mike. Then there is Lisa Dye, Mike Bell, Damaris Zehner, and Adam Palmer. We excused Joe Spann as he and the Mrs. have a newborn baby that seems to be more important to him than participating in our roundtable.

Snacks today include one of my favorites this time of year: A bowl with salted peanuts and candy corn mixed together. Grab a handful, pop it in your mouth, and you’ll swear you’re eating a PayDay candy bar. We also have some apples, some popcorn, and what’s this? Mulled cider? Now we’re talking!

creepy_halloween_costumes_006_10282013Jeff Dunn: So let me start this off by asking if you think Halloween might be the most Christian of all holidays. Or is it totally evil and to be avoided by followers of Jesus? Lisa?

Lisa Dye: I’ve never viewed Halloween as a Christian holiday. As a kid, I just enjoyed it. I looked forward to it for a variety of reasons – getting more candy than I was allowed to have any other time of year, the opportunity to dress up, the fun of meeting neighbors or going door-to-door with a group of friends and the fact that fall, with its crisp air and beautiful foliage, is my favorite time of year.

It wasn’t until I became a Christian that I began to view Halloween with the seemingly required suspicion, bordering on revulsion, that most churches advocated. So, I reigned in my overt enthusiasm, kept my children’s costumes decidedly unghoulish and visited only immediate neighbors and family for the candy haul. Later on, I read bits and pieces about the history of Halloween and realized that some aspects of it is rooted in Christian tradition. By no means have I made an in-depth study, but generally I think Halloween, as we see it today, is a conglomeration of customs from around the world combining pagan and Christian traditions.

Chaplain Mike: James Jordan’s article on Halloween helped me understand the Christian history and background of the holiday. If we would emphasize these traditions of mocking the devil by dressing up and celebrating his defeat through joy and laughter, it could go a long way toward helping today’s believers grasp a purpose for celebrating it.

But to me, the big change in the U.S. with regard to Christians and Halloween has been the creation of the evangelical subculture in the last forty years. This has paralleled the development of suburban culture, the loss of neighborhoods and communities, and the radical division of America through the culture wars. Churches have been transformed into the spiritual equivalent of walled communities –activity centers where Christians engage in a full program of “ministries” just for them. This keeps them separated from the world that they see as harmful to the life of faith.

LD: If Christians want a stake in the holiday and to be a force for change in how Halloween is viewed and celebrated, we should avoid perpetuating the negative campaign of the last few decades. Whatever is true and good and beautiful will attract and not repel. That we as Christ followers have authority over Satan and his domain is true and good. That the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church and that saints have inherited victory in union with Jesus Christ is something to celebrate.

Mike Bell: I have never really viewed Halloween as a Christian holiday, despite the evidence to the contrary. Growing up we lived in a rural neighbourhood of 100 houses. Halloween was understood to be a fun time to dress up, get candy, and visit with neighbours. We always stayed away from the really scary stuff, and we have encouraged our children in the same way. Incidentally, now living in a city, Halloween is one of the few times we get to interact with our neighbours. Have we abdicated it to the world and should we fight to take it back? Abdication I think is a good word, as I don’t think it is/was a Christian holiday worth fighting for. I am disappointed with how it has been changing from being associated with fun to being associated with evil.

CM: When I grew up in small Midwest America, people were much more integrated into a community. We knew our neighbors and participated with them in a common culture that included holidays like Halloween. In fact, I live in a town that still values community. Our neighborhood has the most robust Halloween and trick-or-treat traditions I have ever seen. We have so many children and families come by that the police direct traffic.

I could go to church on Halloween and miss that; turn my lights out, get in my car and drive to some church, to participate in activities at a family-friendly Christian activity center. But why would I want to do that, when I can light the pumpkins, sit out on the porch, meet and greet my neighbors, smile at their kids’ creative costumes, hand out candy, and enjoy an evening when so many people are out on the sidewalks having fun and feeling part of the community?

JD: Adam?

Adam Palmer: The only holidays I see as explicitly Christian are Easter and Christmas, and that probably has to do with my non-denominational, evangelical background. I didn’t grow up in any sort of organized denomination, so while I understand that All Souls Day and All Saints Day exist, they are not a point of emphasis for me. To my Bible-belted mind, those are “church” holidays, not “Christian” holidays.

If we’re going to defend Halloween in modern times by trotting out its origin(s), do we then have to nix Christmas because it has the musty smell of pagan ritual in its origin story? That would make the most logical sense, but I don’t think we should do it. It comes down to culture. Our North American culture has decided what Halloween is now. I can have my kids go along with the fun stuff (dressing up! candy! dressing up as candy!) and use the other stuff (scary monsters! blood and guts! haunted houses!) as a means of teaching them about our history and our faith.

Damaris Zehner: I don’t see it as a Christian holiday. If we’re going to redeem lost Christian holidays, I’d vote for All Saints Day anyway. Vaughn Williams’ hymn “For All the Saints” is one of the masterpieces of Christian hymnody and should have a day all to itself. Although Halloween is related to All Saints Day, I don’t think it counts as a legitimate Christian celebration but is more of a superstition, a syncretic reaction to the genuine Christian doctrine of eternal life.

Old Timey Frankenstein and Devil Halloween CostumeJD: Let’s assume that all of agree that Satan is a real person, or force, or however you want to refer to him. Are demons real as well? Are they active in our world today? Damaris, you look like you are ready to answer that.

DZ: Yes, demons are real. I don’t know specifically how, but I suspect that Satan’s nicknames give us the hint: father of lies and the accuser.

AP: Are demons real? I would have to say yes. Now, I’m not the type of guy who sees demons ’round every corner or thinks that all little boys who can’t sit still need to have a demon cast out of them. I used to be, but not anymore.

However! I spent almost a year living in Uganda, a place where witchcraft is a real thing. Children were regularly abducted to be used in ritual sacrifices. Every night at ten and midnight, when the witch doctors offered those sacrifices, all the dogs in our city would start barking exactly together, and stop together. People sought out witch doctors to cast spells for healing, spells for financial blessing, spells to have some hated person blow a tire on a dangerous stretch of road. This actually happened to a friend of mine.

Having lived in a spiritually heavy country, I have to say that yes, demons are real and have power to affect the lives of human beings.

JD: Wow. I remember one night getting a request for urgent prayer from your wife on Facebook. When I asked her what was going on, she told me about the abductions that occurred almost nightly. You can believe I did some time before God after hearing that.

MB: I believe that demons are real. I feel that we are so engrossed in our affluent North American society, that Satan has not had to worry much about us. We have already sold out to the gods of consumerism and self-indulgence, so that the spiritual realm has very little meaning to us. In other parts of the world where I have lived, or in the poorest neighborhoods of Canada, I have experienced quite a different story.

CM: I believe in a spiritual realm that is present, though mostly invisible to us. Ephesians calls this “the heavenly places,” and affirms that there are “powers,” both good and evil that are active in this realm. I don’t understand much about that realm, and the Bible gives us glimpses that whet our curiosity, but don’t allow us a detailed understanding.

I do know that Jesus has defeated the powers through his death and resurrection. I also know that there is a continuing battle in which believers play a part. I think C.S. Lewis was wise when he said that there are two dangerous approaches when we think about these powers: (1) to say they don’t exist, (2) to give undue attention to them. If for some reason, I would be in a situation of having to deal with one of these powers openly, I would claim Christ’s victory, quote Scripture, and sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

LD: Anyone who reads my posts can discern that I take Scripture fairly literally. That’s not to say I don’t see metaphor and other literary devices in it, but I do believe Satan is real, as are demons. At first, I believed in their existence as a matter of faith. Later, a few experiences solidified my belief, however I don’t think satanic or demonic activity should be blamed every time something bad happens. Bad happenings are part and parcel of living in a fallen world. We all suffer the consequences of our own actions and the actions of others.

The gospels provide examples of how Satan and his demons worked then and, no doubt, work now. Satan is an accuser, deceiver and tempter — a destroyer of men’s souls. Demons possess, oppress and afflict humans and animals with disease, mental illness, outrageous behaviors and may even facilitate accidents or influence people to harm themselves. They speak. They have personality and they sometimes manifest physically. From the book of Daniel, we can see that demons hindered angelic messengers from reaching Daniel. Demonic and angelic activity in unseen dimensions affects circumstances on earth.

HalloweenCostume1950'sJD: Very good points, Lisa. The story in Daniel of how the archangel Michael fought the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” for 21 days always keeps me humble when I think I can command Satan to do this or that, or not do this or that as the case may be. We have all heard preachers who seemingly want to cast demons out of anyone who is slightly ill, or anything that may cause them an inconvenience. When is the right time to cast out demons? How do we know it is a demon and not just the flu?

MB: I wrote two posts on this issue, one about my experiences with mental illness, published at Internet Monk, and one about my very limited experiences posted at

I would recommend reading them as they really help to clarify the differences. In the first post I gave an example from personal experience about mental illness where I felt that it could be shown that there was no spiritual component. Just to set the record straight, in 46 years in the church I have had just one experience with the demonic. Only one. I am not the type to see a demon behind every bush. But I have had one experience that I think can help us understand how Jesus knew when people needed healing or needed a demon cast out of them. In short, a spiritual issue is spiritually discerned.

AP: Thank the Lord for the Holy Spirit, because He is our informant. Wondering what to do with this person who is acting abnormally? Pray about it. Seek God. He’ll let you know how to proceed. Maybe you need to put on your vomit-proof poncho and get exorcising, or maybe you need to put on your vomit-proof poncho and reach for the antibiotics (I have four kids, one on the way–I know all about vomit-proof ponchos).

JD: Thanks, Adam. No more peanuts and candy corn for me. Lisa?

LD: Knowing when demonic activity is occurring requires discernment and discernment comes from the Holy Spirit. 1 John 4:1, 2 gives instructions for testing spirits to learn their origin. Many years ago when I was suffering a depression, I realized that the ‘self-talk’ I was engaging in was not from me and it wasn’t from the Lord. When I finally tested the spirit behind what I was thinking, I realized I was being influenced by a false spirit. From there I could apply the truth of what God said in his word to refute these things, much as Jesus did during his time of testing in the wilderness. Renewing my mind that way ultimately led to overcoming what could have destroyed me, but it was a long, slow process.

It seems there would be some gifted and more suited to a ministry of exorcism than others, but that doesn’t allow us to abdicate our responsibility to maintain the culture of heaven on earth. If we encounter demonic spirits , we should subdue them and, if necessary, find help in doing it. If we have the person of Jesus Christ alive in us, we have his authority. His Spirit guides us into truth and empowers us.

Jesus also said that some kinds of demonic spirits only come out of people by intercessory prayer and fasting, so that would indicate the believer involving himself in an exorcism needs to be willing to pay a price spiritually. I have heard of a few cases where the process took a long time and was grueling hard work.

DZ: How do we know if it’s a demon or the flu? Wait three to five days, and if symptoms don’t improve, call your . . . Exorcist? I think mostly the family doctor will do. The Catholic church has only twelve certified exorcists in America, while there are hugely more medical doctors. I think that distribution reflects the reality of stubborn demonic possession pretty well.

JD: Chaplain, your thoughts?

CM: I don’t know. What I know is that Jesus cares about the person, no matter the source of the problem, and that the Word and Spirit will minister to him or her regardless. So I pray, and love, and serve.

JD: Excellent. Can’t do any better than that. Next question. The term “spiritual warfare” has been misused to the point I’m not sure what real spiritual warfare should look like today. Where is the war, and do I need to enlist?

CM: You enlisted when Jesus brought you into his family. In our tradition (Lutheran), the baptism liturgy includes renouncing the devil and his works. As to what “spiritual warfare” looks like, I think the Book of Acts pictures it as well as anything. For the most part, it appears to be about proclaiming the Good News of Jesus and the opposition that provokes. It’s not usually about my tummy ache or ingrown toenail. It’s not about politics or the culture war. It’s about spreading light through the darkness, and the darkness fighting its demise.

trickortreatkidsDZ: The first step of spiritual warfare is to keep your eyes on the Prince of Peace. And the last step, too. I think the phrase “spiritual warfare” is best used to describe the feelings of struggle Christians have as they mature spiritually. Once people try to develop spiritual warfare into a blow-by-blow account of a supernatural Waterloo or Midway, they’re going to descend into silliness, a la Frank Peretti.

AP: Oh, don’t get Jeff going on Peretti. We’ll be here all night listening to how bad of a writer he is.

JD: Just five minutes, Adam?

AP: You asked if we have to enlist in the spiritual war. If you’re a Christian, you’ve enlisted. Man, I’ve fallen into just about every possible ditch when it comes to Christian-ish stuff. I’ve made tons of things the focus of my faith: end times, prosperity, demonology, numerology, healing… you name it. When it comes to spiritual warfare, it’s really easy to start seeing demons influencing everything, but I think that probably gives the devil far too much credit. These days, I prefer to do my best to keep my focus on Jesus and trust that, if I need to give any of that other stuff my attention (say, when a child of mine gets sick inexplicably), he will guide my prayers to that area. Other than that, I’m doing good just getting through the day.

LD: The term ‘spiritual warfare’ is a reference to 2 Corinthians 10:4,5: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” This speaks to the personal experience I wrote about in question three. If there is a primary inroad that Satan or demons have into our lives, it’s through our minds.

A particular stronghold in me that keeps getting rebuilt and torn down and rebuilt is fear. Succumbing to fearful thoughts and the remembrance of past fear-inducing experiences can paralyze me and make me ineffective. If I analyze my thought processes, I can see that stubbornly clinging to beliefs that defy God’s word is pretension setting itself up against the knowledge of God. Wars are won one battle at a time. For me, spiritual warfare is usually dealing with my errant thoughts and taking them captive one at a time. After a long time of relatively fear free living, its something I’m once again encountering. I can’t say I’m having an easier time of it even with all my past experience.

CM: Lisa, thanks for being willing to be vulnerable and share your experiences with us.

JD: Luther, Lewis and others have said the best way to drive the devil away is to laugh at him. Still good advice? (Well, Luther had another method, one that involved burrito abuse…)

LD: Frivolity and flatulence, hmmm Jeff? Well, I’m willing to give those a try.

DZ: Yes, being laughed at is effective against him and good for us.

AP: Yeah, I remember that quote from Thomas More at the beginning of The Screwtape Letters, about “the devil, the prowde spirite, cannot endure to be mocked.” And I do love that book. But I also think of what Lewis wrote in the introduction to “Screwtape proposes a toast,” about how writing it was such an endurance test to him, that it wasn’t a joy, that it was all “dust, grit, thirst, and itch.” And I think that I should really just do my best to focus on Jesus. If I’m going to fall into a ditch, that’s the one to fall into.

Can I tell a story? When we lived in Uganda, we traveled to do some ministry with a short-term missions team, and while we were gone we picked up some bug (I think it was in the passion fruit juice at the hotel–we should’ve known better). Anyway, we were on our way back, and my entire family started getting vomitous and weak. We went to the doctor and started getting on medication, and in the meantime I spoke to the missions team leader on the phone. “Well,” she said, “God must really have something big planned for you guys. Otherwise, why would the devil attack you so hard?”

Now this is not the first time I’ve heard this. I’ve heard it from friends and family. I’ve heard it from my own mouth. Explaining some out-of-the-blue hardship with the words, “God must have something big in store for you.”

But doesn’t this give the devil far more credit than he deserves? Is he omniscient like God? Can he see ahead in my life? Does he know what’s coming up? Is he trying to get all Terminator in my life, to kill the John Connor in me before it grows up to defeat him? I’m not sure, but I think that isn’t the case. I think he’s full of himself, that he’s crafty, and he gets far more of a kick in leading mass groups astray by offering up some slightly twisted faith than he does out of making my family sick.

Maybe I’m wrong. In fact, I’m sure I don’t see the big picture here. Which is why I say again: I’m probably going to fall into a ditch, so I’m going to focus on Jesus and let Him be the ditch I fall into.

CM: Laughter, and the holy hand grenade, “that by it, Thou mayest blow thine enemies to bits. In thy mercy.”

Yes, I really liked James Jordan’s emphasis on mocking the devil and celebrating Christ’s victory over the powers of evil through joy and laughter.

JD: Well, now you know I will have to post that Monty Python clip at the end of this essay. One … Two … Five!

AP: Three.

JD: Three! Should Christians avoid watching horror movies, reading Stephen King novels, listening to groups like Marilyn Manson and Slipknot because we might be influenced by Satan? Can a Christian be led astray by Satan if he is truly seeking after the Lord?

DZ: I don’t know if horror movies, etc., influence us satanically, but I am suspicious of our motivations for watching or listening to a lot of those things. Why do we want to see horrible things? Why do we slow down to check out a car accident site? Why do we read gruesome stories in newspapers that have nothing to do with us? I won’t say anything about others’ motivations, but I know that my own in these cases are not godly. The creepy curiosity that I feel is much more like the temptation to participate in juicy gossip than it is pity or concern.

I think we can always be led astray but at the same time we can always trust Jesus to answer us when we call on him.

LD: Paul says, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” I think the decision to watch or not to watch, to read or not to read, to listen or not to listen needs to happen on an individual basis. Some people will be disturbed or influenced negatively by doing these things. Others won’t be. The two questions we can answer to help us determine if something is a good choice are, “Will this help me in some way?  and Is there a chance I’ll be captivated or enslaved by this activity?

I’m looking for a book by Stephen King called On Writing right now because I think he’s good at what he does even if his work isn’t always my taste. As a kid I was enthralled with stories of King Arthur and Merlin — magical things that Christians frowned upon. I can’t see that it hurt me in any way or led me away from pursuing Christ. At the same time, I can’t see any benefit for me in watching, reading or listening to gratuitous horror so I don’t, but I don’t think it should be censored. I’m also aware that my thoughts have changed over the years on lots of different subjects, so there’s always the possibility.

phone-headCM: I don’t care for anything that celebrates evil or advocates its practices, so I would avoid things like that. But I agree with Michael Spencer, who said, “Whether they be fairy tales or silly horror movies, the imaginative realm is a reflection of human beings’ ability to create their own worlds, with realities that reflect the depth of nature and the realities of good, evil, hope and redemption.” I would not be a separatist when it comes to literature or other expressions of creativity and imagination, even though they might include elements some would consider objectionable.

AP: The media you consume is a choice you make between you and God, unless you are under your parents’ authority, in which case you should respect them enough to play by their rules. I will say this, though: the moment I start justifying media decisions to myself or to someone else is usually the moment I realize I’m making the wrong decision and shouldn’t be partaking of that particular piece of media. But I’m all for self-monitoring, and it works. My two oldest kids, ages 11 and 9, are good at this. They have been in the midst of reading books they liked and have set them aside because they felt like it wasn’t right for them at that time.

MB: Garbage in, garbage out. I do enjoy scary movies that are not too gruesome, but my wife does not. So I tend not to watch them anymore.

JD: That is the best motive, Mike–making your choice so that it will not influence another in a negative way. Ok, let’s wrap this up with one last question. What are you dressing up as for this year? And what is the best costume you have ever donned for Halloween? (Ok, that was two questions…)

CM: If I were dressing up, I’d love to have the costume Adam Braverman (actor Peter Krause) wore in the most recent episode of the TV show, Parenthood. He wore one of the old “Black Sox” uniforms and went trick-or-treating as Shoeless Joe Jackson. It was sharp.

As a kid I went through a phase when I loved horror movies, subscribed to horror magazines, and built monster models. I decided to be “The Mummy” for Halloween. Only trouble was we had to walk to school, and by the time I got there, I was mostly unwrapped and carrying a bundle of cloth strips. I must have looked a little like Lazarus, post-resuscitation.

JD: I would have liked to have seen that!

DZ: I don’t know that we’ll dress up this year. My favorite Halloween costume was a spur-of-the-moment one. I was in graduate school and went to a party with the rest of the literature department. It was only when I arrived at the apartment where the party was held that I realized it was a costume party. I got a big mixing bowl, put it on my head, and said I was Virginia Woolf. (In A Room of One’s Own, she describes herself as a thought in the cranium of the British Museum’s stately dome.) I realize you had to be there — and you had to have been spending all day and night with literature. Well, THEY liked it . . .

AP: I get it, Damaris. And it kind of scares me that I do get it.

I usually don’t know what I’m dressing up as until hours before I have to wear a costume. The best costume I’ve ever seen was on my friend David, when he wore his normal clothes (black t-shirt, jeans, sneakers) and a fake mustache. “Who are you dressed up as, David?” I asked. His response: “My own evil twin.”

LD: I’m not sure I will dress up. My grown kids have all moved back in state after a few years of living away. My three grandchildren will come dressed for me to see them. Four year old Eva will be a Disney princess. Her twin brother will be Iron Man and two week old Annabelle hasn’t told me what she is planning to wear.

MB: Dressing up is pretty much mandatory where I work. I haven’t figured out my costume this year yet, but last year I went as an aging rockstar.

The best costume I ever donned was a giant pumpkin. A word of warning to all of you. Never try square dancing when dressed as a giant pumpkin. That, however, is a story for another day.

JD: You know, Mike, somehow I believe you that that is not a good idea.

Thanks to each of you for your ideas and insights. Let’s open it up to the iMonks for the topic of our next roundtable. If we don’t get any good ones, we can go with my fallback: Explain to me the meaning of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Happy Halloween, everyone! As Orson Welles said at the end of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, “So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and there’s no one there, that was no Martian…it’s Halloween.”

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iMonk Classic: The Annual Halloween Rant (one of them) Mon, 27 Oct 2014 04:01:15 +0000 house_on_haunted_hill_poster_02

As October 31st looms, it’s time for true confessions.

I grew up among Southern Baptist fundamentalist Baptists. The KJV-only, women can’t wear pants, twenty verses of “Just As I Am,” Jerry Falwell, Jack Chick, twice a year revival kind of fundamentalist Baptists.

We were serious about things like beer. By sheer quantity of attention in sermons, drinking beer was the most evil act one could describe. We were serious about movies, cards, and something called “mixed bathing,” which normal people would call “swimming.”

We were serious about the Bible, Sunday School, suits and ties, and walking the aisle to get saved.

And we were big time into Halloween.

No, that’s not a typo. I said we were big time into Halloween.

From the late sixties into the early seventies, the churches I attended and worked for — all fundamentalist Baptists — were all over Halloween like ants on jam. It was a major social activity time in every youth group I was part of from elementary school through high school graduation in 1974.

vincentPRICEdoubleWe had haunted houses. Haunted hikes. Scary movies. (All the old Vincent Price duds.) As a youth minister in the mid to late seventies and early eighties, I created some haunted houses in church education buildings that would win stagecraft awards.

The kids loved it. The parents loved it. The pastors approved. The church paid for it!

No, this wasn’t “Judgment House” or “Hell House” or whatever else evangelicals have done with a similar skill set today. It was fun. Simple, old-fashioned, fun. No one tried to fly a broom or talk to the dead. Everyone tried to have fun. Innocent play in the name of an American custom.

And then, things changed.

Mike Warnke convinced evangelicals that participating in Halloween was worshiping the devil. Later, when we learned that Warnke may have been one of the most skillful of evangelical con-artists, lying about his entire Satanic high priest schtick, the faithful still believed his stories.

Evangelical media began to latch onto Halloween as some form of Satanism or witchcraft, and good Christians were warned that nothing made the other team happier than all those kids going door to door collecting M&Ms.

Evangelical parents decided that their own harmless and fun Halloween experiences were a fluke, and if their kid dressed up as a vampire, he’d probably try to become one. If there was a pumpkin on the porch, you were inviting demons into your home, just like it says in Hezekiah.

A general fear of the occult, manifesting itself in Satanic ritual abuse mythology, crept into evangelicalism and took a deep hold on many churches.

Occult ministries exploited these fears, and ministries like Bob Larson found it was profitable and powerful to make rock music, drug use, occult worship and Halloween one big package.

Today, if you want to split your church, divide your singles group, get a fight started with parents or see the youth minister fired, just find some way to have an old-fashioned Halloween event in your church.

In the ministry where I serve, we can’t have fall festivals. Putting out a pumpkin is risky. Any costume other than dressing up like Billy Graham is taboo.

Halloween experts have proliferated in evangelicalism. Where did these people learn all this stuff? Oh yes, The Onion. That’s right.

2c01074f5f3f2b8510a547a6290b34cfThose great, fun, harmless, safe, nostalgic, exciting, slightly scary and completely un-demonic Halloweens of the past? Gone, gone, gone with the evangelical hot air.

Does it bother me? You bet it does. It bothers me that we fall for such lame, ridiculous manipulators as the crowd that made all of those Halloweens past into satanic events.

It bothers me that any lie, exaggeration or fiction will find thousands of eager believers to pass it along.

It bothers me that the Biblical message about Satan would be co-opted by the fear-mongering and manipulation of the hucksters. (Read The Screwtape Letters for some real Satanism.)

It bothers me that such a wonderful part of my childhood and of American life has been turned into an example of evangelical paranoia and gullibility. We ruined something good, and everyone knows it but us.

I know all about the sophisticated responses thoughtful Christians have about Reformation day and All Saints Day. That’s fine, but it’s not the same. I just want my grandkids to be able to dress up in cute outfits and trick or treat without the local church designating them for exorcism.

Shame on those of us “evangelicals” who allowed Halloween to be taken away from families and many communities, all because we prefer to believe that life is a Frank Paretti novel.

Boo. I hope I scared you.

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You can take the boy out of evangelicalism . . . Sun, 26 Oct 2014 04:01:47 +0000 Chaplain Mike singing for kids in the village of Mangala, south India

Chaplain Mike and friends singing for kids at a hospital in the village of Mangala, south India

You can take the boy out of evangelicalism, but you can’t take the evangelical out of the boy.

I’m coming to terms these days with the fact that I’m a spiritual mongrel, and one of the strong components of my spiritual makeup is my evangelical heritage (in the modern sense of the word — the revivalistic tradition). Though I call myself a “post-evangelical,” that designation refers to my relationship with American “evangelicalism,” the conservative evangelical culture which has risen to public prominence in the U.S. in the past 45 years or so.

We’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating and it helps me to write it out as I reflect on getting reconnected this weekend with an important part of my evangelical experience.

Last night we had a meeting in our home, an open house for a friend from India who has been working for India Youth for Christ for twenty years. This was his first trip to the U.S., though we have been together in India in the past. We first met him in 2000, when we went on a mission trip to Mysore in south India. Through many intense experiences of ministry and conversation and prayer together, we formed a deep bond. We met each other again in 2007 in Bangalore and saw some of the fruit of our prayers and labors together in his family’s life and in the IYFC ministry. Yesterday we learned that he will be taking a high position in the organization, opening up new possibilities for further developing our relationship with him and IYFC in the future.

Now, there is no organization more identified with the evangelical movement than Youth for Christ. Billy Graham himself was the first staff member of Youth for Christ USA. YFC is synonymous with post-war evangelical parachurch missions and, along with other youth-oriented ministries in those days, YFC is largely responsible for making possible what Thomas Bergler called The Juvenilization of American Christianity. You know: Pop worship music. Falling in love with Jesus. Mission trips. Dressing casually for church. Spiritual searching and church hopping. An emphasis on discipleship in terms of “practical Christianity.” “Relevance” and seeker-sensitive outreach. Christianity as a “relationship” rather than a “religion.”

In short, most of the stuff, “post-evangelicals” like me now criticize.

However, India YFC serves in a vastly different setting. Although their focus is on youth evangelism, discipleship, and training, they have a much different relationship with the culture and the Christian churches throughout India than parachurch groups have had in the U.S. For example, our friend told us that IYFC encourages 99% of the young people who come to them from churches to stay in their own congregations and traditions for the ongoing sustenance of their faith. Many of the churches in India tend to be conservative and traditional in their worship and ministry, and he said part of their discipleship work involves counseling youth who wonder what to do when they contrast their enthusiastic youth meetings with the “dull” churches they come from. In other words, IYFC is not about changing church culture, it is about reaching youth with the Gospel and helping them integrate into the churches.

In short, there are a lot of evangelicals in India, but there is no “evangelicalism” as we know it in the U.S.

And the need that India YFC is trying to meet is vast. The number of Indians under the age of 24 is twice the entire population of the United States! About 600 million young people need to hear the Gospel there.

Mangala KidsAs a group, Christians represent a small minority of India’s vast throngs. Though it is the country’s third largest religion, with 24 million followers, that is only 2.3% of India’s population. This minority status causes believers to have a much different relationship to their neighbors and society than we U.S. Christians have. For example, our friend is a first-generation Christian. His father was a Hindu, his mother a nominal Catholic. Most of his relatives will have nothing to do with him now, and his father even told him he had considered killing his son for many years because of the shame he had brought on the family.

When our friend decided to go to Bible college and into ministry, he chose a life of relative poverty and obscurity. Soon, in the new position he will be taking, a large portion of his time and energy will be devoted to raising funds for staff around the country who live on about $100-150 per month, and are worried most months about getting that.

Though they use contemporary music and seek to relate to youth through language and means that are attractive to them, IYFC is still vastly more conservative than standard U.S. youth ministries. Many of the meetings we participated in over the years involved large groups of young people sitting quietly in rows, listening to presentations and preaching. When our friend described the “camps” they conduct to our group last night, it sounded like what we would call a study retreat or conference. The atmosphere of IYFC work reminds me a great deal of my early experiences as a teen caught up in the Jesus movement, with a focus on singing relatively simple choruses, learning the Bible, and being challenged with clear Christian guidelines about how to follow Jesus in our relationships and vocations. It’s low cost, low-tech, and more about communicating the fact that Jesus loves young people and gives new life than about putting on a show.

I can say without reservation that our trips to India over the years have transformed me as a person and follower of Jesus more than any other single influence in my life except for being married and having children — and I have been blessed beyond measure with rich influences.

Our relationship with India YFC, the trips we’ve taken, and the relationships we’ve formed have been nowhere near perfect, and we have had to struggle and work through problems in this context just as we have in every other area of our life and ministry. But from my perspective, what I’ve seen in these brothers and sisters is true evangelical faith of the Jesus-shaped variety. Resurrection life by grace through faith in Jesus. An emphasis on loving God and others through simple devotion and humble, sacrificial service that grows out of that new life.

If that’s “evangelical,” count me in. I hope it will always be a part of who I am.

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Saturday Ramblings – Oct 25, 2014, Scary edition Sat, 25 Oct 2014 04:01:01 +0000 nameoftherose

Chaplain Mike is glimpsed sneaking through the labyrinth to the monastery library. Nice haircut, huh?

I’m so tired of the ranting that’s going on in cyberspace these days it’s scary.

That’s right. I’ve had it with all the attention being given to that pastor in Seattle who resigned last week, and then showed up at a big conference where he talked about being a victim. Just seeing him sitting next to Steven Furtick was about all I could take.

And I don’t care to keep discussion going on and on about the subpoenaed sermons in Houston, even if one pundit called it a “secular jihad” and then, in the next breath, said, “We should not overreact” to this. Ya think?

And then there’s that couple who run a wedding mill, performing 1,400 weddings a year, because, well of course they believe in traditional Christian marriage™ (shouldn’t all believers get married in one of those cheesy little chapels by the side of the road?). Well, you may have heard they are getting in trouble for refusing to marry a gay couple, because, well of course they believe in traditional Christian marriage™ and are sworn to uphold the highest moral standards — but then again, they run a wedding mill!


Michael Spencer LOVED Halloween

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about any of that. It’s too depressing and annoying.

Instead, let’s look forward to an annual EVENT here at Internet Monk: Halloween is just around the corner. We’ll have our annual Michael Spencer Halloween rant next week, but since this is the last Saturday Ramblings before the fateful night, we’ll wend our way through forbidden corridors in the haunted monastery today, searching out clues and rambling through secret passageways to discover answers to life’s great mysteries. You know, like awesome arachnids, tasteless Halloween costumes, why petting a dog can lead to death threats, and nuns who sing about some very un-nunly things.

Before we begin rambling through the scary and spooky side of cyberspace this morning, here’s an update with good news from our friend and partner Jeff Dunn:

Hi guys. I thought I would share with you the good news I got yesterday. I went for a follow-up CT scan on my lungs on Monday, and saw the doc yesterday to get the report. NO CANCER! That is the good (great!) news.

I do, however, still show signs of the infection in my left lung that I’ve been dealing with for five or six weeks now, but it is getting better. Just not as fast as I would want. I’m probably breathing with 3/4ths of a lung now instead of 1/2 a lung I had a week or so ago, and no lung to speak of when this all started. I asked about the pain in my chest, and the doc said, “Well, this infection has made you have to work a lot harder to breath, and that has really ticked your chest off.” I guess that is medical jargon for “just deal with it.”

Anyway, the good news is I will most likely recover from this at some point, and there is no need for any more CT scans. I wanted to thank each of you for praying for me during these last few weeks. It has not been fun, I can tell you that.

Jeff wrote me again yesterday and said, “Be sure to tell the iMonks that I so appreciate all of their prayers and encouraging words. That helped me more than they can know.”

That’s so good it’s scary.

Jack O Lanterntheraphosa5Now, this next item is so scary it’s scary.

Pictures of the world’s largest spider have been making the rounds on social media and the news sites. I include it today mainly to scare the spit out of my wife, who has had me kill every spider who ever had the misfortune of startling her in our almost 36 years of marriage.

Live Science reports that the South American Goliath “birdeater” spider (Theraphosa blondi) has a leg span that can reach up to a foot, or about the size of “a child’s forearm,” with a body the size of “a large fist.” And the spider can weigh about as much as a young puppy.

If any of these get in my house, I’m gonna have to find a bigger shoe.

Jack O LanternleadSorry to inflict this next bit of silliness upon you. This is so tasteless it’s scary.

The Atlantic has determined that the “Ebola” costume is the worst Halloween costume of 2014. offers this Ebola suit, which comes with a face shield, breathing mask, safety goggles and blue latex gloves, but boots are not included. The costume’s web page calls the Ebola outfit the most “viral” costume of the year and say the wearer is “sure to be prepared if any outbreak happens” (though the company warns that it is not a real protective outfit).

Most “viral” costume of the year. Ha!

One guy whose store doesn’t carry the costume suggested instead that one might dress up as an Ebola victim, complete with gory details he’d be happy to design for you from their stock of make up and gag products. “Gag” is right. What is wrong with people?

If that doesn’t sound inappropriate enough for you, BrandsOnSale offers other costumes sure to induce groans and winces. How about a Joan Rivers wig? Or perhaps you’d like to dress your child up as a baby cigarette or a pot leaf?

I want to comment, but I got nothin’.

Jack O LanternMUSLIM_DOG_EVENTAnd then, this is so “biblical” it’s scary.

Syed Azmi Alhabashi, for some reason, decided to introduce himself and other Malaysian Muslims to the joys of petting dogs by holding an event called, “I Want to Touch a Dog.” It drew more than a thousand people to Central Park in Kuala Lampur. Many Muslims consider dogs to be ritually unclean, and one purpose for the event was for Muslims to learn what they should do after touching a canine. And so, one Muslim scholar demonstrated how followers of the faith should ritually cleanse their hands after touching dogs, a process that involves washing six times with clean water and once with dirt.

Well, call the scribes and the Pharisees (or the imams in this case). Senior Muslim clerics raised a stink, an investigation was launched, and Mr. Alhabashi has become the target of death threats and accusations of apostasy. Rumors have been circulating, claiming that he is secretly Christian, Shia or Jewish and trying to corrupt Malaysia’s majority-Sunni Muslims.

Most of us read those Bible accounts of rules about “clean” vs. “unclean” and cannot relate in the least. These people are still living in that world every day.

Jack O Lanternla-2002475-me-0922-clubs-02-rrc-jpg-20141023This next story is so tricky it’s scary. What would you do?

Thanks to alert iMonk Steve who told us about Carla Rivera’s story in the LA Times about campus groups in California State Universities. Chapters of InterVarsity and some other Christian groups were stripped of recognition at California State University campuses this fall because they refused to sign a non-discrimination policy requiring clubs and organizations to open their memberships and leadership to all students.

This so-called “all-comers” policy is not directed specifically at Christian groups. Rivera notes that Democratic clubs must open membership and leadership to Republicans and those supporting other parties, ethnic groups must allow people from other ethnicities to join and lead, and so on. If a particular group refuses to sign the non-discrimination policy, they can still meet, but not with any of the government-funded benefits of a university sponsored organization.

With regard to religious organizations, Rivera quotes leaders of Jewish and Muslim groups who have gone along with the policy and said it hasn’t been an issue for them. And she notes, “Even with the open-leadership requirement, campus organizations can set rules that reflect their core missions: They can require a potential officer to show a deep knowledge of the Bible or, in the case of the guitar club, a certain level of musical ability.” However, many of the Christian groups insist that requiring their leaders to be Christians is an essential part of the Bible’s teaching and their identity and mission and that they should be allowed to maintain that condition.

Jack O LanternFinally, this last piece is so bizarre it’s scary.

Sister Cristina Scuccia, Italy’s “singing nun,” became famous after winning a TV talent show. As a devout Catholic she wanted to use her gifts and celebrity status to testify to her faith through a music video. All well and good. I’m not sure she chose the right song, however. Sister Cristina decided to cover Madonna’s Like a Virgin. She said she was trying to “redeem” the song  for Jesus. But, um, I’m not sure that one’s redeemable, Sis.

If that’s not crazy enough for you, here’s a link to Sister Cristina’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

Not quite sure what to say, but Sister’s stuck in the 80’s.

Enjoy Halloween. And be safe.

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A Short Reflection on the Week that Was Fri, 24 Oct 2014 05:32:45 +0000 Nathan CirilloCanada, or at least its institutions were attacked this week.  In two separate incidents two soldiers were killed.  One of them Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was from my home town and was a friend of a friend. Although my son didn’t know him, they did have a number of mutual friends.

My facebook feed is filled with thought and comments (mostly good) by friends who have been affected by this tragedy.  One commented that 10/22 has become Canada’s 9/11.  It is the date on which we were attacked within our own country.  Another commented that both attackers were known to have a history of mental illness, and that maybe the debate should not be about Canadian security, but about the lack of treatment for mental illness in Canada.

There will be an inevitable over reaction to this over the next days, weeks, months, and possibly years.  As for me, I am filled with great sadness over this and similar events.

My grandfather served in the military.  So did my father.  I have as well, in sister units to the unit of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo.   I don’t see a military solution.  Instead, I long for the return of the Prince of Peace to put an end to all war.

Cpl. Nathan Cirillo leaves behind a young son.  I pray for him and for all others who are grieving at this time.

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Breakfast Thu, 23 Oct 2014 04:01:49 +0000 Interior-3

He sits across the table from me as we enjoy our biscuits and gravy. A good ol’ boy, a true Hoosier. He had been a pretty good baseball player when he first met her. But he was rough around the edges and she thought him uncouth. He didn’t know how to eat properly, she said. Still somehow, they fell in love, and she took him in and converted him into a presentable-enough gentleman.

Not that he ever became a white collar guy. He worked for a trucking company his whole life. He tells me he learned a cuss word or three on the job. Now that she is gone, he’s been talking to her and the Lord about that, to see if he could get some help cleaning up his language. A few other things needed forgiving too, though he doesn’t tell me what. He does make a point to say that this time, he wants to say grace before we eat (last time, we got to talking and forgot).

She had been the picture of dignity. Always took care of herself and looked good. She was what they used to call a real “lady.” Talented too. Worked in an executive’s office and kept it running. Played the organ in church and had fine taste in music. Made sure the two of them worked hard and kept a spotless home, a well-groomed lawn and gardens.

But with all her natural strength and grace, she was never snobbish. She too was an Midwest girl, rooted and grounded in the common sense soil of the heartland. She married a ballplayer, a blue-collar guy, linked her life to his and they became inseparable partners. He loved classic cars and they traveled all around the country putting on car shows and hanging out with gearheads. She became an avid sports fan and cheered as loudly and fanatically as he did when they went to games their teams were playing. They traveled around together and camped with the family and went to the casinos and enjoyed a life as regular and down-to-earth as could be.

He and I are having breakfast because now she’s gone. He finds it hard to eat at home without her. After nearly sixty years of sharing every day together, he’s experiencing “alone” for the first time.

“What do you have going today?” I ask him.

He laughs. “Just you,” he says.

biscuitsgravySo we eat our biscuits and gravy, drink our coffee, and talk about whether the Hoosiers are going to have a good basketball season this year. I console him about the Dodgers, his favorite baseball team, losing in the playoffs. Our banter is mostly sports talk, but I also ask after his children, their families, and he shares bits and pieces of the dramas that are taking place in their lives. They live in other states, but call him every day. He tells me about going to the doctor and other errands he’s been running. A story or two from the past sneaks out every now and again.

At various points in our conversation, things get quiet, and when they do he always comes back to her.

“You know, I talk to her. Every day. That’s not crazy, is it?”

“I’m spending a lot of time working out in the yard. The house is too quiet without her there.”

“I used to cook for her when she worked, and I got pretty good. So I cooked for her when she got sick, but you know, the last while there she just couldn’t eat. I couldn’t either. I’ve lost 30 pounds you know.”

He mentions the funeral service at least a half dozen times. I officiated it, and he can’t say “thank you” enough. He talks about how after they went to make arrangements the first time, she changed her mind and said she didn’t like the casket they picked out. But then she got too sick to go back, so the kids eventually picked out one they knew she’d like, and damn the cost. He tells me about people he wished could have been there at the service, but he remembers the flowers they sent, the cards they wrote, the phone calls they made. It’s clear that day made a real impression on him. It’s etched on his mind like some farewell scene in a movie. He’s been out to the grave a few times, but he doesn’t say much about it.

Somehow, we clear our plates and it’s time to go, me to my work, him to . . . what? I don’t know, and he may not either. The server brings our check and we fight over who’s going to pay, but he grabs it.

“You don’t have to do this with me if you’re too busy,” he says.

“No, I enjoy it. I’ll call you next week,” I reply.

“That would be great. You know, breakfast, lunch, a cup of coffee. I’m free now for most anything.”

“You know I’m praying for you, right?”

“Yeah, I need that.”

“And keep talking to her, okay? She’s not far away.”

“Okay. Thanks. Call me next week?”

“Call you next week.”

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Under Roiling Skies Wed, 22 Oct 2014 04:01:24 +0000 photo(7)

The skies today in central Indiana were as wild as any I’ve ever seen.

Such contrasts! Here and there, brilliant patches of naked blue broke through a pervasive chaos in the firmament, suggesting some paradise beyond the swirling fury. White, black, and every shade of gray between percolated across heaven’s dome. There was no discernible pattern, just helter skelter as far as the eye could see. A mythic battle ensued overhead all day long while we mere mortals trudged along below.

Where my day was typical for a hospice chaplain.

It started in the hospital, with a visit to a man just admitted to end of life care. I walked into a dark room, filled with family — a daughter, son, grandchildren, great grandchildren. I introduced myself and sat down to talk. The patient was non-responsive, the daughter looked beaten down, and the grandchildren were preoccupied with eating their biscuits and gravy breakfasts. In recent months, the family had lost a grandmother, an aunt, and a mother. Now dad was dying. When I expressed sympathy for their losses, the daughter squinted her eyes and recoiled as though a cold wind had gusted and slapped her in the face.

I did my best to let them know I was available as a friend. What did they hear, I wonder?

photoAs I was starting to leave the hospital, I received a call that another of our patients there had just died. I turned around and went to a different unit. There, two adult daughters were weeping and consoling each other over the loss of their mother, who had just passed after a weeks-long family vigil at the bedside. I asked permission to join them and sat down. This was listening time, and that’s pretty much what I did for awhile. What could I say? I did praise them for keeping faithful company with their mom during her last days, but this was their time to talk.

The visit ended up lasting a couple of hours. I moved in and out of the room, checking on them, giving them some space, doing a few small tasks on their behalf, touching base with the staff, and mostly just waiting. One daughter remarked how quiet it had become in the room, how little there was to do now. Other family members eventually arrived and we gathered around the deathbed where I commended them all into God’s care.

Then I moved on, and they walked out to face the turbulent skies.

On the way to my next visit, the sun began shining brightly, and as I drove through the city I was surrounded by resplendent trees under wide swaths of azure. The dear lady I went to see in her home has the most beautiful white hair, and as she sat in front of the window, the rays shone through and it sparkled like a million tiny diamonds. This woman, in her 90’s, always dresses to the nines whenever members of her care team visit. She loves to entertain, tell stories, and make us laugh. Sometimes she sits with three cats on her lap and one on the back of her chair, looking every bit like the queen of paradise, with her fancy sweaters, glimmering jewelry, and flashing, smiling eyes. I always kneel before her and pray at the end of my visit.

God save the queen.

photo(6)When I left her home to drive to my next stop, I noticed that the battle in the sky had intensified. The gods had marshaled their forces, the trumpet had sounded and all over heaven the lines were advancing with swords and shields drawn. No peace in sight. With each turn of the steering wheel, another vista of cosmic warfare. Maybe I should take shelter. But I can’t look away.

My day ended with a few mundane activities: a meeting, a cancelled visit, a stop back at the hospital where I found a patient alone and asleep and decided not to disturb him. Time to go home.

All the way to my house I thought about just how fine the line is between ordinary and extraordinary.

Nothing could be more common than what I do. Travel. Greet. Sit. Listen. Converse. Pray. Repeat.

But it all happens under a roiling sky, a cosmic battle, Job’s whirlwind.

Today I saw it. I really saw it.

Sometimes I wonder how any of us makes it home alive.

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Miguel Ruiz: First Church of Authenticity and Trends Tue, 21 Oct 2014 04:01:09 +0000

Note from CM: Our friend Miguel Ruiz will now be blogging at The Brothers of John the Steadfast. This article, “First Church of Authenticity and Trends,” was recently published there, and Miguel gave us permission to run it as well.

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First Church of Authenticity and Trends
By Miguel Ruiz

…is it just me, or is this title hopelessly contradictory? And yet, this is the message that countless congregations endeavor to send to our culture. “We’re the genuine article, bona-fide disciples of Jesus, and we’re just like you, so you’ll fit right in!” Mercy.

So my wife and I recently visited a local festival associated with the harvest of some plant that makes delicious pies (and they were!). It was hosted by a local congregation associated with a (non-LCMS) historic Protestant tradition who, though the denominational acronym had not been completely removed from their signage, had transitioned to the “Community Church” name and image. As a part of a nation-wide initiative, they were aggressively advertising “National Back to Church Sunday,” which I thought sounded just plain lovely, almost like “back to school,” but without all the corresponding sales. I said to my wife, “I didn’t know the Methodists took off Christianity for the summer!”

All snark aside, a few of the promotional materials, pamphlets, and fliers wound up in our hands, and as we read through them, a few paragraphs jumped out at me.

“You’re invited to church this Sunday at ______ Community Church! At ___CC, you will find friendly people striving for a better life, varying music styles, upbeat worship, relevant messages, and a focus on living life with a purpose. Come see what church has to offer for your life.”

If I were an unbeliever and the least bit skeptical, I think my initial response to that last sentence might be something along the lines of “Apparently, absolutely nothing.”

“Special coffee hour to follow. Casual Atmosphere, Real People, Active Mission, Mid-week Bible Studies, Fun Children’s Program, New Youth Programs.”

Now, if that isn’t cheesy or cliche, is it at least missing something rather critical that ought to have some prominence in a church advertising campaign? There is no Jesus in the equation. Does He have anything to offer my life? Or more importantly, does He have any life to offer me? From the pamphlets we received, you might indeed assume He was anything but high up on their list of priorities, most of which reflected the first world desire of consumer culture for historically unprecedented comfortability.

But the crass concept of church advertising aside, as if we were entrepreneurial businessmen trying to attract a clientele to our new product, consider the potential negative implications of such marketing phrases. Whatever you advertise yourself as will say something significant about what you wish to be seen as not. For example, when you advertise yourself as a church of “friendly people,” there is an implicit suggestion that other churches may be somewhat less than friendly. Otherwise, why would you advertise it if, in your mind, everybody expects every church to be full of friendliness?

Well of course, there are unfriendly churches. I don’t think they are a majority, or that being friendly makes you stand out. But the message seems to clearly imply, “We’re not like those indifferent congregations that you wouldn’t like to be a part of.” So maybe your people are friendly. You may even rightly consider that an asset. And by no means is it over the line to include that fact on your promotional materials. But let’s take a closer look at some of the other claims: Striving for a better life, varying music styles, upbeat worship, relevant messages, a focus on living life with a Purpose (TM), casual atmosphere, etc….

Hype-168It kind of sounds like many other churches are probably irrelevant and purposeless. I’m reminded of Matt Chandler’s adage that trying to make the Gospel relevant is like trying to make water wet. So… do these other churches not preach the Gospel, or is this saving proclamation not enough? Is the purpose of church really to provide a relaxed, peppy environment for the pursuit of self-improvement? I don’t see that anywhere in the teaching of, you know, Jesus. Further, if your church is full of “real people,” do the rest of ours contain imaginary parishioners? No, this is a subtle, inverse way of playing the pharisee card: We’re real, which is different, because elsewhere you will probably find phony.

When a church says “you should join us because we’re friendly, upwardly mobile, creative, upbeat, relevant, purposeful, casual, real, active, fun, and new,” at what point have they crossed the line of being pretentious? They might as well just come out and say “We’re totally awesome in every way you could possibly dream of, and you really want to hang out with us so it can rub off on you!” I didn’t realize I was missing so many of these things from my life. It’s all quite intimidating, really, I’d want to ask if they have more of an introductory step or recovery group for my purpose-less excuse for an irrelevant life.

At the end of the day, it appeared to base a marketing image 100% on knocking over a straw man caricature of their own creation. These blurbs so attempted to define the congregation by how much it is not like the religious boogeyman that they failed to define themselves by that which actually makes one a Christian! Campaigns like this do not seem designed with the religious skeptic or uninformed in mind. Rather, it appears to target the comfortable Evangelical religious consumer; those who have lost interest in another congregation they either quit attending or are frustrated with its inabilities to meet their “felt needs.” Like it or not, shuffling the deck chairs and inflating conversion statistics is big business. Or at least, it used to be. It will be MySpace by the time the LCMS learns the ropes.

Where is Christ and His Gospel? I’m near positive that somewhere in the doctrinal statements of this particular congregation they are acknowledged, among the many false beliefs Methodists also have. But in the day to day operations, it would appear that they are more assumed than actively confessed. It’s as if once they are in the doctrinal statement, they can safely be ignored most of the time.

What if a congregation defined its “brand image” solely on belief the Gospel? How would this function in terms of negative implication? To put ourselves forward as “Christ-centered, cross focused,” or “Gospel driven” simply implies that our Christianity is about being Christian, and not about what isn’t Christianity (finding purpose etc…). What if it were clear from our advertising that our message is about Jesus from start to finish, and our methods are formed around that which keeps our eyes on Him, in what the late Michael Spencer described as a “Jesus shaped spirituality?”

God bless the people of this congregation for their sincerity and strategic intentionality in reaching out to their community. From the bustle of activity occupying their facilities, you might even conclude that their efforts are successful. But I can’t help but wonder: What are they being reached with? What is being advertised and sold to them? Is it Jesus, or is it the congregation, with her leaders, methods, and new, more relevant message?

If you can indulge me a moment of satire, what if the impression we sought to give our communities for the reason our church exists looked more like this:

“Grumpy people, bored or frustrated with life, mundane diet of dirges, dull worship, droning sermons, focused on just surviving, burnt coffee, constricting atmosphere, hiding behind a mask of formalism, and little activity outside of Sunday morning. What kind of a God would want us? Join us on Sunday to hear all about the wonderful love of a crucified Savior. We might bore you to death, but you’ll be in good company!”

If we’re going to advertise what we’re selling, let it be Jesus. Not ourselves, not a wonderful life, not a purpose-driven all ages 24/7 community activity center. Nothing more than Christ crucified, for the forgiveness of sins. Is Jesus enough if He is all we have to offer?

….so what if I told you that the church we visited was an LCMS congregation? Would you be surprised? Should you?

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