In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Monday, December 26, 2011

Adios, Mi Querido Hijo

This has turned out to be one of the most bittersweet (more sweet than bitter, really) Christmas holidays I've ever had. As I write, our youngest son Colin and my wife Melany are on the road somewhere in Ohio or Kentucky, headed for Colin's new job as a box office manager at the Performing Arts Center at Lee College in Baytown, Texas, just across Galveston Bay from Houston (according to its official web site, Baytown's motto is "Where oil and water really do mix!"). I stayed behind to mind the fort and our critters (one big dog and one small cat), and so Colin could get into the car everything he has and needs to start out on his own. It's incredibly quiet here, and rather (all right, very) lonesome. I miss Colin and Melany very much already--and they've only been gone a few hours!

Less than a month ago Colin casually responded to an ad for this job, hardly imagining that it would lead almost immediately to an in-person interview and then an offer. Work in his field (arts administration) being so hard to come by in this part of the country, especially for someone just out of college, that Colin felt he couldn't let the opportunity go by. The sudden and dramatic change of life for him and for us is a daunting challenge indeed.

It's always hard for a parent to "let go" so a child can find his or her own way, especially when the way takes the child far from home into unknown territory. Home is familiar and welcoming and safe (or so we try to make it), but who knows what threats lurk elsewhere? Our natural desire and habit is to protect our children and provide for their happiness as best we know how. So, when the time comes that the needs and opportunities--and dangers--of adulthood finally call the child away from the hearth, we are torn with anxiety, even dread. Yet, we must consciously pry our own fingers from our child's arm and let him go along life's road on his own, where his dreams and his best judgment take him. We can only pray for his well-being, and sometimes carefully and gently offer whatever advice we might have from the well of our own learning and experience. We mustn't project our own fears onto him, nor presume to make for him the decisions that rightfully, and prudently, he should make for himself, whatever the consequences. This is the only way for the child to learn responsibility, the sine qua non of adulthood. Now we must only encourage and offer help--but not "bail out"--if and when things go awry, and even if life leads them to endure suffering for a time (which we will inevitably share). It's perhaps the last, perhaps most important lesson we can teach our children: how to be free. That's the only way our children can flower and be all that God intended and enabled them to be. And it might be the most important lesson that we, as parents, can teach ourselves.

Last night, before retiring for perhaps the last time as a permanent resident under our roof, Colin wrote a Facebook "thank you note" to his family and friends here in New York and elsewhere. I chanced to read it a short time later, before retiring myself--and then had trouble falling asleep for the tears in my eyes. Colin wrote that he has "an amazing family that has provided me with opportunity, love, shelter and support at all times, without hesitation, the blink of an eye, or a thought of doing otherwise." I can't express what that means to us as his parents (and the same goes for his brother and sister, I'm sure). All I can say is that Colin is an amazing son and as fine a young man as there's ever been. Of course, we feel much the same way about all our children, but perhaps this moment is more poignant because Colin is the last to fly our "nest" and leave Melany and I entirely "on our own." Since he returned home from college this past May, we've been blessed to get to know him in an especially deep and personal way. We've delighted in the company of a sensitive and thoughtful person always ready to discuss (and sometimes cross swords on) any topic that occurs to us, from religion and politics to movies and food. His sense of humor is matchless! Even our disagreements on things are mutually respectful and loving. Harmony and love within our family is something that Melany and I have prayed for constantly over the years, and God has granted us this fondest wish!

Sometimes it's easier for me to understand and accept things by putting them into a historical context. In this case, I'm reminded of the countless times during the 19th century when young people packed wagons (or sometimes just bags) with all they had, kissed their grieving parents goodbye, and set off on a road or down a river toward a new beginning in the West. All knew that the risks were at least as great as the opportunities. But what if their parents had successfully discouraged all these young pioneers from braving the dangers of the journey? Humanity might never have known the blessings that this great country eventually brought them. So, I'm persuaded that God must have the most marvelous plans for Colin, to lead him that far away into such an alien world as Texas!

May he bless you abundantly each and every day, son, and fill your life with joy (and bring you back home safely for as many visits as we can all manage!)!

Colin and his beloved nephew, Liam

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Perfect Peace

"Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee." ~ Isaiah 26:3

Of all things needed and craved by mankind, none is so vital as peace: peace without, and peace within.

Because by nature we are selfish and aggressive creatures, peace among nations and neighbors is tragically elusive and, historically, seemingly impossible but for short periods and in scattered places. All too often rulers use their powers to wage war on other countries and upon their own peoples, and even the best democratic governments are incapable of preventing the mini-wars individuals make upon each other every day. Endless conflict and suffering seem to be the natural lot of human beings almost everywhere.

Peace within ourselves is even more precious than peace in the world, because it transcends the world. One can feel desperate and hopeless even when conditions about us are peaceful. But thanks to the blessed assurance that we have from our Savior, we can be at peace within even when the world around us is rent with conflict. Through repentance, faith, and embrace of His sacrifice on the Cross, His righteousness is ours. We needn't groan and fall under the weight of our sins, no matter how heavy they are; they are laid at Jesus' feet, and in His infinite love are swept away. Because we know that in Him death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54), we know that we likewise shall be victorious in the end, and fear not what men can do to us.

The prophet Isaiah warned that "[m]any days and years shall ye be troubled," and that the world would become as a wilderness,
. . . Until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest. Then judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field. And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever. And my people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places . . . (Isaiah 32:10, 15-18)
This is the promise of Christmas, when Jesus came down from Heaven to dwell among us and proclaim the Good News of salvation, to take the weight of our sin upon Himself, and to establish the never-ending Kingdom of Righteousness that leads all sincere believers to that inner "peace of God, which passeth all understanding . . ." (Philippians 4:7). He is indeed the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). We pray unceasingly that that peace spread among all men and women, and for the day when this world is finally and fully transformed into the quiet and beautiful Garden that our Lord always meant it to be.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” ~ Luke 2:14

May the Peace of Christ be with you and your loved ones
this Christmas and every day of your life!

NOTE: This post was adapted from one on another blog to which I contribute, Faithful Feet. Visit that site for spiritual lessons and encouragement from people all over the world, every day!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: The Miracle of Freedom

Individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law are under wider assault in the West, including the USA, than at any time since at least World War II. In Europe, especially the United Kingdom (formerly known as "Great" Britain), an irresistible tide of political correctness has led to the suffocation of personal freedom under national and local laws "protecting" (read: promoting) favored interest groups such as homosexuals and atheists, as well as to a paralysis of police and the courts to deal effectively with mobs of "protesters" and a horde of immigrants demanding the adoption of "sharia law." In the United States, we have a federal administration bent on seizing and expending (directly and indirectly) unprecedented, ever-growing amounts of private wealth; requiring individual citizens to purchase products and services they do not want; extending government surveillance and control to every aspect of citizens' lives; declaring and implementing its own policies through executive order regardless of Congressional will; and going to war against the states to prevent them from dealing with critical problems of immigration, health care, environmental control, education, and threats to the family such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

These developments would be more actively resisted if citizens better appreciated how dearly bought, and how fragile and fleeting, freedom and democracy have been in history. Providing that awareness is the mission of authors Chris and Ted Stewart in their recent book The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World (available from publisher Deseret Books and from, among other outlets). Released in June, 20011, the book has been as high as to No. 2 on Amazon's best-selling list and reached No. 11 on the New York Times' Top 25 best-selling nonfiction and e-book lists.

According to the authors, less than 5 percent of all people who have ever lived on the earth (and most of those being persons who are still alive today) have lived under conditions that today could be considered “free.” The "miracle" is that there have even been that many, given the terrible weight of flawed human nature throughout history.

The authors define "freedom and democracy" according to the following five criteria: self-government; fundamental rights; equal dignity and opportunity of persons; commitment to justice; and commitment to the rule of law. The authors then discern from the human record a series of critical events or "forks in the road" that, had they happened differently or not at all, would or could have resulted in the extinction of any hope that the ideals of freedom and self-government might be realized.
  • The defeat of the Assyrians in their quest to destroy the kingdom of Judah
  • The victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Thermopylae and Salamis
  • Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity
  • The defeat of the armies of Islam at Poitiers
  • The failure of the Mongols in their effort to conquer Europe
  • The discovery of the New World
  • The Battle of Britain in World War II
The book describes and analyzes these events, each chapter accompanied by a fictionalized but well-written and engaging "you are there" portrait of individuals at the time--most of them common people--who might have participated in or been immediately affected by these events. In addition to a concise narration of what transpired, each chapter explores what led up to and resulted from the event, and how the future of human liberty would have been changed--or snuffed out altogether--had the outcome been different. Some of these positive outcomes were fantastically improbable, such as the survival of Judah against the Assyrian onslaught, the Greeks' defeat of the Persian hosts at Thermopylae and Salamis, and even Britain's triumph against the mighty Luftwaffe in 1941-1942. As the authors observe, "Many of these critical forks in the road occurred thousands of years before the event would bear the fruit of freedom. Some have happened in modern day. All of them were necessary for the world to enjoy the sudden expansion of free governments that we see today."

Chris and Ted Stewart

The authors' selection of these historical "tipping points" seems driven by the correct premise that the concepts of freedom and democracy--as they came down to us over the generations and as we understand and enjoy them today--sprang from the marriage of Judaic theology and Greek philosophy. Thus, the extinction of those early civilizations or of their successors in Europe would have prevented the survival and realization of these ideals in modern times. Inevitably, minds clouded by conventional and politically-correct views will complain that historical Judaism and Christianity bred regimes that made endless war and often cruelly oppressed, rather than liberated, individuals (free-thinkers, women, and homosexuals, for example) and colonial peoples as well as their own. The authors of Miracle of Freedom do not dispute the guilt of those Western "leaders" who perverted Judeo-Christian principles to serve selfish ends, but stress that the fault lay not with the principles themselves, or with the cultures that spawned them, but with the inescapable flaws of human nature:
[T]hough they may seek to represent the ideal, no nation or institution is ever pefect. All cultures and religious institutions are occupied by mere mortals, making them subject to all the frailties of men. And the simple fact that they do seek the ideal, ironically, opens them up to charges of hypocrisy and scorn. Second, often these are not only multigenerational but multimillenial institutions. Their stories may stretch over thousands of years. During the passing of so many centuries, every nation or institution will have its ups and downs, experiencing high points of moral leadership, but low points of decadence as well.

This being the case, wouldn't it be unfair--and historically inaccurate--to judge a nation or institution on only one episode in its history or during one particular span of time?

In our story, we also have to recognize the difference between the leaders or members of the Christian faith and Christian doctrine. The shortcomings of one may not accurately reflect the value of the other. Indeed, history shows that there have been times when the teachings of Christianity remained an ally to the development of freedom even when the Christian church did not.
Reading The Miracle of Freedom, one is struck by how improbable was the birth, survival, and eventual flourishing of freedom and self-government; how long that process took; how much it owed to the heroism and self-sacrifice of a relative few individuals; and how fragile those ideals are in a world ever tending to corruption and madness. As Mssrs. Stewart point out:
[D]emocracy and freedom are very fleeting—they can be possessed and then lost. A nation might be democratic for a period of time and then, through spasms of internal strife or war, revert to despotism. Over the past 225 years this has been shown again and again to be true, the tides of democracy causing many nations to sample and then lose the great gifts of freedom and democracy. The experience of Germany prior to World War I, immediately thereafter, and then during the reign of Hitler is a graphic example of this truth.
For those of us living in the United States, a nation that has experienced more than two hundred years of unparalleled liberty, it is easy to take for granted the extraordinary gifts we have been given. And for most of us, it is much easier to become lackadaisical about these gifts than it is for the inhabitants of other nations who are forced to struggle every day in their battle for liberty. In fact, unless we are serious students of world history, or have traveled extensively, we might not recognize how unique the blessings of liberty actually are.
We should all remember this lesson, in this time of grave peril to liberty here in the USA and around the world.

The Miracle of Freedom is written with the common person, not the professional historian, in mind (though it certainly can appeal to the latter). Most of it reads more like a historical novel than an analytical text. It is an absorbing and highly informative work, and would make an excellent Christmas or Hanukkah gift.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Boycott Black Friday!

I'm adding my voice to the chorus calling for people to boycott "Black Friday," the Friday shopping day immediately after Thanksgiving. It's time to stop the madness into which major national retailers have turned this day, when people let themselves be manipulated by clever marketing into greedy monsters who steal items out of others' carts and literally trample store employees and each other to death in the mad pursuit of cheap merchandise. On top of that, the stores are now depriving their employees of a meaningful Thanksgiving with their families by making them come to work Thursday evening to open the stores by midnight or earlier, and work all night and day dealing with the mobs that the retailers have lured in with special "bargains."

If you have any sense of humanity left after our materialistic culture has done its work on you, don't let yourself become part of the problem; be part of the solution and choose to shop on another day. Don't buy into the idea that you can't pass up those bargains. If you can't afford certain things otherwise, just forget about them and buy something else--something you can afford on another day, regardless of discounts. Your giftees will be happy with what you get them anyway. Just pretend that "Black Friday" never existed, which was true not so long ago before we became pliant sheeple in the hands of corporate exploiters who couldn't care less about the sanctity of family holidays (I'm not a communist, just one who despises abuse of power whatever the source).

If you don't have to work on Friday, spend it with your family and do something fun together, like going to a movie or bowling. Or, find some charity to volunteer for. Decorate your house for Christmas. If you feel you have to shop on Friday, patronize small businesses like craft shops or independent book stores--you're likely to find some affordable gifts that will benefit your giftees more than electronics or expensive clothes. Above all, remember that this season isn't about the things, but the people--our spouses, children, siblings, parents, friends. We MUST make a habit of being thankful for them and of showing it by the love and personal help we give them every day of the year, not by the stuff we buy for them or how much or little we spend on it on some particular day. We can shed love abroad no matter how modest our means, and without paying a penny of tribute to a corporation or a government.

So, let's turn this Thanksgiving Day into Independence Day; let's reclaim our lives and our humanity, and rededicate them to our loved ones and to the God from whom all blessings flow. Boycott Black Friday!

P.S. If you'd like to get involved with others pursuing alternatives to Black Friday, you could start by visiting the excellent Facebook site called, appropriately enough, Boycott Black Friday.

Friday, November 11, 2011

O Valiant Hearts

National War Memorial, Ottawa, Canada

Of all the themes addressed in the catalog of sacred music, few weigh more heavily on the soul than the the loss of those who have given their lives in military service. Whether it is heard or sung by a mourning friend or a family member, or merely by a grateful fellow citizen, a hymn of remembrance for the fallen can provide sorely needed comfort and assurance to the spirit that the departed soldier, sailor, or airman did not die in vain, but "gave the last full measure of devotion" (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address) to his or her country and everything that that it, and we, hold precious.

Military hymns are widely heard on November 11, which is observed as Veterans Day in the United States and as Remembrance Day in Great Britain and Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These observances were established in the 1920s to commemorate the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918 that ended World War I--the so-called "War to End All Wars." If only it had been! The Great War, as it was called then, cost more than 117,00 American lives, but more than 10 million lives in Europe, in four short years. The fighting devastated large swaths of Europe, and with its mud-and-disease-ridden trench warfare, machine gunning, huge artillery barrages, and poison gas, involved combatants and civilians alike in a seemingly interminable orgy of suffering and death.

British wounded at Bernafay Wood, France, 19 July 1916

It's no wonder, then, that those who survived the Great War struggled to find some meaning in the tragic sacrifice of so many promising lives--young men they had known, loved, and cheered as they marched away into the most awful killing fields man has ever seen. For some, faith in God was shattered, but others turned to Him for comfort and hope with an even greater devotion. From that spirit was born the heart-rending, yet stirring hymn O Valiant Hearts. The text was taken from a poem by Sir John Stanhope Arkwright (1872–1954), a member of Parliament from Herefordshire, England, and published in "The Supreme Sacrifice, and other Poems in Time of War"(1919). It was set to music by Dr. Charles Harris, who was the vicar of Colwall in the same county. The combination of Harris' tune and Arkwright's words was an immediate success; the hymn was sung at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, London, on November 11 1920. Interestingly, according to a BBC feature on the hymn, "both men knew the pain of losing a loved one first hand - Dr. Harris lost a son in the First World War, and one of Sir John's two sons was killed in a submarine accident in World War II."

Sir John Stanhope Arkwright

The text and music of O Valiant Hearts are below:
O Valiant Hearts, who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle-flame,
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the Land you loved.

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank to war,
As who had heard God's message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave
To save Mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made,
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet-call of God.

Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way.

Still stands his cross from that dread hour to this

Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still through the veil the victor's pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

These were his servants, in his steps they trod,
Following through death the martyr'd Son of God:
Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk his cup of sacrifice.

O risen Lord, O shepherd of our dead,

Whose cross has bought them and whose staff has led-
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to thy gracious hand.

What most impresses me about O Valiant Hearts is the compelling way in which it compares the brave sacrifice of the men who fought for their country and people with the selfless sacrifice of Christ ("[t]o save Mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.") Our Lord is presented as the One who showed the way through awful trial to eternal victory, and in whose footsteps the valiant marched: "These were his servants, in his steps they trod/Following through death the martyr'd Son of God:/Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise/They who have drunk his cup of sacrifice." No greater tribute could be paid to fighting men than this.

This moving video presentation of O Valiant Hearts features the singing of the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, and was created as a tribute to the author's grandfather and father, who fought in World Wars I and II, respectively.

Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.

~ John 15:13

One other indispensable feature of Remembrance Day is the playing of the Last Post. Originally a bugle call used in British Army camps to signal the end of the day, the call is now used at Commonwealth military funerals and ceremonies commemorating those who have fallen in war. The Last Post was featured in a post to this blog on November 11, 2009. To me it still means Remembrance, of America's fallen heroes as well as those of the Commonwealth. Once again, here is a rendition by the Royal Marine Buglers at the 2008 Remembrance service at Whitehall, London.

NOTE: This post was imported from my other blog, Songs of Praises. Visit that site for a full exploration of the best in sacred music, its history, and its meaning for us.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Religious Expression: The New Flatulence?

I was listening to our local radio sports talk show the other night, and up came the subject of Tim Tebow, apparently now the most widely admired, or despised, human being on the planet. In addition to his remarkable athletic and team leadership skills, Tebow--once a quarterback for the University of Florida Gators and now one for the NFL's Denver Broncos--is just as famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) for his public assertions and displays of Christian faith. For example, he likes to etch references to Bible verses into his eye black, and take a knee in brief prayer on the field before, after, or during a game. He did the latter a couple of weeks ago after leading the Broncos back from a 15-point deficit in the last five minutes of a game against the Miami Dolphins. Ecstatic fans started copying that stance at home, in public, and everywhere, and posted pictures on Facebook of themselves and others doing it. And just like that, "Tebowing" was born. There's even a web site devoted to it.

The fan euphoria evaporated quickly the next week, however, when the Detroit Lions decimated the Broncos and Tebow had a terrible game. To add insult to injury, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch sacked Tebow in the first quarter and celebrated by doing his own bit of "Tebowing" while the man who inspired that move was still lying on the ground. This sparked a storm of controversy in the sports world over whether Tulloch was "mocking" Tebow and his beliefs by taking a knee over him. Tebow himself, as a befitting a Christian gentleman, took no offense and dismissed the incident as just another football player "having fun with his teammates" (but the backlash against him continues; at a game against the Oakland Raiders this past Sunday, Raiders’ fans held signs that read “Welcome to Hell,” directed at Tebow during the pre-game warm-ups).

During the talk show one of our local sportswriters, while criticizing Tulloch's gesture, suggested that Tebow "deserved it" for "wearing his religion on his sleeve," and that kneeling and praying should be limited to the locker room or the privacy of the player's own home. "I don't need to see that," he said in a disgusted tone of voice, and opined that such behavior was probably just for show anyway. Another sportswriter on the show also criticized Tulluch's "Tebowing," but stressed over and over that he was "not a religious person."

I started to seethe as I listed to this banter. It wasn't about Stephen Tulloch's kneeling in mock prayer over Tim Tebow's prostrate body--if Tebow himself can pass that off as a clever joke, so can I--but rather the attitude of the sportswriters in speaking about religious faith, or the public expression of it, as though it were something offensive that one just doesn't manifest in polite company.

What's happening in this country? Since when did acknowledging God become socially unacceptable, like belching or breaking wind? Perhaps it was when openly anti-religion groups like the ACLU, and atheistic professors and commentators in academia and the mainstream media, convinced America's intellectual elite--even sportswriters?--that expressions of faith are out of bounds (no pun intended) in the public sphere, a sinister threat to our secular "multicultural" society and even to our democratic political system. We're all familiar with their efforts to remove any reference to or reminder of God from public schools, public meetings, and public property, even streets and sidewalks. Now, apparently, their sympathizers would like to remove those things from purely voluntary, privately funded events like professional sports contests (as well as from ads televised during broadcasts of those events--remember the furor a couple of years ago over Tebow's pro-life spot with his mom that aired during the Super Bowl?)

Why do some people feel outraged or threatened when a young athlete briefly takes a knee in public, apparently to give thanks to or invoke the aid of, the Deity in which he or she believes? And how would a casual observer know--and why would he or she presume--that such an act is empty and hypocritical? Wouldn't it be just as easy to assume that it is sincere? Why, then, would the observer be offended? And why would someone who didn't think anything offensive was being done take elaborate pains to dispel any suspicion that he is a "religious person"? Does he think he'll be shunned, or not invited to cocktail parties?

Gestures like Tebow's aren't novel or uncommon at sporting events. Over the years I've seen many football players other than Tebow take a brief knee in the end zone after scoring a touchdown, or even make the sign of the cross. I never heard criticism of those acts, so one wonders whether it's Tebow himself, and his more outspoken brand of faith, that some people object to. And there are certainly other common practices by players that we "don't need to see," like scratching their "private areas" or patting each other on the rear end, that I've never heard a sportswriter complain about.

I suspect that unashamed, public expressions of faith rub many people the wrong way because their consciences are pricked, and they might be reminded that their lives are not focused where they should be. Almost always the expression, especially one like Tebow's at a sporting event, is not intended to embarrass anyone or make them feel badly. But the expression and the one making it is condemned nonetheless.

Not so many years ago a gesture like Tebow's would have been lauded, or at least tolerated without comment. Those were the days when Christian faith was the norm in this country. And those days are, apparently, long gone. Now people have no problem with the orgy of materialism and crudity that professional (and increasingly, college) sports has become; they pay hefty ticket and cable prices to watch obscenely wealthy athletes engaging in violent, arrogant, and juvenile behavior on the field, while commercials aired during the event feature boorish men and barely-clad women promoting gluttony and alcohol abuse. But these same people find it offensive when a player kneels for a moment to acknowledge the God who created him.

If anything, sports--and all walks of life, really--need more Tim Tebows. We need more people of faith, whatever their church or denomination, to come out of the closet and not be afraid to "offend" others by openly praising and witnessing for the Lord. We must not let the forces of darkness drive the church underground and rob humanity of His light. Nor should we hide that light under a basket in order to avoid personal criticism or loss of friends or connections. We are taught that "if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf." (1 Peter 4:16) This was precisely Tim Tebow's point when he Twittered, in response to the alleged mocking of him by other players and fans:
“Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you.”
Amen, Tim.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Yes, Mormons Are Christians!

Who would have thought that one of the most hotly debated questions in the months leading to the 2012 US Presidential election would be: “Are Mormons Christian?"

Thanks to the leading roles of two Mormons in the Republican primary campaign, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., as well as the prominence of fellow Mormons and political adversaries Glenn Beck and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) have suddenly assumed a higher profile in the public consciousness than they have enjoyed, or rued, in many years. At the same time, the LDS Church has launched a web site called, and a media campaign in several large markets, in an effort to show non-members that Mormons are ordinary, yet special, people with unique and positive beliefs. There has even been a "Book of Mormon" Broadway play (hardly flattering to Mormons) that won nine Tony Awards in 2011, including "Best Musical." All this seems to have alarmed many doctrinally conservative "evangelicals," who tend to strenuously disagree with the peculiar tenets of Mormonism, and prompted some (such as Rick Perry supporter Rev. Robert Jeffress) to disparage that faith as a non-Christian "cult" and its members as people whom one should at least hesitate to support for public office.

Jon Huntsman, Jr. and Mitt Romney

This contest is hardly a new one. Since the founding of the LDS Church in 1830, Mormons have struggled against the fierce opposition of, and outright persecution by, people associated with "orthodox" Christian denominations, to the point of being lynched and forcibly driven from home to home across the east, the midwest, and finally across the plains and deserts to a region of relative safety in the far western United States. Even there they were harassed and subjected to military campaigns by the federal government, until they officially disavowed the practice of plural marriage in 1890.

Mormon pioneers crossing the plans.

In succeeding years, however, the friction eased as Mormons were gradually assimilated into mainstream American life and became widely known for their integrity, industry, and generosity. Outside Utah and a few other western states, however (and with a few exceptions, such as Mitt Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George W. Romney and former federal Agriculture Secretary and Church President Ezra Taft Benson), they generally kept a low profile politically until their forthright stance on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion thrust them into the wider political struggle over these questions. Now, with two Mormons seeking the Presidency and social issues so heavily weighing in the national debate, popular attention to the Church, its teachings, and its role in public life is inevitable.

At other times and in a purely theological context, "Is Mormonism Christian?" or "Are Mormons Christian?" might be appropriate matters for discussion. Though perhaps inevitable given the heightened activism of Christian conservatives in American politics today, I submit that such questions are at best irrelevant to the matter of qualification for the Presidency, and at worst unfair to Mormons and counterproductive in the movement to restore respect for Christian values in American public life.

Those who seem to dimly view LDS candidates for President should remember that according to Article VI, paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." That means that religious affiliation, or lack thereof, is not a legal condition to holding the Presidency or any other federal office. If the Framers thought this important enough to make clear in the language of America's most fundamental document, would it be right or patriotic to dismiss a candidate out of hand because of his or her religious affiliation? In 1960 Americans elected their first Roman Catholic President, who became one of our most admired and beloved, despite suggestions by some that he might take his orders from the Vatican. Voters having overcome such prejudices more than half a century ago, is it right that a Mormon candidate today must still endure endless questions about his church and its teachings, sometimes to the near-exclusion of his views on the economy, foreign policy, and other pressing public issues? Would Protestant critics of Mormonism give a Catholic candidate the same treatment just because his church might teach some doctrines at odds with their own? Would they even make a candidate's Jewish identity such an issue?

Aside from the political irrelevance of asking whether Mormons or Mormonism are "Christian," we should consider how the question is being asked, and what is gained and what lost by dwelling on it at this time. Before going further I should point out that I'm not a Mormon believer myself. I was raised Roman Catholic but embraced fundamental Protestant doctrines in early adulthood, and still consider myself an adherent of that tradition. However, I married a wonderful Mormon lady (who's still "mine," I'm proud to say) and two of my three children are active Mormons. I've lived rather happily "among" the Mormons for almost 35 years, and have had ample opportunity to study their history and teachings. Consequently, I think I have a valuable perspective to share as a non-believer who has nevertheless had unusually extensive and intimate familiarity with this people, their beliefs, and how they live their daily lives.

It is crucial that everyone understand what is meant by a question whether Mormons or Mormonism are "Christian." If the questioner's intent is to measure Mormonism's conformity with orthodox, fundamental Christian doctrine as historically received and generally accepted among the major Christian denominations of today, one would probably have to say that many official teachings of the LDS church, on such crucial matters as the nature of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the origin of the universe, the process of salvation, the authority of scripture, and the destiny of man, differ from--and in some ways even contradict--many of the central tenets of historical Christianity. [To explore these teachings and tenets in detail would go far beyond the limits of a single blog post; to learn about the basic teachings of the Mormon faith, go to; for learned Mormon responses to common criticisms of LDS teachings, go to]. Of course, many Protestants would suggest that aspects of Roman Catholicism likewise deviate from their understanding of Christian orthodoxy and tradition, but there doesn't seem to be a groundswell of support for the idea that Catholics aren't Christians. Nevertheless, from a strictly doctrinal standpoint and in a very shorthand way, it might be fair for a non-Mormon to say that some LDS teachings are not "Christian."

But in common parlance, the word "Christian" connotes much more than just theological orthodoxy, particularly when referring to people rather than abstract principles. When a person is described as "a Christian," it is generally understood in our culture that that person is not only a believer in Christ but exemplifies essential Christian virtues, such as peacefulness, patience, generosity, and love for others. When it is said that a person is "not a Christian," it is widely understood as meaning that he or she is not a believer in or a true follower of Christ and is lacking in Christian virtues, or that he or she is a pagan or heathen, or is corrupt, wicked, and depraved. Thus, to say that "Mormons are not Christians" is to suggest that they are a blackhearted people indeed, unless it is made perfectly clear that the statement is limited to the matter of theological orthodoxy. From my long experience with them, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. I know of no church or denomination that has a more passionate love and appreciation of Christ, nor a firmer grasp of what it means to live like Him, than the Mormons. Their faith in God and their sense of ethics and morality are second to none in Christendom. They carefully provide for the future, materially and otherwise, but are generous nearly to a fault with non-members as well as with their own. I've never heard any of their members or leaders endorse something that was evil or hateful, or even profoundly unwise. No group of people has a firmer commitment to the family than the Mormons. If their tree was so rotten at the roots, wouldn't it be bearing evil fruit? How people approach God in their hearts, and how they treat their fellow man, is to me a more meaningful criterion of "Christianity" than the finer points of dogma. I suspect that will be the measure applied to each of us when we finally stand before the Lord Himself.

Not only is it inaccurate and unfair to portray Mormon people as "not Christian," outside a strictly theological context, it is grossly misleading, at least outside that context, to characterize today's LDS church as a "cult." If the modus operandi of a cult is to control its members through coercion and distortion of the truth, then the church has failed miserably, as differing opinion (for example, contrast the views of Mitt Romney or Orrin Hatch with those of Harry Reid) and frank, if privately expressed, criticism of other members and sometimes even church officials is probably as common as you'll find in any religious organization. And how many "brainwashed" people would you expect to find in the top echelons of business, science, and the arts, as so many Mormons are? While LDS members do believe that theirs is the only divinely commissioned church on the earth today, they don't teach that they have a complete monopoly on truth or virtue; just last week I listened to an address by the local stake president (roughly akin to a Catholic bishop)--who is also an ecumenical chaplain at one of the major secular universities in this area--and he spent most of his address emphasizing the need for greater charity toward and contact with Muslims, and looking forward to a scheduled visit with some other local church members to the Islamic Center down the street.

At a time when all sincere religious believers should be standing together to resist the relentless debasement of our culture by materialism and radical secularism, casual references to Mormons as "not Christian" or to Mormonism as a "cult" are as bad for their divisiveness as they are inaccurate and unfair to LDS members. Much can be accomplished through interfaith efforts like the Manhattan Declaration, a coalition of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox clergy, ministry leaders, scholars, and ordinary citizens devoted to restoring in our culture the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty. But if followers of Christ are shunning each other and refusing to cooperate just because their respective churches differ on points of doctrine, important as those matters may be, such efforts could be mortally weakened. As strong and forthright an agency for promoting Christian values as is the LDS Church should not be excluded from the common struggle, nor left to fight on its own. Prominent conservative Christian leader Chuck Colson recently wrote that in this struggle, even though "there are significant and un-reconciled doctrinal differences between Mormonism and Christianity, . . . there may be no other group of people I appreciate more as co-belligerents than the Mormons."

So, in the political sphere, we should judge Presidential candidates on the merits of their governmental philosophy and the policies they propose, not on the church they belong to. In the theological context, testing a church's teachings against a historical and accepted doctrinal standard is legitimate, although in public discussion, it would be better to say that Mormon doctrine differs from traditional Christian orthodoxy than to say baldly that it is not "Christian." And, in my humble opinion, it should never be said that Mormon people, individually or as a group, are "not Christian." For, in following Christ's example in everyday life, they seem to me to be at or near the forefront.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Worth of Souls

Is it not the most incomprehensible miracle that the perfect Lord would leave the glory of Heaven to make his home in this cesspool of misery and evil, and suffer himself to be forsaken, tortured, and murdered by the very people he came to save, and that from their very own sins? Why would He do that? We certainly didn't and don't "deserve" it. The answer, in one word: LOVE. If the value of something is measured by the price paid for it, then each and every last one of us, despite all our guilt and shame, all of our weaknesses and failures, is infinitely precious to Him. That's all that matters. And that's all the reason that we matter.

How different would our own lives be if each one of us remembered, every day, how deep and unchangeable is God's love for us! And how different this world would be if each of us treated all others in a manner commensurate with their worth, as well as our own, in God's eyes!

God commendeth his love toward us, in that,
while we were yet sinners,

Christ died for us.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

My New Blog is Here!

Once again, I must apologize for the extended time I've gone without posting to this blog. As always, of course, I have a good excuse! ;-) This time it really IS good: I've been putting together a new blog--not to replace this one (how can you replace the irreplaceable?), but to complement it. The new blog is called Songs of Praises (here's the address:, and it's all about one of the most precious things in life to me: sacred music. The name of the blog is taken from a line in the magnificent hymn Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah: "Songs of praises, songs of praises, I will ever give to Thee . . . " And that's what I aim to do: give praise to our God by sharing with others the wonder and joy of all the great music, composed over the centuries, that reflects or inspires faith in or devotion to Him, or a sincere seeking after Him.

I'm not a musician; I can't read music; I've never studied music theory; and as a singer I can barely carry a tune. Nevertheless, I have passionately loved good music ever since I can remember. In the last few years "build-it-yourself" music technologies like Pandora have increased my knowledge of the sacred music tradition many fold, and my faith and happiness have grown likewise. It would please me so much to help others have the same experience!

Songs of Praises explores hymns, gospel songs, "spirituals," liturgical music, anthems, oratorios, "contemporary" Christian music, and other forms of religious expression set to music. A typical post provides historical background on the piece's writing and composition, including the writer and composer; the text or lyrics of the piece, if any; sheet music and links to one or more videos of the piece's performance, if available; and my own reflections on the piece's meaning and significance. Some posts may focus on the life and works of a particular writer or composer, and others on some theme or passage touched on in many works of sacred music. Often, posts will correspond to holidays or seasons, or other events in the calendar. I hope to post on three or four pieces a month.

Please visit Songs of Praises and let me know what you think--and tell others about it too!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Another delightful thing about our recent trip out West was the obvious bond of deep affection I saw between Melany and our daughter Donna. They spent a lot of time together over two weeks sewing and making various crafts. I'm sure there were a few tense moments, but you can tell how much mother-daughter love went into the finished product!

It's such a blessing that, despite the years and the generation that separates us, we're able to relate to our children, and they with us, in good humor, genuine care, and love. So many families today are riven with animosity and alienation, between spouses, between parents and children, and among siblings! May our family always be whole and "together" in spirit, even when we can't be so physically.

Western Adventure 2011

We've been back in Brockport three weeks since returning from this summer's Western adventure in and about Idaho Falls, Idaho with our daughter Donna and her husband Jonathan. As always (click here for posts detailing previous visits), we had a marvelous time!

Hill Aerospace Museum

As we did last year, we stopped at Hill Aerospace Museum near Ogden, Utah on our way north to Idaho Falls, after Donna and Jonathan picked me up from the airport in Salt Lake City on Saturday August 6 (Melany went out a week before I did, so she was already there). The girls detoured to a nearby fabric store while Jonathan and I explored the museum (who do you think had the REAL fun?) I got some terrific photographs, this time of planes that didn't make it into last year's collection:

Here is Jonathan standing beside a Vought A-7 Corsair II,
a carrier-based subsonic light attack aircraft
that served the Navy during the late 1960s-80s.

You can see Jonathan at the extreme right,
below the wing of a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress,
long-range, subsonic strategic bomber that began service
in the 1950s and is still in use today.

Here's Jonathan standing beneath the nose
of another m
onster aircraft, the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II,
a heavy-lift military transport plane that served
Air Force during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Inside the museum, the nose of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress,
the premier Allied heavy bomber of World War II.

This is something you may not see anywhere else:
a full-scale model (made for a movie) of the
first atomic weapon,
nicknamed "the gadget,"
that was detonated at
the Trinity Test Site
in New Mexico on 16 July 1945.

The Farmers' Garden

On Sunday, after church, we went to visit Donna and Jonathan's friends the Farmer family--and are they aptly named! After a delicious dinner, we toured the extensive and stunningly beautiful gardens behind their home, complete with waterfalls, a fish-stocked pond, fruit trees, a large greenhouse, and thousands and thousands of flowers!

Donna and Melany in the Farmers' garden.

Fort Hall Replica

On Monday, we drove south to Pocatello, Idaho and visited the Fort Hall Replica. This is a full-size, faithful reproduction of the original Fort Hall built in 1834, which became an important trading post for the mountain fur trade and then for emigrants going west along the Oregon Trail (a few miles further up the Trail they had to make the fateful decision whether to take the north fork toward Oregon or the south fork toward California). As a matter of fact, before our vacation I had started reading an excellent book about the fur trade called Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard DeVoto--and at the time we visited the Fort was right in the middle of the book's discussion of the Fort's history!

A view of the Fort Hall Replica's interior.
It wasn't
a particularly big place, but "in the day"
would have
been crowded with people and animals.

Another view of the Fort Hall Replica's interior.
The building in the center was where most of the formal
"trading" was conducted.

This wagon, displayed at the Fort, is of the actual type
that carried most emigrants west along the Oregon Trail.
It's much smaller than the big "Conestoga"-type wagons,
often depicted as used by the pioneers in movies, that usually carried freight.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game!

Tuesday night we attended a delightful picnic put on by alumni of Brigham Young University-Idaho (which Donna and Jonathan both attended), then strolled over to a nearby stadium to see a game between the Idaho Falls Chukars (a "chukar" is a kind of partridge found in the Rocky Mountains) and the Casper, Wyoming (you know what's coming) Ghosts. The teams belong to the Pioneer League, a rookie league that's part of the Major League Baseball farm system. We must bring the Chukars good luck, because they won this game just like they did on our 2010 visit to Idaho Falls! And the most memorable moment of the night wasn't on the field: Jonathan and I each won a drawing for a prize from Deseret Books! We picked them up in the stadium gift shop, and I was astounded to get a book that I had just recently found out about and wanted badly to read, The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World by Chris and Ted Stewart. A delightful evening indeed!

The Chukars warming up.

Aside from Jonathan and I winning prizes, this
was the night's most dramatic moment--out at home plate.

Yellowstone National Park

On Wednesday we drove to Yellowstone National Park and took the North Loop, instead of the South Loop which we had focused on in previous visits. Not far into the park we stopped to stretch our legs (having driven over two hours from Idaho Falls), opposite a high bluff overlooking a creek.

And there we encountered the little follow (gal?) below, who seemed to be looking for a handout or leftover--it's a marmot.

"Did all these people come here just to see me?"

One of the first major sites we came to was Norris Geyser Basin, an otherwordly expanse of steam vents, geysers, and hot acidic pools.

Norris Geyser Basin

A few miles further up the road we came to a place called Artist Point, from which we beheld the Lower Yellowstone Falls. What a spectacle! The water of the Yellowstone River plunges more than 300 feet into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which itself is up to 1,000 feet deep.

Lower Yellowstone Falls from Artist Point

Lower Falls and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Donna and Jonathan at Artist Point

Further on we came to Mammoth Hot Springs, an area even more like an alien planet than Norris Geyser Basin. Here, hot water from the springs flows over the surface in rivulets and pools, and deposits calcium carbonate--a white, chalky mineral--in such copious amounts that it's formed terraces down the side of a hill that look like frozen waterfalls. The mineral and the hot water that leaves it thick everywhere choke the life out of any trees that try to grow here. I'll just let the camera take over for a moment to give you an idea what this place is like.

The rest our drive was through seemingly endless, and beautiful, hill country.

The rest our drive was through seemingly endless, and beautiful, hill country. One thing often seen in this area are buffalo--or "bison," as they're properly called.

Here's what one of these enormous, fearsome creatures looks like up close and personal--the picture was taken from just inside the car window! (I'm cheating a bit here; this photo was actually shot on our 2007 visit to Yellowstone, but is making its first online appearance--I couldn't resist!)

Playmill Theater

After leaving Yellowstone Wednesday evening we stopped for dinner in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, and then attended a presentation at the Playmill Theater of the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It was a lot of fun, if not quite as delightful as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which we saw at the Playmill last year.

Temples and Temple Square

Whenever we're in Idaho and Utah--from which our plane left for home on Saturday--we enjoy visiting the sites associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Of course, that includes the Church's beautiful temples, including the new Rexburg Temple in Rexburg, Idaho, where Donna and Jonathan attended college at BYU-Idaho.

Rexburg Temple

Statue of the Angel Moroni,
atop the Rexburg Temple

Before we left for home from the Salt Lake CIty airport, we visited Temple Square in Salt Lake CIty--always a setting for marvelous pictures!

There were 75 weddings at the Salt Lake Temple
on the Saturday we were there--if you look closely,
you can see one of the couples in the lower right corner
of this picture (I didn't notice them till after I
took the picture!).

This side view of the Salt Lake Temple
was taken through a large window
from inside
the adjacent Visitors' Center.

17 Miracles

It's hard to overstate the crucial role the Mormons played in American history and settlement of the West. On Friday evening we all went to a showing of the film 17 Miracles, a beautiful, well-acted, and heartrending film about the Willie and Martin companies of Mormon pioneers, who pulled wooden handcarts across the American plains in 1856 toward the Salt Lake Valley, and were caught in the mountains of Wyoming in October, when winter came early and with a vengeance. Before they were rescued many died, and there was much suffering and much discovery of what faith, hope, and love really mean.


Melany and I tasted a little adversity of our own on the flight back home, when bad weather in Chicago held up our flight there from Salt Lake City, and we had to spend the night at O'Hare airport because our connecting flight to Rochester left about 20 minutes before we landed. After seeing what the Willie and Martin companies endured, what was a little inconvenience like that?

If you've never traveled out to see the great American West, this should definitely be on your "bucket list." Seeing places like Yellowstone, the Teton Range, the Snake River Valley, and Temple Square are priceless, unforgettable experiences. Melany and I are so thankful that Donna and Jonathan have made it possible for us to have them. Thank you both, again!

Idaho sunset