Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black Friday

"But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God--having a form of godliness but denying its power." 2 Timothy 3:1-5.

Mark this: Black Friday fits the bill.

The people who stormed the 5:00 a.m. opening of the Wal-Mart at the Valley Stream Mall in Nassau County, New York, tearing the doors off their hinges and stampeding a man to death, loved only themselves and the chance to save a buck. They were proud, abusive, and disobedient to their parents who, I hope, at one time told them to be polite and wait your turn. They were certainly ungrateful for the employee who showed up in the early morning hours, working to put food on his table. The fact that the throng was unholy in attitude and action is without question. The fact that a man died in a rush for first dibs on a plasma TV is proof enough that these shoppers had no self-control, were not lovers of good, were treacherous, rash, conceited and lovers of pleasure. The fact that they continued shopping as the man lay dying is brutal.

The South Jersey Courier Post Online reports:

"When (store employees) were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling "I've been in line since yesterday morning,"' Cribbs said. "They kept shopping."

Brutal. Conceited. Without love. Having a form of godliness (shopping for Christmas) but denying its power. Giving themselves completely over to their sinful nature. And if you don't believe in sin, then please explain what you would call this.

Matthew 16:26 asks, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"

"Jesus wept." John 11:35

Friday, November 28, 2008

Jesus is our Hope

Thanksgiving is over and what's known as the "Holiday Season" is bearing down upon us. This can be a difficult time for people for a variety of reasons: the painful memories of a loved one who is no longer with us; a strained relationship with someone; struggling financially or physically; dreading holiday parties and gatherings, and the whole commercial shopping machine that comes with this time of year.

But there is a reason Christians celebrate Christmas. We celebrate because Jesus came into human history as a baby and grew into a man whose Words we can read in the Bible. He came to release us--now, while we live our days on earth, and later in eternity with Him--from bondage to pain, suffering, anxiety and every other sadness and disappointment known to man. Jesus knew these things too.

When noone else can feel our pain, Jesus does. When nobody else understands our frustration, He does. And only He can take us through it and out of it. He is the one who trains us up in the Way we should go. He not only sits with us in our brokenness, He makes us whole once again--even if our circumstances remain doubtful, even when relationships fall apart, even when sickness doesn't go away.

Jesus, being sent by God to die for us, has overcome the world. Because of that, someday we'll leave here and be with Him forever. But Jesus will overcome our own personal world too. Right here. Today. Now.

Let Jesus in to your Christmas. Let Jesus in to your life.

"Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God." Psalm 42:5-6

"Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken." Psalm 62:5-6

"And hope does not disapppoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." Romans 5:5

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." Romans 15:13

Monday, November 24, 2008

Removing the Shroud of Mystery

(This is Part Two of looking at how "Of Wolves and Men" by Barry Holstun Lopez shares similarities with the Christian faith)

Today I'll look at how mystery played a big part in promoting false stereotypes and blocking the truth about the wolf. While Lopez acknowledges that there is always more to learn about the wolf, and some questions may not be able to be answered, the oppressive shroud of mystery had to go in order for people to properly see, and save, the wolf.

Lopez writes, "It is one of the oddities of our age that much of what Eskimos know about wolves--and speak about clearly in English, in twentieth-century terms--wildlife biologists are still intent on discovering."

Isn't that the same approach many take to Jesus Christ? We know all about Jesus from the Bible and the historical evidence that supports it. Yet seminaries, pastors, authors, churches and individuals are still intent on ignoring, re-inventing, or creating mystery around what has been clearly spoken in English, in twentieth century translations of the Bible!

Lopez tells the experience of wildlife biologist Robert Stephenson, who, in 1970, traveled the tundra and mountain country of the Nunamiut Eskimos. Lopez writes, "It dawned on him that the wolves he was watching were not like the wolves described in the literature he had read. And the Nunamiut were telling him things about wolves that no one, no biologist at least, had ever written about--not because they were odd or singular or mysterious things, but because they were things biologists were not interested in. Or never saw."

It was only when I began reading the Bible, and found a Bible-believing and teaching church, that I learned that everything I had previously heard and knew about faith was nothing like what I was now hearing. No pastor, leader, or Sunday school teacher--and nothing I had ever previously read--had ever told me these things.

Unless we're reading the Bible under the Counsel of the Holy Spirit, we won't even begin to know who Jesus, or faith in Him, is. We can read all kinds of things in literature about Christianity; one-sided history books, and books that are nothing more than pop-psychology faith. We can read gazillions of watered-down takes on what it means to be a Christian and sentimental "such and such" for the soul books, all geared to making the publisher a lot of money. These books will say a lot that is odd, singular and mysterious. But they will ignore anything the author isn't interested in, or can't see. Thus, only a partial, or completely misdirected, picture of faith in Jesus Christ is given.

The fact that the Bible is still the number one selling book in the U.S. is heartening; I just wonder how many people are making it their foundation for understanding Jesus Christ and the Christian walk. And how many people are testing all the other books they read about the Christian faith, and all the other teachings about the Christian faith, against what the Bible says about faith?

Wolves have a uniqueness all their own, and Lopez will be the first to say that the animal should never be seen as an object to be quantified--limited and capable of being fully understood. That would be arrogance. But he also warns that it should never be seen in the more humble attitude of being unfathomable. "The view from both places," he says, "gives you an animal neither can see."

Arrogance in faith leads to legalisms and obsessing over things like pew arrangement and whether or not people are raising their hands in worship. It stands in the way of unity in essentials and becomes spiritual pride. Yet a mentality that lacks confidence in the Truth of our Triune God and His Word leads to a false humility which, out of a fear of hurting anybody's feelings or stepping on anybody's toes, simply surrenders to mystery; to saying "we can’t really know." When the truth is, we can know.

In the case of the wolf, knowing has made all the difference. It will make all the difference in our, and others faith, as well.

" people are destroyed from lack of knowledge." Hosea 4:6

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Of Wolves and Men

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the printing of the book "Of Wolves and Men" by Barry Holstun Lopez, which I just finished reading.

The book took me back to my twenties when I was a member of the Timber Wolf Alliance and went on wolf-study junkets to the great white north. There, we wolf groupies searched for wolf-scat and measured wolf paw prints in the snow under the tutelage of a University of Wisconsin biologist. (I'll write more later about how I worshipped wolves before I worshipped God!)

We never did see a wolf, however, which I quickly learned is normal. Wolves see people and "get out of Dodge" long before we even know they are there. Which breaks the first myth of the wolf: that they are brazen monsters that love to confront and attack people. Just the opposite: they love nothing more than to mind their own business and keep as much distance as possible between themselves and humans. Many other misconceptions about the wolf ran rampant until organizations like the Timber Wolf Alliance and Lopez' monumental book began challenging them and educating the public with the truth about the wolf. The result is that we now have a correct understanding of the wolf, along with healthy wolf populations, at least in the Midwest, where they were sorely in decline.

As I read Lopez' book, I couldn't help but marvel at how much the wolf and Christianity have in common, and I'll be sharing some of these insights over the next few days.

Lopez jumps in right away on page three saying, "The truth is we know little about the wolf. What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine the wolf to be."

I re-wrote this statement as I see it applying to Christianity:

"The truth is we know little about Christianity/church/faith in Jesus/the Bible. What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine Christianity/the church/Bible/faith in Jesus to be."

An actress once said in a magazine interview that "Everybody has an opinion about the Bible, but very few have actually ever read it." What a great insight!

Lopez points out in his book that it wasn't just the urban and rural public who didn't know anything about the wolf; the biologists, trappers, and cattle ranchers didn't have an understanding either--what they all had was an imagining of what the wolf was like. Very few ever actually "read" the wolf. Very few took the time to investigate and get to know the wolf for themselves. The only ones who did have a correct understanding were, according to Lopez, "the people who lived in the Arctic among wolves, who had observed them for years in the wild."

Isn't that true with Christianity? It's the people who read their Bibles and who have lived among Bible-believing born-again Christians and observed them for years--not just looking at one sample of a church, Christian, pastor or denomination and making a final conclusion, or only learning about Christianity in seminary--who understand what it means to be a Christian.

People who don't take time to investigate for themselves (which was me for many years) or who have never set foot in a church have all kinds of things, usually nasty, to say about church/the Bible/Christians/God. Other people may have attended only one church or been exposed to only one denomination and, having had a bad experience, base their opinion of all churches and Christians on that one experience, often bad-mouthing churches they never set foot in and Christians they've never met. The Arctic Eskimos occasionally came upon rabid wolves, recognizing them by how they looked and acted. But they didn't conclude all wolves are rabid wolves. They knew there was a difference and how to tell the difference!

People who have never read the Bible, or who have never read it through the counseling of the Holy Spirit, have all kinds of very firm, but often false, convictions regarding the Bible. People who haven't gotten to know a true Bible-based believer in Jesus sometimes categorize all Christians as right-wing radicals because that's how their parents and grandparents classified Christians. They let their pre-conceived notions keep them from going into a Bible-based church to see if they can find something or someone that breaks the stereotype.

As Christians, we need to be the Barry Lopez’s and the Timber Wolf Alliances' of the world, getting the Truth of the Gospel out there in all its clarity and sufficiency. We need to bring Jesus--the real deal Jesus--to life for other Christians, non-Christians and ourselves through the personal study and living out of the Word, and through observing, learning from, listening to and spending time with mature Christians. In this way the Holy Spirit can break us, and others, of stereotypes and preconceived notions.

"All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations." Isaiah 65:2

"A truthful witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies." Proverbs 14:5

"True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips." Malachi 2:6

"Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth." John 17:17

"Therefore each of you must put off falsehood..." Ephesians 4:25

Friday, November 14, 2008

Let our Yes be Yes

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No;' anything beyond this comes from the evil one." Matthew 5:33-37.

When I read this verse the other day it jumped out at me. I began going through my various Bibles and commentaries to see what they had to say regarding these verses. One commentary translated this as "say what you mean and mean what you say." The New Life Application Bible said:

"Vows were common, but Jesus told his followers not to use them--their word alone should be enough (see James 5:12). Truthfulness seems so rare that we feel we must end our statements with "I promise." If we tell the truth all the time, we will have less pressure to back up our words with an oath or promise."

What often happens is that promises are made to people or ourselves and not to God, which dooms them from the start. Maybe this is why I don't particularly care for weddings. There's so much pomp and ritual surrounding what is a very public stating of a promise to love one another and live happily ever after, often made in a church by people who don't go to church and don't plan on going after they're married! (For the record, my husband and I went to the altar under these very conditions). The promise itself is the featured entertainment, but is it an unconditional "yes" to Jesus? Or is it an earthly, conditional promise that says "I'll love this person as long as they make me happy." Because if it’s the latter, when showtime is over and everybody comes down off their romantic high, that superficial "promise" goes right out the window.

I also see the getting away from saying "yes" to Jesus in the trend of bringing ancient spiritual practices into the Christian worship service. In these services, a greater commitment or promise to God is made through an emotional experience; a person lights a floating candle, walks away with a stone, or repetitively chants a word or song. But Jesus is saying we don't need to do this, and in fact it can be detrimental to do this because Satan can use it to get our focus off of Jesus and His Word and put it instead on ourselves. It can cause us to believe there is special power in an object or ritual when in truth the power is in Jesus Himself (the implication being that the Triune God isn't enough, nor sufficient). The practices and rites of Eastern religions are being grafted, at an alarming rate, into what is supposed to be a time of worship and teaching about Jesus and the Bible. Satan can use these practices so that the ritual, talisman or mood becomes the object of our faith and worship, replacing Jesus and His Word entirely!

Experiential, multi-sensory based worship and faith tends to remove the authority of Scripture. Where is the mystical token we received in church when we really need it? It's in the cup-holder of the car or on top of the clothes dryer! But when Scripture is written on our hearts, we can bring it to mind in a moment's notice, allowing us to say "yes" to Jesus and "no" to Satan; Just as Jesus Himself did when he fought off the devil.

In the grocery store...during tortuously long visits with extended family over the holidays...when the teacher seems out to get our kid...when we don't see eye to eye with our spouse, boss or sister...recalling Scripture is what will get us to honor our "yes" to Jesus. This is why it is the reading, preaching and studying of Scripture in all its sufficiency, and not the taking of window-dressed vows or a weekly walk through ancient rites that needs to be our practice. Jesus wants to protect us from emotional manipulation and from going casually or ritually along with the crowd in making a promise through some kind of medium; a promise that can never stand up because it isn't a daily, unconditional "yes" to Jesus Himself.

"So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, 'Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?' He replied "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!" Mark 7:5-9

"Above all, my brothers, do not swear--not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your 'Yes' be yes, and your 'No,'no, or you will be condemned." James 5:12

Monday, November 10, 2008

Veterans of the Korean War

Oostburg area Veterans march in the 2008 Milwaukee Veterans Day Parade Saturday, November 8. Barb Harwood, photo

In the summer of 2003, I was assigned by the Sheboygan Press to cover the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. Not knowing all that much about the war myself, I embarked on a journey that would forever change the meaning of the word "Veteran" to me.

As part of my research, I read two excellent books: "This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History" by T. R. Fehrenbach and "The Korean War: Uncertain Victory, Vol. 2" by Donald Knox, where I learned that the death toll for U.S. Service Personnel in Korea over three years (June 24, 1950-July 27, 1953) was virtually the same as in 10 years in Vietnam.

I interviewed and spent many hours with local Korean War Veterans, mainly from the Oostburg area. Tears came to the surface often as one man, a gunner on a B-24 who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight, relayed his stories. His wife sat in the room with us and quietly told me after the interview that she had never heard her husband share some of these things before. Most of the men I spent time with had tears in their eyes as they relayed their Korean War experience, 50 years after the fact. For these men, the war will never be over and the men they personally served with will never be forgotten. It is these men, along with all Veterans, that I honor this week.

After I wrote the newspaper series, I attempted to get my thoughts about these men, who weren't much older when they served than my oldest son is now, down on paper in the form of a poem. I had always loved to read and write poetry. But as I wrote and re-configured the words, it became more and more ludicrous to me to attempt to put all that I'd heard from these men into a poem. Poetry seemed to trivialize everything. So I wrote something that, essentially, says how poetry--a metaphor for so much else in life--loses all meaning and purpose when held up against what the men and women experienced in the horror of the Korean War. The albeit futile vessel that follows is the end result:

No Words for Korean War

I could write of primroses and beach glass
But what would that mean to you,
a man who served 51 years ago
in the Korean Theater,
a stage of death so senseless
that nobody in the States wanted
to hear about it
or even to remember.

You were 18
fresh from a land of maple trees
and humble brick bungalows
A place where the fourth of July was marked
by flags
hanging from the front stoop
and boys pushed mowers
over postage stamp lawns.
Your life rolled out in front of you
like so many Iowa farm fields;
a life barely grown
and too young for war's threshing floor.
You found,
and lost yourself,
in Korea;
Porkshop Hill, Bloody Ridge,
crossing the river at Inch'on--
faces of boys you'd just met
blown away in front of you.
You scribbled letters home
not knowing what to say.

As fog skimmed another tranquil Wisconsin lake on a June morning
As thick white snowflakes fell softly
in neighborhoods bedecked with Christmas lights
In Korea
days of humid rain
gave way to snow.
You "dug-in" through the permafrost
to make a bed for your hour of sleep.
Back in the States
they didn’t know
and never thought to ask.

While poets waxed quixotic--
and still do--
of starry skies and pouring tea
What is that to boys and men
for whom the stars have died
and pretense is no more.

"Jesus wept." John 11:35

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Great Nation Under God

Barb Harwood, photo

This editorial written by Michael Gerson in today's Washington Post best sums up how I feel following the election:

Whether we voted for Obama or McCain, our president on January 20, 2009 will be Barack Obama. Biblically, we are called to support him with our prayers and maintain gratitude for his willingness to serve this country. I thank God that we live in a land where presidential elections can be held peacefully and men and women aged 18 and older are free to vote without intimidation. I applaud the election of the first African-American president and the ending of discrimination and racism this win signifies.

It is my prayer that we will all adhere to the words of 1 Timothy 2:1-2:

"I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."

May God bless the United States of America.

Monday, November 3, 2008

This is Grace

As you probably know, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila was released from the Packers last week.

Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press Gazette brought us the news, and even more importantly, the grace in which KGB accepted it:

Upon his release, Gbaja-Biamila said in a statement through the Packers: "My nine years as a Green Bay Packer have been a blessing that is beyond words. I thank God for bringing me to this first-class organization and first-class community."

Gbaja-Biamila, a devout Christian, gained a reputation for talking openly about his faith in the locker room. He harbored no bitterness toward the Packers organization. "I don't know what my football future holds, but one thing I've realized is that football is more than a game -- it's about building relationships and changing lives," said Gbaja-Biamila. "One of the commitments I've had throughout my career has been to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and that is something that I intend on doing whether on the field or not. God bless the Green Bay Packers."

In a March 27, 2008 Marquette Tribune article, Kabeer said, "Christianity should be a verb, not a noun."

It's obvious that KGB's Christian faith is a verb, as we've seen in the grace and integrity shown not only during his years as a Green Bay Packer, but in the days following his release from the team; quite a contrast to what we often see in sports and in life, so filled with loyalty and love when things are going good, but bitterness and selfish pride when the going gets rough.

So thanks, KGB, for modeling what Paul says in Philippians 4:11-12: "I have learned to
be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." Thank you for consistently walking the talk. God Bless you wherever you go from here.

"Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put it into practice." Philippians 4:8-9

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Barb Harwood, photos

"The mellow year is hastening to its close;
The little birds have almost sung their last,
Their small notes twitter in the dreary blast--
That shrill-piped harbinger of early snows..."

from "November" by Hartley Coleridge