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While some fields of study frequently lead to cutting-edge discoveries and surprising revelations, other areas of research just seem to validate and confirm what mankind has known for millennia through common sense and shared life experiences.  A few days ago, I learned that a recent study had concluded that (drum roll, please) the physical touch of mothers was vital in contributing to a sense of calm and security in infants.  Although I was previously unaware that a hormone and neurotransmitter called oxytocin was involved in the bonding equation, the conclusions of the study didn’t come as much of a surprise.   There is great power in the human touch.

Even a cursory reading of the Gospels causes one to be struck by the number of times that close, comforting, physical contact played a vital role in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Though eternal and divine, the Word participated fully in the human experience as One who became flesh (John 1:14) and was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4).  From birth, He would have experienced the innate bonding and sense of safety that come from being cradled, nursed, and nurtured by His mother. 

In His public ministry, there were numerous times when Jesus utilized physical touch when it wouldn’t have been essentially necessary to bring about the desired result of healing.  As Creator and “Master of ocean and earth and skies,” Jesus possessed the power to merely speak and sins would be forgiven, diseases would flee, and life would be restored to the dead.  Still, He chose to reach out His hand and touch the leper (Matthew 8:3).  He took Peter’s ailing mother-in-law by the hand (Mark 1:31) and touched the eyes of the blind (Matthew 9:29).  He touched the ears and tongue of the deaf and speech impaired (Mark 7:33) and tenderly took the hand of Jairus’ 12 year-old daughter as He called her departed spirit back into her body (Luke 8:54-55).

The touch of Jesus wasn’t limited to acts of healing and restoration of life.  The God-Man not only conveyed divine power, but also communicated comfort and compassion through His human hands.  As Peter, James, and John lay face-down and terrified at the sound of the Father’s voice on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus reached down and touched them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:5-8).  His hand increased the comfort of His voice in driving away their fear. 

Jesus cradled a child as He taught His disciples about Kingdom standards of greatness and servanthood (Mark 9:33-37).  Indignantly rejecting the protests of His disciples, Jesus took the little ones into His arms and blessed them, laying His hands on them (Mark 10:13-16).

The older I get, the less adequate I feel at times in finding the right words to say when people are hurting and confused by life’s sorrows and setbacks.  I’m so grateful that a part of our being so fearfully and wonderfully made by our Father is that the touch of a hand can effectively communicate what our hearts feel but our lips cannot articulate.

A tender embrace; an arm around the shoulder; a touch on the arm; a gentle grasp on a trembling hand.  A balm for the weary; a comfort to troubled souls; a touch that heals.

 

On March 11, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency.  The court’s decisions came in response to two separate legal challenges by atheist Michael Newdow who claimed that the phrases violate the Constitutional provision for the separation of church and state.  The appeals court disagreed with Newdow’s contention and a lower court decision in his favor.  It was a rare occasion for many conservative Christians to cheer a ruling by the 9th Circuit, a court with a longstanding reputation for political liberalism and judicial activism.

Christians who interpretted the court’s decision as a victory for faith and America’s religious heritage should have looked beyond the bottom line and read the fine print of the judges’ rationale for their ruling.  There’s not much to celebrate.  In the 3-0 decision in favor of retaining “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, the court cited an earlier opinion by the 9th Circuit in the case of Aronow v. United States (1970) in maintaining that the phrase does not remotely approach the establishment of religion since it is only “ceremonial” and “patriotic” in nature and “has no theological or ritualistic impact.”  In essence, the court’s opinion was that the phrase on U.S. currency is harmless because it really doesn’t mean anything substantive.  You know, we trust in “God” (wink, wink) in a sentimental, inspirational, generic, patriotic sort of way.  Really?  That’s what “God” means?  That’s who “God” is? 

On March 5, 1984, in the case of Lynch v. Donnelly, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the inclusion of a nativity scene in a municipal Christmas display in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  Chief Justice Burger wrote the majority opinion in the ruling; Justice Brennan authored the dissenting opinion.  In his dissent, Brennan acknowledged that government can’t be completely separated from religious beliefs and practices, especially as they relate to the nation’s history and culture.  He referenced two examples.  “While I remain uncertain about these questions, I would suggest that such practices as the designation of “In God We Trust” as our national motto, or the references to God contained in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag can best be understood, in Dean Rostow’s apt phrase, as a form of “ceremonial deism,” protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”  In other words, these two phrases have been said so much and read so much that they no longer have any substantive theological meaning.  They are just quaint features of our national history and identity.  It’s “ceremonial deism,”  that’s all.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt found himself at the center of a public relations firestorm because he had approved a new design for the $20 gold Double Eagle coins which lacked the motto, “In God We Trust.”  In a letter published by The New York Times, Roosevelt explained that his objection to the motto on coinage wasn’t because he didn’t believe in God, but because he did!  He wrote:

“My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good, but does positive harm, and is in fact irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.  A beautiful and solemn sentence such as the one in question should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation of spirit… Any use which tends to cheapen it, and, above all, any use which tends to secure its being treated in a spirit of levity, is from every standpoint profoundly to be regretted.”

After defending the inscription of the motto on national monuments, halls of justice, etc., Roosevelt continued:

“But it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps or in advertisements… If Congress alters the law and directs me to replace on the coins the sentence in question, the direction will be immediately put into effect, but I very earnestly trust that the religious sentiment of the country, the spirit of reverence in the country, will prevent any such action being taken.”

Did you get that?  Roosevelt thought that reverent believers should insist that God’s name not be imprinted on coins lest the Name be cheapened, trivialized, profaned, and rendered meaningless, save for sentimentality and superstition.  I think Teddy was right!

Civil religion is a shallow substitute for genuine faith.  It offers us a “ceremonial deity,” a least-common-denominator god who means anything you want him to mean, including nothing.  That is not the God I serve!

For more thoughts on the subject, you can go back and read my post Does God Want His Name on Our Money?      

Upon completion of my undergraduate studies at Lipscomb University, I had the opportunity to work in two-year missions internship in Gympie, Queensland, Australia.  Those years provided invaluable “on-the-job” ministry training that greatly supplemented the academic instruction I had received.  Though my primary purpose for being there was the work of the kingdom of God, it also fulfilled a childhood dream of traveling Down Under.  I had begun to read about Australia when I was ten years old, and I became fascinated with its landscape and unique wildlife.  Nowhere else in the world could you find a platypus, koala, kangaroo, wallaby, wombat, echidna, kookaburra, or Tasmanian devil in their natural habitat.  Deserts, grasslands, mountains, rain forests, and thousands of miles of coastline make up this diverse nation/continent.

Australia’s most striking and magnificent geographical feature is Ayers Rock.  This stone monolith, located near the southern border of the Northern Territory, rises 1,200 feet above a surrounding landscape that is almost entirely flat.  The mystery and impressiveness of Ayers Rock (Uluru) caused it to be considered the most sacred of all sites in the lore of the Aborigines.

Near the end of my work in Gympie, I had the pleasure of taking a two-week Outback trek with a Christian brother, Barry Morgan.  Our primary objective was to reach Ayers Rock.  Traveling by four-wheel-drive, we were able to shorten the distance of the trip by taking several hundred kilometers of dirt roads.  About a week into the trip, we passed through Alice Springs and then made camp that evening after dark, knowing that we were getting close to our destination.  At dawn, we awoke to the sight of the morning sun illuminating the eastern face of the Rock.  After a short drive we reached Uluru, ascended to the top, and spent most of the day exploring its nooks and crannies and enjoying the magnificent view from the top: a dream fulfilled.

On the return trip, and on a particularly dusty stretch of the Plenty Highway, Barry and I were startled by a helicopter that flew over the vehicle from behind at a very low altitude and landed in the road up ahead.  We were surprised to learn that it carried a team of surveyors who had become disoriented while mapping water wells (bores) in the area.  Their problem was that they were only carrying maps of very small sections of land and had lost their sense of where they were in the “big picture.”  After showing them their approximate location on our large-scale map, they recovered their bearings and were off in a cloud of dust.

There are countless individuals in this world who are making their way through life with little sense of where they are or where they are going in the big scheme of things.  They gain whatever direction they possess from minuscule “sectional maps” of life.  Life becomes an endless series of repetitive daily activities.  Their lives are regulated by the cycle of their work schedules and pay periods.  Satan would have them continue living this way, never seeking anything larger than themselves, never questioning, “Is this all there is?”

Our calling and ministry as children of the King and disciples of Jesus is to help awaken precious souls to the world of spiritual reality that lies beyond this earthly facade.  Many of them have already concluded that there must be something more to life and are humble enough to realize that they need direction.  They just need someone to point them toward Jesus.  He is the Way that can lead them Home.

This isn’t so much a criticism as it is an observation.    Have you ever noticed that, when you pray with another person or with a small group of people, everyone typically concludes the offering of petitions and the giving of thanks by verbalizing their affirmation and assent in saying, “Amen!”  Whether kneeling beside someone’s hospital bed, praying with family and friends before a meal, praying in an elders’ meeting, with the ministry staff or in a small group Bible study, everyone seems to have their hearts so in tune and in touch that they feel completely comfortable in audibly offering their conviction that, “Father, this is my prayer, also!  So be it, according to Your will and Your power!  Amen!”  And yet, when those same people are gathered with a significant number of others in the context of a worship assembly, the “Amen” offered by the one publicly leading in prayer is answered by the sound of silence or the faint chirping of a lone cricket.

Amen is the transliteration of a Greek word which is the transliteration of a Hebrew word, all of which essentially mean the same thing.  At the beginning of a statement it means, “surely, of a truth, truly.”  Jesus used the word in a formulaic fashion to introduce many of His teachings:  “Amen (verily, truly, most assuredly), I say to you….”  At the end of a statement, it is an expression of one’s identification with and affirmation of something which had been spoken or read.  “So it is!  So be it!  May it be fulfilled!”  The custom of worshippers offering their “Amen” at the end of a doxology, benediction, or the reading of Scripture is significantly evidenced in the Old Testament, and the practice ultimately passed naturally from the synagogue to the church in the first century.

Paul fully anticipated that Christians in Corinth would voice their “Amen” at the conclusion of the giving of thanks in the assembly (I Cor. 14:16).  That’s why it was essential that one not pray in an uninterpretted tongue; you can’t offer your “Amen” to something that you can’t comprehend.  The practice was still common a hundred years later.  Justin, writing in the mid-second century, notes in his description of Christian worship that when prayers and thanksgivings were offered, “the people assent, saying Amen.”

We serve “the God of Amen” (Is. 65:16).  Our Savior is “the Amen” (Rev. 3:14).  All of the Father’s promises are “Yes” in Jesus Christ, and through Him we speak our “Amen” to the glory of God (II Cor. 1:18-20).

Why do so many Christians refrain from voicing their “Amen” when prayer is offered in our assemblies?  Is it because of an audience mentality and a performance atmosphere in which we sit and observe someone else praying rather than feeling that this is our collective communication with the Father, that this is my prayer?  Sometimes, worship leaders attempt to prime and prompt our response by saying, “And the church said….”  To be honest, this has always struck me as a bit contrived (dare I say, “cheesy”) and reminds me of a parent trying to elicit a “please” or a “thank you” from a reluctant child who ought to know when and how to use those terms.  “Now, what do we say?  Use your words!”  Or, in order to draw a response from the congregation, we use “Amen” as an interrogative which often means no more than, “Am I right, or am I right?” 

“Amen?”  

Sorry, but “Amen” really isn’t a question!  It’s a declaration!  It’s an affirmation!

In Acts 4:31, Luke describes early disciples praying in Jerusalem and “the place where they had gathered together was shaken.”  Wouldn’t it be great if the collective voice of 12, 120, or 1,200 worshippers thundered their “Amen” together in prayer and shook the pews? 

I really don’t understand why we don’t; I just wish we did.  So, I guess I need to retract my opening statement.  This probably does qualify as a criticism.

"Dirty Thunderstorm"; Eyjafjallajokull Volcano in Iceland

For most of us, Iceland is a distant and remote place that really doesn’t have much impact on our daily lives and schedules.  I do recall Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meeting in Reykjavik back in 1986, and I have seen Iceland a couple of times from 30,000 feet on flights to northern Europe.  In recent months, Iceland’s financial crisis and the collapse of its government have made the news, but the influence of those events has been much more keenly felt by its European neighbors than by the inhabitants of the rest of the world.   

However, a couple of weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of travelers around the globe were caused to sit up, take notice, and develop an immediate interest in exactly where this country was and how volcanic activity there might affect their travel plans.  A volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier began seriously rumbling in March and then shifted into full-blown eruption mode on April 14.  (Forget trying to say Eyjafjallajokul three times really fast; my hat is off to anyone who can pronounce it even once, slowly!).  Photos from the erupting volcano have been spectacular, including multiple images of a rare phenomenon known as a “dirty thunderstorm.”  Ash and rock fragments in the volcano’s plume collide with ice particles, creating massive amounts of static electricity which is then discharged as lightning.   

While several hundred local residents had to be evacuated because of a torrent of water from the melting glacier, the volcano’s greatest impact was experienced on the European continent, over which a massive cloud of ash had spread.  Volcanic ash has the consistency of talcum powder and has been known to shut down jet engines when encountered in flight.  Airports across Europe were closed; no flights in, no flights out.  “What do you mean my flight has been cancelled?”  “What do you mean you don’t know when you’ll be able to fly again?”  The gall!  Or, de Gaulle, for those who were stranded in the Paris airport!   

Occasionally, events remind us that there are forces at work in this world which are much greater than ourselves; there are things that exist outside the sphere of human control, influence, manipulation, and spin.  You can’t negotiate with an Icelandic volcano.  Controlling interests in them cannot be gained through leveraged buyouts.  They aren’t influenced by opinion polls or negative publicity.  They are impervious to threats of economic sanctions or the use of military force.  They are bigger than spin.       

Politicians, corporate executives, and sometimes even church leaders can successfully manipulate outcomes, control the dissemination of information, and “spin” things to their own advantage and the detriment of others.  I am not suggesting that this ought to happen; just saying that it does.  Such is the nature of earthly power and authority, both secular and religious.    

But, there is a Higher Authority, a Greater Power, who exists above and beyond the reach of human control!     

…The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed… He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them. (Psalms 2:1-4)   

But you, why do you judge your brother?  Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.  For it is written, “As I live,” says the Lord, “every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”  So then each one us will give an account of himself to God.  (Romans 14:10-12)   

God is bigger than spin!  

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