Canaan’s Rest represents a quiet place “set apart” for the purpose of hearing God's voice, growing in intimacy with the Lord, and being renewed in soul and spirit.

Month: June 2018

The Line Dividing Good and Evil

This is a follow up blog about Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He suffered greatly while being imprisoned.  He won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature for his powerful writing on communist oppression and spiritual emptiness.  His 1962 novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” described life in a Stalinist labor camp.  By 1973 Solzhentisyn had published “The Gulap Archipelago” which exposed the system of labor camps in Russia, resulting in his 1974 expulsion from the Soviet Union.

As a young pastor I remember His voice being clear, distinct and uncompromising, compared to the moral and ethical uncertainty of American culture. He gave me courage and a desire to speak the truth.  Here is a quote that made a lasting  impression on me as I was forming my theological view of reality.  After his imprisonment in the Russian gulap of Joseph Stalin’s “corrective labor camps” Solzhenitsyn wrote:

“It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good.  In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel.  In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor.  In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments.  It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.   Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts…..That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: ‘Bless you, prison,’ for having been in my life!'”

Solzhenitsyn acknowledges his youthful arrogance, believing that he was doing good while being blind to his cruelty.  By the amazing grace of God, while lying on “rotting prison straw”  he felt the “first stirrings of good” in his own soul.  It was then that he came to see that the line that separated “good and evil passed through every human heart.”  I never forgot those words.  Solzhenitsyn was able to bless his time in prison for helping him form a conviction about good and evil. He wrote elsewhere, “If only it were so simple.  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it was necessary only to separate them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart.”

In those formative years I also remember Henri Nouwen’s words characterizing Thomas Merton: “Merton knew only too well that the sin, evil and violence that he found in the world, were the same sin, the same evil, and the same violence that he had discovered in his own heart…..The impurity in the world was a mirror of the impurity in his own heart.”

Ever since those days, I’ve learned to accept, even though I want at times to deny, the presence of  good and evil in my own heart. It has kept me humbly dependent on God’s grace, living with “moral realism.”  Regarding himself, Paul said, “But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst of sinners” ( I Tim 1:16). David acknowledged, “But I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is always before me” (Ps. 51:3).

The Voice of a Prophet

June 8th marked the 40th anniversary of “A World Split Apart,” the commencement address delivered by Aleksandr Solzhentisyn at Harvard University.  Chuck Colson considered it “one of the most prophetic and eloquent” commencement addresses ever given.  As a young pastor (37), I remember how I admired Solzhentisyn for his courage and candor.   It was a reminder  of Ezk. 2:5 “Whether they listen or refuse to listen – for they are a rebellious house – they will know that a prophet has been been among them.”  He warned his audience of a “disaster in the calamity of a despirtualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness” in the West.

He began by accusing the West of evading the truth.  “Truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on it’s pursuit… the illusion of knowing it still lingers and leads to many misunderstandings….truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”  He warned against “destructive and irresponsible freedom” and what he called “the abyss of human decadence.” He wonder what would “redeem the 20th century’s moral poverty.”

Solzhenitsyn did not view the West as a model for the rest of the world, but rather saw us in a “state of spiritual exhaustion.”  The decline in courage was the most striking feature of the West.  “Such a decline in courage is particularly  noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of courage by the entire society.” Our policies were based on “weakness” and “cowardice.”

He faults the West for the abandonment of  its moral and spiritual ideals.  The West was spiritually sick. Our moral decline was the result of forgetting God.  People worship themselves, deifying their own desires, while falling into an idolatry of the self, because they had forgotten there is someone higher than themselves.”  We suffer from the delusion of thinking we are “the center of everything that exists,” believing we are not accountable to “any higher force.”

Speaking like an Old Testament prophet, Solzhenitsyn visualized a fight of cosmic proportions that had already begun.  “The forces of evil have begun their offensive; you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses.”  No weapons will be useful since we have lost our willpower.  “To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die.”  The alternative is concession and “attempts to gain time.”

Our  turning away from the Spirit caused a blindness to “the existence of intrinsic evil in man.” “Turning our backs upon the Spirit, with life not having an superior sense, provided an access to evil” of which there was a free and constant flow.  We  have placed too much hope in “political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.” “Man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.”

As Solzhentisyn closes his remarks he gives this warning, “If the world has not come it its end, it has approached a major turn in history….it will exact from us a spiritual upsurge….This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage.  No one on earth has any other way left but – upward.”

Men, these are the words of a prophet. Forty years later, our cultural crisis confirms  his prophetic words.  He describes our culture as spiritual sick and exhausted, living in moral poverty.   He warned of a fight that would be of cosmic proportions with the constant and free flow of evil.  His advice was to look upward, that is, to the Lord.   Prophets have a shock and awe affect when they speak.  Go read the prophet’s speech for yourself.  It is readily available on line.

A Band of Brothers

I remember well the large “Promise Keepers” events during the mid 90’s.  I attended the first two at the old Metrodome in Minneapolis.  There were over 60,000 men in attendance.  It was like a hug pep rally for Jesus, with men shouting praises to God, making heartfelt commitments to be men of God.   The energy from these “spiritual pep rallies” created instant followers of Jesus. Female reporters from local papers came to spy, searching for an explanation for the gathering.  But it  simply could not be explained in the natural.

Obviously it was the Spirit of God.  I brought men, both young and old, including my two sons.   It was a inspiring time of be a man of God.  What a difference 25 years makes.  In those days, there was a tangible sense of God working in the lives of men.  Today, however, men are accused of “toxic masculinity” while the #MeToo movement is exposing men as sexual predators.  What happened?  The national consciousness has certainly turned hostile regarding the masculine – and men in general.

Large movements that offer the spiritual boost of a pep rally tend to be ineffective in helping sustain a healthy spiritual life. Men need consistent, face-to-face relationships with other men. Real change comes through small groups of men (like a Band of Brothers), that are intentional about lifestyle change and character formation.  The AA model of soul care brings such  change. Most men are reluctant to join.  They need to see the value of being vulnerable with other guys.  They need to know it is safe.

A recent article in Christianity Today concluded by saying, “The future of men’s ministry will remain small for a long time.”  I agree.  Large group gatherings, a monthly men’s event, and even an annual retreat will not bring the transformation needed for men to grow in Christlikeness in a post-Christian culture.  It might create a spark, but not light the fire needed to foster true change.  “Stereotypes about ‘that’s just how men are’ have turned much darker in the last few years.”

In this blog, I assume I am appealing to committed men, who want to follow Jesus. We need to  accept the cultural narrative regarding  toxic masculinity.  Paul encourages us to be lights, “Once you were ‘darkness’ but now as Christians you are ‘light’ – Live then as Children of light” (Eph. 5:8 – Phillips).  My warning is not to become isolated in shame, failure and loneliness.  “Men are awash in a sea of casual relationships,” states author Stephen Mansfield.  Men, he noted, have “no one who would hold them accountable if their life went off the rails.”

There is a strong connection between loneliness, feelings of failure, and bad male behavior.  I agree with Nate Pyle who worries that the ideal Christian man described by many contemporary men’s ministries is always in control. “Fear or loneliness or failure become places of shame,” notes Pyle.  Being in control can produce moralism and perfectionism which leads to shame and sense of failure.

A Band of Brothers, meeting as a male support group, challenges being in control by the admission of ” helplessness.”  Men find support from other men who admit to struggles.  Men honestly sharing their story of  failure, hidden secrets, hope and faith, help other men to find their voice to share their struggle.  Paul tells us, “Even if  a man should be detected in some sin, my brothers, the spiritual ones among you should quietly set him back on the right path, not with any feeling of superiority but being yourselves on guard against temptation” (Gal 6:1-2 – Phillips).

Color Brave

Recently, as part of Starbuck’s efforts to start “renewing Starbucks as a place where all people feel welcome,” the chain closed down 8,000 stores “for a conversation and learning session on racial bias” with 175,000 of is employees.  A  new “Third Place Policy” promotes becoming “Color Brave,” as  an  alternative to color-blind, wherein a person’s racial identity is not ignored, but rather seen and respected for what it is.  “We want to uplift others, we exist to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time” was the stated mission in Starbuck guidebook.

I affirm Starbucks desire to make customers feel “seen,” “respected,” and “uplifted.” But promoting a “Third Place Policy” which would allow anyone to hang out or use the restrooms, regardless of whether they purchase anything seems to me to be rather utopian in its vision.  On what basis does Starbucks hope to build an emphasis on being “color brave?”

How do we define a person?  “The person is a theological category” maintains James Houston.  “The ontology for the person has the awareness of being in the presence of the other.”  This takes us back to the garden where a loving, creator God created  man in his image.  “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.

The Christian faith celebrates each person as created uniquely yet different by a personal  God who live in perfect. loving relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are not simply isolated individual. We are never more a person and more real then when we live in relationship with the  three-in-one God.  The dilemma that Starbucks rightly wants to address is the tragedy of “dis-relationship.”  We live separated from ourselves, others and God.   A biblical view of reality affirms that only the triune God of grace can provide a metaphysics  for relationality of persons.

I rejoice with the Psalmist, “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!  Your workmanship is marvelous – how well I know it” (Ps 139:17).  But I also must  affirm the Psalmist when he acknowledges, “For I was born a sinner – yes, from the moment my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5).  It is my sin that cause me to be a “self-referencing” man, turned in on myself, threatened by the presence of “the other.”  But God has come to my rescue. “But if anyone does sin, we have a Priest-Friend in the presence of the Father: Jesus Christ, righteous Jesus.  When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good – not only ours, but the whole world’s” ( I John 2:2 –  Message).

The Spirit of Christ will give me courage to be “color brave.”  Being secure in my identity in Christ, helps me to accept the uniqueness of the other.  Experiencing the love of God motivates me  to be “color brave.”  I will fail in my attempts, but I know I can improve with the help of God’s spirit.  I desire to not ignore differences but see and respect the other. But I will watch that this does not become another of my spiritual improvement projects, in which I can congratulate myself on being “color brave.”  Rather I cry out to God for mercy to lovingly embrace others.

As soulful men we should welcome the Starbucks challenge to be color brave, “wherein a person’s racial identity is not ignored, but rather seen and respected for what it is..”  We will be simply following Jesus’ command. “Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this men will know that you are my disciples, if you love another” ( John 13:34-35).

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