A "Favorable Interposition of God's Providence"

My mother passed away yesterday, November 24 2011, Thanksgiving Day, after a decade-long battle with cancer. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, her death doesn't spoil Thanksgiving. In fact, there's something profoundly right about her going home for good on this day.

On October 3, 1789, president George Washington issued a proclamation officially designating a national Day of Thanksgiving. In that proclamation he urged Americans to reflect on and thank God for the many blessings He had bestowed on the fledgling nation. At one point he referred to "the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war," meaning the ways God had intervened against human odds in the Revolutionary War. Thanksgiving is a time to remember and express thankfulness for the times God has intervened in the normal course of human events, and brought about good for us.

Which is what makes mom's death on Thanksgiving Day so fitting. Contrary to what might be expected, I don't find that mom's passing is a taint on the holiday; some dark and ugly bruise that we must now dress ourselves up in order to cover and hide beneath a crisply-pressed exterior, and around which we must gingerly move through our future holidays so as to avoid re-aggravating that tender spot. No, no bruise this. This is gratitude erupting from the very midst of loss, and joy making sure that no matter how much grief sulks and loudly insists on being heard, that it will not have the final say. The hand of a "favorable interposition of God's Providence" is at work here.

In some ways I have a unique perspective on my mother, because I'm the only human being on the planet who knows from personal experience what it's like to be her son. She wasn't a perfect mom, but she was far closer to being so than she could ever bring herself to believe. A couple thoughts on my mother's death this Thanksgiving Day:

The Nature of Love
Mom defines for me the essence of what love is. Her love for me was unbelievable: pure, unwavering as a granite mountain, tinged with a fierceness that added a little spice to the gentle tenderness of motherly care. Being loved like that cannot help but change a person. As a pastor I find that many people have a hard time believing that God loves them unconditionally, and this keeps them from knowing Him deeply. Whatever my other faults may be, I never had that particular problem. I've never had difficulty believing and trusting in God's love, and I think one major reason I find unconditional love believable is that I experienced it.

I also enjoyed watching mom's love for me spread to my family. I know my mom would have worked hard, with some success, to love and accept anyone that I chose to marry, but she poured her heart into my wife as if Amy were her own daughter. My gorgeous bride has reflected on that relationship herself.

And the grandkids! She reveled in them, carefully observing and adoring every aspect of their character. Mom was always coming up with silly little ideas of how to have fun, like the "Christmas Band," or hiding the pickle ornament on the tree (whichever grandkid found it got to open the first present), and playing the Jelly Belly Game with Jalapeno Jelly Bellies so the spiciness would make us cry. Most often these silly ideas wouldn't turn out nearly as well as she had planned, but we laughed anyway. And she kept coming up with new ones.

How hot is a Jalapeno Jelly Belly?

A Touch of Class
Mom was the one who brought fun, taste, and class into our home when I was growing up. My sister was never much into the finer or "girly" things, preferring horses and cats to tea parties and lace. And my dad and I were, well, Guerino men (which says it all according to my wife!): rational, task-oriented, strong-minded, introverted. Mom's love for finer things revolutionized what would have otherwise been our dull trappings. My mother drank beauty in like water. Some of the clothing, furniture, and decorations that came into our home made my dad and I shake our heads, but the teasing mom had to endure from her men was tinctured with respect. We knew that she was our connection to this strange yet essential world of artistry, feeling, aesthetics, and relationships.

A Doxology in Darkness
My mom's story wouldn't be complete without acknowledging the role that pain played in shaping her, deepening her, and cementing her faith in Christ.

One example is the father-shaped hole in my mother's heart. Mom was abandoned by her father when she was too young to even know him, and was raised by a single mom in her early years. My grandmother re-married and my Grandpa Jack was a great step-dad for my mother, but the abandonment from her biological father permanently shaped her. For her whole life she remembered vividly the deep, throbbing ache to know her daddy that is one of her earliest memories. And when, as an adult, she did find her biological father many years later she was profoundly disappointed. She wrote eloquently about all this herself, and how she clung to the Bible's promise that God would be a father to the fatherless. You can read her short blog posts on this topic here: part 1, part 2, and part 3. People in pain either blame God and run from him, or they trust God and run to him. Mom did the latter, and that shaped both the person she was here, and the person she is now in the presence of her true Father.

One of mom's favorite photos is this picture of me and my beautiful daughter Elizabeth. Mom loved her son and loved her granddaughter, but she also found a profound sense of healing in the fact that her son is a loving father to her granddaughter, and mom and I spoke of that often. The grace of God amazes me. She put her trust for full healing - even from her father ache - in Christ. In return not only does He give her the promise of eternal life, but even some soothing of that father ache in this life, by seeing her son be the father to her beloved granddaughter that she never had herself. She once told me that in some way, my relationship with my daughter Elizabeth "redeems" her own fatherless pain. God is like that, turning death and pain on its own head and bringing life into valleys full of dead bones. He's a master at orchestrating favorable interpositions of His Providence in the most unexpected places.

For these and many other reasons I find that mom's death on Thanksgiving Day is entirely fitting. I am thankful that my mother is no longer battling cancer. I'm thankful that she's now awash in the river of life that flows from the throne of God. I'm thankful that her father ache is completely and utterly gone, and that even now as I write she is no doubt squealing with delight (as only she would) in the presence of the true and only Father, the one Father toward whom all her earthly father-longings were really pointing all along.

Will Thanksgiving Day be a tainted holiday for me in the future because of my mother's death? I don't think so. For this is was the day that real life began for her. And it's a day for the rest of us to commemorate, remember, and be thankful for the favorable interposition of God's Providence into our lives that was Judith Marjeanne Guerino.

Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

Book Review - The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is genius. Timothy Keller is money. I want to be Timothy Keller. So much so in fact that I nearly shaved my head bald after reading The Reason for God. Except that I don't think my nubby head would look good bald.

OK, exaggerations aside I want to chime in on the value of this book. Exaggeration is actually fairly common in book reviews. Sometimes book reviewers get really hyperbolic, vastly overstating a book's value as they praise its virtues. But when one reviewer referred to Keller as this generation's CS Lewis - a comparison of this book with Lewis' modern classic Mere Christianity - it was not an exaggeration.

Lewis' book was by far the best explanation of and argument for Christianity in his era: the Rationalistic skepticism of the 1940s. While that Rationalism has not completely gone away, in our day it has been shoved over and now grudgingly shares center stage with a new kind of skepticism: Postmodern thought. As such, a fresh presentation of the Christian faith, and reasons to believe it, has been in order. Keller provides it, and wowzers, does he rise to the challenge.

Playing Defense: Responding to Objections
Just as a football team plays both offense and defense, this book is divided into two parts. Part 1 of The Reason for God is "playing defense." It presents a response to the most common objections to Christianity that people have today. I won't attempt a full summary of everything Keller deals with, but suffice it to say he ducks none of the big questions. The 7 major objections he responds to are:

  1. There can't be only one true religion
  2. How can a good God allow suffering?
  3. Christianity is a straitjacket
  4. The Christian church is historically responsible for much evil
  5. How can a loving God send people to hell?
  6. Science has dis-proven Christianity
  7. You can't take the Bible literally
In each case you'll find an intelligently argued response that will challenge both the Christian and the skeptic alike. Yes, you read that correctly: Keller's approach is as solid and persuasive a defense of the Christian faith as any I've read, and it will give the honest skeptic a lot to chew on. Keller shows the assumption behind each objection, and urges the skeptic to consider his own beliefs more clearly. But Keller is simultaneously interested in teaching Christians how to respect, honor, and talk with spiritual skeptics. He has a lot to say to those of us have lived with Christianity all our lives, as well as to the skeptic.

An Example - Religious Violence
One example: in dealing with objection #4, Keller writes about the idea that religion tends to multiply humanity's worst impulses, turning disagreement into hatred and opposition into violence. Atheist Christopher Hitchens has gained a lot of traction by making this argument, and almost every Christian knows someone who thinks this way.

Keller's response? Perhaps surprisingly, he begins by agreeing in part with Hitchens. Citing examples of religiously fueled violence throughout the modern world, Keller acknowledges that the belief in divine sanction sometimes contributes to people inflicting harm on others. On page 56 he writes, "Hitchens' point is fair. Religion 'transcendentalizes' ordinary cultural differences so that parties feel they are in a cosmic battle between good and evil." Now I confess that when I first read the book I wasn't entirely comfortable with this concession. I felt that Keller was giving too much away, and that in an effort to sound reasonable he might be undermining his own argument. But he proved me wrong.

After noting that religious belief does sometimes contribute to violence, Keller goes on to note that this isn't really a problem of religion. He points out that if you remove religion from a society people will "transcendentalize" something else in its place, and commit just as much violence in the name of that new ideal as they would have in the name of the old religious one. As evidence he notes that the 20th century saw every bit as much blood shed (if not more) in the name of secular ideals like Marxism as for religious ideals. So what Keller does is to correct Hitchens by putting the focus of the question in the right spot: apparently the impulse to violence comes from something other than religion, it comes from human nature. The Bible calls it sin, and offers a life-changing solution.

In a similar way, each of Keller's other responses present arguments that are respectful and gracious, yet persuasive and intellectually strong defenses of Christianity in the face of modern skepticism. But he doesn't stop there.

Part 2 - Playing Offense
The Reason for God goes on to present positive reasons to believe. Keller describes several reasons why the Christian faith makes more sense of the world we live in than any other belief system. He includes chapters that present multiple evidences for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus. He also explains several Christian ideas that frequently confuse unbelievers, such as why Jesus had to die before we could be forgiven. In the process he demonstrates a remarkable level of insight that educates the believer as well as the unbeliever.

For example, Keller addresses the need for the cross. He notes that many non-Christians simply don't get the bloody spectacle of Calvary, and in fact are put off by it thinking it makes God an angry deity who must be appeased by child sacrifice. Keller explains that all forgiveness, even between two people, requires the forgiver to bear the burden of the forgiven. If I demean my wife by mentioning one of her weaknesses in public and then later apologize to her, she may forgive me. But in order to do so she'll have to bear the consequences of my actions, including public shame and perhaps damage to her reputation. Forgiveness means choosing to bear the cost of wrong done to us. Keller summarizes on p. 200, "Why did Jesus have to die in order to forgive us? There was a debt to be paid - God himself paid it. There was a penalty to be born - God himself bore it. Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering."

And this is precisely what we find on the cross. Our sin is a tremendous offense against God, but rather than making us pay for it he comes to earth as the man Jesus and bears the consequences of our actions by dying in our place. That is true love.

Something for Everyone
It is these kinds of thoughtful insights and explanations that make The Reason for God a thought-provoking and educational read for both the believer and the skeptic alike. I've learned several things about Christianity by reading it, and some of those insights have already worked their way into my preaching. Every skeptic likely believes one or more of the objections discussed in this book, and here you will find a gracious yet rigorous challenge to your skepticism. Christians on the other hand have much here to gain in understanding the reasons for modern skepticism, and becoming much better at presenting the reasons for God.

Get. This. Book!

Watercolor by my beautiful wife Amy

The Murder of Reepicheep

A Love-Hate Relationship
So we just got our own DVD copy of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and because Tommy's been sick these past few days we've watched it several times. The visuals are fantastic, and I've thoroughly enjoyed seeing how well the filmmakers brought the story to the silver screen. The Dawn Treader itself is a beautiful rendition of Lewis' description, the standing wave bordering Aslan's Country is incredible, and the Dufflepuds just flat-out rocked!

But the film is ill at a deeper level. Beneath the visual appeal and the fun action, Hollywood killed something at the soul of Lewis' story. Hollywood murdered Reepicheep.

No Clue
Here's what I mean. Modern movie-making understands swordfighting, CGI magic effects, and saving the world through heroic acts of individual triumph. Hollywood does these things well. But it doesn't understand - genuinely, it has no blasted clue - how honor, nobility, authority, and selfless sacrifice work. Thus it has no way of understanding what CS Lewis was actually depicting in his novel. This cluelessness is evident everywhere in the film, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the interactions between the honorable mouse-knight Reepicheep and the monstrously irritating Eustace Clarence Scrubb.

Comparing one scene in the film with that of the novel makes this clear. At one point in the movie the selfish Eustace -- a snotty, self-centered brat who is swept into Narnia against his wishes -- steals food from the ship's galley. He's caught in the act by Reepicheep, who makes a casual reference to theft of rations being a capital offense at sea and then challenges Eustace to a duel. But not to worry: none of this is serious in the film. Hollywood's Reepicheep does not have capital punishment in mind, nor is he concerned with honor, or the difference between right and wrong. Rather, Hollywood Reepicheep simply wants to help Eustace learn to swordfight, so that he can eventually become a hero. The "duel" turns out to be nothing of the sort. Instead, it's a one-on-one lesson in swordplay (how this relates back to the stealing of rations is left unexplained).

Compare this scene with the same one in Lewis' book, which begins not with Eustace stealing food but rather with him grabbing Reepicheep's tail and swinging him around just to be mean. Despite being swept off his paws in this most undignified manner, the knight-mouse deftly draws his sword in mid air and manages to deliver two piercing stabs to Eustace's hand in quick succession causing (gasp!) real, actual injuries. Of course this forces the brat to drop the mouse, who then immediately challenges him to a duel to the death. Significantly, Eustace is flabbergasted at this demand and runs away, with the mouse in hot pursuit. When Eustace finally refuses to fight, it is (again significantly) Reepicheep's turn to be stunned. He's shocked that anyone would lack so much honor as to refuse a duel after issuing an insult. So to teach Eustace a lesson about honor, Reepicheep (in front of everyone else on board) turns the flat of his blade on Eustace and beats several welts into his skin, using his sword like a switch. Now Eustace, Lewis is careful to note, has never been spanked by anyone before, either parent or teacher, and in fact has been taught that such things are barbaric, so this is a new experience for him. All the others on board, however, approve of the beating and Eustace is forced to mumble apologies as the scene ends.

Two Completely Different Lessons
Do you see the depth of the difference? It's not just that the scene played out a little differently on screen than it did on page - that happens when books are turned into films and it's no big deal. The difference is one of honor, of authority, of principle. Of worldview. You see, Lewis is showing how Eustace has been transported into a world that operates by a completely different set of rules than those of his world (20th century England). In fact, I said earlier that Hollywood murdered Reepicheep but they actually murdered Eustace as well, because depicting 20th century England is exactly Lewis' purpose for Eustace in this story. Eustace is the ultimate Enlightenment-besotted 20th century secular rationalist: a smug young boy who arrogantly thinks we've outgrown all old superstitions. Consequently he builds his whole life simply on "scientific fact" and is thus "too smart" to believe in old magic tales (in other words, religion). In Lewis' book Eustace reflects the spirit of his (our) day, believing that chivalry is an insult to women, that pacifism is always an enlightened position, and that the Medieval belief in honor and codes of conduct is all hogwash. By bringing Eustace to Narnia, Lewis shows him (and through him, us) just how wrong he is, and how foolish all his "enlightened" modern sensibilities are.

The Transformation Of Eustace
The transformation of Eustace - depicted most clearly in the dragon episode - is one of the main lesson of the book. Eustace goes from a smug secular rationalist to a humble, honor-driven follower of Aslan the True King. And he only accomplishes this with Aslan's help (and a small assist from the flat of Reepicheep's blade). This is totally different than the transformation Eustace experiences in the film. There Eustace becomes "a great warrior" under Reepicheep's tutelage. And the lessons the mouse taught him don't consist of just swordplay, but rather of long-winded babbling about how Eustace is actually "an extraordinary person" deep down inside (despite a total lack of evidence). These drivelings sound like pages right out of a contemporary self-help book, or daytime psycho-therapeutic TV program.

Which of course, they are.

And that's how Hollywood murdered Reepicheep, and Eustace as well. In the film Eustace is a deprived little boy who just doesn't believe enough in himself, while in the book he's an empty modern secularist who, without realizing it, has denied everything that makes life worth living. In the film Reepicheep is a psychologist-tutor who helps Eustace discover all the "amazing potential" locked inside him, but in the book Reepicheep embodies everything modern man has scoffed at: the devoted follower of Aslan who is committed to principle and honor at all costs.

And perhaps most importantly, in the film salvation for Eustace comes through self-actualization under the guidance of a therapist, whereas in the book salvation for Eustace comes from realizing that he is wrong and Reepicheep is right; a lesson that began with the flat of Reepicheep's blade smacking his flesh and only ended when the razor tips of Aslans' own claws ripped into his very heart.

The same fundamental missing of Lewis' point is evident throughout the film at almost every turn. As the credits of the movie roll and I listen to the film's theme song waft through our family room ("We can be the kings and queens of anything if we believe, it's written in the stars above...") I realize that Eustace learned far more from Reepicheep than Hollywood managed to.

Book Review - Love Wins by Rob Bell

A 3-part video blog reviewing this much-discussed book.

PART 1 is a super quick overview of the key points in Love Wins for those who haven't read it

is small sampling of how Bell handles Scripture

PART 3 is the lesson I think the evangelical church can take away from this book and its popularity.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!
PART 1 - A quick introduction

PART 2 - A small sample of Scriptural problems

LINK to an excellent - and more thorough - survey of the main Biblical and doctrinal issues with Love Wins

PART 3 - The lesson for us

Video Blog - On Questions, Answers, and Emergents

My first-ever video blog!

LINK 1 - Rob Bell's Promotional Video for his new book Love Wins

LINK 2 - to the article Reinventing The Flat Tire

LINK 3 - A brilliant parody of Bell's promotional video:

The Control Room Blew Up

Have you ever felt totally incapable of making something happen? Like you're stuck in some small pit, penned in a closet-like space by circumstances beyond your control. Sure, you can still do things. But the things you do really don't seem like they'll ever result in you breaking out of the pit. Your efforts feel like they amount to running in circles around the bottom of your little pit. No real hope of anything useful -- like, oh you know, actually getting out -- but at least it beats sitting on the floor doing nothing. I guess.

I've had three such experiences this week. That's big. Especially for a control freak like me. And yes, I am a control freak. A classic, bona-fide, getter-done achiever type. If there were a 12-step program to cure people from control freakishness I'd be a fantastic candidate for attending. Except that I'd ruin the process by trying to take control of it. I can just see it now: as soon as I stood in front of my circle of fellow high-strung neurotics and said "My name is Matt Guerino and I'm a control freak", I'd immediately turn around and begin researching everything about how to stop being a control freak, so that I could grab this control-freak thing by the horns and whip it into shape.

Yeeeeah. Feel free to re-read that last sentence and savor the irony.

This is what made my three "impossible pit" scenes last week so hard. First up: last weekend was Sanctity of Human Life weekend. And truthfully, I had no plan for Sunday's services. I knew it was coming back in November, but the Christmas holidays were so packed with things at the church that I had zero time to think about this significant weekend. Zilch. Nada. And by the way, whomever picked January for such an annual emphasis sure didn't consult with me. You can talk about the anniversary date of Roe v. Wade all you want, but coming on the heels of Christmas makes for a brutal time for pastors to get anything planned! Remember, I like my control here people.

But the weekend approached, and as it did so did the conviction in my mind and heart that we needed to focus on abortion. I prayed. The conviction grew stronger. I had no plan. The conviction grew stronger. I had no time to pull a big shin-dig together - to control what the weekend was going to look like. How do you broach so emotional a topic with the right balance of grace and truth, especially if you don't have 3 months of planning (control) behind it? And I told God all this. Really, I did. But he didn't listen. The conviction grew stronger. Then all in a flash (well, over a couple hours anyway) I came across several things that made the weekend message quickly fall into place, including my friend Diane's testimony which I hadn't read in several years. The service was done, the message was given, and I believe grace and truth carried the day. Without my control. Hmmmmm...

Next up: a friend with a large family and modest income got hit with a big surgery bill, and a mere 4 days later was also told by his tax preparer that instead of getting a couple thousand dollars back from Uncle Sam, he owed a couple thousand. Over $5,000 in new debt slammed him almost at once. I felt horrible. We talked. We brainstormed. We sought control! None could be found. So, trapped in that familiar pit I simply prayed. I actually asked God to drop $5,000 out of the sky in one form or other, because I didn't see how anything would change otherwise.

The next day he discovered an error the tax preparer had made, and it turns out that a small refund is coming as he'd originally thought. That was a $3,100 swing, just like that. There's another possible mistake which could result in a larger refund, and some hope on the medical bill front also came through unexpectedly that day. Wham. Without my control. Hmmmm...

Finally, Amy's had a rough week. She was fighting a flu which inflamed her chronic pain and also resulted in a bizarre new back muscle pain problem, all of which finally culminated in a searing headache. She hadn't slept well, and I was powerless to fix any of this. Stuck at the bottom of a very familiar pit. I can tell you, it stinks. On second thought, I really can't tell you how badly that stinks.

I put Tommy to bed that night and we prayed that God would give mommy a good night's sleep - just that - although I figured that was virtually certain not to happen. She slept for almost 8 hours straight and over the next couple days made remarkable progress on all fronts. All without my control. Hmmmm...

What is the point? He is the breakthrough. Not me. The common factors in each situation were that I had zero ability to make anything happen (though I had a role to play). I prayed - as did others - and things happened.

By the way, there's a wrong lesson that can be drawn from this. The point is NOT that God will do what I want if I just ask him. If you read this and think I'm saying "just ask God to take your problems away and he will," then I'm not communicating. That's not it at all. He might, he might not. He is God. He does what he does, not what I want him to.

No, the right lesson is this: God is the one who both determines a path and enables progress along it. Not me.

I sit here writing this at 5am. I've been up since 3:15. Couldn't sleep. Like a lot of pastors, I suspect, I awoke in the middle of the night with concern for my church and the spiritual growth of its people flooding my mind. Couldn't get back to sleep. I'm encouraged by the example of the Apostle Paul (another control freak, by the way) who said that concern for the churches he planted was one of his heaviest burdens. So it goes, I suppose, in this church leadership thing.

So I prayed for a while, realizing that I'm doing everything I can and should be doing that I'm aware of, but that in the end I cannot make people grow in faith. That is not my role, it is God's. He is the breakthrough.

Maybe this energetic go-getter needs to learn that so that I don't contend for his glory, even unintentionally. Maybe the worst possible scenario for a church isn't that it goes nowhere, but that it goes somewhere in our eyes and people get the credit for that instead of God. He is the one who makes life change happen, and he gets the credit (glory) for it. It's his church after all.

Only a control freak would want it otherwise.

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