Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beware the Ides of March

According to Shakespeare, by way of the Roman historian Plutarch, a soothsayer passed along to Julius Caesar this solemn warning: “Beware the Ides of March.” Caesar should have taken those words more seriously. In spite of the soothsayer’s warning, fearsome thundering, and his wife’s dreams of murder, Caesar went about his business on the ides, March 15, 44 B.C., and Brutus and about sixty co-conspirators stabbed him to death in the Roman Senate. I guess that's when Caesar got the point.

“Beware the ides of March.” I don’t remember if I first heard that phrase on one of my mother’s Shakespeare LPs or if it was in Mr. Larson’s eleventh-grade English class. Seems like that’s the year we read some of Shakespeare’s plays, including Julius Caesar, from which that phrase comes.

“Beware the ides of March.” The term ides was used to describe the 15th day of the months of March, May, July, and October. But thanks to Shakespeare, our contemporary understanding thinks only of the ides of March. When was the last time you heard anyone say anything about the ides of July? Probably never. “Beware the ides of March.”

But why March? I did a little internet research (you know what that means: I googled once and clicked twice) and much to surprise I found a site called “The Top Ten Reasons to Beware the Ides of March.” No kidding. The site reveals ten nasty things that have happened on March 15 across the centuries—among them: the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.; a raid on Southern England in 1360; a destructive Samoan cyclone in 1889 that sunk a bunch of ships and killed a bunch of people; Czar Nicholas II abdication of the throne to the Bolsheviks in 1917; Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939; a deadly Midwest blizzard in 1941; a world record rainfall of 73.62 inches on the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion in 1952; and the CBS’s cancellation of the Ed Sullivan Show in 1971. Holy Moley! That’s some nasty stuff right there. Maybe we should beware the ides of March.

Or maybe not. I can’t speak for you or Caesar or the Russians or the Czechs or the poor islanders who live on La Reunion, but the ides of March has never been cruel to me. The worst thing the ides of March means for me is that I only have one month left to procrastinate on my taxes. Other than that, I like March 15 just fine.

In fact, I pretty much like the whole month of March. I’ll admit it is a bit schizophrenic: comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion or is it the other way around? And it is the month when winter and spring seem to arm-wrestle for control. But all in all, especially in our wonderful South, March, including the 15th, is all right by me. Cherry blossoms and forsythia in bloom. Daffodils and tulips waking up from a long winter’s nap and dressing in their prettiest clothes for their coming out party. Spring break, spring training, and a spring in everybody’s step. Short-sleeve shirts. March Madness. Easter (sometimes). My big brother’s birthday. New leaves, green grass, bluebirds and robins. March is just fine by me. It takes me back to my high school days when some of my buddies and I would pitch kites into the March wind and fly them off Table Rock Dam. And in the present, even though I’m Scotch by descent, because of my last name and my redheaded countenance lots of people confuse me for an Irishman and wish me an extra hearty Happy St. Patty’s Day. And that's okay by me. So three cheers for March!

And that goes for the ides of March too. So in spite of the soothsayer’s warning to Caesar, I’m not going to beware the ides of March; I’m going to embrace it and live it and give thanks for it. The psalmist said, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” There’s no exception clause in that verse for March 15; God wants us to rejoice and be glad in that day too. So Happy Ides of March everyone … Happy Ides of March!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Have You Ever Heard Fred Preach?

My friend George sent me a brief email on Sunday: “Don’t know if you’ve heard but Fred Craddock died a couple of days ago.”  That’s a name that probably means nothing to you.  That’s a name and a man that means so very much to me.  Craddock is one of the four great influences in the way I go about preparing and preaching a sermon.

One of Craddock’s well known sermons is about John the Baptist.  The title?  “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?”  Well, I did when I heard Craddock’s sermon.  Have you ever heard Fred preach?  If you did, you’ll never forget him.  I know I won’t.

Fred was small in stature—think Zacchaeus.  I read where Fred often called his son, a much larger man than he, “a block off the old chip.”  But when he stood to preach he must have been nine feet tall.  I first heard him at the Hester Lectures on Preaching when I was a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in either 1979 or 1980.  And though he didn’t “preach” in those lectures, the preaching he described lit a fire in my soul.  I’d never been content with typical Baptist preaching: three points (alliterated if possible and forced if necessary) and a poem.  Within each point offer explanation, illustration, and application.  Tell ‘em what you’re going say, say it, tell ‘em what you said.  Every Sunday every sermon sounds like the Sunday before.  Pardon me while I yawn.  I’m not saying that such preaching is not biblical, nor am I suggesting that God doesn’t inspire and use that kind of preaching.  God has used that style for centuries.  A lot of preachers do it well, and a lot of Christians profit from it.   

But for a preacher like me, that style was like wearing Saul’s armor.  It didn’t fit who God wired me to be.  So Craddock, without knowing it, sort of gave me permission to be the preacher God was calling me to be.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming to preach like Fred Craddock.  Nobody preaches like Fred Craddock except Fred Craddock—the man was in a league of his own.

But some of the things that drove his preaching are the things that drive mine: humility, kindness, image, story, everyday life, subtle humor, a respect for words, a respect for the congregation, a desire to bring the Bible to life in ways that leaves the hearer engaged, occasionally surprised, and thinking, “Why that Bible story is my story.”  Craddock’s preaching reminded me that the Bible is a story before it is a book of principles, propositions and points, and that maybe, for at least some of us, we’d rather leave worship with a full heart instead of a full notebook.

Craddock was sometimes criticized that his sermons were weak on “application”—he believed it wiser to leave that work to the Holy Spirit and to the listener.  (I hate to admit that he probably trusts both more than I do.)  Yet I never heard or read one of his sermons when I wasn’t moved to respond in some way.  When I heard Craddock preach, God always got a little bigger for me and I wanted to be a better Christian.  Tell me what’s weak about that application.

Fred Craddock didn’t know me from Adam—never had a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with him in my life.  Still, I feel like I’ve lost a friend.  Thankfully, he will continue to live on my bookshelves, in a few recordings of his sermons, and in the way I think about preaching.  The kingdom of God has lost a giant.  I’m just thankful that while he strode the earth, a little bit of his shadow fell on me.    

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Reminder from the Ashes

In this era of growing Christian persecution, I’ve been posting some martyr stories on my blog.  Such stories have the capacity to inspire faith and courage in those of us who come behind.
You’ve probably never heard of Maeyken Wens.  She was a Dutch woman, an Anabaptist, martyred for her faith on October 6, 1573, in Antwerp, Belgium, by “Christians” of a different stripe.  Her story has long touched my heart and stirred my faith.
Arrested for her faith in April, 1573, she was imprisoned in Antwerp until her martyrdom.  She used her imprisonment to write letters to her children and to a pastor or deacon of her church.  Those letters ring with a vibrant, free faith though exercised in her captivity.  Maeyken was sentenced to burn at the stake on October 5.  And to keep her from preaching Jesus along the way to her burning (as martyrs were often prone to do), the court instructed that her tongue be screwed fast to the roof of her mouth. 
The next day, her teenage son, Adriaen, took his youngest brother, three-year-old Hans, so that her first born and last born might be present at her death.  When she started to burn, Adriaen fainted.  He came to, and when it was over, Adriaen and Hans sifted through the smoldering ashes to find and clutch the screw with which their mother’s tongue had been stilled.[1]  That screw was a treasure, a keepsake, and reminder from the ashes of a faith that couldn’t be destroyed.
Do you ever wonder what your children or the people who come behind you will gather up from your faith when you’re gone?  Will you leave behind any tangible things: a marked Bible, a handwritten poem on an index card, a journal of some sort, some other kinds of writings, maybe cards or notes sent to you across the years by those who were touched by your life and faith?  Will you leave anything behind as a kind of reminder from the ashes of your life?
Some years ago, singer Steve Green made popular a Jon Mohr song called Find Us Faithful.  It’s a great song.  And the words of the chorus challenge me to live a faithful, Maeyken Wens kind of life:

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave, lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful

[1]From the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Family in the Killing Fields

Christian persecution and martyrdom is on the rise in the world.  We read stories every week about faithful Christian martyrs who treasure Jesus more than life itself.  Our hearts go out for them, our prayers go up for them, and our faith is stirred by them.  That’s why I’m using a few blog posts to tell some martyr stories.  While martyrdom is not yet at our door in the United States, one day it might be, it could be, and what then?  Will we be as faithful as our brothers and sisters in history and in other parts of the world today?
Here’s another martyr story—a family story:
In the village of Siem Riep, Cambodia, Haim, a Christian teacher, knew that the youthful black-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers now heading across the field were coming this time for him ….  Haim was determined that when his turn come, he would die with dignity and without complaint.  Since “Liberation” on April 17, 1975, what Cambodian had not considered this day? ….  Haim’s entire family was rounded up that afternoon.  The government called them “the old dandruff,” “bad blood,” “enemies of the glorious revolution,” “CIA agents.”  But here’s what they really were: Christians who sought to be faithful to a power higher than the government. 
The family spent a sleepless night comforting one another and praying for each other as they lay bound together in the dewy grass beneath a stand of friendly trees.  Next morning the teenage soldiers returned and led them from their Gethsemane to their place of execution, to the nearby viel somlap, “the killing fields.”
The family was ordered to dig a large grave for themselves.  Then, consenting to Haim’s request for a moment to prepare themselves for death, father, mother, and children, hands linked, knelt together around the gaping pit.  With loud cries to God, Haim began exhorting both Khmer Rouge and all those looking on from afar to repent and believe the gospel.
Then in panic, one of Haim’s youngest sons leapt to his feet, bolted into the surrounding bush and disappeared.  Haim jumped up and with amazing coolness and authority prevailed upon the Khmer Rouge not to pursue the lad, but allow him to call the boy back.  The knots of onlookers, peering around trees, the Khmer Rouge, and the stunned family still kneeling at the graveside, looked on in awe as Haim began calling his son, pleading with him to return and die together with his family.  “What comparison, my son,” he called out, “stealing a few more days of life in the wilderness, a fugitive, wretched and alone, to joining your family here momentarily around this grave but soon around the throne of God, free forever in Paradise?”  After a few minutes the bushes parted, and the lad, weeping, walked slowly back to his place with the kneeling family.  “Now we are ready to go,” Haim told the Khmer Rouge.
Few of those watching doubted that as each of these Christians’ bodies toppled silently into the grave which the victims had dug for themselves, their souls soared heavenward to a place prepared by their Lord.[1]
One of the compelling things about this story is the family dimension.  The whole family was murdered.  A father called his son back to join the rest of the family standing at the edge of their own mass grave.  Why not let the kid make a run for it—live to fight another day?  Maybe he would be caught and quickly, but maybe he would somehow escape. 
I don’t know if I could have done that.  That’s a part of persecution that scares me the most.  What if persecution involved the sacrificing of our own children or grandchildren?  “Denounce Christ and your children live.  Profess Christ and your children die.”  What parent would not respond, “Take my life and leave my kids alone.”  But in times of persecution and martyrdom such choices are seldom our own.
Here are some questions this story stirs in me:  Do I love Christ more than my family?  Do I truly believe that eternal life is better than this life?  Am I raising my children to love Christ more than life?  Am I teaching them and showing them how to live faith with courage? 
After talking with His disciples about persecution and encouraging them to have no fear, Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37).
Day by day and if persecution come our way, I so want my whole family to be worthy of Jesus.  How about you?  


[1]Don Cormack, Killing Fields, Living Fields: An Unfinished Portrait of the Cambodian Church—the Church That Would Not Die (Crowborough, England: Monarch Publications, 1997), 233-234.