Weep with those who weep

Last night the strangest thing happened. Debbie and I were getting dressed for a walk in the neighborhood (trying to keep in shape at our ages), when I was pulling on my socks at the desk at my laptop when I pulled up my Facebook page and noticed this post from my friend and my former RUF intern Tom Cannon:

“My Dad, Joseph J. Cannon, Jr, passed away at 5:00 pm today. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ – Genesis 18:25″

As I read that I found myself consumed with grief. I had only met Joseph J. Cannon Jr. once, many years ago when Tom was a first year student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA (his hometown). I had met Tom when he was a senior at the University of South Carolina. I had just started my first ministry work after graduating from seminary: Presbyterian Chuch in Amreica Minister to Students (with Reformed University Fellowship) at the University of South Carolina. As an engineering graduate from Clemson University from the beginning it felt like a round peg in a square hole but it was the first RUF in South Carolina so I moved forward. Tom was a student from Philadelphia who had come to know Jesus through the faithful witness of members of Campus Crusade for Christ.

John Bumbardner

John Bumbardner

Through his involvement at Rose Hill Presbyterian Church and the faithful ministry of  Pastor John Bumgardmer, Tom had come to understand some of the Biblical truth of God’s sovereign grace. Because of this when I showed up on the USC campus Tom and I met and for the next two years he was an intern with me with Reformed University Fellowship. After spending time with Tom, I knew that we were bound together by something that even to this day I cannot fully understand much less explain. Well, Tom  left USC to enroll at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The Presbytery (a collection of Presbyterian churches and ministers in a paricular geographical area) I was part of sent me and Debbie to visit Tom as one of our “students under care”.

Joseph and Betty Cannon

Joseph and Betty Cannon

That is when I met Tom’s dad Joseph J Cannon Jr., when Debbie and I went to Tom’s house and met his family. Thinking back on the situation, what strikes me as odd is that the highlight of our visit was lunch with one of my spiritual heroes, Cornelius Van Til but when Dr. Van Til died several year back I did not shed a tear. When Tom’s dad died, I cried like I had lost my dad all over again. I began to ask myself why, why all these tears for a man that I barely knew. Then I began to think about death, grieving and sorrow.

I grew up in a small family where there was very little death. I had a first cousin, Bob Hollingsworth, who died when I was in junior high. He was a wonderful cousin, one that I would very much have liked to have known through the years. With that exception I knew little of death growing up. I never knew my grandfathers, one died long before I was born and the other for one reason of another (family stories differ) was not around when I was growing up. My first exposure to death close to the heart was the death of my father-in-law, Dave Cranford who died the day I graduated from seminary in May of 1981. When it came to comforting my wife during this time I was completely useless. I thought that God’s word about grieving was found in Job 1:21 “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord”. Not knowing that these were the words of Job before he came to know God “face-to-face”.

So when did I learn to grieve? It was in 1996 when a man named Jack Miller died. Jack’s

Jack Miller

Jack Miller

name will not make it into any history books. Even in the annals of church history, I doubt that he will get a foot note. but Jack changed my life. How that happened is for another blog but God used Jack to help me “re-understand” the centrality of the gospel to my life, marriage, ministry and everything else in my life. So in 1996 Jack died and I wept for 2 months. No, that is the truth. I found myself having to pull over to the side of the road 2 months after Jack died to compose myself well enough to see to drive. Why was this? Well one of the things that Jack taught me is that this world is not running the way that God had originally intended, it is a fallen world marked by death,separation, sickness and loss. All of these things, though under our Father’s soverign care, is part of a fallen world that Jesus came to correct.

So since that time I have come to hate death and to believe that too many Christians accept death “as the way things are”but that is just not right. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus’ tomb, knowing that in a few minutes he would raise Lazarus from the dead. Why did he weep? Because he knew that death was not God’s original intension, it was the devil’s plan and he hated anything that was opposed to his Father’s will. As I have told congregations in the past who have gathered to mourn the loss of a loved one: “Death hurts like hell”. I would say this not in some sort of profane way but as an actual description of what death is like. Sometimes Christians gather to worshipand the presence of God’s Holy Spirit is so real that it can almost be touched. At times like these Christians sometimes say “If it were anymore like heaven, I could not stand it”. But death is just the opposite. It is a realtiy of everything that the enemy of our souls designs for us: separation, isolation and loss. If you want to know what hell ie like, it is like losing someone you loved very much. So when death comes I mourn.

I find myself weeping at the oddest moments. When some movie star, whose work I have enjoyed dies; when a public figure dies (even when I may have disagreed with his politica) passes on; when a rock musician whose songs have brought joy to my heart sluffs off this mortal coil. I have come to embrace the words of John Donne “each man’s death diminishes me”.

If that is how I react when someone I hardly knew dies, how does it impact me when someone I deeply love suffers loss. I just about lose it. I have so many questions about life and death and judgment and eternity that I just do not get sufficient answers for that I end up weeping, but weeping with hope.

Tom and Dawn Cannon

Tom and Dawn Cannon

So as my friend Tom weeps for the loss of his father there is little I can do but weep with him. I am confident in his faith but even more confident in the grip that our heavenly Father has on him, God will not let him go even in the midst of his grief. But until the day that Jesus returns to finally banish death, I will weep because of death. I will contiue to hate death and to understand that death hurts like hell, it really does..


Insulting the Prophet, Insulting the Messiah

But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and he cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all. Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis

My job usually does not afford me the opportunity of doing any thing but my job. On most night (6:00 PM-4:30 AM) I am at a computer terminal logging in merchandise being shipped to the Amazon fulfillment center where I work. The other night, however, our area was caught up so I worked supporting what we call “outbound” (my area is “inbound”) by delivering product containers (we call them “totes”) all night or placing thousands of them on conveyer belts so I had time for thinking and I found myself meditating on the Incarnation. I found myself thinking of this in reaction to the numerous   displays of anger from those of the Islamic faith about those insulting the Prophet. I think this was due to having recently seen Salman Rushdie Joseph Anton come through the my check-in at Amazon. The book is Rushdie’s memoir about his life under that name while hiding because of the fatwa issued against him by the leaders of Islam because of his book The Satanic Verses.

Many times when these acts of violence follow these perceived attacks on the Prophet and Islam, Christian point out that Christians do not attack people, set off bombs or make threats when people insult Christianity or make fun of Jesus. It would seem to me, however, that these people trying to defend the faith either have forgotten or do not understand that Christianity does not need a Messiah who cannot be insulted, mocked or rejected. There is no action taken against Christ in our day that were not actually done when he was alive on earth. Christianity has a Savior who is not threatened by insults and hostility.

This is at the very heart of what the Scriptures see as one of the important aspects of the Incarnation. Jesus became one of us so that he might experience the reality of living in a fallen world as a real man so that he might spiritually aid those who live in a fallen world. This anger at those who denigrate Christ was perhaps seen most sharply when Andres Serrano photograph, Piss Christ, that showed a picture of a small plastic crucifix submerged in the photographer’s own urine. Christian’s rose up in arms and demanded some accountability but in reflecting on those days. I am not a fan of such art and especially of government funding of such art but the truth is that this might be a bold statement (clearly not intended by Serrano) of the depth of the humility of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation teaches us that the Second Person of the Trinity was totally submerged in the suffering and filth of this fallen world. The book of Hebrews tells Christians to take this knowledge and use it for their own spiritual encouragement: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that  you may not grow weary or fainthearted”. Most Christian’s like a sanitized Incarnation, not the real thing. One of the staggering truths of the Incarnation is that the Second Person of the Trinity put himself (to draw on Serrano’s photograph) where he had to pee. Christian’s don’t like to think of the Incarnation in these terms (I had one member of one of the churches I serve tell me after a sermon: “I think all sermons should be rated G”. This person mentioned this, of course, because they did not consider the sermon they had just heard to be rated G. I wanted to point out that the Bible is hardly rated G but thought better of it. Christians think this kind of thinking helps them be “separated from the world” but I think it has more in common with Victorian prudishness than Christian teaching) but if we do not fully understand the depth of Jesus humiliation the truth of the Incarnation will do us no good. Lofty thought of the Incarnation that do not grasp the daily reality of Jesus suffering and humiliation are not helpful, in fact they are just the opposite.

I posted on my Facebook page this week some of my favorite Christmas songs and carols and included among them In the Bleak Midwinter with word by the poet Christina Rossetti. I have often wondered, however, if one of the reasons that one of the most beautiful verses that is never put into the hymn is because it makes the Incarnation a little too “earthy”

Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

He had to grow up with skinned knees from running around and scrapped knuckles from working with his father. He likely grew up suffering at the hands of other children and even his own brothers and sisters. He had to put up with laughter, jeers and rejection by the religious leaders of his day because he was doing the work of his Father. He had to come to the point in his sufferings that he told his disciple in Gethsemane “My soul is sorrowful even to death”.

This is the aspects of the Incarnation that I found myself meditating on that night at work. At work I have easily several hundred fellow workers at any given time and as I was walking around I thought of Jesus, the man, the Second Person of the Trinity, moving an mixing among such crowds while he lived a life “of poverty and suffering” and I found myself strengthened spiritually. Hebrews 2:10-11 says “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (ESV). Christians know that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (or as my friend Dave McCarty refers to the Trinity “DaddyJesusSpirit”) has had an everlasting love for his people, a love that never changes, never doubts. This passage in Hebrews 2, however, seems to say that because Jesus shares our nature in the Incarnation, that love was deepened. It is because he shared our “flesh” that Jesus is not ashamed to be called our brother!

Did you have a younger brother or sister that at times did things that embarrassed you? Made you ashamed that they were in your family, or even an older brother or sister? “Hey is that your brother over there making a fool out of himself?” “It looks like him but that is not my brother, my brother is at home”. Because he shares in our humanity Jesus is never ashamed to call us brother and sister. Even when the “accuser of our brethren (Rev 12:10) points out our great and grievous sins. “Yes, oh Accusing One I know what Lee did but he is my brother! We share the same nature and I have died for him. So shut up!”

As I said in my last blog entry, I am celebrating Advent more fully this year and I find myself in true awe as I get a deeper, fuller understanding of the Incarnation. During my years in seminary we learned proper arguments from the Scriptures for defending the deity of Jesus. That is what is so often attacked in our faith but we did not spend much time learning to defend his humanity. As I have grown older, however, it has become the full reality of Jesus’ humanity that have over and over again nurtured my soul, especially in times of suffering, sickness and when my life has been touched by death.

One last thing. I am so thankful for God’s providence and so upset with myself when I miss opportunities for God sitings provided by those day-to-day acts of providence. I fail to encourage my life and faith when those special “mundane” events of God’s providence pop up. The other night at work, however, it was almost impossible for me to miss one. I was meditating on the Incarnation I walked past a woman working at some task at Amazon and notice her sweatshirt. It said “Don’t make me come down there … God”. It took all my self control not to shout out: “He already has! He already has!”

don't make

Jesus endure all of this with great humility and love. One of his great invitations to come and put faith in him is not one where he points to his deity, his power, his coming as a judge but to his humility his “lowlyness”

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon up, and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-29.

My friend and mentor, Jack Miller, used to tell me and others “Everyone wants to be humble but no one wants to be humiliated to get there.” Jesus was already humble when he came to earth (Philippians 2) but he was willing to be humiliated to be like me, to identify with me. You see the more you mine the depths of the Incarnation the more diamonds you find and with every diamond you find you look at every facet and are truly more and more amazed the deeper and longer you look. That is why we need four weeks each year for Advent. We really need every day of our lives and we still have not fully mined this glorious truth.

The Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond

I know that when Jesus returns it will be a “day of judgment, day of wonders” but I rejoice now that when he came the first time it was as one of us, that he suffered in every way like I do but without sin. We have a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses because he has tabernacled among us.

Rejoice! Rejoice this Advent season in the heady doctrine of the Incarnation.

Hear ye the message that comes from afar
up in the heavens there shines a new star
it’s shining brightly and lights up the night
leading the way to a wonderful sign
no one is lonely and no one forlorn
’cause in the manger the Christ child is born

   Hear ye the message it’s simple and clear
time for rejoicing is finally here
fore with the Christ Child there comes a new day
taking your worries and sorrows away
there in your nature and there in your grief
hear ye the message and start to believe