Chaplain’s Corner: XVI

“Seeing With the Eyes of Jesus”

Who’s the greatest hero in American literature? Author and scholar Elliot Engel believes we shouldn’t be surprised to discover it’s a black slave. But what should amaze us is that this heroic character was invented by a white Southerner in 1885–just 20 years after the end of The Civil War.

The Southerner whose parents were from Virginia and Kentucky was Mark Twain. The character from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is named Jim. Twain is widely regarded as the father of two American literary innovations. First characters in Twain’s novels actually talked like real Americans complete with twangs, ain’ts and y’alls- instead of sounding like stuffy Londoners. Second, his books were actually funny. It’s hard to believe, but for about 250 years from 1620-1870 “serious literature” in our country meant the reader should never encounter a reason to crack a smile.

“Huckleberry Finn” is the story of two runaways: Jim, the fugitive slave and his friend Huck, the white son of an alcoholic father who had attempted to kill him.

It landed on the American literary scene with a thud. Nobody bought the book. People spread the word that it was loathsome. Louisa May Alcott of Massachusetts, famous for her book “Little Women”, was basically the Oprah Winfrey of her day. If she read a book everyone had to have it. Alcott got through about half of “Huckleberry Finn” before deciding she couldn’t bear another word. She wrote what became an infamous letter to the author:

“Dear Mr. Twain, I have tried to read your novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I find the characters and incidents in this book so common, so vulgar, and so dirty that I say to you Mr. Twain, that if you can’t write a book better for our young people better than Huckleberry Finn you should not write in the future.”

This was not the kind of publicity Twain had been hoping for. But Lisa May Alcott didn’t stop there. She spearheaded legislation in her home state that banned the book because of its “dirty incidents.”

Twain promptly took out ads across the country in which he proclaimed that his latest book had been banned in Massachusetts “for all of its dirty incidents.” Sales immediately skyrocketed. People couldn’t wait to read what made Louisa Mae so anxious. Readers never found any dirty incidents, because there weren’t any. But they did discover the uplifting story of a young boy with a tender conscience, one who was told that he was risking going to hell with his friend Jim.

The novel ultimately became so famous Twain was a celebrity for the rest of his life. As Engel wrote, he occasionally received notes like this one:

“Dear Mr. Twain, I liked your book, but did you realize that you made the hero of the book the most kind, decent, loving person in your novel–the black slave, Jim? You can’t make a former black slave the hero of a novel! What do blacks have to do with good society?”

Twain always gave the same answer: “The reason I made the black slave Jim the greatest character in Huckleberry Finn is because since blacks are not taken into good society, they are the only persons in this country who have not been warped and ruined by the good society of which they are not a part.” Then he added: “Because blacks aren’t good enough to be taken into good society, they have to be foolish enough to live by the dictates of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. They foolishly think that the last shall one day be the first. And because they are so ill treated by white society today, not only must they survive by any means they can, but they survive today with a dignity that most white people cannot imagine.”

This summer we find ourselves in the midst of our nation’s ongoing struggle to determine whose lives really matter and why.

Mark Twain voiced his convictions 135 years ago: “Those who are seeking great character, great hearts and great lives will be served if they are utterly colorblind.”

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: XV

“Humility”

From time to time people debate which sin or character defect is the worst of the worst. For British author and theologian C.S. Lewis it was no contest.

“The essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison. It was through Pride that the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice. It is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

Calling out pride in other people is an enjoyable spectator sport. Boxing promoter Don King once said, “I never cease to amaze my own self. I say that humbly.” Of course you do.

A woman submitted this personal ad some years ago to New York magazine:

“Strikingly beautiful. Ivy League graduate. Playful, passionate, perceptive, elegant, bright articulate, original in mind, unique in spirit. I possess a rare balance of beauty and depth, sophistication and earthiness, seriousness and a love of fun. Professionally successful, perfectly capable of being self-sufficient and independent, but I won’t be truly content until we find each other. Please reply with a substantial letter describing your background and who you are. Photo essential.”

What were Union General John Sedwick’s last words, which were uttered from his command post at the Battle of Spotsylvania? “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—“.

Then of course there is Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line, who proudly announced: “God himself couldn’t sink this ship.” The ship he had in mind was the Titanic.

It’s fun to spot pride in other people. But the disturbing realization that gradually dawns on us is that pride is not “somebody else’s problem.” Pride, more than anything else, separates us from God and alienates us from other people. Pride turns out to be a neck problem. Pride is what makes us look down on other people and what they bring to the table. If and when our necks become frozen in this position, we’re in real trouble.

In order to see God–to look into the face of the One who is infinitely superior to us in every imaginable category–we need to look up. And that will require humility.

As Lewis points out, “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves. It is thinking of ourselves less and less.”

Where do we start? We can begin to think and believe-and to say aloud-four powerful words:

I might be wrong!

N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, and one of the greatest living Bible scholars, opened one of his theological masterpieces by admitting that he was pretty sure 10% of his book was wrong. The problem was he didn’t know which 10% it was.

What would happen if we let humility permeate our lives?

Pride makes everything worse. Humility makes everything better.

That’s a good thing to know, because there’s one thing we know for sure:
In every area of life, there are always icebergs dead ahead.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: XIV

“Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”

When people respond to God’s call to ministry, they may inevitably wonder where they’ll be led to serve.

Thomas Ken, born just outside London in 1637, couldn’t have imagined he would one day become Chaplain to the King of England. And that he would consider it the most thankless job in Christendom.

King Charles II was not what one would call a paragon of spiritual virtue. It’s not for nothing he became known as England’s Merry Monarch. Charles fathered 14 children by means of at least seven mistresses. His favorite paramour-whom he identified as his official mistress-was pretty, witty Nell Gwynne. When the King suggested that Ken move out of his Chaplain’s residence so she could move in, the clergyman had had enough.

In an era in which saying “no” to royalty could amount to terminal vocational choice, Ken stood up to the King. The King backed down. Sometime later, when the King needed to appoint a new Bishop, he remembered his Chaplain. “Where is the good man who refused his lodging to poor Nell?”

Becoming a Bishop, however, didn’t protect Thomas Ken for long. When James II rose to the English throne in a few years later, theological sparks flew. For speaking his mind, Ken was charged with “high misdemeanor” and imprisoned in The Tower of London. Fortunately, he was acquitted before ending up on the chopping block.

Having stood up to the next monarch as well-King William of “William and Mary”-Ken finally retired in his 70’s to enjoy several years of quiet contemplation in the English countryside.

Looking back over his eventful life, Ken can be forgiven for not realizing that, unintentionally, he had written what would become the most widely-sung lyric in church history. It happened early in his ministry, when he was Chaplain at Westminster College–a school for young men.

English church music in the 17th century obeyed an absolute rule: tunes could vary, but only words permitted in congregational singing had to come more from the Old Testament psalms. Hoping to encourage the devotional habits of his students, Ken composed three short hymns-one to sing at breakfast, one at bedtime, and one to sing at midnight in case a student was staring sleeplessly at the ceiling.

Since none of the hymns lyrics were taken from the psalms, Ken encouraged the boys to sing them only in their rooms, The words have become familiar to millions:

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise him all creatures here below;
Praise him above ye, heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”

Those four simple lines have become known as the Doxology (from the Greek word doxa, “glory”, and logia, “saying”). They are a declaration of God’s Glory, an expression of praise for the tri-personal God. When God’s Spirit leads us along unexpected and difficult paths, we can always be sure of one thing:

His blessings, even when we don’t see them at first, will always be flowing.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: Vol XIII

“God the Artist”

Around the mid-1800’s at a Scottish seaside inn, there was an accident.

A serving maid was carrying a pot of tea past a table of fisherman just as one of the men gestured enthusiastically to show the size of the fish he claimed to have caught. He snagged the teapot and down it went splashing the tea into a whitewashed wall. Even after earnest cleanup efforts, a large and irregular brown spot remained. The innkeeper fumed. “That stain will never come out. I’ll have to re-paint the wall.”

“Perhaps not,” said the stranger sitting at a nearby table. “Let me work with the stain. “If you like what I do, you won’t have to re-paint.”

The stranger produced pencils, brushes, pigments, and linseed oil. He sketched lines and added dabs of color. A picture began to emerge. The random splashes of tea became a stag with a magnificent rack of antlers. At the bottom of the picture he scrawled his name, paid for his meal, and walked away. The innkeeper examined the wall. The signature read, “E.H. Landseer.”

Edwin H. Landseer was the most celebrated wildlife painter of Britain’s Victorian Era. Several like stags hang in London museums. He also sculpted the four giant lions that dominate the city’s famous Trafalgar Square. With a few strokes, Landseer transformed an accident at an ordinary inn into its centerpiece. But that’s nothing.

God, the Artist, is able to transform our most forgettable moments: the relational disaster, the cruel remark, the mind-boggling lapse in judgment into things that reflect his glory. And when we go back and re-visit the mistakes of our past, we often see something we had never seen before—-Hope.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: Vol XII

“Good News-Bad News”

You need to deliver some good news and some bad news. Which news should you pass along first?

Daniel Pink, author of “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing”, reports that most doctors, teachers and personnel managers prefer to lead with the positive. Their conviction is that good news is a great way to cushion people to receive bad news. Recent studies, however, suggest that such an approach has it backwards. When on the receiving end of news roughly four out of five people prefer to start with a downer and morph into something happier.

We want the good news to wrap things up. Pink calls it the Principle of Endings. We like sequences that use the rise whether than the fall, that lift us rather than leave us dangling.

They asked students at The University of Michigan to rate on a scale of zero to ten some new varieties of Hershey Kisses. Which tasted best? Each of the students was given five Kisses, one at a time. When receiving the fifth Kiss, half the students were told, “Here is your next chocolate.” Those participants didn’t know this was their last option. Was it the best? 22% said yes. The other half of the students were told, “Here is your last chocolate.” Was it the best one? A whopping 64% gave it a thumbs up. Those who were sure they were eating the final chocolate were sure it was the best.

What’s going on here? Human beings prefer happy endings. More specifically, people hunger for endings in which a significant journey has been completed, a serious challenge has been overcome or a profound lesson learned.

Whatever bad news has been confronted along the way is worth facing. We can make it through the wilderness as long as we know The Promised Land awaits.

When this formula is disturbed–when the possibility of hope vanishes–people feel jarred.

According to Ernest Hemmingway in his masterpiece, “A Farewell to Arms”, life will break your heart. That’s the bad news. And there is no good news that can tie everything up with a bow.

Let’s examine the last lines of another masterpiece, The Bible. “He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen, Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” (Revelation 22:20-21)

The bad news according to Scripture is that you and I are far more broken and self-deceived than we can possibly imagine.

The good news is that we are more loved than we have ever dared to dream. If we take the bad news but then believe that the Grace of God is the final word, we can make it through the wilderness.

Even the one we are in right now.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: Vol XI

“Cleanliness is Next to Godliness”

That declaration typically appears in Top 10 lists of statements people wrongly assume are in the Bible. It was actually coined by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church in a 1787 sermon. Wesley, interestingly, wasn’t talking about hygiene. He was encouraging the habit of wearing clean clothes. It can only be said that the idea of keeping one’s body scrubbed and smelling clean took a very long time to catch on.

Historically, Europeans were anxious about getting wet and were strangely leery of soap. Bill Bryson in his documented book, “At Home”, reports that Christians came to the odd conclusion that holiness should be equated with dirtiness.

When Thomas a Becket died in 1170, those who laid him out approvingly noted that his undergarments were seething with lice. Throughout the medieval period, an almost sure-fire way to earn lasting honor was to take a vow not to wash.

Most of us have become at least semi-willing to wash our hands during this pandemic. Things were different, however, when the plague swept through Europe in the 13th century. The brightest minds concluded that the most effective way to prevent a communicable disease from entering one’s body was to keep it coated with dirt and grime. For the next 600 years a majority of people avoided bathing, often as a way of honoring God.

When European explorers began visiting the New World, indigenous tribes, most of whom kept themselves fastidiously clean, could smell the conquistadors long before they came ashore.

Henry Drinker, a prominent resident of Philadelphia, installed a shower in his garden in 1798 and it took his wife Elizabeth more than a year to summon the courage to give it a try. She explained that she “had not been wet all over at once for 28 years past.”

How in the world did people deal with the grime and the odor? One strategy was to cover it with perfume. This accounts for the invention of nosegay, a sweet – smelling bouquet of flowers tied to one’s neck or sleeve. Most people however, simply ignored the unpleasantness. After all, if everybody looked and smelled like Charlie Brown’s friend Pig Pen, then nobody was Pig Pen.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to roll out all the Bible verses on personal hygiene? Unsurprisingly, perhaps there are none. There was no sweeping early church vision for soap and water. That’s not to say the Bible’s authors were silent on the subject of cleanliness.

Take John, for instance, who wrote that “when we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin.” (I John 1:7) The word translated “cleanse” is the Greek verb catharizo, from which we derive the English word “catharsis.” Healthy spirituality is essentially a deep-cleaning of the soul.

King David, in anguish, after the most tragic relationship blunders his life, begged God for a fresh start: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

Addicts dream of “getting clean.” People stumbling through life realize they need to “clean up their act.”

A clean body is a wonderful thing, and no doubt a gift that we give everyone around us. But the clean-up that matters most happens when we give God permission to power-wash the rocks and crannies of our inner world.

Perhaps that can become our prayer every time we reach for the shampoo.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: Vol X

“Beauty is Only Skin Deep”

This familiar proverb is attributed to Sir Thomas Overby, who coined it in 1613 as a way of describing his wife. Mrs. Overby’s response was not recorded. But we may presume Thomas ate leftovers by himself that evening.

As it turns out, a number of things that people seem to care about a great deal are only skin deep.

Your skin is the largest organ in your body. And it’s the only organ that will not fail you. Your heart may stop, your lungs may keep you from taking a breath, and your liver may malfunction. But your skin will keep growing and flexing as long as you live.

Human skin is essentially a two-layer cake composed of the dermis, which is interior and the epidermis or outer layer. The outermost layer of epidermis is entirely composed of dead cells. It’s a bit unnerving to grasp that the “you” that everyone sees is essentially deceased tissue. Researchers estimate that the average person sheds almost a million fragments of dead skin every hour-most of which ends up on that fine layer of dust on your flat screen TV.

When popular non-fiction writer Bill Bryson was researching his 2019 book, “The Body, A Guide for Occupants”, he described his encounter with British surgeon Ben Ollivere as one of the most unexpected events. Dr. Ollivere gently peeled back a “sliver of skin” about a millimeter thick from the arm of a cadaver. It was thin as to be translucent. Then the surgeon said, “That is where all your skin color is. That’s all race is—a sliver of epidermis.”

It’s extraordinary that such a small facet of our composition is given so much importance. Yet many people have been enslaved or hated or lynched or deprived of fundamental rights through history because of the color of their skin.

When it comes to race, history is a debris field of bad science. And that has led some to incredibly bad consequences.

Some American preachers (thankfully not all of them) taught their congregations that Africans brought to our shores by slave traders were morally and spiritually flawed.

The O.T. sage Samuel, when called to anoint the next king of Israel was almost waylaid by first impressions. God set him straight.

“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearances but the Lord looks at the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7). The King Samuel ultimately anointed that day was David, whose royal line led to Jesus.

Racism is skin deep. Character is heart-deep.

By God’s grace our call in every area of life is to look beyond the epidermis.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: Vol IX

“The Power of Words”

The power of touch has always been a significant part of human relationships. It appears, however, that we’ve entered a season in which the three H’s (handshakes, hugs and high-fives) will need to recede at least for a while in our connections with those beyond our own families.

But it opens a new door; suddenly we have a fresh opportunity to discover the power of words. Words have the power to build up and tear down. We all have known this from experience. When you were a child, no one had the ability to make or break your day like one of your parents. All it took was a word.

Those who know us best have inside information. They know exactly the right words and when to lift an eyebrow in a certain manner to push our buttons.

But it is also wonderful to entrust your heart to someone. At those moments when we’ve made a fool of ourselves there’s nothing more healing than to hear, “I still believe in you” from a lover or a friend.

A few years ago I opened a meeting by asking those present to recall the most memorable comment they had ever received. I wasn’t prepared for the outpouring of emotion. Some broke down and wept. They had gone 10, 20, 30 years resolutely drawing strength from a single memorable word of blessing.

Human souls long to be blessed. We long to know someone truly knows us and our hopes, our fears, our secrets and still loves us. God loves us like that. And the Bible provides a paradigm by which we can receive his blessing on a regular basis.

Aaron, Israel’s first high priest was commanded to turn toward God’s people and speak these words: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

Think of the six gifts embodied in those three sentences:

  • God yearns to bless you-to provide for your needs.
  • God promises to keep you-to watch over you.
  • God will cause his face to shine upon you. In the ancient world, citizens had no higher hope than to look into the face of the King and to see a smile, an expression of welcome and acceptance.
  • God longs to be gracious to you-there is nothing you can do to make him love you more.
  • He will lift up his countenance upon you-to give you his full attention.
  • God promises you his peace-not the absence of chaos or trouble, but his own shalom that can see you through the darkest day.

These are God’s life-giving words and these are words by which we can bless others and by God’s grace transform all of their tomorrows for the better.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: Vol VIII

“FOG”

A bank of fog can be intimidating. Familiar landmarks seem to vanish. Progress slows. We may even seem to lose our way.

The science of fog is well known when super-saturated warm air hovers over cooler ground water vapor that precipitates into small droplets of condensation. Those droplets are suspended into the air via the same process that forms clouds. Fog is essentially a cloud in close contact with the earth’s surface.

Fog may seem to be little more than a mist but it contains a serious amount of liquid. A cubic mile of dense fog can hold up to 56,000 gallons of water which weighs about 225 tons. That’s a lot of water!

This is all very interesting of course, but most people tend to respond more emotionally than academically to the presence of fog. That’s why it’s featured in so many scary movies which is precisely how most of us feel when emotional spiritual fog seems to settle over our lives.

We don’t know what to do. We’re not sure how to go forward. The one thing we do know is that we now have two choices. We can worry or we can pray. Somebody is in charge of what’s happening to me. Either I’m in charge (in which case I have a lot of worrying to do) or God’s in charge.

Worry is a conversation I have with myself. “How did I get into this mess?” “What am I going to do now?”

Prayer is a conversation I have with God. “Lord, I can’t see you and I can’t see more than a few steps ahead. “What do you want me to do next?”

I feel fogged in. I don’t know how I am going to make it through the next 24 hours let alone this COVID-19 crisis. But I’m so glad you’re in charge.

It is also worth knowing something else. Fog is no match for the sun. Even though it’s often declared that sunlight has the power to “burn off” a thick morning fog, it’s more accurate to say that when the sun-heated air and ground become sufficiently warm, the droplets simply evaporate. They vanish literally into thin air.

That brings to mind a vivid image presented by one of the Hebrew prophets: “But to you who revere The Lord’s name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 4:2)

We may think we’re facing a 225 ton tsunami, a giant wave that is threatening to break over us. But the sunshine of God’s healing, love and grace always shines through, revealing our worries to be the imposters they truly are.

Every day the choice is ours. We can talk to ourselves or we can talk to God.

Let’s talk to God.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: Vol VII

“Jesus Wept”

Some of the diminutive verses in the Bible aren’t particularly life-altering. There’s Job 3:2: “And Job said”, and Luke 17:32 “Remember Lot’s wife”, and I Chronicles 1:25 which happens to be right in the middle of a genealogy: “Eber, Peleg,Reu.”

Others pick a serious punch like Deuteronomy 5:17, “You shall not murder.” And Deuteronomy 5:19, “You shall not steal.” There are short verses we can spend our lives trying to live out such as I Thessalonians 5:16: “Rejoice always” and the verse that immediately follows it: “Pray without ceasing.” (5:17)

Jesus was weeping over the city of Jerusalem, heartbroken by the spiritual blindness of his own nation. We may presume Jesus has been shedding real tears over our nation this spring.

We are in the midst of four crises:

  • First, nearly 110,000 of our fellow citizens have died from COVID-19
  • Second, more than a million Americans have filed for unemployment.
    We are fast approaching a jobless rate comparable to the Great Depression.
  • Third, our major cities are being torn apart by anger and violence sparked by the outrageous killing of a black man named George Floyd at the hands of a police officer. Peaceful protests are being fueled by the searing memories of other deaths where justice has not been served. Others, “who just want to see the world burn,” are escalating the crisis.
  • Fourth, our political landscape feels like a wilderness. Civility is dead. Few elected officials speak for the common good. Polarization threatens the health of our Republic.

No wonder God’s heart is broken.

What shall we do?

The followers of Jesus cannot remain on the sidelines. Grab those short verses and make them your own:

  • “Pray without ceasing” – because the world needs supernatural power.
  • “Rejoice always – because God in the end is going to set everything right when the present moment seems painful.

Work for Justice. Comfort the grieving. Should we go Left? Or go Right?

Our real call is to go deep—deep in the teachings of the One who weeps over the brokenness of our cities. A Bible verse doesn’t have to be long or complex to change the world.

Just two words can change everything-including us!

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain