A “Heretic” Remembered

An ignominious anniversary is upon us! Call me a history nerd (not to be confused with a history expert) but if you love the Bible, the story below about a bold heretic will inspire deep gratitude in your heart and mind.

Six Hundred years ago, on May 4, 1415, John Wycliffe (c. 1330 –1384) was declared a heretic and his writings were banned, though he had been dead for 31 years. Thirteen years later, in 1428, Pope Martin V was still so livid that he ordered Wycliffe’s corpse exhumed and burned. His ashes were cast into the River Swift running through Lutterworth, England.

What on earth had Wycliffe done to make the powerful so furious? Why was disgracing him 44 years after his death such a high papal priority?

John Wycliffe hailed from Yorkshire, England, and was educated close to home. He ended up at Oxford University as a Doctor of Divinity. More dangerously, he was a powerful preacher who looked to the Bible as his guiding light. He preached with strong moral courage and conviction and was known for purity in living. He was dangerous for several politically incorrect reasons:

  • He opposed the imperialized papacy of his day and denounced the monastic orders as “sects.”
  • He opposed secular entanglements and special status for the clergy. For Wycliffe, high clerical offices and sacramental ritual as secondary to individual holiness and devotion to the local community of faith.
  • He criticized the pomp and luxury of the churches, including the expensive artwork and the veneration of icons.
  • He believed that the Church had forsaken the word of God for human tradition. With help from colleagues, Wycliffe produced many English language copies of the Scriptures, translated from the Latin Vulgate (the only text available to him). Putting readable Bibles into the hands and hearts of the people was intolerable.

With dangerous opposition on the rise, Wycliffe suffered a stroke and died while saying Mass on Holy Innocent’s Day in 1384. His teachings continued to spread and followers multiplied. This explains the fury of the authorities against Wycliffe 44 years later. Possessing an English translation of Scripture without proper permission became a capital crime.

On July 6, 1415, only 70 days after the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic, a Wycliffe follower named Jan Hus was burned at the stake. Wycliffe’s Bible manuscripts were used as kindling for the fire.

About 100 years later on October 31, 1517 , Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses of Contention to the door of the Wittenberg Church provoking the Protestant Reformation. A few years later, Luther translated the Bible for common German readers.

Wycliffe is remembered today as the “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” I consider Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther and others who made the Bible readable to common folk to be the greatest heroes of history. Without them, there would have been no Reformation. Without the Reformation, the Enlightenment would never have emerged. Human civilization would certainly be more primitive, corrupt and backward today without these brilliant and brave men of God.

Nothing transforms human history for the good like the Bible in the hands of regular people.

I Think, Therefore I Love

    “Cognito ergo sum.”

    Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), French philosopher

Back in the 20th century, while visiting a friend in Tennessee, I heard a guy named Bob address a gathering of Christian musicians and pastors. Bob was introduced as a prophet. Decked out in an old t-shirt to cover a pot belly, he issued the following prophetic call:

    “Lose your mind over Jesus!”

He spoke long enough to make it clear that he practiced what he preached.

Unlike Bob, I don’t see faith as a lobotomy. Unlike Karl Marx, I also don’t see religion as opium. As a Christian, I strive to be a critical thinker without being a critical person.

Jesus established a track record of out-thinking the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes and others who tried to trap Him with trick questions. He knew the Scriptures far too well to be hoodwinked and His reasoning skills left His critics confused and frustrated.

One day after Jesus “silenced” some Sadducees, another law expert asked Him which was the greatest commandment in the Law. Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37). Mark’s gospel includes a fourth way to love God: “with all our strength.” (12:30).

So, do we love God in three ways or four? No, we love Him in one way; with every ounce of our being. Loving God is our polar star. As everything else in the universe rotates, that star stays steady in the sky.

Jesus continued, “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:38). In other words, our greatest love begins with God and belongs to God. But it does not stop there.

God wants our love in the form of wisdom, temperance, and courage. He wants our thoughts, values and passions. He does not call us down some yellow brick road in search of our brain, heart or courage only to discover that we had them inside all along. Rather, Jesus calls us to use our brain, heart and soul to look outside our sinful selves to the God of the Universe to love Him first.

With the decline of thinking has come a diminished affinity for gratitude, trust and love. Technology, entertainment, medicine, industry and academia can flourish but our quality of life will regress if the quality of our thinking erodes, regardless of other forms of progress. We are called to be good thinkers but were not born only to think. We are here to love God first and love our neighbor as ourselves. Think about it.

Good thinking is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It should inspire wise thanking, trusting and loving. The words “think” and “thank” both come from the same pre-historic Germanic root. To this day, both concepts involve connecting cause-and-effect concepts. Thus, good thinking and good thanking run together. After all, God is the ultimate cause for everything we need and are. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). He is the ultimate object of our thanking and the ultimate aim of our thinking.

This essay began with a notorious Latin line from a famous French philosopher. It is time to translate it: “I think, therefore I am.” I am grateful for this affirmation, but good thinking does not stop there. Not all who love to learn will learn to love. Nevertheless, learning to love is the highest form of learning we can pursue. Think that through and you might just end up in the arms of the great “I AM.”

Arel’s Armor

Back in 2014, when my friend Arel was just 99, he thanked me for a sermon I preached on the Armor of God. I replied, “It looks like you’ve got your armor on, Arel.”

He replied, “Well, it’s pretty dented up.”

Perhaps, but our church is excited about Arel’s upcoming 100th birthday party! We plan to polish up his armor with lots of love and maybe a little roasting while we’re at it.

A century ago, on April 23, 1915, Victor Arel Henry was welcomed into this world in Texline, Texas, by Earnest and Mary Henry. The Henrys lived in New Mexico, but soon moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1921, a riot destroyed over a thousand Tulsa homes as Earnest hid for three days in a grain elevator. So they resettled in Bonanza, Colorado, where Arel’s dad heard there was a place called Clarkston, Washington, where you could grow anything—a virtual “Garden of Eden.” So when Arel was eight, they packed up the ol’ Model-T and moved to the Lewis-Clark valley where Earnest began growing vegetables. 92 years later, Arel still thinks this valley is a “the best place in the world.”

Around 1935, Arel entertained the notion of becoming a hobo. One spring day, without telling anyone, he began walking from Clarkston Heights toward the Orchards in Lewiston, Idaho. A little hitch-hiking and some train hopping later, he showed up in Oklahoma to see his grandmother. He worked all summer with relatives in New Mexico and finally turned toward home in the fall. Along the way, in Colorado, his lack of a coat became an issue. One night he begged for a bed in a local jail and they let him have one. Despite being sick and hungry, he made it to Lewiston where Earnest spotted him on the side of the road and took him home. Thus, it was early in life that Arel learned it is better to work than be a hobo.

And work he did, well into his 70s.

Arel is what we call a “BRC-squared” church member (born and raised in the Church of Christ). For 100 years, he has passed through church doors three times a week, except when on the road. He met his future wife, Grace, at the Lewiston Church of Christ. They married in 1939 and stayed hitched until Grace passed away 71 years later.

Arel worked with his hands. Farming and sawyer work drew Arel and Grace to three states while raising five children: Jan, Jim, Larry, Tom, and Dan. Beginning in Lewiston, they resettled in Wallowa, OR, Steamboat Springs, CO, and Kuna, ID, before returning to Lewiston where they built a home in the Orchards. Later, at 62, Arel gave up the saw mill to take up trucking for the next 13 years.

When the 21st century arrived, Arel was 85. His son Jim took him up the North Fork of the Clearwater River where they hiked the Nub. That’s a 5,000 foot climb over 5 miles, one way. Arel did not quite make it to the tip top but I think I’ll leave that detail out.

Amy Adams, of Lewiston, recalls how her granddad delivered Meals on Wheels for “old” people until he was about 90. She describes Arel as gentle and kind, contrasting the stereotypical old man who gets cranky with age.

Arel loves to sing. He led his church in singing for decades but his song-leading days were behind him when I arrived as the new minister in 2011. One Sunday, I preached on the topic of singing praise to God. Arel thanked me in tears. He later explained that after nearly a century of listening, he had heard plenty of sermons against musical instruments but never one in full praise of singing.

Two years later, Arel hit another musical milestone—he danced! His dance partners were his great grandchildren. One of the band-members was his preacher, which Arel said later would not have amused his dad. Having been taught that dancing is wrong, Arel now thanks God for letting him live long enough to learn to enjoy such family-bonding opportunities guilt free.

Today, Arel listens to sermons with headphones but still sings the bass parts on key. He may not sing from the front or stand behind our pulpit, but his 100-year ongoing sermon may be the best one our church has seen. In the end, shiny armor is over –rated. I’d much rather fight the good fight alongside the guy whose armor is dented up.

Liberty and Law
(America the Beautiful)

“And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts.”
(Psalms 119:45).

Liberty and law are friends, not foes. The best way to lose both is to choose just one or the other.

The Ten Commandments were given to a free people. They begin not with a command but with a credential which qualifies God as a Lawgiver: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2). The fact that ten commands follow signifies how connected liberty is with the rule of law.

Three thousand years later, a deep longing for religious liberty beckoned the Pilgrims to strange shores across the Atlantic. You know the tune; sing with me the second verse of America the Beautiful (1893), by Katharine Lee Bates:

    Oh beautiful for pilgrim’s feet,
    Whose stern, impassioned stress;
    A thoroughfare for freedom beat
    Across the wilderness!

The Pilgrims likened themselves to the ancient Israelites seeking freedom through a wilderness. They honored Israel’s God as a deliverer and lawgiver. They looked to Moses as God’s agent of national freedom and His custodian of the law. The Pilgrims, like the Puritans who followed, saw liberty and law as complementary legacies.

America was built on these two legacies. Our Constitution emerged from the wise conviction that onerous laws can decimate liberty as effectively as lawlessness. The marriage of liberty and law forged a unique heritage that has been carried to us by countless curriers, including the following:

    Edward Hyde (1609 – 1674), 1st Earl of Clarendon:

      The law is the standard and guardian of our liberty.

    Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), author, printer, inventor, and statesman:

      Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.

    Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), 30th President of the USA, from his Philadelphia speech on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of The Declaration of independence, July 5, 1926:

      The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.

    Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013), Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990:

      Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage transmitted through the church, the family, and the school.

    Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), 40th President of the United States of America:

      Law and freedom must be indivisible partners. For without law, there can be no freedom, only chaos and disorder; and without freedom, law is but a cynical veneer for injustice and oppression.

    Marvin Olasky, editor of WORLD Magazine, in an op-ed, June 28, 2003:

      Civilization is passed on in part when children who want to be free learn that self-restraint is the key to true liberty… Husbands and wives can only fully enjoy the freedom of marital bonds if they exercise self-restraint in regard to others who could readily become objects of lust.

Let’s close with the chorus of America the Beautiful (1893):

    America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
    Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!