Monthly Archives: June 2019

The Offense of Mozart

I do know it’s more than this, but part of our trouble with the way God is running the world is that He’s too generous. That remark will infuriate all sensitive non-believers and many believers but I think it’s true nonetheless. In a world with millions as hungry and abused as there are “generosity” isn’t the first word that comes to our minds.

That makes sense but the sense it makes it in only part of the entire picture. If we knew—if we cared to know—what God is up to in a world that opposes His purposes and what He means to bring about we would still sense the “wrongness” of the world but we’d think noble things of God and we’d know it will all end in breathtaking joy and glory in a righteous judgment.

In the meantime we hate to see villains prosper and the righteous and innocent (babies and such) suffer. Sometimes we hate it that God is generous to the evil and thankless; they shouldn’t be blessed at all. Cf. Psalm 53, passim. There are those of us who talk a lot about His generosity who are still quick to say it should be limited to people like us. Well, we’re careful not to be that crass about it but we understandably link righteousness, kindness, compassion, generosity, gentleness, integrity and such with blessing. I’m not talking about earning! I have in mind the truth expressed in Psalm 1 (though that text needs developed and discussed at length).

Antonio Salieri had that problem. Salieri served Emperor Joseph II for thirty-six years at the court in Vienna as the master of the chapel, though he’d been around the court much longer. He was a great composer who produced thirty-nine operas, seven secular cantatas, eighty-six religious compositions and an assortment of other pieces. He remained friends with Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig Van Beethoven throughout his life and had given Beethoven lessons on counterpoint. Beethoven dedicated the three violin sonatas, Opus 12, to Salieri.

When he was a teenager Salieri dedicated himself to God. Ignoring its serious distortions of fact at times in favor of drama the movie Amadeus tells the story this way: one day Salieri prayed, “Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate your glory through music. Make me famous, dear God; make me immortal. After I die, let people forever speak my name with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life.” He thoroughly believed that God gave him his giftedness!

He became the toast of Europe, and on the 16th of June, 1816, he celebrated the golden anniversary of his debut in Vienna. Everyone who mattered was there and some of his famous students, including Franz Schubert, played pieces in his honor. Life couldn’t have been better for him. Invitations flooded in from everywhere, his opinion was sought and the praise never ceased and he was a part of every tribunal of consequence; but one thing troubled him deeply and his life soured and shriveled.

But look, twenty-five hundred years before Salieri, to another musician and composer called Asaph. When David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, Asaph was one of the lead singers. He was (perhaps) the “master of the chapel” and prophet for the most revered king in Israelite history (1 Chronicles 16:4-5, 37; 2 Chronicles 29:30). Today, three thousand years after he wrote them, the songs Asaph composed are still being sung and read in the presence of millions. Twelve psalms bear his name to the glory of God.

What did Salieri and Asaph have in common? Both were troubled by God’s generosity, though they probably didn’t realize that that was the case.

Both were troubled not by bad things happening to good people but by good things happening to bad people!

In Psalm 73:1-16 Asaph said he almost lost his footing in faith when he saw what was happening in the lives of the flagrantly wicked. They prospered and people sang their praises and even asked them the secret of their success. What kind of a sick world is it when they behead a Paul and a Nero rules the world?

In the movie, the success of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart nearly unhinged Salieri. Mozart is regarded as “the most sheerly musical composer who ever lived” and the famous Goethe saw him as “the human incarnation of a divine force of creation.” Mozart began composing at the age of four and he continued furiously with hardly a breath until he died at thirty-five.

It isn’t surprising that Salieri would be jealous, even though the Viennese public preferred one or two of his works. On the whole, people were thrilled by Salieri but they were dumbfounded by Mozart whose name was never off their lips and whose music left them speechless with pleasure. Not only did Mozart write more than Salieri, the movie has his scores written perfectly the first time—he never revised!

As the movie tells it, Salieri described Mozart as “a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy!” Every time he heard the name of Mozart he became incensed and every time he heard him praised it drove him nearer to madness. Finally, obsessed by his envy and after looking at some of Mozart’s perfectly written scores, he throws a crucifix into the fire, saying to God, “We are enemies you and I, because you are unjust, unfair, unkind. I will hinder and harm your creature on earth as far as I am able.”

God—unjust and unkind? Because He was generous to the happy pagan? God is unjust because He is generous? (Compare Matthew 20:1-15.) Darkness closed in on Salieri; he shriveled and died long before they put his body into the ground. In spite of his still making the rounds, receiving respectful nods from the aristocracy, despite being recognized and praised he was the shell of a man—a cancer called envy had eaten his soul.

If we weren’t troubled by jealousy, if we didn’t know the pangs of envy when we heard someone praised—someone we knew some dark secret about—if we weren’t profoundly unsettled by the good things that happen to bad people maybe all the above would be of fervent dramatic interest, but no more. If we weren’t inclined to stand in for God as judge of all who should receive good in this life then the dramatized Salieri would be just another tragic figure. But like the composer we can burn in a fever and everyone loses.

Salieri offered no help to Mozart to lift him to a moral life that matched the generosity of God in M’s creativity. It didn’t matter to him that Mozart and his young wife would waltz on bare floorboards in their freezing apartment just to keep warm (which is true to fact).

When we’re in the fever of jealousy no beauty or depth or honor of giftedness of our enemy makes a difference. No, that’s untrue—these things make matters even worse; their presence only increases our bitterness for then we realize others have reason to praise the one we view with hate-filled envy. Others are lifted nearer to God and to the higher life by the one we choose as an enemy—others but not us! We’re too consumed without correct views of his/her shortcomings, too filled with bile because we’re aware of his/her sinfulness and too busy dissecting him/her to be uplifted by the gift God is offering us through him/her.

So even God loses!

We become so sour that everything in life—every gift from God in life—is lost on us or if not completely lost, at least cheapened. I need hardly rehearse the bah humbug approach to life that marked out Ebenezer Scrooge. (What a name for Scrooge. “Ebenezer”. “God has helped me to get this far,” but Dickens knew what he was doing.) Scrooge was miserly but when he was transformed he became not just fair, he became generous and the name that once condemned him came to his glory He came to be

generous like God who gives riches to the evil and thankless; who spreads His generosity around through people who have no time for Him and who wants His children to be generous as He is generous (Matthew 5:44-48).

O God, will we ever learn?

[I’ve borrowed this and adapted it by permission from my little book Celebrating the Wrath of God. Permission from Waterbrook Press (a division of Random House),]




Was Paul deaf and blind when he wrote: “Death where is your sting? Grave where is your victory”? All right, so he didn’t have our terminology, words like, hospice care, terminal wards and such. But he couldn’t have been ignorant of the stark reality of Death and Death’s sting (Sin) that was everywhere he looked. He couldn’t have missed the groaning of the diseased and dying, couldn’t have been ignorant of the cemeteries and tombs that shouted or whispered to him everywhere he walked.
What kind of fool was this man who dismissed Sin & Death with a scornful shout? Still, he might have been profoundly wise, and had a  mesmerizing philosophy and logical arguments that enabled him to know what lesser mortals like us can’t quite grasp.

He wasn’t speaking about “life after death,” don’t you know! Life after death speaks of the victory of Death and Paul was speaking of its pathetic weakness despite a world filled with the dead and dying. He spoke not of the survival of a ghostly something but of the final and utter obliteration of Death in resurrection to immortality, And what does he base his scornful dismissal of Sin & Death on?

On a single person! One human among all the humans that ever lived or will live. A young Jewish Carpenter who said to Death, “I’ll meet you on that hill yonder and understand this, I will destroy you!” Cf. Hebrews 2:14.

We’re tempted to forget how scandalous the Christian’s faith is! Everything hangs on one little human (the human God is being, but a human that God is being). Nowhere else. No one else!

If Jesus Christ did not rise, if He is not forever alive this glorious limitless expanding universe is nothing more than a colossal coffin! Tell of its beauty and magnificence, tell of its breathtaking quasar clusters, its spiral nebulae, its spellbinding galactic collisions but when we’re done, if Jesus, the carpenter Son of God, has not not conquered Death & Sin we’re describing a massive coffin where all that is kind, hopeful, gallant, unselfish and just perishes and is entombed!

“But now is Christ risen!”


I suppose we all have a favorite character in literature—fictional or historical as well as the one we dislike most. I have little liking for the Marquis de Sade. One of his chief pleasures, he has someone say, was to “corrupt the innocent.” And Shakespeare’s sly conniving Iago is ugly down deep but personally the one who sets my teeth on edge is Hawthorne’s hateful Roger Chillingworth who in “righteous” viciousness torments, tortures his alienated young wife Hester and the weak young preacher Arthur Dimmesdale who got involved with her. You must sometime, if you are a reader invest the time to read The Scarlet Letter. (Did I tell you I updated it and made it so much easier to read? Hawthorne’s style makes it very difficult for modern readers and it’s too great a book to miss. I added a few paragraphs to develop a few thoughts Hawthorne was making but the book fully remains Hawthorne’s. I hope you read it and allow his brilliant work to open your eyes and heart in many ways as it has done mine.) Believe me, “righteous” Chillingworth is alive and well in the world today.

But heroes! The countless unsung and unknown (except to a handful of the world’s billions)! Add to those the grand women and men who are known and worthy of praise—who can number them, eh? People who consciously lay down their lives in a single act of breathtaking generous self-giving and others (vaster in number) who lay down their lives by gallant living and working for decades until their tired bodies and willing hearts can do no more. Excluding the obvious among us whose malevolence and delight in the demonic is so startling that all the social-sciences can’t come close to “explaining”. There’s a power we turned loose, a monstrous, stalking predator that is as cunning and well-disguised as it is vindictive and insatiable. Across the world there are places and there have been eras where it wore and wears no disguise but now that we are “wise” neuro-scientists, sociologists and psychologists we can explain all in terms of neurons, genetics, socio-psychology, cultural anthropology and more—without remainder. So much truth and wisdom there—not unwise or untrue in what it includes but blind to what it excludes and so somewhere beyond human vision a cosmic parasite feeds on the powerless, the voiceless and the innocent through the powerful ones that it corrupts. We see it’s work and mistake the undeniable destruction for the Great Feeder and Destroyer—and that too is the deep cunning of the predator, when the genuinely wise become fools even in their wisdom (Romans 1:21-22) and serve the great corrupter.
But I’ve drifted from the point I wished to make. More than anyone else in the Bible I admire Moses. Of course he was flawed and of course he sulked and ran off and in a colossal sulk refused to circumcise his older boy and in that refusal withholding his firstborn from God and yes he tried constantly to turn down the new commission to deliver Israel. But what a man, what a burden he carried, what ceaseless criticism he endured and what a mesmerizing self-giving word to God he speaks in Exodus 32:32 (with chapter 33), “If you won’t take this sinful nation home I don’t want to go either.”

Forty years with a nation and its leaders breaking his heart, even his sister and brother joining in the attacks and then, precisely because he was so magnificent a leader and model, he is not permitted to enter the promised land though it broke his heart and he begged until God told him I don’t want you to speak of it to Me again (Deuteronomy 3:24-26). Sinner or not, flawed or not, he was someone in whose shadow a nation found freedom and shelter from the burning heat of life in a sad bad world. (See Isaiah 32:2c.)

Doesn’t the very thought of him make you want to be a shadow for some poor soul—at least one—so they can find relief from the relentless and debilitating heat of life? Oh God. Wouldn’t we like to believe that despite our flaws we could end our lives assured that we were a shadow for someone, protecting them from the blistering and killing heat that would indeed end them? A grandchild maybe, a son. daughter, wife, husband, a friend or even someone farther removed from us!
I mustn’t leave the impression that this is an impossible task or that it isn’t being done! It’s happening all over the place. I’ve found women and men who were shadows for me in critical times, lonnnng critical times. I just want to be that to someone.
And Moses died in faith despite the onslaught of the World Hater who used everything and everyone against him. He wasn’t alone in this. Women and men are listed in Hebrews 11 as people of “whom the world was not worthy.” And in Hebrews 3:1-5 the writer speaks of Moses in a marvelous and admiring way and then he says: BUT CHRIST…………….Finish the sentence in any way you wish. It’s no insult to Moses. On the mount of Transfiguration God said, “Don’t hear Moses, don’t hear Elijah, don’t hear John the Baptist, don’t hear David don’t hear the popular teachers…..Hear My Son!”



“You’ll Like Yourself A Lot”

Salvation, fullness of life comes to whoever by the grace of God manifested finally and completely and solely in the Lord Jesus Christ. Everlasting LIFE is God’s gift!
At this stage of my life it seems a bit tedious to go on and on saying that because to me it’s so obviously true. Still, if it’s true why wouldn’t we gladly say it.
God is magnificent and glorious for out of love He purposed a world and a human family and meant to do them good; meant to do them eternal good and He meant to do so because that’s the kind of God He is as we’ve learned from the biblical witness that comes to its climax in the blessed Lord Jesus.
I don’t know everything about anything but I’m aware that we the human family can be desperately wicked. I’ll make no attempt to prove that point—is there any sane person who would doubt it?
Let me tell you what has come home to me more clearly as the years have gone by—the human family while it can be desperately wicked can also be profoundly gallant and worthy of admiration. I’m not advocating humanism! But I will not deny that there are hosts of non-Christian people who live lives of moral grandeur. To reject! God in any of the forms that takes ends in everlasting loss.

I say that all the evil present in our world is the expression of human corruption and I believe that our corrupt state as a family is the result of many contributing factors. No one is born bad! The presence of and the pervasive nature of evil gets hold of us and as we grow we enter into that evil way.
But it’s very clear to us that evil isn’t the only thing that’s in the world. We’re persuaded beyond debate that God has not left the human family without help in His war against evil. The ways in which He helps the human family are many but He does help us! That there is good in the world as well as evil is plain to see and all the religious double-talk won’t change it. In their millions there are lovers who love others more than they love themselves. There are people who astonish us with their gallantry when they lay down their lives as caregivers to the profoundly and chronically ill. There are people young and old, rich and poor, female and male, educated or semi-literate, red and yellow, black and white who live gloriously in all parts of the world.
There! When we see such people we see the magnificence of God. There are those who wonder how a good God can be lord of a world that is so desperately wicked and that wonder is no strange thing—didn’t God’s own prophets and psalmists wonder the same thing? But there’s something else to wonder about: how can there not be a good God at work in the world when there is so much human grandeur and honor, gallantry, patience, compassion, self-giving and cheerfulness?

Why would we doubt it? What is it, are we afraid to say these people live lovely lives (not sinless lives) in case they think they will earn heaven by their goodness? Because we know they can’t buy their way into God’s love we must call their goodness evil (as some corrupt religion does) or must we avoid praising them when they do so gloriously what we wish we could do?
God help us to believe that all we see that’s lovely and fine is His work. God help us to believe that He has given them more than food and gladness, friends and family, health and political freedom. God help us to believe that He has gifted them with friends and teachers, literature and experiences that mediate truth to them—truth that shapes their character and strengthens their resolve to love and do what’s right and just and beautiful.
Tell them that! Tell them we see that in them and God has richly blessed them with it and maybe that will enable them to think noble things of God; maybe that will turn their hearts to a God who is already committed to them and who expresses that commitment in the moral glory we see in them.

That beats to pulp denying the goodness in them and damning all the evil in them. Link their goodness to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus! Link their harmless joys and pleasures with Him. Help them to admire Him. Don’t begrudge them their decency, honesty, faithfulness—it’s the work of God. Give them some praise! We don’t need to endorse corruption or remain silent about it but we need to acknowledge the presence of God in moral loveliness wherever and in whoever we see it.
Back in 1938 they made a movie about the work of a priest called Edward Flanagan who began a home for needy boys—a home that grew and grew until it became Boy’s Town. It is a moving and fine movie with plenty of interesting characters in it.
As the movie tells it Flanagan goes to the store of his friend Dave Morris [played by Henry Hull] looking for a $100 loan to lease a house to shelter the homeless boys he’d gathered up. Business man Morris wants to know what Flanagan has as collateral and the priest brings out a cheap watch that the broker has scores of—he sells them for a couple of dollars each. What else? The priest has nothing else but a10¢ toy—the kind with a clown face, two little holes as eyes and two little balls you must get settled in the eyes. That? That’s collateral? Against his better business judgment Dave succumbs to the priest’s plea and loans him the $100, refuses the collateral and urges the priest, “You better leave before I change my mind.”

Flanagan says, “Oh, I’m not afraid of that Dave!”

I love that line! I love it not only because it was the right thing to say but also because Dave Morris was such a character that the priest was able to say such a thing to him. How marvelous it is to know such people—they make a commitment and have no intention of backing away from it. You know such people don’t you? Christians and non-Christians. You’ve met or heard of them; you might well be one of them; one of those that people talk about as I am now talking about Dave Morris who helped Flanagan’s dream to become a reality and wouldn’t “change his mind” until such a place as Boy’s Town came into and remains in existence to this day.

The scene from the movie ends with Flanagan talking the storeowner into selling him some stuff for the house with Morris’ own money and then working another scheme on him. The frustrated Morris blusters and protests but is clearly weakening and the priest says to him just as he’s leaving, “Dave, tonight before you go to sleep you’re gonna like yourself—a lot!”

I love that line too and I fervently hope that some of you who read this, in whom Dave Morris is alive and well—I hope that you know God is enabling you and has blessed you and is pleased with such a spirit in you and that tonight you can like yourself—a lot.