Struggling to Find the Good in Adversity

I have often thought that being a parent is not easy. Being a parent of a child with special needs is even harder. Because one child needs so much more attention, the siblings may develop resentment, born of feelings of neglect. Balancing the needs of the special needs child with the needs of the other child who is equally special in a different way…that’s the challenge.  

There have been times over the past few years that I have come perilously close to the end of my fraying rope as my wife and I have dealt with the implications of raising a son on the autism spectrum. The behavioral issues can be overwhelming at times. The developmental delays are discouraging. The endless therapies are draining. The constant wrangling with insurance companies and schools—which my wife has done with amazing resolve and effectiveness—is all too often disheartening. There are so few points of light, so few glimmers of encouragement. Our days begin with anxiety and end with exhaustion. That is our constant reality.

And yet, I was thinking just this morning that there have actually been some improvements lately. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better. Our son has been acting better at school. We’ve been getting notes about having good days far more frequently than we had for a while. He seems to actually be more enthusiastic about school. Is it a change in his medications or a change in the assistant assigned to work with him? Is it a combination of the two? Is he just growing up and maturing and learning more appropriate behavior?   We may never really know. But we can be thankful for the improvements.

I was just thinking about how many people who know nothing of this kind of struggle have glib answers and responses to share. Contrary to what they may think and offer as comfort, we are not special in any way. We have no more patience or capacity to care and love than any other parents. We are playing the hand we have been dealt. It’s all we can do.

As I was reflecting on the changes I mentioned, a passage from Romans came to mind. It is one that on some days I would bristle at hearing in such context, but on this day, I understand it.

“28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Now, that idea is batted around any time that someone may face adversity of any sort. All things work together for good. It seems so trite and patronizing. And yet, when your heart is open to it, it is comforting and reassuring.

On this journey into the uncharted wilds of autism, there is so little to bring joy, and so much to bring anger and frustration. But one thing I can say is that I have become more compassionate as I have grown to know and understand more about mental illness and development disorders. I have learned much more than I ever would have about causes and effects of autism and treatments and accommodations for it.

So I must say that good has indeed come from this adversity.

But look at the context in which that single verse resides: Romans 8 is one of the most ennobling chapters in all of scripture. To read and internalize it, in essence to accept it and own it is to be strengthened to face what seemed a moment before to be insurmountable. In the verses preceding this often quoted line, Paul relates the function of the Holy Spirit, the promised Comforter, in interceding for us.  

“26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

How many times have I felt like prayer was totally ineffective? I have prayed for relief from the stresses of this life only to find more stresses. I have prayed for strength and patience, only to feel even weaker. But the Spirit knows more of what I need. And in God’s own time, the answers seem to be appearing. And I am so thankful for those inklings of changes.

The latter part of Romans 8 makes a believer’s heart swell nearly to bursting with love and faith and hope.

“31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Now, I realize Paul may have been talking more about persecution. But life’s circumstances can be as intimidating if not more so because there is no one to blame or to fight or to flee from.

To me, one of the most important messages from Romans 8 is that we are not alone. If we love God, the Spirit is working on our behalf. If we are among those who respond to the call to love and life, Jesus intercedes. And though the world may seem to swirl out of control, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

So today, I am thankful for the grace of the remembrance of a verse that gives me strength. It strengthens my faith with a truth more immediate than hope. I need to remember that more often. When times are bad. When autism has won the day. When I am so tired I feel I can’t go another step. I am not alone. I am loved despite things present or things to come. And I am more than a conqueror.

Being a parent isn’t easy. And come to think of it, with children like me questioning motives and demanding answers all the time, it can’t be easy for God, either. But I’m glad that he hasn’t given up on me. So following his lead, I won’t give up on my son.  

It has taken a while, but I finally understand.  The “good” that comes from the “working” of “all things” is not necessarily for me, as in my desired outcome on my terms.  It’s inside me.  And I am thankful for it.     

Politics and Religion in the Age of the Sound Bite

The founding fathers of the United States were not super-human.  They were not god-like in their powers of reasoning or prescient in their grasp of the future.  They were men.  They made mistakes. They were imperfect.  They wrote or ratified that all men are created equal, but held fellow humans in slavery. Their successors subscribed to the tenets of their predecessors, and, through the misguided application of an idea that the people of the new nation were divinely appointed to rule the continent from sea to shining sea, who subscribed to the mythos of “manifest destiny,” rooted the Native Americans from their homes and took their lands, making promises that were less permanent than the paper on which they were written.

No, these men were just men with grand and noble ideas and ideals.  But even in their human imperfection, they provided guidelines and touchstones that seem as if they just may have been divinely inspired.  No, I would not add the US Constitution to the canon of scripture.  But the first ten amendments to it, the Bill of Rights, are held as sacred to many who live in this country and love the freedom they have provided for well over two centuries.

The first amendment may contain the greatest and most important of all of the guaranteed rights.  In a single sentence, James Madison, as framer of the Bill of Rights, provided citizens with extraordinary benefits and assurances:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom to peaceably assemble, and the freedom to petition the government for the redress of grievances—what a slate of liberties in one sentence.

But the first guaranteed right, even before the freedom of speech, is the assurance that no particular religion would be embraced and made official by the government, and that all people would be free to exercise their faith without the interference of the government.  This was, of course, contrary to the practice of the day.  England, from whom the fledgling country had just won its independence, has an official religion.  Many of the colonists who came to America were seeking a place where they could practice their faith without persecution.

I believe in that freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.  When the two become intertwined, freedoms will erode.  Government will force its will on religion, or religion will force its will on government.  Beyond these possibilities, there appear to be no alternatives.

And yet, it is commendable when men of faith come together to celebrate that faith, and to petition God for guidance.  Such an event happens annually, where the President of the United States presides over the National Prayer Breakfast, held the first Thursday of each February.

The latest iteration of these events sparked controversy for the remarks that President Obama made regarding the violent history of Christianity, that people had done bad things in the name of Christ, ranging from atrocities during the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, to state sanctioned slavery and the suppression of African Americans with discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Many political figures of the other party gasped in disdain over the remarks.  How dare he invoke history to remind us that people who professed to be Christians could be construed as being little different from those in other religions who perpetrate acts of violence in the guise of religion?!

My mind immediately returned to the Jeremiah Wright controversy of 2008.  During his first presidential campaign, then Senator Obama was forced to distance himself from the pastor of the church he had attended in Chicago, largely based on a single snippet of a sermon.  You remember the one, where Wright uttered those inflammatory words suggesting that African Americans should not sing “God Bless America”; “No, no, no.  God Damn America!”

Here is the famous quote in context:

Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontus Pilot – Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from east to west. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonised Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God Damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!

I heard that three-word snippet over and over and over.  And I wish I had the presence of mind to do then what I did this very morning.  I searched for the source and found a transcript of the sermon, which was titled “Confusing God and Government.”  (You can find the transcript at this forum site: http://www.sluggy.net/forum/viewtopic.php?p=315691&sid=4b3e97ace4ee8cee02bd6850e52f50b7)

Wright opened his remarks by talking about whether or not Jesus wept.  Of course, John 11.35 confirms this in the account of the death of Lazarus.  But the sermon, given on Palm Sunday of 2003, recounted Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in the week he was to die.  In Luke 19.41-44, Jesus paused and wept for the city, as he would surely weep for America in its present condition:

“41  And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42  saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43  For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44  and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”   

Wright made three points in his sermon:  1)  Governments lie, but God does not;  2)  Governments change, but God does not; and 3) Governments fail, but God does not.  He emphasized that people should not confuse the role of government with the sovereignty of God.  

Now, I cannot say I agree with all of Wright’s political positions, nor can I vouch for the factual nature of every comment he made in his impassioned message.  For example, he made assertions that cannot be proven apparently implicating the US government in schemes like engineering the 9/11 attacks, and engineering HIV as a means of genocide against Africa.  Conspiracy theories abound, and anyone is subject to falling under their seductive spells. But conspiracies aside, there were many points that were indeed thought-provoking.

But a three-word sound bite was all that many ever heard from that Palm Sunday sermon.  For the vast majority of people, Wright’s message has never been read or heard in its entirety.  Only a couple of lines later, he said, “God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”  His message was cautionary: if our nation continues to treat groups of people as they have done, we will fall like Israel fell, struck down by divine retribution for disobeying fundamental laws of justice and mercy.

That was his message: “…as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”  His was a call not unlike the prophets of the Old Testament.  Unless the nation repents of its collective sins, we may face the same fate as Israel: conquest by a foreign power, occupation, captivity and degradation.

Obama’s speech was cautionary as well, and may have been offered in the spirit of Jesus’ admonition against judging another while we may remain blinded by our own past.  As President of a nation that guarantees freedom of religion, he could not condemn all Muslim people for the acts of the most extreme. And contrary to how it has been spun in some quarters, he did not condemn all Christians for the acts of a few in the past.

Politics and religion are perhaps the two most volatile forces in human society.  When the two clash, as inevitably they will, there will be ill will and misunderstanding leading to suspicion and division.  Those early framers of our government knew that.  Despite the controversies that will inevitably swirl any time the two come near each other, we should be thankful for the guarantees of the First Amendment, which may be as close to a divine mandate as any nation, or any community or person of faith can ever hope to receive.

Oppression and Indifference

I was reading this morning about a crackdown on religion by the Chinese Communist Party in one province, in a refreshed campaign against religion as “the opiate of the people” and a renewed emphasis on state or party sanctioned atheism.  The article noted that the Communist Party’s “…ideology is rooted in Marxist-Leninist thought, which decries religion as a delusion that distracts the oppressed masses from demanding their fair share.”

I cannot imagine how it would feel to be oppressed for the practice of my faith.  As an American, it is a foreign concept to me.  Such oppression is unthinkable.  And yet, millions worldwide are officially discouraged from worship, actively detained, and in some cases, threatened, physically injured or killed for professing faith in a Savior who is called the Prince of Peace.

I have heard people in my faith heritage talk about how they have been oppressed.  I have asked how, only to hear the response that someone said something bad about them, or called them an ugly name, or used some religious epithet like “Campbellite” in reference to them.  Maybe they felt as if they had been denied a business opportunity because they were members of the wrong church.  When I hear such pitiful complaining, I shake my head in disbelief, shame and sorrow.

To be ill-spoken of is not oppression.

To be denied a business contract is not oppression.

 

But, to have your property seized because of your faith is oppression.

To be imprisoned for your faith is oppression.

To be beaten for your faith is oppression.

To be murdered for your faith is oppression.

To be murdered for your faith in front of your children is oppression.

 There are many stories of brave Protestant ministers who took a stand against the Nazi regime of early 20th century Germany.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who spoke against Hitler, and was said to have joined a movement to assassinate him.  The Führer himself sent down the order for Bonhoeffer’s execution.  He was executed by hanging about two weeks before American forces liberated the concentration camp where he met his fate, and one month before Germany’s defeat.  An SS doctor who witnessed the execution said Bonhoeffer prayed and accepted his sentence with dignity.  In reality, he was denied common human dignity, stripped naked and led to the gallows.  Some say he was hoisted by a meat hook to a noose made of piano wire, where it may have taken half an hour to die.  Other reports suggest that the execution may have taken hours to complete. Other writers speculate that the SS doctor who reported what he saw, who marveled at Bonhoeffer’s faith and resolve, may have lied to salve his conscience or detract from the grisly business with which he was involved: it was suggested that such SS doctors supervised the revival of political opponents at the brink of death only to prolong their agony.  This is oppression.

Martin Niemöller was another German pastor who was imprisoned for his anti-Nazi stance in the late 1930’s, sent to concentration camps, including the infamous camp at Dachau, and was finally liberated at war’s end in 1945.  Niemöller was originally a Hitler supporter, but became disillusioned with the state’s control of religion.  After the war, he regretted having not done more to help victims of Nazi atrocities.

 Niemöller gave a speech in which he laid the foundation for what would become an oft-quoted, and often varied poem, one version of which reads:

In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

This idea is echoed by Elie Wiesel, himself a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, who became a celebrated writer and peace activist.  In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In an interview that year, he said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference between life and death.”

Indifference.  That was the crime of the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.  Those who should have been most active in helping a Jewish brother turned away.  They did not further abuse the beaten traveler.  They merely turned their backs, walked away and left him to die unaided rather than become involved. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  Indifference.  It is indifference that leads to inaction, and that ultimately accompanies tragedy by failing to stop oppression.

Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech in December, 1986,

“And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere….

“Yes, I have faith. Faith in God and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all….

“…As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”

It is an age-old story.  God told Israel in Isaiah 1, “16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17  learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”  The offenses shown here can easily be the product of indifference.  By doing nothing, oppressors are free to oppress.  By doing nothing, justice can be denied to the powerless.

In the last sermon Martin Niemöller preached on June 27, 1937, before he was taken to a concentration camp to begin an eight-year imprisonment, he said, “We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”  I admire that.  I aspire to that depth of faith and purpose.

Although it is true that I came to faith late, I have in that time never been oppressed for its practice.  I hope and pray that I would have the courage to stand fast if real oppression should ever arise. But unless — or God forbid, until — it does, it is my duty to stand in the face of indifference and correct oppression wherever it may be.  It all begins with caring enough to speak out. 

Consider this a shout.

Of Ancient Paths and the Image of God

Isn’t it wonderful that no human owns the rights to the Bible?  Oh, sure, there are translations and versions that have copyrights.  But the thoughts and teachings contained therein are not the exclusive property of any person or group. 

Unfortunately, some people think they own it.  Or, perhaps more correctly, they think their understanding of it is the only understanding possible.  Very often, this is built on taking words out of context and applying isolated verses to meet the teachings and doctrines that have been not only accepted, but elevated to equality with scripture.

One of the favorite pleas of many who find themselves as scions of the Restoration Movement has been a verse found in Jeremiah chapter 6.  In verse 16, Jeremiah records the words of God, “Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”

To many of these people, seeking the Ancient Paths is code for the restoration of First Century church structure and worship.  There have been and still exist books, papers and articles with Old Paths in their titles. Anyone not seeking the right Old Paths are completely and irredeemably wrong. 

To be sure, I understand where they are coming from.  But their Ancient Paths lead to destinations very different from the ones that God spoke of through Jeremiah.  Obviously, the first issue that comes to mind is that Jeremiah was writing a warning to the erring children of Israel, who were about to reap a harvest of God’s wrath for their disobedience.  This means that the Ancient Paths were far older than First Century church practice.

Now, take a moment to read the verse in its context.  I am drawn to the comment in verse 13, where God says, “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.”

What does that sound like?  To me, it rings of Isaiah 1, where God charges Israel with vain worship.  How?  They appeared to be keeping up appearances, including sacrifices, Sabbath assemblies, appointed feasts, and convocations.  It sounds like they were keeping the letter of the law as far as one might observe.

But something was wrong.  God says in Isaiah 1.13, “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.”

In vv. 16-17, God gives Israel pointed instructions as to what he required of them to be right in his sight: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil,  17  learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” 

Back in Jeremiah 6.13, everyone was dealing falsely and seeking unjust gain.  In doing so, they were oppressing others.  They were denying justice to orphans and rendering indifference to the plight of widows.  They had left the Ancient Roads, the Good Way, wherein they would find rest for their souls.

Jesus knew the Ancient Paths, and declared it to one who tried to entrap him in his own words.  When asked what the greatest commandment was in Matthew 22, he replied with a synthesis from Deuteronomy 6.4 and Leviticus 19.18: “37 …You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Micah 6.8 relates, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Is that not loving God, to care for his creation by doing justice, living in kindness and freely offering mercy?  To serve others in this way demands humility; to serve this way is to walk with God, because these are attributes of God.

The Pharisees in Matthew 23 got the form right in their strict adherence to the letter of the ceremonial law.  But Jesus called them on something more fundamental: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  Some writers suggest that Jesus was thinking of Micah 6.6-8 when he delivered this denunciation of the Pharisaic proclivity for performing for the praise of other Pharisees.  I would tend to agree.

Yes, the Ancient Paths are older than the First Century.  If truth were known, the principles may be as old God, which is to say, eternal.  God’s repeated call throughout the Bible and to all of humankind today is much the same:  love him, love each other.  It is in love and justice and kindness and mercy that true rest can be found for weary and burdened souls.  It is in returning to the nearly forgotten image of God that we can know the peace that surpasses our current understanding.  It is important to remember that we can choose not to follow those original Ancient Paths and easily pass the Good Way by while becoming distracted with interpretations of ancient form and practice. But it is good to know that direction to the true Ancient Paths will always be ours for the asking.

Limiting God

I am not a football fan.

I know that is practically sacrilege in my adopted home state of Tennessee.  Were I to declare something similar regarding basketball as a son of the Bluegrass, I would be unceremoniously stripped of my claim to Kentucky nativity.

If truth be told, I’m not much of a sports fan of any kind.  That’s not to say that I haven’t tried.  I like the idea of sports.  But I have trouble staying focused long enough to enjoy an entire game.  Well, unless my daughter is playing softball, and then I am proud to be a part of the cheering crowd.

While I am admittedly not an avid sports fan, I do enjoy sports movies.  I love golf films like The Greatest Game Ever Played and Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, and Seven Days in Utopia.  I like baseball movies like 42 and Field of Dreams.

Recently, I watched the 1993 movie, Rudy, about a working class Catholic kid who dreams of playing football for Notre Dame.  He works hard, raises his grades by attending a junior college, then serves as a tackling dummy for two hard years with the Fighting Irish.  He is allowed to take the field in one play at the end of his eligibility, so that he would be listed in the official records as being on the team.  He took the field to the cheers of the crowd, his teammates, and his family.  Obviously, the movie was designed to choke up the average movie watcher, and that’s a pretty good description of me.

In one scene, Rudy is being counseled by the wise old priest, Father Cavanaugh.  He tells the young man, “Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.”

That line stuck with me, because it kind of sums up a lot of what I have come to think about faith, religion, and a whole lot of other things.

Sure, there is much we can know and should know about the Bible.  I believe its teachings by and about Jesus and his life and death and continuing life.  I believe God calls us back to what he meant for his creation, for mankind from the very beginning.  I believe the two greatest commandments are in effect today, to love God and to love our neighbors.  There is much to know and much to believe and much to do.

But there is much about which I have little certainty because it is not mine to make a final judgment.  And yet some people are perfectly comfortable with making those judgments and in fact, seem to have cornered the market on certainty. I often wonder if there might be some at the Judgment echoing the attitude of the older brother in the story of the lost son in Luke 15.  What if God were to lovingly accept someone that the “certain” folks find objectionable?  Will they rebuke God for his grace and mercy?

The classic what-if scenario deals with the ultimate and eternal disposition of the unfortunate soul who was tragically killed on his way to be baptized.  I read that someone of the “certain” persuasion once said that if a person had a heart attack before his nose broke the surface of the water on his way out of the baptistery, he would be damned eternally for not completing the process.

Really?  Really?

Now in one sense, to make that unequivocal declaration takes a lot of weight off of God’s considerable shoulders.  I mean, surely, God would appreciate the fact that others are making such easy decisions about eternal salvation and damnation.

But to do so actually violates some important concepts about the very nature of God.  For example, Paul told Titus (1.2) that God cannot lie.  I accept that.  The reasoning that some would use to damn the unfortunate soul in the example would be that God would have lied if he granted such latitude, or that he would be a respecter of persons.

This kind of reasoning puts a very short rein on God.  Why?  Because God can and does change his mind.  Remember the story of Noah?  After God had created everything and declared it very good, he changed his mind and brought about the destruction of masses of humanity in that day because “…the thoughts of his [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6.5)  After the decision was made to destroy the evil cities on the plain, God was willing to bargain with Abraham as he argued for sparing the chosen home of his nephew Lot ahead of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18. Abraham’s appeals were ultimately unsuccessful because of the completeness of the wickedness expressed by the city’s inhabitants, not because of God’s inflexibility.

Consider God’s record of sometimes changing his mind, and read passages like the one in Romans where Paul wrote,

“For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  (Romans 9.15)

Paul was quoting words attributed to Moses’ writing in Exodus,

“And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33.19)

 It is God’s prerogative to grant mercy and compassion to whomever he wishes and to change his mind.  To deny that he has done so in the past and can do so now or in the future is to limit God.  In essence, we not only accept the divinely supplied gift of free will, we seem to revel in it.  Yet, we often presume to force God’s hand and take his free will away.  God warned the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 6.16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test….”  We would do well to heed that caution and let God be God, with all the rights and honors that he not only demands but deserves.

Now, before anyone says that I have jumped aboard the universalism bandwagon, let me say that is definitely not the case.  I firmly believe that there are actions taken in the exercise of free will that can and do separate mankind from God, both now in time and eternally.  I also believe that there are expressions of free will that mankind must engage in to be reconciled to God.  It is my responsibility as a brother to help another brother who has lost his way.  It should be my joy to share my knowledge and experience of The Way with those who know nothing of it.  But like in the example that I mentioned above, I am neither willing nor qualified to make some kinds of judgments.

Why?  Because I am not God.  I cannot know what is in a person’s heart.  And because God said, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

Remember the end of the Gospel of John?  Peter was questioning Jesus about John, which would give rise to the rumor that John would not die before Jesus returned.  Jesus responded in John 21.22, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

That statement is another that has stuck with me: “What is that to you?”  Jesus told Peter that he was meddling in affairs that were definitely outside of his wheelhouse.  He reinforced Peter’s own responsibility in his direct charge, “You follow me!”

Sometimes, I think that if more people would listen to Jesus’ command to Peter, we’d have less conflict in the religious world.  But we should understand that following Jesus entails a lot more than a five or six step process.  It means changing how we live.  It means that we must love more, serve more, and sin less.  It means embodying forgiveness and compassion.  It means embracing humility and forsaking earthly glory.  It means standing up for justice and showing mercy.  It means understanding and accepting that there are some things that only God knows, and it is sometimes best not to speak for him.

But some people are seduced by verses like Jude 1.3, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”  The idea of “contending” is appealing.  But as it has often been bandied about, to contend does not mean to become contentious.  Too many confuse the two.  No, Jude continues in his review of stories found nowhere else in the canon, saying, “9 But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.””  If God’s own messenger reserved his own potentially blasphemous judgment on the Devil, how much more should we be careful of our words?  Michael said, “The Lord rebuke you.”  And he will.

The judgmental mindset of those who would be “contentious” for the faith is directly addressed by Paul in II Timothy 2.24-26:

“24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

No, it is not wrong to attempt to correct error as one perceives error.  It is very wrong to do so with the gleeful “I’ve got you now!” attitude that I have seen from some people on far too many occasions.  Name-calling is not gentleness.  Angry exchanges are not indicative of patience.  These people often fall back on Ephesians 4.15, and defend their judgmental behaviors as “Speaking the truth in love…”  But love is usually not in them.  At least it is not visible.

There are things that I know because I have studied them or been taught them. There are things I believe, not because of a preponderance of hard evidence but because my heart can see through the eyes of faith, and that faith serves as my evidence.  Like Father Cavanaugh, I recognize those two incontrovertible truths: there is a God, and I am not him.  For both of those truths, I am truly grateful.  I sincerely hope that I am one of those seemingly unworthy ones on whom he will shower his compassion and mercy.  God knows I need it.

On Coming to Faith

Note:  A dear friend who has known me for many years asked me to consider writing a post about how I came to a life of faith, in the hope that my story might help someone else who was in the same place I was a number of years ago.  I thought for a few weeks, and decided to give it a try, fully realizing that my experience, while possibly similar to that of others, is purely my own.  Every person’s experience of faith is unique, but perhaps that is what makes it genuine.  Anything worthwhile is worth working for, even fighting for.  You will not find your faith by running from God.  Only by confronting him will you begin to see the glimmers and glimpses of something beyond the mundane.  To those for whom this essay was written, faith will not come to you unbidden.  Seek it.  Question it.  But don’t ignore it.  It can enrich your life more than you can know from your present perspective.    

Faith is not easy. At least for some people. For others, it is as simple as breathing. But for some, it is just hard work.

I know, because I was one who had to work for it. The bad news is that the work can seem so fruitless at times that some people just give up and let go of something that can be so enriching.

The good news is that if you stick with it, faith grows, and for many, it gets easier.

I grew up in a state of confusion. As the son of a preacher, I was raised with absolutes. With absolute certainty of things unseen. With absolute confidence in an invisible faith that I didn’t quite understand. I was bothered by inconsistency and glaring questions that I saw in the Bible as a source of faith and in religion as a state of being. From an early age, I was conflicted by the great disconnect between physical evidence of an old earth with the conventionally accepted Biblical claims of a young one. More directly, I was skeptical of a God who tossed out red herrings to distract truth-seekers, a God who used contradictory evidence to confound empirical reason.

I was angered by a God who seemed to be waiting for someone to make a mistake to send that hapless soul to eternal torment. I was disgusted by the schemes and machinations of piously cruel and heartless church members who seemed to delight in laying a trap in order to spring it, cackling self-righteously at their “gotcha” moment.

I suppose in retrospect, there was a time when I was teetering on agnosticism, if not a full-out rejection of God in favor of a comfortable if ill-fitting academic atheism.

So what made the difference?

If I had to point to one thing, it was love.

Love expressed in altruism makes little sense in purely biological/physical terms. The fundamental selflessness of love as embodied by Jesus of Nazareth is as contradictory to the natural tendency toward selfishness as anything that can be observed. It is that contradictory nature of love that well supports the declaration of Tertullian, “Credo quia absurdum est.” “I believe it because it is absurd,” or “impossible,” or “contrary to reason” as so many of Jesus’ claims may seem to be. Virgin birth and miracles aside, that he would proclaim the greatest commandments to be to love God and to love one’s neighbor seems an ineffable absurdity. That the new command he gave his disciples was to love each other seems irrationally contrary to the better interest of the self. That he would demand a ritual baptism to ratify one’s commitment to discipleship seems utterly against reason. As do the claims of exaltation in servitude. And joy in suffering. And life in death.

Certainly, there have been other morally upright and selfless people across the broad landscape of history. You can name many throughout history like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But then, they were both strongly influenced by the life and tactics of Jesus. While they are each celebrated for their own selfless achievements, none have the same level of recognition and uniquely deserved celebrity as that one man who lived his simple life in a dusty backwater quarter of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago.

When I woke up to see the centrality of love in the call to faith, I knew that so much of what I had seen for 33 years had been distractions preventing me from seeing the reality of God.

But just knowing is far from doing. Understanding is not application. I had to act. I did so in terms of the faith heritage I had known since childhood. While I found belief difficult, the demonstration of that faith was even more so. According to my understanding, the act of baptism is a necessity for anyone professing to be a disciple of this Jesus. The most primitive expression of baptism is immersion in water, which I found to be a little on the odd side. “What good could being dipped in water do?” I wondered over and over. In the Bible, Peter says that baptism is not merely a physical bathing, a washing of the flesh. It is the answer or appeal of a good conscience to God.

Now, I am not here to debate the form of or formula for baptism. I submitted to it because it was a command, and because I wanted to be counted among the true followers, not merely an adherent to the faith, watching from outside the comfort of the warming glow of the knowledge and experience of Jesus. I knew that I was not worthy of any special dispensation of any great exception. Therefore, I submitted, willingly, in full belief, for the right reasons and not just “fire insurance,” and with great relief, I might add.

So, with respect to Jesus, I am what I am because he is who he is. I am a Christian in the most elemental sort of way, realizing and accepting that this is the fundamental defining relationship of my entire experience of faith. That I am considered a part of a church is a consequence of that definitive relationship. To profess a conversion to a particular church is contrary to the teaching of scripture: upon one’s acceptance of, and submission to the rule of God, in essence becoming a citizen of that kingdom of Heaven, one is added to the church in the universal sense. One then joins in fellowship with a congregation of those with a similar faith largely for education, edification, comfort, service, support—in essence to look out for each other, spiritually, as a matter of course, and physically as necessity may dictate.

I know for most people, especially those for whom faith comes easy, my story is not very inspiring. But it is my story. I have seen similar stories from others who were ostensibly skeptics, yet deeper down, honest and sensitive and sensible seekers. The most notable of such, and one responsible for the conversion to Christianity of many thousands of others like him was none other than that great master Christian apologist of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis. His book, Mere Christianity, is a landmark of reason, in which he rationally argues for Christianity in the universal sense, and does not proselytize for any particular denomination. I highly recommend the book for anyone seeking clarification of the validity of the Christian faith on the grand scale. It is worth the investment of time, if indeed you are serious about knowing.

And though knowing is not the same thing as doing, it certainly helps to know what you are doing. Asking the right questions of God and yourself, that is the beginning of your own wonderful journey into a life of faith. But you’ll never reach your destination if you never take the first step. Faith may not come easy, but it can grow. And the possibilities it affords are endless, timeless and eternal.

Christmas Greetings, 2014

I am a frustrated writer.  I have known that since high school, when my idol was John-Boy Walton.  (Well, idol may be too fine a point.)  At any rate, I love to write, and the essay has become my genre of choice, I suppose.  I may have dabbled a bit in fiction, but I haven’t the patience for it, really.  I enjoy the immediacy of the essay.  I love to share thoughts and ideas.  And I must admit that there are times when I have sat back after a couple of days and re-read a piece, only to think, “This is actually good.”  Had I not written it, I would enjoy reading it.  Sometimes, the inspiration to write is so direct and so urgent that I look at the product and think, “Where did that come from?”  Thoughts and ideas pour onto the screen, ostensibly from the action of my fingers and brain, but there are times when for the life of me, I don’t know how I came up with certain phrases.  Writing is a passion.       

I am grateful that anyone would take the time to read any of my blog posts.  The comments I have received and the sense of accomplishment at having expressed something that others may have been struggling with make the effort worth the late nights and early mornings when I usually find the time to really connect with my wayward thoughts.  Perhaps some would consider a blog to be a work of vanity, but I think of it as a labor of love. 

A year ago, I published a post called “Coming to Terms with Joy to the World.”  It was quite popular with those who read my blog, and for that, I am deeply grateful.  Another year has passed, and I have not changed my thinking in the least.  I still believe it is a wonderful thing to take the time to think about one of the greatest events to grace this tired old reality, the birth of a baby who would change the world. 

No, I am well aware that we were never instructed to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  But then, there is no record in the canon of the Jews ever being commanded to observe the Festival of Lights, also called the Feast of Dedication, or more commonly known as Hanukah.  Jesus, good practicing Jew that he was, observed that holiday, as recorded in John 10.  Esther’s holiday of Purim was apparently not divinely appointed, but is still celebrated to this day to mark the Jews’ deliverance from a determined enemy.

I do not purport that Jesus was born on December 25th as in the Western tradition, or January 6th as in the Eastern tradition.  The article cited in the post mentioned above does a fine job of describing how Christians came to observe the birth at those times.

I do not suggest that there were three wise men, or magi, that visited Jesus’ family while he lay in a manger.  No, there were at least two, and they brought at least three kinds of precious gifts sometime after his birth. 

I do believe beyond any doubt in my mind that Jesus came to this world and lived as we do.  I believe that he taught a message that had been nearly lost by a people who had lost sight of their place in creation, though the prophets had called God’s erring children back to it time and again.  Love.  Peace.  Grace.  Justice.  Mercy.  Each concept leapt to new life under the master’s touch.  And believers today still hear him and glow with joy at his message. 

And this makes them want to celebrate, for there could have been no perfect sacrificial offering had there been no humble birth.  There would have been no merciful teacher and judge and healer who showed to hurting people their true selves, as they were, but in mercy and love, showed them what they could become.  Some, like the Samaritan woman with the checkered past would rise above what lay behind her.  Some like the rich young ruler would walk away sorrowful, even though he had just experienced one of the most moving experiences any human could behold, where Mark records the exchange, pointedly noting, “10.21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said….”

Had Jesus never come to this life, we would never have seen ourselves in the impetuous nature of Peter, or the intellectual endeavors of Paul, or the well-placed diligence of Mary juxtaposed against the skewed sense of duty of her sister, Martha.  We would have missed the sincere doubt of Thomas, who, when faced with the ultimate evidence of Jesus’ on-going life, declared, “My Lord and my God!”

I used to feel a twinge of guilt when I sang Christmas carols that spoke of Jesus’ birth.  But no more.  Some of my favorite holiday songs are of the “sacred” variety.  I love “Carol of the Bells,” remembering my short stint in high school chorus, and singing the high tenor part (“Diiiiing, dong, ding, doooong….”), when what I really wanted to sing was the baritone… (“Bohhmmmm!”)  I love “Mary Did You Know?”, whether sung a cappella, or in popular style, or bluegrass.

It took 50 years, but I finally got Christmas.

My wife grew up in a very different heritage, where Christmas was a special and spiritual time of year.  Her mother loved the season, and carols were sung at her December funeral, at the suggestion of a fine and caring minister who knew how much she loved Christmas. 

My wife remembered her family’s table-top nativity scene, so important to her experience of the holiday as a child, but now long gone after the passing of her wonderful parents.  I wanted her to have a connection with her childhood, so last year, I bought a starter set for a nice collectible line that could be expanded as years go by.  But there was no stable.  What is a nativity scene without a stable?  As luck would have it, I found a “vintage” porcelain set at Goodwill, this one with its original rustic wooden stable, and a similar scale to the new set… And so now we have two sets.  And a new stable this year for the newer set.  And they are both nice.  And they make me smile, and think of a baby, born into an unkind world, who would demonstrate to us all, from then and for all time, what love can do.      

I know that December 25th is not Jesus’ actual birthday.  But he was born.  And he lived.  And he died.  And he changed the world.  And he changed my life.

And that is worth celebrating.

Everyone knows the opening lines of Isaac Watt’s “Joy to the World.” 

“Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!  Let Earth receive her king!”

But the final verse is powerful, in its own right, echoing John’s little reflected on declaration from the first chapter of his gospel account.

“He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove

The glories of His righteousness,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders of His love,

And wonders, wonders, of His love.”

 To all my dear friends to whom these greetings may come, those I have known for many years, and those I may have yet to meet: May your Christmas and New Year be blessed with his truth and grace.  To find that truth and grace, it may be necessary to peel away accumulated layers of religion, and get to know the real Jesus.  He is a friend for the ages.  And a friend like that is worth keeping. 

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