On Digging Holes and Defeating Darkness

My mother used to love to tell the stories about how I behaved when I was little.  She would laugh when she related that I never played like other children.  She even used to tell people that I was “born old.”  She told about how one place we lived in Greensburg, KY, there was a huge pile of dirt in the backyard, but I wouldn’t use the collection of Tonka trucks to play in it.  Rather, I would run into the house frequently and ask if I was dirty, apparently preferring not to soil my clothes with that red clay dirt. 

But I just made a connection that may provide a clue as to why I was such a juvenile clean-freak.  I remember one time actually digging in the dirt in that very backyard, and I uncovered a rock with a sharp point on it.  I was convinced that I had dug my way to hell, and that was the horn of old Lucifer himself, as depicted in so many images, mostly cartoons, but which still were quite suggestive and influential to a very young boy.  That’s probably why I didn’t like the dirt so much.

I knew little of religion and Heaven and hell at the time, but since my dad was a preacher, I had heard plenty about such things, usually while sitting on unpadded church pews, and sometimes during marathon sermons brought by some visiting preacher at what I’m sure I felt were all too frequent “gospel meetings,” as they are called in the churches of Christ, or known in other denominations as “revivals.”  The longest sermon I can remember was by a legendary preacher (although I forget his name) in a little country church on a hot summer night in a building where there was no air conditioning.  The benches were narrow boards for a seat with a narrow board for a back rest, with a huge space in between.  That sermon felt like it went on for three hours or more, although I’m quite sure it probably wasn’t a minute over two and a half.

Nearly half a century later, I understand that hell is not under my feet, and not every pointy rock is a devil’s horn.  But I have come to realize that we can do things that degrade what God said was a “very good” creation.  I have come to believe that each of our thoughtless or premeditated, selfishly motivated actions (theologically referred to as “sins”) can allow a little bit of the darkness of hell to break through into this once-bright realm, making the world a little less welcoming, a little less comfortable, a little less safe, a little less “very good.”

So many of the ills of the modern world are tied not to a single proximate source, but to a complex nest of interwoven malevolent threads, all spun from the same selfish source, twisted into a cord that binds us.  One thread is money.  Another is power.  Another is indifference to suffering.  Every one of those coarse or silky fibers is twisted into a rope that owes its existence to that single, seemingly innocuous quality of self-determination masquerading as self-preservation: selfishness.  If we are not careful, however, that twisted cable may bind us hand and foot, preventing us from breaking free to return to the care-free freedom of grace.

Consider the three avenues of temptation as catalogued in I John 2.16: “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.”  All of these forms of temptation point directly back to selfishness.  When we desire power over another, it is for selfish gain.  When money becomes our sole motivation, its purpose is usually to elevate and enrich the self.  When we drink too much or eat too much or focus too much on sex, it is most likely for selfish gratification, although these may be forms of self-medication to make some kind of hurt—often brought on by conflict with another exercising some attitude and action of selfishness—go away.

We can see such things being painted in broad strokes on a daily basis.  Politicians, motivated more often by a lust for power than a desire to serve, sell themselves to the highest corporate bidders, supporting initiatives that degrade the environment to make another banner quarterly earnings statement.  We see those same politicians refuse to consider raising the minimum wage to a level that might allow a person the dignity of rising above the poverty level because it would cut down on corporate profits.  We see politicians in one moment seek to limit or ban abortions, but then actively campaign to reduce funding for programs to feed and care for children that have already been born. 

At the heart of all of these issues is some manifestation of selfishness:  whether money or power or some warped concept of self-sufficiency or self-determination, I assert that the malevolent root is the same.

When I awoke to this realization, I saw that much of the political ideology that I had supported for years was degenerating into a miasma that elevates selfish ambition and actively discourages any corporate expression of the focal Christian directive to “love thy neighbor.”  This has largely been influenced by the economic philosophies of people such as the Ayn Rand, whose “objectivism” has shaped the thinking of numerous members of an elite cadre of the super-wealthy.  Politicians have extolled the virtues of Rand’s philosophy, but when it is examined closely, it is the very antithesis of Christianity.       

Consider just two quotes from Ayn Rand’s massive novel, Atlas Shrugged:

“If I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse, I would reject it as the most contemptible evil.” 

 “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

According to James 2, Christians have responsibilities to help others as we can.  I have frequently been reminded of what James says about words without action.  In James 2.15-16, he pointedly addresses the idea of essentially wishing the needy well, but doing nothing to see to it.  “15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

Someone will undoubtedly say that James 2 deals with individual responsibility, and some would go so far as to say that not even churches should be involved in such activity corporately, but that every person has the responsibility to do his or her part.  I agree that it is an individual responsibility.  But the need is so great across a massive country that individual efforts barely make a dent in the problem.  By supporting government initiatives that effectively pool our resources, we can be far more effective. 

The first of Rand’s quotes above is a complete rejection of loving one’s neighbor and seeing to his or her physical needs.  Government, in a time of tremendous economic upheaval (The Great Depression of the 1930’s), stepped in to help support the elderly and the poor.  Many see these as good things, others condemn them as contemptible because of abuses and excesses perpetrated by dishonest people seeking gain at the public expense.  Of course there are abuses of the system.  We’re dealing with humans, who at their natural cores tend toward selfishness, and money.  Does the system need review and revision?  Constantly.

One argument from many who would dismantle government aid programs is that such should be locally driven, if not turned over to the private sector.  This idea is flawed, however, because it suggests that poorer regions with a higher proportion of the population in poverty can provide for their own poor.  The truth is that wealth is not uniformly distributed across the geographic map.  A starving child in Mississippi is as much my responsibility as a starving child in Tennessee or Illinois or New York or Oregon.  Furthermore, this fails to account for a very notable human failing: for most people, if we are not pushed to put money into such programs, we are likely not to do it—it’s that tendency toward selfishness. Oh, it may be that such inactivity is not malicious, but the effect is the same: hungry children will go unfed, the elderly, poor, and disabled will lack medical care, the poor will be exposed to pollution and poor working conditions—if working at all.  The fact of the matter is that government is the only organization large enough and with enough infrastructure and resources to deal with the problems of a nation of more than 320 million people.

But back to the point of the clash of philosophies and to draw another conclusion: You cannot accept the selfishness of Randian Individualist/Objectivist position and still hold to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Remember the story of Satan’s temptation of Eve?  He simply said, “You will NOT surely die.”  A simple negation to plant doubt.  Rand does the same thing: “Money is the root of all good.”  Rand says, “You have no duty to anyone but yourself.” But in Ecclesiastes  12.13, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”  So, anyone espousing a Christian faith has duty to God, who commands that we love and care for each other. 

Someone may say that we are talking about politics and economics, not religion, so these arguments have no merit.  Well, I cannot separate my faith from my life, which includes my political ideologies and economic doctrines and beliefs.  My faith informs me.  If I now embrace the objectivist teaching in whole or in part, I have achieved nothing but dissonance with the principles of my faith.  As Jesus said, no one can serve two masters.

Many people will try to cast this variant of rugged individualism as the ultimate expression of American patriotism.  They will say that we are taking back our country if we follow the Rand-inspired Pathway to Prosperity.  They will praise those who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps (even though it is hard to do that when you don’t have a boot to begin with).  They will turn every bit of vice in the Randian “scriptures” into virtues.  But in the Old Testament, Isaiah (5.20-21) raised an alarm that is as true today as when it was penned:   

20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!        

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  It is time that we realize that money is not indeed power: it is only a tool.  It is time we turn our attention away from just getting and keeping more and more wealth, but focus on how we can alleviate suffering and reverse the situations of lives trapped by a rigged game on an un-level playing field toward greater opportunity. Like Dr. King, so many other people have observed that love is power, but not the kind of power that corrupts.  The power of love that drives me to see to the needs of my neighbor here in Tennessee should also drive me to care for my neighbor 2,000 miles away in California, or half a world away in Nepal.  The closing of the heart, whether by conscious measures to actively harm or to passively withhold aid by the exercise of indifference are elements of the power that corrupts.

Someone may say that paying taxes is not an expression of loving our neighbors.  Doing so cheerfully and without complaint is, especially when we know that those funds will be used for good.  Supporting initiatives that bring opportunity, that promote human dignity and celebrate the value of each human life is loving our neighbors.  Trying to keep people in economic servitude is not.

Whatever we can do to make the world better, improve the environment, and help people who are hurting and vulnerable will push back the darkness of corruption that has plagued humankind since we were tempted to follow our selfish tendencies.   We must suppress greed and the lust for power, and close down the cries of those who remain driven by them.  It will never be easy, but the benefits will be greater than gold.

Seeking Deeper Faith Despite Scriptural Discrepancies

One Sunday morning, not long ago, I sat listening to the sermon, and a statement caught my attention. It was from Matthew’s Gospel, dealing with the death of Jesus. What caught my attention was the description of what happened at the moment of Jesus’ death. There had been darkness from the sixth to the ninth hours, then there was an earthquake, accompanied by the tearing of the temple curtain. Mark and Luke both mention the torn curtain, and the darkness, but not the earthquake. John is silent on all of these details.

What caught my attention that Sunday morning, though, was what Matthew’s account mentions next, not found in any of the other Gospels: Matthew says that the tombs were opened as a result of the earthquake, apparently, and that many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, but did not emerge from the tombs until after Jesus had been resurrected. Here is a comparison of the passages from the ESV dealing specifically with Jesus’ death from the four Gospel accounts.

Matthew 27.45-54

5 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.

51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Mark 15.33-39

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Luke 23.44-49

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.

John 19.28-30

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Now, I had read that passage from Matthew many times, and heard it expounded on, often in the context of the wondrous nature of the event. But I have been troubled by it now, for days, because in it, I fear, are elements that many of my faith heritage are not willing to acknowledge, let alone entertain in terms of significance.

I have heard many times that scriptures do not contradict each other. Well, other than the fact that all four passages deal with the death of Jesus, and all say he died, the details are not much in agreement.

Consider for a moment the fact that only Matthew mentions such a miraculous occurrence as many of the dead not only coming to life, but only emerging from the tombs after Jesus was resurrected. Why wouldn’t Mark (the text of which has been given the earliest date of any Gospel account) be in closer agreement with Matthew, the texts of which appear virtually identical in many passages? Luke the physician should have been extremely interested in and would have likely remarked on such an occurrence that was so contrary to what he would have known to be the natural order of things. John is silent on all of it, except the central truth of Jesus’ death.

According to those in my faith tradition, the church came into being on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after the Passover, which was being observed about the time of the crucifixion. According to that traditional, accepted view, before that pivotal moment in church history, there could have technically been no Christians (even thought that term was not used until the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch), if the only Christians are people who are members of the church. If there were no Christians, there were no saints, as the typical teaching is that “saint” = “Christian.” Therefore, how could “sleeping saints” have been raised as Matthew alone records?

Perhaps this points out that our traditional doctrines may not be correct. According to this reasoning, if “saints” had “fallen asleep” before Jesus’ death, there must have been those considered as “Christians” before the formal institution of the church on Pentecost. Or, one alternative is that “saint” and “Christian” are not necessarily interchangeable terms. Of course, one way to justify this is in the acknowledgement in Acts that Christians are in fact disciples, and the living pre-crucifixion Jesus had many followers who were considered disciples.

I mention this not just to point out apparent inconsistency in the records, but also a decided inconsistency in how we have approached so many questions. I believe that much of how we think on many issues is dictated by the thoughts and opinions of whichever preacher was most charismatic, influential, or just plain loud somewhere in our past.

Other scriptural inconsistencies include the fate of Judas, which only Matthew says involved a change of heart of Judas’ part, leading him to return the 30 pieces of silver. When the chief priest and elders refused to accept it into the temple treasury because it was blood money, they went out and bought the potter’s field to be used for burying strangers. Judas himself, went out and hanged himself. But Luke records in Acts that Judas took the money, bought the field, and fell headlong, resulting in his internal organs bursting forth.

Now, I have heard preachers try to massage this discrepancy by saying that Judas did hang himself, and when he had reached an appreciable level of decomposition, he fell from the tree and burst open. That, however, is not what either record indicates. In fact, it attempts to rectify by reading into the story, or call it what it is, adding to the record. And that, according to what I was taught, is not allowed.

When you really look at it, Mark and John have little in common in the records of the resurrection. In Mark, three women arrive at the tomb on the First Day of the Week after the crucifixion and see one man clothed in white. John says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, with no mention of the other two, and is met by two angels in white robes. Why is there such a noticeable difference?

I am not the first to notice such discrepancies. They are there for anyone to see who pays any attention to detail. But what do they mean? If the Gospels were indeed inspired, why aren’t the details identical? Is it that the sources were in conflict, or has the text evolved over time to demonstrate the extant variance?

Perhaps the greater question is, “Does it matter?” All four Gospels attest to the life of a remarkable teacher. All four show his teaching to be quite contrary to the normative human behavioral patterns of “looking out for number one.” All four attest to the historicity of Jesus, either by claims of eyewitness experience (John 21, I John 1) or by careful examination of evidence (cf. Luke 1, Acts 1).

I have more questions than answers. I know that some would proffer pat answers to such questions, but many of those answers are frankly full of holes.

Someone may say that by asking such questions, I’m looking for a way to deny the faith. On the contrary, I am looking for a way to strengthen it. If there are discrepancies, then there must be a reason for them.   I reject the argument of the atheist, that they demonstrate the manufacture of Christianity by imperfect humans. By the same token, I cannot easily accept the glib and unfounded declaration of no internal discrepancies when I can see them with my own eyes.

For now, I rest on the premise that the core truth—the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and restored life—is foundational.   His life’s work of teaching people how to live to attain citizenship in the kingdom that was during his time still at hand is valid for all time. This must form the unshakeable bedrock for faith. Jesus’ message of defying spiritual entropy, of rising above base animal nature, elevates humanity. And while splintered elements of Christianity have degenerated across countless generations, have fallen from grace by appealing to that baser nature by seeking not to serve others, but rather to gain advantage, even power, over their brothers and sisters, we can not only aspire to a glimpse of that heavenly kingdom, but we can become a part of its becoming, allowing heaven to pierce the dark veil of physical reality by God’s goodness and by Jesus’ grace shining through us. By staying close to Jesus’ teachings we can provide a preview of the glory that can be now and will be forever. As the reality of a forest is more than the sum of the few and disparate twigs we can see from a single, confined vantage point, the apparent discrepancies among Gospel details is of less importance than the encompassing truth of Jesus.  

If I Were a Rich Man

If I were a rich man….

No, I’m not going to break into a musical number, but it’s an interesting hypothetical.  Of course, by most of the world’s standard, I am rich (along with a lot of other Americans).  By our standards, I’m middle class.  I have nothing to complain about.

Except…

If I were a rich man, I’d love to have more money to help more people with more problems in more places.  There is so little that I personally could want money for.  I have a home.  A good family.  A job I (usually) enjoy.

But the one thing that always nags at me is the desire to be able to help more people.  I realize that throwing money at a problem is really no solution.  But providing resources for others with skills and opportunities to fix the problems is essential to progress and success against many of life’s formidable challenges.  Like providing clean water and sanitation to desperately poor people so they can experience better health, work less to get the necessities, and have more opportunities for education, training, which will lead to building a better economic future.

When did I develop this desire?  I suppose there has always been something there telling me that this is the right thing to do.  But as I have grown older, and perhaps a little wiser, I have become more sensitive to suffering.  I want to be able to alleviate that in some way.

The Bible is loaded with instructions to help others.  There are specific statements like the one in Romans 12.6-8:

“6  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7  if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching;  8  the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

That passage specifically demonstrates that there are gifts associated with actions.  With respect to “contributing,” the question may be posed as to whether the gift is in the wealth itself or in the generosity.  I would answer that two pronged question with “Yes.”  If one is so gifted as to have a significant store of wealth that is a gift.  If one is so concerned with seeing to the needs of others, that is a gift of discernment and selflessness.

Money is of no value if it is not used.  Stored away in a bank, it gathers precious little interest.  Given in service to others, it reaps tremendous gains.

Hope and Act for an End to Racism

I suppose some people think college professors have it very easy.  And in some ways, maybe we do.  We teach about things we love to study, we get to explore things to learn even more about things that interest us.  We get to touch the future by inspiring our students to go farther and learn more than we have.  In a sense, the academic life is all about advancement in knowledge and understanding.

But there is another side to being a college professor.  Whether we like it or not, we can become drawn into our students lives through our roles as advisers, whether formally in terms of helping to craft a plan of study or career exploration or perhaps more informally as mentors and role models.  And yes, whether we like it or not, that modeling may even extend to appearance:  I saw a young woman who, in her pre-professional interview, had adopted the hairstyle and mannerisms of her undergraduate research mentor.  It was like looking at twins.

Part of my job is to serve on the Students of Concern Team, a group of faculty and staff tasked with keeping tabs on students at risk for hurting themselves or others.  I hear heart-breaking stories of young people who are struggling with terrible burdens, some so great they attempt to take their own lives.  Last year, one even succeeded.  I want so desperately to be able to help them all, but sometimes, we can’t.

Over all, I love my job. But sometimes, it gets to me. For example, I have been trying to encourage a very nice young African American student, trying to build his confidence so that he can really demonstrate what he is capable of–and I can see real potential there. One thing that has held him back is that he works a lot of hours in a week, which cuts into rest and study time. My most recent efforts came too late, as seen by a less than helpful performance on the final.

He came to see me Friday, and asked if I really meant what I had said to him about what I see in his potential. I assured him I meant every word. He opened up to me then and said that with all of the things happening in the world today–Ferguson and Baltimore in particular–he sometimes wonders how long he is going to live.

I was crushed by that comment. How do you respond to it? Here’s a good kid who really shouldn’t have anything to worry about from the police, but because of the color of his skin, he wonders how long he will live. What can you say?

It made me angry at the national situation, and very sad for the anxiety he lives with every day.

I don’t understand racial violence. But I know without a doubt I hate every expression of it. And while it hasn’t physically touched Martin, the tension is there.

How do we move beyond it? How do we see beyond the color of skin to understand, appreciate and celebrate our common humanity? Who can wear the mantle of Dr. King and bring the races together with passion and reason?

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that led the greatest non-violent movement in American history.  His writings and speeches are so full of wisdom that it is hard to select favorite passages.  However, Dr. King gave us one of the greatest speeches ever made when he stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on that August day over 50 years ago and delivered the work now known simply as “I Have a Dream.”  In that speech, he says that the beleaguered black population, who were by and large the descendants of slaves, was looking forward to the day when America lives up to its celebrated creed of equality.

In that speech, he says,

 “But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

 “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

 Many of us claim to be people of a Christian faith, but we deny that faith when we express any hint of racism.  How many times is the idea expressed that there is “…neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”? (Galatians 3.28; cf. Colossians 3.11)  Christian people too often—sometimes under their breath—make derogatory comments about people of other races.  It is not in the spirit of Jesus, who taught a Samaritan woman and who cast a Samaritan as the hero in one of his greatest parables, both of which were of a mixed race and loathed by pure-bred Jews of that day.  It is not in the spirit and image of God who declared his creation to be “very good.”

It doesn’t matter that this is the 21st century.  Racism today is as wrong as racism in any other time.  Until we lay aside our prejudices and recognize the spectrum of racial variance as nothing more than the external expression of our fundamental humanity, we can never have true freedom from suspicion, intolerance and the host of other hindrances preventing us from true fellowship.

I echo the sentiment of Dr. King’s most poignant expression of that dream when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  We aren’t there yet, but the only thing stopping us is us, not only those who wish to maintain the status quo of suspicion and mistrust, but those unwilling to move forward to end racism once and for all.  Dr. King saw the same things.

 “We cannot walk alone.

 “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

 “We cannot turn back.”


 

If you have never read the text of the “I Have a Dream” speech or listened to it delivered in Dr. King’s inimitable style, I encourage you take the time and really consider it.  Few writings of the 20th century are as important as that short speech.  Every time I read it, my eyes well up with tears.  Here is a link where you can find it: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

Perhaps We Have Something Better Than Power: Thoughts on the Cana sequence from The Robe (1953)

The spring of the year brings with it an observance of a great event: many Christians around the world remember the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Much has been written about that event.  Movies have been made, and sadly, many may seem to trivialize its gravity and importance.  Some pictures do, however, capture the miracle of Jesus.  One such film was The Robe, from 1953.   

In the film, Richard Burton plays the spiritually beleaguered Roman officer, Marcellus Gallio, who, after angering the rising emperor was all but exiled to Palestine.  When his tour was ended, he was tasked with one last mission: oversee the crucifixion of Jesus.  He complied, thinking it was only a routine execution.  He discovered it was anything but that when his Greek servant left him with Jesus’ robe, that apparently ‘bewitched” him and drove him to madness. In order to save his sanity, Gallio returns to Palestine from Rome to seek answers. 

One of his first stops is Cana of Galilee.  There, he meets Justus (played by Dean Jagger, whom you may remember as the General in White Christmas), an elder of the Jesus followers in Cana, kindly, welcoming, and humble.  Before he introduces Gallio to the Big Fisherman, Simon Peter (portrayed by Michael Rennie), he tells him something of Jesus’ actions and influence in and around Cana.  Jesus had healed his grandson of a club foot, allowing him to live a normal life.  He also touched the life of a young woman named Miriam, played beautifully by Betta St. John.

The movie is so compelling in so many ways.  It captures the essence of Christianity and juxtaposes it against the anxiety of a person who is lost and struggling to make sense of his privileged yet somehow meaningless life. In the Cana sequence, there are a couple of magnificent exchanges both about and with Miriam.  Following is a fairly accurate transcript of those scenes.   

 Marcellus Gallio – Who is she?

 Justus- Her name is Miriam.  You’ve seen my grandson. Miriam is another on whom Jesus looked.

 Marcellus Gallio – Another miracle?

 Justus – If you want to use the word. When she was 15, she was struck down by paralysis. It left her hopelessly crippled, and hopelessly bitter about life. She ate herself away with hate and consumed everyone with her envy and malice.

 Marcellus Gallio – But she’s still a cripple. She still can’t walk.

 Justus – No, she can’t.

 Marcellus Gallio – If he was such a magician, why didn’t he cure her?

 Justus – He did.

 Marcellus Gallio – I don’t understand.

 Justus – Have you had supper?

 Marcellus Gallio – No.

 Justus – Perhaps you will honor my poor house.

 Marcellus Gallio – Thank you.

 Justus – Then one day there was a wedding here in Cana. The whole village took part in it, all but Miriam. She stayed home and wept. A wedding, you see, when no man would look at her and her twisted body.  But when her parents returned to the house, they found her, as she is now, as you saw her, smiling and singing.

 Marcellus Gallio – Was Jesus at the wedding?

 Justus – Yes. But he came late.

 Marcellus Gallio – So now she spends her time singing fables about the man.

 Justus – But they’re not fables.

 Marcellus Gallio – Surely you don’t believe that he rose from the dead?

 Justus – He lives more surely than we do.

 Marcellus Gallio – He’s dead. And no moonstruck girl can sing him back to life again.

 Justus – How do you know that he’s dead?

 Marcellus Gallio – A soldier told me.  A soldier who saw the lance thrust into his side. A soldier who was… who was out there!

 Justus – What’s wrong?

 Marcellus Gallio – Were you out there?

 Justus – You’re ill. Let me help you.

 Marcellus Gallio – No. Let me alone. Since the voyage, I’ve been…I’ve been indisposed.

 —–

 Miriam – Is it that you resent what our master taught us?

 Marcellus Gallio – Why should I resent it? He means nothing to me.

 Miriam – Then why do you consider him your enemy? You see, we know why you’re here, Marcellus. It’s simple, really. No merchant, even a stupid one, would have paid those prices. And the look of you, those shoulders. We guessed at once what you were.

     Sit down, please, here in the shade. The sun’s hot.

     Why must you do this, Marcellus? Is it for Rome?

 Marcellus Gallio – Yes. And for myself, to save my reason.

 Miriam – Justus said you were ill. There’s one who can help.

 Marcellus Gallio – No. No. He was crucified and buried. That was the end of him.

 Miriam – That was the beginning. He’s with his father, but he left his word with us and taught us how to use it.

 Marcellus Gallio – Don’t confess to sorcery. You’ll make things worse.

 Miriam – He was no sorcerer, Marcellus. He cast no spells. He only asked two things of us: “love God,” he said, “and love ye one another.” And he meant not only the Jews, but Romans and Greeks, slaves and soldiers, the strong and the weak, everyone. He asked us to build our lives on this love, this charity. To build a new world.

 Marcellus Gallio – Worlds are built on force, not charity. Power is all that counts.

 Miriam – Perhaps we have something better than power. We have hope.

 Marcellus Gallio – That you of all people should say that.

 Miriam – What do you mean, Marcellus?

 Marcellus Gallio – You say he could work miracles, but he left you as he found you.

 Miriam – I used to wonder at that myself, until faith taught me the answer. He could have healed my body, and it would have been natural for me to laugh and sing. And then I came to understand that he had done something even better for me. He’d chosen me for his work. He’d left me as I am so that all others like me might know that their misfortune needn’t deprive them of happiness within his kingdom.

 Marcellus Gallio – It’s beyond reason that anybody should think as you do.

 Miriam – If you had only known him, if you had ever looked into his eyes, heard him speak…

 Marcellus Gallio – I did.

Where it is revealed that Jesus had not healed Miriam of her disability, I was reminded of the healing of the paralytic man, lowered into the house through the roof.  The story is related by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Jesus does a most unusual thing in Luke 5.20: “And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”  

Of course the Pharisees were up in arms, declaring that none but God could forgive sins. 

 Luk 5:22  When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts?  23  Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—”I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.”

 25  And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God.  26  And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

The obvious desire of the paralytic man was to walk.  Jesus did far more than heal his physical infirmity.  In The Robe, Miriam was healed not in body, but in mind and spirit.  She rose above adversity to serve and to share. 

But there are also some more beautiful points in this short segment from the movie.  Miriam explains to Marcellus the underlying foundation of how Jesus wants us to live, and that is to live by love, both love for God and love for one another.  She says Jesus wants us to build a new world.

In true Roman fashion, Gallio replied that worlds are built on force, that power is all that counts.  That is the mindset that is encountered all too often throughout the world, and has been encountered throughout history.  Force and power may subdue and even subjugate.  But neither force nor power can instill love and good will, only fear and subservience.

Miriam says Jesus’ followers have something better than power: hope Hope is perhaps one of the greatest messages of the cross, and even more directly, the empty tomb.  Paul said that after all else is dust, three things would remain: faith, hope and love.  Through faith, we experience the love of God and the love of others who love and serve him.  Through faith and love, we have the hope of becoming something more, something beyond the limitations and frailties of the human organism.  We have hope to see and experience and become part of a new order, a new world, a restored universe not cast into the entropy of despair and disarray by the tragedy of the fall and its ongoing iterations in every life, but as fresh and as vibrant as the instant God conceived it in thought.

Although The Robe is not inspired, it is indeed inspiring.  It presents the essence of Christianity virtually untainted by denominational dogma.  That essence is love

It is sad that some people only think about the Jesus twice a year, at Christmas, to mark his birth and at Easter to mark his death and resurrection.  Some would say that it is pointless to live a life directed by such “fables,” but I would counter, what do you lose?  The richest, most contented lives I have ever seen are those that are steeped in love.  That is the Jesus way. And I, for one, am glad I found it.      

On Justice, Kindness, and Walking Humbly with God

As I have revealed in previous posts, I am a fan of country music.  Well, I guess I could refine that a bit and note that I am a fan of country music that was played during my formative years.  That may seem unfair to artists performing today, but so much of their music just seems to leave me cold.  My experiences are different from theirs.  I have little in common with them.  That’s probably why I shake my head in wonder and disbelief when I see a man chasing a woman young enough to be his daughter.  But that is a topic for a different essay.

I reflect on this because I was listening to a song written by Phil Vassar and made popular by Tim McGraw, titled “My Next Thirty Years.” It really captures a feeling that I have been harboring for a long time now.  Obviously the song is written from the perspective of a man turning that landmark 30 year milestone.  While it has been a while (ahem, a long while) since I’ve seen 30, the words always speak right to my heart.  Vassar says,

“My next thirty years, I’m gonna settle all the scores.

Cry a little less, laugh a little more;

Find a world of happiness without the hate and fear;

Figure out just what I’m doin’ here in my next thirty years.”

 You would think that I would have figured that out by now.  And I guess for the most part, I have.  But the future is a moving target, and ideas and aspirations change.

When I was a younger man, I wanted to really make my mark on the world.  I wanted to be involved in making things happen.  I wanted to be next to the captain, if not at the helm.

Then, while you aren’t looking, life happens.  You make choices that change your path.  Dreams shift from visions of grandeur to finding contentment.  And contentment is a biblically commended virtue.

But there is a part of me that can never be content.  I am a man who is impatient and far from content when I see suffering and injustice.  I cannot be happy and content in my comfortable life while others are struggling to exist. 

What bothers me most at times is that choices and consequences and unforeseen eventualities have hedged me in, preventing me from being able to travel to faraway places to help people in need.  It’s hard for me to be able to do as much after hours kinds of activity related to my job.  More directly, being the father of a growing boy on the autism spectrum, I must be ready to jump at a moment’s notice to deal with any of a plethora of problems that may arise.  Any time the phone rings, I wonder if it is word that he has gotten into trouble.  Again.  While most parents look forward to being able to relax a little as their children grow, I almost think the anxiety increases for parents of ASD kids.

Now, I stress again that I am not fishing for sympathy.  Far from it.  I accept my responsibilities, and shoulder the burden as best I can.  But when people wonder why I don’t get more involved in some activities, that is why.  While those responsibilities may constrain me physically, they cannot completely cloud my mind and prevent me from all measures of action and involvement.  That is one reason I teach and more pointedly, one reason I write: I hope that my words may resonate with someone, somewhere, and spur them to action, to greater things.

I have written often about the calls to social justice throughout the Old Testament.  Poverty, oppression, and injustice must never be tolerated as a norm.  That they exist is not a cause for acceptance of some cosmic status quo.  We are not subject to the same laws of entropy as the physical universe: we are more than leaves drifting inexorably downstream.  We have the power to change things.

That is why I have tried in a small way to be a voice for those who have none.  I have deep respect for organizations whose mission is to bring life-saving water to people who desperately need it.  I admire people who leap into action to alleviate suffering when disaster strikes.  I speak out often about the need to fully engage the enemy in the war on hunger.  That any child dies for lack of food makes me sad and angry and frustrated to think that there are people who have plenty who look the other way.  We are better than that. 

One of my favorite verses in all the Old Testament is from the “minor” prophet, Micah.  In Micah 6.8, the prophet says, “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?”  How can I do justice if I turn away from need?  How can love kindness if I ignore oppression?  How can I walk humbly with my God if I refuse to share my blessings with others?  There are times that I ache to see and to be involved more in actions to bring help and hope to people in need.

So I have resolved that if I cannot go where help is needed, I can support those who can.  I can call attention to opportunities to join in with others to make change happen.  I know my friends probably grow tired of my solicitations for donations to good causes.  I cannot stop in my efforts, regardless of how weary they may become of my crying in the wilderness.  I hope, however, that they will join with me in giving even a little to these initiatives. Nothing gives me a greater sense of satisfaction than to know I have helped change the world, and to give someone I may never meet from somewhere I may never visit a chance to experience a better future.

I cannot help but think about Jesus’ vision of the Judgment in Matthew 25, where he describes the separation of the sheep from the goats, the saved from the condemned. 

“34  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  35  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

37  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  38  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  39  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

As I write this, it is March 22, 2015—World Water Day.  It is a day set aside to remind if not inform the world of how important water is to life.  Millions of people remain in need of basic necessities like clean water and life-saving sanitation.  There are many organizations that are actively working to bring clean water to those desperately in need.  Won’t you learn how you can help them?

http://water.org/

http://www.worldvision.org/

http://www.charitywater.org/

http://www.unicefusa.org/

http://www.savethechildren.org/

The Strange Dance of Politics and Religion

It has been said that there are two big topics that should be avoided in polite conversation: politics and religion. I guess I’m not very good at taking that advice, since those are two of my favorite topics, not because I delight in argumentation, but because they are so central to the dynamics of human interaction. Each topic, by itself, has the potential to be rather divisive. But together, they engender a strange attraction, yet repulsion, like magnets in constant motion, if slightly out of phase.  Together, the mix becomes volatile, i.e., when politics impinges on religion, or religion attempts to hijack politics. Each has its very important role in life. But maintaining a healthy distance between them is essential for balance. Perhaps that is why the founders of this country, soon after crafting its unique Constitution, wrote in the first great amendment to it an assurance or guarantee that the Congress would neither make a law establishing a state religion, nor would it infringe upon the right to the exercise of religion.

That right to freedom of religion is central to the American freedoms. It is the first among the near sacred rights, and first among the firsts of that first amendment. It is established before the freedom of press, assembly, or speech. It is first before the right to bear arms, or any other right in that list.

That being said, why is there conflict and controversy over the role of religion in government? One vocal segment of the population apparently would like to see what could only be described as a theocracy established, enshrining Christianity as the official guiding influence of government. One big problem with that—beyond the fact that it violates the First Amendment—is, which brand of Christianity would be embraced? With hundreds, even thousands of Christian denominations, which would rise to supremacy? Christian denominations range from ultra-conservative to quite liberal. The conflict would likely not go away, and may even intensify were religion to encroach upon government. And that doesn’t take into consideration the many citizens who practice non-Christian religions, or no religion at all.

Conversely, the greater danger in my estimation would be the imposition of the government’s will on religious bodies. The separation of church and state must go both ways. If politics is to remain unsullied by the burden of religion, then religion must be protected from the imposition of government influence. This will become more and more difficult to maintain as social norms shift in this nation.

I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. However, I cannot embrace the position held by many of the luminaries of the Restoration Movement’s early years that held that Christians must not serve in the military, and should not participate in government. That position relegates the Christian to the same level of society as a person who, though he lived under Roman rule, was not a Roman citizen. Some say to vote for a particular candidate is to condone every position held by that candidate. These people are likely to become single issue voters, which presents its own set of dangers. I disagree with that position, because I am compelled to look at the whole candidate, i.e. his or her position on on all issues. Since I opened my eyes to the vast array of political positions and opinions, I have not been in total agreement with any candidate for any office. I have tried to consider broader impacts as I assess a candidate’s potential, not embrace or dismiss them based on a single issue.

Of course, it can be argued as to whether the United States remains a representative democracy. Indeed, it has been suggested that we are no longer that, but rather an oligarchy run by a select cadre of shadow leaders from the military industrial complex or perhaps even more insidiously, just big industry. That’s all a little too conspiracy-theory-laced for me. I choose to give the nation the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that participation in democracy is neither right nor privilege, but a solemn responsibility or obligation, in that the will of the people must truly be an expression of all people, not only those with money enough to buy an election.

When religion is forced upon a people, it does not remain the positive influence that an expression of faith out of free will provides. Rather, it becomes another weapon of power and control. When religion is forcibly denied to people, it may become a rebel’s rallying point, which ultimately strengthens the government’s resolve to stamp out its last vestiges.

The conscientious exercise of faith, however, can and should become a positive force, in that the life of the faithful is one guided by enduring principles. In this way, religion does not control, but informs and instructs. A principled life should lead to principled decision-making, involving an examination of all aspects of an issue, not merely knee-jerk responses prescribed by adherence to some collection of dogmas.

Of course, it may be argued that a principled life directed by morality and ethics need not be encumbered by the trappings of religion. There are many ethical and moral atheists. I understand that. However, I am not here arguing the validity of atheism. I hope to impress the idea that politics and religion can peacefully and productively coexist.

To that end, I assert that Christians need to be involved in government, from active participation in the electoral process to the active pursuit of elected office. Good people are needed to counter-balance the weight of the unprincipled. People of good will must rise to be the light of goodness and Godliness without forcing an overtly religious view. This in no wise compromises one’s duty or privilege to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that he or she possesses. It does mean, however, that one must be able to determine the appropriate time for each.

Too often, politicians use the mantle of religion as a stage prop, demonstrating their piety with frequent appeals to observe the exercise of their faith. I have seen many modern day Pharisees among the conservative movement’s ranks, praying loudly in the market place, ordering God to commend their righteousness, not petitioning him for his mercy. These kinds of leaders would use religion as a weapon. But the shepherd’s staff was never meant to beat the sheep: it serves to direct and to protect.

Few topics are as volatile and divisive as religion and politics. Both are deeply ingrained in the human experience. Both are rooted in deep conviction. But they can coexist as long as people are willing to maintain the appropriate balance. I know there are good people who can achieve that. Finding people willing to withstand the scrutiny and attacks on character…that may be more difficult.

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