A Parable of Who’s In and Who’s Out (and the answer to that might be a surprise)

About thirty of my favorite people and I were discussing Matthew 25:31-46 this morning.  You remember Matthew 25:31-46 don’t you?  It’s the parable that Jesus told concerning judgement and the assignment of our eternal future in heaven and hell.  I greatly enjoyed out conversation and just didn’t get enough of it the first time around, so here goes with round number two.

The gist of this scripture is that when the day of judgement comes Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats; the blessed from the accursed ones.  At this place before the King it is suggested that there will be surprises.  “How did I get in Lord?” some will ask, and “Why am I outside?” will be the question of others.  Jesus answers this question by famously saying, in paraphrase, that “when you fed me (or didn’t) when I was hungry, clothed me (or didn’t) when I was naked, visited me (or didn’t) when I was sick or in prison, you were doing righteousness.”  “When did we do those things?  We’ve never even seen You before.”  “When you did it (or didn’t do it) for the smallest and most insignificant people in society, you did it to Me.”

OK, I really love that.  Jesus has said that your actions matter, and that even if you don’t know anything about Him yet love your neighbor regardless of who s/he is, you are loving Him and pass the test.  Of course, that sets up a problem; what if a person is kind and generous with people who have less than him or her and gets down in the dirt too help, or works to save children from traffickers, or other such noble and awesome things loved by God, yet has not prayed the “sinners’ prayer”.  Was all of that love wasted, and the person doing God’s business and not just talking about it not saved?  I know, other verses say “he that believeth in Me shall not perish but have everlasting life”, and “no one comes to the Father except by way of the Son”, but right there in Matthew 25 Jesus says only that those who DID righteousness would be welcomed into the kingdom, and not just those who paid it lip service.

So, does that extend God’s grace and salvation to a Buddhist monk who fights human trafficking?  A Navajo medicine man who shares his meager pot of lamb stew with a sick neighbor, or an atheist who struggles to bring education and/or legal representation to the poor and underserved residents of the ghetto or barrio?  I cannot tell by Matthew 25: 31-46 alone, but I cannot argue that they will not receive grace and pardon by that scripture either.

And what about the person professing Jesus Christ who’s purse strings remain tightly tied, who’s smile is only for those who can help him, and who’s time is used to serve his interests only?  Does this person’s profession of faith get him anywhere with the Righteous Judge on that great/terrible day?  I, of course, do not think so, but I am no theologian.  I would love to read what more educated people than I believe concerning this.

And then there’s hell.  Chapter 25 of Matthew indicates a place we call hell in three different ways in the three different parables; a place outside the party in parable number one, a place of outer darkness in parable number two, and a place of fire where Satan and his demons are punished in number three.  Well, which is it?  As Joshua Ryan Butler pointed out in his excellent book “The Skeletons in God’s Closet”, Genesis records that in the beginning God made heaven and earth.  No mention of hell there.  Genesis goes on to speak of water and land and fish and bugs and birds and stars and people, but not one little peep about hell.  So where did this hell come from, what is it like, and who’s going there?

Butler writes that hell is a place in the Bible called Gehenna, or the Hinnom Valley; a place outside of the gates of the city where people would go to, among other things, sacrifice their children to Molech or Chemosh or whatever bloody ‘god’ that they chose to worship instead of God.  So hell could be a place outside of the kingdom city where people can go, if they wish, to worship anything other than God,  It’s their choice.  God wants them in His city, but if they insist on doing what they want instead of what God wants, well, he just can’t allow that behavior into His city.  If they insist on staying outside; their will be done.  Butler is much more exhaustive in his discussion of hell and judgement, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in this topic should read his book.

So my takeaway from the discussion was that God is not some distant, pissed-off white guy who is just waiting for me or anyone else to screw up so that he can zap me to the torture chamber for eternity.  Instead, God sets out to meet me every day, only He is wearing a mask and I may not recognize Him right away.  Only by treating each person whom I meet as if s/he was God can I make the cut from a works perspective, and only if I do so because I love and want to serve people can I make it from the grace perspective.  And it may, just may, be open to whomever does the will of God, no matter who they are or what they believe.

A Time to Love and a Time to Hate

“You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  Matthew 5: 43-45.

Jesus tells us in pretty plain language that we are to love those who persecute us and whom we would consider to be our enemies.  That is a fine principle to live by, and I admire those who are able to comply with it.  If we would do more enemy loving and a lot less enemy hating the world would be a much better place, in theory.  And this is where faith comes into the picture, for me at least, because I do not see how such a thing could possibly work in “real life”.  Here is where it is really hard to listen to Jesus Christ, and not do what is right in my own eyes.  Here, as they say, is where the rubber meets the road.

Because I hate my enemies.  Oh, I live in a small city that is virtually a bedroom community for the big city across the river.  I get along well enough with my neighbors; the few with whom I interact at all.  And at work there are a few people who covet my lead position, and therefore are inclined to say things about me behind my back that they would never say to my face.  I don’t really care about that though; the world’s not perfect and I know it, and don’t expect it to be.  I will retire soon and then those people can have my position with my blessing, if our employer agrees to appoint one of them or the other.  These people are a far cry from being my enemies, and I do pray for them regularly.

So I have a pretty well-cushioned life.  Nobody wants my life or property badly enough to do anything drastic to take them.  Nobody is sufficiently annoyed by my politics to want to eliminate my voice and my vote.  And nobody is offended by my unashamed acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.  I have Muslim and Buddhist acquaintances, and others who do not care about religion enough to even think about it, with whom I have warm relations and who I am always happy to chat with and with whom I would even share a glass of wine or two, if it is permissible in their religion to do so.  We are people who think differently, but who are far from hating each other.

But I do have enemies, and I hate them.  You have probably heard of some of these enemies, and some you probably have not.  ISIS, al-Qaeda, Janjaweed, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Pakistanis who use that nation’s anti blasphemy laws to torture, rob and kill Christians, the Sinaloa Cartel, Gente Nueva, Gulf Cartel and the Zetas.  The Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Brotherhood, Westboro Baptist; the list could go on and on.

Why do I consider them enemies?  There is very little chance that a member of any one of these groups will ever intersect with my life.  I might someday be on a plane that some underwear bomber brings down, or be in a restaurant where some brain-dead jihadi detonates a suicide vest.  And maybe I will be robbed and killed by a junkie seeking money to support his habit, a habit fueled by drugs funneled north by some Mexican cartel.  But the odds of this are probably a good deal less than that I will be struck by a car while out walking or have a second heart attack that will finish the job left undone by the first.  So why do I hate these people?

I hate the violence and evil that they perpetrate in what was intended to be God’s perfect world.  I hate that Christians are tortured and killed in Pakistan for personal gain or the settling of a grudge by relying on its anti blasphemy law.  I hate those people who crucify, shoot or behead Christians in Iraq and Syria.  These same people capture and sell women and girls of the Christian, Yazidi and Shi’a communities to be ‘married’ to violent men or used as sexual slaves.

I hate the Janjaweed for riding in from the desert and killing and raping darker-skinned African farmers and herdsmen and burning their villages.  I hate Boko Haram for kidnapping women and children and killing an burning everybody and everything else.  I hate the LRA for kidnapping children to make soldiers for its  pathetic “army”, and kidnapping girls to give pleasure to these young “soldiers”.  I hate the people who manufacture, transport and sell meth, cocaine and heroin in their various forms; drugs which destroy lives by the hundreds of thousands or more every year.  And I hate people who hate other people because of the color of their skin no matter what that color might be, or to whom other people  might be attracted sexually.  These very real people inflict very real pain and loss and death and oppression on other very real people.  I read the news.  I try to be aware of my world.  I know these things happen, and God help me, I hate the people who are responsible.

So I go to the Bible and history and seek the answer to my dilemma which I would state as “How do I love the people who viciously and mercilessly murder and oppress others”?  I don’t find a lot that helps me.  Jesus took Peter’s sword away when he tried to prevent Jesus’ arrest.  Jesus later walked meekly to the flogging post and then to the cross.  Peter, Paul, Stephen, and a multitude of Christ followers in the first three hundred years after Christ were martyred for their faith.  Of course, Christianity eventually ‘won’ that contest when Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, although some theologians and scholars debate whether that event marked a win or a loss for the faith.  But still I find little there that helps me with my problem.

I find that I must ultimately rely on faith to temper the hostility that I feel for these enemies.  I must believe that God is in control of His creation and that nothing happening on earth takes Him by surprise.  When God says through Paul “If God is for us, who is against us?—Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  I have to believe that He means it.  God loves us, and nothing that the evil in the world can do to us will separate us from that love, and that when the final curtain comes down we whom the Lord has chosen (whoever that might be, and that’s another big topic) will be in glory with Him, and all tears will be dried and all hurts healed and all loss restored.

So fine.  I believe that.  All will be as it should be then.  But what about now?  Try as I might to be more merciful, I am glad when a drone strike takes out an ISIS or Taliban commander.  I mourn the Jewish victims of the recent terror attack in Paris but I do not care about the life of the Muslim attacker.  I read about a turf war between Mexican drug cartels, with headless victims showing up everywhere, and I think ‘good riddance’.  How do I get away from that hate?  I don’t want to feel it.  I want instead to be a sincere follower of Jesus.  He said to love my enemies, and then He showed us how to do it, and what it could cost.

Somehow I must arrive at a position which many in the Yoder/Hauerwas?Volf camp of nonviolent Christians would say is a contradiction and impossible to support, and that is to support relentless resistance to the evil perpetrated by these people, which would take the  form of military action or aggressive law enforcement.  While wrestling with my own heart to cease hating the perpetrators of these hideous crimes, I will support resistance, even to the point of killing the perpetrators before they can kill more victims and incarcerating those captured alive, so that they will never work their evil on innocent victims again.

This is not a perfect resolution to my dilemma.  I shall probably wrestle with this until the day that I die.  I take no joy in hating anybody; joy and hate make for a poor partnership.  With God’s help I will slowly become more conformed to His will, and perhaps I will be given wisdom to see the issue more clearly.  God help me, this is where I stand right now.

The Sound of Silence

“Hello darkness my old friend.  I’ve come to talk with you again…”  So begins the Simon and Garfunkle song “The Sound of Silence”.  They go on to sing “…within the sound of silence; And touched the sound of silence; Disturb the sound of silence; And echoed in the wells of silence; And whispered in the sound of silence.”  I loved that song.  I haven’t got a clue what in the world the artists were trying to say with it, but the beauty and harmony that they produced was haunting, and continues to inspire me over four decades since I first heard it.  For the last twenty seven years my own sounds of silence have made some different impressions on me, and those would be frustration, anxiety, and melancholy among others.  That is because for that period of time I have never enjoyed the blessing of hearing silence.

I have tinnitus.  Tinnitus is a disorder which manifests itself as any of a number of noises in your ears, or to be more accurate in your head.  My sound is a high-pitched ringing, but roaring, clicking, humming or a sound like rushing wind are only some of the sounds that a person with tinnitus might hear.  The causes of tinnitus are known in some cases, such as hearing loss or trauma, and in many cases unknown.  I fall into the latter category.  I was not in the artillery, did not work on a flight line, nor played guitar for a rock band while standing in front of two story speakers.  I simply awoke one night at 2 AM with the most annoying ringing in my ears that refused to go away.  I managed to get back to sleep, but when I awoke later in the morning to go to work the ringing was still there.  It still is.

I went to an ear, nose and throat specialist and he ruled out any observable physical reason for the sound which was now my constant companion.  There was little that he could do for me and referred me to a research clinic at a fancy university hospital nearby.  They added nothing other than to put me in touch with a tinnitus support group.  I attended two meetings of that group and never went back.  I have never been in the company of a more depressed and depressing group of people in my life.  Tinnitus will do that to you.

Being a Christian, I prayed often and fervently for God to lift this load off of me, but as He did with the apostle Paul, God demurred and has chosen to let me continue to deal with this thorn in my flesh.  At one point I followed the instructions of the apostle James and asked the elders of my church to pray over me and anoint me with oil.  The result was the same; no let up in the ringing.  A short while later I was sitting in a chair in my pastor’s office whining about God’s lack of responsiveness to my problem.  “Have you asked God to give you the grace to endure it?” he asked.  “Hadn’t thought of that” was my reply.  We dropped to our knees on the spot and prayed as my pastor suggested, and the oppressive weight of my mental response to my affliction was lifted instantly, although the sound remained.  This I could live with.

And so it went until last year, when the noise began to ramp up.  I noticed while walking one day that I could hear the ringing over the ambient noise, and it has slowly built up to a veritable crescendo which assaults my ears as I sit and write this story.  Once again I felt the mix of anxiety and fear rising in my gut, and this time it was while I was trying to control my blood pressure using natural methods after a heart attack and bypass surgery five months earlier.  The stress was not making that job any easier.

The solution to my tinnitus problem came to me in the most unexpected fashion.  One night I was lying in my bed trying to meditate and I realized that the sound was only in my ears; it was not in the majority of my head.  Then I began to search around my body and found to my delight that I couldn’t hear any sound in my chest, my arms, legs, feet; anything other than the very small space of my two ears.  The next thing that I discovered was that I could hear the silence in those parts of my body that were not ringing!  As crazy as it sounds, the revelation was to me stunning.  I reveled in a silence that had been there all along but which I had been missing because I focused on the bad and annoying part and overlooked the good.

None of this is to say that I wouldn’t do almost anything to be free of that horribly annoying sound which never leaves my ears and probably won’t until the minute that I draw my last breath.  I would do it in a heartbeat.  What I do have to offer to fellow sufferers of tinnitus is that by staying with it and finding out how to mentally manage my tinnitus in my own way I am able to live with it and operate more or less in a normal manner.  Maybe this was God once again giving me the grace to live well with the thorn in my flesh that He just refuses to remove.  I hope that God will give His grace to anyone else who reads this who suffers with tinnitus as I do.  Hang in there.  It can be survived with joy.

I Can’t Get No Traction

Just the other day I discovered an old photograph of me and a friend that dates back to 1973.  That photograph is forty one years old, and at first glimpse it is hard to believe that the figure seated on a tractor stuck in a sea of mud with a beer in his hand and more hair than I have had in a good many decades is me.  As I look more closely however I can see more clearly a guy whom I used to know pretty well.  A friend of mine saw that photograph and asked if I was responsible for that tractor being stuck in the mud or had climbed upon the vehicle once it was already immobilized in the mire.  What follows is the story of me and that tractor.

Tractor Picture

After the first semester of my college days at Sonoma State College (now ‘University’) near Santa Rosa, California, my two roommates Walter and Arlen moved away from the zoo that was the apartment complex where we lived near the school.  It’s not that my friends were committed students seeking serenity so that they could pour unbroken hours into their studies in order to go on and cure cancer or develop a way to produce energy by cold fusion and thereby make mama proud.  They had no such idea.  They found an old, square, brown stucco house in a field outside of the city limits of Santa Rosa where we rocked out many of the days and nights of the week.  The advantage to my old roommates was that they each had their own bedroom, and that when their guests left or passed out in the living room they did enjoy enough peace and quiet to allow them to study just enough to pass their classes.  This house sat next to an open expanse of land which I believe was used to grow some sort of feed, or to pasture animals when the grasses were high.  I really don’t know, because Walt and Arlen moved out at the end of the second semester, before summer and its agricultural rhythms had fully kicked in.

One day in the late winter or early spring of a wet year I drove out to the house in order to hang with my friends.  We smoked a few joints and drank what little beer was to be found in the fridge while discussing Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and other Russian writers and the hyper-introspection of their style.  They’re all so excitable and moody in my opinion; very childlike  Perhaps that is why I love them so much.  Anyway, when the beer was gone and we were in need of further lubrication to ease our progression from “Crime and Punishment” to “One Day in the Life of ivan Denisovich”, I shared the news that upon checking the mail before I came over that day I received a small, rectangular piece of plastic which the Bank of America assured me would serve in place of cash at any store which announced its acceptance of said card by a sign in the window.

“No shit.  Really?” said Walter.  “That’s what they tell me” was my reply.  “That’s crazy” added Arlen.  “They don’t give those things to students, do they?”  “They gave one to me.  Wanna go see if it works?”  Approval was instantaneous and the three of us piled into Walt’s Land Rover and drove to the nearest liquor store, which was a mile or two from the house.  Upon arrival we went to the cooler to secure a cold six-pack, but as we stood in front of the glass doors it struck me that we were setting the bar of this experience far too low.

“Grab a sixer” I said to Arlen, and then made my way to a shelf in the back of the store where serious quantities of beer were to be found.  I returned to where my two friends were standing with their paltry six-pack carrying a whole case of the precious 12 ounce cans.  Walt and Arlen stared at me with amazement and admiration as I confidently sashayed past them and plopped the case on the counter.  I motioned for them to bring the cold six-pack, which they set on top of the case, and I turned to settle up with the clerk.

The clerk, who was probably also the owner, was old school.  Medium height and overweight, he was wearing khakis and an off-white button down shirt, a little bit frayed at the seams.  His large face housed beady, suspicious eyes which seemed to be seeking out evidence that he was being somehow swindled every time that we entered that store.  Perhaps he had been robbed or shoplifted too many times, or maybe his friends were named Mugsy and Clubber.  At any rate, he squinted at me and my two friends as if we were making him the butt of a joke or distracting him while some unseen accomplice relieved him of more precious merchandise in the liquor area of his store.  He had never seen us buy more than a quart or a six pack, and then count out nickels and pennies The probability of us having the capital to secure an entire case seemed to him to be pushing the envelope of credulity.  It was into that gale of doubt and disbelief that I reached for my wallet, extracted, and then flipped onto the counter with a nonchalance that I nowhere near really felt, The Card.

It worked!  The clerk ran a roller device over a carbon paper receipt placed over the plastic card and imprinted the necessary numbers to conclude the transaction.  The clerk was slightly more cordial as I signed the receipt, accepted my copy, returned the card to my wallet and began to carry the case of beer towards Walt’s car.  We laughed and whooped with joy all the way back to the house, and upon arrival cracked open three cold ones as other six-packs were placed into the fridge to await their turns.

I don’t know how much of that case we drank that day – probably all of it, knowing us – but at one point we grew tired of listening to music and discussing Russian literature.  Walt was very proud of his four wheel drive Land Rover, the type of vehicle one would see in documentaries of work on the plains and in the jungles of Africa, and began to brag about it once again.  We had all heard this many times, and Arlen began to tease him, saying that the car really wasn’t all of that.  Walt swore that he was telling the truth and then told us to climb in; he would drive out into the muddy field and prove the limitless worth of his extraordinary ride.  We all did as requested and Walt fired up the Land Rover, engaged the four wheel drive, and pushed the gearshift into first, and then we nosed out into the field.  All went well for a couple of minutes but soon, inevitably, the vehicle sank down into the mud up to its hubs.

We had a good laugh at Walt’s expense and then got out to see how we would go about extracting the entrapped Land Rover from the muddy field.  I had once rescued my father’s car from beach sand by jacking up the car and placing rocks under the drive wheels, but here the jack would only sink into the mud, and there were no rocks on this Russian River floodplain to be found.  We did find some short pieces of lumber, and Arlen and I would try to wedge them under any wheel that we could as Walt would rock the vehicle back and forth.  This produced nothing but splinters and a bit of mud splashed into Arlen’s face.  It soon became obvious that some other method would be needed to enable the Land Rover’s escape from the muddy clutches of the soggy field.  We began to look around, and all of our eyes fell one by one onto the neighbor’s tractor.

We knew that enlisting the neighbor’s help was a long shot.  That worthy farmer was not at all pleased with his new noisy neighbors and had done little to disguise his displeasure.  Still he looked like our only hope, so Walt walked over to the front door and rang the bell.  No answer.  Walt rang again two or three times, just in case the neighbor was laying low, hoping that we would go away.  Still no answer.  Walt walked back glumly and said “No dice.  He isn’t home”.  We were about to call for some friends to come over and get their car stuck in the mud too by trying to get Walt’s car out when Walt said “Wait a minute.  Let’s hot wire the tractor and pull it out ourselves.”  “You’re crazy,” said Arlen.  “He’ll have us arrested.”  “He won’t ever know” Walt replied.  “We’ll pull out the car, wash down the tractor and replace it where we got it.”  We briefly debated the insanity of this plan and insanity won.  We agreed that it was the best plan that we had, and so Walt walked over to the tractor, climbed into the seat, fiddled with a few wires, and the iron beast roared into life.

With a broad grin, Walt drove the tractor over to our field and with Arlen and I walking alongside,  the mud sucking at our boots, we made our way to the entrapped Land Rover.  Walt turned the tractor around and backed up to the front end of his car.  We then attached a tow rope from the back end of the tractor to some point underneath the front of the Land Rover.  Arlen climbed into the Land Rover, started it up, and prepared to drive out of the mud once the tractor had broken it free.  Walt put the tractor into gear and began slowly to strain forward.  The Land Rover budged, lurched, and seemed like it was about to pull free.  Then it fell back into the deep pits its wheels had dug.  The tractor, straining to pull the car out of its muddy prison, had begun to bog down into the mud as well.

This was a serious problem, and we all knew it.  There was no way on earth that the owner of that tractor would be amused to find it stuck in the mud, courtesy of the pack of stoned slackers living next to him in rural Sonoma County.  We began to work furiously to dig the tractor out, get lumber under one of ITs wheels, do ANYTHING!  No luck  We were in it and we knew it.  There was nothing that we could think of besides wait for the neighbor to return home and face the music.  Being who we were, the only thing left to do was to roll another joint, open three more cans of beer, and enjoy what was otherwise a very pleasant, sunny, almost warm Northern California afternoon.

So there I am in a photograph which was clicked by Arlen as Walt and I sat in the seat of that tractor with it’s wheels entombed in a sarcophagus of mud.  I had not yet learned how to truly worry, and the implications of the situation soon rolled off of my back as we smoked and joked and generally had a pretty good rest of the day.  You can see in that photo that life was still my playground, no matter the circumstances that I found myself in.

I returned to the apartment that afternoon before the neighbor returned, and it was a day or two later that I saw Walt and Arlen again.  On that occasion I asked them how it all worked out.  “He laughed” said Walt.  “He just laughed.  Then he drove over to a larger building and came out with a tractor twice as big.  With that he pulled the other two vehicles out like they were nothing.  We asked him how we could repay his kindness and he told us to wash off both of the tractors and keep the noise down after 9:00 at night”.

They did keep the noise down after that, and washed up the tractors real good as well.  For the remaining months that Walt and Arlen lived at that house they were on pretty good terms with their now-respected neighbor.