Category Archives: Christianity

The Garden, Chapter XXIV

“This is really weird” Charlie said softly as he and Rachael took their seats at Beth Shalom church in Vancouver, Washington.  “It looks like I’m in Israel.”

“I can’t imagine why that should be” Rachael replied with a chuckle.  “After all, we’re a bunch of Jews here who just happen to believe that Yeshua is the Messiah.”

Charlie took in the menorahs, the stars of David, the men wearing the little hats that Jewish men wear, and especially the wall on the right side of the room that was painted to look like the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  He even had to walk up to that wall to convince himself that the grass growing in the racks wasn’t real.  “So you learned how to be so nice by going to church here?” he asked.

Rachael sighed.  “Not really” she answered.  “If I really am all that nice, I learned if from my parents.  They really are two of the most wonderful people that I ever have known in my life.”

Rachael’s tone grew more somber after she told him that.  Charlie remembered her story from the first day that they had met, and began to connect the dots.  “But you don’t see them anymore, do you?”

Rachael heaved another sigh and sat silently next to him.  After a minute he spoke again.  “I’m sorry Rachael.  I shouldn’t have brought that up.  I guess I forgot that my pain wasn’t the only pain in the world.  Let’s just drop the subject, OK?”

“No” she replied.  “It’s not good to ‘just drop’ things.  Things don’t usually stay dropped.  It’s alright Charlie.  My parents consider me to be dead in their eyes.  They feel that I have left the faith that has sustained my people for thousands of years.  In their opinion, that places me outside of the community.  I know that they will always love me, but I am as dead to them as your daughter is dead to you.  I will be married within the year and, God willing, will begin a family, but my parents, my aunts and uncles, and all of the family except for two black sheep cousins won’t be a part of it.”

“I really am sorry Rachael.  I don’t know how to say it better than that.”

“It’s OK Charlie.  Really, it is.  I feel your sympathy more than hear it, and it’s appreciated.  The Holy Spirit interprets our prayers to the Father when our words fall short.  I think that the Spirit works like that between humans sometimes too.”

“Oh boy, have I got a lot to learn about this stuff.  I really don’t know anything about this Father and Holy Spirit business.  I thought it was all about Jesus; er, I mean Yeshua.”

“Yes, it is a lot to learn, and we Jews are very dedicated to learning.  ‘We learn so that we can teach’ is a guiding principle with us.  But don’t get tangled up in the details.  Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Do that and you’re way ahead of the game.”

“Well, that’s not too – – -.”

“Ahhh-Ooohhhh!” A horn wailed.  A man emerged from a side door with a long, curled horn raised to his lips.  “Ahhh-Ooohhh!” A second man entered the room from a different door, blowing on a similar horn with a higher pitch.  The service had officially begun.

Three hours later Charlie and Rachael were walking toward the parking lot.  Two hours of service, nearly half of which had been spent singing in Hebrew, had been followed by a meal in a large room downstairs.  “Schmooze. Dance. Nosh” said the bulletin that had been handed out at the door, and that is exactly what went on downstairs.

“These people are my family now” Rachael said as they walked toward her car.  “They’ll never really take the place of Mom and Dad, but they’re not supposed to.  They’re my community.  We worship together, pray together, celebrate together, grieve together.  We complete each other.  I’m not close to everyone that you saw today.  In fact, there’s a few with whom I spend as little time as I can.  But I would do anything for all of them because they were made in God’s image and Yeshua loves his creation.  I will try as best I can to love them too.”

“That explains a lot” Charlie said.  “I suppose you believe that the kid that hit you is made in God’s image.”

“Exactly.  Yeshua loves him and died to redeem him just as he did to redeem me.  So how could I hate him?  Hate is the devil’s work, and I’ll let him keep that to himself, as best I can.”

“Rachael, can I just say this?” Charlie asked as they reached her car.  “You are one of the sweetest, most kind human beings that I have ever met.  I don’t know whether to thank your parents or your God for you, but I feel like a very lucky man to be able to call you my friend.”

Rachael blushed deeply, which lent an extra radiance to her usual beauty.  “Thank you Charlie.  I really don’t think that I deserve all of that, but a girl loves to hear a compliment.”

“That fact that you don’t think you deserve it makes it all the more applicable” Charlie replied.  “Thank you so much for sharing all of this with me.  “I don’t know where I’ll go with it, but you’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“I’m glad for that, Charlie” she replied.  “OK, I’ll see you soon at the garden.”  Rachael climbed into her car, backed out of the parking slot, and disappeared into the traffic on 49th Street.  Charlie watched until she drew out of sight.

He had no set plans for the rest of the day.  Carolyn was helping her sister to move a niece to Cheney, Washington, where she was beginning college at Eastern Washington University, and would be out of touch for a couple of days.  Charlie had been given a lead by his friend Manny Baca on a house that a speculator intended to have built for immediate sale, and Carolyn had been agreeable to letting Charlie put his crew on the job while all of the proper hoops were being jumped through on the strip mall project, which increasingly looked like it was going to happen.  Lester and the crew were good men.  They appreciated Charlie’s efforts to keep them busy, and repaid him by being diligent in their work.

Charlie drove by the project and saw that footings had been dug and forms were being set for the foundation.  Nobody was working that day and there was nothing there to inspect, but Charlie got out of his truck and walked among the trenches and forms and rough plumbing anyway.

The idea slowly formed in Charlie’s mind that for most of his life places like this had been his church.  Building codes, tax codes, balance sheets and labor laws had been his Bible, or maybe his Torah, the rolled up scroll or whatever it’s called that was carried around the room at the Jewish/Christian church he had been at that morning.

Those building codes and laws had outlined how he should live, what rules to follow, how to succeed, and what gave his life meaning.  But when the hammer of Stevie’s death came down on his head those codes didn’t have any answers for him.  Despair could not be countered with the hope offered by a balance sheet.  A family could not be held together by five nails in the field, on sixteen inch centers.

Charlie felt an unexpected moment of hatred toward the trades; this false god.  It promised him that it would be sufficient for him but it was a damned lie.  The trades had stabbed him in the back and then thrown him under the bus when he needed it the most.  Then he remembered Rachael’s words:  “Hate is the devil’s work.”  With an effort he switched gears and, maybe for the first time, looked at the trenches and pipes and forms around him and saw what they really are, which is trenches and pipes and forms, and nothing more or less than that.

Charlie inspected those artifacts one more time, but as a construction project this time, and not as a sacrament.  Satisfied with what he saw, he climbed into his truck and debated where to go next.  Billy was at home, studying hard in order to get a good start on his program at the community college.  Charlie could go there and do a little work on the main house where Billy’s parents lived, but he didn’t feel like it at the moment.  Finally, he simply turned on the engine, put the truck into gear and began to drive.

It seemed as if the truck drove itself, and soon Charlie saw that he was near the Blake Meadows neighborhood where he and Maureen had lived.  Charlie had not been in this neighborhood since the separation and felt an aversion to going into it now that he realized his proximity.

Another feeling overwhelmed that aversion.  Was it curiosity?  A desire for self-punishment?  A hope for, what?  Hope itself?  Charlie didn’t know, but whatever it’s provenance, that feeling gave him the steel to turn left onto Winston Street.  After a few turns he pulled up in front of 14513 NE Brownfield.

He parked across the street but allowed the motor to continue to idle.  The house looked a little the worse for wear.  It had been only two and a half years since he had lived there, but more like three and a half since he had cared about the place.  Now the roof shingles were sporting a coat of moss, thanks to the shade provided by the Enyerts’ maple tree next door.

The paint on the trim around the garage door was cracking at the bottom, where the splash from years of rain had weakened it  The lawn needed mowing and was sprinkled with a crop of dandelions.  Charlie felt a sadness, and an impulse to make an offer to buy the place back and restore it to health.  He quickly laid that aside however.  “You’ve moved on” he reminded himself.  “Maureen and Jack are moving on.  There’s nothing to be gained here, so it’s time to leave this place alone to be somebody else’s problem.”

Charlie put the truck into gear and drove through the neighborhood, remembering people, places and events in the same manner as when he had  walked through his old neighborhood in San Diego.  “That was yesterday” he thought.  “I’m more interested in today and tomorrow.”  At last he turned out of the neighborhood and after more aimless wandering found himself on the edge of downtown.  Having nothing better to do, he drove on into the area, found an empty spot along Main Street, pulled into it and shut down his motor.

Charlie simply sat in the cab of his truck, listening to the ‘ping,ping’ of the engine cooling.  “Why am I so melancholy?” he asked himself.  “Things are as good for me now as they have ever been, and yet I feel empty and aimless.  What the heck is this all about?”  After a few minutes he emerged from the truck and began to walk.  Leroy’s was not too far away, but LuAnn wouldn’t be working there that day.  He had no intention of eating but he decided to walk past the restaurant anyway.  It was almost ready to close.  He looked through the front window and saw Peggy cleaning up the last tables.  He waved to her and she waved back.

Charlie walked south, down Main.  “Funny” he thought.  “I enjoyed seeing Peggy and waving to her, and she’s not one of my favorite people.”  He passed by the pawn shops, past the homeless people congregating outside of a kitchen that soon would be passing out soup and sandwiches, and finally under the railroad bridge to where the path across the I-5 bridge began.  “I haven’t been here since that night last spring” he thought, and then he began walking up the approach and then onto the bridge itself.  The noise was awful, but he tuned it out and focused on a spot perhaps a seventy five yards in front of him.

When he reached that spot Charlie stopped.  The pedestrian path widened here at the middle of the river.  He looked over the railing at the water and watched it gurgle, ripple, and flow around the concrete pier and on down river towards the sea.  Today there were no faces imploring him to jump over the railing into those waters, and no voices coming out of the white noise produced by the traffic.

He stared into that water and thought of the Maureen who had visited him that night, and of the Jack who screamed at him to jump.  Now he had new faces to occupy his memory; Jack eating tacos and talking excitedly about music and history, and a forgiving Maureen offering her hand in friendship and mutual concern for their son’s welfare before driving away to meet Carl.  “Those are a good deal more welcome than the last faces were” he thought.  He continued to stare at the corner of the pier, where Stevie’s body had once appeared to be bumping up against it in the waves.  Today there was nothing but water, with the light of the sun sparkling on the tiny waves.  Stevie had elected to stay dead and buried today.

Charlie stayed there for perhaps twenty minutes, looking at where ghosts once played and beckoned.  Several pedestrians and bicyclists walked and rode past him.  He was aware that some looked at him strangely.  “Probably think I’m going to jump” he thought.  He assumed that the ones he didn’t pay attention to were looking at him in the same way.  Finally he grew tired of staring at the water, or to be more accurate he found no further reason to stay there.  He turned his back on that place and walked back across the bridge and into Vancouver.

Charlie’s restlessness was tempered but not cured.  He kept walking, and soon was walking past the apartment building where he had once lived.  “Existed would be more like it” he said to himself.  He walked past the window that he had nearly always kept open.  Today it was open too, probably in order to let a breath of cool air penetrate to allay the stuffiness of the warm summer day.  When he had lived there it was open in order to make the path easier for anyone who wanted to enter the apartment and kill the occupant in the process.

He didn’t linger near the apartment.  There were no good memories there and no good reason to linger, so he began his walk back to where the truck was parked.  That last few blocks led him past the big cathedral that he had entered a couple of times before, and he decided that he may as well go inside and pay it one more visit if it was open.

The building was in fact open, and Charlie stepped through the heavy wooden doors, into the cool interior of the cathedral.  There was nobody in the sanctuary at that time of the day.  Charlie was not sure why he had come in to this place.  He thought of the times the he had been there before; of how odd it felt and how he had been afraid that somebody would talk to him.  It now occurred to him that that was exactly what was causing his restlessness that day.  He wanted somebody to talk to.

Billy was busy, Carolyn was out of town, and his crew was off work today.  Rachael was relaxing at home on this sabbath day.  The only person with whom he could possibly connect at this time of the day was Walt, who was probably harvesting vegetables to take to the food bank.  Walt was a friend, it was true, but he was not what Charlie needed at this time.

On an impulse, he pulled out his phone and punched in Jack’s number.  Perhaps his son would spend a few minutes chatting with his lonely father.  After five rings the sound of a dog barking came over the phone, followed by a message:  “Hi!  This is Spunky the Dog.  My boy Jack is not available.  For the price of a bone I’ll pass on any message that you leave after the beep.  Woof.  Woof.”  Charlie thought about hanging up but rejected that idea out of hand.  He had already hung up on his son enough for one lifetime.  “Hi Jack.  This is your Dad.  I was just listening to a work by Haydn and it made me think of you.  I’ll try to touch bases with you later.  Bye.”

Charlie hung up and put his phone away.  “It’s probably bad form speaking on a phone in church anyway” he thought.  “Even if nobody’s here.”  He sat on the hard wooden pew for a while longer, thinking that he should go somewhere, but unable to think of anywhere to go that was any better than were he already was.

At last he arose and began to look at the art work, in the same manner as he had when he came here the previous spring.  The same statues; the same saints with their fingers raised in a silent blessing, the same sad Madonnas, the same bleeding Jesus.  Yeshua.  Charlie looked closely at the statue of the crucified Yeshua.  There was blood running down his forehead and into his beard, from the nails in his hands and feet, and from his side.  “I wonder what made that wound” Charlie thought.

Once again Charlie walked around looking at the pictures that hung on the walls and depicted Yeshua’s very bad day.  The art was beautiful, but Charlie looked more deeply into the story this time.  Yeshua condemned by a Roman governor, Yeshua, already bloodied, receiving his cross.  Yeshua stumbles.  “Man, that guy got a really bad deal” he thought.  “How could he carry that cross even if he hadn’t been beat to a pulp.  I know how heavy that much wood would be.”

     Now some guy gets to carry the cross for Yeshua.  A woman wipes his bloodied face.  He falls again. “The Rabbi didn’t talk about that today.  Why did Jesus/Yeshua have to do all of that?”  Yeshua is stripped, he’s nailed to the cross.  Charlie looked over at the statue of the crucified Yeshua and thought “That statue isn’t an isolated moment frozen in time.  That was part of a bigger, horrible deal.”  Yeshua finally dies, is removed from the cross and is buried.

“So, Rachael believes that this Yeshua went through all of this and is still alive.  I don’t know how you can believe such a thing, but she does and it guides her to be one of the most decent people I know.”  Charlie’s internal debate continued.  “But Carolyn’s a wonderful person too, and I’ve never heard her mention anything about religion, or if she has, I’ve forgotten it.  So why do I feel drawn to this?  Why did I go to church – she called it a synagogue – with Rachael this morning?  Was it just to be with Rachael?  No.  She’s a lovely woman, but that’s not why I went.

     And why am I here now?  This place with its saints and candles and bleeding god/hero is just as foreign to my life as is the Hebrew and the horns and all of the other trappings were this morning.  Why did I come here, and more important, why do I want to stay?”

     Charlie failed to find a good answer to that question and abruptly turned to leave the cathedral, and promptly walked right into a man in dark clothing and a white collar, exploding a box of papers that he was carrying and spraying hot coffee over both of them.

“Shit!” Charlie barked.  “I’m so sorry!  Let me help you with these.”  He bent down and began to gather up the papers and was quickly joined by his victim in that task.  After a moment though the man in black began to chuckle, then to laugh, and finally sat down on the floor with his back against the wall, right underneath where Yeshua was being laid to rest by some guy accompanied by a couple of grieving women, and laughed until tears ran down his face.

This was confusing to Charlie.  He finished collecting the papers and tried to give them to the man, who could hardly compose himself enough to receive them.  His laughter was as infectious as a benevolent bubonic plague, and soon a confused Charlie began to chuckle too.  He, too, sat down and leaned against the wooden pew opposite where the man in black rested.

“You’re a pastor, aren’t you?” Charlie asked.  “Or a priest?  I don’t know much about these things, but I’m pretty sure that you’re not a rabbi.”

“Father Krempke, but you can call me anything that you like, except late for dinner.  And you are – – -?”

“Uh, Charlie.  Charlie Hamer.”

“Pleased to meet you, Charlie Hamer.  I take it you’re not Catholic.” Father Krempke said as he began to get his laughter under control.  “A good Catholic boy would never steamroll a priest carrying his coffee.  His pathetic scribblings perhaps” and he pointed toward the papers.  “But never his coffee.”

“I really am sorry about that” Charlie said.  “And I’m sorry about my profanity too.”

“Oh, you mean shit?  It seemed perfectly suitable for the occasion to me.  I’m just glad that you couldn’t hear what I was thinking.  You can call me a priest if that is more comfortable to you, but I wouldn’t mind if you called me John.  That’s what my friends call me.”  The priest then looked at his empty cup of coffee and the brown liquid on the stone floor.  “I suppose I should get that up and get myself another cup.  Would you like to join me?”

Charlie felt at ease with this affable young man – what was he, in his thirties? – and offered to clean up the mess while Father Krempke poured two cups of coffee.  Soon they were seated in the pew near where the collision had occurred beneath the fourteenth station of the cross, sipping their coffee and becoming acquainted.  Father Krempke asked him about his life; not in an inquisitorial manner but as if he was genuinely interested.  Charlie responded to this young man’s kindness and interest and spoke of his going to the synagogue with Rachael that morning as his first real exposure to the religious experience, and of the questions that now bothered him.

“I’ve had a rough time the last few years, and I’m only now beginning to get a handle on things.  I’ve run into a few people who go to church and they seem to be onto something that I’m not.  But I know other people who don’t go to church and they’re doing OK too.  I feel sort of drawn to this” – Charlie waved at the interior of the church, – “but I don’t really know why.  I look up at those paintings and I can see that Yeshua – I mean Jesus – had a bad time of it, and I wonder, if he was a god or something, why did he take it in the shorts like that?  And if he was a god, why do all of the really crappy things that happen in the world still happen?  I can say crappy around here, can’t I?”

“Yes.  You can say ‘shitty’ if you want to” Father Krempke replied.  “You just asked enough good questions to produce a couple dozen books with good answers, and some of them I don’t have a good answer to.  Let me try to give you a thumbnail, even a drive-by, answer to some of them if you will.

You pointed out that you know good and decent people who are believers and others who are not.  How can that be?  I mean, if you’re not one of God’s flock you must be a total jerk, right?  Well, it’s not all that easy, and it’s not easy to explain either.  Let me put it this way.  God has created all of us.  All of this” – Father Krempke’s arm swept from his right to his left – “and he created it to be good.  We have a problem, though, that God calls sin, and that problem separates us from him but it doesn’t change who made us and how we were made to be.  That goodness can still shine out, regardless of a person’s religious belief or lack thereof.  Some of the nastiest people I know are religious while some atheists put a lot of effort and love into their community.  Remember, the people who killed Jesus were the religious leaders of his time.

“I don’t really know much about all of that, but I’ll take your word for it.”

“You really are new to this!  Well, anyway, God has said to us that he was interested in your heart, not in your credentials, and he preferred a helping hand offered to a neighbor more than the sacrifice of a thousand bulls.  Don’t get too tangled up in that sacrifice thing; that comes in Theology 1.02.  If you have unbelieving friends who are extending love to you, just know that their love is coming from God Himself, and he’s crediting that love from your friends to them as righteousness.”

“So” Charlie said, picking up on that thread.  “You’re saying that the God you’re talking about cares about us, even if we don’t know anything about him?”

“No, I didn’t say that at all, but I’m sure that I would have gotten around to it eventually.  What I was saying is that Jesus – God With Us – died for all of us.  He didn’t go through all of that” – Father Krempke again swept his arm, this time at the paintings of the stations of the cross – “just because it was the next step in the Big Plan.  He did it because he loves all of his creation.  There’s a verse in Romans, a book that a very smart Jew wrote to Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Rome.  ‘God demonstrated his love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’  So God loves us all, and all of us, to one degree or another, reflect that love back into the world.  God pays attention to that.”

“But then why does he let all of this awful stuff happen in the world?” Charlie asked.  “Why did my friends get so badly damaged in their wars?  Why did my boss’ husband die of cancer?  Why – – -,”  Charlie choked back a surge of emotion that was tinged with anger.  “Why did my daughter die?”

Father Krempke sat silent for a moment.  At last he said “Charlie, in the first place I’m sorry for your loss.  I truly am.  We priests don’t get to have daughters, so I won’t pretend to know how that hurt feels.  But I’ve buried enough sons and daughters to know that the hurt is deep and the anger is natural.  Again, I’m sorry.

As to why those things happened, I won’t try to give you a facile argument, because I frankly don’t know why they happened.  Humans just seem to love wars and they love to send their young men to fight in them.  The world is bent, if not fully broken.  I can assure you that God does not like the idea of war.  And disease was not God’s plan either.  He made the world perfect.  It got bent, as I said, and I won’t go into the ‘how’ about it right now.  It just did and now God’s working on straightening it out.  That’s why he did what he did” – the priest pointed at the paintings of Jesus on his journey to the cross and then to the grave.  “That was the only way that God could sort this mess out.

Finally, I don’t know why your daughter died, but it was not because God wanted it.  Like I said, he is straightening this mess out but it isn’t finished getting fixed just yet.  Until it does get fixed, these sad things will continue to happen.  But he IS working on it and paid a pretty high price to get things in motion.  When he gets this all sorted out it will make sense in the end.  Until that happens, we just have to live by faith.  But know this; God loved – no loves – your daughter, and wants the very best for her.  Her death was not because God was angry with her, that I can assure you.”

“So you think that Stevie might be in heaven?”

“Hmm.  That’s above my pay grade.  Let me try to wriggle off of that hook by saying that it is very possible that she is.  I told you earlier that I believe that people who show God’s love, whether they know that he is the source of it or not, have that credited to them as righteousness.  How that plays out in the end, I don’t know.  The Bible is an operator’s manual, not an exhaustive schematic.  But I do know that God doesn’t want anyone to die an eternal death.  Not one person.  He’s not some sort of cosmic spoil sport who creates people just so that he can cook them.  There’s other scripture that says God wants all people to live, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with that.”

“But you ARE saying that Stevie MIGHT be in heaven” Charlie persisted.

Father Krempke sighed and said “Yes, I guess that is what I am saying, but it’s so much more complicated than that; so much nuance.  But I will say to you again that the answer is ‘yes’, I believe that she might be in heaven.”

“The sheep and the goats thing, right?” Charlie asked.

“Yes, exactly.  So you do know something about all this.”

“Very little.  A Jewish Christian told me about that, but I don’t really know the context or anything.”

“Well, bless his or her heart.  Look, God is gracious and loving.  God made a lot of people who couldn’t possibly know anything about Abraham or Moses or Jesus and his ministry.  Native Americans who fished for salmon in the Columbia River right here three or four thousand years ago, for instance.  How could they know how to pray the sinner’s prayer and punch their ticket into heaven?  Unless you believe that God created those people, people that the Word of God clearly says that he loves, specifically to go from birth to barbecue, and I emphatically DON’T believe that, then you have to believe that there’s more to the story than what we generally know.  That smart Jew that I mentioned earlier?  He wrote about that issue too.”

“Well, if we can get into heaven just by being good, why do all of this?” and it was Charlie’s turn to sweep his arm from right to left through the sanctuary.  “Why worry about all the rules and restrictions?”

“I never said anything about rules and restrictions, and I don’t believe God said much about them either.  He said ‘Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.’  It was actually a little more poetic than that, but that’s what he said.  Love God because God is good and deserves to be loved, and love your neighbor in the same way that God loves you, or as near to that as you can get.  That’s about it.  We men have laid a lot of other stuff on top of that, but that’s really what God said.  He gave us a lot of suggestions about how we can make a better life, but that one commandment was the one that he said he really wanted from us.

And faith means a lot to God. Doing good things is certainly valuable to him, to your neighbor and even to you, but trying to run up a score as if you have the power to work your way into heaven isn’t the whole trick.  Doing this because you have faith in God is really what he wants, but this is a lot to pack into a first conversation.”

Charlie was beginning to think the same thing.  That morning with Rachael he had been introduced to the awe and mystery that a people had felt for thousands of years for a God who they had never seen, but who’s presence they had felt through their few victories and their long and murderous list of persecutions.  Now he was listening to this priest tell him of a God who knows him and loves him personally, and who loves Stevie and Walt and Jack, and everyone else that he knew and cared about on a personal level.  It was a lot to think about, and Charlie felt like it was time to go and do that.”

Charlie rose from the pew and asked Father Krempke if they could talk again.  “Of course” the Father had replied.  “I live here.  I look forward to seeing you any time that you like, as long as I’m not baptizing a baby or something.”  Charlie smiled at that and then walked out into the sunlight of the Vancouver afternoon.

His truck was only a couple of blocks away and soon he was in it and driving east.  At first he didn’t know where he was going but it soon became clear as he drove closer to the cemetery where Stevie lay resting.  He entered the lot in front of the cemetery office and parked the truck.  A lot of bodies had been added to this place in the last two and a half years, but Charlie walked straight to a spot that he knew he could never forget.

There it stood, the granite marker that announced the final resting place of Stephanie Allison Hamer, August 7, 1995 – June 12, 2015.  Charlie walked slowly up to the marker and knelt down in front of it.  He stayed there silently for a long time, he had no idea how long.  At last he began to speak.

“Hi Stevie” he said.  “It’s been a long time.  I guess I would normally ask somebody how they’ve been doing, but it seems a little misplaced here, with you being dead and all.  But on second thought, maybe you aren’t really dead.  That’s a new thought, and it’s taking some getting used to.  I think that I like it though.  I could sort of get used to it.  I’ll let you know how it works out.

I’m doing fine, I think.  I’m back in the saddle as far as work goes, but it’s not the most important thing in my life any more.  I think it was people, and not work that saved my life.  Well, actually, some really cool people are telling me that it was God sending those people into my life that have saved my life.  I never really thought about God much before.  Well, to be more truthful, I never thought about God at all.  I’m thinking about him now though.  I think that maybe you’ve even met him.  Funny, talking about God as a him.  God would have to be pretty big to be creating all of this stuff and keeping it going.  Like, does he – it – have a body?  I dunno.  You might know, but I don’t.

Anyway, your mother seems to be doing OK.  I saw her last week and she looks good.  She’s still a beautiful woman, really.  She’s where you got your beauty from, in case you didn’t know.  She’s got a boyfriend.  You know, that sounds really weird.  Unless the guy’s like seventeen or something, why would I call him a boyfriend?  Anyway, she does, and she says that he’s a good man.  We’re talking again and I hope that we can always be friends.  I think we can.

I’m seeing a woman too.  I guess I have to call her a girlfriend.  I suppose it’s only fair.  But she really is a woman, and a beautiful one.  I know that you would like her.

Stevie – – -.  Stevie, some people that I know have suggested that you aren’t really dead, that you are alive and in a place called heaven.  I don’’t know about that but I feel the greatest possible comfort knowing that it is at least a possibility.  I mean, a year ago I didn’t even believe that heaven exists.  Now, I believe that it is possible.  How?  I don’t know.  A very nice guy just told me today that some knowledge was above his pay grade.  I guess that knowledge is above mine.  I mean, it’s possible that this is all a bunch of crap and I’m kneeling here talking to a piece of rock in the middle of a big lawn.

But maybe not.  Maybe you are alive and can hear me and are the happiest that you could possibly be, and maybe I’ll be with you someday, just as happy as you are and never to be without you again.  Maybe you had to have that accident and die so that I could figure that out.  I like that thought.  For now, I think that I’ll hang onto it and see how far I can go with it.

“Say ‘Hi’ to Yeshua for me.  That’s what a Jewish friend of mine calls Jesus, but I guess you might already know about that.  I’ll be seeing you when my time rolls around.

Theology Pub

“I am pro-life!”

“So am I.  Abortion is murder!”

“But I am pro ALL life.  I am opposed to the death penalty!”

“Wait a minute; I mean innocent life.  Justice requires the death of a murderer.”

“Taking the life of anybody once they no longer present a threat is not justice.  It’s murder.”

“Why are you just extending this conversation to human life?  Animals were created by God too.  How can you eat factory farmed animals who are killed after their miserable lives in the most hideous manner and call yourself pro-lift?”

So the conversation would proceed at Theology Pub.  Theo Pub was a two year experiment in diversity which was sponsored by my church in Vancouver Washington.  We met at a pub, The Brickhouse,” and enjoyed wonderful pub grub and a dizzying list of beers, wines and spirits while we discussed every imaginable topic.  the idea was to speak honestly, and sometimes with heat, but always with respect and love for our partners at the table.  People of other faiths and of no faith were invited, and the rules were the same: love each other and  ‘splain yourself.

I was asked by a person at work why a church group would meet in a bar.  “Because that’s where they serve alcohol” was my response.  We explored evolution, gay marriage, abortion, and other topics and books, with tongues well lubricated but attitudes in check.

All things have an expiration date, and our experiment is concluded.  Our love for each other and our warm regard for the owner and staff of The Brickhouse is intact.  If you want good, open conversation, come to the House of Providence.  If your preference runs to a  cold beer and some nachos, The Brickhouse can accommodate you just fine.

Being Alive

At church yesterday my pastor asked the question “When was the last time you felt fully alive?”  That question got me thinking (as all pastoral questions should), when WAS the last time that I felt fully alive?  That question led in its turn to the question “What does it mean to feel fully alive?”  This new question led me further to wonder “What does it even mean to BE fully alive?”  I’m not at all certain that I know the answer to any of those questions but I believe that they are worth investigating, so I will begin with the last question and work my way towards the first.

I guess that to be fully alive might mean that I am breathing.  Metabolism and cellular respiration are taking place within my body.  I am different from the chair in which I am sitting or the large volcanic rock resting on the patio outside of the coffee house where I sit writing this essay, in that I am alive and they are not.  This revelation would lead me to conclude that the last time that I felt fully alive was the last nanosecond before this current nanosecond.  I do not believe that this conclusion addresses my pastor’s point however.  Under the simple construct “alive equals fully alive” my pastor’s question would have no meaning, and pastors, good ones anyway, don’t ask questions that have no meaning.

Looking a bit further out across the patio I see trees in very large pots.  Those trees are much more like me than the rock is and I believe you could say that it is fully alive.  Water and nutrients are coursing from the roots up the stem and branches to the beautiful red leaves, where photosynthesis is going on to provide the sugar needed by the plant to maintain life.  Yes, I believe that I can honestly say that this tree is fully alive.  What I am not able to say is that it feels fully alive.  I don’t know if the tree feels at all.  Then again, I don’t know that it does not.  I was always intrigued by the line from the 1951 movie “The Thing from Another World” in which an alien that had evolved from a plant origin rather than an animal one is threatening scientists at a research station at the North Pole.  A journalist is amazed by this discovery and a scientist tells him that some plants, such as the telegraph vine, do a certain sort of thinking right here on Earth.  The journalist is mind boggled and then told that he should not be.  “Intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story Mr. Scott.  Older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it.”  Of course, that’s just a movie.  But in truth I don’t know what plants may or may not ‘feel’.  Perhaps they do feel things in some way.  This would be a most unsettling thought for my vegan friends.

So even in my not-knowing I am going to assume that plants never feel more alive or less so.  Animals however present a tougher nut to crack.  I have kept many cats as pets in my life and can testify to their many moods.  I have seen anger, contentment, fear, hunger, playfulness and perhaps even affection in my cats.  What makes the waters more muddy is the question whether the cats KNEW that they were angry, contented, afraid and so on.  I don’t believe that they did.  When a cat was curled up on my blanket-covered lap while I took a nap on a gray winter afternoon, did she ever think “I feel contented now, but I felt more contented last week when I was curled up here after a really big meal?”  I don’t think so.  Plants may feel things and animals certainly do, but I cannot convince myself that either one can reflect on their feelings.  Forgive my human arrogance, but only we can do that.

This brings me to the question of what it means for me to be fully alive, and in order to get to the heart of that I have to ask what if means to be fully me.  That question leads me inevitably into theology, and that should surprise nobody since this whole line of thought began with a question by a pastor in a church on a Sunday morning.  Me, therefore, is a sentient being of the species Homo sapiens (although a charge of containing a considerable amount of Neanderthal DNA has been leveled against me from time to time). I am not only unlike any other non-human lifeforms on this planet, I am unlike any human one too.  I have likes and dislikes, I not only know hunger and contentment and fear but remember other times that I felt them and can grade whether or not I was more hungry then or more afraid now.  I can create and I can willfully destroy; yes, I am unique in the universe.

To what can I ascribe this uniqueness (for better or for worse)?  To chance?  Not likely.  No tornado ever went through a Kansas junkyard and made a jet aircraft, and leaving an old Buick on blocks in the front yard of my house will earn me a few lumps on my head from the hand of my wife but will never evolve into a Lamborghini.  Things left alone go from order to disorder; all real scientists know this.  So I have to conclude that I am designed by an intelligence that is outside of the natural order.

That intelligence has broken into our world and told us a little bit about Itself and why S/he went to the trouble to create me, and has explained that what I am on this day as I write this rambling essay is a very imperfect image of what I was designed to be and, I am promised, some day will be.  I am alive today but not fully alive.  My being, now freed from the iron grip of death, must still drag vestiges of death around as I go about my daily affairs and I cannot help but feel the effects of those ultimately conquered but nevertheless troubling vestiges as I progress towards the day when those final vestiges well be fast off and a new life as what God – let’s go ahead and call that Intelligence what S/He really is – sees me as will begin.

Feeling fully alive, then, means to me feeling at least in part how I will feel when I finally am that being that I am intended to be.  When full joy, full love, full compassion, full mercy, finally are the norm for my life I will be more like the tree and the cat: aware of love but not as a variant from full love and aware of contentment but not as a variant from full contentment and so on.  Only hunger, pain, anger, disappointment and the like will be either memories or obliterated altogether.  A life of infinitely variable joy, not variable in the sense of quality but rather in the manner of sensing and expressing it, will be what I will feel when I am fully alive.

So when was the last time that I felt fully alive?  I haven’t yet.  There are a good many times when I have felt pointed toward feeling fully alive; when a child or grandchild was born, or when a kitten is rescued from likely death, or when I see the first shoots of a garden break through the soil with their promise of delicious and healthy food produced by the work of my hands and sweat of my brow.  But I have never felt fully alive and do not believe that I ever will until my earthly struggle is over and I stand perfected in the presence of Ultimate Perfection.

So should I despair that I can never, by my own efforts, hope to even approach being fully alive while in this life?  Not at all.  I get periodic glimpses of what that fully alive life will be like and that is enough to keep me energized and moving forward toward the life to come.  And when was the last time that I had one of those glimpses of being alive?  Today, and yesterday, and the day before that.  Any time that I stop for a moment to savor watching two friends chat over coffee at the table next to me while one of them scratches behind the ears of a gigantic Newfoundland dog, or when I help a friend prepare his garden for planting the spring crop, or read a story to a grandson sitting on my knee, I am looking down that path toward being fully alive, and sensing in a small way how it will be when it is my only reality.

I believe that we all have many opportunities to feel like we are on that pathway toward being Fully Alive every day.  The complexities of life may cloud the view and there’s no point in being a pollyanna about this; some people’s life circumstances make sensing that path to Fully Alive a lot more difficult to see than do other’s  It can still be done however, if we have the desire to do it.  I recommend that choice, as it makes all of our “nows” more bearable.

Christian Communism

“And all who believed were together and had all things in Common.  And they were selling their possessions and  belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47).

There it is; the best expression of what I call Christian communism that I find in the Bible.  Of course, it is easy to take one or two verses of Scripture and build a theology around it.  I remember well that several years ago the ‘Prayer of Jabez’ was very popular with a set of Christian folk.  That prayer took place in ancient times, whether in Judah or Israel, during the unified kingdom or even before the kingdom founded by Saul I don’t know.  Suffice it to say that Jabez lived a long time ago.  Jabez is famous for the following prayer:  “Jabez called upon the Lord of Israel, saying ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.”  (I Chron. 4:10).  “Name it and claim it” became a big player in Christian circles when that verse was found and, in my opinion, sold as a magical incantation used for the purpose of manipulating God into playing the role of celestial sugar daddy.  It is with that episode in mind that I venture into this topic with caution, stating up front that my thoughts are incomplete and I am open to considerable input from people better versed in the Bible than I am.

Acts 2 is a lot closer to Jesus than is I Chronicles, but regardless of that, Christians will by and large agree that the whole story told in both the Old Testament and the New point to Jesus as the apex and culmination of God’s plan to straighten out the unholy mess that humankind, God’s peak of creation, has made of things.  The people leading that band of early Christians (they weren’t called that yet) were eleven of the twelve who had spent three continuous years with Jesus, learning day and night by word and deed what Jesus was about, and while they still didn’t get all of it right, they certainly had more insight into the mind of God than I do, and they report the utopian situation in Acts 2 and the effect that it had on the greater community

OK, so Jabez was a long time before Jesus and Acts was after Jesus’ death and ascension into heaven.  What then did Jesus Himself have to say about this, if anything?  There are two things that stand out to me in the Gospels that address this topic; one is found in Luke 3:10-14, and the other is in three of the four gospels.  I will look at those two sources as they appear in the Gospel of Luke, one of which is actually a quote of John the Baptist, whom Jesus referred to as the greatest of all the prophets, and the other a teaching of Jesus Himself, and explore what these might mean to me.

In Luke 3:10-14 a bunch of the One Percenters in Jerusalem came to John, whom they distrusted in the first place, and asked him what they should do to live in accordance with God’s will.  I’ll let John answer in his own words.  “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”  Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him “Teacher, what shall we do?  And he said to them ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’”  “Soldiers also asked him ‘And we, what shall we do?’  And he said to them ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations, and be content with your wages.”

Now tax collectors made their living by collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers, and they grew fat by using the might of Rome to scare citizens into paying whatever they demanded and keeping whatever was above the Roman requirement for themselves.  Most Jews in Palestine had no idea what the real tax for them was because they would rather be dead than caught speaking with a gentile; especially a Roman.  John told the tax collectors to do their job, be fair, and live on what they rightfully earned.

Soldiers were a different breed of cat.  Temple police were allowed to exist by the occupying force but the only real soldiers allowed in the Empire were Roman soldiers and Judah, like it or not, was in the Empire.  It is therefore interesting that soldiers were speaking to a Jewish prophet at all, and especially one wearing coarse clothes and eating grasshoppers in the desert.  Nevertheless, there they were, and they asked John what they should do.  John, with a truly Christian concern for all humanity, replied to these unclean, uncircumcised gentiles who had shields and Roman short swords and said “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations, and be content with your wages.”

The threat part is easy to figure out.  Roman soldiers had spread the borders of the Empire from the Atlantic to east of Mesopotamia and from the border with Pictland (Scotland) to the Sahara Desert.  These guys could threaten, and then carry out their threats!  God, through John, said “Stop it!”  “Do what is right and be content with your wage” is how I read it.

Finally, in Luke 18:18-30, a good Jewish boy who happened to be very rich came to Jesus and asked what he must do to be saved.  Jesus told him to obey all sorts of laws and the guy said “Yeah, I’ve done all of that,” or words to that effect.  Then Jesus dropped the hammer on him.  “One thing you still lack.  Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Shazzam!  That ain’t gonna happen.  The rich Jew couldn’t pull the trigger on that deal and even Jesus’ disciples were blown away by His statement.  Jesus was making a point – and again this is in my own opinion – that if you are tied more tightly to your ‘stuff’, your material things, than you are to God, you are not fully getting the picture.  And that leads me into the body of my thoughts on all of this.

Jesus does not seem to be very impressed with people’s stuff.  People in general He cares about; you know, dying for us and all of that.  But our stuff?  Not so much.  Jesus had no home (today this is called being homeless).  He gave most of what He had to the poor (that, today, is called being stupid).  His early followers did the same, selling off their possessions and giving the funds to “all that had need.  Jesus did not seem to be opposed to working and earning a living.  To tax collectors John said “Collect”, and to soldiers John said “Soldier”, and Jesus seemed to agree, since He went to John for his own baptism.

So what does all of this mean to me in the twenty-first century?  Well, I don’t really know.   That is why I am writing this and asking for input from any who read it and feel moved to share their opinions.  The upshot to me, however, is that Jesus would rather than I live in a small house, take short, local vacations, eat humble meals, wear clothes until they wear out rather than go out of style, and in general ‘live simply so that others might simply live.’

Let me state up front that this model does not describe me very well.  I have enjoyed two vacations in Europe and three in Hawaii.  My house is nearly 1,400 square feet, I love to eat out and do so often, and if I want a book, a bottle of wine, a new garden tool or a cup of coffee at the coffee shop where I sit at the moment of this writing I indulge myself, so I am a far cry from the Christian communist that I am speaking of in this essay.  At least my clothes are old!  I am therefore not throwing out judgements that do not equally apply to me.  In fact, I am not throwing out judgements at all.  I am asking questions.

Simply put, I am asking whether or not the role of a Christ follower in the twenty-first century is to radically share his or her money, or stuff, with those who have need, to the Church first and then to the world.  Instead of clawing to get and keep our share of the pie and then voting for somebody who promises to keep our nation a Christian country, if we Christians poured ourselves into the needs of the community, feeding all who are hungry and clothing all who are cold regardless of how they came to be in their condition, I believe that the surrounding culture would look at us first as if we’ve lost our minds, but in time as people who believe what they say and say something worth believing.  Soon, I suspect, the Lord would be adding to our number daily those who believe, and that is what I call a ‘church growth plan.’

In my community our local public utility runs what they call “Operation Warm Heart.”  This charity provides funds to keep on the water and electricity when a resident is not able to pay for it.  Imagine if the Church in my community lived simply and gave its surplus to the charity.  Put simply, no poor senior citizen would ever have to decide whether to be able to flush their toilet or keep their medications cold in the refrigerator.

At a high school nearby, where something like 60% or more of the student body is receiving free or reduced lunches, there is a Family Resource Center where food and clothing and bus passes and so forth are dispensed as such items are donated, and one paid staff member and volunteers will sit and talk with the kids and, more important, listen to them.  Imagine a frugal Church pouring material resources and, more important, their time and their lives into the lives of these kids!  What would this say about the Church and the God Whom we say that we worship?  Probably more than planning my next trip to Hawaii while I say “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” does.

Examples abound but I believe that I’ve made my point as well as I can.  The resources which have been given by God to His Church in my community are enough to make a tremendous dent in the mountain of pain and want that afflicts many people here, each one of them loved by God and created in His image no matter what they have done or how they have repaid God for His love.  A giving, serving Church would soon shed the negative image that it has earned in the minds of many and create an environment where the Church, as a messenger of God’s love and desire to reconcile heaven and earth, might once again be listened to and believed.

As I wrote earlier I am not a theologian, and do not know if the Bible supports this interpretation.  I certainly do know that the American economic structure and what our society calls “common sense” do not, and I confess that I am as attached to my stuff as is the next person.  It just seems to me that the Bible speaks of a greater concern with people than with things, and this essay is my poor and imperfect expression of that view.

A Sermon Dealing with Little Things like God

The sermon at my church this morning was a piece of brilliance.  I say that a lot, but that’s because it is always true.  As is so often the case I left church this morning with an incredible, to me at least, new insight to chew on, and now I am going to pass it on in case you, dear reader, would be interested in chewing upon it too.

We finished a year and a half study of the Book of John today.  Twentieth chapter, verses 19 through 31.  In these verses the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, with the exception of Thomas.  Thomas hears from the others that Jesus has returned from the dead but his natural tendency to skepticism, a tendency that I would almost certainly share with him if I had stood in his sandals, wins out and he famously says “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”  Jesus, of course, shows up and invites Thomas to get close and personal with the holes in His hands and side.  In the end Jesus says “Now believe in me”, and Thomas replies “My Lord and my God.

In my opinion, based on my limited knowledge of theology, this is the apex of the Bible.  The Old Testament, from the history of the Jewish people to their laws, and from the genealogies to the prophets – the whole shooting match – spoke of God’s good creation, its corruption by evil, God’s plan to use the Hebrew people to correct that problem, and their corruption into being part of the problem.  Then the New Testament comes along and the Gospels tell the story of Jesus being the culmination of the mission of Israel.  Jesus, who’s perfect life and teaching confronted the evil found in politics (Rome), religion (the Temple and the priesthood), and society (the fine, rich, and distinguished people who looked down their arrogant and privileged noses at the poor and the ‘sinners’), faced that evil down and defeated it once for all time when He died on the cross.  At that point, God had done what He could do  Now it was time for man to do his part.  “Believe,” Jesus said to Thomas.  “Believe” Jesus said to all of us.  Believe what?  Believe that Jesus was Lord and also God; God who created all and now gives His life to redeem His creation from the sin which seeks to drag it to hell and to destruction.

Now the Bible is complete.  Evil entered God’s good creation, a plan of a couple thousand years’ duration had played out and God had begun to reconcile heaven and earth.  Paul and the other New Testament writers have filled in some gaps and polished up some teachings, but the main point, and we should always remember to keep the main point the main point, was that it was time for us to play our part in this drama.  It was time for us to simply, and in the face of all which says that we are crazy to do so, believe.

Believing should be easy, right?  I’ve been a Christian for over thirty years.  I’ve heard the voice of God two times and once felt Her presence as if She was a physical pressure pushing against my chest.  Working in a hospital I have seen people free of cancer who should not be, and I have seen people go home who should not have gone home.  In fact, I could easily write of a half dozen times that I should have died, but did not.  Nobody alive should have more reason to be hard core, rock-solid, one hundred percent certain of God than me.

Yet sometimes I doubt.  Sometimes I doubt.  I hate the thought; I hate the sound of it if I say it out loud.  Just for a moment I feel like a failure.  Was this all the futile exercise of an emotional cripple leaning on a spiritual crutch, trying to stagger through a pointless life and denied even the dubious consolation offered by the false promises of full throttle sin?  Then I remember the rich history of God in my life and God in the life of His creation, and I answer “No.  Hell no.”  This doubt is nothing more than the accusations of the enemy multiplied by my own weakness.  With the help of the God who’s existence I sometimes doubt, in those random, empty, anchorless and thankfully brief moments, I remember what I’ve seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears, and discerned with my own heart and mind.  God is real.  He is there; always has been.  God the Father, or God the Mother if that makes you feel more comfortable, is as real as anything around me.  More real than anything around me really, since He is the Real that all reality flows out from.  More real than me, and I’m pretty real.

So that is what I came away with from this morning’s sermon.  John 20, verses 19-31 is the point that the whole Bible leads to, and is all the assurance that I will ever need.  God cares.  He made a plan.  She completed the plan.  Believe and find peace in God, creation and eternity.  Yeah, I can live with that.

Reflections on Lent, Day 35

Just because a person becomes a Christian does not mean that they will now be blessed with every good thing and will walk smiling through a life without troubles, wondering why everybody else doesn’t simply adopt their easy plan for love, money, and a life for the most part free from pain.  I know that this caricature of life as a Christian is pure bull caca, and it continues to amaze me that it is preached by some and accepted by great crowds of the gullible to this day.  Jesus and ten of the first eleven disciples (Judas excluded), seemed to miss out on the health and wealth aspect of this strange description of Christ’s mission on earth, so why on earth would anyone think that such a vision would work for a true Christ follower today?

This topic of pain and trouble has been dealt with already by writers and thinkers far sharper than Yours Truly.  Harold Kushner wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” in 1978, and Rabbi Kushner did a wonderful job of explaining this topic.  I will not summarize that book here, but I encourage anyone wrestling with this issue to give it a read.   This is only a Lent reflection however, and not a book review.

During this Lent period I have been trying to focus more sharply on God and my walk with Him/Her (at ease now;  I’m not trying to be unnecessarily incendiary here.  I just believe that trying to apply gender roles and limitations to God is a fool’s errand).  At the outset of the Lent season I naively expected a significant spike in the quality of my prayer life, a quiet confidence that God was in control of the wildness and confusing randomness of my health, work and family life, and that maybe I would hit on the lottery.  As it has turned out, this has been one of the most trying months-and-change that I have had in a while, and if you consider that my last year included a heart attack and bypass surgery, that’s saying quite a lot.

I won’t go into all of the details of the trials which I have endured during this Lent season, and I also won’t try to say that I have not also experienced great spiritual successes and blessings too.  The point of this reflection is that we all, Christian and non-Christian alike, live in a bent and broken world, and that becoming a follower of Christ does not remove a person from that world.  All of the pain and wrongness which afflict the atheist or the Hindu or the Muslim or the Capitalist or the Vegan afflict the Christian too.  I don’t know why that is so, but I do know for a fact that it IS so, and nobody will gain anything by denying that fact, except perhaps silver-tongued preachers who prey upon the fear and greed and weakness of those who listen to them.  I am not judging anybody here (that would be way above my pay grade!), but I am not overly confident of those “preachers'” odds for a good outcome when the judgement day arrives.  I hope for the best, but I’ve got some doubts there.

With all of this in mind, it is probably reasonable to ask why it is a good idea to become a Christian in the first place.  I miss out on the sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, I don’t get to make fun of people who are different than me, and I don’t get to cheat on my taxes with a clear conscience if I buy into this Christian thing, and in return I get  –  What?  Maybe I’ll go to heaven if I get the luck of the draw (if Calvin’s caricature is right), or maybe I get a crutch to prop my weak ass through the life that everybody else seems to be living just fine (NB: they aren’t!) .  Maybe I’ll just get the prestige of being the adherent to a barely tolerated subgroup in American society and earn the right to get a shellacking in the next election if I decide to run for president.

No, any benefit received by following the crucified Christ is not likely to be monetary, political or positional in society.  So what is it”  I have learned this Lent season that God is, as David Benner writes in “Surrender to Love”, madly in love with us.  Jesus does not stand between us and the shit that the world, the flesh and the devil throw at us.  Instead, He stands beside us, getting covered up in that shit the same as we are.  I count it a privilege to be covered in the same shit that the broken world threw on my God, and when He/She cleans me off some day I hope that He/she will clean off the world that was throwing it as well, and that all of us who will accept God’s grace will dine – no, dine isn’t the right word – will PARTY together, while those who chose to reject Christ to the end will nurse their grudges and drink their bitter cup in an outer darkness of their own choosing, in a prison or tomb locked from the inside.

So yeah, life can be a bitch.  So what?  That’s not news.  Put your tough pants on.  Life is also a gift, and while you can’t always dial up the life you want, you can always draw on His/Her power to make it reflect a little bit of Christ back into the world.  For me, that is enough.

Reflections on Lent, Day 33

This morning our pastor preached out of the passage in the Gospel of John which describes the period immediately after the death of Jesus.  The picture is this; the time is the afternoon before Passover, a most high holy time for the Jews, and it is an offense to have dying people on crosses hanging by their nailed extremities at this time.  The Jewish leaders asked the Roman governor to order the breaking of the condemned men’s legs so that they would be unable to push themselves upward in order to draw a breath, thereby dying of asphyxiation That way their bodies could be removed from the crosses before sundown.  The two thieves were indeed still alive and their leg bones were accordingly broken with a large mallet.  When the soldiers came to Jesus however they saw that He was already dead, which surprised them.  Just to be sure about things a soldier stuck a spear into Jesus’ side and blood and water flowed out of the wound.

Many years ago when I was coming to faith in God once again after a seventeen year separation a pastor spoke with me about my reservations.  I was a very rational and scientific sort of person and not at all likely to take things on faith.  That pastor sized me up very neatly and gave me a small stack of books which he thought would help me get over the materialistic hump.  I don’t remember what most of those books were but two of them rocked my world:  “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis and “The Resurrection Factor” by Josh McDowell.  The sermon this morning reminded me greatly of reading the second of those two books.

McDowell went about discussing the whole crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection story as if he was analyzing it in forensic terms.  Many explanations by unbelieving individuals of the events of that day turn on doubt that Jesus really was crucified, doubts that He really died,  doubts that He was laid in a tomb, and doubts that He left that tomb alive.  I will not cover all of McDowell’s points but will limit myself to the doubt that Jesus actually died.

The Romans were very good at killing people.  In fact, all of the various empires and regional powers of the time were pretty good at that, but the Romans had become the masters of the entire Mediterranean world by being a little bit better at it than anyone else.  It is with great confidence therefore that I regard the words of John when he writes that the Roman soldiers found Jesus already dead.

John then goes on to point out that one of the soldiers stuck a spear into Jesus just to make sure he was a goner.  Now when I was a soldier, if I would have wanted to make certain that an enemy was dead I would have shot him in the head – especially if I suspected that he was a zombie – or in the area of the heart if he was only a common, garden variety Viet Cong.  Thankfully I never had to do any such thing, but that is exactly how I would have proceeded if I had found myself forced with the necessity to do so.  But Jesus was up on a cross and one would never try to stick a spear into a man’s head anyway, considering that his heart was a good deal softer and less protected by a skull and so on, so I have no doubt that the Roman soldier put his spearhead straight into the non-beating heart of Jesus.

And what do you suppose flowed out of that wound?  Exactly what you would expect, if Jesus was in fact dead.  Blood and water ran down the body of Jesus, according to John, to drip into the dust on the Hill of the Skull.  What this said to McDowell, and what it says to me too, is that Jesus was not only dead, but had been dead for a while when the spear entered his heart.  When blood ceases to flow it begins to separate into its liquid and solid components.  The solid stuff, the red and white blood cells and platelets and so forth, settle to the bottom while the watery plasma remains on the top.  When that spear penetrated Jesus’ body and entered the heart that fluid was released to flow outside, followed by some of the solid red matter mixed with plasma.

This removes from the discussion any idea that Jesus merely fainted and was revived later, only to disappear into a far away country, take a wife, have some kids, and resume his occupation of carpentry while a new religion in His name was founded and slowly became the official religion of the entire Mediterranean world.  John’s description was too detailed and accurate for me to doubt it’s truth.  Jesus died on that cross, and over 500 people saw Him afterword alive and well before He finally ascended into heaven.

I have read many more convincing proofs that Jesus is whom He says He is, but this one came to me at a time of doubt and weakness, and will always be a favorite for me.