Same Road. New Vista.

 

What’s that you say? You’ve just arrived from Cyprus and you are new to the area? And, you’ve heard some incredible things? You want me to tell you all that’s happened? Come in for some water and …some bread.

Where should I begin, stranger? There is so much that has happened the last three days – the last three years, in fact! And long before now! Since you are a visitor from Cyprus, I will start with some necessary background so you will understand why my husband and I are so giddy.

My husband Cleopas and I – I am Mary – settled many years ago in this fertile valley below Jerusalem This area is known as Emmaus. We call this place Motza. Our village is about 30 stadia from our beloved Jerusalem.

As you have seen, it is a well-watered area with rich soil and an abundance of willow trees. During the Feast of Tabernacles celebration many come to our valley and gather willow branches. They take the willow branches and stand them up on the sides of the altar with their tops bowed over the altar.

Our valley has many springs watering it. Our people come down to one of Motza’s springs to get water for baking their matzo for the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

I’m sure you noticed the Roman Centurions stationed here. My husband says it is a strategic position for them as they can protect the ascent to Jerusalem on the road leading from Jaffa. And, it is strategic in the ways I know of. Cleopas has overheard some of them saying that they would like to retire here because of the many springs and because north of our village the valley widens offering them plenty of room for settlement and for growing food.

My husband and I are simple farmers. But life for us and our people has not been so simple. Many of us have long desired to be freed from the rule of those who do not worship the One true God. When the Babylonians overtook Jerusalem and carried our people away into exile it was the Isaiah the prophet who spoke for us …

O Lord our God,

other lords besides you have ruled over us

but we acknowledge your name alone.

Now, we are back in our land and still the pagans lord over us. So, we wondered: Would our God act again to bring us out of this exile as he took us out of Egypt? And, when will God resurrect Israel and restore her as a nation? When will the messiah, the Anointed One and Son of the Most High from the line of David, restore the house of David? When, when, when …when would God redeem his people and set up his everlasting kingdom on earth?

On many Sabbaths, as we gather in the synagogue, words from the Torah are read. And then the words of the prophets – the haftarah. We all felt the hopelessness and despair in the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Our leader would then pray these words:

Vindicate me, my God,
    and plead my cause
    against an unfaithful nation.
Rescue me from those who are
    deceitful and wicked.
 You are God my stronghold.
    Why have you rejected me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?
 Send me your light and your faithful care,
    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
    to the place where you dwell.
 Then I will go to the altar of God,
    to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the lyre,
    O God, my God.

 

Yes, there were times of renewing hope and rejoicing. This past fall my husband and I and pilgrims from Cyrpus and from faraway lands went up to Jerusalem for the feast of the tabernacle. We carried with us willow branches and olive branches to build to sukkah – our temporary booths. When we all gathered together, we shouted praises to God, sang the songs of Aliyah and waved our fragrant lulavs – our willow branches and palm fronds – before the Lord in a spirit of thankfulness.

After the feast, we walked home with the pilgrims on the Emmaus road, the same road that brought you here. Our hearts were burning with expectation as to what God would do. There was much animated discussion about the events of those seven days. And, it all centered on Jesus. You must know about him, don’t you? How can anyone not know?

That day as we walked along we talked about his feeding the five thousand by the shore of Galilee. We talked about our seeing him healing the blind and the lame. And, Lazarus had been raised from the dead! We marveled that demons were being cast out and at Jesus’ authority over them. And, his words! No one ever spoke like he did about the Moses and the prophets. We discussed how our religious authorities despised him and wanted to do away with him. This made us all fearful, as it would negatively affect our synagogues. Yet, they each said that many were believing in him as the one who was to come.

But Miriam told the group that that even his brothers did not believe in him. She learned this from a young doctor named Luke, whom she met at the feast. He told her that Jesus’ brothers wanted Jesus to show himself publicly so that he could become well-known. “Show yourself to the world!” they said to him. They wanted to put Jesus in a situation which would make him prove he is the Messiah. But Jesus told them “My time is not yet. The world can’t hate you, but it hates me, because I am giving evidence against it, showing that its works are evil”. He told them to go up to the feast. Miriam said that Jesus went up later in secret and now we know why. There was a considerable dispute in the crowds. Some said “He’s a good man and others “He’s deceiving the people!” There were those who hated him and wanted to do away with him.

Ruth told us about the twelve-year old Jesus. His family had gone up to Jerusalem for Passover. When they left to return to Galilee with a caravan of friends, they had traveled a day’s journey before realizing that Jesus wasn’t with the group. He had vanished! So, they went back up to Jerusalem and searched for him for three days. They couldn’t find him anywhere. When they finally did put their eyes on him, he was sitting with the teachers of the law. He was listening to them and asking questions. Those listening to him were amazed at his answers to their questions. But, Mary was neither amazed or happy. She scolded him for disappearing. “Child”, she said to him, “why have done this to your father and me? We have been frantically searching for you”. Jesus told his mother, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I would have to be getting involved with my father’s work?” They didn’t understand a word of what he was saying. Wasn’t his father a carpenter?

Oy, there is so much to tell. I will focus on the last few days and on what happened to Cleopas and me this afternoon. What happened the last few days in Jerusalem we learned from the Jesus’ disciples as Cleopas and I were in Jerusalem for Passover. I can tell you that it was a time of weeping and anguish.

As you may have heard, on the night of Passover Jesus was captured by the authorities – ours and Roman. Though he had done nothing wrong he was sentenced to death on a Roman cross. Our authorities pushed for this, shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Jesus was taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea and then released by Pilate to the angry crowd. Jesus was crucified like a common criminal. When we learned of this our hearts were broken, our hopes were dashed. “What good is a dead messiah we asked each other? We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” God be praised! There is more to tell you!

We were in Jerusalem this morning. We heard many, many accounts and rumors of visions and of Jesus’ tomb being empty. The disciples were at a loss as what to make of it all. Peter had gone off to see for himself and confirmed that the tomb was indeed empty. But he was as perplexed as the rest of us. We waited for while longer to see what might come of it all and then we decided to head home. Now, this is the part I’ve been waiting to tell you… I can barely …

Cleopas and I headed home to our village. Along the way we discussed all that had happened that morning. We argued, too, about what it meant. As we walked a stranger approached us and began walking with us. He was not at all familiar to us but he must have overheard us. He started the conversation:

Rowan LeCompte and Irene Matz LeCompte, “Third Station of the Resurrection: The Walk to Emmaus” (detail), 1970. Mosaic, Resurrection Chapel, National Cathedral, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

“You’re obviously having a very important discussion on your walk. What’s it all about?”

We stopped walking and turned to him. He must have seen that we were both downcast. Cleopas answered the stranger. “You must be the only person around Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s been going on there the last few days.”

“What things?” he asked.

“To do with Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet. He acted with power and he spoke with power, before God and all the people. Our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him. But we were hoping that he was going to redeem Israel!

And now, what with all this, it’s the third day since it happened. But some women from our group have astonished us. They went to his tomb very early this morning, and didn’t find his body. They came back saying they’d seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Some of the folk with us went off to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see him.”

“You are so senseless! So slow in your hearts to believe all the things the prophets said to you! Don’t you see? This is what had to happen: the Messiah had to suffer, and then come into his glory!”

At this point, we were quite perplexed. Who is this stranger and why is taking this so personally? We were both taken aback by the zeal and authority with which the stranger spoke. We searched his face for answers to what we didn’t recognize in all of the Sabbath words. He began walking and we followed.

We listened to the stranger explain Moses and the prophets and all of Scripture in terms of the One who was to come and ransom Israel and bring her and the whole world out of exile. He told us …

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; Do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

He talked about a kingdom on earth and about creation and new creation. As he spoke, everything we had been taught began to look different. Everything was coming into focus and the focal point was Jesus. Everything was becoming clear except for the stranger. He remained an enigma.

We reached the intersection to our village. We turned down our road. The stranger kept walking down the Emmaus road. We called after him urging him to stay with us. He kept walking. Cleopas finally ran up to him and pleaded with him to stay with us. “Sir”, he said, “the day is almost over. Stay with us.” The stranger agreed to come with us.

We invited him in and gave him a bowl of water and a towel to wash his hands and feet. We gave him water to drink. We sat down to a small meal. The stranger took the bread up into his hands and prayed, giving thanks for the meal. He then broke the bread and gave it to us. It was then …it was then …it was then that we were shocked beyond belief! Our jaws dropped and we looked at each other with wide open eyes. Cleopas and I saw that the stranger was Jesus, the resurrected Jesus! And, as soon as we saw him, he vanished from our sight! Poof!

We were speechless. The Anointed One and Son of the Most High was walking with us and talking with us and sitting down to eat with us! Everything we hoped for had come true in our sight, as Anna the prophetess foretold and Simeon prophesied! … Our eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the sight of all people!

Now, our new friend, Cleopas and I have to return to Jerusalem to tell our brothers and sisters all that has happened this afternoon. We must break bread with them. Come with us and you will see him, too!

 

As we walked the 30 stadia back up to Jerusalem, Cleopas and I kept pinching each other. We walked and danced and walked and ran and clapped. We kept asking each other “Do you remember how our hearts were burning inside us, as he talked to us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us? Cleopas, in his booming voice and with a smile on his face, kept repeating “For you will not leave my soul among the dead or allow your holy one to rot in the grave” and the words our Sabbath leader prayed:

Why are you cast down, O my soul

And why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.

We both shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

 

The Cypriot, not sure what to make of all this, watched us from a distance. There was an amused and perplexed look on his face.

 

 

 

 

Adapted from the Gospel according to Luke (2:41-50)

 

The Letters

 

September, 2019

My Dear Agnus,

I may be among the last of those who write letters. Handwriting is personal and so I hope my words will be received not as the words of a deacon, but as your brother.

The last time I saw you Agnus, at the funeral for Nicholas, I perceived bitterness behind your grief as we spoke that day. You asked “Where is God in all of this?”

The tragedy that took your son was compounded by his claiming to be an atheist before his death. Together, these events must have caused you considerable anguish.

What succor can any observer give to the one who has suffered such a loss and heartbreak? What comparison of those who have also suffered loss can one make to lessen your grief when your sorrow and pain are profoundly yours, and yours alone? And, imagine, what support a spouse gives to her husband who has suffered profound losses when she says to him that he is better off dead?

Job’s wife, knowing where God ‘was’ in all that had happened, ‘comforted’ her boil-encrusted ash heap-seated husband with “Curse God and die!” In effect she said “Why maintain your notions of God and your devotion to Him when He does this to you?”

Job, also knowing where God ‘was’ in all that he suffered, responded to the “foolish” words with his own reckoning of the situation: “Should we accept from God only good and not adversity?” I wonder at the reckoning of Job, after suffering devasting losses: “the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Job wasn’t putting a positive spin on his situation. Rather, he was letting God be God.

And what of value are clichés like “time heals all wounds”? The wounds may heal, but the scars remain, as they do for our Lord and Savior. Pain, loss and suffering make their marks, as you well know.

As I write this I have before me the photograph of you and Nicholas at his fourteenth birthday. What joy and promise I see in both of your eyes. How will you remember him on his eighteenth birthday this Saturday?

Do you blame yourself for Nicholas saying he became an atheist? Don’t. I have mentored many such young men. Approaching adulthood, they are dynamic. They believe they know all they need to know and what they don’t know you can’t tell them. They begin to reject familial authority and the fixed rules and identity imposed on them. They will chose a path opposite of what they know. When they receive a driver’s license or go off to college, they believe they can drive off without limits.

Your Nicholas didn’t have time to harden his heart against God. Had he gone on to the university he may have begun to harden his heart, as immature Christian faith is often weaned on the religion of ideology.

The picture I have in my mind as I mentor these young men: they are like the lost wandering sheep that the Shepherd goes looking for. You committed Nicholas to the Good Shepherd as an infant. When he declared himself to be an atheist, the Good Shepherd went looking for him asking “Where are you Nicholas?” The Good Shepherd did not give up on him.

Most likely Nicholas, not yet understanding the nature of God, saw something in the nature of life. The world offers many shiny objects to lure a young man away from the fold.

Be assured, Agnus, that you are continually in my thoughts and prayers. Help me to see through your eyes.

Love,

Tom

 

September 2019

Dear Tom,

Forgive my email reply. My stationery, which I used to thank those who gave flowers in remembrance of Nicholas, has run out except for a mismatched envelope.

Thank you for writing. This past year have been a blur. The loss of my only child and the loss of my marriage the year before has drained life out of me and filled me with wormwood and gall. That is what my new friend Ann calls it.

I saw Nicholas change after the divorce. He became moody and distant. It didn’t help that Bill and I often fought the months before we separated. I was crushed when Nicholas asked both of us “Where is God in all of this?”

I will remember Nick’s birthday with a few friends. They are folk from the church I now attend. They are giving me a memorial tree to plant in my yard.

Agnus

 

October, 2019

Dear Agnus,

A memorial tree is a symbolic and an enduring way to remember Nicholas. What kind of tree did you plant?

You mentioned in your last email that Nicholas was affected by what was going on in his homelife. Changing aspects at home would intensify the growing dynamics in his young life. It would spur him to look elsewhere for greener pastures. But the Good Shepherd knows his sheep and cares for them wherever they run off to.

All that has happened has changed you, as well. Our sister tells me that you are now attending a Universalist Church. This concerns me, as I know of their pluralist beliefs.

How is your health? I worry about you.

Love,

Tom

 

October, 2019

Dear Tom,

I planted a redbud tree in my front yard. I can see it from my chair by the window. My friends from church helped me plant it. They say it will produce rose-colored flowers.

You mentioned the church I now attend. At the church I attended for many years, the one where Nicholas was baptized as an infant, after the divorce no ever one ever invited Nicholas and me over for a meal. I felt judged, unclean and worthless because of a failed marriage. I felt isolated, like I didn’t exist. I felt like a leper.

There was one old woman at that church, I won’t mention her name, who rankled me. She had the gall to imply that what happened to Nicholas was a judgment for my divorce. “These things happen for a reason” is what she said. Why on God’s green earth would someone say this? At that point I had had enough of that can of wormwood. I wasn’t about to lose my sanity and so I looked elsewhere.

Nicholas refused to go to church. He was spending time with his father who also didn’t attend church. Bill said that he has more fellowship on a golf course on Sunday mornings than in church. I don’t even know what fellowship means at this point. My old church had become a valued-members only country club of sorts.

I met the folks from the new church at a rummage sale. They invited me over for coffee. So, I took my baggage and started going to their church.

My health? I don’t sleep. I wake up from dreams so real I begin to cry. I see the old woman and Nicholas standing at the end of my bed. They are turned away and Bill is walking away.

Food and a glass of wine and a few new friends are my only comforts.

Agnus

 

November, 2019

Dear Agnus,

I understand your reaction and your desire to walk away. That woman had no business saying those things. The church, where the lost and lonely and broken should find hope and fellowship and healing, is often the place where the most rejection and hurt is incurred. There are, as you may have encountered, broken people who believe they know the mind of God and can diagnose other’s lives through their own distorted lens. I am reminded of Job’s friends and their counsel.

Now, it may be that this woman had also experienced loss or hardship or heartache and assumed that God was chastening her and that became her frame of reference to project onto others. It may be that, like many in the church, she gets involved with people only viscerally and never enters into a deeper relationship with them. There are those who are not solicitous about a person’s spiritual and emotional well-being as it would involve having to get involved. I don’t want to project any of this onto her or impugn her character, as I only know of her. I don’t know her. One cannot know the mind or intentions of another or the mind of Christ, for that matter, unless they are intimately acquainted with the person. Still, that woman had no business saying those things.

I think many see the church not as a Mash unit where the wounded are cared for and nursed back to wholeness. Rather, they see it as a soapbox for their views. Years ago I left a church where the congregation voted on church matters. That was a nightmare. Many who voted had already converted their political commitments into moral principles. As such, they had become conduits of the world and not of the Holy Spirit.

My main concern is you. How are you holding up? I am glad you found some folks who invited you in. I hope this letter finds you well and in better spirits.

Love,

Tom

 

November 2019

Tom,

I received your letter. The church isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and neither am I for that matter. Maybe the old woman just woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day. I know I did.

These days all my focus has narrowed to getting by day to day. I try to make sense of it all. It seems life is one of those patternless crossword puzzles in the newspaper. There are clues and no structure or a place to start. There are answers that connect at one point but after I work on it the puzzle ends up being a disconnected mismatched jumble. And the solution is a Want Ad.

Now that Christmas is approaching and I will be without Nick, I have a question for you Deacon. Why would God send his son into the world when he knew that his son would brutally die? That is a world of hurt that I know all too well. Why all the suffering? What does it accomplish?

I may get around to buying stationery someday. Right now, email is what I can handle.

Agnus

 

November 2019

Dear Agnus,

I can relate to the crossword puzzle example you gave. More than once I have a puzzle almost completed but there are a few clues that confound me. I have to search to find the word suggested.

You ask a deep theological question that is much like the patternless puzzle. Both begin on a template as a mystery that bids the partaker to search for answers, as you are doing. Mysteries cannot and should not be assessed on their face and be rejected outright as too difficult or pointless.

I have long wondered why Jesus didn’t just come down to earth and feed everyone and heal everyone and keep people from suffering and death. Why did he have to suffer to make things right for the world and then allow suffering to continue?

I have been reading Russian authors for a while now – Chekov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn. What I like about these Russian authors is that they were not afraid to pose deep questions in their works. The things of the spirit were of great importance to them. Their writings depict the torment of the Russian soul especially as it is affected by suffering and loss and evil.

My favorite is Chekov. His writings depict the prosaic side of Russian life and the hopelessness pervasive in the lives of his characters. His stories are not of the Hallmark/Disney sentimentalist twaddle so popular today. He writes the about the way life is without moralizing.

Here, as an example of their writings, I will quote Ivan, one of the brothers in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:

“And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price.” (5.4.21)

Ivan Karamazov, a deep thinker, poses suffering as a theological problem: if sweet innocent children suffer, how can there be a just God? With this conundrum he reveals what is behind Russian nihilism and atheism he sees all around him – sentimentality and a false sense of sympathy for mankind.

The Russian nihilists and atheists he speaks of see children suffering, so they assume that if there is a God that he is unjust and not worth their time. They walk away from God bearing a hatred towards Him and his divine purpose for life. They take on a false moralism which denies all values including the sacred. They will hold an abstracted God accountable but not themselves. They will not stomach the tears of children nor will they stomach the sacrifice required of them to alleviate the tears in this world. In fact, as history shows, they go on to sanction Progressivist revolutions that create untold sufferings and tears.

Have I answered your questions? No. Not yet. I am relating that the patternless puzzle, the mystery, has troubled mankind since the days of Job. The Psalmists and the wisdom literature authors in Scripture reflect on the meaning of life amidst suffering and hardship and loss. These writings offer clues that suffering can be redemptive as they turn to God for healing and justice instead of indicting him. Maybe the old woman spoke from this perspective.

Each individual puzzle, yours included, can be redemptive as one seeks the Source for answers. The church should be a resource of redemption, of grace and a healing balm. But it is often the resource of sentimentality and a false sense of sympathy for mankind as I mentioned above. There are those in the church who see themselves as prophets, as arbiters of who is right and who is wrong and of the mind of God, like Job’s friends. They think they have the answers to the patternless puzzle.

I’ll briefly mention that along with the problem of suffering there is also the problem of evil. Of the Christian view you are already aware. Jesus suffered death on the cross to defeat evil. His resurrection means new creation. That sin and evil continue is a matter of human’s free will. That suffering continues, Jesus’ resurrection tells us that things are not as they seem – that suffering can be redemptive and that death can be overturned so that new creation can take place. The return of Jesus is when he will put things to right.

I’ll just mention a non-Christian view.

An atheist will revere cause and effect science as the tree of life, as the impersonal source of life. This ‘relieves’ them of accountability. Yet, as mentioned above, the atheist will not see human agency as the mechanism behind the cause and effects of evil. Rather they see themselves as the tormented and not as the tormentors. This is more to say on this subject but would be of no comfort for you now.

How are you spending Christmas? Will you be alone? If so, I will come out. Let me know right away so that I can book a flight. I should have asked sooner.

For your sleep I recommend exercise. It will alleviate your mood and help you sleep at night.

Love,

Tom

 

December 2019

Tom,

I received your letter and your Christmas card. The card is beautiful. Thank you.

Of the things you wrote, that whole ball of wax, I can barely take it in. The church has been both a blessing and a bane to me. Now I see myself as part of the bane. My focus has been on myself and words spoken and not spoken to me.

You and I were raised in a church with petty rules. No dancing, no movies, no talking in church. Remember the sign that hung over the choir loft? Be still and know that I am God. How can anyone be still when so much suffering is going on?

Later I attended a free church where I thought I would be free from judgment. I think it is called grace. No way. I traded the Be Still church for the Shut Up about your problems put on a smiley face and carry on church. I came home depressed and crying so I went elsewhere. I told you about my last church. My last straw is the church I attend now. They accept anyone and anything. They teach universal reconciliation – that all humans will eventually be saved. I want to believe this for Nicholas’ sake but I can’t. Why wasn’t everyone saved and suffering stopped right after Jesus died on the cross? Why is there still evil and trouble in the world. It seems that people must still make a choice to be saved or not. You mentioned free will. It seems that universal salvation would mean that there is no difference between good and evil. Alls well that ends well, I guess is what they think.

They also teach about finding yourself within yourself. I found enough in myself I don’t like. If God thinks like me and the rest of these people, we’re all in trouble. Your letters got me thinking about all this.

Anyway, I sit by the window looking at the memorial tree covered in snow and wonder when the redemption part kicks in. I sit here with this feeling of something gushing up inside me like a flare was set off inside me and I can’t contain it. What could this be?

The church does give me the chance to work at a local homeless shelter. I brought in some of Nicholas’ clothes. I was so happy when I saw a boy wearing the shirt I bought for Nicholas.

Rose said that she is coming out for Christmas. She is bringing her kids. That will be a blessing. There will be noise and life in my home again. I will have to clean the house. This is no vale of roses.

How are you spending Christmas?

Agnus

 

December 2019

Dear Agnus.

Your email was a great encouragement to me. My concerns for you have greatly diminished. I don’t see you being taken in by your church’s pluralism. As you have stated, the church accepts anyone and everything. It teaches all religions as emanating from a divine origin and therefore all religions are true and therefore worthy of toleration and respect and considered on equal footing. As such, the church synthesizes universal principles of many religions to form a universal truth. The church wants to be known for being inclusive. You will encounter all manner of false teaching to make inclusion and toleration possible.

The Universalist church will teach about God and Jesus and immortality and, as you mentioned, that things will work out at the end, that no one will suffer eternal torment. The church implies with their teaching that evil and sin make people victims and therefore no one should have to suffer eternal punishment. Their teaching questions how the redeemed can enjoy heaven while even one soul suffers in hell. The sympathy card is played.

The Universalists are like the prodigal son’s older brother. He deems himself on higher moral ground than his father as he witnesses his brother repenting and returning to their father of his own volition. He believes he deserves the sympathy of his father for just being himself.

Like the atheists I have mentioned in a previous letter, the Universalists have taken on sentimentality and a false sense of sympathy for mankind and imbue it with false moralism and cheap grace. They do not let God be God. Rather, they let a god of their own making, as synthesized from the world’s religions, be their graven image.

But there will be no synthesis of good and evil. There will be no marriage of heaven and hell. In fact, there will be The Great Divorce. If you get a chance, read C. S. Lewis’ book by the same name. As Lewis depicts, the choices we make take us down divergent pathways.  We either choose a path of good that becomes an even greater good as we continue to make good choices and stay on its narrow way or we choose a broad path that leads towards ever greater evil.

In the story you will read of the proud, the stubborn, the willful and the angry.  There are those who demand their rights.  There will be those whose feet hurt them as they walk on solid ground for the first time and there will also be the “bright solid people” who move about the “High Country” without effort.  And finally, there will be those who reject Joy and solid Reality to return to “grey town” on the same bus.

Universal salvation teaching reckons the ‘victim’, the ‘tormented’, as having power over God, as being able to hold God hostage and being able to force God’s hand to enact salvation from eternal punishment regardless of the choices made. This implication is mere sentimentality and nothing more. God gives each what they have desired with their free-will. I’ll quote Lewis from that same book:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

 

Now, enough of this talk. My pipe just went out.

It appears that redemption is already “kicking in”. The shirt you provided that boy is an act of redemption and re-creation. You gave new life to the shirt and to the boy, so it is also an act of resurrection. Resurrection is the hope of Christians. You will see Nicholas again. In the meantime, keep doing what you are doing.

What you are experiencing as you sit in that chair by window is what Paul wrote about in Romans. The entire creation, not just you and I and the Russians I mentioned, but “the entire of creation is groaning together and going through labor pains together, with groaning too deep for words. The Searcher of Hearts knows what the spirit is thinking, because the spirits pleads for God’s people according to God’s will.” God knows what is going on inside you by his spirit which indwells you. The spirit is pleading on your behalf so that God will work all things together for good. The Comforter is with you.

Rose will bring the gift I have for you. I hope you receive this letter before Christmas. I am spending Christmas Eve and Christmas day at church to receive the Eucharist. After church on Christmas Day I will be having dinner with a couple my age. Then I will go home and watch Alistair Sim in A Christmas Carol with my parrolet Henry. He’s good company.

Love,

Tom

 

Christmas Eve 2019

Tom,

I received your letter just today. Thank you! Still smoking that old pipe?

And thank you for the wonderful gift. It gave me a spark of joy. Rose says it is a copy of the Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. Isn’t this the same painting that hangs behind your desk?

I am sorry this will be a short email. I have a houseful right now. We’ll talk soon. Maybe you should stop smoking that pipe. You’re 82.

Merry Christmas Tom.

Love,

Agnus

 

January 2020

Dear Agnus,

I see in that painting Father Christmas and the greatest gifts being reconciliation and redemption.

I see myself, as I was a prodigal who returned to the father. The suffering caused by my waywardness to myself and to others, including a loss of dignity and relationship, was redemptive in that I saw myself as I was and in need of the father and his love to put things to rights. My Father in heaven suffered being un-fathered by me for a time but he never changed Who He was in my absence. He never said to me “do this and be that” and then I will accept you back. He did not become like the older brother with his strict moral order as the parable relates. Our relationship, not rules, was his priority.

I see Nicholas being comforted and back home. I see you beholding that scene and being filled with joy.

I will come out to see you in February. At 82 this will be my last trip. My age ‘kicked in’ a while ago, so my travel days will be over after this trip

If you’ll be asking me questions, I will have to bring my pipe.

Love,

Tom

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

Insider Knowledge

Maybe you’ve encountered me. I like to be noticed. I am that passing shadow and that clipped voice in a box that spooks the ghost hunters on their TV programs. I’m the cold presence they encounter. What did they expect? I have no molecules to bounce around inside of me to keep me warm. I love absolute zero and the limelight doesn’t affect me as does, you know, the searing light. I dwell in the dark recesses of the universe and come around to revel in the revolting. And, more importantly, to tell people what they want to hear. That is my specialty.

I work with psychics and with those who presume to hear from the dead. And with philosophers. I am the lifeline for their game show. And, what a game it is: humans ante up their souls so they can win esoteric knowledge. What a piece of work is man! Little wonder that Hamlet is one of my favorite plays.

Who could ask for more? Murder, revenge, a ghost, hemming and hawing soliloquys, a disloyal mother, friends with secret motives, suicide, poison, madness, carnage, and a morose and grieving Prince. You know Act One. Prince Hamlet’s friend Horatio, along with two sentries, is visited by a specter that resembles the late King Hamlet. Learning of the visitation from Horatio, Hamlet resolves to see it for himself and make his own judgement. He knows that my Master likes to deceive the grieving with familiar forms. When the ghost appears to Hamlet, he tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius. Hamlet must avenge his death. In the moment, Hamlet agrees to avenge his father. After being sworn to secrecy about all he has witnessed, Horatio says the encounter is unbelievably strange. Hamlet tells Horatio to welcome the strange as he would a stranger. How inclusive!

Then, reminded of his time studying in Wittenberg with Horatio, Hamlet tells Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, my friend, Than are dreamt of in our philosophy”. That’s where I come in. The play ends as it should – bodies everywhere. Let the good times Roll! Left to his own devices, man is a piece of work!

Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this. I communicate to the spiritualists and theorists what I know. It is easy. I’ve been around for a long time. I know things that have happened. I’ve heard what everyone else has heard. Someone dies and I can speak to medium about what I know about him or her. I can play dead. What fun! This knowledge works well with the ghost hunters. I toy with them. Ha-ha-ha! There have been many times when humans think that they have felt spiritual forces. But it is just a bunch of emf. But I’ll take credit for it. I like the attention.

Speaking of attention, I’m the one that pushes and scratches those who live with me. I infest house and lives …and ideologies. Some will sweep me out of their lives for a time but I come back with new tricks and new guises. I can take on many forms, or, I should say, personas. History has recorded my work.

Maybe you know me as “The end is what you want and the means is how you get it” Saul Alinsky or as “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime” Lavrenty Beria. Maybe you know me as the positive materialist who holds that all things, including consciousness and mental state, are the result of material interactions. I am quite involved in those material interactions. The pursuit of happiness, whether by idealism or material necessity, doesn’t happen without immaterial me.

Now, I don’t need to work with atheists. They are already on the right track. They have their reason and no need for the likes of meta-physical me. The conditions of their everyday existence are proof enough that there is no God. So, they resign themselves to the laws of nature and adapt to them and give way to those laws. They end up lonely and pounding their head against the wall. I don’t have to get physical with them. They do it to themselves.

The atheist cannot prove the beauty of a woman, yet, he will demand proof of the Antagonist’s existence from his minions and that is where I come in. How so, you ask? Alinsky said it best: “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.” Seeing the Antagonist’s minions foul up with my help, the atheist becomes all the surer that his or her descent into pure reason is where he will find answers. And, once he or she dons implacable autonomous reason (I’m thinking in Halloween terms) they won’t need to get involved with the gooey and merciful Antagonist. I’ve already been there and done that. Things didn’t work out in my favor. But you Atheists, hang with me and before you can snap your fingers three times, you will put on the Imago de Diabolus, the likeness of my High Master. “Will you win his favor?” you ask.

I may be cold-hearted but my Master, his disposition colder than Absolute Zero, warmly welcomes the proud self-assured atheist.

My Master knows that atheists cannot accept mysteries unless they are solved in a movie or at the end of a book, or solved before their very eyes. My Master knows that they refuse to hold in tension any thought which presents itself outside of cold logic. Because of their wonderful quality of unending skepticism, they revere solipsism, science and reason, and the readily explainable. My Master is their lifeline in this game. He explains everything right when they need it. No waiting. The Antagonist draws things out into mystery and keeps you on hold indefinitely.

Some of my best work is done with humanists and social scientists. I use Progressive ideology along with consensus and sentimentality to persuade them into thinking that humans are perfectible, that one day man will reach the pinnacle of human perfection because of their exalted efforts (and if only they were in charge). Their motto: Fortschritt, Fortschritt über alles! (nb: I am working on the chosen people as I pen this.)

The young and inexperienced are the best targets for, ahem, smoke and mirrors. They dream of happiness, regeneration, of utopia. Like moths to a flame, they gather around the prophets of secular humanism. They did so for Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. These heroes of the religion of Revolution offered the utopia of uniformity and universality. They delivered on their promises. Humans were uniformly and universally dealt with, just as I had hoped. Healthcare is my newest moth-gathering flame. Control healthcare and you control people. Another Alinsky saying.

And that is how I work the old – with offers of healthcare. But some of the old are already set in their Antagonistic ways. If they refuse my offers of help then I say ‘He that is not with me is against me’. I walk away and shake the dust off of my Ways and Means Handbook.

The Antagonist has many followers in name only. I call them FINOs. They are fine with a religion without evil. Ha-ha-ha! They even believe in universal salvation! I love it! These FINOs love the amorphous and homogeneity above all else. They are not much different than the Progressive humanists and social scientists. And though they congregate differently from them, the FINOs also believe that there are no limits to human perfectibility. Therefore, they do not oppose the forms of culture I offer.

Kudos to the humanists, the social scientists, the FINOs and the central planners who work to fulfill the mission statement of My Master: reduce humanity to a state of uniformity and universality – the brotherhood of man and all that. And that is why I sow seeds of discontent. I stir up the pot, so to speak. How better to create a unity of the disgruntled than to divide humans into “me, good and you, bad” groups. Again, Alinsky best described my ways with the unwilling and obstinate: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. And of course, I get them to see that difference means hierarchy and all hierarchy is oppression, especially the hierarchy of that realm of hideous and cruel light.

Lawlessness is the only proper response to hierarchy. So, I want you to banish all law-enforcement, judges, priest and pastors, et al. from existence and to unleash the gates of …prisons. You shall know me and my ways and you shall be free.

Of course, I cannot recommend the Antagonist to you. As the Master’s muse I can only sing the Master’s praises. But I do commend the fact that humans have wills and make choices. This makes my job doable. For with the right choices, one can reach the perfection I have planned for them.

Caveat. I don’t deal in consequences. I don’t have to. Humans let the chips fall where they may. They are inclined to do what they feel and to not pay attention to consequences. I am good with that. In any case, they will end up blaming others or society or the Antagonist for their problems. Ha-ha-ha! What fun!

I’m in my element when I create dilemmas – no escape dilemmas. The only solution being to beat one’s head against the wall or the revolver. Either solution will have you blaming the Antagonist and asking “Why am I here?” I’ll tell you why once you stop beating your head against the wall.

You are here to know the power to control others that is available to you. And, I am not just talking witchcraft and magic arts. You’d be interested to know that I am also talking social-economic-political power. And if you are hungry, I will offer you socialism and the brotherhood of man to feed you. If you fall down and break something, I will offer you universal healthcare. It pleases my Master to give you good things and …to remove the confusing things from your sight.

As a non-binary values adjuster, I alter signs and symbols and any of the inherited forms and distinctions associated with the Antagonist. I offer a new sacred ordering of things. One recent example.

Just last week a transgender cyclist won a woman’s cycling championship. And this was not the first time. Ha! The other women in the race whined of unfairness, saying that science was on their side and that men have a physical advantage over women. But science and reason have nothing to do with it. The ends, a new sacred order of things, justify the means – out-cycling your opponents. And what right do they have in reproaching the champion? None! The champion was right to call them out: “You have an irrational fear of trans women.” Ontology trumps anatomy!

“Deal in lies?” you ask. Of course, one should deal in lies. With lies you don’t cross a line. You move the line that someone else put there. With a lie you create a safe space for yourself. Very utilitarian. You can now do this online.

Social media is a Master-send. So, I try to claim every square inch of screen I can. For one thing, I get women to expose themselves on social-media. And why not. Social mores are oppressive, created by dead white men. And by now you know that self-image is a very important part of being on social media. It is also in my line of work. When you are not showing pictures of the food you are eating or pictures of your bikini-self, you will want to portray your ever-day respectable self as you call out others for their evil ways. Be prepared, though. Some on social-media will want to tear down your self-image. Be in their face to protect your self-image. Demand affirmation of yourself against all hearsay.

Enough about you. It is Halloween. I have to diddle some Ouija Boards and knock on some wood at seances. You know. The usual tricks and treats. “Give the people what they want” my Master says. So, I’m off. I must pick up my costume. Nothing ghoulishness. I will be going door-to-door as an aborted fetus.

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

Sundays with Dad

 

As I watch the U.S. Open Championship rounds at Pebble Beach, Calif. I can’t help but think of Sundays with dad. After a delicious home-cooked meal prepared by my mother, I would find dad on the couch watching golf. He wasn’t a golfer, but he must have found watching golf relaxing after a week of working, sometimes at two jobs. I would sit with him a bit trying to understand his interest in the game but after a short while my restive teenage nature would have me ask for the car keys.

Now, as I watch the U.S. Open I wish dad were sitting next to me. I can only envisage dad in my spirit – he went to be with the Lord a few years ago. What I see in my mind’s eye is dad watching the peaceful almost monotonous game of golf and him listening to the whispering monotone commentators while shaking his knee furiously. He was restless too.

Often on Sundays, dad and mom would have guests over for Sunday dinner after church. Those invited included professors from Trinity Divinity School, missionaries from Africa, Bolivia, New Guinea, Japan, and other countries, as well as, church members. Dad would converse with them about the world they cared about. I sat and listened to learn about the world from his conversations. He would joke and kid his friends and also prayed for those who were hurting. Hospitality was characteristic of both mom and dad, as was giving.

Dad was a strong proponent of the tithe. And he not only gave of his hard-earned money on Sundays but also of his time to support the kingdom of God. He taught classes, preparing for them on Saturdays. He was chairman of the church and at one point became a village trustee and, later, mayor of our town. And he prepared meals during the week.

Dad would cook supper and give my mom, who also worked, some time out of the kitchen. Of those many meals, he prepared cream chip beef with peas on toast (“Nooo! Not again!) and sometimes liver and onions (my favorite). On Saturday mornings dad would prepare pancakes as my mon slept in. He would call us to grab a plate as we watched the Saturday morning fare: Keystone Kops, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and the Three Stooges.

Another highlight of my Sunday memories of dad is his eating red-dyed pistachios as he watched golf. His fingers and mouth would be covered with the red dye. Guess what I got dad on Father’s Day.

I couldn’t have asked for a better dad. He could have asked for a better child, though. I was often a nuisance, like the time I stepped in the wet cement he just poured and let to set. And, I was a teenager in the sixties, so mischief was to be had regardless of Scriptural warnings (Proverbs read after evening meals) and dad’s Christ-like example. At times, I would also become an embarrassment to him, a respected church and civic leader. Yet, I received no reproach from my dad. Though his father was a something of a gruff truck driver who would angrily lash out at his kids after several drinks, that was not my father’s way. One of his dad’s Reform Church sayings was “everything done decently and in order.” Disorderly children were to be handled and reproached. Those words and their negative application had become embedded into my dad. But my dad would not use them as a reproach but as a quip to signify, at least in my mind, that he had moved on from his father’s ways. He could handle some disorder. Mine in fact. Dad, as grace personified, waited patiently for me to change my ways.

Perhaps for dad, watching the slow-paced and peaceful game of golf took the edge off of some of my painfully jarring ways. Golf is, after all, a game played “decently and in order”. And perhaps dad shaking his knee as I sat with him on Sundays was his way of dealing with my ups and downs. Grace meted out?

The spirit of my father and his amazing grace sit with me today as I watch the U.S. Open – golf. (And, I did change my ways!)

Dad & mom

 

 

Are You Witnesses of All This?

 

Over the last several posts I’ve written about philosophers (Epicurus in particular and Protagoras) and philosophies (Epicureanism and Stoicism). Taken together they state, among other things I described earlier, that this life is all there is. There would be no hereafter in that way of thinking. During the first century the Apostle Paul, the “the apostle of the Gentiles”, encountered those worldviews on the streets where he sold his tents and in the early churches where he taught.

Writing to those in the Corinthian church whose Gentile members denied a resurrection of the dead, Paul responded in a rather taunting manner to their philosophical take on death as final. The gospel he proclaimed – Jesus is Lord, forgiveness of sins, new creation, the kingdom of God on earth has been launched – all hinged on the resurrection of Jesus.

And if the Messiah wasn’t raised, your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins. 1 Cor. 15:7

After addressing and closing the dead are raised issue with an eye witness defense (1 Cor. 15: 3-8), Paul responds to the heart of the Corinthian objection to resurrection: the nature of future bodies. He mocks their materialist objections using an analogy from nature:

But someone is now going to say, “How are the dead raised? What sort of body will they have when they come back? Stupid! What you sow doesn’t come back to life unless it dies. 1 Cor. 15: 35

No doubt, Paul also heard that Jesus responded in a similar fashion when he rebuked the Sadducees who denied the resurrection (as recorded in Luke 20:38 and below, in Mark 12:

“Where you are going wrong,” replied Jesus, “is that you don’t know the scriptures, or God’s power. When people rise from the dead, they don’t marry, nor do people give them in marriage. They are like angels in heaven.

However, to show that the dead are indeed raised, surely you’ve read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, what God says to Moses? ‘I am Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God’? He isn’t the God of the dead, but of the living. You are completely mistaken.”

In the same letter (1 Cor.15:19), agitated Paul, in talking about people’s motivations in light of their position on the resurrection, recommends Epicurean self-pity if the dead are not raised.

If it’s only in this present life that we have hope in the Messiah, we are the most pitiable members of the human race.

He later quotes a popular Epicurean saying that embraces self-pity and self-indulgence in light off…

…If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,

for tomorrow we die.”

1 Cor. 15:32

What was Paul’s background that offered him insight into Greek philosophies? We learn from Acts 21: 37 -39 as he defends himself against highly agitated Jews who clamored for his arrest.  He is brought before a Roman tribune:

“Am I allowed to say something to you??” he asked.

“Well!” replied the tribune. “So you know some Greek, do you? Aren’t you the Egyptian who raised a revolt some while back and led those four thousand ‘assassins’ into the desert?”

“Actually, replied Paul. “I am a Jew! I am from Tarsus in Cilica. That’s not an insignificant place to be a citizen of. Please let me speak to the people.”

Inferring his Roman citizenship, Paul goes on to defend his Jewish background in the face of his Jewish accusers:

“I am a Jew, he continued, “and born in Tarsus in Cilicia. I received my education here in this city, and I studied at the feet of Gamaliel. I was trained in the strictest interpretations of our ancestral laws and became zealous for God, just as all of you today.”

Paul had significant first-hand knowledge of Greek, Roman and Jewish worldviews. Paul was more than able to respond to the Epicurean context of the Gentiles. Paul was more than able to present the gospel in the context of the Jewish worldview, a worldview of monotheism, the Temple, eschatology and …resurrection.

The narrative of the resurrection and an eschatology of the age to come took on great import during the Second Temple Judaism. Other than the words of Moses and some metaphorical allusions to resurrection by Isaiah (Isaiah 26:19) and Ezekiel (37), there isn’t mention of the resurrection in the Old Testament. Those allusions were applied during the Babylonian exile. They refer to the restoration of Israel as a nation and the reoccurring theme of exodus from bondage. The scribe Daniel is the first to mention the resurrection in non-metaphorical terms when he describes the “wise”, the Jewish resistance to Antiochus, not dying in vain (Daniel 11).

It was during the intertestamental period that scribes began writing about the resurrection of the dead, among many other topics of concern during late Second Temple Judaism. The Qumran community kept these writings in clay jars within caves in case the community was taken out by the Romans.

The Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ time knew these writings, e.g., The Epistle of Enoch and 2 Maccabees. The disciples knew them. Paul knew them. The writings were talked about in the synagogues and on the streets. These writings offered a Messianic hope for the coming day when God would put things right. In the meantime, they stoked courage against the looming threat of Roman authority. It is very likely that Mary and Martha would have known about these writing as well. It appears that Martha had an understanding of them when she confronts Jesus after her brother Lazarus dies.

When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived, she went to meet him. Mary, meanwhile stayed sitting at home.

“Master,” said Martha to Jesus, “if only you’d been here! Then my brother wouldn’t have died! But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him for.”

“Your brother will rise again,” replied Jesus.

“I know he will rise on the last day.”

(Notice the role reversals from the previous Mary and Martha encounter with Jesus in their home? Martha, the fussbudget homebody, is now interested to hear what Jesus has to say. She goes to meet him. Mary, who doted on Jesus at his feet, stays at home where she grieves and perhaps sulks that Jesus wasn’t there for her brother. She was given another chance at Jesus’ feet.)

Jesus responded to Martha.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” replied Jesus. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. And anyone who lives and believes in me will never, ever die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, master,” she said. “This is what I’ve come to believe: that you are the Messiah, the son of God, the one who was to come into the world.”

Jesus responded to Martha’s eschatological understanding with, in effect, “I am revising your understanding with personal present tense knowledge of me”. Jesus then asks for Mary. Proximity to Jesus matters and not only for Mary and Martha’s sake but also for Jesus’ sake. He wants to see for himself the loss, the grief and the pain we feel. He would carry our griefs and sorrows to the cross and then remove the sting of death with his (and then our) resurrection.

When Mary came to where Jesus was, she saw him and fell down at his feet.

“Master!” she said, “If only you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”

When Jesus saw her crying, and the Judeans who had come with her crying, he was deeply stirred in his spirit, and very troubled…”

Mary and Martha witnessed the resurrection of their brother Lazarus. The three of them would learn of and perhaps be among the over five-hundred brothers and sisters who saw Jesus alive after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15: 5). All of them were witnesses of the things that came to pass. And what came to pass was not a doctrine or a philosophy or an apparition – a ghost. It was bodily resurrection.

No mere manmade philosophy, ancient or otherwise, could ever revive the dead or comfort the living in their loss with “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” No amount of pleasure reduces the pain we feel. No amount of materialism and its cheerleading proponent Progressivism – a political pandering to self-pity – will provide hope for today. Those philosophical positions are about nursing wounds. Those philosophical positions are ephemera compared to the reality of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus and the new life offered to those who believe.

Only the Resurrection and the Life can reverse the downward spiral of mankind and provide hope that doesn’t pass away with a meal. Live in the present tense Resurrection and Life as Mary and Martha and hundreds of early followers of Jesus did.

Are you witnesses of all this? Of the resurrection? Or, are you witnesses of the Easter bunny? I think that’s what Paul had in mind when he mocked the Corinthians.

Empty tomb

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences were the “gospel” or good news which the Christians brought: what we call the “gospels,” the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted. The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it. Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection.

Miracles, C.S. Lewis

Palm Sunday and the Problem of Evil

 

Just a few centuries before the first Palm Sunday, Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) promoted to his followers the notions of another ancient Greek philosopher, Demetrius (c. 460 – c. 370 B.C.). Demetrius’ had proposed the theory of Atomism to account for nature.

The theory in brief: random, unguided ‘atoms’ (as he called them) smash into each other, thereby creating the world and life as we know it. Such a hypothesis turned philosophy by Epicurus gave Epicurus the ‘means’ to do away with a personally involved god (and human accountability to a god). He went on to tweak Demetrius’ theory. He said that atoms do not always go in straight lives but can “swerve”. As such, his philosophy was then able to avoid atomism’s inherent determinism and to allow for man’s free will.

Epicurus also taught that nothing should be believed, except for that which was tested through direct observation and logical deduction – believed via the sensate and reason. He believed that the ‘gods’ were off angry somewhere upstairs. The gods were distant and uninvolved and therefore unrelated to ‘thinking’ and ‘sensing’ man’s life. Man had to make do with the atoms he had been dealt.

“What was most important in Epicurus’ philosophy of nature was the overall conviction that our life on this earth comes with no strings attached; that there is no Maker whose puppets we are; that there is no script for us to follow and be constrained by; that it is up to us to discover the real constraints which our own nature imposes on us.” ― Epicurus, The Epicurus Reader

Since, per Epicurus’s teaching, “that there is no Maker whose puppets we are“, the problem of evil paradox he posited augmented this teaching:

“The gods can either take away evil from the world and will not, or, being willing to do so cannot; or they neither can nor will, or lastly, they are able and willing. If they have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not omnipotent. If they can but will not, then they are not benevolent. If they are neither able nor willing, they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent. Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, why does it exist?” ― Epicurus


 

The Epicurean paradox is answered with another paradox: What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? Psalm 8:4

There was nothing ambiguous or theoretical or abstract about the appearance of Son of man. There was direct observation by his followers. In the fullness of time, including Epicurean times, the Lord of the universe put on human flesh – dust fashioned from the created elements including about 18% carbon – to deal with the problem of evil. Philosophers, before and after Epicurus, pronounced judgement on God for all the evil in the world. Jesus entered flesh and blood, space and time, to pronounce judgement on evil. He did so without equivocation. Jesus did not succumb to the Satan’s temptations, Demons were cast out. Hypocrites were denounced and death itself was overturned. Jesus suffered the full force of evil on the cross, an act of redemption from evil’s ransom.

The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven. – George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce

The King of Glory wept over Jerusalem and his people who so often rejected their reveal-to-the-world-the-one-true-God vocation. Palm Sunday. The King of Glory, emptied of his glory, rides a donkey into Jerusalem to meet evil head on and to put the world right. The “Epicurean Paradox” would be addressed and soundly answered. It was not the dénouement of evil.

Jesus is everything you need to know about God and the problem of evil. Let the King of Glory come into your life to deal with the problem of evil.

 

‘Tis the Season to Celebrate Your Findings

 

Throughout the gospel accounts there are people who are finding things. Some of the things found were totally unexpected. And some things were lost and then found. Jesus lets us know that there are things meant to be found. We also learn from him that heaven is tuned into the findings. Joyous celebration all around is the natural response.

Early on we read of shepherds who find “Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a feeding trough.” (Luke 2:16) And later, of wise men who find Mary and the child and of King Herod who finds out about their finding out.

We hear of a man who finds a treasure hidden in a field and a trader who finds a spectacularly valuable pearl and of fishermen who find a bountiful fishing spot. (Matt 13:44-50). With these parables Jesus relates the discovery of the mysterious kingdom of God.

We learn of Jesus finding faith in a Roman Centurion (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)

In John’s gospel we read of cascading finds:

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee, where he found Philip.

“Follow me,” he said to him.

Philip came from Bethsaida, the town Peter and Andrew hailed from. Philip found Nathanael.

“We’ve found him!” “The one Moses wrote about in the law!” And the prophets, too! We’ve found him! Its Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth!”

At the end of Luke’s gospel, we read a report of a most excellent find that isn’t there:

…some of the women have astonished us. They went to the tomb very early this morning, and didn’t find his body. They came back saying they’d seen a vision of angels, who said he is alive. Some of the folk with us went off to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see him.

The gospel of Luke chapter 15 is the party chapter. Each of the three lost and found parables relate how what has been lost and then found triggers a reason to celebrate: a lost sheep is found; a lost coin is found; a lost son is found on the horizon. Let’s look at the second parable.

“Or supposing a woman has ten drachmas and loses one of them. What will she do? Why, she’ll light a lamp, and sweep the house, and hunt carefully until she finds it! And when she finds it she’ll call her friends and neighbors in. ‘Come and have a party!’ she’ll say: celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost coin!”

Well, let me tell you: that’s how God’s angels feel when a single sinner repents.”

-Jesus in Luke 15:8-10

As we read this parable, we typically focus on the end result: the sinner’s repentance and heaven’s joy at the sinner’s response. Now take a look at the effort involved in restoring what was lost before the celebration takes place.

Notice that the woman turns on the light to see into the corners. She cleans her house and clears out the clutter. She makes every effort to reclaim what she lost. She didn’t have much to begin with (ten drachmas) and now a portion of it is lost (15 cents).

Here is what I think the parable also emphasizes: we come to a point in our lives when we realize that we have lost something of great value – our identity, the image of God, a piece of our soul. We can’t go on without it. We held on to so little for so long. So, we shed direct light on the situation. We remove all of the extraneous stuff in the way. We search like Oak Island treasure hunters burrowing deep into the dark places of our being. We make every effort to find what we lost.

Success! We find what we’ve lost in a dark corner. It was covered with dust and dirt and dog hair. We rejoice and tell others using the language of joy: “I have found it!” “I have found it!”

Remember the inside of Scrooge’s house via the 1951 black and white movie version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol ? It is grey and gloomy and tomb-like. It is lifeless and foreboding. Furniture is covered with tarps and dust covers the tarps. Scrooge seems buried alive in the house. A candle is used to move about his dark domain but it is not used to look for what he lost. That illumination comes from four night time specters.

Now, I imagine that past, present and future scenarios flash before the eyes of anyone who has lost something of value. I imagine that for the woman in the parable. In Scrooge’s account those scenarios are personified by three ghosts who are involved in the Scrooge’s rescue operation after the ghost of Marley gives account of his own final hellish state. The ghosts illuminate Scrooge’s life: his losses, his dealing with losses, his hard heart, his isolation, and his future state. All done right where he sleeps.

The scenarios the trinity of spirits impose on Scrooge help him to see what was lost– himself–in a house full of shrouded past.

Scrooge and the woman in the lost coin parable reclaim what was lost where they lived. They both had to look and look hard for what they had lost, Scrooge in his past present and future and the woman in her dwelling place. And when they find what they’ve lost they throw open the shutters, they go out into the streets, and they let the world know.

Let me entwine this post with a scarlet ribbon…

For the prodigal, for the repentant, there is rejoicing and a celebration. They had found themselves wanting. They had found what they lost – the reason to live. When it happened the Search Party was delighted.

“The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which is lost” …and when you find him…

You love him, even though you’ve never seen him. And even though you’ve never seen him, you believe in him, and celebrate with a glorious joy that goes beyond words can say, since you are receiving the proper goal of your faith – namely, the rescue of your lives. 1 Peter 1:8-9

 “I found it!” is the language of joy. And glorious joy is the spirit of Christmas.

When All is Not Bright

 

… a personal reflection

Tampa (AFP) – Life expectancy in the United States dropped yet again as drug overdose deaths continued to climb — taking more than 70,000 lives in 2017 — and suicides rose, a US government report said Thursday.

The drug overdose rate rose 9.6 percent compared to 2016, while suicides climbed 3.7 percent, said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics.

-from Kerry SHERIDAN’s article US life expectancy drops again as overdoses climb

 

As confusion and losses stack up in a person’s life many, now more than ever, begin to seek a way out of their humanness wherein the pain is acutely felt. They will take drugs and medicate in hopes of stopping the screaming in their heads. It is the pain that tells us that we are alive and human.

I can relate. At one point in my life years ago I carried with me the same hurt locker. I had experienced losses caused by my own doing and losses beyond my control. Having been married and divorced, I then lost closeness with my children and years of my life. I lost a son in a tragic car accident. I lost a job when the company I was working for no longer had orders coming in. A truck rear-ended my car as I was on my way to a new job. I received a herniated disc in my neck and a concussion and many painful nerve-affected nights and tons of medical bills. That block of time was crushing. It was also confusing.

Trying to sort out the events, trying to make sense while inside the hurt locker, is well nigh impossible. I tried to mitigate the pain through medication, but the pains in my body and in my heart were overwhelming. There was screaming in my head that would not stop. Couple that pain with the need to continue making ends meet and trying to keep your head above water is…well-nigh impossible. And so, Impossible was the name on my hurt locker. I desperately wanted to remove myself from the locker and go to a place where I didn’t have to think anymore. When you are crying at your desk you know that something had to give. But it wasn’t going to be me. It had to be despair’s grip.

I came to the realization out of my relationship with the Lord that all of my presuppositions where being up ended. The first one to go was that I believed I was strong and could handle whatever came my way. In that dark hour I understood that the Lord had broken into my self-composed life and was making all things new. This all happened the weekend of Easter. And though I had heard the words of Easter proclamations all of my life, I finally understood that the Lord’s resurrection was the means for me to be resurrected to new life here and now. Nothing was impossible. The stone in front of the hurt locker had been removed. I was freed to be human once again. What I had endured became “I do exist, by the grace of God”.

 

It is easy for a Christian, I believe, to think that any bad thing that happens to them is a result of judgment for past sins. With all of the talk of heaven and hell in many churches it is easy to frame events in terms of reward or punishment, in almost Pavlovian ways. And, onlooking Christians are eager to point that out. Read the oldest book of Scripture, Job.

To be sure there are ways in which we dehumanize ourselves and come to believe that there can be no resurrection day and if it happened it would look like today. We live in a culture of dehumanization: abortion, drugs, ‘free’ sex, rife consumerism, and words, rites and traditions emptied of meaning. Christian holidays are paganized. Individual rights that are demanded cut people off from a community of shared human values. When body parts and their redaction become cause célèbre you know the culture is in trouble. When any thought of joy is replaced by the fatuous roose of commercialized store-bought happiness, then you know you are in trouble.

One can drink their reason for life to death. One can sit in isolation and loneliness on the internet arguing points of nihilistic bent. Social media is anything but social. Those who pattern their life after media come up empty and as impersonal as the data bytes that transfer the images to their screen.

To be sure, there are consequences that are derived from one’s sinful behavior. And, that is good to know. One needs to bump up against the wall of one’s own doing to know that there is cause and effect, a principle that even rationalists and atheists embrace.

To finally be sure, we must frame our understanding with redemption. That was the revelation that occurred to me. Resurrection and redemption. The impossible is beyond me and is only doable by the Son of Man Who loved me and gave himself for me.

 

The intent of this post is not to put a happy face on any one’s suffering or losses or pain. You do not see the sunny side of life inside the hurt locker. Rather, this post has been written to provide hope. And it is hope which brings about true-life expectancy – abundant life in this age and the age to come. Hope is born of resurrection and continues with redemption. Suicide says” All is lost. There is no hope if I can’t produce it with within myself”.  You can’t.  Hope is beyond you.

Here is hope: you are known by God. Consider that the announcement of the birth of the Son of Man was to lowly shepherds tending sheep in a field. The announcement they received wasn’t “We bring you tidings of great minimum wage!” No, the angelic message was…

And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in the highest,

    And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Some life-saving suggestions. When I was in high school, I walked many nights through the neighborhoods after supper with my family. I doubt that my siblings knew this. I walked because I needed to resolve all the inputs into my life: my personhood, and the mental, emotional and social goings on around me, including all that the sixties dropped on me, including the Vietnam war. I walked to find resolve to go on.

Some of us have pets. I currently have Henry, my parrolet, to keep me company. I am considering adding finches to my home. I relate to birds.  I placed a bird feeder on my patio. I’ve noticed that birds are flighty when they sense imminent danger but return when they feel safe. Birds remind me of life in the moment. They are fragile beings. They, like me, have open mouths to feed and so they return to the one who feeds them.  I had to return to the One who feeds me daily, in the moment.

 

We are right to cry “Lord have mercy!” And, we also right to cry “I must have mercy on myself and not do those things which bring judgment on me by their very nature! I have sinned, O God, have mercy upon me a sinner!”

 

A prayer:

Father of all mercy, have mercy on me. I am distressed. My heart is like wax. It melts before every fear. I am depressed. I am confused. I am not able to exist except at your pleasure. I am at the bottom of my life. Restore to me humanness. Return to me with Thy salvation. I’ve heard that my Redeemer lives. Redeem my life from destruction. Redeem me from all my transgressions. Restore my soul. Amen.

 

Leech or Lizard?

 

 When you think of Thanksgiving you of think family, food and football. Let me suggest a fourth focus: creature features.

 

The Book of Proverbs, found in the wisdom literature of the Bible, offers insight into the human condition. From my youth on I have asked God for wisdom, knowledge and a good understanding. I have not always used the wisdom, knowledge and understanding given me. Much of my younger life can attest to Proverb’s description of fools and folly.

Proverbs contrasts fools and folly with those who gain wisdom and avoid imprudence. Proverbs gives us examples of what one should not be like and what one should be like. Leeches and lizards are among the examples. Let’s start with leeches.

The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry. Prov. 3:15 

How would you characterize a leech? The picture that first comes to mind is that of a bloodsucker that extracts what it wants and then goes on to the next source to extract again. Personified as above, do you see them as never satisfied? As never contented? As always craving more?  Are they greedy and covetous? Are they insatiable in their appetite? Do they see themselves as deserving and therefore warranted in entering your space and presenting their unending demands? What about another space intruder, the lizard?

a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces. Prov. 30:28

Lizards, the proverb says, can be easily controlled but they show up in highly respectable places, places like lavish Caribbean hotels. Lizards like to come indoors for a meal. They are attracted by an insect infestation. Due to their small size, tiny gaps or cracks around doors and windows can be enough for geckos to let themselves in. Some owners may allow a few innocuous lizards to come and take care of the greater insect problem. And, insects are not as ‘cute’ as Geckos. The GEICO commercials invite us to let them into our lives to solve insurance problems.

The creeping and crawling Lizards can be held in check but they show up anyway in king’s palaces looking for insects hiding in dark places and likely feasting on the crumbs dropped from the royal table.

The Gospels provide with us with human examples of these creature’s features:

A recent review of a first century survey (Luke 17) found that nine out ten lepers do not give thanks. Apparently, nine lepers saw Jesus, latched on to his presence and demanded ‘Give! Give! And one leper, the out of place Samaritan, saw Jesus, creeped up slowly and waited for the crumbs to fall from the Master’s table. When Jesus healed all ten of the lepers, the nine leeches went on their way feeling they got what they deserved. But the once dried, scaling, atrophic, depigmented-skinned lizard returned and gave thanks for being allowed into the royal court and receiving a new skin on life.

As we learned, one can live their life as a leech: show up, latch on, cry ‘Give! Give!’, take and feel deserving and ungrateful. Or, one can live life as the lowly out of place lizard who shows up in our King’s palace looking for the means to go on.  The latter provides us with a prime example of grace – that easily controlled lowly lizards like us are even allowed a notice and a few bread crumbs that fall from the King’s table. Thanks be to God.

 

The Summing Junction

 

We first meet Saul of Tarsus in Dr. Luke’s historical account The Acts of the Apostles.

 

But they yelled at [Stephen] at the tops of their voices, blocked their ears, and made a concerted dash at him. They bundled him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses laid their cloaks down at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Now Saul was giving his consent to Stephen’s death.

That very day a great persecution was started against the church in Jerusalem…

-Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7 vs. 58 and chapter 8 vs.1.

 

The young man named Saul, born sometime 9-15 years after the birth of Jesus, lived in a first century milieu of Jewish tradition and Torah, of covenants and commemorating, of prayers and psalms and, of Sabbaths and synagogues. In such an environment Saul learned early on that it was God’s people against the goyim – the rest of the world (e.g., David vs. Goliath).

The Jews looked for and prepared themselves for the return of the Messiah who would save his people from world rulers – Rome in the immediate- and bring justice and restore God’s Temple presence among his people. Zealous for God and Torah, the Jews of Saul’s day were resolute in their desire to see this happen. Some of the zealous were “using force against force” zealous, recalling the zealous acts of Judas Maccabeus against the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes 200 years before. Jewish revolutionaries wanted to force change against Roman rule. Others, like Saul, sought to live pious lives in expectation of the salvation to come. They kept their simmering violent zealousness under lid until such time as needed.

Saul studied the Torah, every jot and tittle, under the Rabbi Gamaliel. Politically, Gamaliel was not eager to push an agenda. The Rabbi was more “live and let live” towards Rome. Young Saul was more how can one go on living like this when one knows these things?

We recognize Saul’s Rabbinic training from his letters written to new churches. As mentioned above, we first meet Saul of Tarsus at the onset of persecution of the truly revolutionary – the Christian. I find it interesting to wonder about what we don’t know about Saul in those times.

Before the stoning, did Saul hear Stephen speak as he stood before the religious council? (Acts 7) Did he hear Stephen recount Israel’s history as the people of God and God’s dealing with them, a stiff-necked people? Did Saul sneer when he heard those words? Did Saul hear Stephen proclaim, “Look! I can see the heaven opened, and the son of man standing at God’s right hand!” Did Saul gnash his teeth at such a claim? Was Saul one of the men who dragged Stephen out the door to the stone pit? We know from Dr. Luke’s account that Saul was the moral vestment check at the scene of Stephen’s stoning.

Where was Saul when Jesus was crucified? I would have little doubt that Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, had heard about the sky darkening and about the Temple curtain being rent in two. Both ominous events were sure to alarm any pious Jew.

Where was Saul when Jesus was resurrected? I have no doubt that Saul had heard the reports from all quarters of Jerusalem. This news must have been unsettling for someone who knew the Law and the Prophets and wasn’t able to see such a scenario depicted in the Torah. Even more unsettling, Jesus declared himself equal with God and Stephen claimed he saw Jesus as equal with God, standing at God’s right hand!

And, where was Saul on the day of Pentecost when God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven heard Galileans speaking words from the prophet Joel in their native tongue? (Acts 2) Such things do not go unnoticed by Rabbis.

From Acts, we know where Saul was on the day he encountered Jesus. Paul was riding a donkey on his way to Damascus. He was sent to silence the Followers of the Way forever. No Messiah, he was taught, would be crucified, die and rise again! And, certainly God would not be crucified, die and rise again!

I would consider it very likely that Saul, with a lot of time on his hands riding at 3.5 mph, thought about the events in Jerusalem. He would recall Jesus entering the city on a donkey. He would recall Jesus overturning the money-changers tables in the Temple yard and calling the Temple his Father’s house.

I ‘m sure with Saul’s’ connections that he had heard about Jesus standing before Pilate. And, about the Pharisee-swayed crowd trying to influence Pilate. Jesus had been given a thumb down by many of the same Palm Sunday crowd who waved Palm branches days before. Barabbas, a revolutionary and murderer, was given a thumb up. Jesus would be sentenced in his place. Jesus is crucified. Revolution squashed. But suddenly, there was news of the buried Jesus now walking the streets.

It is also very likely that Saul was also praying and meditating on scripture, perhaps on the visions of the prophet Ezekiel. Almost certainly Saul meditated on the Temple and the return of God’s presence to Israel. Like all “zealous” Jews, Saul was very much tuned into the Temple prophecies and eschatology. Could he have also been meditating on 2 Kings (vs. 11)? 

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.

For Saul the Damascus road event wasn’t a conversion experience as Evangelicals would describe it today. And, it wasn’t a turn from Judaism towards Christianity or from the Law towards love. Rather, it was a game-changing, name-changing encounter with a new reality input into his life. I would call this encounter and its result “a summing junction”. Saul met the living Lord on the road that day and came out of that encounter a new creation.

Saul’s zeal for God, Torah and the Temple was ‘summed up’ with the resurrected Jesus. Saul’s hopes for a Messiah to return and bring change was summed up in Jesus. Saul’s prayers for the salvation of the Lord were summed up in Jesus. The sum of charges God could bring against Paul, the Persecutor, were summed against the work of the cross. Paul came out forgiven. His record, once scarlet, was now white as snow.

 This is one of many summing junctions that are recorded in Scripture. As I read again Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road I thought of Jacob. Jacob at one time was going in the opposite direction from his father’s God with his life and plans. At the river Jabbok Jacob encounters the angel of the Lord and Jacob puts up resistance. Jacob wrestles with the angel. In the morning the sum of his encounter is a blessing.

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Here’s what happened to Saul when he encountered a greater resistance, as told to King Agrippa:

“While I was busy on this work [of persecution],” Paul continued, “I was traveling to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests. Around midday, while I was on the road, O King, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the light of the sun, and shining all around me and my companions on the road. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice speaking to me in Aramaic.

“’Saul, Saul,’ he said, ‘why are you persecuting me? It’s hard for you this kicking against the goads.’

“’Who are you, Lord? I said.

“’I am Jesus,’ said the Lord, ‘and you are persecuting me. But get up and stand on your feet. I’m going to tell you why I have appeared to you. I am going to establish you as a servant, as a witness both of the things you have already seen and of the occasions I will appear to you in the future. I will rescue you from the people, and from the nations to whom I am going to send you so that you can open their eyes to enable to turn from darkness to light, and from power of the satan to God –so that they can have forgiveness of sins, and an inheritance among those who are made holy by their faith in me.’” (Acts 26)

After each summing junction encounter with the Lord, whether Jacob’s or Saul’s, lives were forever changed. Jacob is given a new name: Israel. Saul is renamed Paul.

I wonder. Does the summing junction encounter happen at the point of a person’s most resistance to God?

Paul of earth was ‘summed’ with Jesus of heaven so that the riches of God’s love and grace would be declared to all of his creation, which meant beyond the Jews. Now, instead of avoiding the Gentiles and being at odds with them Paul was sent to minister to them.

In the king, and through his blood, we have deliverance—that is, our sins have been forgiven—through the wealth of his grace which he lavished on us. Yes, with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the secret of his purpose, just as he wanted it to be and set it forward in him as a blueprint for when the time was ripe. His plan was to sum up the whole cosmos in the king—yes, everything in heaven and on earth, in him.  The Apostle Paul, to the Ephesian churches, 1: 7-10

The cross is the ultimate summing junction. The Holy One of God took upon himself all of the world’s use of force against him and all of the powers of darkness. The outcome became multifaceted: Jesus gave us a new definition of power- dying to self; Jesus claimed victory over evil, Jesus’ resurrection claimed victory over death; there is a turning from darkness to light; we are forgiven our sins and are now able to forgive others. And, the Divine presence now fills temples of His creation.

While we are walking around on resurrection ground, we, like Paul, are to be witnesses of our own “summing junction”, both of the things we have already seen and of the occasions when Jesus will appear to us in the future. With a new name comes a new vocation.

 

~~~

A summing junction symbol: