When We All Get to (New) Heaven (and New Earth)

 

Just the other day I saw this picture, a billboard remembrance of Billy Graham, posted in a Tweet.

“Gone home” brought back memories of the spurious teaching and preaching I have been under for many years regarding the end of one’s life. If we say “home is where the heart is” then yes, Billy Graham went home. If we say Heaven is our final destination, as I have heard so often in sermons and songs then no, Billy Graham did not go home.

Am I being picayune? I will tell you why I do not think so. Like with the constant preaching of “ministry, ministry, ministry”, so much of my life in attendance in a Bible church setting has been under the preaching and teaching that someday we will all be taken up and away from this ‘God-forsaken’ mess. We will either be ‘raptured’ or die. Either way, as the sermon goes, we will be taken up to our final resting place in heaven. As far as I am concerned that preaching is dead wrong for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the “rapture” is a fantasy imposed onto Scripture. We should see the Scripture in the context it was written and not add fantasy notions to it. The Apostle Paul, by the Holy Spirit, gave us the imagery of Christ returning in power. In 1 Thessalonians 4.15-16 the Apostle “Paul is casting a vision of Christ’s return wrapped in political overturns (he actually does this a lot!)”. There will be no “rapture”. “The Late Great Planet Earth” and the “Left Behind” series of ‘end times’ books are also fantasies imposed on Scripture. These books are not worth your time.

Second, when we die we do go to heaven – the place where Jesus is. And where Jesus goes, we go too. He will be returning to the worlds that are created for him.

You see, “heaven” is just a way station, an intermediate stopping place. Heaven can be thought of as a station set between principal stations on a line of travel. Think railroad. Heaven is not our final destination. Heaven is a way station along the way.

As such, heaven is not a retirement community, as has been implied by so much preaching and teaching and by popular songs and hymnody. I remember singing “This world is not my home I’m just a passing through” and wondering, “Is that all there is? If we’re just passing through what was the point of all this? Is heaven some hyper-imaginary place where I put my feet up after a life of work? There are many more escapist songs just like “This World…”.

I remember singing “When we all get to heaven…” and “I’ll fly away” and “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there”.

 

Now, why would God create a new heaven and a new earth if “heaven” was your final destination?

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, from God, prepared like a bride dressed up for her husband. I heard a voice from the throne, and this is what it said: “Look! God has come to dwell with humans! He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or weeping or pain anymore, since the fist things have passed away.

The one who sat on the throne said, “Look, I am making all things new….” Revelation 21: 1-5

Compare Genesis 1 and 2 and Revelation 21 and 22. Creation was meant to be a place where God dwells with his creation. Creation is the temple designed by God where He is to dwell among his people. Consider the Garden of Eden, Consider the tabernacle, the Temple, and now the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us who are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Consider the new heavens and new earth where God dwells with his people. The work of Jesus on the cross is a work of creation’s redemption, of restoring Genesis in Revelation. The life of Jesus and his death on the cross is for the reunification of heaven and earth. You and I, after passing through the way station of heaven will return and take up roles in the new created order.

Jesus, in fact, will be returning with Billy and all those who have gone on before. Jesus is not giving up on his creation. Jesus will be returning to put things right and he will use us to do so, since when we see him we will become like him. In the context of current church life, Paul writes:

“Don’t you know that God’s people will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you really incompetent to try smaller matters? Don’t you know that we shall be judging angels?” 1 Cor. 6:3

The reason I write this post is to get instill the reader with spiritual momentum that will push one past the grave and past the “final resting place” thinking and towards the dynamic of the Kingdom of God on earth. With your death you are not being put out to pasture. Rather, you are being resurrected and repurposed to do the work of the Kingdom of God on earth where God will dwell with you. Lay up for yourselves those ‘retirement fund’ thoughts now.

“Imagine” Juxtaposed

Previous posts attempted to expose the Epicurean influence on modernity: the exclusion of God from the garden of good and evil and replaced with Darwinian materialism under the influence of man-made reasoning: “cogito ergo sum”.

The posts also revealed the inclusion of ‘reasoned’ or ‘rational’ people into the high-horse club of scientism. This exclusive club is governed by those who have the power, perhaps the raison d’état, to control the inputs and outputs of desired ‘truth’. “What is truth?” Pilate asked (when he thought he had the force of the whole Roman empire to define it.)

As I wryly mentioned in my previous posts the above either/or, God/science dichotomy came, at first, philosophically, from what I call Epicurus’ “High-Horse” Mal-ware. This mal-ware has since been downloaded over the centuries into each century’s modern man’s psyche. The devastating effect of the Mal-ware was to disable the AND gate of your truth tables. It was not to be used in queries.

Now, like the historically recorded scene of two thieves each hanging on cross with Jesus hanging between them, I offer a similar juxtaposition of two end results, two disparate “Imagines”.

One “Imagine” is Epicurean, God dismissed, materialistic, nihilistic and personified in the likes of former atheist Christopher Hitchens, materialist Barack Obama and fatalist Beatle John Lennon:

 The other “Imagine” is God-inclusive. Here, God is the nucleus, the epicenter of being and meaning. Here, God and science coexist as Lion and lamb, creation being the sublime work of His hands, His signature found in the molded clay.

God’s Kingdom, now begun on earth, has become a dwelling place for all who see His light and follow it. True reality is made known to His followers by the Holy Spirit. The earthly spectrum of sodium street lights, of tungsten lights, of neon lights, of mercury lights, of halogen lights, of xenon lights, lights all of which enable us to see our way on earth are sourced from the Prism of Eternal Light.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” C.S. Lewis

At His appearance we will then know Him as He knows us. That Eternal Light you see is Love, not short-lived Epicurean fireworks and party favors. 

 

Footnote: The above song by MercyMe was played during my son’s funeral service, about fourteen years ago. Justin was eighteen when the Lord took him home in a freak car accident. The police reported that it was a clear, sunny and dry day in Texas as Justin drove down a frontage road and lost control of the car. No other cars were involved. No drugs or alcohol were involved according to the Police report.

 Justin had recently graduated from high school. The afternoon of his death he was driving back from his girlfriend’s house. We don’t know why this happened. We just know that we will see him again and this is not final. The Joy that only God’s True Love can give replaced the deepest loss I have ever experienced.  Physics caused the physical death. But, Justin lives on.

 Sure there is pain, loss and evil in the world. But God is greater than any of these, if you let Him be God in your life.

Father’s Day – June 15th, 2014

G. K. Chesterton once said:

 “We are to regard existence as a raid or great adventure; it is to be judged, therefore, not by what calamities it encounters, but by what flag it follows and what high town it assaults. The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive; one is always in danger of one’s life. But anyone who shrinks from that is a traitor to the great scheme and experiment of being.”

One year ago, on June 15th, 2013, this year’s Father Day, my dad went to be with the Lord.

 His and my mom’s life verse, found in Romans 8:28, made Chesterton’s challenge a forgone conclusion in my dad’s life:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

My dad did not shrink from life. Rather, he served his God, his wife of 64 years, his family, his grandchildren and his great-grand children with great zeal. Though not one who could sit through a ‘moment’ my dad kept moving.  He kept taking photos so as to capture the ‘moment’ while thinking ahead about the next ‘moment’, the next high tower to assault. (And, yes, I am the same way.)

My dad lived a life of service.

He served as a village trustee and then later as mayor in a major suburb outside of Chicago. I wrote a post about Memorial Day when my dad was mayor: The Rectitude of Silence.

My dad worked two jobs when funds when needed. With four hungry kids funds were often depleted. Yet, on some Saturdays my dad would take us to Sandy’s for a hamburger, fries and a shake. He would also occasionally take us to the YMCA for swimming. I suspect, though, that he did this so that mom could regain control of her mind. He was a thoughtful husband.

My dad also served the Lord’s church as a Sunday school teacher. Often with theology books, concordances, etc. spread out before him on the dining room table I would see him handwriting his lessons. He believed the Gospel to be the power of God unto salvation. And, as a Moody Bible Institute alumnus (the Alumni President, at one point) he believed the Bible to be God’s Truth.

My father was adamant about the Bible’s literal truth. His understanding, I believe, was born out of a time when liberal theology came to the fore and challenged the Sola Scriptura interpretation. And, he knew from personal experience that Scripture is the power of God unto salvation.

Some would be put off by my dad’s sometimes strident letters to some of his children and grandchildren, letters meant by him to separate the wheat from chaff. As a parent of four, I understood his motivation. I understood his reasons, his heart of love and his desire that all of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren would come to know the One true God before all else. In true Pauline style he pushed the point home.

I also understood that I needed to research truth for myself and stake my own claim in the Kingdom of God as he did long ago. I thank God for my Christian heritage formed by my father’s faith. He proved Romans 8:28, ergo, once again, proving God to be true to his word.

Beyond being a Sunday School teacher my dad served as church chairman.  He and my mom also served as the mission’s committee chairpersons. It was through their ministry and their gracious hospitality that I met dozens of missionaries from across the globe. I would meet them and hear their stories during our Sunday after-church meals featuring mom’s pot roast.

Wow!  Little wonder that now as an adult I love maps and geography. World maps and the pinpoint missions were posted on the walls of our church ~ more high towers to assault for dad and for mom.

The photo below was taken just about three weeks before my dad left us to be with Him who is the Resurrection and the Life. My dad is in Good Shepherd hands. So, I am at peace. Still, this moment in time, tomorrow, will be hard to gather all those thoughts in. Yet, I have not lost a father. Heaven has gained a saint who needed a well-deserved rest ~ and lots of hugs.

 dad-mom-me 

  I do not fear death because, like dad, I embrace the One who is the Ultimate Ruler and Redeemer of this World.

Unlike my dad, though, I do not believe in a ‘literal’ young earth creation story. Rather, I see Genesis One and Two to be poetic true myths about what God wants us to know about our beginnings.  Beyond this, based on my studies of genetic scientific evidence and quantum physics, I completely accept old earth theistic evolution ~ a Creator God whose spoken Big Bang sparked the machinations of evolution, thereby creating worlds known and unknown. I believe the Holy Spirit breathed into Adam and Eve a soul, giving them moral Absolutes in their spirit’s DNA..

As dad and mom together believed I also believe in Romans 8:28, knowing that God is good …:“There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Now, to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. I Timothy 1:17

 

 Aside:

I once called my dad on Father’s Day from Saudi Arabia: Father’s Day 1985

 

THOU hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart

John Donne, The Holy Sonnets I.

Pour ma mère

 Remembering dad…

“To Be or Not To Be” Has Always Been the Question

It’s been a while since my last post.  I have been away visiting my mom & dad.  My dad is close to death.

 I drove out to see my folks when I heard that my dad was failing fast.  We expect him to leave us soon.

 I spent several days with mom and dad.  I was able to speak and pray with dad.  He is ready to die.

My father believes that God is faithful to His Word and that he will be in the Lord’s presence soon.

 My father is coherent but feeble. An oxygen tank and a pump supply air thru his nose into his lungs and into his blood stream. There will be no more doctor visits for him.

 My dad is a Godly man. He has done the work of the Kingdom of God here on earth: reconciliation, redemption, giving, witnessing, intercession and many other good works.  And he has been married to my mom for almost 64 years!

 Each of us siblings is praying that dad will quietly pass over into the presence of the Lord while he is in his chair or in his bed. I will miss dad. (I am the oldest child.)

 While there I met with my siblings to talk about future things regarding mom.

 “The LORD cares deeply when his loved ones die.”  Psalm 116:15

 A photo of mom & dad & me:

dad & mom & me

 While visiting mom and dad I was able to catch up with my siblings and their kids.  Wow!  The kids have grown! 

 I am not a ‘Facebook’ kind of person so I haven’t seen the latest goings-on with each relative. How much I have missed!

 My sister-in-law is also not a ‘Facebook’ kind of person.  But she and I are into drama.  She invited me  to go over to nearby Liberty U to see my nephew in Hamlet.   Her son had two roles:  Rosencrantz and Laertes.

 The play began outside and then each scene was set in a different location around the Hancock Welcome Center ~ inside and out.   

 As we moved outside to the balcony a glorious panoramic view opened to us:   the sun was behind and below the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, the horizon gilt with gold and rose.

 The gravedigger scene ~ “Alas, poor Yorick …”~ was hilarious.

 At the play’s end there was a clash of swords. Laertes and the rest didn’t survive the sword fight or the poison. Death was strewn everywhere.

 And then I was reminded of what G. k. Chesterton once said:

 “We are to regard existence as a raid or great adventure; it is to be judged, therefore, not by what calamities it encounters, but by what flag it follows and what high town it assaults. The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive; one is always in danger of one’s life. But anyone who shrinks from that is a traitor to the great scheme and experiment of being.”

Hamlet tickets

Flowers of the Field

I went for a mammogram on Good Friday.  This was my first mammogram even though I am about ten years from retirement.  I put off health tests ( I tell myself)  because I am so busy.

 After the images were taken I was told that a radiologist would review my scans and send a report to my doctor. This would take about a week.

 The following week I waited anxiously because of what happened as I left the medical office: 

 I opened the door and walked over to the elevator.  There a few feet away were two women facing each other. One of the women, clutching papers in her hand, turned away when I came out the door.  Waiting for the elevator I could hear the other woman, perhaps her mother, comforting her:  “It will be OK.  You will be alright.” I quickly realized that the woman had received some bad news from the radiologist’s report. She was quietly sobbing.

 A lot of things go through your mind when you are in medical limbo. For me there was fear, then anger and then calm took over as I give the matter back to the Lord.

 The next Friday I came home from work and found the report in my mail box.  I wondered why they sent me the report.  They told me that my doctor would get the first look.

 Well, I was relieved to find that the mammogram was “normal.” The staff wanted to let me know right away. 

 The tentative calm became a sigh of relief and then a prayer for the woman at the elevator:  “Lord, please remove all cancer from this woman’s body. I ask this in the name of Jesus.”

 Maybe five years from now someone will pray for me as I stand by the elevator crying. Life is like that.

 ***

 It was during this time of waiting for the radiologist’s report that I heard the shocking news that a coworker had died overnight. 

 This man was slightly older than me.  He died of a brain aneurism ~ in an instant without any warning.

Something like this gives one pause:  How close to death am I?

 Yet, I do not fear death.  It is a matter of perspective.

 I know that even though the dust I am made of will crumble and return to the earth I will live on within the dancing embrace of the Trinity ~ as a flower of the field that never withers or dies.

It Bears Repeating

… a short story about a man’s final hours, as related to me.

 It Bears Repeating

 The first time I heard the news was right here in the parlor of Moore’s funeral home.  I’ll tell you what happened because I need to hear it again myself.  I find it hard to believe.  Please allow me this last chance to tell my story.  I don’t have much time. I’ll be brief. The last cocktail is kicking in.

 Being dead, I must note before I move on, has its once-in-a-life time privileges: I can stretch out my legs and nap all I want. I don’t have to bother with bill collectors and more importantly I don’t have to listen to my ex-wives blather on about how horrible a husband I was. They did stop talking bad about me though.  That was on Thursday the day I died. Before that day these women were probably right about me but there were times when I tried my darndest to love the heck right out of them, damn near killing myself in the…

 “I don’t want you. I want your money.” 

 Yeah, that was what I heard at the end of two of my trilogy of marriages. That kiss of betrayal twice laid on me would be enough to break any man’s spirit, let alone his pocket-book. Heart and money gave out last Thursday and I wound up here looking at the insides of my stapled eyelids.

 Now, I’m not looking for sympathy, just an ear, so lean in close, because my mouth is wired shut, too. There are things that need to be said, my side of the story, before the cover comes down and this chapter ends.  And if there is another chapter, the gods, who must all be female because I’ve been a man of constant sorrow, may very well have taken note of my male deficiencies over the course of sixty-five years.  They will not rule in my favor.  And God help you if you snore or if your nose whistles while you are still alive and breathing. In fact, the gods may certainly deign to send me back as a woman – a large squat cat woman wheezing with asthma and having no idea the cat box litter needs to be changed – Pearl Purgatory.

 Is there life after women? If there is I am pretty darn sure that there will be retribution for my lack of mind reading:  “Because if I have to tell you, it doesn’t count.” And that will mean that I will be reincarnated en femme.    As such I will be made to learn what women need, what women want and, more importantly, I will learn how to demand tele-empathy:  holding every man accountable for every woman’s unspoken thoughts.

 As I formerly live and breathe, if you don’t know what a woman wants before she opens her mouth you are already in the death’s hollows. And because I could not read the minds of the three females in my life I spent twenty-six years in the dog house barking at shadows and howling at the moon. My only reprieve being a weekly escape to the local tavern, a tavern serving dead-beat husbands like me. Thank God there was a “Joe” the bartender at TKO Tavern. I could read his mind.

 And Joe could read mine.  Tuesday nights the Miller Lite would stand waiting before my stool: tall, cold and gushing with anticipation.  In that room filled with nodding imbibers, tattooed torsos and limbs and shouting TVs I would tell my story of woe to unknown people of every color and stripe. It was easy there.  Everyone at TKO was in my corner for those couple of hours a week.  Going home afterward I felt as if I just had therapy.  Sleep would come and I would start again the next day. But the truth was always there standing over me in the morning.

 Where was I?  My feet are cold.  They feel like lead. Did I own a suit and tie?  Oh, yes.  I wore a suit for the studio picture of me with my four kids last year. I see it now in the picture frame sitting on the top of the casket.  But I’m starting to ramble, a foible also despised by the women in my life.  What can I say? My mind became mush on women.  But let’s go on before the fat lady sings my song.

  Wife number one.  After six months of marriage wife number one didn’t hang around for further conjugal visits.  The umbilical cord between mother and daughter snapped her away from me like a bungee cord recoiling

 I met Andrea at a Bible college.  We dated while at school and then after graduation we camped out at her family’s home outside of Crown Point, Indiana. Every weekend I would drive from Illinois to her parent’s home in Indiana.  I was hoping that her father would say just take the girl and get out the hell out of there. Her father, a straight arrow of a man, was predisposed to disposing with unnecessary words.  His remaining words were pounded into arrow heads meant for a bullseye.

 You see, Andrea’s father was native-American – an Apache.  He liked him his TV, his Pabst, his pipe and his solitude. He made no demands on Andrea’s family other than “be quiet,” “shut up,” “get me some dinner,” bring me a cold one” and “don’t ever touch my pipe tobacco.” In this denizen of dysfunction Andrea stayed close to her cowering mom while avoiding her father. It would take me several harrowing attempts to ask him for Andrea’s hand in marriage. When her father said “Yeah, take her” I had hoped to leave the dystopia behind.  I married Andrea in her family’s GARB church – that’s a General Association of Regular Baptists church for all of you outside of the Bible Whiplash Belt (No, I never had a crew cut). 

 The “hallelujah and amen” of nuptial bliss lasted about six months.  Andrea’s father took a job transfer to Arizona – Arizona or Bust.  I figured that with the transfer Andrea’s father could get back to his native-American roots.  Being an oil refinery pipe fitter in Gary, Indiana was not the proper place for this son of the earth.  He saw the transfer notice posted on the lunch room bulletin board and applied the same day.  He never consulted his wife.  I figured, too, that the desert would be a good place to drink, shoot a gun and fall down drunk. I gathered all of this from his stolid stare which told me everything and nothing.

 In the moment when Andrea’s her mother told Andrea about the transfer Andrea decided that she and I had to move from Chicago to Arizona to be near her mother: “Or else.”   It was The Ultimatum Express for me or the highway for her.

 Now, I hadn’t mentioned this: before Andrea and I married I had a solid job in the Chicago area.  Andrea and I had settled in an apartment an hour away from her mother.  Things seemed quiet and sane apart from her family – us in Illinois, her parents in Indiana. But that was the problem:  way too much sanity for Andrea.

 So, without further discussion and a half-year after making our eternal vows to each other, vows which I found out would not indemnify the oath taker from the pain and loss of separation and subsequent divorce, our marriage was torn in two. I came home from work one day and found that Andrea had taken all her things and had left for Arizona.  There was a note:  “I’ve gone to Arizona.  See ya.”  She certainly had her father’s eagle-eye determination and his paucity of words.  Suddenly I was left with my job, an apartment lease and dozens of unpaid bills. I was uncoupled and alone but mother and child were reunited, a co-dependency I probably should have seen coming. 

 After six months of being married in absentia and being surrounded by the four walls of loneliness I decided to go out to Arizona and plead my case for our as yet “unwrapped” marriage. I flew out to Phoenix.

 The sun has finally moved behind the curtain.  Good. Oh, there are lilies. I wonder who sent those.  Maybe it was my daughter Anna.  I wish she was here.  My nose must be stuffed up. There’s not a smell in the house. Who are those people looking at me?  Are you still listening?

 The day I arrived in Phoenix the temperature was 121 degrees F.  I couldn’t sit down in the rental car until the air conditioning had cooled the seats and steering wheel.  Standing next to the idling car I thought my feet might stick to the black top taffy.

After checking into a room at the nearby airport Holiday Inn I immediately phoned Andrea and told her where I was. She sounded out of sorts when she told me that she would leave work at 4:30 and then drive up from Globe, Arizona where her parent’s lived.  When I called her the week before and told her that I was flying out to see her she balked, “Come but don’t expect anything.” I came expecting everything.  I bet it all on “See ya.”

 The drive to phoenix took about an hour and forty minutes.  I waited in the restaurant lounge of the Holiday Inn.  I asked the bartender what he would suggest for someone waiting to be disappointed once again and who never had a drop of hard liquor. He put a Manhattan in front of me – a cherry about to drown in a sea of bourbon.  Between the ebb and flow of Manhattans I would ride the elevator up to my room to see if I had any phone messages.  Upon opening the door if I saw no red light pulsing in the dark room I would return downstairs to my drink.  The waiting bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters consoled me.  The bitters and I were now comrades in arms.

 At nine o’clock I finally saw the pulsing red light.  Andrea had left a message:  she’d be there in five minutes.  I splashed some cold water on my face and headed downstairs. 

 Once back at my seat Andrea appeared at the door of the dining room.  The soft knit turquoise dress she wore gathered all of my attention.  The hands on her hips said, “Let’s go.” But after five Manhattans I was in no shape to go anywhere but up to my room.  Andrea insisted that we get in her car and go back to Globe.  But the liquor, now speaking on my behalf, failed to get my tongue to form syllables. “I rave de…,” was my only response so she relented and we went up to my room.

 There Andrea and I sat on the edge of the twin beds and talked for five minutes. I can’t recall the things we talked about. At one point I got up, leaned over and kissed her. Shapely turquoise and stultifying bourbon would continue to have the same effect on me up until last Thursday.  Now if I have one saving grace to present to the gods it would be my kissing ways.  Playing trumpet for forty years puckered my lips into the perfect embouchure for kissing.  A few nicely placed notes would make any woman’s ears wiggle.  Actual levitation would occur.  You’ll have to trust me on this.

 I did try to sleep off the bourbon but luck wouldn’t have any of it.  After a couple of hours we set out on Superstition Freeway and then U.S. 60 heading east toward Globe, Arizona.

 I remember the full moon transforming the rough cut desert landscape into a B & W western.  I half expected to see Tex Ritter or Roy Rodgers galloping along with our car.  In the distance I could see saguaro looking like they were in a holdup, both arms up. Gila monsters and tumbleweed lurched into and retreated from the light of the headlight “projectors.”

 We finally reached the town of Globe, a community of workers from the sliver mines.  Up north in the Tonto Basin there was an oil refinery where Andrea’s father worked as a pipe fitter. His nature had taken its course.

 I found a room at the eight room Globe Motel.  After checking in Andrea and I grabbed breakfast at the Mother Lode diner. It was there at the diner that Andrea’s older brother showed up, a pack of Luckies rolled up in his tee-shirt sleeve. He had a pock-marked face and his jaw was set.  He sat down across from me, flicked the ash of his cigarette into the ash tray and ordered a coffee.  I didn’t know what to expect. His demeanor was always silent tough-guy gruff.  He finally spoke:  “So, you’re here to take my sister home?” “I respect that.” I breathed a sigh of relief but then he said, “I don’t think my mother wants that to happen.” My stomach tightened. After drinking his coffee down in two gulps he stood up and walked out. That was it.  I was disposed of.

 I looked at Andrea.  She looked back at me over her glasses as if to say “don’t you see?”  She went off to work and I returned to my motel room to ponder what just happened.  I spent the rest of the day watching TV in my room hidden from the sun’s death rays.  The tepid water in the motel’s outside pool offered no relief.  I had lost my cool, too.

 After passing a couple of monotonous days in the Globe Motel Andrea offered me a room in their parent’s guest house – a tiny adobe bungalow at the bottom of a steep gully shaded by mesquite and jojoba trees.  That was better. Andrea would be closer but she could be a tease.

 When Andrea finished work at 4:30 she would come down to the bungalow and spend hours kissing me like I was her best beau.  She’d coo and I’d plead. Later she’d go back up to her parent’s house to sleep.

 My return flight was on Sunday.  Nothing had changed in the status of our marriage. Andrea said nothing about returning with me.  I was perplexed to point of “Enough already.”

 On Thursday I found a Globe Yellow Pages and looked for the name and address of her company.  I bought a Rand McNally map at the Texaco.  The place where she worked was on the outskirts of town. I drove my rental car to her office and walked right in. Andrea was nonplussed. She grabbed my arm, turned me around and took me out to the parking lot.  She told me to stay away from her work.  After some futile begging where I asked her to come home with me, I drove back to the bungalow feeling despair. I felt it where I never felt it before – in my feet.  Later that night, though, she told me that on Saturday we would do something together. Hope and pace revived among the kissing.

 Saturday morning we drove north to Tonto National Forest and Apache Lake.  The reflection of the midday sun off of the bleached rock was blinding.  We got out of the car and stood together on the bluff that over looked the cobalt blue lake.

 “Denny, I have something to tell you.  I have a boy friend.”

 “What? What’s his name?”  (What did it matter?)

 “His name is Scott. I’m not coming home with you.  I have divorce papers coming. I don’t want alimony. I just want to be here. I have to be here.”

 There it was, that unspoken word that pulled the bottom out of everything: “over.

 On Sunday my dad was waiting for me at an Ohare Airport’s arrival gate:  “At least you tried.”  

 “Yeah, I have that going for me.”

****

Who’s that? Do I know you? Someone please open my collar. It’s stuffy in here. Someone please open a window. I need some air. I promise the next bit will be shorter. I’ll have to rest soon.

 Wife, part two.  Melanie is a good woman. She didn’t get the best of me, though.  I had become jaded after my first marriage to Andrea – philandering took the place of fidelity.  I figured that I couldn’t count on just one woman to be there for me.  At any moment she could go off the reservation and perhaps return to her mother’s womb. I didn’t trust any woman even though Melanie deserved it. Regrettably, I decided there was safety in numbers.

 Melanie gave me two roly-poly boys.  I never thought life could hold such inimitable joy as when these two were born.  Fatherhood set the responsible part of me in stone forever.  But the marriage part remained free-floating. And though I had two beautiful sons I kept up my selfish ways until one night. I came home and found all my belongings sitting out at the curb.  I knocked on the front door but no one answered.  I sobbed and knocked and no one answered. I had been locked out of the marriage.  Later the sheriff would knock on my door with divorce papers: “I don’t want you. I want your money.”   I had blown it with Mel and all of my change-of-heart soul-searching wouldn’t bring her back.

 Wife, part three.  Yes, I tried again.  Once again I succumbed to the elixir of physical attraction.  But this time I thought I had also found someone who didn’t just love me for my kisses. I met Bethany at the Pacific Club dance bar where on Friday nights a friend and I tried to hook up with the dancing queens.  She and I met on a Friday night when I came alone.

 After returning to my seat that night I heard a voice behind me say, “That’s my chair.”  I turned around and looked into the face of a model. I said “Sorry. I went to dance and came back to my seat.  But you can have it.”  She sat down.  We ended up going out to eat that night and talking for hours.

 Bethany liked photography as much as I did.  We both liked fine wine and gourmet food. And kids.  She had a son from a previous relationship and I had two sons from Mel.  After whirlwind dating for six months we decided to elope.  I was pushing for this, perhaps unknowingly, thinking about the final net cost should there be a divorce – still jaded after all these years.

 We set up shop in a suburban town west of Chicago.  Two years later Bethany would give birth to a beautiful baby girl and then a boy two years later. Four kids now on the payroll.

 The first Lamaze class with Mel awoke fatherhood within me.  I was right at home with kids.  But marriage relationships, no, no, no, they would not come home to roost.  As it turned out Bethany was a very needy person.  Instead of mother issues Bethany had father issues.  The effects of family dysfunction had come full circle. There was also the bane of Bethany’s PMS.  Every month I wanted to go into the husband protection program the moment Bethany’s voice took on the other-worldly tone of a candidate for exorcism and her eyes became blue steel beebees and her dissatisfaction with me amounted to me just being alive.

Beyond this, in her own special three Margarita way Bethany would let me know that I was never “man enough.” She went on to tell our marriage counselor that she didn’t “feel loved,” by me, that “Danny is clueless.  He doesn’t know what a woman wants or needs.”  In lay person’s terms, I wasn’t woman enough to be a man. And from what I could gather as a mere mortal Bethany had also been looking for the Old Spice-John Wayne-gladiator-movie-watching father-figure who lathered on the macho during her childhood. What she got was a Ward Cleaver-turned-Casanova-turned-“give-me-a-break” type.

 Fourteen years later my marriage to Bethany ended with a prolonged, painful separation and a matter-of-fact divorce.  With that cut off point came the demand for support: “I don’t want you. I want your money.” 

 That’s my “trilogy of women” story – the troika that did me in.  In the end, emptiness is what’s left of me.  It can be found everywhere in my life:  empty vows, empty pockets and empty rooms to kick around in.  I had emptied my emotions, too.  This final loss was not paid for with tears.  This loss was paid for with my health.  I would soon break down, the hemlock of sorrow and depression working its diabolical alchemy. The only thing not empty in my life is this casket. And that brings me to my final state – death by marriage.

 Who is that strawberry blond with the turquoise pendant? Is that Andrea?  Who is that young guy with her? How did she know that I passed on?  I wish someone would stop playing that damn organ. I want to hear what their…

 Andrea:  “Scotty, say goodbye to your dad. We have to go.”

© Sally Paradise, 2012, All Rights Reserved

The Tree of Life Envisioned

Recently I viewed Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. It would be difficult for me to adequately describe the effect this movie had on me, the emotion and reflection evoked from me as a Christian parent who has lost a child.  This movie operates, more than any I have ever seen, on an intimate meaning-of-life level while the breadth of its vision enables us to direct our eyes away from ourselves and out into the vast cosmos. And in doing so, synchronicity with creation is summoned.

 Life’s deepest and most pressing questions, the universal “whys” behind all of life are posed using the simple narrative of the lives of the O’Brien family of five. Underlying the film’s basic premises of wonder and questioning is the ancient wisdom book of Job, for me the touchstone of the film.  I believe that each viewer’s prior contemplation of life’s deepest questions would certainly individualize the film’s impression on the viewer.  Without individuation, though, the movie is just an amalgam of exceptional pictures and music – a mood piece. I see The Tree of Life as being a spiritual movie and not a religious documentary and therefore I believe it will affect each viewer differently.

 Without going into too much of the narrative detail, detail which may deprive you of the movie’s impact, here is my initial impression of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life:

 Though I was ready for the usual exceptional visual imagery – Stanley Kubrick’s movies come to mind – that is part and parcel of Malick’s cinematic talent (see also his Days of Heaven) I was blown away by the large scope of the movie:  creation, the meaning of life, the existence of suffering, nature and grace and the Creator. 

One of the visual and emotional pleasures of this movie is that the images are offered to us in prolonged time frames – there are no frenetic montages matched to every blink of the eye. The absence of the modern movie restlessness allows us to contemplate the force of those images. We are then able to react with deeply held authentic feelings and at the same time not feel the need to immediately dispose of those feelings so as to be ready for the next emotional roller coaster ride of images. In this way the movie parallels life:  creation and real life takes place over time.  I believe the movie honors the fact that God takes time to accomplish His purposes – in the universe and in the saga of our lives. And, as the movie depicts, we do not understand God’s ways but, as I have seen, God, who is outside of time, uses time to reveal His Nature and His Grace to us.

 Malick rolls out before us a grand sweeping chromatic scroll of the universe. The visual imagery, often shown in natural lighting is enhanced with beautifully evocative musical selections including works by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Smetana’s The Moldau River, Preisner’s Lacrimosa, Cassidy’s The Funeral March and Górecki’s Sorrowful Songs Symphony. Such music invokes us to come present to the spiritual within our souls.

 The awe-inspiring and overwhelming dynamic universe centers around and is grounded by a tree in the backyard of a family’s home in Waco Texas, circa 1950s. Using a minimalist script this family of five provides creation’s human narrative: father (emblematic of nature), mother (emblematic of grace) and their three young sons.  The father, the mother and Jack O’brien, the eldest son and main character give us our viewpoints. Later on in the movie Jack’s character is played as an adult by Sean Penn. The adult Jack becomes an architect who creates buildings derivative of his own hard-edged “nature”.

 Within this family life narrative we see birth, growth, maturation, anger, relational distance, death, sorrow, loss, envy, survival, strife and sin. Along the way the ever pressing questions of life are whispered to our ears using voiceovers.

 As I mentioned the display of the immensity and dynamism of the created universe provides the backdrop for these most important issues of life, questions that this family of five and certainly any sane person on earth ponders at some point in their life:  Where is God?; Does God see what is happening?; Does God care? Are we left on our own? What about evil? What about the loss of a child? Why is there suffering?

 After the death of her son Mrs. O’Brien asks, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” “If God is good and cares about us, why does he make us suffer?”  Throughout the movie we are engaged to ponder these hard questions and to once again look through a glass darkly for the answers.

 Watching this film I was also reminded of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and the philosophical lessons Smerdyakov learned from Ivan, regarding the impossibility of evil in a world without a God.

 In depicting some of the range of God’s creation we see vast spatial distances which hold myriad galaxies and we also see, looking through other end of the telescope, intricate microcosmic details.  We are reminded that the Creator God is ever beyond our finite comprehension. For this reason I am thankful that Malick chose to countenance theism and not a Woody Allen-type nihilism that turns its back on God and mocks Him every time.

 The movie begins by referencing the oldest piece of wisdom literature in the world, the book of Job. The stage is set with God responding to Job who had cursed the day he was born after being overwhelmed with trouble, suffering and loss.  From Job 38:4, 7:

 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

 Throughout the movie there are other paraphrased Scripture references including Job 13:15, “I will be true to you whatever comes.”

 I believe I also heard a paraphrased reference to Paul’s letter to the Roman church during a scene where Jack is praying: “I know what I want to do but I can’t do it.”  Also, there is an oblique reference to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church regarding the character of love:

  “There are two ways through life:  the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” Mrs. O’Brien, The Tree of Life

 Beyond the infusions of Scripture, I saw revealed man’s unconscious need to bump up against someone bigger and stronger than life itself. And though we are infinitesimally small compared to the enormous universe we matter to God.  In another wisdom book of the Bible, the Psalms, the shepherd boy David speaks in awe of God’s intimate knowledge of His creatures,

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”

  The film doesn’t seek to answer the questions of life but only poses them offering up grace as the consummate reconciler. As a believer in Jesus Christ I am transformed daily by God’s grace.  Just as important, I am forgiven and reconciled with God because Jesus Christ was nailed to another tree – the cross. His resurrection now provides me access to the Tree of Eternal Life. I know the One Who is the Answer.

A tree of life was planted in the garden long ago…

  “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”…

 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

 

While we ask God “Where are You in all of this?”, God is asking us “Where are you?”

Held