“I can’t go.”
“What do you mean, you can’t go?”
“I just can’t go, that’s all.” Channa, my wife, held my eye.
I was dressed up, and the children were, too. The children hovered near the door. It was Rosh Hashanah—as Jews, our New Year’s Day. We needed to drive to Portland, Maine, for services, one hour distant, and, as sometimes was the case, we were running late.
Channa hadn’t dressed; she was still in her robe.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“It’s not that. I just can’t….”
“Talk to me a minute.”
She turned and strode from the play room, where we were grouped, back into the living room. Watching her retreat, I knew the posture of that walk. Whatever the trouble was, it was big.
“Children, you get in the car. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
“What’s wrong with Mom?” Rosalind, our youngest, wanted to know.
“I don’t know. I’m sure everything will be all right.” I smiled at them. “Now you go.” James, our second oldest, took over and herded his siblings out the door.
When I reached the living room, Channa’s face was pinched. “I can’t do it. I really can’t bear to be there.”
“Well, all right.”
“I can’t go, Dikkon. I don’t know what’s come over me, but I can’t.”
“Channa, it’s Rosh Hashanah.”
“But I don’t want to leave you….”
“You go. I’ll be all right.”
“Are you sure?”
“You go. You want to go, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, but….”
“And the children want to go.”
“Not without their mother.”
Her stiffness disappeared, she slumped. “I’m so confused.”
I held her shoulders, looked into her eyes, which skittered back to mine and away. “Are you really all right? What is it? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know!” It came out as wail. “I don’t know what’s happening, Dikkon. All I know is that I can’t go. You go. You and the children go.”
“What will you do? If I go with the children, will you be all right?”
She took a deep breath and let it out. “I’ll take the Siddur down to our beach, and I’ll read the service. I’ll—I don’t know—I’ll pray.”
“That’s what you want to do?”
Now she looked in my eyes. “Yes.” She made a hesitant smile. “Yes. At least the beach will be the way God made it.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do.” I said this more as a question than as a statement.
“Yes. I’m sorry. Is it terrible for you?”
“I like being at services, and I’ll miss you. But, no, not terrible. You’re certain this is what you want?”
“I can’t explain it better. I just can’t bear to go.”
“I love you. I’m going.”
“Have a…I guess, a good time on the beach.”
We hesitated to part, kissed, and I left.
The children and I made our peace with Channa’s absence while we drove. We learned how to respond when commiserated by our Jewish friends about Channa’s absence during the service.
Our Reform congregation was trying that year to perfect an ideal introduced one year before, also at Rosh Hashanah service. Some in our congregation had grown sensitive about male pronouns for God, and our rabbi was hell-bent on addressing their concern.
So, whenever we came to God’s name during prayers, the rabbi had instructed that we should, each one of us, merely say out loud the name that meant the most to us personally, and then go on with the prayer.
Jewish prayers are beautiful. The Hebrew is fine-tuned almost to musical exactitude, and our tunefulness and cadence is precise. It is a lovely experience, particularly at High Holy Day services (of which Rosh Hashanah is one), to be swept along on the prayers. However, this year, as had been the case the previous year, our prayers were Babel.
The name of God is often invoked during prayers—they are, after all, addressed to Him—but each time His name came up, we heard a babble of –
Holy One…all at the same time.
…and then the prayer continued in Hebrew.
I was glad Channa wasn’t there.
When we humans built the Tower of Babel to challenge the Lord, empowered by our own self-importance, the Lord slapped us down by separating our unified speech into languages. We could no longer communicate. Our words became jabber.
Later, when we Jews saw Peter and the apostles emerge from the Upper Room at Pentecost, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Lord gave us grace. Though we had different languages, to our amazement, suddenly we could understand one another. We could communicate.
Our godly words were shared.
During the 2,000 years since, those who have had ears to hear have gloried at the Lord’s gift to us. The Lord’s gift to us is truth, for us to hear.
If you missed Part One, please click on the image below before reading Part Two.
The salesman repeated his question to the lawyer, a question about receiving an answer to prayer. “But how do you know?”
“You don’t, by intellect. If you stick with intellect, there’s never any real knowing, really. Secularists do that. They’re all about statutes. Christians are case law. For us, it’s not what does the law say, it’s what does it mean? What is its impact in my life?”
“How do you figure it out?”
The lawyer thought for a minute. He sat back in his chair and looked at the portrait of the man who baptized Jesus. Then he told a story.
“Once, for my sins, I was elected as a delegate to a national Catholic brotherhood convention, and we had some very weighty matters to discuss and to resolve.” He watched the salesman. The salesman nodded.
“You’ve got to know that today there is much debate within the church concerning how to make the monastic life more relevant to the modern day. We’re not getting recruits like we used to. And not just monasticism, the church in general. The priestly life. I’m a layman, of course, but I had been outspoken about my opinion, and that’s why I was elected. We went to Texas. It was winter up here, but it was dry and warm in Texas. We were in Texas for a week.”
The lawyer shifted in his chair. He seemed to wonder how much detail to present. He continued, “My thought was—still is—that you don’t gain recruits by trying to make the church fit the world. It’s the other way round. You stand on the principles that have brought you here, and you attract recruits by your rectitude, not by your accommodation.”
Any sign of conservative thinking, religious or otherwise, suited the salesman, and he calmed. He smiled at the lawyer to show that they were brothers.
“That was my position,” the lawyer continued, “and there were others who supported me, but we were a minority. I hadn’t wanted to go to Texas for a week to be a minority. One of my failings is pride. I was angry about our status and the lack of any prospect that my idea would prevail. And what was worse, I saw that it had been that way from the beginning of the meeting. So I went one day near the end of our stay out into the Texas desert, which was all around us at that retreat center, and I remained out there all day. I missed meetings. I prayed.”
“There’s something about the desert and prayer….”
“Well, yes, but this was just me.” The lawyer held the salesman’s eye. “We were all tired by this time. We had worked very hard and for very long hours, and I particularly was tired and frustrated and angry. I prayed to God, ‘Why did you bring me here just to be defeated? What’s the use? They’re going to do it their way anyway.’ I prayed very hard in this way. I was in an area that was dry and scrubby with tall trees around its edges, and I was alone, and the sun was warm, and I was tired. I had found a place where I could sit comfortably, and I prayed as hard as I could to understand why I was there in Texas at that meeting. And then, you know, I fell asleep.”
The salesman remained silent.
“There was this very beautiful green bird at the top of one of the trees surrounding me. In my dream. The bird was absolutely the most beautiful bird I had ever seen, and I was fascinated by his being green, which is a color I had never seen on a bird. In my dream, I was riveted on that bird. And a voice came from the bird and explained to me that he had wanted me in Texas for our meeting for the very purpose of expressing a minority view.”
“The bird said that?”
“Yes, and I was so fascinated by the bird I realized I should wake up and see him with my waking eyes…you know how it is when you’re dreaming and you know it.”
“Well…so I did open my eyes, and I saw the bird as I was opening them, just for a second, and then he vanished.”
The salesman didn’t know what to say, so he concentrated on the external. “A green bird? I didn’t know birds can be green.”
“I don’t think they can.”
Between the lawyer and the salesman there descended a long silence. It was the lawyer who broke it.
“It was God. He responded to my prayer.”
The salesman bowed his head as one who beholds the Law and the Prophets. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Then you’ll know.” The lawyer spoke quietly. “Not that you’ll know. It’s that everything else—all the other choices—will be eliminated…that’s what will happen. And whatever’s left will be the right course. That’s how you’ll know.”
“No green bird for me?”
The lawyer smiled. “Only I get the green bird. I’ve never heard of him else. But the thing is this. God doesn’t lay it all out, step by step; He wants us to work at it. But what He does is—here is what He does—He eliminates the byways which are dead ends.”
“And then the green bird flies by.”
“I can see him still, you know. Quite beautiful.”
There was silence in the room.
The salesman said, “I suppose we are not given challenges beyond our capacity to endure.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I believe it because St. Paul said it. But do I believe it? I don’t know.”
“What are you going to do?”
“We’re going ahead with our plan, my wife and I. It’s the right thing to do.”
“So your prayer was answered?”
Suddenly, the salesman laughed and stood up to go. “Tweet, tweet.”
The lawyer followed the salesman outside to his car. The man enjoyed getting outside for a moment, seeing the sky, feeling the weather. The salesman opened the driver’s door and stood with his arms crossed on its top. He allowed his trouble to show on his face.
“God does provide, you know,” the lawyer offered, comfortingly. “He’s always watching. Up there somewhere.”
“Supposing you were wrong about this office, opening it?”
“Then I didn’t understand what He was telling me.”
“I’m afraid to know. If I ask Him for help, and I don’t like the answer, what then?”
“Is it better not to ask?”
“Well….” The salesman smiled. “But it’s better to get the answer I want.”
“Here’s what I’ve learned in my life. Life isn’t about us. That’s pretty simple. I’ve seen a whole lot of problems in my days, and quite a few of the problems would not have occurred in the first place if the people had just known that one little thing. Life isn’t about us.”
“Thanks for being here.” The salesman sat in the car and started his engine.
“I’ll pray for you,” the lawyer said through the driver’s window.
“Wait. I never told you what our trouble is about.”
“Doesn’t matter. I used to pray about the details. Now I don’t, so much. I pray to be visited by the Holy Spirit. That’s what I’ll pray for you and your wife.”
As the salesman drove away, he understood he was grateful for that extra prayer assist that would come his way. So he prayed too: “Thank you, Lord. I won’t interrogate. You tell me. You steered me here for this talk. Steer me otherwise too.”
The lawyer went back into his office to attempt solutions for men and women who were, frequently, unprayerful.
Overhead, the green bird turned in flight and set off on a different mission.
Law firms tend to follow certain decorative themes.
One is the Lincoln bust theme, usually with framed documents such as The Gettysburg Address. There’s the modernist look with tall flowers in vases and Sotheby’s catalogues on the coffee table. There are the book fanciers, with long shelves of law volumes prominently displayed. On the other hand, there’s the hardscrabble, no nonsense, store-front law firm with crayons and coloring books, and a people’s political poster on the wall.
On this day, the salesman sat in an unusually decorated law office…a crucifix and a portrait of John the Baptist were its only adornments. Very unusual for an office of the law.
The salesman had stopped at this law office to correct an administrative snafu. The snafu could have been corrected by telephone, but as he had driven along the highway toward a different office than this, he had seen the exit for this office and had—on impulse—taken it.
Recently, the salesman had begun to pray. It had seemed odd to him at first, driving down the road. “Dear Lord, I don’t know what to do. Please help me before I smash everything up.” The salesman was not yet a Christian, but he was warming to it as a contemplator of Christianity, and he knew that a powerful question was coming his way.
Once, some months before, the salesman and this lawyer had spoken briefly about prayer, in the way of two men who are trying to move beyond a relationship that is solely professional. Their meeting had been because this lawyer had expanded his firm into this second town, now that he had a young associate to leave behind in the first.
But business had been slow. Despite the slowness of business, the lawyer had bought a new set of statutes from the salesman, forty-one big red-bound books containing the law. The books were located in the conference room where they were visible to clients.
In his own office though, according to what he had chosen for his walls, the lawyer surrounded himself with statutes more ancient even than those of the sovereign State of Maine.
“So I’m praying,” the lawyer concluded. “I’m giving it another three months. I don’t know what will happen with this office. Real estate is down, but I’m getting some small incorporations, and I’m trying to leverage that into some wills.”
“If you get heavier into estate work, wills and such, we’ll need to talk. I’ve got tools for you.”
“Don’t sell me anything, Dikkon. I’ve built myself a problem here, and I need to keep the walls up without spending more money.”
The salesman was still. His mind was a Gordian Knot. He could not do anything to engage in further sales-like conversation. He sat. The lawyer watched him.
The danger right at that moment in the salesman’s life seemed to him to be acute. The ripple effect of a major decision he faced could be uncontrollable. He felt himself being swept along, faster than his caution dared him to go, desiring to adhere to and to further the principle of Life, as he had always done, but terrified he might not correctly identify which way Life was tending.
Should he say yes from his heart, or no from his head?
Recently, after much discussion with a Baptist pastor, hundreds and hundreds of pages of reading, hours of contemplation, endless conversations with his wife, and most particularly after two or three sudden revelations, the salesman had begun to get it about Jesus.
That’s when his fear escalated and he found that he was praying on the road.
The salesman blurted, “But how is a prayer answered?”
How often in that office had such a question been posed? Had the divorcing wife and mother asked it? Had the injured and unemployed mill worker asked it, when the letter from the insurance company was about to be slit open? What about the owner of the hardware store who faced bankruptcy? Or the landlord who needed to rid himself of a deadbeat tenant? Or the drunk driver on his third offense?
All the problems on earth flow through a law office. Perhaps some of the problems facing heaven flowed through this one too, with its crucifix and its portrait of the man who baptized Christ. And then the salesman realized: to ask that very question is why he had stopped here.
In stillness, the lawyer watched the salesman.
The salesman was not embarrassed by his outburst. However, he recognized his question might be asked only in the cloistral quiet of this particular office. “I mean,” he stammered, “how can I know what to do?” Then he tried to lighten the mood. “Here, shall I write it down? I’ll depose you.”
The lawyer smiled. “I’m not a hostile witness.”
“No. But you’re way ahead of me, along the prayerful road.”
“Well, I’m not someone who has ever heard a mighty voice call my name and say, ‘Here’s what I want you to do.’ It would’ve been good if it had. But it hasn’t for me.”
The lawyer was short, round-faced, balding, more hesitant in his speech when discussing the life of the spirit than when discussing the life of the law. What the salesman liked was that prayer lay so near the man’s surface. It brought into this plain monastic room in this small town along a highway to other cities in the northern reaches of Maine an unhurried gravity, a lack of fear, which was soothing.
The simplicity of the office, the kind solicitude of its inhabitant—for a moment, the world receded, and the salesman might have been attending a Carmelite, at a time when he was inclined to speak.
“But how do you know?”
[For an answer, read Part Two next week.]
Let’s talk sin and salvation.
Here’s what might have happened.
Things like this have happened.
Over the telephone, the two of us settled on the date, the time, and the place.
I put the date, the time, and the place into my calendar book, which I carry around with me (most of the time). The young man wanted to talk with me about a book he had started to write. He had written stories, but this was his first try at a book-length story—a novel.
He had read my recent memoir. He was over-complimentary about it, but I liked his earnestness and his initiative. He had tracked me down. Turned out I lived on a peninsula not too far from his own, each of us being Maine coast writers.
We decided to meet for lunch at a country store that I knew made good salmon BLTs because it was about four miles from my house. It was about thirty miles from his house, but he said he did not want to inconvenience me with travel.
I could tell our meeting would be a big event for him. Like many young writers, he had passion for his nascent craft and a keen desire to develop colleagues. I liked what I knew of him already.
The day of our lunch arrived. The lunch was marked on my calendar. I had noticed our appointment the evening before when I checked my calendar about tomorrow.
About mid-morning, unannounced, a friend of mine—a lobsterman who was a deacon at our church—pulled into our drive. I knew he had been toying for several months with getting back into raising bees. He and I stood around his pickup truck, leaning over the sides of its bed and talked bees. He’d tracked down a man in a village about forty miles inland who was tired of bees and had hives for sale.
“Let’s go get them,” my friend said. “Want to go?”
I didn’t have anything planned for the day, and I’d done enough writing already that morning. My wife Channa was off doing things of her own. It was always fun rambling around the back roads of Maine with my deacon friend. “Sure.”
Off we went.
You already know how this sin happened. You live in the same world I do. It’s a fallen world, and you and I are fallen creatures.
Maybe you are not a person who forgets. But it’s a fallen world even so…for you, too.
What the devil likes is to find a crack in us and to wedge himself inside that crack and to widen that crack just a little, so we cause pain to those around us.
Channa was home when my deacon friend and I came back from our trip, his pickup filled with hives and extra supers and hive tools and other bee stuff. She was smiling. “How’d your lunch go?”
Over the telephone, the young writer said he forgave me—what else could he say?—but he was never available when I tried twice to make a replacement date with him.
I have two brains in me. One is a trying-to-be-a-better-man brain. The other is a don’t-bother-to-be-a-better-man brain. The first has a sunnier attitude than the second. However—here’s the other side—the first brain is anxious much of the time while the second brain gets little flashes of illicit pleasure.
To be sure, those flashes of illicit pleasure are instantly stamped out. My consciousness is shamed that they exist.
But the devil has his wily way when he whispers to me (not that I am aware that I hear him)—“No, no. You’re free all day today. Don’t bother to look at your calendar. What fun it will be to ramble the back roads of Maine and pick up bees.”
To forget is an ordinary human occurrence. Most people who have a tendency to forget have developed tactics to avoid forgetting. Make a note on a calendar, for example. What is sin is to allow your don’t-bother-to-be-a-better-man brain to accept the whisper of the devil that, of course, you need not look at your calendar when you are flushed with the sudden pleasurable anticipation of a bee ramble in Maine.
Before I was a Christian believer, I had an unsubtle notion of sin. Forgetting a lunch appointment is not sin, I would have said. I am not a sinner. I forgot a lunch appointment, that’s all.
But I was miserable. The young writer was miserable that an older writer apparently rejecting him.
But that’s not sin. Sin is the big stuff. Sin is murdering someone.
When I, a Jew, grappled with the possibility that Jesus truly might be the answer to my persistent miserable behavior (and to behavior that was misery-making for those I loved), I said that same thing to the man with whom I consulted about Jesus.
He was a pastor.
Arguing with him, I separated sin (murder) from allowing myself to be tempted by the devil with a day hunting for bees (not sin).
I intoned, “I don’t murder people.”
“But you could.”
“Dikkon, in fact there is no ultimate difference between you, and me, and Charles Manson.”
“What are you talking about!”
“I’m talking about whether there is an ultimate difference.”
“I would not murder Sharon Tate!”
“I agree. I don’t think you would. But you could have.”
“Think about it. You’re a smart man. And you’re honest with yourself. Is there an ultimate difference between you and Charles Manson? Think about it.”
I thought about it. He waited a bit and then prodded me. “Aren’t the differences that you are hanging onto in your mind, between you and him, really just circumstantial?”
“They are important circumstantial, but circumstantial just the same.”
“Maybe doesn’t cut it, Dikkon. You’d better think some more.”
I thought some more.
And when I thought some more, I realized that I needed forgiveness for sin.
I possess a sin nature. Consistently, I allow the devil to tug at me whenever he wants. And I sin.
So—just to be clear—I never murdered anyone. But my behavior makes me and everyone I love miserable, part of the time.
What’s the solution?
Simon Peter, the Rock on Whom Jesus Built His Church, wrote us two letters. He wrote them to his own people in his own time, but they are for us, now, too.
In his second letter, Peter—who knew Jesus personally yet possessed a sin nature, just as I do and as you do—Peter laid it on the line. He gives us the solution.
Jesus, Peter writes, “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them [we] may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (II Peter, 1:4 ESV)
Peter goes on to speak to those who have faith. Faith, he reminds us, is not enough in itself.
To me (and maybe to you), he prompts, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” (II Peter, 1:5-6 ESV, emphasis mine)
I’ve been an orthodox Christian believer for eleven years. I’m still at Step Two yearning toward Step Three. And to reach up even within touching distance of steadfastness would make me weep with relief.
One reason I love Peter is that this impulsive man is so gentle with the readers of his letters.
He doesn’t exhort. He reminds.
In 1:12, he gives us grace by referring to the hierarchy of glory and excellence this way. “I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.”
Indeed, when I am miserable and devil-tugged, I go back to Peter, who was just a guy like me, and I am grateful that he took the time to remind me of the truth.
My new birth in Christ came, appropriately, after a gestation which lasted nine months.
To begin the process, the Holy Spirit prompted me to get out of bed one Sunday, in March, in Maine, and to cross our country road to the Baptist church just up the way.
I was a Jew. My wife Channa and our four children were Jews. Of all things, why was I crossing this road?
Next, at that first Baptist service, the Holy Spirit opened my ears. That Jesus guy was able to get in under my guard.
Since Jesus was able to get in under my guard, I began talking with the pastor about Jesus and about all else Christian. We talked and we talked and we talked. For months! For so many months that the months counted up to nine.
Channa talked with the pastor, too, and she and I talked with one another, testing our temperature, as we put it—were we hot, or were we not?
Almost always we were hot.
Last, after nine months, the Holy Spirit placed me in the pastor’s office, for keeps. It was December, and the pastor’s and my conversation occupied its usual long time until, finally, he asked me, “Ready for some questions?”
He asked me four questions.
I answered each question with yes, without hesitation, without any of the constant struggle I had encountered during the first five or six months of the previous nine.
I answered yes.
I was reborn!
By answering yes, I had forsworn!
What had I forsworn? I had forsworn the stubbornness of my intellect.
My intellect had not wanted to give up. It had demanded that it understand. It had demanded that I not distract it with poetry and metaphor, and that it be provided hard proof.
Yet what I had needed during the five or six months was to get out from under the boulder of my intellect—to push it aside so that I my heart could breathe.
After nine months of gestation, I was reborn. I had forsworn. I walked out of the church that day and across the snow with what might be the same wonder as a new born baby feels when it perceives--light!
Three months later, the same happened for Channa, and, during the following four months, for two of our children as well.
And we were baptized.
All hail, Holy Spirit!
Newbies think that everything changes, and, in fact, they are right. Everything does change. However—as in the famous cliché—while everything changes, everything remains the same.
Except for that one detail.
Ah! That detail!
That detail is the Jesus detail.
Newbies assume that everything will get easier. No.
At least for me as a newbie, dealing with the things of the world got harder, not easier.
It took me a long time to understand why dealing with the things of the world should get harder, not easier. It’s because of that one detail I mentioned above, the Jesus detail. It’s because, for the first time, the things of the world became known to me for what they really are.
As a newbie, suddenly I had perspective which I had not had before. By means of my new perspective, I knew that the things of the world—formerly everything—were in fact lesser. They were base, profane.
Now, it was God things that were—and remain--everything.
While I was a Jew, God things were not everything. I regret this, but it was true. They were important, yes indeed. Even vital. But some God things were products of my intellect, hand in glove with my sense of poetic and metaphorical delight.
Many God things while I was a Jew had neither the reality nor the puissance that they acquired upon my rebirth.
Upon rebirth, I was annoyed that my struggles with worldliness continued to abrade me. The world was too much with me, even then, when I had wanted its troubles to fade away.
I wasn’t alone in this. Other newbies discovered the same thing. Even a very early newbie.
One biblical book was written by Jesus’ older half-brother sometime during the period 44 to 49 A.D. James is the name of Jesus’ half-brother. James’ letter is the earliest written document to have been included in the biblical canon.
The letter is written to members of the contemporary church…which, in one way of understanding, is to us, now, who suffer under the burden of the things of the world, as was the case for newbies two thousand years ago.
The letter is an exhortation, coming from a man who, at first, was an unbeliever in his half-brother’s divinity and then came to Christ—dynamically in the same way I did, although obviously with a profound difference since he knew the Lord personally.
I am fond of reading James’ letter. That’s because it is addressed to me.
My re-birth has not removed the world and my sins away from me. My sins, which mirror the world’s fallen nature, must be fought all the time.
And what does James, formerly a newbie, have to say in exhortation to me?
Does James write a lofty theology? No. James’ time of writing was too early for that. Theology had not yet had time to develop loftiness. Instead of being lofty, he’s practical, James is. In his letter, he asserts the real, the daily struggle.
“Gird your loins,” James seems to say.
I suffer from all the attacks James enumerates. Particularly one of them is my oppressor at the moment I write this post.
James admonishes us to fight. He shows us our weapons.
Possibly you, reader—newbie or otherwise—possibly you suffer from one or more of the attacks, as I do.
A gift of my new birth is that now I can speak directly to the Lord, when I am wretched. Here goes.
It shames me that you, Lord, should see each lapse of mine.
That’s what I say. That’s the core of my confession. But sometimes I add this--
You know my weakness and yet you have drawn me to yourself. For this reason, I am grateful, and for this reason, I continue to ask for your protection. If it is your will, may I fight successfully and may my soul be returned to you, as promised by your infinite love.
Then there’s nothing else to say, so I conclude--
What about you, reader?
“Terrible. I scarcely knew what to do.”
My pastor watched me.
“Shock.” I was hunched in my chair. My hands were clasped between my knees. I could feel that he was watching me, but I wasn’t watching him.
“It’s sin,” he said.
We were in his office, exhausted, back now from our second day at the suicide house. “It’s sin,” he repeated.
I looked at him. “I’m so confused.”
“Let me ask you this. Do you know that it’s sin?”
“Does he know that it’s sin?”
“I don’t think so.”
We were speaking of one of the family members with whom I had sat for hours and sometimes prayed and sometimes just sat and sometimes listened to his plea to know why, why, why?
“You are still a baby in the deaconate. You will grow in discernment.”
“I hope that’s true. I hope he grows, too.”
“He’s not born yet. Not at all. Perhaps this is the Lord’s invitation, for him. I know he’s had several others.”
A flash went through my head. What kind of Lord is that? That’s the flash that went through my head.
What I said is, “You’re saying this…horror is one of several invitations?”
“The Lord continually invites those among the elect to come back to Him.”
“This way? This was an invitation?”
“Dikkon, that man surrounds his anxiety with words. He doesn’t want to be confronted by the Lord. He wears his words like armor. The Lord, who is straight with men like him—they don’t want to be confronted by the Lord.”
“I’m here in your office with this event hanging on my heart—where it will hang forever—because you proposed me as a deacon, and the body voted me in. And here I am.” I grimaced. “Thanks.”
He smiled, but thinly. “There is no logic about it. It’s not logical.”
“That’s what I told him.”
“Well, you were right to tell him that.”
“Suppose he comes back to me?”
“First, don’t borrow trouble from the future. Did he ask to come to you?”
“‘Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.’”
“You can tell him that it’s sin.”
He rose from his desk and came around and sat next to me in the other chair. “Listen to me now, Dikkon. Listen to this, now. It’s not a sin; it’s sin.” He sat back and watched me. I tried to watch him back.
He pressed on. “Plain sin. Sin is like the air we breathe. We don’t breathe an air; we breathe air. Sin is everywhere, all around us. We are fallen creatures in a fallen world. You can tell him that it’s sin.”
“I was a salesman for twenty-eight years. You can’t sell something to someone who doesn’t want to buy it.”
“As a deacon, your job isn’t sales. Your job is to listen sincerely, to give love, and to tell truth. The Spirit is in charge of who will, or who will not, accept the love that is offered and be changed by the truth.”
With a grimace, I said, “That’s a relief.”
“We preach Christ crucified. You’re not selling anything. But if you had a product, your product would be the answer to sin.”
I left the office and went out to the beach. The good thing about being retired is that you can go out to the beach whenever. Other people work fifty weeks so they can go out to the beach for two.
Perhaps I couldn’t stand to be a deacon if I couldn’t go out to the beach whenever. Being a deacon takes a whole world-full of standing in the face of sin. And praying—and I’m not that good at praying.
It was cooler at the beach. The wind was off the ocean. The cool wind had driven some of the vacationers off the beach. The tide was low. I could walk out across the long sandbar all the way to the rocky islet at its other end.
My left knee was hurting that day, and I couldn’t seem to get my back quite straight, so it hurt, too.
“Maybe it’s the suicide,” my wife suggested when I complained that morning. “You should rest.”
“I can’t rest.”
“You’re all tense.”
“Thank you, I know. But I can’t rest. I need to go see Pastor.”
I climbed to the top of the rocky islet. There’s a place I’ve found on the seaward side of the islet where I can settle in among the boulders almost as though I were settling into an easy chair, so comfortably shaped the place is.
Fifty feet above the crash of the surf. Looking seaward. Nothing beyond me but open ocean with, that afternoon, three boats sailing far out, making their way southwestward toward the big commercial harbor miles and miles away.
I’m alone there. There’s no muddle.
But, yes, there’s sin.
There is one man-made device on that islet. It is a small monument cemented into the rock at the islet’s top, about eighteen inches high, commemorating the drowning of a freshman from a local college, at that spot, forty years before.
In deepest winter, I go regularly to my granite easy chair, at night, when the tide is low enough that I can walk out there, the colder the wind the better. During all of my nighttime winter visits to my islet, I have never seen another human being.
Once, during the previous winter, when I knew the tide was rising, and being aware that I had better rise, too, from my easy chair and climb over the islet’s top and descend down to the sandbar in order to cross it back to the beach—before I should need, dangerously, to wade—I discovered that the wind had shifted from onshore. Now, it blew stiffly offshore.
A sliver of moon was just then rising, casting the merest of light. When I reached the sandbar, a flicker of movement in the sky caught my eye and then it was gone.
I looked again, and there was that flicker once more. And then, again, it was gone.
My third flicker lasted an instant longer than the others had done—a circumflex jigging against the night sky, just merely illumined by the moon—then gone.
What was it? Something was kiting through the night sky fifty feet above the beach.
And then I saw him, flickering in and out of view like his parasail above him. It was a man all clothed in tight black, flying the sail, arms widened to guide it with his lines, skiing across the sand.
Now and then, the force of the wind in this sail lifted him bodily off the sand entirely, and he was flying in an upright position through the night, only to come down again, to land on his heels in the sand, to ski another ten yards, and then, again, to be dragged into the sky.
I had a doppelgänger!
There are more than one of us!
My man had not seen me—I was dark against the rocks of the islet. I watched my man ski sand, and then he packed up and was gone.
I was glad to know that there are more than one of us. My secret sharer was a sharer so much in love with the night and with the wind and with the sea that he and I were, for that moment, one.
Our oneness was like an invitation from the Lord. “Come to me in your fallen world, and I will set each of you free—to soar.”
I remembered my sharer that day after talking with my pastor.
If needed, could I help my devastated man to fly even a little bit above his why, why, why into the sequence of no, maybe, yes?
Could I, even as a baby deacon?
Richard Eberhart, my father, was a poet. He lived with words. He was compelled to resolve mankind’s dual nature—devil and angel, as he frequently diagnosed our nature—and to ease our deepest hurts, with words. He sang of our dual nature, and of our deepest hurts, as a troubadour might have done in medieval times, or as a romantic might have done two hundred years ago.
Poems are like veils. A veil obscures actual, raw experience—a woman’s face, for example—and it produces in the observer an ideal view of that face. In actuality, the woman may have blemishes, but her observer who sees her through her veil does not observe her blemishes. Her observer sees the ideal. Therefore, the veil obscures what is behind it, but also the veil idealizes what is behind it at the same time; makes it finer.
All of us live in the raw experience of life. That is to say, we already know what life’s blemishes are; they are the rawness of our raw experience.
But when we view the raw experience through the veil, we experience it as it ought to be. If poets with their words put veils across the face of raw experience, then we who read their words are encouraged to grasp what is greater—or more true, or more beautiful—than what we already know.
Here is what I believe is true about of our human souls, a truth of how we are designed. I believe our souls are designed so that we yearn to know what is beyond our limited human knowing. Art—the poems, the veils—helps us with that. That is why art works for us. That is why poetry works for us. By art, we are taken beyond our limitations and shown a new perspective which validates how raw experience ought to be perceived by us.
Art allows us ought.
What about Scripture? Scripture, too, is a veil. It filters the absolute truth and the absolute light coming to us from God. Our souls are created to yearn toward that truth and toward its light. We yearn toward that truth and its light, but the veil is important because, if we should perceive God’s truth and light directly, we would die. God tells us this Himself. “I will make all my goodness pass before you,” God says, “But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:19-20 ESV)
God is the supreme poet of the universe. Another poet, Emily Dickenson, said this same thing, with admirable sparseness.
Tell the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
In my life circumstance, I grew among hundreds of writers, particularly poets, who trooped all the time through our house brandishing their manuscripts to interest my father. I listened with intensity to them and to their own fascination with their own voices.
What, really, were they saying? What did their veils obscure? Were they avatars of absolute truth and absolute light and yet dazzled gradually, so we should not be blind?
Of one thing I became convinced. Art is a great effort. It is plain hard work.
I was profoundly moved that those poets and other artists are creators out of nothing. As is the case with all writers, my father was doomed to begin with a blank page. A blank page is not an easy challenge for a human.
Our perfect Father creates out of nothing, too. But imagine the joyfulness of his loving creative task. His blank page is no paper, indeed. He begins with a blank universe, and, unlike poor Dad, He never needs to rewrite!
g Dikkon Eberhart
I hated that guy Clay.
He was thirteen. I was twelve. Each year, I was the youngest kid in the class. Not only was Clay thirteen, his two henchmen were thirteen.
It wasn’t just me who Clay bullied. He intimidated other seventh-graders. It was the sneering, that’s what it was. And it was the humiliation of his henchmen tormenting me, too.
There wasn’t any theme to Clay’s torment. It wasn’t that he was after my lunch money. It was that he was after me. Didn’t matter what it was about me he hated. Whatever he hated, he made me cringe.
I hated to cringe.
Dad had taken me aside one time, and he had explained about bullies. What you do about bullies is you fight them back. And you fight to win. At the time Dad explained about bullies, I thought, “Okay for you. You’re bigger than Clay.”
What was I to do? I just wanted to be left alone.
The humiliating thing about cringing at Clay is that Clay made me feel that I had done something wrong. He made me feel like I deserved the hatred he handed out.
His henchmen thought I deserved it, too. Some others in the class thought so, and they were supposed to be my friends. Semi-friends.
The problem got worse and worse. I was running out of different ways to walk home from school.
What I needed was someone to back me up.
What I needed was someone standing behind me who was bigger and stronger than me. Someone who understood what I was going through.
I knew Dad understood what I was going through, but also I knew he wanted me to fix my Clay problem myself because he had told me how. Late at night I would lie in bed and know I was scared to try and fix it myself. I didn’t want to confess I was scared to Dad. He wasn’t scared of anything, Dad wasn’t. But it would be good if someone who was really important understood that I was scared.
Not that I wouldn’t try to fix it. I’d try almost anything if I knew that I could count on that kind of someone to understand what I was going through and to help me by letting me know that whatever happened, I was safe.
I don’t mean safe from being beaten up by Clay, which is what Clay always told me he would do. No, I mean safe in the way I knew I was safe when I was younger and Dad and I were out in the boat and the waves were really big on the ocean and the spray was coming over and we were getting wet and the water was cold and my stomach hurt (just a little) and Dad was grinning and his eyes were dancing at me and I knew—I just knew—that everything in the whole wide world was absolutely perfect and, whatever happened, it was just exactly what was supposed to happen…and so I was safe.
If I could feel safe that way, I wouldn’t care if Clay beat me up. And anyway maybe I could beat him up instead. Dad said that when you are in the right—that’s what he said—when you are in the right, then you have strength like a knight in armor.
It would take a big thing for me to feel safe that way but even knowing that I could feel safe that way, and that I had felt safe that way, made me feel safe that way right now.
Right now – with CLAY COMING AT ME WITH HIS MEN!
A minute later, I didn’t really remember what happened. I could feel how strong my muscles were—like a knight’s. I could feel blood surging through me. I could feel my knuckles smart with pain.
I had I won.
Clay was the one with the bloody nose. His men led him away. He never came near me again.
Fifty-eight years passed. My fists, arms, and shoulders can feel that moment still.
During my adult years, there have been many times when I longed for that sense of utter safety, no matter what the outcome, just as I longed for it when I was twelve.
Now, at seventy, I have mastered many things since I was twelve, things that I would not even have dreamed of trying to master back then. My strength has gained elegant language with which I can describe it. That said, my weaknesses, too, are enhanced. They are more subtle than they were back then. The pain I sometimes inflict on others whom I love penetrates to their hearts and to mine also.
On the other hand, my love of the heavenly sacrifice that produces my strength is profound. My belief in Divine, personal, and sacrificial love, as it is directed toward me, is that it has the power to make my strength purer and my weaknesses shy.
Because it gave of Itself to save.
To all Christian brothers and sisters, may you enjoy a blessed Easter.
I said to her, “But if he asks you how, you can tell him that I told you, it’s the Lord.”
“He thinks it’s coincidence.”
“What we call coincidence is just another way for God to remain anonymous.”
We two sat on a bench beside the church parking lot. People were coming and going. It was midweek, but there were church programs going on.
The woman’s husband had just been hired for the job he needed—really needed and really wanted—against stiff competition and at the last moment.
I knew he was tolerant of his wife’s Christian commitment, this woman with whom I was sitting, but they were unevenly yoked, the two of them, and that was troublesome for her.
Perhaps it was troublesome for him, too, as I thought of it. I wondered whether he realized the uneven yoke was galling him, too. They were eight years into their marriage. I suspected that the glow was wearing off. They had the two daughters, and not much money. Yesterday, when she had called and asked to speak with me, she had a clutch in her voice when she confessed that she might be pregnant. This new job was a god-send.
But did he understand that the uneven yoke was the reason for their trouble, as I suspected that it was? Or did he attribute the trouble to the glow wearing off?
Her former prettiness had a scrim across it nowadays of doubt.
“What am I going to tell him about the job miracle?” she asked. “I can’t tell him I know it's that.”
“It won’t make any sense to him.”
It was early in my deaconate. I was unsure of myself. I wished it were the pastor who was sitting next to her, and not me. But it was me—she was one of our congregants who had been assigned to my spiritual care.
“He’s a good worker,” I said, not knowing what to say but desiring to probe her feelings.
She nodded. “He’s a good man. Good with our girls, I never worry about him fooling around.”
“Yet you sound sad.”
She smiled a little. “Not about that. He is a good man.”
She looked away. It was warm in the parking lot, this early spring. “I feel lonely.” She glanced at me shyly. She looked away. “Oh, maybe I should just grow up.”
A line from a hymn came into my head. When sorrows like sea billows roll….
“I think you should tell him that, for your heart. Tell him that the job—coming as it did, right now, just when you need it most, with maybe a new baby—that the job actually is a miracle, from the Lord.”
“He’ll laugh at me.”
“Tell him I think it’s from the Lord.”
She looked straightly at me. “He’s not going to want to hear that coming from you.”
“He knows you’re talking to me?”
She shook her head. Looked away.
“That’s not a good idea.”
She shrugged. I was glad that people were going in and out of the church. I identified a few of them who might see us, out in the open, just to remember.
“Look, he needs to know what you think about this. You need to press on past his laughing at you.”
“Draw him in.”
“He doesn’t want to come in.”
“Does he want to keep a barrier between you?”
Again, she shrugged. “He’s a guy.”
“He’s in charge. He’ll work it out. It’s okay. We’ll be fine.”
“But you’re not fine.”
“Maybe I should just grow up.”
She sat back with her hands crossed in her lap, looking elsewhere. I sat back also and looked elsewhere, too. Then I looked back at her. “You know, the Holy Spirit knows your situation. The Holy Spirit intercedes with Jesus. Anything might happen, and whatever does happen is for the purposes of the Lord.”
“I recognize that it’s a hard concept for those who don’t know the Lord.”
“What you said about coincidence?”
“He’ll say, why should your God desire to remain anonymous? How do I answer that?”
“God’s purpose is to save us, to have us with Him. His purpose is for us to be able to glorify Him. But He didn’t create us as slaves. It only counts when we come to Him by our free will. That’s why He desires to be anonymous. Miracles are His intervention, but we need to figure that out—that they are His, and that they are for us—by ourselves.”
She thought a minute and then touched my arm lightly. “That might intrigue him. He likes figuring things out, how things work.” Then she smiled, brightly this time. “He is, after all, a guy.”
I smiled back at her. “Keep pressing.”
Then she startled me. “No,” she said, “enticing.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Then we prayed together, beside the church parking lot in the early spring. I was early in my deaconate. I was unsure of myself. But I liked that she had said enticing.
Really—at least I knew this much, even that early in my deaconate—really enticement is the way of the Holy Spirit.
[Circumstance changed to protect the still seeking.]
I’m reading TOUCHING HEAVEN, by cardiologist Dr. Chauncey Crandall, which chronicles his discovery of Christian faith over many years, particularly focusing on the fact that all of our lives are accessible to Heaven’s touching us and therefore, in return, that we have an avenue open to us along which we may travel to touch Heaven.
Dr. Crandall is a man of medical science who might be understood, for that reason, to be unlikely to believe in the existence of a two-way thoroughfare between earth and Heaven. Yet, as his book attests, he has experienced many medical healings and demonic exorcisms that are inexplicable by mere medical science.
His book is engaging; I recommend it.
But the reason I write about Dr. Crandall’s book is that I was struck by a quote he includes, on page 68. The quote hit me in the head. The quote hit me in the head because of a struggle I encountered recently. The struggle relates to the struggle my wife Channa and I grappled with during 2016—a profound change of life and of denominational orientation.
Within the past year, we moved not only 860 miles from the Maine coast to the Blue Ridge of SW Virginia, not only from a community we had known for almost 20 years to one we had known only for 6 weeks, but also—and most importantly—from the Baptist Christianity through which we became Christians, after our many years as Jews, to orthodox Lutheran Christianity.
Consequently, our daily Christian experience changed. Among other changes, the theology by which our new belief system interprets Jesus’ earthly existence differs. Baptist theology arises from the Reform movement, whereas Lutheran theology arises from Luther.
The presentation by which our new belief system offers Jesus’ earthly function differs as well—non-liturgical to liturgical.
There are other areas of difference which are circumstantial--small church to large church, tiny staff who do everything, to large, departmental staff each responsible for a single thing, leadership in a deaconate by which I was assigned as deacon to my pastor and therefore had exhortatory authority in his regard, to friendly relations with my Lutheran pastor without any formal responsibility concerning his own Christian witness.
Channa’s and my fundamental faith as Christians
remains the same as it was when we came to Christ eleven years ago. However, the changes we have recently experienced make a significant difference regarding our Christian daily walks.
To accustom myself with grace and humility to this new reality has been my struggle in 2016. Here’s Dr. Crandall’s head-hitting quote.
The quote is used in a paragraph when the doctor is recounting his and his wife’s experience of suffering through the death, from leukemia, of one of their twin sons, aged nine. What was at that time Dr. Crandall’s relatively new and enthusiastically evangelical Christian faith sustained him both as a father and as a husband during this family crisis. In earlier pages of his book, he has demonstrated how, in both his professional and his family life, his Christianity has become for him a rewarding faith system.
The head-hitting quote is used to nuance his term “faith system.”
Dr. Crandall quotes evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, who states that faith is “always the instrument of new resources. Christianity is the release of the Holy Spirit into the world. Faith itself is not power, but the link to power.”
Christianity is the release of the Holy Spirit into the world.
What an assertion!
What a comfort for me!
Christianity is the gateway. It’s not the destination.
Grappling as I have been between the form of Baptist Christianity and the form of Lutheran Christianity, I have been confused. Which form seems right to me, and why? Which should I adopt? And, more pointedly, who am I even to believe that I have the right to make such a choice? Am I blasphemous to think so?
Here’s my basic prayer: I desire the Holy Spirit to empower the world.
In order to cause this to happen, which cloak of Christianity shall I wrap myself in, Baptist or Lutheran—or in any of the others, for that matter? I want my vote to count toward the victory I pray for. Which cloak shall I wear?
Bonnke’s quote does not say “Christianity allows for the release of the Holy Spirit into the world.”
If it said that, then one or another of the denominations within Christianity would need to be judged by a Christian as the right one, and then my struggle to ally myself with one or the other would be worth my time. Also, having aligned myself with one or the other, I would be membering-up with one of the teams, as though my assignment of my faith conviction might give my team new power.
No. Bonnke’s line says “Christianity is the release of the Holy Spirit into the world.”
This means something different. It means that the very existence of Christianity at all, in the first place—as it stands now, including its various factions, including their fractious relations—is the thing in itself that releases the Holy Spirit into the world.
I want the Holy Spirit to empower the world.
My requirement therefore is to strengthen my faith commitment to Christianity, first. It's the gateway.
Intellectually, there are fascinating differences between Reform theology and Lutheran theology. Experientially, there are deliberate differences in terms of gorgeousness between non-liturgical and liturgical presentations of the Gospel. Each of these areas of difference are to be explored for their value.
But Christianity comes first.
Do you agree?
Click on the comment button and tell me what you think. I’d like to know.