Don’t skim your eye down the words. Go back and say the words. Say them to yourself with measured solemnity, four syllables to each word. Sixteen syllables all together.
You are praising the Lord. This is the Gloria in excelsis Deo that you are pronouncing.
It was late morning on the eve of Christmas Eve.
I called my wife at the church. Since she and I came to Christ six years before, she had been our pastor’s secretary. I was checking in, concerned about errands I needed to finish while I was out on the road. We spoke briefly about the errands.
Then I asked her when she planned to come home from the church.
Uncharacteristically, she did not know. Usually, she knows. Usually, she knows because she knows what tasks she must finish. Usually, she responds with a time—an hour, two hours.
But this time, she was vague. It was odd of her—my wife is not a vague person, about time or about anything else.
“I don’t know,” is what she said, and she said it with a puzzled intonation, as though she wondered why she did not know and yet she said it anyway. I was puzzled, too, when I hung up.
I thought perhaps I should call her back, to ask if she were all right. I thought perhaps I should question her tone of puzzlement, which suggested she did not feel in charge of her time that afternoon. But I did not call her back. I had errands to do.
Here’s what I learned later.
After I hung up, an hour or two passed at the church. My wife was alone. She finished tasks. There is always a task to finish on a secretary’s desk. But, puzzlingly, she did not formulate a plan for the finishing of her tasks and for her getting home.
Then the church’s door opened and a man entered whom my wife had never seen. The man introduced himself and asked if the pastor were in. The pastor was not in.
The man seemed puzzled by the circumstance that the pastor was not in at the church. “But God told me I must come to see him now.”
“Well, would you like me to make an appointment for you, for later?”
“But God told me I must come to see him now.”
After all—this is how my wife reported the conversation to me later—after all, the man was puzzled himself. He had done what God had told him to do. Now, it was the pastor’s turn.
The pastor had left the church not long before, with several plans in his mind. He had not been certain about which of the plans he would undertake.
He would let my wife know which plan he would undertake, he said, when he knew himself.
My wife dialed the phone. The pastor answered.
“There’s a man here,” she said, and she gave his name. “He says he needs to see you.”
“I wasn’t certain about your plan.”
“Well, I haven’t selected my plan yet. I don’t know why. Right now, I’m eating lunch.” The pastor thought for a moment. “Can he wait ten minutes?”
My wife looked at the man. “Can you wait ten minutes?”
She turned back to the phone. “He can wait.”
“See you in ten.”
In ten minutes, the pastor arrived at the church. He and the man went into the pastor’s office. Two hours later, the man accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord, and his name was written in Glory.
Late that same night, on the eve of Christmas Eve, my wife and I relaxed on our couch.
Our house was aromatic with baking gift breads. Our Christmas tree was lit with white bulbs, wax candles burned among our mantel display of spruce boughs and red balls, and twinkling candles were alight in our windows so that, as my mother told me when I was a child, if the Christ Child should need a place to lie down, He would know by our candles that He would be welcome here.
My wife had explained to me the odd events of that afternoon—the man puzzled why the pastor should not be at his office when God had indicated that he would be, my wife puzzled about her inability to manage a time to return to our house so that she was available just at the right moment to make that telephone call to our pastor, our pastor puzzled that he had not selected among his plans for the afternoon so that he was, at the necessary time for the man, just eating lunch.
My wife lay back on the couch and put her feet in my lap. In silence, I stroked her feet. The wine was red in my glass, and white in my wife’s. We listened to Susan Boyle sing Hallelujah. The words of poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen filled the room.
We are busy people, she and I, with several jobs between us—retirees who still work hard, and I had a new book coming out, a memoir recounting my life as the son of a poet father—a father whose poetry molded my relationship with our Father.
Relaxing on our couch, weary after days and days of heavy work for both of us, nearing the completion of our Advent anticipation of a miracle—humbly trying to experience our anticipation with patience—the beauty of the season and of the Christ lights overthrew me. I wept.
My wife looked her question, but gently: this was her emotional husband.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
I wept for Cohen’s spare, elegiac poetry. I wept for Boyle’s easy voice. I wept for the still, calm beauty of our decorated home. I wept for giving gift bread to our friends, bread which my wife had created.
But mostly I wept that, on the eve of Christmas Eve, the Lord Himself had used my wife and our pastor for His own purpose, which was to bring another soul to salvation—that godly using, which had puzzled each of them, as their planning of their day was set aside.
[This piece was written and originally published in The Longer View in December 2014, which is the year its event occurred. I've re-posted it as closely as possible to the eve of Christmas Eve each year since.
May you as its reader enjoy a merry Christmas!]
This post grapples with a requirement that Christians should think—and speak—from within our worldview by alluding now and then to our worldview as though (as Focus on the Family’s Del Tackett would put it) we believe that what we believe is really real.
So, let’s start--
Are we humans able to prove the existence of God?
No, said Blaise Pascal, and he was correct; we can’t. Pascal was a seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician, the author of Pensees (“Thoughts,” published after his death in 1662).
Even Christians can’t prove that God exists, if the proof must be persuasive to a doubter, a doubter who will not be persuaded by evidence brought forward by Christians…since that evidence, this modern doubter would say, proves God’s existence only to those who already believe in God’s existence.
Therefore, God’s existence is a logical fallacy, a circularity—again this doubter would say—in the same way love or art or anything else which claims to be ultimate is a circularity.
There isn’t any such thing as ultimate truth, this doubter would say…and, even if there were, it wouldn’t be your ultimate truth.
Humans who are secularists only prove things they can record as data, study for pattern, repeat for completeness, explain logically, and place into an accepted cultural context—and not into a context that relies on the supernatural for its verification.
It is their senses that must prevail.
Yet every one of us has evidence we cannot trust our own senses!
“I saw my keys on the hall table, just yesterday. How can they possibly be in the refrigerator right now?”
Some of us believe in the religion of God, and some others of us believe in the religion of No-God. Still others keep their feet in each camp, and they resist making a choice.
Pascal kept his feet in each camp, until he logic-ed himself into selecting one of the two camps.
His choice is described in Section 233 of Pensees in the form of a wager. Here’s how his wager stacks up.
It is impossible to prove that God exists, that heaven exists, that Jesus is the Christ. Nevertheless, Pascal felt he must make a choice in order, purposefully, to live.
Choice One is to act as though nothing is ultimately true and to live accordingly, basing decisions only on personal desire and anticipating after death no mighty thing.
Choice Two is to act as though the Christian assertion is true and to live according to its injunctions, anticipating after death a very mighty thing.
If you select Choice One, and you’re right…no harm done, since nothing, really, was at stake after all. But if you are wrong…well, then, you have lost your soul.
Or the other consequences
If you select Choice Two, and you’re wrong…again, no harm done. And on the positive side, you may have been of some help to people around you while you played your role as a helpful person in a world in which neither help nor harm is of any great matter. But if you are right…ah!
Eternal life in Heaven!
Pascal concluded that the only rational choice is to proceed through life as though God does exist, as though morality has a basis more ultimate than our own desire for sensations, and that Jesus is the Christ.
This, he said, is the rationalist’s proper choice.
Doubters who struggle against Christianity usually do so because they feel most comfortable when distance is maintained between themselves and a powerful choice and its consequence, that is, any choice which resounds with absoluteness. God has His judgement-through-eternity thing going on, and they resist subjecting themselves to that.
They comfort themselves by taking the stance neatly articulated by Lawrence Durrell in Justine, Book One of his tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet (1957):
“For years one has to put up with the feeling that people do not care, really care, about one; then one day…one realizes it is God who does not care: and not merely that he does not care, he does not care one way or the other.” (emphasis in the original).
How world-weary and sophisticated a stance this is! If even God doesn’t care, then we are free men and women indeed.
All is permitted!
Durrell’s four interconnected novels are about Egyptian life from the late 1920s through the mid-1940s. He has said that, principally, the books are about religion and sex. Indeed, there is much written on both subjects in the books, particularly regarding the first.
What is revelatory, though, for my purpose here, is that despite the existence in the novel of a myriad of religions, all of them well articulated and forming the bases for the actions of a score of major characters, no character reacts to any of the novel’s lurid events on the basis of the moral code of any of the religions. They react, yes, but on secular bases alone.
The novel throbs with marital infidelity, drunkenness, chicanery, false prophesy, child prostitution, incest, financial skullduggery, political corruption, even outright murder.
The city of Alexandria, and its environs, as seen through the eyes of a supreme prose stylist--Durrell—and a world-weary, British, mid-century ex-pat--his protagonist, Darley—is an agnostic carnival.
Too, this same thing could be said of a world larger than just Egypt--of our entire western world.
From about 1850 through to the present—we in our world have had one hell of a time. The Christian church has been under the same management for 2,000 years—but recently it has been impeded by a strong headwind.
We Christians have struggled with whether, and how, we can prove the existence of God.
We Christians have struggled over what to do with, and how to evaluate, that proof—or lack of proof—about the existence of God.
We Christians have withstood about 160 years of culture crises that auger in one direction of the other regarding the existence of God.
What are we to do?
Here’s a potpourri of lurid headlines--
Human events in the West: the Franco-Prussian War irritated the perpetual antagonism between the French speakers and the German speakers and left them both, with their neighbors, bristling. Then the Great War slew ten million over possession of a few hundred yards of bombarded mud on either side of the line. Though the Great War stopped, no one truly won. The Great War dribbled out into the Spanish Influenza, which slaughtered many more millions who had survived the guns.
Germany suffered hyperinflation and glanced more favorably at that scoundrel Hitler. As the Great War wound down, Soviet Russia reared up Red, defeated the Whites, and, in 1929, Stalin instituted Collectivization, which slew another ten million in just its first three years alone. Then the Great Depression, worldwide. Following this, the Second World War, which slaughtered its own millions, and which introduced the world to genocide of such industrial magnitude and human depravity as to stagger the imaginations of all except Hitler and Stalin.
Intellectual events in the West: there are the God-debunking theories arising from Darwin’s survival of the fittest, and of Marx’s dialectical materialism. There is the challenge of Freud, of his assertion that God Himself--the very belief in God—is just the Id against which the Ego mightily struggles: that Christianity is all about sex and about the Ur family—that Oedipal one.
There are the aesthetic challenges against artistic standards—modernism in verse, cubism and Dadaism in painting, mere cacophony in music. There is Fraser also, who, in The Golden Bough, showed us that all peoples of whatsoever culture have the same structure of myths, indeed the same myths of dying and then rising gods, the same propitiations of the divine to secure a more favorable harvest…next time.
Jung is there, too, explaining the ubiquity of dying gods as archetypes of the collective unconscious, further lessening and humanizing what before had been numinous. Spengler is in the mix, who taught that history isn’t going anywhere, just around in circles. Too, there is Einstein, who showed us that even the security of a Newtonian universe is not to be counted upon, and that time itself is curved, light is susceptible to gravity, and nothing you thought you could point to is really quite there.
More recently, there is the worldwide challenge from slaughter-hungry Islam, the so-called “Religion of Love,” with its urgency to destroy all things western and to re-establish the seventh century.
Any sensible doubter might wonder how Christianity could survive under such a cacophony of attack, since it cannot prove the existence of God.
Yet it did survive—and it has survived—and not only did it survive, its orthodox, fundamentalist divisions have thriven. As compared to the dwindling fate of its accommodationist divisions with their hand-wringing self-doubt.
The doubters have every secularist reason not to believe. It would be so much easier, wouldn’t it, if their unbelief were right?
We Christians do not need to prove God exists.
Secularists need to prove things. We don’t need to prove things. We know things.
Does God exist?
When we Christians are confronted by a secularist who is amazed at the idea of a griffon, along with G. K. Chesterton, we may persuasively respond--
“I am even more amazed at the existence of a giraffe.”
[Expansion of a post originally published in 2014.]
During the past month-and-a-half, I have experienced a call. It is a powerful call of a spiritual nature. As I write this, I am responding to the call with due diligence.
I will describe the call first by taking you back to your most recent reading of the Gospel of Matthew, and to your understanding of The Final Judgment, which is pictured here, in sculpture, above the doorway of the Bern, Switzerland, Minster—or cathedral.
Note Christ, in gold, in the lower middle. Surrounding Christ in the archway is the Heavenly panoply of angels and apostles. The single apostle missing from the arch, appropriately enough, is Judas Iscariot.
I am taking you back to your most recent reading of Matthew, yes, but also I am taking you forward in time. I am taking you to The Final Judgment itself, whenever that moment of unwavering fatefulness should occur.
I selected the Bern Minster doorway as the illustration for this post because once I walked through that doorway, myself, underneath The Final Judgment.
I was deeply chastened by passing underneath The Final Judgment.
Inside the Minster, virtually alone in its enormous space, I experienced half a day of intense theophany. I had thought my time inside the Minster occupied about half an hour, no more. Instead, when I emerged later that day, I discovered I had been inside the Minster during five hours of timeless time.
God Himself had spoken to me in the Minster, and He welcomed me--He addressed me by name.
You’ll remember that Matthew the tax collector describes what will happen at some appropriate time in our future, a time about which “we know neither the day nor the hour.” MT 25:13 ESV. Last Sunday, in his sermon, our pastor helped us remember that Matthew passage, and what was said afterwards.
Matthew goes on--
“When the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” MT 25:31.
This will be The Final Judgement.
Sitting there, Jesus (the Son of Man), will divide all people, as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be placed on Jesus’ right side, and the goats will be placed on Jesus’ left side. The sheep are the godly, who are described in Matthew Henry’s 1706 Commentary as innocent, mild, patient, useful.
The goats, on the other hand, are the wicked, a baser kind of animal, who are described as unsavory and unruly.
These animal typologies bespeak the character of the two different types of humankind, and they reveal humankind’s two differing and eternal fates.
The Final Judgement is the culmination of humankind’s supernatural destiny, as awarded by God.
If you are among the sheep and are destined for paradise, in the 18th century, you may have been deemed innocent, mild, patient, useful.
Christ will honor you by saying, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” MT 25:34
From the foundation of the world!
Just think about that!
Perhaps at that moment, you may wonder how it could be that you--you, as you know you!--that you should have been determined to be among the sheep and not among the goats. I suspect that I would wonder that very same thing, if I were included among the sheep.
Jesus would explain.
“I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” MT 25: 35-36
Puzzled, you might remark, “I don’t remember doing any of these things for you, Jesus.”
Then Jesus would say the sort of thing that Jesus—being the Son of Man—says regularly, the sort of thing that crystalizes theological truth.
Here’s what Jesus would say--
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” MT 25:40
As Matthew Henry puts it, wisely as well as wittily, “At the height of his glory, [Jesus] will not disown his poor relations.”
You’ll notice that I have twice bolded the word useful where it appeared above.
Since coming to Christ a decade ago, my wife Channa and I have desired to be useful to the Lord, for His purpose. We have done what we could in the circumstances that we encountered.
The call I have experienced recently may open a new circumstance for me. I feel convicted with regard to prisoners and would like to visit them, in Christ.
Here’s one reason why. It’s purely a worldly reason.
For years before I retired from my career as a salesman of legal information, I had a very minor (and a purely secular) “ministry” at prisons in Maine and New Hampshire, particularly at New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord, N.H., set aside for New Hampshire’s most heinous offenders.
By regulation, a prison must provide access to the law for its inmates, that is, to the published record of cases, statutes, regulations and other information that could assist inmates to research their cases.
I sold these materials to prisons as well as to any other customer in my territory, either public or private.
In later years of my career, legal publishers shifted from publishing this information in print form to electronic form, delivered—for prison libraries—via absolutely secure and strictly limited Internet access.
At that point, it became part of my responsibility to visit the prisons and to teach librarians and inmates how to use this new electronic tool.
I had a training session scheduled at the Concord prison during the afternoon of September 12, 2001.
That morning, I called the librarian. Everyone in America was in shock, including each of us.
“Well, I guess if you still want to come, okay then come. I don’t know what else to do anyway. Nobody does.”
I drove the two-and-a-half hours from our home on the Maine coast to Concord and was let into the prison. Each door clanged shut behind me with its accustomed finality, but that sound was all the more reverberative of finality on that morning.
In the library, I was with about twenty-five men, all of whom had been convicted of major felonies (not that I knew what the felonies were; that was not allowed). I expected there might be angry men among them whose reaction to yesterday’s attack would be something along the lines of, “Good for the Muslims! I hate the United States.”
Instead, among the twenty or so who spoke up, their anger was otherwise.
“YOU DO NOT BOMB US! WE WILL SLAUGHTER YOU!”
So, already liking the patriotic spirit of some inmates in New Hampshire, I am doing due diligence about prison ministry in southwest Virginia.
It is my hope that some inmates will respond with awe to the work of the Holy Spirit, if the Holy Spirit should find my effort at witness to be useful.
(Note: the illustration above is copied from the Wikipedia article on the Bern Minster.)