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.)
“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:50 ESV.
I’ve been concerned about lying and about how it ruins public discourse in the western world that yearns toward secularism and progressivism today.
It used to be that the majority of public figures recognized their responsibility, as public figures, to communicate truthfully, in order to honor both the society of which they were representatives and leaders, and their own relationship with God—or at least with the fundamental rules that held society together, if they were skeptics.
Ralph Keyes, a writer of social commentary, published a book in 2004 titled The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. Deplorably, according to Keyes’ title, our time of dishonesty is to be characterized as an era.
Note: we don’t breeze past times labeled an eras very quickly.
Think of the Mesozoic Era. It lasted 180 million years (if you are a fan of non-biblical history).
If you are not a fan of non-biblical history, think of The Roosevelt Era, which lasted during FDR’s twelve-year presidency, but understand that the cultural impact of that era has extended its progressive energy even into our present, eighty-four years after 1933, when FDR’s presidency began.
I hope all of us reading this post—like me—would like to get past this ruinous Post-Truth Era.
Currently, many of our politicians, public intellectuals, media savants, academics, “experts,” and other talking heads practice cagy partial truth, and when challenged about some lie, they say they merely “misspoke.”
What can we do to reverse the impact on our culture of the lying that has ruined and continues to ruin us?
Well, character matters.
Which leads me to salt.
Here are words that pertain to salt. These words appear in the Bible in paragraphs that place them in metaphorical relationship to salt.
The word salt is used by Jesus as a qualifier noun when speaking to the fishermen and farmers He taught during the Sermon on the Mount – “You are the salt of the earth” Matt 5:13 ESV.
By Jesus’ use of the word salt, we today get a sense about how He characterized his listeners. He is saying his listeners are plain, straight-forward people, truth-tellers probably—truth-listeners for sure.
The salt to which Jesus likens them was used in their era for many purposes, importantly for the purification of meat that was to be used as a sacrifice. Therefore, the salt was an element of the sacrifice, and it had sacrificial intensity and rightness.
Salt also was used for antisepsis when applied to wounds, which made it healthy and therefore right. Salt preserved raw food and also it heightened food’s tastiness. Again, salt had rightness.
When the salt was pure, it was not ruinous of anything—it was right—and it was beneficial to everything.
When the salt was impure—had lost its saltiness—it was good for nothing except to be cast out onto the road where nothing was to grow and where the salt was to be trodden upon.
I said character matters. Salt matters.
Salt is powerful. A “covenant of salt” is a covenant that absolutely may not be broken (for example, refer to the surroundings of 2 Chron 13:5 ESV).
Salt, in Latin, is salis. The importance of the Latin word is so great that it has appeared in English in unexpected ways. The Romans salted their greens, from which act we derive our word salad. The Romans sometimes paid their soldiers with salt, so valuable it was, from which act we derive the word salary.
The Jews recommended eating salt at the end of a meal, as a preventative of halitosis.
But then, in the typical Pharisaical manner of the rabbis, laws were added to that beneficial custom about which the rabbis could insist—or could chide when the laws were ignored. Jews must not eat their after-supper salt off their thumbs, for doing so causes the loss of children; nor off their little fingers, for doing so causes poverty; nor off their index finders, for doing so causes murder.
Only Jewish middle fingers and ring fingers would do for the eating of Jewish after–supper salt!
Much of the salt used in biblical times in Israel and Egypt came from the Dead Sea (also known as the Salt Sea). The purest of the salt—the kind that was most righteous—needed to be mined out of the land surrounding the Dead Sea. Easier to get, though, was the deposited salt that peppered the shore line.
Want some salt? Go pick it up along the shore.
This salt, however, was not as pure as the mined salt. The seashore salt was laden with other elements than sodium chloride, because it was the sun-dried distillation of sea water. Consequently, in practice, this dried seawater salt was “salt that had lost its saltiness”—and it was good for nothing much, in terms of righteousness, except to be scattered on the road to inhibit weed growth, for the same reason the Romans salted Carthage after they defeated that city—so it would stay dead.
You could say that salt that had lost its saltiness lied about its promise.
A salty man or woman does not lie. A salty man or woman is righteous. A salty man or woman is pure…and is durable, and loyal, and faithful, and permanent—and any of the other words biblically used as metaphorical with regard to salt.
Mark reports that Jesus said to His disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
But notice this--
Yes, Jesus was speaking to His disciples, but Jesus is forever, and He is speaking to us ourselves today (Dikkon, this means you).
It’s not just the public liars who have ruined and are ruining our civilization today. Look into ourselves, readers, and pray for personal salt.
One year ago, in October 2016, my wife Channa and I turned off a busy thoroughfare in Roanoke, VA, and, with a real estate broker, drove up a curvy road onto the lower slope of Sugarloaf Mountain. It was a hot day.
It was always a hot day, we had discovered, during our first summer in Roanoke.
Summer? Blazing sun? In October?
This was terrible!
We were house shopping. We had identified three possibilities out of the many houses we had visited during the past weeks. Each of the three had demerits, but we were considering making an offer on one of them anyhow.
Earlier that day our broker had said, “I’ve got one other listing we should look at, okay?”
We turned off the thoroughfare. Driving up, I saw something ahead in the road. It was something I hadn’t seen much in Roanoke.
The road curved, and the entire area where the road curved was…in the shade!
Next to the shaded curve was a For-Sale sign. Could this be the house our broker had in mind? It was!
I walked into the house by about four strides, saw my first view of the split interior, and knew this was the house I wanted. Channa liked it, too, especially because I was so enthusiastic.
But it wasn’t just the interior design I liked.
I loved the huge oak on the house’s eastern side. I loved the two big maples on the house’s northern side. I loved the vast oak in the neighbor’s back yard to the south because that oak shaded half of what was to become our home. On our home’s western side, surrounding our back yard and patio, a half dozen other trees block the fire of the sun.
Our house swims in shade.
I loved the shade!
We bought the house, and here’s what the woman next door said when I went to introduce myself. “You poor guy, you have no idea what trouble you’re in.”
Shade is a blessing in Roanoke.
We are grateful for our trees, which keep our house cooler and reduce our cooling cost all summer long. The trees do that because they are covered with leaves. Come fall—which begins in November—the leaves turn yellow, and…they fall.
Billions of them.
Billions upon billions upon billions of them.
They inundate our yard, roof, gutters, porch, driveway, patio, parking area in back.
Our neighbor was right. The raking job is an enormous task. It is an enormous, on-going task, and it lasts through most of two months.
Fortunately, our son Sam loves raking and bagging. Our grandson Miles loves helping his grandfather and his uncle with the raking and the bagging. Our good-spirited granddaughter Ivria is willing to rake and bag, but what she loves most is throwing big handsful of leaves at her brother and uncle and grandfather when the leaves have been raked into their piles.
In Maine, where we had sixteen acres of forest and meadow, and the house was surrounded by deciduous trees as well as by pines, we had plenty of leaves, too, but, in Maine, I waited until the end of leaf-fall and raked everything onto a big tarp and hand-dragged several loads into the woods and dumped them.
That was rural life. In Roanoke, we are suburban, and we continually bag leaves up, day after day, and we stack the bags on the edge of the road, and the county hauls them away.
There is a God point to this blather about leaves. The God point is metaphorically about the last leaf to fall.
Here in Roanoke we get wind storms. We got a big one four days ago. It was a strong, cool wind (thank the Lord!) roistering through the trees from the northwest, sending that day’s billion leaves before it—like snow. We got a blizzard of leaves.
Have you noticed something about leaves?
They like moving in a gang. They all make up their minds at the same time, and then they do what the others do. When the wind comes along, they all let go and tumble, as though they were the crazy idea of some slap-dash painter, flinging yellow flakes of tinsel down the air.
But—no—not all of them.
Our blizzard died away. I went outside. The day was cooler than before, and the air was still now, with the sun bright and coming slantways from low down in the west. Everywhere that I could see, I saw inches—even a foot—of depth of leaves.
I had intended to start by sweeping the porch, but I stopped.
High in one tree, way up, there was one single yellow leaf all by itself out on the end of a twig. It hung there, very still. It caught my eye because it was brightly lit against the blue of the sky by a shaft of the sun.
I watched it for a time, standing as I was in the quiet yellow of the aftermath of the blizzard. That leaf seemed almost to be making up its own mind. It had hung on tight while the wind had buffeted it, and while all its friends had let go and had flown. It had hung on, waiting, maybe thinking it through.
What was it which that leaf was thinking through?
Perhaps its own allegiance to the Lord.
Everyone else had known what was right—what was manifest—to do. Everyone else had said, “We are a sweeping tide of Christian consciousness joyfully covering the landscape of the Lord.” And they had.
Why, I thought to myself, that last leaf is like I was ten years ago.
Of course, that leaf has no soul—it’s a leaf—I thought.
But, I thought, I am a writer and a chaser after metaphor. I have a soul. I have a soul, and I had hung on tight to my anchoring point during the nine months of my soul’s stormy struggle beyond Judaism toward its rebirth in Christ.
I had hung on, battling that stormy struggle through.
Yes or no? To deny or to accept? To let go and to go? Or not to let go and to go?
And—just as I reached this point in the framing of my thought—up there above me, after the end of the wind storm, that last yellow leaf let go.
As I had, too.
I watched that last yellow leaf flutter peacefully all the way down until it nestled comfortably with its yellow fellows. All of us at one with the Lord.
Of which biblical character are you burning to ask a question? Is there a mystery you’d like that character to clear up for you?
Who’s the character and what’s the question?
One time, my former Maine pastor, Dan, and I were enjoying debate about this matter. I said I would like to find Abraham and ask him, “Why did you say yes to the call of you (the Call of Abraham, as we speak of it nowadays) having never heard one word from Yahweh before and not even knowing who He is?”
Dan and I had a good time debating what Abraham might say—I was hoping for something like “I was powerless to resist”—and then I asked Dan, “What about Jesus?”
“Oh, well,” he answered, “there are about two hundred things I want to ask Jesus right away. But really, the first might be this. ‘What did you write in the sand?’”
I laughed. “Me too!”
I mean, it’s the only time Jesus ever wrote anything.
“I’d give worlds to know,” Dan said. “Whatever he wrote probably got all scuffed before an apostle could read it and then write it down for the record.”
“I kinda like the idea that Jesus was a writer.”
“Didn’t do it much.”
I smiled. “Didn’t need to. Not like us ink-scribblers.”
You remember the scene.
Jesus was in the temple courtyard, and there were people all around Him asking questions, and He was answering the people. It was early morning.
I was there. You were there. Remember?
All of a sudden, a group of scribes and Pharisees pushed their way through the crowd. They were pulling after them a woman. She was struggling to get away from them, but they held her tight. Her expression was horrified. She shrieked and jerked back and forth, but she could not escape.
“Teacher,” the captors cried out, “this woman was just caught in the very act of committing adultery. The Law says—Moses says—she must be stoned to death. Right now. We have our stones right here.” Some of the scribes and Pharisees brandished their stones in their hands. The stones were heavy and sharp.
“What say you?”
Jesus looked at the woman. He looked her in the eye. She still jerked but her movement and her expression softened a little. She was a woman, after all, and He was looking her right in the eye—she a mere woman, who had just been doing what she had just been doing, and even so He was looking her right in the eye.
I remember that I was waiting to hear what Jesus would say. We all were waiting. Some of us could tell this was a scribe and Pharisee trick, what they were always doing, trying to trap Jesus.
What would Jesus say?
Instead of saying anything, Jesus bent down and, with his finger, he began to write words in the sand. Right there, right before the scribes and the Pharisees, and before the woman, too.
The scribes and the Pharisees were staring down and reading what He wrote.
I pressed closer and tried to see what he was writing, but I couldn’t get close enough. After a while, when the whole crowd had become silent, Jesus stood up. He looked at the scribes and the Pharisees, one at a time, in their eyes.
After He had looked at each one of them in the eye, He said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again, he looked each one of them in the eye.
There was silence. Even the woman now was standing still, mesmerized with the moment, staring at Jesus.
Again, Jesus bent down and He added more words to his former words written in the sand.
In a moment, the oldest of the Pharisees dropped his stone. I was startled. Another of the Pharisees dropped his stone, and turned away. That second one let go of the woman’s sleeve. A third Pharisee dropped his stone and let go of the woman’s hair.
As Jesus wrote more words, more stones dropped, until all the stones had been dropped, and all the scribes and the Pharisees had turned away and melted back into the silence of the crowd.
The woman stood alone.
“Woman,” He said, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, my Lord.”
“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
She hesitated. She took a step back. He was silent. We were all silent.
The woman took another step back. She seemed to straighten from the bent posture that horror and fear had imposed on her, in anticipation of her immediate death by stones.
He was looking at her, still looking directly into her eyes.
She reached out one hand, hesitantly, as though to say something or to touch Him, but she dropped her hand.
She half turned away, now looking at Him over her shoulder.
He was looking at her, still looking directly into her eyes.
She pushed back into the silence of the crowd. The crowd opened a way for her. Her steps became lighter, airier. Now she was away from Him. She turned toward Him once more, and He was looking at her, still looking directly into her eyes.
One last time, from further away, she turned and looked at Him, and He was looking at her, still looking directly into her eyes.
She skipped, she went, and she sinned no more.
What had Jesus written in the sand?
I don’t know. I’d like to ask Him. When I get my chance,
I hope I will.
Do you want to know what I think His answer might be?
Here’s what I think Jesus’ answer might be.
“I was writing their names.”
Full disclosure: the revelation of the final line of this story was told to me by a friend who is very astute. He understands relations between the timeless, eternal, sovereign truth of the Lord and the cramped, scraping, sin-ridden jiggle of mankind.
Reader, of which biblical character are you burning to ask a question?
Is there a mystery you’d like that character to clear up for you?
Who’s the character and what’s the question?
Please let me know; I'd love to hear from you about it!
In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers says the following (it’s part of his meditation for June 15).
“There are times when there is no illumination and no thrill, but just the daily round, the common task. Routine is God’s way of saving us between our times of inspiration. Do not expect God always to give you His thrilling minutes, but learn to live in the domain of drudgery by the power of God.”
Yet I do not, by nature, champion this sort of wisdom. I have always preferred the high moments that God provides, the miracles.
What about you?
I ought not to prefer the miracles. I’ve experienced miracles enough, but I need to remember that the Lord doles them out for His purposes, not for mine.
The illustration for this post is Soul in Bondage by American symbolist painter Elihu Vedder, from 1891-2.
Vedder (1836-1923) was influenced by the Pre-Rafaelites and lived mostly in Italy and on the Island of Capri, especially after the financial success of his fifty-five illustrations of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam (1859).
When there’s nothing left but the drudgery, this painting is an image of the way my soul seems bound. It’s a romantic image, filled with emotion, pleasing to me in my ill-considered effort at self-protection and aloneness.
Self-protection and aloneness violates the law of love, which emanates from the Almighty Himself. Self-protection is a sin. Aloneness is the consequence of that sin.
During the ordinary carrying out of our days, we use some self-protective behavior properly—we look both ways before crossing the street, we lock our doors at night, etc.
What is sinful is spiritual self-protection.
In his book Inside Out, Dr. Larry Crabb discusses our desire to be loved, which is intense. Sinfully, there are those of us who take a defensive posture despite our desire to be loved. Out of fear of being hurt or of re-encountering past hurts, sometimes we sin by disengaging ourselves from the very thing we want, and we stand aloof.
Nothing can touch us.
The greater our level of spiritual self-protection, the less we lovingly involve ourselves with other people and with the author of love Himself. When I suffer from this sin, I congratulate myself because I imagine my life as lived romantically within this Vedder painting.
“Ah, life,” I remonstrate.
“How canst thou?” I complain.
“Don’t you pity how captive I am?”
What about you, reader? Does this describe you?
But there is another Vedder painting (see below).
Lazarus Rising from the Tomb, 1899, is a painting of Vedder’s which he considered a favorite.
The moment of Lazarus’ resurrection is a dramatic event much depicted in Renaissance art and afterwards. Many of the depictions show action and gestures and multiple characters and heavenly symbolism.
Vedder’s representation is different. It’s a close-up.
We see Lazarus just at the moment when life and awareness are restored to him.
Though Lazarus is four days dead, and his sisters feared he would be stinking of decomposition at this moment, in this painting his flawless, handsome face bears no mark of death.
His body is still physically contained and shadowed within the cave which was his tomb. But he has been called forth by the Messiah, so the light of the sky (and of Heaven) illuminates a portion of his burial clothes and just touches his nose, lip, and chin.
Though renewedly alive, Lazarus has no expression, no visible thought. He is still.
If anything shows on his face, it is sadness.
He has been restored to life but not yet into the welcoming arms of his sisters, nor into the loving intimacy he had with his friend Jesus.
In actuality, he has been restored to life by Jesus so that those Jews observing the moment can witness the life-giving power of the Messiah, as brought into the Jewish world from God.
In this moment depicted by Vedder, Lazarus’ own story has not yet begun again. He is alive, but he is alive as an example only. He does not act.
His gaze is inward. He ponders. Here is what he may ponder.
Later, we assume, Lazarus will love again his sisters and his friend. He will eat and drink with them. He will walk on the road with them. He will experience day and night with them.
But for now, rising up from what was probably a painful death back into a life, might he be fearful of the re-experience of his pain? Might he, at first, be tempted toward self-protection against life itself?
How would it be for you, if you were he?
You were dead. Now you are alive. How are you to proceed?
Observing Vedder’s Lazarus, that’s what I think anyway.
Resurrection is a miracle, a time of inspiration of God.
It is other than the drudgery of ordinary life.
Here’s the challenge God has given you: you must incline yourself away from self-protection and toward the law of love.
But will you?
Remember throwing pebbles in the water when you were a child?
We have four grandchildren living with us now. The three of them who are six, five, and two are excited to throw pebbles now, and the five-month-old will almost certainly join in with his brother and sisters as soon as he learns how to walk.
I remember being fascinated by the concentric ripples. I loved to watch as the ripples spread out across the water’s surface and diminished in size while still continuing with their energy, gradually slackening until they were gone. But if the ripples reached the shore, they kicked up tiny breakers there, which wetted the sand where it was dry.
Of course, I was a strong boy, and I loved big rocks, and I wanted to make the biggest splash. A big splash and big ripples made me feel good. But here’s a secret. I would not have revealed my secret answer to you if you had asked me, at ten, which I liked better, a big splash or the smaller ripples.
Honestly, I liked the smaller ripples better. They had subtlety. You could see how their effect impacted the water for a long, long time.
I’m thinking about ripples right now because of a Facebook post I read a few days ago.
A woman friend of mine received a message from someone out of the blue. With her permission, I reproduce it here verbatim (names have been removed).
I'm not sure you remember me. I met you 20 years ago outside of Women Services on Main St in Buffalo I was only 15yrs old. You saved my sons life ❤ I was alone, there to start a two day procedure. Day one of the would be termination they instructed me to wait at home come back the next day and have it completed. However, that night I felt my son move. The next day on my way into the building I met you. If I'm not mistaken I believe you read me some scriptures and made me aware of other options. So I decided to have the laminaria removed and continue with the pregnancy. That day you took me home and you never left my side, took me to your church, linked me to several agencies. You were truly a blessing to me. Today my son (name removed) is almost 20yrs old away at (name removed) College beginning his sophomore year. I miss him so much he's the best thing that ever happened to me. When I think of him I often think of you. I often wonder how many other women you have been a blessing to. You have always held a place in my heart. Peace, love and blessings always ❤
What a delight this was to read!
How mightily the Lord has blessed the woman who wrote to my friend, and her son.
My friend was the Lord’s pebble.
The Lord splashed my friend down in Buffalo. Ripples began. My friend spoke to a fifteen-year-old. The fifteen-year-old was preparing to abort her son on the morrow. That night, a ripple passed through her womb, and she felt her son move. The next day, another ripple brought my friend to the Women’s Services building, again, with a Scripture. And so the ripples continued to widen.
My friend had made a friend for life…for LIFE.
She had made a friend for her own life, of course (which fact remained unknown to her), but most importantly for the life of that fifteen-year-old mother and her son.
And yet the ripples from that single splash continued to widen. Twenty years passed. Twenty years! Perhaps during those twenty years the writer of this message has told other people how that ripple of the Lord broke against her dry sand and wet her parched soul. Wet her and refreshed her enough that the ripple reached her womb and floated her son inside her, so she felt and thereby knew him.
And more to this.
When I read this message, it had been public for two days. In that amount of time, 874 likes had occurred, and 143 comments had been written, not a single one of which deplored that the Lord had dropped a pebble.
May the Lord be praised for dropping that single pebble He dropped twenty years ago.
The Lord keeps right on dropping His pebbles. His will be done.
Faced as we are today by a secular culture that preaches the rightness of aborting babies, many of us Christians feel stymied and afraid.
But twenty years ago, a friend whom I did not yet know, spoke in a timely way to a fifteen-year-old girl, which caused the love of the Lord to flow into her and to stop her in the very act of killing her son, and for at least those three persons—and twenty years later, for 874 others--the world changed.
During my doctoral work in religion and art in the late 1970s, at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, in Berkeley, CA, I met Stephen DeStabler. We discussed his work while we stomped around, or we stood and contemplated, what he called his “boneyard.”
His boneyard was the heaps of broken, rejected or half-finished hunks of clay sculpture which littered his backyard. DeStabler worked in huge scale, so the broken and rejected and half-finished hunks sometimes measured several feet on a side.
Nothing delicate was there in the boneyard except—startlingly—now and then there was a broken clay face, half buried among and rising from the shards.
My doctoral program sought two things from its aspirants.
Each of us was charged to produce one piece of art of sufficient excellence and integrity to pass a professional test—that is, to be professionally performed, exhibited, published, etc.
Each of us was charged to write a thesis which bridged the gap between religion and art—using the academic languages of each—focused on the particular art piece we had created.
DeStabler was thirteen years my senior. When he was at the stage in his own life to be a doctoral student, I believe no academic programs such as ours existed. Had there been one, DeStabler might have applied. He would have been a perfect candidate.
(I was the single student who sat on our program’s Admissions Committee; I would have voted yes to his candidature!)
I enjoyed DeStabler’s personality and intellect, and we met several times. Because of the needs of my thesis, I was keenly excited to know how artists who are Christians (not Christians who happened secondarily to be artists) develop an iconography which communicates Christian thought or aspiration to their audiences, and draws the same back out from them.
One day Stephen showed me pictures of his early paintings before he focused on sculpture. I noticed that he used cruciform patterns sometimes although the overall pictures were not religious in image. I asked about this.
(Although the following is from memory, many of its sentences are verbatim.)
‘Was this deliberate, when you were young?’
‘Deliberate, yes, in terms of the way the element works for the design.’ He laughed. ‘But it wasn’t theological.’
‘You really want to know why those cross elements appeared, at first?’
‘I was young when I began to draw, and our family had my grandmother’s farm we could go to for school vacations. There was a big barn. Its rafters were exposed—huge big old pieces of heavy timbers that had been up there under the roof for years. I used to go sketch in the barn. The rafter timbers repeated themselves, one crossed set after the other, down the whole length of the barn’s high loft. I was excited about the way they looked, and I drew them again and again.’
He looked at me and grinned.
I grinned back. ‘Only that?’
‘You’d be surprised how often this happens to us. Nothing religious. Just, I liked the way the rafters looked, crossed. First it was just the image—you know?—the image of the crossed timbers.’
‘Critics have commented on your cruciform imagery as being Christian.’
‘Yes. But that’s after I began to use it, not just to have it there.’
So that’s how it happens, I thought. Funny! One in the eye for over-serious critics! Just a bunch of old barn rafters! Marvelous!
So here’s what I learned from Stephen. Images come in all the time. They are reflected then in any artist’s creations—in their painted or sculpted work, in their music, in their writing, in their dance or theatrical performances.
Christian artists receive from anywhere, too, just as secular artists do. But Christian artists create out of their soul-deep awareness of their world as one suffused by the redemption and truth of the Christian supernatural.
Their receipt is unconscious. Their use of it—their crafting of it—is conscious.
Stephen’s Crucifix was completed in 1968. The corpus is life-sized. (In research for this piece, I have not learned its exact height, but I remember it vividly. It seemed taller than me, with its surrounding base making it even more imposing. And it’s hung quite high, its bottom perhaps ten feet above the floor.) It’s made of high fired clay.
It’s attached, deliberately off-center, to the concrete wall of the sanctuary of Newman Hall’s Holy Spirit Chapel on the University of California’s campus in Berkeley. While still wet, the cement was pressed with upright planks, later ripped away, which have left the impression of wood grain behind.
DeStabler also created other pieces for the sanctuary, an altar, tabernacle, lectern, and presider’s chair. The overall architectural design is by Mario Ciampi.
I love the Crucifix.
I hate the sanctuary.
I love the Crucifix. This is not the historical Jesus. In contemporary Christian art, Jesus is often pictured as though he were a Hollywood hipster, our culture’s effort to make him familiar, pretty, safe.
No. This Jesus with his expressionless face is not safe.
Instead, as Newman Hall’s brochure from the 1970s says, “This is a Christ at the point of breaking through the agony toward resurrection.”
This is God incarnate emerging in resurrection from death, transmuting, about to ascend.
But the impact of the sanctuary as a whole is off-putting. There is nothing about it that speaks sanctuary.
Yes, it has the necessary pieces of furniture—and they have interest because they were fashioned by DeStabler—but they, and the space around them, do not in any way mirror the power of the Crucifix.
It is as though they are a not-well-executed stage set, kind of random, on which, nevertheless, in the far upper distance, a miracle is occurring.
But--wait—maybe that’s the way it really was!
Wish I could go back and ask Stephen.
Among everything else, was he deliberate to craft the intensity of my love/hate reaction? And resolve it with his Crucifix?
If so, now that’s art!
We are instructed to stay awake because the moment when Jesus will come again in glory is unknown to all except God (see Mark 13:37 ESV).
As for me, how do I prepare myself? What tools do I have?
These are my tools.
I have Scripture. In the Bible we learn the story of how humankind has been condemned to the valley of death. Original Sin doomed us. But God prepares for our salvation, to arrive at a time unknown except by Him.
I have prayer. We may open our souls in conversation with Him. While we are still in the valley of death, we may open our souls for thanksgiving, for supplication, and for intercession.
I have discipline. We can practice the spiritual arts of the Christians who have gone before us, who used the disciplines of simplicity, of solitude, of submission, and of service to glorify God, who knows when the time-that-will-come, will come.
And I have art. We humans reflect on, mirror and sanctify our own experience of humanness with what we create. The energy by which we create is a gift from God, by which He encourages us to send glory back to Him.
Some of what artists make honors our Creator. Some of what artists make does not honor our Creator. When I was young, art that dishonored the Creator sometimes seemed excitingly revelatory to me.
“Look, this thing that has been created is about brilliant us, not about dreary Him. How splendid we are!”
Now, at my older age, not so.
Among the arts, the one that attracts the most of my attention is visual art—drawing and painting. That’s because I am a writer, and there are times when I can’t stand words any more.
Sometimes I need to see and not to say.
Revelation is a favorite theme of my study, when I’m seeing. What did it feel like—what did it look like—how was it for that person when the truth of God finally penetrated in?
For example, consider Caravaggio’s The Penitent Magdalen (1595).
Mary Magdalen is the woman of bad repute who came into the house of the Pharisee, where she knew Jesus was dining there. She stood behind Jesus, weeping. Her tears wet His feet. Then she knelt and dried His feet with her hair while kissing them, before anointing them with an ointment she had brought with her in an alabaster flask.
As described by Luke (see 8:36-40), this scene glows with humility, repentance, and submission.
Christ shocks his pharisaical host and others at the table by saying to Mary that her sins are forgiven, and explaining to them that “she [has] loved much.” To Mary, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
It is this moment, which Caravaggio captures in his painting, when Jesus speaks to the woman and forgives her sins. It is the moment of revelation.
Grace has come to Mary, and her life has changed. Darkness and sin hold her captive no longer. She will follow Jesus. In fact she is with Him at the Crucifixion, and she is the first woman to whom He revealed Himself in His resurrected state from the tomb.
These are not small fulfillments for a woman who has come down to us by tradition as a prostitute and, today among Catholics and some others, is accorded to be a saint.
Among Renaissance masters, Caravaggio recreates religious moments as sacred drama by staging them with ordinary figures in ordinary poses, vivid contrasts of light, rich textural colors, and a taste for simplicity over the idealized.
Who is this woman who has been told that she is forgiven, that she may—finally—go in peace? If tradition is correct about her profession, she has allowed herself to be open to anyone who would pay for her rich clothing and for her adornments, even for the alabaster flask from which she draws the ointment for Christ’s feet.
At this moment when she has been told her sins are forgiven, she has stripped off her gold and her jewels and has flung them to the ground.
Yet her pose in this painting is still, not active.
We see her from higher up, as though she has somehow become small. We conclude that she has subsided from that tight moment of tossing the hateful baubles away. She is now still.
What we stare at is the dramatic line of flesh from her ear down to her shoulder. It is colored ordinarily, like plain skin, not made up with alluring coloration and probably fragrant powders. Against the darkness behind her, that dramatic line is seen by us as though lit from above by a glow perhaps from heaven. It makes visceral sense to us that her face has dropped exhausted toward her breast.
Her hands seem to clasp her belly, as a woman does who claps her pregnancy, and as another biblical Mary, Jesus’ mother, is often pictured, clasping Him.
Two women—one used and abused and spangled with shining stones, just now relieved of sin. The other—virginal—who was the vessel by which the Savior of the world came into the world, in human form, and forgave not only the other woman but us all.
I would stay all day with Caravaggio for he keeps me awake.