A Collision of Absolutes

14 07 2014

messageinabottlesigI’m not a chemist by trade.  It just happened that nearly all of the available chemists had tried and failed.  By “failed,” I mean that they inspected the ocean by the direct method of leaning over the railing of the boat and examining it assiduously, as opposed to the intended laboratory method.  While it is true that I was able to perform the task of quantitative chemical analysis while getting banged about the insides of a lurching craft without getting seasick, I must admit that the experience was not exactly a pleasure cruise.  They told me that I would be on the boat for the first day only, and then I was to be on standby, on terra firma, while Carlos, the real chemist, carried the analysis through the rest of the study period.  As soon as he yawned, I knew he was a goner.  By the end of the second analysis, he turned to Felix, our trainer, with a pained look on his face and said, “Felix, I’m not going to be able to do this.”  At that, I was officially the new chemist.

With Carlos lying on a bench in the kitchen, dangerously close to our entire display of food, moaning and rubbing his face, I continued the work with Felix.  In his heavily Spanish-accented way, Felix tells me, “I don’t know why everybody get sick.  I do this many time and feel fine.”  Felix, I conclude, has a botched-up vestibular system, and I tell him as much.  His canals have got to be about one degree short of a full semicircle, or something.  As I’m gripping the counter, waiting for the meter to stabilize, he’s running back and forth across the room, quite literally, unable to find his balance, except on occasion when he crashes into me and grabs my arm for support.  The boss tells me that they’re trying to replace this venerable old man before he gets himself injured…again…, and I quite believe it.

Like the drug dealer I’ve become, I offered Carlos a dose of my chemical secret, but I don’t think it had enough of an effect.  He provided Felix with a moment of delight when he made his inevitable run for the railing.  Much to the old man’s disappointment, there was no feeding of the fish forthcoming.  Carlos managed, just barely, to contain himself.

So I continued the remainder of the study with Felix looking over my shoulder.  We managed to get through the whole thing with only two mistakes.  The first was the mistake made by poor Carlos, who was barely functioning, and the second was made by Felix, which I caught in time to avert any effect on our results.  Consequently, the supervisor in charge of the study approached me afterward to congratulate me and to say that I was officially the main analyst for that study once per year, every year, for the rest of my career.  I’m wondering if it’s too late to switch my line of work.

Michelle, however her name is spelled, rode with us on our last day out.  Not wanting to see her go through torment any more than the last two ill individuals who came before her, I offered her Dramamine before she even got on the boat.  I noticed that giving it to the last two seasick individuals I rode with after they got sick was not entirely effective, so I gave her a half dose, preventatively.  I wondered if she could really handle that much, wispy little Asian that she was.  She did alright, inasmuch as she succeeded in not getting seasick.  However, she’ll need to master the art of chemical analysis while sleeping, which is almost the only thing she did that trip.  She poked her head through the interior window dividing us from the kitchen, where she was, and she asked, “So, you used to talk about theology a lot with Peter?”  Peter is the fellow who performed this task, before wisely taking a severe pay cut and a pastorate in Georgia, getting me stuck as his replacement in the process.

Michelle, however her name is spelled, tells me she is a Calvinist and a member of a Reformed denomination, though, as she puts it, she does not consider herself a “five-point, T.U.L.I.P. Calvinist.”  That’s fine, I say.  I’m a monergist, and so was Peter.  I explain that a monergist is a Calvinist who gets his doctrine from the Bible, not necessarily knowing or caring what Calvin thought about the matter.  “Oh,” she says, in that intoxicated stupor, “I see.”  I begin to resume my work, when she drops a little bombshell on me.  “I’m not so sure about the penal substitution thing,” she tells me, ever so casually.

Penal substitution is this little matter of belief that some Christians have that Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins.  Oh, seriously, it’s the crux of Christianity.  Without it, there is no Christianity.  Michelle had always considered herself a Christian, and everyone knew her as one, so I paused in my work, feeling a little stunned, and I replied, “Uh, Michelle, that’s no small doctrine.”

“I know,” she tells me.  “We can talk about it later.  I don’t mean to get into it now,” and then she promptly went back to sleep.

There’s an inherent problem with absolutes.  The conflict arises whenever there is more than one of them.  We say that an absolute is something that can never, NEVER, be untrue.  It is unchanging across all times and places, and it yields to nothing, which is why it becomes such a paradox whenever one absolute runs afoul of another.  We generally avoid this conflict by saying that God is the only absolute, and there is only one of him.  In fact, it is this absoluteness that gives rise to the very idea of the Trinity.  If we say that there are three of God, then it is the same as saying that there is one of him, because all three are necessarily absolute and agree at every point.  Multiplicity and singularity mean the same thing with an absolute, such as God.  Problems only arise when we have more than one absolute and they are not the same absolute.  Even if we only have one God, we still have a God with multiple attributes, and therein lies the potential for conflict.  Normally, as humans, we frequently endure such internal conflicts.  Sometimes it’s choosing between two favorite restaurants, or choosing between writing a weblog  post or spending time with with one’s wife (speaking of which…), or some other difficult choice, but it always results in one option falling in defeat to the other.  Ultimately, for us, it is never a choice between absolutes, but it is a weighing of degrees between each of two or more options.  If God, being absolute, gets stuck in choosing between two options that are both absolutely important to him, then we have a serious problem.  He cannot reject either one, even if they are mutually exclusive.

It’s the case of the irresistible force that meets the immovable object.  One cannot be stopped, and the other cannot be moved.  If God loves absolutely, then he will do everything he can to save us from our demise, but if God has absolute justice and an absolute demand for sinlessness, then he cannot reward us with Heaven nor deny us the punishment of Hell if we are sinners.  On the one hand, he must absolutely save us, if he can, and I might add that it would seem foolish to suggest that he can’t,  and on the other hand, he absolutely must judge us as we deserve.  We put him in an impossible spot.  What happens next is the collision of absolutes.  God, the absolute judge, collided with God, the absolute savior, and he self-destructed, right there on the cross.  It was a cosmic traffic accident, the collision of the irresistible force with the immovable object, the deliberate self-destruction of God.  That is the essence of penal substitution, and it’s the reason we can have hope in salvation through Christ’s work on the cross.  Infinity was divided by infinity, giving one-hundred percent for anyone added to that expression.

Michelle looks up at me in awe, nearly cross-eyed with sleepiness, and replies with an almost drunken slur, “That is so beautiful.  I’ve never heard that before,” and then she falls back to sleep.

dustysig

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The Target that Hit the Bullet

28 05 2012

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the suspect is sitting in the witness stand, giving testimony on his behalf.  The defense attorney, of course, is about ready to crawl under the table and do himself in, because he knows his client is guilty and, to make matters worse, exceptionally foolish.  With great animation and apparent self-confidence, the accused explains that he did not, in fact, cause the bullet to fly from his gun at the victim (may he rest in peace).  Rather, the victim, reckless man that he was, actually rode the rotation of the Earth straight into the bullet.  Because the gun was fired in a westerly direction, the bullet was essentially released in a stationary position, and the accused did nothing at all to propel that bullet toward that victim.  Even after the jury hands down its verdict, the defense attorney scuttles out of the room in shame and the bailiff begins to drag the man off to prison, the accused is still shouting at the top of his lungs that he is not to blame if someone else manages to impale himself on a stationary object left behind by him.  The argument, you see, is that the Earth is not stationary, but that it actually rotates.  In fact, it does so at considerable speed, even  to the point of negating the velocity of the bullet.  The jury, without even realizing it, makes their judgment based on the premise that the Earth is stationary and the universe revolves around it.  Otherwise, the bullet never moved, because the gun was fired toward the west.

After writing that last paragraph, I had to walk down the hall and get a cup of coffee.  Incidentally, the cost of coffee has gone up so much that I’ve resorted to doing something that I swore I’d never do again, which is to buy a generic brand.  So, as I’m walking back with the brew that will likely make me sick to my stomach, I might have wondered if I was walking in a westerly direction.  Actually, I did not worry about that at all.  The fact of my movement down the hall was, however, a matter of speculation.  You see, we judge the movement of an object by the change of its location relative to its surroundings.  I knew that I was walking down the hall, because the bigger picture, the whole rest of my environment, appeared to be moving with respect to me.  Excuse me, I mean to say that I was moving with respect to the rest of my environment.  In the early geocentric world, all things were judged with respect to the Earth, because the Earth and everything on it was the bigger picture.  If your location (or your bullet’s location) moved with respect to the Earth, then we would have said that you (or it) moved.  Of course, we’re wiser, now.  Our horizons have broadened, and we realize that there’s a great big universe out there.  The background, the bigger picture and the surrounding environment are now the universe, as a whole.  We say that the universe is stationary and the Earth is moving.  To say otherwise would require an even bigger picture by which to judge the movement of the universe.

A former coworker of mine was poring over the diagrams of the Ptolemaic model of the universe, the geocentric view, and he marveled at how stunningly elegant the designs were.  In truth, it took a great deal of math and mental stamina to follow and diagram the movements of the heavenly bodies according to a geocentric view.  I responded that it was, actually, possible to think of the universe in geocentric terms, but it required a great deal more math, and the description was a heck of a lot more complicated.  He looked at me with a startled expression, not quite that I was mad, but that I had challenged his most basic assumptions.  I hereby renounce any responsibility for his admission to a psychiatric ward shortly thereafter; it was a preexisting condition, and I had nothing to do with it.  We often mistakenly think of the heliocentric model as the simplest explanation of how the universe works, but we would be wrong.  It’s actually not an explanation of anything.  It is a description, but not an explanation.  The whole model depends, very heavily, upon an understanding of the nature of gravity.  While we know much about what gravity does, we know absolutely nothing about what it is.  Much speculation exists as to the cause of gravity, but there seems to be no good evidence, or even any bad evidence, to suggest that any of it may be true.  The rule of thumb (Occam’s razor) is that the simplest explanation is usually the best.  We don’t have any explanation, so we’ve settled with the next best thing, which is the simplest description.  Heliocentrism is the simplest description, because it uses the least math to tell us what to expect from moving objects in the universe.  The description for geocentrism is far more complicated than the description for heliocentrism.  Therefore, heliocentrism is deemed correct, and geocentrism is deemed a falsehood.

Yet, despite all of that, the jury, which claims to believe solely in heliocentrism, still convicts the man on a geocentric reasoning, that being the same geocentrism that they would in any other setting have called a complete falsehood.  While heliocentrism may be technically true, it is only practically true to astrophysicists.  While geocentrism may be technically false, it is practically true for everyone in every situation but space exploration.  In fact, a small amount of geocentrism exists even for an astronaut standing on the moon, because the Earth is still the center of his universe.  We still say that the sun rises, never giving the slightest care to the fact of the Earth’s rotation.  If I hit you, then you don’t care which direction I’m swinging and whether or not you technically hit my fist with your face.  Either way, I need to start running before you come to your senses.

As I’m running, two things at once become very clear to me.  The first is that I haven’t been getting enough exercise and will likely not outlast you, but this is largely irrelevant.  The second is that you really do care which way I swung my fist; you just don’t care which way it was in relation to the Earth or its rotation.  This brings us to an even more practical, yet highly incorrect, technically, view of the universe, which is an egocentric one.  Suddenly, I realize that I never called it a sunrise because of geocentric notions.  I don’t really care what it’s doing in Japan unless I happen to be in Japan.  I don’t look at a sunset and say, “Oh, look at the Indian sunrise!” because I neither know nor care what it happens to be doing for the Indians, or the Pakistanis, or the Iranians.  You, likewise, are not really shocked that I hit someone, or that I hit in a direction other than West (though, we all know by now that I ought to be forgiven if it happened to be West).  No, the only directions you know are relative to your own person.

When I was a baby, I thought the whole universe revolved around me.  When I got older, I learned on my own that it did not.  With education, I learned that the universe does not even revolve around the Earth.  With a higher education, a divine one, I learned that the universe does not even revolve around itself.  As previously stated, we judge the motion of an object by its change in location relative to its surroundings, the bigger picture.  Beyond the confines of this universe is God.  The universe is contained only within God.  Therefore, while egocentrism is more practical than geocentrism, which is more practical than heliocentrism, and while heliocentrism is technically more correct than either of them, theocentrism is the card that trumps them all.  When we were egocentric little babies, as some of us still seem to be, all things related to our own personal needs, yet the whole world was largely out of our control.  When we grew into geocentrists, as kids, we had a better handle on the world, but we still lacked maturity.  As heliocentrists, we of the adult world have maturity, but, like the baby, there still exists that outside element of our own destiny, which not only eludes us but utterly terrifies us.  The world may come to an end by collision with an asteroid, or the world may come to an end by environmental disaster, and no one can say otherwise.  When limited to heliocentrism, this way of thinking is true in a practical sense, though it is not technically true.  Practically speaking, it could happen, but in the big picture, things are not really so far out of control as that.  The universe does not revolve mindlessly around itself.  The relationship of I and the Earth is such that I revolve around the Earth.  The relationship of the Earth and the universe is similar, and the universe does not revolve around the Earth.  Likewise, God does not revolve around the universe, but if his attention is fixed on the Earth, and the Earth abides with God, then, from the biggest picture of all, the universe really does seem to revolve around the Earth, not that the Earth is really its focal point, but that the Earth happens to be aligned with the ultimate focal point.  The same could be said for human individuals.  Does the universe revolve around a person?  No, but it revolves around God, who may abide with that person, having a similar effect.  Looking at the universe as the biggest picture still convinces us that we are merely lost in space, but looking at God as the biggest picture, space becomes the moving object, while the human being remains stationary, so long as God is with him.  It’s a coincidental alignment.  People feel like the center of the universe and know that they are not, but still, the original impression might lie closer to the truth than realized.

This brings us to the problem of destiny.  The truth of the matter is that there are really two polar-opposite meanings of the word.  One is egocentric and the other is theocentric.  I could say that God has called me to be a prophet, or that I am destined to do something great, or that I am destined to take over the world, or that it is my divine mission to eradicate the world of an unwanted race of people.  All of these things, from pastor and prophet to emperor and mass-murderer, are a product of the egocentric meaning of destiny.  It’s a question of what God has planned for me.  God revolves around self.  Really, it’s a very practical outlook.  The world’s most successful people tend to live on that kind of a sense of destiny.  It’s also untrue.  It’s only good until things go wrong, or worse, when life turns out to be extra-ordinary, instead of extraordinary.  Where is the destiny, then?

Destiny as a theocentric view takes a different meaning.  No matter who you are or what you do, the world does not revolve around you, and the universe does not revolve around your planet.  You can rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, but it still ends up sinking.  You can institute environmental policies and struggle to save the Earth, but life on Earth still comes to an end, and the sun eventually winks out.  In the end, the bigger picture wins.  Earth trumps the human.  The sun trumps the Earth, and God trumps everything.

Destiny is a paradox.  When I say that I sawed a piece of wood in two, you might imagine that the log was held in place while I dragged the saw back and forth on it.  With destiny, the reverse is true.  I held the saw in place with a vise and dragged the wood back and forth on it.  Either way, the result is the same (except that the second way left me badly in need of a bandage).  Did you do the act because it was your destiny, or did you do it because you chose to?  Did you shoot the bullet at the victim, or did the victim fly eastward and hit the bullet?  In the end, no jury changes its mind about your guilt because of the higher understanding.  It was your destiny, and you chose to do it.  You shot the gun at the victim and he flew eastward at you, piercing himself on your motionless projectile.  Still, you are punished because you chose to do it.  You are punished because you shot the gun.  Galileo is in the restroom at the moment, and he isn’t here to defend you.

The screaming continues down the corridor, something about the speed of the Earth’s rotation as it relates to the circumference of that line of latitude, versus the speed of a bullet, but the door shuts and we hear nothing more.  All rise….





Hunting for Mister Hyde

30 04 2012

Occasionally, an event from my past comes back to haunt me.  I find myself wondering what the heck I was thinking when I chose to do what I did.  Perhaps, I’m too hard on myself.  Hindsight is twenty-twenty, in Technicolor, high-definition with surround-sound.  If the same event comes to mind every day for more than a couple of weeks, then I suppose it merits a little mention.

It was a night in a small parking lot next to the church’s annex building, following a scouting event.  The games we played under the floodlight on the lawn and that adjacent lot made for some of the nicest memories.  I was just a kid.  On the far side of that lot was a church bus, parked as close to a chain-link fence as it could be, and on the other side of that fence was a very tall hedge.  Between the bus and the fence was a popular hiding place for games of hide-and-seek or tag, or whatever else we invented.  Justin and I had arrived there to find some other kid already hiding there, but not for the purposes of any game.  He was weeping like his best friend had just died.

We asked him why he was crying and his reply was, “I hate my father!  I hate my !@#$ father!”  What followed was mostly expletives in regard to his dad, which, though emotive, did not really explain anything.

Now, I knew his father.  He was a very kind, gentle soul who worked with us boys in the scouting meetings, which had just finished.  There’s one man who never raised his voice for any reason, and I never saw him get angry, even when I really (brat that I sometimes was) gave him reason to be angry.  My first reaction was to tell the boy that he shouldn’t talk like that about his own dad.  Seriously, the man seemed a whole heck of a lot nicer than my own father.  I figured, the kid had just been punished for doing something wrong and was getting a little hot under the collar about it.

“You don’t know my father!” the kid raved.  “You don’t know what he’s like!  He’s evil!  I hate him!”

Rather than give ear to the rants of a child against his dad, I decided to walk away and let the kid have some time to cool off by himself.  The last thing I saw was my other friend, Justin, still talking to the kid.  The ultimate outcome to this situation, I strongly suspect, was the result of his taking the time to listen.  It certainly wasn’t because of anything I did.  Knowing now why that kid was crying, I wish I had been the one to listen.  At least someone did.

We will return to that in a moment.  Years later, but only a few days ago, I found myself among friends and the children of those friends.  Among them was a fellow that I consider entirely unique and gifted beyond measure in the way of being able to work with large groups of kids and, not only be able to keep them from wandering away, burning down the house or maiming each other, he actually keeps them entertained.  On top of all of that, he finds a way to teach them a thing or two in the process.  Scott is a highly affable, sanguine and altogether likable man.  Now, being a friend, I could pick up a few hints, here and there, about how this unflappable character, in public, could lose his temper and resort to yelling and meanness in the privacy of his own home.  I’ve never seen it.  The man has perfect self-control when he’s among friends.  I could probably insult him to his face, and he likely would not break from his good nature.

Then, when we were sitting around a table, and I said to his youngest daughter, “Your dad is such a nice guy.  Is he always this much fun at home?  Is he always this happy and easy-going?”

The daughter looked down at the table and to the right.  They say that when a person glances away and to the right that they’re looking for a way to lie or tell a story, and when they look away and to the left that they’re trying to remember something.  I’m not sure I believe this, but, so far, I have only found it to be true.  There was a tense moment and a delayed response, and everyone at the table seemed to be waiting for the answer.  Then, she gave this drawn-out and guilty response, “Yes.”  It was, of course, the only response a kid would give, with the dad sitting right there at the table.  She might have well said , “No,” as unconvincing as she was.

I figured this was probably a good time to do some damage control.  I had my answer, and, at the moment, I still seemed to have my friendship with Scott.  It was time to save the poor kid, so I told about life with my own father when I was growing up.

My own father had a fuse so short that he often flew into a fit of rage for no apparent reason at all.  I still find myself reliving those moments, replaying the events in my head, as I try vainly to discover what, if anything, my dad was so angry about.  I’ve seen him throw things and get into a snit over a single spoken word of no ill meaning.  What was his problem?  I still don’t know.  I thought it might be a byproduct of his diabetes.  I figured, whatever it was, his emotional constitution was such that he had no real control over his violent reactions.  So, as his son, I found myself making excuses for his behavior, that he was permitted to act this way because he was an adult, or because he just couldn’t help himself.  He, likewise, made excuses for himself, like, “I didn’t mean to throw the glass at your mother.  The air caught it and made it curve toward her,” as they’re picking small shards from her face.  Then, there was the time when he slammed his fist through the wall.  They patched that one up quick, thinking no one would notice.  My mom got embarrassed and red in the face when I asked her why a spot in the wall was smoother than the rest.  Actually, it was a good cover-up.  I only found it because I knew what I was looking for (other than trouble).  Over-all, though, my father was a great guy, if history could be rewritten to remove his outbursts.

There was one evening, though, when I began to think that his emotions were not really his master.  He was at the business of a client, working on a renovation project, when that client was clearly driving my father well past the breaking point.  The client seemed to think he knew more about my father’s work than my father did.  I could feel the anger building up inside of my dad, and I thought for sure he’d let loose on the guy, any second.  At home, he went into a rage over far less.  The man bossed my dad around and even fired him, and my dad took it all quite graciously and left fully in control of his wits.  Apparently, complete strangers are afforded more grace and mercy than loved ones and family, especially when money is involved.

In another incident, with a number of friends and our family seated at a table in a Mexican  restaurant, a woman told my father, “Vic, you are the gentlest, mildest man I know.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen you lose your temper.”  I’m glad I wasn’t drinking anything at the time, because I would have sprayed it all over everyone.  My father didn’t correct her error.  I couldn’t believe anyone would say that about the man.  He was, positively, the most temperamental person I knew.  It was then that I fully realized the extent to which he managed to hide the darker part of his nature from the rest of the world.  No one outside of our household saw him the way that we did.

Two weeks was the magic number.  Actually, to be precise, it was thirteen days.  That was the length of time a person had to live under his roof to see him lose his temper.  My brother went to college and came back for the summer.  On his return, he was treated gently, like any other outsider.  Thirteen days later, the firework stand opened up, so to speak.  He returned home after his wife left him, and my father treated him sympathetically for about thirteen days.  Then, I wondered if my brother was better off taking abuse from his estranged wife.  Now that I’m my own man, I never see him lose his temper.  I’m tempted to think that he finally reformed himself, but, then, I haven’t stayed under his roof for that long in a very long time.  After thirteen days, I might see Doctor Jekyll turn to Mister Hyde.

A person’s family gets a strange and unwanted insight into his true nature.  It’s the paradox that the ones who love us most get treated with the least patience and forbearance, the least gentleness and the least politeness.  For me, it was a little of the reverse.  I’m a little sociopathic that way.  I had to learn to treat friends and acquaintances with some of the kindness that I always showed my own family.  I strive to be Doctor Jekyll and Mister Jekyll, and, with friends and others, I always find myself hunting for Mister Hyde.  It’s not that I’m trying to bring out the bad in them or to condemn them, it’s just that, as a friend, especially as a close friend, I feel the responsibility to hold people accountable.  In American culture, especially more now, with the rise of technology, people expect a greater deal of distance between them.  No one ever digs too deeply into the personal affairs of others, even friends, even close friends.  What hides in the darkness never comes to light.  Evil remains safe within the walls of a home.  A father is the dungeon keeper of his home, and his wife and kids are the inmates.  People don’t dig.  Mister Hyde is never found.

In our time, “privacy” is our banner, but what we really champion is secrecy.  Privacy does nothing to hide the facts of the matter.  For example, no one doubts (I hope) what happens between my wife and I in the privacy of our bedroom.  It goes without saying.  It’s not a secret.  However, that doesn’t mean people can enter our home at will.  No one is invited to watch (good grief, now that would be awkward, wouldn’t it?).  Secrecy is the sort of intercourse that happens between people when it really ought not to.  It’s what we don’t want people to know about, and usually for good reason.

That kid hiding behind the bus was a victim of secrecy.  His father was in the regular habit of raping him and his brother.  Mister Hyde was hunted down and thrown into prison, where one can only wonder with horror what befell him.  I did not discover the crime, because I did not look.  Someone else found him out.  Since then, I’ve learned to hunt for Hyde.  Therefore, it is without shame that I look for clues to the inner workings of families that I care about.  I’m not going to leave that kid crying behind the bus again.

It is better to uncover those dark secrets while there is still time to act.  People can take their secrets to the grave, but they cannot keep them there.  In the end, all secrets will be made known, and every dark deed, every thing done in private, will be made known to all the world on the Last Day.  God promises (or threatens) it.  It will happen.





Sword of Damon Cleese

26 04 2012

[fiction]

Damocles was, naturally, quite enthralled with the prospect of standing in as archon of the day.  Five servants attended him in attiring himself for the evening feast.  It would have been six servants, but the sixth servant was Damocles, himself, and the ruler with whom he had traded places appointed himself to the role of waiting on tables.  It seemed that a direct and literal trade of roles was out of the question.  The real archon still had a job to do after this charade was over, and he still had a reputation to go with it.

Then, it was time.  Two heralds preceded him into the hall, and a train of attendants followed.  The doors opened, and everyone stood, as though for the bride at a wedding.  He appeared before them in his lavender robes, with real gold thread woven into elaborate patterns of what probably was supposed to be olive branches.  Stately, he walked up to the dais and took his place at the table.  Just before sitting, he had a second thought and readjusted the positioning of the salt boat.  Then, he sat, and the rest of the assembly followed.  He patted the arms of his chair with great satisfaction.  Gingerly, he leaned back into the seat, as though the back might give way at any second.  There, in the front row, instead of serving appetizers, was the real archon, Dionysus the Second, sitting on a bench and smiling at him with great satisfaction.  Had the roles been actual, Damocles would have ordered him beaten for his insubordination.  Apparently, the archon had no intention of keeping up more than half of the bargain.  At least he was dressed down for the occasion.  Dionysus locked eyes with him in a hard, unfaltering stare, until Damocles had to look away.

To Damocles’ right sat the wife of the archon, sitting as far from him as room would allow, folds forming in her neck as she held her head back like an adder ready to strike.  To his left sat the archon’s daughter, leaning away from him to talk in low tones with a friend, while surreptitiously hiding her face from him with a hand or a linen head scarf.  Opportunities for lively conversation were lacking.  Near the other end was a friendly cousin of Dionysus, with whom Damocles had chatted often.  He called out the man’s name, and the man sat there, ignoring him, staring down at the table top.

Damocles drummed his fingers on the table with irritation, until a nervous adolescent servant girl arrived with his dinner upon a silver plate.  He tried to graciously accept her service by thanking her, but she gave him a worried look in return, and her eyes, ever so briefly, glanced up toward the ceiling and then down again.  He watched her retreat, and he noticed, again, that the archon was giving him the cold hard stare.  There seemed to be meaning in his look.  Damocles had learned to read what people were trying to say by their looks, especially when there was something unusual about it.  He struggled to understand the stare of Dionysus, until he realized that it wasn’t a stare to give meaning, but it was a stare to hide meaning.  The man was fixing his gaze in order to avoid looking at something else.  He recalled the server glancing up, quickly, and he realized that she was either trying to tell him something, or else there was something up there that she was trying very hard not to look at.

Up above him, Damocles caught a glimmer of something metallic catching the light of the fire that burned in braziers about the room.  Then the object turned and became dark.  Then it turned and caught the light again.  A moment of horror fell upon him, and he dashed his wine and food to the ground in his scramble to get out from under the thing.  At a safe distance, he looked up and saw that a very large sword, possibly the precursor of what would later be known as a falchion, a sword that could double as an axe, seemed to hover high over his seat, suspended point-down by nothing but the air, itself.

“What the…?!  How…?  For the love of life, somebody take that thing down!” shouted the horrified Damocles.  He looked over at the archon, and saw a smile beginning to curl upward the corners of his mouth.  “How did you do that?”

“Don’t worry, Damocles,” said Dionysus, “I assure you, it’s very securely held in place by a single horse hair.”

Almost whimpering, the distraught Damocles asked, “Were you trying to kill me?”  It’s an important question, because if the archon wishes to kill someone, he usually gets what he wants.

“Perhaps,” Dionysus replied, coldly.  “It’s just that when you came in here flattering me like the sycophant that everyone knows you are, I felt the need to teach you a lesson.  You think the life of a wealthy man is secure and full of every happiness, but it’s not.  The more I have, the more I have to protect.  The more power I exert, the more people want to kill me.  I couldn’t let you experience all of my wealth and pleasure without giving you a sense of the danger, could I?  You wanted to know what it’s like to be me.  Even though we traded roles, no one would ever try to kill you, because you still aren’t really the archon around here.  If an assassin walked through that door right now, he would still be out to kill me, not you.  So, I added a little spice to your experience.  You want to be an archon?  Okay then!  An archon you shall be!”  Then, he called to a servant, “Take it down.  I want Damocles to have it, so he’ll remember.”

Damocles got his sword and continued to be a servant in the house of his ruler, and Dionysus went back to being a ruler, ever mindful of the constant threat that comes with having what other people covet.  By the way, does anyone know which of the two lived longer?  Perhaps Dionysus was wrong and outlived the other by several years, due to an unfortunate plague.  Perhaps he was right and died a few years earlier.  Both have been dead for thousands of years, now, so the difference in their respective times in the grave amounts to about one percent or less.  They’ve both been dead for maybe two and a third millennia, and one wonders that they ever discussed how one might be likely to die one or two decades earlier.  The difference is negligible.  Even the entire kingdom is entirely dead.  Even their lineage is lost.  The corpse of Damocles has been no safer than the corpse of Dionysus for more than a couple thousand years, already.

It’s really not just a problem for the rich, though.  Our king, God, has set us up in much a similar situation, wherein he watches us pursue and enjoy riches for a time, with the threat of our mortality ever hanging over our heads.  We all have a certain consciousness of it.  For some, it’s a jeopardy that causes us to cast all to the floor in disdain.  Who cares about such things with death barely suspended over us?  For others, it is merely the aging process, a commonplace thing that everyone experiences.  If cancer were universal, then they would be calling that a commonplace process, also.  Perhaps it is time to illustrate the extraordinary life of death, the unnatural nature.

Therefore, we shall extend this tale.  Besides, I concocted the tale years ago when I was just a kid, and it’s still bouncing around in my head.  I might as well let it out, so here it is.

Half a world away, thousands of years later, a similar sword, or perhaps the same sword, appeared once again, floating in the middle of the air.  It was first discovered by a couple of farm boys on a breezy, sunny day.  The way it caught the sunlight acted as a beacon, drawing them near.  This time, there was no horse hair to suspend it.  It hovered about four feet from the ground, over a field, near a stand of oak trees, pointing menacingly toward a nearby town, which will remain unnamed.  The two boys studied it circumspectly, doubtlessly feeling a little intimidated by it.  At first, they tried throwing rocks at it, which is, for some strange reason, always the first thing boys seem to do with most foreign objects.  They probably threw rocks at the first cat they saw, the first bird, the first rusty can and the first girl (a sister, of course).  The sword was unyielding, and they tired of the game quickly.  Next, they tried touching it, then pushing it and hanging on it.  With all of their efforts, it would not budge in the slightest.

The sword was first discovered at about noon by two kids who should have been in school.  Four hours later, the first adults heard of it.  Twenty-four hours after that the first adult  believed enough to have a look at it, when the number of kids who had seen and told of it reached critical mass, which is to say that once every kid in town said that they had seen it an adult finally took them seriously.  Two weeks later, someone from the local news agency heard of it enough times on a slow news day to go out and have a look.  By the evening news, the story had gone viral, and the whole world knew about it.  By dawn of the next day the sword was gone without a trace.

Two days after the sword’s disappearance, the world forgot about it.  Two months later the locals stopped talking about it.  It wasn’t gone long before someone found it again, on the other side of the town, twenty miles away, pointing toward the next town on the highway.  The poor woman who discovered it was lucky enough to have survived by swerving hard at the last second when its golden hilt glinted in her headlights in the predawn hours.  The sword was back on the world stage.  Experts arrived from all over the world to give opinion on it.  Someone brought a tractor to see if it could be moved by any force, which it couldn’t.  The thing just hovered there, indestructible and absolutely immovable.  On its blade was some foreign script, which, when transliterated, said, “mene, mene.”  A quick internet search (insidiously cited by the press as an expert analysis, though it was none other than that infamous site known as Wikipedia) showed that it derived from an ancient phrase, “mene, mene, tekel upharsin,” meaning, roughly, “your days are numbered, and your empire will be divided and given to the Persians.”  By itself, “mene, mene,” only meant, “your days are numbered.”  Of course, no one knew what it meant.  Some doomsday addicts made a great deal out of it.  Screenwriters were already brainstorming it into a full-feature film.

So there it hovered, two miles from the nearest town, pointing directly at that town. The local hotels flooded with curious visitors, and the local residents cleared out as quickly as they could.  Clearly, the town was cursed.  No one knew what the sword was about, but many feared it.  One man, in particular, watching the news from his rented room in the town, did know what the sword was about, and he feared it more than anyone.  After two restless nights and a third that left him swimming in his own sweat, he packed his bags and hit the road yet again.  That night, the sword disappeared from sight and was not found for a few days.

A door to a bar opened, and an eighty-year-old man staggered into the room looking like he could just as easily ask for cyanide as ask for a beer.  He plopped his disheveled self onto a stool and regarded the patron next to him.  “I don’t know why, but it seems like the only place to meet people and talk about things is a bar,” he said.

“That’s not true,” said the other patron, a dumpy middle-aged man who had only just begun his binge for the evening.  “There’s always the confessional booth at a Catholic church.  Then, you have internet chat rooms, brothels, orgies and… I forget what else.”

“Now, I don’t feel so bad,” said the old man.  “Maybe I’ll try a confessional booth, next.  Actually, that might not be a bad idea.”

“Now, don’t go running off too soon,” said his new friend.  “I have ears, too.  Besides, I haven’t heard any good gossip in weeks.”

So the old man told him his story.  Damon Cleese, as he turned out to be, had put a great deal of effort in his younger years toward uncovering a certain cache of stolen treasure.  His friend, Danny Nice, had figured that trains of stage coaches in the area had been robbed all within a ten-mile radius of a craggy region, back during the rough days of the wild west.  The band of robbers responsible had been caught in a trap, possibly because of their predictable pattern, and all of them went to the grave, taking the secret of their stash with them.  Their stolen goods were never recovered,  but a simple analysis of terrain and distance suggested that they probably did have a hideout in the area, from which a person could ride for half a day or less, rob a wagon train and get back by dusk, without overburdening the horses.  Hence, the stolen goods must be stashed somewhere in a narrowed area, and because they were never recovered, those stolen goods must still be there.

With two months of searching, Damon and Danny finally found the cache of goods in a cave, just sitting there waiting for the return of their robber barons.  Most of it was in gold coins and moldy notes.  There were a few rusty guns and other items of interest, but the thing that caught Danny’s attention the most was a shiny, heavy sword with a gold hilt encrusted with jewels.  They counted out the coins and divided the spoil evenly, but a small boulder, not much bigger than a large sow, fell from the ceiling of the cave and landed on Danny’s arm, crushing it badly.  Damon rushed to his aid, rolling the boulder off and wrapping the poor arm in a sling and a poultice.  Danny immediately went into shock, shaking and pallid.  His friend covered him in a blanket and did his best to make him feel better.

By the next day, Danny was feeling well enough to attempt a ride back to the nearest town on horseback.  They took as much of the loot as the horses could reasonably hold, and they headed off down the trail.  A mile down the trail, Danny began complaining of his aches and pains, and eventually he became too weak to remain on a horse.  He noted that his urine was strangely brown, and later he found he had no more urine of any kind.

“Damon,” Danny told his companion, “I don’t know why, but I think I’m losing more than just my arm.  I can’t pee anymore, Damon.  I’m a sick man.  You need to go for help.”

Instead, Damon insisted that they stay where they were for a while, to allow for him to convalesce.  Truth be told, he was afraid of leading rescuers too near the rest of the stash and having to explain how the injury occurred.  By the time they returned, there might not be anything to return to.  The days whiled by, and Danny got worse.  Finally, Damon agreed to go for help, but Danny insisted that it was already too late.  He was about to die.

“Forget about dividing the stash,” Danny said, “You can have the whole thing.  Just promise me you’ll bury me with the sword.  Just give me the sword and you can have everything else.”  Then, he died.

At first, Damon tried to carry the body back, but in the heat of the day it began to smell bad.  He couldn’t just leave it for the vultures, so he opted to bury Danny where he was.  After digging the hole, he was about to place the sword over the body, when he began to think about it pragmatically.  In truth, the dead body could never care what happened to the sword, and it was, after all, quite beautiful and would probably fetch a couple thousand dollars, should he choose to sell it.  Why bury a perfectly good relic like that?  It would be a shame!  So, he kept the sword and buried the body.

“Seems reasonable to me,” said the dumpy man at the bar.  “I would’ve done the same.”

“Anyone would have,” said Damon, “but it would have been a terrible mistake.”

As Damon was turning to repack his things, he heard the voice of his old companion speak to him from the grave.  “I said you could have everything, didn’t I?”

Damon turned around and saw the sword hovering there, pointing right at him.

“Take the whole thing, I said.  Just bury me with the sword, I said.  Was it really too much to ask?  I couldn’t have just this one thing?  Are you so bent on wealth that you would rob a dead friend?!” the voice scolded in rage.

With that, Damon jumped on his horse and rode away as fast as he could.

“Ah, I see.  You’re saying this all has to do with that freaky hovering sword that’s been on the news lately,” the other patron said with a slight slur to his words.

“Yes, that’s the one.  That’s Danny’s sword,” said Damon.

“So why don’t you go back and bury it?” suggested the patron.

Damon eyed the man skeptically.  “I don’t know, but I think it would kill me.  Would you try to take a weapon from a ghost?”

“Have you tried an exorcist?” the patron offered.

Just then, someone stormed into the room, shouting, “The sword!  I just found it, about a mile up the road, pointing this way!”  The bar cleared in seconds, everyone being in a hurry to go find the sword or to get far away from it as fast as possible.

Damon gripped the edge of the bar tightly and whispered, “It’s getting closer.  It’s almost here.”  He looked to the side and found his companion still sitting there.  They and one unconscious fellow in the back of the room were the only ones left.

“Interesting,” remarked the other, “So this thing has been following you all these years.  How long has it been?”

“Fifty-five years,” Damon answered without even having to calculate it.

“Fifty-five years?!  The blasted thing sure is taking its time, isn’t it?  How old are you, anyway?” asked the other patron.

“Eighty years, last June,” replied Damon.

The other patron roared with laughter.  Damon was obviously upset by his reaction. “Sir,” said the other, “You’re not going to die by the sword!  You’re going to die of old age!”

Damon got to his feet and replied in anger, “You might think this is funny, but once it’s done carving me up, it might come for you, even if I have to haunt it myself!”  Then he stormed out.

That night was the worst of his life.  The mysterious hovering sword had, apparently, been covering miles and miles of uninhabited and rugged terrain, slowly approaching him unnoticed for all of these years.  Finally, it happened upon civilization, and nothing anyone did to the sword could stop it, and nothing Damon did to get away from it could increase that distance.  After leaving the bar, he journeyed for five hours to a roadside motel, where he attempted what he figured would be his last chance at sleep before the sword arrived.  Somewhere out there, a mile away or less, the sword was still coming.  He could only guess how much time he had left.

Damon miscalculated.  The sword, like death, does not come by a human schedule.  We can see it coming and estimate the end to some degree, but sometimes it arrives much earlier than anticipated, and it makes no apology for its impolite punctuality.  The door to the room crashed open, split down the middle, with the blade shining in the moonlight that streamed through the window opposite the door.  Damon screamed in abject terror.  Even then, it just hovered in place, stationary, like it never intended to advance further.  The movement was slow, like the movement of shadows cast by the sun.  If Damon moved to the other side of the room, though, it repositioned itself quickly to maintain its aim at his heart.  Needless to say, it was a long night, and he could not get past the sword and reach the door.  Every time he moved, it cut him off.

By dawn of the next day, the sword was less than an inch from his flesh, and he found himself seriously imploring to God for his salvation.

The reader, at this point, will be happy to note that the poor man did not, in fact, die from the sword.  Rather, he died of a stroke, a complication of his old age, just before the sword could hurt him, and the sword had nothing to do with it.  What a relief!  All of this time, Damon feared what would happen when the sword reached him, but instead of dying, as he thought, he died before it could happen.

[/fiction]

Ah, but a mysterious hovering sword is so much more fearsome, is it not?  If we all had hovering swords threatening to take our heads off at every turn, we might consider it a fact of life, and, instead, be more terrified by death of old age.  On a serious note, though, the fact is simply that whatever ultimately kills us, that thing and its destiny are on a determined and unstoppable collision course for our lives.  Whatever it is, it definitely exists, and it will definitely get here in due time, and it will definitely kill us.  Cheery, isn’t it?  The real sickness, then, is not that we fear death, but that some of us are so consumed by our present riches that we do not notice the steady progression of doom.  Thousands of years from now, no one will care what riches we owned, no one will know who we were, and nothing will matter about the fact of our former existence.  All that will matter is whether this human soul, the thing that some people are dumb enough to insist does not exist, is in a place far better or far worse than it is now.

Salvation from death is not an issue.  There is no salvation from death.  It’s the death after the death that we might resist.  This life is just a temporary endeavor, more like a game.  We pass through it briefly, to serve a temporary purpose, and then we enter the afterlife, where the story really begins.  Thanks for playing this game with me, and I hope you find what you came here for, even if it isn’t what you think you came here for.





Brush Your Heart?

7 03 2012

I was a scrawny awkward teenager, and he was a strapping muscular man of his sixties.  We were at one of those bay-side parks in San Diego, with a large flat lawn at the edge of the still waters, dotted with palm trees and picnic tables.  It was one of those church potlucks, where you set down your cup of punch to get a little more food, and when you get back, there are two identical cups of punch in the same place, and there’s no knowing which is yours.  So you have to get another cup, and the event repeats itself.  Incidentally, it turned out that a boy was deliberately going around placing half-filled cups of punch next to other cups of punch, wherever he found them, for the express purpose of confusing people into abandoning their beverage for a new one.  A sixty-something man was tossing a football back and forth with someone half his age, as he told me of his plans to participate in the Iron Man marathon event in a couple of months, or so.  Apparently, he was a regular participant of these sorts of things.  I’m watching him catch and toss that football, and I’m thinking how amazing it is that he can do that.  Usually, when I tried to catch a football, I got it in the face, and throwing it was slapstick comedy.  He tried to explain to me that if I stayed active and healthy that I could still look as good as him when I was his age.  Yeah, I would have been thrilled to look even half as fit in my teens.  There was no question of “staying” healthy and active.  I’d have to get there, first.  I glanced over at my dad, with his pot belly and chronic health problems, and I look at this guy, and I’m thinking, “Man, he’s going to live forever.”

As it turned out, that healthy strapping man died a couple of weeks later of a heart attack.  Meanwhile, my dad, all these years later, is still alive for all of his unfathomable tenacity.  In all fairness, my dad nearly died more than once of a heart attack, so it wasn’t his great health habits that gave him the edge.  In fact, he’s the only person I’ve ever known who was paralyzed, broke his back, was wheelchair-bound and yet still made a full recovery to unassisted walking.  The truth is, I just don’t get either of these men.  The one who should have been healthy was dead, and the one who should be dead is still alive (not that I’m complaining).  This was not an isolated case, though.  Recent history has a few health pros who died of heart attacks.  The excuse is always the same, that these people obviously had some kind of genetic predisposition that made them more vulnerable to heart disease.

I was at a gathering of friends recently, where a dentist went into his lecture mode, when his eyes got a little glazed-looking, and he told us of  his own personal weltschmerz against the American Medical Association.  According to him, the atherolsclerotic clot that stops blood flow to the heart, inducing heart attack, is actually sixty percent, by weight, bacteria of dental origin.  This, of course, blew me away.  We’ve always been taught that atherosclerosis was the buildup of cholesterol on the lining of the coronary arteries.  That’s the story being promoted everywhere.  We’re told to eat food low in fat, and especially cholesterol, and to get plenty of exercise.  I had to do some internet searching before I could convince myself enough to write about it.  Some authoritative sources do back up this idea, but it still isn’t the version being promulgated publicly.

Now, let’s take this from the simple uneducated perspective.  The clot in my artery is mostly dental bacteria, and possibly it might still contain quite a bit of cholesterol.  I ask myself, is the bacteria primarily responsible for the clot, or is the cholesterol mainly to blame?  Well, I can say with certainty that while blood cholesterol levels maybe should be lower than what they are, blood cholesterol is still essentially a normal constituent of my body and even my blood.  Bacteria, on the other hand, absolutely do not belong in my body.  My blood is supposed to be sterile.  So, when I look at the clot in an artery, I might suppose that the cholesterol is part of the problem, but the bacteria is most likely the real source of trouble.

Atherosclerosis, then, is really just a biofilm, just like the white crud (plaque) that grows freely on your teeth.  You can brush that garbage off your teeth, but I haven’t found a way to brush it off of your arteries.  Physicians have known for years that the gums were an easy access point for blood-borne infection.  Hence, you really do not want a dentist with bad hygiene or an infectious disease.  The relationship between heart disease and tooth decay is unmistakeable, though.  It’s not just that both are caused by bacteria, but that both are caused by the same bacteria.  If the two are related, then it stands to reason that the bacteria in the mouth traveled to the heart, and not the other way around.  Hence, your dentist may have more to do with saving you from a heart attack than your family doctor, and brushing and flossing your teeth daily may be quite a bit more important than diet and exercise.  The validity of this claim still remains to be seen, assuming that anyone ever takes the time to reassess some long-held ideas about heart health.

The connection between diabetes and heart disease starts to make sense, now.  Diabetics have always been more prone to heart attacks than the average Joe, and the reason seems a little clearer, now.  One major symptom of diabetes is poor saliva production.  Normally, the constant flow of saliva in the mouth has a cleansing function, and the disruption of saliva flow leads to a higher incidence of tooth decay, because food and bacteria are able to take up a more permanent residence in the mouth.  If the mouth loses the battle, then the bacteria, apparently, are better able to make the jump from there to the bloodstream, and from there they manage to form a slimy layer coating the arteries.

For those people not familiar with biofilm, it’s simply a layer of bacteria adhered to more bacteria, and so on, and ultimately stuck to some solid surface.  If you want to see some, for example, just remove the drain stopper in your bathroom sink and scrape off some of that dark slime that has been slowing the drain flow.  That is biofilm.  The pink stuff growing on your shower walls is biofilm.  The white stuff that came off of your teeth is biofilm, and the clot clogging your arteries is biofilm.  Traditionally, the field of microbiology has been obsessed with the study of pelagic bacteria, the microorganisms that float through the water.  Recent studies suggest that the bacteria stuck to the sides of your drinking glass actually outnumber the ones swimming through the water.  Hopefully, we all run our glasses through the dishwasher every day, rather than use the same glass day after day without washing.  The strangest form of biofilm I’ve seen, yet, came to me in the laboratory in the form of a pumice stone covered in a fleshy film.  It actually looked like a lump of flesh covered in human skin.  It was the result of a couple month’s worth of sewage flowing over rocks.

Now that we know that atherosclerosis is, in fact, a biofilm, then it stands to reason that the sheering force of fast fluid flow probably diminishes it.  Bacteria that try to cling to solid surfaces always have more trouble when the fluid surrounding them is flowing rapidly.  Hence, there may actually be merit to exercise for heart health.  Also, if diabetes is largely the result of bad eating habits and sedentary lifestyle, then it stands to reason that exercise and good eating habits really are part of the equation for a healthy heart.  All of this is not to encourage people to stop eating right and exercising, but no french fry and no day of sitting around the house explains the existence of dental bacteria in the blood, where there really should be no bacteria.  Eating that fry won’t make microorganisms spontaneously form out of nothing and begin to colonize your heart.

While we’re on the subject, it does bring to mind the matter of a cousin to the coronary clot, the calcification and hardening of the arteries, a condition known as arteriosclerosis.  In my own sophomoric mind, I find that there also seems to be a dental parallel in the form of dental calculus, commonly known as tartar.  If atherosclerosis is really dental plaque, then it stands to reason that arteriosclerosis might actually be dental calculus of the arteries.  As far as I know, this comparison has not yet been explored, though.

To wrap this up, then, the key to sufficient heart health begins with the mouth.  Those who read this blog regularly, if “regularly” is the right word for it, will probably already be looking for the spiritual truth behind the matter.  I wasn’t going to have one, originally, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the condition of the mouth affects the health of the heart, both spiritually and physically.  A habit of complaining, slandering and bad-mouthing does, actually, have a deleterious affect on the spiritual heart.  Hygiene and cleanliness of the mouth is absolutely necessary for a healthy heart, both in a physical sense as well as a spiritual one.

The mouth is the rudder of both the body and the soul, apparently.





Stony Soil; of Love and Listlessness

4 02 2012

Alda is the nicest little old lady I know, and, honestly, I have trouble even calling her a little old lady, even though she is little, and she is, technically, old.  She’s got the liveliness of someone years younger.  One day, while we were in the kitchen chatting, she told my wife and I that though she had loved her late husband for many years, she never was really in love with him.  They treated each other lovingly, but the emotional appeal wasn’t really there.  She told us that she wanted to remarry, to have a chance to be deeply in love with someone.  She said she wanted a marriage like ours.  Now, my wife and I have been married for years; we are definitely not newlyweds, but I would certainly say that we are still very much in love.  It’s really just a matter of emotion.

Some couples are just married and some are just married.  Either they’re just married, as in recently married, or they’re just married, as in not living life to the fullest, content with just being married.  It’s a rotten stereotype, and it’s not always true.  While I’ll grant that the happiest married couples are generally the ones who still have rice in their hair, marriage really does get an unfair treatment.

First comes the infatuation, then the disillusionment, and then comes the “mature” love, which essentially boils down to treating each other fairly and raising kids together, without all of that emotional impetus that got them together in the first place.  In other words, marriage has a nasty habit of turning into something more like a business agreement.  It’s a convenient way to have a warm body in bed, and it’s a stable arrangement for rearing children.  It would seem that romance was nothing but a bait-and-switch trick of the hippocampus.  Does marriage always follow this course?

You see, I have to ask, because the relationship of the church to Christ is that of a bride.  The nature of a marriage parallels our relationship with our savior.  Consequently, Christians often go through the same stages in their pursuit of the faith that many couples endure over their years as spouses.  Jesus likened faith to a farmer casting seed around his land.  Some of the seed landed on the path and never took root.  Some landed on the stony soil and sprouted quickly but never took deep enough root to survive.  Some seed grew among thorns and got choked out by the weeds.  Then, there was the successful seed.  In the application to marriage, the seed that lands on the path is the unrequited love.  You courted her, but she was not interested.  You flirted with him, and he moved on to greener pastures.  Likewise, God courts some of us, and he is shunned outright.  The love is never reciprocated.

Then, there is the seed that lands among the thorns.  You fell in love.  You married and raised a family.  Then, the effort of raising kids, maintaining two incomes, maintaining outside relationships, maintaining the house, etc. all worked toward alienating you from the one you married.  The weeds, the distractions, grew between you, and you found yourself married to a stranger.  Similarly, the act of being a Christian and doing Christian things, coupled with all of the other distractions of life can add up to finding yourself a stranger to God.  You find that you’re still going through the motions, but that romance, the initial emotion that drew you into a relationship to begin with, is gone.

And then…there are the stony marriages.  The infatuation is there.  The feeling is intense, but it goes no deeper than a feeling.  After the initial thrill wears off, there’s no substance to hold the marriage together.  It withers and dies.  This is, really, the three-step marriage cycle most commonly described by the psychologists.  Just because you found a way to get along and keep the marriage going, doesn’t make it a success.  The romance is dead.  You love, but you’re no longer in love.  The common belief is that this is truly mature love.  This is correct.  It is mature love, but that doesn’t make it ideal love.  The common parallel to spiritual life can be found among charismatics.  The charismatic church is, by far, the best at evangelizing, at bringing unbelievers into the fold.  The non-charismatic or even anti-charismatic church seems more largely composed of those who either grew up in that kind of church or switched over from a more charismatic church after becoming disillusioned.  Their view of the charismatic faith is that such faith is shallow, lacking in substance, development, commitment and wisdom.  Very often, they’re absolutely correct.  Charismatic faith is saturated with feeling and emotion, and it is very often not backed up by anything more substantive.  The seed fell on the stony soil and sprouted rapidly, but it never found any depth.  They fall in love, and then they get bored or fall out of love.  Then, very often, they leave.

Contrary to the anti-charismatic opinion, though, the emotional appeal of charisma is not a weakness.  That’s actually the strength of it.  The weakness is the lack of depth.  The seed was not faulty because it sprouted quickly.  The seed was faulty because it never gained any depth.  Charismatics are not to be faulted for their emotional drive.  The lack of emotion is the weakness of the other side.  We ought not to curse the stem for the lack of roots, when the stem is the only thing going right.  Similarly, disappointed and cynical failures at romance ought not to criticize the young lovers for being  infatuated.  The young lovers are the ones who really have a good thing going.  There’s really no reason to aim for unfeeling marriage.  The real fault of young love is that it often does not have the depth to remain in the beautiful and glorious state that it’s already in.  Emotional love is the goal, the thing to be aimed for.  It is not the error of the immature.  Falling out of that state is the error of the immature.

The real aim of a successful marriage is to sprout that romance and grow it, keeping it alive and well by developing the depth necessary to weather good and bad days, the ups and the downs in life, and yet never cease to be in love, not just loving.  The aim is to be permanently infatuated.  After all, some seed does fall on the fertile soil.  It sprouts up like the seed among thorns and the seed among stones, but the difference is that it stays that way.  The other two don’t.  The former charismatic looks back on the emotional thrill ride of that former life as an empty shell.  He thinks he is wiser, and he’s right.  He is wiser, but he lost the romance in the process.  His marriage to the faith is still loving, but he is no longer in love.  He went through all of the stages of marriage, from infatuation, through disillusionment, to “maturity.”  But he is now a cynic.  Those three stages are the phases of the stony soil faith.  He won’t pray for healing.  Why?  Because he no longer believes.  He won’t seek out prophecy, because he no longer believes.  It’s in the Bible, quite clearly, but he still rejects it, and he rejects it on the basis of being a Bible-only believer, ironically.

The former charismatic says she was not saved because of the charismatic church, but in spite of it.  That’s like saying she didn’t get married because she fell in love, but in spite of it.  This is patently false.  She could blame the charismatic church for not giving her the tools to become strong in the faith, but she could never claim that the passion and excitement of faith, of real mountain-moving faith, repelled her from that faith.  We all come to Christ by falling in love.

It’s not common, especially these days, to find an old married couple, still holding hands and casting adoring sidelong glances at each other after half a century of marriage.  It’s not common, but it happens.  I wish it would happen to us all.





Schlaraffenland

30 01 2012

The rivers run with milk, honey and wine.  The fish that swim within them are already breaded and fried.  Anyone who wants to eat one need only open his mouth and a fish jumps right out of the water and into the hungry person’s mouth.  The birds that fly through the air are already cooked, prepared and ready to eat.  A person need only lay down a plate, and a chicken will walk onto it and lie down (they come in several breeds, including barbecue, kung pao, cashew and southern fried).  Houses are made of food.  If a person  wants ham, he need only lean over and bite a wall.  All trees provide all kinds of fruit, all of which are low-hanging, all of which will fall to the ground at a person’s wish, which is a very necessary thing, because the inhabitants of this land are always lying flat on their backs.  They probably could not rise if they wanted to.  In this land, all work is a sin, and not just on the Lord’s day.

This is Schlaraffenland, literally meaning Land of the Lazy Monkeys.  Fortunately, I can say I did not invent this fabulous land.  I should be embarrassed if I did.  The tale originated in Germany around 1494, and time has only made it worse.  Luckily, the tale never made headway into English-speaking cultures.  The point of the story is simply to satirize paradise.  We think of the evils of our world as including hard labor and a struggle to survive.  Hence, the logical extreme would be a place of absolutely no work, and no struggle to survive at all.  We do tend to think of work as a drudgery, and we do tend to think of Heaven as a permanent place of retirement.  Perhaps we ought to reconsider.

In truth, the tale of Schlaraffenland did not go far enough.  If we really need not work to survive, if we need not do anything, and if God provides absolutely everything we need at all times, then Schlaraffenland is simply an arduous place to have to spend eternity.  The real absolute zero-cost land of plenty is a brain connected to life support.  After all, if one must eat, then one must perform the task of chewing and digesting.  Then, it follows that we must do the unthinkable, which is to say that we must poop.

We are here, somewhere in the middle, between life-support, where life is absolutely effortless, and a world like Mars, Venus, the Sun, a comet, or pretty much the entire universe, minus Earth, where life is basically impossible.  One of the things I get a lot from atheists is the observation that life on this ball of dirt is not only a struggle, but an actual battle against other species and even each other for our very survival.  This is true, but the fact that a battle can be fought at all, with any hope of victory, implies that the opportunity has at least been provided, and we must seize that opportunity to yield an outcome, which just happens to be survival.  I’m not sure exactly what they expected from a created universe, but if they expected God to provided us with absolutely everything, with the food already in our bellies and the sun always warm upon our faces, then what, exactly, were we meant to do with all of our free time?  Really, if we think about it, ease of living is just a point along a broad spectrum from a dead rock to a celestial tube of life pumping directly into our brains.  If the atheist would say that the current struggle is evidence of no created design, then, likely, a much easier world could yield the same view, all the way up that spectrum, until we’re all on life-support and there’s nothing more for us to want.

Someone had to work to design and create, ship, distribute, sell and deliver that thing you’re staring at, called a monitor.  If there had been a creator, then you’d think he would have had the foresight to have monitors growing everywhere out of the ground.  Trees have a fairly complex design, but merely having masses of lumber harnessing solar energy, growing from the ground and reproducing copies of themselves hardly seems sufficient.  Trees ought to be able to connect to the internet so that they can play a game of reversi with you (a good and proper use of sophisticated technology, really).  When is it enough?

The truth of it is that the Bible never promised that Heaven would be an iron lung, a mechanical heart and some I.V. bags.  I hope that comes as no surprise to anybody.  All we were promised was much greater prosperity, better opportunity, and easier labor.  That’s all.  The truth of it is that the Bible tells that life on earth is a bit harder, because we’re not exactly little saints down here.  Take a drive down the freeway tomorrow and try to convince yourself that we’re all a bunch of nice little angels.  You didn’t scream profanities for nothing.  Life is harder, but life is not impossible.  Now that we’ve topped seven-billion people on this planet, I think it’s safe to say that life on Earth is not too hard.

So, exactly how well-tailored to our existence must life be for us to conclude that maybe things were engineered that way?  For the skeptic, intelligent design will always seem a little lacking, here or there.  The fact is that the human may be very intelligent, but we’re built like wimpy, hairless, defenseless bipeds.  Well, the Bible says we’re built in the image of God, which essentially means that we were designed more for what we look like than what we are capable of.  It’s a priority of form over function.  Fur, claws venom and fangs are all very good for survival, but they don’t contribute much toward making a man look more like God.  Yes, I know that many think of God as an amorphous blob.  One person’s fancy is as good as any other’s, so I suppose the claim that God has a humanoid form is no less valid than the claim that he’s shaped roughly like an amoeba.  Christians make an exception for the form of a person.  The intelligence of this design is a little more artistic and a little less utilitarian.  Now, if we had really evolved from apes, or whatever simian beast they haven’t yet debunked, then we might expect to be fully loaded with all of the latest weaponry.  Evolution is always strictly utilitarian, with no exception, so I’ll leave it to them to explain how the heck a smart monkey who looked like he just got let out of Auschwitz after being de-fanged, de-clawed and cleanly shaven could survive on his wits alone.  We’ll experiment by taking some fool off the street, or the reader, if he wishes to volunteer, and dropping him naked into the middle of a forest with nothing but his wits, and we’ll see how long he survives.  A well-trained survivalist might make a year, but I’ll give it a couple of weeks at best before the average chump finds himself on his face sucking dirt.  If the early human survived strictly by wits, and if those wits were so far superior that he could cast off every natural advantage in favor of wits, then I must say that he must have been way smarter than Einstein.  I can’t imagine Einstein lasting naked and alone in a forest, though it may be that I have trouble imagining Einstein naked in the first place (man, what a thought.  I should have left that one alone!).  Then, we would have a very intelligent early human who was even more keenly aware of his doom than our poor naked Einstein ever was.

Your smart phone can make phone calls, send text messages, play games, browse the internet and take pictures, but it can’t give you a sponge bath, double as a cereal bowl or brush your teeth in the morning.  Dang, what a lame rip-off!  I could have created as much by smashing two rocks together!  Right?  If I can find something that it can’t do, then it must not be intelligently designed, right?