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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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.





Dipolar Christianity

9 01 2012

For those who weren’t paying attention, over the years the Christian faith has largely split into two camps, the highly charismatic, and the cessationists.  It used to be that we identified ourselves along the lines of protestant and Catholic, but in places where that battle has come to a truce, more or less, we’ve come to divide ourselves along the line distinguishing ourselves between those who expect God to work miracles every day and those who think that all miracles died with Jesus and failed to rise again.  Unbelievers like the first group, because they’re easy to mock, and they like the second group, because that form of Christianity is so dead that it poses no real threat to secular normalcy.

Before the old protestant-Catholic battle, there was the Catholic-orthodox conflagration.  Before that, it was the Christian versus the Jew.  With the earliest split, the Jews were the persecutors, and the conflict ended when a third party, Rome, trampled all over Judea and made the Jewish divine privilege look like a bankrupt gentleman’s club.  Then the Catholics split from the Eastern Orthodox, and the Catholics became the persecutors during the crusades.  Then the protestants split from the Catholics, and the Catholics were still the persecutors.  We can thank Napoleon for confining the Vatican to a tiny little plot of apolitical territory.  Since that emasculation, we’ve only found our nemesis in the Anglican Church (the other papacy), which persecuted people as power in England shifted back and forth between the Catholics and the Anglicans between the times of Henry the Eighth and Queen Elisabeth, and the Episcopalians (the other Anglican church), which brought us the glorious Salem witch trials.  Are we done yet?

One would think that we could be done with dividing ourselves into fundamental opposition.  Here, in the United States, the Catholic church has no power to persecute.  The Orthodox barely exist.  The Jews control the media (just kidding).  Actually, Jewishness has lost its cultural identity to such an extent these days, that they could hardly be considered a social force at all, anymore.  These should be the golden days of Christendom, but we apparently seem addicted to culling the herd and refining our social set to the true faith.

On the one hand, we have the Vineyard, the Assemblies of God, the Foursquare Church, etc., along with some really wild charismatic offshoots, doing their best to promote glossolalia, prophecy and miraculous healing.  On the other hand, we have all of the old-school mainstream churches such as the Methodists, Wesleyan and the Northern Baptists taking the tamest and safest route to faith, which is to say that God ignores you until you die (until he kills you), and then suddenly he becomes your benefactor and your very best friend, ushering you into Heaven.

If I had no clue which were true, I would have to say that I would rather be a Charismatic and be wrong than be a cessationist and be wrong.  I would rather live with the hope and faith that God still intervenes in our lives and performs encouraging miracles along the way, even if I’m wrong, than believe that Christ abandoned us when he ascended into Heaven, and be wrong.  At least, if I’m a charismatic, I have hope.  If I’m a cessationist, then I lean upon the arm of an apathetic God.  I would least want to be a cessationist and be right.

If nothing else, at least the charismatics have the guts to stick their necks out and make themselves an easy target.  The other extreme believes in little more for this life than does the unbeliever.  It’s easy to say that we can expect nothing miraculous until after the grave, because it can never be tested or verified.  This is really just a lame excuse for faith.  The faith of the believer approximates the faith of the unbeliever, and that’s nothing to live by.

On the other hand, because the charismatics do stick their necks out and stand for the miraculous, the result is that we’ve had a lot of rolling heads over the years.  We have the miraculous speaking of other languages (glossolalia), and those languages often don’t exist, and often, just based on what’s being articulated, the person could hardly be speaking more than repetitive gibberish, anyway.  We have notorious cases of miraculous “healing” that did little more than prevent the victim from seeking conventional medicine, even to the point of death.  We’ve had outrageous preachers who blaspheme, distort and self-aggrandize.  In short, charisma has come to be synonymous with sensationalism.

The truth of the matter is that in a side-by-side comparison, the charismatic movement will always provide plenty more fodder for debunking.  They get it wrong and they blunder several times a day, globally.  The cessationists never prove wrong, because they never stand for anything.  Claims can’t be false if they’re never made.  The positive assertion is always the riskiest assertion.  The skeptic’s position is the easy one, in all respects.  It’s always easier to sit back and poke holes in the opponent’s claims than to stand up and make a positive assertion about anything.  Ambitious people fail more often than the lazy, because they try more often.  Professional sportsmen fail more often than the armchair quarterback, because they play more often.  Hence, charismatics make fools of themselves, and the cessationists do not.

If we take the Bible at its word, then miracles do still happen.  It’s exactly as the charismatics say, but it is not necessarily as often, or under the same circumstances.  Of a thousand prophecies, one may actually be true.  Of a hundred-thousand speakings of an angelic language, maybe one is genuine and useful for teaching a person of the gospel.  All it takes is one example of a genuine miracle, and the cessationist is proven wrong.  He is not proven right every time the charismatic offering comes to naught.

Personally, I understand both sides, and I respect both to a great degree.  One is hopeful, and the other is rational.  One runs blindly, and the other convinces himself that he sees nothing.  I would love to see both sides in the same church, waiting patiently and expectantly for the move of the Holy Spirit, not daring to make it happen by their own will, and not daring to condemn it out of hand.

My brother, a charismatic preacher, once asked me if my church was the kind where the Holy Spirit moved, or whether it was one that didn’t believe in the work of God.  I said, “Neither one.”  Then he asked me if it was the kind that believed in the work of the Holy Spirit, but was essentially dead, waiting around for something that never happened.  He believed it to be the saddest kind of church.  Oh, but it was not that at all.  It was the most honest kind of church.  It was the kind that refused to prevent the work of the Spirit either by faking it or by dismissing it before it even happened.  It was a church that remained on the verge of something big.

What the church needs today is not a hyper-rational sect of witch-hunters tearing down the charismatic movement.  It would be better to die young than to discourage and dismay the body of Christ, first.  What the church needs is not a three-ring-circus miracle roadshow, condemning the cessationists for their lack of faith.  The only thing worse than a lack of miracles is disillusioning believers through exposed farce.  Personally, I would love to see more miracles in the church, today, but I want it to be real, and nothing less.

What we really don’t need is another religious split, but that’s what we might get if we don’t treat each other with gentleness and respect, not for having perfect theology, but for being a child of God.





To Them Who Did Not Turn the Other Cheek (everyone)

1 07 2011

Jesus was a peculiar individual, to say the least.  We thought that merely abstaining from sex with another man’s wife was sufficient for a sinless life, but he told us that we could not even give her a hidden, much enjoyed, sideways glance.  We could understand that much if we really strained ourselves.  Not leering at a woman was something of an extreme measure along the lines of avoiding sex with her.  Yes, but, when he said that we would be better off plucking out our eyes than let them cause us to sin, well, we thought that was just hyperbole.  What part of your body causes you to sin?  Get your knife.  Yeah, I didn’t think so.  A Christian is one who follows the teachings of Christ…but not that close.

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, an act that will lose its sting much like the sinking of the Lusitania, Christians from both sides of the aisle took opposing views on how to respond.  On the left, we had people saying that we should practice the teachings of Christ and turn the other cheek, meaning that we should be passive and do nothing.  Those on the right said that Christ’s teachings in this were meant on a personal level, not a national one, and that if we did nothing, then we were just inviting more attacks.  Neither side really applied Christ’s message to the situation.  More importantly, though, the leftist response underscores a serious problem in modern Christian understanding of this passage, and the conservative response and their failure to hit this misunderstanding head-on seems to indicate that they don’t generally understand it much, either.

According to Christ, when someone hits your cheek, you ought to offer him the other cheek to hit, also.  When someone steals your coat, you give him the shirt off your back (ladies, don’t do this, exactly).  Turning the other cheek is not passive.  He didn’t say to hug your knees and cry.  What he said is, essentially, that you should invite the other person to do it again.  Now, we’ll work with the understanding that Ezekiel told us that we are responsible, at least to some extent, for the sins of our neighbors.  We can say it would, in this case, refer to fellow members of the family of God, but there is, at least, the expectation that we should warn another person of their sin, if we see it.  Christ’s view of sin is simply that we should do everything in our power to prevent even the tiniest, most subtly discernible sin.  By inviting a second strike, or a second theft, the initial impression is that we’re encouraging a second act of sin from the other person.  This is not the case.  The fact is, simply, that a man cannot steal what has been freely given to him.  If you invite the other person to slap you hard in the face, then you have not been wronged, really, when the other person takes you up on your offer.  Fundamentally, when you make the offer that the other person offend you again, you actually absolve them of that sin.  It’s the evasion of sin taken to an extreme.  Not only do we need to do everything in our power to avoid committing sin ourselves, but we ought to do what we can for others, also.

I have only seen this sort of thing happen once.  My parents caught an illegal immigrant in their storage room, stealing clothing.  What was their response?  They helped her steal more.  I’m sure she was baffled.  The moment she realized that she was welcomed to take it, her conscience was cleared.  The guilt was gone and over with.  If they had pretended not to notice, then she would have walked away a thief.  She would have thought herself a thief, and, for all practical purposes, she would have been right.  She could not take up an offer that was never made.  It’s not a gift until someone actually gives it.  Until then, it’s just another theft.  Turning the other cheek can not ever be a passive act.  It never will be.

In the matter of a literal strike to the face, or anywhere else, the Christian will likely either find himself fighting back, or, simply, keeling over in tears.  The offender will then walk away satisfied, or continue offending.  Either response by the Christian is an unchristian response, unfortunately.  To take Christ’s teaching to heart means that when I finish crying my eyes out, I’ve actually got to find that jerk and ask him if he would like to hit me some more.  He needs to know that he took nothing from me that I didn’t willingly give.

Ouch.  You’re welcome.

It reminds one of a time when Jesus told his followers that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have everlasting life.  Oh, it’s such a cliché, now, but then it sounded like pure craziness.  Naturally, people turned away in droves, shaking their heads and mumbling about the crazy rabbi.  It sounded crazy for a person to cut off his own hand to prevent sin.  It sounded like unproductive madness to give someone permission to strike back.

Hit me, please.  No, really, if it makes you feel better, then do it again.

Passivity is much easier, but it doesn’t really accomplish the purpose of preventing sin, aggressively and fanatically.  Doing nothing about it not only is unpleasant, but it doesn’t really even earn you any points in Heaven.  You get to suffer, and it doesn’t even count for anything.  Now when it comes to the matter of one who goes about killing others, the underlying principle is still the same: prevent sin fanatically.  Stop that killer from killing again.  The other man’s cheek is not yours to offer.  Stop that sin.  Make the beating stop.

Nothing in the Christian doctrine is so well-versed, frequently said, and, amazingly, so rarely followed.  We could even go so far as to say that if you won’t turn the other cheek, and if that aversion causes you to sin, then perhaps we should get out the knife and eliminate that part of the body.  Indeed, Christ promised his followers quite a bit of suffering.

No, we don’t mean it, really.  When we fail, repeatedly, to turn the other cheek, we aren’t really going to cut our cheeks off.  When we get hit, we aren’t going to find the person on the following day and offer our faces as punching bags for a second round, in order to make a point that the first round was also our gift to him.  No, what we’re going to do is hug our knees and cry like a baby…or, we could seek him out and beat him to a pulp, which feels much better and actually does something toward preventing recurrence.  We’re going to hold our neighbor to his sins and hope he burns forever for it.  Then, at the end of it all, we’re going to hope to God that he doesn’t do the same to us, because he’s already said that he will forgive us as we forgive others.

When it comes to the teachings of Christ, we generally accept as much as we can, rationalize the rest, and then fail even to perform what little we can accept of it.  We can only hope that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, because if he wasn’t then we jest when we call ourselves Christians.  This hope isn’t going to get us very far, considering that he demonstrated his meaning by giving up his life to people who wanted to kill him.  Even his earliest followers did the same.

This Christianity stuff is really intense if you’re serious about it.  This is no joke.  I’m not laughing.  I’m wringing my hands and hoping I read it wrong.





Rattlesnake Mountain

18 04 2011

We were all there in the open field at recess watching James’ dad get blown to bits.  James was even there with us.  Of course, we had no idea what we were looking at.  It was one of two plane crashes I remember seeing from that same playground during my time in elementary school.  The small aircraft hit close to the peak, igniting a fire that spread and rose until it engulfed the top.  What is fire to a little kid?  What is tragedy?

A few years ago, I noticed my goldfish staring in awe at a candle I had placed near the fishbowl.  Where, in nature, do fish confront fire?  All of the beasts in the forest know it well.  At the first scent of smoke, the bees start packing up the honey.  The deer flee for their lives.  Even the snakes head for the water.  All of the animals of the forest know what fire is, and they fear it dreadfully.  The fish don’t have a clue.

There we were, like a pond full of goldfish, staring at a fire, and somewhere in that fire was our classmate’s father.  We didn’t have a clue.  I remember when he was called out of the classroom.  I remember the next day, staring up at Rattlesnake Mountain, with its ashen gray cap, and freckle-faced Brent exclaiming, “Dude!  That was James’ father!”  He kept saying it until it finally hit home with us.  The teacher may have told us all at the same time, but I don’t remember.  It was a hard thing to grasp.

James was rare for being a black kid in a nearly all-white school.  He was one of only about three non-whites I think I saw in the seven years I was there, five non-whites, if you count the faculty.  He was extremely quiet and well-mannered.  So much more dramatic the change when he began biting and kicking his fellow students for no reason at all (I thought).  We were only second-graders.  I had no idea what it was like to lose my father.  All I knew was that my classmate was behaving like a rabid animal.  Shortly after that, James moved away, and we never saw him again.

And then I had my own Rattlesnake Mountain, that same year.

Christmas came, and I got my very own Starscream Transformer robot toy.  I remember it well, and I remember how it came with two left hands and a missile that broke as I was detaching it from the forms.  I recall the evening when I sat on my father’s lap, and he helped me put the decals on the toy.  He had the sticker for the shiny gold eyes grasped in a pair of tweezers.  He hesitated, he breathed deeply, and then he gave me the tweezers and set me down on the couch and wandered off.  I had no idea that I was witnessing my forty-two-year-old father have a heart attack.  Once I finished the decals myself, I wandered about, looking for my parents, when my older siblings informed me that they had gone to the hospital.  My mom came home late and alone.

The next day was business as usual.  I thought my dad was going to die, and there I was in school, doing what I did every day, helpless in my circumstances.  I don’t remember why, but I found myself biting and kicking my classmates like some rabid animal.  Yes, now I could relate to James.  I was horrified at my own actions, watching myself transform like a young Jekyll and Hyde story.  The teacher knew something was wrong at home.  She pinned a note to my clothes and admonished me to leave it there until my mom took it off.  I don’t know why, but I wore the note all the way home, without trying to read it.

The next day, my mother kept me home from school and took me to visit my father in the hospital, instead.  That was all it took to make me a happy well-mannered kid again, seeing him alive and in good spirits.  My first day back at school, the teacher pinned another note to my clothes, thanking my mother for whatever it was that she had done.  “Now, don’t take this one off,” she said, “This is a good note.”

In second grade, my parents were enormous giants to me.  The prospect of my dad dying was like the prospect of God dying.  This one who should have been too big to fall, this all-providing source of survival was at death’s door.  I can well imagine how Christ’s disciples might have panicked at the death of their rabbi, a surrogate father, but more, something like Father God in the flesh, too big to fall, dying like a mortal.  One can see Peter’s fight/flight response, cutting off a servant’s ear one moment, and denying Christ the next, having witnessed the death and destruction of the man who always had all of the answers, the one who could not be touched.  There he was, the apparent source of life and health, bleeding on a cross.  Christ’s mountain was called the Skull, but it was the place where the snake had bitten him on the heel, symbolically.  It was his Rattlesnake Mountain.

It recalls to mind the various faces of the September 11 attacks, all of those close shots of people hanging out of windows to escape the fire.  Those must have been someone’s fathers and mothers.  I can only imagine the horror of having watched it happen to a loved one.  Much worse, to have seen the face of one clearly, on a newspaper or on television.  When I watched the tsunami roll across Japan, it was like the plane crash at Rattlesnake mountain, like a goldfish staring at a flame.  It was mesmerizing, but it was nothing personal to me.  I feel like I should sympathize more.  I know I would feel much different if that tragedy came to me.

Deep in the recesses of my mind, I wonder if we’re all destined to feel the pain of those victims.  We’ll feel their pain, or we’ll feel that pain.  I pray to God that the pain is only sympathetic.  If that’s all I pray, then I probably am not sympathetic.  And, if I am cold, then perhaps the hour has come for God to break me, that I may bleed, and, having bled, I may learn to feel again.





The Day After, and the Day After That

25 12 2010

A man lived in a modest home on a very expensive little square of land.  The home was reasonably large, but nothing in character to make it particularly attractive.  At night, he could be seen in his living room watching television, while all of the other windows in his home were dark.  One day, he decided to tear down this house and build a much bigger home with more rooms.  He designed it with an old Spanish architecture, built by a renowned company.  Out in front of this home, he put a plaque detailing the history of the site, though one might wonder what significance could exist in a home built only a few years ago.  Whatever had existed there before was long gone.  Only the dirt was historic, for what it’s worth.  The home was lovely, furnished with brand new furniture and all of the latest technology.

In the evenings, he could be seen sitting in his living room watching a bigger television, and all of the other windows in his home remained dark.  Now, there were more dark windows, to dark rooms with no one in them and no life housed.  In truth, he either needed fewer rooms or more family living with him.  Actually, he seemed only to need one room.  As it was, one room held all of the life, while the others were vacant catacombs.

In our mansion, we have three-hundred-sixty-five rooms.  One of them is well lit and full of life.  Its light spills out the door and down the hall.  You can see the light before you see the room.  You can stand in the glow before you’re in the room.  One room is full of life and festivity.  One room holds the family.  One or two others occasionally get a visit, but this room is where the action is.  The other three-hundred-sixty-four rooms are about as lifeless as a grave.  We walk briskly through the room, then exit back into another dark hallway.  The glow gently recedes as we head away from the door.  Then we find ourselves in darkness.

The day after Christmas, known as Boxing Day for reasons unknown to most people, is usually a day for breaking toys, returning unwanted presents, and spending what’s left of the family budget on things, things and more things, to fill the vacancy left by the light of Christmas.  The purchases on Boxing Day are a match lit to find one’s way down the dark hall, in absence of the waning light of Christmas.  The world has forgotten Christmas already.  Yet, the world never knew it.  On Christmas morning, the sun rose at its usual time; the wild animals followed their usual routine; all of nature was ignorant of the event.  The whole physical world saw Christmas as just another day.  On the day that Christ was born, the whole world saw the life of just another day.  Few people were aware that anything significant had happened, because the significance was purely in the minds of those who saw it.  Christ was the great secret.  He was only a baby, and he was doing nothing extraordinary.  For all practical purposes, the first Christmas really was just another day.

The only difference between Christmas and all of the other days in the year is what we do with it.  In one sense, it’s all in our minds.  We could say that it’s nothing special.  Nothing happens on that day that could not just as easily happen on the day after, or the day after that.  On Christmas, we wake up with the feeling that this is a special day, like no other.  The day after Christmas, we wake up depressed, looking for a suitable drug.  The only difference between the two days is what we put into them.  The Christmas room is full of life, full of loved ones and full of charm.  The room next to it is dark and cold, uninhabited and neglected.  Christmas is expensive and laden with work.  The other days are cheap and easy.  Christmas is religious and meaningful, while the others are mostly secular and routine.  Christmas is a time for building relationships, but the others are a time for growing stale and unfamiliar.  The only difference between the two is what we do with them.  Otherwise, one day is just like any other.

One room is like any other.  The only difference is what you fill it with.  God has a house with many rooms, and he intends to fill it with loved ones.  Every room will be filled with light and life.

Some houses on the street are brightly lit.  Others remain as festive as a tomb.  The Puritan rejects Christmas for its pagan origins, while the atheist rejects it for the Christian thing it has become.  For some, it is secular, a party to celebrate nothing.  For some, it is the birthday of someone very special.  It is a symbol.  It is whatever it means to you.  It amounts to whatever you invest into it.  It is not that Christmas is an ordinary day trumped up to pretend itself important.  It is that every other day is neglected and unappreciated for what it is.  Every other day needs a little Christmas, and every other person needs Christ.  The world is full of empty souls, with scarce few that know what it means to be filled with Christ, to be Christmas among the empty days of the calendar.

Emmanuel, God is with us, still.  Christ came and struck us in awe.  Then he left.  The day after that, after he was gone, when the miracles had ceased, and the Holy Spirit had not yet come, the world was held in suspense, like Boxing Day, not knowing what was left to hope for, but only guessing and waiting, remembering what had been, and feeling the vacancy.  Christ was really gone this time.  He wasn’t coming back in three days, this time.  It was over, or had it just begun?  No, it had not even begun, yet.  At the moment, it was just over, and it was not anything else, yet.  It was the day after, and its only significance was that it was no longer the previous day.

It was the dark room, next to the living one, close enough to hear the activity and catch a glimpse of the light, but still in darkness.  But the day after Christmas is the first day of waiting for its return.





A Dangerously Weak god

16 09 2010

A coworker named Albert  attempted to explain to me that another coworker named Tuan thought he was far better than anyone else at the lab.  When confronted with what were perceived to be his shortcomings, Tuan reacted by insisting that he was the very best among us.  In fact, he might have had us believe that he was near perfect.

“He doesn’t really think that,” I told my other coworker, “He’s just insecure.”

“No, he’s not insecure,” replied Albert, “He thinks we’re all down here.” He indicated an arbitrary position with his hand, palm-downward, “And he thinks he’s way up here,” he said, raising his hand above his head.  “When I tried to correct him, he got defensive and argued with me.”

“Secure people don’t get defensive,” I replied.

It’s true, though.  Confident people can take harsh criticism in stride.  It may bother them, but they don’t lose confidence in who they are and where they stand.  It is with this in mind that I note how, with a Koran in one hand and a cigarette lighter in the other, I can make the entire Muslim world jump with every flick of my thumb.  With a pencil and a wild imagination I can draw a face and call it “Mohamed,” earning myself a death sentence.  But all of this zealotry runs amok when we put it to the magnifying glass.

I understand that offenses against Muslim icons are an offense against Muslims.  Insults to my mother are offensive to me, and insults against my God are all the more so.  In a sense, everything that I hold dear and close is part of what I call home.  In a beehive, the queen bee is home.  To the mockingbird, the nest is home.  We naturally fight to protect our home.  However, against these physical things, there lies a real threat of harm.  The bees fight for the queen, because she could really be killed.  The bird fights for the nest, because the young might really be devoured.

On the other hand, fighting to protect one’s god is like fighting to rescue a wooden idol from a burning building.  When a person finds himself filling the role of a self-appointed guardian of his own god, then he ought to reconsider what this thing really is.  I might ask, exactly how fragile is this Allah, that he cannot defend his own honor?  Why does any supreme being need mere mortals to run to his rescue?  It’s like the idol-makers at Ephesus fighting to protect their trade from the teachings of Paul and Barnabas.  That Muslims feel any need to fight for their god is all we need to see their insecurity.  No one dies in defense of the invincible.

They have every reason to feel insecure, though.  The whole Muslim world is economically, militarily, socially and technologically weaker than the industrialized Western nations.  If Allah were strong, then he would have lifted them above the infidels in all respects, for this god is not known for its modesty.  All the worse, though, that Allah is immodest, for weakness is never an act of voluntary meekness, as it is with Jesus.

Our God humbled himself and became a human so that he might be mocked, torn apart and murdered.  In light of this, one might threaten the burning of thousands of Bibles and never come close to the desecration that Christianity suffered.  Yet, this desecration was part of our theology.  Humiliation is central to our faith.  No derision proves our God too weak to respond, and no lack of faith or weakness of character would keep us from defending him.  We don’t need to defend him, and he is not weak.  It is through our persecution that we are proven strong.

Allah takes nothing in stride, and neither do his followers.  He proves his might through violence, which, ironically, is all the proof of his weakness.  Those who look to him for deliverance have become his protectors.  It’s the grandest of all role-reversals.  The loyal adherents have become the gods and made their god as weak as a newborn babe.

You can burn my Bible.  It’s just a stack of papers with ink scribbles on them.  Only the ideas contained within are holy.  The book is just a book.  Even the ideas don’t exist within the pages of a book.  Ideas can only exist within a mind.  A book never read is a book without meaning.  In this case, the book was read, and the meaning, which is the only thing holy about it, was stored within the soul of the one who read it.  The only thing holy about the Christian holy book lies hidden within the hearts of the Christians who believe in it.  There, no match can burn, nor any heretic desecrate it.  We have nothing to fear.  The real Bible cannot be burned.  That which can be burned is not the Word of God.

It is the weakness of Allah that causes the infidels to die.  A polytheistic god that was hardly more than a myth was built up to parade in the place of God, himself.  Such a vainglory was but a house of cards, and the effort to protect that house is more than the world can bear.  If Allah were stronger, then his followers would not have to fight so hard to protect him.  So far, though, he has managed to make a solitary prophet snort and gag while uttering proverbs.  His people have done the rest.  We are the victims of a dangerously weak god.