Back to the Garden

After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” Genesis 3:24 NIV

As I have mentioned previously, I grew up during the 1960’s. It was a turbulent and often violent time. The war in Vietnam intensified throughout the decade, as did the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies. Peaceful protesters of the Civil Rights Movement were often attacked and sometimes killed. At Kent State University, protesters against the Vietnam War were shot at by the Ohio National Guard and four were killed. Accusations of police brutality, and the frustrations of years of Jim Crow, poverty, and second class citizenship for African-Americans led to race riots in virtually every major city in the country.

But the violence of the times helped to fuel various movements to counteract it. The peace movement sought to bring an end to the Vietnam War, and to all war. Related movements tried to bring about an end to nuclear proliferation. Coalitions of people of all races formed to oppose segregation and discrimination of all kinds. Some groups sought to spread the “sexual revolution” with slogans like “Make Love not War.”

One of the groups that comprised what became known at that time as “the counter-culture” was the hippie movement. The hippie movement was very popular and very influential within the youth community, despite the fact that the actual number of “full time” hippies was relatively small.

The reason for this popularity and appeal to the youth was simple. It offered a lifestyle that seemed to be liberating and free of responsibility. Drugs, particularly marijuana and LSD, were consumed in copious amounts. Sexual liberation and communal living were other hallmarks of the movement. Rejecting straight society, with its rules and “hangups” was de rigueur. A saying to come out of the movement, popularized by LSD advocate and guru Timothy Leary, was “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

As mentioned above, communal living was a big part of the hippie philosophy. The idea behind communes was to create a perfect society within, but sealed off from the corrupted prevailing society, where individuals could pursue, unhindered by that corruption, their own course to enlightenment and perfection. In essence, create paradise and allow man’s better nature to prevail within it. The famous, or infamous (depending on your perspective) movie Easy Rider has a scene where the protagonists, two biker buddies played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, visit a hippie commune where the lifestyle described above is portrayed.

The idea, though, of transforming individuals by transforming society, was not just limited to the hippie movement, but gained widespread acceptance in society in general. Many people began dedicating themselves, through political activism mainly, but also other means, to transforming society to some idyllic, pre-fall Eden. This was, and still is, believed by many to be an achievable goal. A popular song at the time, Woodstock, captures this idea:

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song and a celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes
Riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust, we are golden
We are caught in the devils bargain
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

For the complete song, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: C, S, N, & Y Woodstock

Or from the composer, Joni Mitchell: JM Woodstock

These attempts at regaining paradise have a long history in America and the world. They usually involve some form of socialism, and they have ultimately ended in failure. Why? I believe it is because they end up encouraging the worst aspects of human nature; selfishness, laziness, theft, envy, and more. A prominent example of this is Plymouth Colony.

The Pilgrims, like the Jamestown Colony before them, had agreed together to a communal, even socialist, style of living. Everything was held in common and food was kept in a common storehouse. The result? Some people worked, others did not, and there was theft of food, often from the crops in the field, even before it was fully ripe. Those who produced resented those who did not, food production was inadequate, and they almost starved to death, until they abandoned their “communal” lifestyle for one which allowed every man and woman to keep the fruits of their labor.  For a first hand account, see the first Governor’s, William Bradford’s diary.  William Bradford’s Diary (See pages 234-236 in the linked edition)

There are other examples in American history of attempts to create some sort of paradise on earth, to go “back to the Garden,” so to speak; but of course these efforts did not start here. In a previous post, The Era of Big Government, I wrote about man’s attempts from the beginning of history to nullify the consequences of our first parents’ decision so many years ago by banding together in large numbers and unifying around certain principles and projects. The Tower of Babel being the first recorded effort.

These efforts continued throughout history, right up through the terrible Marxist and fascist movements of the twentieth century, to today’s efforts by many to enforce their political and religious views on the rest of us through violence, coercion, and conquest.

All of these efforts at regaining paradise, to this day, have one thing in common, and that is they have ended in abysmal , and often tragic, failure. Throughout the centuries, empires, and their associated dreams and visions, have risen and fallen. From Alexander to the Caesars, to Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, they have all ended badly, with the blood of hundreds of millions on their hands.

Why are these experiments doomed to failure? William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony, determined that it was at least in part due to man’s fallen nature. Not a surprise, given that he was a Christian, but maybe he had, and has, a point.

What is man’s “fallen” nature? What does it mean to have a fallen nature? We see from the story of Adam and Eve, that after they disobeyed G-d by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were banned from the garden for fear that they would partake of The Tree of Life, and thereby gain eternal life.

What is interesting about the story is that prior to their rebellion, they could have eaten of The Tree of Life at any time. It was only afterward that they were barred. The implication of this is that something about them had changed, and because of this, they were barred from eternal life. It is good here to remember that G-d had told them that the consequence of their eating of the forbidden fruit would be death.

There is a relevant story in Acts 5 that tells of the early church in Jerusalem. Out of their love for one another, in G-d’s Spirit, they willingly shared their material wealth, and often donated the proceeds of sales of their property to the church leader’s, who would then distribute them to the needy.

One couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold some property, and donated the proceeds to the church, but they held some back while claiming to have donated all. When confronted with their lie and hypocrisy, they both died on the spot. For more information on this, see Story of Ananias and Sapphira .

Now some have tried to use this story to justify socialism, the argument being that if a form of socialism was good for the early church, it should be good for us. The problem with this argument is that the early Jerusalem church was a relatively small group who voluntarily shared their wealth. This idea has carried on to this day by various religious orders in which members take a vow of poverty and live a communal lifestyle. Modern socialist movements, on the other hand, are extremely coercive, and as has been noted, have been responsible for more death and destruction than any other movement in the history of the planet.

The story, though, would also seem to support Bradford’s contention that man’s fallen nature is the heart of the problem. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to participate in the communal giving and sharing, but not willing to give all. This would have been fine, as nothing in the story suggests that they had to give all, so it would seem that they were concerned with appearances. They wanted everyone to think that they had given all, so they held back some, and lied.

It shows that even in small, voluntary associations, problems arise when people feel, even if only from their own inner desire to be recognized, compelled to share what they have worked for. This is just as true in religious orders, where members who break the rules will eventually be expelled if they continue to refuse to conform.

So what is man’s fallen nature? Years ago, a well-known secular psychiatrist and author, Dr. Karl Menninger, stirred up some controversy when he published a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? The controversy over the book at the time – this was 1973 – demonstrates how unpopular the concept of personal responsibility had become, and the idea that there is an immutable moral law that man has violated and continues violate. That in fact, there is something wrong with man that has put him at odds with G-d and his fellow man, and that compels him toward rebellion.

Keep in mind that this is a secular book, and it is not written from a religious viewpoint, but a clinical one. Therefore, there is much for a Christian believer, for example, to disagree with in the book; but the idea that any kind of healing or redemption for an individual is only possible when that individual accepts personal responsibility for themselves and their actions, is completely consistent with Judeo-Christian scripture, and is in fact foundational to religions based upon that scripture.

This idea that man exists in a state of sin that inclines him away from G-d and His laws, and toward disobedience, is still very unpopular today. Society, ones parents, bad teachers, the church, even G-d Himself, are all blamed. But the evidence is all around us, even in young children who, arguably, have not yet been “corrupted” by any of these things. Don’t believe this? Then ask yourself the question as to why “reverse psychology” works so consistently well.

How often have we experienced telling a child not to do something, only to have them immediately do it? “Don’t touch that dial” (on the television set, yes TV’s used to have dials), you admonish , and of course he touches the dial. “Don’t pick up that candy from the ground”, and then what happens? Not only does he pick it up, but he will put it in his mouth. When my daughter was young and had a miserable face, we would say to her “don’t you smile,” and of course she would inevitably smile.

OK, well this is all innocent enough when you are dealing with young children. But what happens with adults? No need to answer this, just look around you and at thousands of years of history. Now, you might say, well, yes, but not everyone is like that, and if you mean that not everyone commits horrible acts and heinous crimes, you would be correct. Most people do not do these things because we have been conditioned by parents and society to believe that they are awful things, and for us to do them would make us awful people, so most of us refrain from these  reprehensible acts.

There are, though, lesser “evils,” which all of us, at some time or another, do commit. Lying, unfaithfulness, gossip, unjust anger and hurtful words, and many others. The list is actually quite long. In addition, we all seem to have at least one “sin” that we just can’t seem to control, whether it is one of the above, or maybe an addiction, such as to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, money, power; again, I could go on.

So what are we to do? As has been indicated above, some analyze the problem and propose that its source lies outside the individual, for example in society. There is inequality and injustice in society, the story goes, and so people have the above mentioned problems because of this. The solution, then, is to remake society and rid it of its injustices. Once this is done, man will be free to do the right thing and will become perfect.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? We are not responsible for our actions, society is! “Remake society the way I want it to be, and I’ll be good. Just you wait and see.” Hmm, what is wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, the biblical paradigm, as proposed by William Bradford. If it is true, then this “solution” cannot work and could lead to much trouble – and it has!

Just take a look at the carnage that has been left behind from attempts to regain paradise! In the twentieth century alone, there was death, destruction, and suffering on a previously unimaginable scale. Just maybe the prophets, Jesus, William Bradford, and even Karl Menninger were on to something, when they claimed that the problem lay within the individual human heart.

So, if that is true, and it does seem that the problem does not originate from outside of man, then what are we to do? Of course, scripture has an answer! I’ll leave you with the following quote from Isaiah, 45:22:

Turn to me and be saved,

all you ends of the earth;

for I am God, and there is no other” (NIV)

Too simple, you might say? Well, sometimes the simple is sublime, but most importantly, true.

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The Final Solution

then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” Deuteronomy 30:3 NIV

January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp where it is estimated that 1.1 million people were executed by the Nazis during World War II.  About 90% of those executed were Jews…

As I begin writing this, it is January 27, 2015, a date that marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. This day is of particular significance to me for a number of reasons, but first a brief review of the history of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was actually a network of concentration, extermination, and labor camps that the German Nazis built and operated in occupied Poland during World War II. Auschwitz I was originally established in 1940 to hold Polish political prisoners. The extermination of the prisoners there began in 1941. By early 1942, Auschwitz II was constructed as part of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, their plan to exterminate all of the Jews of Europe, and ultimately the world. It is estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners were executed at Auschwitz; about 90% of them were Jews. Later came Auschwitz III, a labor camp that supplied workers to an IG Farben factory. (Most of this information is from the Wikipedia article “Auschwitz Concentration Camp“)

When I was very young, probably in the range of 5-7 years old, I came across a set of books belonging to my father. They were a five or six volume set, entitled “A Pictorial History of World War II”.

As the name states, the books told the story of the Second World War, mostly with pictures.  Some of the pictures were relatively benign: pictures of troops in training, of USO gatherings where coffee and donuts were served, or perhaps a USO sponsored dance, and pictures of Women’s Army Corp (WAC) members dealing with the rigors of life in the field.

Other pictures, though, were taken during battles, of land, sea, and air, and showed up-close ground combat, aerial dogfights, and tremendous naval engagements.  As I viewed these pictures, my young heart and mind were awed and made fearful at the same time.  What would I have done, if I had been there?  Would I have been afraid?  Would I have been brave?  Would I have come home?

Still other pictures depicted the aftermath of these battles;  burned out tanks and sinking ships, the wreckage of planes, the desolation in the wake of the atomic bombs, the fire-bombing of Dresden, and of course, the wounded, the dying, and the dead.

One day, as I paged through a volume, I came across pictures that I had difficulty understanding.  They were the pictures of the liberated concentration camps.  War, to a degree, I understood, even at that age.  There were two sides; they disagreed, they fought, killed, and died, for what they believed in.  But the concentration camps were another matter.

At first, I wasn’t even sure of what I was looking at: emaciated survivors with hollowed eyes, crematoriums with half burnt bodies, bodies piled eight feet high awaiting burning or burial, mass open graves with bodies tossed in helter-skelter, where, incredibly, the Nazis had tried to hide their atrocities before the Allied troops arrived but were forced to flee ahead of the advancing armies before their work was done; and, finally the “showers” themselves, where the victims, mostly Jews, were herded and gassed.

This was, to my young mind, incomprehensible.  Why had this been done?  What had these people done to deserve this?  What could anyone possibly do to deserve this?  And who were they, the victims of these crimes?

I went to my parents with my questions about the “war” books, and they were a little upset with me that I had been in their room by myself, something I was not supposed to do. But much more than that, they were horrified that I had been exposed to these things at my young age.  They made an attempt to explain to me what I had seen, but how do you explain such things to someone so young?  How do you explain them to anyone, really?

You can’t, except maybe to simply say that the German Nazis were bad people and, for some reason, they hated the Jewish people.  The bottom line though, was that I was absolutely forbidden to look at the books anymore, and in fact, I did not until years later.

But I never forgot them and the impression they made.  Over the years, I got answers to my questions, but the answers only raised more questions.  For example, to say that the German Nazis considered themselves the “Master Race”, and Jews (and just about everyone else) as inferior; that they were trying to “purify” their nation and their culture explains nothing.  It is delusional and insane.

A modern, “civilized” nation, one of the most modern and most civilized, put people in charge that not only held these deranged ideas, but believed them to the point that the they would methodically and systematically go about the task of murdering a people with the same detachment and business-like efficiency of a successful sausage maker.

Of course, though the holocaust may be the worst example, persecution of the Jews did not begin with the Nazis.  We should not forget that Israel was born a nation of slaves in Egypt.  The Pharaoh tried to wipe them out when they left Egypt.  Later, the Assyrians defeated the ten northern tribes of Israel, and scattered them to only G-d knows where – and He does.

When the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were in exile in Babylon, another villain whose name begins with an H, Haman, plotted to induce King Xerxes to destroy them, only to end up plotting his own ignominious execution.  In more recent times, the sorrowful, shameful history of most of the nations of Europe, and their relationship with the Jewish people, led up to the holocaust and made it possible.

And of course, unfortunately, the persecution of Israel did not stop with the German Nazis, either.  The day in 1948 when, for the first time in almost 1900 years, Israel once again became a nation, the neighboring countries tried to drive them into the sea, and out of existence.  This is still the desire of many, if not all of them, to this day.

The most amazing thing, though, about this story of attempted genocides and persecution isn’t that it happened, but that the people of Israel not only survived, but have prospered.  This is where the story gets really interesting because all of this was predicted thousands of years ago.

The prophets of the Torah predicted, starting with Moses, that the people of Israel would be scattered and persecuted.  They predicted that they  would lose their land and reside in the land of strangers, even those hostile to them; but, they also predicted Israel’s restoration and ultimate vindication

The Christian scriptures, which also had Jewish writers, followed in this tradition and spoke of these things.  Jesus Himself spoke of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, and the Book of Revelation describes Israel’s restoration in the end times.

So, is the modern state of Israel a fulfillment of these prophecies?  Some argue that no, they won’t be fulfilled until the nation is fully restored and the Messiah rules from Jerusalem.  My view is that it is a fulfillment of prophecy, but there is still more history to go and more prophecy to be fulfilled.  Anyway, there are plenty of books on Bible prophecy, and that is not the purpose of this article, so lets just say for the sake of argument that the state of Israel is at least a partial fulfillment, and the rest is yet to come.

What does all of this have to do with explaining the Holocaust?

I am reminded here of the story of Job.  In the beginning of the Book of Job, we find G-d holding court, and in comes Satan from “roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it”. (Job 1:7 NIV)

G-d asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless–a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil”. (Job 1:8 NIV)

Satan replied that, of course Job fears G-d – G-d has protected Job and made him wealthy, but if G-d took everything that Job had, he would curse G-d. G-d then gave Satan permission to take everything from Job, except his health. (Job 1:9-12 NIV).

Satan left G-d’s presence and attacked Job, taking or destroying all of his possessions, and even killing his children, but Job did not curse G-d. (Job 1:13-22 NIV)

Later, G-d was once again holding court and Satan was there.  G-d pointed out to Satan that even though Satan had challenged G-d into allowing him to attack Job, Job did not curse G-d.  Satan responded that Job still had his health, and if G-d allowed him to take Job’s health from him, then surely Job would curse G-d.  G-d then gave him permission to take even Job’s health from him, but not his life.  (Job 2:1-6 NIV)

Satan once again left G-d’s presence, and afflicted Job with terrible, painful sores all over his body.  He was in such torment, even his wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9 NIV)  But Job refused to do so, and in the end, Job’s fortunes were restored and he was given many children. (Job 42:12-17 NIV)

In my narration, I have skipped many chapters, in most of which three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, try to convince Job that he must have done something wrong for G-d to allow him to be treated this way.  Job protests his innocence, and at times, questions God’s justice, because He allows the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer.

Job’s friends, while they say many true things about G-d,  persist, and even accuse Job of self-righteousness.  This is of course wrong, as G-d Himself said at the beginning of the story that Job was righteous in all his ways; and besides, innocent people suffer all the time in this world, a point which Job’s friends seemed to have missed.

One more of Job’s friends speaks up, Elihu, but instead of claiming that Job must have sinned in some way in order to suffer, he addresses Job’s attitude in the present.  He asserts G-d’s essential righteousness and tells Job that G-d cannot treat anyone wrongly.  He addresses Job’s complaints against G-d, and provides answers to those complaints, but unlike Job’s other friends, he never does accuse Job of unrighteousness.

Finally, G-d speaks up, but rather than try to explain Himself, He challenges Job with a series of questions, just as Job had questioned and challenged Him. Of course, Job is completely unable to answer G-d’s questions but, through these questions, G-d demonstrates to Job His omnipotence and His sovereignty, and Job realizes his folly for questioning G-d, and repents.  When G-d is done speaking to him, Job responds:

“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:2-6

But G-d did one more very important thing besides question Job, He fully vindicated him.  He told the three friends who had accused Job of unrighteousness that they had done wrong, and they needed to make the appropriate sacrifices in the hope that Job would forgive and pray for them, so they would not be punished for their own folly.  Job of course prayed for his friends, and was rewarded with far more wealth than he had before.  He was given seven sons, and three daughters who were the most beautiful in all the land, and he saw his children’s children to the fourth generation. (Job 42:12-17)

There are many lessons that can be learned from the Book of Job, but one that stands out for me and is most relevant here is that, according to the scriptures, there is a war going on in the spiritual realm.  It is a war between good and evil, between G-d and Satan.  The war began when the angel Lucifer, the most beautiful and intelligent of G-d’s creation, let pride enter his heart and determined to make himself god in G-d’s place.  One of his strategies is to demonstrate that G-d is not sovereign, that He is a liar, and unfit to be G-d.

As part of this war, Satan enlisted man on his side through cleverness and deception.  G-d, out of love for man, developed a plan, His own strategy to win the war, and to win man back.  G-d could have made other choices, such as to simply destroy Satan and the angels that followed him, as well as man, and started over; but, what would that have proven? In a creation where G-d has given created beings the ability to choose, brute force solves nothing, and persuasion, diplomacy, and most important, love, are necessary.

Man, then, has become both a combatant and a battlefield in this war.  Satan continues his deception and constantly tries to create doubt in men’s minds about G-d.  G-d simply continues to show His love for man, and requires man only to have faith in Him and His plan.

The book of Job teaches many other lessons, one very important one is about our attitude towards those who suffer and how we should treat them.  Do we accuse them of sin and unrighteousness, or do we provide them with comfort?  Do we tell them that G-d is punishing them, or do we assure them that G-d loves them and cares for them?

Our answers to those questions could very well determine whose side we are on in this great, millenniums long war that we are in.

A Christmas Story (Redux)

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” Revelation 21:4 NIV

I first published this a few years ago.  The stories involved were related to me as true stories, by the soldier himself.  It is a story of redemption.

It was Christmas eve, and the soldier stood in the mess line, shivering a little. It was late, so the line was thankfully short, for the air was bitter cold.  His turn came, he got his hot chow and coffee, then looked for a place to sit.

He had just arrived in this small town in France  with his unit the day before, December 23, 1944.  One day he was relatively warm and safe in Britain, and the next he was preparing to face combat for the first time.  They were moving to the front in the morning, on Christmas Day, to take up positions in the Ardennes Forest and help counter the German offensive that would become known as the the Battle of the Bulge.

Because of the lateness of the hour, there were only a few men in the mess area, but the soldier wanted to be alone, so he walked off a little looking for a place to eat his food, drink his coffee, and think.  The soldier had gotten several opportunities to avoid combat, and even the military.  When he was first called up and went for his physical, a spot showed on his lungs. The doctor wasn’t sure what it was, but suspected tuberculosis, and was going to fail the recruit because of it.

After some persuasion, the soldier-to-be convinced them not to fail him, but to let him come back in several weeks to retake the physical.  During the intervening weeks, he changed his lifestyle, exercised and ate better, and sure enough, when he returned, the spot had disappeared, and he passed.

Later, after basic training, while still stateside, a Sargent came around asking if anyone had any clerk typist skills.  The soldier did and said so, and the Sargent took him to an office to fill in for a day for someone who was out.  At the end of his shift, the Sargent told him to report back the next day, but the soldier replied that his unit was going overseas, and that he could not come back.  The Sargent told him not to worry about that, he wasn’t going anywhere, the Sargent would see to that, just report back the next day.  No, the soldier insisted, he would ship out with his unit, and he did.

He thought about these things, and his new wife he left behind, his mother, and home.  After walking a short distance, an unexpected sound got his attention.  He stopped, and listened, and heard it again.  It sounded like a baby softly crying.  It seemed to be coming from a darkened alcove nearby.  He walked toward the sound.

As he approached the alcove, some light from the street penetrated the darkness, and he could make out a woman and infant, huddled together and wrapped against the cold.  He drew nearer, and as he did, it became apparent to him that the woman was trying to nurse the child, but something else also caught his attention.  There was a glow around the mother and child, a halo around each of them.

Now, the soldier was not a religious man, and in some respects, quite the contrary.  It wasn’t that he was a bad man, but he carried in his heart an anger and bitterness, against G-d, and His church, that were founded in the experiences of his childhood, experiences he had never reconciled.

His parents were immigrants who didn’t have much, even when his father was alive and working.  However, when his father died and left his young wife with five small children, things became much worse.

His mother took in laundry, washed floors, and did whatever she could do to feed her family, but it just wasn’t enough, so she went to the local parish church for financial assistance.  Instead of giving her help though, they sent her to the welfare office.

The soldier remembered going with his mother as a young boy, to translate for her, because she spoke little English.  He remembered her humiliation, and his own, in having to go on public relief, and he didn’t understand why the church would not help.  First G-d took his father from them, and now His church turned them away in their time of need.

Later, when barely in his teens, the soldier found himself, along with two of his brothers, in a home for boys.  The home was run by an order of Christian Brothers.  The Brothers were good men, who provided the boys with the basic necessities: food, shelter, education, and when required, discipline.

There was a problem though, the home was infested with cockroaches, and it was the job of the boys to catch the cockroaches, as many as they could.  In fact, they had a daily quota, and the Brothers, each evening, would check and count each boy’s collection of insects, to ensure that they had found their fair share.  Those who did not had to keep searching until they did.

Sometimes, when the roaches were hard to come by, and a boy was tired and hungry, he would break some of them in half, so they would count as two.  This worked fine if he didn’t get caught, but if he did, there was the aforementioned discipline.

Discipline consisted of the offending boy being held face down across a large barrel, and having his behind whipped with a switch.  The process did little actual damage, aside from a few welts and bruises, but it was extremely painful, and to say the least, the boy’s were terrified of the punishment.  They would beg and plead for mercy, to no avail.

Not all offensives merited this form of punishment, but lying about meeting your cockroach quota did, and the soldier had received this punishment on several occasions, until he learned how to fix his roaches so that they actually looked liked two whole bugs.  There was a trick to it, you see.  Whenever you caught a big one, you cut it in half with your thumbnail, and then smashed up each half a little bit, and that was it; dinner, and bedtime, were at hand.

The soldier thought of none of these things though, as he peered into the alcove.  He was a little surprised by his vision, this picture of a haloed Madonna and Child.  Was it the angle of the light, was it only his imagination, or maybe the pressures of facing combat the next day were getting to him?

As he wondered at the sight, he was broken from his brief reverie by the realization  that the woman was motioning to him.  It took a few moments, but he soon understood that she was indicating to him that her breasts had no milk for her child.  His wonder turned to pity and sadness.  What could he do?

He thought of the canned milk at the mess truck, so he told her, as best he could, to wait for him, that he would get milk for her to give to her baby.

He hurried back to the mess area, and found them packing and preparing for the next day’s deployment.  He walked up to the mess Sargent and quickly explained to him the situation, and asked him for some milk.

The Sargent was in no mood for this intrusion, and told the soldier that he could not give him any milk, but the soldier persisted.  Just a little milk for the baby?  The Sargent replied that the milk was for American soldiers, for their coffee, not for French civilians.  The soldier said, well, OK, I have some coffee, how about giving me a little milk for my coffee.  Finally, the Sargent relented and gave the soldier the milk “for his coffee”.

The entire negotiation took only a few minutes, and the soldier hurried back to the alcove with the milk.  When he arrived though, the mother and child were gone.  In fact, there was no sign of anyone, or that anyone had even been there.

The soldier would think about this experience throughout his life.  He would relate the story to his wife when he returned home, and later to his children.  The story of his visit by the Madonna and Child on a cold Christmas Eve in an alcove in France.

It would be nice to relate that the soldier’s anger at G-d would dissipate after his experience, but unfortunately, this would not happen for many decades.  Decades of tragedies and triumphs, joy and sorrow that would follow.  Near the end though, he did seem to find some peace, but only G-d knows for certain.

So the significance of the story isn’t that the vision immediately healed the soldier’s anger and disappointment, or that it even gave him great comfort, except maybe for a few brief moments.  The significance of the story is the significance of Christmas itself.

For the Christmas Story is the story of a promise, a promise of a redemption that is yet to be fulfilled.  Yes, Christians will speak in the present tense, and tell you they are redeemed, and it is true, this was accomplished and completed on the cross, and demonstrated by the Resurrection.

But, in our lives, we still have our tragedies and disappointments, and our anger; and the world is still full of violence and chaos, and of mothers who cannot feed their children.  So, it is this part of the promise that is unfulfilled, our physical redemption, and the redemption of this tragic world we live in.

It is a story of hope.  Hope for the world, hope for each one of us, even hope for the angry soldier.  G-d can deal with anger, because to be angry at G-d is still to believe in G-d and it is to recognize G-d’s sovereignty, over us, our lives, and the world.  After all, what would be the point in being angry at a G-d who wasn’t sovereign?

Jesus once told us to be either hot or cold.  G-d can warm and soften the coldest, most hardened of hearts; He can temper the most heated and passionate of hearts, but with the lukewarm heart, the indifferent heart, what can He do?  What can be done with someone who just doesn’t care?

The Christmas Story is also a story of our own helplessness in the redemptive process, except according to G-d’s will.  The soldier,  in the end, was unable to help the mother and child, despite his best efforts. Yet redemption came to him that day, even if he did not realize it.  He could have simply ignored the mother and child, dismissing them, like the Sargent, as not his problem.  After all, what had G-d done for him anyway?  Instead, he responded with sympathy and compassion.  Its not that his simple act of getting the milk was in and of itself redeeming, but it’s the fact that he would even do so that demonstrated the redemption that was already in his heart, despite his anger.

Finally, there is this.  We think we know people.  We see what they do, we hear what they say, and we fear for them.   We see those who are angry at G-d and man, or who live dissolute lives.  We see people who seem to make every bad decision a person can make, and sometimes we may wonder, what hope is there for that person?  What we do not know, and only G-d knows, is what redemption may lie in that persons heart.  We see the outside, but G-d sees the inside, and only occasionally, if ever, does G-d give us a glimpse of what is truly there.

So, we should not fear, for others, or for ourselves, but should always look for the best in each; and when we can’t see that best and fear starts to take hold, think of the Christmas Story and its promise of redemption.  After all, who is redemption for, anyway, if not us?

The Desires of Your Heart

Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Psalm 37:1-4 NIV

We were speeding down the highway, on our way to a Christmas Eve party, for which we were considerably late.  We were exceeding the speed limit, that is certain, but we were driving safely, and staying in our lane.  Suddenly a car sped up behind us, and the driver, unwilling to wait for us to shift lanes and let him pass, and after dangerously tailgating us, quickly shifted lanes himself, and sped by.

Already somewhat annoyed at the driver’s unsafe maneuver, not to mention the prick to our pride, we became even more agitated as he continued down the highway, weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, sometimes traversing two lanes in one move.

The whole event became the topic of conversation, as we considered our options.  Should we call 911? Look at him!  Did you see what he just did?  We should report this!  And so it went for the next few minutes until we finally all calmed down a bit.

Around this time, Psalm 37 came to my mind.  I brought up my Bible app, looked up the Psalm, and read the first four verses to the others in the car.  I told them I thought these lines were appropriate to this incident because we were fretting about the wrong behavior of the driver.  The others disagreed, and after some discussion that did not resolve the issue, we continued on to our party, and of course we did not call 911.

What is it about our nature that agitates us so much when we see someone getting away with something that they should not be doing?  Is it simply our sense of justice?  A concern for safety?  Or is there more to it than that?  Is there maybe just a little bit of envy there?  Isn’t there just a little bit of, “Boy, if I did that, I would probably get a ticket”?

The majority of us live our lives “by the rules,” for the most part, and we get upset when people violate the rules with seeming impunity, and worse yet, profit by it in some way.  But let’s face it, one of the reasons we live by the rules is that we are afraid we’ll get caught and punished.  When someone acts as if they don’t care about punishment, this impacts our emotions in several ways.  It scares us, but it also often inspires a bit of admiration, and yes, envy.  Why is this?

One explanation, I think, is that someone who is not concerned about consequences appears to be able to act with perfect freedom.  Let’s make something clear though, when it comes to the big sins or crimes, most of us would not in any way admire or envy this kind of freedom.

But what about the “small” stuff? What about those things where nobody gets “hurt,” especially the “little guy?”  Or, maybe even the “big guy” does get shaved a little?  “Slick” Willie Sutton comes to mind.

For those of you who may not have heard of him, Slick Willie was a bank robber operating mostly in the  1920’s and 30’s.  He allegedly stole $2,000,000 during his “career” and ended up spending about half of his life in prison.  The thing about Willie, though, is that he was a popular figure with the public and was well liked and respected by those who knew him, both in prison and out.

The reasons for his popularity are many.  He was always a gentleman, even during his robberies, and no one was ever hurt.  He always had a gun, but admitted shortly before his death, that it was never loaded because “somebody might get hurt.”  He was highly intelligent, engineering three prison escapes, including one from Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, considered to be “escape proof.”  And of course, he was robbing mainly banks.  Particularly during the Great Depression, banks were very unpopular, because they were taking people’s homes in foreclosure.

So, in the case of Willie Sutton at least, who was admired by many, there was probably considerable envy by those who wanted to be like him but were not willing to take the risks.

The driver of the car, on the other hand, while he may have inspired some small amount of envy, did inspire quite a bit of fretting.  But whether it is fretting or envy, the problem is it takes our minds off of what is important, which is “Trust in the Lord and do good. When we are focused on the unrighteous actions of others, we are not trusting G-d, and we are not doing good.  As such, it is worse than a complete waste of precious time, it is a misuse of our time and takes us backward in our spiritual journey.  Why?

Two reasons are given: 1)  The efforts of all “those who do wrong” will ultimately come to nothing.  As the passage says, “for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.”  So, what is the point of our concern?  But more importantly, 2) when you trust in the Lord, and “Take delight” in Him, “he will give you the desires of your heart.”   So, what this means is that we are missing out on the good things that G-d has in store for us when we are not delighting in Him.

Well, as you can see from the way this post started, I am as guilty as anyone of focusing on the wrongs committed by others and not taking delight in the Lord and the good things He has done.  But, at this point, I at least can realize it is a problem.  This is progress.  As I have said, this is a journey, and the destination seems a long way off.  But, progress is progress.  I’ll take it.

 

What Does It Profit?

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36 KJV

I am a child of the sixties.  I was born in the early fifties, grew up in the sixties, and came of age in the seventies.  The fifties were a time of innocence for us baby boomers.   World War II was receding into the past and the Korean Conflict settled into an uneasy truce.  America was ascendant, and all was good.

Well, maybe not, but it certainly seemed that way. Televisions were becoming ubiquitous, and my neighbor even had color!  We had the Friday Night Fights, on Friday night of course, and Howdy Doody on Saturday morning.  The Honeymooners never failed to draw a laugh and a tear, and of course there was Ed Sullivan, Topo Gigo, and Elvis.

Sure, there were many things wrong.  There was the  Soviet Union and the air raid drills in case of nuclear attack.  There was Jim Crow and the backlash against the nascent civil rights movement.  President Eisenhower warned us of something called the military-industrial complex. But we were too young to really know or care about these things.  Things that in the end would define so much of our lives.

We started the Sixties with a young, vibrant, and idealistic president who asked us to give of ourselves: to our own, through Ameri-Corp, and to others through the Peace Corp.  He said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  He told us we were going to the moon, he promised us Camelot, and he delivered.  His idealism was infectious, and we were certainly infected by it.   Then, reality came crashing down on us all one day in November, 1963.

John Kennedy’s assassination could have destroyed our idealism. We were in shock.  We wondered why, we cried, and we mourned; and though we may have lost our innocence, the one thing we did not lose was the idealism he had imparted to us.  This lived on, and if anything, it became stronger and more real then ever.  But why?

A big part of the answer to that question, I believe, is that something else happened right around that same time that would also have a tremendous impact on my generation.  That something was called The Beatles.

The Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964.  They sang to us, and we loved them for it.  Their music and antics didn’t just entertain us though; they helped us to refocus our minds on what was important.  And what was important to us young boys and girls?  Why, young boys and girls, of course.

A simple song about holding hands, or asking someone to dance, reminded us that the important things in life were still there and could be had simply by choosing to have them.  But they didn’t stop there.  As we grew, they did too, and their music grew with them and us.  In their music they wove together, as if by some magic, the events of the day – the most fundamental experiences in life, and a spiritual journey.

Later, when the Beatles broke up, we were saddened by it, but we also soon realized that there were benefits to the break-up, as each Beatle was now free to pursue his own path.

John took a political one, certainly with a spiritual side, but distinctly political none the less.  Paul remained most true to the Beatles origins with his ballads and love songs.   And Ringo, well, despite his tremendous musical success, he was and is just Ringo, the “every-man,” and that is all he had to be.

But it was George, the spiritual one, seeking truth in meditation, music, and in the religious traditions of east and west, who may have had the most influence on me.  This may be because as I grew older, the world around me was changing drastically.  Our society was creating wealth at an unprecedented rate, and with it came materialism and the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Traditional, community-based religion was being abandoned and was being replaced either by a personal spirituality, accountable to no-one, not even G-d, or by a social-club religion which left the Judaeo-Christian G-d completely behind.  In either case,  for many, G-d, if He was even deemed to exist at all, became an impersonal force that required nothing from us – a Cosmic Sugar Daddy who could be tapped just by saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.

Politics grew uglier every day, where in the West, defeating your opponent turned into destroying your opponent.  We were more civilized about it in the West than in the East, of course, where in places like the Soviet Union or Red China, political defeat often meant execution or lifelong imprisonment.  No, we destroyed lives by destroying reputations and demonizing our opponents.  This practice continues to this day.  Our political opponents are not just wrong, they are evil.

And what about traditional love and marriage?  There are still many that believe in these things, but they are certainly not the ones who predominate in our culture and society.  The hedonists of the sixties became the Me Generation of the seventies, who became the jaded post-modern cynics of today.

And then there was George:

“We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world and lose their soul
They don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?”
from Within You Without You by George Harrison

Even if he didn’t have the ultimate answers, he was asking the right questions, echoing the words of Jesus, spoken so many years ago.

I’ve been thinking more about George lately, and his spiritual quest.  A quest that so many of us took up.  What happened to it?  For me, it slowly transformed back into the Christian faith I was raised in.  But it is a more stable faith, a more informed faith, and a scripture based faith.

As mentioned previously, George drew on many faith traditions to inspire him and his music.  In my own journey, I have also traveled many paths.  This has led me to believe that there is no one, true religion, the practice of which will gain you salvation.

Don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying that some religions do not bring you closer to the truth than others, and in this sense, all religions are definitely not equal.  Also, I am not saying that religion has no value; the right religion has tremendous value in that it does bring you closer to the truth.  Now, if we must have a one, true religion, that is it.

It has also helped me to understand that “The Church” is not a particular group or religion or faith tradition; it is the living body of the Word, composed of all who believe in that Word and have put their faith in Him, regardless of the religion, if any, that they may practice.

I personify the Word here because scripture itself does.  The idea of the living Word goes back to the very beginnings of time.  Didn’t G-d, with his Word, bring all things into existence?  In Genesis 15:1 Abram has a vision of the Word and the Word speaks to him saying, “Do not be afraid Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  Abraham believed in the Word and became the progenitor of nations and kings.

In fact, there are numerous places in scripture where the Word is seen as a person, speaking, and coming and going.  This idea of the living Word is one of the subjects that Michael S. Heiser documents in great detail in his book, The Unseen Realm, for those who would like to know more.

So if the simple practice of religion can’t “get you into heaven,” what can?  According to Judeo-Christian scripture itself, salvation comes by the grace of G-d, through faith in G-d and in His Word.  This is what I mean, then, when I say that there is no “true” religion.  Religion has been defined as man attempting to gain G-d’s good graces through works and the observance of rites and rituals and traditions.  The way of faith, on the other hand, is about what G-d did and does for us, not what we do for Him.

Well, what about my idealism?  I started off talking about how I thought the Beatles helped to restore the idealism of my generation.  If you look around at the current state of affairs in the world, one might think that the baby boomers have completely lost it.

I can’t speak for my entire generation, but only for me.  That idealism is still there and is as strong as ever, but it is different than the idealism of my youth.  It has been tempered by my faith and my experience.  By my faith because I understand that G-d is sovereign, and as scripture says, if G-d does not build a house, then the builders labor in vain.  To put it differently, if what we do is not in accordance with G-d’s will and plan, and is simply our own undertaking, it will in the end come to nothing good.

It has been tempered by my experience because  I have learned that if you want to change the world, it has to start with your own heart and head, and this is only something G-d can do.  It then continues to your family, your home, and your own backyard; to your friends, your community and your job.  My point, I’m sure, is obvious: If you want to change the world, you have the best chance of doing that in the world immediately around you.

This reminds me of the lyrics to another Beatles song, Revolution:

“You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead.”

 

The Era of Big Government

Seems appropriate to reblog at this time…

The Chrysalis Paradigm

“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  Genesis 11:4 NIV

Big Government is not a modern creation, at least according to the book of Genesis.  It first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago.  The first Big Government program, as related in Genesis, was the building of the Tower of Babel.  The project was undertaken as a means of uniting the people and preventing them from spreading out across the earth. Strength in numbers, I suppose.

The problem is, they had been specifically commanded by G-d to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).  So it would seem that the first Big Government was formed, and the first Big Government program was undertaken, as an act of rebellion against…

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Truth and Science

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” Genesis 1:1-2 KJV

 When thinking about the relationship between science and truth, there are so many questions and so few definitive answers.  Does science, the practice of it,  lead us to truth?  I doubt it, but better yet, in the world of science, is there any such thing as truth?  Again, I doubt it.

Truth, if it exists, is by definition eternal. Science is the study of the material world, which in our own experience is temporal.  Also, truth is terminal, meaning the search for it has an end.  Once we find it, we stop looking for it. The scientific method, which defines the practice of science, is open ended.  What do I mean by that?

The scientific method is the repeated application of five steps:

  1. Observation:  some natural phenomenon is observed
  2. Analysis: the phenomenon is dissected and broken down into it atomic parts
  3. Prediction: based upon analysis of the phenomenon, conclusions are drawn and predictions of future phenomena are made
  4. Experimentation:  experiments are conducted that are designed to bring about the predicted phenomena
  5. go to step 1.

Finally, science has an aura of certainty, while truth seems far more elusive.  The conclusions we draw from the scientific method are backed up by the observation and analysis we have done.  We see, therefore we believe.  That is until the next experiment comes along with different results.  Truth, on the other hand, can only be known by faith.  We don’t see, but we believe anyway.

This “not seeing but believing” is what leads many to think that there is no such thing as truth, but what I would say to that is – without truth, there can be no such thing as science.  Why?

Let’s take a closer look at the scientific method.  Why does the scientific method work?  At its heart, aren’t there certain assumptions, accepted on faith, that make up the foundation upon which it rests?  Isn’t the primary assumption being that there is an order to the universe that allows conclusions to be drawn and predictions based upon analysis to be made, and experiments derived that prove or disprove those predictions?

Now, one might argue that we assume this order exists because our experience tells us that it exists, but here we are engaging in circular reasoning.  This can be illustrated by postulating a “first scientist”.  This first scientist has not been given the scientific method, and therefore must discover it.  The problem is, the scientific method requires the assumption of an underlying order for it to work; but how do we know, without faith, that this order exists?  We don’t.

One can see this in the history of science itself.  It is no coincidence that science and mathematics only began to flourish with the advent and eventual dominance of Judaeo-Christian faith and philosophy.  Why?  Because it was only there that it made sense to answer a difficult question with G-d!

This ability, often perceived as western science’s greatest weakness, is actually it’s greatest strength.  How do we know that a + b = c for all possible values of a and b?  Another way of asking the question is, how do we know that we can predict the value of c for any possible numeric values of a and b?  Theoretically, there are an infinite number of possible values for a and b.  We can not possibly try them all, so how do we know?  The answer is G-d.

We know that G-d has created a certain predictable order and that He has given us the power of reasoning and logic to discern and utilize that order and so we can say, based upon our faith in G-d and His created order, that a + b = c.

This brings us to the scripture that opens this article.  The bible is not a science book, but it is a book of truth, or so claims its adherents.  But, if it is truth, then one would expect that it would at least be consistent with the observable universe.  Notice I didn’t say consistent with science, because scientific knowledge, at least when science is practiced correctly, is always in some degree of flux (see scientific method above).

“In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.”  Well, we see a heavens and an earth, so that part seems consistent, but what about a beginning.  We can’t observe the beginning, it is in the past.  This in fact has been one of the greatest and most fundamental controversies of science.  While there are variations, there are two basic competing scientific theories for the origins of the universe: the Steady-State theory and the Big Bang theory.

The Steady-State theory suggests that the universe has always existed, that there was no beginning.  The Big Bang theory, alternatively, says there was a beginning billions of years ago, when the universe exploded into existence.  Which one is true?  As scientific theories go, neither; but, the Big Bang seems more consistent with the biblical account.  The important thing here is that we cannot know from simple observation whether there was a beginning, and science does not provide a verifiable answer.  A beginning, then, is something that we must accept on faith.

Now comes the really hard part.  “In the beginning, G-d created…”.  In order to keep it short, let’s just say that the existence of G-d cannot be directly observed, nor proven by science, so it must be accepted on faith.  Although, there is considerable evidence for the existence of G-d to the discerning eye, not the least of which is our own very existence.

“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”  These attributes of the early earth have always been somewhat puzzling to me, particularly the “without form” one.  What does it mean to be without form?  “Void” is generally understood to mean “without life” and “desolate”.  Also, there was apparently no light, and there was something called “the deep”.  Not much can be concluded here as to its consistency with what we can observe and it generally must be accepted in faith.

“And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”  Here it gets really interesting for me because we have a real clue as to what “without form” means.  The early earth was made up mostly of water – the deep!  Water takes on the shape, or form, of that which contains it.  What shape does water have in space?  It doesn’t; it is literally without form!  Is this consistent with our observable universe?  Of course it is!  My question is, how did the writer of Genesis know this?

Another interesting observation is this.  Water is composed of 2 hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom (H2O).  What are the most abundant elements in the  universe?  Hydrogen (~75%), Helium (~25%) and oxygen (<1%). “OK, what’s your point”, you might ask?  “Yes, hydrogen is abundant at 75%, but oxygen composes less than a percent of the mass of the universe.”  It is true that in the universe as a whole, oxygen is less than 1%, but oxygen composes about 47% of the mass of the earth!

Throughout the centuries there has been a perceived conflict between science and The Bible.  One of these controversies has been the meaning of the word “day.”  As we read the Genesis account, we see G-d completing, in stages, the heavens and earth in six days. “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day,” for example.   Is it a literal day, or a symbolic day?

As previously stated, the Bible is not a science book and should not be read as such.  It purports to provide eternal truth, not temporal facts.  But as also indicated above, it should at least be consistent with observable known facts.  So, how long is a day?  If you answer 24 hours, you would of course be correct and if we accept this answer and interpret the passages in Genesis literally, then it would seem to indicate that the universe was completed in six 24 hour periods of time.

The only possible escape from this conclusion would seem to be to interpret these passages symbolically and say they indicate some very long eras of undetermined length.

But there is another equally valid definition of the word day, and that is the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis.  Using this definition changes things considerably. While it is true that currently the earth takes 24 hours to rotate on its axis one complete turn, that doesn’t mean that it has always been that way, and it probably wasn’t.  Why do I say that?

If we go back to the starting verses, the earth was an amorphous mass in space composed primarily of water.  Since the following verses indicate a “day,” we can conclude that this mass was spinning, probably very slowly as compared to today (there is a reason for this conclusion which should become clearer as we proceed).

Under this definition, a day could have initially been many thousands of years long and over time become much shorter. It would become shorter due to the law of conservation of angular momentum.  This is the simple observation that as a spinning object gets smaller, it spins at a faster rate. Think of a spinning ice skater. So it would have been with the earth.  As G-d coalesced the earth into a smaller, denser, rounder object, its rotation would speed up considerably.  It is very possible that the first day of creation was much longer than the last day, and the seventh day, the day of rest, may in fact have been the current 24 hour day.

 The Bible tells a story.  Many believe that the the story is true, that it represents actual history, past, present, and future (called prophecy).  If this is the case then the Bible would need to be reconcilable with human experience.  The problem is, it often seems not to be.  But is the problem with the Bible?  Or is it with the reader?

Grace

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV

It was a Saturday, late-afternoon and we were hanging out at the “church lot.” The church lot, for all intents and purposes, was our multi-purpose playground.  We played baseball there in the spring and summer, we played football in the fall, and when we were doing neither of these things, we would just meet there and “hang out.”  This was one of those hang out days.

When we were hanging out at the church lot, we often got into discussions, usually political, as our families were a mixed bunch politically, and sometimes about religion, even though we were mostly Roman Catholic.  I enjoyed these discussions very much, whether political or religious, and looked forward to them – and if at times they got a little heated, well, so much the better.  We can all benefit from having our beliefs challenged now and then; but, little did we know how challenging this particular day would be.

The church, for which the church lot was named, had a reputation as being one of those “fundamentalist” congregations.  The church building itself was relatively new, and was a large, impressive brick structure, with one of the tallest steeples in a town that had about a dozen churches.  Not only was the church impressive, but it was part of a complex of buildings that included a K-12 school and a gymnasium.

It was near the gymnasium that we came across several young people who belonged to the church.  They were a little older than us, but not by much.  There were three of them, two boys and a girl. The girl appeared to be the oldest.  They asked us what we were doing.  “Just hanging out,” we said.

They asked us what church we went to.  We told them.  They asked us if we would like to hang out in the gym.  “Sure,” we responded.  I for one had always wanted to get inside the gym. After all, a church with its own gym?  Not common in my youth.

Once we got inside they began to engage us in conversation, which soon turned into a discussion about religion. Ahhhh, so we weren’t the only kids in town who liked to debate.  This was too good to be true.  A discussion about religion with others who were not our religion.  I was enjoying this very much.

The conversation was polite and went very well, but then the young lady said something like, “you know, just living a good life doesn’t get you into heaven.”

A momentary silence ensued as we, the Catholics, tried to figure out what she was trying to say.  Finally, one of us asked her.  “I mean,” she replied, “that doing good things, going to church, praying a lot, doing those things won’t get you into heaven.”

This sounded ridiculous to me.  Doing good, helping people, going to church and praying won’t get you into heaven?  This was to much.  “Then how do people get to heaven,” I asked?

“By believing in Jesus,” she said.  “By putting your faith in Him.  He died for your sins.”

Oh, oh, now I was getting it.  Of course, being a Catholic, I knew that Jesus died for our sins.  But I thought she was a little confused.  “You still have to be good, go to church, pray; you still have  to be a good person,” I said.

“No,” she said, “You just have to have faith.”

At this point we, my friends and I, decided it was time to leave, and so we amicably parted company with our new found debate opponents.  It had been an interesting discussion, and one that I would never forget.  But that thing about “being good won’t get you into heaven” – what was that all about?

Sometime later in religion class, I was in parochial school at the time, the topic  came up about the seeming conflict between faith and works.  There is a passage in the Letter of James which goes “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” James 2:18-20

This, apparently, has been debate between Protestants and Catholics for centuries.  Are we saved by faith (Protestant)?  Or, are we saved by works (Catholic)? I thought that this was an interesting topic, and I came down firmly on the Catholic side-no surprise there. It wasn’t long after this, though, that I started to explore other, non-Christian beliefs, and I thought little of my debate or the question of faith or works for quite a while.

Years later I would come back to my Christian, and eventually Catholic faith, but when I did, I took a distinctly Protestant route.  Of course, the faith/works debate was central to my “re-conversion,” only now, I came down hard on the Protestant side of the argument.  I understood what the young lady was trying to say so many years prior and what Paul was saying in Ephesians.

As fervently as I now believed that our good works could not save us, still, that passage from James gnawed at me.  “Faith without works is dead faith.”  What did that mean?

As time passed, my discomfort over James grew.  This was probably due to the fact that although I was a Christian believer, I was not exactly a paragon of Christian behavior.  My misbehavior would cause me to question my faith, and this is when the passages from James would start to kick in.  “Faith without works is dead...Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”  

It wasn’t that I was trying to justify my misbehavior with Ephesians, I knew that some of the things I was doing were wrong.  But I would take comfort in Ephesians – that is until the passages from James came to mind.  No comfort for the back-slidden sinner there, for sure.  So, of course, I would avoid James as much as possible.

I was able to do this successfully for quite some time, but it finally got to the point where I just had to come to terms with James.  I was getting less and less comfort from Ephesians, and more and more discomfort from James.  But I faced a dilemma.

The dilemma was this:  Whenever I tried to “be good,” I would be more inclined not to “be good.”  Paul describes a similar experience in Romans 7:21: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”  So, I thought, the answer was not in trying to be good.  Then how do you be good?

Of course, the passages from James, the ones that were causing me so much pain, also held the cure.  I started to realize that when my faith was strong, my natural inclination was to “be good.”  When my faith was weak, well, my inclinations were otherwise.  But according to Ephesians, faith, like salvation is a free gift from G-d.  Now my temptation here was to blame G-d.

After all, if faith, like salvation, is a gift from G-d, and if G-d wanted me to be good, he had to give me more faith, right?  No, wrong.  Faith is faith.  OK, I know that this is a tautology, but nevertheless, it is a very meaningful one.  Faith is not weak, it is not strong – it just is. And we either have it or we don’t.  When G-d gives us faith, and he gives it to all freely, what we then do with it is up to us.

One of the things we can do with faith is act on it, and when we act on our faith in G-d, then by definition, we are doing good.  How could it be otherwise?  Faith comes from G-d, we act on and out of that faith; would G-d let us do evil? I don’t think that is possible!

The other thing we can do with faith is not act on it.  But if we act, and not on faith, then what are we acting on – or out of?  We are by default, acting on and out of our own desires, motivations, and (good?) intentions.  Uh-oh. What did Paul say again?  “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”

So, I learned that it is when the person of faith stops trying to be good, it is then that faith takes over, and we are good.  But, faith is very willing to step aside when the person of faith wants to take over for a while.  This is when we say our faith is weak; but no, our faith is not weak, we are weak.  And when we act out of our weakness and not out of our faith, we are putting our weakness on display and hiding our faith.  Again, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 

I started to become comfortable with James.  I started to use my “good works,” or lack thereof, as a measure, not just of my faith, but of how well I was doing in letting G-d be good in me, so to speak.  Whenever I try to do the right thing under my own power, my faith starts to weaken, and I find myself less able to do the right thing that I desire to do.

When I stop trying to do the right thing, and just rely in faith, on G-d, I find that what I do is the right thing.  How could it be otherwise?

So who is right in the faith versus works debate?  Are the Catholics right? Do our works of faith save us? Or, are the Protestants right?  Is faith alone sufficient to save us?  The answer to those questions, I believe, is “Yes.”

 

What is Love?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV

Songs have been written about it; and poems, short stories and novels. In fact the greatest songs ever sung, and the greatest stories ever told, are all about love.  Look at the most popular plays, they are all about love: Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Rent.  Rent? Well, you tell me:

One thing I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have as well, is most love stories have death and dying as a major theme.  This is, of course, because love seems to be about sacrifice, and dying for love represents the ultimate sacrifice.  Hence all the stories about dying for love.  But, what about living for love? What is that and how does it differ from dying for love?

For one thing, dying for love is in a sense easy, because it is so dramatic, and final.  You steel yourself for the inevitable, and then it’s done.  Living for love, on the other hand, seems very hard because it is not a single tragic moment, but moment to moment, and it never ends. Ever.

Living for love has something in common with dying for love in that it also requires sacrifice.  The difference is, the sacrifice that characterizes living for love doesn’t end in one final dramatic event but is something that we live, day by day, day in and day out, like love itself.

The reason this is so is because love requires a certain universality; it applies to everyone, even, according to Jesus, our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).  As long as there are others, there is the requirement for love, and so there is also the requirement for sacrifice.  To take it even one step further, if we include G-d in those “others,” we can sense the magnitude of the sacrifice that love actually requires of us.

When we look at the above clip from Rent, we notice that it is also about death and dying, but it is not explicitly about dying for love, it is about living for love.  It is about Tom Collins’ love for his dying Angel, and the sacrifices he makes out of that love.  It’s about Roger’s conflicted love, and conflicted sacrifice, for the HIV positive and drug addicted Mimi and her love for Roger, who is also HIV positive.

While these examples have much of the drama associated with dying for love, they still give us a glimpse at what living for love is about, but what is living for love like, without the drama?

Initially, I thought that I could not come up with an example in the arts of living for love without the drama.  Then it hit me, of course there are plenty of examples, one being one of my favorite movies of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the movie, Jimmy Stewart plays a young man, George Bailey, who has big ideas.  He was going to get a college education, an accomplishment achieved by a relative few in those days.  He was going to travel the world and build things: bridges, skyscrapers, airports.  He was going to be somebody.

However, one circumstance after another arose that forced upon him a choice: does he pursue his dreams, or does stay for the sake of others?  Of course, he stays, and therein lies the story.  Due to his Uncle Billy’s mistake, he faces disgrace and jail.  At the end of his rope, he contemplates suicide but is saved by an angel, Clarence.  Clarence shows him what life would have been like in his hometown had he never been born; this changes his mind, and of course, there is a happy ending.

Now my point here is not that there isn’t plenty of drama in the movie – there is – and humor, and all those things that make up a great movie.  But many of the important decisions were, in a sense, rather mundane.  Does he stay and help the members of the Building and Loan after his father’s passing, or does he go after his dream? Does he hang on to his college money for when he is able to use it, or does he give it to his brother, with the understanding that his brother will return so George can then pursue college?  When his brother graduates and is offered a position in another city, does he hold his brother to their agreement and go off to school himself, or does he give his brother his blessing to take the other job?

Do you see what I mean?  Just a man living his life, making decisions similar to ones we all have made with the important distinction of always putting others ahead of himself.  One could argue that there is a death here: the slow, painful death of George’s dream, and this is a valid point.  But in the end, this turns out to be a good thing, because George realizes that what he has – family, friends, their love for him, and his love for them – is far more valuable than anything he could have achieved as a big shot engineer traveling the world.

The life and death decisions for most people are, thankfully, few, but it’s all of the little decisions that we make in between them that challenge us and define our lives. These are the most important because they occur everyday, many times in the day.  What does love require from us when someone cuts us off on the highway?  What does love require from us when a friend tells us that they can’t meet an obligation as promised?  What does love require from us when a child asks us the same question for the hundredth time?  What does love require from us when our spouse is late for a dinner party? I could go on, and on, and on.

There really is no end to the opportunities for us to sacrifice something for love: our pride, our time, our money, our ego; to live for love.  We are constantly given opportunities to meet the demands that love places on us.  What do we choose?  Or more accurately, who do we choose?

What is Faith?

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1 NIV

When I was in my self-improvement phase, I came across a book titled “The Power of Positive Thinking“, by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.  The basic premise of the book is that in order to accomplish our goals, whatever they may be, we need to believe that we will accomplish them.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, if we do not believe we can accomplish our goal, it is unlikely we are even going to try; and, if we do try, our efforts will be halfhearted, at best.  Which, of course, makes success very unlikely.  On the other hand, there does seem to be a natural inclination to follow through on those things we believe in, and do what is necessary to bring them about.

Anyway, after I read the book, I would try to get the things I wanted by using the techniques presented there, and in fact, the problem is they didn’t work, at least not for me.  I would try to believe, but something would come along that would shake my faith, introduce doubt, and I would fail to achieve my goal.  Oh, I would say the prayers, I would recite the scripture, I would try to picture in my mind achievement of the desired end, but it just didn’t work.

To be quite honest, my goals weren’t really the loftiest, but why should that matter?  After all, if I just stayed positive, continued to believe, visualized success, I could do anything, right?  The answer I got was no, not right.

For some time after that, I would often wonder what went wrong.  I assumed there was something wrong with me because this book had sold millions of copies, so the problem had to be me, right?  My faith just wasn’t strong enough; I was weak, and I was a failure.

Where did go wrong?  It would be years before I got any reasonable answer to that question, but as my knowledge of G-d, scripture, and faith grew, I eventually did come to some understanding, and yes, what we desire does matter, to answer my earlier question.  Let’s start there.

What do we want?  Years ago, I used to play the horses.  I read up on it, studied it, and was actually pretty good.  Periodically, I would buy a system for picking winners, and one such system came in a paperback book.  On the cover was a picture of the author and creator of the system.  He was sitting in the clubhouse of Santa Anita Park, legs crossed, wearing a sports jacket, with an open shirt, and ascot.  In one hand was the Daily Racing Form, which he studied intently, and in the other was a pipe.  He was the picture of success, exuding class and competence.  I wanted to be just like him!

I did try for a time to be that person, but after some effort, I finally gave up.  I never did achieve my goal, and to this day I am thankful to G-d I didn’t.  Why?  Because I started to value other things.  I started thinking about the incompatibility of my goal with some of my other goals, such as wanting a family.  I wanted to get an education, get a job that had some benefit to others, make a contribution.  If I had achieved my gambling goal, it might have been years before I realized what a mistake I had made.

The point is, what we want at some particular time in our lives may not be what is really good for us, and it may not be in G-d’s will for our lives.  To be successful at these things would actually be a curse rather than a blessing and could set us back years on the path we should be on.

So this is the first thing I learned: what we want is important to our ultimate success or failure, and very often, failure is a blessing.  It is just one way G-d lets us know what is and is not in His plan for us.  But, this is where it gets tricky – just because something is hard, or seems impossible, doesn’t mean we should not pursue it.

Later in my life, I decided to go for my masters degree in Computer Science.  I was married at this point, with two young children, and I was working full time.  In order to get done as soon as possible, I took two classes per semester, at night.  This turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I spent long hours away from home either working, in class, or in the computer lab.  When I was home, I was very often off away from the family studying.  And, just to put some icing on the cake, I was plagued with almost constant doubt and fear of failure.

Yet, somehow, in three years I achieved my goal and received my Master of Science in Computer Science from a prestigious university.  How did I do it?  You may think that the details are important, but they are not, really.  What is important, I learned, is that if you are on the “right” path, G-d will provide you with what you need for success, including the will and the desire, no matter how difficult things are or how improbable success seems to be.

But how, you might ask, do you know if you are on the right path?  And my answer to your question is, “you don’t really ‘know’ but more on that later!”

What I did know when I went for my masters was that I was really interested in computers, you might even say I loved computers (still do).  I wanted to know how they worked and why they worked, how they were made, and how to better use them.  I wanted to know about the hardware, the firmware and the software.

The other thing I knew is I had an aptitude for computers, having earned a B. S. in Business Information Systems, and had worked in the field several years as a programmer/analyst and systems programmer.  I already had a good basic understanding of computers and wanted to know more.

I also had some “reverse” incentives, as well.  My company would pay 80% of the cost for every course passed with a B or better.  Less than a B, and I had to pay for it..  But this wasn’t the worst part, what was worse is that failure would have been humiliating; at work, at home, with family and with friends – failure was just not an option.

This experience was so intense, in fact, that for years after I graduated, I had a recurring nightmare.  In the dream,  I was one class short of graduation, everything else was done. I just needed to finish the one course with a passing grade, but in the dream, I never did!  I would wake up convinced I had failed and never had earned my degree.

Doubt and fear are funny things.  We try to avoid them, put them out of our minds, be brave and certain, but they still persist.  It seems the more we resist them, the stronger they get!  The more we resist them, the more they control and dominate our lives!

So what is the answer?  How do we overcome doubt and fear?  Simply put, we don’t.  What we do is stop trying to overcome them, and, in faith, embrace them!  What?!

Once we recognize that doubt and fear are not the enemy, but actually our friends, we start to live in confidence and peace.  They are our friends because they tell us there is something that needs to be looked into, issues that need to be resolved.  Too often, we let doubt and fear prevent us from fulfilling  G-d’s will and plan for our lives, when in actuality, they are G-d’s way of telling us to stop and think, to evaluate, to question, to learn, and thereby continue on, armed with faith, knowledge, and confidence.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example.  We want to go to London, and our idea is to build a boat and sail there.  We dream of this for years, and finally, we’re in a position to build the boat, so we start right in.  We buy the lumber, and some plans, and start building.  We are so excited about the prospect of fulfilling our dream that we make great progress, but over time we start to have doubts.

After all what do we know about shipbuilding, or navigation?  Nothing, really.  So far, we just have this dream and some pent up energy.  We could just quit and take a plane to London – maybe we’ll do just that.  But no, the dream is to sail with our own boat.  So what do we do?  Well, in this case, we do some research.

Let’s say we research boat travel and we find that only 1% of the most seaworthy of vessels makes it across the Atlantic intact, all of the rest sink.  Not very good odds, to say the least, and so for very good reason, we drop the boat idea, and move on to plan B, take a plane.  So doubt was a good thing because it saved us from near certain death.

On the other hand, let’s say we research boat travel and we find that 99.9% of the most seaworthy boats make it across the Atlantic intact.  Now, that’s better.  Knowing this, we research boat building a little more to determine what makes a boat seaworthy, and we continue with our plan.  So here, doubt was a good thing because it caused us to build a better boat and increase our chances of success, and confidence in our plan has been restored.

But, as time goes on, we start to have doubts again, because there is still that .1% chance that the boat will sink, and that’s if we have the skill to build the most seaworthy of boats.  And how do we know?  Maybe our real chances are only 90%, or 85%, or even 50%.  How do we know?

The bottom line is, we don’t know, but that is where true faith comes in because I am talking about faith in G-d, not in our research skills, our shipbuilding skills, or our navigation skills.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t need all of those things – we do – it just means that we don’t trust in them, we trust in G-d.

The story of David and Goliath illustrates this point perfectly.  G-d told David to go out and face Goliath and He would put victory in David’s hands.  David, a young boy, went to the river and picked five smooth stones for his sling.  David then went to face Goliath, and we all know what happened.  With one of those stones, he felled the giant and then cut off his head with Goliath’s own sword.

I have often wondered why David picked five stones instead of just one.  After all, G-d Himself had promised David victory, didn’t He?  And David was an expert with a sling, so why five stones?

The answer that I have come to is this: David understood his own limitations, and G-d hadn’t actually told David how He would give him victory, only that He would.  As good as David was with a sling, it would have been the height of chutzpah and foolhardiness to go up against a raging giant with only one stone.

Now, all it took was one stone, but if David had gone out with only one stone, do you think it possible doubt would have crept in?  That once he got out there, David might have started to think, gee, what if I miss with only this one stone?  The time for doubt was before he went out, not after.

Of course, G-d knew that David was humble and smart, that’s why He picked him.  He knew that David would prepare himself for battle the best way he knew how.

So it is with our dream of sailing to London in our homemade boat.  Not only is faith in G-d necessary to achieve this goal, but we must make the necessary preparations.  We may believe that G-d has blessed our undertaking, but there are no shortcuts.  Skill and preparation are necessary, otherwise we may be testing G-d, which we are not permitted to do.

No matter what we undertake, we should place the outcome in G-d’s hands in faith, then prepare in every way we need to be successful.  When doubt and fear step in, use it as an opportunity to question and evaluate.  Perhaps we are on the wrong path, and our reasoning will show this.  Or perhaps, we are on the right path – we just need to adjust our plan, learn some new skill, or maybe we have started to put our faith in someone or something other than G-d, including possibly our self.  In these cases, just make the adjustment and move on.

The Bible verse that starts this post provides tremendous clues as to how this process works.  It seems to be saying that simply having faith is evidence that the thing we hope for is true or will come to pass, even though we cannot see the thing itself.  How can this be?  Because G-d is the source of all true faith, and He would not mislead us.

When He needs us to make changes, He allows doubt and fear to creep in.  When we resolve those doubts and fears through reason and work and make the necessary adjustments, He restores our confidence, and we move on with a stronger faith in Him than before.

It is in this sense that faith is the substance, or raw material, of those things that we hope for.