After 12/7/2011, this blog will no longer be updated, although content will remain. Please visit my new blog at Hidden Latitudes.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A Blue Blazer, Conrad Aiken and Death

   Last week, I attended a funeral. She was a long-time friend and colleague of my wife, whom I had only met once or twice, long ago. After I parked the car in the long queue that would follow the family to the gravesite, I slipped on my blue blazer. I felt something inside the right vest pocket. Pulling it out, I discovered that it was a program for another funeral, that of the father of a friend, which had occurred eleven months ago.
   Two things struck me: One, it seems the only time I dress up these days is to go to a funeral. Or, at best, funerals are the only occasion to which I wear my navy blue blazer. And secondly, funerals are the occasion where we bid goodbye to loved ones (or support those who do). And while they are full of sorrow, much effort is made to make these goodbyes full of hope as well. The loved one is, after all, going to a "better place," no?
   That is the crux of human faith: that there exists, unseen, a better world. And better all around: according to the book about it, there will be no pain, no tears, and no more death.
   Part of me agrees with Conrad Aiken. The southern poet is buried in my favorite cemetery, Bonaventure, near Savannah, Georgia. His tombstone is a bench, and on it is inscribed a notice he saw in the shipping pages of the Savannah paper. There, among the notices of ships arriving and departing, was this cryptic notice:


Cosmos Mariner
Destination Unknown

(click photo to enlarge)


   The poet in me loves that. The mystic in me agrees as well. While I am well aware of the promises of God to his children about the world to come, nevertheless I realize I do not—indeed cannot—begin to imagine what it will be like. My wife's friend knows. And my friend's father knows.
   And one day, so will I.
—Wayne S.
(photo credit)

Friday, September 03, 2010

A Hucksterish Choice?

   As many of you know, commentator, essayist and noted atheist Christopher Hitchens is battling a vigorous case of esophageal cancer. He recently wrote in Vanity Fair about all the Christians (and those of other faiths) who are praying for him. It is a must-read article. Hitchens asks some very interesting questions: To those who say the cancer is his punishment for speaking out against faith, he notes, "Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: it’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia."
   One of the most interesting things he says is to those who are praying for his salvation. He thanks them, but tells them don't expect a last minute grasp at eternity:
"Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice."
   Impressed? No. But we are convinced it is possible, if unlikely.
   Many people, smart people like Mr. Hitchens, believe that God somehow operates with the same sense of fairness in which we operate. Therefore, they conclude that it somehow just isn't possible (or fair) that person A can live his life obediently, perhaps painfully, seeking to follow and please God, while person B, in the words of some clever wit, goes to the grave "skidding in sideways, Chardonnay in one hand, chocolate in the other," and expects the same consideration, and indeed the same destination, just because at the last minute they believed.
   But God doesn't use that metric. In some sort of divine calculus that really doesn't seem to add up to us, God is less concerned with when we believe, but that we believe. How else could you explain the thief on the cross being promised Paradise?
   William Camden, an English historian in Shakespeare's day, wrote in Remains (1623) of a dissolute man who died when he fell from his horse:

                        My friend, judge not me, 
                        Thou seest I judge not thee; 
                        Betwixt the stirrop and the ground, 
                        Mercy I askt, mercy I found.

Perhaps Mr. Hitchens thinks that is a bridge too far. I will still pray for him. And I easily believe, in his case, that one day he may enter eternity with God, "skidding in sideways, Johnny Walker Black in one hand, a Rothmans cigarette in the other... ."
   He says if word ever gets out that, in some sort of delirium, he calls upon God to save him, we should not believe a word of it. How curious that, of all he has said that he wants us to believe, that would be suspect.
   God be with you, Christopher Hitchens.
Wayne S.



Wednesday, August 25, 2010

One of the Only

Word confusion on the cover of Parade Magazine.

   It's the cover story; an article about Natalie Randolph, the football coach at Coolidge High School in Washington, D. C. The article is assumed to be of interest to Parade readers because there aren't a lot of female football coaches. And it is an interesting article, and Coach Randolph is quite a person.
   But I couldn't help but get tickled at the subhead on the cover. After the heading, "A League of Her Own," the subhead reads "At Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C., Natalie Randolph is making history—as one of the nation's only female football coaches."
   Read it again. According to the editor of this edition, Coach Randolph stands out not because she is female, but she is an only female football coach. This is to be contrasted with what I assume are partially female, or even mostly female coaches, which evidently are more numerous, or at least less unusual.
   Of course, the correct description (which is used in the inside article) is "one of the nation's few female football coaches." It's comforting to know that even the big boys (or girls) miss one every now and then.
—Wayne S.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Well, if you put it THAT way

   My favorite atheist, Christopher Hitchens, is extremely confident in his atheism. Would that I were so confident in my theism! He does pose some interesting questions, such as this:

Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

That our species is at most 200,000 years old, and very nearly joined the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming extinct, in Africa, 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell below 2,000 before we embarked on our true "exodus" from the savannah?

That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original "big bang" will be unobservable?

That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky?

These are very recent examples, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian, and they make pathetic nonsense of any idea that our presence on this planet, let alone in this of so many billion galaxies, is part of a plan. Which design, or designer, made so sure that absolutely nothing (see above) will come out of our fragile current "something"? What plan, or planner, determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a "revelation" to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?
   Well done, sir! The only answer I can think of, and I know it will not satisfy, is this: That the invitation to a spiritual life with and in the God of this chaotic universe is available as a limited-time offer. It is not intrinsically unfair that at some point something new is offered to those who may have been hitherto unable to acquire it. The issue is not what of the millions who came before, but what of Christopher and Wayne. One perceives a blessing, the other does not.
   For now, we have both made our choices.
Wayne S.
   Quotation is from the Big Questions Essay Series at www.templeton.org.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Vino Veritas



"When I find someone I respect writing about an edgy, nervous wine that dithered in the glass, I cringe.  When I hear someone I don't respect talking about an austere, unforgiving wine, I turn a bit austere and unforgiving myself.  When I come across stuff like that and remember about the figs and bananas, I want to snigger uneasily.  You can call a wine red, and dry, and strong, and pleasant.  After that, watch out... ." —Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking
   It will be easier for me to write about wine, since I neither know enough about it, nor have the vocabulary, to be pretentious. But I know a bit more about it that I used to.
   Recently, I had the opportunity to reconnect with my best friend from my sophomore and junior year of high school. It was only two years, but the friendship was held fast by a common love of music, and especially guitars.
   We were pleased to find ourselves easing into our relationship as if the 38 intervening years were but a few. We even did some songs together (he plays piano now, and I cannot hit the high notes that were so easy in the day).
   Tim is a winemaker, and a vintner. Two years ago, he retired from thirty-seven years with the U.S. Navy, both active duty and civilian. He built a house on some old family land near Crossville, Tennessee (and far from cell service). There he planted a vineyard.
   While the vineyard is his first, he has been making wine for several years. And every one of his wines has won awards—many firsts, many blue ribbons. The only prize to elude him is Best of Show. But it is only a matter of time.
   Spending nearly two days with him, I drank more wine than I ever have in so short a span (five bottles between us), ate like a king (he cooks like Emeril) and learned a little about winemaking.
   Malcolm Dunn, a gardener to royalty, once said grapes are "the most noble and challenging of fruits." A vintner/winemaker is a person of many talents. He is of course a gardener. And a very patient one. Most vines spend two years of growing and pruning before they are ready to bear wine-worthy fruit. Then they are trained to hang uncrowded and orderly on the trellises. As the fruit matures in the late summer or early fall, the vintner becomes a chemist, frequently checking the acidity, pH and sugar content of the grapes. Once the numbers line up, the grape clusters are cut off the vine (the one act that takes very little time). White grapes are pressed immediately and the juice is left to ferment in large bins. Red grapes are crushed along with their seeds, skin and stems, and go through primary fermentation as a mush. Then it is strained and put into oaken casks, where it ages. I did not know that red wine gets its color from those seeds and skin, since all grape juice is white.
   Seeing the process first-hand, passages such as John 15 come alive:
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."
   It is Tim's careful tending that makes the difference between a fruitful vineyard and a field full of weeds. So it is with me—it is God's faithful, meticulous caring and pruning that makes my life fruitful, and a testimony to the Master Vintner. 
   The Romans had a saying: In Vino Veritas. In wine, there is truth. 
   Indeed.
[UPDATE-01/03/11]: My friend Tim recently got high-speed internet (I told you it was waaaay out in the sticks), and as such, looked at Words of Wayne for the first time. After reading the above post he wrote with some comments and corrections, which I am posting in a separate post on this day—1/3/11. I do so because it points out the incorrect info was my fault (and the five bottles of wine, of course). And it's fascinating.

Friday, August 13, 2010

International Left-Handers Day

   A friend wrote today to wish me Happy International Left-Handers Day. I had no idea such a holiday existed. We beleaguered lefties need it.
   I am old enough to remember when left-handedness was thought to be "correctable" and schools would discourage it. Obviously, I was not a compliant student.
   Left-handedness, for me at least, has always been a bit of an impediment. Aside from the lack of left-handed appurtenances, such as desks, scissors and the like, I have pretty much adapted myself to a right-handed world. I play guitar right-handed (alas, could I have been another Hendrix?), golf (putt-putt only) shoot a rifle and bat also with my recessive hand.
   I believe the reason why most left-handers (at least from my generation, the Boomers) have such atrocious handwriting is this: In school, we were always having to write around the pesky rings in a three-ring notebook, and we were always having to be sure we didn't smear the ink or smudge the pencil of what we just wrote— whereas right-handers always led what they were writing, the heel of our palm always trailed our work.
   Interestingly, four of the last five presidents have been left-handed: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Evidently, nothing can be gleaned from that factoid, other than it is outside the norm.
   Left-handedness is most desired in the arena of sports, since most pitchers, hitters, quarterbacks and basketball and hockey forwards are right-handed.
  I am glad I am left-handed, as is my eldest son (left-handedness is genetic, rather than learned). But I am not sure what it gets me, other than another day to celebrate.
— Wayne S.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Can a person without faith be healed?

   This question came up in a weekly reading group I attend. (I call it that, although the only book we read is the Bible. But that's all we do—read a chapter and then comment on it. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but although we have a diverse group of young and old Christians, Orthodox and Messianic Jews, and the occasional seeker or unbeliever, the comments are uniformly rich, encouraging and challenging. Must be God or something.)
   The general consensus was that yes, a person without faith can be healed. Among the reasons cited:
  • God is God. He can do whatever he pleases. He is not a God of formula.
  • Often it is only the faith of others, not the ill person, which precedes healing.
  • People have been healed who were comatose or dead. (See Luke 8)
   The same question was revived in real-time this week when Christopher Hitchens, my favorite atheist, was interviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. Hitchens, the author of God Is Not Great, was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer. When Goldberg asked him if he were insulted by people praying for him, Hitchens, in typical wry humor, replied:
"No, no, I take it kindly, on the assumption that they are praying for my recovery."
   Hitchens makes it clear that such a result will not sway his unbelief. If gratitude were a requirement for healing, Hitchens might have a point. Yet in Luke 17, when ten lepers were healed, only one came back to say thanks. And we know that, every day, hundreds of things come into our lives which should make us grateful, but we fail to even see them.
   But I will be praying for him. He sees it as late in his story. But perhaps it is finally just beginning.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Language as music

"In his entirely personal experience of them, English was jazz music, German was classical music, French was ecclesiastical music, and Spanish was the music of the streets. Which is to say, stab his heart and it would bleed French, slice his brain open and its convolutions would be lined with English and German, and touch his hands and they would feel Spanish."
—Yann Martel in Beatrice and Virgil

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Google Sky Map, Copernicus, Galileo and Grace

   While recently foraging about for apps for my new Android phone, I came across Google's Sky Map. This fascinating application allows you to point your phone at a star in the sky and, using GPS data and an internal compass, it will label the star or constellation. Fascinating.
   But it got me thinking. What Sky Map does is create a virtual "dome" above you, and like a planetarium projector, it will produce a representation of the sky on that "dome." This is a very pre-Copernican way of looking at the sky.
   Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), as many of us know, was the Renaissance astronomer who first posited that the earth was not the center of the cosmos. He held off publishing this finding until months before his death, fearing both scientific and religious criticism. But the religious criticism was six decades in coming (reason: no Kindle), and it arrived with a vengeance due to the efforts of another smart fellow, Galileo Galilei, and his new and improved telescope, which allowed him to verify many of Copernicus's findings. It was Galileo who suffered for his integrity, found a heretic and confined to house arrest from 1634 until 1642, when he died at age 77.
   What does all of this interesting history have to do with grace? Perhaps this: it is very, very difficult for non-believers (and more than a few believers) to understand grace. And much of it has to do with pre-Copernican thinking. It seems more logical, more personal, and more comforting to understand our relationship with God as revolving around us. The main reason this is so is this is where we are. We see the world from our perspective, not any other. The night sky will look different when viewed from Jupiter, but we will never see it.
   Many people (maybe most) believe that what you do and what you are will make all the difference in how God accepts you. Blessings, heaven, health, all the good things, are the result of a zero-sum game: if you are more good than bad, you will get more good things than bad things. This is the spiritual equivalent of thinking the heavens revolve around the earth. It is old thinking. But again, it is easy to think this way, because this is our default viewpoint, and we are often too lazy or thoughtless to consider another.
   Grace teaches us that the spiritual universe revolves around God, that it is His pleasure and plan to allow us to play, plan and work (and even mess up) in his infinite creation. He has chosen us to be a part of it all. And it has nothing to do with our worthiness or goodness. It has everything to do with His goodness.
   Really, which would you rather have? A static spiritual world where everything revolves around you, yet is always tantalizingly just out of reach, and where your ability to move is severely limited? Or a dynamic world that is spinning at 1040 miles an hour on its own axis, while spinning around the sun at 18.5 miles a second, in a solar system whirling through space at 185 miles a second? A world where you're a valued, loved and needed part of it all. It's enough to make you dizzy.
   That's what grace is like.
   And those of us who have made this discovery should tell about it. We may be skittish, like Copernicus. We may be roughed up a bit (even by the church!), like Galileo.
   But we will be right, like them both.
Wayne S.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Bonhoeffer on a true leader

The following is an excerpt from twenty-six year old theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's radio address, delivered on February 1, 1933, two days after Adolph Hitler had been elected Chancellor of Germany:
If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol--then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself. The true Leader must always be able to disillusion. It is just this that is his responsibility and his real object. He must lead his following away from the authority of his person to the recognition of the real authority of orders and offices.... He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads.... He serves the order of the state, of the community, and his service can be of incomparable value. But only so long as he keeps strictly in his place.... [H]e has to lead the individual into his own maturity.... Now a feature of man's maturity is responsibility towards other people, towards existing orders. He must let himself be controlled, ordered, restricted.
Of course, Adolph Hitler had no intention of allowing himself to be "controlled, ordered, restricted." Yet in reading this, I am reminded of a current leader, one who had allowed himself to become "the idol," and who seems to have little fascination with leading people away from his authority back to the authority of the Constitution [Bonhoeffer's orders] and the people. Thankfully, I do not fear for one second this current leader will kill millions. But his bald attempts to build a "thousand year reign" of entitlements and debt may end up with the nation impoverished and defeated. Again, from the same address:
Only when a man sees that office is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, has the real situation been reached.... And this solitude of man's position before God, this subjection to an ultimate authority, is destroyed when the the authority of the Leader or of the office is seen as ultimate authority.... Alone before God, man becomes what he is, free and committed to responsibility at the same time.
The current leader professes to be a follower of Christ, yet not in an orthodox, Biblical way. It is interesting that, the same day as Bonhoeffer's address, Chancellor Hitler also took to the airwaves, offering this appeal "to the God he did not believe in":
May God Almighty take our work into his grace, give true form to our will, bless our insight, and endow us with the trust of our Volk!
--Wayne S.
(All quotations are from the book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.)

Friday, July 02, 2010

Fiction, Nonfiction and Truth

Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided, Fiction may not be real, but it's true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths. As for nonfiction, for history, it may be real, but its truth is slippery, hard to access, with no fixed meaning bolted to it. If history doesn't become story, it dies to everyone except the historian. Art is the suitcase of history, carrying the essentials. Art is the life buoy of history. Art is seed, art is memory, art is vaccine.
Yann Martel, in Beatrice and Virgil

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bonhoeffer on seeing people as they are

Every day I am getting to know people, at any rate their circumstances, and sometimes one is able to see through their stories into themselves—and at the same time one thing continues to impress me: here I meet people as they are, far from the masquerade of "the Christian world", people with passions, criminal types, small people with small aims, small wages and small sins—all in all they are people who feel homeless in both senses, and who begin to thaw when one speaks to them with kindness—real people; I can only say that I have gained the impression that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world that is more under wrath than grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Monday, June 28, 2010

Penn Jilette on Christians

Penn Jillette and Teller (that's it, no given name) make up the comedy duo Penn and Teller. They host a Showtime television show called Bullshit!, where they call out people and organizations who they feel are misleading people. As atheists, two of the most popular targets for them are the Catholic Church and Christians in general. However, they don't necessarily make it personal. In an interview with Reason.com, Jillette had this to say:
Teller and I have been brutal to Christians, and their response shows that they’re good fucking Americans who believe in freedom of speech. We attack them all the time, and we still get letters that say, “We appreciate your passion. Sincerely yours, in Christ.” Christians come to our show at the Rio and give us Bibles all the time. They’re incredibly kind to us. Sure, there are a couple of them who live in garages, give themselves titles and send out death threats to me and Bill Maher and Trey Parker. But the vast majority are polite, open-minded people, and I respect them for that.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Predicting Traffic Jams

   Science and math can do a lot of things. They can predict severe thunderstorms. They can predict the likelihood of an asteroid striking the earth (not very, thank God). They can even predict who might be candidates for Altzheimers or other diseases.
   Yet one phenomenon they have yet to conquer. Or have they?
   I am writing about traffic jams. Most of us have found ourselves in stock-still traffic, and we frantically scan the radio for some sort of explanation. Moments later, it clears up, and further travel shows nothing to be amiss; no emergency vehicles or tow trucks on the side of the road.
   Wired Magazine has an article which decribes the effort of MIT scientists to minimize the number of  these "phantom jams." As the article explains:
Phantom jams are born of a lot of cars using the road. No surprise there. But when traffic gets too heavy, it takes the smallest disturbance in the flow – a driver laying on the brakes, someone tailgating too closely or some moron picking pickles off his burger – to ripple through traffic and create a self-sustaining traffic jam.
...

The mathematics of such traffic jams are strikingly similar to the equations that describe detonation waves produced by explosions, said Aslan Kasimov, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Mathematics. Realizing this allowed the reseachers to solve traffic jam equations that were first theorized in the 1950s. The MIT researchers even came up with a name for this kind of gridlock – “jamiton.” It’s a riff on “soliton,” a term used in math and physics to desribe a self-sustaining wave that maintains its shape while moving.

   Yes, it's a little egghead-y, but still interesting since it is an experience many of us share. Here's a video which shows how jams happen.

   For more on this topic, read the article here.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bonhoeffer on vanity and grace

On Sunday afternoon I attended an extremely festive high mass in Sacré Couer. The people in the church were almost exclusively from Montmartre; prostitutes and their men went to mass, submitted to all the ceremonies; it was an enormously impressive picture, and once again one could see quite clearly how close, precisely through their fate and guilt, these most heavily burdened people are to the heart of the gospel. I have long thought the Tauentzienstrasse [Berlin's red-light district] would be an extremely fruitful field for church work. It's much easier for me to imagine a praying murderer, a praying prostitute, than a vain person praying. Nothing is so at odds with prayer as vanity.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gilead

   MOST OF WHAT WE REMEMBER of our fathers, either good or bad, is based on our experience with them—those decades spent in proximity. For John Ames, giving his son that chance will not be possible. In 1956, at the age of 77, this pastor of a small church in Gilead, Iowa finds himself facing two incongruous truths: failing health due to heart disease, and a seven-year-old son from a late marriage. So, he decides to set down his story as best he can in a long letter. A novel, Gilead, is that letter, and it is wondrous.
   He tenderly tells of the young woman who came into his church one Sunday and immediately stole his heart (Not easily, mind you. His devotion to his calling was always first, especially since the death of his first wife years ago during childbirth). He refused to say anything to her, though, because of the disparity of their ages, until one day…
“I came near alarming myself with the thought of the loneliness stretching ahead of me, and the new bitterness of it, and how I hated the secretiveness and the renunciation that honor and decency required of me and that common sense enforced on me. But when I looked up, your mother was watching me, smiling a little, and she touched my hand and she said, ‘You’ll be just fine.’ . . .
“She began to come to the house when some of the other women did, to take the curtains away to wash, to defrost the icebox. And then she started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, ‘How can I repay you for all this?’
“And she said, ‘You ought to marry me.’
And I did.”
   The marriage is happy for both. Yet as Ames’s health issues loom, another complication arises as the son of his best friend, who once left town in disgrace, returns to Gilead and re-inserts himself into the life of the pastor and his wife. As he watches this man in his 40s bond with his wife—herself near that age—and son, he wonders if he should tell her of what has gone before. And he wonders if it even matters.
   As older men are wont to do, Ames loves remembering the past, and tells thorough histories of his grandfather, a hellfire and damnation preacher who went to Kansas as an abolitionist and fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. His father, naturally, became a pacifist preacher who nevertheless held enough rage to nearly destroy his family. All of this becomes the lineage of a young boy who, Ames hopes, will one day read his letter.
   The book is so luminous and so alive that you simply feel you are reading the actual remembrances of a man such as John Ames, which is a testament to the talent of the writer, Marilynne Robinson. The Washington Post hails Gilead as “so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.” The spiritual musings and perceptions are among the most profound I’ve read in fine literature. Through John Ames, author Robinson shows she understands both goodness and grace. In thinking about his young friend as the prodigal son, Ames describes himself thusly: “I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father’s house. . . . I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained.’’
   It is rare these days to find a good book about a good man. This is one.
Book Review by Wayne Steadham.

Friday, June 11, 2010

David Foster Wallace on Choosing the Object of Your Worship

[H]ere's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
—The late David Foster Wallace, author, from a commencement speech in 2005 at Kenyon College.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Remembering Normandy, June 6, 1944

Remembering the many, many men who fell in battle on this day 66 years ago. Here is a video which shows one way that remembrance was shown. The videographer explains:
While visiting the American cemetery in Normandy, a French gentleman and his friends came upon Amos, and when he realized that Amos was a WW2 veteran who fought in Normandy, the French gentleman gave Amos a letter.


Thursday, June 03, 2010

Days






20,455
days ago
I became the first child of John and Joyce,
the first grandchild of James and Mildred
and Croley and Hazel.

14,874
I found myself a sinner
in need of a Savior.

13,711
well over half my life
I have loved one above all others.
11,976
we started keeping house.

10,917
I became a father
(and again at 10,418, 9650 and 8424).

A mere 86 days ago
I became a grandfather.

And I count each day passed worthwhile
and the days to come
surely less than I wish
yet more than I deserve
as gifts.

So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Remembering the Fallen

   Memorial Day is an occasion of special importance to all Americans, because it is a day sacred to the memory of all those Americans who made the supreme sacrifice for the liberties we enjoy. We will never forget or fail to honor these heroes to whom we owe so much. We honor them best when we resolve to cherish and defend the liberties for which they gave their lives. Let us resolve to do all in our power to assure the survival and the success of liberty so that our children and their children for generations to come can live in an America in which freedom’s light continues to shine.
   The Congress, in establishing Memorial Day, called for it to be a day of tribute to America’s fallen, and also a day of national prayer for lasting peace. This Nation has always sought true peace. We seek it still. Our goal is peace in which the highest aspirations of our people, and people everywhere, are secure: peace with freedom, with justice, and with opportunity for human development. This is the permanent peace for which we pray, not only for ourselves but for all generations.
   The defense of peace, like the defense of liberty, requires more than lip service. It requires vigilance, military strength, and the willingness to take risks and to make sacrifices. The surest guarantor of both peace and liberty is our unflinching resolve to defend that which has been purchased for us by our fallen heroes.
   On Memorial Day, let us pray for peace — not only for ourselves, but for all those who seek freedom and justice.

Ronald Reagan, 1987
 (Photo courtesy of Q&O.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!"



   It's one of my favorite movie lines, from the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger. It resonates with me because it is so matter-of-fact. And it also has meaning because it sums up an important spiritual truth.
   So many Christians live tiresome, defeated lives because of one basic reason: they are trying to live a tireless, victorious life. Yet whether you try for a week, a year, or a lifetime, you'll never do it.
   The reason is simple, albeit easily avoidable. No one can please God all the time. Or even most of the time.
   But isn't that what God expects? Isn't the whole point of the Bible, from the Ten Commandments to the Beatitudes, that we should behave and operate in a way that will please God? Isn't that why we're punished by God sometimes for doing wrong, and rewarded for doing right? Shouldn't we, like Agent 007, be asking, "Do you expect me to always do good, to be kind to animals, read my Bible and brush my teeth?"
    The answer to that question, if properly asked of God, is as jarring and as final as Goldfinger's answer to Mr. Bond. And that's because it is the same answer:
"No, I expect you to die."
    For that is the secret to living a life that pleases God. It is exchanging our soiled, pitiful life for that of the spotless, powerful Savior. It is to surrender (something Bond would never do, I agree) in order to win. As Matthew quotes Jesus:
"He who has found his life will lose it, and
he who has lost his life for My sake will find it."
   So what does God expect of us? Good choices? Living right? Nope. He expects us to die. Every day. Every moment. To give all we are aware of that is ours to Him.
   Why? 
   To please Him? No. Who is pleased by being given what they deserve? 
   To get into heaven? No. That ticket requires a different payment, and has already been paid anyway.
   To make life easier here? No, although it should make your life more meaningful.
Allow me to offer an answer in the words of the always thoughtful C. S. Lewis:
"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of--throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself!"
—Wayne S. C. S. Lewis quote is from Mere Christianity.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Love and Aloha

    If I wen talk all da diffren kine languages, da peopo kine language an even da angel kine languages, but I no mo love an aloha, wat den? I ony talking rubbish kine, jalike one junk kine bell o one kalangalang cymbal.
   An if I was one talka fo God, an I wen know all kine secret stuffs an all da kine stuffs dat da smart guys know, an if I wen trus God all da way so I can even make da mountains move, but I no mo love an aloha, wat den? I worth notting, dass wat.
   If I wen sell all my stuffs an use da money fo give food to da poor peopo, an even sacrifice my body in da fire, but I no mo love an aloha, wat den? Poho, wase time!
   Wen you get love an aloha, you can handle all kine pilikia an hang in dea long time. You get good heart fo help da odda peopo. You no get jealous cuz da odda guy get someting you like. 
   Wen you get love an aloha, you no need talk big. You no mo big head. You no ack pilau kine. You no ack like everybody gotta do everyting yoa way. You no get huhu fast. 
   Wen you get love an aloha, you no goin rememba all da bad kine stuff peopo wen do to you. You no feel good inside wen somebody do someting dass wrong, but you feel plenny good inside wen somebody tell da trut.
   Wen you get love an aloha, you can hang in dea fo everyting an no give up eva. You always trus God bout everyting. You know everyting goin come okay bumbye. You can stand strong everytime.
   Wen you get love an aloha, dat no goin pau eva. Da guys dat talk fo God, bumbye no need fo da tings dey say. Wen peopo talk diffren kine, bumbye nobody goin talk lidat. Da stuff da smart guys know, no matta, bumbye no need. You know, we ony know litto bit. 
   Wen we talk fo God, we get ony litto bit fo tell. Bumbye, goin come da time wen everyting stay perfeck. Dat time, no need fo da litto bit kine stuff no moa. Small kid time, I wen talk jalike one small kid. I wen tink jalike one small kid. I wen figga everyting jalike one small kid. Now, I big, dass why I no do da tings da same way da small kids do um.
   Right now, us guys can see stuff, but ony jalike wit one junk mirror. Hard fo figga wat we see dea. But bumbye, goin be clear. Us guys goin see everyting jalike was right dea in front our face. Right now, I ony know litto bit. But bumbye, I goin undastan everyting, jalike God undastan everyting bout me.
   So now, get three tings dat stay: we can trus God, an we can know everyting goin come out okay bumbye, an we get love an aloha. From da three tings, da love an aloha kine, dass da main ting, an da bestes way.
—from Numba 1 Fo Da Corint Peopo, in the Hawai'i Pidgin Bible.   (photo by Cheryl S. Click to enlarge.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Buechner on the Gospel

   As everybody knows by now, Gospel means Good News. Ironically, it is some of the Gospel's most ardent fans who try to turn it into Bad News. For instance:
   "It all boils down to the Golden Rule. Just love thy neighbor, and that's all you have to worry about." What makes this bad news is that loving our neighbor is exactly what none of us is very good at. Most of the time, we have a hard time even loving out family and friends very effectively.
   "Jesus was a great teacher and the best example we have of how we ought to live." As a teacher, Jesus is at least matched by, for instance, Siddhartha Gautama. As an example, we can only look at Jesus and despair.
   "The Resurrection is a a poetic way of saying that the spirit of Jesus lives on as a constant inspiration to us all." If all the Resurrection means is that Jesus' spirit lives on like Abraham Lincoln's or Adolph Hitler's but that otherwise he is just as dead as anybody else who cashed in two thousand years ago, then as Saint Paul puts it, "our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:14). If the enemies of Jesus succeeded for all practical purposes in killing him permanently around A.D. 30, then like Socrates, Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so on, he is simply another saintly victim of the wickedness and folly of humankind, and the cross is a symbol of ultimate defeat.
   What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other in the same way and to love him too, but that if we will let him, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself.
   What is both Good and New about the Good News is the mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working not just through the sacraments (q.v.) but in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off ourselves.
   Thus the Gospel is not only Good and New but, if you take it seriously, a Holy Terror. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a slob to a human being was going to be a Sunday School picnic. On the contrary. Childbirth may occasionally be painless, but rebirth never. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear live to our slobbery.
--Frederich Buechner from Wishful Thinking, A Seeker's ABC
(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, courtesy of Life Magazine. Click to enlarge).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A lone raindrop in the desert

   After spending a few days on the coast of  Kauai, one can be forgiven for thinking that, in the battle of rock versus water, rock always wins. My wife and I witnessed countless huge waves drive fruitlessly into the ancient lava and rock shores, only to have to regroup and come again. These islands, and these rock shores, have stood for millennia  (sorry, young earthers) and have yielded little.
   But not always. On April 1, 1946, a tsunami raked the northern coasts of the Hawaiian Islands. The giant wave blasted a hole in the middle of a small sandstone island that sits right off La'ie Point on Oahu, leaving behind an unique sight.
(click to enlarge)
As La'ie Point proves, on occasion the water comes with such force that even stone cannot resist. Here's an interesting paragraph from the book The Lighthouse Stevensons, the story of the Scottish family of lighthouse builders, and the ancestors of author Robert Louis Stevenson:
When finally finished, long after Louis had departed for more promising places, the breakwater stood intact for four years until a spectacular storm in December 1872 destroyed the entire harbor, shifting one massive block of stone weighing 1,350 tons and folding the whole structure into the sea. Tom was devastated. In fact, his reaction was far more extreme than the incident warranted. But he had based his professional faith on studying the sea, learning its moods, its tempers, and its breaking points, and the discovery that much of his life's work was founded on a miscalculation was almost unbearable. The early studies he had made of the force of waves were based on the movements of ten- or fifteen-ton blocks, not of something that weighed as much as the whole mass of Bell Rock Lighthouse. His reaction was initially incredulous, then defensive. He published papers complaining of the force of the elements the Stevensons contended with, photographs of immense waves smashing against the harbor walls,  anything that might vindicate his position. Eventually, once the disputing was over, the breakwater was rebuilt, this time with a 2,600 ton foundation block in place. In 1877 another apocalyptic storm washed it away. Tom could do nothing but turn away in disgust.
   A five-million-plus pound rock moved by the force of the sea! We must all react with awe at that fact. As my favorite atheist, Christopher Hitchens, says: "Nature is boss, and she is pitiless."
   If there is no God, which is Hitchens's presumption, then we must indeed, allow that Nature is supreme, at least over man. But if there is a God, which is my presumption (to be fair), then the power that spews acidic clouds into the air from Iceland (Hitchens's topic), or punches a hole into an island of rock, or tosses a multi-million pound stone like a toy, is no more than a lone raindrop falling in a vast desert.

         More than the sounds of many waters,
         Than the mighty breakers of the sea,
         The LORD on high is mighty.  Psalm. 93:4.

—Wayne S.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Stairway to Heaven

   During our recent visit to the island of Oahu, Hawaii, my wife and I were being squired about the island by our resident friend, Bonnie Sanders, and her two oldest children, Tabby and Corbin. After taking the H3 Interstate (yes, interstate—I have no idea) through a tunnel in one of the mountains, we popped out on the other side. While the view to the left of us was commanding (looking down onto Kaneohe Bay), my eyes were distracted by the large and precipitous mountain we had just transected. Suddenly, I saw something that seemed to defy reason.
   It was a stairway—a very narrow stairway—beginning somewhere below the roadway and angling erratically up the large face of the mountain before disappearing in the clouds.
   Our host Paul, an Army surgeon, told us later as he reviewed the video that the stairway is called the "Stairway to Heaven." First built in 1943, the stairway allowed workers to first build and then man military radio equipment on the peak. It was replaced by a metal stairway (of nearly 4,000 steps!) in the 1950s. The military installation was decommissioned in 1987, and the trail was closed. Yet the occasional intrepid hiker will attempt the summit.
   Sometimes my spiritual pilgrimage seems to resemble what a climb like this must feel like. No matter where I look, only stairs remain—either up into the mist or down into the gloom. It seems I may never reach the top, while the bottom seems to grudgingly, slowly drop away. For days I never move at all.
   But my theology tells me a different story. It says that, at the moment I realized my ability to climb was futile, and confessed as much, the Master of the mountain took me from the precarious and never-ending climb and placed me at the summit. It is still misty, and I can't really see what's there yet, but I am safe, in a different place.  A different kingdom, as it were.
   So why do I sometimes wake up and think I am on the path again, trying to scale the unscalable?
   Good question.
Wayne S.
(Click picture to enlarge. For more info, see here.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Josh Ritter on Inspiration

The monster is the invisible force that decides what you write about. Some people call it "The Muse," but I've never found that to be a particularly apt description for a creature so voracious. This is no gossamer-clad maiden. I don't know much about it, but I know that it lives deep in the synaptic jungle, its tail twitching lazily, its slow-breathing bulk heaving sulfurous sighs as it waits. You have to feed the monster everything you come across, be it books, music or movies, your friends and enemies and any other shiny baubles you find strewn in your path. You shovel everything you've got--a long-handled snow shovel works best--into its big toothy mouth, and it chews everything up and sighs once again. It never says "thank you," and you don't expect any gratitude, but once in a while the monster will taste something it really enjoys. When it does, you'll notice a slight lift of its scaly brow and a narrowing of its keyhole pupils. It doesn't give away much, but if you know your monster, that's all you need to see. —Josh Ritter, musician, in Paste Magazine, April/May 2010

Monday, May 10, 2010

In any language

My wife and I just returned from 10 days in Hawaii--three on Oahu and seven on Kauai. I am resisting the temptation to show you my 700 or so photos (of which maybe 25 are very good). But I would like to tell you of two observations:
God does His best work in small places: The island of Kauai, at 552 square miles, is smaller than the metropolitan Atlanta area where I live. It is only 25 percent inhabited. Some of it is only accessible by helicopter. Yet in such a small place there is variety in geography, ethnicity, climate, altitude and flora and fauna unmatched anywhere else. Beauty and surprises await around every corner.
God loves to astound and delight His Children. One of our dear friends, who along with his wife accompanied us on the trip, made this comment: "When I see this, I can't help but think 'My Father made this.'" Amen. On the last night of our stay, we went to a luau at the next-door Hyatt resort. The Hyatt is a monument to conspicuous consumption (suites go for $4500 a night), and the luau was no exception. Liquor flowed freely, the food was mountainous in volume, and the mood was festive. That why it came as a surprise to us when the emcee announced to the crowd that, before we ate, he would like to offer a traditional Hawaiian blessing for the meal, as most Hawaiians do. What we heard, in a rich, baritone voice, quieted the crowd to silence, and lifted our hearts.
Here is a version performed by the Kamehameha Schools Children's Chorus, along with just a few pictures of my Father's work. Enjoy and be blessed. --Wayne S. video

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Color of Water

The Color of Water by James McBride. A book review.
   In one sense, it is a remarkable story about a mother who married two good men and raised twelve children, among them medical doctors, university professors, journalists and musicians. In another, it is a story of faith, as Ruth McBride goes on, with her husband, to co-found a Baptist church in New York. Yet it is made all the more noteworthy because Ruth was a white, Jewish woman, and both her husbands were black. In the ultimate sense, therefore, the most redemptive part of this story may be how God raised her above prejudice—Jew against gentile, white against black, black against white, even dark-skinned blacks versus light-skinned—and gave her, her twelve children, and her grandchildren a wonderful gift.
   Ruchel Dwara Zylska, the daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi, fled her native Poland with her family in 1921 and settled in Suffolk, Virginia. Her father was a cruel man who abused his crippled wife and mistreated his daughter. Along with this harsh treatment, she and her family were ostracized in the South because they were not white, but “Jews.”
   Working long hours in her father’s mercantile store in a black community, she began to identify with the black children her age, also marginalized and discriminated against. Ruth Shilsky (her Americanized name) fled persecution once again when, at seventeen, she moved to New York. There she met Andrew Dennis McBride, a violinist from North Carolina studying music. He was a deacon and choir member at a Harlem church, where she began attending, and where something else happened:
   In 1942, Ruth said to Andrew Dennis McBride, “I want to accept Jesus Christ into my life and join the church.”
   Dennis said, “Are you sure you want to do this, Ruth? You know what this means?”
   I told him, “I’m sure.” I was totally sure.
When it became apparent that Ruth intended to marry Dennis, her Jewish family sat shiva for her, proclaiming her dead to them. From that moment on, her community was the black community of her husband and her soon-to-follow children.
   The author, James McBride, tells his own story beside hers. Her vivid recollections, dictated reluctantly at first, match perfectly James’s story of growing up with “the strange, middle-aged white lady riding her ancient bicycle.” In places the story is hard (both of Ruth’s husbands die, leaving her with eight and then twelve children to raise; James faces the hurdles of inner-city gangs and drugs), and finding their way was hard for both James and Ruth. Yet it is a powerful story of God’s grace. James became
a jazz musician, journalist and author, and Ruth earned a B.A. in Social Work at age 65.
   The evocative title comes from a conversation between mother and son:
[O]ne afternoon, on the way home from church, I asked her if God was black or white.
A deep sigh, “Oh boy…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
“Does he like black or white people better?”
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit.”
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
—Wayne Steadham

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Christians are the best--and worse--argument for faith

The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness.  But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians--when they are sombre and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.  But, though it is just to condemn some Christians for these things, perhaps, after all, it is not just, though every easy, to condemn Christianity itself for them.  Indeed, there are impressive indications that the positive quality of joy is in Christianity--and possibly nowhere else. If that were certain, it would be proof of a very high order.
Sheldon VanAuken, professor, poet and writer, in Encounter with Light.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Elie Wiesel on Jerusalem

   For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture — and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem. To many theologians, is IS Jewish history, to many poets, a source of inspiration. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem. Its sadness and joy are part of our collective memory.
...
   Today , for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.
   What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps which allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atomosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?
Elie Wiesel, quoted by Jennifer Rubin at Commentary.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Buechner on grace

After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody's much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.
   Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There is no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
   A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
   A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do.
   The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you.. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you.
   There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace is yours only if you reach out and take it.
   Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
Frederick Buechner, from Wishful Thinking, a Seeker's ABC.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Merton on Mercy and Worthiness

   In the true Christian vision of God's love, the idea of worthiness loses its significance. Revelation of the mercy of God makes the whole problem of worthiness something almost laughable; the discovery that worthiness is of no special consequence (since no one could ever, by himself, be strictly worthy to be loved with such a love) is a true liberation of the spirit. And until this discovery is made, until this liberation has been brought about by the divine mercy, man is imprisoned in hate.

   Humanistic love will not serve. As long as we believe that we hate no one, that we are merciful, that we are kind by our very nature, we deceive ourselves; our hatred is merely smoldering under the gray ashes of complacent optimism. We are apparently at peace with everyone because we think we are worthy. That is to say we have lost the capacity to face the question of unworthiness at all. But when we are delivered by the mercy of God the question no longer has a meaning.
   Hatred tries to cure disunion by annihilating those who are not united with us. It seeks peace by the elimination of everybody else but ourselves.
  But love, by its acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds.
Thomas Merton, in A Thomas Merton Reader

Monday, April 05, 2010

An amazing choir

A choral work performed by over 200 singers, each sitting at their own computer.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The real point of Easter

   The logic, for want of a better term, of Christ dying for our sins is lost on most unbelievers for several reasons. One, they do not see themselves as sinful enough to warrant a sacrifice on their behalf. Two, they cannot fathom why Jesus dying counts, or what it counts for. And they refuse to use the word sacrifice accurately.


In Romans 5, Paul tells us this: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—“ (v. 12). Paul is making a fundamental statement: everyone is a sinner. It wasn’t a new idea; King David said in Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” This concept of Original Sin (the belief that Adam’s original sin has been passed down to all his offspring, i.e., you and me) has a strong Biblical basis, as well as a practically observable one. G. K. Chesterton once remarked: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” You may have trouble with it emotionally, and even cognitively, but if you have lived past the age of two, when you first told your parents “No!” then you have your own sin, and the point is moot.

This pervasiveness and egalitarianism of sin not only escapes modern man; it sometimes even escapes modern Christianity. Think of it this way: Next time someone asks you what your church is like, tell them it is a wonderful community made up of murderers, adulterers and thieves. Strong words but true. Most likely, the differences between me and Ted Haggard, the recent president of the National Association of Evangelicals who had to step down because of sexual impropriety, are more ones of action than attitude. As C. S. Lewis discovered, “For the first time I examined myself with a serious practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.” He perfectly describes what faces those earnestly seeking forgiveness and restoration:

“When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor…. Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in…dismay.”

This is our dilemma. Sin has destroyed our relationships with one another, our relationship with the natural world, our relationship with ourselves and, most importantly, our relationship with God. I find it curious that most, if not all, of the humanitarian programs and activist groups around the world, from Greenpeace to the Red Cross and even the PTA, are all seeking to heal these fractures. Yet all but a few ignore the root cause. And the thing to remember is it isn’t whether we feel guilty or not: we are guilty. Is there a remedy, a relief from this hopelessness and helplessness?

A few verses later in Romans 5, Paul gives us the answer:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. (vs. 18-21).

Most of us know and believe this: that Jesus died on the cross, taking our sin guiltiness with Him, and healed the separation between God and man. And hopefully, that healing leads to other healings—within us between our spirits and our bodies and minds; between husbands and wives, parents and children, one nation and another; even between man and the environment.

But here is where I think many believers stumble: they think somehow that, having accepted Christ’s atoning sacrifice for their sin, they are better than those who have not. This is a deadly notion—deadly not only to those you are trying to reach who have not yet come to faith, but deadly to your own humility and usefulness. In his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul, obviously a devoted, informed and thoroughly saved Christian, said, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” (1:15)

Notice the tense: “I am.”

Charles Spurgeon suggests that you can never experience the fullness of forgiveness until you realize the fullness of your sinfulness: “There never was a man yet who was in a state of grace who did not know himself, in himself, to be in a state of ruin, a state of depravity and condemnation.” Again, C. S. Lewis strikes just the right tone when, in writing to Sheldon Vanauken, he said, “Think of me as a fellow patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some advice." We are not better than anyone else. We are still as helpless and sinful as ever; we are simply forgiven, and expect God to better us. We cannot do it ourselves. Without Christ, we can do nothing.


I love the terms “lost” and “saved.” We’ve twisted them a bit, made them religious words, but in their primary uses, they illustrate so well what grace truly is.

Picture this: You take a small sailboat out into the Gulf of Mexico. What started out as a lovely morning turns nasty. There is a terrible squall, and the boat is torn in half. You survive the storm, but are left adrift, clinging to a decreasingly buoyant piece of flotsam. You have no idea which way is shore, and no way to summon help.

Just as you are about to surrender to the darkening sky and cold water, a deep-sea fishing boat comes by and hauls you to safety. Soon you are on dry land.

You are incredibly grateful to your rescuers. You are exhilarated. You were facing sure death, and someone snatched you to safety.

A year later you hear of another weekend sailor who has become lost in the Gulf. The circumstances are eerily similar. But now that you are on solid ground, what do you think: That you are a better sailor? That you always knew which way the shore waited?

If you’re wise, you’ll realize the only difference between you and the lost mariner (and you and a lost soul) is that you know where you are. It is place you could not find on your own, and could not reach on your own. And you still can’t. The only thing for sure is that you will not ever again risk death at sea. But if you have a heart at all, you’ll aid in the search for all those who are still lost at sea.


It is no small thing to have your sins forgiven. What love it is to be spared an eternity of suffering and separation (and no doubt much in our earthly lifetimes as well). And you can be freed from that constant wondering of whether you are “good enough” to please God. But don’t think you can take credit for it. And don’t think it makes you better than anyone else. If you do, even a little bit, you don’t understand grace. All of what is good and true for us is true and good only because Jesus died in our place, to pay the price we owed. Those who haven’t figured this out are not stupid but, as you once were, merely ignorant. They do not know what they do not know.

In 1981, Harold Kushner, a Reformed Jewish rabbi, published a very popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The premise was that that God has arranged the universe in such a way that even He cannot solve all of its dilemmas, but that He also, due to his caring nature, suffers along with his creatures.

While I’m sure the book brought comfort to many, it seems to me that it must be a sentimental comfort, not a real one. More important than God suffering along with His creatures is the truth that he suffered for His creatures. That’s the point of Easter.

Why do bad things happen to good people? With apologies to Rabbi Kushner, it is both to our sorrow and our gladness that, in fact, they don’t.

Well, once.

—W. S.