Mars

Last week on July 31, the planet Mars arrived at a place circling the sun referred to by astronomers as “opposition.” Due to different orbital speeds, every two years or so the earth passes between Mars and the sun. This means that Mars and the sun are on directly opposite sides of the earth. And being directly opposite of the sun during opposition, Mars rises as the sun sets. As a result, the Red Planet shines extraordinarily bright. And it certainly did not disappoint.

I got out of bed at three a.m. to see it. At 35.8 million miles away, the closest it’s been since 2003, this ever-intriguing ball of desolate rock and dust was brilliant in the southern sky. From my back yard, it looked less red and more like an orange lantern set against the vast black curtain of a warm and humid midsummer’s night.

My interest in all of the planets and other objects celestial started when I was twelve. With my first refractor telescope mounted to a flimsy tripod I managed to get a good look at our moon with her gray seas and craggy craters. I squinted to identify Jupiter’s moons, too – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – four pinpoints of light just like Galileo discovered way back in 1610. I studied every book related to astronomy I could get my hands on from the library down the street. Eventually I became an expert at identifying ancient mythical heroes and creatures traversing the heavens nightly in an endless seasonal progression of sparkling constellations. I felt as though I had reached a level of sophistication almost beyond the reach of most seventh graders. Other boys were shooting hoops in the driveway while I was inside reading about Messier’s catalog of nebulae and star clusters and the Air Force’s Project Blue Book reports of UFO sightings. So much for my involvement in neighborhood comradery.

I was also fascinated with stories by H.G. Wells and Orson Welles frightening the world with their science-fiction account of a hostile Martian invasion. I wonder what they’d think of Spielberg’s 2005 sensational movie portrayal of unstoppable alien creatures intent on destroying mankind.

I’d seen drawings of what astronomer Percival Lowell in the 1890s supposed were canals on the face of the planet. Scholars explained away the canals as the product of a human tendency to see patterns where there really are none. Today, thanks to better optics and NASA’s Rovers roving, we know the canals do not and never did exist, neither as a result of natural nor intelligent extraterrestrial activity.

In a musical sense, I am always moved by Holst’s angry and ominous interpretation of the planet as “The Bringer of War,” but to be honest, I admit it competes pretty evenly with my high regard for the mystical Neptune.

I really enjoyed the History Channel’s recent docudrama Mars, chronicling the adventures of a crew of six astronauts and their journey to be the first humans to set foot there in 2033. That’s quite a twist to The War of the Worlds, unless there’s an ironic turn of events down the road we never planned on writing into the script.

I find it interesting that often in its pursuit of making us more comfortable in the universe, science has a tendency to rob us of both the enchanting mystery and innate angst surrounding it for eons. I guess that means we can all sleep somewhat better tonight in the dark security of our bedrooms and yet still dream on with some sense of wonder about the unknown. Regardless, my curiosity and amazement with the cosmos always begins and ends with the realization that “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the skies proclaim the work of His hands,” said so simply in Psalm 19:1. I think that statement puts the grandeur of creation and the greatness of the Creator in a perspective that anyone can understand, in a way better than any schoolbook or preacher’s sermon could. It definitely brings me to my knees.

 

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Apparently, I am mentally ill.

For some reason, off-the-chart far left liberals like Stephen Colbert, Al Sharpton, Michael Moore, the Clintons and the infamous Louis Farrakhan can make whatever contemptible comments they want to regarding Jews, Christians and the white man, usually without consequence or backlash. Occasionally though, it boomerangs.

Joy Behar, a co-host of ABC’s “celebrity” chatfest “The View,” publicly apologized recently for mocking Vice President Pence’s Christian faith and suggesting that his religious views made him mentally ill. After weeks of protests by viewers who were outraged by her remarks, she offered an on-air apology.

Bashing conservative or religious Americans seems to have intensified with the onset of the Trump candidacy, thanks to a sympathetic, complicit, liberally prone media, blind to objective journalism. The Who, What, When Rule of reporting went out the window. Instead, we saw the networks witch-hunting conservatives and championing the Chuck Schumer-Nancy Pelosi agenda to squelch the rich and generously reward the entitled poor. Hillary dumped me personally into the “deplorables” basket, along with millions of my fellow citizens whom she so erroneously perceived as barefoot, toothless, Bible thumping, rifle toting illiterates. The election is over. She lost. But her doting entourage-in-mourning on the nightly Talk Show circuit and CNN continues a campaign of mudslinging against over fifty percent of the country’s traditional, faith-based citizenry who don’t want to see the America they love devoured by big government, broken by fascist radicals, or perverted by pseudo-philosophical educators who think free speech applies only when you agree with their prejudicial interpretation of the law.

As seen by many of our current legislative and judicial representatives, moral values and the basics guaranteed by the Constitution, like the right to life and to bear arms, are old-fashioned and subject to interpretation. Now add gender issues to the list. If you’re out of step with neo-progressivism, then you’re labeled a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, intolerant hater. Well, so much for diversity and the art of being inclusive.

I really don’t mind the Joy Behar-style criticism of my faith. It’s nothing compared to what believers have endured down through the last two thousand years. Burned at the stake — now that’s a tough one. I heard someone say that if you’re not maltreated for being a Christian, then apparently no one knows what you believe. Maybe you’re really not any different than they are. The Bible says “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2Tim. 3:12)

And about the “mentally ill” comment – I find myself in good company. Mark 3:21 records an incident when Jesus returned to his hometown. Already well-known for his provocative preaching and behavior, his family and neighbors — who saw him only as Joseph’s son, the carpenter — tried to take control of him. “He’s out of his mind,” they said.

So call me crazy. When I was in grade school, we’d all endure some sort of inevitable childish name-calling, which in turn invoked the sing-song response of “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” In other words, verbal abuse to anyone with a thick-skinned temperament is fairly harmless. I am prepared, however, if someday indeed the sticks and stones do come.

Christ is risen! Happy Easter everyone!

The Prince of Peace is a Warrior

Every Christmas season you can count on some variation of a nativity scene to make its annual appearance, pulled out of a storage box in the closet onto someone’s family room tabletop or a life-sized version all aglow welcoming church goers to holiday services.

Looking at “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” one might not think about spiritual warfare as an aspect of an “all is calm, all is bright” Christmas. It seems incongruous — that is, until we look at the whole picture. Thirty-three years later, the long-awaited savior, “born of a virgin” (Isaiah 7:14) “in the city of Bethlehem” (Micah 5:2), had fulfilled hundreds of additional Messianic prophesies about his life, death and resurrection, the earliest being found in Genesis 3:15. God tells the serpent, who had just beguiled Adam and Eve into sin, that One is coming Who will “crush your head.” Thus the battle began. The alarm was sounded, echoing around heaven and earth and to all who revel in darkness: My Anointed is coming. Coming to rescue and reconcile, to renew what was lost and broken, and to defeat the enemy of our souls and even death itself. Isaiah’s prophesied Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) is just as much a warrior. (Isaiah 42:13)

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” 1 John 3:8 reports. In plain terms then, Christmas celebrates the much anticipated arrival of God’s own Son to ransom the captives, advance His kingdom and take back what the enemy stole away. (Isaiah 61:1-3) That sounds like warfare to me. Revelation 13:8 states the Lamb of God was “slain from the foundation of the world.” Long before Adam even fell, the rescue mission was ready to roll out, “in the fullness of time.” (Galatians 4:4)

So this season, in the midst of all the bright lights and candles, carols and shopping, all the baking and decorating and gift giving, maybe we should remember that from the day of His conception, Jesus was on a seek and save, search and destroy mission on our behalf so that we might declare “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:57)

I wish all my readers the best Spirit-filled Christmas ever. May you recognize that a foreshadowing of the cross was cast upon the manger crib at that first nativity, and that the Christmas Story is fulfilled at Calvary. But it doesn’t end there. For those who believe, the story never ends. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) One of my favorite Christmas carols is Charles Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It includes the lyrics “God and sinners reconciled.” That’s the gospel message in a nutshell, the “Good News.” May you find comfort and joy in that realization today. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

*The artwork featured is from a 6th Century mosaic in a chapel in Ravenna, Italy, titled Christ the Warrior. 

My Holiday Obsession

The following was originally posted at this time three years ago, but with some editing I decided to re-post because back then I think I had just a couple of readers!

Have you ever had an excessive attraction to something and had a hard time letting go? I’m not talking about hard-core stuff like drugs and alcohol. I mean like chocolate, or TV, maybe a hobby like golf. I must admit I have dealt with my share of personal abuses throughout my adult life, principally smoking for decades until finally giving it up a little more than eleven years ago in favor of a healthier lifestyle. A compulsion, however which seems to annually trigger at this time of year is my fixation upon certain amenities used to embellish gift giving during the holiday season, that being, um, well it’s . . .  wrapping paper and greeting cards.

Shocking and embarrassing, yes I admit it. No, I haven’t shared this in Aberrational Holiday Behavior Group Therapy. I don’t know if there is such a group to address this particular psychological urge. Certain family members are aware of the situation, but prefer to snicker and shake their heads. My wife, the designated intervention specialist, instinctively grabs onto my coat as we walk past the displays at the Hallmark store or SuperTarget, tugging me away from certain temptation. I mean, it’s everywhere — even at the gas station! Yes, I know that to most people, gift wrap is . . . just gift wrap.

For weeks way before Christmas the shelves are loaded up and bins are full of wrapping paper rolls. Stuffed full with different lengths, metric and standard measurements. Cheap, easily torn paper and the expensive kind with lines on the inside so you know exactly where to cut; shiny foils, and some with sparkles in the designs. So attractive, it’s blatant Christmastime eye candy. And, almost irresistible.

The issue is even more disturbing when I confess that we already have enough wrap on hand at home to wallpaper the entire house at least a couple of times. We have grownup wrap with designs both modern and old-fashioned. We have diagonal stripes, plaids and poinsettias and snowflakes ad infinitum. We have kid-specific wrap with Jolly Old St. Nick, wreath and  tree pattern prints in festive colors, gingerbread men, candy canes and probably even sugar plums dancing off the sheets.

Then there’s the greeting card isle. Box after box of gleaming, glittering options for expressing one’s best holiday wishes to anyone, or from anyone – even the cat. The scenes on the cards are so inviting, like the comfy home all aglow in the gently falling evening snow, lamppost decorated with ribbons and holly. A huge Christmas tree in the window, lit and adorned with treasured family ornaments. A happy snowman in the front yard, dressed up just like Frosty, and across the top, a warm-hearted message set in a fancy reflective gold metallic script.

Oh! (hand on my chest) I’m gasping, and a bit choked up, I want to be in this Thomas Kinkade fantasy. I’ll take a dozen boxes. And each box usually has 12 to 18 cards with an appropriate number of envelopes plus one, because they know you’re going to mess up on at least one address. In reality, I don’t have more than a few friends and relatives to whom I might mail such a sentimental card. That along with increasingly outrageous postage rates is probably why I haven’t sent any out for years.

I must say that I have done relatively well so far this year. I did nab a couple wrapping rolls at the craft store last week, my wife not being on hand for restraint. They were 60% off. Who could resist? Just need to get through the next few days, then we can pack up the unused hoard and forget about it until next October, when holiday decor gradually begins to emerge restocked in the retail world and we can start all over again!

PS: There is a problematic issue with Christmas candies and cookies too, but that’s a story for some other time.

October’s End

Our neighbor’s apple orchard looks sadly bare,
the harvest’s bounty now pressed into cider and jam.
In the fields, pumpkins and gourds have succeeded
summer’s bumper crop of watermelons,
long gone off to Fourth of July picnics and
family reunions.

moon2_0

By sunset our last pile of leaves had been raked,
left glowing orange in a lazy bonfire, its wispy
shaft of smoke curling upward in the chilly twilight.
Autumn’s lackluster constellations can’t compete
with this evening’s gibbous moon, rising golden
just over the eastern horizon, silhouetting
a lonely grove of bare-boned maple trees.

This year’s festive All Hallows’ Eve begins
to wane into sleepy solemnity as packs of
costumed children retreat indoors to inspect
their cache of candies while jack-o-lantern faces
gradually go dark. Excited laughter dissipates,
leaving the night to echo only the rhythmic
chirping of crickets and an occasional hoot
from a hidden barn owl. My midnight hike
through crumpled beds of zinnias and
marigolds withered dry by frost gradually
turns melancholic.

Such a metaphor, these changing seasons,
to the passage of time and life.
Almost instinctively drawn to muse upon
a sad stanza or two penned by Shelley,
I wonder how a poet so enchanted with
beauty and romance could just as well
be obsessed with graveyards and doom.
Can love and loss be hopelessly connected?

And so I say Good Night, and Farewell
again to yet another October of another year.
I’m walking briskly now, my shoulders
hunched and coat collar turned up turtle-like,
trying to protect my tingling ears from the
pre-dawn’s sudden drop below the freezing
mark, while from a distant church’s steeple
the matins bell of All Saints Day, like an
old man’s lethargic heartbeat, begins to toll
a doleful lament: Death is coming.
Death to all.

Take a knee, now or later.

It seems that last week the prominent national news was more about NFL players protesting than about North Korea, hurricane recovery efforts, or even about the deadly church shooting in Antioch, Tennessee, where one person was killed and seven others injured, all white victims, by a 25-year-old Sudanese immigrant.

No, the headlines were all about football players “taking a knee” during the national anthem – imitating a passive, symbolic gesture started by the then 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who first expressed the defiant pregame posture last year in a protest, he claimed, against shootings of black men by white police officers.

This issue is simple and terribly complex at the same time. Diverse political views and constitutional interpretations usually are. Dr. Martin Luther King’s protests against obvious civil rights injustices in the 1960s were neither silent nor symbolic. During that same time frame of social upheaval, the establishment told Vietnam War protestors to “Love it (the country), or leave it,” a rather stern dictate to a generation sincerely crying out for “peace, love and understanding.” Both controversies were violent and deeply polarizing for the country, each side wrapping themselves up in Old Glory. So I’m supposed to think that this juvenile, misdirected kneed-bending by supposedly social-conscious millionaires has any real weight to it? Have these pseudo-pundits ever heard of Gandhi? Nelson Mandela? Tiananmen Square, 1989?

The Star Spangled Banner, so much more than just a song, commemorates the bravery shown by outnumbered and outgunned American soldiers when they nevertheless defeated the British at the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814. It celebrates, for all of us, “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” The flag is not just a piece of cloth. It’s a symbol for what America at its very best has to offer: equality, justice, boundless opportunity, and freedom of expression. Countless brave men and women have suffered, sacrificed and died for what it represents, to make sure the stars and stripes continue to unfurl across our nation every morning. Do those who choose to do so have the right to show disdain and discontent for social and political issues? Yes. Should they show blatant public disrespect for a symbol representing the country that allows them the liberty to do so? I say No. Some things like baseball, motherhood and apple pie should be off limits because of the idyllic goodness they represent. Can any one of those entities be flawed and corrupted? Yes. I’ve had a mediocre apple pie. Do some major leaguers abuse drugs? You know the answer. And yet we continue slicing up the Dutch Apple and scramble to fill the best seats behind home plate. Our government and its representatives can be flawed, too. Stop whining. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Get involved and do something about it.

I find it interesting that the same crowd that applauds the kneelers drawing attention to themselves and their “cause” before kickoff are the same bunch of public haters and arrogant sports analysts who not only criticized but actually ridiculed Tim Tebow for being vocal about the role of his Christian faith in his career and for taking a prayerful knee on the field. Tebow’s practice of humility and thankfulness to God reminds me of a verse from Philippians 2:10-11 that says “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” This passage along with volumes of verses from both the Old and New Testaments tell us Who is the ultimate authority and that either now by choice in this life or by compulsion when it’s too late in the next, all will concede to His sovereignty. This silly NFL genuflecting will eventually fade away to another hot news topic, but the reality of deciding who shall be exalted as Lord in my personal life – me and my selfish nature or Christ my Savior – must be faced . . . either now or later. Have you made your decision?

5 People I’d like to have lunch with.

Or, to be more grammatically correct, “with whom I would like to have lunch.” So, now that’s out of the way, here’s the list and why:

The Dalai Lama. I’ve always found him to be such a jolly fellow. Always smiling. Very caring and gentle. I’d probably mention my long-ensuing fascination with the Himalayas and the Buddha’s teachings. I’d mention I’ve seen Seven Years in Tibet several times. I’d ask him to read my post from early 2015 titled “The Pursuit of Happiness,” about the life of Peyangky, a nine-year-old Buddhist monk in Bhutan. I’d like to discuss with him the Bodhisattva’s teachings, and ask how can there be so many similarities with the morals and ethics presented in Bible and yet the purported spiritual outcomes are so different. I’d also ask what good is the cycle of reincarnation if you never know you’re reincarnated? And yes, I’d have to eventually mention that I’d been a fan of the Seattle grunge band Nirvana, and ask if was that wrong.

John Lennon. Man, where do you start? How ‘bout, “We miss you terribly. You left too soon. But you left us with so much — to sing, to think about, to remember that ‘All you need is love, love.’ I really like those glasses. Yoko, not so much.” I’d let him know that I’ve seen Help countless times and it’s still fab.

William Shakespeare. My collection of The Complete Works, I’ll never get through. There may be a comment made hinting about his authorship being in question, now a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry. I’ll mention that I saw Richard Burton portray his best Hamlet at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway. I’d ask if he liked being known in literary history simply as “The Bard,” and if those frilly, starchy Elizabethan collars were terribly uncomfortable.

Abraham Lincoln. I’m not sure if I could actually eat in the presence of this giant figure of Americana. Maybe we would both weep most of the time, for the nation, then and now, and about the bloody Civil War battlefields, where so many gave up their lives for causes so opposed. Barefoot boys shooting at each other with rifles that just weeks before were used to shoot squirrels, holding the line alongside decorated academy trained men smartly uniformed in blue or gray. I’d tell him I actually did weep when I visited his Memorial, overcome with a sense of the awesome weight of his presidential burden, that carved solemn face forever musing his beloved country’s heritage and destiny. Wonder what he’d think if I shamefully confessed that moral principles and incorruptible integrity were apparently no longer valued by our government today? Then I would honor him by reading a stanza penned in 1865 by Walt Whitman lamenting his passing: “O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills; For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding; For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning.”

And lastly, Kim Jong Un. Never really cared for Korean food, so on my side of the table it will be a water and appetizer event. Maybe I’d at least order a side of Mandu, the Korean version of a pot sticker. But since I’m German, I’d be more comfortable just calling them dumplings. First question: “With all due respect, sir. Are you nuts, or just a self-styled Asian Napoleonic megalomaniac?” But wait. There’s really no difference. (Pausing for translation and response, if any.) Next question: “So unlike the millions of devoted followers who literally worship you as The Supreme Leader, you seem to be eating pretty well. Must be all that Chinese take-out you order.” The interview might be headed South from here (pun intended) and besides, I find the man’s presence in the civilized world so creepy, I’d probably have to excuse myself and head for the shower just to try to feel clean again. — Actually at this point I’m hoping to get this posted before Big Kim pushes the blinking red button launching a nuke-loaded ICBM aimed at my backyard.

If you know me at all, you’re probably saying, “What? No Jesus Christ on the short list?” Interestingly, it is He who makes the divine offer to dine together. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Rev. 3:20) This is both a metaphor describing God’s desire for personal relationships, and a prophetic promise for those who choose to realize that relationship by sharing an actual meal with Him at table. Barry Jones, writing for the Dallas Theological Seminary’s blog, says “I’m becoming increasingly convinced that food is one of God’s love languages. It’s worth noting that at the center of the spiritual lives of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments, we find a table: the table of Passover and the table of Communion.”

Dining together in ancient times and even in our current day culture conveys the idea of intimate fellowship (Luke 19:5-7; John 13:1-5; Matt. 9:10). Jesus, looking ahead in anticipation of that kind of fellowship with his followers, promised not to partake of the Passover meal again until He dines with them in the Millennial Kingdom (Isaiah 25:6; Mat. 8:11; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18).

So in this case, my “lunch” will not be a fictional fantasy. Jesus has already booked the reservation. The menu will certainly include fruit from the tree of life and fountains of living water, but most importantly, the breaking of bread in the pleasure of the company of the One who is the Bread of Life. (John 6:35)

“Rain, rain, go away.”

“Come again some other day.”  I remember looking out the window singing that lyric as a child when a summer thunderstorm kept me from playing outside. But personally I have never had to hope and pray like countless desperate folks in gulf coast Texas right now, facing more than an afternoon of inclement weather.

Before this weekend, what I usually thought of when I heard the name “Harvey” was the 1950 comedy-drama film based on a play of the same name.  Starring Jimmy Stewart as socially dysfunctional Elwood P. Dowd, the satire cleverly exposes the questionable sanity of a man whose best friend is a six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch tall invisible rabbit he calls Harvey. But from now on, Harvey will be recalled in my mind as a disturbing expression of Mother Nature’s uglier side. Powerful. Unstoppable. Destructive. A killer.

Watching news broadcasts from on scene and the Weather Channel’s live coverage is difficult. I’m sitting at my kitchen table eating lunch while thousands of people just like me are in dire peril. They are parents with small children, wading in water waist-deep. Handicapped, young and old. Children carrying small pets. But most, having lost or abandoned everything they own, carry nothing. Even from outer space, Harvey’s portrait looks monstrous. An impressive swirling cataclysm. But somehow it feels about as far away from me as it probably looks from the International Space Station snapping still shots of it some 250 miles below. And I feel dang helpless.

I think the newscasters might run out of adjectives to describe the situation if this storm continues through the week as predicted with even more rain. I’ve already heard “apocalyptic,” “epic,” and “of Biblical proportions” more than several times. Why not just call it Harvey the Monster?

This past week we’ve seen both the incredible beauty of a total solar eclipse, with crowds of onlookers gasping and applauding as a brilliant shard of diamond-like light broke out of the dark orb above, and we’ve seen tiny rain drops fall out of the same sky to accumulate in depths now counted by feet instead of inches. Both events will go into the history books. We are all part of that history, some days safe and happy. Others, not so much. When the moon got out of the sun’s way last Monday, people folded up their lawn chairs and eclipse viewing glasses and went home. But for thousands of Texans, there will be no going back home from Harvey.

I’ve seen some heart piercing photography from the flooded streets in Houston and the surrounding towns under water. I’m sharing one special shot here with you because it shows that when everything is lost, what remains is always the best, the best of each of us — love in the arms of a loved one. Even Harvey can’t take that away. So wherever you are tonight, especially if you can enjoy the blessing of a dry bed, a hot meal and clean water, grab your family, hug tightly someone you love, and don’t let go.

It’s time for the back-to-school blues

And greens and reds and . . .  Apricot, Aquamarine, Mulberry and even Goldenrod. Sound familiar? No, these are not options on paint chips at Sherwin Williams. They are crayon colors. Who hasn’t had a box or two in their school desk or backpack? If many decades ago like me you went back to school in the Fall with one of the original Crayola 64-Packs, those more exotically named colors would have been included among the choices in your arsenal for creative expression. Maybe because I was artistically adept as a young grade schooler I couldn’t wait to pop open that box, to inhale the unique, unmistakable aroma of that amazing pallet of colors trapped in wax until I released their magic onto a blank piece of paper the first time we had art class.

Since Binney & Smith first began producing Crayola crayons in 1903, many colors over time have been cycled in and out. Earlier this year the company replaced Dandelion with yet another hue of blue. Some colors have remained the same shade but just experienced a name change over the years. Peach for example, previously labeled as Flesh, was probably renamed to be more politically correct and less racially exclusive.

To me the most disappointing aspect of the coloring experience was that of course with use, the points disappeared. Then it was a matter of peeling back the paper, and in the absence of some kind of sharpener, using the blunt end to try to render a crisp line. I suppose to my fellow elementary schoolmates that wasn’t a matter of great concern. But it bothered me. Maybe it was this disposition for perfection that led me to a career not in fine art but interestingly as a graphic designer. When I started, the profession was known simply as “commercial art,” the creative arm of the advertising world. When technology took over in the 90s, creative possibilities got a lot more sophisticated, and limitless. Eventually I gained the advantage of learning that my hand on a mouse could portray a world of imagination that my little fingers gripping stubby crayons tried to but could not. An old dog can learn new tricks.

Just thinking about my school days back in the 50s makes me wonder if the old adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same” might be a bit true. I grew up during the Cold War. We didn’t obsess about a wall to keep out undesirables, but there was an Iron Curtain between Russia and the rest of us. Gas was 25 cents a gallon. So was a pack of Camels. We had three-channel black and white TVs with rabbit ears reception that never actually helped get all the fuzz off the screen. I had a little battery operated transistor radio with an earpiece that let me listen underneath my bed covers at night and fall asleep to the latest rock & roll sounds beaming out of WLS Chicago. The only air conditioning we had in dad’s car was four windows rolled down all the way.

So, since then obviously much has changed. Some things are easier, and better. But maybe not human nature. Maybe it’s the same, because here we are today hearing about the threat of nuclear war. It was my generation they taught to “Duck and Cover” under our desks at school in the event of an atomic bomb blast. (Did we really believe that would help?) We worried, prayed and lived unscathed through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and now we will again endure what seems to be perennial saber rattling by another enemy opposed to truth, justice and the American way (the principles our comic book Superman fought for every issue).

I guess there are only a couple options for dealing with the current situation.

A new national poll finds that public concern over escalating tensions with North Korea is widespread, and that nearly three in four Americans are concerned the U.S. could get involved in a full-scale war. So we could live in fear, hanging on every “Breaking News” bulletin that crawls across the bottom of our television screens. Or we could ignore it, like it’s just another intensely dramatic action movie that eventually comes to a reasonably satisfactory ending and we get up out of our seats and go home to a normal life. Starbucks is still open. And the gym. Tomorrow’s a new day, right?

My plan, however, will be the same for this threat as with every serious concern that comes into my life. I will rely on the Bible’s admonitions to “Be anxious for nothing.” “Fear not.” “Be strong and courageous.” I think so many stories and verses from scripture could be summarily translated from Hebrew and Greek like this: “God says, ‘Hey, relax. I got this.’ Period.”

So tonight when my head hits the pillow, I’ll remember Psalm 4:8 which declares, “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.” (KJV)

Peace and safety. Those are good things.

I need a spoonful of sugar, right now!

Disney’s 1964 musical-fantasy film Mary Poppins was replete with happy tunes, but one that recently came into my head and stayed for days was the song that includes the lyrics “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, The medicine go down, The medicine go down.” I even started humming it. Involuntarily.

Wondering about what practical truth this cute aphorism means to convey I did some research. One article I read stated that experts have actually discovered that infants who are given sugar feel less pain during injections than those who go without. Pediatrician Paul Heaton discovered that a tiny amount of sugar can actually ease the discomfort felt by babies when receiving their shots. A few drops of a sucrose solution put on their tongues before an injection was found to act as an analgesia, effectively blocking the pain they felt in their arms or bottoms. Dr. Heaton reported that “The sweet taste works through nerve channels in the tongue that perceive sweetness in the brain which reacts by producing endorphins, a pain reliever.” He claims his practical studies have revealed what parents have known and proven for generations — that a sweet treat works best to distract discomfort of any sort.

Interestingly, while thinking about this premise it dawned on me that Mary Poppins’ childish refrain may convey wise advice indeed, well beyond the scope of mere practical medicine. Here’s why.

To my dismay, a close friend of mine and I occasionally engage in a spirited but amicable repartee regarding the seeming inevitability of trials that befall everyone at one time or another. He consistently drags out his Bible’s well-worn verses from the Book of James that champion the necessity and benefits derived from suffering. I myself would prefer that suffering and affliction not be a part of life, mine or anyone’s. He and James say it must be so in this current age of fallen man. I say I don’t like that reality, and remind him that even Martin Luther didn’t want to include James within the scriptural canon. He says, well, it’s still there.

The problem of suffering in this life has been agonized over (pun intended) for centuries. Every religion tries to posit an answer. In this post, I have no intent to resolve the issue, but I have a thought I want to share. It’s mine; and I’m not a theologian, just a person who believes in a God who wants to help me deal with issues that trouble my soul.

Here goes. So, what if – what if – we interpret physical or emotional suffering as a form of medicine we need to take to help cure us from something even worse, from spiritual diseases that could eventually be fatal: like a prideful, selfish arrogance that says “I’m the center of the universe. It’s all about me.  It’s my life and I want it my way, and I’m living for myself whatever it costs me or the rest of the world around me. And I certainly don’t want or need any divine help.” Did you notice that there was a lot of “I” in there, (that would be ego) instead of the “I Am” (that’s God’s name)?

And what if . . .  the complimentary dose of sugar represents . . .  faith? Without it, without the realization that in the worst of circumstances God is with me, cares about my pain and has a purpose for everything no matter how unconscionable, life’s intense struggles can be difficult and maybe impossible to endure. No, lacking a deep rooted faith, the medicine alone – affliction or whatever you call it — will be bitter, and I will spurn it. I will just stubbornly suffer to spite my suffering.

Am I implying that a callous, disinterested God wants us to suffer? Causes cancer, AIDS, mental illness? Kills babies and children, delights in destructive hurricanes and earthquakes and wastes the lives of countless innocent people in the horrors of war? Certainly not. The Bible portrays the Creator’s character as quite the opposite. “In the beginning,” God, never intending for His creation to descend into a world of pain and death, “saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” (Gen. 1:30) We actually have a loving God, “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Ex. 34:6), who can use pain and brokenness to our advantage, for our ultimate benefit, to refine his followers in holiness, and to bring unbelievers to a place of surrender, belief and dependency. Pain, in the light of eternity, should never be portrayed as pointless or as an end in itself. So suffering can be redemptive. Mourning can turn into dancing. (Psalm 30:12)

Is faith the necessary prescription I’m looking for, the sweetness that balances out the distasteful? This curious analogy became personally more relevant recently when two families I know suffered the tragic loss of their sons, just in their twenties. It’s a parent’s worst heartache. Inconsolable grief, for the families and those of us who loved them. No reasonable, rational answers can be found to soften the great sadness that will never go away. Like Job we lament the great gravity of our distress, “Oh that my grief were fully weighed and my calamity laid with it on the scales!” It’s immeasurably heavy.

Isaiah 53:3 says prophetically that even the Christ Himself would be “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face.” We have then a God who understands our plight, our desperation in this fallen world full of trials, struggles, disappointments, suffering and death. He is kind enough though to provide comfort in the worst of tragedies by assuring us that He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Maybe we need the strong medicine. Ever heard the expression, “There are no atheists in foxholes”? Facing imminent death, perhaps even the most hardline skeptic in the fury of battle may hope for the possibility of some saving grace bestowed to even the most wretched of lost souls and be saved with a simple childlike dose of faith.

Do I understand it? No. I don’t know why life is so short for some, or suffering so long for many, or why billions of galaxies are out there in a seemingly endless expanse of space while we drift alone on this particularly privileged planet. But as directed I will take a spoonful of faith in the One who holds it all together. Ironically, even the sugar of faith will at times itself be tested, for its validity and effectiveness.

So I guess I will sheepishly condescend to my friend in the faith who encourages me through every little bump and major tremor in my own personal life with the provocative admonition of James to “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-3) Oh, I almost forgot. The chorus ends with a line that cheerfully declares that, with some sugar, “the medicine goes down . . . in the most delightful way.” Well, let’s try it and see.