Can I see some I.D. please?

I am so weary of all the slander, name calling, lying, and the literal and verbal rock-throwing back and forth in what has become a shameful, self-perpetuating “their side versus my side” news media frenzy. These days, because both rational and emotionally driven sentiments are so sharply at odds, one cannot in good conscience sit on any kind of a fence. You have to take a stand. Actually, that’s pretty much the way the Kingdom of God works. Jesus said you are either for me or against me. You cannot serve two masters. Choose between the broad road to destruction, or the narrow path to eternal life. It’s all very black and white, with no shades of gray to hide in. Pick a side then.

A couple days ago I read a guest post on a politically oriented website I occasionally take a look at. It was an article about the ugly, hateful divisiveness expressed during the long months of campaigning rivalry and especially after the shocking results of the election became known. It was written by Riaz Patel, who characterizes himself as a gay, Muslim, Pakistani-American immigrant TV producer.

“The worst outcome of the election” he said, “is that we have each been reduced to a series of broad labels that no longer reflect who we are. Mexican. White. Republican. Immigrant. Muslim. We may try to look at people as labels but we’ll never truly see them because THEY do not look at their own lives and families as labels.”

I think Patel is right about the accelerated tendency for prejudicial bias, for pinning labels on the fine citizens of these United States, regardless of whether the appraisals are accurate or assumed. trumpclinton3On one side of the political battle fighting to the death you will find liberal elitists — sophisticated intellectuals, yoga practitioners, art lovers, wine tasters, rainbow flag waiving ultra-tolerant, all-inclusive I’m okay/you’re okay Unitarians. Who’s on the other side? Hillary said that Trump supporters were all ”deplorables,” relegated onto a curbside trash heap along with the great unwashed of society — the twelve-pack guzzling, vulgar, trailer park Neanderthal bigots who pick their noses in the check-out lines at Walmart and have to sign their names with a big “X.” Sounds like we now apparently have fabricated our own brand of caste system, like India?

Garrison Keillor of public radio’s Prairie Home Companion fame commented in the Washington Post the fateful morning after the votes were tallied: “Raw ego and proud illiteracy have won out and a severely learning-disabled man with a real character problem will be president. [We] Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids.” Wow. Maybe he and those loathing the newly defined four-year future of America should all just retire to Keillor’s fictional retreat at Lake Wobegon for imaginary group massage therapy and lament together over cocktails the demise of an egocentric progressive era the Clintons failed to force on the rest of us. What they believe is mostly make-believe anyway.

So how is it that we are to I.D. ourselves? About those labels . . . it’s difficult to not find yourself in one category or another — Single or married. Male or female. Employed or not — although a small segment of our current culture in decline is making a strong effort to blur those traditional distinctions. I find it interesting that Paul in his letter to the Galatian church writes “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So does this mean that in a mystically spiritual sense Christian believers are transformed into some kind of science fiction automatons, marching through life on command like mass produced troopers in Revenge of the Clones, except without the weapons?clone-troopers

I’m sure there are many discourses on the theological interpretation of Paul’s simple statement. In my opinion, I think it points to the contrast between enmity with and separation from God as a consequence of Adam’s disobedience, and our reconciliation with and acceptance by God as a result of redemption through the saving work of Christ.  As a part of Adam’s natural lineage, without Christ I was defined as a fill-in-the-blank sinner, with a broken mindset, doomed to a propensity for falling short of God’s standards and marked by every sort of human fault. But now by faith in Christ, I am found in Christ, in whom there is no division. The fracture is healed. I’m not defined and separated by my gender, my job, my social status, my family heritage, and not even by my pre-salvation past. Rather I am who God says I am: a warrior, an over comer, forgiven, a new creation, holy, victorious, a beloved child of the King. In Him all believers are united, as one, without human distinctions, but also without surrendering the personal uniqueness that makes each of us, well – unique. There’s only one me.

I will, of course, continue to mark the appropriate boxes on surveys and applications, identifying myself for a pertinent piece of the big demographic pie. And I will always without hesitation acknowledge my particular station in life as a husband, father, grandfather, retired senior citizen, Caucasian male and a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. So are those labels, or actually just part of my exclusive name tag? Let me introduce myself.

HELLO, I’m . . . so much more than just words.

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Super Duper Moon

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Last night I took the dog out for our usual after dinner walk. It was chilly, in the mid-forty degree range. Of course the most distinct feature of the evening’s outing was the much-publicized Super Moon. In a scientific sense, it was “super” because it was the closest a Full Moon has been to Earth since January 26, 1948, and it will not match that proximity again for another 18 years. Visually, it was estimated to appear about 14 percent larger than usual, but what I saw Monday night around nine o’clock was more than super. It was spectacular.

Emma and I headed out on our regular route for a couple blocks and then on a path up a hill into and through the neighborhood park. There’s a bench at the top of the incline. I’m usually a little out of breath by then so often we just pause there for a few minutes. But last night I was so captivated by the natural beauty of the moon in its glowing whiteness, I had to just sit a while and take it in. The sky’s customary black canopy was washed out by the amazing spotlight brightness of that ashen sphere some 223,000 miles distant from my little dog and me. Mars was twinkling red in the west and diamond shimmering Venus was still prominent, just about to dip below the southwestern horizon. But overhead only the blinking lights of an occasional 747 and a couple first-magnitude or better stars were visible. I had to strain and squint to find the North Star.

There was such an atmosphere of peace, there on that cold metal park bench, saturated in pure moonlight. The folks in neighborhoods all around me were undoubtedly about their regular household affairs, getting ready to call it a day. But at that moment in time, in my personal center of the universe, it was just me, the dog, the Super Moon – and God, the One Who long ago spoke the cosmos into being and Who arranged like some epic musical composition a unique astronomical event last night just to reveal His awesomeness to me. On the way home, I kept looking back over my shoulder. moon2_0Through silhouettes of bare maples and even thick spruce trees the view was hauntingly majestic. I thought about Psalm 19 where it says, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Last night that reality couldn’t have been more obvious.

9/11

It happened fifteen years ago. Doesn’t seem like that long, maybe because every year at this time we tend to relive it, with so much attention given to recount the worst occurrence of terrorism within our borders. And so we must. The horror of the event and its aftermath has been seared into our national psyche.

September 11, 2001. Everyone can tell you where they were, what they were doing when they heard about it. Just like our now senior citizens can talk about huddling up next to a radio broadcasting the shocking news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt just a few hours later would forever label that day, December 7th as the Day of Infamy. My generation can remember where they were when they heard that JFK had been shot, and then to an on-edge nation pronounced dead in Dallas at 1pm on November 22, 1963. We were glued to our black and white TV sets for days, watching and grieving as a painful episode of history unfolded live from Love Field to Arlington Cemetery.

I watched the towers burn and fall on a small TV at work. I kept saying, “This can’t be happening. This isn’t real.” It looked like a computer-generated special effects scene from a Spielberg movie.

As that morning went on I couldn’t help but wonder, “Are we done now? What’s next? The Sears Tower? Hoover Dam? An A-Bomb detonating at the strategic command center at Offutt Air Force Base, only a few miles from my neighborhood?” That’s where Bush was headed on Air Force One, to weather any further threats deep underground. I thought maybe tonight I should revive and recite the faith of my childhood prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake . . .”

Every year at this anniversary time I tell myself I’m not going to watch any of those documentaries. No more film footage of planes hitting buildings, over and over, in slow motion. No more faces of terror and disbelief, ash covered first responders, exhausted, gasping for breath. And that unforgettable, ugly pyroclastic cloud of dust and debris chasing hundreds of panicking New Yorkers down the streets and avenues of our nation’s premiere city. But this week, I did. Mostly on the History Channel. I still get pretty choked up, even sick. I can’t bear to see those poor souls hanging out of windows, waving for help, then leap to their deaths; anonymous faces now referred to simply as “Jumpers.” I even had the nerve to view some posts on YouTube, where you can find dozens of opinions by conspiracy theorists with elaborate “proof” that what our government says happened wasn’t the truth.

Regardless of what you choose to believe about the incredible circumstances of that fateful day and who was responsible, it did happen. I think you can be sure of this, however, that hundreds of men and women were just settling in at their desks, sipping coffee, starting their computers when all hell was unleashed beneath or above them, and that was not what they expected to experience a few hours earlier when they shut off the alarm clock. Another hundred or so were planning to land safely at their destinations, to spend their time visiting relatives or friends, or to get on with the business schedule for the day. But flights and lives were abruptly rerouted.

There are probably as many lessons to be learned from the events of 9/11 as there are people who have been touched by the tragedy – our lifetime’s day of infamy. To me it affirms what the Bible says in James 4:14: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” In other words, life is fragile. But we tend to see the end as far away, and I’m sure most victims of 9/11 felt that way. Sadly, I’ll bet many hugs and kisses were deferred for a later time, which was never to be. Psalm 103:15 says, “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone.” So today while you are mowing the lawn, catching up on the laundry, watching football, grocery shopping, or even working at a job, stop everything and say “I love you” to that person you know who needs to hear it the most. Let’s remember to cherish the minutes we have, even if they are difficult, because in an instant, everything can change. And it will.

Summer, 1956

Sixty years ago, a boy had to find his own
adventures, especially when the rest of his
neighborhood pals disappeared inside for
an afternoon nap or headed downtown
to a movie matinee with their moms.
The quest then for my personal version
of excitement often led me on a solo
make-believe expedition into the shadowy,
secluded terrain in our expansive backyard.

Tiptoeing from one stone to the next,
carefully weaving around stalks of iris
and day lilies to avoid leaving any trace
of my climb through the rock garden,
I summit the top of the rampart to face
the challenge of my mission’s objective:
an enormous, stately weeping willow tree,
its forlorn limbs dancing hypnotically
in the gentle breeze, beckoning me onward
into unexplored territory, taunting me
to test my courage at perilous heights
like some kind of wild creature
instinctively familiar with the
forest primeval.

Worm's-eye view of a fresh green weeping willow with spring's clear blue sky in the background

Grabbing at one branch after another,
I ascend as far as I dare, feeling the supple
top of the tree bending with the wind.
The willow and I are seemingly one now,
high above the rooftops, commanding a
bird’s-eye view of my little world far below.
The clouds appear almost within my reach,
and the sky has never looked so deep and
blue. I could stay perched here forever,
just gazing upward, looking for heaven.

The Lure of Everest

EverestTwenty years ago today, eight climbers died on the slopes of Mount Everest. At that time, it was the worst single loss of life on the world’s highest peak.

The weather had been favorable for climbing the day before, and several people had already reached the summit and were on their way back to base camp when a fierce blizzard arose within a matter of minutes. Temperatures rapidly plunged to 40 degrees below zero with winds of up to 70 miles per hour. Massive snowfall buried the fixed ropes that aided climbers in their ascent and descent. Many of them simply got lost in whiteout conditions. The victims were all seasoned climbers and guides.

climbersAlso on Everest that day were several “amateurs” who paid $60,000 apiece for an opportunity to challenge the peak. Since 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary became the first to reach the summit of Everest, technological advances have enabled less experienced climbers to also reach the peak. But technology has also fooled amateurs into a false sense of security. When faced with unpredictable situations such as this blizzard, these climbers are extremely vulnerable – especially if they become separated from the experienced guides they’ve hired to lead them.

For some reason I have for decades been intrigued with Everest. I think it started the winter of 1956 when I had the chicken pox. Quarantined from grade school, I had little to do but daily homework assignments dropped off by my classmates and listen for hours to the local rock and roll station on my tiny plastic transistor radio. I also had a small pile of books from the neighborhood library. One of those books was High Adventure, Hillary’s own narrative of his historic achievement. In vivid, magical detail he described the far away mystery of the Himalayas, the exciting dangers of traversing over glacial ice flows and around deep crevasses, and finally, clawing his way up an ancient shaft of granite to the unimaginable 29,029 foot summit. It was inspiring.

Since then I have seen many documentaries on the History Channel about both men and women and their teams who made a decision to face that mountainous giant, to put it under their feet. Tragically, some fail. Others return just short of their goal, losing fingers, toes and noses to frostbite in the process. I also read other accounts, including Into Thin Air, the best selling book by amateur climber and writer for Outdoor magazine Jon Krakauer, one of 20 climbers to reach the summit before the fatal blizzard of ‘96 hit and later wrote about his experience.

bp30    I am wondering if the lure of Everest and the challenges it represents might be some sort of metaphor for my own attempts to achieve something in life. Something big, historic. Something to write about. No, I understand that I will never be a mountaineer. I have a hard enough time hiking and catching my breath at 10,000 feet in the Rockies. And I might be just an “amateur climber” through the rest of my life, someone who always depends on experienced guides to help me along the way. But what exactly are my goals and how much am I willing to risk to get there? Will it be a mere transient achievement, or will it have eternal value?

Proverbs 16:9 says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” In other words, often we develop our own ideas and boast about our plans, but God will ultimately accomplish His sovereign desires. I think then my goals should be in line with God’s, so that no matter where the path leads on earth, it ultimately ends up in heaven. Everest is and always will be for many a lofty goal, but I think I will start aiming even higher and believe that I will eventually get there, step by step.

Harbinger

This year March wants us
to think it’s still February.
Tonight neighborhood chimneys
exhale wispy columns of smoke
straight up into a chilly black sky.
But then I see Arcturus climbing
above the northeastern rooftops
and remember what that means.
The cycle of seasons is turning
again right before my eyes,
with every tick on the clock.
But the progression seems slow.

Stars are like old friends to me,
faithful and familiar.
The brightest have proper names,
and even the dimmer ones
bear a Greek alphabetical tag.
I was 37 years younger when
the light I see this quiet evening
headed my way from that
first magnitude twinkling
orange speck in the Herdsman.
That time went by fast for me,
with light speed.

Winter will not surrender
just because the calendar
says it’s time to do so.
Here we are then, waiting for
the dawning of spring,
looking for our cue from nature
like tight little tulip buds
yearning to bloom, to gradually
let go, risking the threat of a
late frost, to finally unclench
supple petals and reach upwards
to our very own star.

More than an expensive perfume: Obsession

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” Hamlet (Act II, Scene II).

Last week I ran across some notes I made after viewing a 2008 cable TV documentary, Beyond Ordinary: Twin Savants, originally aired as an episode of the UK’s television series Extraordinary People. It featured the lives of Flo and Kay Lyman, born in New Jersey in 1956, who remain today the world’s only female autistic savant twins. Indeed I found the pair both well beyond ordinary and quite exceptional. And now eight years later, I still do.

Savantism is a rare condition in which those affected with a developmental disorder, often presenting as a form of autism, are typically capable of acts of genius that far exceed normal levels of human cognitive ability. On the autism scale, Flo and Kay can be found right about where you would pinpoint Raymond Babbit, Dustin Hoffman’s character in the film Rainman. In the movie, Hoffman portrays the archetypal autistic savant, showing incredible mental recall but little pragmatic understanding of the basic aspects of life most of us take for granted every day. Technically geniuses, autistic savants like the fictional Raymond and the very real Flo and Kay have problems socializing, understanding emotions, and for the sake of personal comfort and security must adhere to a strict regimen.

In their particular case, for any given day of their lives Flo and Kay can describe in detail what the weather was like and even what they had for breakfast. They display an amazingly complex memory that enables them to catalog historical dates, details about their favorite pop music, and especially everything involving their beloved entertainment celebrity, Dick Clark. bandstandAnyone over 60 will remember Clark as the charismatic bee-bop host of American Bandstand, counting down the hits during the infancy of rock ‘n roll; anyone over 20 has probably seen him preside over the annual New Year’s Rockin’ Eve television special broadcast from New York’s Times Square, until ceding official emcee duties to Ryan Seacrest in 2006.

Flo and Kay’s unique obsession with Dick Clark and his dominating influence in their lives began in 1974 with Clark hosting the popular daytime game show, $100,000 Pyramid. They watched the program religiously, cataloging every question and answer, even writing down the number of times buzzers and bells sounded during the show.

Their fascination with Clark was intense and personal. Over the years, Flo and Kay collected anything and everything they could get their hands on pertaining to Clark. They filled their bedroom with thousands of photos and souvenirs about their TV hero. Commenting on their irrational compulsion, a brother-in-law remarked that “It was pretty much like a shrine in there.” A nephew, characterizing their idolization of Clark, said “It’s as important as air to them. They need food, water and air, and Dick Clark.” In 1996 when Pyramid was cancelled without warning, the two went through a dark personal crisis, but nothing like the one they experienced in 2004 when they heard that Clark had suffered a severe stroke. It was almost the end for them.Flo and Kay 2

Several times the twins actually got to meet their TV hero, whom they often referred to as their “personal savior.” Until his death of a heart attack in 2012, they received birthday wishes annually from Clark and his wife and had maintained an ongoing friendship with him. They said they want to be buried with all their Dick Clark memorabilia, adding that he was like the father figure they never had.

Reflecting on all this makes me wonder to what degree many of us may bear some sort of an obsession, with someone or something. Maybe it’s not as obvious as with the twins. Maybe it’s secret or repressed. But I am guessing that at some point it eventually comes out and shows it’s true face. Proverbs 23:7 says “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Whatever I strive for, whatever I am driven by, what “turns me on” (to use a phrase from the ‘70s), that’s what will flow out of my life. It could be a phobia, a fantasy, or disturbing, even destructive behavior. Unless . . .

Avoiding that shipwreck by dropping anchor in both faith and reason, I often find counsel by thinking back to my earliest experience in parochial school, to my first grade class, and to my introduction to the Baltimore Catechism, the standard Catholic school religious teaching text used in the United States from 1885 to the late 1960s. It was a little blue booklet full of questions and answers, all about sin, sacraments and the dire consequences of straying from the faith. For what it’s worth, I can only remember the first two questions: “Who made me?” and “Why did God make me?” Are these not the timeless concerns of every spiritually curious child and adult?

The answer to the second question has remained constant, from the time of Adam’s forming from the dust of the earth to this very day: “To know, love and serve Him, and to be with Him forever in heaven.” Period. That’s it. My ultimate goal, my purpose is expressed even more simply in the Church of England’s venerable Westminster Catechism of 1646: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Solomon, a wise man, says that anything else is “vanity and striving after the wind.” (Eccl. 1:14) He should know because he had it all and tried it all.

So then, what about my obsession, my striving, my consuming preoccupation? What shall be the appropriate focus of my attention and the object of my devotion? David wrote “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God.” (Ps. 42:1) If I choose to imitate the psalmist’s ambitious craving for intimacy with the God Who is my personal savior and is actually focused on me a million times more so, then maybe it might be said about me that “his heart is like a shrine to the Lord,” and “all he needs is food, water and air, and Him.” Sounds like a rather rational obsession to me.

Frozen Art

My mother introduced me to Jack Frost
one early evening in a long ago December
as we huddled together in the dark
next to a front room window,
the cold from outside finding its way inside,
chilling our almost cheek-to-cheek faces.
Those were the days way before our
obsession with R-factors and insulation.
(I mean, we had lead and asbestos everywhere.)

Smiling, she pointed to Jack’s artful depiction of
a bouquet of frozen ferns etched with such
delicate grace on the thin pane of glass.
The frost was silvery white until the headlamps
from passing cars momentarily drenched the
designs with rainbow rich purples and
magentas and sparkling yellows.

Frost_patterns_2

Inside my impressionable four-year-old head
the magic made perfect sense, enchanting
a tender imagination before reason and
education would cruelly dispel sprites and
faeries and innocence and assumptions that
anything might be possible.

And so we gazed through that brittle canvass,
silently waiting for Pops to come home from work.
The corner streetlight seemed so alone out there,
a mysterious glowing globe of amber straining
with every possible watt to penetrate the long
hours of yet another bitter winter’s night.

Making sense out of a senseless universe

Truth is, some folks can’t. Hopeless victims of desperate circumstance become statistics on suicide, taking themselves out of the game rather than endure another day of mental and emotional anguish. Like funny man Robin Williams. Hangs himself with his own belt. Show’s over folks. Nuthin’ more to see here. One would presume that a guy like him had it all. Family, fame, fortune. Ironically, as is the case with so many comedians like Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis, happiness was a commodity all the money in the world couldn’t buy. Addictions, depression, broken marriages. It’s what the Smokey Robinson 1971 song is all about. “Just like Pagliacci did/I try to keep my sadness hid/Smiling in the public eye/But in my lonely room I cry/The tears of a clown/When there’s no one around.” It makes me wonder how many people actually “lead lives of quiet desperation . . .” as Thoreau wrote, wondering Why am I here and does it even matter? “. . . and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

The struggle to find and embrace significance is a prominent theme in religion, art, music, literature and everything human because it’s common to us all. It’s what we need in order to fall asleep at night, and to have a reason to get back out of bed every morning. It’s what we need to make it all worthwhile, to keep us out of the closet with a belt.

In our civilization’s ongoing quest for the meaning of life, history shows that we’ve postulated just about every theory possible, from plausible to absurd. Of course the most common efforts for explaining human existence can be found in your basic Religion 101 class along with an elective course in Introductory Philosophy thrown in. Every culture has come up with some kind of rationale to keep us from teetering into the abyss of nihilism, some sort of system with a god or gods or a higher power out there somewhere. Most ancient legends and epic narratives portray mythological deities as more human-like than divine – capricious, contriving, scandalous, fated by their faults and failures. Not much help there.

Today’s most popular options on the Religions of the World Chart have billions of followers. The self-discipline of The Buddha teaches us to meditate our way to enlightenment. Apparently many have not yet located their happy place. Or there’s the ethical politeness of Confucianism, with yin and yang, energy in constant balance, in perfect harmony, separate but equal. Which side of the taijitu are you on? Let’s crack open a couple fortune cookies and find out.

Hinduism keeps us trapped under the law of karma on a continual treadmill cycle of reincarnation. Please, just show me the way out. Remember John Lennon’s lyrics? “Instant Karma’s gonna get you/Gonna knock you right on the head/You better get yourself together/Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead.” Aren’t we all.

Even the Judaeo-Christian God of the Bible doesn’t find it necessary to explain everything. So much is hidden, mysterious, full of paradox and subjective interpretation. Not bashful about voicing complaints to the Lord about the problem of evil and suffering, psalmist King David lamented about the apparent injustices of life, that the wicked seemed to prosper while the righteous endured adversity without cause. Eventually, says the Lord, everyone will get what’s due. But for now, just wait. Have faith. Trust. Believe. I’m in control.

I think science, with all of its benefits to society and advances to be enjoyed, has coincidentally made it harder to exercise that kind of faith. Microscopes and telescopes allow us to see through that curtain of curiosity, inward and outward to worlds unimaginable. Actually, splitting the atom raises more questions than answers. Billions of galaxies spinning in an incredibly vast expanse of space reveal an intelligent designer with an extravagant sense of creativity. But why? What does it matter to me? I have a mortgage to pay and a car that needs a new muffler. By the way, what’s for dinner?

The premise of order and meaning in what we see and cannot see becomes strained, however, when our most well-intentioned spiritual convictions begin to evaporate under intense pressure. Holding on to or defending a belief system becomes especially trying when our most fervent, faith-filled, selfless prayers go unanswered. Or when we hear that a drunk driver crossed the median and plowed into a school bus full of kids returning from church camp. Several dead, dozens injured and scarred for life.

Or when an honest, hard-working man gets fired for something that wasn’t even remotely his fault. The company goes on to post record profits. Keep your resumés updated, people. Or when the poster child for perfect health and fitness drops dead while jogging. I can see the obituary now: Age 32, faithful husband, provider, father of three, gone in a whisper.

What we need is an operator’s manual, a guideline for troubleshooting through all the possible scenarios that interrupt our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t you wish that there could be an easy way to get explanations for the jack-in-the-box surprises that explode in our faces? Maybe like an Ask Abby column in the newspaper. Just write out a description of your problem. Drop it in the cosmic mailbox, and then wait for the morning news to get your answer. “Dear Desperate and Confused Planet Earth Dweller. Thanks for your letter. Here’s my advice: Leave your spouse. Move to a new town. Reconcile with your mother-in-law. Then all will be well.” Or how about a 1-800 number. “Hello, um, yes. I’d like to order a better life. Yeah, one for my four-year-old girl, the one with leukemia. And could you express ship that, please? We’re running out of time.”

There seems to be enough weeping and gnashing of teeth here in this world even before the doors of heaven close for good. So what’s left? Shaking a fist at the sky? Languishing like Job, a mere pawn in a spiritual game of chess, waiting for the final checkmate to see who wins the tournament?

Isn’t it true that often we find it so much easier to “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow” when the colonoscopy test results are negative, when the bonus shows up on the paycheck, when the college scholarship is a full four-year free ride? For me it becomes a bit more challenging when I’m calling to schedule a root canal, or when I hear about my dear friends’ baby’s death, or when someone I love is struggling to deal with impossible odds against them and I can’t help fix it. Sometimes I want to write a letter back to the New Testament’s James and say, “You know that count it all joy through trials thing? Wow, that’s a tough teaching, brother!” In reality, it’s probably an impossible perspective to learn and live without a proper spiritual frame of mind, without a strong conviction in the goodness of a God Who knows me personally and desires the best for me. Unconditionally.

Last week I faced head-on an inexplicable tragedy that once again leaves me empty for answers to the ever-nagging question of “Why?”

Tyler, a good buddy of mine, came to an untimely, sudden, violent accidental death. When someone we know is diagnosed as terminal, or is old and feeble, we know the end is eventually coming; death is stalking at the door, and we are somewhat emotionally prepared when the plug is pulled. But when a vibrant, active, happy 24-year-old combat vet full of passion for life is gone in seconds, it becomes harder to wrap our heads around. Maybe we can’t. That’s why it’s so vexing. So troubling, so disturbing, and especially so much more painful now during a time reserved for the expression of peace, joy and holiday cheer.

I am deeply grieved at his passing, but I heard something during the funeral eulogy that might help me get through this. Encouraging the bereaved to stay strong through the heartache of this calamity, his pastor quoted from Chapter 5 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I like The Message version:

“We [those who are true followers of Christ] continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”

Several key ideas here to ponder out of many: “ . . . for whatever God will do next.” Reality check: This is God’s universe, and so far He hasn’t consulted with me for my opinion of His agenda. Maybe I need to reread the final five chapters of the Book of Job. “Then the Lord said to Job, ‘Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it.’” (Job 40:1-2) KJV

I may never know all the reasons why life seems at times to unravel into a helpless heap, like a laundry basket full of soiled clothes. Hard to admit it sometimes but I will find myself in a better place when I acknowledge Who is really in control. That being said, as I develop passionate patience I suspect that God and I will continue to have serious conversations regarding my perplexities, my pain and my frustration when I’m hemmed in with troubles. I need to learn how to bear up better in the fiery forge tempering my soul. Instead of shortchanged, I need to see myself abundantly blessed, my containers ready to overflow with enough hope to spill over onto those who are desperate for a reason to carry on through their own heap of troubles.

I’m going to have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year because, in spite of my time of grief and loss concurring hand-in-hand with this season of Comfort and Joy, I choose to hope that all things will ultimately work together for good (Rom. 8:28), and to see that from God’s perspective, nothing in this universe is ever senseless.

A Christmas Carol

Today we say “Happy Birthday” to Charles Wesley, born in Epworth, England, 1707. Often eclipsed historically by his better known brother – Methodist co-founder and fiery preacher, John – Charles has nonetheless left a significant mark on the Protestant persuasion, composing literally thousands of church hymns during his lifetime of 81 years.

Preaching in the open air to tens of thousands, John did most of the preaching, while Charles led the faithful in hymns at revival meetings. They were not always welcomed, however, sometimes met by raucous mobs who threw stones, dirt and eggs in their faces. Charles WesleyTraveling by horseback from one town to the next, if Charles thought of a hymn, he would detour to the house of the nearest acquaintance, demand a pen and ink and write it down.

Personally I have heard only a few of those inspiring melodies, but during the Christmas season I have frequent opportunities to hear my favorite, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Usually sung robustly by a festive choir surrounded by sparkling candle lights and streams of ornamental holly, it’s an almost must-do song for traditional Christmas Eve services. A thundering pipe organ accompaniment always adds an element of soul-stirring intensity to the performance.

My favorite lyric in the entire piece is simply “God and sinners reconciled,” a short but dynamic phrase that to me expresses the whole idea of why we actually celebrate a day called Christmas. It’s John 3:16 and all the rest of the Bible presented in a way that anyone, anywhere, of any age can understand. No doctorate in theology needed. Adam broke the relationship with God through disobedience. Jesus, the last Adam and the Second Man, made it possible to get back to the original plan: eternal life with the Creator, on a personal relationship level.

Reconcile is a word often used as a legal and accounting term. It can mean to win over to friendliness; to cause to become amicable; to settle a quarrel or dispute; to bring into agreement or harmony, make compatible; to restore. These definitions also make perfect sense describing what salvation is basically all about. So when I hear this blessed carol during the next few days, my heart will pound a little bit stronger knowing that the animosity between God and myself is gone because of a baby born in Bethlehem. “Mild he lays his glory by, Born that we no more shall die, Born to raise us from the earth, Born to give us second birth.”

Bravo, Charles Wesley! The herald angels are still singing.