Why Must You?

“Why must you bring Jesus into everything?” James asked.

“Sorry? What do you mean?” Sam responded.

“Why must you bring Jesus into everything? Why can’t things be just what they are . . . without any Jesus, just as you find them?” James said.

James’ starched white collar dug into the sunburned skin of his neck. He was shaved immaculately. His tie was knotted in a perfect Windsor.

“Why did you come to church today?” Sam asked.

“You wish to question me now, is that it?”

“I am trying to answer your question,” Sam said. “Truly.”

“My family has been members here for three generations. We began here in the early 1900s, when this was a little country church.”

“I see,” Sam said.

“It’s who we are. Tradition. My family. You’re just blind to our way.”

“Hmm.”

“Why do you do that? You didn’t answer my question.” James’ voice grew louder.

Sam watched muscles in James’ neck create spurs of taut skin that ran down from below red earlobes and disappeared behind the Windsor knot.

“Today is what many people call Easter, is that right?” Sam asked.

“Yes, of course,” James said, “but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“What is it that Christians are remembering and celebrating?” Sam asked.

“Jesus’ resurrection.”

“Do you believe that?” Sam asked.

“Believe what … that Christians remember and celebrate that, or that the resurrection occurred?”

“Both are important. But the second issue is the main one,” Sam responded.

“Well, we’ve been coming on Easter for years, Sam. My family is rooted here.”

“I understand. But did the resurrection of Jesus occur?” Sam repeated.

“Look, Jesus was a good man. No doubt about that. He taught compassion, called out hypocrisy, and healed people of illnesses. He was a miracle worker, even. But to say that he came alive again after he died …”

“Why do you say Jesus was a good man, James?” Sam asked.

“Who can doubt that, Sam? He showed compassion to women. He preached about forgiveness. He called out Pharisees. And when the government officials and Jews came for him, he didn’t resist. He was good unlike anyone else. I cannot believe you would even ask that.”

“I agree. Jesus did all those things. But would a man who did all those good things be worthy of worship if he only died but did not physically resurrect?” Sam asked.

“Well, sure. That’s why we’re here, right? To worship, to say we follow his teachings.”

“That’s not why I’m here, James.” Sam said.

“Ah, so you don’t believe the resurrection either?”

“No, I believe the resurrection completely. If I didn’t I would not follow Jesus at all,” Sam said.

“But what about all the good stuff he did? What about his precepts? What about his telling us to love our neighbors?”

“Why would I love my neighbors, if Jesus didn’t resurrect? I don’t even like a lot of my neighbors. In fact, my closest neighbor, I’m pretty sure, is cheating on his wife,” Sam retorted. “I’m pretty sure I don’t love him. I think, quite honestly, he’s kind of a creep.” Sam said.

“I don’t know about you, Sam. I thought you were going to lecture me. But now it seems like you’re kind of hardhearted. Don’t you believe Jesus?”

“I do. I believe him completely. That’s where I think you and I differ. I believe I should love my neighbor who is cheating on his wife. And I believe I should love you, too, even when we disagree completely about the resurrection. And I believe that I should love my neighbor, you, and Jesus because of the resurrection,” Sam said. “If Jesus is still buried in Jerusalem, my options are about as meaningful as preferences of ice cream flavors,” Sam said.

“You believe it, then?” James asked. His eyes bore into Sam like nails.

“I do. But I believe it because it happened,” Sam said. “I have to deal with it. Otherwise, I’m a coward.”

James stood motionless. His earlobes were red and swollen above his shirt collar. Sam watched him as he tweaked his perfect Windsor knot.

“I’m going to join my family now, Sam.”

“Of course,” Sam said.

“James?”

“Yes?” James said, looking up.

“That’s why,” Sam said.

“That’s why what?”

“That’s why I must bring Jesus into everything,” Sam said. “Because he changes everything.”

James was already walking back to the foyer. He crossed it and entered the men’s room. He walked to the sink, lathered his hands with lemon-scented liquid soap, rinsed, and pulled three brown folded towels from the white dispenser mounted on the white wall. He readjusted his tie, shaping the knot into a perfectly symmetrical inverted triangle. He pulled the short end of his tie again for a tighter knot, and pushed his chin upward in front of the mirror to check for any hairs he could have missed on his neckline, but none showed. He appeared perfect and clean. He walked into the foyer again, careful to avoid Sam. Finding his family seated where they’d been for generations, he took his place.

                                                       (The end)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-truth: A Bridge to Folly

“Post-truth” is the 2016 word of the year, according to Oxford Dictionaries. Post means “after.” However, we are not to understand the post in post-truth in that sense. Rather post here is to be understood as indicating that social media and personal opinion carry more influence than facts. Stated another way, some people’s preferences influence them more than objective reality. Subjectivity trumps the objective/external.

The effects of pervasive social media are incalculable. No matter how loony one’s views are, there’s a website that’ll foster your opinions. People may gorge on the newsfeeds of their choice. Preoccupied with the instant, the traditional cannot compete.

Constant information (not wisdom, just information), injections of breaking news, and what’s “happening now” have dethroned the antiquated as monolithic. “Post-truth” indicates that “the establishment” (whatever that is) is tainted, that any meta-narrative is dead, and that our opinions are valid, simply by virtue of their existence. Objective reporting is gone with the wind, leaving tweets in the breeze. Why? Because thoughtful analysis does not get many “likes,” and research is whatever a Google search turns up.

But is this really so? Nothing quite concretizes ideas like literature. Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” written in the 1800s (you know, old poetry), what some term one of the first modern poems, highlights what “post-truth” leads to—namely, a continued departure from reason and wisdom, an embrace of folly. It ushers in something, but not progress. On the cusp of the modern era, Arnold wrote:

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath,

Of the night-wind, down the vast edge drear

And naked shingles of the world.

 

Where’s the bright future? The “naked shingles of the world” are scant fare if the soul hungers for answers.

Lamenting what he envisions as a bleak world ahead, the narrator ends the poem thus:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

Arnold was honest enough to admit that the best he could hope for was “be[ing] true to one another.” But why? And what does it mean to “be true” in a post-truth world? The “ignorant armies clash[ing] by night” are the result of jettisoning the author of life and of moral reasoning. When the creature purports to evict his maker, man’s folly is manifested, as is God’s judgment.

A degenerate culture is certainly post-truth, because it cannot appreciate the true, good, or beautiful. It forfeits the lens by which truth and falsehood are discerned. Beauty is discarded and dross is embraced. It exchanges truth for a lie and spirals into solipsism and despair.

If tweets are taken to be acumen, distraction wins. But facts are stubborn things, and just because post-truth garners much usage, objective truth nonetheless abides.

When Pilate summoned Jesus, he (Jesus) confronted Pilate with the fundamental issue: truth. Jesus said to Pilate: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37b ESV)

Do you remember what Pilate did next? He mocked and walked out. He didn’t want truth, because he’d have to acknowledge himself as a sinner and Jesus as holy God incarnate. Rather than acknowledging God as the objective standard of truth, Pilate scoffed. When truth stood in front of him, Pilate hated it, and sought refuge in his own morality, where he purported to be the arbiter of right and wrong.

Pilate didn’t want truth. It was easier to let the mob rule. He played to the crowd. He had Jesus flogged, spat upon, crowned with thorns, crucified, and buried. But Jesus was not a post-truther.

Reality is like that. You can mock at it, deny it, and even murder it. But it rises again to meet you—even in your world of pretend post-truth.

Is that All?

There is danger in familiarity. This morning at church, the pastor taught from Mark 14. I suppose millions of people worldwide know the story of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anointeimgresd Jesus with her flask of oil. And Jesus paid her one of the highest compliments possible: “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:8-9 ESV). The pastor reminded us of several things. One precept, in particular, abides with me: Mary did all she could. And this convicted me about how superficially I can treat others, especially those with whom I’m familiar.

There is danger in familiarity. And nothing quite rouses me from the slumber of familiarity like the reality of death. Let me explain.

This morning in the Sunday school hour, the pastor stopped by the class I teach. He shared with our class that one of the elderly ladies in the church family had died in the early hours of that very morning. And as soon as he said her name, her face appeared in my mind’s eye.

We all have certain facial expressions, or nuances of demeanor, that mark us as unique. And this lady’s ways became almost palpable to me. But I grew more and more convicted. Why? Because I’d not spent quality time in conversation with her the last time I’d seen her at church. I was too familiar with our standard “meet and greet” time. Of course, I shook hands, and hugged, and engaged in small talk with some folks. But had I known that I’d not have another chance in this life to speak with this lady, I would have done things differently.

That is part of the danger of familiarity, at least for me. I grow accustomed. I develop a routine. The routine becomes superficial. I can atrophy as a human being. I don’t attend to my neighbor. Instead, I take her for granted. This is a danger of familiarity. We are easily habituated to feigned courtesy. Until death shakes us from our torpor.

As the church service progressed through its order, we sang and prayed and sang again. And then there was the “meet and greet” time that I have sometimes dreaded. (Like my grandfather, I’ve never excelled at small talk, so I can be ungainly at times, at least with this sort of thing.) But this morning was different. No, I didn’t suddenly become gregarious and go around backslapping and talking of the day’s news headlines. Instead, I stayed in my pew, and spoke at length with a dear couple in front of me. They talked of their many years living in southern California. The husband spoke of being a firefighter in San Diego. The wife spoke of her childhood in Colorado. They spoke of their children. I could see their eyes sparkle as they reminisced about certain events in their past. Why is all of this important? Because rather than going through the motions of caring, I did care. And they cared. We talked. We listened. We fellowshipped. I learned from listening to them, and by having watched their lives for years, that they know what it means to give all.

Like Mary, who anointed the Lord with her costly perfume, these saints in front of me have taught me (whether they know it or not) what it means to give all, to invest eternally. And so much of that investment comes, not by way of the extraordinary, but by way of the ordinary, by the familiar feel of another’s handshake, through the recurring scent of a woman’s favorite perfume, or the grin of an older wiser man, who says much in few words.

For Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, she never became so accustomed to the Lord Jesus that she atrophied spiritually. She gave all. And now she’s remembered.

There is a danger in the familiar. And I think it’s failing to appreciate beauty that surrounds us. God’s providence is displayed, not just in the beautiful sunset or poem, but also in the saints on the pew in front of us.

Time Steals and Reveals

Live oak, river birch, red maple, and dogwood. Canada, Egypt, Kenya, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and England. Blond, brown, and gray. No, this is not a quiz to see if you recognize patterns. But then again, it may be. Let me explain. It’s not about trees. It’s not about countries. It’s not about hair color. It’s about time.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love trees. Why is a mystery. I am convinced it has to do with their longevity, their endurance, and my enduring passion for literature. I can recall passages from the writing of Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Dickens, Emily Bronte, and others where trees were delineated with such beauty that they (the trees) became characters. That is, trees became important in characters’ stories. Trees sometimes served as shade, rest, respite, and shelters from storms. Other times, they served as symbols of strength. Other times, they towered with religious significance. Jesus, the most crucial man in history, was nailed to a tree in Jerusalem. Thus, trees are not always just trees in literature.

But there’s more. There is a connection to the countries and colors listed above. I’ve planted at least one tree, but usually several trees, in each place my family and I have lived over the last almost twenty years. Why? To mark time’s passage. To plant tangible signposts of where we’ve been. To remind me not to squander my life and time.

But what of the countries and colors? Recently an old Army friend emailed me some pictures of us two decades ago. Several captured us atop mountains in Switzerland and Austria during a weekend ski trip. My hair (then) was blond. Later it turned brown. Now it’s gray. Other pictures showed us deployed in Bosnia in the 1990s. My hair (then) was blond. Later it turned brown. Now it’s gray. And I understood that time’s an incorrigible thief.

Then I thought of some of the places I’ve visited or lived: Kenya, Canada, England, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Italy, Czechoslovakia, France, Egypt, Greece, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kyrgyzstan, Switzerland, Austria, Indonesia, Hong Kong, etc. There are other places, of course, but I walked through them again in my mind and found myself grinning at memories from each place. And I understood that time’s an incorrigible thief. I’d spent time in these places and they’d shaped me.

Time’s an incorrigible thief. That’s part of why I plant trees on each place my family I reside. They remind me that time’s an incorrigible thief who will steal if we fail to sow, water, feed, tend, and treasure what’s most important. Time steals and yet reveals our treasure. I’m no longer blond, but gray, and (hopefully) wiser, rooted in working at that which endures.

Tyranny of the Temporary?

“Back again so soon?” That’s what the attendant at the oil change station asked me as I sat in my truck with the window rolled down, waiting to have my truck tires rotated and engine oil changed. “Yes,” I replied. “Been a busy few days.” Indeed. Busyness as usual. Might I (and others) be so busy that we forfeit the most important things? In only a few days I’d amassed another 3,000 miles of road time, and was again back at the oil change station.

The apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament that Christians are to seek eternal things rather than spending our affections on temporariness: “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corintimageshians 4:18b ESV). So what are eternal things? What does Paul mean? The context is one wherein Paul contrasts the “light momentary affliction” (v.17) of physical sufferings to the eternal glory that awaits Christians. How much more encouraged and faithful, therefore, ought Christians to be in laboring for the truth.

Believers are not to “lose heart” (v.16) because we know that our labors (if not wasted upon the tyranny of the temporary and mere busyness), our fatigue, our weariness, and even our exhaustion that result, are worth it. In fact, to spend oneself for the sake of the truth should usher in sweet rest. “Sweet is the sleep of a laborer” (Ecclesiastes 5:12a ESV).

Moreover Jesus taught how we’re to expend our energies on matters of substance. We’re to use our minds for things that matter eternally. Frittering away our time on the temporary is sinful.

Too much is at stake: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the           kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to                       you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be                                  anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:31-                              34 ESV)

Indeed. Sufficient is any day’s trouble. I suspect you’re like I in that you tend to worry about things, at least at times. I have to take breaks from the media deluge. I’m weary of hearing of Hillary’s decades of lies and of Donald’s boasts. I’m weary of hearing how secular government continues to grow and of how individual responsibility and freedom proportionately shrink. I’m weary of hearing of Islam’s continuous bloody conquests across nations. I’m weary of people assuming just because someone’s exceptional in one area (movie acting, e.g.) that he is necessarily qualified to speak intelligently about philosophy, theology, history, or literature.

No one who knows me would ask me to do algebra, for good reason. However, I might be somewhat more helpful if you wished to discuss the 20th century novel or Charles Dickens’ contributions to the world’s greatest literary characters. In other words, it’s important to know where one fits, and where one’s knowledge extends/does not extend.

“Being busy” is often a near neighbor to waste. John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life is vastly popular with good reason. One of the great lines from American writer Henry David Thoreau’s Walden expresses what I’m after here: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I disagree with Thoreau on several things, but on that principle, we would’ve agreed, and could’ve shared his simple cabin in Concord, Massachusetts any day.

 

 

 

If Only

If only. If only we had different political leaders. If only we had a conservative. Ith-1f only we had godly leaders. If only our side was in power. If only we had leaders who followed the Constitution. If only. Are you tempted to think and/or mutter thoughts like these? I am, but I hope that I’m learning better—and not from earning more degrees or anything like that. I’m learning that leadership begins at home. We are quick to expect more of our leaders than we do of ourselves. In 62-63 A.D. the apostle Peter wrote to Christians enduring persecution in the 1st century, encouraging them with this truth: a godly life is the best example to an ungodly world, but that is only possible if God changes our hearts/wills from the inside. External political systems cannot reform the idolatrous heart. “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:15-17, ESV)

If only was not the argument Peter wrote Christians should embrace about the culture that was persecuting, and sometimes murdering, them. Peter was to be martyred under Nero’s reign for his Christian witness. His letters were not platitudes. He knew what he and other believers were up against.

In sum, 1st century Christians were up against what many Christians are up against today: anger, bellicosity, and vitriol. We’re living in a day of spiritual road rage. One writer has even written an entire book (A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Today) on the subject of how acrimony and bitterness characterize much of public discourse.

Classrooms now are characterized by sound bites instead of reasoned argument. Depth has been evicted. In most colleges and universities, neither students nor teachers read the classics. Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer are now branded misogynists and bigots. When I went by my alma mater a few years ago to see some of my former graduate school professors of literature, I discovered that English majors could now earn degrees in literature and writing without taking courses in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or even Greek and Roman literature. English majors are now schooled in multiculturalism, women’s studies, gender studies, and black studies. My temptation? To mutter to myself, if only.

Earlier this week, I was able to sit down with one of our children. We were reading one of his books together entitled Farmer Boy. It’s a wonderful narrative of 19th century America on a farm in rural New York. The protagonist is named Almanzo, and he’s a typical 9-year-old boy. He likes candies more than vegetables. He likes to play in the barn loft more than to shock wheat. He enjoys irritating his older sister more than he does listening to her counsel.

As we read together, my son asked me, “Dad, why did Almanzo’s sister get him out of trouble like that? I mean, Almanzo threw a paint brush and made a mess in their mom’s favorite room.” I said, “I know. It’s because she loved him. She knew he’d done wrong, but their family was more important than for her to seek justice by telling on him.” My son looked at me and I could see the genesis of understanding in his eyes. He began to see how “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). I almost thought for a minute that he was going to say, “If only we were more like that.”

It’s fashionable and “progressive” nowadays to scoff at old ways. Even modern parlance reflects how patronizing today’s culture is when talking about previous ideas. Phrases like “old school” and “Back in the day” abound. However, Scripture admonishes us to remember those who came before us and to reflect on why boundaries were erected in the first place: “Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set” (Proverbs 22:28). If only we had a more humble and accurate assessment of our places in the world.

In politics, blood boils. Ratings go to the person with the brashest insults. If you shock the audience by virtue of your acerbic tongue, you win the poll. However, might we not be better served if cool heads prevailed? If only.

An acquaintance of mine wrote me some time back something to this effect: he does not have hope for leadership on the macro level. If there is to be any moral and spiritual resuscitation, it will be from the micro level. I think he is mostly correct. However, I would add this caveat: a godly life is the best example to an ungodly world, but that is only possible if God changes our hearts/wills from the inside. External political systems cannot reform the idolatrous heart. The if only that we’re all tempted to think, if not say, must begin in our homes, made possible through divine regeneration and sanctification.

 

The Longing for Encouragement

One of the blessings of being in Christian ministry is personal discipleship. Because I’m regularly teaching biblical doctrines in Protestant services in the military, as an adjunct instructor at a university, or in the local church setting, many ofEncourageWordle my hours are taken up in study and preparation. Contrary to some people’s experiences, sustained research and study are not burdens to me; I emerge from those disciplines reinvigorated. Recently I was requested to speak at a Bible study to military personnel and Department of Defense civilians. I’d been studying in Psalm 67, so I thought that would be a sound passage from which to teach. It was not just because that is where I’d been in some of my recent studies. It was more than that. I consistently see the longing for encouragement that we all have.

Because we are fallen creatures, and because we live in a fallen world, the pathos of this world is more properly identified as tragic rather than comic. Suffering is real. Unlike the cult of Christian Science, the Bible does not deny the reality of suffering. Unlike pantheistic worldviews like Buddhism, the Bible does not teach that suffering can be avoided through an eightfold noble path. Among other profound truths, the Bible teaches that, because this world is fallen, Christians are pilgrims moving through this valley of the shadow of death.

The Bible repeatedly uses the metaphor of the good shepherd (Jesus) who guards his sheep, abiding with them amidst evil, and preserves them from ultimate death. This is why Jesus, after his incarnation, repeatedly referred to himself as the good shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11 ESV). He reminds his followers that most of the world consists of thieves and wolves in sheep’s clothing, and that he (God alone) is wholly trustworthy. Jesus is the shepherd who encourages his sheep amidst suffering. This life’s slings and arrows are endurable because of Jesus, the conquering shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14-15 ESV).

There is a relationship between Jesus as the good shepherd and his sheep that endures because of the shepherd’s triumph. Yes, the good shepherd laid down his life for his sheep (the crucifixion), but three days later, he took it up again (Jesus’ resurrection). Therefore, his sheep are to have hope. We can be encouraged. This is the good news. The gospel does not mean that the sheep (Christ-followers) are exempt from suffering, but it does mean that we are equipped to endure, because we are buried with Christ and raised because of his triumphal resurrection.

Psalm 67 begins with a reference to the well-known Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:25. This is where God told Moses what to teach Aaron about blessing Israel. Like many of you, I love that blessing: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Nub 6:24-26 ESV). I think we gravitate towards it because we sense its intent: God promises to bless his people. It is sheer encouragement, and the whole creation groans for encouragement.

But when you read Psalm 67 closely, you see that God blesses his people in order that they might bless others by introducing them to this fount of blessing–God himself. He blesses them so that God’s way “may be known on earth, [God’s] saving power among all nations” (Ps 67:2 ESV). In other words, the greatest blessing is God himself. Upon receiving the blessing of God, the proper response should be outward—namely, to declare who God is and what God has done.

Growing up as I did in a local church, I remember old ladies saying this many times, “May God bless you, and make you a blessing.” Now, my personality tends to recoil at clichés and platitudes, but there is great truth in that phrase. We are blessed in order to be a blessing.

So what does this have to do with the longing for encouragement? Let me share one anecdote to illustrate it. Several months ago, a senior noncommissioned officer was retiring from the Army after 30 years. He’d been a chaplain assistant his entire career. He was (and is) one of the most gentle and humble men I’ve ever known. Never one to put his name out front for recognition, he eschewed the limelight. He was more like Mary (see Jn 3:3) who poured oil upon Jesus’ feet and dried them with the locks of her hair. Neither this soldier nor Mary was self-absorbed; their focus was outward—upon others because of Christ. Speaker after speaker lined up to share stories of how SFC Franklin had touched their lives by pouring his own life and ministry into them. Sometimes he had done it just by his gentle manner. At other times, he served them by providing a small service at just the right time. But the pattern that emerged over and over was of the encouragement he brought. When it came time for us to listen to his remarks, he kept them short. He said this, “I’ve always wanted God’s favor upon my life. In order to ask for that, I have aimed to please God first. Thank you all for allowing me to be part of God’s plan.” Then he stepped away from the podium, away from the microphone.

Scores of us lined up afterwards to shake his hand, to embrace him, to wish him blessings in his future endeavors. And we all had similar stories: he had encouraged us via his life and ministry. We all long for encouragement. I get that. What is much harder to inculcate and live out, however, is to encourage others. I guess those old ladies in the small Baptist churches were (once again) right all along: May God bless us, and make us a blessing.

 

Flannery O’Connor and Jesus

 

flannery-jpg

A good man is hard to find…until you meet Jesus; then it’s impossible. Flannery O’Connor’s masterful short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is perhaps my favorite short story, because it throws down a gauntlet. It challenges readers to confront Jesus. If Jesus rose, we’ve got to deal with it, because a resurrection would change everything.

If you’re unfamiliar with thimgres-2e story, it’s a simple plot: A grandmother, the protagonist, persuades her only son, Bailey, to take her along on a family vacation Bailey and his family have planned to FL. The grandmother, a complaining prig and gossip, would rather go to east TN, but she acquiesces to the FL plan. Referencing the newspaper, the grandmother alerts her son (Bailey) that an escaped convict called the Misfit, is on the loose:

“Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.” (117)

Nonetheless, they all set out–Bailey (the grandmother’s son), his wife, the two adolescent children (John Wesley and June Star), the unnamed infant, and the pontificating grandmother.

The ensuing irony is superb. The grandmother is resolved that she wouldn’t put her family in harm’s way. Naturally, she’s concerned with keeping a clear conscience. But guess what happens? The family gets lost (due to the grandmother), is involved in a car accident, and ends up at the end of the Misfit’s muzzle.

The paths of the escaped criminal/main antagonist (the Misfit), along with his fellow escapees (Hiram and Bobby Lee), and the vacationing family, cross. Murder, the reader senses, looms.

The confrontation is unforgettable. These words from the Misfit are some of the most important in literature:

“Jesus thown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the paper on me. Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers. That’s why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right. I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” (131)

Again the irony is dramatic and tragic. The grandmother, a southern “lady,” meticulous in her dress, mindful of her acquaintances and how she appears in her sphere, is a “good” person on the outside. And for a while, she is spared…until now. She has been granted grace. Her family, however, is a few yards away, slaughtered in the woods, and she’s in existential discussion in a few tense minutes before eternity. And the Misfit utters these words:

“If He [Jesus] did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.” (132).

The Misfit was right, of course. Jesus was right, too, when He said, “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18b). Who’s good in the story, truly good? The grandmother? Hardly. Her family? No. The Misfit? No. But if Jesus did what He said, then that changes everything, and we should follow.

Flannery has thrown down a gauntlet, and we’d do well to pay attention.

Shakespeare, David Foster Wallace, and Jesus: Intimations on Death and the Afterlife (Part 2 of 2)

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  1. Lasting meaning only possible with eternal reference point
  2. Jesus’ claims to be the eternal reference point
  3. Yorick’s life matters because of the imago Dei; denial of Jesus ends in denial of dignity

Why would an atheist weep at a funeral? His weeping could be over missing his loved one. He might weep over his own loneliness now that his loved one has departed. But if he is a consistent atheist, he cannot explain why the life of the deceased mattered in any objective sense. All he can say is that the life mattered to him. It’s a purely subjective ascribing of value to another. But I do not see how the atheist can claim justifiably that a life matters–any life—objectively.

When Hamlet and Horatio interact with the Gravedigger in Act V of Hamlet, Shakespeare dramatizes the conflict between a theistic worldview vs. an atheistic worldview. Hamlet obviously loved Yorick. Yorick had played with Hamlet, had fostered his growth, and had perhaps mentored young Prince Hamlet. But now, having died, how should Hamlet view the meaning of Yorick’s life and death?

If Hamlet were an atheist, he’d have no objective reason why he should mourn. Who mourns over material? Sure, we mourn when we lose our property, or wreck an automobile, etc. But Hamlet is mourning the loss of a relationship, another person that had loved him, and that Hamlet had loved in return. But if Hamlet were a theist, and he had an eternal reference point for meaning, then it would make perfect sense to mourn for the loss of his friend, and to also have hope that Yorick’s life was not just dust to dust, but that his soul lives, and would even be reunited with his glorified body. But that would be the case only if Jesus Christ conquered the grave.

Here is Paul’s account in 1 Cor 15:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brother at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. The he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor 15:3-8 ESV)

Paul says Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead is the matter of “first importance.” That means we must deal with it if we’re to come to terms with the meaning of life and death. If Christ was resurrected, then we will be—either to hell or heaven. The “Yoricks” that we know will likewise be resurrected.

But do we have evidence to substantiate Paul’s claims? Yes; there is so much evidence that tomes are written about it. However, below are five reasons that, as a minimum, deserve our thoughtfulness.

First, there are precise predictions in the Old Testament, prior to Jesus’ incarnation as the suffering servant who would bear the sins of many, being crushed as as a substitute for sinners. Isaiah 53:3-12 is probably the most overt reference to Jesus’ role in this regard.

Second, in the NT we have Jesus’ post-resurrection discussion with Cleopas and another early Christ-follower on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. “And he [Jesus] said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scripture the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:25-27).

Third, consider Jesus’ own words: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40). That claim is either true or false. If Jesus was not resurrected, as he clearly said he would be, why has no one produced his body?

Fourth, how do we explain the utterly transformed lives of the disciples? Other than Judas Iscariot, whom Jesus knew would betray him (see Jn 6:64; 13:11), the lives of the disciples were revolutionized by Jesus. They were martyred for their exclusive allegiance to Christ as Lord. Some were beheaded; others were crucified; others were exiled (John off the coast of Turkey, for example).

Fifth, why did the Romans place extra guards by the tomb of Jesus? Why could they not account for Jesus’ disappearance? This was the strongest army in the ancient Near East. They were experts in crucifixion, yet they could not guard a corpse or possible thieves? And how could a flayed and bloodied Jew, claiming to be God in the flesh, exit a tomb, and no one restrain him?

Because Jesus was and is the eternal reference point, dignity is real. “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58).

In sum, unless Jesus exited that tomb, there is no qualitative difference between us and the dirt. Yorick’s life didn’t matter, if Jesus is not God, and if Jesus did not conquer the grave.

As David Foster Wallace commented in his interviews about Infinite Jest, he (DFW) set out to write a sad book. In a world without Jesus’ unrepeatable work of conquering the curse of the grave, we’re all characters in a sad book. However, because Jesus did do what was prophesied, and because we have millennia of evidence to substantiate it, there is dignity to this life, and there is hope beyond the grave. Yorick mattered–not just to Hamlet but to God, because Yorick, too, bore the imago Dei. Yorick will live again.

Shakespeare, David Foster Wallace, and Jesus: Intimations on Death and the Afterlife (Part 1 of 2)

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  1. Lasting meaning
  2. Lasting meaning only makes sense if God exists.
  3. Jesus’ historicity and the historical record

No, this is not an article answering the question about whom I’d like to have as dinner guests. Rather, I want to examine a famous literary scene and ask the question, what worldview of these presented here most accurately corresponds to our intimations of death and the afterlife (if there is one)? That is, whose portrayal of the questions about death, and what comes after (if anything), seems most credible?

First, in full disclosure of some of my literary biases, I’m more than fond of each of these people’s works. I earned a B.A. and M.A. in English years ago. I’m a literary geek by, surely, anyone’s standard. Other literary bibliophiles out there understand. Imagine walking down an unfamiliar street and glimpsing a bookstore new to you. From the street, you can see quotes from Bunyan, Dickens, or Hemingway on placards through the store’s windows. Before you’ve blinked again, you’re inside for a cup of coffee and scouring the store’s shelves for your favorite reads.

I read Shakespeare out of sheer marvel at his linguistic genius and his accurate portrayals of human experience. As to Wallace, I’m a newcomer to his writings. I eschewed postmodern literature for many years because I thought it was self-defeating (more on this theme in subsequent articles), but I’ve come to respect what Wallace was grappling with, even though I may disagree with his intimations regarding God.

When it comes to Jesus, though he is not recorded in history as having written anything other than what he drew/wrote on the ground (as recorded in John 8:6b-8), few intelligent people would argue that anyone else’s life has engendered more change, been investigated more, or is more crucial to deal with than his. Jesus was not a writer, per se. He either was/is God in the flesh or he wasn’t/isn’t. He either was/is the savior of sinners or he isn’t. Say what you will, he never came to write a great novel (like Wallace’s Infinite Jest) or to pen some of the world’s noblest tragedies (King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.). No, Jesus addressed death and the afterlife in distinctive ways.

Second, I concede that volumes could be written about the question being asked. I take that to mean this question is thereby a question worthy of thoughtful discussion. I am simply interested in gauging each man’s worldview concerning this question, as evidenced by one famous scene in literature.

For the sake of briefly addressing the question of which person most accurately portrays our intimations of death and the afterlife, consider the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is walking with Horatio, and they come across the Gravedigger and his burial of Hamlet’s former friend, Yorick:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath

borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? (5.1.181-89)

Admittedly, it is dangerous and premature to judge a writer’s/thinker’s oeuvre by cherry picking one scene from an entire life’s work. For the sake of the question I’m addressing here, will we at least consider the question in light of this scene from Hamlet since it (the scene) contains both the phrase for which Wallace entitled his masterpiece and, second, the scene illustrates the issue of mortality and the question of the afterlife?

Since this is to be (at least) a two-part article, may I suggest that Shakespeare is putting before us the question of lasting meaning? Did Yorick’s life matter? Sure, to Yorick, right? And obviously to Hamlet. After all, Hamlet is lamenting the loss of Yorick to the grave. Yet, Shakespeare is illustrating more. He’s asking, what is anyone’s life worth if the grave is all there is? If Yorick was just material, then he’s reduced to material again via death. This would be the consistent position of a naturalistic worldview. In a naturalistic worldview, Hamlet’s lamentations would be folly. Why lament death of material when you, too, are just material? But was Yorick just material? Is Hamlet just material? Are you and I just material? It does make sense to even speak of material that laments. Shakespeare illustrates the question, but is not overt in answering it.

For Wallace, I think, he sees death as the final scene, but only if there’s no transcendent Creator (God). Death is the end if we jest or if are in earnest. If there’s no God, then all we have is distraction, entertainment, and isolation. We’re exiled east of Eden, like Cain, but there’s no God to give us a mark to keep us from being avenged by other lost souls. We can jest, but not infinitely. In the end, we end like (perhaps) Yorick did, only dust to dust. Our jesting would be more rightly turned to lamentation, if God is absent and there’s no triumphing over the curse of death.

With Jesus, however, he promised that if we’re united to him via genuine faith, we’d conquer the grave. He said he’d prepare a place for us (Jn 14:3a), that he’d come again and take believers to himself (Jn 14:3b). Was he lying? If so, then he wasn’t trustworthy, and we are cast back upon the inevitability of death and how to address the afterlife (if there is one). In sum, if Jesus did rise from the dead, that would change the playing field. Several thousand years of church history have attested to Jesus’ resurrection. Pharisees who originally persecuted Christians became evangelists and apologists for Jesus and the Christian worldview. The true disciples were martyred or exiled for their convictions that Jesus was the resurrected Lord. No one has produced the body of Jesus. Surely, these claims are worthy of thoughtful investigation. If Jesus conquered death, that changes everything in the cosmos.

If you’ve not done so, I suggest reading through Hamlet again, and reading Wallace’s fiction, too. If you’re willing, read the gospel of John. Ask honestly if Jesus is trustworthy and see if he’ll reward your earnest search. Thomas, too, was a skeptic, so you’re neither the first nor the last. Genuine inquiry after the truth is worth our energies.

Who best addressed this issue? Shakespeare, it seems to me, merely highlighted the question for dramatic effect. How we answer the dilemma posed reveals our worldview. Based upon DFW’s writing that I’ve read (I’ve not read all of his material, yet) man lives in a closed universe (where God’s non-existence is presupposed). This seems a much more difficult world in which to make the case for moral law. In the absence of the eternal reference point (God) who conquered death, relativism seems the inevitable deduction.

However, if Christ conquered the grave, then the way we view the “Yoricks” in our lives is revolutionized. No small amount depends on whether Jesus was trustworthy and if there’s historical evidence to substantiate his claims. More to follow on that question in part two.