Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What They Fear

In his podcast "The Metamorphic Man", Stephen Tobolowsky recalls the advice given him by an acting teacher. To find the heart of a character, ask yourself what is his greatest hope and what is his greatest fear. I would add figure out which is the stronger force in the character's life. Some people are driven by their hopes; some are impelled by their fears. In Tennessee Williams' play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," almost all of the characters are driven by fear--of disease, of death, of disinheritance, of deception. Only "Maggie the Cat" lives primarily for her hope--of reconciliation with her husband, of her father-in-law's favor, and, at the end, for a child.

It works for real people, too. If you want to know what motivates someone, find out their fondest hope and deepest fear, and then work out which is greater. It's easier to understand a man's actions if you know that he fears looking weak above all. You will have great insight into a woman if you understand that her highest hope is to be popular and her worst fear is being left out. If you realize that domesticity is a potential partner's idea of a living hell, you can avoid that fate for both of you.

The reason I bring this up, besides hearing the podcast this week, is that our passage from 1 Peter has some unusually specific advice. Normally, we are told "do not fear," but here, in talking about persecution, the writer tells us "do not fear what they fear…" By they, he must mean the persecutors. And it makes sense. Why do those in authority lash out at others? Usually because they consider them a threat. In the case of Christians, who were pacifists, the authorities weren't afraid of them but their ideas. Which ideas?

The Romans, like Alexander the Great, were generally very tolerant of the religions of those they conquered. It was easy because almost all of them were polytheistic. All that the Romans required was that their divine emperor be given a place in their pantheon. And none of their subjugated people had a problem with that. Except the Jews. They believed in one God. There was no compromise. Rather than wipe out the nation, and all the Jewish communities spread throughout the empire, the Romans let Judaism stay as it was and made it an official religion. But not Christianity. It didn't need another religion that couldn't accept the divinity of the head of state.

But was that the only reason? Wasn't Christianity otherwise an ideal religion, with its emphasis on loving others and treating others like oneself? Wouldn't faithful Christians make great citizens? It was, after all, one of the few religions that did not combine church and state. Jesus said that citizens should pay their taxes and give to Caesar what was Caesar's. Paul said to obey the authorities. How could they object to that?

The reason why religion and state were combined in almost every society until quite recently is that otherwise they are rivals. God by definition should come before the state and temporal authorities couldn't have that. But if they were combined, then there was no conflict. If the emperor and God were one and the same, one's duty to one's religion and one's duty to one's state were in harmony. That's why a lot of kings were either called a god or the son of a god.

And that's another way in which Judaism differed from other religions. It had prophets, people who spoke for and answered only to God. This independence allowed them to hold kings and even priests to God's standards and criticize them for their actions. Nathan could accuse King David of adultery and murder. Jeremiah could be a thorn in the side of several kings. Amos could even go off reservation and pronounce God's judgment on the King of Israel, to the north of his native Judah. The inclusion of these prophetic books into the Hebrew Scriptures, when they often went against the official line of their royals, is unique. Most nations would have suppressed them.

Jesus and his followers were part of that tradition, something Rome really didn't want spreading. As it became clearer that Christianity was something other than just another Jewish sect, it became a target. Eventually, Rome required Christians make a religious sacrifice to the divine emperor and punished those who refused. Caesar was a jealous god who brooked no rivals.

But what specifically did they fear? In earlier versions of the Dungeon and Dragons role playing games, you had to choose a basic moral stance for your character. You could be good, evil or neutral. In addition, you could be lawful or chaotic. A lawful good character was committed to the rule of law, like Sir Galahad. A chaotic good character put following his conscience over the law, like Robin Hood. Rulers don't like rebels, even good ones.

Because Christians' primary allegiance was to their Lord, Jesus Christ, Rome feared them. For those in power, law and order trump conscience every time. If delivering justice threatened to upset the civil peace, justice could be jettisoned. People with principles make authorities nervous. They want obedience, regardless of who gets hurt.

I ran across an example of this in the life of a man who may have been one of the models for James Bond. During the Second World War, Ian Fleming was in intelligence. One of the men who worked with him was Patrick Dalzel-Job. Dalzel-Job was a diver, linguist, and sharpshooter who could ski backwards and pilot a miniature submarine. He parachuted behind enemy lines and worked with a Anglo/Polish/French Expeditionary Force in Narvik, Norway. They inflicted great losses on the German navy in the area and denied the Nazis undisputed air control. But when Allied priorities shifted, the force was pulled out. Knowing that the Nazis would take it out on the locals, Patrick disobeyed direct orders and managed to evacuate 5000 civilians. Had the King of Norway not awarded him the Knight's Cross of St. Olaf, he would have been court-martialed. Patrick Dalzel-Job put conscience above lawful orders. People like him give those in power the willies.

Fair enough. The Romans feared the Christians because they put conscience above the law when there was a conflict between the two. That makes Christians heroes. So why would we fear that?

Because we are social beings. It is very hard to go against the group. They've done experiments in which a person can be convinced that 2 obviously unequal lines are the same length when everyone else says they are. (Only that one person was not in on the purpose of the experiment.) Similarly, people will continue to sit in a waiting room while smoke comes from under a locked door if everyone else ignores this obvious sign of fire. The Red Cross found that the hardest part of CPR was getting one person to initiate it. The more people standing around a stranger having an apparent heart attack, the less likely anyone is to aid the victim. But if just one person starts to act, other people immediately will jump in to help. So now they tell you that if someone collapses, the first thing to do is to go to the person and point to someone else and tell them to dial 911. After that, you'll have all the help you need.

The fear of standing out, of acting alone, of breaking the rules when they clearly are in conflict with the law of love, is what stops a lot of potential good works and acts of compassion. Nowadays, when Christianity is mainstream, we tend to identify with the authorities rather than the rebels. We have a stake in the status quo. We are willing to overlook injustice if it means peace.

This is not to say that rebels are always right. In a worldwide Gallup poll of Muslims, it was found that only 7% of Muslims felt that the terrorist acts of 9/11 were completely justified. Those who approved of Al Qaeda's actions did so on political, not religious, grounds. And only 1% of Muslims were actually militants. The reason we think that more Muslims are militant is that 54% of the media coverage concentrates on that 1%. But the majority of Muslims do not support terrorism. In this case, the law abiding majority is right.

But what do we do when what is right is at odds with the rules? Let me share with you a story we were told at the recent Nehemiah retreat. The Rev. Tom Bracket was working for an ambulance company that covered 4 small towns in Maine. During a big snowstorm, all of the ambulances were called out. Bracket, who usually worked in the office, was pressed into service. He went to an intersection where everyone had pulled off to the side, leaving one car in the road. When he got out of the ambulance, he saw that the car had been crushed like an accordion, so that it was only 7 feet long from front to rear bumper. The backseat space had been eliminated and the driver was hard against the steering wheel. All the windows had been shattered. The driver was a beloved city father named Bruce. He kept saying the words, "Why are you standing around? Get me out of here." He continued to repeat them even as his speech began to slow and slur. One EMT had a doctor from the ER of the nearest hospital on his radio. He was taking Bruce's vital signs and relaying them to the physician. The doctor was coming to the realization that Bruce was bleeding internally. Ironically, the pressure of the car around him was probably keeping him alive. But just then the Fire/Rescue people fired up the Jaws of Life. The doctor called for them to give him quiet. Another group was starting up a giant saw. The doctor demanded quiet. The machines were shut down. The doctor was thinking. Once freed from the car, Bruce was likely to bleed out in 5 minutes. The ER was 20 minutes away. In the silence, Bracket heard the doctor say, "There must be a better way."

Suddenly, the EMT with the radio was taking off his equipment belt and walking around the car to the passenger side. As he approached it he called out for a IV bag, some tubing, a needle and a hanger for the bag. Another EMT got and brought him what he needed. The EMT began squeezing into the tiny front passenger seat to get close to Bruce. Fire/Rescue got out what looked like huge rolls of Saran Wrap and started to wrap the car to cover the windows into which the frigid winds were blowing. Another man started to guide a rusty old flatbed tow truck in and they began to hook up Bruce's car.

On the back of the flatbed, they drove the car to the ER, which opened up its loading dock. With Bruce still inside the car, and the EMT assisting, the ER doc operated and stitched Bruce up well enough that he could be cut out of the car. He was promptly taken to an operating room. Cleaning the glass and wreckage out of the ER was a massive undertaking.

The agency that regulates the hospital ER and the ambulances held hearings to see why it shouldn't pull their accreditation over this outrageous breach of protocol. Why didn't they simply put him in the "box," the part of the ambulance where the stretcher goes and the EMTs start treatment? If he had died, at least they wouldn't be liable. The doctor had to come in and explain that the unique circumstances justified this exception. The agencies still grumbled about setting a bad precedent.

As it turned out, the whole rescue effort was not at all coordinated. The EMT who took off his belt had simply decided that he could not let Bruce die alone. Only after deciding to get in the car with him did he realize he could at least start an IV. Seeing the EMT get into the car, the Fire/Rescue men thought of wrapping the car to keep it warmer. Seeing everyone working in the car, the other fellow realized that one tow truck was unused and started waving the driver back to the wreck. The only thing that they had in common was that they loved Bruce.

All Bruce can remember is an angel who kept telling him to hold on. It wasn't his time to go. When hearing this, the EMT said that was no angel, it was him, trying to keep Bruce fighting as they raced through the snow to the ER. He was wrong. In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for "angel" also means "messenger." The EMT was delivering the right message to Bruce that day.

We have rules for a reason: to keep the peace, to preserve order, to treat everyone fairly, to not have to reinvent the wheel each time, to not overlook anything that has been established as prudent and useful. You wouldn't want the person performing a lifesaving procedure on you to be improvising the whole thing.

But life doesn't always oblige us and fit into the categories and rules we've so painstakingly laid out. Sometimes exceptional circumstances arise. How do we know when to meet them with exceptional acts? For instance, would the people in this story have seemed so wise and heroic had Bruce died? Or would we be saying, "They should have followed the rules?"

That's what we fear. What if our non-conformance blows up in our face? What if we get punished for breaking protocols, for bending the rules, for thinking outside the box? What will we say when others keep repeating, "We told you so?"

First, we need to know what we are doing. Robert Frost said, "Don't ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up." Only those who know the rules well and know why they are rules are really qualified to break them. It should never be done merely because they are hard or inconvenient. Never trust a person whose attitude is that all rules are stupid or one who breaks them all the time. The only valid reason to make an exception to the rules is when it is necessary to heal, to save or to bring life. The ER doctor was probably thinking of the most basic principle of the Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm." Jesus said all of the Law and Prophets hung on the 2 great commandments to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. When rules like observing the Sabbath or not touching a leper conflicted with healing or feeding others, Jesus opted to obey the laws of love. Similarly, 1 Peter tells us to be ready to give an account of the hope in us. That calls for wisdom and understanding of what it means to be and act as a Christian.

Next, pray. It can be as brief as "help me." If the EMT hadn't been on the radio with the ER doc, he may never have heard the words, "There must be a better way." God knows what we need but we may not see or understand what he's providing if we are not in constant communication with him. Jesus prayed a lot, at the beginning of each day and especially before healing people and facing trials. Don't presume to be better off spiritually than Jesus.

Finally, trust God. Don't let fear or intimidation stop you from doing what is obviously the right thing to do. He gives us his Spirit as our guide and advocate. In him we live and move and have our being. Use him. Rely on him and the gifts and talents he has given you and others.

There are no guarantees in this life, except one. Jesus said, we will have trouble in this world. But, he added, he has overcome the world. The EMTs and Patrick Dalzel-Job received a lot of flack for what they did. They were vindicated eventually. But had they not been, I doubt they would have let it change them into cowards. Because by acting on their consciences they saved people. Had they done it any differently, I don't think they could have slept, however many official exonerations they were given. To tweak something said by Philip Gulley: "Fear (and guilt) can keep us up all night long; but faith (and a good conscience) make fine pillows."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Right Kind of Rapture

Sherlock Holmes immunized me to specious Biblical speculation.

I became aware of Sherlock Holmes through the old Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movie series. Then, on my 12th birthday, my mother got me the "Complete Sherlock Holmes," a collection of all 56 short stories and 4 novels about the Great Detective written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What I didn't know then was that this was playfully called the Canon by fans, as if it were the Bible. In the 1920s Biblical scholar, and later Monsignor, Ronald Knox decided in jest to apply the techniques of biblical Higher Criticism to the stories of that most logical of detectives. This intellectual pastime was picked up by fans like the Baker Street Irregulars. The most notorious example was when Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe novels, wrote a paper purporting to prove that Dr. Watson was a woman. Stout presented the paper at the January Irregulars' dinner in New York. In mock outrage at this heresy, his friends carried him outside and dumped him into a snow drift.

I first became aware of this pseudo-scholarly game when I picked up a book entitled "A Sherlock Holmes Commentary" by D. Martin Dakin. There I discovered how clever people would, through often tongue-in-cheek deductions, try to account for discrepancies such as Watson's wandering war wound or the number of his wives or which university Holmes attended. Later I picked up William S. Baring-Gould's 2 volume "Annotated Sherlock Holmes," which is a collection of the stories with extensive footnotes in the style of a study Bible. I've even written such "scholarly" papers myself, having one published in the Baker Street Journal and a few more cited in the Universal Sherlock Holmes.

The basics of the game are this: (A) Come up with an intriguing thought or outrageous assertion about Sherlock Holmes, his friend Watson, or his cases, preferably based on something in the stories, no matter how slim or tenuous. (B) Make your case anyway you can: by finding evidence in other stories, using literary types, psychology, analogy, or deduction, even if suspect. Ignore or explain away anything that doesn't fit. Cleverness counts more than truth. (C) Take your argument to its logical end, even if absurd. (D) Do this with a straight face and make it sound as scholarly as possible.

So imagine my surprise when I started working as a research assistant for one of my Bible professors only to find, among serious papers about the translation of this passage in Hebrew, or an overview of that topic in Scripture, some writings that unwittingly used the same specious reasoning as game-playing geeks to work out the monetary system of the New Jerusalem or map out its streets. It was done not in jest but in earnest because, like some fans, some believers hate mystery, ambiguity, paradox or unanswered questions in their favorite subject and will resort to going way beyond the text, or twisting the Scriptures into knots, in order to work out an answer that satisfies their curiosities or their need for absolute certainty in absolutely everything.

You see this kind of reasoning in the sciences, too. Some physicists point out that, for all its elegance, string theory and the concept of multiple universes have no solid proof and no predictive power. And evolutionary psychology, which tries to explain why certain features of culture arose, is a morass of speculation, even according to other scientists. It's one thing to go from the burial of weapons and tools with the dead to inferring belief in an afterlife; it's quite another to posit that assuming the rustling of high grass meant an unseen predator led to belief in an invisible God.

It is this inability to take "no" or "we don't know," for an answer that drives some people to set dates for Jesus' return. No doubt this week you saw on the internet someone post a reference to Matthew 24:36: "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." That's Jesus talking, in a chapter wholly devoted to the end times. And he says that even he doesn't know when he will return. From this one ought to draw the conclusion that we mere mortals cannot know this either, nor should we worry about it. But some people's need to know it all drives them to disregard what God Incarnate has plainly said. This is akin to Rex Stout's elaborate joke that Watson was a woman. He could only do this by ignoring obvious indications that the good doctor wasn't, such has his being a British army surgeon in the 1800s and his having a moustache. Plus he found confirmation of his assertion in a secret message encoded into the titles of the stories. Which is one reason I also disbelieve the so-called Bible Code, in which one treats the text of the Bible as one large Word Search puzzle. You could do that with any sufficiently large book.

As I've argued before, parts of the Bible are obviously meant to be taken metaphorically. When we get to passages about the end times, we also get intentional symbolism, often used to hide their meaning from oppressors. The main sources of teachings about the last days are found in the books of Daniel and Revelation, which are replete with symbolic images and numbers. The authors even tell their readers to be careful when interpreting these. Yet some folks can't resist going way beyond what was written and trying to work out what is supposed to be way above their pay grade.

I can't cover all of eschatology (the theology of the last things) in this short space. But I can touch on a few things that have come up during this week of foolish speculation on Jesus' return.

Like the Rapture. This is the idea that just before a 7 year period of tribulation leading up to Jesus' actual return, our Lord will drop down out of heaven, levitate true believers into the sky and return to heaven with them in tow. It's a doctrine that comforts a lot of Evangelical believers. Too bad this divine bungee jump is found nowhere in Scripture. You don't find it in Daniel, Revelation, or the passages in the Gospels where Jesus talks about his return. The closet thing to it is a passage in Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians. In this, the earliest book in the New Testament, Paul is comforting believers concerned that some of their members had died before Jesus' return. In chapter 4, verses 16 through 18, Paul writes, "For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up into the clouds with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words."

Notice that there is no talk of tribulation, nor is there anything to indicate that Jesus will make a U-turn in the sky. In fact, the idea parallels that of an imperial visit. When the Emperor would visit a Roman city, heralds would loudly announce his coming, trumpets would sound and the citizens would go to meet him outside the city and escort him into it. Using that imagery, then, Paul is not indicating that Jesus will return whence he came like a yo-yo, but continue on to the earth. The Lord is visiting his rightful territory, not carrying out an extraction. (Rapture, by the way, comes from the Latin word for "caught up, carry off, seized," the same word behind "raptor" and "ravish." It doesn't appear in the original Greek but in the Latin translation.)

So where did the idea of a divine rescue mission come from? From a Scottish minister named Edward Irving who, 1800 years after Jesus, proposed a 2-stage Second Coming. This idea was adopted by John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren movement, and it spread to Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The idea was most widely disseminated by the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible. Like Darby, Cyrus Scofield was a Dispensationalist, who divided the Biblical saga into 7 eras in which the rules of salvation changed from one period to the next. Dispensationalists love to create timelines of the last days, fitting the different apocalyptic accounts in the Bible together into a harmonious whole. Scofield put the "rapture" before the tribulation and so the people who used his Bible were convinced that it was the Scriptural arrangement.

There are and have always been other ways of interpreting the apocalyptic literature in the Bible. The pre-trib rapture is a recent one. I have a commentary on Revelation with the text in one column and then a separate column for each of the 4 major schools of interpretation. Which is correct?

Again, there really isn't space here to weigh their pros and cons. I think what's more important is what the author of each passage intended. Paul states what he wanted to do: encourage those who mourn. And that really seems to be the primary purpose of most apocalypses. They tend to be written when God's people are oppressed and persecuted. Their message is quite simple: Have faith in God. In the end, our good God will win. Justice will triumph. When things look darkest, hold onto your hope. Present troubles are temporary. Those who remain faithful till the end will be rewarded. Beware of false Messiahs. Do not take up arms; God fights his own battles.

This last one surprises a lot of people. In the book of Revelation, like the rest of the New Testament, Christians are never commanded to be combatants. Why do so many people believe the opposite? Because they read it into the text. No book is immune from having people see things in it that aren't there. And the writer of Revelation had to use symbolism to keep the Roman Empire from understanding its radical message and destroying the book. Unfortunately this means that Revelation can function as a Rorschach test for those who are biblically unbalanced. By that, I mean people who do not take all parts of the Bible into consideration. They take one verse or one passage out of context and reinterpret everything in its light. It's a very common way that people misuse the Bible.

The most obvious example is that of a current hot button issue. For instance, there are only 7 passages in the Bible that are clearly about homosexuality, with perhaps 8 more that are murkier. However, there are 2000 about our duty to the poor. Yet the Westboro Baptist Church has made homosexuality the litmus test for damnation, not, say, how the richest country in the world treats its 47 million poor citizens. To say their reading of the Bible is unbalanced is being generous.

Similarly, by my count, the words for war, warrior, warfare, etc. are found 225 times in the Bible. The words for peace, peaceful, peacemaker, etc. appear 449 times. Since it's mentioned twice as often, it looks as if a biblically balanced view would place peace as a much higher priority than war. Yet throughout history, when leaders want to go to war, one big way to get support is to invoke God's will. They ignore the more plentiful passages about peace.

So if we aren't supposed to fight, what are we to do till Jesus comes again? According to Revelation, we are to act as witnesses to the good news about Jesus Christ. And according to Jesus in Matthew 24, we are to do our work as good stewards, taking care of our fellow servants. And according to Matthew 25, that includes feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison, welcoming the immigrant, looking for and serving Christ in everyone we meet. That's what Jesus says he wants to find us doing when he returns, which leaves us little time to try to calculate dates which nobody but God knows.

Calculating dates, you see, is easier than loving people. So are arguing theological details, and coming up with reasons not to do what Scripture plainly tells us to do. Doing the wrong thing is usually easier than doing what's right. As G. K. Chesterton said, it's not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it's that it's been found to be hard and so not tried. But where would we be had Jesus done the easy thing and avoided the disapproval, the persecution, the cross? How can we hope to be like him if we don't do the hard work of trusting God, loving others and putting our hope in him despite the darkness that threatens to engulf the world?

It was the way Christians responded when epidemics swept ancient Rome that changed how people looked at them. Folks who could afford to, fled. Christians stayed and nursed the sick and dying, often succumbing themselves. The witness of their actions when the world seemed to be falling apart around them made many consider the gospel and led them to follow Jesus in turn.

The world will end one day for each of us. Jesus will come for us. It will probably not be a day we foresee or choose. There is no guarantee that we will escape without pain. The difference is that Jesus will be there with us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He will receive us into his Kingdom. When we see him, we will be caught up in his love and carried away with joy. And that rapture will more than make up for any our poor imaginations seize upon.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Shepherding 101

After eating out for Mother's Day, my wife, son, daughter-in-law and I were going to see a movie. But we had a little time and so my son went to run an errand before show time. He went to the pet shop in Key West to get some fresh food for his sugar gliders, these creatures that appear to be half-chipmunk and half-flying squirrel. Specifically, he had to pick up some meal worms. His gliders needed the protein. And when he got to the theatre he realized that he couldn't leave the plastic container of these caterpillar-like creatures in the car during the movie or they would die from the heat. The gliders won't eat them dead. So, over the objections of his wife, he brought them into the theatre. We saw the movie without incident and we all liked it. All the humans, that is. I have no idea what the mealworms made of either the storyline or the special effects.

That night my son called and as we talked he fed the gliders. He was having some trouble. It's not that they are repulsed by the mealworms; they love them. But he couldn't just give a worm to any head that popped out of the hanging bag where they slept. A glider might grab a worm, pull its head into the bag, transfer the worm to a paw, and stick its head out again, hoping to be given a second worm. This may seem clever but evidently they can't really keep track of 2 worms at once. My son has seen a glider with a worm in each forepaw, trying to simultaneously eat and fend off another glider going for the same worm, only to forget to protect the second worm, which was being nibbled on by a third glider. My son can tell the gliders apart at a glance but to be fair he was trying to lure them all out and make sure everyone got a worm. He and his wife also give them fruit and yogurt as well as the occasional peanut. They've done their research and they keep the gliders neither too thin or too fat. They've picked up some tricks through experience as well. For instance, the mother of the brood had a mean temper but they found they could mellow her out a bit with a capful of beer.

Domestic animals need constant care. I have no idea how long gliders have been kept as pets but some animals have been domesticated for thousands of years and really can't go back to living wild. Like sheep. The patriarchs were all herdsmen. King David originally watched his father's sheep. Suited to an area with scarce water and scanty grass, sheep remained an important part of the economy when the Israelites transitioned from nomadic tribes to a nation. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that, with almost 400 references, sheep are mentioned in the Bible more than any other animal and that the shepherd is a powerful symbol of God's care for his people. As the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, from which I got a lot of this, says shepherds are "providers, guides, protectors and constant companions of the sheep. They are also figures of authority and leadership to the animals under their care." And the 23rd Psalm is practically a textbook for being a shepherd. Let's look at it in detail.

"The LORD is my shepherd" begins verse 1. Notice that the psalmist, traditionally identified as David, is speaking not for the flock as a whole here, but as an individual. God is his personal shepherd. And everything that follows is because of that.

"I shall not be in want." A better translation is "I lack nothing." God does not provide everything we want, but everything we need. It's an important distinction. When I forget my phone, I feel as if I've lost something essential. But it's not really. I survived for many decades without a cell phone. It is handy and can be a lifesaver when, say, your car breaks down far from the increasingly rare payphone. But what I really miss is the ability to call people for anything from anywhere, not to mention access to the internet. Now I could point out that I have bookmarked several medical sites, the daily office and even an online Bible. But mostly I use it to check my Facebook and email. When you have a lot of stuff, you tend to reclassify the stuff you like as necessary. Sometimes it takes a crisis to remind you what is really essential. God makes sure we have what we need.

"He makes me lie down in green pastures." Sheep eat grass. The picture here is of a lush green meadow, where the sheep has fresh young grass to feed on. You would find this in spring or during the rainy season. Otherwise the sheep would have to feed on weeds or the stubble of harvested fields. God may not guarantee everything you desire but what he does provide is good and satisfying.

"And leads me beside still waters." Sheep could go a long time between watering and then drink as much as 9 liters, according to the IVP Bible Background Commentary, another resource for this sermon. The Hebrew here is of a restful place with calm, quiet waters, as opposed to a swift or raging river. It might be a well or spring. Again the message is that God provides and provides the best.

"He revives my soul." Literally, this says "a breathing creature, he restores me." A lot of translations render this "he restores my strength." I like Eugene Peterson's paraphrase: "you let me catch my breath." Rest is important. God built it into the week as the Sabbath, when all are commanded to stop working. Our 24/7 world is so relentless that the Huffington Post's Living section has a page just devoted to sleep, with a subsection on stress. We are running ourselves ragged and it is showing up as sleep disorders which in turn lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. God wants us to take rest. He wants it so much he put it in the Ten Commandments. It's the day we stop worrying about the workaday world and think of the Kingdom of God. It's the day we lay down our burdens and take up his burden which is light. It's the day when we remember that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

"And guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake." Sheep aren't the most intelligent of animals and left to themselves have been known to get lost or fall into ravines. So the shepherd calls the sheep and leads them along the correct paths. His reputation as a good shepherd depends on his knowing the lay of the land and safe ways to get to new pastures and watering holes. Sometimes we think God's ways are arbitrary, as if the moral rules he sets down are like your peculiar aunt's rules for how to act when you visit her. But God set up the universe; he knows the right and wrong ways to treat it and following his ways are ultimately going to spare you a lot of grief.

"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…" Sometimes the shepherd has to lead his sheep through a deep ravine where predators might lurk in the shadows. The sheep could be expected to be unnerved. Similarly when we face the possibility of death, fear shivers just below the surface of our seeming unconcern.

"I shall fear no evil; for you are with me…" The sheep follow the shepherd despite the dangers on every side. His presence is reassuring. So, too, should the presence of God help us calm down. He is always with us. And if we concentrate on him rather than on what scares us, we can get through the bad times.

"Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." A shepherd carried a rod, a cudgel really, in his belt. It was used to ward off thieves and hungry animals. The staff he used for walking had a crook. It could be used to hook a sheep that had tumbled down a ravine and pull it out. God protects us from external threats as well as our own proclivity to fall.

"You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me." The metaphor shifts to that of a host and his guest. A host was expected to protect his guest as long as he was under his roof. This is especially true if the host were a king. A person's enemies could only look on impotently.

"You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over." At a royal banquet, the guest would be anointed with the choicest of oils. It made them and the whole banquet hall smell good. Oil in this case symbolizes gladness. And the cup isn't overflowing, just at the point where it threatens to do so. A better translation is: "my cup is filled to the very brim."

"Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…" The word traditionally translated "mercy" here means "steadfast love" or "faithfulness." God's goodness and faithful love shall follow us wherever we go, all our lives.

"And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." It looks as if the metaphor has changed again. The picture is that of a pilgrim, going to the house of the Lord, which was the Temple in Jerusalem. But metaphorically, it is anywhere God is, as Jacob realized when he got his vision of angels climbing to and from heaven. He named the place Bethel, which means "house of God." Where God dwells, there is paradise. Which is why most translations take the phrase which the new RSV properly renders "my whole long life" and use the word "forever" instead. Our hope is not just for this life but for life eternal. God, as Jesus points out, is the God of the living, not the dead.

It may be humiliating to be compared to sheep, but we do tend to follow the crowd and we do tend to get lost and we do tend to pick the wrong paths to wander down. But God is our shepherd. As is his Son our Savior, who laid down his life to save us. Our basic role is to listen for his voice and follow him, trusting that he guides us onto the right paths, and that no matter how dark or scary it becomes, he will protect us and rescue us when we have fallen into a pit. We are to follow in the sure and steady hope that he is leading us to plentiful nourishment and peaceful rest and refreshment.

We often make following Jesus much more complicated than it needs to be, getting lost in details and forgetting the big picture. We often get panicky or put too much trust in our own ability to control things which ultimately we can't. The enduring appeal of the 23rd Psalm is that it reassures and calms us with the knowledge that God is our guide, our protector, and our provider. He has our best interests at heart. The hardest part for us may be simply trusting in him who will never abandon us and will be our companion now and forevermore.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Celebrating Death

My wife and I were getting ready for bed, when I noticed that the Twitter feed for BBC Breaking News had announced the death of Osama bin Laden. I flipped to the news on TV and sure, enough, everyone was talking about it. They showed crowds of people in the streets, cheering, chanting "USA! USA!" Like 56 million others, I waited till President Obama came on and made it official. And I didn't know how to feel.

I know how I actually felt. "Good riddance!" "At last!" and "Take that!" are some of my more civil responses. Bin Laden was ultimately responsible for the death of 200 people at nightclubs in Bali, 191 people in Madrid, 56 in London, 60 in Amman, and 3000 on 9/11, not to mention thousands more injured in these suicide attacks. Throw in the military and civilian casualties of the war in Afghanistan, and, to be generous, just those in Iraq caused by the branch of Al Qaeda there, like the 170 Shi'ites killed at Kerbala, and he is one of the most lethal terrorist leaders in history. He never denied what he did and he never showed any remorse. And unlike Hitler, he was killed by soldiers of one of the nations he attacked. He wasn't armed but, as Roger Ebert pointed out, neither were his victims on 9/11.

At the same time I didn't know if I ought to celebrate the death of anyone, even a mastermind of mass murder. There were pragmatic reasons not to. My nephew, a former Airborne Ranger, posted this on Facebook: "Beware of exuberance in the face of a movement that now has a martyred king." Certainly the public displays of Americans cheering bin Laden's death are going to be received by some overseas in the same way we reacted to video of his supporters celebrating the deaths on 9/11. They may come back to haunt us. My nephew added "There was a Jewish rebel that was executed by an empire. His followers are still around 2000 years later." I had to smile at that.

We'll get back to whether there is an equivalence between the death of bin Laden and Jesus. But are there moral reasons not to celebrate the death of an enemy?

There is what I call the forgotten commandment: "Love your enemies." Jesus was hardly naïve. He'd lived his whole life under Roman occupation. His home of Nazareth was just 4 miles from the capital of Galilee, Sepphoris. When Herod the Great died, some people of the city revolted. The Roman Governor Varus had the city destroyed. Its women and children were sold into slavery and all the men were crucified along the roads to the city. Jesus would have heard stories of it from childhood. When Jesus was a young teen, Herod's son, Herod Antipas, had Sepphoris rebuilt. Joseph may well have worked there. So when Jesus talked of enemies, he wasn't just talking about the jerk at work who takes your lunch from the fridge. He meant people who could kill you. And he commanded us to love them.

Why should we do that? I mean besides the fact that God commands us to. God created all of humanity in his image. As God tells Noah in Genesis 9, that's the reason why murder is wrong. We are made in the image of the God who is love. That is why, as it says in Ezekiel 18, the Lord doesn't take pleasure in the death of anyone, not even the wicked. He would rather that they turn from their evil ways and live. Contrary to what some people think, God isn't really about death but life. He isn't about killing; he's about resurrection. He isn't about the end of the world; he's about new creation.

How do we love our enemies? It depends on what's needed. We can help, serve, encourage, teach, heal, listen, protect, befriend, give, guide, trust, strengthen, repent, forgive, comfort, pray, thank, support, liberate, reconcile, and sacrifice. With a tool kit that extensive, we shouldn't have to resort to harming others.

Sometimes people who do wrong will not stop, will not change their ways. What happens then? Usually they run afoul of the law. Governments, Paul says, are given the power to punish wrongdoers. And, as Jesus says, those who live by the sword will perish by it. That is, objectively speaking, what happened to bin Laden. That doesn't mean we should rejoice over it.

But isn't that in the Bible, too? In Exodus 15, Moses and the Israelites sing to God after they crossed the sea and the waters closed over their pursuers, Pharaoh's army. Linguists say it may be the oldest portion of the Bible. Isn't that gloating over the death of enemies? First of all, they're not patting themselves on the back. They did nothing. They are thanking God for saving them from the people who enslaved them and didn't want them to leave.

But, yes, they are certainly happy about it. It is interesting that, according to Rabbi Justus Baird in a recent article on the Huffington Post, there is a rabbinic tradition that as the children of Israel sang at the waters covering the Egyptians, God told his angels not to sing. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach says the Talmud even has God saying to the Israelites, "My creatures are drowning in the sea, yet you have now decided to sing about it?" The commentators in the Talmud were obviously thinking of other passages in the Bible which emphasize the universality of God's concern. They are recognizing that, however human the reaction of the just rescued Israelites, the Biblical account here is descriptive of them and not prescriptive for us.

Islam also has a tradition that the death of an enemy should not be celebrated, according to Imam Sohaib Sultan in the aforementioned article. There is a story that Muhammad stood for the funeral procession of an enemy. When asked why, he said, "Is he not a human being?"

But don't we Christians celebrate death, specifically Jesus' death, even calling the day he died Good Friday? Don't we say in Eucharistic Prayer C "We celebrate his death and resurrection as we await the day of his coming?" We do. But we are not gloating over the death of a foe but thanking God for the great sacrifice of our Savior, as well as his raising from the dead. And that is part of what distinguishes his death from bin Laden's.

Both are religious figures. Both are seen as saviors. Bin Laden saved Afghanistan from the Soviets by spilling their blood. Jesus saves anyone in the whole world from sin through the spilling of his own blood. Bin Laden ran from those who would kill him, letting followers die instead. Jesus let himself be captured in return for his disciples' freedom. Bin Laden was killed for his real crimes. Jesus was executed unjustly.

Jesus' death would have been a massive tragedy, if it weren't for the resurrection. Bin Laden's death must be considered a tragedy from God's point of view. He was an inspirational leader of men. He could have used his wealth and influence to help the poor and disenfranchised. But he led his followers to kill others. His definition of what is good was very narrow, confined to what was good for him and his co-religionists. And that didn't even include all Muslims but only those who held to his quite strict interpretation of Islam. So he could kill other Muslims without a qualm, not to mention non-Muslims, and call that bloodshed good.

Evil can be seen as too narrow a definition of good. When "good" is defined as simply "what is good for me, period," it's pretty obvious that this is just selfishness. What makes it evil is the implied "and to hell with the rest of the world." People often tolerate other definitions of good when it is widened just a bit to "what is good for me and my…family." Or "class." Or "religion." Or "race." Or "country." The wider circles do get closer to an adequate definition of good but the only truly moral definition of good is "what is good for all." That may be tough to achieve in a practical sense but that is what we should aim for. To deliberately aim for less than that, to say "who cares about what happens to the rest of the world," is evil.

God cares. The Jews were looking for a Messiah for them alone. He should save them from Gentile occupation, period. God sent a Messiah to save the whole world, not from just one manifestation of evil, but from all evil. And because Jesus didn't fit the narrow religious definition of a Messiah, or even a good Jew, the leaders of his people turned him over to one of the most brutal powers ever known, the Roman Empire. And they crucified him.

We call it Good Friday because God took the consequences of our evil on himself. We call it Good Friday because God took the worst thing imaginable, the killing not just of a human created in the image of God but of God himself, and turned it into the greatest boon imaginable. All sins, past, present and future, of all people have been crucified and buried with him. All we need to do is stop fighting God, lay down our weapons, and trust him. We need to start looking for the Christ, the image of God, in others, however marred by sin and neglect. We need to help them see Christ in themselves so that they can let him work in them.

For most Muslims, the word "jihad" means the struggle not with others but with themselves to be true to the God they call the Merciful. Like Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and all other human beings, they don't always live up to their ideals. We Christians believe that God has anticipated that, that he is always ready to forgive the truly repentant, and to help us become new people through the power of his indwelling Spirit. But nothing works if you don't really put it to work. And nobody will believe our God is loving and merciful if we don't act loving and merciful to others.

What a witness it would have been if Americans didn't dance in the streets when another human being died! What a testament to our faith if we, like God, grieved that a person created in his image failed to live up to that heritage! What if we didn't clamor to see the grisly pictures of a man who similarly killed thousands of others in grisly ways!

Osama bin Laden lived in an honor-shame culture. He would want his name to live on as that of a great hero. But he has even alienated most Muslims. So, except for a narrow group of his followers, his name will go down with the mass murderers of history, such as Hitler, Pol Pot, and Saddam Hussein, a man who fell well outside bin Laden's definition of a good Muslim. He will never be grouped with people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Jesus, as someone who made the ultimate sacrifice for others, and whose legacy is peace. He could have but he chose to embrace evil, to agree with the proposition that the end justifies any means, to hitch his star to a very narrow definition of good, one that has seriously dishonored his religion. And that is tragic.

If he has done any good, it is in showing what nonsense the idea of all religions being the same is. How you see God does indeed make a difference. A god who desires the death of the wicked is quite different from one who gives his life to save the wicked. Yes, I know that there have been so-called Christians who have killed in the name of God but it goes against the grain of what Jesus taught. People who have tried to justify a Christianity that condones killing have had to ignore so many sayings of Jesus about turning the other cheek, about not resisting evil, about putting up the sword, about loving one's enemies. Whenever the culture tried to pervert the faith in that way, people arose like St. Francis, the Cathars, the Quakers, the Amish and the Mennonites who have sought to restore the idea of peacemaking to a more central place in Christian ethics.

Violence does not end violence; it only encourages retaliation. If bin Laden thought that what he did on 9/11 would stop the US, he was obviously mistaken. And few think that killing bin Laden will discourage Al Qaeda from retaliating. Yet for all of human history we have tried to stop violence with violence. We have invented more and more destructive weapons, hoping that one will be so horrific that people will opt for peace rather than deploy it.

We mean peace on our terms, of course. Peace that is good for us, not necessarily for the other side. Peace that saves our face, not necessarily that of the other side. Peace that entails sacrifice for the other side but not for us. Sound familiar? It's that inadequate definition of good that amounts to evil. As long as we stick to that definition and use violent means to achieve it, we will get the same results as before. They say doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results is one definition of madness. In the light of the overwhelming evidence that what we're doing doesn't work, the sane thing might be to repay evil with good. It's like turning in the direction of the skid when your car is skidding. It may be counter-intuitive but it is also right. And it may just save lives.

Today is Mother's Day. It is a day when we celebrate not death but those who give life and who nurture life. We celebrate those who are our first teachers, who teach us to love and speak and eat and clean ourselves and dress ourselves and behave ourselves. The fact is that most of us are not terrorists, are not criminals, are not terrible people. A lot of that is due to how we were raised and much of that was done by our loving mothers. The news and our entertainment focus on violence and death because they are more exciting. We need to redress that. We need to focus more on virtues that prevent violence and that heal pain and redirect feelings of anger. Virtues like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, humility and self-control. Recognize them? They are the fruit of the Spirit. They are qualities that should naturally arise from the Christian living according to the Spirit of God. They don't make a lot of movies or TV shows or video games that highlight them. The world often sees them as weaknesses. But if we look at the world, they are precisely the qualities we need. They are what keep things from falling apart and that make life worth living. So let us resolve to start manifesting them in our daily lives and to realize that when they are hardest to practice, they are needed the most. We need to stop celebrating death and start celebrating life. God is about life… new life, new birth, new creation.

Monday, May 2, 2011

How to get to Heaven when you feel like Hell

Philip Jose Farmer was one of those rare science fiction writers who could do it all: think up a truly original and mind-blowing premise, devise an exciting plot that revolved around the main concept and people it with charismatic characters. He also created worlds and societies that operated according to their own rules. One of my favorites is Riverworld. It begins when everybody who has ever lived on earth finds himself resurrected on a world encircled by one river that spirals from one pole to the other. Each person has tethered to his or her wrist a canister, which fits into niches in these giant mushroom-like structures. At regular intervals the mushrooms discharge energy that fills the canisters with food, towels and necessities. Who resurrected all of humanity and why? We follow a motley crew of historical figures including Sir Richard Francis Burton, Tom Mix, Jack London, Mark Twain, and Herman Goering as they travel up the world-spanning river to find its source and the beings who accomplished this.

It's a great idea and makes for a rousing series of adventure books. The SyFy channel has twice tried and failed to make a good pilot based on the books. But it does make for a horrible afterlife. Though everyone is provided for and anyone killed on the world is resurrected somewhere else on the river the next day, the fact is that everyone is pretty much as he was in life. So evil people are not only present but act as they did on earth. Dictators create their own kingdoms, people are enslaved, their food and goods seized or controlled and though metal is rare on Riverworld, human beings are, as usual, extremely creative in making weapons. Religions, like the Church of the Second Chance, arise but there is no heaven to anticipate. There is no ultimate justice or reckoning for the wicked. The suffering receive no recompense nor protection against aggressors. Imagine an afterlife in which is pretty much like earth, just reshuffled and tweaked a bit.

The first conceptions of the afterlife seem to be like Riverworld, an extension of life on earth. Thus the earliest humanoid burials contain valuable tools and weapons left for the dead in the apparent belief that they will have to hunt or toil for their food in the afterlife as well. Even in the Old Testament, all the dead go to Sheol, a shadowy place under the earth where the dead sleep. It sounds dreary but it is not hell or purgatory.

This brings us to the slip drawn from our sermon suggestion box. It reads: "Heaven and Hell--What are they? Where are they? And how do we end up in one or the other?"

As we've seen, originally humans did not express the idea of justice being meted out to the dead for their deeds in this life. That may have been because the gods were seen as powerful but capricious and not necessarily moral. If, however, God reveals himself to be good and just, then the concept arises naturally. In this life, evil deeds can go unpunished and innocent people suffer. If there is an afterlife, that would be an ideal place to even things up and dispense justice. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the deceased person's heart is weighed to see if it is heavy with sins. If it is lighter than the feather of truth and justice, the person can pass on to his reward. Those with heavy hearts are eaten by a demon.

By the time of Jesus, the Jews had a fairly well developed eschatology, or theology of the last things. When the current evil age ended and the Messianic kingdom began, the dead would all be resurrected and then judged. The evil would go to hell and the righteous would be with God in heaven. Because the criteria was obeying God's law, generally speaking, the Gentiles went to hell and the Jews, for the most part, entered God's kingdom. The problem was that wealth and success were used as yardsticks for God's favor. It looked as if the rich who gave lots of money to the local synagogue or temple were shoo-ins for heaven. The poor had obviously done something to tick God off. This is why Jesus' telling the poor that they were blessed and warning the rich that their selfishness would cost them eternal life caused people to marvel. He was turning the accepted standards of the day on their head, though what he taught was in line with the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus was saying that God would judge fairly, without reference to one's social standing. God would judge on the basis of one's deeds and one's heart, from which those deeds originated.

Of course, any honest person knows that he falls short of God's standards as set down in his law. Is such a person condemned to hell? No, said Jesus, God forgives those who repent, who turn the direction of their life around and change the way they think about this world. And if a person sinned seventy times seven, and repented, he should still be forgiven by his brother and by God.

Those who ask for forgiveness must also forgive those who sin against them. And this is an important point. Being good is not a matter of superficial observance of the law; otherwise, the Pharisees, who were meticulous in observing the letter of the law and knew therefore how to game the system, would be considered righteous in God's eyes. But God is more interested in those who grasp and act on the spirit of the law. Goodness must be internal, an organic part of who the person is, or who they are becoming. Paul later articulated this by saying that God considered a trusting attitude towards him as righteousness. Trust is the basis of any good relationship. If we don't trust God and in his goodness, we can't have a real relationship with him. Trust is essential as a channel for God to work with us and in us. Thus we are saved from the effects of our sins by God's grace working through our faith in him. No one is good enough that he can stand before God as flawless and not needing God's help. God is gracious in that he sent that help in the person of Jesus Christ. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us, Paul reminds us. So the criteria for entering God's kingdom is a trusting willingness to follow Christ. Anybody trying to enter the kingdom on the basis of his own flawed efforts to do it alone is doomed to fail.

So what does this have to do with our questions? Where are heaven and hell? To paraphrase what Jesus said about the Kingdom of God, they are within you. Where God is, heaven is. If you are the right kind of person, or on your way to becoming the right kind of person, you will be able to experience the love and presence of God even in the worst place or circumstances. Thus Paul and Silas, after being beaten with rods and chained up in the prison at Philippi, were able to sing hymns and remain joyful. But if you are the kind of person who does not trust God or believe in his love, forgiveness and healing, you can be miserable despite being wealthy, powerful and famous. Herod the Great ruled Judea for Rome. He was rich and powerful as only a king of that time could be. Yet his paranoia was such that he killed 3 sons and even his wife out of suspicion. Towards the end of his life, he was so worried that Rome would come to depose him he built an impregnable fortress in the desert to escape to. As he lay dying, knowing that the Jews would not mourn for his passing, he had left orders for a massacre of the top Jewish leaders. He was determined that somehow a lot of people would be sorry at the time of his death. Herod's earthly life was pretty much a descent into hell.

C. S. Lewis said that the kind of person you are becoming is not so important if you are only going to live for 7 or 8 decades and then die. But if you are immortal then the trajectory of who you are developing into is crucial. If you are becoming a more selfish, resentful, arrogant, vindictive, envious, hateful and angry person, then eternity will turn you into a monster. If you are altruistic, loving, forgiving, humble, content and peaceful person, then eternity will see you becoming ever more Christ-like. So heaven and hell are not places you are arbitrarily assigned to based on some legalities and theological slight of hand. They are the diverging destinies that we will see realized in ourselves.

Let's put it this way: can you think of any way to create a heaven for Hitler that would not be a hell for others? Can you see Hitler settling happily into God's heaven? No, because no one would be worshiping him and there would be entirely too many Jews there for his taste. (Not to mention Slavs, gypsies, Africans, Russians and other people he regarded as sub-human vermin.) You cannot put Hitler in heaven because it would be hell to him. On the other hand, you drop St. Francis in hell and he would be hugging the outcasts and singing hymns which would irritate the denizens of hell all the more. The Kingdom of Heaven is in you. Or it can be, if you can make room for God, whose presence is the essence of heaven.

Hell is a self-imposed exile from God. It is rejection of him or the substitution of something else as the most important thing in your life, which amounts to the same thing. People sometimes substitute their own version of God, one who always agrees with them and would never ask them to change their attitudes or lifestyle or step out of their comfort zone. Thus there are white supremacists who think that God, who so loved the world that he sent Jesus to die for everyone in it, somehow hates Jews and non-whites. There are people who think you can mix Ayn Rand's philosophy, in which religion is a fraud, sacrifice is a despicable weakness and selfishness is a virtue, with Christ's call to take up one's cross and treat the weak and poor as we would him. There are people who, despite the fact that God says he does not desire the death of any sinner, nevertheless say that some people are beyond forgiveness and gleefully pray for their destruction. Will these people be able to look the real Jesus in the eye and still call him Lord? Will they be able to see him in others and love them as he loves them? Are they growing into the image of the God who is love or into some devilish parody of him?

Heaven is being with God and the only way to do so is to be in harmony with him. Unless we are like him, how can we bear the brilliance of his light, the radiance of his presence? How can we love God's kingdom if we hate our fellow citizens? How can we find joy in God's house if we can not enjoy our housemates? How can we find everlasting peace in his new creation if we are in a never-ending war with his creatures?

The key to becoming a heavenly creature is changing your heart and mind. Let God in and let him go to town on you. It doesn't matter if you are not perfect. Imperfect people are all God has to work on. He is merciful and forgiving. But you must be willing to trust and cooperate with him. Just as it would be foolish to see a cardiologist and keep smoking and eating lots of fatty and salty foods and refusing to exercise, it doesn't make sense to go to God and then decide which sinful acts and attitudes to keep indulging in. Just as a person following her doctor's orders will, after a while, find her once new healthy habits have become natural to her, so, too, the mental, spiritual, moral and physical disciplines you adopt in following Jesus will eventually become part of you. The new you, the new creation in Christ.

But we don't do it on our own. We can't. Jesus promised us a comforter, a councilor, an advocate: the Holy Spirit. He is God in us. He remakes us. He sanctifies us so we will one day be complete as our Father is. But that will take more time than we have in this life. It will take an eternity. An eternity to change we who are finite into an ever-closer image of the infinite God.

But he will not force us. True love is uncoerced. The choice is ours. Every moment we have a choice. Any point in time is a departure point. Every second is a second chance. Which do you want to be: worse than you could imagine or the best you could be? Do you turn towards the light of God or turn away, towards the darkness? Trust the judge of all the world to do right or trust in your fallible self? Trust the source of all goodness or put your trust in lesser things? God respects our choice so much he will let us choose even the worst option--the option to reject him, to distrust him, to put something other than God in the center of our lives. Hell is the consequence of God giving us free will and a real choice. A universe in which there is no hell is one in which we have no choice when it comes to God, which means no real love, which means no heaven. Hell is the shadow of heaven. Shadows are the inevitable consequence of light. Shadows do give contrast. But light reveals the truth. It shows us where to go.

Choose the light.