Saturday, January 20, 2018

Judgment Day


Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For 1/20/2018

I was sitting in the Top Pot donut shop in Ballard, writing. At a nearby table three people were busy in conversation. Apparently they were security supervisors for a large retail complex. The lead guy was mapping out strategy and procedures for the other two people.

They talked of helping people. I heard about some guy who got stuck in a bathroom and security came to the rescue. Some other people got stuck in an elevator. People needed help with this emergency or that. They talked of how to make sure everyone who needed help got it in a timely fashion.

Then there was the other part of their work. Checking every stairwell top to bottom every shift because people sometimes sneaked in and camped there. And they had to watch for bad guys. They had to be aware when someone was casing the place looking for an opportunity to steal.

Listening in on their conversation reminded me of my own work with security. For fifteen or sixteen years, I served as the head of the security department at our annual Western Washington Adventist convention called Campmeeting. We had thirty employees. When I got there, many of the guys imagined themselves as policemen. They were eager find and bust the bad guys. Too eager, in my opinion. So I set about changing how we viewed ourselves. I told my employees that we were not a police department, we were the Happy Department. Our job was to make sure everyone on campus had a good time. Help little old ladies move into their accommodations. Help mothers find their lost kids. (We became really, really good at that.) Check bathrooms and make sure they were servicable. And yes, in the evening, we had to enforce the curfew and chase teenagers back to their tents.

Thinking of ourselves as the Happy Department helped change the atmosphere of the campus, a little. We had less and less “enforcement” work to do over the years. There were fewer conflicts that we had to manage.

But for all my talk about being the Happy Department, sometimes we had to become enforcers. We had to stop the bad guys.

One old guy had been coming for years. He created minor headaches, and was surrounded by an aura of suspicion. We heard third and fourth hand reports of him flirting with young girls. Then he proposed marriage to a minor, a young woman who was willing to tell me her story. We banned him from campus. Forever. Judgment day. And after that the campus was a happier place.

Another man raised my suspicions but I knew of no definite offense. I had not even heard of any allegation of wrong-doing on his part. But I was worried. Then a kid I knew told me something specific. I called the police. There was an investigation and this man went to the big house. Day of judgment. And then the campus was safer. Tragically, the world was a better place because he was not in it. That is sad. It is also true.

Sometimes being the Happy Department required us to be tough with the bad guys.


I love the language of our Old Testament reading this morning from Psalm 96.

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the fields and their crops dance in mirth.
Let the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD,

Just a couple of pages later, we find similar language in Psalm 98.

Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the earth and all living things join in.
Let the rivers clap their hands in glee!
Let the hills sing out their songs of joy before the LORD.

Rivers clapping their hands. Trees singing. Fields dancing. Mountains rejoicing. A happy world.

Some of you spend time on the water. Sailing, cruising, kite-boarding, kayaking. Have you ever been out on the water on a sunny day? The sky is blue. Here and there pillows of cottony-white cumulus clouds are floating in the blue. A slight breeze ruffles the water and keeps you from getting hot. It's late afternoon. The sun sprinkles sparkles across the tops of waves. At that moment the whole world seems just right. The whole world is happy.

That's the picture these scriptures paint.

More relevant to the season. Imagine you are a skier—many of you don't have to imagine. Imagine it's a Tuesday after a big snow. You have the day off and head to the slopes. There's twelve inches of powder. It's 28 degrees and sunny. No wind. Because it's a Tuesday, it's not crowded. You own the slopes. You're in the middle of a run and pause before resuming your flight. Sunlight is every where, a million diamonds sparkle in every direction. Overhead, an intense blue sky. It's quiet. A couple of jays swoop across the slope and land in the tree beside Inside you. Off in the distance you hear a couple of kids squealing and giggling as they dig themselves out after a fall.

This is the world imagined by the poet in this Psalm.

Mountains dancing. Trees singing. Rivers clapping their hands. Waves shouting hallelujah. The earth itself under our feet skipping with delight.

How do we get there? What is the path from this place to that place?

Judgment.

Each of these Psalms follows the same line. Mountains dance. Trees sing. Rivers clap their hands. Waves shout hallelujah. The earth itself under our feet skips with delight. Why?

Oliver read the words for us:

because God is coming!
God is coming to judge the earth.
God will judge the world with justice.

Judgment day. We can hardly wait. Finally, everything will be set right. Hallelujah.


This is not the whole story. There is another picture of judgment. We heard it in our New Testament reading that Violet read for us.

Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, "I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. "And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. "What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. So if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It's better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It's better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. "Beware that you don't look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father. Matthew 18:2-10 New Living Translation (Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com.)

God is watching. God takes special delight in little ones. We are most in tune with God when we tend and care for the little ones.

God is watching. God takes special umbrage when little ones are harmed. You don't want to have God walk around the corner just after you have called a child stupid. You don't want to run into God as you walk away from a child in need. You touch a child—and it would be better for you to have been hauled out into Elliot Bay and dropped overboard with a pair of concrete boots on. God is watching. And the Bible declares over and over that God is watching with the intent of ultimately overruling the decisions of the powerful in favor of the powerless. God will reverse the advantages conferred by wealth and status and size and intelligence and beauty and nationality and ethnicity.

Those on the bottom will be lifted up. And those on top will find themselves on the bottom.

Nearly all of us here are among the privileged. Compared with other people in the world we are privileged beyond calculation. We were born in the right country to the right parents with sound minds and bodies and opportunities to turn work and study into financial security. We are blessed.

In the judgment, God will ask how we used those privileges. God will ask if we noticed those beneath us in the pecking order of the world.

Many of read in the news this week of the horrific domestic abuse by David and Louise Turpin. These parents turned into monsters to their own children. The grandparents of the kids have reported that the children memorized long passages of the Bible, some memorizing the entire book. I'm afraid I know where this story is going to go. I'm afraid we will learn these parents thought they were doing right.

Echoing Jesus, I would say, it would have been better for David and Louise if they had died of snake bite out in western Texas. Or heat stroke.

Yesterday morning, Don and I were talking. He said, “Someone should have shot those people.” Then he challenged me: You think God would be okay with that?”

Inwardly, I laughed. Don had me. I'm a pacificist, all around nice guy. I think of the church as God's Happy Department. We want to make the world better and save everyone in the process. We are called to serve the world. Mostly that means smiling service.

But sometimes, it means thundering opposition. Because we are the people of God, we strongly oppose every act of oppression. We denounce evil, especially the use of power to advantage the powerful, the use of wealth to advantage the wealthy, the use of law to advantage the mighty. Do not balance budgets on the backs of hungry children. Do not preserve our comfortable lives at the expense of our grandchildren. Do not harm children.

Instead, let us join with God in cherishing and nourishing every little one—both those who are literally little—children. And those with fewer advantages, smaller privileges than ours.

As we do this we will find ourselves cooperating with God. We are preparing the world for the glorious day of judgment when the earth and all that is in it will sing for joy. When the fields will dance, when the ocean will sing and all the trees will clap their hands.


Friday, January 5, 2018

Grown-up Jesus



Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, January 6, 2018
Texts:  Deuteronomy 6:1-7, Luke 4:14-21


A week or so ago I visited a construction sight owned by a friend. Around behind the house, grubbing in the dirt, working to tunnel a drain pipe under an existing sidewalk, was my friend's grandson. Home for the holidays and hard at work.

When we think of kids coming home for the holidays, it's natural to think first of gatherings around the table or in the living room. But shared meals, as rich as they are, are only part of what it means to be family. Shared work is also part of the story.

And the more grown up they are, the more we rely on them.

I remember years and years ago, when there were challenges with the family computer, it was “dad to the rescue.” That has now completely changed, of course. In all things electronic, I go to my kids for help and advice.

If I have trouble with my phone, I consult my son. If I need to buy a computer, I just find out what computer my daughter bought, and I buy the same one.

This movement from dependent childhood to masterful maturity shows up in the story of Jesus.

The Gospel begins with the stories of Jesus' birth—the shepherds and wise men and angels. The Gospel passes over the growing up. There is no teenage Jesus in the Gospel. We make up stories of Jesus faithfully and uneventfully working in his father's carpenter shop all through his teen years. In the devotional telling of this story, there are never any family arguments, not disagreement between Joseph and his maturing, smart stepson Jesus. Maybe. My guess is that Jesus was a little more normal than our legends imagine.

The Gospel skips over all that and with one brief exception takes us straight to the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Jesus' public works begins explosively. Almost instantly he gathers large crowds with his preaching and healing. After weeks or a few months, Jesus finally returns home to Nazareth, the town where he had worked in the carpenter shop for twenty years.

They invite him to speak in the local synagogue. He accepts. He reads the day's scripture reading.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
for the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed.
He has sent me to tell those who mourn
that the time of the LORD’s favor has come. Isaiah 61:1-2.

The congregation relishes these words. They imagined themselves to be the poor people who would receive good news. They were the brokenhearted who would be comforted. They were the captives who would be freed. They were the recipients of divine favor.

What was there not to like?

Then Jesus launched into his sermon. Before he finished the audience became so furious, they rushed him, grabbed him and dragged him out of town and were going to shove him off a precipice.

Why did they get so angry at Jesus?

Because he talked just like the ancient prophets. He sounded like Amos and Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jesus rejected the self-congratulation that lay at the heart of their religion challenged them to see other people as the poor and brokenhearted and captives.

The good people of Nazareth were happy to claim Jesus as their native son as long as he was doing good work in other towns. He was making them look good. But they couldn't take it when he challenged them to make greater effort in the direction of the ideals proclaimed by the prophets.

This story of Jesus is replayed in every generation in the church. We are people of the prophets, the people of Jesus. We are custodians of the words of the Hebrew prophets”

But let justice pour down like a flood,
And righteousness like a mighty river. Amos 5:4

He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes between strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Micah 4:3

This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. Jeremiah 22:3

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew 5:44-45

We do the best we can to live out these high ideals. We aim to do right. We build our lives, make the necessary compromises to get along in the world. We become comfortable with our way of life. Then our kids become teenagers and young adults. They read these ancient words and they come back to challenge us. They demand that we do better.

I plead with you who are young among us: keep your ideals alive. Speak out loud your highest, purest moral convictions. Unsettle us with your uncompromising vision. My prayer for us who are older, for us who have settled into the best routines we could manage as we balanced the demands of ordinary life and the call of the Gospel—my prayer for us is that we will be more receptive to our children than were the residents of Nazareth. We will not be able to live out fully the highest ideals of our children. (They will not either, but let's not tell them that. Let's allow them to discover this on their own.) We may not be able to achieve all that our kids dream of, but I pray that we will encourage their vision and do all that we can to bend toward their ideals. How can we do less as the church of Jesus Christ?


This fall, a group of people from Green Lake Church, heard the call to mission, the call to use the gifts God had given them to do something good in a far away place. I've asked Brian McGrath to share with us some of their experience.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Immanuel

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, December 23, 2017

A week or so ago I stepped into the Urban Bakery, a coffee shop at the corner of Green Lake Way North and Wallingford Ave on the north side of the lake. It was early. The streets were pretty deserted. The cafe was empty except for two other old guys. While I was waiting on my sandwich, I eavesdropped on their conversation. As is common these days, their talk focused on their worries about national affairs. At one point, one of the old guys said, “I'm not worried about myself. I've had a great life and I'm pretty well situated. It's my grandkids and the world they will inherit. That's what I'm worried about.”

At some point, as we mature, our ambitions and even our desires change. We turn from fascination with our own successes, our own triumphs, to the triumphs and successes or our children and grandchildren. Our highest ambition is to see the well-being of our grandchildren.

We endow scholarships and chairs at universities. For the kids.

We fight for the preservation of public land so succeeding generations can taste some of the wildness and beauty that nourished our own souls.

We fund programs that help disadvantaged children because we hope that hidden somewhere among those anonymous faces is the genius who will cure some incurable disease, the composer who will write the music that thrill audiences for ten generations.

Full human maturity comes when our own lives are nearly forgotten in our ambition and longing and joy in the children yet to come.


This happy ambition for the next generation is expressed throughout the Bible story and reaches its climax in the Christmas story.


The prophet promised:
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders.
His name will be Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end.
The fruit of his reign will be everlasting justice. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

The Gospel says:
Shepherds were out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. The angel said, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy for all people. Today, in the city of David, a Savior is born, Christ the Lord. And this will be your sign: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." Then vast choir of angels appeared, praising God and singing, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" (Luke 2:8-14)

The prophet promised:
The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

The Gospel says:
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for the child in her womb is conceived of the Holy Spirit. She will bring forth a Son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save His people from their sins." Thus was fulfilled the word of the prophet, “The virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is means, "God with us." Matthew 1:20-24

A prophet said:
A Star shall come out of Jacob;
A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, (Numbers 24:17)


The Gospel says:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him." When these Wise Men finally found their way, they entered the house and when they saw the child with his mother, Mary, they fell down and worshiped Him. They had opened their treasures and present to him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2)

One of the notable women in the Old Testament was named Hannah. She was a beloved wife and was childless. In response to her prayer and the blessing of the high priest, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel, one of the greatest of prophets. In celebration, she offered this pray/song. She sees the impact her son will have on his world and celebrates it as if it were already accomplished.

Do not act with pride and haughtiness.
Do not speak in arrogance!
For the LORD is a God who knows what you have done;
he has judged your actions. (In the birth of this miracle child)
The bow of the mighty will be broken,
those who stumble will be strengthened (because of the birth of this miracle child)
Those who were well fed are now starving,
those who were starving are now full.
The childless woman now has seven children,
and the woman with many children wastes away.
The LORD gives both death and life;
he brings some down to the grave but raises others up.
The LORD makes some poor and some rich.
He brings some down and lifts others up.
He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump.
He sets them among princes, placing them in seats of honor.
For all the earth is the LORD's, and he sets the world in order. …
Those who fight against the LORD will be shattered.
He thunders against them from heaven;
the LORD judges throughout the earth.
He gives power to his king;
he increases the strength of his anointed one." 1 Samuel 2

Then Mary is visited by an angel and told she, too, will have a miracle child. She echoes the words of Hannah in her prayer/song.

"Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. 47
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! 48
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. 51
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. 53
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich empty away. Luke 1


Now, I will light the final candle of this Advent season, the Christ candle, the light expressing our conviction that the baby born in a barn and cradled in a feed box was the embodiement of the fullness of God. And we pledge ourselves to see in every infant the embodiment of heaven's promise and its care our highest duty.

Lighting the Center Candle, the Christ Candle

Christ is born.
God is with us.


Friday, December 15, 2017

The Manufacture of Joy

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
for December, 16, 2017

Texts:  Psalm 16:5-11, Luke 2:1-10

A couple of weeks ago I headed into the bedroom. It was probably 10:30. I was beat. I was thinking only of sleep. Karin was already in bed, reading her Bible. I dropped my head on the pillow, closed my eyes and headed off to oblivion.

A couple of minutes pass. I'm almost asleep. But Karin interrupts. “Why do you think God chose the shepherds for the angels to visit?” I tired ignoring her, but it didn't work. She was wide awake with excitement about the story of angel choirs and shepherds.

Shepherds lived at the bottom of the social pyramid of the time. They were at the bottom of the social ladder. Nobodies. Angels interrupted their night. Gleaming, dazzling angels. Singing Joy to the World. How cool was that? How wonderful?

Karin couldn't sleep thinking of the wonder of that fantastic encounter. And she wouldn't let me sleep because the magic of the story was too rich to be enjoyed alone. So she peppered me with hypothetical questions—why did God do that? What did I think the shepherds thought? What kind of faith did the shepherds have? What did I think of the shepherds? Why did God choose these guys to receive this heavenly favor?

I grunted one-syllable answers to her theological ponderings. Trying to give her a hint. Finally, I promised I would check on the shepherds in the morning, but for now, I insisted, I was going to sleep.

The next morning I did check in on the shepherds. In the freshness of dawn I pondered the message of this sweet, beautiful story.

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord's glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. "Don't be afraid!" he said. "I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. Luke 2:8-10 NLT (Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com)

After a few more words of explanation, this single angel was joined by a vast choir singing,

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom God is pleased." Luke 2:14

When God steps into our world, it is good news, it is an occasion of joy.


A little later in this same passage in the Gospel of Luke, we read that Mary and Joseph went to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate Jesus when he was six weeks old. While they were there, two old people came up to them. One was Anna, a very old widow.

She had been told about this baby in a vision. She came into the temple and headed straight for the Holy Family. I imagine her taking the baby in her arms and cooing and ahhing over this beautiful baby, checking out his tiny fingers, examining his cheeks and nose and lips, stroking his forehead.

She was in an ecstasy of joy. Finally, reluctantly, she returns the baby to Mary and shuffles out of the temple to spread the news. He has arrived. The Messiah has been born. Our thousand-year-old hopes are turning into concrete reality. It's happening!

We can see the sparkle in her eyes, we can hear the excitement in her voice.

The Jesus story is happy story. The Jesus mission is the creation of joy. The story of the birth is tidings of great joy. And this is our foundational story. We are people of the happy story.

One test of the authenticity of our Christianity is the presence of joy. Does our faith make us happy? Does our faith help us make others happy? Righteousness leads to joy.

In the ancient story of Job, Job complained that he had been treated unjustly by God. He suffered disaster and catastrophe that were completely undeserved, in fact, Job protested, they were the opposite of what he deserved. At one point in his complaint, Job lists the marks of his righteousness. One of the definitive marks of his righteousness is this:

I assisted the poor in their need
and the orphans who required help.
I helped those without hope, and they blessed me.
And I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.
Job 29:12-13

What does it mean to be righteous? To create joy in the lives of others, especially the poor and needy. This is the authentic Christian connection of the gift-giving at Christmas time. The point of the gifts to create joy in the lives of others. And naturally when we work joy in the lives of others, it has a reflex effect on us.

Wednesday night I was sitting at the kitchen table doing my year-end giving. I was going through my list of favorite charities, sending fifty dollars here, a hundred there. In the great scheme of things my few dollars will not do much, but it was a great joy to sit at my computer and spread the joy. I imagined my dollars doing a little something to make the world better, to ease the challenges of a widow in Bangladesh or a student in India. I imagined my dollars helping to protect some of my favorite wild places. Giving made me happy.

Terri has helped us as a congregation connect with some special families at Greenwood Elementary School which is located just two and a half miles from where we sit. Most of these families are immigrants, people who have landed here among us fleeing unimaginable danger or crushing poverty. Life where they used to live was so bad that a life of poverty and hard work in Seattle was worth going half the world away from home.

Many of us have given money to help ensure the children of these families have enough to eat during the holidays. Your dollars will create joy among those who receive them. Your giving has already created joy in your own hearts. That's how we are made. When we water the souls of others our own souls are watered.

Joy to world. Joy to you. Joy to them. This is the religion of the baby Jesus. This is our religion.
Some years, when my girls are home, they go on a baking spree. The kitchen is turned into a factory of joy. They make batch after batch of cookies and bars and other confections. They discuss the various neighbors they are baking for. The Poiriers, the Popkes, Peggy, Louise, Jim and Connie, MaryAnn and Don. Who is allergic to nuts? Who likes blackberries.

They are not merely making cookies, they are manufacturing joy. Their own joy in giving. The joy of others in receiving. This whole business of giving and receiving takes us to the heart of the Gospel. This is the central meaning of the Christmas story.

God in Christ gave us heaven's best. In the giving God tasted unfathomable joy.

And we who receive the gift?

We are filled with joy.

Joy to the world. Joy to you and me.

The very essence of Christmas is the manufacture of joy.



Friday, December 8, 2017

Mary, Did You Know?


Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, December 9, 2017.
Texts: Ruth; Matthew 18

All week a song has been playing in my mind:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God
Mary did you know,

Mary did you know, Mary did you know
The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I am
Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know
By Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene. 

The Christmas story is a fantastic fusion of ordinary and extraordinary, of pedestrian and sublime. It is the literary equivalent of jalapena chocolate covered caramels or a sweet-and-sour curry. A curious combination of opposites.

Reading through the grand visions of the Hebrew prophets, we are primed to expect the birth of a king. And we think we know what a royal birth looks like?

Instead when the actual birth happens it is a peasant birth. A working class couple making do in a difficult situation. The baby has feed box for a bassinet, a stable for a nursery, cows and horses for attendants.

For two thousand years Christians have practiced giving our attention to this glorious confusion. This little person who nurses and sleeps and cries and poops and pees is, in fact, the incarnation, the embodiment of God.

Mary, did you know that when you kiss you little baby you have kissed the face of God?

The question itself highlights how preposterous the claim is. Every mother looks at her baby and knows that this child is a magnificent addition to the grand history of humanity. This little one is destined for greatness. But Mary, your son will be greater than all other sons, greater than even a mother's heart can imagine. When you kiss your baby you are kissing the face of God. Mary can you know that? Is it possible for even a mother's heart to hold this truth?

A baby. A regular, ordinary little human being. This child is the fulfillment of the visions of Isaiah and Zechariah and Daniel. This child is the ultimate embodiment of the hope and values that served as foundations of the Jewish temple service and monarchy.

As wonderful as this story is, it is not the first time the Bible features the birth of a child as a grand forward move by the kingdom of heaven.

The story of Ruth and Boaz is one the great romances of all time. In the first chapter of the story we are confronted with the utter blighting of Ruth's life. A Jewish family moved to the nation of Moab because life was unsustainable in Israel—Dad and mom and their two sons. Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon and Chilion. In their new country they settled down. Life goes well. Elimelech's business prospers. But the good times were interrupted. Naomi's husband, Elimelech, died. But her sons, Mahlon and Chilion took after their father. They were industrious and smart. The family acquires a enough wealth to support a marriage. And both sons marry. Happily.

Then the sons die. Leaving Naomi widowed and childless—the most vulnerable, precarious possible situation a woman in that society could find herself in.

Naomi decided to head home. She sent her daughters-in-law back to their families and she made plans to go back to the land of her brothers and cousins hoping to find some corner that will allow her to live out her days of grief. But Ruth refused to abandon her mother-in-law. So the two women traveled back to Israel together.

There in that foreign country, the homeland of her mother-in-law, Ruth goes to work to provide for herself and her mother-in-law.

She was noticed a good man who also happened to be wealthy. Romance blossomed. There was a wedding.

To wrap up the story, instead of writing, “They lived happily ever after,” the ancient writer reported, “Ruth had a son.” At news of the birth the neighbor ladies crowded into the house. As grandmother Naomi cuddled her grandson against her bosom, these neighbor ladies exclaimed, “Naomi has a son again!”

The writer goes on to point out that this child of the foreigner Ruth, this grandson of Naomi, proves to be the grandfather of the famous King David. This half-breed child is the ancestor of the most iconic persons in all Jewish history.

Who is this baby? The son of a Moabite woman who according to Jewish law was excluded from Jewish citizenship for ten generations. Who is this child? The grandfather of King David, the George Washington or Dwight Eisenhower of the Jewish people.

The story of Jesus brings together similar contrasts. Another favorite song asks, “What child is this who laid to rest is sleeping?” Who is this baby?
The Hebrew prophets cast two dueling visions of the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven.

In Daniel Chapter Two, the kingdom of heaven is imagined as a giant stone that flies inthrough the atmosphere and obliterates all opposition and resistance. The rock grows into a world-dominating mountain. It is a picture of irresistible, overwhelming force. It's a seductive vision. Wouldn't that be nice? We imagine God showing up and smashing all the bad people, while we stand us off to the side cheering him on.

In this vision, we could imagine God as a heavenly bulldozer driver, pushing aside all obstacles and opposition.

Then we read the words of Isaiah 9.

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the LORD of Heaven's Armies will make this happen! Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT

God works through a king. And before the king takes the throne and leads his armies he is first a child. An infant facing the risks of whooping cough and measles. Back then before vaccines small pox and polio stalked the land snatched children from their mother's arms.

In this vision God is a mother nourishing her child, a nanny fostering the success of her young charges. We imagine God anxious and worried as he watches the death-defying antics of his son--climbing trees and throwing rocks at hornet nests. Leaping on the back of a wild horse just to see if he can hang on longer than his friends. We imagine all the ways the son's future can be ruined through physical, social , and spiritual mistakes.

In this vision, the kingdom of heaven comes through hope, a desperate, hungry hope.

God is no bulldozer driver. Instead we picture God as a coach, a math teacher, a dance instructor using every possible method to motivate and inspire her students. In this vision, God's hunger for the triumph of goodness is no less than it is in the vision of God the bulldozer driver plowing over the bastions of evil. But in this vision, God knows the longing and hunger of every parent to see the triumph, the success of their children and grandchildren.

When we live with this vision we slowly come to see children—all children, the ones who go to bed in feed boxes and the ones cocooned in the swankiest nurseries on Mercer Island, the children who already at eighteen months give evidence of precocious intelligence or musical gifts or unusual sweetness and the children who give evidence of disabilities and troubles—when we receive the Christmas vision deep into our souls children are transformed—all children. They are all ours. And we hunger for their triumph and with great satisfaction we do all we can to encourage that triumph.

In Matthew 2 we read of the Persian nobility who traveled a thousand miles to pay homage to the newborn king. All of the Jerusalem was oblivious, but these foreigners, they were open to the heavenly secrets and they came to worship.

And for two thousand years we have repeated their worship. Metaphorically, we have brought our gifts to lay at the feet of the Christ child and we take great delight in our giving.

But there is yet a more direct path to the Christ child, a path drawn on the map by Jesus himself.

Jesus' disciples asked, "Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" Jesus called a little child to him and stood the child in their center and said, “Anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then Jesus added this:

Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.
(Matthew 18:1-6)

May God grant us the ability to see with heaven's eyes, to see every child as the incarnation of Jesus. May we know that when we kiss the face of our babies we are kissing the face of God.

God grant us the courage and drive to ensure that every child is kissed with food and shelter, clean air and open spaces. May our vision of holiness include doing all that we can for all the little Jesuses God has placed in our care.



Sunday, November 26, 2017

Text of my tiny book





Damn My Son








This story is fiction



It is another gospel



And it is true





Chapter One

Tomorrow, I'm supposed damn my son. It will be the worst moment of my life. Even worse than last Thursday. That's when we got the call. Eric was on his way home from work. A tree fell. Crushed his car. He was dead instantly. How do you think about living when your oldest son is dead? Every time I push my grandson in the swing, I'll think of his daddy who isn't there. Every time Sienna crawls into my lap, I'll be reminded of the father she'll know only through photos and stories. Thursday was the worst day of my life. But tomorrow will be worse. Infinitely worse. Tomorrow I will have to acknowledge there is no hope. Eric is damned.

I won't say the words, “Damn you, Eric!” Of course not. I won't even say the more polite version, “Eric is lost.” It will be unspoken. My parishioners are unlikely to hear it. I'm sure my relatives and friends won't. But Tom will be there. And he will hear. He will know what sits behind every word I say or don't say. I wish he weren't going to be there. But he can no more stay away than I can ask him not to come. With him listening I cannot escape. Either I confirm that Eric is lost—excluded from eternal life, barred from heaven, consigned to hell, damned—or admit that what I have preached in this congregation for the past twenty years, and believed in the core of my being for the past forty, is unsure. I will have to deny the gospel or damn my son.

Eric was not a believer. He no longer no longer believed the truth that he was a hell-bound sinner and that had Jesus died for his sins and offered him salvation. My son rejected the words of Scripture that declared there is eternal life only for those who “believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Absent that belief humans, including my son, are lost—or to use the older, bolder word—damned.

I lived in hope all those years. When Eric told us he did not believe, I resolved to love him more richly than ever. I would show him God's love. I would win him back for God through the richest, sweetest demonstration of grace I could provide. Every morning, every evening, Margie and I prayed for our kids and then for our grandkids, claiming them for Jesus. We knew it was just a matter of time. Jesus would win. Eric would recover his faith. He had always been such a good kid. I remember when he was eight years old. In front of the church, he recited the Sabbath School memory verses for an entire quarter, thirteen selected passages from the Bible. As he got older, his teachers at school loved him. Well, most of the time. In high school we used to talk about what he heard in Bible class. I didn't always agree with his Bible teachers. Some of them had fuzzy concepts of the gospel. But Eric understood the truth of the Cross. He knew there was salvation only in Jesus, that it was through faith in the name of Jesus that we stand righteous in the sight of a holy God. Eric knew that no matter what his Bible teachers said. Eric knew we do not earn our way to heaven. We don't work our way out of damnation. Salvation, heaven, eternal life—they are the gifts of God, given generously to all who believe. And Eric believed.

My son left home for college a believer. He went to Walla Walla University, an Adventist college. During his college years he became more aware of intellectual challenges to faith. Of course. He read Christian authors who implied that Paul contradicted Jesus. He was exposed to skeptical critiques of the authority of the Bible. But through all this he was supported in his faith by devout, competent teachers. He and his friends went to church, at least most of the time. He didn't have the fiery confidence in the gospel he had as a kid, but still he was in church and, I was confident, still a believer in the gospel. He was saved.

Then he was out of school, living in Seattle. He and his girlfriend moved in together. I was shocked. This was my Eric? He knew what Margie and I thought about this, but we were careful not to say too much. We just loved them. God was bigger than this. In addition to “living in sin,” they didn't go to church. I asked about church, thinking if I could just get him connected with the right congregation, he and Jenn would reconnect. No, he said. There was nothing wrong with the local congregations. Church didn't speak to him. It didn't add any value to their lives. The way he saw it, church was an artificial environment designed to keep alive outdated ways of thinking that couldn't survive on their own in the real world. He figured God was more concerned with justice than with theology. And the church people had it the other way round. They were obsessed with theology, with arcane religious theories. That hurt. I've been committed to social justice all my life.

Once when I pressed him a bit, pointing out the role of Christians in the fight for abolition and the effort to save unborn babies that are being killed by the millions through abortion, he blurted out, “Look, Dad, it's not just church. The whole idea of God doesn't make sense anymore.”

“Are you saying you're an atheist?” I asked.

He didn't want to talk about it. So what could I do?

I did what any parent would do. I loved him. I hoped. I prayed. He was still the same good son I had always known. At work people admired him. He was smart, honest, and cared about people. He and Jenn married. She's a good woman. She, too, grew up in the church. She went to the Adventist university in Walla Walla. She was smart. Maybe even smarter than Eric. And she didn't believe. They weren't mad at the church. They were just not interested. They didn't feel any need. She was a social worker and served the homeless at an agency in Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. She had a soft heart. I figured when they had kids, they would come back to church.

But they didn't. Brayden is now four years old and Sienna is two. The kids are completely irreligious. They hear about Jesus only when we read to them. Eric and Jenn used to let me say grace at meals when we visited them. But God walked out the door of their house with us when we left.

Still I hoped. We hoped. We prayed morning and evening. Confident. Some day, Eric would come back to faith. God would bring him back. God would save my son. How could he not?



Chapter Two

I'm still replaying the phone call over and over. Jenn was on the phone. “Dad,” she said, “Eric is dead.” He had picked up Sienna from day care and they were headed home. Wind was toppling trees and snapping power lines all over the Seattle. Eric and Sienna were three blocks from home when the tree came down and crushed the roof of their Hyundai over the front seats. The paramedics said he was killed instantly. Sienna in the back seat was unscathed. Weird. I can still hear Jenn's voice. Her words sounded so normal. But what she said was so bizarre, so unreal. There should be a different set of words for saying things like that, maybe an entirely different language. Regular words seemed to mock the very facts they were announcing. I keep thinking regular reality is going to wake me up. I'm going hear words that will set the world back in order.

And now, tomorrow, I'm supposed to put together words for the funeral. I'm supposed to use regular words, the language we all understand, to make sense of this—what? Tragedy? Cruelty? Accident? Random event? Act of God? What words can I possibly use that will not become lies simply by saying them out loud?

I wish I could have someone else do the service. Let someone who still lives in the regular world struggle with putting words together. But I know my congregation expects me to preach. It's what I do--putting words around the big events—births and marriages, catastrophes and holidays, and farewells, deaths. For twenty years my people have counted on me to proclaim the truth, God's truth, in the face of all the ups and downs of life, through catastrophes and times of blessing. My job—no, my calling—is to proclaim the Word. Above all, I am called to preach The Gospel. This has been the one constant, the immovable anchor, the grand and noble fact that dwarfs all other concerns, all other claims for forty years. Since the day God appeared to me like Paul on the Road to Damascus.

It was the summer after my junior year at the University of Maryland. The Vietnam War was on. The world was crazy. We were crazy. I joined a few marches. I made noises about justice and peace. But really, I was just doing my own thing. I wasn't doing “seriously bad stuff.” Nothing worth talking about. Nothing remarkable for that time and place. Playing women for my pleasure. A little alcohol, a little pot. A lot of me. I didn't want to hurt anyone. It was just that I was smack in the center of my own little universe. I took care of ME [should be name].

If you had asked me, I would have told you I was a Christian. Of course. I had gone to church all my life. My friends were Christian. We all believed in God and the Bible and salvation and the Ten Commandments. I was even Christian enough to have twinges of conscience occasionally. Especially when a girl cried when I broke up with her. I didn't like hurting people.

Then on an afternoon in July, I was at the Smithsonian Museum of Art. I was struck by the incongruity of the classical artists painting with equal passion and mastery scenes of Greek gods and Mary and the crucified Christ. Did art make no distinction between myth and truth? Was the Bible just one more word, one more story, in the vast library of human tales?

I walked out into blinding sun, crossed to the mall and sat looking down toward Lincoln's tomb. Suddenly out of nowhere, I saw a vision. I saw Jesus hanging on the cross. He looked right at me and asked, “Why did you do it?” I was puzzled. Then I saw myself pounding the nails into his hands. I felt the hammer in my hands. I was shaking. First with rage at this man who had so troubled me, then with tears. I looked at my hands. These hands? These lifted the hammer? I knew it was true. Jesus did not just die for me. I killed him. But it was necessary. It was either him or me. And when it came down to that, well, I would always do whatever it took to take care of myself. If one of us had to be nailed, it would have to be him. I don't know how the choice became so suddenly stark that afternoon on the Mall. It was as real as the trees in my front yard, as real as the desk in my office. I was there. I felt the hammer. I heard his voice. His eyes held mine. I could either own my sin and guilt, acknowledge the hammer in my hand, and then let it go into the grace that flowed from the cross or I could deny it. I could protest my innocence and keep the hammer in my hand.

I can't tell this story. People would think I'm crazy. It's not credible. No one else at the mall that afternoon saw and heard. It was completely subjective, inward. But to speak honestly of my experience—it was real. And my entire life since then is the outworking of that moment.

I have friends who preach the gospel because they have clearly understood the writings of the Apostle Paul. They know that Jesus Christ died for sinners. They know that our guilt has been laid on the Lamb of God, that through faith in the name of Jesus we are freed from guilt and condemnation and brought into eternal life. They know this from the text of the Bible. They are scholars. In seminary they mastered Greek and became knowledgeable in systematic theology. They are well-schooled in the Gospel, well-equipped to preach the Word. I am honored to be part of their company.

I, too, know the words of Paul in English and in Greek. I, too, have read the works of the Protestant reformers and of modern scholars like Stott and Piper and Platinga and Wright. I appreciate scholarship. I pay supreme respect to the text of the Bible, God's Word. But my gospel is not the fruit of scholarship alone. Jesus appeared to me personally. My skeptical friends can offer all kinds of psychological explanations of what happened that day. But I know in the very core of my being, I know in a place deeper than words can reach, that Jesus came to me, Jesus called me that day. And I have been true to that calling. I have been true to the gospel. It is the treasure which has defined my life.

Against all the modern dilutions and distortions, I have insisted that God meant what he said when he spoke through the Apostle Paul, “It is by grace through faith that you are saved.” “There is none righteous, no not one.” “Other than Jesus, there is no other name under heaven which brings salvation.” “If a man believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord he will be saved.” I did not invent these words. I received them. God spoke them in the Good Book by the Apostle Paul, yes, and God confirmed them to me personally in that almost unspeakable vision on the Mall.

So tomorrow, like I have so many times before in rooms full of grieving people, I will preach the gospel, the good news that Jesus offers eternal life to all who believe. Death is not the end for those who believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord. Resurrection is coming. Death will die.

But where does that leave my son? I have not pretended my family was perfect. My congregation and I together have prayed for the salvation of our children. They have known that Eric was not a believer. They assured me they, too, were praying for his return to faith. Like they prayed for their own children. They, too, have joined me in loving him and hoping. But in our hope and love we have never denied the gospel. We have never pretended faith was optional, that there was some other way of salvation besides faith in the name of Jesus Christ. We always encouraged one another that it was God's will to save and that God was working always to rekindle faith in the heart of our children. God would win. God would bring our children back. We prayed with stubborn confidence.

But Eric died last Thursday. Unbelieving. God failed. Eric did not return. Eric did not confess. Eric was lost, damned.

Tomorrow, like any decent preacher I will speak of hope, but if I am true to the gospel, that hope is for other people. Not for me. Not for Eric. If I imply that the promise of resurrection includes Eric, I will be no different from Joel Osteen or any other preacher who has traded in the Gospel for some feel-good substitute. If I give myself hope tomorrow, it will prove that I believed the gospel only as long as I thought it would work out right for my kids. Love for my kids will have superseded the Word of God as my final authority. If Tom weren't here maybe I could waffle a little, give myself at least some room to ignore the implications of the gospel. But Tom will hear. And because he is listening, I will hear my own words and know what they mean. Tomorrow I will have to damn my son to save the Gospel. But how can I do it?

O Eric, my son, my son. If only I could be the one destined for hell and you be assured salvation, I would do it in an instant.



Chapter Three

The doorbell is ringing. It's Tom. I don't know if I have the courage to face him. With everyone else, and even with myself, I can manage a certain amount of pretending, a certain amount of ignoring. I can imagine it was all a bad dream. The phone is going to ring and it will be Eric on the line, alive, not Jenn asking about another detail of life in the aftermath of death. I tell myself that on that afternoon as Eric was driving to day care to pick up Sienna, Jesus appeared to him and in the moment of that glorious vision Eric said yes to Jesus, like I did forty years ago. Eric believed. How can a dad not hope such things? How can a preacher of the Gospel fail to hope such things? But I know when I open the front door all that fantasy will vanish.

Tom hugged me. Long. I could feel his own agony in our embrace. With his hand he pulled my head onto his shoulder like I was a woman. And I sobbed. Still he held me. Then we wandered into the kitchen. He embraced Margie. Held her. After long minutes we sat. Margie asked if she could get him something to drink. Some tea maybe? She put water on. We chitchatted. Margie asked about his kids and grandkids. He asked about our other kids, deliberately avoiding Eric. But even those questions were delicate. It's not been easy. Sometimes believing children go places with their faith that seem unwise, unbalanced. And when faith—whatever its formal language—when faith walls off grandkids, it hurts. Still, with living children we have the solace of hope. There is time to fix things. Time for healing. The stories are not finished.

Margie set cups on the table for Tom and me, and a box of tea bags and honey and spoons, then excused herself. “I'll leave you guys to talk.”

We sat. Forty years of friendship between us. Forty years of connection. Every time I had been in the hospital he had been there. When I nearly left Margie, he was there screaming, No! When he lost William at birth, he called me. When he considered leaving the ministry, or was simply frustrated, he called me. When he got too big for his britches, when he became too infatuated with himself, it was my job to hint that maybe he was a naked emperor. (I've heard him say this to other people about me a dozen times, mocking himself, honoring me.) I was the voice in his head arguing against the arrogance of liberalism and scientism. (Again, this is what he says.)

I knew his mind. He knew everything I thought. What was there to say? What words could possibly be adequate for this? We sipped our tea. And sat. Together.

After awhile he asked me to tell him the story. He had heard bits and pieces, he said. But he couldn't get his head around it. What happened?

I told him. About the storm, which he already knew. It knocked down trees in his yard. About the drive to day care. About the tree: one hundred twenty-three feet tall, thirty-eight inches in diameter, five tons of weight. About the car. About the surgical precision, front seat crushed, back seat untouched. How quickly aid arrived. The impossibility of resuscitation. Jenn's call from the hospital.

He didn't say a word. He sat, head in his hands, listening.

“My grandkids didn't have God,” I said. “And now they don't have Dad.” My story ended. He glanced up. Shook his head, then dropped it again into his hands. “My God, my God,” he murmured, “why have you forsaken us?”

We sat silent.

“What am I supposed to say tomorrow?” I asked. “Do I turn my own son into one of those freaky sermon illustrations--he could have been saved, he was going to be saved, he was almost saved but then he was hit by a car, well, or by a tree, and now it's too late. So, listen up, everybody. Repent before it is too late. Don't leave this funeral without accepting Jesus as your Savior. Don't leave without believing in your heart and confessing with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord. Do I turn the tragedy of Eric's death into a triumph of the gospel by using his damnation as inspiration for some other sinner to repent and believe?”

It was a stupid question. I would never do such a thing. We both knew that. But it was the question my heart kept asking.

Tom said nothing.

“How do I live without hope? I've preached the gospel for 40 years. It is God's word. Paul's word. And my own experience. But the gospel has always included hope. Yes, there were the hard edges of truth, there is no other name, he who does not believe is condemned already, but those truths were addressed to people who could yet say yes to the Gospel. How do I live with no hope?”

Tom sat. Listened. Carried the weight of all this craziness. He raised his head, looked at me. I'm sorry friend, his eyes said. Then again he dropped his head into his hands. Keeping me company.

“My son, Eric. Oh my son, Eric. Would to God I had died in your place.” It was his mouth speaking, voicing aloud the cry of my heart, echoing the three-thousand-year-old lament of King David. He meant them as words for me, but they were his words, too. He would have willingly taken the tree in Eric's place, if God would offer such an exchange. He would have taken the tree to spare Eric. He would have taken the tree to spare me. His own hold on life is more tenuous than mine. He would have made the trade. Maybe he would have even taken Eric's damnation, but that confronted me with the question I had dreaded from the moment I thought about Tom showing up at my door, the question he had not once hinted at since he arrived, but which had screamed louder in my own head every minute that he said nothing, every minute he kept company with me in my grief.

“You don't think Eric is lost, do you?”


Chapter Four

Tom is messed up. I love him. But he's messed up. Going way back he has always had questions. He argued with professors in seminary. He argued with his friends. He fretted about problems in the Bible.
I remember just a few years after seminary talking to him about creation. He loved rocks. Was always reading about creation and evolution and the age of the earth and stuff like that. He had come back from a geology field trip saying our creation doctrine could not stand up to close scrutiny. I remember thinking if he can't believe it we're doomed. If with all his study he couldn't find enough evidence to allow for the Bible story of creation, what hope was there for regular people?

But then he was always troubled about something. Even the Gospel. He was always worrying about the exceptional people, people who could not possibly meet the requirement to believe. What about severely disabled people, he asked, how could they believe? And if they could not believe, how could they be condemned for that defect? He wanted to save everybody, the pagans in Asia before the missionaries got there, people with mental problems, babies who died in infancy, atheists whose lack of faith was caused by the abuse they experienced from church people. I admire his heart, but I worry about his—what should I call it—irreverence? Lack of faith? Arrogance?

A year with a gay housemate was the foundation of another set of his questions. How could it be right to require of others something—celibacy—that we—ordinary married clergy—could never contemplate for ourselves. When I asked him if he really trusted human stories more than the word of God, that stopped him. He wasn't willing to go that far. Not then. But that was decades ago. I'm not sure how he would answer now. I think he has less faith now. More questions. When we talk, he asks questions. He listens. He agrees with me when I protest against examples of extreme liberal thinking, but I can't think of when I last heard him express a straightforward theological opinion. Well, except for last summer.

I was fretting over Eric and Jenn. How could they raise my grandkids without Jesus, without any religion, any spiritual sense at all? I worried my grandkids would not be in heaven. Tom acknowledged my grief, but something in the way he responded made me question him. “You don't think atheists will be lost?”

“I'm a lawyer for the defense,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I can get them off. If I were admitted to the court on judgment day, I could get them off. At least I could make an argument that would get a hearing in court. And if it didn't get a hearing, I think I would prefer hell to any place where my case would not be heard.”

“You think people can be saved even if they have rejected faith?” I couldn't believe what I just heard him say.

“Five times in the Bible humans argue with God and win. Five times deity bends to the will and words of humanity. And four out of the five, the human argument is ratified by the subsequent story. The way the Bible tells it, the humans not only get their way, they are right. Abraham argued to save Sodom from the destruction God announced. The old man failed to save the city, but God bent to the heart of Abraham's argument and sent angels to rescue the four “good people” that could be identified.

“God announced his decision to annihilate Israel after they worshiped the golden calf. God ordered Moses to step aside so the annihilation could begin. Moses bluntly refused, and God backed down. Then there's the curious case of the Gibbeonites. God included them in a general decree of annihilation for all Canaanites. They tricked Joshua into making a treaty with them. When the deception became public, Joshua's army insisted he obey the divine decree and obliterate them. Joshua withstood his army. He protected the Gibbeonites. And a later story in the Bible emphatically declares God's approval of Joshua's defense. Then my favorite. The Canaanite woman who came to Jesus asking for help for her daughter. Jesus and the disciples tried to get rid of her. Jesus explicitly told her that he was not authorized to help her. She was outside his divinely-appointed mission. She said, 'Do it any way.' And Jesus acquiesced, saying, 'Okay woman, may it be as you will.' As Christians, we can read this passage as God saying, Not my will but yours be done.

“Sodom was a bad town. The Israelites were idolaters. The Gibbeonites were under a highly publicized divine order of extinction. Jesus himself said God had not authorized him to help the Canaanite woman. But four Sodomites were saved. The nation of Israel and the Gibeonites were spared. The woman received the help she wanted. All good precedents for a defense lawyer.

“Classic Christianity can cite chapter and verse in their prosecution of unbelievers. It's easy to make the case for damnation. But I am a lawyer for the defense. The only plea bargain I will accept is one that leaves my clients alive. Our kids are damnable unbelievers according to the religion of Luther and Augustine and Paul and our church. I defy them all. God will not damn our children. If God does damn our children, I'll go with them. I have no interest in heaven if it is not large enough for our kids.”

I still remember the shock of his words. Just like that he dismissed the heart of the gospel and two thousand years of Christian theology. No interest in heaven unless heaven included his children? No bowing to God unless God welcomed his children? It was blasphemy. But even in his arrogance, Tom wasn't really capable of blasphemy. He wasn't shaking his fist at God, he just would not let go of his kids. And “his kids” included my Eric. But wasn't that idolatry?

I didn't know what to say. I think Margie came into the room and we used that as an excuse to break our conversation and talk of other, safer stuff.

A week or so later I asked about the idolatry thing. “Tom, you said you had no interest in being in heaven with God unless your children were there. Forgive me for asking, but isn't that idolatry?”

“Yes.” He wrote back. “You could say that. But again, as a lawyer for the defense, let me offer a different take. The dominant metaphor in the Bible for God is father. In the synoptics, every use of the word “father” evokes the picture of a provident, generous, competent daddy. God the Father is the one you run to not away from. In the story of the Prodigal Son, in the end the father has welcomed both sons, and his final words to the older son who is resisting his welcome are, 'Son everything that I have is yours.' Not will be or might be or could be. There is no “if.” Simply, 'everything I have is yours.' This father would rather die than lose his son. So when I say I prefer damnation with my kids to salvation without them, how am I acting any different from the divine Father as pictured in the stories of Jesus? I know the other passages, the Bible texts cited in support of the idea that God will ultimately fail to save most of his children. All my life I've listened to good people explain how it is that the God of love will be forced by “justice” or “the sovereignty of human choice” to damn most of his children. I've made those arguments myself. But that was before I signed on as a lawyer for the defense. What kind of defense attorney would I be if I took only cases that were easy? If standing with my kids all the way through the verdict is idolatry, then I will accept condemnation as an idolater. What kind of father would I be if I accepted a salvation that excluded my kids? If we are all damned, so be it. But I will never stand in heaven and agree to the damnation of my kids.”



Chapter Five

That was two years ago. We have talked less since then. There's no animosity, but I have been uncertain how to talk. How do you stretch a friendship as close as ours across a chasm this wide? When push comes to shove Tom will choose his kids over God. He will choose an emotional affection over the truth of the gospel. How do you discuss theology after that?

Oh sure, we still talk occasionally. Keep up on what the kids and grandkids are doing. He has sympathized with us as our Nashville kids have wrapped themselves deeper and deeper in the cult they joined. I am deeply perplexed. I was so pleased when our son-in-law began providing real spiritual leadership in their family. They were going to a church where the Gospel was preached. God's word was taken seriously. Grace was exalted. Sin was rebuked. He became an elder and devoted hours to Bible study. Then his church wasn't pure enough. They joined another, smaller congregation. Then the preacher there wasn't careful enough in his exegesis. Then we, Margie and I, became suspect. The son-in-law did not want us to spend time in their home. If we visited, we stayed in a motel and came for dinner when both parents were present (and he could monitor and dilute our influence). It broke our hearts. Tom cried with us. He listened and sympathized without condemning our kids or second guessing us.

Margie and I fretted with him over one of his grandsons. His muscles were refusing to develop properly. They had taken him to every possible specialist, run every test. Still, no firm diagnosis. No prognosis. Just worry. Endless wondering and fretting. Shared pain among friends.

But we stayed away from theology. And for preachers not to be able to talk theology puts a strain on things. Sometimes I couldn't help myself and I would share with him some outrageous example of the swelling secularity of American culture, about the assimilation of the Christian church to the values and mores of left-falling America. He usually agreed with my concerns, but I couldn't tell what he actually thought. It sounded to me like he was simply being agreeable, finding something in my words he could affirm. And all time I was wondering, does he still have greater loyalty to his kids than to God?

Is he a Christian? Is he saved?

But, of course, this evening that's not what I'm worried about. Tom is not the center of the service tomorrow.

“You don't think Eric is lost, do you?”

There. I said it.

“Dave, I know the gospel has saved your life and given you your ministry.” Tom said. “I know God called you. I don't want to take away from that. In your hands, the Gospel is a tool for giving hope, an instrument of healing and peace. You have blessed hundreds, thousands, with your preaching. You are a beautiful man, a beautiful preacher.

“Still, I don't think God will damn his grandchildren. Especially, if their only fault is failing to believe the correct theory regarding the death of Jesus. I regard Paul's gospel as a metaphor, one picture people can use to help themselves imagine God forgiving and embracing them. But I think God is bigger than the Gospel. God's hands are not tied by the Gospel—as we understand it or even as the Apostle Paul understood it.”

“But what about the words of the Gospel of John?” I asked. “How do you get past John's words, “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

“If Joshua could defy a divine edict of destruction, I can push back against the damning words of Jesus. I will out-mercy Jesus, if that's what it takes. I will quote Jesus to himself. He said to the woman dragged into his presence as an adultress, 'I do not condemn you.' If he would not condemn her, how can it be right to condemn a good husband and doting father, who could not bring himself to believe a Christian theory?”

Tom went on, “I think mercy and justice are greater than the theories of the Apostle. I think God is very much like you. You would unhesitatingly give your life to save your son or grandkids from some earthly calamity. And which of your kids would you damn, if the judgment were placed completely in your hands? If God set up an execution—an electrocution—and put the switch in your hands and told you to push it when you were ready to damn you son, how soon could you bring yourself to push the button?”

“In the story of Job, there is this curious bit right at the beginning of the tale. Job had ten kids. They had regular parties. When a party was over, Job would offer sacrifices to purify his kids, just in case they had secretly committed a sin in their heart during the feast. The plain reading of the text means that Job's actions were efficacious. When he was done with the sacrifice, his children were, in fact, pure in the eyes of God. The kids themselves did nothing. They did not confess or repent or believe. They were purified by the magnanimous competence of their father. Is God any less magnanimous? Or less competent? I think God will find a way to save our children.”

Tom looked at the clock. “I better get out here. You have a terrible day ahead of you.” He hugged me again. Fiercely. Long. Then was gone.



Chapter Six

It's midnight. Eleven hours till the service begins.

Oh Eric, Eric. Would to God I had died in your place. How can I let you go? What good is heaven without you? How will I learn to look at your mother and without seeing your eyes and tasting again the bitterness of your absence? How will I learn to look at my hands and not see your hands? How long will it take for heaven to quit torturing me every time I am reminded you are not there?

Damn Tom! He makes it so alluring. Heresy. Cheap grace. Watered down gospel. Human wisdom above the word of God. Tom makes it all sound so possible, so believable. But aren't all his fine words just sweet fantasy? The Bible is so clear.

Tom can't be right. Lawyer for the defense? Take all the best lawyers in the world and add them together; they are no match for the simple words of the Bible. It is by faith we are saved. There is no other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved.

But then I replay Tom's words in my head. Of all the people in the gospels who were possessed by demons not one ever asked for help or expressed the least hint of faith. And not one was ever left unhelped. Jesus saved every one. If Jesus saved demon-possessed people, Tom argued, why wouldn't God similarly cure atheists of their unfaith, at the end in the great transformation? Doesn't the Bible promise that at the Second Coming everyone will be changed? Fixed. Renewed. Restored. Made perfectly whole. Who is so far gone that God cannot or will not fix them?
Could I, like Job, purify my children? Could my faith enough for Eric? Could I be the Canaanite mother demanding help for my child—a child who is not even present? Would heaven bend to my will the way Jesus bent to that mother?

Oh Jesus, save my son. He could not save himself. He did not ask. So I am asking. Imploring. Begging. Insisting. Save my son. Damnation looms. Damnation is only word I know how to say, but please, save my son.