Please Pray For Asia Bibi


Today, tomorrow, the next day, and thereafter, until she is released unharmed and she and her family come to a place of safety, I will be praying for Asia Bibi.  Please help by praying for her too.  Her situation is really tragic and dire, and anything you can do to help will be a blessing.

Bibi, a Christian woman living in Pakistan, got into a dispute with other women in her village about sharing a water jug or glassAfter she offered them water,  the other women refused to drink from the same container saying it was unclean.  An argument ensued. These other women, who are Muslim, afterward accused Asia of “dishonoring” the prophet, which under Pakistan’s blasphemy law carries the penalty of death.  Bibi was tried in court and, despite denying the blasphemy charge, was sentenced to be hanged.

Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim who held the post of governor of Punjab, took up her cause and argued that this law was unjust and being used unfairly against Bibi.  Earlier this year, he was murdered by a member of his own security detail, who shot him 26 times with a submachine gun.  Taseer’s assassin, while in police custody, was showered with rose petals by supporters.  Mullahs throughout the country warned that if anyone even grieved for Taseer, they were exposing themselves to the same fate.

Another courageous and merciful man, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who held the position of Federal Minister for (Religious) Minority Affairs, then took up Bibi’s cause.  He also argued against the blasphemy law and claimed the charges against Bibi were baseless and concocted.  On March 2, he died in a hail of bullets when a car carrying a group of gunmen pulled in front of his car and they opened fire on him.

Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, both highly visible public figures in Pakistan, believed in freedom of conscience and authentic faith in God.  For this strong and true belief, both willingly and courageously walked the path of martydom.  Those who killed them seek to place God’s loving faith in chains and seek to take away from others the blessing of free will.  Yet, in accordance with the wisdom and love of the most high, God freely gave this blessing to the first man, even knowing this first man would then succumb to the temptation to take what wasn’t his (so the child sin follows closely after its father).  May the glory and all the blessings of God, whom Taseer and Bhatti served so faithfully, be with them and theirs forever.

This past June, Bibi passed the two year mark on her time in jail.  She fears she could be murdered in jail, like Qamar David, a 55-year-old Catholic who was serving a life sentence for blasphemy.  Extremist groups have put a bounty on her head of $6,000.  Her husband and children have also been declared to be targets and received death threats.   Saying they are concerned about her safety, authorities have kept her in an isolation cell for 24 hours a day, without even a small break for outside air and sun.

Bibi was relocated to a women-only prison after extremists threatened to blow up the prison where she was staying. She has recently fallen ill with chickenpox, apparently because her room and bed sheets have not been cleaned.  She spends her time fasting and praying for others.

There are many people praying for Bibi.  Please consider joining in this prayer, even if you don’t consider yourself very religious or think your prayer won’t matter.  Every voice is heard by God.  Bibi can certainly use all the help she can get, including yours.  Apparently she has asked for prayers for strength and safety. Thank you so much.

On March 17, 2014, the Lahore High Court will hear Asia Bibi’s appeal.  Dear God, thank you for this beam of hope and grant us a share of your mercy and compassion.  If you are reading this, please consider joining me in prayer for Asia and her family.

UPDATE – The hearing of March 17 has been postponed.  More information may be found at (or    


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A plea for the lives of the 529 people recently convicted in Minya

Under the circumstances, I feel I must plea for the lives of the 529 people convicted of the crime of murdering a police officer in the city of Minya, Egypt.  Dear Lord, please forgive me if I speak out of turn in an affair not my own, for despite my limited understanding of this matter and my distance from this situation and all its consequences, you are a God of “compassion” who “desire[s] mercy, and not sacrifice.”  So I believe this is a desire you want us all to share.  And this is so, even though all people will one day stand in “judgment” before you, as Lord of all.  This is entirely fitting because you created us, you care about us, and you can look into our “innermost parts” and fairly weigh our lives, including our particular burdens and blessings, even better than we can ourselves.  

As I heard it (see article here), these 529 people were convicted (with sixteen others acquitted) “at a mass two-day trial” for killing a police officer, apparently by setting fire to a police station, during riots in Minya after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. At the first hearing Saturday, it appears the judge rejected a defense request to postpone the case, after which the trial became “chaotic” with 123 defendants, crammed into a caged dock, and their lawyers “chanting slogans at the judge.”  When a defense lawyer demanded his recusal, the judge got “very angry” and adjourned the trial for sentencing, which sentence for death was passed down Monday morning.  The article reported that this sentence, if carried out, would be “the biggest mass execution from a single case in the recent history of Egypt, or anywhere else in the world.”  At the same time, the article noted the opinion of “legal experts” that the sentence will likely be overturned on appeal, rejected by the Grand Mufti, or commuted by the president.

Knowing just this little bit about what happened, I do feel very hesitant to “weigh in,” dear Lord.  Is not the justice of man always but a poor substitute for your divine justice?  For, unlike you, we cannot look into the “innermost parts” of each accused person to assess actual purpose nor fairly appraise the entire life (past, present, and future) of each accused person, which might serve to mitigate, at least to some extent, their actions.  Still, in this world, man must try to redress existing wrongs as best he can.  Even so, there are times, and this appears one of them, when man’s attempt to administer justice falls woefully short of even excusable error, but rather adds to the original offense by heaping a second “wrong” upon the first.

To those who are charged with administering justice in this matter, I would ask this: do you really believe all 529 people were equally guilty of murder?  Were there no instigators of violence?  No ringleaders?  No seekers after death who, with advance malice, came prepared with weapons and the materials to set the fire that burned down the station (assuming they knew someone was inside)?  And if all 529 people were not equally guilty, then why were all equally sentenced?   Is it not basic justice to require that the penalty be scaled to the offense?  And if you, and indeed no one in Egypt, or for that matter anywhere, actually believes all 529 were equally guilty, is not this presumed act of “justice” in fact only a “travesty.”  Can anyone in their heart-of-hearts believe any differently?  

Perhaps this mass sentence was handed down on the principle that they are all “troublemakers” or “terrorists” or “Morsi supporters” or “involved in some way.”  With a little thought, it will be readily seen how such a principle is ripe for abuse.  During the Second World War, when the Nazis murdered whole villages in retribution for the murder of a single army official, they also relied on such a principle.  So too, in the Massacre at Beziers in 1209, when the abbot who accompanied the besiegers of the town was asked how to distinguish the faithful from the heretics, he invoked a similar principle, saying “Kill them all, God will sort his own.”   Are not such deeds recorded in history as acts of great viciousness and infamy?  If history has not looked kindly on such actions, we should not suppose that God, who is certainly at least as compassionate as man, will look kindly on them either.    

Insofar as reputation is concerned, these are worldly considerations, but the major religions of the world share, or so I havve heard, a common principle of right action, which is to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated (as to Christians, we are to “love” others as ourselves).  If the shoe were on the other foot, then, just because someone is “very angry” at me and too upset to listen to any defense I might make and just because they can, should this be deemed sufficient grounds to allow them to sentence me to death?   How, then, can one tell apart a judge, who presumably is an impartial upholder of the law (which at its best applies to all equally), from a terrorist, who in practice is limited only by personal whim with recourse, as convenient, to some pretense of blood-soaked dogma?

For those to whom faith is primary, there are other and higher considerations.  Looking ahead a bit, do we ttruly suppose that God, who justly deserves to be called compassionate given all the blessings he has bestowed upon man, will be delighted to hear that we have extended the banner of death on earth?   If we, using the authority we have been given in this world, choose to measure out death for others, then why should we expect that God, when we come to his domain in heaven, will choose life for us?  

Is it not part of our rightful calling, while we are here on earth, to see the bounty and goodness that God has brought to our lives, and to praise God for it?   And also, as caretakers of faith in God’s graciousness, to bring light to the eyes of others through this same wondrous sight of God’s bounty and goodness?  Iff, instead of light, we choose to shut the eyes of some and bring heaviness and bitter tears to the eyes of others, and here we include not only the condemned but also their families and relatives and supporters, have we not failed terribly in serving our most gracious God and opened a path for ourselves that may lead to the eternal darkness?  

If you cast the net wide, indeed the guilty may be caught, but so also will many more of the innocent, by dint of human affection and sympathy, as is natural and God-given.  You will likely need to cast again, each time with an increasingly bigger net, and so finally end in being ensnared yourself, by dint of widespread anger, if not righteous.  Please, then, I plead with you to have mercy on these 529 people.  If, in your judgment, you deem it necessary to severely punish the perpetrators of the murder committed, please at least hold those responsible who are most responsible, in accordance with a measure of both mercy and fairness, including through an impartial judicial process for each of the accused supported by a careful review of all the testimony and evidence and an even-handed application of the law.

Dear Lord, please have mercy on us despite our  sins.  Let us ever emulate you in your merciful compassion and seek after your will for justice with due humility as your servants. Please do not let us be tempted by the false allure of retribution and threat, which at first may seem to make for peace, but which quickly turns, like an angry viper, upon the one who releases it.  May this plea and prayer bring blessing to all involved being of good will.

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On anger

Some speak of “honest” anger. But, most frequently, it is in the nature of anger to be dishonest.  

For example, anger oftentimes targets the wrong person, or erupts at the wrong time, in response to what is innocent, or delivers a blow out of all proportion to the original offense. Itt sees, as it were, every fault, even those that aren’t there, and magnifies the faults that are. Its natural inclination is to be curt and harsh, to rejoice in the evidence of pain and punishment it inflicts, and to suspect everything and believe nothing. 

In this way, anger tends toward the opposite of love, which “covers all offenses,” which is “patient and kind,” which “rejoices in the right,” and “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,  endures all things.”  In love is knowledge of the beauty and goodness and sacredness of God’s creation and children, but anger will have none of this.

Anger is quick to seize on categories that ostracize and demonize and divide, that is, to pin labels on others which, because they are absolute and overgeneralize, lump together and conceal the good with the bad and the bad with the good. Such derogatory labels can truly be a serious affront to God, who made man “in the image of God,” as they can encourage some to unjustly steal from other people their individual human dignity, which lie in the particular gifts of mind, heart, soul, and strength that God gave to each person, all of these in combination.   As to absolute standards, God’s grace is great and supple enough to reach the least perfect and most marginalized, and so we are encouraged to “love your neighbor as yourself” and reminded that “the measure you give will be the measure you get.”  The poorest love is always more holy and righteous than even the most perfect hate.

Anger may continue in dishonesty even after it is spent (here we pass over the colder, more destructive, more murderous emotion known as “implacable” anger).  It may deny, to itself, that itt has done anything wrong, or that it has caused any lasting wound or damage for, after all, it was but “honest” anger and, indeed, may forestall self-remonstrance by blocking out from conscious memory its own past deeds. So it devalues the anguish of others and, in self-absorbed and unfeeling manner, distances itself from others real wound and pain.  It fails to see how its “strength” is like a strong wind blowing on burning embers of woundedness that can spark an unholy fire of shame and depression or deep resentment and strife.

So it is that “honest” anger can be deceptive, even to itself, as to what it encourages us to do and in the way it nourishes itself.  At the same time, the actual feeling or prresence of anger is what it is, and it may, indeed, be dishonest not to admit to ourselves that we are feeling anger.  The acknowledgment of a symptom may herald the start of treatment and healing.  Also, despite the numerous pitfalls, there remains the possibility, however infrequent, that anger may be appropriate in target and kind and degree, and of benefit in redressing a grave wrong.  This is more likely when anger is directed toward an injurious principle or system or cause than toward a particular brother or sister.  Even so, from the moment of its seeming inception, anger often is, at root, a very different emotion that is merely masquerading as anger, an emotion that is just too painful for us to deal with directly, such as guilt and shame, fear and frustration, or a deep sense of weakness and powerlessness. 

We do well, then, not to befriend or join ourselves with anger.  For such a friend or ally can be very deceptive, appearances notwithstanding, and tempt us to do foolish or unjust or ugly things, which later may bring us deep regret or shame or even the endless tears of an inconsolable grief.

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Heralded by star and angel

In the East a star shone bright
And led the wise men through the night
Quietly over desert sands
Westward to a holy land

The wise men stopped at palace of king
Who laid a table of fine dining
Who asked the wise men what they’d heard
A king is born? Do send backk word!

On went the wise men in the night
Following the star so bright
Westward to a holy place
Of joy and light and loving grace

Finally the star did come to rest
Over a stable by God much blessed
Close by the animals, a family prayed
Mother Mary, father Joseph, and an infant babe

On their knees, the wise men fell
And worshipped the babe they called Emmanuel
Gold and frankincense and myrrh they laid
Before the infant and God they praised

Elsewhere in the fields where shepherds kept watch
And waited forr day to waken their flocks
An angel appeared and, with light all around,
Announced a Savior to wear David’s crown

This Savior, said the angel, is Christ the Lord
Who will establish righteousness throughout the world
Newly born to a virgin, a blessed babe
Has come as your Savior, give God great praise

Then other angels suddenly filled the heavens
Praising God and proclaiming peace among men
And then the angels were gone, but the shepherds soon went
To go see this babe foretold in Bethlehem

Now departing, the wise men avoided the palace
For they were warned in a dream of that king’s dark malice
And to Joseph an angel again in dream appeared
And said take flight to Egypt for the king’s wrath turns here

But though the family was anxious as they hurried to departt
Still Mary carried great hope in her heart
From the visits of the wise men and the shepherds too
In which star and angel heralded God’s grace and truth

Dear Lord, in this birth may we find your holy peace
When our Savior comes again, all bloody strife will cease
As if sun were dark, the star will shine and bright heaven be unveiled
And hosts of angels will sing your praise throughout heaven and the world

Water will spill forth in desolate lands and blessed garden will take root
And your children will again rejoice as tender grace kisses stalwart truth
As it was for Mary, dear Lord, let it also be for us
Let great hope also fill our hearts, on this holy day of Christmas

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For the anguished near the time of visitation

When we grieve, when we grieve deeply, often this is from great loss. One of these deep losses is a loss of self. That is, a time when we come face-to-face with a loss of a part of ourselves. A common example is an older man who grieves the loss of his strength or an older woman her appearance.  But there are other losses of mind and heart and soul that run even deeper, for we may lose our sense of mastery or enthusiasm or lovability.  We may come face-to-face with a sense of helplessness and dependency and worthlessness and the bitter realization that we cannot be the same person we once were, especially for those whom we dearly love.

So too, loss of those we deeply love is also a type of loss of self, for those we deeply love become part of ourselves, and when we lose them, we also lose that part. Thatt part, indeed, may be our better part, for what others cherish in us may be cherished by us out of love for these others.  So Jesus spoke of Mary taking the “good portion” when she chose to be in the presence of Jesus’ love rather than to serve guests with Martha.  That part of us that loves God is our better part and to the extent that part infuses the whole, so we more closely follow the “first” commandment, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The “second,” which comes after, is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  This loss of what we had once cherished, this poverty of self, this mourning over our great loss that we do not think will ever be restored, can find its healing in God’s wholeness and holiness and in God’s blessing.  

One of the remarkable facets of Jesus’ life is the way that his holiness and presence suddenly transformed hearts, how upon encountering Jesus, many people would suddenly be possessed with a deep sense of their own failings and worthlessness and how far short they fell from the absolute holiness of God’s grace and truth.  So Peter exclaimed to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”  So Mary wept with sorrow for her own sinfulness upon Jesus’ feet and from utter abandonment to love dried Jesus’ feet with her hair.  So when Jesus healed lepers, or gave sight to the blind, or drove out demons, or lifted up the crippled, Jesus “forgave” these blessed individuals.  This he would not have done if the only wound in these people lay in their body or mind only, for then, some other statement would have sufficed, such as “Give glory to God for your healing.”  But Jesus’ act of forgiving is directed to healing another part, which is the great sense of failing and weakness and sin that came to some, the blessed ones, in Jesus’ presence.  

For indeed there were some whose eyes were closed and whose hearts were hardened who were confused by or scorned Jesus, just as today those “holier than thou” are scorned.  Theyy were not ready for their sins to be taken away, as by Isaiah’s burning coal, for they knew not the time of their “visitation,” and “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”  For these others, the close allies of Satan, which are doubt joined with pride and fear joined with anger, submerged their thinking so as to fill their “world,” and from this inner ground grew the rank weeds of suspicion and harshness and ultimately violence.  But this temptation of Satan may be resisted, for as Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”   

For us, part of this overcoming comes from realizing that God is always with us, that even though we may lose a part of ourselves we may have cherished much, we should not despair.  For the great “good news” is that we will not lose the “good” portion, which is God’s love for us, and in that love there is always room for light and life and joy and consoling fruit that, in God’s good time, will gradually ripen and spill forth in abundance for the cherished and beloved of God.   As great the initial sense of worthlessness and shame, greater still is the following sense of loving forgiveness, joy, and peace.

So when is the time of visitation?  It is like the time when Abraham, extending hospitality to three men and feeding them with three cakes made of three measures of Sarah’s fine meal, realized they were angels and the Lord.  It is like the time Isaiah proclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips,” whereupon an angel touched a burning coal to his lips to take his guilt away.  Itt is like a merchant who, finding a pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.  It is like standing in soiled and torn clothes next to those of whitest wedding garment spun of a seamless weave.  It is the moment when we finally see and hear and say, “O my God, there really is a God and here God is!

For those who grieve, then, over their inner wounds and anguish over a broken part of themselves they fear will never be restored, know that you have not lost the best part of yourself, nor will you ever lose the best part, which is that portion that longs for and is set afire by the divine spark of bright blaze that heals and gives life and restores abundantly.  You do not even “tend toward average,” which is only an idol and snare of the present age, for you are made by a loving Creator “in the image of God” and the kingdom of heaven stands ever above, and will prevail, over the world’s hazard and disquiet and turmoil.   

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At the end of the summer, we harvest the good grain
But it is you, O Lord, who from above provide the rain
And come the falll, the maple sap runs free
But you, O Lord, in scarlet and amber cloak the trees

Then comes the winter when the white snow drapes the ground
And like your love, brushes our cheek and brings stillness all around
The days then darken, Lord, but each season at last departs
You do not forgett us Lord, but lengthen the days and cheer our hearts

And as the light grows, so life rises anew
Green buds awaken and pert sparrows sing melodies for you
Red and white, tan and green
Each season weaves its color scheme

Once, O Lord, I lived near the sea’s tumultuous roar
But wherever I’ve been, the changing seasons were always just outside the door
Dear Lord, your care for us is like a flame burning ever bright
So gentle yett wondrous your presence, like the colored lights of starry night

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Trust and Faith

When we think of “trusting” in God, we often think of God pulling us through a difficult or perilous situation.  But there is another way of trusting in God.

When uncertainty and hazard enter our lives, our situation can resemble that of an unfortunate passenger caught aboard a sinking vessel who is forced to board a small boat in the open sea.  As we embark, we may have serious doubt as to whether we have enough provisions aboard to keep ourselves alive during the long and uncertain journey lying ahead.  It is then we hear a cry for help, and, turning toward the desperate sound, we see one of the other passengers floundering in the roiling waves.  We know them only by appearance but do not know even their name.   Their eyes lock with ours, and they cry “help me, please help me.” 

Do we, then, take them aboard, when we doubt whether there is enough even for ourselves?  Won’t two people starve just that much quicker where one may remain more certainly alive?  And what if we are aboard with family or close kin so that we are responsible for their lives too?   These are indeed perplexxing questions, and may God give us strength and guide us as we make this hard decision.

It is in such situations that a second way of “trusting” in God can occur.  This is the trust that when we act with mercy, according to God’s compassionate will, God will provide what is needed so that, somehow, all will turn out well in the end.  If we trust God in our own time of need, this God who feeds the birds of the air though “they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns,” then we may also trust God to return back the good measure we give to others, indeed, with extra measure added or wondrously multiplied, as if “pressed down, shaken together, running over.” 

In this world, to be sure, it appears “one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice,” which we may takke as a sign of God’s “kindness and forbearance and patience,” who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”   To be sure, the wicked do seem to especially prosper and not be “in trouble as other men.”  At the same time, those who trust in oppression and crookedness, oft are set “in slippery places” and fall to ruin “in a moment” or are like a “high wall, bulging out” that “in an instant” collapses.  

However it may go on earth, it is our “faith” that good works and loving sacrifice performed on behalf of others, where unrequited, will find their reward in heaven “where neither moth nor rust consumes.”  All who believe in judgment, that on the last day the glorious one sitting on his glorious throne will separate the sheep from the goats, can likewise keep faith in this promise of great hope and good tidings. 

Yet, even in this world, those who conquer their “faint spirit,” who overcome overwhelming fear and anxiety, who trustt in God to provide whatever may be needed so that God’s holy work of mercy may be completed, will at least have the light load of a clear conscience.  They will know, at least, that they did all they could to do the right thing, and so, being of untroubled mind and light heart, find rest for their souls.  Is not this the way that we fill our lamps with the “oil of gladness,” instead of the ashes of grief, so that our lamp may “so shine before men, that they may see [these] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven.”  Is not this the way to prepare our lamps, as did the five wise maidens to be ready for the bridegroom, though he came in time of darkness while others slept, so that we are ready to go with the divine master to the heavenly feast and celebration?    Dear Lord, when the moment of decision is upon us, please help to steady our thoughts and guide our hand.  May we, with the help of your loving grace and divine strength, ever find a way that brings blessing to all who cry out for your merciful deliverance, including the way that takes us ever closer to your door.

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The bombing in Peshawar

Dear God, what is there to say about the suicide bombing at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, a Pakistani Christian church?   This attack killed at least 85 people, more than half of them women and children.  So much innocent blood spilled.  So many shattered lives.  So many empty seats at tables that once were filled with laughter and chatter and happy and whole families, but now with pain too deep for words.

Dear God, I believe you want your children to bring good out of bad, not bad out of good.  Could any good come from this?  I understand that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has expressed his disappointment with this savage attack.  It would be a merciful act if Mr. Sharif were to use this occasion to pardon a Christian, perhaps Asia Bibi, held in prison on charges of blasphemy.  Certainly, the price of redemption has now been paid many times over with this horrific attack.   Not only would such a pardon undo, in some small but meaningful way, what those who did this savage bombing hope to accomplish, but this pardon would be just and good, a life-restoring work that is worthy of a believer in a compassionate God.


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For Easter

Sunrise (modified)There is the way of water.  In water, face answers to face.  Prov. 27:19.  And it is this way too with blood. That is, in blood or suffering, the truth is revealed to our heart.

There is the way of iron.  Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.  Prov. 27:17.  Iron is power, and men tryy to outdo each other in power, and so become more cunning.

Then there is the way of water and Spirit.  Lest one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  John 3:5.  Water is the sacrifices or blood we give to lift the burdens from others and to give new life.  This is loving others as ourselves.  

Spirit is how we live, what we do with ourselves, out of love for God and our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is not the dead letter of the law, but rather what is written on the tablet of our living hearts.  2 Cor. 3:1-6.  The Spirit cannot be seen or read directly by the eyes of men, but rather its force is evident by what is done, that is by what we do.  2 Cor. 3:17-4:5.  So the Spirit is like the wind that tugs the green tree to one side, or drags down the gnarly oak that is decayed and empty inside.  We see what the wind does, but not the wind itself, which is God’s living Spirit and God’s living Word written on our hearts.

Easter is the season of rebirth.  Those who are reborn to the way of Jesus Christ reveal the face of Christ.  2 Cor. 4:6.   When we give, either in sacrifice or blood, let us choose the “good” portion, which is Christ Jesus – Luke 10:42 – for those who seek after the Lord will not go away disappointed.  John 20:11-18.  John 1:14, 17.

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On Suffering and also Atheism compared with Faith

Susan Jacoby recently published an article entitled “The Blessings of Atheism,” in the opinion pages of the New York Times Sunday Review (dated January 5, 2013, link provided here).  In her article, Ms. Jacoby lamented the reluctance of atheists like herself to offer consolation to those afflicted with personal tragedy, such as to grieving parents devasted by the death of their children.  She described her own conversion to atheism when faced with the suffering and death of her 9-year-old friend, who had contracted polio and had for eight years been confined to an iron lung before dying, his suffering beginning not long after Jonas Salk’s vaccine began to eradicate polio.  She took it as a “positive blessing” that she did not have to ask “why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.” After concluding that “free will” was “Western monotheism’s answer” to why God didn’t prevent such “slaughter of innocents,” she said that “many people” could not “let God off the hook in that fashion,” that as an atheist she was “free to concentrate on the fate of this world…without trying to square things with an unseen lord in the next,” and declared that a “deeply held conviction” in the “absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on this earth.” 

Ms. Jacoby then praised Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899, who was known as “the Great Agnostic” and who frequently delivered “secular eulogies” at funerals.  For example, he once comforted a grieving friend who had lost a child with words that included “death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest…The dead do not suffer.”  She then issued a call for atheists to “speak up” and “take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for,” such as showing up at gravesides.  Because I believe Ms. Jacoby is incorrect in concluding that atheism has more to offer grieving people than faith does and also incorrect in concluding that faith has no adequate explanation for suffering, I will now proceed to show why the very opposite conclusions are better supported by both reason and experience.  

There is a saying, none of us make it out of life alive, though this saying is really more for atheists, not for people of faith.  This seems small comfort in the face of extreme grief and suffering.  At a child’s funeral, to tell the grieving parent, “all of us are going to die some day,” is really all an atheist has to offer.  Adding that the child is now at “perfect rest” and beyond “suffering” does not add much.  Of itself, this gives little meaning to the child’s death, and if consolation is the main objective, the atheist may as well stay home.  The mere existence of death is not in serious dispute, including by those of faith.  Where faith and atheism diverge is in respect to death’s finality.  Those of faith believe that death is not final, and can share this hope with the grieving, that is, those of faith can hold out the hope of eventual reunion with one’s child or other loved one, at least at some future time on another level of existence.  But atheists have no such hope to share, only a relatively comfortless belief  “well, it happens to everyone.”

The author takes faith to task for failing to adequately explain why suffering exists.  That is, how can suffering be explained if God is really good and has complete power to prevent it?   Contrary to what the author baldly assumes without any real attempt to understand differently, suffering can be explained in a manner consistent with faith in a good and almighty God.  Indeed, it is atheism that cannot “explain” the “meaning” of suffering because as atheism understands this world, there is no “higher” meaning to anything, but rather people are mere “accidents of nature” who are, in relation to meaning, making it all up as they go along.  Indeed, from the atheist perspective, even “nature” is an accident, and all life on our planet is just the result of some freakish congruence of physical events which, as time passes, are doomed to to gradually fade away into oblivion in the face of increasing disorder and malfunction, while the enormous material bodies of our vast universe silently hurl in utterly meaningless manner through largely empty space.  As a corrective to this bleak and depressing worldview, I would recommend the book “Three Philosophies of Life,” by Peter Kreeft.

So how can a good God allow suffering to exist?  If we are speaking about suffering caused by other people (versus by tornados or eating bad foods or biting dogs or other non-human causes) one explanation, fully in accord with faith and experience, is that God places a high priority on allowing people to have free will and to experience the real consequences of their choices, even if this means that others may suffer as a result.  To be sure, God could have decided otherwise, and whenever someone was about to suffer, could have pulled out a magic eraser and reversed the hurt.  So why doesn’t God do this?  (Or at least normally do this, for periodically, according to objective record, God does intervene, as in the spontaneous remission of a disease that has gone way beyond a state invariably considered fatal.)

While there are no definite answers, perhaps there is a clue in the fact that unless we ourselves can feel suffering, we can hardly have empathy for the suffering of others.  It would be like someone trying to explain color to a person born blind or what it is like to have an itching arm to someone born without limbs.  Unless we ourselves have felt physical pain or grief or abandonment or betrayal or frustration or hopelessness or fear, we can hardly feel empathy for those who do have those feelings.  Without our own ability to suffer, our world would be a more even-keeled but blander place, with none of those messy afflictions and sorrows and hurts that define us as human.   Indeed, it is our susceptibility to suffering, our deep sensitivity to many different forms of suffering, that in a way makes us noble, if occasionally tragic, creatures, with our feet firmly planted on the earth, but capable of such feats of vice or virtue or endurance as to attract the attention and concern of the most holy assembly of heaven.  Would it really be possible to understand the difference between good and bad, to know the full spectrum of our most human emotions, where suffering has been suppressed?   

For that matter, from some grander and more divine perspective, perhaps God has protected us from the utter horrors of even worse evils.  How would we ever know?  Perhaps, in the larger scheme of things, we are like children complaining about being sent to the corner for a time out who cannot even begin to fathom what it would be like to face the assault of being taken a prisoner of war, perhaps while in a spiritually heightened state of increased sensibility and sensitivity to suffering.  We should not just assume, for example, that the suffering that occurs in hell is confined to physical pain, nor even reaches a limit in emotional or mental anguish, but perhaps being ourselves transformed to eternal life, there are dimensions of pain we cannot even imagine.

Linked to the idea of this world being only an intermediate state, akin to a spiritual childhood, some have suggested that at least in certain cases, suffering is a form of divine discipline, intended by our heavenly Father for our good: to produce a change of heart in us.  So Scripture says, “For thou, O God, hast tested us; thou hast tried us as silver is tried” for “thou didst lay affliction on our loins,” the point here being to heighten our awareness that we are “in trouble” (without God) and to return to God’s house with prayer and gratitude.  At the same time, we are not God, and it is all too easy for us to take the concept of loving discipline too far, so we should ever bear in mind that the proper aim is path correction and reconciliation as consistent with natural consequences and free will, for so the story of the prodigal son teaches us (who at last, of his own free volition, came to recognize his self-inflicted state of degradation and formerly errant behavior) and as Jesus suggested when he said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

I speak above of natural consequences, for to say that God may “allow” suffering is not at all the same as saying God is ever an active participant in causing suffering, for the very presence of God tends toward increase of blessing and restoration of truth and healing, so the mechanism of suffering is more aptly regarded as involving God “hiding his face,” at least for a time, for it is the absence of God, not God’s active involvement, that puts our lives and joy and all our good blessings at peril.   Absent God, in our hearts, in our homes, and in our communities, we soon enough naturally discover that all hell can break loose.

Even in cases where there is no obvious “lesson” to be learned from suffering, it is true enough that “unwarranted” suffering may increase our reserves of patience, of steadfast endurance, and of sympathy for the suffering of others.  In somewhat the same manner that a vaccine fosters a stronger immune system, exposure to suffering may, at least in very diluted doses, make us better equipped to tolerate and overcame subsequent evils, which indeed seems more practical than unrealistically trying to avoid every form of suffering and pain.   At the same time, there seems little merit in needlessly adding to the world’s sum total of suffering, as do those who inflict pain on themselves in an attempt to train their bodies to be obedient to their will, for they deem the body overly subject to carnal influence and needful of firmer authority.  Certainly, there is already plenty of hurt and hardship to go around in this world, and those who wish to train their body can doubtless get all the training they need, and perform better and more loving service in God’s name, by helping to carry the burdens that others are forced to shoulder.   

At some point, the idea of “discipline” (or moral instruction or character building) hardens into the idea of “punishment.”  According to this concept, God may give up on changing our heart and decide, right now in this world, to render immediate judgment.  One finds this idea expressed more frequently in earlier books of Scripture.  Perhaps this is so because, in these earlier times, God’s blessings were bestowed openly to the accompaniment of astounding wonders and evident miracles, so that a higher degree of obedience could justly be expected.  This accords with the later-stated principle that “to whom much is given, of him will much be required.”   In any event, life was hard and life expectancy was not long.  Where death is always nearby, where sin can have disastrous consequences with life so close to the edge already, and where horrific traditions had taken deep root, such as human sacrifice, it would seem greater need would exist for stiffer divine penalties in order to contain multiplying wickedness and preserve human life.   May God’s grace keep us far removed from such dark times.

Later Scripture tends to be more “neutral” and to discount such a direct link between human behavior and divine punishment, observing that “even the wise die, the fool and the stupid alike must perish” or “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.”   In the Gospels of still later date, Jesus tells the crowd to love their enemies for then “you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  Here the connection between bad behavior and “divine punishment,” at least immediately in this world, seems attenuated indeed.

Elsewhere, in referring to eighteen people killed when a tower in Siloam fell on them, Jesus says, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?  I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”  An important question here is how to interpret that word “likewise.”  Perhaps what this means is that when God does intervene to stop evil, the intervention is sudden, like a building falling on someone (or a divided sea coming back together or the earth suddenly opening and swallowing the evildoers).   More typically, with Jesus miraculous interventions are invariably treated as opportunities for showing the reality of divine mercy and grace, not divine anger and punishment.  So, when Jesus delays visiting his friend Lazarus and Lazarus dies, Jesus says “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”   Upon arriving, after first being “deeply moved in spirit” by the weeping of those around Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus proceeds to raise Lazarus from the dead, all to the greater glory of a most merciful God.

Regarding, then, the whole body of Scripture, we find a general shift in which immediate divine “punishment” is deferred in favor of a common day of judgment for all on the last day, for we are told it is not God’s will that “any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”  To like effect, is Jesus’ parable about letting the weeds and wheat grow together “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.”  Certainly, there are many instances of wondrous mercy and grace in Scripture where “sinners” who had earlier done wicked acts were later reconciled and called to be great servants of God, among them Moses and St. Paul.   Given all this, in accord with Holy Scripture, we are hardly warranted, at least at present, in assuming there’s a link between suffering and divine punishment.

Another reason why God might allow suffering in this world is to allow us to “prove” ourselves, that is, this world is, as it were, a kind of proving grounds, where we are given the opportunity to either prove our virtue and “mettle” or confirm our vice and “weakness” (or possibly both, depending on the attributes in question).   Given that God knows everything about us, even to the point of forseeing how we are going to act, we may conclude that this “proving” is mainly for our own benefit.   If we do not, in this age, rely solely on God’s Word to convince us of God’s existence, we can hardly be expected, in the coming age, to trust God’s Word as to how we “would have” acted in the face of trial and tribulation had we been given the chance.  It is doubtful the truly bad will agree they would have been so wicked as to deserve hell, nor would the truly good likely agree they would have been so virtuous as to deserve heaven. Putting it to the test eliminates any dispute.

Another reason for God to allow suffering is so that those who have suffered can, in turn, serve as a guiding light for those facing similar afflictions. Those who have suffered in a similar way share a very deep bond, and this bond is a reflection of the deep bond and relationship most of humanity naturally has with the suffering Christ.  For it is hardly possible to reach maturity in this world without having suffered in some “unjust” and “undeserved” way that was completely “without cause.”  Those who have walked the road of suffering can, by their very survival, offer hope to those still deep in the throes of suffering and despair, as by pointing out what to expect, or what things made the suffering worse and so are to be avoided, or what things helped to lighten suffering’s heavy load.  In this way, those who have suffered have good blessings they can offer to others, and so may walk closer to God as God’s servants or children or representatives on earth.

Another reason why God may allow suffering is to more clearly cast a light on wickedness, to stir our hearts and encourage self-reflection, and to drive accelerated and positive change.  When people say why doesn’t God intervene to stop evil, what they really mean is why doesn’t God intervene sooner. So, for example, in article, the author asks why her friend had to suffer from polio and why the cure didn’t come soon enough to help her friend.  This ignores that one significant factor that likely drove the fund-raising that paid for the research that ultimately found the cure for polio was, as with other diseases, the obvious and horrible suffering it caused. In Holy Scripture, there is a suggestion that God might wait for relatively long periods, at least relative to human life spans, before stopping evil.  One could conclude that God allows the consequences of great wickedness to have its full effect before intervening so that people will realize the full extent of evil that accompanies particular forms of wickedness.  Some forms of wickedness, at least at the outset, may seem relatively harmless.  Indeed, even when great wickedness is allowed to proceed to its full effect, to stand forever as a horrible example, as it were, there will likely still be people who will deny this great wickedness was really all that bad.  We see this, for example, with those who deny the horrors or the principal causes of the Holocaust.

Still another reason why God might allow suffering is to prevent a still greater evil.  For example, the drowning of a young child in a river sounds like a horrible and senseless tragedy.  But what if that young child would later grow up to become Adolf Hitler?  How much evil and how many innocent lives would have been saved had Hitler died as a youth in a “tragic” drowning accident?  What if, on the other hand, Hitler had been less evil and megalomaniacal than he was.  What if he hadn’t simultaneously turned on Russia while attacking the original Allies, or what if he had acted with more restraint by stopping with the invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia, at least until such time he had further developed his rocket and nuclear war capabilitites?  The truth is, being only human, we can only see the great evil that occured, but without the fuller divine perspective, we have no way to discern whether or not by means of some “evil” a still greater evil was avoided.    

Yet another reason why God might allow suffering is to prepare us for the coming age. There is some hint of this in the parable Jesus told where he compared the kingdom of heaven to a marriage feast held by the king for his son, and how this king came upon one man with no wedding garment.  When the king asked “how did you get in here without a wedding garment,” the man was speechless, whereupon the king ordered his servants to bind the man “hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”   

One way to understand the significance of this parable is to assume that originally the man did have a wedding garment, for elsewhere Jesus says that those resurrected “cannot die anymore” and “are like angels in heaven,” by which we may understand that everyone resurrected to heaven assumes a new body of some transformed or elevated sort.  Yet once having assumed this “wedding garment,” as the parable would seem to describe it, it appears possible to change back into something inferior, possibly by committing a grievous sin anew in heaven.  If it is also true, as Jesus further said, that “to whom much is given, of him will much be required,” what will be required of someone who has been given the gift of heaven?  What possible blessing could be greater?  In accord with the great sanctity and holiness of God’s loving presence, would not the appropriate response be one of great gratitude and sterling conduct?  What should be the punishment for rejection and willful abuse of this great blessing but the most severe punishment, and as resurrection came with eternal life, so too perhaps the punishment may likewise be eternal.  For no place higher than heaven has been revealed nor should we just assume, particularly given this parable, that heaven is a place where second chances are given.  If we are unprepared, immediate entry into heaven may not necessarily be the best thing for us.  Perhaps, after all, the places of “severe beating” and “light beating” referred to in the Gospel are really indicative of God’s great mercy and kindness to us, for even a severe beating is not final, and we should hope that our hearts are adequately prepared before we get to heaven or hell.  

In short, there are a number of reasons, some of which I have no doubt missed, why a good God may allow seemingly “senseless” suffering to occur, even though God fully has the power to prevent such suffering were this God’s will.  The existence of suffering in this world should not, then, be viewed as some insurmountable obstacle to drawing closer to God.  If anything, it is faith that lays better claim to explaining suffering, for atheism has no meaningful explanation for it at all.  Rather, like everything else it considers, atheism simply concludes about suffering that “its just the way things are.”  

In comparison with this bleak and fatalistic sense that everything is already predetermined, and there’s nothing anyone can really do about it (for even free will is held, by materialistic atheists, to be merely an illusion, and just the result of fully deterministic sequences of chemical firings in the brain), faith offers us both the promise and hope that what we do in this world really matters, both for us and for those we love, and that real goodness truly exists in this world and someday we will experience the source of this goodness in a way both wonderful and hardly now imaginable.   What hope does atheism have to offer that compares to that?

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New Day

Every stiff yoke must be broken
Not a single idol can stand
Even who we think we are
Will fade before a purer I Am

The rules that set our boundaries
Though firm as golden ring
Will break and open us to grace
With joy our hearts will sing

The musts and shoulds and all our fears
Will depart us on thatt day
For what we’re made for will be as plain
As the potter’s clay

In this age we prize self glory
Parading its emblems anxiously on our sleeve
But on that day of new apparel
To don the old will be to act most shamefully

To shine with holy light
To catch the breath of gently nestling dove
Will then suffice for us to know
We are beholden with love

Let then the trumpet sound
Let devoted grace affirm her happy lines
As she stands adorned before almighty King
With a love outlasting time

Posted in Devotion, Good News, Grace, Heaven, Holiness, Love | Leave a comment