Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Call (A Parable)

Clayton Bloom sired three sons. Even before they had hardly grown, each of them turned away from their father, obsessed by a need to outdo his brothers. When they could, the brothers demanded their inheritances and left their father—each certain that with his talent and resources he would excel over his brothers.

Time passed and the three brothers failed in their quests. Each found himself separated from the others and severely destitute.

At the right time, the father went in search of his wayward boys to bring them home. He found his oldest in a stupor and lying in a ditch.

The father appealed to the man, “Come home my son, and I will give you rest. You will have your original job at twice the salary. And someday you, along with your brothers, will be given control over my estate.”

His son looked up through eyes half closed by contempt for his father and replied, “I don’t want your pity, Old Man. And I certainly don’t want your charity. I can care for myself. Go away and leave me alone!”

Reluctantly, the father left his oldest son in search of his brothers. Eventually he found his middle son, and appealed to him in the same manner he had with the man’s older brother.

The middle son didn’t answer his father right away, but thought, if I take the money, I can get myself cleaned up and go back to those guys who stuck me and make them sorry for underestimating me. The bums will soon be bowing to me, and I’ll be on top, again. “Sure, Pops,” the middle son said. “I’ll go back to work for you. Thanks, thanks a lot!”

After the father had sent his middle son home with instructions for the servants to care for him after he arrived, the father sought out his youngest boy. He found the young man worse off than his brothers. The father knelt beside his youngest son, and appealed to him as he did his two brothers. The man looked up at his father with weak eyes that welled with tears.

“Why should you be so kind to me after I brought you so much disgrace? I have despaired so long, Father. If you only knew how tired I am of it all. I hate my life. I have tried to console myself by remembering my home and you and my life there, but I couldn’t. I tried and tried but the memory was gone, so I convinced myself that it never really happened. I thought it was nothing but a dream. I went on even though deep down I knew it was pointless and ended here hoping to die. I didn't have the guts to kill myself. Now here you are. It wasn’t a dream after all. I want to go home. I’ll do anything to go back there. I’ll listen to you. I’ll do anything you say. Teach me, Father, so I can please you. I want to please you, but I've forgotten how. I should never have left home. How could I have been so stupid?”

The young man wept. The father reached out and pulled his son up out of the murky water and embraced him. He could feel his son’s bones beneath his dank, soiled, and tattered clothing. The son staggered and nearly collapsed out of his father’s arms. The father realizing how near death his boy was lifted the frail body over his shoulders and carried his son home.

A year passed, and the younger brother found the middle brother packing a suitcase.

"What are you doing?” the younger brother asked.

“I’m out of here, man,” the middle brother replied.

“But why? We have everything we could ever want right here. No one out there will ever love you and care for you as our Father does. You of all people should know that.”

The middle brother attending to his task answered, “This is too much like work. No thank you. You can have it.”

“What are you talking about?” the younger brother pleaded. “Father has given us servants to do all the real labor so we can complete our studies. Once that is done, father has promised to put us in charge of the whole estate—the house, the land, the livestock--everything!”

“That’s fine for you,” the middle brother said as he snapped the suitcase closed.“I got some old scores to settle.” He waved a thick wad of bills before the younger brother’s face, and then plopped it on top of others neatly stacked in a black attaché. “Besides,” the middle brother continued, “I know just how to parlay this money into some big bucks. Soon you will be working for me, little brother. And I’ll make it happen without all the sweat. I have all I need.”

The middle brother picked up his things and made for the door and stopped. Turning to face his younger brother he said, “Still, I can always use dedicated workers like you. Yes, you’ll be hearing from me, squirt.”

The younger brother watched his brother walk out of sight; he never looked back.


Jesus once said, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14 [NET])

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why did Javert kill himself?

My wife and I and many of our friends at different times recently attended performances of Les Misérables at the local performing arts center. With only one exception, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. My wife and I were in tears at the end. The play portrayed beautifully the Christian redemption story Hugo had so lovingly woven in his novel. Certainly, the protagonist, Jean Valjean, typifies the essential Christ-like character of a kingdom dweller. One friend concurred with me but noted, correctly, that the play took some poetic license by having the revolutionaries end up in heaven. True, just because one dies fighting for a cause—even a good one—doesn’t make one kingdom material. Yet a deeper truth resonates within the Les Mis tale that we don’t want to miss. And the truth can be found by asking the question: Why did the antagonist, Javert, kill himself in the end?

Javert was a policeman of the highest order. As with all legalists, Javert saw himself as the great righter of all wrongs in the world. He had intended to weed it out one miscreant at a time until nothing was left but a pure world. He did this by holding everyone to impeccable standards; and, critical to understanding Javert, he held himself to those same standards; Javert was a quintessential legalist.

Javert operated on the eye-for-an-eye code of ethics; consequently, he dogged Valjean tirelessly throughout Jean’s life because, according to the strict code of the Law, Jean had never paid fully for his sins, despite the fact that Jean had clearly repented of them innumerable times in most objective ways. Such penitence swayed Javert little because in his mind a person was either good or bad, and the distinction was made largely on the basis of appearances. For this reason, Javert accepted the bourgeois man’s story after the prostitute, Fantine, had scratched the man’s face, because she was a sinner, and the man a respectable citizen, even though in reality the man had all but raped Fantine and provoked her to defend herself.

Doesn't a policeman represent law and order, and above all else, justice? I’ve always been taught this. So what was Javert’s problem? As with all legalists, Javert failed to realize that the holiness he sought cannot be established without love. The great and ironic fallacy is holiness can be attained and maintained by simply imposing rules and regulations on people.

Only by love first reaching out to the sinner can the latter ever hope to see the unholy state they are in. The priest proved this by his treatment of Valjean at the beginning of the story; Valjean demonstrated this truth by his treatment of Fantine, as did Jesus countless times during His ministry on earth—the woman at the well being a case in point (John 4). The reason justice requires first the expression of love (mercy) is because pure love rendered leads the receiver into the presence of God, the only source of the knowledge of holiness and the grace to live it. The line near the end of Les Mis, “when we love another we see the face of God,” is absolutely true.

Saint Paul substantiates the aforementioned principle of love in Romans 2:1-4:

Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things. And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?

Javert and all legalists believe themselves to be holy because they promote the law by passing judgments on others. But Paul rightly says this is absurd because no one is guiltless—as Javert would soon discover about himself (I’ll get back to this in a moment). No, only by the extension of pure mercy, which of course God has done perfectly by sending His son, Jesus the Christ, leads to repentance.

Mercy by definition does not condemn or punish but restores. True justice is not retribution but a course adjustment from the wrong order of things to the right order of things, which is holiness. The legalist misses this fact because he has divested holiness of love that is actually inextricably tied with holiness, and fails to see that God is about restoration, which is love and holiness working as mercy and justice, and not retribution. Certainly, final restoration will necessitate God destroying all things—everything remaining under His wrath--that hinder perfect holiness in love. But that is only for God to do because only He is perfectly holy and perfectly love.

Love maintains and establishes holiness because love originates in all eternity in the triune God who created everything. But love must be pure because God is holy; true love cannot be separate from holiness; otherwise, love reduces to attempting to relate with each other or God on the basis of whatever feels right, with the result of destructive relationships, where there is neither love nor holiness.

Therefore, the tension of love and holiness must be rigorously maintained or both will be lost. But in restoration, such as when the priest restored Valjean by forgiving him and elevating his status or when Valjean lifted Fantine out of prostitution, love must come first—always in complete conformity with holiness--because love is what both defines and maintains holiness. Love opens eyes blinded by the despair of death, and love cools the fires of hell, so the sinner might then properly assess his plight and clearly understand his own sole accountability.

Not everyone, of course, will respond to love (mercy) extended to them and seek its power to live in holiness (justice). Some, such as the other prostitutes who taunted Fantine, have consciences seared by self-hate; others, such as the innkeeper and his wife who had cruelly exploited Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, are too consumed by greed; and others, such as Javert, have been frozen by their own self-righteousness.

Valjean, who certainly had a right to hate and not forgive Javert, extended mercy to Javert by letting him go when he could have taken revenge for a lifetime of torment by killing him. Yet this extension of the hand of love failed to move Javert. This time mercy did not bring about justice, which in this case would have been a shift from the wrong order of Javert’s loveless legalism to the right order of love in holiness. Love did not soften Javert’s heart to love in return—not even himself. And love to be love must be translational: freely flowing unconditionally between the lovers.

What in Javert prevented love from penetrating his heart? Why did Javert kill himself, instead? For Javert and all legalists, purity and righteousness means perfectly conforming to the law. When he learned by Valjean's example that perfect conformity to the law is actually love, he realized he had failed his whole life to live the very standard he always espoused; mercy, in Javert’s legalistic mind, actually became a judgment against him. Javert always understood love as a transaction because that is the way legalism works: every action must get its rightful due; thus, by that standard, Javert saw himself condemned, so he saved God the trouble and killed himself. You must remember, Javert had always held himself to the same standard he expected from others.

In closing, no one can live in holiness without love held in equal force because without love holiness crumbles and vise versa. For this reason, the practitioner of loveless holiness will always destroy themselves in the end; either they will become bitter, merciless, and cruel, as did Javert, or they will abandon their so-called holiness altogether and do the very things they had always despised in others. None of these outcomes, of course, have any connection at all with holiness and love that define and maintain the kingdom of heaven, the dwellers of which Jean Valjean remains a sterling example: persons who seek to bring justice by first extending mercy.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Boy from U.N.C.L.E.

My favorite TV show growing up was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. For those of you too young to remember, U.N.C.L.E. stood for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. The program documented the thrilling adventures of U.N.C.L.E.’s two top agents, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. The weekly show was a must-see for me; my mother even let me forego violin practice to watch it.

The Cold War raged during the Sixties, and we all had to do our part. My friend John and I loved the action. Even though we were both toe-heads, John assumed the role of the suave and sophisticated dark-haired Solo, and I the persona of the quiet and introspective blond Kuryakin —a Russian, ironically enough, who had defected to the side of good and democracy.

John was probably the brighter bulb of the two of us—he would later become a physician—but that wasn’t the main reason he landed the more prestigious spy position at U.N.C.L.E.; he had all the official gear, including the pistol with silencer, the assault rifle, and the ID badge with the number eleven on it. I had to hand-draw my badge, and tape a safety pin on the back. Although, to be fair, Mother (Mother, second only to Mr. Waverly, headed Allocations-Sector One) issued to me the Man from U.N.C.L.E. cigarette lighter with the hidden radio transmitter, faux cigarettes, and cap gun. It was a great concept, but proved too fragile in the field—especially when duty required falling off retaining walls or leaping over fences. After a few make-shift patch jobs, I left the weapon on my dresser at home.

John possessed the state-of-the-art equipment, but I had superior cunning and stealth. We made a formidable team, admired by everyone back at headquarters and feared by our enemies on the streets. Mr. Waverly always assigned us the plum missions. John and I kept the neighborhood safe from the countless incursions of that global menace, THRUSH.

My only glaring deficiency was the look. Everyone knows that ninety percent of what makes any top-notch secret agent is appearance; if you look cool, you will be cool. My drab attire had definitely affected my ratings, especially with the female agents. They became increasingly dubious of my reputed prowess. I found myself taking more and more risks on each new mission in order to compensate for the negative effects of my dreary wardrobe. Clearly, a change was needed, so I asked Mother for a black turtleneck shirt.

It seemed a simple enough request. After all, I hadn’t asked for a Beretta, or an exploding pen, or a mini-submarine—as much as those things would have come in handy—just your basic black turtleneck. Yet for some unknown reason, Mother resisted. I would plead; Mother would push back. Could it be Mother worked for THRUSH? The idea of a double-agent that high up in the organization was too horrific to even contemplate. Perhaps she knew what the people in Apparels were whispering behind her back because Mother finally relented, and allocated to me a white turtleneck dickey and a brown v-necked sweater to go over it.

Now picture it: Kuryakin wearing vintage 1960’s two-tone tortoise shell glasses with the right lens thicker than the left--enlarging one eye that never quite aligned with the other (I have amblyopia)—seated on freckled cheeks—although the scar I received from attempting to shave at age four made up for the freckles— and outfitted with the top portion of a white turtleneck tucked under a brown sweater.

Mother thought it looked adorable—any mother would, of course. All I know is it ruined my career at U.N.C.L.E., at least as a field agent. I tried fitting the turtleneck piece with an undershirt to jerry-rig a white turtleneck shirt, but the dickey showed through the thin cotton fabric. Left with no recourse, Mr. Waverly transferred me to the Library-Sector Thirteen. Not long after that, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. went off the air.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Whoever is not against us is for us."

My youngest daughter is attending a Catholic high school. Xavier HS is an outstanding institution--spiritually, academically, and athletically. Our daughter is thriving there. Yet some people have blacklisted us for our decision--at least, passive-aggressively. They equate our sending Carly to Xavier on par with the Israelites building Ashtoreth poles. In my youth I probably would have felt the same way. But when I seriously began investigating God’s love in holiness, the outcome of which was my book, A Final Word on Love, I became increasingly suspicious of such biases.

Both a good friend and colleague of mine and my son have since joined the Catholic Church. After many discussions with them, I realize how little separates the two branches of the orthodox Christian church. Indeed, both camps stand squarely on the same essential dogmatic turf. As I have discovered while preparing to teach a history of doctrine course at church, the issue concerning the implementation of salvation and grace, the crux of the Reformation schism, was in many respects a misunderstanding. Pope Benedict has recently said the Augsburg Confession—the definitive Lutheran doctrinal statement--is completely consistent with Catholic teaching.

I admit that I am still not happy with the Catholic Church withholding communion from non-Catholic orthodox Christians. I know Pope Benedict remains adamant on this point. But I provided ample Scriptural grounds in my book to refute the Catholic position. Nevertheless, I would never force the point when attending a Mass, out of respect for their faith.

I’m also not totally comfortable with some of the Catholic traditions; but I can say the same for some protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions, as well. Besides, I have discovered in most cases my trouble is not with the founding principles of those problematic traditions but how people have extrapolated them in the course of the centuries. When given a chance, people tend to gravitate toward superstition because it gives them a modicum of control. I have spoken before in this blog of how difficult it is to walk in faith.

The Catholic Church is quite correct in teaching that God understands our need of visual/physical illustrations of His purposes and grace; such are the bases of the sacraments. But when we turn these types into idols, which I have said we are wont to do, we stray from faith. And we cannot do that because faith defines being a kingdom dweller with Christ.

You may ask: aren’t these sacraments something we do to earn our salvation? No doubt it can be interpreted that way. However, I think the whole question of merit and earning salvation has been a wrong one all along in the Western church. A true Christian is so because he/she willingly subjects him/her self to Christ as King—he/she loves Christ first and last by obeying Him.

Therefore, from one perspective, everything done in obedience to Christ could appear to be works we do to earn His favor. But that is wrong. The correct perspective is these acts of obedience—works—evidence that we dwell in Christ’s kingdom by faith. We don’t obey Christ to earn our place in His kingdom; rather, our obedience validates our membership in His kingdom because “the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God (Phil. 2:13 [NET]).” And none of this would be possible had it not been for Christ’s faithfulness—not anything we have done; on this we all agree, whether Roman, orthodox protestant, or Eastern Orthodox.

In every act of obedience we receive grace: grace to inspire our will, grace to act on that inspiration, and grace to become more like Christ. Consequently, technically speaking, all acts of obedience are, therefore, sacraments. Perhaps our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters are closer to the mark in this because they don’t limit the sacraments to seven, as does the Roman church.

Therefore, the sacraments need not be seen as works earning salvation. Instead, they are acts in keeping with our salvation. Certainly, the act of being baptized doesn’t save a person. But if a person refuses to be baptized (notice I said refuses and not prevented), then has that person truly entered into salvation? Has the person truly subjected him/her self to Christ? The question becomes: whom has that person subjected him/her self? Christ? Or is he/she clinging to his/her pride, or familial or sectarian regulations? Only God knows the person’s heart, but such stubbornness doesn't bode well for the person because Christ told us to repent and be baptized. If the person truly dwells in Christ’s kingdom, he/she will want to be baptized.

Let’s stop building walls between us and our brothers and sisters in the Roman and Eastern Orthodox arms of the Christ’s Church. Remember, we are all brothers and sisters solely because we have subjected ourselves completely to Christ and His will. And this subjection is evidenced by a continuous pattern of seeking to obey Christ, not simply a one-time statement of confessing Christ as Lord. And Christ commands us to love one another.

I will close by reminding us of an event during Christ’s ministry:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me. For whoever is not against us is for us. For I tell you the truth, whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear Christ’s name will never lose his reward (Mark 9:38-41 [NET]).