Ascension Day

Most Americans are aware of the major Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, whether they observe them or not. Many Americans, though, even if they are Christian, are not familiar with some of the minor holidays of the Christian calendar. For example, today is Ascension Day. Do you know what this day means and why some Christians observe it?

In the first chapter of the book of Acts, Luke reports that Jesus spent forty days with his apostles after the resurrection, explaining to them what he had accomplished and preparing them to share that news with the rest of the world. On the fortieth day, he met them on a hill near the town of Bethany, overlooking the city of Jerusalem. After a brief conversation, Jesus blessed the apostles, and then rose up into the sky until a cloud hid him from their sight. Two angels joined the apostles on the hill and assured them that Jesus would be seen in the sky again just as they had seen him rise into the sky.

Where is Jesus now that he has ascended? The Bible and other Christian writings say that he is “seated at the right hand of God the Father.” What does that mean, though? Jesus is human, and he has hands. But does God the Father also have hands? Not literally, no. To be seated at the right hand is to be in control. Many leaders speak of having a right hand, which means another person that helps them get things done. God the Father has given all creation to Jesus—as Jesus himself said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Other pictures in the Bible of a right hand to a leader are Joseph, son of Jacob, who ran Egypt; and first Haman and then Mordecai who ran the Persian Empire for Xerxes.

The right hand of God the Father is not a place, then, but a job of power and responsibility. Where is Jesus, then? Because he is God, we know that Jesus is present everywhere, just as he knows everything and can do anything. What has happened, though, to his human body? Since his ascension, has he put that body into storage somewhere until he needs it again to appear in glory on the Last Day of history as we know it?

Many centuries ago, when questions were raised about Jesus, early Christians studied the Bible and found answers to those questions. One of the conclusions they reached is that Jesus the Son of God and Jesus the Son of Mary is one person, not two people. He is fully human and fully divine at the same time. Therefore, anything you say about Jesus as God is also true of Jesus the man. Anything you say about Jesus the man is also true about Jesus as God. To put it plainly, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, is everywhere, knows everything, can do anything, and is holy, eternal, and unchanging. But the Son of God, who is fully God, was born to Mary. Mary held God in her arms. Mary changed God’s diapers. God grew up, learning to walk and to talk. God ate and drank and slept. God was arrested in a garden, dragged from courtroom to courtroom, was nailed to a cross and killed. God died. Yet, dying, he did not cease to exist. His body was placed in a tomb. His soul was in Paradise, in the hands of his Father, until he rose from the dead on Easter.

This teaching is bewildering, but it is also comforting. The human Jesus is not in storage. He is running the universe. When Jesus hears your prayers, he understands what you are saying. He’s been there. He’s done that. As God he has the power to answer your prayers, but our God is not a God who does not understand us because he is not one of us. God is one of us, to bring us to himself.

On Ascension Day, Christians celebrate more than Jesus rising into the sky. We celebrate Jesus seated at the right hand of God the Father. We celebrate Jesus filling the universe with his presence so he can rule all things to the benefit of his people. We celebrate Jesus hearing and answering our prayers because he understands us. We also celebrate the Day when he will be seen again, in glory in the clouds, just as the apostles saw him ascend into the clouds.

J.

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Murphy’s Gremlins–part two

Note: this post and the preceding post summarize a book that I have tried more than once to write, but I have never been able to finish it.

Murphy’s Gremlins enforce the law that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. They strive to bring the greatest inconvenience to the greatest number of people. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they can be beat.

I struggled with the gremlins for a long, long time before I discovered a system that leads to victory. I call it the TAP system, because its three steps are remembered by the initials T, A, and P.

T stands for trust. As twelve-step programs say, you must believe in a higher power. Things go wrong every day, small things and big things, but evil has been defeated by good. Trust that someone is in control, someone who cares about you and is bigger than all your problems. When the gremlins seem to be pulling ahead of you, take a breath and remember the higher power. Assure yourself that, because there is nothing that power cannot handle, therefore there is nothing that the two of you together cannot handle.

A stands for act. Don’t let your frustrations paralyze you. If a problem can be fixed, do what you have to do to fix it. If you need to call in a professional, make the call. Plumbing and electricity can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and the gremlins will definitely take over when you try to fix something that you do not understand. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to learn. If you have time to figure out how to replace a piece of pipe under the sink or a light switch, go ahead and do the job. Nothing feels better than putting a gremlin in its place by acquiring the satisfaction of a new skill or ability.

P stands for play. No, that is not a misprint; prayer comes under the category of trust. Find humor in the work of the gremlins, and learn to beat them at their own game. Buy a sandwich when you are in a hurry, and let the gremlins decide whether you get the green lights or the chance to eat your sandwich. Either way you win. Make a game out of the traffic lights. Pretend that the twenty lights between work and home are games on a team’s schedule, and keep track of the team’s record. If that gets boring, use your time in traffic to count things. Count Volkswagen beetles. Count yellow cars. Keep track of out-of-state license plates. If counting is not in your line, see if you can assemble a rainbow from the different colored cars around you on the road.

Play with the gremlins at home. Name them if you want. Talk to them if you want. Let them know that they cannot beat you. But do not forget that you are playing. You and I both know that Murphy’s Gremlins aren’t really there. They are simply a way of making small problems even smaller. They are a way to overcome frustration with humor. They are a way of reminding yourself not to take life all that seriously.

Murphy’s Gremlins can be beat, especially when you remember that they are not really there.

J.

Murphy’s Gremlins — part one

Note: this post and the following post summarize a book that I have tried more than once to write, but I have never been able to finish it.

We’ve all heard the saying called Murphy’s Law: if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Some people say Murphy was an optimist.

When you are late for work and in a hurry to get there, traffic is heavy and you meet all the red lights. When guests are coming for the holidays, the floor drain backs up and floods the kitchen. When you have a paper due for school and have almost finished writing it, the computer crashes. When the computer works again, that paper is the only file that has disappeared. When the water heater springs a leak, you discover the leak on Friday night and you have to wait until Monday to get the water heater replaced.

Murphy stated the rule, but he did not describe the gremlins. Murphy’s Gremlins live all around us, in the computer, the water heater, the floor drains, and the traffic lights. These gremlins are able to measure how important our machinery is to us. They are able to calculate when a break-down will be most inconvenient for us. They know just when things should go wrong, to make each day as stressful as possible.

A powerful gremlin lives in my car. It knows precisely when to keep my car from starting, the day I need that car the most. It arranges for a flat tire on a rainy day. It makes sure that, when I bring the car to the mechanic to fix one problem, another more expensive problem will show up in the garage.

City engineers try to time the traffic lights for the most efficient use of the roads. They cannot outthink Murphy’s gremlins. I have seen the light change for the side street when no car is there. Finally a car approaches, but before it reaches the intersection, the light has changed again, and the driver has to wait for all the traffic that had built up at the red light on the busy street to clear. Murphy’s gremlins watch for times like that. They love nothing more than to cause the greatest inconvenience for the greatest number of people.

Now Murphy’s Gremlins are responsible for inconveniences, not for tragedies. They cannot be blamed for earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Nor do they cause war, poverty, and crime. Murphy’s Gremlins cause the power to go out just when you are about to start cooking supper. They make the telephone ring just as the rice on the stove is almost finished, and they keep you on the phone until the rice has burned. Murphy’s Gremlins make sure that the phone call you were expecting comes while you are in the bathroom.

They have a sense of humor. If I buy a sandwich to eat at the red lights—for I will not eat while driving, not while the car is moving—then I will get green lights for the entire trip. If I clear my schedule and set aside an entire afternoon for a difficult repair project, things will fall into place and I will be done in half an hour. When I want to mow, the mower will not start; but if I really do not want to mow and would accept any excuse to put off mowing, the mower roars to life with just a half-hearted pull of the cord.

Murphy’s Gremlins are part of life, and most days we must accept their existence. But the gremlins can be beat. In my next post, I will tell you how.

J.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been a radio play, a series of books, a television show, a computer game, a feature movie, and two or three other things. Douglas Adams has been the genius behind all its incarnations, including the movie, although it came out after he had died. In each incarnation Adams changed various aspects of the story. He was constantly inventing new characters and new situations, tailoring his story to fit the various media he was using.
For the few people on earth who have never encountered any version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it is the story of Arthur Dent, an earthman whose best friend is from another planet. This friend, Ford Prefect, rescues Arthur on the day that the earth is blown up to make room for a hyperspatial express route. Ford is a researcher for the Guide, and he is a proficient hitchhiker. Traveling with Ford, Arthur meets a host of odd characters, including Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Slartibartfast, and Marvin the melancholy robot. Arthur remains bemused by all his experiences, and generally no one else can figure out how to deal with Arthur.
Through the Hitchhiker’s Guide, in all its various manifestations, Adams skewers many aspects of life on earth, including science, religion, technology, the rules of writing, romance, adventure, and economics. His productions might be characterized as dark comedy, given the destruction of the planet Earth in the first act of the story. If there is a general message to the story of the Hitchhiker’s Guide—and I’m not saying Adams intended to preach a moral; he was more likely just enjoying the fun of developing a good story—that message would be that the universe is so absurd that it is better to laugh at it than to cry over it.
Probably the largest number of Hitchhiker fans came to know Douglas Adams and his story through the books. In the first three books of the trilogy, the action is fast with little character development. In the fourth volume (I know that trilogy means three volumes, but part of the joke is to call the five books a trilogy.), Arthur has considerably more positive and uplifting experiences than he had endured up to that point. The fifth book of the trilogy is written in a far different style, with fewer slapstick antics and much more development of characters, setting, and plot. On the other hand, the fifth book returns to the dark and gloomy view of life, the universe, and everything, a gloominess that was missing from book four.
Many fans of the books did not like the movie, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur, Trillian, and the other characters seem more likeable on screen than in the books. The story takes a more hopeful path, and the film seems almost to have a sunny disposition, although much of the absurdity and gloom remain. Many of the best lines in the book were left out of the movie script, although I believe that they worked better on paper and might not have been as strong in the movie. In the end, Douglas Adams was very much in charge of the movie script, and he chose to tell his story the way he told it in the movie, just as he changed the story from radio to book to television show.
It may seem odd that a committed Christian like me would enjoy the writing of an atheist like Douglas Adams, especially when Adams openly mocks God and religion. I guess it is odd, but many of the artists I enjoy—Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and John Lennon, to name just two—share Adams’ outlook. I regret their lack of faith, but I admire their talent and enjoy their work nonetheless. Perhaps I can enjoy the dark and absurd universe of Douglas Adams precisely because I have a greater hope than he had.
J.

My best friend’s rotten wife

I have a very good friend, the best friend I could ever have. I like him very much; in fact, I owe everything I have to him. I want to spend more time with him, but I’ve got a problem. I don’t get along with his wife.

My friend is great, but sometimes I cannot stand his wife. My friend tells me, though, that I have to take them as a team. If I want to be with him, I also have to be with her. I know that my friend likes me, but I’m not sure about his wife. Sometimes she ignores me, and sometimes she is even mean to me. She has many moods—she can be angry and accusing, she can be dry and boring, and she can be sappy and sentimental. Sometimes she tries to dress up and look awesomely beautiful and impressive, but other times it does not seem as though she cares how she appears.

If I give a gift to my friend, I know he is going to share it with his wife. He cannot seem to stop himself. His wife is the one who reminds me how much I owe my friend. She is always prepared to take the money I give to my friend and spend it on herself. In fact, I think she’s using him. He does not go a moment of any day without loving her, but sometimes she seems to forget that he even exists.

I’d like to spend time with my friend when his wife is not around, but he won’t let that happen. Whenever the two of us are together, she has to be there too. My friend expects me to accept her, even with all her faults, if I want to be with him.

My friend is Jesus of Nazareth, and his bride is the Holy Christian Church. I love Jesus, but I don’t always love the Church. Jesus is sinless and perfect, but the Church is filled with sinners. Jesus loves me and gave himself for me, but I don’t always feel loved when I am with the Church. If I could have Jesus as my friend without the Church, I think that would make me happy, but Jesus does not give me that option. He loves the Church, and he expects me to be with her if I want to be with him.

Jesus is not blind to the faults of his Church. Yet he loves the Church and willingly serves the Church. More than that, he forgives the Church and forgives every sinner in the Church. Sometimes I struggle to understand his love and his forgiveness, but they should make me happy. After all, if Jesus can love the Church and forgive it, in spite of all its flaws and imperfections, then I know that he loves me and forgives me too.

J.

I am Spock

In a previous post, I mentioned how my best friend in high school always wanted to be Captain Kirk and wanted me to be Mr. Spock. Of all the Star Trek characters, Spock is most like me—or at least like me as I see myself. I would like to believe that I’m the smart one in the group, the one to whom everyone turns for answers. I would like to believe that I’m capable of solving just about any problem, given enough time and enough information. I would like to believe that I am free from the burden of emotions, able to make wise decisions without being pushed and pulled by inconvenient feelings.

Spock speaks often of logic. If I could travel through time to the 1960s to suggest one change in the Star Trek scripts, I would ask them to mention reason in place of logic. Logic is the set of rules by which reason operates. Reason is the practice to which Spock and the rest of the Vulcans are dedicated. Loving the rules instead of the process makes no sense—preferring logic to reason would be like preferring reading a book of the rules of baseball to watching a baseball game.

Vulcans are not the only beings in the galaxy who prefer reason and logic to emotion. Twenty-five centuries ago the Buddha taught in India that suffering can be escaped by a person who learns to cease desire. The Stoics of the Greek and Roman civilization also proposed a life guided by sober thought and not by emotion. They coined the word “apathy,” but they said apathy is good. They said it is better to go through life unmoved by emotion, because then people can make wise decisions.

It may seem strange for a Christian to speak of approval about Buddhists and Stoics. The Christian is commanded to love: to love God whole-heartedly and to love every neighbor. I countered that love is not a feeling. Love is caring more for the other than for the self. Feelings can confuse love, especially when the world around us treats love as only a feeling. Feelings confused for love can lead to great temptations and great sins. Feelings confused as love can destroy a relationship that was meant to last until death.

Over the years, I have tried to help other people get around their feelings. When they are frightened for no good reason, or when they think they are worthless and life is meaningless, I say to them, “I know you feel that way, and I know that it is a powerful feeling. I also know that it is untrue. You are valuable. You have no reason to be afraid. Do your best to set aside how you feel and to do the right thing.” After all, virtue is always measured by doing the right thing in spite of feelings. Courage is not a lack of fear; courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. Honor is not a lack of temptations; honor is doing the right thing in spite of temptations.

I gave this advice to others because I thought it worked for me. I thought that, like Spock, I made good and wise decisions by ignoring my feelings and trusting reason and logic to guide me. I thought I could continue to ignore my feelings and would continue to make good and wise decisions. Finally, after several stressful events, I confessed my real inner feelings to the family doctor. Instead of lying, as I had done year after year, assuring him that I felt just fine, I described for him how I really feel about myself and about my life. He listened to me. He prescribed some medications. He referred me to a counselor. He did the very job that I had been paying him to do, but that I had kept him from doing by hiding information from him.

The diagnosis is depression and anxiety. The outlook is good. Feelings I have ignored for most of my life are feelings I can now acknowledge and confront. I don’t expect the future to be easy. Even Spock had to struggle with feelings and allow them to be real from time to time. But I find myself on the highway to health, instead of on the road I was traveling before. For that, I am grateful.

J.

Ten tons of paper

One day last month I moved ten tons of paper. I didn’t move it all at the same time, of course, or all at once. The paper was in boxes, lots of boxes, averaging forty pounds a box. Some weighed less than forty pounds, but a lot of them weighed more. It took three of us about six hours to finish the project, but I know that during these six hours I moved at least five hundred boxes.

I work at a library. One department of the library is an archive. Individuals, families, businesses, and other organizations donate their papers to the library so other people can study those papers and learn about those people and organizations and their contributions to the history of our city. After the papers have been donated, a team of archivists prepares them for researchers. The archivists go through the papers, removing rusty staples and paper clips, hardened rubber bands, and other harmful items. Next they organize the paper to help the researchers, although they try to maintain the original order whenever possible, since the order of the papers is part of their story. Finally, the archivists write a description, or index, of the papers, which they call a Finding Aid. This description tells researchers what the library has and where they can find these papers.

The library is running short of storage space. To use space more efficiently, the library’s directors bought shelves that move along a track. These movable shelves can contain more boxes than regular shelves, since there is only one aisle for the whole set of shelves, but the shelves can be moved left or right along the track, making every box accessible (but not all of them at the same time). To use these shelves, though, the library’s workers first had to empty the old shelves, dismantle and remove them, install the new shelves, and then put the boxes on the new shelves. That is what I did last month—moved ten tons of paper in boxes onto their new, space-efficient shelves.

Some reader is saying right now, “Hey, J., why doesn’t your library join the twenty-first century? You could save a lot of time and a lot of space if you would just digitize all those papers instead of storing them and organizing them and describing them. You could load the digital copies into the Cloud and send the paper out to be recycled.” Well, I’m sorry, dear reader, but it is not as easy as you think. I can give you three very good reasons why your up-to-the-minute proposal doesn’t work.

First, do you have any idea how many pages are contained in ten tons of paper? Can you imagine how many hours of labor it would take to run each one of those pages through a scanner? And even if the library wanted to spend money to digitize every sheet of paper, what kind of server do you think could handle all those scans and make them available to the public?

Second, even if they did digitize all those pages and publish them online somewhere, how would researchers know what was in those pages? They still need to be organized and described to be useful to anyone. As a book needs a table of contents and an index, so a collection of historic papers—including ledger books, maps, photographs, and all kinds of other stuff—needs a finding aid to make research possible.

Third, digital technology itself can fail. Computers crash, files become corrupted, and technology always changes. If the only copy of some important document is digital, sooner or later it will disappear. How many of us have lost priceless (to ourselves) stories and essays and photographs because we trusted a computer to save it for us? The library’s staff of archivists will digitize the papers and photographs of greatest value to researchers, and they will make them available online; but to be safe, they still will not discard the originals. Most of the tons of paper will not be digitized. It will be cleaned and arranged and described.

The library directors are wise to accept these gifts of paper, to pay archivists to organize and describe these gifts, and to keep these gifts carefully in storage for researchers today and for researchers of generations yet to come. I am glad that I, in one small way last month, was allowed to contribute to the preservation of history.
J.

The Avengers (no, not those Avengers)

 

One of my favorite television shows is called the Avengers. No, it has nothing to do with Thor and Black Widow and the Hulk. My favorite television show is a British show from the 1960s, a sort of crime drama that succeeds because of the wit of its writers and its principle actors.

John Steed is a government agent, working for a peculiar agency that deals both in international relations (especially combatting spies from other countries) and in locally-produced criminals. Most of the bad guys are creating mischief on a massive level, threatening to overturn all the forces of good and replace them with selfishness and evil. Steed is always accompanied by an attractive female companion, the best of whom was Emma Peel. In the fifty-two episodes that feature Steed and Mrs. Peel, the pair tackle Russian spies, terrorists armed with a nuclear bomb, mad scientists and their powerful robots, corrupt businessmen, and even a vicious plant from outer space. In the course of an hour, the Avengers identify the enemy, confront the enemy, and overcome the enemy, generally at great risk to their own lives and safety.

The premise is undeniably common, but the shows are far from common. Patrick Macnee plays a stunningly suave British gentleman, a bit of a playboy and a drinker, and yet an accomplished crime-fighter of the highest caliber. Diana Rigg is not merely beautiful, but also keenly intelligent, athletic, resourceful, and every bit as talented as Steed. Whether they are investigating crime in a boarding school, a cross-country motor race, an underground cabal seeking to overthrow the government, the elaborate mansion and grounds of a train-loving eccentric, or some mysterious house out in the country, Steed and Mrs. Peel always know how to approach the situation. She can disguise herself as a nurse one week, a store clerk another week, and a dance instructor yet another week. Steed can pose as a military officer, a model for men’s clothing, and a rich idle man seeking love with equal aplomb. The writers always manage to add a few odd and amusing characters to the drama. The show is filled with humor, but not without the tension of “how are they going to get themselves out of this dilemma?”

Television has had many spectacular crime-fighters, but few of them have had the charm of John Steed and Emma Peel. Their quirky show had many stringent rules, almost all of which were broken. At least one victim dies in nearly every episode, often in the opening scenes, but blood is never shown—well, almost never. A woman is never murdered—well, almost never. Steed never fires a gun—well, almost never. No uniformed police officer is ever seen—well, almost never.

Steed is always the perfect gentleman, a model British citizen, polite and unruffled even in danger, generally with a quip to suit the current crisis. Mrs. Peel is always the perfect lady, able to defend herself and often Steed as well, but always able to take part in any ruse that will nab the villains. The Avengers Christmas special is especially remarkable in its approach to the characters and their opposition, but if I were to start listing favorite episodes, I probably would end up including thirty-five or forty of the fifty-two. If you have not yet had the pleasure of watching this show, I heartily recommend it to you. Though it is fifty years old, the show has lost none of its charm.

J.

Why does he do it?

Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who lived in a quiet neighborhood of Copenhagen. This man, a bookkeeper, was respected and well-lived, for he was kind, educated, generous, and particularly benevolent toward children. This man had one peculiar habit. Every day, between eleven o’clock and noon, he would pace the same path in the city streets. Any other hour of the day he would greet people and talk with them, but no one could interrupt his daily hour of pacing. Back and forth he would walk, an intent look in his eye, but completely unaware of the world around him. No one in his neighborhood knew how this habit began, but they tolerated it in him because he was so good to them the rest of the day.
A man like this lives in my neighborhood. Every Saturday, unless the weather is cold or raining, he paces back and forth in his yard. Like that man Kierkegaard describes, he walks back and forth without purpose for about an hour. Like Kierkegaard’s bookkeeper, he is courteous and kind the rest of the week. For this one hour, though, this man seems controlled by some thought no one else can know. No one dares to interrupt him as he paces. He moves back and forth, an intent look on his face, until the hour is over and he returns to normal.
I wonder about this man. I wonder what sort of obsession or compulsion causes him to pace in this way. Please understand, I am in no way mocking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I have considerable sympathy for all who struggle with that problem, and I would not wish it on anyone. It seems possible to me that this man is dealing with that kind of issue in his life.
Otherwise, I wonder if that man is engaged in some religious pursuit. Once again, I have the highest respect for religion and would never mock it. It occurs to me that this man may be entranced in some sort of mediation that is meant to bring him closer to God or lift him to a higher level of consciousness.
It seems likely, though, that his meditation might be disturbed by the noisy lawnmower this man pushes in front of him as he paces.
Some reader might say, “OK, I see what you did there, J. Very funny to set us up with compulsive pacing and then tell us he is just mowing his lawn.” Before you assume that I wrote all this for the sake of a joke, consider that I am very serious about my question: Why does he do it? Why this obsession with a patch of grass that sends this poor man outside, week after week, to toil and labor in service of his lawn?
Yes, I cut my grass when it has gotten long enough to need cutting. I do not treat it as a religious ceremony, though, because I just try to get it done as quickly as possible, leaving time for more important things. If this man’s lawn maintenance is part of his religion, I envy his zeal. I wish I could serve my Lord as faithfully as he serves his lawn. If I could bring to my Christian living the kind of energy and determination shown by this man and others like him, I could truly be numbered among the saints.
If, however, this behavior is obsession or compulsion, I feel sorry for this man. To be in the chains of a habit that sends him out, every Saturday morning, to mow and trim and fertilize and tend his lawn, when he could be doing more important things, must be misery. I try to be kind to him whenever our paths cross, hoping my kindness can somehow compensate for this man’s unfortunate slavery to a patch of grass.
J.

God has two plans

The key to understanding the Bible is realizing that God has two plans. A reader who does not know those two plans or who mixes them together is sure to misunderstand the Bible. A reader who knows the two plans of God will understand far more of what the Bible says.

One key passage that describes both plans is Ephesians 2:8-10—For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (NIV). In the life of the Church these two plans have been given many names, but I call them the plan of creation and the plan of salvation.

God created people to do good works. Men and women are created in the image of God, and God is love. Therefore, God wants us to love. He wants us to love him whole-heartedly, and he wants us to love each other as much as we love ourselves. The rest of God’s commands teach us how to love. Because we love God, we will not have any higher priority than God, and we will not misuse God’s name. We will give God the time he deserves, and we will honor the authorities he has placed over us in this world, beginning with our parents. Because we love our neighbors, we will respect and protect their lives, their marriages, their property, and their reputations. Because we love both God and our neighbors, we will be content with what we have and not angry because other people have good things.

Whenever someone asks, “Why do I exist? Why did God make me?” the answer is the plan of creation. We were made to do good and loving things, works which God prepared for us in advance. As we learn about his plan, though, we realize that we have not loved as God wants us to love. We have fallen short of God’s plan. Our lives do not match the Maker’s specifications. We are substandard, and we cannot fix ourselves. Therefore, God has a second plan, the plan of salvation.

God entered this world as one of us. He was Jesus from Nazareth, completely God and completely human. He lived a perfect life of love, the kind of life God wants all of us to live. Then he sacrificed himself on a cross, paying our debt so we can be forgiven. This plan of salvation—this rescue mission—this great exchange—was done because God loves us. We do not deserve to be rescued. We cannot repay God for saving us. His plan of salvation is a result of his love and not of anything that we have done or can do or ever will do.

People confuse these two plans. They think that God made us so he could love us. Then they think that God rescues us because of something we do. No penance, no prayer, and no decision can cause God to love or forgive any of us. The plan of creation is about what we are to do. The plan of salvation is about what God does for us. The perfect life of Jesus replaces our mistake-filled lives so we can have the rewards he earned. The sacrifice of Jesus takes away all our sins so we can escape the punishment we deserve. The plan of salvation is a gift, given to us by grace. Not only can we never pay God for that gift, we actually insult God what we try to pay him for his gift to us.

One result of the plan of salvation is that we are returned to the plan of creation. We are given power to do the good and loving things God planned for us to do. The love of God that flows into our lives does not stop with us. It flows through us and into the lives of those around us. So far, we do this imperfectly. We make mistakes every day, and we ask God to forgive us every day. A Day is coming when God’s plans will reach their fulfillment. After that Day, we will love as we should love, and from that Day on we will love that way forever.

When I am discouraged by the failures in my life, or when I am overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings that my life is useless and without meaning, the two plans of God pull me back off the ledge. I know that I exist for a reason. I know that God loves me for no reason. I might not feel any better with that knowledge, but because I know it is true, I can go on living.

J.