The cost of discipleship (sermon on Luke 9:57-62)

(shared with permission of the author)

 

Being a Christian is the easiest thing in the world. Being a Christian is also the hardest thing in the world. Like the other paradoxes involved in our faith, if we look at only one side, we are likely to misunderstand the truth. Only when we see both sides of the paradox do we begin to understand what it means to be a Christian.

Being a Christian is easy because it requires no work. It requires no work to be a Christian because Jesus has already done all the work to claim us for his kingdom. Anything we do to try to earn God’s love and his forgiveness and a place in his kingdom is counterproductive. Saying that we must be good first before God will accept our lives and forgive our sins is wrong. Saying that we must finish the work that Jesus began by being good is also wrong. Even saying that we must give our lives to Jesus or invite him into our hearts is wrong. Anyone who tries to take credit for even the smallest part of salvation insults God and risks losing God’s gift. We are saved by grace, not by works. Jesus does everything necessary to make us his disciples; we contribute nothing to the process.

Yet being a disciple of Jesus is hard work. Now that Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom and has taken away all our sins, we are called to imitate Jesus. We are to strive toward perfection. We are to have perfect love for God and perfect obedience of all his commands. We are to have perfect love for our neighbors, helping them in every way they need. We are to make the world a better place. As Christians, we are pictures of Jesus to the rest of the world. When our imitation of Christ falls short, we bring shame to his name. Instead of being his missionaries, we might give our neighbors reasons not to want to be Christians like us.

The best way to live with this paradox is to look at Jesus and not at ourselves. We remember that Jesus is eternally the Son of God. He is completely divine, as the Father is divine and the Holy Spirit is divine. But Jesus became human. He is like us in every way, except that he never sinned. He knows what it is to be human, because he is completely human. As God he is timeless and unchanging. As a man he moved through time—being born as a baby, growing from a boy into a man, suffering and dying on a cross, and rising to life again. Being one Christ, the Son of God experienced all those aspects of being human, and the Son of Mary has all the attributes of God.

Jesus came into this world on a mission. He came to save sinners. As a shepherd, he went out into the wilderness looking for sheep that had strayed. In the wilderness, Jesus battled the devil, who tried to discourage his rescue mission. But Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil. He remained faithful to his Father. In all his years between the manger and the cross, Jesus never sinned. He never did anything opposed to the will of his Father. He did all that his Father asked of him. That complete obedience is part of our rescue. Jesus has exchanged lives with us. When he took our sins upon himself, he gave us his perfect record of total obedience. When his Father looks at each of us, he sees us clothed in the righteousness of his Son. Therefore, God accepts us as his children. He regards each of us as pure and spotless.

But when Jesus took our sins upon himself, he also accepted the consequences of those sins. Jesus became a victim of evil, abandoned by his followers, rejected by his own people, treated unfairly by the government, and mocked by those who should have been worshiping him. Even his Father looked away from Jesus while he was on the cross, for God is holy and cannot bear to look at sin. We were in debt to God because of the times we sinned, but Jesus paid our debt in full. Now, even if we sin, Jesus reminds his Father that our debt is paid, and his Father continues to forgive our sins.

Because Jesus was battling evil and death, he rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory. Death could not hold him, and the devil has no power over him. Jesus promises us a resurrection like his. When he is seen in glory among the clouds, he will give a command, and all the dead will rise. Our bodies will be healed, and all of us who belong to him will celebrate his victory forever with him in a new and perfect creation.

Meanwhile, Jesus has not forgotten us in this world. He is with us always, even as he promises. Through the Bible he reminds us of what he has done for us and of what that means to us. In the Church he continues to proclaim forgiveness for each of us. In Holy Baptism he washes away our sins, bringing the power of the cross personally and individually into our lives. And he often feeds us at his Table, giving us his body and his blood to assure us of forgiveness and eternal life and victory, just as he has promised.

His forgiveness changes us. We once conformed to the pattern of the world, but now we are being transformed into his image. With our sins removed, we begin to act more like Jesus. The transformation has not been completed. We still sin every day and need forgiveness every day. But the change is happening. We have already been made saints by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Now, being saints, we act like saints. We generally see the transformation more clearly in the lives of other saints rather than our own lives. We know where we have fallen short. But when we look at our fellow saints, we see the goodness of God shining through their lives.

One of the qualities of saints is that they are poor in spirit. Some have money and possessions and others do not, but the ones who have them are not owned by them, and the ones that do not have them are not obsessed with what they do not have. Saints are not attached to the treasures of this world. They are more interested in heavenly treasures than in earthly treasures.

One man told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus knew the heart of this potential disciple. He could see that this man would not be content with the life of a disciple. When Jesus sent his disciples out as missionaries, he told them to take no extra supplies—not a change of clothes, nor money, nor a bag to carry extra food. As missionaries, they were to rely on the gifts given them for their work, and not to occupy themselves with questions about how to meet their worldly needs.

On another occasion, a young man came to Jesus boasting that he had obeyed all the commandments. Jesus responded, “Go, sell everything you own, and give the money to the poor. Then, come, follow me.” The young man went away sad because he had great wealth. It is not a sin to be wealthy. In fact, it is a blessing to be wealthy. We can do many things for the sake of the kingdom of God with money and possessions. But when they tempt us to forget our heavenly treasures and enjoy them instead, our earthly possessions can be dangerous to our lives as saints.

A second quality of saints is that they are faithful to God. They make no excuses; when God gives a command, they obey. The perfection of Jesus was like this: he did everything his Father asked of him, even going to the cross to rescue sinners. As we are transformed into the image of Jesus, we also learn to obey his commands and not to make excuses to escape what he commands.

When Jesus said to one man, “Follow me,” the man replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” That seems like a reasonable request, but Jesus knows an excuse when he hears one. “Leave the dead to bury their own dead,” Jesus told him, “but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” So we also should avoid excuses when Jesus tells us what to do. When he tells us to forgive those who sin against us, we should forgive them. No excuse releases us from the obligation to forgive. When Jesus gives us an opportunity to share his good news with others, we should share it. No excuse releases us from the obligation to proclaim the gospel.

Peter and Andrew and James and John left their nets and their boats to follow Jesus. Matthew left his tax collector’s booth to follow Jesus. So we also leave behind anything that would keep us from following Jesus. Any distraction from him, any competition for his place in our lives, needs to be left behind. We love him more than anything else; we trust him more than anything else; we even fear him more than anything else. Therefore, we do not allow our love for other things or our trust in other things or our fear of other things to keep us from following Jesus.

A third quality of saints is that they keep going forward; they do not look back. They do not think of their former sinful lives as the Good Old Days; they regret the sins for which they have already repented and been forgiven. The earthly treasures and worldly excuses that would have kept them from following Jesus do not have the power to pull them away from Jesus. Instead of looking back at what was past, saints continue moving forward on the Lord’s path.

Someone said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Again, Jesus knows our minds and our hearts. He knew that this potential disciple would never come back to Jesus if he first went home to say goodbye. So Jesus answered him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” When a farmer plows a field, the farmer does not lock back behind the tractor to see if the furrow is straight. Anyone who tried driving a tractor while looking backwards would wander all over the field. A farmer plowing a field chooses an object across the field, focuses attention on that object, and plows straight toward that object. With that technique, the furrow behind the tractor will always be straight.

Once Jesus sent his disciples across the lake in a boat, then followed some hours later, walking on the water. At first the disciples were frightened, thinking he was a ghost. But, when he assured them of who he is, Peter said, “Lord, if it’s really you, let me walk on the water toward you.” Jesus agreed to this request, and Peter got out of the boat. As long as Peter was looking at Jesus, he was able to walk on the water. When he was distracted by the wind and the waves, he fell into the water. Jesus had to pull him out again. So we also, when we focus on Jesus, can do whatever he wants us to do. When we are distracted by other things, we are more likely to sink than to walk.

These seem like challenging things to accomplish: to be poor in spirit, to be faithful to God without excuses, and to move forward without looking back. In fact, we fall short every day. Every day we repent of our sins and ask God for his forgiveness. Every day God forgives us, because on the cross Jesus paid for all of our sins. Every day our Baptism is renewed, as God looks at us and sees the righteousness of his Son and treats us accordingly. Every day we are being transformed into the image of Christ.

When the rich young man went away sad because Jesus told him to sell everything he owned, Jesus commented that getting a rich person into the kingdom of God is difficult, harder than threading a camel through the eye of a needle. The disciples were appalled and asked, “Who then can be saved?” “With man this is impossible,” Jesus told them, “but not with God: all things are possible for God.”

Being a Christian is the hardest thing in the world. We have to imitate Christ and do it perfectly to be worthy of the name “Christian.” But being a Christian is also the easiest thing in the world. It is easy because Jesus has done all the work. He has accomplished the impossible, changing us from sinners into saints. We remain sinners in this lifetime, but because of Christ’s work we will be saints forever. To Jesus, who has forgiven our sins, changed us into saints, and is still transforming us each day, to Jesus be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever.                      Amen.

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A new heaven and a new earth–Revelation 21

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1—read Revelation 21:1-27).

The first heaven and the first earth pass away, because they are polluted by sin. Peter describes the passing away of the first creation this way: “”The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies (or elements) will be burned up and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Peter 3:10-11). As the fire of judgment destroys all that was stained by sin, the saints of God are lifted out of the fire to land with Christ in a new creation.

Greek philosophy imagined that all that is physical is tainted and that the ideal state is to be spirit without body or physical form. But God created the physical world and called it good. He added Adam and Eve in their physical bodies and called creation very good. After they sinned and brought evil and death into his creation, the Son of God took on a human form and lived among us as one of us. When he rose from the dead after his victory was won, he still inhabited a human body. He ate with his disciples. He spoke of the new creation as eating and drinking at a celebration, like a wedding reception. Isaiah also mentioned eating and drinking in God’s new creation (Isaiah 25:6).

The new creation will be like that which Adam and Eve saw before they sinned. It will have mountains and streams of water, forests and fields, plants and animals, all living together in peace and harmony. Probably it will have oceans and beaches as well—throughout Revelation the sea has been an image of evil covering the face of the earth, which is why John now writes that there will be no sea.

The prophets often referred to Israel as God’s Bride; the New Testament frequently calls the Christian Church the Bride of Christ. The Church has been represented in Revelation as twenty-four elders (twelve from each Testament), 144,000 saints, a multitude that could not be counted, and a single woman who gave birth to the Savior and was then protected in the wilderness. Now the people of God again appear, this time as a city wearing a wedding dress. She is the New Jerusalem, coming from God out of heaven to dwell in the new creation, as the saints in Paradise will return when Christ appears to join their risen bodies and live forever in the new heavens and new earth.

John hears a voice promising that God will dwell with man: he will be their God, and they will be his people. The old covenant was introduced with similar words in Exodus—God promised Israel that he would be their God and they would be his people. Now, through the work of Christ in the new covenant, this promise is fulfilled. In the new creation, nothing will come between us and God; nothing will keep us from knowing his love and also his plan for our lives. Because sin will be burned away on the Day of the Lord, the new creation will have no tears, no mourning, no crying, and no pain; the old order of things has passed away.

Jesus promises to make everything new. He calls himself the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In the beginning, everything was made through him. At the time of his appearing in the clouds, he will re-create everything. He promises to give freely from the spring of living water, as he promised a Samaritan woman in John 4. He lists those who will remain outside his new creation in the second death—those found guilty of sin because they refused God’s gift of grace, loving their sins more than they loved their Savior.

John is promised a closer view of the New Jerusalem, the wife of the Lamb. As Moses saw the Promised Land from a high mountain, so John watches from a high mountain as Jerusalem comes from heaven, from God’s presence in Paradise to God’s presence in the new creation. As the high priest wore a breastplate with twelve gems to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, so the new Jerusalem is decorated with twelve gems. It also has twelve gates, each gate carved from a single pearl. Its dimensions are measured and are found to be derived from units of twelve. The wall even had twelve foundations, with the names of the twelve apostles inscribed on them.

John mentions that the city was pure gold, clear as glass; he then says the same of the streets of Jerusalem, transparent as glass. Of course, gold is neither clear nor transparent; it is a yellow metal. But it is valuable, and transparent glass would be even more valuable. The gems and the gold and the pearly gates all are meant to show how valuable the Church—the gathering of believers—is to God.

When a Christian dies, that Christian’s family and friends sometimes speak of the Christian as entering the pearly gates and walking the golden streets of heaven. But the new Jerusalem with its pearly gates and golden streets does not appear until the Day of the Lord, the Day when Christ appears in the clouds, raises, all the dead, and makes everything new. It is better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). At that time, the body is buried on earth, but the soul is with Christ in Paradise, in the hands of the Father (Luke 23:43, 46). The joy of the resurrection and the new creation, though, is represented by the pearly gates and the golden streets—not by Paradise alone. Our Christian hope includes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting—there we will find the pearly gates and the streets of gold.

Of course, the pearly gates and streets of gold are figures of speech to describe the beauty of God’s people in his eyes. We are the Bride of Christ, so he adorns us with all that is precious: with gold and with pearls and with valuable gems. If a city in the new creation literally had twelve gates, each carved from a single pearl, then one would hope that the massive oysters that produced such pearls were located on another planet in the new heavens and not on the face of the new earth! But as no city ever wore a wedding dress, so I am sure that we will have no reason to fear monster oysters in the new creation.

John sees no Temple in the city: the Temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. Jesus once said, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up”—but he was speaking about the Temple of his body (John 2:19,21). A Temple is the dwelling place of a god. The Son of God became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). In the new creation, where God promises to dwell among his people, no other Temple will be needed.

Likewise, we will not need pastors and preachers, because we will all know God. We will not need police officers, attorneys, judges, or jail wardens. We will need no soldiers. Nor will we need doctors, nurses, therapists, and pharmacists. Many of us will take on new careers. Yet the things we love doing today—the things we can do all afternoon without noticing time passing—are likely to be the things we will do in the new creation for the glory of God and for the good of our fellow saints. Some will be occupied with music, others with literature, and still others with crafts. Some will tend gardens, as Adam and Eve did in the beginning before there was sin; others will care for the beasts of creation. Those things we love doing now (whether we are paid for doing them) we will do in the new creation, without struggle or strain or weariness or boredom. And we will all be at peace with God, at peace with one another, and at peace with all creation.

Without death, there will be no deadlines. Should someone want to take a vacation, he or she might walk into the forest, build a cabin, and live there for five or ten years, and then return to his or her work—and it would be less sacrifice of time than taking a weekend off in today’s hectic world.

The city (which represents God’s people in the new creation) needs no sun or moon, because the glory of God is its light and the Lamb is its lamp. This is not to say that the sun and the moon will no longer exist—merely that they will not be needed, because we will walk in God’s light. Therefore, its gates will never be shut, because no enemy will oppose it, and nothing will be able to harm it.

Nothing unclean will enter the new creation or the city of God. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will dwell there. Is your name written in the Lamb’s book of life? How can you be sure?

I once taught a semester on the Old Testament in a Christian high school. Toward the end of the semester, as Christmas was approaching and the students were easily distracted, I gave them a difficult test. I warned them that they would have to do well on the test to pass the class. They all did poorly, and they all knew it. The next time the class met, I announced that one copy of the test had earned a perfect score. (It was the answer key, which I had filled out myself.) I then said that no name had been written on the perfect test. I told the students that I had taken the liberty of writing each of their names on the answer key and giving each of them credit for the perfect test.

I then told them that Jesus had done the same thing for them. He had lived a sinless life in the place of their sinful lives. He had then written their names on his perfect righteousness, giving each of them credit for what he had done. This is how you and I know that our names are written in the book of life: Jesus has written them there himself.

(taken from Revelation Unveiled, upon which I am still working) J.

 

 

 

 

The fading and disappearance of Aurora

I miss Aurora.

This is not the post I wanted to write today. The Bilderberg Meeting was held in Switzerland a few weeks ago, and they discussed several interesting topics that I want to address. There are also some theological issues upon which I wish to comment. And I can share some childhood memories of summer days and activities. My writing has been lagging lately—maybe it’s the summer doldrums—I cannot even motivate myself to complete the first draft of my book about Revelation—I still have two chapters to cover before I’m done.

But last night, lying in bed, waiting for sleep to come, the feeling washed over me like a wave. And when I woke this morning, the same feeling was still with me.

I really miss Aurora.

I don’t know her real name, and she doesn’t know mine. We met as WordPress bloggers; we followed each other and liked each other’s posts and commented on each other’s blogs. Ostensibly, her blog was about “adventures in singleness and misadventures in dating,” but she also wrote about Christian faith, her church, her family and friends, and her job. She was dissatisfied with the later, and in the last year of her blogging she described leaving that job and setting out on a whole new career.

Our attraction was not romantic. Aside from a significant difference in age, there are other important barriers that would not have allowed any romantic attachment. I felt no jealousy as she wrote about the men she met and dated. In fact, I took on a brotherly interest and concern over some of her “misadventures.” She began blogging when her fiancé canceled their wedding after most of the plans had been made; she endured a mental health crisis, and blogging was part of her journey back to health. Along the way she encountered some men who were kind and supportive and others who were not. From August 2014 to October 2017, her online presence was meaningful to me—sometimes humorous, sometimes melancholy, but always interesting and inspirational.

Because our minds ran in similar fashions, we connected online. She noticed and appreciated the quips and subtleties in my posts that apparently went past most readers. She expressed awareness of the ironies of life and of the elegant awkwardness of the English language. We didn’t agree on everything—what two people always agree?—but we saw many things the same way, and we understood each other most of the time.

I’m not the only person to regret her disappearance. Bitter Ben commented months ago about those blogging friends who suddenly disappear. It’s part of life: people move on to new things. They develop other interests and they stop blogging. Social media is not the most important thing in their lives, nor should it be. But when people like Aurora disappear, it leaves a hole, and sometimes that hole cannot be filled.

I understand. Her last post was about the Friday morning that her boyfriend came to her apartment and cooked her breakfast. He left a poem and a note for her. The post was tagged “engagement” and “marriage.” I get it. Her singleness, and her misadventures in dating, were over. But I wish there could have been more of a farewell. More than that, I wish that she had directed her readers to a new blog where we could stay in touch, keep up with her changing life, and continue to share concern and support for one another.

Aurora and I agreed that, in the new creation, there will be a place where Christian WordPress bloggers will gather to meet one another face to face, to remember the fun times we had together online, and to enjoy one another’s company as we experience the ongoing, eternal celebration of the Lord’s victory over all evil. I look forward to seeing her on that Day. Meanwhile, I hope and pray that things are going well for her in her relationship, in her career, in her faith, and in her life.

Dear Aurora, I know you’re out there somewhere. God’s blessings to you in all that you are doing. And if there is some way we can reconnect, just to be online friends and mutual support, please let me know. J.

What about it, readers? What would you like to see next from Salvageable? Are you interested in world politics and the topics discussed at the Bilderberg meeting? Would you prefer theological topics—perhaps some insights gained while writing about the book of Revelation? Or are you most curious about his childhood experiences of summertime and those memories? Let me know!

There ain’t no cure for the summertime blackouts

A powerful storm ripped through this part of the state Wednesday night, providing lightning and thunder, rain, and straight-line wind gusts up to seventy miles an hour. No significant damage happened on my property—just a lot of leaves and small branches to gather and bag. But two stately oaks in the neighborhood were shattered by the winds, one bringing down a power line, as was happening in multiple locations across the region.

The lightning was so profuse when the power went out that I was able to find my way through the house to candles and matches and a flashlight. With the air conditioner disabled, we opened windows for ventilation and went to bed. The power was still off Thursday morning, so I showered and dressed, ate two breakfast bars, drank a cold cup of coffee, and drove to work.

When I returned home that afternoon, my youngest daughter greeted me with a grumble—“Seventeen hours and forty-two minutes, and they still haven’t gotten it fixed!” It happened that her complaint was voiced roughly half-way through our outage. I told her what I had heard on the radio, about the thousands of people without power. When it was time, I drove to the campus where I teach evening classes, unsure if the campus was open, since they had no way to reach me if the power was out and the campus was closed. There were cars in the parking lot when I arrived, though, and the power was on, and students arrived.  So I taught, returned home, read by candlelight for a while, and went to bed.

Sleep was not hard Wednesday night, because the storm had cooled the air and there were still breezes stirring. Thursday night the house was hot, the air outside was hot and humid, there was very little breeze, and of course no electric fan would work. The power was draining from my daughter’s phone, so she went out and sat in the car and recharged it there. I went to bed early but slumbered fitfully through the night.

Friday morning’s shower almost seemed to have been pointless, as I was coated with sweat almost immediately after toweling myself dry from the shower. But I got dressed, grabbed two breakfast bars, and left early for work, buying a hot cup of coffee downtown. Before lunch, I received by text the single word “power,” and by the time I was home that afternoon, the air conditioner had made the house more comfortable in terms of heat and humidity. (I responded “yea” to the text “power”—my daughter, more creatively, answered the same text “to the people.”)

Today, as chain saws roar through the neighborhood, we are doing triage on food that was left in the refrigerator and freezer through the outage. One of my coworkers asked me Thursday if we had transferred any food to ice chests, and I said, no, we were simply keeping the doors of the refrigerator and freezer closed. He said, “I suppose for a while that makes them ice chests,” with which I agreed. The icemaker was leaking water by Thursday afternoon, but we just put a towel on the floor. Once power was restored, we emptied the remaining ice and water from the icemaker and set it to make new ice. So far we have discarded the softer dairy items—the cheeses appear to have survived unscathed. We are also discarding older leftovers.

I did eat some leftover tuna casserole for supper last night, reasoning that “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” Before going to bed, I remarked that I did not feel any stronger and would probably die during the night, but of course that did not happen. Actually, when it comes to food poisoning, it rarely kills people and never makes them stronger. I have suffered from salmonella twice—both because of public salad bars, never from my own kitchen. It did not kill me, but it did not make me stronger.

We have not had time to examine everything in the freezer, but it appears that the meat remained frozen through all those hours. Some ice cream bars lost their shape, but they refroze and are edible. We did have a little uncooked pork and bacon in the refrigerator that we have discarded, but fortunately our frequent supply of ground beef and of raw chicken had been cooked and eaten before the outage.

All in all, I would say that we survived the blackout admirably. My stress level listening to chain saws all day today may prove to be the highest cost of the experience. J.

Is it me or is it him?

Everyone who thinks about God and talks about God is a theologian. Everyone who thinks and talks about what is good and what is true and what is beautiful is a philosopher. Everyone who looks at the created world and strives to understand some part of creation is a scientist.

But some theologians and philosophers and scientists are amateurs, while others are professionals.

In the sports world, the distinction between amateurs and professionals is whether they are paid. Amateurs may accept no money for their performances, but professionals are paid to perform. The distinction in other fields is not so clear. Some very amateur theologians and philosophers and scientists are paid well for what they write, while some very professional people in the same fields go unpaid.

One difference between amateurs and professionals is their awareness of what others in the field have written and said. They have read and thought about the writings considered important in that field. The professional does not need to agree with all that the leaders in the field have written. A biologist does not have to agree with Charles Darwin. (Most don’t.) A psychologist does not have to agree with Sigmund Freud. (Most don’t.) But, as professionals, they are aware of what these past masters have proclaimed, and they are able to relate the thoughts of the past masters to their own work.

A second difference between amateurs and professionals is their careful use of words. They are not sloppy in defining terms; they generally use the same words with the same meanings as those who have been professionals in that field in the past. If it is necessary to coin a new word, or to give a new meaning to a standard word, professionals carefully define their terms so readers will not be confused by the new or changed term.

A third mark of professionals is clarity in communication. They do not ramble and wander about their field, but they explain their ideas in a way most adults can understand. The most brilliant mind is useless if its owner cannot speak and write clearly. When a speaker leaves audience members saying, “That is one smart person. I didn’t understand what was being said, but it sure sounded smart,” the speaker has failed as a professional. Audience members who heard a professional speaker say, “I never thought of that before,” or, “I really learned something today,” or, “That’s the first time I ever understood that idea.”

More distinctions could be found, such as sufficient confidence in one’s own ideas to be willing to hear and discuss contrary ideas, and the ability to debate without resorting to insults and condescending language. But those three are enough to lead into my title of, “Is it him or is it me?” If I am reading a famous book written by an acknowledged master in the field, and I am not understanding what I read, does the fault lie with me or with the writer?

I usually begin by assuming that, if I do not understand, the failure is mine. The writer would not be widely regarded as a professional if no one else understands what he or she was saying. On the other hand, I remember a professor in college saying of Immanuel Kant that Kant took great leaps in logic that lesser mortals were not always able to follow. At the time, I took the philosophy professor’s description at face value. But increasingly I wonder if the professor was warning us that Kant was not exactly professional, that his leaps of logic may be, in fact, holes in his system of thought.

This month I’ve been reading Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian of the fourth century, and I have found the reading discouraging. It seems that Gregory wanders and rambles, repeats himself, and does not communicate clearly. Therefore, I ask myself, “Is it him or is it me?” Or—a third possibility—is this just a bad translation? I have flipped ahead in the book and found shorter essays that may be more focused and professional. The first half of the book consists of a rebuttal to an Arian theologian named Eunomias. Maybe Gregory’s writing will be clearer when he deals directly with theological matters.

In fact, Gregory himself has given me that hope. Last night I read, “But I must hasten on, for I see that my treatise has already extended beyond bounds, and I fear that I may be thought garrulous and inordinate in my talk, if I prolong my answer to excess, although I have intentionally passed by many parts of my adversary’s treatise, that my argument might not be spun out to many myriads of words. For to the more studious even the want of conciseness gives an occasion for disparagement; but as for those whose mind looks not to what is of use, but to the fancy of those who are idle and not in earnest, their wish and prayer is to get over as much of the journey as they can in a few steps.”

In other words, this time it’s him. J.

Book review: The Saddler’s Legacy, by Rosslyn Elliott

For summer reading that is both pleasurable and thought-provoking, I recommend a series of books which I just finished reading: Rosslyn Elliott’s “The Saddler’s Legacy.” The three volumes are Fairer than Morning (copyright 2011), Sweeter than Birdsong (2012), and Lovelier than Daylight (2012), all published by Thomas Nelson. The titles and cover art suggest that the books are romances, and indeed Elliott uses the style of a romance novel to tell her stories. But all three are also historical fiction, carefully researched, filled with adventure, and relevant to contemporary issues. They are set in Westerville, Ohio, with occasional visits to larger American cities, and they describe events in three generations of the same family, the Hanbys.

Fairer than Morning begins in the summer of 1823. Ann Miller is being wooed by Eli Bowen, but she meets Will Hanby, a saddle-maker’s apprentice. The romance is predictable (as is the case for all three novels), but around that skeleton Elliott builds a tale of working conditions in the early nineteenth century and questions about the system of justice, both issues that still matter in the twenty-first century. Her characters are strong and complicated, not cardboard cutouts. Most of them are Christian, but Elliott is not preachy in her writing. As she tells her story, she allows readers to reach their own conclusions about what is happening.

My favorite of the three is the middle book, Sweeter than Birdsong. Kate Winter, a student at Otterbein College in 1855, is painfully shy. Ben Hanby is a musician at the college. Fate throws them together, as they become involved in the Underground Railroad, that network of safehouses that supported escaped African American slaves on their path to freedom. It seemed that I could relate to both Kate and Ben with their talents and with their challenges.

The final volume, Lovelier than Daylight, is set during the Westerville Whiskey War of 1875, a battle of prohibitionists against the saloon industry. Susanna Hanby is one of the prohibitionists; Johann Giere is the son and heir of a brewer. When Susanna’s sister Ruth disappears along with Ruth’s six children, it appears that Ruth’s alcoholic husband is somehow to blame. But Johann, an aspiring newspaper reporter, is best equipped among Susanna’s acquaintances to track down Ruth and the children. Elliott handles the questions of prohibition, social justice, and violence with clear insight into the complexity of human behavior, complexity which leads to no easy answers.

All three books are engaging. Elliott never becomes lost in the details. The research behind her writing provides everyday lifestyles as well as historic persons and events. The characters are strong enough to keep a reader’s interest. I bought my copies through amazon.com. J.

Vinegar and floodwater

The river is rising, and more rain is coming.

I work downtown, a short stroll from the river, and the thing to do these days is to take that stroll at lunchtime and stare at the muddy water as it streams past. Levees have given way upstream, and even local neighborhoods have been evacuated. Record flooding is happening all over the place. I saw my first record-breaking flood the month I turned ten, and witnessed several similar floods over the years, which is why my childhood home was bought by the government and leveled.

I remember carrying things out of the basement when I was a child to rescue them from coming floods. I didn’t think I would be doing that again, certainly not at work. But last Wednesday the building managers had a series of worried meetings as they considered the worst-case scenario for this flood event. The building is protected by a rarely-needed sump pump. The pump had not even been checked for several years. Management hired some specialists to check the pump on Friday, but meanwhile they also considered the option that a power failure might occur over the weekend, rendering the pump powerless. So, management decided to have all the employees drop what we were doing and carry things up out of the basement.

Several different entities are in the building—some related to one another, others merely renting space. Tenants include branches of the state university, attorneys, and even a vegetarian restaurant. The building itself is part of the public library system; it contains the library’s archives, the library’s art collection (aside from objects currently on display in other library buildings), art galleries (one of which sells locally-created art), and several other library departments. The basement contained (until the end of last week) storage for the art collection and for the archival items received but not yet processed. In other words, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind items (some quite valuable) were threatened by the flood. It made sense to bring it all upstairs.

People sometimes donate unique items to the library, which is why it maintains an archive. In the library’s archives are family records and photo albums, business records, church records, government records, and the like. The library owns letters and diaries written by soldiers during the Civil War. It holds Red Cross records, Garden Club records, school records, and thousands of photographs from earlier times. People use the library’s archives to study the history of railroads, the local fire department, historic people buried in local cemeteries, and their own families. People come to learn the history of the house where they live or of a business building they are remodeling. Not all this information was threatened by the flood—the material that has been processed is safely stored higher in the building. But who can say what information is hiding in the material not yet processed? Not to mention the art collection—it all had to be moved.

The research room is open nine hours a day, six days a week. Junior high students and university professors might be working within touching distance on their different projects. Books have been published based on information available only in this building. Many of the people who come—roughly half of them I would guess—are researching their genealogy. And, because there is a restaurant on the first floor, researchers and librarians sometimes smell the food being prepared. One day last week, the restaurant workers were roasting garlic—the scent reminded me of my mother’s zucchini recipe, fried in a skillet with garlic and herbs and a little vegetable oil. Other days the research room smells of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.

This morning the research room smelled like Harvard beets. Those are beets cooked in vinegar. This time the restaurant was not to blame. Among the items brought up from the basement are several canisters of film. Old film made of cellulose acetate plastic can chemically disintegrate, and the most obvious symptom of that disintegration is a vinegary scent. The library has one full-time employee whose task is to convert older records, whether audio or video, into a digital format before the original is lost beyond hope of recovery. These donated films are now sitting up on the third floor, undergoing chemical change, and the scent wafts down the atrium into other parts of the building.

The river continues to rise. No one knows how many days the library’s art collection will be sitting in hallways and meeting rooms and nooks and crannies all over the building. No one knows how many days the unprocessed archives will continue to form a maze between offices. A potential catastrophe has been averted, but it was done through many hours of hard labor and with no small inconvenience to the library’s staff. J.