A tent and a building

 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,  for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (II Corinthians 5:1-10)

              For centuries, thinkers and philosophers have tried to figure out what it is that makes us the people that we are. What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you? We have many words to describe that unique individual experience that belongs to each of us. We speak of the spirit, the soul, the mind, the heart, and the self. In India it is called atman; in China it is called chi. Some people think that only human beings have this individual self; others see the life force flowing through animals, through plants, even through rocks and rivers and mountains. Science has tried to find this self, but it cannot be located or measured or described scientifically. We generally assume that we have a soul or a spirit. Most religious descriptions of people include a soul or a spirit. It’s hard to imagine ourselves without a soul or a spirit. But the information we have about our souls and spirits comes, not from scientific investigation and study, but from the Bible, the Word of God. Since God created us, we willingly learn from him how we are made.

              Since we each have a soul or spirit, we want to know: what happens to that soul or spirit when we die? Does it disintegrate, as a dead body falls apart over time? Does it linger in this world for a while, haunting places as a ghost or a phantom? Does it come back again and again, born in a new body each time, experiencing the world repeatedly through history? God’s Word assures us that some part of us survives the death of the body. It does not return again and again—it goes somewhere to wait for the resurrection at the end of time and for the new creation. For believers, that waiting place is called Paradise. We are with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of God the Father. For unbelievers, that waiting place is called Hades. The Bible describes Hades as an uncomfortable place, but it still involves waiting until the resurrection and the final judgment. On that Day Jesus will divide us into two groups, welcoming his saints into the new creation where we will live with him forever. The other group, the sinners who refused to believe in Jesus, will be locked outside of that new creation, stuck forever in the outer darkness.

              The apostle Paul describes our current bodies as tents. We are camping on a battlefield, dwelling in tents, surrounded by a world polluted by sin and evil. The only existence we know is life in these bodies, but we know that this life is temporary. Even if we survive in this world and make it to one hundred years, that century is merely a drop in the ocean of eternity. We have been promised eternal life in a better world, a world without sin and evil and death. We are looking forward to that new creation. We camp in tents today, but God has prepared buildings for us in the new creation, bodies that will last forever without sicknesses or injuries or allergies. Paul says that today we walk by faith, not by sight. Our hope is not merely to leave these bodies behind and to live as spirits with God in Paradise. Our hope incudes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We eagerly await our final destination, the new bodies God will raise from the grave, changing them so they will last forever.

              Today we cope with what we have. We take care of these bodies, these temporary dwellings, these tents. Consider how much time we invest in our teeth, our hair, our faces. We clean these bodies and then we cover them with nice clothes. We prepare food and eat food and then wash up after each meal. We give these bodies rest and exercise. We shelter them in buildings, and we keep those buildings at comfortable temperatures in the summer heat and the winter cold. God gave us these bodies. Good stewardship includes caring for these bodies, making them fit for the good works that God intends us to do in this world. But many people become obsessed with their bodies, their earthly tents. They forget that we have a heavenly dwelling, prepared by God. While we are in this tent, we groan. We are vulnerable to the many things that go wrong in us and around us in a sin-polluted world. We think about our health and comfort today and tomorrow, investing our time and energy in maintaining these current tents. Meanwhile, we neglect our purpose in this world. As Paul says, we should make it our aim to please God today. We will receive what is due us for the way we have served God while camping in these bodies. Stewardship is more than keeping our bodies fed and clothed and clean and healthy. Stewardship is also living actively in these bodies, loving God and loving our neighbors. Stewardship includes using these bodies to do good works, works that help the people around us and bring glory to God, because we are God’s people. We are Christ’s body, doing his work in this world.

              Doing good works is half the struggle. Camping on this battlefield, we also face temptations to sin. The devil and the sinful world around us are constantly showing us where we can do things for our pleasure rather than for God’s glory. The sin still within each of us would like to follow the path of temptation and sin rather than following God’s path. Different people are tempted in different ways. For some of us, the temptations are different at different ages, different stages of life. But temptation is always available. We aim to please God, but our aim can be diverted by the cloud of temptations that surrounds us.

              We have learned how to protect ourselves from viruses in this world. We wash our hands for twenty seconds; we wear masks in some situations. But how do we protect ourselves from spiritual danger? How do we purify ourselves from threats to the soul? We are under attack. We are constantly being threatened with evil. What mask, what sanitizer, will keep us safe from temptation?

              Martin Luther said this about temptation: you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. Temptations will surround us as long as we live in this world. Jesus was tempted as we are. How we respond to temptation is what matters. We realize that we should just say no. Many times a day, that is exactly what we say. But it is one thing to say no; it is another to move on past the temptation and not linger in the thought and imagination of what we could be doing. Holding on to our anger can be as sinful as striking out in anger. Remembering and reliving a temptation can be as sinful as giving in to that temptation. But even when we resist temptation, the devil has not finished with us. He can still battle us with the temptation after we have said no. He can make us feel guilty for being tempted. When he tries that attack, we remind ourselves that Jesus was also tempted, that Jesus said no, and that Jesus has given us the strength to say no. We should not feel guilty for being tempted; we should only feel guilty for surrendering to the temptation, for sinning, or for hanging on to that temptation and enjoying the thought of sin.

              When we have resisted temptation, when we have moved on to good works instead of living in the temptation, Satan’s other attack is the sin of pride. He wants us to keep score of our goodness. He wants us to measure how good we are, how many sins we have avoided. When he has us measuring ourselves and taking pride in ourselves, he helps build barriers that separate us from God. Even though, at first, our aim was to please God, soon we are pleasing ourselves by our goodness. We will be in big trouble on Judgment Day when we stand before the throne of God, boasting in our goodness, because our goodness never will be good enough to bring us into God’s perfect new creation.

              We will receive what is due for what we have done in these bodies, these tents, whether we have done good or have done evil. But God’s standard calls for perfection. The smallest sin, the smallest surrender to temptation, can bar us from the new creation. When we think of that Day when we will stand before the throne of God, we must remember how Jesus prepared us for that Day.

              Jesus lived among us as one of us. Jesus resisted temptation in our name. Jesus lived the perfect righteousness that earns a place in the new creation. Jesus then exchanged lives with us. Jesus took upon himself the guilt for our sins. Jesus paid our debt in full on the cross. Jesus has sanitized our lives to make us pure and acceptable in the sight of his Father. What we receive on Judgment Day is shaped by the work of Jesus. God will see no evil in us, because Jesus has removed every sin. God will see only good in us, because Jesus has credited each of us with his righteousness.

              Paying attention to Jesus and not to ourselves, we begin to imitate Jesus. We do good things that help our neighbors and bring glory to God. Again, the devil tempts us to take credit for those good things, to focus attention on our selves, to forget Jesus and the changes he has made in our lives. Our growth comes, not from our efforts to imitate Christ, but from his power working within us. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like seeds that grow. The seed is planted, it sprouts, it produces roots and stems and leaves; eventually a crop appears, whether grain or grapes or mustard or apples or figs. A healthy tree produces fruit: the fruit does not give life to the tree, but the tree naturally produces fruit if it is alive. In a similar way, a Christian life is recognized by good works. Good works do not create Christian faith—faith is God’s gift, and life and growth come from that faith. When we focus on Jesus, these good things happen in our lives. When we focus on ourselves and forget Jesus, whatever good we accomplish is tarnished with pride and self-righteousness.

              Jesus Christ defeated sin and all its consequences, including death. Jesus Christ grants new life to his people. Jesus Christ lives in us, working in us the good things that God had in mind when he created us. Jesus Christ also sustains us in this new life. As seeds, when they have sprouted, need sun and rain and soil and tending, so we need the continuing work of Jesus in our lives. We need his Word, which guides us and also gives strength for our faith to grow. We need his Church, as Jesus works in us to build our faith and to make one another strong in the faith. We need his Supper, as Jesus nourishes us by his own body and blood, removing our sins and guaranteeing us eternal life. God’s Holy Spirit, given to us as a guarantee of all his promises, works through the Word and the Church and the Sacrament to give us faith and to help that faith grow and remain strong.

              We are always of good courage. We live today in tents on a battlefield, at home in the body and away from the Lord. One day we will leave these tents behind—we will be with the Lord and away from the body. We will be with Jesus in Paradise. But the best is still to come. God has eternal mansions for us, new bodies that will live forever in a new creation. Our place there is guaranteed, not by what we do for Jesus, but by what Jesus has done for us.

Double secret probation

When I contracted COVID last month, I was regulated to remain in quarantine (with family members who happened to have the same illness at the same time as me). The official government quarantine was ten days from when I first noticed symptoms; my workplace established a fourteen day quarantine. The Memorial Day weekend helped to close the gap between those two periods, and I was feeling better long before I was allowed to leave the house. I was able to devote some of my energy into my writing, which had been flagging lately. I also returned to work Wednesday of last week with new strength and energy to devote to my tasks in that arena.

The burst of hopeful energy did not last very long.

Waiting for me in my email was a statement about the company’s policy. This statement said that all employees not vaccinated for COVID must wear a mast at all times on company property. This replaces the pre-vaccine policy that had us masked when around other people but permitted to remove our masks when alone in our workspace. The policy states that one infraction leads to a written warning, a second infraction leads to a final warning, and a third infraction leads to immediate termination. The same policy also indicates that the company cannot demand that anyone receive the vaccine, nor that any employee can be shamed or bullied or singled out for not being vaccinated. But those who are vaccinated are free not to wear masks (or to wear them, if they so desire), while the rest of us must wear our masks or will lose our jobs. Not that we are being shamed or bullied or anything.

When I had been at work for an hour, I had a meeting with our Human Resources Director and with my manager. The HR director was very sweet and syrupy, as is her nature, and was also very firm that I had been naughty for getting sick and that I had better be aware of the company policy. In fact, that same afternoon, I received my written warning because I had arrived at work and been at my desk without a mask that same day.

I’ve known for a long time that my job was hanging by a thread. The powers that be already drastically reduced the budget for my department, forcing some people to be downsized out of a job and others who left not to be replaced. If anything, the virus crisis slowed the procedures that were aiming to cut us off the tree. Now, it appears, they see an opportunity to empty another chair, and I expect that I will be watched carefully for the slightest slip or mistake. It’s reached the point that I’m extra careful driving to work, as if a traffic infraction could terminate my position and have me searching for another job.

Of course I am searching for another job, but nothing has come of that yet.

What frustrates me the most is not the bullying and shaming, but the lack of science involved in this episode. Science has demonstrated that people who are sickened by viruses and recover gain immunity to those viruses. The entire point of vaccination is that people receive a mild form of the virus so their bodies create antibodies to immunize them against the virus. Vaccines are called “artificial active immunization,” but getting sick and recovering is simply “active immunization,” or sometimes (by contrast with vaccination) “natural active immunization.”

Some people argue that COVID hasn’t been studied long enough for scientists to know how long natural active immunization remains in effect. On the other hand, the medical professionals who interviewed me on the telephone said that I should not get the vaccine for at least three months because of possible complications involving the antibodies already produced in my body. Other studies have found that antibodies are still present in people who recovered from COVID ten or eleven months ago. A small number of people have been sickened a second time by COVID. A small number of people—but a larger proportion of the people in question—have been sickened by COVID after being vaccinated. Science indicates that I am less likely to deliver the virus to other people now that I have been sick and have recovered. But the politics and economics of medicine, along with the agenda of the people at charge at my workplace, are clearly bigger than the science I learned in school.

I hope to be able to find time and energy to keep my writing projects going. I hope to find another job before I get kicked out the door at my present workplace. All I can do at the moment is trust that the Lord has a plan for me, and that things will work out fine according to His schedule. J.

Minoan civilization

Before Greek civilization developed in the northeastern Mediterranean basin—thus, long before the important Axial Age that happened about twenty-five centuries ago—an island civilization centered in Crete flourished for many generations. They traded products with their neighbors, including the Egyptians and Asians on the Mediterranean coast. They built large cities, complete with palaces and temples. They developed a plumbing system—always an indication of advanced civilization. They produced beautiful artwork. They had a written language, mostly untranslated, although a few inventory lists have been deciphered. Modern historians call this the Minoan civilization, since we have no idea what they called themselves.

Hints of their relationship with early Greeks are revealed in Greek mythology. The story of Theseus tells of a time that young men and women were taken from their home cities in Greece and brought to a foreign capital, where they were imprisoned in a Labyrinth and eventually killed and eaten by a monster—half-bull and half-human—called the Minotaur. Artwork in Crete suggests a slave class of entertainers who were not fed to a monster but who entertained the wealthy and powerful by gymnastic feats. They leapt over a live bull and performed maneuvers on its back, rather like the gymnastic routines involving the vaulting horse and the pommel horse, except that the ancient entertainers used a live animal.

Some Greek records also describe a civilization called Atlantis. Plato says he learned about Atlantis from Egyptian historians. Atlantis was said to be a rich and powerful nation, but the pride of its people led to its downfall—Atlantis was destroyed by natural forces, including earthquakes and floods, and fell into the sea. The legend of Atlantis may reflect the reality of Minoan Crete, although Plato’s Atlantis was larger than Crete. It was located west of Spain and Morocco, in the ocean that now bears its name. Greek historians even insisted that the Atlantic Ocean was not navigable because the wreckage of lost Atlantis made the waterway too shallow for boats.

Much evidence indicates that a massive volcanic eruption—one which caused earthquakes and tsunamis—occurred in the Mediterranean Sea about the time that the Minoan civilization collapsed. Historians cannot agree on the date—even the century—when the volcano erupted, but such an event would have impacted the Minoans on Crete and on nearby islands. Many of them would have died. Some would have tried to rebuild—and, in fact, after its collapse, the Minoan ruins were repaired, but eventually the depleted kingdom was added to the growing Greek civilization. Yet others would have sought a new home, and that also appears to be the case. Once again, though, historians do not agree on the details that appear to follow the destruction of Minoan cities.

Egyptian records describe a group of would-be settlers who tried to make a home for themselves in the Egyptian delta. Egyptian force resisted their settlement, and they moved up the coast until they found a land they could call their own. Archaeological evidence from Canaan indicates that various invaders forced their way into Canaan. Some of those invaders were, of course, the twelve tribes of Israel. But another group became established in southwestern Canaan around the same time. They built five cities, demonstrating skill they brought with them from their earlier home. Although at first the Israelites had some success clearing the land promised to them by the Lord, they later shared the land with Canaanites and other cultures. The five cities of the Philistines remained long after the time of the Judges, dwelling on land that had been assigned to the tribe of Dan (which chose to relocate to the north, according to the Bible) and to Judah and Simeon.

This history does not end in Biblical times. When the British Empire laid claim to the western Asian lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea after the First World War—land that had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries before the Great War—they called that land Palestine, a corruption of the earlier name Philistine. The Palestinian natives were of mixed ancestry, including Arab and other ethnic origins; perhaps some of them are descendants of the Philistines from long ago. After the Second World War, the British divided the land between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Israel had to win a war against its neighbors to preserve its independence, and in the process the government of the Palestinians collapsed. Rule of their land was taken by Jordan for almost twenty years, but in the 1967 War Israel captured that land and held it for military security. In all the years since 1967, Israel has not fully incorporated its captured land and its population. Israel is a democracy, and fully incorporating the Palestinian land and people would make the Jews a minority in their own country, apt to be voted out of power. Instead, they have negotiated some autonomy for the Palestinians living in the Gaza strip—that piece of land on the coast of the Mediterranean that once included Gaza and four other Philistine cities. So the tension between Israel and its neighbors that was known under Samuel and David remains a reality down to the present. J.

Another history lesson

“Biologically, there are not different races. Despite our differences, there is only one human race.” Once, when I said that in history class, one of my students asked, “Then why do we call problems between different groups ‘racism’?” My answer, to the best I can recall, was that imagined racial differences reinforce these problems. The core statement remains true: DNA studies confirm what interfertility had already demonstrated—all humans are related. We are all of one common race.

Humans have spread out, though, to inhabit every environmental niche in the planet. Humans live in polar climates where it is nearly always winter, and they live in tropical climates where it is always summer. Humans live in deserts where it never rains and in forests where it rains nearly every day. Humans live high on mountains and along the seashore. Humans live in river valleys and in grasslands far from flowing water. Humans have adapted to every climate and every environment on the planet. We have found food to support us wherever we live. We have developed tools to adapt our environment, making it friendlier and more survivable. In more recent times, we have learned to travel from place to place, to network with other cultures, to communicate across various barriers, and to exchange the raw materials and the created artifacts of our various groups.

Human interaction has not always been pleasant or peaceful. People have fought wars over natural resources. People have fought over land and territory. People have fought over ideas—religious ideas, economic ideas, and political ideas. People have enslaved their neighbors and have captured neighbors to sell into slavery. People have clung to excess food while their neighbors starved. People have used violence and starvation and disease to control other people. People have used our difference in appearance, in language, and in ideas and cultures as excuses to mistreat one another, excuses to treat other groups of people as something less than human.

By any label (racism, bigotry, prejudice, greed, hatred), these problems are not quickly and easily solved. Some claim to be colorblind, to treat all people the same. Others rise above both bigotry and colorblindness to celebrate their own cultural heritage and also to be curious about the cultural heritage of their neighbors. Some people perpetuate stereotypes based on debunked racial theories—either claiming that one group is inherently better than another, or else claiming that past abuses of one group over another are the only reason for present problems and require redistribution of wealth, property, and power.

History, like science, tends to be misused by groups seeking to maintain power over others and by groups seeking to gain power over others. The value of history is that it shows some constant themes that we can resist futilely or that we can observe, planning to adapt productively. People move from place to place. They seek better lives for themselves—freedom from violence, more available food, more opportunities to improve their lives and those of their children, better laws, better governments, more freedom. When migrants are hated, despised, and resisted, they do not go away—they become more stubborn in their attempts to find a better life, while also clinging more strongly to their cultural traditions and beliefs. When migrants are welcomed and incorporated, they do not take over—they become more interested in the traditions and beliefs of the culture to which they have been added.

The Law of Moses required compassion and aid for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (the outsider, the migrant). Jesus Christ affirmed these values, teaching his followers to love one another, to love their neighbors, to help even the Samaritan, the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman who begged for crumbs from the Master’s table. When we love our neighbors, we do not tolerate lawlessness, violence, or hatred from those neighbors. But, when we love our neighbors, we learn about their ways and we teach them our ways. With today’s rapid transportation, instant communication, and widely available information about the world’s cultures, we learn easily about others. And we find opportunities to be helpful to those who need our help. Instead of keeping our culture pure by driving away the stranger, we perpetuate our culture by sharing it with the stranger. History teaches that this is the best procedure to follow. J.

Ancient Egypt

When Abraham visited Egypt four thousand years ago, the pyramids were already old. When they were included on the original list of the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids were the oldest wonder on the list; yet they are the only wonder from that list to survive until the present. Built as tombs and monuments to some of Egypt’s earliest kings, they have inspired awe (and bizarre theories about their history) for most of recorded history.

Like other ancient civilizations (including Sumer, Canaan, and Greece), Egypt began as a collection of city-states, sharing a common culture and language, but existing under several independent governments. Unlike other civilizations, Egypt arose in the middle of a desert. It never rains in northeastern Africa. Seasonal rain falls in east central Africa, washing down the Nile River toward the Mediterranean Sea. It brings not only water but also fertile soil to Egypt before entering the Sea. Seasons of planting and tending crops and harvesting were governed by the flooding of the Nile in Egypt, making the ancient land, in the words of Greek historian Herodotus, “the gift of the Nile.”

Eventually, the city-states of Egypt coalesced into two countries: Lower Egypt, at sea level near the Mediterranean Sea, and Upper Egypt, further south, higher in elevation but still dependent on the Nile River. Their union as one country created the central figure called Pharaoh, who was seen as a god and as a connection between divine and human forces on earth. Some of the earlier Pharaoh were buried in pyramids with all their wealth and riches. Putting that many valuable items in one prominent space was too tempting to grave robbers and thieves; eventually, Pharaohs were buried in places more easily hidden. Even then, grave robbers generally found their way into the tombs and carried away the wealth, reinvigorating the economy of Egypt and its neighbors. The economy of Egypt must have taken a terrible blow when one tomb, that of a relatively minor Pharaoh named Tutankhamen, was hidden successfully, only to be found again in 1922 AD. His treasures have remarkable value, not only for their content of jewels and precious metals, but for the historic information they have revealed about ancient Egypt. In most cases, though, the wealth of the Pharaohs was pillaged and recycled. Even large stone monuments had their original labels chiseled off and rewritten so later rulers could take credit for the boasts of their predecessors.

Egypt was protected by deserts and other natural barriers. However, it did trade with its neighbors in Africa, western Asia, and the Mediterranean Sea. It sometimes exercised political power over portions of Africa and western Asia. At other times, it was conquered by neighbors and ruled for a time by outsiders. The Hyksos came from Arabia and ruled Egypt for a time; it may have been a Hyksos Pharoah who made Joseph the son of Jacob second-of-command in Egypt following Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. Later, rulers from the south invaded and became Pharaoh’s. Egypt was eventually overrun by other world powers: first Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, then the Persian Empire, and then Alexander the Great. When Alexander died, his general Ptolemy began a dynasty of Hellenistic rulers centered in Egypt. The last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, was closely associated with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony before she died and Egypt was added to the Roman Empire.

Egyptian culture and religion developed and changed over the generations. One Pharaoh even attempted to cancel the traditional religion of Egypt, replacing all the gods with a single divine being called the Aten. Most often, though, Egypt was polytheistic. Among its many gods was Osiris, whose death and burial and resurrection was associated with the change of seasons and with the hope of human resurrection into a new world. Some historians have suggested that Christian beliefs about Jesus were shaped by stories about Osiris and similar stories from other cultures and religions. C. S. Lewis demonstrated the counter-belief that the promise of death and resurrection is even older than the myths of Egypt and other ancient civilizations. The cycle of death and resurrection is observed in seasonal changes, in the planting of seeds, tending of crops, and harvesting of mature produce. That cycle itself can be seen as a promise, built into creation, of the sacrifice and resurrection of a Savior who overcomes all enemies (including death and the grave) and grants the gift of eternal life to all who trust in him.

Recovery

Continuing to be quarantined after recovering from covid-19 resembles a long holiday weekend or a “staycation,” as they call it. I could only guess when symptoms began, so the end of the quarantine is also based on guesswork. As far as the CDC is concerned, I’m free to leave the house tomorrow; but my employer does not want me back at work until Wednesday. So the next few days will be a transition of sorts, feeling normal and doing some normal things, but not returning to the full routine yet for a few more days.

This time off has permitted me to do some additional reading and writing, as well as work around the house and yard. I have several other minor projects I hope to tackle over the next few days. In fact, this required holiday offers a glimpse into how I may budget my time when I retire. Retirement, though, is still years away. I expect to work full-time until I turn seventy for several reasons. First, Social Security is increasingly insecure because of an aging population. Second, my parents and grandparents all flourished well into their eighties. (My father is 93 and still in good health.) Third, I still expect to have talent and ideas to offer for years to come. Even when I retire, I will keep on writing, and I hope that my writing will continue to improve. I have no reason to stop working at this time.

On the other hand, facing anxiety and depression prepared me well for this covid business. I already learned how to get out of bed and get things done even when my mind and my body were saying no. I probably went to work on days I should have stayed home. But I can perform tasks adequately even when concentration and motivation are lacking. Taking it easy means diverting my energy to other activities. While the cats expect some of that time and energy to be given to them—they loved this quarantine the way they loved the whole-society quarantine a year ago—reading and writing and other stay-at-home tasks are always on the schedule, seven days a week, every week of the year.

Besides, healthy though I am, I always feel a bit off, and I find it easy to believe that I am battling some chronic disease. Lupus, Parkinson’s, Hypochondria, Crohn’s Disease: I can read the descriptions and match them to myself, but there’s always another part of my mind that brushes off the anxiety and keeps on ticking. This is why, the day after being tested positive for covid, I went out and mowed the lawn. A couple of people told me not to push it, but mowing is impossible with our machine without a fair amount of pushing. Afterward, I was able to tell people that I simply do not know the meaning of the word. When someone responds, “What word is that?” I am able to say, “I’m not sure what word, but if you said it, I wouldn’t know what it means.”

As long as I have several books at different stages of being written, I can focus on one of them and keep on writing or rewriting. I hope that, starting with this quarantine and continuing through the summer, I can break up the figurative raft of logs—the various books at different stages—and send them floating down the stream, one by one. J.

COVID report

For the past several days I have been home, diagnosed with covid, quarantined and barred from interacting face to face with the public. (But they haven’t banned me from the Internet yet!)

I repeatedly considered how much of my covid story I wanted to tell online. I am not alone—several family members are also affected—and when one of them mentioned all of us on Facebook, I (for one) was not pleased with the breach of privacy.

Let me just say, then, that several of us in the same family had the same symptoms around the same time. Some tested positive for covid. A couple tested negative. It’s possible that their test happened late enough that they had already recovered. None of us has a severe case. One of us was fully vaccinated, but that person tested positive and had the same symptoms, to the same degree, as the rest of us.

I started the month of May with a painful ear infection. I went to one of those streetside Urgent Care facilities, was diagnosed with an outer ear infection (sometimes called swimmer’s ear) and was given antibiotic drops to put in the ear. The pain went away, but I continued to feel as if the ear was blocked—a sense of fullness in that ear, and hearing loss in that ear. As a result, when I began to feel lightheaded and dizzy, with a loss of ability to concentrate, I thought the infection might have traveled to the inner ear. I was sick enough to call in sick for church on Sunday the 23rd and to call in sick for work on Monday the 24th. Since I also had a low fever that Sunday night, I thought it would be good to visit another Urgent Care facility on Monday. After a long wait, I was examined and was told that I had no ear infection, that my symptoms were probably due to TMJ—a disorder of the jaw joint that has nothing to do with infectious disease. With that diagnosis, I was sent home. They had not bothered to test me for covid.

Meanwhile, another family member with similar symptoms ended up at the emergency room because of low blood pressure. That was probably due to dehydration due to lack of appetite. But this family member also had pneumonia and had a rash from poison ivy. The hospital decided to run several tests (including checking for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever) and threw the covid test in as an afterthought. A positive result to that covid test brought me and others in for testing, and (as I say) I was one of the family members whose results came back as positive.

In other words, our several cases nearly went undetected and unreported. They could easily have been dismissed as seasonal allergies, ear infection, or a bad cold that made life hard for a few days and then left again. In fact, I have not felt terribly sick throughout this covid experience. I have been sicker before. I had shingles a few years ago, and that was ten times as bad. The biggest inconveniences from this covid experience have been the enforced quarantine at home and the long phone conversations with medical-data-gatherers who needed to interview each of us at length about when we got sick and where we had been and who else had been near us for any length of time.

My worst days of illnesses preceded my official diagnosis. In fact, the day after I was diagnosed with covid, I went out and mowed the lawn. Mowing usually takes an hour. Because I broke the job into segments and rested between segments, this mowing session lasted about two hours. But I haven’t been able to mow on schedule this spring because of all the rain, and I wanted to get the job done before the next rain and before the weather got hot. So Tuesday afternoon, while recovering from covid, I mowed.

Now that I have covid, I think I am entitled to an opinion about how the virus crisis has been handled over the past year-and-a-half. My opinion is this: those of us who were sick should be quarantined during the course of the illness. Vulnerable members of the population should be restricted for their own safety. Shutting down entire cities and countries was wrong. Trying to make everyone wear masks was wrong. Our governments, our news sources, and our opinion makers have exaggerated the importance of this sickness, and their overreaction has caused more harm than most of us were risking by living our normal lives during these past months.

Of course, I know that some people have died. I know that some have struggled with complications from the sickness. I am not belittling those facts. But we have paid too great a price for the overreaction to covid compared to the effects of the disease itself. I would rather have endured these same symptoms a year earlier and lived a normal life since—no mask requirements, no daily updates on how terrible this disease is, no concerted effort to change the way people vote so more votes could be funneled into the choice that a few activists preferred.

I already feel better, although I will not be allowed back at work for a few more days. Because I have not had the vaccination shots, I will be required to wear a mask at work for the foreseeable future, even though my endurance of the disease should provide a minimum of ninety days of immunity (and vaccination shots are not recommended for those of us who just had covid). Rules are rules, when they make sense and when they don’t. And I’m sure I will face some complaints from coworkers who feel that I put them at risk by not getting vaccinated when it was possible and by coming to work when I was in less than perfect health, even though I thought I had an ear infection and did not realize I had covid.

I am often one of the last people to do what everyone else has done. I was still using dial-up Internet service when everyone else had cable connections. I was still watching VHS tapes when everyone else had graduated from DVDs and was streaming. I may be one of the last to catch covid. I hope so; that could mean that this long national nightmare is over and that life will be allowed, finally, to return to normal. J.

The Axial Age and Israel

As I reported in this post, religious scholars tend to fall into two groups: some see religions as evolving over time, coming to more mature positions of faith, while others see religions as beginning with a common truth but straying from that truth in various directions. After choosing between those two options, scholars tend to interpret religious writings and practices according to those assumptions. They even assign dates to important events and writings based on those assumptions. The traditional dates given to writings and events in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) are rejected by advocates of evolutionary religion; they are far too early to fit the pattern that supports the evolution of religion. Redating allows evolutionary scholars to fit traditional and prophetic writings within their own historic pattern, thus perpetuating a circular argument in which the theory determines the dates and the dates support the theory.

According to the figures given in the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus from Egypt occurred about 1446 BCE. The Israelite conquest of Canaan began forty years later, about 1406 BCE. This allows about three hundred years for Bronze Age Israel under Joshua and the Judges, culminating in Samuel and his anointing of the kings, Saul and David. David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it in 957 BCE. From there we can trace the kings of Israel and of Judah, leading to the fall of Samaria (the capital of Israel) in 722 BCE and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE.

If the Exodus happened in 1446 BCE, then the monotheism of Pharaoh Ikhnaton came in the aftermath of the Exodus and was a response to the preaching of Moses and to the battles God fought against Egypt and its gods. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Ikhnaton came first and that Israel imitated his monotheism. If Zarathustra lived in Persia during the Axial Age, then he might have learned about monotheism from exiles displaced from Israel. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Zarathustra’s ideas contributed to the growth of monotheism among the Israelites and Jews. Many of the prophetic writings—even many of the writings attributed to Moses—are redated by evolutionary scholars to be created in the Axial Age. According to the traditional dates, only Ezra and Nehemiah (along with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) belong to the Axial Age. Moses and Elijah and Amos and Hosea and Isaiah preached and wrote earlier; even Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel land just before the emergence of the Axial Age in China, India, Persia, and Greece.

Individual responsibility and personal accountability are important marks of Axial Age thinking. Earlier religious movements tend to be corporate instead of individual; they see gods working with families and clans and tribes and nations and with all of creation rather than stressing individual relationships with the gods. The Hebrew Bible presents a blend of corporate religion and individual spirituality. Throughout Moses and the prophets, God sometimes deals with his people as a whole but sometimes works with people as individuals. Scholars dissect writings attributed to Moses and the prophets, trying to place some writings before the Axial Age and others within or after the Axial Age. This dissection often overlooks the structure of the texts, ignoring the unity and organization of the writings to assign their ideas to different times and communities and to insist that the final form of these writings was achieved relatively recently by anonymous editors.

The real impact of the Axial Age in Israel can be found only after the time of Ezra. The priest Ezra helped to gather the Jews around God’s Word while Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt. He read the writings of Moses to the Jews and led them in observing God’s commands. Ezra may be responsible for some of the editorial work that gathered and united the book of Psalms. He may have also gathered the writings of the Prophets and organized them into the books that are read and studied today. Ezra demanded faithfulness to God, faithfulness expressed in both communal and individual ways. Reading the ancient books of Moses, Ezra assured the Jews that these commandments and promises were as important to God’s people at his time and place as they were to the Israelites following Moses centuries earlier.

After Ezra died, Axial Age influences began to seep into the Jewish community. They were not isolated: they were first part of the Persian Empire, then part of Alexander’s Empire, then part of the Hellenistic world, encamped on the moving border between the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in Syria. Hellenistic thought was Axial Age thought, strongly flavored by Greek philosophers and scientists. Jewish scholars studied the writings of Moses and the Prophets, and they began to apply them to individual life, separating them from the shared life of the community of God’s people. They took requirements out of the Temple—such as priests who washed their hands before offering sacrifices—and applied them to life in the Jewish home. They took the requirements of the Sabbath Day and established detailed regulations describing what is allowed and what is forbidden on that day. What they were doing, they described as “building a fence around the Law.” They remembered how their ancestors had violated the covenant God made with his people on Mount Sinai. Seeing themselves as living under the same covenant, they tried to ensure that they would not displease God as their ancestors had done. Instead, they would earn his favor by careful observation of all his rules.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the midst of this Axial Age restatement of the holy covenant between God and his people. Jesus disagreed with the interpretations offered by the Hellenistic Bible experts among the Jews, people called “Pharisees” in the New Testament. Jesus demonstrated that Moses and the Prophets involved more than rules and regulations for God’s people: they offered the promise of a Savior, a personal visit from God, who would redeem his people, crushing the enemies of sin and evil and death. Jesus also claimed to be that promised Redeemer, a personal visit from God, come to claim his people and to bring them out of the wilderness into a Promised Land.

Many Jews trusted Jesus and followed him. Gentiles also came to faith in him. Experts in the Law opposed him. They resented his rejection of their interpretations of the covenant. They especially resented his promise to forgive sins, to be the Redeemer who rescues God’s people. They tried to destroy Jesus. Instead, they worked to fulfill the promises stated in Moses and the Prophets. Followers of Jesus, called Christians, preserved the Hebrew Bible, but they included with it writings of apostles who said that Jesus had fulfilled the promises of God and had created a new covenant to replace the one that was broken.

Christianity is not an Axial Age movement. In some ways, Christianity is a reaction against Axial Age thought. It restores the concept of a people of God, a community that is now called the Holy Christian Church. Yet Christianity also stresses individual responsibility and a personal relationship with God. Like Moses and the Prophets, Christian faith covers both sides of life, offering its members citizenship in God’s kingdom but also personal status as royalty in that kingdom. This new teaching, according to Jesus and his followers, is as old as the timeless plan of God, a plan of salvation that goes back to the very beginning of creation. J.

The Axial Age in Greece

The coast and islands of the northeastern Mediterranean Sea were populated by waves of Indo-European immigrants who arrived from the north. Sharing a common language (though with different dialects), culture, and religion, they designated anyone who did not speak Greek as “barbarian.” But they engaged in trade with other cultures, including Egyptians, Phoenicians, and the Minoans of Crete. Politically, the Greeks were never united until they all were captured and drawn into the Macedonian Empire by King Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Before that time, each Greek polis (or “city-state”) was independent with its own form of government, ranging from the royalty of Sparta to the democracy of Athens. Sparta had two kings, and they could not act unless they agreed with each other. The democracy of Athens included only Greek-speaking men who owned property, so it excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and many other residents. But it was the beginning of democracy as is still practiced in the world today.

The Greeks united, after a fashion, to resist the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 BCE. They also united—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily—as leagues to battle one another. Greek culture flourished in spite of their battles and wars. The Greeks of Athens and of other poleis achieved excellence in mathematics, science, architecture, sculpture, drama, history, and philosophy. Not only did Greeks know that the world is round; they measured its size fairly accurately. Although they borrowed freely from other cultures, the thinkers of Greece laid a foundation upon which western civilization firmly rests.

Confucius and the Buddha presented new Axial Age ideas without rejecting the gods and religious practices of the Chinese and Indian cultures. Zarathustra in Persia overthrew the gods in his proclamation of one god. Greek thinkers approached the world without reference to any gods. They continued to build temples to the gods and worship them; they continued to portray gods in sculpture and in drama. But Greek historians recorded events without attributing success or failure to the gods. Likewise, Greek philosophers sought to explain the material world and its processes without attributing those to the gods.

One early Greek philosopher thought that everything material is made of water. That makes sense: water can be solid, liquid, or vapor, and many things we encounter contain water. Others thought the material world consists of some other primary substances. Greeks first proposed the atomic theory, suggesting that all material things are made of tiny, unbreakable substances. Still others proposed that everything material is made out of numbers. Philosophers debated whether the material world is always at motion or whether true reality is stable and unmoving. One class of philosophers showed that motion is logically impossible. Achilles cannot defeat a tortoise in a race if the tortoise has a head start: by the time Achilles reaches the place where the tortoise started, the tortoise will have traveled to a new spot. When Achilles reaches that spot, the tortoise will have traveled further. Achilles can never catch the tortoise so long as the tortoise keeps moving. Likewise, I cannot throw a ball across the room, because the ball must reach a half-way point on its way across the room, but first it must get half-way to that point, and before that it must get half-way to that point—the ball cannot travel through an infinite number of points in a finite amount of time. (It took Newton and Leibnitz’ invention of calculus centuries later to handle concerns about traveling through infinite points of space.) Greek science did not involve observation and experimentation—that scientific method was developed in Europe during the medieval period. Greek science was a logical process that followed mental rules rather than seeking to discover natural rules.

Over time, Greek philosophy degenerated into theories of communication and rhetoric. Sophists claimed they could take either side of a dispute and win a debate—useful talents in politics and law, but not so helpful in scientific pursuit. From this community arose Socrates. He questioned experts in every field, searching for ultimate truth in the things they knew. Instead, he discovered limits to their knowledge. Socrates wanted to know what makes something good, whether that something is a song, a painting, a boat, or a man. A boat-maker can fashion a good boat and describe its goodness, but the boat-maker could not tell Socrates how the boat acquired its goodness. Especially the Sophists could not answer Socrates’ questions about language and rhetoric, about what makes something true or how to distinguish a good idea from a bad idea. By his persistence, Socrates made enemies among the Sophists and politicians and legal experts and leading citizens of Athens. They accused him of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens. Narrowly convicted, both Socrates as defender and his prosecutors were allowed to suggest a punishment. The prosecutors called for death. Socrates said that, because of what he had been doing, he deserved to have a house and regular meals charged to the public expense. The jury chose the prosecutors’ sentence. With his cooperation, Socrates was executed by poisoning.

Socrates had a student named Plato who wrote dialogues featuring the ideas and challenges of Socrates. Some are probably based on real conversations; others were likely invented by Plato to explore his own philosophical ideas. The search of Socrates for ultimate truths about what is good and true and beautiful led Plato to believe that the most real things in the world are goodness and truth and beauty. Those things we encounter in the material world merely draw their qualities from the more real world of ideas. When I write the word “dog,” each reader pictures a dog: large or small, young or old, exuberant or lazy, friendly or vicious, possessing various lengths and colors of fur, but each an example of a dog. Plato would say that they share the qualities of the idea of dog—the ultimate reality is not the individual dogs we experience and picture, but the dogness that they share. Likewise, goodness is an idea that is found in many places, but real goodness is an idea that we know through its diverse manifestations. To form a good society, we need experts who know how to approach the idea of goodness and how to express it in laws and requirements that will drive badness away and will draw goodness out of all citizens.

Plato had a student named Aristotle who disagreed. Aristotle said that the objects we encounter are real. Ideas about them, such as “good” or “dog,” are only labels we create for our own purposes; the labels themselves are not real. Aristotle had his students study the world to sort all things into categories. Dogs can be sorted into various breeds, and all dogs are among mammals, which are among animals, which are among living beings. Likewise, boats and songs and pictures can be described and labeled, sorted into categories and judged by predetermined rules to we can determine which boats and which songs and which paintings are the best.

Other schools of philosophy developed in ancient Greece. Stoics, like Buddhists, stressed non-attachment to the world. They viewed the material world as unimportant; they taught that the mind or soul escapes the body and material things at death and moves on to a higher state of being. Epicureans believed that only the material world exists. The mind and the soul, like the body, disintegrate and disperse at death. Nothing individual survives. The best we can do is enjoy life now, but not to excess. A glass of wine adds quality to the evening; drinking the entire bottle only causes problems. Both Stoics and Epicureans resisted Christian teachings about the resurrection of the body, but for different reasons. Epicureans thought that nothing remains to be regathered and raised; Stoics thought that when the mind or soul escapes the body it was better off and would not want to return to the body.

Many Christians have built their understanding of the world around Greek philosophy. Putting their trust in Jesus and believing the message of the Bible, they still approach and understand these teachings in a Greek framework, whether Platonic or Aristotelian or Stoic or Epicurean. Christian mystics often have drawn inspiration from neoplatonic expressions of ancient philosophy. Christian monastics often have justified their practices through a Stoic outlook upon the world. Christians committed to a faith-ordered life that is logic and rational draw inspiration from Aristotle’s writings. Christianity is not bound to Greek philosophy—the Gospel of Jesus Christ is available to everyone in the world, even if they were trained in Daoist or Buddhist or indigenous religious world views. J.

The Axial Age and Persia

The Persian Empire emerged suddenly during the Axial Age. It was unlike the older civilizations that had developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Indo-Europeans migrated into the highlands of what today is called Iran over the centuries, establishing small kingdoms of Medes, Persians, Elamites, and others. Cyrus, a prince of Persia, was able to establish power over his neighbors around the beginning of the Axial Age. After conquering the wealthy kingdom of Lydia (in what today is called Turkey), he led his forces into Mesopotamia and lay siege to the mighty city Babylon. According to ancient historians, Cyrus had his army divert the water of the Euphrates River into mad-made lakes so they could capture the city of Babylon by marching down the dry riverbed under the walls of the city. The book of Daniel in the Bible confirms that the city fell suddenly to the Persians. They lay claim to the entire Babylonian Empire, although they had to fight numerous battles to consolidate their control over what Babylon had previously claimed.

Cyrus died on the battlefield. His son Cambyses was fighting to retain Egypt when, according to ancient historians, he heard that his younger brother had seized the throne back home. Saying, “That’s impossible—I had my brother killed before I came to Egypt,” Cambyses rushed to return home. In his hurry, he accidently cut his leg with his own sword and eventually died of gangrene. A distant relative named Darius denounced the false younger son of Cyrus and had him killed. (The Persian historians of his time appear reluctant to consider the possibility that the son was genuine and that Darius was lying. Thus, historians have an unsolvable puzzle regarding this event in Persian history.) Taking hold of the kingdom, Darius established its borders and its administrative policies. He attempted to add European Greece to his holdings in 490 BCE; his son Xerxes led a similar invasion ten years later. Greek victories over Persian invaders are vital episodes in Greek history, though the setbacks mattered less to the Persians.

The Persian Empire was divided into satrapies. The ruling satraps were Persian, but the rest of government was locally managed. So far as people paid their taxes and did not violate major Persian laws, the Persian authorities gave them local autonomy. Local languages, religions, customs, and practices were allowed and even encouraged. Earlier empires, including the Assyrians and Babylonians, maintained control of conquered lands by displacing populations (much as the United States did to American tribes and China still does to its citizens today). Persians even allowed people like the Jews to return home, rebuild their cities and temples, and honor their gods. To allow rapid communication through the empire (and rapid movement of the Persian army when needed), the Persian government built highways throughout the lands they controlled. These highways were used by travelers and merchants, beginning a network of trade that would soon link major civilizations of three continents. Government messengers would travel these highways, exchanging horses at each station along the way; this practice, revived in the United States, was known as the Pony Express. Advisors to the government were called Magi. Like the Cabinet of the United States presidency, magi were experts in a variety of areas, including science, history, social studies, religious texts, and law. Their influence as a class of advisors to kings and government officials would remain long after the Persian Empire had fallen to pieces.

The official religion of the Persian Empire was Zoroastrianism. Founded by a man known both as Zoroaster and Zarathustra, this religion has always taught that only one god exists and that all competing gods are liars and demons, not truly gods. Zoroastrianism acknowledges the existence of a secondary evil being who opposes the true god; people in the world must choose between supporting the good or the evil. Support for the good includes piety, unselfishness, care for neighbors, and care of the environment. Support for the evil includes ignorance about god, selfishness, abuse of other people, and destruction of the environment. Those who have supported the good find, at death, that they travel a broad avenue to Paradise; those who have supported the evil find that avenue narrow—in some cases, as narrow as the blade of a knife—and they risk falling off the avenue into unending fire. Because the world currently is balanced between good and evil, each human choice influences the outcome of the world. However, most Zoroastrians are convinced that, in the end, good will overcome evil.

Respect for the environment includes maintaining the purity of the elements—earth, water, air, and fire. Various fire ceremonies are part of Zoroastrian practice. A person who dies cannot be buried (polluting the earth), burned (polluting air and fire), or thrown into the sea (polluting the water). Instead, their bodies are left on platforms to be consumed by birds of the air, nourishing nature and recycling the physical part of human existence while increasing the likelihood of a safe journey to Paradise.

Some historians identify Zarathustra as an Axial Age teacher; others say he lived centuries before the Axial Age. Darius appears to be the first Persian Emperor to endorse Zoroastrianism formally. If Zarathustra was not born until around the time of Cyrus, he may well have been influenced in his beliefs by Israelites relocated into his vicinity by the Assyrian Empire. If he lived much earlier, his ideas may have helped shape Hebrew belief, thus contributing to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings.

“Paradise” is a loan-word from the Hebrew language. So is “Satan”—Satan is the prosecuting attorney in a Persian court of law. (For Christians, Jesus is a defense attorney, an Advocate before the Father.)  The images of Paradise for the good and unending fire for the evil have been adopted from Zoroastrianism into Christian and Muslim thought. One branch of Christianity, called Manichaeism, deliberately blended Zoroastrian and Christian beliefs. Manichaeism was rejected by early Christians (including Augustine of Hippo, who in his earlier years had been a Manichee). It was seen as placing too much responsibility for human salvation and for the world’s future condition on human behavior and decisions, rather than trusting the promises of an Almighty God and the victory won by Christ on the cross. Modern Christian preachers who stress the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell and who call upon their listeners to choose between them reflect Manichaean theology rather than that of the Bible. J.