Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend has become the unofficial beginning of summer on the American calendar. Solstices and equinoxes mean nothing to the vast majority of Americans. The hundred days from Memorial Day through Labor Day coincide with summer weather, with students free from school, and with a more relaxed schedule in many of our businesses and our personal lives. With attention focused on family and community gatherings, on picnics and barbecues and trips to the beach or the lake, we sometimes forget the purpose of Memorial Day on our calendars. But social media—including WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok—provides ample opportunities for us to remind one another what Memorial Day means and why we observe it every year.

When the Civil War began in 1861, people on both sides of the conflict expected it to end quickly. Both sides were convinced that they were right, and they believed that a few battles would make their point and that they would be able to return to their normal lives. They did not realize that the war would drag on for four years. They did not realize that hundreds of thousands of soldiers would die on the battlefield during those four years. Only when the war ended did the survivors begin to comprehend the cost of war—the senseless violence, killing, and destruction that happens in every war.

Most citizens of the United States are against war. In the twentieth century, the nation was dragged into two world wars, unwilling to get involved, but resolving to defend liberty and freedom, resolved to oppose tyranny and oppression. The same attitude kept the United States involved in the Cold War with its assorted battlegrounds; after the Cold War ended, a War on Terror also engaged the nations. Americans did not fight to capture new land or enlarge our borders. Americans did not fight to prove that our country is great. Americans fought to preserve our freedom and to defeat the enemies of freedom and justice in the world. It takes two sides to fight a war, but it only takes one side to start a war. Our leaders did not go looking for wars to fight: our leaders reluctantly accepted the duty of opposing enemies that were already threatening us and our way of life.

War is always wrong. War is a picture and a consequence of sin and evil in the world. Just wars are fought to resist sin and evil, but every war begins through sin and evil. Jesus told his followers that wars and rumors of wars would continue in human history until the Day of the Lord, the Day that he reveals his glory and completes the work that he accomplished on Good Friday and Easter. Every war reminds God’s people of the ongoing spiritual war between God and evil. A holy angel rebelled against God and brought evil into God’s perfect creation. Other angels joined in his rebellion, and all humanity took the devil’s side. When we do what we want instead of doing what God wants, we join the devil’s side in his war against God.

God could abandon the world to sin and evil. God could destroy the world and create a new world. Instead, God chooses to reclaim sinners and to rescue the victims of evil. For that reason, God entered the world to fight the enemy alongside his people. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God but is also fully human. He resisted the devil’s temptations to sin. He refused to break the commandments of his Father or to leave his Father’s plan. Jesus became a victim of evil. Betrayed and abandoned by his followers, Jesus was a victim of unjust government. The Roman authority said that Jesus was innocent, but still signed the order for his execution. Roman soldiers abused and tortured the Son of God. Finally, like many soldiers from many wars, Jesus died and was buried.

For most soldiers, death and burial is the end of the story. But Jesus rose again on the third day. The women who went to His tomb for a memorial day instead found an empty tomb. Angels told the women that Jesus had risen, as he had promised. For forty days, Jesus proved to his followers that he had risen from the dead. Christians do not have a Memorial Day to remember the death and burial of Jesus: Christians have Easter celebrations to remember his resurrection and his victory over sin, over evil, over death and the grave. One day of the year is called Easter Sunday, but every gathering of Christians is an Easter celebration, a joyful reminder that Jesus is risen and that his enemies are defeated.

Those defeated enemies include the devil who rebelled against God. They include the sinful world that joins the devil’s rebellion. They include my sins and your sins, all the times that we break the commands of God and enlist in the devil’s army. They include death itself, the final result of sin and rebellion. Jesus defeated all the enemies. He defeated them alone, without any help from us. But he includes us in his victory. We are “more than conquerors,” because we receive the results of Christ’s victory without having fought alongside Jesus, without having contributed in any way to his victory.

On Memorial Day, we remember the soldiers who died defending our freedom. We rejoice in the liberty and justice we have as citizens of the United States. We also remember the soldier who died and was buried, but who rose again to assure us of his victory. Ascended into heaven, he sits at the right hand of God the Father—not a location somewhere in the sky, but a position of authority. Jesus runs the universe. He is present everywhere. As he promised, he is with his people always, especially when his people gather in his name. He continues to forgive sins. He continues to rescue victims of evil. He continues to share his victory with all who trust his promises.

Jesus will appear in glory to make everything new. Christians wait patiently for that Day. But, as we wait, we already have hope and joy and peace, knowing that our enemies have been defeated. We are confident of our place in God’s new creation. We already are new creations, being transformed into the image of Jesus our Savior. This also we remember on Memorial Day weekend and every day of our lives. J.

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A grief observed

Wednesday afternoon I received word that my sister had died.

She was in her mid-sixties, generally in good health. She was vacationing with family—her husband, daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren. Tuesday night she was not feeling well, and she decided to lie down. They said that they would take her to a fast-care clinic in the morning if she didn’t feel better. But she never woke up.

My parents had just the two of us. Our mom died a few years ago, in her eighties. Our dad is still alive, ninety-four years old and still doing well. We were close at times, more separated at others. In her teen years, she went through a rebellious stage that led to a lot of fights between her and our parents. She didn’t finish college, but met a man there and married him. They lived in his childhood house and hometown for a few years; then he was offered a better job and they moved to the suburbs of a larger city. At one time, their house was a summer vacation stop for my household. They then also became the hosts of the family gathering at Christmastime—usually focused on the weekend between Christmas and the New Year.

Those family gatherings became less and less comfortable each year for the past several years. Our political convictions were diverging and becoming firmer. Walking into their house was stressful, hearing CNN at high volume (because my brother-in-law has become hard of hearing) and being forced to endure the propaganda much of the time we were there.

Then came COVID. My sister was proud of the way she kept her immediate family—from her aged father to the youngest grandchild—safe in a “family bubble.” Those of us outside the bubble felt bad for my dad in particular, as he was denied the opportunity even to take a walk in his neighborhood and visit with the friends he recently had made there. Of course the traditional Christmas visit was canceled in 2020. Then came the vaccines, and fitness to visit the family was defined according to vaccine status.

Social media was the worst. My sister shared every meme that came her way if it promoted wearing masks, staying away from other people, or getting shots according to the mainstream-media-approved schedule. She also reposted messages promoting socialism, “woke” politics, and general government control over people’s lives. I was already being careful not to risk my job by sharing messages on Facebook that could be seen as contrary to my employer’s standards of decency and correct-think. I didn’t want to engage in a Facebook war with family, so I developed the habit of scrolling over her posts. Once, when my cousin asked me why I wasn’t saying much on Facebook, I told her that staying away from Facebook was good for my blood pressure.

I feel twinges of guilt that I allowed politics to create a rift in the family, that I didn’t try harder to keep in touch and to find ways to bridge the gap that had appeared. At the same time, family connections are a two-way street, and I remind myself that her stubbornness created at least fifty percent of the separation. To be honest, the sense of relief that came from knowing that we would not be spending time at her place during Christmas 2020 signaled that allowing such a separation may have been healthier than struggling to bridge the gap, to seek common ground, to hold the family together in spite of our contrary convictions.

One of the rules of our American culture says that one says only good things about the dead. My sister truly was a loving and caring person. She sacrificed endlessly for the good of her family and her church. She worked hard to provide the people in her life with many things that she felt would be good for them. Even if her service was as much a burden upon those being served as it was on herself, she always meant well. She will be missed by many people, and I am among those people.

Some family members are part of our life through the accident of birth. Other family members we choose as we pas through life. In either case, the day finally comes when death separates us from the family we love. For my sister, that separation came swiftly, without extended pain and suffering, and for that I am glad. All of us left behind are sorry to see her go. We are comforted by the promise that she now is among the saints, waiting in Paradise for the Day of Resurrection. We are comforted by knowing that we will rise again to live forever in the kingdom of our God, reunited as members of his family, and celebrating together at his heavenly feast. Today’s sorrow is passing, but the joy of heaven is forever. Today’s regrets darken the night, but a new Day will dawn. At the resurrection reunion, full harmony will prevail and all painful differences will be forgotten. The glory that will be revealed far exceeds the troubles of today. 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.

Like newborn infants

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of a baby who was left on the steps of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris the Second Sunday of Easter. The baby was found and adopted by a priest, who gave the baby a name derived from the Latin name for that day. The story of Quasimodo is not much of an Easter story. It has more sorrow than joy, more tragedy than triumph. Yet its origins link the novel to the life of the Church, and as such the story can be used to illustrate and celebrate the Christian season of Easter.

But a few things must be explained. When I was a boy and heard that the story of “the Hunchback of Notre Dame” would be shown on television, I assumed that the movie would be about football. I knew that Notre Dame had a football team (confusing the university in Indiana, USA, with the cathedral in Paris, France). I guessed that hunchback was a football position, something like quarterback and halfback and fullback. I did not expect priests and gypsies to be part of the story. But I saw the movie; I have read the book several times since then. Quasimodo and Esmeralda are as meaningful to me as the three musketeers or Christine Daae. Classic French literature is a joy, even if its sentences and paragraphs require more effort to consume than our post-Hemingway American novels and stories.

Other people might question what is meant by “the Second Sunday of Easter.” The traditional Christian calendar assigns more than a day to Easter—the Easter season is a week of weeks, forty-nine days, ending on the fiftieth day which is the festival of Pentecost, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit. During those seven weeks, especially on the seven Sundays, the resurrection continues to be celebrated—not with colored eggs and candy, but with Bible readings and hymns and sermons and prayers that remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ and apply his victory to our lives today.

Like all the Sundays and holidays on the Christian calendar, the Sundays of Easter each have a special “praise song” called an Introit. The words of the Introit are taken from the Bible, mostly from the book of Psalms, although other verses of praise are also used. The Introit for the Second Sunday of Easter begins with a quote from I Peter 2:2-3: “Like new-born infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The Latin words for “like new-born infants” are “Quasi Modo Geniti”—hence the name given to the baby hunchback, Quasimodo.

The Quasimodo theme, though, is not about human deformities or about dancing gypsies. Quasi Modo Geniti speaks of new life—the new life Christians receive through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his work, Christians are born again. Our old sinful selves are killed and buried with Christ; our new selves are raised with Christ and live with Christ forever. In his letter to the Romans, chapter six, the apostle Paul links this death and burial and resurrection to Baptism. Therefore, traditional Christians claim to be “born again,” not because of any prayer they prayed or invitation they gave to Jesus, but because of his death and burial and resurrection, because of baptism, and because of the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Because God is outside of time and unlimited by time, his people can be new every day. Every day we can be born again; every day we can be “like new-born infants.” Every song of praise is a new song sung to the Lord, even if we sang it before, even if Christians have been singing it for centuries. The commandment to love one another is a new commandment every day. Christ spoke it as a new commandment the night he was betrayed, but it had already been spoken in the past by Moses and the prophets. It is new because Christians are new—new-born infants, born every day through the resurrection of Christ and through his forgiveness, his restoration, and his transforming power.

Two years ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame was damaged by fire. Today it is being rebuilt. That holy place, dedicated to God, is both old and new, transformed even as each Christian is transformed through the work of Jesus. The fire of God’s judgment is quenched by the water of his Sacrament, washing away our sins and adopting us into God’s family. Jesus endured that fire for us on the cross. Jesus provided us with victory. Jesus makes us new every day—born again by his grace as children of the heavenly Father and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. We have tasted that the Lord is good. We rejoice in his goodness forever. J.

Easter hymn

Christ is arisen

From the grave’s dark prison.

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ with comfort lights our eyes. Alleluia!

All our hopes were ended

Had Jesus not ascended

From the grave triumphantly

Our never-ending life to be. Alleluia!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ, our comfort, fills the skies. Alleluia!

Traditional German Easter hymn, ca. 1100.

Ransom (a story based on Matthew 20:28)

Once a good and wise king ruled over a prosperous land. This king loved all his subjects equally, whether they were rich or poor, educated or not, whether the were farmers or storekeepers or shoemakers or blacksmiths or soldiers in the king’s army. The king’s great love for each of the people in his kingdom was deep and unselfish, and in return all the people loved him. Whatever he directed them to do, they did gladly. They did not complain to pay their taxes, the share of their work claimed by the king.

Not all remained peaceful, though, in this kingdom. One of the king’s knights, a leader among the warriors, held anger and jealousy in his heart. Although the king knew that this knight was thinking of rebellion, justice did not permit the king to act until the knight had first rebelled. The knight knew that the king was a just man, and he used this fact to his own advantage.

The evil knight’s rebellion began this way: he started telling lies to the common people of the kingdom, those who loved and served the king in their farms and stores and smith shops. With his lies the knight suggested that the king had been unfair to his people, that his laws did not have in mind what was best for the people, that the king did not truly want the people to have everything that belonged to them.

The people believed the lies of the evil knight and began to disobey the laws of their king. They took for themselves those things that the king had told them not to take; and, in many other ways, they rebelled against their king. The war had begun, and already the knight had captured the citizens of the kingdom.

The castle guards were divided when they heard about the revolution. Some of them joined forces with the evil knight, but many more remained faithful to their king. When fighting broke out inside the castle, the king and his son successfully fought off the evil knight and his followers. They drove the rebels out of the castle and lifted the drawbridge. From that time, the evil knight was no longer allowed in the castle.

Other knights served their king faithfully. They saw that the evil knight and his allies remained alive outside the castle. They also saw that the common people had joined his side, because they loved to hear and believe his lies. The faithful knights were angry; they asked for permission to attack the rebels and complete their victory. Nevertheless, as the king looked out at the common people, he realized how they had been deceived, and he loved them. He called his son to him, and together they planned a way to save the common people from the evil knight. They planned a way to spare them from the punishment demanded by the law for anyone who rebelled against the king.

The prince was the only son of the king, and father and son loved each other more than any other father and son of any time in history. Therefore, when the knights of the castle heard what the father and son had decided to do to save the people of the kingdom from the consequences of their revolution, the knights were aghast. Though they did not doubt the wisdom of their king and of their prince, still they shook their heads and wondered how this unusual plan would end.

Some time later, the prince quietly left his father’s side and slipped out of the castle. The knights watched as he went out into the town, dressed as a common worker of the kingdom. They wondered what he would say to the common people and how they would respond. They wondered if any people would recognize the prince, and, if so, how such people would treat him. They wondered what would happen when the prince found that knight who had begun the rebellion against the king and had led all the people astray.

In the weeks that followed, the prince spoke to many people about the king. He explained the laws of the king and showed how all these laws were for the good of the people. When the people heard his words and were sorry for their rebellion, the prince promised that soon the king would provide a way for their guilt to be removed. He promised that they would be restored to the kingdom at no cost to themselves. Many people rejoiced because of the prince’s words.

The prince did not travel with empty pockets. He used the riches of his father to feed the hungry and to help people with their needs. He did not give to everyone he met, but only to those who called to him for help or whose needs were obvious. He had not come to give away his father’s money, but when he saw how the lies of the evil knight were driving the people his father loved into debt and despair, he was quick to reach out a helping hand.

Some people recognized him. A small group of men traveled with him as he crossed the kingdom. They followed him, not merely because he was giving away money and saying nice things, but because they saw nobility in him and they remembered the love of his father and how much they had once loved the king.

Their goals in following him still were not entirely noble. They dreamed that when the prince would finally take control of the kingdom from the evil knight and the other rebels, they would be lifted up in rank and would enjoy the privilege of being right-hand advisors to the ruling monarch. Some even spoke to the prince, asking him to grant them such favors, since they had been following him so faithfully.

Gently, the prince reminded them how and why he had come. He had not stepped out among the people of the kingdom as royalty to be worshipped and adored, but he had come to them as the servant of the people. His goal was to bring the people back to his father. The prince encouraged his followers to imitate him in this: not to try to be men and women in authority, forcing others to serve them, but to show the kind of nobility the prince showed, serving all the people and meeting their needs. This, the prince said, was the kind of life his father wanted the people of the kingdom to live.

Many people loved the prince, whether they guessed as his identity or not. One group of people, though, hated the prince: the judges of the kingdom. These judges had claimed to be fighting the lies of the evil knight, but actually they had been helping the knight in his rebellion. The judges continued to teach the king’s laws, but they made these laws sound harsher and stricter than the king had ever meant. They offered no hope of forgiveness to those who had broken the laws. The judges boasted that they were keeping the laws of the king. Rather than going to him for guidance, though, they changed his laws to suit their ideas. After the lying knight himself, they were the king’s worst enemies.

The judges had never dreamed that the prince would leave the castle to come among the people. When they saw him, they were furious. They began to look for opportunities to get him out of their way, because they knew that his presence and his teaching would turn the people against them. No doubt some of them recognized the prince and chose to fight him all the same; others convinced themselves that this was not the prince but only an imposter, and they told themselves that they were doing the king a favor by opposing him.

The judges went to the evil knight for help to fight against the prince. The knight, of course, hadn’t the slightest doubt that this really was the prince. All the same, he first tried to tempt the prince to leave his father’s plan and join in the rebellion. When that attempt failed, the evil knight looked for a way to put the prince to death.

The friends of the prince were appalled when they heard how he planned to fight against the evil knight. When the prince warned his friends how the judges would join the fight against him, and when he told his friends what the evil knight was going to do to him, the friends of the prince were very frightened. This was not what they expected of their prince! He spoke of a Ransom, and they were terrified. Because they trusted him, though, they remained with him.

Finally the great day came, the day that the king and the prince had discussed long before. The judges set their trap for the prince, and the prince voluntarily walked into their trap. His friends ran away in their fright, leaving him alone in the hands of his enemies. The evil knight laughed, delighted to have the son of the king in his power.

On that day the evil knight stood before the castle of the king with the prince at his side. “Look, O King,” he shouted, “here I have your son. Are you willing to pay a ransom for his life?” The knight heard no answer from the castle.

“I already have your kingdom in my hands,” the knight boasted. “Now I have your son whom you love so much. I will return him to you, O King, if you promise to let me keep your kingdom and all the people outside your castle.” Again, the knight heard only silence.

“I have offered you the chance to pay a ransom for your son,” the knight called. “You have paid nothing. If I kill your son, the kingdom will remain mine, for no one else in all this kingdom is strong enough to take it from me.” The faithful knights inside the castle boiled in anger, but they obeyed their king and did not reply.

When he still heard no answer, the evil knight commanded that the prince be killed. He left the body at the gates to the castle and rode away, thinking that the kingdom was finally his.

To the amazement of the knight and of all the people of the kingdom, the story did not end here. The king called his son whom he loved back to life; and the evil knight discovered that in killing the prince, he had destroyed himself. No longer were the common people forced to follow him, to believe his lies, to join his rebellion. Rather than paying his kingdom as a ransom to save his son, the father gave his son as a ransom to recover his kingdom.

The king now sent messengers throughout the kingdom to announce that any person who dared to disobey the king’s laws deserved to die, but that the king’s son had already died in that person’s place. Any friend of the prince would be declared innocent of rebellion, because the prince had already paid the price for guilt, enough to cover the guilt of every person in the kingdom.

Many days were required for the messengers to carry this news to all the villages and farms and homes in the kingdom. When the last messenger had delivered his message and everyone in the kingdom had heard the king’s decree of forgiveness through his son’s death, then the king stood for judgment. The prince stood at the king’s side, and he called for all his friends to join him. When the king looked out at his kingdom and saw all those who still believed the lies of the evil knight, all those who refused to be friends of the prince, he was angry. He sent his faithful knights out to slaughter every one of the rebels who had refused their chance to be forgiven by the king. When he looked at his son and the many people who called themselves friends of the prince, the king was glad. He arranged a grand banquet for the prince and for all his friends, and he declared a holiday to be celebrated throughout the entire kingdom.

Though the time of the rebellion seemed long, it was really only a short time for the king, his son, and all the friends of his son. The faithful knights of the kingdom quickly restored the kingdom to its former peace and prosperity. The many men and women and children who had been named friends of the prince lived in this kingdom for a time so long that it couldn’t be measured.

A national tragedy

Yesterday, January 28, was the thirty-fourth anniversary of the space shuttle disaster. Seven astronauts died when their ship exploded seventy-three seconds after lift-off. The memory of this event gives poignant context to the tragic news from this past weekend, the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and several friends in a helicopter crash.

The death of a celebrity is always major news, especially when that celebrity is still young and active. Whether it’s a shooting, a drug overdose, a suicide, or a vehicular crash, the shock of the sudden loss becomes an international event. People come together in their grief, even though they never met the deceased. These heroic figures have become part of our lives. Their mortality reminds us of our own mortality. And, I suspect, we transfer the grief of our personal losses onto the larger event. If we are privately mourning the loss of a family member or a friend, or if we are living surrounded by troubled lives, the chance to join with millions in sorrow over death brings a cathartic relief to our hearts.

I’m a little too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy. Most people over sixty can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard the news of his death. Many of today’s college students are too young to remember the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For them, that event is merely one more episode in history, like Pearl Harbor and the Maine and the Alamo.

In my novel I Remember Amy, the main characters talk about national tragedy the night of the Challenger explosion. Here is an excerpt from that book:

“If only for a day or two, the world seems so different after something like that happens,” I commented.

“But it usually is only a day or two,” you reminded me. “Except for the family and the closest friends, most of us have gotten over it and gone back to life even by the day of the funeral. I promise you that, by the weekend, nothing will seem any different than it was yesterday or the day before.”

“You’re right, of course; and I guess that’s the way it should be. We can’t go on thinking about all the bad things that happen, or we’ll be overwhelmed by sorrow and loss. But it seems as though some of these things should change us more than they do.”

“Some of them are too big to change us. If they don’t happen to us, or to the people we love, they really don’t have any reason to change us, not even for a day or two. I think,” you added, with wisdom beyond your years, “that sometimes we save up the emotion of our big personal losses and hurts, and we let it pour out at a time like this, when everyone is shocked and hurting. Then we can hurt together; and then, after a day or two, we’re all allowed to feel better again. It’s our way of letting go of our personal pain, to be able to share it on a day like today.”

In 1986 I wrote a song—“Keep Flying High”—to commemorate the seven astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion. A few years ago, when my mother had just died, I found comfort in singing that song and dedicating it to her memory. However it happens, death remains the enemy. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. But Jesus went on to conquer death and to share his victory with all who trust in him. Remembering Kobe Bryant, or any other celebrity we have lost to death, we find true comfort in the victory of Easter and in our guarantee of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. J.

A new man from head to toe

I have a radio in my car. I like to hear music while I’m driving. The station I’ve chosen plays songs from the last forty years. I’d like the station even more if it expanded the selection to the last sixty or seventy years, but I enjoy most of the songs it plays. Their DJs chatter a bit too much for my tastes, but on the other hand the music is free.

Of course nothing is truly free. Someone has to pay the costs of running a radio station, and that someone consists of sponsors. In between the songs I like are advertisements trying to make me discontent with my life. They seek to create a need that they then can satisfy by selling me their product. Our national economy depends heavily upon this creation of needs and desires, along with the sale of items to meet those needs and satisfy those desires.

So the radio sponsors want to remake me from head to toe. One warns me of hair loss and promises to stop and reverse the loss of my hair. Another offers to improve my hearing so I will know what I’ve been missing. A third offers eye surgery so I will no longer need glasses or contacts. A dentist’s office offers me a better smile, assuring me that people who smile more are happier and live longer. Yet another sponsor offers to remove pockets of fat, leaving me looking younger and fitter. Still another criticizes my wardrobe, promising to interview me about the clothing I like and send packages of clothing to my home—I only have to pay for what I like; I can send the rest back at no cost. Finally, one sponsor assumes that I am miserable because of foot pain; this sponsor says my life can be fuller and happier if I buy foot supports at their store.

I’m glad that these services exist for people who want them and need them. We all need dentists, and a few people need foot supports. But on the whole, I’m content with my body. I know that Christian stewardship includes caring for the body God created. I keep it clean, eat properly, and try to get enough exercise. But no radio ad is going to persuade me to spend money to reverse my hair loss, fix my eyes, or fill my closet with a whole new wardrobe. I accept the way I look. So far as I know, my appearance does not frighten animals or small children. So I think I’ll keep my money until I spend it on things that matter more to me.

After all, I only get to use this body for a lifetime. Some day it will be dead and buried, and I won’t be using it any more. After that a Day will come when it will rise, healed of all its problems, and then I will have it forever. It will be new from head to toe, and in the new creation nothing will ever go wrong with this body.

So I do not need to envy the full head of hair other men sport, nor their 20-20 vision, nor their fancy clothes. The Bible tells us not to covet. Advertisers have different ideas about coveting, but my confidence is in the Lord, who promises me a brand-new resurrected body at no cost to myself. J.

Fire at Notre Dame

During the holiest week on the Christian calendar, one of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world was badly damaged by an accidental fire. Over the years, many church buildings and houses of worship have been damaged and destroyed by fire: sometimes accidental fire, sometimes fire caused by lightning, sometimes arson, and sometimes acts of war. But yesterday’s fire at Notre Dame of Paris will be remembered more than most church fires because of the history of the building, because of its status as a landmark in Paris, and because of its beauty. Citizens of Paris and of France mourn the loss, as do many people around the world. Roman Catholics and other Christians mourn the loss, but so do many people who are not Christians. Already large amounts of money are being promised to rebuild what was lost and to restore what was damaged.

A few people might say that the money would be better spent meeting the needs of the poor or spreading the news of the gospel to all nations. That feeling has always existed within the Church. When a woman anointed Jesus with perfume, his disciples grumbled about the waste, but Jesus responded, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 13:8-9). Jesus accepts the artwork created to honor him as he accepts all sincere worship from his people. The glory of God and the gift of salvation through Christ is proclaimed by cathedrals with statues and stained glass windows as well as by humble preachers in humble surroundings.

But what of the commandment to make no graven images? What of the sin of the golden calf? Idols are works of religious art, but they have a purpose: they are meant to capture the divine and to make the divine serve human purposes. God does not oppose all religious artwork: the same God who banned graven images and despised the golden calf also told Moses how to make the ark of the covenant, including the mercy seat with its two cherubim. The sin is not in the work of art; the sin is in the intent of the people, whether they wish to honor God, or whether they wish to honor themselves and establish control over God.

God designed a tabernacle to travel with the Israelites in the wilderness so his dwelling would be in their midst. King Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem based on the pattern of the tabernacle so God would dwell in the midst of his people, even though the entire universe cannot contain the Lord. Imagine the heartache and despair of God’s people when Solomon’s temple was destroyed at the end of a long siege by the Babylonians in 586 BC. But God worked in history so his people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The second temple was destroyed by Roman forces in 70 AD. Jesus prophesied that the temple would be leveled, with no two stones atop one another, and this was fulfilled when Roman soldiers pried apart the stones of the ruined temple to gather the gold that had melted and flowed between the stones.

Forty years before the destruction of the second temple, Jesus entered that temple and drove out the moneychangers and the merchants of sacrificial animals. When temple authorities asked Jesus who gave him the right to do these things, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again” (John 2:19). “But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). For the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), just as he made his dwelling in the tabernacle and in the temple. The human body of Jesus is the ultimate temple, the dwelling of the Lord, the one point of access that people have to the true God.

What happened to that body, that temple? It was arrested, accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was slapped, beaten, spit upon, and handed over to the Romans. It was scourged, mocked, tortured, and killed. It was nailed to a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem and left to die in the darkness of Good Friday. Yet, as Jesus promised, on the third day it was raised, restored, healed, and made alive, never to die again.

The fire at Notre Dame reminds Christians of the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday. I hope and I expect that Christians will gather in or near the ruined cathedral this Good Friday and will hear again the scriptures that describe the destruction of the true Temple, the body of Christ the Lord. I hope and I expect that the same Christians will return to the cathedral Easter morning and will hear and celebrate the scriptures that describe the resurrection of the true Temple. Wherever Christians gather this Friday and this Sunday, they will speak, not of a beautiful building damaged by fire, but of a beautiful Savior crucified and risen. May the fire at Notre Dame be a witness to the world of the Passion of our Lord and of his victory over all evil. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #2: are accounts of the miracles of Jesus (especially his own resurrection) only retelling older myths and legends?

Many cultures and religions have produced stories than contain elements like those which skeptics regard as unbelievable in the Bible. There are talking animals, miraculous healings, control of the weather, even the death and resurrection of the hero. Why do Christians regard the Bible’s accounts as reliable and true when we do not accept similar stories from other sources? How is the story of Jesus different from that of King Arthur or of Robin Hood?

These questions are not new. Skeptics noticed such similarities already in the 1600s, a time period they called the Enlightenment. Thinkers in Europe were willing to accept the moral code of the Bible even while they discounted all the miracles it describes. Out of this approach came a philosophy called Deism. Deists say that God is responsible for creating a world, for giving it natural laws and moral laws, but they insist that God is no longer involved in his creation. Like a watchmaker, he assembled the pieces and started the machinery, and he has since stepped away. From Deism only a single step was needed in the nineteenth century to advocate the idea of evolution, that living things gradually change over time, adjusting to the environment, and that no belief in God is required to explain everything that exists.

The study of biology includes the idea of evolution, and so does the study of religion. Since the Enlightenment, a few scholars have suggested that religion began in primitive humanity out of awe toward the natural world and a desire to explain things that happened. Beginning with a sense of spirits in every tree and river and mountain, humanity began to develop stories about gods. The first monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, were further steps away from primitive thought, only to be further enhanced by Christianity and Islam. Deism and atheism are viewed as the final steps on that road of progress.

Far more people believe that the earliest people knew the true God and that the many religions of the world grew out of distortions and devilish manipulations of that one true religion. Conservative Christians and observing Muslims share that belief in a primal true religion and in many paths of de-evolution. Neither approach is more scientific or more reasonable; each of them has many loyal adherents.

One of the most famous works describing the evolution of religion and the similar accounts found in various religions is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. First published in 1890, Frazer’s book describes many stories and ceremonies from all over the world. He presents numerous examples of human sacrifice, either done in reality or feigned to act out a story. Many Christians, Including C.S. Lewis, have responded to Frazer’s suggestion that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of many versions of the same ancient story.

First, to say that the earlier versions of a hero who dies and returns to life cancels the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection is equivalent to saying that ancient accounts of travelers such as Jason and the Argonauts and Odysseus disprove the accounts of Columbus’ four trips across the Atlantic Ocean. The existence of the earlier stories does not speak against the truth of a similar historic event. In fact, the many versions of the story of death and resurrection of a god or a hero might confirm the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, since it appears that people all over the world expected such an event to occur at some time.

Second, we see Old Testament accounts of what Jesus would do being shared since the day of the first sin, when Adam and Eve were told that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head. It comes as no surprise that distorted versions of that promise would appear all over the world as religion de-evolved among various cultures. C.S. Lewis presented this thought—that the promise of a killed and risen Savior was hidden in the hearts of people everywhere and appeared in various forms and appearances all over the world. One could go further and suggest that when Abraham and Isaac acted out the sacrifice of a son by his father (Genesis 22), they were preparing their own family to believe in the coming Savior. Their Canaanite neighbors, however, got the wrong idea from this event and began sacrificing their own children to gods.

Third, the death and burial and resurrection them is often associated with agriculture. Persephone disappeared into the underworld, prompting autumn and winter; when she returned, she brought spring, and summer followed. The common religious themes of a hero who dies but then returns to life could be drawn from the life of the land, planting and tending and harvesting the crop each year. One could argue that the image of Jesus dying on a cross and rising to life again echoes these ancient agricultural stories. One could also argue that the natural and agricultural pattern was set by a God who already knew what he must do to redeem sinners and to reconcile them to himself. He planned the death and resurrection of his Son to happen in the springtime precisely so nature would be telling the story in its own way while the center truth of the story—the sacrifice of Jesus and his return to life—were happening in Jerusalem. (And the annual celebration of this sacrifice and resurrection likewise correspond to the change in seasons, not by coincidence, but by divine plan.)

As I wrote yesterday, the career of Jesus is linked in its earliest descriptions to historical times and figures. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians some twenty years after Jesus died on a cross and rose again from the dead, Paul gave a list of witnesses to that resurrection, most of whom were still alive. (For cultural reasons, Paul omitted the women who first saw Jesus but included the men.) His assertions could have been disproved at that time, and Christianity would have been stomped out before it had started. If Christianity had arisen in the British Isles or in Persia, describing events in Jerusalem, we would have much reason for doubt. But the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus was killed. If the account of his resurrection was false, the evidence would have been easy to produce. The inability of enemies of the Christian faith to counter its key event with proof of the lie proclaims the truth that Christ indeed has risen from the dead.

Later this week, I will discuss the historical documents that describe this resurrection. J.