Adventures in Athens – Sex, Imagery, and Religion

Religion and sexuality have been closely related in most cultures of the world throughout history. As a result, the images and vocabulary of human sexuality have often been used to express, and to experience, religion.

Priorities differ. Near the end of our time in Greece, I wanted to see the battlefield of Marathon, where the Greeks defeated the Persians in 490 BC. Marathon is an hour’s drive from Athens, and all that remains is a burial mound in a large field, and a few historical displays. Anna wanted to buy presents for friends and family, admittedly a higher priority. So I went to rent a car and Anna visited the Dimotiki Agora (Public Marketplace). Anna likes to shop, and is good at it. Amidst the panoply of scarves, table runners, wooden spoons, and other treasures, Anna encountered a rack of large, brightly painted, wooden penises, also known as phallic symbols. Amused, she took a photograph, and finished her shopping. I joined her at the market, and she joined me for the drive to Marathon.

Sex is power. Sexual imagery is present in all the world’s religious traditions, and pervasive in some. Male Australian aborigines sang a sexually explicit song to attract young women. [1]  Sexual imagery is pervasive in the major Eastern religions. Hinduism sees men as fire and women as water, but simultaneously sees a man’s semen as water entering the fire pit of a woman’s vagina. Such sexual transformations suggest the religious transformations inherent in Hinduism. As Hindus represent the god Shiva with a phallus and his consort Sita with a vulva, so Daoists represent male gods like Mu Kung and goddesses like Hsi Wang Mu in the same way.[2]  Many Eastern traditions such as Daoism and Tantric Buddhism represent female genitalia with the lotus flower. Siva worship, which involves anointing a phallus-shaped rock or other symbol, often with milk or water, is common. Hinduism, Buddhism, and other eastern faiths sometimes teach that sexual intercourse itself is a pathway to perfection. Canaanite and Egyptian female figurines used in fertility rites had large breasts and prominent labia.

Sexual imagery is present, although much debated and much less prevalent, in the Abrahamic traditions. Islam forbids images, fearing idolatry, but sexual imagery describing Allah’s love for man and man’s love for Allah is widespread in the Sufi sect. Sufism is controversial, and is even considered heretical, by many Sunni jurists. Sufi mystics, such as Mansur Al-Hallaj (858-922 AD), have been executed for their beliefs. Still, Sufism remains a vibrant force in Islam. Paul described the Church as being like the “Bride of Christ.” Followers of Christian mystical traditions, epitomized by the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), took this farther, describing a “spiritual marriage” to God, often in sexual terms. Jewish commentators such as the Rabbi Aqiba (50-135 AD) interpreted the Song of Solomon as an analogy of love between Israel and God. Christian commentators including Hippolytus, Origen, Gregory of Nicea, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and others saw the Song of Solomon as an allegory of the love between Christ and the Church.[3] Modern scholars often dispute these interpretations but cannot deny their influence in the history of Christianity.

The phallus has been revered as a symbol of the divine in most cultures for millennia. The Vedas describe phallus worship as characterizing pre-Aryan inhabitants of India.[4] Later it was incorporated as a symbol of the god Shiva in Hinduism. The Aboriginal myth of the Wawalag sisters includes Yulunggur, a (generally) male and definitely phallic rock python.[5] Dionysus, the Greek Olympian god of fertility, ecstasy, and wine, was represented in festivals with wooden or metal phalluses.[6] In Egyptian mythology, Isis, goddess of fertility and wife of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, recreated a penis for her dead husband. As a result, he was able to impregnate her and his heir, the god Horus, was born.[7]  During a trip through the ruins of Pompeii in October 1993, my wife Nancy and I were surprised to find that most houses had stone or painted phalluses in entryways, courtyards, bedrooms, and altars.

Many people in ancient cultures understood human fertility in the same way they understood agricultural fertility:

  1. As the seed of a plant is contains within it all of the plant, so the seed of the man (semen) contains within it all of the baby. No contribution from the ground besides nourishment is necessary, and no contribution from the women besides nourishment is necessary.
  2. As the farmer placed the seed into the ground, so the man placed his seed into the woman.
  3. As the ground incubated and nourished the seed to produce a full-grown plant, so the woman incubated and nourished the seed to produce a full-grown baby.

These assumptions seemed consistent with the fact that men had obvious sex organs, and sex-related emissions distinct from blood and other body fluids. A woman’s sex organs and fluids were primarily internal, and were therefore largely invisible. Menstruation looked like nothing more than blood. Without modern microscopes there was no way for ancients to know about the male sperm joining with the female egg – both sexes contributing to the new life.

If this is how early man understood human reproduction, his or her thinking becomes understandable. If agricultural seed is generally good and failures in the harvest most often arise from troubles in the ground (poor soil or inadequate water), then the male semen should be generally good and failures to give birth must be due to problems in the woman. This helps explain why the onus for infertility fell most heavily on wives (examples in the Bible include Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah). Also, ancient people thought that agricultural fertility contribute to human fertility and vice versa. Sexual intercourse with temple prostitutes was intended to mimic sexual intercourse between a god and a goddess, thus gaining their favor. In response to such worship through coitus, the deities would grant reproductive and financial (usually agricultural) success. With its power to generate wealth and sire offspring, ancients found the presence of the gods in the phallus. Among some Melanesian tribes in the eastern highlands of New Guinea, a daughter-in-law had to eat the penis of her father-in-law on his death. Doing so would transfer his fertility and power to her.[8]

Conclusion

The phalluses for sale at the tourist shop at the Dimotiki Agora were not religious symbols. Those who made and sold them wanted to make people laugh and to make people buy. Those who bought them probably felt curiosity and mirth. Nonetheless, the simple fact that these phalluses were there suggests a fascination, and perhaps even a reverence, for sexual imagery. People in most cultures throughout history have used sex to understand, communicate, and experience religion. It is no surprise – the ecstasy of intercourse can seldom be exceeded by anything but the ecstasy of religion. Further, the creative power of intercourse, the ability to make a new human life, exceeds every other type of natural human creative power. Georges Bataille wrote, “eroticism is primarily a religious matter.”[9] Many people from many religions over many centuries would agree.

From a Christian standpoint, sex is a gift to mankind from God, part of common grace, but sex is not God. Further, sex is not a path to God. Believers should not fear sex, ignore it, or be obsessed by it. Our Creator intended human sexuality for procreation, for pleasure, and to provide a glimpse, albeit feeble and faint, of the rapture that followers of Christ will experience when we finally see Him as He is. In the meantime, Christians must use sex, as with everything else in life, to glorify the God and to enjoy Him forever.

[1] Tony Swain and G W. Trompf, The Religions of Oceania, The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. (London: Routledge, 1995), 35.

[2] Geoffrey Parrinder, Sexual Morality in the World’s Religions (Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, ©1996), 82.

[3] Frank E. Gaebelein and Dick Polcyn, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: with the New International Version of the Holy Bible, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1991), 1202.

[4] The Vedas: the Saṃhitās of the Ṛig, Yajur (White and Black), Sāma, and Atharva Vedas, single volume, unabridged. ed., trans. Ralph T H. Griffith and Arthur Berriedale Keith KB Classics ([United States?]: Kshetra Books, 2017), 104

[5] Tony Swain and G W. Trompf, The Religions of Oceania, The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. (London: Routledge, 1995), 37.

[6] ANTHONY EVERITT, RISE OF ATHENS: the Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization (S.l.: RANDOM HOUSE, 2017), 236.

[7] Byron E. Shafer et al., eds., Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 44.

[8] Tony Swain and G W. Trompf, The Religions of Oceania, The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. (London: Routledge, 1995), 157.

[9] Betsy Prioleau, Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), 70.

Immigration, Religion, and the West

Introduction

The Syrian Civil War and the advent of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have caused a human disaster of the highest degree. According to recent media estimates, 300,000 have died and 10 million have been made homeless since demonstrations began in the fateful “Arab Spring” of 2011.[1] A terrible situation has become worse. US, Kurdish and Iranian forces are attacking ISIS, but Russian forces in Syria are also targeting US-backed Syrian rebels who are trying to overthrow Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. There is no end in sight.

Unsurprisingly such misery has generated millions of refugees. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have accepted 3.5 million between them,[2] but a tide of refugees is beginning to roll towards Europe. Many countries have absorbed some, and Germany has agreed to accept 800,000.[3] Libya, sub-Saharan Africa, and many other failed states also send tens of thousands of migrants to Europe, and the United States, every year.

Accepting migrants poses risks and benefits to nations. While immigrants can take jobs, start businesses, and contribute to society, they can also consume social support, start riots, and compete with natives. Europe is based on a historically Christian culture, while migrants from the Middle East and North Africa come from a Muslim culture. These worldviews have clashed since Mohammad’s Hijra from Mecca to Medina in 622. Even in the modern secular West, coexistence between Muslim migrants and those of other faiths can be difficult. Terror by Muslims in London and Madrid and riots in France are examples.[4] The tiny European nation of Slovakia said it would only take Christian migrants.[5]

This article will evaluate how the religious practices of immigrants to the Western World affect their integration, and how the process of immigration affects their faith.

Immigrants and Their Faith

In his book Immigrant Faith, Phillip Connor takes a systematic look at the issues of religion among immigrants to North America and Europe. While 40% of all of the world’s migrants live in the West, 20% live in the United States.[6] Most immigrants to the US come from Latin America and 75% have a Christian background. While most immigrants to Europe come from Muslim nations, less than 50% are themselves Muslim.[7] Though the Middle East and North Africa are considered core Muslim lands, they were Christian for 600 years before they took the green flag of Islam. As persecution against followers of Jesus grows in unstable or tyrannical Muslim nations, Christians flee to historically Christian lands and local minorities shrink.

Immigrant faith has four characteristics. First, it is a moving faith; people take their faith with them from their home country to their adopted country. According to the Pew Research Center’s Global Religion and Migration Database (2013), India’s population is 3% Christian and the Indian migrant population in the US 9% Christian. Thus while a higher percentage of Christian Indians migrate to the US than non-Christian Indians, the vast majority of Indian migrants keep their traditional faith. Egypt is an exception, however, with Christians comprising 5% of the population in Egypt but 70% of the Egyptian migrants to Canada.[8]

Immigrant faith is also a changing faith. According to the 2003 US New Immigrant Survey, members of every major religious group attend services less frequently after immigrating than before.[9] Overall, migrant religious practices change to mirror the religious activities of the surrounding population. However people rarely change their religion entirely. The same survey found that of Muslim immigrants to the US, 96% were still Muslim when they gained permanent residency years later.[10] Another example of this is Buddhism in France; 74% of those raised Buddhist remained Buddhists.

Third, the faith of immigrants is an integrating faith. Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and other religious centers offer services to immigrants from their faith. Many have programs to teach the host language and culture, networks to find jobs, and contacts for legal and financial help. Immigrants who participate in religion often have an easier time integrating than those who do not. Having any faith background also seems to make immigrants in the US and Europe more likely to vote.[11]

Finally, immigrant faith is a transferring faith. Parents try to raise their children in their faith, and usually succeed. About 75% of children of Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist immigrants keep their parents’ faith, while about 66% of children of non-religious parents stay non-religious.[12] In the US, non-religious children who become religious tend to become Protestant. Additionally, Christian children of immigrants who regularly attend religious services are more likely to enter professional occupations in the US than children whose immigrant parents do not attend.[13]

In summary, people of faith typically immigrate to a place where their faith is accepted, or at least tolerated. Their beliefs move with them, but change in the process. A religious faith which is practiced often helps immigrants and their children integrate into the new society, at least in America. Finally, the faith of immigrants usually transfers to their children.

Conclusion

Immigration is a huge issue in the modern world, and will continue to be so in the future. Citizens in Western nations need to know about the people who are trying to become their neighbors. Immigrants should know how their faith will affect them and their children as they enter a new life in Europe or North America. Immigrant Faith by Philip Connor should help shed light, not heat, in the ongoing conversation about immigration, religion, and the West.

Immigrant Faith Questions

  1. How do the US and Europe differ in their attitudes towards taking migrants?
  2. What is an appropriate US policy for handling the recent surge of migrants from the Middle East?
  3. How should churches respond to the migrant crisis? Sanctuaries? Benevolent ministries? Something else?
  4. What can individual Christians do?

 

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/08/middleeast/syria-war-how-we-got-here/index.html

[2] http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/07/daily-chart-5

[3] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/germany-austria-thousands-syrian-refugees-article-1.2349939

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/05/world/europe/immigrant-rioting-flares-in-france-for-ninth-night.html?_r=0

[5] http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/20/europe/europe-migrant-crisis/index.html

[6] Immigrant Faith, p18

[7] Immigrant Faith, p20

[8] Immigrant Faith, p26

[9] Immigrant Faith, p49

[10] Immigrant Faith, p63

[11] Immigrant Faith, p89

[12] Immigrant Faith, p97

[13] Immigrant Faith, p109

Islam

Islam is one of the major forces in the modern world. It is the second largest religion in number of followers, surpassed only by Christianity. However Islam is not only a religion, it is also a political system and a way of life. As defined primarily by the Quran, the Hadiths, and the Shariah, the “spiritual” and “material” aspects of the Faith are inseparable. Muhammad was a prophet, but unlike Jesus, who said “my kingdom is not of this world”, Muhammad was also a political leader and conqueror. At his death he ruled over tens of thousands of Arab Muslim warriors that shortly injured the Byzantines, destroyed the Persians, and conquered much of the Middle East. Eventually the sword of Islam spread from Spain to India, from Africa to Central Asia. Below are some reviews on some of the key titles in the study of this fascinating and important faith.

Annotated Bibliography – Some Research Materials related to Islam

Book Review – God’s Battalions, the Case for the Crusades

Book Review – Islam in the World

Book Review – Islamic Philosophy

Book Review – Major Themes of the Quran

Book Review – The Islamic Conception of Justice

Book Review – The Middle East

Book Review – The Venture of Islam

Major Themes of the Quran – Discussion Guide

Do We Hate Our Bodies?

The other day I read an article written by a hospice chaplain from South Carolina entitled “What the dying really regret.” The author interviewed an elderly woman who was dying of cancer, who said:

“I know I’m supposed to hate my body…Everyone told me — my family, my school, my church. When I got older, magazines and salesgirls and boyfriends (told me), even if they didn’t say so out loud. The world’s been telling me for 75 years that my body is bad. First for being female, then for being fat and then for being sick…But the one thing I never did understand is, why does everyone else want me to hate my body? What does it matter to them?” Kerry Egan, CNN, 17 Oct 2014

The author concluded that the dying regret losing their bodies, and that makes the fact that society teaches us to hate our bodies all the sadder. Bodies decay over time; my grandmother memorably said that she felt like an 18 year old girl in an 80 year old body, but they are still the only thing that connects us to the material world.

Do people hate their bodies? Sometimes, yes. As a sports medicine physician I take care of anorexic athletes, thus far all female, in their teens and twenties, who perceive themselves as fat though they are wasting away. As a family medicine physician I have treated obesity in thousands of patients, including counseling them on how not to hate themselves for their weight. As a preventive medicine physician I have dealt with the larger problem of populations, whole groups of people, abusing their bodies and living unhealthy lifestyles in part to compensate for self-dissatisfaction. As a Christian minister I have counseled people who struggled with terrible feelings of inferiority, in part because of the look of their bodies.

Are people taught by society to hate their bodies? Often, yes. Advertisers use all of the formidable tools of psychology and manipulation to convince people that they are inadequate so that those people will buy their product in the (ultimately vain) hope of becoming adequate. The messages are compelling;

  1. You won’t find love in the world because you teeth aren’t white enough, so buy this product.
  2. You can’t be happy because your hair is too gray so buy this product
  3. Your will never be healthy and will die young because your body is too fat so buy this product.
  4. Look at the phenomenally beautiful woman (who is a genetic rarity, eats nearly nothing, works out constantly, and has an army of people to help with her hair, makeup and clothes) in this picture (which has been airbrushed and edited to eliminate any flaw)! Why can’t you look like her?

In the past this drum beat came to us through radio, television and print media but since we did not have these with us constantly, we had a respite from the message. Now with smart phones and other portable devices, we have no relief from hearing all that is wrong with us, physically and in every other way.

Other people, often trying to make themselves feel better about their bodies, denigrate ours. The interviewee referred to men and women alike telling her, with and without words, and even with and without meaning to, that her body was bad. From trade in jade and silk between Europe and China in 2000 BC to modern body shaping underwear, fortunes have been made selling people things to try to make them more beautiful.

Sometimes even the church teaches people to hate their bodies. In Romans 7, Paul anguished about the sin in his own life, discussing the fact that sin is present in his flesh. He concluded with the statement “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death (V24)?” The obvious conclusion is that the physical body is wicked and the spirit is good. Since we should hate sin, we should hate our bodies.

However obvious, this conclusion is absolutely wrong, rooted more in Platonic dualism and in Gnostic hatred of the material world than in Christianity. Furthermore it is not at all what Paul meant. The Hebrews recognized that God created the universe, including our bodies, and that His creation was good. They had a healthy respect for the body and had no concept of a disembodied life after death as the later Greeks did. Beginning around the time of Daniel, Jewish thought included bodily resurrection from the dead, not ghosts floating around the universe forever.

As heir to this heritage, Paul had the highest regard for the human body. He called it the temple of the Holy Spirit and taught his students to honor it (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). Paul told his disciple Timothy that though not as valuable as godliness, physical exercise was profitable (1 Timothy 4:8). His statements in Romans 7 were not that the material body was wicked, because the body was as much a victim of sin as was all creation (Romans 8:19-23). Rather, Paul wanted to be delivered from sin. If the body was the source of sin, the most effective (and macabre) way to deal with sin in life was to eliminate the body. The Bible never teaches this.

Another common misconception is that Christianity teaches women to be ashamed of their bodies because sexuality is wicked and their body might cause someone else to sin. First, sexuality was created by God and nothing that He made is evil. Second, the entire Biblical book of Song of Solomon is devoted to romantic love, the courtship and married life of a young couple. The book glorifies human love in the context of a man and woman married for life. Only outside this context does Scripture discourage sexuality. Third, when a man looks at a woman and lusts after her, that sin is his, not hers. However if the woman dresses immodestly because she wants to provoke envious or lustful thoughts in others, that sin is hers. The key is for men and women to dress in a way that pleases themselves while being more concerned with others’ needs than with his/her own, and being more interested in personal character than in physical appearance.

The body is our connection to the natural world, the place where we laugh, love, and live. It enables us to feel cool breezes on hot days, embrace our families and friends, taste delicious foods, and smell fragrant flowers. The body allows us to think, to speak, to work, and to serve God and others in the world; doing His work so that others may know Him. God made creation for His glory, for our care and for our enjoyment, and He gave us bodies to be a part of it. Someday we will lose our earthly bodies, and then regain them, clothed in glory and incorruptible, in the new earth.

Though advertisers will continue to tell us that we are never good enough, and some other people will forever try to build themselves up at our expense, our Creator tells us that He loves us infinitely as we are, regardless of how we look and what we can or cannot do. The Church can never teach its members to hate the body, and each pastor, leader and teacher must have the right understanding. If we are to love the Lord and love our neighbor, we can do no less.

The Inevitable Incarnation

In 1819 using a razor and glue, the former American President Thomas Jefferson, one of the most brilliant men of his age, cut and pasted passages of the New Testament to create The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, popularly known as the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson’s Bible removed all of the miracles of Jesus, most mentions of the supernatural, the Resurrection, and all mentions of His divinity. In a letter to William Short (1820), Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” Thomas Jefferson clearly regarded the man Jesus as a great moral teacher, but rejected the concept of Jesus as God.

He was not alone. The Koran teaches that Allah has no son, and that those who believe that he does will be destroyed. Many critics throughout history have lauded Jesus for his moral example but lambasted early Christians for making him God. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity; without Him Christianity could not exist. At the same time, Jesus is the stumbling block of Christianity; the gospel as written in the New Testament is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Islam teaches that Allah spoke to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel in a cave on Mount Hira (610 AD), reciting the teachings that would later become of Koran. Buddhism holds that Gautama achieved enlightenment through meditation sitting under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India (c. 528 BC). Mormonism insists that Joseph Smith received the revelation of God on golden plates delivered by the angel Moroni (1823). Judaism affirms that God inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets on Mount Sinai and gave them personally to Moses (Exodus 31:18), providing the rest of the Law through subsequent revelation. Many other religions have similar stories; that a special human received divine guidance which he subsequently used to found a religion.

Jesus is unique. He did not claim to be a man who transmitted the word of God, He claimed to be God (John 8:58-59) and Man who was the Word of God. There is no record of Jesus receiving golden plates, stone tablets, words in a cave or under a tree, coming down from heaven. The extant record states that Jesus Himself came down from heaven. Religious prophets throughout time have said “follow these teachings and you will be right with God” while Jesus metaphorically said “eat my flesh and drink my blood (John 6:29-58)” and “if you have seen Me, you have seen God (the Father) (John 14:9-11).” Jesus’ enemies knew His claims, and hated Him for them (John 5:18).

Jesus claimed to be God Incarnate; God in human flesh. His claims were unlike any other religious leader in history, and these claims were either true or false. If true, then Jesus really was the Son of God and God the Son; fully human and fully divine. If His claims were false then He either knew that they were false or He did not. If Jesus knew that His claims were false and made them anyway then He was a terrible deceiver, not a great prophet and moral teacher. He was also a fool because His claims cost Him His life. If He did not know that His claims were false then He was crazy. In this case also, He could not have been a great prophet or moral teacher. We are left with a dilemma. Jesus could not have been merely a prophet or great moral teacher, as Mohammed and Buddha were reputed to be. He was either God, unspeakably evil, or insane.

Another question arises. Every other religion posits an enlightened human leader, but Christianity requires an incarnation of the divine. Not an incarnation in the sense that Zeus became a swan to seduce Leda, Queen of Sparta, but an incarnation of the One God: All Knowing, All Loving and All Powerful. Not an incarnation of the temporal gods of the polytheist traditions, who themselves sprang from the primal matter and energy of the universe, but an incarnation of the eternal God who created the primal matter and energy of the universe. Such a thought is almost offensive to the thinking man, and it is no wonder so many people oppose it. Nonetheless, this Incarnation is the central tenet of Christianity. The next question is…why was an incarnation necessary? Taking the claims of the Bible at face value, just as with the Koran and other religious texts, this article will address that question.

Share Information

Gabriel met with Mohammad to share God’s teachings, the same reason that Moroni met with Joseph Smith and Jehovah met with Moses. The information was contained in language and stored in a physical medium, whether written recitations, golden plates or stone tablets. The knowledge that could be transmitted was limited by the language involved and the physical properties of the chosen medium, such as size. While extra-biblical texts suggest that Mohammad and Smith might be good role models, none claim that they were perfect, much less divine, and even less an incarnation of the One God.

Jesus, according to Biblical testimony the Incarnation of the Divine, broke the mold. Whereas Moses and Mohammad could only report on what God said, Jesus’ every word and His every action revealed God. He was the perfect example of how God would react in everyday situations faced by humans, because He was God and Man. As John wrote, the incarnation provided so much information about God that the world could not hold all the books that could be written about Jesus (John 21:25). It had to be that way, because God is totally different from man and we need as much information as we can get to know Him. Furthermore since we can only understand Him by analogy to human experience, we had to see God in human experience to translate His nature into our lives. The gospels show the work of the eternal God who voluntarily limited Himself in space and time. Several hundred pages could not provide man all that he needed to know about God, the most foreign of all personages. Further, if the Almighty is interested not merely that man holds a certain set of beliefs but that he acts in a certain way, He must show him, not just tell him, what to do.

A skeptic might protest that though Jesus’ life revealed legions about Him, moderns have only the Bible, a long book to be sure but still a small glance at Him. While a valid point, the issue is not so much the amount of knowledge but the type of knowledge. While other texts are heavy in rules, the gospels are heavy in stories. While other holy books mention battles and political domination, the New Testament mentions day to day struggles of regular, usually unremarkable, people. If the wholly-other God were trying to tell mortal man how to live, coming to earth and living among them would be the most logical way to do it.

Therefore, the first reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share information with man.

Share Suffering

Suffering and death are inevitable parts of human existence. Religions handle these realities different, with some such as Buddhism denying their reality and others such as Islam telling their adherents to submit to suffering and death now because paradise is coming. Suffering among the gods in polytheistic religions was common, such as when the storm-god Baal was “killed” by the sea-god Yam in the Canaanite mythology or when the chief of gods Osiris was “killed” by the underworld god Set in the Egyptian mythology. However, suffering in these traditions was due to rivalry between deities, not suffering for the sins of mankind. In Islamic tradition, Allah, like the god of Aristotle, is beyond suffering. In ancient Hebrew tradition, however, which is the soil out of which Christianity grew, Jehovah suffered for His people, as seen in the example of Hosea.

In the Christian faith, man suffers, but God suffers far more. Each person suffers a certain amount in his or her life and then the suffering ends at death. God, however, bears all of the suffering for each person who has ever lived. He does it directly as noted in the Old Testament, and even more directly in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus bore all of the suffering and all of the sin for everyone. One amazing thing about the gospel is that while we suffer, our Creator suffers with us, and ultimately He suffers more. As preposterous and even offensive as it sounds, the God who holds the universe together suffered and even died for the rebellious creatures He made.

However the mystery here is even deeper. Man is inherently wicked in his moral nature and therefore predisposed to sin. Since the inevitable result of sin is suffering and death, man is destined to suffer throughout his life and ultimately die. To completely understand and completely share in the human experience, God would also have to suffer and die, even though He would do so without sin. In fact, Hebrews 2:10 teaches that Jesus Christ was made complete through His suffering and death. What a mind bending thought! Jesus was God Incarnate, with every attribute of the Father in its fullest extent, and yet He had to suffer to be the Savior of Man, and was thereby made complete.

Therefore, the second reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share suffering with man.

Share Salvation

In most religions people are given a list of things to do to attain salvation, often including praying, giving money to the poor, or going on a pilgrimage. There are also moral rules or standards of conduct, which adherents must follow. These standards are communicated by the deity to the prophet and then to the people, whose standing in the religion and ultimate destiny is determined by how well they follow the rules.

Two assumptions underlie this process. The first is that the people want to follow God and the second is that the people are able to follow God. To meet these assumptions mankind has to be morally good; not perfect, but good. He also has to be competent enough in himself to understand physical as well as spiritual truth.

Christianity makes neither of these assumptions, largely because of the Hebrew experience. In the Torah, Moses clearly laid out the blessings that would come when the Hebrews followed Jehovah (Deuteronomy 28) and the curses that would come when they did not (Deuteronomy 27). Nonetheless, the history of Israel was by and large a history of man failing to meet God’s standards and ultimately rejecting Him.

Rather than relying on man to secure his own salvation, the Christian faith relies on God. Since He is utterly holy and man is not, there can be no association between God and man. For man to encounter the fiery holiness of the Lord in his weak and sinful state is to face inevitable annihilation, as the Hebrews perceived on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18-19). Man no more wants to encounter the real God than he wants to march into the sun. For the relationship between humanity and God to be restored, men had to live a life of perfect righteousness. No one can do this, so God Himself became a man and did what mere man could not. The Lord had to hide the power of His glory in human flesh, live a sinless life, suffer and die. Furthermore God took all of the sin in history upon Himself and paid the logical price…death. In doing so as a man God enabled men to transfer their sin, and its penalty, to Jesus, to know Him and to believe in Him as they could never before. Because Jesus rose from the dead, all those who believe in Him will rise also.

Therefore, the third reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share salvation with man.

Share the Spirit

Most religions do not have a concept of the trinity, in which God eternally exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the Christian concept of the Spirit of God dwelling in man does not exist in other faiths. In the ancient Hebrew religion the Spirit of God indwelt people for a time but departed when they chose evil, such as Samson (Judges 14:6 cf. 16:20) and Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).

Christianity is different. The New Testament teaches that the Spirit of God dwells in believers forever, beginning the moment that they accept Christ. Why could the Spirit do that now when He could not before? Recall that God cannot coexist with sin; His very nature snuffs out sin in His presence. When man still bore his own sin, such as the ancient times, the Spirit could not abide in man. When Jesus took the sin of man, the man had no sin, and the Spirit of God could abide there. Only once Christ had cleansed man from his sin could the Holy Spirit come and live within him. This does not mean that believers in Christ do not sin but rather that their sin is imputed to Jesus Christ and in the judgment of the Father, they are clean.

Therefore, the fourth reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share God’s Holy Spirit with man.

Conclusion

The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the foundation of Christianity, and yet it is also one of the greatest obstacles to others accepting Christianity. It is literally a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Nonetheless it was the only way that God could restore the relationship between Himself and man which had been broken by the first sin in the Garden of Eden.

For all his insight, Thomas Jefferson could not see that Jesus of Nazareth could never have been just a moral teacher, and he could not see that man by his nature needed more than instructions and willpower to be reconciled with God. Man needed God to become man and restore fellowship. Therefore, however mysterious, once God decided to redeem man, the incarnation became inevitable.

Religion and the Workplace

This is a fascinating and important topic, and as the numerous and well reasoned postings have shown, worthy of discussion. The first task is to define religion. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, religion is:

1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power(s) recognized as the creator and governor of the universe. 2. A particular integrated system of this expression 3. The spiritual or emotional attitude of one who recognizes the existence of a supernatural power(s) 4. An objective pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion

Many people would argue that Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Shintoism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism are religions. According to these definitions, however, Fascism, Communism, Feminism, Capitalism, Humanism, Atheism, and Secularism could be equally considered religions. In an absolute sense, anyone whose beliefs in any sense meet any of these definitions (if one accepts these definitions) can make demands based on their religion, and are entitled to protection based on it. Note that none of the definitions require a minimum number of adherents to qualify.

As a practical matter neither countries nor governments can accommodate every demand of every adherent of every religion, and historically nations have tended to accommodate the religion of the majority. Thus the US private and public sector have historically observed Christmas and Easter, while those sectors in Pakistan observe Ramadan.

In modern times, however, communication and transportation advances have allowed a greater mixing of cultures, and consequently an increasing sensitivity to the rights of those perceived as minorities. How cultures integrate and that they integrate is vital. Good integration results in diversity with unity; an organization that is varied in characteristics while maintaining unity of purpose and action. Poor integration results in division and fragmentation; an organization that is varied in characteristics but paralyzed with indecision and inaction. Iraq, Bosnia, and many nations in Africa are comprised of many different ethnic groups, religions and cultures, and are fractured by economic failure, civil war and genocide. One hopes that other diverse countries such as India and the United States, do not follow the same path.

Floating holidays can be a good solution, though not perfect. In a medical clinic, for example, a Muslim receptionist may not be able to work on Christmas and take another day off (even though she wants to) because the office may be closed, there may be no one else there, and there may be no work to do. Legally, the employer only has to make “reasonable accommodations”, and thus should be protected against prosecution. Other issues like garments (veils, burkhas), religious observances during work hours, etc, must be addressed for the furtherance of business goals. A business must survive to employ people, and if religious accommodation impairs the business’ ability to compete, all of its employees and customers lose. Therefore religious accommodation must be subordinate to the needs of the business. Those who object can choose to work somewhere else.

No single group should be favored in any way. At the Minneanapolis/St Paul airport, Muslim taxicab drivers refused to transport passengers carrying alcohol or those accompanied by dogs, even guide dogs, because they believed that doing so violated their religion. As independent contractors they had every right to do this, even though such actions caused complaints and controversy. Cabs wait in line to pick up passengers and if a driver refuses a passenger, he should go to the end of the line and wait again. Minnesota’s Muslim American Society suggested that drivers who would refuse passengers with alcohol or dogs could have their cabs color coded. This system to accommodate Muslim drivers would allow them to refuse passengers and not have to “go back to the back of the line”. The suggestion was not approved. It would be unfair to non-Muslim drivers, since they must go to the end of the line if they object to carrying someone for whatever reason.

After the armies of Islam conquered much of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain in the 7th and 8th Centuries, defeated peoples (who survived) were given the opportunity to convert. Muslims were the superior caste, and Christians and Jews were the inferior one. In 1995 we visited some friends in Cairo. They had ID cards labeling them as Christians, and were forbidden to hold many of the best jobs or attend the best schools. Governments must never elevate one group, Muslim, Christian, Jew or whatever, over another. In a free society private organizations can, but this is another debate. Religion in the workplace can be problematic, but if people remember that the purpose of most workplaces is business, not religion, they will be able to work out effective solutions.

What Was the Most Important Part of Luther’s Theology?

Luther’s allegiance to the Holy Bible (solo Scriptura) as the ultimate source of authority in Christianity was the most important point of his theology. It is hard for Christians in the 21st century to imagine how the first 350 years of the faith must have been, when the only Bible available was the Old Testament, possibly the Apocrypha, the gospels and the letters of Paul, and some other letters. There was no firm agreement on what constituted the inspired Word of God, and therefore the dangers of heresy were great.

It is little wonder, therefore, that the church came up with a combination of means to judge whether a teaching was orthodox or not. Creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed, which summarized the key points of Christianity, a single bishop in each city who served as the source of authoritative interpretation, and an increasing understanding of which books belonged in the New Testament and which did not, were the means by which the early Church defeated Gnosticism and a host of other heresies that could have destroyed the new faith in its cradle.

The danger, of course, in using such a combination is that believers are tempted to put creeds or authoritative teachers above the Bible. This is exactly what happened. At the Council of Carthage in August 397, church authorities recognized (they did not determine) which books should form the New Testament. These books bore apostolic authority, were consistent with the teachings of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and other Christian teachings, and they were recognized throughout the church as God’s inspired truths.

After the Bible was completed, the reasonable thing to do would have been to recognize that the authority of creeds and bishops is derived from and therefore subordinate to the Word of God. Creeds are useful teaching tools but are essentially mini systematic theologies and therefore necessarily oversimplify or even distort the truths of the Lord. Bishops are usually well educated and faithful and their word can be trusted, but they are still sinful men and liable to errors of omission and commission. Creeds and bishops were still needed because in cultures with few books and little literacy it is important to have such lesser authorities, but God‘s word was the ultimate authority.

What happened, unfortunately, was that the authority of the bishops was magnified, not diminished, until church leaders were presenting as truth teachings that were clearly falsehoods, such as the practice of indulgences. Unbound to the Bible, creeds also proliferated and promulgated misinterpretations of it. Over hundreds of years, these errors gained the authority of tradition and tradition, not the True Word, became the ultimate source of authority. Believers suffered greatly from both of these errors for centuries.

Luther came at a time when mass printing and distribution was possible and literacy was rising fast. Over a millennium after Carthage, he and others rediscovered what should have been apparent all along. The Word of God, not creeds based on it or bishops and other churchmen explaining it, was the real source of truth. Everything believers teach and do must be measured against the only real source of authority, the Bible, and not the other way around.

Tradition still has authority and much of what we do in the modern church, such as worship services at 1100 on Sundays, midweek prayer meetings, and Christmas on December 25th, is based on it. Creeds still have authority, because they are quick and useful ways to teach important Biblical truths to men. However, the Bible is supreme. Luther recognized this, and all of his other great contributions, such as sola fide and sola sacerdos, came from that foundation.

The Benadictines

Ours is a day of self-indulgence, where we are promised to “have it our way” and told “you deserve a break today”.   Famous songs trumpet “I did it my way” and anything and everything, from privacy to health care to “self-expression”, has become a right.  Few would argue for self-denial and some even hold that self-denial is bad and unhealthy.   Abraham Maslow told us that our greatest need was self-actualization, Henry Ford taught us how to make anything faster and cheaper on an assembly line, and we soon discovered that life is really “all about us”. 

Most men and women in history have either been self-indulgent or aspired to it, much like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof sang in “If I were a rich man”. There have been a few, like the Spartans in Greece, who believed that self-discipline and self-denial were valuable, and perhaps even better, than self-indulgence.  Benedict (480-540) was one such man. 

Born the son of a Roman noble in Nursia in the Italian province of Umbria, Benedict was in the midst of a top class education, and probably also in the midst of torrid romance, when in about 500 AD he abandoned his studies and his beloved and sought solitude and spiritual understanding in Subiaco in the Simbruini Mountains.  He lived alone in a cave for a while and later decided to found monasteries to help others.  Benedict founded 12 monasteries with 12 monks each.  He was a stern taskmaster, for which he was reviled by some.  Monks at one monastery where he was abbot tried to poison his food, and according to legend he was miraculously delivered.  Later in life he founded the famous monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy. 

Benedict’s monasticism became the model of monasteries from the end of the ancient era well into the Middle Ages.  His “Rule of Saint Benedict” was the guiding document for what would become the Benedictine Order.  The Rule begins with moral characteristics of the Benedictine disciple, character of the abbot of the monastery, and scripturally referenced “Instruments of good work.”  There follows dozens of pages of detailed instructions in just about every aspect of life for those in the monastery to follow. 

In the Roman world, of which Benedict was a part, gravity, stability, authority and moderation were held as high virtues.  As a result, Benedict’s Rule emphasized these things.  The Roman legions, at their best, were models of order, and Benedict strove for the same in his monks.  Humility, as noted in chapter 7 of the Rule, was important, and the Twelve Humilities included both a positive focus on God and His sovereignty and a negative focus on man.  Benedict’s his restrictions on laughter (#10) and the posture he forced his followers to assume (#12) are injurious to health.  There is also the problem that constant focus on one’s sins produces constant focus on oneself.  Real humility is more self-forgeting than self-despising. 

The military parallels are striking.  Absolute and rapid obedience of juniors to seniors is a goal of every army.  Operational necessity requires moving and fighting in austere environments, so although austerity in Benedictinism is self-imposed rather than situation imposed as in the army, it is common to both.  The responsibility of seniors to care for their men parallels the responsibility of officers to do the same.  One suspects that Benedictine monasteries maintained much of the military mind set of the Roman legions and passed it into the Middle Ages.  The main difference is that armies pursue a secular goal and monasteries a spiritual one. 

The association between the Roman legions, the Benedictines, and the armies of medieval Europe is strong.  The Knights Templar, founded in the early 12th century on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem, arose directly from the monastic movement.  After the Christian victory over Saladin at Montgisard in 1177, their commander Baldwin founded a Benedictine monastery, dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, at the battle site.  The Knights Hospitalier also arose after the First Crusade with roots in the monastic movement

Whatever the goal, the principles of obedience, simplicity, silence, loyalty, humility and care for others are as pertinent today as when Benedict wrote them. 

Postscript – Benedict on Humility (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2007/feb8.html)

Brethren, the Holy Scripture cries to us saying: “Every one that excaptions himself shall be humbled; and he that humbles himself shall be excaptioned.”

“The first degree of humility, then, is that a man always have the fear of God before his eyes shunning all forgetfulness and that he be ever mindful of all that God hath commanded… .

“The second degree of humility is, when a man loveth not his own will, nor is pleased to fulfill his own desires but by his deeds carrieth out that word of the Lord which saith: ‘I came not to do My own will but the will of Him that sent Me.’

“The third degree of humility is, that for the love of God a man subject himself to a Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle saith: ‘He became obedient unto death.’

“The fourth degree of humility is, that, if hard and distasteful things are commanded, nay, even though injuries are inflicted, he accept them with patience and even temper, and not grow weary or give up… .

“The fifth degree of humility is, when one hideth from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts which rise in his heart or the evils committed by him in secret, but humbly confesseth them.

“The sixth degree of humility is, when a monk is content with the meanest and worst of everything, and in all that is enjoined him holdeth himself as a bad and worthless workman, saying with the Prophet: ‘I am brought to nothing and I knew it not; I am become as a beast before Thee, and I am always with Thee.’

“The seventh degree of humility is, when, not only with his tongue he declareth, but also in his inmost soul believeth, that he is the lowest and vilest of men, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: ‘But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people.’

“The eighth degree of humility is, when a monk doeth nothing but what is sanctioned by the common rule of the monastery and the example of his elders.

“The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholdeth his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence doth not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture showeth that ‘in a multitude of words there shall not want sin.’

“The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written: ‘The fool excaptioneth his voice in laughter.’

“The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: ‘The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’

“The twelfth degree of humility is, when a monk is not only humble of heart, but always letteth it appear also in his whole exterior to all that see him; namely, at the Work of God, in the garden, on a journey, in the field, or wherever he may be, sitting, walking, or standing, let him always have his head bowed down, his eyes fixed on the ground, ever holding himself guilty of his sins, thinking that he is already standing before the dread judgment seat of God, and always saying to himself in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said, with his eyes fixed on the ground: ‘Lord, I am a sinner and not worthy to lift up mine eyes to heaven’; and again with the Prophet: ‘I am bowed down and humbled exceedingly.’

“Having, therefore, ascended all these degrees of humility, the monk will presently arrive at that love of God, which being perfect, casteth out fear. In virtue of this love all things which at first he observed not without fear, he will now begin to keep without any effort, and as it were, naturally by force of habit, no longer from the fear of hell, but from the love of Christ, from the very habit of good and the pleasure in virtue. May the Lord be pleased to manifest all this by His Holy Spirit in His laborer now cleansed from vice and sin.”

The Conversion of Augustine

Augustine, one of the most prolific and the most famous of the church fathers, was born to a Christian mother (Monica) and pagan father (Patricias) in the small town of Tagaste (Souk Arras in modern Algeria) in 354. His devout mother provided a home where he was nurtured in the Lord, and Augustine had marked spiritual sensitivity, but he was dissatisfied by the simple country preachers near his home. Desiring to give him every advantage, Patricias and Monica sent Augustine to study in Madaura and Carthage (370-375). He read Cicero’s Hortensius and was captivated by the intellect and language therein, moving away from his Christian background and towards philosophy. Given to sexual temptation, Augustine took a concubine, who bore him Adeodatus. Augustine went through a phase when he embraced Manichaeanism, a belief of rational dualism, but grew disenchanted when his concerns could not be answered. Augustine migrated to magic and astrology, and then moved with his mother to Rome at the age of 28 (382).

Having teaching experience in Carthage, Augustine was made professor of rhetoric in Rome (384). He had largely broken with Manichaeanism and one day went to a speech by Bishop Ambrose in Milan, a famous Christian, intellectual and orator. Ambrose presented a much more intellectual and, to Augustine, a much more satisfying explanation of Christianity and Augustine was interested. Simplicianus, a presbyter at Ambrose’ church, met Augustine and decided to try to lead him to the Lord.The story of how the famous pagan orator Victorinus became a Christian was also a great encouragement to Augustine. In Confessions, Augustine later wrote that he “burned to imitate him (Victorinus).”

Monica, meanwhile, ever promoting her son’s career, convinced him to send his concubine back to North Africa and arrange a respectable marriage. Augustine, age 30, did so, and shortly thereafter contracted an engagement with a ten year old girl from a wealthy family. Waiting for her to turn 12, the eligible age to marry, Augustine took another lover. The marriage was never consummated.

Ponticianus, a friend from North Africa who was also living in Italy, told Augustine about his conversion to Christianity several years before. The amazing stories of the conversions of Victorinus and Ponticianus deeply moved Augustine, and his guilt about his lusts and his treatment of his concubine, were eating away at him. To Augustine, conversion to Christianity wasn’t adopting a belief system but adopting as ascetic lifestyle, and he wasn’t willing to part with his carnal desires. Under crushing emotional pressure, Augustine went to a garden, saw a vision of Lady Chastity and heard the voice of child telling him to read a Bible passage, Romans 13:13-14. It was enough. His lifelong friend Alypius joined him in the garden and joined him in the Lord. Bishop Ambrose baptized Augustine in Milan on Easter Sunday, 25 April 387.

Augustine’s conversion was a powerful example of how the “hounds of heaven” will not fail when pursuing one of God’s elect. Monica, Ambrose, Simplicianus, Ponticianus, Alypius, and Victorinus were instrumental in his faith. The concubine he so wronged, the Manichaens and philosophers who could not lead him to the truth also played a supporting role, although they probably never knew it. The influence of Plato is powerful in his writings, God was working to accomplish His perfect purpose, and He uses people for His work.

“A teacher should always be a learner, and a mentor should always be a disciple.” Augustine

The Death of a Friend

It was a beautiful morning at the state campgrounds at Lake Anna, near Richmond Virginia. Several families from our church, and one family that had recently moved away to pursue new job opportunities, had come together for a Labor Day getaway. We were busily preparing breakfast, assembling fishing tackle, and drinking coffee by the crackling fire. As the only physician in the group I was in unfortunate demand. One girl from a different party had had a bike accident, a man splashed some chemlight fluid in his eyes, and a little boy hurt his arm. After my quasi-clinic Mary, a dear friend and breast cancer survivor, asked me about some back pain she had been having. I tried some spinal manipulation with little result. Chagrined by the lack of improvement but without the opportunity to investigate further, we moved on. Our group had prayed for these problems, and Mary had a medical appointment a few days later.

Mary died yesterday. Only a couple of weeks after our trip, her husband Eric sent word that the cancer was in her liver and spine. Mary, 42, fought hard. She seemed to respond well to the chemotherapy and still managed to move in to her new house, meet new people, and care for her husband and two children, ages 11 and 8. Friends from church prayed for their family and did everything we could, tangible and intangible, to help them. On Christmas Eve they stopped by our church enroute to visit with family in New Jersey. I last saw her, exhausted and frail, walking down the aisle to take communion at the service that night. Her condition deteriorated and she spent her twelve days of Christmas in hospitals. Her liver having been wholly devoured by cancer, Mary slipped away, surrounded by family, in the ICU at Virginia Commonwealth University.

A pall has fallen over our family and church. Questions about why such things happen are inevitable. “Why do people die?” “Why wouldn’t God save her?”, “Did our prayers do any good?”, “How will this affect her family’s faith?”, and “What more could we have done?” reverberate in our minds. They echo in the minds of all people who suffer such loss and live through such dark hours. When people ask these questions, they expect answers, or at least honesty.

Man was made for eternity. We would not even ask why people die if God had not made us personal beings and written eternity into our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The fact that death doesn’t seem right to us proves that He did not create us to die. Something is awry in the universe and we feel it in our bones. That something is man. We have rebelled against our Creator and the universe as He has made it, and we continue our revolt. So we die.

I do not know why God did not defeat the cancer and prolong her life on this earth. Her mother had died of breast cancer when Mary was but a teen, and Mary had done everything to avoid the same outcome. I do not know how good will come out of my friend Eric losing his beloved wife and his children growing up without their mother. I do not know how the Church will become stronger despite the loss of this faithful Christian woman. I do know that God is great and God is good, and that He will somehow bring hope and healing out of doubt and despair. The Lord will bring good out of this tragedy – He promised (Romans 8:28).

Our prayers did do good. The Bible promises that every righteous word spoken and every good work done by the people of God, no matter how small they seem at the time, will endure. The Magi never knew the result of their mission to Bethlehem, and yet their work has endured through the ages. Every kind word, every meal, every well-timed visit, and every impassioned plea in the prayer closet shaped time and eternity on behalf of this beloved family, and to the glory of God.

Each thought, word, action and event shapes our faith, for better or for worse. How this will shape the faith of Eric and his children remains in the dim glass of the future. The same is true for all of us. We are not alone, however, because we who are truly indwelt by the Spirit of God know that He is continually shaping us into the image of Christ. Once the Spirit of the Living Lord has captured us, He will never let us go. Using friends, family, the Living Word, and the Church, God will continue to steer Eric and the children safely towards heaven (Philippians 1:3-6).

No doctor who has ever cared about a fallen patient has failed to ask what more he could have done. Except for a few moments on that cool September morning, Mary was not my patient. Rather she was a friend and sister in the Lord. Her friends, her family, her husband, her church, and everyone who cared has asked that question of themselves a hundred times in the past four months. We will all have ideas, and some regrets, but none of us will find the answer. The better question now is “what can we do for those who remain?” How can we care for those we meet now, and in eternity?

Mary is safely in the arms of God. This is not a vague hope but as an established fact. Only One has defeated death, and that One is Jesus Christ. He arose from the dead, the first among a mighty throng of Christians who will follow after Him (1 Corinthians 15:1-26). Mary stands today experiencing the rapturous glory of the Almighty God and receiving her well-deserved reward. Eric, his children, and all of us will follow. Her worries, her tribulations, and her pains have faded forever in the glory of God. Ours will as well.