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God Haunted

To know

But not experience

To ask

But not receive

To knock

But the door remains closed

Then in that space

that space between waking and sleep

A song arises

Silent yet sung

Felt

But not heard

Verses, choruses, melodies

Praise and thanksgiving

Unknown

New and yet familiar

Now just a whisper

Now gone.

Unremembered.

Yet somehow more real

than the daily darkness

that surrounds.

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Finding Uncle Vince

                A ringing telephone at 3:22 in the morning is rarely the harbinger of good news. With any grace, it is merely a drunken misdial. Abby Morrow stumbled out of bed and across the darkened living room. Eyes still half closed, she picked up the receiver and managed a phlegmy “hello?”

            A gruff voice responded, “Mr. Morrow? Mr. William Morrow?”

            Sensing his presence behind her, Abby covered the mouthpiece with her hand and turned. “It’s for you, Dad.”

            Bill Morrow took the handset from his twelve-year-old daughter. His own voice was as gruff as the caller’s. “This is Bill Morrow. Who are you?”

            The phone was far enough from her father’s ear that Abby could hear the response. “This is Sergeant Michalski from the Second Precinct. We have a Vincent Morrow in custody. He was picked up a few hours ago on a D&D. We found a card in his possession with your name and number. He’s in pretty bad shape. Probably the D.T.s. We’re getting ready to transport him.”

            “If he’s still drunk, it’s not the D.T.s,” Bill said. “Where are you sending him?”

            “Saint Luke’s E.R.”

            “Any charges?”

            “Nah. The bar owner won’t press charges. Says he’s a regular. Just wanted him gone.”

            “Alright. I’ll be at the E.R.” Bill hung up the phone, rubbed one hand across his stubbly cheek and the other through his hair.

            “Dad?”

            Bill jumped. “Abby! What are you doing up? You have school in the morning.”

            “I answered the phone.”

            “Oh. Right. Go wake your mother. I need to go out. Then get back to bed.”

            “Uncle Vince?”

            “Yeah. Uncle Vince.”

            Libby Morrow was already awake, though still in bed when Abby entered her parents’ bedroom. “Bill? Oh. Abby. What’s wrong?”

            “I think it’s Uncle Vince.  Dad says he has to go out.”

            Libby threw back the covers. “It’s not even light. What time is it? She turned on the bedside lamp. “Three-thirty!” Yawning, Libby stood. “I’ll take care of it. You get back to bed.”

            Abby obeyed, but sleep did not come. Just before the alarm went off, she heard the weary tread of her father’s footsteps and muffled voices in the kitchen. Abby joined them. Libby looked at her daughter. The three of them had matching black circles under their eyes. “Oh, sweetie. You’re a mess. Don’t imagine you can go to school like that.  Well, it won’t hurt for you to miss a day. And Bill? You’re calling in sick, too. I’ll get us some breakfast.”

            Bill’s lips lifted in a half smile. “Already did, from the hospital. Thank you, honey.”

            As Libby measured flour and cracked eggs, Bill and Abby took their customary seats at the kitchen table. For a few long moments, Bill sat with his head in his hands. “Dad?” Abby broke the silence. “What’s wrong with Uncle Vince? I’m old enough to know.”

            Libby slid a platter of pancakes onto the table. “Eat first. Then talk.” She poured orange juice for Abby and strong coffee for Bill and herself. Sitting and reaching across the table, she grasped Abby’s and Bill’s hands. Bill clasped Abby’s free hand and the trio bowed their heads. Libby prayed. “Heavenly Father, we thank Thee. Bless this food to our bodies and give us strength for this day. Watch over Vincent and heal him. Amen.”

            The pancakes were soon gone. Libby made no move to clear the table nor did she prompt Abby to do so. Abby asked, “Dad?”

            The sound that escaped Bill Morrow as he scrubbed his dark stubble was long and low, almost a growl. “Your Uncle Vince is an alcoholic. He can’t live with his whiskey and he can’t live without it, either.”

            “Why?”

            “Vinnie drinks to forget and when he is drunk, he does irresponsible things. But when he is sober, he can’t live with his memories.”

            “What memories?”

            “Oh, child. It goes back a long, long way. Our great-grandfather’s name was not ‘Morrow.’ It was Müller. He came from Germany and changed his name when he arrived at Castle Gardens. You know Vince had a twin brother, Francis, right?”

            “He died in the war, didn’t he?”

            “Yes. During the Depression, jobs were scarce. Vince and Frank enlisted in the Army. I tried to enlist with them but was turned down because of my eyes. I joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, instead. That’s where I met your mother. But that’s another story. Anyway, when war broke out, Vince and Frank were in the same unit and they were sent to fight on the European front. If the Army had known they were German, they would have been sent to the Pacific instead. As it was, they survived D-Day and the fighting that followed. Whenever there was a lull, they were sent on burial details. Didn’t matter if the dead were American, British, French, or German…they all deserved as decent a burial as could be managed. Besides the fighting and death all around them, one of the worst shocks Vinnie and Frank had was when they found a dead German soldier. He couldn’t have been much older than fifteen or sixteen…and his name was Müller. It’s a common enough name, but Vinnie couldn’t shake the feeling he was burying his cousin. Then came Germany’s surrender. Vinnie and Frank took part in liberating Dachau, the concentration camp. What they saw there… Vinnie could never really talk about it. One day, when they were clearing the perimeter of the camp near the mass graves, Frank stepped on a land mine. Vinnie saw it happen. The Army sent them home, then…Frank in a sealed coffin and Vinnie in a straight jacket. Vinnie was in a psychiatric ward at Walter Reed for a year. They said it was shell shock. He was eventually released, but he was never the same. And once he was on his own, he started drinking. That’s where he is still today. The hospital doctors said they would put him on a 30 day psychiatric hold, so he will be safe for a while. This won’t be the first time, and I doubt it will be the last.”

            “But Dad. That was so long ago.”

            “Sweetie, it’s only been twenty years. I know that’s way before you were born, but to Vinnie, it might have been yesterday. And just turn on the news and there it is right in front of us all over again. It’s just too much for him to take.” Bill turned to Libby. “Honey, I need to get some air. You and Abby should get some sleep.” He stood, kissed his wife, ruffled Abby’s hair and walked out the back door.”

            “Your father’s right. We could both do with a nap – right after we get this table cleared and dishes done.”

——————————————————————-

             Spring came early in 1965. By the first of May, temperatures were already in the 80s and even with the windows open, Abby’s classroom was unbearably hot. She couldn’t wait for summer vacation, just six weeks away. Uncle Vince had been staying with them since his release from the hospital. Abby had just about gotten used to being wakened in the night by his screams. After one of his nightmares, he would sit at the breakfast table hollow-eyed, over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Abby’s Mom didn’t like him smoking in the house, but recognizing his fragile condition, she allowed it. After class let out for the day, Abby walked over to the high school for choir practice. All the eighth-grade classes in town would be singing together at the Memorial Day service at Riverside Cemetery, and once a week the massed choir gathered for rehearsal. She hummed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as she walked. From the high school, she caught the bus and rode with her father as he drove his last route of the day. Abby loved riding the bus with her father. He was always kind to all his passengers and Abby would tease him about this woman or that woman whom she declared had a crush on him.  Parking the bus in the barn and clocking out, the pair rode home together as Abby chattered on about the events of her school day and the antics of some of the Jefferson school boys during rehearsal.

            Their happy mood vanished as a distraught Libby met them at the door. “He’s gone! Bill, he’s gone! I went to let Vince know supper would be soon and he wasn’t in his room. His closet is empty and his duffel bag is gone. And I found two empty whiskey bottles in the back of the closet. And there’s money missing from the teapot. We have to find him!”

            Bill engulfed his wife in a hug. “Sh, sh, sh. We knew this was likely to happen. This has probably been the longest time Vinnie has been sober in a decade.”

            “Daddy?”

            Bill pulled Abby into their embrace. Libby sobbed, “I know. I know. But I thought that this time…this time…if he knew how much we cared for him, if he knew how much he was loved, that this time he might heal.”

            “Sometimes healing doesn’t come this side of heaven. You know that.” Bill nuzzled the top of Abby’s head. “Sweetie, why don’t you change and wash up. Your Mom and I need to talk.”

            “No, Dad. If it’s about Uncle Vince, I want to know, too.”

            Bill looked at Libby. She nodded. He sighed. “Alright then. Let’s go sit down and we’ll talk. They settled on the couch in the living room. Bill asked, “How much money is missing, Libby?”

            “A twenty dollar bill. There’s still another twenty in small bills and change left. He didn’t take it all.”

            “He wouldn’t. I might be able to find him if he’s stayed in town. But if he’s bought a bus ticket to Chicago, we’ll have to wait for him to come back. Of course, if he’s thinking clearly enough, he might be headed for the Veteran’s Hospital at Great Lakes. He’s done that before. I’ll give them a call. I’ll check the Rescue Mission and the AA club here in town. And I’ll check with Pastor Carrington. He’s been meeting with Vinnie.”

            “Will you be able to find Uncle Vince, Dad?”

            “I don’t know sweetie. I just don’t know. But I won’t stop looking.”

————————————————————————————-         

            A knock at the door at 3:00 in the morning is rarely the harbinger of good news. Abby Morrow heard her parents’ footsteps outside her bedroom door and muffled voices in the front hall. She stumbled out of bed and into the darkened living room, just as her mother turned on the lights and her father showed a police officer and Pastor Carrington to seats on the sofa. The two men pointed a glance in her direction, but her father said, “She can stay.”

            Abby asked the question her family all had, “Have you found Uncle Vince?”

            The men nodded. It was the preacher who spoke. “Some teenagers out spooning found him at Walker’s Point. It took them a while to find a phone to call an ambulance. Then they took off. It looks like he was beaten up pretty bad. I was at the hospital for one of our parishioners who was dying when they brought him into the emergency room. He was still conscious, and as far as I could tell, quite sober. We talked about your brother Frank and Jesus and heaven. He said how grateful he was for the love your family had shown him. He…he confessed his faith in Jesus Christ and said he looked forward to seeing Frank again. And then…well, and then, he was gone. I suppose we could have waited until morning to bring you the news, but I just felt, and the police felt, that you should know as soon as possible.”

            Libby began to weep and Abby felt the tears welling in her own eyes. Bill cleared his throat, cleared it again. “Thank you. Thank you for finding Vinnie. Thank you for coming to tell us.”

            The men stood. The officer held out his hand. “My condolences on your loss. I knew Vinnie. He was an okay guy.” Bill shook the man’s hand.

            “If you need help with the arrangements, I will be available later today.” Pastor Carrington patted Bill on the shoulder.

            As Libby and Abby held each other, Bill said once more, “thank you,” and showed the men to the door. Then he gathered his family to himself.

            The funeral for Vincent Alexander Morrow was held on Wednesday. On Sunday, May 30, after church, Abby’s family drove to Riverside Cemetery. Abby joined her fellow eighth-graders on the risers in front of the chapel, each holding a small American flag. If she looked in the right direction, she could just make out the raw mound that marked a new grave. She wiped her eyes, cleared her throat, and with her choir mates opened her mouth. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”

              

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Amazing Grace

Grace Goodenow was a church lady…perhaps the quintessential church lady. She had served her time in the nursery and teaching and coordinating Sunday School, Awana, and Vacation Bible School. She had composed and printed the church bulletins and calendar before they had gone online. She had laundered, ironed, and mended altar linens, choir robes, and stoles – back when they had altar linens, choir robes and stoles. She had painstakingly rubbed Murphy’s Oil Soap onto dozens of pews, wooden pulpits, and offering tables, and altars – back when they had pews, wooden pulpits, and altars; shampooed and vacuumed plush, red, woolen carpets – back when…you get the picture. Yes, the quintessential church lady who had done it all.

            What Grace Goodenow was best known for was her culinary prowess. She could make a sheet pan of macaroni and cheese (back before it became popular) or scalloped potatoes and ham an epicurean delight. And her desserts! Hidden along the back wall of her pantry were thirty years of blue ribbons from the county fair for her pies, quick breads, and cakes. From the quarterly pot blessing dinners, to baby dedication buffets, to funeral lunches, Grace Goodenow was in high demand.

            Or, at least – she was.

            Grace had expected change when the new pastor was installed and was prepared to weather it. After all, hadn’t she survived the change from choir to worship band (in skinny and holey jeans instead of choir robes – on the plus side, they no longer had to endure the off-key soprano of Matilda Mortensen), from hymnals to computer generated and projected lyrics (complete with animation!) and from gleaming oak pews to comfortable padded chairs (complete with cup holders!)? However, there was change…and then there was CHANGE. The new pastor was young – young enough to be Grace’s grandson, that is, if she had ever had children. For Grace, the small congregation of fifty or so souls, excluding children, was all the family she had since her parents and elder siblings had passed. Pastor Trevor had been officially installed three weeks ago, but this coming Sunday, Easter, would be his first official service.

            Grace sighed as she unlocked the side door. Gone was the solid oak portal with massive iron hinges. Instead, she faced a sheet of plate glass – bulletproof – she had been told. It was just one of the renovations made possible by Evangeline Edmonton’s endowment. (Who knew Vangie had amassed such a fortune?) Grace stepped into the hallway behind the stage. This at least hadn’t changed and the red carpet was soft beneath her feet. What greeted her in the sanctuary was a world of difference. The shiplap behind the pulpit was an ultramarine so deep it was almost black. No cross, but the name of Jesus stenciled in white across the broadest board. The remaining walls were dove grey, accented with white and ultramarine trim, the flooring thin, dark charcoal grey carpet. Ironwork in the form of words, “believe,” “love,” “thankful,” “trust,” and “faith” alternated with color-coordinated, almost abstract paintings along the walls. A single Easter lily on a low column sat in front of the Plexiglas pulpit.

            Making her way into the lobby, she surveyed the same grey, white, and ultramarine colors. Tiny bistro tables with tall, metal chairs lined the wall opposite the coffee bar. Last Sunday, in a reversal of roles, Grace had observed frail Mrs. Harman and her grandson as the lad boosted the tiny woman onto the high chair where she sat with her feet dangling. The fellowship hall was more of the same – grey, white, deep blue. Grace missed the painstakingly stitched, embroidered and tatted lace wall hangings created by the women of past generations. Instead, abstract grape vines and sheaves of wheat in hammered metal snaked along the walls. It was all so trendy. It was all so…sterile. The grey pressed in on Grace like a sunless, cloudy November day. Grace noticed crumbs spangling the dark carpet beneath the children’s tables. The hired cleaning crew would get that before Sunday, but Grace could not leave it. She pulled the vacuum cleaner from the utility closet in the kitchen and suctioned up the debris. The kitchen was one room of which Grace approved. The renovations committee had run out of funds before they could do more than replace the aging refrigerators, freezer, and range. The birdseye maple cupboards gleamed with generations of polish and the buttercup yellow walls were as welcoming as sunshine after a storm. Grace

            Opening a cupboard, Grace took out the communion elements and filled the trays. She tsked. Ever since the pandemic, the church used pre-filled and sealed plastic cups with tasteless white wafers. The cups were nefariously difficult to open, especially for the older members of the congregation, so Grace used a butter knife to carefully pry up the little tabs – just enough to make them easy to grasp, but not break the seal. Grace glanced at the eight-burner, stainless steel range and sighed. She would not be needing it this week. She would not be coming the afternoon of Holy Saturday to boil and color twelve dozen eggs. She would not be coming in at sunrise Easter morning to prepare ten of her famous quiches for the traditional Easter breakfast. Instead, the new pastor had decreed their church would be joining five other churches to host a community brunch and egg hunt at the senior community center. Of course, Grace had offered to help but had been informed that the two largest congregations had it all under control.

            Grace carried the filled trays into the sanctuary, setting them on a side table. At least this tradition had not changed. Her task complete, she wandered through the nursery, the children’s room, the classroom, and the restrooms, double checking that all was in order. The cleaning crew would be in tomorrow, Thursday, to do a deep clean, but it never hurt to be certain. The worship band would be in later this evening to rehearse, but for now, Grace had the church to herself. She took her usual seat in the chapel and bowed her head but found it hard to pray. Before the renovation, the familiar sanctuary held the welcome of an old friend. Now she was distracted by every little difference. Finally, she rose, left by the side door, checked to be sure it was securely locked behind her, and went home.

            At home, Grace felt almost as lost as she had at church. With no family nearby, and none of her usual church chores to occupy her, Grace had no idea what to do. She watered the pot of yellow tulips on her dining room table and dusted the furniture. The only decoration was a crystal basket filled with Psanky eggs on the coffee table in the living room. She briefly considered going grocery shopping to purchase a small ham to prepare for Easter dinner as was her custom instead of attending the community brunch. She thought of calling her niece and wangling an invitation to celebrate with her family. Now that would be a change! Easter service with no Grace Goodenow. Wouldn’t that set a few tongues to wagging! Grace could do it. Her car was in excellent condition and if she paced herself, she could manage the 320 mile drive on Good Friday, have Saturday to recover, spend Easter with Dottie’s family, and drive back on Monday. But no. If Grace knew one thing, she knew where her duty lay. “Enough moping!” Grace thought. She would still attend the Good Friday service at the assisted living center. And if she didn’t need to bake for church, she could deliver eggs and cookies to the women’s shelter. Grace might not be needed by her church, but she could still find things to do to fill her week.

            Daylight came late on Easter Sunday and it was the roar of a snow blower instead of sunshine that woke Grace. She peeked out her front door and waved at her neighbor Chuck who was clearing three inches of April slush from her sidewalk and driveway. The sky overhead was an even darker grey than the church décor. Well, that would put a damper on the egg hunt on the community center lawn. With plenty of time, since she had no baking to do, Grace enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and still was one of the first to arrive at church, guaranteeing a good parking spot. But when she walked into the sanctuary Grace was astonished to find a stranger sitting in her spot…and not just her spot, his family took up the entire row. Grace knew precisely where each regular member of the congregation sat. There was no way she could usurp a fellow parishioner’s seat. That meant she would have to find a chair among the “Chreasters,” those folks who showed up only for Christmas and Easter. It was just too much, the last straw, the breaking point. Grace did an about face and marched out to her car.

            Grateful for the heavily tinted windows, hands upon the steering wheel and head upon her hands, Grace Goodenow wept. Her heart wailed, “Lord! Haven’t I served You all these years? Haven’t I served Your people? Why must You take everything I know and love and take comfort in away from me?” The tears didn’t last long. Grace was, after all, made of sterner stuff. Yet at the same time, she did not feel like attending the service. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose on a napkin and leaned back in her seat considering her options. And that was when stern, practical, tradition-loving Grace Goodenow received the surprise of her life.

            “Grace, Grace. You are worried about so many things. Service and duty are all well and good, but do you not know how much the Father loves you? It is not for what you do but for who you are. Change is but an opportunity to grow, to prepare you for the ultimate change when you see Me face to face. Your friends inside have chosen the best part, to worship Me in spirit and in truth and it shall not be taken from them.”

            The voice was not audible, but the words were unmistakable. The impact of them hit Grace with a shock that set every nerve on fire. Her tears were no longer tears of frustration but of wonder. Wonder and love and submission. For a few moments she sat, breathing deeply and shaking. Then she grabbed more napkins and mopped her face. Once she felt more in control, she reached for the door handle. Grace was startled by a gentle tapping. Standing beside her car were Pastor Trevor’s young sons Timothy and Jonathan. Jonathan held a small, brightly colored basket. “Miss Grace? Miss Grace, are you okay? Daddy sent us to look for you when he didn’t see you. He asked us to come get you.”

            “Yes, yes boys, I’m fine. I was just about to come in.” Grace got out of her car. Jonathan handed her the basket.

            “This is for you. Daddy said we were s’posed to ‘company you to your seat.” Timothy reached out to take Grace’s empty hand. Together the threesome entered the church. They walked past the “Chreasters” in the back row. They walked past Grace’s usual seat in the middle of the room. They walked up to a row of chairs marked, “reserved.” There was one seat left. Filling the other seats in the row were the Sunday School teachers Fred Matthews, Jennifer Porter, and Cicely Brown, the Sunday school coordinator Melissa Patrick, and church secretary Connie Adams, Matilda Mortenson, and Walter Dombrowski, the former church custodian. The little boys waited until Grace sat down then went to join their mother.   

            Pastor Trevor opened with a reading of the Resurrection. The worship band led off with the old hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen, Today” before singing a medley of more contemporary songs. Grace entered into worship more deeply than she had ever done before, not even noticing Matilda’s off-key soprano just two seats away. Pastor Trevor stepped up to the pulpit again.

            “Change,” he said. “Today is all about change. It is Easter Sunday and the most profound change to ever happen on the surface of this planet happened this day some 2,000 years ago. For on this day, the mortal body of Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and the fate of every person living, dead, and yet to be born, who would place their faith in Him alone, was changed. As Jesus died as the atonement for our sins and offered the world His Father’s forgiveness, our fate, our deserved destiny, was changed from eternal separation from the glory of God to an eternal home in heaven.” He continued on for several minutes more. “Yet there is one more change coming. The Apostle Paul tells us that when Christ returns, we shall all be changed. In the twinkling of an eye, we shall be changed. What will that look like? I don’t know, but the Apostle John writes, ‘we do not know what we shall be, but we shall be like Him for we shall know as we are known.’ And that is a change worth looking for.”

            Pastor Trevor continued. “We celebrate the risen Christ and our new life in Him by sharing in the meal He instituted on the night before He was betrayed. All who are believers in the saving grace of Jesus Christ are welcome to partake. But before the elders pass out the communion elements, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the people who are sitting in the front row. You may have noticed upon entering this morning the reserved sign on the row of seats that typically, in most churches always remains empty. The very special people sitting in this row are those who have either in the past or to this day serve each and every one of you in this church, and whose ministry is every bit as important as my own. Would you please all stand?”

            Grace rose with the men and women seated with her to the applause of Pastor Trevor and the congregation. Her cheeks burned pink as she recalled her thoughts of the week past. But then the words she had heard an hour earlier echoed in her mind. “I guess change can be good after all,” she thought. And enjoyed the best Easter ever.   

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The Ends Justify the Memes

We seem to be living in a meme-driven culture. The word “meme” did not exist when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact it was invented in 1976 by renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins, to describe a means of transmitting cultural ideas and/or norms much the way a gene transmits information in a biological body. Common usage has shifted the definition slightly, from Dawkins’ original intent, to broadly mean any image, pictoral or graphic, and usually humorous or sarcastic, that reduces a complex idea to simple terms and makes it easily reproducible.

Like emojis, memes have become a common shorthand for expressing ideas and opinions. As a meme goes viral over the world’s information systems, it first informs, but as it becomes ubiquitous, it begins to influence. And that is where the problem lies. For, to the creator of the meme, that is its ultimate goal. To influence. The meme creator has a situation in mind, generally a situation of which he or she disapproves. Without laying out reasoned arguments as to why that situation is bad, a meme ridicules the notion, appealing to emotion rather than logic. As the meme is copied and distributed, i.e., goes viral, spinoff memes, either in support of or opposed to the original are created until the original concept itself becomes “common knowledge” and thus indisputable.

I did not intend to write a treatise on the development of the meme. Instead, I had been seeing a number of memes on the feeds of friends and family that have been raising red flags. Those are the memes regarding self-care. On the surface, the memes advocating for putting oneself first, avoiding “toxic” people and circumstances and being gentle with one’s own flaws and peccadillos, seem harmless and even beneficial. But are they?

I’m a Christian. I was raised in the Church, and not only the Church but in a parochial school organized, administered, and taught by nuns and priests of the Dominican Order. In the Roman Catholic Church, after the Jesuits, the Dominicans maintain the strictest academic rigor and discipline. Or, at least they did through the 1960s and into the 1970s. During the nine months of the school year, I attended church six days a week. I received religious instruction five days a week. Beside the institutional rules and regulations of the Church, the most frequent topic of instruction was the parables and words of Jesus Christ. One-hundred and eighty days a year times twelve years. minus a few sick days, equals more than 2,100 days of instruction. That tends to stick with a person.

So what did Jesus and by extension, my teachers have to say about self-care in the 1960s. Well, in the red letters, Jesus says, “whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.” He tells the parable of the landowner returning after a long journey. The landowner says to his servant, “Prepare me a meal. Serve me. Then you can go have your own meal.” Jesus then says his followers are to consider themselves like that servant and when commended respond, “I am only an unworthy servant doing my duty.” Jesus tells men who say they wish to follow Him, but have other needs to take care of first, that they are not worthy to become His followers. The Apostle Paul tells us to be imitators of Christ. And then Scripture reminds us that “Christ, being the fullness of deity, emptied Himself to become a man.”

Whew!

Duty, discipline, putting others first…that does not sound like self-care. So where did this idea arise? In the mid-1970s, as a college student, I began hearing many teachings on the Greatest Commandment. You know the one: “Love the Lord, your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength.” The instruction went on to the Second Greatest Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Bible study leader invariably went on to explain, “a person cannot love his neighbor until he first loves himself.” For someone raised on the pillars of duty and discipline, that was an eye-opening interpretation. It was a valid and salubrious correction to legalism. If it had remained as just that, all would have been good.

However, it did not remain there. In the ensuing four decades, “loving yourself” has gone from understanding that we should have the same image of ourselves that God has, i.e., that we are creatures He loves and values and therefore so is everyone else, to idolization of the self. Having God’s perspective of our worth is strong and necessary medicine for a person who had endured abuse of one form or another. Loving oneself as God loves the individual is the only path to healing for someone who has been degraded by another. For an abused person to be able to say, “I did not deserve abuse. The abuse was not my fault. I will no longer tolerate being abused” is a healthy and good thing.

Airline safety instructions say that in case of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from above. If a passenger is traveling with a child or disabled person, the passenger must first secure his or her own mask before attempting to help someone else. In other words, the person must first take care of him or herself before attempting to aid someone else. That is common sense. I hear that rationale applied now to everyday life. “I cannot be a good wife/husband/father/mother/adult child/employee, etc., unless I see to my own needs first. But what are those needs? Basic physical needs…food, water, clothing, sleep…of course. Yet now I see the list of “needs” ever expanding: affirmation is required for everything one does, says, or believes. Like C. S. Lewis’ drunk on a horse, we have gone from falling off on the side of legalism and being a doormat to falling off on the side of selfishness. And our culture is celebrating that mindset.

We need to find the balance once more. We need to have God’s perspective of who we are: loved and treasured by Him. Then with that knowledge firmly planted within our minds and hearts, we need to learn from Christ’s example. To heed the words of the Apostle Paul, and not esteem ourselves more highly than ourselves. To give ourselves in service and obedience to Jesus. To not only tolerate but love those “toxic” people. And in doing so, find that God Himself will take care of us and store up treasure for us in heaven.

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Signs of Spring

Signs of Spring

Maple taps…the sap is running. Amazing how that works, isn’t it. The sap needs warm weather to reawaken it so it can feed the tree, but it also needs cold nights to produce a good flow with a high nutrient (sugar) content. God says of Scripture, and of Himself, taste and see how sweet. Just like the maple tree, we need to store that sweetness deep in our roots for the dormant seasons, but then we need let it flow and nourish others.

Melting snow…step outside. You can’t actually hear the snow melt, but you can hear the sound of running water…in the culverts on country roads, down the sidewalks in the town and just about everywhere. And just as water is running freely everywhere at this turn of the seasons, believers are to be streams of living water, sharing the gospel. Sure, some may only be a trickle while others are a river, but even a little rivulet brings new life.

Longer days…Isn’t it wonderful to step outside at 7:00 in the evening and still have light? Just about everyone responds to the lengthening of days with a spring in their step and a lightness in their moods. It’s as if our bodies know that our Creator designed us to be creatures of light…creatures craving and seeking His light and the light of His word.

Birds calling…in the Song of Solomon, spring is signaled by the calling of the turtledove. Around here, the cardinals have been hanging out at our feeder all winter. But now the males are staking out their territories, perching on the highest branches and singing their songs over and over again. Sure a naturalist might say it’s just instinct, but they sing with such joy and passion and persistence! Surely we can sing our Father’s praise with joy and passion and persistence, too.

Crocuses and snowdrops…such tiny, delicate flowers. Yet, they are able to push their way up through rock-hard frozen soil, spread their leaves out to the pale sunlight even with snow half-covering them and bloom with abandon in harsh circumstances. We are called to bloom where we are planted and to bear fruit…or blossoms…to bless others.

Ice break-up and rising rivers and creeks…even the smallest creek is choked with blocks of melting ice and out of its banks with snowmelt. Beautiful as Spring is, there are dangers associated with it. Small streams can carry away surprising amounts of soil and even roadways and bridges. Larger rivers can reach far from their banks into yards and basements and block roads and cause immense damage and even loss of life. Whatever is not firmly grounded can be swept away. Just so a believer not firmly grounded in Scripture and in fellowship with a local church can get swept away by the powerful currents of the world around us.

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The Zombie Within

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Romans 6:3-4

Zombies are “in” right now. Movies and YouTube videos and even television commercials are made about zombies. Thousands play the game “Zombie Apocalypse” and entire internet forums are devoted to discussing the best way to prepare for and defend from an onslaught of zombies. I even have an acquaintance, a militant anti-theist who regularly rails against “your flying spaghetti monster in the sky” God and anything supernatural yet has a genuine, serious fear of zombies. Imagine that! Dismissing the eternal and very real God of the universe as a mental aberration at best and an outright lie at worst but fearing an imaginary, fictional creature! Well, I have news for my anti-theist friend…and for you as well. Zombies are real. Yes, you read that right. See, a zombie in Voodun tradition is a person who has died, been buried, and then been brought back to life but without a soul…in other words, an animated corpse.

The zombie master then sends the undead creature out to perform his will and destroy all life it comes in contact with.

“No such thing!” you scoff.


The truth is, every Christian has a zombie within. As the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans, when we believed and received the truth of Jesus Christ, we died with Him. Like a zombie, our old nature – the old Adam, the old Eve – was buried, not in earth, but in the waters of baptism. Like a proper corpse, that old nature is supposed to stay dead and buried. But there is a zombie master, our adversary the devil. And he calls forth our inner zombie to rise from its watery grave. All too often, he succeeds.


But there is good news. Ask any fifth-grader how to destroy a zombie and he will respond, “Shoot it in the head!” That’s right…aim for the head…and the heart. Filling your mind with the transforming, living power of the word of God is the necessary ammunition for annihilating the zombie within.

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So This Is How It Is

I grew up Roman Catholic. There. I’ve said it. Baptized at one month, First Communion age seven, Confirmation age ten, twelve years of parochial school — run by the Dominicans, no less. (For those unfamiliar with the Catholic religious orders, the Dominicans are just one step removed from the Jesuits when it comes to emphasis on doctrine and academic rigor) I had pretty much given up on God because it seemed to me that He had given up on me by age fifteen, although I didn’t announce the breakup to my parents until I graduated from St. Catherine’s High School at seventeen. My father simply said, “Your decision.” My mother cried.

At age 20, God had chased me down through the persons of Sue Dubinsky Twombly, Steve Pederson, and Tony Burke. I tried for a year to reintegrate into the Catholic Church, even to the point of teaching Sunday Preschool. It didn’t work. So I entered the world of Evangelicalism. It was like stepping into a Baskin Robbins. What flavor should I choose this month? Some of the flavors were interesting indeed: Christian Reformed, Assemblies of God (can one get more polar opposites?), Independent Bible Church, Baptist, Methodist, and narrowly escaped a Shepherding house church movement. Finally, I ended up where I am — a tiny, Charismatic congregation affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Assemblies that meets in a former funeral home.

I don’t mention my Catholic background much, except among my church family. Partly because of my extensive, extended family (I have/had 65 first cousins, all raised Catholic) that includes priests, nuns and even a bishop. Of course, that same extended family now includes atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and Unitarians. Mostly it’s because I don’t want to offend, but it has oalso been due to comments from my Uncle Red to my mother: “Don’t worry. She’ll come back (to the Catholic Church), unless she marries a Mennonite.”

Without a doubt, my Catholic education has colored what I believe. Yes, in my doctrine heavy religion classes for twelve years I paid attention. (I was also asking questions beginning in second grade that got me into trouble) There are elements that I miss. But I don’t foresee going back. Yet there are doctrinal points that Evangelicals can learn from. The biggest one is unanswered prayer — especially when it comes to healing.

After breaking several bones in childhood, I developed juvenile arthritis. I also suffered from severe dysmenorrhea, and had a go-round with ovarian cancer at age eleven. That was the physical aspect. From first grade onwards, I was the subject of intense bullying that included third degree sexual assault by older boys in my school when I was in sixth grade. At home, by age eight, my father was disabled and bipolar and our family fell into poverty. That was the psychological/emotional aspect. Regular, though intermittent physical pain combined with psychological trauma led to pervasive depression. Is it any wonder I gave up on God?

God did not give up on me, though at times I still wonder about that. See, as I’m rapidly closing in on 70, the pain hasn’t gone away. The arthritis has continued to worsen to the point the orthepedist bluntly stated I need new knees. After an overdue appointment with my new primary physician, I was referred to a cardiologist. Fortunately, the ticker is still ticking away fine. But conflicting theories from a rheumatologist and a neurologist still have not explained why I am partially blind in my left eye. The cardiologist printed out the list of ailments, illnesses, disorders with which I have been diagnosed. It filled an entire page. Physical pain is a daily companion. Negative changes in my circumstances, such as the deaths of my eldest sister and her youngest son, the imminent departure of friends to far away, trigger a recurrence of depression.

If you’re still reading this far, I am both impressed and somewhat astonished. In the Charismatic circles where I have landed, there is a huge emphasis on healing. Even back in my college days, I was told my physical ailments could be relieved if I simply had more faith. Over the years, in my church, many messages have been given, in a challenging tone, that it is God’s desire to heal and that depression is a choice. Along with those words comes the unspoken implication that if one is not healed, that if one still struggles with depression, one simply does not have enough faith…which of course, leads to feelings of guilt which leads to greater depression.

Over against this Evangelical doctrine of healing is the Catholic doctrine of suffering. As a schoolchild, I was introduced to stories of the lives of the saints in first grade. At the tender age of six, I began learning of the suffering and torments of the martyrs. A little older, and I learned those early church fathers (and mothers), if they were not under active persecution, often sought out physical pain in the form of the misericord, hair shirts, or chafing chains. Why? Because the Apostle Paul wrote that it was a privilege to share in the sufferings of Christ. I knew by the time I was seven years old that Paul had asked God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” three times and that God had said, “No.” That God had said His grace was sufficient. And so Paul said he would glory in his weakness so God’s glory would be magnified. Thus, at a age ten, after having walked the four blocks to school on crutches and grumbling about it, my teacher told me to hush up and “offer it up” and to be grateful I was being counted worthy of partaking in Christ’s suffering.

That is where I am today. I have prayed for relief from both the physical pain and the psychological darkness that engulfs me. My Pastor, the members of my congregation, my friends have prayed the same — countless, innumerable times. Yet even as I type this, my knees ache and a there is a shadow over the bright sunshine. And I wonder how many other people find themselves in the same place…caught up in some sort of pain or darkness and wondering why.

Yes, I know there will be some who will say that old Catholic doctrine of suffering is exactly what prevents my healing. There will be certain Evangelicals who will say that the gifts of healing ceased with the canonization of the Bible. And I suppose there will be some Catholics who will say that God only grants miracles to those who are especially worthy. What matters is this: the reality is that some people are healed and some are not. Some will only experience healing on that day when they stand face to face with God. And somehow, don’t ask me how — I don’t know, God’s glory will be made known in that weakness. Until that day, God’s grace is, must be sufficient. All I ask is that fellow believers offer that same grace.

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Groundhog

Jason Geldworth drew a shuddering breath. In the waning glow of his headlamp he could see the tunnel he had been traversing the past four hours continued to narrow. Now, he could no longer crawl on his hands and knees, but was forced onto his belly with forward progress laboriously earned by digging in his elbows and pulling his body along. He fought to still his mind, the thought of the 200 feet of rock and soil above him bearing down on his crawl space threatened to crush him as surely as the inhospitable Mars surface itself. It was time for a rest. He was barely able to pull his supply pack past his ribs to retrieve a bottle of water. After a carefully measured four swallows, he switched off his headlamp, closed his eyes and listened. Aside from his ragged breathing and pounding heart, nothing. Silence. Blessed silence. In the colony, even in his 6’ by 8’ privacy pod, it was never silent. In the enveloping dark, in the cushioning silence, Jason slept.

Jason was a groundhog. The colony was divided into four echelons: the Corporation masters, the supervisors, the topsiders, and the groundhogs. The Corporation masters lived on the surface in domed communities. Rumor had it that each of them had his or her own four room house within the community. But that was just rumor. Jason had never seen it. He had never even seen the surface of Mars. The supervisors also had surface dwellings. While that was also communal housing, each supervisor had 100 square feet to call his or her own. The topsiders, although they shared bunk quarters with the groundhogs, spent their working hours on construction projects on the surface and their leisure hours in large caverns reserved for them where male and female topsiders could mingle freely. The groundhogs, like Jason, lived in gender segregated colonies consisting of their working space, a small commons area for non-working hours, and a privacy pod for sleep. Groundhogs were never allowed on the surface. As a groundhog, Jason spent ten hours a day in front of a computer screen monitoring oxygen levels in the domes and construction sites, weather – or at least as much weather as Mars had, and ore transport and traffic. Eight hours were allotted for sleep and the remaining six hours and 39 minutes were Jason’s free time – or at least as much as groundhogs, or even topsiders could ever count themselves free. 

As Jason slept, he dreamed. He dreamed of a second-floor apartment on Milwaukee’s north side. He could see pictures on the wall – pictures of a handsome man in a dark blue uniform with his arm around a pretty woman holding a swaddled baby – his father, his mother, and himself. Jason never really knew the man in the uniform; he had been killed in the line of duty during one of the many riots that ravaged the inner city. And while his mother bore a resemblance to the smiling woman in the picture, he could only see her with sadness in her eyes, graying hair, and premature wrinkles. But her voice. Oh, her voice. Jason could hear her voice…reading him stories, telling him about the man in the picture, singing him to sleep. With a chill, he also could hear her warnings: warnings to come directly home from school, warnings to not hang around the skate park, warnings of what the Corporation did with fatherless boys. Jason had ignored those warnings. Ignored them and had been caught up in one of the Corporation sweeps through his neighborhood. Children under the age of fifteen and children with two-parent homes were released. The others…  Jason soon found out the others were sent to a residential facility for a year. There, they underwent test after test to determine their strengths and abilities – and day after day of indoctrination. At the completion of the year, they were lined up to receive a physical. The last thing Jason remembered of his life on earth was the injection for the “vaccine.” When he next woke, he was on, or rather under, the surface of Mars.

Jason’s attempts to recapture the pleasant parts of his dream were what woke him. Panic nearly swallowed him as he felt the utter dark press in on eyes and mind. The fog cleared and he switched on his headlamp. Jason knew where he was now. He was escaping. Escaping to what, he didn’t know but for the moment to be out of the colony was enough. He looked at his chronometer. Twenty minutes. He had been asleep twenty minutes. They would know he was gone by now, but would they know where he had gone? Jason had been here two Martian years – nearly four earth years. By his reckoning, he was now 21, but such things as birthdays were not celebrated in the colonies. In fact, nothing that could remind a groundhog or a topsider of Earth was celebrated. That Jason could remember his past at all was an anomaly. Supposedly, the injection that sent him and all the other consignees into the long sleep erased all memory so that by the time they were wakened on Mars, they were blank slates – or almost blank slates – the Corporation’s indoctrination – the indoctrination that told them they were either groundhog or topsiders, were born either groundhogs or topsiders, and would always be groundhogs or topsiders owing total loyalty to the Corporation – was supposed to be the only thing they knew. 

Somehow, with Jason, the process failed. With that failure, from his very first day on Mars, Jason’s one thought was escape. After a few confused and  nearly disastrous attempts to discover what his fellow groundhogs remembered, Jason carefully kept his memories to himself. Yet he knew there were others like him, others who retained the memory of their life on Earth. Usually, they went mad. Now and again, a groundhog, and sometimes even a topsider, would lose it. The madness took several forms. Sometimes the person refused to come out of his privacy pod and report for shift. Other times he would start weeping, or screaming while on shift or in the commons or attempt to destroy his workstation. Some even managed to steal a pass to the access ports and head towards the surface. And some committed suicide. When it happened a squad of supervisors would descend, immobilize the person, and take them away, never to be seen again. Rumor had it they were taken to the surface and exposed where they perished in the thin Martian atmosphere. 

In Jason’s subterranean, Martian world, each colony was made up of interconnected caverns. One cavern held the workstations, another the commons area, and a third the privacy pods, bathing stations, and toilets. Meals were served in the commons and were delivered through the access ports. Jason knew that the food had to be prepared somewhere and he knew that the colonies also needed to be connected. As time went by and Jason’s skill at the monitors improved, he discovered he could tap into other channels than the ones he was assigned to monitor. He learned to hide his searches deep in the bowels of the vast memory banks to which the all the computers were connected and to limit his searching to no more than a minute at a time. It was in this way he discovered the tunnels, now long forgotten, between the colonies. With the exception of the spaceport, all the initial development on Mars had been underground. Only as the Corporation’s profits began to increase exponentially, were surface facilities developed, leaving the subterranean areas for the brainwashed and memory wiped workers. After two generations, general knowledge of the original underground network had disappeared.  It was to these tunnels Jason retreated when the memories and constant noise became too much for him. He was always cautious to be back where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there so as to allay suspicion.  After a mild Marsquake he found the crack. Over time, he picked away at it. The crack opened into a small cavern, but a natural cavern, not one that had been engineered. The cavern tapered as it went back, but the rear wall was not a wall at all but a bend. Beyond the bend was a tunnel, the tunnel Jason was now traversing. This tunnel was not on any of the charts of the early development of the Corporation’s Mars holdings, but as far as Jason had been able to determine, it ran parallel to the passage to the spaceport.

Jason had planned for months. He had squirreled away the energy bars groundhogs were given while at their workstations and retrieved a number of bottles from the recycler which he had filled with water. The headlamp he had cobbled together from bits and pieces he had scavenged from the topsiders’ quarters. The batteries had been a more difficult problem. He could only steal them one at a time and needed to allow weeks between thefts so the loss would not be noticed. The same, cautious process was needed to acquire the topsider protective clothing he now wore.

Another hour of squirming along on his belly passed. To Jason’s relief, the tunnel widened and he could once more crawl on hands and knees. One more hour and it would be time for Jason’s shift to begin. They would begin looking for him in earnest. Jason’s last theft had been a blatant one – an access port pass. He hoped the missing pass would direct the Supervisors’ search efforts to the surface. As much as was possible, Jason had wiped the history of his searches from his workstation computer, but a really talented programmer, like himself, would eventually be able to flnd it. By then, Jason hoped to be either long gone…or dead. An hour later, Jason’s progress came to a halt. Dead end. He could not go forward but he was never going back. Faced with a hopeless dilemma, exhaustion overtook Jason. He did the only reasonable thing he could think of. He slept.

A vibration and a bass rumble wakened Jason six hours later. Marsquake! Fear of being buried alive set Jason’s heart pounding, his breath escaping in rapid gasps. He could hear rocks tumbling in the darkness beyond the glow of his headlamp. Closing his eyes and clutching his knees to his chest, Jason could hear his mother singing to him when his fears ran rampant in his childhood nights. “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so…” He mouthed the words of the song that had soothed his boyhood fears and recollected the stories his mother had read him from the Bible. Was Jesus here on Mars? Jason prayed…and then slept some more.

All was quiet when Jason opened his eyes again. He had slept another two hours and his headlamp barely flickered. Jason switched out the batteries. In the renewed gleam, he examined his surroundings. Rocks had fallen next to the dead end. Above the fallen rubble, the end was now not quite so dead. A hole, two hands’ width wide and four hands’ width high gaped above the rubble pile. Jason thrust his headlamp through the opening and could see light reflected from machined walls. The spaceport tunnel! He pulled a purloined pickaxe from his supply pack and began widening the aperture. In half an hour, he was able to slip through the gap. What a relief! To be able stand upright once more! Jason stretched and groaned, working out the tight spots in his muscles. He was hungry and thirsty, so he dug into his rations. He wasn’t fully satisfied when he stopped eating, but he was feeling much better. He stowed the remaining food and water away, slung his pack over his shoulder, and began to walk. The tunnel floor before him was covered in a thick layer of unmarked dust.

Jason had progressed a quarter mile when he came upon a steel door set into the side of the tunnel. He tried the handle and to his amazement, the door swung silently open. As he entered, lights came on. This frightened him as he imagined a power surge appearing on one of the monitors. He swiftly shut the door and looked for something to secure it and was relieved to see that the door itself was equipped with a bar which he swung into place. Feeling safer, Jason looked around. He felt as though he had entered a time machine or a museum exhibit. Along the rear wall ran a bank of obsolete computers and communications equipment. Over the consoles a framed picture on the wall held the portrait of a boyish appearing man. The plaque on the frame read, “Elon Musk.” Comfortable chairs, not bolted to the floor, faced each screen. Two doors each graced the parallel walls. Opening them, Jason discovered the ones on the left led to privacy pods, though considerably larger than his own. Each held a bed, A chest of drawers, end tables on either side of the bed and shelves filled with books. Real books. On the right side of the room, one of the doors opened to a tiny bathroom. Driven by curiosity, Jason turned the tap on the sink. The tap sputtered and gurgled for a long minute before emitting a thin stream of brown water. Jason quickly turned it off. Water was precious on Mars and its use was carefully tracked. The other door led to a storeroom. Jason was amazed at what he saw. Apparently when these quarters were abandoned, no one saw fit to empty them. One side of the room sported shelves filled with prepackaged meals and bottled beverages. On the other side, more shelves held clothing, bedding, tools electronic equipment, and more books…equipment manuals. Jason could live here for weeks.

Happy to have a power source, Jason plugged in his stolen tablet. He had taken every precaution he knew to shield it. Now, he could listen in to communications in the colonies. It had been sixteen hours since his escape, ten hours since the search had begun. As he had hoped, the search had focused on the access port. After several hours, the supervisors concluded he had made it to the surface and perished outside. He was written off as a suicide and the case was closed. Now, unless someone picked up anomalies in power and water usage and tracked it down to these abandoned facilities, he was safe. And the good news was that after a Marsquake, there would be anomalies for weeks, if not months.

The next few days, Jason ate, slept, and equally devoured the equipment manuals and books. Especially valuable to him were the schematics of the spaceport. Even though they were 50 years old, the basics had not changed. With his tablet, Jason learned and memorized the routines and flight schedules of the spaceport. The antique coveralls in the storage room were not significantly different from those of the current crews. Jason also learned that the spaceport was one thing not owned and controlled by the Corporation. It had been endowed by the Mars Project founder, Elon Musk, and had successfully fended off every attempt by the Corporation to acquire it.

Three weeks later, Jason was ready. An Earthbound ship was scheduled to depart the following day. Jason had tapped into the ship’s inventory and had managed to offload sufficient cargo to account for his weight and supplies. He had acquired the necessary codes to gain entrance to the unguarded ship before the crew boarded. Tonight was the night. Dressed in the antique coveralls Jason emerged into the spaceport just after midnight. He found his way to the one pressurized cargo hold and set up his makeshift launch mattress. Mars might have lower gravity than Earth, but liftoff still generated a lot of G-force. Now he just had to wait and hope he wasn’t discovered before launch.

Liftoff occurred with the Martian dawn. Pressed into his mattress, Jason could scarcely breathe for several long minutes. He was past the point of no return. Now, he needed to make his presence known to the crew and hope they wouldn’t jettison him out the nearest airlock. Jason floated in the dark to the cargo hold door. As he turned the handle, lights came on and alarms sounded. He was quickly surrounded by two men and a woman. He had expected anger and hostility but was surprised to see only relief on their faces. Their crisis was merely a human being, not a mechanical failure. It took a bit, but once Jason explained who he was, the security team brought him to the ship’s captain.

Captain Elizabeth Sutton greeted her stowaway kindly. “This is a first. I’ve never heard of anyone escaping from one of the Corporation’s slave labor camps before. I am glad to know it can be done. Those things are an abomination! The question is now, what do we do with you? Mass, fuel, food and water are all carefully calculated down to the last ounce on these journeys. We have to account for that and feed you.”

Jason interrupted. “I brought food and water with me.”

“How enterprising. But enough for seven months?”

“Seven months? I didn’t know it took that long. It’s one thing I didn’t research. When I was taken, the last thing I remember is being given an injection and then waking up in my colony on Mars.”

Captain Sutton frowned. “Seven months under sedation. It’s a wonder you survived. I’ve heard that many don’t. Well, taking into account your own supplies, the rest of the crew can plan on short rations for the trip. We don’t dare short our Corporation passengers, however. And speaking of the Corporation, we also need to keep you out of their sight. Nice uniform, by the way. It’s old, but it almost looks like one of ours.”

“Captain,” the first mate interrupted, “that gives me an idea. Those Corporation types never pay attention to any of the crew other than yourself. So, if he looks like a crew member, what says he can’t become one?”

“Good point, Rogers. So, what skills do you have?”

Jason answered, “I’m A groundhog, A programmer. I hacked into the Corporation servers while I lived in the abandoned spaceport communications center.”

Sutton grinned. “Excellent. I can use that. You will be able to earn your passage back to Earth. Sutton, find quarters and a uniform for our newest crew member. And, Mr. Geldworth, welcome to the Muskmelons.”

Seven months later on February 2, Jason Geldworth stepped out of the Cargo ship Elon and into the Texas sunshine. And the groundhog saw his shadow.

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Transformation

Twenty-one, twelve. According to some folks, the world is supposed to end tonight. Others interpret the date to signify that rather than ending, the world will be transformed. If it is, it will not be the first time the world has been transformed. We celebrate the most significant transformation of the world just a few days from now…the coming of God to earth.

Ever wonder what the world was in the beginning? Scripture says it was “without form and void.” Other translations say, “formless and empty,” “waste and void,” “barren with no form of life.” And all covered by deep, dark waters. But then it was transformed. How? By the Spirit and the Word of the Living God.

God, Father, Son and Spirit, thought and then spoke. The land was gathered up into one place, the waters consigned to another. Light consolidated into flaming spheres; one set just close enough to warm and energize the earth and to reflect from moons and planets, the others flung across the expanse of space.

He spoke again and velvety grass, delicate flowers, nourishing grains, succulent fruit trees, towering redwoods all came into being. He spoke again and jeweled hummingbirds, majestic eagles, comical puffins, singing whales, tiny minnows, leaping porpoises, briliant corals, transparent jellyfish filled the skies and the seas. Another word and mighty lions, fluffy sheep, sleek pythons, lumbering elephants, playful otters, long-necked giraffes traversed the forests and fields. They acknowledged their Creator and all were at peace with each other.

Song:“All Creatures of Our God and King” verses one, two and five

When the earth was filled with His wonders, God selected the most beautiful flowers, the choicest fruit and trees and made a garden. There he put the crown of His creation: a man and a woman – drawn from the soil but filled with His breath of life, earthy yet god-like, made in His image. “Cultivate the earth, transform it,” He told them.

Transform it they did…but not as God intended. For they listened to the voice of the evil one and disobeyed the one command their Father had given them. The earth was indeed transformed. Thorns sprouted upon roses. Thistles invaded the grain. Lions devoured lambs. Mosquitoes sucked the blood of living beings.

At that point, the Creator could have abandoned his grand experiment to entropy and chaos. He could have destroyed it and begun again. Instead, he held out hope to the children of His heart. He promised a Redeemer…One who would transform not only the earth, but their very hearts. He spoke a word of encouragement: the Redeemer would be born of woman and defeat the evil one. (Genesis 3:15)


Song: Comfort, Comfort You My People – verse one

Adam and Eve lived a long time, nearly a millennium, according to the Bible. Some of their children walked with God; many did not. In just ten generations, all but eight of their descendants had forgotten the Lord…and God once more determined to transform the earth. Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives, together with pairs of all the creatures of the earth would be the only ones to survive this transformation. In just under a year and two months, the world was changed forever. As Noah and his family worshiped the Lord, God promised never to destroy the earth with water again.
Time and again, God wrought transformations – the transformation of a pagan tribesman into a man who not only spoke, but bargained with God; the transformation of a barren, elderly woman into a mother; the transformation of seventy people into a nation of millions; the transformation of a dreamer into rescuer; the transformation of a lowly, forgotten shepherd boy into a king; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Samuel, David…to them and through his prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Hosea, Micah, Zechariah, God repeated His promise of a coming Redeemer King. The promises were veiled in prophecy, and the One they described hardly fit the description of a king.


Time and again, the Lord called His people to transformation. Time and again, the people strayed. Yet always there was a remnant, a few who remained faithful, who yearned for the coming of the promise.


Song: O Come, O Come Emmanuel


In the fullness of time, God the Father again prepared to transform the earth, not through flood or earthquake or fire, but through Himself. Over and again God gave to his people prophecies of His coming…but not as a conquering hero who would crush their enemies, but as a suffering servant, One who would pay the price of mankind’s rebellion.


Song: Come Thou Long Expected Jesus


Once more as a result of their unfaithfulness and coldness of heart, God’s people felt the steel of oppression. Once more they cried out to Him for deliverance. And now the stage was set. In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. (Luke 1:5-7) Another barren old woman was about to be transformed into a mother and a doubting old man into a father.


Was this miracle child to be the One? No. But he would be a messenger, a herald, one who would go and tell when the time was right.


Song: Go Tell It On the Mountain


The transformations continued. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”


Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”


“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”


The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”


“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38)


An unsuspecting fiancé, surprised, shocked and disappointed to find that his beloved was suddenly pregnant, would be transformed into a rock of protection for his bride-to-be and his foster child. This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.


But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”


All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1: 18-21)


On the international stage, another transformation, centuries in the making had occurred. An enormous portion of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia had come under the control of one city…Rome. Wars, diplomacy, intrigue, murder, had consolidated absolute power into the hands of one man…Augustus Caesar. Whether he desired to know just how large his empire was, or more practically, how much wealth he could amass through taxation, he declared that a census be taken of all his empire. In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. (Luke 2: 1-4)


Song: O Little Town of Bethlehem


And there in the chilly fields of a tiny village the heavens were transformed by the appearance of the heavenly host to a band of outcast, frightened shepherds. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”


Song: Angels We Have Heard on High


Invisible to all but a few, earth became transformed by the appearance, in the form of a tiny baby, of the Son of God, born to a poor carpenter and his virgin wife. We all know the story…how she gave birth to a boy, swaddled Him in strips of cloths just like any ordinary baby, and put Him to bed in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough. Poor and outcast, shepherds came to worship Him. Later, wealthy men of science, astrologers, the Magi came to pay Him homage.


Song: We Three Kings


But then He vanished into obscurity…hardly the characteristic of a king…yet not for long. Last heard of as a boy of twelve, He returned as a man to preach the coming of a new transformation…the transformation not of the physical earth, but the transformation of people’s hearts

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Song: O Come All Ye Faithful

The story is not yet done. Darkness and earthquake signaled the next transformation as the price for our sin was paid upon a wooden cross on a forsaken hillside. And then death itself was transformed as Jesus conquered it and arose in glory. Frightened fishermen, tax collectors and rebels were transformed into bold messengers of a new world to come, one that has already begun. And as they were transformed, so to are we…and commanded to go forth into the world to continue its transformation.


Twenty-one, twelve. Some say the world will end tonight, others that it will be transformed. We who believe on the Son of God know that one more great transformation is coming…a transformation that will change all that is broken, evil, dark and frightening into a world of justice, righteousness, peace and glory. As we wait, with great anticipation, let this night be one in which He once more transforms our hearts.


Song: Silent Night

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A Service of Lessons and Carols

The Christmas story. It began in light and ends in light. For once upon a time, before there was time, the Creator God, together with His image, the Son and their Power, the Holy Spirit, existed in uncreated light. Then with the Spirit brooding over the face of the darkness, the Creator said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. And God saw that the light was good and God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light day and the darkness, he called night. Genesis 1:3-5

Into that created light, God planted a garden. And into that garden, God planted a man and a woman. In that perfect place, the man and the woman enjoyed both kinds of light, the created and the uncreated. For in the daytime, the bright new sun shone kindly upon them and in the evenings, the uncreated God of the universe with His glory but slightly veiled, walked hand in hand with the woman and the man, as a man might walk with friends. But the woman and the man listened to the voice of darkness. They listened, they sinned and they hid from the light. God knew what they had done and into the darkness of mankind’s sin He said to the servant of darkness, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed. You shall bruise his heel, but He shall crush your head.” So the promise was made to redeem the children of men. Genesis 3:15

Seed time and harvest followed each other without number. Again and again God chose certain men and women. Abraham was called to walk with God in a desert night. There under the light of myriads of stars, he was told to count the heavenly host. Just as innumerable as the stars would his descendants be. With Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David He made covenants and called the people to a life of holiness. He promised Moses, “The Lord your God will raise up a Prophet, like you from the midst of your brethren, and I will put words in His mouth and He will speak all that I command.” Deuteronomy 18:15

Again and again, the people turned from the light of His word, the light of His law, the light of His temple to the darkness. Again and again, God anointed prophets to renew His promises, to remind His people of the Light to come and to call His children back to Himself. In one such age, teetering on the edge of calamity, one such prophet spoke, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. And light shall shine upon those who live in a dark land. You will multiply the nation and increase Your people’s gladness. Their gladness, the gladness of harvest will be Your very presence among them.” Isaiah 9:2-3

Yet again the man of God spoke of a time to come, a time of promise, “The Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and His name shall be called ‘Immanuel”

which is ‘God with us.’ For unto us a Child will be born. Unto us a Son will be given. And the government shall rest upon His shoulders. And His name shall be called, Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of peace, there shall be no end.” Isaiah 7;14, 9:6-7

Carol: “Unto Us a Child Is Born”

Looking to the future, he said yet again, “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord, the uncreated light of heaven is risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples. But the glory of the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. The nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Isaiah 60:1-3

Carol: “Arise, Shine for the Light Has Come”

Still the people did not listen for long and calamity came. In the midst of captivity, the promise of the Creator did not die. God called yet more men and women to speak for Him and to them He gave visions of the light to come. “Behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven and He was brought near to the Ancient of Days. And there was given to Him dominion and the light of glory, that all nations, tribes and tongues should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away nor ever be destroyed.” Daniel 7:13

Even after the people returned to their land, even after the temple had been rebuilt, even though they no longer followed after strange gods, yet their hearts grew cold. The glory of the Lord departed from the temple and for 400 years, darkness covered the face of the world. Yet still, the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the darkness. From the realms of uncreated light, from the highest of heavens, “…in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee named Nazareth. He was sent to a virgin named Mary, engaged to a carpenter named Joseph who was of the house of David. And the angel came to her and said, ‘Greetings most favored one!…fear not Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive and bring forth a Son and you shall call His name, Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High God and the Lord shall give Him the throne of His father, David. He shall rule over the house of Jacob forever and of His kingdom, there shall be no end.” Luke 1:26-33

Carol: “Welcome to Our World”

So the Light of the universe left the splendor of heaven and entered the darkness of a woman’s

womb. The promise was about to be fulfilled. “Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of the whole inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to register for the census in the city of his forefathers. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the village of Nazareth, to Judea, the city of David, which is Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him and who was with child.” Luke 2:1-5

Carol: “Breath of Heaven”

“And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her first born Son and she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest rooms.” Luke 2:6-7

Carol: “Away In a Manger”

A manger. An animal’s feed trough in a dark, shallow cave. This was the cradle for the Light of the world, the birthplace of the promise of God, first spoken in the light of a garden many millennia ago. Though humble and crude, the stable could not contain the glory of eternity. “In the same region, there were shepherds staying out in the fields, keeping watch over their sheep by night. An angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were greatly afraid. The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people; for today in the city of David, there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace among men with whom He is well pleased.'” Luke 2:8-14

Carol: “Angels We Have Heard On High”

“And it came about when the angels had returned from them into heaven, the shepherds said among themselves, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the Baby as He lay in the manger. And when they had seen this, they made known all they had been told about the Child…and the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.” Luke 2:15-20

Carol: “What Child Is This”

The good news about the promise of God to redeem the children of men is that it was not given just to one people. Nor was the message delivered to just one, tiny, insignificant, occupied nation. The light was manifest far and wide. In a distant land, far to the east, scholars studied the light of heaven. A startling message was written upon the sky. “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, wise men, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’ When King Herod heard this, he was troubled and all of Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet, “and you, Bethlehem, land of Judah; are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah. For out of you shall come a ruler, who will shepherd my people, Israel.”‘” Matthew 2: 1- 6

Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

“Then Herod called the magi and sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go. Search for the Child. When you have found Him, report to me that I might come and worship Him too.’ And having heard the king, they went their way and lo, the star they had seen in the east went before them until it came and stood over where the Child lay. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. They came into the house and saw the Child with Mary, His mother. They fell down and worshiped Him and opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Matthew 2:6-11

Carol: “O Come All Ye Faithful”

Glowing angels, brilliant, erratic stars. The glory of eternity veiled in the flesh of a tiny baby. The story of Christmas began in light and it ends in light, though not quite yet. For over the manger cradle lies a shadow–the shadow of a cross. Even in this moment of joy, we cannot forget that shadow. Without it, remarkable as the events of 2,000 years ago were, the birth would be just that of another small child and no one would now object to seeing it depicted. On the other side of that final shadow the uncreated Light of the universe shines out unveiled upon the earth. We celebrate and remember that “in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, made of woman, made under the law,” and “made of Himself no reputation but took the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of a man,” but who still is and ever will be “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.” “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh,” “being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, of whom He said, ‘Let all the angels of God worship Him.'” Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:7; Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 3:16; and Hebrews 1:3, 6

From the other side of the grave, the Light of the universe rules now in uncreated glory. Still the story is not ended. Just as the sun gives light to the moon which brightens the dark skies of earth, Jesus Himself says to each of us, “You are the light of the world. A city set upon a hill cannot be hidden. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify the Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14, 16 So put up a string or two of Christmas lights. Light a candle. Kindle a fire. Share the light of Christmas with those you meet. Celebrate the Child, who is the Light.

Carols: “Celebrate the Child “I Will Worship”

Communion

Carol: “Silent Night”