Friday, July 08, 2005

The Whisper in the Dark

"A word was secretly brought to me, my ears caught a whisper of it. Amid disquieting dreams in the night, when deep sleep falls on men, fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face, and the hair on my body stood on end. It stopped, but I could not tell what it was. A form stood before my eyes, and I heard a hushed voice:

'Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can a man be more pure than his Maker? If God places no trust in his servants, if he charges his angels with error, how much more those who live in houses of clay, whose foundations are in the dust, who are crushed more readily than a moth!” -- Eliphaz the Temanite (Job’s friend)
-- Job 4:12-18

I approach this posting with trepidation. Is there a force of evil in the world? Is there a supreme boogie man who is out to get us? To get me? Might I attract his attention? I don’t like the idea at all and I tend to push the idea aside. Perhaps I’m a little like the Cowardly Lion. If I don’t believe in spooks they will leave me alone. But I do believe in spooks, I do, I do.

Most of the world believes in God. Christians believe in a personal God, a creator who knows each of us, and cares for each of us. Most christians believe in Satan, but perhaps not a personal Satan. Is there a dark side to the universe or are we projecting our own failings onto a convenient myth, avoiding responsibility. (Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate." Genesis 3:31) Perhaps what we call Satan is nothing more than a personification of our own failings.

Perhaps not.

There is evil in the world. True evil. Annie R., the woman who brought our children out of Haiti, told us of some things she saw while rescuing those war orphans. She told us about the night procession carrying an infant to a sacrifice. (She called in several favors to leave Haiti with that child.) She told us about gangs roaming the streets of Carrefour at night and their executions of “street rats” (she counted over a 150 bodies on a walk two weeks after the military coup). There is a saying in Haiti that "children are like dogs, worth nothing." They are thrown away. Literally. People abandon their children at the dumps. Annie pulled some children out of the rolling garbage beneath the heavy equipment.

There is the evidence of evil on my own sons’ bodies. Isaac’s face is scarred by the burns of hot cashews (a Haitian tradition to ward off were-wolves).

And Jeremiah. His body is still misshapen in so many ways, whether from lack of prenatal care, malnutrition, or abuse, I do not know. Once I cut his hair all off with shears. There are scars and dents all over his poor head. His feet were crushed, the growth plates behind some of his toes are so damaged the toes do not grow.

He was starving when he was found, and he fully expected us to eat in front of him and not share. When we first brought him home he was so excited but suspicious of the bowl of rice in front of him. He had trouble believing it was all for him to eat. He had the biggest grin on his face when we told him that he could eat as much as he wanted. His favorite topic is what he ate last night, what is for dinner tonight, what others are eating, or have eaten.

It makes me angry to think of him starving while others ate. It is evil to do that to a child.

There is ample evidence of evil in the world. Do a google search on Idi Amin, or Saddam Hussein, or Adolf Hitler, or Josef Stalin. Read about Ghengis Khan, or Nero, or the worshippers of Baal. An hour spent researching the evil that men do will lead you to one of three conclusions:

1. Men have a great capacity for evil.
2. There is a force of evil that prompts men to do unspeakable crimes.
3. Or both. Sometimes we choose, and other times we are prompted.

There is ample evidence of good in the world. No other creature can rise to such heights. Ghandi, M.L.K Jr., Mother Theresa, Stephen Biko, and countless others sought to change their societies, regardless of the cost to themselves.

We love. We sacrifice. We appreciate. No other creature appreciates beauty as we do. I have never seen a dog marvel at a rainbow or thrill to a sunset.

“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” --Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2

We are capable of great things and evil things. Art and torture. Compassion and cruelty. Generosity and greed.

We can be selfish, destructive, gluttonous, self-righteous. We can justify anything. We are consummate sophists. We paved over paradise and put up a parking lot and complain that there still isn't enough room for our SUVs.

But does that argue for a malevolent force to the universe?

Consider that rainbow for a moment. We have the capacity to enjoy its beauty. There is something within us that lifts at the sight. It is more than an emotional response. It precedes the emotion.

I learned to speed read in high school. I was reading at an astonishing rate with comprehension. I tried it on David Copperfield (by Charles Dickens). There was no emotional punch. The heart is not as quick as the mind. Search yourself and you will find this true. You know that there is a lag between emotional news and the emotion itself. We know the emotion is coming before it arrives. We see the rainbow and some living thing twists in our chests. It is like a thing apart from hearts and lungs and mind that responds. It is our soul.

Now, let us take the opposite example. Sometimes we sense evil just as we sense beauty. Children are often better at this. Do you remember walking into a dark place and feeling something dreadfully wrong there? You know that the place is empty except for you. Yet your heart races as you walk over to the light switch. And it races even faster when you must cross back that dark space when you turn to leave. You are tempted to leave the light on.

My wife felt that recently. During the fire (see previous postings) she and a friend were searching the basement of our church to ensure everyone was out. She was walking down the hall, approaching the place where the fire was burning. She kept calling out for our son, partly to hear her own voice.

She was getting the “heebie jeebies." She was so nervous that when she opened the closet at the end of the hall she half expected a body to fall out. She felt the presence of evil. Her words.

She tells me that when she heard the crackling of the fire it sounded like a chuckle in the dark. She turned up the stairs and saw the flames dancing in the gloom. Our friend ushered her quickly out the nearest door, certainly saving her life. The area soon burst into a fireball.

I have had similar experiences. Times when I was young, times when I lived in a yogic ashram. I shy away from thinking about them. As I write I think, “oh that would be a good illustration for my point, or that other story, or the time that. . .” But I don’t want to think about it. I want to get to the light switch as quickly as possible.

So I guess I’m going to chicken out. I don’t want to think too hard about it. But I believe that many of you reading this have stories that illustrate this point. (Feel free to leave them in a comment.)

It follows then that if we believe in a personal God, we must believe in a personal Satan. Or at least that one of his minions might occasionally drop by to whisper in our ears, just as that voice in the darkness did to Eliphaz.

To what purpose? Why would he? What has he to gain? The book of Job provides a hint. There is a force that believes God made a huge mistake in creating us. It argues that all we need is hard times and we will curse His name. That is the bet he had with the LORD. And he believed that even Jesus the Christ could fall to temptation; that the putting on of flesh is so inherently corrupting that even the divinity incarnate would fall to his whispers.

And to some extent it is true. We are easily tempted. We tire, we hunger, we lust and envy and lie and rationalize. We are a self-centered lot that rejects the power behind the rainbow.

Just as there are extremes to human behavior, there are extremes on the spiritual planes. The universe is filled with polarities. Positive and negative magnetic poles. Protons and electrons. The strong atomic and the weak atomic. Credit and debit. Good and evil.

Evil is real. But he does not have free reign. The LORD put clear limits on him in the book of Job. And for those who have turned to face their fears in the darkness between the light switch and the door, we have found that a strong rebuke in His name is a powerful defense.

We are capable of sensing the presence of evil. We are also capable of sensing the presence of good. And we can make choices. This may be a fallen world, but the LORD is near.

His wife said to him, "Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!"

He replied, "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" -- Job 2:9-10

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Does the LORD Care?

“Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the schemes of the wicked? Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as a mortal sees?” -- Job 10:3-4

He can see it all. He weaves the events of our lives together and we do not see how the threads of our existence are tied to all those around us. Sometimes it may feel very lonely to be limited in what we see. Does He know?

It is difficult to see the pictures of children in Haiti making their food for the week from dirt and shortening. It is heart breaking to see into the eyes of a woman holding her dead child after a calm ocean has suddenly turned into a wall of water that sweeps thousands of lives away. It makes me angry to see a man sitting in the heat of an African sun breaking big rocks into little ones, wearing out hammers so he can sell the gravel to the road builders to buy bread. We ask ourselves why.

Brenda is having a very difficult time. It seems that life has treated her roughly. Abused as a child, thrown into the role of a caregiver for her mother before she was a teen. Unable to bear children (her greatest wish). Our first child died (see posting: A Starting Point). The adoption of two war orphans has recently led to new challenges (see the last three postings). Two and a half years sober she is struggling in ways that I do not. Now we are learning to deal with the day to day reality of raising two children who are mentally challenged.

She was nearly killed in that fire (see “Chapter 2”). If she and Norm (one of our church’s elders) had chosen to go through the old sanctuary instead of out the nearest door things would have been very different. The sanctuary did not look dangerous. The flames had gone up the banners in that storage area and were licking along the ceiling, but there did not appear to be any danger beyond that. They did not know that the gases produced from that fire had filled the sanctuary and the temperatures in that vaulted ceiling were approaching a flashback point.

Outside that sanctuary, perhaps 30 feet away, Pastor Tim was trying to turn the fire alarm off. He did not yet know that the fire was real.

At the back of that sanctuary at another door I had just stepped inside calling for one of our children. I saw Tim punch in the code at the alarm. It paused for a moment and then started up again. I stepped into the sanctuary. It was still dark (I couldn’t see the flames behind the door to the storage area).

“Isaac?” I called.

Tim heard Mel, another of our elders, yell.

“Fire! There really is a fire!”

Tim could see through the sanctuary and a side door on the stage the flames in that storage area, and quickly went into his office to call for help.

I didn’t know yet that there was a fire burning on the other side of the door at the end of that room and that the gases above me were heating up to an ignition point. I turned around and went out a side door to see if Isaac was in the parking lot. I found him milling about.

Norm and Brenda exited the door nearest the fire. As they stepped away from the building Norm saw a fireball flash throughout the sanctuary, starting from where they were back to the point where I had just been. Tim says that the air suddenly turned black and he felt pressed down to the floor.

Tim crawled along the hallway, and turned left toward where the door was supposed to be, but he couldn’t see it. Confused, and growing muddled he crawled along in the darkness.

I started toward the side door where Mel and another elder were at the doors toward which Tim was crawling.

Suddenly the door flew open and Tim sailed past the porch, over the steps, and landed in the drive. The smoke blew through the door like the exhaust of a jet. This horizontal column of smoke roared over his head. He stood up, his upper body hidden in the soot and smoke blowing out of the church. Surreally I noticed papers from the office blowing around the parking lot as he staggered to the neighbor’s lawn.

Brenda, Norm, Tim, and myself had all been near the sanctuary when those heated gases exploded. Tim was literally on the edge of it.

We stood in the drizzle for a couple of hours while the firefighters worked. Engines from five communities responded. Finally they sent us home.
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  • That was a very difficult night. Jeremiah’s denials, eventual confession to the police, and his arrest seems like some sort of bad dream. We have been trying to wrap our minds around the idea that our church was so damaged and that we are somehow connected to this terrible thing.

    And Brenda is having an especially hard time understanding why we have children who are less than what they might have been.

    This is a great surprise to us. We have lied to ourselves about the extent of their disabilities. I think every parent wants their children to be exceptional in other ways. To be scholars and athletes and cheerleaders and class president. But that is a topic for another posting.

    Today I wish to look at Brenda’s grief and her question of “why?”

    Does God know what it is like for us? Does an omnipresent God see the world as we do? We are limited. We see but one thing at a time. Does that limit make our lives more painful? I think it does. We cannot see all the implications, all the stories of who an event might touch, all ways that we are spared what could have been worse. What we see is the abusing stepfather, the dying child, the nervously smiling boy who does not understand why we are so upset.

    Jenny has been the secretary of our church for the past few years. Her husband has been diagnosed with a very serious cancer and given a pastoral position near Sacramento. She sent me an email:

    “. . .I wanted to share a beautiful and interesting piece with you. I became acquainted with a shirttail relative about 2 years ago -- my brother-in-law's brother. He had been estranged from his family for many years, but has reconciled and shows up at many family events now. He lives in a hermitage in Sacramento and lives a life of poverty, service, and prayer. He has been a wonderful prayer supporter and encourager through Bob's cancer. His monastic background adds many interesting notes to our evangelical life! I've often copied his emails for Tim -- usually many weighty things to chew on!

    I sent an update about Bob to him a couple of weeks ago and mentioned the fire. When he responded he said that the fire confirmed a dream he had had! I quickly wrote back and told him he piqued my curiosity, and asked if he'd please share his dream if he was comfortable with doing so. I received another note from him a few days ago, which included this paragraph:

    ‘Your curiosity is up! Apologies, did not mean to do this. Dreams & Visions have been part of my life from conception. I have learned to accept them as gifts from the Divine Father. I dreamt several weeks prior to the fire and then just several days before your message of a fire in God's House, an apostle of the Lord was crawling and the Holy Spirit carried him out of a door way. In the beginning the dream showed a [special] young person with fire. The "specialness" is of mental/emotional capacity. There was absent any intent to be destructive or cause damage. In fact this young person & his family has a very special place in Our Father's heart. Our Father was pleased by the unity of His church and community. Life flows from and through the ashes [used for fertilizer in many cultures, that is -- to produce growth and life.]’"

    Here is a monk living in solitude 600 miles away and the LORD sends him this message. Since I have been writing about these events in this blog I have been getting messages from people all over the world (the comments on this blog are a few examples).

    Perhaps there are benefits to people out there from this. But that does not help us much. Brenda has been so depressed. This event is calling up all sorts of memories emotions for her. (I have been very concerned for her. It frightens me.)

    But regardless of what happens to other folks, I can’t help but be most concerned about how this affects us.

    I feel steady in my love and affection for my children. I love that boy who nervously smiles at us, uncertain of things because we seem so upset. I love Jeremiah now as always. I will love him even if he must live with me for the rest of my life and he always has the mind of a four year old.

    I am concerned about the reality of how we must now supervise Jeremiah. I know things will be difficult, but I also know that He will guide me. It’s been a rough path now and then (now being one of them). But He is my shepherd and I will trust the path that He chooses for me.

    Though He is not limited with human eyes, He understands it. Jesus took the form of a man and experienced the mortal life. And he spent that life understanding how we suffer, how we feel, and at every opportunity He stopped to give kind words, comfort, and healing. Even on the cross He stopped to reassure the thief dying beside Him. He knew what it was like to suffer, and He cares about us. What happens to us is small compared to the suffering I see throughout our world.

    I believe that life is very short. Consider eternity. What is a hundred or less years in the face of billions? What is unique about this life is the limitations we have on our understanding. Not being able to see the whole picture puts us in the refiner’s fire. What we experience and learn on the spinning glob of dirt in this corner of the universe are mortal experiences, experiences that will shape us for eternity.

    Jesus lead on, I will follow.

    “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” -- Job 23:10