Back to the Garden

After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” Genesis 3:24 NIV

As I have mentioned previously, I grew up during the 1960’s. It was a turbulent and often violent time. The war in Vietnam intensified throughout the decade, as did the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies. Peaceful protesters of the Civil Rights Movement were often attacked and sometimes killed. At Kent State University, protesters against the Vietnam War were shot at by the Ohio National Guard and four were killed. Accusations of police brutality, and the frustrations of years of Jim Crow, poverty, and second class citizenship for African-Americans led to race riots in virtually every major city in the country.

But the violence of the times helped to fuel various movements to counteract it. The peace movement sought to bring an end to the Vietnam War, and to all war. Related movements tried to bring about an end to nuclear proliferation. Coalitions of people of all races formed to oppose segregation and discrimination of all kinds. Some groups sought to spread the “sexual revolution” with slogans like “Make Love not War.”

One of the groups that comprised what became known at that time as “the counter-culture” was the hippie movement. The hippie movement was very popular and very influential within the youth community, despite the fact that the actual number of “full time” hippies was relatively small.

The reason for this popularity and appeal to the youth was simple. It offered a lifestyle that seemed to be liberating and free of responsibility. Drugs, particularly marijuana and LSD, were consumed in copious amounts. Sexual liberation and communal living were other hallmarks of the movement. Rejecting straight society, with its rules and “hangups” was de rigueur. A saying to come out of the movement, popularized by LSD advocate and guru Timothy Leary, was “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

As mentioned above, communal living was a big part of the hippie philosophy. The idea behind communes was to create a perfect society within, but sealed off from the corrupted prevailing society, where individuals could pursue, unhindered by that corruption, their own course to enlightenment and perfection. In essence, create paradise and allow man’s better nature to prevail within it. The famous, or infamous (depending on your perspective) movie Easy Rider has a scene where the protagonists, two biker buddies played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, visit a hippie commune where the lifestyle described above is portrayed.

The idea, though, of transforming individuals by transforming society, was not just limited to the hippie movement, but gained widespread acceptance in society in general. Many people began dedicating themselves, through political activism mainly, but also other means, to transforming society to some idyllic, pre-fall Eden. This was, and still is, believed by many to be an achievable goal. A popular song at the time, Woodstock, captures this idea:

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song and a celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes
Riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust, we are golden
We are caught in the devils bargain
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden

For the complete song, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: C, S, N, & Y Woodstock

Or from the composer, Joni Mitchell: JM Woodstock

These attempts at regaining paradise have a long history in America and the world. They usually involve some form of socialism, and they have ultimately ended in failure. Why? I believe it is because they end up encouraging the worst aspects of human nature; selfishness, laziness, theft, envy, and more. A prominent example of this is Plymouth Colony.

The Pilgrims, like the Jamestown Colony before them, had agreed together to a communal, even socialist, style of living. Everything was held in common and food was kept in a common storehouse. The result? Some people worked, others did not, and there was theft of food, often from the crops in the field, even before it was fully ripe. Those who produced resented those who did not, food production was inadequate, and they almost starved to death, until they abandoned their “communal” lifestyle for one which allowed every man and woman to keep the fruits of their labor.  For a first hand account, see the first Governor’s, William Bradford’s diary.  William Bradford’s Diary (See pages 234-236 in the linked edition)

There are other examples in American history of attempts to create some sort of paradise on earth, to go “back to the Garden,” so to speak; but of course these efforts did not start here. In a previous post, The Era of Big Government, I wrote about man’s attempts from the beginning of history to nullify the consequences of our first parents’ decision so many years ago by banding together in large numbers and unifying around certain principles and projects. The Tower of Babel being the first recorded effort.

These efforts continued throughout history, right up through the terrible Marxist and fascist movements of the twentieth century, to today’s efforts by many to enforce their political and religious views on the rest of us through violence, coercion, and conquest.

All of these efforts at regaining paradise, to this day, have one thing in common, and that is they have ended in abysmal , and often tragic, failure. Throughout the centuries, empires, and their associated dreams and visions, have risen and fallen. From Alexander to the Caesars, to Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, they have all ended badly, with the blood of hundreds of millions on their hands.

Why are these experiments doomed to failure? William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony, determined that it was at least in part due to man’s fallen nature. Not a surprise, given that he was a Christian, but maybe he had, and has, a point.

What is man’s “fallen” nature? What does it mean to have a fallen nature? We see from the story of Adam and Eve, that after they disobeyed G-d by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were banned from the garden for fear that they would partake of The Tree of Life, and thereby gain eternal life.

What is interesting about the story is that prior to their rebellion, they could have eaten of The Tree of Life at any time. It was only afterward that they were barred. The implication of this is that something about them had changed, and because of this, they were barred from eternal life. It is good here to remember that G-d had told them that the consequence of their eating of the forbidden fruit would be death.

There is a relevant story in Acts 5 that tells of the early church in Jerusalem. Out of their love for one another, in G-d’s Spirit, they willingly shared their material wealth, and often donated the proceeds of sales of their property to the church leader’s, who would then distribute them to the needy.

One couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold some property, and donated the proceeds to the church, but they held some back while claiming to have donated all. When confronted with their lie and hypocrisy, they both died on the spot. For more information on this, see Story of Ananias and Sapphira .

Now some have tried to use this story to justify socialism, the argument being that if a form of socialism was good for the early church, it should be good for us. The problem with this argument is that the early Jerusalem church was a relatively small group who voluntarily shared their wealth. This idea has carried on to this day by various religious orders in which members take a vow of poverty and live a communal lifestyle. Modern socialist movements, on the other hand, are extremely coercive, and as has been noted, have been responsible for more death and destruction than any other movement in the history of the planet.

The story, though, would also seem to support Bradford’s contention that man’s fallen nature is the heart of the problem. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to participate in the communal giving and sharing, but not willing to give all. This would have been fine, as nothing in the story suggests that they had to give all, so it would seem that they were concerned with appearances. They wanted everyone to think that they had given all, so they held back some, and lied.

It shows that even in small, voluntary associations, problems arise when people feel, even if only from their own inner desire to be recognized, compelled to share what they have worked for. This is just as true in religious orders, where members who break the rules will eventually be expelled if they continue to refuse to conform.

So what is man’s fallen nature? Years ago, a well-known secular psychiatrist and author, Dr. Karl Menninger, stirred up some controversy when he published a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? The controversy over the book at the time – this was 1973 – demonstrates how unpopular the concept of personal responsibility had become, and the idea that there is an immutable moral law that man has violated and continues violate. That in fact, there is something wrong with man that has put him at odds with G-d and his fellow man, and that compels him toward rebellion.

Keep in mind that this is a secular book, and it is not written from a religious viewpoint, but a clinical one. Therefore, there is much for a Christian believer, for example, to disagree with in the book; but the idea that any kind of healing or redemption for an individual is only possible when that individual accepts personal responsibility for themselves and their actions, is completely consistent with Judeo-Christian scripture, and is in fact foundational to religions based upon that scripture.

This idea that man exists in a state of sin that inclines him away from G-d and His laws, and toward disobedience, is still very unpopular today. Society, ones parents, bad teachers, the church, even G-d Himself, are all blamed. But the evidence is all around us, even in young children who, arguably, have not yet been “corrupted” by any of these things. Don’t believe this? Then ask yourself the question as to why “reverse psychology” works so consistently well.

How often have we experienced telling a child not to do something, only to have them immediately do it? “Don’t touch that dial” (on the television set, yes TV’s used to have dials), you admonish , and of course he touches the dial. “Don’t pick up that candy from the ground”, and then what happens? Not only does he pick it up, but he will put it in his mouth. When my daughter was young and had a miserable face, we would say to her “don’t you smile,” and of course she would inevitably smile.

OK, well this is all innocent enough when you are dealing with young children. But what happens with adults? No need to answer this, just look around you and at thousands of years of history. Now, you might say, well, yes, but not everyone is like that, and if you mean that not everyone commits horrible acts and heinous crimes, you would be correct. Most people do not do these things because we have been conditioned by parents and society to believe that they are awful things, and for us to do them would make us awful people, so most of us refrain from these  reprehensible acts.

There are, though, lesser “evils,” which all of us, at some time or another, do commit. Lying, unfaithfulness, gossip, unjust anger and hurtful words, and many others. The list is actually quite long. In addition, we all seem to have at least one “sin” that we just can’t seem to control, whether it is one of the above, or maybe an addiction, such as to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, money, power; again, I could go on.

So what are we to do? As has been indicated above, some analyze the problem and propose that its source lies outside the individual, for example in society. There is inequality and injustice in society, the story goes, and so people have the above mentioned problems because of this. The solution, then, is to remake society and rid it of its injustices. Once this is done, man will be free to do the right thing and will become perfect.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? We are not responsible for our actions, society is! “Remake society the way I want it to be, and I’ll be good. Just you wait and see.” Hmm, what is wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, the biblical paradigm, as proposed by William Bradford. If it is true, then this “solution” cannot work and could lead to much trouble – and it has!

Just take a look at the carnage that has been left behind from attempts to regain paradise! In the twentieth century alone, there was death, destruction, and suffering on a previously unimaginable scale. Just maybe the prophets, Jesus, William Bradford, and even Karl Menninger were on to something, when they claimed that the problem lay within the individual human heart.

So, if that is true, and it does seem that the problem does not originate from outside of man, then what are we to do? Of course, scripture has an answer! I’ll leave you with the following quote from Isaiah, 45:22:

Turn to me and be saved,

all you ends of the earth;

for I am God, and there is no other” (NIV)

Too simple, you might say? Well, sometimes the simple is sublime, but most importantly, true.

A Christmas Story (Redux)

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” Revelation 21:4 NIV

I first published this a few years ago.  The stories involved were related to me as true stories, by the soldier himself.  It is a story of redemption.

It was Christmas eve, and the soldier stood in the mess line, shivering a little. It was late, so the line was thankfully short, for the air was bitter cold.  His turn came, he got his hot chow and coffee, then looked for a place to sit.

He had just arrived in this small town in France  with his unit the day before, December 23, 1944.  One day he was relatively warm and safe in Britain, and the next he was preparing to face combat for the first time.  They were moving to the front in the morning, on Christmas Day, to take up positions in the Ardennes Forest and help counter the German offensive that would become known as the the Battle of the Bulge.

Because of the lateness of the hour, there were only a few men in the mess area, but the soldier wanted to be alone, so he walked off a little looking for a place to eat his food, drink his coffee, and think.  The soldier had gotten several opportunities to avoid combat, and even the military.  When he was first called up and went for his physical, a spot showed on his lungs. The doctor wasn’t sure what it was, but suspected tuberculosis, and was going to fail the recruit because of it.

After some persuasion, the soldier-to-be convinced them not to fail him, but to let him come back in several weeks to retake the physical.  During the intervening weeks, he changed his lifestyle, exercised and ate better, and sure enough, when he returned, the spot had disappeared, and he passed.

Later, after basic training, while still stateside, a Sargent came around asking if anyone had any clerk typist skills.  The soldier did and said so, and the Sargent took him to an office to fill in for a day for someone who was out.  At the end of his shift, the Sargent told him to report back the next day, but the soldier replied that his unit was going overseas, and that he could not come back.  The Sargent told him not to worry about that, he wasn’t going anywhere, the Sargent would see to that, just report back the next day.  No, the soldier insisted, he would ship out with his unit, and he did.

He thought about these things, and his new wife he left behind, his mother, and home.  After walking a short distance, an unexpected sound got his attention.  He stopped, and listened, and heard it again.  It sounded like a baby softly crying.  It seemed to be coming from a darkened alcove nearby.  He walked toward the sound.

As he approached the alcove, some light from the street penetrated the darkness, and he could make out a woman and infant, huddled together and wrapped against the cold.  He drew nearer, and as he did, it became apparent to him that the woman was trying to nurse the child, but something else also caught his attention.  There was a glow around the mother and child, a halo around each of them.

Now, the soldier was not a religious man, and in some respects, quite the contrary.  It wasn’t that he was a bad man, but he carried in his heart an anger and bitterness, against G-d, and His church, that were founded in the experiences of his childhood, experiences he had never reconciled.

His parents were immigrants who didn’t have much, even when his father was alive and working.  However, when his father died and left his young wife with five small children, things became much worse.

His mother took in laundry, washed floors, and did whatever she could do to feed her family, but it just wasn’t enough, so she went to the local parish church for financial assistance.  Instead of giving her help though, they sent her to the welfare office.

The soldier remembered going with his mother as a young boy, to translate for her, because she spoke little English.  He remembered her humiliation, and his own, in having to go on public relief, and he didn’t understand why the church would not help.  First G-d took his father from them, and now His church turned them away in their time of need.

Later, when barely in his teens, the soldier found himself, along with two of his brothers, in a home for boys.  The home was run by an order of Christian Brothers.  The Brothers were good men, who provided the boys with the basic necessities: food, shelter, education, and when required, discipline.

There was a problem though, the home was infested with cockroaches, and it was the job of the boys to catch the cockroaches, as many as they could.  In fact, they had a daily quota, and the Brothers, each evening, would check and count each boy’s collection of insects, to ensure that they had found their fair share.  Those who did not had to keep searching until they did.

Sometimes, when the roaches were hard to come by, and a boy was tired and hungry, he would break some of them in half, so they would count as two.  This worked fine if he didn’t get caught, but if he did, there was the aforementioned discipline.

Discipline consisted of the offending boy being held face down across a large barrel, and having his behind whipped with a switch.  The process did little actual damage, aside from a few welts and bruises, but it was extremely painful, and to say the least, the boy’s were terrified of the punishment.  They would beg and plead for mercy, to no avail.

Not all offensives merited this form of punishment, but lying about meeting your cockroach quota did, and the soldier had received this punishment on several occasions, until he learned how to fix his roaches so that they actually looked liked two whole bugs.  There was a trick to it, you see.  Whenever you caught a big one, you cut it in half with your thumbnail, and then smashed up each half a little bit, and that was it; dinner, and bedtime, were at hand.

The soldier thought of none of these things though, as he peered into the alcove.  He was a little surprised by his vision, this picture of a haloed Madonna and Child.  Was it the angle of the light, was it only his imagination, or maybe the pressures of facing combat the next day were getting to him?

As he wondered at the sight, he was broken from his brief reverie by the realization  that the woman was motioning to him.  It took a few moments, but he soon understood that she was indicating to him that her breasts had no milk for her child.  His wonder turned to pity and sadness.  What could he do?

He thought of the canned milk at the mess truck, so he told her, as best he could, to wait for him, that he would get milk for her to give to her baby.

He hurried back to the mess area, and found them packing and preparing for the next day’s deployment.  He walked up to the mess Sargent and quickly explained to him the situation, and asked him for some milk.

The Sargent was in no mood for this intrusion, and told the soldier that he could not give him any milk, but the soldier persisted.  Just a little milk for the baby?  The Sargent replied that the milk was for American soldiers, for their coffee, not for French civilians.  The soldier said, well, OK, I have some coffee, how about giving me a little milk for my coffee.  Finally, the Sargent relented and gave the soldier the milk “for his coffee”.

The entire negotiation took only a few minutes, and the soldier hurried back to the alcove with the milk.  When he arrived though, the mother and child were gone.  In fact, there was no sign of anyone, or that anyone had even been there.

The soldier would think about this experience throughout his life.  He would relate the story to his wife when he returned home, and later to his children.  The story of his visit by the Madonna and Child on a cold Christmas Eve in an alcove in France.

It would be nice to relate that the soldier’s anger at G-d would dissipate after his experience, but unfortunately, this would not happen for many decades.  Decades of tragedies and triumphs, joy and sorrow that would follow.  Near the end though, he did seem to find some peace, but only G-d knows for certain.

So the significance of the story isn’t that the vision immediately healed the soldier’s anger and disappointment, or that it even gave him great comfort, except maybe for a few brief moments.  The significance of the story is the significance of Christmas itself.

For the Christmas Story is the story of a promise, a promise of a redemption that is yet to be fulfilled.  Yes, Christians will speak in the present tense, and tell you they are redeemed, and it is true, this was accomplished and completed on the cross, and demonstrated by the Resurrection.

But, in our lives, we still have our tragedies and disappointments, and our anger; and the world is still full of violence and chaos, and of mothers who cannot feed their children.  So, it is this part of the promise that is unfulfilled, our physical redemption, and the redemption of this tragic world we live in.

It is a story of hope.  Hope for the world, hope for each one of us, even hope for the angry soldier.  G-d can deal with anger, because to be angry at G-d is still to believe in G-d and it is to recognize G-d’s sovereignty, over us, our lives, and the world.  After all, what would be the point in being angry at a G-d who wasn’t sovereign?

Jesus once told us to be either hot or cold.  G-d can warm and soften the coldest, most hardened of hearts; He can temper the most heated and passionate of hearts, but with the lukewarm heart, the indifferent heart, what can He do?  What can be done with someone who just doesn’t care?

The Christmas Story is also a story of our own helplessness in the redemptive process, except according to G-d’s will.  The soldier,  in the end, was unable to help the mother and child, despite his best efforts. Yet redemption came to him that day, even if he did not realize it.  He could have simply ignored the mother and child, dismissing them, like the Sargent, as not his problem.  After all, what had G-d done for him anyway?  Instead, he responded with sympathy and compassion.  Its not that his simple act of getting the milk was in and of itself redeeming, but it’s the fact that he would even do so that demonstrated the redemption that was already in his heart, despite his anger.

Finally, there is this.  We think we know people.  We see what they do, we hear what they say, and we fear for them.   We see those who are angry at G-d and man, or who live dissolute lives.  We see people who seem to make every bad decision a person can make, and sometimes we may wonder, what hope is there for that person?  What we do not know, and only G-d knows, is what redemption may lie in that persons heart.  We see the outside, but G-d sees the inside, and only occasionally, if ever, does G-d give us a glimpse of what is truly there.

So, we should not fear, for others, or for ourselves, but should always look for the best in each; and when we can’t see that best and fear starts to take hold, think of the Christmas Story and its promise of redemption.  After all, who is redemption for, anyway, if not us?

The Final Solution

then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” Deuteronomy 30:3 NIV

As I begin writing this, it is January 27, 2015, a date that marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. This day is of particular significance to me for a number of reasons, but first a brief review of the history of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was actually a network of concentration, extermination, and labor camps that the German Nazis built and operated in occupied Poland during World War II. Auschwitz I was originally established in 1940 to hold Polish political prisoners. The extermination of the prisoners there began in 1941. By early 1942, Auschwitz II was constructed as part of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, their plan to exterminate all of the Jews of Europe, and ultimately the world. It is estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners were executed at Auschwitz; about 90% of them were Jews. Later came Auschwitz III, a labor camp that supplied workers to an IG Farben factory. (Most of this information is from the Wikipedia article “Auschwitz Concentration Camp“)

When I was very young, probably in the range of 5-7 years old, I came across a set of books belonging to my father. They were a five or six volume set, entitled “A Pictorial History of World War II”.

As the name states, the books told the story of the Second World War, mostly with pictures.  Some of the pictures were relatively benign: pictures of troops in training, of USO gatherings where coffee and donuts were served, or perhaps a USO sponsored dance, and pictures of Women’s Army Corp (WAC) members dealing with the rigors of life in the field.

Other pictures, though, were taken during battles, of land, sea, and air, and showed up-close ground combat, aerial dogfights, and tremendous naval engagements.  As I viewed these pictures, my young heart and mind were awed and made fearful at the same time.  What would I have done, if I had been there?  Would I have been afraid?  Would I have been brave?  Would I have come home?

Still other pictures depicted the aftermath of these battles;  burned out tanks and sinking ships, the wreckage of planes, the desolation in the wake of the atomic bombs, the fire-bombing of Dresden, and of course, the wounded, the dying, and the dead.

One day, as I paged through a volume, I came across pictures that I had difficulty understanding.  They were the pictures of the liberated concentration camps.  War, to a degree, I understood, even at that age.  There were two sides; they disagreed, they fought, killed, and died, for what they believed in.  But the concentration camps were another matter.

At first, I wasn’t even sure of what I was looking at: emaciated survivors with hollowed eyes, crematoriums with half burnt bodies, bodies piled eight feet high awaiting burning or burial, mass open graves with bodies tossed in helter-skelter, where, incredibly, the Nazis had tried to hide their atrocities before the Allied troops arrived but were forced to flee ahead of the advancing armies before their work was done; and, finally the “showers” themselves, where the victims, mostly Jews, were herded and gassed.

This was, to my young mind, incomprehensible.  Why had this been done?  What had these people done to deserve this?  What could anyone possibly do to deserve this?  And who were they, the victims of these crimes?

I went to my parents with my questions about the “war” books, and they were a little upset with me that I had been in their room by myself, something I was not supposed to do. But much more than that, they were horrified that I had been exposed to these things at my young age.  They made an attempt to explain to me what I had seen, but how do you explain such things to someone so young?  How do you explain them to anyone, really?

You can’t, except maybe to simply say that the German Nazis were bad people and, for some reason, they hated the Jewish people.  The bottom line though, was that I was absolutely forbidden to look at the books anymore, and in fact, I did not until years later.

But I never forgot them and the impression they made.  Over the years, I got answers to my questions, but the answers only raised more questions.  For example, to say that the German Nazis considered themselves the “Master Race”, and Jews (and just about everyone else) as inferior; that they were trying to “purify” their nation and their culture explains nothing.  It is delusional and insane.

A modern, “civilized” nation, one of the most modern and most civilized, put people in charge that not only held these deranged ideas, but believed them to the point that the they would methodically and systematically go about the task of murdering a people with the same detachment and business-like efficiency of a successful sausage maker.

Of course, though the holocaust may be the worst example, persecution of the Jews did not begin with the Nazis.  We should not forget that Israel was born a nation of slaves in Egypt.  The Pharaoh tried to wipe them out when they left Egypt.  Later, the Assyrians defeated the ten northern tribes of Israel, and scattered them to only G-d knows where – and He does.

When the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were in exile in Babylon, another villain whose name begins with an H, Haman, plotted to induce King Xerxes to destroy them, only to end up plotting his own ignominious execution.  In more recent times, the sorrowful, shameful history of most of the nations of Europe, and their relationship with the Jewish people, led up to the holocaust and made it possible.

And of course, unfortunately, the persecution of Israel did not stop with the German Nazis, either.  The day in 1948 when, for the first time in almost 1900 years, Israel once again became a nation, the neighboring countries tried to drive them into the sea, and out of existence.  This is still the desire of many, if not all of them, to this day.

The most amazing thing, though, about this story of attempted genocides and persecution isn’t that it happened, but that the people of Israel not only survived, but have prospered.  This is where the story gets really interesting because all of this was predicted thousands of years ago.

The prophets of the Torah predicted, starting with Moses, that the people of Israel would be scattered and persecuted.  They predicted that they  would lose their land and reside in the land of strangers, even those hostile to them; but, they also predicted Israel’s restoration and ultimate vindication

The Christian scriptures, which also had Jewish writers, followed in this tradition and spoke of these things.  Jesus Himself spoke of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, and the Book of Revelation describes Israel’s restoration in the end times.

So, is the modern state of Israel a fulfillment of these prophecies?  Some argue that no, they won’t be fulfilled until the nation is fully restored and the Messiah rules from Jerusalem.  My view is that it is a fulfillment of prophecy, but there is still more history to go and more prophecy to be fulfilled.  Anyway, there are plenty of books on Bible prophecy, and that is not the purpose of this article, so lets just say for the sake of argument that the state of Israel is at least a partial fulfillment, and the rest is yet to come.

What does all of this have to do with explaining the Holocaust?

I am reminded here of the story of Job.  In the beginning of the Book of Job, we find G-d holding court, and in comes Satan from “roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it”. (Job 1:7 NIV)

G-d asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless–a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil”. (Job 1:8 NIV)

Satan replied that, of course Job fears G-d – G-d has protected Job and made him wealthy, but if G-d took everything that Job had, he would curse G-d. G-d then gave Satan permission to take everything from Job, except his health. (Job 1:9-12 NIV).

Satan left G-d’s presence and attacked Job, taking or destroying all of his possessions, and even killing his children, but Job did not curse G-d. (Job 1:13-22 NIV)

Later, G-d was once again holding court and Satan was there.  G-d pointed out to Satan that even though Satan had challenged G-d into allowing him to attack Job, Job did not curse G-d.  Satan responded that Job still had his health, and if G-d allowed him to take Job’s health from him, then surely Job would curse G-d.  G-d then gave him permission to take even Job’s health from him, but not his life.  (Job 2:1-6 NIV)

Satan once again left G-d’s presence, and afflicted Job with terrible, painful sores all over his body.  He was in such torment, even his wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9 NIV)  But Job refused to do so, and in the end, Job’s fortunes were restored and he was given many children. (Job 42:12-17 NIV)

In my narration, I have skipped many chapters, in most of which three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, try to convince Job that he must have done something wrong for G-d to allow him to be treated this way.  Job protests his innocence, and at times, questions God’s justice, because He allows the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer.

Job’s friends, while they say many true things about G-d,  persist, and even accuse Job of self-righteousness.  This is of course wrong, as G-d Himself said at the beginning of the story that Job was righteous in all his ways; and besides, innocent people suffer all the time in this world, a point which Job’s friends seemed to have missed.

One more of Job’s friends speaks up, Elihu, but instead of claiming that Job must have sinned in some way in order to suffer, he addresses Job’s attitude in the present.  He asserts G-d’s essential righteousness and tells Job that G-d cannot treat anyone wrongly.  He addresses Job’s complaints against G-d, and provides answers to those complaints, but unlike Job’s other friends, he never does accuse Job of unrighteousness.

Finally, G-d speaks up, but rather than try to explain Himself, He challenges Job with a series of questions, just as Job had questioned and challenged Him. Of course, Job is completely unable to answer G-d’s questions but, through these questions, G-d demonstrates to Job His omnipotence and His sovereignty, and Job realizes his folly for questioning G-d, and repents.  When G-d is done speaking to him, Job responds:

“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:2-6

But G-d did one more very important thing besides question Job, He fully vindicated him.  He told the three friends who had accused Job of unrighteousness that they had done wrong, and they needed to make the appropriate sacrifices in the hope that Job would forgive and pray for them, so they would not be punished for their own folly.  Job of course prayed for his friends, and was rewarded with far more wealth than he had before.  He was given seven sons, and three daughters who were the most beautiful in all the land, and he saw his children’s children to the fourth generation. (Job 42:12-17)

There are many lessons that can be learned from the Book of Job, but one that stands out for me and is most relevant here is that, according to the scriptures, there is a war going on in the spiritual realm.  It is a war between good and evil, between G-d and Satan.  The war began when the angel Lucifer, the most beautiful and intelligent of G-d’s creation, let pride enter his heart and determined to make himself god in G-d’s place.  One of his strategies is to demonstrate that G-d is not sovereign, that He is a liar, and unfit to be G-d.

As part of this war, Satan enlisted man on his side through cleverness and deception.  G-d, out of love for man, developed a plan, His own strategy to win the war, and to win man back.  G-d could have made other choices, such as to simply destroy Satan and the angels that followed him, as well as man, and started over; but, what would that have proven? In a creation where G-d has given created beings the ability to choose, brute force solves nothing, and persuasion, diplomacy, and most important, love, are necessary.

Man, then, has become both a combatant and a battlefield in this war.  Satan continues his deception and constantly tries to create doubt in men’s minds about G-d.  G-d simply continues to show His love for man, and requires man only to have faith in Him and His plan.

The book of Job teaches many other lessons, one very important one is about our attitude towards those who suffer and how we should treat them.  Do we accuse them of sin and unrighteousness, or do we provide them with comfort?  Do we tell them that G-d is punishing them, or do we assure them that G-d loves them and cares for them?

Our answers to those questions could very well determine whose side we are on in this great, millenniums long war that we are in.

A Christmas Story

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” Revelation 21:4 NIV

It was Christmas eve, and the soldier stood in the mess line, shivering a little. It was late, so the line was thankfully short, for the air was bitter cold.  His turn came, he got his hot chow and coffee, then looked for a place to sit.

He had just arrived in this small town in France  with his unit the day before, December 23, 1944.  One day he was relatively warm and safe in Britain, and the next he was preparing to face combat for the first time.  They were moving to the front in the morning, on Christmas Day, to take up positions in the Ardennes Forest and help counter the German offensive that would become known as the the Battle of the Bulge.

Because of the lateness of the hour, there were only a few men in the mess area, but the soldier wanted to be alone, so he walked off a little looking for a place to eat his food, drink his coffee, and think.  The soldier had gotten several opportunities to avoid combat, and even the military.  When he was first called up and went for his physical, a spot showed on his lungs. The doctor wasn’t sure what it was, but suspected tuberculosis, and was going to fail the recruit because of it.

After some persuasion, the soldier-to-be convinced them not to fail him, but to let him come back in several weeks to retake the physical.  During the intervening weeks, he changed his lifestyle, exercised and ate better, and sure enough, when he returned, the spot had disappeared, and he passed.

Later, after basic training, while still stateside, a Sargent came around asking if anyone had any clerk typist skills.  The soldier did and said so, and the Sargent took him to an office to fill in for a day for someone who was out.  At the end of his shift, the Sargent told him to report back the next day, but the soldier replied that his unit was going overseas, and that he could not come back.  The Sargent told him not to worry about that, he wasn’t going anywhere, the Sargent would see to that, just report back the next day.  No, the soldier insisted, he would ship out with his unit, and he did.

He thought about these things, and his new wife he left behind, his mother, and home.  After walking a short distance, an unexpected sound got his attention.  He stopped, and listened, and heard it again.  It sounded like a baby softly crying.  It seemed to be coming from a darkened alcove nearby.  He walked toward the sound.

As he approached the alcove, some light from the street penetrated the darkness, and he could make out a woman and infant, huddled together and wrapped against the cold.  He drew nearer, and as he did, it became apparent to him that the woman was trying to nurse the child, but something else also caught his attention.  There was a glow around the mother and child, a halo around each of them.

Now, the soldier was not a religious man, and in some respects, quite the contrary.  It wasn’t that he was a bad man, but he carried in his heart an anger and bitterness, against G-d, and His church, that were founded in the experiences of his childhood, experiences he had never reconciled.

His parents were immigrants who didn’t have much, even when his father was alive and working.  However, when his father died and left his young wife with five small children, things became much worse.

His mother took in laundry, washed floors, and did whatever she could do to feed her family, but it just wasn’t enough, so she went to the local parish church for financial assistance.  Instead of giving her help though, they sent her to the welfare office.

The soldier remembered going with his mother as a young boy, to translate for her, because she spoke little English.  He remembered her humiliation, and his own, in having to go on public relief, and he didn’t understand why the church would not help.  First G-d took his father from them, and now His church turned them away in their time of need.

Later, when barely in his teens, the soldier found himself, along with two of his brothers, in a home for boys.  The home was run by an order of Christian Brothers.  The Brothers were good men, who provided the boys with the basic necessities: food, shelter, education, and when required, discipline.

There was a problem though, the home was infested with cockroaches, and it was the job of the boys to catch the cockroaches, as many as they could.  In fact, they had a daily quota, and the Brothers, each evening, would check and count each boy’s collection of insects, to ensure that they had found their fair share.  Those who did not had to keep searching until they did.

Sometimes, when the roaches were hard to come by, and a boy was tired and hungry, he would break some of them in half, so they would count as two.  This worked fine if he didn’t get caught, but if he did, there was the aforementioned discipline.

Discipline consisted of the offending boy being held face down across a large barrel, and having his behind whipped with a switch.  The process did little actual damage, aside from a few welts and bruises, but it was extremely painful, and to say the least, the boy’s were terrified of the punishment.  They would beg and plead for mercy, to no avail.

Not all offensives merited this form of punishment, but lying about meeting your cockroach quota did, and the soldier had received this punishment on several occasions, until he learned how to fix his roaches so that they actually looked liked two whole bugs.  There was a trick to it, you see.  Whenever you caught a big one, you cut it in half with your thumbnail, and then smashed up each half a little bit, and that was it; dinner, and bedtime, were at hand.

The soldier thought of none of these things though, as he peered into the alcove.  He was a little surprised by his vision, this picture of a haloed Madonna and Child.  Was it the angle of the light, was it only his imagination, or maybe the pressures of facing combat the next day were getting to him?

As he wondered at the sight, he was broken from his brief reverie by the realization  that the woman was motioning to him.  It took a few moments, but he soon understood that she was indicating to him that her breasts had no milk for her child.  His wonder turned to pity and sadness.  What could he do?

He thought of the canned milk at the mess truck, so he told her, as best he could, to wait for him, that he would get milk for her to give to her baby.

He hurried back to the mess area, and found them packing and preparing for the next day’s deployment.  He walked up to the mess Sargent and quickly explained to him the situation, and asked him for some milk.

The Sargent was in no mood for this intrusion, and told the soldier that he could not give him any milk, but the soldier persisted.  Just a little milk for the baby?  The Sargent replied that the milk was for American soldiers, for their coffee, not for French civilians.  The soldier said, well, OK, I have some coffee, how about giving me a little milk for my coffee.  Finally, the Sargent relented and gave the soldier the milk “for his coffee”.

The entire negotiation took only a few minutes, and the soldier hurried back to the alcove with the milk.  When he arrived though, the mother and child were gone.  In fact, there was no sign of anyone, or that anyone had even been there.

The soldier would think about this experience throughout his life.  He would relate the story to his wife when he returned home, and later to his children.  The story of his visit by the Madonna and Child on a cold Christmas Eve in an alcove in France.

It would be nice to relate that the soldier’s anger at G-d would dissipate after his experience, but unfortunately, this would not happen for many decades.  Decades of tragedies and triumphs, joy and sorrow that would follow.  Near the end though, he did seem to find some peace, but only G-d knows for certain.

So the significance of the story isn’t that the vision immediately healed the soldier’s anger and disappointment, or that it even gave him great comfort, except maybe for a few brief moments.  The significance of the story is the significance of Christmas itself.

For the Christmas Story is the story of a promise, a promise of a redemption that is yet to be fulfilled.  Yes, Christians will speak in the present tense, and tell you they are redeemed, and it is true, this was accomplished and completed on the cross, and demonstrated by the Resurrection.

But, in our lives, we still have our tragedies and disappointments, and our anger; and the world is still full of violence and chaos, and of mothers who cannot feed their children.  So, it is this part of the promise that is unfulfilled, our physical redemption, and the redemption of this tragic world we live in.

It is a story of hope.  Hope for the world, hope for each one of us, even hope for the angry soldier.  G-d can deal with anger, because to be angry at G-d is still to believe in G-d and it is to recognize G-d’s sovereignty, over us, our lives, and the world.  After all, what would be the point in being angry at a G-d who wasn’t sovereign?

Jesus once told us to be either hot or cold.  G-d can warm and soften the coldest, most hardened of hearts; He can temper the most heated and passionate of hearts, but with the lukewarm heart, the indifferent heart, what can He do?  What can be done with someone who just doesn’t care?

The Christmas Story is also a story of our own helplessness in the redemptive process, except according to G-d’s will.  The soldier,  in the end, was unable to help the mother and child, despite his best efforts. Yet redemption came to him that day, even if he did not realize it.  He could have simply ignored the mother and child, dismissing them, like the Sargent, as not his problem.  After all, what had G-d done for him anyway?  Instead, he responded with sympathy and compassion.  Its not that his simple act of getting the milk was in and of itself redeeming, but it’s the fact that he would even do so that demonstrated the redemption that was already in his heart, despite his anger.

Finally, there is this.  We think we know people.  We see what they do, we hear what they say, and we fear for them.   We see those who are angry at G-d and man, or who live dissolute lives.  We see people who seem to make every bad decision a person can make, and sometimes we may wonder, what hope is there for that person?  What we do not know, and only G-d knows, is what redemption may lie in that persons heart.  We see the outside, but G-d sees the inside, and only occasionally, if ever, does G-d give us a glimpse of what is truly there.

So, we should not fear, for others, or for ourselves, but should always look for the best in each; and when we can’t see that best and fear starts to take hold, think of the Christmas Story and its promise of redemption.  After all, who is redemption for, anyway, if not us?