Purpose

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV

I watched as the Monarch butterfly flitted from leaf to leaf, laying its eggs on my milkweed plants.  She started in the garden on the side of my yard and made her way to the garden in the back corner, dropping off her precious cargo on the underside of the milkweed leaves.

It was early September and it occurred to me that the eggs she was dropping here would become the generation in October that would make their way south, probably to Mexico, where they would overwinter, only to start the journey back north in the spring.  This process occurs over the course of four or five generations each year.

The first generation, that makes their way south for the winter, head north to the southern U.S. in the spring where they lay their eggs and then die.  This second generation make their way further north where the same thing happens.  This occurs once or twice again until the third or fourth generation.

It was this generation to which the butterfly that I was watching belonged.  Most Monarchs live only two to six weeks, enough time to ensure the next generation.  This butterfly was no exception, but it was the eggs she was laying that would become the generation that would migrate, often thousands of miles, to their winter home in Mexico, and then begin the process all over again.

At this point it occurred to me that the butterfly I was observing would be dead in a few weeks, at the most, and this saddened me a bit; but it also, as has been my proclivity since childhood, caused me to question what the purpose of all this was.  Fly north, lay eggs, and die; fly north, lay eggs, and die; … fly south, overwinter in Mexico, fly north, lay eggs, and die… and I started asking questions, personal ones, about this particular butterfly.

First, what did she think of all this?  How did she feel about it?  As I watched, she seemed happy in her work, going from leaf to leaf laying her eggs.  Did she know that she would soon be gone?  If she did, she did not show it.  But of course here I am projecting my own insecurities and fears on her.  She was just busily fulfilling the task that G-d had given her.  Maybe I should be more like her.

In my blog post Faith, and What’s Important, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of our existence was to love and be loved.  To love G-d, and our fellow man, and to be loved in return.  We express this love by serving G-d, and we serve G-d by serving each other.

Sounds good, for people – but what about the butterfly?  I think there is no question that G-d loves the butterfly; after all, G-d is love and He created the butterfly. But does the butterfly love G-d?  Does the butterfly love its fellow butterflies, and if so, how does it express its love?

I think we may be able to answer these questions by exploring a few more of the facts about butterflies, in particular the Monarch.  As mentioned previously, the Monarch is a migratory insect.  In fact, it is one of the furthest migrating insects known, and certainly the furthest migrating butterfly, up to thousands of miles.

Think about that: this fragile creature flying thousands of miles, surviving heat and cold, storm and wind, rain and drought, in order to ensure the next generation.  Pretty awesome, and certainly a service to its fellow Monarch butterflies.

So how else does the Monarch serve? Well, the Monarch is a pollinator, as it goes from flower to flower, feeding on the nectar.  This helps to perpetuate beautiful flowers and also provide food for animals and man.  Very useful!

The Monarch is also a beautiful creature, considered by many to be the most beautiful of butterflies.  Appreciating the Monarch’s beauty can make us feel good and bring us closer to creation.  This also is very useful!

But does any of this really get to the heart of the matter?  How does any of this further love and the cause of love?

Well, there is one more thing.  When you think these things, what does it do to you?  When you think of  how the Monarch flies thousands of miles and survives to ensure the next generation; when you think of its usefulness as a pollinator;  when you contemplate its vulnerability and beauty, what is its impact on you?

Does it make you wonder at G-d’s creation?  Does it bring you closer to Him? Do you appreciate G-d’s love more because of it?  Do you love Him more?

My answer to those questions is yes, yes, yes, and yes.  G-d uses this beautiful and delicate creature to inspire us in so many ways.  The Monarch’s migration, against the odds, teaches us that when we are fulfilling G-d’s purpose, anything is possible, any goal is achievable.  Despite our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, even our fragility, we can overcome and succeed.  As Paul said, “ That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10

The Monarch’s usefulness as a pollinator teaches us about the interconnected, interdependent complexities of life, but also about the importance and significance of even the seemingly most insignificant of jobs.  Without pollinators, the food chain would be broken, which would be a disaster for the planet.  Think about this the next time you start thinking that your work has no purpose, when you get discouraged.  No honest work is without meaning, purpose, and honor. Here I think of Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…”

And what about the Monarch’s beauty?  Certainly, the Monarch is pretty, flitting around in orange and black, but does that make it beautiful?  Or, is its appearance only what attracts our attention?  Does its true beauty lie deeper?  Of course it does.

The Monarch’s beauty is connected to all of the things we have just discussed.  Its happily fulfilling G-d’s purpose,  the faith and courage it displays by its travels, despite its vulnerability.  Its dedication to the continuance and preservation of life, not its own, but of future generations of butterflies, animals, and people.  “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.  Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” 1 Peter 3:3-4

So, does my little Monarch love G-d, and if so, how does she express that love?  The answer seems obvious to me: of course she does, and she does it in the same way that we do, when we are being more like her.  She loves G-d by fulfilling His purpose: loving and serving others.

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

January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp where it is estimated that 1.1 million people were executed by the Nazis during World War II.  About 90% of those executed were Jews…

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.

What is Love?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIV

Songs have been written about it; and poems, short stories and novels. In fact the greatest songs ever sung, and the greatest stories ever told, are all about love.  Look at the most popular plays, they are all about love: Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Rent.  Rent? Well, you tell me:

One thing I’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have as well, is most love stories have death and dying as a major theme.  This is, of course, because love seems to be about sacrifice, and dying for love represents the ultimate sacrifice.  Hence all the stories about dying for love.  But, what about living for love? What is that and how does it differ from dying for love?

For one thing, dying for love is in a sense easy, because it is so dramatic, and final.  You steel yourself for the inevitable, and then it’s done.  Living for love, on the other hand, seems very hard because it is not a single tragic moment, but moment to moment, and it never ends. Ever.

Living for love has something in common with dying for love in that it also requires sacrifice.  The difference is, the sacrifice that characterizes living for love doesn’t end in one final dramatic event but is something that we live, day by day, day in and day out, like love itself.

The reason this is so is because love requires a certain universality; it applies to everyone, even, according to Jesus, our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).  As long as there are others, there is the requirement for love, and so there is also the requirement for sacrifice.  To take it even one step further, if we include G-d in those “others,” we can sense the magnitude of the sacrifice that love actually requires of us.

When we look at the above clip from Rent, we notice that it is also about death and dying, but it is not explicitly about dying for love, it is about living for love.  It is about Tom Collins’ love for his dying Angel, and the sacrifices he makes out of that love.  It’s about Roger’s conflicted love, and conflicted sacrifice, for the HIV positive and drug addicted Mimi and her love for Roger, who is also HIV positive.

While these examples have much of the drama associated with dying for love, they still give us a glimpse at what living for love is about, but what is living for love like, without the drama?

Initially, I thought that I could not come up with an example in the arts of living for love without the drama.  Then it hit me, of course there are plenty of examples, one being one of my favorite movies of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the movie, Jimmy Stewart plays a young man, George Bailey, who has big ideas.  He was going to get a college education, an accomplishment achieved by a relative few in those days.  He was going to travel the world and build things: bridges, skyscrapers, airports.  He was going to be somebody.

However, one circumstance after another arose that forced upon him a choice: does he pursue his dreams, or does stay for the sake of others?  Of course, he stays, and therein lies the story.  Due to his Uncle Billy’s mistake, he faces disgrace and jail.  At the end of his rope, he contemplates suicide but is saved by an angel, Clarence.  Clarence shows him what life would have been like in his hometown had he never been born; this changes his mind, and of course, there is a happy ending.

Now my point here is not that there isn’t plenty of drama in the movie – there is – and humor, and all those things that make up a great movie.  But many of the important decisions were, in a sense, rather mundane.  Does he stay and help the members of the Building and Loan after his father’s passing, or does he go after his dream? Does he hang on to his college money for when he is able to use it, or does he give it to his brother, with the understanding that his brother will return so George can then pursue college?  When his brother graduates and is offered a position in another city, does he hold his brother to their agreement and go off to school himself, or does he give his brother his blessing to take the other job?

Do you see what I mean?  Just a man living his life, making decisions similar to ones we all have made with the important distinction of always putting others ahead of himself.  One could argue that there is a death here: the slow, painful death of George’s dream, and this is a valid point.  But in the end, this turns out to be a good thing, because George realizes that what he has – family, friends, their love for him, and his love for them – is far more valuable than anything he could have achieved as a big shot engineer traveling the world.

The life and death decisions for most people are, thankfully, few, but it’s all of the little decisions that we make in between them that challenge us and define our lives. These are the most important because they occur everyday, many times in the day.  What does love require from us when someone cuts us off on the highway?  What does love require from us when a friend tells us that they can’t meet an obligation as promised?  What does love require from us when a child asks us the same question for the hundredth time?  What does love require from us when our spouse is late for a dinner party? I could go on, and on, and on.

There really is no end to the opportunities for us to sacrifice something for love: our pride, our time, our money, our ego; to live for love.  We are constantly given opportunities to meet the demands that love places on us.  What do we choose?  Or more accurately, who do we choose?