The Gospel of the Loser

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The beginning of this commentary will sound familiar to those who have read “The Counterfeit Gospel” (Jan. 29, 2022). The beginning through “The Gospel of Jesus the Loser” is edited and amplified. Everything from the rubric “From Prosperity to QAnon” is original to this post.

A Question of Glory

Donald Trump and I each claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and its Reformed theological tradition. It’s hard to remember much of what happened in Confirmation Class. But it’s hard to forget the first article of the Shorter Catechism. The way to a meaningful life is “to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” None of us understood it, of course. But one thing was clear: We are not to glorify ourselves.

The Workshop for Cranking Out Idols

The Reformed faith tradition focuses on the majesty of God and our propensity to bow before an infinite variety of substitutes for the Infinite. The issue for faith is not belief or unbelief. The issue is idolatry. Earth is the theatre of God’s glory. Yet human nature is a perpetual factory of idols. –Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,1556.

Author theologian William Stringfellow described idols as “imposters of God,” — the finite, manageable works we crank out that take the place of the Ineffable and Infinite.

There are gods and there is God. There is the finite and there is the Infinite. The gods are nearer-to-hand stand-ins, substitutes that promise what they cannot deliver. The world is beautiful and filled with goodness, yet the underlying goodness is twisted against itself. The idols are endless and varied. Nation, work, money, status, race, religion, political party, ideology take center stage in “the theater of God’s glory.”

The Gospel of Jesus the Loser

By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. Yet the loser will not go away. The loser executed on a Roman cross was raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it gains is loss. In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Gustav Doré’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it.

From Prosperity to QAnon

It’s a short distance from the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon. Neither pays attention to Matthew or Luke’s vivid narratives of Jesus in the wilderness. Is Satan real? Yes and no. Satan is not someone’s name. It’s a title — the Shatan, the Diabolos — for the diabolical. It has no other home than our hearts and minds, the blacksmith shop that never ceases. The factory that cranks out idols. Satan is the Adversary of the Divine. QAnon says little about God but sees Satan everywhere. QAnon is the latest metastasis of a simplistic theology that divides the world between God and Satan, good and evil, saved and damned, elect and non-elect, heaven and hell, soldiers and cowards. If those characteristics sound familiar, it’s because they are.

“You people seem normal”

Thanksgiving is a day of mostly cheerful moments, but some Thanksgivings are also epiphanies. My younger son’s college friend opened a window to his experience of Christian faith and practice. During a light-hearted conversation around the Thanksgiving table, the student guest took what seems like a risk, but it landed on ears that understood how he felt. “I don’t know quite how to say this,” he said with eyebrows rising, “but you people seem normal.” The conversation the followed focused on his view of Christians as whackos. The whackos held the worldview described in the previous paragraph. Why did he think so? While changing channels he had stopped in on Jimmy and Tammie Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, and other televangelists who had not seemed normal. They were abnormal by almost any standards mental health, reason and sanity.

The Lure of Prosperity

The Prosperity Gospel preachers proclaim it can all be yours, if… If you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you stop thinking negatively, it can all be yours. It can all be yours in a secure gated community. It can be yours if you climb to the top. It can all be yours if you just close your eyes to the homeless who disturb an otherwise beautiful day. It can all be yours, if you stop thinking of yourself as a school drop-out ditch digger and think of yourself as (fill in the blank).

Flights from Ambigiuity

What is missing in the Prosperity Gospel and QAnon are the biblical stories of Jesus in the wilderness with Satan. Any study of the Gospel of Matthew’s or Gospel of Luke’s narratives lead to a conclusion that life is more ambiguous than we would like it to be. It is good that our material needs are met. It’s not good when we turn needs into greed. In the same way, religion can go either way. It is good to praise God and practice a tradition’s wisdom, but religion can become, and often is, a form of idolatry that substitutes itself for the Eternal and Ineffable it claims to worship. But the third scene in the wilderness narratives that leaps from the page in America today, is the one about power and authority described below.

Satan

You may or may not hear much about Satan from Prosperity Gospel preachers or, for that matter, from the pulpits of traditional churches. It’s either because it’s not popular. It won’t attract new adherents. Or it’s an embarrassment. Or the biblical texts that speak of Satan or the Devil require an inordinately long explanation than a sermon allows. Not so for QAnon where the talk is all about Satan.

What has been lost is a literary and emotional understanding of the complex and confounding character of the biblical Satan. Satan is the personification of the diabolical. The Trickster, the Deceiver, the Twister, the Half-Truth Teller, the Liar. Beauty, truth, and goodness are given lip service, but beneath the talk of beauty lies ugliness, beneath the tributes to truth lies deceit, beneath the salute to goodness lies a tornado twisting goodness into its opposite.

The most poignant of the three wilderness scenes

William Blake paints the most poignant of the three episodes of Jesus’s 40 days with the Diabolos in the wilderness. The scene is a mountaintop where Satan and Jesus the Christ have in view all the nations and kingdoms of the word. Blake’s painting gives visual expression to the narcissistic lure of political power and authority. “Then the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. ‘All this I will give you,’ he says, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus says to him, ‘Begone, Satan, for it is written ‘you shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:10 NIV and NRSV combined)

Where was God?

Those who see the countenance of God in the face of Jesus the Loser face a challenge that won’t go away. Where was God when America’s First People were being stripped of their homeland, slaughtered, stripped of their religion and culture, and consigned to reservations and Christian boarding schools? Where was God when White hoods with torches burned their crosses and formed a congregation gathered around the lynching tree? Where was God at the whipping post? Where was God during the Holocaust, the “Final Solution”? Where was God at the gun massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland? Where was God when Narcissus was dying of dehydration at the edge of the pond?

You will find God there

Jesus the Loser tells us where. God was among those who were robbed of their homeland. God was shuttled off to the reservations. God was hanging from the lynching tree. God was whipped at the whipping post. God was on the trains to Auschwitz; God was among the children, teachers, and parents at Sandy Hook. God was among the Losers — the tortured, the poor, the starving, the dying and the dead. God was in the pond inviting Narcissus to drink. We will find God there.

Letters and Papers from Prison preserves a poem from the cell of a pastor, theologian, professor, and resistor of the German Third Reich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp April 9, 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July, 1944

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
Feedeth body and spirit with his bread,
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead:
And both alike forgiving.

Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister (H.R.) and public theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), available in kindle and paperback.

I want to be an olive tree

I love olives. I love the Psalms. Well . . . some of them . . . some times. Partly. Like the Psalm that greeted me this morning at the cabin far from the news.

Old_olive_tree_in_Karystos,_Euboia,_Greece

Old olive tree in Karystos, Euboia, Greece

Maybe you’ll like it too.

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man?
Why do you boast all day long,
you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
Your tongue plots destruction;
it is like a sharpened razor,
you who practice deceit.
You love evil rather than good,
falsehood rather than speaking the truth;

You love every harmful word,
O you deceitful tongue!

Surely God will bring you
down to everlasting ruin:
He will snatch you up and
tear you from your tent:
He will uproot you from
the land of the living.

The righteous will see and fear;
they will laugh at him, saying
“Here now is the man
who did not make God his stronghold
but trusted in his wealth
and grew strong by
destroying others!”

But I am like an olive tree
flourishing in the house of God . . . .
(Psalm 52:1-8a, NIV)

I am not righteous. But I do fear.

I just want to be an olive tree. Like the olive tree that produced the twig the dove brought back to the ark signaling to Noah that the flood was over.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, truck stop near cabin in northern MN, November 3, 2017.

 

Be Still! Departing from Collective Madness

Writing Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (scheduled for release by Wipf and Stock Publishers in January), I had a growing sense of its prescience. The subtitle “departure from collective  madness” is anchored in the works of Elie Wiesel and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, and the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the Wise Men (sic) who “departed” for their own country by another way.

As the date for final submission of the Be Still! manuscript drew near, I saw a madman running for the highest office of the land but underestimated the extent of the collective madness that would be drawn like iron to a magnet. The billionaire television personality who puts his name on everything his hands have touched, gave voice to people who have felt groped by the system.

Michael Moore, a champion of America’s forgotten working class, saw this coming. He was in touch with the many sources of anger that found a voice in Donald Trump, and he warned the Democratic Party to get in touch with it before it was too late.

Now it is history. I felt sick Wednesday morning. By yesterday evening, I was able to calm down. Today’s sense of nausea is worse than yesterday’s after reading “Meet Trump’s Cabinet-in-Waiting” – a cabinet which will put the country back into the hands Wall Street, big oil, climate change-deniers, and the likes of Chris Christie, Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Rudy Gulliani (Attorney General candidate), loose-talking groper Newt Gingrich (Secretary of State candidate), and CEOs.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have called for the country to unite for an orderly transition. I believe in orderly transitions. I applaud them. A democratic republic depends upon such transitions. I support that. But I will not be united behind a madman or absorbed into a collective madness that bodes evil. I will not turn over cars. I will not stop traffic. I will not burn things. I will write. And write. And write knowing, as this election has reaffirmed, that words DO matter.

I will do my best to be still. I will follow the example the biblical Wise Men (sic) who “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, . . . departed into their own country another way”[Matthew 2:12 KJV]. Herod was a strongman in whom there was no refuge. There was and is another way.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

[Psalm 46]

Amen. May it be so.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 10, 2016

 

 

 

Verse – God’s Plan

Steve sent this @12:26 a.m. today. Though fatigued, he had a “good day” with visits from his high school friend Gary, an 18 year-old he’s mentored since the fourth grade (clarification: since the young man, not since Steve, was in the fourth grade 😮), and a yoga instructor friend who helped him “straighten up in my wheelchair”:

Gods plan

Two Religions everywhere

Any and all religions are divided between two types. One shouts; the other listens. One makes war in the name of God; the other makes peace in the name of God. One kills its enemies; the other prays for its enemies.

Both types are found within each of the three Abrahamic religions. The sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can be interpreted either way. Sections of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament – the Book of Revelation, for instance – lend themselves to interpretations that shout, go off to war, and kill in the name of a warrior God. The same is true of the Qu’ran.

Apocalyptic fear or expectations – end of the world theology – light the fires of fear and hatred.

Richer by Far this morning invites us to pause and ponder the deepest truth about ourselves and others.

“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness – that I myself am the enemy who must be loved – what then? As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us ‘Raca,’ and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.” Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

Apocalyptic theology of whatever sort ignores the deepest truth about ourselves. Martin Niemoller, the German churchman who resisted Hitler gives the succinct word to ponder.

“It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies.” Martin Niemöller

What does God look like?

As a child, I wondered what God was like. I was told God was like Jesus. But I couldn’t see Jesus; neither could the artists who painted God and Jesus. They just made up what they looked like. I never got an answer to what God looks like, or what God sounds like.

All these years later young children ask me the same questions:

“What does God look like? What language does God speak? How do we know it’s God?”

Recently a kind of answer came while speaking with a neurosurgeon at a hospital in Ukraine.

Imagine you’re a fly on the wall in the neurosurgery floor of a hospital. All the patients have had, or will soon have, brain surgery. You observe the neurosurgeon make his daily rounds, going from room to room – just as you would expect anywhere in the world.

But this isn’t anywhere in the world. Something’s different here. This hospital is an embattled region on the eastern border of Ukraine… and the patients under this doctor’s care aren’t just any patients. Some of them are enemy soldiers. The patients are from both sides of the war.

One Russian soldier with a bullet still in his head occupies Room 401. Next door in Room 403 is a Ukrainian soldier, recovering from surgery. One speaks only Russian; the other speaks Russian and Ukrainian.

Like many other citizens in this city in the Donbass Region of Ukraine, the neurosurgeon speaks fluent Russian and Ukrainian. He communicates equally well with the Russian and Ukrainian enemy soldiers.

The surgeon walks into the Russian soldier’s room. He greets him in Russian: “Dobroye utro [Good morning], Vladimir, how are you feeling this morning?”

“Khorosho” [Good], says Vladimir.

He goes next door to Room 403. He greets Alexei in Ukrainian: “Dobroho ranku, [Good morning] Alexei. How’s the headache this morning?”

“Ne take dobre!” [Not so good], says Alexei.

Both the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers trust that the doctor lives by a different code than the geopolitical code of conduct that has landed them – two former enemy combatants – in the same hospital next door to each other.

__________________
What does God look like? What language does God speak?

As Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama noted, God speaks more than one language. God speaks many languages. Maybe God looks and sounds like a multilingual brain surgeon making rounds in the war-zone hospital taking the bullets out of the heads of enemy combatants.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN 55318

 

Verse – The Exchange

INTRO: This piece uses the Hebrew terms for man (atham) and woman (athama), descriptions that remind Hebrew readers that human beings are of the dust, of the earth.

The Exchange 

“Did God really say you will die if you
eat the fruit of the tree in the middle
of the garden, the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil?” asked the snake
of the woman beside the Elysian tree.

So she did eat and so did he – Atham
and Athama, the earthlings – wishing to
be like God, mocking death by dividing
evil from the good down below where
a snake exchanged a hiss for a kiss.

“Cursed are you among all animals,”
said God. “On your belly you shall go,
eating dust along your way. Atham
and Athama will bruise your head,
and you shall bruise their heel.”

Then the two-legged creatures knowing
good and evil, dividing the Garden between
sheep and goats, stumbled at a nip on
the heel and heard a hiss: “You, too,
are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Of the forbidden fruit of that one tree all
earthlings still do eat despite the voice
from the tree that tamed the snake,
exchanging a kiss for the hiss: “Forgive
them, for they know not what they do.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 28, 2015

Being Human – nothing more, nothing less

The ISIL fundamentalist extremists who terrorized Paris, San Bernardino, Beirut, and elsewhere in the name of God believe in an eternal reward for sacrificing themselves for a holy cause. Though it may seem strange to many of us in the West, they share two beliefs widely held by others who are not terrorists:

  1. God (Allah, in Arabic) is a being — the Supreme Being, but ‘a being’ nonetheless.
  2. Death is not the end of mortal life; we are destined for immortality – Heaven or Hell, eternal states of bliss or punishment.

It’s not just the jihadists who deny our mortality, our perishable nature within the order of Nature.

In Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry, philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg wrote:

“Threatened by nonbeing, by chaos, and meaninglessness, man looks for a foothold in the Imperishable.”

The “soldiers of the caliphate” are young. Paradoxically, as hideous, grotesque, and deranged as their thinking is, their massacres are performed in the name of an ideal. They are idealists claiming “a foothold in the Imperishable”.

Seeking to rid the world of evil, they succumb to evil. In the name of heaven and the Imperishable, they create hell on earth.

But what if God is not a being? What if, as Paul Tillich argued, God does not “exist” as a thing or person exists, but instead is Being-Itself or the Ground of Being or the God above god?

What if we are mortal? What if death is the end, not a doorway to heavenly reward or eternal punishment? What if no St. Peter stands at the pearly gates to separate sheep and goats? What if no vestal virgins are waiting? What if life and death are what they seem?

John Lennon’s “Imagine” strikes a chord in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Mali. Imagine there’s no religion. But imagining won’t erase the problem of religion or the anxiety endemic to the human condition. We are suckers for certainty desiring the end of complexity and ambiguity.

“Finitude,” wrote Paul Tillich, “means having no definite place; it means having to lose every place finally, and with it, to lose being itself.”  [Systematic Theology, Vol. I., p. 195, University of Chicago Press]

The appeal of fundamentalist certainty, whatever its form, is the promise of a secure foothold, place in immortality – a purpose bigger than life itself, the escape from ambiguity.

When faith is ill-conceived as acting to end the ambiguities represented by the enemies of God, instead of as coping with life’s inherent ambiguities, we create what we seeks to escape. We create a foothold in what will not hold.

What if to be human is not to escape mortality, but to embrace it thankfully and to live courageously within the boundaries of time, of mortal flesh filled with the Eternal in the midst of time?

“Being holy . . . does not mean being perfect but being whole; it does not mean being exceptionally religious or being religious at all; it means being liberated from religiosity and religious pietism of any sort; it does not mean being morally better, it means being exemplary; it does not mean being godly, but rather being truly human.” ― William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 9, 2016

Speaking very clearly

 

I’m going to speak very clearly now Gordon, in the form of a single question.

How in the name of God can you claim to be a Christian and a Democrat in the same breath?

I don’t know the person who put the question. We’re complete strangers.  We’ve never met. We live in different worlds.  Our understandings are foreign to each other, so strange that suspicion and name-calling, or the fear that the other is calling the other “a nut job”, undermines the possibility of real discussion.

I … read a few of your other posts, needless to say; everything I read merely confirmed my original “understanding” of who you are. In other words Gordon, (and I say this with both respect and disdain) You do not fool me, I knew you from your first words, your Credentials simply confirmed what was obvious from the start. Take that as you will.

At this point, I’m pretty sure that you are convinced that I am some sort of zealot or just another “right-wing nut job”, but in truth I am just another American. A Christian American.

I’m going to speak very clearly now Gordon, in the form of a single question.

How in the name of God can you claim to be a Christian and a Democrat in the same breath?

The writer was responding to Views from the Edge‘s post of Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama’s speech on Hiroshima Day, 2006. Nothing in that post would lead a reader to assume, or to conclude, knowledge of my political party affiliation.

I asked myself how to respond. I pondered not replying at all. I chose to respond in writing as best I could, assuring the writer that I don’t call people right-wing nut jobs, and addressing other sections of the comment. After an exchange of blog comments and an email inviting a phone conversation, we shared some of the milk of human kindness over the phone long distance.

In further reflection I realized that the writer’s question articulates a point of view that rarely speaks so clearly. It assumes that Christian faith and the Democratic Party are polar opposites. Others on the left assume a Christian cannot be a Republican. Parts of America we are living in two separate worlds – on two different sides without much clear speaking. It’s not surprising that the “Nones” – those who now declare no religious affiliation in national polls – are growing in America.

The writer’s comments repeatedly refer to “the real war” in heaven and on earth, spiritual warfare between Satan and God. Until “the real war” is over, the argument goes, there will be cruelty and wars because of the fallenness of human nature, and there’s nothing we can do to change. In the midst of time we must chose which “side” we are on.

Views from the Edge’s first Hiroshima Day piece and the one that followed it had called attention to the hubris of all claims (Japanese or American) to national exceptionalism.

The writer therefore, as best I can tell, concluded I must be a Democrat, i.e. someone who doesn’t love his country, someone who thinks that America is not a Christian nation. Someone who might be a …. “You don’t fool me.”

The commenter was right that I’m a Christian but mistaken in assuming I’m a Democrat. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are, in my view, the left wing and the right wing of a single American party. Both wings belong to Wall Street. They march in parades on Main Street at election time, but the parades are funded by Wall Street and America’s wealthiest 1%. We do not live in a democratic republic. We are living under an oligarchy.

Jesus has a few things to say about that.  J.J. Von Allmen (A Companion to the Bible, Oxford University Press, 1958) makes a powerful case that Jesus’s teaching about money is original to him. He is the first to call money “Mammon”: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Jesus choice to personify wealth stands out as an exception to his normal way of speaking. Mammon and its distribution are at the heart of Jesus’s preaching and teaching. There is the Kingdom of God and there is the Kingdom of Mammon. One cannot serve both.

Had the commenter’s question been “How can you be a Christian and a socialist?” the answer would have been easy.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 15, 2015

When the Breath flies away

It takes only a moment to see oneself in the experience of Andy Catlett in Wendell Berry’s story, “Fly Away, Breath!” Our experience is of time flown away and flying away.

Most of us, most of the time, think mostly of the past. Even when we say, “We are living now,” we can only mean that we were living a moment ago.

Nevertheless, in this sometimes horrifying, sometimes satisfying, never-sufficiently-noticed present, between a past mostly forgotten and a future that we deserve to fear but cannot predict, some few things can be recalled.

Wendell Berry, “Fly Away, Breath (1907),” A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port Williams Membership,” Counterpoint Press, 2012.

We are creatures of a specific time and place — and relationships with loved ones, friends, and enemies, a plot of land, a town or city we call home, a state, a nation, a world in time sandwiched between past and future that we call the present.

A ghost town is a reminder of time. Southern Cross stands on the mountain high above Georgetown Lake, Montana, where the vistas are breathtaking, and the past is barely remembered except for the abandoned miners’ quarters and mine shafts below the surface of the place that remind the visitor of the fickleness of time.

“All flesh is grass” and yet, despite our intuitive awareness of it, we unconsciously pretend most days it is not true that “the grass withers, the flower fades….” [Isaiah 40:8].

“Nevertheless,” says Wendell Berry, “… between a past mostly forgotten and a future that we deserve to fear but cannot predict, some few things can be recalled” — things like my friendship with Phil, now ended unexpectedly by a rare nearly undiagnosable lymphoma in his spleen. Hours before his death, the interventionist ICU doctor described Phil’s case and his 10 days in the ICU as “a real shit storm” because of the many ongoing complications that mystified the medical staff. In all of medical history only 10-15 cases have been reported where lymphoma originated in the spleen. By the time it was discovered in Phil, other organs had begun to shut down. The first organ to go was the gallbladder, which was already abscessed when they operated to remove the spleen.

Medical professionals are no different from the rest of us, except for their skill and training in how to treat illness and preserve life. Despite every effort to keep the present from slipping into the past, against every attempt to retain some kind of future, the breath always flies away.

Phil’s death, as I had come to see it days before he passed, came as an act of mercy, a release from the torturous interventions of advanced medical technology that asks the question ‘How?’ without first asking ‘Why?”

I’m increasingly convinced that the denial of death (mortality) and the search for immorality are the opposites of the Christian faith in God – on Hebrew YHWH (“I am Who I Am/ I will Be Who I will be”) who alone is Eternal. All else is species hubris, the refusal to live thankfully, graciously and peacefully within the limits of finite, mortal goodness.

We are all standing in line, not knowing at what time or place our time will come. We’re all headed for the ghost town, thinking of the past or dreading the future we deserve, but also, in moments of grace, remembering with thanksgiving the tender mercies along the way that cannot be denied.

I do not know what of Phil or any of us may lie beyond the grave, an odd thing to say for a minister of the gospel whose faith lives out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing my unknowing, my best friend reminded me of “Jesus’s question to Nicodemus at night about the not entirely unrelated matter of being born of the Spirit: ‘You are the teacher of God’s people, and don’t know these things?’”

I confess to knowing very little, especially when what Chaim Potok calls the four-o’clock-in-the-morning-questions wake me in the middle of the night between a present now gone and a future that remains inscrutable. However that may be, what I do know is that bodily life — mortal life in space and time in the midst of Eternity — is what we have and it is to be cherished. Bound to the limits of time and place, it is God’s good creation.  Yet only God is the Eternal One.

Whatever lies on the other side of my years is beyond my mortal knowing. But I can and do affirm the Eternity of God and the scriptural point of view that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. “All flesh is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God [YHWH, the Eternal] shall last forever.” Right now, in good conscience, that’s enough bread to live on today as I recall the blessing of Phil to our lives and pray for all who loved him.

– Gordon C. Stewart, written at Georgetown Lake, Montana, July 26, 2015.