On Larry King Live the other night, a well-known Christian musician was telling his life story, and it was exactly the kind of story I prefer not to hear from the pulpit. As King peered at him through his owlish glasses, the musician told of being raised in a warm and loving Christian family and of discovering in high school that he was blessed both with a vibrant faith and with a rare musical gift. Eventually shaking off the dust of his little town, he took his faith and his keyboard and headed off toward the bright lights of Nashville, aiming at a career in gospel music.
Not far from where I live is a geological oddity. Stone Mountain is a bald and rounded mass of granite a mile and a half long and nearly a thousand feet high. Eons ago, molten rock pushed up from the earth’s core to the surface, then bubbled out and hardened into a monolith. Given the flat landscape around it, what one notices first about Stone Mountain is how unexpected it is. This isolated mass of stone stands all alone, sticking out like a blister on a thumb. It is as if an unneeded chunk of the Rockies was carelessly tossed over the shoulder of the Creator and landed improbably in a Georgia pasture.
Something’s missing in the current culture war over the Ten Commandments. I knew about Judge Roy Moore, the now-removed chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who waged and lost a stubborn fight to keep a Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse. What slipped past me is just how much this monument of his weighs: 5,280 pounds, or just over 500 pounds per commandment.
Sometimes I’m watching TV news and reach the point where I cannot take in all the violence and destruction. So I turn off the television and try to get involved in something that will take my mind off the news. God, however, does not have that option. God does not have a remote control to change the channels. God cannot move to the suburbs or close a door to hide from the violence. God’s eyes are not averted. God’s heart is not numbed.
I once lived in a village in Germany that lay at the foot of a mountain covered in deep forest. A narrow farm separated the houses from the forest, and a cemetery occupied a piece of land part way up the mountain. Sometimes on my daily walks I stopped at the cemetery. It was the busiest place in town.
I didn’t want to come back. My consciousness hovered somewhere above the body lying on the gurney. It was all over, I thought. The last sensation I remembered had been incomprehensible pain, then a tunnel, and a grinding noise as described in other near-death experiences. But unlike other people who tell of “NDEs,” I saw no lights, no angels, no dead relatives, no friendly saints; rather, I found myself very much awake in a weightless, imageless, gray hyperreality. I experienced a blessed clarity, freedom and relief, and a stunning sense of the illusory nature of the life I’d left behind.
It is tempting to sit in judgment on others. Sometimes we do it in jest, as Mark Twain did when commenting on Adam. “Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” But sometimes the serpent eats us, and then we judge in earnest.
Samuel, the Billy Graham of his day, was adviser to the political leader Saul, the Pete Rose of ancient Israel. Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel. But soon (to quote James Thurber), “confusion got its foot in the door” and went through the entire “system.” Samuel observed Saul disobeying the explicit word of God, and it became Samuel’s job to inform Saul that God had rejected him as king.
An economic migrant—a desert nomad—leads his family toward a land of promise, believing he is following the will of his Creator. And so begins the great trek for new life, survival, redemption. He will find danger, so much danger that he plans to pass his wife off as his sister. It is a trek repeated today in the heat of the Sonoran desert, in boats from Africa running ashore in southern Europe, in the hulls of boats from Fujian province to the shores of Long Island.
Chang Lee survived two brutal wars in his mother country, Korea. He lived through the dangers posed by Japanese bombs, Chinese howitzers, North Korean minefields and American carbines. But he did not survive an encounter with a mugger in the hallway of his own apartment in the U.S. He was brutally stabbed, and died at the age of 80. Chang Lee’s family were members of the parish I served in Queens.