As I write this, the kitchen table is shaking. If our table is shaking, I worry that the church’s beautiful stained-glass windows, desperately in need of repair, are also shaking. The parsonage is attached to the church and shares the same foundation. Seven feet away all hell is breaking loose. Several blocks of businesses that have served this neighborhood are being knocked down by giant backhoes and inflated real estate prices to make way for towering apartments.
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.
In 2005, just in time for Easter, Mel Gibson released an edited version of his controversial film The Passion of the Christ. A few brutal scenes had been cut and camera angles had been changed, all in an attempt to soften the graphic violence of the original. Gibson said that the new edition of the film would appeal to people who “want to take your Aunt Martha or Uncle Harry” to see it but who would find the first version too intense.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.