zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the tag “Faith”

Journey Post 48: Good neighbor Sam?

Note:  I was set to publish this nearly a month ago.  But the ending was not right.  I trust that it is, now.


“Who is my neighbor?”  Luke 10:29                                                                                                                                          —Question put to Jesus by a young law expert

Love … It is the big idea … bigger than any good feelings which may come with it.

Genuine love affects how we act toward others in every area of life.  Simply put, love compels.  Love forgets self.  When love is real, it will at times act contrary to feelings, contrary to self.  Love does the right thing.  I am an inconsistent practitioner of this kind of love.

God’s idea of love is seen in the life—and supremely the death—of Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:3).  It was this kind of love that St. Paul described in the passage often read at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind…

One of the radical ideas that Jesus taught his disciples—and anyone who would listen—is that “love your neighbor” includes “love your enemies.”  It must have seemed new and radical to those who heard him say this in his first major public teaching, “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Yet it was only as new and as radical as God himself.  Little did they suspect that “love your enemy” is a central premise of how God operates and how he desires that we operate in our relationships.  “Impossible,” you say?  Precisely.

There was once a young man who was confronted with this reality about love—and its impossibility.  Jesus met the young man, an expert in the law of God who seemed confident that he knew what God expected of him.  But he came away from his encounter with Jesus having had a truth adjustment.  It’s a pity that we don’t know what the young man finally did with this truth….

For us, the parable Jesus told him, “The Good Samaritan,” has become a cultural moniker for laws that protect us when we try to do the right thing, such as helping an injured person out of a damaged car at the risk of further injury.  It’s nice to have those laws.  They enable us to do something seriously good for another without regard to negative consequences for ourselves.

For Jesus, the parable he told has to do with doing good (love) for others without regard to self.

The story is simple and well known, as is its basic lesson.  Most people are at least familiar with it:  A man is beat up and robbed on an isolated road and left for dead.  A priest and another guy come upon the man but avoid him and keep going.  They were religious types whom you’d expect would have stopped to help.  Another man, a foreigner from Samaria, sees him, stops, cleans his wounds, lifts him onto his donkey, and takes him to an inn where the victim can rest and recover.  The Samaritan pays the inn-keeper to provide whatever the man might need and promises to reimburse any extra expense.

The lesson here is actually much larger than helping a stranger in trouble.  That can easily be missed in a casual read.  We know we’re supposed to “love thy neighbor.”  But the young man took it further, asking, “who is my neighbor?”  Why would he do that?  Wasn’t he the expert?

If you haven’t done so yet, please read the account in Luke 10:25-37.  As you do so, take note of the young man’s two questions.  These provide the context for the parable.  And, they raise an important question that Jesus leaves hanging….

We’ll begin with the people in the parable.  Then we’ll consider the young law expert himself and what he was after with his questions.

The priest who passes by serves at the temple in Jerusalem.  The second man is a Levite whose job it is to help at the temple.  They probably rationalized their non-action (we humans have a built-in propensity for this), which might have run thus: “If I touch him (he might even be dead), I would be ‘unclean’ and would not be able to serve at the temple.”  So they let themselves off the hook with their own importance.  They didn’t just ignore the man: they passed by on the other side of the road so they wouldn’t be defiled.  That way, they likely told themselves, they would remain “clean” to serve God….

Enter the Samaritan.  He was, well, a Samaritan.  He wasn’t just a foreigner, but a very special kind of foreigner.  There could not have been a greater contrast: essential temple workers/despised Samaritan.

Despised?  How do we know that?  Because all Samaritans were … by the Jews back then.

A little background:  Samaria stood between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south of Israel during the time of Jesus.  Long before, Samaria had been the capital of northern Israel.  It had been finally conquered by Assyria in 712 B.C.  The king deported many Israelites (to weaken their state) and brought in Assyrians (Gentiles, non-Jews) to replace them.

Eventually, of course, there was intermarriage, and their seed was considered half-breed and thoroughly unclean.  Samaritans took on many pagan practices.  While they considered themselves worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, they would not go to the Jerusalem temple, but built their own.

Jews assiduously avoided Samaritans.  They despised them so much that they wouldn’t even walk through their land to get to Galilee.  (Jesus made a point of walking right through Samaria, on one occasion stopping to speak with “the [Samaritan] woman at the well,” recorded in John 4.)

Jesus emphasized that all of God’s law was summed up in the word “love.”  While the people were told by their religious leaders to “love your neighbor and hate your enemies,” Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy in this: they would not be any different from pagans, who did the same.  “Be perfect as your Father is perfect,” he told them—like their Father who showers the blessings of his creation upon all.

By using a Samaritan as the one who showed mercy and kindness, Jesus struck a nerve:  This was no theoretical enemy, this was a Samaritan!!  His people had turned their backs on the true worship of Yahweh.  (Jesus had this habit of tossing in unexpected zingers to make his points unmistakable.)

So what about this young law expert?  Jesus certainly put him in his place, right?  Not exactly.  There was something else in play for this young man, though our account doesn’t make it clear just what.

Law experts often appeared as enemies of Jesus, along with their pals, the Pharisees.  Many were, but there is no proof that such was the case here.  The text said that he stood up to “test” Jesus:  the word doesn’t indicate whether he was trying to trip up Jesus or simply trying to find out if he might actually be Messiah.  Jesus never rebukes him.  And while it says that he wanted to “justify himself” (which sounds terribly self-serving) by asking who his neighbor is, Jesus gives him a very straightforward answer—in story form—then sends the young man on his way with a pointed instruction: “Go and do likewise.”

“Likewise”??  This was insult added to injury:  Jesus wasn’t just saying to help people in trouble—which the law expert undoubtedly agreed with—but, in effect, “be perfect, like this Samaritan was perfect,” i.e., it was the despised Samaritan who did what God wanted, not his fellow Jews!

Reading the parable, most, including Christians, focus on the command to love your neighbor.  It feels right, and it is.  But don’t overlook the context.  I did for years, reading past the man’s original question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus, in recognition of the man’s great learning, asks him what the law says, “How do you read it?”  His answer (love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself) elicits this: “You’ve answered correctly.  Do this and you will live.”

Here the young man, “wanting to justify himself,” asks who his neighbor is.  We don’t know his true motive, but Jesus did: no one understood the human heart better than he.  Maybe the man had heard Jesus talking before about loving your enemy; maybe he had self-doubts.  We’re curious.  So was Peter once when he got curious about John: “What about him?” “If I want him to remain … what is that to you?  You, follow me” (John 21:21,22).  Oops….  Anyway, the point is: what is the lesson for us?

You may be wondering why Jesus didn’t tell the young man, “Believe in me and you will be saved”?  His answers, instead, kept coming down to keeping the law more perfectly.  The law expert got the point about the Samaritan … perhaps he even went off determined to love his enemy….

The question that Jesus leaves hanging here is this:  If doing good (i.e., doing God’s moral law, doing his will) is required to “gain eternal life,” what, then, is the role of faith?

Jesus knew that the young man, intent on keeping the law, would eventually run flat up against a wall, frustrated, disillusioned by the law he loved and counted on to make him righteous before God.  No matter how hard he tried.  Just when he thought he was making progress … Did God move the goalpost?

Another story can help us understand the role of faith.  It’s about another young man who came to Jesus and asked the very same thing—and got the same answer—about eternal life.

This second man is known as the “rich young ruler” (e.g., Luke 18: 18-30).  He told Jesus he had kept the commandments since he was a boy.  Jesus said he still lacked one thing:  sell all he had, give to the poor; then he would have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow him.  Jesus loved this man, Mark says.

The rich man became sad; he had so much.  He’d seemed so close: did God just move the goalpost for him, too?  Jesus remarked that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  Those around him were astonished: they assumed the rich had God’s favor.  So who can be saved?  Jesus: “What is impossible for people is not impossible for God.”

Both young men missed the point: no matter how much they loved, or how much they gave up, they could never put God in their debt.  Of course God wants people to do his will, but when the question becomes “What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?” the wrong question is being asked.

The disciples were still missing the point here, too.  Right before the rich ruler, some children were brought and the disciples had tried to turn them away.  Jesus was indignant.  “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these … anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:15-17).  How’s that?

We agree: “let the children come.”  But we also say, as Dorothy did after the Wizard gave tokens of their brains, heart, and courage to her friends: “I don’t think there’s anything in that black bag for me….”

Have you ever considered what is meant by “the faith of a child”?  They are sweet and innocent, right? “Jesus loves the little children….”  But children are not giants of faith.  They are dependent, helpless little people, innocent because their trust has not yet been violated.  Yet we are wired to trust (have faith).  It’s essential for daily life, for every bite of food, every chair in which we sit.  By the time we’re adults, most of us have had our trust violated enough that we no longer give it easily, and we didn’t notice….

We need help to trust.  The question isn’t always, “whom do I trust?” but “how can I trust?” and “is it safe?”  That requires honesty.  In a moment I’ll never forget—on a hospital bed in Vietnam in June, 1969—I faced the question:  Did I really believe?  Was Jesus real?  I didn’t know—how can I?  Questions—and honesty— flooded my mind when I realized that I really almost died the day before….

I suspect that the young law expert had a moment after he left Jesus when he knew he was up against a wall and could never meet such a high standard as Jesus had laid out for him.  And the young rich man?  Jesus “loved him.”  Surprised?  He doesn’t only love the little children.  Irony:  the disciples likely deferred to him, since he was rich.  The disciples didn’t hinder him.  He had his own hindrance.

Leap of Faith

After my own moment of honesty, I slowly began to understand that God wasn’t asking me to take some blind leap of faith.  Nor was he telling me to sit around and wait on the Spirit to zap faith into me.  I was an historian: I knew I needed to follow the evidence, and especially to investigate the resurrection.

Bit by bit, I began to realize I could trust God’s word.  Jesus’ life and death was the fulfillment of promises made long before.  One day, two years after my moment on that hospital bed, I knew that I believed.  I knew I could trust him.  I didn’t know how little faith I had at that time, but it was a start….

Other people come to faith in other ways.  Some quickly, some slowly, some in anguish, some come quietly.  In my case, there was a clanging bell inside my head (a literal noise), followed by silence….

The big thing that keeps us from God is not sin per se, but our lack of trust in someone else’s love.  God’s invitation is out there for all to hear if they will.  “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).  “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The first public words out of Jesus’ mouth were: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:3).  There’s no special virtue in being poor: they’re stuck in a place where they have no one to trust but God to provide for their daily needs.  Having that spirit means you have no one to trust but God.  You’d be surprised how he shows up, dresses our wounds, and pays the expense.

I hope those two young men eventually made that discovery.  I’d like to ask them how that happened.

Journey Post 40: The Donkey Understanding of Christianity and the Christian Life, Part 2. Where the red dot grows. Or, everything I ever needed to know, I should have learned in Kindergarten.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”            —A.W. Tozer

To a kid in the early 1950s, it seemed that everyone went to church on Sunday.  It was an important part of the culture.   “We live in a Christian nation,” people said.  We didn’t go to church, but some friends of my mom and dad took me and my brother.  Eventually, my parents followed.  I was five or six.

In Sunday school, we sang songs, heard Bible stories.  A very kind woman named Janet led my class.  She told us stories about Jesus from the New Testament.  Since every reference in my world back then revolved around “The War” (WW2), I remember thinking that this “new” testament must’ve been written since the war.  An early assumption.  I knew nothing.  Janet’s legacy was inscribed to me inside a small New Testament she gave me, a legacy of love and the importance she placed in this little book.


A favorite song: “The wise man built his house upon the rock.”  I didn’t know it was the analogy Jesus used to conclude the Sermon on the Mount.  It was a happy song, filled with motions, repetitions, and loud noise.  “The rains came down and the floods came up” (three times), “but the house on the rock stood firm.” We’d stand straight, planted stern and firm like Superman.  Then: “The foolish man built his house upon the sand.”  When the rains and floods came, his house went SPLAT! and we’d all fall down.

The point of the song was to “build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  I didn’t have a clue what it meant: I was puzzled, but I never asked.  I didn’t want to let on that I didn’t know.  I grew up thinking I’m supposed to know the answers, or figure them out.  I don’t remember my parents telling me different.


That song is still popular with kids.  It has played in the background of my life like a haunting melodic theme: be wise, build your life on Jesus, and your life will stand strong in the storm.  It seemed simple enough, but I was unaware I was missing something.  Whenever I’d fail or felt unsure, I’d run faster and harder, read the Bible more, serve more, love more, be like Jesus more … right?

When I recognized my friend’s view of God, I realized it was a reflection of my own underlying assumption about the way God is: not what I would say I believed, but what was there, deep inside.  It was a bolt from the blue.  God to me was that same dark, ugly, never-satisfied father who would one day tell me what a disappointment I’d been.  No!  He just couldn’t be like that, else this whole Christian thing was a crock.  I was suddenly determined to find the truth, like that day on a hospital bed in Vietnam.  I had to know: no more BS!

Proverbs 3:12 spotlighted the word “delight.” God delights—delights—in me … a glimpse into the father heart of God.  I googled my question about how God sees believers.  The word “adoption” popped up.  I knew adoption: it was like “saved” or “forgiven”… or so I assumed.  God had obligated himself to it.  He promised.  It was like a contract: you believe, God takes you to heaven—whether he wants to or not.


Trusting the father heart of God?

But Paul’s writings presented a different picture: adoption was a personal, intimate relationship with God as a father who showers an inheritance on his children.  He gives his Spirit to make it real by helping us recognize we belong to him, not in a “shut up and do as I say” way.  Rather, it was “live as my son.”

Paul said God planned our adoption.  It gave him great pleasure: he was passionate about bringing people into his family to be with them forever.

I would shortly discover that Jesus taught this same thing—and modeled it—with his disciples.

One day, I listened to a talk on discipleship.  The speaker asked: If you claim to be Jesus’s follower, do you know what he actually taught?  My “knowledge” had been filtered through conflicting systems of theological thinking.  So I began to read the Gospels over and over, praying to hear Jesus unfiltered!


I’ve never regretted that investment of time, thought, study and prayer.  I read in large chunks, chapters at a time, looking at context and patterns and concepts.  I read different Bible versions.  I began to lose my interpretive straightjacket and felt as though I were right there with Peter and the others, listening for the first time, watching him: entranced, curious, sometimes confused, praying for clarity.

This was no “Jesus lite.”  I began to understand why my high school pastor called him “the man’s man.”  Calling God “Father” scandalized the religious authorities.  Do you know the prayer?  “Our Father who art in heaven…”  Jesus taught the disciples to call God “Abba,” (like papa or daddy), an intimate term.  The greatest privilege the Christian has is to know God as father.  It’s not a title.  It’s a relationship.

I’ve now come full circle back to Janet’s Kindergarten Sunday school.  I know, now, I am building my house upon the rock, knowing I’m a “donkey” freed from donkeyness by the patient love of a Father.

My Red Dot

The red dot is that place on a locator map which says, “You are here.”  Here’s where I’m at:


My core beliefs are no different from Christians in most any evangelical church.  What has changed since 2007 is the way I understand God as my Father and myself as a son and follower of Jesus.  I’m still getting to know my adoptive dad intimately.  It is a personal relationship, with room for growth.  I know Jesus better.  Jesus’s agenda was not just the cross, to die as a sacrifice for our sin.  It included showing us what God is truly like, how he thinks, and what he wants.  Jesus summed it up in the word “love.”

Is Jesus really deity?  Many don’t believe that, but I do.  He didn’t deny it, but he didn’t campaign to convince people.  He let his Father open the eyes.  Besides the cross, his main agenda was focused on showing people who the Father is, living life as the son, loving people, how to worship him in truth.  His name is “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us”.  The resurrection declared him to be “the Son of God.”

There are strange beliefs about the Holy Spirit; many hesitate to talk of him as though they were afraid.  But Jesus called him “the helper” whom he promised to send so we’d recognize God as Father and ourselves as his children and to teach us wisdom—i.e., to know his will in our hearts.  He brings new birth to believers, and he make believers more like Jesus: to think and live like him, to flourish as part of his family.

My core identity: I am my Father’s son.  Adoption changed my status to that of a son (non-gender specific).  I am “holy” in God’s sight, a word which means much more than moral purity.  It means that I belong to him; I am his, he is mine.  This is true of all his people.  I am also a follower, a disciple, an apprentice of Jesus.  “Apprentice” still communicates what it was a rabbi did with disciples in Jesus’s day.  An apprentice observes, listens, follows instructions, seeks to imitate, and, so the theory goes, becomes more and more like the master.  There are no journeymen and only one master.


Here’s a clue how to recognize genuine disciples:  Jesus told his disciples, “People will know you are my disciples if you ….”  Or, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow …,” i.e., learning from me means: be ready to die to your own agenda.


I keep saying that God is like the perfect or good father.  A theological list doesn’t communicate how the originator of mothers and fathers is himself the perfect parent.  We understand (even if uncomfortable with) that humans are relational beings, creative and imaginative and loving—as God is.  “Knowing God” is not about knowing a list of attributes: it’s about knowing him.  That’s what Jesus said eternal life is.  Understanding God as a relational, loving, and trustworthy father makes the Scriptures come alive and helps eliminate the temptation to “proof-text” verses about this or that attribute.

Humans have a great capacity to trust—it’s built in by God, but it gets crapped on in our society, shattered by abuse, apathy, and self-centeredness.  We do respond to someone we trust, and if that person is God, we begin to understand that faith is not some mysterious force that he zaps into people.  It’s the very normal response to recognizing his trustworthiness.  God is continually shining a light on himself for the very reason of drawing out faith:  in creation, in Jesus, other believers, the Scriptures, in the message we refer to as the “gospel.”  Even when our faith is small, it can grow to be great, just as Jesus said when he spoke of a mustard seed.

My early faith was largely cognitive: Jesus rose, therefore I knew the rest was true.  But it was love that got me off the performance treadmill.  It was love (delight) that made me see I’m no longer afraid of him.  I fear him, but I trust him.  His love is changing me, and in response, I love him and aim to do what Jesus did—display God in my life.

To think of God as a perfect and good father makes a lot of sense: he invented the concept of parenthood, after all.  Doing so does not eliminate the majestic or sovereign aspects of who he is.  Rather it enhances them.  Have you ever thought what it would be like to the son or daughter of the President of the United States?


Here’s some quick statements about other stuff:

The “s” word (sin) makes people uncomfortable, makes them think they’re being judged.  Let me use another analogy to give some clarity on what I believe God thinks:  What things would be harmful to your child?  What would keep their lives from thriving, from living out their potential, from knowing they are loved or from loving others?  We invest a lot in them because we love them.  We train, encourage, and seek to guide a positive strong will—vs. training out a destructive self-will.  We teach them love and respect and some humility by loving and respecting them.  God does the same.

God will judge one day, and it won’t be pleasant for those who don’t want anything to do with him.  Judgment is another part of parenthood.  God is the only one who judges with absolute accuracy and fairness.  He is just: that is the baseline reason that Jesus had to go to the cross.  The cross was part of God’s plan to adopt children into his family.  Since he is absolute holiness, he had to find a way to bring us into his presence for time and eternity without compromising.  So Jesus redeemed us by being the “lamb of God,” a sacrifice to pay our penalty of separation from God.  We accept that by faith.


I love the Bible.  It’s the only authority for what I believe and how I live.  It reflects God’s desire to communicate, and reflects him and his character.  It contains everything he wanted us to know—for now.  His Spirit helps us understand it, yet anyone can read it and get the main idea.  The Spirit guided those who wrote it down, but it wasn’t dictated.  I don’t believe there’s any contradiction with true science.  The creation account?  The point is that God did it.  Nothing comes from nothing on its own.

The Father sent Jesus as Christ (Israel’s Messiah) to reconcile people and offer forgiveness so that we might live as free sons.  Jesus announced this good news and initiated his Father’s kingdom.  Then he took upon himself the consequences of our rejection.  Who doesn’t want to know they are truly loved?

Journey Post 36, Memorializing God: Oh Captain! My Relational Captain!

NOTE:  Some time ago, I promised a friend I’d write an essay explaining something of my understanding of Christianity and the Christian life.  This is that.  It’s not systematic nor exhaustive, but reflects where I am right now, particularly in light of our recent trip to Colorado….

Time, Is God Dead

In 1967, the year that Time published a cover story asking, “Is God dead?”  I was a young college student more concerned about getting my draft notice and going to Vietnam than about what might be happening with God.  My mind was on the “real” world, or so I thought.

A couple years later, my “real” world had an encounter with the God world in a dry rice field in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam.  While pondering and puzzling over my own mortality and God, a visitor to my hospital bed brought news that my C.O., Captain David Walsh, had been killed about the same time that I was wounded.  He had given his life for his men by seeking to flush out and kill some snipers who were targeting our perimeter.  Rather than send someone else, he led a few men out to find and eliminate the threat.  Capt. Walsh, after single-handedly charging in and killing two of the snipers, was finally brought down by a third.

Cpt Walsh by Kraft--caught

Above:  Captain David Walsh             (Photo by Bob Kraft)

My captain left me that day with a legacy of love and an idea about what it means to value others above yourself.  His legacy was a seed in me that struggled most of my life even as it sprouted: the soil of my heart was hard, stubbornly so, a heart seeking at the same time freedom and self-protection, two goals so contradictory that one must suppress the other.  The safe route wins almost every time.  Left to itself, such a heart could never be set free.  Yet, for nearly fifty years, that seed has sprouted and grown, often imperceptibly—a still tender plant.  (You see, I really am a donkey.)

Two years after the rice field, I became a convinced Christian, a committed follower of Jesus Christ.  Like Peter, I was convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, the only one who “has the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).


Two things had pushed me to acknowledge that God was still very much alive:  one was the changed life of a friend who displayed Jesus’ life to me in very real and relevant ways; the second was the resurrection.  Jesus really did rise from the dead: applying the tools and mindset of the historian to Jesus’ life took me down a path to confirm the central fact of all history.

I call my life—and this blog—a “zigzag journey.”  Some zigs and zags got more pronounced as Jesus’ life and teaching pushed against the boundaries of my self-protected soul.  My faith was real, but my following was incredibly hesitant.  If I ever resembled Peter, it was when he sat only feet from Jesus on trial and pulled back to safety.  I’m the guy in the Simon and Garfunkel world: I am a rock and I am an island, I have my books and my theology to protect me.  My fears made me wonder if I were real….

I’ve seen God’s hand evident in my life since I was little.  That day in the rice field, the hand held a 2×4 and it was banging on my steel pot, yelling “Walt!  Wake up!  Pay attention!”  He put my feet on the road to see he is alive.  It was also the narrow road to freedom, though I often preferred side trails….

Some thirty-five years after Nam, another 2×4 made me see, at the same time, the Father heart of God and how evil my own assumptions about him had been.  Gone was the idea that he was “out to get me” and didn’t care.  Like most, my view of God had been mostly determined by my relationship with my parents.   My folks were social, but not truly relational.  When my dad died, I had felt left alone and abandoned.  When I got to know my adoptive Father, I discovered that he wants to be with his children, that he values and wants to be with me.  I now knew my identity: I am a son of my Father.

In the nine years since, I’ve seen that his love—which I once routinely described in duty-bound terms as “doing the best” for me out of his wisdom and grace—is other-centered and self-sacrificial.  And that love is completely trustworthy.  We Christians speak often of faith, belief, and trust.  Trust can never be simply cognitive.  My initial faith in Christ had been very cerebral.  Trust grows in relationship.

We Christians also talk about being free.  Not only free from the condemnation of sin, but free to love in the way we were designed to within human relationship and community.  Knowing God’s love is steadily dissolving my self-protective impulse and freeing me to truly love him and others.

Other-centered love is risky and not safe.  I now understand the answer to Lucy’s question about Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:  “Is he—quite safe?” “…‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.”

CS Lewis Lucy and Aslan

Above:  Lucy and Aslan

“God is relational.”  I was deeply struck by the thought after our teacher in Colorado, Dr. Larry Crabb, voiced it.  I suppose most Christians would not disagree, though the term seems too touchy-feely to use regarding the majestic sovereign of the universe.  But that is precisely what it means that “God is love.”

Love is another word we Christians throw around with little thought.  Other-centered and self-sacrificial love is the kind that Jesus displayed on the cross; it’s the kind that exists within the Godhead among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Captain David Walsh’s legacy is an indelible picture in my brain and heart of what it means to value others.  And this gets to the point of the whole essay.

altruism--Capt David Walsh

His legacy did not arise from that one sacrificial act of valor alone; that was the culminating act consistent with the way he cared for us, his men.  It showed up often in the six months I spent there.  He would not put us in harm’s way unless necessary, nor use us as stepping stones to his own advancement, as some “leaders” do.  I didn’t appreciate it much at the time; I think of him often, now.

The point is that other-centered self-sacrificial love is not a one-time act.  Jesus’ love for and value of others was on display every day.  He is this way because this is how God is.  God intends for it to be a routine part of daily human life in relationship.  And we can’t pretend it is not difficult.

Please don’t think me presumptuous in saying what God intends.  A couple statements that Jesus made go to the very heart of what Christianity is all about.

The first says: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35, NIV).  A “disciple” or apprentice is one who learns from someone to be like them.  The disciples were not learning what to preach to others—had this been Jesus’ intention, he could’ve opened a seminary.  The disciples were learning to live life as the Father intended, and what that looked like in everyday relationships.  The preaching would come out of that—i.e., from their relationship with Jesus.

The second is also about being a disciple:  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24, NIV).

When Jesus speaks of “denying self,” he’s not talking “self-denial,” like going without chocolate; he’s referring to denying the “self,” i.e., our own self-centered agendas and desires apart from God.  When he speaks of “taking up the cross,” he’s not talking principally about physical death:  it’s a stronger way to say “deny yourself.”  The natural out-flow of denying self is other-centered love on a daily basis.

Christians are not called on to live out “churchianity” or impose a system of morality; Christians are called upon to live life within the community of mankind in the way that God intended and, thereby, put on display what God is really like.  Jesus called it being “salt and light.”

The two statements of Jesus above should give you some idea of what he intended being a Christian to look like.  Loving others without regard to self lets others see God for who he is.  It puts the spotlight on him instead of me.  Love that is other-centered enables people to be genuinely relational (which I struggle with greatly); it attracts others to Christ and his community.  This lack of love and relationality has cost Christians their credibility and is the greatest hindrance to the spread of the gospel message.

Shortly before leaving his disciples, Jesus promised to send “another helper,” the Holy Spirit, to enable their life and service to him.  God had promised to send his Spirit in the Old Testament prophets.  There doesn’t seem much evidence for him in this world.  I wonder if we’ve substituted something else?

Oh Captain My Captain

“Oh Captain! My Captain!” is a poem written by Walt Whitman about the death of Abraham Lincoln.  One line reads: “From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;…” Whitman’s captain was dead, but the ship was safe.  I would love to tell my captain, David Walsh, that his men were safe.

Scripture refers to Jesus as “the captain of our salvation” (Hebrews 2:10, KJV).  He died, conquered death, and lives.  And I live.  Perhaps not always “safe” but now truly free.

journey post 24–Honest to God, part 2, Discovering the good father who is there

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”                                                                                                                                     —Thoreau

The voice in my head was a not-so-gentle urging:  “Take another look, Donkey….”  Donkey: my African name.  A good Manjako family name.  And a private joke between me and God.

“I don’t need to look at it—I know what the verse says, ‘My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.’”  I was ready for the woodshed because I had dared to dust off my doubts about God’s love and goodness.  I knew the woodshed well.  A 2×4 upside the head from God was standard-issue in my zigzag journey.

God the good father to the woodshed

But this was no longer a joke.  I had been watching good people go through great pain and suffering—it just never seemed to stop.  One Christian friend had candidly shared: “God is out to get me.”

In the dark recesses of my own soul was a long-suppressed, haunting, but familiar question about evil, a question that wouldn’t go away.  Why this suffering?  So much pain … Can God truly be good and loving?  A similar question arose when leaving Africa:  did God dangle dreams in front of me just to take them away and show me my unworthiness?

is God good--the problem of evil

Most of the time, like most people, I could find other things to think about. But now it wouldn’t stop:  Did he care?  About these people?  About me?  He seemed distant, like my own dad.  “What do you really think of me, Lord?  Do you really love me?  I have to know!  I can’t go on like this!”

I was determined to be honest with myself and with God, and not stop until I had an answer.  I was back on that hospital bed in Vietnam.  This time, it was not about the existence of God or Jesus, but about God’s character.  My own self-esteem was mixed in somehow, but, fundamentally, at the heart of my question was, Who is this God?  Is he really good?  Was “Donkey” a joke between us or was it on me?

I had asked, but this verse about love and discipline was all I got.  I opened the Bible, Proverbs 3:11, and read every word:  “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”

God the good father Father delights holding son

I did a double-take: that last part, about fathers delighting in their sons….  My dad died when I was 13.  I needed him more than tears could say.  He left … or, God took him.  Thinking of God as my “father” was irrelevant.  I’m sure my dad loved me, in his own way, but he was never there for me.  Love?

That last clause: God “as a father… delights.”  Aside from the discipline part, the verse was saying that God, like any good father, seeks to do what’s best for his children simply because he delights in them: that’s the norm.  God is, after all, the inventor of fatherhood and motherhood, and God is not like my dad.  That’s not a slam on my dad: I needed to make that distinction explicit so I could see how I had become so locked into a dysfunctional understanding of God in his role as Father.  The word “delight” gave substance to the nearly vacant meaning of “love.”  “Delight” is a very human word, and it made “love” throb and glow with life and passion.  I was literally dumbfounded: “Lord, you delight in me?”

“As a father delights ….”  God delights in me.  I, as a son, am the object of his delight….

I had expected the woodshed 2×4 reinforcing my donkeyness.  God came instead in grace, gently opening my eyes so I could see that there was something I had missed ever so long.

God the good father Father delights

I’ve written before about this “bookend” to my zigzag journey, the day I discovered the delight of God in—dare I say it?—the Donkey.  I rediscovered adoption and the key to seeing the heart of God.  You’re thinking, “I know this … Walt’s rehashing an old story.”  That is precisely not so, because that day I began to understand God’s father heart, which became the key to unlocking an answer to our question.

I discovered how little I knew this one I routinely called “Father”:  that was just a title.  I could cite chapter and verse for all the things I knew about him.  But the point was not to reconcile facts on file about God with the painful reality of a world filled with evil.  My desperation led to determination to know him as completely as possible.  I had  to see his heart and know his character.  But how?  Looking back at how that unfolded made me realize that there now has to be a Part Three to this.

Knowing anyone, especially their character, involves a relationship over time.  The Scriptures tell us about God’s character, but knowing him requires time and the Spirit to make it real.  We know our parents not because of a book on “parentology,” but because we lived with them and watched them and so we know them and their heart.  Knowing our friends involved a similar process.

It’s the same with God.  Someone may come to saving faith, get their ticket to heaven, their fire insurance paid up against the judgment day.  But knowing him doesn’t come in one moment.  Eternal life is given, as Jesus prayed (John 17), “that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ.”

God the good father Knowing God and be known

I have several theology books.  They reflect developed, logical, scholarly, even elegantly-constructed systems produced by humble men.  The systems differ widely, though based on the same Bible and are therefore “biblical.”  Each is written by men who see all through the filter of human fallibility.  And not one of them addresses the role of God as Father.  They are like those multiple frag wounds I received in Vietnam: they don’t penetrate the vital organ, the father heart of God.  Yet Jesus spoke of little else.

Jesus taught those who would be his apprentices to live their lives each day as him living it, to see life from the Father’s perspective, and so to live it with his agenda in view.  He portrayed God as analogous to an earthly father and mother who take care of, provide for, who teach, train, and protect a family.  He taught them to give up their “small ambitions” and trust their “Abba,” a term akin to English “Papa.”

I don’t know everything about God; I can say that I know him–because he answered my call, Donkey that I am. The name was no joke on me, after all.  Yesterday was Palm Sunday, the day Jesus entered Jerusalem on his way to the cross.  Every Gospel account reminds me:  he chose to enter on a donkey….

God the good father Jesus enters on a donkey

Next:  Part 3:  Knowing his Father heart answers the quandary of a good God and an evil world.  And just how  is that?

journey post 23–Honest to God, part 1, Confronting my functional theology: Is God good?

Two times in my life, I remember being unusually and brutally honest with God.  One led to my becoming a Christian.  The second time led to finally understanding what it meant that God is Father—my Father.  Next to becoming a Christian after Vietnam, it was the most important thing that ever happened to me … a eureka moment in which I finally figured out who I am:  I am my Father’s son—I am adopted.  At last I knew for certain that God didn’t save me because I’d met the “condition” of faith in Jesus and so he had to—whether he wanted to or not:  God made me a son because he wanted to.  It was something he’d been passionate about since forever ago.

is God good--the problem of evil

During the couple years following that eureka moment, I also came to understand how God can be truly good, even though his creation is filled beyond measure with evil, pain, and suffering.

honest to God bookends

Those two occasions stand like bookends to the part of my life that gives name to this blog.  Each “bookend” represents about two years, during which I was engaged in a quest to find the answer to questions that I had hidden for years in some dark recess of my heart but was too fearful and never honest enough to admit to myself, to God, or to others.

On a hospital bed in Vietnam one morning, I came face to face with my own mortality.  Surrounded by the remains of the day before and all the detritus of boys killing boys, I could no longer deny the reality of the reaper.  I was staring at the wounds I’d received in battle: they were literally everywhere on my body, some small, some gaping holes—but not even one had penetrated a vital organ.  Why?

honst to God The thinker (by Auguste Rodin)

Rodin’s “The Thinker”

I came this close to death—several times … so what really happens when we die?  What about me when I die?  I knew that I almost really did.  I had to admit that I did not know the answers to some rather important questions, despite my deep involvement at church—you know, that stuff about God and Jesus and being good.  I wondered, Was God real, and did he even care?  Was Jesus just Santa Claus?

The greatest thing that ever happened for me happened on that bed:  I was forced to be honest with myself and with God.  I had to say, “I don’t know, but I need to find out.”  Most of my life, I had hidden behind a self-protective dishonesty (which didn’t end on that bed, by the way).  I had become so adept at this kind of self-protection and I probably wasn’t aware of any question about my faith—not until the gong inside my steel pot from that mortar blast forced a different perspective.  My honesty led to a two-year quest that would center on an empty grave and the claims about Jesus.  These journey posts are in large part about that quest.

We humans put great stock in our own ability to exercise our wills, to use our intelligence and wits to make our own way—but much of our life consists of unintended consequences and what happens to us.  What do we do then?  Some call God “the hound of heaven” who keeps on coming.  But what do we do with that?  There does come a time when, if we are determined to walk away, he simply lets us.  That is a chilling prospect.

The second occasion when I had an “honesty encounter” with God began with another series of events around 2007, the second bookend to my zigzag journey.  This time was a little less bloody than ‘Nam, perhaps, but nonetheless real and painful.

I was trying to counsel some people from my church whose lives were falling apart in front of me.  Their families were deeply at risk, one was doing drugs, another person was engaged in sexual activity that was blowing his family out of the water, and him and his ministry along with it.  I was doing my best to help them see clear to draw on help from the Father, but they just couldn’t, and I had no more to give.

About this time, I was just beginning to understand that people have a “functional theology,” a deeply held set of beliefs or assumptions about God and life—often much different from what they claim as a statement of faith or philosophy of life.  Functional theology is what people actually live out, whether aware of it or not.  For example, most Americans (and most Christians in America) have a functional theology of God that sees him as demanding, never truly satisfied with our performance.  When asked, we’ll say that God is “love” and accepts people by “grace.”  But in that dark inside, when we think about standing before that throne, will it be: “You could’ve had an ‘A’… I expected better out of you!”?

Yet I didn’t yet grasp how such thinking played out in church—nor the fact that the same view was inside my own head, until another conversation reminded me of how I had thought, when faced with leaving Africa a failure as a missionary and husband and father.  I was counseling a man who told me about his career and how things always seemed to fall apart.  This was a man who loved God, who was active in church, who encouraged others, and knew the Bible well.  He sat there, telling me, “Walt, God is out to get me.”  I was taken aback by his candor on something Christians aren’t supposed to think.

honest to God Afraid I'm a fake

Then I remembered how I had found myself thinking that God had taken us to Africa just to give me a taste of something wonderful, to dangle it there, and just when it was within my grasp, pull it away to show me what I really deserved.  So I thought then (1989) and was still (2007) stuffing the question I most feared to face:  Is God truly good?  Does he truly love me?

The two questions are closely related.  Thirty-five years after the hospital bed, I knew I had to face the same question:  Would I be honest, no matter what? no matter if the answer was not what I’d been telling so many for so long.  I could not allow “my” position in church to keep from looking for the real answer.  I simply had to know.  If I could no longer say in good conscience, “God is good,” then I’d have to stop playing church and get out.

Honest to God coffee cup

Honesty with God requires more than coffee at a comfortable Bible study group


Next post:  Honest to God, part 2.  Dealing with my dysfunctional theology of God leads to delightful discovery….

journey post 22: The Journey Question: Can God really be good when everything else is so screwed up?

“Life sucks and then you die.”

That’s the teen angst version of more erudite attempts at explaining that central life journey question.  It was heard with great frequency around our house during the 90s coming from the lips of one of our sons.  It always drew a laugh.  But the humor was biting, and we weren’t very clued in as parents or privy to the pain that lay behind it.

Pain and fear in our world is too real to joke about.  As I write this, the situation in the Ukraine brings my generation—the baby boomers—back to some frightening collective Cold War memories.  Those were traumatic times.  It’s hardly sufficient to say that the Cuban missile crisis, for example, brought us ever so close to nuclear holocaust.  That doesn’t communicate the palpable fear one felt just walking into a neighborhood store, noticing the distracted looks and hushed conversation going on as we expected Armageddon any moment.

is God good--the problem of evil

As I write, life is still being measured in degrees of turmoil and confusion for the friends and families of 239 people plus crew on a plane that has, so far, vanished without a trace over a week ago.  Somewhere today, the pre-teen daughter of a formerly happy family has disappeared into the growing labyrinth of sex trafficking; somewhere a gentle elderly man is watching as the spark grows dull in the eyes of his life’s partner drifting through the confused and terrifying cloud of Alzheimer’s; elsewhere, families are in free fall over a death or drugs or divorce or a deserting dad—dying dreams, every one.

The litany of suffering among the innocent and not-so-innocent could fill volumes every day of our lives.  And we are made more aware of it now, thanks to the birth of the internet 25 years ago this month.  Yet most of us can walk away and go about our daily lives if we are not somehow personally involved.  It’s not that we don’t care, but we are mostly helpless to diminish its volume, and too close contact would undoubtedly lead us to despair and possibly suicide.

That we can walk away is a blessedly built-in defense, designed to help and heal in time of trauma and prevent our being overwhelmed.  Still, it is right for us to be involved at some level in helping to alleviate pain and suffering around the world.  Conscience and the golden rule tell us so.  But the problem seems to be growing exponentially no matter what we do, and when it is personal, it rocks the very foundation of our own lives.  Pain’s ripples travel far.

This brings us to what I call a central life journey question.  Its puzzle occupies most of humanity. Most believe in God at some level.  Most believe in conscience and the golden rule and goodness.  It makes sense to argue that the God who created us with a conscience that tells us what we ought to do (because it is good and right) is himself good.  But something does not compute.  There is this one intractable problem that gnaws at the soul of humanity:  “How can God be good and just and allow all this pain and suffering?”  There are corollaries: “If God created the world and is all-powerful, why has his world gone so wrong, and why doesn’t he simply stop it all?”  “Maybe he’s good, but just not powerful enough to stop it?  Or maybe he is powerful enough, but just not so good as some would want to think.”

is God good--why did God allow...

Perhaps you have heard some well-meaning religious person trying to comfort a parent who has watched the prolonged and unbearable suffering of a child.  Perhaps they said a verse like, “God works all things together for good.”  Then came an embittered response, dismissing any talk of a loving God:  “If that’s a God of love, then I want nothing to do with him.”

But the question persists, awaiting some satisfactory answer that doesn’t destroy those who need to make sense of it the most.  You might assume that I would have a ready-made answer, being a Christian and all.  But it’s not for nothing that I have called this blog describing my life as a “zigzag journey.”

is God good WWI trench

The problem I run into in trying to give any answer here is a question of honesty.  Christians are supposed to believe in a God who is a loving heavenly Father, good and kind and all-wise.  Christians are not supposed to question that God is good, right?  If you assume that, you would be wrong.

Many, perhaps most, Christians would hesitate to express such a doubt out loud, for that would reveal unbelief—and what Christian wants to be accused of that, pray tell?  So, we just stuff it.  The problem with stuffing is twofold:  it eventually comes out and with it comes that question of honesty….   I once mentioned in conversation with a long-time pastor that Christians can be some of the most dishonest people in the world, and he heartily, if sadly, agreed.  We are still human, after all.

The first disciples were not very good at hiding their unbelief.  Jesus called them on it on a regular basis.  As a matter of fact, lack of faith was about the only thing I can think of that he rebuked them for.   It was a good thing for their unbelief to come out—those disciples, like the rest of us, would not have dealt with it otherwise.  The only disciple I remember who seemed successful at hiding his unbelief was Judas.

I don’t have a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to throw into the blogosphere.  I’ve occasionally wondered why God didn’t make the Bible a ready-reference encyclopedia so we could find easy answers and get on with our lives.  The fact is, he has not, despite some who claim to have all the answers clear and pat.

I believe more firmly than ever that God is good, and that he is loving and kind and all-wise.  But we do not trust God just because we’re supposed to.  As with trusting people, it requires honesty in relationship:  it’s not just a decision or magic leap.  I never saw that God is good until I faced the question that had been hiding for years in the dark recesses of my own mind, until I faced the evil that I accused him of.  That was a time when I became brutally honest with and about him.

This and the next couple posts reflect the fact that I have been wrestling with just how to frame the question and offer what I believe to be a satisfactory—if not simple—answer that is in line with the way we are made, how things are, and with what Scripture actually says.

is God good  The Pieta

Michaelangelo’s “La Pieta”


journey post 10: You don’t have to check your brain at the door

Say the name “C.S. Lewis” and you’ll likely conjure up images of a magical place called Narnia and the stories of “Aslan” and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.   Ask about the author, and most will know that he was a Christian and that “Aslan” is a Christ figure.  Ask a Christian, you’ll probably hear that Lewis wrote some books about Christianity like The Screwtape Letters, a delightfully thought-provoking story/conversation in which a devil named “Screwtape” is coaching his nephew on how to steer a human away from “the enemy” (God).

Lewis’ name does evoke Narnia to me now, but I didn’t experience Narnia for myself until I read the stories as a dad to my own children when they were home from school in Senegal.  Beyond that, the name C.S. Lewis brings to mind some delight-filled memories of my own: the context in which I first heard the name, the very seeds of faith sown in my heart and mind and the shoot and blossom that would emerge in the summer of ‘71….

1962 brought a new minister to our church, Rev. Roland F. Hughes.  I was in junior high and 14.  My dad had died in April of ’61, and our previous minister had left later that year.

“Roland” is how we got to know him—even us kids.  Roland was a shock to our still formal culture of early 60s America—a complete reversal of expectations from what I had come to expect in a pastor, especially in a Presbyterian church where some things are “just not done.”  He was in his early 30s and brought his new bride Harriet, in her mid 20s.  To us highly mature teen boys, a minister of God just would not have a babe as a wife.  But Roland also brought his tall, manly, muscular frame— and his surfboard.  My mom had been part of the pastor search committee, and one of the first things she told me before he came was that he loved young people and surfing.  That’s all I needed to hear.  The “Beach Boys” had just made their splash on the American rock scene, and everyone was goin’ surfin’!

As we got to know Roland, there were other things that stood out about him as a minister.  He really did care about young people, and even when we had a youth intern, Roland was our pastor, what we’d call today a “youth pastor.”  You could see it in his heart.  He’d take us to mountain snow retreats and to surf camp in the summer.  He really was enthusiastic about surfing and other sports.  He was even enthusiastic about his sermons—and he memorized them, which did not seem to be the “page turning” norm.  Roland always had one ready to replay, whether in his Sunday morning suit (he often didn’t wear a robe), bundled up at snow camp, or standing over the campfire in his swim trunks.  He was passionate about what he had to say.  Roland was legendary among us young folks for one particular message: “Jesus Christ, the Man’s Man.”  Roland himself was probably as close as anyone I ever knew to a man’s man.  He made some people in the church uncomfortable by his political stands because he spoke out—even at community meetings—for civil rights, fair housing, and other issues, although his sermons were mostly about Jesus and spiritual topics.

Roland Hughes 1986

Roland Hughes, 1986, a characteristic pose–using his hands to make a point.  (Here, as Pastor of Monte Vista Pres in Newbury Park CA.  I don’t know who took the pic.)

By the time I was in high school, our youth group was meeting every Sunday night at Roland and Harriet’s.  We always had a large group—generally over 20 as I recall—and Roland would talk with us very personally about the importance of living for Christ.  He’d bring in speakers and take us to Billy Graham crusades.  In those days, I assumed I was a Christian.  Meeting in a smaller group one night, he wanted to go through some evangelism training so we could learn how to share our faith.  He asked us to role play explaining how to become a Christian.  When my turn came, I remember feeling fretful.  I stammered out that I didn’t think I could explain it well, but I “had a friend”—referring to Roland—who could, and would take the person to meet him.  I didn’t know it, but I was developing my hiding skills….

Roland was also fond of quoting two well-known Christian scholars, Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis.  Barth was an erudite, intellectual theologian and very controversial.  Lewis was a medieval scholar at Oxford, a poet, a writer of children’s stories—I’m not sure if I was aware of that back then—and, while not a “minister,” wrote a lot about Christianity, either directly or in story form.  I could not tell you a single quote that Roland made from Lewis or Barth, but I did come away from that time knowing that they were important to Roland and therefore somehow important to us.

Sometime after Michelle and I were married in September 1970, my friend Andy gave me a copy of a book, Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, saying I should read it.  Lewis, of course, needed no introduction, and I would need no pressure to read it, thanks to Roland Hughes.  I knew he was a certified smart guy held in high esteem worldwide, a man who didn’t check his brain at the door when moving from atheist to Christian.  I don’t think I knew anything specifically about the book except that Roland spoke highly of Lewis and my school drop-out friend thought it would be worth a careful read.  I considered myself pretty smart in those days, and if an intellectual academic like C.S. Lewis bought into Christianity and identified himself as a follower of Jesus, then I wanted to know why.  My friend, I think, knew I still had questions about the resurrection and other stuff, but I doubt he recognized any of the deep fear that was holding me back from being more open about those questions.  The struggle I would face in the coming months would concern so much more than facts and faith…it would also be about overcoming fear…. Lewis would serve as the catalyst to help me push past the fear threshold.

Thanks, Roland.  I owe you.

journey post 7: Walt Disney, Davy Crockett, the cardboard box, the library chair, and the mystery of sitting … (also featuring John Wayne)

1955 was a turning-point year for the children of America.  Disneyland opened, the Mickey Mouse Club started on TV, and Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier hit the theaters.  Disneyland, Disney World, and Disney anything have become so much a part of our culture that it is easy to overlook its revolutionary impact on the era.  The Davy Crockett film spawned a craze among us kids that lasted years!  (I wasn’t quite old enough to understand then why Annette was so popular with the guys, nor why Elvis soon after became so popular with girls—but I was jealous.)

Davy Crockett and the Alamo stirred my first serious interest in investigating history, and what I learned from that initial foray into serious research helped me plant my feet in reality after Vietnam.  In that era of drugs and draft notices, the question of the hour was, “Are you for real, man?”  The landscape of America was surreal, and the question that became suddenly real in my mind was, “Is Jesus for real?”

This is how I began to find out….

Five years after Disney’s Davy Crockett went to the Alamo on screen, John Wayne’s epic, The Alamo, was released.  By then, my interest in Crockett and the battle for Texas independence was at a peak.  I had read Crockett’s Journal and another book, 13 Days to Glory.  When I finally got to see the movie, the Alamo depicted there was so far different from what I had seen in the Disney movie or photos…it was like hearing two different people talking about the same car accident.

I knew the Alamo, so it seemed.  As a kid, I made my own coonskin cap and I had a flintlock rifle cap gun, and I loved to play “Alamo” with my toy cowboys and soldiers, defending and attacking a fortress I made out of a cardboard box by carving out the graceful shape of the façade top and the crenellated walls with a pocket knife.  (Crenels were the gaps on walls that provided an opening to shoot from.  The Disney movie had crenels on the walls and the top of the façade looked very much like one today.)  I was careful about the shape because I wanted it to be authentic, like the photos I had studied.

alamo facade


John Wayne Alamo set


John Wayne drove me to the library.  Not him personally, of course, but his movie did.  I got on the bus and went to Central Public Library in Downtown Los Angeles to find the truth.  I was 12….

Some of my best childhood memories are from time spent among library shelves.  Ever since I was little, my mom took me along with her to the library.  First, it was the small Eagle Rock Library.  We didn’t just go in, find something, and check out.  My mom loved to browse the shelves of California history.  She would often take a book and read a few pages before putting it back.  She was looking for some information.  A library was a place of quiet, refuge, and enjoyment, but also of inquiry.

I was taking the bus on my own to go Downtown when I was 11 or 12.  You may wonder, but this was 1950’s L.A.  It was a different town.  Quiet, low buildings.  The tallest building was City Hall—yes, the “Daily Planet” the 50’s Superman could leap with a single bound.  I got off at Pershing Square, avoided the scary man with the Bible and sign about repentance and hell, and walked up 5th Street to Grand Ave.

It was in the cavernous—but ornate and peaceful—rooms dedicated to the muse of history that I began the serious pursuit of problems in history.  You may question the seriousness of a 12-year-old’s search for the truth about the Alamo.  But it was there that curiosity, determination, and skill began to blend in the search for “authenticity.”  I didn’t mind standing in the stacks searching through book after book to see whether it contained information relevant to my quest.  I’d seen my mom do that many times.  A tables of contents, picture, index, or bibliography: if it held promise, I laid it aside to take to a table for quiet perusal.  Some very old books were kept in a separate room, and waiting for one to come was more exciting than waiting for that mini-sub to enter the state rooms of the Titanic.

Keep in mind that that this was pre-internet and pre-Google.  This meant, among other things: extended concentration required because search terms might yield to patient mining in a matter of hours, not minutes or seconds.  There was no electronic clip-board on which to instantly copy mounds of potentially useful information (unless one copied relevant pages on a copier—for 2-3 cents per page).  It also meant retaining many bits of information in my non-electronic brain, like the location of material on a page or in a book.  Notes were a necessity, the ability to summarize saved much time, and documentation, if neglected, might send you back to the same library to search out again that statement, quote, or fact you wrote down sans reference.  (Been there, done that, more than once.)

This excursus on old-fashioned research is offered because, in addition to being a reminder of what we have gained (or lost) by relying on Google, it will indicate that, when everything was up for question after Vietnam yet there seemed to be some authentic object of faith that my friend was seeing, I had an idea where I might find an answer to my query, “Is this Jesus for real?”  Did he live, die, and rise like it says?  This would take time, patience, and work, plus any skills as an investigator that I had learned.

Even after I had began to read and research, I knew there was one question that troubled me that I knew would not yield to patient study.  And it was big.  My friend Andy kept talking about believing in Jesus and something called “justification by faith.”  I thought I believed the facts of history about Jesus, but he seemed to be talking about something personal, about a relationship.  The more I thought, it seemed that this kind of faith must be some sort of blind leap.  I don’t remember asking about it—I was likely afraid to.  It just came up.  Andy  gave a simple illustration:  It’s like a chair.  (You don’t have to picture a stout oak library chair here.  Any picture of “chair-ness” will do.)  If you’re not sure about a chair, you check it out.  You may push on it to see if it’s wobbly, or sit tentatively with your legs braced.  But when you have enough evidence that the chair can be trusted to hold you up, you sit.  It’s the same with Jesus

I knew where I could go to find evidence.  But knowing how to “sit” in the “chair” would not be found in a card catalog, and that was scary.

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