Thursday, October 5, 2017

Clouds


I’ve seen them a fleet of well-built ships
on blue Mediterranean vastness
and parading like rose-coated floats down
an avenue crisscrossed by trails
as straight as cadet revues.

They’ve winked at me slothfully
down from their starry perches
as they play furtive games
with a lazy gibbous moon.

Oft they become a boiling army
dropping their vapors, bullets, bombs
to the crashing crescendo
of bright brass, percussion and wind
causing the bravest to flee.

But later, suing for peace,
they raise their varicolored flags
across the storm-scrubbed horizon,
sharing their triumph with the world.

MNA
10/5/2017


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beloved Law

How I love Your law, my Savior!
Your commands have set me free!
Love for God, and for my neighbor,
Now have gained a home in me.
New life You created in me--
Took away my heart of stone.
Great the price You paid to win me
And to claim me as Your own!

In Your laws I see the image
Or Your perfect holiness,
And my mirrored, sinful visage
Causing me such sore distress!
Yet the new heart You have planted
Longs to run in paths of right;
Thirsts for streams I never wanted--
Duty now is my delight.

Under law, My Lord, You entered
As a man into this earth,
Stooped obediently and conquered
Sin and death, and bore our curse!
Now, arisen and ascended,
Your full righteousness is mine--
Reckoned to those You befriended
By our Father’s grand design.

Given by our loving Father,
Ten Commandments for our good
Tell us how to love each other,
How to love God as we should.
Never harsh, no, not a burden--
“Perfect law of liberty”;
Making earthly joys more certain--
Picturing what Heav’n shall be!

Worship God--there is no other;
Make no image of His face.
Always hold His name in rev’rence;
Set apart His day with grace.
Honor fathers and your mothers.
Keep these laws, and spread abroad
To all nations, sisters, brothers,
Your devotion to our God!

Cherish life and do no murder;
Guard and keep each marriage vow.
Do not steal, respect all borders;
No dishonest words allow.
Be content and covet nothing
But to do your neighbor good.
With these laws and Heaven’s blessing,
You’ll be living as you should.

MNA
8/13/2017

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Life Together


You and I...
It was how we began,
in a glade where fellowship flourished,
in a workplace where tasks were wondrous
and time was marked by gold meanderings.

You and I...
And the maiden you made
to reflect every pleasure you planned
while you felt my aching aloneness...
so together we gladdened your garden kingdom.

You and I...
We were sundered apart
by a serpent, a tree, and a sword,
gaining knowledge that never made wise
neath a firmament colored with clouds of fury.

You and I...
Like Beauty and Beast,
I longed to rob you of rights and riches,
giving nothing but tears in return...
but no beast has power to break your promise.

You and I...
Loving, Hunting, Calling
in wilds where the curses clamored,
where echoes taunted mid twisted roots
of woods overgrown with the groans of ages.

You and I...
In a rage I rose up,
roared with joy as the Seeker was slain...
But you had always been the fertile Seed
that replanted the Garden Home--for You and I.

MNA
1/5/2017

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

He Didn't Belong

The break-room was packed, as usual. Our table was one of the more integrated ones, ‘cause the people in our work group liked each other. Unlike a lot of the other teams, ours had worked long enough together to know and care about the other guy. I look back now on what happened, and figure that our gang’s closeness helped to explain why ours was chosen. By him.

We had a couple of gals, a few Hispanics, three blacks and an Asian guy. The group leader, Maurice, was white like me, as was his number two man, Barney. Barney got a lot of kidding, resembling the bumbling deputy on the old black and white sitcom, but he was as highly skilled as they come, rivaling Maurice as an expert assembler. To be honest, our team enjoyed it when Maurice had time off, since his assistant was a bit easier to please and to deal with.

That day we were all there, with no absentees, not just out of company gung-ho, but because it was the day after a holiday and workers who missed a time punch after a holiday forfeited their holiday pay. Anyway, the break-time was two thirds over, and conversation was beginning to lull when a couple of us saw him.

Jan and I noticed him first, crossing the room from the entrance closest to the adjoining men’s john. Jan’s a cute blonde, divorced and a little sassy, with dark brown eyes that don’t miss much, especially any new male arrivals at our plant. She and I’d been laughing at a meme on my phone when I caught her glance wandering. Following her glance I watched the guy she’d fastened on as he breezed by three other tables and exited the break-room by the door opposite the one he’d entered by. “Who is that?” she said. “Never seen him before.”

The guy had looked familiar. But I shook my head at her. “Me neither,” I said. Now that he was out of sight, for some reason it was hard to remember his face. But I did recall that his clothes looked a bit too hip and casual for a factory. He hadn’t paused to speak to anyone, and nobody seemed to notice or acknowledge him either. Of course, there were office people who dressed in less grungey attire than line workers, but they were well-known and recognizable. Not like this newcomer.

He was definitely out of place. But after all, it was none of our business, whoever he was.

The next time I saw him I was busy working on the line. Maurice had switched me to a job Barney usually handled, since he was down the line correcting an earlier mistake. I was looking around for a tool someone had borrowed when I noticed the out-of-place man. He was standing in a walkway with one hand in his pocket, the other on his hip. His eyes were moving across his line of vision, taking in the activity of our group, not quite focusing on any one worker.

A feeling of weird foreboding washed over me. I took three steps over to where Maurice was inputting on the group’s computer terminal and tapped his arm. “Whattaya need?” he asked, his eyes on the monitor.

“Something’s bugging me,” I told him, and he turned and raised his eyebrows quizzically. I looked across the line and pointed at the guy’s retreating back. “Who is that? Is he a new office worker or what?”

Maurice surprised me. He’s been at our company over twenty years and I assumed anybody new would have been introduced at the daily leadership huddle. But Maurice slowly shook his head. “Must be a visitor with today’s tour group or something.”

“But,” I protested, “I saw him in the break-room two days ago. Jan saw him, too. He just seems to hover around, never speaking to anyone. He was watching our group just now.”

“If it bothers you, why don’t you go ask him who he is? Did he look dangerous or something?”

I felt a little embarrassed. “No, not really, but it just gave me a funny feeling--like the guy   doesn’t belong here.”

“Uh huh. Hey, did you find that monobolter you were looking for?” I told him yes and went back to the job I’d been doing. If Maurice wasn’t concerned about our Mr. X, who was I to care about him?

Later that afternoon, the Asian guy Kenny was passing by my station, going after some fasteners when he asked me, “Hey, did Maurice know who that man was, watching us like that?” I stopped working and put down my tools, kinda relieved that somebody else was showing some curiosity about our mystery man.

“You’ve noticed him too, Kenny?” Kenny nodded. I said, “Naw, Maurice didn’t know and that’s really weird ‘cause he knows everyone. Maybe you and I can ask around and find out?” Kenny nodded again and moved off toward the fastener shelves. I glanced up at the clock. Ten minutes to four, so it was time to start cleaning up my area.

Soon, Jan came over with a shovel to hold while I swept my pile of debris into it. She had a knowing grin on her face as she whispered, “I got something to show you on my phone.”

“Cool,” I said. “I’ll meet you out at your car.”

We both swiped out at the time clock and made our way to the scorching parking lot. Seated in her pickup with the AC blasting, we got our heads together to view what she’d recorded on her smartphone. Just as I’d suspected, she showed me a video of the strange visitor, or at least I assumed it was him, since his back was turned toward the camera. At intervals the view was blocked by sections of shelving, so it was clear that Jan had been hiding to get her footage.

The man in the video was observing our work team as he’d been before, but that wasn’t all he was doing. From time to time he moved his hands in an odd way, with his palms facing outward and shifting back and forth, then in little circular patterns, as if he were cleaning a window pane.

I watched the recording with my mouth hanging open, totally speechless. Jan commented, “Isn’t that bizarre? Now wait...there’s more.” On the screen, I watched as the man relaxed his arms and hung them limply at his sides, then slowly turned around in Jan’s direction. I expected the video to end abruptly but it didn’t. The man took several smooth, even steps toward the camera, staring into the lens with a completely blank expression. Then he opened his mouth.

“Tell him I am not entirely pleased.” The words came out clearly, with no emotion or inflection of any kind. The man blinked twice, turned to his left with military smartness, and walked away, followed by the view of the camera, ‘til he was out of sight.

“Wow,” I said finally. “And I thought I was curious about him. What put it into your head to video the guy? When he spotted you, why didn’t you stop or run or something?”

“It was strange,” Jan answered. “I was on my way back from the restroom when I spotted Mr. Whosis doing his thing. I had been checking messages in the john, so I had my phone with me and just started shooting, like by instinct or something. Then, once I’d started recording, I found it almost impossible to stop. As if it was what I was meant to do. When Whosis turned around I felt frozen. Not by fear, so much...just a sense that I had to know what he’d do or say.”

“‘Tell him I am not entirely pleased,’” I quoted. “Jan, what do you imagine that could mean? Who are you supposed to tell it to? And what is the guy not pleased about?”

Jan gave me a look, half annoyed, half amused. “You tell me,” she said. “I’m showing you this thing because I had the strong impression that his message was for you.”

“You had a strong impression...? Are you sure it wasn’t indigestion or PMS or something? Why in the world would he send me a message in your video? Why not just walk up and speak to me? I have no idea who he is or what he’s doing here! Do any of your strong impressions answer any of those questions?”

“Nope. Sorry.”

I left Jan, feeling a bit shaken. I sat in my own car as the AC revved up and turned the odd facts over in my head. Knowing the front office would be open until five, I drove around to the visitor lot and strolled on into Human Resources, hoping for a few answers. Did they have any new Quality Control people or executive staff who might be observing workers on the line? Did they know of any customers who’d been given the freedom to check out the plant unsupervised? Any new tall, thin, casually dressed guys with medium brown hair that they knew of?

The answers were all “no.” When I suggested they try and track down such a person, especially in the vicinity of our group’s work zone, HR promised to let Security know of my concern. I was about to tell them about Jan’s video of the out-of-place man, but stopped myself. Using one’s phone during production was verboten, and I didn’t want to get my friend in trouble.

Returning to my car, I was surprised to find a sheet of paper stuck under my driver-side wiper. Written upon it in precise magic marker lettering was the message: STILL NOT FULLY PLEASED.

Frantically I spun around, taking in the view of the parking lot, eager to spot the note’s author. But I was the only person within my scope of vision. Just to be sure, I took a jog around the lot, between all the rows of remaining vehicles, searching for someone who could have witnessed the person leaving the note on my car. No luck. Defeated and tired, I drove home.

Next day, I made it a point to check with Kenny, whether he’d come up with anything new about Mr. X. Turns out he’d questioned around a dozen people, none of whom had any idea who Kenny was talking about. Apparently, the men and women in our work group were the only ones deemed worthy to be aware of our misplaced friend.

Maurice was off that day for a doctor appointment, so Barney presided at our morning meeting. When he ended the confab with his traditional invitation for our “comments, questions or concerns,” I piped up:

“Hey, everybody. There’s a tall, skinny, brown haired guy in street clothes who’s been watching our group on and off for the past couple weeks. I know some of you have seen him.” There was a general nodding of heads and a few questioning shrugs among the group. “If he shows up again,” I continued, “my opinion is we should contact Security and let them know. I checked with HR yesterday and nobody there knows who this person is.”

Barney cleared his throat. “Right, okay. Anybody sees this fella, lemme know and I’ll give Security a buzz. Now, if there’s no other comment, we got us thirteen units to work on, so let’s stretch out and get to it.” Barney turned away toward the computer and the rest of us did some stretches and fanned out to our work areas. I glanced around at people’s faces to see if they registered any kind of concern about what I’d shared. They all seemed as nonchalant as Barney did. I sidled up to a Hispanic lady named Bridget who was close friends with Jan.

“Hey, Bridget,” I said, “you’ve seen that guy around here watching us, right?”

“Yeah...tall Anglo dude with the dressy duds? Sure, I seen ‘im.” Bridget started unwinding electrical cords for her tools and setting up for the morning’s assembly work. “Don’t know who he is, though. Figured he was some safety inspector or jazz like that.”

“Did...did Jan say anything to you about him? Show you anything?” I was being careful.

“She just asked me if I knew who he was. Told her I didn’t. What you think she showed me?”

“Uh...nothin’. Just curious, that’s all. The guy’s a puzzle. I’d stay away from him, though.” I hurried over to my work table and started setting up. As I laid out my materials, I looked over toward Jan’s area. She was busy counting parts for the upcoming inventory. When we caught each other’s eye she gave me a wave and mouthed some words: Talk to you later. I nodded back and gave her a thumbs-up.

The units we worked on that morning were longer, wider and more complicated than average. In addition to the extra assembly and materials the team had to deal with, the previous night shift had been short-handed and many of the units down the line were screwed up, so that our people were constantly called on to leave our area and go fix night shift’s mistakes. All of that made it close to impossible to keep any real vigilance in the matter of our weird watchman.

As I said, Barney was easier to get along with...but that’s under normal circumstances, and things were far from normal that day. Sub-assembly people like me and Jan were expected to jump onto the line and do installations while regular folks were fixing stuff down the line. The next couple work stations were hauling ass like a house on fire, and so we were pressured to get our operations completed on schedule, in spite of our handicaps. Barney, not quite used to the pressure from his supervisor, was riding us pretty hard so that everyone’s tempers were on a hair trigger. Mine included.

By the time first break rolled around, the Man Who Didn’t Belong was the furthest thing from my mind. That’s when the fuel tank exploded.

Fifteen minutes earlier, the chassis that rolled into our work area was found to be too long. A couple people from Chassis Prep were called forward to cut the beams down with a plasma torch and re-drill the holes for the bumper brackets. This unforeseen holdup in our schedule was merely annoying to most of us on our team. At least it caused a lull in the frantic pace we’d been maintaining for the past two hours.

For Barney, however, it was like the end of the world. The work station directly ahead of us was empty, waiting impatiently for the next vehicle to move forward. Barney’s supervisor, a no-nonsense ex-Marine, was breathing down his neck, insisting he “keep those holes filled” in the line. The half-dozen of us standing next to the unit watched nervously as Barney, planted like a shuddering steampipe, began twitching, glancing up and down the line, chest puffing out and in, fingers tightening around the heavy wrench he happened to be holding.

The break buzzer pierced the tension-filled tableau. Several things happened at the same time. The guy holding the plasma torch, face shielded by a hood of dark plastic, ignited the torch with a six-inch jet of bluish flame. Barney, turning away from the accursed chassis, threw the wrench away in frustrated disgust, heedless of its trajectory. At least three sets of gloved hands reached out to stop its flight as it impacted with the plastic and rubber release valve atop the chassis’s fuel tank. There were multiple shouts and screams such as “Look out!” and “Turn it off!” and “Hit the deck!”

I’d heard stories of disaster survivors who claimed to have witnessed catastrophes happen in slow motion, but never dreamed I would be one of them.

The fuel in the tank must have been of a fairly high temperature, since it had been sitting in the chassis yard under a scorching summer heat for some time. And the resulting pressure of that tank caused the fuel to spray out in a general cloud of deadly droplets which pretty much engulfed the neighborhood encompassing the seven or eight workers attending to the errant vehicle. The expanding cloud of gasoline met the burning tongue of the torch in a microsecond, and I watched in horror as a roaring balloon of flame blew out from the point of contact and made its way hungrily toward the all-too-flammable human beings surrounding the fuel tank, not to mention the tank itself, which was equivalent to several sticks of TNT.

As I watched death, slowly it seemed, creeping toward me, I felt an inexplicable sense of calm. It was as if I had been sleeping all this time, and just now came to the understanding that I’d been dreaming. But just as suddenly as I thought that, reality returned, for there He was.

Time had slowed to a virtual dead stop. The panting breaths I was inhaling were hot and stifling. In that, blazing, frozen world, I found myself--only myself, it seemed--able to maneuver. So, turning my head away from the flaming horror facing me, I faced the Man Who Didn’t Belong.

“What’s happening?” I asked in a ragged whisper. He was as expressionless and relaxed as he’d appeared in Jan’s video. I saw now that his face was youthful and unlined, save for a tiny mole in the shadow of his full lips. His gaze was upon the accident scene, his hands held up like they’d been in the video, moving almost imperceptibly as against a transparent window.

“Who are you? What is happening?” I repeated insistently, not sure he could even hear me.

“My name is Signal.” The Man’s words were clear and evenly spaced, with no emotion and no inflection. His eyes shifted to meet mine and I saw a clear, liquid manner of kindness in their blue-gray depths, although he never exactly smiled. “And you can see for yourself what is happening.”

“So...you knew that this was going to happen? You were watching us all this time, preparing for this moment? For this disaster?” His sight shifted back, back to the fiery tableau as he nodded.

“How can you...?” I faltered, finding no adequate way to describe his actions.

“I am here to be a Sign for you,” He told me. There was gentle authority in his voice. “But I cannot change what is about to happen. I await your choice, as the Most Pleasing.”

I looked away from Him...from Signal...and digested this for several static seconds. With death teetering on the brink of arrival, I felt as if I had all the time in the world. “What did you call me?” I asked at length. “The Most Pleasing? You mean the most pleasing person in my group, is that it?” Signal nodded, his eyes unmoving, his hands describing little circles in the air.

Then, in answer to my further questions--questions I had no words to express, Signal began to chant in a measured, long-rehearsed rhythm:

You send up your thoughts to the sky,
You hold heaven’s gifts with two hands,
You stretch out your good will to others,
You make of the earth treasures fit for glory,
You cherish life as a guardian and a steward,
You honor those to whom honor is due to the full.

“You said ‘I await your choice,’” I said. “What choice am I being given?”

“To save lives,” Signal replied. “But because you are not perfect, only three may be saved. You have often wondered why some are spared in a catastrophe when others are not. This is the answer. Those who are pleasing are given the power to choose--entrusted with divine mercy. But only those perfectly pleasing may choose to save everyone. Which three will survive?”

Several months later, Jan Masterson, Bridgett Reyes and Kenny Kwon sat at the break table of Gladiator Motors, waiting for the starting buzzer to sound.

For the last month, they’d agreed to read Paul Peterson’s mysterious note that he’d left on Jan’s work table the day the explosion took his life--and re-read the note every morning before they began the work day.

“Dear Jan, Bridgett and Kenny,

You all deserve to know who the strange man was who didn’t belong, the one we all wondered about before the August 4 explosion took place.

All I am allowed to tell you is this: You three were given a precious gift, a gift of life, a gift of survival, thanks to that unknown visitor. And as far as I know, you are always being watched, observed, evaluated by powers and authorities far beyond the bounds of our world.

Why was I given the privilege, the responsibility, of singling the three of you out, that you and only you would survive the disaster? The man told me it was because I was “Most Pleasing.”

If had only been MORE pleasing, PERFECTLY pleasing, then, perhaps, everyone could have been saved.

Could such a thing ever happen again? I have no idea.

All I can tell you is, AIM TO PLEASE. STRIVE FOR PERFECTION.

See you all, I hope, on the other side.

Sincerely

Paul Peterson”


MNA
7/4/2017
(3665 words)


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Soul Poet

(a short story)

by Mark Aikins

The famous poet lived three doors down from me long as I can remember. Gentle, meek, unassuming, smiling at life, Kaspar Salvador seemed born to capture souls with his pen.

The processes of his art--his genius--were little understood, I readily admit. But now, on the day of his burial, I take the time from some perhaps “more pressing” matters, to peruse my personal collection of his works.

Those elements of his style: his rhythms and rhymes, his bursts of sunlight and port holes into darkness, his bouts of melodrama and sprinklings of self-doubt--all the patches making up the quilt of his quality...what moderns would call Kaspar Salvador’s “voice,” have become the stuff of legend. The subject choice of his writing always focused all-but-exclusively on what he called “personal portraits” of people in his life. And, most remarkably--most oddly, in fact--each of those portraits, every solitary poem, was about someone he had outlived.

I ponder that mystery as I leaf through the booklets, the pamphlets, the clippings and the scraps of verse I have copied over the years as I’ve followed Salvador’s rise to world renown.

Here is a little piece about Charlie Gates, one of our mutual boyhood friends. Kaspar composed this at the age of seven and it was printed in the local paper at the time Charlie died of double pneumonia. The poem compares Charlie Gates to a leopard and an eagle and an iguana in various clever and surprising ways. It would still bring a smile to the face of the most jaded critic, but to my heart and mind, Charlie’s little soul was so carefully and lovingly packaged in that seven-lined masterpiece, I could even now imagine it breathing life back into his entombed remains.

Gertrude Castle was another early subject of his: a young, pretty sixth grade teacher Kaspar got to know far more intimately than others in her class. I recall the merciless teasing he got as the “teacher’s pet” and the “favor-hound” from his peers. He gave me a copy of her poem the year she left our school to get married. Ten years later he had it published, after her death in child birth. The editor of the magazine called it “extraordinary in its subtle audacity and charm.” I read it now with the scent of lavender and chalk dust in my mind, along with the clicking and swishing of Miss Castle’s willowy frame.

Kaspar had what must be described as a fascination for people, as if he were exploring, interpreting and enjoying them as both an observer and a participant in human life. This fascination extended well beyond those generally deemed “likeable.” I and others often warned him of the social and moral risks of pursuing certain ill-advised friendships. But, like Will Rogers, Kaspar seemed to “never meet a man (or woman) he didn’t like,” or, at least, seek to befriend.

“Stick” McNaughton is a case in point. Born Herman McNaughton, Jr., son of a local clergyman, “Stick” earned his nickname by growing unusually tall in grade school, and by wielding a heavy oak baton he kept cleverly concealed in his overalls. Classmates who made offhand remarks about his height, his name, or his boorish manner, would sooner or later feel his disfavor in the form of blows that raised painful and colorful welts while leaving no shattered bones behind. No amount of student, parental, or scholarly outcry could convince Reverend McNaughton that his son required correction.

By the time Stick finished school, the lad was a lost cause. Rumor had it that several teachers had offered him passing grades solely under threat of bodily harm, had they not complied with his demands. No one was much surprised when Stick shamed his family by opening a bookstore in town specializing in vile and pornographic materials. To all appearances, he reveled in his status as the most detested of men.

When Kaspar Salvador had the gall to invite Herman McNaughton, Jr. to a dinner party at a posh restaurant in a neighboring town, the other invitees--all prominent business owners--quietly declined to come. Herman haughtily arrived at the restaurant, ready to make a mockery of the occasion. But when he saw the meek little poet alone in the dining room, and himself the only guest, his heart was oddly broken. He and Kaspar ate and drank together, and talked far into the night.

The poem memorializing Stick McNaughton is one of Salvador’s most heart-rending and enigmatic works, plumbing the depths of the man’s spirit and flesh. Although the fire that claimed McNaughton’s life two years later was clearly accidental, it is highly ironic that the insurance settlement issuing from the disaster at Stick’s bookstore named his father’s church as the sole beneficiary.

Perhaps you are wondering about my own poetic portrait by this lover of people? As the world’s foremost authority on the life and work of Kaspar Salvador...as one who lived just down the lane from this genius and whose shadow daily crossed his path, is there, for me, a legacy to be treasured after he returns to dust and ashes?

This very question pricks my curiosity as I now close my desk and make my way past the old meetinghouse on this bright afternoon in May. A hand-lettered placard is tacked to the meeting-house door. It is an invitation from Salvador’s next of kin to enter the church hall and view some memorabilia of the dearly departed, including many yet-to-be-published materials of his. My interest is indeed piqued, and, it still lacking half and hour until the burial, I open the door and step in.

There is the familiar face, sporting the dark reddish mutton-chop sideburns and the fussily trimmed mustache. Depicted alongside various local and regional dignitaries, as well as notables such as Hemingway, Frost and Chesterton. And here are posted the poems that were gleaned fresh from his writer’s folio--each one a captured soul whose life had gone on ahead either to glory or to perdition...

...Jack Semple...Parker Jameson...Lois Robinson...Jeanette Baker...Mordecai Finch...Wanda Clay...but, wait! Those last three...they are still living, are they not? Three treasured souls that outlived the Master! But what of myself?

Alas, it is not to be. No, the postings have come to an end. The folio is empty and the inkwell is dry. I think of his long, fruitful, singular life--and of my own. I lived my life in such proximity to this man, this lover of souls, this ennobler of men. But never did I venture to know him...or, rather, to be known by him. By name, perhaps. By repute, certainly. By historical datum, profusely. But the doors between us, ever unlocked and unbarred and beckoning...those doors were never opened!

And here, by the graveside, in the hushed crowd of mourners and admirers, I stand with those bereft of Kaspar Salvador’s voice and perceptive pen, hearing only the haunting echo of another Lover of Souls: “I never knew you.”

Still, if Kaspar’s poems are to be believed, there are other lives, other worlds, other realities to be discovered beyond this one. Someday, somehow, in one of those faraway places, perhaps Salvador will make a poem out of me?

MNA
5/21/2017

(1250 words)

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Amazement of "ALL"

The word “all” appears in the Bible over 5,000 times. Here are just a few of the “alls” of the Scriptures:
Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. (Gen. 2:1)
And behold, I Myself am bringing floodwaters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life. (Gen. 6:17)
Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five? (Gen. 18:28)
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt. (Gen. 41:41)
The fish that were in the river died, the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink the water of the river. So there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. (Ex. 7:21)
And it came to pass at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock. (Ex. 12:29)
Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Ex. 33:19)

I gave you just eight examples from just 2 books of the Bible. In those 2 books, Genesis and Exodus, “all” appears over 500 times. One of the most important things about God’s Word is its universal truth. Here are some major ways the word “all” applies to what we read in the Scriptures:

--The God of the Bible, who appears in the first verse of Genesis as the Creator, is the only God that is. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists besides Himself.
--Therefore, all creation--every creature that exists--owes its love, worship, thanksgiving and service to the God of all.
--Our first parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed the Lord, and because of their sin, God brought the curse of death and judgment upon all of their offspring--including you & me.
--Because God Himself is the Truth, all truth flows from Him. All the words of God are true, and therefore, all the words of the Bible are divine truth.
--The Scriptures are true for you and for me, they are true for all people, in all places, at all times, for all generations, through all of history, and to all eternity.
--The Bible declares that the Son of God--Jesus Christ--became the only Savior for all people. He claimed: “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
--Those who turn from their sins and fully trust in God’s Son to save them, receive forgiveness and cleansing from all their sins. Jesus Christ paid for all their sins on the cross of Calvary 2,000 years ago. So, believers have no more payments to make for sin!
--That brings us to my main topic for this article: Our risen Savior Jesus reigns today, right now, in Heaven, and is in sovereign control over ALL THINGS.

Everyone knows that the Bible is all about Jesus--the people of Israel anticipated Him as their coming Messiah, the prophecies of the Old Testament foretold His coming, His ministry, His sacrifice and His everlasting kingdom. Then, the New Testament Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--give the story of His incarnation, His life and ministry, His miracles and teaching, His betrayal and arrest, His trial and crucifixion, and then His resurrection and ascension.

But Jesus’ followers had their Master’s promise that the Holy Spirit would lead them into “all the truth” about Him. This was accomplished as Christ’s Apostles received direct revelation from the Son of God through the ministry of the Spirit--revelation that was written down by both the Gospel writers, and by the writers of the New Testament epistles. One of the most important of these letters to the churches was the book of Romans, authored by the Apostle Paul.

No other book of the Bible gives such a complete explanation of what makes the coming of Christ such good news for all people. And Paul himself was such an enthusiastic preacher of that gospel message for a very surprising reason: he started out as one of Christ’s biggest enemies!

The gospel is so amazing because it is good news for sinners--sinners like you and me, those guilty of the smallest sins and the biggest sins, those who admire Jesus and those who hate and despise Him, rich and poor sinners, foolish and wise sinners, young and old sinners, Jewish and Gentile sinners. All sinners in the world can receive Paul’s message as “good news”!

The good news Paul describes to the Christians in the church at Rome is all about receiving. When Paul was known as Saul of Tarsus, he was a Jewish Pharisee, committed to keeping God’s law as strictly as possible, and counting on his own strict obedience to make him acceptable in God’s eyes. His religion was based on doing, on offering, on giving something to the Lord that was demanded of him.

But when he finally met God’s Son on the road to Damascus, Saul found out that salvation from his sins was all about receiving. Jesus Christ had come to provide a free gift of forgiveness and perfect righteousness that is offered by grace and through faith alone. He discovered that all of his law-keeping put together could never earn the favor of a holy God. God is so high and holy and perfect, that no one’s obedience is good enough.

Isaiah 64:6 tells us that “all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags” in the eyes of the Lord! So, how many “filthy rags” would it take to make our holy Creator pleased with us--pleased enough with us to allow us into His perfect presence? Our only hope for salvation from God’s judgment would have to be based on His mercy and grace. We must trust in a God of mercy to save us.

So, Paul explains to the Roman believers--and to you and me--that “the righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17), that Christ offers us a “righteousness apart from the law” (3:21), that faith in Christ is “credited as righteousness” (4:22), that believers are identified with Christ so that “we too might walk in newness of life” (6:4), that our freedom from sin makes us “slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (6:19), that the Spirit of God dwells in us to help us in our weakness (8:26). All of these benefits are love-gifts of grace from our heavenly Father.

Of course, our faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t end as soon as we become Christians. The challenge and the power of living out our life in Christ requires that we go on trusting Him. Jesus’ ministry to His people didn’t end after He died and arose and ascended to His heavenly glory. The risen Lord Jesus is ruling and reigning on the throne of the universe. Romans 8:28 is one of the most reassuring verses in Paul’s entire epistle: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

For believers in Christ, faced with the weaknesses of our own fallible flesh, a fallen world full of persecution and temptations, and the craftiness of the devil and his fallen angels, Romans 8:28 is a source of strength, comfort and confidence. Our progress on the path to heaven doesn’t depend totally on our effort, our faithfulness, our strength of willpower. No, our Savior and King is always providing us with supernatural help. He is in control of all things. And He causes all things to work together for our benefit. The good purpose of making us like Jesus Himself!

Just think about it:
~ All of the circumstances of your birth, your family, your physical traits and talents,
~ All of the events of your past, your upbringing, your education, your victories & failures,
~ All of the relationships you’ve made, your spouse, your children, your friends & enemies,
~ All of the problems in your life, your disappointments, your diseases, your weaknesses,
~ All of the situations you worry about, your doubts, your fears, your joys & your sorrows,
~ All of the lessons you’ve learned, are learning, or have yet to learn,
~ All of the local, national, or world situations we read about or see in the media,
~ All of the decisions made by those who have authority over you, those who care about you or don’t care at all,

All things are under the control of your good God, Lord and Savior, who plans them for your good.

At the same time, you and I must keep in mind that knowing about Romans 8:28 and believing it are two different things. Many of God’s most precious promises are some of the most difficult to fully accept. The world, the devil, and our own weak flesh can cause us to doubt God’s sovereign control over life’s circumstances. When we doubt His loving power over all things, we can start to lose the peace, the joy, and the hope that sustain us through the storms and trials of life.

Believe me, Paul certainly understood that this earthly life is filled with storms and trials, especially for Christians. Chapter 8 of Romans is concerned with the sufferings and weaknesses that take place in our world. Paul writes that the whole creation is “groaning,” as if it is in labor, waiting to be delivered. You mothers know what the pains of labor are like. Paul goes on to say that we Christians have a “groaning” in our souls as well. It is a longing for our heavenly home, for the pure, beautiful, eternal state where we will leave all suffering behind, and dwell in the glorious presence of our Lord Jesus forever.

Mothers, when your baby is born, I’m told that the memory of your labor pains quickly fades away--there is such overwhelming joy and relief that your new child has arrived safe into the world, the agony of the delivery process all seems to have been worth the effort. In fact, isn’t it true that the joy is actually ALL THE GREATER because of the part you played in bringing the son or daughter into the world--painful though it was?

That is very much like the suffering we go through as believers. At times it is extremely hard to see the loving hand of a sovereign God at work in and through those difficult, painful trials. When we lose a job...when fire or violent weather strikes our property...when a loved one leaves...when our bodies grow tired and weak...when we get confused, depressed or frustrated…

All of those hardships, the Bible assures us, are the pains leading up to our DELIVERANCE into glory! And when we trust our heavenly Father to cause our pains and sufferings to “work together for good,” we are following the example of our Lord Jesus. Remember, HE took on our weak, limited human flesh when he became a man. HE experienced poverty, hunger, thirst and physical pain. HE suffered the loss of loved ones and the misunderstanding of his own people. HE was accused of being false, demonic and guilty of crimes he didn’t commit. HE was nailed to a terrible cross to pay for sins that were not his own!

Paul describes Jesus in Philippians 2: He “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” All that Christ suffered as a man, led up to the glory that He received in Heaven from His Father--glory that will be His forever. Glory that you and I will share in when we see Him face to face!

Paul writes: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). Our sufferings are being worked by God together for our ultimate good. In fact, our sufferings make us more like our Savior, who suffered so much for us!

And think of the great scope of the “good” God is preparing for those who love Him! The pains and struggles of this life are only for that long: “this life.” But the glory and blessings of the life to come will NEVER END. The inheritance that awaits all of God’s children will outweigh this life’s sufferings so much, we will think it strange that we ever doubted or complained about them.

Think of the “good” God accomplishes through our hardships even IN this life: They cause us to pray more often and more fervently. They strengthen our faith as we lean on Christ. They increase our desire and expectation for Heaven. They make us more humble and less self-dependent. They give us more sympathy and compassion for others so we may comfort them. In other words, trials and sufferings make us more like Jesus. They sanctify us.

“Every human tie may perish; Friend to friend unfaithful prove;
Mothers cease their own to cherish; Heaven and earth at last remove;
But no changes Can attend Jehovah’s love.

In the furnace God may prove thee, Thence to bring thee forth more bright,
But can never cease to love thee; Thou art precious in His sight:
God is with thee, God, thine everlasting light.”

At the end of chapter 8 of Romans, Paul gives a frightful list of things that might conceivably make our Lord “cease to love” us. “Tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” “In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v. 37).

All things work for our good,
We are more than conquerors over all that threatens us.
All that we suffer cannot be compared with the glories of Heaven.
Because God loves all those who are called according to His purpose,
And His love is eternal. It will outlast it ALL!

MNA
4/3/2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

What We're Worth

I’m a Christian, not a humanist. Humanists make the mistake of viewing human beings as “the measure of all things.” Although they would admit that nobody is perfect, humanists as a whole are atheistic in their outlook, and believe that humanity is ultimately perfectible in and of itself, needing no so-called divine assistance to someday achieve absolute utopia.

As a convinced Christian theist, however, I find it regrettable that so many of my fellow believers seem compelled to veer off the road of truth into the opposite ditch, and to be convinced that there is nothing good at all to say about humanity.

Men and women are fallen creatures. God made them in His own image. Good. Innocent. Able to choose the right. A blessed people whom He placed in a utopian environment. But Eve and Adam chose to break the rules. Break fellowship with God. Break their perfect lives into shattered fragments. Break their own innocent natures into a cracked mirror.

And, as every nightly newscast will remind us, our first parents passed this brokenness on to all of us. Sinful natures. Original sin. Radical corruption that affects every part of our beings and our lives. This is why the humanist dream of a godless utopia is forever out of reach.

But, you know, when I hear it said, or implied, that fallen human beings have nothing to offer to God apart from their sin and their brokenness, something in me cringes.

I recently heard a sermon that urged Christians to see unsaved people as more than just “sinners.” We must also see them as “sufferers”--victims of a fallen, troubled, diseased, sin-sick world. The preacher encouraged us to come alongside men and women in their need and their distress the way Jesus did. To resist the tendency to carp on their sinfulness and imply that their suffering was in just payment for God’s broken laws.

The preacher cited the three dubious “comforters” of Job, who tried to counsel and “fix” their suffering friend by urging him to repent of his hidden sins. In effect, all their long-winded platitudes accomplished was to push Job close to the edge of insanity, almost forcing him to call God’s justice into question, demanding an audience in which the Deity should explain Himself!

When I read the words of Scripture, however, I see humanity in an additional light: another dimension besides those of “sinner” and “sufferer.” The Bible also describes us as “salvageable.”

I want to be careful here. I’m not claiming that God has elected to save and redeem people based on some virtue of righteousness He sees in us. Both the psalmist and the apostle have rightly said, as they explained God’s view of man: “There is none righteous; no, not one.” Jesus Himself told one of his admirers: “There is only One who is good, that is God.”

But Jesus also told the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar: “God seeks such worshipers, who worship Him in spirit and in truth.” If there is none righteous...and if no human being is good in His eyes, where is God going to find the worshipers He is seeking?

Obviously, He is looking on at least some human “sinners” and “sufferers” as “salvageable.” In other words, we humans have at least one thing to offer God besides our sin and our brokenness…

We are potential worshipers.

No, God doesn’t need our worship. He got along just wonderfully for all eternity past without it. And yet, for some mysterious, incomprehensible reason, He desired to create, permit the fall of, and then redeem through the saving work of His Son, a worshiping company of people like us!

For some strange, jaw-dropping reason, this will bring Him joy, glory, and satisfaction.

Not one of us has started out with even the faintest desire to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” In fact, we begin our lives totally self-centered and beating a path away from God with dust flying in our wake. But each of us bears the mark of our Creator’s image--cracked and warped as it might be. Each of us experiences God’s “common grace,” including a hunger for justice, an appreciation of beauty, an admiration for orderliness, among other things.

When post-diluvian people began building the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the Lord came down and “confused their language” so that they would scatter over the face of the earth. The explanation was very interesting: God said, “if they have begun to do this, nothing they propose to do will be withheld from them.” Obviously, a united mankind would have only enhanced and hastened their degeneration into more heinous sins.

Yet, along with that motive, I suspect another grudging implication: The god-like capability of humanity needed to be harnessed and channeled by a direct act of their Creator, or else it would have led to a situation similar to the pre-flood civilization. The one God decided had to be wiped out, save for Noah and company.

There is something grand about man. Even fallen man. David considered the vast, spangled heavens above and wondered aloud to God: “What is man, that You are mindful of him, or the son of man, that You visit him?” In all that vast expanse, why is it that its even vaster Creator would devote such attention to the human race?

Why is the sin of people so offensive to Him? Why would He create an eternal hell for those who refuse to repent, where their crimes will be dealt with through countless ages? Why would He send the Son of His eternal love to die for wrath-doomed sinners like me?

Not for anything He saw in me that deserved His mercy and grace…

But at least...at the very least...He saw in me a potential worshiper, did He not?


MNA
2/12/2017

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