Hockey pucks and Irma

The vulcanized rubber puck used in ice hockey games weighs six ounces, is one inch thick, and three inches in diameter. Players typically slap it around the rink anywhere from 60 to 90 mph. The fastest speed on record was achieved by Bobby Hull, who cracked a puck at 119 mph. A top player can earn $14 million a year. A hockey puck itself costs about a dollar. Authentic game-used pucks have been resold by teams for up to $100. One hockey game will commonly see 20 or more pucks swapped out during an hour of play. And the pucks are frozen before being used. That makes them slide better on the ice.

Everybody watches that puck during the game. Its location and change of directions defines who wins, who loses, and who takes home $14 million. But nobody really cares about that battered, scarred puck one minute after the game. That’s when all the attention turns to Mr. $14 million and whatever celebration party he’s headed to. The arena cleanup crew stays behind, working far into the night, without an audience.

It is the same with baseballs. They cost the team almost $20 each and some teams in the professional circuit have used upwards of 100 balls per game. Used ones get sent to practice fields or get recycled into new balls. Sometimes they go home with a fan lucky enough to catch one hit into the stands. The top recorded speed for a pitched ball has topped 106 mph only two or three times. A ball well hit by the batter may reach 94 mph. Top players have cracked $30 million in annual salaries.

As with hockey pucks, fans keep their eyes on the ball, at least during the game. Controlling its direction and presence at critical locations at critical moments is why some players cash $30 million checks from the team owners. But no one much cares what happens to the baseballs that defined success during the game once the final out is called.

And yadda yadda with golf, basketball, football, polo, tennis, and tiddly winks. Once the excitement of the games is over, we lose interest in the hockey puck. It was fun to see it get slapped around but what’s for supper?

Last Sunday evening, Melanie and I were having our usual after-supper “date,” watching favorite old TV shows. The stroke makes it difficult for me to provide any entertainment for us outside our home, but I look forward to this time with her each evening. We were watching an episode of an old BBC series, Rumpole of the Bailey. Leo McKern plays a curmudgeonly English barrister who wins all his arguments except those with his wife, Hilda (“She who must be obeyed”). We had just caught site of Rumpole about to start a new case when the screen went dark.

Irma had finally arrived, announcing herself with the predicted power outage. She was Interrupting Rumpole Mid-Adventure.

The weather all day had been mild and even sunny. Now the winds were rapidly increasing. Weather forecasters had been reporting on her progress, with a predicted track that slowly crept away from Florida’s Atlantic coast closer and closer to us. In the 48 hours previous this predicted track even passed by us and out over the Gulf of Mexico. But then the track was moved back closer to us. It went right across Tampa Bay. Miami would escape a direct hit. Not Tampa. The puck had been slapped first one way, then another. Irritating Random Malevolence Arrived.

I went to bed early. There was nothing else to do. In the middle of the night when I awoke (and with no power I had no clock to tell me the time) I heard the worst of the wind gusts. I thought this must be like what Jesus heard when his disciples awakened him from his nap on the boat. Impassive Reclining Master, Awake!

Wind gusts continued until dawn and through most of Monday as Irma moved north. I assume you know more about that than I since we lost our usual news sources on TV. We also lost a handful of roof tiles and a schefflera plant. With landfall winds of 185 mph, Irma is one of the worst hurricanes Florida has seen. I consider that we got off easy.

For the past two years plus I have invested what strength I still have each day in front of my computer screen. Now I picked a chair by the living room window where I could see a (battery run) clock. Outside, two houses away, a neighbor’s tree had fallen across the street and onto a car. I was glad I’d had a few years to practice centering prayer as a way to use the time sitting still. I also dozed off quite a bit!

We got through Monday on cold soup and ice Melanie had stored up. Her cell phone still had a charge and she was able to exchange a few texts with friends. We went to bed at sundown. The biscuit had not reached the basket.

Tuesday, a friend brought a battery recharger to keep the cell phone working. We learned that a good 75% of Lakeland had been left without power. We could only imagine what cities on the Gulf coast were dealing with.

Tuesday was also a long-standing appointment with our dentist. His office had escaped damage, he had power, and the office had air conditioning. We went so they could Internally Rehabilitate Mandible Activity. About half the stoplights were out on streets along the way. Drivers were slowly, politely, taking their turns getting through the intersections and around downed tree branches. Afterwards, we tried to visit our favorite ice cream stand to get milkshakes (one of the few treats I can still handle) but they were closed.

We live two blocks from a large college campus. In hurricanes past we had noticed our power was never down for more than a few hours. We always thought it was because the city was careful not to leave the students stranded for long. Tuesday night we noticed light on in college buildings we could see. Our house stayed dark. Again we went to bed at sundown. Now we were leaving the windows open. We were feeling the first notes of cooler fall temperatures and they were a relief. I thought about those who had settled Florida in pre-Edison days: no lights, no air conditioning. We were getting a taste of pioneer days. And Melanie noticed she could now see stars in the cloudless night sky. Incredible Reminders, Majestic Astronomy.

We had hoped the lights from the college campus meant we would be next in line for repairs. On Wednesday we could hear the engines of utility trucks with crews working on power lines two blocks the other side of our house.

In my chair by the living room window I decided to try reading a book. Since the stroke my hands and fingers don’t do well holding a book still, or turning pages. I decided to go for something familiar. I picked up a book I had written shortly after that stroke, Thirteen Commandments. As has often happened to me, I couldn’t remember most of what I had written. Even more remarkable, I still agreed with what I had written. Some of it even seemed good! So I spent an afternoon Inwardly Rejuvenating Memory Atrophy.

We had people starting to drop by, checking on us. Two people brought us more ice and Melanie repacked our dead refrigerator. But electric power remained unrejuvenated. Once more, we slept that night as they did during the 19th century, in the dark. And extreme quiet.

By Wednesday, some of our neighbors were abandoning ship until power could be restored in our area. Melanie bagged some remaining perishables from the refrigerator and our church youth minister took them to the church, where there was power and a working refrigerator. A friend of neighbors (who had already left) came by and loaned us a couple of battery powered fans. Even with our windows open, we could not ignore that it was still summertime in Florida. Melanie had it worse, scurrying around trying to take care of me. Several friends were inviting us to stay in their air-conditioned homes as long as we needed.

As we had another not-hot, not-cold supper, she read a message on her cell phone. It said repair crews had just about finished all the “easy” electrical repairs. It warned city residents that if their power was not back on by 10 p.m. that night, it meant they were in one of the difficult areas that needed, not a repair, but a rebuild. And that was expected to take another week, maybe two. One neighbor’s husband was doing 16-hour days with the utility repair crews. She told Melanie how it broke her heart to watch him work those long hours in the sun, restoring power to others, and then have to come home to a dark house himself. And she told us about the tangle of tree branches and wires where we had heard all the utility crews working close by.

We went to sleep in the dark. And, on the remaining charge in her cell phone, Melanie started calling friends to accept the offers of refuge for the next day.

When I woke in the middle of the night, knowing it had to be past 10 p.m., I still could not see the clock whose numbers glow softly in the dark. The whole house was dark. I tried to close my eyes but couldn’t tell that this made any difference. I began to create acronyms in my mind to pass the time. Interminable Repeating Midnight Again.

Next morning Melanie packed dirty laundry and our laptop computers in the van and we went to the home of a sister deacon. She and her husband were going to spend the day with youth from their church, helping clean up yards for church families. Schools were all closed so the available workforce had been given a mission. They made sure our laptops had connected to their WiFi system, and that the air conditioning was working (!) and left us in the house. Melanie started doing laundry. I started recharging my laptop battery.

At midday, we packed up again and returned to our home. I was going to take a shower and then we were going to go to the home of some snowbirds who were still in Maine for the summer, but who had invited us to stay in their winter home during the storm recovery (in a neighborhood that had not lost power).

A word about me taking showers. So far, I have been able to sit safely in a chair in the shower. But when I’m done, I need Melanie’s help getting out. We had no hot water, of course, so I was done quickly. When I turned off the water I could hear voices, visitors, a man and a woman, and Melanie had invited them inside. I could hear her usual friendly, unhurried hostess voice as they talked. And talked and talked. I couldn’t recognize the other voices but heard them all talking about mutual friends.

I sat naked in the shower, dripping dry, not making a sound. “Lord, I could think of better times for You to send more friends to see if we’re okay,” I thought. Usually, I Reject Mysterious Appointments like this. But I decided to just wait patiently and trust that Melanie had not lost her mind trying to be hospitable.

Turns out the visitors were a news team with TV camera from the local cable news channel. They were doing a story on how folks who still had no electric power four days after the hurricane were doing. A friend of ours had tipped them off that we were in that predicament.

When they finally had their story, they left and Melanie rescued me. I got dressed and back in our van. Melanie locked up the house, asked our one remaining neighbor to get our mail, and we took off for our refuge shelter. As we passed utility work crews who have come to help fix the wires, Melanie rolled down her window to shout, “God bless you!” to them.

We were half way to our destination when the puck got one more, surprise whack. Melanie’s cell phone rang. I know, I know. Hang up and drive, yes. But it was our neighbor. She told us power had just been restored on our street. I croaked out, “Hallelujah” as strongly as I could. Melanie turned around and drove us back to our house. After she pulled into our drive, she got out to go open the back door of our house.

A moment after she disappeared inside, I heard the air conditioner motor by the back door roar to life. It was shortly after noon.

Thursday evening we watched the short news story with Melanie on TV. Soon Melanie’s Facebook page was registering requests by her friends for autographs.

If they only knew the rest of the story…

Which I will conclude for now.

Before I lose control and Irritatingly Regurgitate More Acronyms.

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Looking back

A blogging friend of mine posted a reflection on the years she has been blogging. She was surprised at the number of blogs she had posted. She noted that rereading them reminded her of how she herself had changed and grown in that time.

It made me remember an early post I had put on this blog. That entry was written at a time I had just started this blog and while I was on the church staff. We had changed over from another platform and this was only my second entry at the new host. Several years later, the Deacon’s blog was restarted under a new title and this became my personal blog. Along the way, this blog records where a stroke totally changed things for me.

I’m grateful I’ve got the blog now. It allows me to go back six summers and hear myself saying things that just shake me now, in my own a new season of building. The familiar old seasons of service and blessing are past. God has new plans for this one. Substantial ones, as my friend might say.

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Blessed Elena Guerra

Been thinking about St. Joseph, St. Mary’s husband, the earthly father who raised Jesus, and about St. John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus.

St. Matthew and St. Luke start their Gospels with stories about both of them. St. Mark and St. John pick right up with the Baptist, passing by without comment on Joseph (although St. John records a crowd mentioning Joseph once in 6:41-42).

Joseph’s life was turned upside down by his submission to God’s intervention in Mary’s life. He lost any hope of living his own quiet life as an honest carpenter and devout Jew. Though foreign dignitaries would seek out his family to honor him and present exotic gifts, he would see endless ridicule and slander from his own people. He had to flee his home country in fear for his life and the lives of his wife and her child. Then, after these years of amazing adventure, he would end his life living in such a normal manner that his death is nowhere noted or remembered. One of the choices Joseph made (to settle in Nazareth near the Lake of Galilee) would affect a handful of common fishermen he would never meet, years after he was gone. They would be among the first disciples called by Jesus into their own seasons of life turned upside down.

In the Gospel accounts, Joseph makes a few crucial decisions to trust God at critical moments. Then he seems to fade from the scene. The narrative spotlight never returns to him. Presumably, these latter years were still important. In Hebrews we read that Jesus “learned obedience by the things which he suffered.” (5:8) I assume some of that “suffering” consisted of learning who had authority and the last word in the household. I’m sure every parent knows what those days are like. Luke tells of his parents’ fright the time they lost track of Jesus on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Luke sums it up saying Jesus learned to submit to these parents even as he was aware of larger purposes in his life. These were the ordinary, unremarkable days that unfolded toward the end of Joseph’s life. Important, but not special. Not recorded for us. Nothing to see.

The Baptist’s life had a similar arc. We hear about his surprising birth to elderly parents. We are told he later went off to live alone in the wildness. Most what we are told has to do with the extraordinary attention he finally drew with his proclamations at the Jordan river. Once he had baptized Jesus, he, too, basically passed off stage. Not that it was his plan to do so. God helped draw John’s ministry to a close by letting Herod throw him in prison.

Sitting in prison, John struggled with doubts. I can appreciate that, after his amazing early years and the crowds of followers, John might wonder whether ending up in prison meant he had made a mistake somewhere. But, like Joseph, John the Baptist had an effect on peoples’ lives that exceeded what he could see while he was alive. Two of his own disciples, Andrew and John, became the first disciples to follow Jesus. And Andrew quickly recruited his brother, Peter. It took awhile to see how important that was, but the consequent ripples continue around the world to this day.

The people who would be touched by those early disciples and their followers are in debt to Joseph and John the Baptist, and the sacrifices they made. They are part of a fruitful harvest that Joseph and John the Baptist never saw, and never saw coming. It is breath-taking to behold.

Let me change story lines for a moment and talk about my own life. I was raised in an Assemblies of God church, the largest Pentecostal denomination that came into existence in the twentieth century. I was born in the city that had become the headquarters of their national offices, in Springfield, Missouri. This happened because my father had come from Chile, in South America, to go to the Bible school run by the Assemblies there. That’s where he met my mom. Dad went to work at the A/G printing facility at their headquarters building. One of my brothers would also make his career there.

Dad was raised by his grandfather, who had been an American missionary sent to Chile by the Methodist-Episcopal church in the 1880’s. My dad’s mother had gone to Chile with her father, my great-grandfather, Willis Hoover. She met and married a Chilean fellow who became a pastor under my great-grandfather’s ministry. When her young husband died, my grandmother had moved back to Willis Hoover’s parsonage, to raise my dad, his two brothers and two sisters. My dad grew up in his grandfather’s church in Valparaiso.

Let me briefly fill in a bit more history about the modern Pentecostal movement. In the fall of 1900, a minister in Topeka, Kansas, Charles Parham, sent out an invitation to anyone who wanted to gather with him to study the Bible in a new school, the Bethel Bible School. He said there would be no tuition charged. The students would all just trust God to provide.

One question soon gripped the 40 students. Why was the modern church not like the first church that came into being as reported in Acts chapter 2? By December, they were all busy tracking down every scripture they could find about the Holy Spirit.

On December 31, 1900, Rev. Parham called for an all night “watch night” prayer meeting. Some time after midnight, a student who wanted to become a missionary asked that hands be laid on her as she asked to receive the Holy Spirit. The next moment, Agnes Ozman’s prayers changed to a language she did not know. It was Chinese. She was unable to speak in English for three days. When she tried to write down notes, they were in Chinese. The prayer meeting, now filled with rejoicing, also went on for three days.

In 1906, Rev. Parham sent one of his students, William Seymour, to California. Seymour started holding services in a private home, later moving to a former church building on Azuza Street in Los Angeles. The Holy Spirit began moving on the people there, and they were soon coming by the thousands. Another notable feature of this revival was that both whites and blacks were gathering and mixing freely at the services. And Rev. Seymour was a black man. The revival continued for nine years. People who came to those Azuza Street services went around the world telling about it, and similar revivals broke out in other nations.

One was a woman missionary in India. She had been a schoolmate of Willis Hoover’s wife while they attended Moody Bible School in Chicago. Willis read her letters to his wife and started praying. The Holy Spirit fell on the church he was pastoring, complete with speaking in tongues as evidence, at a service in Valparaiso in 1909. Eventually, unable to accept the unusual practices of the excited, Spirit-filled believers, my great-grandfather was disfellowshipped by his bishop in the Methodist-Episcopal Church. The local people of his now fast-growing church asked him to stay as their pastor. They formed a new denomination which is now the largest one in Chile. (Willis Hoover wrote an account in Spanish of the revival which was eventually translated into English by my father.)

In the United States, various ministers who had been influenced by the Azuza Street revival, gathered in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1914, to form the Assemblies of God. In the generation that followed these founders there was a woman who would be ordained and start several A/G churches in the Kentucky mountains, Elva Johnson. She went on to become the national director of women’s ministries for the denomination, the highest office held by a woman in this new organization. And, after my own mom died when I was 12, she would become my step-mom. My dad and (step)mom were married 49 years, until he died in 2012. Next November, my mom will be 98.

My wife, Melanie, grew up in the A/G church that started in her grandmother’s basement in Holland, Michigan. When she grew up, Melanie moved to Springfield to work in the mission department of the A/G headquarters. We met the first Sunday she came to church, in the first A/G church that had been started in the town, two blocks from the headquarters building.

This is some of the history, public and personal, that I grew up knowing regarding the remarkable Pentecostal (and later charismatic) church movement of the 20th century.

The reason I started by talking about Joseph and John the Baptist is because a few days ago I learned there was more to this story of modern Pentecostalism than I knew. As with Joseph and John the Baptist, there were some people who didn’t live to see the results of what God was doing with their lives, but who had an enormous effect on mine.

One of them, Elena Guerra, was born in 1833. She became an author and educator of young women in her home town of Lucca, Italy. She founded the Oblate Sisters of the Holy Spirit, a small order with a little over 200 members today. When she was 50 years old, Mother Elena felt a stirring to ask the Pope to issue a call for the Holy Spirit to renew the Church. She confided her plan to one friend — who laughed at her and told her she was in danger of the sin of pride. Mother Elena put away the idea. But she kept praying about it.

Eight years passed. Then, a woman who worked in the convent kitchen, Erminia Giorgetti, went to Mother Elena. She believed the Lord had spoken to her, to tell Mother Elena it was time to go ahead and write to the Pope. Erminia predicted the Pope would issue an encyclical calling the church to pray for the hearts of mankind to be drawn back to God by the Holy Spirit!

Mother Guerra wrote her letter and gave it to her bishop to carry to the Pope. The Pope did not write back. But Leo XIII did call on the whole Church to pray a novena for the Holy Spirit for the nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost Sunday. Then, in 1897, he issued an encyclical, Divinum illud munus, a treatise on the Holy Spirit. He repeated his call for an annual novena to celebrate Pentecost.

Mother Elena wrote him the following year. She was disappointed at the apparent lack of response from the Church. In October, 1900, she wrote the Pope again. She suggested that he should dedicate the new century to the Holy Spirit, for renewal of the Church.

Leo did so. And he spent New Year’s Day, January 1, 1901, in his personal devotions singing a hymn of prayer, Come Holy Spirit, on behalf of the entire Church. That was the same day that Agnes Ozman began speaking in tongues while at prayer in Topeka, Kansas.

In 1959, Pope John XXIII prayed for God to “renew Thy wonders in this our day as by a new Pentecost,” as he announced the first church council in a century.

He repeated the prayer as he invited the pilgrims from Lucca to attend Mother Elena’s beatification on April 26, 1959, saying, “We are all aware, in fact, of the need for a continued effusion of the Holy Spirit, as of a new Pentecost which will renew the face of the earth.”

In less than a decade, charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church had began at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

(Read more details here.)

To see the breadth of the tapestry God weaves out of so many strands, over so many generations, takes my breath away.

It is something Jesus spoke about plainly.

The saying is true, ‘One sows, and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you haven’t labored. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” John 4:37-38

St. Paul also recognized the principle.

When one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” aren’t you fleshly? Who then is Apollos, and who is Paul, but servants through whom you believed, and each as the Lord gave to him? I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are the same, but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s farming, God’s building. I Corinthians 3:4-9

If I get confused or frustrated at the strange turns of my life, as seasons seem to go up and down, I must learn to relax. I must learn to trust God. I have enjoyed reaping blessings left for me by others who never knew me. Perhaps God is using me to leave blessings for others I will not meet before Heaven.

God is weaving His tapestry through the ages, picking up first this strand, then another. And since He is working hand in hand with His Holy Spirit, we can only expect the final result to take our breath away and be replaced by His.

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God knows

I find myself getting depressed/aggravated/twitchy at the long lingering effects of the stroke. The lack of dependable balance on my feet. Hands and fingers that wobble, feel numb, fail to move when and where I need them. Double vision. Difficulty swallowing anything but soup. The voice that earned me a living, that I used in order to record audio editions of my first books and read the Gospel at my church, reduced to a muttered croak.

I formed a poster in my mind.


I mulled over whether to post it or not, since it mostly grew out of a sad, complaining spirit.

The Lord helps me deal with that practically every day as Melanie and I review our prayer list at meal times. The list has expanded to cover both sides of a letter-size sheet and keeps growing. I really wouldn’t want to trade places with anyone on it. Their needs provide me harsh perspective on how much pain and fright people are facing while Melanie and I continue in relative security, together still.

As I thought about the poster statement that had formed in my mind, the Lord checked me.

“You don’t get it. You aren’t reading it correctly.”

I looked at the second sentence again. Instead of hearing it as a sarcastic, morose complaint, I suddenly heard it as a grace-filled revelation. It said a prayer of Jesus was being answered.

“Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name — the name you gave me — so that they may be one as we are one… I pray… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us….” John 17:11, 20, 21

Was this what God was doing with my life? And simply because Jesus asked Him to? I didn’t understand the way to this goal. I can’t say I really understand the goal itself. But would Jesus ask for something pointless or of no value considering what it cost him? Would the Father ignore that request, considering what it cost Him?

I am the one feeling discomfort and pain at the moment. But I am in no better position to argue with God about what He’s doing than Job was. Not even as good a position as Job  was in, with God bragging about him in Heaven. (Job 1:8)

Jesus said, “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:31) Jesus said I would show my love for him when I obey what he said. And one thing he said was, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1)

So, if I believe God knows what He is doing with my life, I should recognize that what He is doing is making us one, a relationship like He already enjoys with His Son, our Savior, and simply because Jesus asked Him to.

I don’t have to understand it, now or ever. I’ll just get to enjoy the relationship forever.

After I was taken out by the stroke, I struggled with how I should answer the question friends regularly put to me: “How are you?”

I got a solution watching the way Fr. Peter Owen-Jones answered his mentor, Fr. Lazarus, after spending three weeks in isolation up in the mountains rising above St. Anthony’s Monastery in the Egyptian desert.

“I’m getting there,” Fr. Peter told him when Fr. Lazarus returned to his mountain cave after 21 days.

So am I. God knows how. But it’s enough that He does.

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Filling in gaps

This week I expect to finish writing a series of daily devotionals on St. John’s Gospel to be published in The Journey in 2019.

As I have been reading and thinking about John’s account, several trains of thought have taken off in my imagination concerning some of the people introduced there. I do not think these speculations carry any particular theological weight. I cannot prove anything here. But I want to share them as mementos of my summer focus on this study.

John, who never identifies himself by name, outlived the other disciples and was the last one to write down his memories of Jesus. He was originally a follower of John the Baptist. He was with Andrew the day that John the Baptist pointed out Jesus, who was walking by, to them. They are the first followers of Jesus in John’s recital of events. (John 1:35-37)

John and his older brother, James, were fishermen. So it is puzzling, when John later narrates how Jesus was arrested and taken to be interrogated at the high priest’s home, to read that it was John who got the gate keepers to let Peter into the courtyard there. (John 18:15, 16) How did John get in such a position where he would be let in and now could vouch for a fellow disciple? I wonder if it was because he had become friends with one of the members of the Sanhedrin and was already a known visitor himself because of that friendship? Who might that be? There was one member of the Sanhedrin who had become a secret believer in Jesus Christ. He gets mentioned twice by John: Nicodemus.

The first story is about a late night visit Nicodemus pays to Jesus. (John 3) John does not mention that anyone else was present to hear that conversation, but the encounter does not show up in the other Gospels. Presumably, the nervous Nicodemus would have been hesitant to speak as he did if there were any witnesses apart from Jesus’ companions. Maybe Nicodemus had approached John, youngest of the disciples, practically still a boy himself, to take him to find Jesus that night. That would explain why Nicodemus spoke so frankly in John’s hearing and why the visit stayed vivid in John’s memory. Maybe they stayed in touch. It would explain why John later had contacts at the high priest’s home.

Early on Good Friday, all the disciples abandoned Jesus. John showed up where Jesus was taken that night, and became the only eyewitness to the trial by the priests and Pharisees. Later, he stood with St. Mary at the cross, where he became the only disciple to receive a personal word and assignment from Jesus as he hung on the cross. (John 19:25-27)

Perhaps he and the other women were all still there as Jesus died, and kept a vigil over their Lord’s dead body. Thus, they would have been present when Joseph of Arimethea, another secret believer on the Sanhedrin, came with Nicodemus to take down Christ’s body. John is the only one to mention that Nicodemus helped Joseph. John, having the confidence of Nicodemus, could have learned from him then of the plan to take the body to Joseph’s own tomb. All the other disciples were in hiding. Who else but John and these woman would have known that Pilate had taken the unusual step of releasing the body of a criminal executed by the government into the hands of a private citizen? (For that matter, would Pilate have allowed anyone else except members of the Sanhedrin to take the body? “You guys have been a headache to me all day about this so-called king. Take the body and be gone!”)

Speaking of Pilate, in comparing John’s account of Good Friday with the other Gospels, I noticed a detail that had not gotten my attention before. The only one who reports on the nightmare Pilate’s wife had, and the request later from the Sanhedrin that Jesus’ tomb be sealed and guarded, was St. Matthew. Matthew is also the only one to report that Pilate, frustrated by the hostile and unruly crowd accusing Jesus, ostentatiously washed his hands to declare his disagreement over their demand for Jesus’ death.

Why did Matthew have these inside tidbits from Pilate’s private, inner council? He wasn’t there to see any of it.

It dawned on me that Matthew was the only one among the disciples who had held a government job. In my research, I learned further that the role of a Prefect over a province of the Roman Empire was mostly to oversee the collection of taxes. And Matthew had been one of Pilate’s tax collectors before Jesus recruited him.

It is reasonable to assume Matthew had a network of contacts and co-workers in this financial job for the government. The first thing he did after Jesus called him was to invite all his friends to a banquet so they could meet the man for themselves. (Matthew 9:9-10) I can imagine, especially after news of the resurrection got around, that these friends, who knew Matthew back in the day, would have told him the inside gossip from Pilate’s office that transpired on Good Friday. These were not the kind of stories anyone would have been repeating to anyone but an old acquaintance from the office. (“You became a follower of that Jesus, didn’t you, Matthew? Did you ever hear about the dream that frightened Pilate’s wife that day…?”)

As I said, none of these possibilities can be proven. But, as I thought about these moments, as I was praying and writing about them, I couldn’t help but wonder.

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Patron saint nomination

I have been writing an assignment of daily devotionals on the Gospel of St. John. It is scheduled for publication in a couple of years. I am surprised at how often I am surprised by where I end up with my comments on the scripture passages. It happened again today.

I was writing about the interrogation of Jesus by Pilate on the morning of Good Friday. I had done some background research. Did you know that some parts of the Church, in the Orthodox family, have declared Pilate to be a saint? I reflected this might be, in part, a recognition that, after a string of efforts to compromise with the Jews who were accusing Jesus, Pilate finally stood his ground when they complained about the inscription he had posted on Jesus’ cross. He identified Jesus as the King of the Jews. And he said to those objecting, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:22) When he stopped compromising, by God’s mercy he had reached the truth at last.

And that’s when the thought occurred to me that, perhaps, St. Pilate would be a good candidate for Patron Saint of Writers. That declaration of his certainly makes a good motto if you’re a scribbler.

Of course, there is already a more conventionally recognized patron saint for writers: St. Paul. He wrote the greatest number of books in the New Testament (though St. Luke’s two books contain more words). Calling on St. Paul would probably certainly raise fewer eyebrows than calling on St. Pilate.

But if you are always going to seek the approval of readers with what you write, St. Pilate may be your man after all. Certainly, writers know all about editing, changing and rewriting their way through draft after draft, trying to please editors, or their own inner critic. But both Paul and Pilate also finally learned how to stand up to a crowd, and take the heat. Something writers finally need to know how to do, too, I would think.

So I’ll stand by my nomination of St. Pilate.

After all, sometimes it’s fun, as a writer, to raise a few eyebrows.

There. I’ve written it.

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God’s love language

A friend came by to visit and pray with us. This friend has seen several miraculous answers when he has prayed for people over the years. I have seldom heard his voice shake as it did while he prayed for Melanie and for me. We await your answer, Lord.

We are still waiting, not to be coy about it. At least, waiting for the healings our bodies need.

But it could be that we have already received another gift from the Lord that our friend brought us. This friend, while seeing a number of remarkable answers to prayer over the years, has also known spiritual struggle and failure. At one point he divorced his wife and married another woman who had also been raised as a Christian (her father was a pastor). That marriage also failed after awhile. Our friend concluded he would live out the rest of his life single. But, in a story I’m not here to tell today, he and his first wife came to a remarkable point of reconciliation and, finally, they remarried.

One of the things that helped restore their relationship was a book that came out over twenty years ago and has been a hugely popular book in marriage counseling ever since.

The book is The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Dr. Chapman works off one of the results of the division of languages by God at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). After God scrambled man’s languages, the symbols of language communication took on different meanings for different people. This is true even when people think they are speaking clearly to each other in the same language.

Now, Dr. Chapman doesn’t go into this background. He simply focuses on the challenge of learning and understanding a language that is not your “native tongue” when it comes to expressing love.

From his years of marriage counseling he tells of couples confounded by each other’s behavior. There is the husband who keeps the lawn mowed, starts the dinner each night since he gets home before his wife, washes the dishes after supper, and his wife thinks he doesn’t love her. There is the wife who watches her husband talk to their friends at parties and dinners but who never says a word to her in the car going home. She thinks he doesn’t love her.

These examples demonstrate that symbols and actions don’t always mean the same thing to different people. And I found a joke that perfectly illustrates this.

An 85 year old man is out on the lake, fishing from his boat. He hears a voice saying, “Pick me up.” He looks around but doesn’t see anyone. The voice comes again. “Pick me up!” This time the man looks at the bottom of his boat and sees a frog. “Are you talking to me??” he asks. The frog says, “Yes! Pick me up and kiss me and I’ll turn into a beautiful bride for you!” The man picks up the frog and puts it in his pocket. The frog says, “No, no! I said kiss me and I’ll turn into a beautiful bride!!” The old man says, “Naw, at my age I’m not interested. I’d rather have a talking frog.”

Symbols and actions, promises and words: they don’t always mean the same thing to different people. That can be frustrating.

If you have not seen Gary Chapman’s book, here are the five kinds of language that he says communicate the message of emotional love between people, even if the three words “I love you” are never spoken.

1) Words of affirmation; 2) Acts of service; 3) Receiving gifts; 4) Quality time and attention; and 5) Physical touch.

Melanie and I soon found Dr. Chapman reading the audio edition of his book online and we spent our mealtimes listening to it all weekend. After hearing Chapman’s presentation I got to wondering, if these are the languages we humans understand when it comes to love, is this how God also speaks to us?

I went over the list again and tried to think of any words from the Bible that might express the principles.

Words of affirmation

At the Last Supper, after Judas left, Jesus told his remaining loyal disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) That’s a wonderful affirmation.

Acts of service

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commented, in passing, about God’s generosity to all, regardless of whether they deserved it. “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God meets our needs even when we don’t say, “Thank You.”

Receiving gifts

The simplest statement of this would be one that is familiar to all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) God so loved that He gave. Check.

Quality time

We’re so small and He is so busy. Can we expect God to actually pay any attention to us? We have a direct promise for this.  “Call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:12-13)

Physical touch

This one, at first,  seems a less likely language for God to use at the present time. But there was a time. John did say, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (I John 1:1) Thomas was invited to dispel his doubts by touching Jesus. Jesus laid his hands on many he healed, including even “untouchables” like lepers. But can we ask or expect that touch now, while Jesus is in Heaven and we are on the Earth? Well, I do think he sends vicars, or deputies, to carry out ministry in his behalf. When I pray for people, I often do so while touching them or holding their hand in mine. I have put my arm around people who needed comfort. So even if it is “just” an ambassador doing the touching, it is done on the King’s behalf for a loved member of his kingdom and family.

So I guess an argument could be made that, yes, God uses the “love languages” identified by Dr. Chapman when He talks with us. They are languages we humans speak, and which speak to us. But are any of these truly God‘s chosen “love language?”

Go back to the Last Supper. Jesus made God’s expected “love language” very clear that night.

John 14:15  “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

He repeats himself a moment later.

John 14:21  “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” 

And again.

John 14:23 “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

Jesus states this is the basis for his own love for his Father.

John 14:31  “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.”

He begins to connect the dots.

John 15:10  “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”

Jesus raises the bar of significance for using this language with God.

John 15:14  “You are my friends if you do what I command.”

And finally Jesus ties it all together.

John 16:23  “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
24. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
25. “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father.
26. In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf.
27. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 

God’s “love language” consists of watching to see if we will do what He has asked. And He is prepared to respond to the same “love language” from us.

I thought about the mechanics, the dynamics of speaking to God in this language. I wrote a book that examines The Mystery of Faith. There I explored the relationship of Faith to the two other principles that Paul said “abide forever” with Faith: Hope and Love. (I Corinthians 13:13) I made the argument that Hope is initiated in us when God speaks to us, giving us a promise or direction, a commandment. We act in Faith when we take a “He said it, that’s good enough for me” approach, without demanding any additional proof or demonstration before we agree to act. This is “living by faith, not by sight.” ( 2 Corinthians 2:7)

And Jesus has told us our Love is demonstrated when we do what he has asked us to do. Hope, Faith, Love. It is the way to understand and speak God’s “love language.”

Once you see this, it becomes clear this is how God has been talking to us all along. He begins with the Hope that we want to please Him. He speaks to us before we have shown any evidence of that, in other words, by Faith. Then he watches to see if our response will show any Love for Him. He has given us free will, the right to choose our response. He watches, with all Creation, to see what we will choose.

I have assumed for a long time that, once we get to Heaven, many things will finally “make sense” to us. We’ll be able to say, “NOW I get it! NOW I see what You were doing when I thought You weren’t paying attention and all those painful disasters were happening in my life and all around the world…!”

But now I’m not so sure it will be like that. I rather doubt God is holding His breath, waiting for me to finally review and approve how He’s been handling things.

If Faith, Hope, and Love are truly the language of Heaven for all eternity, why should I expect the language to change over to my familiar dialect when I get there? Why shouldn’t I, instead, be expecting to be the one who will speak and think and act in an entirely new way? A different way? A way that is “native” to my new home?

If it really is God’s Kingdom, why shouldn’t I expect to find that God keeps speaking in His native “love language?”

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