Friday, December 28, 2012

Funeral for a Friend

His name was Giuseppe. We met over thirty years ago in graduate school while  both pursuing a relatively useless Masters Degree in Spanish Language and Literature.  Though he was almost 20 years my senior, we had much in common in addition to our course of studies:  Like me, his parents were from Sicily.  In fact, his home town was only a few miles from my parents’ birthplace of Torre Faro, Messina.  We hit it off well, and I invited him over to dinner often, as both of us enjoyed having someone to speak Italian with, as well as talk about Sicily.   

There was also much that we did not have in common.  I was a young Christian, married for a couple of years with an infant daughter, attending a local church and doing my best to stay on the straight and narrow as best as I knew how.  He on the other hand, was an older, confirmed bachelor, and very much a man of the world.  I had some opportunities to share the Gospel with him and was thrilled when he prayed a prayer of faith and repentance, only to be disappointed that his profession of faith apparently did not result in an immediate change in lifestyle.

After we both completed our studies, we saw much less of each other, though we kept in occasional contact.  He eventually retired and moved to Florida, still a confirmed bachelor, but not like he used to be.  He started living a relatively solitary and quiet life, and his social contacts seemed to be limited to friends in a small prayer group at the church he attended in Florida.  His conversations with me seemed to be limited to two topics:  (1) his politics, which—believe it or not—were even further to the right than mine; and (2) the church, and he was particularly fond of talking about his prayer group.

I got to see him about once a year, inviting him over to the house when he periodically traveled back north, but otherwise our contact was limited to an occasional phone call and exchanges of Christmas greetings.  I was surprised this year when the Christmas letter I sent him was returned with no forwarding address.  I had not heard from him, and it would not be like him to not let me know that he had moved.  When I called his number and got a recording that the number was no longer in service, I assumed the worst--  “googling” his name and the word “obituary”--but the search did not yield any relevant results.  When I searched exclusively on the address and found some real estate records listing him as the owner, I clicked on his name and learned that he died sometime in 2012 at the age of 73.  There were no other details.

Given the lack of an obituary on the internet, I wonder if there was even a funeral.  As far as I knew, his only living relatives were a sister and some nieces and nephews in Sicily.  Though his absence will not have a major impact on my life, I am taken aback that a friend of mine is no longer here, and I am particularly saddened by the possibility that he may have died alone.  And yet, by God’s mercy, I have reason to hope that he did not die alone.  So long, paisano.  May you receive a rich welcome in God’s Kingdom, and I look forward to seeing you there.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

An Epiphany

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."
*          *          *
The look on Herod’s face confirmed to Melchior that perhaps the long trip to Jerusalem was not such a good idea after all.  He had doubts ever since the day he left Persia.

It started as kind of a lark or adventure, maybe even a dare.   Melchior was well read, a scholar—some would say a nerd—well versed in the sciences, mathematics, philosophy, history, literature and religion.  His studies in the latter discipline were more of a hobby, and he really was not sure what he believed.  Yet all of his reading and studies seemed to be drawing him to the conclusion that something special was going to be happening in the land of the Hebrews… or what was left of it.  As he knew well from his studies, they were once a great kingdom before they got done in by the Babylonians, to be followed by Melchior’s own Persian ancestors, then the Greeks, and now the Romans.

Yes, the land of Israel, once a mighty nation of great kings like David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah, was now a two-bit backwater colony.  According to their sacred writings they were hoping a new king would arise and restore their former glory.  Good luck with that!  Anyway, it was all very interesting, and Melchior had always wanted to travel there, so off he went. The trip to Jerusalem was quite an adventure, starting with the caravan he ran into out in the middle of the desert.  The ensuing conversation was interesting, to say the least.

“Who are you?  And where are you going?”

“Perhaps I should ask you the same thing!  My name is Balthazar.  I left Arabia three days ago and am on my way to Jerusalem.  Don’t ask me why—it’s a long story—but I believe something special is going to happen there, perhaps the birth of a great king.”

“You’re joking, right?  Are you some kind of wise guy?”

“Oh, some people back home think I am wise.  I’ve certainly read a lot, but I’m not certain that makes me wiser than anyone else.  In fact, I’ve wondered for the past few days how wise it was to venture on this journey, really based on nothing but a hunch.”

Melchior and Balthazar continued to compare notes when they noticed yet another caravan approaching. The riders were dressed rather strangely, their turbans quite distinctive, definitely not from Arabia or Persia.  The head rider dismounted and approached.

“Allow me to introduce myself.   My name is Caspar, and I left India two weeks ago.  I am on my way to…”

“Jerusalem?” Melchior interrupted. 

“How did you know?”

“Oh, just a hunch, I guess.”

Caspar continued.  “I have been reading the ancient writings of the people of Judea.  I could not put them down.  They speak of one God who made the heavens and the earth and created mankind.  They recount how this God dealt graciously with His people despite their rebellion, and how He promised to send them a special King.  I am not sure why, but these words ring true.  That is why I am on my way to Jerusalem.  Stranger still, and don’t ask me how I know, I have this strange feeling that this special King has already been born.  I just wish I had something to go on other than this feeling in my gut.  Some kind of sign perhaps would help, maybe something in the heavens.”

“Like that star?” Melchior interrupted. 

The three travelers gasped in simultaneous astonishment.  It was brighter than a typical star, and it stood out in the night sky.

“Supposing we find this Special King,” Melchior wondered out loud, “I guess we should be bringing Him some sort of gift to pay Him homage.  All I have is some extra gold.  I admittedly did bring plenty more than I needed for the journey.”

“All I have is some incense,” Balthazar chimed in.  “I wasn’t even sure why I brought it, but now I guess I will have some use for it.”

“Same here,” Caspar continued.  “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this myrrh. “
*          *          *
These conversations kept playing through Melchior’s mind as he tried to interpret the hostile and fearful look on Herod’s face.  Whether or not it was wise to make this journey, it definitely was not very bright to ask the regent in Jerusalem where they could find the newly born King of the Jews.  He saw right through Herod’s feigned interest in finding and worshiping the child himself.

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 
*          *          *
Having been unceremoniously dispatched by Herod and his court, the three travelers set out. It was not until they had cleared the city gates of Jerusalem and left them far back in the distance that Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar finally breathed a sigh of relief.  The audience with “King” Herod had been neither pleasant nor friendly, and they were thankful that they made it out alive.  As they approached the humble village of Bethlehem, a far cry from the pomp of the Jerusalem court, their fears subsided.  As the sky darkened, they noticed the same unusual star that had left them astonished just a few nights prior.
 *          *          *
…and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
*          *          *
As they approached the house, Melchior and his companions had to wonder whether they had the right place. Granted, it wasn’t the royal palace in Jerusalem, but beyond being several cuts below a king’s residence, the place was downright plain and inconspicuous.  It was a tiny house in an agricultural setting, with a stable for farm animals attached.  His doubts about the wisdom of this journey began to return.  “This has got to be the most ridiculous thing I have ever done!”

All three of them conferred as to what to do next.  The place looked desolate.  Was anybody home? Should they knock?  Supposing someone answered, what would they say?  Those questions all became moot as the door opened and a man exited, apparently on his way to run an errand.  The man was understandably startled to see the three strangers at his front door.  Both the quality and the style of their dress indicated that they were not from anywhere near Bethlehem.

“Hello friends!  My name is Joseph.  May I help you?”

The three travelers stammered for words, not having a clue what to say.  Caspar finally decided to cut to the chase.

“We have come from far away, each from a different land, but all of us have been led here.  We seek the One who has been born king of the Jews.”  Caspar immediately sensed how awkward and bizarre his words must have sounded.  Melchior and Balthazar were visibly uncomfortable.  Nevertheless, Melchior managed to add:

“The bright star that has been in the night sky over the last several nights seems to have led us here.  Forgive us for disturbing you, but perhaps we have come to the wrong place.”

“Perhaps not.  Please come in.”
*          *          *
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.
*          *          *
Nothing or no one in the house seemed particularly noteworthy.  There was just a lowly mother nursing her child, nothing indicative of royalty.  Like the surrounding village and the house itself, both mother and child seemed to be plainness personified.  There was nothing in the least bit extraordinary about them, much less anything regal—which made the reaction of the three travelers all the more inexplicable.  

Suddenly, each one sensed in the core of their being that they had indeed found the One they were looking for.  Had they been asked how they knew, they would have been at a loss for words.  They just knew.
*          *          *
And they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
*          *          *
As they presented the gifts, each traveler sensed how paltry and pathetic they were.  What good would gold be to this child? Perhaps his parents could use it.  But frankincense and myrrh?   At best, they could be sold and put to the same use as the gold.  Furthermore, each was painfully aware that they could have given so much more out of their vast treasures at home.  Had they known they would find the One they were seeking, perhaps they would have brought more.  But then again, if this Child was indeed the One that their hearts seemed to be telling them, the entirety of their treasures and possessions would not be sufficient. 

Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar rose from their reverent posture, bid farewell to Mary and Joseph, and simply left.  Thinking again about the utter inadequacy of their gifts, they nonetheless felt a strange sensation that their gifts were nonetheless accepted, not because they were worthy or had any value, but simply because the Child somehow accepted them.  

How did they know? They could not say.  They just knew.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Unless you have been a hermit living in a cave, you are aware that according to some ancient Mayan prophecy, the end of the world as we know it may occur on December 21, 2012. Just in case the Mayans were on to something, I figured I should try to post a Christmas related message a little earlier than usual this year.

Last year a well meaning but misguided evangelical Christian by the name of Harold Camping made his umpteenth prediction about the return of Christ and the end of the world, which according to his calculations was supposed to occur on May 21, 2011.  When that did not happen he said he miscalculated and it would actually occur on October 21.    The rest is history. 

Jesus Himself said that no one knew the day or the hour of His return.  The unfortunate obsession of people like Camping to predict the date was not only wrong-headed but justifiably mocked by the world.  I myself joined in the fun and had a few good laughs. But the sad part about such end-times and doomsday obsession is that it distracts from the main message of the Gospel

Having said all that, I have been thinking a lot about the supposed Mayan calculation of December 21, 2012.  The possibility does make me kind of pensive in a funny sort of way.  Wouldn’t it be just like God to not reveal such things to Christians, who would ostensibly be interested—even eager—to know the day of Christ’s return, but instead reveal it to those whom you would least expect?  Sometimes God in His grace gives supernatural wisdom even to pagans. After all, how did the three wise men (pagan astrologers at best) know to follow the star to Bethlehem?

At Christmas we celebrate when Jesus came the first time.  No one seemed to be expecting Him, save for the precious few to whom God had revealed it.  The world was in turmoil, and the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were once again a captive people without much hope.  The Romans had taken over.  All of “God’s chosen people” were suffering under oppression, except for those who had sold themselves out or had been co-opted by the Romans; such as tax-collectors, corrupted religious leaders and, last but not least,  “King” Herod.  Needless to say, the latter was not thrilled when the wise men inquired:  "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."  Everyone desperately needed for such a Savior to be born, but not everyone knew it, nor did they have a full appreciation of what they needed to be saved from.

Two thousand-plus years later, the more things change, the more they remain the same.  The world is in turmoil.  The regions surrounding the birthplace of Jesus look frighteningly like a powder keg ready to explode.  The great democracies of the western world, which for the most part have been a force for good, seem ready to collapse under the weight of their own excesses.  We sense that there is something fundamentally wrong, but we may not have a full appreciation or understanding of exactly what ails us.

Against this backdrop, we live our daily lives.  I personally am truly blessed and have much to be grateful for.  Life is good. I have been married to the same lovely lady for more than 33 years, taking great delight in her and being amazed that she apparently delights in me. We have been blessed with three children, the oldest of which is married to a godly man, and they have given us two beautiful grandchildren.  Our other two children have special needs and we continue to pray for them, but they are otherwise healthy, content and provided for, and we love them dearly.  We also take joy in our extended family and a circle of friends, particularly those with whom we fellowship at Solid Rock Church, where we have attended for more than 33 years.

These are little slices of heaven on earth.  And yet there is a longing in my heart for something more.  Part of it is because of the pain and disappointments that stand in contrast to the blessings:  mourning over lost loved ones, disappointment in myself over sins and shortcomings I have not yet been able to overcome, and the aches and pains of life, both figurative and literal.  And a quick glimpse at the newspaper on any given day feeds my fears that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.  But even if life were presently a bed of roses, I know it is all fleeting.  We all eventually grow old and die, and everything we worked so hard for and everything that seems so important eventually comes to nothing, except…

… except it does not come to nothing.  I said earlier that the sad part about doomsday obsessions is that they distract us from the main message of the Gospel, The Gospel in a nutshell is this:  Jesus, the Son of God, took on flesh and lived the perfect sinless life that we could never live, died the death that we deserve, and rose again to offer us forgiveness and eternal life. One day--and we don't know when--He will indeed return.   

May it be soon.  Come, Lord Jesus.