George stood at the bus stop and muttered a prayer under his smoking breath that the bus would arrive before his feet froze solid. Even his wool socks were claiming they’d met their match.

“Lovely weather,” said a tall woman trying to warm her hands on a steaming coffee. “Counting the degrees on one hand makes it easy for everyone.”

A couple folks laughed, but not George. He hadn’t laughed much in the last three years.

“Where’s that damned bus?” an elderly man whispered to no one.

George figured the man for about 77. He thought that would be him in 17 years. He wondered if he would still be taking the bus to the clinic every day. He wondered how everything could go so wrong so fast, and in that moment, 17 more years felt a little more like jail.

Living in a city that was home to several Fortune 500 consumer packaged goods companies was a boon to a packaging engineer such as himself, but life is odd, and when his firm offered him early retirement due to increased competition from overseas, he and Jeannie thought their nest egg sufficient for a longer-than-expected retirement. They had some money, a pension, could even handle their daughter Lynn’s college payments, and the company hinted they might throw some consulting work George’s way now and then. Retirement at 57 seemed perfect.

Five months later, while he and Jeannie walked through the bright gold and red of their neighborhood’s autumn leaf fall, a blood vessel burst in her brain.

That was 2½ years, $2.7 million dollars in medical bills, and their retirement home ago. All gone. To keep his daughter on track for graduation, George sold his car and Jeannie’s. Then he got a bill from the college announcing a 15% tuition hike.

George called in some markers at his old workplace and they gave him a basement office and paid him for two days a week. Competition hadn’t eased, but George had been someone once, and the old guard did what they could, shaking their heads at the injustice of it all.

So George caught the 7:55 bus each day. On his two work days, he walked from his 8’x8′ office to the extended care clinic and held Jeannie’s hand. On good days, she’d fix her eyes on his and he could see the light still in them. No one could make out what she said, but George told everyone they were words of love. God help them both if they were something else.

George didn’t talk about the bad days. He’d read to his bride even when her eyes were cloudy glass and no Jeannie seemed present. He didn’t know what else to do. Read, hold a hand, and watch the bank account dwindle to nothing. Sometimes George hated himself for what he thought on the worst days.

Where’s that damned bus? he thought now. A glance at his wrist: 8:08.

Some anxious young turk in clothes three sizes too big spat one of those words that always grated on George’s ears. People didn’t talk like that when George was younger, and whenever he heard someone curse, something inside him died a little m0re. What is wrong with people today? What happened to propriety? George heard someone else spout the same ugly word: the tall woman, her coffee gone.

The sound of a diesel engine. Every head turned to peer down the street. Suddenly, life entered the small collection of people. The bus. Finally. Even from a tenth of a mile away, George could see the “sorry, folks” look on the driver’s face.

When the bus pulled up to the curb, George let others board first, though he and the elderly man exchanged proferred hands, each insisting the other go ahead. Wisdom prevailed, as the senior gave up the battle of politeness, boarded, and George walked into the anticipated warmth of the coach.

Except none greeted him.

He looked at the driver, perplexed.

“It’s why I’m late,” the driver said. “The cold took down two other buses completely. At least this one runs.”

George looked that the mass of people on board and wondered where all the body heat was. The bus stop felt warmer.

“No heater? I’ve got a half hour ride,” he said to the driver.

“You and most everyone else” was the reply.

A half hour of frozen misery.

George sat down next to the largest person he could find and hoped for the best. By the time his stop came, all theories about hoping and the warmth of people of immense size had been chucked out the moisture-frosted window.

Goodbye, frigid conveyance. Hello, old semi-workplace.

The lobby stairway proved a difficult walk when one cannot feel at least one of one’s feet. George wondered if this was what being a pirate with a wooden leg felt like. Arrr.

His office didn’t have a door, so on arriving in the basement, he immediately noted the envelope on his beaten, 1950’s-era desk. A lone envelope. An omen. He opened it, hands trembling.

Numbers flooded the page, and George inhaled sharply at  the sight of them. What they said: Health care costs would now be subtracted from pension payouts. George looked at the number at the bottom of the side column. He flopped into the desk chair, which groaned along with him, and with his back to the doorway, cried.

“You okay, George?” came a voice from behind him.

“Jeannie had a bad night is all,” he said to the wall before him. His reliable, catch-all answer. Anyone would understand it.

“Sorry to hear that,” said the voice. “Hope things get better.” A reliable, catch-all answer. Everyone knew the dance steps. Everyone.

When no further words came and George felt his eyes grow dry, he walked out the door and wandered to a stack of recycling. Toward the bottom of the pile he saw a phone book and grabbed it. Back in his office, he dialed a number.

“Metro. How can I direct your call?” said a voice on the other end of the line.

“My bus didn’t have any heat this morning,” George said. “It’s five degrees outside. I’m 60 years old.”

The woman had a pleasant voice, and she said something pleasant and reassuring.

At the end of the day, George walked to the extended care clinic and found a dull, wrinkled face staring at nothing. He held the hand that belonged to the inert woman in the bed, read from The Psalms and something from a Max Lucado book. Jeannie had liked that author once. At 6:45, George called it a day and caught the—thankfully heated—7:05 back to the two bedroom apartment that was all that remained of once big dreams of retirement.

The 7:55 arrived on time the next morning—without a working heater.

George gritted his teeth.

At the office, he hit redial on his phone.

“Metro. How can I help you?”

“The 7:55 on Erie still doesn’t have any heat,” George said.

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

“Can I speak to a supervisor?”

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

Hang up.

Work. Extended care clinic. Home.

The cold morning ride racked up more days. George spent those days, in full, at the clinic.  One day of light in the eyes, but nothing the rest.

The next week, the 7:55 still had no heat.

“What’s with you people?” George yelled into the phone at the woman with the pleasant voice. “I want to talk to a supervisor. Can’t you fix the damn heater? This is the 21st century. It’s a damn heater. Fix the damn thing, damn it!”

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

Work. Extended care clinic. Home. A letter was in the mailbox. The next pension check—so much smaller. Again, the tears.

And the next morning, the 7:55 felt like a Siberian mausoleum on wheels.

“Look,” George said into the phone. “My heart doesn’t pump like it once did. I know the economy isn’t great, but c’mon. The heater. We’re all freezing on that bus.”

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

More days of cold.

When the 7:55 was a couple minutes late the following week, George ran all the scenarios. He kept coming back to a fixed heater. Please, God. Please.

What he got that morning was a bigger surprise. Something was different about the 7:55. Sure enough, on the side it read: Bio-diesel-powered. And George’s heart leapt.

A smile on his face, he waved the elderly man on board and stepped inside.

To an all-too-familiar cold.

“Heater doesn’t work,” said the bus driver.

“What the hell?” George yelled. “Can’t anyone please fix the damned heater? Anyone?”

How All of Your Christian Life Can Come to Nothing


We got a catalog from Oriental Trading Company this week, and my son noted that most of it contained kitschy Easter stuff, some marketed to Christians. He was put off by how the message of resurrection can be co-opted and turned into plastic baubles meant to be “inspirational” yet bought wholesale for pennies on the dollar. Good for him.

We Christians can fall into clichés and kitsch easily, and no passage of the Scriptures has suffered the Chinese-made “inspirational” bauble treatment more than this one:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
—1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV

The problem for us is, like the plastic bauble, we have turned this chapter in the Bible into a sentimental saying that we don’t entirely believe. Whatever it may contain, that something meant to change us instead bounces off our Teflon hides, and we go about being whomever we were before we encountered 1 Corinthians 13.

Here’s the upshot. That passage states that we can live out an entire Christian life and have it come to nothing for one reason: We didn’t love people.

The thing about love is that it asks something of us. If you say you love someone, you need to do something about it for it to be real. It’s not enough to speak words. Some kind of action is demanded.

How did God the Father show love? He sent Jesus. How did Jesus, God the Son, show love? By dying on the cross on our behalf and rising again. How does the Holy Spirit of God show love? By coming to dwell within believers in Jesus, guiding them into all truth and changing them into the likeness of Jesus.

Too much of the Christian life has become little more than words. But if we claim to love other people, there must be some action associated with that love.

If Facebook postings are any indication, Christians have a lot of people in this world they hate. Love, HateThe funny thing about hate is that all you have to do to make it effective is to express it. To be a lover requires more than words, but just give voice to hate and you’re a hater. That’s all hate requires.

If Christians are to change the world, it’s time we stopped kidding ourselves about hate and love. Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for them, not hate them. And loving an enemy demands some sort of action from us on behalf of those enemies. All hate requires is our brutal opinion.

One of the most notable questions in the Bible is “Who is my neighbor?” A man thought he’d stump Jesus with that question after Jesus said we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

Perhaps the better question for Christians today is “Who is my enemy?” If there is any question of enemies, again, a random sampling from Christians posting on Facebook would be enough to generate a long list of foes.

“Who is my enemy?” Ask the question. Now, as a Christian, find a practical way to show love toward that person or group.

Because nothing under the sun is more stupid than to fool yourself into thinking you’re a Christian when your lack of love in action—to both friends and enemies—proves otherwise.

Slowly to Oblivion: How Christians Fall Away from the Lord, Part 2


Falling AwayPreviously, I wrote how Christians fall away (“Slowly to Oblivion: How Christians Fall Away from the Lord, Part 1“). In doing so, I realized I erred by focusing on one type of falling away solely: Phariseeism.

In truth, more than one way exists.

If you missed the intro explaining the idea of falling away, rather than rehash it here, please see the previous post.

Here is another pathway to falling away. Some will contend it afflicts you folks in the younger generation more so than older folks who are so susceptible to the other type of falling away.

Another way in which some Christians fall away from the Lord…

Crown Doubt.

Faith is one thing, but when you repeatedly parade your doubt before your Christian friends, you show how cool you really are. After all, the sword swallower  and fire-eater in the circus side show are the real attractions, aren’t they? Talk about doubt all the time. Love doubt. Write poems and hymns about the wonder of doubt. Make sure you sanctify that doubt, too, by dredging up historical references to Desert Fathers and Ancient Patricians who doubted all the time, like some type of Old Timey Doubt Machines.

Embrace appealing causes.

Get on board! You know which causes people are talking about most. Make sure you like that cause’s Facebook page. And don’t forget to buy the T-shirt. Wear it proudly so others can see how committed you are—until a hotter cause comes along.

Take the temperature of the times and adjust your beliefs accordingly.

What does the culture say? What’s society’s scuttlebutt? If you don’t already know, find out. Then open your Bible—if you still have one—and find a way to make the words in it conform to whatever the trend gurus say. Truth is flexible, right? A living document should change with the times. So be the one who changes it! Or find a pioneer or two who have already done the flexing for you and parrot everything they say. Besides, that pioneer is surely popular. You have his/her/its T-shirt and iPad app by now, don’t you?

Pick fights with the unenlightened.

Find a deeply held belief in someone else? Challenge it. Especially if it conflicts with your cause or the temperature of the times. Jesus challenged people all the time, so you’re just imitating Him. Convince yourself this makes you look more like Him. Remember, there’s a solid biblical precedent to ask questions that start with “Did God really say…?”

Talk in riddles and circles.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? That is the sort of thing Jesus would ask because He liked to unsettle people. Make statements that don’t say anything concrete. Ask questions you never plan to answer (which is a great way to allow for plausible deniability should the temperature of the times change). People will see you are spiritually deep if they can’t make sense of what you’re saying or pin you down. Clarity is so 2002.

Endorse other religions while making sure everyone knows the evils of your own.

Make sure other people know that Christianity is messed up, terribly. Apologize for being a Christian to anyone who will listen. Talk about how truth can be found in so many other religions. Read just enough about those other religions to be able to talk about them with likeminded people over a biscotti and fair trade mocha grand latté with organic soy milk.

Proudly avoid church.

Church? “Old and busted indoctrination factory” is more like it. And while you’re not attending church, make sure other people know your reasons. The reasons are always good, especially if you own a T-shirt that explains them.

Sin boldy.

Nothing says you are sanctified better than showing that you can sin as much as the next guy and not be affected by it. Nike said it best. And the founder of Lutheranism, Martin Luther King.

Read the right pseudepigrapha.

You have read the gospels of Judas, Marcion, the Four Heavenly Realms, and all the rest. Of course you have. Wisdom right there, ladies and gentlemen. John Shelby Spong says so.

Hate whatever is the new hate.

Point out that some Christians are really haters in disguise. Ensure other people know you hate that. While you’re at it, hating yourself in a meta sort of way can give you street cred (see Endorse other religions while making sure everyone knows the evils of your own).

Love yourself.

Look at those fundamentalists. Morons. Pretty much everything bad in the world can be traced to them. But not you. You are soooooooo much smarter than they are.

Sarcasm isn’t pretty, but then neither is the kind of delusional thinking depicted above. Yet it is very common among people who once started in the Faith and then kept pushing past the limits God set.

While the above may seem like caricature, I wish it were. I’ve met folks like this, though. They seem to be the reverse of the Pharisaical type mentioned in the previous post. They have pushed so hard not to be seen as a Pharisee, they have become one, albeit of doubt rather than faith. Sadly, their nonstop questioning only leads them to faithlessness and ruin.