Our Stories

Altruism, Despair, Mustard Seeds, and Hope

Patient Number One was seven years-old and alone. The numbered tickets had been distributed in advance to two hundred patients for the medical clinic in Tiburon, a town in southern Haiti. The tickets were a tool to avoid a riot at the door to the church/school because for years no doctor had been in town and now the needs were great. The school kids were given the first tickets. Pews and school desks had been rearranged to form a registration area, an area to measure height, weight and visual acuity, a makeshift pharmacy, and four examination stations with providers and interpreters.

            Number One wended his way through the matrix and arrived at a chair in front of me, a skinny Black kid in a sky-blue shirt and navy-blue slacks, his school clothes. He spoke only Creole; I spoke only English. Benson, a Haitian interpreter, sat next to me.

            I was filled with a kind of altruistic excitement. I felt prepared; I had studied the unfamiliar diseases of Haiti: malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis, AIDS, cholera. I had knowledge, skills, and tools to do some good, ready and willing to alleviate pain and suffering.

            Number One was under-sized for his age and underweight for his height, at least according to American height and weight charts. But he looked healthy. I asked if there was anything special he was concerned about.

            Benson interpreted his reply, “Sometimes he doesn’t feel like eating.”

            I asked a string of questions about nausea or vomiting or abdominal pain, then examined him, looking into his ears and his eyes, gently touching his neck and his abdomen, and then listening through the stethoscope, his breath and heartbeats sounding so close.

            I thought him to be a pretty healthy kid, just skinny, probably suffering only from endemic parasites and poor nutrition, so I wrote a prescription to give him an anti-parasite medicine and a supply of vitamins. Anticipating under nutrition as a common problem, our group had brought a large supply of these medicines. As a last question, I asked how long it had been since he didn’t feel like eating.

            A minute or two passed as Benson and Number One exchanged words several times. Then Benson turned to me and said with a flat voice and expression, “His parents had a successful little grocery store. Their neighbors thought they should share more of their good fortune, and when they didn’t, the neighbors killed them.”

            Benson shrugged; stories like this were apparently not uncommon. Number One continued to fix his eyes on me with no change of expression.

            I am smacked out of my complacent belief that I am making a difference simply because I am passing out vitamin pills. I wonder if all the children got their vitamins and grew to be strong and bright, will they still scrabble together in poverty and casually commit violence against their neighbors? This is the history of Haiti; there’s no reason to think it will change with vitamin pills.

            I am tempted to despair, to go home and take care of my own, and let the world take care of itself or go to hell, whatever it chooses to do.

            But now I’ve heard the boy’s heartbeat, I’ve listened to him breathe, I’ve looked into his deep brown eyes, and he’s no longer an abstraction, no longer Patient Number One but a real boy; he’s flesh and he’s blood and he’s somehow connected to me. And I remember a Bible story.

            Jesus told them another parable: “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which a man planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and nest in its branches.” (Matt. 13:31-32. NIV)

            Everyone holds a mustard seed. It’s that thought that maybe you should make a phone call, make a visit, or make some cookies for someone who needs to hear that someone else cares. Maybe you need to enroll in that course, the one that has no practical value but gives you skills the Kingdom needs. Maybe you have the opportunity to change from the job that pays more to the job that cares more. It’s all a question of how we handle our mustard seed. Do we brush it off and let it float away in the wind, because it’s a little thing and doesn’t really matter? Or do we plant it and water it and wait years for it to grow?

            So I give him the vitamins and I give him the anti-parasite medicine, and I see the next patient. And the one after that, and the one after that. And I keep going all day long.  Because I believe that we are all children of God and we should care for each other, one mustard seed at a time. The vitamin pills don’t matter much, but the mustard seeds do.

That happened a dozen years ago. Number One is probably a grown man now, graduated from the school run by the Tiburon church. Maybe he has found a job, maybe he started a grocery store. He still lives in a poor country with a dysfunctional government and a long history of violence and despair. But he has a education that has given him not only the ability to read and write and do figures but also to know that there is a choice between hope versus despair, there is a choice between the traditional voodoo beliefs and empty rituals versus the knowledge that there is a God who loves him, there is a choice between hell on earth and in the life to come versus a life of temporary suffering and eternal joy that begins right now with the words, “I believe.”

This is the hope I have for Haiti: that there are a few hundred like Number One who make the right choice, and that few hundred become a few thousand, and that few thousand become a few million. Then neighbors will not murder neighbors and orphan their children. Then God will hear their prayers and heal their land.

You might be holding a mustard seed for Haiti right now. The school children in Tiburon need sponsors. A sponsorship is not cheap ($40/month or $480/year), but good things never are. The money does not go to a good place; it goes to good people in a bad place. That’s the point.

If you live in the Jacksonville area, stop by the table at Crossroad Church, 10005 Gate Parkway, Jacksonville, FL, 32246, on Sunday morning before or after the 10 AM service and renew your sponsorship or sign up for an unclaimed kid. If you are from out of town, click on the link below to go directly to Reciprocal Ministries International. Tell them Number One needs a mustard seed.

Blessings and peace,

Dean

Reciprocal Ministries International: https://www.rmibridge.org/hfkz.html

Credo XVII

“I believe in…the life everlasting.”

I didn’t cry when my dad died. I didn’t cry at his funeral, nor at his memorial service in Minneapolis, nor at his internment ceremony. He was 89, had been very sick for a long time and was very much diminished. The euphemism “passed away” seemed quite appropriate. He slipped from this life into the next. I felt like I had spread my mourning out over the previous five years and I was over it.

Then about a year after his death I traveled to Minnesota to see other family members. The cemetery is near the airport and I thought I would stop by on my way home and take a photo of the headstone for my mother. It had not been installed at the time of the burial. I found the plot, walked over, snapped the photo. I looked about to the rolling hills and distant trees and passing roadways. Then I unexpectedly burst into uncontrollable sobbing. I could not stop. I could not get in my car and drive away. I could only stand there and weep.

The fact that what had once been Dad was marked by such a small stone overwhelmed me. He led such a big life! Nearly ninety years, from farming with a horse-drawn plow to witnessing space travel, coming of age in the Great Depression, an Army officer during World War II, a sixty-year marriage, three kids, a career, a legacy of kindness and gentleness. So much, so big, and so gone.

There is no everlasting life in nature. All living things die. Each individual organism, plant or animal, goes through the cycle of birth, growth, reproduction (possibly), and death. No exceptions. We all die.

I have trouble imagining life everlasting. On the other hand, I have difficulty imagining that death is the end of a life like my dad’s. I can’t understand life everlasting, but I yearn for it. And I am not alone.

All major religions have a concept of everlasting life in some form. The Hindu tradition has reincarnation until the unity of the soul with the universe; the Buddhist tradition has nirvana; the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians have heaven. In the mythologies, various forms of afterlife appear. In spite of the certainty of death, all cultures throughout history have imagined everlasting life. There is a universal longing for this, and a collective intuitive sense that tells us that the end of our biological life cannot be the end of our consciousness.

As Christians we have specific promises: 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. Later, while hanging on the cross, dying, Jesus gives his promise to one of the convicts crucified by his side: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” A few decades later, Paul wrote a graphic description of his vision of the resurrection: For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

We don’t know what life everlasting will be like, but we have a few clues.

First, we will be in close relationship to God. Like Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden of Eden, it looks like we’ll walk and talk with God. Like God came looking for Adam and Eve in the Garden, He will seek us out. Note what Jesus said to the thief: You will me with me in paradise. Note what Paul’s vision said: We will be with the Lord forever.

That promise is something like the hope of Buddhists and Hindus, the ultimate unity of the soul with the universe, eternal peace, transcendence from the material world and all the associated lust.

I wonder if the Eastern religions are right in some form. What we experience after death could be ultimate consciousness. But ultimate consciousness of my life includes awareness of every action I have taken at every moment, and awareness of every consequence of that action for good or evil. I might celebrate the occasional times when I got it right, but mourn eternally for the myriad times I got it wrong. And I will face an eternity of grief for the sins I have committed, the people I have failed, the suffering I have caused or failed to relieve.

I am terrified to face this, except for the promise of Jesus. He will comfort me, He will forgive my sins, He will make things right that I have made wrong.

I hope for all sorts of things in the life everlasting.

I hope to be able to sing in heaven. Inability to carry a tune seems to be a hereditary curse in the Lohse family. I just think it would be great to open my mouth and wail out the tune that’s in my head and have it come out sounding that way. Maybe that’s the way it will be for my cousin Terry Joe with his speech impediment from cerebral palsy and my friend Allan with his expressive aphasia from a stroke. They could not be understood in the world; they will be understood in heaven.

I’m hoping for some things. I’m hoping to see my folks and my brother again, and maybe my best friend, Mike. I hope Mike is there. He was a good friend to me and a good man, but he didn’t spend much time in church and I don’t know what he thought about Jesus and salvation. Does God’s mercy extend to a guitar-playing fishing guide and horticulturist who played hard and laughed easily? I hope so.

We’re told there is no marriage in heaven. But I hope to spend some more  time with Mary, maybe going over the parts of our marriage here on earth that we got right and resolving the parts we got wrong. We have laughed a lot here; I expect we’ll laugh a lot there.

I hope there will be dogs in heaven. Well, good dogs anyway. I expect Sophie and Fluffy and Mr. O’Shaughnessy will be there, but I’m hoping that pitiful cocker spaniel, Jasper, will be somewhere else. That also goes for Bruno the Doberman that lived down the block where I grew up and bit my dad one day as he walked home from the bus stop.

I wonder about a lot of things and speculate what it will be like. I wonder about time. Will time itself be changed? How could we have music without time, and there must be music in heaven. What will it feel like to have eternal patience with everything? I wonder if I’ll get bored, but I don’t think so. My ultimate purpose cannot be boredom. I don’t imagine any of my skills here will translate well; I don’t think God will need a neurosurgeon. But I expect He’ll have something else for me to do.

Sometimes I imagine golf in the Kingdom. Would I always shoot par? Would everybody always win? Would that even be fun? Will I go fishing? Maybe, if my assignment is to create hell for bad rainbow trout. I wonder if God will send me out on assignment like Clarence in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” sent back to Earth to keep George Bailey from jumping off the bridge.

I wonder if eternal life, maybe purgatory, will be like the movie “Groundhog’s Day” where the main character lives the same day over and over and over again until he finally gets it right. Maybe I’ll get “do-overs” for all the mistakes of my life, reliving them until I get it right.

So many things I don’t know. Nothing to be afraid of, certainly, but many things to speculate about.

What I do know is this:

Life everlasting is like life in the Garden of Eden. I will have communion with God. We’ll take a walk together once or twice a day. I’ll have purpose and some tasks, presumably using the best of what I love to do and what I am most gifted at doing, and no rush to get it done; I’ve got lots of time. And I will have the love and fellowship of other human beings. Adam only had Eve, but I believe the communion of saints will continue into the life everlasting. There will be many playmates. I will be like an angel. I will be a child. These are the things promised, the things I can expect. After that, I don’t know.

But I do hope I’ll be able to sing.

Credo XVI

“(I believe in)…the resurrection of the body,”

I have so many questions.

Is my resurrected body the saggy, baggy, old body I have now? That might get me sewing fig leaves together like crazy. Or would I be the skinny teen-ager I was sixty years ago, or the cute, little blond kid in those old black-and-white photos? What about Mom and Dad? Would I recognize them in their younger, perfect, resurrected bodies? What about Grandma and Grandpa who I only ever knew as old people? What about my cousin, Terry Joe? He was born with cerebral palsy and struggled to walk and to be understood for decades; what resurrected body does he get? Or more importantly, what kind of resurrected nervous system?

And is the physical resurrection to take place on the planet Earth in this time-space continuum? If all those saved by grace throughout all generations are resurrected at the same time, won’t the planet get a bit crowded? Especially since we will all be living forever?

I would find it easier to believe in a “spiritual” resurrection where my soul rather than my body becomes alive in a utopia-like place and I live in communion with the souls of all the other saints.

But the Judeo-Christian tradition has always been deeply connected to our physical beings and our literal Earth. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” We call Jesus the Son of God. But He calls Himself the Son of Man.

When I started college at age eighteen, I needed to work. The university had a job service and through this, and, through a series of bad decisions that are amusing in retrospect, I landed the position of diener at the University Hospital morgue. My duties were to assist the pathologist in autopsies, clean up afterward, contact the mortician, and deliver the body. Up until that time, I hadn’t thought about death very much–I mean, not real death, up close and personal. Yes, I’d been to family funerals and seen the deceased laid out in their Sunday finest, made up to look alive. I’d read about death, seen about a million Westerns and war movies and murder mysteries where the deaths were noble or justified or tragic, but always neat and clean. Now, I was handling, through thinly gloved hands, organic material that used to be living human beings. Now, I thought about death all the time. After a few months, I had to quit because the nightmares were not worth the generous pay. I went back to a job doing dishwashing and kitchen clean-up.

Later, during medical school and residency, I witnessed the transition from living to dead, sometimes slowly as a patient deteriorated from their cancer or sepsis, sometimes quickly as the patient bled out or an obstructed airway could not be opened.

The change is dramatic. The complete loss of any motion, including breathing, the loss of skin color, the open, dulled, sightless eyes–all of it is tragic and…alien. Yes, alien, because the dead body is so different from the living person it is as if they come from different worlds.

I have no love for the lifeless body. Perhaps because I have a scientist’s perspective of physiology and biochemistry and anatomy, and a doctor’s perspective on death, I can’t imagine resurrection. I can’t imagine the magic of life returning to a corpse already riddled by injury and disease, cell death and protein degradation already beginning, and the process of complete decay imminent.

But maybe that is less a problem with resurrection than it is with my imagination.

That dead body, so unreal and alien, has just been vacated by something. I never get past the feeling that something beyond the cessation of biological function has happened. Something, inexplicable with all my knowledge of physiology and medicine, so real that it is almost tangible,  has left the body.

I am not alone in this. We call it the soul, or the life force, or the animus. The better we know the person, the more we feel its absence. Although I care little for the body left behind, I miss the life that has left. None of my scientific training, and all of my intuition, tell me that life cannot just disappear. It lives on in some form. It must be somehow “resurrected.”

My wife’s best friend, Kathy, suffered from juvenile onset type-1 diabetes, and subsequently experienced every conceivable complication of the disease throughout her entire adult life, including blindness, kidney failure, neuropathy, vascular disease, and coronary artery disease. She also had hearing loss due to antibiotics when a dose was not well calculated to account for her kidney failure. She underwent so many procedures, including years of dialysis, kidney transplants, open heart surgery, and even a heart transplant. Mobility became limited due to neuropathy and vascular disease in her legs. Of all people I have ever seen, personally and professionally, short of in hospice care, she inhabited the absolutely most diseased physical body.

But her disease did not define her. Jesus did.

I remember Kathy sitting at our kitchen table during one of her visits to Jacksonville. We were both around fifty-years-old at the time, long enough that she had experience a quarter-century of visual loss and a long string of other complications, and our family had experienced cancer and other losses. We were no longer naive about life. Illness had come. Death had passed by, but only for the present; it would return. The religion we had in our twenties had been put through the fire and we were different. She explained something about her faith walk that has stuck with me ever since.

“I realized,” she said, “that eternal life starts now.”

Jesus said something similar when being pressed for answers about when the kingdom of God would come. He said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Kathy started resurrection life now, and maybe that’s the first thing to remember about resurrection of the body. The kingdom is in our midst. Life in the kingdom starts now. This is our eternal life. The only change to our “life force” or our “consciousness” or our soul after death is that we get new bodies.

St. Paul tried to assure some skeptics, like me, about the resurrection of the body. He used the metaphor of a seed. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies,” he said to begin his explanation, and goes on later to say, “…as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” This seems plausible and even comforting. This old, scarred body is only a vessel carrying a DNA-like spirit that will be planted into eternity and thrive as something so much bigger and so much better.

Jesus assured us that there would be a life after death. He talked about the kinds of relationships to expect with Him and our Father and each other, but he didn’t talk much about the specifics, probably because he knew we didn’t have the conceptual framework or intellectual capacity to understand. Only once, when He was being harassed by some folks who did not believe in life after death did he mention some specifics. He said, “…those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection of the dead…they can no longer die; for they are like angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”

We will be beloved children and we will be like angels.

My imagination can handle this. I can accept that there are questions unanswered, that my humanity and position as a created being limits me from understanding the cosmos in all its complexity, especially that which takes place beyond our time-space continuum and biological life. I’m looking forward to hearing my cousin Terry talk with a clear voice and run with strong legs. I’m looking forward to see Kathy seeing me. I’m imagining resurrection.

I believe in the resurrection of the body–this one, in this life–and resurrection as an angel-like child of God in the kingdom to come.

Credo XV

“(I believe in)…the forgiveness of sins,”

I was consulted to see a patient in the ICU who was an inmate transferred from the Department of Corrections for a complex illness. The problem I found was that he was so bound by shackles and restraints that I could not adequately examine him. I insisted the officers remove some of the restraints during part of my examination. Then I wrote up my recommendations for further tests and made arrangements for a follow up visit.

When I returned the next day, the the corrections officer supervisor intercepted me. “Doc,” he said, “there’s something you gotta know about prisoner X.”

“Okay.”

“He killed three people to get in prison and got a life sentence. He wanted a death sentence. So he killed two more people in prison–other inmates. Now he’s on death row. He tells us he wants to kill more. So when you ask those guards to take off those restraints, it’s a risk–a risk to the officers and a risk to you. If he gets a chance, he’ll rip your throat out with his teeth.”

Well. I’m sure he meant to add, And have a nice day.

How do we explain evil? Sometimes, like in the case of the psychopathic multiple murderer, I come face to face with it. Sometimes I hear about it in the stories of friends and relatives. I can always see inexplicable evil every day by turning on any news feed. I live at this end of human history that tells the story of man’s violence against man. We like to talk about misunderstandings and mental illnesses and cultural differences. We even talk about hate and prejudice and sexual violence. We propose solutions like a war on poverty and better education and more laws against racial discrimination and wider access to mental health care. But the root problem is really, and simply, evil. Our world is full of sin and sinners.

In the book of Genesis, sin originated from consuming forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. I have a tendency to trivialize this and call the fruit an apple and treat it like a dietary no-no, like having a bowl of ice cream before bed. No, you shouldn’t do it, it’s a bad health choice, the only reason for doing it is that it tastes good at the time and the bad consequences are delayed. There are some good parallels here, but in the Garden, the fruit was not an apple or ice cream but the fruit from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Eve didn’t get ice cream; she got the knowledge of good and evil and all the consequences of that knowledge. This is the origin of sin.

This confuses me. Knowledge is good, yes? Knowing good from evil is very good, yes? I take pride in knowing right from wrong. I teach my children right from wrong. I expect everybody else over the age of five to know right from wrong. Eve ate this fruit that gave her the knowledge of good and evil. It was so good she shared it with Adam. And what happened then?

They started making fig leaf clothing, not because they became naked, but because they were ashamed of being naked. Then they were alienated from God, not because God didn’t visit the Garden, but because they were ashamed and hid from God.

Our world is locked into a destructive, moralistic cycle that began with taking into ourselves the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, an attitude of pride and arrogance that allows us to believe that we make better decisions than God about what gives us joy and purpose. We are all naked and ashamed, physically and spiritually. We are all alienated from our creator. And out of this shame and alienation, we commit sins, all the many acts that separate ourselves from our creator and His creation, and all the many acts that separate ourselves from each other. Some acts are little things like eating ice cream before bed, self-indulgences that lead to mostly self harm. Some acts are bigger, like murdering a few people and planning to rip the throat out of the next person that gets close.

So, yes, I believe in sin. But can I believe in the forgiveness of sins?

Forgiveness doesn’t seem like a good plan. What good would it do if the rapist said, “I’m sorry,” got his bit of forgiveness, and went out and raped another girl the next night? How about the robber who holds up the convenience store, spends the money on dope, gets, high, asks for forgiveness, and holds up another convenience store the next day? Or  the megalomaniac who starts a war, commits genocide, steals an entire country’s wealth, then goes to confession, says he’s sorry, gets the forgiveness chip, and starts planning the next invasion? Forgiveness alone does not stop the dark and dismal cycle of evil.

What takes the rapist, the thief, the drug addict, the megalomaniac, the murderer from the dark path to turn around and look toward the light? There’s likely lot of inertia on that dark path, a feeling that what you’ve done is what defines you, and that you’ll do it all again because that’s who you are. Maybe you’ve already rationalized what you’ve done as only reflective of the world around you, and you feel nothing no remorse. Maybe you are not even lonely, now locked into a solid companionship with the rest of the damned.

Maybe there is no hope for them and the best we can hope for the world is better rules and better enforcement and worse punishment because we are full of the knowledge of good and evil.

God sent Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. There was no place in paradise for a couple who had that sort of knowledge. But He didn’t send them out naked. Nor did He send them out with the pitiful fig leaves that they had made for themselves. God personally made each of them clothes of wool and leather. This is a sign of how he really feels about them. This is the sign of His unconditional love. This is the beginning of the story of God’s redemption of the world.

I met an electrician named Bert while doing a home visit of newcomers who had recently attended our church. Years before, Bert’s sister had married a not very nice man who drank heavily, and during one of his rages he had murdered Bert’s sister. Shortly afterward, the husband pled guilty to second degree murder and received a fifteen-year sentence. Bert was angered that he hadn’t received the death penalty. Angry and embittered by the lack of justice, he started drinking heavily himself. Eventually he experienced the losses many drinkers do and found himself desperately short of cash. An opportunity arose for him to be an arsonist for an insurance fraud scheme. He made some money, and had another opportunity to do it again. Shortly after this, and a few weeks before my visit, he experienced the unconditional love of Jesus. I don’t know the details, but he recounted to me his amazement at deliverance from alcoholism. He went to church for the first time in over twenty years.

Bert’s story is representative of many of our redemption stories. We don’t suddenly have a clearer knowledge of right or wrong. We don’t suddenly become better at following rules. We are miraculously returned to our primary relationship with our creator. The unconditional love of our Father as demonstrated by the life of Jesus Christ is carried to us by the work of the Holy Spirit. When we no longer experience the alienation from our creator, the sins of our past are forgotten. God forgives our sins. We can turn from the dark path to the light, maybe stumbling along the way, but at least stumbling in the right direction. This is what redeems the world, one sinner at a time.

But that’s not the end of Bert’s story.

A few months later, he decided to confess his arson crimes and turn state’s evidence. He received a short prison sentence, and after his release signed up for a prison ministry, sharing the Gospel to inmates in monthly group meetings. He showed up at the state prison for one meeting and came face-to-face with his sister’s murderer, the man he had sworn to kill if he ever got the chance.

He describes what happened next as the second miracle of his life. He experienced shock followed by memories of rage and hatred. Bert could have hurt him badly–he has the size and temperament to make that possible. Instead, quite unexpectedly, he was overwhelmed by love and compassion. They hugged each other and wept.

Unconditional love and forgiveness by grace leads to unconditional love and forgiveness by grace. One man forgives another. This is what redeems the world, one sinner at a time.

For me, and maybe for a lot of Christians, our danger lies less in our temptations than our complacency. I mentioned before an afternoon when I sat in my room reading the Bible and thought about how little the appeal of Christianity has to those who are not imminently expecting hell and damnation for suffering from the consequences of sin. I felt pretty good about myself. I didn’t lie, cheat, or steal, had no plans to commit murder or adultery, didn’t covet much, and attended church regularly, even tithing. I figured I wasn’t much of a sinner. That’s when I prayed for God to show me my sin, and He told me, quite promptly, that I was greedy. That led to a chain of experiences where I learned a lot about God’s provision in all circumstances and the fear that drove my greed was quite unfounded.

My story is not a great one involving murders and addiction and felony level crimes. It’s a little story about a common sin, a sin not even thought of as reprehensible in our culture. But it’s still the story of a God who sees me going on the dark path and intervenes to let me know I am loved and I don’t have to be afraid and I can turn around and go back to the light. And all those missteps on the dark path? Forgiven by the Father.

So, yes, I believe in the unconditional love of the Father as demonstrated by the life of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, and, in other words, I believe in the forgiveness of sins. This is what redeems the world, one sinner at a time.

Credo XIV

“(I believe in)…the communion of saints,”

My first Communion terrified me. At age fourteen I “confirmed” my baptism vows, meaning I relieved my parents and baptism sponsors of their responsibility for my eternal soul. Now heaven or hell was completely in my hands. The next step was Holy Communion.

A line of us sat in the first row of the cathedral-like church, the boys in suits and ties, the girls in modest dresses, reciting the liturgy that forgave our sins. It was now time to march forward to the rail and receive Communion. But what if we thought something impure before we got the bread and wine? What if we had doubts? What would happen to our eternal souls if we still went through with Communion? We whispered among ourselves and wondered. We thought about escaping, but the exit routes seemed to be blocked by stern-looking ushers. And even if we made it out of the church, we would still have to face our parents. Nope. It was a done deal. We had to march up and take our medicine–like all sacraments, for better or worse. Needless to say, we all survived.

Since then Communion has been less terrifying and more meaningful. It’s a radical thing to take into your self the body and blood of Jesus. Maybe the bread and wine “transubstantiates,” maybe the bread and wine are “symbolic,” or maybe we don’t have words for a reality that we can’t understand completely.

Jesus wants to be part of me. No…that’s not exactly right. Jesus insists on being part of me. He demanded something unheard of back in His time on Earth. He said, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Shocking. Discipleship ranks thinned considerably. Only twelve guys hung around, and one of them would betray him.

Ease up, I want to say, It’s only bread and wine. But that’s not what Jesus said, even when He offered bread and wine. He said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” And a moment later, He gave them a cup of wine and said, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant…”

No other religion has anything like it. It is not in the Jewish tradition. In some ways it is repulsive, suggestive of cannibalism, a nearly universal taboo. Only Jesus insists on being literally part of His followers, body and soul.

That’s a great story, but it’s still not the whole story of the communion of saints.

I brush by this phrase when I recite the Apostles’ Creed in church, thinking vaguely of our monthly Holy Communion ritual and saints. I get a foggy vision of St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Patrick sharing a loaf and a cup. But that vision gets the original intent of the authors wrong.

At the time the Apostles’ Creed was written, the church used the term Eucharist for the sacrament Protestants started calling Holy Communion a thousand years later. And when those authors of the Creed did their work, the church hadn’t canonized many saints. The authors meant something totally different.Communion with a small “c” is sharing intimately and generously. Saints with the small “s” are believers like you and me.

Jesus gives us a foretaste of “the communion of saints” at the Last Supper. We remember His words during our Eucharist rituals, giving his body as the bread and his blood as the wine, as recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But in Luke’s gospel, Jesus gives us His feelings: “You’ve no idea how much I’ve looked forward to eating this Passover meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the Kingdom of God.”

We worship a God who is eager to share a meal with us. He promises that we’ll do it again. He promises a communion of saints now and in the world to come. 

I remember our first Thanksgiving in Jacksonville with our four-year-old and six-year-old sons. We were living in a sparsely furnished three-bedroom apartment, driving two old cars, one of which had no air conditioning, twenty-five thousand dollars of debt hung over our heads, and I was working sixty to eighty hours per week. Friends had invited us to dinner, but the boys came down with chicken pox on Wednesday; we would not have been welcome guests. Our family would be alone, a long way from anywhere we had ever called home.

My last patient on Wednesday afternoon gave me a smoked turkey–an odd, unexpected, but timely gift. The next day, the four of us prayed, opened some cans, and sliced our donated turkey. I have never been so grateful that we were together, we had enough, and we had hope. This was a communion of saints. 

I remember our last prayer partner dinner in Jacksonville. For five years, three men had met with me weekly and prayed for our church, our community, our lost friends, our families. Our wives also met weekly and prayed. Then circumstances changed and they all moved, but one night we gathered together and celebrated birthdays and prayed together and remembered together and hoped together. This was a communion of saints.

There have been other times that a meal turned into a communion of saints–the last night out on a canoe trip I guided on the Llano River for a group of teens from the Lutheran church in Odessa, Texas; a dinner at the unlikely Claude’s, a fine French restaurant in Davao City, Philippines, at the end of an evangelism crusade; another at a restaurant in San Jose, Costa Rica, after a medical mission. Last Friday, nine fellow church members gathered at our home and ate shared food and watched a movie about Jesus and prayed together for the things on our hearts. These are communions of saints.

The formula is: people who know Jesus gathering together and sharing in gratitude and hope, and receiving joy. If you’ve experienced this, good. If not, you should. You need three things: know Jesus, be in a Christian community, and be a saint.

Other religions have saints. The Hindu tradition, Buddha, and Islam each lay out a course of action that can lead to a holy life if one is willing to work hard and follow that path. Those who are disciplined and fortunate become holy men, saints.

I’m not that kind of saint; I’m not that good.

Jesus likes saints, too, but He makes it easy. That is where the communion thing comes in. When He insists that I eat His body and drink His blood, He is insisting that I allow Him into me body and soul, and trust Him to lead me on a path toward perfection. I don’t have to be anywhere near holy to take Him up on this offer. It’s open to the worst of sinners. He offered it to Judas after Judas had already taken the betrayal money. The difference between Jesus’ plan and other plans for sainthood is that my own discipline and hard work count for nothing with Jesus. The only thing that counts is my surrender.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

It’s that easy. Open the door. Let Jesus in. He will fill you up and you won’t be alone. We’ll eat together and laugh together and hope together. That’s the promise. That’s the communion of saints.