Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Avenger

[Christ Jesus] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.  — Romans 3:25-26

There are people who hear that God is good, that He is kind and loving and merciful, and they draw from that an erroneous conclusion.  On the surface it seems reasonable, and it is certainly pleasant.  The problem is that it ignores human reality.  The human race is depraved.  We can try to gloss over it.  We can point to the wonderful works of wonderful, kind, and generous people.  We can clean ourselves up and dress ourselves up and do good deeds.  Meanwhile we struggle to be honest.  We hurt the people closest to us in a myriad of ways — sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently.  We think dark thoughts.  We crave what we cannot have.  We harbor envy and jealousy.  Or we simply fail to appreciate what we have been given.       

In light of fallen human nature, a genuinely good God cannot simply pat us on the back and say that He understands.  God is not like that.  He is terrifyingly honest.  He does not ignore or gloss over the truth.  He has given us all that we have, and He quite rightfully expects us to keep that in mind so that we are able to maintain a proper perspective on life and possessions.  Again, we can argue, as I often have, that we are relatively good people.  Graded on a curve with Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin — heck, with Congress, I don't do too badly.  And I can point to lots of people who are better than I am and not necessarily even Christians.  But one of the things Paul does in the first three chapters of Romans is take apart brick by brick the argument that humans have any ability to justify themselves against the absolute standard of a holy God. 

The perfection of God calls for justice, and justice demands perfection, and we ain't got it.  God, in response, offers satisfaction for His own justice.  This is the aspect of Christianity that bothers a lot of people — the sacrifice of the perfect, sinless Innocent for the unrighteous.  Why could God not simply forgive us?  Why could He not just continue forbearing, "passing over former sins"? 

The cosmos runs on laws, physical laws, yes, but also moral laws — like the law of the harvest:  Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.  Justice is more relentless than gravity.  You can overcome gravity for a time by expending enough energy, beating out the acceleration of gravity with a counter acceleration.  You can do the same thing with justice by expending moral energy in deception, self or otherwise.  But the cosmos demands things balance out.  The price for escaping justice must be paid.  Against God's plumb line, every human soul would deserve punishment. 
 When the tribes of Israel were about to enter Canaan, certain cities were set aside as “cities of refuge”.  If one man killed another, even by accident, the shed blood of the victim demanded the killer’s blood be poured into the scales of justice.  Someone, usually a member of the family of the deceased, was chosen to carry out the feud against the offender.  A feud is an expression, however distorted, of the balance demanded.  By fleeing to one of the cities of refuge, the killer could escape the inexorable pursuit of the avenger.  Once in the refuge, the person was put on trial.  If the evidence indicated an accidental killing, the refugee was not given up for execution.  He was allowed to stay in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, at which time he was free to return to his home without fear of vengeance.  
 The condition for termination of the refugee’s exile is often overlooked.  The death of the high priest – Christ is, of course, our great High Priest of the new covenant.  In order for justice to be satisfied, even to settle the responsibility for an act without malice or intent, there had to be a death – an atoning death.  Because the Aaronic priesthood stood in and served God on behalf of their brethren, the Lord could accept the death of the high priest as atoning for the blood that was spilled in the land.   
 But even this was a temporary solution.  How does a loving God who is also a just God resolve the situation for His children made in His image and likeness?  Taking on our flesh, God descends and identifies with us in Christ that He might atone for all our sins.  He offers Himself to appease the demands of justice -- that is, to justify us and restore the equilibrium of righteousness.  
 Finally, I feel compelled to say, God takes the defilement of His world by the shed blood of the innocent very seriously.  The laws of the cosmos are perhaps stranger than I feel comfortable contemplating.  The sacrifice of Christ will cover my failure and preserve me but only as I am in Him.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Sign of the Prophet Jonah

We don’t see any signs for us.  There is no longer a prophet.  And none of us knows how long this will last. – Psalm 74:9 (HCSB)

Thinking about the Fall, at some point, man became aware of God and of his connection to God.  Not long after, man became aware of a problem in that he is inclined to go his own way and not listen to the voice of God speaking in his heart.  Though oneness with the Creator is clear at times, the separation and disunity is equally evident on other occasions. 

Even as man came to grips with the Fall, as envy and pride and even fratricide were manifest, humanity longed for a resolution to the separation for the Bible says, At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.  We developed codes and rules, and we offered sacrifices.  We tried to create our own gods who did not demand the impossible.  We tried by technology to build our way into heaven, to touch God on our own terms. 

For a while, our best efforts were directed horizontally.  We sought unity in our families, in a social structure, and in the development of cities and civilizations.  It seemed for a time that these unifying efforts might work, but our most powerful cooperative achievements lead ultimately to confusion and fragmentation.  No matter how good our intentions are as we start out, we inevitably build a hierarchy, a pyramid with its power concentrated at the apex.  There will invariably then come to that point of power individuals who are corrupted by it.  Jesus, quoting from Psalm 82, said, “You are gods” , and that is what the man or woman standing on the platform at the top of the tower hears.  Looking down, it does seem that the people are sheep without a shepherd.  For a moment the confusion is gone, and the leader sees clearly that they are to be united under him or her.  It makes so much sense.  So much can be achieved.  It is so efficient and effective.  Surely it must be God’s will.  Of course, at first, the leader means only to be a priest or a stand-in for the living God, but there are crises and disasters and people really need a leader who understands.   

It is the exceptional individual who can resist the allure of the pyramid’s peak.  Washington did it, but he was a rare man.  Others have not done so well.   It doesn’t have to be a nation or a religion.  You can see it on a smaller scale in almost any group or organization, in local churches and in cities.  When the hubris has run its course and reaped its certain and unavoidable harvest, the certainty and stability that everyone sought and worked to preserve dissipates.  We are left with the emptiness of separation and chaos. 

Confusion will lead to despair.  We are like radioactive atoms seeking the stable state of a lower level even if it is miserable.  This instability and lack of grounding is too disruptive and destructive for us to long endure.  Even settling in the mud is restful by comparison.

It had happened to Israel as they were successfully invaded by an enemy who attacked the focal point of their existence as a people:   They said to themselves, We will utterly subdue them; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.  By destroying all the altars and physical points of contact, the enemy seeks to destroy the hope and will of God’s people, and for a moment confusion and despair do seem to gain the upper hand. 

We can feel it even today.  There are no signs that we can see, except the signs of destruction and hopelessness.  Lawless hangs over our heads like the highwayman’s cutlass.  The poniard is at our throats.  Have we any prophets?  Is that a joke?  Every prophecy has failed with even the prophets of doom coming up short.  None of us knows how long it will last.  That is the worst.  If we knew when the end would come, perhaps we could steel ourselves to hold out. 

In our darkness we cry out:  How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever?

Though there are no signs and no prophet speaks, God is still sovereign.  As the Psalmist reminds himself and us,  God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.  Wait a minute.  God divided the sea to give us deliverance.  He stopped the rivers to let us into our land of promise.  He destroyed Leviathan – the chaos monster.  God rules the day and the night.  In this world, created and sustained by His Word, deliverance will come.

Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs, and a foolish people reviles your name.
 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts; do not forget the life of your poor forever.
Have regard for the covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence.
Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame; let the poor and needy praise your name.
Arise, O God, defend your cause; remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!
Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of those who rise against you, which goes up continually!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Fire on the Mountain

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence -- as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil -- to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. -- Isaiah 64:1-3

This is a variation on a post I did a year and a half ago.  

We expect an answer when we pray, or we should.  Even if our prayer is simply to understand, we may be shocked when our eyes are opened.  We are apt to find that the world is not nearly as neat and predictable as we thought.  And that is not true only for those who suddenly become enlightened from materialism.  The religious are often just as surprised to find that the hermeneutic track they have been following so carefully leads them to a place where the bridge is out.  

In fact, I think it is possible that the journey does not really begin until the well-trod path ends.  We need to follow the signs and markers left by those who have gone before us.  We need a path to follow, but it will take us only to the jumping-off place.  At that point we will find that most of our maps are of limited value.  What we need is a guide, someone who knows the unknown country.  Jesus pointed out to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except He who has descended from heaven.”  Only the Spirit of Christ is able to take us where we need to go.  There are saints we will meet along the way, teachers, some still in this world, some already in the next, who will instruct us and, perhaps, point us in this direction or that, but there are no paths in that country, for each individual must reach the destination by his or her own course.

I am not sure how to express this, but I will start.  It seems to me that as it is usually presented, Christianity is lacking in wildness.  I almost want to say manliness, but that’s too limiting.  It is just too tame, too civilized.  The reality of Christ is raw and primitive in blood and pain and joy.  I can hardly bring myself to write the word “surrender” in relation to our obedience because what God is looking for is more of a wild, ecstatic abandon.  Compared to the simpering model of modern Christianity, the real saints are spiritual berserkers.  I can think of a few Christians in the last hundred years who might fit the model – Bonhoeffer, John Paul II, and Solzhenitsyn immediately come to mind, perhaps Chuck Colson.  Alas, we have too much of the church following in the footsteps of nice guys, like Joel Osteen – not to mention the idiots, con-men, and charlatans. 

I am not suggesting clubbing people over the head with Gospel, being annoying or obnoxious.  I just think when God comes into our lives it is much more like “the mountains quaked” than “isn’t that special”.  The presence of God is mode-shattering.  You cannot continue to look at things the same way when everything around you that you thought was solid is melting like wax.  The reason God is not doing “awesome things that we did not look for” is that because, as soon as He starts, we start worrying about whether the neighbors think we are crazy or if they will kick us out of the PTA. 

I would never have been teaching Sunday School or doing Wednesday night Bible studies back in the old days if I had been off in the unknown country.  First, I had to reach the end of the road, and as long as we are on the road, we have to follow the rules of the road.  Nothing wrong with that.  But once you are off in the bush, the only rule is listening to the Guide, especially when the bushes are all burning.     

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Strange Glue

Sometimes I wonder when I wake
If the world ended while I dreamed
Leaving me in a wild and errant cosmos
That might be nice.

I am a Regular Guy
In a regular world of rectangles
And traffic circles, diverging diamonds
And lights that semaphore
Stop and go.
I know.
White lines, yellow signs
All the same
And tame.

But what if brains did float in space?
If galleons could become stars
And sisters constellations?
What if kings might be born in frog ponds
And court wizard be a stately occupation?
What if we did live on a disc
And we only found
   all the way down,
Would it make that much difference
In the things that come round?

Afraid not.

In the end there would be
Regular Guys In Shining Armor
Dreaming of being me.

(Space pirates who sing of strawberry fields
 symbolize a sad symptom of obsessive symmetry)

God above all leaves us yearning
A potted pilgrim is a bore, and more.
Like Zeno, zeroes and ones
Are a running pun
Of analog movement,
In a most convincing disguise,
Aping a double-oh seven retirement party
At the Tiffany Case Home for Clichéd Touchés.

So we easily miss the point,
Pass the wrong test,
Guess the wrong guest,
Only to find our dungeons drag on
In a cubic sphere where right angles grow wild.

For now
I am going to go drive
Around the square.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Falling Into Cracks

Then Paul answered, What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.  And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, Let the will of the Lord be done.  — Acts 21:13-14

This has been one of those days where disaster rolls up on disaster, where every plan falls apart, where every attempt at fixing a problem creates a bigger problem.  I picked up on this passage yesterday not knowing that I would be living it out today. 

For weeks during his journey back to Jerusalem from Asia Minor, Paul had been warned that imprisonment awaited him.  He did not continue in defiance but in obedience.  He had settled the matter in his heart.  Paul understood that, despite the hardships in this path, it was God's intention that he should follow it.  If you choose to follow Christ, there will be times when you are called on to make intentional and willing sacrifices.  Most of the time, obviously, we don't have people walking up to us with prophetic utterances — though I sometimes think I am given more foreknowledge than I receive or pay attention to. 

If we do get a warning it presents us with something of a problem.  Are we putting ourselves in a bad situation from which the Holy Spirit is trying to guide us?  Or is He tempering us in advance so that the stresses of the trial cannot catch us off guard?

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Paul and his companions met with the elders of the Church and reported the success of the Gospel among the Gentiles.  The leadership welcomed the news, but they were concerned about the attitudes of the Jewish believers toward Paul and his apostolic calling.   To satisfy those law-abiding Jews, the leaders laid out a plan for Paul to demonstrate his own respect for and rigorous adherence to the law.

.... And they said to him, You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 
What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.  Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law (Acts 21:20-24).

As Bobbie Burns once explained to a field mouse whose life was disrupted by his plow, sometimes it is your very prudence that puts you in the path of destruction:

When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place (Acts 21:27-28)

Talk about a plan not surviving first contact with the enemy.  The attempt to reassure the Jewish followers of Christ put Paul in exactly the situation the Church was trying to avoid.  A riot ensued.  Paul had to be dragged away from a bloodthirsty mob by Roman soldiers.  Despite his attempts to explain himself, forty Jews swore an oath not to eat or drink until they had assassinated Paul.  He had to be secretly carried out of Jerusalem to Caesarea by night with a guard of two hundred infantry and seventy cavalry.  He remained imprisoned for two years as governors came and went and the Jews continued to demand his life.  Using his legal standing as a Roman citizen, Paul appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome.  His storm-driven voyage across the Mediterranean Sea was itself an epic adventure, ending in a shipwreck.

But in all that time, Paul had opportunity after opportunity to speak of Jesus, of his own miraculous conversion, of the power of the Cross and the hope of the Gospel.  Just as Jesus had said, Paul spoke before rulers and authorities — governors, kings, councils, and military leaders.  He was like a scrubby little tree growing on a great rocky cliff, his message, like the roots of that tree finding its hidden, convoluted way into cracks and crevices, slowly but surely splitting and breaking down the vast and seemingly impenetrable stone.

Christianity found its way into the heart of the Roman Empire.  Once it had taken hold, it would never be eradicated.  It might be unseen, underground, but it was always, and is always, working, growing, expanding, and breaking through.  Paul did not preach to great crowds of people most of the time.  His work established a number of churches, mostly in Greece and Asia Minor, but he left no large, impressive buildings.  He had a few close associates whom he influenced — Timothy and Luke, for example.  His life and faith witnessed to the soldiers who guarded him.   Still, viewed from the perspective of the great, worldwide ministries, the huge congregations, the wealth of churches and church leaders, the splendor of buildings and physical monuments that abound under the name of Christ today, Paul might not look like he accomplished much.    But he stands very high in the esteem of heaven.  As the end of his life came in view, Paul could truthfully say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

Most of us live fairly mundane lives.  We will never be known by thousands or occupy any kind of exalted position in the world.  But there are people around us every day whom we can touch and influence for good, or evil.  There may be only one person that you know who will be impacted by what you say and how you live.  The crack in the rock may be microscopic, but God wants in, and it is up to you and to me to make that possible by voicing and bearing the truth.  God knows I will never be able to live a perfect life, but I can live an honest life and a holy life — holy in the sense that my existence has a dimension and a purpose that transcends the visible and the physical.    

If only, when I face adversity, I could look for the opportunity that is offered.  If only I could stop for a moment beside a flat tire, a dead battery, a crashed computer, a storm-shattered house, a bad report from the doctor, a financial loss, a family crisis, or whatever bad thing I must face — if only I could stop and think, for just a fleeting instant, that God is still in control, and He has a reason for allowing my day or my life to take this direction and this path.  Instead of always declaring war on the devil, sometimes I should consider surrendering to the Lord.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Learning, Love, and Loss

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’   And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.' — Matthew 7:21-23

I have been reading about the life of Saint Anthony of Padua.  He began his religious life in the order of St. Augustine, intently studying theology.  His direction changed drastically when his monastery housed the remains of five Franciscan monks martyred while preaching in Islamic Morocco.  Then known by his baptismal name of Fernando, he begged for the opportunity to join the Franciscan Order to give his life as a witness for Christ among the "Saracens".  He was allowed to leave the Augustinian Order.  Becoming a Franciscan, he changed his name to Anthony and sought martyrdom in Morocco.  Instead of death by beheading, Anthony fell terribly ill and was forced to sail for his home in Portugal.  A storm drove the ship to port on the east coast of Sicily.  These accidents culminated in Anthony preaching at an ordination of Dominicans and Franciscans, and his eventual appointment by Saint Francis as the first teacher of the Franciscans.  To that point, Saint Francis had been opposed to learning, fearing it would encourage pride among his Order. 

Anthony, though, was a most humble person.  He spoke simply without oratorical embellishment but with a comprehensive grasp of theology and Scripture.  He thus became the "Hammer of Heretics" — not out of antagonism but through a love for truth.  Saint Anthony was an effective preacher and teacher because he lived the gospel message of humility and poverty in spirit.  So, too, should our lives align with the words we speak — heeding the warning given by Jesus.  It is doing justly and loving mercy that counts rather than lip-service.  We must obey the commandments of Christ not merely proclaim them. 

Probably best known as being the Saint called upon to restore lost items, Anthony himself had little to lose.  His patronage, however, is based upon the loss one of his very few possessions and the only one which he truly valued — a manuscript copy of the Psalms.  Not only was this a precious item in that time before moveable print, but Anthony had his own notes in the margins relating to his prayer and teaching.  The book was not simply mislaid.  A straying novice had made off with Anthony's manuscript when he fled the monastery.  Anthony prayed that his book would be returned.  The young man repented and came back, restoring the Psalms to Anthony.

Anthony traveled much through the known world of his time with very little baggage.  He traveled light in terms of material possessions, but he carried with him the Word.  In fact, one of the most common depictions of Saint Anthony shows him holding the Infant Jesus.  The life of Saint Anthony illustrates the value of learning and knowledge of theology.  Equally, he shows us that, if we are going to carry Christ with us, we cannot carry much that is of this world. 

In modern life, rich as it is with material blessings and with so many distractions into which we are tempted to invest our time and energy, we can benefit from examining the life of those who considered themselves strangers and pilgrims here.  What is it that I am carrying around?  Is that Christ in my arms?  Am I bearing the light and sweet burden of the gospel?  Or am I weighed down with the accoutrements so valued and sought after by the worldly?  Do I have possessions which I hold loosely?  Or am I bound and possessed by material objects? 

Our values are revealed by how we live, by the fruit that our life bears, by the things we obsess or fret over.  It is almost ironic that a Christ-bearer such as Anthony would be the one appealed to when someone needs help finding lost car keys or a desperately needed job.  God does, though, care about our material existence.  He does provide for us and show His concern for even our smallest losses and anxieties.  By helping us to find what is, for the moment at least, irreplaceable, He reminds us that we were lost, that He deemed us irreplaceable, and that He sought us until we were found.     

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


In 1934, two young men born on the Central Plateau of the Ozarks headed west to California in a Model A along with three other people from the same area.  Arriving in what was then a land of hope and dreams, the two worked as farm laborers, harvesting fruit, baling straw, and picking cotton.  After a year or so without much gain, they returned to their home ground, hardly prodigals but having seen the end of the world where the surf beats against the earth in what appears to ephemeral humanity a relentless stalemate.

My father was one.  The other was Ray.  Ray had a couple of younger sisters.  My mother was one of them.  A year or so after Dad and Ray returned from California, Dad and Mom were married.  Ray got married a year after that.  I think one of the reasons I always found Of Mice and Men so personally compelling is because I could relate it to the stories Dad told of his travels with his future brother-in-law.  Dad would have been a sort of George to Ray's Lennie.  That is not to say that Ray was at all like Lennie in terms of physique or intellect, rather that Dad was the smaller, more wiry and more clever of the pair.  Where Ray excelled was in building and fixing things — houses, cabinets, electricity, plumbing, machinery.  He was not as good with numbers as Dad except when it came to carpentry.  Ray also had no concept of the fear of heights.  Vertigo was simply not possible for him, and he could walk the thin edge of a two-by-four three stories up as casually as if it were flat on the ground.

People, though, were always a problem for Ray.  He was not that hard to get along with, so long as you let him have his way.   His older brother was always delightfully profane.  Ray could be like that as well, but he was always profane just the same.  My grandmother was the happiest Christian I ever met.  My grandfather was an agnostic with an Indian mother, an unknown father, and a love of strong drink.  Some of their eight children were like Grandma, some more like Grandpa.  Ray was a little more like his father, probably, though you cannot be related to my grandmother and not have at least some sense of humor. 

The reason I write about my uncle is because he was the last of them on either side.  I have one aunt left who suffers from dementia and would not know me.  I used to have a wealth of uncles, seven living and three deceased when I was born.  I had seven aunts.  That's not counting the "by-marriage" uncles and aunts that basically doubles the number.  Now that whole generation hangs by thread.  Ray passed on a couple of days ago.  I went to the flower-reading last night and saw a roomful of cousins of various degrees.  One of them is a long-time preacher, now in his seventies himself, who prayed at the end and thanked God for Ray's life.  I said, Amen.

My wife asked me, when we got the news that he had passed, where I thought Ray was.  I said that if prayer will get you into heaven, he is safely home.  Mom and Dad were talking with Ray's older brother -- the delightfully profane one -- who remarked in response to a question, "Oh, hell, yes, I believe."  I have no doubt that he did, and I think the same is probably true of Ray.  I don't suppose anyone can say for sure about the state of another person's soul.  There are those who will say that because Ray did this or did not do that he is lost eternally.  If he is in hell, life should be easier among the living.  The devil will have his hands full. 

(If Ray heard me say that, his response would be stated with emphatic grimness:  "You goddam well better believe it, by god!"  Then he would laugh, "Good luck to that bastard sonuvabitch keepin' me.")

Perhaps I am weak and sentimental and not biblical enough, but I think Ray will be all right in the end.  I am also inclined to think he might have a little settling up to do:

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.  — 1 Corinthians 3:12-15

But Ray was a builder, remember, and I think some of what he built will stand the fire of God's glorious presence.  When the chaff has burned away on judgment's threshing floor, I believe substance will remain to the purified Ray.

He was already in the nursing home and going blind when Dad died.  Dad passed on four months shy of his ninety-eighth birthday.  Ray would have been ninety-eight if he had lived four more months.  Others may take nothing from the coincidence, but I know that the Lord gave it to me as a sign that the two old pards are reunited once more. 

It seems to me that I can see a place very like the hills of home but somehow more solid and real, as if I had only seen them before as a bright reflection in a clear, mirroring stream.  There on one bald hilltop I seem to see a light, a campfire under evening shadows, reflected in faces brighter with inner light than the memorial fire itself.  All but one of those faces I know, but not as once I knew them.  For now the lines etched by earthly care and weathering have faded with the fullness of new life, except for those left as though engraved for the beauty of remembrance upon a vessel of gold.  I see each countenance filled with a sober joy that is both ancient and blissfully child-like.   The One I do not know is familiar in a way the others are not, and I know that I have known Him longer and better than the rest. 

A call is heard from the soft shades, and that one face lifts toward the call with such glory that the shadows humbly bow and step back to reveal the pilgrim who has traveled very far.  The pilgrim I know well, but, at first, he seems too wan and weary, drawn and small, too ghostly to exist in this solid and potent place.  Perhaps, though, it is only an illusion from the distance being much greater than I can imagine, for, as he draws nearer the fire, he appears to grow and strengthen until he is restored to himself and more.  His great, deep laugh reverberates across the ridges and hollows, thrown back, not in echoes, but in the electric thundering voice of the very land itself joining him in his happiness.

All are eager to greet and embrace the pilgrim, but they know they must wait while the One takes him aside so briefly as a deferential shadow cloaks them.  The earth seems to shiver, and the others bow their heads in awe and reverence.  Even having passed through the fires and the trials, through the dimness and uncertainty, the pilgrim must yet weep for a moment in this land of the blue hour, as the Master speaks His secrets.  Those who wait for the pilgrim know that, though the whispers of our Shepherd wring out our tears, it is His touch that wipes them finally away and turns them to glittering, eternal jewels.  Then the faithful shadow lifts and the two return to the circle.  My uncle is a pilgrim no longer, and, with his face, too, now filled with light, he rests.