For many years, I’ve interacted in circles where religion is important – and getting religion right is important.
A friend of mine – who traveled from Reformed to Eastern Orthodoxy to Anglicanism (and who is now an Anglican priest) posted this from someone I don’t know on Tweeter:
“The sun will burn your eyes to from 92 million miles, and you expect to casually stroll into the presence of its creator”
Quite frankly, I DO expect to “casually stroll” into the presence of the Creator. Hebrews 4:16 not only suggests we can do it; he practically commands Christians to do it. “Let us therefore come boldly before the throne of grace…” (Hebrews 4:16).
My Anglican friend, not seeing it that way, then posted the following challenge:
This is one of the things about Protestant soteriology that truly sticks in my craw. Whatever justification by faith alone means, the Bible is clear that we will all, Christians and non-Christians, “appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” II Cor. 5:10.
Consider texts such as Isa. 6, which indicate that there is no casual stroll into the presence of the living God, even for saints. To my mind, this means that there very well may be some kind of final purgation needed, even if we are justified by faith alone, before we can see God.
Assuming the truth of the Protestant doctrine, which says that we are justified positionally but not fully holy experientially, this arguably means that some sort of purgation occurs after our deaths. This, however, does not necessarily commit us to the specifics of the Roman doctrine of purgatory, but that doctrine nevertheless is on to something, I believe.
Change my mind.
Well, I certainly hope to change his mind. I responded with the following passage from 1 Corinthians: “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1.30 NASB1995).
Another old friend jumped on and said, “This does not in any way obviate what Fr Chris said. And you have to actually deal with that passage he cited …”
I responded: “since you asked, look at the whole passage (in the original post, from 2 Corinthians, vv 6-21):”
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— … we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
In the first place, “we all” must, and will stand, individually, before Christ. As Christians (who have done bad deeds), we STILL prefer to be “absent from the body” (according to Paul’s claim here). Why would we PREFER TO BE ABSENT, knowing that “each” “may be recompensated” (according to the NASB, or in Chris’s OP, “may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done”?)
To her point, none of this points to the Roman Catholic view that, perhaps, mortal sin could cast some, any of Paul’s readers into hell. That is not even a question in this passage. Nor is it a recipe for “temporal punishment” (or, “some sort of purgation”).
Nor is it even, as Chris says, “some sort of purgation that occurs after our deaths”. DEATH ITSELF is THE WAGE FOR OUR SIN (“the wage of sin is death”, Romans 5:12). There is no “purgation”. Our “purity” is not an ontological thing (as Rome teaches). It is a judicial thing.
So the question is, (having dealt with the passage), what IS “the judgment” that believers face?
It is the very thing that I mentioned in the 1 Cor 1:30 passage: “Christ Jesus IS” “righteousness and sanctification and redemption”. That is how Christians are judged.
In this later passage, to the same group of people, Paul explains this further. “God made Christ Jesus, who knew no sin, TO BE SIN ON OUR BEHALF”. What does this mean to you? When I stand before Jesus Christ, with my own sins, God himself is “NOT COUNTING THEIR (MY) TRESPASSES AGAINST THEM (ME)”. No doubt, those sins will be named at that moment, but I am not accountable for them. The “recompense” that I will receive at that moment IS the finished work of Christ.
The original post, in fact, is pretty silly. Paul himself says, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”. Yes, even in this passage, “we are of good courage, and [we do] prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord”. Isaiah did not, at this point (Isaiah 6), know the promised Messiah.
As Christians, we will, yes, absolutely, casually stroll into the presence of the Lord. We are his children, and we rightly call on “Abba, Father”.
Roman Catholic doctrine evilly and hatefully (in a defense of its own supposed authority) obscures this clear doctrine of Scripture.
I think a lot about our country and our culture. And for those of you who know me, you know that I have deep Christian roots.
There have been a few news reports about “Christian Nationalism”, and why that may be a bad thing. While some may be saying “we Christians shouldn’t care about what is going on in the culture, because we’ve got a better kingdom ahead of us”, I think you’ve got it all wrong. For several reasons.
1. Genesis 1 makes men and women to be the stewards (in their own roles) not of some unseen creation, but of THIS creation. Those of us created “in the image of God” all have a role to play.
2. “Creation” isn’t simply “the environment”. It has to take into account everything about the way the world runs. That includes our families, our local communities, and yes, given the preamble to the US Constitution, “we the people” are responsible for how we govern our country.
3. Our “Great Commission” doesn’t begin once you set foot on foreign soil. The need for the Gospel in OUR COUNTRY has never been greater than it is today.
The overturning, today, of Roe vs Wade, is certainly the end of an era, but it only means it is a new beginning. Christians have a greater need than ever to be able to express the reasons why we have such a hope in a new Kingdom. We have a greater need than ever to show what it means to “repent and believe the good news”.
But as Paul wrote to Timothy, in order to be good stewards of the Gospel, we must first put our own households in order.
By extension, that means everything we touch, including “country”, is within our realm of responsibility.
“Christian nationalism” isn’t a dirty word. It should be the heart and soul of why we do what we do.
Way back in history, when information traveled much more slowly (and in fact, when it was compiled much more slowly than it is today), to “cancel” someone may have simply involved “not re-copying the manuscripts” (which were initially created, by hand, on animal skins and later papyrus). The writings would simply disappear on their own.
Some time later, “canceling” someone involved things like cutting out tongues or cutting off fingers and hands. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church did this. See the story of poor “Greek antipope John XVI (997–998), who, unfortunately for him, did not die from the removal of his eyes, nose, lips, tongue and hands” (from Eamon Duffy, “Saints and Sinners”, a history of the papacy, p. 104).
Later versions of “Cancel Culture” were perfected by the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, “which had enshrined such a practice for centuries.”
In describing how we have come to know about the genuine writings of Nestorius, for example, (long considered to be a heretic, but now not so much), Friedrich Loofs wrote, “The church of the ancient Roman Empire did not punish its heretics merely by deposition, condemnation, banishment and various deprivation of rights, but, with the purpose of shielding its believers against poisonous influence, it destroyed all heretical writings … a similar fortune was prepared for Nestorius.” (Loofs, “Nestorius,” 2-11)”.
Here is a selection from one of my early blog articles on Roman Catholicism, entitled “On the repression of information in the pursuit of an agenda”, which featured the following account from the English historian of the period, Patrick Collinson:
In 1543 a little book was published in Venice with the title “Trattato utilissimo del beneficio di Giesu Christo crocifisso i cristianin” (A Most Useful Treatise on the Merits of Jesus Christ Crucified for Christians), written by an elusive Benedictine monk called Benedetto da Mantova (dates of birth and death unknown, but his surname seems to have been Fontanino) with some help from the humanist and poet Marcantonio Flaminio (1498-1550), a popular work of piety that was translated into several languages ….
[T]he “Beneficio” … proves to have been made up from a number of transalpine Protestant texts, and especially the 1539 edition of Calvin’s Institutes. Whether or not Benedetto had come across Calvin in his monastery on the slopes of Mount Etna, which seems unlikely, the Institutes was known to Flaminio.
It is hard to distinguish between the theology of the Beneficio and Protestantism. “Man can never do good works unless he first know himself to be justified by faith.” Other scholars insist, however, that the Beneficio is an expression of Evangelism, a movement that was not generated by Protestantism and should be distinguished from it.
What is certain is that the Beneficio was placed on the Index [of forbidden books] and so successfully repressed by the Roman Inquisition that of the many thousands of copies of the Italian edition that were once in existence only one is known to survive, discovered in the library of a Cambridge college in the nineteenth century. That sort of successful repression was the Counter-Reformation. (“The Reformation, a History”, Patrick Collinson, (c) 2003, New York: The Modern Library (Random House edition), pgs. 105-106.)
George Orwell wrote, in “1984”, “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say this or that even, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.” (Book 1, Chapter 3).
Orwell’s “Big Brother”, and today’s “Cancel Culturists” both, have learned this lesson well, from the practices of Roman Catholic Church. If we are to retain a culture of true freedom in our day, we must resist such a practice mightily.
As a blogger, I probably have written some 2000 or more blog articles for various blogs over the last 15 years. That includes more than 1200 at Triablogue, the home of the late Steve Hays, who was one of the most brilliant thinkers who’s ever lived; 175 at Beggars All (James Swan’s site), 400 at this blog (johnbugay.com), and another 400 at a blog entitled “Reformation500”. Those last two are blogs that I have set up.
Some of these blog posts were very long, and some were short. Some were extremely detailed, and others (as in the case of what I was doing during Bethany’s struggle with leukemia) were merely photos with short, if any, captions.
I have always thought of myself as a writer. During my college years, I studied journalism; I have tried all my professional life to “be a writer”; early on, say, during the 1990s, I was able to accomplish that, in a couple of very fulfilling career positions. But the marketing and advertising world changed. Though I was largely a “news” writer, with a strong emphasis on writing newsletters and corporate public relations in those days, technology changed, and my roles later changed too, to documentation and marketing, and eventually, I moved almost completely out of writing and into marketing automation.
But I continued to write personally. I have been dedicated to understanding the truth of things, and writing clearly, so that others would understand. That’s been a foundational definition for me I’ve always sought to be truthful, and in many cases, I’ve sought to be provocative. In some cases, I was a bit too provocative, and instead of fostering understanding in my readers, I’ve actually gotten some of them riled up. You live and learn.
While some of my personal writing revolved around Beth and her difficulties, the vast majority of what I’ve written centers on religious struggles that I’ve had over the years, most particularly with regard to questions surrounding, “what are we to do with Roman Catholicism?”
These are questions that occupied my intellectual efforts for most of my adult life. I am 62 as I write this. I was dogged by the question of Roman Catholicism during my early years – maybe from age 17-24. I went back, for a while, and even thought about studying for the priesthood (I had gotten accepted to St Paul’s seminary in 1983-4). But I couldn’t go through with it, and beginning around age 35, I started revisiting those questions again. A few years later, I made a final break with Roman Catholicism.
It wasn’t a spurious decision. It was something that I deliberately studied, and thought about, and prayed about, and I came to the clear, unmistakable conclusion that I could no longer remain Roman Catholic.
And even after I had left, there were the “concerns” from friends and relatives, the “oh yeah, whaddabout this” questions. I was honest enough in those years to try and answer all the “whaddabouts”, and in the process, I became knowledgeable about Roman Catholicism to continue to write about it at a very high level.
Over the years, my experience studying and writing about various aspects of Roman Catholicism enabled me to become well known enough that a couple of Protestant writers, seeking to write a kind of textbook for Protestant college and seminary students, contacted me and asked me for source materials that they could refer to. My name appears in the acknowledgements of that book; the Kindle image appears at the top of this article.
I should say, all of this came in the context of what I’d describe as a deep faith in Jesus Christ, and a deep love for Christianity.
Christianity has provided the philosophical underpinnings for my entire life, even my young life, even though I might not have described it that way. I’ve always looked to take care of “inner things” before the externals.
[As an aside, I knew a woman who focused exclusively on externals –dressing properly, or folding her napkin the right way when she was done with dinner; but her inner life was a complete mess.]
My goal in life has always been to take care of the most important thing first. Things you might call “the heart of the matter”. Is there a God? Am I right with “The God who is There”? (Shades of Francis Schaeffer). Am I living in a way that is honoring Him? Am I being a good husband? Am I being a good father? All of those things have tended to preoccupy me, ahead of questions of externals.
There was a time when wars were fought over the kinds of issues I had studied all of my life. In our day, God is marginalized, and Protestant vs Roman Catholic question now seem more like tempests in tea pots.
This just shows how far our culture has moved, away from the most fundamental things. Maybe the economic malaise we’re seeing will persuade some people to take another look. I hope it does.
My intention now is to re-edit, re-package, and re-publish some of those blog articles here, in a way that will, I hope, be meaningful for some people today. That includes people who are close to me, and it likely will mean that some family members who are still Roman Catholic will read these things.
My religious sentiments won’t be a surprise to many people, I hope. But I also hope that my lines of reasoning will help people to understand why I think the way I do.
I’ve watched two people die close up. “In-the-room-with-them” close-up.
My father died in 1998, from a form of lung cancer. The last hours of his life, he sounded like the gurgling of a drip coffee maker. He gurgled himself to death. I think they call that the “death rattle”. Fortunately hospice was there to give him some morphine through that experience. I repeated to myself then, “the wages of sin is death”.
Some years later, I watched my wife die. Her death was quicker and much more merciful. She apparently had a heart attack as the result of overworking herself digging up some old yucca plants. I’ve written about that extensively.
I’m now watching my mother die in slow motion from Alzheimer’s. I had written “Alzheimer’s disease”, but I changed my mind on that. It’s not a “disease”. It’s not caused by bacteria or viruses. It seems to be something environmental.
On Monday, she will go into a nursing home. We’re not sure how much of her is even still alive.
Her body walks around for sure. In that regard, she’s like one of the “walkers” from “The Walking Dead”. She just has this urge to walk. Maybe it’s because, while she was losing herself, I walked with her every day. But over time, her knees and other things started to hurt. She lost her balance easily. She fell a number of times. So I stopped walking with her.
But now when she walks, she has a destination. We have hired an outside caregiver who lives up the street, and my mom just wants to walk to see her care giver.
The problem is, she does this at odd hours. The middle of the day. The middle of the night. She also walks in the snow, without shoes or coat. She is incontinent and cannot control her bowels. She has made big messes in public.
She cannot speak a complete sentence. I see her every day, yet she does not know whether I am her father or her husband or her son. I remind her, “I’m your number one baby boy. You slept on the floor in the hospital when I had pneumonia as a baby. I’m here for you”. She at least knows this.
And yet she is incredibly inventive getting out of the house. It’s amazing how inventive she is in getting out, given how much of everything else she has lost. We’ve locked entrances and exits. Alarmed them. She tears out the alarms, and she evades locks and bolts.
Whenever someone is not with her, day or night, she will try to get out of the house, wandering the streets. The police have been called.
She has lived in the same house for 60 years. She has sat in the same chair, watching TV, and it is all set up just the way she set it up years ago, when my father died. We first noticed something was wrong when we saw her driving her car on Lebanon Church Road with the driver’s side door flapping open.
She has been quite independent over the years, but now, she will sit in her chair, look you in the eye, and say, “will you take me home?”
She is 82. Both of her parents spent their last years in nursing homes; her father died at age 87, her mother died at 81. Both with dementia. She resisted her mother’s path. Her mother was overweight, had bad knees, and was in a wheelchair long before she was in a nursing home.
So over the years, my mom had bariatric surgery, lost a lot of weight, and was extremely active in church and in her community of friends. I personally have hoped never to put her in a nursing home.
But our efforts have failed and have given way to the inevitability. On Monday, we’ll be taking her to her new home. We can’t care for her 24 hours a day. We don’t know if she’ll understand, or if she’ll protest, or if she’ll feel at home in a community of other people.
We don’t know if she has died already. In some sense, we are all “the walking dead”. Maybe that is part of the appeal of that TV show. But we have a great hope. ”For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The Bible says, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
It was the writer of Ecclesiastes who said, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God”.
Every one of us will follow this path. It is with great thankfulness that we are able to realize, “it is from the hand of God”.
There is only one hope in the face of it. But it is a great hope: “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It seems that some people don’t think twice about religion. I have never been that kind of person. Like the Psalmist, I have always been inclined to say,
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
(Psalm 19:1-2, ESV)
Anchored in this understanding of God and his easy willingness to reveal Himself, my own religious path took me into and out of Roman Catholicism a couple of times, eventually to leave it for good. Investigating the truth claims of both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide has been the defining intellectual struggle of my life.
I grew up in West Mifflin, a small borough in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. Thanks to the popularity of the Steelers football team, Pittsburgh is widely known as the Steel City, and its reputation for being a world-class center for steel production is well-deserved.
In turn, Pittsburgh has been dependent on the small towns and communities along its rivers. In the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries, the rivers provided a means of transportation for bringing coal and iron ore in, and shipping steel out.
People from the region made steel in a dozen or more communities south of the city that ran along the Mononghahela River, including the small towns of Elizabeth, Clairton, Glassport, McKeesport, Duquesne, Braddock, Homestead, and others.
This topography was totally foreign to Bethany, a west-coast girl, when she landed here.
Image 5: West Mifflin and surrounding local areas
On a map, the Monongahela (or “Mon”) River bends in a backward “S” shape, with the lower portion of the backward “S” protruding westward on the map, opposite Glassport and McKeesport, which nestled inside of the river to the east. Then further north, the river curved back east to encircle Duquesne, West Mifflin, and Homestead. West Mifflin sits almost in the form of a sideways “figure 8” on the west side of that upper curve in the river.
So as the steel mill communities grew after World War II, and outgrew their own municipal boundaries, lots of people who worked in the steel mills along the river, moved up over the hills into West Mifflin. It was a bit farther away from the economic activity and less densely populated than the little steel towns, but the homes were newer. The people who lived there came from various communities, and it was a real melting pot of people and nationalities from the region.
Image 6:West Mifflin, near the Allegheny County Airport, where I grew up.
The borough was incorporated in 1947. It had been mostly unincorporated farmland before that, not part of any municipality. It was also home to one of the first commercial airports in the country — the Allegheny County Airport, in 1931, and it had ample business and shopping areas nearby.
The main east-west road through the area, Lebanon Church Road, was named after the Lebanon Presbyterian Church, which had been a landmark since its establishment 1776. It was a hilly terrain, and the road had ample twists and turns.
As a cross-street to Lebanon Church Road, Camp Hollow Road extends straight south from the Airport driveway and curves down the hill and winds through the hollows down to the Monongahela river and to the city of Clairton.
My father, born in 1928, grew up on a farm in rural western Pennsylvania during the depression, where his family were coal miners from Slovakia. He was the youngest of three brothers, with seven sisters. He was number nine of the 10 kids in the family. Though he was too young for military service during World War II, an older brother of his was a genuine war hero who had parachuted behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe for the OSS, a precursor of the CIA.
Eventually my dad found a job as a “wiring diagram designer” for the Union Switch and Signal company, which designed railroad crossings for many of the major railroads in the area. He served in Korea, where he was wounded.
He was a natural artist. As a young man, he could draw Woody Woodpecker almost perfectly by hand, from memory, and his job at “the Switch” was simply creating the blueprints out of drawings produced by the engineers.
His job was stressful for him, not because of kind of work that he did, but because of the people around him, and the tense work situations brought about by union rules. In my father’s case, he had started at “the Switch” about a month before another guy – we’ll call him Fisher. For some thirty years, Fisher followed my father “up the ladder” at that place, always a month behind, and he harassed my father all the way up.
For years, he worked a 40-hour job, and dinner was on the table precisely at 5:30 every day. Except for when he worked overtime. Then dinner was on the table at 6:30. And Fisher nagged my father every step of the way.
So on Fridays, my father would bring home a case of beer, stash it away in his downstairs refrigerator, and he would sit and brood, drunk, until Monday mornings.
I only learned when I was 27, just before I met Bethany, that he had been married in the early 1950s (“in the Church”) and then quickly divorced, before he met my mom. Knowing how Roman Catholicism viewed marriage in those days, it certainly would have caused him a lot of difficulties.
My mom, born in 1940, grew up in the Hazelwood area of Pittsburgh, in the public housing projects up the hill from the steel mills in Homestead. At the time I was born, she was a recent high school graduate of what was then Cathedral High School, an all-girls Catholic school, located next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
My dad’s younger sister Sue was married in the early 1950s. She and her husband lived in the same housing project where my mom lived, and my dad moved in with them after his divorce. Some time in 1959, he was helping one of his nephews move into the projects up there, and that’s where he met my mom.
My mom and dad were married in August 1959. I was born in January 1960. Let’s just say that a 30-year-old divorced man getting a 19-year-old Catholic girl pregnant out of wedlock caused a bit of a scandal in those days.
By the time I was a year and a half old, my parents had moved to West Mifflin, to a small house not far from the County Airport, just off of Camp Hollow Road. That’s where I grew up and where my mom still lives (as I write this).
Years later, I found out that my parents had secretly gone through the “annulment” process for my father’s first marriage and had gotten married “in the Church”.
As a small child, under the age of two, I was hospitalized several times for bouts of pneumonia. It seemed to run in the family — I had a close aunt and uncle both who seemed to have gone through the same thing.
My earliest memories involve being in that hospital. I remember being in a grey metal crib, which seemed like a cage, and I was inside a clear plastic oxygen tent. Essentially I was inside a box inside of a cage. Maybe this accounts for the sense I have that I don’t want to be bound in any way.
My grandmother brought me a large toy metal car, which had metal parts and some gears that made some real engine sounds. I remember the nurses taking it away from me because it possibly could have created sparks, not a good thing in an oxygen tent.
The crib was in a large open ward, with a couple of cribs at my end, and maybe about 10 or 12 beds in the large open room. My mother tells me that she slept on the floor while I was in the hospital, and that seems to have been a possibility, given the austere nature of that ward.
I got over the pneumonia, and because of my birth date in January, I was able to start Kindergarten at age four. By age seven, I received the appropriate second-grade sacraments — “first confession” and “first holy communion”.
Image 7: The author, at age seven.
During those years, I had a great grandmother who was an immigrant from Slovakia, whom I saw regularly. She barely spoke English, but the one thing she repeatedly told me was, “you good boy Jahnny”. And that went along with and reinforced my religious training as a young Catholic. You have to be good to get into heaven.
My father was something of weekend alcoholic. He was socially awkward, and he was hard on me at times. While I was very young, I frequently wet the bed at night.
Back then, I had recurring dreams, and maybe they reflected my hospital experiences? Women dressed in white would enter and exit from the room. They would just show up and take care of different things around me, and then they would disappear. Were they nurses? Angels?
I also have memories from the third grade on, maybe, of having had a crush on different girls over the years. I have been in love with many different names at many different times. Some of these crushes lasted for years. I never knew most of these girls. They were very pretty, and I was too shy ever to talk with any of them. They were all crushes from afar.
Only one of these, Donna, coincided with an actual friendship. My younger sister was a Brownie, and my mom would help chaperone the Girl Scouts on roller skating trips. I would go skating with them, and Donna and I would hold hands as we skated around the rink. I believe I ruined that friendship with the help of a rascally neighbor of hers (from our class) and also my own thoughtlessness, joking around.
In my middle school years, I was an odd but relatively normal kid. I won a math contest in sixth grade. I acted in plays, and I was a manager for the basketball team in eighth grade, which meant I swept floors in the locker room and collected up the basketballs and put them away after practice.
I played chess in high school, and our chess team won a state championship.
During my high school years, there were some girls who were “Born Again Christians”. The phrase was popularized during the presidential campaign of 1976, when Jimmy Carter identified himself as “Born Again”. I had no idea what that meant. But it seemed like a good thing, and if there were another level, so to speak, to which we could aspire on the road to God, I wanted to know about it.
On days when we had substitute teachers, a group of us with religious interests of different kinds would all talk about it. Lisa, one of the Born Again girls whose last name started with “B” always sat near me in classes. She and I would talk about religion, and others would join in the discussion.
A close Baptist friend of mine, a very smart Methodist, and an atheist who was also a student of Nazi Germany, all joined these discussions from time to time. I represented the Roman Catholic side in those talks, and of course, I had the big ammo:
“Thou art Peter, and on This Rock I will build my Catholic Church” (Matthew 16:18).
There’s nothing like being boastful while quoting wrong information. I literally thought Jesus had said “I will build my Catholic Church”, but of course the word “Catholic” in there was an interpolation by my mom, who, as a pre-Vatican II Catholic High School graduate, often repeated it that way.
I was one of 12 students in my graduating class who made it through all 12 years of CCD – the Catholic version of Sunday School for public school students.
Often, during high school, Lisa, the Born Again girl would give me different religious tracts, which I read and considered.
One thing that was very clarifying for me was a chart showing the gap between God and man, and the way that the cross of Christ bridged that gap. This was the Biblical Gospel message, pure and simple. God created man. Man sinned and broke fellowship. Christ’s death and resurrection restored that fellowship. And we were free to avail ourselves of that fellowship. We just had to ask for it.
Another tract featured a part of a sermon by John Wesley, in which he preached, “Ye must be born again”. It was based on the passage from the Gospel of John:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:3-7).
By the time I was graduated from high school in 1977, I was fully engaged in a personal religious quest. Two things, which seem connected, were in play. “What is it to be ‘Born Again’?” and “Where does the Roman Catholic Church fit into this?”
After all, if the Roman Catholic Church were actually what it says it is (and it says it is the channel of all grace in the world), then how could it miss something as fundamental as a blessing that goes with “being Born Again”?
A parish priest of mine later said that “you were ‘born again’ at baptism”. But that logic doesn’t quite follow, as I learned.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my questions were at the heart of the contentions at the time of the Reformation.
While most of my peers were growing up in a world of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, as they would say in the late 70s, I was looking for the meaning of life. The quest to find it would be my form of teenage rebellion.
It’s Veterans’ Day as I write this, and I want to thank all the military veterans I know for their service to our country. I’ve gotten side-tracked with transcribing Bethany’s journals. I’m all set up to do it, it’s just that life is busy. But I want to keep posting things here.
So my plan is to post snippets of things I’ve already written (but haven’t yet published).
Here’s some of what I’ve written (so far – subject to editing) describing the project in a Preface:
“Goddammit!” she said, and I heard a hand slapping hard on the typewriter. Maybe it was or wasn’t the proverbial sound of “one hand clapping”, but this act of anger against an inanimate object showed just how quickly she could and often did swell with anger, in just a flash.
I didn’t even know that anyone was sitting there. As I turned to see what was happening, I couldn’t have known that in the moments following her exclamation there, my life would be changed forever. It was a life-changing event in the most dramatic possible way.
I was a good Catholic boy at the time, having just spent several years seriously considering the Roman Catholic priesthood as a vocation. And it was clear from her language that she was, well, not a nice girl. Yet I was lonely, and she was beautiful. I found I needed something she had, and she seemed to need something that I could offer, and so we moved forward very quickly along those lines. There was no planning at all. And it wasn’t long afterward that I married the girl who had introduced herself to me with that amazing curse.
This is a book about our marriage, but it is particularly about my wife, Bethany, because she was a hero. Or at least, she became a hero in the sense that any Soldier who dies for his or her country is a hero. She did not die in uniform, but served with distinction at a time of war, and she died at age 54 from the complications that followed an active-duty deployment to Iraq in 2003, just after the Marines invaded, just after Saddam fled and that country descended into chaos, while she was 41 years old.
She had served as a medic with a weapons intelligence unit that was part of the second wave of American military into Iraq in April 2003, following the initial invasion by the Marines. Her commanding officer told me that the unit was the 19th unit overall into that country.
She overcame tremendous obstacles all of her life, and she did it largely while being cheerful and looking to God in Christ for hope. Not that she didn’t experience tremendous headwinds. She was able to overcome despite the almost inhuman obstacles that she faced.
She had been sexually abused as a child. She was a young runaway and a high school drop-out, and she got into all the different kinds of trouble that a teenage runaway can get into. The effects of her abuse lasted a lifetime, and they were passed on in various ways to others in her life, most especially our children. And she always felt hamstrung by her lack of education.
Maybe she looked for ways of being heroic as a countermeasure to the weakness and helplessness she felt because of these things. She was an overcomer of the purest and most noble kind, and many of her struggles will come up in this book, through both my observations and more importantly, from her journals.
She served two tours in the US Army: she was in West Germany in the early 1980s as a single young woman, and later, after the events of 9/11/2001, as a Reservist (we thought), as a mother of five (later six). She was activated (via an “involuntary transfer”) for a time and went to Iraq. She struggled with leukemia, we think as a result of chemical exposures she received there, and she died far too early.
So it’s a book about her lifetime, but it is also a book about Christian marriage. A particular Christian marriage to be sure.
It’s a husband writing about his wife, and so in the nature of things, I’ll spend some time telling you who I am too. I was her husband for 28 years. As a writer, I understand my need to remain in the background, but I was both the context for and now the narrator of her life story.
She kept a lot of journals, however, and wrote a lot of letters, and she will contribute her own thoughts liberally here, so you’ll get a good first-hand account from her throughout.
In our day, people “identify” themselves by their sexuality. Since she and I were married, and we fought to remain married, it is also story about a Biblical vision of Christian marriage as an image of the love, the joys, and the redemptive qualities of God for humans. It is about the pain of separation and the hope of glory.
Christian marriage is counter-cultural in our day. There is a prevalent understanding of marriage among conservative Christians, especially among Reformed Christians, who primarily see themselves as descendants of the Protestant Reformation. That’s where I locate myself on the scale of things.Jesus said of marriage, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:5-7).
Following up on my previous blog post, I’m starting now into Bethany’s journals and letters that began AFTER she received her transfer orders, to a unit that was headed to Iraq (February 2003).
Bethany was to be stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. If I recall, Bethany and I did a whole bunch of shopping for things she thought she might need, everything from underwear to cigarettes.
She picked up a journal as well. In this journal, at least the first page is missing (there is a small scrap left over in the spiral binding), then about four pages of Arabic consonants which she was practicing. Her words below are in italics, and my comments are interspersed in the normal typeface.
Dear Johnny Feb 4 / Tue 03
I was up at 4:30 am, [yesterday?] showering & ironing my uniform & out the door. I did most of the financial & legal stations for processing. It was a low stress day. I greatly appreciated the thoughtless duties. I answered a bunch of medical problems for Soldiers & helped in the supply room. I did everything but office work.
After I talked with you I had a beer & went to bed. I wished that I could have had a six pack. I’ve also been studing [sic] the Arabic alphabet. So far I’ve memorized 6 consonants. Whoopee, huh?
12:30 pm my roomate came in late like gang-busters. She woke me up from a sound sleep banging & rustling around with out any care for someone who may be sleeping. And she didn’t seem to care that she was disturbing anyone. So now I’m up wide awake at 1:30, 2 am.
I’ve got the following highlighted (with a yellow highlighter). I would only have read this (journal) after she was already deployed to Iraq.
I was looking at the unit’s roster. I was trying to personally organize the duties in my minds eye. I was trying to understand people & their duties. As I studied it & realized everyones duties I noticed that not only am I listed as a 71L I’m also lowest on the list. Most if the Itel [intelligence] are 96Bs, and I’m not sure what they are, but they’re tops on the roster’s list.
I’m so worried that I’m going to have to do shit work for a year.
Keep in mind that I was horrified by the turn of events of the past three weeks or so – from the family day “re-enlistment” to the cutting of the “involuntary transfer” orders a week later, through the shopping trip for supplies for basically a year, to dropping her off at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and what (it seemed to me) was a very long drive home.
Each time we visited her, then (and we saw her on several occasions), it was thought that she could deploy, and it might be the last time we’d see her.
Later, after I’d had some time to talk with some folks and begin piecing things together, it became a sticking point between her and me. The MOS “71L” basically was her oldest job classification, as a secretary. She told me of a time when she was in the Reserve for the first time, around 1980, and her unit was on Bivouac, and she had to carry a typewriter around with her, to do the unit’s official paperwork.
Now she was being called to be a secretary again – something she knew precious little about. This was important, because as I went up the chain of command (talking first to chaplains, as she had requested, and then to JAG officers), the story line was, “she’s a highly qualified soldier, and she was chosen via a computer match for her skills, and for the needs of the unit”. A female two-star General (actually up her chain of command) told me this personally.
A day later to my amazement I realized that my roommate is not SGT (Smith) but she’s really a Warrent Officer and Chief of a section. I did an immediate about face in my attitude & tried to filter the air for the warm fuzzies.
Tues Feb 18/03
I just finished church services 1600 with a Pentecostal Soldier & Pastor & cried my eyes out.
Before church I was not happy about the way my day was going. I couldn’t get breakfast because the chow hall was closed because of the snow and then the bus left us and I had to walk to the unit without my jacket which I had left at the unit the day before. So I was in a miserable state.
Before one of my training classes a soldier brought me some lunch form the “Chow Hall” I was very moved that this Old Man Soldier went out of his tired way for me.
At Church Services the Pentecostal Pastor read to us from Romans 10: something about along race that Paul was in & how we were in a long race also. And that we’re to receive a “crown not corruptible.” It was a nice service. This time I went because I wanted too, not to get out of a duty. I wanted God to take away this war but if he can’t I’d like him to stay with me & help me to do the right thing when I have to. Most of all I want him to bless my husband & babies & take care of them and not let them hurt for me and I want my absence to work for the good. Maybe he can make it good for you Johnny.
Of course this last paragraph reminds one of the scene from Daniel 3:17-18, where Daniel and his companions were commanded to worship the golden image, or face the fire, and Daniel’s refusal and explanation: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
She carried this attitude toward life, which matured as she grew older, and it was a wonderful and challenging thing to watch.
Hello. If you know anything about me, you know that my wife Bethany died more than six years ago now. I’ve had a hard time with her death, especially at first, and for a long time, but the grief mostly has passed. I still have those moments, however.
On the one hand, I miss her terribly. On the other hand, she would have been horrified by the way that political and cultural events have rolled out over the years since she died.
If you’ve seen this page in the past, maybe you remember that I was hoping and indeed trying to write about her. I have started and stopped at multiple points: the grief was too hard to deal with; there was so much information to have to remember and compile; I stopped at one point, after a very long and concerted effort to try and contact book agents.
I’m at it again, and to this point, I’ve got roughly 95,000 words and 270 pages. Those are rough estimates, because I’m doing different things in different documents, and I know that some editing will be required to put these things together.
So far, I’ve written the beginning of the book and the end of the book – this latter part consisting of things that I learned about her only AFTER she died. I did this by going through all of the papers that she had carried around our whole life together. I hate to brag, but I really trusted her with all the things that she had told me about herself, and I did not snoop into her personal papers at all, with one small exception.
That one small exception was while she was gone in Iraq. I took those papers out of the garbage bag in which she had been storing them, and I collated them and put them into order. Then I put them in the attic and never looked at them again.
Among other things, she was a hoarder. This not only included “stuff”, but “papers”. Memories, really. She kept every paystub, every movie and concert ticket, every card or letter she received, every set of orders, every train or plane ticket … you get the idea.
But there is an exception to this, as well. Some of these papers and other things were damaged. At one point, we lived in an old wood frame house, and she kept these things stashed in a crawl space – “in the dirt” – next to the steps down into a musty old basement. I couldn’t stand up straight in that basement, it was so short and dark and musty, so I rarely went down there. But we kept washer and dryer and other things down there, and she did laundry down there for our young and growing family for four years, from 1995 through the end of 1997, when we were forced to move out.
Old and musty as this house was, (and probably moldy, too), the years we spent there were for her, the best years of our lives together. Prior to that, we struggled financially, and we moved a lot from apartment to apartment. After that came another couple of moves and then 9/11/2001. That event really did change “everything” for us.
But while we lived in that old house, for her, it was heaven on earth, with love, family, wonderful friendships, and a white picket fence. She was a young wife, the young and pretty mom of (up to that point) four little boys who loved and obeyed her. She was not only the matriarch of our family, but she had been adopted into the family of some of our neighbors – as large and rambunctious and loving a group of people as anyone could hope to get to know.
Those good times didn’t last, though we tried to hang onto them. We had to move away, and then Bethany went into the army.
I’m transcribing her journals now, and I’ve come to a point at which she describes her reasons for and her doubts about that period of her life. It was a letter that she wrote to me, in November 2002, just as she was finishing up her training as a medic. I haven’t read this letter for some time now, but revisiting it is really a priceless experience. It really brings both her inner strength and her inner troubles back to me in a very moving way.
I’ll be posting some more of these thoughts of hers from time to time. If you find misspellings or grammatical errors below, I’ve tried to be as faithful to her own words as I could be.
Let me know what you think.
Nov 8, 10:30 am
I’m outside on field training. I’m pretty nervous because I’ve been made Pltoon Sergent for [illegible]. We’re on reconisonce right now trying to bet to our BN station without getting shot or blown up. I’m in charge of 10 soldiers & I don’t want to do anything stupid to trouble or to get “killed”. A “killed” will take you out.
Sat Nov 9 / 02 12:20 pm
I’ve learned about Nathaniel’s bad grades. I hope this is the worst that can happen while I try * finish this course. So far when I get home I’m going to have my work cut out for me getting things back in order.
I went shopping today and bought goodies for the kids & our neighbor’s kids too. The days are too slow for me. I’m sure that they’re to slow for you too. I can’t believe how long 4 months are when your so miserable.
One night a long time ago before I left for the army I couldn’t sleep. So I turned on the T.V. while you were sleeping. A program on the Travel Channel showed all about San Antonio & the river walk. I remember watching all about it thinking then that I hope we’ll all like it. And I had hoped that we would all get to see it while I was going through school. I am so surprised about how it all worked out.
I’ve come to the Riverwalk twice since I’ve been here and I haven’t enjoyed one minute of it. I only came here to get away from the base because it’s so ugly there & I’m miserable here without you all. I also worry about the balance of my family while I’m away.
I’ve found a little Texas bar that I feel comfortable at for a little while. I’m going to drink a couple of beers & write to you and then go back to my bunk soon.
There are many thoughts on my mind right now. One of them is about spending 6 days out in the field playing the role of a combat medic. I just talked to a few soldiers that came back from the field! They all told me how hard it was. I wisht hat I had the confidence that I had when I first started this personal mission. All the medical studies were so hard. There were so many times that I didn’t think that I was going to make it. Plus my age is hindering my mind’s thinking. I’m sure I can do this for a couple of years but I really don’t knowhow long that I have left physically. I’m always so sore & a little slow at everything. It’s wonderful to get through the obstycles [sic] with out having my own heart attack
The most demanding of all my thoughts are about you & the kids. I would really enjoy this work & the struggle if all you guys were here with me. How can one enjoy a career & family together? That’s a big thought that I’d like to have come together for peace of heart & mind. The last ten years of my life have been family & babies.
It’s really an incredible life that we’re living and you should write about it. I do believe that God has been the lead of us. When I remember that axis I get peace inside & feel at ease. But situations around me unnerve me and make me loose my confidence. Plus I believe the evil one plagues me. I’m always wanting to do the right thing but situations happen & I could not act in or react perfectly. I’m always being tested! I always worry that I failed to make, or arise to be the woman to meet the strom. That hurts me deeply.
I so want to do good things for the world and then I realize that I’m so inadequate. When is enough really enough? I always knock & I don’t receive an answer. How about you? When I get to this frenzy & can’t think anymore I stop thinking and just do. I just do the next of what ever is required with out thought, letting everything fall into place with the belief that God is moving then. We start or move events we can’t control everything that comes with the momentum.
I have to tell you right now that I love you and I thankyou very much for letting me do this. I’d never get to try this challenge if it weren’t for you. You’re my backbone. I’ve never had anyone before you that loved me like you do to the point of letting me grow. Growing & learning are such gifts that haven’t any price. I’ve learned that one thing when helping others. One must always give as much as they can for someone to learn. It comes with that phrase “teach a man to fish.” You really do good work for God then.
I’ve tried to write you a letter with my most pressing thoughts & feelings while trying to relax. I’m getting ready for the climax of my military escapade. If I get to do more later then so be it. But if I don’t I know that I’ve done my very best with what we could expend & taste now.
I miss you & love you. To me I’ve spent the last hour with you while I was writing to you. You were here with me the whole time. I hope when I come home you’ll love me as I imagine that you do.
It seems to me that the whole “fact check” industry is just a front for “I’m afraid to face ideas that run counter to my own thinking”. Fact checkers seem to be simple ideologues who all quote from the same ideological sources. It’s a big echo chamber. And it’s cowardly.
That’s precisely the opposite of why universities (for example) rose up in the first place. Universities were hotbeds of ideas in the middle ages.
I don’t remember the exact citation, but I was surprised to hear that Carl Trueman suggested (around the turn of the year 2000) that the most important “event” in the previous 1000 years was NOT the Reformation – rather, it was what he referred to as “the rise of the universities” in the middle ages.
It was here that all learning and systems of learning came together. It was here that the chain of events began that led to genuine understanding in virtually every field of knowledge.
… early and high medieval scholasticism is marked by synthetic and systematic thought in all disciplines, the creation of general syllabuses including everything a student needed to know, organized in coherent form.
The goal of pedagogy [teaching] was now to train professional, full-time scholars with a substantive and methodological grasp of entire fields of knowledge, enabling them to push back frontiers [i.e., learn new things] and to defend their own positions against rival views.
Debate with other interpretations, articulated by proponents both living and dead, was expected to take place as a normal condition of intellectual labor.
In all fields, the expression of a range of competing views within the boundaries of acceptable teaching was seen as a natural outgrowth of scholarship and was regarded as invigorating and healthy, not threatening.
It is this systematization of every discipline (including theology, philosophy, and natural sciences) that led to the Protestant Reformation and also to the development and implementation of the scientific method.
Rodney Stark writes:
As the distinguished historian Edward Grant noted, “Within Western Christianity in the late Middle Ages … almost all professional theologians were also natural philosophers. The structure of medieval university education also made it likely that most theologians had early in their careers actually taught natural philosophy.”
… in the West, Grant explained, “natural philosophy could attract talented individuals who believed that they were free to present their opinions publicly on a host of problems that formed the basis of the discipline.”
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the bond between theology and natural philosophy for the rise of Western civilization. As a result of this bond, the pursuit of knowledge about the natural world became central to the medieval university curriculum and led, ultimately, to the rise of Western science.
Stark, Rodney. How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity (p. 183). Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
Not all cultures are alike. Western culture and civilization became what it is because Christianity enabled westerners to have the freedom to explore unknown avenues and to learn what those avenues could teach.
The “fact check” industry wants to shut off other roads. This doesn’t preclude the fact that some people will follow Marx or Q, but these also need to be subjected to questioning by “rival views”.
Above all, we need the kind of openness and honesty that a strong Christian faith will foster. The entire universe is God’s universe. “Fact-checking” as it is practiced today is simply a road back to the dark ages.