I'm pleased to tell you that my story "The Windows of Heaven" is now available to read online and in print in The Columbia Review. You can read it here.
This story draws on a few biographical details from my grandfather's life. It's about a delivery driver who's rejected by his church because he works for a brewery. His descent into self-righteous outrage jeopardizes the family whose dignity he's claiming to defend. I hope you enjoy it!
If there’s one thing that can come between God and people, it’s God’s people.
Just recently, during a medical appointment, a technician told me she hadn’t baptized her children as Catholics because she had some lingering antipathy toward her childhood parish. Her mother was the only woman in the town to have been excommunicated for divorcing. The monsignor who headed the local school often asked the little girl why her mother wasn’t at church, though he obviously knew that the experience of attending while being forbidden from Communion was humiliating.
Incidents of social stigma, of course, aren’t restricted to one part of the faith. My grandmother grew up in terrible poverty in coal country and had trouble feeling God’s love because her classmates, all Baptists, ridiculed her for her lack of table manners and shabby clothing. My mother didn’t get married until she was in her middle thirties, and until that time she often skipped services at her Baptist church because of the moral suspicion and condescension directed at singles. (I can’t help wondering if the Pharisees who view singles as incomplete human beings ever realize that the incarnation of God was an unmarried carpenter).
I’ve always suspected that few people are driven from Christianity by purely rational objections, even if they claim this is the case. More often, I see believers who feel rejected by God because a self-identified Christian, perhaps even someone entrusted with authority in a church, had found them lacking in a trivial respect. This struggle, this sense of being an unwilling outsider, is the only fight that has ever endangered my faith. Asking God for an answer, I found great relief in remembering that Jesus, too, was an outsider among religious types.
Christ was born of a young, unwed mother (Mt. 1:18 NKJV). His identity as the Messiah was least believed in his “own country” (Mt. 13:54), where those who knew him best were “offended” (v. 57) at his teaching. He told a scribe, bluntly, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Mt. 8:20).
Jesus knew well the awkwardness and anguish of being an outlier. His experiences of rejection didn’t turn him from God; instead, he directed his love all the more fully toward the misfits and outcasts of society. He touched lepers (Mt. 8:2-3), ate with despised social groups (Mark 2:16), and spoke in public with a Samaritan woman (John 4:9) despite the Israelite prejudice against that ethnicity. At every opportunity, he made himself the definition of loving God “with all your heart” and, of necessity, extending that same love to other people (Mt. 22:37; 39).
Don’t become troubled in your faith because you’ve conflated God’s warm, welcoming, open character with the personality defects of other believers. We have a God who sympathizes with the outsider life—because he lived it. His love for us, and his understanding, demand we find courage and peace in that example.
I'm happy to tell you that The Columbia Review has accepted my story, "The Windows of Heaven," for its Fall 2016 issue. This story is a particular favorite of mine, and I couldn't be more pleased to have found it a home. At 4,300 words, it's one of the longest standalone works I've written. It will appear in the print journal and, if it is available online, I will provide a link in the Publications section.
Losing hurts. This week our country has a lot of hurting and disappointed people in it. During the time between loss and acceptance, fear can derail our lives. It can become despair if turned inward and rage if turned outward on the world. As a little green Jedi master once warned, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
I’m not devoting this space to an autopsy of the election or the estrangement that politics has caused between Americans of divergent passions. The real story here is the poison of idolatry, a sin we commit when we replace God with any person, possession, or aspiration as our primary motive for living, our reason to be assured that everything is all right. It happens, unconsciously or not, when we fail to worship the being we were made to worship.
Only God can fulfill the expectations we lay on him to provide for us. There is no other like him or equal to him (Exodus 15:11 NKJV). He never changes (Hebrews 13:8) because perfection doesn’t decrease and can’t be improved. Nothing is too hard for him (Jeremiah 32:27). He expects us to have hope about the future because of him (Jeremiah 29:11). He rightfully demands to rule our hearts because his good intentions for us are fulfilled only when he does.
Contrast his nature with human beings. We are all alike, made from the same clay, equally valued and fallible; we change all the time, seized by emotions or blinded by desires; we fail and mess up; we pursue our own interests. We get sick. We age, decay, and die. I don’t need verses to support this.
The Psalmist tells us, frankly, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (118:9). We also hear there is “no help” in man, for when he dies, “in that very day his plans perish” with him (146:3-4). Yet we continue to fasten our hopes for victory and redemption on athletes, politicians, or even ourselves. Inevitably the disparity between hope and outcome disillusions us. Either we latch immediately on another idol, such as the knowledge of a better possibility in the future (I imagine the Cubs practiced this plenty during the last century), or, more dangerously, we allow our loss to push us toward depravity. We become consumed with hatred against our opponents and pride that we know better than God how the world should be. This ugliness progresses to emotional collapse and the seeking of comfort outside the knowledge that God loves you. Here is where alcoholism and addiction begin. Here is not where God wants you.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus visits Martha and Mary, two sisters whom he knows well. While Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to him, her sister is “distracted with much serving” (10:40) and finally approaches Jesus to ask that he make Mary help her. Jesus answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (v. 41-42).
Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha the household is unimportant. It is. So are elections, sports (to some folks, I guess), and money. But he is telling her that only “one thing” (a relationship with God) is truly needed to know that life is all right. It’s the only thing that can’t be taken from you by death or loss.
This election was very significant, and God’s love for you is not the only thing that matters. But it is the thing which matters most.
The Apostle Paul writes that “what may be known of God is manifest” even in those who don’t believe in him (Romans 1:19 NKJV). The story of the Gospel shapes our lives more powerfully than any of us would like to admit. Our choices and reactions all reflect an innate need for mercy and a desire for a gracious consideration of our failings. Even if we don’t believe a Judge sits on the bench, we’re still asking for a not-guilty verdict. Our literature and TV shows demonstrate it even if we won’t admit it.
The CBS legal drama The Good Wife ended earlier this year. In an insightful essay for The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman argues that The Good Wife centers on the theme that “an ultimate court of law” oversees life, one where “we’d all be found guilty if all the evidence were put before the judge”—the “ignoble thoughts, craven motivations, imperfect natures” common to all people. The Good Wife’s protagonist, Alicia, an ambitious attorney, “can’t help suspecting that other, more important rules exist” than manmade laws; that “no truly honest person can plead not guilty in the court of life.” The only hope is “that, somehow, the judge will look kindly upon you.” Rothman concludes that the show “has no illusions, least of all about the ones we use to maintain our innocence.”
Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall occurs in the mind of a New York intellectual. The character, Quentin, once saw life as a “case at law,” a series of opportunities to prove himself “brave…or smart,” an “upward path toward some elevation, where…I would be justified, or condemned.” But then he “looked up one day…and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was…this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench.”
The question that worries these characters is the same one that plagues us in the absence of God. How do I know if I’m a good enough person? Regardless of how much we stuff down our feelings and soldier onward with a smile, we all feel unworthy, lacking, short of some unattainable height of moral perfection. We know, as God does, that “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10); we know that if anybody ever fully uncovered the wrongness in our hearts, we would be instantly convicted.
Secular people will find it difficult to reconcile this interior sense of judgment with their belief that no higher justice exists than the circumstantial justice our society has crafted for itself. But being a Christian means believing that the Judge is real and the verdict has been pronounced. David writes that God has “removed our transgressions from us” and placed them “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). 1 Peter tells us that God has “begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1:3), so that even convicts like us can take heart that the judgment on our shame was borne by someone else—someone so pure he could bear it and rise again. Anyone who recognizes his or her need for grace and follows it to this conclusion will ask for mercy and always find it waiting.
Sydney Carton, the hero of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, is portrayed as a cynical and resentful drunkard who sabotages his own career as a lawyer. But later in the book, walking alongside a river in Paris, a revelatory moment confronts him:
A trading-boat, with a sail of the softened colour of a dead leaf, then glided into his view, floated by him, and died away. As its silent track in the water disappeared, the prayer that had broken up out of his heart for a merciful consideration of all his poor blindnesses and errors, ended in the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
For generations, books like David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined and A.N. Wilson’s Jesus: A Biography have assaulted the Gospels and convinced the public they are legendary—fabrications engineered by the church. In the age of CSI and murder trials broadcast on TV, the world has ceded its mind to these claims. We have developed a cultural unwillingness to trust eyewitnesses without a hair, a hard drive, or a half-eaten ham sandwich to support them.
While it may be true that people lie (for whatever purpose) and that we don’t have the nails from Jesus’s cross, the Gospels provide their own defense. The truth is in the text.
Only a terrible writer would think that the narrative of Jesus’s death and resurrection would make good propaganda. If the aim of the early church’s leaders was to gain power, they wouldn’t have spread the story that the Messiah had been hung on a wooden cross—a form of execution reserved for terrible criminals “accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23 NKJV), not the foretold king of scripture.
Likewise, no one would easily accept a savior whose followers “forsook Him and fled” at the moment of his capture (Mark 14:15). The man appointed to lead the early church, Simon Peter, is recorded as denying three times that he is a follower of Jesus (Luke 22:55-62), after which he recalls Jesus’s prediction of this betrayal (v. 34) and weeps with guilt. Why would the church devise a forgery that tarnishes its first leader? The earliest Gospel, Mark, was composed by a scribe loyal to Peter, under the direction of the apostle himself. Peter had no motive to carve a terrible lie about himself into the record; if anything, being a weaker man, he might have tried to conceal his failure. The only reason he would have insisted on that incident’s inclusion is if it was true.
Jesus’s resurrection produced another conflict for the first Christians. There were two camps in the Jewish establishment in Jesus’s day: the conservative Sadducees, who believed “there is no resurrection” (Mark 12:18), and the Pharisees, a group that in the last two centuries had formed a tentative belief in a future resurrection. Until Jesus came, however, no religion admitted that a man could be raised from the dead in the present day. That’s why the disciples “did not understand what He was saying, and were afraid to ask Him” when Jesus taught them that he would be killed and rise the third day following (Mark 9:31-32). Beyond Judaism, the Romans who ruled the Jews in the first century found the idea of a resurrection offensive because they considered the material world evil and the body a prison. The first Christians’ radical new theology endangered their lives by offending every major authority of their day. Nobody hoping to preserve his life, much less gather followers, would write the story this way.
These facts have persuaded some of the Gospels’ former critics. A.N. Wilson, the biographer mentioned before, converted to Christianity after decades of atheism. He writes a wonderful essay here about the doubts that led him to faith. The power of the Gospel to enact such a change in the human heart is a great testimony. But perhaps the greatest witness to the Gospel is the lives of the apostles. Peter, according to tradition, was executed by the Emperor Nero. The apostle Thomas, famous for his doubt, was killed while preaching in India. Paul was imprisoned in Rome for two years and executed. John, author of Revelation, was exiled to the island of Patmos. None of them received wealth or glory for their missionary work; indeed, their commitment cost them. That kind of testimony is unanswerable—because nobody is willing to die for a lie. We can either ignore that challenge, as millions do, or we can yield to the truth.
If you’ve ever worked at the front desk of a business like me (or have known someone in a similar position), you probably know to expect both good and bad. Some days provide the pleasure of rapport with customers, the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes with knowing where everything is and who can help whom. Then there are days that test your nerve and chip your ego. Foreign scammers call from another hemisphere trying to obtain your personal information. Faceless busybodies demand to know your job title and what you do all day.
The Bible is clear on our need for gratitude to God in every circumstance—didn’t John the Baptist tell Roman soldiers to “be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14 NKJV)? Our jobs, though, can leave us feeling like bit characters in a made-for-TV movie, as if our daily effort to earn a living is unworthy of attention. After all, how many novels do you read that are brave enough to chronicle a protagonist’s day at the checkout counter? I’ve noticed that the interesting parts of movies and books tend to happen after five o’clock or before somebody’s punched in. There’s a subtle, demoralizing implication that we spend most of our lives doing insignificant work so that we can do important things on the weekend.
Christians work differently. Our jobs are God’s gift of purpose to us: “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24). We may have human supervisors who evaluate our work and customers we are bound to serve, but we work principally “as to the Lord and not to men…for you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 2:23-24). A commitment to remembering this fact will raise whatever work we do each week—even the drudging, red-eyed, stiff-muscled parts of it—to a level of contented significance we could never attain if we treat our jobs as curses or chores from God. If we choose to work well and pursue quality, we profit his kingdom. Without speaking we testify to our coworkers and friends that what we do matters to us because God matters to us.
My grandparents were the paragon of the Christian work ethic to me. My grandfather drove a truck for a brewery—difficult, backbreaking labor. He only had a seventh-grade education, but he was relentlessly punctual and never shied from a task. The company closed when he was near retirement, and he was the only laid-off worker recommended by his boss for a position elsewhere. My grandmother was a housewife for most of her life and churned out thousands of homemade meals in a cramped kitchen. They were flawed people working for God.
The great Chicago pastor A.W. Tozer wrote this prayer to God: “Be Thou exalted over my reputation. Make me ambitious to please Thee even if as a result I must sink into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream” (The Pursuit of God 108). Too often we cede our minds to the worldly definition of significance—if you matter, then you will be noticed, you will be recognized, you will be remembered when you are gone. Indeed some excellent Christians will be remembered by history forever. Most—perhaps some of the best—will not. That’s because they accepted work from God that took them away from the world’s eyes and put them where they were needed. On missions. In offices and warehouses. On their neighbors’ doorsteps. Their names may be lost or known only to a few, but their accomplishments endure for eternity.
The Bible calls David a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). We find David’s character expressed in a powerful Psalm that declares, “A day in your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (84:5-7). David would have accepted the doorman’s job—a lowly post in the world’s assessment—if it meant working where God wanted him and doing what God had set him there to do.
The only question is: Would you do the same?
The shooting in Baton Rouge this morning leaves me heartsick. As of this writing, three police officers have been killed and several more injured. This event is one more bloodstain in a parade of recent confrontations between police and the communities they are tasked with protecting. Our media-driven dialogue on race relations and policing has become so ossified with assumptions and caricatures that few of the factions have stopped to recognize the humanity of the people that oppose them. There are white demagogues who castigate blacks as lawless and refuse to see the bias and heightened danger that black citizens have encountered when they are pulled over. There are black offenders who target officers and feed a subculture that views those in the uniform as monolithically racist and aggressive.
Neither of the extremes is willing to do what Jesus did: turn away from judgment.
Matthew 7:1—“Judge not, that you be not judged” (NKJV)—is probably the Bible verse most familiar to non-Christians. The command, I believe, is often misinterpreted as Jesus’s embrace of a trendy libertinism, his endorsement of any behavior that doesn’t visibly harm other people. That view contradicts the scriptural Jesus—the Jesus of John 4 who rebukes a woman for cohabiting outside of marriage, the Jesus of Luke 19 who drives traders and merchants from the temple. We cannot profess to read the Bible honestly and think that the Christ who affirmed the Ten Commandments (Luke 18:20) would say there is no real right or wrong.
Yet we hear Jesus say he was not sent to “condemn the world” (John 3:17) or to “destroy men’s lives” (Luke 9:56). In John 8:3-11, he forgives in public a woman who has committed adultery and convicts her accusers of their own sin.
Jesus does what few do—he adopts a frank, nuanced openness about the truth; he expresses it with love and a total lack of rejection; he meets people as individuals, not members of a shadowy multitude called “them.”
The Greek word used for “judge” in Matthew 7:1 is krinó, which means to determine the just fate of another human being. It can refer to a verdict in a courtroom. In other words, it means to replace God with you as the judge.
The full passage, which describes our sinful flaws as both a “speck” and a “plank” in the eye, clarifies that Jesus is not ordering us to believe that others’ actions are always good. Instead, he is directing us to a new approach, a position of self-awareness about our own mistakes and shortcomings, so that we might “see clearly to remove the speck from [our] brother’s eye” (7:5). This call to dialogue is based on humility and the recognition of a complicated world created by our fallen nature, a world in which none of us are blameless in all our dealings.
Jesus tells us that unless we “become as little children” (Mt. 18:3), we don’t have a heart for God. That’s because young children are untainted by the world’s prejudices (read: pre-judgments). It’s also because God, in the form of Jesus on the cross, has already received the judgment against our evils so that we can live in his presence and love him without fear of the rejection we have all earned. We must show a similar leniency to others.
The violence of the last few weeks is not simple. It’s knotted with anger and grief and politics, coarsened by stereotype and the desire for retribution. But we can’t let outrage lead us to indict an entire community or profession for the wrongs of individuals. I hope we will forgo condemning others for the choices of a few. I hope we will choose love because of the love already demonstrated toward us.
My story "The Judge's Son" was published today in Still: The Journal. You can click here to read it.
A coworker once invited my mother to a cabaret show at a local nightclub. John Davidson, a famous singer, was scheduled to perform. But Mom was sick, and she had to refuse. Unable to find anyone else to join her, the other lady stayed home, too.
The date was May 28, 1977, and the place was the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky. That evening, a fire destroyed the club. 165 people died and over 200 were injured. It was one of the most tragic fires in American history.
It's staggering to think of what my mother would have missed if she had gone that night and not come back. She wouldn’t have met lifelong friends, married my father, given birth to me, or seen any of her nieces and nephews born. I consider that stomach bug to be God’s blessing in her life. But what does that word--blessing—mean anymore in a world that often dulls it with overuse?
When we ask God for a blessing, we aren’t asking for a miraculous absence of pain. Blessings are God’s intervention for good in a person’s life. A blessing could be a gift of temporal pleasure, like a beautiful day or a delicious meal, that reminds you of his presence. But his greatest blessings are often circumstances that strike us as painful or inconvenient in their earliest moments.
In Genesis, Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, confronted disasters that weren’t revealed as God’s intervention for many years. His brothers sold him into slavery (Gen. 37:28); his owner sent him to prison for a crime he didn’t commit (39:20); he was forgotten and neglected by those he helped while in jail (40:23). Eventually, however, his tribulations won him a position of power under the pharaoh of Egypt and he rescued the land from a famine. By the time he reunited with his brothers, he had seen God’s blessing in the seemingly bleak and random predicaments behind him. “You meant evil against me,” he told them (50:20 NKJV). “But God meant it for good, in order to…save many people alive.”
The Gospel of Luke recounts how a tax collector named Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus in Jericho. But Zacchaeus was short (19:3) and couldn’t see over the crowd. Knowing Jesus’s route, he ran ahead and climbed a tree. When Jesus passed, he looked up into the branches and called for Zacchaeus to come down and give him a place to stay (v. 5). Zacchaeus’s short build led to a transformative meeting in which he pledged to repent of his history as a fraud and restore four times what he had stolen (v. 8-10).
The most powerful blessing in the Bible is the birth of Jesus. Mary became pregnant with Jesus before she was married (Mt. 1:18). Her husband-to-be, Joseph, dreaded the condemnation this threatened to bring on his family (v. 19). He rushed to marry her (v. 24). Then a census forced him to take Mary to Bethlehem (Luke 2:4-6), and there was nowhere to stay during the birth. Then the family had to flee to escape a king bent on killing the young messiah (Mt. 2:13-14).
The coming of the “savior of the world” (1 John 4:14) rained difficulties on his earthly family. But they endured. Their son was the only perfect human who ever lived (Hebrews 4:15). His death shocked and disillusioned his followers, but he died as the “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) who bore divine wrath for the world’s sins and freed us from judgment. Then he rose, crowning his death as the ultimate blessing, God’s most ingenious reversal of evil into good.
Maybe the power goes out and we spend a night laughing with our family instead of snoozing around the TV. Maybe we miss the flight that would’ve been our last trip anywhere in this life. Everywhere, even in the small disappointments and pains of our day, we can find God working for good (Romans 8:28) and to make us aware that he cares for us.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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