Sunday, November 25, 2018

Embracing the Truth

TEXT:                 JOHN 18:33-37

ONE SENTENCE:        The truth to which Jesus bears witness changes life.        

            The gospel lesson today is from John – the poignant, final exchange between Jesus and the man who will order him crucified, Pontius Pilate.

            Except, it is not quite complete.  One short verse is left out.  A question from the Roman Governor.

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            Today is known as Christ the King Sunday – the Last Sunday after Pentecost… the Sunday before the start of Advent and the new church year.

            And the gospel lesson packs quite a punch.  One would be justified in seeing the bitter irony of Christ the King being subject to the whims of a man who rules ruthlessly over some far away Roman province.

            Listen to the words again:

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

            This is just moments before Pilate presents Jesus one last time to the raucous crowd, arrayed in a mocking purple robe – imitating royalty.  And it is just before Pilate washes his hands – in an attempt to cleanse himself of the deed.

            All that is to come.  But six words are left off the end of the lesson: “Pilate asked Jesus, ‘What is truth?’”

            Jesus gives no response.  The author of the gospel lets the question hang in the air.

            What is truth?

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            I hope that we can agree there is objective truthin this world.

            We each have had a mother and a father.

            At this moment, we are here in this place, St. Paul’s Chapel, Magnolia Springs.

            This day is defined as Sunday.

            Looking up from the ground, the sky is blue.

            We are living, breathing human beings.

            These, and other statements, are objective truths.  They are not matters of opinion.  They are not subject to debate.

            In the world today, many other things are up for debate. 

            You may feel that your political opinion is a matter of truth.  You have reasons for that belief and, to you, those reasons are quite clear and beyond debate.

            If I can go from preaching to meddling, you may believe that your allegiance to a school or a football team is a matter of truth.  You have your reasons and, to you, those reasons are beyond debate.

            There are many other examples of such personal truth.

            So, we have objective truth and personal truth.  There are those facts which are apparent on the face of it, and there are those matters that issues of preference, strong though they may be.

            What was the truth which Jesus exemplified – and which he did not define to Pilate?

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            I would call it confessional truth. It is truth which we claim as our own – something of which we could not be convinced unless it becomes part of us.  It is something which grabs hold of us.

            An example:  No one can convince an alcoholic that he or she needs help until they admit it to themselves.  It is the key, the foundation, the first of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. 

            Deep, inner healing cannot begin until that confessional truth becomes part of the self-description of the person in the wrestling match with alcohol.  The person may pay lip service to the idea.  He or she may attend meetings.  That person may acknowledge the personal truthfor some people.  But it lacks power until it is knit into the fabric of the soul. Named and claimed.

            The first word of The Apostles’ Creed – the baptismal creed of the Church – is Credo– I believe.  In that statement, we are laying claim to the confessional truth of God’s transcendent, personal, related being to us. In the Nicene Creed, we say something quite similar – We believe. It is the community’s statement of faith.  But I want to focus on the personal.  That is where the rubber meets the road; where lives are changed.

            Even though we repeat the creeds, they don’t take root until there is that moment when we say, like Thomas, “Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.”

            In a significant sense, confessing our faith in Godis similar to an alcoholic hitting bottom – we knowthat we are utterly dependent on something beyond ourselves for wholeness. We may not understand, but we are grabbed by something beyond us.

            The great 20thCentury theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote of being grasped by the ultimate concern.  In an actual moment of confessional truth,we find ourselves embraced in something beyond ourselves that allows us to release the brokenness of our past.  Life pivots. It is like being struck by healing lightning.

            In fact, Paul Tillich spoke to this being grasped in one of his most famous sermons, published in the book, Shaking the Foundations.  He speaks of the painful, exhaustive striving that many of us attempt, in an effort to find personal worth or, more difficult, to prove ourselves to God.

            You may have experienced that striving, and the ultimate frustration it presents.  It is like perpetually reaching for the brass ring, but coming up short. Tillich acknowledges that pain and frustration.  But he says that we reach the point where we place ourselves in God’s hands and depend on his grace to make us worthwhile people. 

            Hear his powerful words:

It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

          It is to that encounter with faith… that encounter with the transformative truth… that Jesus came to bear witness.  

          It is that truth which stands out above all others.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Crisis Today

PROPERS:         PROPER 28, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 MARK 13:1-8

ONE SENTENCE:        The chaos of life encourages us to always “walk in                                              faith” – already transformed.

            Jesus’ words in the gospel lesson were truly prophetic when they were first spoken.  They were prophetic in the sense of speaking God’s truth, and also in the sense of predicting the future.

            Jesus is standing with his followers in the area of Herod’s Temple.  The disciples are awed by the structure. Some 50 years in the building (and still it was not completed), it is said to have been one of the most breathtaking sights in the ancient world.

            It was, of course, the focus of the Jewish faith.  There was Holy of Holies, a chamber in which only the High Priest could enter – and he only once a year.  This was the central place of all the ritual sacrifices prescribed in the Torah.

            Every other place of worship – every synagogue – paled in comparison.

            So, the people who heard Jesus’ words must have been startled:

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

            His words were truly proleptic.  They anticipated things to come.  How Jesus knew, I do not know.  Perhaps he was truly aware of the deal with the devilwhich many powerful people had made with the Roman oppressors. Maybe he was aware of the conflict simmering beneath the surface. Perhaps he knew there would be payday someday.

            The illustration he chose – the destruction of the Temple – was seen and interpreted as truly apocalyptic. Hidden things would be revealed.  The Day of the Lordwould come.  The Temple could not be destroyed without cataclysmic events taking place.  His warning would be heard through the millennia. 

            Whatever his source of foreknowledge, he was spot-on.

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            Some 35-years later, long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the seeds of rebellion would take root in the seaside city of Caesarea-Philippi, when Greeks sacrificed birds outside a synagogue – an abomination to the Jews. The fires of rebellion spread across the land.

            Thousands – Romans and Jews – died in the early skirmishes.  The Roman General Vespasian, soon to be Emperor, conquered Galilee and the areas north of Jerusalem first.  Then siege was laid to fortress city of Jerusalem.  More than a million people took refuge within the walls.

            People starved. Conflict arose among the Jewish leaders. Zealots burned the stored food in hopes of provoking the people to fight against the Romans.

            But it was not to be.  

            Late in July, A.D. 70, the Roman army breached the walls and entered the city. The city and Temple were burned. A million people died.  The Temple was destroyed, with each stone being taken down from the other.  Those stones weighed as much as 160,000 pounds each.

            Only the Wailing Wall – the western retaining wall – remains to this day.

            But that was not the end.  The Roman troops moved on to towns and fortifications south and east of the city. The overran Qumran – causing the small sect of apocalyptic Essene believers to hide their sacred scrolls in nearby caves. Those scrolls were discovered 1,870 years later.  We call them the Dead Sea Scrolls.

            The Roman army moved further south, along the coast of the Dead Sea.  They laid siege to the last rebel hold-out – the Herod-built mountain fortress, Masada. Elevated 1,000 feet above the desert floor, the Romans waited and waited.  Finally, they built an engineering marvel – a siege ramp which allowed them to enter the fortress.

            Their effort was for naught.  The 900 rebels in the fortress had taken their own lives, rather than live in Roman slavery.

            Jesus saw all that coming.  Thirty-five years earlier.

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            The disciples were stunned by Jesus’ words.  How could this be?  This magnificent building?

            The Gospel according to Mark tells us:

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

            Many religious leaders have sought to identify the Day of Judgement.  There have been multiple movements throughout history in which one group or another was certainof the time.  Books have been written.  Movies have been made.  It was 40-years ago today when charismatic evangelist Jim Jones led 900 residents of Jonestown to drink poisoned Kool-Aid.

            But listen to Jesus’ words: “There will be wars and rumors of wars… Nation will rise against nation… earthquakes… famines.”

            My question to you:  When has there NOT been a time of these things?  When has there NOT been war – somewhere in the world?  When has nation NOT risen against nation?  When has there NOT been earthquakes or famines?

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            The answer is never.  These conditions have always existed.

            The point is to be prepared.

            The time for transformation is now.  We do not know… we cannot know when our individual apocalypse will come.  But, be assured, it will come.

            But there is more to be gained in the here and now.  Being transformed, having our lives radically changed by the grace of God, is about more than getting to the Kingdom of God. It is also about finding the Kingdom of God in our midst.

            That can be done in myriad ways – more ways than there are numbers of us.  We will not complete the ushering-in of that Kingdom in our lifetime.  But we can be open to the transformation – the new life – which allow us to see glimpses of God’s reign on earth.

            We don’t need to wait for wars and rumors of wars… nation rising against nation… earthquakes and famines.  The time is now.  Life can begin anew today.  Commit to enrich your life. Move toward a deeper faith.  Walk in faith, each and every step.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Giving Some, Giving All

PROPERS:         PROPER 27, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 MARK 12:38-44

ONE SENTENCE:        The breach between hubris and God’s purpose is filled                                        with self-offering.      

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
  That mark our place; and in the sky
  The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
  Loved and were loved, and now we lie
      In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
  The torch; be yours to hold it high.
  If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields.

            I memorized that poem in the fifth grade – something you likely did during your schooling.

            It memorializes the scene after the Second Battle of Ypres in Western Belgium, beginning on April 22, 1915.  It was written by 42-year-old Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, a Canadian surgeon. He would die of pneumonia 10 months before the Armistice, which we commemorate today – the 11thhour of the 11thday of the 11thmonth.  One hundred years ago today.

            He described his view of an aftermath of the battle – the first instance of the Germans using poison gas in World War I.   The war would end three-and-a-half years later on a rail car outside of Compiegne, France.  It was in that same rail car in that same forest that France would surrender to the Nazis 22 years later. Lessons were not learned.

            The Second Battle of Ypres was fought some 15 miles from Dunkirk – perhaps the low point for the British during World War II. The issues which led to one led to another.

            All of this took place within a theological context.  It could be called hubris– pride– one of the seven deadly sins. Pride in self-reliance. Pride in invincibility. 

            Pride. There was, on the European continent and especially in Germany, a sense of the inevitable progress of human nature.  Pride. Stoked by the fires of the Enlightenment, scholars and the people believed in the ability of humanity to know what needed to be known, to do what needed to be done, and, in a sense, to create a utopian state.

            Pride. There was a sense that human beings could perfectcreation.  Rationalism– reason and knowledge – would create a flawless world.

            All that was before the Great War – the bloodiest of all time before that moment. And it was before World War II, which followed soon, and claimed the lives of three-percent of the world’s population.

            Yes, the march of knowledge continued.  Yes, we continued the march of human progress as well as our rebellion against God. We unleashed the elemental forces of creation in devastatingly destructive ways.  We showed that we had, within our grasp, the ability to destroy the world.  

            But, did we have the ability to save ourselves?

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            There was a movement that came after the ashes of the Great War.  It was known as Neo-Orthodoxyand it emphasized the importance of faithand God’s revelation.  Its leaders would be people like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who would ultimately give his life in a Nazi death camp.

            They emphasized the importance of God’s self-revelation and the need to be transformed by his word.  They argued that we, through our own actions and knowledge, cannot save ourselves. We had to depend on God and his self-revelation.  We had to depend on the ways God had shown us.

            Sadly, we had shown that through two world wars. that we could not do it on our own.

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            Jesus shows us the way – the antidote to pride… to ambition… to self-glorification. It is in the gospel lesson today.

            Jesus sat down at the Treasury – one of the open courtyards of the glorious Temple of Herod’s creation.  The Treasury had a large brass receptacle to receive the people’s offerings.  It would clang noisily with large offerings.

            Jesus watched as the wealthy came forward and ostentatiously – and loudly – placed their offerings in the receptacle.  He was not impressed.  They were giving small sums from their riches. They relied on themselves and what they had.

            Then a poor widow came forward.  She humbly placed two small copper coins in the receptacle and went on her way, without fanfare and, as far as she knew, without notice.

            Jesus noted the humility versus the pride – the generosity of spirit, as opposed to the ways of the world.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all that she had to live on.”

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            In a world which gave us Gettysburg, the Marne, the Bulge, the Chosin Reservoir, Hue, Baghdad, and Tora Bora, millions of veterans have sought to correct a world animated by pride. Led by pride down a pathway of war and destruction, the world has again and again been led back to a more just world, by the self-giving of millions of veterans. Humility. Freely offering of self.

            As the saying goes, All gave some, some gave all.

            We have learned through their example – such as my father, a veteran of World War II – that we do not have it within ourselves to build a perfect world. But we do have a model for moving in the right direction. We trust in a world beyond our grasp.

            And giving generously of self, for a higher purpose, is one of the teachings which can change the world.

No Simple Answers

PROPERS:         PROPER 25, YEAR B   
TEXT:                 JOB 42:1-6, 10-17; MARK 10:46-52

ONE SENTENCE:        The question of theodicy should not be why evil happens;                                     it should be, “why there is good.”      

            I did not get to preach last week.  The lessons for last Sunday included one of my most favorite passages of all – from Job, chapter 38.

            Job is included in the books of the Old Testament known as Wisdom Literature.  Wisdom Literatureincludes such material as the Proverbs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and the Song of Solomon.  Those books reflect the learned wisdom and insight of Jewish sages.

            Job is a fabulous story.  It raises the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  It is basically a story about theodicy– God’s justice.

            The Book of Job begins with a wager between God and the Satan– the tempter who has been roaming the earth. God brags on his faithful servant Job, but allows the Satan free reign to do what he wishes to see if Job will curse God.

            Satan causes Job to lose everythinghe has – houses, family, flocks and herds, all in a day’s time. Job, a faithful man, is left in ashes, scraping boils on his skin with a broken piece of pottery.

            The ensuing chapters of the book detail conversations between Job and three men who have come to be known, ironically, as Job’s comforters.  

            The three comfortersattempt to blame Job or God for the tragedies which have befallen Job.  Surely, you are at fault for this! Certainly, you have some blame for these events!  You have been unfaithful in some way!

            But Job has not been unfaithful.  Ultimately, though, he challenges God, asking the Almighty to explain himself.

            This is where last week’s first lesson comes in.  It is some of the most beautiful imagery in all of the Bible:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:  Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you and you will declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

“On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”  (Job 38:1-7)

            God is essentially asking Job:  Who are you to ask these questions?  What do you know about the complexities of creation?

            Which brings us to the first lesson today, four chapters later.  A contrite and chastened Job responds to God:

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)

            Job stands humbled and in awe before God.

            But a serious question is raised.  In fact, it is probably the most serious theological question of all:  Why do bad things happen to good people?

            I have pondered this question for much of my adult life – as have the greatest theologians of history.  I keep coming back to Job.

            Why do hurricanes strike vulnerable communities along a coastline?

            Why do evil men fly airliners into skyscrapers?

            Why do tsunamis scour coastal towns, claiming thousands?

            Why are innocent infants stricken with life-threatening illnesses?

            Why are faithful Jews massacred in their synagogue?

            Let me side-step those questions for a moment.

            The gospel lesson today tells of the healing of blind Bartimaeus.  It tells of Jesus and his disciples traveling through the oasis town of Jericho.  Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus and is healed of his blindness.

            The Gospel according to John tells a similar story.  It involves a man blind since birth.  His disciples raise a question of theodicy: “Tell us:  Who sinned, this man or his parents?”  The question assumed that the blindness was the result of some misdeed by the man or his parents.  In other words, a quid pro quo– this for that.

            Jesus tells his disciples that that is not the issue.  The situation is there so that the glory of God can be manifested. God’s glory will be shown in the healing of the man.

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            I do not know why bad things happen to good people.  God’s response out of the whirlwindto Job is enough for me.  I cannot imagine the depths and heights of creation that are in God’s hands. I have to assume, at some point, that bad things will happen to me.  In fact, they already have – but I know they are part of human existence.

            The questions I must ask is these:  Why don’t more bad things happen? Why do we experience so many blessings?

            In this season approaching Thanksgiving… and in this season when we consider our many blessings as we ponder our gifts to the church’s mission… it is fair to ask those questions.

            I was at a meeting of clergy impacted by Hurricane Michael this past Monday. The clergy were sharing their experiences of the storm and its effects on them.  One priest summarized his view of the difficulties: “I have everything I need and some of what I want.”

            It is like the question, Is the glass half empty or half full? Or,why is life so shortor why is life so long?  Or, this: why am I experiencing these difficulties or why am I so blessed?

            There really is no satisfactory answer to these questions.  But, we are called by Job to recognize, we are all part of God’s infinite creation.

Healing with the Truth

TEXT:                 JOHN 14:1-6

ONE SENTENCE:        Life is difficult and complex, but truth heals and                                                  liberates us.

            Years ago, Duke, Susan, Nora and I were young adults here at St. Andrew’s. A friendship was founded.

            About that time, a book gained currency in this congregation.  The book was The Road Less Traveledby M. Scott Peck.  It was a transformative book for many of us.

            Scott Peck was a psychiatrist with a profound insight into human nature.  He was also a new convert to Christianity. His perspective shed a brilliant light on the contemporary practice of the faith.

            There are two points from that book that have a bearing on what we do here today – a sacred farewell to our brother, Duke.

            First is the opening sentence of the book: Life is difficult.  Three simple words representing a profound truth.

            Nora actually needle-pointed those words for me.  And they hung, framed, in my office for many years.

            We can say more, too.  Life is difficult.  Life is complex.  Life has its ups and downs.  Life is both brokenness and wholeness.  Life – earthly life, at least – has a beginning and end.

            We all manifest that truth in our lives.  No matter the persona we project to the world, we each deal with the difficulties of human existence.

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            The second point from The Road Less TraveledI would share is Scott Peck’s emphasis on truth– unflinching, uncompromising honesty.

            Peck contended that there is no such thing as a little white lie –something to protect another person’s feelings; a simple tale to hide a minor truth.  He said that truthis important – that it is foundational to health and wholeness. And to spiritual wellbeing. 

            These two key points are before us today.  They are before us in the life of our friend Duke – both as they relate to him, and as they relate to what we do here today.

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            Human existence is not simple.  We are confronted with various contradictions.  We face complex problems.  We have competing inclinations.  There is no straight line in this life.  We have to face the turbulent shoals of human existence no matter what pathway we choose.

            As St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

            We go through life – and Duke went through his life – striving to do what is right.  But we, like Duke, find the road is anything but straight.  It is littered with competing desires, different priorities, and those things which are most tempting – the expectations of others.

            We need to face that fact squarely, and shed the illusion that any one of us is perfect… or that we will even approachperfection in this life.

            Life is difficult, as Scott Peck noted. We should disabuse ourselves of any notion that says otherwise.  We will rise, and we will inevitably fall.  We will succeed, and we will fail.  We will do good, and we will fall well short of the mark.

            It is the human condition.  It infects each of us.  As Martin Luther wrote, “Simul Justus et peccator.” Simultaneously – at the same moment, in the same body – we justifiedand sinner.

            That is the truth about you.  That is the truth about me.  And that is the truth about Duke.

            But Duke knew something else about truth. He knew it was of immeasurable importance.  He knew it could save a life. Even a life in the depths of brokenness.

            I suspect all of you knew Duke’s journey.  You know how he sat in his den many years ago and felt a numinous presence speak truth to him.  His life pivoted. He heard those words of truth – as hard as they were – and began a journey that led to his own healing, and the healing of countless others.  It was a moment of metanoia– turning about.

            Duke came to know the meaning of the words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”  He knew that the truth was the only thing that could unbind the twisted cords of addiction which wrapped his life and the lives of those he encountered.

            He knew that it was the truth alone that would allow resurrectionin the lives of those so horribly broken.  Pure, unfiltered, unbridled, unrestrained truth. Spoken not in harsh judgement, but in healing love.  His words were the truth he had lived in his own experience – that deep, abiding, daily freedom comes only from the truth.

            So, he spoke that truth – perhaps to many gathered here.  Yet, there was another aspect to that truth – one that embraced instead of confronted.

            That additional aspect was the truth that every life was worth saving.  No matter how broken, no matter how flawed, no matter how deep and dark the bottom, no matter what a person had done with his or her life, he or she mattered.

            With that realization, the stain of the human condition could be wiped clean. Life could begin anew – free of shame. Not that we become perfect – because we don’t – but because we are embraced as beloved children of God.  We are set free by that truth.

            Duke lived enough life for 10 lifetimes.  I am weary from just thinking of his journey.  He is at rest now. Free from the demands of the journey, and free from the contradictions and challenges of the human experience.

            He knows fully the truth of Jesus’s words to struggling, grieving Thomas: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”Duke found the way, he embraced the truth, and he lives now the fullness of life.

            He stands at the precipice of eternity and hears Jesus say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…”

            The truth has set him free.